12. Blue Skies Are on the Way
I asked Amalia if she knew anything about a gorge. "Of course I do," she replied. "The Gorge… I hope you haven’t got it into your head to go there, because it was bad enough when you was little, but now that you’re no spring chicken, you’ll break your neck. Don’t think I won’t call Signora Paola, hmph."
I reassured her. I just wanted to know what it was.
"The Gorge? Just look out your bedroom window, you’ll see that hill far off with a little town sitting on top, that’s San Martino, an itty-bitty town more like it, a village of a hundred souls, nasty people if you want to know, with a bell tower as tall as the town is wide, and they’re always telling stories about how they’ve got the body of Saint Antoninus, which it looks like a carob pod, with a face as black as a cow pie, and fingers that stick out from under his robe like twigs, and my poor pa used to say that a hundred years ago they pulled some nobody out of the ground who already stank, put some who-knows-what on him, and set him up under glass to make a little money off the pilgrims, but nobody ever goes there anyhow, you know what people couldn’t give about Saint Antoninus, which he isn’t even from these parts, they probably picked him by closing their eyes and poking the calendar."
"But the Gorge?"
"The Gorge-well the only way to get to San Martino is a road that goes straight up, which even cars nowadays have a hard time with it. Not one of them roads like decent folk have that winds up the hill and gets to the top eventually. If only. No, it goes straight up, or well-nigh straight, that’s why it’s such a chore. And do you know why? Because on the side where the road goes up, there’s a few trees and vineyards which they had to put in reinforcements to be able to go up there and tend them without sliding down toward the valley on their hind parts, but on every other side it’s like the ground just fell away, a mess of briars and scrub and stones, no place to put your feet, and that’s the Gorge, and folks have even got themselves killed there, took their chances without knowing what a nasty beast it was. And it’s bad enough in the summer, but when the fog sets in, well you’re better off taking a rope and hanging yourself from an attic beam than wandering around the Gorge, at least you’ll die quicker. And then even if you’ve got the stomach for it, there’s hellcats up there."
It was the second time Amalia had spoken of hellcats, but she tried to dodge all my questions about them, and I could not tell whether it was out of reverential awe or because when you came down to it she herself did not know what they were. I gathered they were witches, who looked like solitary old hags but who would gather at night in the steepest vineyards and in blighted places like the Gorge to cast evil spells with black cats, goats, or vipers. Mean as poison, they entertained themselves by cursing whoever crossed them and ruining their harvest.
"One time, one turned herself into a cat and snuck into a house not far from here and carried off a baby. So one of the neighbors, worried sick for his own baby, spent the night by the crib with an axe, and when the cat showed up he chopped one of its paws clean off. Then he had a bad thought and went to the house of an old woman who lived down the road and he saw that there wasn’t any hand sticking out of her sleeve, and he asked how come and she started making excuses, she’d hurt herself with the sickle cutting weeds, but he said Let me take a look, and she didn’t have a hand. That cat was her, and so the townsfolk took her and burned her."
"Is that true?"
"True or not, that’s how my grandmother used to tell it, even though that one time my grandfather came in shouting Hellcats, hellcats, he was coming home from the tavern with his umbrella over his shoulders, and every now and then someone would grab the handle and wouldn’t let go, but my grandmother said, Hush up you good-for-nothing, yes, that’s what you are, you were soused as a herring and wobbling from one side of the path to the other getting that handle caught in the tree branches, hellcats nothing, and then she thrashed him good. I don’t know if all them yarns are true, but once upon a time there was a priest up in San Martino who could ward off spirits, and like all priests he was a Freemason, and he got along just fine with them hellcats, but if you give money to the church, he’d ward them off and you could rest easy for a year. For a year, see, and then more money."
But the problem with the Gorge, Amalia explained, was that when I was twelve or thirteen, I used to go up there with a band of delinquents like myself to make war on the San Martino kids, trying to surprise them by climbing up that side. If she happened to see me headed that way, she would carry me back home over her shoulders, but I was like a grass snake, and nobody ever knew what hole I had disappeared into.
That must be why, as I was thinking of a cliff and a chasm, the Gorge had come to mind. Though here again, merely the word. By midmorning I was no longer thinking about the Gorge. Someone had called from town, saying that a package was waiting for me. I went down to pick it up. It was from the studio, proofs of the catalogue. I took the opportunity to visit the pharmacist: my pressure was back up to 170. All those emotions in the chapel had done it. I decided to take it easy for the day, and the proofs were a good excuse. As it turned out, it was the proofs themselves that threatened to hike my pressure up to 180, and perhaps did.
