As always, Grazia Deledda is able to capture the vast array of feelings that touch the human heart and recount them as if she herself had lived them. In so doing. she makes it possible for us, as readers, to also feel those emotions.

FAMIGLIE POVERE  

Grazia Deledda  

Povera e numerosa era la famiglia del salinaro, raccolta come una tribù di selvaggi in certe catapecchie davanti alle quali il mare, nei giorni burrascosi, appariva come uno straccio sporco sbattuto dal vento, e d’estate le saline, simili a cave di calce, bruciavano gli occhi a chi le fissava.
L’uomo ed i figli più grandetti lavoravano laggiù, mangiati dal sale e dalla malaria: in casa rimaneva la moglie sempre gravida e con un grappolo di marmocchi intorno; rimanevano i vecchi nonni invalidi ed una sorella scema: chi andava e veniva continuamente in giro, era la suocera, la vecchia Geppa, che doveva essere stata generata in un momento di burrasca, perché non stava mai ferma e dava l’idea di un albero maestro tentennante al vento con intorno la vela attorcigliata e rotta.
Dopo i maschi, la Geppa era quella che si rendeva più utile alla famiglia; poiché non tornava una volta a casa senza il grembiale colmo di roba. Non che domandasse l’elemosina, che anzi non guardava in faccia nessuno, e neppure rispondeva se un viandante le chiedeva il nome di una strada, ma cercava, e cercando si trova sempre qualche cosa: fascinotti di legna nella pineta, fuscelli lungo la spiaggia, more e pigne, oggetti anche di valore abbandonati dai bagnanti e sepolti dalla rena, pesci buttati dai pescatori della sciabica, funghi ed erbe, qualche zucca, o grappoli d’uva sporgenti dai campi dei contadini; infine radici buone anche per i continui disturbi dei bambini.
I bambini non l’amavano, forse perché li costringeva a trangugiare questi amari intrugli: e neppure i grandi la vedevano di buon occhio.
C’era qualche cosa di strano, quasi di inumano, in lei, nei suoi occhi rotondi e fissi, come quelli delle vipere, nei suoi larghi piedi di palmipede, nell’andatura veloce e silenziosa: quando lei non era in casa si respirava meglio, mentre il suo riapparire, alla sera, sulla porta grigia e ventosa della catapecchia, dava un senso di fantastico, come s’ella fosse stata a commettere del male, ma in un mondo di spiriti, e cacciata via da questi ritornasse sulla terra con le ombre della notte.
L’aprirsi ed il vuotarsi del suo grembiale riconciliava un po’ tutti, con lei e con la realtà.  

*  

Un giorno d’autunno il bambino ultimo, nato da pochi giorni appena, mentre la madre lo allattava, rifiutò il seno di lei e si mise a piangere forte; un pianto che pareva quello di un uomo disperato. La donna si accorse che non aveva più latte: pallida, anzi azzurra in viso, s’accostò il bambino agli occhi, quasi volesse nutrirlo con le sue lagrime: egli però non si chetava; e d’un tratto lo si vide cadere dalle braccia di lei come un frutto che si stacca dal ramo; ed ella piegarsi come a raccoglierlo.
Era morta.
Nello scompiglio dell’ora solo la vecchia Geppa taceva. Aiutò il salinaro a stendere la donna sul letto, e quando si convinse che nulla c’era da fare, prese il bambino, il cui pianto risonava più forte fra quello degli altri, quasi egli si sentisse il più toccato dalla disgrazia, e lo portò fuori, per svagarlo e farlo tacere. Ed anche durante la giornata ella non rientrò a casa. Il salinaro, istupidito dall’angoscia, coi capelli ed i lunghi baffi gialli spioventi come quelli di un annegato, quando si recò al paese per denunziare la morte della moglie, — per esaurimento del sangue, aveva dichiarato il medico della salina, — fece ricerca di lei.
Sì, l’avevano veduta entrare da una contadina benestante, che allattava un bambino, poi scendere verso la spiaggia, e nel pomeriggio battere alla porta della villa del podestà, dove c’era una grossa balia nera con le mammelle lunghe e gonfie come quelle di una vacca.
Domandava l’elemosina del latte per il bambino.
Il salinaro non approvò questo metodo; non per orgoglio, ma per bile: poiché anche lui odiava la suocera e la considerava come un’intrusa: e quando alla sera ella tornò col bambino sazio adagiato sopra il grembiale colmo di patate, la strapazzò malamente. I ragazzi ed i bambini mangiarono tuttavia, condite col sale, le patate che ella mise a bollire, e fu lei che accese un candelino per rischiarare l’ombra intorno alla figlia morta. Venne il giorno dopo il prete, per conto della direzione della salina, e prima di portar via la donna, parlò in disparte col vedovo.
Era un pretaccio selvatico, col viso scuro di barba, i gambali sotto la sottana, le scarpe coi chiodi: lo si vedeva sempre in bicicletta, e viveva anche lui in una casupola addossata alla chiesetta del cimitero, del quale era cappellano.
Senza tanti preamboli disse:
— Si tratta di dare il vostro ultimo bambino alla sorella della contadina Signani, dalla quale vostra suocera ieri lo ha portato per farlo allattare. Il cognato della Signani è fattore delle tenute del conte Lanza: sta bene, quindi, e poiché non ha figli desidera adottarne uno. Darebbe anche qualche cosa. Si capisce.
Disse forte questo «si capisce» battendo il pugno come per applicare il timbro ad un contratto.
Il salinaro abbassò la testa; si morse le labbra; poi disse:
— Lei mi garantisce che il bambino sarà trattato bene?
— Perdio!
— Allora le darò una risposta domani.    

