«Natalino, what are you doing? How many grapes have you eaten?».
«Who? Me? I haven’t eaten any». Natalino comes closer at his usual slow pace.
A little smile conceals the quick movements of his tongue that he sticks out to lick off the juice, mixed with the grape pulp clotted onto his lower lip.
He stops for a while, leaning on his stick. He looks at us from behind his dark glasses and, with his free arm, uses the sleeve of his old, wrinkled jacket to wipe his wet mouth carefully. From the porch, my grandfather and his friends observe that scene and laugh.
Natalino was my grandfather’s right-hand man. They are the same age and have just turned eighty.
Wherever my grandfather was, or whatever he was doing, Natalino was right there with him. There are two pictures of them coming back from the vine pruning, on a February afternoon. I took them: one from the side and the other from behind. My grandfather is driving the tractor with his earmuffs almost over his eyes, staring firmly forward with his hands on either side of the steering wheel. He is wearing a black smock reaching down to his knees. Natalino is behind, on a cart with car wheels; some rusty bars form a sort of fence around him, in which he is free to move.
On his head, his bricklayer hat is pulled down to his temples, and he is wearing his usual cotton jacket and dark blue trousers. He has a belt around his big belly, which lifts his waistband almost up to his armpits; iron-rimmed glasses, with photochromic lenses, capable of hiding his thoughts even when the sun was high; his shoes, which one can see only in the picture taken from behind. My grandmother gave them to him the year before when, because of his open-toe shoes, he’d got pneumonia. For his clothes he could manage on his own: when the season grew colder and colder, he just increased the layers of T-shirts under his jacket.
In the winter, when there was nothing to do, they spent their days by the fireplace, keeping perfectly silent; and in the summer, in the same silence, they stayed under the porch. I often wondered what they were doing, or whether they were waiting for something. If you couldn’t find them in either of these places, you could be sure they would be eating in the shade of a tree somewhere.
Natalino loved grapes. We had a row of vines behind the barn that fixed the confines of the land, which stretched as far as the eye could see. On the other hand, my grandfather has always needed to mark his spaces with a visible boundary. Natalino, from mid-August to September, spent most of his afternoons behind that row of vines: he was sure that nobody could see him there. That really made me laugh.
Under the wire that bore the shoots one could see both his short legs and his stick. The leaves trembled rhythmically when he stretched out his hand, and stopped when he brought a grape to his mouth. Like a pair of pincers, he detached whole bunches and ate them. Every now and then, when an insect bit his tongue, he stopped for a couple of minutes. He didn’t even complain. He just waited for the pain to cease. Then he started eating again.
Natalino was the second of eight brothers. He lived with one of his younger brothers, his wife and his daughter. His father had been a rough, violent man, and the other brothers had separated like splinters, scattered after an explosion. Trying in vain to keep the fragments of his family together, sometimes he asked his niece, who lived upstairs, to take him to the furthest and remotest places of the Po Valley, just to see his brothers.
In the evening he sat on the wicker chair at the end of the dining room, turned towards the television set and with one arm resting on the table. His brother lay back on the couch, with his legs on the coffee table, and changed channels in rapid fire. Behind them, at the other side of the table, his sister-in-law looked up and down alternatively from her knitting, while keeping an eye on the whole scene.
«If you knit your sweaters yourself», she always said, «you can save money and feel warmer».
She was tall, thin, and always had curlers in her iron-grey hair.
Every morning, Natalino woke up and his niece brought him his coffee. However, for some strange reason he could never find the sugar pot.
He usually left the house at about eight, and went to the other side of the village to dump the trash. It took him forty minutes to go five hundred meters. Then he went back. When he was halfway along he went through our front gate, which was always open. Our farmhouse had seven entrances. He chose the one with nobody around, in order to go in undisturbed, and be able to pick at some food and drink a drop of the wine my grandmother left in plain sight for him. One day her sister-in-law came over and told us that we shouldn’t give him any food, that we should be careful as he had high blood pressure problems, and that they had to change his glasses because of diabetes.
