The fallen bicycle lies against the wall of the university, unable to move – a wounded beast so racked with pain that it cannot get up and resume its ride.
Lashed by the rain beating incessantly, mercilessly down on everything and everyone, the bicycle appears to have resigned itself to a fate of dust and death: its wheel has stopped turning and its body lies there on the ground, devoid of all strength, in the pounding rain which is hammering down hard enough to destroy it. A chain around the wheel and frame secures the prostate bicycle to an iron railing, resembling a tool of slavery rather than a security device. I look around and see more bicycles lying defeated on the ground, like so many tombstones on a former battleground. Students and faculty walk in and out of the university without casting them a second glance. The rain beats faster, amplifying the patter on the fabric of my umbrella. On the bodies of the bicycles, rust marks are exhibited with no trace of pride – the scars of a losing battle with the ravages of time.
An elderly gentleman brushes my shoulder as he walks past. Glancing at me, he apologizes for the contact with a slight nod. He does not have an umbrella, and he is much, much taller than me. He is wearing a long, dark oilskin coat that reaches just below his knees; he is thin, and he doesn’t wear glasses. His face is as hollowed out as the parched soil of southern Italy.
He walks on unhesitatingly, heading straight for the fallen bicycle in front of me. He reaches it and stoops with a slowness due to his age and the oilskin’s resistance to the bending of his knees. He places both hands on the handlebar of the bicycle and looks at it: a doctor surveying a patient. The rain falling on his face seems to be absorbed by his wrinkles; by a thirst going back thousands of years. The old man contemplates the bicycle; he is totally focused on it. It is clear that he is about to lift it, although something seems to be holding him back. In a flash I realize it is not hesitation, but compassion. Crouching in the rain, the old man is caressing the handlebar of the fallen bicycle as if it were the head of a frightened puppy. He strokes the entire length of it with skilful care, his touch soothing and strengthening. As soon as his caress reaches the grip, his hands move with speed and assurance: the handlebar is lifted to his chest, he rises up from his knees, and the bicycle is back on its feet, dented as ever, but proud and jaunty once more. The man walks on, his gait assured, knowing exactly where he’s going next. Seven meters to the left, he bends over another collapsed bicycle with the patience of one performing a ritual for those in need of it: the hand touching the handlebar, the slow caress, the quick, precise hefting of the bicycle. The old man repeats the ritual with all the bicycles that have fallen to the ground while the rain continues to rule over the city. Finally, his task complete, he crosses the bridge, turns right and disappears from view.
I walk on, speeding up my pace; I want to go back home immediately and tell Silvia what I have just seen. “I’ve met the angel of fallen bicycles,” I’ll start by saying, and without even taking off my coat I’ll tell her every detail; then I’ll lapse into silence and, looking into her eyes, I’ll forget I’ve still got my wet shoes on; I’ll forget how I fantasized about tap dancing through the puddles, and how I, too, was once a fallen bicycle that couldn’t pick itself up in the rain.
Enia’s blogs are translated from Italian by Lakshmi Ramakrishnan Iyer.
I've met the angel of fallen bicycles