Fairytale at the bottom of the river

by Claudia Ravaldi

That morning was not morning. And it wasn’t even afternoon. It was that wrong hour when a summer morning feels like a winter afternoon. The Little Man with the Top Hat had prepared the equipment for diving into the Great River.

The Little Man with the Top Hat was called that because he used to go around with a top hat on his head, and lived with the Woman with long skirts, who was called that because she always wore a dress made up of many overlapping skirts, one on the other. They had lived for about a month in their home on the tip of the spit of land where the Great River met the Blue River and together they ran to the sea by the longest route.

And for about a month the Little Man had been using that extraordinary diving technique. He knew nothing about it before the boatman recommended it to him to combat melancholy. It was a kind of cure, in short, practical and economical, since it only involved the use of a special umbrella. Thanks to that tool, in fact, the Little Man was able to immerse himself in the waters of the river and come out completely dry.

“Go, go and reflect on the bottom of the river,” the boatman had said to him, as, with the last tugs of the rope, he docked the raft to the embankment.

“You’ll see that down there everything will seem clearer to you.”

The boatman was like this: years of honest profession, of passage from one bank to the other, of pirate ambushes, storms on the river, night crossings, animals, people and the first motor vehicles. He was familiar with any situation and also the ability to grasp the soul of people on the fly.

He had immediately seen that those two new ones were not just any arzadù. Something was wrong with them. They weren’t weird: too easy. Eccentrics, he said, were people who saw themselves this way: there was no need to understand them, it was enough to look at them. No, those two had a fold in the mouth turned down and two wrinkles under the eyes, of those who squeezed them every night to let out all the tears a person can produce. It was a profound stuff, he had guessed: a special pain that only those who have lost someone long-awaited could feel. There was no need to go light with the newcomers.

“Tomorrow is the birthday of the Woman in the Long Skirts,” the Little Man had told him from the top of the embankment, before setting off on the beach, that morning which was not morning. The boatman knew that all the Little Man’s thoughts were for her, but he said nothing: there are things that each one must see for himself, he thought. Occhei, he was the boatman on the Great River and as a profession he had heard so many, he knew so much about the many who came to him for the crossing. Many who talked and talked during the voyage, but his role reached up to a certain point, up to that rotten wooden pole planted a few centimeters from the shore and, from that point, everyone had to see for himself.

The boatman also knew that the horizontal distance of a crossing was enough to solve certain matters, but when that didn’t work, you had to change your strategy.

“What cannot be solved on the surface, must be solved in depth,” he used to say.

After all, at the bottom of the river: if the Little Man went there with the right disposition, he would certainly find something that could help him.

It was the only advice he could give: it was useless to insist. He let it go without saying anything else.

With the diving umbrella, the Little Man descended into the depth of the river and, as it went down, the afternoon sun, which was not the afternoon, became a blurrier and colder coin and the rays that fell straight out dispersed in squiggles in water.

Before long, darkness had enveloped everything below and the Little Man couldn’t make out much else. With his ears, however, he made out the voice of the pirate octopus. Now he rented deckchairs and umbrellas at the bottom of the river, but first he was the fearsome pirate, the scary one, complete with hook, wooden tentacle, skull tattoo and trumpet gun. An octopus at the bottom of the river: what was that? It had been a sea octopus, of course, but in the last assault on a Spanish vessel, the mast of his corvette had come down under the most effective blows of those which he intended to succumb. The wood hit him on the head and the handkerchief he wore on his head was no longer just to complete the pirate look.

“Eh, it was a lousy time,” he often said. «There were few doubloons, but above all there was a lack of respect. Ever since they invented that business there, engines, things have always gotten worse. With the sail there was more honesty: if you knew how to steer the sails and keep the ship light, you were a pirate as they commanded. With engines, on the other hand: anyone would be able to escape! I with the sail, they with the engine: I stayed here. It feels good. I recycled myself, I started this business. It’s not bad. Only the umbrellas are rented very little, in the dark ».

Even a small group of old sea mermaids had moved to live in the dark in the river: it was better for the skin. The absence of sun made the skin look charming and the salt-free water prevented wrinkles.

A few meters below, two river crabs complained of the injustice of the new navigation rules that limited lateral movement, favoring forward movement. At that rate, who knows where they would end up.

The little man, sad and thoughtful, went to settle down in the cool, in a corner between a stone and a river plant that moved its branches to the current.

“This cassis is not done properly,” someone said. A way like any other to strike up a conversation. The Little Man didn’t answer, busy following his thoughts.

“This cassis is not done properly,” he repeated aloud, to be heard. “It must be the water.”

The Little Man first looked straight ahead, but made no distinction. He looked closer into the river abyss and saw a red glow light up, deepen and finally fade and disappear.

“I said,” the voice insisted, “that this cass …”

“I understand!” The Little Man replied impatiently. “I’m temporarily blind, but hearing feels good: I’m not deaf.”

“What character!” Said the voice. “Do you have something to munch on?”

The situation distracted the Little Man from all his thoughts. He moved closer, although he had nothing in his pockets to offer. But he made out in the darkness, which had become more transparent, a table, a candle in a glass of cognac and an embers lit at the height of his nose.

“Whatever it is that gives you so much thought,” said the ember, “there is nothing that cannot be solved with a good glass of cassis … or something to eat,” he added: the guy had not yet answered the question. question about food. Maybe he hadn’t heard or maybe he was pretending nothing happened.

“No, I don’t think that’s the case.”

“Heck, what a black mood. What happens to you?”

The Little Man was neither too expansive nor too suspicious: he made his voice, disposition of character that had sharpened in the last month. Few enthusiasm, in general, and a strong temptation to close. Yet, that time, the urge to speak was stronger and the Little Man attacked, perhaps reassured by finding himself in front of a stranger:

“Tomorrow is the birthday of the Woman in the Long Skirts. It was a really bad time. First we changed the river, then … then we waited for the arrival of a flea. It was a beautiful flea, tiny and tenacious, so much so that we decided to call it La Pulce. In short, at first it had suddenly announced itself and for a while we didn’t know how to do it. But the more time passed, the more we grew fond of it and we wanted so much for it to arrive. We ran here and there to get the best treatment. We took her to the sea, read her fairy tales and even made her dance jazz waltzes. One day, suddenly, La Pulce announced that it would no longer come. Maybe we were wrong somewhere, maybe she thought she wouldn’t be okay with us. Now the Woman with the Long Skirts and I spend many hours looking at each other, unable to say a word: we can no longer speak and often our eyes get wet. As you can see, melancholy still does not leave us. “

The stranger concluded that it was best to leave the subject of food aside for a moment.

“We’ve all been fleas,” he sighed. «You were; I was too, albeit different from you. You don’t have to blame La Pulce. You may not be able to remember, but I remember all the past dangers, the thousand difficulties, the obstacles. It is an extraordinary and wonderful combination of millions of factors to make a new flea be born. They all have to fit together, but it only takes one of them to go wrong for things to get very complicated and sad. It’s a long road full of dangers. “

“You’re misunderstanding,” the Little Man interrupted. “This crease of the mouth and the wrinkle under the eyes are not the expression of someone who has something to reproach. Ours is a great sorrow that is renewed with each sad anniversary and perhaps it will never be resolved. Then the woman with long skirts is sad and I don’t like this. I tried to keep my time as intense as I could: many evenings I was out of the house, but I was always accompanied by the regret of knowing the woman with long skirts at home, alone, with her sadness. When I returned home, along the embankment, among the corn fields, I gave pearls to the moon, as it came up from the hills. “

It stopped. It seemed to the Little Man that the stranger was sniffing something, but he paid no attention to it and went on.

«One believes himself to be a man, with all his age and experience. Then comes a flea, an affair with an age that cannot even be counted, which brings together so much experience to make the man pale. La Pulce taught me many things: I will always be grateful to him. “

He thought he said it all.

“Tomorrow is the birthday of the Woman in the Long Skirts,” he resumed.

“Yes, you’ve already said that,” said the other.

“What character!”

The Little Man went further down: he wanted to see his face, that stranger who had unclogged his soul. His nostrils tingled at the more intense smell of burnt tobacco and he finally saw smoke rising trapped in oxygen bubbles that exploded just before they reached the surface.

Perhaps it was due to too strong a current that the flame of the candle inside the glass became more intense and the glow spread beyond the safety limit at which the stranger had settled in order not to be seen.

One cannot even describe the surprise the Little Man felt when he saw the first, confused features of the stranger appear before his eyes. That? Checos? What kind of stuff was that?

Since the damage was already done, thought the stranger, it was worth it. He brought his face to the candle. At first the little man saw a wet black nose emerge: it was like a T inside a V, with two holes that closed without rhythm and never stood still. Then a lot of black, bristly mustaches appeared. The stranger had the foresight to approach the candle just enough to be able to be seen, without burning them.

A dog? Thought the Little Man.

“Who are you?” He asked alarmed.

Black paws appeared on the table. The little man had never seen a dog sitting on his butt like a person at the bottom of a river drinking cassis and smoking Fortuna like a Continental Detective Agency detective, but the dog was perfectly comfortable, although he had been complaining for a while. the absence of something to put in your teeth.

“I’m La Puzza,” he said. “And I see that I need me here. I’ll go with you to the woman with long skirts. More than a pact though. “

The Little Man was left with his mouth open in amazement. He closed it as soon as he recovered from the shock and tasted the muddy taste of the river water.

“I am not and will not want to be the one who will replace what you have lost. I am not like you, but I know all too well that these matters cannot be solved with a substitute of any kind. But I know I could help the woman with long skirts become more serene. “

The Little Man had no words. Then it was decided:

“Can two meals a day be okay?”



“And at least one walk a day.”

“All right,” concluded the Little Man.

They left the table and climbed to the surface. The sun had turned red and was setting behind the mountains. They walked along the bank to where it flowed into the river and met the bank of the Blue River. There was the house and the woman with long skirts sitting on the porch. What was that thing that ran next to the Little Man? The Long Skirted Woman wiped her tears to get a better look. The Little Man saw her and they said goodbye. The dog ran to meet her and immediately demanded to play.

“Who is it?” Asked the Woman with the long skirts to the Little Man, when he had joined her.

“I’m La Puzza,” replied the dog. “And I’m hungry.”

Federico Manicone

for The Words of Love, CiaoLapo Onlus permanent literary competition, 2011

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