NIGHT OF THE CENTAUR FESTIVAL

With his lips puckered as if he were whistling some sad song, Giovanni came walking toward town down a slope that was a pitch black tunnel of thickly growing white cedars.

A single tall street lamp, radiating a brilliant yet soft light, stood at the foot of the slope. As he steadily made his way toward the lamp his shadow, which had been trailing behind him like a lanky blurry murky ghost, be came darker and more distinct, kicking up its legs and swinging its arms until turning around to his side.
I'm a great locomotive! I'm speeding up here because this is an incline. I'm going to pass that lamppost any second now. Hey, now my shadow's the needle of a compass. It's gone around in a circle and it's right in front of me!
That is what Giovanni was thinking as he took giant steps beneath the street lamp. Just then Zanelli, who had sniggered at him in class that day, came out of a dark alleyway on the other side of the post. He was wearing a new shirt with pointed collars, and he all but bumped into Giovanni as their paths crossed.
Giovanni wanted to say, 'Zanelli, are you going to the river to float gourds?' But before he could get the words out, Zanelli yelled nastily from behind, 'Giovanni' s getting an otter coat from his father!'

Giovanni's heart suddenly went cold and he heard a ringing in his ears coming from all around him.

'Who do you think you are, Zanelli!' he screamed back. But Zanelli had already disappeared into a house with a white cedar tree in front.
Why does he keep saying those things when I haven't done anything to him? He looks just like a rat when he runs away like that. He's so stupid, that's his problem!
Giovanni's mind was leaping from one thing to another as he passed through town with all the houses decorated in the most beautiful array of ornamented branches and lights.

The watchmaker's shop had a bright fluorescent light in the window and an owl, made of stone, whose red eyes rolled around every second. All kinds of jewels were piled on a platter made of thick glass the colour of the sea. The platter rotated, revolving the starlike jewels and bringing a copper centaur around from the other side. Between the centaur and the jewels there was a circular black map of the heavens decorated with green asparagus leaves.
Giovanni forgot himself in the map of the heavens.

It was much much smaller than the star chart that he had seen at school earlier that day. But with this one all you had to do was to set the date and time by turning the platter, and the sky for that night would appear in the oval opening. The Milky Way ran straight through the middle...a smoky zone of white stretching from one end to the other with what looked like vapours of steam rising, as if after an explosion, from the bottom reaches.

Further into the shop stood a small telescope on a glowing yellow tripod and behind that, on the back wall, hung a big map depicting the entire sky in constellations of bizarre beasts, snakes, fish and bottle shapes. Giovan ni wondered if the sky was really so crammed with scorpions and brave warriors and things, and he thought, standing there in a daze...
Ah, I'd like nothing more than to travel inside there as far as a human could go!
Then suddenly he remembered the milk for his mother and he walked away from the watchmaker's shop.

He went through town swinging his arms and straining to swell up his chest on purpose, even though the shoulders of his coat were pinching him.

The air was crystal clear, flowing through the streets and past the shops as if it were water. Street lamps were tucked away among the dark green branches of fir and oak, and the six plane trees in front of the Electric Com pany, decked inside, outside and everywhere with miniature light bulbs, made the whole place look like the Court of the Mermaids under the sea.

All of the children, dressed in freshly pressed kimonos, were whistling the tune of the rotating stars or running about and shouting...

'O Centaurus, Let the Dew Fall!'

As they happily played, fireworks of blue magnesium burned in the sky.
But Giovanni, his head drooping down, was far away from that lively atmosphere about him. He hurried in the direction of the dairy.

He found himself on the edge of town where countless poplar trees stood as if floating up into the starry sky. He opened the darkened gate of the dairy and stopped by the dusky kitchen which smelled of cows. He took off his cap, calling out...

'Good evening.'

But it looked quiet inside, without a soul in sight.

'Good evening,' he called loudly again, standing up very straight. 'Anybody home?'

After a while an old woman shuffled out. She did not look well at all, and mumbled to herself, 'What d'ya want?'

'Um, we didn't get any milk at my place today,' said Giovanni in a spirited voice, 'so I'm here to fetch it.'

The old woman scratched a patch of skin under her red eye and looked down at Giovanni.

'No one around here now, and I dunno. Come back tomorrow,' she said.

'But my mum's sick, so we must have it by tonight.'

'Well, in that case come back a little later.'

The old woman was almost gone when Giovanni called out, 'A little later? ...well, thank you,' bowed and left.

When Giovanni was about to turn the corner into town he noticed six or seven boys in front of the grocer's on the road to the bridge. Their black shapes mingled strangely with their dimly glowing white shirts. They were eac h carrying a lighted gourd lantern, whistling and laughing.

There was no mistaking those whistles and laughs. They belonged to Giovanni's classmates. At first Giovanni, startled, started to turn back, but then he changed his mind and headed for the bridge with very sure strides.
'Going to the river?'

That's what he wanted to say, but the words got stuck in his throat, and before he could say anything at all, Zanelli hollered...

'Giovanni's getting an otter coat!'

Immediately everyone joined in...

'Giovanni's getting an otter coat!'

Giovanni, blushing to his ears, started to walk. He was already past them when he noticed Campanella standing tall among them. Campanella was keeping silent, with a smile of soft compassion on his lips, no doubt worried that Giovanni might take offense at the others' words.

Giovanni avoided Campanella's gaze, and as he left his friend behind he heard the others break out in their loud whistling again. He turned the corner, looking back at them and saw Zanelli looking back too. Campanella, now whistling with all his might, was disappearing into the milky-white haze surrounding the bridge.

Giovanni, overwhelmed by sadness, began to run out of the blue, as all the little children, who thought that Giovanni was just running for the fun of it, hopped about on one leg, screaming, yelling and hooting with their hands over their ears.

In an instant he found himself hurrying toward a black hill.

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(c) Roger Pulvers 1996
The original, ' "Night On The Milky Way Train" in English (Bilingual Edition)',
was published from Chikuma Shobo.