to my grandmother Isabella
What a bad feeling, an indescribable thing. Nothing hurts me, I feel overwhelmed, my breathing, it seems like the world is collapsing on me. Maybe I miss your grandfather, maybe I miss him. Good God, it’s so much that he’s dead, everyday more. I was used to not having any worries, that’s not such a small thing, true? Without the worries I felt more secure. It’s not that now I feel in danger. Loredana’s right when she says, you have so much stuff to sell if it came to that. It’s not that I’m afraid of starving to death. It’s that I don’t know why this continual anguish. I feel unhappy, truly. Your grandfather made me live like a monk so that we could put together these pennies. I put them with him too. It should all be mine. Your aunt’s husband came to Italy with a handful of jewels. It wasn’t such precious stuff, the amethysts are very cheap, I don’t think there were diamonds. That’s how he began to have debts, and your aunt paid them. He always says, you only like Lucianino. Your father is a lazzerone and I like him just the same. I can’t have him in the house because they forbid me, your mother doesn’t want it, end of story. He ruined everything, but each one does as he thinks best, I knew him as a boy, it’s for that.
I would have wanted to be present when my father’s childhood was violated so that I could make every effort to ease his pain in the soft hollow of an embrace. August 30 1944 the Germans vacated the hills of Florence, where they had stationed the cannons. Behind the hills the allied army, Indians, English, New Zealanders, Australians, Moroccans, which were part of the first line, attacked them without exposure. From the terrace of his house, before feeling the blow, my father saw the smoke from the German cannon shot, then felt on his head the whistle of the projectile that was racing in the sky to explode on the enemy army. An instant and from the hills to his shoulders he recognized the rustling of the projectiles that he then saw sustain the lead on the high ground opposite. The Germans withdrew and, before the allies came down from the hills, no one controlled the city in the valley. In the first day of this anarchy during a very hot afternoon my father was reading a book by Woodhouse on his little bed. They rang the bell, from the front door he saw his mother set off along the gravel alleyway towards the gate to let in two boys on bicycle, in short pants and shirts with rolled up sleeves. They muttered something and he understood that they were looking for his father. He went to call him, he was also resting, he got up and went to meet them while in the yard the contadini, between seven or eight men and women, were husking the corn. The two boys asked him to follow them to the detachment of the national liberation center. All three of them got on bicycles, Poldo had his in the yard and in going to get it was several minutes late. My father and grandmother gazed from the gate after him and the other two who were going, at two o’clock on an August afternoon, and when the curve of the road hid them they heard first three shots, then an infinity. Father rushed towards grandfather, who was stretched out on the crag in the road between the fruscoli of the brambles, he saw him and said to him, it’s nothing, tell mama not to scream like that since it’s nothing. Father, the little boy, saw the wounds on his face and on his shoulders, sensed that they weren’t mortal and pulled up his shirt, but the bullets that had penetrated were hidden in his belt. So he felt reassured. While grandmother arrived screaming, father ran to call the contadini, hurry up, hurry, and they were speechless, they hadn’t heard any shots. Poldo on his bicycle was trying to catch up with the two assassins. The member of the leadership had the only available misericord in the city prepared, meanwhile someone went with a gurney to get grandfather, under the portico where the contadini had carried him. Father saw the partisans of the Garibaldi Brigade with white, red and green armbands and red neckerchiefs run up, then he went back in the house, up to his room and stretched out on the bed to read that book that had always amused him, but this time he didn’t laugh, and he was upset, and didn’t understand why. I would like to have been there to embrace him, just as he embraced me when they killed his son and my brother, to hold hidden in my lap the neck of a little boy whose carefreeness has been devastated, instead I was not yet born, my family of men wounded in life. Those two on bicycles were never made to confront the pain that they caused, just as the son of the contadino who killed my brother did not come to be sorry, not even when grown up, even if he hadn’t done it on purpose, I, as well, if I hadn’t done it on purpose must apologize if at table I spill my glass full of water on the tablecloth, and these men that killed, violated the joy of a child, frightened his existence, that fixed forever in a precise moment the unfolding of his time, continued to live without feeling the necessity of begging pardon from the bright eyes of my father as a boy, I know from his look that for his whole life he has tried to run from that day.