The sky was overcast, and it was quite nice in the yard. Stretched out comfortably, I began looking through the proofs. The pages had not yet been laid out, but the text was impeccable. We were going into the fall season with a fine selection of valuable books. Well done, Sibilla.
I was about to skip over what seemed an innocuous edition of the works of Shakespeare, when I balked at the title: Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, amp; Tragedies. Published according to the True Originall Copies. I nearly had a heart attack. Beneath the Bard’s portrait, the publishers and the date: "London, Printed by Isaac Iaggard and Ed. Blount. 1623." I checked the collation, the measurements (34.2 by 22.6 centimeters, very generous margins): shiver my timbers, hell’s bells, saccaroa-this was the unobtainable 1623 folio!
Every antiquarian, I think every collector, daydreams at some point about the ninety-year-old lady. A little old lady with one foot in the grave and no money to pay for her medications, who comes to you saying she wants to sell some of her great-grandfather’s books that have been sitting in her cellar. You go to take a look, just to make sure, and find a dozen or so volumes of little value before suddenly noticing a large, poorly bound folio, its parchment cover utterly worn out, its headcaps gone, its joints failing, its corners eaten away by rats, heavily stained. You are struck by the two columns of Gothic script, you count the lines, forty-two, you race to the colophon… It is Gutenberg’s forty-two-line Bible, the first book ever printed in the world. The last copy on the market (the others are all on display in famous libraries) fetched I forget how many millions of dollars-billions of lire-recently at a New York auction, secured, I believe, by some Japanese bankers, who immediately locked it away in a safe. A new copy, still in circulation, would be priceless. You could ask whatever you wanted for it, a gazillion lire.
You look at the little old lady, you know that if you gave her just ten million she would be perfectly happy, but your conscience nags at you: you offer her a hundred, two hundred million, enough to put her back on her feet for the few years she has left. Then naturally, once you get back home, hands trembling, you have no idea what to do. In order to sell the book, you would have to mobilize the great auction houses, and they would take a big chunk of the profits and the other half would go to taxes, so you would prefer to hold on to it, but you could never show it to anyone, because if word got around then half the world’s thieves would be at your door, and what pleasure would there be in having that prodigious thing and not being able to make other collectors green with envy. Forget insurance, the cost would make you faint. What should you do? Loan it to the city, let them keep it, say, in a room in the Castello Sforzesco, under bulletproof glass, with four armed gorillas to guard it day and night? Then if you wanted to look at your book you would have to wade through a crowd of idlers who all want to see the rarest thing in the world up close. And then what do you do, elbow the next guy and say that’s my book? Is it worth it?
It is then that you think not of Gutenberg but of Shakespeare’s first folio. It would bring a few billion less, but it is well known only to collectors, so it would be easier either to keep it or to sell it. The first folio of Shakespeare. Every bibliophile’s number two dream.
How much was Sibilla asking for it? I was dumbstruck: a million, as if it were any old book. Was it possible that she did not know what she had in her hands? And when had it come into the studio, and why had she not said anything? I’ll fire her, I’ll fire her, I murmured furiously.
I called her to ask if she realized what item 85 in the catalogue was. She sounded taken aback: it was seventeenth-century, not much to look at, indeed she was quite pleased to have already sold it, right after she sent me the proofs, for only twenty thousand lire less than the asking price, so now she was taking it out of the catalogue since it was not even the sort of thing you would leave in and mark SOLD, just to show what good pieces you had. I was about to tear into her, when she burst out laughing and told me I should watch my blood pressure.
It was a joke. She had inserted that entry to see if I was reading the proofs carefully, and if my scholarly memory was still in good shape. She laughed impishly, proud of her hoax-which among other things echoed certain celebrated pranks we fanatics like to play, and certain catalogues have themselves become collectible precisely because they offered impossible or nonexistent books and even experts had been fooled.
"Such a practical joker," I finally said, but by now I was lying down. "You’ll pay for that. But the rest of the entries are perfect, no need for me to send them back, I don’t have any corrections. Let’s go forward, thanks."
I relaxed: people do not realize it, but to somebody like me, in the state I am in, even an innocent joke could bring on the big one.
By the time I finished speaking with Sibilla, the sky had turned the color of a bruise: another storm was coming, a real one this time. With the light as it was, I was relieved of the obligation or the temptation to go into the chapel. But the attic would still be lit by the dormers, and I could spend at least an hour browsing there.
