It is siesta time in the town. Today, the silence of slumber is more complete even than usual, since the only citizen permitted to continue work after the midday curfew bell has for once elected to waive the privilege. His sleep seems all the deeper for its rarity, but no one could say that he has not earned it. He is the most accomplished theologian of the region and he has just finished the final draft of his magnum opus on freedom of choice. In the tiny study where most of this work has been written, his head rests on the keys of the antique typewriter that he has been using for years despite offers to buy him something more up to date from no less a figure than Cardinal Strega himself. Occasionally his shoulders twitch and his head lifts a few inches as if an awakening were imminent before (it is a large and weighty head) crashing back down onto the keys, so that a few unwanted letters and mathematical symbols have appeared, detracting somewhat from the intended solemnity and definitiveness of his last Amen. This is nothing that a little correcting fluid cannot put right, and of that substance there is never a shortage, as the theologian is a most severe self-critic. Somewhat more difficult to blot out will be the effects of the wolf-spider’s strike.
The wolf-spider has had a troublesome journey to the study. Its legs were made for scuttling across dry, dusty surfaces, not for ascending marble steps. It had no problem getting in through the crack under the kitchen door and reaching the foot of the staircase, but how it has suffered during the final stages of its advance is impossible for the average biped to imagine. Having got as far as the landing, however, it is not about to go home without a strike: the smell of well-nourished blood is unmistakable.
The study door is open. The stone floor is too slippery to guarantee a fast getaway, but the wolf-spider is confident that the pain itself will distract the victim long enough. So it proves. A quick nip on the exposed left ankle and the wolf-spider is making for the door at full pelt, unnoticed by the theologian, who has started screaming, it seems, before he has fully woken up. Instinctively his hand claps down over his lips: even he is not allowed to scream during curfew. For a second his shock and bewilderment act as an anaesthetic against the agony in his ankle; then he has to dig his teeth into his hand to stop himself crying out again. He wonders whether he was heard the first time, and pokes his head out of the window to survey the street below. Seeing that it’s empty, he lets out a choked sob and pounds his voluminous fist onto the typewriter keys.
An excruciating half-minute later, he manages to steady his trembling lips into a prayer that all this might soon be revealed as a nightmare brought on by overwork. But when the pain starts to subside, he need do no more than lift his robe and examine the pink swelling at the point of contact to confirm that the attack has been real enough. And it takes only a few more moments to realise that the effects are not merely physical. Some form of spirit has entered him, of this he is sure; and being in essence a humble man, he unquestioningly assumes the visit to be insidious rather than divine.
He wonders whether it is punishment for the tract he has just completed. From certain standpoints it could be considered heretical. To the theologian’s enemies, its celebration of the almost free consciousness of man, under the firm but wisely inconspicuous supervision of his Holy Maker, might look suspiciously like the confirmation they’ve been after for years of what they term his ‘sublimated Jansenist sympathies’. Such nonsense! Yet he is well aware that mud like that can stick. A minute later the pain is fading fast, to be replaced by a feverish wooziness in the limbs. He staggers to the door, but it is only his body that staggers. His mind has now focussed to a glow of articulate energy so overwhelming that for a moment he feels the urge to begin rewriting his book from scratch. Numerous errors of logic in the present version strike him all at once, and he is aware that no amount of erasing and modifying the language will help. But he resists the temptation to sit down at his desk. He must engage in prayer as quickly as possible, and in a suitable place. Bewildered by the intensity of his consciousness, he examines his hands for stigmata, but finding nothing untoward, he comes to his senses, horrified by his own presumption. Having given himself a good ticking off in scholar’s Latin, he locks the door of his study and hurries downstairs.
Although the theologian is the only person in the town permitted to emerge from his house at this hour, this is a privilege of which he has hardly ever taken advantage, preferring as he does to devote the time to his studies. Now, at just after one thirty, the streets are still empty except for the brown-bereted militiamen who keep guard over the silence of the curfew. As the theologian places his hands in the pockets of his robe and lowers his head for fear that the brilliance of his eyes will be noticed, the soldiers turn towards him with looks varying from their customary deference to surprise at seeing him. One of them, a young corporal, goes so far as to cross himself. His superior officer, lounging in a doorway some ten yards further up the street, scoffs openly on seeing the gesture, but touches his beret with restored respect when the unwitting victim of the wolf-spider hurries past.
The theologian keeps his eyes fixed on the craggy Roman paving stones as if he were afraid of tripping up. But he reaches the city walls without further interference. The sentry lets him through and his exit, as far as he can tell, goes undocumented. He walks downhill away from the town, faster than he has intended, in a way that would appear suspicious in a less eminent personage. For a moment he thinks he has heard the voice of the sentry calling him, but when he turns round he sees only the man’s back, framed by the giant stone arch. From here the gate looks like the entrance to an enormous shrine, pagan and stark against the searing blue of the sky beyond.
Suddenly the theologian realises that the concept of paganism exactly suits his present mood. The panic induced by this thought is enough to quicken his pace still further, and he twice nearly falls, the second time cursing his smooth-soled sandals, now in the rawest of dialect. In any case, he soon notices that walking faster does nothing to allay the growing sensations in his breast, which seem to thrive on movement and rhythm. Were he a more experienced recipient of bodily sensations he would have to acknowledge that these are not unpleasant.
There is the familiar smell of mint in the air. The scent becomes a taste and sticks to his throat and tongue. He hopes that the coolness of the flavour will clear his head, but all it does is turn his stomach. His step has now become almost a march. The old cathedral is visible a shimmering quarter-mile away. The path leading to it is hardly more than a ditch between two uncultivated fields. A part of him wishes to jump the hedge and sprawl around like a child in the long green grass, but he resists this strange temptation and pushes on. He knows that he must reach the cathedral before the sensations take him over completely.
He half expects to see the cathedral guarded – it is an obvious target for illegal refugees. As he approaches, however, he sees no one near the steps leading up to the main doors. These doors are locked, but he has a key for the side entrance, one of only two such keys, the other being in the possession of the local District Commissioner for Religious Edifices.
In the meantime, the wolf-spider has claimed another victim.
The town’s main marketplace is far from familiar with the type of spectacle it is currently witnessing. Watched over by armed men during the precisely defined work shifts before and after the midday curfew, it has little of the colour or bustle of its peacetime equivalents. The stallholders are forbidden to raise their voices when announcing prices; haggling is punishable by arrest; and the goods themselves are neither plentiful nor particularly fresh. The little black-market trade that has survived is carried on with increasing ingenuity and at ever-growing risk – narcotic substances packed within the skins of oranges, hollowed watermelons containing prohibited meat – but such acts of audacity are on the wane as checks on merchandise become more frequent and meticulous.
What makes today’s incident all the more remarkable is the apparent indifference of the men in charge. Normally so quick to intervene, they are not equipped with sufficient legal knowledge to deal with unexpected displays of resistance such as that being enacted at this moment. With no superior officer on hand to give them their orders, they do not intend to compromise themselves by becoming involved.
And so the show continues. On the steps of the Church of St Lazarus at the market’s eastern end, the young lady continues to gyrate. From her demure-looking lips comes the unrecognisable tune that has been the only sound heard in the square since the soldiers decided to await instructions. It is strange music, sung in a nasal whine, a melancholy series of rising and dipping scales. Since she began her rendition five minutes ago, the basic melody has remained unaltered, though the tempo has gradually increased to a point verging on the frenetic.
The soldiers’ unease is clear from the scarily indiscriminate way they are brandishing their guns. But although the stallholders and their customers begin to quail and gasp, the young lady pays no more attention to the presence of weaponry than she did when the soldiers first came across her. Then, two members of the local Martial Law Surveillance Unit had caught her emerging from her house ten minutes before the end of the curfew, and had dragged her into the nearest courtyard, where they had pressed a machine gun and a .45 pistol against her right temple and left cheekbone, respectively. She offered no reply to their repeated enquiries as to her identity, which they made despite knowing perfectly well who she was, having been on duty at the execution of her diplomat father for suspected espionage a year before. Instead she completely bamboozled her assailants by thrusting her hands down the front of their breeches. It was this act of provocation, doubly disturbing in the light of the girl’s hitherto untarnished reputation, that led the soldiers to suspect some form of mental derangement, and this lies outside their administrative province.
So now they and their equally nervy colleagues content themselves with trying to keep their guns trained on everyone at once, as if afraid that each flailing movement of arm or leg, each piercing or droning note, may be a secret sign to some unknown guerilla in the crowd. The young sergeant who is nominally in charge scans the upstairs windows of the buildings looking onto the square; a still younger private crouching by his side attempts to pinpoint the focus of attention with a long-range rifle. But there is nothing to be seen save a few old women leaning out to see what all the commotion is about.
An ageing fruit-seller who ought to know better makes the mistake of misjudging the soldiers’ confusion and giggles audibly. He is plucked out of the crowd, frogmarched to the pavement and beaten with truncheons. The young lady’s behaviour may be outside normal military guidelines; public reaction to it is certainly not. The young lady does not seem to notice and the fact that her voice sweeps into crescendo at this point can be taken as a mere coincidence. Her rhythms have themselves become almost military now, like African drum music, but still with a melody, a lilt and stab of tune around the solid bulk of tempo that is pressing her dance into a strut, almost a goose-step. The soldiers sense mimicry: they cock their rifles and one fires a bullet into the air. The young lady’s fists are clenched. Her arms are like the shafts of a slow-moving machine, making stiff alternate half-revolutions in front of her breasts. Meanwhile her bare feet stomp the seething paving stones.
The rhythm gets still faster. She is running on the spot; the half-revolutions have become full sweeping circles, marked out not by mechanical shafts but the limbs of an Olympian athlete, savage and tireless in their whirling energy. Sweat pours from her face and shoulders. Her cheeks grow red. It is quite clear she is no longer breathing but holding a single note with one massive lungful of nose-channelled air. The note lasts for thirty seconds, a minute, then abruptly stops as she falls to the ground. The show is over. From all sides of the square the soldiers rush in. The sergeant screams at the stallholders to resume their normal business, but his orders lack the conviction of real authority and he turns round to supervise the arrest, leaving both buyers and sellers to goggle with impunity.
Order is at length restored with the arrival of the town’s military superintendent-in-chief, a captain who has just returned after a morning spent visiting an officers’ training college in Taranto. He is around thirty-five, and courtly in appearance. It takes him a few keen-eyed glances and still fewer words to establish what’s happened, and if he’s at all puzzled by the sergeant’s account of events he doesn’t let it show. Instead he coldly draws his troops’ attention to the public entertainment law under which the girl could have been arrested as soon as she began dancing. He quotes this verbatim, and from his punctilious accuracy and almost theatrical delivery, one might have been forgiven for thinking he’d drafted it himself.
A doctor has been summoned. He is kneeling beside the prostrate form of the young lady. He is old and thin; his stethoscope seems an extension of the long mournful face, its muscles like strands of gristle. Some say he hates the soldiers, and that his wife’s death in the early part of the war was a direct result of their maltreatment. Be that as it may, he has hurried out from his small studio this afternoon and all the soldiers, except the Captain, are treating him with considerable respect. One of them is keeping guard over his battered black bag as if it were likely anyone in the crowd would run off with it. From this bag he removes a bottle of smelling salts which he applies to the young lady’s nostrils with a small piece of cotton wool. She opens her eyes and utters: ‘Musica!’
