to my grandmother Isabella
I see them from the window, seated on their heels in the field in order to make straight rows of the fruit plantings. Michele found the posts and with the hoe widens the holes that two weeks ago they had prepared with an apparatus attached to the tractor. Then it started to rain, and the cherries that I had bought were laid down by the edge under a pile of soil and sand. In the meantime they talked about politics, graying thin hair falling over their brows while a magenta glow swarms in the tangle of woods, among the bundles of pruning. They go up and down, where the spade has turned over the earth stained more moist chestnut they pair up between the white of the stone chippings, gesticulating displeased with the pace of the trunks. Loredana and I appear with dinner for them shrinking away slowly, caressing the cat, turning the boiled artichokes around in the sauce pan, Loredana gloomy, tall as them, squeezed into a black dress, eyes dull inside the bowl of pasta muddy from the sauce, not saying anything more on the path that slides because of the load of manure in the trailer of the tractor when the land was not yet dry, after all they were always right, and asking them not to explain things to her. Climbing her legs an improvement of socks riddled with holes gripped by stockings, and while she ruminates she swings the house shoes without backs under the chair, spine swollen, Goldilocks. From when she was little she had all blond ringlets. Here’s Goldilocks, a short little man said to her. Her mama had red hair, two aunts were redheads, one auburn. There’s a silence of just barely ended prayer, evaporated by the yellow of the mimosa cracking against the wall and at its passage the dog of the neighbor perceives it stuck at the bottom of the wide valley. I see it wagging its tail, looking around for danger, bored standing guard for the Dutch and the Germans that ransack without remorse the houses of the contadini transformed by the new inhabitants into agritourism. We’re poor, offended by the shots of death, tearing from the trunks the flourishing of the ivy, the embittered Nero olive tree, but never foreign plants have altered features of these small farms or sickened the taste of the wild boar. When I was five years old I moved to the country. We still had a house in the city, but my memories were fed by a land cultivated with vegetable gardens where passed only the car of the man that sold sewing thread and remnants of fabric suitable for aprons that women used whether at home or in order to go on the heights to get the grass for the rabbits. As soon as I finished school, my brother, my sister and I returned to live here, where every action during the day became enchantment, in the flight of a pheasant, in the crashing of a dry branch, in the splendor of the green of a golden moscon among the fragility of roses, and at night revealed its prophesies with the metallic song of the cuckoo or that exotic one of the nightingale. My species of woman has brought me inside other landscapes for me to know solitude, and only when that happened could I have the experience of sharing without fear, without anxiety, I returned to look in the mirror in the dark cracking of the clods of earth. Crossing the dilapidated roads that I had crossed as a child I discovered that I was able to recognize without second thoughts which tree had been transplanted there without its nature having destined it to this environment. Sometimes yellow-plumed foreign birds wobble the branches of a cherry tree or of an old plum tree, or a preludio di drago that thrusts open its mouth plays hide and seek in the cracks of a low wall adorned with caper bushes, but their mobility harbors in my panorama nightmares, mirages and dreams, while these plants that not even the wind effects decorating a strip of property are an offense, a violence to a harmony, to a narration in which without pretense of showing off the plants and the men over the years were in agreement in an unspoken alliance. So the pine tree facing the front door mocked where a young little white dog waits for the shepherd to reappear, or the Arizona cypress where sometimes will-o’-the-wisp blaze in the shade of the rusted gate of a small cemetery in which the dead repose on the ground like in a settled garden, or the variegated ivy squalling among the dawning of the spores of the lies that stand out, or the cedar of Lebanon in the environs of the cypress grove where the partigiani had dug shelters protected by the joyful colors of the strawberry trees, or the hedges of cherry laurel safeguarding the fields.
