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Red Rhombuses

by Lino Aldani

It all happened last year in Cascina Torti toward the end of summer. Cascina Torti is the only spot not shown at all on local maps. Maybe land-office records mention it or military maps, which are meticulous and detailed to the point of being ridiculous, those voluminous sheets folded thirty-two times that also indicate the names of ditches, elevations, wells, and small crumbling hill forts. Cascina Torti has sixty-five inhabitants, a handful of houses at the foot of a barren hill, similar to Calvary, one of the many located almost on a ridge between the Pavian and Ligurian Appennines.

An out-of-the-way place, as I was saying, forgotten, a tiny cluster of hovels that some whim of the Earth could swallow up or a cyclone uproot, and nobody would know the difference. Nevertheless, last year that bunch of humble little houses, that geographic gem was scene of a drama, ordinary, if you will, but also intense and fascinating. At least for me.

I’m talking about the time…

There is a before and there is an after. There always is. And between the before and after, like a splinter, or a membrane, or like a thin, quivering piece of tin foil, there is the now, the present.

The story of time is all here. Generations of men have racked their brains and bodies looking for an answer to this infamous riddle. There was one man who talked about groups without batting an eye and one who was made a saint for having said that time, like every other thing or idea, is divine work, one who talked about spirals and knots, one who amused himself by making up paradoxes, one who drew chronosynclastic funnels, and one who coldly quoted tempus quod aequaliter fluit.

I almost envy the last one. He was the sleepy sort who as soon as he could took naps out in the open field, an apple or some such thing fell on his head, and he thus made some very important discoveries, gravity, infinitesimal calculus, et cetera. The day he mumbled about time, maybe it was a pumpkin that hit him, or a tile, something heavy that would have knocked him out cold. But looking back, the one who eclipsed everybody was the bard of Stratford when he said that the best way to waste time is just to wonder about the nature of it. A magnificent observation! Especially when you consider that our dilettante friend usually put those seven little words in the mouth of the stupidest person in the cast.

And so… And so there is a little confusion. Rather a whole lot. After all, since it is a big problem and the points of reference a bit fleeting, the image of a piece of tin foil seems to me the most appropriate. Open a package of cigarettes, take off the little silver square – usually PULL is printed on it – put it anywhere top of the table, and with the thumbnail flat rub it a little, making the bubbles disappear, those tiny bumps dotting the paper until just before you get down to the backing sheet, smooth it out until it goes zip-zip like a fast flying mosquito or a taut string.

Well, time, or that fragment of time that defines the present is that very piece of laminated paper, zip-zip, zip-zip, a little metallic heart, like a transistor, throbbing and pulsating, pulsating and throbbing, while time passes, or better yet, while we pass.

It all happened last year toward the end of summer in the place I have already said and that I would prefer not to rename. However, for anybody who wants to, it would not be hard to look it up later. You can go up from Canneto, or else, if you wish, from Montebello or Rivanazzano. One road is as good as another, they all lead to the place. And they are roads that I know every meter of by heart. I travelled them for the first time before I was twenty but eager to carry a weapon. And whistling a tune popular back then, a song about a certain woman by the name of Fortune and a dame obviously game, to make it rhyme. Most of all I liked the beginning: There’s a road called destiny leading into the hills… But I was not looking for destiny up there, or love either. I was motivated by hatred, rebellion, that crazy emotion that churns your insides and makes your blood boil at the sight of injustice, continuing outrages, and violence directed at an ideological system.

And so last year, in September, when I came back to travel up those same roads I trod more than thirty years ago, my memory reluctantly went back in Time. The Volkswagen tooled along around curves and I was watching out for pedestrians, gullies, and plant life as I sniffed the air, the scents, and I drank in the blue sky which seemed to be the same sky as the one of the crazy years of my younger days.

It was that time last year while I was going up the mountain that derivatives and integrals seemed to be drawn on the windshield and back window. The future is a derivative, I mused. And the past, an integral. A scent was all I needed, the chirping of sparrows, a flash and in an instant, with the help of an enormous store of memory, you can reconstruct the primitive function.

I am using the language of mathematics that might seem to be out of place. However… While I was looking around, for a moment I felt the absurd inclination to see the bars to certain equations smashed. I suppose that all men my age have felt or must have felt something similar sooner or later; the sudden and violent urge to break free of the trap, namely the chance to really go back in time, or else get around it, cheat it by escaping the abyss of old age, beyond death, into a future that might exist.

I am still talking about the time…

When I go to the Swede’s inn, Wind was not there yet. Not that he was late, maybe I was a bit early. We had a standing appointment up here twice a year, in May and September, the two best months for mountain-water fishing.

Wind, officially Dario Vailati, a bank official, from Genoa. I, a middle-aged university professor, from Milan. I teach numerical and graphical calculus, a subject I do not care one way or another about; I would like to get into something more familiar that I know, like topology or non-Euclidean, Riemann, Lobachevski geometry, just between you and me.

Wind is a nickname. Or rather, an alias. Just like mine, Fortune. He would have preferred the name Folgore or some such thing just as I would have liked Turbine, or Bixio, something that reproduces the sound of a sabre slash. Instead, because of two songs then popular that he and I used to sing at the top of our voices… In short, we came out Wind and Fortune. In reality, it was the whole bunch that dubbed us with those monikers.

The oliveless Martini hardly had any taste to it. And the Campari was as hot as a pepper. I looked around and I could not figure out if the ten other people in the bar were paying me no attention because of a respectful sense of discretion or indifference.

Ermete, the village idiot, was playing with toothpicks, breaking five at once and stubbornly arranging them in a fan pattern on the plastic tabletop, then poking a finger in a glass of wine and letting a drop fall in the middle, convinced that it formed a star; it was a little trick I had shown him on more than one occasion, but which he with his simple mind could not manage to repeat.