‘Yes, yes,’ says the doctor, ‘you go easy, my girl, quite enough musica for the time being, just you rest up a little now and we’ll have you out of here in no time, mark the words of a wise old man.’ The young lady shakes her head. The doctor doesn’t understand. ‘Datemi musica,’ she insists, cheeks pallid but dark brown eyes aglow. ‘Subito.’ The doctor clicks his fingers and the Captain backs away from the crowd he’s been holding at gunpoint, indicating with a finger click of his own that the sergeant is to take his place. ‘Yes?’ says the Captain to the doctor, who is on his feet. The Captain appears to have a tic in the top right-hand corner of his moustache. The doctor seems disposed to help the young lady’s cause, whatever it might be. ‘Might it be permissible,’ he begins with faintly ironic decorum, ‘to escort the young lady to my lodgings? I have certain materials there which may be of use.’
The Captain regards him coldly. ‘The State has hospitals,’ he replies. ‘This is not the Dark Ages.’
‘Indeed not,’ says the doctor, looking him straight in the face, ‘but supplies have been running a little low of late. Our boys at the front take some looking after.’
The Captain’s eyes turn even narrower. He takes out his radio and flicks a switch, but all that can be heard is a rasping crackle. He flicks the switch back and stares at the decision in front of him like an unwanted meal. The doctor is putting his stethoscope back in his bag. The whole square waits. Disconcerted by the silence, one of the soldiers lets off a rifle shot into the rich, unscarred heavens.
‘Very well,’ replies the Captain through the tightest of lips. He looks down at the crumpled figure of the woman as if he thinks her somehow outside the jurisdiction of the State, more worthy of a witch doctor than conventional medicine. ‘Very well, take her away.’ The doctor nods. His house is just around the corner, he says.
The theologian kneels at the bare wooden altar. As the venom seeps deeper, he clings to the rail for support. From one corner of the church he can hear organ music which his rational mind knows cannot be real. He is still convinced that he is the only one to have been struck down and that his being chosen must carry some form of historical significance. It is in this context that he addresses his prayer.
‘O Lord, hear my plea, and cleanse me of ignorance as to the meaning of this sickness that possesses me.
‘I have strange music in my head, music all the stranger for being played on familiar and godly instruments. Here where I kneel the organ is not purifying but intoxicating. I am consumed by the desire to dance. Is it your will that the hand of the devil should thus be clasped upon my frail shoulder? If so, send me enlightenment, I pray. Illuminate my spirit – if not with forgiveness then at least with knowledge of the nature of my sin and the punishment you have ordained. Should I submit to the devil’s call in the name of your will? Or should I fight the temptation, like Our Lord in the wilderness?’
In his heart the theologian believes that he has no real choice in the matter; and, presumably, it is this doubt in his own ability to resist the pressures of destiny that leads to his beginning to dance. He starts the dance while still on his knees, swaying his corpulent trunk from side to side in the rhythm of a snake charmer. Then, as the stops open out and the melody sweeps up and down the octaves, he is on his feet, kicking, stamping, leaping, plunging, like a man on fire trying to tear burning garments from his body.
O spider, see the havoc you are wreaking and desist, desist. This is neither the time nor the place. You are enticing the lamb to the slaughter, the virgin to the lion’s den. And in the end it will be you who suffers. For they will come looking. They will attack with gas and poison, bullet and gunpowder. They will hunt you down with their helicopters, smell out your trail with their stool pigeons, till neither you nor your pincers are more than wisps of tissue in the billowing desert grit.
They will have no mercy on your crippled crablike gait. They do not care that you meant no harm.
To the sound of a bass clarinet, played pianissimo but with darting forays that give it a certain nightmarish edge, the spirit of the wolf-spider has begun to reveal its true depths.
For such a revelation the doctor has his son to thank; but it is his ten-year-old daughter to whom he now turns.
The child starts to attention. ‘Yes, Papa?’
‘You have better ears than I, child. Go downstairs and take a short walk.’
Concetta does not appear to comprehend. With the shutters closed her eyebrows seem an extension of shadow. Here they are with a woman dancing away like a maniac in front of them and now her father wants her to take a walk. If he wished to shield her from the danger of corrupting influences, he could have dismissed her before Federico started playing. Nonetheless she moves towards the door.
‘Take a ball with you. Best to have some sort of pretext, even though the curfew is over.’
Concetta nods; she has no idea what a pretext is but knows she will feel more comfortable with something in her hand. She goes down the hall to her room and picks out an ageing, scraggy tennis ball.
As she re-enters the front parlour her father has his back to her, and beyond him, to Federico’s right, the woman is on her knees, both arms swinging stiffly as if trying to grab hold of a rope. Concetta is sure her father doesn’t want to be disturbed, and in any case it isn’t clear what she should ask him. She has her instructions: questions would only irritate him.
There is no one in the street save the beaten-up stallholder who is limping home on the other pavement. She throws the ball to him but he doesn’t attempt to catch it. It bounces off the door of the baker’s and trickles back towards her.
She sets off on the short walk. Exactly how short hasn’t been specified, so she makes it fairly long, descending the stone steps towards the main piazza and coming up via the steps on the opposite corner. When she gets home the music has stopped. She knocks on the door of the front parlour. After a few seconds her father opens it.
‘Yes?’ He sounds angry, and seems to have forgotten sending her out.
‘I went down to the square. I only saw Marco the fruit man.’
‘No soldiers? Even in the square?’
‘None at all. I told you.’
‘And were we audible?’
Concetta prods her lips forward in a resentful pout. Such difficult words her father uses! If he was going to send her out on his errands he could at least not start testing her the moment she got back.
‘I don’t think so,’ she answers at length, looking suitably cautious.
‘Good. They must still be in the marketplace. I think they suspect the whole thing was a deliberate red herring. All right, Federico, you can go. Get as many as you can. If the soldiers stop you just say it’s your birthday or something.’
Federico puts on his jacket with ill-concealed glee. A real band at last! And at home too – he didn’t think he’d ever hear his father telling him, ordering him, to go out and get hold of as many musicians as he could find so they could play together in the front parlour. Not in times like these, when even practising is clandestine.
