The following is from Dino Buzzati's The Stronghold. Buzzati (1906–1972) came from a distinguished family that had long been resident in the northern Italian region of the Veneto. He served in World War II as a journalist connected to the Italian navy and on his return published the book for which he is most famous, The Stronghold, also known as The Tartar Steppe. A gifted artist as well as writer, Buzzati was the author of five novels and numerous short stories as well as books for children.
The next day Giovanni Drogo commanded the guard at the New Redoubt. This detached fortification, three-quarters of an hour from the Fortezza, sat on top of a conical rock formation that overlooked the Tartar plain. It was the most important garrison, completely isolated and assigned the essential task of sounding the alarm if any threat were approaching.
In the evening Drogo left the Fortezza in command of approximately seventy men. This many soldiers were required to cover the ten sentry posts, not counting two gunners. It was the first time he had set foot beyond the pass; for all practical purposes he had crossed the border.
Giovanni thought about the responsibilities he had undertaken but above all he reflected on his dream about Angustina. This dream had continued to echo in his mind. He felt it must be linked obscurely to future events, although he wasn’t particularly superstitious.
They entered the New Redoubt and the sentries were relieved. Then the off-duty guard left. Drogo stood at the border of the terrace to watch them recede down the rocky trail. The Fortezza beyond seemed like a single expanse of wall, a mere wall with nothing behind it. The sentries couldn’t be discerned because they were too far away. Only the flag was visible every now and then when wind stirred it.
For the next twenty-four hours Drogo would be the sole commanding officer in the solitary redoubt. Whatever might happen, support couldn’t be requested. Even if an enemy arrived, the fort would need to be self-sufficient. For the next twenty-four hours the king himself counted for less than Drogo within those walls.
Waiting for nightfall, Giovanni remained to look at the northern plain. From the Fortezza you could see only a small triangle because of the facing mountains. Now, however, he could observe everything, even to the farthest limits of the horizon, where the lone barrier of fog lingered. The flatland was a kind of desert, paved with rocks, dotted here and there with scrub in the form of low, dusty bushes. To the right, far in the distance, appeared a black strip, which could have been forest. On both flanks stood the rugged chain of mountains. They were very beautiful with immense vertical walls and white peaks from the first autumnal snow. Yet no one looked at them. Everyone—Drogo as well as the soldiers—tended instinctively to look toward the north, toward the desolate plain, devoid of meaning, mysterious.
Whether the cause were the thought of being completely alone in commanding the fort or the sight of the empty wasteland or the memory of the dream of Angustina, Drogo now felt a dull uneasiness growing around him as night unfolded.
It was an October evening. The weather was variable. Splashes of reddish light were strewn here and there on the earth, reflections of unknown origin, progressively swallowed by the lead-colored dusk.
As usual, a kind of poetic energy infiltrated Drogo’s mood at sunset. It was the hour of hope. He resumed his meditation on heroic fantasies, so often constructed during long shifts on guard duty and daily perfected with new details. In general he would imagine a desperate battle in which he was engaged with few men against innumerable enemy forces—as if that night the New Redoubt had been besieged by thousands of Tartars. He resisted for many days and almost all his men were dead or wounded. A bullet had hit him as well. The wound was serious, but not extremely so, allowing him to maintain command. And now the cartridges were on the verge of running out. He mounts a sortie at the head of the last squad. A bandage wraps his forehead. At that point reinforcements finally arrive. The enemy disbands and turns in flight. He falls exhausted, gripping a bloody saber. But someone calls, “Lieutenant Drogo, Lieutenant Drogo,” shaking his inanimate body in an effort to resuscitate him. Drogo slowly opens his eyes. The king, the king in person, has bent over him to say, Bravo!
It was the hour of hope and he meditated on heroic tales that would probably never come to pass. Nonetheless, they served as a source of encouragement for him. Sometimes he was satisfied with much less, renouncing his status as the sole hero, renouncing the wound, renouncing even the praise from the king. A simple battle would be enough, after all, a single but really serious battle, so that he could charge in full-dress uniform and be capable of smiling as he hurtled toward the hermetic faces of the enemy. A single battle and later perhaps he would be content for the rest of his life.
But that night he didn’t find it easy to feel heroic. Darkness had already shrouded the world. The northern plain had been drained of color but it still hadn’t grown drowsy, as if something evil were hatching there.
The clock had struck eight and the sky was entirely filled with clouds when Drogo seemed to glimpse a small black spot moving in the plain, slightly to the right, just below the redoubt. My eyes must be tired, he thought. They’re tired from keeping watch and I’m seeing spots. The same thing had happened to him on another occasion, when he was a boy and had stayed up at night to study.
