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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Drowned Boy
By Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863–1938)
 
From ‘The Triumph of Death’

ALL of a sudden, Albadora, the septuagenarian Cybele, she who had given life to twenty-two sons and daughters, came toiling up the narrow lane into the court, and indicating the neighboring shore, where it skirted the promontory on the left, announced breathlessly:—  1
  “Down yonder there has been a child drowned!”  2
  Candia made the sign of the cross. Giorgio arose and ascended to the loggia, to observe the spot designated. Upon the sand, below the promontory, in close vicinity to the chain of rocks and the tunnel, he perceived a blotch of white, presumably the sheet which hid the little body. A group of people had gathered around it.  3
  As Ippolita had gone to mass with Elena at the chapel of the Port, he yielded to his curiosity and said to his entertainers:—  4
  “I am going down to see.”  5
  “Why?” asked Candia. “Why do you wish to put a pain in your heart?”  6
  Hastening down the narrow lane, he descended by a short cut to the beach, and continued along the water. Reaching the spot, somewhat out of breath, he inquired:—  7
  “What has happened?”  8
  The assembled peasants saluted him and made way for him. One of them answered tranquilly:—  9
  “The son of a mother has been drowned.”  10
  Another, clad in linen, who seemed to be standing guard over the corpse, bent down and drew aside the sheet.  11
  The inert little body was revealed, extended upon the unyielding sand. It was a lad, eight or nine years old, fair and frail, with slender limbs. His head was supported on his few humble garments, rolled up in place of pillow,—the shirt, the blue trousers, the red sash, the cap of limp felt. His face was but slightly livid, with flat nose, prominent forehead, and long, long lashes; the mouth was half open, with thick lips which were turning blue, between which the widely spaced teeth gleamed white. His neck was slender, flaccid as a wilted stem, and seamed with tiny creases. The jointure of the arms at the shoulder looked feeble. The arms themselves were fragile, and covered with a down similar to the fine plumage which clothes the bodies of newly hatched birds. The whole outline of the ribs was distinctly visible; down the middle of the breast the skin was divided by a darker line; the navel stood out, like a knot. The feet, slightly bloated, had assumed the same sallow color as the little hands, which were callous and strewn with warts, with white nails beginning to turn livid. On the left arm, on the thighs near the groin, and further down, on the knees and along the legs, appeared reddish blotches of scurf. Every detail of this wretched little body assumed, in the eyes of Giorgio, an extraordinary significance, immobile as it was and fixed forever in the rigidity of death.  12
  “How was he drowned? Where?” he questioned, lowering his voice.  13
  The man dressed in linen gave, with some show of impatience, the account which he had probably had to repeat too many times already. He had a brutal countenance, square-cut, with bushy brows, and a large mouth, harsh and savage. Only a little while after leading the sheep back to their stalls, the lad, taking his breakfast along with him, had gone down, together with a comrade, to bathe. He had hardly set foot in the water, when he had fallen and was drowned. At the cries of his comrade, some one from the house overhead on the bluff had hurried down, and wading in up to the knees, had dragged him from the water half dead; they had turned him upside down to make him throw up the water, they had shaken him, but to no purpose. To indicate just how far the poor little fellow had gone in, the man picked up a pebble and threw it into the sea.  14
  “There, only to there; at three yards from the shore!”  15
  The sea lay at rest, breathing peacefully, close to the head of the dead child. But the sun blazed fiercely down upon the sand; and something pitiless, emanating from that sky of flame and from those stolid witnesses, seemed to pass over the pallid corpse.  16
  “Why,” asked Giorgio, “do you not place him in the shade, in one of the houses, on a bed?”  17
  “He is not to be moved,” declared the man on guard, “until they hold the inquest.”  18
  “At least carry him into the shade, down there, below the embankment!”  19
  Stubbornly the man reiterated, “He is not to be moved.”  20
  There could be no sadder sight than that frail, lifeless little being, extended on the stones, and watched over by the impassive brute who repeated his account every time in the selfsame words, and every time made the selfsame gesture, throwing a pebble into the sea:—  21
