Leonardo went off to urinate in the shelter of a clump of acacias then got back into the car, put on his jacket because the air was getting cool, and took the dog in his arms.
He looked down at the plain from the height of the first foothills. With the dying of day the sky had cleared and now the sun was sinking behind the mountains, the vault of heaven a deep unshaded cobalt.
It won't eat and tomorrow it'll be dead, Leonardo thought, holding the dog close.
Far off the lights of A. and one or two other villages were shining softly, with the lights of some factory prominent among them. For several months now the minor roads had no longer been lit, the soccer league championship had been suspended, and the television closed down after the evening news at ten, not starting again until the news at ten the following morning.
He smiled at the swarm of lights and the beauty of several fires burning on a hillside to the east. The dog's breathing had relaxed and the heat of its body through his shirt was warming his chest; it had the smell of things that are new to the world and still have no name. Like the smell of a birthing room or a cellar where cheeses ripen. Or a paper mill. A smell of transition.
"I won't give you a name," he said, stroking the puppy's head with his finger.
When he arrived in the square, the church clock was striking eight. He opened the door of the hardware shop. Elio looked up from a newspaper he must have salvaged from some packaging. The last newspaper had reached the village four months before. Leonardo went to the counter and put down the two cans he had brought in. He wiped his brow with his handkerchief.
"Only one more in the car," he said.
Elio neither nodded nor shook his head. He and Leonardo were distant cousins, but their friendship had nothing to do with blood or books or with other passions that can link men, like hunting, the mountains, and sport. It was seven years now since Leonardo had come back to the village but he was still a city man, while Elio belonged as much to the hills as any man could. He spoke the dialect, he knew what was going on, he had tried the women, and played in the Sunday soccer matches against other villages. In the days when there were still summer tourists, he had spent long periods sitting with the other local twenty-year-old boys on the low wall that bordered the square, studying the German and Dutch girls at a distance before taking them in the evening to the vineyards, to the river, and up into the highest hills from where he had convinced them they would be able to look at the sea. When he was called up for the National Guard, he had done the usual thing and given a big party, then he disappeared for three days without anyone knowing where he was. He had served two years at the frontier until, in the winter of '25, he had been hit by the bullet that now saved him from being called up again. As soon as he was discharged he took over the hardware business from his father and married the woman who had been his fiancée since he was nineteen: a woman with strong thighs and few frills; a type more likely to bore him than break his heart.
"What shall I say about the missing oil?" Elio said.
Leonardo raised his shoulders.
"Tell them it was stolen from me. That's what actually happened.
Tomorrow I'll bring the money for you to give back."
Elio fixed him with his calm eyes. He was not yet forty, of a reflective temperament, and Leonardo's only friend.
"What's happening out there in the world?"
Leonardo put his handkerchief back into his pocket. The mud had dried on his trousers in a dragon-shaped pattern.
"Yesterday some soldiers stopped me before L.; they told me to go back the way I'd come and sleep in the car because the road was closed until the next day to let a convoy of armored vehicles through."
Excerpted from The Last Man Standing by Davide Longo. Copyright © 2013 by Davide Longo. Excerpted by permission of Quercus. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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