from Miransùby Monica Sarsini, translated from the Italian by Maryann de Julio
to my grandmother Isabella
My cousin Piero I saw him once every three, four months. He lived with his mama, Aunt Emma, my father’s sister. He did everything, he was even in France in the Foreign Legion, he had cashed some of his father’s accounts, my other cousin in contrast was an angel. We were children together, but he was ten years older than me, he had some black teeth but he was tall, well built, for a twelve, thirteen year old girl like me, to see a man in that way, always elegant… He frequented the daughter of the owner of the ‘420’, the satirical newspaper, used to spending and squandering, it took him a lot of money in order to keep her tied to him, so he cashed the accounts of the father, and then he went in the Foreign Legion. He was lucky even there, the more they’re rascals the luckier they are. He was wounded in a leg, the wife of the general, he was so good at making people fall in love with him, she had him repatriated. His brother paid the debts and he returned to work in the office of the father. They hpad a franchise with English clothing, fabric, raincoats. After my wedding he got married him too. The fault was with his father, in contrast to them we were poor people, we had that piece of bread and that’s it. He began to put a wrench in the works, and though we were poorer we had more pride. My cousin wanted to marry me, he asked even my parents, we had made plans, we were engaged, I was very young, but it was a matter of a few days. I loved him from when I was twelve years old, once I went in October to geography, I always hated geography, instead my brother passed with flying colors. My parents put together a dinner, and he was there too. Amidst all that applause I felt like crying, he rushed up, dried my tears and said to me, I bring you a gift, don’t cry. He brought me a purse, they used tiny purses, stiff, they seemed coin purses with a handle. Then it happened that his father didn’t give his consent, and we didn’t see each other any more, for the rest of our lives. After he went in the Foreign Legion, and when he returned I was already engaged, he was very down, then his father said to Aunt Cora, but Isa wouldn’t drop that one there, who’s just not suitable for her, a worker, and get back together with Piero? Aunt Cora related this to my parents, but my brother, what? My sister doesn’t need to ask mercy from anyone, now it’s good with this boy, he’s an upstanding person. Even poor papa agreed. Mama instead would have turned a blind eye. Me, can you imagine. On the other hand I wasn’t such an ignoramus as to say that I would have left my fiancé for him. Him after I was married had the nerve to come in the shop and get a faucet. It was his fault. He had agreed to the decision of his father, obvious sign that he didn’t love me enough, otherwise he would have fought, he would have said something. He wrote me a letter. I tore it up and that’s that. He didn’t even have a child. The wife was a third-rate ballerina. The other cousin instead was always like a brother for me. When he died though I didn’t even go to the funeral, to go to funerals is for contadini, Loredana never misses one, they seem like a feast to her.
In the summer you began to have intestinal problems that mortified you, you were living with the Filipino and you didn’t want to be helped at all by him to hook your brassiere. So mama and I towards the end of October one Wednesday we came to get you and given that we were together a long time, me seated listening to you lower than you in the parlor or outside, in front of the French door of the kitchen in order to have you admire your flowers, you trusted me when I promised that as soon as the doctor had visited you I would drive you right back. I didn’t give you even the time to get your purse, for fear that in the trip from the bedroom to the front door, where you were surrounded as soon as you left the bathroom, you would change your mind again. Mama drove, next to her Loredana to bring her back home, you with your neck in the recess of my armpit, comfortable and warm as you whispered to me while I was suggesting that you admire the landscape of the woods drenched in autumn, wrapped up in a blue shawl, but they hadn’t even removed your slippers, after all, according to them, since you’d have gone to sleep at mama’s, she’d have given you all her things that you might have needed. Then mama pulled the car over near the curb and the two of us got out and while the neighborhood had stayed the same you were so far away that I’d have wanted all the windows shut while we reached the front door with in hand only a plastic sack. It took us a lot to climb the stairs, waiting for mama to come out of the garage you collapsed like a child exhausted on the first step, then after each flight you sat down on a chair that I had taken in the parlor and you said that you’d wanted us to verify what was happening to you so that finally we’d understand. White hair bobbed, blue eyes full of light, scabs on your legs due to scratches and bites, you steered yourself towards the black armchair in front of the television and despite the presence of the foreign girls that mama boards, the opportunity to have an audience this time didn’t rouse you. Mama and I instead we were more calm, you couldn’t sleep knowing you were alone with your discomfort and your melancholy, we thought to have you as though protected, and to have given us a hand too. You didn’t eat, just a little broth, some orange juice, you were quiet, sulky, the doctor had said that you were just exhausted from the loss of weight, your blood pressure was too low, you just needed to take some vitamins and stay home with mama until you had regained your strength. You wanted your cats, and to return to your solitude. I left for two days, it was to celebrate the birthday of Ettore and we went to the mountains with the members of his family. I was thinking of you, looking for fossil shells, we found an enormous one wrapped in a clod of earth in the vicinity of the cemetery, I was sleeping in the lair hollowed out by the body of his grandmother in the part of the mattress that from when she was a young widow she’d occupied alone. We returned in time to eat dinner with you, with the hope that our company would restore your appetite, but scarcely arrived at the top of the stairs mama said that my aunt had admitted you to the hospital. The city was traffic lights, and cars in line. I found you on a little bed with wheels, your arm abandoned to the needle of the drip feed, your ballerina’s head jutting out from the paltry bed sheet. There was no room for you inside the ward, we had to wait for first aid, meanwhile they had already done your analyses from which resulted a kidney barely compromised. A man was stopping up his nose, it was the second time in a few days that he stumbled along a sidewalk, he told a doctor from behind a handkerchief softly, as if to excuse himself. Another while passing by had been flung from the impact against the hood of a car into the void, beyond the barrier of an overpass. A woman with curly hair and plastic gloves stained with blood was recounting this to a man that behind a white screen was trying to resuscitate him. It was about being quiet, about taking up as little space as possible, I should have waited beyond the glass door, but the sky was already dark, I wanted to stay beside you and to know where they’d bring you. Every so often my aunt would greet some doctors, they approached, they took your pulse, they inspected your eyes, they asked you to stick out your tongue, they glanced at the clinical chart and they spoke to you with kindness. You spent the night in the desolation of a big room furnished with beds in rows that had not been made, the nightgown and the other personal items inside your suitcase, as the following morning they would have transferred you to a ward. After an hour another woman arrived and knowing you were no longer alone she allowed me to greet you. You wanted your pill to sleep, the youngest cat, to know who had taken the keys to your drawers.
