from Miransúby Monica Sarsini, translated from the Italian by Maryann De Julio
to my grandmother Isabella
Grandfather was a lathe turner, with the African War the government didn’t give us a scrap of brass, the contadini used to bring him pieces of brass from the snappers found in the fields, they had bombarded good, with those famous bombs, up here from this part, to there by the church, in the field of the dead, I don’t know if you know, we owned a piece of land called the field of the dead because they found two Germans there. Who had killed them I don’t really know. Your grandfather in the privy of the workshop had a wall demolished, it was seen that there was a wall gone up, and he said, it seems to me that there must be a dead man inside! And instead nothing, it was empty. Perhaps it will have been used to hide something. It was like a wall, of simple brick, true anyway that they demolished it with nothing, but he always said, was there a dead man inside? So, we got married. We were engaged almost six years, mama didn’t want it not a bit, she was rather a lady, she had a certain education, it seemed to her that I was lowering myself. We went to get married in church, although we weren’t Roman Catholics to go to church and confession, or to go to mass. Don Fosco, you remember, he came up here to say mass, then he stayed to eat at our house, he waited gossiping, the he said vespers, and after vespers he returned home to his house. Sundays he was always here to eat. He had a marvelous garment, of crepe, blue, made by a tailor, long. We got married and we went to eat at our house. Then we went out and we went to the operetta, with the automobile at the door, everybody to greet! We went to see Il gatto in cantina. Then we returned home, there was a dog. That Great Dane mix. In order to go into the bedroom we had the stairs, every step that grandfather made the dog was biting his feet, where is this one going, he will have thought. He knew him and therefore he didn’t growl at him, only that every step that he made together with me on the steps he took him by the pants and he bit his feet.
It gave me tranquility to get married and stay at home. He had put agreements in front of my mama. She told him, if not there’s no permission! My daughter is coming home with us, I’m not sending her to the Nave, you must be kidding! There was no tram, the Nave then was a desert. My brother would never have gone outside the house if mama hadn’t died. He would have thrown together any engagement, poor woman, bringing her back alive and not dead. My brother was a fascist before the march on Rome and he was in agreement with your grandfather, he admired him. My father when a handful of fascists of the second era took someone from the neighborhood he rushed to the truck, made him get down and said, ragazzi, don’t act like cretins, it’s time to put an end to it, you must let it be, even if they don’t have the same ideas as us. He made them get down again from the truck, and they said, we have to stay hidden when we take someone, otherwise he comes quickly. One day he went by the police commissioner of Firenze and he said to him, what must I do, they torment me, I don’t have anything. They said that we’re signori, children in school, they threw mud piles at our rumps! A few communists were delinquents out of prison, today communism is an entirely different thing, you had to have lived some events of that era in order to say, I’m not a communist. The police commissioner told him, boy, defend yourself. How do I defend myself?, he answered. I’ll tell you how, and he gave him a big pistol, the famous Grisenti, and a box of bullets. Our thing we can do for you, we can hardly put guards around your house. So he appeared at the window and said, you others, where do you want to go. Everybody’s quiet you know, they calmed down suddenly, from the shouts that they were making. Everybody don’t go in there, he told them, I have the rifle ready and inside there’s the others I loaded. Communism was made up of lowlifes too, not only of people that had ideals, when there was the famous veto they cleaned the shops out of groceries. There was little stuff, there were things that happened in ’19, ’20, hardly yesterday. They cleaned out the stores, in Piazza Madonna there was a dietician, he had an enormous clock on the wall, inlayed with mother of pearl and the ‘420,’ a satirical newspaper, published the illustration of a man with this clock under his arm saying, for now I watch the time! One of these women, we had rations for every product, bread, oil, pasta, sugar, she inserted a jar of oil, from joy. Then the government realized that it’d made a mistake in not banning them, it’s not that it had told them to go clean out the stores in that way and to bring the stuff home, you need to call a spade a spade, they had to take it and bring it to the Camera del Lavoro, and they would have distributed it to those who went to claim a piece of bread, cheese, butter, we had a card, that we didn’t lack, even for thread to sew.
