10. The Alchemistís Tower
I felt more confused than I had when I arrived. At least before I remembered nothing, absolute zero. Now, I still could not remember, but I had learned too much. Who had I been? The Yambo shaped by school and by the kind of "public education" carried out through Fascist architecture, propaganda postcards, street posters, and songs, the Yambo of Salgari and Verne, of Captain Satan, of the savagery of The Illustrated Journal of Voyages and Adventures, of the crimes of Rocambole, of the Paris Mysterieux of Fant^omas, and of the fog of Sherlock Holmes; or the Yambo of Ciuffettino, and of the unbreakable glass? Or all of them?
I phoned Paola, bewildered, and explained my anxieties, and she laughed.
"Yambo, for me those are just blurred memories. I have an image of a few nights in an air-raid shelter, someone waking me up suddenly and taking me downstairs, I must have been four. But excuse me, let me play the psychologist: a child can live in different worlds, just as our little ones do; they figure out how to turn on the TV and they watch the news, then they listen to fairy tales and page through picture books of green monsters with kind eyes and talking wolves. Sandro is always going on about dinosaurs, which he saw in some cartoon, but he doesnít expect to meet one on the street corner. I read him Cinderella at bedtime, and then he gets out of bed at ten oíclock, and without his parents noticing peeks at the television from the doorway and sees a marine kill ten gooks with a single machine-gun burst. Children are much more balanced than we are, they can tell the difference between fairy tale and reality just fine; they keep one foot here and one there but never get them confused, with the exception of a few sick children who see Superman fly, then attach a towel to their shoulders and throw themselves out the window. But those are clinical cases, and itís nearly always the parentsí fault. You werenít a clinical case, and you managed perfectly well between Sandokan and your schoolbooks."
"Sure, but which one did I think was imaginary? The world of Sandokan or that of Il Duce sweet-talking the Sons of the She-Wolf? I told you about that composition, right? At ten, did I really want to fight like a wild beast and die for immortal Italy? Iím talking ten years old, and I donít doubt that there was censorship at the time, but the bombs were already raining down on us, and in 1942 our soldiers in Russia were dropping like flies."
"But Yambo, when Carla and Nicoletta were little, and even recently with the grandkids, you used to say that children are manipulative bastards. You should remember this, it happened just a few weeks ago: Gianni came over to our place when the little ones were there too, and Sandro said to him: ĎIím so happy when you come see us, Uncle Gianni.í ĎYou see how much they love me,í Gianni said. And you: ĎGianni, children are manipulative bastards. This one knows that you always bring him chewing gum. Thatís all.í Children are manipulative bastards. And you used to be. All you wanted was to get a good grade, and you wrote what the teacher liked."
"Youíre oversimplifying. Itís one thing to be a manipulative bastard when it comes to Uncle Gianni, itís another when it comes to Immortal Italy. And besides, why in that case was I a master of skepticism less than a year later, writing that story of the unbreakable glass as an allegory of a pointless world-because thatís what I wanted to say, I can feel it."
"Simply because you had changed teachers. A new teacher can liberate the critical spirit that another might not have allowed you to develop. And besides, at that age, nine months is a century."
Something must have happened in those nine months. I understood that when I went back to my grandfatherís study. Browsing at random as I drank a coffee, I pulled from the magazine pile a humorous weekly from the late thirties, Il Bertoldo. It was a 1937 issue, but I must have read it later than that, because at that time I would not have been able to appreciate those filiform drawings and that twisted sense of humor. But now I was reading a dialogue (one appeared each week in the little opening column on the left of the front page) that may well have caught my attention during those nine months of profound transformation:
Bertoldo walked past all those gentlemen of the retinue and went at once to sit beside the Grand Duke Windbag, who, gentle in nature and fond of wit, began in that spirit to question him pleasantly.
Grand Duke: Good day, Bertoldo. How was the crusade?
Grand Duke: And the task?
Grand Duke: And the impulse?
Grand Duke: And the surge of human solidarity?
Grand Duke: And the example?
Grand Duke: And the initiative?
Grand Duke: And the offer?
Grand Duke: And the gesture?
The Grand Duke laughed, and calling for all the Gentlemen of the Court to gather around him, ordered the Revolt of the Wool Carders (1378), upon completion of which the courtiers all returned to their places, leaving the Grand Duke and the peasant to resume their conversation.
Grand Duke: How are the workers?
Grand Duke: And their fare?