  “There; only to there.”  22
  A woman joined the group, a hook-nosed termagant, with gray eyes and sour lips, mother of the dead boy’s comrade. She manifested plainly a mistrustful restlessness, as if she anticipated some accusation against her own son. She spoke with bitterness, and seemed almost to bear a grudge against the victim.  23
  “It was his destiny. God had said to him, ‘Go into the sea and end yourself.’”  24
  She gesticulated with vehemence. “What did he go in for, if he did not know how to swim?”  25
  A young lad, a stranger in the district, the son of a mariner, repeated contemptuously, “Yes, what did he go in for? We, yes, who know how to swim—”…  26
  Other people joined the group, gazed with cold curiosity, then lingered or passed on. A crowd occupied the railroad embankment, another gathered on the crest of the promontory, as if at a spectacle. Children, seated or kneeling, played with pebbles, tossing them into the air and catching them, now on the back and now in the hollow of their hands. They all showed the same profound indifference to the presence of other people’s troubles and of death.  27
  Another woman joined the group on her way home from mass, wearing a dress of silk and all her gold ornaments. For her also the harassed custodian repeated his account, for her also he indicated the spot in the water. She was talkative.  28
  “I am always saying to my children, ‘Don’t you go into the water, or I will kill you!’ The sea is the sea. Who can save himself?”  29
  She called to mind other instances of drowning; she called to mind the case of the drowned man with the head cut off, driven by the waves all the way to San Vito, and found among the rocks by a child.  30
  “Here, among these rocks. He came and told us, ‘There is a dead man there.’ We thought he was joking. But we came and we found. He had no head. They had an inquest; he was buried in a ditch; then in the night he was dug up again. His flesh was all mangled and like jelly, but he still had his boots on. The judge said, ‘See, they are better than mine!’ So he must have been a rich man. And it turned out that he was a dealer in cattle. They had killed him and chopped off his head, and had thrown him into the Tronto.”…  31
  She continued to talk in her shrill voice, from time to time sucking in the superfluous saliva with a slight hissing sound.  32
  “And the mother? When is the mother coming?”  33
  At that name there arose exclamations of compassion from all the women who had gathered.  34
  “The mother! There comes the mother, now!”  35
  And all of them turned around, fancying that they saw her in the far distance, along the burning strand. Some of the women could give particulars about her. Her name was Riccangela; she was a widow with seven children. She had placed this one in a farmer’s family, so that he might tend the sheep, and gain a morsel of bread.  36
  One woman said, gazing down at the corpse, “Who knows how much pains the mother has taken in raising him!” Another said, “To keep the children from going hungry she has even had to ask charity.”  37
  Another told how, only a few months before, the unfortunate child had come very near strangling to death in a courtyard in a pool of water barely six inches deep. All the women repeated, “It was his destiny. He was bound to die that way.”  38
  And the suspense of waiting rendered them restless, anxious. “The mother! There comes the mother now!”  39
  Feeling himself grow sick at heart, Giorgio exclaimed, “Can’t you take him into the shade, or into a house, so that the mother will not see him here naked on the stones, under a sun like this?”  40
  Stubbornly the man on guard objected:—“He is not to be touched. He is not to be moved—until the inquest is held.”  41
  The bystanders gazed in surprise at the stranger,—Candia’s stranger. Their number was augmenting. A few occupied the embankment shaded with acacias; others crowned the promontory rising abruptly from the rocks. Here and there, on the monstrous bowlders, a tiny boat lay sparkling like gold at the foot of the detached crag, so lofty that it gave the effect of the ruins of some Cyclopean tower, confronting the immensity of the sea.  42
  All at once, from above on the height, a voice announced, “There she is.”  43
  Other voices followed:—“The mother! The mother!”  44
  All turned. Some stepped down from the embankment. Those on the promontory leaned far over. All became silent, in expectation. The man on guard drew the sheet once more over the corpse. In the midst of the silence, the sea barely seemed to draw its breath, the acacias barely rustled. And then through the silence they could hear her cries as she drew near.  45
