This is not Chekhov’s seagull (which, it turns out, is not even a seagull), but a seagull belonging to a different Anton, the popular Italian author Anton Giulio Barrili. It was first published in a collection of his stories, Uomini e bestie, racconti d’estate (Men and Beasts, Tales of Summer, 1886). Racism plays a central role in this story, racism Italian style: the superiority assumed by relatively fair-haired, fair skinned Italians over their darker compatriots, an attitude tinged (isn’t it always?) with erotic fantasy. (There is also a geographical component, northern Italy versus Sicily and the south, although in this story all the characters hail from the same village on the northwest coast.) This brand of prejudice was lent legitimacy in the nineteenth century by respected pseudoscientists such as Cesare Lombroso, who claimed to prove that darker southern Italians were intrinsically inferior. What, if anything, the story reveals about the author’s own views on the subject, I will leave for the reader to decide. The hunting for food and commerce of ortolans, a small, migratory songbird, continues today, though it is banned under EU law. —Steve Eaton

The Seagull
“Il gabbiano” (Anton Giulio Barrili,1886; translation © by Steve Eaton, 2024)
cupid aiming an arrow at a seagull.

I

He loved to reminisce, and I was quite happy to stay and listen. Afterwards I’d take out my notebook and write it down. We were often together during the day, and then always at night, which in those days wasn’t yet made for sleeping. With him, and with Angelo Mariani, what times! He used to call them, poetically and accurately, “the sacred hour of friendship.” But then he was capable of devoting all twenty-four hours of the astronomical day to me, forgetting the maritime insurance and charters which tried his patience daily, in his old age. And he was old by then; his sixty-plus years made an odd contrast to my thirty two. That only lent a new, more intimate aspect to his friendship, plainly marked by a wise, protective, almost fatherly tenderness. No one, not even in my youth, not even in my adolescence, made me feel as childlike as I felt with him, and…well! He’ll never make me feel that way again, having left for those parts where things are so good you no longer want to come home. He was a handsome fellow, with his white beard, fine and flowing to his chest in Mosaic rings, his pretty sky-blue eyes and snow-white complexion, vivid red lips, and short, straight nose with delicately shaped rosy nostrils, like the nose of an elegant young lady. He was handsome into his sixties; but since the age of twenty or twenty five he no longer cared about outward beauty. He wore a jacket and trousers of whatever color, but no vest, either in summer or winter. I saw him in a vest only once, because the thermometer had dropped to a few degrees below freezing, and he never put on flannel. By contrast, he never took off his very fine floppy hat, set at a jaunty angle. He used to say, laughing, that he liked to sleep in it too, being determined to appear with his head covered in any situation. It was believed that he wanted to conceal a premature baldness, but there was no truth in that opinion. He no longer had the thick forest of golden hair of his youth, but he still had plenty, as I had occasion to see, the one time he lifted his black hat with joyful spontaneity. A friendly, open soul, he was noble in thought and feeling, with certain peculiarities all his own. Hot-headed by nature, he sometimes flew into a rage. But he instantly regretted it, and he treated anyone he thought he’d wronged with the tenderness of a woman in love. I’ve told you about his reminiscences, and they were full of stories and anecdotes, since he had traveled widely. Quite a few of his memories have already guided the imagination of your humble servant. He was certainly my collaborator a few times, especially in seagoing matters such as shipbuilding, voyages, rigging, and the steering of old ships that I had to get underway. There is, in White Thrush, a certain pirate scow, which cost me half a day of scribbling, and him a week of thinking, to recall how to set the sails of that boat, and another week of conversations with old sea wolves, to pick up any scraps I might use. He was my Captain Dodèro, and I regularly dedicated to him the stories in which that spirited narrator took part. Now that he’s dead, I’m glad to speak his true name: Tommaso Marchesani.1 Captain Dodèro was born (as required by government records) east of Genoa, in the vicinity of Quinto al Mare. The Dodèris all came from a village hidden between two shoals, behind the three hills of Albaro. The curving beach appeared to our ancient ancestors as a wide-open mouth…but why the mouth of a certain braying land animal, instead of something aquatic and silent? I’ll disregard the reasons, and simply mention that the modern residents have Italianized the name of their village to Boccadasse: the mouth of an ass. However they like to call it, it’s a small and charming cluster of homes under the sun. It’s so near the beach, that once an English ship, having misread its map and mistaken Boccadasse’s harbor for the entrance to the port of Genoa, got stuck with its bowsprit in the dining room of another Captain Dodèro, punching through the far wall, and along with the wall, a nice Venetian mirror. Tommaso Marchesani, on the other hand, was born to the west of Genoa, in the small but very noble town of Loano. There he lived for many years, in the intervals between his ocean voyages and stays in Genoa, where as a boy he learned the essentials of sailing, witnessed the first uprisings of liberal Italians, and even participated, without much comprehension, in the storming of the residential palace of the governor, Des Geneys, the proud admiral who had appointed his personal barber as doctor on a warship. Now, about my Tommaso Marchesani, I’m going to tell you a story today as I heard it from his lips “in the sacred hour of friendship,” that is, from midnight to five in the morning—one of his briefest, yet most intimate tales. Main characters: him of course, a woman, and a seagull. How the seagull enters into it you’ll easily see, when I get there. Meanwhile you’ve already guessed that it has to do with young love. The woman who inspired it is still alive, a grandmother now for thirty years, and a great-grandmother for ten. I beg my friends in Loano, should these pages fall under their gaze, not to read them to her. The lady Caterina Carli, née Rocca, might take offense at my blabbering and leave me out of her prayers.

II

And so we’re in Loano, city of the sun, and of the great Doria and Fieschi families. It bears upon its crest a castle with two towers and an egg upright on the battlements. Where did the egg come from? Most probably from a similarity between the sound of the town’s original Ligurian name and the Ligurian word for egg. In the local dialect, Loano is “Loeua” (“Loeu” in French, then you add an “a”). “Egg” they call “oeuvo.” And that’s all you need to make up a story about a monastery built on the hill, which had a chicken coop on the beach, where the chickens would lay their eggs in the sand, and every so often the friars would go to collect them. Nonsense, as you can see! But as often as I’ve laughed at this etymology, I can’t come up with a better one. In Loano fifty years ago, diversions were few, and the young men split their time between the loggetta and bird hunting. You know what birds are. The loggetta was, and still is, a room on the ground floor, a little store really, usually rented, haphazardly furnished, with a table in the middle, a dozen chairs around it, a jug in one corner, a tray with twelve glasses in another, a deck of cards, and four or five newspapers, subscribed to depending on the tastes of the members. There, in the heat of the day, you played card games like briscola, passed judgement on public figures, ministers, and mayors, and ruminated on the diplomatic maneuverings revealed to a friendly newspaper by an obliging ambassador. Young and full of fire, my Tommasino couldn’t sit still. European politics barely interested him, and briscola not at all. He was more inclined to put in a brief appearance at the club, grab his hunting rifle, and go hiking up the mountains. On just such a day, coming back from the hunt… But here I need to make an aside. Loano is a town stretched out wide, formed by two rows of houses which run (or stand, you might say) between three roads: the biggest one in the middle, one on the mountain side, and one along the harbor. The houses which face the harbor have two entrances, one on the main road, the other on the harbor road, in front of the beach, where the fishing boats are pulled up onto land, and where every so often (just to stay in practice) a two-master is being constructed, and maybe a larger ship. The families, even the town’s most affluent, spend their days in some rooms on the ground floor, humbly referred to as storerooms, maybe because the Loanesi, who are mostly merchants, keep olive oil in those rooms, or grain, or wine, or scraps of cloth, or hardware, or other kinds of goods, depending on their trade. Next to the storeroom is the office (for the men), the workroom (for the women), the dining room, the kitchen, and the pantry. They live in those rooms, and receive the visitors who enter freely from one side or the other. Only in the evening, when the social calls are done, does one take the famous oil lamp of brass or silver to the upper floor, and go to sleep. Now that you have before you a map of the place, let’s return to our blond friend, coming down the harbor road on his way home, the rifle strap across his chest. The sky had covered itself in clouds; damp, cold air was blowing in from the south, and curls of whitish foam ran across the sea, a vast surface of deep blue starting to turn ash gray. “And again, the sou’wester,” muttered the youth, after giving the sky the quick and confident glance of an expert sailor. “Even the seagulls are drifting onto the shore.” It’s a habit of seagulls to head for land when the wind picks up, perhaps because the little fish they dine on, hounded by the waves, come onto the beach. That morning our hunter had trudged five or six miles of road, in mountain and valley, without seeing a wren. The seagulls were flying within range, dropping slowly on one side and rising on another. The temptation was great, for a hunter who still hadn’t had occasion to fire a