An hour later he is feeling more than content to be joining Matteo’s bass in the rhythm section as Luciano, his lead saxophonist, attacks the melody line of ‘Psalm to the Small Hours’, using his ample lungs to full effect on the sustained, shrieking high notes… The band are so caught up in their performance they don’t notice the girl’s response, and they only stop playing when she collapses in an exhausted heap in front of them.
The doctor is on his knees again beside the girl, and this time he looks most ill at ease, not because he fears her condition is serious but because he knows he should never have allowed this to happen. He has taken the experiment too far. Most unprofessional. But she seemed so full of energy that he thought her capable of going on indefinitely. As he takes out his stethoscope he is mumbling apologies she will never hear. Federico is embarrassed for him.
‘It wasn’t your fault, Papa. We got carried away. I should have known better with a screwball like that.’
His father turns on him with mottled purple cheeks.
Federico shuts up all right. He’d be running out of the room in tears if he gave way to the weaker side of his nature; but his father hasn’t finished with him yet. He and Luciano have to carry the girl into the master bedroom. On the starched white sheet she is an untidy specimen, wriggling in her sleep and calling out strange names and scraps of language. And yet her late mother was a countess! Federico regards the gibbering lips without pity.
‘Lah-di-dah!’ he says in a whispered falsetto, safely out of his father’s earshot. He feels sorely tempted to give her a slap across the face to see if she’s faking or not. Instead he takes a clean sheet from the laundry and drapes it over her, as ordered. He is tucking the corners in when he hears the knock on the door, the shout to open up at once, and his father’s voice feeling for its habitual calm amid the rattling of jackboots on polished wood.
‘Good evening, officer. Do come in. I only wish I had better news.’
Such little comfort in a darkened church! The theologian finds it hard to believe how sinister the stained glass seems when illuminated only by moonlight. He rolls over, all desire to move now gone. He feels drained of every emotion but shame, and so tired he can hardly register even that. His lips move in prayer, or rather in the solemn hope that he has seen and felt the last of this. And heard. At present he can hear nothing but his own regular breathing.
Eventually he gets to his feet. He aims a bleary-eyed bob at the altar and crosses himself, head bowed. He does not wish to know the time. It is enough that night has fallen. He cannot think of trying to re-enter the town tonight. Even he would have grave difficulty in concealing the truth, whatever story he chose to tell. In any case he doubts he would have the strength for the ascent to the gates.
No. He will spend the night in silent penitence, afraid to disturb the slumber of the heavens he has so clamorously, if unknowingly, offended.
Like yet another new recruit, dawn enters the town barracks bearing the lowest of profiles and at a deathly slow pace. At a quarter to six it’s no more than a miserly dose of indigo poured over, but failing to obliterate, the starless dregs of the night. Only fifteen minutes now remain before the breakfast bell, and the soldiers are clinging to their pillows with a tenacity that suggests advanced emotional deprivation.
Many of these men are out-of-towners, recruited to bolster the war effort, but it is a local boy, and one that enlisted of his own free will before battle was even a daydream in the minds of his superiors, who has attracted the wolf-spider’s attention. There it is now, in search of a decent foothold, scampering in and out of the hollow behind his collarbone, paddling along the smooth curve of his biceps. It does so hate having to strike off balance. What a godsend the hair on the forearm is! The wolf-spider steadies itself, glances around, and draws its head back like a cobra.
The dormitory rumbles to life. Heads emerge from under sheets and turn towards Private Rapanelli’s corner. Watches are groped for, lamps switched on to inspect them by, sighs of dismay let out when it’s confirmed that a full fourteen minutes of valuable dozing time have been lost. Rapanelli himself is writhing in his bed as if in the grip of a nightmare. His arm hurts so badly he feels like weeping, which of course is out of the question.
He realises what’s happened at once. That swine Rognoso must have crept up, performed one of his notorious Chinese burns – double-handed, contrariwise twists of the forearms that leave the skin with wide red welts – and dashed back to his bed before he, Rapanelli, had woken up. The bastard has had it in for Rapanelli ever since he arrived three weeks ago. Just because Rognoso’s a Northerner. (He’s an extreme Northerner, in fact, from high and distant slopes where, before the outbreak of war, the locals played fawning hosts to foreigners with artificial tans.) Rapanelli has already seen Rognoso display his resentment towards the indigenous population. Only last week he took offence at an innocent little jibe about ‘mountain goats’ and grabbed Gocciolina, its perpetrator, by the wrist with his stubby but powerful fingers. Poor little Goccio had kicked and gritted his teeth for all he was worth, but Rognoso wouldn’t let go until the sarge’s footsteps were heard coming down the corridor.
Gocciolina’s arm came out in marks just like these.
Shortly afterwards Rapanelli had given it to the bastard straight. ‘You grappa-drenched bumsuckers make me puke!’ Rognoso didn’t dare try and burn him then, but now the coward has taken his revenge on a sleeping man. And Rapanelli has to admit it’s quite a burn – all red and smarting like a row of bee stings just above the wrist.
The swine is feigning sleep – the only one in the room with the sheet still over his head. Rapanelli has discarded his own sheet, and when he roughly unveils Rognoso and Rognoso rolls over with a dull grunt the two men are facing each other naked. Rapanelli holds his arm out over Rognoso’s face and Rognoso briefly tenses as if expecting a punch. Rapanelli uses his free hand to grab the lamp on the bedside table and shine it first in Rognoso’s face, then at the arm, then back at Rognoso.
Shielding his eyes from the glare of the bulb, Rognoso reaches down for the sheet but his hand is cut off by Rapanelli’s, which chops down onto it hard and straight.
‘What the shit is this?’ yells Rognoso.
The dormitory light is now on; people are standing up on their beds. Rognoso swings his protective arm away from his face as Rapanelli wrenches the lamp’s cord out of its socket and flings it down the central aisle where it skids into the still-closed door, spinning but intact. Rognoso covers his groin with his hands, drawing his knees up. He is staring at Rapanelli’s arm.
‘You swine,’ says Rapanelli through gritted teeth. ‘You filthy, goat-fucking swine.’
