TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Sicily has been to Italian what Ireland has been to English. The Mediterranean’s largest island, with a population of around five million people, it has produced over the last two centuries a disproportionate number of great writers: De Roberto, Verga, Pirandello, Vittorini, Sciascia, and, far and away the best-selling Italian writer for the last ten years, Andrea Camilleri. Born in 1907 in the small town of Pachino on the southeast corner of Sicily–a bit farther south than Tunis– Vitaliano Brancati has been called the “most Southern of Italian writers,” and is recognized as an eminent contributor to the Sicilian literary canon. When he died prematurely in 1954 at the age of 47, his literary legacy included six novels, eight plays, three collections of short stories, several volumes of essays and literary criticism, hundreds of articles and other journalistic writings, and screenplays for a number of films by leading Italian directors such as Mario Monicelli and Roberto Rossellini.
The story reprinted here, “Il Nonno,” was written in 1934, the year following his grandfather’s death, when Brancati was just twenty-seven. The heart of the story is the intimate relationship between a young boy and the “elderly gentleman” who was his best friend for the first ten years of his life, a relationship seldom treated with such insight and sensitivity, between two males on either side of the “maturity” of middle age, the dark corridor of maturity that the narrator realizes he has entered on the evening of his grandfather’s funeral. The narrator’s look back at this special relationship, is the occasion to revisit the landscapes and the sensory perceptions of his boyhood and to try to account for the external and internal changes that have occurred in the fifteen years or so since the illness that struck his grandfather and marked a turning point in their lives.
During the European War, my grandfather came down with an attack of appendicitis that brought him almost to death’s door. He had frequent bouts of delirium in those days, and he said something that he had never said to anyone: that his father hadn’t died of natural causes, but had poisoned himself over the pain of losing his wife. On several occasions, he called out to his daughter and asked her to stand between him and the doorway because looking toward that corner of the room scared him.
He had always been a brave man, forthright, full of spirit, and he had loved me more even than his own eyes. From his meager salary as a town employee–which he had to hand over, penny by penny, to my grandmother–he managed to make disappear, with the ingenuous tricks of a student, a few silver lira coins that he kept squirreled away in a little purse. The purse would sit there for months at a time until my family made the trip back to our home town; would wait for me to step down off the stagecoach that brought me from Spaccaforno to Pachino and, after a three hour nap, go out with its owner into the main piazza of the town, surrounded by stores lit by oil lamps, with no signs, no shop-windows, each with maybe twenty items to sell and just barely distinguishable from the houses of the local farmers. I emptied out my grandfather’s purse in those stores and filled my arms with old, simple toys, threadbare stuffed animals, dented toy guns, and puppets made of sugar with their noses and ears already broken off.
I was three years old and rather domineering in my own lethargic way. From inside a bundle of white clothes and coveralls, I would stick my right hand out to point to some little piece of the world that I would have preferred belonged to me or that should be treated in some particular way. One afternoon with my grandfather, I pointed to a drowsy, fat horse in a team of six, whose owner, an important personage in the town, had often been the object of caricature in the dialect rhymes that my grandfather used to invent at banquets. I wanted my grandfather furtively to separate the horse from its companions and mount it together with me. Naturally, he said no, that wasn’t possible. But I’ll never forget the pained look in his eye, the disheartened gaze he cast on a world so poorly arranged as not to permit, without fear and shame, untying a horse from a team of six and making a present of it to a little boy. I didn’t say a word to my grandfather for the rest of the evening, but during the night I was overcome with remorse and soaked my pillow with tears. All in all, that was the bitterest episode of my friendship with my grandfather, and it brought to an end, once and for all, my first five years of life. A year later, I was already less domineering and more serious. Something like the shade of a world-weary man had entered my body. I loved leaning on little walking sticks, smoking chocolate cigarettes, and listening to people while holding a hand up to my ear. My grandfather was the only man in the world who respected these new habits of mine with which I was preparing to make my way slowly to my first venerable age: ten.
