from Miransùby Monica Sarsini, translated from the Italian by Maryann De Julio
to my grandmother Isabella
Sometimes in the evening before falling asleep, I see my grandfather again, under a veil, before he died he would often say, what a terrible thing, he wanted to say something, but he realized that he was forgetting the words as he was pronouncing them, so he ended up saying only, what a terrible thing, and in fact it must have been a terrible thing, but not one of us could tell him that he was right, we all had to tell him, see what’s happening to you, it’s nothing, so he had stopped listening to us, we annoyed him, in the end they gave him an injection to make sure that he was dead with no possibility of return, we couldn’t even bury him in the country, where he had been happy and felt safe, we had to bury him in a long row together with strangers, even apart from my beloved brother buried just above, on the next level. We hadn’t spoken much, but holding me by the hand, he put branches to burn in the small hearth, bread to cook in the oven, warmers with embers inside the bed, galoshes on the feet of his grandchildren, polenta in the copper pot, tomatoes past their prime inside bottles, grass in the cages of rabbits, clusters of grapes in wooden tubs. His hands plucked, mixed, and laid figs out to dry in the sun, gathered moss for the crèche, removed the husk from walnuts, brushed against the fingers of those who were learning to walk, dressed scratches, holding my hand in his I said I was a little girl who squeezed petals to make colors, who ran downhill at break-neck speed, who entered a room covered in cages with decoys inside, and I became the woman that I am now, ill at ease in city streets, grateful for the life of cut stalks, for the caper-shrubs that bloom violet and white on the low walls. One Christmas after so many resolute years I had to maintain the courage to substitute immobility with movement, almost all the pain was only the result of a nightmare and in reality necessary certainties existed for us to feel part of a common story fit to continue in time. Everyone was seated at the table, my sister, aunt, a friend, baskets of fruit on the tablecloth framed the smiling and emotional face of grandmother when she leaned from her chair urging me to do the honors, serve the courses in the trays. I could barely manage to glance over on the drowsiness of the kitchen garden, I had to breathe softly, be there as little as possible, not make noise, not raise my voice, like smiling on tiptoe and brushing against things not to knock into them and fall into disgrace. I went into my old room, opened and closed drawers to make sure without probing that I had lived there and that I could allow myself to return. Grandmother gave me some centerpieces that she had crocheted, then she brought me into the cellar, in this way the wooden furniture in the rooms acquired a warmer patina acclimating to my past, nothing seemed disfigured from the pain of an instant, and fear didn’t find an opening from which to burst in. The women cleared the table together, confusing roles in a choral performance of attending to things, aunt, mother, sister, all able to find shelter in the little machine to be filled with coffee, in sweeping crumbs from the tablecloth. Each one handing a small plate or drying a glass to hold back her discomfort and not betray her melancholy. They sat in a circle to play cards, I chose to follow grandfather, who cleaned the dirt from his shoes before entering the house and recklessly drove his gray Appia with the steering wheel on the right when he came into town to withdraw his pension, always natty. The more I ventured next to him along the path, the more I was afraid of having committed an error, of having left the women around the table. Nature appeared distant, indifferent towards me, I had to find the strength to extend my gaze and trust in the shelter that it allowed, while I perceived it incapable of conversing with my conscience about living. After so much immobility the distant horizons hurt my eyes, that sky without the obstacles of tiles and antennae was too much, the dark woods, the dry leaves crumpled on the branches, there was not a voice to run after, or a woman’s skirt to free from the thorn-bushes. On the way back, to answer the questions that I put to him on the state of the fields, grandfather stopped, stroked his bald head with his right hand with the short nails, put a hand on my arm and looked into my eyes to speak at length on his reflections, competent in the aspects of the life that he had chosen and that showed its fruits in the edged roads, in the pruned branches. I was able to take advantage of that incident to offer in my turn a demonstration of fullness, the result of my ability to connect. The things that I had loved, the feelings that I had defended did not find space in his house, there wasn’t a room built on the foundations of previous generations that I had chosen mine, seduced by the joy of resemblance. I felt guilty, incapable of not sowing with my thoughts impotence and melancholy.
The first time that he was hospitalized I lay down next to him on top of the sheet, he was disorientated, lost on account of words, I gave him my hand, let my head fall on his shoulder, remained quiet and suddenly he told me about when he had bought the house and there wasn’t any water, then he had called a water-diviner who had the hill dug up, every evening he would return from the shop and go to see that hole always deeper, but there was no water, so he had stopped the work and went by himself to look in the valley under the house, he had it dug up and a trickle of water appeared, a fine stream of reflections that sparkled giving refreshment to the obtuse density of the clods of earth, he had begun to follow it, to look for its origins and had the stones and the rocks cut to allow this stream to have a bed in which to lie, then the paths of water had become two, when one evening the workers were waiting for him to decide which branch to credit before continuing to dig, he had not hesitated and finally a wide mouth of bright light had moved towards his open arms. You’re a sorceress, he said to me, I didn’t miss even a word. I thought that it had been the stillness, that lying close, hand in hand, as if in embrace, I thought that we had found the water together, a respite for that arid pain that wanted to render him mute.
