'We are about to leave Swan Zone. See for yourself. There's the renown Albireo Observatory.'
Outside the window four big black buildings stood in the very middle of the Milky Way, which itself was a galaxy of fireworks. Two enormous spheres, of translucent blue sapphire and dazzling yellow topaz invisibly looped to gether, were revolving around each other on the flat roof of one of the buildings. When the yellow one made its way around back, the smaller blue one circled forward until their edges overlapped, forming a single convex lens of rare green. Then gradually the centre would bulge and the blue sapphire would appear exactly in front, a green sphere with a yellow topaz ring around it. Again, slowly, the sapphire would move across to the other edge, reversing the shape of the lens before, and the two would part company as the topaz came forward. The black observatories lay there silently, as if at rest, encircled in the formless soundless liquid of the Milky Way.
'That's an instrument for measuring the speed of the water as it flows. You see, the water....'
That was all the birdcatcher could say before, without warning, a tall conductor in a red cap came up to their seats and spoke...
'Please have your tickets ready.'
The birdcatcher pulled a small slip of paper from his inside pocket without saying a word. The conductor glanced at it, immediately turning to Giovanni and Campanella, wagging his finger and pointing to them, as if to say, 'And where are your tickets?'
'Oh, gee,' said Giovanni, fidgeting at a loss for what to do. But Campanella produced a small gray ticket from out of nowhere, as if by second nature. Giovanni, now in a real flurry, reached deeply into his coat pocket to see if there was a ticket there, finding a big folded piece of paper. He quickly brought out his hand, surprised himself that there was something in it, and held up a green piece of paper, folded in quarters, about the size of a postcard. He thought...
I don't know what this paper is, but the conductor has his hand out, so why not give it to him!
The conductor took the piece of paper from him, stood at attention and carefully unfolded it. He fiddled with the buttons on his jacket as he read it, while the lighthouse keeper did his best to steal a peek at it from below. Giovanni, quite excited, was sure that the paper was some kind of certificate.
'Have you carried this from the Third Spatial Region?' asked the conductor.
'Search me,' said Giovanni, chuckling and looking up, now feeling considerably relieved and safe.
'Very well. We will be arriving at the Southern Cross in the neighbourhood of the next Third Hour,' said the conductor, returning Giovanni's ticket and going on down the aisle.
Campanella was dying to find out what was written on Giovanni's ticket, so he quickly took a peek at it. Giovanni couldn't wait to see either. But all they could make out on it were designs of black arabesques with ten or so funny-looking printed letters among them. They felt that if they continued to stare at the piece of paper they would certainly be swallowed up into it.
'Good heavens,' said the birdcatcher, taking a glimpse from the side. 'That ticket is really tops. It will take you higher than the sky! Even higher. With this ticket you've got safe conduct to anywhere your heart desires to go. With this ticket you can go wherever you wish on the imperfect Four-Dimensional-Milky-Way-Dream Train. You boys are really something!'
'Oh, I dunno,' said Giovanni, blushing, folding up his ticket and putting it back in his pocket.
He felt rather awkward as he stared out the window with Campanella, vaguely aware that the birdcatcher was throwing them glances from time to time, as if to say, 'You boys are really tops!'
'We'll be pulling into Eagle Station any moment,' said Campanella, comparing his map with three little off-white triangular signs on the opposite bank.
Giovanni, without knowing why, felt very sorry for the birdcatcher, and when he thought about him being so overjoyed at becoming a new man when he caught his herons, wrapping them up in his white cloth bundle or just stealing glances at people's tickets and praising them to the high heavens, he wanted to give him everything he owned, his food and everything, though he really didn't know him very well at all. If it would make the birdcatcher happy, he would even stand for a hundred years at a time in the shining field of the Milky Way and catch his birds for him.
Giovanni couldn't remain silent any longer. 'What is it you wish for more than anything else?' is what he wanted to ask him. But that would be altogether too abrupt. As he considered what else he might ask and turned toward the birdcatcher...
...The birdcatcher wasn't there at all! And his huge white bundle was gone from the overhead rack as well.
Giovanni immediately looked outside, sure that he would be out there, his legs planted solidly, searching the skies for a heron to catch. But his broad back and tapered hat were nowhere to be seen. All that was there was a waving white sea of pampas grass and a beautiful blanket of sand.
'Where'd he go off to?' asked Campanella in a daze.
'That's a good question. I wonder where on earth we'll ever meet up with him again. I just wanted to say a few more words to him.'
'Oh, me too.'
'I really feel awful, because at first I thought he was going to get in our way.'
Giovanni had never felt odd in quite that way and certainly had never been able to express it.
'Hold on, I smell apples!' said Campanella, looking around in amazement.
'Could it be because I was just thinking about apples?'
