The Ostrich Feather

(Eugenio Montale — La Piuma di Struzzo)

Men are a bit like books: you casually read one, and you don’t anticipate that it will end up leaving an indelible mark on you; with every enthusiasm you consume another, which seems abundantly likely to be worth the undertaking, and a few months later you realise that the effort was worse than useless. But in that first moment, at that first meeting, the final result — profit or loss — is suspended in a question mark. I often ask myself, not which books but which beings, living or dead, I might see again, in a flash and involuntarily, if I were put (touch wood) before a firing squad, or if I found myself about to drown with no possibility of rescue. Favourite men or animals? Men — or women — whom I had loved, or passing acquaintances, individuals that I’d hardly brushed against, who never suspected that they had assumed such a place in my consciousness?

If the moments before sleep, which should be filled with prayers and meditations, can resemble in some way the last moments of a life on earth, I would say, by analogy, that there will be many surprises reserved at that juncture for the homo sapiens of our day, now completely alienated and torn limb from limb, at the heart of a society becoming the more inhuman the more it concerns itself with the rights of the masses.

The other evening, before going to sleep, as I was brooding inwardly on life’s ultimate causes and repeating to myself, ‘Man, you must die,’ two strange figures, whom I had completely forgotten, came to pay me a visit; and I, emerging from my doze, was like the traveller who assesses himself in comparison with others, and, finding that his own attitudes have changed in the face of past deeds and events, has to see himself differently, thus becoming aware of the old axiom that the same water never flows twice between the banks of a river.

I was about to turn off the light when, preceded by a discreet knock at the door — tap tap tap — and by a deep ‘May we?’, which was at least a basso profundo’s B natural, I saw a sturdy soldier enter, of medium height, bearded and armed to the teeth like the ghost in Hamlet, with the addition of a large ostrich feather curving down from his hat almost to his spurs; and beside him, obsequious and ceremonial, a little old man who expressed himself more in ghostly gestures and smirks than in his incomprehensible dialect.

‘Marcello,’ I said to myself immediately, thinking of Raoul de Nangy’s faithful servant in I Ugonotti. And the memory of that character, inevitably associated with that of its famous performer, meant that I recognised without hesitation the man who had died years before in Montevideo, and was the most sepulchral forger of musical notes below the stave that the Italian theatre had ever known: the basso profundo Gaudio Mansueto, a man with broad shoulders, ex-camallo — that is, docker — in the port of Genoa, refined (when I knew him) by a successful career as a lyric artist and by an instinctive intelligence which meant, when he was in role, that he utterly dominated the stage.

‘Marcello,’ the soldier acknowledged, tweaking his pointed moustaches in the style of Marco Praga; and, approaching the piano, which was still open in my bedroom, he ran a hand over the keyboard and softly picked out the ‘Piff, paff’ which comes before the account of the siege of La Rochelle. The windows shook violently.

‘Ah,’ I said, unsurprised. And, turning to the other man, ‘And you, sir… if I may?’

‘This evening I’m dressed as Dulcamara or as Alcindoro, at your service; in real life I am Astorre Pinti, comic bass — or basso buffo if you prefer.’

‘Astorre Pinti? But I know you, Signor Astorre. We used to speak at length, when we took refuge in the building at Via Lamarmora 14, in those hellish days before the liberation of Florence.’ Unshaven and starving, always in pyjamas, his chest loaded with pendants and medallions, his voice permanently ‘in mute mode’ — E E E across three octaves, a marmot’s squeak and then a death rattle — he had skipped meals for several days, he and his numerous family. And the situation was even trickier with him. Was he alive, or dead like his companion? I’d never had any further news of him.

‘I’m sure you won’t remember, Commendatore Mansueto,’ I continued, to overcome my awkwardness, ‘that I had the honour of being introduced to you thirty years ago at Pecchioli’s hairdressing salon, in the Mazzini arcade. You took me with you into the back room of a piano tuner who was also head of the claque, and listened to my rendition of ‘Il lacerato spirito’. You advised me to persevere with my studies in bel canto.

‘Ah, ah,’ thundered Mansueto, and ‘Ah, ah,’ smirked Dulcamara, in a perfect third.

