The People’s Act of Love

          When the whistle sounded for the third time, closer, the man ran forward, round a bend in the river, and saw the bridge. His face closed and he ran to the water’s edge. He squatted down and with his right hand scooped up water and splashed it over his face and drank some. He looked quickly at the bridge and behind him through the trees and let his left hand relax and pulled a package out from inside his coat. It was wrapped in a linen rag. He took a heavy stone and stuffed it into the cloth and tied two ends of the cloth tight in a knot. Stretching his arm back he hurled the package out and it disappeared into the water of the river. He put his hands into the water and washed them, took them out and shook them, rolled up the sleeves of his coats above the wrists and washed his hands again.

  The locomotive came over the bridge, a dark green beast streaked with pale corrosion, like malachite, creeping across the thin span with a string of cattle wagons in tow. The whistle sounded down the gorge and the weight of the train bore down on rotting sleepers with the groan of wood and the scream of unlubricated iron and steel. It crawled on as if there were many ways to choose instead of one and flakes of soot and pieces of straw drifted through the air towards the river. One of the wagons was rocking from side to side and above the noise of the engine and the train there was a hacking sound as if someone was taking an axe to a plank.

  The door of the wagon shot open and a man in army breeches and a white shirt was in the doorway, with his back to the outside, holding on with one hand and trying to catch the bridle of a horse with the other. The horse was rearing up and flailing at the man with its forelegs. There were more horses behind, their heads lunging madly towards the light. The man fell from the wagon as it rocked towards the river and toppled over the rail. He fell fifty metres into rocky shallows. His limbs worked as he fell, as if he was trying at the same time to fly, to land feet first, and to brace himself for the moment of impact. His eyes were open and so was his mouth but he did not scream. His cheeks were stretched back and he hit the water belly down. The water lifted white skirts high around him and when they came down again the man was not moving, beached on gravel, lapped by quiet eddies at the river’s edge.

The horses, five of them, tumbled out of the wagon after the man.


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