What if you could not only travel any location in the world, but to any possible world?
A train exists that passes through every city—and every possible city—in the world. Gris, a businessman in the Windy City, unknowingly steps aboard and enters the station for the City of Blind Delight where everyone has what they need to survive, but not necessarily what they want . . .
Major Spoiler’s Ahead
“The City of Blind Delight” is a short story in Other Worlds Than These, an anthology that explores the theme of other worlds and the road not taken. Valente’s story is a wonderful example of the genre. It is one of those stories where there are touches of steampunk, of fantasy, and of sci-fi. Some readers may not feel that it is “strictly” steampunk because it lacks certain elements, such as a setting inspired by Victorian England or the American West. However, I would argue that Valente creates a blended genre that simply has a little more “punk” than “steam.” And really, aren’t both of those words important to the genre?
As an additional warning—there is no way I could review this story without spoilers and do it justice. If you want to be surprised at the ending, skip this until you read the short story.
There is a train which passes through every possible city. It folds the world like an accordioned map, and speeds through the folds like a long white cry, piercing black dots and capital-stars and vast blue bays. Its tracks bound the firmament like bones: wet, humming iron with wriggling runnels of quicksilver slowly replacing the old ash wood planks, and the occasional golden bar to mark a historic intersection, so long past the plaque has weathered to blank (Valente, 2012).
The story begins with a missed connection that almost mirrors a romantic plot: an unnamed woman in black glasses stands on the platform waiting for the train to Blind Delight. But she did not know what she was waiting for or how to recognize the correct train from all the other graffiti-barnacled leviathans. Gris brushes her elbow as he hurries through the doors. She longs to follow him even though it is too late, and wonders why she feels this way.
Gris falls asleep on the train and does not hear the station call, but the train waits for him to wake. He enters Blind Delight, “where the station arches and vestibules are formed by acrobatic dancers, their bodies locked together with laced fingers and toes, stretching in shifts over the glistening track, their faces impassive as angels” (Valente, 2012).
In the city everyone either works for the line, usually as a Station Dancer (a member of the human ceiling) or as a prostitute: As he wanders through the station, Otthild, a woman who works both professions, picks up Gris.
The edges of the railroad curl out into the valley, and drag up a town from the earth, whatever town the Conductor dreams of that day, whatever city the tracks long to see. And so there is a river of brandy, and the lime-tart trees, and roads of bread. The Line brought folk, and they stayed (Valente, 2012).
Blind Delight is a city without need. Cattle that have been roasted brown and glistening wander through the city with knives in their flanks. They contentedly offer their flesh to those who are hungry. The river is filled with a rich brandy. The houses are made of brown cake. The streets are paved in bread. Yet, as Gris jokes about how he would pay for Otthild’s services in “a city without want,” she responds, “no one is without want.” There is a difference between “want” and “need” that he has yet to comprehend.
Otthild tells Gris that her mother was a ticket-taker for the line who went down to the edges of the railroad to find the gold spike laid there at the beginning of time. Her mother laid next to the golden spike and cried for the man who lost his life when laying the gold spike; it was there Otthild was conceived—part human, part clockwork, and part gold:
Her skin opens, soft as cloth, and her bones, and her lungs, peeling back like gift-box tissue. Beneath all this is her heart, and it is golden, gleaming, bright at the bottom of her body. A good part of her blood is gold, too, flowing out from the metallic ventricles. She is terrible, and crisp, and clear, a Jacobean diagram of womanhood, her heart burning, burning, burning golden as God (Valente, 2012).
The people of Blind Delight are collectors, she informs Gris. Since food and shelter are completely fulfilled, what people want is refined. Otthild’s mother wanted to see the gold spike. She wanted a child. When Otthild was born, she polished her daughter’s heart every night before bed. Another woman collects calf’s tails. Otthild collects return train tickets.
Gris gives her his ticket, even though he has no reassurance that he can return home. Otthild tells him:
Maybe they would sell you a new one. Maybe they would let you inside. Maybe not. We are often perverse. Maybe the Station is full of Midwesterners trying to buy a ticket home with everything they own, even flesh, even bone.
Back in Chicago the woman in black glasses steps onto the train . . .
“The City of Blind Delight” is a short story that I highly recommend. It has a unique mixture of steampunk, fantasy, and sci-fi; it is not easy to plug it into a particular genre. It leaves a reader guessing—is Gris dead? Is he in heaven or in hell? Does he sell his chance at redemption (to leave on the train) for one night with Otthild? Or is he making a conscious choice to stay and enjoy what the world has to offer? It is up to the reader to decide.