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The Bearded Lady

(Eugenio Montale — La Donna Barbuta)

The gentleman of a certain age, formally dressed in grey, standing nearby as the schoolchildren left the Collegio dei Barnabiti, hadn’t attracted any attention amongst the few adults who were waiting outside. Only the caretaker muttered, ‘I’ve never seen him here; what’s he got to do with us?’ The children emerged in groups of two or three, or solitary; a few met a grown-up who took their hand. But amongst these grown-ups the gentleman of a certain age was disappointed to see no sign of a maidservant. Perhaps a couple of housemaids with caps on, but no maidservant.

‘I was expecting her,’ whispered the gentleman of a certain age — let’s call him Signor M. for short —, and made off slowly towards the arcades of Via XX Settembre. The arcades were more or less as they had been forty years previously; nor had the school building changed much. Signor M. had changed quite a bit and he knew it, but although he avoided looking at himself in the shop windows, he could still forget that the passage of forty years had not been without effect. So he gave his hand to the lady coming to meet him, handed her the basket which had contained his lunch, and the parcel of books wrapped in a waxed cloth held tight by an elastic band, and let himself be guided as far as the difficult passageway which led to Via Ugo Foscolo, a stretch of road packed with people, where the passing carts and cars ignored the instructions of the bacchifero, as the city’s traffic officers were called: the man with the stick. Then, at the beginning of the deserted, zig-zagging ascent named after the poet of Le Grazie, Signor M. detached his hand from that of the old lady and carried on alone. She followed him, bent over, the basket and the bundle of books trembling in her hands, as the distance between them slowly increased. She couldn’t keep up with that ‘scamp’s’ pace.

Signor M. knew perfectly well that he was no longer a scamp, an urchin, and was aware that old Maria had died thirty years before, in the private hospice where they’d taken her when it was no longer possible to care at home for an eighty-year-old in steep decline, not to say in a state of putrefaction. He knew it, but since the streets and houses between the Istituto dei Barnabiti and his house of forty years ago were almost the same as they had been, he thought it wouldn’t be too foolish on his part to have evoked, in body and spirit, the deceased supervisor of his childhood trips to and from school. Why had he wanted to be present when the children came out of that particular elementary school, if not to find her there again? The places where he had been able to summon up Maria’s material existence had been reduced to two: this route and the kitchen in the family house at Montecorvo, where Signor M. hadn’t set foot for years. And there was no point in thinking about other houses which had been demolished or passed to new occupiers.

Signor M. stopped under the walls of the Parco dell’ Acquasola and sat on a kerbstone. ‘I’d better wait for her,’ he said to himself. ‘I’ve left her too far behind.’

Old since birth, illiterate, permanently bent and bearded, but the tenacious custodian of the M. family’s fortunes even before the head of the family had settled down and brought forth offspring not unworthy of him, Maria had been, from age fifteen to age eighty, the manager and decision-maker in the father’s new house. She had also had one of her own, it’s true; but to get there she had to wait for the summer holiday at Montecorvo, and then make a journey of about ten hours on foot. For two or three seasons, in the early years, she undertook this feat; then when she realised that no one remembered her there any more, or thought of her as a ‘foreigner’, an interloper, Maria detached herself completely from her ancestors’ slums. She had two houses which were almost her own, in the city and the country, children as if her own to take to school, children well spaced out in age, from two to fifteen, so offering her the opportunity of providing care and support for long periods, and, after a certain point, of going back to square one, full of reassurances to come. Pleasure in life springs from the repetition of certain acts and habits, from the fact of being able to say to oneself, ‘I’m going to do again what I’ve done before and it’ll be almost the same, but not exactly so.’ It springs from difference within sameness, as much for the illiterate as for the scholar.

