My father had his own way of going to the mountains: scarcely inclined to meditation, full of obstinacy and arrogance. He would climb headlong, without pacing himself, always competing with someone or something, and where the trail seemed overlong he would take a short cut via the steepest slope. When you were with him it was forbidden to stop—complaining about hunger or the cold was not permitted—but you were allowed to sing a good song, especially when caught in a storm or in thick fog. And to whoop whilst flinging yourself down a snowfield.
My mother, who had known him since he was a boy, used to say that even then he would wait for nobody, intent as he was on pursuing anyone glimpsed up ahead: it was only a strong pair of legs that could make you desirable in his eyes, and she hinted, laughing, that this was how she had seduced him. Later on, once the uphill race had begun, she preferred to sit in a meadow, or to soak her feet in a stream, or to identify by name the herbs and flowers. At the summit she liked more than anything to gaze at the distant peaks, to reflect on those of her youth, and to remember when she had reached them and with whom—while my father at that point was overcome by a kind of disappointment, and just wanted to return home.
I think that these were completely opposite reactions to the same shared sense of nostalgia. My parents had migrated to the city in their early thirties, leaving behind the Veneto countryside where my mother had been born, and where my father had been raised as an orphan of the war. Their first mountains, their first love, had been the Dolomites. They would sometimes name them in their conversations, when I was still too young to follow what they were saying but could sense how certain words rang out: special sounds that were charged with additional meaning. The Catinaccio, Sassolungo, Tofane, and the Marmolada. All it took was for my father to utter one of these words, and my mother’s eyes would light up.
These were the places where they had fallen in love, as even I came to understand after a while: it had been a priest who had taken them there as adolescents, and it was the very same priest who had married them, one autumn morning, in front of the little chapel found at the foot of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo. This marriage in the mountains was the foundational myth of our family. Boycotted by my mother’s parents, for reasons unknown to me; celebrated with a handful of friends, in anoraks instead of wedding attire, and with a bed in the Auronzo refuge for their first night as husband and wife. The snow was already sparkling on the ledges of Cima Grande. It was a Saturday in October in 1972, the end of the climbing season for that year and for many years to come. The next day they packed their leather climbing boots and plus fours into the car, together with her pregnancy and the contract for his new job, and headed for Milan.
Calmness was not a virtue my father set much store by, but in the city it was more necessary than the lungs needed for climbing. In the seventies in Milan we lived in an apartment building with a panoramic view, above a broad avenue of traffic beneath the asphalt of which, it was said, the Olona river ran. And although it is true that on rainy days the road would become flooded—and I would imagine the subterranean river roaring beneath it in the dark, so swollen as to burst from the drains—it was that other river coursing with cars, vans, scooters, lorries, buses, and ambulances which seemed always to be in full spate. We lived high up, on the seventh floor, and the two ranks of identical buildings that lined the road amplified the noise. Some nights my father could stand it no longer; he would get out of bed and fling open the window as if he wanted to inveigh against the city, to compel it to be quiet, or to douse it with boiling pitch. He would stand there for a moment looking down, then slip on his coat and go out to walk around.
“This marriage in the mountains was the foundational myth of our family.”
Through those windowpanes we could see a lot of sky. Uniformly white, oblivious to the changing seasons, marked only by the flight of birds. My mother obstinately persisted in cultivating flowers on the small balcony that was blackened by exhaust fumes and mold-stained by the rain. On that balcony, whilst tending her fragile plants, she would tell me about vineyards in August, about the countryside in which she had grown up, about the tobacco leaves hung from the racks in the drying kiln, or about the asparagus that, if it were to remain tender and white, had to be cut before it pierced the soil’s surface—requiring a rare talent to spot it whilst still underground.
Now that sharp eye of hers had become useful in a radically different context. In the Veneto she had been a nurse, but once in Milan she secured a position as a health worker in the “Elms” district in the western outskirts of the city, in a working-class neighborhood. It was a role that had just been created, together with the equally new family clinic in which she worked providing support for women during pregnancy and following the development of the newborn infants in their first year of life. This was my mother‘s work, and she liked it. The only thing was that the area where she had been sent to carry it out made it seem more like a mission. Actual elms in these parts were few and far between: the entire toponymy of the neighborhood, with its streets named after alders, spruce, larches, and birch trees, contrasted mockingly with the twelve-story, barrack-like housing blocks infested with social ills of every kind. Among my mother’s duties was the evaluation of the conditions in which a child was being raised, on visits that affected her deeply for days afterwards. In the most serious cases she was obliged to refer children to the juvenile court. It cost her a great deal of anguish to reach such a point, in addition to receiving a dose of insults and threats, and yet despite this she never doubted that she had reached the right decision. She was not alone in this conviction: the social workers, the educationalists, the schoolteachers were united by a deep-seated solidarity, a feminine sense of collective responsibility towards these children.
