Giovanni awoke in a coffin, to a tiny sawing noise like bone scraped upon wood. In the gradual awareness of consciousness, he did not immediately realize where he was or how he had gotten there. He did not open his eyes. He did not move. He lay oblivious to sensation. If this were death, then he was not initially alarmed.
But consciousness, like the thief who steals in the night, cast its rapacious eyes his way, and under its gaze he sensed a measure of concern about his dark, closeted environment. His hands lay still, two dead weights upon his chest. His feet he could not feel at all. His resuscitation had achieved particularity in some points and obliteration in others, so that his legs remained paralyzed even as in his fingers he detected the faintest tingling, which quickened over the minutes and forged a path towards his wrists. He wriggled one finger, then another. Some sensation returned to his palms, his wrists, and his forearms and, with that knowledge, he discovered that his hands were tied – and wasn’t that odd if this were death?
But there went his brain again and he couldn’t stop it, sailing over the horizon and into sleep once more. This time he dreamed that the gate in the sea wall opened to him of its own accord. The roof of the high old house reposed in shadow but, as he watched, the dawn forged a path across the ridge cap and at once the tiles lit up like autumn leaves. With the sparkling new day the Bora had ceased and Giovanni saw his father waving a greeting from the kitchen window. Relief coursed through him as he realized that everything was all right, after all. He smiled and waved back, but a distracted look had crossed the old man's face and from inside Giovanni heard the dog bark. His father peered down and said, 'There you are, Gilda! We were so worried.' Then he turned to Giovanni. 'Nice to meet you. A pity you have to go, but I have something for you.' He grappled within the room, pulled out a poker from the range and began to scrape it against the windowsill. Though it looked far away, it sounded very close and Giovanni was unable to resolve the paradox. Scrape, scrape, scrape.
I've got to get out of this dream, he thought. He shook his bound hands and stretched them upward.
Immediately they collided with a low lid and, when he shot out his left elbow, it hit wood. Oh, God. Quickly he rolled his head to the right and realized that, barely beyond his ear, there was a void. Yet, even as he welcomed it, such a cascade of dizziness overcame him that he was forced to lie back and let it pass. He waited in the cozy prickle of his wet wool suit until he detected wounds burning in his thigh and shoulder, a throbbing neck and a roaring headache from that crash onto the rocks – now he remembered what had happened. He’d suffered an injury outside his home and here he was, lying fully clothed in a coffin with three sides. It all made sense! That noise that scraped and slid, as muted as a shovel into a grave, as persistent as a funeral bell. That sweating stink that sank into his lungs like corruption. Like a carcass that was returning to the earth.
Surely I have not been left alone with the dead!
Still too frightened to open his eyes, he eventually realized that he felt warm. If he were buried he would be cold, would he not? Vaguely, out of the fug in his brain, he perceived a rushing sound and a sense of movement. Perhaps it might even be that the walls vibrated and, very distantly… Could he hear an engine churning out a monotonous clunk?
Slowly and methodically, Giovanni forced himself to breathe in time with its rhythm, and imagined at each pulse the blood rushing through the wound in his thigh and on, to his knee. As he breathed he felt his calf, then his ankle and finally he imagined that life was returning to his feet, encased in wet socks and boots – and tied also!
At last it was that clunk piercing his skull, that persistent scraping and the odd combination of warmth and moving cold that persuaded his eyes to tremble apart. He unglued one eyelid and through the lashes saw a faint amber, trembling against one wall.
It’s not a grave, he marveled, for what grave ever throbbed and glowed? Therefore, I have not been buried alive. If there is a mechanical source of sound and a light source, it means that men are behind the creation of this sphere.
This calmed him somewhat while, in his more hopeful frame of mind, the overwhelmingly putrid smell – even though it was still there –now seemed tinged with something sharper. Something he had smelled from time to time along the thoroughfares of Florence and even on the farms of rural Istria: diesel. That smell at last convinced him. He opened both eyes completely and now he could tell that he was certainly in a machine of some sort that, with its throbbing pistons and dim lights, seemed to him like an industrial Dante’s inferno.
