18. Lovely Thou Art as the Sun
Lila too was born from a book. I was entering my third year of high school, on the verge of turning sixteen, when I began reading, in my grandfather’s shop, Cyrano de Bergerac, by Rostand. Why I did not find it in Solara, in the attic or in the chapel, I do not know. Perhaps I had read and reread it so many times that it finally fell apart. I could recite it now from memory.
Everyone knows the story, indeed if someone even after my incident had asked me about Cyrano, I think I could have said what it was about, that it was a melodrama of exaggerated Romanticism that touring companies still put on every so often. I could have said what everyone knows. But not the rest, which, as I am rediscovering only now, is linked to my growing up, to my first amorous tremors.
Cyrano is a marvelous swordsman and an ingenious poet, but he is ugly, oppressed by that monstrous nose (Of which much could be said, it is so ample, / By varying one’s tone. Thus, for example: / Aggressive: "Why, if I had such a beak, / I’d amputate the eyesore as we speak!" / friendly: "When drinking wine, you must quite hate it; / Perhaps a punch bowl could accommodate it?" / Descriptive: "It’s a crag, a cliff, a cape! / A cape? No, more peninsular in shape!").
Cyrano loves his cousin Roxane, a pr'ecieuse of divine beauty (I love-who else?-the fairest of them all!). She may well admire him for his bravura wit, but he, because of his ugliness, would never dare declare himself. Only once, when she asks to meet him, does he entertain hopes that something might develop, but his disappointment is cruel: she confesses that she loves the beautiful Baron Christian, who has just joined the Gascony Cadets, and she begs her cousin to protect him.
Cyrano makes the ultimate sacrifice and decides to woo Roxane by speaking to her through Christian’s lips. He supplies Christian, who is handsome and passionate but uneducated, with the sweetest declarations of love, writes enflamed letters for him, and one night takes his place beneath Roxane’s balcony to whisper his celebrated encomium to the kiss-but it is Christian who then climbs up to reap the reward of that bravura. Then climb up here to pluck this peerless flower… this taste of a heart… this hum of a bee… this instant of infinity… "Climb, you brute," says Cyrano, prodding his rival, and as the couple kisses he weeps in the shadows, savoring his feeble victory: For on those lips to which she’s been misled / Roxane is kissing the words that I just said.
When Cyrano and Christian go off to war, Roxane comes after them, more in love than ever, won over by the letters Cyrano has sent her each day, and she confides to her cousin her realization that she loves, in Christian, not his physical beauty but rather his passionate heart and exquisite spirit. She would love him even if he were ugly. Cyrano then understands it is he whom she loves, but just as he is about to tell all, he learns that Christian has been shot. As Roxane kneels weeping over the poor man’s corpse, Cyrano understands that he can never tell.
Years pass, Roxane has withdrawn into a convent, thinking always of her lost love and rereading each day his last letter, stained with his blood. Cyrano, her faithful friend and cousin, visits her every Saturday. But this Saturday he has been attacked, by political enemies or envious literati, and has a bloody bandage on his head, which he conceals from Roxane beneath his hat. Roxane shows him, for the first time, Christian’s last letter, which Cyrano reads aloud, but Roxane realizes that darkness has fallen, and wonders how he can decipher those faded words when, in a flash, it all becomes clear: he is reciting, from memory, his last letter. She had loved, in Christian, Cyrano. And so for fourteen years he played his role: the old friend bringing cheer by being droll! No, Cyrano says, trying to deny it, it is not true: No, no, my dear beloved-I never loved you!
But by now our hero is reeling, and his faithful friends, arriving to reproach him for leaving his bed, reveal to Roxane that he is on the point of death. Cyrano, leaning against a tree, acts out his final duel against the shadows of his enemies, then falls. After he says that the one thing he will take, unsullied, up to heaven is his panache (and this is the last word of the play), Roxane leans over him and kisses him on the brow.
This kiss is barely mentioned in the stage directions, no character refers to it, an insensitive director might even overlook it, but to my sixteen-year-old mind it became the central scene, and not only did I see Roxane leaning over him, but I also, with Cyrano, savored for the first time (her face so close) the perfume of her breath. This kiss in articulo mortis repaid Cyrano for that other kiss, the stolen one, which so moves everyone in the audience. This final kiss was beautiful because Cyrano received it just as he was dying, and Roxane was thus escaping him once more, but that is precisely what I, now one with the protagonist, was so proud of. I was expiring happily, without having touched my beloved, leaving her in her heavenly state of uncontam-inated dream.
With Roxane’s name in my heart, all I needed was a face to go with it. The face was Lila Saba’s.
As Gianni had told me, I saw her coming down the stairs one day at our high school, and Lila became mine forever.
Papini wrote about his fear of blindness and his greedy myopia: "I see everything blurred, as if in a fog that, for now, is very light, yet general and continuous. At a distance, in the evening, figures blur: a man in a cape might look to me like a woman; a small still flame, like a long line of red light; a boat going downriver, like a black patch on the current. Faces are patches of light; windows, dark patches on houses; trees, dense, dim patches rising from the shadows; and three or four first-magnitude stars, at most, shine in the sky for me." That is what is happening to me now, in this hyperalert sleep of mine. Since reawakening into memory’s favor (a few seconds ago? a thousand years?), I have seen my parents in vivid detail, and Gragnola and Dr. Osimo and Maestro Monaldi and Bruno, seen every feature of their faces, smelled them, heard their voices. Everything around me is clear except for Lila’s face. As in those photos where the face is pixellated, to protect the identity of the underage defendant, or of the axe murderer’s innocent wife. I can make out Lila’s slim outline in her black smock, her smooth stride as I follow her like a spy, can see the back of her hair lilt with each step, but I have yet to see her countenance.
