Story: Voices from Pisalocca
By: Gaither Stewart
In my favorite place near the front window with the light from the street over my right shoulder I am reading an essay by Natalia Ginzburg when out of the corner of my eye I register a shadow flitting past on the street. I turn my head toward the window but see no one. It must have been a reflection. Or again my crazy imagination of someone arriving or someone departing. I return to Ginzburg’s description of the fairy tale inventions of Tommaso Catani. It fits my mood. The writer loved the slapstick fabler’s chickens that go mad, drink poison, become crippled and blind, and fall off rocks.
Then, again I see it. The shadow. I look up just in time to see a figure dressed in black run past the front of the store. This time I jump to my feet and run to the door. At first I don’t see anyone along the high road.
Then, I see it. There is a figure in black up near the cemetery. It’s a man. He’s carrying a long sack over his shoulder. Abruptly the figure disappears, apparently taking the path toward the Pisalocca waterfall and the mysterious shuttered house where my imaginary Balkan smugglers once lived.
Who could it be? By now I believe I know everyone in the village. Why is the man in black running up and down the street? And what is he carrying in the sack?
For a few moments longer I stand idly in front of the bookstore. I continue peering up the road. Finally I shrug, resigned. Then I cross the narrow mountain road and sit on the wall overlooking the valley. The sun is vertically above me, yet it no longer burns with the intensity of springtime. I look back across the road into my bookstore and watch the shards of light playing just inside the door. This is my favorite spot in all of Montagna. Below me terraced vineyards and patches of oleander and rhododendron, and walls thick with pink sedum. Farther down, sloping fields where wheat and rye and barley grow. I observe the Orobic Mountains rising across on the southern edge of the valley that create a sense of place and time.
It is a crisp day in late fall. The bells of San Giorgio have just sounded noon.
As a reflex I turn and gaze up at the Rhaetian Alps rising above me. The narrow valley below and the incorruptible mountains on all sides create the microcosm I like to live in. It is the precise delimitation, circumscribed and defined, the kind of bounded world that islanders must feel. It creates in me the special sense of knowledge and understanding of my territory that animals have.
Still, since my return to Montagna I have felt sad. Or maybe it is melancholy. Or my solitude. I know most of the people by sight but have few friends. During the day I stay busy and usually meet my only real friend, Arnolfo. Or I speak with Father Romano who often drops in at my store. But evenings I don’t know what to do. I wait for the magic moment when the light of the sun disappearing beyond Lake Como and the light of the moon from the east seem to be in complete equilibrium. Then, with the victory of night, as if in post-coital withdrawal, I inevitably begin to wallow in gloom. In the end I drink too much. And then I go to bed early. As the days, the weeks, the months pass, I am increasingly aware of my need for a female counterweight to the male world I live in.
Yet despite my melancholy and my solitude, I feel secure back in my village. I have been re-converted to the fatalistic worldview of mountain people and have come to believe that nothing bad will ever happen to me again … now that I have returned home.
I am back with Ginzburg, laughing at her as a girl lying on the floor at her house in Turin and eating bread all day long, when the man in black suddenly steps into the doorway behind me. I whip around and see the long knife gleaming in the noonday sun.
“Well,” I say, trying to remain blasé, “it took you long enough to make up your mind!”
The man in black is just a kid, taller than me, maybe twenty years old. He has long coal black hair and is wearing a black navy jacket. He is holding the knife in front of him, pointed like a pistol. With his left hand he is carrying a heavy-looking green sack slung over his shoulder. He has tattoos on the backs of his hands.
“Give me the money from your cashbox,” he says in a low voice in a dialect different from Montagna’s.
“This is a bookstore, isn’t it? Your cashbox!”
“I don’t have a cashbox.”
“What do you mean?” the kid says now in Italian when I don’t answer in dialect. “Every store has a cashbox.”
“Why should I have a cashbox if I never sell anything.”
“You never sell anything? A pretty crazy store!”
“You mean you’ve never seen a store that doesn’t sell anything?”
“Well, no. Never!”
“Then you haven’t seen many stores,” I reply, unable to think of anything wise or paternal to say to this good-looking hesitating bandit.
“Are you teasing me, signore?” he says, waving the knife around as if he’d never held a knife before either. “I’m serious, I want some money.”
“I can give you what I have in my pocket.” I lay some crumpled Euro notes on the chair.
“What did you expect in a store like this up here on the mountain? You think this is a Feltrinelli branch or something? So you’re not from here, eh?”
“No, not from here.”
“I don’t know what robbers expect to find in stores like this!”
“Money!” the kid says.
