Father and Son

MAURO SENESI is a young writer who lives in Florence and contributes to various Italian newspapers and magazines. His first short story published in America appeared in the ATLANTIC in the autumn of 1961. He has since finished the English version of his novel, LONGSHADOW,and is working on a new book. The following story has been translated by Elaine Maclachlan.


WE BOYS did many makeshift jobs, because there aren’t any industries in our town. At sowing and reaping time we went as seasonal help to the farmers, while in the other months of the year we tried to work things out in one way or another. That summer, for instance, we settled down to hunting vipers, right in the worst of the heat, when they come out of the rocky clay of our hills and you can hear from afar their poisonous hissing.

The idea had been that of the priest of Saint Lazarus, who was a tall, red-faced priest, with a short cassock so you could see his trousers underneath. He had come to our town just a while ago, and right away he had tried to set up a straw hat industry. The Lord must have put a means of living in every part of the earth, he used to say. But the industry soon failed, and then the priest thought of the vipers. There were lots of them in our hills; they had to be caught alive and sent to the city, where their poison was removed to make medicine out of it.

It seemed wonderful to us that even the poison of vipers could be useful; it was a thing to make you believe in God really and truly. But at the beginning we had been reluctant to accept the priest’s invitation — vipers scare everybody — and only when we saw that he himself had already earned enough to buy a silver candlestick did we decide to follow him toward the Gullies, several other boys and I.

The only adult who joined us was the father of Peter, whose name was Othello and who always took part when something unusual, against nature, was going on. So then, among the hills of the Gullies, it was one great babylon of grimaces and affronts, as we looked for the vipers, because the boys knew it, that Othello —

I alone kept quiet, I was Peter’s friend; but the others really didn’t let a chance go by to have Othello within calling distance so they could take their minds off the fear they had hunting vipers. They shouted the filthiest insults at him. Anyway, he was used to it and didn’t react.

The one who felt it was Peter. I saw his face turn gray every time and then red while a desperate, powerless hatred, whether against the boys or against his father, rippled in his eyes.

From one hill to another the priest wore himself out to silence the boys, waving his fists and faded cassock in the sun, but he’d break out laughing too, and once when I arrived unexpectedly at the top of a slope I saw him hiding and shouting, like the others, filthy insults at Peter’s father, cupping his huge, calloused hands, and he was bright of face like he was when in church preaching against the Devil.

Othello stayed off by himself, and it seemed as though he didn’t even hear. He caught more vipers alone than the rest of us put together. He would fix them with his little red eyes, and they’d let themselves get forked easily, almost as if there were between them a mysterious agreement.

He was a small man, an albino. The sun made his hair shine, and you could recognize him from a distance. His skin was smooth and white, more so than a woman’s, even now in summer, only under his cheeks it was traced with a labyrinth of fine, purplish blood vessels.

Peter was the opposite of him, dark of skin and eye, with a beard already tough at fifteen: it was really absurd that he should be the son of Othello. Sometimes I’d tell him so, that maybe he was just a whoreson bastard, and instead of being offended he would look at me gratefully, with a sad smile on his cracked lips.

He’d tell me: “I’d rather my mother had a thousand lovers than be son of that man.” And he never looked toward the next hill, where Othello was crouched waiting for the vipers. Peter would take out a picture of his dead mother to show me that she was a beautiful woman, with a broad chest, and couldn’t have contented herself with a man like Othello, who wasn’t a man.

But at the end my friend would let his arms fall tiredly and he’d lower his eyes, too, almost as if he were ashamed even before me, his only friend since schooldays, because the other boys wouldn’t have anything to do with him, with the son of Othello. What’s the difference between fathers and sons? And so at times they called him dirty names too.

Then we’d go back to hunting for the vipers again. We’d raise the stones slowly, one by one, and we’d be ready with the forked stick, while our hearts beat hard from the fear. And when the viper was there, grayish and sleeping, we’d approach it softly, and suddenly thrust the sharp wooden fork into the clay with all our strength, so as to squeeze the viper under its head, and we’d push and push, so that it couldn t escape from that clutch with its metallic writhings. We would see its poisonous teeth bite at nothingness, and we d feel strong and victorious as archangels: then the fear would leave us.

Once Peter told me he’d make a bigger stick for himself, to catch his father like that, in place of a viper.

THE heat increased every day on the hills, and so did our hatred of Othello. The insults became fiercer and fiercer, and some boys had even reached the point of throwing stones at him. But the man didn’t care. We saw him giggling as he forked the vipers, a fair small figure against the gray background of the clay.

We all had cracked and swollen lips except Othello. The sun left him white and intact, as if he didn’t belong to life, which in summer is all hot and turgid; we saw it was so when we had in our forks the head of a viper. And from the face of Peter I saw it was so, for his face was always sweaty, with the blood pulsing, making heavy blotches on his skin.

My friend suffered a lot. The insults rebounded from the next hill to strike him, a whipping every time that left him breathless, suffocating in pain and hate.

“What have you got to do with your father?” I’d say, to try and help him. But it was useless; anyway, both of us knew that sons always have something to do with fathers. We find them waiting for us as soon as we enter life, and one never gets free of them: our destiny is bound to theirs.

Sometimes Peter tried to fool himself, and he’d tell me he was going to change his name and go to a faraway city, where no one would know he was the son of Othello. Or he’d invent detailed plans to kill his father, in a low, grave voice: all it would take was a split in his fork so that one of the vipers would get free. Then the dead are forgotten.

One day my friend really tried to rebel. All of a sudden he, too, began shouting filthy names at his father, more fiercely than the other boys, with his neck stretched like a dog’s when it’s baying. His voice was strong and sure at first; it filled all the hills.

Even Othello heard it, and he looked toward us a little, as if pained. The other boys shut up. astonished. Only after a while they all started laughing, the priest too, but softly.

Peter’s voice soon grew hoarse, and yet he went on for as long as his breath lasted, because while he was shouting the others kept quiet, and it’s better to hurt yourself on your own than be hurt.

Peter must have felt he was finally a boy like the others as he shouted against Othello, but at the end, when sunset came and the others look the road to town with their cans full of vipers, he burst out crying, his face buried in the hot clay until his mouth, his nose, and his eyes were filled with it.

Othello, too, had gone away, taking the high road through the hills to get ahead of the others. And we returned to town when it was already dark. Only a few vipers were moving convulsively in our hamper.

Again Peter started talking to me of his plans for killing his father: he wanted to put a viper in his bed. Those are things we boys say, especially at night, but I was a little afraid, because there was so much desperation in the voice of my friend.

One day after another, the sun grew hotter and hotter, and we returned toward the Gullies to look for the vipers. I kept hoping that reaping time would soon come, but I sensed that something would happen first, because the air on the hills was too tense and heavy.

It happened right in the middle of the afternoon, when all of us were already sweating and could hardly move. We heard a cry from the next hill, and it was different from the usual ones; it had terror in it.

We saw Othello flailing his arms crazily, we saw him run limping toward us and then fall down. It didn’t take much to figure out that a viper had bitten him, finally.

The priest and we boys approached him slowly. We were tired and that’s why we couldn’t run.

Othello writhed on the ground, with his leg bared, white and hairless. Near the ankle there were two bluish marks, where the viper had sunk its teeth.

The man was crying, the tears running fast and full down his cheeks, but we stood motionless around him. The priest said he didn’t know quite what to do: the wound needed sucking, but we all had cracked lips.

Just to be scrupulous, the priest asked: “Isn’t there anyone whose lips are whole?”

There wasn’t anyone. All of us had swollen, bloody lips, on account of the heat and the salt that’s under our hills.

The man in a low voice begged: “Save me. someone, oh, my son, save me.” He was writhing on the arid ground, and the tears kept flowing from his eyes. Who would have thought a man like that had so many tears?

“We can’t suck the wound,” said the priest, without anguish. “And he certainly won’t last long enough to be carried into town.” He looked at Peter, whose lips were the most cracked of all, and then the priest shrugged his shoulders. “We’ll have to hope in the divine mercy,” he said to Othello.

The man struggled, but none of us felt any anguish. We were used to seeing the vipers in the fork, and it seemed more or less the same thing to us. We stood still, waiting, with our sweaty faces; there really wasn’t anything else to do. since we all had cracked lips.

Little by little as the sun went down, our shadows lengthened lazily over the steep hillside. All at once one of them moved; it seemed as though an impetuous breeze had pushed it, yet the air had remained motionless and heavy.

We tried to stop Peter but we were too late. He had already thrown himself onto the ground beside his father and was sucking the poison from the wound, contracting his face out of repulsion, yet sucking hard, as at times children at their mothers’ breasts do.

I didn’t understand why Peter, who wanted to kill his father, was now saving him, and yet I sensed that what was happening was right.

The lips of my friend were bleeding. The poison of our vipers does not forgive, and he would die, and yet it seemed right to me all the same.

He sucked the white leg of his father for a long time, and the priest also squeezed it to get all the poison out; then Peter stood up again and began to spit. We forced him to run toward the town, but his lips swelled fast, and after a while my friend couldn’t go on anymore.

So then we took him, I by the arms and the priest by the legs, continuing to run, with all the boys behind, in a desperate procession over the path through the hills.

It was a useless race, we knew. By now the son of Othello had found the way to break the chain binding him to his father, the only way sons have. He restored his life to his father, and so they were even, divided at last.

We ran uselessly toward the town, which was up high, distant, still lit by the sun, while the darkness pursued us, and in a little while it would overtake us.