Passengers arriving on the night train from Rome had to wait at the Fabriano station until dawn in order to continue their journey to the Marche on a slow local train.
At dawn, a woman so undone by grief that she could barely stand was practically carried into a filthy, second-class compartment where five of the six seats were already occupied.
In the early-morning light, the sheer squalor and oppressive closeness of the dirty compartment, reeking of smoke, made that unwieldy, pitiful tangle of clothing, hoisted with much puffing and moaning first from the platform and then from the footboard, seem like a nightmare to the five other passengers, who had spent a sleepless night.
The puffs and moans that accompanied and supported from behind all that exertion came from her husband, who eventually emerged, gaunt, haggard, and as pale as a cadaver, but with small, lively eyes that pierced his pallor.
His distress at seeing his wife in such a state did not keep him from being punctilious despite his grave embarrassment; yet evidently his efforts had left him mildly irritated as well, fearful, perhaps, of not having given those five other passengers sufficient proof of his strength in supporting and maneuvering that heavy bundle of a wife into the compartment.
Once seated, however, after extending his apologies and thanks to his traveling companions, who had immediately moved aside to make room for the hapless lady, he could now show himself ceremonious and considerate with her as well; he straightened her clothes and adjusted the collar of her cape, which had ridden up over her nose.
“Are you all right, dear?”
The wife not only did not respond, but angrily pulled her cape up again—higher, so that now it hid her entire face. He gave a distraught smile and sighed:
“Oh . . . what a world!”
He felt it necessary to explain to his traveling companions that allowances should be made for his wife: she was in such a state because of their only son’s sudden and imminent departure for the war. For the last 20 years they had lived only for him. The year before, they’d moved from Sulmona to Rome so he would not embark on his university studies alone. When war broke out, their son, called to enlist, had enrolled in an accelerated course for cadets; three months later, appointed second lieutenant and assigned to the 12th Infantry Regiment, Casale Brigade, he had gone to join the depot in Macerata, where, he assured them, he would be for at least a month and a half, training recruits. But no. Instead he’s being sent to the front, after only three days. They’d received a telegram in Rome the day before, announcing his surprise departure. And so they were on their way to say goodbye, to see him off.
The wife stirred under her cape, shuddered, writhed, even growled like a wild beast several times, exasperated by her husband’s long explanation. He seemed not to realize that their plight—which may have befallen many, perhaps all of them—rather than arousing any special sympathy would probably irritate and incense their five traveling companions who, unlike her, did not appear to be despondent or vanquished by grief, even though they probably had one or more sons off at war. Yet perhaps her husband was deliberately explaining and offering all that information about their only son and his sudden departure after just three days, etc., so that the others would repeat coldly, harshly all the things he had been saying to her for months now, in other words since their son had enlisted; and not so much to console her as well as himself as to persuade her spitefully to resign herself, which was impossible.
And in fact, the others greeted his explanation coldly.
“You should thank God, my good man, that your son is on his way to the front only now!” one of them said. “Mine has been there since the day the war started. And he’s been wounded, I’ll have you know, twice already. Lightly, as luck would have it, once in the arm, once in the leg. A month’s leave, but then it was right back to the front again.”
“I have two sons there,” another added. “And three nephews.”
“Yes, but an only son . . . ,” the husband proffered.
“Not true, don’t say that!” the man rudely interrupted. “You may spoil an only child, but you don’t love him more! It’s one thing—when you have more than one child—to divide a piece of bread among them all, but you don’t divide up paternal love. A father gives all the love he can to each of his children. And so if I’m suffering now, it’s not half for one, half for the other. I feel for both.”“It’s one thing to divide a piece of bread among your children, but you don’t divide up paternal love. A father gives all the love he can to each of his children.”
“True, yes, how true,” the husband admitted timidly, with a pitiful, embarrassed smile. “But now—since we’re already talking about it, mere speculation of course, knock on wood—let’s take the case of . . . not you, my dear sir, good heavens, no . . . but the case of a father who has more than one son at war: if—God forbid!—he loses one, at least he still has the other!”
“Yes, of course,” the man agreed with a frown. “A son for whom he must go on living. Whereas you . . . well, not you, but a father who has only one son, let’s say, and if it happens that his only son dies, if, now that his son is dead, he doesn’t know what to do with his life anymore, well, he can take it, and farewell. While I, do you understand? I have to go on living, for my other son, the one I still have. So my situation is still worse!”
“What sort of talk is this!” Another traveler jumped in now, a fat, red-faced man who looked around the compartment with bulging, watery, bloodshot eyes.
