One of the more iconic and powerful stories by the Sicilian master Giovanni Verga, Rosso Malpelo (literally and misleadingly translated as “red evil-hair”) is the protagonist’s derogatory name, a homeless boy who was born and raised into the misery of laboring in a sand-mine. This is also his curse: according to superstition, red hair originates from the devil and so Rosso is condemned to absolute ostracism, which he himself markedly justifies in his animal-like way of life, until the inevitable end. Beyond the rare documentation of the humiliating existence in the Sicilian village and the use of unique storytelling techniques that are even today considered groundbreaking, Verga glimpses with spirited succinctness and no compromise or pity at the sandy bottom of human meanness and wretchedness.
They called him Malpelo, which means ‘evil-haired,’ because he had red hair: and he had red hair because he was a bad, malicious boy, with every promise of growing up into a first-rate rascal. And so all the men at the red-sand pit called him Malpelo, till even his mother had wellnigh forgotten his baptismal name, hearing him always called by the other.
For the rest, she only saw him on Saturday evenings, when he came home with the few pence of his week’s earnings; and seeing that he was malpelo, there was always the risk that he’d kept back a few of the same pennies; so that, to make doubt sure, his elder sister always received him with clouts and abuse.
However, the owner of the pit had confirmed what he said, that the wages were so much, and no more; and too much at that, in all conscience, for a little brat whom nobody else would have had around, whom everybody avoided like a mangy dog, giving him the taste of their boot when they found him in reach.
He was in truth an ugly chip, surly, snarling, and wild. At midday, while all the other workmen of the pit were sitting together eating their soup, and having a bit of talk, he would go off to squat in some corner, with his basket between his legs, to gnaw there alone his supply of bread, after the manner of animals of his sort: and the others called out something jeering to him, or threw stones at him, till the boss sent him back to work with a kick. All the same, he grew fat between the kicks, and he let them work him like the grey donkey, without daring to complain. He was always ragged and dirty with red sand, since his sister had got married, and had other things to think of; at the same time he was as well known as the dandelion is, by everybody in Monserrato and Carvana, so much so that the pit where he worked was called Malpelo’s pit, which annoyed the owner considerably. Altogether they kept him out of pure charity, and because his father, Master Misciu, had been killed in the pit.
He had been killed in this way: One Saturday he wanted to stay behind to finish a job he was doing as piece-work, which was a pillar of solid sand they had left long ago to keep up the roof of the pit, and now was no longer needed, and which, he had estimated roughly with the master, would contain some thirty-five or forty loads of sand. But there was Master Misciu digging away for three days, and the thing even then wasn’t finished, but would take another half-day on Monday. It had turned out a mean piece of work and only a poor owl like Master Misciu would have let himself be taken in to such an extent by the master; but it was for that very reason they called him Dummy Misciu, he was the jackass for all the hard work in the sand-pit. He, poor devil, let them talk, and was satisfied to earn his bread with his two hands, instead of turning his fists against his companions and starting trouble. Malpelo used to make an ugly little face, as if all those frauds and insults fell on his shoulder, and little as he was, his eyes darted such looks as made the men say to him: ‘Get out! You’ll never die in your bed, like your father.’
However, neither did his father die in his bed, good-natured creature as he was. Uncle Monmu, with the lame hip, had said that he wouldn’t have tackled that pillar not for twenty guineas, it was so dangerous; but then, on the other hand, everything is risky in a pit, and if you were going to stop to think of danger, you’d better go and be a lawyer, and have done with it.
So on the Saturday evening Master Misciu was still scraping away at his pillar, after the Ave Maria bell had rung long ago, and all his fellow workmen had lit their pipes and gone off home, telling him to wear his guts out for love of the boss if he liked, and advising him to mind he didn’t get trapped, like a rat. He, who was used to jokes, took no notice, replying only with the Ah! Ah! of his heavy, full-length strokes with the pick; but inside he said: ‘That’s for the bread! That’s for the wine! That’s for the new frock for Nunziata!’ and so he went on keeping count of how he would spend the money for his ‘stint’, his job.