I am still struggling against a roadblock, as if I were afraid of not being able to withstand that light.
I can see myself writing my poems for her, Creature contained within that transient mystery, and I am beside myself, not only at the memory of my first love, but also with the anguish of not being able, now, to recall her smile, those two front teeth Gianni mentioned- which he, damn him, knows and remembers.
I must remain calm, must give my memory whatever time it needs. This is enough for now; if I am breathing, my breath must be growing calm, for I can sense that I have reached the place. Lila is a step away.
I can see myself entering the girls’ class to sell those tickets, I can see Ninetta Foppa’s ferret eyes, Sandrina’s rather plain profile, then here I am in front of Lila, ready with some clever remark as I rummage for her change but fail to find it, so as to prolong my stay before an icon whose image keeps breaking up, like a TV screen gone tilt.
I feel the boundless pride in my heart that evening in the theater, as I pretend to place Signora Marini’s cough drop in my mouth. The theater erupts, and I experience an unspeakable feeling of limitless power. The next day I try to explain it to Gianni. "It was," I tell him, "the amplifier effect, the miracle of the megaphone: with a minimal expenditure of energy you cause an explosion, you feel yourself generate immense force with little effort. Down the road I might become a tenor who drives crowds wild, a hero who leads ten thousand men to their deaths to the strains of the Marseillaise, but I couldn’t possibly ever again feel anything as intoxicating as last night."
I now feel exactly that. I am there, my tongue moving back and forth against my cheek, I hear the roar coming from the hall, I have a rough idea of where Lila is sitting, because before the show I peeked out between the curtains, but I cannot turn my face in her direction, because that would ruin everything: Signora Marini, as the lozenge travels around her cheeks, must remain in profile. I move my tongue, I babble something in a mother-hen voice (making as little sense as Signora Marini herself), focusing on Lila whom I cannot see, but who can see me. I experience this apotheosis as a carnal embrace, compared to which my first ejaculatio praecox over Josephine Baker was a bland sneeze.
It must have been after that incident that I said to hell with Don Renato and his advice. What good is it to keep that secret in the depths of my heart if it means we cannot both be intoxicated by it? And besides, if you love someone, you want that person to know everything about you. Bonum est diffusivum sui. Now I will tell her everything.
It was a question of meeting her not as she left the school but as she was arriving home, alone. On Thursdays the girls had an hour of gym, and she came home around four. I worked day after day on my opening lines. I would say something witty to her, like Fear not, this is no robbery, she would laugh, then I would say that something strange was happening to me, something I had never felt before, that perhaps she could help me… Whatever could it be, she would wonder, we barely know each other, perhaps he likes one of my girlfriends and is afraid to approach her.
But then, like Roxane, she would understand everything in a flash. No, no, my dear beloved-I never loved you. Now that was a good technique. Tell her I do not love her, and please excuse the oversight. She would understand my witticism (was she not a pr'ecieuse?) and might lean toward me and say something like Don’t be a fool, but with unhoped-for tenderness. Blushing, she would touch her fingers to my cheek.
In short, my opening was to be a masterpiece of wit and subtlety, irresistible-because I, since I loved her, could not imagine that she did not share my feelings. I had it wrong, like all lovers; I had given her my heart and asked her to do as I would have done, but that is how things have gone for millennia. Were it otherwise, literature would not exist.
Having chosen the day, the hour, having created all the conditions for the happy knock of Opportunity, I found myself standing in front of the gate to her house at ten minutes to four. At five minutes to four, I felt that too many people were passing by, and I decided to wait inside the gate, at the foot of the stairs.
After several centuries, which passed between five to four and five past four, I heard her come into the foyer. She was singing. A song about a valley-I can recall only a vague tune, not the words. The songs in those years were terrible, unlike those of my childhood. They were the idiotic songs of the idiotic postwar: "Eulalia Torricelli from Forli," "The Firemen of Viggi`u," "Nice Apples, Nice Apples," "Gascony Cadets"-at best they were sticky declarations of love, such as "Go Celestial Serenade" or "I Could Fall Asleep in These Arms of Yours." I hated them. At least Cousin Nuccio danced to American rhythms. The idea that she might like such things may have cooled me off for a moment (she had to be as exquisite as Rox-ane), though I doubt I was thinking clearly at the time. Indeed, I was not even listening, I was simply awaiting her appearance, and I spent at least ten full seconds suffering through a nervous eternity.
I stepped forward just as she reached the stairs. If someone else were telling me this story, I would remark that we could use some strings at this point, to heighten the anticipation, to create atmosphere. But at the time all I had was that miserable song I had just overheard. My heart was beating with such violence that on this occasion, for once, I could have reasonably concluded I was ill. Instead I felt charged with a wild energy, ready for the supreme moment.
She appeared before me, then stopped, surprised.
I asked her: "Does Vanzetti live here?"
She said no.
I said Thank you, excuse me, I was mistaken.
And I left.
Vanzetti (who the hell was he?) was the first name that, in the grip of panic, popped into my head. Later, that night, I convinced myself that it was good that it had happened that way. It was the ultimate stratagem. Because if she had begun to laugh, had said, What’s got into you, you’re very sweet, I’m flattered, but you know, I’ve got other things on my mind-what would I have done then? Was I going to forget her? Would such a humiliation have caused me to think her a fool? Would I have stuck to her like flypaper for the days and months to come, pleading for a second chance, becoming the laughingstock of the school? By keeping quiet, on the other hand, I had held on to everything I already had, and I had lost nothing.
