Set this house on fire, p.5
Set This House on Fire,
“Basta, Sergente!” I said, almost sobbing. “L’ambulanza!”
Just then we turned our eyes toward one edge of the crossroad, where there was a sudden commotion. A rickety truck drew to a halt beneath a tree. Down from its sides clambered a mob of men and boys, led by a cruelly gnarled old hag who struggled like a wounded bird across the sunlit space of ground, fell at di Lieto’s side, and there on her knees began to howl noisily and piteously.
“Luciano! Luciano!” she wailed. “Luciano-o-o! Che t’hanno fatto? Povero figlio mio! Luciano-o-o! Come back, my sweet, come back, come back! Again the monsters have tried to finish thee! Look up into mamma’s eyes, Luciano. Just once, Luciano! Don’t let the monsters finish thee, angel. Show mamma once again thy dear sweet eyes!”
“È mezza matta,” the sergeant whispered. “She’s always been a little cuckoo. She’s his grandmother but she brought him up as a son.” He seemed awed by the show, and a little uneasy. “All those other people are his brothers.”
Infected by this awful grief, the crowd became hushed, stood transfixed at the roadside. For a moment the woman knelt silently, fumbling with her chin. A curious breeze came up, instantly chilling, and a gritty whirlpool of dust and leaves churned past us, billowing up, blossoming, flushing out of the weeds a flock of starlings which exploded from the meadow full-tilt and in raucous outcry, windmilling around us on the dusty blast. In white tatters the old woman’s hair came flying loose, her black shawl went adrift from her shoulders, and a piece of newspaper came tumbling end over end through the arena, where, alone now, she and her grandson seemed like actors storm-swept by some diminutive and marvelous tempest; then the wind died, the old woman recovered her shawl, and the birds fled chattering across the fields.
“Luciano, angelo mio,” she moaned softly, “perchè non dici niente, perchè non mi guardi? Speak, child. Look at mamma. Luciano, I see thy legs twitching. Rise up on them and walk, angel; don’t lie here like this in the road …”
Suddenly she seemed to falter; kneeling there, she raised her eyes from di Lieto and gazed slowly around the crowd, examining each face with a sudden, haunted, tigerish, homicidal look which, even before it lit upon me, caused my insides to squirm in panic. In some way I felt the first breath of her fury before it actually struck: at that moment when in seersuckers and in tourist’s espadrilles, sun-glassed, crew-cut, and with an aspect of northern barbarity like an autograph upon my face, I tried vainly to squeeze behind the sergeant—when she spied me, scrambled to her feet with unbelievable nimbleness, and charged across the road toward me in a black floundering onslaught of execration and doom.
“Svedese! Farabutto!” she yelled. “You’ve done this to my boy! You ran him down with your machine, you wicked monster! May you burn in hell!” A quick apologetic breath went upward from her lips—“Dio mi perdonir—but she bore relentlessly down, gathering new wind, new imprecations, lunged past the flustered sergeant, and thrust a palsied, castigating finger like a gnarled twiglet beneath my nose. “Swede!” she cried. “Evil man! I know you and your kind. Don’t try to hide your face from me. Look at him!” she said, with a gesture for the crowd. “Look at the man! Look how he shivers and shakes with fear. Ha! Now he knows he can’t hide his crime. Speeding through our town, running down innocent people with his machine!” She turned back to me, her whole face—sunken eyes, moles, wrinkled cheeks, wild white hair—all aquiver and ablaze with terrifying wrath. “I know your kind! It was one of your kind who ran down the wife of poor Luigi Lucatuorto in Portici four years ago last Easter. In the springtime of life, too, a strong handsome girl with a sick father and four hungry children to feed. A lovely girl, big, healthy, minding her own way, struck down like a dog by a monster. You know about this? Tell me! You know? Not one lira did she collect, either, though her collarbone was broken and her back weakened for life!” She paused, turning toward di Lieto, and began weeping again. “Look there. What are you going to do about him now? What are you going to do about Luciano? Bleeding there, dying. An innocent boy who never once in his life caused anyone a moment’s trouble or harm.” Wheeling to me, she renewed the assault in a black outburst of fury. “A young innocent boy, I tell you! All of his life suffering at the hands of monsters! Don’t stand there looking like a big fool! What are you going to do about him? What are you going to do about Luciano?”