He would take me on long walks that ended at the gates to the city, on a cracked and flaking terrace called “the round,” where we could see the water off Marzamemi and the miniscule, clouded skyline of Noto.
Pachino sits on a hilltop, pelted by the wind of two seas: the Ionian and the Mediterranean. This wind sweeps the town continuously and makes the cobblestones shine like diamonds. The streets are wide and white and all come together in the large central piazza that, being the highest point in the town, is visible from everywhere and has that smooth aspect and red hue of places that are constantly battered by the wind.
That wind is tied, in a very intimate way, to my childhood. I can still see my grandfather’s goatee brought to life and yanked to the right or left by that wonderful wind that so often took my breath away.
In the piazza was the mother church, and on the mother church the clock and the only lightning rod in town. The church, with its high, blank wall like the side of a ship, flanked a wide avenue that was considered the main street. This was the site of the local market and home to an exorbitant number of aunts and uncles, cousins, great uncles, great cousins, witnesses at my father’s wedding, doctors who had treated my grandmother, midwives who had helped bring into the world my father, my brother, and me; all people who knew a heap of things about me that I didn’t know, and who irritated me with their all-knowing air and that gaze that slid down over my head and rushed off into the past, as if I was nothing more to them than a pretext for resting their chins in their hands and remembering. My grandfather, no less than I, was offended by the demeanor of our relatives. I was more important to him than all of that past; though doubtless that past had some small value for him in so far as in the end it had deigned to produce the ten kilos of living being that were me. So, in total agreement with each other, we avoided the main street and made our way to the round on side streets full of children, of wagon wheels leaning against walls, and groups of people, each of whom was holding onto a horse so it could be shoed.
But in the evening, when the street was deserted, and the houses and the shops were all closed up, except for the pharmacy run by my grandfather’s brother, Uncle Carlo, who stood next to the counter and, holding a guitar in his left hand, added a few hendecasyllable verses to one of his tragedies with his right; when the last lamps went out in the marketplace and it was no longer possible to tell whether what was moving around in the shadows was a watchman, a dog, or a calf; when the wind finally calmed down for a while, my grandfather and I, after having done twenty laps around the piazza, would head down the main street. Near the church, there was always someone sleeping. Up above, the stars amazed me with the way they look, on cloudless nights, over a smooth, blank wall. My grandfather used to smoke cigars and every now and again the breeze would snatch a spark and carry it off into the distance. The smell of that cigar is something I’ll never be able to forget, and it’s one of the three or four elemental sensations that I always draw upon when, after some unusual incident that has upset me, I start to get hold of myself. On winter nights, he would hold my little hand inside the pocket of his overcoat. On summer nights, he would give me, so I could use it to fan myself, his gray panama hat. The stories that I asked him to tell on those occasions were always of a musical nature. He would tell me, slightly out of order so I could always ask for some further explanation, about the performances of a certain Lucia and a certain Norma given in the theaters of Catania.
These stories were mixed with others of army life, but these too were sprinkled with songs. My grandfather would sing for me the tunes of his regiment, especially the one where the soldiers berated the “corporal of the week” for having woken them too early.
L’è suonata la sveglia L’è ancora schiur, Caporal di settimana. . .
The alarm has sounded And it’s still dark Corporal of the week . . .
Then there were stories of more intimate episodes, from which I learned two things: that once my father, incredibly, had been really small, even smaller than me, and that, beyond the clouds in the northern sky, there existed a city called Napoli, where my grandfather had bested an overly vain tenor in a singing contest.
Then the talk turned again to my father, and it was said that, if he had been there with us at that moment, we would have been two sons, one grandfather, two fathers and a grandson, and that my grandfather would have had to be in the middle because he was the most important of the three.
