Fiction

Buongiorno, Tristezza—Good Morning, Sadness

By Gaither Stewart

It happens, admittedly not often, in fact infrequently, but it happens that it snows here in the spring even though foreigners think our city is nearly tropical. Here at only fifty-two meters over sea level, at 41°53’30” latitude, sometimes it snows in late March or even in early April. The uninvited but powerful guest arrives anyway, presumptuous, marching, marching, marching, in total command, the secret of its late appearance concealed within its military-like, winner-takes-all step. And then, brash and disregardful as it is, its white flakes hang suspended in the suddenly freezing spring air, infectious like a sticky snake-spider’s bite. And it drives you crazy.

“Look, look, Stuart, it’s fucking changed into snow, already sticking on the daises and dandelions.’ Her husband joined her at the great window and they watched its silent descent, the snow, snow-white, growing, thickening, spreading like wild fire.

Like every year they had already taken to lunches on the terrace in mid-March, siestas in the sunshine hammock, surrounded by glorious exploding nature blasting away the winter, red and black ants, bee-like wasps buzzing, an occasional butterfly, colorful birds chirping their melodies, small green rose-ringed parakeets rhnnt, rhnnt, rhnnting in their language and the mean crows caw caw cawing from one tree to the other, signaling, warning, admonishing their similars, after which, later, Stuart and Sophie accept the evening cold snap and the quiet return of low temperatures. But hopefully only for the night. But last evening things had begun changing. A bizarre thunder storm in early evening. In March. Then during the night not just a cold snap but a dramatic freeze, followed in the morning by an initial icy rain, now transforming, whitening and solidifying.

‘Happens like this some years, Sophie,’ her tall, high-cheek boned husband said sadly.

‘Still, it gives me the fucking creeps,’ she said, looking as sexy as a bar dancer. ‘I don’t know. It’s like you shouldn’t even sleep at night. You’ve got to be aware. Attentive. You have to check things out. You can’t let your guard down during the night …  the soul time.’

‘What the hell do you mean, Sweetheart? What’s on your mind?’

The abrupt change in the weather, the warmth and the cold, the spring snow probably covering the still hung hammock, made them think unpredictable thoughts. Stuart put his hands on her hips, leaned toward her and ostentatiously peered into her green eyes as if trying to pinpoint her true nature. His Sophie just couldn’t help giving every word she uttered, every move she made explicit sexual invitational overtones. That is her nature, he saw in her eyes. And as always her sailor’s language stirred his erotic instincts, too. Though he too had felt something different in the air, in this seemingly critical moment he was reluctant to support Sophie’s mystical tendencies and her dangerous preference for physicality. Was he the only one? Yet, despite himself, not only desire rose from his loins, but simultaneously also his jealousy flared up. If she had such an effect on him, she had it others.

Even after ten years with Sophie, Stuart was admittedly a jealous lover….Still, his Sophie was so beautiful that he sometimes—for fleeting moments—had the crazy thought that other men too should see her beauty. Though he tried to suppress his jealousy and his voyeuristic images of an image, his urge was irrepressible to tell her again about the Candule complex he’d read about in one of Jorge Borges’ stories: man’s desire to show his woman’s beauty to other men, males bonding together in “brotherly love” via women’s bodies.

Like the first time, she gaped at him dismissively, shrugged,  and said, ‘You’re off your fucking rocker again.’

“Well,’ he muttered sheepishly, ‘Herodotus,  the, er, the father of history left the first version of the topos that then passed down through history. Even Cervantes dealt with it. So what can I do if the complex belongs to all men?’

‘Yep, Lover, men and women are two different races. For sure.’

‘Anyway, Sophie, the Persian King Candaule,’ Stuart recounted, ‘desired that Gyges, his favourite  bodyguard, to whom he entrusted all his secrets, watch his Queen undress and see her naked. Despite Gyges’ protests, Candaule installed him behind the open door of the regal bedchamber. But the Queen perceived what her husband had done and punished him for it. She gave Gyges an ultimatum: either he must kill Candaule and take her and the throne as his own, or he himself must die. Gyges opted for life and slayed Candaule in his sleep.’

Now Sophie Berardenga was petite, brown hair swirling around her beautiful face with huge green eyes, shapely, with breath-robbing legs and narrow Italian ankles that Stuart never tired of caressing. Nor of kissing the dark mole-beauty mark on her left cheek back near her perfect ear that he called her first G spot.

