Acquainted with Grief

chapters 3 and 5
in the translation by W. Weaver

chapter 3

Questioned by the doctor, he listed his recent sufferings, the usual ones. The doctor shook his head and said he wanted to examine him. They went up to the bedroom floor, he first. They entered a large room, the walls covered with yellowish paint, where two windows, one bright, opened over the locusts, the cicadas, and two beds. The mountains of the north could be seen. The ceiling was almost black, with beams and planks varnished with linseed oil in a smoky hue, as was the custom in Spain once upon a time.

The son freed himself of his jacket, stretched out on the near bed, his – very white of blanket, like the other, and of solid walnut – so that the termite could be heard creaking with difficulty, with a hard and brief turn, like a corkscrew, after weary intervals. On that monastic whiteness the long body and the eminence of the belly created an image of chief engineer decently deceased, except for the flush of the face, and also the gaze and the breathing, which prevailed over the heavy immobility of the head, which sank a little into the pillow, white and swollen, all flounces. Its neat coolness immediately ennobled the forehead, the hair, the nose: one would have thought of a mask, to be turned over to the plaster-cast museums of posterity. It was instead the face of the only living male Pirobutirro who looked at the beams of the ceiling – horizontals against white.

The two tapering shoes, shiny, very black, looked like two black peppers, though upside down and pointed. Moving his long, white hands in the buttonholes and the braces, the dead man prepared for auscultation. From the wall opposite, between the windows, in a walnut frame the corruscating gaze of General Pastrufazio in a daguerreotype looked out. He dominated, head and shoulders, the semi-darkness, with his poncho and two tips of a South American kerchief on his left shoulder, and on his head that cap, somewhere between a homely head covering and a doge’s hat, cylindrical; he was adorned all around with scrolls of gold thread in patterns of tendrils, rare acorns, filigree. The hero’s blond hair, bleached many years before in the bath of fixative, flowed harmoniously to the shoulders and, once there, turned gently in a very noble roll, so that it seemed made by Andrea Mantegna or Giovanbellini: like a page of the Estes or of the Montefeltros come to the pampas, and to the years of flags and muskets. He was well past fifty, both cheeks and the nether lip were thickened with a male generosity of hair; he showed a plebeian and ancient vigour – hardened in the vastness of his wars and overflowing from the frames of his portraits.

The examination was «conscientious». The doctor touched the engineer at length, and even with both hands, as if to squeeze the guts out of him: he seemed a washerwoman enraged with her laundry, at the bank of a little pond; then, having let go of the tripes, he listened to him everywhere for a bit, jumping here and there with his head – that is, with one ear – pricking him and tickling him with his beard. Then he put the stethoscope to his heart and his apexes, the apexes both before and behind. He alternated his auscultation with digital percussion and digitodigital, both the bronchia and the lungs as well as, again, the belly. He said «Turn over», and then, «Turn back again». In listening to him from the back when he was sitting on the bed and all bent forward, with the smell and the folds of his belly between his femurs, to split the stomach, and his face between his knees, his shirt thrown over his head as if by a gust of wind, or else stretched out prone, half-crooked, underpants and trousers with no nexus then, at times the doctor seemed to be communicating his desiderata to him by telephone: he made him take deep breath after deep breath. And the engineer lent himself to this exercise with good grace, his face between his knees.

With that, the examination came to an end.

From the open window, the light of the countryside, streaked by that infinite chirping.

The sick man regained his composure, having descended from the bed; his useless figure recovered itself from an outrage not motivated by the facts; the doctor, with a slightly mortified tone, confessed that he had discovered nothing to worry about – he shook his head – nothing, absolutely nothing. He prescribed some Sedobrol cubes, each dissolved in a cup of warm water, a couple of times a day, between meals. Warm water – yes, exactly. Water, water. He became impatient because the engineer asked him a couple of questions like an idiot, or was perhaps absent-minded. In a teacup – why, yes, yes, of course, certainly, to make a nice little broth. The bismuth, if he liked, he could give up.

And the cicadas, populace of the immensity outside, masters of the light, chirped on.

The son thanked him for the suggestion. He took the paper with the prescription from the doctor’s hand, read in a glance the few words written there and the letterhead with the telephone number, and set it on the table that was beyond the beds, at the first window; he weighted it with a polished little polyhedron of ground crystal, all glints. He seemed to have attached no importance to the doctor’s statement or, by now, to the ceremony that had preceded it – indeed, on buttoning his doublet, to have forgotten the sickness – «le mal physique», in this case: the visible sickness.

There was, all the same, something else: his eyes became sad again; gradually his expression changed, as if at the rebirth of a painful thought that had for a moment been dulled; in all his face an alarm could be read, an anguish, which the doctor, privately, didn’t hesitate for a moment to ascribe to «a new seizure of lack of faith in life»: and also, of course, of course, to «the after-effects of the gastric ailment that had so upset him last year». For some time, in any case, he had known the sudden changes of that appearance and of the whole behaviour of his client. His eyes seemed to desire and at the same time to reject every word of comfort. An inscrutable opacity and, one would have said, a general sensory dullness added the note of quiescence in that undistinguished physiognomy: then, all of a sudden, there were distinctions and even unpleasant prominences. The gaze kindled into perspicacity tinged with shyness, into a kind of childish readiness; the speech became animated only to run aground shortly thereafter, as of a man promptly overwhelmed at the harangues of his fellow man. Sometimes the sternness of the inquisition assumed brief tones, sharp, stern, such as would be frightening if they had been supported by a pragmatic superiority of any kind, hatred, wealth, power, authority of office.

At that moment the eyes seemed to signify certainty of poverty, to look with desperate dignity at solitude. The doctor and father, nevertheless, persisted in the opinion that even a shipwrecked man, if one is really determined, can be fished from the waves, from the howling night: the social tissue then intervenes to help, and acts against the cyanosis of the single individual with the never-spent vigour of charity; it operates as artificial respiration, which restores to the prostrate man, after the blue breath of hope, the red warmth of life. The patient remained silent. The doctor thought, therefore, to meet him halfway by risking an invitation, and he did it with that slightly rough though still cordial manner of his: he praised, casually, sticking his head out of the window for a moment, the season and the village: «Days like this! Why, look! It’s a crime to waste them – as you do.» He praised again the mountains, some of which he mentioned by name. Then the bodies of water. Then the climate and the coolness of the Serruchón, zephyrs and balms. Then from the salubriousness of the air he moved up, up, little by little, to the blue of the skies, to the renewed asphalting of the main roads, to the Romans of the past and the Chryslers of the present; until nonchalantly still, and as if by chance, as if speaking to himself, or to a cloud, he finally let himself go and suggested a little drive in the automobile the next day, with his Juana and his Pepa.

«My Pepa will do the driving. You should see her! Everybody says so, for that matter… why, that girl was born at the wheel! But then… you know Pepita well… a devil! A devil in skirts!»

The male descendant of Gonzalo Pirobutirro de Eltino didn’t bat an eyelid: he looked beyond things, beyond the furniture; an inexplicable grief seized his face and, indeed, almost his whole person. He was like those who have a brother or a son: and they see the peaks of the Alp without return smoking, smoking, budding with cumuli, in a distant rumbling. (1) The corkscrew wood-worm did not desist from his progress; after the accumulation of every interval he hastened to remind them of himself.

«All by yourself, reading – or, worse still, writing! But what the devil do you read, after all? What do you write? Your memoirs? Why, wait a while for them and write them when you’re ninety! On days like this, in places like these! Enjoy the air, the light. Move about… walk… become drunk on air, too, like all the others… Look at the others, how they know how to take things philosophically… Borella… Tabacchi… Pedroni…»

These were some recent immigrants, highly expert cultivators of lettuce; of undoubted Aryan stock, if one were to judge by the names. The ecstasy of the villa, each his own, of course, had brought them to that state of unreversible anaesthesia, though rubicund and consoled with celery, which is one of the happiest offspring of a Serruchonese holiday.

From dusk to dawn an unmuzzled dog howled in the happiest of sleep, while the night guard attended to his guarding outside.

«Can’t you see? Days like this? This sunshine? Go, go! And learn to drive, too. Pepa can give you lessons – a devil like her. You’ll see, you’ll see.»

«I believe you, Doctor, and I thank you,» the character rebutted ceremoniously, «but tomorrow morning I have to be again… that is… I could leave at eleven.» His voice died out halfway along its route, between the gullet and the lips. He adduced various engagements that would take him away the very next morning from the peace of the villa (immersed in that marinade of cicadas and light), and deprive him, to his unspeakable regret, of such an auspicated excursion «with your young ladies». He said also, as if to complete the justification, that he felt truly mortified at not knowing how to drive. This was putting his foot in it. The stupidity of that assertion, after the paternal suggestion of driving lessons, would have appeared self-evident to anyone else, less distracted or less awkward than he.

«But as I said before, there’s my Pepa… yes, yes… Pepita. You know her, don’t you? Why, you’ve spoken to her many times!» The Pirobutirro son seemed to be navigating in vagueness; he easily confused the Juanas with the Pepitas, and also with the Teresitas; but more than anything, to terrorize him, there was the mixed salad of Marias and proclitic Marias, namely the Marys, the Mays, the Maria Pias, the Anne Maries, the Marisas, the Luisa Marias, and the Maria Teresas, especially when he discovered they were sisters, five in a bunch, and he had to distinguish them then and there in the hurly-burly of the refreshments, after schematic introductions. «Anyway, I tell you, it doesn’t matter,» the doctor continued. «You can sit there like a king; up front, perhaps, where there’s less jolting, and look at the landscape… and drink it in with all its sweetness… And my Pepa will drive. Don’t you trust my Pepa?»

Oh! Of course! He had complete faith in the «Señorita Pepita». (That onomastic abstraction gave him no way to find his bearings.) He expressed his thanks again, warmly. «But it’s not possible.» He emitted a sigh. He was very worried – almost annoyed. He was very polite. A sense of boredom, of irritation was in his blood: an ineffable anxiety about the turns of the gastric system, where the duodenum lies, like lead: an image of guilt, of fulfillment, in his mien. In his now weary, hooded eye, painful things collected, remote things – too remote from that conversation.

Meanwhile, after twelve enormous strokes, the bells of noon had sent into the hills, beyond the tiles and the smoking of the chimneys, the full uproar of glory. Twelve drops, as if of monstrous bronze, celestial, had gone on falling, one after the other, inexorable, on the shiny leaves of the banzavóis – even if unperceived in the tangle of the asp, soft, tobacco-speckled terror. Overcoming locusts and cicadas and hornbeams and everything, the matrices of sound were flung into self-propaganda, all of a sudden: which burst forth in the infinite blindness of the light. The chirping of the animals of light was submerged in a propagation of bronze waves: they irradiated the sun’s country, the desperate progress of the roads, the great green foliage, infinite laboratories of cholorophyll: five hundred lire of waves, of waves! Five hundred, five hundred! Enough, enough Señor Francisco, but this can’t do any harm – of waves, waves! From the tower: from the stocking-coloured spire, artificer of that Trentine din. Furious Sicinnis, they proffered their entrails and then turned them back against the mountain, in waves, tumult of the Lord made matter, androgynous bacchantes at the municipal libido of every grey-haired offerer. Upturned in folly and shamelessness, they displayed alternately their clappers, like mad heavy pistils, or to the poor man’s hunger, the obstinate inanity of the cervix; and the wheel, at each one’s side, made the pattern more complex; and they were the morning glories of the Enormous Bronze, upset by stormy gusts of madness. Drunk with sound they swung for quite a while in evacuating their glory! glory! glory! with which they were glutted: to spread in every field that clamorous annunciation, of a bit of puchero and of chopped chiquoréa, seasoned with linseed oil.

The two men came out of the bedroom. The doctor seemed unwilling to give up: «… In any case, we’ll wait for you.» He was counting on the extreme value of that statement, on the hypostasis of the fait accompli: «You can do as you wish then.» And the tone this time was the meek tone of the just man, of the weakling who cannot oppose tyranny. «Tomorrow morning at seven, or quarter after… we’re off!» But the hour that, according to folk wisdom, bears gold in its mouth finally exasperated that withdrawing patient, who seemed to be inexplicably alarmed by each more cordial announcement of happiness.

«Half-past seven at the latest… when the Seegrün is still in shadow – you should see! And you’ll be able to discover for yourself, finally, whether or not Pepa can drive… yes or no… and how she drives!…»

They began to go down the steps, slowly, the doctor ahead. He stopped on each step, without turning around, as if conducting a monologue: «You might say that they all know her, on all the roads of the Serruchón! From Iglesia all the way down to Prado, from Novokomi to Terepàttola. A bolt of lightning! You only have to see her arrive. Or perhaps even from a distance, the way she takes a curve so casual, so elegant! Everyone says immediately: “It’s her!”»

A few days before, on the Iglesia road, Señorita Pepina had barely begun (engine turned off) the curve at kilometre 9, when she found Recalcati under her headlights, not to say underfoot: a mountaineer from Iglesuela who was going down to the market with some cheeses and one who was considered a man of character, like all mountaineers in general. In fact, with the empty basket on his back, and at the arrival of a truck loaded with sacks of cement, he suddenly halved for her that easiest of slopes which should have set her down, without wasting a centavo, at the first houses of Prado.

Forced to find a makeshift solution, the girl, as usual, faced it with masterful lucidity. And after the sacrifice of the braking (and her heart clickety-clack down to the heels of her stockings) she still had breath enough to give him yet another little push, Recalcati, with the help of her fender, but so gentle, so well gauged, that she simply deposited her character and his basket beyond the ditch, against the wall of Villa Giuseppina, precise as you please. The strong son of the mountain, after tasting the flavour of the wall, heard the doctor (a different one from Papa, naturally) and heard the magistrate; they immediately saw, all three, that there was no cause – no hubo elemento – to suggest «ni un centavo’s worth of damages»: neither from her, Higueróa Pepita di Felipe y Carlotta Morelli, nor from Señor Bertoloni, the responsible proprietor of the Villa Giuseppina.

«… Muy bien, la muchacha… muy bien… muy bien…» the son muttered to himself, teeth clenched, as he went over the event: as if he were chomping a toothpick. The doctor must have had some suspicion: «Last week… Thursday the twenty-second… you must surely have heard, too… because an hour afterwards everybody knew. It must have been just about five, or five-thirty… after the milestone at the tavern, after the pergola, you know where I mean? It’s the worst curve in the whole arrondimiento… at the Bertolonis’ gate-lodge. Well, I tell you she saved Recalcati’s life… you know, the cheese man.» The son had to permit the cheeses to enter the painful circle of his apperception. This was the world’s baggage, of the world of phenomena – the evolution of a sequence that unravels richly, from time: among the pomps of the subscribed large bell, the oblation (from obfer, obtuli). And the things narrated by time and by souls crumble in the evidence of the day, from their silly limbo: as, from a full cornucopia, a marvellous cataract of almonds, apples, dried figs.

