Note: I came across this brief tale in the anthology Novelle italiane: L’ottocento (Italian Short Stories: Nineteenth Century; 1985, Milan:Garzanti Editore; Gilberto Finzi, editor). It was written by the Italian patriot, teacher, essayist, legislator, historian, novelist, and short-story writer Cesare Cantù, and first published in 1836. I was struck by the matter-of-fact realism of this grim account of two peasant women and two children trapped in a barn under an avalanche, particularly since it was written decades before the verismo era of Italian literature. In addition, the author cleverly uses the characters of the outer story (in this story-within-a-story) to argue for a straightforward recounting of a dramatic event, which doesn’t need to be enhanced by miracles or contrived melodrama. The story is based on an actual disaster, an avalanche that occurred in alpine Italy in 1755 and which was described by the physician and professor of medicine Ignazio Somis in his treatise, published in 1758, Ragionamento sopra il fatto avvenuto in Bergemoletto, in cui tre donne, sepolte fra le rovine della stalla per la caduta d’una gran mole di neve, sono state trovate vive dopo trentasette giorni : dedicato a Sua Sacra Real Maestà (Discussion of the event that occurred in Bergemoletto, in which three women, buried among the ruins of their stable by the fall of a great mass of snow, were found alive after thirty-seven days : dedicated to his Sacred Royal Majesty). That work was translated into English and is still found in university and medical school libraries around the world. To the best of my knowledge, Cantù’s story has not been previously translated into English. —Steve Eaton

The Avalanche
“La valanga” (Cesare Cantù, 1836; translation © by Steve Eaton, 2024)
a rustic Italian town in a valley between two snow-covered mountains.

“See? It’s about the recent disasters that occurred in various parts of upper Italy, caused by these tremendous snowfalls. Collapsed roofs here, buried coaches there. In Friuli entire communities were cut off without vital supplies and left to die in isolation. In Valtellina — poor region, struck by such misfortunes these past few years — a lot of Girola’s miserable residents got buried. The village of Girola sits in De Bitto Valley, which leads down to Bergamasco. Paying a visit there a few years ago, I envied the tranquil life of those happy mountain folk — the most tranquil in the world!” Thus I spoke, showing some letters to my friend and doctor, two words that should always go together, and sound even sweeter when they’re accompanied with heart and good sense, as they were. He listened to my story, and thinking it over, asked, “Of all the unlucky people buried and left for dead, has anyone ever turned up alive?” “Actually,” I answered, “it’s happened before. And I remember reading an account from the monk San Pier Damiani. Right in Valtellina, near Chiavenna to be precise, a crag broke off and landed on top of one of those deep tunnels where they dig out soapstone for making pots, and an unlucky wretch was trapped inside. His wife, his children, his neighbors wailed over his death. And then, a year later, when they were tunneling from the other side and reached the old shaft, or ‘trona’ as they called it, they came upon the man, living, healthy, robust. Asked how he’d managed it, he recounted that every day a dove would come to refresh him with the most delectable food, except for one day, a day on which he thought he would die. And it turned out that every day except for one, his wife had celebrated a mass for his soul, which she believed was already in purgatory.” And my doctor friend? “Spare me your pious fairy tales. But astounding cases are recorded, if you look for them, of people saved, incredibly, from under the rubble. When I was in Cuneo last summer because of the cholera…” “Beautiful and generous deed,” I interrupted. “to go and confront a terrible and frightening illness in order to prevent or alleviate it, among your fellow citizens. It is a fact, that braying human pride may be forgotten, but goodness is written in the heart.” “And to be counted among the good,” he replied, “is my desire. And yours too, am I right? Well now, I was visiting poor Cuneo, where cholera had been especially vicious. When we had some moments of respite from attending to others’ disease, and their agonizing struggles to breathe, we found some distraction by searching out news and information. And, as usually happens in a catastrophe, we went from this one’s tale to that one’s, concluding that even in the worst case, you should never lose hope. Our innkeeper related the events I’m going to tell you about, which happened nearby. “Demonte is enclosed in one of those fortresses that would make you believe that Italy is impregnable to the foreigners who nevertheless still invade and oppress her. If you head from there into the upper Stura valley, in the middle of the Maritime Alps, then halfway up the road that leads to the summit of those mountains, you’ll find the community of Bergemolo on the left bank of the stream. Perhaps a mile further on sits Bergemoletto, ‘Little Bergemolo,’ a hamlet or, as those mountain folk call it, a ‘foresta’ of about a hundred and fifty souls. It’s dominated by steep slopes, which the sheep and goats climb in summer, to gnaw down the sparse grass, and where the most daring hunters would go, searching for pheasants nesting in the scraggly copses of beech, larch and myrtle. Otherwise, only some meadows, ramshackle huts, and cowsheds.” “And yet people live there, and don’t go looking for a milder climate and richer land?” My doctor: “It’s their home. The winter of 1755 had been extremely snowy. Then the blizzard came down again in early March, and was even worse from the 16th to the 19th of that month, so bad the inhabitants feared the weight might crush their flimsy dwellings. So Giuseppe Roccia, a man in his fifties, and his fifteen-year-old son Giacomino, went up onto the roof of their cottage on the 19th to sweep off the snow. The local priest, going out to conduct mass, heard a loud noise, and turning towards the sound, made out two avalanches which had split off from the overhanging mountains and were rolling down the valley, gathering more snow and getting bigger along the way, as they approached the foresta. He anxiously alerted Roccia to get down and save himself, while he took shelter in the rectory. Roccia didn’t hesitate, and got down in an instant with his son, and took off in who knows what direction, wherever instinct drove them, away from where the two flumes, now combined into one, were rushing. It wasn’t long before they turned and saw that where their home and those of their neighbors had stood, nothing appeared, neither walls nor roofs, only a mound of snow, like the funeral shroud laid over the deceased. He was so struck by grief, thinking about the fate of so many of his loved ones, especially his wife Anna Maria Bruni, his sister Anna, and his little ones Margherita and Tonino, that he collapsed as though dead, and with great effort his son managed to rouse him and take him to a neighbor’s place. The tears there, and the inconsolability of the father and his young son, I’ll leave to your imagination. But the people they mourned as dead, weren’t. They had been in the doorway of the barn, the customary shelter of mountain folk and farmers in the harshest season, and had been watching Giovanni sweep off the snow. When the priest’s cry and the rumbling alerted them, they retreated into the shed and battened the door, but wham! one, two, three waves rolled over them, forming a layer above them, as they measured it then, 35 braccia thick, 215 long and 50 wide. A braccia was about half a meter. They were enclosed in total darkness. One of the walls had collapsed, and with it the roof on that side. They thought they were done for, but to their great good luck, the main beam and the wall that supported one of its ends held, and kept the ruin standing. A graveyard silence immediately followed the commotion. The wretches listened and didn’t dare breathe. They shouted, they called, no one responded. Not a ray of light penetrated. They tried to find the door, but a wall of snow blocked the entrance. So they groped their way to the manger, curled up on some hay there, and waited for the help they hoped would arrive. They had no stove or hearth in that cavern, or any way to start a fire. What they did have were some number of chickens, a horse, and two nanny goats, one pregnant and one that had delivered two stillborn kids the day before. In the first moments of that burial, the children—the boy was five years old, the girl eleven—could only cry, and the two women could only console them and affirm that all they could do was wait until their father, their brother, their uncles came to free them. But deep down the poor women were afraid that the men had been buried too. And if no one came? How to get by? How to sustain those poor babies? Anna remembered having put chestnuts in her pocket, as country wives do, fifteen of them. She ate two and gave Anna Maria two, the children having already eaten breakfast. For thirst, they had the snow. When night came, the two children fell asleep, but the women didn’t close their eyes, passing the time by discussing their predicament. One would ask the other what they should do, and a moment later, hear the same question asked of her. They went from hope to despair and back, and finally prayed to the Lord, asked the poor dead to assist them, and made vows to the Madonna and to Saint Joseph, whose feast-day it was.” “So how,” I interrupted my friend, “were they supposed to distinguish day from night in the pitch dark?” “I forgot to tell you. Remember, they had some chickens. When they heard them all cackling together on that first day, they reasoned it was evening, and morning came, when they heard the clucking again. It was a mental association, I couldn’t tell you how precise. The fact remains that for two weeks, this was the clockwork that measured their ordeal. After that, with the animals dead for lack of feed, they had no system for marking the days. “The next day, as I was saying, three chestnuts for each child, and the rest for the women, exhausted their supplies. But then they heard coming towards them, from out of the manger they’d been in all along, the two nanny goats they hadn’t noticed, and these were a lifeline. They petted them and held out some hay, and feeling around for a suitable pot, milked those goats, and so, in the cold and dark, got through the fourth and fifth days without incident. But on the sixth day, more suffering arrived. Tonino, the five-year-old, started getting severe cramps in his stomach and bowels, going into contortions, squirming, begging for