The Widows

(Eugenio Montale — Le Vedove)

My best friends are dead. Their widows are still alive, neither younger nor better than they, nor more worthy of survival. They perpetuate their husbands’ memory, shrouded in mourning weeds, dangling bands and frills. The prefects are most respectful to them, they preside over committees, they cut the inaugural ribbons at exhibitions, they break bottles of champagne on keels about to be launched, they edit the unfinished writings of the dead, they collect their ashes at the station, they endow scholarships, they keep aflame a wick which would prefer to be extinguished for lack of oil. ‘Leave us in peace!’ speaks the plaintive voice of the deceased from underground. But the widows insist; and when the first shades of forgetfulness steal over the tea tables here and there in the pine woods, with a view of the Apuan Alps, they lean over the canasta cards and say, ‘Get back! They shall not prevail!’

The much-loved widows haven’t stayed in the city, bent over memorabilia by now searingly painful. They have scattered to the sea and the mountains; they look through binoculars at alpinists climbing the Matterhorn, they roll like whales on the flat sea at the Lido, they fortify themselves with a dish of goulash at La Capannina del Cinquale (Hungarian cuisine), they recognise each other by instinct, they get together and talk… they talk about those who have gone before them to the realm of the saints. They are polyglot, fashionable, reserved, haughty, distant; if they have married again, they maintain the cult of their first.

Mein Mann,’ says one; ‘mon mari,’ says another; ‘my husband,’ repeats a third. And a fourth whispers in the ear of a fifth, ‘And there were times… you understand, when he preferred me to keep my thtockingth on…’ (She has a lisp and can’t pronounce s or z.)

My best friends are dead and I alone remain to struggle against the devotions offered them by the much-loved widows. I remember them in my own way, getting on the tram, drinking an aperitif; I recognise them in a dog’s snout, in the silhouette of a palm tree, in a firework’s career. Sometimes I rediscover them in the rubbish which the sea drives towards Calambrone, in the dregs of a glass of old Barolo, in the leap of the cat which last night was chasing a butterfly in the square at Massa. Not a single voice called ‘My husband!’, and they were happy; they were alive with me.