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Peter S. Beagle
THE WHOLE TROUBLE with your farm," Romano Muscari said, "is that it is too far uphill for the American suntanners, and too low for the German skiers. Location is everything."
"The trouble with my farm," Claudio Bianchi growled through his heavy, still-black mustache, "is that, no matter where it is located, the postino somehow manages to find his way out here twice a week. Rain or shine. Mail or no mail."
Romano grinned. "Three times a week, starting next month. New government." He was barely more than half Bianchi's age, but a friend of long enough standing to take no offense at anything the Calabrese said to him. Romano himself had beenborn in the Abruzzi, and in a bad mood Bianchi would inform him that his name suited him to perfection, since he spoke like a Roman. It was not meant as a compliment. Now he leaned on the little blue van that served him as a mail truck and continued, "No, I am serious. Whichever way you look — down toward Scilla, Tropea, up to Monte Sant'Elia, you are simply in the wrong place to attract the tourists. I grieve to mention this, but it is unlikely that you will ever be able to convert this farm into a celebrated tourist attraction. No bikinis, no ski lifts and charming snow outfits. A great pity."
"A blessing. What do I need with tourists, when I have you to harass me with useless advertisements, and Domenico down in the villaggio to sell me elderly chickens, and that thief Falcone to cheat me on the price of my produce, when I could get twice as much in Reggio —"
"If that truck of yours could get even halfway to Reggio —"
"It is a fine truck — Studebaker, American-made, a classic. All it needs is to have the transmission repaired, which I will not have Giorgio Malatesta do, because he uses cheap parts from Albania. Meanwhile, I endure what I must. Whom I must." He squinted dourly at the young postman. "Do you not have somewhere else to be? Truly? On a fine day like today?"
"Well ..." Romano stretched out the word thoughtfully. "I did tell Giovanna that I would give her a driving lesson. She is learning my route, you know, in case of emergencies. Such as me actually needing to sleep."
"Your sister? Your sister is not yet old enough to drive a motorcycle!"
Romano shook his head slowly and sorrowfully. "The saddest thing in this world is to watch the decline of a once-great mind. You can no longer even remember that Giovanna will be twenty-three years old next month." He rolled his eyes, regarding the sky accusingly. "She cannot live with me forever. People will talk. Once she graduates, she will most likely move in with her friend Silvana, until she can find work and a place of her own. Just as you will undoubtedly need a quiet room where you can sit untroubled all day and write your poetry. Food and calming medications will be brought to you periodically." He caressed thegraying muzzle of Garibaldi, Bianchi's theoretical watchdog, and glanced warily sideways at the short, barrel-chested farmer. "Have you written any nice poems lately, by the way?"
"I do not write poetry. As you know. I sometimes — sometimes — read poetry to my cows, because they seem to like it. But it is not my poetry, never my poetry. I read them Leopardi, Pavese, Pozzi, Montale — poets of some size, some humanity, poets perhaps to make my cows understand what a thing it is to be a man or awoman." He cleared his throat and spat neatly into a tuft of weeds, startling Sophia, the stub-tailed three-legged cat, who was stalking a sparrow. "Now even if I did write poetry, I would never dream of reciting it to the cows. They have been raised to have taste. I would be shamed."
"Admirable modesty. Truly admirable." Romano clucked his tongue approvingly. "Well, I must tear myself away from this peaceable kingdom, or my flyers will not go through, and poor Giovanna will wait in vain for her lesson." He patted the blue van's left front fender, as he always did on getting into it; when Claudio mocked him as a superstitious peasant, Romano would reply serenely that the routine was merely to reassure himself that the fender remained attached. Starting the engine, heleaned out and spoke over its raspy hiccup. "One day you will see that girl driving this machine up the hill to your door, just as I do. She is a very quick learner."
Bianchi snorted like a shotgun. "She is too young. She will always be too young. You are too young." He stepped back, raising a hand in a gesture that might conceivably have meant farewell, but could just as easily have been directed at an annoying gnat.
Romano and his sister had barely started school when Bianchi inherited the rambling farm west of Siderno, north of Reggio, from a second cousin on his grandfather's side whom he could never remember meeting. The Bianchis of southern Calabria as a group generally disliked one another, but they disliked outsiders even more, and there was no question of selling off the farm as long as there was some splinter of the family tree to take it over. It was still referred to locally as "the Greek's place," because a Bovesian relative of some generations back had supposedly spoken a dialect that contained some words and phrases of the ancient Griko tongue. Claudio Bianchi had his doubts, as he did about most things.
