Set this house on fire, p.46
Set This House on Fire,
Far off in the valley toward Scala, grindingly off-key, church bells banged and clattered in remote confusion like celestial pots and pans. Filippone came and went. Cass took a deep gulp of wine, downing in fact half the bottle before removing his nose from its rim, conscious now that in some stale and left-over fashion, he was once again drunk, but exhaustedly, unpleasantly so, and that the day already had begun to gray over with the old apprehensions. His bright brief moment of elation had drained utterly away. Heavy weights seemed to burden him. He sought urgently for something to buoy him up, some merry swirl of color or motion in the near-deserted square, found nothing—fat chinless Saverio, scrounging mindlessly at his uplifted pecker, boldly outlined through his pants. With a whistle Umberto summoned him toward the luggage piled around the bus, and like a baggy animated scarecrow he took off, still tumescent, uttering magical paeans. Now the square lay level and deserted, like a lake becalmed. On a green promontory half a mile across the valley someone laughed, a woman called, “Non fa niente!” in a silvery voice, as clearly as if it had been spoken into his ear. In the hush that followed, he raised his eyes from the piazza toward the sea: there a streak of blazing light reflected from the zenith-ascending sun caught him flush in the eyes, making him for one stupefying instant as blind as a mole. And at this very moment from the belfry high above him a flock of pigeons erupted forth like feathered rockets and filled the unseen air around him with a tumult of wings. Hallucination! His heart was seized by a despairing clumsy terror. Blinded, he heard drumming all around him a multitude of wings; a yellowish taste like that of sulphur rushed up beneath his tongue and in the darkness he thought he heard thunderous footsteps from afar, approaching on the surface of the sea. Once again the woman seemed to be crouched nearby —’Shpinga!” she was croaking to the child, in that all but impenetrable dialect, and the air about his head was sweet with the odor of blossoms he had never smelled before. Instantaneously, with the speed and majesty of light, a cold wind blew through his mind: footsteps, blossoms, birds, terror —all were gone, while in their stead came a familiar clear white space, clear as water, of illimitable repose.
He caught his head before it had fallen to the table top, and snapped erect with a shudder. He blinked. Somehow in his seizure his spectacles had fallen away from his eyes and dangled down suspended from one ear. Retrieving them with trembling fingers, he adjusted them upon his nose and focused his eyes on the square. Miracle of miracles—as in Paris—hardly five seconds had passed: Saverio, still galloping, had not yet reached the bus; the pigeons in bottle-green and fluttery glide had only at this instant gained the parapet around the fountain. A hand crashed down violently between his shoulder blades. “A-hii!” he cried, in an ecstasy of terror. Bleeding Christ!
“It is all taken care of, my friend!” said Luigi in a jaunty voice. Cass forced himself to listen, wide-eyed, composed, afraid to reveal his inner condition. Far off on the sea, like some last remnant of his hallucination, he thought he saw waterspouts—a black forest rushing toward the horizon, the sea itself boiling faintly in convulsion. Then all was still. His heart thudded against his breastbone like an overworked pump. “It is all taken care of. Signora Carotenuto has seen the girl today, and she is at this very moment somewhere in town. She is going to send Saverio to hunt for her and bring her to you.”
“But you—” He found it difficult to speak. “Saverio?”
“Yes. I myself would wish for a more respectable messenger.” He halted. “Saverio is what you might say—” His voice, rather solemn, trailed off.
“It is just that Saverio—Nothing. I’ll tell you something about him some day. It is all right.”
Near the bus now Cass saw the cafe owner—a fat woman with a bun at the back of her neck—talking to the half-wit, gesticulating. After a moment Saverio turned from the woman and hustled up a cobbled street. As he did so, a maroon Cadillac nosed its way into the piazza, a sport-shirted young man at the wheel, a blond girl beside him, the eyes of both shuttered behind dark sun glasses. The car eased past the fountain, the sound of its horn piercing, chromatic, very loud. Like a shoal of minnows, a gang of boys began to wriggle and twist round the car, shouting. The young American, smartly handsome, once more sounded his harmonic, turgid horn. Wonk! The car halted, throbbing with power barely audible, in the middle of the square.
“One of my countrymen,” Cass murmured, somewhat recovered. “I think I will go to Russia.”
“Here, Cass, I brought you some mozzarella,” Luigi said, sitting down. “Eat it. You’ve got to eat, my friend. You’re going to kill yourself with this wine.”
“I think I will go to Russia.”
“How alike you are, you Americans and the Russians!”