But actually, my grandfather and I felt the same affection for my father and the same respect; his gaze instilled in both of us the same apprehension, and his presence disturbed, in equal measure for my grandfather and myself, our lively spontaneity. By this time, my grandfather and I had developed a taste for life that no one, not even my father, could share. We were ready to judge anything in a way all our own and in which we were never in disagreement. Exactly how this single taste had come about, I don’t remember, but I think little by little, with our holding hands, with the trust that his gray goatee inspired in me, with the ten things that he chose among the many in his long life, figuring that they were the only really important ones, worthy of being told to me. I sensed immediately that he was happy with that choice, and I was flattered and enamored of the way he recounted those ten things to me. It was truly noble, worthy of a grand gentleman, of a man of true heart, as if all the rest, everything about his life that he didn’t tell me, he thought not only was unsuitable to be heard by my little ears, but that it was stupid for him too, and useless, and had been lived for no reason at all.
This perfect accord, that I had the great good fortune to reach with an elderly gentleman whose yellowed photographs of when he was a child strangely resembled me, had a great power over me. I matured quickly, without the perils and pitiful frailties of a precocious child. I matured, because I was happy and because I knew how to appreciate my happiness. With the blessed confusion of someone who has had a good long sleep and now the sun is beating down on his face, I could feel the stirring, in my brain and in my eyes, of the man of tomorrow. During the periods I lived with my grandfather I was serene, never afraid at night, and I gave to the prospect of things bigger than me the order that a budding snake charmer is able to give to a group of lizards. When one is living in a world like that one does not need, in order to fill up his life, either poetry or riches, or even–I hesitate a little to say it–religion.
* * *
But, during the war, my grandfather came down with appendicitis. At the time, I was in Pozzallo, in a house with huge balconies whose windows were filled with water and boats. I spent hours and hours reproducing in my little diary the freighters that struggled in vain to move out of sight, rather like an ant on which one has let fall a drop of ink. I heard that my grandfather was delirious, and this worried me. I was afraid that he would let slip his army stories, the songs, the episode of the tenor, and that our intimacy would be lost. For fifteen days, I let the freighters go by without reproducing them in my diary; and for me that renunciation was filled with the melancholy of a hunter of flies who keeps his hand open while two of those insects are playing on his palm. In the end, I heard that my grandfather was feeling better, that he was no longer delirious and had started a diet. Less than two months went by and around our dinner table the rigor with which grandma imposed the new diet on granddad was already famous. There were tales of how meticulous and precise he had become, and how he had developed certain habits from which he never deviated for any reason at all.
When I saw him again, in ’16, he was a lot thinner and his eyes shone with a brightness that was almost gleeful. I couldn’t understand if he was changed or not. His ways were those of before and the words with which he greeted me were the same. His gaze, however, didn’t quite convince me. Yes, it was still affectionate, it kept coming back to rest on my shirt, on my shoes, on my belt and on my cheeks, but it lacked that special stare with which it distinguished me from others.
The first day of our meeting went as it was supposed to. He told me the story of the tenor, described the war just as I wanted, and as no one else had ever described it: a group of regiments that, upon awaking in the trenches at dawn, would break out singing, L’è suonata la sveglia, l’è ancora schiur…. But that night he didn’t smoke his cigar anymore, because it had been forbidden him, and the next day he had to endure in silence a harangue from my grandmother, reprimanding him because, for the first time after months of dieting, he had changed his dinner time by an hour. I was secretly very pleased. As I had predicted, the famous diet, which it appeared my grandfather had sworn to uphold, went up in smoke as soon as I appeared on the scene. But that night, I came in for a bitter disappointment. As we were out walking together, he singing and I listening, my grandfather looked at the clock in the piazza with an expression that I had never seen on his face. It seemed to me that the clock, red against the deep sky, provoked in him the dread and delight that a feared island might provoke in a tired old sea dog. (I learned, several years later, that my grandfather’s father had also been reduced, in his last years of life, to following a diet, and he too had regulated his meal times according to the spheres of that big clock). Three times, my grandfather shifted his gaze from the red clock face to my hair. Then he smiled weakly, accompanied me to my father and, without saying a word, left me there, for the first time in my life in such a brusque way, and went to drink his milk. I remember his stooped shoulders, the rapid gesture he made when, upon reaching the church, he looked up at the clock again, and the vast piazza where he walked off into the distance, making himself as small and insignificant as a stranger. From the storefronts came the light of oil lamps, spreading over the ground and leaving the air completely dark. The only parts of their bodies that were illuminated were the men’s shoes, while the rest of them remained blurry and indistinct, like animals in the woods. The sky was strangely high and full of stars that I couldn’t separate from a subtle smell of meadow and a sweet bewilderment that was a prelude to sleep. There was a great confusion in my heart as there must be in a house that has never held a party and the order suddenly arrives to give a reception on the spot. I didn’t know where to begin, and what thoughts to select and what others to reject in order to suffer the profound pain that my grandfather had given me. In my confusion, that pain hung there in front of me without my being able to take full possession of it. Finally, tiredness got the better of me and I fell asleep on a chair. I think it was my father who carried me home. Between sleeping in the chair and sleeping on the bed there wasn’t but a moment in which I saw the Milky Way and heard two words: “It’s late!”
