My shop, the finest in the village, stocks all sorts of goods, many exclusively available from me, so that it is no idle boast to say that everybody hereabouts is my customer, even my competitors. All the same, I am not so wealthy as to invite envy, and my family lives no differently from our neighbors. My success is precarious; I am never free of anxiety over the business. My wife worries even more than I do. Twice a day, and sometimes more, she totes up our assets and liabilities, fussing over them as if they were twins, one bad and the other good. Whenever I place an order she is in a state of tension until it arrives, and if it is late she becomes despondent and has to be soothed every half hour.
My wife and I have a standing agreement with a cousin of hers who moved to the capital eight years ago. This cousin was a restless youth and now he is a capricious man, not completely dependable. His whimsical character causes my wife no end of apprehension, since our business has come to depend on him. When, out of disgust with the situation here, out of boredom and dreams, he set out for the city my wife made him a list of goods we wanted for our trade. We agreed on a commission of ten percent of the wholesale price of any of them he could procure and arrange to ship to us. Over my wife’s objections, I also empowered him to use his initiative should he come across promising items not on the list. The agreement has proved profitable, overall, but is not without problems. Sometimes, perhaps out of absent-mindedness or the wish to have a joke at my expense, he will send us useless items, such as the two crates of rotten oranges that arrived last week, or the shipment of satin ball gowns I had from him seven months ago. Well, this is not so bad, I tell my wife. Life is probably hard for him in the city; he must miss his family and no doubt these little jokes comfort him and make him feel closer to us. One must make allowances, I tell her as she wrings her hands. Far more serious is the number of shipments that never reach us at all; for whether they arrive or not I have to pay up, including the cousin’s ten percent. What becomes of these consignments is impossible to say. If I could hope to prevent these losses knowing might matter; however, there is no way to do so. They simply do not arrive and so must be written off. On these occasions my poor wife takes to her bed, cursing her cousin and breathing with difficulty. Some of these shipments may exist only on paper, as my wife contends, accusing the cousin of cheating us. Some may fall off the wagons that bounce along the rough mountain tracks that must be crossed to reach our village. It’s probable that others are appropriated by freight agents who, underpaid as they are, believe they are entitled to pilfer and see nothing wrong with it. The greatest number of lost items, however, are stolen by bandits, at least if the carters are to be believed. These thieves are also my customers, at least on occasion, men of the Scoti and the Scuti.
These clans hate each other, and it is their whims and moods that control the weather of life in our village. I call them bandits and thieves because I am, after all, their victim, but perhaps these words are misleading. After all, bandits care about the things they steal whereas the men who hold up the wagons will frequently pass over valuable items—not only bulky ones like a piano, a bedstead, or a table, but even easily portable ones like linen and jewelry—for such trifles as rubber bands and pots of glue. In other words, the Scoti and Scuti steal for the thrill of stopping the wagons and frightening the drivers; they rob for the love of robbing, because it is their way of life and also because it undermines ours, which they despise. As for material goods, they do not want much, given their primitive mode of living and ignorance of money matters. Though my losses are substantial and, in fact, make it impossible for our business ever to be secure, these are as nothing beside what must go on up in the mountains where the Scoti and the Scuti carry on their interminable feud, stealing things of vital importance to them like horses, slaughtering each other over the smallest slight. Though I have never been able to discover the origin of the vendetta—when Scoti are asked they always snarl and curse the Scuti and vice versa—the bad blood between them is the chief fact of their lives. Their feud is the armature that gives their miserable lives what meaning they have and is never for a moment forgotten by them, cannot be forgotten just because it provides the content of their lives. We villagers would like nothing better than to be free of the Scoti and Scuti and their interminable feud; we do not take sides or care who is up and who down but, neutral though we are, it is our misfortune to be trapped between them.
Like a child stared on by half a dozen captious aunts and uncles, our village crouches in a valley under six mountains. Maybe it is because our ancestors abandoned them that we can’t help feeling the everlasting peaks are vexed with us. Why did our forebears come down from the heights? It might have been the hope of an easier and more sophisticated life in a town, or the wish to live in stone houses and take up new work, or just the longing for the stability of flatness. I’ve given the question some thought and, in my opinion, it was the powerful yearning to escape the narrowness and bigotry of those mountain defiles and join the wider world beyond, a craving that we feel every bit as strongly today. And this is why, to us, the mountains are not beautiful, are not noble peaks, but so many reproaches and the high doors of a prison. We also dislike the mountains because they are where the Scoti and Scuti dwell. To them we are no better than apostates and weaklings. They take malicious pleasure in seeing how their mountains keep us from getting more than a few hours of full sunlight even in high summer. On the other hand, if the mountain folk were ever to be candid with themselves—though honest reflection is something of which they are incapable—they might acknowledge the benefits they derive from us and give us our due. We are their marketplace, their recreation spa, purveyors of those few luxuries they can no longer do without. Above all, we are the buffer that prevents an all-out war between them, the spring that absorbs their aggression, the valve through which they blow off excess steam. Moreover, they find our young women irresistible and why should this be if not because the girls were reared in the village and not in the mountains? You can see the almost indecent hunger on their young men’s faces whenever one of our girls walks by. They are excited by our girls’ beauty but what really awes them is the girls’ freedom to walk alone in public, to walk with one another and not with a man, liberties which the Scoti and Scuti find titillating and which, with a hardly concealed lasciviousness, they long to crush. Scoti and Scuti women are hardly ever seen in the village. It is not permitted.
The two highest pinnacles are covered with snow year-round but the others are brown. Tough, stunted trees do grow on the slopes but there is not enough water to sustain real forests. So the Scoti and Scuti use their herds’ dung for fuel and consequently they stink of it. The run-off in our valley is sufficient, with the little sun we get, for one crop of vegetables each year. Our greens are prized by the mountain people whose diet consists almost exclusively of meat and cheese, also a disgusting porridge made from goats’ blood mixed with wild barley from their high meadows. No doubt the austerity and harshness of life up there encourages their vendetta. All their songs are about their feuds; all celebrate theft, rape, and revenge. Fed on these verses it is little wonder that the young men come into town spoiling for a fight and rejoice when they find one. Few of these brawls are with us, however. This is not just because we are careful to avoid giving offense either to Scoti or Scuti but because their contempt makes us, in their eyes, unworthy even of beating. These young men live outside themselves, in the eyes of others, and so honor is everything to them and there is little to be had in smashing a villager’s nose. The Scoti prefer, of course, to fight with the Scuti, and the Scuti are quick to go after the Scoti; but, failing that, the young men of both clans will choose to fight with one another before coming after us. Toward us their aggression takes the form of grabbing whatever they want, intimidating our young men, ogling and beguiling our daughters. It is terrible to be laughed at but what is worse is how well we have learned to bear it.
Though there are few assaults on us these days, we are under perpetual strain, always in expectation of an attack; for there was a time not long ago when the Scoti and Scuti both attempted to annex the village. This was not because either clan really wanted to rule over us—even they know they are not up to such responsibility—but to prevent the other from doing so. Both succeeded for brief periods but were quickly undermined by the other clan whose subversion strengthened our dogged efforts to regain our autonomy. Our sullen refusal to cooperate coupled with the opposing clan’s guerrilla tactics soon made the conquerors withdraw. In any case, neither group is able to bear village life for long. They ache to return to their mountains and, in their way, the Scoti and Scuti fear us, a notion which they would ridicule. Perhaps it would be more precise to say they are afraid of our influence on them, that we will soften them and make them like us. This fear also played a role in their so quickly giving up their grip on us. Both found that they preferred an independent village to one under their enemy’s thumb and so a kind of balance developed. This balance is in a way good for us, but it is likewise bad. Since neither Scoti nor Scuti have been able to defeat the other—and there is a serious question as to whether they would even desire to do so, despite their noisy and bloodthirsty oaths—interfering with us can serve as a surrogate for open warfare and its unreckonable cost. We are always there to provide a quick, if insignificant, victory, should one be needed. To be sure, there are economic benefits in controlling us; if there were not the Scoti clan would not have labored so hard to free us from the Scuti, nor the Scoti from the Scuti. Though it has been two years since either clan has made an attempt to move in on us we are never certain when conditions may change. The consequence is that the equilibrium in which we live is as precarious as a tightrope walker’s.
Though we never had to suffer the rule of either Scoti or Scuti for more than a few months this does not mean we are free. On the contrary, what passes for our freedom is almost worse than being occupied. An occupation is at least a certainty and one can make one’s accommodations, while the expectation of an attack that may or may not come forestalls planning and saps our hope. We have often thought we were again under attack when it was only a raid by a band of teenagers satisfied with a little vandalism. And yet each stone shattering a window could be the precursor of another all-out offensive. A policy of resistance, of armed self-defense, which might seem the best as well as the most honorable course in our circumstances, was only attempted once, under a mayor who had not been raised among us but had himself run away from the mountains as a boy. His policy was a catastrophe, for we could not match the ferocity or the skill of the mountain dwellers with their horses and marksmanship, their hardihood and their ruthlessness. The toughest among us was soft beside them, even the bellicose mayor whose strategy we had reluctantly adopted, more out of shame than from any hope of success. So it seemed to us fitting when he was the first to be killed. Since then we have made a law against any naturalized citizen becoming mayor. We are merchants and artisans, glaziers and potters; we are not warriors and don’t wish to be. Honor does not suit us. In fact, those of our young men who are drawn to the life of war usually slip away to join their distant relatives in the mountains and return as strangers, the most zealous of the bullies. But few of our sons have chosen this path. We have lost far more of our daughters than sons to the Scoti and the Scuti.
In the early days, before we had torn ourselves free from our roots among the mountain clans, a few village girls were married off in hopes of maintaining family ties and good relations with both the Scoti and Scuti. At least that is the official story. Though we never speak of such things, it is acknowledged that it was the girls who wished it. Nothing has changed in this regard. Every year some girl will fall in love with a brawny, foul-smelling herdsman who struts through our streets and disturbs our peace. These girls believe themselves unhappy in our narrow lanes and what they foolishly imagine to be the constraints of town life, with being too much indoors and under the eyes of their families. They complain that they cannot bear the prospect of becoming the wife of some shopkeeper or a smith. And so they go away and are married up there and are never seen again. These marriages cause us much sorrow. Not only do they deny parents the joy of being near their daughter and watching their grandchildren grow up but, collectively, they bind us to the Scoti and the Scuti and depress our population so that it has never grown to the point where we can dream of overcoming them by weight of numbers. As for the girls, it may be true that our lanes are narrow, that we get too little sunlight, even that our customs are strict; yet a girl’s life here is expansive and unfettered compared to what it is up there. We warn them that the Scoti and Scuti enforce rules of exacting rigor, especially on women. Have you asked yourself, we say, why you never see their women in town? Or why, if one does manage to sneak down here, she looks furtively left and right and gazes on our houses with envy? Haven’t you observed how their men cow them, the violence with which they throw their elbows and shoulders around? But such warnings are of little use. Young people always delude themselves just because they are young, especially those taken by the urge to go up into the mountains. They imagine freedom lies on the heights. They know that they are related either to the Scoti or the Scuti and so think of life up there as a return to authenticity. They even find the clans’ endless vendetta romantic. These girls are so confused that they endow those brutes with every kind of virtue, including tenderness. Who knows all they imagine? As for the strictures the Scoti and Scuti impose on females, these they underestimate or, if they do grasp a little of what it means to live up there, they see it as an antidote to the selfishness and aimlessness of adolescence. It is difficult to dissuade a young person who believes she is acting in the cause of virtue. It is usually the lonely ones, the dreamers, and also the most scrupulous who succumb to these illusions. The young cannot distinguish between feelings of loneliness and those of real individuality. And even if they are individuals in the full sense the best thing they can think of to do with their intense awareness of self—a sense that is always strongest at that age—is to throw it away by binding themselves to the Scoti or Scuti.
It may seem surprising that the laws of both clans are identical. In fact, to us the Scoti and the Scuti long ago became indistinguishable. The men wear the same wide trousers, tie the same bandanas around their throats, favor the same short beards, fringed jackets and white caps. They all speak the same dialect and are driven by the same passions—boundless self-regard as well as hatred of one another and disdain for us. Once again, we are ourselves, albeit in a vestigial sense, Scoti and Scuti. And since we villagers are descendants of the two feuding clans it has taken all the tact and eloquence of generations to overcome the temptation to fight among ourselves. We have not always succeeded. How could we with the constant provocations from the Scoti and the Scuti working in the shadows against our peace, plotting, spreading rumors, doing all they can to fracture our community and drive not one wedge but dozens of them deeper and deeper until, so to speak, we could be fragmented and even lose our identity as villagers; for what is our village but the place which has overcome the parochial allegiances and rancor of tribes in favor of a wider vision, one that yearns to become cosmopolitan? It would be surprising indeed if, under the perpetual strain of living between these two colossal, mutually repellent magnets, intermittently bullied and set upon by rowdy adolescents and their bloody-minded fathers, losing our wayward daughters and vain sons who dream vaguely of heroism on high—it would be surprising indeed if our village had escaped all civil conflict. In fact, hardly a month goes by without some incident—a window broken, a doorway defaced, a brawl among schoolboys, insults exchanged by angry drinkers. But these minor scuffles we have learned to endure and to suppress. The memory of what happened in our grandfathers’ time has not yet faded so completely that even the most partisan among us would again risk the massacres of that terrible year when the village came close to tearing itself to shreds, when everything we had built up almost unraveled like bad knitting, when those who imagined they were Scoti fought with those who supposed they were Scuti. Out of that time came new laws and a resolve never again to fall back into the barbarism of our forebears. In fact, a kind of pride took hold in us, not that of the mountain folk with their daggers and grudges, but the modest pride of civilization, which is always born of revulsion. Still, even with all this, the surest anchor of our village’s neutrality is simply our inability to tell Scoti from Scuti.
The mountain clans despise us for denying that we and they are the same people while at the same time declaring in every way that they are glad not to be like us—domesticated animals. It offends them that we should want to look beyond our valley and not be obsessed with their vendetta. At the very bottom of their contempt is the conviction that we have sold off our identity for elevated twaddle.
So the Scoti and Scuti scorn what the best of us hold dearest. “Gains usually show up before losses. Isn’t that so, shopkeeper? You villagers cower before us just the way you’re dong now. You tremble and bow,” roared a leonine old Scoti or Scuti to me while appropriating a few items from my shop. “This is despicable enough but it only hides something worse, that you’re actually proud of yourselves and believe you’ve become citizens of something called the world. Well, the truth is that all you’ve done is to stop being members of your clan. You think this is all to the good, but it isn’t. It’s like choosing nothing over something. You’ll find that out soon enough. It’s a lesson we’ll keep teaching you until it cuts through all that nonsense in your heads. You’ll see.” The old dog shook his fist in my face, smiling in a way that made me shiver and my wife cry out. Then he marched to the door and slammed it behind him.
Our situation is not completely hopeless. On the contrary, in fact. According to a letter I’ve had from the cousin, in the capital they are talking about building a new highway into our region, perhaps even a railroad, in which case our village is bound to flourish. We will spread out; we will grow larger and larger until the Scoti and the Scuti will be no more to us than so many fleas. Instead of our young people impetuously running off to join them it will be their young who steal away to find a richer life with us. Even if this rumor of the new highway should prove false there is still the hope that the Scoti and Scuti will forget all about us and finally fall on one another with all the murderousness they have held in check and so annihilate each other.
In the meanwhile, even if we cannot flourish, we can endure. We can sit by our windows dreaming of better times when the mountains, whose stillness is now a constantly looming threat in the corner of our eyes, deepening the darkness of our dusks, immovable ghosts of a past we have relinquished, will have proper houses at their bases, tilled terraces on their flanks, and peaks that will no longer glare down on us but stretch upwards towards a heaven that is empty but clean.