now reading: The Secret Game | Elsa Morante

Elsa Morante | from:Italian

The Secret Game

Translated by : Alex Valente

There was always, in the square, a curious and ancient rentable stagecoach that no one ever rented. The dozing coachman would shake himself awake at the striking of the hours from the bell tower, then his chin would fall back onto his chest. In the corner, by the faded yellow City Hall building, there was a fountain spurting a trickle of water from a bizarre marble face. Thick, cylindrical hair coiled liked snakes around it, and the bulging eyes, devoid of pupils, returned a dead, blank stare.

For at least the past three centuries, another building stood facing City Hall. It was an old aristocracy mansion once grandiose, now in ruins, undone and run-down. The façade saturated with decorations, turned grey with time, showed the merciless signs of passing time. The flying putti guarding the threshold were corroded and filthy, the marble festoons were losing their flowers and leaves, and the closed portal displayed a selection of mould stains. Yet, the house was lived in; the owners, however, heirs to an illustrious and fallen name, rarely showed themselves. On few occasions, they received the priest or doctor, and once in a few years, family from faraway cities, who always left swiftly.

The inside of the mansion offered a succession of empty rooms into which, during storm-ridden days, rain and dust whirled through the broken windows. There were strips of wallpaper, worn remnants of tapestries peeling off the walls, and on the ceilings sailed, among shining, plump clouds, swans and naked angels, and beautiful women leaning out of flower and fruit garlands. Some of the rooms were frescoed with adventures and tales, inhabited by regal characters riding camels or playing in luxurious gardens among monkeys and falcons.

The house’s two sides overlooked narrow and bare streets, while the third spilled onto a closed garden, a prison with high walls in which laurel and orange trees withered. With no gardener to look after it, nettles had invaded that tight space, and sad, blueish flowered weeds grew out of the walls.

The Marquis’ family, the owners of the building, left most of the rooms uninhabited, and had retreated into a small flat on the second floor, complete with outdated furniture that resounded, in the quiet darkness, with the feeble lament of woodworms. The marquess and marquis, both small and wretched people, showed in their features that sad resemblance that sometimes mimetically takes over after endless years of coexistence. Thin and withered, with pale lips and drooping cheeks, their movements were not too dissimilar from those of puppets. Maybe instead of blood, their veins ran with a lazy, yellowish fluid, and only one thing held up their strings: for her, it was authority, for him, fear. For, you see, the marquis had once been a small-town aristocrat, cheerful and without too many thoughts, his only concern being to find ways to finish up the rest of the family wealth. But the marquess had educated him. Ideal humanity, in her mind, should refrain from laughing and speaking out loud, and above all should hide secret weaknesses from the rest of the world. According to her teachings, it was a crime for one to smirk, fret, forcefully blow one’s nose; so the marquis, afraid to err in his gestures and forbidden noises, had avoided all noises and gestures entirely for some time now, lowering his head and reducing himself to a mummified human with docile eyes. It still did not shield him from scoldings and reproaches. Extremely high-mannered and sharp, she would often strike him with direct reprimands, or allude to certain unspeakable figures, only worthy of their contempt. They, she’d say, ignorant of their own will and unable to educate their own children, would drag the house into ruin, if the Holy Grace had not found them a Wife. So the man meekly endured her tortures, until the times when he left, with the little change the austere Administrator allowed him in his pockets, for his walks. Maybe, in the solitude of the tiny countryside roads, he let himself go to excesses, to singing cavatinas, and thunderous nose blowings; sure, when he’d return home, he had a strange light in his eyes and this involuntary reveal of his possible fun and impolite interior dimension would always raise the marquess’ suspicions. She’d press him with questions all evening, which would get more and more humiliating and sharp in order to extort compromising admissions. And the poor man, through coughing fits, stuttering, and blushing, would keep putting himself in a corner, to the point that the marquess started a scrupulous and austere control over her husband, and decided to often escort him on his walks. He resigned to the facts; the flame in his eyes, however, became obsessive, and fixed, and no longer sparked by joy.

