The Count of Montagna
[ fiction - september 08 ]
As every afternoon Arnolfo and I are sitting on his terrace stretching across the back of his house and looking toward the mountains to the south. Coffee and grappa are on the low table between our deck chairs. The sun has set behind Lake Como and shadows have vanished from the lanes and gardens below us. When clanging of the vesper bells of San Giorgio a stone's throw away finally begins to wind down, Arnolfo grins at me mischievously to tease me about my sensitivity to those deafening tolls.
Then, as if the two matters were linked, he chides me for the umpteenth time for my refusal to speak dialect. "Desmentegà el dialet l'è cume auè desmentegat inghe t'è tetat," He means to say that for him forgetting our lingo would be like forgetting the maternal teat that nourished him.
Though we've been back in our native village for only a year, my boyhood friend acts as if the three decades we were away didn't exist. Stubborn like men of the mountains, he is the paladin of the dialectal Alpine speech we spoke as boys. How he retained the dialect and I didn't remain a mystery.
At this hour the village is alive. Young people are returning from jobs in the valley. Blaring horns tell us that the hourly bus from Sondrio has as usual blocked traffic. Old folks meanwhile are headed for the church or are out for walks up toward the cemetery and the Pisalocca Falls. Card players have already invaded Caffé Paini. The village of Montagna is itself. But Arnolfo and I seem to be sitting among the gods above it all.
"Maybe you've also forgotten that dark streggia of an alley where you once lived," Arnolfo adds sarcastically.
Half the time I don't get his point. Only that he is unforgiving that I won't speak dialect. But no matter how he embellishes it, in my memory our Alpine village was all one dark alley.
"I've forgotten it," I say, sticking to standard Italian. "It's been too long, Arnolfo. I understand it but no words come back to my mouth."
"Bah! Te fè el de ciù!" I'm a snob, he believes. Mine is only an affectation. Under his persistent attempts at tutelage I am embarrassed by the gaps in my memory of the antique language of my mountain home that has survived radio and television.
Abroad, I was an outsider. Now I come back home, and what happens? My speech makes me an outsider here, too. My way of speaking has changed no less than I myself.
"I give up," I say. "I can't return whole to what I was... if I don't speak the same language."
"Illogical! Illogical!" Arnolfo cries, his eyes darting in many directions. He likes to goad me with his 'no man is an island, apart from the main' stuff.
I try to tell him that some people manage to maintain a direct line with their origins as he has. Some lose it as I have. I realize I've forgotten how to be involved in anything. Maybe I never knew.
Still, I like hearing him speak in our ancient language, he the Count of Montagna... il Conte, as people of our village call him with affection.
Actually I've come to think my not speaking dialect is to my advantage. Since villagers are convinced I don't understand either, I play deaf and dumb and exploit my secret position to observe events around me. It's like being invisible.
I've come to feel like a spy in their midst. I'm like the poet's light - no tongue, all eye.
For those who leave our village as I did, speaking this vanishing idiom out in the world is like I imagine a modern Navaho Indian in New York City trying to maintain his ancient Indian tongue. It's a losing battle. There are no more Navaho conversational groups in New York than there are Montagna social clubs in the places I've lived.
Still, semper fidelis Arnolfo maintains that a dialect stays in your blood. It's your childhood, he says. Though such things are buried deep inside you, at one time or another they have to come back. It's like swimming or riding a bicycle or making love. Some things you don't unlearn.
We lift our heads in annoyance when a fleet of motorcycles begins revving gutted motors in front of the café around the corner. Joyous shouts echo down Via Piazza toward the church. The hourly bells then set up another clamor so that again we sit and wait, looking at the valley.
"Your roots survive in it," he says after it's over.
"Still, endurance is no guarantee that you'll still speak it a lifetime later," I comment.
It is true that now and then, at unexpected times, little bits of the old language resurface in my mind and want to jump out and cavort spontaneously in my speech. Isolated words pop before me, flashbacks and visions of boyhood when everything was expressed in our vivid idiom. Yet, it is my experience that in the best of faith, just as I have unlearned how to sing and carry a tune, you can forget how to speak dialect. One problem is finding the right word to express the same thought image as in the mainline language. A word that though similar in Italian for dialect speakers contains endless secret nuances.
