to my grandmother Isabella
Hush sleep, let me think, it’s my love who eviscerates the bond and full murmurs. Then suddenly everything is quiet, everything bogs down, the crackling of gestures in order to separate from the union and find from that embrasure the opening of light in order to leave. How in the motionless clamor of summer, at the bottom of the abyss of that cracking sounds dissolve, the song of the cicada, and after so much scrupulousness of movement you stopped, and my body alone surprising me moved. My future will not be here, but then not in the city either, in which on awakening I make an effort to recognize myself when I pass in front of the mirror, I doubt being real and that the persons dear to me still exist. It’s then that I feel embarrassed by my body. I have a right leg, I also have a left leg, but I notice only the left one, because I think about it, and the thought of having this leg weighs on me, at times it seems to me to weigh very little, that it’s too light. If I weren’t thinking about it this leg would be at ease in the stride of the left one, neither good nor bad like the other, something alive adapted to the motion or the quiet in crossing one over the other. I try to remember when I started to think about it, if it was to divert attention from a motive that distresses me or if it was the leg itself that sent me a message. I look at it, it’s straight, it culminates in a foot sturdy and slender, pure white nails render its solemn gait mysterious while barefoot it sets off into the dark from the light. The ankle is adapted to sustain a weight of woman that I’m not, slender in comparison to this muscular ankle. Also the calf is an athlete’s, and while it acclimatizes itself to high heels naked and free from support it has a childish taper that gives my body an age different from that which can be ascertained in other areas of my figure, more emancipated from the modesty of adolescence. The knee is the archive of my life in the country, crashing from my bicycle in the pebbly descents, falling over the leaps while trying to reach a fig. But I like to shift it to the right and to the left of the bone when I enclose it leg extended between the thumb and the index. The thigh I wished it fatter, to fill out the fabric of my pants or to reveal itself under the adornment of a skirt, without acquiring anything of my rebellions to be at peace with the doubt of little resembling a mother figure. If this leg spurs me to an attention that doesn’t appear natural perhaps it’s about the leg of another, it occurs to me among the petticoats on the occasion of a general rush. Someone must be there then in this moment, perhaps in a neighborhood not far from mine, observing his leg perplexed without understanding why it doesn’t feel familiar. I go out, climb the steps head down, to pursue and to go against an indeterminate number of walkers. I hope setting forth there the attention to single out a swagger, a particular movement that gives the measure of a discrepancy existing between who goes on his own legs and who perhaps feels at fault taking advantage of those of others. It’s he who walks quick with his hands in his pockets not to concede something of self to the shop windows lush with enticements. Who instead in front of the windows lingers considering the range of prices in the neighborhoods, and the nearer it is to the center of the city the more the numbers increase, as if the heart were worth more than the other members, insignificant offshoots where he who lives has the impression of having been relegated, without meriting a piazza or urban furniture to remove him from that alienation. It seems to me that cities were built in order to perturb minds and little by little I have the feeling that none of those ridiculed have anything to do with their own legs, so they walk consistent with the project of proceeding, but they seem to express for some reason that can’t be put into words that they would be truer if they were to start to run as far away as possible. I wish for my leg, if the hypothesis is true, which someone during a stumble exchanged with his, to be found climbing up the summit of a wood, to rest in a clearing, or if it’s wide open on a bed of hay to celebrate the sunset with his love. However I give hardly a perfunctory glance at heels, at the cuff of a pair of pants, at the stripe of a sock, at stockings turned down, at feet swollen in shoes, and I wish it were mine alone the swagger of a Senegalese vendor of cigarette lighters, lazily roosted on his hips. I return home and begin to repeat, left right left right…, looking at me now one leg now the other in the hope of misleading me and of forgetting which one of the two is the illegal one. When I believe that I’ve lost my body instead of heading inside the silence that it conveys I head inside the thought of calling it, in order to obtain an answer. They play at hide-and-seek, the body and the thought, it’s the thought chasing after and the body hiding, not one of the two is comfortable, hiding, chasing, but it’s the thought taking charge of the mise en scène. It would like the heart to beat strong, the teeth to clench in terror, shivers to run down the spine, sweat to drip from the temples. From this its torment, unable as it is to stand that the body get off scot-free passing across the day like a thief. But it doesn’t care, gladly it would recline along the edge of the street without thinking of the rules, of images of self not to betray. And down the thought despairs, fears losing the advantage, holds back the intention of capitulating that creeps in as if germinated from the reasoning itself of bringing to conclusion the gesture of brushing your teeth, putting on a trace of lipstick.
Your grandfather was a little jealous, but only of my cousin Oreste. Of Piero no, he didn’t think at all not even about the one of whom he could be jealous really, he was jealous of Oreste, there were seven years between me and him, I had held him in my arms from when he was small, Aunt Angelina unfortunately for a mistake had him when she was a girl. She was the sister of my mama. Merola, the fine glove maker, held her in great esteem. She had a glove store and when she opened another one in Venezia no one was left there with him, the uncle Gambardella, the future father of Oreste. He made the other clerks go away, he was unpleasant, tiresome for work schedules, no one did things the way he wanted. Merola turned to Aunt Angelina, as she was already her employee in Florence, you see if you can go to Venezia for a time, to see if you succeed opening this store for me, with Gambardella it’s not possible. It was so possible that she fell in love, he was a handsome man this Gambardella. She was Aunt Nana, not because she was small in stature, I always called her like that. She went to Venezia, this trouble happened to her and she made this baby. The war of ’14-18 broke out and Gambardella was immediately recalled, he was on Monte Grappa the poor boy, for all four years of the war, he was furious though, he was educated, he knew languages, Chinese no less. He went to work on the steamships too, he said that on them there is a kind of stores, and he sold gloves. The poor girl, she returned to Florence, what had she to do, she could hardly stay up there alone with the baby, and they came down with the cholerine. My father, who hadn’t admitted that a woman could do what she’d done, didn’t want to hear her talk about it, and this woman was alone, with this baby, with few means, without being able to work. Then the guardian angel of the family rushed to my father, by a miracle he didn’t give him a slap and he said to him, shame on you, a woman alone, with a newborn, he’s sick, he’s gotten cholerine no less, that’s not Christian charity, in other words, it was very little but it was everything, and from the first to the last, when we want to obtain something, we go to Aunt Cora’s and we kick up our heels! Poor papa it’s not that he was a bad sort, and impulsive as he was he went to ring the bell of the house in which lived Aunt Angelina, he took the baby and carried him away. And my father was seen arriving with this baby in his arms. Then he took her too, hardly able to leave the house. She stayed there until when Uncle Gambardella didn’t come home. I used to make toys with Oreste, I was nine years old, and him two, what bad do you want that we do, we made toys, I had a table with little doll’s pans, he told me the last time that he came, it was already free, you remember when you put me at the table, you gave me something to eat for dolls and then you said to me, take a little bit eh! After he grew up, made a career for himself, he was an intelligent person, a handsome boy, but what did that matter to me, I always saw him as a little boy, I used to say to him I carried you in my arms, remember it. But now I could carry you in my arms! He would answer. Yes, he was too attached to me when he came, but not for bad things, maybe he wrote to me, a post card, then since he made model drawings, which were distinctive, puppets, Donald Ducks, he gave them to me as presents. And my husband didn’t like him. Not that he ever said anything, but he was jealous! Back then I kept myself up, I had beautiful clothes. He was very affectionate, with Neapolitan open-heartedness, Gambardella was from Naples, they were transferred there after the war, here there wasn’t work, the aunt didn’t adapt to that life, she had always lived free, no troubles, with her own work, in Naples she was closed up in the house and she didn’t go out not even to go buy a loaf of bread. They provided for Ugo too, he’s still alive, the one who got us the tickets for the boat when we went to Palermo. Aunt Angelina did the house work and that was it, she was a little strange, her too, for example she wasn’t happy with the wife of Ugo, when we went to the golden wedding anniversary she told us, he had that beautiful girl, one that would stand behind him, they were employees, they were good, and he went with that one there, the old lady! Because they always fell in love with women older than them. She married and had a son, every once in awhile she telephoned. She was employed together with him in a spare parts shop for automobiles, a famous brand, with subsidiaries all over. She died poor thing, they’re all dead, there’s Maurizio left, and Ugo. When we telephoned to say that your grandfather died Ugo began to cry, he was on his honeymoon in Florence, he stayed with us, we were younger, God wants we didn’t have this place and we took them out to eat. Oreste had trouble too, he had a pair of twins, I don’t know how they turned out, him dead there’s no longer any reason to be interested, one half-wit, the other normal. The healthy one made a beautiful marriage with a professor of medicine, she has a villa and she took the half-wit with her.