shot. Tommaso, as unhurried as the flyers who seemed to be daring him, lifted up his rifle. What an odd whim, you say, to shoot at seagulls! All very well in days past, when sea birds were eaten, and in English kitchens were even considered exquisite morsels. But we’re talking there about baby gulls; the ones who flew screeching over Tommaso’s head were already adults, and I would say were almost of voting age, if that delight of modern man were granted to gulls. But a hunter doesn’t always observe such trivialities. Or maybe out of spite, as I’ve said, or to test his skill, Tommaso placed the butt of the rifle against his cheek, aimed at the seagull flying furthest over land, and let the hammer fall. Frightened by the unusual noise, the seagulls flew off, disappearing towards the sea. But one of them, though trying to follow its mates, was struggling to fly, and after a few seconds of useless effort, plummeted, shrieking desperately and beating its long, pointed wings in the dust of the road. The hunter ran to take possession of his victim, and realized he’d broken a wing. The poor seagull was still young, judging by the grayish speckles on its white coat. Its sharp, narrow beak opened and closed spasmodically, and its little eyes, with gold irises, watched the hunter with a strange expression of pain and fear. There Tommaso was, kneeling in the dust. The hunter’s satisfaction was succeeded by a deep sense of pity for the little suffering animal. He wanted to help it, but didn’t know where to begin. Just then, a shop door opened, and a girl appeared in the doorway. “Buon giorno, Caterina!” he said, looking up at the sound and recognizing the girl. The titles of Signora and Signorina were out of use in those days. Everyone, men and women of all classes, spoke to each other with familiarity, and the name you were baptized with was good enough for conversation. You’re in a town where everyone gets to know each other without much effort, or any effort at all. From infancy, men and women had played together on the beach, or in the alleyways. Growing older, they barely looked at each other, and it was quite rare to exchange words on the street. Caterina Rocca, dark and quite beautiful, with eyes as black and deep as the night, didn’t even bother to respond to the greeting. “Poor thing!” is what she said, in a tone of compassion for the seagull and reprimand for the hunter. “You wounded it!” “It upsets you?” asked the boy. “Sure it upsets me! What did that poor seagull ever do to you? You’re all alike, with your craze for hunting!” At that point my friend would have sent his rifle to every last devil. With no better option, he made do by standing it in a corner between a wall and a chicken coop, which was placed in the sun by the store entrance. Then, going to a nearby shop, he got himself a bit of tar, which he applied to the seagull as a sort of bandage on the wing joint, where it was bleeding. “Let’s see if it makes it!” he exclaimed. “I’d give an eye to take back what I did.” “Bravo!” said the girl, in a sarcastic tone. “Keep it for crying, like the crocodile after it eats someone.” “Good lord, you make me sound like such a monster! I beg you, Caterina, give me something, a rag, a little padding, to let this poor little thing rest on.” Caterina Rocca immediately went back into the store, grabbed the first scraps of cloth that came to hand, and brought them outside to make a bed for the patient. The seagull let her work without moving around much. Caterina stroked it gently and laid it on its cushion next to the coop. Tommaso picked up his rifle and said to the girl, “Forgive me, Caterina! I’m taking this gun home, where it will stay for good!” “Hah!” she exclaimed, gazing at him with her big black eyes. “I swear I’ll never go hunting again, I won’t shoot another seagull, or any other kind of animal.” “You better not,” she said curtly, bidding him farewell with a nod of her head.

