The Silent Dutchess

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Winner of the Premio Campiello (Italy's equivalent of the National Book Award), short-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Award upon its first English-language publication in the U.K., and published to critical acclaim in fourteen languages, this mesmerizing historical novel by one of Italy's premier women writers is available in the United States for the first time. Set in Sicily in the early eighteenth century, The Silent Duchess is the story of Marianna Ucrìa, the daughter of an aristocratic family and ...

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Overview

Winner of the Premio Campiello (Italy's equivalent of the National Book Award), short-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Award upon its first English-language publication in the U.K., and published to critical acclaim in fourteen languages, this mesmerizing historical novel by one of Italy's premier women writers is available in the United States for the first time. Set in Sicily in the early eighteenth century, The Silent Duchess is the story of Marianna Ucrìa, the daughter of an aristocratic family and the victim of a mysterious childhood trauma that has left her deaf and mute, trapped in a world of silence. Set apart from the world by her disability, Marianna searches for knowledge and fulfillment in a society where women face either forced marriages and endless childbearing or a life of renunciation within the walls of a convent. When she is just thirteen years old, Marianna is forced to marry her own aging uncle. Her status and wealth as a duchess cannot protect her from many of the horrors of that time: she witnesses her mother's decline due to her addiction to opium and snuff and her father's cruelly misguided religious piety as he participates in the hanging of a young boy. She watches helplessly as her four-year-old son dies of smallpox and her youngest daughter is married off at the age of twelve. It is not until the death of her "uncle-husband" that Marianna at last gains freedom from her life of subservience: she learns to manage her estates and to love a man as she had never loved her husband, and she also learns of the unspeakable events that led to her lifelong silence. In luminous language that conveys both the keen visual sight and thedeep human insight possessed by her remarkable main character, Dacia Maraini captures the splendor and the corruption of Marianna's world and the strength of her spirit. The Silent Duchess is the timeless story of one woman's struggle to find her own voice after years of silence.



The publication in America of The Silent Duchess is cause for rejoicing.-Publishers Weekly

"a carefully paced story of intellectual and moral growth."-Kirkus

"Maraini's writing is elegant, and her graphic descriptions of the luxurious life of the aristocracy in sharp contrast to the squalor of the majority living in poverty are quite realistic. . . . Recommended. . . wherever foreign authors are popular."- Library Journal

Suggested for course use in:
Fiction
Comparative literature
Italian literature

One of Italy's foremost women writers, Dacia Maraini is the winner of the international Prix Formentor and the Premio Campiello, one of Italy's highest literary honors. She is the author of more than fifty books, including novels, plays, collections of poetry, and critical essays.



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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
The heroine of this novel, Marianna, is a duchess in early 18th-century Sicily. She is deaf and dumb, but she wasn't born that way. As she turns 40, she realizes that she has been married (since she was 13) to the uncle who raped her when she was five years old. This traumatic revelation triggers her physical disabilities, compelling her to seek refuge in books and letters. Marianna decides to travel after her husband dies and even turns down an attractive marriage proposal in order to be independent for the first time in her life. Maraini's (e.g., Voices, Serpent's Tail, 1997) writing is elegant, and her graphic descriptions of the luxurious life of the aristocracy in sharp contrast to the squalor of the majority living in poverty are quite realistic. The Silent Duchess was made into a movie in 1996. Recommended for women's studies classes, readers interested in early Sicilian history, and wherever foreign authors are popular.--Lisa Rohrbaugh, East Palestine Memorial P.L., OH
Kathryn Harrison
. . .[A] story of grace and endurance, not mere survival. . . .The final and greatest satisfaction of Maraini's novel is that the Duchess remains triumphantly silent. -- The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780720608595
  • Publisher: Owen, Peter Limited
  • Publication date: 1/1/1992
  • Pages: 235
  • Product dimensions: 6.39 (w) x 9.45 (h) x 0.91 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Here they are, a father and a daughter. The father fair, handsome, smiling; the daughter awkward, freckled, fearful. He stylish and casual, his stockings ruffled, his wig askew; she imprisoned inside a crimson bodice that highlights the wax-like pallor of her complexion.

    The little girl watches her father in the mirror as he bends down to adjust his white stockings over his calves. His mouth moves but the sound of his words is lost as it reaches her ears, as if the visible distance between them were only a stumbling block: they seem to be close but they are a thousand miles apart.

