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Rainbow Collector

by Tibor Sekelj

The atmosphere in the third class cabin was suffocating. The smell of sweat hung in the air. With distaste I thought about the many hours of the voyage which still were in front of me.

My co-passengers were lively in the conversations about subjects which didn't even for a moment draw my attention.

Face-to-face from me, at the opposite side of the window, sat a 10-year-old black-eyed girl. On her face, it seemed to me, showed the same boredom which I myself felt.

I decided to talk to her.

Answering my questions Sita told me that she learns in the fourth grade class of elementary school. She likes Geography and dislikes Math. After a few more questions the conversational material was used up. Pause.

I remembered several letters with various countries' postage stamps which I had in my pocket, and wondered whether with them I could entertain the girl.

"Do you collect anything, Sita?"

"Collect? ... No, I don't collect anything," she answered.

Silence. I began to search for another subject to sustain the conversation.

"Do you collect anything, sir? What do you collect?"

Her frontal attack caught me unprepared.

I really was a veteran collector of everything imaginable. But so as not to complicate the matter, I wanted to say something simple, such as stamps or picture postcards. However after a moment that seemed to me an unworthy banality. For just a bit I was ready to confess to her the secret of my life: I collect adventures! But that seemed too abstract. She certainly wouldn't be able to understand that.

For several seconds I stared through the window in meditation. Because we sat in the first car of the train, I could clearly see the puffs of steam being from under the locomotive. The sunlight became broken in the steam and formed a semi-circle belt of rainbow around it.

"Rainbow!" I cried in admiration.

"What?... Do you collect rainbows?" asked my inquisitor with eyes open wide.

"What?... Yes, of course, hmm, rainbows. Is there something strange about that?"

Sita didn't know whether to believe me or not. Secretly she checked my face to discover if a joking smile could be found. But a joking smile was not there.

"And how do you collect them?" she finally courageously demanded?

The wheels of the car with monotonous beat accented the suffocating atmosphere of the cabin. The rainbow around the steam raced with the locomotive before my eyes.

"How do I collect them? Simply. Wherever I see one, I put it into my collection... of course, only if I don't already have another similar."

The black eyes of Sita fixedly regarded me. They waited. They awaited some serious discovery.

"Because rainbows can be, as you of course know, of very many types...

"The first to enter my collection was a very ordinary rainbow. I saw it, when I was almost five years old. Breathlessly I stared at the multi-colored miracle. It seemed so near!

"My brother, seeing my admiration, said: 'The one who manages to step under the rainbow, will forever in live fulfill all of his desires.' He seemed to speak seriously. Even for a moment I didn't doubt the truth of his statement.

"Wordlessly, as if hypnotized, I began to walk toward the wondrous gate. I hurried through the village street, not taking any notice of the sky, and arriving at the edge of the village I continued the walk through the vast pasture. It seemed to me, that I was rapidly approaching the ark of all successes."

"And did you succeed? Did you pass under it?" asked Sita impatiently.

"No. The sun got lower and lower, and the rainbow became pale until its final disappearance. Only I remained, alone with my unlimited admiration, staring at the sky.

"The sight of that rainbow was so deeply engraved in my mind, that I can say without hesitation that it remains mine. That was my first experience with the ownership of a rainbow. Possession, of course, which no one can take from me, whatever may happen.

"Afterwards came others. One after another they became mine, creating my collection."

Sita sat motionless listening to me. Her father offered her an orange, but she refused it. She was too busy with the story.

"And do you have many rainbows, sir? What kinds are they?"

"Hmm, yes. Not many are in my collection, because... I really haven't taken every rainbow. The ordinary varieties I leave for others, and take only the unusual. For example..."

For a minute I intensely searched in the archive of my memory some outstanding example from my collection. Finally there it was.

"I was in an ancient seaside town in my country. After a rainy morning, the clouds suddenly disappeared and, even before I saw the sun, rainbows appeared in the sky. I said 'rainbows' because there wasn't just one, but two. One above the other. The smaller was clearly visible with colors very intense. One of its sides rested on the ancient roofs of the houses, with the other drowning in the sea. It looked like a symbol expressing the tie between the town and the sea. And the rainbow was right. For many centuries the townspeople were navigators, fishermen, pirates, merchantmen, and seamen on all kinds of ships.

"On this picture, as if making a frame for it, extended the second rainbow, a little bit more pale than the lower one.

"And now, Sita, if you promise not to share this to others, I will tell you a secret."

"I promise" she whispered.

I looked around to make certain that no one was listening to us. Then I got closer to the young girl.

"Imagine," I said, " that the colors of the upper rainbow were reversed. Every good collector knows that the violet and blue are the upper colors, and the red and indigo are found underneath. In this way they are seen in the lower rainbow. But in the upper, the order is reversed, as if it merely mirrored the other."

Sita looked at me with consternation. On her face it was visible that she understood the seriousness of the secret.

"And later?"

"Later... I made a color photograph of the double rainbow, and if someone doesn't believe, I show the picture. Or I say 'Ask Nina. She was there and she can confirm my assertion'.

"But I will give you another sample from my collection," taking back the story, already encouraged by the great interest which the brown-skinned friend showed for my collection.

"It happened in a high mountain range. With several friends I was in a campground, in a little valley between snowy peaks. Because of the altitude all of us felt a bit suffocated, and this kept us from sleeping.

"After a long sleepless hour I decided to leave the tent. Outside I found my friend George, sitting on a stone. While smoking he was observing Nature.

