“The various effects which from love spring
By one same madness are brought into play.
It is a wood of error, menacing,
Where travellers perforce must lose their way;
One here, one there, it comes to the same thing.
To sum the matter up, then, I would say:
Who in old age the dupe of love remains
Deserving is of fetters and of chains.”
Ludovico Ariosto, “Orlando Furioso”
Many of us fall into the world and float through life safe inside the bubble of God’s grace, smiling and untouched by every challenge thrown at us, never once chafing up against its rough edges or grazing knees or hearts on the spiteful or indifferent cruelties of others.
Yet for the rest of us? The best we can do is apply whatever poultice does the trick. Resort to the letting of blood, or whatever else it takes to keep ourselves on the right side of despair.
Else? We simply sink beneath the waves, bitter or accepting, knowing that it just wasn’t to be.
I HOPE YOU don’t mind, ladies and gentlemen, but I just need to make a few things clear. It should help us all in the early stages of our - sorry - of my tale. It’s in my nature to tell the stories of others, but I feel the need for particular care when trying to tell my own. We all have our pride, and I have no desire to waste your time with the burden of an interesting tale told badly.
First, then. My name is Nico Cusmano, and I’ve spent a large part of my adult life hiding here, on a remote island off the northwest coast of Sicily.
Second. Much of that time was spent in the company of my best friend Baiardo. Pretty much since his birth, in fact.
And most importantly, if we’re to keep the story clear from our very first steps together, that Baiardo, my longest and dearest companion, is a mule.
So go ahead. That’s fine. Laugh if you wish. I would, at such an admission.
I gave him his name midway through a drunken night full of stars, after a back-breaking day in the fields above the village.
My hope is that, eventually, you will at least laugh with me.
Here’s how I remember it happening, a few years into my time on Levanzo.
DESPITE THE WINE, the old man and I feel and hear the creak and sway of our bones as we emerge from the uneven doorway of our abode to confront the source of the mule’s plaintive braying.
Four weeks old. Arrived yesterday as a newborn on the back of cart pulled by his mother. Almost thrown down onto the damp ground. The settlement of a debt owed to Quinto by one of the small farms just up from the harbour. And pretty spitefully settled at that. The odds of an animal this young surviving for long are low to non-existent, and the bastard from the village knows it. We’re feeding him, five or six times a day but the loss of daylight has him wailing again.
Quinto, his muttering interrupted a few moments earlier by the heartiest of belches as he rose from the floor, already lags a few yards behind, his cantankerous hoary frame edged by the light of a quarter moon. He carries the air of a man never at rest from his battle with the world in general, or the challenge of any or every small task in particular.
We head to the enclosure.
“Damn sorry animal. The sun goes down, and comes straight the hell back up again the next day. Why doesn’t he get it? Why is that creature so worried that it’ll never come back up to heat it’s arse?” Perhaps Quinto’s own fears have bled across the yard and into the new arrival.
Liquor still warms my tongue, drowses in the top of my chest. Soil, moist from late afternoon rain, has not had time to lift its damp nose back into the sky.
And the mule?
Well, Quinto is right, for what it’s worth.
He’s just a jumble of trembling, spindly legs, thin layers of grey hair etching the outline of his fragile, infantile ribs, and ears comically perpendicular to the ground, their span longer than his head. He carries the air of one stubbornly unconvinced of the claims of a benevolent world, indulging again in his second nightly lament at finding himself here, in the dark, and still a mule.
What, I feel him ask, is there about tomorrow that will make it more bearable than today?
“It’s not his fault, old man”, I say, feeling the effect of exercise laid onto the wine. “He’s not been around long enough to know how this whole thing works.”
It’s possible, of course, that I’m doing the animal a disservice. Perhaps it is not the retreat of the sun. Perhaps, instead, he already senses the prospect of a lifetime of labour. Up and down the hill to the village. Up and down the field for the crops. To and from the well.
I’ve seen this before, back on Lipari.
Some critters born full of spunk, able to face the world head on and tell it to watch itself or else. Others? Born to whimper their way through each sun-drenched windblown day, waiting for the sky to fall on them, or for their bones to sink back into the ground from which they reluctantly, hesitantly, perhaps even mistakenly, rose.
“We should bring him in, or he’ll not survive the week.”
Quinto stops his bitching long enough to stare at me over his patchy stubble. His chin drops, revealing the full glory of a broken-toothed mouth.
“We should what?”