They sat down together at the piano, paying no attention to me. They played arpeggios, then pulled out of a bookcase the score of La Forza del Destino and went straight to the page they were looking for.

‘I remember,’ I added, ‘Cavalier Astorre, that you foresaw the complete destruction of Florence, a city of blasphemers: an event which occurred only in part. In your case, Commendatore, I had the good fortune to greet you again dressed as Zaccaria on the stage of the Chiarella in Turin; then I lost track of you.’

‘Ah, ah, ah,’ resounded Mansueto, and ‘Ah, ah, ah,’ echoed Astorre, in the tone of the two conspirators in Un Ballo in Maschera.

‘I don’t flatter myself,’ I continued, ‘ that I — a humble scribbler — should be remembered by such genuine luminaries of the lyric art. But if you gentlemen would be so kind as to explain to me the reason…’

Giudizi temerari,’ exploded Marcello, flinging his hat on the floor and beginning his part in the two friars’ duet. A little piece of the feather snapped off and fluttered over the piano. And he held the last syllable at the bottom of his range, like an organ note, covering the screeching of the late-night trams. From the storey above, someone knocked hard on the floor, demanding silence.

‘I’m delighted…’ I resumed, putting my hands over my ears, ‘I’m delighted, Commendatore, that your low register, in spite of your age, in spite of the changed circumstances of… your life… and of your accommodation, has retained all its force. But please bear in mind, given the late hour and the habits of my fellow residents, that it would perhaps not be inappropriate to… I’m sure you understand… People…’

Del mondo i disinganni,’ burst out Mansueto, twirling on the rotating piano stool and accompanying himself with eloquent gestures, while the other man aided and abetted him in a mocking, acerbic counterpoint, hoping that his shrill voice might make its presence felt amid that great storm.

The hurricane was raging in full force. A tempest of highs and lows, a sound from the depths embroidered by trills on a flute and by the guffaws of a rotund, irreverent friar: Guardiano’s lesson in humility and Melitone’s salacious jokes. I was still trying to speak, but my voice was overwhelmed; and the blast continued at length until it died away in a visceral ultra-low F, against which Astorre strove in vain to show off — two octaves up — his ornate chatterings.

When I unblocked my ears I heard a violent banging on the outside door. The whole block was in commotion. And loud voices and curses were even coming up from the street.

‘Enough,’ said the Commendatore, closing the piano with a crash, and ‘Enough,’ repeated Astorre, recovering the bowler hat which he had thrown aside. The two men now stood up and bowed.

‘At your service,’ they belched out together, like Gounod’s Mephistopheles, descending to an F sharp which seemed to have arrived direct from the underworld; and they left by the door, apparently satisfied with the night’s lesson.

For a long time I was shaken. The protesting voices were calming down, and the departure of the knight in full armour and the funny little man didn’t seem to arouse comment. I don’t think it probable that they left astride a broomstick. I slept very little, constantly repeating ‘Del mondo i disinganni’ to myself, and trying to unravel the mysterious meaning of that nocturnal visit. Had I been present at the meeting of a dead man and a living one, or at an evening’s outing for two defuncts? And if the two knew nothing about me, how had they ever found my apartment? And if, in the end, I was obliged to think of them as the product of my unconscious, as a hallucination, why hadn’t my unconscious given birth to characters of greater significance in my life?

Then I reflected that there was in me a link between the two personalities. In meeting Marcello, I had hoped to rival his glory, to follow in his footsteps. Sharing Astorre’s famine rations, thirty years later, I thanked the good Lord for having saved me from the dangers his life had brought him, even though I have got myself into even more humiliating scrapes. The two men were the opposite ends of an arc, of my personal, secret parabola. And they continued to be unaware of the person for whom, objectively, they had more vividly existed. We don’t always manage to live for those who want us to.

I got up and telephoned my neighbour on the floor above to apologise. He answered flatly that he hadn’t heard any noise in the night. Later, the home help who came to sweep my room, when closely questioned, conceded that she had found a feather between the wall and the piano.

‘A little chicken’s or pigeon’s feather,’ she said. She was definite. ‘Not an ostrich feather. The wind must have blown it away.’