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from the July 2005 issue

At the Foot of an Almond Tree

What is the particular sadness felt by anyone who attempts, after years of absence from a region where he once lived for a long time, to stop and observe-without being seen or recognized-the ordinary unwinding of life? I am trying to understand this particular sadness, while contemplating the heap of gray and black houses of my native town from the top of this hill.

I got off the train a little while ago and, not having any luggage, was able to leave the station quickly. Upon arrival, there were few people and nobody noticed me. So much the better. I hadn't told anyone of my return; even in town nobody was expecting me. I quickly took the shortcut between the hedges of brambles and the vineyards, but on the slope I became short of breath. Eh, I'm not a kid anymore. In my memory this path was less steep and longer. Instead, as soon as I surmount the small hill, there it is already, in front of me, the town.

It appears unexpectedly, in its ancient and dark abyss. At the sight of it, I don't know why, I lost my breath and I slowed my step. I looked around, searching for a stone or some grass on which to rest. I am not in a hurry, since no one awaits me.

Now I find myself at the foot of an almond tree, a little distant from the path. A few steps below, at a bend in the main road, rises a cross that the Passionist fathers erected many years ago, at the end of a Lenten sermon.

From here I can observe the most ancient part of the inhabited area. It is the first hour of the evening; the Ave Maria must have just sounded. A light purplish fog, formed from the damp and from the smoke of the fireplaces, flutters on the ditch of the river and disguises, between the houses and the stalls, the voids left, around half a century ago, by the earthquake. I see a long line of wagons, returning from the countryside, rising up along the road close to the river and scattering between the houses. A few women and children leave the church: some novena must be in progress. I see a quiet man leaning at the door of an inn, with his shoulder supported by the doorjamb. However, no voice reaches me, not even the slightest sound, perhaps because of the wind that blows in the opposite direction. It's as if I were present at the projection of an old silent film, slightly worn-out and with little light.

In other times I knew every alley of this narrow place, every house, every fountain, and which young girl, at what times, drew water from the well; every door, every window, and who leaned out facing you, at what time. For fifteen years this was the closed perimeter of my adolescence, the known world and its frontiers, the prefabricated scenery of my secret anguishes. But-now I realize-the feeling that just before stopped my steps is not the common anxiety of emigrants, nor the anguish or terror of certain elderly men before the inevitable flowing of time, but rather something else.

I try to understand. This reality that is now before me, which I have carried around with me for many years, it is an integral, indeed a central part of myself, and I felt myself in it; certainly not at its center, yet nonetheless an integral part of it. Instead, now seeing it before me, it reveals itself to me for what is, an extraneous world, that continues to live on its own account, even without me, in the manner that is proper to it, with naturalness and indifference. No different-in other words-from how an anthill would appear to me. This is the way, I think, that the final unwinding of a human life will be seen by a dead man, if, after a certain number of years, he is able to see.

Following this reflection, I feel the earlier, confused apprehension clarify into a humble and desolate state of mind: that of the irremediable loneliness and precariousness of individual existence. I wonder why I have returned and I think of leaving immediately. But the sound of footsteps drawing near holds me back. It is an old woman, dressed poorly in black, carrying a heavy bundle of dry branches on her back: a sight that is certainly not novel in our part of the world, halfway between the plains and the mountain. Too careful about where to place her feet, she is not aware of my presence. It is I who recognize her. She is a neighbor of ours. One of her sons, in elementary school, was my companion in class and in play. What misfortunes could have reduced her to such a state? Her husband, her children are no longer alive. I get up to join her. Perhaps she will accept some help in carrying the firewood.


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