Outside the pit the sky was swarming with stars, and down there the lantern smoked and swung like a comet; and the great red pillar, disemboweled by the strokes of the pick, twisted and bent forward as if it had belly-ache and were also saying, Oh dear! Oh! Malpelo kept clearing away the dirt, and he put the empty sack and the wine-flask and the mattock safely aside. His father, who was fond of him, poor little chap, kept saying: ‘Go back!’ or ‘Look out! Look out! Watch if any little stones or coarse sand fall from the top!’ All at once he said no more, and Malpelo, who had turned to put the irons back in the basket, heard a deep and suffocated noise, like the sand makes when it comes down all at once; and the light went out.
In the evening when they came in a great hurry to fetch the engineer who directed the work in the pit, he happened to be at the theatre, and he wouldn’t have changed his seat in the stalls for a throne, for he was devoted to the play. Rossi was playing Hamlet, and there was a splendid audience. Outside the door all the poverty-stricken women-folk of Monserrato were gathered, screaming and beating their breasts for the great misfortune which had happened to Mrs. Santa, she alone, poor thing, saying nothing, her teeth chattering as if it were icy January. When they told the engineer that the accident had happened about four hours ago, he asked them what was the good of coming for him, four hours after? Nevertheless, he set off, with ladders and torches, taking two hours more, which made it six, and then the lame man said it would take a week to clear the pit of all the stuff that had fallen.
Talk about forty loads of sand! Sand had come down like a mountain, all fine and burnt small by the lava, so that you could knead it with your hands, and it would take double of lime. You could go on filling cart-loads for weeks. A fine thing for Dummy Misciu!
The engineer went back to see Ophelia buried; and the other miners shrugged their shoulders, and went home one by one. Amid all the dispute and the chatter they took no heed of a childish voice, which no longer sounded human, and which cried wildly: ‘Dig for him! Dig here, quick, quick!’ ‘Ha!’ said the lame old man. ‘It’s Malpelo! Where has Malpelo sprung from? If you hadn’t been Malpelo, you wouldn’t have escaped either! No, my boy!’ The others began to laugh, and somebody said he had his own devil to look after him, another said he had as many lives as a cat. Malpelo answered nothing, neither did he cry, but away there in the hole he was at it digging out the sand with his fingernails, so that nobody knew he was there. Only when they drew near with the light they saw him, his face distorted, his eyes glassy, his mouth foaming, so that they were afraid; his fingernails were torn, and hung bloody and ragged from his hands. Then when they wanted to take him away, there was a terrible scene; since he could no more scratch, he bit like a mad dog, and they had to seize him by the hair and drag him, to get him away alive.
Nevertheless, he came back to the pit after a few days, when his mother came crying, bringing him by the hand: since you can’t always find bread lying about, ready to eat. Now moreover, they couldn’t keep him away from that gallery in the pit, and he dug away furiously, as if every basket of sand he removed were lifted from his father’s breast. Sometimes, as he was working with the pick, he suddenly stopped still, with the pick in the air, his face grim and his eyes wild, and it seemed as if he were listening to something which his familiar demon was whispering in his ears, from beyond the mountain of fallen sand. Those days he was more gloomy and wicked than usual, so that he hardly ate anything, and threw his bread to the dog, as if it were not good food. The dog liked him, because dogs only care for the hand that gives them bread. But on the grey donkey, poor creature, so crooked and thin, was vented all the force of Malpelo’s wickedness: he beat it mercilessly, with the handle of his pick, muttering: ‘So you’ll croak all the sooner!’