On my right, seated at a table next to the window overlooking the yard, a middle-aged woman with a still-youthful appearance was eating sullenly, her eyes glued to the plate. I could see her out of the corner of my eye and watch her when I stood up to look out the window periodically at the sound of an approaching car.

When Wind arrived, the woman had come to the fruit course and was lazily chomping on a banana. I spotted my friend in the middle of the parking lot. The car was not his. He was digging around in his wallet. The other one, a swarthy young man wearing a chequered shirt, was unloading the fishing rods and an overnight bag. He pocketed the money and left, putting forefinger to temple in a salute.

The goddamned Wind. Always in shape, always rock hard, a big handsome bunch of muscles without an inch of fat, a grey head of hair still quite thick.

„My brakes failed on me,“ he explained. „It was a close one, a few inches more and I would’ve wound up at the bottom of a slope. However, the young guy who brought me here is a mechanic. He fixes everything and tomorrow evening will bring me my wheels…“

„Where’d it happen?“ the innkeeper asked.

„About five or six kilometres from the summit. Fortunately I was going up.“ He looked around, patted himself on the stomach, and said, „God, I’m hungry.“

The Swede served bone marrow. And so we ate. And then he wanted a big onion to dip in oil and salt. And he showed me his teeth, rolled back his gums, and remarked, „Look, I’m missing another one all of a sudden. And over here I need a crown. I’m getting old, my boy…“

I pointed out to him that he still had all of his hair.

„Oh, yeah, a beautiful bush, but I can’t chew with hair. I’d rather be bald as a billiard ball and still have every last one of my teeth.“

The woman sitting at the table on the right burst out laughing. And he immediately took advantage of the situation. Wind is like that, but he is neither a ladies‘ man nor one of those slick characters who make a pass at anything under any circumstances, even during a shipwreck. Wind is different, well bred, reasonable, but if a woman encourages him, he can’t help himself.

Five minutes later he was sitting by the window and moving his hands on the table, engrossed in a rapid, non-stop monologue.

The Swede served two cognacs. Wind and the woman drank a toast while looking into another’s eyes. It seemed that they were not interested in anybody else. I drank my coffee alone. Then Ermete came over to me with his toothpicks. He mumbled that he wanted me to repeat the usual trick and insisted until I gave in.

„Your name’s Sil,“ Wind said in a sweet voice. „It’s a nice name, but something’s missing. How about an a? I like Sail better.“

„Sail?“ the woman said. „But that doesn’t make any sense. That’s not a name.“

„Names are what you make of them. My name’s Wind. What do you make of that?“

„I know your name’s Wind. A very nice name.“

„All right. We put in an a and you’re Sail. Get it? Sail and wind can only work in unison, they’re made for each other.“

Sharp guy. Oh, yeah, Wind is quite capable of defending and sustaining an absurd opinion just to look good and make his point.

On the plastic tabletop a star took shape. Ermete watched it open-mouthed, his eyes wide like a kid’s, shaking his head, and then all of a sudden he beat his fist on the table and made the glasses dance around.

Four old men came in. I knew them right away. Moreover, the oldest, almost an octogenarian, whom I knew quite well, had spent fourteen months in the resistance with us in the mountains.

„Partisan and Knight of Vittorio Veneto,“ he shouted. „The war of 1518, always manning the wall.“

The others in the back of the room had finished playing briscola. One started singing „Monte Canino.“ The knight of Vittorio Veneto, his voice rheumy and slobbery, answered him with „Kerboom.“ Then the motioned to me. And so I sang too, but my song, the only one that I knew from start to finish, „Lady Fortune.“

They showered slaps on my back. „Hey, Fortune, you remember when we helped to create the republic?“ and another slap on the back. „You remember when we charged six lire for a kilo of bread?“ and add another pat.

They were referring to Varzi’s free republic, which lasted from July to September of ’44 right under the noses of the Germans and Socialist Republicans in Salò.

The Swede brought over a basket of bottles. Ermete was the first to get drunk merely because they forced him to drink against his will. There was a moment when, getting excited, he tried to sing the „Katyusha.“ „The wind’s whistling, the storm’s blowing…“ And everybody, some with fingers, others with their minds, were pointing at the window. But Wind pretended not to notice. He was there talking away and clasping the woman’s thin white hand between his large smooth hands, and he seemed to be in complete control of the situation.

Hopping around like a monkey, Ermete tried to distract him. But he got rid of him rudely.

„Let’s drink to everybody!“ he yelled, turning to look in our direction.

The revelry went on for a good spell. Then the old men left the bar, unsteady on their feet, holding each other up as a group. Ermete did not want to leave. The Swede then gave him a swift kick in the seat of his pants.

The woman also got up to leave, wrapping a long black-wool stole around her shoulders. I caught a glimpse of a very quick, puzzling gesture, but it was clearly a sign of agreement. Next, Wind sat down at the bar.

„Another cognac,“ he told the Swede. „This is the last one, then upstairs to bed…“

The innkeeper closed the shutters.

„Ah, yes, the beautiful woman Sil,“ he said pouring out some glasses. „She’s lived a little, Turin, Milan, but right now, she’s tired, she’s been getting her head together…“

„How old is she?“ I asked as a matter of conversation.

„Forty more or less… Don’t you remember her? She was an eight or nine-year-old lass when you two passed through here with a submachine gun on your back. And you two were clapping your hands..“

Time… A thing that passes which nobody dares to stop. A diabolical invention.

I took off my shoes and remained seated on the bed, moving my feet to get rid of the weird tingling that for some time had bothering my extremities, especially after a drink.

„Tonight,“ I said. „Tonight coming up… Strange thoughts have been bouncing around in my head.“ I talked to him about time, the crazy urge that came over me all of a sudden, the urge to ball up the piece of tinfoil and stop everything.

Wind was standing next to the chest of the drawers. He turned around suddenly.