“Give him some comfort. Assure him he’s with friends. Come on, help me bring him back to the house.”
The old man, having none of it, spends his next few sorry breaths swearing and cursing at the idea. “Let him bloody be. He was dead before his sorry arse hit the ground from Guzzo’s cart.”
I approach the mule, unprepared for his final loud brays before falling silent. He’s watching me, with a kind of forlorn mistrust. Are you here to beat me quiet? I can see it in his every scrawny sinew, a fear that whatever is coming, it will not be good. Doing my best to soften my gaze, we look each other in the eye. I raise my hands slowly from my sides, show him I carry nothing that could do him harm. He blinks, that exaggerated drop and rise of his eyelids that I would come to take for granted over the following thirty years, but appears unconvinced.
We’re separated now only by the two lateral timbers of the corral. I move my hand through and under them, and lay my open palm on his muzzle, offering a low, wordless kind of hum.
The mule seems to be making up his mind; his lack of advance or retreat cannot yet be taken as a sign that I’ve put him at his ease.
But a few moments pass, the two of us unmoving, and a few more. I’m blocking his view Quinto, which I imagine is a good thing.
We’re entering a calm place, the two of us. It’s time to speak, so I keep my voice low and soft. “You remember me, don’t you? I’m Nico. We met yesterday. I know you remember.” The mule quietly searches his memory. I can see him do it. “Come on then, little one. Let’s get you inside.”
All three of us are now indoors. Quinto, stubbornly unconvinced of any of this, yet willing to go along with things at least until the next flagon of wine arrives, settles the mule down on the straw while I fetch the milk jug from the darkened north corner of the cottage. There’s a chance that one of us may have just given up their bed for the night, but that’s just one conversation that will have to wait.
Removing the square of stained cloth from the mouth of the jug, the sour aroma of goat’s milk resting through the full heat of the day rises up to stick its dirty fingers down my throat. I pour some into my cupped hand, and move it to his muzzle.
Most of that first portion simply dampens the straw but slowly, he learns to take the warm fluid into his mouth.
“Spoilt bugger”. Quinto remains unconvinced. “He’ll never drink water again, you mark me. I’ve never seen the like.”
Do you want him to live or don’t you, old man?
Undeterred, the two of us, a man approaching middle age and a baby mule licking its lips like any drunken lord at a feast, ignore him. He’s been like this since Ghita died last year, and won’t be displaying a change of mood any time soon. Quinto’s unspoken belief. Anything walking on two legs or four unable to take care of itself should be left to sort themselves out or accept the consequences.
The mule and I settle into the rhythm of feeder and fed.
“So we need to give him a name, Quinto. We can’t just keep expecting him to respond to grunts and waved arms. Something for him to aspire to. Make him feel appreciated.”
“You’re bloody joking.”
“No. Let’s do this. It’ll be good for all three of us.”
“Good in what way, exactly.” Quinto will clearly not give in easily. “He’s a bloody mule, right? What does it matter.”
“So you want no part in it. Is that it?”
The old man pulls himself up off the floor and heads for the pantry. More wine.
“All right. Fine.” I place the half empty jug down out of harm’s way, and bend down until my head is level with the the animal’s eyes, large dark pebbles shining from the bottom of a nocturnal pool. Candle flame dances across them, animating their glistening sorrow.
“There, do you feel a little better? That’s it.” I’m not fully convinced, but I decide to offer him every chance to feel good about himself. About where he is, and who he is with.
How to offer encouragement? Grant this feeble, timid creature the chance to strut and prance. Rise above his lot in life and view the world from a giant’s perspective, impervious to his fate. Or at the very least, live a few more days without fear.
A few moments, and it comes to me. I roll the name around in my tongue a few times.
Quinto is back, a bowl of wine in each hand. “What’s so bloody funny?” He sits down, hands me my drink. Takes a large swig.
“I’ve got it. This…this will work.”
I turn back to the mule. His eyes, damp and mournful below me, remain still fixed on me. I lean forward, and take his head gently in my hands, raising his muzzle until our gazes lock.
“Baiardo. From now on, we’ll call you Baiardo”.
Quinto erupts, spraying a mouthful of wine onto us both. His eyes burst from his head. “You’re bloody joking!”
The animal - Baiardo now - flinches back, shock working rapidly through his body. I reach forward to calm him down. Stroke his side, and then his forehead. It’s a sorry thing, to see a defenceless animal so flighty and nervous.
