to my grandmother Isabella
The road, golden with leaves heavy from the water fallen down onto the earth, wound its way among the immovable web of dry twigs and piled up tree stumps from which slipped twisted threads, uprooted among the black crouching of solitary birds and a brown cracking of clods, under a hawk, with wings motionless in the condensing of the superimposed gray, from whose horizon, the filmy red of other worlds, other skeletal woods peeped out, rows of vines without leaves, abandoned houses through whose stone windows, devoid of light, witness a black, carnal, fixed nakedness.
At dawn white vans escorted disabled youth to a farmhouse turned into a welcome center. A little girl who continuously shook her head in an almost imperceptible way had lived there, they called her serpent’s desire, Sundays in the living room of her house chairs were placed along the walls and she and I gazed spellbound at the older sister that danced with the guests.
If it were raining the fog rose from the woods staying perched on the cypresses and the rain came down like puffs of smoke across the fields, no one was going in my direction, only one morning a man on a bicycle, dressed in yellow stretch overalls, whom I quickly overtook mindfully immersing myself in the fluttering of the leaves, then I got out of the car and together with my childhood self climbed up the terraces again in the company of my dead, looked into the distance, didn’t hear a voice, a sound, but only the sliding of memories. The broom with their violent bodies accelerated the rhythm of the journey, while the wind bent the rye yellowed beyond the seraphic down of a fig tree. I was thinking of the lives, of the tenderness in the looks, of staying in order to give comfort, and birds were cawing at the edges of the path. If in a curve of the road downhill I met a man known during my childhood, in the fear of loss recognizing each other after thirty years would make time reverberate, time past far away from taking a fancy to the brambles. The poppies, in the place in which we greeted each other, were washed out, like watercolor, that wine offered by contadini if we pass in front of their farmyard. The light spread over the hills, piercing the web of tree- trunks. I went towards the woman not finding a home in the present and who was recalcitrant to probe time, whose gaze brightened when she remembered herself as a little girl. To grow up she had had to abandon the threshold of adolescence, to which now finally she returned undisturbed. Nothing of that which had come afterwards had seduced her like her places of origin, no love had moved her with those choices that stem confusion provoked from lingering in the childhood within the men of her family. Without play the woman full of play had been taken away by the one who had imprisoned her between one hill and the next, stump in the path stained with sparks, which she could no longer burn.
Grandfather is dead, he’s the one who gave us this expanse of twisted trees whose end I don’t see in the evening when I return home eyes closed. Hardly anyone comes anymore to pick the olives, the trees haven’t been pruned and cleared and the farmers dislike having to labor to reach the fruit on the high branches devastated by the mange that like cocoons of coarse insects disfigures the dark wrinkling of the bark. We formed a team of in-laws who are joined together again in order to milk the branches, and as fishermen do with nets we spread parachutes under the tree- trunks, propped up at the bottom of the terraces waving above the dry twigs. When my father comes to help us he doesn’t have permission to enter the house unless mama’s not there, so we eat in the fields and divide with the couple from the Casentino, the only ones not related to the family, pots of stewed capriolo, castagnaccio, duck. Otherwise Loredana prepares the dinner and at noon calls us from the terrace with the voice of a dejected parrot. Her husband died in one of these fields, my grandfather was walking in front of him on the path between two rows and since he wasn’t answering at a certain point he turned around and saw him stretched out among the clods of earth. My grandmother was living here, I would often come to find her after years in which only the walls of a house in town had been a frame to my terror. We would set ourselves down outdoors, me on a chair lower than hers, and I would stay listening to her.
When the men had finished working they went away, and he’d come inside the house. He’d come inside and I’d be here, in the sitting room, maybe crocheting, then he’d approach me quietly, give me a kiss on the head, sorry for not having stayed to keep me company, he knew that I didn’t stay willingly in the country, I remained there for him, I came for him, for no one else, because Gina didn’t even make him anything to eat. He didn’t tell me, I knew, when he returned to town I’d ask him, what did Gina make you to eat? If he bought it, but Gina wasn’t Natalina, of Natalina there was only one.