The next day, things were already different. I felt myself disposed to observing granddad attentively, to staying slightly behind him on our walks in order to see his shoulders, to acting distracted when we walked past the front of the church, observing out of the corner of my eye whether he really did make a fleeting sign of the cross. That day I saw in my grandfather a man I had never seen before, a man with slightly stooped shoulders, big shoes, and a moist forehead. He was a sort of stranger who had been following me around since I was born, or rather who had been following us around, my grandfather and me, and whom I had only now become aware of. But I had no sense of hostility toward him. I thought he was nice, honest, and worthy of being loved. Only there was something about him that was weak and too entertaining. And perhaps I must attribute to these two qualities, which became more marked with time, the extraordinary fact that my grandfather should have slipped imperceptibly out of my life and, fifteen years later, when I was twenty-four, he barely existed for me. Or better, in Pachino there was an old man who had my name and to whom I sent hugs at the end of letters I wrote to my aunt. There was a little man whom I sought out with my eyes every time I went back to the house where my father was born. But he was reduced to saying three or four phrases; to sitting alone in a room as big as a drawing room, leafing through for the thousandth time some illustrated magazines; to mistaking me for my brother; to being afraid of having his picture taken; to displaying visible annoyance when I sat down on one of the two chairs that, in a little while, he would use to hang his jacket and pants on, and that always had to be the same ones. When they came to rest on me, his eyes would shine weakly and immediately refuse to make the effort to look at me in any special way. There were times when it even seemed he hardly recognized me as someone he knew. I wasn’t hurt by all this because we had come to this point gradually, from year to year, and I would have almost been amazed if each new visit of mine to Pachino had not found my grandfather still more distant from me. My life, full of work, strange friendships, and foolish plans, had gotten pleasantly used to this poison of detachment, taken in ever stronger doses. By now, nothing in him reminded me of the old gentleman who had filled the early years of my life with his friendship. His handsome gray goatee had vanished. His eyes seemed distant and indifferent like the eyes in portraits, and his whole person increasingly fled from the memories and the love of others. At times, a question would come out of his mouth that alarmed us, as though he were about to recover the affection he once had for us. But it turned out to be a question enunciated by chance, like certain resemblances to persons we hold dear, that we see for a moment in a stranger and that make our hearts beat faster. A minute later, he would go back to his little furtive gestures and to expressing his desire for food and sleep with the violence of a child, immediately betrayed by the fact that he didn’t digest well and suffered from insomnia.
By now, nothing of him came to me from Pachino: no greetings, no good wishes, not even an answer to my picture postcards. It was extraordinarily easy to forget him completely, and for months on end his image didn’t come back to my memory even for a second. In April of ’33, when I was in Catania for a short visit with my family, he died suddenly.
