Owl in the water pit
[ fiction - february 08 ]
For three days it had rained in the Valtellina. Almost from the start it was a heavy rain, methodical and monotonous, falling with a certain measured intensity. This morning it dropped from a deep black sky hanging over mountains and valley that Martin knew had never been blue since the creation of the Alps.
Optimistic weathercasters emphasized that heavy rains after the middle of August were the norm. The more prudent ventured that prospects looked brighter for the next week. Martin doubted that anyone really knew. This was more than just rain. This was nature in revolt. The rain was now total chaos. He felt that anything could happen. An earthquake or a great flood or a mudslide to cover the world he knew.
It was shortly after noon. He was driving up the mountain road toward his house in Montagna. Since he left Sondrio a few minutes earlier the rain had become violent. The mountain itself had vanished, the lower streets of the city had looked like Venetian canals, the Adda River was over its banks. His windshield wipers worked uselessly against the volume of the falling water directed at him. His headlights were futile. His face pressed against the windshield, he shifted into first gear and willy-nilly came to a near stop.
He should just wait in his car for a break and loll in the joy of total solitude from the world. But, he thought prosaically, on this narrow road he would be invisible to some nutty kid racing blindly up the hill as if it were a sunny day in spring.
Martin was one of those persons to whom unusual things often happened. It was unclear whether he attracted the odd events or the events attracted him. What is more, Martin implicated others in the things happening to him so that the singular occurrences of his life became a kind of complicity with other people. Wherever he went, whatever he did, people and objects and nature had a way of going haywire.
Floods and mudslides! Snow storms and avalanches!
Wondering if Queen Taitù was the cause of the rain, he laughed to himself at the legend he'd noted this morning to tell his high school class when schools opened again next month:
"Once upon a time there was rich city near the cascades of the Davaglione. It was ruled over by Queen Taitù. The people of the city were rich from their wine they sold on markets in the Switzerland. Each day the queen and her aides went to mass in the Church of San Rocco near the Grumello Castle. She had forbidden the priest to start mass without her. One fall day the queen was delayed by pouring rain. So, finally, the priest began mass anyway. When Queen Taitù arrived the mass was over. So great was her rage that she had the priest executed. Came the evening, a terrible storm struck Montagna. The Davaglione swelled and roared down the mountain, carrying enormous quantities of earth and rocks that covered forever the Kingdom of Tartano."
Rain fell like a curtain between Martin and the world. He could barely see the wipers struggling against the volume of the water. He felt it building up around him in his metal capsule. Because of the powerful hand of the wind and the force of the rain it was hard to tell if the car was stopped or not. It was like being in space. He lost all sense of orientation and distance. All human life abandoned him... or he it. He was destined to be alone in the world. He pulled on the handbrake, slid across the seat, got out on the passenger side, and found himself standing in six inches of mud and slime and the wind blowing at hurricane force.
He crept around in the mud and with his foot found that the right side of the road was several meters away - he'd been driving in the downhill lane. Now soaked and his shoes filled with sludge, he splashed back to the door, got back in and eased the car to the right. He turned on every light possible, and with the motor on and his face against the cold windshield, prepared to wait. The deluge had to let up. There was not enough water stored up in the heavens to continue at this intensity. There is equilibrium between earth heat and vapor, between the oceans and the skies. Even if it lasted forty days, rain always ended.
A sudden hard knocking on the passenger side of the car startled him out of his contemplation. The knocking became furious. Through the haze in the torrents of water gushing down the window he made out the abstract figure of a hand. Slowly he cracked the door. Out of the water world a gray face with long stringy hair leaned toward him. He intuited it was a woman.
"Help! Please help me! May I get in," a female voice murmured out of the wind and water, already getting into the car. "I need help. I'm hurt. I'm lost. I'm... I'm... I'm lost out here."
She sat immobile in the passenger seat. Water spread around her. Her eyes were closed. He leaned across her and closed the door. Her face and hair were covered in the same slime as on the road. Her flimsy dress and wind jacket were plastered against her body. She was barelegged and had on one flat shoe.
"What are you doing here?" he asked, Queen Taitù still in his mind.
"I don't know," she whispered, slowly moving her arms and shoulders back and forth as if in pain. Her eyes were still closed.
"Where were you going in this rain?"
"I don't know."
"Why are you alone?"