I was rewarded with another box, unlabeled, thrown together by my aunt and uncle, full of illustrated magazines. I brought the box downstairs and began leafing through them casually, as one does in a dentist’s office.
I looked at the pictures in some of the movie magazines, lots of actor photos. There were of course Italian films, these, too, utterly and openly schizophrenic: on one hand, propaganda flicks such as The Siege of Alcazar and Luciano Sena, Pilot; on the other, films with gentlemen in tuxedos, dissipated women in snow-white bed jackets, and luxurious decor, such as white telephones beside voluptuous beds-at a time when, I imagine, all phones were still black and attached to walls.
But there were also photos from foreign films, and I felt a few slight twinges of flame on seeing the sensual face of Zarah Leander, or of Kristina S"oderbaum from Goldene Stadt.
Last, many stills from American movies-Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing like dragonflies, the John Wayne of Stagecoach. In the meantime I had reactivated what I thought of by now as my radio, hypocritically ignoring the gramophone that made it sing, and I had picked out some records whose titles resonated with me. My God, Fred Astaire was dancing with and kissing Ginger Rogers, but in the same years Pippo Barzizza and his orchestra were playing melodies I knew, because they were a part of everyone’s musical education. It was jazz, no matter how Italianized; the record called "Serenit`a" was an adaptation of "Mood Indigo," another one that had been pirated as "Con stile" was "In the Mood," and "Tristezze di San Luigi" (Luigi IX or Luigi Gonzaga?) was "St. Louis Blues." None had lyrics, except for the ham-fisted ones of "Tristezze di San Luigi," so as not to give away their very un-Aryan origins.
In short, between jazz, John Wayne, and the chapel comics, my childhood had been spent learning that I was supposed to curse the English and defend myself against the evil Negroes who wanted to defile the Venus de Milo, and at the same time I was lapping up messages from the other side of the ocean.
From the bottom of the box, I plucked a packet of letters and postcards addressed to my grandfather. I wavered for a moment, because it seemed sacrilegious to pry into his personal secrets. Then I told myself that my grandfather was, after all, the recipient, not the author, of those writings, that the authors were others, to whom I owed no consideration.
I read through those missives not expecting to learn anything of significance, and yet I did: in replying to my grandfather, those people, probably friends whom he trusted, made references to things he had written to them, and a more accurate portrait of my grandfather emerged. I began to understand what he had thought, what kind of friends he had spent time with or cultivated prudently from a distance.
But it was only after having seen the little bottle that I was able to reconstruct my grandfather’s political "physiognomy." It took me a while, because the account Amalia gave me had to be handled with care, but my grandfather’s ideas had come through clearly in some of the letters, and some writers had made allusions to his past. Finally, one correspondent, to whom my grandfather, in 1943, had recounted the final chapter of the oil story, congratulated him on his feat.
So. I was leaning against the windows, with the desk in front of me and the bookshelves behind it. Only then did I notice, atop the bookcase directly across from me, a little bottle, roughly ten centimeters in height, an old medicine or perfume flacon, made of dark glass.
Curious, I climbed up on a chair to reach it. The top was screwed tight and still bore the red traces of ancient sealing wax. I peered into it and shook it, but it no longer seemed to contain anything. I opened it, with some difficulty, and inside I glimpsed little spots of some dark substance. What little odor it still released from within was decidedly unpleasant, like some putrid thing that had dried up decades ago.
I called Amalia. Did she know anything about it? Amalia lifted her eyes and her arms toward the heavens and began to laugh. "Ah, the castor oil, so it was still up there!"
"Castor oil? A purgative, I think…"
"Of course it was, and sometimes they gave it to you young’uns too, just a teaspoon, to make you move your bowels when something had got stuck in your little bellies. And two teaspoons of sugar right after, to kill the taste. But they gave your dear grandfather a mite more than that, at least three times what’s in this little bottle here!"
Amalia, who had heard Masulu tell the story many times, began by saying that my grandfather had sold newspapers. No, he sold books, not papers, I said. And she insisted (or so I understood) that first he sold papers. Then I realized what the misunderstanding was. In those parts, they still call the man who sells the newspaper the "newspaper man." So when she said "newspaper man," I understood "newspaper vendor." But she was just repeating what she had heard others say, and my grandfather really had been a newspaperman: that is, a journalist.