I began to come here when he closed the shop, at first, me too, I came when he came, you children, remember, at the school run by the nuns Thursdays were holidays, so we came up here, or else on Sundays, or if your parents invited friends. But not like now, quite regularly. He didn’t use the hoe, he supervised the men, he’d stopped working because, he’d said, at sixty years old, if I’d have been a subordinate, I’d have retired on a pension, I worked more than a subordinate, I’m taking my pension the same as them. He quit the shop and came up here. I tried to hold out a little, but then I knew that woman wasn’t cooking for him. He had to come and go alone, even if it’s close it was always a little bit of a trip for a man of a certain age, even though he was still practically young, he carried his years well, he wasn’t full of aches and pains. Illness came to him all at once.
When it was time to eat, Gina, he didn’t see her at all, Natalina, when she saw the car pull up, she’d say, ah, it’s the padrone, back then they used to call us the padrone and the padrona, a funny thing that no one does anymore, we never got used to it. If he said to Gina, make me two eggs, a chop, then she prepared it for him, but you could see that she did it against her will. Instead, Natalina, naturally we bought the meat ourselves, was full of solicitude. There was no water, we didn’t have today’s means, down there in the fish-pond the water from the spring gushed non-stop, your grandfather had a cabin built, put a motor and sent water as far as the contadini who lived in Mezzomonte. It fell to Natalina, poor woman, to go and get it on foot with the terracotta jugs at the pond in the bottom of the ditch. Well, when there was running water in the house, to thank us, she made an enormous cake, for her it was an extraordinary event. Like the tractor, the first tractor was seen here, your grandfather bought it, the first television that they saw, we brought it just after we arrived, you were small and can’t remember, but we put it outside the door, everybody who lived here came, they brought chairs, a bench, for them it was a novelty. Even the owners of the castle, they did it too, put the television outside. Then the contadini would buy it for themselves when they went back to live in town. Natalina had a son who was in the military, Elio was his name, it seems to me. The other boy, your brother’s chum, I don’t remember what his name was, not Valerio, not Lorenzo, Lorenzo is the one who killed him.
In front of the kitchen window the fields cling to the slopes of a mountain and where the last row of olive trees grows at dawn and at sunset buck and wild pigs appear from the dried splendor of the oak leaves and devastate the carpet of earth in search of food. Hidden among somber trees there crouches a hunting-cabin with a sheet-roof covered in ivy. A crumpled door grants entrance into a little stone room with slits in the walls to watch for the flashes of imperceptible movement from those animals, who timorous, ready themselves to describe presentiments in the immovable story of the earth. The farmers with my brother and my father decorated the outer walls with cages of small decoy birds, and on Sundays, spits with pierced heads turned slowly over a fire that reddened between the andirons under the canopy of the hearth. High up raged the wind and from the brick stoves in the rooms now and then fell down a little sparrow, who after having left a trail of earth and feathers on the floor, stayed to die behind a piece of furniture, from where, all dried up after months, it was swept away with a broom. If it snows the mountains from up here take on the air of newborn monoliths, a soft plumage is suspended over a darkness from which at intervals bursts forth the crackling color of burnt sugar. If I face the field I see the red and orange of the leaves of the persimmon that sparkle, and sometimes, where the branches of the olive tree diverge, an abandoned nest, bigger and mixed with earth if it’s a blackbird’s. I bring it home, in a flicker the silver thread from a Christmas tree, my brother died Christmas Night, while mama was decorating the chandelier in the sitting room. In the rifle-rack, from where on the sly he had taken his rifle without asking permission, now my aunt’s husband has put back his crossbows, but the house for us is a temple, besides having been witness to the pain it was the landscape of our childhood. Childhood and old age seem to me the only ages of man worth the trouble. The rest is time lost among dirty bustling city streets. I grew up in this grumbling of earth when water passes from one vine-leaf to the other together with my brother, no longer having him beside me, since for thirteen years we’d lived together, I join with those who have nowhere to go and without knowing where to return continue to wonder and ask if also for others it’s the same, a continuous hoping that it’s the same for everybody, normal, being afraid of not making it against a force that wants to kill you. The rifle-shot that killed my brother surprised me so much that secretly I can only think of the immense fear of being separated from whom I love and not managing to survive.