With the haughtiness that the French have, when Napoleon III had himself declared emperor, my great-grandfather Giuseppe, Great Chamberlain at court, said, I have served a friend of the republic, I will never serve one of his enemies, and he gave in his resignation. My relations were all republicans, even my brother, he had an ivy leaf on his jacket. Well, my great-grandfather resigned his office and went to Malta. He was received by the free masons, they welcomed him like an exile, and found him work in Florence. He’d married one of the Swiss Germans, had lots of children, among them Enrico, who married a Greek whose father was a ship owner. Because of the wind and the storm in one night he lost I don’t know how many sailing-ships. He killed himself not to go bankrupt. And my grandfather Luigi, who’d married Ersilia, and was sales representative for Ayala, a house of champagne, and always said, but Ayala doesn’t write, but Ayala doesn’t write. He traveled everywhere, he went as far as Persia. Every time that he returned he brought a child into the world, to make up for lost time. I don’t even know the names of all the children, there were twins too, some died before being born. To Icilio, my father, they’d given the name of another dead child. And Virginia, and Cora.
I traveled when I was young, an interval in adolescence during which man for me meant a baroque church, a museum thawed by the opening of a humble door, sheathes of wheat on an altar, and the desire to make myself flesh, to make myself a pilgrim, then surrender. It wasn’t mine that body crossing panoramas, getting on trains, moving by me, preferring where to choose together the quality of my being. Then places accommodated a thought devoid of breath, an intention devoid of warmth. My mother parted from me, the sea, the country, the drives along the cliffs, every so often she had an accident with the car, she spent long months in the hospital, tending to the slow resetting of her bones and then she returned to moving where others had decided that it was a matter of her comfort. My father fled by the roads, distanced himself from the solitude, consuming distances where at times he succumbed, like an athlete who’d suddenly run out of breath, as if his body rebelled at that flight forward checked by a destination that was supposed to function as a temporary post station, for changing horses, where he consigned the message of his instability, a kiss, an embrace, way stations in the form of women, haystacks in which to sink to rest the horses, and on the road back, every now and then he had an accident with the car, tended to the slow resetting of his bones, and then he returned to moving in order to flee ahead and leave a care behind. No one asked me to move, they were used to the fact that I was incapable of taking advantage of nature in order to distract myself, or people to weave bonds. They were used to considering me like a tree, or like being at the bedside of a dying figure that couldn’t be left alone. If I were certain of having someone at my deathbed, I would have stopped being like a tree and I would have gone away. But no one suitable seemed to have appeared, so I didn’t want to go away until when I had found him. At the present moment, I was a person determined to guarantee at least a familiar place at the moment of death, since I didn’t want to die in a strange land.
Virginia married a painter. My grandfather went into the hen house one day and the rooster gave him a peck. So he had his portrait done and then he wrung his neck. It’s that big painting next to the piano. The painter’s father had a fabric store, once a thief took a bolt of cloth and he shouted at him from the door: Bonhomme! Bonhomme! Back then they had the house in town and a little house in Fiesole, they couldn’t even say they were signori. My great grandfather was about to die and the little old ladies from the countryside called the priest. When he saw him come in, even if he was half dead, he sat up in bed and shouted, Allez-vous-en! Je n’ai rien à faire avec vous! They were completely atheist! The priest went away and in the countryside rumor spread that they saw his ghost roaming the streets in the summer because he had died without benediction. Then my grandfather took the hunting rifle and began sitting on the low wall. The workers were passing on their way home and asked him, signor Luigi, What are you doing there like that? They told me that my papa is coming to drive the people mad, if he’s not dead, as soon as I see him I’m killing him myself! I said it to laugh, to make them afraid. That poor lady his wife died very young of kidney stones. They were atheists, but she was Italian and Catholic. When she was sick she prayed, Gesù mio, I offer them to you, my kidney stones! And my grandfather retorted, bah, with all the troubles that he had you have to give him this too! She climbed landing after landing to knock at the door of my maternal grandmother’s room, saying Signora Erminia, you need anything? No, I don’t need anything. Because if you do, I’m always quick! She was a big woman with the strength of 100 horses. With all this talking, not even my stomachache has passed, I feel like throwing up.
When I stayed to sleep grandmother interrupted her habits and very slowly propped up by my arm, she came down into the kitchen for us to be together, more to continue talking than for the supper. The strength of her memories lacerated the time, more ferocious from the mournful clarity of her slender body, which I embraced when stretched out next to her under the diffuse blue of a light bulb once I had accompanied her back to bed, I dawdled a little to gather, after the sleeping pill, the inventory of the people for whom she recited a prayer. If you need me call me, I insisted on telling her until she fell asleep, then I went up to my room where I hung out over the peeled shutters, we listened to the slobbering of the boars who were eating the pears and the pumpkins from the garden. My paternal grandmother, on the other hand, I hardly visited her, my father remembers her as submissive, sweet; in the evening, after supper, she would take him in her arms and carry him to bed. She had a diploma from the Conservatory and would accompany grandfather together on the piano, to other artists, in lyrical ballads that he sang to her in a baritone until late in the evening. She was kind, well bred, my father never heard her raise her voice, he saw her cry instead, but even that she did, as we say, sotto voce. She was distant from me, fluid, together with her piano. She died in the hospital, my mother and my cousin stayed close to her, my father instead had anguish, anxieties, longings, but only much later was he able to attend to the grief.
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.