Set this house on fire, p.28
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       Set This House on Fire, p.28

           William Styron
 

  “My God,” I said. “What’s that?”

  Cass said nothing. The wail in the hut ceased abruptly, as if strangled, and after a few seconds there came in its stead a low series of groans, almost inaudible now, but touched with the same insupportable and desolating anguish. Nearer, we could hear a scuffling of feet within; a child cried, a pot or pan fell, then all was silent as before.

  “Chi è la?” came a voice from the shadows. It was a woman’s voice, oddly heavy and masculine, and slow and torpid, suffused throughout with the deepest weariness.

  “Sono io, Ghita,” said Cass softly. “It’s just me, Ghita—Cass. With a friend.’’

  The woman stood in the doorway, her arm upthrust against the frame, supporting herself, her face harshly illuminated in the flooding moonlight. It was an awesome face—fearsome, I should say, in the attitude graven upon it of suffering. Her lips were contorted downward, her eyes had become as dull and as sightless as two black stones; like wild grass her hair flew out around her head in unkempt strands. And she stood there motionless except for her breathing, which heaved up the sagging breasts beneath her tattered bag of a dress, and seemed to shake her all over. She looked like one whose grief had borne her miles beyond the realm of simple tears. “Buonase’,” she said in a dull voice. “We were waiting for you.”

  “How is Michele? How is he tonight?”

  “He fails,” she said. “He asks for you. It’s his pain now. It’s as if his pain were my pain, so that when he cries out I can feel it in my own bones. I think he will die soon. I can’t get it out of my bones.”

  “The morphine? Shut up about dying.”

  “It’s of no use now. He no longer feels it. Besides, the glass instrument one uses fell and broke. La siringa. Alessandro took it in his hands—”

  “I told you to keep—” Cass began with a note of anger. Then he said quietly: “Ah well, we’ll arrange to get another.”

  Her voice was parched and dry. “I feel it in my bones,” she said, “in my flesh. Here. Everywhere. Maddalena came tonight. She says that the disease possesses me now. The children. That it will devour us all. She gave me a philter—”

  “Keep that witch out of here,” Cass interrupted. The groans commenced again from the recesses of the hut. The woman stiffened and her eyes grew wide. “Keep that witch away from here, Ghita. How many times have I told you to have done with these idiotic charms? She’ll do nothing but make things worse. Keep her out of here. Poison! Hasn’t Francesca told you, too? Where is Francesca?”

  The woman made no response, turning toward the sounds like an automaton and melting into the shadows of the hut. The groans faded, and suddenly died. “What it is,” Cass said to me as he removed the knapsack from his shoulder, “is a case of miliary tuberculosis. Galloping consumption. This man’s riddled with the stuff from head to toe, bones and kidneys, liver, lungs, and lights. Broke his leg a while back, which don’t help any. It hurts him, and it’s like a bleeding sponge. There’s not a hope in the world. I wouldn’t go inside if I were you.” He weaved a bit, as if still half-drunk, but steadied himself. He took the bottle of capsules from the sack, peering at it closely in the moonlight. “As for me, if I’m going to get it, I’ve got it already. Mother of God! A bleeding amateur sawbones! Now what the hell did the book say? What’s the dose? Oh yes, three grams four times a day. Well, we’ll see. It sure won’t hurt this poor bugger. Nothing in this world.” He turned and made a move toward the door. “There’s no point in your taking a chance. I won’t be very long.”

  “I guess I’ll go on in with you,” I said.

  “Suit yourself,” he replied.

  The stench of the place met me at the door, clamping itself down over my face like a foul green hand. It was an odor of many things —of manure again, of sourness, of dirt and offal—but mainly it was the odor of disease, a sweet tainted odor as of meat gone bad which blossomed in the air as vividly as a color. It was the odor of the morgue. Fumbling my way in the smirchy light, I blinked and gazed around me. Flies generated a steady buzzing in the stillness: they were everywhere—in the air, on the earthen floor, and upon each inch of the windowless walls. In sticky nocturnal fidget they crawled across the wan faces of three feverish, sick-looking children who, oblivious to the stir around them, and to the racking wails, slept soundly in one corner on a tick of straw. Nothing adorned the walls, not even a Madonna, while for furniture there was a table and three chairs and that was all. A huge shadow stirred clumsily in a nether corner of the room, startling me, until I saw that it was a cow, separated from the room by a low wooden partition, who gazed up at me from her repose with a sweet funereal expression, all the while sedately masticating. Then another groan roused me, and I saw the sick man on his straw pallet, only his face exposed beneath a thin and tattered U. S. Army blanket, the face itself taut, immobile, as pale as wax, and such a wondrous portrait of emaciation, of sunken and ravaged flesh, that I thought for an instant that he must be dead. Cass and the woman had knelt down beside him. I heard Cass’ voice, soft and gentle: “Come va, mio carol Soffri molto? It’s me, Cass, Michele.”

