from That Awful Mess on the via Merulana

When they reached Via Merulana: the crowd. Outside the entrance, the black of the crowd, with its wreath of bicycle wheels. "Make way there. Police." Everybody stood aside. The door was closed. A policeman was on guard: with two traffic cops and two carabinieri. The women were questioning them: the cops were saying to the women: "Stand aside." The women wanted to know. Three or four, already, could be heard talking of the lottery numbers: they agreed on 17, all right, but they were having a spat over 13.

The two men went up to the Balducci home, the hospitable home that Ingravallo knew, you might say, in his heart. On the stairway, a parleying of shadows, the whispers of the women of the building. A baby cried. In the entrance hall . . . nothing especially noticeable (the usual odor of wax, the usual neatness) except for two policemen, silent, awaiting instructions. On a chair, a young man with his lead in his hands. He stood up. It was Doctor Valdarena. Then the concierge appeared, emerging, grim and pudgy, from the shadow of the hall. Nothing remarkable, you would have said: but as soon as they had entered the dining room, on the parquet floor, between the table and the little sideboard, on the floor . . . that horrible thing.

The body of the poor signora was lying in an infamous position, supine, the gray wool skirt and a white petticoat thrown back, almost to her breast: as if someone had wanted to uncover the fascinating whiteness of that dessous, or inquire into its state of cleanliness. She was wearing white underpants, of elegant jersey, very fine, which ended halfway down the thighs with a delicate edging. Between the edging and the stockings, which were a light-shaded silk, the extreme whiteness of the flesh lay naked, of a chlorotic pallor: those two thighs, slightly parted, on which the garters-a lilac hue-seemed to confer a distinction of rank, had lost their tepid sense, were already becoming used to the chill: to the chill of the sarcophagus and of man's taciturn, final abode. The precise work of the knitting, to the eyes of those men used to frequenting maidservants, shaped uselessly the weary proposals of a voluptuousness whose ardor, whose shudder, seemed to have barely been exhaled from the gentle softness of that hill, from that central line, the carnal mark of the mystery ... the one that Michelangelo (Don Ciccio mentally saw again his great work, at San Lorenzo) had thought it wisest to omit. Details! Skip it!

The tight garters, curled slightly at the edges, with a clear, lettuce-like curl: the elastic of lilac silk, in that hue that seemed in itself to give off a perfume, to signify at the same time the frail gentleness both of the woman and of her station, the spent elegance of her clothing, of her gestures, the secret manner of her submission, transmuted now into the immobility of an object, or as if of a disfigured dummy. Taut, the stockings, in a blond elegance like a new skin, given to her (above the created warmth) by the fable of our years, the blasphemy of the knitting machines: the stockings sheathed the shape of the legs with their light veil, modeling of the marvelous knees: those legs slightly spread, as if in horrible invitation. Oh! the eyes! where, at whom were they looking? The face! . . . Oh, it was scratched, poor object! Under one eye, on the nose! Oh that face! How weary it was, weary, poor Liliana, that head in the cloud of hair that enfolded it, those strands performing a final work of mercy. Sharpened in its pallor, the face: worn, emaciated by the atrocious suction of Death.

A deep, a terrible red cut opened her throat, fiercely. It had taken half the neck, from the front toward the right, that is, toward her left, the right for those who were looking down: jagged at its two edges, as if by a series of blows, of the blade or point: a horror! You couldn't stand to look at it. From it hung red strands, like thongs, from the black foam of the blood, almost clotted already; a mess! with some little bubbles still in the midst. Curious forms, to the policemen: they seemed holes, to the novice, like red-colored little maccheroni, or pink. "The trachea," murmured Ingravallo, bending down, "the carotid, the jugular! . . . God!"

The blood had been smeared over all the neck, the front of the blouse, one sleeve: the hand, a frightful stream of a black blood from Faiti or from Cengio1 (Don Ciccio remembered suddenly, with a distant lament in his soul, poor Mamma!). It had curdled on the floor, on the blouse between the two breasts: tinged with it, too, was the hem of the skirt, the underside of that up-flung woolen garment, and the other shoulder: it seemed as if it might shrivel up from one moment to the next: surely in the end the mass would be all sticky like a blood pudding.

The nose and the face, thus abandoned, turned slightly to one side, as if she couldn't fight any more. The face! resigned to the will of Death, seemed outraged by those scratches, by marks of fingernails, as if he had taken delight, the killer, in disfiguring her like that. Murderer!

The eyes had become fixed in a horrible stare: looking at what, then? They looked, looked in a direction you couldn't figure out, toward the big sideboard, the very top of it, or the ceiling. The underpants weren't bloodied; they left uncovered two patches of thigh, two rings of flesh: down to the stockings, glistening blond skin. The furrow of the sex . . . it was like being at Ostia in the summer, or at Forte dei Marmi or Viareggio, when the girls are lying on the sand baking themselves, when they let you glimpse whatever they want. With those tight jerseys they wear nowadays.

From That Awful Mess on the via Merulana, published 2007 by New York Review Books. First published 1957 as Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana by Garzanti Editore. Copyright 1957, 1982, 1991, 1997. English translation copyright 1965 by George Braziller Publishers. By arrangement with New York Review Books. All rights reserved.