Arnolfo goes with me that far. Some things, he admits, cannot be expressed in both languages. That is why young people from here when they go out into the world lean on developed idioms. How else to express anti-war sentiments or the ecological terror of the chemical industries not far away beyond the mountains?
"You can't even say I love you in dialect!" I jibe.
"So what! You just say it in Italian - Io ti amo."
Though I can no longer find the old words, I have become an ardent listener to the magnetic mystery of our idiom. I believe I have come to grasp even more linguistic nuances than do dialect-speaking villagers themselves.
I continually say to myself, 'yes, yes, that's it! That's what I wanted to say.' Like the word Arnolfo utters each time our beauty queen Mayor, dark and sultry with the unlikely name of Celestina, walks past, her perfect ass bound in skin-tight jeans riding higher each day -
"Che bela pelanda!" What a gorgeous bitch!
Most mornings Arnolfo and I sit in front of my bookstore on the high road near the cemetery, alternately arguing about politics and listening to the rush of the Pisalocca waterfall. Or we go for a coffee at Caffé Paini. And inevitably, sometime during the morning, we pass Town Hall just so he can get a look at Mayor Celestina.
Then, late afternoons we lounge here on the balcony of his big house overlooking the valley, he on edge and critical, I, sinking lower and lower to the level of a vigilant spy. In a way however both of us are observers - he, from the inside, I, from without. From our strategic positions we are able to keep our eyes on events and the lives of our fellow Montagnoni.
And the village is what we eventually talk about. There is little place in our conversation for intellectualism or art history or his new faith of theosophy and his attempts at divine contact through contemplation. We largely ignore all that. Gossiping and laughing and joking like two old maids about the foibles of human nature, we agree that people are much the same whether in Montagna or Milan, Paris or New York.
Arnolfo might drop a comment about an old school friend, 'Oh, Pietro had a lot of success, you know. But it went to his head and he became an alcoholic.' I might say, 'What about those super neo-Palladian villas higher up the hill? Where did the money come from? Political graft? Gambling casinos? Drugs? Prostitution?'
Arnolfo might chuckle, pat my shoulder, and shrug. And we resume our detached contemplation until another person or other events enter our horizons. Arnolfo's exuberant optimism seems to shield him from doubts as completely as the Chiesa di San Giorgio has protected the entire village of Montagna for a millennium of invasions and emigration, of plagues and floods.
One morning, standing under the arch of the former carriageway entrance on the steep side of his family mansion, Arnolfo kicks at the clogs of broken cement and stones of what was once his family's private street. Lizards race madly up and down the cracked walls of an adjacent house in ruins.
"People used to care about these things," he says, frustrated that despite his petitions the Town Council has still not repaved it with cobblestones as it was five hundred years ago.
"Arnolfo," I say, "our Mayor is too beautiful to get involved in cobblestones. Maybe what you need is more pull in Milan or Rome."
"Oh, she will, she will," he says, turning on me a sudden mad smile. "She loves me, you know. Haven't you noticed? Now that I'm back for good, she'll come around."
I haven't attached much importance to his exchanges of furtive glances with Celestina. Actually their attraction is understandable. This sexy woman has lived her whole life in this Alpine village and could be fascinated by Arnolfo, the man from another world. And Arnolfo has never in his life been indifferent to female pulchritude.
Arnolfo and I are no less well informed about Mayor Celestina than are the card players at Caffé Paini or the faithful at the Chiesa di San Giorgio. Everyone in the village is aware of her little affairs as if staged to titillate their hidden desires.
In fact, our observation points are better than most - from Arnolfo's high balcony and from my bookstore hanging over the village we're on the qui vive.
We're attuned to shifts of mood and humor. We know of ancient animosities surviving generation after generation. We know who is seeing whom. We know of marriages around the corner, of babies on the way, of new jobs in the valley, of houses in restoration, of church attendance, of drinking bouts in the café, of grape harvests, of unexplained opulence, of vacations on Caribbean islands...and we know of the rare extramarital affairs.
"Lü iol fa quel che iol fa tüc!" Arnolfo comments in his picturesque language on Celestina's current love affair. We are idling on his balcony over coffee and grappa and lazily observing an aged couple below gardening and restoring the ravages of the cold winter. The six o'clock bells have sounded. The streets are quiet.