He was gasping for breath, and his eyes looked as if they would pop right out of his head from some frantic, inner violence, some exuberant vitality, which his massive, disheveled body could no longer contain. As if suddenly remembering he was missing two front teeth, he held a giant paw in front of his mouth, but then forgetting again, he continued, indignantly:
“Do we have children for our own sakes?”
The others leaned forward and looked at him in dismay. The man who’d spoken first, the one whose son had been at the front since the first day of the war, sighed:
“Well no, for the fatherland . . .”
“Well, my good sir,” the fat traveler remarked, “if you say it like that—‘for the fatherland’—it sounds like a grievance!”
“My son, I gave birth to you not for myself, but for the fatherland . . .”
“Rubbish! Since when? Do you really think about the fatherland when a son is born to you? Nonsense! Sons come into this world not because we want them but because they must, and they take life with them, not only their own, but ours as well. That’s the truth. We are here for them, not they for us. And when they turn twenty . . . but just think, they’re exactly the same as you and I were at that age. There were our mothers and fathers, but there were plenty of other things as well: pleasures, a girlfriend, the latest friendships, longings, cigarettes, and yes, the fatherland, that too, when we were twenty, and didn’t have children of our own; the fatherland, which, now tell me, had it called us, wouldn’t it have meant more to us than our fathers and mothers? Now we’re fifty, sixty, my dear sir. Sure, there’s still the fatherland, but of course, inside us is also—and it’s more powerful—our affection for our children. Which one of us, if he could, would not go, would not want to go and fight in place of our sons? All of us, for sure! Don’t we want to consider what our sons are feeling now that they’re twenty? Our sons who, when the time comes, must, of course, feel more affection for the fatherland than for us? Obviously I’m talking about good sons, and I say of course because, for them, we too become sons before the fatherland, old sons who are no longer agile and so must stay home. If there is a fatherland, if fatherland is a natural necessity, like the bread we all must eat so as not to die of hunger, then someone has to go defend it, when the time comes. And so they go, at age twenty, they go because they must, and they don’t want tears. Because, even if they die, they die happy and filled with passion. (I’m still talking about good sons, of course!) Now, when one dies happy, without having seen all of life’s ugliness and irritation, the troubles that this miserable life holds, the bitterness and disillusions, what more could we ask? We should laugh, not cry . . . or cry as I do, yes indeed, I cry happily because my son sent word that his life—his life, mind you, the life we must see in our sons, not our lives—that he’d lived his life as best he could, and that he’d died happily, and that I shouldn’t dress in black. And as you can see, I haven’t.”
And as he spoke, he tugged on his light-colored jacket in proof. His bruised lips trembled atop his missing teeth, and his eyes welled up with tears. In closing, he let out two sharp laughs that could have been sobs.
“Well . . . well.”
The mother, hidden under her cape, had for three months now searched, in everything that her husband and others said to console and persuade her, for one word, just one, that, in the deafness of her dark distress, might resonate, might make her understand how it could be possible for a mother to resign herself to sending her son, not even to his death, but merely to a probable risk of life. But she’d never found one, not one word, among all those that had been said to her. So she had assumed that if the others spoke, if they were able to speak to her that way, about resignation and consolation, it was simply because they did not feel what she felt.
But this traveler’s words had astounded her. All of a sudden she realized that it wasn’t that the others did not feel as she did, but on the contrary, that she was unable to feel something that everyone else did, and that allowed them to resign themselves, not only to the departure but even to the death of their sons.
She raised her head and drew herself out of the corner of the compartment in order to listen to the answers the traveler was giving to his companions’ questions about when and how his son had died. On hearing that all the others not only understood but actually admired the old man, and were congratulating him for being able to speak so about the death of his son, she was dumbfounded, and felt as if she’d been dropped into a world hitherto unknown to her, which she was seeing now for the first time.
Except that she suddenly saw the same bewilderment on those other travelers’ faces that must be on hers, as soon as she, without actually meaning to, as if she still hadn’t heard or truly understood anything, sat up and asked:
“So . . . so your son is dead?”
The old man turned and looked at her with those dreadful eyes, open so impossibly wide. He looked and looked at her, and then suddenly, as if it were only now, faced with that incongruous question, that inappropriate amazement, that he finally understood, at last, that his son really was dead, gone forever. His face puckered, he grew flustered, quickly pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and, to the astonishment and dismay of the other passengers, burst into piercing, excruciating, uncontrollable sobs.