I liked the weirdo. He made me laugh.
Sure, sometimes he freaked me out with the stories he told, but most of the time he was fine.
He made us, Rudy and I, crack up.
My friend teased him. “And where would these monsters be, old man?”
It was the beginning of summer. Cicadas filled the air with their song like thunder. We were hot and had nothing better to do.
The old man stared at us with those glass eyes. Their yellowed sclera threatened to submerge his irises in waves of confused anguish. He raised his glance to a place beyond our backs, beyond the bell tower that rose from the town’s piazza and toward the forested side of the mountain. He pointed his finger towards the slopes of Corno Nero where the trees were thickest.
“The monsters go there,” he said.
Rudy chuckled, and so did I.
“And what are these monsters like, weirdo?”
He shook his head. In his hand he held an empty beer bottle that trembled to the rhythm of his withdrawal spasms.
“Come on, tell us. What are they like? Are they scary?”
A line of tears emerged from the weirdo’s eyes. His face shone with sweat behind his slovenly, shabby beard.
I fell quiet and listened, at once feeling bad for him and fascinated by his strange spectacle.
First he shook his head left and right to say no, he didn’t want to talk about it. Then up and down: yes, the monsters were scary. Extremely so, it seemed. Then he started crying all over again.
“Come on, stop,” I said to Rudy. “Let’s leave him alone.”
Rudy leapt from the stone wall we’d been sitting on. He drew near the weirdo in spite of the stench rising off of him. He followed his gaze towards the mountain, as if he were hoping for a glimpse of them, the monsters in the woods.
“So many teeth,” the man said, making us jump. He whimpered like a child and his voice, scared and desperate, gave me chills, this time for real.
“Teeth, teeth, teeth . . . ”
Rudy took a step back, putting distance between them, as if the insanity of the man were contagious.
“Their eyes are scars. Their fingers are thorns,” the old man continued, drunk. Now that he’d started speaking, it seemed like he couldn’t stop, that he needed to expel the horror that ate away at him or he’d be ripped apart from the inside out.
“They laugh and tear their victims to pieces and eat them. Watching them is bad for you. Seeing them is bad for you . . . ”
He shook his head in every direction, like a fly imprisoned under a glass. A dark stain grew between his legs, dampening his wrinkled pants, already stained elsewhere. Rudy crinkled his nose, disgusted by the acrid, pungent smell. While I stood up on the edge of the wall, Mr. Vanti, out of breath, emerged from the house in front of us. He and his family had rented the Plove maso for the summer.
Giving us a crooked glance, Mr. Vanti crossed over the dark statin between the weirdo’s legs and wrinkled his forehead, perplexed and disgusted. He opened his mouth to say something but stopped. He seemed upset. Wheezing, he reached his car parked in front of the house, turned on the ignition, and drove away, swerving along the pavement for a bit before regaining control.
I shook my head just like the weirdo had moments before. To heed the town’s gossip, it appeared that Mr. Vanti wanted to write a novel: horror or science fiction, on what people disagreed, but he needed peace and tranquility to concentrate. He didn’t seem the type for dramatic stories. His tiny, bleary eyes behind thick glasses and his receding, messy hairline made him seem overwhelmingly dull, but I didn’t let appearances deceive me. His wife instead was pleasant. Gossip circulated town about her too, but of a much different color. Their son would have been old enough to play with Rudy and me, but he seemed to have the same introverted and bashful character of his father. We’d seen him a couple of times, but we’d never had a way to reach him since they’d arrived in town a few weeks ago.
Not like we lost any sleep over it, though, Rudy and I.
We weren’t crazy about outsiders. The opposite actually. With condescension, they always looked us up and down. As if we were mountain boars to their civilized, city eyes.
We take care of our own, though.
“Stop it, weirdo,” I said, raising my palms in a show of peace. “I’ll get you something to drink, but just calm down, okay?”
Rudy nodded and I turned, disappearing into my mom’s shop, the only grocery store in business after the economic crisis made its way to our tiny valley.
