story by Grazia Deledda
From the collection I giuochi della vita (1905)
Translated by Anders Hallengren
According to an ancient Sardinian legend, the bodies of those who are born on Christmas Eve will never dissolve into dust but are preserved until the end of time.
Now this was the natural subject of conversation in the house of the rich peasant Diddinu Frau, called Zio (uncle) Diddinu. His daughter's fiancé, Predu Tasca, raised the objection:
"But for what purpose? To what use is our body to us when we are dead?"
"Well," answered the peasant, "isn't it a divine grace not to be reduced to ashes? And when we arrive at the universal judgment, would it not be wonderful to find one's body intact?"
"Pooh, would it really be that great?" Predu replied, looking very skeptical.
"Listen, my son-in-law," the peasant exclaimed, "the topic is a good one. Shall we sing about it tonight?"
We ought to be aware that Uncle Diddinu was an extemporaneous poet, like his father had been and his grandfather, too. Joyfully he seized every opportunity to propose a contest of extemporaneous song, especially whenever there were poets around who were less skillful than himself.
"Oh," Maria Franzisca observed, making herself as graceful as she could since her beloved looked at her, "the argument is a little gloomy."
"Shut up! You can go to bed!" the father shouted rudely at her.
Although he was a poet, Diddinu was a wild and brutal man who dealt severely with his family, in particular with his daughters. His family respected him, but they all feared him. In the presence of her father, Maria Franzisca would hardly have dared to sit down close to her dear Predu. According to the custom of engaged couples, she kept a distance from her fiancé, only to charm him more, enticing him with the lovely movements of her body, veiled in the fleecy scarlet vest embroidered with flowers, and the blazes of her turquoise-green, almond-shaped eyes.
Thus, it was Christmas Eve—a gray day, dimmed but mild since an east wind was blowing, carrying the enervating warmth of distant deserts and a humid scent of the sea.
It appeared that, somewhere among the mountains, their slopes green from the cold grass of winter, or in the valleys where the shaking almond trees prematurely bloomed, throwing to the wind the white petals of snow as if from harm, there burned a great fire, the flames of which were not seen, but which was the source of the heat. And the clouds incessantly issuing from the mountaintops and spanning the sky seemed to be the smoke of that invisible fire.
The country sounded from the ringing of feast; people, yielding to the strange Levantine wind, crowded streets and houses, gathering to celebrate the birth of Christ. Families exchanged their gifts: suckling pigs roasted whole, lambs of autumn, meat, sweets, cakes, and dried fruit. Shepherds brought to their masters the first milk of their calves, and the lady of the house returned the container to the shepherds, filled with vegetables or other things, having first carefully emptied it in order not to bring down ruin on the cattle.
Predu Tasca, who was a swineherd, had accordingly killed his finest little pig, painted it with its blood, filled it with bundles of asphodel, and sent it as a gift to his fiancée. And his fiancée returned the basket with a cake of honey and almonds, giving a scudo of silver [5 lire] to the woman who brought it.
Towards evening, the young man came to the house of the Frau's and pressed his young lady's hand. She blushed, radiant with joy, and withdrew her hand from his grip; but in her palm, hot from the amorous squeeze, she found a gold coin concealed. In the next moment, she went about the house discreetly showing Predu's beautiful present.
Outside the bells chimed joyfully, and the east wind spread the metallic sound in the tepid damp of the dusk.
Predu wore the splendid national costume of medieval origin, a blue velvet vest and short black woolen coat finely embroidered, an ornate waist belt of leather, and filigree buttons of gold. His long black hair covered his ears and was carefully combed and greased with olive oil; and since he had already had some wine and anisette, his black eyes beamed, and his red lips burned in his black beard. He was as sound and handsome as a rural god.
"Bonas tardas," he said and sat down close to his father-in-law at the hearth, where a log of holly was burning. "May the Lord grant you a hundred Christmases! How are you?"
"Like an old vulture that has lost its claws," the wild, aging farmer replied. Then he recited the famous verse:
S'omine cando est bezzu no est bonu... (When the man gets old, he is good for nothing.)
This way they got on to the legend about people born on Christmas Eve.
"Let us go to mass," Uncle Diddinu said.
"When we get back, we will enjoy a good supper, and then we shall
"We can sing before, too, if you want."
"Not now!" Diddinu replied, striking the stick on the stones of the hearth. "As long as the holy eve lasts, it must be respected. Our Lady suffers the pains of delivery, and we may not eat meat, nor may we sing. O, good evening, Mattia Portolu! Please be seated and tell us of the others who will come. Maria Franzisca, pour out well! Bring these little lambs something to drink."
The young lady served her fiancé; and when she bent beside him to give him the glass, which scintillated as a ruby, he became drunk with her smile and her looks. In the meantime, the newcomer told of the friends who were to arrive.
The women were already busy at the hearth in the center of the kitchen, preparing the supper. On the one side of the four stones enclosing the hearth in the middle of the floor, the men were sitting; on the other, the women were cooking. Half of the pig that Predu had sent as a present was already roasting on a long skewer, and a pleasant odor of food filled the kitchen.
Two old relatives arrived, two brothers who had never married because they did not want to divide their inheritance. They looked like two patriarchs with their long hair curled over the large white beards.
Then came a blind young man, who groped about the stone walls, on the beat of his thin stick of oleander.
One of the old brothers took Maria Franzisca around the waist, pushed her towards the fiancé, and said, "What's the matter with you, little lambs of my heart? Why are you as distant from each other as the stars of heaven? Hold your hands, embrace..."
The two young people regarded each other, burning with desire; but Uncle Diddinu raised a thundering voice:
"Old ram! Leave them in peace! They do not need your counsels."
"I know, and nor do they need yours! They will find ways to be their own masters."
"If that were to happen," the peasant said, "I would have to drive away that young man as the wasps are driven away. Fill up, Maria Franzisca!"
The young woman extricated herself from the arms of the old man, a bit affronted.
Smiling and adjusting his woolen cap, Predu said, "Well, thus we may neither eat nor sing nor do anything else... but drink?"
"You can do anything you wish, because God is grand," the blind man murmured, seated beside the son-in-law. "Glory to God in the heavens and peace on earth to all men of good will!"
And so they drank---and how heavily!
Predu alone barely bathed his lips at the hem of the glass.
Outside the bells were ringing. Songs and cries of merriment were carried by the wind. Toward eleven, all rose to attend the midnight mass. In the house only the old grandmother stayed, who in her youth had learned that, on Christmas night, the dead return to visit the houses of their kinsfolk. For this reason, she performed an ancient rite: setting out a plate of food and a clay jug of wine for the dead. And that custom she followed this Christmas, too. As soon as she was alone, she got up, brought the wine and the food, and put it on a ladder outside the house, which led from the courtyard to the rooms upstairs.
A poor neighbor, who was accustomed to the old woman's practice, accordingly climbed the ring wall of the farmstead and emptied the plate and the jug.
As soon as they all had returned from mass, the old and the young merrily assembled for supper. Big sacks of wool were put on the floor and were covered with homespun linen tablecloths.
In great yellow and red clay containers smoked the maccheroni made by the women, and on the wooden chopping-board, Predu skillfully sliced the well-done pig. All sat on the floor, on mats and bags; a powerful flame crackled on the hearth, throwing a red light on the faces of the guests; the scene seemed Homeric. And how they tippled!
After supper, the women had to withdraw, as was the rigid wish of the host. The men sat or lay down around the hearth and began to sing. All faces were scarlet, their eyes languid but lucent. The old peasant began the contest:
Duncas, gheneru meu, ello ite naras,
Chi a sett'unzas de terra puzzinosa...
"So, my son-in-law," the old one sang, "tell me what is best: to be reduced to seven ounces of despicable earth... or to find our body again intact on the day of the universal judgment?"
Predu adjusted his cap and responded.
"The topic is dead serious," he sang. "Let us think of other things and sing the praises of love, celebrate pleasure, and 'sas Venus hermosas' [the Venus-like beauties] in song, and other graceful and delightful things."
All, except the old peasant, applauded this pagan stanza. The old poet was annoyed and replied in verse that his opponent did not want to answer because he did not feel himself capable of dealing with the highest subjects.
Then Predu once again adjusted his cap and answered, all the time in Sardinian verse:
"Well, since you really want it, I will answer you. The argument does not appeal to me because it is sad; I do not want to think of death on this night of joy and life. But since that is your wish, I say to you: it is of no importance to me whether our body remains intact or is dissolved. What are we after death? Nothing. The essential thing is that the body is healthy and vigorous during life, so that we may work and enjoy... nothing but that!"
The peasant retorted. And Predu objected over and again, always embracing the pleasures and joys of life. The two old siblings applauded it; even the blind man gave signs of approval. The peasant pretended to get angry, but at heart he was content that his son-in-law proved to be a good poet. That foreboded a continuation of the glorious traditions of the family!
But even as he tried to demonstrate the vanity of the pleasures of the body, Uncle Diddinu drank and urged the others to drink too. Towards three o'clock in the morning, all were drunk; only the blind man, a formidable drinker, and Predu, who had drunk very little, had preserved their clarity of mind.
But Predu had been inebriated by his song, and as the hours passed, the memory of a promise Maria Franzisca had given him made him tremble with joy. Little by little, the voice of the singers became weaker; the old one began to stutter; the young man pretended to be sleepy. Finally, all dozed off; only the blind one remained seated, silently nibbling at the rough knob of his cane.
Suddenly, the rooster sang in the
Predu opened his eyes and watched the blind man.
"He does not see me," he thought, raising himself cautiously; and he went out into the yard.
Maria Franzisca silently came down the outer ladder, and fell into his arms.
But the blind man knew that someone had left and gone outside; he thought it was Predu. He did not move but only murmured: "Glory to God in heaven and peace on earth to the men of good will."
Outside, the moon still ran behind diaphanous clouds, and in the silvery night, the east wind carried the scent of the sea and the warmth of the desert.
Original courtesy of the Deledda Madesani estate.