„Me too,“ he said in a tone that revealed surprise and uneasiness. „The same thing happened to me right at the moment I stopped a hair’s breadth from the edge of the precipice with the brakes gone… Bah! Humbug! Andropause side effects.“ He laughed and unexpectedly changed the subject. „Tomorrow morning,“ he said. „Would you mind if Sil tagged along with us tomorrow morning?“

I shrugged, but I could not help teasing a little. „What’s with you, Dario?“

„Nothing. Nothing’s wrong with me. Sil knows how to make a fire, serve drinks, cook on a grill, and anything that needs doing. We’ll have a fine outing, you’ll see.“ And then he added, „I’m interested in that woman.“

„Granted, but you don’t want me carrying a flashlight up there.“

„Come on! Let’s check out the flies and lures and go to bed.“

The flies and lures. Wind and I have the same equipment, perfectly interchangeable if need be. Therefore, one more reason to be fussy. Or not to be. Only Wind, especially when it came to fishing, was exacting to the point of being ridiculous. With weapons, too. In ’44 I remember the Mickey Mouse inspections and the chewings out he used to give anyone who did not have his Stein thoroughly oiled.

So, I had to go through the ceremony. I opened the fly case and waited in silence. On the other side of the bed and now standing next to the chest of drawers, he was inspecting the fishing lines, the spare fishing hooks, and the ends, then began:

„Alexandra Jungle Cock.“

„Check.“

„Bloody Butcher.“

„Check.“

„Bromley Light.“

„Check.“

„Silver Doctor.“

„Check.“

„Silver Dunn.“

„Check.“

„Soldier Palmer.“

„Oops, that one I don’t have.“

Wind rummaged around in the box for two or three seconds, then flung a Soldier Palmer at the foot of the bed.

I was also missing a Zulu Silver and Mustads Fancy.

Wind got all steamed up. „Christ, you’re missing the best lure, the one that’s indispensable in fall. Fishing in September without a Mustads Fancy… You should be ashamed of yourself!“

The onslaught went on for another five minutes all because of March Brown, Olive Dunn, Miller, May Fly, Scott Jock and Red Tago, Silver Professor, Bromley Dark, and Greenwell’s Glory.

Finally, he closed the box. He undressed and threw shirt and pants at the wall.

„What were you saying about time? A piece of tinfoil that goes zip-zip… Well, you’re not wrong. The fact is that time screws us all sooner or later. It’s not a matter of andropause, we’re really screwed.“

He put out the light, said ciao, and immediately started snoring.

Fog arose unexpectedly right in the middle of a beautiful morning. Even today I dare not try to explain it to myself. Even today, by now almost a year later I dare not try to understand, understand anything because the weather could never have turned rotten like that in the wink of an eye. I know several newspapers published accounts of it, everybody was indulging in flights of fancy in some of the more abstruse and odd comments, and Cascina Torti, a fly speck nestled on a ridge of hills, was the big news event for several days. Then, as is often the case, the topic fades away, and no one talks about it anymore. Anyway, none of us around here understood anything about it. For Ermete and Sil it was different. Perhaps at the moment they were aware. But not all the rest of them. There is no science that can explain the phenomenon of fog coming in a sudden torrent, a first thin and vaporous, and then in the space of a few seconds thick and dense as a curtain.

The sun grew dim; only ghostly reflected light remained. And then there was a strange noise, piercing, unbearable, like that of a taut iron wire suddenly cut by snips, the long, drawn-out hum, the electronic zing of an intense, deep vibration.

Something exploded in my head. I fell into the water seat first, stunned, in the middle of the fog hungrily enveloping me, my eyelids heavy and my limbs no longer mine, for an instant (maybe longer, maybe a minute or an hour) beyond my control.

„What happened?“ Wind cried, shaking my shoulders.

I swam up from the depths of unconsciousness and looked around like a little boy. The fog was dispersing, we were no longer surrounded by it. It had stopped like a wall a few meters away to hover over the water in the stream. And the wall ran through valleys and across mountains in a smooth, vaguely circular curve that disappeared behind the silhouette of chestnut and fir trees.

A wall. A wall of fog. It shed a diffuse light that cast no shadows. I looked at Sil sitting on the bank, her face terrified and twisted.

There was a long silence. Then the birds resumed their singing. Mechanically I avoided the wall to retrieve my line. Water had gotten into my boots, and I was soaked up to my waist. I let Wind take me to dry land. I stretched out on the ground between the smoking embers in the grill and the backpacks. Exhausted.

The birds likewise. They were not exactly singing. Rather, it was a muffled peeping, monotonous, the same tune, as if every note were dying in their throats.

Wind swore.

„Let’s go out of here,“ Sil said. „This place gives me the creeps…“

„Yeah, let’s get out of here,“ I echoed. And my voice no doubt sounded full of apprehension because Wind gathered up the utensils and bags in a flash and rushed to put them all into my Volkswagen.

I tossed him the keys. „You drive,“ I said. I took off my boots and got water all over the car floor.

Wind swore again.

The fog was no longer there. On the contrary, the air had become fairly clear, but it was like a hood over our head, a dark doom originating in the sky. A hothouse. I had the impression of breathing and moving around as if in a hothouse, under an overheated opaque-glass roof.

„You can think what you want about it,“ said Wind, his hands gripping the wheel and face straight ahead to avoid potholes in the back road. „That wasn’t any heat mist. It wouldn’t have come up all at once like that, not at this time of year. You both heard that noise and also felt that whack in the middle of your brain…“

I shrugged impatiently. What worried me was the persistence of the phenomenon, the dark doom over us that was now casting bluish shadows all over the surrounding country side.

„Let’s go to Cascina Torti,“ I said. „I have an idea that the storm might let loose at any moment.“

„It’s not a storm,“ Sil retorted. “ You know better than I do that it’s not a storm. Something’s happening around here!“

„I’ll agree to that,“ I went on. „It’s not a storm. But right now let’s step on it. We can discuss it later!“

Wind pressed down on the gas pedal. We reached Cascina Torti at a pretty speedy clip while disregarding the most basic rules of safety. An extremely thin old man with a dark vest over a wide shirt was standing in the middle of the road. He was looking in our direction, but did not make the slightest move to get out of the way even when the Volkswagen got within a few meters of him.