“Well, I’ve never been robbed before.”
“And I’ve never robbed before either,” the kid says, a little smile at the corners of his mouth.
Now I laugh. The kid looks around my store dubiously and puts down his sack carefully as if he were carrying precious porcelain. A sexy-looking kid, I think, tall and slim, raven colored hair, a deep tan just beginning to fade, brown tattooed hands, and dressed from head to foot in black. He must have women galore.
“Aren’t you tired after running up and down this road with that sack? What’s in it anyway?”
“Books,” the kid says, and laughs sheepishly. “Yes, I’m pretty winded. And nervous too. I was trying to gather the courage to come in and rob you.”
“Bad choice! Uh, would you like a coffee or some tea instead?”
“Could I have some water … after all that running?”
I pull out a bottle of water and two glasses from under a shelf, fill both, and hand one to the kid. “Why don’t you sit down,” I say, indicating the chair and wondering if I am becoming an accomplice. “You must be tired too.”
“Is that the only chair?”
“No, wait, I’ll get another. And, uh, by the way, why don’t you put that knife away. You can have the money!”
The kid looks perplexed. He blushes, shifts the knife from hand to hand, and slowly lays it on a nearby shelf. “What’s a bookstore doing up here anyway?” he says.
“It’s just for me,” I say, placing another chair near the window. “A few people drop in and we talk and I lend them books. Go on, sit down!”
“You lend them?” the kid says, sitting down, his long legs stretching half way across the store. “You’re not much of a businessman, are you?”
“Not really. And you’re not much of a robber either!” My incurable curiosity is growing stronger about this phony bandit and seems to be carrying me headlong into an adventure that I may regret.
“What are the books in your bag?” I ask.
“Oh, those!” the kid says, snickering and slapping his leg, and beginning to look around the store. “Computer science. They’re the heavy ones. That’s what I study in Lecco. A few novels too. What kind of books do you, er, sell?”
“No computer science. Nothing technical. Mostly literature.”
“Is that what you do all day, just sit here and read?”
“Mostly. All my life I wanted a bookstore. I had to come back here to get it.”
I know I’m lucky. I am a fortunate dreamer whose dream has come true. I was a dreamer when I left Montagna, and during the thirty years I was away I dreamed of return. My return dream was of having a bookstore. But not just any bookstore and not just any place. My bookstore had to be in the mountain theater of my dreams. And now, a place where I can forget.
“You could’ve opened down in the valley and maybe sold some books!”
“Oh God, no!” I began in my downright tone of a literary purist. “I hate those shopping centers and walk-in customers looking for some stupid ‘do-it-yourself’ book or the most recent international bestseller thrillers. No thanks.”
I stock no books of the kind ‘my year as a missionary in Africa’ or ‘a year under the Tuscan sun,’ no modern autobiographies—except those by artists, who lie so much that they end up telling the truth—no mendacious biographies, no silly liturgical or devotional books—especially not Catholic or Protestant—no books about European royalty, no movie or sports stars or race drivers, no globalization economics, no nautical books except Melville and Conrad, no books of gratuitous violence.
“Maybe you’re right. Down there you might get some walk-in robbers too!” the kid says and snickers as if in amusement at my foolhardiness. “Were you away long? Where were you anyway?”
“Most of my life I was away. And I was everywhere.”
“You certainly don’t sound like a real bookseller.”
It is true. If someone wants to buy a book, I am glad. But I simply like dealing in books—choosing them, ordering them, reading them and sometimes talking about them. Books for me are not only physical objects—not simply a sheaf of printed pages of the same size, bound and contained under an attractive cover. My books have souls. And as a rule they are strange. Yet I don’t treat books with kid gloves—I use them, I ear corners and bend backs, I make notes in the margins, I laugh with them, slap them, argue with them, live them. Books are not icons to be worshipped, apart from my life.
“And you don’t sound like a real stick-up man!” I say.
The kid blushes, drinks some water, and nervously fingers the top of the sack at his feet. Then in that moment I see in his manner what I had already heard in his voice—desperation. The quality I love. I am immediately enchanted. Desperation is not a quality many people admit to. Or want to admit to. But in my mind it’s the sign of a real person. Real people are usually desperate. I trust desperation. It is written in his every movement. In his every word. He seems to cultivate it and cherish it.
“Say, what’s your name?” I ask.
“Uh, Lodovico,” the kid murmurs embarrassedly.
“I love that name.”
“You do? I’m always ashamed of it. Sounds so old-fashioned and high-flown.”
“Some people here call me Grigione because I don’t speak proper dialect. My real name is Giacomo.”
