Many are the tales that may be told about mothers.
For several weeks now the town had been surrounded by a close ring of armed foes. Of nights bonfires were lit and a multitude of fiery red eyes looked out from the darkness upon the walls. They glowed ominously, these fires, as if warning the inhabitants of the town. And the thoughts they conjured up were of a gloomy kind.
From the walls it was apparent that the noose of foes was being drawn tighter and tighter. Black shadows could be seen moving this way and that about the fires. The neighing of well-fed horses could be heard, and the clatter of arms and the loud laughter and merry songs of men confident of victory—and what is more painful to listen to than the laughter and songs of the foe?
The enemy had filled with corpses the streams which supplied the town with water; they had burned down the vineyards around the town, trampled down the fields, and cut down the trees of the neighbourhood, leaving the town exposed on all sides; and almost every day missiles of iron and lead were poured into it by the guns and rifles of the foe.
Detachments of half-starved soldiers, tired out by skirmishes, passed along the narrow streets of the town; from the windows of the houses come the groans of wounded, the raving of men in delirium, the prayers of women and the crying of children. Everybody spoke quietly, in subdued tones, interrupting one another’s speech in the middle of a word to listen intently to detect whether the foe was not commencing to storm the town.
Life became especially unbearable in the evening, when the groans and cries became louder and more noticeable in the stillness, when blue-black shadows crept from the far-off mountain gorges, hiding the enemy’s camp and moving towards the half-shattered walls, and, over the black summits of the mountains, the moon appeared, like a lost shield battered by the blows of heavy swords.
Expecting no assistance from without, spent with toil and hunger, and losing hope more and more every day, the people looked fearfully at the moon, at the sharp crests and the black gorges of the mountains, at the noisy camp of the enemy—everything spoke to them of death and no single star twinkled solace to them.
They were afraid to light lamps in the houses; a thick fog enveloped the streets, and in this fog, like a fish at the bottom of a river, a woman flitted silently to and fro, wrapped from head to foot in a black mantle.
People, noticing her, asked one another:
“Is it she?”
And they drew back into the recesses of the doorways or, lowering their heads, ran past her silently. The men in charge of the patrols warned her sternly:
“You are in the street again, Monna Marianna? Have a care! They may kill you and no one will trouble to search for the culprit.”
She stood erect and waited, but the patrol passed her by, either hesitating or not wishing to harm her. Armed men walked round her as if she had been a corpse. Yet she lingered on in the darkness, moving slowly from street to street, solitary, silent and black, seeming the personification of the town’s misfortunes. And around her, mournfully pursuing her, surged depressing sounds: groans, sobs, prayers, and the grim talk of soldiers who had lost all hope of victory.
She was a citizen and a mother, and her thoughts were of her son and of the town of her birth. And her son, a handsome but gay and heartless youth, was at the head of the men who were destroying the town. Not long ago she had looked at him with pride, as upon her precious gift to the fatherland, as upon a beneficent force created by her for the welfare of the town, her birthplace, and the place also where she had borne and brought up her son. Hundreds of indissoluble ties bound her heart to the ancient stones, out of which her ancestors had built the houses and the city walls; to the soil in which lay the bones of her kindred; to the legends, songs and hopes of her native people. And this heart now had lost him whom it had loved most and it was rent in twain; it was like a balance in which her love for her son was being weighed against her love for the town. And it was not possible yet to decide which love outweighed the other.
In this state of mind she walked the streets at night, and many, not recognising her, were frightened, thinking that the dark figure was the personification of Death which was so near to them all; those that recognised her stepped hurriedly out of her way to avoid the traitor’s mother.
Once, in a deserted corner of the city wall, she came across another woman: she was kneeling by the side of a corpse, and praying with face uplifted to the stars; on the wall, above her head, sentinels were talking quietly; their guns clattered as they knocked against the projecting stones of the wall.
The traitor’s mother inquired:
“Son. My husband was killed thirteen days ago; this one to-day.”
And, rising, the mother of the dead man said humbly:
“The Madonna sees everything, she knows everything, and I thank her!”
“What for?” asked Marianna, and the other replied:
“Now that he has fallen with honour, fighting for his fatherland, I can say that he sometimes caused me anxiety: he was reckless, fond of pleasure, and I feared lest for that reason he might betray the town, as Marianna’s son has done, the enemy of God and men, the leader of our foes; accursed be he and accursed be the womb that bore him!”
Covering her face Marianna hurried away. The next day she went to the defenders of the town and said:
“Either kill me because my son has become your enemy, or open the gate for me, that I may go to him.”
“You are a citizen, and the town should be dear to you; your son is just as much your enemy as he is ours.”
“I am his mother: I love him and deem it to be my fault that he is what he is.”
Then they consulted together as to what should be done and came to this decision:
“We cannot, in honour, kill you for your son’s sin; we know you could not have suggested this terrible sin to him; and we can guess how you must be suffering. You are not wanted by the town, even as a hostage; your son does not trouble himself about you; we think he has forgotten you, the fiend—and therein lies your punishment, if you think you have deserved it! To us it seems more terrible than death!”
“Yes,” she said; “it is more terrible.”