There were only a few people inside, and Mom was busy helping them. Without making myself seen, I slipped into the alcohol aisle and plucked a cheap carton of wine. With the heat baking outside, the dusty cool of the small shop was pleasant. It brought back fragments of memories from childhood spent playing with tiny soldiers and dinosaurs between the store’s shelves. I sighed and returned to Rudy.
The weirdo’s eyes were down, holding in shameful contempt the dark and pesky mark between his legs.
“Take it, old man. This is for you, but don’t tell my mom I gave it to you. Otherwise I’ll be in big trouble, and you’ll never see any more where that came from.”
The man raised his yellow eyes, staring at me. His lips trembled like a child’s.
He stretched the thin fingers of his hand and snatched the carton, drying his eyes with the wrist of his other.
“Give it,” Rudy said, grabbing from him the empty beer bottle before it could fall to the ground.
The weirdo went away in the same direction as Vanti, swallowed up by the dark profile of Corno Nero that foretold the Dolomites some ways off. He was already guzzling the wine, covetous in spite of the muggy heat. Maybe anxious to forget everything, seeking consolation in the next buzz.
The stories he told were entertaining but disturbing too. For him, they must’ve been much worse. A nightmare buried just beneath his skin. One from which he could never free himself. In a way that too was a monster, intent on chewing away at the weirdo day after day until it finally consumed him.
Rudy and I watched him stagger along the sidewalk, almost tripping and falling a few times.
The whirring of the cicadas was deafening.
Mr. Vanti disappeared a few days later.
Search teams were organized by Civil Protection and Alpine Rescue. Volunteer groups from town combed the slopes of the mountain, where his wife reported he often went to find inspiration for his book, but neither him nor his body were ever found.
The speculation most agreed upon was that he’d adventured along some unknown path. Lacking experience as he was, he got lost and succumbed to dehydration, slipping from an inaccessible cliff in his confusion. Or that he disappeared in one of the crevices that opened suddenly at the top, along the mountain’s steep sides.
His wife never seemed to find peace.
Everyone thought that she’d return to the city with her son once the search was suspended, but she stayed. She remained through the first half of July, continuing to live in the maso rented from the Ploves. She bought specialized gear from Ebner and every day, starting from where they’d found his abandoned car, she walked the trails around Corno Nero with Carlo Costner, the town’s alpine guide, calling the name of her missing husband.
During the day, Olga Plove kept her son company until around dusk, when the mother and guide returned home, exhausted. Once in a while, Rudy and I saw the boy squish his nose against the windows of the house, like a ghost lurking inside.
People shook their heads at her desperate, vain obstinacy. But nobody said anything. The woman, Sandra, paid well, and more importantly there were murmurs that Carlo had a soft spot for the young widow.
When we interrogated the weirdo about what could’ve happened to Mr. Vanti, we’d already been imagining what he would tell us. As horrible as a traffic accident may be, you can’t help but look when you pass. As scary as a story may be, you can’t help but listen. And find a perverse sense of pleasure in both cases. This simple truth must say a thing or two about the profound mystery of human nature, right?
“The monsters got him,” he said. “Ate him and spat him out.”
When he wasn’t aimlessly wandering the streets, searching for sips of something cheap, the weirdo was shut up in the vicinity of what remained of the Krone family poultry farm. Even though years had passed since the Krones had ceased activity and left town, the barns still smelled of the chicken shit that had impregnated everything inside, and it made your eyes water. But the place had retained a decadent charm, and kids from town went there when they wanted to be away from their parents, to smoke something, to get drunk on alcohol and music played at full volume.
To his womb, the old man cradled a bottle that smelled more like kerosene than wine. He didn’t look any better since we’d last seen him in front of my mother’s shop. If it was possible, he actually seemed even more worn out.
“He was looking for monsters in the woods, for his book. And the monsters got him,” the weirdo repeated. He didn’t look at me or Rudy. He just rocked the bottle like a newborn, every so often sending a sip of what it contained down his bristly throat.
