Riding the Beast by Jonathan Travelstead

by Leslie Anne Mcilroy


Riding the Beast

The yellow Union Pacific locomotive blows and chuffs
a ragged line from Tapachulas through Chiapas, then El Norte.
Immigrants shake the sleep from their eyes,
the thousand aches
from where flint has dented their backs
through blankets soiled black and left for them
alongside the tracks.

When the train passes through
they vault, shoe-soles flapping like dessicated tongues,
lance themselves to its flanks.

Some fall, forgetting to close their hands
    around the rust-flecked rungs.
Some drop cornhusk tamales from canvas packs
    as they shoot up the ladders like insects,
make signs of the cross to keep two square feet
    on the train’s steel-trussed roof.

                             ***

In Benton I buy peaches
from a farmer illegals pick for him at three dollars an hour.
He tells me it is well known
no one educated enough to speak English is found in the upper branches,
and so farmer takes it upon himself to teach me the two-part comedy,
says a hundred chalupas atop a train car is a family portrait,
that same caravan slicing into a low-slung tunnel is a damn good start.

My three times great grandmother
Magritha Catherine Uhle — She wrote in her leather diary
how she tossed forty days in the hold of a sailing ship
from Hamburg to Castle Gardens, and the day before reaching mainland
the sailors threw over the typhus-pocked bodies
bound together with sisal rope
and they came apart like sheaves of paper in the scalloped waves.

The next entry she strolled into Manhattan
smiling for this new country, her diary clasped in one hand
and an orange flickering from the other.

How hard it must be to give your life to the ship holds
the way aliens give theirs to the tops of train cars —
boys and women routinely raped,
failing to palm over mordidas for protection against the police
and bandits who exchange titles like silver-tipped bolos.

Stories too unpalatable for telling over coffee,
one more thing which happened but won’t make tonight’s entertainment news
that won’t blare down the tracks of your living room,
a thing that won’t make it to the tailgates of peach farmers.

And don’t you only want to sleep deeply,
made safe by the protection of those who love you?
They daisy-chain themselves on the trains
one to another’s wrist with hemp rope
beneath a sky’s boxed lid gouged with holes instead of stars,
praying they don’t slip between the linkages
in the engine’s rock and rumble.
But if they do, strung together like Christmas lights,
then at least they go together.

Together to the wheels and the ties and the stones,
because no one that is not on that train will look back
as it chews the wings,
the chitinous shells from their blessed,
beautiful bodies.


Jonathan Travelstead served in the Air Force National Guard for six years as a firefighter and currently works as a fulltime firefighter for the city of Murphysboro. Having finished his MFA at Southern Illinois University of Carbondale, he now works on an old dirt-bike he hopes will one day get him to Peru.