  The mother came along the strand, beneath the sun, crying aloud. She was clad in widow’s mourning. She tottered along the sand, with bowed body, calling out, “O my son! My son!”  46
  She raised her palms to heaven, and then struck them upon her knees, calling out, “My son!”  47
  One of her older sons, with a red handkerchief bound around his neck, to hide some sore, followed her like one demented, dashing aside his tears with the back of his hand. She advanced along the strand, beating her knees, directing her steps toward the sheet. And as she called upon her dead, there issued from her mouth sounds scarcely human, but rather like the howling of some savage dog. As she drew near, she bent over lower and lower, she placed herself almost on all fours; till, reaching him, she threw herself with a howl upon the sheet.  48
  She arose again. With hand rough and toil-stained, hand toughened by every variety of labor, she uncovered the body. She gazed upon it a few instants, motionless as though turned to stone. Then time and time again, shrilly, with all the power of her voice, she called as if trying to awaken him, “My son! My son! My son!”  49
  Sobs suffocated her. Kneeling beside him, she beat her sides furiously with her fists. She turned her despairing eyes around upon the circle of strangers. During a pause in her paroxysms she seemed to recollect herself. And then she began to sing. She sang her sorrow in a rhythm which rose and fell continually, like the palpitation of a heart. It was the ancient monody which from time immemorial, in the land of the Abruzzi, the women have sung over the remains of their relatives. It was the melodious eloquence of sacred sorrow, which renewed spontaneously, in the profundity of her being, this hereditary rhythm in which the mothers of bygone ages had modulated their lamentations.  50
  She sang on and on:—“Open your eyes, arise and walk, my son! How beautiful you are! How beautiful you are!”  51
  She sang on:—“For a morsel of bread I have drowned you, my son! For a morsel of bread I have borne you to the slaughter! For that have I raised you!”  52
  But the irate woman with the hooked nose interrupted her:—“It was not you who drowned him; it was Destiny. It was not you who took him to the slaughter. You had placed him in the midst of bread.” And making a gesture toward the hill where the house stood which had sheltered the lad, she added, “They kept him there, like a pink at the ear.”  53
  The mother continued:—“O my son, who was it sent you; who was it sent you here, to drown?”  54
  And the irate woman:—“Who was it sent him? It was our Lord. He said to him, ‘Go into the water and end yourself.’”  55
  As Giorgio was affirming in a low tone to one of the bystanders that if succored in time the child might have been saved, and that they had killed him by turning him upside down and holding him suspended by the feet, he felt the gaze of the mother fixed upon him. “Can’t you do something for him, sir?” she prayed. “Can’t you do something for him?”  56
  And she prayed:—“O Madonna of the Miracles, work a miracle for him!”  57
  Touching the head of the dead boy, she repeated:—“My son! my son! my son! arise and walk!”  58
  On his knees in front of her was the brother of the dead boy; he was sobbing, but without grief, and from time to time he glanced around with a face that suddenly grew indifferent. Another brother, the oldest one, remained at a little distance, seated in the shade of a bowlder; and he was making a great show of grief, hiding his face in his hands. The women, striving to console the mother, were bending over her with gestures of compassion, and accompanying her monody with an occasional lament.  59
  And she sang on:—“Why have I sent you forth from my house? Why have I sent you to your death? I have done everything to keep my children from hunger; everything, everything, except to be a woman with a price. And for a morsel of bread I have lost you! This was the way you were to die!”  60
  Thereupon the woman with the hawk nose raised her petticoats in an impetus of wrath, entered the water up to her knees, and cried:—“Look! He came only to here. Look! The water is like oil. It is a sign that he was bound to die that way.”  61
  With two strides she regained the shore. “Look!” she repeated, pointing to the deep imprint in the sand made by the man who recovered the body. “Look!”  62