From such parents, three children had come to the world; for them, in their first years, the world was made in their image and likeness. The town’s other characters were but vague presences, nasty, unlikeable brats, women in thick, black tights with long, oily hair, sad old religious men. All of these badly-dressed presences wandered along the short bridges, small streets, and the square. The three children hated the town; whenever they walked outside, in a row with the single servant, following the walls, their gazes were dark and disdainful. The local kids took their revenge by mocking and terrorizing them.

The servant was a tall, vulgar man, with hairy wrists, flaring red nostrils, and small mercurial eyes. He took out the subjection to the marquess on the children, treating them as a master would; when he accompanied them, swaying his hips slightly and looking down on them, or bluntly reprimanded them, they trembled with hatred. But outside as well as inside, their mother’s curt admonishments followed them; they walked in an orderly fashion, in grim silence.

The walk almost always ended at the church’s entrance, the two columns held up by a pair of sizeable lions with a tame expression. Higher up, a wide rose window let into the nave a cleansed, fresh light, in which the light of the candles fluttered. The apse housed a tall body of Christ, with purple blood flowing from his wounds, and figures around him gesturing and despairing with heavy movements.

The three children would kneel contritely and bring their hands together.

Antonietta, the eldest, despite her seventeen years of age, still had the body and the clothing of a child. She was thin and uncoordinated, and her straight hair, as it wasn’t customary to wash frequently in the mansion, always smelled faintly of mouse droppings. They were parted at the middle, and the parting was more clearly obvious on the back of her head, as the hair grew shorter and thinner, inspiring feelings of pity and protection. The girl’s nose was long, curved and sensitive, and her thin lips pulsated when she spoke. In the frame of her pale, emaciated face, her eyes moved with nervous passion, except when in the presence of the marquess, when she kept them low and dull.

She wore tresses onto her shoulders, and a black smock so short as to reveal – if she moved too much too quickly – her underwear, tight and almost reaching her knees, with its red ribbon; the smock opened at the back, onto her laced petticoat. Her black tights were held up with simple elastic, twisted and consumed.

Pietro, the middle child of sixteen, was docile. He moved both his small, stocky body and his eyes, discretely lit under the thick eyebrows, very slowly. He had a sweet, tame smile and his dependence from the other two was obvious by just looking at them.

Giovanni, the youngest, was the ugliest in the family. His meager body, almost as if he were born old, was too withered to grow any further; but his quick and burning eyes resembled those of his sister. After short bursts of frantic activity, he’d immediately fall into prostration, followed by fevers. The doctor would say of him: I do not believe he will survive puberty.

Whenever his fevers would strike, sudden and for no apparent reason, his body was shook as if by electric shocks. He knew this to be the sign, and he’d wait for the incumbent illness, his lips stretched and eyes wide. Nightmares would dance and buzz around his bed for long stretches of days, and a shapeless tedium would weigh down on him, inside of a dense, gloomy mood. Then his recovery would come, and too weak to move, he’d curl up on an armchair and drum his fingers rhythmically on the armrests. And he’d think. Or read.

The marquess, busy as she was in her administrative duties, didn’t really supervise the children’s education and learning. She was content with them not speaking or moving. And so, Giovanni was able to read strange and wonderful books, in which characters wore clothes never seen before: wide-brimmed hats, velvet waistcoats, swords and wigs, and dames in fantastic dresses, rich with gems and nets woven out of gold.

These beings spoke a winged language, which knew how to reach peaks and chasms, sweet in love, fierce in anger, and they lived dreams and adventures of which the young boy daydreamed for hours on end. He shared his discovery with his siblings and the three of them all believed they could identify the characters in those books with the painted figures on the walls and ceilings of the mansion and that, long alive in them but hidden in the cellars of their childhood, were now resurfacing once more. Soon there was an unspoken understanding between the siblings. When no one could hear them, they spoke of their creatures, unmaking and remaking them, talking about them until they were alive and breathing among them. Deep hatred and love tied them to this and that character, and it often happened that they’d spend their nights awake talking to each other with those words. Antonietta slept alone is a small room connected to that of her brothers’; their parents’ room was separated from their by a large room, parlour or dinette. So no one could hear them if, each from their own bed, they talked as if they were the beloved characters.

They were new, wonderful conversations.

