The following short story “La coda” (“The Tail”) comes from Luigi Malerba’s posthumous collection Sull’orlo del cratere (2018, On The Edge of the Crater). It has been translated from the Italian by Anna Chiafele and Lisa Pike.
Are the colors of butterflies hereditary? Does the ox prefer grass eaten in the meadow to grass brought up from the stomach during rumination? Is that what it is called then, rumination, the act of ruminating? Thoughts ran lazily in the half-sleep, one after the other. Barberis got up out of bed and looked out the window. But why is it that I always end up thinking about beasts? From the street you could hear the usual routine of the garbage truck that chewed up the waste of the surrounding streets. Seen from here, up high, it looked like a toad. Once again, a beast. Barberis put the coffee on the stove while he finished getting dressed.
It was weeks, months now that an idea kept going around in his head. Enough! That morning Barberis had decided that he couldn’t go on pretending, there’s a limit to everything. You can fool your fellowman for years, but the moment of truth finally arrives. Like in a bullfight. Barberis’ mind continued to wander, this always happened to him before coffee. Also afterwards, at times. It was eight-thirty. From Olimpica Street you could hear the firefighters’ sirens. Here are the firefighters, he told himself, or perhaps instead the police. He drank his coffee and picked up the phone to call his fiancée.
I’ve decided,” he said “I’ve decided that now is enough.”
The fiancée didn’t understand, asked for explanations. Barberis didn’t want to explain, he continued to repeat: enough, enough. And then hung up the receiver. Immediately afterward the phone rang.
“What do you mean, “enough”? What did I do to you?”
Barberis said nothing at all and hung up again. He didn’t answer when the phone rang a second time. He went in front of the mirror of the armoire, and the phone continued to ring, adjusted his tie, bustled about with both hands behind his back, turned to look at himself.
“Here, I have a tail, and now what?”
He had a tail. A real tail, flexible like that of a horse, restless like that of a lizard, with soft fur like that of a fox, a beautiful reddish brown color that matched his slate grey jacket. Barberis walked back and forth looking at himself in the mirror, in the meantime the phone continued to ring. He observed his gait, he tried to keep his hands in his pockets. The man he saw in the mirror was he, Barberis, and not some other. Now I’m going out, he said, and left.
To reach the office, he had to go uphill to Salaria Street, walk for a few hundred metres on Salaria, then for a stretch along Regina Boulevard. The passersby pretended nothing was wrong, some of them turned away so as not to see or lowered their eyes. A small boy holding his mother’s hand let out a scream of surprise and got a smack in return. Barberis expected that people would laugh and instead they all became serious and a bit embarrassed. No one was laughing. Then he stopped putting on an air of defiance and continued to walk calmly toward the small building of the Banheim Auto Insurance.
Everything appeared to be going smoothly, but in reality it was not. A man with a white head stopped to look at Barberis with ostentation and then said that it was a disgrace. He had seen him other times, that man with the white head. They called him the Minister but perhaps he was only a retired functionary of one the ministries, or maybe he really was a Minister, and if he wasn’t, he could easily be one. He lived on Bruxelles Road, which was already a sign of distinction, he went around wearing a hat and tie even in August. Conformist and reactionary Barberis thought without stopping. The Minister walked with tottering steps towards a traffic police officer directing traffic at the intersection of Panama Street, took him by the sleeve and dragged him towards Barberis. The officer was young and awkward. He approached Barberis, nodded slightly while with two fingers touching his beret, and asked him to follow him to headquarters.
“What did I do wrong?”
And tripping over his words, the other said that a traffic police officer has the authority, in short the power to lead a citizen to headquarters. For some clarifications. The two set off, followed by the Minister’s look of disgust.
The head of the traffic police officers immediately noticed the tail, gave the inexperienced officer a dark look, and took note of his registration number. He could smell trouble a mile away, he could. After the identification, he immediately began to lecture.
“Do you realize, Mr. Barberis, what you are doing? Do you know what kind of thing you might be up against?”
“Up against what?”
The chief didn’t even know himself. His words mixed in with the sounds of the traffic, his threats became increasingly vague. He made some uncertain conjectures and a wrong comparison. In the end he proposed that Barberis remove his tail or at least hide it under his suit.
The chief searched for words of persuasion, whispered something in his ear, but there was no means of making him budge. Then he said that he was forced to give him a ticket, to report him, in short, to take measures.
“Does a law exist that prohibits having a tail? And if one has a tail, is there a law that orders it to be kept hidden?”
The chief looked Barberis in the eye.
“Think for a moment what would happen if everyone acted like you!”
Barberis had a surge of surprise. What was he going around saying, this chief of traffic officers? What kind of talk! The tail fidgeted under the seat. His nervous starts were transmitted to the tail and let go on the ground like lightening from a lightening rod. The chief stood up suddenly.
“This time, go ahead.”
