to my grandmother Isabella
I went into the garden to visit the old vines wedded to the old trees, a procession of bowed survivors, which give sustenance each to the other, dignified. I think of those that reached the ridge that separates life from death, that are aware of running the risk of dying because they no longer feel protected by a membrane in which that which shares some memory or revelation holds hands united, everything that breathes, be it on land or on water, dwells in the certitude that the thing continues, and that if it continues it’s like a refuge from a danger, and when danger comes it’s because that warm hand that surrounds everything goes away, like when the warmth of love is missing and then in the atmosphere is generated a suction that aspires to carry you away and a terrible effort must be made in order to remain standing and not go crashing to the ground, and there are places where in fact I’m dead, it’s no longer possible for me to breathe there, there wasn’t the care to keep that sphere warm, then it’s better to make like the scorpion that under the rock pretends to be dead, and while pretending life mends its own tear without the scorpion’s intervening, he breathes and lets his thoughts flow, the thoughts of the scorpion, he knows at length the violence of life, it’s seen from his color, from how he’s armed and from this formidable pretense that doesn’t excite his interlocutors, and at a certain point from this staying still to breathe thoughts one fine day I got up, and the body that got up amazing that thought, thought that it hadn’t wanted to substitute itself for action but only to breathe away, and when the body began to act it brought me where I had not yet been and had not imagined being, a new place in which I began to live again and tears were mended and that tunnel that breathed went to breathe elsewhere. But when someone feels himself dying because the fiber is broken in an irremediable way it’s he who calls the name mama or someone dear to him sometimes long since dead, and I tell myself that then those people dying must not have had others around better than those already passed away in whose arms to stay, and I tell myself too that at heart people look for someone to love because people are looking for someone in whose arms to die gladly, as if the fiber were not ripped apart, and that if because of weakness during the course of life they accept to remain beside a person not loved, dying must be horrible to find him beside them, and in that precise point of space in which time is declining they must understand with clarity how little worth we have given to life to feign that they must remain beside someone that makes us unhappy and in whose arms we would not die gladly, and when people while making love say, they would die, perhaps they don’t mean, they would die, not live, perhaps they mean, in your arms they would die gladly, because it would be as if the fiber weren’t irremediably lacerated, and love seems to me the most resistant thread. My grandfather when he died called out, thinking didn’t suffice for him, he called in a loud voice, it was the body that called out, not thought, the voice flew out to fill that space in which time was declining and there was no longer refuge in thinking about things, in that place of space you must claim to have a body in order to be able to continue living, there’s not the artifice of thinking about things there as if that way they were true, my grandfather I said called a being that he must have loved and that had passed away, and more than loving it, he must have absorbed its nature, divined its adolescence. And perhaps when we die, we call those that are already dead because they come to meet us and hold our hand where they already know and we do not know, but given that dying is also a part of living I want to die in his arms because I love him, because he gives me his saliva while he kisses me as God has created Adam, and each thing is in its place in the scales of light that cleave the hills.
He knew all these dukes from Torino, baronesses… He was always out and about in the city, being an agent him too, of leather hides, like your paternal uncle, only that he closes, he paid everybody but closed, he didn’t make it there to keep on. He was jealous of mama, she was a substitute teacher, in order to make like a big shot he went to get her with the carriage, the store he let it go. He was similar to you, with a fine nose, like your mama had before the accident, he had a handsome profile, not the nose of a Perroud. He wasn’t kind, affectionate like mama, just the opposite, not that he treated us badly, but he adored my brother, as for me I was raised by nonna Erminia. She had gone to school with the nuns in the most beautiful school in Florence. If in the evening I pray, I pray for her. When poor papa decided to marry mama not only did he take my nonna, but also my aunt, the one from Naples. Both in the house! It wasn’t so much that he was a spendthrift… he was that person that couldn’t sit at the table if there weren’t some guest. Aunt Cora used to say, him? If no one was invited, he went to the street corner and the first one who passes by he invites him.
I did well to marry grandfather. Perhaps I wasn’t suited to being with sedate folk, worthy, reliable, but if you had spent the childhood and the youth that I had… When nonna died no one took the house in hand. My mama was a teacher and head mistress of a casa di educazione, supported by patronesses. The lessons finished she did after school activities. When they said, here it doesn’t go further, I did the fifth ginnasio and I said, I stop studying. I didn’t want to and I wasn’t good, my brother instead was held in great esteem by all of the professors. As he was good as a doctor, he never failed at a diagnosis. At Rodi one time a woman was to give birth and they couldn’t find a doctor. So they went to the barracks, to see if the army doctor was there. He did a breech birth though he wasn’t an obstetrician, he remembered what he’d studied at university. In the morning when he got up he found a mound of flower crowns, he had an attendant, he washed shirts, ironed them, they didn’t have an iron and this poor devil stretched them, did the housework, then since they were giving something like shocks to my brother because of his heart condition, sometimes he helped him to get on a mule in order to go to the hospital from camp. My brother said to him, all these crowns, they put all these crowns, do they believe that it’s already dead? No lieutenant, it’s our way here, to show thanks.