I ignore the old man, doing all I can to regain eye contact. I return to gently running my palm along his muzzle, until the quivering slowly subsides.
“A prince among horses”, I tell him. “Rinaldo’s steed. Clever and fearless. Loyal. Swift.”
Only after he seems calm do I feel it’s safe to break off and turn to Quinto.
I fall directly under a second stare.
“You’re bloody mad, Nico. It’s just a mule.”
“I know. And you’re just a cynical old bastard who needs reminding every now and then that it doesn’t hurt to be kind once in a while.” He’s still clutching his empty bowl. “So, put that down, and finish giving Baiardo his milk.”
I move back, giving him no choice.
A few mouthfuls later, as Quinto turns to put the empty milk jug safely to one side, I look across at Baiardo and, I swear, he winks at me. A fully intended, consciously engineered wink. One eye steadfastly open, as he lowers and raises the lashes of his other.
When I approach him, beginning to laugh, Baiardo lets out a satisfied breath, and farts directly into Quinto’s face.
And then, following a shallow, wordless sigh that I felt through the flat of a hand placed on his chest and filling my own nostrils, came his second wink.
SO HERE I sit, old friend. Sebastiano’s house rises around me, the sounds and smells of early morning Milano seeking to pull me from my bed and into the day. Even the way the sound ripples around the place, muffled and softened by an abundance of wall coverings, acts as a reminder of our former spartan surroundings.
And what a day it promises to be. Part of me wants to lie back down, pull the covers back over me, and wish myself straight through the night and into tomorrow. To the time when Edo and I can tell ourselves that we did it. That the show was indeed such a good and splendid idea. That <name and name and name and name> have stayed up all night, as astonished as any in the audience at our triumph.
I know I’m five hundred miles or more from your side, old friend. But in my mind, I’m just a few yards away from where we laid you down and named you, thirty years ago. Your eyes, those same, mischievous eyes of that first night, mark the passing of time, cloudy now and full of cataracts.
The only reason I lose sleep now, apart from this damn show, is wondering how you are. Wondering how well Paolo is looking after you. I know you’re missing me. Do you rail against the consolation I take from that? I know you’re angry at my broken promise, for leaving you for so long, but at the time, as now, I fail to see more than a few days into my own future. Let’s face it, neither of us have enough time left to bear grudges.
I need to tell you, old friend, that it’s unlikely that I’ll ever be back.
It’s an increasingly cold autumn here, as you might guess, so close to where the Alps begin their climb. My bones rebel against the lack of those beautiful cloud-free days on the island, mourning the absence of those humid, ripe Sirocco’s that loosened and oiled our old bones.
But there are other things that warm me in their stead. All these children, Baiardo! All their years accrued, just sitting there, awaiting my excavations. All their stories poised on the tips of their tongues, just waiting for my old, curious ear.
It is too much to resist.
Afternoons here, with nieces and great nieces. More than one of them carry unmistakable traces of Hadice. Morning visits across the city to acquaint myself with the businesses and families of nephews I never knew existed just a few short months ago, but who offer, just when I least expect, a gesture or a look that reminds me of her. Hadice has left such a legacy here, and I cannot happily turn my back on it.
I want so much to share it all with you. To tell you of their lives. And of the mysteries and disappointments of my own. Some of my past carries no dust at all, of course. I pick some thoughts up and turn them over every day, examining them for their telltale messages and meanings. But others? Well, I’m not sure sometimes that they even belong to me the way they should.
Travelling and talking with Edo has helped. You remember him, don’t you? The loud one. He can still be infuriating, of course, but the things he has told me have made quite an impact.
I’ll imagine Angelica still there with you, leaning up against the back wall of the barn. She’s lucky that she can at least still hear your voice. That bray of yours will always fill my heart with the sounds and tastes and stinks of the place.
None of this is the same as me being back with you, I know. Not the same at all. But maybe you could make an effort with Paolo, accept the <name of feed> he gives you, and pin those huge floppy ears back to hear my tales.
Would you do that for me? Listen to your old friend trying to make sense of things? The way I helped you to, on the floor of the cottage, all those years ago?
Help me remember.
(C) Graham Bullen, July 2020
I'm still in the process of early research for this novel, but have begun to play with the opening of the first draft. Here's a first draft of the initial pages.
I'm testing out how to channel the way the poet Ariosto engages with his audience, and shows us, through multiple scenes that weave in and out of the main narrative, just how the ebb and flow of life plays out around us.