The corners of his mouth turn down, his eyes narrow, his forehead creases. "They're doing what everyone wants to do... relive their youth. Celestina, I mean."
Like Father Romano the parish priest and the card players in Caffé Paini, we have followed the course of Mayor Celestina's liaison with a lawyer named Saverio. "A strange story," Arnolfo whispers to me, the crazy gleam of vicarious romance in his eyes. "It's a return to the past... or a leap to the future," he adds.
Both in their early thirties, both married today, Saverio with small children and Celestina with a doting husband, they were sweethearts as teenagers. Then, as sometimes happens in peoples' lives, the two inamorate rediscovered each other and are reliving the fire of first love.
"Nothing spicier but nothing more dangerous than a re-found first love," Arnolfo says, a familiar distant look invading his eyes.
"Or fulfilling something unfulfilled in their past," I add in my Italian that seems stiff in comparison to his colorful speech. I'm aware that as far as Arnolfo is concerned there are more overtones to the story than I first imagined.
He ignores his cellular phone playing Imagine in the living room. The Beatles could be summoning him back to Paris. Or it could be one of his clients in Barcelona or a factory hidden in the wilds of north India. It could be his housekeeper in his villa in the medina of Marrakech. Arnolfo telephones but seldom answers ringing phones. He doesn't seem to care.
"Ai le fa lasü. And they do it right up there," he says excitedly, his eyes jumping around, envious of something he can't yet define, his finger jabbing upwards toward the flat rooftop of the house next door, skeleton-like under its sheath of multi-tiered scaffolding. "They both have the key to the downstairs entrance. I get glimpses of them when they arrive...separately...nearly every evening... she first."
"Well, he has to tuck in the babies first," I say, adding a bit of sarcasm to his romantic vision of the love story. I have the idea that for a Mayor, our Celestina is a bit on the frivolous side.
"Hers is a naked heart," Arnolfo says in a sudden poetic vein. "She displays it all."
Uncertain what he means, I tell myself to keep in mind that Celestina too is someone's daughter, though she seems to reject traditional daughterhood. She wants more than the village, just as we did. I've come to believe that Celestina is in transition, a person looking for refuge. And she takes bits of it wherever she can, in marriage, in community work, in politics, and now in her revival of the past. A daughter of Montagna! But in the long run no refuge works for her. Hers, I think, is desperation.
Later, the sun has fallen and conversation stops as Father Romano's maddened vesper bells sweep over us exposed on the balcony. We look at each other during the tumult. What with both our failed marriages in our past, we are puzzled by this tardy Romeo and Juliet story.
Then, when the din subsides: "Celestina and Saverio have turned things around," Arnolfo whispers. "But their lives are out of joint. He will never leave his wife...and Celestina knows that."
From the gleam in his eyes, it occurs to me that Arnolfo shares some of the couple's futile grasping for a second life.
"La vita l'é incsi! " Count Arnolfo says. Such is life!
"You mean it's inevitable?"
"They had nothing else to say to their spouses, Giacomo. They reached the silent plateau of matrimony. What could they do? They try again! One thousand years of life here in our Montagna. The same things happening again and again."
"So, this too will end like everything ends. But such passions will happen again and again... forever and ever."
"Let's hope without tragedy this time," I, the pessimist, add.
"The thing about them is that neither is right and neither is wrong," he says. "They are doing the right thing at the right time...grabbing what they can."
"While they can."
The Count nods.
The days pass. Days of hazardous speculations on the state of the passion of Celestina and Saverio that has assumed the proportions of a romantic novel becoming a Verdi opera. A sensation of foreboding has overcome me. Though Arnolfo in his crazy way seems to remain cool and collected, it seems as if he and the other secret observers also have a presentiment of tragedy. The love story unravels. Word spreads that Saverio will never leave his children. Not even for his old sweetheart. The denouement is here!
Like the jagged current of Alpine summer lightening, two conflicting waves of reactions race through the watchers' camps - fiery romance and its companion, the premonition of tragedy.
Not even the unspoken warnings of Father Romano could prepare people for the abrupt and brutal outcome. On the morning Saverio's body is discovered among building materials scattered below the pinnacle of the couple's love nest, word circulates that the poveretto was practically decapitated when his falling body struck the blade of an upturned shovel.
