Nobel Prize-winning weird fiction of a secret midnight rite.
⁓The Voice before the Void
translated from the Italian
They lived at the further end of the little village, one of the strongest and most picturesque villages among the mountains of Logudoro; indeed, their dark and tiny cabin was actually the last of all, and it looked straight down the mountain-side, overgrown with thick clumps of broom and mastic.
From her spinning-wheel in the doorway, Saveria could look upon the sea in the far distance, on the extreme horizon, where it blended with the sky that in summer was of platinum and in winter massed with clouds. Sewing beside the window, she could look down upon a measureless succession of valleys stretching away to the foot of the mountains; and she could scent the warm fragrance of the golden harvests, billowing in the sun, and listen to the downward leaps of the dashing stream as it raced between the crags and tangled undergrowth of the mountain-side. In that dark and tiny home, its roof covered with red and yellow moss, and overshadowed by an ancient arbor, through many a gala day of azure skies and silent limitless horizons, Saveria had led, for two years, the happiest life imaginable, beside the young husband with big, ardent eyes, whose lips were like the berries of the heather amid which he led his flocks, the only wealth he had. He too, from the hour that he had married the little lady of his shepherd dreams, had lived most happily; but now at the end of these two perfect years, a light cloud had appeared upon the serene sky of their existence. Saveria had given him no offspring, nor was there any prospect that she would do so. He had so often dreamed of a fine little rascal, as brown as himself, who, as soon as he had mastered his legs, would follow him up and down, through wood and valley, helping him in the weary work of shepherding; a fine little rascal who, later growing into a stalwart lad, the joy and hope of the old folk, would marry and in his turn transmit their name and the descendants of their flocks to another, and so on and so on, through centuries upon centuries! All of Antonio’s ancestors had been shepherds; and it was his dream to pass that honor on; but how was he to do so unless an heir should come?
Every resource had been tried; vows, nine days’ prayers, pilgrimages. Antonio went on foot, hatless and unshod, all the way the celebrated sanctuary of the Madonna of Miracles, at Bitti, and paid for a procession and a solemn mass, and promised to give as many pounds of decorated candles to the Madonna as the future infant should happen to weigh. But it was all of no use. Saveria remained slender and charming as ever in her yellow corsage and embroidered skirt, and the home was not yet blessed with the shrill cry of the dreamed-for child, nor with the mother’s lullaby accompanied by the creaking of the cradle.
It was a very sad situation. They had already abandoned the last hope, when one day a friend of Saveria came to see her, and after the first greetings, said to her, making a profound mystery of it:
“So you really didn’t know, Comare Sabé? Peppe Longu has been telling me that the reason you and your husband have no children is because–”
“Because what?” asked Saveria, eagerly, with her eyes at their widest.
“Why, because–” the other continued, lowering her voice. “The Lord preserve us, but you know quite well that Peppe is a sorcerer of the first quality, at least so everyone says, — and he himself has told me that the reason you have no children is because of one of his magics!”
“Libera nos, Domine!” exclaimed Saveria, laughing and making the sign of the cross. Like all the young women of the village, she was superstitious and believed in magic, and on one occasion she had even seen, with her own eyes, a white phantom wandering through the mountains: but that Peppe Longu, however much of a sorcerer he might be, could possess such power, — oh, that was a little too much! But the other young woman insisted, taking offense at Saveria’s incredulity, — and she said so much that she ended by convincing her.
After an hour’s gossip beside the fire, on the embers of which Saveria had placed the coffee to boil, she was so firmly convinced of Peppe’s magic that she asked her friend, very soberly:
“And — tell me, could he not undo it, this work of the devil?”
“No, he couldn’t do that! He told me so. He couldn’t do that! It seems that he has a grudge against your husband!”
At sundown, Antonio came in sight at the far end of the rocky road, mounted on his small black horse, with his saddle-bags swollen with new cheeses. While he was unloading his harvest under the arbor, Saveria told him the whole story: he found nothing in it to laugh at; but knitted his bushy brows, contenting himself with shaking his head. And when everything was put in order, horse and saddle-bags and cheeses, Antonio sat down, cross-legged, before the hearth, and had the strange news repeated all over again.
“But what on earth can Peppe have against you? Why is he taking such a cruel revenge?” Saveria questioned at last, profoundly serious.
“Nothing!” answered Antonio. “Unless it is because I have always made a joke of his magics!”
“That is bad! Didn’t you see for yourself how he destroyed the locusts that were ruining Don Giovanni’s vines? And those of Jolgi Luppeddu?”
“That’s true, so he did! — But, — we shall see! Tomorrow I will talk with him.”
