Remnants

(Eugenio Montale — Reliquie)

‘I can’t find the photograph of Ortello now,’ said the sick woman, rummaging nervously in a box where she kept clippings, old letters tied together with a ribbon, and a few saints’ images which she daren’t destroy (one never knows…). ‘Of course you don’t even remember now who he was.’

‘Is — or, if he’s dead — was; a horse, a fine horse, who won the Grand Prix at Longchamp. I remember him very well. His photograph was in there, I’m sure. You never saw him run but he was your passion for a while. That’s how he’s finished up in your private reliquary, and now it seems he’s taken flight. It was a newspaper cutting; it must have blown away with the wind.’

‘Ah,’ she said, tidying her hair, the colour of dry leaves. ‘You talk of my reliquary, as if it were a mania which has nothing to do with you. I might have expected it. And I can see that the wind must have blown away something else which isn’t here.’

‘The okapi?’ asked the bald man with a start. ‘Impossible. Look harder.’

‘The okapi, exactly: that queer animal, half goat and half pig, whose memory you wanted to preserve for ever. Flown away with the horse. You’ve got a good memory for matters that interest you.’

‘Half pig?’ he said angrily. ‘Say half donkey, half zebra, half gazelle, half angel. One specimen only in the world, of a species that was thought extinct for centuries. I wanted to go to London especially to see him at the zoo. He trembles in terror if he sees humans; he’s too delicate a creature to exist amongst wild beasts like us. I wonder if they’ve managed to keep him alive. There was no question of giving him a wife. Unique, you realise? Unique.’

‘Lucky him,’ was the answer, which she intended to be cutting.

They were silent for a long time. She had stretched out on a chaise longue and was looking at the allegorical scenes depicted within the ceiling panels, scenes of animals and gods, but not of her animals and not of a God whom she could feel close to her. He gazed out of the windows at the top of a crooked poplar ruffled in the wind. Further away rose the foothills of the Alps, already covered with snow. Then it began to rain, and the windows were furrowed with big drops. It was almost dark, and the nymphs and swans on the ceiling were on the point of being swallowed in the gloom. The two of them only realised it when the maid came in bringing tea, and lit a chandelier with a touch of her hand. A soft light spread across the fake-antique furniture. And even the sound of the rain seemed more cheerful.

‘Oh, a bit of light,’ he said, helping her to wrap herself in a shawl. ‘One says unkind things in the dark. But often it doesn’t occur to us that all we need to do is turn on a light to brighten up our thoughts as well. You’re in a bad mood today.’

‘No. All I’m doing is taking an inventory of our memories; it’s the only thread that binds us after so much water has passed under the bridge. In the meantime, those things have disappeared from the box, whether through your carelessness or mine. But there are so many other things which must be stored away in our brainboxes and which don’t exist any longer in yours, so far as I can judge from your coldness, from your marmot’s silence.’

‘Me, a marmot?’ he protested, running his hand over the spikes of hair on a skull which had been smartened up, not very recently, by the passage of a razor. ‘Talking of marmots, I reckon your memory could be better. Where did we spot one? Can you remember?’

‘Near the abbey at San Galgano. A hunter had it, that man who also offered to sell us his son, a beautiful red and white baby, a marvel. He had decided to, he was serious about it, he said to his wife, “As long as we put another one into production, what’s the harm?” But we didn’t take the child; it would have cost too much afterwards… to look after him.’

‘Congratulations on your memory. That was just an ordinary marten, and dead into the bargain. The marmots, the three marmots…’

‘We saw them in a little cave in a high rock; the funicular railway at Gornergrat ran up the side of it. They were dancing merrily, shaking their paws and waving at the passengers. They felt safe. But they weren’t three. It was a bigger family: father, mother and babies. Milk or lemon?’

‘Plain,’ he said, taking the cup. Then he looked around, and when the maid had left the room, he asked, with pretended nonchalance, after a brief silence, ‘And… the fox?’

‘The red fox, you mean? At first it had crept into its little house inside the cage, at Zermatt. It didn’t want to show itself. I said to myself, “I’m going to count to twenty; if it comes out in that time, what must happen will happen, and if it doesn’t come out… to the devil with this man.” And I counted, slowly, more and more slowly. At nineteen the fox sprang out.’

‘And that’s how you decided to marry me,’ he said, holding his breath over the top of the cup, which was too hot. ‘I understand, I understand only too well. After so many years, one can always learn new things.’

‘Don’t complain. I counted deliberately slowly. Perhaps, after nineteen, I might have made a very long pause. I’m the one who enticed it out… by thought. I mean, it took a bit of cheating. I must have slowed the tempo. Like some musicians.’

‘Now that we’re in confessional mode, I’ll tell you that when Mimí was about to go back in the bottle, at Vitznau, I said to myself, “If she appears in the bottle on the right, what must happen will happen; but if she comes out in the bottle on the left, then…” I don’t know if I’m making myself clear. Don’t you remember Mimí, the yellow and white guinea pig?’

‘Perfectly. And Mimí, once she’d emerged from the conjuror’s sleeve, finished up on the right? So our union has solid foundations. Biscuit?’

‘No, thank you. She finished up on the left. But the test was repeated three times and you won two to one; which was just enough. I didn’t cheat, as you see.’

‘The fox and the guinea pig: two interesting godparents. They will have died long ago without knowing what trouble they’d caused. Our life is a bestiary, an absolute menagerie. You think I’ve got rid of them? Dogs, cats, birds, blackbirds, turtledoves, crickets, worms…’

‘Oh, worms,’ he said, almost disgusted. ‘Worms too, and I don’t know what else. And the names? Buck, Pallino, Passepoil, Pippo, Bubú…’

‘Lapo, Esmeralda, Mascotto, Pinco, Tartufo, Margot…’

He was going to continue, perhaps even making names up, but he stopped when he saw that she was closing her eyes, exhausted. He took a crispy Torcettino from a plate and put it in his mouth. Then, almost automatically, he stretched a hand towards the cardboard box and began rummaging amongst the cuttings, photographs and old letters. From an envelope which looked empty dropped two little pieces of crumpled paper, two reproductions of photographs: a nervous, bold colt, and a strange beast with a forsaken look, a prodigy which seemed to fluctuate between a Bedlington terrier and a badger, between a piglet and a roe deer, between a goat and a Pantelleria donkey; perhaps a blunder, a misprint which had eluded the Master Printer, but a paradise for the eyes, an ineffable hope for the heart.

‘The okapi! Ortello!’ shouted the man, giving himself a smack on the pate. ‘I’ve found it! I’ve found them both!’

But she slept on. Outside, the rain was beginning to let up. Gently, he put the cuttings onto her crossed hands and said to himself, ‘I’m going out for a bit of a stroll but I won’t turn the light off. That way she’ll see them as soon as she wakes up.’ And he left her, on tiptoe.