Now Saverio was of another generation. We hardly knew him. Though he lived his whole life here and practiced law in the valley, he bore out my linguistic point of view - he hardly spoke dialect either.
Thanks to steadfast Father Romano and despite the shadow of mystery and shame surrounding Saverio's death, his is a village funeral in the Chiesa di San Giorgio.
Count Arnolfo steps forward to play out his role of village patron. He insists on adhering to an ancient tradition of bread for the dead. Standing in the doorway, tall, slim, still fresh-faced in a long cotton Indian shirt, and, it seems to me, suppressing a certain contentment, he hands out a loaf of white bread to those who show up at Saverio's house for the recitation of the rosary.
It seems natural that Arnolfo and irrepressible Father Romano end up sharing also the post tragedy situation. Immediately the priest takes Saverio's wife Melinda under the protective wing of the Church, while the Count throws everyone but me off balance when he takes over with the consolation of Mayor Celestina.
Only later would I realize how much was going on at the same time under the surface of village life that I the spy didn't see. Arnolfo must be right. I missed the nuances of dialectal speech.
Arnolfo and Celestina's mutual attraction had seemed no more than a little village flirt. An abstract sort of thing, chiefly in Arnolfo's imagination, I believed.
"He's right of course," Arnolfo tells me happily the day after village people watched Celestina's cuckolded husband load his SUV with suitcases and bags and boxes, skis and a kayak on the roof, and drive off down to the valley.
"What do you mean? He seemed like Dante going into exile."
"He has his reputation to think of!" Arnolfo says. "And he'll never again be taken seriously here. Most certainly he doesn't want to get any more involved than he is today. She's an unfortunate child, his, er, wife, that is Celestina. But she is not exactly a Beatrice, you know. "
When I ask about the official cars from Sondrio each day at our Town Hall and up at the Mayor's house up near the cascades, Arnolfo assumes a grim expression and shrugs significantly.
He mutters that the state attorney's office wants to be assured of the legality of things up here on the hill. After all! The Mayor. And her lover. A leap in the dark.
As the days pass I begin to understand that deep in his dialectal speech, now reaching far back historically into unexplored linguistic territories, he is trying to reveal to me the secret cultural nuances which are inexpressible in mainline language.
"Quanc' che né femma la pert la crapa dre' a n'ume, la sa' cüi quel che la fà, he says enigmatically. The significance of his age-old judgment is that when a woman loses her head for a man she's not responsible for her acts.
Since the funeral, Mayor Celestina has taken to dressing even more provocatively than before. She has become a celebrity. Every day she drives down to Sondrio in her own cabriolet. Word spreads that she has been summoned to the procurator's office.
Meanwhile, the Romeo and Juliet story - the lovers in their 'tower of love', as one Milan journalist headlined the affair - has reached the national media. TV crews from Rome and from Switzerland across the mountains are staked out on the parking spaces behind Town Hall. Then, a squad of the scientific police from Milan spends a day at the scene of the caduta d'amore, that is the tragic love fall, just next door to Arnolfo's house, examining, measuring, and testing on the flat roof where the couple's passion was consumed.
A smart aleck young detective accompanied by a TV cameraman comes to my bookstore and asks me what young Saverio could have been doing on the roof of a house under construction? Was he moonlighting as a mason? When I suggest he might have been studying astronomy, the cop slaps me on the shoulder and laughs and walks away satisfied.
"So, Signore Conte," I say to Arnolfo that same afternoon, "has no one asked you if you saw anything?"
"They wouldn't dare."
"But you're just next door. You spend evenings on your balcony. You know everything that happens in the village. You're the village spokesman. Don't they want your opinion?"
While I fire my ironic broadsides at him, the Count stares fixedly at me as if wondering who I really am. As if wondering if I am to be trusted.
It's in that moment that I become convinced that he knows something no one else knows. He always does. I wonder if he saw what happened up there on the roof.
"Giacomo," he says, switching to standard Italian, an insuppressible tone of happiness in his voice, "we often know things we would prefer not to know. That is my case today. I wish I did not know what I know. I hardly believe what I know myself. And I do not believe you want to know either. Therefore I will not reveal to you what my own eyes have seen. Suffice it to say for now that Celestina wanted him to leave his wife and children for her... but he couldn't do it."