III

That day my Tommaso was in a sour mood. He made an appearance at the loggetta, where English politics and the “multilateral peace traitory” were being discussed, but he didn’t participate in the dispute, not even to throw in a joke, as he sometimes did. “Feeling all right?” his friend Giuseppe Carli asked him. “Come to the jug of friendship, and we’ll drink.” “No, Pippo, thank you, I’m tired from the hike, I’m going home.” He did leave, as I’ve said, but he didn’t go home. He crossed the main road, turned down an alley and posted himself behind the wall of a garden by the harbor, famous for the vines whose branches covered an arbor forty meters long. From there he could see the coop and his victim’s bed. He also saw good Caterina, who had come out of the doorway and was bending over the patient. But he got scared of being seen by her, and quickly slipped away towards the river. Then he went back into town, and this time he really did go home, where he kept reciting a sort of “Our Father” made up of swear words. Over a seagull, you say! Yes, and also over the displeasure of having been caught in flagrante de hunting by Caterina Rocca. Was he, perhaps, in love with her? No…he’d noticed her a few times in passing, or on religious occasions, on the road up to Monte Loreto. Caterina Rocca was dark and beautiful, as I’ve already had occasion to tell you, but at first he hadn’t been especially struck by that beauty. Hers wasn’t the loud, plump sort of beauty that hits you in the face and makes you think of the Madonna from the paintings. Plus, she dressed very simply. She had a one hundred thousand lira dowry, and went to mass on Sundays, with a silk kerchief tied under her chin. But that morning, seeing her there in front of the store, with her pretty face colored by such sadness…well, I’ve told you he was in a sour mood that morning and I don’t believe there’s more to add. That night he slept little, and poorly. And such dreams he had! Imagine him seeing a priest, in surplice and stole, standing before the main altar of the parish church. He enters the church dressed in black; Caterina Rocca comes to his side dressed in white… But a seagull flies between them, shrieking in pain and beating its bloody wings. And Caterina vanishes, along with the priest. Damn seagull! That morning he ventured as far as the beach. The sou’wester had blown out, pushed back by the north wind coming down through the Toirano and Ranzi passes. The sky was calm, the sun splendid, the air warm and impregnated with a fragrance stolen from the orange groves in the hills. Tommaso left the beach, turned right as far as the garden of endless vines, beat a retreat, cursed himself five or six times, and finally went back on the offensive. Just when his courage was about to desert him, he lost the chance to run away. Caterina Rocca appeared in the doorway, and she was looking at him. “Buon giorno!” he said, approaching her. “Buon giorno!” replied the girl. “Well?” he continued. “How’s the poor little fellow?” “Take a look at him there,” she answered smiling, though not at him, still unworthy. Tommaso walked up and saw the patient, struggling to drag itself to the feed tray of the chicken coop. “He wants to eat,” continued the girl, still smiling in sympathy with the seagull. “A good sign, right?” “Of course it’s good, just like you’re good.” “And you’re bad,” she quickly retorted. Tommaso remained stunned for a moment. “Do I speak or not?” he was asking himself. Finally he took courage, and as she was watching the gull, which was sticking its sharp beak into the feed tray, he murmured in her ear, “Do you really hate me, Caterina?” His confession given, he trembled, awaiting his penance. Caterina turned, slowly raised her big black eyes, looked at him with an air of astonishment, and replied, “I honestly don’t know.” It might seem to you like an evasive answer. But Caterina’s expression was serene, her tone calm. All of the warm tranquility of that sunny day was reflected in her words. Tommaso felt an unaccustomed lightness descend upon his heart. Just to do something, he bent down to stroke the seagull. “Don’t touch him!” she said, batting away his hand. “Don’t touch him yet!” Yet! Sweetest of adverbs, heavy with vague promises! The youth thought about it all day…and the following night,

