(JANUARY 8, 1978)
I was eleven years old and lived among cats ravaged by rhinotracheitis and mange. They were warped skeletons with a bit of skin on them; infected: if you touched them you could die. Every afternoon String went to feed them at the end of the garden opposite our apartment; sometimes I went with her. They came toward us slowly, their bodies angled askew, and looked at us with eyes that were drops of water and mud. Among the dying I’d grown attached to the worst, the one that sat at the end of the asphalted paths, sunken in the abyss; he heard our footsteps and moved his head slowly, like a blind man following a song, his sooty-black coat reduced to fluff on his flaking skin, one leg hanging loose among the others. He’d been lame ever since he was a kitten; now he was full grown, a natural cripple.
String put the saucepan down on a low wall that formed the base of a pale green railing. While her back was turned, I touched the railing with my tongue to taste the chlorine of the old paint and rust, then turned away and swallowed. I took a spoon and scooped up a little heap of ditalini with meat sauce. I carried it over to the cripple, crouched down beside him, and let him smell it. He pushed his scabby face forward, his nose blurring in the steam; then he picked up a lump of black meat between two teeth and started gnawing at it. String gestured to me not to touch him, told me to pour it all out and step back. I made a little volcano with the ditalini; the cripple listened to it with his nose, then went on tenaciously biting the lump, filtering each mouthful through the gaps between his teeth, twisting his head to destroy and swallow, turning nutriment into blood. When he’d finished he lay down with his muzzle on the ground in front of the little wet volcano, the idol to be worshipped. He was no longer hungry; his breath hissed out from the fan of his ribs. I touched him with the tip of the spoon; he didn’t move, but emitted a pigeon-like whirr from his neck. He could still manage a yawn; he opened his mouth and ate air. Then he sank back into a stupor, his head in the midst of a patch of light.
Behind me I heard the last scrapes of ladle against saucepan. For years, at this time of day, down in the gardens, String had ladled food out of her saucepan with a vigorous movement of shoulder, arm, and hand, making little heaps of pasta on the ground. Then she’d click her tongue to call the cats and look around to see if they were happy, if they had enough to eat, as they staggered in toward the food from all directions. Then she’d walk home, encrusted ladle in one hand, saucepan in the other: her sword and shield.
Now she’d finished and had sat down on a bench to rest. I checked that she wasn’t looking, then took a piece of barbed wire out of the pocket of my windbreaker and pressed the spikes into the bare patches on the cripple’s back. Each time the skin dimpled in for a moment, then slowly flattened out again. He never moved, except for a slight twitch of the head. I’d increase the pressure and he’d shudder, have a brief fit of nerves, an outburst of bewildered indignation that lasted a few seconds before fading away, then settle back into his former pensive pose.
“Let’s go,” said String.
I got up, put the barbed wire in my pocket, and walked off. There was a harsh cry behind me. I turned around and saw the cripple standing on all four legs, taking one step, then another. At every movement his head lolled forward, recoiled, and vibrated. He turned a complete circle, then meowed again disgustedly.
“He’s gone mad,” said String behind me. “Cats often do when they go blind.”
I said nothing and watched him walk in ever faster circles. I felt the sun on my cheek.
“He does it every day,” she added, “after he’s eaten.”
The cripple walked blindly on, stiff with cold, inhaling mucous. He turned another circle, meowing harshly; then he stopped, shrank, lay down, and nodded his head again, to say yes, yes, that’s the way it should be.
String set off toward our home—number 130, Via Sciuti. I turned and followed her. The asphalt was metallic in the low sun; at every step, I felt I was sinking.
* * *
Later I went out on to the balcony and looked for the cripple at the end of the gardens. From that distance he was a dark rock that other cats kept clear of, making wide detours to avoid going anywhere near it.
In the sky the sun had become a dry lung; it coexisted with the moon and the rarefied dusk that was beginning to seep into cracks in the road surface, into pools of oil leaked from car engines, into squiggly skid marks, into saplings supported by broomsticks.
The day before, a boy had gone over to a car that had parked down there. Speaking in dialect, he’d asked the owner for money; the man had refused and told him to go away. The boy had pointed to the car, asked again and stood waiting. When the man had put the key into the door to lock it, the boy had pulled up a broomstick supporting a nearby sapling and smashed the headlights and windows. Then he’d thrown away the broomstick, bent down, and bitten one of the tires, his teeth going right through the tread and puncturing the inner tube. Finally, his face smeared with engine grease, he’d attacked the man and bitten his cheeks and forehead.
I heard the sound of harp music from the living room and went inside to watch Intervallo. It was intended as a brief respite, a patch to cover the hiatus between programs. I found it hypnotic.
The humpback bridge at Apecchio, the Visso Valley strewn with pale houses. San Ginesio, Gratteri, Pozza di Fassa. The facades of Sutri, the white fountain of Matelica. Ten seconds per picture postcard, then a fade-out and a new picture. The eternal rustic, pastoral Italy built of gray, hand-hewn rocks, stonewalls adorned with ivy and moss, inhabited only by Oscans and Etruscans, a simple, rural world whose dead slept in village graveyards, with graveled paths between tombs, crunching footsteps and a smell of gladioli, cypress berries mingling with the gravel, a clear sky, roses. Ghosts of the landscape, deluders of the national self-image. The picturesque, the local, the premodern, the authentic. A beautiful semiliterate Italy, too honest to need a knowledge of grammar.
Until a year ago we’d had Carosello too, an X-ray picture of joy. Now we were left with Intervallo, a slow merry-go-round of nostalgia, a Nativity scene confected by television.
The news came on. They talked about Rome, an ambush the day before on Via Acca Larentia. Some shots had been fired, two members of the escort had been killed, and a policeman had wounded one of the attackers. The picture showed a body covered with a white sheet. The faces of the dead were young and pale, their features whirls against the light.
On television Rome was an animal. Viewed from above, the shape of the houses and streets was a stone backbone, a mineral animal. It contained the dead and generated them, or perhaps attracted them. At any rate, only in Rome did people die. So I took the Roman dead, picking them up one by one out of Via Acca Larentia and all the other streets, and put them into the nonexistent Italy. I laid one on the pebble beach under the bridge at Apecchio, hung another from the battlements of Caccamo castle, left a third to float in the waters of Civitanova Marche, and lodged another, fittingly, between the rocks of the necropolis at Pantalica. I gave the rest of Italy back its dead.
String came in and told me supper was nearly ready.
“Have I ever been to Rome?” I asked her.
“We went there just after you were born,” she replied.
“Have I ever been there since?”
“No, you haven’t. Neither have I.”
“Can I go there?”
“Why do you want to?”
I didn’t have a clear answer to this, so I said nothing.
“Not on your own,” she said.
“Can we go there?” I said, changing tack.
She stared at the television screen, put one finger to her lips, and nibbled at the cuticles.
“Maybe,” she said.
“Perhaps at Easter.”
String continued to stare at the screen without turning toward me.
“Have I ever been to Apecchio?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “I’ve never heard of it. Where is it?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said.
“Do you want to go there?”
“Why do you want to go to Rome?” she asked again.
“Because of the dead,” I said unguardedly.
“What?” she asked, turning to look at me, the tip of her ring finger between her teeth.
“Because I’m curious,” I said.
* * *
By the time Stone got home, Cotton and I were already in bed—not under the covers, but sitting on top; he in his pajamas, I in my daytime clothes. Our beds stood end to end along one wall of the bedroom, fitting neatly into the space. They were identical; Cotton and I were far from identical: I was fully evolved, he was a microscopic amoeba; I was arbitrary, he was democratic and flexible.
While Stone had his dinner in the kitchen, Cotton and I listened to the radio, poking our fingers through the thick wool bedspread and clenching our fists to feel the pleasure of constriction.
Stone came into the bedroom, his lips still wet with food. He turned off the radio, took a book from the shelf, and sat down between us. It was a big book, with a stiff, smooth, enamel-like cover. The cover illustration showed a thin, fair-haired boy clothed in animal skins except for his bare chest, playing a wooden harp and gazing raptly into the distance, a wild-eyed sheep at his feet. In the background Christ could be seen entering Jerusalem, surrounded by a white-robed, adoring crowd. Above the illustration, in capital letters, was the title THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD. A graphic synthesis of spirituality as conceived by the Edizioni Paoline—gentle admonition, mildly stern sentimentality, compassionate naïveté: pastel religion.
The keystones of my bold young atheism.
Stone had been reading the Bible to us since before we’d been able to read for ourselves. He didn’t do it out of religious conviction, or out of a desire to supplement the catechism, or a general respect for the holy scriptures, but just out of habit, a reluctance to let anything go to waste: because of the sheer inertia that governed our family life. But he read badly, paying little attention to the meaning of the text and with an uneven delivery marked by exaggeratedly open vowels. While Cotton lay on his bed with his feet toward the pillow, I adopted my own listening position, sitting up straight, with the back of my head against the wall, arms folded and legs crossed: uncomfortable but resolute, I was creating my atheist halo.
One evening, while Stone was reading, Cotton had drawn my attention to the part of the wall I was leaning against. I’d turned around and seen, at the level of my head, an oval circle, blue in the middle and fading outward to a peachy color before blending with the white of the plaster. I’d created this halo by the pressure of my occiput, through the slow corrosion of listening. When I rested my head against the wall in the evening, I was making my own halo—or rather, my nimbus: nimbused was the word the scriptures used to describe a haloed saint, and nimbus—“small cloud,” “circle of hazy light”—perfectly encapsulated my own natural supernatural circumfusion.
The previous evening we’d read about the prophet Jonah, who spent three days in the belly of a whale and came out full of the word. This evening we were going to read about Ezekiel, the prophet of splendor. He wore a bright, powerful, blue tunic with a yellow shawl on his head; his beard and eyebrows were white. Ezekiel was a seer, a creator of images, a pure, insane old man. I was a pure insane young man who yearned to go out into the world to preach, be full of the word like Jonah and visionary like Ezekiel, to express my desire for language, that fever of the throat.