He arranged them as best he could, those wheel-like forms of cheese, in that outrageous field of non-forms: in that caravanserai of impedimenta of every sort: cicadas, onions, clogs, hebephrenic bronzes, paleo-Celtic Josés, Battistinas faithful through the decades, goitre-cretin from birth: all the Acheron of mala suerte that had spilled down from the sense and prescience of his fathers, who could be read there, gay, joyous, in that river of tar, the dear normality of contingency, the healthful ingenuousness of country custom.

And he saw again in joyful relaxation the lovely rural scene of the basket and the fender, a lovely tapestry dream: a Louis Quinze somewhat modernized: «Les quatre saisons. L’été.» All scythes, baskets, crops, cows, peasants: and Pepita coming down on him full-tilt. Oh! that measured and reasonable acceleration inflicted – via behinds – on the lagging step of stubborness!

But everything, in time, became weariness to him, stupidity.

That chat didn’t seem to coalesce. «Besides my girls could give you some driving lessons. Who doesn’t know how to drive, nowadays? Even Manoel Torre’s aunt has learned, that old woman! And how she races! I see her going down to Prado every Saturday, to the market, whenever she needs peas, tomatoes… I’m sure that after three or four lessons you would manage splendidly.» He shrugged. «Don’t you think so?» Then he lowered his voice, as if to share a secret with him: «With your intelligence, with all the mechanical knowledge you have in your head…»

The idea of lessons wasn’t a bad one, poor doctor. «And believe me, you’d enjoy yourself. After all, dear Señor Gonzalo, at that age… they’re full of beans.» The beans, too, were received by the son with a smile: they were brief smiles, circumstantiated, which didn’t carry the conversation a step forward. Reaching the landing, which served also as stair-hallway, they started scraping their shoes on the bricks, both of them, as if to test the paving; the doctor picked up his cane which he had left in a corner.

They went out on to the terrace from which you could look at the summer, to south and west. The bells were silent: the cicadas crammed the immensity, the light. A sense of puchero swallowed at the family table had followed the uniting metal of the liturgy. The terrace was on a level with the little garden behind the house, with which it communicated directly after the sole obstacle of a gneiss step. This triangular garden, flowers with a few vegetables, of minimum extension, with onions and vine, and the fig tree, all coolness and shadow in the morning, allowed anyone to enter the house from behind, pushing the little green-painted iron gate, through which the doctor had entered and was now about to leave. The house sat squarely, white, on the hill, indeed at the peak, facing south, corresponding to the last slope – which made a difference in level of 4.25 metres, the height of one storey. On the front, against the sun, there was an extra floor.

From the terrace the view extended as far as the eye could see, to the distant hills, and then further perhaps, into the sun. It was extinguished at the distant horizons, and at the last smoke of the buildings, barely discernible in the haze; it rested on the villas and the parks, green clumps, ancient, all around the mild and familiar partnership of those little lakes.

They were pale blue, opaque levels, future peat bogs, among the rise of the thousand pleasant accidents of a serene orography, which had known the tread of the Graces. Earth dressed in August; the names, the villages, were scattered there. And it was a land of men and of a people, dressed by their labour.

Both the doctor and the son paused; they went to the railing, summoned by that evidence of life. Everything had to continue and develop, and be fulfilled: all works. The morrow from the ridges of the east peering forth with gilded brows would find things again: as the smith picks up again his hammer from where he left it in the forge. Huddled, intent on looking, the son had both hands on the wooden railing, his arms spread and open like tired wings. He looked sorrowingly. «My mother has aged», he said. Then, with violence: «It’s been years now… I’m in despair.» He uttered these last words as if in a dream: and the hour from a distant spire seemed to signify: «All has been fulfilled.» An extraordinary forewarning like a cruel jest, plunged down on the extracommunal chicken yards that lie in sequence: but not much, not much! And the true hour would then strike, the serious truth: the decree of Lukones beyond appeal. He drew back. The doctor looked at him. Now he had clasped his hands below his belly, as monks hold them, fingers interlaced, as if praying – white, long, a bit thickened at the knuckles: unskilled, it was clear, for any mechanics, or motor, or pump, or dirty task. The face, sad, a bit childish, eyes veiled and filled with sadness, with the nose prominent and fleshy as of a strayed animal (something between the kangaroo and the tapir); he looked beyond the little boundary wall towards the mountain, and the ultramontane blue: perhaps, over there, were the skies and the hermitages, and nothing.

His mother, returning from the cemetery, should have appeared from behind the corner of the house, with the old umbrella that she used to lean on: Mama! After having gone down the steps to the little gate through which all entered, without asking, bowed, perhaps she was supported by the maid, holding her arm so she wouldn’t miss a step and stumble. Alter having walked slowly along the little path by the wall, humbly, she would announce herself with the faint, crunching chirp of her slow footsteps. «I can’t understand what came over me… I complained to her because there were no flowers on the grave… and then she was determined to go herself… with these roads!» He went to the corner of the house; he looked, in anguish, at the little road that came down from the higher villas, which his mother would have to cover, stone after stone, returning from the cemetery. He came back on to the terrace. «I had mentioned it to her so that she would speak to José, her beloved José, the peon – the adored fellow citizen whose taxes we pay… whom we pay.» The doctor, head bowed, lashed his right calf with his cane. «Electricity… rent… wood… ink… as if by right… so that he will condescend to shuttle about the house in the filthiest trousers he can find to put on. A couple of geraniums, after all, on that grave! But she says they won’t grow there… . And Mama wanted to go herself, then, out of fear that I would start shouting.»

An easy step, a light and carefree running, and the rapid crumble of the gravel after the gate’s unexpected creak warned them that somebody was arriving, a boy certainly. From around the corner of the house a boy did come running, in a sweat; suddenly, glimpsing the two men, he broke off his running, in a somewhat vexed pose, as if he had seen his chocolates vanishing. With a coffee-coloured jersey, a copybook in his hand; his legs quite bare. His knees, full of bruises and scratches, were the chief thing one noticed after the childishness of a round face, pearled with sweat. He was panting slightly, like a locomotive that goes on puffing even after it has stopped, despite the presence of cabinet ministers. He was a healthy child, with a coffee-coloured chest, about twelve years old, his eyes empty of any judgment; all the world, for him, must have been a kind of unripe pear, into which he was unable to sink his teeth. His soul, without syllables, bore witness to its anamnesis. Now he was silent, looking – rigid and still, on those legs. «What do you want?» the son shouted at him rudely, as if irritated at his silence. The boy, without moving closer, stammered from the distance something like «Lesson… French… the Señora.»

«Clear out!» the son commanded, with an inconceivable severity, which made the boy disappear – and left the doctor dumbfounded.

«But isn’t that Di Pascuale’s grandson?» the latter asked.

«I don’t know who he is, or whose grandson. What I do know is that my mother’s in her second childhood… like all old people.» He sounded agitated. The doctor lashed his leg with his stick. «She has to drool kindness on the first calf that she comes across… on the first stray dog that comes in… even the grandsons of colonels on holiday, now… making them repeat choux, bijoux, cailloux, poor darlings. Because, in the end, everybody becomes good!» He was shouting. He seemed half out of his mind. «Good! Good! Everybody… until some geraniums, or violets, reward us for our good conduct… for our definitive goodness.»

«He’s a first-rate physician», the doctor ventured with that somewhat grumbling speech of his, perennially uttered with bowed head, like a monologue, «and, I believe, an official of the highest integrity.» Poor man, he seemed to be taking «a part» in the aristocratic theatricals.

