San Firmino: An (Italian) Ghost Story

Stefano Benni, "San Firmino," in Cari mostri (Milano: Feltrinelli, 2015)
31 Oct 2018

San Firmino

“Only I know the true story of San Firmino,” said the colonel, “and all the other versions going around are bogus. It all starts with the earthquake that hit thirty years ago. Half the town’s people and animals die, and nearly all the houses crumble to the ground. The seismic boom is so strong it displaces the flow of the river, so there’s no water there anymore, and it moves the mountain. Now there’s shade where the sunlit plaza used to be. Someone tries to bury the dead and rebuild the houses, but more quakes hit. In the end, they say the town is condemned, and its few remaining inhabitants leave, going to work or to beg at the ends of the valley. Only three or four stay behind: an old farm-maid, the town priest, and the watchmaker with his son, Manuel. The old lady gets sick. No one brings her any water, so she dies of thirst. The priest gets crushed by a bell when it gets loosened from the precarious bell tower. And one day, the watchmaker wakes up to see his ten year-old son ride out of town on the only donkey he could find.

So everyone thinks that with only one inhabitant left, San Firmino is dead. They block the roads, the postman stops making his rounds. As for the watchmaker, he’s an old nut-job. Sooner or later, he’ll decide to leave his house or die of hardship there.

But the watchmaker doesn’t want to leave. He rebuilds his house as good as new. He fixes the town clocktower, which starts to chime the hours again. And because his hands are good as gold, he builds a rooster carved into the wood of the tower, a rooster who crows atop the bell tower every morning hooked up to a phonograph. He repairs the fountain, because naturally, he’s also already fixed the aqueduct and reconnected the town’s electricity with a wire that runs through the tops of the chestnut trees all the way to the trellis.

Then he starts to saw and paint, and not much later, there are twenty people in the town square, and from far away, you can’t even tell that they’re made of wood. And there’s noise in the bread shop and the smell of warm bread wafts out of it. And there’s a flock of sheep in the field made of cork and oakum, all motionless except for two of them, who, by some extraordinary mechanism, graze and bleat all day. And there’s a wolf made of scrap bits of iron who spies on them  from his spot in the woods. And two hunters made of drywall who shoot real bullets. And the crazy watchmaker repairs the church bell and makes it ring, and there are twenty people inside the church, praying. At night, you can hear a guitar being played: it’s a minstrel painted in the style of Harlequin serenading a blonde with nylon hair hanging out the window above. Another earthquake hits. The blonde crashes down onto the minstrel, balcony and all. The watchmaker fixes them and has them get married.

Three paper mâché babies are born, each one singing the song of a different carillon. And tens of cats more real than the real thing appear. You can hear noise coming from inside the pub, too.

Still another earthquake hits, and this time, the watchmaker’s house is destroyed. Some people from neighbouring villages think, let’s go check it out. They look for his body under the ruins, but find nothing: only cogs and wheels and springs and rockers and talking dolls and wooden cutout figurines. They go out onto the street and find fifty people there – marionettes, or if you prefer, ghosts – staring at them. Who made them if the watchmaker is dead?

But the next day, it rains, and the people melt. They were made of paper mâché and tumbleweed. The sheep are still and even the cock stops singing because no one winds him up. And so, all the so-called living leave and say: this time, San Firmino is truly dead. Let’s remove it from our maps and memories.

A month later, Luis the poacher passes that way. The sheep are grazing, the cock is crowing, the kids are somersaulting in the grass, a perfume of bread and music drifts up to Luis who, from the other side of the mountain, swears he sees people dancing. And the watchmaker is sitting in the centre of the town square, his head dangling low like a half-broken puppet’s, clapping out the rhythm.

The poacher is unsure whether he should walk down to get a closer look at that dark enchantment, and in that very moment feels something biting at his leg. It’s a wolf made of green metal, hiding in the grass like a bear trap. And above, on the branches of the trees, sing incredibly colourful birds. Real or mechanic? Then the earth shakes, fireworks shoot up from the town square, the fountain gushes and is filled with a whirl of ducks and lobsters. The loud strike of a bass drum is heard with the fanfare of a band approaching. Luis is frightened and runs away.

And that’s why,” concluded the colonel, “I don’t know what happened or what strange magic that wretched watchmaker made out there, but I refuse to erase San Firmino from the maps, and I’ve given orders that the road leading to it be left open and that it continue to receive water and electricity. In case someone wanted to have a look or go back down there. Or in case … well, in case someone from down there ever wanted to come and visit us here. You never know.

Stefano Benni, “San Firmino,” Cari mostri (Milano: Feltrinelli, 2015) 211-213.