  ‘Leblanc, sir Leblanc,’ whispered Giovanni’s raspy voice from the bed on the right, ‘have you sharpened the shining blades for the duel? The blood dawn will rise soon, and you know, dear sir, that proud lord Arturo knows no human mercy nor fear before death’.

 ‘Alas, my brother,’ whimpered Antonietta’s voice, ‘the white dressings and perfumed balms have already been prepared. May the Heavens grant you their use on your enemy’s corpse.’

 ‘The blood dawn, the blood dawn,’ mumbled Pietro, not as imaginative and always a little asleep. But Giovanni always intervened, suggesting his lines:

 ‘You,’ he’d say, ‘have to reply that you will face the danger devoid of fear, and that no Count Arturo will be the one to stop you, no man has been born who can.’

That was how the three children discovered theatre.

Their characters appeared fully-formed from the mists of invention, arms clamouring and clothes swishing. They acquired flesh and voice, and the children started living a second life. As soon as the marquess retired to her rooms, the servant to the kitchen, the marquis out on his walk, each of them turned into their counterpart. Her heart beating, Antonietta closed the front shutters, and became princesמs Isabella; Roberto, in love with Isabella, was played by Giovanni. Pietro never had a definite part, but played a rotation of the rival, the servant, the captain of a ship. The force of the fiction was so strong that they each forgot about their own real person; often, during the long, boring sessions supervised by the marquess, that marvellous, compressed secret almost bounced off them in secretive and sparkling glances: ‘later – they meant – we’ll play the game’. At night, in the dark, the game’s creatures populated their loneliness under the sheets, and the events of tomorrow would start taking shape; they smiled among themselves, or in the case of violence or tragedy, clench their fists.

In spring, the prison-garden also gained a fictional life. In the sun-bathed corner, the orange striped cat would quiver as it closed its green eyes. Strange, sudden smells would seem to burst from this or that corner, that pile of soil or this hedge. Flowers sickened by shadows would bloom and fall in silence, their petals reduced to pulp between the stones; the smells would draw lazy butterflies who’d let their pollen slip.

In the evening, dull, warm rain would often fall, barely making the ground damp. It’d be followed by a low wind, also carrying smells wandering across the night. The marquis and marquess, after breakfast, would fall asleep in their chairs; the townsfolk’s conversations, at sunset, sounded like conspiracies.

The secret game had become a kind of plot, taking place on a wonderful and distant planet, known only to the three siblings. Taken by the enchantment, they’d be unable to sleep at night for their thinking about it. One night, the wake was even longer; Isabella and Roberto, the hindered lovers, were to plan an escape, and the children were fretting in their beds to come up with a solution for that dire situation. Eventually, the two boys fell asleep, and the faces of their invented companions danced a little before their eyes, between light and dark, until they vanished.

Antonietta couldn’t sleep. Sometimes she thought she could hear a dark, long cry in the night, and she stayed awake to hear better. Sometimes it was strange noises in the attic breaking the comedy she still inhabited, as she made it up under the sheet. Eventually, she stepped out of bed; she quietly walked into her brothers’ room and whispered their names.

Giovanni, a light sleeper, sat upright. His sister had worn on her nightgown, which barely reached her knees, a worn-down black wool coat. Her straight hair, neither thick nor long, was undone, her eyes shone in the slanted shadows of the candlelight she held between her hands.

 ‘Wake up, Pietro,’ she said, leaning over his bed with feverish impatience. At that moment, Pietro stirred and slowly opened his tired eyes. ‘It’s about the game,’ she explained.

Lazily, fairly unwilling, Pietro lifted himself onto his elbow: both boys were looking at their sister, the eldest, distractedly and with glazed eyes, the other, already curious, leaning his young-but-old face towards the candle.

 ‘It came to pass,’ started Antonietta in a rush, as if talking about some sudden, dramatic event, ‘that during the hunt, Roberto wrote a note and hid it in a tree trunk. Isabella’s greyhound by chance runs towards that same tree and returns with the note in his mouth. ‘Pretend you’re lost,’ it says, ‘and meet me as darkness falls in the woods that surrounds Challant castle. We’ll escape from there.’ And so, as they all chase the fox, I run away and meet Roberto. And the wind blows, and he makes me get on his horse, and we flee in the night. But the knights notice our absence and they follow us blowing the horns.’

 ‘Shall we make it that they’re found?’ Giovanni asked, his eyes flitting and curious in the reddish light.

His sister was unable to stay still, she kept making gestures with both hands, so the flame swung between feeble flashes and giant shadows.

 ‘We don’t know yet,’ she replied. ‘Because,’ she added, with a mysteriously triumphant laugh, ‘we’re going to go to the hunting room to play the game.’

 ‘The hunting room! That’s impossible!’ Pietro said, shaking his head. ‘You’re joking! At night! They’ll hear us and find out. And everything will be over.’ But the others attacked him, insulted.

 ‘How dare you!’ they said. ‘You’re afraid!’

In a defiant attempt to rebel, Pietro lay down on his bed again.

 ‘No, I’m not coming,’ he said. Antonietta changed her tone.

 ‘Don’t ruin everything,’ she begged him, ‘you’re the hunters and the horns.’ And so she won the last of Pietro’s reticence, and he got up. He was wearing, like his brother, a worn-down flannel shirt, over which he slipped a pair of shorts. Antonietta cautiously opened the door leading to the stairs. ‘Bring your candle too,’ she told them, ‘there are no lamps up there’.

So the three set off, single file, up the narrow marble staircase, filthy and dull from use. The ‘hunting room’ was on the first floor, right after the stairs. It was one of the biggest rooms in the mansion, and the squalor of the other abandoned rooms was here animated instead by the vast frescoes on the walls and ceiling. They showed hunting scenes against a rocky landscape, with dark, straight trees. Several greyhounds, their muzzles pointed and their hind legs taut, ran everywhere in a frenzy, as the horses jumped or proceeded with dignity, in their red and gold caparisons. The hunters, in their bizarre, fish-skinned silks, tall hats with long feathers and green tricorns, walked or marched blowing their horns. Long ribbons hung from the latter, yellow and red standards flapped against the terse skies, and out of the cliff grew sharp-leaved bushes, and open, rigid flowers, almost like rocks. All of this was now buried in darkness. The candles, with their light too feeble for the sheer size of the room, revealed here and there the vivid colours of the saddles or the white backs of the horses. The children’s shadows swayed on the walls in magnified movements and ghostly footsteps.

They closed the doors. The piece began.

The silence of the night was vast; the wind had ceased for the trees to not rustle. Antonietta was stood by a painted tree which suddenly started flowing with sap. Birds came to life and slept in the foliage. And on her appeared, like a miracle, a long gown of floral and regal make, and a golden satchel. Her hair parted into two blonde tresses, and her pupils enlarged from fear and rapture.

 ‘Courage, my love, I am here, here, by you,’ murmured the other, turning into brave knight. His sweet and faunish face peered out of the darkness. ‘Roberto!’ she exclaimed quietly. ‘Roberto! Hold me, my love!’

A sudden grace bloomed in her. Her teeth and eyes shone with grace, her curved neck and her lips housed grace. She kneeled, her bare knees touching the ground. ‘What are you doing, my beloved?’ he asked. ‘Stand.’

She shuddered. ‘You came,’ she murmured almost in pain, ‘and it is night no longer, I have no more fear. I am finally close to you! I am like within the walls of a fortress, within a nest. If only you knew the sadness, how I cried these lonely nights! And you, my heart, what have you done these nights?’

  ‘I wandered,’ he said, ‘on my horse, thinking of ways to liberate you. But do not dwell, my darling, on the times of solitude. That has passed. No force can separate us now. We are together for eternity.’

 ‘For eternity!’ she repeated, bewildered. She smiled with her eyes closed, and sighed and trembled. Shuddering, she moved closer to him. ‘Do you not hear,’ she said, ‘a sound of horns in the distance?’

Roberto listened. ‘Do I have to blow the horns now?’ asked Pietro, coming closer. It was his specialty. He could mimic the sound of wind instruments and animal noises, and in doing so his cheeks engorged in grotesque ways.

 ‘Yes,’ the other two whispered.

The sound of a horn, low and growling, slowly moving closer and shriller, could be heard in the background. The wind picked up in the forest; a gust shook the leaves on the trees like banners. The horses leapt, the knights shook on their backs, falcons circled in the whistling air. The greyhounds leapt into the darkness, and the knights blew their horns.

