Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By Davide Risso

The first time I glimpsed it, we were in Valles, a village in the Dolomites with more cows than people. An impressive cloud of white smoke was blowing from a green chimney. That was all I could see. The rest was hidden by the pine trees.

I kept staring at it. All throughout that afternoon and in the evening that followed.

What was it? Why was I drawn to it like I was?

When I asked Mom, she made a pinched face, like De Niro’s famous expression, but then she followed my finger and understood. She looked to Dad, who shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “she asked you, not me!” And Mom sighed. “That’s a steam train, Emily.”

“But steam trains whistle. And they don’t just stand around all day!”

She took a long, almost theatrical, pause. “Well, this one is different. It’s waiting for a special person. It might take years to find the right one but when it does, it will know. That’s when it whistles.”

As she took Dad’s hand, I thought about that. Why would a train need a special person?

After that, the first thing I would do when back in Valles was to look for the steam. Summer after summer, the majestic puff of smoke. Eggshell white. It was always there. In the mornings, when instead of my rooster alarm clock, the bells hanging from the cows’ necks would wake me up. During the day, as we hiked through the mountains. And in the evenings, when my parents would drink Pinot Grigio and I’d eat pizza with French fries scattered on top, which I was only allowed on special occasions.

At first, it made me happy, the same sort of happiness I felt when watching The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, my favorite movie: even though I knew the plot by heart, I still looked forward to the wardrobe scene. But the more time passed, the more I grew confused and disappointed.

When I was eighteen, I returned with Paul, a singer in a rock band. It was magical. We foraged mushrooms and made-up silly songs about the train (we named one “Locomotive Breath”), which we sang in our tent until two in the morning. But once back to York, he grew detached. After he left me, I returned to Valles, but it wasn’t the same. The journey was suddenly too long, and the steam train resembled the rain on a summer’s afternoon: an unwanted surprise.

Luke, Craig, and Gordon followed, along with many others whose names I can’t remember. Trapped between the thrill of the chase and the search for a comforting relationship, I couldn’t make any of them work. And the more I searched, the more I stopped longing for the steam. Its color, once of an immaculate silvery white, now had shades of grey. It camouflaged with the surrounding clouds, like a layer of dust on an old piece of furniture.

Then, early in my forties, I met Stephen, a somewhat known writer. I thought I had finally found the One. We had chemistry, an intellectual connection more powerful than any physical appeal. In Valles, since we felt too old to sleep on the ground, we got a bungalow with a nice porch, and spent our time reading, talking, and playing cards. Little did I know that he was secretly texting with a younger, more attractive woman.

After that, Valles seemed to shrink. With its wood and stone houses, it reminded me of Hobbiton from The Lord of the Rings. But even in Hobbiton they didn’t have steam trains that stood there year after year, alone and lonely.

When I turned fifty, I remember asking myself, “Is there something wrong with it? Is there something wrong with me?” I’d stopped looking for love by then. And eventually, I stopped going to Valles as well. Who cares if the train has found its someone if I can’t find mine. What’s the point of returning to that Middle-Earth, a fantastic place but with no one to share it with?

Now my hair is grey, my forehead wrinkled, and I use a walking cane. But I am holding my husband’s hand, sitting on a plane headed to Italy. I met Pieter a couple of months ago, when he held the door open for me at the post office before getting stuck in the queue. The more he talked, the more I wanted to run away, knowing that something deep down (some call them butterflies) had awoken. But I couldn’t help it and, just like that, he got my hopes up again.

Our friends told us we were too old to get married, but who cares. We tied the knot in a small chapel. And now we are here, celebrating our engagement, my heart racing as we approach the village, which resembles the place of my childhood once again.

I see the pizza place, still open. Thump-thump.

The cows, with their bells. Thump-thump.

But no steam. Thump-thump, thump-thump.

“Is this the right spot?”, “Was the steam ever here?”, I wonder. Closing my eyes, unable to stand the view of the clear blue sky, I hear the people around me saying “Ciao ciao,” almost shyly at first, but then they unify into a rhythmical, high-pitched “Choo choo!” and I smile, realizing what this means. When I open my eyes, Pieter is standing quietly next to me. He takes my hand and leads me to a building covered by ivy, with a sign saying: “Valles sawmill and burning plant”. I almost ask him why I would be interested in such a derelict building but then I see it: a tall, green chimney. We look at each other and start laughing so hard it makes us cry.


Davide Risso grew up in Italy, but his itchy feet led him to live in Ireland, Germany, the United States, and travel around the globe. Scientist by training, writer by passion, rock climber by vocation, his fiction has appeared in Flash Fiction MagazineRumbleFish PressCARIE, and RISME.

Leave a Reply

Related Posts