'I smell apples too. And wild roses!'
Giovanni looked all around, but the smell seemed to be coming from outside the window. This puzzled him all the more because it was autumn and not at all the season for wild roses.
Before they knew it a boy about six years old, with glossy hair, wearing an unbuttoned red blazer, was standing nearby. He had a terrible expression of fear on his face, shivering and quaking in bare feet. A young man in a properly fitted black suit, as tall and straight as a zelkova tree blasted for an age by the wind, stood beside the little boy, holding him firmly by the hand.
'Oh God, where are we? Oh, it's so lovely here,' said Kaoru, a little girl of about twelve with pretty brown eyes, wearing a black overcoat and clinging to the young man's arm as she stared outside in wonder.
'Why, it's Lancashire. No, it's the State of Connecticut. No, oh...we've come to the sky! We're on our way to Heaven,' said the young man in black, radiating good cheer to the little girl. 'See for yourself. That is the sign for Heaven. There's nothing to be afraid of now. We are being summoned by God.'
But then, for some reason, deep furrows appeared on his brow and he looked weary. He tried to force a smile as he sat the little boy down next to Giovanni and gently instructed the girl to sit beside Campanella. She sat down obediently, folding her hands together on her lap.
The little boy had an odd expression on his face. 'I'm going to see my sister, Kikuyo,' he told the young man, who had just seated himself opposite the lighthouse keeper.
The young man, unable to say a word, stared with the saddest eyes at the little boy's wavy soaking-wet hair. Suddenly the little girl put her hands to her face and sobbed.
'Your father and your sister, Kikuyo, still have lots of work to do,' said the young man. 'But they'll be along someday soon. More than that, just think of how long your mother has been waiting for you. She's waiting and worrying and imagining the songs that her sweet little boy, Tadashi, would be singing. She would be picturing you holding hands with the other children and skipping round and round the garden bushes when snow falls in the morning. So let's go right now and see mummy!'
'Okay, but I still would rather have not got on that ship in the first place.'
'I know, but look up...see? That fantastic river, see it? The milky-white place in the sky that you used to see from your window all summer long and sing, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star...it's right there! See how lovely it is, shining so brightly?'
The little girl, who had been crying, wiped her eyes with a handkerchief and looked outside.
'We have nothing to be sad about anymore,' explained the young man calmly to them. 'We're travelling through this fine place and soon we will be in God's house, where it will be as bright as bright can be, the smells are sweet and the people are truly grand. All of the people who went in the lifeboats in our place will surely be saved and will go back to their own mothers and fathers who are so worried about them or to their own homes and children. Now, we'll be there soon, so cheer up and sing out with everything you've got.'
The young man consoled them, stroking the little boy's wet black hair. Gradually his own expression brightened too.
'Where did you people come from?' asked the lighthouse keeper, finally beginning to understand a little. 'What brought you here?'
The young man gave a faraway smile.
'Well, the ship hit an iceberg and sank,' he said. 'Their father was called home unexpectedly two months ago, so we waited and set off later. I was a university student hired as their private tutor. But then, exactly twelve days out...today, or maybe, yesterday...the ship hit an iceberg, listed just like that, then began to sink. There was some hazy moonlight that night but the fog was extremely thick. Half of the lifeboats on the port side had gone under and there weren't enough left to carry everyone.
'I realised that in a moment the whole ship would be lost, so I cried out with all my might for somebody to help save these children. The people nearby made a path for them and started to pray, but there were still many little children and their parents standing between us and the lifeboats, and I didn't have the heart to push them aside. I still felt though that it was my duty to save these little ones, so I tried to elbow my way past the children in front.
'Then it dawned on me that, better than saving them in that way, I should bring them just as they are now before God. The next moment though I saw that I alone would be sinning before God if I did not try to save them. But there was no way for me to do it. It tore me up inside to see mothers going crazy throwing kisses to their children in the lifeboats and fathers standing stiffly on deck holding back their tears.
'I knew that the ship was going down fast, so, resigned to fate, I embraced these two little ones, determined to stay afloat for as long as possible. Someone threw a lifebuoy at us but it slipped and flew out of reach. I frantically ripped some grating from the deck and we clung onto it. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, someone was singing a hymn, and soon everyone joined in in many different languages.
'Then we heard a loud boom and we were plunged into the water. I held on tightly to these two, but we must have been caught in a whirlpool because everything vanished and the next thing we knew we found ourselves here.
Their mother passed away two years ago now. Oh yes, the lifeboats must have been safely away from the ship when it sank, I mean, what else would you expect with all those seasoned sailors rowing them?'
Faint prayers could be heard, and Giovanni and Campanella, their eyes smarting, recalled things which they had forgotten up till then.
Oh, that big ocean must have been the Pacific. And someone is working his life away in a far northern corner of that ocean where the icebergs float, battling the wind and the frozen tide and the violent cold in a little boa t. I really feel sorry for that man, really sorry! What can I do to make him happy?
That is what Giovanni thought, his head bowed in grief.
'Who knows what happiness is?' said the lighthouse keeper, comforting him. 'So long as you're on the proper road, no matter how trying a thing may be, you'll be getting closer, one step at a time, up and down the mountain to real happiness.'
'Yes, that's true,' said the young man in a reverential tone. 'To attain the truest happiness you must first know all kinds of sorrow, for such is God's will.'
The little brother and sister, Tadashi and Kaoru, were already sunk deep down into their seats, fast asleep. They now had soft white shoes on their feet where there had been nothing before.
The little train chugged and clanked, making its way along the phosphorescent bank of the river, with fields appearing through the windows on the other side as if straight out of a magic lantern. Hundreds and thousands of triangular signs of every size stretched to the very edge of the fields, the larger ones topped with red-dotted surveyors' flags so thick and dense that on the horizon they appeared like a pale mist, and from there and from further afield than anyone could see, signal fires and flares of all kinds shot up one after the other into the dark violet sky. The breeze, clear and lovely, was filled with the scent of roses.
'Want one? I bet you've never had apples like these before.'
The lighthouse keeper across the aisle was carefully holding large beautiful golden and red apples in his lap.
'Wow, where'd those come from?' said the young man, genuinely impressed and taken aback. 'They're incredible! I didn't know they had apples like those around here.' He tilted his head, fixing his squinted eyes on the bunch of apples in the man's lap.
'Well, anyway, help yourself. Come on, don't be shy.'
The young man glanced at Giovanni and Campanella, taking an apple for himself.
'And you little tykes there. Come on, come an' get 'em.'
Giovanni didn't much fancy being called a 'little tyke,' so he just sat tight in silence. But Campanella thanked the lighthouse keeper. At this the young man took two apples and handed them to the boys. Giovanni rose to his feet and thanked the man too.
The lighthouse keeper, who could now manage to carry the rest of the apples by himself, went to the little brother and sister and gently placed one apple each in their laps.
'Thank you very much,' said the young man looking on. 'Where do they grow apples as lovely as these?'
'Of course this region is farmland, but generally speaking things just grow by themselves. Farming shouldn't break anybody's back. All you do here is sow the seed of your choice and, day by day, the plant grows of its own accord. And the rice here isn't like your rice around the Pacific Ocean, because it's got no husks, and besides, the grains are ten times bigger and they smell absolutely delicious.
'They don't farm up where you're headin', though, but you can eat the apples and cakes there down to the very last morsel, and you'll find yourself giving off a faint sweet aroma through your own pores, a different aroma for each person!'
Suddenly Tadashi blinked his eyes open.
'Oh, I was just dreaming of my mother,' he said. 'She was standing by this great big cupboard or bookshelf or something and she was holding out her hand and looking at me and smiling so big. I said, "Mummy, do you want me to get an apple for you?" And that's when I just woke up. Gee, this is the same train I was on before.'
'You've got the apple,' said the young man. 'This nice man gave us all one.'
'Thank you, Sir. Hey, Kaoru's still asleep. I'll wake her up, okay? Sis? Look, we got apples. Wake up and see!'
Kaoru smiled and opened her eyes, rubbing them with both hands from the glare. Then she saw the apples.
Tadashi was munching away at an apple as if it were a piece of pie. The peel that he had taken the trouble to peel off took on the shape of a corkscrew as it fell, turned smoky gray, flared and evaporated before reaching the floor.
Giovanni and Campanella stashed their apples in their pockets for safe keeping.
Downstream there was a vast forest growing on the far bank of the river, its thick and deep green branches loaded down with round ripe fruit, glowing red, a bewilderingly tall triangular sign standing in its very centre. The breeze from the forest carried the indescribably beautiful sound of bells and xylophone that mingled with everything, permeating the air.
The young man shuddered, spellbound by the sound.
They all listened to the music in silence as the sky unfolded into what looked like a yellow and light-green meadow...or carpet...and pure white dewdrops, like wax, swept across the face of a sun.
'Oh, look at those crows!' cried Kaoru, who was now beside Campanella.
'Those aren't crows, they're magpies,' exclaimed Campanella in what came out as a scolding voice, causing Giovanni to laugh unintentionally and the little girl to feel very selfconscious.
Black birds in their thousands had come to rest in rows along the milky-white bank, bathing motionlessly in the glow coming off the river.
'Yes, they are magpies,' interceded the young man. 'You can tell by the tuft sticking out from the back of their heads.'
By now the tall sign in the green forest was face to face with the train, and the familiar strains of the hymn's melody could be heard coming from the wagons in the very back. It sounded like it was being sung by a huge chorus of people. The young man turned pale and wan, started to rise and follow the sound, but decided to sit down again.
Kaoru buried her face in her handkerchief and even Giovanni couldn't help but get a bit sniffly. Somehow the melody was picked up by someone, until both Giovanni and Campanella found themselves singing along in unison.
The dense-green olive grove glistened in tears as it moved gradually beyond the invisible river, the mysterious music streaming out of it growing faint, drowned out by the sounds of the train and the rush of the wind.
'Look, a peacock!' cried Tadashi.
'Peacocks, lots of them,' said Kaoru.
Giovanni was watching the reflection of light coming off the peacocks as they spread and closed their feathers above a grove now no bigger than a miniature green shell button.
'Right,' said Campanella to Kaoru. 'It was peacock calls we heard before.'
'Yes, I know,' she said. 'I saw about thirty of them. It was the peacocks that sounded like a harp.'
Giovanni, glum yet not knowing why, wanted to glare at Campanella and say, 'Hey, let's hop off here and have some fun!'
The river divided in two. A turret as high as the sky had been erected on the island at its fork, and on top of it perched a man in a red cap and loosely fitting clothes. He was looking toward the sky and signaling with red and green flags in his hands.
He waved the red flag repeatedly in the air then suddenly brought it down, hid it behind his back and lifted the green one as high as he could, waving it furiously, like an orchestra conductor. At that very moment an unbelievable clamour filled the air as if it had suddenly started raining cats and dogs, and whole clusters of little black birds shot, as if out of the mouth a shotgun, across the sky to the far side of the river. Giovanni found himself sticking half his body out the window to get a good look at the tens of thousands of little birds as they flew, each and every one calling through the magnificent dark violet sky.
'Just look at those birds fly,' he said from outside the window.
'Birds?' said Campanella, looking up.
The man in the loose outfit on top of the turret suddenly raised his red flag and waved it madly. At that moment the great cloud of birds froze, an earsplitting crash was heard downstream, and it was perfectly quiet. Yet no sooner was there quiet than did the red-capped signaller once again wave his green flag, yelling out in a voice as clear as a bell...
'Now is the time for all migratory birds to migrate! Now is the time for all migratory birds to migrate!'
And once again the great mass of countless birds shot overhead. Kaoru poked her head out of the same middle window as the two boys, facing upwards with lovely sparkling cheeks.
'Oh, so many birds!' she said to Giovanni. 'And the sky is so pretty too!'
But Giovanni turned a deaf ear to Kaoru, keeping his mouth shut, considering her no more than a big pain in the neck and continuing to look up at the sky.
Kaoru took a faint breath, fell silent and returned to her seat. Campanella, feeling sorry for her, drew his head back inside and concentrated on his map.
'Is that man there to teach the birds?' she asked Campanella softly.
'He's there giving signals to migrating birds,' he replied, unsure of himself. 'I mean, a flare rockets up or something, telling him to do it.'
Silence filled the wagon. Giovanni wanted to bring his head in from the window, but the bright light inside would be too hard to bear, so he remained as he was and whistled a tune.
Why am I so forlorn? I should be a kinder person, a more generous person. I can see a small blue flame, hazy with smoke, way beyond. It is so quiet and cold, but it calms my spirit if I keep my mind on it.
Giovanni, gazing in the distance, grasped his burning, throbbing head in both hands.
Is there really nobody who will stick with me to the edges of the universe and beyond? Campanella just sits there jabbering away to that little girl, and it hurts me more than anybody knows.
Giovanni's eyes filled with tears, making the Milky Way seem even more remote and dreamy white.
By this time the train had veered away from the river, passing above a cliff. The black cliff face by the waterline on the opposite bank loomed gradually higher and higher at the lower reaches of the river. A huge stand of corn flashed into view, with leaves that were all frizzled and curly and husks that were big and already a striking green, sprouting red hairs and boasting kernels like pearls.
Soon the number of plants had multiplied until the stand, with plants in rows, lined the area between the cliff and the track. When Giovanni pulled his head in and looked through the windows across the aisle he saw ears of corn swaying in the breeze, growing all the way to the horizon, laden with red and green dewdrops on the tips of their curly leaves, shining like diamonds that had absorbed the rays of the sun.
'That's corn, isn't it?' said Campanella to Giovanni.
But Giovanni wasn't in a mood to be cheered up and sat there gazing at the field with a moony face.
'Guess so,' he answered.
That's when the train slowed down, passed by a few signals and illuminated switches and came to a halt at a little station.
The milky-white clock face opposite them indicated precisely the Second Hour, the wind died down, the train was still and a pendulum ticktocked the time throughout the still quiet country.