Until the new sun came into the world.2

The story of the seagull had spread all over town, and many had come down to the harbor to see the patient, who lived next to the Roccas’ chickens and ate from their feed tray, as if it were a chicken, or a pigeon. For two weeks, the seagull hopped from its nest to the coop. Then, it began to try out its wings. A month later it was flying off here and there, from the house to the beach, and finally from one end of town to the other. Caterina would appear in the doorway, and the seagull returned to her with outstretched wings. She only had to call it, by the name she’d assigned it from the first day: Churillo! It was a name formed by onomatopoeia, because the gull’s cry sounded something like churee. Whenever Tommaso happened by the shop entrance, Churillo would take off, and it took Caterina’s tenderest calls to make him return at least to the far end of the coop, at a respectful distance from the newcomer. “See?” she would say, in her mischievous tone. “He doesn’t like you.” “Tell him I won’t do it again!” replied the youth, bowing his head as if in prayer, and lending his voice the softest inflections. Caterina would lower her big black eyes and comment no further. Meanwhile, since it was mid-autumn, Tommaso’s friends from the loggetta were looking for him, to take him hunting. Migrating birds abounded. The finches were descending in swarms; the cardinals and tits came in hordes, in legions; the doves were flying high, from cliff to cliff, as if inviting the hunters to take difficult shots. But he was firm. He didn’t want to ruin things with good Caterina, whose eyes were big and black and deep as the night. On the hills they’d seen quail, flying low and erratically. In the ravines they’d heard partridges singing. In the fields they’d seen rabbits jumping. In the forest they’d discovered the fox’s den. But in vain. Tommaso wouldn’t be budged. He would smile and answer, “You all go ahead. Me, I’m giving up the hunt.” Giuseppe Carli, his best friend in those days, just couldn’t accept that refusal. If Tommaso had been an armchair politician, fine. If Tommaso had been a card player, fine again. But he’d always been a hunter, in fact the most zealous, the most ferocious hunter on God’s earth. What did this mean? Could he be in love? With whom? “You want to know?” Tommaso told him one day, pushed to the limit by his insistent questions. “The day I wounded that poor seagull, I promised Caterina Rocca that I would set the rifle in a corner and never touch it again.” “Oh hell. So that’s why?” “That’s why.” “Then you’re in love with her?” “No, but I promised a woman, and a promise to a woman has to be kept.” “That’s fair,” said Giuseppe Carli, “but you had me scared, letting me think you were in love with her. The Rocca woman isn’t pretty.” “Come on! You think she’s ugly?” “Not ugly, not pretty, so-so. If she were just whiter!” Giuseppe Carli’s words had fallen like a spray of freezing water on the fire starting to smolder in Tommaso’s heart. My friend meditated on them for a day and a night. The next day he saw Caterina again, and instead of making her another one of his confessions, he pensively watched her for a good while. “Yes,” he said to himself when he was alone, “she’s dark, but as the poet said: ‘darkness taketh not from beauty, but rather increases desire.’3 And she has such dark hair! Her eyes look just like coals! Maybe that makes her look darker than she really is.” Winter was coming to an end. Day by day, Churillo was flying further from home. One morning he ventured as far as Borghetto and the Santo Spirito tower, from which he returned (though late) to the feed bin on the Loano beach. Another morning he flew off towards Albenga beach, but wasn’t seen coming back. Caterina waited for him all that day and even the next, and then she tired out and accepted it. Still, she didn’t speak of it without some bitterness. “You see how ungrateful he is!” she said to Tomasso, who had come, as usual, to get some news about the unfaithful fellow. “We saved his life, and he leaves us.” “Don’t judge him harshly, Caterina,” answered the youth. “Maybe those boys over in Ceriale shot him. There are some mean ones in the world, and when they get a rifle in their hands, and don’t have an angel to set them on the right path…” “No, no,” interrupted Caterina, waving away Tommaso’s declaration, “it’s still his fault, going so far away. And my father said this was the season that seagulls disappear.” Caterina’s father reasoned quite rightly. Common seagulls (larus ridibundus in the Linnaeus system), also called powder-whites, froncolos, gaimones, or white crows, flock to the Italian coast in the fall, and stay there until early spring. Then they move on to the Tyrrhenian isles or the African coast, where they build nests in low-lying places near estuaries and lay their eggs, deep olive-green with little brown and black spots.

IV

Absent the faithless Churillo, absent also a reason to see Caterina in the doorway of her shop. Tommaso would have eagerly gone to find her, but under what pretext? And anyway, she was so dark! Tommaso believed in friendship and, consequently, in his friends. Nothing ever cured him of this noble disease. Now, Giuseppe Carli had assured him that Caterina Rocca, to look beautiful, would have to be more white. Could he question an assertion by Giuseppe Carli? He was stuck in a quandary for a few days. Then, the girl didn’t show up in her doorway any more. On rare occasions he glimpsed her on the street, on the way to mass. Well, what can I tell you? Called away on business, he had to leave for Tunis, and stayed there for a good part of the summer. He returned to Loano in early August. Old habit often led him to the harbor road, but fruitlessly. The chicken coop was there, in its usual place. The way things are done in Loano never changes. I still saw a coop there myself, by that doorway, thirty years later. Maybe (or rather, certainly) it was a different coop, but the whole picture, and the emotional effect, remained as before. I bet that if you go to Loano, you too will find that coop on the harbor road, with the feed tray in front. I admit, it’ll be a different one, in fact I’m sure of it, since those coops, exposed to the sun, the rain, the salt air, certainly don’t last thirty years; but the picture, and the emotional effect, as I’ve told you, will have remained as before. One of those mornings, while he was there counting the winches and palings along the beach, my friend Tommaso saw a flock of birds approaching land with outstretched wings. Right off, he saw they were seagulls, and his thoughts ran to the unfaithful Churillo. But to set him straight, one of those seagulls, in fact the leader, quickened its flight, dropped onto the beach, and darted straight to the coop, where it perched. “Churillo,” he cried in admiration. “Churillo!” The startled gull took flight, but went no further than the beach, which the others of its flock were circling, as though it were showing the way. Tomasso hurried to the shop and knocked on the glass. “Caterina,” he shouted, “come see!” The girl, who had been inside sewing at her table, rose and came to the doorway, where she greeted the youth with a nod, as if she’d seen him just the day before. “What is it?” she asked, looking at him with those big eyes, black and deep as the night. “Churillo!” answered Tommaso. “Churillo came back.” “Are you crazy?” “Like always, that’s no surprise,” replied the boy, making his voice sound as smooth as he possibly could. “But I’m telling you, it’s him. Look, there, the head of the group. There he is, coming closer. Call him.” The girl looked, saw the seagull Tommaso was pointing out, and to humor her interlocutor, called Churillo’s name out loud. It was really him. He saw his mistress, heard her call, and went right to his perch on the coop, then took off again to land on her arm, screeching his affectionate churee. Then he went back to call his companions, who were circling timidly around the beach, keeping their distance. And he flew from one end of the fearful flock to the other, leading the way, then nudging from behind, brave Churillo doing and talking in his strident language, until his companions landed before the chicken coop. This difficult mission completed, the seagull made a cry of happiness and went to the feed tray, where he taught his companions how a larus ridibundus Linnaci can, in full compliance with its ornithological nature, break bread with the gallus Brissoni. Caterina was beside herself with joy, so excited, and so eager to communicate her excitement, that she squeezed Tommaso’s arm without care. “I’m very afraid,” he murmured, after a moment’s pause, “that you’ve given him a name that doesn’t fit.” “Why?” she asked, without shifting her eyes from the marvelous scene. “Because that’s not a Churillo, it’s a Churilla. It’s definitely a female. In the mating season she took flight for other shores, and went to make her nest of seaweed on the shoals of Sardinia, or the Galite islands. She hatched her little ones, and here she is with her brood, which she took to meet you, like a beloved godmother.” The girl laughed heartily at the young man’s jest, and saw that he was right. All of the new seagulls were little compared to the old one. Obviously they were her offspring. The mother hadn’t forgotten to bring them to the beloved spot where she had suffered and where she had been blessed. “Look at the poor little thing!” the girl exclaimed. “What if you’d killed her with your rifle!” “But I didn’t kill her, luckily!” said the young man. “And since that day I haven’t touched that gun you hated so.” “Really?” “I swear.” “Not even in Tunisia? You didn’t go hunting?” “Never, even though there were temptations in every direction.” “God knows how much you’ve suffered!” she said, with her mischievous little smile. “The more you suffer by giving something up, the bigger the reward, don’t you think?” “Oh,” said Caterina, nodding, “if you put it that way, maybe so.” Nothing more was said that day. Tommaso was still “among the souls in