Augusto still has his good legs and good lungs, or so it seems; and this simple assessment offers him a bit of satisfaction. The trick is not to think of that climb as a concrete, unitary undertaking, because, very simply, it isn't. Deal with it one stage at a time, step-by-step, experiencing it like a chain of small, very simple acts, knowing that sooner or later the summit will be reached and that the view from the top will be worth the effort.
For him, climbing the Asinelli Tower always remains a discovery, even though he is one of its most regular visitors. He must have been about twelve years old when he went up there for the first time, accompanied by his father. From then on, whenever he happened to visit Bologna, he never failed to consider it as a confirmed date, right and proper. And then once he transferred to the city for his university studies, he hardly ever let a week or two go by without giving in to that challenging yet equally rewarding diversion—even in defiance of that tradition whereby students close to graduation should avoid going up there if they did not want to risk jeopardizing their degree. But, actually, no. No, he did not graduate in the end, although the reasons were certainly not to be found in the spectral forces of the tower, but rather in his own erratic nature, his feeble motivations. Still, that's all now ancient history. And when Augusto finds himself again breathing that close air that tastes of dust and shadow, testing the reassuring smoothness of every single step and of the handrail, and feeling the freshness of the ages on his skin, he truly has no further interest in all that was. In these moments, the mirage of the view from up there becomes the only thing that matters.
He takes a break at each landing, approaching the narrow windows to enjoy the vision of the city becoming smaller and more distant each time. And, of course, before attempting the next flight, he waits in case he hears the steps or voices of other persons coming down. Whoever is descending has precedence; it is a rule that always needs to be respected, and especially there, with those tight, narrow passageways.
From the voices and heavy breathing arriving from just above him, he can almost envision the individuals in the group descending, and he is seldom wrong. Here, in fact, a little girl of about five or six appears. Blonde hair, cut in a bob. In her left hand, she holds a Barbie doll, while her right is tightly clasped in her mother's. The father behind them seems rather portly, and he stares at each and every step with a show of disregard before setting a foot uncertainly down upon it.
"Can you make it, Carlo?" the woman asks without turning around.
The man manages to direct an uneasy grin toward the back of her neck, and chuckles slightly. "And why shouldn't I make it?"
"Because you're fat!" the little girl sings out, and the mother bites down on her lips.
Augusto cannot help but smile as he keeps close to the window to give them as much room as possible. But then when the man passes nearby, he turns casually to admire the basilica of San Petronio so that his grin cannot be viewed as disrespectful. The fellow leaves an acrid odor of sweat behind him, and Augusto can imagine just how much effort it took for him to rise to this challenge.
A few seconds more and the family disappears among the shadows, swallowed up by those flights that always give the impression of being steeper on the way down.
He resumes his climb, and in doing so, he realizes that he has lost count. There are a little less than five hundred steps, and Augusto has gotten into the habit of enumerating them mentally, one-by-one, each time he sets his foot down. Counting them allows him to coordinate his location within the building, something he finds reassuring. Now, however, he's aware that he has lost track. Perhaps because of the distractions, of all the futile thoughts that lurk inside his head like uninvited guests. When he is inside the tower, he should think about nothing else but going up. The fact that he does not remember which step he has reached bothers him a little, but neither can he allow that essentially minor setback to spoil the experience for him. And so—adjusting his breathing and lending sufficient muscular force to each stride—he reaches the next landing.
There, a pair of lovers are standing in front of the narrow window, whispering to each other. Perhaps they are commenting on the view from that middle height; or, more likely, they are exchanging sweet thoughts. She, her long black hair tied into a pony tail by a small red ribbon, is holding tightly onto a camera. The young man, having wrapped an arm around her hips, strokes with a finger the edge of a diamond embroidered into the argyle pattern of her sweater. Augusto prefers not to distract them, and pretending to be too deep in thought to notice them, he approaches the next flight, and breathing deeply that air heavy with the aura of a thousand temperaments, he resumes his climb.
He wonders, idly, how many persons have tramped over those stairs through the years. It probably would be possible to get an idea of it, but only from the day a tower visit required a ticket. And before? Augusto listens to the soft creaking of the steps and reflects on the complete futility of such considerations. But the climb is long and the mind needs to be stimulated. From one landing to the next, the shadow comes to meet him, caressing him, and every soft rustling sound around him raises evocative echoes; on occasion, it almost makes him feel as if he is under water. So many times, he has wondered if certain ideas that have captivated him as he walks up are really his, or if his mind hasn't simply drawn from the sea of thoughts that were born and growing there inside and, somehow, remained attached to the walls like frayed spider webs that cling to your garments.