They opened the gate for her, and let her out of the town. For a long time they watched her from the wall as she made her way over this native soil, sodden now with blood shed by her son. She walked slowly, dragging her feet painfully through the mire, bowing her head before the corpses of the defenders of the town and repugnantly spurning the pieces of broken weapons that lay in her path—for mothers hate the instruments of destruction, believing only in that which preserves life.
She walked carefully, as though she carried under her cloak a bowl full of some liquid which she was afraid of spilling. And as she went on, as her figure grew smaller and smaller, it seemed to those who watched her from the wall that their former depression and hopelessness were disappearing with her.
They saw her stop when she had covered half the distance, and, throwing back her hood, gaze long at the town. Beyond, in the enemy’s camp, they had also noticed her advancing alone through the deserted fields; figures, as black as herself, cautiously approached her. They went up to her, asked her who she was and whither she was going.
“Your leader is my son,” she said, and none of the soldiers doubted her words. They walked by her side, speaking in terms of praise of the bravery and cleverness of their leader. She listened to them, her head raised proudly in the air and showing not the least surprise. That was just how her son should be!
And now she stands before the man whom she knew nine months before his birth; before him whom she had never put out of her heart. And he stands before her, in silk and velvet, and wearing a sword ornamented with precious stones. In everything fit and seemly, exactly as she had seen him many a time in her dreams—rich, famous and beloved!
“Mother!” he said, kissing her hands. “You come to me; it means that you have understood me, and to-morrow I will capture this accursed town!”
“In which you were born,” she reminded him.
Intoxicated by his exploits, maddened by the desire for still greater glory, he spoke to her with the insolent pride of youth.
“I was born into the world and for the world, in order to strike it with astonishment! I spared this town for your sake—it is like a splinter in my foot and hinders me from advancing to fame as quickly as I could wish. But either to-day or tomorrow I will destroy the nest of these stubborn ones!”
“Where every stone knows you and remembers you as a child,” she said.
“Stones are dumb; if men cannot make them speak let mountains speak of me—that is what I want!”
“But the people?” she asked.
“O yes, I remember them, mother. I need them also, for only in the memories of people are heroes immortal.”
“He is a hero who creates life, spiting death, who conquers death.”
“No,” he replied. “He who destroys becomes as famous as he who builds cities. For instance, we do not know whether Æneas or Romulus built Rome, but we know the name of Alaric and the other heroes who destroyed it.”
“It has outlived all names,” the mother suggested.
In this strain he spoke to her till sunset. She interrupted his vain talk less frequently and her proud head gradually drooped.
A mother creates, she preserves, and to talk about destruction in her presence is to speak against her understanding of life. But not knowing this the son was denying all that life meant for his mother.
A mother is always against death, and the hand that introduces death into people’s dwellings is hateful and hostile to all mothers. But the son did not see it, blinded by the cold gleam of glory which kills the heart.
And he did not know that a mother can be just as resourceful, just as pitiless and fearless as an animal, when it concerns life which the mother herself creates and preserves.
She sat limply, with head bowed down. Through the open mouth of the rich tent of the leader could be seen the town where she had thrilled to the conception and travailed in the birth of this her firstborn child, whose only wish now was to destroy.
The purple rays of the sun bathed in blood the walls and towers of the town, the window-panes glistened ominously; the whole town seemed to be wounded, and from its hundreds of wounds streamed the red blood of life. Time went on, and the town grew black, like a corpse, and the stars like funeral candles were lit above it.
She saw with her mind’s eye the dark houses where they were afraid to light the lamps, for fear of attracting the attention of the enemy; and the dark streets filled with the odour of corpses and the subdued whispers of people awaiting death—she saw everything and all; everything that was native and familiar to her stood out before her, awaiting her decision in silence, and she felt that she was the mother of all the people of her native town.
From the dark mountain-tops clouds descended into the valley, and like winged coursers sped upon the doomed town.
“Perhaps we shall make an attack to-night,” said her son, “if the night is dark enough! It is not easy to kill when the sun looks into one’s eyes and the glitter of the weapons blinds one—many blows are wasted then,” said he, examining his sword.
“Come here,” said his mother; “put your head on my breast; rest a while, and recall to your mind how happy and kind you were as a child, and how everybody loved you.”
He obeyed, knelt against her and said, closing his eyes:
“I love only glory and you, because you bore me as I am.”
“But women?” she asked, bending over him.
“There are many of them, one soon tires of them, as of everything sweet.”
And finally she asked him:
“Do you not wish to have children?”
“Why? In order that they may be killed? Somebody like me would kill them; it would grieve me, and no doubt I should be too old then, and too weak, to avenge them.”
“You are handsome, but as sterile as the lightning,” she said, sighing.
He answered, smiling:
“Yes, as the lightning.”
And he fell asleep on her breast like a child.
Then she covered him with her black cloak and plunged a knife into his heart. He shuddered, and died instantaneously, for she, his mother, knew well where her son’s heart beat. And having pushed the corpse off her knees to the feet of the astonished guards, she said, pointing in the direction of the town:
“As a citizen I have done all I could for my fatherland: as a mother I remain with my son! It is too late for me to give birth to another, my life is of no use to anyone.”
And the same knife, still warm with his blood—her blood—she plunged into her own bosom, and doubtless struck the heart. When one’s heart aches it is easy to strike it without missing.