Then a faint melody, perfectly in time with the ticking of the clock, came their way, a thread of sound from the far fringes of the field.
'It's the New World Symphony,' said Kaoru to herself.
All the people in the train, including the stately young man in black, were plunged into a tender dream of their own creation.
Why can't I cheer myself up in such a peaceful place as this? Why am I so alone? And that Campanella, he's really being mean. We're on this train together and all he does is blabber to that little girl. It's really hard to take!
Giovanni, his face half-buried in his palms, stared out the far windows.
A flutelike note, clear as glass, rang out and the train began to creep along as Campanella sadly whistled the tune of the rotating stars.
'Precisely, precisely, you see, it's all high prairie up here,' blurted out an old man from behind, as if he had just woken up. 'Now, if it's corn you want, you gotta open up a hole two feet deep and plant the seed in that, otherwise you haven't got a prayer.'
'Is that right? I guess we won't be reaching the river for quite some time yet.'
'Precisely, precisely. We're still a good two thousand to six thousand feet above her. We're over one hell of a gorge here.'
Giovanni was struck by a thought...
Sure, we're over the plateaus of Colorado!
Kaoru, far away in thought, her face like an apple wrapped in silk, was staring in the same direction as Giovanni. Campanella was still whistling sadly to himself.
All of a sudden the corn was gone, leaving a vast black stretch of prairie from one horizon to the other.
The New World Symphony was coming in loud and clear from beyond the horizon when an American Indian, an arrow fixed in his taut bow, decked out in a white feather headdress and a variety of stones on his arms and breast, st arted running after the train as fast as his mocassins would take him.
'Gosh, it's an Indian!' cried Tadashi. 'Look, an Indian!'
This woke up the young man in black and sent both Giovanni and Campanella to their feet.
'He's running after us!' exclaimed Kaoru. 'He's running this way, chasing us!'
'No, he isn't chasing the train,' said the young man, standing up and putting his hands in his pockets as if unaware of where he was. 'He's hunting or dancing.'
What he was doing did look very much like a dance...his step was too measured and methodical to be a sprint. Then, without warning, he stopped dead in his tracks, his white headdress tumbled down in front of him and he fired his arrow quick as a flash into the air. A crane whirled dizzily down and once again he dashed ahead to catch it in his open arms. He stopped there, beaming.
But his figure standing there holding the crane in his arms and looking in the direction of the train grew steadily smaller and ever distant, two ceramic insulators on a telegraph pole glittered by, and once again they were passing through thickets of corn. The train was moving along the top of a gigantic cliff, the wide river flowing, shining back far down below it.
'Precisely,' said the old man. 'From here on it's all downhill. Which is not to say that it's a breeze gettin' down to river level in one go. This train can never go the other way, 'cause the angle here is too much for her. See, we're pickin' up speed already.'
The train chugged faster and faster down the slope and, as it skirted the very edge of the cliff, the river shone brightly in their eyes. Giovanni's mood brightened too. They sped past a small hut with a solitary little boy standing in front of it. He cried out into the air.
The train was steeply clanking down the incline even faster now, all the people in it pushed back hard against their seats and holding on for dear life. Giovanni and Campanella smiled at each other. The Milky Way was stream ing furiously past them, virtually under their nose, giving off brilliant flashes of light. Wild pinks were in bloom along the pale red bank where the train slowed down by degrees, running steadily and smoothly again.
Banners decorated with stars and picks were flying on either bank of the river.
'I wonder what banners those are,' said Giovanni, finally managing to eke out some words.
'Beats me. Nothing like them on my map. There's an iron boat there too.'
'Perhaps they're building a bridge,' said Kaoru.
'Sure, they're Army Engineers' banners! They're on bridge-building manoeuvers. Except, I don't see any soldiers around.'
Just then, a little downstream by the opposite bank, the invisible river flashed, and a pillar of water shot up high into the air with an ear-splitting boom.
'They're blasting! They're blasting!' cried Campanella, jumping for joy.
The water in the pillar disappeared, but huge salmon and trout that had been flung into the sky by the explosion remained in the air, their bellies gleaming white as they described a perfect arc before falling back into the river.
Giovanni was in such high spirits now that he wanted to leap into the air himself.
'It's the Army Engineers of the Sky!' he said. 'Fantastic! Those trout or whatever just went rocketing up like this. I've never been on such a great trip as this. Out of this world!'
'Those trout would be this big close up,' said Campanella. 'The number of fish in this river is amazing.'
'I wonder if there are little fish too,' said Kaoru, now hooked on the boys' conversation.
'There's bound to be,' replied Giovanni, smiling at her and feeling his old self again. 'If they've got big ones, they'd be bound to have little ones too. We're just too far away to see them.'