«That’s no reason to drag into the house his whole litter of grandsons! Let them learn French in school… that’s what it’s for. And if they don’t learn it» – he stared at the doctor – «if they don’t learn it, thwack!» He pretended to lash the legs of someone (a horse?) – they were long ones, naked and straight. He lowered his head horizontally to accompany the jerk of his shoulder, the impetuous gesture of the arm, as if he really had a whip in his hand. An incredible wrath transformed his incoherent physiognomy. «And they don’t learn it… and they’ll never learn it! Because calves haven’t the power of speech. They have a hard time writing two simple sentences in Castilian. So thwack, thwack, thwack then! on their bare legs. Here comes charity, goodness!» He was shouting, «The French lessons are coming! On the calves’ necks… gratis. One foot in the grave… for others! For the peon… for the grandson… anything, provided it’s for others… for others!»

The doctor was silent, confused: embarrassed by that half-centimetre of beard, one would have said – in reality amazed, grieved. Without being able to justify in any way what he was hearing, what he was seeing, he nevertheless understood that something ghastly was churning in that soul. He thought of guiding elsewhere the sick man’s ideas, if ideas they were.

The son regained his composure: he seemed to wake from a hallucination; he looked at the doctor, staring, as if he were asking of him, «What did I say?» – as if he were imploring, «Tell me what I said! I was ill! Couldn’t you see? Couldn’t you see that I was ill? Why wouldn’t you believe me, why wouldn’t you assist me? I had lost the thread of our talk – what were we saying?» His eyes brightened again in an expression of anguish. A footstep ran by outside, descending, the step of a stupid imp; under it the pebbles of the road crumbled, after the creak of the gate, which was painted green.

«I was a child myself», the son said. «Then I deserved perhaps a kindly thought… no, not a caress, that was condescending too far, it was too much!» And wrath returned to his face, but died away again. Then he resumed, «Mama has aged frightfully… she’s ill… perhaps it was I… I can’t resign myself. But I had a frightful dream.»

«A dream? And what harm does a dream do you? It’s a bewilderment of the soul… a momentary ghost.»

«I don’t know, Doctor. Mind you… perhaps it’s forgetting, it’s resolving! It’s rejecting the sclerotic images of dialectics, the things seen according to force.»

«According to force? What force?»

«The organizing force of character… this glorious kerosene lamp that smokes us up from inside… and makes a black wisp, and smudges us with lies, within… meritorious lies, greasy ones, lying ones… and has a good opinion of itself, and of itself alone. But to dream is a deep river, which rushes to a distant spring, bubbling up again in the morning of truth.»

It seemed incredible to Doctor Higueróa that a man of normal height, rather tall in fact, and such «lofty» social station, could let himself become anchored to foolishness of this sort. But alarm and sadness were all too evident in his gaze; the gaze of a person who fears, who has something that preoccupies him, some remorse – terror, hatred? – even in broad sunlight, in the song, in the sweet and relaxed fullness of the earth.

«A dream… wriggling towards my heart… like the treachery of a serpent. Black.

«It was night, late evening perhaps; but a frightful, eternal evening, in which it was no longer possible to recover the time of possible action, nor erase despair… nor remorse, nor ask forgiveness for anything… anything! The years were past! When we could love our mother… caress her. Oh! help her. Every finality, every possibility, had turned to stone in the darkness. All souls were distant like fragments of worlds, lost to love… in the night… lust… weighted down by the silence, aware of our former mockery… exiles without charity from us in the desperate night.

«And I was as I am now, here. On the terrace. Here, you see? In our deserted house, emptied of souls… and in the house there remained something of mine, of mine, something that had been saved… but it was an unspeakable shame for the souls… documents, receipts… I didn’t remember for what. The law’s delays had been concluded. Time had been consumed! Everything, in the darkness, was stony memory… definitive idea, beyond erasure. Receipts… that everything, everything was mine! Mine! Finally… like remorse.

«And the dream – a moment! – was resumed in a figure of shadow – there, there where I just went, you see? At the corner of the house. You see now? There… black, silent, very tall, as if she had come back from the cemetery. Perhaps, with her silence, she reached the eave. She seemed a funereal veil, falling from it. Perhaps she was beyond all dimension, all time.

«Not suffused with any meaning of love, of grief. But in silence. Under the sky of shadows. Veturia, perhaps, the motionless mother of Coriolanus, veiled. But she wasn’t the mother of Coriolanus! Oh! the veil didn’t dispel my obscure certainty. It didn’t mask her from my grief.

«I knew her, I knew who it was. It could be no other – tall, motionless, veiled, black.

«She said nothing, as if a horrible and superhuman force were preventing her from any sign of love. She was immobile now. It was a thought… in the dark catalogue of eternity. And this black, ineluctable force… heavier than a tombstone… fell upon her! As the outrage falls, beyond all reparation. And it had risen in me, from me! And I remained alone. With the documents… scriptures of shadow… the receipts… in the house emptied of souls. Every delay had reached its time, time dissolved.»

The cicadas collapsed in the even continuity of time; they spoke of persistence: they reached the boundaries of summer. Doctor Higueróa seemed to look for the birches, white commas in the oak trees to the west of Lukones.

He continued to cane his right calf; now with light touches, repeated as if following a rhythm, or as if to beat the dust from his trouser-leg. His gaze, unusually horizontal, was anchored to the wall, and then wandered outside, towards the mountain, with heavy, swollen eyes acting as brackets to his beholding. A slight reddening of the conjunctivae gave those two poor instruments of a country doctor the weary expression of toil – like that of a suffering dog, running about all day – a merciful and bewildered sweetness, the sadness of a man who had by now given up all whim of itinerary, of journeying, and who asked the weather and the clouds only to help him, along that bit of road left him. The prickling of the beard on his chin seemed to take the place of the bits of broken crockery, the triangles of bottle glass that were missing from the ridge of the wall. It was a Pirobutirro wall, without bits of bottle, or shards of crockery.

«I don’t know what came over me», the son repeated. «I don’t know what to do any more. Why doesn’t she come back, now? She’s aged frightfully. Her face, her lips, you would think they hid a thought that isn’t hers… that they silence unspeakable words… but distance is already in her – my mother! I hadn’t seen her for several weeks. How can I help her now? Her hands are like a skeleton’s.» As no judge spoke, he began again to justify himself: «I shouted, true; but not because other… because of that scoundrel whose taxes we pay – »

«But still you shouted», the doctor said sagely, «and you shouted with her! For that matter, if you think it right, we could examine her even today… even now», professionally, he used the royal plural. «An examination is not tiring».

«Ah! not tiring? For you, perhaps, Doctor, since you’re used to it. But Mama! It’s been years! I’m in despair… it’s like hoisting a corpse to the top of the Eiffel tower,» his voice became agitated again, then settled into gloominess, «a stubborn resistance… incurable.» Then he was filled with wrath, with mockery: «Women’s brains, if they barely manage to reach thirty… the brain becomes marble. Their soul doesn’t move any further. The tables of old white-beard, the one with the two radioactive horns who shed light for the Hebrews… his tables… must have been made of oatmeal, in comparison…»

«We’ll try to persuade her. What else can I say? If it’s because, after all, she doesn’t have confidence in… in yours truly, and wants to have someone else, why! of course! That wouldn’t be the end of the world. Nothing wrong with that – we’re here precisely to lend each other a hand. If we can’t find one, there’s another. We can take her to Novokomi to Doctor Balánzas, in the car. Pepa would be delighted. Poor Señora… or to Doctor Oliva, right… better still! Or even to Terepàttola, if you like, Professor Lodomez, the man who treated Caçoncellos.» He looked at the wall, the low parapet.

The son’s doubt showed in his face: «Mama won’t want to hear of it, I know her. There’s nothing to be done with her. It’s a mania, a real psychosis… from the time she gave birth to us… perhaps, who knows, as a little girl, when she couldn’t stand the doctor’s spectacles… and they frightened her… with the beard of the bogeyman. Perhaps because she’s always been healthy.

«She says, “Thank God for fresh water… the best medicine is to keep away from doctors.” She isn’t completely wrong, after all.

«Very well, but today? Today? She says, “I’m perfectly well. All I need is to be left in peace… leave me in peace a bit!”

«A fine way to take care of yourself! To say, “There’s nothing wrong with me. I’ve never needed anyone! The further away the doctors stay from me, the better I feel. I can take care of myself. That way I’m sure not to make mistakes” – I, I, I!»

And again he allowed himself to be seized by an idea, and he raised his voice, angrily: «Ah! the world of ideas! What a fine world! Ah! this I, I… among the almond blossoms… then among the pears, and the Battistinas, and José. I, I… the foulest of all pronouns!»

The doctor smiled at this outburst; he didn’t understand. Still he seized the chance to direct into more serene channels their words, if not the man’s humour and thoughts.

«And why, for God’s sake? What have they done wrong, pronouns? When a person thinks something or other, he still has to say, “I think… I think that the sun is strolling on our cucurbit, from right to left.”» (In South America, in fact, and in the Song of Legnano). (2)

«Je pense true mais j’en ai marre de penser», the son murmured. «Pronouns! They’re the lice of thought. When a thought has lice, it scratches, like everyone who has lice… and they get in the fingernails, then… you find pronouns, the personal pronouns.»

The doctor burst out laughing in spite of himself, with half of his mouth; with the left cheek – as, even when you don’t want to, you finally smile at a child; when in the most infernal of his misbehaviour, in the raging of his anger, as he stamps his feet, amid pearls of tears and screams to the stars, he roars, «Go way, I hate you!» at anyone who wants to calm him with a caress, and he amuses everybody.

The aphorism, to decipher it, no, not at all; he never thought of that; a chess problem, and beyond his strength.

He drank a healthy, full draught of that warm air – so pure, the breath of life. Under his stringy tie he swelled the whole cage of ribs and sternum, to inhale, to let it burn his lungs. He turned towards Prado, on the right, which with its shiny darkness partially hid from him the foliage of the olea: (3) the distant houses seemed to smoke in that August fold; but already the lice, the lousy pronouns, even that he had to hear! He, who when he had to say «my wife» said «my lady» – in Castilian of course: mi Señora.

«The mere fact that we go on proclaiming “I, you” with our uncouth mouths… with our avarice of the constipated, predestined to putrescence, I, you – this very fact, I, you – reveals the baseness of common dialectics… and guarantees our impotence in preaching anything about anything… since we are ignorant of… of the subject of every possible proposition – »

«Which would be?»

«It’s useless for me to take its name in vain. What just finished coming out of there» – with his face he indicated the tower – «from the matrix of those maenads hurled belly-first into the air… with clapper hanging out. Mad beasts! And I went hungry because of them, as a child, hungry! Five hundred pesos! Five hundred. Pirobutirro munificence, five hundred pesos! With my jersey patched… chilblains on my fingers… my feet wet inside my shoes. Punishment because my frozen fingers couldn’t grasp the pen! With a sore throat over the Phaedrus… with six degrees Centigrade of paternal love upon me… and enough smoke to make my grey cells turn green… so that the dear clapper would turn out well… good for anthems and glory… the clapper… to deafen the dear villa, with the dear potatoes, in dear Lukones… to break our eardrums for forty years! They destroy the peace of the living and the dead, believe me. They prevent me from writing, from reading, they even make me throw away the Gospels, because of the racket they raise, after two minutes! They give out such a pandemonium from morning to evening, from four to eleven… such chaos! Why, it’s enough to make you shoot yourself.»

They started off around the corner of the house, slowly. They went down the service step: «I, you. The thieving butcher excludes the scoundrel butcher who has his shop opposite – all right, he’s a worse thief still – but after all, since they’re both thieves… Caçoncellos, the Camöens of Terepàttola, said that Virgil was a fool, because Palinurus is a lie, and the naval games a bombastic invention of parasites. Oh, yes… so he thinks! Eight years of a naval war that starved Rome seemed to him a glass of tamarisk and soda… and Sextus Pompey, a boatload of anchovies. Whereas his Terepattolese dimeters were the mystery, the future! I have given immortal expression to the most modern ideals of my people! I have descended into the depths of their souls… oh, yes… in Villa Giuseppina! I, I – he, too! – watered the flowers with a watering-can that had a hole in it, pissing half the water over his shoes – and besides, if one idea is more modern than another, it means that they’re not immortal, neither the one nor the other.

«I, you… When the immensity coagulates, when truth becomes wrinkled in an overcoat – of a Deputy in Congress – I, you… in a mean and shrunken person, when righteous wrath becomes heavy in a belly… in mine, for example… which has as its end and only destiny in the universe the stuffing of tons of bismuth, at five pesos the decagram… down, down into the duodenum… bismuth by the shovelful… waiting… one day after the other, to the end of one’s years. When Being becomes separated into a sack of foul guts, whose boundaries are more miserable and more foolish than this foolish, taxpaying wall… which you can climb over in one leap… when this fine business happens… then… that’s when the I is determined, with its fine monad upon it, like the caper on the rolled-up anchovy on the lemon slice over the Wiener schnitzel. Then, then! That precisely is the very moment! That lousy, incomparable I… swaggering… erect… beplumed with attributes of every sort… purplish, and feathered, and taut, and turgid… like a turkey… in an open fantail of engineering diplomas, of noble titles… saturated with family glories… laden with bric-a-brac and mussel shells like a Negro king… or else» – they had reached the corner and he lowered his voice – «or else saturnine and alpine, with eyes hollowed in distrust, with the sphincter blocked by avarice and red within the shadow of his nits… a dark red… like a Celt who’s taken to the woods in the mountains… who fears the pallor of Rome and is terrified by its dactyls… militem, ordinem, cardinem, consulem… the I of the shadows, the animalesque I of the forests… and a fine red, a sweating red. I, with sweaty feet… with armpits even sweatier than the feet… with plenty of good air in his arse among the onions and the espaliered pears… claiming his rights… like that thief over there… who’s been all morning taking the seeds from the onions!» With his chin – his hands in his pockets – he motioned toward the peon, who now, one knee in the grass, could be seen and heard scraping the hollow of a pot with a little knife. Certainly, at the striking of noon he had left off his labour to prepare his puchero. The doctor, silent, had allowed that angry hail to come down, without even hinting at opening his mouth: his eyes, sad, swollen, looked at the mountains.

«I, I, I! But I’ll drive him out of the house! With his packet of rights tied to his tail… out, out! To crawl on all fours beyond the wall… to clog it over the rocks, up and down from Iglesuela, from whence he dropped on us.» The peon finally raised his head and his hat from the pot, but he couldn’t take it in. He understood that the conversation didn’t concern him: fine gentlemen, he knew, often talked metaphysics.

«The wall is hump-backed, you see, and even the souls of the dead could climb over it… the poor departed! To come back and sleep in their bed… which is there, white… as they left it when they went away… and it seems to be waiting for them… after so much warfare! It’s twisted, all humps, I know: but its symbol, its meaning, remains, and for the honest it should have value, for people: it must have value. For it signifies possession: the sacrosanct private, most private mine, mine! My own personal possession – which is the possession of my fingernails, ten nails, of my right and true ten nails!» He lifted his hands from his pockets and actually put them under the doctor’s eyes, both equal, with hooked fingers, as if they were the talons of a vulture.

