The Life of Umberto Cavallo and Other Matters

Berto’s earliest memory was not of a vision but a smell. It came from under the door of the room that he was forbidden to enter. He’d been playing a game with sticks and pebbles on the floor – war, against the Austrians – while his mother simultaneously nursed the newborn and rode verbal and physical herd over his younger brother and sister. The older brothers were outside working the vineyard with his father and the older sisters were for the moment out of the kitchen and on various errands of some sort.

He was oblivious to the domestic commotion around him. He put his head down against the stone floor and sighted an imaginary rifle. “Fump!” Down went an Austrian. Then “fump-fump-fump!” More white-coats fell. “Move ahead!” he commanded. Then in another voice: “Retreat! Retreat! Over the mountains and behind these trees.” His eyes scanned the battlefield with minute intensity while his arm and hand, descending from the sky, orchestrated troop movements.

Every inch of the floor was known by him and so it was his private world, his diminutive Eden. He knew where and how the dust collected and he knew the various scars etched in the stone as he knew the markings, the texture, the fragrance of his own hand.

It was then that the smell came again from under the door. A musky smell that should have disgusted him. Human, carnal, decaying even. He knew who was in there. Behind the door, he must be moving about, the boy thought. He looked up at his mother and knew that soon she would be going over the hill, to her sister’s farm for butter since they did not have a cow or goat. And he knew where the key to the room was.
With surreptitious sideways glances across the battlefield he observed her. She finished nursing the youngest, swaddled the drowsy infant and wrapped it to her chest. Then she wrestled with the other two, grabbing them by the arms and whispered harshly over her shoulder, in obvious haste “Berto, come along now!”

“Mama, can I stay and help Papa in the vineyard?”

“Fine,” she said. “But go now! You’ve been playing enough.”

He waited in the open door until she’d turned the corner, waited another five seconds to be safe, then closed the door and returned to the big room, finding himself alone and feeling suddenly miniature and bathed now in that perfect and lead-heavy silence found in the wake of the centrifuge’s exit. A soundless and perfectly still Eden hung with invisible fruit. He pulled a chair to the counter, stood on it and reached high for the key behind the breadbox.

A moment later he was standing before the door, key in outstretched hand. Then he hesitated. He’d never so flagrantly disobeyed such a prominent family edict. In his mind, he searched for an ambiguity upon which to hang a future equivocation or mitigating argument, but found none. I am facing the door rather bravely for being a boy, he thought. There is still time to turn back. I have done nothing yet … but no, fine, I will accept any beating that comes my way. And besides, it will only sting for so long.

Yet his hand trembled and he could not do it. He went to the window and looked out. He could see down a row of vines his father’s back, a dark shape bent over the hoe, methodically scratching. He could see the brothers too, doing the same. And then it was as if he could see into his father’s head, see the unhappiness (for he didn’t know the word “bitter” yet) that he knew was there and which he, Berto, was now starting not only to recognize but also resent, recoil from. He returned to face the door, the keyhole itself seemed like a vast space. He inserted the large loose-fitting key and jangled it into position, cleaving the silence with what felt like a tremendous rattling noise, leaving him standing at the epicenter of the disturbance. Then without turning his back to the room, he pushed the door shut behind him.

The full force of the smell struck him now, as if he were slapped by a decaying armpit. It had been at least a week since he’d last seen his mother carry a wash bucket in with any success. Possibly two weeks. His grandfather had been refusing her, occasionally shouting, enraged and defiant.

“Who is it!” the old man demanded suddenly, sitting up. His eyes were wide and scattering like those of a horse, searching the room’s horizon and not seeing the boy before him at the foot of the bed. Then the eyes fixed on the boy and the old man shouted: “Identify yourself!”

“Berto. Nonno, it is me, Berto,” the boy whispered.

“Are they here yet?”

“Who?”

“Who? What do you mean, ‘who’? Don’t frighten me with such news! With such, such, such ….!” The boy saw the fear swirling inside the old head like a whirlpool of wasps desperate to burst outward into a thousand individual directions. He could see confusion too, see the old man desperately trying to regain his train of thought.

A moment later the old man found it, imploring the boy, in a strange, formal manner: “You must be prepared for the battle, you must be prepared to lead the men, Gonzaga. The French are almost here, I can smell their cowardly hearts trying to escape to the North, but we must not let them escape without punishment for humiliating us, right Gonzaga?”

“Nonno, I am not Gonzaga, I am Berto, your grandson.”

“Stop it, or I will beat you like a mule! Now is not the time for modesty or trickery! I thought I could trust you! You must speak directly to me. The rains are coming, I know, and then, disaster, if we are not prepared …. Are you prepared, Gonzaga?! You must be ready. Everything … everything …”

“Shhhhh Nonno. I am Berto,” the boy said.

“I say you are not Berto! Damn you, when are you going to start listening? You cannot trick me. You are Francesco Gonzaga. I hear you drawing battle plans outside my door, and so I know you are a competent General. You cannot lie to me. But you must focus on the French, not the Austrians. We will defeat them later. Have the rains started yet?”