limbo,”4 unable to make up his mind. He was a little afraid of making her father lose face, a little afraid of the remarks his friends might make. Still, he had to give Caterina her due. “She’s dark, yes, but she’s pretty,” he told himself, citing The Song of Songs without realizing it.5 “Giuseppe Carli doesn’t know anything about women.” The whole town of Loana was soon obsessed with Churillo’s return. And the good and sensible seagull was flying constantly over the bay, sometimes landing on the coop, but not staying long. The little ones were still wild, and after the first descent they lost interest in returning to the domestic feeder. Obviously those young seagulls had no reason to keep paying homage to the human species, like their mother did. If they’d known what I know, and what I’ve already told you about the cruel disappointments suffered by animals friendly to mankind, they would have abstained from that first landing.6 In those days, towards the end of August, the universal attention on Churillo and her wild family was diverted. Tastier guests were descending in force upon the Loano valley. In all the gazzi (from the medieval gadium, or towns, in the Loanese hills), nets were laid out for catching ortolans. Do you know them, those nice birds of the family Emberizidae, with pretty yellow, red, and gray markings, and sad, gentle eyes, who inhabit Italian forests in the spring? The male often perches on a twig only a foot or so off the ground, singing verses in its soft little voice, actually rather pleasant. This bird is a poet of the Anacreontic school, a Vittorelli, a Savioli of the forests. The nightingale would be a lyric poet like Petrarch, whereas the thrush reminds us of Leopardi, who for that matter sang about them. But let’s drop the literary comparisons and talk about ortolans. In August they begin to move, to migrate, and that’s when you go hunting for them. The rich taste of their flesh, and their propensity for fattening up (which isn’t just a trait of the Anacreontic poets, but also of the great lyricists, for example Petrarch), are the reasons these birds are highly sought after. They’re thin when caught, but closed up in a darkened little room, they eat, they don’t move around, they don’t have sinful distractions, and they fatten up like the brothers in a monastery. And the glutton covets them, and the grape-leaf awaits them. Poor ortolans! I’ll end my panegyric by recalling that they’re lured by the bird whistle, or the water dish, but mostly by the bird trap in which, to snare gullible emigrants, other ortolans are displayed, taken from those already captured and made to act as traitors. And so the great passage of ortolans was the talk of Loana. It started around then, and was so bountiful that its like had not been seen in years, in fact not in living memory. In the loggetta no one glanced at the paper any more, no one had more to say about the politics of Canning or Guizot, no one joked about the “multilateral peace traitory.” Everyone was getting mobilized for the ortolan hunt. “Are you coming, Tommaso?” his friends asked. Tonight we’re going up to the gazzo of Antioco, a prime spot.” “Don’t talk to me about hunting,” answered Tommaso. “Get out! Still trying to keep your promise?” “Get the pope to release me, and I’m coming, because those ortolans are calling me.” “You don’t need to be released,” said Giuseppe Carli. “You can come, in fact you better, or we won’t call you our friend anymore.” “That’s a serious threat,” answered Tommaso, “but what do you mean, I don’t need to be released?” “Of course there’s no need,” replied Giuseppe Carli. “What was it you swore? Not to touch your rifle again. And who’s talking about taking a rifle to the bird trap? It’s not a shooting kind of hunt, and your promise was about shooting. What’s more, it doesn’t involve killing, just capturing them and placing them in retirement.” In short, they talked like this until Tommaso let himself be persuaded. The same one who in Africa, staying true to his word, had renounced a gazelle hunt, with the prospect of crossing paths with a lion or two, or a panther! But down there, after all, he’d have carried a rifle. Down there, it wasn’t a matter of nets. And nets, if you want to be precise, weren’t part of the promise. They went, and it was a miraculous hunt. In three hours of tending to the trap, they took six hundred ortolans. The gullible emigrants didn’t even give them time to clear the nets; one after the other they landed, as if they were in a rush to go to prison. The hunters were mad with joy. Tommaso, who had renounced the pleasures of the hunt for so long, was practically drunk. He stayed by the trap after the others had left, and he had the good fortune to take the last one hundred and fifty ortolans all by himself. Giuseppe Carli, the brigade commander, left first. It really pained him to leave the fun and his friends behind, but he was conducting some rather important negotiations in town. He was expecting an answer that morning and, if it went the way he hoped, he’d be leaving that day for Genoa. The others went with him. If they wanted ortolans to eat, they still had time for another half-dozen hunts.