'Look, those must be the palaces where the twins live,' exclaimed Tadashi, suddenly pointing out the window.
Two little shrines that might have been fashioned of crystal stood roof-to-roof on top of a rolling hill to their right.
'What's the palaces where the twins live?'
'Our mother told us about them lots of times,' explained Kaoru. 'There are two little crystal palaces next to each other just as she said there would be.'
'Tell us about them. What are twin stars doing in the sky?'
'Why don't you ask me?' said Tadashi. 'The twins went to the meadow to play. Then they had an argument with a crow, see?'
'No, that's not how it went,' said Kaoru. 'Let's see now. It was on the bank of the Milky Way, mummy said so, she....'
'And the comet came whooshing by. Whoosh! Whoosh!'
'Stop it, Tadashi! That's not the way it was. That's a different story altogether.'
'So it's them playing that flute?' asked Giovanni.
'They're off at sea,' said Tadashi.
'No they're not!' insisted Kaoru. 'They've already been to sea.'
'Yeah I know, I know,' continued Tadashi. 'I can tell you all about it.'
The opposite bank of the invisible river turned a sudden red and its waves glittered like needles, throwing what looked like willows into stark silhouette. A large crimson fire was burning in a distant field, its towering smoke threatening to scorch the deep violet of the sky. The flame was more transparent red than a ruby, more exquisite than lithium.
'I wonder what's causing that fire,' said Giovanni. 'What could be burning to give off a flame as red as that?'
'It's Scorpio's fire,' replied Campanella, his head buried in his map.
'Oh I know about Scorpio's fire,' said Kaoru.
'So what is it then?' asked Giovanni.
'Scorpio burnt to death. My father told me millions of times that the fire burns to this very day.'
'A scorpion's an insect, right?'
'Uh huh, it is. But it's a nice insect.'
'A scorpion's not a nice insect! I saw one in alcohol at the museum. He's got a huge stinger on his tail, and the teacher said if he stings you, you die!'
'I know, but he's still a nice insect. My father told me that a long long time ago Scorpio lived in Valdola Vale and he survived by killing teeny bugs and eating them up. Then one day he was caught by a weasel and it looked like he was going to be eaten all up himself. He tried to get away with all his might and he was about to be pinned down by the weasel when he saw this well and he fell right down into it, and there was no way in the world he could get back up, so it looked like he was going to drown for sure. So then he began to pray...
Oh, I can't remember how many living creatures I have killed in my lifetime, but now I found myself trapped by the weasel and running for my own life. Woe is me! Everything is so risky in life. Why didn't I just give my body to the weasel and be done with it? If I had, at least he would have been able to live another day.
Dear God, please look into my heart and in the next life don't throw away my life in vain like this, but use my body for the good and happiness of all!
'That's what he said. And Scorpio saw his body turn bright red and burn into a beautiful flame, lighting up the darkness of the night sky! And he's burning now too, that's what my father said. That fire...it must be him.'
'Sure, look! The triangular signs are lined up exactly in the shape of a scorpion.'
Giovanni could clearly see beyond the tower of fire...three signs making up a scorpion's front legs with five others nearer to him forming the tail with a hook in its stinger. The red flame burned brightly without so much as a crackle.
As the fire receded gradually into the distance everyone began to hear all sorts of indescribably lively music, to smell what smelled like bouquets of flowers and to hear a mixed murmur of voices and whistling. There appeared to be a town nearby with some sort of festival in progress.
'Oh Centaurus, Let the Dew Fall!' cried Tadashi, who had been fast asleep until then in the seat beside Giovanni.
Outside the window stood a green Christmas tree, a fir or cypress, its branches swimming with countless miniature bulbs, as if thousands of fireflies were swarming throughout them.
'How could I forget? Tonight was the Centaur Festival!'
'Yeah, this must be Centaur Village,' piped in Campanella.
'I never miss a ball that's thrown to me,' boasted Tadashi inexplicably.
'Momentarily we will arrive at the Southern Cross,' said the young man to the children. 'Please prepare to alight.'
'I'm gonna stay on the train a little bit longer,' said Tadashi.
Kaoru stood up on shaky legs and made preparations to leave. She looked sad to have to say goodbye to Giovanni and Campanella.
'We must get off here,' said the young man to Tadashi, closing his lips firmly.
'I won't! I'm gonna stay on a little longer!'
'You can stay on with us,' said Giovanni, unable to hold himself in. 'We've got a ticket that goes on forever!'
'But we have to get off here,' said Kaoru, sadly. 'This is where you get off to go to Heaven.'
'Who says you have to go to Heaven? My teacher says that we have to create a place that's even better than Heaven right here.'
'But our mummy's already there, and besides, God says so.'
'A God who says that is a phony God.'