Wind slammed on the brakes. There was a long squeal of rubber against dusty asphalt, but the old man did not budge.

„Hey, you!“ Wind addressed him, sticking his head out of the window. „Tell me something, buddy. Is that any way to go for a walk?“

No response. The old man remained motionless, half a meter in front of the hood, staring at some point in space, mouth trembling, arms waving around, his hands groping for who knows what.

I got out of the car.

„Come over here,“ I said, taking him by an arm. „That’s it, this way.“

I hardly noticed a confused babbling. Evidently he must have been drunk. In Cascina Torti it is not such a rarity, even in the morning. But that explanation did not quite leave me convinced. There were other people along the road who were acting like dolts, for the most part they were standing quietly in front of doors and windows. Although, on the faces of those I knew personally I observed the pale and unfocused features of mental deficiency.

When we entered the Swede’s inn, I was astonished. It looked as if the place had been the scene of a brawl right out of a shoot-‚em-up western.

Ermete was behind the bar on a platform and amusing himself by smashing glasses and bottles to pieces. The innkeeper was standing there in silence with his elbows resting on the counter, on the other side of the bar where customers were served. And there were three or four others seated at tables, half asleep. On the floor were shards of glass and big pools of liquid.

Ermete then turned around. I was dumbstruck, my mouth dropped open, I was unable to move, as if I had been punched in the solar plexus. Wind and Sil were right behind me, but I knew they were also shocked. Because Ermete… In short, Ermete was no longer himself. The person was to a large degree the same, the same clothes, the same hair, face, the well-known face, but the eyes were gone, the eyes shone with such a intense light of intelligence that he was rendered unrecognisable. The mouth, too. The lower lip no longer drooped and drooled, but was tightened up into a virile grimace revealing certainty and contempt.

„Look who’s watching who!“ he said with irony. „Signor Fortune and Signor Wind. And ‚Segnorina‘ Sil!“

He said it just like that, „segnorina,“ the way the Americans did in Naples and Rome after the Anzio landing.

I never heard Ermete talk so fast. And above all, never in Italian.

Wind went by me and headed toward the bar.

„What’s going on?“ he asked.

Ermete got down from the platform an came up close, his body erect and chest pushed out. Christ, what had become of his feeble, limp figure? I saw a big handsome man, straight as a ramrod, taller than Wind, stronger and more decisive.

„Nothing’s happened,“ Ermete said with a very clear, sharp voice devoid of accent, a little like the old TV announcers. „Everything’s normal for me. Just a half hour ago the fog came and everybody turned stupid.“ His index finger went around in a circle beside his head and he nodded toward the window overlooking the yard. „Look – what a sight!“

„What about you?“ I said. „How come you’re not asleep like all the rest?“

A flash of wickedness appeared in his eyes. Instinctively I retreated a few centimetres, but he latched onto my arm – a strong, decisive vice – and dragged me toward the corner table. In the centre there were five toothpicks arranged in a star.

„I was standing here,“ he said without releasing his grip and almost weighing every syllable. „Half an hour ago I was standing over here, engrossed in that trick that I could never quiet get the hang of. And all of a sudden a light bulb flashed on in my head, I dipped my finger in the wine, and right away a star formed. Next, I was told: Ermete, your suffering is over. And everything I had inside, all that I alone always knew albeit indistinctly came surging to the surface. A wonderful discovery, especially when compared to the state those imbeciles around here are in…“

I tried to get loose, but he tightened his grip, and said: „Listen to me, beanbrain. Don’t try to get curt with me, otherwise I’ll break your little arm to pieces.“

„Call the carabinieri,“ Wind said, turning to Sil.

Ermete burst out laughing. „The carabinieri! You’d do better to call the men in white coats. There’re enough around here to fill up a nut house. Anyway, if you don’t mind, I’d like to amuse myself a bit.“

He went over to the liquor shelf and took down two bottles of cognac. One he tossed at the bars on the window; he broke the neck on the other one by slamming it on the edge of the table and poured a drink for some guy who was sitting off to the side.

„Cheer up,“ he said. „It’s a beautiful glassful, but you’ll go ahead and swallow it all, won’t you?“

The man stayed as motionless as a statue. Next, Ermete put a finger under the man’s chin and forced his head up. „Drink, you first-class turd. Don’t you remember the times you got me drunk? Drink, you piece of shit!“

And the one he was talking to downed it all in one gulp like an automaton. Then he put his head on the table.

„Oh, no,“ Ermete remarked. „Now drink another one, another beautiful glassful. I want to see you crawl like a worm. Don’t you remember how you laughed when I pissed all over myself?“

Wind was about to intervene. But at that moment Sil came out of the telephone booth. „Nobody answers,“ she said. „The phone’s out of order.“

Ermete delicately put the bottle on the table. „Out of order? What do you mean when you say out of order?“ and then he split his sides laughing. He said, „Very well. If we’re cut off, that means that I’m the one in charge, and you are three too many. I wonder why you three escaped being idiots like all the others. Maybe you used to be three idiots like me, or maybe…“

„Maybe we’re alive and kicking because we were caught on the fringes of the fog,“ Wind said. „At any rate, you’re in charge of a whole lot of nothing, right?“

Ermete gave a small snort. „That’s why you’d like to be in charge! Oh, no, my good men, the partisan wars were over with a while back. Haul down your flag and roll it up.“

I saw Wind flare up and stiffen like the hair on a dog’s back. Sil put herself between the two. Delicately Ermete raised his arm and stroked her cheek with two fingers. „I wish you well,“ he said, „because you never made fun of me. But right now do me a favour and leave this place.“

„Let’s talk about it,“ Sil said. „Come on, Ermete. Let’s discuss-„

„Ermete’s not going to and never has. Get out of here, pretty woman. I said I wanted to amuse myself.“

It was impossible to stop him. Waving his arms, he moved away from the woman and in rapid steps went up behind the Swede, now standing still beside the counter. Ermete gave the innkeeper a swift kick in the seat of his pants, which jolted him all over. One of his elbows slipped off the edge and he was just about to lose his balance, but Ermete quickly grabbed hold of his shirt.