"But in the end he did!"
Another week passes. Arnolfo too makes several jaunts to the Office of the Procurator of the Republic in Sondrio. The Deputy Procurator handling the case, he reminds me, is from Montagna and was our classmate. Hardly a surprise then that shortly afterwards Saverio's death is classified as suicide, police investigations cease, the Sondrio press drops the tragedy of the caduta d'amore on the hill, the TV crews depart, and the neo-single Celestina resumes her official duties as Mayor of Montagna.
Just as I thought. Pull in Milan. Pull in Rome. Sometimes I wonder why Arnolfo and I are friends.
June days are long and dry, nights Alpine cool. During the siesta hours, village streets and Caffé Paini are empty. Even the hells bells of San Giorgio seem satiate and stilled in the warm afternoon hours.
As usual the Count drops into my shop most mornings but he often begs off our afternoon sessions on his balcony. I begin to suspect something rotten in Denmark. So I take to spending more time spying among the regulars at Caffé Paini where dialect is the spoken language. Trying to blend in with village people, I have begun applying myself to using more dialect in my speech though I'm embarrassed when the card players laugh and slap the table at my pronunciation.
"Ah, you're not like il Conte," they say vaguely.
"You'll never get it," they say distantly.
"You have to be born here," they say exclusively.
In early July the Count departs for his annual summer villeggiatura at his villa on the Ligurian seashore - for a period of theosophical contemplation, he says. I miss our morning meetings in the bookstore. My other companion, the more mainline Father Romano, stays holed up in one of his churches, busy with the region's cooling white wines. Mayor Celestina too is away. Caffé Paini is deserted. Except for the faithful bells of San Giorgio and late-night motorcycles village life comes to a standstill.
Days there is little to do except stare down at the narrow Adda River and the cars creeping up the valley toward Alpine passes to the Engadine and Swiss territories.
One day I take the train for the two-hour ride to Milan. I walk around the hot empty streets near the station, and get on the next return train. Then, though I hate driving in Italy in August, I make the painful trip down the valley between the two Alpine ranges to Lake Como to see the villas on the steep mountainsides dropping straight down to the water. But the lake and the boats and the colors only evoke the outside world and I race back to my aerie. Finally, in mid August, I close my store and drive up to San Moritz and up the Inn Valley to Munich for the rest of the month.
In early September the world begins to move again. The rains have finished. Landslide damages are repaired. On the first afternoon of my return, anxious to reestablish our pre-vacation routine, I drop in at Ca' Corradini where to my surprise I find Arnolfo and Celestina sitting with their heads together at a table in his romantically illuminated study-living room.
They are playing chess.
The indirect light plays off the elegant wood-paneled room. Niches here and there have their own little spots highlighting an antique painting here, a set of leather- bound classics there. Oriental carpets decorate polished wood floors.
Arnolfo looks up at me, smiles somewhat roguishly, puts his hand on hers in a tender way as he stands up, and says, "The ways of the Lord are mysterious."
Celestina's face turns red and she fidgets with her black rook. She stands up as if preparing to go, one hand clutching the rook, the fingers of her other nervously touching a breast. The Count puts his hand on her shoulder and has her sit again.
She is wearing a short black skirt and sandals that show off her tanned legs and a revealing T-shirt with an image of a rocky seashore on the front. She looks like a vacation poster. She has never looked sexier. The Count is wearing tan Bermuda shorts and an elegant blue Polo shirt. He is barefoot. Crazily I notice his feet are nearly white... he didn't take off his beach shoes. His scalp under his thinning hair is as tan as her legs. His pale blue eyes reflect a light as bright as the early morning skies over the Valtellina. He looks ten years younger. The devil of a Count is still seducing women.
"He might as well know," he says to her, a who-gives-a-fuck boldness in his manner.
The atmosphere is as highly charged as the bar in a whorehouse. I breathe in the sensuality filling the room. It's her legs and her touching her breasts and strangely his tan and his bare feet. It's the careless, purposeful lift of her knee revealing a naked thigh and denying that she was anyone's daughter. Arnolfo is right as usual.