After the death of his father it was as if the devil had entered into him, he worked like those ferocious buffaloes which you have to manage by the ring in their nose. Knowing that he was malpelo, he set himself out to be as bad as he could, and if any accident happened, if a miner lost the wedges, or if a donkey broke its leg, or if a piece of the gangway fell in, they always knew he had done it; and he for his part took all their ill-treatment without a word, exactly like the donkeys which curve their backs under the blows, and then go on in their own way again. With the other lads, again, he was downright cruel, and it seemed as if he wanted to avenge himself upon those weaker than himself, for all the ills he imagined had been done to him and to his father. Certainly he took a strange pleasure in recalling one by one all the injuries and exactions that had been put upon his father, and the way they had let him die. And when he was alone, he would mutter: ‘They’re just the same with me! And they called my father Dummy because he didn’t do the same to them!’ Another time, when the boss was going by, the boy followed him with a sinister look: ‘He did it, for thirty-five loads!’ And again, looking after the lame old man: ‘Him as well! And he laughed into the bargain! I heard him, that night!’
By a refinement of malignity he seemed to have taken under his protection a poor lad who had come to work a short while back at the pit, a boy who had injured his thigh in a fall from a bridge, and was no longer able to be a bricklayer’s labourer. This poor youth hobbled as he carried his basket of sand on his shoulder, till you’d think he was dancing a tarantella, which set all the men in the pit laughing, so that they nicknamed him Frog; nevertheless, working underground there, frog though he was, he earned his daily bread; and Malpelo even gave him some of his, for the pleasure of being able to tyrannize over him, the men said.
To tell the truth, he tormented him in a hundred ways. Now he beat him without reason or pity, and if Frog didn’t defend himself, he hit him harder, with greater rage, saying to him: ‘Oh, you dummy! You dummy! If you haven’t got the spunk to defend yourself from me, when I don’t hate you, how do you think you’re going to let the other lot jump on your face!’
Or if Frog was wiping away the blood from his nose and mouth: “Now if it hurts you when somebody hits you, you’ll learn how to hit ‘em yourself!’ When he drove a loaded ass up the steep incline from the underground works, and saw it digging in its hoof-toes, loaded beyond its strength, curved up under the weight, panting, its eye dead, then he beat it mercilessly with the handle of his pick, and the blows sounded dry upon the shins and the exposed ribs. Sometimes the animal bent itself double under the beating, but, put forth its strength as it might, it could not take another step, and fell on its knees, and there was one of them that had fallen so many times, it had two raw places on its legs; and then Malpelo confided to Frog: “A donkey gets thrashed because it can’t do any thrashing itself; if it could beat us, it would trample us under its feet and tear the flesh off us.’
Or again: “If you have to hit, watch you hit as hard as you can: and then them as you’re hitting will know you’re one better than they are, and so you’ll have less to put up with.’
When he was working with the pick or the mattock he went at it with fury, as if he had a grudge against the sand, and he struck and hacked with shut teeth, going, Ah! Ah!, at each blow, as his father had done. ‘Sand is treacherous,’ he said to Frog, in an undertone; ‘It’s like all the rest, if you’re weaker than it is, it tramples on your face, but if you’re stronger than it, or if you go for it a lot of you together, like that lame fellow does, then you can beat it. My father always beat it, and he never beat anything else besides the sand, and so they called him Dummy, and then the sand caught him unawares and ate him up, because it was stronger than he.’
Every time Frog had a heavy job on hand, and whimpered like a girl, Malpelo punched him in the back and shouted: ‘Shut up, you baby!’ and if Frog didn’t leave off, then Malpelo lent him a hand, saying with a certain pride: ‘Here, let me do it! I’m stronger than you are.’ Or another time he gave him his half an onion, and chewed his own bread dry, shrugging his shoulders and adding: ‘I’m used to it.’
