Meaning of Life
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Chapter Thirty-two - Everyone At His Post

      MAROLI was as old as sin, and all skin and bones, but at times he could be as hard-headed as a young man of twenty-five. When the flood became really serious, his two sons loaded all their belongings on to wagons and prepared to take their families away, but the old man refused to budge. He said as much to his daughters-in-law when they came to carry him down from the bed to which he had been invalided for some time. And the two women told their husbands to do something about it themselves, because there was no use arguing with a madman. The sons and two grandsons went upstairs to try to persuade him, but they received the same answer:
     "Here is my home, and here I stay."
     His sons explained that the whole village was being evacu¬ated because at any moment the river might overflow its banks, but Maroli only shook his head.
     "I'm a sick man and I can't stand the exposure. I'm staying here."
     The daughters-in-law came up again to tell their husbands to hurry. And one of them said:
     "Don't be silly. No sick people are being left outside in the bad weather. They're all sheltered and taken care of."
     Maroli sat up in bed and pointed a rheumatic finger at her.
     "I see now. You want to get me away from here and into an institution. For a long time you've been looking for a way to get rid of me. But I don't want to go to the hospital and die there, alone, like a dog. I'll die here, among my own things, even if I am in your way. Here, in this bed where my wife died, I intend to breathe my last. And you must bury me beside her."
     All of them together tried to persuade him, but he held fast. Finally his elder son came close to the bed.
     "That's enough talking," he shouted. "You take his other shoulder, and you two women hold his feet. We'll carry him down on the mattress."
     "Go away, the lot of you," the old man protested. But they were all around him, holding on to the mattress. A minute more, and they would have lifted it up without the least difficulty, because the old man was light as a feather. He took hold of the shirt-front of his elder son and tried to push him away, but the son was beside himself with exaspera¬tion and tore himself loose. He threw the old man back on the bed and held him down.
     "Stop this crazy stuff, or I'll bash your head in!" he shouted.
     The old man tried to free himself, but it was as if a stone were bearing down on his chest and he could do nothing but suffer.
     "Rosa! . . . Rosa! . . ." he called.
     But what was a twelve-year-old girl to do?
     She threw herself like an angry cat at the man who was pinning him to the bed, but a dozen hands caught hold of her, pushed her aside and slapped her.
     "Keep out of this, you stupid girl! Are you crazy?"
     The old man was breathless with rage.
     "You're crazy!" he shouted. "And chicken-hearted too! If her father were alive, you wouldn't dare treat me this way."
     But Rosa's father was dead and buried, and so was her mother. The father was Maroli's favourite and most promis¬ing son, and his death had broken the old man's heart.
     "We're all you've got now," said his eldest, jeeringly, "and you'll have to do what we say. Let's hurry."
     A dozen impatient arms raised up the mattress, while the heavy hands of the eldest son kept the old man still. Just then they heard Rosa's voice: "Let him go, or I'll shoot!"
     A shotgun in the hands of a young girl is more terrifying than a tommy-gun in those of a man. And Rosa was not only a young girl, but not quite right in the head as well, so that naturally enough the owners of the dozen hands (two men, two women and two boys) agreed to let the old man go. They put down the mattress and the eldest son withdrew his hands.
     "Go away, or I'll fire!" said the girl.
     They backed out of the door and when they were gone the girl chained it.
     "I'll send the police and a male nurse after you," shouted the eldest son from the stairs.
     The old man was undaunted.
     "Better mind your own business, because if anyone comes near I'll burn the house down," he retorted.
     As in all the peasant houses of the region, there was a direct connection between the living quarters and the stable. The old man's room was just above this, and next door to the hay¬loft. He had chosen this room, formerly used to store wheat, because he could look through a hole in the floor and see the animals in the stable below as well as the movements of the men who took care of them. The hayloft was full of hay, and with a piece of tow on the end of a stick he could easily have set it on fire. For this reason his threat threw the rest of the family into a cold perspiration. The old man had a shot¬gun, a kerosene lamp, a can of kerosene and a mad girl at his disposal.
     "We'll leave you alone," they called back from the stair.
     "You'd better!" he said mockingly.
     When they got out into the yard one of the daughters-in-law had a bright idea and called up to the old man's window:
     "If you choose to stay, that's your own business. But let the girl go. You have no right to expose her to danger. Let her come along with us."