The day after I don’t remember having come, I must have been working, but my aunt reassured me telling me that you maintained your usual pride and your critical spirit, your proud and cynical detachment from people and places. In that ward you were fine, you’d already been there other times, a doctor laughing during your last stay had begged you at your death to bequeath him your brain, and you felt that it was logical to command respect and admiration. In the evening then you asked to be left alone, you were tranquil, the pill was beginning to take effect and you wanted to sleep. It was a terrible night, you called the nurse continually, you complained, you tossed and turned in bed. When I arrived you had two drip feeds and after a while in order to help you breathe they put on your face the transparency of a mask. You ate the rice, mama spoon-fed you in the usual hurry, exasperated by what she called your caprices, your refusal to cooperate, and when we came back from having smoked a cigarette you vomit it all up, inside a towel supported by my aunt, which the nurses had brought on purpose. You wanted to get out of bed, you lowered it yourself, you turned on a side, you wanted to make pee pee, but you couldn’t. The rhythm of your requests grew from minute to minute more insistent, repetitive until when your voice was confused in a gasp a gurgle that we couldn’t understand. I said that if they’d gone away, that they were resting, that they’d come back later. Meanwhile in spite of the mask, the drip feeds, the transfusion, you turned towards me, you held out your arms to me, I cradled you a little supporting your back until when you wanted to lie down again. You wanted to go away, you wanted your mattress, you wanted the pill in order to sleep and the one for the heart. There was a woman in the other bed, with dyed blonde hair and slippers with feathers. She was watching television and talking on the telephone, she got up in order to eat at the little table in front of the window or to go out on the terrace to smoke a cigarette. I was holding your hand, you didn’t seem depressed to me, but it was to be careful not to bend your arm. They began to say that it was a matter of days, then that you wouldn’t pass the night, then hours. It was because of the heart. You called mama, my aunt, my father came and returned and approached your bed to address a few words to you that put into the air a sweetness. You didn’t seem alarmed to me, only uncomfortable. It was raining, the hospital closed again, I told myself that I wasn’t to see you die but to be near you in one of so many of your moments. I stayed alone again, the doctors came to check you, I followed them just barely beyond the door of your room their whispering to me with a distant gaze words without time. Night came, the rain marred the yellowish light of the street lamps, I removed the oxygen mask often in order to make you feel more free.
Mama returned, no one was rebelling, she drank a glass of your orangeade and went beyond the sheet depository to smoke her cigarette. You wanted to sleep, it was the only thing that for hours you were demanding that we could understand. A doctor came again, leant against the white wall he reported to me that at that point it wasn’t possible to give you another transfusion. So I asked that they give you some drops in order to make you rest. I sat next to you and I gave you my hand, the blonde had opened the screen, you were quiet and your breathing was calm, slow. I closed my eyes, placed my forehead on the bed cover.
Every so often I opened them, and the distance between your one breath and the last made me each time wait more, that moment barely perceptible that led me with you where it would no longer be possible to reach you. I was watching you and it didn’t come to my mind to call you, you were finally sleeping, even if to me it seemed a sleep that had absorbed you, to which you dedicated yourself, your hand in my hand, in order to permit access to that threshold beyond which to leave life. I watched you, I watched you, everything was quiet in you.
Then I went by two nurses, in the middle of the corridor in front of the glassed-in room of the head ward putting away in a cabinet drugs collected from a trolley. I said that I thought that you were dead and I asked if they could come.
The doctor told me that there was the risk happening with those ten small drops, that he was sincerely sorry, but that the power of science had a limit. It was dark, it was sad, the things around us seemed dull and devoid of weight, there was no outcry in my weeping, filled as I was only by the desire to be there for you, to accompany you wherever you were heading. To be only listening to you.
Monica Sarsini was born in Florence, where she lives and teaches writing. She is also an artist who has shown her work in Italy and other countries. Libro Luminoso (Exit Edizioni, 1982) was followed by Crepacuore, Crepapelle and others. A collection of her work was published in English under the title of Eruptions (Italica Press, 1999). In Alice nel paese delle domandine (Le Lettere, 2011), Sarsini collects stories written by women from the creative writing class that she taught at Sollicciano prison, outside Florence; a second volume Alice, la guardia e l’asino bianco was just published in Italy.Maryann De Julio
MARYANN DE JULIO is a Professor in the Department of Modern and Classical Language Studies at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio.