Chapter Sixteen - On the River Bank
BETWEEN ONE AND three o'clock of an August afternoon, the heat in those fields of hemp and buckwheat can be both seen and felt. It is almost as though a great curtain of boiling glass hung a few inches from your nose. If you cross a bridge and look down into the canal, you find its bed dry and cracked, with here and there a dead fish, and when you look at a cemetery from the road along the river bank you almost seem to hear the bones rattling beneath the boiling sun. Along the main road you will meet an occasional wagon piled high with sand, with the driver sound asleep lying face downwards on top of his load, his stomach cool and his spine incandescent, or he will be sitting on the shaft fishing out pieces from half a watermelon that he holds on his knees like a bowl.
Then when you come to the big bank, there lies the great river, deserted, motionless and silent, like a cemetery of dead waters.
Don Camillo was walking in the direction of the big river, with a large white handkerchief inserted between his head and his hat. It was half-past one of an August afternoon, and seeing him thus, alone on the white road, under the burning rays of the sun, it was not possible to imagine anything blacker or more blatantly priestlike.
"If there is anyone within a radius of twenty miles who is not asleep at this moment, I'll eat my hat," said Don Camillo to himself. Then he climbed over the bank and sat down in the shade of a thicket of acacias and watched the water shining through the foliage. Presently he took off his clothes, folding each garment carefully and rolling them all into a bundle which he hid among the bushes. Then, wearing only his underdrawers, he plunged into the water.
Everything was perfectly quiet, no one could have seen him because, in addition to selecting the hour of siesta, he had also chosen the most secluded spot. In any case, he was prudent and, at the end of half an hour, he climbed out of the water among the acacias and reached the bush where he had hidden his clothes—only to discover that the clothes were no longer there.
Don Camillo felt his breath fail him.
There could be no question of theft: nobody could possibly want an old faded cassock. It must mean that some deviltry was afoot. And in fact at that very moment he heard voices approaching from the top of the bank. He made out a crowd of young men and girls and then he recognized Smilzo as their leader and was seized with an almost uncontrollable desire to break a branch from the acacias and use it on their backs. But he realized that he would only be playing into the hands of his adversaries— letting them enjoy the spectacle of Don Camillo in his drawers.
So he dived back into the water and swimming beneath the surface reached a little island in the middle of the river. Creeping ashore, he disappeared among the reeds. Although his enemies hadn't seen him land they flung themselves down along the bank and lay waiting for him, laughing and singing. Don Camillo was in a state of siege.
Don Camillo sat among the reeds and waited. Peppone, followed by Brusco, Bigio and his entire staff, arrived and Smilzo explained the situation with gestures. There was much laughter. Then more people came, and Don Camillo realized that the Mayor's party were out to make him pay dearly. They had hit upon the best system of all because, when anyone makes himself ridiculous, nobody is ever afraid of him again, not even if his fists weigh a ton and he represents the Eternal Father. Don Camillo felt it was grossly unfair because he had never wanted to frighten anyone except the Devil. But somehow politics had contrived so to distort facts that the Communists had come to consider the parish priest as their enemy and to say that if things were not as they wished it was all the fault of the priests. When things go wrong, it sometimes seems less important to find a remedy than to find a scapegoat.
"Lord!" said Don Camillo. "I am ashamed to address You in my underdrawers, but my position is becoming serious and if it is not a mortal sin for a poor parish priest who is dying of the heat to go bathing, please help me, because I am quite unable to help myself."
The watchers had brought flasks of wine, baskets of food and an accordion; it was obvious that they hadn't the faintest intention of raising the siege. In fact they had extended it so that they spread along the river's bank up to the ford. Here the shore was covered v/ith scrub and underbrush. Not a soul had set foot in this area since 1945 because the retreating Germans had mined both sides of the bank at the ford. The authorities, after several disastrous attempts at removing the mines, finally isolated the area with posts and barbed wire.
Therefore, that section of the shore upstream from Don Camillo was well guarded by a mine-field, and he knew that if he swam downstream beyond Peppone's men he would end up in the middle of the village.
So Don Camillo did not move; he remained lying on the damp earth, chewing a reed and sorting out his thoughts.
"Well," he concluded, "a respectable man remains a respectable man even in his drawers. If he performs some reputable action, then his clothing ceases to have any importance."
The daylight was beginning to fade and the watchers on the bank lit torches and lanterns. As soon as the underbrush was veiled in shadow, Don Camillo slid into the water and made his way cautiously upstream until his feet touched bottom at the ford. Then he struck out for the bank, lifting his mouth out of the water from time to time to catch his breath.
He reached the shore but now the problem was to get out of the water without being seen; once among the bushes he could easily reach the bank and by running along it, duck between rows of vines and through the buckwheat and so reach his own garden.
He grabbed a bush and pulled himself up slowly, but just as he was almost out, the bush came up by the roots and Don Camillo was back in the water. At the splash people came running. But in a flash Don Camillo leaped ashore and vanished among the bushes.
There were loud cries and the entire crowd rushed toward the spot, and the moon rose to shed its light on the spectacle.
"Don Camillo!" shouted Peppone, thrusting his way to the front of the crowd. "Don Camillo!" There was no reply and a deathly silence fell upon all those present.
"Don Camillo!" yelled Peppone again. "For God's sake don't move! You are in the mine-field!"
"I know I am," replied the voice of Don Camillo quietly, from behind a small shrub in the midst of the sinister shrubbery.
Smilzo came forward carrying a bundle. "Don Camillo," he shouted, "it was a rotten trick. Keep still and here are your clothes."
"My clothes? Oh, thank you, Smilzo. If you will be so kind as to bring them to me."
A branch moved at the top of a bush some distance away. Smilzo's mouth fell open and he looked round at those behind him. The silence was broken only by an ironical laugh from Don Camillo.
Peppone seized the bundle from Smilzo's hand. "I'll bring them," said Peppone, advancing slowly toward the posts and the barbed wire. He had one leg over the barrier when Smilzo sprang forward and dragged him back.
"No, chief," said Smilzo, taking the bundle from him and entering the enclosure. "I will."
The people shrank back, their faces were damp with sweat and they held their hands over their mouths. Amid a leaden silence, Smilzo made his way slowly toward the middle of the enclosure, placing his feet carefully.
"Here you are," said Smilzo, in a ghost of a voice, as he reached Don Camillo's bush.
"Good!" muttered Don Camillo. "And now you can come round here. You have earned the right to see me in my drawers." Smilzo obeyed him.
"Well? And what do you think of a parish priest in drawers?"
"I don't know," stammered Smilzo. "I've stolen trifles and I've socked a couple of guys, but I've never really hurt anyone."
"Ego te absolvo," replied Don Camillo, making the sign of the cross on his forehead. They walked slowly toward the bank and the crowd held its breath and waited for the explosion.
They climbed over the barbed wire and walked along the road, Don Camillo leading and Smilzo, at his heels, still walking on tiptoe as if in the mine-field because he no longer knew what he was doing. Suddenly Smilzo collapsed on the ground. Peppone, leading the rest of the people, picked Smilzo up by the collar as he went by and dragged him along like a bundle of rags, without once taking his eyes from Don Camillo's back. At the church door Don Camillo turned round for a moment, bowed politely to his parishioners and went into the church.
The others left in silence and Peppone remained standing alone before the church, staring at the closed door and still clutching the collar of the unconscious Smilzo. Then he shook his head, and turned and went his way, still dragging his burden.
"Lord," whispered Don Camillo, "one must serve the church, even by protecting the dignity of a parish priest in his drawers."
There was no reply.
"Lord," whispered Don Camillo anxiously, "did I really commit a mortal sin by going swimming?"
"No," replied Christ, "but you did commit a mortal sin when you dared Smilzo to bring you your clothes."
"I never thought he would do it. I was thoughtless."
From the direction of the river came the sound of a distant explosion. "Every now and then a rabbit runs through the mine-field, and then . . ." Don Camillo explained in an almost inaudible voice. "So we must conclude that You . . ."
"You must conclude nothing at all, Don Camillo," Christ interrupted him with a smile. "With the temperature you are running at this moment, your conclusions would scarcely be of any value."
Meanwhile, Peppone had reached the door of Smilzo's home. He knocked and the door was opened by an old man who made no comment as Peppone handed over his burden. And it was at that moment that Peppone also heard the explosion, shook his head and remembered many things. Then he took Smilzo back from the old man for a moment and boxed his ears until his hair stood on end.
"Forward! Charge!" murmured Smilzo in a faraway voice as the old man took him again.
Go on to chapter seventeen, Raw Material on the meaning of life website.