The place they wound up that night made them immediately think that it must be only one small part of an immense property, of God knows how many acres or hectares of land, and God knows how many trees, and God knows how many kinds of flowers and plants. That night, Marcello and Monica also found themselves wondering about the owners’ house, God knows where it was and how big, maybe a thousand square meters, they thought, with enormous white latticed windows and dark panes, and an enormous wood-burning oven out back for barbecuing, and small antique granite tables, and white lounge chairs with pastel-green cushions embroidered with gold thread, and endless servants, a butler, a chauffeur, a gardener. And thinking about all this, dreaming, Marcello and Monica also thought, no longer dreaming, of how much was at stake here, and that they’d better remember to wake up early, maybe at five thirty, to avoid running into the owner, or maybe a sharecropper, who’d be anything but kind or romantic or inclined to hold back in any way, who, instead, might be quite happy to rob smash destroy these two trespassers.
Monica's flashlight, made of phenolic resin, cast a beam of twenty-five to thirty meters. Monica pointed the light for Marcello while he pitched the tent, which he'd learned to do the summer before on a trip with friends, and by studying the instruction manual, and by setting the tent up a few times in the backyard then taking it down again. Marcello untied the rolled-up, packed tent from the top of his backpack, opened the tent bag, laid the nylon tarp where the ground seemed flattest, spread quilts out over the tarp, and blew up the air mattress for Monica, setting it on the quilts, because she didn't want to feel the rough ground through the quilts and tarp—even though the ground seemed soft, comfortable. Then Marcello set the tent frame up over the tarp and quilts, attaching the fiber-glass poles in the way that seemed to work best; he threw the blue resin polyester tent cloth over the frame, hooked the orange tent loops to the poles, then nailed the tent down with the four stakes he got from the backpack's side-pocket, driving them into the ground with a large claw hammer.
With the tent done—in little over fifteen minutes—Marcello and Monica crawled inside, set the flashlight in the middle so they could see everything, and zipped closed the front flap, checked the back, pulled off their sneakers, got out their sleeping bags and crawled inside, still wearing their clothes. The tent was one hundred forty centimeters high inside and could sleep three, and Marcello and Monica were comfortable. They turned off the flashlight as soon as possible; they talked in low voices, giggling softly, fists over their mouths, or laughing loudly into their sleeping bags, afraid the guard dog might hear them any second and attack the tent, barking, frothing at the mouth, dripping foam onto the tent, with them inside.
They talked about the campsite they couldn't find, though Marcello had copied the campsite owner/manager's directions down on a piece of notebook paper that he’d had out the entire time, or almost the entire time, and that he'd memorized, but the paper was probably useless because the campsite owner/manager, a guy who was all business and who rolled his Rs like the French, had explained badly, had left out some dirt road or street and hadn't given them any landmarks to follow, hadn't told Marcello if the campsite was before, after, or close to a pine grove or gorge or mountain, maybe Monte Zerbion, or before or after a church or a pit or something, or maybe it was just that Marcello had lost his way, hadn’t asked anyone for directions, making it a sort of personal challenge that he’d lost; getting lost, getting Monica lost. But in the end it didn't matter, not anymore. In the dark, Monica suggested that Marcello should call the campsite and say they wouldn't be coming now, and, thinking that was a good idea, Marcello turned the flashlight on again and called the campsite on his cell phone and said they wouldn't be coming now. Marcello made up some excuse, and it seemed to work.
Then they kept the flashlight on, dimmed with Monica's red and blue checked handkerchief, and it lit up the entire tent, including their backpacks in the corner, inside Marcello's backpack, two shirts, one white, one blue, two T-shirts, one with sleeves, one without, a wool sweater, a pair of vicuña wool pants, a pair of hiking books, inside Monica's backpack, a red shirt, a yellow T-shirt, a wool sweater, a blue-jean miniskirt, a pair of gabardine pants, a pair of suede shoes with cleats. They talked a bit more about not finding the campsite, in spite of the directions that said to walk one hundred meters from the train station, turn right on a certain street, then from that street, turn left onto another, then going another fifty meters onto another street, and so on, onto each street, but nothing; though the sheet of lined paper was extremely clear, in the end, it seemed like a jumble of rues with mostly French names, and they got lost. Then Monica asked Marcello to tell her about Brusson, because she liked hearing the French names of the towns in Val d'Aosta, and Marcello, who'd studied up before they left, said that Brusson was in Val d'Ayas near Vollon, Extrepieraz, Periase, Champoluc to the north, Sommarese, Eresaz, Verres to the south, near Saint-Vincent toward the west where the Dora Baltea River ran—to be precise—south, and through all these places, near Estoul and Gressoney to the east, and Monica liked all these names, and Marcello kept talking: there was Monte Zerbion and the mountain Col de Joux, somewhere, he didn't remember where, and Monte Rosa, which they wouldn't be going up: though they’d brought hiking boots, at this point it was clearly too risky to do any climbing without a guide.