My father on the other hand had always been a loner. He worked as a chemist in a factory—with a ten-thousand-strong workforce, constantly subject to strike action and sackings—and whatever had taken place in there, he would return home in the evening full of anger. At suppertime, he would stare in silence at the TV news, gripping his cutlery in midair, as if he expected at any moment the outbreak of another world war; and he would curse to himself at the news of every murder victim, every governmental crisis, every hike in the price of oil, every bombing by unidentified terrorists. With the few colleagues he would invite home, he discussed almost exclusively political issues, and always ended up in an argument. He would cast himself as anticommunist with communists, as a radical with Catholics, as a freethinker with anyone who presumed to confine him in a church or on a list of party members. But these were not times during which you could escape all allegiance, and after a while, my father’s workmates stopped coming round. Yet he continued to go to work as if he were climbing every morning into the trenches. He continued not to sleep at night, to take things too much to heart, to wear earplugs and take pills for his headaches, to explode in violent fits of rage—at which point my mother would spring into action, since along with her marital duties she had also assumed the role of pacifying him, of muffling the blows in the fight between my father and the world.
At home they still spoke the dialect of the Veneto. To my ears it sounded like a secret language that they shared, the echo of a mysterious previous life. A remnant of the past, just like the three photographs my mother had displayed on a small table in the entrance hall. I would often stop to look at them. The first was a portrait of her parents in Venice, during the only trip they had ever taken, a gift from my grandfather to my grandmother to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary. In the second her entire family had posed for the camera during the grape harvest: my grandparents sat at the center of the group, three girls and a young man standing around them, the baskets filled with grapes in the courtyard of the barn. In the third my grandparents’ only male offspring, my uncle, smiled together with my father next to a summit cross, dressed in mountaineering gear and with a rope wound round his shoulder. My uncle had died young, and that was why I bore his name, though I was called Pietro and he was Piero, in our family lexicon. And yet of all these people I had known none. I was never taken to visit them, nor did they ever turn up for a visit in Milan. A few times a year my mother would take a train of a Saturday morning, and come back Sunday evening a little sadder than she‘d left. Then she would get over it and life would continue. There was too much to be done, and too many people to care for, to indulge in melancholy.
But that past had a way of leaping out at you when you least expected it. Long car journeys were necessary to take me to school, my mother to the clinic, and my father to the factory, and on certain mornings, she would sing an old song. She would begin the first verse in the traffic, and soon after we would join in. These songs were set in the mountains during the Great War: “The Troop Train,” “The Sugana Valley,” “The Captain’s Testament.” They told stories that I, too, now knew by heart: twenty-seven had departed for the front, and only five had returned. Down there on the battle field of the Piave stood a cross for a mother who would sooner or later come in search of it. Far away a betrothed waited, sighing, then tired of waiting and married another—the dying man would send her a kiss, and ask for a flower in return. I understood from the words of dialect in these songs that my parents had carried them from their previous life, but I also sensed something different and strange—that is to say that these songs also spoke directly about the two of them, who knows how. I mean about the two of them specifically: how else to explain the degree of emotion that their voices so clearly betrayed?
Then on certain rare windy days, in autumn or spring, at the end of Milanese streets, the mountains would appear. It would happen after a bend in the road, above an overpass, suddenly, and the gaze of both my parents would immediately switch there, without one needing to point out anything to the other. The peaks were white, the sky a rare blue, the sensation as of a miracle. Down below, where we lived, were factories in turmoil, overcrowded social housing, riots in the piazza, abused children, teenage mothers: up there, the snow. My mother would ask then which mountains were in view, and my father would look around as if navigating the urban geography with a compass. Which avenue is this: Monza, Zara? Then it must be La Grigna, he would say, having thought about it a bit. Yes, I’m sure that it is really her. I remembered the story well: La Grigna was a most beautiful and cruel warrior who had killed with her arrows the knights who climbed to declare their love for her—so God had punished her by turning her into a mountain. And now she was there, through the windscreen, allowing herself to be admired by the three of us, each one with a different, silent thought. Then the lights changed, a pedestrian would run across, someone sounded the horn, my father would tell them where to get off and change gear furiously, accelerating away from that moment of grace.