help. His mother and his aunt took turns holding him to their breast to warm him up, to breathe over him, to give him every possible comfort. But his condition worsened and…what’s the point of stretching it out? He died. “So in addition to their grief, the poor wretches had to face the specter of a horrible death, now that they’d witnessed it, and the thought that they would have to die one by one, from starvation, from cold, from bouts of sickness. And who would be next? And who would survive alone, among the corpses? “The milk extracted from the goat was too little. The severe discomfort of being curled up in the manger, which they no longer left, out of a natural feeling of hopeless lassitude, weakened their limbs. The stench of excrement, and of the little boy’s corpse, and of the chickens and the horse, nauseated them. The closed-in air, breathed many times over, became fetid and lost the expansiveness needed to fill the lungs, so that drawing a breath took great effort. They felt themselves growing numb. Meanwhile the snow, liquefying, was dripping from the ceiling and soaking them miserably. With a cauldron they found by chance, one of them covered her head; the others covered themselves with the clothes taken from the dead Tonino. But these got drenched as well and had to be thrown away. The loving mother persuaded her sister-in-law to give up the cauldron to protect Margherita, who as the littlest felt the worst discomfort, and to leave herself to God’s mercy. The hay to feed the goats was running out, and they couldn’t reach any more of it through the hatch to the loft. However, they trained the animals to get on their shoulders and climb up by themselves to look for feed. Fortunately the pregnant one gave birth, and afterwards they killed the kid to have more milk. From that event they calculated that it must be mid-April. That’s how long they’d lived cut off from their men, from light, from air, torn alive from the living. Such long days! So many thoughts! So much desolation!” “But worst of all,” I exclaimed, “must be the thought of being forgotten!” “But they weren’t forgotten,” my friend continued. “A good thirty homes had been buried under the avalanche, perhaps two hundred people killed in the region, twenty-two in Bergemoletto alone, including the priest. As soon as they heard of the disaster, mountain folk from neighboring lands came running to see if they could lend a hand, to save someone if possible, or at least their belongings. But the snow was so high they couldn’t even touch the roofs with a long pole. So they waited for milder weather, and in fact after mid-April the spring breeze began to soften the ice a little, the valley started to look like its old self. The mountain folk set to digging with greater zeal, hoping only to recover their belongings and the bodies of their loved ones, buried now for more than a month. “I’ll spare you the sensational embellishments which the innkeeper at Cuneo added to these facts, and the heart which spoke to these wretches, saying that sooner or later they would be pulled out, and a dream that revealed to Anna Maria’s relatives that she was alive, and other fantasies. Bless those who believe them. The fact remains that on the twenty-fifth of April, thirty-seven days after the ruin collapsed, Giuseppe Roccia and his son, aided by Anna Maria’s brothers, managed to uncover his own house. Then, clearing the path to the stall, perhaps a hundred paces away, they heard some groans and a plea for help. “It was the three buried souls, by now in desperate shape, who had suddenly seen a mysterious glow. At first, these superstitious rustics believed it was the little dead boy’s soul, but then they distinctly heard the clash of picks and hoes—then a cessation, then a resumption, which they reasoned to be the daily labor and nocturnal rest of those searching for them. The noise got closer and closer, and they also heard talking. Then they raised their voices, and made themselves heard. “The astonishment of everyone, hearing them and then seeing them; the relief of the husband and brothers, I leave to your imagination. The poor wretches were too exhausted to feel joy. Their limbs were stiff and weak from scurvy; the air and light stunned them. They couldn’t take food. They struggled for a long time to get better; but they managed it, and lived. And unless the Cuneo innkeeper made it up, in keeping with the practice of his trade, he heard the whole story himself from a sturdy old Margherita, mother of a legion of children.” “They must have fled,” I persisted, “far away from the site of such misfortune!” “Oh no, they built a cottage beside the rubble of the first one, and with their savior-goats they remained there for as long as they lived.” “Even after being buried under an avalanche for thirty-seven days?” “It was their home.”

Steve Eaton is a literary translator living in Austin, Texas. His translation of Gaetano Savatteri’s novel A Conspiracy of Talkers/La congiura dei loquaci was published in 2021 by Italica Press. His co-translation with Cinzia Russi of Emilio De Marchi’s crime thriller The Priest’s Hat/Il cappello del prete was published by Italica Press in 2023. His translations of some of Luigi Pirandello’s short stories can be found online, in the Pirandello Society’s Stories for a Year project. He authors the blog Garden of Eaton.

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