A few months earlier I’d been doing my oral exam at the end of my final year at elementary school. I’d had the exhilarating sense of telling a story that regenerated itself and regenerated me. The floor of the classroom around me was flooded with light. Gugliotta, Chiri, D’Avenia, and my other classmates sat quietly at their desks, listening. I had my precious little pack of picture cards in my back pocket—Beppe Furino’s black face was squashed against my buttock. I felt I could go on forever, that language was an epidemic from which there was no point in trying to escape. I’d talked on and on, there in the sunlight with the others watching me, expatiating on science and geography, joyously crossing borders, ranging from subject to subject. Finally the teacher had smiled, put her hand on my chest to stop me, and said: “You’re mythopoetic.”
I’d gone back to my seat with the pleasurable and disturbing sensation of her thin fingers still on my ribs. As one of my classmates took my place at the teacher’s desk and struggled to answer the first question, I’d whispered to Chiri and D’Avenia, “What does it mean?” Neither of them knew. Later, when I got home, I’d looked it up. Mythopoetic. “Word-making: said of one who generates words.” I’d felt pleased, gratified, and moved; recognized.
Now, as Stone read us Bible stories, I was showing my mythopoetic powers by turning reality into words. I’d learned technical terms by reading the encyclopedia Il Modulo, and the Ricerche workbooks published in weekly installments by Edizioni Salvadeo: slim, pale yellow volumes accompanied by sheets of color photographs. On the back of each photograph was a text describing it and providing background information, using precise terminology. Each number was devoted to a particular subject: animals, history, the sky and the weather, the sea, science and technology, tropical plants. You cut out the pictures with scissors and stuck one edge into the workbook so that you could flip the photograph over and read the text on the back; once you’d glued them all in, you played with them, sticky-fingered, for the rest of the day.
As Cotton’s head drooped over the pages and mangled sentences issued from Stone’s mouth, I worked at my nimbus, focusing on my old toy basket with its cylindrical shape and protruding strands of wicker, on the lacquered bookcase with its various shades of white, on a Scrooge McDuck doll dressed in a peeling rubber bathrobe, on a red Bambi that had faded to a shameful pink, on a picture of a curly-headed little boy holding a pretty flower in his hands and smiling at me.
As I pressed the back of my head against the wall my brain was dizzy with words, with flashing sentences. I stuck to my task, naming a coatrack with jackets on it, a green felt cowboy’s hat suitable for the bad guy in a Western film, a miner’s helmet with a smashed lamp, the flame-colored veins on the door, scattered knots in the wood, and a ten-centimeter groove near the handle that I’d made a few days before with my piece of barbed wire.
The riot of language built up till I could no longer contain it.
“No!” I said, jerking my head away from the wall. It didn’t seem like a word, more like the opening chord of a symphony.
Cotton woke up and peered at me in mild, placid bemusement. Stone stopped reading.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I said. “There was one bit I didn’t understand for a moment.”
He looked at me thoughtfully, then read on: “To show that God has the power to restore life to the dead, the Prophet told this story: The Lord set me down on a field strewn with bones and asked me: ‘Do you believe that these bones can come back to life? Then bend over them and prophesy with these words: “Behold, I will infuse you with the spirit and you shall live.”’ In the vision the Prophet obeyed, and behold, bones joined together with bones, sinews linked them together, flesh grew, skin spread over it, and the spirit entered the bodies, and they became men.”
I moved closer, craning my neck toward the open book. There was a picture of a plain, scattered with white, contorted skeletons. In the background the tiny figure of Ezekiel stood on a blood-colored mountain. I put the Roman dead around him too; I spread them out over the plain and covered them with white sheets. But Ezekiel prophesied, and they slipped out from under the sheets, got to their feet, dusted themselves off, and walked away.
Stone put the book down and went to get a pack of cigarettes he’d left on the desk. Cotton slipped under the bedclothes, switched off his bedside lamp and fell asleep. Stone lit an MS and stood there motionless, in his brown pants and brown sweater, with his forearm diagonally across his chest and his elbow in the palm of his other hand, bringing the cigarette to his mouth, then pulling it away, his fingers slowly caressing his cheek under his big black-rimmed glasses.
When he left the bedroom I got undressed, put on my matted powder-blue wool pajamas, slipped under the covers, and switched off the lamp on my bedside table.
I was too hot. I threw off the sheets and blankets and pushed them down to the end of the bed. Then I lowered my pants and underpants to my ankles and rolled my pajama top up to my neck to feel the cool air on my skin.
In the darkness, in silence broken only by Cotton’s gentle breathing, I tensed my jaws, stiffened my throat, and pushed the spasm into my chest and abdomen. I held my arms away from my sides, bent my wrists like beaks, and twisted my legs at an angle, the knees pointing outward. I felt hungry for air, crippled and bitten. As I’d done every night for the past few weeks, I acted out the mythical infection, rehearsing and simulating, imagining tetanus turning to body inside me.
Then I collapsed into sleep, at the start of it all and exhausted.
Copyright © 2008 by Giorgio Vasta
Translation copyright © 2013 by Jonathan Hunt