'Your God is the phony one!'
'He is not!'
'What kind of God is your God?' interrupted the young man, smiling.
'How should I know?' said Giovanni. 'But he's not like hers! He's the only real God.'
'Of course the real God is only one God,' said the young man.
'I don't mean it that way,' said Giovanni. 'I mean the really real God.'
'That's what I'm saying too. Let us pray that we will all meet someday in the course of time before that real God.'
The young man humbly clasped his hands together, Kaoru did the same, and all of them looked frightfully pale and very reluctant to say goodbye to each other. Giovanni could hardly contain his tears.
'Well now, are you ready? We're nearly at the Southern Cross.'
It was at that instant....far downstream, emerging like a single tree out of the invisible water of the river, a cross studded with lights of blue, bitter-orange and every colour under the sun and crowned with a pale white halo of cloud. There was a great hustle and bustle inside the train as all the passengers stood to attention and prayed, just as they had done at the Northern Cross, and cries of joy, like the ones you hear when children grab for a melon, were heard...and deep pious sighs.
Eventually the cross came into full view outside the windows with the white halo cloud, more white than the flesh of an apple, revolving gently around and around it.
Their voices rang out pleasantly in chorus as they heard the crystal-clear call of a bugle from the remotest part of that cold remote sky. The train rolled slowly through a long series of signals and electric lights, crawling to an eventual stop directly in front of the cross.
'Well, everyone off!'
The young man took Tadashi's hand and made his way toward the exit.
'Goodbye for now,' said Kaoru to the two boys, looking back at them.
'Goodbye,' said Giovanni in a brusque voice, only because he was trying to hold in his tears.
She looked back at them once more, her eyes wide open with suffering...then silently, left. The train was more than half-emtpy...then, before they knew it, there wasn't a soul left in it at all. A vacant wind blew through t he wagons.
The boys looked outside. All of the people had come together, forming rows in humble prayer, kneeling on the Milky Way's sand in front of the cross. A godlike figure in white robe was crossing the invisible water, coming toward them with outstretched arms. But at that very moment the glass whistle blew, the train inched forward, and a silver mist came streaming up between them and the river. Nothing was visible there now save for a grove of walnut trees, their leaves gleami ng, and a cute little electric squirrel with a golden halo who kept poking his face, blinking, through the mist.
When the mist finally began to lift they could see a wide road lined with electric lights skirting the track for some distance then leading off into the blue. The little pea-coloured lights blipped off as the train approached, as if acknowledging its presence, then blipped back on again as it passed.
The cross had shrunk so small in the distance that it looked like you could pick it right up and hang it on your chest, and there was no way on earth of knowing whether the little girl, the young man and the others were still kneeling on that white sand or had already gone off to their heaven.
'Campanella,' said Giovanni, sighing deeply, 'we're alone again. Let's stay together till the ends of the earth, okay? If I could be like that scorpion and do something for the benefit of all people, I wouldn't care if my body burnt up a hundred times over.'
'Me too,' said Campanella, his eyes welling with the clearest tears.
'But what is real happiness, Campanella?'
'Don't ask me,' he answered dreamily.
'We'll keep our spirits up, won't we?' said Giovanni, taking a deep breath and feeling a new strength gushing through him.
'Hey, there's the Coal Sack!' cried Campanella, pointing to a spot in the Milky Way and leaning back as he did so. 'It's a hole in the sky!'
Giovanni shivered in fright as he looked at the Coal Sack. It was a huge black gaping hole in the river, and the longer he stared and squinted into it, the more his eyes smarted and he couldn't tell how deep the bottom went or what was down below it.
'I'm not scared of all that dark,' he said. 'I'm going to get to the bottom of everything and find out what will make people happy. We'll go together, Campanella, as far as we can go.'
'Yes we will, Giovanni. Oh look over there,'cried Campanella, pointing to a distant field. 'That is the most beautiful country I have ever seen. Everybody's there. That's the real heaven. Look, my mother's there too. Look!'
Giovanni looked, but what he saw was all milky white and blurry, not at all like what Campanella was describing. He felt indescribably lonely as he peered out, catching sight only of two telegraph poles on the opposite bank , their red crossbeams linked, like arms.
'Campanella,' said Giovanni, turning toward him, 'we're going to stick together, okay?'
But there was no Campanella where Campanella had been sitting, only the black shining velvet seat.
Giovanni bolted up like a rocket, leaning far out the window so that he wouldn't be heard as he screamed into the sky, pounding his chest hard and crying out with a throatful of tears.
Everything seemed to go black all at once.
Giovanni opened his eyes. He had fallen asleep exhausted in the grass of the hill. He felt a strange burning sensation inside as cold tears streamed down his cheeks and he sprang to his feet.