She opened her eyes and looked at him blankly.
"They took me into a shack," she said and began to whimper in a slow moan.
"What? What do you mean?"
"The men!" she whispered.
The rain crashed on the windshield, on the windows, on the roof, on the world. He leaned toward her to hear. She raised her hands and shrank away from him toward the door. Her face was drying. He could see the bruises, her swollen lips. The tops of her arms were black. She seemed traumatized.
"All night... they raped me... until the water came."
Martin considered her words for a moment, and then said, "I have to get you to a hospital quick."
"Yes," she said. "It hurts so.
Martin gazed at the girl, shifted around in his seat, and looked down between the seats where he kept the bottle. It was time. He hadn't had a drink until he got into his car at the Liceo. Thank God, his own rules were beginning to stick. Rule number one - No drinking until his school day was over! That is, no morning drinks. Today however hardly counted. Summer vacation had another two weeks. He preferred to do his course planning in his office. It got him out of his lonely house and also put him to the test each day again - to drink or not to drink? The drink he'd had in the parking lot had to make up for his morning abstinence. It had dropped straight to the bottom of his empty stomach like the rain crashing on his windshield now.
Just his luck! His sister-in-law was on duty in pronto soccorso. He couldn't go there. Everybody in the emergency room knew him. Bad idea. On second thought, maybe he should take the girl to the police for them to handle. But a schoolteacher, half drunk, with a teenage girl in tow! Cristo! He knew the story.
"We can't go anywhere in this," he said. "We can't move."
The girl looked at him and moaned softly.
"Here, let me look at that arm," he said, reaching toward her, then just as quickly withdrew his hand when she again pressed away from him and closed her eyes.
Kidnapped and raped! And yet she'd somehow found his car for refuge. In the great storm. Cristo! But what was she doing walking around in the rain anyway? It had poured yesterday too. Had she lost count of time? Where was a nearly naked teenage girl going in the pouring rain halfway down the mountain to Sondrio? Or up the mountain to Montagna? How could anyone have even seen her in this meteorological onslaught? She was probably not kidnapped at all. She was with friends. Her boyfriend beat her up. He knew his students' habits. They loved the pack. Nearly all at that age were brave in packs. Dressed alike, talked alike, acted alike.
Only ten days ago the world in the Valtellina had been different. Days, in the east toward Bormio and Stelvio, a pale light had spread over dark blue heavens. The moon over the Orobic Mountains had stayed in place longer than usual, before reluctantly sinking beyond Lake Como in the west. Things were as quiet on earth and in the heavens as in the spirits of the people of Montagna gearing up for another season - the arrival of autumn, then winter, and again the spring of the new year. The elements and people were in harmony.
Then, a week ago, in the east between the mountains and the sun had appeared that crazy reddish morning light. Since he was a child Martin had thought that the Mountain was noisy and garrulous. Sometimes the Mountain spoke with the Sun. The Mountain narrated its stories of life - of spirits and obsessions, of energy and life, of death and fear and the continuity of things.
That morning Martin had had a premonition. A great storm was brewing up there in the secret clouds behind the clouds beyond the clouds. The air higher in the universe was saturated with vapor. High over the Alps the humid air had cooled. Rising air had transformed the vapor up in the third tier into liquid drops. Those drops hung up at the top of the third layer of clouds like nature's reserve troops, where each drop had thickened and grown heavy. Until at around 10 a.m. this morning as he sat in his office in the Liceo in Sondrio each individual drop began combining with billions and trillions of the other heavy drops waiting up there and under their own sheer weight they thundered earthwards, carrying with them whatever they found in their atmospheric path. And in the clash between the crashing water and the warm air rising from the earth and the cold air in the heavens above the Alps emerged the blinding storm in this moment enveloping him and the stray girl.
Martin had intuited what the forecasters with their radar and wind charts and historical records ignored. Some unusual and unpredictable quirk of nature was about to materialize. Maybe the conjunction in the Valtellina of the Alpine and Mediterranean climates has always disturbed nature. Maybe it's not a cozy and serene union forming the peaceful microcosm of the Valtellina but a potential momentous clash of the rain gods and the sun gods.
In those pre-rain days no one spoke openly of such fears but the intuitive people of Montagna began to take protective measures, checking slate roofs for leaks and tightening window blinds. Wine growers reinforced vine stakes on the mountainsides and laid extra layers of straw on their terraced vines.