The end of the seventies arrived, and while Milan was burning the two of them put on their climbing boots again. They did not head east, from where they had come, but west, as if continuing their flight, towards the Ossola, the Valsesia, the Val dlosta; towards mountains that were still higher and more severe. My mother would later tell me that at first she had been overcome by an unexpected feeling of oppression. Compared to the gentle contours of the Veneto and the Trentino these western valleys seemed narrow, dark, enclosed like gorges; the rock was damp and black, streams and waterfalls plunging down from everywhere. So much water, she thought. It must rain a lot here. She had not realized that all of that water originated in an exceptional source, nor that she and my father were heading straight for it. They climbed up one of the valleys until they were high enough to emerge again into sunlight: from there the landscape suddenly opened up, and before their eyes stood Monte Rosa. An Arctic world, a permanent winter, looming over the summer pastures. It frightened my mother. But my father would say that for him it had been like discovering a new scale of grandeur: like arriving from the mountains of men to find yourself in the mountains of giants. And naturally he fell in love with them at first sight.
“At home they still spoke the dialect of the Veneto. To my ears it sounded like a secret language that they shared, the echo of a mysterious previous life.”
I don’t know exactly where they were on that day. Whether it was Macugnaga, Alagna, Gressoney, Ayas. At that time we would holiday in a different place each year, following my father on his restless wandering all around the mountain that had conquered him. Better than the valleys I remember the houses in which we stayed, if you could call them houses: we would rent a bungalow in a campsite, or a room in a hostel, and stay there for a couple of weeks. There was never enough room to make these places homely, or time enough to become attached to anything, but my father did not care for or even notice such things.
As soon as we arrived he would get changed—take from his bag the checked shirt, the corduroy trousers, the woolen jumper and, wearing these old clothes again, he became a different man. He would spend the short vacation exploring the mountain paths, leaving early in the morning and returning in the evening, or even the next day—covered in dust, burnt by the sun, tired and happy. Over supper he would talk of the chamois and the Alpine ibexes, of nights spent bivouacked, of starlit skies, of snow that at such altitude fell even in August, and when he was most happy he would end by saying: I really wish that you could have been there with me.
The fact of the matter is that my mother refused to climb the glacier. She harbored an irrational and unshakable fear of it: she used to say that, as far as she was concerned, the mountain ended at three thousand meters, the altitude, that is, of her own range, the Dolomites. She preferred two thousand meters to three—the meadows, rivers, woods—and deeply loved one thousand too, the life there of those villages of wood and stone. When my father was away she liked to go for walks with me, to drink a coffee in the square, to sit in a meadow and read to me from a book, to exchange a few words with a passerby. She reluctantly endured our constant changes of place. She often pleaded with my father that she would prefer a house that she could make her own, and a village to return to, and he would tell her that there wasn‘t enough money for another rent, in addition to that of the apartment in Milan. But she managed to negotiate with him a budget that was within their means, and finally he allowed her to begin searching for a place of our own.
In the evenings, as soon as the remains of supper had been cleared away, my father would unfold a map onto the table and begin planning the next day’s route. He had beside him the gray booklet of the Italian Alpine Club and a half-filled glass of grappa that he would occasionally sip from. My mother would take advantage of her own moment of freedom by sitting in an armchair or on the bed and immersing herself in a novel: for an hour or two she would disappear into its pages, as if she were elsewhere. It was then that I would climb onto my father’s lap to see what he was up to. I would find him to be cheerful and talkative, the complete opposite of the father I was used to in the city. He was happy to show me the map and how to read it. This is a glacial stream, he would point out to me, this is a lake, and this is a group of mountain huts. Here you can distinguish the forest by its color, the alpine meadow, the scree, the glacier. These curved lines indicate the altitude: the closer together they are, the steeper the mountain, up to the point where it is impossible to climb further; and here where the lines are further apart the incline is gentler and the paths follow it, can you see? These triangles accompanied by a figure for the altitude represent the summits. And it’s to the summits that we’re going. We only start descending when it‘s impossible to climb higher. Understand?
No, I could not understand. I needed to see it, this world that filled him with such joy. Years later, when we started to go there together, my father claimed to recall the precise moment at which my vocation manifested itself. One morning as my mother still slept and he was preparing to leave, he looked up from lacing his boots to see me standing there, already fully dressed and ready to follow him. I must have dressed myself whilst still in bed. I had startled him in the darkness, looking much older than my six or seven years. According to his version of the event I was already what I would become later: it was a premonition of his adult son, a ghost of the future.
“Don’t you want to sleep a little longer?” he asked, speaking softly so as not to wake my mother.
“I want to come with you;’ I’d replied, or so he would claim. But perhaps it was just the phrase that he liked to remember.
From The Eight Mountains. Used with permission of Atria Books. Copyright © 2018 by Paolo Cognetti.