TRANSLATED FROM THE ITALIAN BY GREGORY CONTI FOR WORDS WITHOUT BORDERS
Author MARIO RIGONI STERN Photography LARRY TOWELL
WHEN WE WERE KIDS, WE PLAYED ALL THE TIME. There were games for all times and all seasons, but it was April that set us loose in those evenings with lingering sunsets. When the church bells sounded the nighttime hours, our mothers or aunts called us home to go to sleep. And what sleep! We woke up the next morning in the exact same position as we went to bed, after almost 12 hours of nonstop slumber.
April was, is, a month full of good signs. But why are there now no more rows of swallows’ nests under the eaves of the houses and over the barn doors? And what became of the skylarks’ trills that used to fill the airy sky above the sweet hilltop where we released our kites in the afternoons?
St. Mark’s Day unfailingly brought the arrival of the swifts. But first, each year in early April, my grandfather had me write a postcard.
To: The Head of the Black Swifts, Alexandria, Egypt, Africa
Winter is over and there’s no more snow. The season is good and as always we have the roof and the attic for you. Sincerely, Mario and Grandpa Toni
I always ran like the wind to mail the postcard, not in the mailbox in the square but in the slot at the Royal Post Office. And our message really arrived down there — far, far away — because after 15 days or so the answer always came, a postcard with strange pictures and stamps, though I never did look to see what country it came from.
To: Grandpa Toni and Mario, Via Ortigara, Italia
Dear Friends, Winter was good down here, but now it’s really hot. We’ll arrive on the usual date. Arrivederci, The Head of the Black Swifts
On the evening of April 24, I would carefully watch the sky, intent on being the first to discover the advance patrol of swifts. When I saw the first two or three crease the sky above our house, I’d run to Grandpa to announce their arrival.
On those evenings, Grandpa was always sitting in his usual table at the Café Regina Margherita drinking a beer and smoking a Virginia. I’d yell out to him as I ran in, “They’re here! They’re here!” He’d let me catch my breath. “There,” I’d go on, “way up there! Look, Grandpa, how fast they fly!”
“Yes,” he’d reply. “They always keep their word. These guys will fly back down to Padua now to spread the word that the weather is good. Tomorrow all the others will be here.” And he would give me a piece of honey candy.
And truly, the next day, St. Mark’s Day, the sky would fill with their darting flights and their shrieks. At times I’d interrupt my game to stand with Grandpa and watch the swifts as they played theirs, not just similar but identical to the game we kids were playing in the market square. “Grandpa,” I asked once. “Do you think they learned it from us?”
“No,” he answered. “We learned it from them.”
FROM STAGIONI, PUBLISHED 2006 BY GIULIO EINAUDI EDITORE S.P.A., TURIN. TRANSLATION © 2007 BY GREGORY CONTI FOR WORDS WITHOUT BORDERS. FOR MORE BY RIGONI STERN, SEE www.WORDSWITHOUTBORDERS.ORG
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