Late one afternoon we walk along the flank of a hill
in silence. In the shadows of early evening,
my cousin is a giant dressed in white,
moving calmly along, his face browned by the sun,
not speaking. Silence is a family trait.
Some ancestor of ours must have been a solitary man
a great man surrounded by halfwits, or a poor, crazy fool
to teach his descendants such silence.
This afternoon my cousin spoke. He asked me
to climb the hill with him: from the top, on clear nights,
you can see the glow from the lights of Torino
shining in the distance. "You live in Torino, I know . . ."
he said haltingly, "but you're right. Spend your life
a long ways from home. Make good, enjoy yourself.
Then when you come back home, like me, at forty,
everything's new. These hills don't change.
The Langhe hills will still be here."
He said a lot, and he doesn't speak Italian,
but the drawling local talk, a dialect like the rocks
of this hill, so rugged and hard that twenty years
of foreign idioms and sailing foreign seas
haven't made a dent. And he climbs the path
with that look of concentration I remember seeing as a child
in the eyes of peasants just beginning to tire.
For twenty years he knocked around the world.
I was still a baby, not yet walking, when he left.
They spoke of him as dead. Later, I heard the women
talking about him as if he were a character in a story.
The men, more matter-of-fact, just forgot him.
Then, one winter, a postcard came addressed to my father
(he had died by then), with a great big greenish stamp
showing ships in a harbor, and a message wishing us
a good harvest. Nobody knew what to make of it,
but the boy, much bigger now, breathlessly explained
that the card came from an island called Tasmania,
with blue water all around it, seething with sharks,
in the Pacific Ocean, south of Australia. His cousin,
he added, must be a pearl-fisherman. And tore off the stamp.
Everyone had his own opinion, but in the end they said
if he wasn't dead already, he couldn't be long for this world.
Then they all forgot him, and a long time passed.
God, how long it's been since those childhood days
when we played at Malay pirates. The time it's been
since I last went swimming and almost drowned,
and shinnied up a tree trying to catch a playmate
and broke the branches and ruined the fruit, and gave
my rival a bloody nose, and then got a beating for it
God, the water that's gone under the bridge!
Then other days, other games; another kind
of blood, the shocks and wounds that come from facing other,
more elusive rivals: thoughts, desires, dreams.
The city taught me fear, an infinity of fear.
A crowd, a street, sometimes a thought I saw
on somebody's face have made me shake with terror.
My eyes feel the hard, cruel light cast
by the endless streetlights on the tramping feet below.
After the war was over, my cousin came home.
One of the few, a giant of a man. He had money too.
His relatives whispered, "Give him a year at best.
He'll be flat broke by then, and moving on again. You'll see.
Good-for-nothing never came to a good end yet."
My cousin has a stubborn jaw: he bought a ground-floor shop
and somehow managed to convert it into a cement garage
with a blazing red pump out front for pumping gas,
and a great big sign by the curve on the bridge.
Then he hired a mechanic to handle the cash
while he roamed around the Langhe hills, smoking his pipe.
He married about then. Picked a local girl,
but blonde and slim, like one of those foreign women
he must have met when he was knocking around the world.
But he still went out by himself. Dressed in whit,
hands behind his back, his face browned by the sun,
he haunted the fairs in the mornings, cagey and shrewd,
haggling over horses. Afterwards he told me
when his scheme fell throughhow he'd gotten the idea
of buying up every last working animal in the Belbo valley
so people would have to buy cars and tractors from him.
"But the ass, the real horse's ass, was me," he used to say,
"for dreaming up the scheme. I forgot one thing:
people in these parts are just like their oxen. Dumb."
We walk for almost an hour. The summit is close,
and the rushing whine of the wind gets steadily stronger.
Suddenly, my cousin stops and turns: "This year," he says,
"I'm going to have my handbills printed with this legend:
Santo Stefano is always first and best
in the holiday feasts of the Belbo valley. And we'll make
the people of Canelli admit it." Then he starts back up the path
All around us in the dark is the smell of earth and wind,
lights far off in the distance: farms and cars,
you can hardly hear them. And I think of the strength
this man has given me, wrestling it from the sea,
from faraway countries, from silence, always silence.
My cousin doesn't talk about the traveling he's done.
All he says, dryly, is that he's been here or there,
and thinks about his motors.
One dream, only one,
still burns in his blood. He shipped out once
as fireman on a Dutch whaler called the Cetacean,
and he saw the huge fins flying in the sunlight,
he saw the whales turning and running in a wild froth of blood,
and the boats giving chase, and the great flukes
rising and thrashing out against the harpoons.
He mentions it at times.
But when I tell
him how lucky he is, one of the few people who've ever seen
dawn breaking over the loveliest islands in the world,
he smiles at the memory, saying that when the sun rose,
the day was no longer young. They'd been up for hours.
Italian; trans. William Arrowsmith
Cesare Pavese, Italian, trans. William Arrowsmith, Hard Labor, Ecco Press, 1976.