*    

Fu quindi tenuto una specie di consiglio di famiglia. I vecchi genitori del salinaro, resi insensibili dalla miseria e dalla malattia, furono del parere di dar via il bambino, per il suo stesso bene…
Geppa invece, intorno alla quale adesso, smarriti nel vuoto improvviso lasciato dalla madre, i nipotini si stringevano con affetto, disse la cruda verità:
— Volete venderlo per non dargli da campare.
Bastò questo perché l’uomo, indeciso e angosciato, si sollevasse crudele.
— È proprio così, sapristi!
Il bambino intanto piangeva, rifiutando di succhiare un pezzettino di zucchero avvolto in uno straccetto ch’ella inumidiva con la sua saliva. Era adagiato sul letto della madre, e la vecchia aveva l’impressione che la povera morta fosse ancora lì, lunga, col viso triste, del colore del mare sotto la luna.
— Figlia, — le diceva, — perché non parli al cuore di tuo marito? Ed anche a quello del prete scervellato? Parla, tu che adesso lo puoi; altrimenti gli faccio la festa, io, a quel corvo maledetto, mediatore del diavolo.
Quando vide il genero uscire ed avviarsi al cimitero, ch’era a metà strada fra il paese e la salina, sentì davvero di odiare il prete: e pensò a chi poteva rivolgersi per difendersi da lui o per convincerlo almeno a non intromettersi oltre nella triste faccenda.
A chi rivolgersi? Ma allo stesso padrone della balia nera, che era pure padrone del paese: al podestà.  

*  

E quasi si sentisse già forte della protezione di lui riprese il bambino e s’avviò coi suoi lunghi passi di cammello. Fece un largo giro per evitare d’incontrare il salinaro, finché arrivò alla spiaggia battuta già dal vento d’autunno e quindi disabitata. La casa del podestà era appunto vicina al mare, distaccata alquanto dal paesetto del quale apparivano già i pioppi, sul cielo cremisi, i tetti ed i comignoli fumanti. Col bambino che piagnucolava sempre, ella infilò senz’altro il cancello aperto del giardino del podestà, andò diritta fino alla casa, e lì davanti all’atrio si fermò di botto, impalata, con un fitto dolore al cuore, come se uno spiedo scatenato a tradimento dal suolo le si conficcasse dal calcagno in su: poiché fra le colonne del portico, illuminate dal chiarore ultimo del giorno, stavano a confabulare tre figure: quella rosea e benigna del podestà, quella nera del pretaccio del cimitero e quella gialla del salinaro.
Nell’accorgersi della vecchia, questi balzò come un gallo infuriato.
— Sapristi, eccola qui la strega. Che siete venuta a fare?
Ella s’era subito rianimata.
— Venivo a chiedere un po’ di latte alla balia, perché la creatura muore.
E non sapeva che con quest’esagerazione segnava la sorte del bambino: poiché il podestà, al quale gli altri due domandavano appunto l’autorizzazione di concederlo ai contadini, incerto fino a quel momento, pensò che era atto d’umanità acconsentire. Non solo, ma chiamò la balia possente perché tenesse il bambino con sé fino al momento della consegna.
— Di latte ne hai tanto da poter fare il cacio — le disse per complimento.    

*    

La vecchia tornò indietro stordita. Questa era la giustizia degli uomini, questi gli scherzi della sorte. E le sembrava di essere tutta vuota; di camminare come uno scarabeo al quale i compagni hanno mangiato le viscere, e pure vive ancora.
Anzi correva: in pochi minuti fu davanti al cimitero e lì si piantò in agguato feroce. Gli occhi le luccicavano infiammati come l’occidente ventoso; e le parole di minaccia s’indurivano in proposito inesorabile.
— Questa sera ti faccio la festa, corvaccio della morte.
Quasi ad aiutarla le si presentò fra l’erba, ai suoi piedi, il mozzicone di un’antica piccola croce di ferro, forse divelta e sbalzata dal vento; ella l’afferrò come una spada e si nascose meglio dietro il muro.
Ma il prete non tornava. Dal suo posto ella vedeva la parte nuova del cimitero, dov’era stata sepolta la figlia, e le pareva un cortile pieno di sassi, senza un fiore, senza cipressi. La pineta però fasciava il muro: sopra le cime dei pini profilate di smeraldo, il cielo brillava sempre più violetto; e si sentiva scendere di lassù un mormorio monotono come se gli alberi recitassero in coro, musicato dal vento, un vespro per i buoni morti.
Il prete non tornava. Ma dentro la sua casupola doveva esserci qualcuno, perché il fumo uscì dal comignolo corto e nero come una pipa, e un odore dolce ed acuto di cipolle fritte arrivò sino alla vecchia.
Allora ella ricordò che anche il prete aveva una famiglia da mantenere: la vecchia madre ed una torma di nipotini, figli di un fratello marinaio morto in un naufragio.
L’odore delle cipolle le ricordò anche la sua catapecchia ed i bambini che aspettavano lei ed il suo grembiale: ma appunto il pensiero che, a causa del prete, quel giorno, l’ira le aveva fatto trascurare la solita raccolta, riaccese il suo rancore.
Ed ecco, mentre pensa così, una specie di sassata la colpisce alle spalle. Si volge, credendo di essere scoperta, e nell’atto stesso si sente colpita alla testa. Erano grosse pigne che il vento staccava dagli alberi e nel cadere si aprivano come scatole dalle quali balzavano i pinoli maturi. Molte ce n’erano per terra, alcune intatte, altre, sfarfallate, che al crepuscolo parevano spoglie d’uccelli.
L’istinto della raccolta la vinse: appoggiò la croce al tronco di un pino, prese le cocche del grembiale fra i denti; e in breve, per opera della mano destra e della sinistra, il grembiale fu gonfio, duro, pesante.
Allora ella se ne andò, paurosa adesso d’incontrare il prete, lasciando la piccola croce dov’era caduto il suo odio.        
POOR FAMILIES

Grazia Deledda  

The salt-workers’ families were big, huddled like a tribe of savages in shacks about which the sea, on stormy days, thrashed like a dirty rag whipped by the wind; and in summer, the salt pits, similar to limestone quarries, burned the eyes of anyone who looked at them.
The man and his older children worked down there, consumed by the salt and the malaria: his wife, who was always pregnant, and a bunch of kids stayed home; the poorly grandparents and one simple-minded sister stayed home. The one person who came and went continuously was his mother-in-law, old Geppa, who was most certainly generated during a storm because she never stood still and looked very much like a main mast, swathed in its knotted and torn sail, rocking in the wind.
After the men, Geppa was the most useful person in the family, for she never returned home without an apron full of goods. Not that she went begging, quite the opposite: She never raised her head and wouldn’t even reply if a traveller asked her the name of a street. But she searched, and in searching she always found something: bundles of twigs in the pine forest, branches along the beach, blackberries and pinecones, objects that were of value even and had been discarded by bathers and lay buried under the sand, fish that had been thrown away by the fishermen on the trawlers, mushrooms and herbs, squash, or bunches of grapes that escaped the confines of a farmer’s vineyards; and, finally, roots for the children who had continuous health problems.
The children didn’t love her―maybe because she forced them to drink down those bitter concoctions; and the grown-ups couldn’t stand her either.
There was something strange, almost otherworldly about her, in her round, staring eyes, similar to those of a viper, in her large webbed feet, in her quick and silent gait: when she wasn’t home, they breathed more easily; and her arrival in the evening, on the grey, windswept threshold of the shack, had something grotesque about it, as if she had been out committing a crime, but in a world of spirits,  which had banished her, forcing her to return to the earth with the shadows of the night.
The opening and emptying of her apron reconciled them with her and reality.  