He strained his neck into the void and looked around. To the far left of his vision he saw a passage branching off towards the source of the light, so narrow that there was space for only one man to pass. To his right was blackness. Above him, beyond the confines of his niche ran pipes, and the low ceiling along which they lay seemed no higher than he was. The shadowy, shrunken room pressed in on him: a rank, suffocating, claustrophobic enclosure. For a moment, the discovery of diesel had quieted him, but now Giovanni, biology teacher, nature lover, felt the rise of panic.
He heaved himself up until his head brushed the board above him and by the clotted light flickering against the hem of his trousers he observed a large rat filing its front teeth on his boot - scrape, scrape, scrape. With a gasp of horror, he kicked his legs until his knees slammed into the wood above him.
‘Va via!’ he yelled. ‘Go away!’
The rat plunged from its perch and disappeared. He heard its claws scrabbling for purchase on the floor below him.
Heavy steps sounded from down the disappearing passage and suddenly it seemed that five or six men stood directly in front of him, with more behind whom he couldn’t clearly see. With their arrival, the source of the stench was immediately obvious. Unwashed bodies, diesel, human waste, the glorious stench of young manhood, decayed dinners, and the rat. The whole lot had accumulated in the slim bunk upon which he had been laid, which they had probably all slept in. Even the metal ceiling with its dimly outlined pipes seemed to reflect and intensify it, and the walls pressed it in upon him like a dark cocoon.
The men themselves did not seem to flinch under the sour reek, but the years spent among the Florentines had honed Giovanni’s natural fastidiousness. The smell was so overpowering he felt barely able to breathe. As much as he tried, he could not stop wrinkling his nose in disgust.
Rather than look offended the men laughed.
‘You’re in a pig boat,’ said one, a huge man, older than Giovanni and twice as heavy, who had to stoop to avoid knocking his crown on the ceiling.
He spoke the rough Italian Giovanni had heard on the docks of Trieste, and his human words, the laughter and the attention, broke the spell. Giovanni calmed down, realized he could breathe, took a gulp of air. The tiny room expanded.
He examined the remaining men. They were all young except one. At a quick reckoning they might have been much the same age as his students, some smooth-cheeked, others on the verge of manhood, overgrown and resolute. All of them were curious about him rather than wary, knocking against each other in the small space, their back row digested by the gloom.
The exception stood with his arms folded across his chest and his eyes focused on Giovanni with the direct stare of authority.
‘What’s a pig boat?’ Giovanni asked him because under such scrutiny it seemed scarcely permissible to ask anybody else.
‘No room to wash in a submarine,’ replied the man.
Nobody spoke. Giovanni didn’t speak either. Silly, really, not to talk, but it couldn’t be helped. It was as if he had relinquished control of himself, and his claustrophobia dissipated as he was held to attention by the man with the commanding eyes.
Giovanni peered out from his prison. The man seemed to be of medium height but stocky, with a strong upper body, dark hazel irises, a short sparsely graying beard and hair of the same salt and pepper. Though the floor shifted with the movement of the boat, he maintained an experienced stillness and, if anything else were necessary to proclaim his profession of seaman, above blue military trousers he wore a loose, collared shirt like the fishermen of Cittanova. Nevertheless, Giovanni had the impression that he would look exactly the same whatever he wore because his mere presence demanded one’s attention so much that it would render any clothes unremarkable.
Even as Giovanni lay prone before him something in the tremor of the boat caught the man’s attention. His eyes lost their fixed gaze.
As they released Giovanni, his former panic abruptly returned.
‘Let me out!’ he cried, for he felt that the ceiling was falling on him and the walls were contracting. ‘I can’t breathe. Please, let me out!’
