The Switchman’s Lantern


Image: Google Images – labelled for re-use.

Josiah Bell was a switchman like his Pappy before him. He had a gimpy leg from an accident he had when he was six so he walked the tracks carrying his lantern in one hand and a long pole in the other. On top of the pole, he hung a red kerchief on a nail which he liked to wave at the engineers as they drove their enormous machines along the tracks.

He was working the yards in Chicago and it was damn early in the morning and cold. He done heard on the radio what those Hitler and Mussolini fellas was doing and how them Germans sent their army into peaceful Denmark and Norway. Josiah was a peaceful man and a simple one but he didn’t take to no bullies. He’d been bullied plenty as a child because of his bum leg. A lot of folks wanted America to stay out of that mess in Europe and maybe they were right, but then who was gonna take care of those bullies?

The 3:10 from Omaha was just coming up to his switch. Josiah set down his pole and grasped the metal bar and with a practiced hand and steely sinews, pulled, switching the course of the train from the main line to the freight yards. Then he stood, putting most of weight on his good leg and waved his lantern. No use waving the kerchief on the pole, too dark to see it.

The engineer gave out two toots of his whistle in acknowledgement and Josiah waved and smiled, though he was all but invisible in the darkness except for the lantern.

That was about how a day would begin for him six days a week, come snow or rain, light or darkness. Josiah carried out his humble but important tasks guiding these massive, lumbering, metal behemoths to and fro, coming into Chi-town or headin’ out. While he performed his duty as proudly as his Pappy before him, the world continued on its inexorable circuit on its axis and its inevitable journey around the sun.

Batman got himself a new partner called Robin, England got itself a new Prime Minister named Winston Churchill, and the damned bully Nazis moved into France bombing the living daylights out of Paris.

Then one morning the train yard seemed hard to see and not because it was dark. It was like some kind of fog was covering everything. Josiah clumped along the tracks picking up his pole and laying it down with every other step, and even the light from his lantern couldn’t pierce the gray murk surrounding him.

“Funny weather your playin’ for June, Lord.” Josiah liked to talk to God when he was alone. It was good to feel the presence of the Lord.

He got to where the switch track should be but he’d be damned, it wasn’t there. Come to think of it, the tracks he’d been following out into the yard were getting awful fuzzy, like they was made of water, sort of see-through.

Then Josiah Bell looked and he wasn’t anywhere near the Chicago train yards. He was on a flat plain, as flat as a tabletop and stretching as far as his eyes could see. Though the sun wouldn’t rise for a couple of hours yet, there was light coming from somewhere. There had to be because he could see the clouds against a blue-gray sky. In that sky were these funny balls, big red ones, and around each ball was a bigger ball, like they were apples inside of glass.

“Lord, what are you showin’ me? I ain’t no prophet or man of God like in the Bible. I’m just a switchman, plain and simple.”

Standing with his pole in his left hand and the lantern at his side on the right, what looked like the hand of the Almighty appeared before him holding one of those apples in glass. Something bright and about the shape of a movie theater screen was behind the hand lighting up the world like anything.

“What’s this, Lord? What’s it supposed to be?”

There was no sound except for Josiah’s voice. No words from Heaven, just the hand. He couldn’t see where the wrist went off to, just the hand and what it was holding.

“Lord? Lord, what am I supposed to do?”

There was no reply and no movement. Josiah remained confronted by the hand holding the globe. He started slowly dipping the end of his pole toward it. As it got closer, the kerchief at the end started fluttering like it was caught in a breeze, but he didn’t feel no breeze. The kerchief touched the glass but it wasn’t glass, it looked like water. The red kerchief got wet, then soaked and then sank into the ball of water pulling the tip of the pole after it.

Then before he could do anything, even let go of the pole, something inside pulled on it strong and when the pole went in, so did Josiah!

It was like being underwater, like the swimming hole Pappy took him to when he was little, but there was something else. There were pictures, like at the movies, except they were pictures of him, the day he was born, the day Mama died when he was only three, Pappy taking him to the first day of school, Pappy taking him to the train yard for the first time, Pappy dying when he fell across the tracks ahead of a south bound freight train.

“Aw, Lord. It’s all so happy and sad and all of that.”

The light around him got brighter and brighter and he didn’t feel like he was underwater anymore.

“Hello, boy.”

“Pappy!” It was Pappy standing in the light and he was big, and strong, and whole. Josiah ran forward forgetting about his bad leg which wasn’t bad anymore. “Pappy!” He hugged and hugged his old Pappy, tears streaming down his cheeks, his body racked with sobs. “I done missed you something terrible, Pappy. I tried to do my best, to be as good a switchman as you’d been.”

“You’ve done a fine job, Josiah. You did me proud. No man could have had a better son than you, boy.”

