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.
THE cemetery road is narrow and downhill. They had covered it with asphalt recently, and the day of the Alderman’s funeral it was raining and the road had become so glossy you could mirror yourself in it. That’s what the girls of the Orphanage did — fast, furtive glances. I, too, saw them reflected and upside down against the background of the cloudy sky, with their braids tossing free in the reflection like kite tails.
Then the rain increased and the nun made them open their umbrellas.
They followed all the funerals — our town is small, but every day there’s someone who dies — except for those of the poor people who hadn’t been able to call themselves benefactors of the Orphanage. The girls formed a long, sinuous line, two by two, the littlest ones first with the bunches of calla lilies, and row by row they grew bigger. Those at the end were almost grown-up and under their black capes you could see the outline of breasts.
The chorus of their voices was monotonous and tired while they chanted the prayers, but above all it was their gaze that dismayed. You seemed on meeting it to sec the sky at dawn, when it’s really empty, without color, and you feel like you were falling into it. They certainly didn’t have eyes like ours; the nuns must have removed them from the Etruscan statues that arc in the museum and given them to the girls.
Death was within the gilt carriage and they followed it nearly every day, like an orderly flock that follows a grass path. At times they acted just like sheep when they try to rebel, plant themselves firm and start bleating. They locked their lips to the prayers or laughed suddenly by themselves, and who knows what reason they might have had, in a funeral, while the biggest stared at us boys with so much insistence we had to blush.
The day after the Alderman’s funeral we realized it was spring. The blue sky and our town seemed all new, but on the top of the hill it was only an appearance and many walls were falling to pieces, decayed from the humidity and old age.
That’s why the Mason came to call me; every year at springtime he took me on as his helper. I fixed the bricks and mortar for him; sometimes I’d help him put the walls up too: it was a job I liked, because then you’d continue to see the results for who knows how long.
As the first work of the season, there was the wall at the end of the Orphanage garden to be repaired — a wall high and hunchbacked, with glass splinters on the top. On the other side it was already open country, a flight of clayey earth with crooked olive trees. The wall was collapsing everywhere and the Mason told the Mother Superior that in order to make sure, it would have to be redone entirely, piece by piece.
The Mother Superior was a little, wizened nun, who in her face seemed to have nothing but eyes, clear inside and circled with dark lines. She said, “We must be sure of the wall, I entreat you in the name of the Lord.” She looked with dismay at the olive trees scattered down the side of the hill, as if they were ranks of enemies ready to invade the garden.
It was a lovely place to work. In the morning we could hear behind us a chorus of prayers, and before us were the olive trees swaying their branches under the light spring breeze. First we tore down a section of the wall, the Mason with his pickax, while I collected the stones, piling them inside the garden, which was scanty and dark, but when the breach was opened the spring breeze went in there, too.
Later, into the garden came the girls with three nuns to protect them, and they all made a circle around our breach, looking avidly outside. They were the same as at the Alderman’s funeral, I recognized them one by one, and they all had the identical expression, almost as if they were daughters of a single mother, certainly gigantic and monstrous. Seeing them close to, we noticed they were bad little girls, with their features hardened as though they belonged to old people.
Not even the smallest ones started to play, although there were many round stones in the garden and here and there among the cabbages sprouted dainty yellow and blue flowers that they might have picked, now it was spring. But they were all wearing black, heavy dresses, tight at the throat, and perhaps that was why they didn’t feel like playing.
The three nuns tried to make them line up for ring-around-the-rosy and they obeyed listlessly, rigidly. As they circled they kept their heads turned toward our breach, especially the bigger ones, so then the Mason said with an ugly smile, “I know what it is they could use some of.”
The nuns soon tired of singing and the ringaround-the-rosy became mute and then died joylessly. The smallest ones didn’t all fall down. Meanwhile I had begun to prepare the mortar, and two of the girls came to stick a finger in it. I told them it burned, but they kept their fingers inside and even sunk them in deeper, until a nun pulled them away by the shoulders.
It was already hot, and the Mason took off his shirt; his chest was still thin and white from the winter’s inactivity. The nuns hastily led the girls to the far end of the garden, but their gazes reached us just the same, especially that of one of the grown-up girls, maybe the most grown-up of all, who had blonde pigtails tied at the ends with black ribbons and a face full of fiery pimples.
Her name was Letitia. For no apparent reason, she herself told the Mason so, one of the following days, when the nuns had become used to our presence and the girls once again could draw close to the breach, which, section by section, was closed and opened up along the wall. Three or four of the girls came at a time and stared at us fixedly, while the others would distract the nuns.