I can’t be happy. And I don’t need anybody to take care of me, I can take care of myself! Your aunt’s husband always wants to be right, he fancies himself better than Schuffer, the head of the hospital, professor of anatomy. He was expelled, he was an antifascist. That fool of a brother of mine, with two others more fool than him, one became a municipal doctor, the other no, he was his own signorone, he had a private practice, when the students collectively decided that no one should stand up to applaud him at the last anatomy lesson he said, what does politics have to do with a bravissimo professor who has taught us anatomy in a marvelous way, we know everything about the human body now, I stand up and clap my hands. They had told him not to do it, and when the professor left him and these other two fools stood up and began to clap their hands. Then they beat them up, if you had seen the marks on my brother’s body! When he got out of prison I welcomed him with open arms, he was a pediatrician, if they telephoned him at night because a baby was about to die he ran even in pajamas with the greatcoat on his back, all the people adored him, true communists, as they say. All the wars that there were he fought in them, the Germans took him at Rodi and they brought him to Germany. He escaped because working in the hospital together with him there was an Austrian who at a given moment understood that Germany was finished. So he said, Doctor, let’s leave, Germany is kaput, and they escaped. He was a medic, not a doctor, always with his little stars, his grade of Italian lieutenant, in the winter the Germans had offered him one of those tents that they had, and he refused it. But he defended them too. To dine they gave a bowl of boiled millet, the other prisoners rebelled, he said, but what are they supposed to do, even they don’t have anything to eat!
When he returned I sent your grandfather, they named him an antifascist. I told him, have mercy, you go and take him by the back roads, come with him here, there weren’t any trams. He arrived among the first, the workers were walking to work, I wouldn’t want something to happen then and there, I said, they’d killed your other grandfather a few days before even though he’d only done good to people, a couple of families were living in Paradiso, a disgusting place, full of people that were dying of hunger. They went to the shopkeeper to get something to eat and he paid the bill, no clothes, or other stories, but for eating he took care of it. Like my brother had done for the rest. Being a pediatrician, he only treated children, he treated old people too but all in all children more than others, those days there wasn’t the Cassa Mutua like now, you needed to pay the doctor, if there was no libretto di miserabilità. When he saw that someone without the libretto couldn’t do so many wonderful things, if they said to him, how much must you have to visit the child, he answered, but what do you mean, buy him a little meat broth and give it to him. It was the same with the Germans, we had lost trace of them, finally one day a letter arrives, after so much time. When it arrived it went to Aunt Cora’s. It said, when I knew that you were all safe and sound I got on my knees and kissed the ground. It was emphatic, eh! When he and your grandfather appeared out of nowhere on the little bridge the workers were arriving, in droves, on foot, they would recognize him and, uhhh! Our doctor has come back home! He rushed back to work. His wife’s people, owners of a pharmacy, immediately found him the position of country doctor! He’d been away from home three or four years, his son was born and he hadn’t seen him at all, and my sister-in-law sent him to the countryside! She wasn’t a bad person the poor thing, but she didn’t know how to stand up for him, he was weak, she was weaker than him. That’s how he knew her. He had to go, it was an ugly time right after the war. When the first Englishman appeared, with that contraption on his head with all that grass for camouflage, he wanted a chair to sit himself down, sit down, sit down, he was saying. He arrived in the road, as if it were from this sitting room to the garden, ten or so meters distance, and everybody around him. He opened a box full of chocolates, they were fine, not at all like our soldiers who were dying of hunger, like the Germans, the Germans had always taken them from hunger, and thanks to the Americans, the English and the French the Germans would have had a bite, they’re not such a sensitive people! They brought him the chair and he began to hand out cigarettes. There were no cigarettes, there was no bread, there was nothing in Italy. He began to offer white bread, they made a white bread like what I eat myself now that I have no teeth, bread that always gets moldy. And your mother and your aunt were there on the little gate, and they were watching. I said, you don’t go near that man because I’ll slap you, I’m telling you, you turn your faces away! We didn’t need the English! We had something to eat.
They hear voices it’s true, someone that curses far away, bodies of words racked between nests of white down that rest on the brambles, or it’s a dog lamenting the tightness of a chain where the wall of a partition is cracked from the frost, but it’s the candid clamor from the paths that reigns. Now that his arm is extended without longing to flee I listen for the beauty of his solemn gait without fear of being humiliated or rejected in loving. What joy the coolness of his caress, who knows how the earth without the care that this pilgrim lavishes among my paths must suffer from being touched with arrogance, with so much rudeness. Then suddenly rises a wind that comes from under my shoulders like a smooth transparent avalanche, a sheet with its reasons without accompaniment of sound on its surface chessboard of swift thoughts gliding away. I grab hold of a headstone that crops out of the land, but also that rose from the earth and takes the road towards heaven. I take refuge inside the twisted trunk of an olive tree in order to support myself on a branch, which as pure cortex attracts from the eddy, in the wide valley for contemplating furtively why I put down roots now there’s only the furled yellow of the fishing lines that he used as a boy.
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.