„That’s for the brutal kick you laid on me, Ermete, the Cascina Torti idiot, last night…“

He threw him on the nearest chair like a limp rag, put a foot on his knee, grabbed the Swede by the hair, and forced his head down. „Kiss my shoe, you lousy bastard!“

And the Swede kissed his shoe. Next, Ermete opened his hand and spit in it. „And now swallow that spit, my spit!“

Wind glanced at me and we were on him in an instant and managed to drag him to the corner were the table with toothpicks arranged in a star was. Oddly enough, Ermete seemed to calm down right away.

„I hate you,“ he hissed. “ I hate you all, you miserable runts that have made my life hell. But the tables are turning…“

„You’re right,“ Wing said in an extremely even-toned voice. „You have a reason to want to take it out on somebody. But right now how about settling down?“

„Why?“ Ermete asked, raising his head with a lingering bit of unbearable bitterness. „If there’s a lame chick in the hen-house, all the other chickens will peck at it and make it suffer until it dies. Don’t you believe stupid people suffer?“

„Keep calm, Ermete. And forgive me, forgive everybody. We’ve erred, but if you truly understand now, don’t make the same mistake.“

He shook his head three times, then stuck his finger in the toothpicks and with a weary gesture destroyed the star. He had glossy eyes, almost a veil of tears.

„I’m talking,“ he said. „I see clearly and I understand, it’s as if the hand of God has touched me here, in my head. And my blood is like the roar of a … a jet. Is that the way you say it? I should be overcome with happiness, but now I don’t know… grief has set in, maybe because I see things that you people never have. You’ve never been lame chicks. But I have. I now perceive certain things in the air, and walls, and objects, and your persons scare me… They ooze with disgust!“

A fine fix to be in. We still had not returned the mental defective back to reason by the blow. It was not that I disliked talking to Ermete or listening to his way of speaking that had unexpectedly become fluent with imaginative approaches. Quite to the contrary. Just because so much had happened in here and on the outside the most minute details had to be looked at closely. In addition, a slobbering idiot who starts talking like a philosopher does not turn up every day.

That’s what happened. I like to analyse, think about, and look for the causes, and extrapolate. Wind, on the other hand, is the hasty type, ready for action, oriented toward practical and efficient organisation. I remember the time he booed the political commissar, a pale little man who wore glasses and had come up into the hills to talk to us about Gramsci and Matteotti. As ignorant as I was of such things, I listened to him with great interest. In contrast, Wind lost his temper. „You’re a good speaker,“ he told him, „but words are no use against the Germans. It takes these things.“ He picked up his machine gun and two hand grenades and threw them at the commissar’s feet. „Rather than tramping over hill and dale to give political lectures, you’d do better to stay here with us. Give up on Gramsci and learn how to handle weapons instead.“

In short, Wind seemed perfectly cut out to take charge. At first he coaxed and cajoled Ermete into a calmer state. Then, when he saw Sil start to cry, this time due hysteria, he slapped her.

The telephone was out of order. And the TV was not working – no electricity. Then he tried the battery-powered transistor radio. The dial lit up, he tuned up and down the length of the dial, but nothing came out.

„We don’t even have radio reception,“ Wind remarked. „We’re in a bad situation. Damned if I know what’s up. Anyway, let’s get busy. First thing: We need to round up everybody in one spot to keep them safely in sight. I don’t want any rampages or injuries. The yard out in front here seems suitable and large enough to me. Second thing: We need to inspect the houses to see if anyone’s sick in bed, turn off the gas stoves, care for the animals. Ermete and Sil will think they are the ones for this in Cascina Torti. Third thing: Take the car and drive to the next town to round up some help, provided that they haven’t all turned into imbeciles there too.“

I was disturbed, nervous, and discouraged by a flood of thoughts. And yet I felt nothing but admiration for my friend.

„Here we go again,“ I said. „Just like in the old days. We’ve gone back thirty-two years-„

„Shit. This is 1976, and this is a different problem to solve. Take the car and do what I told you.“

I could still see ahead. But when I got over the crest of the hill, the fog closed in around me after a kilometre or two. I kept going along on a false route, a straight road, and all at once I saw myself forced to reduce speed, not so much because of the poor visibility – the wayside stones could still be made out – but rather, due to air resistance, the physical medium that I was going through. The engine was labouring. I shifted from third to second, and after about a hundred meters, when I realised the Volkswagen was on the brink of stalling, I got scared.

The wall. The wall of fog. I downshifted to first and the car lumbered along for a few more meters, but the fog was getting increasingly thicker and worse, like sticky mud, and the car finally came to a halt, the motor conked out, with me there in the middle of that dismal pea soup pressing against the windows, a living thing eager to creep in.

With my stomach turning somersaults and heart pounding like a hammer, I put all my trust in reverse. It was not easy to pull myself out of that gook, back up until I found a side road to turn around in, and go back.

They were all there, seated in a row like kids in Kindergarten, or perhaps… like inmates in a concentration camp.

They were not even paying attention to me. I gave them a cursory glance. I got out of the car and dashed to the inn in spite of my unsteady legs.

There they were, Ermete, Wind, and Sil. Thy were sitting around the double table, the one in the middle of the room. And there was somebody else. At first I was unable to make him out. I had come in from outside, and the place was all bathed in faint light. Then, as my vision adjusted…

He was a gigantic black with round, bovine eyes. He had… he had red hair. And he was wearing a costume, or a pair of overalls, now I don’t remember what that silky fabric was wrapped around him, something that gave off red rhombuses at the slightest movement.

