THE NORTHERN CROSS AND THE PLIOCENE COAST

'I wonder if my mum will ever forgive me,' said Campanella suddenly, stammering and flurried, but nonetheless resolute.
Giovanni was lost in his thoughts...
Sure, that's it! My mum is far down there by the orange-coloured sign that looks like a speck of dust. She's thinking about me this instant.
'I'd go to the ends of the earth to make my mum happy,' said Campanella, doing his best to hold back the tears. 'But I just can't figure out what would make her happiest.'

'At least there's nothing at all wrong with your mum,' exclaimed Giovanni, somewhat surprised himself.

'Oh, I dunno. It's just that, I mean, a person creates happiness around him when he does something good. That's why I'm sure my mum will forgive me.'

Campanella looked like he had really made up his mind about something.

All at once the inside of the wagon was flooded with a bright white light. Outside, where the water was flowing without sound or shape over the bed of the gleaming river, where diamonds and dew on the grass were interchangable, there was an island surrounded by an aura of pale light. Atop the island, on a plateau, stood a cross, silent and eternal, so dazzling and white that it might have been cast from frozen Arctic clouds, crowned with a pure halo of gold.

'Hallelujah! Hallelujah!'

Voices came from the front and back. The two boys looked around to see passengers in the wagon, the folds of their robes hanging down perfectly straight, some clutching black bibles to their chests, others with crystal rosaries about their necks clasping their hands in prayer...all facing the cross outside.
Both boys found themselves rising to their feet. Campanella's cheeks glistened with the colour of a ripe apple.

With time the island and the cross moved gradually back down the line.

The far bank of the Milky Way glimmered through the mist, the pampas grass fluttered as if someone were breathing on it, the silver air was momentarily opaque with smoke, and the countless gentians vanished in the grass the n appeared again like soft will-o'-the-wisps.

But it wasn't long before clusters of pampas grass twice eclipsed the space between the river and the train and Swan Island appeared far back in the distance, like a little picture. The pampas grass rustled and swished once again, and the island disappeared entirely from view.

Behind Giovanni stood a tall Catholic-looking nun whom he had not seen come on the train. She wore a black habit, and her perfectly round green eyes stared downward as she appeared to be listening humbly to a voice or words coming from the outside. The passengers quietly returned to their seats, while the two boys discussed, in language somehow different from before, the new sensation of loneliness that had overtaken them.

'We'll be at Swan Station any minute now.'

'Yeah, we'll pull in at eleven o'clock on the button.'

Before long green and orange signals and milky-white posts were flashing by the window, the light of a dark indistinct automatic switch, shining like a sulphurous flame, passed on back, the train gradually eased its pace, a nd a row of electric lights, perfectly spaced, appeared on a platform. The space between the lights became larger and larger, and the two boys came to a stop directly in front of the big clock at Swan Station.

Two hands of blue tempered steel pointed precisely to eleven on the crisp clear autumn face of the clock. All the other passengers alighted together, leaving the wagon deserted.

A sign below the clock read...

TWENTY MINUTE STOPOVER

'Should we get off here too?' asked Giovanni.

'Let's go!'

The two sprang up at once, flew out the door and made a mad dash for the ticket gate. But all they found at the gate was a bright purple electric light. There wasn't a soul around, not even a stationmaster or someone who looked like a redcap.

The boys came out onto a small square enclosed by gingko trees that looked hand-carved of quartz. A wide road led from the square straight off into the bluish light of the Milky Way.

The people from the train had gone somewhere and vanished. Giovanni and Campanella started up the white road, shoulder to shoulder, casting shadows in all directions like two pillars in a room with windows on all sides or l ike the spokes of two wheels. Before they knew it they had reached the beautiful river bed that they had seen from the train.

Campanella put a handful of sand into his palm and grated it with his fingers. He spoke as if in a dream...

'This sand is all made up of crystals. There's a tiny fire burning inside each and every grain.'

'That's right!' exclaimed Giovanni, fairly sure that he had learned that somewhere.

