Dino Buzzati, translated by Lawrence Venuti
When Stefano Roi was twelve years old, he asked his father, a sea captain and the owner of a fine sailing ship, to take him on board as his birthday gift.
“When I grow up,” the boy said, “I want to go to sea with you. And I shall command ships even more beautiful and bigger than yours.”
“God bless you, my son,” the father answered.
And since his vessel had to leave that very day, he took the boy with him.
It was a splendid sunny day, and the sea was calm. Stefano, who had never been on a ship, happily wandered around on deck, admiring the complicated maneuvers of the sails. He asked the sailors about this and that, and they gladly explained everything to him.
When the boy had gone astern, he stopped, his curiosity aroused, to observe something that intermittently rose to the surface at a distance of two to three hundred meters, in line with the ship’s wake.
Although the ship was indeed moving fast, carried by a great quarter wind, that thing always maintained the same distance. And though the boy did not make out what it was, there was some indefinable air about it, which attracted him intensely.
No longer seeing Stefano on deck, the father came down from the bridge, after having shouted his name in vain, and went to look for him.
“Stefano, what are you doing there, standing so still?” the captain asked his son, finally perceiving him on the stern as he stared at the waves.
“Papa, come here and see.”
The father came, and he too looked in the direction indicated by the boy, but he could not see anything.
“There’s a dark thing that rises in the wake every so often,” Stefano said, “and it follows behind us.”
“Despite my forty years,” said the father, “I believe I still have good eyesight. But I see absolutely nothing.”
And the boy insisted, the father went to get a telescope, and he scrutinized the surface of the sea, in line with the wake. Stefano saw him turn pale.
“What is it? Why do you make that face?”
“Oh, I wish I had never listened to you,” the captain exclaimed. “Now I’m worried about you. What you see rising from the water and following us is not some object. That is a colomber. It’s the fish that sailors fear above all others, in every sea in the world. It is a tremendous mysterious shark, more clever than man. For reasons that perhaps no one will ever know, it chooses its victim, and when it has chosen, it pursues him for years and years, for his entire life, until it has succeeded in devouring him. And the strange this is this: No one can see the colomber except the victim himself and his blood relations.”
“It’s not a story?”
“No. I have never seen it. But from descriptions I have heard many times, I immediately recognized it. That bison like muzzle, that mouth continually opening an closing, those terrible teeth. Stefano, there’s no doubt, the colomber has ominously chosen you, and as long as you go to sea, it will give you no peace. Listen to me: We are going back to land now, immediately; you will go ashore and never leave it again, not for any reason whatsoever. You must promise me you won’t. Seafaring is not for you, my son. You must resign yourself. After all, you will be able to make your fortune on land too.”
Having said this, he immediate reversed his course, reentered the port, and on the pretext of a sudden illness, he put his son ashore. Then he left again without him.
Deeply troubled, the boy remained on the shore until the last tip of the masts sank behind the horizon. Beyond the pier that bounded the port, the seas was completely deserted. But looking carefully, Stefano could perceive a small black point which intermittently surfaced on the water: It was “his” colomber, slowly moving back and forth, obstinately waiting for him.
From then on, with every expedient the boy was dissuaded from his desire to go to sea. His father sent him to study at an inland city,...