    The child watches her father's lips as they move more and more rapidly. Although she cannot hear him, she knows what he is saying: that she must hasten to bid goodbye to her lady mother, that she must come down into the courtyard with him, that he is in a hurry to get into his carriage because as usual they are late.

    Meanwhile Raffaele Cuffa, who when he is in the hunting lodge walks with silent watchful footsteps like a fox, approaches Duke Signoretto and hands him a large wicker basket on which a white cross stands out prominently. The Duke opens the lid with a flick of his wrist, which his daughter recognises as one of his most habitual gestures, a peevish movement with which he casts to one side anything that bores him. His indolent, sensual hand plunges into the well-ironed cloth inside the basket, shivers at the icy touch of a silver crucifix, squeezes the small bag full of coins, and then slips quickly away. At a sign from him, Raffaele Cuffa hastens forward to close the basket. Now it is only a question of getting the horses to gallop full speed to Palermo.

    Meanwhile Marianna has rushed to her parents' bedroom, where she finds her mother the Duchess lying supine between the sheets, her dress fluffed up with lace slipping off her shoulder, the fingers of her hand closed round the enamel snuff-box. The child stops for a moment, overcome by the honey-sweet scent of the snuff mingled with all the other odours that accompany her mother's awakening: attar of roses, coagulated sweat, stale urine and lozenges flavoured with orris root.

    Her mother presses her daughter to her with lazy tenderness. Marianna sees her lips moving, but she can't be bothered to guess at her words. She knows she is telling her not to cross the road on her own; because of her deafness she could easily be crushed under the wheels of a carriage she has not been able to hear. And then dogs: no matter whether they are large dogs or small dogs she must give them a wide berth. She knows perfectly well how their tails grow so long that they wrap themselves round people's waists like chimeras do and then, hey presto, they pierce you with their forked points and then you are dead without ever realising what has happened to you.

    For a moment the child fixes her gaze on her mother the Duchess's plump chin, on her beautiful mouth with its pure outline, on her soft pink cheeks, on her eyes with their look of innocence, yielding and far away. I shall never be like her, she says to herself. Never. Not even when I am dead.

    Her mother the Duchess continues to talk about dogs like chimeras that can become as long as serpents, that press against you with their whiskers, that bewitch you with their cunning eyes. But the child gives her a hasty kiss and runs off.

    Her father the Duke is already in the carriage, but instead of summoning her he is singing. She can see him puffing out his cheeks and arching his eyebrows. As soon as she puts a foot on the running-board she is seized from inside and pulled on to the seat. The carriage door is closed with a sharp bang. Peppino Cannarota whips the horses and off they go at a gallop.

    The child relaxes, sinks back into the padded seat and shuts her eyes. Sometimes the two senses on which she relies are so alert that they come to blows, her eyes intent on possessing every image in its entirety, and her sense of smell obstinately insisting that it can make the whole world pass through these two minute tunnels of flesh at the lower end of her nose.

    But now she has lowered her eyelids so as to rest her eyes for a while, and her nostrils have begun to draw in the air, recognising the smells and meticulously noting them in her mind: the overpowering scent of lettuce water that impregnates her father's waistcoat, below that the scent of rice powder mingled with the grease on the seats, the sourness of crushed lice, the smarting from the dust on the road that blows through the joints of the doors, as well as the faint aroma of mint that floats in from the fields of the Villa Palagonia.

    But an extra hard jolt makes her open her eyes. Opposite her on the front seat her father is asleep, his tricorn hat capsized over his shoulder, his wig askew on his handsome perspiring forehead, his blond eyelashes resting gracefully on his carelessly shaven cheeks. Marianna pushes aside the small wine-coloured curtain, embroidered with golden eagles. She catches a glimpse of the dusty road and of geese streaking away with outspread wings in front of the carriage wheels. Images of the countryside round Bagheria glide into the silence within her head: the contorted cork trees with their naked reddish trunks, the olive trees with branches weighed down by their little green eggs, the brambles that are struggling to invade the road, the cultivated fields, the giant cactuses with their spiny fruit, the tufts of reed, and far away in the distance the windswept hills of Aspra.

    Now the carriage passes the two pillars of the gate to the Villa Butera and sets off towards Ogliastro and Villabate. Her small hand remains gripping the cloth, heedless of the heat that seeps through the coarse woollen weave. She sits straight upright and motionless to avoid accidentally making a noise that will wake her father. But how stupid! What about the noise of the wheels as they clatter over the potholes in the road; what about Peppino Cannarota shouting encouragement to the horses; and the cracking of the whip and the barking of dogs? Even if she can only imagine all these sounds, for him they are real. And yet it is she who is disturbed and not him. What tricks intelligence can play on crippled senses!

    From the gentle shimmering of the reeds, hardly affected by the wind from Africa, Marianna is aware that they have arrived at the outskirts of Ficarazzi. In the distance is the big yellow barracks known as `the sugar mill'. A pungent acidulous smell creeps through the cracks in the closed door. It is the smell of sugar cane as it is cut, soaked, stripped and transformed into molasses.

    Today the horses are flying along. Her father the Duke continues sleeping in spite of the jolts. She is pleased to have him there safe in her hands. Every so often she leans forward to straighten his hat or to brush away a too insistent fly.

    The child is just seven years old. In her disabled body the silence is like dead water. In this clear still water float the carriage, the balconies hung with washing, the hens scratching about, the sea glimpsed from afar, her sleeping father. The images are almost weightless and easily change their positions, but they coalesce into a liquid that blends their colours and dissolves their shapes.

    Marianna turns to look out of the window and to her surprise they are right alongside the sea. The smooth calm water splashes gently on to the big grey pebbles. On the horizon a large boat with limp sails goes from right to left.

    The branch of a mulberry tree snaps against the window. Purple mulberries are squashed on the glass by the impact. Marianna turns aside, but too late, the jolt has made her bang her head against the window frame. Her lady mother is right: her ears are no use as sentinels. The dogs can catch hold of her by the waist from one minute to the next. That is why her nose has become so keen and her eyes so quick to warn her of any moving object.

    Her father the Duke opens his eyes for a moment and then sinks back into sleep. Suppose she were to give him a kiss? How happily she would embrace him. How happy she would be to caress that cool cheek nicked by a careless razor. But she refrains because she knows he dislikes any mawkishness. And, anyway, why wake him up when he is happily asleep, why bring him back to another day of `turmoil', as he puts it, writing it for her on a small sheet of paper in his beautifully rounded and shapely handwriting.

    From the regular jolting of the carriage the child guesses that they have arrived in Palermo. The wheels have begun to bounce over the cobblestones and it seems to her that she can almost hear their rhythmic clanking.

    Soon they will be turning towards Porta Felice, then they will go into the Cassaro Morto, and then? Her father the Duke has not told her where he is taking her but from the basket Raffaele Cuffa has given him she can guess. To the Vicaria?


Chapter Two

It is indeed the facade of the Vicaria that greets her as she gets down from the carriage, helped by her father. The expression on his face makes her laugh: he has woken with a start, feeling the pressure of his powdered wig rammed down on to his ears, slapping on his tricorn hat and jumping from the footplate, a movement he intends to appear confident and carefree but which turns out to be clumsy. He almost has a heavy fall because of the pins and needles in his legs.

    The windows of the Vicaria are all similar, bristling with spiral gratings that end in menacing spikes; the great entrance gate is studded with rusty bolts; there is a door handle in the form of a wolf's head with an open mouth. With all its brutishness it looks so like a prison that people passing in front of it turn their heads away to avoid seeing it.

    The Duke is about to knock on the door when it opens wide and he enters as if it were his own house. Marianna follows behind him and the guards and servants bow as they pass. One gives her a surprised smile, another frowns at her, another even tries to stop her by grabbing hold of her arm. But she breaks free and runs after her father. The child gets tired following him as he advances with giant strides towards the gangway. She skips along in her little satin shoes but she cannot manage to keep up. For a moment she thinks she has lost him, but there he is round a corner waiting for her.

    Father and daughter find themselves together in a triangular room dimly lit by a single window immediately below the ceiling. A manservant helps her father the Duke remove his redingote and his tricorn hat. He relieves him of his wig and hangs it on a knob that juts out from the wall. He helps him to put on the long habit of white cloth lying in the basket together with a rosary, a cross and the purse of coins.

    Now the titular head of the Chapel of the Noble Family of the White Brothers is ready. In the meantime, without the child noticing, other members of the Noble Family have arrived, also dressed in white habits. Four ghosts with cowls flopping round their necks.

    Marianna stands on her own watching the attendants bustle round the White Brothers as if they were actors getting ready to come on stage: the folds of their spotless habits must be straight so that they fall modestly over their sandalled feet; the cowls must come down over the neck and the white points must be straightened so that they face upwards.

    Now the five are indistinguishable: white on white, piety on piety. Only their hands peeping through the folds of their habits and that little area of blackness blinking in the two holes in the hood reveal the person underneath. The smallest of the ghosts leans towards the child, flutters his hands and turns to her father the Duke. She can see that he is angry from the way he stamps his feet on the floor. Another brother takes a step forward as if to intervene. It looks as if they are going to seize each other by the scruff of their necks but her father the Duke orders them to be quiet with a gesture of authority.

    Marianna feels the cold soft cloth of her father's habit against her bare wrist. The right hand of the father clutches the fingers of the daughter. Her nose tells her that something terrible is going to happen, but what can it be? Her father the Duke leads her towards another corridor and she walks without looking where to put her feet, seized by an excited and burning curiosity.

    At the end of the passage they encounter steep slippery stone steps. The noble gentlemen grab their habits with their thumbs and fingers just like ladies picking up their full skirts and raising the hems so as not to stumble. The steps exude dampness and it is difficult to see, even though a guard goes ahead with a lighted flare. There are no windows, neither high nor low. Suddenly it is night, smelling of burnt oil, rat droppings, pork fat. The head of the prison guards gives the keys of the dungeon to Duke Ucria, who advances till he reaches a small wooden door with reinforced bosses. There, with the help of a boy with bare feet, he unlocks the padlock and slides back a big iron bar.

    The door opens. The smoky flare casts light on part of the floor, where cockroaches are running in all directions. The guard raises the flare to throw a shaft of light on several half-naked bodies lying against the wall, their ankles shackled in heavy chains.

    An ironsmith appears from nowhere and bends down to release the chain from one of the prisoners, a boy with bleary eyes. He gets impatient because it takes so long and kicks out with his foot almost as if he was trying to tickle the ironsmith's nose. He laughs, showing a large toothless mouth.

    The child hides behind her father. Every so often he bends down and gives her a quick caress, but more to make certain that she stays there watching than to comfort her.

    When the boy is finally free he stands up. Marianna recognises that he is still almost a child, more or less the same age as Cannarota's son, who died of malarial fever a few months ago at the age of thirteen. The other prisoners look on without speaking. As soon as the boy, his ankles freed, starts to walk about, they resume their unfinished game, glad to be able to make use of so much light. The game consists of louse-killing: whoever can squash between their two thumbs the greatest number in the shortest time wins. The dead lice are delicately placed on a small copper coin and the winner takes the money.

    The child is absorbed in watching the three players, their mouths wide open and laughing as they shout words that she cannot hear. Fear has left her; now she thinks calmly of how her father the Duke will want to take her with him to hell; there must be a secret reason, some high-flown reason which she will only understand later on. He will take her to look at the damned wallowing in mud: some who walk burdened with heavy rocks on their shoulders, some who have been changed into trees, some who have swallowed burning coals and breathe out fiery smoke, some who crawl like snakes, some who are changed into dogs whose tails grow longer and longer until they become harpoons with which they hook passers-by and carry them to their mouths, just as her lady mother keeps telling her.

    But her father the Duke is there to rescue her from these horrors. And, anyway, for living visitors like Dante hell can even be beautiful to look at. Those who are there, dead and suffering, and we who are here watching them: is this not what these white-hooded brethren, who pass the rosary from hand to hand, are offering us?


Chapter Three

Rolling his eyes, the boy watches her, and Marianna returns his look, determined not to let herself be intimidated. But his eyelids are swollen and discharging pus; it is quite likely he cannot see properly, the little girl thinks to herself. Who can tell how he perceives her? Perhaps as gross and fleshy, like when she looks at her reflection in Aunt Manina's distorting mirror, or maybe undersized and all skin and bone? At that moment, in response to her grimace, the boy dissolves into a dark, crooked smile.

    Her father the Duke, assisted by a hooded White Brother, takes the boy by the arm and leads him towards the door. The players return to the half-darkness of their days. Two dry, slender hands lift up the child and place her gently on the bottom step of the staircase.

    The procession starts up: the guard with the burning torch, Duke Ucria leading the prisoner on his arm, the other White Brothers, the ironsmith and two attendants dressed in dark tunics behind. Again they find themselves in the triangular room, astir with the coming and going of guards and footmen, who carry torches, arrange chairs, and bring basins of tepid water, linen towels, a basket of fresh bread and a dish of candied fruit.

    Her father the Duke leans over the boy with an affectionate gesture. Marianna tells herself that she has never seen him so tender and solicitous. He takes water from the earthenware basin in his cupped hand and splashes it on the pus on the boy's cheeks; then he cleans his face with the freshly laundered towel handed to him by a footman. Next he takes a piece of soft white bread between his fingers and offers it to the prisoner as if he were his favourite son.

    The boy allows himself to be looked after, cleaned and fed, without uttering a word. Every so often he smiles, at other times he weeps. Somebody places a rosary of large mother-of-pearl beads in his hands. He fingers it and then lets it fall to the ground. Her father the Duke gestures impatiently. Marianna bends down, picks up the rosary and replaces it in the boy's hands. For a moment she experiences the contact of two cold, calloused fingers.

    The prisoner stretches his lips over his toothless mouth. His blood-shot eyes are bathed with a small piece of cloth steeped in lettuce water. Under the indulgent gaze of the White Brothers the prisoner reaches out towards the dish, looks round him apprehensively and then thrusts into his mouth a honey-coloured plum encrusted with sugar. The five gentlemen have knelt down and are telling the rosary. The boy, his cheeks bulging with the candied fruit, is pushed gently on to his knees, for even he is required to pray.

    Thus the oppressive heat of the afternoon passes in somnolent prayer. Every so often a footman approaches bearing glasses of water flavoured with aniseed. The White Brothers drink and return to their prayers. One of them mops his perspiring face, others doze off and then wake up with a start and return to telling the rosary. After swallowing three crystallised apricots the boy falls asleep too, and no one has the heart to wake him up.

    Marianna watches her father praying. Is that cowled figure Duke Signoretto or can it be someone else whose head is swaying from side to side? It seems as if she can hear his voice slowly reciting Hail Mary. In the shell of her ear, long since silent, she retains a faint memory of familiar voices: the hoarse gurgling of her mother, the shrill voice of the cook Innocenza, the sonorous kindly voice of her father the Duke, which every so often used to falter and become disagreeably sharp and splintered.

    Perhaps she too had learned to talk. But how old was she then? Four or five? She was a backward child, quiet and absorbed, lurking in some corner where everyone tended to forget about her before suddenly remembering her and coming to scold her for having hidden herself. One day, for no reason, she fell silent: silence took possession of her like some illness, or perhaps like a vocation. Not to hear the merry voice of her father the Duke was the most distressing part of it. But in due course she became accustomed to it. Now she experienced a sense of happiness, almost a sly satisfaction, in watching him talk without being able to grasp the words.

    `You were born like this, deaf and dumb', he had once written in an exercise book, and she had tried to convince herself that she had only dreamed up those distant voices, unable to admit that her sweet gentle father, who loved her so much, could lie to her. So she had to believe it was all a delusion. She lacked neither the imagination nor the desire for speech.

e pi e pi e pi

seven women for one tari

e pi e pi e pi

one tari is not a lot

seven women for an apricot. ...

But her thoughts are interrupted by the movement of a White Brother, who goes out and returns with a big book, on the cover of which is written: ATONEMENT OF CONSCIENCE. Her father the Duke wakes up the boy with a gentle tap and they withdraw together to a corner of the room, where the wall makes a niche and a slab of stone fits into it like a seat. There the Duke Ucria of Fontanasalsa bends down towards the prisoner's ear and invites him to make his confession. The boy mutters a few words through his young toothless mouth. Her father is affectionately insistent. At last the boy smiles. They seem almost like a father and son talking casually about family matters.

    Marianna watches them filled with dismay. What does he think he is doing? This parrot roosting next to her father, as if he has always known him, as if he has always held his impatient hands between his fingers, as if since the day he was born he has known his smell in his nostrils, as if he has been clasped round the waist a thousand times by two strong arms that have helped him to jump down from a carriage or a sedan-chair, from a cradle, from steps, with the impetuosity that only a real father of flesh and blood can feel for his own daughter. What does he think he is doing?