Other people are coming down. At once, Augusto quickens his pace a bit to arrive at the next level just in time to give way. Three young Asian men. Japanese tourists, surely. Talking softly and chuckling, they shake their heads as if continually nodding. Maybe they are politely acknowledging him. Augusto, smiling, imitates them. When the three vanish among the shadows—those shadows that siphon inescapably downwards—their voices and their incomprehensible words blur into a confused chatter that flows like handfuls of gravel along an underground pipeline.
Augusto shifts over to the landing's window and watches as the city unfolds beneath him into a myriad of roofs, domes, and pinnacles, fading into a hazy distance where the hills and the mountains delineate a scarred and unsettled horizon. But there is still no comparison with the view that awaits him at the top of the tower, where ecstasy and vertigo enchant, cajole, and corrupt. You need to be made of stone to avoid surrendering to fantasies of omnipotence up there, to avoid being captured by the suspicion that nothing really matters and that all truth is revealed only behind closed eyes, while lungs and soul are filling up with an emptiness capable of consoling every wound.
But he has to continue on if he wants to arrive before nightfall. And so he starts moving again, step-by-step, heartbeat-by-heartbeat.
He still recalls, naturally. It was in the early seventies. Such a time . . . of ignorance and stupidity. How could it have crossed his mind to lie about such important matters? He must have been insane. She would never get over it, never. And still, he had to stand by what he had done. Like anyone else, when correcting a mistake is no longer a viable option. It was inconceivable that all that lying would not come to light, sooner or later. But he had done it all the same. He had lied, for a good two years. To his parents.
Six or seven exams he had passed at the university, no more. Those following . . . well, he had only talked about those, inventing a succession of good grades, grades that obviously would have brought him a worthy degree in literature and philosophy. A nice satisfying achievement, right? Money and days flying by, just like that, without yielding any harvest. Like steps fading behind . . . .
And now another three persons are coming down.
Augusto stops at the landing and gazes at the blonde child with her Barbie doll clutched in one hand. Her other hand is held firmly by her mother, while the father, a little top-heavy, plods along after them. They are bickering, quietly. The girl is accusing her father of being fat, and Augusto turns away to keep from laughing in the man's face.
Only when the family group is swallowed up by the flight from which he had just emerged, does he then resume his climb.
It was in 1973, he recalls. In the middle of the fall. When such a flight was still possible. The following year, in fact, they decided to install all the appropriate safeguards around the tower's summit, so that no one could jump again. He must have been one of the last, if not the very last, to do it. He should have felt honored.
The two lovers had been speaking in front of the window, their silhouetted figures almost vibrating from the love that united them. The girl seemed unsure about whether to take a photo from halfway up or to wait for a more expansive panorama, one worthier to be immortalized. Augusto would like to tell them something, but he doesn't feel like interrupting that moment of intimacy. The girl turns slightly for just a moment, as if she had heard footsteps or sensed a cold draft across her shoulders, but then she goes back to staring dreamily at the city below, while her young man continues to fondle her hip, affectionately running a finger along one of the argyle sweater's embossed diamonds.
The sun is always there, low on the horizon. Evening comes slowly.
And then Augusto sighs and resumes his climb, step-by-step, wondering when he will ever manage to reach the top once again.
In Italy, Nicola Lombardi has published the novels The Gypsy Spiders, Black Mother, Night Calls, The Red Bed, The Tank and Strigarium, as well as seven collections of stories since 1989. In addition, he has published novelizations from the films of Dario Argento (Profondo Rosso and Suspiria) and translated works by Jack Ketchum, Seabury Quinn, Charlee Jacob, F.B.Long and many others for the Italian market. In 2021 UK's Tartarus Press published his collection The Gypsy Spiders and Other Tales of Italian Horror. Full bibliography at www.nicolalombardi.com.
J. Weintraub's work includes fiction, essays, translations, and poetry along with dramatic works produced in the USA, Australia, India, and New Zealand. His translation of Eugène Briffault’s classic gastronomic text Paris à table: 1846 was published by Oxford University Press.