It was horrible, and at the same time sublime, to admire the infernal paradise staged by autumn outside of the dingy, dirtied glass. Martino, seated immobile in front of the window, was staring from within the endless silence lingering in his room. And he was thinking. After all, there was nothing left for him to do, and thinking offered him a mixture of anguish and exhilaration.
The dry leaves, whipped up by the wind, soared like drunken grey bats colliding against each other as they followed the sudden, breezy swirling of the air. The sky, toward the west, was the wonderful color of cinders, cinders beneath which a bed of bloody and trembling embers were dying. With a gradual shifting of his eyes toward the east, the inevitable, creeping advance of the night, already about to swallow the world, could instead be viewed. The lights going on in the houses were tiny rectangles, steeped in a poignant serenity, brilliant hearths of redemption, peace, warmth . . .
Martino had only the candle with its sickly flame, wavering and sputtering, shaken by fiery convulsions. For the rest, the house had fallen into shadow, as always. The shadow that saturated the walls, that breathed, that gripped the heart. The shadow of his mother, lost in some other room. The shadow of his wheelchair from which Martino would never again arise.
Outside, in the meantime, the first ghosts began to streak past in the distance, as if emerging from a daydream. And there were also skeletons, witches, the cadaverous walking dead with their outstretched arms and uncertain steps. They appeared and disappeared in small groups, through alleyways and yards, and from time to time they stopped to ring at a door, looking forward to getting a treat.
Martino would have given anything, at least in the past, to be with them, to be one of them. To collect caramels or chocolates or candied fruits, and then return home to taste the euphoria following those abundant Halloween raids. But he had never put on a disguise nor worn the makeup of a monster. Nor, after all, had he ever been invited or sought out. . . His mother would not have allowed it, anyway.
His mother . . .
She came into the room just at the very instant he was thinking about her. Martino remained motionless as he listened to the creaking of the door behind him, opening so slowly and then closing with that slack clicking he would have recognized anywhere. The light steps, shuffling a little, crossed through the stale, dusty half-light to approach him by the window.
The woman did not say a word. Only a hand on her son’s shoulder, and she stood, stunned, as she viewed the agony of the day glowing beyond her own face reflected in the glass. What terrible eyes she had . . .
Martino had always thought that they were the unkindest eyes in the world. But with the passing of the years, he came to understand that they were only pained eyes, distant. Hers was the look of a stranger, the wrong person. She was as sick in her head as he was in his body. And their life together had always been a sleepy siphoning of anxiety, solitude, and, especially, silence. His mother . . . She had never accepted help from anyone. It would have been an insult. The two of them were enough for each other. In a head muffled by despair, there had never been room for anything else but herself and a poor son unable to keep close always, always protected, always a prisoner. All out of love, naturally. Poor mama . . .
A volley of shrill, childish giggling arose from somewhere, sailing in with the warm wind. The flame of the candle twisted, bending beneath the burden of the thoughts now permeating Martino’s room. It was the last night of October. And also the first of a new life, for him. All in all, it had been easier than expected. He was afraid his mother would not have gone along with him. Instead, among tears, sighs, and prayers muttered to invoke the forgiveness of whatever god lay hidden among the creases of her troubled mind, she had done everything he had asked of her.
“You’ll see, mama,” he had told her. “You will give me the greatest satisfaction in the world. And all those out there, all those who hate us, they won’t be laughing at us anymore.”
And so the day had, little by little, like a page covered with red scribbling near a fire, crumpled into itself. Slowly, hour after hour, the shadows had crept, trembling, into the interior of the house to observe the work of the mother and her son, both hopelessly lost among the webs of a mournful silence.
“Thank you, mama,” thought Martino. This was a strange kind of vengeance, in the face of all the friends he had never had, against a life that never had made much sense, if it ever had any at all. Maybe the shadows reveling disdainfully in his mother’s brain had also infected him over time. It would not have been very surprising. And, besides, it didn’t matter to him at all. He felt it had been the right choice.
The little monsters arrived cackling in small, scant groups. But just as they came up to Martino’s house, they instinctively lowered their voices, peering at the front door with their eyes circled in black or sunken behind heavy, papier-mâché masks. Martino knew that they would have wanted to ring the doorbell, but they were struggling with their fear. Fear of his mother. They had always called her, without giving it a thought, “that crazy woman.” Yet he had stopped being troubled by that. He probably would have acted in the same way if he had been one of them.
But he had never been one of them, nor would he ever become one. Nor was there any way to turn back. Now he was there, and for always, on the side of the night. He watched those little kids with a contempt allayed by just a hint of compassion.
His mother withdrew into the shadow, dead quiet, a moment before the little monsters raised their eyes toward that window. Martino sensed her bringing her hands to her face, striving to stifle her sobbing.
“Don’t worry, mama,” he would have liked to tell her. “I’m fine now. I’ve never been happier than this.” But, by then, he could no longer say a word.
His mother’s feet, falling back, bumped against the thick, heavy ladle lying on the floor, almost covered with the red and greyish pulp spilling over and spackling the dust. A sticky, metallic noise rebounded from one wall to the next, like the clanging of a rusted cowbell. The hacksaw, too, lost in the darkness, was probably not far away.
“Don’t worry, mama. I wanted you to do it. And I’m grateful that you did.”
And when the little kids saw him, finally, they began to scream.
The flame, inside Martino’s emptied head, suddenly swayed lightly back and forth, as if the children’s cries from the street had touched it. Through the hollow eye sockets, the light still wavered just a little, emitting a pair of faint, restless beams cast out to probe the night. Martino felt himself shaking with the thrill of exaltation.
His mother was now laughing and crying. Soon, people would certainly be coming, and they would be taking them both away. It didn’t matter. Regardless, Martino would still be in that house, for always, inescapably. He had forced his entry, by then, into the minds of those little kids running away as the most terrible of dreams, nightmares that could not be forgotten. His image, seated by that window, his skull opened up and the lit candle plunged inside his head hollowed out like a pumpkin, with its insane glow glimmering there where his eyes should have been, would never ever be erased from their souls.
His mother had been perfect. In her entire life, she never would he have had the chance to carry out a more glorious, memorable, and merciful act. Whatever happened to her then would not have meant anything.
A few dead leaves, like severed and withered hands, slapped against the glass, almost as if intending to drive away the madness settled in that room, maliciously poised at the window. And Marino knew he already belonged to the night, to that night, an eternally damned specter, living forever, brilliant and terrible.
Three, four, five doors swung open along the street, and people with alarmed and confused faces responded to the children’s cries. Everyone looked toward “the house of the crazies,” as it was known, and they began to approach, running, ready to invite the horror in, to poison their dreams for the rest of their lives.
Translated by J. Weintraub
Nicola Lombardi has published in Italy the novels The Gypsy Spiders, Black Mother, Night Calls, The Red Bed, The Tank and Strigarium, as well as seven collections of stories since 1989. In addition, he has published novelizations from the films of Dario Argento (Profondo Rosso and Suspiria) and translated works by Jack Ketchum, Seabury Quinn, Charlee Jacob, F.B.Long and many others for the Italian market. In 2021 UK’s Tartarus Press published his collection The Gypsy Spiders and Other Tales of Italian Horror. Full bibliography at www.nicolalombardi.com.
Weintraub’s work includes fiction, essays, translations, poetry along with dramatic work produced in the USA, Australia, India, and New Zealand. His translation of Eugène Briffault’s classic gastronomic text Paris à table: 1846 was published by Oxford University Press.