Shaken by his wife with an angry tug on the arm, jolted out of his sleep again that night, was poor Mister Anselmo.
Dazed, and with his nose still stuffy from sleep, and wheezing a bit from the sudden alarm, he swallowed; he scratched his hairy chest; then said irked:
“And… my God… again tonight?”
“Every night! Every night!” his wife shouted, livid with annoyance.
Mister Anselmo raised himself on an elbow, and continuing with the other hand to scratch his chest, asked with exasperation:
“But are you really sure about it? I might make some sound with my lips, because of my stomach rumbling; and it seems to you that I’m laughing.
“No, you’re laughing, laughing, laughing,” she reaffirmed those three times. “Want to hear how? Like this…”
And she mimicked the deep bubbling laughter which her husband made in his sleep every night.
Stunned, embarrassed and almost incredulous, Mister Anselmo turned to ask:
“Like that! Like that!”
And his wife, after the effort of that laugh, exhausted, let her head fall back onto the pillows and her arms over the covers, moaning:
“Oh God, my head…”
In the bedroom, sputtering, and about to go out was a votive candle before of an image of the Madonna of Loreto, on the chest of drawers. At every sputter of light, it seemed as though all the furniture jumped.
Irritation and humiliation, anger and worry leapt up in the same way in the overburdened soul of Mister Anselmo, for those incredible laughs of his every night, in his sleep, which made his wife suspect that he, sleeping, wallowed in who knows what delights, while she, lying there beside him, was sleepless, and angry from the perpetual headache and neurotic asthma, heart palpitations, and in short, all the disorders possible and imaginable in an emotional woman nearing her fifties.
“Do you want me to light the candle?”
“Light it, yes, light it! And give me the drops right away: twenty, in an inch of water.”
Mister Anselmo lit the candle and got out of bed as quick as he could. So in his nightgown and barefoot, passing in front of the wardrobe to get from the dresser the little bottle of anti-hysteric liquid and the dropper, he saw himself in the mirror, and instinctively raised his hand to tidy up on his head the long lock of hair, with which he deluded himself in some way hid his baldness.
From the bed his wife noticed it.
“He’s fixing his hair!” she sneered. “He has the nerve to fix his hair, even in the dead of night, in his nightgown, while I’m here dying!”
Mister Anselmo turned around, as if a snake had bit him in betrayal; he pointed the index finger of one hand towards his wife and shouted at her:
“I wish”, she lamented then, “that the Lord would make you feel, I don’t say much, a little of what I’m suffering at this moment!”
“Eh, my dear, no”, grumbled Mister Anselmo. “If you really felt ill, you wouldn’t pay attention to scold me for an involuntary gesture. I only lifted my hand, I lifted… Dang it! How many of them did I let fall in?”
And he threw to the floor in an impulse of anger the water of the glass, into which, instead of twenty, who knows how many drops of that anti-hysteric mixture had fallen. And he had to go into the kitchen, like that, barefoot and in his nightgown, to get more water.
“I laugh…! Ladies and gentlemen, I laugh…,” he said to himself passing through, on tiptoe, with the candle in hand, the long corridor.
A small voice from the shadows came out from an opening onto the hallway.
It was the voice of one of the five granddaughters, the voice of Susanna, the oldest, and the dearest to Mister Anselmo, whom he called Susì.
He had taken into his home for two years those five granddaughters, together with the daughter-in-law, upon death of his only son. The daughter-in-law, a sad disagreeable woman, who at eighteen had snared him, that poor son of his, by luck had escaped from the house for some months with a certain gentleman, an intimate friend of the deceased husband; and so the five little orphan girls (of which the oldest, Susì, was only eight years old) were left in the arms of Mister Anselmo, really in his own arms, because in those of the grandmother, afflicted with so many maladies, it is clear that they couldn’t rest.
The grandmother didn’t even have strength to mind herself.
But mind, yes, if Mister Anselmo unconsciously lifted a hand to readjust on his pate the twenty-five hairs that had left. Because, overcoming all those illnesses, she had the audacity, the grandmother, to still be ferociously jealous of him, as if at the tender age of fifty-six, with his white beard, and bald head, in the midst of all the delights that lady destiny had lavished on him; and those five granddaughters in his arms, for whom, with his meager salary he didn’t know how to provide, with a heart that was still bleeding over the death of his disgraced son, he could in fact attend to making love to pretty women!
Wasn’t he laughing perhaps for this? But yes! But yes! Who knows how many women canoodled with him in dreams, every night!
The fury which with his wife shook him, the vehement rage with which she shouted, “You’re laughing!”
Which… nothing, away with it! …what was it? a trifle… a ridiculous little sliver of brimstone, bestowed by that lady-luck friend of his through the hand of his wife, because she enjoyed salting his wounds, all those wounds, the existence of which he had wished to neatly whisk away.
Mister Anselmo put the candle on the floor near the door, so as not to wake the other grandchildren with the light, and went into the little bedroom, at Susì’s call.
With the greatest empathy of her grandfather, who loved her so much, Susì grew awkwardly; one shoulder taller than the other and crooked, and day by day her neck became ever more like a stem too slender to support her head, (which was) just too big. Ah, that head of Susì’s…
Mister Anselmo bent over the bed, to allow the thin arm of his granddaughter to encircle his neck; he told her:
“Do you know what, Susì? I laughed!”
Susì looked into his face with pained surprise.
“Yes, again tonight.” A big belly la-ha-ha-augh… Enough, let me go, dear, to get water for grandma… Sleep, sleep, and try to laugh too, you know? Good night.”
He kissed his granddaughter on the hair, tucked her snugly inside the covers, and went in the kitchen to get the water.
Helped along so much by his devoted fate, Mister Anselmo had succeeded (always for his greater consolation) to raise his spirits by philosophical considerations, which, in fact without at all harming the faith in honest feelings rooted deeply in his heart, nevertheless had taken away from him the comfort of trusting in that God, who awards and rewards from above. And not trusting in God, he couldn’t either consequently believe anymore, as he would have liked, in some evil demonic prankster who lurked inside his body and would amuse himself every night by laughing, to arouse the saddest suspicions in the mind of his jealous wife.
He was certain, very certain, Mister Anselmo not to have ever had any dream, that could cause those laughs. He didn’t dream at all! He never dreamed! He fell every evening, at the usual time, in a black, leaden sleep, hard and very deep, from which it cost him so much effort and so much pain to rouse himself! His eyelids weighed on his eyes like two tombstones.
And therefore, excluding the devil, excluding the dreams, there remained no other explanation for those laughs but some illness of a new kind; maybe an abdominal spasm, that was manifesting itself in that sonorous eruption of laughter.
The following day, he wanted to consult the young physician, specialist of nervous diseases, who every other day came to visit his wife.
Besides the expertise that they paid for, this young specialist doctor’s clients got his blond hair which because of too much studying had been falling out prematurely, and his vision which, for the same reason, had already been prematurely weakened.
And he had, other than his specialized knowledge of nervous ailments, another specialty, which he offered free to his clients: his eyes, behind the glasses, of different colors: one yellow and one green.
He closed his yellow one, blinked with the green, and explained everything. Ah, he explained everything, with a marvelous clarity, to give to his genteel clients, even in the case that they should have to die, complete satisfaction.
“Tell me, doctor, can it happen that someone laughs in his sleep, without dreaming? Loud, you know?
Those deep loud la-ha-ha-aughs….
The young doctor began to explain to Mister Anselmo the most recent and reasoned theories on sleep and on dreams; for about half an hour he spoke, inserting into his discourse all that Greek terminology that makes the profession of the physician so respectable, and at the end concluded that – no – it could not be.
Without dreaming, someone could not laugh that way in their sleep.
“But I swear to you, doctor, that I really do not dream, do not dream, haven’t ever dreamed!” exclaimed Mister Anselmo testily, noticing the sardonic laugh with which his wife had welcomed the conclusion of the young doctor.
“Eh no, you believe! So it seems to you,” added the doctor, going back to closing his yellow eye and blinking with the green. “So it seems to you… but you dream. It’s positive. Only, the memory of the dreams doesn’t remain, because you’re deeply asleep. Normally, as I explained it to you, we don’t remember the dreams that we have, when the veils, so to speak, of sleep are somewhat dispersed.”
“So I laugh at the dreams I have?”
“Without a doubt. You dream happy things and laugh.”
“What nonsense!” Mister Anselmo let slip out then. “I mean to be happy, at least in dreams, doctor, and not to be able to know it! Because I swear to you that I don’t know a thing. My wife shakes me, yells at me ‘You’re laughing’ , and I’m left stunned looking at her in the face, because I really don’t know that I laughed, nor what I laughed about.”
But look, there, there it was at the end. Yes, yes. It had to be like that. Providentially, nature, secretly, aided you in your sleep.. As soon as you closed your eyes on the spectacle of your miseries, nature, you see, undressed your soul of all its sorrowful crepe, and led it away, very gently, like a feather, towards the fresh valleys of happier dreams. Denied to you, it is true, cruelly, is the memory of who knows what exhilarating delights; but surely, in every way, it compensated you, restored your mind without your knowing it, so that the following day you would be able to bear the worries and the adversities of fate.
And now, returned from his office, Mister Anselmo took Susì on his knees, who knew how to imitate so well the bellowing laugh that he made every night, because she’d heard it repeated so many times by her grandmother; he kissed the mature little face and asked her:
“Susì, how do I laugh? Come on, dear, let me hear it, my nice laugh.”
And Susì, throwing back her head and exposing her slender rachitic neck, burst out in the joyous laughter, deep, full, and warm-hearted.
Mister Anselmo, blissful, listened to it, savored it, even with tears about to fall because of the sight of that little girl’s misshapen neck; and shaking his head and looking out the window, sighed:
“Who knows how happy I am, Susì! Who knows how happy I am, dreaming, when I laugh like that.”
Unfortunately, though, Mister Anselmo had to lose even this illusion.
It happened to him once, coincidentally, to remember one of his dreams, that made him laugh so much every night.
Here: He saw a wide staircase, up which was climbing with much difficulty, leaning on a cane, a certain Torella, his old companion from the office, with crooked legs. Behind Torella, was, climbing quickly, his boss, cavalier Ridotti, who was amusing himself by cruelly hitting with his cane Torella’s cane that, because of those crooked legs of his, he needed, climbing, to support himself upon steadily. In the end, that poor man Torella, unable to do anything else, bent forward, with both hands grabbed onto a step of the stairway and began to kick backwards, like a mule, towards cavalier Ridotti. Ridotti laughed scornfully and, ably dodging those kicks, tried to stick the tip of his cruel cane into the exposed rear end of poor Torella, there, right in the middle, and finally he succeeded.
To such a vision, Mister Anselmo, waking himself, with the laugh on his lips suddenly cut off, heard the breath and joy fall away from him. Oh God, was it because of this he was laughing, for such absurdities?
He constricted his mouth into a smirk of deep disgust, and remained gazing ahead of himself.
For this he was laughing! This was all the happiness, that he had believed he was enjoying in dreams!
Oh God… Oh God…
If not that, the philosophical spirit, which already for many years had begun speaking inside of him, this time again, came to his aid, and showed him that, of course, it was certainly natural that he would laugh at stupid things.
What did he want to laugh about? In his condition, he needed to become stupid, too, in order to laugh.
How would he have been able to laugh otherwise?