A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris
1. These facts have never been revealed. No one has ever breathed a word. Everything buried. Soon the last shovelful of dirt will drop, so to speak, since I, the last, am old. It’s incredible how once you’re in your seventies, you tumble toward your eighties. And for years I have been asking myself if I’m obliged to exhume those facts. If it would make any sense. Or come to any good. It is just a story like any other war story, and would be a lousy one at that if women and children hadn’t been involved. Women make for tragedy. And children are the lamb.
That cursed day we set out for the hermitage of Acquafredda. Armed, of course, and with knapsacks and blanket rolls and a mule loaded down with supplies. But at that point it was no expedition and it was not yet an escape. It still could have turned into a temporary exile, to allow the dust to settle or come to an end. Even wars come to an end. (I believed that, then.)
Pilgrims would go up there, shepherds would pass by on their way elsewhere, and a few hunters would show up; in the summer it was a favorite spot for picnickers carrying baskets and jugs of wine. In peacetime. And that July there had been a camp organized for fascist youth, and people said they were firing guns to train boys for war. It hadn’t been used as a monastery for fifty years, but anyone could take shelter and cook and spend the night. It was a sort of mountain refuge. From time to time the hermit—an old man, a lunatic—showed up, and then vanished. But at that time, nobody was there. And we could still go back.
The woman was what blocked us.
2. I began. And I must have always known I would. Otherwise, why keep all these papers. Why bring them with me when I was fleeing through the mountains, the only weight in my knapsack, as if they were all I needed to survive. A pile of papers. Sheet after sheet: pages of a diary, scattered observations, long transcripts like the kind made from tape recordings, notes on torn bits of paper. Registered by fingers numb from the cold, often at night by candlelight. And at my back, I felt the impatient presence of someone else in the cell, another’s breath and that incessant rustling of the straw mattress. And, until it broke, the screeching and grumbling of the radio.
Why keep it all inside for forty years? A historian, so to speak, a biographer or a simple chronicler. I’ll try only to put the whole thing back together. And as I go ahead, I’ll be shedding a burden. A confession, maybe? In any case, a testimony. And for whom? Maybe only for me.
No, this is not compensation for the frustrations of a writer who missed his calling. More exactly, a failed writer. By that time, when I set out on that risky misadventure, I’d given up any ambition. All my efforts had come to a few short stories published in a couple of provincial journals, a little poetry book printed at my own expense, some novels in a drawer. All already set aside. To go in the trash. These notebooks that I am about to fill will be found after my death. By the woman who will have been taking care of me—one of the many women who hire themselves out keeping house for bachelors—or by the priest called at the last minute (to whom I will not have confessed), or by whoever will take care of emptying the house. Clearing out rags and papers. Papers that belonged to an old schoolteacher and therefore are useless. Good to light a fire. They will never be read.
3. The very day we arrived at Acquafredda—after traveling in the dark for five hours, with the child swaying sleepily between the sacks loaded on the mule’s back—exactly on that same day, the woman was caught. All of us were still wandering the monastery—except Franzè, out on reconnaissance—orienting ourselves, opening the small rickety doors of the cells, inspecting the straw mattresses, setting out our bags and provisions: when we heard the blast of a rifle. It echoed like a shootout.
And shortly after, Franzè appeared in the churchyard, pushing her forward from behind with the rifle he’d been issued as a guardsman. The prisoner was in front, hefty, wrapped up to her eyes in a peasant’s cloak, with him following, bouncing on his feet, the barrel of his weapon pointed at her back. Behind him was the child, who had been the first to run outside. He was hopping on his skinny, miserable, blood-red legs, like the legs of a skinned goat, and was pulling a donkey loaded with loose bundles of kindling along by the halter.
Raising strange cries that ricocheted awhile in a gloomy echo, the men went out and crowded around. They had recognized the woman. I recognized her, too. A stranger recently arrived in the village, supposedly escaping the bombing in the city. She was staying with the Sallesi, but not in hiding. On the contrary, she seemed to be helping the family in the fields with the last chores of the season. Even so, she was not a peasant. And there she was, dressed just like a peasant, wrapped in the black cloak up to the white flash of her darting eyes.
Surprise and, soon, alarm silenced the cries. They were strange, excited. Like when a prostitute arrives before the troop. “Uh, and now we start with the women,” grumbled Annaloro, who had far too many in his household.
And Alleluia, the farm boy, yelled, “the slut!”—his blushing neck swelling.
They were all addressing Vanzi’s bald head, which had appeared behind the window bars. Nobody spoke to me; they were already avoiding my gaze. I was among them, and yet, it was as if they couldn’t see me.
The child shouted first. “These bundles of sticks are full of rifles and cartridges!”
That meant weapons for everybody. And they started shouting again.
Vanzi gave the order to take her inside. They followed, dumbstruck. The woman went straight to the kitchen, as if she knew the place (and in fact she did), and sat on one of the benches at either side of the fireplace where fresh-cut logs burned, sizzling and hissing. She spread her legs open under her wide pleated skirt and lifted it up, stretching out her two big feet in their cowhide shoes toward the fire.
“Nice shoes, eh? What shoes the partisans have!” burst out Franzè. His were all worn out.
The woman bared her head. A head covered in cropped hair that reared up like snakes. She was not young: two white streaks on her temples and harsh lines around her mouth. Everyone was staring at her, following her hands as she pulled back the cloak. As if a monument had been uncovered. She was a monument indeed.
When she took off the cloak and threw it on the ground, her belly became visible.
And it seemed enormous.
4. From that moment, cursing broke out, like a reaction to the unexpected and sinister events. “Goddamn it!” shouted little Divinangelo, looking at the others. “She is pregnant, this slut.”
The woman spat on the fire and promptly retorted, “So? Your sperm couldn’t get a cat pregnant.”
