Story by Dino Buzzati
After an interminable wait, when all hope had already begun to die, Giovanni returned home. It had yet not struck two, his mother was clearing the table, it was a gray March day, and crows were flying overhead.
He appeared suddenly on the doorstep and his mother cried, “Oh, dear God!” running over to embrace him. Even Anna and Pietro, his much younger sister and brother, began to cry with joy. Here was the moment they had been awaiting for months and months, that had so often flashed through their sweet dawn dreams, that would bring so much happiness.
He barely said a word, for he needed all his strength to hold back his tears. He immediately laid his heavy saber on a chair. On his head he still wore his leather beret.
“Let me see you,” his mother was saying through her tears, pulling him back a little. “Let me see how handsome you are. Oh, but it’s so pale you are!”
In fact, he was more than a little pale; he looked exhausted. He took off his beret, moved to the center of the room, and sat down. How tired, how very tired. He had to strain, even to smile.
“But take off your cloak, little one,” said his mother; and she was looking at him as though he were a miracle; she was almost intimidated by him, as if he had become tall, beautiful, fierce (even if he were a little too pale). “Take off your cloak, give it here to me, don’t you feel how hot it is?”
He made an abrupt, defensive movement, instinctively tightening the cloak around him, perhaps fearing that she would pull it away from him. “No, no. Leave me,” he answered evasively. “I prefer not to. Anyway, I have to go out in a little while.”
“You have to go out? You come back after two years and you want to go out right away,” she cried, devastated, seeing the immediate return of a mother’s eternal pain after so much joy. “You have to go out right away? And you’re not eating something?”
“I already ate, Mamma,” answered the son with a kind smile, and he looked around, relishing the beloved shadows. “We stopped in a trattoria a few kilometers from here.”
“Oh, you didn’t come alone? And who is it that came with you? A friend from the regiment? Or is it Mena’s son?”
“No, no. It's someone I met on the road. He’s waiting now outside.“
“Out there he’s waiting? But, why didn’t you invite him in? You left him in the middle of the road?”
She went to the window and across the vegetable garden on the other side of the wooden gate she caught sight of his profile. He was slowly pacing back and forth, completely wrapped in a cloak, leaving an impression of blackness. Then, in the midst of her whirlwind of extreme joy, an incomprehensible, mysterious, and acute pain was gripped her heart.
“No, it’s better not to,” he answered firmly. “It would be annoying to him. That’s the way he is.”
“But a glass of wine? Surely, we can bring him a glass of wine, can't we?”
“It’s better not to, Mamma. He’s a strange sort. He might fly into a rage.”
“But who is he then? Why did you take up with him? What does he want from you?”
“I don’t know him well,” he said very slowly and gravely. “I met him during the trip. He came along with me, that’s all.”
He seemed to prefer to talk about something different; he seemed ashamed. And the mother, so as not to contradict him, immediately changed the conversation, but the light that at first had lit up her face was already going out.
“Listen,” she said, “can you imagine Marietta when she finds out you’re back? Can you just see her jumping for joy? Is it for her that you want to go out?”
He only smiled: still with that expression of someone who wants to be happy, yet can’t manage it because of some secret weight.
His mother couldn’t understand. Why was he sitting that way, almost sad, like that long-ago day of his departure? He had come back now; a new life lay ahead of him, an infinity of days without worry, so many beautiful evenings together, an endless succession of evenings that would disappear on the other side of the mountains, in the immensity of future years. No more agonizing nights when flashes of fire would suddenly explode on the horizon, and she would think that he was there, there in the middle of it, stretched out on the ground, immobile, in the midst of the bloody ruins, his chest pierced. At last, he had returned, taller, handsomer. And what a joy for Marietta. Soon spring would be here; they would be married in the church, a Sunday morning amid flowers and the sound of the church bell. Why then was he so deathly pale, so distracted? Why did he laugh no more or tell stories about his battles? And the cloak? Why was he clutching it so tightly to him with the house so hot as it was? Perhaps because, underneath it, his uniform was torn and spattered with mud? But, with his mother, how could he be ashamed in front of his mother? Her sorrows had seemed to be over, and here, right away, a new worry.
Her sweet face bent a little to the side, she gazed at him anxiously, careful not to contradict him, trying to understand his desires immediately. Or maybe he was ill? Or simply worn out from too much exertion? Why didn’t he speak? Why didn’t he even look at her?
In fact, her son wasn’t looking at her at all. Indeed, he seemed to avoid meeting her glance as if he feared something in it. And, meanwhile, his little brother and sister were contemplating him, silenced, with strange embarrassment.
“Giovanni,” she murmured, no longer holding back. “You’re here at last, you’re here at last. Wait now while I make you some coffee.”