Loredana’s son instead never married. She began to come here twenty years ago, together with her husband. Settimo dei Sottili, the contadino for the nuns at the cloister, told my grandfather, I have here one who’d like to work in your fields. Then that man recounted that his wife was practical to do the grass by hand, then she was young, she was fifty, my grandfather told him, bring her, and she brought the scythe from home. Grandfather to economize wanted to make her reap the grass with the back of the scythe, not with the cutting-edge, he had them sharpened when they were finished, they wore them out and they changed nothing. Then from reaping the field they begin to make her come in the house, we have an agreement, says Loredana, otherwise I wouldn’t have stayed there so long. Grandfather used to say to grandmother that he had the luck of Loredana, with her no one ever stayed. Her husband died on a Saturday, she came during the week though, a couple of days. Grandfather and grandmother had never seen a man quick in that way. In those days as a mezzadra, a tenant farmer, she only looked after the plants, then her husband had to laugh with the owner, a professor, they send them off from the house and he went into agriculture to work in the country. They bought the house up there. When we were like a contadino and we had animals, she says, a cow had two calves, one born normal, the other without an asshole. The veterinarian came and operated on it, but they were in one stall, he didn’t think even that it would continue to live. In the operation a fora sacco plant got into the straw, that’s what punctures the intestines, otherwise it didn’t die, for several days he camped out and that veterinarian made a name for himself. Of course she still remembers it as a very serious event, she can’t stand to see when the animals give birth, it distresses her. Others died while eating the grass, often they ingest irons, they find a little piece of wood and they don’t notice, it passes in the opener, or a tack, they stop eating, they swell up, there’s no way to save them. They don’t make him but the veterinarian goes in so many places, looks at the animals and the meat they sell it to the butcher at a reduced price. She says that there was less money than now and who wasn’t a Saint Anthony went and bought it. She liked being a contadina, but she worked so much in her life, if I say to her, go back and do what you did, no, she would answer, then there wasn’t the washing machine and they washed in the cold, in the fields everything by hand, with the scythe, for hoeing, it didn’t matter that she was old, still she wouldn’t go back young to do that hard work. She was suited to tailoring, she liked to sew, they sent her to learn from a woman that did sewing, but for use in the home, they sewed pants, underwear, nightgowns. At home there was a gang of them, at the beginning of winter the tailor went, in one day she cut the fabric that she wanted for us, for the men, the women, and they had to sew it, a veglia, her, her cousin, her sister. Then in homes there were the overseer and the housewife, the older brother of her father and his wife, it was up to them to buy the fabric, to pick it out. Loredana’s mama died when she was four years old, she was the youngest, her brother was nine and her sister twelve. She stayed at home with the aunts, her father for the good of the children didn’t get married again. The aunt liked me, she says, but on my side we were three and on the aunt’s side too, however two male and one female. They were two females and one male, and when she could spare hard work she made her daughter stay home and she sent Loredana in the fields, it’s logical, she’d say, she cared for us, she raised us, she trained us, but a daughter is always a daughter. The aunts are dead, one of her sisters is dead, a cousin is left, a sister and her brother, she lives in town and it’s all broken-down. Even if it’s among contadini they were one of the families that were better off before the bombardments they did laundry outside, they went to take the dirty wash and they brought it back clean, with the cart, they had a table in the sitting room and the pile of dried wash arrived by light, they were to go through, and to fold it. They had the boiling water with the ash, and the tank outside, when it was cold the clothes froze while they washed them. The made ranno with the ash, they had a very large terracotta basin, they slipped the clothes in there, in order to make them stay straight they put sticks by the sides, then they had ashes, bleached stuff, and on top they put the ash. On one side there was the boiler for the water, under the stove in which they made a fire, then a cement floor. By and by they overturned the water to bring to a boil on the clothes with the ash, the water passed again from under the basin tap and they brought it up again in the boiler. Until it didn’t come to boil from the tap they didn’t stop doing the work. The clothes we didn’t move them, she said, you had to rub them in the tank, they were scrubbed, washed, rinsed and immersed in the blueing, celestial stuff that we put a little of in the water. In winter instead they sowed turnips, they cooked them during the veglia and early in the morning with the cold they went to knock on doors and asked if they wanted some turnip balls, she wasn’t ashamed at all. For mezzadria, tenant farming, there were agricultural agreements, at Easter the contadini had to carry nine dozen eggs to the padrone, for Christmas capons, if you didn’t bring them they marked them down to you, a debit in the libretto colonico, the account book, she said. It was too mean on the part of the padrone, among themselves instead there was love, more humanity. Morning and evening Loredana milked the cows and went to bring the milk to the farm with the cart, in the glass bottles, many times she had them rinsed out, morning and evening, her father was blind in one eye, while he was milking he took a kick from a cow, and to bring the milk of those that had given birth they had to wait ten days. The cows were the padrone’s, they in exchange for looking after them took half the milk, but the cost for maintaining they made it theirs. Loredana was born to mezzadria, it was finished after the war, they began to divide up the land, 53 parcels, and the padrone took 47, the contadino was dying of hunger, at her home she also sold fruit but where I returned married, she said, there was only that little bit of wine, that little bit of oil, and that’s it. They needed to go more to the help of the contadini, the rich man’s son and the poor man’s son had the right to study, instead the padrone would claim that only the rich man’s son study. Then as they sent them to school, there wasn’t money. Now it would be all different, since there’s another mentality. One of her cousins was to do his military service in Albenga, he had met a woman from a well-to-do family, she said, and he wanted to marry her. His parents didn’t want a son far away. When he finished his service, also before getting married, they said, he raised it again, especially to his mama, you ruined my life, he also had poor health, he couldn’t be a contadino, you should have let me make my own life. He died of an inflammation, said Loredana, he always had cold meats on his account, all boiled stuff, no salami or wine.
