GIOVANNI'S TICKET

'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!'

To Main Page Chapter 9 Part 2


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