Lapo was fond of the son of the farmer that lived in the house on the boundary of the wood, now uninhabited, bought by two brothers, one lives in America, the other is dead, the heirs would like to sell it, but the one from America, he says he’d buy it back, but never sell it, he wants to come here to die. When Lapo died it was a disaster for everybody, if up here were in my name as it should have been, I would sell every thing and wouldn’t have step foot here again. Your grandfather would have liked to make a chapel and bury Lapo here, he loved Lapo, but you were the favorite, he used to say you when you set your mind to do something, until you finished the job you stayed put, boys are more wild than girls. To build the tabernacle at the beginning of the property the architect wanted white stones like face powder, they’d gotten rid of those ugly ones, left them in the ground and your grandfather got it into his head to collect them and fling them into the road, to break them up into rubble for road fill. He called the boys to help him carry them away, of everybody after a little while you were the only one left, this was what broke your grandfather’s heart, she was sweating but she’d kept on to the end! Lapo, however handsome and fine, killed three chickens on me with his bow. Your father sent him to his room without supper, you went away to bring it to him, the ladder rested against the window, these are things that I can’t stand, things that have to do with eating, better a smack, a spanking one-two-three, but without supper the body feels the effects, no feelings at all, as far as I’m concerned, on the contrary, it makes things worse than ever. You and Lapo loved each other, and you slept together, when you were in bed you had a pillow that you always held in your hand, one time your mama sewed a pillow-case on it, she sewed it and you undid it to find the dirty pillow-slip again, you liked it so much. I remember one evening, in the sitting room behind the entrance there was the television and your parents were entertaining friends. You were sleepy, with that pillow in your hand, but Lapo didn’t want to come to bed, you were little, and you said to him, Apo, si va a nanna? Apo, si va a nanna? And he said, wait, wait, si va! It seems like he was surly, but I remember everything, and I seem to see you again, a little girl with that pillow in your hand and him wanting to stay to watch television, making like a grown-up! Lots of things like this would have happened to you if you had grown up together! You wouldn’t have gone out with boys! I’m telling you the honest truth that you wouldn’t have gone out, brothers are worse than a husband, my brother was like that.
I lit the fireplace in the bedroom, I did it secretly, while the men were working out front. Knowing how to light the wood is their job, this bending down with one knee higher that the other propping yourself up on the brick floor in order to hold your face up to the iron grating and infuse air with deep sounds. The hand-blown glass of one of the two windows transformed the view of the fields into a mirage, where irregular pylons skirt the white of the road that leads to the tabernacle. The telephone wire between one pylon and the other is falling to pieces and only a fat little bird gazes from up there at the bursting open of the cabbage leaves. This bed is high, when I was small to climb up on it I had to have my parents help me. It was their room. Now we sleep there. When the little nieces come they’ve taken to climbing the stone steps of the stairs, pausing in front of the door, we’re a man and a woman, not father and mother, making little noises so that we hear them. I get down from the mattress and go to take them, they also have to be lifted up to reach, where lying next to me intent on sucking their thumb, while they touch with one leg mine or squash my belly, they observe him, modest, hair slicked back, land upright on the rug and go shave behind the iron espalier, out from which springs only his face of a domestic predator. In the evening before falling asleep, when they’re not here with me, often one of their two faces spreads, occupies the surface area of the house, crumbles its walls, melts along the valley. She likes to walk holding hands, and tell what she sees. A topic is not exhausted once shared, if it can be repeated more times, until the feeling that it provoked dissolves and leaves room for new magic. What we said to each other serves, with our repeating it, to confirm a quality of connection, to put in the forefront of our meetings the pact that unites us in taking seriously each misdeed of reality. A wound on my foot, a scratch on her hand, they require repeated kisses on the band-aid that accentuates them. Even when they’re healed the ritual is repeated, to remember what had been and what we had entertained as the moon was revealed, in the sudden darkness of a lane, in the uncertain passage toward the dream of wakening. The other one instead takes as a model slipping on the yellow of the leaves, laughs running, sparkles, and all the carrying on is filled with her little girl’s harmless desire to belong to a world without plots, notwithstanding the flirt you insinuate in sleep, words that cause fear in that part of her already present and immutable regardless of age. Suddenly she grips the body of who has just been hurt by a sharp phrase or a no good look, stretches out her little hand and puts herself at the head of the line for a trip destined for solidarity. It’s beautiful to reach up here. It’s not a matter of a bed like others, thanks to its being as if suspended in the middle of the room to cross in the space from one window to the other the cracked call of the buck and the bellows of the air that swells in the darkness of the night.
