“The House of the Beehives” by Italo Calvino
It is difficult to see from far away, and even if someone had already been here once he could not remember the way back; there was a path here at one time, but I made brambles grow over it and wiped out every trace. It’s well chosen, this home of mine, lost in this bank of broom, with a single story that can’t be seen from the valley, and covered in a chalky whitewash with windows picked out in red.
There’s some land around I could have worked and haven’t; a patch for vegetables where snails munch the lettuce is enough for me, and a bit of terraced earth to dig up with a pitchfork and grow potatoes, all purple and budding. I only need to work to feed myself, for I’ve got nothing to share with anyone.
And I don’t cut back the brambles, either the ones now clambering over the roof of the house or those already creeping like a slow avalanche over the cultivated ground; I should like them to bury everything, myself included. Lizards have made their nests in the cracks of the walls, ants have scooped out porous cities under the bricks of the floor; I look forward every day to seeing if a new crack has opened, and think of the cities of the human race being smothered and swallowed up by weeds.
Above my home are a few strips of rough meadow where I let my goats roam. At dawn, dogs sometimes pass by, on the scent of hares; I chase them off with stones. I hate dogs, with their servile fidelity to man; I hate all domestic animals, their pretense of having sympathy with human beings just so they can lick the remains off greasy plates. Goats are the only animals I can stand, for they don’t expect intimacy or give any.
I don’t need chained dogs to guard me. Or even hedges or padlocks, those horrible contraptions of humans. My field is studded with beehives, and a flight of bees is like a thorny hedge that only I can cross. At night the bees sleep in the bean husks, but no man ever comes near my house; people are afraid of me and they are right; not because certain tales they tell about me are true—lies, I say, just the sort of thing they would tell—but they are right to be afraid of me, I want them to be.
When I go over the crest in the morning, I can see the valley dropping away beneath and the sea high all around me and the world. And I see the houses of the human race perched on the edge of the sea, shipwrecked in their false neighborliness; I see the tawny, chalky city, the glittering of its windows, and the smoke of its fires. One day brambles and grass will cover its squares, and the sea will come up and mold the ruins into rocks.
Only the bees are with me now; they buzz around my hands without stinging me when I take the honey from the hives, and settle on me like a living beard; friendly bees, ancient race without a history. For years I’ve been living on this bank of broom with goats and bees; once I used to make a mark on the wall at the passing of each year; now the brambles choke everything. Why should I live with men and work for them? I loathe their sweaty hands, their savage rites, their dances and churches, their women’s acid saliva. But those stories aren’t true, believe me; they’ve always told stories about me,; the lying swine.
I don’t give anything and I don’t owe anything; if it rains at night I cook and eat the big snails slithering down the banks in the morning; the earth in the woods is scattered with soft, damp toadstools. The woods give me everything else I need: sticks and pine cones to burn, and chestnuts; and I snare hares and thrushes, too, for don’t think I love wild animals or have an idyllic adoration of nature—one of man’s absurd hypocrisies. I know that in this world we must devour one another and that the survival of the fittest holds; I kill only the animals I want to eat, with traps, not with guns, so as not to need dogs or other men to fetch them.
Sometimes I meet men in the woods, if I’m not warned in time by the dull thuds of their axes cutting down trees one by one. I pretend not to see them. On Sundays the poor come to gather fuel in the woods, which they strip like the speckled heads of aloes; the trunks are hauled away on ropes and form rough tracks, which gather the rain during storms and provoke landfalls. May everything go to similar ruin in the cities of the human race; may I, as I walk along one day, see chimney tops emerging from the earth, meet parts of streets falling off into ravines, and stumble on strips of railroad track in the middle of the forest.
But you must wonder if I don’t ever feel this solitude of mine weighing on me, if some evening, one of those long twilights, I haven’t gone down, without any definite idea in my head, toward the houses of the human race. I did go, one warm twilight, toward those walls surrounding the gardens below, and climbed down over the medlar trees; but when I heard women laughing and a distant child calling, back I came up here. That was the last time; now I’m up here alone. Well, I get frightened of making a mistake every now and again, as you do. And so, like you, I go on as I was before.
You’re afraid of me, of course, and you’re right. Not because of that affair, though. That, whether it ever happened or not, was so many years ago it doesn’t matter now, anyway.
That woman, that dark woman who came up here to scythe —I had only been up here a short time then and was still full of human emotions—well, I saw her working high on the slope and she hailed me and I didn’t reply and passed by. Yes, I was still full of human emotions then, and of an old resentment, too; and because of that old resentment—not against her, I don’t even remember her face—I went up behind her without her hearing me.
Now, the tale as people tell it is obviously false, for it was late and there wasn’t a soul in the valley and when I put my hands around her throat no one heard her. But I would have to tell you my story from the beginning for you to understand.
Ah, well, let’s not mention that evening any more. Here I live, sharing my lettuce with snails that perforate the leaves, and I know all the places where toadstools grow and can tell the good ones from the poisonous; about women and their poisons I don’t think any more. Being chaste is nothing but a habit, after all.
She was the last one, that dark woman with the scythe. The sky was full of clouds, I remember, dark clouds scudding along. It must have been under a hurrying sky like that, on slopes cropped by goats, that the first human marriage took place. In contact between human beings there can only, I know, be mutual terror and shame. That’s what I wanted, to see the terror and shame, just the terror and shame, in her eyes; that’s the only reason I did it to her, believe me.
No one has said a word about it to me, ever; there isn’t a word they can say, since the valley was deserted that evening. But every night, when the hills are lost in the dark and I can’t follow the meaning of an old book by the light of the lantern, and I sense the town with its human beings and its lights and music down below, I feel the voices of you all accusing me.
But there was no one to see me there in the valley; they say those things because the woman never returned home.
And if dogs passing by always stop to sniff at a certain spot, and bay and scratch the ground with their paws, it’s because there’s an old moles’ lair there—I swear it, just an old moles’ lair.