She did in fact have other things on her mind. There was a college boy, tall and blondish, who sometimes came to wait for her at the school gate. His name was Vanni-whether that was his first or last name I do not know-and one time when he had a Band-Aid on his neck he really did say to his friends, with a cheerfully corrupt air, that it was only a syphiloma. Then one day he arrived on a Vespa.
Vespas had only recently come out. As my father used to say, only spoiled kids had them. For me, having a Vespa was like going to the theater to see dancing girls in panties. It was on the side of sin. Some of my friends mounted theirs by the school gate, or showed up on them in the evenings in the piazza, where everyone shot the breeze for hours on the benches in front of a fountain that was usually sick, some of them recounting things they had heard about the "houses of tolerance," or about Wanda Osiris in the magazines-and whoever had heard something gained in the eyes of the others a morbid charisma.
The Vespa, in my eyes, was the transgression. It was not a temptation, since I could not even conceive of possessing one myself, but rather the evidence, both plain and obscure, of what could happen when you went off with a girl sitting sidesaddle on the rear seat. Not an object of desire, but the symbol of unsatisfied desires, unsatisfied through deliberate refusal.
That day, as I went back from Piazza Minghetti toward the school, in order to walk past her and her friends, she was not with her group. As I quickened my pace, fearing that some jealous god had snatched her from me, something terrible was happening, something much less holy, or, if holy, hellishly so. She was still there, standing at the bottom of the school stairs, as if waiting. And here (on his Vespa) came Vanni. She mounted behind him and clung to him, as if she were used to it, passing her arms beneath his and pressing them to his chest, and off they went.
It was already the period when the skirts of the war years, which had risen to just above the knee, or to the knee for flared skirts-the kind that graced the girlfriends of Rip Kirby in the first American postwar comics-were giving way to long, full skirts that reached to mid-calf.
These were not more prim than the shorter ones, indeed they had a perverse grace of their own, an airy, promising elegance, all the more so if they were flapping gently in the breeze as the girl vanished clutching her centaur.
That skirt was a modest, mischievous undulation in the wind, a seduction through an ample, intermediary flag. The Vespa faded regally into the distance, like a ship leaving a wake of singing foam, of capering, mystic dolphins.
She faded into the distance that morning on the Vespa, and for me the Vespa became even more a symbol of torment, of useless passion.
And once again, her skirt, the oriflamme of her hair-but seen, as always, from the back.
Gianni had told me about it. Through an entire play, in Asti, I had looked only at the back of her neck. But Gianni had failed to remind me-or I had not given him a chance-of another theater evening. A touring company came to our city to put on Cyrano. It was my first opportunity to see it staged, and I convinced four of my friends to reserve seats in the gallery. I looked forward to the pleasure, and pride, of being able to anticipate the lines at crucial moments.
We arrived early, we were in the second row. A little before it started, a group of girls took their seats in the first row, right in front of us: Ninetta Foppa, Sandrina, two others, and Lila.
Lila was sitting right in front of Gianni, who was next to me, so I was looking at the back of her neck once again, though if I tilted my head I could make out her profile (not now, her face remains solarized). Rapid greetings, oh you too, what a nice coincidence, and that was all. As Gianni said, we were too young for them, and if I had been a star with the lozenge in my mouth, I was an Abbott and Costello kind of star, at whose jokes one laughs, but with whom one does not fall in love.
For me, though, it was enough. Following Cyrano, line by line, with her in front of me, multiplied my vertigo. I no longer remember the actress who played Roxane on stage, because my Roxane was right before my eyes. I felt I could tell when she was moved by the drama (who is not moved by Cyrano, written to wring tears from the stoniest heart?) and I was utterly convinced that she was moved not with me, but over me, because of me. I could ask for nothing more: myself, Cyrano, and her. The rest was the anonymous crowd.
When Roxane bent down to kiss Cyrano’s brow, I became one with Lila. In that moment, even if she did not know it, she could not help but love me. And after all, Cyrano had waited years and years before Roxane finally understood. I, too, could wait. That evening, I rose to within a few steps of the Empyrean.
To love a neck. And a yellow jacket. That yellow jacket in which she appeared one day at school, luminous in the spring sun-and about which I waxed poetic. From that day on, I could never see a woman in a yellow jacket without feeling a call, an unbearable nostalgia.
Because now I understand what Gianni was telling me: throughout my life I sought, in all my affairs, Lila’s face. I waited all my life to play the final scene of Cyrano with her. The shock that may have led to my incident was the revelation that such a scene had been denied me forever.
I see now that it was Lila who, when I was sixteen, gave me hope that I might forget that night at the Gorge, opening me to a new love for life. My poor poems had taken the place of the Exercise for a Good Death. With Lila near me-not mine, but in my sight-my last years of high school would have been (what to call it?) an ascent, and I could gradually have made peace with my childhood. But after her abrupt disappearance, I lived in a precarious limbo until college, and then-when the very emblems of that childhood, my parents and grandfather, disappeared for good-I renounced any attempt at a benevolent rereading. I repressed, starting over from scratch. On the one hand, I escaped into a comfortable, promising field of study (I even did my thesis on the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili , not on the history of the Resistance), and on the other, I met Paola. But if Gianni was right, an underlying dissatisfaction remained. I had repressed everything except Lila’s face, which I continued to look for in the crowd, hoping to meet her again by going, not backward, as one must do with the dead, but forward, in a quest I now know to have been vain.
