Read The Oil Jar and Other Stories Online

Authors: Luigi Pirandello

Tags: #General Fiction

The Oil Jar and Other Stories (5 page)

BOOK: The Oil Jar and Other Stories
7.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

And he placed a hand on his chest, which was shaken by the sobs that were stuck in his throat. Choking, Zarù shook his head furiously, then raised one hand, took Neli by the nape of his neck and drew him toward himself:

“We were supposed to get married at the same time ... ”

“And we
will
get married at the same time, have no doubts!” said Neli, removing his hand, which had clasped his neck tightly.

Meanwhile the doctor was observing the dying man. It was clear: a case of anthrax.

“Tell me, do you recall being bitten by any insect?”

“No,” Zarù indicated by shaking his head.

“Insect?” asked Saro.

The doctor explained the disease to those two uneducated men as best he could. Some animal must have died of anthrax in that vicinity. Insects—who knows how many?—had lighted on the carcass, which had been thrown away into some ravine; one of them could have transmitted the disease to Zarù.

While the doctor was speaking, Zarù had turned his face to the wall. No one knew it, but all the same death was still there; so small that it could hardly have been descried if anyone had intentionally looked for it. It was a fly, there on the wall, seemingly immobile; but, if you looked closely, now it was projecting its little mouth-tube and pumping, now it was rapidly cleaning its two thin front feet, rubbing them together, as if in contentment. Zarù caught sight of it and stared at it.

A fly...

It might have been that one or another one ... Who knows? Because now, hearing the doctor talk, he thought he remembered. Yes, the day before, when he had lain down there to sleep, waiting for his cousins to finish shelling Lopes' almonds, a fly had bothered him terribly ... Could it be this one? He saw it take flight and followed its movements with his eyes. There! it had landed on Neli's cheek. From his cheek, softly, softly, it was now moving, in a broken line, to his chin, right up to the razor scratch, and there it dug in, voraciously.

Giurlannu Zarù kept looking at it for a while intently, with concentration. Then, through his catarrhal panting, he asked in a cavernous voice:

“Could it be a fly?”

“A fly? Why not?” the doctor replied.

Giurlannu Zarù said nothing more: he resumed staring at that fly, which Neli, as if dazed by the doctor's words, failed to shoo away. He, Zarù, was paying no attention to the doctor's speech, but was pleased that, with his talking, he was engrossing his cousin's attention to such an extent that Neli remained as motionless as a statue and paid no heed to the annoyance that fly was causing him. Oh, if it were only the same one! Yes, then they really would get married at the same time! He had been seized by a sullen envy, an unspoken ferocious jealousy of that young cousin, so strong and healthy, for whom life remained full of promise—life, which suddenly was running out for
him
...

All at once Neli, as if he had felt himself bitten, raised one hand, drove away the fly and with his fingers began to pinch his chin, where the little cut was, turning toward Zarù, who was looking at him and had opened his horrendous lips, as if in a monstrous smile. They looked at each other in that way for a while. Then Zarù said, as if not meaning to:

“The fly ... ”

Neli didn't understand and bent down his head to listen.

“What are you saying?”

“The fly ... ,” he repeated.

“Which one? Where?” asked Neli, in alarm, looking at the doctor.

“There, where you're scratching. I'm sure of it!” said Zarù.

Neli showed the doctor the tiny wound in his chin.

“What's wrong with me? It itches ... ”

The doctor looked at him, frowning; then, as if he wanted to examine him more closely, he led him out of the stables. Saro followed them.

What happened next? Giurlannu Zarù waited, waited a long time, with an anxiety that irritated all his insides. He heard a confused sound of talking outside. All of a sudden, Saro came back into the stable furiously, took the mule and, without even turning around to look at him, went out, moaning:

“Ah, my Neluccio! Ah, my Neluccio!”

Was it true, then? And look, were they abandoning him there, like a dog? ... He tried to raise himself on one elbow and called out twice:

“Saro ... Saro ... ”

Silence. Nobody. He couldn't support himself any longer on his elbow, he fell back into a recumbent position and for a while he seemed to be rooting and grubbing around, in order not to hear the silence of the countryside, which terrified him. Suddenly he began to wonder whether he had dreamed the whole thing, whether he had had that bad dream in his feverish state; but, when he turned to the wall, he saw the fly there again. Now it was projecting its little mouth-tube and pumping, now it was rapidly cleaning its two thin front feet, rubbing them together, as if in contentment.

THE OIL JAR

A bumper crop of olives, too, that year. Productive trees, laden down the year before, had all borne firm fruit, in spite of the fog that had stifled them when in blossom.

Zirafa, who had a fair number of them on his farm Le Quote at Primosole, foreseeing that the five old glazed ceramic oil jars he had in his cellar wouldn't be enough to hold all the oil from the new harvest, had ordered a sixth, larger one in advance from Santo Stefano di Camastra, where they were made: as tall as a man's chest, beautiful, big-bellied and majestic, it would be the “abbess” of the five others.

Needless to say, he had litigated even with the kiln operator there over this jar. And with whom did Don
3
Lollò Zirafa fail to litigate? Over any trifle, even over a crumb of stone that had fallen from the perimeter wall, even over a wisp of straw, he would go to court. And by dint of all those legal documents and lawyers' fees, summonsing this man and that and always paying the costs for everyone, he had half ruined himself.

They said that his legal adviser, tired of seeing him showing up on his mule two or three times a week, in order to get rid of him had made him a present of a tiny, tiny little gem of a book, like a missal—the law code—so that he could rack his brains searching out for himself the legal basis for the lawsuits he wished to institute.

Before that, all those he had quarrels with, to make fun of him, used to shout at him: “Saddle the mule!” Now, instead, they said to him: “Consult the handbook!”

And Don Lollò would answer:

“I sure will, and I'll annihilate you, sons of bitches!”

That new jar—for which he had paid four good
onze
4
in hard cash—while awaiting the right spot to be found for it in the cellar, was temporarily stored in the grape-pressing shed. A jar like that had never been seen: it could hold at least two hundred liters. Stored in that dark cave, reeking of must and that acrid, raw smell that lurks in places without air or light, it was pitiful to behold. Some serious misfortune had to be suffered on its account, everyone told him. But Don Lollò, at that warning, would shrug his shoulders.

Two days earlier they had begun to knock down the olives, and he was in a vile temper, because he didn't know where to turn first, since the people with the fertilizer to be deposited in heaps here and there for the new season's bean crop had also arrived with their laden mules. On the one hand, he would have liked to be present while that steady parade of animals was being unloaded; on the other hand, he didn't want to leave the men who were knocking down the olives; and he went around cursing like a Turk and threatening to annihilate this man and that, if a single well-grown olive should be missing, just as if he had already counted them all, one by one, on the trees; or if each pile of manure wasn't as high as all the rest. With his homely white hat, in his shirt sleeves, his chest bare, his face all red, dripping all over with sweat, he kept running back and forth, rolling his wolflike eyes and furiously rubbing his shaven cheeks, on which the heavy beard grew back again almost at the very moment it was shaved off.

Now, at the end of the third day, three of the farmhands who had been knocking down the olives, coming into the wine-press shed to put away the ladders and the poles, stood stock still at the sight of the beautiful new jar, split almost in two. A large strip in front had been detached, all in one piece, as if someone —“whack!”—had cut it clean through with his hatchet, across the widest part of its belly, all the way down.

“I'm dying! I'm dying! I'm dying!” exclaimed one of the three, almost tonelessly, beating his chest with one hand.

“Who did it?” asked the second.

And the third:

“Oh, mother! Who is going to face Don Lollò now? Who's going to tell him? Honestly, the new jar! Oh, what a shame!”

The first man, the most frightened of them all, suggested that they immediately close the shutters of the door again and go away as quietly as possible, leaving the ladders and poles outside leaning up against the wall. But the second man vigorously objected:

“Are you crazy? With Don Lollò? He's liable to believe that
we
broke it. We stay right here!”

He went out in front of the shed and, using his hands to amplify his voice, called:

“Don Lollò! Oh, Don Lollòoo!”

The Don was down the hillside over there with the men who were unloading the fertilizer, and was gesticulating furiously in his accustomed manner, from time to time pulling his ugly white hat down over his eyes with both hands. Every once in a while, he pulled it down so hard that he could no longer wrench it off his neck and forehead. In the sky the last flames of the sunset were already going out, and amid the peace that descended onto the countryside with the shades of evening and the pleasant coolness, the gestures of that permanently enraged man stood out conspicuously.