Rognoso lies speechless, appalled, as if of all the many insults he has received here this is the unkindest cut, the only blow that has ever really found his soft spot. He drags his buttocks up the bed, gets himself into a seated position without using his hands, holds his arms out as in prayer – all as though Rapanelli were pointing a pistol at him, not a finger.
‘What the shit are you talking about?’
The spectators are hushed and frozen in their different poses. Some are half in, half out of bed, one foot on the floor. Rapanelli too is rooted to the spot: he is no longer even trembling. His eyes are still on Rognoso but have lost their focus. Behind them his mind is a morass of sounds and images. He has forgotten the pain in his arm: it hangs limply at his side. The still-conscious part of his mind asks if he had anything to drink last night. But no, he and the other lads came straight back after the film…
Rognoso has had time to recover his equilibrium. As Rapanelli falters, he is quick to press home the advantage.
‘Who the shit do you think you are, anyway?’
Rapanelli takes a step backwards. His head is alive with noise and colour: he screws his eyes shut, tries to quieten his head, make it black and silent. But drums are battering at the core of his brain. He takes a step sideways, and feels his feet take another five or six – there’s a clang as he falls against a bed, an angry cry from its inhabitant, who shoves him away. He is on the floor, trying to hold his breath. His head is a melee of noises but in the midst of them he registers Rognoso’s voice getting steadily louder and more assertive. What’s worse is that all this means the bastard must be innocent.
The bell rings. The single note, normally so clear and shrill, now resembles the flatulent buzzing of a wasp. Then the darkness he has longed for comes flooding in through his eyes like waves of ink.
The doctor has had little time to rest on the laurels of his confrontation with the Captain. He has earned the girl a night’s sleep in a civilised bed, nothing more. The method he used to earn it, pleading that the Captain bear in mind the death of the girl’s father and her mother’s suicide in prison, is unlikely to work twice. He might even be unwise to try it again, as the case could then go over the Captain’s head, and the army would send tougher, more experienced men, the kind of thugs that had orphaned this child. Were that to happen, his stethoscope would lose its symbolic power. He would be labelled a harbourer of subversives, an accessory after the fact. What fact? Never you mind what, I said facts and I mean facts. Now stand aside and let us do our duty. We’ll deal with you later.
He knocks on the bathroom door. Dawn has scarcely broken. She turns to face him like an animal cornered.
‘My child, I can protect you no longer. See how the light comes. You must rise and flee.’
She is at his feet, one hand keeping the sheet secure around her nakedness, the nails of the other scratching at his trousers.
For all his sternness the doctor is a soft-hearted man. He is quick to curtail her pleas. ‘Very well, very well. But you must hide. And quickly. Dress at once. Then into the wardrobe with you.’
He hollers for his son.
‘Federico! Go and search.’
‘Yes, you fool. Can’t you see she has escaped?’
And Federico is still out of breath when he returns from his search to find the Captain in the front parlour.
‘No joy,’ he gasps. ‘Looked everywhere. Not a trace. Must have slipped out in the night.’
The Captain winces. He looks as if he cannot quite believe this, but the Lord knows his sentries are not infallible. When the doctor entreats him to stay for a cup of coffee – or something stronger – he refuses. He has work to do. He clicks his fingers and the team of soldiers depart.
A few minutes later Federico returns to give the all-clear. They disentangle the girl from his mother’s evening dresses. She loses her balance, stumbles, and it takes both father and son to stop her falling. They hold her arms, which are trembling.
‘Musica!’ she screams.
‘Try to remember,’ says the doctor, ‘everything that happened yesterday.’
The theologian, meanwhile, is trying to forget. Weighing up the various alternatives, he realises this is the only way he can avoid losing his mind.
Everything that happened yesterday was a dream. A new reality is replacing it. During the afternoon, he was obliged (for reasons that must remain a Papal secret) to visit the old cathedral. As he emerged he was set upon by four assailants. They wanted money; he had none. They attempted to strip the clothes from his body. He is a strong man and fought back, to defend not himself but the raiment of the Church. But they had knives and ripped his robe: there is blood on his hands to prove it. He cursed them in the name of the Lord; they grew frightened and fled. It was a victorious moment. But soon after he fainted. The Lord revived him in the night. It was too late to return to the town, so he slept in a field, his wounds dry but aching.
The road to the town is full of jagged rocks. Self-mutilation comes quite naturally to a man of his background. He can only hope the blood will dry quickly in the morning sun.
Rapanelli’s hatred for Rognoso is gradually being transformed into grudging admiration. Rognoso has shown a cunning and a tactical sense Rapanelli never dreamed he possessed, starting with his performance immediately after Rapanelli blacked out. Rognoso managed to convince everyone not only that the arm marks were nothing to do with his Chinese burns, but also that they must be symptoms of some lethal, contagious disease. Consequently Rapanelli came round with cold water trickling from his cheeks and forehead to find half the dormitory raising the motion that he at once be handed over to the sarge for possible quarantining. Although this discovery stemmed the swirling feelings long enough for Rapanelli to persuade his comrades that the marks indicated nothing more dangerous than a recurrence of childhood eczema, it’s now mid-morning and he’s feeling distinctly light-headed again. On the parade-ground of all places! Rapanelli screws his eyes shut and applies the fierce concentration of a trained soldier to clearing his mind of all but the language and mechanics of drills.
But what really gets him is that Rognoso hasn’t left things there, with Rapanelli’s most humble and profuse apologies and severe doubts all round camp as to his physical and mental health. He now senses his humiliation is to be total, and that his earlier success in keeping the sarge out of the picture was merely a postponement of the inevitable. God only knows what Rognoso’s done to his rifle. He must somehow have managed to fill the butt with lead: Rapanelli can almost feel his knees buckling under the weight. He’s amazed the sarge hasn’t noticed yet. Panic courses through him as he stares at the sarge’s muscular form not ten yards away from him.
‘Stand at… ease!’