It happened on Wednesday of Holy Week. The news was communicated to us by telephone during the night. The next day at dawn, my father and I left for Pachino. I recall that, as I was getting in the car, I saw a man down at the end of the street, dressed in gray and acting very strangely, as though he were trying to hit, with the cane that he passed rapidly back and forth from his right hand to his left, a short figure that appeared first behind him and then to the side and then immediately disappeared. I couldn’t understand if the man was a drunk or a cripple or a just a swinger of canes. In any event, I was thoroughly disgusted by him. What he was, finally, was the opening episode of the time when my grandfather would no longer be alive. My grandfather had died of old age, which is to say, he died to make room for the things that were supposed to come after him. And these things were inane and useless to the point of absurdity. They were that man swinging his cane around in the air, staggering around like an old blind dog….
When the car started moving, my father pressed himself up against his side window and kept his eyes fixed straight in front of him, off in the distance. His hand, resting on the seat between us, looked a lot like my grandfather’s hand. At dawn, meanwhile, the sky lit up with the aurora; the front steps outside the closed front doors gleamed softly; the old door of a church opened little by little; a wagon pulled by a donkey creaked its way toward a fountain; and I felt, as though for the first time, all the happiness one feels on a morning in a closed bedroom when you’re next to the bed of a loved one and you see them open their eyes again and smile…. My grandfather, on the other hand, for the first time in seventy years, would not be opening his eyes that morning.
Not until we were on the train did I realize that granddad, whom I saw dead, was not the insignificant little old man that had been eluding my affection for ten years. Instead he was the gentleman with the gray goatee, the friend of my early years, my companion on long walks, the one who bounced me on his knee, telling me about the most beautiful and important things that had happened before I was born. He was the old gentleman who adored me and whom I loved infinitely….
On clear days, the mountains in the province of Siracusa shine all the way to the sea near Catania. But even close up those mountains have a mysterious splendor, as though the sun had ceded them to a blue star and its strange satellites. At sunrise and sunset especially, those majestic peaks appear to be the flimsiest and most delicate part of the earth. In summer, when the wild simun blows up from Africa, the mountains of Siracusa, seen from afar in the brilliant light and vibrant air, look as though they won’t be able to hold up against the wind and that they’ll be ripped to shreds like a veil. Those mountains were upon us in an instant, as I was remembering and snoozing. Suddenly they surrounded the train; a rich, mild light settled onto the velvet seats and the pictures in the compartment. My mind went into a fog and my heart felt a painful, profound sweetness, as if all of a sudden, after so many years, I had re-entered the enchanted grotto of childhood.
An old, dust-covered automobile was waiting for us and immediately set off toward Noto. It was still morning, and we felt ourselves heading into the sea as we sped along this last, ever-narrowing strip of Sicily. All around us by now, waves were shimmering and the saline wind was blowing. This was where I had launched my little boy’s cry; this was the dust that had filled my shoes. The sensations and thoughts of my boyhood had remained so alive in me that I was ready to have them again, and not as memories, but as proper thoughts and sensations. I was right on the edge of letting go. That sky that stretched out on all sides and was sliding along the small, rounded hump of the maritime plain, like a giant trying to climb up onto a miniscule piece of floating ice; that sky looked again as it had long ago. What it had said to me then, it was saying to me again with great simplicity. So that, for the trees whitened with sand, the dogs that for a long stretch came running behind the car, the children sleeping together with the chickens in large baskets strapped to the backs of donkeys, I easily felt again the mysterious pity I had felt back then, and the fear that I’d once had of those who suffered and of things that appeared to be suffering, because I saw in them something of the chastised and therefore of the wicked. Sitting in the car, I also felt a strange satisfaction; and this too was tied to the idea I had of the road in my early years, when I was afraid of horses because they reared up at passing cars, and I admired the cars because they made the horses rear up and then kept right on going, fast as the wind. Actually, my life was still under the dominion of my boyhood. The splendor of that age was following me as, at the start of a dark hallway, the light of the drawing room one has just come out of. I would always have to turn back to it, to my boyhood, if I wanted to be spontaneous and true. But had I always been spontaneous and true? And hadn’t I instead shown my bones, like a scrawny horse pulling its wagon from a ditch, in the sad endeavor to be different from what I am?
