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Clizia in Foggia

(Eugenio Montale — Clizia a Foggia)

The railway tracks were burning hot under Foggia’s torrid sky. Above their glare, the wine-coloured carriages, the dry fountain, the trunks of the trees roped together (a ridiculous anticipation of winter) seemed about to melt like rubber. For the briefest of moments, the clear sight of the buffers at the back of train which was gently departing almost suggested the thought that with a hundred-metre dash one could overtake the last carriage. But in the time that Clizia took to judge the strength she had left after two days spent in Foggia’s sultry heat, the hundred metres became a hundred and fifty, two hundred. Too many. It was three in the afternoon. Clizia sat down warily on the edge of a bench in the waiting room and opened the timetable. There were no trains until seven; then a stopping train which would take twenty hours to haul her northwards. She looked up with the instinctive gesture, resigned and desperate at the same time, with which in ex-votos in country churches those teetering on extreme peril seek in the heavens someone to help them, and cling almost with their eyes to any symbol of their inner faith. But the waiting room ceiling didn’t open to any consoling apparition. There appeared to her instead, in all its squalid and dismal pomp, a long parade of yellow fly papers, dotted with black stains which were hissing, almost screaming in the spasm of their collective agony. In the middle of the nearest strip a great black spider, sunk into that sticky surface, was no longer moving. How had it managed to get to the middle of the strip? Clizia dwelt on various hypotheses. Then she decided that a breath of air must have been the cause of the misfortune; suspended on the thread of its silk, the spider must have lowered itself through the gaps in its aerial architecture, and the tornado had surprised it, pushing it towards the quicksands of that fatal landing place.

Her inquiry completed, Clizia went out into the square. Her cloth suitcase was light, but it burnt her perspiring hand like a nettle. The town’s bars aren’t much fun at the height of summer, because of the squadrons of bluebottles which greedily sip both customers and drinks. And Clizia had checked out of the hotel room. She had a moment of desolate bewilderment; then salvation suddenly presented itself to her in the green haven of an enormous poster on the wall. In the assembly room of the town hall (which, she immediately imagined, would be out of the sun and well supplied with soft armchairs), the celebrated Professors Dobrowsky and Peterson, from the Universities of Baton Rouge and the Avatar Institute at Charleston, South Carolina, would be holding an important discussion on metempsychosis. If any member of the public were willing to lend their assistance, practical experiments of the very greatest interest were anticipated. Entrance was a few lire.

A short time later, Clizia walked through a front door adorned with stunted lemon trees and pine fronds. A few arrows directed her to the assembly room. Shade, as in a church nave, welcomed and restored her. In the room there were perhaps fifteen people, keeping themselves at a safe distance from the two speakers, who were already waiting in anticipation at their table. Two different-looking men: one bald, emaciated, bespectacled, dressed in black; the other plump, ruddy, wearing shorts and a shirt of raw silk.

An attendant, or perhaps a disciple of the two masters, circulated amongst the audience, distributing pamphlets for which there was a charge. Clizia bought one. On the first page was a reproduction drawing of Pythagoras in the temple of Apollo Branchide. From his pallium an arm and forefinger extended towards a shield hanging on a wall. And from his virile, determined face, like that of the young men who surrounded him, issued a white speech bubble on which were written, in large letters, ‘Here is the shield I used when I was Euphorbus and Menelaus injured me!’ In the pamphlet, the episode was described in minute detail, together with references to the life and works of the sublime philosopher. Clizia read two or three pages. Her novice’s ardour was gradually diminishing as the cool of the nave was giving way to heat coming through the open windows, and the first threatening swarms of flies were making their appearance.

She moved a few rows back, into the darkest corner, escaping Professor Peterson’s searching glance; and so it was that little by little she lost contact with the outside world, solitarily sinking into a black but not unpleasant swamp.

To begin with, it seemed to her that there was no longer any force of gravity in the world. She felt light, swaying on eight enormously long legs ending in soft pads which gently cushioned every step, if one could put it that way, because her advance wasn’t a matter of steps, properly speaking; rather of fractions of forward steps, now on this now on that leg, in an ordered movement which existed of its own accord, without her tiring herself in giving it momentum or direction. She saw the world in horizontal perspective, no longer vertical the way humans saw it, as she seemed to recall, planted on stilts, making their way at right angles to the earth. The position of her body, prone and leaning forward, extended on its supports a little bit like a soldier on exercises ‘in open order’, undoubtedly contributed to this new vision, as did the strange arrangement of her eyes — there were eight of them, like the legs — placed around her head, so that — a thing unknown to humans — a good part of the surrounding level ground seemed meanwhile to be increasing her illusion of space and freedom. In addition, two of her eyes were dim, somewhat myopic by day, yet for a reason which, as Clizia saw, had the effect of giving her even greater freedom; and indeed, hardly had night fallen than these were brought into action, illuminating the darkness, making the construction of the web easier for her.