"He's here every day," Arnolfo says to her, now nonchalantly. "After all we have to start somewhere."
Celestina lowers her eyes.
From his hand on hers, from his words, spoken and unspoken, from the desire in his eyes and the voluptuous trepidation in hers, I begin to understand their situation. He has fallen in a passion!
But in their touch and speech, his tender, hers fearful, I also see the block letters of one big word - COMPLICITY.
In retrospect, I think it was in that moment that I discovered something about Arnolfo that I once knew and had forgotten. Something that he successfully concealed from himself but perhaps not from the people of Montagna - it was his underlying otherness. Emerging from the fire of desire, Arnolfo appeared to me in his true guise - he was the world's loneliest man.
I think the truth of him must have also been mirrored in the hounded but confused look that rose up in the eyes of Celestina looking from him to me as if wondering what she was doing among such people as us - another generation, another breed. Celestina must see in him an incomprehensible mystery. She sees a system of values that long ago vanished from the valley. A system that does not concern her or her municipal administration or her Let's Go Italy generation.
What does her generation care that Montagna dates back to the Etruscans? Who cares that the Guelfs and the Ghibellines fought their battles here and that the plague struck Montagna four and five centuries ago? Who remembers the three centuries of Swiss occupation?
Arnolfo the Count of Montagna cares. For despite his attempts to ignore time, he has his problems with it. Like his having no clocks in his house. And his watches stashed in the bottom of drawers. He once told me he dreamed of a place outside of time when only night and day measured its passage. Though he wants to recapture the past, I suspect he is trying to forget that someday he must die.
But in his dream he goes countercurrent because people here are forward-looking. Here the future is always better. No one here forgets the march of time. There are the bells of San Giorgio to mark it, continuously, constantly, forever and ever. Clocks everywhere. People remember that old times here were not good times. No one wants it back.
Incomprehensible to me also is Arnolfo's attempt to ignore the vulgar present of our country. Up and down the peninsula, from the Alps to the boot, from shore to shore, it's rampant. But he doesn't see it. The Count only cares that the names of Corradini and Venosta and Paini and Credaro have been here forever - his recorded old name and his restored five-hundred year old family home lend him a bit more immortality. He cares that these territories have hosted the Longobards and Napoleon and long bordered with those of the Venetian Republic and that the nobility lived here in Montagna. But he ignores present realities.
The Count knows by name village people and distant cousins and descendants of other branches of the Corradini. He knows the town history back to the Thirteenth century. He salutes everyone on the streets and everyone salutes him, "Buon di, Conte" or "Buon di, Corradini." Yet, despite all the familiarity and his sense of belonging, there is that otherness about him. His fears are like mine. His manias are like mine. It's something that all his dialectal speech and knowledge of the territory cannot alter. It's because of distance and time. For he too once left. He is both here and simultaneously elsewhere. Only part of him has returned.
It occurs to me that if the card players in the café could be completely frank, they might say to him as they do to me, 'You're not like us' or 'we don't speak your perfect dialect anymore' or 'it's as if you weren't even born here.' They would say he is off the map of reality.
They would say, 'you can't come back.'
At heart I think Celestina would agree.
Not that Arnold started out in life different. He became different. He didn't start out as Il Conte. He became the Count because he became worldly. That's not to say that villagers hold this against him. On the contrary, he adds spice and a cosmopolitan air to the village. Yet, he is different. Though he has held tight his images of childhood and village life, he is a man who claims two lives. The real true village is one of his lives. Perhaps he believes Celestina belongs to the other.
"Pleasant or unpleasant," he says one afternoon on his balcony, "our roots are our raw material for living life. You were always looking for the edge and wanted to be a stranger. But I've always wanted connections. I want to belong. My idea has always been permanence. Everywhere out there I always looked back. I felt like a stranger everyplace else."
"Yes," I say, "but you're still a stranger here."
Arnolfo looks at me sadly, purses his lips, and says, "maybe everybody's a stranger to everyone else."
"Hardly," I say. "Not anymore."
