In the Fog

By ADA NEGRI

Translated from Italian by LAURA MASINI, CHONA MENDOZA, and LINDA WORRELL

 

Story appears in both English and Italian below.

 

Translators’ Note:

“In the Fog” is taken from Le Solitarie (1917), Ada Negri’s first collection of stories, astute portraits of marginalized women struggling with poverty, exploitation and loneliness. Raimonda is a young woman who was horribly disfigured by a fire in her childhood. Only in the dense and murky fog of Milan, her face concealed by a “nebulous mass of vapors,” does she feel free.

We decided to work together at the close of a week-long Italian translation workshop at the British Centre for Literary Translation and we chose this story because we were captivated by Negri’s richly evocative prose. Much of our lively collaboration, helped along by Tuscan reds, seppie in zimino, minestra di fagioli and lesso rifatto, took place in Lucca and Florence.

                                                            —Linda Worrell, Chona Mendoza, Laura Masini

In the Fog

Raimonda raised the collar of the tight-fitting coat, which followed the perfect lines of her sinuous form, then wrapped the fur boa around her neck up to her nose. She slipped her hands into the muff, and with her head down, set out into the fog.

So dense was the fog, you were blinded by it. You had to cut through it like a swimmer against water. It forced its way into your mouth, into your nostrils, suffocating you. All around, houses and streets dissolved in the nebulous mass of vapors. The atmosphere of a dream. But a sinister dream, fraught with lurking dangers.

The occasional carriage advanced slowly, vague and misshapen shadows in the gloom, presaged only by the horses’ harness bells. The soft, dense blanket of fog filled every crack, muffled every sound, concealed every form.

This pleased Raimonda the most. She walked confidently, so familiar with her daily route from the office that she could have made her way home without looking. The right side of her face was horribly scarred from a bad fall onto the live embers of a fire when she was ten. Ironically, she had grown to be beautifully formed, artless, passionate, clearly made for a life of love. If only the shrivelled half-mask, which forced her mouth into a grotesque smirk, had not disfigured her irreparably.

Before her apparent gaiety, an exuberance that was excessive at times, her family and friends would think, “Thank God, she doesn’t care how she looks.” A monster cannot see how repellent it is.

They were mistaken. Not her mother perhaps, whose maternal instinct gave her more penetrating eyes. Weak and vacillating creature that she was though, she deluded herself in attempting to allay her shame, grief and remorse. 

The truth was this: outside the oblivion of sleep, in the most serious or the simplest of tasks, on her own or surrounded by others, not one moment of Raimonda’s life had been spent without her being aware of her inexorable vileness, with those terrible selfward-looking eyes that never lied. 

Which is why she kept no mirrors in her room. Which is why she donned felt hats and straw bonnets of the utmost simplicity that she could angle over her forehead without the need for hat pins. Which is why she would wrap thick floral-patterned veils around them, though they unfortunately failed to hide the mark of the fire.

Sometimes, in the dead of night, a harrowing nightmare would wake her with a start, her heart racing. She would stare in the darkness, her eyes still blind with sleep, while the unrelenting memory of the senses would immediately carve out a vision of her own face. Terrified, she knew that the shadows would vanish with the night, that the light would return, and with it the pitying or mocking or stupefied or evasive looks.

Some tragedies can seize a creature in the full bloom of its beauty and vitality, hounding and crushing as if determined to kill before leaving it in the dirt, inert but free. Slowly it reawakens, intact, comes to life and rejoices in its natural strength, breathing energy and hope as if nothing had happened. There are other tragedies—mute, deaf, constant, as relentless as cancer—from which there is no escape.

In this state Raimonda lived. She revealed only what was impossible to hide: the mark on her face.

She felt isolated. There was a barrier between her and the others that humiliated her like the taint of a crime. Between the ages of twelve and sixteen, she had heard nothing but whispers about love among her companions at the technical school. It seemed as if all those young girls doomed to life among the odors of mould in the warehouses or the odors of ink in the offices, in every one of those girls, immature and tart like unripe fruit, nothing sprouted but the desire for love. Arithmetic, drawing, physics, grammar, all these seemed no more than a pretext dreamt up by life’s hardships and their families’ will to nip in the bud the primitive instincts in those little future females, by then furtively giving name and form to their need to love and be loved.