Suddenly, the waters of the Davaglione torrent near his house began racing downhill more wildly than usual. An ominous cloud rose from behind the mountains to the north and crept down the mountainsides. Then, gradually, mornings and evenings, the east winds turned cold.
Three days ago it began to rain.
"What are we going to do?" the girl asked in a fearful voice.
He turned back to her as if returning to earth where there were always questions asked and where answers were required. Martin used to consider himself lucky. He had never suffered any great setbacks in life before his wife left. Until then he'd had no specific illusions shattered, no personal losses of loved ones. Yet he had added nothing to life. He felt helpless to perform the one important act that he believed everyone should.
Now his supervisor and his publisher had begun asking him the question he asked himself: What did he want to accomplish in life? They told him he had to take care of his health if he wanted to teach and write. He should check his blood pressure and measure his cholesterol. He should jog and exercise more and cut back on salt.
Martin laughed. What would check-ups and exercise and less salt do for his desperation? Anyway, he told himself, it was all a metaphysical matter.
He knew what he should do - he should retire to his baita up near the summer grazing pastures fifteen hundred meters above Montagna... and drink himself to death.
"Do?" he said. "I don't know yet."
Of all the possible remote complications imaginable, he suddenly wondered if the raped girl was maybe pregnant? Was she already two persons?
The meddling Church and reactionary government have ruled that the embryo is a person at the moment of conception at which time also the soul enters the embryo, but that the woman-carrier of the new person with a soul counts no more than a snake's skin.
As if Church or State knew!
If this girl was raped, or simply screwed, and was bearing in her womb a person with a soul, she was still no more than a carrier. Hateful embryo, he thought. Deceptive soul. Where do they begin? Where do they end? They were like the unstoppable rain and the storm in the Valtellina and the wind that maybe began in Mongolia.
That was the lecture he had been preparing this morning while pre-storm winds blew and rains pounded on his office windows. The Church, he had written in his notes, now demands control over all the fundamental passages of human life: conception, life, sex, death.
"We can't just sit here forever," she murmured. "Can we?"
A little voice - his mad voice - told him that they could sit here forever if it happened to happen. Today, in this storm, with this girl beside him, he felt he was finally converting to some kind of Oriental Weltanschauung, his long overdue conversion to fatalism.
Again he turned toward her. As if mesmerized, she stared at the windshield wipers. Tac tac, tac tac, tac tac.
Minutes or maybe hours passed. The wind rocked the car like a cradle. He would like to tell her his mad thoughts. That would shake her up. Terrify her too. But she'd had enough terror.
He peered at her. Didn't she look less frightened? Did she look pregnant? With an additional soul for mankind? How can you tell? No, they couldn't sit here forever. With every passing minute his potential guilt mounted. Abduction of a minor! Or was she a minor? If she was really raped all night, if it was her friends who did the raping, then would she accuse them or him if it came down to it? He was mad to think of taking her to the hospital or the police.
"I have to get you home," he said. "That's the safest thing."
"Yes," she said.
In that instant they both started at a flash of fire cutting through the curtain of water in front of them and a simultaneous crash of thunder. The car shook violently. He thought it had struck them.
Automatically she reached toward him, her mouth open, and her pale eyes terrified. In the flash, her face appeared as white as snow. For a moment, in a vacuum just after the thunderbolt, nature paused, the rain hung motionless, silence reigned. Then, in a rush it crashed on them more violent than ever.
"No, no!" he said, pulling back. No touching at any cost.
Gingerly he pushed open his door and put down his foot outside. It sank in slime over his ankle. Water poured on him. Foolish to be out here! The wind flattened his wet clothes against his body. Unthinking, he reached back into the car and took the plastic bag from between the seats. He caught the look in her colorless eyes.
Outside, vision was zero. He closed the door. He turned his back on the wind, opened the grappa in the bag, and, his face toward the invisible heavens, took a long drink. The elixir flowed down his throat and caressed his stomach. He sighed and waited for the effect to rise through his body. Then, holding the plastic bag tight under one arm and with the other sliding along the door, the hood, the front bumpers, he worked his way around to the passenger side of the car to check their road position again.
Standing against the door, the water reached halfway to his knees. He felt only soft squishy earth under his feet. And around him, the smell. What was it? He knew the smell. The clammy dankness. Bitter and rancid it rose up to his nostrils in a familiar way.
He had smelled that smell back then each time he descended the steps from the porch and looked into the terrifying water pit under the house and saw those white eyes in the dark fixed in his.
'Papa,' he would beg, 'shoot the bird!'
His father explained the owl was good. At night it ate the rats.
Martin turned back toward the passenger window. Unseeing eyes pressed against the pane looking out at him. White eyes, owl's eyes, death's eyes looking out, and the dank smell around him.
When he slid into his seat again and put the plastic bag between the seats, she looked at him questioningly. Curiosity had replaced the fear in her eyes. Maybe she hadn't been afraid at all.
"Mudslide," he said. "The mountain is sliding down the mountain."
"Are we stranded," she asked, he thought with a nascent smile at the corners of her mouth. Then: "My name is Alice."
Automatically he told her his name before realizing it was stupid to identify himself. What if she charged him with abduction, with rape, with violence?
"Where do you live?" he asked, still unthinking.
He wanted another drink. Then, he wanted to get out of the storm, out of the slime and mud, out of the wind, far from that smell, and above all to rid himself of Alice with her white owl's eyes.
"Above Ca' Paini."
"Should I know you?"
"No, we just came back."
"Came back?" Martin echoed her.
"From Australia... my parents had to come back home."
Back home, Martin thought. What would it mean? Back to his parents' old house on the hill above the others. The house on the water. The dank pit of water underneath. The terrible smell from the pit of water under the porch and the eyes of the owl looking out of the darkness and its ghostly hooting at night. It terrified the little boy that the owl lived in the water pit and could see in the dark. His father said the owl was wise and eliminated the rats. It was a night hunter.
"Why?" he said distractedly.
"His ancestors, my father says. Been here for a thousand years. We belong here. It's genetic, he says, the plasma in our veins."
Martin stared at the girl and with his hand felt for the bag between the seats.
"My father was the same way in Australia," Alice said, indicating the bag with her eyes. "Why don't you just drink in the car?"
"No, no, it's just... just something to do."
"I don't mind."
She fiddled with the radio. "Do you mind?" she asked, settling on the Beatles. Another anniversary of their first visit to Italy. Beatles on all the stations. He said he didn't mind. She hummed a few words of Imagine, the words and the meaning of which he'd never learned. He doubted a raped girl would just sit here in the rain and sing right after.
Parked in the rain with a minor. The minor getting that female look in her eyes. And emanating her female smell. Music filling the car. The whole world reeking of alcohol. He drunk. Then, the abduction... if there was one. And the doubtful rape! The last straw for Martin. His family already gone, back to Morbegno. He'd be out of a job the next day.
She gazed at him with her owl's eyes, sexy owl's eyes, again looked at the bag between the seats and said her father used to talk to her about it. Martin could too if he liked. She twisted her hands and touched her upper arm. The black and blue and purple had spread down toward her elbow. It still hurt, she said.
He reached in the back seat and gave her his jacket. She took off her wet one and put his on. He knew it was a very bad idea. Another mark against him.
"Don't be afraid," he said, "I'm a school teacher."
"I'm not afraid of you," she said, he thought, grimacing in annoyance. "You're familiar."
Martin wondered why. He brought bad luck to everyone. Everything happened to him. The rubble of his failures weighed heavier in the downpour. His wife was gone, his children alienated, and the school board thought he was mad. Only his students loved him. At least that! Drunk or sober, he thought, they loved him. That counted, counted, counted. That was his life. And life's not about winning. Nothing wrong with losing. Each time someone wins, another loses.
Oh, there was a time when he could be the life of the party, sometimes just a hen party with Luisa and three or four of her women friends. A few beers or a bottle of wine was enough. Then came the time when he needed the half liter of wine for lunch and a grappa to be in top form for his afternoon literature class. That was long ago. His needs had since grown.
"Who is your father?" he asked. "What's his name? Maybe I know him," Martin added hopefully. Saving the daughter of a friend would help his record. Put him in the good graces of the community. His first step toward rehabilitation.
Alice looked at him with her pale eyes as if she were making a grave decision. Did he merit salvation? "I doubt it," she said. No one knows him here. He says he's an archeologist. I think he's a hermit."
"Archeologist? Here in Montagna?"
"Etruscans." She gazed at him as if waiting for that to sink in. Then: "He never has time for today."
"You mean the famous tablet with the Etruscan words? A woman's name?"
"He wanted to name me Esia, for the name in the epigraph. My mother killed that idea. But he still calls me Esia!"
"I remember it," Martin said, getting interested because of the name. "Some man found the tablet in his field just above Montagna. North Etruscan language written on it. LARTH IASAZIZ SON OF ESIA. I'm surprised he didn't name you Larth!"
"He probably would have liked to! Crazy man! Wants to speak Etruscan. He believes our dialect is somehow related to it just as it's connected with Greek. Do you believe that?"
"Well, that's an original idea. Christ, maybe..." Unthinking, Martin picked up the bag and opened the bottle of grappa and lifted it toward his mouth, stopped and looked at Alice. She nodded. He took a short drink, and replaced it.
"Who knows why we speak the way we do in Montagna," Martin said. "There must be some explanation for it."
"Why don't you tell me? You seem to want to talk about it... your problem, I mean."
He stared at her. They were alone in the world in the car in the storm. His world had shrunk. The world was storm. How strange! Only a thin sheet of glass separated them from the maelstrom. Nature's tumult on the other side, Alice listening to the Beatles this side. The thin divider was the difference! A kind of paralyzed quiet invaded the car. His everyday person edged away. Alice with her wise owl's eyes looked dependable. She was a listener. She and those pale and sexy and listening eyes of the owl. She would know what to do.
"I could tell you," he said. And he told her about a typical day.
"I'm drunk. I've been at it since 11. I stare at my manuscript. When Luisa goes out I feel liberated. I turn up the music. I go back and forth to the cupboard, alternating between grappa and whiskey, dancing a bit or directing the orchestra. I put on a violin concerto, maybe Bruch or Schumann. I stand on the balcony and look toward the mountains or I wander through the rooms with my notepad. I keep drinking. Later, at dinner, the children are noisy. I'm no longer drunk but I'm tired. I sip a bit of wine and wonder if I'm slurring. Luisa proposes a movie. My head nods in the dark and somehow the thing finally ends. I drive home carefully, sober, but dead inside. I fall asleep as soon as soon as my head touches the pillow. At about 3am. I wake up in a sudden resurrection. Is it today or yesterday? I sweat. My heart pounds. I won't drink for at least a month. Maybe I'll quit.
Alice was staring toward him, her owl's eyes now indecipherable. The rain seemed omniscient, unforgiving. The rain was the world. He wondered if she had listened at all to his drivel.
"Is that all?" she said. "That's not so bad."
Not so bad! he wondered, staring back at her. Then what's bad if that's not bad?
"The lurking danger, Alice, is always blackout. Blackout is not passing out. Magari! But you can't remember anything of what happens, or very little. And you can't explain how or why you were drunk. Like a few weeks ago when my friend from Tirano arrived with a bottle of cold vodka. I had the day's drinking programmed right down to the last glass of wine reserved for dinner. The alcohol situation was under control. Instead, he and I must have shared the whole bottle. I think we wrestled on the floor right here under Luisa's Madonna. Then a struggling walk down a road somewhere, a drive to Sondrio, crowds at a discothèque, everything misty, unreal, everything dissipated into a fog. I hung in space. I could have been in Catanzaro. I was between lives. As if I were floating in another dimension, alone, and even the memory of myself was forgotten. When I opened my eyes the next morning, Luisa was standing over me. I didn't know where I was or if I was even a human being. She smiled down at me and said, 'Now I understand everything!' I knew then it was all over, that it never could have been. She left. But then, Alice, nothing is forever."
Suddenly, the wind let up. Through the curtain of water to his left he saw another flash, a small brief light. It was close. Almost against the window on his side. He imagined someone walking past his window with a powerful flashlight. Then came the crash of thunder.
False alarm. He looked at Alice and took another drink.
She turned her head away.
By now the flush of warmth had spread through his body and into his brain. He felt giddy. 'Shouldn't do this,' he told himself. 'Most certainly shouldn't do this!'