“I don’t know, signora,” I began, “I’m terribly sorry—”
“Shut your mouth, Swede monster!”
The sergeant put a gentle, placating hand on the woman’s shoulder. “Senta, nonna. Non è svedese. È americano.”
“Quiet, too, Bruno Ferragamo!” she cried. “I know you! They’re all Swedes! They came here during the war, when Luciano was only a child. Remember those bombs? Do you have so short a memory? Remember how they came, raping and bombing and destroying? You remember as well as I, Sergeant Ferragamo,” she sneered, “or you should, you Communist! How Luciano lay there in the road after the bombing, his poor legs broken beneath him and bleeding, all crumpled and torn there and crying his eyes out, with his poor arm beneath him, which he has never recovered from. Oh what a sad day!” For a brief moment her voice sank down, cracked and reminiscent. As we watched her and fidgeted, there was a trumpeting noise far down the road, and the dim sound of tires sizzling, as of some vehicle moving at great speed. “Oh what a dark day. With the bombardments and the smoke all around and the bricks toppling all around us. Oh what a terrible day. I remember how I was cooking when the first bombs came. I wouldn’t get out. I wouldn’t get out, I tell you. Though they begged me and pleaded with me. I wouldn’t go. I stayed there cooking. And then the bombs. With the bricks falling all around and the smoke coming up and Anna Teresa there screaming. Oh what a day! Then I ran out into the road. There was Luciano lying there, the poor child all crumpled up and bleeding. His legs broken! His arm beneath him! Crying and moaning! Crying, ‘Nonna, nonna, I hurt! My legs hurt me so!’”
“Listen, signora,” the sergeant put in gently, “it was a streetcar. … And I’m not a Communist,” he said in an aside to me.
The old woman came alive from her reverie like someone startled out of sleep. “What streetcar? Shut up, Bruno Ferragamo! Shut your antichrist Communist mouth! I’ll not have you policemen lying about Luciano and putting the poor innocent boy in jail! While you allow these monsters to run over innocent people in the road. Like this one here! Have you forgotten the bombs so soon? How they came up from Salerno shooting and sacking the towns and raping, when we were living in Torre del Greco. Have you forgotten so soon? Filthy cabbage-eaters! Drinkers of beer! Remember that one, the English one, who took poor Lucatuorto’s wife in the ruins and ravened her there and left her there bleeding and dying, her with four hungry children to feed and a sick father to care for, he so sick and all. What has happened to your memory, Sergeant Ferragamo? Luciano, who has never hurt a soul in his life. Luciano, the tenderest of boys, the kindest, who once took a sparrow whose wing was broken—a sparrow, mind you—and nursed him till he was well and grown. Now you would leave Luciano to suffer at the hands of monsters like these!” She rose up on tiptoe, bristling with fury, and set both of her hands to shaking an inch from my chin. “You! Have you too forgotten the bombs? Have you too forgotten the oath I swore that day when I picked up poor Luciano from the road! ‘As the Blessed Virgin stands as my witness in heaven,’ I said, ‘they shall suffer and be punished for their sins before God!’ Bombing and sacking our home in Torre del Greco! Raping! Stealing! Taking poor Lucatuorto’s wife in the ruins and ravening her, her with a sick father and four hungry children to feed! Invasato! Mascalzone! Wicked monster! Swede! May you burn in hell! God forgive me.”
Then I found myself too shouting, abruptly and uproariously and on the verge of tears, my Italian deserting me, uttering strange sounds which I just dimly realized were in my native language: “I’m sorry, lady! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! But I didn’t bomb your house! I didn’t bomb your house!”
And then it was all over. The scene dissolved before me as if suddenly and mercifully drowned: the old woman, whisked away by her grandsons, gone; people, policemen, trucks, cars, all gone; the lot of them vanishing in hot stampede after the ambulance and the ravaged di Lieto—broken, dead or dying, I knew not what, but at last nobly borne to the sound of illustrious, tragic horns which rolled over the sunlit countryside, diminishing, intoning rich mingled notes of triumph and grief.
On the shore drive between Salerno and Amalfi, just before the road turns off for the long steep ascent to Sambuco, there is a large sign painted on a wall. It is written in bold letters of black on white; the words are in English—
BEHOLD ABOVE YOU
THE PALACIAL VILLA OF
WEST ENGLEWOOD, N.J., U.S.A.
—and one’s eye, impelled by spontaneous obedience to this mandate and in swift search of some majestic dwelling place, roves skyward up and through the high hanging slope of vineyards and orange trees and blinding red poppies, to a ridge of land thrust up like a hatchet blade against the sky: there fixed in the rock is a structure the size and shape of an Esso station, sporting portholes for windows, painted an explosive blue, and flaunting at its proud turreted roof half a dozen American flags. Narduzzo’s villa is not listed in Nagel’s Italy, but it is in its own way one of the marvels of the coast. After the wondrous drive itself, with its raw green pinnacles and peaks, its cliffs coming down from dizzying heights into a tranquil cobalt sea, the effect of Narduzzo’s villa could not be more upsetting or dissonant if one were to blunder around a turning into West Englewood itself.
I mention this because now in trying to recall the rest of that afternoon I am able to remember practically nothing, until the moment when I must have been shocked into something resembling consciousness by the sight of Narduzzo’s house. Of my departure from the crossroad I do remember backing the car out of the ditch where it had landed and with a signpost prying away the fender, which had wrapped itself around one front tire in a crumpled embrace. I remember too the whole front end of the car: a ruin of splintered chrome, broken metal, headlights knocked wall-eyed, and in the middle of the mess, faintly silhouetted, the ghost of poor di Lieto, his rear end outlined unmistakably in the poised half-crouch of a jockey. And from somewhere underneath there still trickled thin streams of water and grease and oil. Yet although the car seemed to work and though I set out again, at ten miles an hour, the rest of the trip remains only a shadow in my mind of some dim but incomparable misery. It was the sign and villa which brought me to my senses. I stopped in the road with a jerk and in a billow of steam, my distress all suddenly devoured—as I turned my eyes away from the hideous starspangled villa—by the beauty spread out before me.
By then it was midafternoon, but already above me the great peak on which Sambuco stood had obscured the westering sun, sending a vast blue shadow across the sea. Past the outermost limits of the shadow, where the light still shone, the water was as green as clover, but here toward shore it was a transparent blue, lakelike, upon which half a dozen little boats seemed not so much to float as to suspend, held up over the clear sandy bottom as if by invisible threads. Behind me in the lemon grove I could hear the faint sound of a girl’s voice singing. A splash of oars came across the water, and radio music from below in some fishing town, a shadow-town which never knew twilight or evening, and was forever eclipsed by a somber half-darkness at three in the afternoon. For maybe a quarter of an hour I sat listening to the voice among the lemon trees, the sound of oars and the radio, and gazed south down the jagged, glittering coast toward Sicily, which I could not see but which I knew was there, two hundred miles away over the smoky horizon. I felt bitterly exhausted, and whenever I thought of di Lieto a wave of desolation swept over me, but the view soothed me for a while. Without surf or turbulence or breakers’ roar, or the flash of winging gulls, it was a quieting seascape to look at, a sedative for weary nerves and bones.
I started up the car again and was about to make the turn-off on the road up to Sambuco, when I saw a girl standing there, her thumb out, hooking a ride.