“But where are we Pappy? You done died some fifteen years ago now. Where are we?”

“Someplace where you’ll never have to cry again, Josiah. We got nothin’ but peace and happiness here, boy, and guess what? Your Mama’s just waitin’ on the other side to see you again.”

“Mama? She’s here? She’s alive?” Josiah couldn’t believe the happiness he’d been given. Both his Pappy and Mama here to be with him, to love him, to take away his loneliness.

Then Josiah looked away from the light back into the darkness, the darkness that was the world.

“Pappy, there be some pretty bad things happening these days. Them Nazis and all. They’re hurtin’ a lot of good folks. Can’t we do something to help?”

“No, son. Our days in the world are done and gone. The world is the world and until the Lord Jesus returns, it will be in darkness.”

“But something’s got to hold out a light in the darkness, just like my railroad lantern. We got to signal everyone to have hope, to keep the faith that the light will overcome the darkness.”

“That’s not for me to say, boy. I’ve gone out of the world just like your Mama, just like my Pappy and his Pappy before him. Men be born, they live, and they die. It’s the way of things.”

“I can’t leave. Not yet. I know I’m just a poor, uneducated switchman, but as a man of the Lord, I count for something, and I’ve got to show everyone else they count for something, too.”

“You always were a good boy, Josiah. You’ve grown into a good man, a son I’ve always been proud of. You want to go back and be a light? Well, I guess that would be agreeable for a while. But let me tell you, it ain’t gonna be easy. Not everyone wants the light. Plenty of folks, they like the darkness. You best be prepared to be disliked some or even hated.”

“Them idolaters, they hated on the Prophets, the Romans, they hated Jesus, and the Apostle Paul, he got plenty hated on. Me, if I gonna be the light, I got to walk in those footsteps, Pappy. You taught me that every time you read me scripture when I was little.”

Pappy hugged his good son again. “You go with God, boy. Hear me? You go with God.”

They both started crying again.

“I will, Pappy. I promise. When my days are done in that ol’ troubled world, I’ll be back. We’ll be together again someday, you, Mama, and me.”

“That we will, Josiah. That we will.”

The switchman looked up and saw his Pappy at a long distance away and going even further. The light that was once bright got dimmer and smaller. The warmth he had felt started to get colder and just before the blackness came, he heard a small, still voice whispering from the void, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

“Mister, you better be more careful.”

Josiah had started to tumble off of the curb and into the street, his pole clattering on the pavement near his feet. It must have slipped out of his hand causing him to nearly fall. A strong hand had his arm from behind. He looked back to see a big man, half a head taller than he was, and Josiah was a big, strong man.

“Thank you kindly, Sir. Much obliged.”

“My pleasure. Always good to help a railroad man.”

“How’d you know…?”

“You watch it when you cross the street, now. Oh here, you dropped your lunch bag, too.”

By the time Josiah retrieved his walking pole, the man picked up his sack and handed it back to him.

“Thanks, again.”

“Oh, your apple must have fallen out. Here.”

“Don’t recall having packed any…” Josiah stopped talking and saw a large, red apple in the man’s left hand just like what he saw in his vision. He took hold of the apple and looked at it, then he looked up but the man he’d been talking to was gone. Then he remembered scripture from the Epistle to the Hebrews, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

Josiah took a hold of his things, looked both ways and then crossed the street on his way to work. Time was a-wastin’ and he had to start spreading around the light.

I wrote this for the Tale Weaver – #162 – Fairy Tale – An Item of Magic hosted at Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie. The idea is to use the image above to craft a poem, short story, or other creative work.

Technically, the instructions said to write about magic wands, dragons, rings, and other fairy tale elements, but the image took me in a different direction. I set my tale in the first half of 1940 at the beginning of World War Two. My “hero” is a simple man of faith with a message of hope for a dark and dismal world. No matter how bad off you may think your world is, you can always bring some illumination into it. Better to bring the light than to curse the darkness.

7 thoughts on “The Switchman’s Lantern

  1. Well, now, I imagine that many a vision carries a bit ‘o the fairy tale about it, but the notion to “bring the light [rather] than to curse the darkness” is more than just a little magical, especially considering the ancient origin of that word in the notion of “magus”, “greatness”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Okay. Google renders “magus” as “a member of a priestly caste of ancient Persia” and also “a sorcerer.” Is that close to what you had in mind?


      • Take a look instead at the etymology of “magister”, which is coming from the same root source and concept of a “master”, over forces of nature, over people, over events, or even over time and space itself. That’s how a “mage” or “magus” or “magician” came to have its meaning.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks James, there is a lesson in you write isn’t there….thanks for your contribution to this week’s Tale Weaver… they say go where the prompt leads you……I hope he ate his apple with confidence in the future.


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