This morning the command seems literal, as if the sarge has taken pity on Rapanelli and brought the whole platoon to rest for his sake. The rifle feels normal enough as its butt rests on the ground; it even offers momentary support for Rapanelli’s wilting legs. He can feel his fingers trembling on the end of the barrel. His breathing is fast and hard. Out of the corner of his eye and the spiralling chaos of his brain, he is aware of fidgets and murmurs all around him. He holds his breath. When he eventually exhales it comes out as a rasping sigh. Now he can hear whispers. His head is pounding. Or is it his heart?
Wait a minute. He has just enough reasoning power left to see and follow through another possible interpretation. What if they’re all in it together? The whole thing might be a game, a test of his manhood, to see how much a natural soldier like him can really endure under pressure. Rognoso might just be a pawn, a means to an end…
If this is a joke it’s gone far enough.
‘Rapanelli! Cosa fai?!’
Quite far enough.
Stop it now. What would your dad say? And Uncle Gianni with his row of medals and the gammy knee and iron wool moustache? Fight, you yellow-bellied bastard. Get a grip. You’re a man now. Show us what you’re made of.
Oh Christ, of course. That’s it – they’re jealous. Jealous of his background, his head start, the cool instinctiveness of his soldiership.
His energy is coming back. Faster than it left him, almost too fast for comfort.
An old song goes through his head, one taught him by Gianni, from the last war:
‘On, on, into the breach,
Over the side and through to the beach,
One for all and all for each,
These slaves will we a lesson teach!’
The sarge’s voice recedes further each time, but his face seems so close that Rapanelli leans back to avoid a clash of heads. The face is nothing but three black slits cut into a dull white slab.
Kill kill kill.
Rapanelli’s energy is a rage he can neither contain nor focus. He feels his feet skipping back a couple of steps, his knees flexing, fingers tightening round the barrel. How light everything feels. And the gun too. So light it swings up to the firing position in a single movement.
At the doctor’s house the game is up. The Captain and his men are not quite as stupid as they seem. They merely waited a few minutes in a nearby side street, then crept back. As they tiptoed up the stairs Federico was just building up to the climactic passage of ‘Totem Pole’. They shot the lock off the front door, without knocking.
‘Should have known better, shouldn’t we, Doctor?’ The Captain motions one of his henchmen forward. A moment later the doctor and girl are linked by handcuffs.
‘Protecting a known and wanted criminal. Harbouring said criminal on premises. Misleading public officials. Obstructing the course of justice. Contravening martial law. Hosting illegal entertainment. A pretty pickle.’
But the doctor does not seem unduly worried. He smiles at the girl and uses her free hand to pat her arm. She looks away.
‘May I take it, Doctor,’ says the Captain, his boots creaking on the resplendent floorboards, ‘that you do not intend to commit yourself at this point? That you wish to avoid the risk of incriminating either yourself or your charge? As a professional man, you are well acquainted with the law, I know.’
He waits for a reply. None comes.
‘Well acquainted, yes. Unfortunately it is not sufficient to be merely well acquainted. Not in times like these. Nothing less than a flawless knowledge can suffice. Which means being on the inside of things. On the inside of every amendment, every new proposal, every shift in the balance of the law. What was legal an hour ago may be treason now. To know the law, in times like these, it has to be one’s business to do so. You are not in that onerous position, Doctor.’
The doctor is not to be drawn.
‘Speaking as one who flatters himself that his own knowledge of the current legal situation could hardly be bettered,’ continues the Captain, ‘I might point out some of the advantages of an immediate confession.’
The doctor gives a graceful bow. He is still smiling, and the defiant twinkle in his eyes makes him look years younger.
‘We’ll get ’em, Father. Oh yes, don’t you worry. Have ’em strung up by the ankles in front of the Cathedral. That’ll learn ‘em to lay their filthy hands on a man of religion…’
The theologian is about to counsel forgiveness for his attackers. But the words will not come out. Instead he nods briskly as if the young constable were an over-eager secretary relaying insignificant telephone messages. The whole business is a charade anyway. He has achieved his objective in getting back to the town intact and unsuspected. All he wants is to go home and pray.
‘Doc’ll be here in two ticks, Father. Just you sit tight.’
Far from wishing to see any doctor, the theologian is well aware that serious medical attention might prove his downfall.
‘I really don’t think that’ll be necessary. No real harm done, you know. Just a few cuts and bruises. Dare say I was more shocked than anything. I feel a great deal better now – thanks to your kindness.’
The constable is of the young, thorough, duty-bound type, not to be put off so easily. ‘Very good of you to say so, Father. But I do feel you should see the doc. Just a quick check-up. With respect, the patient can never tell how grave his own injuries are. And it is standard procedure.’
How far is the whole affair standard procedure? Perhaps the theologian has simply been working too hard. Perhaps he should apply to the Holy See for some form of sabbatical. Visit a far-off exotic place, get things in perspective. He has an emigrant sister in Venezuela. This could be the right moment for a visit.
He sits back in his chair. There is a pause. The constable himself sits, offers more brandy. The theologian raises both hands.
The telephone rings.
It would be hard to say which of the two, the young constable or the theologian, is the more astonished to see the doctor enter the police station handcuffed and with an automatic pistol held to the side of his neck. They both start to attention and get to their feet.
As he walks away from the desk, the theologian momentarily loses his limp, but no one notices. Having slipped out of his role for a second, however, he suddenly experiences a strong desire to avoid detection, to pursue his original plan of getting out of the place undiscovered, with his and the Church’s reputation intact. The exhaustion that had overtaken him has vanished.
‘Doctor!’ cries the constable. ‘We were getting a little worried. I—’
‘Thank you, Innocenti,’ says the Captain. ‘The doctor will not be making any statement just yet. Meanwhile, be a good lad and put some latte on, will you? And get out an arrest form while you’re about it.’
