A few years ago, I was travelling through Italy in train. I passed the foggy and busy Milan, then twisted and turned in the mounts of Liguria, all covered with blossoming rose bougainvilles, and marveled at the sea glittering in the sun. Outside the window, soon, appeared the slender silhouettes of the hills of Tuscany, their dark cypresses cutting the sky like arrowheads. From a distance, I could see the red roofs of Florence, the beautiful and superb city of Dante, Petrarca, Michelangelo, Machiavel, and de’ Medicis…
The night was falling over the fields of sunflowers, “maddened by the sun”, as Montale said, and some snoring sounds began to interfere with the rocking song of the rails. The train had slowed down, yet It had still a long way to go before reaching Rome. A creaking voice suddenly croaked from the top of the corridor, announcing to the passengers that, for a technical complication, the train had to stop for an hour or two. However, we could get off for a while, if we wanted. Just make sure that you don’t go too far. When the train would be ready to start again, we would hear the sharp cry of the whistle. Some groaned, some didn’t even listened to it, some were already sound asleep, and four men from Naples began to play cards, laughing dimly, chatting and eating large slices of homemade, delicious pies.
I decided to stretch my legs outside and walk a bit in the surrounding fields. The strong scent of grass hit me first, then it was the song of the crickets. There were no lights, but the red ones of the train doors, and just the thin ghost of the moon. I glanced at the black velvet of night and was merged in ocean of stars. Breathtaking.
Living in a big city, I do not see many stars, if not the belt of Orion, sometimes, or a pale planet, maybe Venus or Mars, suspended in a violet and hollow sky, lost among the gray roofs and TV aerials.
Now, there were thousands and thousands of them, an endless flock of shining dots, and I thought of the poor manager in the Little Prince, who endlessly counted the stars to feel rich. Some of them are older than our Earth, and the light that I could see at that time was spread years and years ago into the universe. It was a spectacular vision of the past, somehow, or even of eternity. Do they ever get tired to shine, as Pessoa asked in one of his poems?
I wondered if I could recognize the constellations and suddenly understood the sense of awe that ancient men must have felt in front of the night. For the Greeks, the night sky was full of divine loves, adventures, bravery and legends. Almost each human passion had left a trace above and received its stellar transfiguration.
Here was Orion, the beautiful hunter loved by the proud Artemis, and tragically killed by her in a contest with Apollo, his brother, who wanted to revenge the death of his nephew, Aktaeion. There is the Great Bear, once the lovely nymph Kallisto, and his son Arkadios, the Little Bear, both changed into stars to avoid the fatal and mistaken matricide. My three-years old nephew calls it the Big Frying-pan… and yeah, he’s quite right. It almost looks like a frying-pan ready to make fly some pancakes.
Eyes squinted, I found, almost at the horizon, Aldebaran, the brightest star of the Taurus, and up on his tail, the Pleiads. Once upon a time, Zeus, to seduce Europe, a priestess of Hera, transformed himself in a bull and eloped with her through the sea… Then appeared a dawning Virgo, once the faithfull Erigone, collateral victim of the first human drunkards. Next to her, the inventive Boote, first man to build a chariot and labour the soil… And the three-starred Aries, the divine sheep with golden fleece that saved Frixos and Helle from the murderous intentions of their awful mother-in-law : They were flying on his back towards the mysterious and savage Colchid, when Helle looked under her shoulder and, taken by a sudden vertigo, sadly fell and drowned in the sea, that received therefore her name, Hellespont. Centuries after, twelve adventurous men leaded by Jason would come to Colchid on their great ship Argo, seeking for the golden fleece…
In his Theogony, grandiose epopee of the advent of the Gods, Hesiod tells the tale of Pandora, the curious woman that opens the jars of diseases and morbid thoughts kept by his thoughtless husband, Epimetheus (“the one that thinks afterwards”). As she accomplishes that dire deed, the golden age of men ends for ever. Man, from this day on, will be vulnerable to death, pain, illness, sadness, illusion. Only Hope still clings with its tiny fingers on the mouth of the jar, in the olympic heights. I never really understood this passage : if Hope is not on earth, then there would be no salvation for us? Or Hope, by saving its divine nature and smiling from above, can elevate men beyond their mortal being? Mh, I may prefer this less pessimistic interpretation.
Like the ambiguous poem of Emily Dickinson :
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chilliest land
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
A whistle sounds its barbaric shriek over the roofs of the world. I guess it’s time to stop wondering and getting on the train, before it leaves without me.
“I am the passenger, la la la la la… the sky is made for us tonight“