    A compelling urge to commit murder rises up from her throat, invades the top of her mouth and burns her tongue. She could throw a big dish at his head, plunge a knife into his chest, tear the hair off his scalp. Her father does not belong to that boy, he belongs to her, to the pitiable dumb girl who has only one love in the world -- her father.

    These murderous thoughts are dispelled by a sudden rush of air. The door opens wide and a man with a belly shaped like a melon appears in the entrance. He is dressed like a clown, half in red, half in yellow. He is young and corpulent, with short legs, square shoulders, the arms of a wrestler and small shifty eyes. He is chewing pumpkin seeds and spitting out the husks with a cheerful leer.

    When the boy sees him he blanches. The smiles that her father the Duke has wrung from him die on his face, his lips begin to tremble, his mouth starts to quiver and his eyes to run. The clown, spitting out husks of pumpkin seeds, draws closer to him. The boy slides downwards like a wet rag and the clown gestures to two servants, who raise him up beneath the armpits and drag him towards the door.

    The atmosphere resonates with sombre reverberations like the beating of the gigantic wings of an unseen bird. Marianna looks around her. The White Brothers proceed towards the entrance with ceremonious footsteps. The great door opens wide at a single blow and the beating of the wings becomes close enough and loud enough to deafen her. It is the viceregal drums, together with the shouts from the crowd, everyone rejoicing and waving their arms.

    The Piazza Marina, which earlier had been empty, is now seething with people: a sea of undulating heads, raised standards, stamping horses, a pandemonium of thronging bodies, struggling forward to invade the rectangular piazza.


Chapter Four

The windows are overflowing with heads. The balconies are tightly crammed with gesticulating bodies leaning out so that they can get a better view. The Ministers of Justice with their yellow robes, the Royal Guard with their gold and purple ensign, the Grenadiers armed with bayonets, are all there, restraining the impatience of the mob with some difficulty.

    What is going to happen? The child guesses but does not dare to answer that question. All these bawling heads seem to be knocking at the door of her silence, asking to be allowed in.

    Marianna shifts her gaze from the crowd and focuses it on the toothless boy. She sees him standing motionless, steady and upright. He is no longer trembling or keeling over. He has a glimmer of pride in his eyes: all this uproar for him! All these people dressed up in their Sunday best, these horses, these carriages, are only there for him. These banners, these uniforms with shining buttons, these plumed hats, all this gold and purple, all on his account. It is a miracle!

    Two guards brutally interrupt this ecstatic contemplation of his own triumph. They fasten the rope with which they have tied his hands to another longer and stronger rope, which they secure to the tail of a mule. Bound thus, he is dragged towards the centre of the piazza.

    At the far end, on the Steri Palace, a splendid blood-red flag flaunts itself; from there, from the Palazza Chiaramonte, the Noble Fathers of the Inquisition are emerging, two by two, preceded and followed by a swarm of altar boys. In the centre of the piazza is a raised platform several feet high, similar to those on which are enacted the puppet stories of Nofriu and Travaglino, of Nardo and Tiberio. But instead of black canvas there is an ominous scaffolding of wood, shaped like an inverted L, to which a rope with a noose is attached.

    Marianna gets pushed behind her father, who is following the prisoner, who in his turn follows the mule. Now the procession has got under way and no one can stop it, whatever the reason. The horses of the Royal Guard in front, followed by the Noble Brothers in their hooded habits, the Ministers of Justice, the archdeacons, the priests, the barefoot friars, the drummers, the trumpeters: a long cortege that laboriously makes it way along the street between the excited crowds. The gallows are only a few yards away, yet it takes the procession, winding its way in arbitrary circles round the piazza, a long time to get there.

    At length Marianna's foot bumps into a small wooden step and the procession comes to a halt. Her father the Duke ascends the steps with the condemned prisoner, preceded by the executioner and followed by the other Brothers of the Good Death.

    Once more the boy has that far-away smile on his white face. And it is her father the Duke who holds him spellbound and eases him towards paradise, bewitching him with descriptions of the delights of that place of repose, leisure, unlimited food and sleep. Like a baby made drowsy by words from his mother rather than his father, the boy seems to have no other wish than to rush from this world to the next, where there are no prisoners, no sickness, no lice, no suffering but only juleps and rest.

