to my grandmother Isabella
There’s a packet of Luigi’s papers, in the days of fascism they had it in for the masons, and my brother said to me, Isa, there must be some papers there with grandfather’s story, hide them, because he was a 33rd degree Grand Rosicrucian Prince of Freemasonry. These pages are hidden in a locked wardrobe. If I manage to find them, I’ll show them to you. It’s written only about Luigi, and there’s the outfit that the masons wore. And that man in the sitting room, in the photograph. That’s why they gave my brother the name Luigi, and also my eldest grandson was called this, the first-born. When his wife died Aunt Cora was left head of the house, poor papa was only five years old and she was a mama to him. When he was up to something that he shouldn’t have, they told him, I’m telling Aunt Cora. She took him aside and gave him a good scolding, she was a little bit of a thing but something else, like your sister. She and Uncle Dante didn’t have children, he was a widower, the wife and the daughter died of meningitis, he married very young, and when he got married again, to Aunt Cora, she was already on in years. He was friends with my poor papa, they went hunting together, it wasn’t like now when everybody and his brother has a rifle, before it was only signori. I get all mixed up with these people. Enrico, a misunderstood genius, died of pneumonia. The one with the earring, he’s from another branch of the family, from the signoroni on my mama’s side. They had so much land, but so many children too, and it was all broken up into little pieces. They didn’t give a dowry to my grandmother, her father said, so when I die, you’ll stay with your brothers. She had married a Florentine dandy who frequented the salons. He was part of the Florentine nobility, the prince Aimone and company, this bellimbusto abandoned her, but after he’d squandered all the fortune, he told her, let’s get back together, before there were no divorces, you’ve seen now how they split up, so it was the end of all her money. My grandmother’s brothers were rich and they still are, one made waxes of all kinds, sculptures, candlesticks, candelabrum, like they call these big ones, candles. He’ll have died, him, too. When I got married he gave me a gold bracelet. All this money went up in smoke with the ladies, as money does, with ladies, gambling, partying, the one who spends and doesn’t earn soon makes the fortune vanish. He came to a bad end, too, with a mistress. Grandmother returned to live with my mama and my poor papa. They left each other and that’s it, but they couldn’t get remarried, divorce is good for this kind of thing, it’s not even 100 years that divorce is in Italy, so many people could get remarried and start a new family, I was already old but I went to sign when the referendum came, I went right away, it was disgusting that two people couldn’t make themselves another family because of the prohibition against dissolving a previous union. If children were born they didn’t have paternity. Later we were a little modernized, obtained the divorce, got rid of paternity, now you can choose, even me, if I wanted to call myself Perroud, I could do it. They’ve made it the law, what counts is the maiden name, take me when I’m in the hospital, for example, I’m Signora Perroud. The last time I wasn’t there long, five days, the nurses know me, and when they see me, Isabella! Isabella! There’s the name-card behind the bed, Perroud Isabella. My surname, they don’t know how to read it, and so they call me Isabella. That time when I went in another hospital because of my leg an ignoramus of a nurse said granny doesn’t want the pillow. I said to her, nonnina? I have two grandchildren, but you’re not one of them. In the other hospital instead there weren’t more than two beds in a room at one time, there were rooms you could pay for, and the bathroom was in the room. The nurses are kind, the head isn’t one of these big professors who doesn’t give a damn about the sick people that they treat. He likes me a lot, he always asks your aunt how I am. I would invite him, but just imagine, that’s all he needs, to be invited to this tumbledown hovel! It’s a tumbledown hovel. Just see him, the whole picture, all of it, with everything together, the shabby furniture, the crumbling walls. When we had to increase the current, we have the meters outside, under the loggetta, the electrician asks me, why, signora, don’t you have it done around a little cornice? I answered, such a lot, this is a tumbledown hovel. Eh? He said, at least seeing it from outside they’d take it for something grand. It’s enormous, I said, but it’s falling to pieces. It would be comfortable, if we could have the money to have it restored. There’s your aunt’s bedroom to redo, rough-cast everything again, he’d need to go on the gutter to clean the filth from the cypresses off the roof, the grass that’s grown between the tiles, the leaves, the bagworms. The Filipino went with a ladder on the roof, and I said to him don’t try any more! I do like Michele, he answered. The things he does them gladly, if the power goes out, he goes to reattach the line, even if he had the electrician teach him, he feels important doing this kind of thing, the problem’s that, on the other hand, he’s not the person that we’re supposed to have, this place calls for a woman, me, being by myself. If I have to hook up my bra, I want a woman there, but a woman who’d stay here, you can’t find one, there’re no shops, we’d want one with a car. Loredana comes because her son drives her.
I’m stretched out, in the fullness of my dreams, in a falling of pebbles mixed with clouds, where, under a thin sheet of ice, there’s also a toad breathing, lying supine in the basin in the garden. It seems to be sleeping where it’s narrowest, stone-colored, as if to save the emerald of green in wait for spring. A low wall continues beyond the terrace crowning the foundation of the house, between its slits in front of the door of the pig stall, piled up snail shells bear witness to their cemetery. As a little girl I would lead the pig to the edge of the woods to root on a carpet of acorns, or I’d bring it buckets of rotten fruit fallen from the pear trees and from the apple trees that grew there shriveled, and in alternate years were overloaded with tottering and sweet-smelling fruit that grandfather took care not to waste. Now this stall is empty, the floor spick and span, the walls clear of tools that are now kept in rooms whose function had changed with time. These pigs all died, we children, predicting what was about to happen in the acuteness, shapeless in the air of screams, we moved away, each one on his own, from the farmyard where suddenly silence followed the slipping of the blood gushing into the tub.
