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Why don't I just throw myself on the mercy of the court? You never do, he told himself. You always plead them non-guilty. You didn't think I'd try to wind your clock, did you? I'm sorry. Just what was it you wanted to know? Give or take three.
Wonderful shoot. Some nice Italian kids I met up at Cortina own it. They shoot real ducks at this one.
Good kids. Good shoot. Real ducks. Mallard, pin-tail, widgeon.
Some geese. Just as good as at home when we were kids. I just meant I didn't remember when duck shooting was good. I'm a city boy, too. I never saw a city boy yet that was worth a damn.
You know damn well I don't. I can't even shoot. Neither can anybody else in this army. I'd like to have you around. They're working on stuff, though.
You'll never know. Chapter III That was the day before yesterday. Yesterday he had driven down from Trieste to Venice along the old road that ran from Montfalcone to Latisana and across the flat country.
He had a good driver and he relaxed completely in the front seat of the car and looked out at all this country he had known when he was a boy. It looks quite differently now, he thought. I suppose it is because the distances are all changed. Everything is much smaller when you are older. Then, too, the roads are better now and there is no dust. The only times I used to ride through it was in a camion. The rest of the times we walked. I suppose what I looked for then, was patches of shade when we fell out, and wells in farmyards.
And ditches, too, he thought. I certainly looked for plenty of ditches.
They made a curve and crossed the Tagliamento on a temporary bridge. It was green along the banks and men were fishing along the far shore where it ran deep. The blown bridge was being repaired with a snarl of riveting hammers, and eight hundred yards away the smashed buildings and outbuildings of what was now a ruined country house once built by Longhena showed where the mediums had dropped their loads.
Then go half a mile from it in any direction and you find it like that. They were past the ruined villa now and on to the straight road with the willows growing by the ditches still dark with winter, and the fields full of mulberry trees. Ahead a man was pedalling a bicycle and using both his hands to read a paper. Better give that cyclist some horn. As they passed him, the Colonel tried to see what paper he was reading, but it was folded over.
But it could be Piero della Francesca or Mantegna. Could be Michelangelo. They were on a straight stretch of road now and were making time so that one farm blended, almost blurred, into another farm and you could only see what was far ahead and moving towards you. Lateral vision was just a condensation of flat, low country in the winter. I'm not sure I like speed, the Colonel thought. Brueghel would have been in a hell of a shape if he had to look at the country like this.
Burnham's up at the rest centre at Cortina. That's a fine place, sir. It is a fine place. Good chow. Well run. Nobody bothers you. I thought I ought to see some painting so I went to that big place in Florence. The Pitti? The biggest one. And I kept looking at those paintings until madonnas started to run out of my ears.
I tell you, Colonel, sir, a man who hasn't been checked out on this painting can only see just about so many madonnas and it gets him. You know my theory? You know how crazy they are about bambinis and the less they got to eat the more bambinis they got and that they have coming? Well, I think these painters were probably big bambini lovers like all Italians. I don't know these ones you mentioned just now, so I don't include them in my theory and you'll put me straight anyway.
But it looks to me like these madonnas, that I really saw plenty of, sir, it looks to me like these just straight ordinary madonna painters were sort of a manifest, say, of this whole bambini business, if you understand what I mean. Then you think there is something to my theory? I think it is a little more complicated, though. It's just my preliminary theory. That bambini theory is as far as I've thought it through. What I wish is, though, they would paint some good pictures of that high country up around the rest centre at Cortina.
I went down the valley and saw the house where he was supposed to be born. It means bell tower. I'd be lucky if I got to Buffalo. One of those women pictures would be out of place there. The Austrians, I mean. Listen, Jackson, everybody who's soldiered a long time has had their Rapidos and more than one. It was built up and new, but no more ugly than a middle western town, and it was as prosperous and as cheery as Fossalta, just up the river, is miserable and gloomy, the Colonel thought.