     The old man was momentarily taken aback.
     "Rosa," he said, "the water's rising and there may be danger. If you want to be safe, go along."
     The girl shook her head and closed the shutters.
     "God blast the two of them!" said the bright daughter-in-law.
     And the grandsons observed that if both the old man and the girl were to perish, it would be a gain to everybody, them¬selves included. Maroli's two sons maintained a gloomy silence. But when they and their possessions had reached safety they looked in the direction of the house and the elder one said angrily:
     "This won't last forever. And when we go back, we'll have to put things in order. He must be sent to a hospital and she to an asylum."
     "Yes," said his brother approvingly. "They can't get away with it any longer."
     The old man and the girl remained alone in the house and no one knew that they were there. When she was sure that the last of the family had gone, she went downstairs, locked the doors and bolted the windows. There was plenty to eat in the kitchen and the old man told her what to bring upstairs. Finally he told her to put an empty barrel in his room and gradually fill it with buckets of water from the pump below. When evening came she was dead tired and lay down on a mattress on the floor.
     "That blessed family may come back," the old man grumbled. "You go ahead and sleep and I'll watch out for them. If I hear anything I'll call you."
     He sat on the edge of his bed, shotgun in hand, but no¬body came. The next morning the river overflowed its banks and the water rose to within two feet of the downstairs ceiling.
     "Now we can set our minds at rest," said the old man.
     Toward eleven o'clock they heard a bell ringing and the old man sent the girl to look out of the attic window. She came down after some time and said:
     "The church door is open and there's water everywhere. And there's a crowd of people up on the embankment."
     At three o'clock she went up to look again and ran down to report:
     "There's a boat going round from one house to another."
     "Rosa, if you want to go, go," the old man sighed.
     "If they come for us we'll set fire to the hayloft," she answered.
     The boat came through their yard, and the girl looked out at it through a crack in the shutters.
     "There's that big mechanic who always wears a red ker¬chief," she said to the old man.
     And a minute later Peppone called out:
     "Is there anyone here?"
     The old man and the girl held their breath, and the boat went away.
     "The family must have been scared to say anything about us," muttered the old man. "Now we can have some peace and quiet."
     Don Camillo awakened suddenly and found himself in the dark. He was so tired that he had fallen asleep in the after¬noon, and now evening had overtaken him. When he threw open the window he looked out over an expanse of water as wide as the sea, and saw on the horizon a red fringe left by the sunset. The silence was oppressive, and the memory of cheerfully lighted houses seemed very far away. Now the houses were all blacked out and the water came to within two feet of the ground-floor ceilings. The distant howl of a dog reminded him of his own Thunder. Where was Thunder now? Where had the flood surprised him? The howling con¬tinued, and now it seemed to come from directly below and filled him with a mixture of anxiety and fear. He lit the lamp, took a piece of iron and pried up a piece of the floor. There was Thunder, floating on a raft. And the raft was the down¬stairs table.
     Thunder must have been caught by the flood away from home, and God only knows how he had been saved. When the first wave had subsided he must have swum back and in through the front door. Here he would have been a prisoner had not the table left downstairs by Don Camillo provided him with a perch and safety. The water had stopped rising and Thunder waited for help from above, until help actually did come from the ceiling. Don Camillo pulled him through the hole, and Thunder shook himself so joyfully that his master was splashed all over.
     It was time to ring the Ave Maria bell. Don Camillo was of the school which believes that the old guard dies but never surrenders, and as a corollary to this he believed that the old guard should not resort to swimming for transportation. With four empty petrol tins and a big washing-board he had built himself a raft, upon which he now made his way to the church to talk on his knees to the Lord on the Cross above the submerged altar.
     "Lord, forgive me for bringing Thunder to Your house, but he is the only living creature in the village and I couldn't leave him behind. As a matter of fact, You've seen many a church-goer that's more of a dog than Thunder . . . And for¬give me for attaching my old army field altar to the bell tower and saying Mass over there. A flood is something like a war, and I feel as if I had been called to combat duty."
     The Lord sighed.
     "Don Camillo, what are you doing here?" He asked. "Shouldn't you be with your people?"
     "My people are here," Don Camillo answered. "Their bodies may be far away, but they are here in their hearts."
     "But, Don Camillo, your strong arms are inactive and use¬less, instead of bringing help to those who are weaker than yourself."