I mean to say that like most places in the world Montagna today is accessible, unlike its isolation of the times when we left the valley. Yet it's less accessible than most of Europe. Geographically and culturally, people here are the antipode of vulgar modern Italy. Many of them still recognize vulgarity when they see it. My home of the Valtellina is to Italy what the Himalayas are to Asia. What the Yukon once was to the United States. I think the higher valleys of the Valtellina and its mountains are what most of our country once was and could be again...without the globalization madness, without its record number of cell phones and automobiles per capita and its blind imitation of America, without the bullying inherent in Rome.
The only bullying I've seen here are drivers taking the big curve up the hill toward Caffé Paini too wide and too fast.
One afternoon in Caffé Paini I hear the rumor that Celestina's husband, Giancarlo, has begun divorce action. Everyone agrees he is right. But everyone sides with Celestina in the same way they elected her as their Mayor.
Giancarlo was cuckolded and had to leave her. But the card players conclude that Celestina couldn't help herself. She is not wrong either.
What was she supposed to do? the barman opines. Saverio was away doing his military service and she was ready for marriage.
She married the wrong person, one recalls.
She could have waited, another objects.
She's a passionate woman, says another.
It was their destiny, someone points out.
'Destiny!' echoes around the café.
"La vita l'é incsi!" one card player pronounces.
"Lü iol fa quel che iol fa tüc!" says another.
"Quanc' che né femma la pert la crapa dre' a n'ume, la sa' cüi quel che la fà."
'Che bela pelanda,' I think.
During our matinal tête-à-tête the next day Father Romano hems and haws about the divorce action. His Church rules one way, he wants me to understand, and he formally bows to it. Still, his ideas - and who knows, perhaps also his acts - lead him in other directions.
"Justice would be done," the loveable little wine priest says, standing in the door of my store and gazing absently toward the valley. He speaks in a confusing conditional tense in the curious Italianized brand of the local dialect of his sermons.
When I ask what he means, the village priest, the man who believes in miracles, links his tiny hands with their cracked fingernails behind his back, leans forward intently as if zeroing in some object on the flanks of the Orobic Alps to the south, clears his throat, and casting aside his jovial mask, still partly in Italian, partly in dialect, in a tone as if he were torn between right and wrong, between soul and flesh, between law and passion, pronounces:
"The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun."
"What do you mean to say, Father?"
"La vita l'é incsi!" he says, turning back to me.
With thumbs and forefingers of both hands he adjusts his white collar and gazes in my eyes as if asking himself if I, the outsider, the stranger who doesn't even speak the local language, can be entrusted with village secrets.
"Figliolo" - though we are about the same age he calls me 'son' in a church sort of way - "Figliolo, sometimes we must admit defeat. I am a weak man, a man of the flesh, perhaps a sinful man. I accept destiny as my people here do. And like them I am also a man of passion."
I think he wants to say that Giancarlo was right to move to the valley and to divorce his unfaithful wife. But that Celestina is not to be blamed. Right and wrong is one thing. Good and evil another. She is guiltless. Maybe he's hinting that he knows about Arnolfo and Celestina, too.
In any case Father Romano is not going to thrown any stones, most certainly not at Celestina-Maddalena.
A wave of compassion suddenly comes over me. Goose pimples run down my spine. I would like to embrace the village priest. I want to hug the simple little priest who loves Montagna's white wines, who believes in miracles, and who throws no stones.
"Figliolo," he says softly, "things are never what they seem. Speak more with your friend the Count. Speak with him and you will understand."
In the afternoon I'm back at Arnolfo's. Celestina is not to be seen. The chessboard and the black and white pieces to the sides mark a game still in progress. The Count makes coffee, pours grappa in his favorite crystal jiggers, and we retire to the deck chairs on the balcony.
The sun dropping toward Lake Como is blinding. I wipe the sweat from my forehead with my arm. Automatically my eyes fix on the rooftop next door. It is only one story above us. From here the rooftop is like a stage. I conger Saverio tipping over the low railing and dropping into the abyss toward his appointment with the upturned shovel below. Illogically I wonder if it was before or after the chaos of the midnight bells from San Giorgio.
When I turn to reach for the coffee, I meet Arnolfo's eyes boring into me. For an instant I detect deep in his eyes the same questioning look I saw this morning in Father Romano's eyes when he sighed and called me figliolo and said, "La vita l'é incsi!"
So I say it point blank: "Padre Romano said I should speak with you about events."
