Zeppelins (English version)
This is a short story for which I got the idea seeing the Loris Cecchini work which is in the picture below. For me it is clear that the opera is a sort of challenge for the observer; my answer follows. This short story was first published in Italian here, thanks to Alex Gillan for the translation.
The stretch of road was a bridge amongst the rocks that tumbled down to the sea. On the crown of the road, the Citroën DS pointing the wrong way, and an open trapdoor in the tarmac.
The commissioner had arrived alone. He brought the motorbike to a standstill before the bridge, and concealed it amongst the rocks. Keeping his gloves on, circled the vehicle, inside the DS there were no keys. The car was in the middle of the road, he pushed it to one side of the bridge in neutral, sweating. Night-time, the sea could be heard panting.
The report had reached him that morning from the services, “from the honourable correspondent”, anonymous. By now he was a police commissioner, but was still registered as a passive agent. First a parachutist, Algeria, now the police. Never overly convinced, a mediocre professional. Only secondary information or suspicions passed through his hands.
He had to enter, and close the trapdoor; he thrust the torch inside, armed with a pistol. An iron ladder descends, down a few rungs, close the trapdoor behind you, go down as far as a platform, open, with a low parapet. It was the upper part of an inhabitable structure hanging below the bridge.
He looked at the sea; then leaned over the parapet to see underneath, the walls of the three cylindrical rooms hanging there seemed to be of glass, a feeble glow coming from inside. He drew closer to the entrance below, a perfume, new. Need to go down. Yet more metallic stairs, panting at every step, inside the first zeppelin. A table, with labelled glass containers, some small bottles, pipette stands, the rest of the space occupied by glistening green plants in a transparent vase. Nobody.
He could see through semi-opacity the contents of the second and third habitable cylinders, these two also occupied by plants. Proceed inside the second room.
Here, a body on the ground. He noticed it all of a sudden, from the hair sticking out from behind a plant, it was the last thing he’d expected; he hunkered down, it would have been easy to hit him from outside; gripped the pistol. Rose to his feet, they could already have shot him as many times as they wanted; by now, he was back to being an amateur. This wasn’t some silly affair, it had come to his notice by an error of judgement, some mistake…
Moved round the body, which was a copse: they’d shot him, little blood around. He’d been turned onto his back, pockets already emptied by others; one arm between two vases. Paused: he was there for the services, not as a policeman; so whatever had happened was unimportant, nor did it matter exactly who had killed him. What was important was to discover what they were looking for.
To and fro amongst the plants, without the foggiest; outside only the wind. The signal from the honourable correspondent didn’t indicate what to look for.
Where was the treasure? There had to be a treasure. Josef’s service didn’t kill in France, they must have missed something, and had wound up the game using extreme measures. A game played so badly, just had to have a treasure.
What was the bottom line. He passed amongst the plants; the soil perhaps? The plant pots, in thin plastic, transparent. As soft as rubber. That maybe? Goodness knows.
On one of the equipment-strewn tables was a magazine, an Humanité from some months earlier. The rule was to always leave the surroundings as if he’d never been there; he opened the magazine out on the floor, took the base of the first plant, laid it in the centre, extracted it gently from the pot. Crumbled the earth, isolating the roots. In this one, nothing; he was going to have to pull them all out.
Manoeuvring the plant to put it back in the pot, the leaves; it was a plant with roots, a stalk, normal, alive, he didn’t know its name. Yet the leaves had a peculiar consistency. Shiny and thick like those of a cheese plant, but the texture pliable; he tried denting the surface with his nails, couldn’t, it wouldn’t tear. He tried tearing the side of the leaf, managed; now the perfume which already filled the cylinder could be smelt more intensely from the leaf. Intense. A little giddy, the plants and the corpse, wheezing.
He looked for a way out leading to the sea, underneath, he didn’t want to come out onto the road again, to avoid reopening the trapdoor. The third room had a lower opening, without any stairs apparent, giving onto some metres of emptiness down to the rocks underneath. He unblocked it, there was a rope ladder tied below, loosened it, climbed down to the rocks. Tripped over a gas mask. Left it there. Walked to the sea, sitting down on a rock bordering the restless waters. A sudden sleepiness, not even the chilly sea air rousing him, the circumference of his head felt soft, ready for rest. Lay down on his side, to sleep.
Dream: struggling, slithering, he had gone back into one of the zeppelins, which was however made entirely from a rubbery/plastic material, white, like latex. The plants had been absorbed by the walls, swathed in the latex, the tips of the leaves were jutting out, then nothing. His body too began to be absorbed by the walls, he began to sink; by degrees his feet became immersed, his legs, torso, only the head remained; there he began to flounder, he couldn’t breathe. Stretching himself, he managed to return to the surface, but even so, more slowly, he was sinking… .
By sheer dint of will he woke up, whimpering, shaken by the nightmare. He rose to a sitting position, tailor-fashion, slowing his gasping. He turned, the glow from the zeppelins was still there. He felt cold, difficulty standing up. Not normal; he crouched, the plants. The plants, it had to be those plants, the consistency, the perfume. The gas mask. Must have been dazed before. He returned beneath the trapdoor, a deep breath, more than once. He climbed back up, entered the third room.
He looked at them, touched them, hurriedly: the plants were living, living with an intermediate life, between vegetal and plastic. That was the treasure, the others hadn’t understood. A different skin; the human one is so inefficient, so much so that the clothing that covers it is an important part of identity, a way to stay alive. A man stripped weakens, he’s ready to lose himself; at the end of the day, he can but cry. Images from Algeria, blurred by time.
Without warning, he was overcome by torpor, found himself on all fours, returned to the third room, collapsing, dragging himself along the floor, pushed his head and shoulders out of the lower exit, taking breaths, better. Again he dropped down the rope ladder, and then taking the long way round the outside, clinging to the rocks, hurting his hands, his legs, returned to the bridge, where he had arrived. Pushed the DS next to the trapdoor, which he reopened. Disconnected the petrol pipe from the engine, began to let it trickle out. Then a ribbon of petrol, moving some metres away. He lit it, the fire took hold slowly, then suddenly blazed, the various kinds of plastic, from the rooms and the vegetal seeds burned swiftly, a lethal smoke. Mounted the motorbike, took off in the glare, chuckling to himself, silently.