  Michele opened his eyes, and slowly looked around him. It was as if he had been in some rapt communion with his agony, a meditation upon his pain as profound and consuming as the deepest sleep, so that now, encroached upon by the outer world, he was indeed like a man who wakes to marvel at his surroundings. Slowly his eyes roved about, searching the ceiling and the walls. Then, as his gaze finally lit upon Cass’ face, he gave a stir beneath the blanket and his sunken mouth with its lack of teeth suddenly parted wide in an unexpected, beaming smile. He spoke: his voice was almost unintelligible, stricken like the rest of him with the mutilating canker flowering within, cracked, hoarse, and sepulchral. “Cass,” he said, “I’ve been waiting for you to come! I have a bottle of wine. Francesca brought it today. Real Chianti.”

  “What you need is sleep, Michele,” Cass said. “Then also I’ve brought you this special clever medicine which will put you on your feet in no time at all. How is the pain in the leg?”

  “It is bad, Cass,” he replied, still smiling. “Very bad, Cass. But when you come, I—I do not know. There is a difference. We talk, you know. Make jokes. There is a difference in the pain. It is not so bad.”

  “How about the fever?” said Cass. “Have you been taking the aspirin I gave you for the fever?”

  The woman Ghita spoke up. “He has been pissing blood. That is a bad sign. Maddalena says—”

  “Hush about Maddalena,” Cass said. “What does she know? Keep her out of here.” He turned toward the woman with a look of patient remonstrance. “And the flies, Ghita! Look at them, millions of them. Do you want the babies to get poisoned, too? What about the bomb Francesca brought you?”

  The woman shrugged. “It is all used up,” she said. “Anyway, the flies always come back. You cannot have a cow without having flies.”

  “Give me some water, Ghita,” said Cass.

  “Right there, Cass, beside you. In the glass.”

  Cass uncapped the bottle and plucked out two of the yellow capsules. “Here, Michele, swallow these now. Then take one with a lot of water every six hours until I tell you to stop.” He eased his arm under the man’s frail shoulders, drawing him up half-erect on the pallet. It was an arduous procedure; straining, with droplets of sweat standing out on his brow, Michele forced himself up on his elbows, yowling in a sudden new onslaught of the pain. “Ahi!” he gasped. “Ah God!” He rested for a moment with his eyes closed. Then as before his eyelids parted, and he smiled his gentle collapsed smile. “What are these, Cass?” he said, his lips hesitating at the rim of the glass. “Is it true that in America there is really a cure for il cancro? Then this is it, Cass?”

  I saw Cass’ hands tremble as he placed the pills upon Michele’s lips. He seemed to have trouble speaking for a moment. Then he said firmly: “You know you don’t have cancer, Michele. We’ve been all through that. This is for your kidneys and the bone of y
our leg. It will make you well. Now swallow them down.”

  As Michele gulped at the water, the woman began to moan—a low-throated, placid, soft threnody of despair; so gentle it was, so untroubled by hysteria, that it was almost as if she were humming a tune. After a moment she stopped. “I have seen the black angel,” she murmured in her dull voice. “I have seen him this night. He is all around us in the night.” Turning, I watched her eyelids droop and close, like someone drifting off to sleep, as once more she began her gentle, grief-filled acquiescent lullaby, hands clutched together like great raw red wings to her withered breast.

  “Hush, Ghita,” Cass said. “Hush now. Don’t be foolish. Quit torturing yourself.”

  “I have seen—” she began, her eyelids parting.

  “Quiet,” Cass said, more firmly. “Where’s Francesca?”

  “She never came,” the woman replied listlessly.