Bertoldo: Plain, but hearty.
Grand Duke: And the province?
Bertoldo: Fertile and sunny.
Grand Duke: And the populace?
Grand Duke: And the view?
Grand Duke: And the outskirts?
Grand Duke: And the villa?
The Grand Duke laughed, and calling for all his courtiers to gather around him, ordered the Storming of the Bastille (1789) and the Battle of Montaperti (1260), upon completion of which the courtiers all returned to their places, leaving the Grand Duke and the peasant to resume their conversationÖ
At one and the same time that dialogue mocked the language of poets, of newspapers, and of official rhetoric. If I was a clever lad, I would no longer have been able, after those dialogues, to write compositions such as the one of March 1942. I was ready for the unbreakable glass.
These were only hypotheses. Who knows how many other things happened to me between the heroic composition and the disillusioned chronicle. Again I decided to suspend my research and reading. I went into town: I had finished my Gitanes by then and had to make do with Marlboro Lights-better that way: I would smoke less, since I do not like them. I went back to the pharmacist to get my blood pressure checked. The conversation with Paola must have relaxed me- it was around 140. Getting better.
Back at the house, I had a craving for an apple, and I entered the lower rooms of the central wing. Strolling among the fruits and vegetables, I noticed that some of the large rooms on the ground floor were being used for storage and that in the back of one room were stacks of deck chairs. I carried one into the yard. I sat down facing the panorama, skimmed the newspapers, realized I was barely interested in the present, turned the chair around, and began looking at the front of the house and the hills behind it. I asked myself what I was looking for, what I wanted, would it not be enough to sit here looking at that hill that is so beautiful, as that novel said, what was it called? To raise three pavilions, Lord, one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah, and loaf without a past and without a future. Perhaps that is what paradise is like.
But the diabolical power of paper got the better of me. After a while I began daydreaming about the house, imagining myself as the hero of a My Childrenís Library story, standing before the Castle of Ferlac or Ferralba, looking for the crypt or the granary in which the forgotten parchment must lie. You press the center of the sculpted rose on a coat of arms, the walls open, and a spiral staircase appearsÖ
I could see the dormer windows on the roof, and below them the second-floor windows of my grandfatherís wing, all now open to illuminate my wanderings. Without being aware of it I was counting them. In the middle was the balcony, and to the left of it three windows: the dining room, my grandparentsí bedroom, my parentsí bedroom. To the right, the kitchen, the bathroom, and Adaís room. Symmetrical. I could not see, on the far left, the windows of my grandfatherís study or of my little room, because they were at the end of the hall, past the point where the facade meets the left wing, and their windows face the side of the house.
I was gripped by an uneasy feeling, as if my sense of symmetry had been disturbed. On the far left, the hall ends with my room and my grandfatherís study, but on the right it ends just after Adaís room. So the hall is shorter on the right than on the left.
Amalia was walking by, and I asked her to describe the windows of her wing. "Thatís easy," she said. "On the ground floor thatís where we eat, and that little window would be the bathroom, your dear grandfather had it put in special for those of us who didnít care to use the bushes like the rest of the farmers, goodness knows. As for the others, them two windows you see there belong to the storage room where we keep all the tools and such, and thereís the entrance to it on the side. On the second floor, thereís my window, and then the other two are my poor parentsí bedroom and their dining room, I leave them like they used to be and never open them out of respect."
"So the last window is their dining room, and that room ends where your wing meets my grandfatherís wing," I said. "It sure does," Amalia confirmed. "The rest is part of the ownerís wing."
It all sounded so natural that I did not ask her anything more. But I walked around to the right side of the house, near the threshing floor and the henhouse. I could immediately see the rear window of Amaliaís kitchen, then the wide, ramshackle door I had passed some days ago that led into the farm-equipment storage room I had already visited. Entering it now, I realized it was too long: it extended beyond the point where the right wing met the central wing; in other words, the storage room continued beneath the last part of my grandfatherís wing, all the way to the back wall that faced the vineyard, as was clear from a little window that offered a glimpse of the foot of the hill.
Nothing extraordinary, I told myself, but what is there on the second floor above that extension, if Amaliaís rooms end where the two wings meet? In other words, what up there corresponds to the area of the left wing occupied by my grandfatherís study and my little room?
I returned to the threshing floor and looked up. There were three windows in that space, just as there were on the opposite side (two in my grandfatherís study and one in my room), but the shutters of all three were closed. Above them, the regular dormer windows of the attic, which, as I already knew, ran without interruption around the entire house.