"Wild people they were," he said, returning to the Etruscans. "Fat men, rich, and their emancipated promiscuous women. Great scenes of revelry on the walls of their tombs. Wild parties... " Christ, he shouldn't be talking like this to her. Dirty talk, they would say. Leading her astray. He thought of the scenes he'd seen at Cerveteri. Sex parties, satyrs with enormous erections, sexual acrobatics and phalluses all over the place. Christ, what was he even thinking about?
"They disappeared into history," he said dismissively. "Didn't leave much behind."
"An advanced civilization, my father says. The women were free. The women used their own names like my nickname, Esia. Their children belonged to them not to their fathers whom they didn't even know. They were the world's first feminists."
"Things haven't changed much," Martin said, taking a short drink from the bottle he now held on the seat between his legs.
"Why, what do you mean?"
"My children... they belong to their mother... not to me."
"How is that? Where are they?"
"Down the valley, in Morbegno." Crazy, he thought, he was conversing with her as if she were not the same age as his oldest daughter. As if... "They live there... hmmm, like Etruscan children," he muttered. "Hardly know their father."
"Do you miss them?"
"Yes, I think so... I'm not very Etruscan."
She smiled. He took another drink.
"So?" she said.
"All my fault," he said, more convinced than ever before that his sense of responsibility was intense love.
It felt good to be sitting here, with the pleasant sound of rain on the roof, the drink under his belt linking him as always to his other being, relaxed, conversing with this intelligent young lady, agreeable, a good listener, a creative listener. Her company instead of his aloneness. What a strange coincidence! Her face in the window. He stranded and she steps in out of the storm. Just been raped! Now that was an unusual experience. She finds him in the storm. Of all places. If she had passed only a meter or so farther up hill or downhill, she would never have found him. He was certain unusual things often happened to her too. Predestination! Maybe that was why she seemed to agree with him.
In that agreeable moment, just near them, a sudden rumbling was audible through the rain on the roof. Then, a dull thud. Martin cracked the window and listened closely. "A tree falling, I believe. We must be in front of a house I know... with cedars and pines along the road. Anyway, it missed us," he said.
He was tempted to tell her about the water pit and the owl. But what was there to say about it? He must have been about three. He only remembered the water under the porch, the smell and the owl. And he wasn't certain that it even happened. Maybe he had dreamed it.
"Will you go to school this year?" he asked instead.
"No, I got my Master's last year."
"Literature... University of Sydney."
"What! How old are you anyway?" he said, peering at her closely again.
"Oh! I thought... boh! I think I thought you were a teenager."
"That's not all you thought!" she said and laughed a short little laugh.
"You're a mind-reader too?"
"Sometimes. Yes, I think so. You wondered what to do with me? You wondered if I was dangerous for you."
He didn't answer and held the opened bottle in both hands without any attempt to minimize it.
She waited. Like a shrink, he thought. Waiting for him to commit himself. Then: "You won't tell on me, will you Prof?"
Tell on her? That she was raped or that she was not raped on the road to Montagna? That she slept out the night? That she had a battle with her boyfriend?
He didn't know what to say that could explain... that could interest her. Unless, of course, he talked about the owl in the water pit. The thing about the owl was, well, the owl depended on the existence of the water pit. But he wasn't sure the water pit or the owl even existed. No one around here had a water pit like that one. Some things exist and other things might exist or they exist in our memory, uncertain and different, or in terrifying childhood dreams or in our uncontrolled imagination. That was the problem - distinguishing between reality and fantasy and imagination.
Vagueness in his mind, his vision blurred, and a sensation of desperation dropping toward his stomach, he leaned toward the windshield. The rain seemed to fall haphazardly. A will of its own, he thought. He giggled.
There was something out there! A light. First, it looked like the palest of stars in the early evening firmament. Then, it grew brighter and drew near.
It was an eye. The eye of a mountain god! On a collision course. He raised his hands in front of him and looked toward Alice. She sat straight and calm, a little smile at the corner of her mouth.
The eye was now at the car. The hood of his car was suddenly visible. The rain slowed. He stayed calm too.
"Looks like an eye," he said, sorry he hadn't told her about the owl's eyes. "It's a big eye."
"Silly," she said. "It's a tractor. Can't you see it out there?"
"A powerful light!" he said. "Looks like an owl's eye."
"Anyway, the storm is over!" she said.
"Over! But we're just getting started."
Alice looked at him and wagged her finger. "You're incorrigible, Prof."