The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 19, No. 4

The Line Agent Pascal

by Daniel Mason

Every morning, Hippolyte Pascal, Agent of the Line at Urupá, woke to the sun and the sound of parrots, rose from his hammock, dressed, set a battered kettle on the fire, and crossed his tiny station to check the signal.
     At 0800, if the Line was in order, he would receive the first transmission from the Depot, followed shortly by the second from the agent at Várzea Nova, eighty–two kilometers into the interior, and the third, from Juá. Then he would reply, "Pascal, Urupá," and the hour, and the others would answer in turn: Fernandes, fifty–eight kilometers forward at Itiraca, Bonplan at Macunarímbare, Wilson–Jones at Canaã, the Jesuit Perez at the Mines. The report would come next, minor variations on the previous morning: a band of Nambikwara sighted near Bonplan's station, a rotted telegraph pole at Itiraca, a call for fresh provisions, a request for gunpowder. And then he would rise and pour himself his coffee and set about his day.
     Hippolyte Pascal had been a station agent for nine years—three at the Depot and six at his little station house at Urupá. It was rare to find a man who could keep his post so long. Most succumbed quickly to the isolation, the horror of the vastness, the ceaseless shrill. Yet the territory, as it appeared to him, bore small resemblance to the map. Because it was impossible to see beyond one or two paces into the forest that surrounded the station clearing, it mattered little whether civilization was one kilometer away or a thousand. What mattered was the Line. Sometimes he thought: It is as if they are next door, for when I speak, they listen, and they need only to call out for me to respond. There were few men, he told himself, in such immediate contact with other people. Other times he thought, with an exhilaration that was almost dizzying: I am the loneliest man in the world.
     The station house had been built by his predecessor, a German who had died of snakebite. Over time, Pascal had modified it slightly. He widened the windows to take in more of the forest, and added a layer of palm fronds to the roof, which cooled the room and softened the monsoon rains that could turn the tin into a deafening drum. Inside there was a hammock strung between the walls, a chair, and a table upon which sat the telegraph apparatus of key and sounder, two crouching dragons of zinc and copper. The table's legs stood in tins of water, to keep away the ants. A single drawer held a razor and a pair of scissors, and a vial of lavender oil he combed into his mustache. He kept both house and person as clean as the telegraph, wearing and washing his two white shirts on alternating days. In the pocket of his waistcoat was a watch, which he wound each night and each morning as soon as he awoke. He once had a belt, until the ants devoured it. On the door hung a top hat issued by the Commission, of wool, and likely not to their taste.
     Outside the house was the clearing, where he fought back the philodendrons. The German had planted a papaya tree, and to this Pascal added a patch of yellow watermelons. From the station, the telegraph wire snaked through the little garden and up a foot-worn path to the right–of–way, where it climbed a tall pole encrusted with bromeliads, and joined the 608 kilometers of coiled copper that connected the Commission to the Mines. Another small path dropped from the clearing into a lagoon, where every evening, after carefully checking the water for caimans, Agent Pascal folded his suit on the bank, and slipped naked into the black water.

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