"The night was well lit. The moon, as if it were a huge lantern hung above the nearby glacier, bathing the rocky landscape with a blue mysterious light. The sky was filled with thousands of stars. They all shined and seem so large, such as I've never since seen them. The air was clean because of the thinness and dryness. The visibility was unlimited.

"Quickly two flames appeared above both sides of the moon, supporting themselves on the mountains around the glacier. 'What a strange affair!' exclaimed George, a man with much mountain-climbing experience.

"Before our surprised eyes the two flames started to rise, transforming into two columns. Now they curved. Little by little, they formed an arc around the moon. And finally the arc was colored with all colors of the rainbow.

"The spectacle was extraordinarily beautiful. We stood there with held breath, and enjoyed the experience immensely.

"Later I learned that only a few people in the world have ever seen a similar phenomenon. Of course, I am very proud to have this rarity in my collection."

Little Sita breathlessly listened to me. She swallowed my every word.

"Tell me some more, sir," she said in a voice, when I paused.

Then I continued.

"But in my collection are found not only rarities, but even truly valuable examples. I will present to you the most valuable of all of my rainbows. The most expensive, so to say.

In a far-off land I visited several times what was at one time the imperial palace, which now has been transformed into a museum. All of the rooms were open. Only one tiny room, in which the crown of the emperor was guarded, was opened only by special request of the visitors. After the necessary formalities, the guard unlocked the door, and I entered. Now I stood en a small room, empty and without decoration. 'What is going to happen?' I asked myself. But the answer had already come.

"Out of the floor, in the middle of the room, rose a rectangular column. When it rose to the height of our chests, quickly the metal sides of the chest on the top of the column opened, letting free a glass case. In it was the crown.

"Yes, truly, there it was, before our eyes, the gold crown of the emperor, full of bright jewels. The most beautiful rubies and sapphires were arranged one next to the other, along with several pearls of a size never seen."

"What a feast for the eyes!"

"But the most valuable jewel was on the front of the crown. It was a diamond brilliant as large as a walnut. Never did I even dream about anything similar. Already I don't remember whether its name was 'Kohinor' or 'Orlov', or something else, but I am certain that it is one of the largest brilliants existing in the world.

"Suddenly something unexpected happened. Through a small hole in the colored curtain which covered the window, sunlight entered and touched the crown. It touched precisely the gigantic diamond. Just then hundreds of delicate rays of rainbows covered the walls and the ceiling of the little room. Suddenly we really weren't in an undecorated, gray, little room. We stood in the middle of a luxurious salon with a hundred little rainbows which greatly increased the size of the area, and created the right atmosphere for the observation of the imperial crown.

"Here, Sita, this is the most valuable of my rainbows. I must confess to you, that for me it is more valuable than if I were to possess the brilliant itself. Because having the jewel, I would always fear that someone would steal it away from me. Besides, possibly never would I succeed again to create such a rich collection of rainbows."

"Truly, mister, I believe that you are very rich! I envy you."

"Oh, don't say that," I refused the flattery with a modest smile. "Maybe someday also you will be able to your own collection, and become even richer than I.

"But don't believe," I continued after a brief pause, "that all rainbows in my collection are valuable. There are also some in it which I collected only because of their strangeness. Among them, for example, is a comical one."

"Comical? How can a rainbow be funny? Please tell me, sir."

"Here is how it happened. I was sleeping in the same room with my parents. It was an early summer morning. Through the screen in front of the window penetrated some sunlight, which flooded the room with a mild, orange glow. I was lying on my back. Suddenly I noticed on the ceiling some colored stripes. After a bit of observation I realized that it was a real rainbow, in which had been drawn a row of peaks, somehow blocking parts of several colors.

I got curious. I looked around, searching for the source of the strange rainbow, but didn't succeed in discovering it. The search of the furniture for a toothed edge was fruitless. For a long time I lay sleepless, thinking.

"After a time my mother awoke. And then everything changed.

"As her first move she stretched out her arm to the night table, and out of the glass of water she took her false teeth. During that operation the rainbow disappeared from the ceiling. Right afterward it reappeared vigorously wavering, but, without the series of peaks. Here was the solution to my puzzle: a comical rainbow created in a glass of water and bordered by false teeth!"

My co-passenger had started to laugh before the end of the story. She guessed the end and it amused her. Now we laughed together.

"Sir," began the girl after a moment. "I would like to collect rainbows."


"Oh yes, I would like that... But how to start? To you it was easy to begin, as you have a brother!"

"How to start? Yes, that is a problem," I said thoughtfully. "Nevertheless, I have an idea, Sita. Look through the window."

We leaned out through the window, and I pointed to the rainbow, which still faithfully accompanied the steampuff under the locomotive. When Sita noticed it, she from excitement.

"Does it please you, Sita?... Do you believe that it would be suitable to begin your collection?"

"It is beautiful. I would like to start with it. But how?"

"Here is how. We should exchange seats, so that only you can see it. I promise to no longer look out at it through the window, and because the sun will soon set, you will be the last who will see it. It will then remain only yours. The first in your collection."

"You are very kindhearted, sir. But this beautiful rainbow will therefore be missing from your collection."

I lightly waved my hand before my face:

"Oh, don't worry, friend, I don't need it. I already have a similar one in my collection."

For a half hour Sita fixedly watched through the window. On her face, intense concentration was visible. Yes, the process of the possession of the first rainbow always is accompanied by mental convulsions, even occasionally from physical pains.

Quickly the Sita's father pulled her by the arm. We were coming to the station where they had to leave the train. We said goodbye. My little friend shined with happiness.

Since then, during voyages I always look out through the window of the train. I would really like once more to see that kind of rainbow, to put it into my collection.