My brother had only two friends that were allowed in the house, one was from a humble family and straight away had to take the position of country doctor, my brother instead was substituting at the time for doctors when they went on holiday. Even when I went to the seaside he would say, careful, they don’t suffer much! I always knew how to take care of myself, at eighteen years old they all had suitors, I was the showy type, hair cut like now, shingled, but not so short, with a nice forelock in front, little frocks, I fooled around then. Men were bolder than now, but they didn’t put their hands on you, they said “signorina.” Now I see it on television, crazy stuff, with those harlots stark naked right away. Just showing off their backsides makes them happy, some moves on television aren’t even possible, if they give a kiss it seems like they want to eat, have you seen this or not, what are they going to do there with their mouth open, give him a bite? I think they did wrong getting rid of the brothels, we had one next to the shop, the first little shop, where your grandfather made his money, I never went there, they passed by, four, five, ten girls from there, with the doctor. Every morning he visited them, if they were sick he cured them but didn’t make them work. They were like you would have been, girls like that, many would have been from the country, there were those who married them. A supplier tried to carry out his project of a shower in a bidet, it would have come from Northern Italy, all the inventions came from up there, and your grandfather made it, then brought it into this brothel and said, look, I’m giving it to you as a gift, but try it and tell me if there are defects. It worked well, now they’ll have changed them, the water, instead of in spurts, spews out like a shower. Your grandfather talked with everybody, not only to be friendly, he knew his stuff, had his ideas but wasn’t going to rattle on about them. When they passed by people said, here they are, they’re going for their exam. They were going to the hospital to be tested. They were licensed to work in the brothel, and when they stopped they continued at home. Your grandfather didn’t talk about how it was, or if he’d gone there, as a young man, and after, about this business, only that he hadn’t dealt with the women, he’d dealt with the brothel-keeper. There was also the madam, a woman like me, a kind of administrator who instead of selling hankies, sold women. I used to see the men who went there too, but from morning ’til night I was shut up eight hours in a box room with the light on, I ruined my eyes.
We’re lying down, the cypresses darken the sky over the roof of the veranda. It’s night, everything in the valley in front of me smells of silence and solitude, pasture and home to birds passing, who before reaching other destinations, stay, shrill black shrieking on the bending of the branches of the highest trees. We’re lying here, while my parents sleep apart in city bedrooms. I haven’t taken down from the walls the photos under which mama has written, my dearly beloved world, her three small children and a husband at the dinner table, who is removing the bones from a chicken. In the closet I found a rifle hidden behind clothes from stories that we’re not going to entertain, but that it was well not to dispel because the adored world stayed on living in the house. Under the room there’s a little door that ushers into a room where grandfather used to raise chicks. Grandmother kept the keys in a drawer of the night table, closed with a piece of adhesive packing tape, so if someone opened it she would notice from the clear mark on the wood of the furniture. That room full of yellow chicks must have seemed like a marvel of light before grandfather capitulated to the foxes that decimated them once the brood changed color and was driven to peck at each other in the field under the dunghill. The rabbits instead lived in locales under the baths, whitewashed with lime, with a trough made of wood on one side of the second room. Before they were stalls for the oxen that were also used to drag the sledge along the grassy paths. It was loaded with hay, with wood, with grass for the animals, as soon as my brother and I would hear the crack of the whip with which Ugo spurred on the animals reluctant to run through the tract of stony slope that lead to the fields, we ran to clamber up, careful not to slip, holding on to the ridging of the bundles of brushwood to laugh near the wind, to play with the curves. Now in fully equipped public greens children hide next to the speeding of cars along the monotonous crossing of gardens quilted with all the same games bound by norms of security, peeping out at the street furniture of a Northern European city. There is no tree on which to climb, no hole to dig, nothing can surprise you except the limping of a lame pigeon or the flickering of a sickly red in its pupil.