*  

One day in autumn, the last baby, who had been born only a few days earlier, while nursing, refused his mother’s breast and started crying loudly; it was like the cry of a desperate man. The woman realized she had no more milk: pale, or rather, blue in the face, she raised the child to her eyes almost as if she wished to nourish him with her tears, but he would not stop crying; and suddenly, she saw him fall from her arms like a fruit falling from a branch and herself bending as if to catch him.
She was dead.
In the clamour of the moment, only old Geppa was silent. She helped the salt-worker lay the woman down on the bed, and when she was convinced that nothing more could be done, she took the child whose sobs resounded louder than anyone else’s, as if he knew he was the one most hit by the tragedy, and she took him outside to distract and soothe him. And for that whole day, she did not go into the house. When the salt-worker, numbed with anguish and with his hair and long, yellow moustache hanging like a drowned man’s, went to the town to report his wife’s death―from loss of blood, said the salt-workers’ doctor―he searched for her.
Yes, they’d seen her enter the house of a rich farmwoman who was nursing her child, then she’d descended towards the sea, and in the afternoon, she’d knocked on the door of the podesta’s mansion where there lived a large black wet-nurse with breasts as long and swollen as a cow’s.
She was begging for milk for the child.
The salt-worker did not approve of this, not because of pride but anger: he, too, hated his mother-in-law and considered her an intruder; and when she returned that night with the sated child cradled atop of her potato-filled apron, he mistreated her. However, the children, young and old, ate the salted potatoes she had boiled; and she was the one who lit a small candle to lift the shadows from around her dead daughter. The next day, the priest came on behalf of the salt-workers’ organisation; and before they carried the woman away, he took the widower aside to speak to him.
He was a mean, feral priest with a dark-bearded face, and, under his tunic, boots with hobnails: he was always riding a bike, and he, too, lived in a shack near the cemetery chapel, of which he was the chaplain.
Without preamble, he said:
―It’s about giving your last born to farmer Signani’s sister, to whom your mother-in-law took the child yesterday for milk. Mrs. Signani’s brother-in-law is the fattore[1] of Count Lanza’s lands: she’s well-off, therefore, and since she has no children, she’d like to adopt one. She’d give you something for him, of course.
He shouted the words “of course”, beating his fist as if to stamp a seal on a contract.
The salt-worker lowered his head, bit his lip, and then said:
―Will you promise me that my son will be well cared for?
―By God!
―Well then, I’ll give you my answer tomorrow.  

*  

So, a sort of family council was held. The elderly parents of the salt-worker, whom poverty and illness had made insensitive, thought it was best to give the child away, for his own good…
Geppa, on the other hand―about whom the children, distraught by the sudden void their mother had left, now crowded affectionately―spoke the blunt truth:
―You want to sell him so you won’t have to feed him.
That was enough to make the man, who was undecided and anguished, start cruelly.
―That’s the case, dammit!
Meanwhile, the child was crying, refusing to suck on a piece of sugar wrapped in a little rag she dampened with her saliva. He was lying on his mother’s bed; and the old woman had the impression that the poor dead woman was still stretched out there, her sad face the colour of the moon drenched sea.
―Daughter, ― she said, ―why don’t you speak to your husband’s heart? And to the heart of that mindless priest? Speak, you who now can; otherwise, I will kill that damned rook, that agent of the devil.
When she saw her son-in-law leave the house and go towards the cemetery, which was midway between the cemetery and the town, she was truly overcome with hatred for the priest: and she wondered who she could ask to protect her from him or, at least, to convince him to keep his nose out of that sad affair.
Who could she turn to? But of course! To the master of the black wet-nurse, who was also the master of the town: the podestà.  