“Oh if he would only undo the magic!” exclaimed Saveria.
That night the young couple dreamed once again of a fine, dark-eyed, dark-haired boy; but on the morrow, in spite of all the prayer Antonio could make, the village sorcerer refused absolutely to remove the enchantment.
He was a rather mysterious character, that sorcerer. He lived precisely like any other man, yet he never did any work.
The truth is that, besides the public magic of which he boasted, such as destroying locusts and curing sick sheep simply by a few mysterious words, for which he accepted no recompense whatever, he received many a nocturnal visit. No one, however, paid heed to this, and it was generally believed that the spirits which he had at his command furnished him with money and provisions that never seemed lacking in his wretched hovel. But perhaps Antonio had his own ideas on the subject because, when he saw that all his prayers and even his threats had no effect, he betook himself one night to Peppe, and promised him a bright golden louis, if he would at last take off the fatal magic.
At first Peppe turned a deaf ear, and even showed himself as scandalized as an artist who has been asked to do something in violation of his ideals. But when he had actually seen the glitter of the louis, obtained by the shepherd who knows whence, he yielded little by little and cried:
“Very well, I will do it! But only out of friendship and pity for Saveria. Because you yourself do not deserve it! You have always mocked at me!”
Antonio protested at this; whereupon, Peppe instructed him to go the following night to a lonely spot up on the mountain, bringing with him an unloaded rifle, a white tablecloth, and two candles. Antonio left the money with the sorcerer, and promised everything; but when he found himself alone again on the dark road, he shook his fist at the ramshackle hovel he had just left and sneered:
“We shall see!”
The following night he was the first to arrive at the appointed place. It was an ugly, precipitous spot, rendered fantastic by the saffron light of the setting moon. Throughout the serenity of the night not a breath of air was stirring and the flowering briars, the red honey-suckle, and the wild hyacinth exhaled their fragrance upon the mysterious silence of those moonlit crags.
The shepherd placed upon a rock the rifle which, according to Peppe’s instructions, he had not loaded, laid beside it the tablecloth and the candles, and then waited. Peppe did not delay long. His first words were, “It is just the hour; it is midnight.” He spread the tablecloth upon a stone, large and bare, and isolated from the others, stuck the candles in the ground, and made the shepherd stretch himself out full length for a moment, face downward.
When Antonio rose again, he saw that the candles were lighted and the rifle laid across the tablecloth.
“Let us begin!” said Peppe.
And straightway he began to act a thousand pantomimes, which Antonio followed with lowering eyes, and a scornful smile upon his lips. He felt more than ever in the mood to ridicule the sorcerer; but imagine his cold horror when Peppe, facing the stone that was covered with the tablecloth, questioned it in a strange language that was probably meant to pass for Latin, and the stone answered, in a plaintive, lugubrious voice, seemingly issuing from the ground, and in the self-same tongue! At the same time, the candles went out, of their own accord, without the wind blowing or Peppe bending over them. On the contrary, he had turned towards the shepherd, who was shaking like a reed, and said to him:
“The rock has given answer that the gun must tell us whether the magic has been lifted or not!”
“How can it do that?” questioned Antonio, who had partly pulled himself together at the sound of the sorcerer’s voice.
“Your rifle is unloaded?”
“Yes, I swear it!” exclaimed the shepherd.
“Well, then, take it up and fire into the air; if the gun goes off, that is the sign that the spell has been lifted.”
Antonio, who had been prepared to take part in all the other marvels in the world sooner than this particular one, took up his rifle and fired. — Peppe fell to the ground without emitting a single groan, and with his heart pierced by a bullet. Instead of firing into the air, Antonio had aimed at him.
After his involuntary crime, — involuntary because, in spite of everything, he had not believed that the rifle would go off, — the shepherd’s first impulse was to flee the country; but then he reflected that no one knew anything of this night’s work, so he folded up the tablecloth, took the candles and the rifle, and made his way back to the village, clambering over the bare rocks, so as to leave no footprints behind him, and passed the rest of the night tranquilly beside his well-loved Saveria.
Incredulous as ever in the matter of spells, the stout-hearted shepherd with the big, ardent eyes could never explain to himself how that stone had spoken, how those candles had put themselves out, or how that unloaded rifle had shot Peppe. In the course of the year, however, he had the joy of taking in his robust arms a fine little rascal, of whom Saveria made him the father. Thereupon, he repented bitterly of having failed to fire in the air; but being unable to bring the sorcerer to life again, he was forced to content himself with having a mass said for the dead man’s soul in the little church among the mountains.