The advantage of this sleep of mine, with its sudden, labyrinthine short-circuits-such that, though I recognize the chronology of different periods, I can travel through them in both directions, having done away with time’s arrow-the advantage is that I can now relive it all, no longer encumbered by any forward or backward, in a circle that could last for geological ages, and in this circle, or spiral, Lila is always and once more beside me as I, the beguiled bee, dance timidly around the yellow pollen of her jacket. Lila is present, along with Angelo Bear, Dr. Osimo, Signor Piazza, Ada, Pap`a, Mamma, and Grandfather, along with the aromas and odors of the cooking of those years, comprehending with balance and pity even the night in the Gorge, and Gragnola.
Am I being selfish? Paola and the girls are waiting out there, and it is thanks to them that for forty years I have been able to keep searching for Lila, in the background, without losing touch with reality. They made me come out of my enclosed world, and even if I did wander amid incunabula and parchments, I still produced new life. They are suffering and I am feeling blessed. But what can I do about that now, I cannot return to the outside world, and so I might as well take pleasure in this suspended state. So suspended that I suspect that between now and the moment when I first awoke here, although I have relived nearly twenty years, sometimes moment by moment, only seconds have elapsed-as in dreams, where one can sometimes doze for a moment and in a flash experience an epic.
Perhaps I am, indeed, in a coma, but am dreaming within it, not remembering. I know that in some dreams we have the impression of remembering, and we believe the memories to be authentic, then we wake and are forced to conclude, reluctantly, that those memories were not ours. We dream false memories. For example, I recall having dreamt on several occasions of returning at last to a house I had not visited for some time, but to which I had for some time intended to return, because it was a sort of secret pied-`a-terre where I had once lived, and I had left many of my belongings there. In the dream I remembered every piece of furniture perfectly and every room in the house, and the only irritation was that I knew that there should have been, beyond the living room, in the hall that led to the bathroom, a door that opened into another room, yet the door was no longer there, as if someone had walled it up. Thus I would awake full of longing and nostalgia for my hidden refuge, but would soon realize that the memory belonged to the dream, that I could not remember that house because-at least in my life-it had never existed. Indeed I have often thought that in our dreams we take over other people’s memories.
But has it ever happened to me that, in a dream, I dreamed about another dream, as I would be doing now? There is the proof that I am not dreaming. And besides, in dreams memories are unfocused, imprecise, whereas I can now recall, page by page and image by image, everything I read at Solara during the past two months. Those memories really happened.
But who can say that everything I remembered in the course of this sleep really happened? Maybe my mother and my father had different faces, maybe Dr. Osimo never existed, nor Angelo Bear, and I never lived through the night in the Gorge. Worse, I dreamed even that I woke up in a hospital, that I lost my memory, that I had a wife named Paola, two daughters, and three grandkids. I never lost my memory, am some other man-God knows who-who by some accident finds himself in this state (coma or limbo), and all these figures have been optical illusions caused by the fog. Otherwise why would everything I believed I was remembering till now have been dominated by fog, which was nothing if not the sign that my life was but a dream. That is a quotation. And what if all the other quotes, those I offered the doctor, Paola, Sibilla, myself, were nothing but the product of this persistent dream? Carducci and Eliot never existed, nor Pascoli nor Huysmans, nor all the rest of what I took for my encyclopedic memory. Tokyo is not the capital of Japan. Not only did Napoleon not die on St. Helena, he was never born, and if anything exists outside of me it is a parallel universe in which who knows what is happening or has happened. Perhaps my fellow creatures-and myself-are covered in green scales and have four retractile antennae above our single eye.
I cannot prove that this is not, in fact, the case. But had I conceived an entire universe within my brain, a universe that contains not only Paola and Sibilla but also the Divine Comedy and the atom bomb, I would have to have drawn on a capacity for invention exceeding that of any individual-still assuming that I am an individual, and human, and not a madrepore of linked brains.
But what if Someone is projecting a film directly into my brain? Perhaps I am a brain in some kind of solution, in a culture broth, in that glass container where I saw the dog testicles in formalin, and someone is sending stimuli into me to make me believe that I once had a body, and that others existed around me-when only my brain and the Stimulator exist. But if we were brains in formalin, could we imagine that we were brains in formalin or claim that we were not?
If that were the case, I would have nothing to do but await further stimuli. The ideal viewer, I would experience this sleep as an endless evening at the movies, believing the movie was about me. Or perhaps what I am dreaming now is only movie number 10,999, and I have already dreamed more than ten thousand others: in one, I identified with Julius Caesar, I crossed the Rubicon and suffered like a butchered hog after being stabbed those twenty-three times; in another, I was Signor Piazza and I stuffed weasels; in another, I was Angelo Bear, wondering why they were burning me after so many years of honorable service. In one I could be Sibilla, wondering, distraught, whether I might one day remember our affair. In this moment, I would be a provisional I; tomorrow I might be a dinosaur beginning to suffer as the ice age cometh to kill me; the day after tomorrow I will live the life of an apricot, a sparrow, a hyena, a twig.
I cannot let myself go, I want to know who I am. One thing is certain. The memories that surfaced at the beginning of what I believe to be my coma are obscure, foggy, and arranged in patchwork fashion, with breaks, uncertainties, tears, missing pieces (why can I not remember Lila’s face?). Those of Solara, however, and those of Milan after I woke up in the hospital, are clear, they follow a logical sequence, I can put them back in chronological order, can say that I ran into Vanna in Largo Cairoli before buying the dog testicles from that stall in the Cordusio market. Sure, I could be dreaming about having vague memories and clear memories, but on the evidence of this difference I am going to make a decision. In order to survive (odd expression for someone like me who may already be dead) I must decide that Gratarolo, Paola, Sibilla, my studio, all of Solara with Amalia and the stories of Grandfather’s castor oil, were memories of real life. That is how we do it in normal life, too: we could suppose we have been deceived by some evil genius, but in order to be able to move forward we behave as if everything we see is real. If we let ourselves go, if we doubt that a world exists around us, we will stop acting, and within the illusion produced by the evil genius we will fall down the stairs or die of hunger.
