This story is by Eric Harline and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
My grandpa was a large man with gnarled hands. He liked to wear suits even though nobody really wore suits anymore. I liked watching him sit in his large chair with the pilled fabric. He sat in his charcoal suit in that chair and looked grumpy. He never was, he just looked like it. My sister said it was from all his years of hard work. Grandpa laughed when I asked him. I loved to hear him laugh. It was hoarse and booming and filled you up.
“Oh, she’s not far wrong,” he said. He pulled a paisley handkerchief from the dark suitcoat pocket to wipe the corners of his eyes. “I suppose the weight of all those years push down something hard on a man.”
“What did you do?” I asked.
He tucked the handkerchief away and looked at me, still smiling. His smile faltered a moment before saying, “I was a railroad man. In the early days.”
I asked about the early days, about the railroads, too. He told me,
“Many years ago, the only way to get around was beasts of burden. You either had one or you were one. Some men came around, all of them much smarter than I, and made a locomotive. The locomotives could carry you, all the while pulling carts behind. The more power in the locomotive, the more carts you could pull. The early locomotives weren’t quite as powerful, but not a few years on, they were pulling carts that stretched back a mile.
“Locomotives can’t travel on the earth or the bald face of it, so there had to be paths built. These paths had rails that the locomotive’s wheels would rest on and would rattle forward on. I was in the business of building these roads and the rails that ran along them.
“They would go on for miles and miles. They climbed up hills and down valleys. I would curve them through riverways and tuck them up against canyon walls. I was good at it and they paid me well for it. Because of that, today I own certain shares in the railroad that pay out to me dividends from time to time. If you’re a good grandson, you can expect to receive some of those shares.”
I was staring up at him from where I sat on the ground, “Where did you build these railroads?”
“All over the face of the earth,” grandpa said. “We needed them to connect our cities and our people.”
“Were they hard to build?”
“They were, but then they became easier.”
“Looking to join the family business?”
“Isn’t that why you’re gonna share it with me?”
He laughed again, his head tilted up. “Yes, of course!” he said, slapping his knee. “I can’t share anything if I don’t share everything.” He picked up a glass of whiskey and sipped it. Mirth flashed in his eyes, he cleared his throat and he continued.
“It was hard for many reasons. We were always fighting the earth. When you want to go up, it wants to bring you down. When you want to go through, it stands immovable before you. There’s only so much an explosive can do, you know. But the earth was hardly the most difficult problem.”
I sat leaning forward listening to his voice rasp against the air. The voice cooled.
“There are magicks out in the deep parts of the earth.”
“Magicks?” I asked.
Grandpa nodded. “They have been there for many years. They came to these places before any person ever did. They do no trade with people but what they will, never making that will known. Some never believed they were real in the first place, those same folk what never left their homes and their warm places.
“But railroads need to be built. If you don’t have railroads, you don’t have warm places. You don’t have homes. So I would build them. In the places they needed to go up, I would push them up and over. In the places they needed to go through, I would move the earth from the path.
“Oftentimes as not, we would build right through those deep places. And let me tell you, it was not a pleasant time.” He emphasized these words with an upheld finger. “They do not like being walked in on nor disturbed. But there was no dealing with them, they don’t want anything from us. I know, I’ve talked to them.”
“They talked to you?”
“I tried to talk to them,” he continued, “but they weren’t the sort to talk. At least not in the ways you would hope for. This was the lot that would still change out children for no particular reason that any plain man could think of.
“We offered them money, gifts, goods; they didn’t bend to any of it. They would blather on, incomprehensible and then be gone all of a sudden. So we just kept on building.”
“Did they leave you alone after that?”
“Of a sort,” grandpa said. “I could never straighten this out, but it seemed they could do little things with their mischiefs. Wood rotted too soon, food gone bad too quickly, tools missing. Not anything too great. Nothing I couldn’t write off as unlucky or bad keeping of inventory. But I’ll be damned if so many little things were only coincidence.”
“Dad,” my own father said this, poking his head in the room, “watch the language.” I turned to look at him and he saw me looking and smiled. “Don’t let grandpa’s fairytales dance too deep tonight. You have school tomorrow.”
“Oh, he’s no prat,” grandpa said. Dad shook his head and left the room.
“What happened to the magicks?” I asked.
“They went away,” he said, waving his hand. And then he sat looking at me.
“Did you ever see them again?”
“I never ‘saw’ them the way I see you or you see me, but they were always there. When we built through the deep places.”
“Did they hurt anyone?”
“No, they didn’t seem to be able to. I always kept an eye out for bigger things that might go awry, but they were weak masters of powerful arts.”
Grandpa looked tired as he said these words. I wanted to ask more about the magicks. He didn’t sound like he knew much more.
“Grandpa,” I said, “when was the last time you saw one of these magicks?”
He frowned, but it wasn’t an angry frown. He said, “It must’ve been before your father was your age.”
“Whoa,” I said. “That was a long time ago.”
“Don’t remind me,” grandpa said. He had smiled, but he looked like he was thinking about something else.
“What are you thinking about, grandpa?”
Grandpa took in a deep breath, let it out in a big sigh. “I don’t think about them very often.”
“That’s what I’m asking myself now. They never appeared to care for people. They played tricks on us all the time. We would play their games hopelessly, but we stopped. We built our cities from trees and rocks, our warm places. The more we built, the more we could build. The more we built, the better things were for us. We didn’t eat as well back then, people would go without food. Now we have medicine and light, machines that carry us to the far places of the earth.”
I couldn’t really understand what grandpa was saying. I was so young then.
When I was much older, I once stopped to see my phone wasn’t working. The screen was fritzing in strange ways. Absently, I looked down to see I’d stepped on a sprig of flowers. I lifted my foot and bent down to adjust the flowers, though I had no reason to. I stood up and looked at the sprig. The flowers didn’t move or change in any way I could see, but I felt a small ripple climb up my legs. I blinked and then looked at my phone. It was working as if nothing happened
I remembered then what grandpa said about the magicks and their mischiefs. I felt the magicks in those flowers. I started to feel the magicks all around, still with people, dancing in the wires above and running in the pipes beneath. I don’t see them, just like grandpa said, but they’re always there.
When grandpa died, he left those shares for his children. My father sold his shares. He lost the money. Grandpa didn’t get to share the family business with me. Not in the way he meant. He only shared a little magic.
I prefer to wear the same clothes as everyone else. I will sit in the large chair with the pilled fabric. It smelled like grandpa for a long time. I feel a bit of magic in the chair. It followed grandpa from his railroad days. I think it stays in the chair because that’s where he shared it with me.