(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

A healthy young couple, a barber named Manica and a hairdresser named Arlia, marry, in spite of the misgivings of Arlia’s uncle, Father Calogero, who knows that tuberculosis runs in their family. He had become a parish priest, thereby keeping moderately healthy and avoiding many of the troubles that beset the urban poor.

Each year, Arlia becomes pregnant, affecting adversely her work; Manica, too, is unsuccessful financially as a barber. Child after child dies of tuberculosis; the costs of medicine, special broths and food, and burial expenses offset any economic gains of the working couple.

One of the boys is named Angiolino; he is bitter at having been born, when facing death. Arlia seeks help for the child from the Church, through prayer and a mass, though Manica is cynical. Finally Arlia has recourse to a woman who tells fortunes from the whites of eggs. She has been told that a countess who had wanted to have her hair cut because of unhappiness in love had found consolation from the fortuneteller. The fortuneteller tells Arlia that she will be happy, but that she will have troubles first. Her uncle believes that the prophecy is a satanic fraud, but Arlia’s despair is overcome temporarily by the hope that Angiolino will recover. The child grows worse, however, and Father Calogero offers to pay for his funeral. Still, Arlia persists in her faith in the prophecy and pities Manica for his lack of belief. Her hope is finally dashed by the death of the boy. Filled with despair, she wonders what the fortuneteller’s promise could have meant.

The suffering causes Manica to turn to...

(The entire section is 663 words.)