He tried to keep his eyelids closed for a few moments. Then he turned toward the objects around him—a bucket that must’ve been used to clean the terrace, an iron hook on the wall, a stool the previous officer must’ve had brought there to serve as a seat. Only after several minutes did he again look at the area where he had apparently glimpsed the black spot a little while earlier. It was still there. And it was moving slowly.
“Tronk!” Drogo called in an agitated tone.
“Yes, lieutenant sir!” The voice that answered immediately was so close it made him jump.
“Ah, you’re here?” he said and took a breath. “Tronk, I wouldn’t like to be mistaken but I think—I think I see something moving down there.”
“Yessir,” responded Tronk in a manner that accorded with the regulations. “I’ve been observing it for a few minutes now.”
“What?” said Drogo. “You’ve seen it too? What did you see?”
“Something moving, lieutenant sir.”
Drogo felt his blood run cold. Now here we go, he thought, completely forgetting his soldierly fantasies. This just had to happen on my watch. What a mess it’s going to create.
“So you’ve seen it too?” he asked again, absurdly hoping the other man might deny it.
“Yessir,” said Tronk. “It must’ve been ten minutes ago. I went down below to see whether the cannons were cleaned. Then I came up here and saw it.”
They both fell silent. Even for Tronk the thing had to be strange, disturbing.
“What do you think it might be, Tronk?”
“I can’t say. It’s moving too slow.”
“Yes. I think it could be tufts from canes.”
“Tufts? What tufts?”
“There’s a canebrake down there at the far end.” He pointed toward the right but the gesture was useless because nothing could be seen in the dark. “Canes are topped with black tufts in this season. Sometimes the wind detaches these tufts and since they’re light they fly away. They look like little clouds of smoke.” He paused, then added: “But this can’t be that. They would move faster.”
“What could it be then?”
“I don’t know,” Tronk said. “Men would be peculiar. They’d approach from a different direction. And then it keeps on moving. I don’t understand.”
“Sound the alarm!” shouted a nearby sentry at that moment. Then another echoed him, then yet another. They too had caught sight of the black spot. From within the redoubt other, off-duty soldiers rushed out. They gathered on the parapet, intrigued and a little frightened.
“Do you see it?” said one soldier. “Right below. Now it stopped.”
“It’s got to be fog,” said another. “Sometimes fog has holes and you can see what’s behind it through them. Someone seems to be moving but it’s just the holes in the fog.”
“Yes, yes, now I see it. But that black thing is always there. It’s a black stone. That’s what it is.”
“What stone do you mean? Don’t you see it’s still moving? Are you blind?”
“It’s a stone, I tell you. I’ve always seen it, a black stone that looks like a nun.”
Someone laughed. “Leave this area. Go back inside immediately,” Tronk intervened, anticipating the lieutenant, whose agitation was increased by all those voices. The soldiers reluctantly withdrew to the interior and silence was restored.
“Tronk?” asked Drogo, suddenly unable to decide on his own. “Should we sound the alarm?”
“Sound the alarm to the Fortezza? Are you saying we should fire a shot, lieutenant sir?”
“I really don’t know. Do you think there’s reason to sound the alarm?”
Tronk shook his head. “I’d wait to get a better look. If we fire a shot, it’ll cause a commotion at the Fortezza. And then what if it’s nothing?”
“Right,” admitted Drogo.
“Besides,” Tronk added, “it would violate regulations. The regulations say the alarm should be given only in case of threat. That’s the exact wording: ‘in case of threat, the appearance of armed forces, and in every case where suspect persons approach at least one hundred meters from the base of the walls.’”
“Right,” assented Drogo. “And they’re farther than a hundred meters—correct?”
“So say I,” agreed Tronk. “And then how can we be certain it’s a person?”
“What do you want it to be then? A spirit?” Drogo was slightly irritated.
Tronk didn’t answer.
Suspended over the interminable night, Drogo and Tronk stood leaning against the parapet, their eyes fixed on the farthest point where the Tartar plain began. The enigmatic spot appeared to be motionless, as if it were sleeping. Giovanni gradually reverted to the thought that nothing was really there, just a black boulder that resembled a nun, and his eyes had been deceived by a touch of fatigue, nothing more, a foolish hallucination. Now he even felt a trace of obscure bitterness, as when the grave hours of destiny pass close to us without touching and their roar is lost in the distance while we remain alone amid a whirl of dried leaves, lamenting the loss of a terrible yet momentous opportunity.
But then, with the passage of night, the breath of fear rose from the dark valley. With the passage of night Drogo felt small and alone. Tronk was too different from him to be capable of acting as a friend. Oh, if only he were near his friends, even just one of them, then things would be different. He might even have found the will to joke. Waiting for dawn wouldn’t be so painful.