“I mean it is true, Cass. Your similarities are much more striking than your differences. And neither of you seem to be aware of it. There are dozens of them, besides the obvious one of the wish for world power. Your reliance on science and the scientific method. Your puritanism. That is quite true, Cass. Have you never thought that in spite of the emphasis on sex in the United States it merely comes out as the same unhealthy puritanism that exists in Russia?”
“I don’t know if I have thought of it or not.”
“And your concentration upon material things. You were talking about art in America. I should hate to be an artist in either country. As for your own, you are free I gather to create as you wish but you have no real public. The people really do not care. In Russia, on the other hand, there is a vast public which cares, but one which the artist is not free to create for. You see, it is all the same thing.” He paused. “But I sympathize with you. I would choose the dictatorship of the Kremlin—if I had to choose—to the dictatorship of the mob. Because there is always the matter of your respective leaders.”
“How do you mean?”
“Why, it is quite apparent. Your president and the dictator in the Kremlin. They are both peasants. But yours is a cretin, and the other is shrewd. I would always cast my lot with a shrewd man, no matter how ruthless.”
“It is just this, Cass. Some day the Russians will have the refrigerators and the bathrooms that you Americans have. But though it is repressed at the moment, the Russians have a fund of spirituality which you Americans have never developed. They will be educated people with refrigerators and bathrooms. You will be ignorant people with refrigerators and bathrooms, and the educated people will triumph. Capito?”
“Um.” Barely listening now, Cass took a generous bite out of the cheese: creamy and ripe, impossibly delectable, it plummeted into his stomach, pacifying there almost instantly the ulcerous raging pain of which he had hardly been aware. But he was severely, dangerously drunk. He felt his head sinking downward, with racking weariness toward the table. A vagrant cloud, shaped like the face of Africa, rode serenely across the sun, bringing nostalgic shadows to the corner of the piazza and now a sudden, frivolous gust of wind: Luigi clapped his hand to his head, too late: his green cap went kiting off in a cloud of dust. As he rose to retrieve it the wind died, suffusing all with radiance and peace. “Muffin dear,” the tall blonde called, sidling out of the car, “tell him to bring the green hatbox fehst.”
“But it is free there,” Cass heard himself say, half-giggling and in a muffled voice against the wet table. “ ’S a democracy. Everyone eats. It is free.” For what seemed many minutes he sat there like this with his head half-buried in his arms. What made it seem so long, he later recollected, was the dream which appeared out of nowhere, passing across his blackened gaze with all the detailed immediacy of the previous night and loading his spirit with the same intense despairing fear he had felt just before his spasm ten minutes ago. “Cass,” he heard Luigi dimly above him, “Cass, why don’t you go home, get something to eat, go to sleep?” But ignoring him, only half-aware of his voice at all, he allowed the dream to march in stately black parade across his mind—terrified b
“What woman, Cass?” Puzzlement was all over his face. “What woman do you mean?”
“You know what woman,” he said sharply, scarcely able to manage his impatience. “The beat-up scrawny woman carrying those fagots. The one with the little girl. Who is she?”
“Iddio!” Luigi exclaimed. “How should anyone know, what peasants! All of them,” he said in tones reminiscent of those sleepy-faced storekeepers of Cass’ youth who went on so about Negroes, “all of them look alike. Cass, indeed I do not know what you are talking about.”
But he had it now, plain! Of course, the woman had merely resembled the woman in his dream, and to be sure, as Luigi had pointed out, they did all look alike. One way or the other, though, no trivial detail such as this could diminish the whole encompassing truth of his dream—a truth which seemed to him now so unimpeachable, so invincibly clear, so grounded in the bedrock of existence that he felt an exultant laugh rise up in his throat as he poured the whole thing out to Luigi, who had begun to fidget. “Don’t move about so like that, Luigi,” he heard himself say with a chuckle. “Keep still a minute while I tell you about this—this visitation I had last night.”
As he spoke his fright receded; he felt almost exhilarated, touched by a roguish gaiety he could only compare to those times long lost in the past when he was able to create, to work; it was so odd a sensation as to be, in a way, unbelievable, and something told him that it was not right to feel this way at all, but a spillway had been opened and he felt himself being borne buoyantly along upon the flood. “It was like taking ether, you see, this dream I had. Like waking from an ether dream, when all the indescribable mysteries have been made clear. I was in one of those Pullman buses, you see, and we were driving up the road from Maiori that goes over the mountain toward Naples. The bus was crowded and noisy. It seemed very hot. I remember I kept fanning myself. There were some loud vitelloni from Salerno singing and playing a guitar, and making passes at the girls. We were going up the side of a deep ravine, that big gorge up near the top, just before the summit—you know where I mean? Then suddenly we picked up speed. We went through a little village, driving very fast. I remember calling out to the driver to go slow, that he was going to kill us all. But we kept picking up speed, roaring down the street of this little village. Then suddenly we struck something. I could hear the soft thumping noise beneath the wheels. It’s hard to describe. It was as if he had run over a bag of flour or meal. I remember calling out again to the driver, this time to stop. We stopped and I got out. Strange, now that I think of it: I was the only passenger in the bus who got down—do you follow me?”
Mournfully, without speaking, Luigi nodded his head. He began to mop his brow—a restive, unhappy motion. Then, “Cass—” he began.
“Wait a minute, can’t you? I got out and walked back to see what it was we had struck. I kept thinking it must be a bag of flour or meal—I don’t know why. It seemed to look like one as I went up to it. But as I approached I saw that it was not a sack of anything at all. It was—it was a dog. It had been brutally crushed. All of its hinder parts right on up to its chest had been smashed flat—flat as those cutlets that that butcher down the street makes out of those thick slices of beef after pounding on them for half an hour. You know? The back part of the dog was crushed just as flat as that—”
“Yet the poor beast was still living! Lying there so horribly mangled he was nonetheless still alive, and as he lay there he gave a heartbreaking whimper and tried with his forepaws to raise himself from the earth. This part was so vivid, I remember: watching the animal as he moaned and whimpered and with his eyes rolling white and anguished tried to get up from the road. Then the driver came down from the bus—it’s strange, because although he looked familiar to me he seemed to have no face at all —the driver came and stood beside me watching the poor dog’s struggles and kept saying, I wonder whose dog is that?’ Then all of a sudden there appeared beside us this peasant woman, this bent-over scrawny woman I thought I had seen just now. She just stood there with us for a bit, watching the dog too, and then she said, ‘The dog was mine.’ Then the bus driver went to the side of the road and picked up a big stick. He came back—still without a face, you see, that was one of the strangest parts—and he began to beat the dog in the head furiously with the stick, saying over and over again, I must put him out of his misery, I must put the poor beast out of his misery!’ Furiously he kept pounding at the dog’s skull and muttering over and over to himself these stricken words. But the dog refused to die! Oh, it was frightful to watch! To watch this animal in its desperate suffering, whining and moaning there in the road, his eyes rolling in agony, still trying to rise, while all the time the fellow kept thrashing away at his skull, hoping to free the beast from his torture but with each blow only adding to his pain! Then—”
“Then what?” said Luigi. The corporal’s face seemed now to loom up through murky, unfathomed depths of water. For an instant Cass thought he was going to faint but caught himself; no longer elated by his discovery but, indeed, horrified by it, he was pressed toward its ending by some force far beyond comprehension or control, and was sick to his soul with a profound, clammy dread.
“Then—” he said. “Then I looked down through the billowing dust, and this is what I saw. It was not now the dog’s head he was beating, but the head of the woman, this scrawny peasant woman with the fagots. Somehow she had turned into the dog. Lying there crushed and mangled, with her poor tormented body pressed against the dust, she let out piteous cries, shrieking, ‘God! God!’ over and over again. ‘Release me from this misery!’ And each time she called out, down would come the flailing stick which would knock her bleeding head against the earth, only for the head to rise again to cry out for deliverance from all this agony, and each time again the stick would strike her, futilely, releasing her not into death but only into an endless mystery of pain. Do you understand? Don’t you see!” Cass began to shout, hoarsely and drunkenly. “Liberatemi!” she kept screaming. ‘Release me! Release me!’ And then far aloft I heard the man’s voice saying again and again as he laid on with the stick: ‘I’m trying! I’m trying!’ And I heard his terrible sobs of remorse as he kept beating her, and as he kept saying then, ‘I cannot!’ And as in the depths of my dream I realized that this was only He who in His capricious error had created suffering mortal flesh which refused to die, even in its own extremity. Which suffered all the more because even He in His mighty belated compassion could not deliver His creatures from their living pain. Which—” But now he halted. He felt his lips trembling. “Che—” he resumed. “He is beating us, yet mercifully—” he tried again. But it was no use. His wits, such as they had been, had abandoned him. Luigi gazed back at him with the half-dead expression of a man trapped by a lecture in some unknown language. Luigi had not understood him and beyond this, he knew, suspected him of being crazy. His suspicion he could take but his incomprehension seemed to him now a form of betrayal, and Cass heaved himself up from his seat unsteadily, knocking over the chair. “Don’t you understand what I mean, Luigi? Why is it then,” he demanded in a distraught voice, “when we erase one disease another comes to strike us down! Is it not His own feeble way of trying to get rid of us? Answer me that! Is it not? Is it not?” There was no reply.
Set This House on Fire by William Styron / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes