Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 782
As various inhabitants of the town of Riva, situated on Lake Garda, go about their apparently customary activities—shopkeeping, reading the paper, drawing water at the well, or simply idling away the time—a boat enters the harbor and ties up at the quay. Two men in dark coats with silver buttons debark, carrying what seems to be a person’s body on a cloth-draped bier. The townspeople pay them no particular attention. The boatman, who seems to be their guide, directs the two men to a nearby house. All three enter it with the bier, noticed as they go in by a boy at an upstairs window. A flock of doves arrives and alights in front of the house.
A man in mourning dress, looking somewhat troubled by the appearance of the neighborhood, approaches the house from one of the streets, knocks at the door, and is admitted at once. Some fifty little boys standing in two rows the length of the entry hall bow to him, and the boatman descends the stair and leads the visitor upstairs to a large room at the back of the house, in which the two bearers are busy placing and lighting candles at the head of the bier. The cloth has been drawn back, and on the bier lies a man with tangled hair and beard and tanned skin, looking rather like a hunter. Although his eyes are closed, and he is motionless and seems not to breathe, it is really only his surroundings that suggest that he may be dead.
The man in mourning approaches, touches the forehead of the one lying there, and kneels to pray beside him. The two bearers withdraw, and at a sign from the visitor so does the boatman. At once the man on the bier opens his eyes, turns his face to the mourner, and asks: “Who are you?” “The Burgomaster of Riva,” the other replies, getting to his feet. In fact, both know already who the other is, since a dove came to the burgomaster’s window during the night and announced to him, “Tomorrow the dead Hunter Gracchus is coming; receive him in the name of the city.” Gracchus explains that the doves precede him wherever he goes. He asks the burgomaster if he believes that Gracchus is to remain in Riva. The answer seems to depend on whether Gracchus is truly dead.
He tells the burgomaster that a great many years ago, while hunting a chamois in the Black Forest in Germany, he fell from a precipice and died. The burgomaster observes that he is nevertheless still alive. “In a certain sense,” Gracchus answers. His death ship lost its way, he explains, so that ever since that time he who yearns only for the mountains of his homeland has been ceaselessly traveling the waters of the earth, a hunter transformed into a butterfly, as he says. He spends his days on a wooden pallet in the boat’s cabin, dirty and unkempt, with a candle at his head, and on the wall of the cabin a small picture, evidently of a bushman, who is aiming his spear at Gracchus and taking cover behind a lavishly painted shield.
Gracchus’s great misfortune, as he tells it, was not his death, but the wrong turn, the brief inattention of the pilot, the distraction of his native land—whatever it was that caused the ship to stray from its course. Gracchus had lived and hunted happily, and he welcomed his death as the most natural thing in the world. He believes that he was faithful to his calling and to his fate; the mishap was the boatman’s fault, not his. Gracchus says that there is no help for him. None will come to his aid; even if they were asked, people would hide in their houses, under their bedcovers. No one knows of him, and if someone did, that person would not know his whereabouts; even if someone did know it, that person could not halt the boat’s voyage and could do nothing for the voyager. “The thought of helping me,” Gracchus says, “is an illness that has to be cured by taking to one’s bed.” So, wish as he might, he resigns himself to his fate and does not call out for help. He needs only to look around him and remember where he is, and any thought of calling out vanishes. The burgomaster asks him if he intends to stay in Riva. Gracchus replies that he intends nothing, that he can know only where he is at present; his ship rides with the wind that blows in the undermost regions of death.
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