Meanwhile strips of fog were forming in the plain—a white archipelago on a black ocean. One island stopped right at the foot of the redoubt, concealing the mysterious object. The air had become humid. Drogo’s cloak hung limp and heavy from his shoulders.
What a long night. He had already lost hope it would ever end when the sky began to whiten and icy blasts announced the dawn wasn’t far away. At that point sleep surprised him. On his feet, leaning against the parapet, Drogo let his head drop twice and twice he abruptly straightened up. Finally his head sank inert and his eyelids yielded to the weight. The new day was breaking.
He was awakened when someone touched his arm. Surfacing slowly from dreams, he was stunned by the light. A voice, Tronk’s voice, said to him, “Lieutenant sir, it’s a horse.”
Then he recalled his life, the Fortezza, the New Redoubt, the enigma of the black spot. He immediately looked in the distance, keen to know. He felt the cowardly desire to see nothing but stones and shrubs, nothing other than the plain, just as it had always been, solitary and empty.
But the voice repeated to him, “Lieutenant sir, it’s a horse.” And Drogo made out the implausible thing, motionless at the foot of the cliffs.
It wasn’t a large horse, but short and stocky, and curiously beautiful with its thin legs and flowing mane. Its shape was odd but its color was marvelous, a shiny black that left a spot on the landscape.
Where had it come from? Who was its owner? For countless years no creature had ventured into those places—except, perhaps, the occasional crow or snake. Now, however, a horse had appeared, and you could perceive at once that it wasn’t wild, but a first-rate animal, a true military horse (apart from the legs, which were a bit too thin). It was an extraordinary thing, its significance disturbing. Drogo, Tronk, the sentries—as well as the other soldiers at the embrasures on the floor below—couldn’t take their eyes off it. That horse broke the rules. It brought back the ancient legends of the north with their Tartars and battles. It filled the entire desert with its illogical presence.
The horse didn’t mean a great deal on its own. But you knew other things had to come of it. It wore a saddle that was in good shape, as if it had been mounted a short time ago. Thus it told a story that had been interrupted. What until yesterday was absurd, a ridiculous superstition, could be true. Drogo had the impression he could sense them—the mysterious enemy, the Tartars, lying flat among the bushes, in the fissures of the rocks, motionless and silent, their teeth clenched. They were waiting for darkness to launch their attack. In the meantime others would arrive, a threatening swarm that slowly issued from the mists of the north. They possessed neither music nor song, neither gleaming swords nor beautiful banners. Their weapons were matte so they wouldn’t glitter in the sun and their horses were trained not to neigh.
But a pony—this was the immediate thought at the New Redoubt— a pony had escaped the enemy and ran ahead to betray them. They probably hadn’t noticed it because the animal had fled from the camp during the night.
Hence the horse had brought a precious message. Yet how much time did they have before the enemy arrived? Drogo couldn’t inform the command at the Fortezza until nightfall. By then the Tartars could creep up on them.
Sound the alarm, then? Tronk said no. After all, he said, it was just an ordinary horse. The fact that it reached the foot of the redoubt could mean that it had found itself on its own. Perhaps the owner was a solitary hunter who had imprudently ventured into the desert and died or fell ill. The horse, left alone, had gone in search of safety. He sensed the presence of men from the Fortezza, and he was now expecting them to bring him fodder.
This objection raised serious doubts as to whether an army was approaching. What would have motivated the animal to flee from a camp in a region so inhospitable? Besides, Tronk said, he had heard the Tartars’ horses were almost all white. In an old painting that hung in a room at the Fortezza you could see them all mounted on white chargers. This horse, however, was black as coal.
So Drogo, after much indecision, decided to wait till evening. In the meantime the sky had cleared and the sun brightened the landscape, warming the soldiers’ spirits. Even Giovanni felt cheered by the bright light. The fantasies about the Tartars lost consistency. Everything returned to normal proportions. The horse was an ordinary horse. You could find a number of explanations for its presence without recourse to enemy incursions. Then, forgetting nocturnal fears, Drogo suddenly felt open to any sort of exploit. He gloried in the premonition that his destiny stood at the gates, a happy fate that would lift him above other men.
He took pleasure in attending to the most minute formalities of guard duty as if to demonstrate to Tronk and the soldiers that the appearance of the horse, although strange and worrisome, hadn’t troubled him at all. This he found a most military attitude.
From The Stronghold by Dino Buzzati, translated by Lawrence Venuti. Used with permission of the publisher, New York Review of Books. Translation Copyright © 2023 by Lawrence Venuti.