GIOVANNI'S TICKET

Continued.

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.'

'Yeah.'

'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.'

To Main Page Chapter 9 Part 3


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