"What events do you mean?" he says, the arrogance of conquest and possession in his voice.
"Come on! Village events! Celestina, Saverio, the divorce... and more."
"Giacomo, what is it you want to know exactly?"
"I don't know exactly what I want to know. You said there are things you know that you'd rather not know... unbelievable things you saw."
My gaze returns to the rooftop. With increasing clarity I can see the elevated stage. I imagine the complicated sex that must have gone on up there on the cold concrete under the stars. The bells are ringing. Motorcycle motors are revving. The card players are going home. I see her cool legs hot in the mountain air.
Arnolfo follows my eyes. His long fingers gently tapping the arm of his chair, he purposely lets me see he is watching me. Only later would I understand just how much of the truth was in his look.
"You saw it, didn't you?" I blurt out, losing patience with his cryptic speech, part in dialect, part in Italian.
"Quanc' che né femma la pert la crapa dre' a n'ume, la sa' cüi quel che la fà," he says. Count Arnolfo Corradini repeats the words of the card players and the judgment of Father Romano. Celestina is not guilty. Celestina is innocent. Passion, he says, is the point.
"Yes, I saw it," he finally says. "In the same moment Saverio fell, I saw Celestina next to him. Our eyes met."
"Father Romano knows too," I say.
"Yes, he knows," Arnolfo says, a little smile at the corners of his lips. "He spends a lot more time than people think up in his bell tower... the lovable old spy!"
"But I still don't know what everyone else seems to know!"
I feel the blush of the outsider rising from under my armpits but my brain is working fast. The atmosphere of conspiracy is palpable. But I feel excluded. I want to hear Arnolfo say it.
"It's the village secret," Arnolfo adds, and chuckles ironically when he sees he has gotten a rise out of me.
"Secret! But if everyone knows?"
"You have to be on the inside to know... and also to accept."
"For God's sake, know what?" I, the spy, only thought I was seeing. But I was blind to reality. "Father Romano is right, things are never what they seem."
"That Celestina gave him a little push over the railing," he says. "It was pure instinct!"
"Instinct! you say. Pushing him off the top of the house?"
"Of course. But what I saw is not the point, at all. The point is she is not guilty for what she did."
"Of course?" I stammer. "Of course? But...but why? What do you mean, of course?"
But I do understand. Her unhappy marriage. Her passion. D'accordo! But before the end of her affair Celestina also knew that Count Arnolfo wanted her! Arnolfo didn't speak of that. She knew it all the time. She had wanted Saverio but that was not to be. I know she wanted the Count. For her the Count was more.
The Mayor and the Count! The love story of the century, she must have thought, crazy in her removal from reality. Was that not evil?
But Arnolfo, I know, instead was thinking of the bela pelanda with her black miniskirt and tan legs.
"She knows you saw it!"
In the silence that follows, in the silence of my amazement that this is really happening, Arnolfo continues gazing at me with a puzzled expression in his eyes. He seems to be passing in review centuries of time and history in the Valtellina, the centuries of invasions and plagues, of poor times and rich times, of departures and returns.
His expression is filled also with compassion. Compassion for me the maverick. That I will never understand the fundamental things that everyone in Montagna has always understood. I have thought in terms of complicity. People here think it is human. Just human nature. Neither good nor bad.
Yet, I believe I understand something the others do not, something Celestina couldn't even imagine - Arnolfo might want to return but he is still different from them. The Count is a man of romance, of passion, even of complicity for the sake of justice. Maybe he is not made for conjugal love. Nor can he, the theosophist, the man who wants to stop time, ever really return. But, I know, he will risk anyway. He will try anything, just to remain.
Arnolfo goes inside to the cupboard. I hear him pouring drinks. He returns with two full glasses of grappa.
Dark is beginning to fall. Vespers bells erupt onto the terrace. Living rooms in the houses below us light up like miniature lunaparks. Down in the valley roads look like nighttime landing strips. There is the brilliance and clarity of a dream. We're still sitting up among the gods and watching the ugly realities of life down in the city.
"A little push over the railing," I murmur. "Pure instinct. But she is not guilty. So then if she is not guilty then no one is guilty. Is that what you're saying?"
"La vita l'é incsi!" he sums up. "Such is life."