A character knocked on the door of the woman with short hair. Tapping timidly with her knuckles, the character entered the room without making a sound. She’s a modestly dressed mountain woman. On her feet she wears sturdy little boots. She sat down on the edge of the seat and stayed there in silence, letting the coffee cool on the table in front of her. She seemed embarrassed and ashamed but determined to stay. Then slowly, toward evening, after eating a bowl of soup and drinking a glass of wine, she decided to talk. She speaks haltingly because she thinks her story isn’t very interesting, that nobody wants to listen to it.
Zaira, called Zà, that’s her name, thinks of herself as an anonymous person, ordinary, plus she’s well past the age for a novel heroine. So then what is it that pushes her to break age-old habits of discretion and silence to go and knock on the door of a novelist? From the shy and awkward person that she is, she becomes decisive and enterprising when it comes to her granddaughter Colomba, called ‘Mbina. She raised her like a daughter, she explains abruptly, and now she’s vanished. Her face wrinkles up like the face of a monkey when she pronounces the word vanished. Vanished? What do you mean? Vanished, vanished. She doesn’t know where she’s gone or who with or why, or if she’s dead or alive. But her not very resigned expression suggests that she hopes to find her alive. And after trying various roads, it occurred to her to ask for help from a novelist to rediscover the tracks of her lost granddaughter. Everyone thinks she’s lying dead somewhere near their town, in the mountains of Abruzzi. But not her. And she’s sure that the author will give her a hand in the search.
“Colomba Mitta disappeared from her home on June 2,” says a clipping from the Eco della Marsica that Zaira has left for her on the table. “The girl, who lives in Touta with her grandmother, is twenty-two years old. Her room was found in order: the bed made, her slippers lined up on the rug in front of the door, her moist towels hanging on the windowsill, a book about mycology lying on the bedside table. In the kitchen, a still-full cup of coffee. The sugar jar with its lid slightly unscrewed and the full spoon, as though she were about to sweeten her coffee. But that spoon never made it to the cup. Her purse, with money, documents, cell phone and driver’s license, had been left on top of the cabinet in the entryway. She was wearing a pair of brown pants and a pink jersey. A turquoise windbreaker wrapped around her waist. That’s how she’d been seen by G’vannitti the shepherd who saw her rush to get on her bicycle and pedal off swiftly toward the mountains.”
Spread some little white rocks on the hearth stone? Stop and concentrate on the place where she is, to try and really understand which way is north and which way is south? The sky turns upside down and takes on an acid green color. The trees, pointing downward, look up at her from below, the titmice scamper though the leaves, skimming over the ground. The mountains of Abruzzi are telling her something she doesn’t understand. They seem to be reminding her that the mountains are a family destiny. Her grandmother talked of Persian forests and mountain ranges, her father had enlisted in the Alpine corps so he could stay close to the mountain woods. “Don’t you remember that month of April/that long train heading for the border/ carrying thousands of men from the Alpine Corps . . . !” The sweet, rhythmic song of a man who, despite his many loves and numerous family, had always remained a loner.
How vivid are those memories of shelters buried in the snow where you arrived weary when the peaks were turning red. A cold stove, a stack of wet firewood, a small sauce pan to melt a fistful of snow and throw in some powdered soup. At night the wind pulled out its claws and scraped against the iced-over windows, the stove smoked and she shook with cold inside her sleeping bag. But her father would not be moved: “Tomorrow we’re going up to the highest peak. There’s another shelter up there named after the Child Madonna. We have to get there by sunset. We’ll be fine if we leave by six.” “But, Papa, at six it’s still dark.” “So? There’s still a half-moon, the reflection off the snow will do the rest.”
And in fact at five they were already up, reheating themselves a little bit of powdered coffee in the little pan full of snow. Coffee that tasted of soup. All there was to eat were some cookies as hard as rocks. And for lunch a chunk of cheese and an apple.
An austere man, her father, intrepid, graced with an enigmatic smile. Had he ever understood the love of that daughter who, just to be near him was willing to face those gelid nights, the hours and hours of climbing, the hunger, sleeping on a dirt floor? Not sentimental at all, that young and vigorous father. “Come on, Cina, move faster or we’re going to be late and if we don’t get there before dark tonight, when there won’t be any moon, we’ll end up at the bottom of some crevice.” And she with her eyes parched by the wind, her nose frozen, her feet aching, running along beside him cursing the snow and the rocky trails.