    The little girl opens her aching eyes. Now a great desire leaps down upon her: to be him, if only for an hour, to be that toothless boy with the suppurating eyes, so as to hear her father's voice, to drink in the honey of that transient sound, even if only once, even at the cost of dying, hanging from that rope dangling in the sun.

    The executioner continues to chew pumpkin seeds and with a defiant look spits the husks high into the air. Everything is so like the puppet theatre: now Nardo will lift up his head and the hangman will deliver a hail of blows. Nardo will wave his arms and fall under the stage and then return more lively than ever to receive more blows and more insults.

    Just as in the theatre, the crowd laughs, chatters and munches while waiting for the blows to begin. Street-vendors appear from under the scaffold to offer mugs of water and aniseed, pushing and jostling past sellers of bread and offal, of boiled squid and cactus fruit. Everyone is elbowing and shoving, trying to sell their wares. A toffee seller arrives beneath the child's nose and, almost as if he has an intuition that she is deaf, approaches her with exaggerated gestures to offer her the tray held round his neck with a greasy piece of string. She gives a sideways glance at the miniature toffee-tins. She could so easily stretch out her hand, select one, press down the catch with her finger to open the circular lid and let the little round sweets with their vanilla flavour slip out. But she doesn't want to be distracted, her attention is fixed elsewhere, above those steps of blackened wood, where her father the Duke is still talking to the condemned prisoner in a soft low voice as if he were flesh of his flesh.

    The last steps are reached. The Duke bows towards the dignitaries seated in front of the scaffold, the senators, the princes, the magistrates. Then he kneels down reverently with the rosary between his fingers. For a moment the crowd falls quiet. Even the itinerant street-vendors cease bustling about and stand still with their mobile stalls, their straps, their samples of merchandise, their mouths wide open and their heads in the air.

    When the prayer is ended, her father the Duke passes the crucifix to the prisoner for him to kiss. It is as if in place of Christ on the Cross, it could be he himself, naked, martyred, with his beautiful skin and a crown of thorns on his head, offering himself to the uncouth lips of a frightened boy to reassure him, to soothe him, to send him to the next world calm and tranquil. With her he has never been so tender, never so sensual, never so close. Never, never has he offered her his body to be kissed, never taken her under his wing, never cherished her with tender words of comfort.

    The child's gaze shifts to the prisoner, and she watches him sink down on his knees. The seductive words of Duke Ucria are swept away by the feel of the cold, slippery rope that the hangman places round his neck. But the boy still manages somehow to lift himself upright, while his nose starts to run. He tries to free his hand to wipe the snot that dribbles over his lips. But his hands are firmly tied behind his back. Two or three times he lifts his shoulders and tries to twist his arm. At this moment it seems as if wiping his nose is the only thing that matters to him.

    The air reverberates to the beat of a big drum. At a sign from the judge the hangman kicks away the box on which the boy has been forced to stand. The body jerks, stretches itself, falls downwards and starts to rotate.

    But something has gone wrong. Instead of dangling inertly like a sack, the boy continues to writhe, suspended in the air, his neck swollen, his eyes starting out of their sockets.

    The hangman, realising that his task has failed, heaves himself up with all the force of his arms against the gallows and jumps alongside the hanged boy; for a few seconds they are both dangling from the rope like two mating frogs, while the crowd holds its breath.

    This time he is truly dead. The body has taken on all the attributes of a puppet. The hangman slides nonchalantly along the scaffold and jumps nimbly down on to the platform. People start to throw their caps in the air. A young brigand who has murdered a dozen people has met his fate. Justice has been done. But the little girl will not learn about this till later. For the moment she is asking herself what a boy not much older than herself and looking so scared and stupid could have done.

    The father bends over his daughter, exhausted. He touches her mouth as if he were waiting for a miracle. He catches hold of her chin, looks into her eyes, imploring, threatening. `You must speak,' say his lips. `You must open that accursed fish's mouth.'

    The child tries to unstick her lips but she cannot do it. Her body is seized with a violent trembling, her hands, still grasping the folds of her father's habit, are turned to stone.

    The boy she wanted to kill is dead and she cannot help wondering whether it might have been her who killed him, for she had desired his death as one can desire a forbidden fruit.

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