I called Amalia, who was busying herself in the garden, and asked her what was behind those three windows. Not a thing, she said, as if that were the most natural answer in the world. What do you mean not a thing? If there are windows, there must be something behind them, and it isnít Adaís room; her window faces onto the courtyard. Amalia tried to cut me off: "That was your dear grandfatherís affairs, I donít know a thing."
"Amalia, donít treat me as if I were stupid. How do you get in there?
"You donít, thereís nothing to get to anymore. The hellcats took it all away by now."
"I told you not to treat me as if I were stupid. You have to be able to get up there either through one of your rooms or some other goddamn way!"
"Donít curse, please, the only thing God has damned is the devil. What do you want me to say, your good grandfather made me swear never to breathe a word about that business, and I will not break an oath or else the devil really will carry me off."
"But what did you swear, and when?"
"I swore that same evening, when later that night the Black Brigades came and your dear grandfather said to me and my mother, Swear that you donít know a thing and havenít seen a thing, and in fact I wonít actually let you see what weíre fixing to do, me and Masulu- who was my poor father-because if the Black Brigades come and put your feet to the fire you wonít be able to help yourselves and youíll say something, so itís better if you donít know a thing, because they are a nasty bunch and can make a person talk even after theyíve cut his tongue out."
"Amalia, if the Black Brigades were still around, this must have been more than forty years ago. My grandfather and Masulu are both dead, the men in the Black Brigades are probably all dead, the oath you swore no longer holds!"
"Your dear grandfather and my poor father are long dead itís true, itís always the best that go first, but I donít know about those others because theyíre a wretched sort that never dies."
"Amalia, the Black Brigades are gone, the war ended back then, nobody will put your feet to the fire."
"If you say so then for me itís gospel, but Pautasso was in the Black Brigades, and I sure remember him, reckon he was less than twenty at the time, and heís still around these parts, lives in Corseglio and once a month comes to Solara for his business, he started a brick factory in Corseglio and made a mint, and thereís still people in this town who never forgot what he done and when they see him coming they go the other way. Maybe he canít put a bodyís feet to the fire anymore, but an oath is an oath and not even the parish priest can help that."
"So even though Iím still sick, and my wife believes that you are helping me get better, you wonít tell me this thing, even if not knowing it may harm me."
"May the Lord strike me down if I would harm a hair on your head, Signorino Yambo, but an oath is an oath, am I right?"
"Amalia, whose grandson am I?"
"Your dear grandfatherís, like the word says."
"And I am my grandfatherís universal heir, the owner of everything you see here. Okay? And if you donít tell me how to get up there, itís as if youíre stealing whatís mine."
"May the Lord gobble me up this very second if I ever tried to steal a thing of yours, why I never heard such nonsense, Iíve spent all my born days killing myself to keep this house pretty as a picture for you!"
"And furthermore, since I am my grandfatherís heir, and itís as if everything Iím saying now were being said by him, I solemnly release you from your oath. Okay?"
I had put forth three persuasive arguments: my health, my property rights, and my direct descent, with all the privileges of primogeniture. Unable to resist, Amalia yielded. Does Signorino Yambo carry more weight than the priest and the Black Brigades, or not?
Amalia led me up to the second floor of the central wing, then to the right, past Adaís room, toward the armoire that smells of camphor where the hall ends. She asked me to help her move the armoire, at least a little, and showed me that behind it was a walled-up doorway. At one time that had been the entrance to the chapel, because when that great-uncle who left everything to my grandfather still lived here, he kept a working chapel in the house, not large, but big enough to hear mass on Sundays with his family, and the priest would come from the village. When the house was taken over by my grandfather, who though fond of his Nativity scene was not a churchgoer, the chapel was abandoned. The benches were taken out and placed here and there in the large downstairs rooms, and since the chapel was empty I had asked my grandfather to allow me to drag a few bookcases down from the attic, to use for my things-and I often hid out there and did God knows what. Indeed, when the parish priest learned of the arrangement, he asked if he could take away at least the consecrated altar stones, to avoid sacrilege, and my grandfather also let him take a statue of the Madonna, the ampullae, the paten, and the tabernacle.