Palma! Get your nails off my stocking! I always had a passion for dogs and I found myself surrounded by six cats. It’s that it refused to be born in the vegetable garden, it’s an incredible thing. In my house there were always cats, my mama was a fanatic, she adored them. We also had dogs. Together. Animals, good and bad. A dog needs to be taken as soon as he’s weaned, be kept by someone who cares for him, because if you treat him bad, beat him, he becomes bad. We took two from the kennel, but we had to give them away. Jack was a bull mastiff, when he got up he put his paws on the shoulders of my brother, he was tall my brother. Your mother was beginning to walk and my poor papa had the habit in order not to wake up mama, of going by candlelight. This dog saw this man with this candle, then and there he doesn’t recognize him, hurled himself at him, he had a jacket made by Aunt Cora, all quilted, the dog grabbed that, right to the skin. Then mama began to say, the baby! She’s starting to walk now! Because he was jealous of the bed too, if someone went to take the sheet he growled. He gave me a bite on the leg, I was carrying the meat to the table, since he was big he stood up by the table, took the meat from me and carried it away. I threw a boot at him, he turned around, dropped the meat and took me by the leg. My brother in order to defend me broke a chair on his head. This damned dog let me go and hurled himself against him. Poor papa went under the arcades, there used to be dog breeders there then, they had all breeds of dogs and they sold them. He went there and said, I have a bull mastiff, he’s bad, we have a small baby, can you find a place for him somewhere? Signore, answered the breeder, it happens that there’s a company that keeps lumber in a pasture that’s not fenced-in, and they took him away to them, they had asked us for a dog, which bites! Don’t be afraid, answered my father, you don’t make noise, he bites! We need to agree on the price, said the dog breeder. The price? said my father, it would seem like selling a son! It’s enough that you go see where he goes because I want him to be okay. Don’t worry, we do a good job placing the animals, they just need to be animals that render a service. They came to take him and, poor animal, he didn’t want to go away, he was crying, yelping, we felt bad, in spite of everything. The other we took him to the kennel. Hi died by himself, a Siberian husky, all black, he bit non-stop, a nasty beast. Summer came and he went blind. It’s as if you took dogs here from the Alps, some Saint Bernards. Those signori that live beyond the church they had them and they died on them. As soon as they felt the heat they moved. Blinded, who knows how, he was as bad as ever, we gave him injections. That one there in the photograph is another drama, a German mastiff. My father had bought him from a kennel, he had his papers in order. With a little rattan cart he pulled both of my parents. They had made him a harness, like a horse, and they used him to carry things. We had debts, my uncle instead did well, he was sitting pretty and he began to say, you can’t even feed yourselves and you keep a dog that eats a kilo of meat a day. Just imagine if someone took the dog! He was stingier than the devil. The duke of Turin would have given any amount to poor papa to have him. If you said the dog bites, he was destroyed. Once in the country, they always rented a small house in the country, the dog was devoted to the mama, and they were the owners of this small house. The owner said, here, if you take a big stick and pretend… don’t do it please! But what do you want me to do! He raised this stick, the dog split it in two, he put his paws on his shoulder and growled at him. If the mama didn’t run quickly to call him… all you needed was to touch him. His name was Floc. So this imbecile of an uncle said that the count of Turin wanted the dog. No, really, I’m not selling him, always the same old story, it would seem like selling a son. He gave him to the baroness Prince, he stayed in a villa in the hills. Then after a month my father made the mistake of going to see how he was. When he arrived he pounced on him and threw him onto a stone bench, he put his head in his lap and for an hour continued to cry, to whimper, to moan. When poor papa came away, Floc be good, I’m telling you, I’ll come a lot, I’ll see you, he will have made some conversation, but so much, the poor thing ... He didn’t touch his food anymore, and he died. My father will have felt guilty.
The Rail is proudly running Miransù as a serial which began in the December/January issue and will continue through the summer.
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.