The boy saw spread across the old man’s face the vulnerable desperation, the desire for an allegiance.

“Yes … yes … of course you are right,” he said. “I am Gonzaga. But I need help with the battle plan. Can you help me?”

“You? … Well, yes-yes, but we are running out of time, for God’s sake! Come here, come here, and let me whisper to you. There are many traitors among us, you know. You can trust no one. No one! How else could we let ourselves be dominated for 10,000 years, like a bunch of pigeon-toed Sicilians?!”

“Ten thousand?”

“Yes, maybe more. But come here, Francesco.” Then he whispered to the boy, and the boy saluted him, and he gravely saluted back.

“Nonno,” he said.

“Yes.”

“We must keep this battle secret, right?”

“Of course, there are traitors everywhere.”

“So, you will not tell Mama and Papa about me, right, about Gonzaga’s visit?”

“Who are they?!”

“Who are they …?”

“My handlers cannot be trusted with military secrets! Damn it, you should know this without speaking it, General! Now go, please, for there is little time before the rain comes. Please, I beg of you. Do not hesitate!” The old man was whimpering as the boy left.

In the following days he waged battles with the pebbles outside the door, now against the French, and a little louder than before. “We have a battle plan now,” he declared. “First we lance them, then we take their horses, then we take their money. And then, we have a parade. A large one, with many canons.”
“Shhh!” his mother hissed violently. It was a manic and desperate eruption, the sound of an exasperated woman long since ripped of any semblance of patience. A woman now desperate, drowning in the chaos of her own domain that had once, long ago at least, been her orderly autocracy. Because after about the fifth or sixth child (she was nursing her eleventh now, not counting the four that had died at birth or in infancy) she’d been in a constant state of hostile retreat, with every domestic infraction a hammer against her defeated soul, so that she often looked out the window and longed to be anything, a bird, a ewe, the large farm animals that occasionally passed on the dusty road and were only beaten for cause and were otherwise so tenderly cared for and actually valued; anything but a woman, crumbling under the mountain of demands piling upon her and supported by the twin, buckling pillars of expectation (hers and others’).

She continued hissing, “Do not disturb your grandfather! How many times do I have to tell you! Mother of God help me!” then crossed herself, too busy to even glance up.

“Can I see him?”

“No!”

“Why Mama?”

“Because he is sick, as I’ve told you ten thousand times, and I don’t want you to catch the disease.”

“Ten thousand?”

“Yes, ten thousand! Now, ten thousand one! And if I catch you going in there, I swear, I will beat you till every last stick on the farm is broken, or your rear end falls off, whichever comes first. And I have a strong hand –”

“—Which disease, mama?”

“Which? Stop asking questions or I will put you out of doors. Can’t you see, I am busy. And who is to cook dinner? Who is to bathe your grandfather? Who is to wash the clothes? Stop your battles and go outside and feed the chickens and rabbits! Go now, before I throw this shoe at you!”

“But what if you catch the disease?”

“Me?!? Don’t be ridiculous. He won’t let me get sick because He knows that someone has to run this house! And He doesn’t have time to deal with the wreckage if He kills me now! He doesn’t want the work! You better believe me. Go! Go now!” She crossed herself again rapidly, rattled off an Our Father in less than three seconds, and continued tussling with the children.

A week later his mother left for butter again, and the silence and the opportunity was again the boy’s. He opened the door, noisily again, and slipped into the room.

“Who is it!”

“It is me, Gonzaga,” said the boy. “Did you not receive a message that I was coming?”

“No. Don’t lie to me. Have we been betrayed?! I have seen no messenger. Just a traitor posing as a maid, trying to get secrets from me. But I kicked her out again before she could wash me.”

“You will need a bath, Nonno.”

“Yes, but not now. Are the rains coming? I cannot see out my window … but I smell rain.”

“But as General, I command you to have a bath, or the French will smell you.”

“No, that is a lie!”

“No, they will smell you. Maybe not them, but their dogs will. My scout tells me they are approaching with
dogs trained to smell the enemy. You must bathe. I will send in a woman who looks like my mother, to bathe you tonight.”

“No, we can’t trust ….”

“No, I give you my word, she can be trusted to bathe you. But do not speak to her of our battle plans, commander. It will be done?”

“Yes sir, General. But the rains, the rains,” he moaned.

“Yes, the rains are coming.”

“Oh God,” he wailed, “we don’t have much time. We must plan. We must – you must have a battle plan! Are you going to take them head on, and slaughter them?”

“Should I?”

“No. There will be too many dead on our side, even if we are victorious. Are you going to cross the river? It is dangerous. Your men will drown, the horses will drown, and all will be a disaster and we will be considered fools in school by idiot teachers who never held a lance or fired a rifle or even killed a rabbit, let alone a man!”

“Then what should I do?”

“I don’t know, God damn it, that’s why I brought you here! You have got to figure it out before the rain comes! I smell the rain, I smell the rain, God help us if you can’t figure this out, we are doomed. Oh Fornovo! May you never be a curse again. Now get out of here! Go!”

