Gods Had Feet of Clay
Gods Had Feet of Clay
Two extracts from:
(The novel is about the civil war in Italy during late 1944 and early 1945. The protagonist is a young boy of 16, Stefano Hemmi, who is too young to understand the real issues of all the fighting. He has run away from home and we find him here at the Genoa station, waiting for a train to go South).
Stefano did not know what the young girl was to the two older women: they sent her on errands, as if she were a maid, but she called them Aunts. When they sent the girl to buy the afternoon paper, Stefano said he would go with her. The two women did not object. He was only aware of the fact that she was a girl: he had not stopped to think if she was pretty.
She had a silent way of moving and smiling, and was young and slim, and he thought for a moment that they were going out on a date.
'May I call you Evelina?' he said 'I heard your aunts call you that.'
'They are not my aunts.' she said.
'Do you mind if I call you Evelina?'
'I am Stefano.'
She stopped and held her hand out to him and said 'How are you Stefano.' He said 'How are you', but felt uneasy, because stopping and shaking hands and saying how are you was a country custom: Only country people did it. And country people had been something he had never thought he would ever have anything to do with.
'How old are you?' he said.
'Nearly eighteen.' and she suddenly was too old for him, too knowing, too wise.
'I thought you wouldn't be older than sixteen.' She looked peeved.
He carried the newspapers back for her and they went back, weaving their way through the people still squatting all over the place, over the steps, over the floors.
'I wish they'd hurry with the viaduct.' he said.
'What for? As soon as it's ready they'll bomb it again. You know that the line from Turin is out off?'
'And as soon as they bomb it, we'll put it up again.' He said. 'You don't think they'll win the war, do you?'
'I don't care,' she said 'I just don't care.'
He could not tell whether he liked Evelina, but he kept thinking that she was a girl; and that something should happen and that something might happen. That night, perhaps, or on the train to Leghorn, or, who could tell, in Leghorn itself. He might even go to Leghorn and stay there: for the first time in his life, he realized that he could really do what he wanted to without having to ask for anybody's permission. He would stay there and he would see her and take her out. Her aunts - why did she call them aunts if they weren't? - liked him.page 27
They had been back for a while and the two women had left them alone, to look after the luggage: they had been cold and gone into the waiting room.
Somebody had said that the viaduct was nearly ready and they had asked him to go and call them if and when the train arrived.
Stefano sat on a soft bundle the women had and Evelina sat on a suit case. They both leaned against the hard edge of the stone seat. He said 'Come closer to me. We'll be warmer.' She went without saying a word, in the darkness that did not allow him to see her face. He said 'Do you mind if I put my arm around you?'
'I don't care.'
'If we only had a blanket.'
She moved and he heard her open her suitcase. Then they were under a blanket she had pulled out.
'You sure you don't mind my arm around you?' he said again. He did not know what he wanted to say.
'I don't care.' she said again. It was just sad and far-away. She was not with him and, really, whatever he said or did could not make any difference.
'That's all you say.' he said 'Isn't there something you care about?' They were whispering, but it was as if they were each whispering to themselves. The moon was not out yet.
'Not any more.' she whispered back with her usual sad sort of finality. He was holding her close; he felt her slimness against his body and wondered at how different a woman could be from the softness he had imagined. Then he thoughthe heard her sob quietly and stretched his other hand towards her face. She was crying.
'Evelina,' he said 'what are you crying for? You are not scared, are you?'
'Sorry,' she whispered back 'I'm so sorry.'
'Are you sorry because you are leaving your family and going with your aunts?'
'I have no family; and they are not my aunts. They are nothing to me.'
'What do you go with them for?'
'I can't go anywhere else.'
He was still holding his hand on the side of her face. He had tried to dry her tears and tried to comfort her, but the quiet way she had of crying made him feel useless. Her tears scared him: it was the abandoned crying of a child he could not understand.
'Where are your parents?'
'They are dead.'
'Evelina,' he said 'we can't do anything, even if we cry.!
'I don't care.' she said 'I feel like crying.'
That made him think that she was not very clever; feeling like crying when everybody knew that crying does not make dead people come back. But then, perhaps, he had never really thought that dead people could still make one cry.
'It's just that I can't get used to it. It was all so quick.'
'Were they bombed?'page 28
They were under the blanket. He was so warm and snug: he had never been so close to a girl before.
'No. ' she said, 'We left Pegli because of the bombs. My father and I went into the country to be safe ...
Wasn't your mother there?'
'She died six years ago. '
'Don't think about it. '
'I am not thinking. It's there: that's all.' and he thought she broke down again, in that silent way of hers. He thought they could not really talk of anything. He took his hand away from her face and placed it under the blanket. And then he found that her dress had come up and she wore no stockings and her flesh was very smooth and warm and firm. He closed his hand around her thigh and she was soft there and he thought that girls were nice and good. He thought he liked to be a man, too, because - if he had not been one - he would not have had Evelina there. And while he was enjoying it and feeling that she was really his girl, a real girl, not just a dream or a wish, he heard her whisper again: and she said words, slowly and tonelessly, that were said to the air of the night, to nobody, to the darkness that was him.
'I don't know why they did it. They came and asked me to go and call him. And it was me who went and it was me who sent him down.' Stefano listened because he was there, but it was not as if her words were for him: it was as if she were telling a story: one of those tales about other people and lands he always liked to hear. She went on repeating the things she had done that night and somehow he thought it might have been her in the story and it might have not. That was not a very real world to him. 'I went downstairs with him.' she said 'He didn't know them, because he said what can I do for you? They said can you come out a moment? It's urgent. Then I said I'll go and do the dishes. My father said all right and, when I was in the kitchen, I heard the shots and he was lying in front of the house, all bloody and dead, and the car was going away.'
'Did they shoot your father?' Stefano said, as if he could not believe it.
'They killed him.' she said.
'I don't know.' And the story seemed to him a poor story, because she was not explaining it.
'But were they partisans? Were they Germans? What were they?'
She said nothing; she let him keep his hand on her. The way she went on, without even noticing it, without moving or stirring or pretending to say no, made him feel out of place and uneasy. It was worse than if she had laughed at him or slapped him. He took that hand away and just held one arm around her shoulders.
'What was he?' he said.
'I don't know and I don't care. God should know, if God exists.'
'God doesn't.' Stefano said. 'It's all in your mind, you know?'
'I think so.' she sighed.
'Try and sleep.' he said. 'Here, put your head on my shoulder.'page 29
Stefano is separated from Evelina when the train comes into the station. He reaches Sarzana that night; sleeps in a farm-house, the next morning is on the way to Viareggio. The driver of an old lorry stops and offers him a lift.
'Well? 'What's the matter?' the man said 'Still asleep? Want to go or want to stay?'
'Oh yes. Yes, thank you.' Stefano said.
'Try and keep an eye out for planes.'
Stefano had never been any good at spotting planes in the sky. 'They wouldn't waste ammo on this, would they?' he laughed, but the man seemed annoyed.
'Why don't you travel at night?' Stefano said.
'And what about the curfew? What world do you live in?'
And he looked up at the sky, to do something that the man might think useful, and to get back into his good graces.
He had never ridden in a lorry with hard tyres. It reminded him of a small char-a-banc he had been in, down South, when he was very young and cars and engines had not yet reached the small place where his grand-father lived. They went along, on those wheels that seemed square pieces of wood, with the man paying all his attention to the road. He did not ask Stefano where he was going or what he was doing, but seemed glad to have him in the cab, if only to keep talking to somebody. But there again, like two nights before with Evelina, it was not Stefano the man was talking to. He went on, in an endless monotonous stream that droned on and on, in unison with the apologetic coughing and puffing of the engine, immersed in the same strange uncommunicative monologue Evelina had given him in the darkness.
With the man, it was the fruit rotting away at Forte dei Marmi: the fortune waiting for the man who could manage to carry it to La Spezia or Genoa. It was also the dead people of Nervi and the strafing of everything that moved on the roads in day-time.
