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Karma Ladies

(Eugenio Montale — Donne del Karma)

The visitor remembered the former little Micky (she who now, in this cloister like something in a painting from the ‘Nazarene’ school, calls herself Donna Michelangiola) as very slim, with a long fall of ash-blond hair over her shoulders and a light, bold step giving a sense of joyful hope, almost of triumph. Then, perhaps with the help of high heels, she had a way of walking which spoke joie de vivre, like Ibsen’s Nora. But now? A minute ago, standing behind a pillar, the visitor looked at her; like all her women friends, she has black lacquered fingernails, or so deeply varnished as to seem black, a face that wouldn’t smile for any reason in the world, stretched and wearied by unbearable tedium, and (like her friends) she makes progress in a pair of flapping friar’s sandals, peeling at the sides and too big for her. She has put on weight, her hair is short and plain, dust-grey, and she wears dark glasses even when it’s not sunny. She’s wearing a coarse robe, and has two shells for earrings. ‘Sit down,’ she says to the visitor, as if they had parted company five minutes before. ‘It’s nice of you to come. The old man leaves me alone for seven months of the year, which is just as well because he bores me to death. The last thing he wants to do is spend time in the convent.’

The old man, fabulously rich, must be her husband. But who has ever met him? The visitor looks around. He is in the cloister of an ancient ruined convent which the former Micky has had restored next to the villa where she now lives. Or rather, where she supposedly lives, because for some time now everything has revolved around the convent: the parties, the dinners (the refectory is a bit dark, but it ‘opens the heart’, according to her). And they even sleep here, she and her friends, in some of the bare little rooms with floors of crumbling brick, an enormous black crucifix, and a pitcher and basin in the corner. (Half hidden in the wall, however, a little doorway leads through to a large bathroom in green mosaic.) Everything else is more than somewhat musty. The little room into which the visitor is shown is shaped like a pointed arch. A tall marble holy-water stoup stands there. Every so often a bell rings. ‘Do you hear that?’ says Micky. ‘I hired a gardener who has been a bell-ringer and knows about canonical hours. Compline, matins… it makes the thing more real. Only he does ring them a bit more often…

But you don’t know,’ she goes on, introducing the man to her friends with a wave of her arm (they are almost like her in the severity of their appearance and of their names: Freya, Cassandra and Violante), ‘you don’t know that all those years ago I would have married this guy. Do you remember, Piffi? Then one day he says to me, “I’m too old for you.” He was thirty-three and I was eighteen. How was I supposed to answer? On the spur of the moment I couldn’t find the words, and so he went away and I married Lucky. What a farce! But he’s a dangerous witness, you know? When he knew me I believed in psychoanalysis… and I thought that earthly love would make me happy.’

Freya, Cassandra and Violante squeal in chorus, their voices covering exactly two octaves. ‘Really, Mik? How did it happen?’

‘I’m not sure how to put it, but that’s the way it went. I’ve already told you; I jumped from the fourth to the seventh in the space of a few years. A case of accelerated maturation.’

The man is mystified. ‘Micky… Michelangiola… What fourths are you telling me about? The quarters of the moon?’

The friends look at each other, perturbed. Michelangiola takes it upon herself to excuse him.

‘Be patient with him; I don’t think he knows anything. From the fourth to the seventh stage of reincarnation; try to understand. Don’t you know anything about karma? You’re in total darkness. And yet you must be an evolved being, not lower than roughly six, I’d say. Perfection is a long, exhausting spiral. Many get there slowly, like when they tell you at the driving test that you need more lessons because you don’t know how to take the bends. Others fly there, which is what happened to me when I was incarnated for the final time.’

A badly shaven waiter enters, and makes a signal to her. Michelangiola apologises, gets up and goes out with him.

Freya, Cassandra and Violante chorus, ‘Poor soul! Nothing more than the seventh, with everything she has to put up with!’ (The bell rings. A pause.)

Now Michelangiola has returned.

‘How do you manage with your servants, Piffi?’ she says. ‘I had one there, a semi-insubordinate, saying the most ridiculous things. I’ll spare you them because you haven’t yet had your tea. “What do you mean, equality, exploitation, your rights?” I said to him. “Why give me these pin-headed speeches, if what you say is complete nonsense? If things are the way they are, if you have worries and troubles and misery, it’s only because, at the moment, your karma is what it is. To aspire to better would be like wanting to squeeze blood out of a turnip. Wait your turn and you will see what the future has in store for you.” These penniless beggars are all the same; they don’t know how to wait, and they resent someone who is flying or who has already flown.’

Freya, who is the most mannish of the women, interrupts. ‘But after all that, did you sack him?’

Definitely,’ says Michelangiola. ‘But if he thinks that this episode won’t leave its marks on him, he’s mistaken, poor boy! The soul, you see, Piffi, is more sensitive than a film of gelatine. “Protest, my lad, make a long face,” I said to him. “You don’t know what you’re losing… You don’t know.”’

The bell rings again. It’s time to move into the refectory for tea.