Her web was beautiful, strong and well woven, the most beautiful she could see around the four walls of that courtyard of white marble, in the middle of which a little fountain sang night and day, spouting its jet onto a bed of the softest moss. Now and then a young man (but where had she seen him before?) came to walk in the courtyard; with his arm folded beyond the hem of his pallium, he held a book which he glanced at as he walked up and down in the arcade, oblivious to anything else. And it happened that he stopped and looked closely at the web. He came once at night too to look at it, and it seemed to her that the young man perceived the fine effect which the dew made along the delicate weft of the network, illuminated by the moon. While he was looking at the work, the young man’s huge face never lost its absorbed and intense expression. It seemed that the web was almost extending his thoughts, inserting itself into the discussions in the book he was reading as he walked from morn to eve in the arcade.

Sometimes other lads came to find the young man with the beautiful serious face. They sat with him beside the fountain, or on the plinth which ran around the arcade, quite often right under the capital of the pillar where Clizia lived. They talked, leafed through books and parchment scrolls, so that wafts of air caused by their little gestures carried to the web, making it sway; the movement reawakened for a moment the trapped flies, already weakened in their agony (something in the spider’s silk must have sapped their vitality, to judge at least from the little resistance they put up once they had fallen, easy prey, already willing to be embraced and sucked). Often, the young men nibbled food, and when they had gone away the spider descended to claim the booty of crumbs, seeds and, sometimes, bits of sweetish peel. So it was that one hot afternoon she sighted, resting on the plinth beneath her, a row of little saucers brimful of sweet, blonde, strongly scented pulp. She suspended herself on her web and abseiled, alas, with the excessive haste of greed, down along the thread which, little by little, lengthened ever further; she looked at her thread from bottom to top, extending, extending, so shiny and strong, with a kind of elation, of pride. When she noticed what was happening, it was too late; her dreadful fate was sealed. The soft blonde nectar had caught her by the down on her back; she wriggled, she shook herself, she squeezed out all her silk to reinforce the thread and to climb back up. In the effort, her head got caught, and soon a leg sank into the sticky marsh. A sweetish, nauseating smell thickened around her; her body stiffened. In a gasp of utter desperation, of unrestrained loathing, she was throwing her head backwards to hasten her own death when a hand placed gently on her arm awakened her.

She saw the man in shorts and the man in black bending over her.

Signora,’ said the first, ‘you are a truly exceptional subject. Be so kind as to come onto the rostrum and unfold what you have been dreaming. Would you tell me your name, your profession, something about yourself? Are you from this town? Do you work or study here? Have you travelled here?’

‘No, I sing,’ Clizia said, just so as to say something (and in fact she did often hum to herself).

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ thundered Professor Dobrowsky in execrable Italian, turning to the audience, ‘perhaps we have here a reincarnation of Malibran or of the divine Sappho. But no, it’s impossible; that would be too great a leap of time. Would you tell us, signorina, who you dreamt of being? Your dream will certainly disclose your previous existence. Let yourself go; speak without inhibition.’

Clizia looked around her and saw that the fifteen or so people there before had increased to about thirty.

‘Well then,’ she said, feeling prey to an enormous embarrassment bordering on a feeling of shyness molested, ‘well then, I think I dreamt I was a spider; yes, a spider in the courtyard of Pythagoras’ house; at least, I believe I recognised his face.’

The audience burst into riotous laughter, and Professor Dobrowsky reddened to the ears.

Signora,’ he said, ‘you are making light of science; you are not worthy of the facility by which my hypnosis acted on you. Do you realise the extraordinary accomplishment required to pass in one jump from the stage of being a spider to that of being a human? Speak seriously; now tell us who you dreamed of being.’

‘A spider in Pythagoras’ courtyard,’ Clizia repeated, as the guffaws rose to the ceiling, and Professor Peterson took her by the arm and led her to the door, warning her to participate no more in experiences too serious for her.

She came to herself almost running into the street. She angrily grabbed her suitcase, uttered a little trill to recover her sense of being alive, and looked at her wristwatch. Only a quarter of an hour before the train left; her afternoon in Foggia was over.