 ‘Hark! Hark!’ they shouted, running through the torches that marked the air with lines and circles of smoke.

Isabella let out a cry, and threw her head back, clinging to Roberto.

 ‘My Queen!’ he shouted. ‘No one will take you from these arms! I swear. And with this kiss I seal my oath. Now, come forth! Come forth, if you dare!’              

The two children kissed on the lips, Giovanni grew in size. His cheekbones reddened and temples beating, he came closer to his sister. And she, hair in disarray, mouth burning, danced in a frenzy. ‘Come, knights and steeds!’ they shouted. And Pietro bounced from here to there, swaying on his stocky body and blowing out his cheeks, like a large zuffolo.

At that moment, tragedy and triumph ceased. Trees and knights stopped, losing their dimensions, and a dusty silence entered the room. The light of the candles only showed three ugly children.

The door was opening. The marquess, inspired, had suddenly decided to check upon the children in their rooms, and her search had eventually brought her to the hunting room. ‘What is this farce?’ she shrieked with her silly voice. And stepped inside, holding a tall chandelier, followed by the marquis.

Their grotesque shadows crept along the opposite wall. The marquess’ sharp nose and chin, her bony fingers, her swaying tresses pinned to the top of her head, slightly fluttered in that now marginally more lit room, and the small, demure figure of the marquis stayed behind, still. He was wearing a worn bedrobe, with red and yellow stripes that made him look like a beetle, and the few grey hairs left on his head, usually smoothed down with an ointment of his making, were standing straight up, making him look terrified. He stood there cautiously, as if afraid of tripping up, and sheltered the flame of the candle with his open palm.

The marquess turned a sharp gaze onto her children, who froze; then she turned to her daughter, with raised eyebrows and a wry, scornful smile.

 ‘Look at her!’ she cried. ‘Pretty! Oh dear, dear!’ and suddenly becoming irate and combative, raised her voice. ‘You should be ashamed, Antonia! Explain…’

The children were quiet. But while the two boys were stunned, their eyes to the ground, Antonietta, curled up by her tree, now dead, stared at her mother with open, lost eyes, similar to a young quail surprised by a sparrow hawk. Then her incredibly pale face, her drained lips, was covered by a disordered and violent redness, covering her skin in dark stains. Her lips trembled, and she shuddered, lost, overwhelmed by painful and uncontrollable shame. She kept curling further into her nook, as if afraid that someone might touch and search her.

The two brothers were shocked by the scene that followed. Their sister suddenly fell to her knees, and they thought she might beg for forgiveness: instead, she covered her blazing face with her hands, and started shaking in a bizarre, raspy, and feverish laughter, which soon turned into angry crying. She uncovered her strained face and, lying on the ground with her legs stiff, she started ripping out, in a childish and continuous gesture, her untied hair.                     

 ‘Antonietta! What happens?’ exclaimed the marquis, aghast. ‘Silence, you!’ ordered the marquess, and because her daughter had uncovered her frail, white legs in her thrashing, she twisted her face in disgust.

 ‘On your feet, Antonietta,’ she barked. But her voice exasperated her daughter, who seemed possessed by the Furies; the jealousy of her secret had shattered her. In silence, her brothers shifted away, and she was left alone in the middle, shaking her head as if trying to remove it off her neck, moaning with agitated and improper gestures. ‘Help me to lift her up,’ the marquess finally said, and as soon as her parents touched her, Antonietta ceased all movement, exhausted. Holding her under her arms, she moved without realising up the dimly lit staircase; her eyes were dry and fixed, her lips showed the spittle of ire, and her cries had been replaced by a muffled and inconstant moan, but still filled with anger. She kept moaning in the same manner even once they reached her bed, where she was made to lie, and left alone.

From the nearby room, the brothers couldn’t help but listen to that lament that distracted them even from the thought of the violated secret. Then Pietro was taken over by a dreamless sleep, and Giovanni was left alone in the darkness. He kept tossing and turning without peace, until he decided to leave his bed, and headed barefoot to his sister’s bedroom. It was small, misshapen, in which the smell of childhood lingered, but one oppressed by boarding school. The ceiling sported a faded image: a slender woman, draped in orange veils, dancing with her arms reaching for a painted vase. The walls were stained and miserable, a pair of old red slippers were placed to one side of the wooden bed, and on the wall opposite an angel spread its wings and held a stoup. The night lamp was lit and let onto the bed a feeble bluish aura.