Late one winter afternoon (there were already Partisans in or around Solara by this time; sometimes the town harbored them and other times the Black Brigade, and that month it was the Black Brigade, while the Partisans were said to be up in the Langhe hills) someone came by to tell my grandfather that he needed to hide four boys whom the Fascists were hunting. They may not have been Partisans yet, from what I could gather, but deserters who were making their way through those parts precisely in order to join the resistance up in the mountains.
My parents and sister and I were not home, having gone away for two days to visit my motherís brother, who had evacuated to Montarsolo. Only my grandfather, Masulu, Maria, and Amalia were there, and my grandfather had made the women swear never to speak of what was taking place, indeed had sent them straight to bed. Except that Amalia only pretended to go to bed, then went to spy on them from somewhere. When the boys arrived, around eight, my grandfather and Masulu took them to the chapel, gave them some food, then went to get bricks and buckets of mortar, and the two of them, though no masons, walled up that door by themselves and then put that piece of furniture, which had been elsewhere, in front of it. They had just finished when the Black Brigades arrived.
"If youíd seen them faces. Luckily the one in charge was a refined person, wore gloves no less, and acted the gentleman with your grandfather, which no doubt they was told he owned land, and dog does not eat dog. Oh, they poked around here and there, even went up to the attic, but you could tell they was in a rush and was doing it just so they could say they did-they still had a lot of farmhouses to go to and likely figured one of us farm folk was apt to be hiding our own. They didnít find a thing, the one with the gloves apologized for the bother, said Long live Il Duce, and your grandfather and my father which they was smart as tacks said Long live Il Duce right back, and amen."
How long had those four stowaways remained up there? Amalia did not know, she had played deaf and dumb and knew only that for some days she and Maria had had to prepare baskets with bread, salami, and wine, and then at a certain point no more. When we came home, my grandfather simply told us that the flooring in the chapel had been giving way, he had had some provisional reinforcements put in, and the masons had closed up the entrance to make sure that none of us children went poking around in there and got hurt.
Okay, I said to Amalia, we have explained the mystery. But if they went in, the stowaways had to come out, and Masulu and my grandfather somehow got food in to them for several days. So even after the door was walled up, there must still have been an access point somewhere.
"I swear to you I didnít even ask myself if they was going in or out or through what hole. Whatever your dear grandfather did was fine by me. He closed it up? Well then he closed it up, and for me that chapel wasnít there anymore, in fact it donít exist even now, and if you didnít make me talk it would be like I forgot it. Maybe they got the food through the window, hoisted up baskets with a rope, and they all left through the window too, during the night. Right?"
"No, Amalia, because in that case one window would have been left open, and instead itís clear that they were all closed from the inside."
"I always did say you was the smart one. What do you know, I never thought of that. Well then, how did my father and your dear grandfather get them out?"
"That, said the Bard, is the question."
Forty-five years late, perhaps, but Amalia had put her finger on the problem. I, however, had to solve it myself. I looked all over the house trying to find a hidden door, a hole, a grate, thoroughly searching the rooms and halls of both floors of the central wing once again, and combing both floors of Amaliaís wing like a Black Brigadier. Nothing.
You did not have to be Sherlock Holmes to come to the only conclusion possible: there was a way into the chapel from the attic. The chapel had its own stairway, but the entry point in the attic had been concealed. From the Black Brigades, but not from Yambo. Imagine my coming home from our trip, my grandfather telling us that the chapel was no longer there, and my being satisfied with that, especially since I apparently kept some of my dearest possessions there. Attic scout that I was, I must have known the passageway well and no doubt continued to go into the chapel, indeed with more pleasure than before, because it had become my hideaway, and once I was there no one could find me.
Nothing left to do but go back up to the attic and explore the right wing. At that moment a thunderstorm was gathering, so it was less hot than usual. That would facilitate what was no trifling task: everything that had been piled up against the walls had to be moved away, and this was the farm wing and contained not collectorís items but rather junk-old doors, beams salvaged from some renovation, coils of old barbed wire, large broken mirrors, bundles of old blankets held together with twine and oilcloth, unusable kneading troughs and settles, worm-eaten for centuries and piled one on top of the other. I moved it all, as boards fell on me and rusty nails scratched me, but I saw no secret passageways.
Then I realized I should not be looking for a door, because there could be no doors in those walls: they were exterior walls on all four sides. If there was no door, there had to be a trapdoor. Foolish not to have thought of that first, that was how it always happened in My Childrenís Library. I should be examining not the walls, but the floor.
Naturally, the floor was worse than the walls, and I had to climb over or walk on all manner of things: more boards tossed here and there, frames for long lost beds and cots, bundles of iron construction rods, an ancient ox yoke, even a saddle. And amid all that, clots of dead flies, which had come in the previous year seeking shelter from the first cold snaps but had not survived. To say nothing of the spiderwebs that ran from one wall to the other, like the once luxurious drapery of a haunted house.
Flashes of lightning from quite nearby were lighting up the dormer windows, and the attic was getting darker-though in the end it did not rain; the storm unburdened itself elsewhere. The Alchemistís Tower, The Castle Mystery, The Pretty Prisoners of Casabella, The Morande Mystery, The North Tower, The Iron Manís Secret, The Old Mill, The Acquaforte MysteryÖ Christ, I was in the middle of an actual storm, a bolt of lightning could have brought the roof down on me, but I was seeing it all through the eyes of an antiquarian book dealer. The Antiquarianís Attic-I could have written a new story and signed it Bernage or Catalany.
Luckily, at a certain point I stumbled: beneath a layer of shapeless junk there was a sort of step. I cleared the area, scraping my hands, and there was the prize for the intrepid boy: a trapdoor. The one my grandfather, Masulu, and the fugitives had used, the one I too must have used who knows how often, reliving adventures that had already been imagined over so many sheets of paper. What a wonderful childhood.
The trapdoor was not large and came up easily, though I raised a cloud of fine powder in the process, since nearly fifty years of dust had accumulated in those cracks. What does one find beneath a trapdoor? A ladder, elementary, my dear Watson, and not a particularly taxing one, either, even for my limbs, now stiffened by two hours of tugging and bending-no doubt I took it in a single bound back then, but I am pushing sixty, and there I was behaving like a child still able to chew his toenails. (I swear I have never thought about this before, but it seems normal that, while in bed in the dark, I might try to bite my big toe, just to see if I could.)
In brief, I went down. The darkness was nearly total, barely striped by a few slivers of light from the shutters, which no longer closed properly. In the dark that space seemed immense. I went at once to open the windows: the chapel, predictably, was as large as my grandfatherís study and my room put together. I saw the dilapidated remains of a gilded wooden altar, against which four mattresses were still leaning: no doubt the beds of the fugitives, though I found no other traces of them, which indicated that the chapel had been occupied afterward, at least by me.
Along the wall in front of the windows I saw some shelves of unfinished wood, full of printed matter, newspapers and magazines, in piles of unequal heights, as if each pile were a separate collection. In the middle of the room, a long table with two chairs. Next to what should have been the entry door (marked by the crude masonry put up in an hour by my grandfather and Masulu, with mortar overflowing between the bricks-after all, they had been able to trowel it smooth only from the outside, not the inside) I found a light switch. I tried it without hope, and indeed nothing came on, though several bulbs hung from the ceiling at regular intervals, each beneath a white plate. Perhaps over the course of fifty years the mice had gnawed through the wiring, assuming they had been able to get through the trapdoor-and mice have ways. Or my grandfather and Masulu might have destroyed it all when they were walling up the door.
At that hour, the daylight sufficed. I felt like Lord Carnarvon setting foot in Tutankhamenís tomb after millennia, and the challenge was to avoid getting stung by some mysterious scarab that had been lying in wait all that time. Everything in there had remained as I must have left it after my last visit. Indeed, I did not want to open the windows too much, just enough to see, so as not to disturb that sleeping atmosphere.
I did not yet dare even look at what was on the shelves. Whatever was there, it was mine and only mine, otherwise it would have remained in my grandfatherís study and been shoved into the attic by my aunt and uncle. At this point, why bother trying to remember? Memory is a stopgap for humans, for whom time flies and what has passed is past. I was enjoying the marvel of beginning ab ovo. I was doing again the things I had once done, passing like Pipino from old age into early youth. From then on, I should have retained only what was to happen to me later, which after all would have been the same as what had happened to me back then.
In the chapel, time had stopped, or rather, no, it had gone backward, like a clock whose hands have been turned back to the day before, and no matter that yesterdayís four oíclock looks like todayís, you simply have to know (and I alone knew) that it is the four oíclock of yesterday, or a hundred years ago. That is how Lord Carnarvon must have felt.
If the Black Brigade were to discover me here now, I was thinking, they would assume I was in the summer of 1991, whereas I (I alone) would know I am in the summer of 1944. And even that officer with the gloves would have to doff his hat, for he would be entering Timeís Te m p l e.