Bridge to Global Literature

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Trains— Francesca Diano

Dec 31, 2022 | Fiction | 1 comment

Translated from the Italian by Laura Valeri 


I don’t know you. I don’t.

You’re reading, holding papers in your hand typed with who knows what. Who uses typewriters nowadays? Don’t you have a PC?

Every now and then, you lift your eyes, aware that I’m looking at you. Then I realize that I’ve been staring at you for a bit too long, and I pretend to look elsewhere. But I know that you know that I’m only deflecting temporarily.

Who are you? Your hair… like hers. Straight, brown, and long. Even her style. You wear a maroon tweed jacket and a beige suede skirt, but your blouse is fiery red which tells me that you don’t love anything too expected or obvious. Just like her…

Venezia-Bologna. I could not have imagined that I would meet you on this train today. My stop is Ferrara . Yours? Will you keep going, and will I never see you again?

I have to talk to you. I want to. I am about to… But just as I am about to tell you that you look like her, I freeze. You would think me mad. Besides, that’s not quite right. It’s not right to say that you resemble her. Not physically, anyway.

I notice you looking at the book in my hands. You are trying to read the title, but I don’t want you to succeed. I want you to ask me about this book. The colors of the cover make you curious. Do you like colors? I think so, yes. It’s in how you dress, and how you wear your makeup.

I like your lips. Soft, full, and intensely red. I want to kiss them, bite them. I would like them to be mine, your lips.

Do you hear me? Can you hear what I’m thinking?

What about you? What are you thinking? I see how you look at me. Half glances, fleeting and vague, never meet my eyes. Are you afraid to let me know that you’re curious about me? Maybe you, too, would like to talk to me. What would you ask me? If I asked you your name, would you lie? I would like to hear your name on your lips.

Her name was Piera. But you don’t look like a Piera. She was more angular than you. Not as melancholy. She did not have that fine but determined line that crosses your forehead horizontally. She was clear-headed, without a worry in the world. You, on the other hand, seem so serious. Maybe that’s why I don’t ask what your name is, or what you wrote on those papers, and it’s why I don’t arrange my book so you can read the title. I think that you would freeze. Probably, in your head, you still hear your mother’s warnings: Don’t talk to strangers! Yes. Something like that. You definitely had a mother who told you that sort of thing. And that message is still there, trapped in that wrinkle.

What’s on those typed sheets? Nobody uses typewriters anymore. Why do you do it? Because it’s obvious that you wrote those pages. You hold them in your hands like they’re yours.

Maybe you hate computers. Like me. They keep telling me how convenient it is to be able to erase and rewrite without having to throw away page after page, but I still write by hand. The time it takes a hand to move is important. From the heart to the mind, to the fingers, to the page. That’s how it works.

I am certain that you think so, too.

Rovigo . You didn’t get off. I was worried that you might, but you didn’t. I’m relieved. Maybe you will get off in Ferrara, like me. But I don’t think you’re from Ferrara. I would know it.

You know, there is a little courtyard in Ferrara—it’s really a square, but it’s a courtyard to me, a hortus conclusus without plants—and I think you would like it there. I don’t know why, but an image flashed suddenly in my mind of you in that courtyard next to a man dressed in black. He’s tall, lanky, and severe-looking. He’s older than you. You are also dressed in black. You are younger than you are now, but your face is gray with melancholy resignation as if you no longer have any expectations in life. As if life killed you. There is also a coach; you are about to get onto that coach, and you turn around. I don’t know what you’re looking at. I meet your eyes directly and I shiver, frozen. Yet the image is motionless, like a still frame.

Why this image? What does it mean? Who knows… at times I have flashes like these, I can’t explain.

Now it’s obvious to you that I’m looking at you. That I am looking right at you.

Something unexpected! You smiled! Not at me, but with your face turned to the window. You smiled because you realized I was looking at you. You are not embarrassed; you’re amused. Your face changes when you smile. You look younger, and your eyes are longer and narrower. But I’m sure you weren’t thinking about something else. A pleasant memory, a joke, maybe… but no. You smiled because I’ve been staring at you for some time, and maybe you know what I’m thinking. Maybe not. Maybe you think I just want to chat, or that I am one of those types who want to hook up on a train. You cannot imagine that you remind me of her, like a water reflection. Not in appearances, like I said. But in everything else. Something you exude. I know that it sounds strange to say it, or think it.

But you are you. Of course. At first, when I saw you get onboard looking for an empty seat, I felt it hit me in the heart. Like it shattered into a thousand pieces. Like glass. Obviously, it’s impossible. Because my heart is already in pieces.

It was like seeing her here again, near me. I wished for you to sit right where you sat. She always used to tell me that my heart is made of glass. Cold, transparent, fragile. That is how she was able to shatter it into a thousand pieces.

You didn’t notice, thank goodness. I think I stared at you in a trance.