“Don Lollò! Oh, Don Lollòoo!”

When he arrived and saw the havoc, it seemed he would go mad; first he hurled himself at those three men: he seized one of them by the throat and pinned him to the wall, shouting:

“Blood of the Madonna, you'll pay for this!”

Seized in his turn by the other two, their earth-colored, parched, brutish faces distorted by excitement, he turned his violent rage against himself, flung his ugly hat to the ground, and beat his head and cheeks for a long time, stamping his feet and bawling in the fashion of people mourning a dead relative:

“The new jar! Four
onze
'
s
worth of jar! Not even used once!”

He wanted to know who had broken it! Did it break by itself? Someone must have broken it, out of meanness or out of envy! But when? How? There were no visible signs of violence! Could it have arrived broken from the potter's shop? No! It rang like a bell!

As soon as the farmhands saw that his first fury had abated, they started urging him to calm down. The jar could be repaired. You see, it wasn't damaged badly. Just a single piece was broken. A competent tinker could fix it, make it as good as new. And Uncle Dima Licasi was the very man; he had discovered a miraculous resin cement, the secret formula for which he guarded jealously: a cement that couldn't even be broken by a hammer, once it had taken hold. There. If Don Lollò was willing, tomorrow, at the crack of dawn, Uncle Dima Licasi would come and, before you knew it, the jar would be better than before.

Don Lollò said no to those exhortations: it was all useless; there was no longer any way to put things right; but finally he allowed himself to be persuaded, and the next day, at dawn, punctually, Uncle Dima Licasi showed up at Primosole with his tool chest on his back.

He was a crooked old man, with knotty arthritic joints, like an old stump of Saracen
5
olive tree. To wrench a word out of his mouth you needed a hook. It was haughtiness, that taciturnity, it was sadness rooted in that misshapen body of his; it was also a lack of belief that others could understand and rightly appreciate his deserts as an inventor who had not yet received any patent. He wanted the facts to speak for themselves, did Uncle Dima Licasi. And thus he had to be constantly on his guard so that his secret formula for making that miraculous cement wasn't stolen.

“Show it to me,” Don Lollò said to him, first off, after looking him up and down for some time in distrust.

Uncle Dima shook his head in refusal, full of dignity.

“You'll see when it's done.”

“But will it work?”

Uncle Dima put his tool chest on the ground and took out of it a tattered and faded cotton handkerchief, all rolled up; he unfolded it; he religiously drew out of it a pair of eyeglasses with the bridge and side pieces broken and tied with string; he put them on and began to examine attentively the jar, which had been brought out into the open air, on the threshing floor. He said:

“It will work.”

“But with the cement alone,” Zirafa laid down as a condition, “I wouldn't feel safe. I want rivets as well.”

“In that case I'm leaving,” Uncle Dima replied tersely, putting his tool chest behind his back again.

Don Lollò caught him by one arm.

“Where are you off to? Sir Pig, is that how you deal with people? Look, he puts on airs as if he were Charlemagne! A down-and-out, miserable, ugly tinker, that's what you are, you donkey, and you ought to follow orders! I've got to put oil in there, and oil oozes out, you dumb animal! A crack a mile long, with nothing but cement? I want rivets. Cement and rivets. I'm the one giving the orders.”

Uncle Dima shut his eyes, pressed his lips together and shook his head. They were all the same! He was denied the pleasure of doing a clean job, in a conscientious, artisanlike manner, and thus furnishing a proof of the powers of his cement.

“If the jar,” he said, “doesn't ring again like a bell ... ”

“No, no!” Don Lollò interrupted him. “Rivets! I'm paying for cement and rivets. How much are you asking?”

“If it's with the cement only ... ”

“Damn it, what a thick head!” exclaimed Zirafa. “What have I been saying? I told you I want rivets in it. We'll settle up when the job is done: I have no time to waste with you.”

And he went off to keep an eye on his men.

Uncle Dima started working, swollen with anger and vexation. And his anger and vexation grew with every drill hole he made in the jar and in the detached piece for the iron wire of the riveting to pass through. He accompanied the whirring of the bit with grunts that became gradually more frequent and louder; and his face became greener with bile and his eyes more and more sharp and inflamed with rage. When that first operation was over, he furiously hurled the drill into the tool chest; he fitted the detached piece to the jar to make sure that the holes were equidistant and matching, then with his pincers he snipped the iron wire into as many small lengths as there were rivets to insert, and he called as an assistant one of the farmhands who were knocking down olives.

“Cheer up, Uncle Dima,” that man said to him, seeing his face all upset.

Uncle Dima raised one hand in a furious gesture. He opened the tin box that contained the cement, and raised it to the sky, shaking it, as if to offer it to God, inasmuch as mankind refused to acknowledge its efficacy: then with a finger he began to spread it all around the edges of the detached piece and along the crack; he took the pincers and the previously prepared small lengths of iron wire, and thrust himself into the open belly of the jar.

“From inside?” asked the farmhand, to whom he had given the detached piece to support.

He didn't reply. With a gesture he ordered him to fit that piece to the jar, as he himself had done shortly before, and stayed inside. Before beginning to insert the rivets:

“Pull!” he said to the farmhand from inside the jar, in a tearful voice. “Pull with all your might! See if it comes off again! The devil take anyone who doesn't believe it! And bang on it, bang on it! Hear how it sounds, even with me inside here? Go and tell that to your fine master.”

“The man on top gives the orders, Uncle Dima,” the farmhand sighed, “and the man on the bottom is damned! Put in the rivets, put in the rivets.”

And Uncle Dima began passing every piece of iron wire through the two adjacent holes, one on either side of the mend; and with the pincers he twisted the two ends. It took about an hour to pass them all through. He sweated rivers inside the jar. As he worked, he quietly lamented his evil fortune. And the farmhand, outside, kept consoling him.

“Now help me get out,” Uncle Dima finally said.

But as wide as it was around the belly, that's how narrow that jar was at the neck. That farmhand had had a true premonition! Uncle Dima, in his rage, had paid no attention. Now, try and try again as he would, he found no way of getting back out. And the farmhand, instead of helping him—there he was, doubled up with laughter. Imprisoned, imprisoned there, in the jar he himself had repaired, and which now—there was no other way—to let him out, would have to be broken again and for good.

The laughter and shouting brought Don Lollò onto the scene. Uncle Dima, inside the jar, was like a maddened cat.

“Get me out!” he was howling. “For God's sake, I want to get out! Right away! Help me out!”

At first Don Lollò just stood there stunned. He couldn't believe it.

“But how? Inside? He riveted himself up inside?”

He went over to the jar and shouted to the old man:

“Help? And what help can I give you? Stupid old man, how could you? Shouldn't you have taken the measurements first? Come on, try, stick out an arm, like that! And your head, come on ... no, easy does it! What? What have you done? And the jar, now? Keep calm! Keep calm! Keep calm!” he started to advise everyone around him, as if it were the others who were losing their composure and not he. “My head is on fire! Keep calm! This is a new case ... The mule!”

He tapped on the jar with his knuckles. It really did ring like a bell.

“Beautiful! As good as new ... Wait!” he said to the prisoner. “Go saddle my mule!” he ordered the farmhand; and, scratching his forehead with his fingers, he continued saying to himself: “But just look at what happens to me! This isn't ajar. It's a contrivance of the devil! Easy! Easy there!”

And he ran over to steady the jar, in which Uncle Dima was violently writhing like a trapped animal.

“A new case, my good man, which my lawyer needs to settle! I don't trust myself. I'll be back in a flash, be patient! It's in your own interests ... Meanwhile, be still! Keep calm! I look after my people. And before all else, in order to have a just claim, I do my duty. Here: I'm paying you for the job, I'm paying you for the day's work. Three
lire.
Is that enough?”

“I don't want a thing!” shouted Uncle Dima. “I want to get out!”

BOOK: The Oil Jar and Other Stories
7.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Dead or Alive by Ken McCoy
Shadow Over Second by Matt Christopher, Anna Dewdney
Dear John by Nicholas Sparks
You're Strong Enough by Pontious, Kassi
A Convenient Bride by Cheryl Ann Smith
Ritual by Mo Hayder