Only the child laughed, an outsized laugh, writhing wildly. His stretched vocal chords were like a blood clot beneath the stain, bright red, also there on his neck. The men tried not to look at his scars. He was sitting on the bench across from the woman. Spreading his toes, he was exposing his pale little feet to the fire; he had taken off his pigskin shoes and his thick, mended socks. “Goddamn it,” he repeated in a shrill imitation, ready to dodge any punishing slap. He was running his hands over his glossy, skinned, legs, already bitten by the cold. Someone later remembered that she had been looking at the child’s legs without uttering a word: any other woman would have asked.
The little kid said haughtily, “When we execute you, I’ll take your shoes.” Before this, nobody had thought of the idea of an execution.
Then, old Baboro stood up from the corner where he had retreated. He was like a patriarch, with his long beard and the black cloak he never took off: signs of his mourning.
The woman glanced at him and at the same time answered the kid: “You’ll stick my shoes up your butt.”
“Goddamn it,” he repeated with a child’s annoying insistence, his ears as red as a rooster’s comb. He said it with half his mouth, a word that had been chewed unwillingly and too long. (The uncomfortable feeling a child has whenever he tries on a grown- up’s clothing.) Nobody thought of correcting him and, yellow around the nostrils, he displayed his arrogant look in vain. He had already gone feral.
5. Nobody had yet thought about the night in there. Or maybe we were all thinking about it, the child included. Later on there was a moment of stillness and then, suddenly, motion: like mechanical puppets.
Annaloro scratches in the dark hole of a cupboard. Baboro and his apprentice Alleluia untie the sacks that open wide like mouths, each releasing a puff of flour like a big sigh. Before the front door, armed, still wearing his peaked cap and his short guardsman’s cloak, Franzè is moving back and forth, keeping an eye on the rifles and cartridge boxes on the table. All on their feet, including Divinangelo and the child, who are near a still-tied sack. They ignore the woman—or pretend to, now that she’s shown her pregnancy. I believe I met her eyes then and they were mocking us.
All of a sudden, we heard the limping walk of Vanzi in the hallway, his rubber soles smacking. He came forward with his crooked gait (it reminded me of the lopsided gait of a wolf ). As the commander entered, the boy rushed to tie his shoestrings and then jumped to attention, stretching out his skinny arm.
I represented half of the command, but Vanzi was the one giving orders. He was the politician. In spite of my paramilitary rank, I had no clout: the teacher of little kids. I have always been tall and thin, with knock-kneed legs, a little like a compass, clumsy in my uniform boots, not martial at all.
Vanzi stopped and looked around, ignoring the woman. Someone ordered her to stand up. She laughed and stayed in her seat. But she was staring, staring him insolently right in the face, and she was laughing.
Offended, little Divinangelo screamed, “Have her stand up, make her stand up, or I’ll …” His bald chin was trembling up and down, his skinny arms were shaking.
“You’ll what?” the woman mocked him, “you impotent thing … ?”
Vanzi cut the air with his arm, lowered it, and left it hanging. Behind him, the hallway was empty and dark, like an abyss. No one would be able to leave without falling in. That was the moment I felt fear and I sensed that everyone else felt it, too, except maybe the child.
“We will go to the choir stalls,” Vanzi ordered dispassionately. “Prepare the lamps.”
6. That night remains in my visual memory in flashes. An old man’s memory that loses, day by day, the most common words, forgets the pattern of ordinary habits (but keeps the most remote past intact). When it comes to that night, my memory refuses to remember and I don’t even try to overcome it. There is no record of it in my papers, just a date and two words—“War Tribunal”—followed by perplexed exclamation marks. As I recall it and write, it is as if everything were unfolding through unspoken sequences—only noises and, in the end, the child’s cry. Maybe as I go ahead, I’ll also trace what the voices were saying.
I can see it. The oil lamps—the old ones belonging to the monastery—nightmare of that wretched event. There were not enough, for the entire choir stalls and the flickering flames barely licked the darkness, thick with the atmosphere of a morgue. Like holding a trial with evil spirits hovering, murmured the men later.
Before, during dinner at the refectory, something set us to shivering, and not only because of the cold. The funereal, cloaked prisoner was sitting at one end of the table on the side opposite the door. At the other end, the boy’s pale, haggard face, paired with little Divinangelo, both on the same stool. The others were lined up at the left and right sides. And the candlelight flickering off their cheeks, foreheads, yellow noses, Vanzi’s deadly pale bald head, the icy, golden flashes of Alleluia’s earrings. And fleeting sights of stray, bloodlike streaks remaining from the frescoes on the whitewashed walls. The boiled potatoes, piled up in the plates, had the shape and hue of remnants from an anatomy theater. There was only the mountain fireplace’s ravenous hunger, the emptiness of fatigue and agitation. And a sense of unreality, too much like nausea, crept into the body, through what feeds it.
Shortly after, the walk to the choir stalls. Walking in two rows like friars. And the noisy wooden steps of the high predella. Unrecognizable shadows had taken the seats. Next to me are the boy and Divinangelo, sitting in the same stall, both so small, again wedged together. The child gives me a timid smile, like a schoolboy. And right away he lets his head loll, dozing off. He is startled by the blows of the rifle butts, set on the predella on each side, from the first stall to the last at the end of the choir. Those blows are echoing the tom-tom sound of the drum that keeps rolling while he sleeps. In the child’s sleep or in my head?
The noises: that pattering of schoolboys at their desks, the creaking of wood hollowed by a million worms, and the dark inarticulate voices resounding in the vault, the echo coming from the vast and abandoned interior, the empty walls. A long nightmare.
And in the end, the child’s cry.
Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 3-10 of The Reprisal: A Novel by Laudomia Bonanni, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2013 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)