Standing at the window waching the spring flakes fall, Stuart Stuart towered over her from his basketball height, slim and athletic-looking with long dark hair and full, though scarce, beard and wore the same sweater, pants and shoes the whole winter, much to Sophie’s distress. A third generation Scot, whom his eccentric father, Domenico Stuart had given the same name as their surname, he’d said just to make doubly sure the Italian-Scotch Stuarts never became extinct.

Sophie and Stuart were both thirty-five.

‘Apocalyptic!’ Sophie muttered, her nose against the window pane.. ‘A melancholy feeling of times ending or something ending comes over me in times like this. You know, lights out in the world. Like in wartime, when bombs fall. And troubled sensations overcome you. You know what I mean? Like being in a distant foreign country of whose language you don’t know a word. Yet there are the omens, the presentiments. Still, the past is vague, the future doesn’t exist, only the present counts and it is strange and incomprehensible. Swirling ceiling fans. Bicycle-crowded streets. Romantic, sad cafés, where mysterious people huddle in the corners, scheming, conspiring. Chimes tinkling and gongs alerting. Drum beats rolling steadily in the indeterminate distance. Ghosts roaming among falling shadows becoming darkness. I can’t describe the feeling. It’s in my head but also in my stomach. Maybe in my soul. Oh, Stuart, the fucking darkness is coming.’

“Is that from a new story you’re writing … the musical stage as you call it? You’re always true to yourself, Tesoro, forever super aware of the present. Action and your eternal musical language … your written language anyway.’

‘Maybe I’ll read it to you someday … when all this is over. You’ll understand me and our times better that way.’

‘When all what is over, Tesoro? All this what?’

Sophie pursed her lips and pulled at her long hair that Stuart considered her crowning glory, sighed and turned back to the picture window giving on to the front yard, at the same time sexually stroking the heavy ancestral damask drapes framing the room’s four great windows. ‘Oh, I don’t know what I mean or what I’m saying. It’s just … it’s just the wretchedness of it all. This crazy weather and the stuff going on downtown in our capital and up north. Simply wretched. Now this end of time snow has to fall on us.’

‘All of what going on, Sophie? For God’s sake, what’s on your mind anyway?’

‘Money and land taxes and Italexit are on my mind. The brouhaha of the times. How are we to survive, snowbound like this.? We can’t even open the shop tomorrow and even if we did nobody would come in and if anyone looked in they wouldn’t buy anything. Who needs necklaces in a blizzard? And nobody buys my stories either.’

‘Oh, Sophie, you know very well this happens nearly every year. Surely we can wait it out. As I’ve said this house doesn’t make you bourgeois again. Where are your principles, ragazza?

‘OK, Master, our treasury has exactly six euros and I think forty cents in it and our bank deposits are at zero. Nothing bourgeois in that. Besides, we’ll soon be snowed in, and grocery stores too are likely closed … even if they would give us credit. Stuart Stuart, things were going so well. Now this … this threat. Oh, for the good old days when things were normal. Oh, Stuart, what is to become of us?’

Wringing her hands, Sophie wandered over the huge room and into the adjoining space of the second living room. He watched his wife do what she compulsively did several times a day: unthinkingly she adjusted the wide sash holding apart the yellowish damask drapes within which was woven, Sophie claimed, the outline of a lamb. Stuart called them blackout drapes and the lambs unicorns. Jokingly he referred to Sophie’s unicorn drapes.

‘Perfect balance,’ he pronounced in approval. Actually he teased her lovingly carefully about the seventeenth-century drapes and this huge manor house Sophie had inherited, as had her father from his parents, the only things bourgeois that remained in her after ten years with him. Besides, he had learned to accept the hold tradition had on her. Like her beloved green velvet couch, the huge heavy armoires in every room, the portraits on the walls of her ancestors none of whom either of them even registered in their consciousness, the tall floor lamps in darkened corners, potted plants and tall Japanese vases, ancient carpets from Isfahan, the crossed swords on the wall of the rear study. After all it had simply passed down to her though the many generations since its construction by Sophie’s Berardenga ancestors, accumulating, accumulating and maturing, maturing on its way.

‘Perfect?’ she repeated. ‘What would you know about traditional Roman taste? Stuart Stuart, third generation Scotch-Italian Communist, what could you know about them? You know, when I enter a room for the first time my eyes invariably linger on the drapes. Drapes say a lot about who you are! So there.’