As I pieced together from his correspondence, he had been one until 1922, writing for some socialist daily or weekly. In those times, with the march on Rome looming, the squadristi were going around patting subversives on the back with truncheons. But when they really wanted to punish someone, they forced him to drink a healthy dose of castor oil, to purge him of his skewed ideas. Not a teaspoonful-at least a quarter-liter. And so it happened that the squadristi one day barged into the offices of the newspaper where my grandfather worked: considering he must have been born around 1880, he would have been at least forty in 1922, whereas his persecutors were no-good youths, much younger than he. They smashed everything, including the small printing press. They threw the furniture out the windows, and before leaving the building and nailing two planks over the door, they grabbed the two editors who were present, and after caning them as much as necessary, gave them the castor oil.
"I don’t know if you know this, Signorino Yambo, but when they make a body drink that stuff there, if the poor creature manages to get home on his own two feet, I reckon I don’t have to tell you where he’ll be spending the next few days, which words just can’t describe it, a creature shouldn’t be treated that way."
I gathered, from advice contained in a letter from a Milanese friend, that from that moment on (given that the Fascists were to rise to power a few months later) my grandfather had decided to leave journalism and the active life, had opened his dusty old bookshop, and had held his tongue for twenty years, speaking or writing of politics only among trusted friends.
But he never forgot who poured that oil into his mouth, while accomplices pinched his nose shut.
"It was a fellow named Merlo, your dear grandfather knew it all along, and in twenty years he never lost track of him."
Indeed certain of the letters gave news of Merlo’s activities. He had made a career of sorts as a centurion in Il Duce’s militia, in charge of provisioning, and he must have lined his own pockets in the process, because he bought himself a country house.
"I’m sorry, Amalia, I understand the story about the oil, but what was in that little bottle?"
"Oh, don’t ask, Signorino Yambo, that was a nasty business…"
"You have to tell me, Amalia, if I’m to understand what happened. Please make an effort."
And then, because it was me asking, Amalia tried to explain. My grandfather had returned home, his flesh weak from the oil but his spirit still unbroken. For the first two evacuations, he had no time to think about what he was doing, and his will went out with the rest. By the third or fourth evacuation, he decided to defecate into a pot. And into that pot drained the oil mixed with that other business that comes out after a person takes a purgative, as Amalia explained. My grandfather emptied a flacon of his wife’s rosewater, washed it out, then transferred into it both the oil and that other business. He screwed the cap on and sealed the whole thing with wax, so none of that liquor would evaporate and it would retain its bouquet, as wines do.
He had been keeping the little bottle in his house in the city, but when we all took refuge in Solara, he brought it and put it in his study. It was clear that Masulu knew his story and shared his feelings, because every time he came into his study (Amalia was peeking or eavesdropping) he would glance at the bottle, then at my grandfather, and make a gesture: he would stick his hand out, palm down, then turn his wrist so that his palm faced up, and say in a menacing tone: "S’as gira," if it turns, meaning if things ever change. And my grandfather, especially in later years, would reply, "It’s turning, it’s turning, my dear Masulu, they’ve already landed in Sicily…"
And eventually July 25, 1943, came around. The Fascist Grand Council had put Mussolini on the ropes the evening before, the king had fired him, and two carabinieri had taken him who knows where in an ambulance. Fascism was finished. I could bring those moments back to life by going through the newspaper collection. Banner headlines, the fall of a regime.
It was fascinating to see the newspapers from the days that followed. They reported with satisfaction on the crowds that pulled the statues of Il Duce down from their pedestals and hacked the Fascist emblem off the facades of public buildings, and on the regime leaders who slipped into civvies and out of sight. Dailies that had, until July 24, assured us of the splendid steadfastness of the Italian people’s support for their Duce were by July 30 rejoicing in the dissolution of the Chamber of Fasces and Corporations and in the
release of political prisoners. The manager of the paper, it is true, had changed from one day to the next, but the rest of the staff must have consisted of the same people as before: they were adapting, or else many of them, after biting their tongues for years, were finally getting sweet revenge.
And my grandfather’s hour, too, had come. "It has turned," were his lapidary words to Masulu, who understood that it was time to set certain wheels in motion. He called on two sturdy young fellows who helped him in the fields, Stivulu and Gigio, their faces red from the sun and Barbera, muscles out to here-especially Gigio, who when a wagon fell into a ditch was the one called on to pull it out single-handed-and he unleashed them on the nearby towns, while my grandfather went down to the public telephone in Solara and gleaned some information from his friends in the city.