My grandmother, with a deep feeling of guilt, hid the wine bottle. From then on, Natalino started to go directly down to our cellar: he looked for the demijohn with the lowest quality wine and helped himself. After all, he used to help my grandfather to decant. So he ought to know.
On a bitter cold January Sunday my grandfather and I were in front of the fireplace, removing the soot from chestnuts. My grandfather has always been a man of few words, a man who raises his eyebrows when you ask him too many questions: he has his own theories, he tells you his story, and you have to understand the meaning.
«Grandpa, how come Natalino is always hungry?».
«Why do people get hungry, in your opinion?». I hated it when he answered one question with another.
«Because they have no food to eat, huh?».
«That is not the only reason. You cannot imagine what starvation is, or hard work. That poor chap’s had a miserable life. Can’t you see that he’s lost his nose, with all the dust he has breathed in? He is so worn out that he cannot even bend his back any more».
«What has that to do with the fact that he’s hungry now?».
«You’re far too young to understand. When a person has suffered from real hunger, he would like to keep on eating for the rest of his life».
My grandfather always changes the versions of his stories, that’s the amazing thing about it. The meaning is always the same, but he moves the events, and changes the details. He’s always the one in charge.
When he was young, Natalino worked for one of those co-op societies that went from farmhouse to farmhouse to thresh cereals. They took the horse-drawn threshers from one village to another and, for months and months, Natalino lived close to the machines. The bosses trusted him. He was entitled to do the count of the corn threshed. He was also entitled to stay behind the hopper that released the grain, and in the evening he was covered with dust. The farmers knew him and gave him the food to share with his team of workers, and the keys to the huts. How many times he had not eaten for the sake of his fellows! But he didn’t want to argue: rather, he went without food.
On one Autumn day, while I was riding my bicycle, I saw Natalino picking up the persimmons fallen from our neighbour’s tree. He had to stretch over the border wall just to pick up a couple of them and bent over while holding his breath and resting on his stick. When he stood upright again, his face was red and his eyes seemed to explode behind the glasses. After that, he rested against the wall and ate four in two big bites. Then I saw him going closer to the tree trying, with his stick to hit the fruit that hung from the boughs almost breaking them.
He stretched out so far that he could almost reach them, but after a couple of failed attempts he walked away along the path leading to our farmhouse. So I left my bicycle in the middle of the road and rushed to the warehouse to fetch a ladder. Then I moved towards him. When he saw me he stopped, trying to understand what I was doing. I placed the ladder against the tree, picked four beautiful, fully ripened persimmons, and handed them to him. Natalino slightly doffed his bricklayer hat as a sign of gratitude, and devoured them quickly, without even cleaning them with his sleeve. Then he started to leave.
«Natalino, wait a minute. I’ll pick some more for you».
He shook his head. He was fine. I had just the time to turn my back, and he was gone.
Some days later, he still hadn’t shown up. I found out he had collapsed.
That morning, they had found him on the ground, near to the death. He spent a few days in hospital and then went back home. He could no longer get out of bed and the diabetes was ruining his sight. A couple of months had already gone by since we last saw him and grandfather, the lousy bastard, didn’t go to see him. I tried ordering him to go, I begged him humbly to go, and he just wouldn’t move.
Natalino died on New Year’s Eve, a week after his birthday.
I am certain it was a kind of liberation for him. He was used to suffering from birth. Being unable to see clearly was not a problem. But immobility was too much for him.
I went to his funeral with grandmother. Grandfather didn’t want to come. As soon as I entered the church I understood why.
There were five people before the altar: his niece, his brother, his sister-in-law, and two strangers. Not a trace of the other brothers.
I could stand it for some twenty minutes or so, just enough time to discover that his name was Natale Glassa. Then I went back home. Natalino was cremated. It was unknown whether this was his last will, but one thing for sure, this way, nobody had to worry about putting flowers on his image on a grave.
My grandfather sat before the fireplace and played, crushing some coal pieces with the fire tongs.
I stayed by his side for some minutes. Then he said:
«Have you seen what happens to good people? You, with your strange enthusiasm to work for or to help others».
I didn’t say a word. I took Natalino’s place beside him and waited.
Translation by Michele Curatolo (edited by Carole Watt)