You can’t know. Or even sense it.

The last time I saw her, after our last argument, her lips had a cruel slant to them that I’d never seen. We fought often by then. She was annoyed by anything that I did, and she didn’t understand that I was trying to please her in every way I could. She was annoyed by the curl in my hair if I let it grow a little longer than usual. She was annoyed by the way I ate, or by how I unfolded the newspaper in the morning. She was annoyed even when I gave her a kiss before going out. If I reached out to touch her, she would flinch. She never expressed her annoyance directly, but I could read it in her face. She squinted her eyes, tightened her lower lip as if I disgusted her, and I felt ever more lonely.

When the conductor came, you shook yourself as if from a dream. You looked immersed in thoughts that I can’t know. I would like to enter inside your mind and learn how it works, and what weighs on it. Because I understand that something is weighing on you and it keeps your heart heavy. You sighed when you opened your wallet, and as you pulled out your ticket. You gave it to the conductor with a distant look, and with a distant gesture, you took it back and put it away.

I know, now, where your stop is. You asked what time the train arrives in Bologna . So then, I will get off before you. And maybe I won’t ever see you again. Ever. Like with Piera. I never saw her again, either. But this situation with you, this I can change. The only thing I would need to do is to share a word with you. I could ask you if you’re interested in my book and show it to you. Then we could start to talk and then—maybe—there would be an afterward. After all, there is still a little time. Things can change.

But no. You don’t look like the type who would give away her phone number or who would accept a date this way. No. I’m afraid not. If I didn’t have a five o’clock appointment—half an hour from now—I would not get off this train. I would go all the way to Bologna, and I would follow you. Do you live there? Or maybe you’re going there for a reason? And what if on the return trip, I got on the train with you?

What am I thinking… what am I saying…

It’s not just because you resemble her, though. There is something in you that I would not want to miss. I would like to be able to tell you that your face, your expression, and the way you tilt your head while you read have made me feel something that I thought was long forgotten. That is how it usually goes, isn’t it? We feel things, and troubles, and then we forget them. Until someone reawakens them inside of us. That is when we realize that we have not forgotten those things at all. That they were always there, present, merely sleeping. Then, maybe, it’s not that someone makes us feel those things, but that we search for that someone who can reawaken them inside us.

Yet, it’s never quite the same. It seems new every time. The person that we have before us at that moment and that becomes our own echo, looks different from whomever we knew before, and we desire to be near them, near their voice, their energy. We feel as though we cannot live without their presence, taking it in until it becomes the shape that we mold ourselves into from the inside. 

I heard your voice. When you talked to the conductor. You haven’t heard mine. Yours is warm and deep. But it has a crack that’s almost dissonant. As if, for you, too, something broke inside of you. Something that can no longer be healed.

I wish that voice would tell me what is written on those sheets, and that it would ask me for the title of my book.

I would tell you that I wrote it myself. My name is on the cover. There, I will hold it so that you can see. Look, please, look. If you see it, then you will know my name. Even if you won’t know, can’t imagine that it’s me. There are crystals on the cover. It’s a beautiful cover. I chose the picture of those crystals myself.

I’m a geologist. Used to probing the depth of the earth and the nature of crystals. Do you know that crystals aren’t motionless, as some may think? No, they are not dead things, and their shape does not remain the same forever. It’s just that their movement is so slow, and their formation so removed from our perceptions that to us humans they seem as if they are fixed in their shape forever. But they are living beings. They form in the dark—their beauty is not meant to be seen. 

There is a beauty that must not be disturbed, not even for contemplation. There is a beauty that can only be contemplated unseen. Maybe you know this.

Yes, I believe you do. The way your look gets lost over a countryside that runs by so fast as to be invisible tells me that you, too, have understood this fundamental thing. 

Do you know why it’s fundamental? I understood this with Piera. I didn’t want to lose her, and I lost her exactly because I wanted to keep her still, like a crystal. And I forgot that even crystals aren’t still. I wanted to destroy her by crystallizing her. Like those images that every once in a while flash before my eyes. I did not understand her personal sense of time.

You—I feel it—have the same personal sense of time. And I know that I would not be able to access it. You would not let me. It’s painful. But that’s how it is.

I might change it, maybe. I might try. Talking to you. After all, the worst that could happen is that you wouldn’t answer, or that you’d give one-word answers. Too bad, but I would have tried.

There, I see that you’re peeking at the cover of my book! I see that it draws your curiosity. Maybe you’re about to ask me something. I feel that you are drawn to the image of the geode sparkling with amethyst crystals inside.

Beauty hidden within a dull stone. The spark of the amethyst’s violet light will reveal itself only if you split the rock into halves.

