Reticence THIS MORNING there was a dead cat in the harbor, a black cat that was floating on the surface of the water.
It was straight and stiff and was drifting slowly along the side of a boat. From its mouth dangled a decomposed fish head with a piece of broken line about two inches long coming out of it. At the time I had simply imagined that this fish head was what remained of the bait from a discarded fishing line. The cat must have leaned into the water to catch the fish and, as he grabbed it, the hook caught in his mouth and he lost his balance and fell.
The water of the harbor was very dark where I was standing, but from time to time I suspected there was a procession of fish, mullets and wrasse, passing silently below my eyes, while on the bottom, among the pebbles and algae, thousands of wriggling fry worked over the gutted remains of a decomposing eel. Before setting off again, I lingered a moment longer on the pier staring at the dead cat still drifting in the harbor in a very slow back and forth movement, first to the left, then to the right, following the imperceptible ebb and flow of the current at the surface of the water. I had arrived in Sasuelo at the end of October. It was already autumn and the tourist season was coming to an end.
A taxi dropped me off one morning, bag and baggage, on the village square. The driver helped me undo my son’s stroller from the roof-rack of the car, an old 504 diesel that he left running and that continued to hum slowly in place. Then he pointed in the direction of the only hotel in the area, that I was familiar with since I had already stayed there. I left my bags near a bench and set off in the direction of the hotel with my son who was installed in his stroller in front of me and paying no attention to anything around him, absorbed as he was in the contemplation of a toy seal that he turned over and over in his hands examining all its seams and releasing for the occasion an imperturbable burp as naturally as a prince.
At the entrance of the hotel flowers lined a little flight of steps at the top of which opened double French doors, and I took the stroller in my arms to climb the steps. I had scarcely pushed open the door when I found myself facing the hotel manager who was bent over the tile floor with a rag in his hand and who lifted his head suspiciously to eye the stroller that I was holding in front of him. Not knowing where to set it down since the floor seemed so clean and well maintained, I kept holding it in my hands and asked him if it would be possible to have a room for a few nights, three or four nights, perhaps even a little longer, until the end of the week, I wasn’t quite sure. In a way it was in order to see the Biaggis that I had gone to Sasuelo, but up until now, held back by a sort of mysterious apprehension, I had put off visiting them, even avoiding the vicinity of their house when I went for walks in the village.
Already on the day of my arrival, still thinking that I would drop by as soon as I had checked into the hotel, I had endlessly postponed going to see them and had stayed in my room all afternoon. Two days had now passed since my arrival and I was beginning to be surprised that I hadn’t run into them in the village, even if I had been careful to take the direction away from their house each time I went out. One evening, however, when I had stayed late in the dining room of the hotel after dinner, I finally made up my mind to pay them a visit that I imagined would be very brief, just to let them know I was here. I remained a moment longer at the side of the road looking at the house, and I was getting ready to go back to the hotel when I noticed a mailbox on the iron gate at the entrance. It was hanging unsteadily in the darkness about waist high, attached to the grillwork by a piece of twisted wire.
Although it looked dilapidated, the mailbox was locked tight and it resisted when when I tried to pull down the little metal latch. I didn’t force it, and slipping my fingers into the opening, I had no trouble taking out the six letters that were in it. I examined them for a moment absentmindedly, noticing that they were all quite recent–the oldest was postmarked October 24–before I put two of them that seemed to be advertisements back into the box, and kept the others, slipping them into my pocket. Among the four letters, I had obviously immediately recognized my own that I had mailed in Paris a few days earlier. I could easily have left it in the box, but it seemed to me that it perhaps served no purpose–not now, in any event–to leave behind a letter announcing my arrival in Sasuelo. Making my way to the harbor the following morning, I noticed that the old gray Mercedes that had been parked on the square the previous evening was no longer there, and I couldn’t manage to figure out how long ago it must have left, because in my memory it had remained parked on the village square the entire day.
