“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 the world throws 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. 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 his plaintive braying.
Quinto, muttered swearing replacing his belch upon rising, already lags a few yards behind, his cantankerous, wiry 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?”
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, pre-adolescent 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 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.”
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.
It’s possible, of course, that I do him 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.”
Inside, Quinto, unconvinced yet willing to go along with things at least until the next flagon of wine arrives, settles him down on the straw, while I fetch the milk jug from the darkened north corner of the cottage. 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 sticks 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 glistening sorrow.
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.
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 him. His eyes are 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.
I ignore the old man, doing all I can to regain eye contact, as the quivering slowly subsides.
“A prince among horses. Rinaldo’s steed. Enchanted. Loyal. Swift. Intelligent.”
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.
(C) Graham Bullen, June 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.