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Falling Ash

(Eugenio Montale — Crollo di Cenere)

The bridge of boats which led to the best seats, facing the Isolotto dell’Indiano, was nearby, but apparently not accessible to all. A short time before, a few VIPs had got onto it, wrapped in black cloaks, amid the smattering of applause and obsequious gestures of a group of flame-carriers who lit up the dark with smoking brands and pocket torches gripped like automatic revolvers. Now they were casting the boats off, to stop ordinary mortals getting on board. The sky was sliced by great radiant searchlight beams, and a huge crowd surged around the little island, where more bright lights blazed, and where event directors armed with megaphones and whistles, telephone operators, stewards, special guests and others ‘employed on the work’ ran about. Approaching the bridge of boats, I had obviously aroused certain suspicions, since one of the flame-carriers accosted me, poking into my eyes a little tube from which spurted a faint blue light.

‘Papers,’ he said, in a drawl.

He studied my identity card for a long time, checked that I looked like my photograph, then issued a curt summons, ‘This way,’ pointing out to me a downward path by which I could get to the parapet overlooking the river.

I soon found myself next to a little wall lit by a dim lamp, far from the crowd, far from the bridge where the notables were, and near a red-haired lady who seemed intent on following the progress of a snail on the wall. She could have been thirty or thirty-five years old; the man with her, who had just lit a big Minghetti cigar, must have been younger. The two were talking animatedly, but a roar of aeroplanes passing low overhead, scattering onto the crowd leaflets which glistened in the lights, prevented me from hearing their words. 18BL had begun, a play ‘for the masses’, a motorised performance by land and air for ‘One, No One and One Hundred Thousand’ spectators, which, according to the press at the time, would break once and for all the hold of the bourgeois theatre.

I didn’t follow too closely what was happening on the island, and for a while I sat on the wall, minding my own business, until a huge clamour made me look up. Over there, amongst the trees and bushes, a horseshoe-shaped table had appeared, laid as for a banquet, on which was written, in block capitals, PARLAMENTO. Every light focussed on the table and its banqueteers, threatened, table and diners all, by an irruption of tanks which, emerging from the shadows, charged forward to dash against the filthy shambles of the parliament, with the obvious aim of depositing it upside down in the Arno.

‘It’s got stuck,’ she said, barely looking, and turned her attention to the snail, which had arrived halfway between the two edges of the wall.

‘It’s got stuck,’ agreed the other, taking a puff of his Minghetti.

The table had indeed been impeded by some unforeseen obstacle, and the tanks which had collided with it and propelled it into the air were not managing to push it into the river, amidst cat-calls and laughter from the audience. Meanwhile, the social-democratic guzzlers, as small as ants, were fleeing everywhere, being chased and flogged by gallant tank drivers. Then a searchlight stopped working, and for a few moments the spectacle lost its appeal. More aeroplanes flew over, the light came back on, and various dance acts were performed on the island, to the accompaniment of trumpets and kettledrums.

‘I don’t see the point…’ said the red-haired woman peevishly; and she stopped, because the little snail, stippled in white which shone in the light of the lamp, had stopped.

‘It’s not the first time we’ve talked about this,’ he said, puffing like a steam train.

For reasons of discretion I took two paces to the right. The sky had clouded over and threatened rain. A few frogs managed to intermingle their breathless croaks with the racket coming from the island. Amid an intense blaze of lights, huge ploughs and gigantic agricultural machines were tilling the until now barren fields of the Empire, from which, obedient to the directors’ whistles, sprouted luminous ears of corn, cotton plantations, rivers of petroleum poured directly into capacious pipelines, dense orchards populated by nymphs and fake-Russian ballet dancers. Sirens wailed and Bengal lights burned on the horizon. The audience went quiet, alarmed by the first drops of rain, and almost immediately the footlights began to fail. I moved back to my previous position.

‘What’s going on over there?’ she asked in a calmer voice, pointing at the island. And she looked at the snail, which had resumed its slimy trail on the wall.

‘I think he’s burning the League of Nations,’ he said, consulting a programme and taking another puff. Then he looked with satisfaction at the white ash of his cigar, which by now hung in an arc, but had not yet fallen.

‘Leave it alone,’ she said. ‘I’ve an idea.’

The wind was strengthening, and the island was scoured by lights and confused shadows. From the riverbanks loud speakers could be heard, calling the paying public to order, and the audience had begun a rather worrying stampede. Two men accompanied by a police inspector passed in a hurry; they had clearly come from the bridge of boats.

‘There’s no discipline,’ said one. ‘It’s been a complete fiasco. There’s going to be trouble, you know. Even Ciano was disgusted.’

‘What is your idea?’ asked the young man with the cigar; and he made as if to take his hat, which was on the parapet of the river.

‘An idea, a little thought I’ve had. Don’t move.’

An aeroplane flew by, skimming the ground with an infernal roar. The ants’ nest of a hundred thousand spectators was swarming everywhere. Then, as I was trying to compose my mind, I heard a cry and saw the red-haired lady cling to her man’s neck and burst into convulsive sobs. The ash from the Minghetti had unexpectedly fallen, and the light from the cigar shone brightly. The snail was no longer on the wall.

‘It’s gone,’ she said, hugging him tight. ‘It’s gone. It was by half a second, you know? But it had already made it across the parapet…’

‘Half a second? It’s gone? What are you talking about?’ he said, staring at her. And he looked at me as if asking for my help. She, between one sob and another, seemed incapable of uttering a word.

‘Forgive me,’ I intervened. ‘The snail did indeed succeed in getting across the parapet before the ash fell from your cigar; that’s all.’

‘Oh, is that it? It got across before… And what do you mean by that?’

‘That’s a mystery, which is beyond my powers. Suppose the lady had linked to this hypothesis, to this possibility, a most precise, most intimate significance, something like a vow or an omen… which could perhaps concern you, signore? Could this be the case?’

The lady assented with a nod, half smiling and half confused, then continued to sob, while clinging to him.

The man with the cigar seemed ever more intrigued, and tried to console her. At last he turned to me and said, ‘But, I do beg your pardon, how did you come to know this? Do you read the cards? Are you a magician?’

‘Even worse, if you like; I’m a journalist.’

Off they went together beside the parapet of the river, turning back from time to time to look at me. And I followed them slowly, trying to avoid being caught up in another fascist pageant. There was a mighty hubbub of motor vehicles in the air; the first cars must by now have arrived on the Viale dei Colli, which seemed far away, studded and pervaded by a moving luminous rosary.