“Monsters,” I repeated. “On the mountain.”
The weirdo nodded, his eyes wet with tears. He shook his head. “I told him not to go. That the forest isn’t safe, but nobody listens to me. Nobody listens to a drunk.”
He took a gulp more generous than the last. Red liquid, so deep it looked like blood gushing from a wound, traced the angles of his jaw. Against his rotten, dark teeth, it made quite the impression.
“You’ve got to stop telling these stories,” Rudy said. His voice sounded severe in the shadows of the barn, but even he seemed unsettled now.
The weirdo’s eyes floated in Rudy’s direction.
“They’re not stories,” he protested.
Rudy took a step back, but the old man sprung up and snatched his wrist, bearing down with fingers like hooks, nails thick and yellow. A strangled, surprised shout echoed among the rafters.
“The monsters go there, to the woods. When they’re hungry. The stranger wanted to know, to write about them. I showed him the way. I accompanied him.”
Rudy tugged his arm to free himself, but the weirdo didn’t let up.
The tension and stink of chicken shit started to make me nauseous.
“He promised to get me a drink if I could lead him to the Corno, so I brought him there.”
The weirdo started to cry and laugh at the same time, making everything more horrible than it already was.
“It started getting dark. I told him we’d better go. I showed him the slash marks on the tree trunks, the nests where the monsters romp when they’re in heat, but the stranger didn’t listen to me. He had his book to write . . . his story to tell.”
The old man smiled between tears and hawked a cud of snot and liquor at Rudy’s feet, barely missing. The bottle in his lap rolled to the ground without shattering. If it had, maybe it would’ve been enough to break the spell that enthralled us in his ranting, to stop his raving. But nothing like it happened.
“I heard them coming, so I hid.”
I heard them coming.
“The stranger hid too, but they smelled him. Outsiders have a different smell. Outsiders are different. Monsters can tell.”
Rudy tugged his arm again to free himself, but this time with less conviction.
I swallowed the thick knot that had come up my throat.
The weirdo’s eyes thrust open. There was no light in them.
“They jumped on him, barking, laughing. Thorns and talons. Teeth, so many teeth. Eyes like scars. I didn’t want to look, but then the stranger started to scream. His screams were horrible. Horrible to the ears and flesh. He screamed until the monsters ate his tongue. Until they ate his face and ground his bones with their teeth.”
The weirdo released Rudy’s wrist so he could clamp his hands over his ears. Raking his skin with those nails.
“Stop it! Now!” I shouted. “Stop it, Grandpa . . . ”
Rudy cursed, withdrawing from the weirdo’s range. He definitely didn’t want to end up in his clutches again.
“Let’s get out of here!” he ordered. He was upset, and so was I.
All of a sudden, the weirdo didn’t just seem bizarre. The stories he told were absolutely not funny.
We left him to crumple into himself, whimpering. Broken.
A clump of fear and remorse. And who knows what else.
Outside, despite the stuffiness, the limpid air shocked us. The day blinded us, making us stagger as we ran off, just as the weirdo stumbled the last time we’d seen him, before Mr. Vanti disappeared in the mountains.
Inside the barn, I heard him crying, hitting himself and moaning. I was tempted to go back, to try calming him in some way. Instead I ran faster to not be left behind by Rudy.
Days passed, summer birthed Ferragosto, and I stopped thinking about the weirdo, not having seen him around town.
When I hinted at him with Rudy, he just shrugged his shoulders. He would never admit it to me, but with his stories, the weirdo had managed to make him nervous. And, to tell the truth, I found the same inquietude. As a result, neither of us ever felt compelled to talk about it. But so what? It was only the weirdo. Every town had to have one. The proverbial village idiot who nobody cared for. Why worry about him?
Maybe I would’ve forgotten about everything if he hadn’t, in his way, reappeared by surprise like a grotesque jack-in-the-box, one that scared the life out of you when you least expected it.