Later, in the photography workshop where Raimonda worked as a typist and among her office companions she saw nothing but love, the illusions of love, the deceptions of love. The salesgirls, stylishly dressed in the latest designs from scraps at thirty cents a meter, braids fashionably fixed around their temples, wearing the highest of heels, eyelashes and eyelids bruised with pigment, would nervously flirt with the young men in the office. And the men would present themselves at the door, in the evening, ready to accompany them home. Currents collided, sparks flew, creating a stifling and mesmerising atmosphere around poor Raimonda, who was cut off from those joyful vibrations. She knew the natural laws of life did not apply to her and she seemed resigned to this. But deep down, humiliation, thwarted desire and bitterness coiled inside her like writhing snakes.

She had gone so far as to wish to be blind, as if being blind could hide her from other people’s eyes: like the child raising an arm to hide its face and who thinks it cannot be seen. She had gone so far as to feel at ease only in the shadows, and she wished she could always move about in the dense, swirling fog of that November evening, which gave her an unexpected and burning sense of freedom and self-assurance.

A gas lamp, with the dull red glow of a wound in the thick fog, showed her the turning from Via Solferino onto Via Pontaccio. She slid close to the walls, almost grazing them, all bundled up and content in the fog, when a male voice whispered behind her:

Signorina

She didn’t turn around but kept walking, her heart pounding. No one, but no one, had ever followed her until that moment.

Signorina

The man really was following her, falling in line with her step, murmuring other words, incoherent and sweet. Raimonda was hearing those words for the first, perhaps the only time. The masculine voice was warm and velvety, one that had an immediate effect on the senses.

With a quick turn of the head and a sideways look, she glimpsed the figure of a tall, young man whose features were concealed in the fog. That unknown man would never see her face, would never check the shudder of repugnance at the sight of the livid half mask. Thick veil, dense fog, deceptive hour, when even she could be beautiful for a man, which might never happen again. 

She said nothing, let him speak, let the unknown man draw near, so close she could feel his cigarette-scented breath on her neck.

Signorina… what’s your name? Don’t walk so fast. Tell me your name, your beautiful name. Signorina…

No audible response: rather, an uneasy consent in the silence that followed, in the pace that had slightly slowed, in the muff that had been raised to conceal her mouth and chin. The fog joined and separated them at the same time. Other shadows were passing, phantasmal black wraiths in the glow of the gas lamps, quickly swallowed in the gloom. The city of Milan was an immense sunken ship where Raimonda suffered throes of sweet agony. Revealed finally to a man, she was a woman at last, trembling with silent joy, fearing only that the hour of enchantment would end.

In Corso Garibaldi, when she realised that only one hundred steps separated her from the door of her house, she hesitated in a moment of uncertainty and silently leaned against the wall. The unknown man saw an invitation in that. He drew the young girl close to him, greedily sought her mouth and blindly kissed her through the veil.

To his great astonishment, his kiss was returned.

She was stealing love, yes. She knew she was a thief and took pleasure in it. She gathered in that moment her whole life as a woman, hoarding within it dreams and desires, yearnings for affection, outpourings of devotion, sensual excitement, the entire secret self that had no right to exist in the pitiless light of the sun.

When the hungering lips slowly pulled apart, and the seemingly endless kiss was over, the man—stupefied, inebriated, blind and dazed on the sidewalk—felt the young girl slip from his grasp like a lizard and vanish in the shadows.

He didn’t try to follow. It would have been difficult to recognise anyone a meter away. The shifting mass of vapors was growing thicker, almost solidifying.

Finding the entrance to the building by force of habit, she darted up the winding staircase—this too permeated with fog—and rang the bell of the modest home. Her mother opened the door, solicitous and concerned. Raimonda greeted her distractedly, and in a husky voice said, “I won’t be eating tonight, my head hurts. I’d like to rest, I’m sorry.”