V

That morning’s hunt caused a great commotion in town. It was all anyone talked about for a week. It was a dinnertime topic every day for months and months. For years it was recalled during the migration season. There are old folks who talk about it still. It was nothing to joke about: six hundred ortolans in one morning, and in a single trap, constitutes a deed

Of poetry most worthy, and of history.7

And meanwhile…Churillo? That day, (a bit late, since he’d had to lock up a whole battalion of prisoners), that day, Tommaso went to the harbor to see the seagull and its good and lovely protector. Caterina was there, standing in the doorway, turning her head this way and that, as if expecting someone. She must have been awaiting her ward, late in arriving. “Where’s Churillo?” he asked, after greeting the girl. “Churillo hasn’t been seen since last night. He must have gone away,” answered Caterina. “So soon?” he exclaimed. “Ah, I see, now there are children to raise. It’ll come back another year, with its second brood.” Caterina shook her head and twisted her lips into a bitter smile. “Unless they kill her for real this time. There are so many shameless hunters in the world!” The youth felt a shock, as though he’d been brushed by a torpedo. I’m talking about the fish, not the weapon of war. “Not me,” he tried to say. “The rifle is still in its place. Tomorrow, in fact, I’m giving it away, to get that nuisance out of my house.” “You better,” said Caterina, gazing at him with those big eyes you know about, still black and deep as the night. “By the way, how many did you catch this morning? The ortolans?” “But I…actually…” answered the youth, frantically. “Well it wasn’t a hunt with guns.” “With guns or nets or glue on the branches, it’s still hunting,” she retorted sternly. “But who came and told you about it? In such a hurry?” “Is that all you care about? I’ll tell you right now. My fiancé.” “Engaged!” exclaimed Tommaso, turning pale. “And who is this…lucky man?” “No, his name isn’t Lucky,” Caterina responded. “It’s Giuseppe. Giuseppe Carli.” “Who must’ve come to town just this morning to get your answer!” shouted the young man, clenching his fists in rage. “Yes,” replied Caterina. “I couldn’t make up my mind. But finally, since we’re condemned to say the big ‘yes’ one time…I said it to Giuseppe Carli, today. Giuseppe Carli’s your best friend, isn’t that true?” “Oh yes, friend, fiend!” cried my poor Tommaso, foaming at the mouth. “Good day, Caterina, God grant you happiness, which I wholeheartedly wish for you.” “Thank you,” she answered calmly. “And also for you, you know? Also for you.” He felt his heart breaking; he was on the verge of shedding the first tears of his life. But he didn’t want to reveal himself to her, who still hadn’t seen much of his soul. And he left, cursing the hunt, the ortolans, friends in general, and Giuseppe Carli in particular. That Carli! That impostor, who wished she could just be prettier, by being whiter! And he took her dark, the villain! But finally, thinking it over, he had to admit that Giuseppe Carli had done him no wrong. At the very start he, Tommaso, had told him he wasn’t in love; nor had the subject ever come up again. And Carli had never pretended with him, had never lied. He’d just played his cards close to the vest, as every gambler has the right to do, if he wants to make his way in the world. A year later, Churillo, or Churilla we should say, returned to the beach at Loano with another brood, to call on Caterina Rocca. But she found Caterina Carli, who returned the honor, presenting in turn a darling little boy, the first of a brood of Carlis, male and female, may God preserve them and let them prosper, they and their descendants, unto the fifteenth generation. That is also the wish of my poor friend, whose eyelashes got wet many times as he recounted the catastrophe of his first and unhappy love. “Take heart,” I told him. “She didn’t really love you, if she got so mad like that over a trip to the bird trap. And you, kind friend, with your vagabond ways, so like mine, would you have made her happy?” My Tommaso shook his head and answered honestly. “I swear, I don’t know! I’m sure, if I think about it, that she would have made me happy. But I won’t think about it, and that’s the best I can do.” “And what about the seagull?” “The seagull? There were two of them. One was Churillo, who returned three years in a row and was never seen again, and very likely ended up where seagulls end up, when their earthly days are over. The other seagull, the big one, you see here. It’s your poor friend, who one of these years…” “Oh, by the Gods immortal, let’s not speak of sad things ‘in the sacred hour of friendship.’ Let’s go have supper instead. You know, even the ancient Romans ate supper. People even say the glorious custom was handed down to us by them. Excellent Romans! How much they’ve done for us, their pitiful descendants!”

1 At the time this story was originally published, Italian readers knew Anton Barrili as the author of popular novels and stories, some of which featured a fictional Captain Dodéro. 2 Barrili quotes Dante’s Inferno, Canto 33 verse 54: “Infin che il novo sol nel mondo uscio.” 3 This appears to be a Tuscan proverb, derived from a line by Tasso in Jerusalem Delivered: “…che bruna è sí, ma il bruno il bel non toglie./N’arde il marito…” (“…dark she is, but darkness lessens not her beauty. It inflames her husband…”) 4 “tra color che son sospesi,” Inferno, Canto 2 verse 52. 5 From the Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon), King James version: “I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem[….]” 6 Presumably a reference to a previous story in the same anthology in which this one first appeared. 7 “Di Poema degnissimo, e d’Istoria,” from the poem by Pietro Chiari, Descrizione di Bagnaja luogo di delizia dell’eminentissimo Sig. Cardinal Lanti (Description of the bathhouse, place of delights, of the most eminent Lord Cardinal Lenti, 1784)



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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