«And what about the toenails? Where do you put them?»

«Inside, I put them, in my house, with my mother: and all the Josés and the Battistinas and Pep –– the Beppas, all the jackass grandsons screwed in French or mathematics of all the colonels of Maradagàl… away, away with them! Out! Out with them all! This is, and must be, my house… in my silence… my poor house.»

chapter 5

She roamed, alone, in the house. And were those walls, those copper pans, everything that was left her from a lifetime? They had told her precisely the name of the mountain, black and cruel, where he had fallen and of the other place, desolate and serene, where they had borne him and placed him in the earth, his countenance restored to peace and oblivion, deprived of all response, for ever. The son who had smiled at her, brief springtimes! Who so sweetly, passionately, had caressed her, kissed her. A year after, in Pastrufazio, an army subaltern had presented her with a document, had delivered a little book, asking her kindly to affix her signature to another ledger: and in so saying he had handed her a pencil. First he had asked her, «You are Señora Elisabetta François?» Blanching at hearing her name spoken, which was the name of her torment, she had answered: «Yes. I am.» Trembling, as if at the fierce exacerbation of a punishment. To which, after the first horrible outcry, the dark voice of eternity continued to summon her.

Before he went away, when with a clinking of the chain he gathered to himself the book and also the gleaming sword, she had said, as if to detain him, «May I offer you a glass of Nevado?» clasping her fleshless hands one to the other. But he would not accept. It had seemed to her that he strangely resembled the one who had occupied the brief splendour of time: of time consumed. The beating of her heart told her this, and with trembling lips she felt she had to love again the reappearing presence, but she knew full well that no one, no one ever returns.

She roamed about the house; and sometimes she opened the shutters of a window so that the sun would enter into the great room. The light then encountered her humble, almost poor clothing: the little expedients with which she had been able to medicate, resisting tears, the humiliated dress of old age. But what was the sun? What day did it bring above the howling of the darkness? She knew its dimensions and its pattern, the distance from the earth, from all the remaining planets, and their progress and their revolutions; many things she had learned and taught: and she knew Kepler’s matheses and quadratures that pursue in the senseless vacuity of space the ellipse of our desperate grief.

She roamed, in the house, as if seeking the mysterious path that would have led her to encounter someone: or perhaps only a solitude, shorn of every compassion and of every image. She went from the kitchen, now without fire, to the rooms, now without voices, occupied only by a few flies. And around the house she saw still the countryside, the sun.

The sky, so vast above the dissolved time, was shadowed now and then by its grim clouds, which misted rotund and white from the mountains and gathered and then darkened suddenly; they seemed to threaten terribly anyone alone in the house, her sons far from her. That happened also at the end of that summer, on anafternoon in early September, after the long drought that everyone said would never end: when about ten days had gone by since she had sent for the woman with the keys and, accompanied by her, had wanted to go down to the cemetery. That threat wounded her deeply. It was the impact, it was the mockery ofunknown powers, or beings, unknown yet inexorable in their persecution: the evil that rises again, again and always, after the limpid mornings of hope. What dismayed her most, as a rule, was always the unpredictable ill-humour of those who had no cause at all to hate her, or to offend her; those in whom her trust was so pure and so enthusiastically placed, as if to equals and to brothers in a higher society of souls. Then every succouring experience and memory, value and labour, and support of the city and of people, was suddenly erased by the desolation of the mortified impulse; the inner strength of her awareness became lost: like a little girl struck by the crowd, overwhelmed. The barbarian crowd of lost ages,the darkness of things and of souls were a murky enigma, beforewhich she asked herself in anguish (unknowing, like a lost child): Why, why?

That day too, the storm, which was usedto travelling with long howls through the frightful gorges of the mountains,debouched then in the open againstthe houses and the works of man. After every gloomy hoarding of his rancour, through all the sky, he gave free rein to thunderbolts, like a rowdy captain of mercenaries inwrecking and looting, to swill amid sinister flashes and reports. The wind, which had carried off her son towards oblivion-inducing cypresses, seemed to be seeking her too at every window in the house. From the little window over the stairs, a gust, bursting in, had gripped her by the hair; the floors and wooden beams creaked as if they were exploding; it was like hull-plating, like a ship in a gale; and the closed, barred windows were swollen by that fury out of doors. And she, like an animal already wounded, if it hears above its head again and again the ferocious horns of the hunt, huddled as best she could within her exhausted condition to seek a refuge, below, in the cellar: going down, down: in a corner. Overcoming in fear that void of every step, trying them one after the other with her foot, clinging to the banister with hands that were no longer able to grasp, going down, down, below, towards the darkness and dampness of the bottom. There, a little shelf.

Yet the darkness allowed her to discover, groping, a candle, softened, a little dish with some sulphur matches, set out there for the hours of the night, for those coming home in the late hours. No one came home. She urged a match several times, then another, on the sandpaper: and then, in the yellowness at last of that tremulous perception of the pavement, there, a further fugitive, a shard of shadow, horrible: but it immediately recovered itself in the immobility ofa snare: the black of the scorpion. Shehuddled then, her eyes shut, in her final solitude: raising her head, as one who knows any imploration of kindness is vain. And she shrank into herself, close to annihilation, a grieving spark of time: and in her time she had been woman, wife, and mother. She hesitated now, terrified, before the weapon without valour that she too used to reject the shadow. And they followed her even there, where she had gone down, down, in the dark depth of every memory, they hounded her, the explosions, ferociously, and the vandal glory of the storm. The revolting snare of the darkness: born, blacker stain, from the damp and from evil.

Her thought knew no further whys. Why! Forgetting, in the extreme offence, that an imploration is possible, or love, from the charity of people: she no longer remembered anything; every ancient succour of her people was lost, distant. In vain she had given birth to children, had given them her milk; no one would acknowledge it within the sulphurous glory of the storms, and of the chaos, no one thought of it any more; over the distant years of her womb, over her torment and the erased sweetness, other events had descended; and then the clang of victory, and the orations and the pomps of victory; and, for her, old age: this last solitude, to close the final skies of the spirit.

The drip of wax fell on her trembling hand, scalding her. The icy breath of the tempest, from the little window over the stairs, inflected and laminated the tiny flame, making it stray over the humidity and the greasiness of the wax, attentuated, that blink of the wick, like the farewell of death.

She could see nothing any more. All was horror, hatred. The thunder weighed upon all things and the flashes of the electric storm hastened in their wrath, roasted in renewed moments by the slats of the closed shutters, above. And there was the scorpion, reawakened, who had proceeded, as if sideways, as if to skirt her, and she, trembling, had withdrawn into herself, extending a damp and weary hand, as if wanting to stop him. Her hair fell over her forehead; her dry, bloodless lips dared not utter a word: no one, no one would have heard her, under the din. And whom could she address, in this changed time, when so much hatred, after the years, was addressed to her today? If her very creatures, in the years, had been a vain grief, flower of cemeteries: lost! In the vanity of the earth.

Why? Why?

From the dark depth of the stairs she sometimes raised her face, even in those hours, to recognize over her head silenced interludes of the storm, the stupid nullity of space: and of the evening falling from the caves, outside, in drops, like weeping, or the compassionate silence. She imagined that the sudden shafts of every gust, having run through each room, had come out like a belated band to take refuge in the plains and the night, where they joined their migrant swarm. A shutter banged against the wall of the house, slapping it. The trees outside, she could hear, gave off rare drops towards night, washed as if by weeping.

No one saw her, descended into fear, below, alone, where the yellow of the wick quavered, faded within the shadows, from the shelf, drying slowly in its liquified wax. But if someone had ever chanced to see her, oh! even a rogue! he would have felt in his spirit that this upraised face, petrified, did not even ask to be allowed to implore anything, from vanished remoteness. Scattered hair misted from her forehead, like a breath of horror. Her countenance barely emerged from the shadowy binding; the cheeks were conduit to the impossibility of tears. The bending fingers of old age seemed to dig down, down, in the mould of darkness, the features of one who disembarks in solitude. That face, like a spectre, turned from the subterranean darkness to the supernal society of the living; perhaps it imagined help without hoping for it, the word of a man, of a son.

This name rested lightly on her spirit: and it was a dear apparition, a suggestion almost of morning and of dream, a lofty wing that flew over, a light. Yes: there was her son, in time, in certainty, in the knowledge of the living: and even after the changing, after the rush of the years. He walked among the living. He trod the paths of men. Her first son. The one in whose little body she had wanted to see, oh! days! the defective proof of nature, a failed experiment of her womb after the received fraud of the seed, reluctant at having suffered, at having generated what was not hers: in a long and unhealing darkening of all her being, in the toil of the mind, and of the viscera opened then to the slow shame of births, in the mockery of the wise traffickers and the merchants, under the structure of imposed duties, so nobly anxious for the success of society, to the suffering and the wretchedness of the honest. And he was now her son: the only one. He proceeded through the arid roads below the flight of elms, after the dust towards the evenings and the trains. Her first son. Oh! only the squall – lash of whistling skies over the bent crops of the countryside – only terror had been able to separate her in such a way from the truth, from the well-founded security of memory. Her son: Gonzalo. Gonzalo had not, no, no! been awarded the funereal honours of darkness; his mother was horrified at the memory: away, away! from the inane obsequy the dirges, the vile weeping, the lamentations: tapers, for [him], had not lessened their height among the pylons of the cold nave and the tombs of the shadowy centuries. When the song of the abyss, among the tapers, summoned the sacrificed, calling them down, down, within the wormy pomp of eternity.

A motor car horn, from the highway, and the vacuum of all things. All was silent, finally. At the usual hour the cats had certainly penetrated the house by the entrance only they used: velvet presences, they stared at her from halfway up the steps, with eyes in the darkness like topazes but slashed by slits, aligned pupils of their hunger; and they addressed to her, miaowing, a timid greeting, an appeal: «The hour has come.» Domestic order and charity called her back upstairs. And she, forgetting her own, became immediately concerned at the suffering of others, as always: she climbed up the steps. The clogging feet of the peasant resounded on the pavement above: returned from his purchase of tobacco and perhaps, she hoped, of salt. He called her in the darkness, spoke to her of provisions and of the fire, informed her of the time, the devastated harvests; he proceeded,with renewed clashes of his voice, to unlock the door, the windows. Reassured, she saw again, sweet and distant, clear expanses of the village and in her sweet memories flowered again those words from always: «They open the balconies – the family opens terraces and loggias: (4) as if the restored society of man were reappearing to her after a long night. And the manservant, there, before the cats, was going about her house: from his own hearth to this other, so spacious and cold, carrying sparks, thyrses; and then on the stairs; behind the quadruped progress of the clogs, doors and shutters banged. And stalks and branches were more or less everywhere along the virile dropping of his itinerary. And the wind had become lost towards the plains, in the direction of the Pequeño.

From the terrace, on summer evenings, she could see on the distant horizon the smoke from the farmhouses, which she imagined populated, each one, by the woman of the house, her husband in the barn, and the children. The girls, in clusters, came back from the factories, the looms, or spools, or tubs of the silk mill; bicycles had brought the apprentices back from the anvils, or they had returned behind their father with the swaying oxen from the field, and he had guided and braked the low wagon with his rudder, its short sides bent and opened over little wheels with greased and silent axles, laden with possessions and with labour, logs, and grasses – on whose peak, as if forgotten, rested the weary scythes, in the shadows of the evening.

They were rustic offspring, come, numberless, from work to the fire, to a spoon: to the poor chipped bowls which rewarded their day.

Very distant flashes, songs, came to her from outside the house. It was as if some housewife had set her copper pot to dry in the farmyard, to reflect, shining, the sunset – perhaps as a greeting to her, the Señora! who one time, like them, had been woman, wife and mother. She envied no one. She hoped for all those women, all of them, happiness and the calm strength of sons, that they would enjoy work, health, peace; good marches in the morning where the captain commands them; that they would soon find a bride, returning from the regiment, in the aromatic thicket of the girls.

So, every day, she found a reason or a pretext to call to her the laundress, the daughter of the baker, the woman who sold lemons or at times some rare oranges from Tierra Caliente, the eighty-six-year-old mother of the manservant, the wife of the fish peddler. (There was reason to suppose that the required series of garments was not completely present on the latter’s person.) They were poor pikes, dark, with pointed snouts like the desire of the poor, and grim, which had swum and swum through green poverty towards the silvery glint of the Durendal; or tench, great yellow fish from the lakes, of a greasy and stupid viscidity, which even among carrots and celery still tasted of mud: after the hour of sunset harpooned with the line in the Seegrün or in that other valley, very sweet in autumn, of the abbot-poet, or in that other, still farther on, of the painter disciple, (5) when it reflects, under liquified clouds, the serration of the mountain, upturned.

With carrots and celery in the casserole for pike, over a slow fire; she stirred, in that mush, with a long wooden spoon: a thing came out full of bones, of celery, but rather good to the taste. When the task was done she merely tasted it; she was happy: she gave it all to the women. The women praised her for her talent in cooking; they rewarded her for her goodness.

She envied no one. Perhaps, after so much valour and study, after having toiled and suffered, and having fulfilled without tears her geniture, so that the strategists of the Republic might dispose of her finest blood as their reason prompted them; perhaps after the burning rush of every day and of the years, weary ellipses, perhaps time prevailed – the gentle assuager of every renunciation – oh! it would lead her where one forgets and is forgotten, beyond the houses and the walls, along the path guarded by the cypresses.

Rustic offspring, levy of perennial daily bread: let them grow up, let them love. She considered herself at the end of her vicissitude. The sacrifice had been consummated. In purity; of which God alone is knowledge. She was pleased that other men and women would be able to pick up the vital meaning of the fable, still deluded, with their hot blood, into believing it necessary truth. From the distant horizon the smoke of the houses rose. None of them would bear her spirit any more, or her blood, in the empty days.

But Gonzalo? Oh, the lovely name of life!A continuity which was achieved. Again it seemed to her, from the terrace, that she could discern the curve of theworld: the sphere of lights, revolving; among periwinkle-coloured mists they vanished on encountering the drowsiness of the night. On the world, bearer of harvests, and of a song, the quiet illuminations of midsummer. It seemed to her that she could watch it still, from the terrace of her life, oh! still, for a moment, being a part of the calm evening. A sweet lightness. And, in the lofty sky, the sapphire of the ocean: which Alvise had gazed at, trembling, and Antoniotto of Noli, (6) rounding capes of nameless reality towards the appeared dream of archipelagoes. She felt caught up in the event, in the ancient flux of possibility, of continuation: like all, near to all.

With her thought, with her sons, giving herself she had overcome the darkness: gifts of works and hopes towards the holiness of the future. Her consummated task brought her back into the path of souls. She had learned, taught. Belated bell strokes: and the slow wick of vigils had been consumed by the silence. Along the interlines dawn insinuated itself: noble paragraphs! And she, in sleep, repeated its sentence. Generations, cries of spring, play of perennial life under the gazing towers. Thoughts had aroused thoughts, souls had aroused souls. Grieving fatherlands ferried her towards the harbours of awareness, ships for the Tenebrous Sea. Perhaps, thus, theatrocity of her grief would not be vain in God’s sight.