And she stole into her room and locked the door.

On her bed, in the dark, with her arms clasped across her breasts, her beautiful eyes wide open, writhing and trembling and savoring again the taste of that solitary kiss, she curled into a ball and prayed to God that he would never take away the memory of that moment—and she wept and she laughed.

 

Nella Nebbia

Raimonda alzò il bavero del soprabito, attillato come una fascia sul suo bel corpo, di serpentina flessuosità: avvolse intorno al bavero il boa di pelliccia fino all’altezza del naso, ficcò le mani nel manicotto, e via a capo basso, fra la nebbia.

Cosí densa, cosí opaca era la nebbia, che si sarebbe potuta tagliar col coltello. Penetrava nella bocca e nelle narici, mozzava il respiro, dava il senso dell’asfissia. Vie e case scomparivano, dissolte nell’impalpabile massa dei vapori. Atmosfera di sogno. Ma un sogno sinistro, pieno d’agguati.

Si doveva aprirsi il varco a guisa di nuotatori nell’acqua, respingendo la potenza d’un elemento. Le carrozze, rarissime, avanzavano adagio, passo passo, ombre vaghe e difformi nel grigio, scampanellando dalle sonagliere dei cavalli. La coltre spessa e morbida tappava ogni fessura, attutiva ogni rumore, mascherava ogni fisionomia.

Di questo, sovra tutto, era felice Raimonda, che camminava sicura, conoscendo cosí bene la sua via quotidiana dall’ufficio alla casa, che i piedi gliel’avrebbero potuta far da sé senza l’aiuto degli occhi. Raimonda aveva la parte destra del viso orribilmente sfregiata. A dieci anni, una mala caduta sulla brace rovente del caminetto l’aveva ridotta cosí. Per ironia della sorte era cresciuta agile e bellissima di corpo, calda di sangue, chiara nell’animo, pronta nei sensi, certo creata per un destino d’amore, se l’atroce mezza maschera raggrinzita, paonazza, costringendo anche la bocca a una smorfia grottesca nel riso, non l’avesse deturpata senza rimedio.

Dinanzi all’apparente gaiezza di lei, d’una esuberanza a tratti eccessiva, parenti ed amici pensavano: «Per fortuna è indifferente alla sua disgrazia. Per il mostro non esiste la propria mostruosità.»

S’ingannavano. Non forse la madre, alla quale il senso materno dava pupille piú penetranti; ma, debole e incerta creatura, tentava, illudendosi, di sopire dentro di sé vergogna, dolore, rimorso.

La verità era questa: tolte le obliose ore del sonno, non un minuto della vita di Raimonda era trascorso senza che nel camminare, nel parlare, nel ridere, durante le piú gravi e le piú semplici occupazioni, sola o fra molti, ella non si fosse veduta nell’inesorabilità della sua laidezza, con quei terribili occhi in dentro, che non ingannano mai.

Perciò, nella propria camera, non teneva specchi. Perciò, portava feltri e cuffiette di paglia d’un’estrema semplicità, che si potessero calcar sul capo alla brava, senza aiuto di spilloni; e vi avvolgeva intorno larghe e fitte velette, a fiorami, le quali purtroppo non riuscivano a nascondere del tutto il segno del fuoco.

Talvolta, a notte alta, un incubo angoscioso la svegliava di soprassalto, col batticuore; ed ella sbarrava nel buio gli occhi ancor ciechi di sonno e, súbito, nell’ostinata memoria dei sensi, le si scolpiva la visione del proprio volto, e pensava, con terrore, che l’ombra sarebbe svanita con la notte, la luce avrebbe fatto ritorno, e con essa gli sguardi pietosi o ironici o stupiti o sfuggenti, sulla sua deformità.