Did Fossalta never get over the first war? I never saw it before it was smacked, he thought. They shelled it badly before the big fifteenth of June offensive in 'eighteen. Then we shelled it really badly before we re-took it. He remembered how the attack had taken off from Monastier, gone through Fornace, and on this winter day he remembered how it had been that summer. A few weeks ago he had gone through Fossalta and had gone out along the sunken road to find the place where he had been hit, out on the river bank.
It was easy to find because of the bend of the river, and where the heavy machine gun post had been the crater was smoothly grassed. It had been cropped, by sheep or goats, until it looked like a designed depression in a golf course. The river was slow and a muddy blue here, with reeds along the edges, and the Colonel, no one being in sight, squatted low, and looking across the river from the bank where you could never show your head in daylight, relieved himself in the exact place where he had determined, by triangulation, that he had been badly wounded thirty years before.
He stood up and looked around. There was no one in sight and he had left the car down the sunken road in front of the last and saddest rebuilt house in Fossalta. It locked on opening and, twirling it, he dug a neat hole in the moist earth.
He cleaned the knife on his right combat boot and then inserted a brown ten thousand lira note in the hole and tamped it down and put the grass that he had cored out over it. The V. The D.
The Silver Star is free. I'll keep the change,' he said. It's fine now, he thought.
It has merde, money, blood; look how that grass grows; and the iron's in the earth along with Gino's leg, both of Randolfo's legs and my right knee-cap.
It's a wonderful monument. It has everything. Fertility, money, blood and iron. Sounds like a nation. Where fertility, money, blood and iron is; there is the fatherland. We need coal though. We ought to get some coal. Then he looked across the river to the rebuilt white house that had once been rubble, and he spat in the river.
It was a long spit and he just made it. The driver was asleep. We don't need a map on this part. I'll give you the turns. They crossed the bridge and were on the Italian side of the river and he saw the old sunken road again.
It was as smooth and undistinguished now, as it was all along the river. But he could see the old positions. And now, along each side of the straight, flat, canal-bordered road they were making time on were the willows of the two canals that had contained the dead. There had been a great killing at the last of the offensive and someone, to clear the river bank positions and the road in the hot weather, had ordered the dead thrown into the canals.
Unfortunately, the canal gates were still in the Austrians' hands down the river, and they were closed. So there was little movement to the water, and the dead had stayed, there a long time, floating and bloating face up and face down regardless of nationality until they had attained colossal proportions. Finally, after organization had been established, labour troops hauled them out at night and buried them close to the road.
The Colonel looked for added greenness close to the road but could not note any. However, there were many ducks and geese in the canals, and men were fishing in them all along the road. They dug them all up anyway, the Colonel thought, and buried them in that big ossario up by Nervesa.
It was like Normandy only flatter. I think it must have been something like fighting in Holland. And it had very deep and tricky channels in the pebbles and shingle when it was shallow.
They always take it personally, he thought.
No one is interested in it, abstractly, except soldiers and there are not many soldiers. You make them and the good ones are killed, and above they are always bucking for something so hard they never look or listen.
They are always thinking of what they have seen and while you are talking they are thinking of what they will say and what it may lead to in their advancement or their privilege. There was no sense boring this boy, who, for all his combat infantryman badge, his Purple Heart and the other things he wore, was in no sense a soldier but only a man placed, against his will, in uniform, who had elected to remain in the army for his own ends.
The Colonel looked up the road. He knew that if they kept on this road they would come, shortly, to the turn that he was waiting for; but he was impatient. Pull up just ahead of it and I'll go over and have a look. Beyond the hedge, he saw a low red farmhouse with a big barn. The road was dry. There were not even cart ruts sunk in it. He got back into the car. It's your car, sir.
Say, Jackson, do you always suffer so much any time you go off a highway on to a secondary road? But there's a lot of difference between a jeep, and a car as low hung as this.
Do you know the clearance you have on your differential and your body frame on this? Wait till you see where we're going after we leave Venice. I'll see. She's over-fendered right now. She's got too much of everything except engine. Jackson, that's a real engine she's got. It's a great pleasure to drive that big engine on the good roads. That's why I don't want anything to happen to her.
Now just quit suffering. He was not, either, because just then he saw, beyond the line of close-bunched brown trees ahead, a sail moving along. It was a big red sail, raked sharply down from the peak, and it moved slowly behind the trees. Why should it always move your heart to see a sail moving along through the country, the Colonel thought. Why does it move my heart to see the great, slow, pale oxen? It must be the gait as well as the look of them and the size and the colour. But a good fine big mule, or a string of pack mules in good condition, moves me, too.
So does a coyote every time I ever see one, and a wolf, gaited like no other animal, grey and sure of himself, carrying that heavy head and with the hostile eyes. Wolves were gone before my time; they poisoned them out. Plenty coyotes, though. Better than anything, except seeing a ship sailing along through the country.
This wind is off the mountains now and she makes it along pretty good. It's liable to turn really cold to-night if this wind holds and it ought to bring in plenty ducks. Turn to your left here and we'll run along the canal.
There's a good road. But there was plenty of it in Nebraska along the Platte. I'm not much of a shot, and I'd rather stay in that sack. It's a Sunday morning, you know. I ought to sleep O. They're liable to eat Italian food, you know. He was looking ahead now to see where the canal road joined the main highway again. There he knew that he would see it on a clear day such as this was. Across the marshes, brown as those at the mouths of the Mississippi around Pilot Town are in winter, and with their reeds bent by the heavy north wind, he saw the squared tower of the church at Torcello and the high campanile of Burano beyond it.
The sea was a slate blue and he could see the sails of twelve sailing barges running with the wind for Venice. I'll have to wait until we cross the Dese River above Noghera to see it perfectly, he thought. It is strange to remember how we fought back there along the canal that winter to defend it and we never saw it.
Then one time, I was back as far as Noghera and it was clear and cold like to-day, and I saw it across the water. But I never got into it. It is my city, though, because I fought for it when I was a boy, and now that I am half a hundred years old, they know I fought for it and am a part owner and they treat me well. Do you think that's why they treat you well, he asked himself.
Maybe, he thought. Maybe they treat me well because I'm a chicken colonel on the winning side. I don't believe it, though. I hope not, anyway.
It is not France, he thought. There you fight your way into a city that you love and are very careful about breaking anything and then, if you have good sense, you are careful not to go back because you will meet some military characters who will resent your having fought your way in.
Vive la France et les pommes de terre frites. The great clarte of the French military thinking. They haven't had a military thinker since du Picq. He was a poor bloody Colonel, too. Mangin, Maginot and Gamelin. Take your choice, Gentlemen. Three schools of thought. One; I hit them on the nose. Two; I hide behind this thing which does not cover my left flank. Three; I hide my head in the sand like an ostrich, confident in the greatness of France as a military power and then take off.
Take off is putting it very cleanly and pleasantly. Sure, he thought, whenever you over-simplify you become unjust. Remember all the fine ones in the Resistance, remember Foch both fought and organized and remember how fine the people were.
Remember your good friends and remember your deads. Remember plenty things and your best friends again and the finest people that you know. Don't be a bitter nor a stupid. And what has that to do with soldiering as a trade? Cut it out, he told himself. You're on a trip to have fun.
Shortly, we are coming to a view that I want you to see. You only have to take one look at it. The entire operation will be practically painless.
Just because he was a B. If he was any good as a B. He's been beat up so much he's slug-nutty. They built that church you see there with the square tower. There were thirty thousand people lived there once and they built that church to honour their Lord and to worship him.
Then, after they built it, the mouth of the Sile River silted up or a big flood changed it, and all that land we came through just now got flooded and started to breed mosquitoes and malaria hit them. They all started to die, so the elders got together and decided they should pull out to a healthy place that would be defensible with boats, and where the Visigoths and the Lombards and the other bandits couldn't get at them, because these bandits had no sea-power.