„Who’s this?“ I asked.

Wind looked at my askance. „That little ole fog maker,“ he explained. „As far as we can judge, he had this whole place staked out.“

Ermete got up, came over to me, and pushed me toward the window overlooking the fields. „He came in that,“ he said. And he pointed at a large silvery sphere parked in the middle of the alfalfa. „He travels through time and came from the future…“

I said nothing. I went behind the bar and took a hardboiled egg out of the basket. I shelled it slowly after hitting it hard on a bottle of mineral water. The red-haired black glanced at me from time to time, but kept talking to Wind in a voice so low that I couldn’t catch a word.

„He travels in time,“ Ermete said again, also taking an egg for himself. „He’s the one who caused the fog, he came from the future and cured me, understand? He cured me!“

I grabbed the bottle of mineral water and was ready to break it over his head, but Sil stepped in. „Ermete’s right,“ she said. She smiled, almost in satisfaction.

Then I lost my temper. I came out from behind the bar and went up to Wind and took hold of his collar.

„What’s this tale I hear? And who is this joker? Where did he blow in from?“

Wind pointed to the silvery sphere sitting in the middle of the green field.

„But you’re crazy!“ I yelled. „Crazier than Ermete and sillier than this slut…“

„Calm down,“ the black man said. His voice was sonorous and shrill with a hint of Tuscan accent. „I’ve already explained everything to your friends while you were away trying to escape from the Umwelt… Oh, I’m sorry, that’s what we call the electronic umbrella over us, an impenetrable envelope against which an H-bomb would be… ineffective. Isn’t that how you say it?“

„Ineffective hell! I’m gonna flatten your ugly mug, you illusionist, black my foot…“

And I don’t know what else I said. I felt a rage growing inside, and what I was saying seemed to be what somebody else was saying. I jumped. But the black sprang up, raised his hand, palm open, pink-coloured like a baby blanket.

All of my energy drained out of me through my legs. I was breathing with difficulty.

„Calm down,“ said the black man speckled with red rhombuses. „I’ve already explained everything to your friends. I have a peaceful mission here. I have to go now. I have some problems to solve because something is malfunctioning. I have to go back over the program… I’m going back to that silver sphere out there, but I’ll return in a couple of hours and I’ll want your decisions.“

He left, tall, ramrod straight in his clothing that blinked with scarlet lights.

We started off with a bottle of Fundador. Wind poured himself a cup of coffee and milk and dunked some rusk in it. I drank absentmindedly and scribbled mathematical formulas on paper napkins.

Ermete and Sil were outside taking care of the people assembled in the yard.

„He said there’s no danger,“ Wind mumbled. „The dome’ll be removed as soon as he leaves with three or four of us…“

I drank and started laughing.

„He talked about travelling without returning…“

„That guy’s loony or else he’s a second-rate trickster. I caught him watching his clothes with all those little red lights, a sham, a device to make hypnosis easier.“

„That man comes from the future–„

„That guy’s a liar.“

„The fog’s not a lie…“

„Not the fog. But the fog can be explained several ways, and so can the out-of-order telephone and the radio that doesn’t work. And there will also be an explanation for that black devil.“

„He comes from the future,“ Wind repeated monotonously, this time only half believing it. „He’s come to take three or four of us back to his time. But he’s not forcing anybody, he said he will not harm any living person. And then he said it’s an important experiment.“

By that time we were talking about two different things. A conversation between two deaf people or two drunks since Wind was drinking like a sponge and I was doing no better, and so after Fundador it was Bourbon’s turn, and then Ermete opened other bottles and from that point on I don’t remember. I no longer remember all the absurd discussions, suppositions, conjectures…

My head was on fire. „That sphere,“ I said pointing out of the window. „Is it for real?“

„Sure it is! I touched it with my own hands and so has Ermete. It materialised there in the middle of the meadow a couple of minutes after you had left on your excursion. Then the hatch opened and he came out.“

„Is he by himself?“ I asked while trying to overcome the drowsiness washing over me.

„He seems to be.“

„In that case we can clobber him. When he gets back, we’ll jump him and-„

„That I’ve already tried. And so have you, to no avail. He comes from the future, is more advanced than we are, and is stronger.“

„Stop it,“ I said. And I poured myself another glass. „Time travel’s impossible. Time is linked to space, the Earth rotates on its axis and revolves around the sun, and the sun is heading towards Sirius. Then you have conic movement, Copernican perturbations… Moving through time means moving through space…“

„That machine out there seems to be able to.“

„But who said so? Look, let’s reason it out.“ I took a paper napkin and filled it up with diagrams. „Imagine getting aboard that sphere and wanting to go back in time ten years. You’d have to have immense amounts of energy at your disposal. Well, I’m God Almighty and I supply you with all the energy you want. But before you can push the return button, you would have to figure out what point in space the Earth was at ten years ago. Understand what I’m saying?“

„Nope.“

„Jesus H. Christ, how can you sit there and say you don’t understand? You need to move the Earth in space and reposition it in the exact spot where it was ten years ago. Furthermore, you need to rearrange the entire universe, every last celestial body and put them back in their places ten years ago. There’s no reference point, understand? And then imagine we went back and arrived at the precise instant ten years ago when we came here to fish. We come out of the sphere and see… us two with fishing rods in hand. Where are you now that we need you, Saint Anthony? But ubiquity would not be enough, I would also have to swallow the bitter pill of simultaneous reality. My friend, please leave these things to the kids, the science fiction freaks.“

I believe I said that, or something like it.

„You’re talking way over my head,“ Wind said. „I don’t understand what you’re driving at, and it’d be useless to shove formulas and sketches under my nose. I’m not a mathematician. But yesterday evening you… Weren’t you talking about time travel yesterday evening?“

„I was talking about a dream yesterday evening.“

I have confused memories of what else transpired. I know that I stood up dead drunk. I wanted to get out, go down the valley and try to find a way out in that direction since it was not possible through the mountains.