‘Actually, Tesoro, I’ve seen that most people spend much too much time deciding on their drapes. Too costly fabrics in any case. Just too much of a great life-changing decision. All that wasted thought and deliberation. As if deciding what bourgeois political party will best protect their interests against a stirring and pushy working class. When oh when will we revolt? They’re just waiting, the elite up there at the top, sneakily, observing us, just waiting to finally yoke us all. Someday you’ll see I’m right.’

‘There you go again! Your usual diatribe each time I adjust the drapes. Ah, sometimes I wish the designs were really of unicorns! What drapes we would have. Recognized art. To compete with the unicorn tapestries in Paris … and how you loved them, those huge tapestries of a lady and the unicorn. Middle age art. And so our drapes. And dear, these drapes are so old they are again modern.’

‘Ok, Ok. Right. So what do you say about a little run  … before that snow gets so high we’d have to wear snow shoes.’

‘Snow shoes? You mean we still have them?’

‘Four years ago. We did some trekking that time. But from now on we’re going to need them … every year in this southern spring that never comes anymore. Things get worse every year. Every month. Maybe every day. And so nature, so society.’

‘Pessimist! And that must have been another woman with you four years ago! I don’t recall that snowfall at all.’

The snow was dry. Softly inviting. It barely covered the soles of their running shoes, no more than two centimeters deep, but sticking quickly to the earth in the sudden cold of these sea level lands. They trotted along the narrow unpaved road leading away from other villas and headed into the wildest and most unpeopled and untrammeled part of their area, today a white world, and contradictorily in the direction of the city, not away from it.

‘Pretty intense the snowfall this year,’ he said as they accelerated their pace to a slow run, still side by side. ‘But how can you measure it? Well, at least it seems safe enough,’ he added to reassure claustrophobic Sophie who, he knew, felt unstoppably surrounded and hemmed in by nature’s bizarre tricks and games. She always called the area the lands of abandoned spaces, even though the spaces she meant had actually never been occupied … not by anyone but them. Their own occupied abandoned spaces. The snow fell heavily, each flake huge. More than eight centimeters high only two kilometers later.

‘The whitest snow that ever fell to earth’, Sophie noted, short of breath from keeping up with Stuart’s long running strides.

‘And already over my shoes in places.’

 The road had narrowed, spontaneous indefinable trees pressing on each side, in some places hanging over them like a snow net letting in only stray drifting snowflakes. Here the earth was again black and green, tree tops laden in white. A nefarious and dangerous spot for Sophie, her running partner knew.

Just as they entered the most spectacular of the wildness, the greenest green and the blackest black under a network of overhanging trees forming nature’s own botanical  garden, Sophie abruptly slid to a stop. Lower foliage to the right had collapsed under the weight of the snow. And before them appeared a green and black clearing.

‘Stuart, look there. Look! Look!. The birds. Dozens of them,’ she yelled, running to the clearing. ‘I just knew this was all wrong! Dozens and dozens of them,’ she repeated pointing left and right at birds lying unmoving on a square of green moss and scattered nearby among low weeds. Crows, one identical to the other. She leaned over and reached down with her hand toward one at her feet.

‘No, no, Sophie, don’t touch them. Don’t touch them.’

‘Just wanted to see if it was warm.’ But she didn’t touch the birds she’d hated so much in life. Instead she looked at Stuart thoughtfully, then back to the birds at her feet.

They counted fifteen dead birds. ‘Mediterranean crows,’ Stuart pronounced. ‘Dar gray and white. They look so much smaller dead like that. A whole family I would bet … you know they live in families, or maybe even in tribes. Decimated. The whole family must have lived in that tree, caw cawing one to the other early mornings.’

‘But dead from what?’

‘Who knows? Sophie. Some rare bird disease, I guess. Maybe even transmittable. We’ve got to get out of here, Wait, I’ll report it to 118. Here, I’ll photograph some of the birds and the place so they can check it out. You know. this might be dangerous. Looks to me like a disease … or maybe poisoning. The health people can examine them, maybe pinpoint the disease.’

‘Well, remember, Stuart, like most people I hate this bird, the cornacchia. It’s so mean to other birds. The Fascist in the bird world as you charge. Yet I once heard that some people eat them … which I find hard to believe. Most likely someone discovered this family and poisoned them.’

‘Well, they’re mean all right. Terrorizing other birds with their throaty caw caw caw. And their size and power. Why, they’re not afraid of anything. An exceptional bird to be sure. At least they act that way. Still, I wonder if they’re sometimes afraid other birds might gang up against them. Oh, I was walking in our rear garden the other day, walked right past a crow and it paid no attention to me whatsoever. A crazy thought struck me at the moment. You know, I’ve long suspected that the city feels menaced by our invading country-side and all its wild nature. Kill’em all, they think down there in civilization, birds, fruit trees and sometimes even people. It’s puzzling. Sophie, maybe the city sent the crows out here to kill the other birds in the first place. They’ve only been here a few years. This might be a crow conspiracy. Or a red flag of some kind. You know how our people are. I think many of them hate nature … the way they cut down trees without a second thought and pour cement everywhere. And birds poisoned by humans in this isolated area so far from everyone? I’m not convinced. Still, we might have discovered an … an …agent.’

‘An agent? Now what the fuck does that mean?’

‘Ah, well, uh, uh, well, just an agent. But there’s something else. You know my feelings about coincidences. This … this scene, the snow, the woods, the dead birds and you leaning over them, all this happened before … somewhere … or maybe in a dream. You know, the eternal recurrence of all things.’

‘Oh, for heaven’s fucking sakes, Stuart! But still … you know, I have the feeling that things have suddenly changed.’

Back at home, at the window snow watching, Stuart asked: ‘What things did you mean have changed. And what did you mean? How have things changed?’

‘Oh, it’s hard to be specific. But like I said before our run, the snowfall … just look at it now. Must be a meter high. And the sounds! Sounds of a new silence, the end times atmosphere, and now the dead crow family. Things like that. Don’t you feel it?’

‘Well, Sophie, of course I … wait, what’s that sound. Quick, up to the roof,’ Stuart yelled, running to the stairs. ‘Sounds like trucks. The chains clanging. Something is going on out there.’

They had a good view of the road from their protected roof  garden. Up on the road a column of military trucks and busses was plowing through banks of snow. ‘Six vehicles,’ Stuart said quietly. ‘Maybe a whole brigade of men. For Christ sakes, is this an invasion … of our abandoned spaces. Not the way I expected them to be filled … one day. Capitalism in action! Maybe power and snow and dying birds and occupied abandoned spaces go together. As if nature and space were a measure of the world condition.’

‘There’s no joy and rapture in this, Stuart. The bliss we’ve always felt here in the manor house and the wild around us. No joy here now. Not after the snow and the birds. No!’

In the late afternoon as the day was beginning to end they heard the motor sounds again. Wordlessly they returned to the roof garden. The trucks and busses were trying to return to where they had come from. Back to civilization. Abandoning the abandoned spaces. Mechanical beasts of burden struggled against a meter and a half of fresh snow. Would they make it? Or was the snow more powerful, Stuart wondered.   

‘I’m going back to check out the birds. Tesoro, where are my snow shoes anyway? Or are they also just lost things.’

Plop, plop, plop. Plopping over a meter and a half of snow, he thought of the struggling trucks and busses trying to get back home. Everybody needs their place, he thought vaguely. Then, there was the clearing g spot. Not a flake of snow in the botanical garden. Nothing white. All dark. What little snow there had been had now been cleared. Not one single bird body was to be seen. Carried away by the military. For testing? But testing for what?

Around him, total silence. Nature was soundless. Nature provided no answers. Who had won? he wondered. Capitalism had shown itself in useless earnest. From the superficial evidence of the military trucks, the absence of the dead birds and the silence of nature, Capitalism had won the battle … but not the war, he thought.

But surprisingly his trek back home was a piece of cake. The evening cold had already hardened the snow. The thoughts churning through his head were bad thoughts. Negative thoughts. Skeptical thoughts. He was relieved to find Sophie standing at the window stroking sensually, passionately the damask drapes.

He felt a sense of relief to see her in her familiar position. For a long moment she didn’t even acknowledge his return with greetings or questions. Then: ‘Stuart, I just can’t forget your jealousy,’ she said, examining pretentiously the damask sash. ‘Just the thought of the absurdity is offensive … and after all this time … after all our love … as if we’d never really met … and in these times of the birds and the spring snowfall,’ she said from the great window where she then again first lovingly caressed, then adjusted the heavy, yellowish drapes.  

Categories: Fiction

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