She hurried into the kitchen. And Giovanni stayed with the two children who were so much younger than he. They wouldn’t even have recognized each other if they had met in the street, such was the change in the space of two years. Now they looked at one another in silence, unable to find words; but now and then they would smile together, all three of them, perhaps because of an ancient, unforgotten pact.
And now here was the mother returning, and here was the steaming coffee and a nice slice of cake. He drained the cup with one gulp, he chewed the cake with difficulty. “Why? You don’t like it anymore? It used to be your favorite!” the mother wanted to say, but she was silent so as not to upset him.
Instead: “Giovanni,” she proposed, “wouldn’t you like to see your room? There’s a new bed, you know? And I had the walls painted, a new lamp. Come and see . . . But the cloak, don’t you want to take it off then? Don’t you feel the heat?”
The soldier didn’t answer her, but got up from the chair, moving to the nearby room. His gestures had a sort of heavy slowness, as though he were no longer twenty years old. The mother had run ahead to throw open the shutters. But only a gray light, divested of any joy, entered the room.
“How beautiful,” he uttered with dim enthusiasm as he stood on the threshold catching sight of the new furniture, the immaculate curtains, the white walls, everything so fresh and clean. The mother had bent down to adjust the bedspread—even that, brand new—and his gaze rested on her delicate shoulders with an inexpressible sadness that no one could see. In fact, Anna and Pietro were standing behind him, their little faces radiant, expecting a great scene of joy and surprise.
Instead, nothing. “How beautiful it is. Thanks Mamma, you know?” he repeated. And that was all. He averted his eyes apprehensively, like someone wanting to conclude a painful conversation. But, above all, every so often he would look through the window, with obvious concern, to the spot behind the green wooden gate where a dark figure was slowly pacing up and down.
“Are you happy, Giovanni? Are you happy?” she asked, impatient to see him joyful.
“Oh, yes. It’s really beautiful,” answered the son (but why was he so stubborn about taking off the cloak?) and he continued to smile with tremendous effort.
“Giovanni,” she begged, “what’s wrong? What’s wrong, Giovanni? You’re hiding something from me; why don’t you want to tell me?”
He bit his lip. Something seemed to be stuck in his throat. “Mamma,” he answered after a while, his voice flat. “Mamma, now I have to go.”
“You have to go? But you’ll come right back, no? You’re going to Marietta’s, right? Tell me the truth, are you’re going to Marietta’s?” And she was trying to joke in spite of her pain.
“I don’t know, Mamma,” he answered, his tone still contained and bitter. He was going to the door; he had already taken his leather beret. “I don’t know, but I now have to go. There’s him, waiting for me.”
“But you’re coming back later? You’re coming back? In two hours you’ll be here, right? I’ll have your uncle Giulio, too, and your aunt come over. Just imagine what a holiday it’ll be for them also. Try to get back a little before dinner . . . .”
“Mamma,” repeated her son as if he were begging her not to say more, to be silent, for heaven’s sake, so as not to increase his pain. “I have to go. Now. There’s him . . . out there, he’s waiting for me. He’s been too patient till now.” Then he stared at her with a look that could pierce the soul.
He went to the door. The little brother and sister, still celebrating, grabbed on to him and Pietro lifted a panel of the cloak so he could find out how his brother was dressed.
“Pietro, Pietro! What are you doing? Stop! Leave him alone, Pietro!” cried the mother, fearing that Giovanni would get angry.
“No, no!” exclaimed the soldier, realizing what the boy was doing. But now it was too late. The blue panels had opened for an instant.
“Oh, Giovanni, my little one, what have they done to you?” stammered the mother, taking his face in her hands. “Giovanni, but this is blood.”
“I have to go, Mamma,” he repeated for the second time with desperate firmness. “I’ve already made him wait enough. Good-bye Anna. Good-bye Pietro. Farewell Mamma.”
He was already at the door. He went out as if carried by the wind. He crossed the garden, opened the gate; two horses departed at a gallop under the gray sky, not back toward the country, no, but across the prairies, up to the north, in the direction of the mountains. They galloped, they galloped.
And then at last his mother understood. An immense emptiness opened in her heart; an emptiness that the all the centuries of time would never ever be able to fill. She understood the story of the cloak, her son’s sadness and, above all, who the mysterious individual was who had been pacing back and forth in the street, waiting; who that sinister character was who had, indeed, been so very patient. So merciful and so patient that he had accompanied Giovanni to the old house so that he could embrace his mother before being carried away forever; who had stood, waiting, for so many minutes outside the gate—he, the master of the world, in the middle of the dust, like a starving beggar.
translation by Joan Taber