The Torcello boys were all great boatmen. So they took the stones of all their houses in barges, like that one we just saw, and they built Venice. I had no idea who pioneered Venice. They were very tough and they had very good taste in building. They came from a little place up the coast called Caorle. But they drew on all the people from the towns and the farms behind when the Visigoths overran them.
It was a Torcello boy who was running arms into Alexandria, who located the body of St. Mark and smuggled it out under a load of fresh pork so the infidel customs guards wouldn't check him.
This boy brought the remains of St. Mark to Venice, and he's their patron saint and they have a cathedral there to him. But by that time, they were trading so far to the east that the architecture is pretty Byzantine for my taste.
They never built any better than at the start there in Torcello. That's Torcello there. You're on the ball. If that's the way you look at it. Now you look beyond Torcello you will see the lovely campanile on Burano that has damn near as much list on it as the leaning tower of Pisa. That Burano is a very over-populated little island where the women make wonderful lace, and the men make bambinis and work day-times in the glass factories in that next island you see on beyond with the other campanile, which is Murano.
They make wonderful glass day-times for the rich of all the world, and then they come home on the little vaporetto and make bambinis.
Not everyone passes every night with his wife though. They hunt ducks nights too, with big punt guns, out along the edge of the marshes on this lagoon you're looking across now. All night long on a moonlight night you hear the shots. That's my town. There's plenty more I could show you, but I think we probably ought to roll now. But take one good look at it. His first novel is one of those books that the reader hesitates to finish because putting it down for the last time brings on a pleasant sorrow of loss.
He finds himself plagued at his tender age by insomnia, restlessness, and a vague sense of spiritual ill-being. The onset of malaise occurs early in the book, and the portrayal of Gus working his way out of the psychic infirmity, of his painful coming to terms with approaching manhood, is the process of the next two hundred pages.
The development is blithely episodic, a feature some critics will fault. But what episodes! Gus pitches from one slough of despair into another, emerging each time in this tragicomic but believable romance a little more bruised but toughened.
Discuss how nature, specifically the woods and the river, act as a character in the novel. The book opens with a quote by Henry David Thoreau. Consider the quote in relation to Simone and Dean, as well as the relationships between Pia, Rachel, Sandra, and Wini.
Why do you think the author chose to start the novel with this quote? Concerns about aging and the passing of time come up frequently in The River at Night. Discuss how age plays a role in the novel and within your own lives. Discuss the strength of their bonds and how a trip like this may have forced them to reconcile previous tensions more than a less stressful vacation would have.
Wini, Pia, Rachel, and Sandra have long been friends—but they have strikingly different personalities. Which of the women do you relate to the most? The least? Discuss the reasons as a group. On page 51, the characters learn that the river is largely on public property. Wini, Rachel, Sandra, and Pia have experienced heartache in many different ways.
Whose heartache do you relate to the most? In Chapter 7, just before the women truly commence their trip, Wini remembers her last camping experience. Discuss the two major deaths in this novel. How are they different? Do you think that either could have been prevented? As the antagonist of the story, Simone can be seen as ruthless, deadly, and potentially crazy.
One could argue, however, that Simone is just another survivor in the novel. Do you think the author means for her to be more than the villain? Why or why not? You get no warning. Discuss what it means to be prepared. Which of the women would you trust most to help should you find yourself lost in a similar situation?
Which qualities do you believe are most necessary for surviving in the woods? When the trip is over, the women attempt to get back to normalcy.
Wini, however, becomes legal guardian over Dean. Does her decision surprise you? Traveling with a group or a partner can often strengthen a friendship. Do you think the trip brought these women closer together? Have you ever been in a situation where you say yes to something—even while feeling fearful or deeply distrustful—because you want to be part of a group?
What has been the result? The River at Night references loneliness many times, especially in the context of female friendships. Do you feel that the nature of your close friendships has changed over the years?
If so, why, and how have you coped with these changes?