He was used to everything, he was: knocks on the head, kicks, blows with the mattock-handle, or with the saddle- strap; used to being insulted and played tricks on by everybody, used to sleeping on the stones, with his arms and back feeling broken by fourteen hours’ work on end; even he was used to fasting, when the boss, who owned the pit, punished him by stopping his bread or his soup. He used to say that the boss had never stopped his rations of ill-treatment. However, he never complained; but he avenged himself on the sly, unawares, with one of his tricks that made you think the devil really had put a tail on him; and therefore the punishment always fell on him, even when he was not guilty; since if he wasn’t guilty this time, he might just as well have been; and he never justified himself, for what would have been the use! And sometimes, when Frog was terrified and wept and begged him to tell the truth and exculpate himself, he repeated: ‘What’s the good? I’m malpelo!’ and nobody could have said whether that perpetual ducking of his head and shoulders came from defiant pride or from desperate resignation, and you couldn’t even tell whether his nature was driven by savagery or by timidity. What is certain is that even his mother had never received a caress from him, and hence she never gave him one.
On Saturday evenings, as soon as he turned up at home with his ugly little face daubed with freckles and with red sand, wearing clothes that hung from him in rags all over, his sister seized the broom-handle if he dared show himself in the doorway in that state, for it would have frightened away her young man if he had seen the sort of brat he was going to have foisted off on him for a brother-in-law. The mother was always at one neighbor’s house or another, so he went off to curl himself up on his rough sack like a sick dog. And so on Sundays, when all the other lads of the place put on a clean shirt to go to Mass, or to play in the yard, he seemed to have no other pleasure but to go slinking through the gardens and the paths among the olives, hunting and stoning the poor lizards, which had never done anything to him, or else foraging in the hedges of prickly-pear cactus. But in truth, to join in the foolery and stone-throwing of the other boys didn’t amuse him.
Master Misciu’s widow was in despair at having such a bad character for a son, for everybody called him that, and he was verily reduced to the state of those dogs which, always having to flee from kicks and stones on every hand, at last put their tails between their legs and scuttle away from the first living soul they see, and become ravenous, hairless, and savage as wolves. At least underground, in the sand-pit, ugly and ragged and half-naked as he was, they didn’t make fun of him, and he seemed made on purpose for his job, even to the colour of his hair and to his sly cat’s eyes that blinked if they saw the sun. There are donkeys like that, that work in the pit for years and years without ever going out, for in those underground workings where the pit-shaft is vertical, they let them down on a rope, and they stay down all the rest of their lives. They are old donkeys, it is true, bought for ten or twelve shillings, ready to be taken off to the Beach to be strangled; but they are still good for the work they have to do down underground; and Malpelo, certainly, was worth more than they, and if he came out of the pit on Saturday evenings it was because he had hands to get up the rope with, and he had to take his mother his week’s pay.
Certainly he’d have preferred to be a brick-layer’s labourer, like Frog, to work singing upon the bridges up in the blue sky, with the sun on your back; or a carter, like neighbor Jaspar, who came to fetch the sand from the pit, swaying half-asleep on the shafts of the cart, with pipe in mouth, going all day long upon the fine country roads: or, better still, he’d have liked to be a peasant who passes all his life in the fields among the greenness, under the dark carob-trees, with the blue sea in the background, and the singing of birds above your head. But this had been his father’s trade, and to this trade he was born. And thinking about it all, he showed Frog the pillar that had come down on his father, and which still yielded fine, burnt sand that the carter came to fetch, with his pipe in his mouth, and swaying on the shafts of the cart, and he said that when they had finished digging it away they would find the body of his father, which should be wearing fustian breeches as good as new. Frog was frightened, but he wasn’t. He told how he had been always there, since he was a child, and had always seen that black hole which went away underground, where his father used to lead him by the hand. Then he spread his arms to right and left, and explained how the intricate labyrinths of the underground workings spread beneath their feet everywhere in every direction right up to the distant black and desolate waste of the lavaflow, whose naked black-grey cinder-rock was sullied with dry scrub of broom: and that many men had been swallowed up in the workings, either crushed, or lost in the darkness, and that they walked for years, and are still walking, trying to find the ventilation shaft by which they had got in, and unable to hear the desperate calling of their children, who search for them in vain.
But one day, in filling the baskets, they came upon one of Master Misciu’s shoes, and the boy was seized with such a trembling that they had to haul him up to the open air by the ropes, just like a dying donkey. But still they could not find either the good-as-new breeches, nor the remains of Master Misciu, although the old miners declared that that must be the exact place where the column had come down on him; and one workman, new to the job, remarked curiously how capricious the sand was, that it should have thrown the Dummy about so, his shoe in one direction and his feet in another.
After the finding of that shoe, Malpelo was seized with such a terror of seeing the naked foot of his father appear also among the sand, that he wouldn’t give another stroke of the pick; so they gave him a taste of the pick-handle on his head. He went to work in another part of the gallery, and refused to go back to the old place. Two or three days later they did actually discover the corpse of Master Misciu, wearing the breeches and stretched out face downwards as if he had been embalmed. Uncle Monmu observed that he must have been a long while dying, because the pillar had bent in a curve over him, and had shut him in alive; you could even see still how Master Dummy had instinctively tried to get out by digging in the sand, and he had his hands torn and his fingernails broken ‘just like his son Malpelo!’ repeated the lame man. ‘He was digging inside here while his son was digging outside.’ But they said nothing to the boy, knowing him to be malign and vengeful.
The carter carted away the corpse from the workings, as he carted away the fallen sand and the dead donkeys, except that this time, over and above the stink of the carcass, you had to remember that the carcass was ‘baptized flesh’: and the widow cut down the breeches and the shirt to fit Malpelo, who was thus for the first time dressed as good as new, and the shoes were put aside to keep until he was big enough, since you can’t cut shoes down, and the sister’s young man didn’t want a dead man’s shoes. When Malpelo stroked those good-as-new fustian breeches upon his legs, it seemed to him they were as soft and smooth as the hands of his father, when they used to stroke the son’s hair, rough and red though it was. The shoes he kept hung upon a nail, upon the rough sack, as if they had been the Pope’s slippers, and on Sundays he took them down and polished them, and tried them on; then he put them on the floor, side by side, and sat contemplating them by the hour, his chin in his hands and his elbows on his knees, hunting up heaven knows what ideas in his weird little brain.
He had some queer ideas, had Malpelo! Since they had handed over to him also his father’s pick and mattock, he used them, although they were too heavy for his age; and when they had asked him if he wanted to sell them, they were willing to pay the price of new ones for them, he said, No! His father had made the handles so smooth and shiny with his own hands, and he wouldn’t be able to make others more smooth and shiny, not if he used them for a hundred years, and then another hundred on top of that.
About that time, the grey donkey had died at last of hard work and old age, and the carter had carted him away to throw him in the distant sciara. ‘That’s how they are,’ grumbled Malpelo. ‘Things they can’t use any more, they throw’ em as far away as they can.’ He went to pay a visit to the corpse of the Grey One at the bottom of the lava crack, and he forced Frog to go with him, though he didn’t want to; but Malpelo told him that in this world you’ve got to look all things in the face, fair or ugly; and he stood there with the greedy curiosity of a wastrel watching the dogs which came running from all the farmsteads in the neighborhood, to fight over the flesh of the Grey One. The dogs made off, yelping, when the boys appeared, and they circled ravenously on the bank across the gap, but the red-headed brat would not let Frog drive them off with stones.
‘You see that black bitch,’ he said, ‘who’s not a bit frightened of your stones? She’s not frightened because she’s more hungry than the others. See her ribs?’ But now the grey donkey suffered no more, but lay still with his four legs stretched out, and let the dogs enjoy themselves clearing out his deep eye-sockets and stripping bare his white bones, and all the teeth that tore his entrails could no longer make him arch up his spine as did the merest blow with the mattock handle which they used to give him to put a bit of force into him when he was going up the steep gang-way. And that’s how things are! Oh, the Grey One had had blows from the pick and slashes on the withers, and even he, when he was bent under the load and hadn’t breath to go on, would look back with glances from his big eyes that seemed to say as they were beating him: ‘No more! No more!’ But now the dogs could eat his eyes; and his stripped mouth, nothing but teeth, grinned henceforward at all beatings and slashes on the withers. And it would have been better if he had never been born.