At the foot of the hill where Noto rises up, I rediscovered intact an old impression of mine which had always made me realize when I had arrived in the vicinity of Pachino. It was a blend of the smell of bunches of grapes fallen to the ground and burnt by the sun and a profound respect for everything that had been living for a long time and that I had never seen. Along the road, the return of these old impressions kept getting more vivid and numerous. What I noticed in them was a great seriousness.
Back then, I had notions of death and life that were very simple and clear, but above all serious. Then I wouldn’t have said, not even in my stupidest and strangest dreams, a phrase like the one which, later on, I had even written: “I believe in life!” That phrase sounded fake, like something from a circus or a fair, compared to the clear and simple feeling that I nourished for life in my early years. Nor would I have said: “We must be happy and strong!” What meaning could they have had, at that time, words such as those? What meaning could they have had in a way of living so full and natural as mine was during my boyhood? None! But what had happened inside me in the last fifteen years? Was it my grandfather who had vanished from my life, or I that had become so clouded that I was no longer able to see the friend of my first years, the man who had been so clear when my life was clear?
* * *
In the room, big as a drawing room, where he used to spend his afternoons, going back to leaf through for the thousandth time some illustrated magazines from fifty years ago, I found a small stranger, stretched out on a sort of altar. This one didn’t even look like the insignificant old man into which my boyhood grandfather had slowly transformed himself. He was a short little man, dressed in black, who had closed his eyes the night before and retained no other signs of humanity on his face except for one, infantile, that could have been the pain caused by lack of food. No sign of the seventy years of life that, according to the testimony of the living, were to be attributed to that little man. That little man contained to the point of absurdity the stranger that had broken off, some fifteen years ago, from my grandfather, and brought him to his grave. I couldn’t bring myself to cry for him. But suddenly, when I realized that my boyhood granddad, the beautiful man with the gray goatee, would never come back to me, could never exist again, for the fact that the little unknown man had closed his eyes after having said he felt fine in order to induce my aunt to give him some raisins, the whole thing seemed so brutal, violent, and unfair that my heart squeezed shut as though it would never beat again.
I accepted the chair that someone offered me and sat down in the darkest corner of the room. I cried like a baby, but without desperation. My grandfather wasn’t dead, but just mysteriously forced not to show himself to be more than that miniscule old man lying on the catafalque. It was as though he had gone away or gone into hiding forever. Death could never touch the beautiful and vital gentleman with the gray goatee who had given me, with his smile and his love such a calm, natural, and full sense of living. No, he had vanished, like a magician, like the most beautiful of my dreams. All that was fabulous about him remained intact forever. I may sometimes doubt that he ever really existed, but I’ll always have the hope that, from behind the curtain near which I’ll be sitting in a moment of ennui, he’ll stretch out his strong, warm hand and touch my head, smiling.
The room was dark, and the door across from me that led into a room that opened onto the street, was lit up like the mouth of a tunnel. The doorway framed a continuous passing of women wrapped in shawls, their hands thrusting out to send kisses and make the sign of the cross. One of them, very old, cried more than the others and collapsed against the doorframe. “Beautiful! Beautiful!” were the words that were heard cried out most often. Even women younger than he called him: “Little one!” My aunt, sitting next to him, leaned her cheek down against his forehead and said, carefully pronouncing each syllable in a tone somewhere between crying and screaming, “Why did you decide to leave me? Why have you gone away? Everyone here loved you! Everyone!…. You’re beautiful, beautiful as yesterday when you were sleeping. Only you’re cold, my son, cold as marble!”
