The Coachman's Story
MAURO SENESIis a young Florentine journalist whose first stories in English appeared in the ATLANTIC last November. In the English versions of his short stories, Mr. Senesi has had the collaboration of Elaine Maclachlan.
HE WAS a coachman who could, at a certain point, transform himself right into a statue, who could sit still on his box for an hour or even for two, keeping the pawing horses in check. While She and I inside the carriage held hands tenderly (only at times did I squeeze them angrily), always intent on discovering the love in each other’s eyes (only at times did I seek it in her mouth).
And this didn’t happen very long ago — if it already seems remote it is because progress in its fury has destroyed horses, carriages, and coachmen. And then, what has it destroyed? When I ask myself, I see her soft smile and I feel the warmth of her hand still within mine, but it’s not possible to explain it exactly, since I don’t understand very well myself.
On the other hand, I mustn’t tell her story, much less mine: the truly interesting and significant story is that of the coachman. He was my father’s coachman, and his father had been the coachman of my father’s father, as his grandfather had been. . . . You see how it was, but certainly if he had had a son, you would still see me passing by in a carriage today, with Her next to me.
Instead, Coachman didn’t have a son (maybe he didn’t want one precisely because he knew that his profession had no need of heirs), and when my father died I decided at once to sell carriage and horses and buy a car. A man has to live in his own times — you do understand, don’t you? — running if the others run, or else he’ll be left behind and often overcome.
I’m looking for excuses, I know, whereas there shouldn’t be any need of them, it is so evident. At any rate, I suggested to Coachman that he get a driver’s license and stay with me as chauffeur. “In a car,” I said laughing, “there are dozens of horses.” It was the first time I had ever felt myself burned by someone else’s disdain, but so strongly that it might have come from my own heart. And Coachman said, “That’s too many, for me a team is enough.”
Then he made his horses gallop, whipping them, and it must have been the first time since he had taken the reins. From inside the carriage I heard their heavy panting and the screeching of the wheels on the ground; I saw people and houses jolting in a flight so intense that it seemed more through time than through space.
In intense moments of joy or of grief, I assure you. I shall relive that furious race, and perhaps dying, too, will be like returning to it.
I didn’t tell Her that I intended to do away with carriage, horses, and coachman. At the time I thought I wanted to surprise her, but now I realize it was fear, an instinctive apprehension of how much I was about to destroy. It’s all a little obscure again, I agree, but then maybe you will understand.
Coachman, if She and I were in the carriage, would make the horses go slow and silent as if in a dream. He would choose smooth roads, of light earth, through hedges tender in the spring and soaked in the fall in the most violent colors of the rainbow. Under his care in those evenings you didn’t feel the rigidity of the boundaries between sky and earth, between past and future, between the soul and the body.
Oh, I would have other things to say about those evenings in the carriage, but I would have to speak for too long about Her, whereas this is the story of the coachman. It seemed clear that it wouldn’t be easy to sell horses and carriage, and so I asked for a truly ridiculous price, and my sole condition was that Coachman should be hired.
Instead, a buyer was found almost at once.
I remained shut up in the house when carriage, horses, and coachman left, but all the same I felt the beating of their hooves and then the screeching of the wheels, plowing furrows in iny heart. Coachman’s voice sounded like a farewell, but upside down: as though he were the one who was staying still while I was dizzily moving away.
Dismay filled her eyes, I remember now, when She saw me arrive in the car, and suffered my fury over the hard asphalt, from one flashing blackand-white roadside marker to another. Around us the landscape changed even before we could grasp it with our eyes, and the roads, all our roads, suddenly grew short. To find new ones I had to go beyond the horizon.
All right, it’s only a matter of speed: of going faster or slower. And yet I assure you that it had an importance in my life and also in hers. You see, She was a gentle girl: she had lace on her dresses, she had quiet in her gestures, she had velvet skin, she had a light, pure voice, she had. . . . I don’t know what else she had, but really she wasn’t suited to a car: she belonged to the carriage, to the horses, and to the coachman; she was a part of something together with them.
The new speed wrinkled her clothes, cracked her lips, dried her skin, darkened her eyes, faded her smile, suffocated her voice. And it gave us, overwhelmingly, to me and to Her, the clear awareness of an abyss opened between us, as though we were living in different epochs, nor could love fill it. And so I went away, before She left me, full of grief, but as soon as I was outside the horizon it seemed to me that I had only dreamed Her.
All this may appear silly and unreal to you, but anyway, the story to be told here is that of the coachman — let me return to it. Well, then: the carriage and horses had been bought by the Lawyer, who kept them for three months (during which, they have told me, She was often seen next to him in the carriage), and then he in turn thought of a car. He offered Coachman a job as chauffeur, but of course he refused and followed carriage and horses in their passage to the Doctor, who was very old (and yet they have told me that they saw Her, seated even by his side, in that period) and soon died.
Carriage and horses had many other owners, always followed by Coachman (and, they have told me, pitilessly, by Her, too). It was, as time went on, the turn of the Mayor, of the Tax Collector, of the Mercer. Each of them had at first his own good reasons for buying the carriage (not the last of which was the price, ridiculous for what it brought), but shortly after was reached by the hand of time, the same that had caught me, and sold it to purchase a car or at least a motorcycle.
I don’t know, really I don’t know whether horses carriage and coachman (together with Her) passed into the lives of the men like a miraculous breath of the past or whether they were only a game for them, almost a laughing matter. I pretend the truth lies in the first hypothesis, although I know that in general reality doesn’t forgive those who rebel against her.
I returned after six or seven seasons, on business, but also, I think, because I was nostalgic, and wanted to know the end of the story of Coachman. Straight up to the main square I roared in my car; I had driven past her house, seeing windows and door closed. When I got out of the car I hardly recognized the city; it had become so beautiful in my memory, whereas now I found it shuddering with neon lights and full of cold smooth walls and as if, I realized all of a sudden, as if it were empty.
And yet the evening was young, the store windows were lighted, and there were cars parked close to the pavements, but like monsters that had already devoured all the people. I walked along the streets but without confessing to myself what I was looking for, because there really didn’t seem to be any place left for Coachman. Suddenly the clear hoofbeats of his horses reached me, and the creaking of his carriage. It came from the next street, and I ran there, as you might run toward a mirage. And then I saw, I saw all the people behind the carriage, which was the same, but painted black, and only the door handles were golden. I saw the plumed horses, and Coachman on the box with a silk hat on and a black whip in his hand. They proceeded slowly and with dignity, sure of themselves as much as ever, followed by the men, bareheaded.
(Softly I asked who was there, inside the carriage, to inaugurate its new final definitive function, and you know, too, that it could have been none other than Her, next to Death.)