Mama died when she was 57, from diabetes. My father had already had a stroke, I was working, I was already married and had stayed in my house. It was the agreement that my mama had made. Poor people, poor things, but my father-in-law and my mother-in-law made you cry. Grandfather was marvelous, I’m not saying anything against him, I didn’t regret having married a working man, if I’d married a professor, a school master, as they say, I could have married a professor, I would have had an allowance and stop. But I had to fit in, you understand, I saw these other signore, they had to go on holiday, at least I didn’t have to bring the children to the seaside once a year, I always had to entrust them to other people. He said little, you don’t have to go, he said, My God, the thought of coming home and not finding anyone. And however much I wasn’t in love or he pressured me to have the man in the true sense of the word, I cared for him and I understood that it wouldn’t be easy to find another one that would support me. We had so many friends, if he’d put the horns on me perhaps I’d have stood it, it wasn’t for that that I’d be jealous or have made a scene, but he was mine and he was to be mine. If a woman got close to him there would no longer be friendship. He was nice to people, he was cordial, ask your mother how she found him when I sent him alone to the spa! Every time that he met someone even if he didn’t know them he greeted them. Once a week he went to Pontassieve to do the shopping, the butcher liked him so much because he bought certain steaks four inches thick, he passed by Castello’s and greeted them, he raised his hat, he always had a hat. When he died the owner of Castello’s came, she said who she was, the least she could do was come, he was such a kind man, I’m sorry, he never passed by Castello’s without greeting me. And she came to see him dead, let’s see if they wrapped him in a sheet and thank you and good night, perhaps they believed us more boorish than he was! In a certain way we were the signori of Miransù, we lived in our own home, we didn’t go here and there like boors. Being very well known, the factory at first was full of people that lived in Pontassieve, at the funeral all the workers came, even the new owner sent a crown of flowers. One time the workers that had stayed with us, when the unit director intended to teach them the production chain of faucets, they said, but what does he want to teach us, he taught us the signor Gino! From boyhood he was a supervisor, he directed the balls and was a young actor at the Nave Club. That was how we knew each other, otherwise how would I marry one like him, not even for the countercharged! We went dancing even us, my mama and my brother accompanied me, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to. When I was eighteen I wasn’t to be cast aside. Seeing that I was smart, that I spoke up and that I wasn’t a broomstick, he said to mama, signora, I can’t find a woman that wants to perform, would you allow the signorina to be the young actress, he was missing the young actress, there was my husband, Battaglini, another that I don’t remember how he was called, another still, men there were, they lacked women, and the women they took them, but he needed to pay them, big theatre actresses from companies without buildings, and even if they give them little then they don’t recoup expenses. Before the fascist hall came to your grandfather’s town it was a mutual aid society. My husband was the youngest of that bunch of men, and he directed the recreational side. The one who would become my father-in-law ran the bar, he was responsible for it. But now he doesn’t go in there. Two daughters of the owner of a college in Siena, in Empoli, I don’t remember anymore where, they went to the educatorium where mama was head mistress. I was pretty, with all blond curls, golden, then I was rather plumpish, my brother was tall, thin, I was little but with quite a lot of fat on me. Each year in this college they had a recital. So they asked her, signora, have this little girl act for us? And at two years old they made me be the doll of Paris, they carried me onstage in a cardboard box, I stepped outside and, papà, mamà, papà, mamà. After I didn’t stop acting. At school they saw that I was natural and that I didn’t get tired, and once a year we put on the Tamburino Sardo. The Tre Vecchine, in other words, those plays by boys that get on with the priests. Only, there were the choruses, I had to go in the chorus to make myself seen, but mouth shut. Don’t sing, the nun told me. I’m out of tune like a cracked church bell. Then those people asked mama if she would let me act and for two years I acted there and I met your grandfather. We did Scampolo, and many other comedies, and although we didn’t have money to go to the seaside, or here or there, in the summer mama set up a kind of little theatre and made us perform, me, my brother and the kids from Badia. We performed all the comedies of Novelli, in fiorentino. We set up the theatre with two or three tables on the ground, we had so many tables there, then with the tarlatan mama made the curtain and the people of Badia attended. We didn’t perform in costume, you understand, dresses like you can have, like I can have, ordinary. We put the chairs in a row, there was also the stepdaughter of the famous Faraglia, she was part of a company of strolling players, we were all troupers you know, don’t you think, the stepmother of this company of mine from primary school, too. The son is a chemist in the hospital where your aunt worked. He always told her about when as a boy he went with me and my brother to perform. His sister was in love with my brother, and him with her. He was good, we were two dunces, they would always put us off until October, then he used to make us rehearse.