I even remembered that I had seen it the night before when I left the hotel. It was overcast again this morning, and some vast threatening clouds darkened the sky above the village. The dead cat was still there in the harbor, floating in the gray water a few meters from the edge of the pier. It must have been bobbing to and fro like that all night in the same limited space, gently bumping against the hulls of the boats, set adrift again between them without ever straying farther out to sea.
The prolonged exposure to the water didn’t seem to have altered its condition very much. There was still no trace of decomposition on the body, no visible lesion except for the skin of the right ear that now showed gashes an inch or so long, the fur most likely having been shredded by crabs, leaving exposed a little patch of raw skin, pale and fragile, drained of blood. What struck me, however, looking at it more closely, was that the piece of fishing line and the fish head that were hanging out of its mouth the day before had disappeared, as though someone had gone to the harbor during the night in order to take them away. When I got back to the hotel, I climbed the small lattice door of the garage that opened onto the road and crept silently down to the terrace.
I had been careful to leave the sliding glass door open behind me when I left, and I was getting ready to go back into the hotel through the dining room when I realized that someone had closed the door behind me while I was out. I tried to slide it open from outside by pressing my hands against the glass, but it wouldn’t budge, and I was suddenly seized by fear, wondering for a second whether the person who had closed the sliding glass door was unaware that I was outside, or whether it was someone not staying at the hotel who had closed it deliberately to prevent me from getting back in. Someone who was thus still in the village at this moment, who had just spied on me while I was at the harbor and who was still spying on me now. Someone who very likely went out every evening and who had possibly noticed me one of these last few nights walking along the pier in the same moonlight as tonight, exactly the same, with the same black clouds gliding across the sky. Someone who again this evening had waited for me to leave in order to close the glass door behind me so he could be sure that I couldn’t get back in. Someone who was there now a few yards behind me, still in the night behind a tree trunk on the terrace.
Biaggi. This someone was Biaggi. I had lain down and remained sleepless, my eyes open in the semi-darkness. My son had fallen back to sleep as soon as I laid him down and was breathing softly in his bed. Through the open design on the thin wall of his bed I could make out his tiny body curled up on the mattress. I heard no sounds outside, and each time I closed my eyes now, I saw obsessively the image of the dead cat in the harbor, his ears standing upright out of the water, his whiskers translucent, the body upside-down in the gray water floating heavily on the surface, and before long there was another image that I had already seen appear before me without my realizing it: the image of Biaggi’s face staring at me.
Then it was Biaggi’s whole body that I saw, Biaggi’s body floating on his back in the harbor, immobile with arms outstretched, dressed in a pea-jacket and linen trousers that had slid lightly up his calves, his shoes and socks already completely soaked. He had a necktie around his throat, torn apart, and his head had rolled over to one side, a discolored cheek partially submerged in the water. The tie was not knotted around his neck in the usual manner, rather it was floating freely over his shoulders like a scarf, and red marks could be seen at the base of his neck, slight but unmistakable strangulation marks, such that in all likelihood Biaggi must have been strangled with this necktie. Biaggi had been strangled one of these last few nights on the harbor pier with this necktie by someone who had joined him there during the night.
Someone who had come up on him from behind in the same moonlight that is identical every night, always exactly the same, with the same black clouds that glide across the sky. Someone who had slipped his tie around his neck, his own tie that he hadn’t taken off and that was still tied around the neck of his shirt. Someone who had then begun to pull it tight while Biaggi’s hands tugged at his wrists to make him let go, but who did not let go, but continued to pull tighter in the night fleetingly lit by the lighthouse of Sasuelo Island, the long luminous beam of the lighthouse of Sasuelo Island that intermittently illuminated the attacker’s face while he continued to pull tighter and tighter, to the point where he was strangling himself a bit too since the necktie was still tied around the collar of his shirt. Someone who had held fast and who continued to pull with all his strength until the moment when, at almost the same time, the tie gave way, leaving only a torn cloth stump at the collar of the attacker’s shirt, and Biaggi let go, falling on the wharf with what remained of my tie around his neck–a light kick was all that was needed to push the body into the harbor.