He twisted his legs violently towards the weakly lit corridor and only succeeded in tilting halfway off the bunk when the weight of his dead feet and wet boots dragged him into a sodden pile on the floor. At the level of his eyes stood a dozen pairs of sea boots ornamented in a paisley pattern of mold in white, green and orange.
The captain – for what other term could be used to describe him? – growled some command to the men crammed so tightly into the miniature room that their shoulders rubbed together, and one, producing a sailor’s knife, cut the ropes tying Giovanni’s wrists and ankles. Then he retreated, as shy as a child, without assisting him further. The huge man who had first addressed him scowled at the sailor, shoved two meaty hands under Giovanni’s arms and hoisted him to his feet.
Giovanni swayed weakly, clutching his spinning head until he overbalanced backwards and hit his shoulder on another shelved bed stacked above the one on which he had been lying. Three bunks lay on top of one another almost to the ceiling, which he could have brushed with his head by standing on his toes.
‘Thank you.’ He looked down. ‘Where’s the rat?’
‘Plenty more where he came from.’
‘In a submarine?’
There was no reply, either from the crew or from their intimidating leader, though Giovanni sensed that the young men were waiting for the man to speak first. He began to feel as restrained as one of his students. Any hope he might have had of striking up a conversation in this foreign world seemed destined to be disappointed. He tried again.
‘Is this the navy?’
The captain seemed to find this entertaining and his closed manner softened enough to permit a restrained amusement.
‘For you we’ll term it the People’s Navy.’
‘The People’s Navy? You’re a patriot? A pirate? A spy? Yet you speak Italian. What does that make you?’
‘We choose to speak to you in the Italian of the Austrian docks. That’s all you need to know.’
‘Then you come from Trieste? I thought the submarine base was at Pola.’
‘That’s where he stole it from,’ countered the huge man.
‘Don’t shoot us in the foot, Zorko, any more than you have already,’ returned the captain while the slightest indication of emotion entered his voice. It may have been frustration but Giovanni could equally have called it anger. ‘Let’s say I borrowed a submarine for the occasion.’
A ripple of mirth spread through the men.
From the rear Giovanni observed a knuckle pushed into a palm accompanied by a muted sound like surf on a beach, a parody of an explosion which required little interpretation. A wind of fear raised the hairs at the back of his neck. They were all watching him, standing before them in his suit and tie, twisting his wrists like a nervous secretary and biting his lip. A shudder knotted his shoulder blades, an urge to gulp the fetid air instead of breathe it, and with it came a compulsion to talk. As he gained momentum Giovanni realized that he sounded like a man devoted to his family, who rarely had the occasion to be anything but neatly dressed and whose temperate wit was appreciated in academic circles. Which was what he was.
‘You stole a submarine? That’s innovative and, if the consequences don’t bother you, I have no problem with it but, if it was me, I would consider them first. And could you tell me why I’m here, please? I’m no threat to you. My parents were upset because the government changed their name. Did you know that? My father is seventy-one. What’s the point at his age?’ He swiped a rim of perspiration from his top lip. In a second, the hot prickle returned. ‘So I told them I’d just step out for half an hour to clear my brain, and they’ll be wondering where I am. Do you want money? I’m only a teacher. I don’t have any. I work in Florence. I was visiting my family. Do you think you could take me home or drop me off somewhere convenient? I promise I won’t say anything incriminating and I don’t mind a walk.’
‘No. I told you. I was visiting my family.’
The group regarded this wordlessly while a wave of recrimination seemed to pass through them. After the minutes of restrained silence, the younger crew commenced speaking rapidly amongst themselves in a language Giovanni didn’t understand but recognized as Slavic. Clearly they were discussing him and not looking very happy about it.
The captain stood listening while they argued and interrupted each other, and the set of his jaw tightened with the emotion Giovanni had earlier detected until the sides of his mouth strained like a dam about to burst. At length he slammed his hand hard against the pipes above him and swore in the same language his crew were using.
The chatter abruptly stopped. The captain rounded on Giovanni.
‘Giovanni Di…..um, Micatovich.’
‘A teacher in Florence?’ broke in Zorko. ‘That’s not your real name.’
‘I just said the government changed it,’ insisted Giovanni. ‘But it is my real name. I studied in Graz when Istria was Austrian. I fought for Austria during the War, not Italy, but now Istria’s Italian I have to find work here – in that language. I’ve taught in Florence for eight years.’ He rushed a breath. ‘And, anyway, what’s wrong with being Italian?’
Zorko spat on the floor in front of him.
‘Fascist,’ he said.
‘Fascist? I’m not a fascist!’
‘You look Italian.’
‘But I’m Istrian! My name is Micatovich, with a ‘k’. My mother’s name was Matjašić. Very Slavic,’ he insisted with more confidence than he felt. ‘I’m on your side.’
Zorko leered close with his enormous dirty face. ‘And which side is that?’
‘Well, weren’t you speaking in a Slavic language just then?’
‘Yes, and which one was it?’
When Giovanni stumbled for an answer, the captain nodded to his crew.
‘We can’t let you go now,’ added Zorko. ‘You know too much.’
‘I don’t know too much!’ cried Giovanni. ‘I don’t know anything except that I’m sure I’m here by mistake.’
The captain refolded his arms across his chest.
‘Yes, you may be,’ he acknowledged, ending cryptically, ‘It would be wise not to be so well dressed next time.’
‘Or the same height,’ Zorko chimed in.
‘You’re impatient, Zorko.’
‘It was dark,’ remonstrated that man.
And, thought Giovanni absurdly, someone as big as you has no need of language to get your point across. I’m half your size and look how prone I am to illogical speech in desperate situations.
‘I really must escape this dreadful machine,’ he explained out loud while they squabbled tersely and the walls lurched in on him. ‘Point me to the exit, if you please, right now.’
The captain seemed not to be one for debating for he welcomed Giovanni’s prim request in order to turn away from his quarrelsome companion. He asked pertinently, ‘Can you swim?’
‘We’re halfway down the coast, Giovanni Micatovich. Until I work out what to do with you, you’re stuck here.’
Giovanni tried once more.
‘I need to get away from the rat.’
‘Yes, so do we.’ He turned to leave. He was losing interest. ‘The best thing for those who don’t like confined spaces,’ he observed in passing, ‘is to look down, not up.’
‘And then you’ll see that rat as well,’ Zorko said with a wink.
The captain allowed the younger men to go out before him, the courtesy of rank forbidden by the cramped enclosure. Then, with that rolling walk that seamen acquire from keeping their balance in rough seas, he finally retreated back down the narrow maze until his shoulders dissolved into the gloom.
With his departure hopelessness settled upon Giovanni. He sat down on the bed and stared at his boots, pulled at his trousers where the damp fabric clung to his skin, loosened his tie. He discovered that he had lost a cuff link, so he checked and removed the other one, laying it as carefully as a treasure in the deepest pocket of his trousers lest he lose it as well and by so doing unwittingly deposit a little part of himself in this tomb. He hoped that he had lost the first cuff link in the water by his father’s house where it would be free. The thought quickened a note of nostalgia in him and a faint smile washed a little of the sadness from his face. It dropped swiftly away and, as he watched its descent, there, en queue, was the rat. Its wicked little eyes had been watching him from its small corner the whole time.
He leapt up and stumbled after the men.
‘Wait!’ he cried. ‘Don’t leave me here!’
But he was overtaken by further dizziness and such a surge of nausea that he had to stop, holding his head in his hands, breathing harshly, fighting the urge to vomit. And one of the young men noticed. Shaking his head and clicking his tongue as if he were Giovanni’s mother, he put a hand beneath his arm and guided him back to the bunk, laid his head on the pillow and waited until he settled. Then he handed Giovanni a wrench.
‘If the rat worries you,’ he said kindly, ‘belt him with this.’
Amazon.com: His Most Italian City (9781946409942): Walker, Margaret: Books