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A Difficult Evening

(Eugenio Montale — Sera Difficile)

The first day that he, in an intimate moment, had called her — who knows why? — ‘pantegana’, his dear little pantegana, she hadn’t been too suspicious. ‘Pantegana? What’s that? An animal, a toad, a flower?’ ‘Yes,’ he had answered, ‘an animal, but not exactly an animal; a charming little furry creature, a kind of weasel or ferret or titmouse…’

But that evening, as soon as the gondola, having left the Rialto bridge, had slipped into a dark canal, and a splash had given her a start, and she, lifting her head which had been resting between her hands, deliriously happy, had asked, ‘What’s that?’, to which the gondolier had replied, ‘That’s a pantegana,’ the crisis developed in a few seconds.

‘It’s a rat,’ she said, wide-eyed, staring at an eddy in the putrid canal water. ‘It’s a disgusting water rat. And you dared…’

‘I?’ he stammered, sensing a storm. ‘A rat? Whatever are you saying? Look carefully,’ (the eddy was moving away) ‘it’s not a rat at all; it’s something like an otter, a beaver, with the most delicate fur…’

The eddy had disappeared; but a second, bigger splash made itself felt, and when the gondola passed by a little icon with lamps lighted around a statuette of the Madonna, she could see a pantegana crossing the water, its slimy, distended body semi-submerged, its revolting long tail knurled like a corkscrew, its snout raised amongst the sawdust and lemon rind floating on the surface, with its repulsive eyes, its long dripping whiskers, its paws making whirling strokes through the refuse of the canal.

‘The pantegana! Horrible!’ she screamed. ‘Get closer to it! Let me see it better!’

He turned to the gondolier with an imploring gesture, asking him to keep going. But the gondolier had turned the craft with the oar, and the gondola stopped close up to the filthy creature. For a second it was dark; then an illuminated window sill threw a shaft of light onto the little swimming monster’s eddy. She looked, straining her short-sighted eyes.

‘Have I got eyes like that?’ she shrieked, weeping. ‘Have I got whiskers like that? Have I got piss-coloured hair like that?’

‘Of course not, signora, are you mad?’ said the gondolier, and the other man, continuing to reassure her, told her breathlessly, ‘Don’t you understand, it’s a joke? The Venice pantegane, yes, they’re something else, they’re filthy rats, but I meant, I thought…’

Then he stopped and seemed to calm down. The pantegana had jumped out of the water and had disappeared, squeezing into the mouth of a sewer. Now the gondola made way in the dark, and the Bridge of Sighs was glimpsed just a few metres away. She was silently weeping.

‘Well, yes,’ said the man, trembling. ‘Yes, of course, here, in these cesspools… But look, in other places, where the water…’

But she cut him off, icily.

‘As soon as we get to the hotel, call a speedboat. I’m leaving tonight. I’ll write to tell you where to send my luggage.’