I’d woken up in the middle of the night, sweating and uncomfortable from the oppressive heat. I got up, meaning to get something cool to drink from the fridge and then go back to bed. If I still couldn’t go to sleep, maybe I’d have read one of those horror novels like the ones that guy from out of town had never been able to write.
But when I passed the open window, I heard murmurs below on the street. I looked out, thinking for whatever reason that it was Rudy, but I spotted the weirdo. Even from behind, he was unmistakable because of that unhinged contour.
The light of the lamppost cast an extremely long shadow that reached our house, above my mother’s grocery store.
The weirdo was murmuring something to nobody. An incomprehensible litany from far away.
At first, I thought he was delusional, maybe suffering one of his usual nightmares, but then I saw the Vanti’s son glued to the window of his bedroom.
He was pale, like the ghost Rudy and I thought he was, with enormous eyes. Bigger even than the weirdo’s. He didn’t say anything. He listened.
It was the weirdo who spoke.
The Vanti’s son became even whiter, fading, while the weirdo filled his ears with his stories. All of a sudden, the boy raised his head in my direction, staring at me. His eyes were metal coins that reflected the opaque glow of the moon above. Just like one of the monsters the weirdo talked about.
The monsters in the woods.
Despite the oppressive humidity, I shivered.
“Honey, is that you?”
I jumped. A swear slipped from my mouth, and I hoped it didn’t reach my parents’ room.
“Yeah, Mom,” I said, trying to regain control of my heartbeat. “It’s hot. I just got up for a glass of water.”
“Okay, love. ’Night,” she murmured, and I heard her roll over in bed, seeking sleep again.
When I turned back to face the Plove maso, the weirdo was gone, as if he’d never been there.
And so was the Vanti’s son.
My heart cursed them both for the scare they’d given me. I went back to bed and didn’t close my eyes until morning.
It was only a few days later that Sandra, the Vanti widow, burst into the town’s bar.
She seemed distraught, close to a nervous meltdown. She shouted something that nobody could comprehend. Rudy and I were there to buy some pastries for his father’s birthday.
“Tommy went up the mountain. He left a note,” she stammered, eating her words in her passion.
Ebner, who had sold her the mountain gear, was sitting at a table with some other regulars. He knit his brow, perplexed.
“Tommaso . . . my son! He’s disappeared too. He’s convinced that his father’s been eaten by some monsters on your goddamned mountain!”
The woman shook her head, maybe surprised by her accusations.
Rudy and I glanced at each other. Until then, we hadn’t had the slightest idea what the kid’s name was. All summer he’d just been a ghostly, marginal presence like one from the weirdo’s worrisome stories.
Carlo entered the bar, accompanied by Olga Plove, who must’ve run to warn him in the meantime. I saw him draw near Sandra Vanti and squeeze her shoulder, slowly but firmly, as if to instill in her courage or at least some calm.
“We’ll organize a search team immediately,” he said.
“We’ll find him.”
Ebner nodded and stood up, followed by his friends. “He’s only a boy. Even though he has a head start, he couldn’t have gone too far.”
Sandra Vanti exploded in tears.
Rosa gave her a glass of water from behind the bar. The woman drank it in disheveled gulps.
“Let’s not waste any time,” Carlo said. “If we go now, we can find him before he even realizes he’s lost.”
He smiled at Sandra, encouragingly, and when his gaze met Ebner’s, the old man nodded at him.
We took to the streets, towards Corno Nero.
Despite Carlo Costner’s reassurances, the afternoon drew to an end and shadows began sharpening in the golden light before sunset.
Following the alpine guide and Sandra, the townspeople turned toward the mountain, where the boy seemed to have gone in search of his missing father. In the heart of the forest. Where the weirdo insisted the monsters lived.
At least a dozen volunteers must have answered her plea.
Nobody told us to turn around, so Rudy and I also joined, but we lingered in the back of the group.
The asphalt in town quickly gave way to the dirt road that climbed the side of Corno Nero. Other people from town joined us before the forest became too thick. Among them was the weirdo, appearing suddenly by my side, hunched and shabby as usual.
A half-empty bottle of who knows what in hand.
He cried. He drank and cried. Rudy watched him with disgust.
I thought that the kid must’ve listened to his stories that night, when I saw them confabbing in the street from the hall window. The weirdo’s monsters who’d devoured his father. If the brat had decided to make sure in person, he was either very brave or very stupid. Because he came from out of town, I’d bet on the latter without hesitation.
The weirdo must’ve been overcome with guilt, but he still made me feel bad.
He was old. Life had had its time to show him its worst, to sow him with daily pettiness and banal horrors. Years ago, even he had once been young, like Rudy, like me.
And if now he was just a poor drunk, it hadn’t been wine that made him snap. No, alcohol was just relief, spilled profusely over the thousands of wounds that marked him, where life had bent him, a long time ago.
But the weirdo was one of ours.
While he cried, we passed into land where the trees thickened. Up ahead, Sandra called for her son in vain. The light of the moribund day was by now too weak for us to ascend the mountain. The dark muddled everything. Shadows appeared alive. Or hid something in ambush among them.
Up ahead, it seemed that the boy had been found.
Dusk was a shroud that the night stripped to reveal itself naked to the dark heart of the mountain.
Around us, the debarked trees seemed livid bones, planted in the ground. Pagan totems for forgotten gods.
I watched the weirdo through the scars I had for eyes.
A viscous serum oozed from my eyelids, dirtying the bristly coat that grew on me, confusing me a bit.
Rudy ran next to me, unconcerned about the branches that lashed his face, his nude body covered in thorns.
I watched and laughed.
I couldn’t do anything about it. The smell of their blood and the excitement soaking in the humid air were to blame.
The woods crackled with our laughter.
The weirdo, instead, continued crying, his eyes wide through the dark. Inside the dark.
The weirdo saw the truth in things. He saw people for the monsters that they were.
When we reached her, Sandra was on her knees in a bed of grass and leaves that tasted like flesh and love, for those fortunate to recognize the taste. She hugged her son, crying desperate, candid relief, sinking her face into his shoulders.
Beyond her hug, the kid fixed us with wide eyes.
I knew what he was thinking.
Here they are, the weirdo’s monsters.
Here’s who ate my dad.
Without words, his glass stare inspected us with marvelous horror. And we all surrounded him, waiting.
Ebner, with his rack of sharp, twisted antlers. Rosa, naked and covered in scales. Olga Plove, on four paws, snorting, trembling, gluttonous tongue passing over and over two lines of nipples that dotted her obese, boar’s stomach. Carlo, covered in lips, mouths curling in smiles full of teeth. Rudy. Me.
“Mom,” the boy said.
Sandra pulled herself from him, maybe struck by his rigidity, his raspy voice.
Carlo Costner leapt on her first, with all of his mouths open wide. The gossip in town didn’t lie after all: he really did have a soft spot for the young widow. The rest of us followed suit and jumped on them. We don’t get too many foreigners around here anymore.
Ours was a small town in the mountains.
She screamed for a long time. Her howls muddled with our laughter. With our deaf snapping, growling, and lapping.
“Mom,” the boy repeated, surprised, bewildered.
I sprang forward and ripped off his arm at his elbow. Hot blood, flowing generously, overwhelmed me. The next instant, Rudy jumped at his throat. We fought for a second or two. Hunger frequently caused these fights, but once everyone had gotten their share, nobody cared about anything else.
While we chewed, lost in strange, beautiful dreams, the weirdo’s crying accompanied our meal.
As much as we didn’t like outsiders, I have to admit that the taste is perfect.
We take care of our own, though.
Even when they open their mouths too much.
Even when they threaten to betray our secret, going out and telling stories about the monsters that live in the mountains for all to hear. To whoever cares to listen.
To whoever is naive enough to smile, listening to them, trading the truth for the deliria of a weirdo.