‘I’m very glad to see you too, sir,’ says Innocenti. ‘We’ve had a call from the barracks—’
‘Can’t it wait?’ sighs the Captain, ushering the doctor and the girl to two wooden chairs in front of his desk.
‘Well, they said it was extremely urgent, sir, I—’
‘Only urgent? Not a matter of life and death?’ As Innocenti’s mouth hangs hesitatingly open, the Captain declares, ‘Then it can certainly wait till after latte.’
‘That, Innocenti, is a word no longer used in these quarters. Not in times like these. Appearance means nothing without valid substantiation. Rumours are not my business. I deal in facts. Concrete evidence. Open and shut cases.’ The last words come out with acrid sibilance. Innocenti’s mouth closes.
‘Yes, sir,’ he mumbles. ‘I’ll get that latte.’
‘Thank you, Innocenti. Thank you so much. Your cooperation is a joy to behold.’ The Captain sits down in the brown leather armchair behind his desk, opposite the doctor and the girl. His eyes shift slowly round to the theologian, who has remained standing by the wall.
‘Father!’ he exclaims, the generous vowels extending hollow courtesy. ‘I need hardly remark on what a surprise it is to see you here. Perhaps in Officer Innocenti’s absence you might enlighten us as to the circumstances of your visit.’
Unaccustomed to being thus addressed, the theologian is stung into curtness. ‘I would have thought that was obvious.’ He reveals his wounds. ‘I have been set upon by miscreants.’ He meets the Captain’s small, insolent eyes, as determined now to stick to his story as he was a moment ago to abjure it. How dare the little upstart presume…
But the Captain has already changed his manner, indicating with an obsequious raising of one hand that no offence was intended. One of the Captain’s most prized assets is his ability to realise when he has overstepped the mark. Absolute power had momentarily corrupted him; the sudden fall from grace of a respectable man like the doctor had gone to his head. The situation calls for all his undoubted charm, and he is equal to it.
‘Forgive me, Father. I am at home here, and all too ready to slip into the brash role I have created – created out of pure necessity. You will appreciate that this hateful war has made its mark on me also.’
The theologian sees straight through this. He watches the Captain’s hands open out into that most intimate of gestures, the appeal to a shared culture. Regard the victim, says the gesture, you that have eyes to regard with – a soldier of circumstance, dragged down, despite his high birth and the manicured artistry of his fingers, to the level of his undesired but unavoidable companions. The theologian, not normally a man to smirk, has difficulty hiding a curled upper lip at this moment.
He is about to reply when the telephone rings.
‘Yes? Who? Oh, the barracks.’ Even the girl stirs to attention as intense alarm fills the Captain’s face. ‘Ran amok? What do you mean, amok? Well, how far amok did he run? Oh, Lucifer and all his cronies. What the hell possessed him – where is he now? Thank God for that. Yes, get him over here… oh, give him a lethal dose for all I care. No, of course I didn’t mean that literally…’
The doctor’s smile has deepened into a beatific glow. While the Captain slams the phone down, stands up, paces the small area of floor between his chair and the window, sits down, puts his head in his hands, picks up the phone, slams it down again, and pounds his fist on the desk, the doctor looks as if he has foreseen all these actions and everything else that is about to occur. The Captain turns on him, pointing one long, patrician finger at the handcuffs on his wrists.
‘You, Doctor, are under arrest,’ he bellows.
‘Wasn’t I already?’ replies the doctor.
The Captain grabs the piece of paper that Innocenti has brought in for him. He wrenches a fountain pen out of his tunic pocket.
‘Officially!’ he bellows.
During the truck journey from the barracks, Rapanelli does not wake from the deep sleep that he’s been in since shortly after being disarmed and immobilised. On either side of his supine form, two of his companions-in-arms watch over him with fear, loathing, and perhaps a shade of well-submerged envy.
‘Five!’ whistles one through his teeth. ‘Five men just doing their duty, standing there on parade. Usual crap from the sarge. ‘Shoulder arms, you lummoxes!’ And along comes Soldier Boy Blue here and blows their fucking heads off like he’s just heard the voice of God.’
‘Just you wait,’ the other hisses in Rapanelli’s ear. ‘You wait till we get you to the guvnor. He knows what to do with the likes of murdering scum like you. We’ll see what you’ve got to say for yourself then.’
As the truck swerves right, onto Martyrs of Freedom Street, a screech of tyres is at once followed by the clang of one soldier’s head hitting the side of the truck and the thud of the other’s chest colliding with the first’s posterior. Foul curses fill the air.
‘Been here before, have you!’ one of the soldiers shouts at the driver who, protected by a wall of metal, does not react. The other soldier, the one who prophesied Rapanelli’s doom, unleashes an aimless jet of spit; the truck lurches again, this time to the left, and the bubbling saliva comes to rest on the first soldier’s knee.
‘Now look what you’ve made me do!’
Rapanelli’s response to this is to put his thumb in his mouth and start sucking it. The first soldier uses his free hand to brush away the spit.
At the police station the truck comes to such an abrupt halt that both soldiers are flung forward without even time for a grunt of surprise. For a moment they lie breathless on their bellies, flanking Rapanelli, whose only reaction is an effusive gurgle.
The driver’s door opens, then slams shut again. In the scorched silence of the curfew it sounds like an explosion.
Given the circumstances, the Captain has little option but to unlock the doctor’s handcuffs. The doctor asks for an officer to be sent to pick up his bag; the Captain clicks his fingers, crosses his arms, taps his foot, and when Innocenti appears, bawls at him to get his backside round to the doctor’s house post-haste. Meanwhile Rapanelli sleeps on, spread-eagled on the bench.
From a church clock come two dull, expressionless clangs. The captain stands at the small square window looking out onto Martyrs of Freedom Street.
The girl says, ‘Musica.’
For a second no one reacts. She says it again, louder.
The doctor looks dismayed. The Captain spins sharply round, arms still behind his back.
The girl screams, ‘Musica!’
Her arms swing up high above her head. Her back straightens. Her face is a contortion of muscle and light, the eyes giving sense and direction to what would otherwise look like an epileptic fit. They are fixed on the door as if she expects an orchestra to burst through and start playing. Not even the doctor dares touch her.
She falls to the floor, wailing a single high-pitched note. Her fists pound at the rough grey stone.
‘Musica!’ rejoins Rapanelli. In the confusion no one has seen him get up. He takes her hands in his and drags her to her feet. They stand, hands clasped together, almost touching the ceiling. They chorus: ‘Mu-si-ca! Mu-si-ca! Mu-si-caaaaaaahhhh!’
The Captain takes a step forward, then goes back two. He looks at the doctor.
The doctor says, ‘I need my son.’
Back in his study, the theologian feels worse than ever. It’s bad enough being torn between relief and remorse over his unobserved exit from the police station while the Captain arrested the doctor. What overrides this conflict, however, is that he has fallen victim to a vague but total sense of helplessness which he has no strength left to counter. He lies down on the bed and stares at the ceiling, resigned now to whatever will be.
When he first hears the faint sound of music starting up in the distance, he dismisses it as a figment of his sick imagination, and continues staring at the ceiling, shutting his eyes for a second. But when he opens them again, the music is still there. He goes to the window.
In the street people are breaking the curfew and wandering out of doorways to see what’s going on. It’s clear to everyone that the music is coming from the police station, of all places. And it’s jazz – the most frowned-upon form of expression in existence, the ‘soul of decadence’, as it was called in the Government’s edict on Public Taste and Morals. Newly awakened citizens scratch their heads and regard each other as if to say, Do you hear what I hear? The music now responds to its incredulous audience by getting louder, wilder and more intricate. New instruments join in at almost every bar, and what had started as a small group sound is quickly acquiring the scope and texture of a full-blown orchestra.
To their own evident bewilderment, some of the citizens begin dancing.
The streets are empty of militia and they keep on dancing, gradually becoming less and less self-conscious. There are five or six of them, all adopting different styles, all interpreting the complex, multi-layered music in their own way. Some follow the strong rhythmic pulse given by the bass and percussion; others twirl and flail and cavort to the melodies that skim off the tangents of the rhythm, from guitars, violins, saxophones, clarinets, trumpets… There are ten of them now, fifteen. With every step they move closer to the source of the sound.
The theologian looks on, crestfallen. So he wasn’t alone, wasn’t the focal point for the stern eye of God. The feeling of injustice doesn’t last long – he’s soon swaying and sweeping with the best of them. His preference is for the lazy, sleazy bassline that pauses and holds, ripples and pulsates, slides and skids. He feels his temples thudding with it, his heartbeat a fluttering cascade.
‘You see!’ The doctor looks triumphant again. Only a few seconds after his sudden order to stop playing, Rapanelli and the girl and are on their knees screaming, begging for more. Federico and the other musicians are tense, hyper-alert, impatient for further instructions, but unsure who to look to. The Captain is pacing the courtyard, his eyes fixed on the walls.
‘Musica!’ The girl’s cry is piteous, wrenching. Rapanelli looks too weak to utter another sound, but he manages a final screech, then falls forward onto his belly and lies still. The doctor kneels to attend to him.
‘Do you understand? Do you?’ The doctor is almost screaming.
Still the pacing, the staring at the walls. Then the Captain comes to a halt.
‘Where did His Holiness get to?’ he asks.
Innocenti watches the theologian walk past him down the corridor towards the back door of the station. Something in the eyes make him hesitate to intervene, though he knows he should. ‘Father,’ he calls. The theologian is pulling at the doorknob. It’s locked: Innocenti has the key. The theologian gives up on shaking the doorknob and turns to meet Innocenti’s wide eyes, extending one trembling hand towards him.
‘Father, welcome.’ The Captain doesn’t look in the least surprised to see the theologian come marching out into the courtyard. Innocenti stands open-mouthed in the doorway, the key dangling from his fingers.
The theologian has come to confess, but he sees at once that there’s no need. The same look that he has seen in his own mirrored eyes is there in both Rapanelli’s and the girl’s. In fact Rapanelli looks up from the ground and his expression lightens a little as if he’s just recognised a long-lost brother. The girl’s eyes go glossy, as if with desire.
‘Father.’ The Captain takes the theologian’s hands in his. But the theologian will not meet his pleading eyes. He is staring at the wall, just as the Captain was a minute ago.
‘Father, Father. What is the meaning of this?’
The theologian continues to stare at the wall.
‘Father!’ This time it is the doctor calling him. The theologian turns around.
‘I think I see, Father,’ says the doctor. ‘I believe I understand.’
The doctor has stood up and now occupies the centre of the courtyard.
‘The Lord said there should be music,’ he continues. ‘Music has been denied us. This is the Lord’s answer.’
The theologian does not respond: he is staring at the wall. The Captain shakes his bloodstained hands, to no avail. Then the Captain gets to his feet and strides back into the station, pushing Innocenti out of his way.
The doctor, the theologian, the girl and Rapanelli remain motionless as Federico and his group walk silently to the window of the Captain’s office. They arrive just in time to see him reaching for the telephone.
‘Hello, Central? This is Baiotti, South West zone 133. I’m afraid we’ve got something big on our hands…’
While the Captain thinks how and where to begin his report, the wolf-spider squeezes under the door. Again the smell of good, rich blood is overpowering.
Innocenti would naturally have intervened, would have rushed into the office in his clodhopper boots and stamped the danger out once and for all, were he not himself lying on the floor of the corridor clutching his swollen right shin.
‘Ascoltate, per Dio,’ groans the Captain, after the crackle of enquiries from Central has finally ceased. ‘For the love of God. Let us have music…’
The line goes dead an instant before his chair keels over.
Hearing the crash, the doctor emits an agonised gasp. Then, from the depths of the courtyard, the girl’s long, slithery laugh wriggles up over the wall like a runaway snake.
For more short stories, subscribe to our weekly newsletter.