“Grigione! You mean like the Grigione people in Switzerland?”
“Like them. I’m not sure whether it’s an insult or not. I don’t believe people trust me.”
“I’ll bet they wonder about this crazy bookstore! Seems like a front for something else. Mafia? Spies?”
“Look who’s talking! You run up and down the street carrying that sack like a smuggler and then walk in here with a huge knife to hold me up and now you wonder if I’m the criminal. Well, as the village priest says, things are never what they seem.”
The kid laughs again, glances at his knife lying on the shelf, and runs his hand through his long hair. “While I’m here I might as well take a look at your books. Maybe you’ll lend me some too.”
I laugh and nod toward the knife. “You could rob them of course.”
The bells of San Giorgio began ringing. I count twelve, then wait for the lone gong after. The half-hour after noon! The silence after the bells crashes over us.
“Rob books!” Lodovico exclaims. “What do you take me for? That’s immoral.”
“Immoral! he says. Cristo!”
“What books should I be reading anyway?” Lodovico says, again blushing. “I never did get around to those thrillers about angels and demons and the Da Vinci book that everybody was reading.”
“Thank God, my boy. You did well! Look at that sign,” I say, pointing toward the door.
On the inside of the entrance door hangs my hand-written list of the ‘worst books of the year.’ Number One is Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, under which I’ve added, “unreadable trash.” I made it through fifty pages and gave up in shame. And since everybody in Montagna too seemed to be reading it, I felt snobbish when I listed as Number Two the Da Vinci Code by the same writer. Under it I wrote ‘idem.’
Lodovico grins and begins to circle the room, looking over titles and authors. From time to time he glances at me watching him. The kid visits the shelves with a certain aplomb—he knows what he is doing. He is a man who takes books seriously. I am imagining him traveling around the world, in trains and on ocean freighters, with his sack full of books, when he asks:
“Are they all Nobel prize winners?”
I nod, pleased he noticed. “Many are.” The Nobel for me is the best criterion. I believe firmly in the Nobel selections for literature and stock the major books I have read by the winners beginning with Herman Hesse.
“Note that I omitted Winston Churchill,” I say facetiously.
“You mean he won a Nobel?”
“Yes, but I detest him.”
My shelves are rich in the works by Nobel writers from Coetzee all the way back to Prudhomme—Camus, Gide, Sartre, France and Roger Martin du Gard, Pasternak and Brodsky, Seferis, Milosz and Sienkiewicz, Grass, Böll and Thomas Mann, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Bellow, Toni Morrison, Golding, O’Neill and Shaw, Pirandello, Montale, Deledda and Dario Fo, Gordimer and Quasimodo, Octavio Paz and Marquez, Seifert and Canetti.
Lodovico keeps shaking his head as if in disbelief and muttering to himself as he passes from one shelf to the next. I know he is struck by my stock of mysticism, black magic and occult sciences. And I am strong in ancient peoples like the Etruscans and Olmecs, exotic religions, esoterics and the invisible world, philosophy and sociology, interpretive history, social sciences and literary travel. I’m quite proud of my selection of exposés of history’s great plots and conspiracies that have changed the course of the world.
“Well,” Lodovico says as he moves back toward the door, “after that visit I suppose I should be going.”
He leans and picks up his bag slowly, slowly, and slings it over his shoulder. We wait then in a kind of perverse silence as we both look toward the knife lying on the edge of shelf about waist high just in front of Seferis, Shaw, Seifert, Sienkiewicz, and Steinbeck.
It is a short powerful butcher knife with a black handle. The blade is thick at the wide top, then narrowing quickly to a menacing point. Lying there quietly among the books, it glitters and glows in rays of the fall sun.
Ostentatiously I clear my throat.
Lodovico glances at me, shrugs, then grins his crooked grin, and says, “I think I’ll pick up my knife later.”
“Good idea,” I say, relieved that the kid made the diplomatic decision. “I’ll hold it for you … and some books too. But the money there? Aren’t you going to take it?”
“Money out of your pocket? I’m not a common thief!”
I stand in the doorway and watch the would-be holdup man dressed in black walk up the road with the green sack of books over his shoulder. In the sunshine his hair is the blackest I have ever seen.
Days are easy. Like spring itself days here in Montagna are lazy and promisingly futuristic. Days are sunshine interspersed with life-giving rain. Days mirror the stability of the seasons and the sense of security in the laws of nature. But the nights! The nights make no promises. Night is nothingness. It is there to withhold, to threaten and promise nothing. The time when you have no hold on anything. A night flight on automatic control. A charterless wilderness when you lose count of altitude and you have no idea whether you’re in the heights or sinking into a netherworld. Night in the mountains is another place and time. In the night, time is both slow and fast, now chasing after us, now pulling us ahead.
In the night in Montagna you can lie awake and count the clangs of the bells of San Giorgio each hour and in the bedlam of the bells and your fantasies about the fornications happening behind the walls of our millenarian houses you feel somehow purified.
The next day, again at around noon, I hear the singing. Long songs, it seems. From far away. A nice voice. For some time I stand in the doorway and listen. The singing is perfectly audible but I can’t understand the words. It’s like that in the mountains. Sometimes you can hear the sounds but not understand the words. It depends on the winds.
After a while, silence intervenes. Then another song begins, sad and mournful, obviously telling another story. The singing seems to be coming from the bladder of the Pisalocca falls. The songs leap from the cascades down to the road and reverberate into the cemetery and along the road to the bookstore and on down the hill toward the Town Hall and the Chiesa di San Giorgio.
Entranced by the sound, I walk up the melancholy road toward the Pisalocca. The singing grows stronger. Now joyous, now sad. Pied Piper, I think.
Two workers are standing at the cemetery gate listening.
I look up toward the dark amphitheater of rock almost hidden in a thick wood on the mountainside.
Here the waters of the Davaglione fall from twenty meters height to the bed below where as a boy I built dams for the Pisalocca swimming hole. The mystery place of my childhood with the mysterious shuttered smugglers’ house towering over it. Where the rushing waters nourish the terrifying vegetation of the wild oasis of peace, now enriched by song. Later, in the winter, stray water will freeze into bizarre ice dragons, the three-headed dog of my memory, the elephant with Indian hunters on its back, the giant holding a child in the air by its legs, ogres from the woods and the eternally roaring water.
Barely visible in the foliage, a figure in black is curled on a green and black monster of rock and moss under masses of lichenous trees, as if floating in the vaporous clouds rising from the falling water. I allow myself to wallow in the ethereal moment that I know is soon to pass never to be encountered again. The song is crystal clear but I still understand only isolated words—words of solitude and pain and loneliness and return.
I know it is Lodovico. Lodovico, the robber.
Some people go through life listening to their interior voices. Most of them go crazy. Others like Lodovico become legends. Does he dream of becoming a highwayman? A brigand, befitting his name? Everybody wanting to be transformed into another. To be someone else. Wanting another life. Wanting the time and place to do all the wonderful things another life could offer. A liberating idea!
Lodovico! He is about the age of the son I left in Germany. Left behind in a Munich cemetery. I thought that return to my origins would let me forget what I lost abroad. But there are always the resemblances—invasive, intimidating, intolerable as resemblances are. Lodovico reminds me of how he would be today. Memory knows no borders. Memory has no boundaries. And memory is a jailer. Memory that proves again and again the non-linearity of time and life. Each year, I go on my pilgrimage back there. It is always cold at the grave. I feel nothing at the grave. But here, back in memory, it all comes back.
What is he singing? What is his song?
I go back and sit on the wall overlooking the valley across the road from the bookstore. Clouds are gathering up the valley near Tirano. I gaze at the mountains and wait.
Later, Lodovico comes loping down the road. As yesterday he is dressed in black. The green sack is slung over his right shoulder. The sack seems fuller and heavier than yesterday so that Lodovico leans slightly to the side. Maybe he is toting around a millstone.
“I hoped you would come back!” I say. “Back for your knife, eh?”
Lodovico grins and holds out his hand. “Maybe! Crazy place up there,” he says, looking back toward the Pisalocca. “Haunted, I think.”
“By the ghost of all the children who’ve died there. Drowned … or killed by the dragons.”
“They only come in the winter,” I say. “Anyway, you must be thirsty after all that singing. What are the songs about?”
“Love songs about my village … Ponte!” he says, pointing to the east.
We watch the packs of darkening clouds sweeping down the valley toward us. Cool air is on the way. Full of rain. I have always thought the view from here at the wall above the valley must resemble astronauts’ view of earth from space. And I wonder where exactly earth ends and space begins.
In the bookstore, Lodovico lets the sack slide off his shoulder and lowers it carefully to the floor. He sits in the same chair as yesterday and immediately turns his head toward the knife shelf. It is exactly where he left it.
I place the other chair in front of him. I put coffee on the electric burner and pour water into tumblers. For some moments we sit in silence and look out the window toward the wall overlooking the valley. Clouds scraping and bouncing off each other are hurtling toward Sondrio. A multiple burst of electricity zigzags over the Orobic Mountains and disappears into a great ravine between two peaks.
Again I stare at the mysterious sack. It is so full. It must contain more than just books. Most certainly it contains a great secret. What is in it? And why does the kid carry a sack around with him everywhere?
“It’s going to rain soon,” Lodovico says.
“I like to watch the clouds form up the valley and turn black and race down the valley,” I say, observing him closely. “Of course, walking around in the rain and carrying a weight like that is not exactly pleasant. It looks heavier than yesterday.”
“That’s the point,” Lodovico says, his eyes as black as his dress. “It gets heavier every day.”
“What do you mean, that’s the point? Come on, Lodovico—I really do love your name!—Come on, what’s in the bag?”
Lodovico gazes at me for a long moment, rakes back his raven’s hair and shakes his head in confusion. I pour the espresso into transparent cups. Maybe minutes pass. It has turned dark outside. The first drops of rain splash on the road. It is one of the rare moments. I lick my lips and taste myself. I touch my own hand and feel myself touching me. I know it is my soul. I feel Lodovico staring at me.
“Rocks!” he says finally.
“Rocks?” I echo. “No books? Just rocks? Are you a stone collector? A geologist?”
“I’m a sinner! But please don’t laugh!”
“The sack is my, uh, it’s my penitence.”
“But what terrible crimes or sins have you committed … at your age? You haven’t had time to be evil. You can’t even rob a store.”
From one instant to the next the rain crashes in torrents against the front window. Water creeps across the asphalt and into the open door.
“I’m a murderer,” he says, reaching down and pulling ineffectually at the sack.
I study the long slim hand fingering the sack, the elegant curve of his neck and the form of his hair, the natural gracefulness of his every movement. Nothing malicious in this boy. He is in a sense beauty. The beauty of a child. The innocent beauty of a Rublev icon. He must be good also, the kind angels are supposed to guard and protect.
“A murderer, eh? Do you want to talk about it?”
“I killed the woman I loved … the love of my life.”
“Please tell me about it,” I say.
Lodovico peers at me over the rim of his cup, drinks it in one draught, puts it next to his water glass on the shelf alongside his knife, and begins his story.
“Angela and I both grew up in Ponte. We became lovers when we were kids. I swore I would never leave her … but I did. I had to leave. I was too young. I had to travel. Angela had to work in her father’s restaurant. I went to Canada, to the mountains … and to Alaska. I telephoned her often and told her what I was doing. I wrote her letters. She wrote me. She began asking me to come home, that she needed me. I said I would be home soon. But I kept traveling. I went on to Australia and South Africa. Then her mother told me she was sick and that I should come home. But I had to work to buy a ticket … and I didn’t hurry. I still had things to do and things to see.”
“But now you’re back!”
Just as quickly as it began, the rain turns off. The water recedes from the doorway. The elements fall silent. Again we too sit in an uncomfortable silence. I watch him while he stares at his sack. I sense that tragedy is on the way.
“Angela died before I got here. In childbirth. She never told me she was pregnant. She wanted me to travel.”
Lodovico looks at the sack at his feet, touches it, and sighs. “Sometimes I think she’s in this sack too.”
“Good God!” I exclaim. “And the baby?”
“The baby is very sick. ”
“And the sack is your penitence!”
“Every day that passes I add more rocks … until Nicola gets well.”
Though he often drifts through my thoughts, I have never seen Lodovico again. Evenings, when I walk up the road toward the cemetery and the Pisalocca, I look up toward the smugglers’ house and the cascades and the thick woods and imagine him in his black clothes sprawled on the mossy rock, his green sack beside him, and singing his strange songs.
Then it happens again. And everything is repeated. Eternal recurrence. In the days after the rains finished and the cold arrived in the Valtellina, a good-looking young German-speaking Swiss woman walks into my store together with a blond, powerfully built outdoor man. She is carrying a bulky multicolored velour handbag. She sets her bag on the floor, looks around the store, reads my “worst books of the year” sign, grins, and offers me her hand. On the back of her hand, a tattoo of a dancing nymph.
A seraphic grin on her freckled face, she asks if I have some good literature for a non-skier on her way to San Moritz. I look at the man who is gazing around with a bored vacant expression in his big blue eyes and point her toward Lodovico’s knife shelf.
For a moment she examines the names of Seferis, Shaw, Seifert, Sienkiewicz, and Steinbeck.
“You choose,” she says, opening the bag at her feet. “A couple books by each!”
Lodovico’s sack of rocks in mind, I look down at her open bag.
Her bag is already full of books.