The boy left. He could see the fear crawling over the face, trying to burst outward and unburden itself, the eyes, as popping as eggs and the face gaunt as a rotting squash, and yet containing the furious wasp-thoughts, and again he felt the weight of the obligation to preserve the old man’s sanity. It is me, it is only me who he trusts. I am just a boy but I must be brave, I must save him.

That night after dinner his mother went into the room prepared for engagement and battle, carrying a wash pail and the tight lips of feminine determination. She emerged later smiling and said to her husband: “He let me bathe him without any fight at all.”

“He is coming around,” the father said matter-of-fact. “Maybe he is getting better.”

“No,” she said. “I fear he is giving up.”

“Well, I don’t know what to tell you then,” the father said with irritation, looking at her directly now. “You are upset when he won’t let you bathe, and now, you are upset that he will let you bathe!”

“I am not upset.” She said, looking at him squarely.

“Not upset? … no, no, no! You just said you were upset!”

Then she spoke very slowly, enunciating each word as if she were speaking to a child: “No, I said I was worried that he was giving up.” She resumed bustling about the big iron stove, rattling the various items with a simmering anger.

“Well, what’s the difference? Either way you are fretting about –”

“Forget it! I was just trying to talk to you about –”

“And I was trying to listen! But don’t I have the right to ask a few questions if you are not making sense?! Are you telling me –”

“I’m telling you to forget it!”

“Alright then, but don’t raise your voice in front of –.”

“Stop it! Stop it!” She slammed a rag down on the table and glared directly at him. All the children stopped too and watched. He got up slowly, not talking his eyes off her, and said, “I am going outside to chop some wood. And when I come back in, I expect to find my house calm, with a calm wife. Because why? Because I don’t need to be bothered by all of this. A man has enough troubles to worry about, such as raising the food for his family, which is not easy, I tell you! Look around. NOT EASY, UNDERSTAND!”

“Go then,” she said quietly. “Go chop some wood. No one is stopping you.”

He turned his back and went outside and grabbed the axe that had been in the family for unknown generations and hacked with fury at some downed oak limbs which he had saved for a moment like this; his body already knowing before his head or even his heart told him, knowing what all men knew and had discovered throughout the course of domestic history, or at least since men and women had cohabited under something smaller than just the heavens, that the woodpile was the only acceptable receptacle for a man’s rage and so he must ejaculate that rage into it until spent in a sort of purifying ritual.

The limbs had been stripped of their branches and were lying in a long pile next to the barn. He grabbed one and dragged it from the pile, cursing under his breath when it snagged. Bastard! he muttered, kicking the other limbs off. The birds ceased and scattered.

Then he began. His arms swung jerkily at first, violently as he drove the axe downward between his spread feet pinning the limb to the ground. Soon the first beads of sweat trickled down his forehead and brow, then cheek and beard, and ticked to the earth. It felt good, he anointed now with his own currency, with the physical proof of his labor and thus by this purchase, the fury and the outrage slowly validated, justified and even sanctified in some interior ledger, and more, as he continued to chop and the sweat ran, he was permitted now to reflect on the matter as an omniscient might, still chopping but smoother, more efficient and even beginning to calm now, and then he pictured his wife and her dark, tight little shrewish face with the hair parted in the middle and pulled back tightly too, scolding him but not even giving him the courtesy of looking at him, just yammering at him like a crow as she moved back and forth about the stove. He relived the scene and then felt a second surge of rage boil inside him, instantaneous, the fetus of calm instantly shattered like the dry limbs below his groin and against which he was hacking.

What was a man to do? He worked practically every minute of every day! He knew other men with vices but he himself didn’t have even one. I don’t even want to be appreciated, he thought. I just, once in awhile, want to be left good and well alone and not badgered. A minor request, by God … but by God I damn well deserve that!

He felt pity for himself and it was ugly and so he hated himself too. Pity for having to slave away day after day, just to put food in their mouths without any appreciation and more, every time he entered the house he was subjected to her moods while she patrolled the home’s interior like some mad despot, some impotent ruler in full decline, flailing in the knowledge of her own suffering, her own prolonged and anticipated defeat.
He was done now. He set the set the axe down and began to gather the firewood, stooping and gathering until he had an arm full. His undershirt was drenched, his nape wet. He moved toward the house to where he would stack it. The house, his house inherited from his family as the only adult male offspring (and so not really his own, at least not of his own toil and labor and so this mocked his own masculinity too) and yet, he recoiled from it now, knowing she patrolled it without even the façade of that thing she once possessed when they first married, that sureness that wasn’t despotic at all, that didn’t need to be despotic, that was a thousand times more powerful than despotism, that was calm; that sureness that was somehow simultaneously yielding and controlling, submissive and authoritative, that mostly quiet (though to be sure, even then, there had been outbursts of affrontment and indignation which he’d considered passionate and even endearing) confidence and knowledge, that he could only know as femininity, that was soft as water and enduring as marble and as timeless as both, that aura which he understood but didn’t understand because, as he learned, it was never meant to be understood but merely engaged and honored, not by brain but by the guidance of the heart. Gone now, stolen, dethroned and bereft of tranquility, which is the only thing a man wants from middle age onward. And so she was only to be avoided.

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