Her children were with her; at least they looked like hers. They had been gathering flowers. As I came up to them and stopped, a trio of small rollicking cheers went up, my radiator smoked and fumed, and cornflowers, poppies, and wild roses sprouted all around me in the enveloping steam.
“Hello there!” the girl said. “I’ll bet you’re an American. My name’s Poppy Kinsolving.”
“I had an accident,” I said. “The name’s Leverett.”
“What a funny-looking car!”
“I had an accident!” I repeated.
“Oh dear! Are you all right?”
The cloud of steam swarmed away on the air and Poppy’s face appeared at the window beside me. Hardly larger than her little children, and so resembling all three that she seemed like their big sister, she propped her grubby hands on the door and gawked around the inside of the car.
“What a mess,” she said.
“It was this accident,” I went on to explain. “I was coming down the highway outside of Pompei and I hit this guy on a motorscooter and when I did all my baggage came—”
“Goodness, you’d think people would be a little more careful.”
“I know it!” I said indignantly. “This guy was blind in one eye, mind you. His legs had been broken, his elbow smashed, two fingers gone—”
“Oh the poor man. The poor man!” she exclaimed, her eyes growing round with horror. “That’s what I mean. I’d think you’d drive your car more carefully, Mr. Levenson. Every time I pick up the paper I read about some American hitting some Italian with his car. I think it’s just a shame the way people drive around in these irresponsible American cars. Is he still alive? I’d think you’d—”
“Leverett,” I put in. “The car’s British, an Austin. Look, what I mean is the guy already had one eye out when I hit him. He came out onto the highway on his blind side, from the left. And when I—”
“Oh the poor man. The poor man! What’s he doing now? Did someone take him to the hospital? Was there a priest there? I do hope he got the last rites.”
“I might have been killed myself,” I said feebly.
“I do hope he got the last rites. But he’s not going to die, is he? Stop it, Nicky!” She swatted lightly at her youngest child, a towheaded little boy of about two, who had begun to whine and tug at her skirts. Kneeling down, she began to lecture him in a soft, gentle voice, while the other two children put their flowers on the road and took command of the car, clambering over the trunk and hood and prowling all around me as they chattered away, inspecting the wreckage and then my baggage. I kept looking at Poppy. For an instant, in spite of all my distress and what she had said to me, I felt my mind becoming hopelessly entangled with her sweet face, her huge blue eyes, her disordered sweat-damp hair. Sunshine streamed down on her through the leaves of lemon trees. She was dressed in something resembling a flour sack, although I could tell that it was indeed a dress. In the freckled light, with the faintest mist of perspiration on her brow, there was something charming and stubbornly childlike about her, though not altogether sexless, and for the moment—urchin or nymph or whatever—she was exasperating and unbelievable. “You see, Nicky,” she was saying gravely, “grownups have important things to talk about and it’s almost impossible for Mother to say anything if you’re forever tugging at her nice clean skirt. Now there, darling,
“I don’t know if he’s going to die or not,” I said. “I’ve got to call Naples and find out. Is there a phone up at Sambuco?”
“There’s one at the cafe, I think. And at the hotel. At the Bella Vista. Oh, do you know who’s staying up there now? All these movie stars! They’re making a movie up there. And down in Amalfi. There’s Carleton Burns and Alice Adair and Alonzo Cripps—you know, the noted director—and there’s Gloria Mangi-amele, too. Burns is an old pill and so is Alice Adair but I love Mr. Cripps. I’ve talked to every one of them. That is, a little bit, anyway. Mason Flagg knows them all—at least he knew Mr. Cripps—and they’re always drinking up in Mason’s apartment and of course we can’t avoid them, living downstairs and seeing so much of Mason and all. Are you a friend of Mason’s?” She paused to regard me gravely, quizzically, and, I thought, with some suspicion.
Set This House on Fire by William Styron / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes