Moving house, that is out of the question. At the village there’s all one needs, old friends, family. That’s what he’d say before the accident.
Broad daylight, clear way, smooth asphalt, a light bend. His memory stops an instant earlier. In that moment his wife tells their younger son he mustn’t kick the seats. We don’t do that, repeats his sister. A second later, he blanks out. Many seconds later, he wakes up at the hospital, but nothing hurts. Unbelievable, the doctors say, he was uninjured and they are dead.
And yet he was sober, speed within the limit. Driver’s lapse in concentration, write the consultants. At home, only the dog is there. It waits for the others to arrive, it yaps, it looks at his master, the only one left. Funny how he had never wanted a dog. It was his children who insisted. It was his wife who convinced him.
Not one phone call to express condolences. At the funeral, they’re all present, but few approach him to say they’re sorry. Most participate, then leave. And before they go they look at him, and afterwards, on the street, at work, they know him, they all know what he’s done. A light bend. You cannot keep going straight by mistake.
His house is the only shelter, but looks too much the same as before. Too big for those left. He doesn’t care where to go, as long as it’s far away. He only brings essentials and the dog with him. He also quits his job, he’ll find another one, or he’ll figure something out.
The new house is all on one floor, just three rooms and a garage for storing tools. Nobody has lived there for years. After the crossing, it’s three kilometres of uneven asphalt, two more of gravel, then the road ends up in front of the door. With the house, he also bought a parcel of land to grow a kitchen garden in.
Phone calls, he never gets any. He didn’t tell anybody he would leave. The dog settles in quickly, it’s happy to have so much room available. He is happy he has a dog, too.
They don’t know him here, but they don’t ask questions. They accept him, maybe they just bear with him. He goes down to the village only when necessary. There’s a bar there, but he’s never walked in. He knows there’s a woman for lonesome men, he knows it because he’s heard people talk about it, but he doesn’t feel lonely. He feels free.
No one lives nearby, fields are left uncultivated, woods are a tangle of branches. Wild animals leave traces and odours, but they escape unseen. Only once, a car turns up, he hears the noise of an engine, a manoeuvre. By the time he looks out the window he catches sight of a dusty cloud vanishing up the hill. The dead-end street signboard has fallen over. The following day he sets it upright. Now they won’t get it wrong any more.
Days pass slowly by, yet he always finds something to do: replace broken tiles, even out the yard, take care of the vegetables, trim branches, paint the front of the house, walk the dog. He doesn’t feel the need for human company, nor for a voice over the phone, and even if he did he’d have to move a couple kilometres since there’s no signal there.
One day he goes grocery shopping at the village, he fills up the gas tank, then drops in at the repair shop for a quick maintenance check. It’s all OK, says the mechanic. It’s dark already as he comes home, days shortened all of a sudden and it’s foggy. When he sees the tree he brakes just in time. He gets out of the car, the trunk crosses the road, no way to pass through. He tries to pull it, but it’s too heavy, so he moves along on foot.
The tree was a dead one, but there has been no wind today, it hasn’t rained. Still, he’s sure he’s heard it creak on his way there. The dog runs towards him as usual, it seems odd, even to it, that his master’s come back so, but it’s happy, what matters is that he’s back.
Once the log has been removed he makes sure there are no more unstable trees. He’d do well to replace his runabout car with an off-road one, but first he’d have to ensure a regular income for himself. He doesn’t care to do that, there’s no hurry, he doesn’t feel like going back to life as it used to be, come across people every day. He has, however, other concerns: the gravestone, those shrivelled flowers, and the rest.
The dog has taken off the extra weight, could it be because of all the running, the rationed food, maybe it’s because of its master’s presence. There, now it’s found a leveret and has chased it as long as he could, then it’s come back, its tongue dangling, cheerful, a loser.
He has lost weight as well, he feels his muscles stretch, he looks at his rough hands and can’t tell they’re his, he recognises himself in the mirror, but he also knows he’s changed. He talks to the dog, just a few sentences, monosyllables, he notices his voice is different, but he couldn’t say how different.
From those clumps of hard earth carrot tufts sprout up, the first salad leaves open, tomatoes colour, pumpkins flower. The dog keeps off the cultivated quadrangle, it observes the water-can’s spool, the hoe’s rhythmic moves, hands plucking out weeds.
He buys more seeds, gets the required equipment, doesn’t ask for any advice, there’s nobody around he could ask to. He wants to make do by himself, he can’t explain why, but he’s satisfied when he’s tired in the evening. Satisfied, not pleased, that would be too much, he’d know he doesn’t deserve it.
Today he goes out because he’s seen some nibbled leaves. It’s the snails’ fault, he’s sure of that, he’s sensed them. Still, they couldn’t possibly have pulled out the leaves, torn the stems, overturned the soil. It was moles, maybe, but there are no holes. That’s it, it’s the boars’ fault for sure. He looks for paw prints, but cannot find any. If it was an animal, it has eaten nothing. It hasn’t made any noise or he hasn’t heard it, nor has the dog. It could do it again, in one night it could spoil months of work and expectation, so he saves what he can, tidies up, and gives up on the rest.
Soon after it starts raining frequently and the state of the road worsen. Before, dodging potholes was enough, now it is necessary to choose the smaller ones, approach dead slow, venture out the brim. As the water digs deeper and deeper ruts.
He could ask for help down at the village, but he doesn’t know anybody. When he talks to them they’re nice, but as soon as he’s turned his back he hears them murmuring, so he stops going there.
He goes for long walks in the woods. There are no trails, but he learns how to orientate himself, how to tell apart berries and venomous mushrooms. The dogs goes with him everywhere, when it disappears from sight a whistle is enough, and it’s back to him in a few seconds.
One evening he hears a shot. He listens: neither animals running away nor hunters approaching the prey, yet it seemed close. He keeps waiting, then calls the dog, but it doesn’t come. He starts looking for it, raises his voice, at nightfall he has to return home. He finds it in front of the door, his tail hanging low. For the first time he brings it in, in a safe place.
In the following days he doesn’t go out, the rain never stops falling for a moment. Then the sky clears and he is outside once again. The dog accompanies him up to the edge of the wood, but he doesn’t move on from there. He has never heard it whine so, so he leaves it behind. Today’s picking was good, all that water served some purpose after all, tomorrow he’ll be back with a bigger backpack.
When he steps out of the vegetation he looks for the dog to celebrate. He looks for it behind the house, but he doesn’t find it, at least not right away. He has to look upwards to see it. They chose the thickest branch and a rope he used to keep in the garage. The wind makes it swing two metres above the ground.
He buries it nearby and places a cross with no name on top of the heap. He stores what he has picked, but never goes back into the woods. Now he wakes up later, but keeps his eyes closed, then opens them, but doesn’t move. He has no hurry, he has the whole day ahead of him, only he doesn’t know what to do with it.
He tidies up, cleans, fixes things, then looks outside, but there’s nothing out there he hasn’t seen already. He could go out, but he wouldn’t know where to go, it would seem useless. Even staying in seems useless. He counts the time he’s wasting, then stops. He thinks back on the bend, the guard-rail that didn’t hold up, the escarpment, the crashed car, he watches the accident from the outside, goes near the wreck. Looks inside.
Every morning he checks his mailbox, he knows there’s nothing in it, but he contents himself just with the feel of its emptiness. He has less and less money, despite the kind of life he leads. The moment he’ll run out of it doesn’t worry him, but all the time left before it happens does.
One morning he wakes up, looks outside the window and sees it’s snowing. Now he’ll have to clear the car and clean the road. The following days are spent shovelling, snow never stops falling and every morning he has to start anew, but hopes for it to go on the whole winter. Instead, it stops, the temperature rises, snow melts.
He moves to a farther village to get supplies. When he gets out of the car they stop chatting and stare at him. He buys what he needs and leaves, next time he’ll go even further away.
Now it’s colder, too cold for snow, despite central heating it’s cold inside as well. The road doesn’t have holes any more, only sheets of ice. He doesn’t even try to go uphill, he’ll eke out food in the meantime.
From the window he seeks for an animal’s snout, but looks like they’re all hibernating. He’d hibernate as well, instead he has trouble sleeping. At night he lies down, but after a while he gets up and walks around the rooms, then he goes back to bed and closes his eyes. He looks for something to think about, he follows the train of thought, but when it reaches the other end he drops it. His head is empty when he hears the scream, but the glass breaks first and it’s only when it bounces on the ground that he notices the stone.
He looks outside, but there’s nothing there. He throws on something, switches on a flash-lamp, goes outside, listens up, everything as usual. Maybe it was he who cried out.
He moves the mattress to the other room and locks the door. It’s colder on the ground, so he adds a blanket and slips the biggest knife he owns under the mattress. He hopes morning will come soon. He hopes for it the whole night.
The next day he realises it’s still snowing. He nails a few boards on the doorpost, but leaves the mattress where it is and hangs on to the knife. Even when he runs out of food he waits for the ice to melt. Once it’s melted he gets a new fear: the car may not start. But it does, the first time he turns the key in. He releases the clutch and presses the accelerator, too quickly, the car covers a distance of a couple metres, hiccups, dies. There’s no way to restart it.
He spends the rest of the day looking around him, conjecturing. If he were them, he’d get it over with this now, as long as he’s blocked. If he were them he’d wait for the night to come. He’d wait for him to fall asleep.
When it becomes dark he goes back inside, he sits in the middle of the room, knife in his hand, eyes on the door. Hours pass, when one hand hurts he grabs the knife with the other. After a while they both hurt, as he is about to set it down he hears them. They last for just an instant, so he wonders if they were screams at all.
He’s barely got up than they start again, louder, they’re behind the door, he doesn’t lose sight of the handle, but it doesn’t turn, yet the shrieks are approaching, he recognises them, they’re the woman’s and the children’s.
And when they get in, now that they’re on him, he understands there’s only one way. He hits once, once more, again. Until he has the strength for it. Until he doesn’t feel anything anymore.
translated by Francesca Massarenti