The Last Judgement

Written by  Roberto Pazzi
An unpublished short story by the celebrated writer of Ferrara.
Ferrara began to welcome the first family members to its burial when my grandfather died.

My grandfather is very close to the Certosa walls, almost in sight of the open country, as if, when allotted the tomb, he had succeeded in attracting the favour of someone prepared to help him escape, crossing the boundary wall to return home to the house in Porta Mare close to the canal where he so often took his grandson, not far from the hemp maceri where he had gone to work as a youth and where he had caught pleurisy. Now he slept beneath the ground in area 7, plot 11. Those two indivisible number seemed to have been assigned to my grandfather in order to resolve his perpetual indecision once and for all. He could have no more doubts where he was now, protected by those numbers.

However, had he succeeded in climbing the wall, which was not so very high, and in returning home, he would have found that many things had changed. It was best to warn him that the house had been extended by two rooms at the back because the last son, the littlest one, had got married, and that the young couple, who were expecting a baby, now lived with grandma. So he would have to be careful, the house number - 13 - was still the same, but the gate and the green iron grid had been moved into line with the new main entrance.

If he had fled during the winter, with muddy shoes, he could have to remember not to look for the rectangular iron boot scraper attached to the wall by the door, where he had always cleaned the soles of his shoes of mud before crossing the threshold. It had been removed by the builder in charge of the new works when he rebuilt the footing of the house. And anyway the lane had been asphalted for the last two years, so you no longer got so dirty.
Now it was known as "via Francesco Magnoni, hydraulic engineer", as a little marble plaque proclaimed in bold characters at the end of the road. The big canvasses for making mattresses had been moved from the kitchen and were now rolled up in a corner of the cameraccia, the orchard storeroom, where the sky resounded more and more with loud bangs like explosions which frightened the doves: the aircraft which broke the sound barrier with their speed, frightening the child.

Busily telling grandpa - in a whisper so my father could not hear - about all the changes which might disorient him if he climbed over that all too visible wall which separated the living from the dead there in the cemetery, the little boy continued to refill the watering can for the flowers from the fountain at the corner between areas 7 and 8.

It seemed as if words could no longer protect the dead, yielding their invisible strength to the plot numbers a if only the voices of the living could warm them into life; as if the dead could build their own world with the more rapid and allusive numbers.
«But where is grandpa now?» he asked his father, the first time. It was terrible to have to leave him there, all alone, beneath the ground, with the rain and snow of the long, long winter of the plain.

When we went to the cemetery where his mother was buried, to Ameglia, on the hill where she was born, he saw that the relations he had never known were raised high above the ground, comfortably installed in a sort of raised bed, with plenty of sunlight to warm their bones. There, the dead seemed to lack nothing and asked only to be informed from time to time of events within the family. They accepted the long absence of their families more readily, seemed to make their own company, all knew each other.
But in the city on the plain the conditions of the dead were tragic, not even those in tombs raised high above the ground could defend themselves. It was too cold, and in their lifetime they had been too easily distracted whenever there was a party, they had always eaten and - especially - drunk so well in that abundant land, none of them had had the time to think about death, the harshness of its climate, those tombs out of sight of the hills and the sea, deep in the plain .... architectural spires and merlons.

At least grandpa was there, humble, below the ground, unobserved, near the walls and ready to escape. But those dukes from the Massari-Zavaglia family, who slept beneath overhanging statues of angels who held their fingers to their lips to prevent the reports of their loved ones, enclosed in the icy internal chambers where plans for escape where impossible and insane, condemned to the ice which cracked crowns and titles on the memorial stones - sealed in death like this, who could possibly do anything for them? Who would help them escape?

Perhaps only those angels, if they had really descended from the heavens, leaving the other dead, buried in the ground like grandpa, the help of the living. So they could try to do something for grandpa.

But the child had never been able to return to the tomb by himself, and or find his way alone to the cemetery. The city was still too large, and if had learned to navigate its streets without getting lost, the fear of being unable to help him rise again would surely have vanished with the same memory for numbers which was so poor in his father to remember the section with his grandfather's tomb, number seven.
But it was not very important, because the cemetery was as crowded as the dress rehearsal of a game, the Last Judgement, in which the whole population of Ferrara would take part. The children, already counted in their own burial ground, to the left as you enter, beneath the white statues of cherubs. Those who had died while passing through the town, like the Bostonian Alfred Lowell Putman, buried in the facing field; foreigners, coming to their final station as they might arrive anywhere, with the carelessness of those who seem to have no doubts that this little town, too, could serve well for the final act.

The merchants of Piazza Trabaglio, members of the Circolo dell'Unione, the Traders, the few Knights of Malta, the members of the Buona Morte brotherhood, those from the town's old people's home, the masons, the pilots of aircraft fallen from the sky in action during the war, the monarchist and republican mayors together with the podestà and the fascist hierarchy, the communist labourers side by side with the Fascist squadistri who had purged them with castor oil, the Vicars General of the diocese, the magnificent University Rectors, the senators, monarchist or otherwise, the suicides, the prostitutes and transvestite of the via delle Volte, even those lonely cholera suspects buried during one terrible summer in the early years of the century and placed outside the cemetery, in the garden at the entrance disturbed only by an occasional ball, thrown by children intent on play. And there would be Roberto Fabbri, the young pilot thrown from his plane into the Po like Phaethon, buried close to Alfred Lowell Putnam. He could easily imagine them in conversation to cheat the solitude of death, favourites of the same youthful age.

All of them, even the most suspect citizens, even the Communists and the Christian Democrats, could have taken part in the game painted by Bastianino on the vault of the apse in the Cathedral, and reproduced on the central arch of the pink and white marble façade by a great sculptor from Como.

And certainly the Jews would be allowed in too, the Jews who slept in their own cemetery beside the Certosa, più larghi and more alone in their mossy resting places in an even more ancient solitude. Because the Last Judgement was a game of suspicion and truth, similar to those the child saw at school, among his friends, not unlike the games played by his father with his colleagues at the bank, in the large building more Venetian than Ferrarese on Corso Giovecca. They would all take part, summoned by the trumpets of the Certosa's angels, and at last everything would become clear, once and for all.

The sensation of being unable to depend on any thing, of a life divided between departures and returns that you could never seize hold of, would disappear; the thread of lies and truths would finally be in the hands of one who knew everything, like in the game of difetti when there is one person who knows everything because he has been whispered the words of all the players, one at a time, apart from the others.

And at the end of the game, good and bad, loved and forgiven by God, that great confident of universal suffering, would live together for a succession of centuries long enough to rebuild Ferrara exactly as it was, the city on the Po valley furthest from the Alps and the Apennines, the most lonely city, deprived of the sight of the mountains or the sea that could help it have the sense that it belonged in a landscape rather than being suspended in Nothingness. It would rise again with its proud buildings and its dialect with its soft open vowels and lack of double consonants, with its moral laziness and its age-old patience with suffering, with that touch of Asiatic blood in its character than inclined it towards domination and tyrannies, recalled from the oblivion which allowed the rebirth of both Good and Evil, in a world where every shape feigned an illusory change.