  The mother looked in a dull way; but it seemed as if she neither saw nor comprehended. After her first wild outbursts of grief, there came over her brief pauses, amounting to an obscurement of consciousness. She would remain silent, she would touch her foot or her leg with a mechanical gesture. Then she would wipe away her tears with the black apron. She seemed to be quieting down. Then, all of a sudden, a fresh explosion would shake her from head to foot, and prostrate her upon the corpse.  63
  “And I cannot take you away! I cannot take you in these arms to the church! My son! My son!”  64
  She fondled him from head to foot, she caressed him softly. Her savage anguish was softened to an infinite tenderness. Her hand—the burnt and callous hand of a hard-working woman—became infinitely gentle as she touched the eyes, the mouth, the forehead of her son.  65
  “How beautiful you are! How beautiful you are!”  66
  She touched his lower lip, already turned blue; and as she pressed it slightly, a whitish froth issued from the mouth. From between his lashes she brushed away some speck, very carefully, as though fearful of hurting him.  67
  “How beautiful you are, heart of your mamma!”  68
  His lashes were long, very long, and fair. On his temples, on his cheeks was a light bloom, pale as gold.  69
  “Do you not hear me? Rise and walk.”  70
  She took the little well-worn cap, limp as a rag. She gazed at it and kissed it, saying:—  71
  “I am going to make myself a charm out of this, and wear it always on my breast.”  72
  She lifted the child; a quantity of water escaped from the mouth and trickled down upon the breast.  73
  “O Madonna of the Miracles, perform a miracle!” she prayed, raising her eyes to heaven in a supreme supplication. Then she laid softly down again the little being who had been so dear to her, and took up the worn shirt, the red sash, the cap. She rolled them up together in a little bundle, and said:—  74
  “This shall be my pillow; on these I shall rest my head, always, at night; on these I wish to die.”  75
  She placed these humble relics on the sand, beside the head of her child, and rested her temple on them, stretching herself out, as if on a bed.  76
  Both of them, mother and son, now lay side by side, on the hard rocks, beneath the flaming sky, close to the homicidal sea. And now she began to croon the very lullaby which in the past had diffused pure sleep over his infant cradle.  77
  She took up the red sash and said, “I want to dress him.”  78
  The cross-grained woman, who still held her ground, assented. “Let us dress him now.”  79
  And she herself took the garments from under the head of the dead boy; she felt in the jacket pocket and found a slice of bread and a fig.  80
  “Do you see? They had given him his food just before,—just before. They cared for him like a pink at the ear.”  81
  The mother gazed upon the little shirt, all soiled and torn, over which her tears fell rapidly, and said, “Must I put that shirt on him?”  82
  The other woman promptly raised her voice to some one of her family, above on the bluff:—“Quick, bring one of Nufrillo’s new shirts!” The new shirt was brought. The mother flung herself down beside him.  83
  “Get up, Riccangela, get up!” solicited the women around her.  84
  She did not heed them. “Is my son to stay like that on the stones, and I not stay there too?—like that, on the stones, my own son?”  85
  “Get up, Riccangela, come away.”  86
  She arose. She gazed once more with terrible intensity upon the little livid face of the dead. Once again she called with all the power of her voice, “My son! My son! My son!”  87
  Then with her own hands she covered up with the sheet the unheeding remains.  88
  And the women gathered around her, drew her a little to one side, under shadow of a bowlder; they forced her to sit down, they lamented with her.  89
  Little by little the spectators melted away. There remained only a few of the women comforters; there remained the man clad in linen, the impassive custodian, who was awaiting the inquest.  90
  The dog-day sun poured down upon the strand, and lent to the funeral sheet a dazzling whiteness. Amidst the heat the promontory raised its desolate aridity straight upward from the tortuous chain of rocks. The sea, immense and green, pursued its constant, even breathing. And it seemed as if the languid hour was destined never to come to an end.  91
  Under shadow of the bowlder, opposite the white sheet, which was raised up by the rigid form of the corpse beneath, the mother continued her monody in the rhythm rendered sacred by all the sorrows, past and present, of her race. And it seemed as if her lamentation was destined never to come to an end.  92
 
 
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