From time to time, Uncle Carlo, sitting a little way off, sent through the room a gaze that was pale, thin, and bright, like the light of an old lantern. The day was growing longer. The room started to fill with people I didn’t know. The women whispered words into ears. Little by little, what they said in each other’s ears became very important, and by comparison the dead man himself, lying in the middle of the room, became as small as a little boy found on the street, looking around as the crowd, forgetting about him, discusses some general proposals for ways of helping homeless children. Finally, someone walked over to my aunt and begged her to get up. My aunt immediately threw herself on her father’s cadaver, sticking her fingernails into his black suit. She screamed and refused to let go of her grip. I got up and left the room and took refuge in a parlor, where, during my boyhood, I used to sleep at night, breathing in smells of cloth roses, velvet headboards, and portraits. It was Holy Thursday, the day when a group of people roams through the streets of Pachino carrying a trumpet and a drum, representing the drama of the Madonna crying out her Son’s name through the streets of Jerusalem. When the group arrives outside the door, a rapid drum roll can be heard, followed by a sad and deep sound from the trumpet. For an hour at least I had been hearing that double call, from neighborhood to neighborhood, making its way towards us. Then I stopped hearing it. And then, suddenly, as I was sitting in the parlor, that precipitous drum roll that sends the knick-knacks on the table trembling and the old, faded portraits vibrating. And the clear voice of the trumpet. My chest tightened and it felt like my ankles had been hit by a blow from an ax. When they called me from the street, I could barely stand up. Somehow or other, I made it outside. Pachino was whiter than ever, and on its dusty, sun-bathed streets the dark dresses of the procession stood out like hawks. With one hand on the coffin, carried on our arms, I arrived inside the church. The organ was already playing, and the little girls kneeling in the pews were singing with their silver voices. Soon the voice of the priest was added to the chants. It was then that I heard my own name, pronounced in Latin in a loud voice, and always followed by the words, “through the endless ages.” This served to make it clear to me, as clear as one plus one, that my grandfather and my boyhood had gone forever.
On the way back from the cemetery, in the midst of a little group that was already taking about other things, we came into the piazza and as I glanced up at the façade of the church I saw it as a blackboard where, when I had turned my back to go down to the cemetery, someone had erased, with the sweep of a sponge, the words that my grandfather and my own boyhood had written there. I felt that same painful impression, of words erased and an empty blackboard, in front of the little round windows that I used to look out on, for hours on end, from my grandfather’s doorway, standing erect on the little step where the shutter swung open and closed with a creaking sound and that on moonlit nights was half silver and half black.
I left, on my own, the next afternoon. As usual, the sun was bright and the wind carried the constant sounds, piercing and cold, of the blacksmith’s hammer. The large coach that takes travelers on the hour’s journey from the piazza in Pachino to the train station in Noto, was already covered with dust before it left. I boarded behind an old woman and sat down between two baskets, one of which had a rabbit’s foot sticking out of it and the other an apple. I turned to look out the window and saw, framed tightly at the end of a narrow street, the sea off Marzamemi; the sea that I had seen shimmering endlessly in the afternoons of my childhood and that now was as dim as a switched-off lamp at the end of a party.
A few minutes later, a hunter got on and sat next to me. The coach started off, the town vanished on both sides and the mountains of Noto loomed in the distance.
An old man, who was sitting in front of me, turned slowly and, pointing at the sky, asked the hunter,
“Nothing!” the other replied. “Didn’t see so much as a wing this year….”
Yes, my boyhood was really over. My boyhood was dead. One night, a little boy, standing erect in front of the mirror, I had played the most useless and desperate of games, trying to see the expression that my face took on when I closed my eyes. Now, my boyhood was finished, the handsome gentleman with the gray goatee had vanished from the earth. I knew very well that a man doesn’t die all at once, but age by age. And I knew that the ages of a man are two: boyhood and maturity. That year, not even a wing had been seen in the sky, and my first age had died. But I still had another age left. I still had time to be honest, to be truthful, and above all to be simple. But a part of my life had ended; one of my eyes had closed forever.