Vi sono tragedie che afferrano una creatura in piena bellezza, in piena felicità, in piena azione; e l’incalzano e la premono come volessero proprio ucciderla: poi la lasciano, a terra, inerte, uno straccio, ma libera: ed ella a poco a poco si riconosce, si ritrova intatta, riprende a vivere, a gioir delle forze naturali, a respirare energia e speranza, quasi che nulla fosse avvenuto. Vi è, invece, la tragedia muta, sorda, costante, fissa, che ha l’inesorabilità d’un cancro. Non v’è scampo contro di essa.

In tale stato viveva Raimonda. Non lasciava, tuttavia, trasparire agli uomini se non ciò ch’era impossibile nascondere: il marchio del viso.

Ella si sentiva isolata. Fra il suo fluido e il fluido altrui s’interponeva un divieto. Quel divieto la disonorava come una condanna. Dai dodici ai sedici anni, alle scuole tecniche, nei gruppi delle compagne non aveva udito che bisbigliare d’amore. Pareva che in tutte quelle fanciulle destinate a guadagnarsi la vita fra l’odor di muffa dei magazzini o l’odor d’inchiostro degli uffici, in tutte quelle adolescenze verdastre ed asprigne come i frutti acerbi, non germinasse che il desiderio dell’amore. Aritmetica, disegno, fisica, grammatica, non sembravano in realtà che pretesti inventati dalla dura esistenza e dalla volontà dei parenti, per ingannare, per strozzare in boccio l’istinto atavico in quelle piccole future femmine, che già davano furtivamente un nome ed un corpo al loro bisogno d’amare e di sentirsi amate.

Piú tardi, nel laboratorio di macchine e strumenti fotografici, dove Raimonda era entrata quale dattilografa, ella, intorno a sé, fra i compagni di lavoro, non aveva veduto che amore, illusione d’amore, menzogna d’amore. Le commesse, eleganti in abiti tagliati sull’ultimo figurino negli scampoli da trenta soldi al metro, colle trecce serrate intorno alle tempie secondo la moda, con tacchi altissimi, con ciglia e pàlpebre offese dal bistro, civettavano, nervose, coi giovanotti dello studio; e trovavano alla porta, la sera, l’amico pronto per accompagnarle. Le varie correnti si urtavano, sprizzavano scintille nell’urto, creando per Raimonda un’irrespirabile atmosfera. La sua povera giovinezza era tagliata fuori da quelle vibrazioni di gioia. Per lei non poteva sussistere la legge naturale dell’esistenza. Lo sapeva. E vi pareva rassegnata; ma, in fondo, avvilimento, desiderio insoddisfatto, rancore, le si aggrovigliavano dentro come un viluppo di serpi.

Era giunta a desiderare d’essere cieca, quasi la cecità personale riuscisse a nasconderla agli occhi altrui: simile in questo al bambino che, celandosi il volto col braccio alzato ad arco, crede di essersi reso invisibile alla madre. Era giunta a non trovarsi bene che nell’ombra; e sempre avrebbe voluto muoversi fra la densa bruma che l’avvolgeva quella sera di novembre: dandole un senso inatteso e mordente di agilità, di libertà, di sicurezza.

Un fanale a gas, d’un fosco rosso di piaga nella compagine nebbiosa, le indicava lo svolto di via Solferino in via Pontaccio. Scivolava rasente i muri, imbacuccata e felice, quando una voce maschia le susurrò alle spalle:

— Signorina…

Non si volse, continuò la strada, col cuore che le martellava. Nessuno, nessuno, fino a quel momento, l’aveva seguíta per via.

— Signorina…

L’uomo la seguiva davvero, accordando il passo con quello di lei, mormorando altre parole, incoerenti, dolci. Raimonda le udiva per la prima, forse per l’unica volta; e la maschia voce era calda, vellutata, di quelle che agiscono immediatamente sui sensi.

Con un rapidissimo volger del capo e delle pupille, aveva scòrta l’alta figura d’un giovane, sfumata nella bruma che fasciava i lineamenti del viso. Quell’ignoto non l’avrebbe vista in faccia, non avrebbe frenato il brivido del ribrezzo davanti alla mezza maschera deforme. Fitta veletta, fitta nebbia, ora ambigua, nella quale ella pure poteva essere bella per un uomo: ora, che forse non sarebbe ritornata piú.

Tacque, lasciò dire, lasciò che l’ignoto le si avvicinasse alle spalle, le si serrasse dappresso, tanto da alitarle nel collo il respiro profumato di sigaretta.

— Signorina… Come si chiama? Non corra tanto. Mi dica il suo nome, il suo bel nome. Signorina…

Nessuna udibile risposta; ma un consenso pieno di turbamento nel silenzio stesso, nel passo un poco rallentato, nell’atto di alzare il manicotto fino a celare il mento e la bocca. La nebbia li univa e li divideva nel medesimo tempo. Altre fantastiche ombre passavano, larve nere apparenti nelle orbite dei fanali, súbito inghiottite dall’elemento, grigio. Milano era un’immensa nave naufragata, dove Raimonda agonizzava in dolcissima agonia, rivelata finalmente a un uomo: finalmente donna: tremante di muta felicità: solo temendo che l’ora dell’incantesimo finisse.

In corso Garibaldi, quando comprese che soli cento passi la separavano dalla porta di casa, indugiò in un istante di perplessità, si appoggiò al muro, sempre in silenzio. L’ignoto vide, in quel trepido atto, un invito. Trasse a sé la fanciulla pel braccio; cercò, avido, la bocca, senza vederla e, attraverso la veletta, la baciò.

Con sua immensa meraviglia, il bacio gli fu reso.

Ladra d’amore, sí, ella era; e sapeva e godeva d’esserlo, chiudendo in quell’attimo l’intera sua vita di donna, accumulando in quell’attimo sogni, desiderî, brividi, carezze, impeti di dedizione, voluttà di sensazioni, tutta la occulta parte di sé che alla luce spietata del sole non aveva diritto d’esistere.

Quando le ingorde labbra lentamente si staccarono, e il lunghissimo bacio ebbe, fine, l’uomo stupefatto, inebriato, cieco, rimasto intontito sul marciapiede, sentí la fanciulla guizzargli di mano con agilità di lucertola, e sparire nell’ombra.

Non tentò di seguirla. Ad un metro di distanza non sarebbe stato possibile riconoscere una persona. La massa fluttuante dei vapori si addensava sempre piú, diveniva un corpo quasi solido. Ritrovata per virtú di consuetudine la porta di casa, infilata a capo basso un’umidiccia scala a chiocciola anch’essa invasa di nebbia, Raimonda suonò il campanello d’un modesto usciolo bruno. Alla madre che, inquieta e premurosa, le aperse, mormorò un distratto saluto. Poi, con voce rauca: – Stasera non mangio, ho male alla testa, voglio riposare, abbi pazienza. – E sgusciò nella sua camera, e vi si rinchiuse.

Nel letto, al buio, colle braccia avvinte sul seno, coi begli occhi sbarrati nell’oscurità, rabbrividendo ancora per tutto il corpo, rigustando in bocca il sapore dell’unico bacio, si raggomitolò, si contorse, pregò Iddio che di quell’ora non le togliesse mai la memoria – e pianse e rise.

 

 

Ada Negri (1870 -1945) was an Italian writer of poetry and fiction. She was widely admired throughout her lifetime and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Despite being born into poverty, she received an education and worked as a teacher in rural Italy. In the 1890s she became known as la vergine rossa, the red maiden, for giving voice to the working class and for her social ideals. Frustrated by the inequities so plainly visible to her, she joined the Italian socialist party where she met Benito Mussolini, remaining loyal to him even after he formed the fascist party. Because of this, her work has been largely erased from Italian letters but is now being re-evaluated.

Laura Masini lives in Tuscany and is a former teacher of literature in English and EFL. Her translation of Matthew Lipman’s novel Mark was published by Liguori Editore.

Chona Mendoza is a teacher and translator living in Florence, Italy. Her translation of two short stories from Grazia Deledda’s Il Cedro del Libano was longlisted in the John Dryden Translation Competition in 2020.

Linda Worrell is an emerging translator, having retired from a long career in law. She divides her time between New York and England.

In the Fog

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