That’s how I lost Piera. I knew what was inside her. But I could not stand that she would keep it inaccessible. I could not stand to wait. So I froze. I shut down. I was the one who became inaccessible. I wanted her to split into halves. To break open. Because I could not tolerate being left out of what was inside her that she kept hidden from me. She did warn me, after all: “You will lose me if you don’t stop. Don’t you understand that I’m not one of your rocks?” But I did not stop. And I didn’t want to understand. Hard, like my stones, but not perfect like them.

They say that beauty is cruel. I learned that thirsting for beauty makes us cruel. To want to possess beauty makes us cruel, and then we kill beauty. In others. In ourselves. Beauty is slight. Delicate. Fleeting. Ungraspable. It’s an idea. A breath that passes over the world and for an instant gives it life. But it cannot be seized. It cannot be crystallized. It dissolves the very moment you think it’s yours. And if you don’t understand this, it will destroy you.

So, how could I tell you that I want you? That I would like to know you. That I would like to know your thoughts. That I would like to learn your name, which I have never spoken. Your name, for me—I feel it—will have to remain forever silent. An amethyst druse hidden inside its dull, greenish husk. You—I can feel it—will not break open.

In a few minutes, I will get off this train. My station is near. Yours still isn’t. It’s likely that I will never see you again. You will never know, never understand, that this is my offering to you. My gift to you. Maybe, if I were less of a coward, I would talk to you. I would tell you all this. Maybe we would become lovers or partners in life. Maybe nothing would happen. You might look at me like one looks at a crazy person and you’d speak in one-word answers. 

When Piera left me for my best friend, when both of them left my life—yes, like that, like in vaudevilles and dramas—for two years I could not get out of my house. I wanted to bury myself like a corpse inside the earth. I know the depth of the earth. The earth keeps no secrets from me, and for me, it breaks open. But the earth didn’t want me. After the car accident—my car reduced to a mass of crumpled metal, a month in the hospital, alive by miracle—I understood. 

Now, I live. I’m alive. Because the accident happened while I was chasing Piera’s car. She realized it. She sped up and passed a truck. She crashed against a Mercedes coming in the opposite direction. I swerved and went off the road.

I don’t know why I swerved. It was as if in that infinitesimal fraction of a second that separated me from death I understood suddenly that wanting to die made no sense.

And instinctively, I swerved. But it wasn’t just instinct.

Only after I left the hospital, I learned that she had died.

I no longer drive a car. I walk or take the train.

I don’t use my heart anymore.

I’m coming back from a conference, where I gave a talk on refraction, crystallization, iridescence, and luminescence.

Did you know that there are crystals that give off their own light? It can only be seen in the dark. It was in the dark that I understood.

Therefore, I will get off now. What I am feeling will remain crystallized deep within me. It will stay there. What I’ve seen in you cannot be brought out to the light.

A crystal shines even if no one sees it.

I leave you with only my glance.

You are seated on the train, motionless in your window seat. You follow me with a questioning look as I move under the station’s canopy and I look at you. I bury my crystallized gaze inside you.

Also, read a Hindi story by Indira Dangi, translated into English by Vishaal Pathak, and published in The Antonym

New Colony— Indira Dangi

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Francesca Diano is a poet, award-winning writer, literary translator, and consultant for leading Italian publishers. Diano is the recipient of a Premio Teramo prize in short stories, one of the most prestigious Italian literary awards. In 2022, she was also awarded the Premio Jole Santelli, an award for distinguished Southern Italian women writers. She is the author of a short story collection titled Fiabe D’Amor Crudele (Tales of Cruel Love) with Edizioni La Gru, and a novel titled La Strega Bianca—una storia irlandese (The White Witch: An Irish Tale), published by Carteggi Letterari Edizioni. Her collection of poetry, Bestiario, illustrated by Patrizia da Re, was published by Nerocromo Edizioni. An accomplished scholar and the daughter of the renowned Italian philosopher Carlo Diano, Francesca Diano is also a consulting editor of a scholarly edition of her late father’s Collected Works published by Bompiani, in Italy, and consulting editor of her father’s edition of Epicurus’ works with Fordham University Press. She lives in Padua with her two daughters and is at work on a new novel.

Laura Valeri obtained her MFA in creative writing from Florida International University and her second MFA in Fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is the author of three story collections and, most recently, a book of linked memoir essays titled After Life as a Human (Rain Chain Press) which was nominated for a Georgia Author Award in memoir. Laura Valeri’s fiction, essays, and translations appear most recently in Griffel, Hunger Mountain, The Bangalore Review, The Account, (mac)ro(mic), Litro, and others. She is the recipient of numerous literary prizes and nominations, including the John Simmons Award and the John Gardner Award in fiction. Valeri is the founding editor of Wraparound South, a literary journal of Southern literature, and she teaches creative writing in the undergraduate writing program at Georgia Southern University.

1 Comment

  1. Francesca Diano

    Thank you for sharing! And thanks to my very brilliant translator, Laura, who is a great writer herself.


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