Only Letitia came more often, without waiting for her turn, and when she came the Mason, who had been compelled by the Mother Superior to wear his shirt all the time, unbuttoned it and the black hairs stood out from his chest, yet the girl didn’t blush a bit.
There was also something inside that garden I couldn’t understand, something heavy that was trying to get out or come in through our breach, and in fact the Mother Superior said she was counting on us to make sure that the breach was carefully closed every evening.
But the most absurd and mysterious moment occurred at a certain time in the afternoon when the Mother Superior would look into the garden, clapping her tiny white hands and making noise enough to send the birds in the nearest olive trees flying away. Then it seemed that a cloud covered the pale sun which from our breach beat on the girls’ faces. Their eyes would turn gloomy and inert, would seem all at once empty, but if you looked at them close to, you could tell they were full of fear and of hate.
I would feel an urge to move away from in front of the breach, to let the girls roam free among the olives, on the stretch of clear, cracked earth. The Mason, too, must have felt the same urge, because he would remain still with the trowel in the middle of the air, staring hard at Letitia.
The Mother Superior would advance toward us, making the sign of the cross, and she always said the same words: “Come on, children, for the Lord has called to Himself one of our beloved benefactors and we must accompany him into His glory.”
“I’m lame, Mother,” one of the girls would say, and another would have a headache, but the Mother Superior knew they were lies and would look at them severely, with her white eyes inside the violet circle of the wrinkles. “One must be grateful to one’s benefactors,” she’d say, “the thankless will go to hell.”
The garden would remain empty, and our breach useless. The Mason and I would hurriedly fill it up with stones, almost as if to prevent death from entering. But death entered all the same into the garden; the girls brought it engraved in their gazes when they came back. They stank of wax and rotten flowers while their skin was bright and tensed over their foreheads, which were all low and protruding as though they had had to bear on their heads, for a long time, a huge weight.
They would huddle around the breach and mutter in an undertone when they had come back. The first days it was impossible to understand them, but then we could tell they were speaking ill of the dead. They’d say, “That one was left with his mouth distorted,” and “That other didn’t even know enough to shut his eyes.” Their voices were strident and full of hatred. They’d say, “Did you notice that guy, how he already stank?”
We’d stay all day long with our ears alerted, and when the bell rang slowly the shivers came, because it meant there was another enemy to confront. Every dead man a new enemy.
The Orphanage girls shriveled more and more, and the little ones didn’t grow, yet it was spring. Even the pimples on Letitia’s cheeks were almost spent, but above all it was inside the girls that death sucked every day during the funerals, leaving them as if soulless.
Then I knew something had to be done. We had reached the end of the wall and soon we would have had to close forever our breach, the only road spring had to enter the sullen garden of the Orphanage.
I don’t know whether the Mason had the same thoughts as I did, but one evening we both went away leaving the breach open. It was almost dusk, and the sun, low on the horizon, lower than our hill, sent its rays through the breach to flood the garden. Darkness, however, was not long in coming, and the Mother Superior didn’t notice the wall left open to the merry threat of the olive trees.
I went behind one olive to wait, and behind another olive was the Mason with his shirt white and unbuttoned. We waited silently and throbbing in the perfumed evening, full of crickets and tender leaves. All of a sudden the bell began to toll its slow knell and the crickets grew quiet.
The Mason and I waited anxiously, and before the dismal bell had stopped something stirred in our breach.
Small shadows came hesitantly out of it, one behind the other, and once outside they began running down the hill, caught up by the olive branches.
They ran freely, the girls among the olive trees, like sheep at dawn when they come out of the fold, so happy they filled the whole countryside with shouts, and then from the breach came one, three, live sisters dressed in white, who pursued them waving their arms like ghosts.
It was a strange hunt in the night. The Mason took part in it too. The girls ran laughing from one olive tree to another, and the nuns behind them panting, but they were also happy to run over the perfumed earth.
In the end they caught all the girls except one. The Mason had taken care of her. The whole night long they continued to call Letitia, voices modulated from the habit of prayer, quickly lost in the vibrant chorus of the crickets.
The hill throbbed under the steps of the white, light nuns who bent down to look in the ditches. And in our town, at the top of the country, so many lights were lit that night that they gave it an air of festival and of miracle.
But the next day I had to close by myself the breach in the wall of the Orphanage.