I didn’t have a lira from the inheritance, the house, of course I live there, I didn’t even have a dress made for myself, only now, at ninety-three years old, for the first time, I went to the hairdresser to have my hair cut like when I was young, in shingles. When grandfather was alive a girl used to come to do my nails, him dead, I didn’t even have that done anymore, your aunt takes care of them a bit, like that, just to do them.
My life has become an agony, I keep saying this, there are the taxes to pay, the inheritance taxes, the work to clear the olive trees, the walls are crumbling. Your grandfather had registered this place in the children’s name, not mine. Maybe he did the right thing, who knows how much we would’ve had to pay in inheritance taxes if it were still in his name. Guido and Ilse, it’s a blessing that they live across from me, alone as I was. Your grandfather used to say, I would keep them there even if they didn’t pay the rent. You don’t hear a sound from them. When Valerio lived there he was unbearable, bossing everybody around, he thought he’d had the whole farm rented to him. He left when the mother-in-law bought a block of apartment buildings and divided them up, she gave one to him, near a trattoria that fried even frogs, even there in the country, but what did it matter to us where he went to live. Guido and Ilse were friends of a man who lived where Zeffiro the shepherd used to live, they knew that Valerio was leaving and came to ask us to rent them the house, the country is worse than a small town, everybody knows everybody’s business. That man is the secretary for the comune, he guaranteed us that we didn’t have to worry, and in fact they really are quiet and nice. When we still had the horses and all that snow came Guido never made grandfather go look after them, he said, you aren’t going, and don’t worry, there’s the slope, and I’ll go. He brought them hay and feed. When grandfather died Guido and Ilse were distressed, in the evening they would come down to keep me company. If your aunt comes to sleep, Guido, in the morning on his way to work, he drives a little bit out of his way to bring her back into town. Ilse paints the house every year. We also gave her the room that we’d kept as a storeroom, raising the rent by centomila lire. Ilse’s sister was supposed to arrive from America with the girls and they didn’t know where to put them to sleep, she came politely to tell us that they were desperate, that room was a junk room, so we brought the things in the garage, with grandfather dead we’d sold his cars, we’d already stored some furniture that we hadn’t known where to put, even yours, remember?
When grandfather bought this place, if I’d been more clever, I’d have said, pay the taxes but put it in our name, mine. He bought this house for me, I wanted a big garden, we looked for a long time, a house that was a beauty and cost less than this one was too far away, he wanted it near the shop. To tell the truth, he bought it because he liked it himself. I wanted the house by the sea. I did the right thing, loving him, he never made me want for anything, but he didn’t satisfy me, he gave me security, but he didn’t give joy to my ambitions. What the difference was between me and him was upbringing, my great-grandfather had been at the court of Napoleon III, he wasn’t at all one of those common fools, and even if we didn’t even have a lira to our name we were nobles for generations. I didn’t have much schooling, but I went as far as fifth grade. So when my father had his first heart attack I went to work in a shoe factory, I didn’t know anything about being a manager, but I did the pay slips for two hundred workers.
The Rail is proudly running Miransù as a serial from now until the spring.
ContributorMonica Sarsini, translated from the Italian by Maryann De Julio
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 lasino bianco was just published in Italy.
Maryann De Julio is a Professor in the Department of Modern and Classical Language Studies at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio.