The Signal Man’s Fire

Inspired by “The Signal Man” by Charles Dickens

By Letter Burn

Climb Up (2018) / By Josep Serra Tarragon



The Signalman looked up from his personal modern computer and glared with contempt and disgust at the ancient technology that ran this cheapskate railroad.

Its tubes whizzed, its dull red LED lights blinked, and an annoying 19th century bell rang. He adjusted it with a good ol’ fashion whack. He look at the north mouth of the Clayton Tunnel, home of many wrecks and derailments. Then he went back to writing his memo on technology upgrades. He wanted the railroad to buy the 2Smart4U integrated system. The Signalman fell into a daydream about how he could pompously lord his technical prowess over his coworkers and how he could make them realize that it was such a burden for him to work with such idiot coworkers. He would insist they call him “IT Director” instead of that silly, ancient, legacy name, “Signalman.”

Suddenly the Signalman saw staggering out of the tunnel a strange, ghostly white apparition floating a few inches above the tracks. It wore an antiquated coat with tails and an archaic top hat with vertical stripes and a band of stars. He buried his bearded face in the crook of one arm while the other arm swayed and flailed in front of him. Soon other hallucinatory chimera oozed out of the tunnel. They seemed to depict scenes of lobbyists bribing Congressmen. Brobdingnagian money bags spilled open and winged dollar bills flew away. Then suddenly the paramnesia transformed into monstrous leaping flames of smokeless and noiseless fire. Whirling into a gargantuan fire vortex, it rose and dissipated into the sky.

Hours before the appearance of these phantoms, train cars were filled with paper copies of the recently passed and signed “Congressional Bill 1342: Reducing Wildfire Risk. How commercial logging will pay for forest thinning.” And then the train pulled away from the publishing warehouse and headed toward the Clayton Tunnel. Simultaneously, at another warehouse, a second train was loaded with appendices to Congressional Bill 1342 and headed to the Clayton Tunnel. These appendices explained that commercial logging wouldn’t really pay for reducing wildfire risk. Taxpayers would pay loggers to remove ecologically essential but very profitable old growth and the millions of acres that needed thinning of trees and brush would remain untouched. The Bill sponsors hoped no one would read these appendices. Now both trains, with dozens of freight cars filled with tons of mind-numbing graphs, photos, and monotonous script, bore down on the Clayton Tunnel. Moments after the Signalman witnessed those haunting revenants . . . TRAINWRECK!!!

No one was injured by the wreck but the collision was so forceful that great reams of paper ignited, wafted into atmospheric elevations and ignited a multitude of wildfires. The subsequent investigation concluded that the Signalman wasn’t at fault. There had been an anomaly in the ancient monitoring system. The railroad made a tidy profit on their government-subsidized insurance. But it didn’t replace the outdated monitoring technology. Instead, they passed the profits on to shareholders.

Some weeks later, the Signalman looked up from his application for a new job on his computer. The dismal device was blinking, buzzing, and blaring again. He looked at the tunnel and gave the machine a whack. Some moments later he saw the tall gaunt phantom again. Top hat, coat tails, beard. This time the apparition seemed to cover his face with his hands, weeping and mourning. Now other ghoulish scenes emanated from the tunnel and floated above the tracks. They seemed to be apparitions of bureaucrats applying for other jobs on the clock while ignoring scant little goblins that looked like people petitioning State and County governments, voicing concerns over corruption and payoffs. They too coagulated into a colossal ghostly conflagration.

Some miles away, two trains at different stations simultaneously filled up with people bound for the state capital. One train was filled with forest contractors and astro-turfers who wanted subsidies from the state for logging to reduce old growth, I mean, reduce wildfire risk. The second train filled up with protesters conducting puppets shows and waving signs proclaiming the shame and fraud of using wildfire risk to ruin wildlands. The two trains simultaneously chugged out of their respective stations and barrelled down the track toward the Clayton Tunnel. Then moments after the Signalman witnessed the ghostly specters . . . TRAINWRECK!!!

Luckily, there were no serious injuries from the collision. Many passenger cars derailed and a few overturned. But when those in each train realized who the other train carried, fistfights commenced. A lighted cigarette rolled from the right side of the tracks and ignited a fire that burned through a nearby housing development. A lithium battery malfunctioned on the tracks’ left side and started a fire that burned through critical habitat for salamanders. The investigation of this train collision again blamed old and faulty monitoring equipment.

A few months later, the Signalman looked up from his smartphone where he was web-surfing and texting to a like-minded adherent of the conspiracy of phantoms, sasquatch, and space aliens. The machine buzzed, flickered, and hissed. The Signalman leaped up with his smartphone and dashed toward the tracks, videoing as he ran. Soon the bearded gaunt phantom in top hat and coattails raced by him away from the tunnel. The ghost sprinted as fast as it could. Its legs leapt in sturdy strides. Its boots kicked up eidolonian dust five inches above the tracks. Its arms pumped back and forth. Its striped and starred top hat jostled from its wraithing head. Its eyes wide with fear. Its lungs gasped for air. Suddenly from the tunnel behind the specter, a mass of white ghostly scenes of mayhem and violence burst forth. Hulking aircraft dropped shrouds of ignis fatuus retardant. Shadowy helicopters dropped buckets of slithering water. Hallucinatory bulldozers gouged a miraging landscape.

Hours before, two trains at different warehouses simultaneously filled their freight cars with massive amounts of fire suppression equipment. Simultaneously they barreled down the tracks toward the Clayton Tunnel. Then a few moments after the Signalman saw the running apparition . . . TRAINWRECK!!!

The collusion was so colossal that, though there were no human fatalities, it ignited the worst wildland fire seen in several generations. They found the Signalman unconscious beneath a fire camp bulletin board. Somehow the trainwreck launched the bulletin board into the upper atmosphere and it hurtled down on the poor Signalman. His video of the event was a whirl of white flashes and incoherence. As he breathed restfully beneath, “help wanted” notices flapped around the Signalman’s face. The notices requested workers for thin-the-thin and prescribed fire projects. No IT skills needed.