“Now that we’re here in the warm shelter, dry off those soaking boots, drink a little wine and sing with me, to warm yourself up a little! It was a night of heavy rain / The wind was blowing strong / Imagine what a torment / For an Alpine sentry alone!” He had a musical ear, that always buoyant father, that father who confronted life like an inhabitant of Sparta from six hundred B.C. When she had yet to be born, the young anthropology student in his final year had enlisted in the Alpine corps and his young Sicilian wife had followed him so as not to be separated from him for even a day, for even an hour. They called her the “madamin” of Signor Lieutenant. She was beautiful, cheerful, brave, and with surprising generosity she gave up her painting to have first one daughter and then another. The first war had just ended with its infinite dead, and now another one was looming. But when he had argued with his father and had accepted an international grant for a research trip to a faraway country, she had followed him without delay, their newborn daughter in her arms. This father who she believed, deep inside, was blessed with a loving eternity, this father who was still blond at ninety, this father who smiled at her so tenderly, maybe just a little distracted, died suddenly, leaving her speechless. “After three days on the iron rails / and two more on the march / We finally came to Monte Canino . . . ” He disdained the family tomb, resting place of his little-loved father and madly loved mother, and far away from a younger brother for whom he’d felt great affection. He chose to be buried, after being cremated, among the mountains of the Garfagnana, in Tuscany. A loner even after death, just as he was when he left for his long peregrinations in the mountains: alone, always alone, with his pack on his back, a sleeping bag rolled up on the top, a book, and an orange.
That captain from the First World War came up often in her father’s songs. And she sees him now and recognizes him in a photograph being shown her by the character Zaira, called Zà. “This is my grandfather Pietr’ i pelus as a young man” she says with a proud smile. A handsome fellow, tall, with a sarcastic smile, a thin mustache, hair cut short, the eyes candid and a little arrogant. In the photo next to it he’s stretched out in a sleeping bag and someone is shining a flashlight on him in a night of insomnia. The young fellow liked to read: Pascal, Saint Augustine, Mallarme, D’Annunzio. Yet he was the son of an illiterate Sicilian peasant brought to Abruzzo in 1889 by her carabiniere father and married to the young Abruzzese shepherd Mose Salvato Del Signore.
Pietr i pelus spent his holidays in bed with a book. He practically never left his room and kept on reading to the point of exhaustion. One Sunday, however, somebody knocked on the door: it was an Abruzzese friend of friends from Touta who lived in Turin like him, and he invited Pietr to a ball at the home of a girl from Chieti. A ball? Pietr had never been to a ball and he felt out of place. He didn’t know the steps of the mazurka or of the polka or the waltz which were the fashion in those years. So he refused the invitation. But Carlo Alberto di Pirro, called Penzaperte, insisted so much that in the end he managed to convince him. And so, around seven in the evening, he started getting ready, cutting the hairs of his nose and ears, ironing with a borrowed iron the only white shirt he owned, with patches on both elbows, and dejectedly trying to clean with a brush dipped in water his dark jacket with the warn, shiny lapels.
Penzaperte came by to get him at eight, calling up to him from the front door, and he came down all excited, jumping with both feet down the broken stairs, forgetting for once the bitter and mortifying smell of cabbage that hovered in the entryway. They jumped on a tram and then another and finally they arrived in the city center. They walked along under the arches of the Viale del Re and there they were in the parlor of the girl from Chieti, who was the daughter of a bank manager and had a beautiful house lined with precious rugs. “I’m Filomena, and you?” “Carlo Alberto di Pirro and this is Pietro, Pietr’ for his friends from Abruzzi.” The girl immediately turned her back on them to go and see to the buffet. Carlo Alberto started dancing with a girl with a prominent chest while Pietr’ remained seated, ill at ease, a glass of orangeade in hand, terrorized at having to dance. Then he noticed that sitting next to him was a very tall girl with lovely long white arms, who watched the others pirouette without ever getting up herself.
“My name is Pietro.”
“And I’m Amanita.”
“I’ve never heard that name.”
“It’s the name of a mushroom.”
“Are you Abruzzese too?”
“Do you want to dance?”
“I don’t know how to dance.”
“Neither do I.”
They burst out laughing in relief. That’s where the friendship was born that then, in just a few months, changed into love, or at least something very close to love.
From Colomba (Milan: Rizzoli, 2004). Copyright 2004 RCS Libri SpA-Milano. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation copyright 2008 b y Gregory Conti. All rights reserved.