But Wind and Ermete prevented me. Sil was napping in a corner with her head on the table. Wind continued to drink, Ermete was busy fooling with the espresso machine. All at once he uttered a little shout of joy.

„It works!“ he exclaimed, quite satisfied. „Now I can fix us some coffee.“

I went on scribbling on the paper napkins.

I remember – this is a clear, very sharp memory – that at a certain point I jotted down Schrödinger’s formula. Wind was twisting his neck and following my explanation with a dazed look, his eyebrows rising and falling as if he were making faces in front of a mirror.

„See this x?“ said the drunkard talking inside me. „The x represents the spatial co-ordinate along which the infinitesimal particle can be found. We are in the microcosm, in the subatomic area, but put into proper perspective, it can serve as a very good model for that sphere out there in the middle of the meadow; m represents the mass of the elementary particle, or if you will, that sphere; h is the Planck constant: W stands for the total energy of the particle, V the potential, so that the difference W-V stands for pure kinetic energy…“

„What about this doohickey here?“ said Wind pointing his finger into the middle of my scribbling. „What does it mean?“

I scratched behind an ear, extremely perplexed.

„That’s psi, a letter in the Greek alphabet. Nobody knows what it means, not even Schrödinger, and he’s the one who put it into the formula just to make it come out.“

„Convenient,“ Wind remarked. „In order to make an equation balance, he resorts to values that nobody even knows what they stand for!“

My friend was the one doing reasoning this time. And I was the one lost. Caught in the net that I myself had thrown out, I tried a different tack.

„Maybe the psi represents probability, the probability of finding a particle in a defined space.“

„Shit. What probability are you talking about? You don’t know nothin‘, but on the other hand that guy’s solved everything, he’s from the future and has known about it longer than we have…“

I drank another glass and stopped. I rested my weary head on the back of my arm, and dozed off in a caramel cascade of numbers and equations, with Ermete every now and then coming to shake my shoulder. „He cured me,“ he said. „You want to see me do the toothpick trick for you?“ I was drowning in a sea of cotton. Wind belched two or three times; I couldn’t care less about the black or his silver sphere or the bird that perched for an instant on the window sill. It was so pleasant that I slipped back into unconsciousness. I slept like a log.

It looked like a crumb, minuscule, like a miniature toy. To be brief, a very tiny black man. Then, when I fully opened my eyes with difficulty, I saw him in front of me, impressive, slim and tall like a basketball player. In his hand he had my scribbled-on paper napkins. And he was laughing.

„What foolishness,“ he said. He was slightly startled when his sight fell on the Schrödinger’s formula, he frowned, and for an instant I caught an incredulous expression flash across his face. But only for an instant, a very fleeting batting of the eyes. He rolled the scraps of paper up into a ball and threw them into a corner. „What nonsense,“ he repeated.

The sun beat against the glass in the window facing west and a stream of reflected beams grazed his person. His hair, not at all kinky or woolly but rather straight and silky, shone with intense, dazzling red.

It’s been dyed, I thought. I had never seen a Black with red hair. I had the impression that the rhombuses on his clothes were blinking faster right at the times when he stayed perfectly still.

„Now, what have you people decided?“ the Black inquired.

My head was nodding and I could not keep it up. I collapsed on the table again, in a drowsiness sometimes wakeful, sometimes torporous, with voices coming and going and a piece of tinfoil, zip-zip, my heart and temples pounding like crazy.

Wind: „None of us will go.“

Sil: „What if we do come along? What sense would a life in the future make to us?“

The Black: „You’ll find a better world with so many problems still to be solved… However, a better world than this one.“

Ermete: „Will the fog go away?“

The Black: „Yes, as soon as the ship leaves.“

Then a whole lot of stupid paradoxical remarks, a bunch of madhouse conversations.

„What about those out there?“ Sil asked. „Will they be as they were before?“

„Exactly as they were before,“ he stated. „I’ve consulted the computer. There’s room for four on the ship. We’re not forcing anybody, but you who’ve seen and understood… it would be fine if all of you came.“

Wind bristled up. He said ironically: „You’re not forcing anybody! When the fog set in, one mental defective was cured, and that was not in your program. You wanted us all to be simpletons so that you could operate unhindered. Three other people escaped you when the fog set in because they were on the edges of the affected area. Another unforeseen circumstance. But there’s something I’d like to know. How would you choose your guinea pigs in the middle of a bunch of dolts? How would you round them up without resorting to violence?“

„Some more talk,“ the Black said. At the moment I raised my head again and opened my eyes wide. The Black was holding a little black box.

„This is a psychic probe,“ he explained. „It would enable me to single out the most suitable people in the group , those who would accept my proposal if asked in a state of lucidness.“

„Perfect!“ I said jumping up and overturning the table. „Then why aren’t you going to choose your guinea pigs from those in the yard? The ones out there waiting, as docile as lambs.“

„The computer has rejected this approach,“ the Black answered with the utmost calm. „Here are you four who have seen and understood. If you stay, you won’t be believed, but the best course of action is not to run risks. The most suitable would be you four. Though, you’re free to choose for yourselves.“

„Nobody’s moving from this spot,“ Wind declared steadfastly. Wind always turned out to be the one to take charge and make quick, well-informed decisions. „Nobody,“ he repeated.

And everything seemed to be finished at this point. The image of the Black would disappear within moments, the people of Cascina Torti would awaken from a long sleep, and then, maybe, an all-out drinking spree in order not to remember anything.

On the other hand… Ermete might upset the apple-cart. I saw him get close to the Black, grab onto his clothes like a leper holding onto Christ’s raiment.

„You said that when you go, the fog will too and everything will be like it was before. Tell me what will become of me? This light that’s burning in my head… that light that made me see and understand and feel and enjoy… will it go out?“

„Maybe,“ said the red-speckled Black. „I don’t know. I can’t say.“

„Then I’m coming with you. You’ve cured me. And the woman’s coming too, my woman.“

„You’re crazy!“ Wind shouted. „If you want to leave, go on. Get out of my life! But Sil stays here.“

„Sil’s coming with me. And you’d better not stop me, or your partner either, that highfalutin‘ look of mock shrewdness he goes around with just because he’s a professor…“ He turned to the woman. „He even called you a slut,“ he said, „and the other one who was trying to make out with you last night slapped you this morning. You did right. You have your head together, but if you go with him, sooner or later he will throw your past up to you. We’re branded, Sil. For these people you will always be a little of the good, I the eternal village idiot even though I’m cured…“

He ended on that note, a truly unforeseen epilogue. Wind plopped down defeated into the chair, put his elbows on the table, and buried his head in his hands. The red-speckled Black stopped for a moment, indecisive, then he headed toward the exit. Ermete followed him, holding Sil’s hand.

I don’t remember any more. I saw the three as they made their way across the alfalfa field, I saw them go into the silver sphere and right afterward… a flash of lightning, a yellow beam and that was all. It all disappeared as if in a dream.

„They’re gone,“ I said. And I rubbed my eyes.

„Bring me a drink,“ he responded. „And start your song, please.“

I did not understand.

„Your song,“ Wind insisted. „The Lady Fortune song.“

„Don’t you remember the words? There’s a street called destiny…

„No, the other verse.“

This time Lady Fortune shut the door on me…

„That’s it.“ And he started singing, but grief choked his throat and I could hardly hear his voice. „I liked Sil,“ he interjected. „I really did. And the birdbrain by the name of Ermete stole her away from me!“

He drank half the glass. I finished off the other half. And then we started all over again, and we again downed two, three, four glasses. And finally the people in the yard came pouring into the inn, the women were bawling, the Swede was cussing, there was a mess of glass on the floor, seats were overturned, the bar was in disarray. A little five or six-year-old boy was complaining in a loud voice about the red-headed Black. And then everybody burst out laughing at those incomprehensible words, they gave him some caramels, but I also realised they were laughing at us two, me and Wind, as we kept pouring drinks and chugalugging.

And then… we heard a howl of a siren, and the carabinieri burst into the inn.

Well, I could end here. Because nothing peculiar happened afterward. The lieutenant, a thin little character with a pencil-line Douglas Fairbanks moustache, seemed to be uptight, was in a bad mood, and was conducting the investigation without good sense.

The Swede was there talking with his arms. „I don’t know a thing,“ he repeated while Wind and I went on downing ‚em, chugalug fashion.

The lieutenant came up to our table.

„You two…“ he said.

Wind answered him with a cuss word. That’s when the little lieutenant blew up, threatened to haul us in to the station on a charge of being drunk and disorderly, brawling, and I don’t know or remember what else.

„The fog,“ the lieutenant said. „Where were you two when the fog set in?“

I was on the verge of answering when Wind kicked me under the table.

„What fog?“ he replied in a seemingly ignorant voice. „The weather’s been beautiful here, a beaming sun all day long. We were out fishing. Come along with me, lieutenant, I’ll show you some trout…“

The lieutenant was fuming. And at that moment the little boy tugged on the side of his pants. Evidently, the fog had not affected him because he seemed to remember everything.

„A black man,“ he said in blissful ignorance, „there was a black man with red hair here, and there was a silver ball, and everybody broke bottles and upset tables. And there was Ermete who wanted to control us, and Sil who was crying…“

The lieutenant was still fuming. He mumbled, „Ermete, Sil…“

„Ermete’s the village idiot,“ Wind explained. „He’s gone on a long, slow walk along the stream, but he’ll be back by this evening. Sil… Sil is a cheerful little woman. She left this morning with the seven-thirty bus.“

That’s how the lieutenant put together his report. The next morning reports of fainting spells were published in the newspapers. The story went on for a good week. Everybody put in his two cents‘ worth. One daily published statements by Colonel Bernacce, who gave the weather report on TV every evening, others talked about radioactive fog, decorative fog, and such other nonsense. Ermete was reported as missing, most likely drowned in the stream. They’re still looking for Sil in the seedier sections of Milan and Turin. But the funniest story was published in a small provincial paper. In order to explain away everything, the journalist expounded on nothing less than ergot. He just talked about „terrible bread.“ He dug up an old article about a similar incident in France some fifteen or twenty years ago when an entire village went out of its mind seemingly because of bread contaminated with ergot, a hallucinogen, something that makes you see big lizards, monsters, and other such devils. So the circle is closed.

Wind and I have an agreement not to talk anymore even between ourselves about what happened in Cascina Torti last year toward the end of summer because – I distinctly remember saying these exact words – the problems of the present are solved right here in the present, not by escaping into a future of dreams, a future that doesn’t exist since we have to built it ourselves day by day.

Sure, every time I open a pack of cigarettes and pull off the tinfoil, a slight shudder runs up my back. I run my fingernail across the tinfoil and then put it next to my ear. Zip-zip, zip-zip. The mystery of time is contained all in that vibration.

Wind and I still meet to go fishing, but you can believe far from Cascina Torti. A long, long way away.

Original title: „Screziato di rosso“

Translated by Joe F. Randolph

English translation first published in:

Richard D. Nolane (ed): Terra SF, DAW Books, 1981

Copyright © 1981 by Lino Aldani

Lino Aldani is a living legend of Italian science fiction and one of the most prominent voices in European sf. Born in 1926 in Cipriano and grown up in Rome, his career spans more than four decades. He has published numerous story collections and novels, Quando la radici (1976) regarded as his most important. As editor of the magazine Futoro he contributed much to the development of sf writing in his country. His works were translated, among others, into English, German, French, and Romanian.

© . .

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