He was forty-seven years old: short, barrel-chested, and broad-shouldered, like most of his family, like most of the men he had known all his life. His black hair was increasingly patched withgray, but remained as thick as ever, and his skin was the color of the earth he worked every day in the sun of the mezzogiorno. The lines around his eyes were as harsh as the land, far more likely to have been inscribed by weariness, anger, and bone-born skepticism than by laughter; but the large eyes themselves were deep brown, and their wary warmth should have had no place in the heavy-boned face of a Calabrese farmer possessed of noillusion that God and his angels ever came this far south. Bianchi had been embarrassed by his eyes on a few odd occasions.
The afternoon was sunny but chill, unusual for the region, even in November. Bianchi had noticed animals he saw every day, from his three cats and the old goat Cherubino to the neighboring weasels and foxes to rabbits and caterpillars, growing heavier coats than normal; he had had to start heating his cow barn at night, a month or more early, and begin swaddling his outdoor faucets and hoses — even the Studebaker's engine block — against the cold. He growled often to Romano, or Domenico, or to Michaelis the village innkeeper — who really was Greek — that one might as well be living in England or Denmark. Or in PedracesBolzano, if it came to that. Bianchi tended to disapprove of all of Italy north of Milano.
In fact, however, he rather enjoyed this odd cold snap, or climate change, or whatever it was. It did no harm to his cabbages, kale, onions, scallions, eggplants, and potatoes, long since harvested and sold to that thief Falcone, nor — as long as the rain was not excessive — to the dwindling hillside vineyard that he kept up out of pure stubbornness when he had let so much else crumble and blow away, and it was a positive benefit to his dormant apple trees, ensuring crisp tartness come spring. If Gianetta, Martina, and Lucia, his three cows, had not been put to stud in more than a year — and could die as virginal as Giovanna Muscari, as long as that shameless pirate Cianelli kept demanding such outlandish fees for the use of his reportedly Frisian bull — still their milk kept coming, and kept the cats and the cheese making Rosmini brothers happy. If the old house was little more than kitchen, bedroom, bath, a bit of a parlor, and an attic long since closed off and still, nevertheless it held the heat from his oven and his fireplace better than a larger one would have done; if the nights were dark and silent, the better for thinking and smoking his pipe in peace. And for writing poetry.
For Romano was quite right about that. Claudio Bianchi did write poetry, at highly irregular intervals during his solitary daily life asa farmer in the toe of the Italian boot. Few of his acquaintances — Romano again excepted — knew that he had finished high school before going to work; or that, despite both of these circumstances, he had never lost his childhood love of reading poems, and in time trying to imitate them. He had no vanity about this, no fantasies of literary celebrity: he simply took pleasure in putting words in order, exactly as he laid out seedlings in the spring, and tasting them afterward, as he tastedfresh new scallions or ripe tomatoes, or smelled mint or garlic on his hands. He never thought of his poems as being about anything: they came when they came, sometimes resembling what he saw and touched and thought all day — sometimes, to his surprise, becoming visions of what his father's days and nights might have been like, or Romano's, or even those of Cianelli's aging bull. He would say a coming poem over to himself while he was repairing the Studebaker or his tractor, repainting the barn, or adding red peppers to his dinner of sautéed melanzani eggplant. They came when they came, and when they were finished, he knew. Nothing else — as he often thought — was ever truly completed; there was always something else to be added, repaired, or corrected to make it right. But when a poem was done, it was done. There was satisfaction in this.
As there was in living in the old house where the dirt road ran out, inhabiting a life that he was perfectly aware could have been a nineteenth-century life, if one ignored the electricity, gasoline, and the telephone he often went weeks at a time without using. Sometimes, when the reception was not too erratic, he watched news broadcasts on the little television set he had accepted in payment for helping to recover a neighbor's escaped black pigs (come to visit his own half-dozen) and then repairing the gap in the fence through which they had made their getaway. He could not remember the last movie he had seen, nor the last doctor; and he was more likely to whistle ancient Neapolitan canzone about his work than operatic arias. His teeth were excellent; he most often cut his own hair, washed and mended his own clothes, and quite enjoyed his own simple cooking. He knew something of sorrow, remembered joy, and devoutly hoped — as much as he consciously hoped for anything other than proper allotments of sunshine and rainfall — never again to encounter either of those two old annoyances. Asked, he would have grumbled, "Sono contento," if he bothered to respond to such intrusion at all.
The universe and Claudio Bianchi had agreed long ago to leave one another alone, and he was grateful, knowing very well how rare such a bargain is, and how rarely kept. And if he had any complaints, he made sure that neither the universe nor he himself ever knew of them.