She clasped her hands.

Gonzalo, from his work, earned enough to live on. Recently she had gone by Modetia; (7) the shirt-maker in Modetia was supposed to make him some cotton shirts – the seamstress had written, in fact – she would cut them out with the greatest care, she felt under such an obligation, dear Señora, after all her goodness and kindness.

Gonzalo! Herolder son was not a pensioner of the government, except laughably, for a little medal:the lowest and most laughable of medals. (But this is what the experts might believe, not his mother’s certainty.) No reason existed, for that matter, why he should be a pensioner of the government. His tympana were afflicted by another ill, now, not a traumatic laceration, but spoiled by another tedium, one would have said, different from the inscrutable fog of deafness. She could’t understand the way he had reappeared to her, oh, in a dawn of ashes: amid the merchandise and the mud of Pastrufazio, and the invincible machines. He was unharmed, with poor years inside the grey chevrons of return. Perhaps his war, for him, had not been dangerous. He told nothing, ever: he spoke of it to no one – certainly not to children, if they surrounded him in a moment of their pause, belligerents or scratched, over-heated admirals, with bayonets of tin, and not even to the ladies in the villas, who were, it was said, among the most distinguished gentlewomen of Pastrufazio and the most epos-thirsty, and in consequence the most enthusiastic drinkers of nonsense.

Children, moreover, he seemed to regard with outright hatred. A grim sternness came over his face if he found in the house even one, like that poor silly child – the mother smiled – with his caillou, bijou. Oh! «her» Gonzalo! It was too obvious that the arsenal of glory had refused to place him on its roster. Plautus, in him, would not find his protagonist; perhaps Molière. The poor mother, not wanting to, saw again the distant figures of the Misanthrope and the Avare, all laces and frills below the knees, in the old book, in double columns, of her adolescent mornings, of her so fervid vigils: when the circle of the little lamp, on the table, was the orb of thought and of clarity in the intactness of the silence. In the old book, with its odour of the old ink of France, with bonnets, laces, and Maître Corbeau. It was obvious. After regained victories, the printers of funereal glories hadn’t had enough of their mortuary woodcuts to sing of a veteran without hendecasyllables – funeral lights and inscriptions and little flames and perennis ardeo – all engravings had been used up, on the covers of the cadaverous poems. His dead companions, Gonzalo never, never would have used them to poetize so gloriously, his brother, distant smile! His name locked in him, the desperate memory.

The vendors of frills had no fripperies at any price that they could sell him, nor caballero’s braidings, nor ribbons, nor buckles, for his silent way. The hidalgo avoided the salons, the opinions of the patriotic ladies. To the long tea, as if that were not enough, he preferred the lonely road of the Recoleta. After these unfortunate facts had been verified, the esteem of right-minded people began really to give him a wide berth. And one fine day, indeed, when his notebooks in the Faculty of Letters had been put in final order, and his Engineering, his native Pastrufazio could not help defecating him.

But these notes were external to his mother’s love, as also to her language: in the anguish of her spent days she had never acceded to the conversations, to the jangling conglomerations of society.

She thought with sweetness of this, her first son, seeing him again as a child, studious and thoughtful, and now already bent, bored above the wandering of the paths. She came back inside, from the terrace, into the large room. Now that the storm had moved away the flies had resumed their flying over the table: where there were the newspapers, with the new events, which had followed others. So from year to year, from day to day: for the whole series of years, of days. And the pages, quite soon, turned yellow. When the flies paused in their roundabout just for a moment, and also the great green fly, for a moment, in the labile cosmos of that unexpected suspension she then heard more distinctly the woodworm creaking, creaking toilsomely, with little nips, in the oldwalnut secrétaire which she couldn’t unlock any more. The path of the key had become lost in the succession of her attempts, or, perhaps in the grieving shadows of memory. In it there must be the picture… the pictures… the mother-of-pearl cufflinks,… perhaps also the two letters – the last! – the sewing scissors, the black fan, made of lace… the one they had given her in the swamp, when she had taken leave of her colleagues, of the few girls, her pupils… more than one ran a fever, all wanted her kiss. But she was not lacking, por suerte, an extra pair of scissors: three pairs, in fact.

And then the wedding.

If her thoughts descended, from the memory of those two children, to the closer years, to today… it seemed to her that the cruelty was too great: similar, fiercely, to derision.

Why? Why? Her countenance, in those pauses, turned to stone in anguish; no heartbeat of the soul was possible then; perhaps she was no longer a mother, as in the outcry of birth, torn, distant; she was no longer a person, but a shade. She remained there like that, in the room, with pupils blind to every compassionate return, the fleshless immobility of old age, for long strides of time. And the dress of poverty and age was like an extreme sign of being led before the faces of the portraits, where fatuous winged creatures, on the void, will circle within the surviving tomorrow. Then, like a ritual of the season,suddenly, the hour arrived from the spire, freeing in the vacuum its lost, equal strokes. And it seemed to her an unnecessary, cruel reminder. In the ended time of every summer, across the world that had left her like this. The flies traced a few circles in the great room, before the portraits, under the horizontal shafts of the evening. With one hand, then, wearily, she rearranged her hair, whitened by the years, spread from her forehead without caresses like the hair of King Lear. Survivor of every fate. And now in the silence, as the sunset descended, the tempests of possibility had vanished. She had learned so much, read so many books! By the little lamp, Shakespeare: and she still spoke some verses, as from a broken tombstone forgotten syllables are scattered, and in the past they were the light of knowledge, and now the horror of the night.

In the sky the mists had been scattered, and the smoke, up from the neck of the chimneys, with the pot below, of the poor suppers of the people. They had scattered like a goodness from the earth: towards the evening star, through the bluish air of September, up, up where the blond light is, from the black chimneys; that rise with the strength of towers beyond the shadows and the blue hills, behind trees, over the distant chimney pots of the farms.

She had heard the rumbling of the train, the whistle of arrival. She would have liked to have had someone near her, at the approach of the darkness.

But her son appeared only rarely at the threshold of the house.


1. a distant rumbling. The «Alp without return» refers to the death of Gadda’s brother, who was in the Italian Air Force and was killed in action during the First World War.

2. The Song of Legnano. In Giosué Carducci’s famous poem, La canzone di Legnano, the last verse read: « the sun | laughed, setting behind Resegone». This is a geographical impossibility, much enjoyed by Italian schoolteachers and by Gadda.

3. (Author’s note) Olea fragrans. In Italian, the botanical name is also the ordinary name.

4. terraces and loggias. A quotation from Leopardi’s poem The Calm after the Storm.

5. The abbot-poet is Giuseppe Parini (1729-1799). The painter-disciple is the Lombard Marco d’Oggiono, a follower of Leonardo.

6. Alvise Ca’ da Mosto (1432-1488) and Antoniotto Usodimare (1415-1461), two Italian navigators in the service of the Portoguese.

7. (Author’s note) Modetia was settled in 1695 at the foot of the last morainic undulations of the Serruchón by some immigrants from Monza, who gave to the newly found city the Latin name of the city they had lost.

[notes 1-2 and 4-6 by William Weaver]

Published by The Edinburgh Journal of Gadda Studies (EJGS)

ISSN 1476-9859

Please note that the above excerpt is for on-line consultation only.
Reproduced here by kind permission of Einaudi Editore, Turin © 1963 & Peter Owen Ltd ©1969 & George Braziller Inc © 1968.

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