     "I can best help them by ringing the familiar bell to keep up their hope and faith while they are gone. And then, Lord, when Thunder was lost he came to look for me at home rather than among the evacuees. Which means that my post is here."
     "It's a pretty poor fellow that looks to an animal for a rule of conduct rather than to his own powers of reason. God gave you a brain to think with, not a dog."
     "But God gave me a heart, too. The heart may not reason, but sometimes it is more powerful than the brain. Forgive my heart and Thunder ..."
     Don Camillo tied up the raft below his bedroom window and went to sleep. Because of the oppressive silence, he slept for a very long time. He was awakened by the barking of Thunder, who was jumping up at the window. Don Camillo took his shotgun and without lighting the lamp peered out between the closed shutters. Someone called him, and he played his flashlight over the water below. He saw a big vat with a bundle of rags stirring at the bottom.
     "Who's there?" he called.
     "Rosa Maroli," said the bundle of rags. "Grandfather wants to see you."
     "He's sick, and wants to die like a Christian."
     Don Camillo put the girl on his raft and pushed off with a long pole in his hand.
     "What in Heaven's name are you doing here?" he asked her.
     "Grandfather wanted to stay and I want to keep him company."
     "Haven't you been scared?"
     "No. Grandfather was there. And we could see a light in the presbytery and hear the church bell.
     Old Maroli had not much longer to live.
     "They wanted to send me to the hospital to die like a dog," he said. "But I want to die a Christian death in my own house. . . . And they said I was crazy . . . yes, and that she was crazy too."
     The girl stared at him dumbly.
     "Rosa," he panted, "is it true that you're crazy?"
     She shook her head.
     "Sometimes my head aches and I can't seem to under¬stand," she said timidly.
     "Her head aches, do you hear?" said the old man. "She fell on a stone when she was little, and there's a bone pressing on her brain. The doctor told me that himself. He told me they could cure her with an operation. Then I fell ill, and the others wouldn't spend the money. . . . They want to send her to the asylum, because it hurts their conscience to see her."
     "Calm yourself; I'm here," said Don Camillo, trying to check the old man's growing excitement.
     "You must arrange for that operation . . ." said the old man. "Now, just pull my bed out a little. . . . There on the wall. . . . Lift out that striped brick. . . ."
     Don Camillo moved the brick and found a heavy bag behind it.
     "Gold!" panted the old man. "Gold coins. . . . And mine, and all for her! Have her operated on, and send her to stay with someone who can give her an education. We'll show them how crazy we are, Rosa, won't we?"
     The girl nodded.
     "I want to die like a Christian," panted the old man.
     When Don Camillo rose from his knees, it was dawn. Old man Maroli had died like a Christian, and the girl was staring with wide-open eyes at his motionless body.
     "Come with me," said Don Camillo gently. "No one will upset your grandfather any more. And no one will upset you, either."
     He took hold of a chair and with his enormous hands broke a leg in two as easily as if it were a breadstick.
     "That's what I'll do to anyone who touches you."
     Thunder waited for them, barking, at Don Camillo's window. The priest poled up to it and told the girl to go through.
     "Lie down on the first bed you find," he said, "and have a good sleep."
     Then he went over to the church and stopped in front of the altar.
     "Lord," he said, "now You see what I meant. She said her¬self that she wasn't afraid because she could see my light and hear the church bell ring. . . . And she isn't crazy. She had a bad fall as a child. The operation will cure that."
     "You must have had a bad fall as a child, too," said the Lord gently. "But there's nothing can cure you. You'll always listen to your heart rather than your brain . . . may God keep that heart of yours whole!"
     Thunder kept watch at the foot of the bed where Rosa lay sleeping. The bell tolled for old man Maroli's death, but no one heard it, because the wind carried the sound away.
     At last the big river returned to its bed and the people were busy putting their land and homes in order. A thick autumn fog hung over the drenched valley, but everybody felt the danger had passed and that, above the mist, the sky was serene. Once more Don Camillo was able to celebrate Mass in his little church. The organ notes vibrated in thanks¬giving, and from the towers of church and Town Hall the chimes echoed through the valley while the golden wings of the great angel seemed to spread over the little world.

[We hope you have enjoyed these stories. This concludes the 53 stories in two books that we have put on our website.]

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