The Busacca

(Eugenio Montale — La Busacca)

It’s not always that children — the most natural and confident friends and enemies of the animal kingdom — have, within their grasp or at least within vision, a moderately rich variety of fauna, as happened to those who were able to frequent the zoos of our great cities before the bombs raining from the skies set at liberty rattlesnakes and the wild beasts of the tropics. There are boys — and most of them tend to live in places normally (but maybe not for much longer) regarded as civilised countries — to whom the fantastic bestiary of infancy is almost completely denied; boys for whom the Hercules’ columns of the animal world are represented by the dog, the cat, the horse, examples of which are not always especially remarkable. In cases like this, the boys of my generation, virtually ignorant of the sport of football and of complicated mechanical toys, fell back on fantasy and even resorted to the stories old people used to tell. Where the menagerie didn’t exist, they knew how to make one for themselves in their own way.

A little boy of my close acquaintance whom everyone called Zebrino because of the striped shirt he always wore (and already in that choice of nickname there was perhaps a foreknowledge of his aptitudes and tastes), who happened to live in a town almost completely devoid of bizarre zoological species, had in exactly this way sought information from the old people, from the whims of popular fantasy, and had greatly benefited from them. He spent the free months of the year, those of the summer, on a spit of land facing the sea, separated from the rest of the world by high rocky cliffs. It was a region with no passable roads; the train ran enclosed in long tunnels without stopping there, and only occasional vibrations of the earth and the smoke which escaped from chimneys bored into the rocks indicated its passage. A world of landing places, a barren world in which only the badger, the squirrels and the birds could find a more or less permanent home: not the wolf nor the bear, who need broader heathland or more extensive bush.

Zebrino was not yet a hunter, and rarely accompanied the local men when they went hunting. The varieties of migrating birds were only names to him, and didn’t greatly stimulate his imagination. But with a few of the native feathered residents — the nightjar, the busacca — he had had a close friendship from his earliest years. That he had seen them for real would have been to assume too much. He had at least once come across the nightjar, or goatsucker, dead, with its hairy, beakless mouth shaped like a suction cup, a blood-sucking bird, even though in these parts goats were extremely rare. But the busacca? Its very existence was in doubt in the minds of the most reliable men, the ones who had been to the city. And none of the hunters whom Zebrino met could boast of having killed a single one. It was, or it was supposed to be, a bird of prey, bigger than a hawk and smaller than an eagle, equipped with strong wings but not so broad as to allow it to take flight from the ground. When flushed out by a hunter it would dive from the heights of a rock and hover in the air like a glider or a kite, before landing lower or higher, according to the direction of the wind or the seriousness of the risk, but always on the edge of a sheer drop from which it could dive again. It was an unassailable daemon, slow-paced and shrewd, leathery and shotgun-proof. Sometimes the men would kill kestrels and hawks, hoopoes and black woodpeckers, wrinkled and feeble like dirty handkerchiefs pulled out of the shooters’ poacher’s pockets; but a busacca, no, that was an unrealisable dream.

This was the dream that made Zebrino a hunter for a day. He owned no guns, and at his age there was no question that he could hold a firearms licence. Although he pitied dead birds and had no intention of following the path of Saint Hubert, he thought proudly of going where no one had gone before: killing the busacca on his debut, and then abandoning hunting for ever. He was helped by Restin, the son of one of the farmers there, a boy unarmed like him but better informed about armaments and blunderbusses. They worked for several days, getting hold of a lead tube which they fixed with spikes and string to a bit of wood shaped like a gun stock; and at the bottom of the blind part of the tube, where it was grafted onto the breech of the wood, they fashioned a hole for the fuse. Then they charged the weapon with gunpowder obtained from a mine; on top of the charge they pressed a handful of squares of lead cut with shears, and to enclose the explosive and the lead pieces they stuffed a wad of waste paper into the tube, rammed down its length with a small stick. A one-shot weapon, which couldn’t fail. And they left one day before dawn, equipped with sulphur matches and a fuse stolen from the local miners.

The real challenge was to get close to the busacca, light the match and then the fuse at the first signs of their prey, follow it for ten or twenty seconds with the weapon aimed, let the fuse travel to the explosive until the gun fired… then it would simply be a matter of seeing the creature collapse under the fusillade. Zebrino insisted on the role of marksman; Restin was to light the match and the fuse at the given moment, without hesitation; the division of labour was impeccable and the honour in the task would be shared equally between the two.

They walked for more than two hours, leaving behind the last orchards and the parched olive groves, haunts of peaceful ortolans, and moved through pine woods before arriving at rocky terrain where they were confronted by inland valleys separated by great stony cliffs. The sun shone in the distance, and the sound of occasional hammering reached them from the stone quarries.

They had to wait a shorter time than expected for the miraculous encounter: a broad, enveloping shadow which passed over the ground and dived into a gorge cut atop a sheer cliff, from which a flock of little birds arose, squawking.

‘It’s the busacca,’ said Zebrino in a confident tone. (The phrase was a hawk, a blackbird, but the busacca, with no numeral, the busacca, unique by definition, because it would be nonsensical to imagine that there could be two.)

‘Are you sure?’ asked Restin, trembling, and making no attempt to hide his unease.

‘Absolutely sure. I’ll aim. You get ready. Light the first match.’

They tiptoed towards the scrub. Restin lit a first, then a second, then a third match, screwing up his nose at the stench of the crackling sulphur. The creature was so close to them, like a shadow. They were almost on the edge of the gorge. They heard a stripping of foliage, another swish, the bushes were shaking as if at the passage of a heavy body. Restin brought the match, which was about to go out, up to the fuse.

‘Yes… Yes…’ said Zebrino, offering Restin the gun, then raising it with the dangling fuse smoking. A moment passed: an eternity. The smoke curled in the air. Then they saw a tiny little bird — a sparrow or a greenfinch — fly up from the ground and perch on the bare branch of a pinaster. A few seconds had passed; the thunder was about to burst. Zebrino didn’t have the courage to look around him. Almost without wishing to he turned the blunderbuss towards the little bird, and the gun fired. There was a huge explosion, which made the weapon fly out of his hand, splitting in two, and almost threw him to the ground, covered in a cloud of stinking smoke. The roar echoed distantly in the valleys.

‘Have you hurt yourself?’ asked Restin, deathly pale.

‘No, but this was a damn stupid idea,’ muttered Zebrino, looking at the two sections of the gun a few feet away from him. The greenfinch hadn’t moved from its branch and was cheeping incuriously, looking at them.

They heard footsteps. Jumping down from the rocks were a miner, wearing an old alpine hat, and a mendicant Franciscan friar, a zoccolante, one of those who travelled the district for alms. They asked whether the two boys had escaped unscathed, and when Restin told them the story of the busacca (against Zebrino’s wishes, who furiously gestured to him to keep silent), the miner made no comment, but waved a hand towards other territories on the horizon, beyond a wide inlet of the sea stretching away from the coasts of the peninsula.

‘The busacca… ah, the busacca,’ he said, as if to suggest that it had to be sought a long way away, on other shores.

He pulled out of his pocket a can of meat, and insisted on dividing its contents between the two boys and the mendicant friar; then all four, in silence, descended towards the first fringe of olive trees.