The lava bed spread melancholy and desert as far as the eye could see, and rose and sank in peaks and precipices, black and wrinkled, without a grasshopper chirping upon it, or a bird flying over. You could hear nothing, not even the blows of the picks of the men at work underneath. And all the time, Malpelo kept repeating that below there it was all hollowed out in galleries, everywhere, towards the mountain and towards the valley; so that once, a miner who had gone in with his hair black, had come out with his hair all white, and another one, whose torch had gone out, had called for help in vain, no one could hear him. He alone heard his own shouts, said the boy, and though he had a heart harder than the sciara, at this thought he shuddered. ‘The boss often sends me a long way in, where the others daren’t go. But I am Malpelo, and if I don’t come back, nobody will look for me.’
However, on fine summer nights the stars shone bright even over the sciara, and the country round was just as black as it was, but Malpelo was tired with his long day’s work, and lay down on his sack with his face to the sky, to enjoy the peace and the glitter of the upper deeps; for that reason he hated moonlit nights, when the sea swarmed and sparkled, and the country showed up vaguely here and there: then the sciara seemed even more naked and desolate. ‘For us who’ve got to live underground,’ Malpelo thought to himself, ‘it ought to be always dark and everywhere dark.’ The owl hooted above the lava bed, and flew hovering around; then he thought: ‘Even the owl smells the dead that are in the underground here, and is desperate because she can’t get at them.’
Frog was afraid of owls and bats; but the red-head abused him, because anybody who’s got to live alone has no business to be frightened of anything, and even the grey donkey was not afraid of the dogs that stripped his bones, now that his flesh no longer felt the pain of being eaten. ‘You were used to working on the roofs like the cats,’ he said to him. ‘But now it’s different. Now that you’ve got to live underground, like the rats, you don’t have to be frightened of rats, neither of bats, which are only old rats with wings, and rats like to live where there are dead people.’
Frog, however, took a real pleasure in explaining to him what the stars were doing up above; and he told him that away up there was Paradise, where the dead go who have been good and not vexed their parents. ‘Who told you?’ asked Malpelo, and Frog said his mother had told him.
Malpelo scratched his head, with a cunning smile, and made the face of a malicious brat who knows a thing or two. ‘Your mother tells you that, because you ought to wear skirts instead of breeches.’
Then after he had thought awhile:
“My father was good and hurt nobody, although they called him Dummy. But you see, he’s down below there, and they’ve even found the tools and the shoes, and the breeches I’ve got on.’
Some time afterwards, Frog, who had been ailing a long while, fell really ill, so that at evening they had to carry him out of the pit on the back of a donkey, stretched between the baskets, trembling with fever like a wet chicken. One of the workmen said that lad would never have made old bones at that job, and if you were going to work in a mine without going to pieces, you’d got to be born to it. When Malpelo heard that, he felt proud that he was born to it, and that he kept so strong and well. He helped Frog through the days, and cheered him up as best he could, shouting at him and punching him. But once when he punched him on the back, Frog had a mouthful of blood, and then Malpelo, terrified, looked everywhere in his mouth and in his nose, to see what he’d done to him, and swore that he couldn’t have hurt him so much, with that little punch, and to show him, he gave himself hard blows on the chest and the back, with a stone; and a workman who was present fetched him a great kick between the shoulders, a kick which resounded like a drum, yet Malpelo never moved, and only when the miner had gone did he add: ‘You see? It didn’t hurt me! And he hit me a lot harder than I hit you. I’m sure he did.’