*  

And feeling almost as if she were already under his protection, she took up the child and marched off in long strides. She took the long way round to keep from running into the salt-worker, until she reached the beach, which was swept by the autumn winds and therefore deserted. The home of the podestà was, in fact, near the sea, far from the town whose poplars and roofs and smoking chimneys could be seen against the crimson-coloured sky. She entered the open gate that led to the podestà’s garden with the crying baby in her arms and went straight to the door. She stopped suddenly before the threshold, frozen, a stabbing pain in her heart. It was as if, from the ground, a traitorous spike had been shot upward through her heel. There, between the columns of the portico, illuminated by the last rays of the day, stood three whispering silhouettes: the rosy and benign one was the podestà; the dark one was the evil priest from the cemetery; and the yellow one was the salt-worker. When the latter noticed the old woman, he jumped up like an enraged rooster.
―Dammit, here’s the witch now. What did you come here for?
She brightened suddenly.
―I came to ask the wet-nurse for some milk because this child is dying.
And she didn’t realize that by exaggerating she had sealed the baby’s fate: for the podestà―whom the two men were, indeed, asking to authorize the adoption―had been undecided until that moment; now, he saw it as an act of mercy. Not only, but he called the robust wet nurse to care for the baby until the time came to hand him over to the farmers.
―You have so much milk you could make cheese. ―he said as a compliment to her.  

*  

The old woman turned away in a daze. Such was the justice of men, the twists of fate. And she felt totally empty, moving about like a beetle whose guts her companions had fed on, but who was still alive.
And, indeed, she was running: in just a few minutes, she reached the cemetery; and she lay in ferocious ambush. Her fiery eyes were aflame like the windy western skies; and her threatening words hardened in their inexorable intent.
―I’ll kill the bloody rook tonight.
As if to help her, a cross appeared in the grass at her feet; it was the remains of a small, ancient cross of steel that had perhaps been swept there by the wind. She grasped it like a sword and better hid herself behind the wall.
But the priest did not return. From her position, she could see the new part of the cemetery where her daughter had been buried; and it looked like a courtyard full of stones, with no flowers, with no cypress trees. The pine forest, however, circled the wall: above the emerald green contours of the pine tree tops, the sky shone more and more violet; and descending from up above was a monotone murmur, as if the trees were reciting in chorus―set to music by the wind―a vesper for the dear departed.
The priest did not return. But there had to be someone inside his shack because smoke rose from a chimney as low and black as a pipe; and a sweet and pungent smell of fried onions reached the old woman.
The old woman then remembered that the priest, too, had a family to support: his elderly mother and a herd of nieces and nephews, the children of one brother, a sailor who had died in a shipwreck.
The smell of onions reminded her of her own shack and the children who were waiting for her and her apron: but the thought that, because of the priest, her anger had made her forget her usual collecting that day, made her angry again.
Then, just as she is thinking these thoughts, a sort of rock hits her from behind. She turns around, thinking someone has found her out, and as she does so, she is hit on the head. They were the huge pinecones that the wind had shaken off the trees and that, as they fell, opened like boxes from which mature pinenuts skipped. There were lots of them on the ground, some intact and others spread wide open and looking, at dusk, very much like the remains of birds.
The instinct to gather food overcame her: she leant the cross on the foot of a pine tree and took the corners of her apron in her teeth; using both her right and left hand, soon her apron was bulging, hard, and heavy.
So she left, afraid now that she might run into the priest, leaving the small cross where her anger had fallen.
   
Translation ©Matilda Colarossi 2022            

[1] The fattore in olden times was the man who supervised the lands of the rich and therefore held an important position in the town along with the priest, the police and the doctor. He himself often became rich by taking from both the sharecroppers and the land-owners: he was not seen in a positive light for actions, for the most part, benefitted only him.

From the collection La casa del poeta by Grazia Deledda, Milano: 1930, Fratelli Treves Editori.

Painting: Le due madri by Giovanni Segantini, oil on canvas, 1889.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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