Then Monica interrupted Marcello, telling him she was in the mood but didn't want to, because it didn't seem right, but all those names, and all those roads they'd walked, and the polenta concia that afternoon, and the crisp air, had gotten her in the mood, but it didn't seem right. Marcello told her since he'd set the tent up in the dark, a good shaking just might knock it over, and Monica told him to shut up, damn it, because that was getting her even more in the mood. Then Marcello slid over closer, closer, closer still, kissed her, tasting the cocoa butter on her lips, then, pulling down the zipper that was up to his chin, slipped out of his sleeping bag and, pulling down Monica's zipper, helped her slip out of her sleeping bag, and laid the bags over them, and, feeling around blindly, found the right side-pocket of the backpack and a small box that he took out and opened, and at just that moment, Monica opened her eyes and asked him if he smelled what she smelled.
They’d smelled it since they entered the tent, but neither one of them had acknowledged it, and then the smell slowly faded. Marcello lied that he didn't smell anything, and Monica told him to turn off the flashlight, and Marcello said it was too risky because the guard dog would smell—yes, he would—the smells, and he'd come over and attack the tent, foaming at the mouth, and Monica told him to be quiet, to stop scaring her, there was already that smell of God knows what that was bothering her. Then Marcello took out what was in the box, and it was wonderful, though a little chilly, and they both got back in their sleeping bags—Marcello's was blue, Monica's fuchsia—and they went to sleep.
Now, six and a half hours later, as he stared at the stake, Marcello was stunned, and stunned, he found himself thinking about that odor again from the day before. It wasn't gone yet, not even on that cold, cloudless morning, the sun above the ice-capped mountains. The smell was still there, heavy, constant, insistent inside the tent, weaker outside but still present. As he stared at the stake, stunned, Marcello was thinking how that smell had kept them company during the night, the entire night, when they slipped into their sleeping bags, then out, then back in, finally falling asleep; it was a rancid smell, something rotten: the smell of rotten meat.
He turned to Monica, the stake in his hand, and he asked if the smell from last night and what he still smelled now didn't smell like rotten meat. Monica shrugged and wanted to know why he was asking now that they were leaving. Then Marcello showed her the stake in his hand, dirty from the tip almost to the hook at the other end, with something black dripping onto the ground. Looking at this black substance dripping onto the ground, Monica was starting to get scared. She asked if it was what she thought it was and Marcello answered that he was almost certain that it was what she thought it was. Then Monica wanted to know if that meant they’d slept, and not just slept, above some dead, buried animal, maybe even the guard dog they were so afraid of or some cat or God knows what else. Marcello answered that he didn’t know what sort of dead animal it was, that it could be anything but one thing he did know: whoever buried the animal didn’t bury it very deep, not deep at all, just below the grass, and must have done it pretty carefully, too, because there wasn’t a trace of a furrow and the grass was all the same height as if no one had done any digging or moved any dirt. Monica, growing more and more scared, told Marcello they should hurry up and leave; she helped him empty the air mattress, fold up the quilts and blankets, dismantle the tent, put the poles and stakes back in the side-pockets of the backpack, fold up the tent, tie the tent onto the backpack.
Then Marcello and Monica walked fairly quickly off the private property, past the black gate in the weeds, hurrying along the gravel trail, onto the road filled with potholes. They walked even faster by the same route they’d come the night before, not talking much, the early morning air chilling their faces, Monica tapping her ice ax like a walking stick along the street, and the aluminum poles and stakes clanging in the side-pockets of Marcello’s backpack. They walked ten minutes along a major road, the same one they’d walked along the night before, past rows of beech and hazelnut trees, very few cars going by at this hour—Marcello counted only two cars, both from Aosta. The street intersected with a rue leading to the center of town, past the general store, the clothing store, and the inn, the only place that wasn’t dark with its rolling shutters down, and the walnut door was open and two customers were sitting outside, right by the white wall, a youngish couple in reflector sunglasses, sitting together at a small table with a plastic orange top, having their coffee, cappuccino, and croissant.
Marcello and Monica went inside the deserted inn and ordered two cappuccinos sprinkled with cocoa, and on the counter was a glass display case with three croissants on the top shelf and on the bottom shelf, toast with cooked prosciutto and cheese and focaccia with lettuce, tomato, and a tiny mayonnaise mustache, and they opened the case and chose two cream-filled croissants, just baked, still warm and crispy, that they wrapped in paper napkins from the napkin case, also on the counter. They sat at a table beneath a deer head, slipped their backpacks off their shoulders and set them on the two other chairs, and Monica looped the ice-ax leash over a chair to hang the ax, and they waited in silence for their cappuccinos, which came after a few minutes, served by the owner himself, a beefy guy of around fifty with his shaggy, steel-gray hair falling over his ears and eyes. The owner asked if they had a good night: they looked worn out, so probably not. He said they seemed worn out, torn up, even. He asked what happened. Marcello and Monica told him nothing, really; the owner went back behind the counter by the cash register; Marcello and Monica dunked their crispy croissants into their foamy cappuccinos, chewing, wiping the sides of their mouths, dunking them again, chewing, wiping. Then, their sweetened cappuccinos gone, the empty sugar packets lying in their saucers, they wiped their mouths again, and sat in silence.
The sun, rising from behind the mountains, pierced through the window; a pleasant voice chattered away on the radio; it was a quarter to eight. Almost nodding together, Marcello and Monica went to the inn’s toilette, where they freshened up with cold mountain water and rubbed their faces with liquid soap from the dispenser hanging on the white and blue tile wall next to the mirror; then they used the toilet, and still not talking, returned to their table. Breaking the silence, Marcello said there was a train at 10:45 and then the one they’d originally planned on taking, at 5:16, platform 3. Monica shook her head and said that before leaving, they should find that campsite, because not being able to find the campsite—though it hardly mattered anymore—was still nagging at them both, and it might ruin their memory of the trip.
Marcello jumped up from the table and went over to the owner who was talking and laughing with his wife near the cash register, their breath showing with the cold from the open door. Marcello gave them a sheepish smile and asked if they knew where the campsite was that he and Monica had searched for all afternoon and late into the night. Marcello told them the name of the campsite, the road it was on, and even told them the directions he’d memorized off the sheet of paper. The innkeeper and his wife burst out laughing, then the wife, no less beefy than her husband, with her red hair pulled back and her green eyes (she was maybe from the Veneto region), told Marcello the road for the campsite, told him the campsite owner was their dear friend and that he opened the campsite around the same time they opened the inn, and the innkeeper, interrupting his wife, added that the campsite owner began making money on the campsite around the same time they started making money, but that the campsite owner had made quite a bit more, and he burst out laughing again, and his wife, who wasn’t laughing, said in her slight Venetian accent that the campsite owner hadn’t done that much better. Then the innkeeper wanted to know, if they hadn’t found the campsite, then where did they sleep last night, and Marcello told him please don’t ask, and then he was the one to burst out laughing, and he said they spent the night in a grassy clearing on some private property that was very pleasant except for the sickening smell everywhere. The innkeeper and his wife looked at each other, then laughed, but the laugh was different, Marcello thought, and the innkeeper said people shouldn’t spend the night in a grassy clearing on private property that’s very pleasant except for the sickening smell everywhere. The innkeeper was still laughing, his wife less so, she was only smiling now, more of a forced smile, just going along with her husband.
Then they glanced at each other again, he was laughing, she was smiling, and the innkeeper told Marcello he was really a good kid, and he offered him a strawberry liqueur he’d bought from a special distillery that produced only special liqueur, and he also offered one to Monica, who’d just come up to the bar. The innkeeper said he saved this special liqueur for special customers, in a special back room that you got to through the door behind the bar. So Marcello and Monica walked around behind the bar and followed the innkeeper through the door, down a short passageway, narrow, to the left through an open door, and into a gray-brick room, damp, windowless, like a wine cellar, filled with bottles of wine with numbered labels, and there were flasks, and liqueurs in colored-glass bottles. Marcello and Monica thought there was hardly room to drink, no small tables, nothing, just bottles and bottles lining the blue metal shelves against the walls. But by the door, hanging on hooks between the shelves, there was also a shotgun they hadn’t noticed, not until the innkeeper took it down, turned, and pointed it in their direction. It was a sawed-off shotgun with two enormous black holes sparkling under the four floodlights, one in each corner of the room. The innkeeper told Marcello and Monica to keep quiet and come closer. Though they felt they might faint, Marcello and Monica obeyed: they kept quiet and came closer. They also felt a pushing from behind, maybe the hands of the wife, with her red hair pulled back and her green eyes.
Marcello, the first to wake up, had a terrible headache and was lying on the back seat of a car, jammed up against Monica, so close he couldn’t move, maybe he was tied to her, certainly his wrists and legs were tied in such Machiavellian knots, he couldn’t get his balance. He could feel the rope below his groin, across his back, around his neck, his chest, his rib cage, his thighs. If he wiggled his wrists, which were tied behind his back, he almost choked himself—the same with his ankles. A piece of packing tape over his mouth kept him from shouting, almost from breathing. Marcello struggled but stopped as he looked out the rear window, saw the Brusson mountains and the cloudless sky. Then in the front seats came the voices of the owner and his wife. The owner of the inn—the bar-restaurant—was scolding his wife because she hadn’t let him tie up the kids. He knewkarada: he was an expert in karada. And his wife was certainly no expert; according to him, she’d tied the knots in the wrong places on the body and they weren’t spaced properly, meaning ten, fifteen centimeters apart, and she hadn’t formed proper rhombuses. At least she could have tied a knot between the neck and the pectorals, one across the navel, one across the genitals, right over the clitoris; but there weren’t knots over the navel and genitals, the most important places. And those rhombuses—what a lousy job. The innkeeper’s wife told him to quit complaining, she’d done her best, with that rope not even fifteen meters long—just ten meters of rope—not even taking the kids’ clothes off, leaving their clothes on, so actually she’d done a terrific job. But the innkeeper wanted to make one thing clear: that she wasn’t the expert in karada; he was, he was the expert.
Then the car turned onto a gravel road, tires crackling, and stopped almost at once. The innkeeper and his wife got out, opened the back door, and first grabbed Marcello by the ankles, then shoulders, dragged him a few meters from the car, a metallic gray Mercedes, and dropped him clumsily on the grass; then they did the same with Monica, who, in the meantime, had woken up and tried to struggle but discovered what Marcello had discovered and stopped struggling and now was only trying to scream and was turning all red. The innkeeper and his wife took a shovel from the trunk of the Mercedes, a pickax, and Marcello and Monica’s backpacks, and threw everything to the side. They planted themselves in front of Marcello and Monica, fists on hips, looking the two up and down.
While Marcello and Monica lay in the grass, all red from trying to scream, the innkeeper and his wife explained they didn’t have a whole lot of time for this. They explained how it took a good half hour to tie them up; as Marcello and Monica saw, they had early-morning customers—just two tourists passing by—and then they closed the inn, which they often did in the early morning if they had to get the restaurant ready for a lot of reservations later on and there weren’t too many customers. They explained how they loaded the two of them into the car parked in the courtyard by the back door, which was somewhat tiring, given the weight of their bodies. They explained that it was nine in the morning now and that they had to be back by ten, and so they didn’t have a whole lot of time for this. And then the innkeeper and his wife explained that maybe two months before, right where Marcello and Monica pitched their tent last night, pretty much in the same manner as was about to occur with the two of them, an important businessman and his three partners had been buried.
Text by Marco Candida
Translated copyright 2010 by Elizabeth Harris from Diario del sogni. Copyright Marco Candida.
First published in Words without Borders and reprinted here with the permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.