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 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.

'Hallelujah! Hallelujah!'

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.'

'That's okay.'

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.'

'Why? When?'

'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.


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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.