All of the pebbles on the bed were transparent, no doubt made up of quartz or topaz, some of them flawed and folded in on themselves, others of corundum giving off a pale misty light from their facets. Giovanni ran straight for the water's edge and dipped his hand into the liquid. The mysterious water of the Milky Way was even clearer than hydrogen and the boys were convinced that it was flowing, because when their wrists were submerged in it they appeared to be floating as if in mercury, and the phosphorescent waves frothed and sparkled as they splashed against their skin.

Upstream, below a cliff that was blanketed in pampas grass, they caught sight of a stretch of white rock as flat as a sports ground, jutting out to the line of the river. A number of people nearby seemed to be excavating or burying something as they stood up and stooped down with some sort of tool glinting from time to time in their hands.

'Let's go take a look,' said the two boys nearly in unison as they ran for the cliff.

A shiny smooth ceramic nameplate stood at the entrance to the area of white rock...

THE PLIOCENE COAST

Slim iron handrails had been planted in spots on the opposite bank, with lovely wooden benches sitting in the sand.

'Hey, I found something weird,' said Campanella puzzled, stopping to pick up what looked like a long narrow black walnut with a pointy end.

'It's a walnut! Look, they're all over the place, probably carried along by the river. They're in the rock too!'

'They're big for walnuts. This one's twice as big as normal. And this one's in perfect shape.'

'Let's go over where the people are right now. I bet they're digging up something or other.'

The two boys went ahead carrying their jaggedy black walnuts. To their left the ripples glowed softly against the water's edge like graceful lightning, while to their right the stalks of pampas grass, as if fashioned of silver or mother-of-pearl, covered the cliff face, swaying and rolling.

Once close enough to get a good look, they saw a tall scholarly man in boots and terribly thick glasses writing busily in a notebook. He was quite beside himself giving instructions to three assistants who were swinging pickaxes or shovelling with scoops.

'Don't break up that protuberance, use a scoop, a scoop! Watch out, dig around it first. No, not that way! No, no, be gentle with it, will ya?'

A massive white-boned beast protruded from the soft white rock. A good half of it had already been excavated. It was on its side, broken into fragments. The rock itself had been carefully carved out into some ten numbered s quares which bore two cloven hoof prints.

'You fellows here to inspect?' asked the scholarly man, twinkling his glasses at Giovanni and Campanella. 'You saw all those walnuts, didn't you? They'd be somewhere in the neighbourhood of, oh, 1,200,000 years old, I'd say . Not very old, when you come down to it. This place here was a coastline some 1,200,000 years back, during the later Tertiary Period. Plenty of shells under here too. Saltwater ebbed and flowed here where the river is now. Now, take this beast here. We geologists call it a "boss"...hey, you, put down that pick! Can't you be more careful and use a chisel? This boss was the ancestor of today's cow. This place, I'd say, would've been literally crawling with them.'

'Are you going to display him in a museum?'

'No, we need him as evidence. You see, we know this place is a magnificent thick stratum, and we've got all the proof we need that it was formed 1,200,000 years ago. But some others don't see it in that light, claiming that it might be just wind, water or empty sky. Follow? However...hey, you, don't use your shovel on that! There's bound to be a set of ribs buried under there.'
The professor scurried over to the dig.

'It's time,' said Campanella, checking his wristwatch with the map. 'Let's go.'

'Well, I am afraid that we must take our leave,' said Giovanni, bowing formally to the professor.

'Must you? Well, goodbye.'

And having said this, he started running helter-skelter about, supervising things right and left.

As for the boys, they ran for their lives back over the white rock so as not to miss the train. They found themselves running just like the wind without skipping a single breath or getting hot sore knees.

If we can run like this, we can run anywhere in the whole wide world!
That's what Giovanni thought as they passed the river bed...the light on the ticket gate grew gradually larger and larger...and, in a flash, they were back in their old seats looking out the window at the very place they had been not a moment ago.

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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.