The man never altered his tone, he never even turned to look at Stefano. He never mentioned Germans, or Americans, or Italians; he never mentioned the war, although he spoke of a world very much affected by it. It was as if the abnormal causes of all this abnormality had been forgotten and he had never known things to be different.
Then he said: 'If my boy were here, it would be another story. He knew how to get things done; he'd have gone and fixed things up and helped me with this rotten business that I am too old to be doing by myself.'
He shook his head and sighed and Stefano went after the boy who was not there and imagined a boy younger than himself - the way the man had said 'my boy' - who could do wonders at such an age. Perhaps the boy had some hidden powers, he thought, some magics of his own, a private fairy's wand. And then he thought the old man was stupid to complain about the boy. Why hadn't he taken him along?
They went on chug-chugging, shaking with the whole of their bodies on the unpadded seat of the cab. Stefano wondered at the enormous hand-brake and the gear-lever and the disconnected floor-boards.
'But then,' the man said 'what's the use? what can you do?' Stefano didn't know if the man was meaning him.page 30
'Can we buy something to eat somewhere?' he said.
All the trees on both sides of the road had a short piece of cord tied around them about two feet from the ground and he wanted to ask what the cord was for.
'I am hungry.' he said.
The road was dead. Lying there with nothing and nobody. Just the sun and them and the fields and the trees. Then they went through a group of houses and the houses were empty, and the windows were like eye-sockets in calcinated skulls.
'They've bombed it here.' Stefano said.
'If they'd only put it off for two years;' the man said 'if only they hadn't pushed me into marriage then, he might have just been your age and he'd have been all right. He isn't much older than you, you know?'
'My boy is not much older than you: he's just a child. I don't know why they took him away.'
'You mean your son is in the army. '
'This rotten, bloody war.' the man said 'If they've killed him, I don't know what I'll do.'
And now Stefano was seeing 'his boy' in a different light. The man was slightly mad. Stefano kept being hungry and the bumps, with his empty stomach, made him feel sick. He'd have wanted the man to stop, but the way he never answered made him wonder whether there would be any use in telling him.
'Ehi.' Stefano said at last 'Planes; I think they are planes.' and he pointed out of the window to his right.
The man jammed the brakes and stopped his truck and jumped out without bothering about Stefano and ran to the other side of the road and into the ditch.
There had been wisps of clouds in the sky and Stefano now realized he had mistaken them for planes coming in stupidly against the sun, from the Tyrrhenian sea. He, too, had come out on the road but did not go down on the ground. He strained his eyes at the clouds and nearly wished they were planes after all, now. Then he thought that, at least, that had shaken the man out of his blubbering, dispirited recollecting.
The man, in the end, came back and cursed him. 'Where the hell did you see the damn planes?' he said.
'I thought ... ' and Stefano pointed at the sky and the sky was beautiful. 'Look,' he said 'look. I thought they were there.'
The man muttered something and bent to stir the charcoal in the burner. He made a noise of old pokers on the grate of an old fireplace. An odd noise, there, on that road, lying dead and getting lost in the distance, with the dryness and greyness of a long silver ribbon, and rising slightly until it curved to the right and disappeared.
The air above the charcoal burner was dancing and stirring. The man stoked the burner with two shovelfuls of fuel he took from a box on the running-board, and then took Stefano's suitcase down from the tray and dropped it on the road.
'What is it?' Stefano said.
'Nothing.' the man said 'I've got a feeling. When I was there in the ditch, thinking of the planes, I knew there was something wrong. I can't take you any further.'page 31
'Look.' Stefano said 'Look here ... '
'Shush ... It's no use talking; I know what I've got to do. You'll have to walk.'
'Have you got something to eat. I am starving. Mind you, I'd pay.'
The man went into the cab and handed him some bread and cheese but did not want any money. 'No,' he said 'I'd like to help you. I'm sorry it's like this.'
'Well, thank you. Good bye.'
The small truck took off painfully and was soon gone and Stefano wished he had not thought his disrespectful thoughts about it.