Barberis took the street toward the office but with every step he was still thinking about the chief traffic officer’s words: “Think for a moment if everyone acted like you!” Everyone? Just what did he mean? The chief spoke as if who knows how many citizens had a tail like his. What kind of novelty was this? Barberis was almost about to return to the chief’s office with the idea of having some clarification. But no, surely it was some kind of slip. He was sure, for example, that his fiancée didn’t have a tail. But then he remembered that every once in a while she complained of a pain in her sacrum where she had undergone an operation some years before. What type of operation? Never mind, that could never have been a tail problem and he drove out the troublesome thought.
Barberis arrived in the office a half hour late.
He stamped the time card and excused himself briefly with the foreman who looked at him without saying a word. On the table, Barberis found a note from the secretary. A Latin Professor insured with the company, had ripped off the bumper of a Fiat 125 with her Opel Kadett and the owner of the Fiat had sent a bill for one hundred and sixty-five thousand lire. Really too much. There were photographs, but they weren’t clear. The photographer needed to be replaced, he’d said so many times. When Barberis looked up from the paper, the foreman was immersed in the reading of a file, the secretary continued typing. A chill. Barberis moved his tail to the left part of the seat, then he sat up a bit and placed it once again to the right. He tried to cough, to tear up some sheets of paper. They will get used to it little by little, he thought, the beautiful thing about Rome is exactly this, that everything is accepted, in the end. If a Martian arrived, after two days people would slap him on the shoulders. He’d read a short story about a Martian that ended like this, in a café on Veneto Street. The telephone rang. It was his fiancé again asking what had happened.
“What do you mean, nothing?”
“I’ll tell you about it later, but nothing happened.”
The fiancé insisted, wanted to know, tell me something. Barberis became abrupt, said he had something to do, that he would phone her after work. He bent his head down once again over his papers but his mind took once again to wandering. The colors of butterflies, are they hereditary?
On the floor above, a heated meeting was unfolding between the company managers. There was the head of personnel, the general manager, and the administrative supervisor who was always called in difficult situations because he was believed to be a great diplomat. The department head stood there silent, by now he’d said all he had to say. Everyone looked at him as if he were responsible, but finally he breathed again when the head of personnel came under accusation.
“I didn’t know. How could I imagine such a thing?”
It seems however that the head of personnel must know and must imagine. Everything about everyone. In the end, it was established that Barberis should be called in to convince him to hide that thing which no one there dared to name. But who would talk to him? Everyone was in agreement that it should fall to the general manager. This case was out of the ordinary, the good reputation of the Company was at stake. An insurance company is like a bank, someone said. The General Manager tried to buy time, hoping for a moment that the Administrative Supervisor would have taken up the task himself, but in the end he said that he would talk to Barberis. He looked around him. When? As soon as possible. All were in agreement also on this point.
At noon Barberis entered the austere office of the General Manager. He looked at the two seats with the high, rigid backs waiting for a sign from his superior, which arrived after a few minutes of silence.
Barberis moved between the two seats, uncertain, and finally sat on the one closest to the door. Silence again.
“Do you realize?” the General Manager went ahead speaking slowly, in a low voice. He spoke about dignity, about a sense of opportunity, of decency, and also of provocation.
Barberis responded calmly.
“It seems to me that I’ve done nothing wrong.”
“On the contrary, what you are doing is very wrong. Just what do you intend to accomplish with your attitude? You want to reform the world? You want to shock, show off? Perhaps you have film or television ambitions?
“I only want to show myself for what I am, nothing more.”
“And you decided just like that, from one day to the next?”
“I’ve thought about it for a long time. After all, it’s not my fault I have a tail.”
“The fault lies in showing it, in displaying it.”
“Up until yesterday I behaved like a hypocrite. Now, enough.”
The manager became red in the face and raised his tone of voice.
“Up until yesterday you behaved like a civil, educated person whereas today we can’t say the same. Every one of us has his faults, his small imperfections, but education teaches us to hide them, or at least to not put them on display like you are doing.”
“A tail is not a fault!” Barberis stated resolutely.
The manager didn’t know what to reply. There was silence once again during which the authoritative figure seemed to immerse himself in some obscure meditation. Most likely nothing came to mind because he moved on to the practical matters.
“Our Company cannot have an employee with a tail, just to be clear. We will be forced to fire you. Unless…”
“Unless you keep it hidden as you always have up until today.”
Barberis fidgeted in the chair. He looked with hate at the Manager. Hypocrite, a thousand times, hypocrite!
“Even if I hide it nothing will change, I will always be an employee with a tail. In any case, I have no intention of hiding it.”
“Then get it cut!” exclaimed the manager who was really losing his temper. He put a business card on the table, pushed it toward Barberis.
“This is a Swiss professor who has an office in town, a surgeon.”
Barberis read the professor’s name on the card: Maurilio Heutch. It was followed by some university titles and then the address. Barberis pocketed the card in deference to his superior.
“I’ve offered you a solution” said the manager, and looked at him as if he expected a reply.
“I’m sorry, I can’t.”
