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The Flight of the Hawk

(Eugenio Montale — Il Volo dello Sparviero)

It’s pouring with rain. Beyond the internal courtyard, beyond a wearisome zig-zag of roofs, rises the intricate outline of a very tall, bare tree. The rain veils and unveils it in gusts, creating a deeply scored etching or a washed-out pastel. Now a black dot, descended from the sky, lands on the highest branch, a crooked, slender twig which immediately bends under the weight. It’s a big bird, not a little thing, to judge from the bending of the branch and the dark shape the airborne creature stamps on the grey sky. A bird of some other kind which cuts through the cables of rain — a sparrow or a swallow — is a considerably smaller dot. No, that one up there isn’t a sparrow or even a pigeon; it swooped down in blustery flight, showing points of light in the feathers of its opened wings. It turns round on itself, pecking its tail, which seems very long; and the twig serves it for a see-saw. It grows in size as I gaze fixedly at it, while the confusion of branches almost fades from my sight. The tree is gigantic; it must be a century old. From how many hundreds of windows is it visible? Perhaps only I have noticed the celestial visitor; but perhaps not… In fact, if I strain my inner ear, I seem to catch a multitude of other voices to which I’m listening for the first time, and which I certainly won’t hear again.

‘It’s a carrier pigeon, it’s a stray magpie, it’s a duck,’ say the inhabitants of the fourteenth floor of a brick-red skyscraper, almost in chorus.

‘Could it be a kestrel? But I can’t see its beak. Give me the binoculars, Adalgisa,’ says the naturalist from his hide in a loft in Via Borgospesso.

‘It’s Edgar Allan Poe’s raven,’ says the old painter at number 17 Via Bigli, who illustrated that poem thirty years ago.

‘“Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird!”’ declares a bald man from an attic in Via Pietro Verri, who has twice failed to get a professorship in English literature. ‘Who wrote those words? Keats or Shelley? Pasqualina, please give me that yellow book on the mantelpiece. Was it a skylark or a nightingale? But that bird is as big as a hen. “Thou wast not born for death…” Damnation! And to think they gave me a grilling just because of this poem…’

‘It looks like a peacock. But how could it have got up there?’ says a manservant in Via Sant’Andrea. ‘Come and look, Annetta. Hey, don’t play hard to get. Stay here with me for a bit, at least while sir and madam are out. Have you ever eaten peacock?’

There’s some sort of confused noise, a slap (or is it a kiss?), and some brief bickering.

‘It’s a hawk,’ says a woman’s voice, coming from a housetop behind mine. ‘A young hawk, joyful… and free. It can go where it pleases. The storm doesn’t trouble it; it knows no vexations, obligations or worries. It flies and it lives. Before long it will be in Codogno, then in Parma, then in Sicily. It lands on the tree and no one asks for its identity card. It eats what it finds: grass, mice, insects. It drinks an elixir of rose leaves, sweeter than Chablis. It’s a god dressed in feathers, but still a god. It’s a hawk, I tell you. I would like to be him.’

‘Are you mad?’ comes the voice of a man who must be next to her. ‘Hawks live in the mountains, they end up being stuffed, and they are definitely not joyful. I bet that bird is just a jay, a miserable old jay which in a few hours’ time will probably be killed by a hunter. Inedible, as well. What are you grumbling about? “Better an hour of freedom than a life of slavery”? Stupid romanticism! Can’t you see that if you don’t go to mass on Sundays you feel lost, more dead than alive? Humans put themselves under endless obligations, they wade into a sea of troubles so as to have the joy of overcoming them. Humans cultivate their own unhappiness so as to take pleasure in fighting it in small amounts. To be permanently unhappy, but not too unhappy, is the necessary condition for small and occasional moments of happiness. I’m talking like a professor? You silly ass! What would you do, up there on the tree, soaked to the skin and… without me? So you want to leave for Codogno, for Sicily, do you? You have the gall to say that? Try it then, ninny! Fly! Try flying, you miserable creature!’

A gust of wind shakes the window panes and even stirs the tree. The hawk has soared up from the branch; its silhouette stands out in the sky like a heraldic emblem, then it disappears, dipping between the highest roofs. It has resumed its journey. The branch on which it sat quivers for a long time. The rain is pelting down harder. Voices reach me from a quarrel I don’t understand. Then I make out the voice of the man I’ve just heard.

‘You’re right,’ he says. ‘I beg your pardon; it was a hawk — a strong, free, wonderful hawk. You’d like to be him… I understand. I’d like to be him too… but with you. That’s the difference, the little difference. What are you saying? That it’s not such a little difference? It was a hawk, forgive me; I don’t know why I took it into my head to deny it. I know so little about birds. By now it will be at Casalpusterlengo, perhaps over the Po. It was a hawk, I’m telling you that you’re right, I’m telling you on my knees, oh please forgive me, forgive me…’

Another gust of wind, and a strange sound (perhaps a kiss). Then a last whisper: ‘With milk or lemon? I can never remember. We’re so rarely at home… It was a fine bird, though. I think by now it’ll already be at Piacenza, over the Piazza dei Cavalli.’