Finally, on the 30th of July, Merlo was located. His country house or estate was in Bassinasco, not too far from Solara, and that was where he had snuck off to, quietly. He had never been a bigwig and might have hoped he would be forgotten.
"We’ll go on the second of August," my grandfather said, "because it was on precisely that date twenty-one years ago that that man gave me the oil, and we’ll go after supper, first because it will be cooler, and second because by then he will have finished eating like a priest, and that’s the best time to help him with his digestion."
They took the carriage and left at sunset for Bassinasco.
When they knocked at Merlo’s house, he came to the door with a checkered napkin still tucked in his collar and asked who they were and were not, since naturally my grandfather’s face meant nothing to him. They pushed him backward, Stivulu and Gigio sat him down and held his arms behind his back, and Masulu pinched his nose shut with his thumb and index finger, which were all he needed to uncork a demijohn.
My grandfather calmly recounted the story of twenty-one years before, as Merlo shook his head, as if to say they had the wrong man, he had never been involved in politics. My grandfather, his explanation complete, then reminded his host that before pouring the oil down his throat, Merlo and his friends had encouraged him by means of a caning to say, through his pinched nose, alal`a. He himself, being a peaceful man, did not wish to use his cane for that, and so if Merlo would be kind enough to cooperate and say that alal`a right away, they could avoid an embarrassing scene. So Merlo, with nasal emphasis, shouted alal`a, which, after all, was one of the few things he had learned to do.
Then my grandfather stuck the bottle in his mouth, making him swallow all the oil along with whatever amount of fecal matter was dissolved in it, the whole solution nicely aged at the proper temperature, vintage 1922, controlled denomination of origin.
They left Merlo on his knees, his face against the brick floor, trying to vomit, but his nose had been held shut long enough for the potion to make its way into the lower reaches of his stomach.
That evening, on his return, my dear grandfather was more radiant than Amalia had ever seen him before. And it seems that Merlo was so shaken up that even after September 8-when the king asked for an armistice and fled to Brindisi, Il Duce was liberated by the Germans, and the Fascists returned-he did not go to Sal`o to join Mussolini’s new Italian Social Republic, but stayed home instead and worked in his garden. He too must be dead by now, the wretched man, Amalia said, and she thought that even had he wanted to avenge himself by telling the Fascists, he had likely been so terrified that night that he would have been unable to recall the faces of those men who had entered his house-and who knows how many others he had made drink oil? "Some of them folks must have kept an eye on him all them years, too, and I reckon he gulped down more than one little bottle, I’m telling you and you can believe it, and that’s the sort of business that can make a man lose his taste for politics."
That, then, is who my grandfather was, and it explained those underlined newspapers and Radio London. He was waiting for the turn.
I found a copy, dated July 21, of a paper in which the end of the regime was hailed, in a single exultant message, by the Democratic Christian Party, the Action Party, the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, and the Liberal Party. If I saw that, and surely I did, I must have instantly understood that for those parties to come out of the woodwork overnight meant they had existed before, underground, somewhere. Perhaps that was how I began to understand what democracy was.
My grandfather also kept broadsheets from the Republic of Sal`o, and one of them, Il Popolo di Alessandria (what a surprise! there was Ezra Pound’s byline!), contained vicious cartoons against the king, whom the Fascists hated not only for having had Mussolini arrested but also for having asked for an armistice before fleeing South to join the hated Anglo-Americans. The cartoons were also furious with his son, Umberto, who had followed him. They depicted the two in perpetual flight, kicking up little clouds of dust, the king short, nearly a dwarf, and the prince tall as a beanpole, the one nicknamed Stumpy Quickfoot and the other the Fairy Heir. Paola told me I had always favored republics, and it seems I received my first lesson from the very people who had made the king emperor of Ethiopia. The ways of providence, as they say.
I asked Amalia if my grandfather had told me the story of the oil. "Why of course! First thing the next day. He was tickled pink! He sat on the edge of your bed as soon as you woke up, told you all of it and showed you the bottle."
"And what did I do?"
"And you, Signorino Yambo, I remember it like it was yesterday, clapped your hands and yelled Hooray, Grandpa, you’re better than gud`on."
"Than gud`on? What was that?"
"How should I know? But that’s what you was yelling, like it was yesterday."
It was not gud`on, but Gordon. I was celebrating in my grandfather’s act the revolt of Gordon against Ming, tyrant of Mongo.