  A wrinkled, worried look appeared on Cass’ face. “What do you mean, she never came?” he said crossly, and before Ghita had time to let her eyelids slide closed again he clutched her by the arm. “You mean she’s not in the little room!” he exclaimed. He made a gesture with his head toward the single doorless doorway, hung with a curtain of burlap, which gave off from the interior of the hut. “But she said she was coming right here! She said she would sleep here!”

  “She never came,” Ghita repeated.

  Cass rose abruptly from his place by the pallet. He stalked toward the doorway and looked in, returned, squatted again by the pallet and looked up into Ghita’s flat impassive face. “Well, where could she be then?” he said. “It doesn’t make sense for her—And something happened tonight which—” He paused. “Suffering God,” he whispered in English. “That miserable snake! If he—” He rose again abruptly, as if to leave the place, when Michele croaked from the pallet.

  “Cass.” He had risen up and thrown off part of the blanket, revealing, through the shirt of his dingy pajamas, striped like those of a prisoner, an intolerably thin chest. “Cass,” he said, “don’t worry about Francesca. Often you know she stays with Lucia, you know, the daughter of the gardener at the Albergo Eden. All the time. Don’t worry, amico. She’s there tonight. Don’t worry. Come here and sit beside me. The medicine has made me feel better already.”

  Cass hesitated. “Well—” he said, pausing. “Well, don’t you think she’d have told me, Michele? I’ve got to go.”

  Michele forced a dreadful gurgle of a laugh. “Why tell you, my friend, when she has never in her life told her own papa? Come, sit down. Francesca is all right. You know Francesca! Sit down here, Cass. I feel I can almost walk.”

  “I don’t know,” Cass said glumly. But the anxiety and concern had begun to fade from his face. Saying, “I had forgotten about Lucia,” he gave a sigh and bent his attention once more upon Michele. “You must lie down on your back, Michele,” he said in a determined voice. “Like this. And you must not talk so much. Those are the rules.”

  “Ah Dio! Slowly!” Michele cried out. And his wife rocked back and forth again, moaning.

  I sat there across the room, hearing in my brain the fanciful ticking of a clock, that imaginary tick-tock which, even in the absence of a clock, seems to accompany all wakes and nighttime sufferings and watches of the dead. And, as the woman rocked back and forth, softly moaning, and the children jerked and stirred, whimpering, in restless sleep, and the cow gazed at me in sweet brown incomprehension through the fly-swollen air, I finally understood that this Italian was actually dying. Dying—aware of it, too, in spite of all—he seemed only wishful now of wresting from Cass a last testimonial to that impossible vision which he had harbored in his mind, how long the Lord only knew, but I suppose all the years of his miserable life. So that now, between sounds of anguish, which Cass would soothe with a word and with a touch of his hand, I could hear his voice struggle up buoyantly in hope and wonder, as he asked about America: Was it true that even the poorest laborer had a car, Cass, and a stove, and a house with windows? Would it be possible, Cass, when he got well, and they all went to America together, to get Alessandro and Carla, and even the littlest one, a fine pair of shoes? He had asked Cass these things before, but persisted in being told the glory of their truth anew, like a small boy with visions of elephants and tigers, and of far exotic shores.

  “Yes, amico,” I heard Cass’ patient tired voice. “Yes, it’s all true like I have told you.”

  “I should like to live in Provvidenza, where my brother lived long ago. It is a fine city, is it not, Cass?”

  “Yes, Michele.” But to me, in English, turning: “Providence, can you imagine?”

  Michele was tired. He stretched himself; a soft whistle escaped his lips and he closed his eyes, clenching them tight for a moment, then shuddering all over as if with a chill, as without a sound now he mounted rapt guard over the dominion of his pain. Save for the woman moaning and rocking, and the flies in their incessant pestilential drowse and drone, no one stirred or made a sound. Cass, hulking over the man in an attitude of frozen genuflection, wore upon his face a desolation so complete that it drained his skin of all color, and his eyes of all vestiges of light. Then after a while Michele roused himself a bit and opened his eyes. “It should not be so,” he said in his choked faltering voice and now, for the first time, with a look of desperation. “It should not be so, Cass.”

  “What is that?”

  “That a man should hurt so. That a man should work hard all of his life and make ninety thousand lire a year. And then end up like this, hurting so.”