It was in Solara (which exists) that I read my poems about a Creature, and it was in Solara that Gianni told me over the phone that the creature had existed and her name was Lila Saba. So, even within my dream, Angelo Bear might be illusory, but Lila Saba is real. And besides, if I were only dreaming, why would the dream not be generous enough to restore Lila’s face to me as well? In dreams the dead can even bring you lottery numbers, so why should Lila, of all people, be denied me? If I am unable to remember everything it is because beyond the dream there exists some blockage that is somehow preventing me from getting to the other side.
Of course, none of my muddled arguments hold. I could perfectly well be dreaming that a blockage exists, the Stimulator could be refusing (out of malice or pity) to send me Lila’s image. People you know appear in dreams, you know who they are, yet you may not see their faces… None of the things I might convince myself of stands up to a logical proof. But the very fact that I can appeal to logic proves I am not dreaming. Dreams are illogical, and one does not bemoan that fact in dreams.
I am deciding therefore that things are a certain way, and I would sure like to see someone come along to contradict me.
If I could manage to see Lila’s face, I would be convinced that she existed. There is no one I can ask for help, I have to do it all myself. I cannot beseech anyone outside of me, and both God and the Stimulator-if they even exist-are outside of the dream. Communications with the outside have been interrupted. Perhaps I could turn to some private deity, one who I know is weak, but who should at least be grateful to me for having given her life.
Who else but Queen Loana? I know, I am falling back on my paper memory again, but I am not thinking of the Queen Loana of the comic strip, but rather of my own, longed for in rather more ethereal ways, the custodian of the flame of resurrection, who can bring petrified cadavers back from any distant past.
Am I crazy? This, too, is a reasonable hypothesis: I am not comatose, but trapped in a lethargic autism, believing myself in a coma, believing that what I have dreamed is not real, believing I have the right to make it real. But how can a madman form a reasonable hypothesis? And besides, one is crazy only with respect to norms established by others, but no one else is here, the only measuring rod is me and the only real thing the Olympus of my memories. I am imprisoned in my Cimmerian isolation, in this ferocious egotism. And if such is my condition, why make distinctions between Mamma, Angelo Bear, and Queen Loana? My ontology is out of joint. I have the supreme power to create my own gods, and my own mothers.
And thus now I pray: "O good Queen Loana, in the name of your hopeless love, I do not ask that you reawaken your millenary victims from their stony sleeps, but merely that you restore to me a face… I, who from the nethermost pit of my enforced sleep have seen what I have seen, ask that you uplift me higher, toward a semblance of health."
Is it not the case with those who are miraculously healed that it is simply their expression of faith in the miracle that heals them? And thus I strongly will Loana to save me. I am so focused on this hope that, if I were not already in a coma, I would have a stroke.
And at last, great God, I saw. I saw like the apostle, I saw the center of my Aleph from which shone forth not the infinite world, but the jumbled notebook of my memories.
Or rather, I certainly saw, but the first part of my vision was so blinding that afterward it was as if I had been plunged back into a foggy sleep. I do not know whether within a dream you can dream of sleeping, but there is no doubt that, if I am dreaming, I am also dreaming that I have now awoken and can remember what I saw.
I was at my high school standing at the foot of the stairs, which rose white toward the neoclassical columns that framed the main entrance. I was as though carried away in spirit and I heard a powerful voice telling me: "What you shall see, feel free to write it in your book, because no one will read it, because you are only dreaming that you are writing it!"
And at the top of the stairs appeared a throne and upon the throne sat a man with a golden face and a ghastly Mongol smile, his head crowned with flame and emerald, and everyone raised their chalices to praise him: Ming the Merciless, Lord of Mongo.
And in the midst of the throne and around the throne were four Creatures, the lion-faced Thun, and the hawk-winged Vultan, and Barin, Prince of Arboria, and Azura, the Witch Queen of the Blue Magic Men. And Azura was descending the stairs wrapped in flame, and she resembled a great harlot mantled in purple and crimson, adorned with gold, precious stones, and pearls, drunk on the blood of the men who have come from the Earth, and when I saw her I was amazed with great amazement.
And Ming sitting on his throne said he wanted to judge the men of the earth, and he sneered lubriciously at the sight of Dale Arden, ordering her to be fed to the Beast from the Sea.
And the Beast had a horrible horn on its forehead, gaping jaws with sharpened teeth, predatory claws, and a tail like a thousand scorpions, and Dale did weep and call for help.
And coming to Dale’s aid were the knights of the undersea world of Corelia, now climbing the stairs astride their beaked monsters that had only two legs and a long ocean-fish tail…
And the Blue Magic Men loyal to Gordon, in their gold and coral chariot pulled by green griffins with long, scale-crested necks…
And the Lancers of Fria astride their Snow Birds, whose beaks were contorted like golden cornucopias, and finally there came, in a white coach, alongside the Queen of the Snows, Flash Gordon, who shouted to Ming that the great tournament of Mongo was set to begin, and that he would pay for all his crimes.