‘There she is,’ said Signor M., seeing her approach, and off he went with little skips towards Via Serra, feeling a bit breathless as he scaled the Cappuccini hill. At the top he found the ‘cowshed’, where he stopped for a while to drink a glass of milk and munch two Lagaccio biscuits. He sat down again, in the garden this time, but was unpleasantly surprised to find himself in a modern café giving out a bitter smell of espressi, and no longer of milk fresh from the cow. He lingered for a moment, unsure what to do. Then when the waiter arrived he said curtly, ‘I’ve made a mistake,’ and left in a hurry, to the surprise of the few customers.

Maria had almost caught up with him, out of breath; he walked along with her for a bit. He liked to tease her with innocent jokes; it was only later that sharper arrows were fashioned. Napoleon’s troops had marched through the Val di Levanto when she was still a spring chicken. How had she managed to defend herself? Wasn’t the virginity of which she had always boasted a fib?

Of course, Maria was born half a century after the passage of those troops, but she didn’t know this, and she stuck to entrenchment behind stubborn and immoveable arguments. She said she remembered nothing, neither soldiers nor officers; she had had a fiancé, but she had never let him touch a finger of her. He had left the village to look for work and she had never heard from him again. Who knows how long he’s been dead?

Signor M. didn’t want to start an argument inappropriate to the age (ten) to which he had decided to assign himself, but almost no other speech came to his lips. Although he had reverted to early childhood, he hadn’t been able to discard the part of him which had come later. He saw Maria again in the hospice, bedridden now, but always in dispute with her fellow patients and with the nuns, who were too mean with the sugar; he re-read her death notice, received many years after he’d left the family home. Where had the old woman been buried? Who knows? He’d never visited her grave. He almost never called Maria to mind; only in flashes, in the darkest hours of his life, her image came back to him. A ragged and illiterate old woman, Maria, whose useless existence had had neither meaning nor purpose. Signor M. was certainly the only person in the world to have retained a glimmer of her memory. Sometimes he had struggled against that memory, had sought to dispose of her as one does a bit of rag past its useful life. In every house which hasn’t changed owners there’s still some empty jar, some piece of junk, which no one who comes upon it would dare to touch. Signor M. no longer had a house; in his life, no piece of ancient junk could aspire any longer to the status of taboo. There still remained that flickering, anxious shadow whom for years he had been trying to repel and who was now walking beside him, breathing hard to keep up with his sprightly pace.

‘A useless existence? What a mistake to make,’ Signor M. said to himself. When all the old maidservants have disappeared from the world, when all the cogs of the universe have a name, a function and a sense of themselves, when the weighing machine of rights and duties is in perfect balance for all, who then will be able to walk home with a ghost, who will be able to overcome the horror of loneliness, sensing at their side the protection of an angelic, bearded hag?

Signor M. leaned over the parapet and looked down at the immense expanse of grey roofs, the port, the lighthouse, and the sea lashed by a south-west wind beyond the breakwaters. One could slip down there in a lift which came up from the heart of the city. And from time to time the lift’s cabin arrived, and a group of people crossed the little square without turning around to admire the too familiar view.

A voice called him by name, bringing him back to himself.

‘Well, fancy seeing you again! What are you doing here all alone? It must be thirty years since we met.’

It was an old school chum, but not from the elementary school, a man of his own age, a face he couldn’t place. He tried to recover the name, rifling through the dark of his memory. Burlamacchi? Cacciapuoti? He knew it had four syllables…

‘Goodness,’ he said, ‘this is a welcome meeting. I’m just passing through here… by myself… and I stopped for a moment…’

He shuddered. Perhaps the other man hadn’t noticed anything? He turned and saw, next to the parapet, two or three old ladies and a few children, who didn’t seem to be bothered about him. But Maria wasn’t there; she hadn’t arrived yet, or she had gone on by herself.

‘I have to get down quickly,’ he said, starting towards the lift cage. ‘Goodbye. We’ll see each other again soon… later… I don’t know…’

He disappeared into a cabin, which closed its doors and descended rapidly. The other man continued along the curving road, shaking his head.