I would like to talk about love. That’s why we’re here. I extend a hand towards his body, his fingers run monotonous through the knuckles of my hand, they venture along mine devoid of curiosity. Now and then he stumbles in the furrows that separate them, chasms of attachment that don’t know how to defend themselves. I force myself to stay still and not to help him, I always wanted to be a landscape, not to move anything radical in me, but to make myself eventually be lifted only by the underground currents that are recalled by a decoy or by a contrast with the outside, they would break the quiet of the silence to come to the light. The act of being born must have already been too much for me, the crossing the viscous musk of a body in order to float in this eternal void where clamorous life flashes without bonds, dull as the shadow of the underbrush, only electing sister the delicate maidenhair fern near the coolness of a fountain, which scampers between the wind, clasped to the earth by the brown elastic of the lucid shining of its tendons, only one to seem recalcitrant to absorb the breath of others in order to continue existing.
Loredana feels like going in the garden. Michele commends her for how she tends it, he’s a saint, he takes her with patience. She was born a contadina and a greengrocer, in her house they made turnip balls for everybody, they sold them around nearby, they brought them door-to-door. Later they did the washing, there weren’t any washing machines at all then. My mother was a school teacher, on Thursdays schools were closed, and she reserved Thursdays for doing the wash, in a basin, we had a big room specially made, she threw the wash over the ranno to boil, with the ash the clothes came good. She also put in detergent, Loredana bought it too, the basins for the olive oil, she washed them all this year. Wednesdays her son takes her and on Saturdays Michele, he goes from his house, stops, she has him get the coffee. His wife is dead, for two or three years she came to pick the olives. A rospaccia, different from him, so much so that Loredana says to me, but signora, him remember once his wife, me, for example, my husband, I remember him, you, yours, you remember him, him, he never remembers his wife, for me, he must not have loved her! Then when she’s at a loss, she falls back on my husband and says, even your husband, he used to say that she was ignorant! Not all the women from the lower classes are ignorant, she was unhappy, they want one and they want two, they have two and they want three, like Gina, she was impossible too, poor woman, she’s still living. Berto, her husband, was of a different nature, she thought she was somebody, her family hadn’t known as much misery, contadini that were better than Berto’s family. She was always for finding fault, when she went to mass, before coming to live here and work at our house, she’d come as far as the cypress with the clogs, then she’d put on her good shoes. Even me with the rest of them, when I went to school I had scarponcelli, big cow-hide shoes, hooked up to the ankle, my father made me wear them there, the other students were children of engineers, professors, lawyers, in class there was the cream of the crop of the Florentines, we walked to school, it was wet, humid, we came from the country, he did it for our own good, and they made fun of us. I spent my life being laughed at! Even the doctor’s son from Antella came in high shoes, sturdy walking shoes. Then as if that wasn’t enough, communists then weren’t like you know, just because we had books under our arm they threw rocks at us, we went to school on foot, we walked kilometers, and they threw rocks at us. We tried to avoid them and to forge on, we went into the woods, we all walked together, the same ones who performed in mama’s little theatre with us. She couldn’t catch her breath, mama was insulted on the tram because she was wearing a little hat. You take off your hat!, they told her. My brother wanted to kill them, he was already on their list. You’d have to look them up in the library, the Perrouds were barons, my nephew’s son went to Grenoble. During a communion, the last time that I saw him, he said, I have to go see. He’s one with lots of arrogance. His father answered him, if you want to know something you should go to Isabella’s and talk with her. I know from the past what was passed down from daughter to daughter, Aunt Cora told us the stories. There are no papers, but she told me like this, just like we’re talking between us, Aunt Cora, she told us everything, she was the family memory. You’d have to go to Grenoble. In Grenoble there are lots of Perrouds.
Michele brought me bundles of twigs to light the stove in the bedroom. First he’s going to remove the ashes from the preceding days, then, so that the fire takes, I have to blow there and hope that from the embers a flame surprises the other pieces of wood. When I was little a man would come specially to make the round of the stoves, it was all about feeding the iron grates to give light. He enters and caresses my fingers, it’s congenial for him to indulge in the same ridge, without speaking to me about a journey, without recounting an adventure. Apparently, but now that I know him I’m sure that it’s uncanny his repeating a circular rhythm that must expand inside him, intent on holding back feelings that give him the power to resuscitate that grandmother with whom, from when he was a little boy, he climbed the stairs in the evening, one arm supporting him and the other carrying with it the ticking of the alarm clock, and always came the spell of the tiles, which under his child’s foot, began to sing.
I’m still, the brambles, the dry twigs, the clematis through which the sap of my being winds like the ivy around the trunk of the cypress overwhelm the atavistic habit of reaching of the woman who looks after, and supervises. Thanks to his touching me the back of my hand imitates the plateau from whose sudden peak riverbeds open wide into an estuary. My other me is there waiting to be recognized as she claims. I miss blues, the sea that comes up onto the beach, but eyes, hawks suspended and inert to take advantage of the current of his affection scan fossils to illuminate the slopes, rows of grapevines that wind along the pillow, saline that whitens under armpits where the discoloration together with the blue of the gingiva nestle exotic mirages, streets of sunlight, groves of reeds, chasms of light, fragments of wreckage in the place in which once in slipping on tiptoe my hand inside a cage to caress the quick panting of a tepid fur I was bitten, I still have the mark on my palm, where if the thumb and the index are joined they can easily hide signs of provenance, messages of secret memberships. I don’t move, bristly and smooth porcupine that dawns, barely recaptured me from a lethargy that still takes its time in holding me in the oblivion of the rustlings, beyond the starlight.
The Rail is proudly running Miransù as a serial which began in the December/January issue and will continue through the spring.
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.