Today the sun illuminates the drops of dew on the rows of grass reclined along the vault just before the small wall from which spring white tongues of sharp-cornered stone. Though still inside the vats the oil in the cellar is frozen and a slush white like dirty snow is clotted to the walls of what’s kept in the kitchen for daily use. From where I am seated it seems that the landscape skates over the shadow of the olive trees and plans to roll toward the bottom of the valley, held back by potsherd while it slides by stripped branches, by threads of light. These round bird shapes proceed, straight up to absorb the heat of the wide valley, the ring of dried twigs that the pruned wisteria forms on the bower, towards the solemn reclaiming of the cabin, which conserves the cautious shuffling of my brother coveting the curious innocence of the beating of wings. I search for a point of view from where to contemplate hidden, to sneak up on, the life of my brother dangling from a dry canebrake, crouched down at the overlook. I search like the finches that trot in the thin atmosphere or the grass snake that coils in the vicinity of the brook, even his happiness as a child that scampered with a feather from a pheasant on his hat not to scorn it for who’ll know to see it will reveal his trace imprinted in the memory of the air that brushes the surface of the land. When my brother died my father took me by the hand, or pushed me gently toward the door of the bathroom in the house of my grandparents where my sister and I had passed the night waiting that they come to get us. It was a narrow room, long, on one side the toilets and on the other blue tiling, a window in back that looked out on the garden where under the earth the turtles were sleeping. I remember him standing, in front of the mirror leaning on the washbasin, turned towards me when between the edge of the basin and the tiling I listened to sanction an agreement that would not separate us. We would from then on have to tell each other everything. The eyes of my father are also blue, from them originates aspiration to joy. I am brunette, in confidence with horror, he instead lights up for every curve and wants to know which path leads him to the thing. Both my grandmothers had blue eyes, fine hair, skin never made up, clear complexions, strong. My brother, too, was blue-eyed, and he caressed dogs on the head.
It’s not that it was about rolling in money, but there was Aunt Giuliana, from Poggibonsi and, when she came, the fruit and vegetable huckster. They went to ask the contadini for stuff and then they resold it, making you pay dear. One of these hucksters turned up in the shop and asked grandfather, if he needed anything… Yes, he answered, and all the stuff that he had he took it, a rabbit, a piece of bread, some eggs, on Friday he arrived in Firenze and brought everything to grandfather. Even Aunt Giuliana sent us what she could. At Poggibonsi they gave even the flour for the whole year, it was a dangerous place, they also had Moroccans, fine allies, there were the girls to protect her, she had three daughters, they wrapped themselves around her neck, a Moroccan wanted to violate her, even the old women, worse than animals. Then they made bread by themselves in the community oven. They had escaped to the countryside, they were living in the woods, in the cabins. By day they went into town, at night if they remained there they stayed in bed but they didn’t sleep, it was a continuous alert. From the station of Poggibonsi passed many trains, at Badia we didn’t have problems, there were no factories, nor the railroad. At the Nave it was more dangerous, there was the river. They were well organized, the Americans and the English not at all the Italians. The French, the Germans invaded them suddenly, they were as wretched as us, the English with the bombardments they had practically destroyed England. Many were Americans that did it. They also taught us to dress the soldiers, if you saw the thing they weren’t ugly, they were revolting! With the bands around the legs, bulky stuff, like shepherds, a collar, shoes. Grandfather was with the Genio, the military corps of engineers, an advanced class of soldiers. You know those in the Artillery? Their chief had forbidden them to fit even the least worst uniforms, they were called up, there was hardly any war when grandfather did his military service. Who had it tight, who had it wide, they said, exchange them among yourselves. Poor things, instead the chief of the corps of engineers had told them, who can, I’m happy that you’re dressed a bit better. Your grandfather put a lot of stock in elegance, and he had himself made a pair of jodhpurs! With the bands but like jodhpurs, then he had the high cap made. He had worked until the last day before the recall, he wasn’t yet twenty years old, he got a break, he did only six months, he was in the class with the principino, Umberto di Savoia. They made a law so only sons could do only six months in the military, from that class on. He did his military service in Palermo. In fact, he wanted us to return on our honeymoon. We stopped in Rome, in Naples a couple of days, but the most in Palermo. Thank God we had a representative from the plumbing business there. With one from the place you travel better. But when we went on our honeymoon twenty-seven years from the day we’d gotten married had passed. After twenty-five years we were ready, then came the tax assessor in the shop. They tossed the files in the air, every drawer blocked, closed, bolted. Then given that they found nothing one of them infuriated looking at me rudely said, here there is little to do, either everything is fine or the signora is very intelligent. As if to say, we hid everything. Then we went away after two years, on our twenty-seventh wedding anniversary. It was the first and last trip. It lasted quite a bit, eleven good days. We went to Rome, we had a representative that brought us to see the most important things and thank you and good night, then my cousin in Naples reserved us the cabin to go to Palermo, in first class, we found flowers there, this fool had said, they are two newly weds on their honeymoon! They were good them too when he went, we brought them to Capri, to Ischia.
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.Bianca Romaniuc-Boularand
Bianca Romaniuc-Boularand was born in Romania but lived in France between 2003 and 2013. She holds a Ph.D. in French Language and Literature from the Paris Est University, where she wrote her dissertation about Celine's style. She studied the notion of "lexical rhythm" in Journey to the End of the Night, partially through comparative analyses of its Romanian translations. She has published several articles on Celine's poetics and, since 2010, she has participated in the Louis-Ferdinand Celine International Colloquium. She is currently teaching French at Stanford University, while working on her second Ph.D.