* * *
The morning after Romano's last visit — he had few other regular callers, except for the one local policeman, Tenente Esposito, who was near retirement, and would sometimes stop by without notice for a cup of coffee with a dash of grappa in it, and two hours of complaining about his grown children — Bianchi stepped outside on a sunny, frosty morning, the American scientists are right, something is changing, determined to finish pruning his tottering grapevines before the sirocco blew in from Africa to deceive crops with its treacherous warmth. The Undertaker's Wind rasped his cheek, late, it should have been blowing well before dawn. He looked around for Cherubino, mildly surprised that the goat — a far more aggressive sentinel than Garibaldi — was not at the door to greet and challenge him, then bent to scratch the black cat Mezzanotte behind the ears. He straightened up and shrugged into his battered, beloved leather jacket, thinking, there is a poem in this coat — stretched his arms pleasurably, yawned, scratched the back of his own shaggy neck, and saw the unicorn in his vineyard.
Cherubino was a little way from it, seemingly frozen in the attitude of a fawning acolyte: head bowed, front legs stretched out on the ground before him, as Bianchi had never seen the old goat. The unicorn ignored him in a courteous manner, moving with notable care around the fragile arbors, never touching the vines, but nibbling what weeds it could find on the cold ground. It was a kind of golden white, though its mane and tail — long and tufted, like a lion's tail — were slightly darker, as was the horn set high on its silken brow.
As Bianchi stared, it looked up, meeting his eyes with its own, which were dark but not black: more like the darkness of a pine forest in moonlight. It showed no alarm at his presence, nor even when he took his first slow step toward it; but when he asked, "What do you want?" — or tried to ask, because the words would not come out of his mouth — the unicorn was gone, as though it had never been there at all. He would indeed have taken it for an illusion, if Cherubino, anarchist and atheist like all goats, had not remained kneeling for sometime afterward, before getting to his feet, shaking himself and glancing briefly at Bianchi before wandering off. Bianchi knew the truth then, and sat down.
He remained on his doorstep into the afternoon, hardly moving, not even thinking in any coherent pattern or direction: simply reciting his vision in his head, over and over, as he was accustomed to do when shaping one of his own poems. Garibaldi,who apparently had not even noticed the unicorn, came up and nuzzled his cheek, and Mezzanotte and Sophia in turn pressed themselves under his hands, seemingly more for comfort than caresses. Bianchi responded as always, but without speaking or looking at them. The sun was beginning to slip behind the Aspromonte Mountains before he stood up and walked out to his vineyard.
He did not bring his pruning shears with him, but only stood for a time — not long — staring at the faint cloven hoofprints in the still-near-frozen soil. Then he went back to the house and closed the door behind him.
At some distance, he was aware that he had eaten nothing at all that day, yet he was not at all hungry; in the same way he thought somewhere about opening the bottle of Melissa Gaglioppo that he had been saving most of the year for some unspecified celebration. In fact, he did nothing but sit all night at the wobbly kitchen table that served him as a desk, writing about what he had seen at sunrise. It was neither a poem, insofar as he could judge, nor any sort of journal entry, nor a letter, had there been anyone for him to write to. It was whatever it was, and he stayed at it and with it until Garibaldi scratched at the door to be let in, and brought him home from wherever he and the unicorn had been. He lay down on his bed then, slept not at all; and at last rose to stand in the doorway in his undershirt, looking out at the stubbly fields that comprised his fingernail scratching at the earth.
Not much for forty-seven years, Bianchi. You have let this place melt away under you for such a long time. When you are gone, it will all melt back into the earth, and who will even know you were here?
The moon was down, but its absence made the sky seem even brighter, crusted thickly with more stars than he was accustomed to seeing. The unicorn was in his melon patch, and Cherubino was again with it, this time close enough to touch noses with the creature. The goat's stubby tail was wagging in circles, as it habitually did in those uncommon moments of excitement over something other than eating. Bianchi was almost more astonished by the fact that Cherubino was taking the same care as the unicorn to avoid trampling any of the fragile vines than by the bright apparition pacing daintily among the husks of the melons that he faithfully planted for the deer, in appreciation for their leaving his tomatoes alone. He hardly dared to look at it directly, until the unicorn stamped a forefoot lightly, as though to attract his attention. There was no other sound in the night.
For a second time, Bianchi asked, "What do you want of me? Are you here to tell me something?" The unicorn only looked calmly back at him. Bianchi fought to clear his throat, finally managing to speak again. "Am I going to die?"