“In other words, you don’t want to.”
“Let’s say I don’t want to.”
“Then I advise you to sign this letter of resignation, otherwise I’ll be forced to fire you.”
The manager placed a letter on the table prepared by the head of personnel.
“I have not failed in anything. I have always acted in the interests of the Company, I’ve always been a good employee.”
Barberis stretched his hand out and slid the letter once again toward the manager.
The head of personnel of the Banheim Automobile Insurance Company did not succeed in finding a credible reason for termination. He tried writing. Due to scandalous behaviour in the office, for lack of respect towards colleagues, for excessive exhibitionism, for indecency. They would run the risk of a lawsuit from Barberis, simple as that. For inefficiency. No, uselessly slanderous. For practical necessities? But what does this mean? And then, with one s or two s? Banheim hadn’t fired anyone in ten years, rather it had hired around twenty new employees. The volume of business was steadily increasing. Besides, Barberis was an extremely efficient component of the company, they would have to hire at least two new employees to replace him.
The letter of termination was written up without any explanation and sent off. Barberis was thanked for work carried out. He could come by administration to pick up his last paycheck and severance pay.
Leprosy. Barberis realized that having a tail is like having leprosy, only worse. The residents in the building where he lived stopped greeting him, the doorman didn’t speak to him anymore and refused his tips. The fiancée didn’t phone him anymore. Now it was he who would phone her and she who would hang up the receiver.
Barberis went to explain his own case to the union. The union representative glanced at the tail, then said that dismissal was normal, everything was in order. And in any case, they defended categories, not individuals. He went to explain his case also to the editorial staff of two newspapers. Nothing. He wrote letters to the directors of all the newspapers in Rome, but they did not get published. He searched for new friendships in the street, at cafés, at the cinema, but no one wanted to be seen
together with him. I’ll get hired in an institute for the blind, he told himself. But the director of the institute wasn’t blind. He thought too, of moving to another city, but he knew that it would make things worse. Rome is indulgent, accepts everything, why should it refuse only him? At night he returned home tired, threw himself on the bed, and talked to his tail.
“You’ll see that we’ll manage. Tomorrow we’re going to city hall, they need garbage collectors, I’ll become a garbage collector.”
In his desperation, the troubling words of the chief traffic officer that made it seem many other people had a tail returned to mind. Barberis went down into the street to try to understand if anyone else was hiding that cumbersome and embarrassing appendage under their clothes. He noticed right away that young men and women who were at the most, forty like him, seemed most of all to have, when looked at carefully, a strange swelling right there where he had a tail. That simple swelling seen who knows how many times without thinking, now opened up a new horizon of hope but also of disquietude. So, the chief traffic officer knew. So it didn’t have to do with a chance occurrence but with a wave of deformity that was, let’s say, animalesque and spread throughout the population. Was it a matter of a mysterious phenomenon of genetic contamination or even a sign of anthropological regression of humankind? Too many thoughts were teeming in his mind. So much confusion. But why all the mystery if it was a matter of a wide-spread phenomenon? Why weren’t the newspapers talking about it? Instead of giving him a greater sense of peace of mind, the discovery caused him a greater sense of uncertainty.
Barberis gathered up his courage, came up to a young man, and stretched out his hand to touch him where he had noticed a swelling that could have very well been a tail hidden inside his pants. The young man turned around suddenly, menacingly, but as soon as he saw Barberis’ beautiful elegant tail displayed so naturally he immediately grew calm. After another moment of uncertainty, he finally drew out a beautiful tail with dark fur from his pants. It was clear that he wanted to talk, interrogate this unknown brother with a tail. And it seemed to Barberis that a smile flickered on his face but neither of them had the courage to confront the issue which was still so embarrassing, and each continued on his own path.
One evening, pandemonium broke out in a movie theatre, two women fainted in the line behind his, they believed they had a beast among their legs. Barberis was escorted out by firefighters. When he received the eviction notice and had to move out of his apartment, he wasn’t able to find another one. They refused him hospitality in the hotels. He slept a few nights at the Termini train station, but then they chased him out of there too. Desperation and loneliness finally pushed him into the office of Professor Maurilio Heutch.
The surgeon greeted him coldly. Barberis noticed that his upper lip was trembling, perhaps out of indignation. But he tried to control himself, to be detached. The whiteness of the walls, the whiteness of the smocks and steel furniture, all that whiteness of the clinic gave Barberis a sense of emptiness. Even the floors were white, linoleum. He closed his eyes and saw a large red stain that was spreading out covering everything. The nurse applied the mask for the anaesthesia on his face.
The surgeon moved silently in the operating room. He moved closer to a small cabinet, bent down to get something. It seemed to Barberis that he saw a reddish hair poking out from under his white lab coat much like the fur of the tail he was about to have cut off.
With his vision by now becoming foggy, he noticed that the nurse also had something strange under her coat. His thoughts became lost in a milky fog, the whiteness of the operating room dissolved into a great void.