The town below was bound together by countless lights, just as before, yet now they were somehow more radiant mellow. The Milky Way where he had just dreamt himself to was still a hazy blurry white mass smoking above the black southern horizon with the red star in Scorpio twinkling beautifully to the right beside it. The stars in the sky did not appear to have changed position very much from before.
Giovanni sprinted down the hill. All he could think of was his mother who was waiting until he came home before having her dinner. He passed through the black grove of pine trees, turned by the faintly white pasture fence a nd came to the front entrance of the darkened cowshed. It looked like someone was in now, because he saw a cart with two barrels of something loaded on it.
'Hello, anybody here?' shouted Giovanni.
A man in thick white pants emerged, adding, 'What can I do for you?'
'Well, we didn't get our milk delivered today.'
'Oh, I'm terribly sorry.'
The man immediately went in back and returned with a bottle of milk.
'Really sorry about this,' he said, handing the bottle to Giovanni and smiling.
'This afternoon I was pretty careless and left the gate to the calf pen open. The little devil made a beeline to his mother and drank up half her milk.'
'I see. Well, I'll take this home then.'
'Please do. Terribly sorry about this.'
Giovanni went out the pasture gate with both hands wrapped around the warm bottle of milk.
He walked a distance through a heavily treed part of town, coming out onto the main road, and when he reached the crossroad, he could see to his right the turrets of the big bridge standing tall in the hazy sky over the river where Campanella and the others had gone to float lanterns.
Small groups of women who had gathered on the corners of the crossroad and in front of the shops were looking toward the bridge and speaking in hushed tones. The bridge itself was swimming in all kinds of light.
Giovanni, feeling a strange chill inside, shouted to the people close by...
'Is something wrong?'
'A child has fallen into the water,' said one of them, and they all turned at once toward him.
Giovanni ran for his life toward the bridge. The river was invisible for all of the people on the bridge. A policeman in white was among them.
Giovanni reached the end of the bridge and flew down to a wide section of river bed. Many lights were moving up and down along the water's edge, and a number of lantern flames could be seen roving the dark embankment on the opposite bank as well. Between them the river, with no lantern to illuminate it now, flowed in a single gray tranquil stream with little more than a murmur.
People were standing in a black mass at the farthest point downstream where the river formed a sandbar. Giovanni quickly made his way there, bumping into Marceau, who had been with Campanella earlier.
'Giovanni,' said Marceau, running toward him. 'Campanella's fallen into the river.'
'Zanelli was trying to push a lantern down the river from the boat, and that's when the boat tilted and kind of dumped him into the water. Campanella dove right in after him and he pushed Zanelli back to the boat, and Kato got ahold of him, but then nobody could see Campanella after that.'
'But everybody's looking, aren't they?'
'Yeah, they all came right away, Campanella's father too. But nobody can find him. They took Zanelli home.'
Giovanni went to where everyone was waiting. Campanella's father, his jaw angular and pale, wearing a black suit, was staring at the watch gripped in his right hand. He stood tall, encircled by students and townspeople.
Everyone's eyes were fixed on the river. Not a soul was saying a word.
Giovanni's legs trembled and quaked. The ripples of the black water flashed and glistened as acetylene lamps came and went on the river, just like at fishing time.
Downstream, the Milky Way was reflected from one edge of the river to the other as if there were no water there at all but only sky.
Giovanni felt that by now Campanella could be nowhere but on the very farthest edge of that river of only sky.
But everyone still wanted to believe that from somewhere among those waves Campanella would appear and say...
Boy, did I ever swim!
...or that he would be standing on a sandbar that the people didn't even know existed, forced to wait for someone to find him.
All of a sudden Campanella's father spoke up emphatically.
'It's no use. It's been forty-five minutes since he fell in.'
Giovanni raced up and stood before him.
I know where Campanella went. I travelled with Campanella.
That's what he wanted to say...but the words just stuck somewhere in his throat.
Campanella's father, thinking that Giovanni had come to offer his sympathy, peered for some time straight into his eyes and said politely...
'You would be Giovanni, isn't that right? Thank you for coming tonight, Son.'
Giovanni bowed, unable to speak.
'Has your father come back home yet?' He was still gripping the watch in his fist.
'No,' replied Giovanni with a slight shake of his head.
'I wonder what could have happened? Just two days ago I had a wonderful letter from him. He should be home by about today. The boat must have been delayed, that's it. You'll come to our home tomorrow after school with every one else, won't you, Giovanni?'
With those words Campanella's father gazed far downstream where the galaxy was part of the river itself.
Giovanni had no words for the many feelings that filled his heart. He left Campanella's father and went home to take the milk to his mother and tell her about his father's homecoming, running as fast as his legs would carry him along the river's bed toward town.