10. The Mortal and the Eternal

The walls, now nothing more than a sad stacking of loose stones, culminated in two enormous columns between which an ancient wooden gate lay suspended. This led to a wide path that, winding through a long-deserted park, sadly showed the way to the central construction. More than a house, it looked like an ancient Gothic church. A myriad of arched windows dotted the facade; even the enormous inlaid wooden door, reached by a narrow staircase, reproduced this same form. On the left side, a sort of deformed extension of the building stood, obscure and restless, surely raised in a later period and marked in its highest part by a cruciform window inscribed in a circle. Beyond this abnormal tumor, at the rear end of the building, rose an imposing quadrangular tower, from the top of which a thin spire, barely visible behind the dormers, boldly touched the depths of the sky.
As my footsteps echoed on the pavement of the avenue, I shuddered upon seeing that place again. So many years had passed.
I glanced quickly at the sun, down there to the west; now close to its night sleep, it illuminated this part of the world with a faint reddish light.
I have little time, I thought.
I climbed the stairs quickly and, with a great deal of effort, pushed the doors of the heavy entrance portal open. An acrid smell of mildew and stale air greeted my return, at long last. Most of the furniture and other furnishings were covered with white sheets, dust and cobwebs, but it was still as it once was. The quick, barely perceptible race of a mouse, startled by my arrival, was the only sign of life I received; the only sign of life left in that house.
The ghostly luminescence of the sunset barely filtered through the window crystals, now graying with time. I lit the candle I had brought with me and moved further in without hesitating. I was aware of where I was heading, though I had never been there: it was that room I had never been allowed to enter. There is always one, in every house, whose access is forbidden to the children of the family; there was one also there. I still remembered entire nights spent fantasizing about what might be hiding there so terrible that I was forbidden to enter. Now I knew it.
Now I understand everything, Father. Now I understand why you were never with me during the day and was told you were taking long walks through the woods in search of inspiration, or that you were somewhere, writing your novels. Now I understand why, on those bitter nights when, driven by the terrifying fear of a cold wind or a storm, I came to look for you in your room, I could never find you. And you, the next morning, you repeated for the umpteenth time that you had been out to enjoy these disturbing wonders of Nature to the fullest. Now I understand everything, Father.
I set off along the narrow staircase leading to the dungeons.
Now I understand why you sent me away from here with the faithful Maximilian, your only servant, when I became old enough. Old enough to understand.
I walked without realizing it, as if my mind, turned to something else, no longer cared about the body.
I understand why you told Maximilian to make me believe you were dead; and to order me never to come back here. You knew that if I did, I would discover the truth. And so it was, indeed.
I arrived in front of it. In front of the door, down at the end of the dark corridor, which led to the forbidden room.
Maximilian is dead. I came back, I talked to the locals. Now I know the horror into which you cast the inhabitants of the valley; unfortunately, I am also the only one to know that you are the culprit. So, it’s up to me.
The heart seemed to want to breach my chest; blood was throbbing in my temples.
Once, Father, I swore to you that I would never have crossed this threshold. Now, it’s time to break that oath.
A moment of hesitation crossed my soul.
I know.
The candle in one hand, the ash stake in the other, with a violent kick I opened that door worn by time. It was there, on a stone base against the opposite wall. I lit one of the two wall torches, dangling my candle to the ground. I approached the coffin.
Do what you must: uncover it; stick the stake in the heart.
With one hand I caressed that gloomy shell, while a swirling succession of images crossed my mind. I returned to the threshold from which I had entered, stopping motionless under the lintel, waiting for an answer. The creaking of the lid slipping away paralyzed me; the sun must have set at that point. I could hear the rustle of his clothes, I heard him stand up and stare at me. I tried to imagine the astonished expression on his face; I wondered if the tumult in him was similar to that in me.
“I knew, sooner or later, you would come this far, my son.”
I turned around. It was him, my father. I was wrong: there was no trace of astonishment on his face, only pain.
He noticed the ash stake in my hand.
“Do you want to kill me?”
“Yes.”
He smiled.
“You could have done it before I woke up, but something held you back. And we both know very well what that is,” his voice resounded, atonic and impersonal, just as I remembered. “You haven’t come to suppress me. You don’t care, or care very little, about those miserable mortals out there who wearily drag along their vain and monotonous life day after day, year after year. Always the same from cradle to grave. You only want to know.” He stared at me with those dark eyes that I had once loved; eyes that loved me. And that, perhaps, I also loved, yet, in my heart.
“I’m sorry, my son. Unfortunately, I don’t know the answer either. There is only one way to learn the truth,” he approached, sticking his gaze into my soul like a scorching iron. “If you can’t live in doubt, then you will have to make a choice. A choice that will not depend on you, after all, but still a choice: eternity or death.”
He crossed the threshold and advanced, light, into the darkness of the corridor, until he dissolved into the dark shadow of the dungeons.

***

As I descended, aboard my gig, down the hill where my childhood house stood, I stopped at a point on the side of the road from where you could see the entire valley below. A distant cry resounded in the darkness. The windows of an old farmhouse lit up, a shapeless dark mass slid outside and rose high into the sky. It was only when it stood out against the shining background of the moon that I recognized in it the outline of a huge bat.
With both hands I gripped tightly the old Spanish dagger, stolen from the gray wall of the hall to which it had belonged for too long. I leaned it against my chest, at the height of my heart.
Eternity. Or death.
A dark veil fell over my eyes.
It lasted forever.

END

[First written as “Il Mortale e l’Eterno” in 1990. Re-edited in 2018 with the help of Sonia Lombardo. Translated from the Italian by Sabrina Beretta and edited by Karen Rought in 2019.]
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