Meanwhile Frog got no better, and continued to spit blood and have fever every day. Then Malpelo stole some pennies from his own week’s pay, to buy him wine and hot soup, and he gave him his good-as-new breeches because they’d keep him covered. But Frog still coughed, and every time it seemed as if he would suffocate, and in the evenings there was no getting the fever down, neither with sacks, nor covering him with straw, nor laying him before a blaze of twigs. Malpelo stood silent and motionless, leaning forward over him, his hands on his knees, staring at him with concentrated eyes, as if he wanted to make his portrait, and when he heard him moan faintly, and saw his worn-out face and his deadened eyes, just like the grey donkey when he panted, spent, under a load, climbing the gangway, he muttered to the sick boy: ‘It’s better if you peg out quick! If you’ve got to suffer like that, it’s better if you croak.’ And the boss said Malpelo was quite capable of knocking the lad on the head, and they’d better keep an eye on him.
At last one Monday Frog didn’t come to the pit, and the boss washed his hands of him, because in the state he was in he was more trouble than he was worth. Malpelo found out where he lived, and on Saturday he went to see him. Poor Frog was almost gone, and his mother wept and despaired as if her son had earned her ten shillings a week.
This Malpelo could not understand at all, and he asked Frog why his mother carried on like that, when for two months he hadn’t earned even what he ate? But poor Frog made no response, and seemed to be counting the beams on the ceiling. Then the red-head racked his brains and came to the conclusion that Frog’s mother carried on in that way because her son had always been weak and ailing, and she’d kept him like one of those brats who never are weaned. Not like him, who was strong and healthy, and was malpelo, and his mother had never wept for him because she’d never been afraid of losing him.
A short while after they said at the pit that Frog was dead, and Malpelo thought that now the owl hooted for him too, in the night, and he went again to visit the stripped bones of the Grey One, in the ravine where he used to go along with Frog. Now there was nothing left of the Grey One but the scattered bones, and Frog would be the same, and his mother would have dried her eyes, since even Malpelo’s mother had dried hers when Master Misciu was dead, and now she was married again, and had gone to live at Cifali; also the sister was married, and the old house was shut. From that time on, if he was beaten, his folks cared nothing, and he didn’t either, and when he’d be like the Grey One or like Frog, he’d feel nothing any more.
About that time there came to work in the pit a man whom they had never seen before, and he kept himself hidden as much as he could. The other workmen said among themselves that he’d escaped from prison, and that if he was caught they’d shut him up again for years and years. Malpelo learned on that occasion that prison was a place where they put thieves and rascals like himself, and kept them always shut up and watched.
From that time he felt an unhealthy curiosity about that man who had tried prison and escaped. After a few weeks, however, the fugitive declared flatly and plainly that he was sick of that mole’s life, and he’d rather be in prison all his life, because prison was paradise in comparison, and he’d rather walk back there on his own feet. ‘Then why don’t all the men who work in the pit get themselves put in prison?’ asked Malpelo. ‘Because they’re not Malpelo like you,’ replied the lame man. ‘But don’t you fret, you’ll go there, and you’ll leave your bones there.’
However, Malpelo left his bones in the pit, like his father, only in a different way. It happened that they had to explore a passage which they maintained was a communication with the big shaft on the left, towards the valley, and if that was so, it would save a good half of the work of getting the sand out of the mine. But if it was not true, there was danger of getting lost and never finding the way back. Therefore no father of a family would make the venture, and not for all the money in the world would they let their own flesh-and-blood run such a risk.
But Malpelo had nobody who would take all the money in the world for his skin, even if his skin had been worth all the money in the world; his mother was married again and gone to live at Cifali, and his sister was married as well. The house-door was shut, and he owned nothing but his father’s shoes, hung on a nail. Hence they always gave him the most dangerous work to do, and the most risky undertakings were allotted to him, and if he took no care of himself, the others certainly took no care of him. When they sent him to explore that passage, he remembered the miner who had got lost, years and years ago, and who still walks on and on in the dark, calling for help, without anybody being able to hear him; but he said nothing. Anyhow, what would have been the good? He took his father’s tools, pick, mattock, lantern, the sack with bread, the flask of wine, and he set off; nor was anything more ever known of him.
And so were lost even the bones of Malpelo, and the lads of the pit lower their voices when they speak of him in the workings, terrified lest he should appear before them, with his red hair and his wicked grey eyes.