I feel good in the smell of the grass, in a quiet silence. The leaves are falling, one here, one there, you need to watch them in order to see them fall, they go down light, and fly together with the flies on my clothes. My head bends to one side, I raised it again humiliated to discover it so, lost at my side. I will become old and I will be dead, and in the meantime I will have hoped and the determination not to hope matured, and I will have laughed and cried in order to persist obstinately living, and none had a mother that was their consolation and their limit, others in order not to have a limit no longer had a mother but the lack of consolation made them wild and full of weariness. Then there were mothers that hadn’t been consolers and that you couldn’t decide to no longer want because it was as if they were no longer there, and you were seeking their consolation in men who still having a consoling mother refused to give any because they wanted from habit only to receive it. Now my mother sleeps alone in a big bed, a pillow under her feet in order to avoid getting a double chin. I content myself to watch her face with distant eyes of a transparent color, luminous. The light from the streetlamps that penetrates through the closed blinds doesn’t bother her, nor the noise of the bus that passes until late in the night. She reads before going to sleep, sometimes she writes in her diary, and she doesn’t speak of sleep. When I was small I used to sleep next to her and I held her foot with my hand. She has terraces, in the soil to nourish the roots of the flowers she sinks the remains of dinner, according to her optimal fertilizer, though it reminds me of her need to fatten up the people to whom she dedicates herself. She has a passion for white wine, she likes to play cards, the opera, classical music, when she’s nervous she passes her finger over her lips or moves her hands one inside the other like when she’s cold. She houses foreign girls that come in succession, in whose problems she participates without getting upset and that she entertains at home with cheerfulness and tasty dishes. Her home is crowded with flowers, with spices, with smells, strewn in rooms chocolates, cookies, colors, a coming and going of people with whom she surrounds herself, she likes objects, covers on the cushions of the couches. There’s a small table in the living room, it has wooden bamboo cane-shape legs, it belonged to one of her school friends who lived in India as a boy who loved mama after they were both separated. The sister of this man served as my godmother and the other brother lived in London in a housing project on the banks of the river, where he put mama up when he invited her to join him to go to a concert or to the opera. Dressed with elegance, face open if never jovial, he spoke with calm an Italian accustomed to changing into English and proffered the blue of eyes still stunned with the memory of childhood, in spite of his having sparse white hair and teeth taking pains to occupy the space of those by now lost were at a distance from each other in front. On Sundays, in order to feel her near, he accompanied her to our house in the country. In order not to be bored he’d thought he could take the hoe and attend to the rows of tomato that sway between the fleshy vaults of the cabbages and the sparkling of the peppers in the hoarse cracking of the earth. In our family up until when grandfather lived there was no place for other authoritative men. He, feeling his virility debased and seeing how mama wasn’t sending him signs of complicity to recall their secret intimacy, began to become jealous and at table one of those Sundays, in front of grandfather, he reproached her, he was sure of it, he had followed her. It had never come to grandfather’s mind that mama could be tied to him by a particular tenderness, and he was no longer invited. Mama refused to see him again, even if they had gone together to America to find my godmother and for a year every Thursday he had invited her to dinner, in a Chinese restaurant. In the photos of the trip mama is smiling on board a boat on the calm water of a lake with a kind of glimpse through her hair furnished with two tin beer holders, which culminated in a small plastic tube acting as a straw. She brought me as a gift stacks of cardboard coasters taken in Las Vegas in the game rooms and a cowboy hat. In order to go to the acquaintances that invited them to drink alongside swimming pools they were in the car for hours and hours, in America it’s not like here, and who knows how much they will have chatted. It must have been, that trip, for mama, like going to a tournament, or like contadine pulling out of a bag good shoes and slipping them on as soon as they got into town.
When I performed with grandfather he was the young actor, and I the young actress. He studied, had enough nerve to perform. He wasn’t really the first young actor, there was another one, young actor in a manner of speaking because he was quite a lot older, but it had always been him that had performed, he could have been like the company head, so much it’s true that when we did Scampolo your grandfather couldn’t do the part of the young man, so they told him to bring me the gift on stage when the curtain closed. A coffee service, with the flood some cups got broken, it stayed afloat and they cracked. There were two meters of water, no question.
