by Dino Buzzatti
(a fairly literal translation)
But then the great and just silence of the countryside arrived; the birds, wasps, all the insects, calmed; only the distant river remained with its melancholy voice. The last bells had also tolled, the rivers and houses among the trees blended with the shade, and in the heart, memories, sweet sadness, illusions. So the streets remained empty, darkness growing at the crossroads, damp vapors emanating slowly from the marsh. Is this the hour when insolent bandits, warmed with wine, move from their cave in the hollow of the ravine toward the main road, carrying their shotguns? Or is that their truck puffing as it ascends and vanishes into the distance?
It is advisable to bolt the doors now, and perhaps this is harmful because the night is no longer able to circulate freely in and out of the house; rather, slipping in through the cracks, it might collect too thickly in the rooms. He, however, has broad shoulders and the face of an old soldier, the evening is still carefree; she even chats easily during supper.
But the time passes, and they have lingered too long reading and embroidering as the clock strikes out in the hallway. Who heard it when the sun was shining? Now, it vibrates in the darkness with old bronze resonances, and the empty corners of the house respond. How discernible also her footsteps on the staircase. She stops midway. It seemed . . . Nothing. Who knows what it was. In the bedroom, the lamp gives off a tranquil light.
He too comes up to bed; he with the squared shoulders; and on top of the dresser, a loaded shotgun, a Mauser. Yet, with his feet on the first step, he turns. Naturally, the hallway is empty. Strange, however: you could almost say that it’s waiting for him to go to sleep. The walls, the chest of drawers in the corner, the metal cabinet, even the bicycles are waiting to be alone. It waits for no one and nothing to be there but the gray stone floor. Perhaps too many people have passed their lives in here, been born, matured, become adults, grown old and died; then others, then others with the passing of time left something behind, something vague and subtle that is lost in the light of day. Or, instead, is it the eternal weight of all the others, living on our solitude, only we can’t understand, and as soon as we leave the room, we suddenly turn around and the mirrors send back a strange face?
Very often, the farmers’ dogs bark mournfully, and they can pick up scents from enormous distances; listening intently, there’s not a moment of the night when they don’t hear some dog barking in the distance. But, it isn’t the dogs.
Great-grandfather’s bust appears exceptionally white at this hour, and two deep eye sockets form, pondering, remembering things that we don’t know about, but that concern us. And even the portraits stare at us with veiled allusions. But, it isn’t the bust or the portraits.
“Giovanni,” she asks in a whisper, “Giovanni, did you hear?”
“Giovanni, they knocked at the door.”
“No. No one knocked. It’s the old metal curtain rod; it swings when there’s a bit of wind and sometimes it bangs against the door.”
“There it is, another knock.”
“Relax, Maria. I’ll have to have it taken down, that rod, seeing that it doesn’t work any more anyway. Who’d be knocking at the door at this hour? People are asleep at this hour.”
Toward 11:30, mice begin to move around in the ancient spaces of the walls. Erratically, they cause muffled roars in the adjoining room; they rustle with their soft bellies under the solemn red curtain, which will continue to hide a terrible secret until the crack of dawn. Here are the mice; they think, who will ever drive them out? Listening intently, they follow their maneuvers. Such strange sounds. Could it possibly be the mice? Or, is it a human being opening a drawer, over there, pulling it out little by little? And who is that walking in the attic? My God, whose slow footsteps are approaching the stairway door? But, it isn’t these either.
On the ceiling, a slight crack. The dampness must have seeped through, forming a stain. Lying in bed, they gaze at it. It looks just like a face, old and fat with coarse lips. But, at a certain point, the edges oscillate, a tiny movement (their eyes had been momentarily carried to another point, and the stain thought it wasn’t being observed). As soon as they turn to stare at it, immediately it immobilizes. It seems to be the same one as before, and it isn’t. In the corner of its mouth, the ripple of a sneer is born. Perhaps they just have to blink their eyelids in order to make it move again. But, this isn’t it either.
“Giovanni,” she stammers, shaking herself. “Giovanni, my mother’s calling me.”
“Your mother? But, it isn’t your mother.”
“I heard it so clearly: ‘Maria, Maria.’ Do you think I can’t recognize her voice?”
“You were probably dreaming. Your mother’s far away. Try to sleep.”
“She was here. She was here, right at the side of the bed, calling me. Giovanni, I’m afraid.”
“It was a dream; nothing more. Sleep now, it’s late.”
“Her voice, I’m telling you, it’s still in my ears. She was all out of breath as if something had happened.”
The chimney over the bed must have too wide a mouth, or the patch of zinc didn’t fix it properly. If there’s just the slightest wind, the air floods it, and it groans; really, a lament that’s descending down through the wall. It resounds vaguely in the chimney; it seems to be breathing. But it isn’t this either.
And why are great-grandmother’s armchairs standing there in that position? They seem anxious and agitated. For whom are they waiting? Who will come and sit on them? Why were they all so sleepy during the day? They aren’t afraid to reveal themselves either. Here they are: one, two, three, four, even the broken-down chair at the end of the hallway. It’s dangerous to turn off the light. What will they do as soon as it’s dark? Who will come out from the corner? But it isn’t the armchairs either.
“There’s a horse, Giovanni,” she suddenly sits up in bed. “Do you hear it? Do you hear it?”
“What’s wrong with you tonight, Darling? Everything is peaceful.”
“But how can you not hear it? On the street, it’s here that it’s coming. God, how it’s running.”
Giovanni is silent, he too is listening now. Like someone galloping, galloping. And it seems to be coming closer and instead it’s still there, down the way.
“It’s not a horse, Maria. No one is riding at this hour. It’s the water in the cistern dripping on something. Sometimes we forget to turn it off.”
“Those really are hooves beating. Not the cistern, I tell you. What could be happening that it’s running so frantic?”
And whose footsteps are in the garden now? The gravel is crunching under unknown shoes. They hear a strange noise like a wet rag being dropped on a rock. Or, for reasons not clear, the birds are suddenly awakening, bustling among the branches, making chirping, suffocated noises. Or there’s a cat slipping from room to room, searching. Or a huge flaccid butterfly is seething, his flesh beating against the window panes. Or the subtle voice that comes and goes and could belong to a woodworm. Or the large spider that, after three days, has finally set off on a journey. Or the clothing on the hangers that look so much like hanged men. And then the infinite twitches of the woodwork, the impalpable echoes of things said, names, quarrels, laughs, ancient cries, which they thought had been buried by the years. And the silence that little by little—listening—transforms into a roar with indecipherable inner voices, laments, engines, debris of existences and mere fancy, baggage wagons, melodies, screams.
But it isn’t these either. And it isn’t even our regrets. And not even God. It is death that is coming. It set out some time ago for each of us, and on certain nights in old deserted houses, we hear it come.