  Cass said nothing for a moment; his lips trembled, as if searching for words. Then he said: “I truly agree, my friend. But you must not fret about that. Animo. Courage.”

  Rising on his elbow, Michele gave another groan, fixing Cass with his despairing hot eyes. “No, it should not be so, Cass!” he croaked. “He is evil, is He not, to put us down in this place where we work and slave for fifty years, making ninety thousand lire a year, which is not even enough to buy pasta. Ninety thousand lire! Then all the time He sends the tax collector from Rome. Then after draining us dry—of everything—at last He throws us away, as if we had cost Him nothing, and for a joke He punishes us with this pain. He loves only the rich men in Rome. He is evil, I tell you! I shit on Him! I shit on Him because I do not believe!”

  Like a shot, as if waiting hawklike for just these words, the woman sprang erect from her trance. “Blasphemer!” she cried. “Listen to him, Cass! Like this he’s been all day, ranting and raving. In his state! He will go straight to perdition!” She turned and looked down at the prostrate man. “And what he did, Cass, I perish to say. But in his wrath he got up from there this morning, right where he is lying now, and on his one good leg went to the wall, swearing like a Turk, where he tore the crucifix down and hurled it out of doors! Blasphemer, Michele! In your state! It is no wonder that you have begun to piss blood. It’s a sign from heaven! You will drag us all down to perdition with your blasphemy!” One of the children began to bawl.

  “No worse—!” Michele commenced howling from the floor, his voice throttled and choked and awful. “No worse than the charms and amulets and potions you get from that sorceress! How can you talk about blasphemy! When Cass has warned you against this magic! A hi—!”

  “Silenzio!” Between the two impassioned, embattled theologies Cass’ voice rose like a wall, silencing the pair. But as he shouted at them I fled the accursed place, unable to take any more. And somewhere outside, in the newborn and ancient dawn looming like a great limitless pearl over the sea, amidst the twittering and chattering of birds and the soughing of pine trees that was like a noise of rain, I found myself thinking, unaccountably, of other dewy, radiant dawns I had known in years past, in Rome, and the morning’s plunging view from the balcony of the smooth young benefactor, with his Ginevra and his Anna Maria and his girl from Smith College, and then I found myself foolishly—albeit discreetly and out of a deep sense of failure and loss—blubbering against a t
ree.

  But there was none of this about Cass. He emerged shortly from the hut, raging at the top of his voice, wobbling, and for an instant I thought he had again in some mysterious fashion managed to get drunk. But he was not drunk, only wild and inflamed; he was ranting about the Communists and the Christian-Democrats and Mrs. Clare Boothe Luce, and he said something which to me seemed at that moment curiously apt.

  “You can take politics, see,” he said, “and you can stuff them up your ass.”

  I slept that night—or that day, I should say—in a spare bedroom in Cass’ part of the palace. In the light of dawn, as we tramped back up through the valley to Sambuco, he seemed subdued and spent, and he said hardly anything to me at all. I, too, felt drained of everything, and for the most part I kept my mouth shut. When at last we paused to say good night at the gate of the Bella Vista, when I ventured some final word about Mason (saying that he would doubtless no longer feel obliged to pay my expensive bill), Cass looked at me and smiled his tired smile, and said: “Come stay with us.” It was as simple as that; he was merely being generous. It sleepily occurred to me that it would be a kind of retaliation—a mild one, perhaps, but retaliation nonetheless—to flaunt myself for a few days under Mason’s nose as the guest of Cass, and so, after the standard grateful show of refusal, I accepted the invitation. I checked out of the hotel, paying my bill to a dormant and pottering night clerk. Then Cass helped carry my bags down the still-sleeping street to the palace. His amiability and kindness were almost too much; he began to seem a bit unreal as he jockeyed my luggage down the stairs and into a bedroom—a fairly clean and well-kept place, in contrast to the “studio” upstairs—and joined with me in making the bed, and fetched me a couple of worn but freshly laundered towels. But for the most part he was tight-lipped, and his face wore a distant look of worry and concern: I thought nothing of it at the time—although it had all the bearing in the world on the events which followed soon—when he downed a great tumbler of red wine and, bidding me to sleep well, left me to myself, saying in a remote and abstracted voice that he had “to go check up about this friend I know.”

 
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