And at Ming’s signal, the Hawk Men dropped from the sky to fight Gordon, obscuring the clouds like swarms of grasshoppers, as the Lion Men with their nets and clawed tridents fanned out through the open area at the foot of the staircase, trying to capture Vanni and other students who had appeared in another swarm, this time of buzzing Vespas, and the battle was uncertain.
And uncertain of that battle, Ming gave another signal and his rocket ships were rising high into the sun and launching toward the Earth when, at Gordon’s signal, other rocket ships belonging to Dr. Zarkov were launched and a majestic agon was underway, amid hissing death rays and tongues of fire, and the stars of the heavens seemed to fall upon the earth, and rocket ships were penetrating the heavens and rolling liquefied like a book being rolled up, and the day of Kim’s Great Game arrived, and wrapped in more multicolored flames Ming’s other celestial rocket ships began crashing to the ground, crushing the Lion Men in the clearing. And the Hawk Men plummeted, swathed in flames.
And Ming the Merciless, Lord of Mongo, unleashed a fierce, bestial scream and his throne was overturned and tumbled down the stairs of the high school, crushing his fearful courtiers.
And the tyrant was dead, and gone were the beasts come from far and wide, and as an abyss opened beneath Azura’s feet, which were sinking in a swirl of sulfur, there arose, in front of the high-school staircase and above the high school, a City of Glass, and of other precious stones, lifted by rays of all the colors of the rainbow, and it was twelve thousand furlongs in height, and its walls of jasper resembled pure glass and were one hundred and forty-four cubits thick.
And in that moment, after a time that was made both of flames and also of vapors, the fog rarefied, and now I saw the staircase, free of all monsters, white in the April sun.
I have returned to reality! Seven trumpets are playing, and they are from Maestro Pippo Barzizza’s Orchestra Cetra, Maestro Cinico Angelini’s Orchestra Melodica, and Maestro Alberto Semprini’s Orchestra Ritmo Sinfonica. The doors of my high school are open, held wide by the Moli`erian doctor from the Cachet Fiat aspirin ad, who is knocking with a baton to announce the parade of archons.
And here they are coming down the stairs on both sides of the staircase, the male students first, arranging themselves like rows of angels for the descent of all seven heavens, wearing striped jackets and white pants, like so many Diana Palmer suitors.
And at the foot of the stairs Mandrake the Magician now appears, nonchalantly twirling his cane. He climbs, tipping his top hat in greeting, the steps lighting up one by one as he goes, and he is singing I’ll build a stairway to Paradise, with a new step ev’ry day! I’m gonna get there at any price, Stand aside, I’m on my way!
Mandrake now points his cane upward, to signal the descent of the Dragon Lady, sheathed in black silk, and at every step the students kneel and hold out their hats as a gesture of adoration, as she sings, with that saxophone-in-heat voice, Sentimental this autumn evening sky, infinitely gentle this rose from days gone by, the signs all point to love much to my heart’s delight, that’s all it’s dreamin’ of, an hour of joy tonight an hour with you.
And coming down after her, having returned at last to our planet, Gordon, Dale Arden, and Dr. Zarkov, intoning Blue skies, smilin’ at me, nothin’ but blue skies do I see, Bluebirds, singin’ a song, nothin’ but bluebirds all day long.
And following him is George Formby, with his horsey smile and his ukulele, strumming along to It’s in the air this funny feeling everywhere that makes me sing without a care today, as I go on my way, it’s in the air, it’s in the air… Zoom zoom zoom zoom high and low, zoom zoom zoom zoom here we go…
Down come the Seven Dwarfs, rhythmically reciting the names of the seven kings of Rome, all but one; and then Mickey Mouse and Minnie, arm in arm with Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow, bedecked with diadems from her treasure, to the rhythms of "Pippo Pippo doesn’t know." Then come Pippo, Pertica and Palla, Cip and Gallina, and Alvaro the Corsair, with Alonzo Alonzo (Alonzo for short), who was once arrested for giraffe theft; and then, arm in arm like old pals, Dick Fulmine, Zambo, Barriera, White Mask, and Flattavion, shouting out the partisan in the woods; and then all the kids from Heart, Derossi first, then the Little Lombard Lookout and the Sardinian Drummer Boy, then Coretti’s father, his hand still warm from the King’s touch, all singing Addio Lugano Bella, as the anarchists, unfairly chased away, leave, and Franti, bringing up the rear, repentant, whispers Sleep, do not cry, oh my sweet Jesus.
Fireworks burst forth, the sunny sky a blaze of golden stars, and the Thermog`ene man with his hot compresses tumbles down the stairs with fifteen Uncle Gaetanos, their heads all bristling with Presbitero pencils, their joints coming unjointed in a mad tap dance, I’m a yankee doodle dandy; kids and adults swarm out of My Children’s Library, Gigliola di Collefiorito, the Wild Rabbit tribe, Signorina di Solmano, Gianna Preventi, Carletto di Kernoel, Rampichino, Editta di Ferlac, Susetta Monenti, Michele di Valdarta and Melchiorre Fiammati, Enrico di Valneve, Valia and Tamarisco, the airy ghost of Mary Poppins looming over all of them, and all of them sporting military caps, like the Paul Street boys, and long Pinocchio noses. The Cat and the Fox and the gendarme are tap-dancing.
Then, at a nod from the psychopomp, Sandokan appears. He is dressed in a tunic of Indian silk, snugged at the waist with a blue sash studded with precious stones, and his turban is pinned with a diamond the size of a hazelnut. The butt of an exquisitely crafted pistol sticks out from his belt, and his scimitar’s scabbard is encrusted with rubies. In his baritone voice, he sings Mail`u, under the Singapore sky, its golden stars dreamily high, we fell in love, you and I, and he is followed by his young "tigers," yataghans between their teeth, thirsty for blood, singing the praises of Mompracem, our flotilla, which laughed at England in Souda and Malta, in Alexandria and in Gibraltar…
Now here comes Cyrano de Bergerac, his sword sheathed, who with a sweeping gesture addresses the crowd in a nasal baritone: "Maybe you know my cousin? She’s truly one of a kind… So modern and so pretty, her equal you won’t find. She does the boogie-woogie, and speaks some English too; you’ll find that she can murmur, quite graciously, for you."
Gliding smoothly after him is Josephine Baker, but this time `a poil, like the Kalmyk women from Races and Peoples of the Earth, except for a skirt of bananas around her waist, softly crooning Oh such grief I feel, such misery, to think, My Lord, that I offended Thee.
Then comes Diana Palmer singing Il n’y a pas, il n’y a pas d’amour heureux, Yanez de Gomera trilling Iberically O Maria la O, I’ve got kisses for you, O Maria la O, please let me adore you, a single look from you and there’s nothing I can do, and then the executioner of Lille, who sobs blond is your hair, made of strands of gold, sweet are your lips and fair, before decapitating Milady de Winter with a single blow, sffft, causing her adorable head, marked by a fleur-de-lis branded on her brow, to roll to the bottom of the stairs, almost to my feet, as the Four Musketeers croon in falsetto, She gets too hungry for dinner at eight, she likes the theater and never comes late, she never bothers with people she’d hate, that’s why Milady is a tramp! Down comes Edmond Dant`es intoning This time my friend, it’s on me, its on me, and Abb'e Faria, coming after him wrapped in his sackcloth shroud, points and says, That’s him, that’s him, yes, yes, that’s the man, as Jim, Dr. Livesey, Lord Trelawney, Captain Smollett, and Long John Silver (dressed up as Peg-Leg Pete, hitting every step once with his foot and three times with his prosthesis) challenge his right to Captain Flint’s treasure, and Ben Gunn smiling like Trigger Hawkes with his canine teeth and saying Cheese! With the clack of Teutonic boots, Comrade Richard descends the stairs, his tap shoes clattering to the rhythm of New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town! The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down, and the Laughing Man, on the arm of Lady Josiane, who is as naked as only an armed woman can be, is articulating I got rhythm, I got music, I got my girl, who could ask for anything more?
And stretching along the staircase now, thanks to a staging miracle concocted by Dr. Zarkov, is a long shimmering monorail, on which La Filotea arrives, rises to the summit, then passes into the entry of the school… And emerging out of it as if from a happy apiary, and retracing its route toward the bottom of the stairs, come Grandfather, Mamma, Pap`a leading a tiny Ada by the hand, Dr. Osimo, Signor Piazza, Don Cognasso, the parish priest of San Martino, and Gragnola, his neck wrapped in a brace that supports even the back of his head, like Eric von Stroheim’s, that almost even straightens his back, and all of them harmonizing:
The whole family sings along from the dusk until the dawn, Slow and soft, soft and slow, sings the Trio Lescano, Some are fans of Boccaccini, some are fond of Angelini, For others Rabagliati’s voice is forever their first choice. Mamma loves a melody, but her daughter fills with glee When Maestro Petralia plays a tune in the key of G.
And, as Meo glides over everyone, his long ears catching the wind, splendidly asinine, all the kids from the Oratorio burst chaotically in, wearing the uniforms of the Ivory Patrol, pushing Fang, the lithe black panther, ahead of them, exotically psalming "They’re off, the caravans of Tigrai."
Then, after firing a few shots at passing rhinos, they raise their weapons and their hats to salute her: Queen Loana.
She appears in her chaste bra, a skirt that almost reveals her navel, a white veil over her face, a feather rising from her headdress, and an ample cape wavering in a light wind, sashaying gracefully between two Moors dressed in the style of Incan emperors.
She is descending toward me like a Ziegfeld dancer, smiling at me, giving me an encouraging nod and pointing toward the door of the school, where the figure of Don Bosco now stands.
Don Renato follows behind him in his clergyman suit, chanting, mystically and broad-mindedly, Duae umbrae nobis una facta sunt, infra laternam stabimus, olim Lili Marleen, olim Lili Marleen. The saint, with a cheerful expression, his vestments splashed with mud and his feet encumbered by his Salesian shoes with the tip and tap of each step, holds before him, as if it were Mandrake’s top hat, The Provident Young Man, and he seems to me to be saying Omnia munda mundis, and your bride awaits you, and it was given her to wear a splendid, wholesome byssus, whose splendor shall be like to priceless gems, and I am come to tell you what shall happen shortly…
I have their consent… The two holy men position themselves on opposite sides of the bottom step and nod indulgently up toward the main entry, out of which the girls are now coming from their classes, bearing a great transparent veil in which they wrap themselves, assembled in the shape of a white rose. Backlit and nude, they raise their hands to reveal the profile of their virginal breasts. The hour has come. At the end of this radiant apocalypse, Lila will appear.
What will she be like? I tremble and anticipate. She will appear as a girl of sixteen, lovely as a rose opening in all its freshness to the first rays of a beautiful dewy morning, in a
long cerulean gown, draped from waist to knees with silver reticella lace, which though echoing the color of her irises will fall well short of equaling their ethereal azure, their soft and languid splendor, and a copious profusion of blond hair, downy and lustrous, checked only by a crown of flowers; she will be a creature of eighteen, diaphanously white, her flesh animated by a light rosy hue, the skin around her eyes imbued with a faint aquamarine cast, through which can be glimpsed, upon her forehead and at her temples, tiny veins of the palest blue, and her fine blond hair will fall upon her cheek, her eyes, a tender blue in color, will seem suspended in some moist, scintillating substance, and her smile will be that of a little girl at both corners of wse mouth, in serious moods, a slight, trembling wrinkle forms; she will be a seventeen-year-old girl, slender and elegant, with a waist so narrow a single hand would suffice to encircle it, with skin like a newly opened flower and a mass of hair tumbling down in picturesque disorder, like gold rain on the white corset covering her breast, a bold forehead will rule the perfect oval of her face, her complexion will have the white opacity, the velvet freshness of a camellia petal lit by dawn’s rays, her pupils, black and dazzling, will barely leave room, in each corner of those long-lashed eyes, for the blue transparency of her eyeballs.
No. Her tunic audaciously open on the sides, her arms bare, with mysterious and suggestive shadows beneath her veils, she will slowly unfasten something beneath her hair, letting the long silks that wrapped her like a shroud fall suddenly to the ground, and my gaze will travel up and down her body, robed now only in a clinging white garb, belted at the waist with a two-headed serpent made of gold, as she crosses her arms over her chest, and I will be driven mad by her androgynous form, by that flesh as white as the pith of the elderberry, that mouth with its predatory lips, that blue bow just beneath her chin, a missal angel whom some perverse minotaur has dressed as a mad virgin, on whose flat chest small but definite breasts rise distinctly, pointedly, the lines of her waist widening slightly at her hips, then disappearing into the too-long legs of a Luca di Leyda Eve, the gaze of her green eyes ambiguous, her mouth large and her smile disturbing, her hair the flaxen color of old gold, all of her head belying the innocence of her body; passionate chimera, supreme achievement of art and sensuality, bewitching monster, she will be revealed in all her secret splendor, arabesques will radiate from lozenges of lapis lazuli, rainbow lights and prismatic blazes will glide over inlays of mother-of-pearl, she will be like Lady Josiane, her veils melting away in the heat of the dance, her brocades falling to the ground, until she is clad only in fashioned gold, in translucent gems, a gorget cinching her waist like a corselet, its superb clasp, a marvelous jewel, flashing its rays into the crevice between her breasts, her hips wrapped in a band that hides her upper thighs, against which slaps a gigantic pendant, a spilling river of carbuncles and emeralds, her belly arching from her now naked torso with its navel’s hollow like an onyx seal, with its milky sheen, and in the ardent light radiant around her head every facet of every jewel will catch fire, the stones will come to life, accenting her body with their incandescent traces, stinging her neck, her legs, her arms with their sparks, now the deep red of embers, now the violet of gas jets, now the azure of burning alcohol, now the whiteness of starlight, and she will appear pleading for me to flog her, holding out an abbess’s hair shirt and seven silk ropes for scourging the seven deadly sins, with seven knots in each rope for the seven ways of falling into mortal sin, and the drops of blood that blossom on her flesh will be roses, and she will be slender as a temple candle, her eyes pierced by love’s swords, and my desire will be to place my heart upon that pyre in silence, will be that she, paler than a winter dawn, paler than candle wax, her hands clasped over her smooth chest, remain august beneath her robes, and red from the blood of the dead hearts that bleed for her.
No, no, what wicked literature am I letting myself be seduced by, I am no longer a prurient adolescent… I would simply like her as she was, as I loved her then, just a face above a yellow jacket. I would like the most beautiful woman I have ever been able to conceive, but not that supreme beauty which has led others astray. I would be happy even were she frail and sick, as she must have been in her final days in Brazil, and still I would tell her, You are the most beautiful of creatures, I would never trade your broken eyes or your pallor for the beauty of all the angels in heaven! I would like to see her rise midstream, alone and still as she gazes out to sea, a creature transformed by magic into a strange and beautiful seabird, her long slender bare legs delicate as a crane’s, and without importuning her with my desire I would leave her to her remoteness, the faraway princess.
I do not know whether it is the mysterious flame of Queen Loana that is burning in my crumpled-parchment lobes, whether some elixir is attempting to wash the browned pages of my paper memory, still marred by the many stains that render illegible that part of the text that still eludes me, or whether it is I who am trying to drive my nerves to the point of unbearable exertion. If I could tremble in this state, I would be trembling, I feel as storm-tossed in here as if I were bobbing out there on a squalling sea. But I also feel on the verge of orgasm, as my brain’s corpora cavernosa swell with blood, as something gets ready to explode-or blossom.
Now, as on that day in the foyer, I am finally about to see Lila, who will descend still modest and mischievous in her black smock, lovely as the sun, white as the moon, nimble and unaware of being the center, the navel of the world. I will see her lovely face, her well-drawn nose, that glimpse of her two front teeth between her lips, she an angora rabbit, Mat`u the cat mewing and rippling his soft fur, a dove, an ermine, a squirrel. She will descend like the first frost, and will see me, and will gently extend her hand, not in invitation but simply to keep me from fleeing once again.
I will finally learn how to perform forevermore the final scene of my Cyrano, I will see what I have looked for all my life, from Paola to Sibilla, and I will be reunited. I will be at peace.
Careful. This time I must not ask her "Does Vanzetti live here?" I must finally seize the Opportunity.
But a faint, mouse-colored fumifugium is spreading from the top of the stairs, veiling the entrance. I feel a cold gust, I look up. Why is the sun turning black?