Giuseppe Berto: Orphaned by the bombs
From The Sky Is Red (1947)
Translated by Angus Davidson
The street along which they were going dwindled until it became a passage so narrow that they had to walk one behind the other. Then all at once they came into a wide space behind the Cathedral. Round the apse was a high scaffolding.
“They leave people homeless, but they’re always ready to repair churches,” said Tullio.
Daniele raised his head and looked. You could see vaguely the girders and planks of the scaffolding, and, higher up, a dark mark, which must have been the hole made by the bombs. “I remember,” he said, “when I came here on the day after the raid, I was deeply impressed by that hole at the back of the church. And down below there were men loading dead bodies onto a truck. They handled them just as if they had been pieces of meat.”
“That’s what happens when there are too many,” said Tullio.
“And in front of here, there were rows and rows of bodies,” said Daniele. “And I went in among them to look for my mother. I’ve never felt so bad.”
They had reached the foot of the steps at the front of the Cathedral, and Tullio stopped. The avenue leading in the direction of the walls looked much wider without the skyscrapers. Over there, the sun had set, and the haze on the horizon still held a little of its light. But the rest of the sky was growing rapidly dark.
“You go along now,” said Tullio. “I’ll wait for you here.”
“Thank you, said Daniele, and went.
Tullio sat down on the lowest step and watched Daniele as he went toward the pile of ruins that was the tomb of his father and his mother. Daniele attached much importance to these things. The slight wind blowing from the north was icy, and it stung his face. So Tullio pulled his cap down over his ears and turned up the collar of his coat, and all the time he went on looking across the square. All he could see now was a mere shadow against the haze which still held a little light from the vanished sun. A shadow that moved as it went towards a certain place. And that was Daniele. And Tullio smiled, as he had smiled before…Only now he smiled a little more sadly.
Suddenly some thought gave him a quick feeling of joy, and immediately he forgot what the thought was, and however much he pondered over it he could not succeed in remembering it. Then he opened his eyes again. He started staring at a fixed point on the ground, and resolutely went over in his mind all the thoughts that could have given him joy – that his mother was still alive, that Giulia was alive, that there had been no war. But no joy came from the effort of forming these thoughts. The thought he had had at first had scarcely been a thought at all, merely an impression, as though his mother and Giulia were just around the corner and were doing something and were singing gently. He closed his eyes again and tried to form images in his mind. His mother and Giulia were together, sitting on a flower-patterned divan which was in the house on the fifth floor of the skyscraper. They were sitting together and talking quietly to each other and they seemed happy. And all this was useless, because a bomb had knocked down the skyscraper and Giulia had died of consumption, and his mother and Giulia had never met. No joy could come from such meaningless thoughts.
Soon he rose to his feet and walked toward the first heap of the ruins. He went round behind the place where his home had been. Perhaps they had been in bed, his father and his mother, when the bomb had fallen. And now they were lying dead, just there, under the rubble. He sat down, and thought about them intensely, and he asked them for the strength he needed.