After he asked me to marry him. It was a very strange thing. When we no longer performed we remained friends, he came to find me, in the flowerpots where now there are roses there were lemons, when we put them in the house and when we had to put them outside again he came too, these pots it took four men to carry them, workers from the office where grandfather worked, he’d always made faucets. When I already had your mama he took a small room and with one thousand eight hundred lira due he bought a little lathe turner and a cutter, I know an accident as it’s called. When it was a holiday he went to work there. He was so appreciative, kind with everybody because he said, I worked until after midnight, nobody grumbled, and yet with the lathe it makes a beastly noise, it was prohibited after that given hour to make noise, instead nobody complained, they said, thank God that he’s an honest person and that he works in order to support the family. In short we continued to see each other. The funny thing was this, he had a kind of affair with a slattern, so much it’s true that she ended up a madam in a brothel, you should have seen how she was. Where he lived there was no public transportation, he used to say, I’m leaving the bicycle at your house and I’m taking the tram, I have to go to Florence for one thing, for another, it was of no interest to me, he did what he wanted, there was a lady, with Loredana’s habits on gossip, that one next door to me, we called her Certina, who told me, but why is he pushing his bicycle? She told him you leave it by the wall, as much as you go with her! We were scarcely engaged, we were simply acquaintances, friends. So when one Saturday him, I’m leaving you the bicycle, no, I answered, leave it at the wall. And him, what? Yes, you’re not going by the wall, then leave it in her house, at a few centimeters distance… He was leaving it by me in order not to be seen, she had the father, the mama, she had kept them all alive by being a madam. Let’s forget his affairs. He understood that I was jealous, a little rage he made me, people laughed behind our backs. After some time, when they were to bring the lemon trees inside, him, his father and another worker, I was seated, we had an armchair like now, he came near me and said, why don’t we get engaged? What? I answered, you know that to get engaged you need the parents’ permission. I still laugh when I think about it! And he said, my father is here, and your parents are there, let’s ask them. Try, I said to him, you’ll see! Poor papa said, he’s a boy that does everything to earn a living, to see to being well off, he’s to be admired. Then he was polite, didn’t use vulgar language, his friends at the Nave were the owner of the pontoon that ferried from one shore to the other, not the one that pushed it, really the master, an employee in a pharmaceutical firm, this firm was transferred to Naples and brought him with it he was so good.
Today is my brother’s birthday. If I’m not working in the morning my mother and I go together to the market to do the shopping and to look for some surprise among the used clothes spread out on the counters. But she said that she’d wanted to go to the cemetery. She left by the front door inside her fake fur, of an antique red, her hair flecked with gray, short, and with a sleepy and shy air, she reached my car with the smile that she uses when she imagines being observed. The flowers she wanted to buy them at the cemetery, to me it seemed too easy, that it was a matter of a hasty gift, done with little love, without carrying to his grave the air of an outside world, different than the one where we were going to visit him. My brother is buried at the limit between city and country, to mama, for the same reason for which those flowers I would have picked there, it had seemed tolerable to lay him only where birds mingle songs and the wind bends branches on the hills. But during the trip the only flower shop found open had flowers ill suited to so precious a receptacle, and we made the climb between the cypresses empty handed. We arrived up there talking of how he would have become, mama considered that she would already have been a great grandmother, according to me instead Lapo would have always been in love, but unhappily. The flower shop in the cemetery was closed for restorations and in turning back in search of another the day seemed strange to us, embezzled, but not in an inauspicious way. I bought him two miniature pink roses, mama tulips and other flowers. We changed the water, the people that frequent cemeteries in general keep an empty plastic bottle under the seat of the car, she arranges the flowers in the vase and I sweep shriveled up leaves, cut stems, I put back the broom, the wooden box, I linger to contemplate the second floor of the building in which the chapel is found, checkerboard of commemorative stones covered with pebbles, then mama leaves and knows that she must leave me alone to greet him. I look at him, night for me began with him beside me. I look at him, kiss his lips, the photograph destined to remember him they had corrected it adding on the tanned skin of a day at the beach a white shirt, it must be for this that his face seems that of an older boy. When I made mama notice it she answered that it was because of the sadness in his gaze, she remained a little quiet and in descending the stairs in order to bring the left over daisies to Aunt Cora concluded out loud her thought on reincarnation, in which she doesn’t believe, otherwise when she dies how would Lapo be waiting for her. We still haven’t stopped thinking of him, our desire is to have a way to see him again. Then we lit a cigarette and we went to sign up at a community swimming pool, we filled the forms out but in order to pay you had to return in the afternoon. I brought her back home, she made me bean soup and we ate it in front of the television, on two trays. I kissed her too, it was raining, at the first beauty parlor on the street I had my hair cut and in front of the mirror I noticed that my gaze was sad, too. At the swimming pool our files were already ready on the desk and while I signed in order to guarantee that we both know how to swim, the lifeguard introduced himself, a blue-eyed man who had light-colored hair. I am a friend of Lapo’s, he said extending his hand to me. They went to school together, he had read my name on the forms and he had lingered to wait for me from the desire to make me know this.
The Rail is proudly running Miransù as a serial which began in the December/January issue and will continue through the fall.
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.