 ‘Antonietta!’ called Giovanni. ‘It’s me…’

His sister seemed to not notice him, despite her eyes being open and filled with tears; she lay immersed in her childish crying, her lips taut and trembling, and unmoving; slowly, her eyes started to close, and her wet lashes seemed long and displayed. Suddenly, she jolted awake again.

 ‘Roberto!’ she called, and the name and the sharp sweetness in the voice filled with regret shocked her brother.

 ‘Antonietta!’ he called again. ‘It’s me, Giovanni, your brother!’

 ‘Roberto,’ she said, her voice lower. Calming down now, she seemed more absorbed and attentive, as someone carefully following the tracks of a dream. In silence, her brother also felt Roberto’s presence in the room; tall, a little arrogant, with his black velvet waistcoat, the arabesque weapon and silver buckles, Roberto was standing between them.

Antonietta seemed calm and asleep by now; Giovanni stepped out into the corridor. Here the house’s silence enveloped him, contained yet infinite, like the one found in burials. He felt suffocated and nauseated, so he moved to the wide window on the stairs and opened it. He could hear, in the darkness outside, light thuds, as of soft bodies falling onto the sand in the garden; the space beyond the garden seemed alive and sensible to him, and the urge to escape, an old urge despite its vague, chimeric nature, took hold of him now, sudden and irresistible.

Without thinking, almost out inertia, he went back to his room and put on his clothes in the dark. Shoes in hand, he walked down the stairs, and the creaking of the front door behind him both horrified him and, in its song, filled him with delight.

 ‘Goodbye, Antonietta,’ he murmured. He thought he would never see Antonietta again, never again the house and the square; all he had to do was walk straight ahead for none of it to exist any longer.

Only the gurgling of the fountain could be heard in the empty square, and he turned, facing away from that cold and sad marble visage. He walked along known streets, until he reached the countryside paths and finally the open fields. The already tall and green wheat grew to both his left and right, the mountains in the background were more of a cloudy mass, and the night dragged on, exhausted, breathing damp and still beneath the sharp light of the stars. ‘I’ll reach that mountain range,’ he thought, ‘then the sea.’ He had never seen the sea, and the illusion of thunderous rumbling of a shell came back to him, from when he used to bring it up to his ear to play. But the sound was now alive and resounding, so that instead of the fields around him, he felt as though he was surrounded by two calm bodies of water on either side. After some time, he was sure of having walked far, though really he had only left the town. Exhausted, he decided to rest by a smooth tree, with wide foliage, split in two long branches similar to the arms of a cross.

He had only just rested his head on the bark when he felt a shiver: ‘The illness,’ he thought, both calm and horrified. The fever was indeed taking him, burrowing with burning, restless roots through his already drained body, too tired to stand up. His eyesight suddenly sharpened, so that he could now see the crawling of the night’s creatures surrounding him, and he could see the beating and flickering of their eyes, like hazy fires.

They were winking, he recognised them all, and he might have been able to call them one by one and ask them the infinite series of questions he had been harbouring since his early childhood.

But out of a strange urgency, the night turned towards dawn. The sunrise that came was bright, turning the landscape into a vast city of clay, dusty and empty, scattered with huts that looked more like mounds of soil, and short pillars. In this city, on the side of the rising sun, Isabella appeared, as big as a cloud against the sky, her dress like the chalice of a red flower. She approached him, despite her feet not moving. Her bare shoulders dropped from exhaustion, and her closed lips seemed to be smiling, her shining, still eyes stared at him to help him sleep.

He did, meekly. With daybreak, it was the hated servant who found him and took him home in his rough arms. As many times before, Giovanni stayed in his bed for days he never knew had passed, and his sister Antonietta looked over him. She sat there, calm and lazy, sometimes knitting, often just idling. She watched her brother deliriously imagining his red, burning worlds, offering him water every now and then. She sat there, in her apron and smooth hair, like a servant in a monastery.

Her lips looked burned.

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