I was always worried about my brother, I cared for him very much, even grown up, I was always worried about him, he had married a good woman, but a nobody, she didn’t know how to protect him from her parents, from the no-account Livornesi that rubbed in his face managing them, thanks to the pharmacy, they didn’t conceal it. I went to be a working girl in order to hold the job for my father, with the hope that sooner or later he’d recover, I barely knew how to write a letter in Italian without making mistakes and I came to be commended, then there was fascism and they came to see how offices were kept, everything was in order, and they asked, where are the clerks of this office? It’s the signora. By herself? Only she does all this work? Yes. Hold on to her dear. Loredano says it, signora, she knows how to do the multiplications, and with the proof! It seems to her such a strange thing the proof! There’s a big difference between a business letter and a letter to a dear friend etcetera, the accountant taught me to type, I had never done it before, in the liceo classico they never used typewriters, it wasn’t like now that they have the computer, then you really studied, other things, the history of antiquity. He taught me to typewrite, then he set himself down, he dictated and I wrote. I was lucky that soon after they’d hired me they closed the store and they sent me to the factory. They had a store of leather skins, where I was especially to do the invoices, the shoemakers they bought a piece of leather, they weighed it, they knew how much it cost, it was a sale a minute, then they closed, it wasn’t worthwhile, with the African war everybody started making military shoes. We made military boots, shoes for alpine troopers and those for exercise. There were some laborers that worked in the factory, others did piecework in order to make the shoes for the alpinists. For those two hundred in the factory there was a head worker, he made the count of the hours and each week delivered it to me. They were easy the ones that earned all the same rate, for those on piecework it was different, who made ten pair of them, who five, and there were always the accounts to do. I went in at eight in the morning and I left at eight at night, on the last tram. I came home for dinner, your mother set the table, your aunt put the water on for the pasta, Certina, our neighbor, had taught them to light the fire. I came away as soon as the war ended, in a rush, they entrusted so much so that I would stay, but I said, no really! Every so often for a control they had to deliver a few pairs of shoes to the officials of the army, for them to cut them on one side and verify if they were leather or cardboard. Even came the brother-in-law of Mussolini, he lived near Poggibonsi, he took his bribes and he told stories about Mussolini, that at table he served salad to whoever wanted it, then he took the bowl for himself and if he ate what was in it. Then I said, give me a pair of those shoes, they were made by machine, those for alpine troopers no, I gave them to the contadini for them to be resewn by hand, even the thread was registered, in the factory there was a guard that frisked the workers when they left in order to control that they hadn’t gone off with anything. The contadini gave me in exchange milk, flour, whatever they had. When the English at the beginning of the war put sanctions on us because we were allies with the Germans, Mussolini had the grain planted in the flowerbeds of the gardens, no less than in the piazza del Duomo! Who gets the brunt of it are always the children. Wars are ugly, as soon as the war ended, it was a while that I wanted it over, I said, hurry up Americans and get to Florence, I was laid off, for a bit I stayed home, I was so well those years, I did the housework, ironed, prepared meals, then I went to the shop to help grandfather. He got rid of the partner thanks to my cousin. They were de facto partners, if one of them didn’t work he no longer had rights. We had everything thanks to the dealers that came from the country, the partner instead didn’t want to spend a lira. When they cut off his leg and then he died the relatives wanted to replace him with a nephew, but my cousin said, mercy’s sake don’t take anybody, liquidate and go. You mean well, said your grandfather, liquidate and go, money I would have, but I would need to begin to ask for money from all the people that pay me in 90 days. You don’t have to ask for money from anybody, said my cousin. Take out the checkbook and pay in advance. So grandfather remained owner, but alone he couldn’t be, there was the pay to be made to the workers and he said, you come, so much fasting from administration by now you’re done.
I was happy, I saw that things were going well, but I would gladly have stayed at home, it would have been a marvelous thing, maybe with a woman to do the housework. I wasn’t a subordinate, but it was the same, for your grandfather he needed to do his own duties as if we were, you couldn’t say, today I’m not coming. However it was a rather good moment, the director in charge of the bank told me, signora, tell your husband not to hold this money not earning interest, there’d be so many solutions in order to make them yield dividends. I went back to the shop and told him, listen, the doctor so and so told me that it’s absurd that you keep money in a general account that gives such little return on it. He answered me, tell him that I need ready money, if today or tomorrow I happen to get an order of brass that they give me for even ten lire the kilo less, I need to pay it. He did this a lot, he bought offers of brass that they delivered him with the thirty per cent discount and paying it quick with another three per cent. When the wife of one of our vendors told me that she went to Spain I asked him, but it never happens to us to go take a trip, to see something beautiful. You need to have patience, he answered, not until when I have in the bank so much as to be able to work a year without laying off a worker and without selling a faucet, I can’t spend money. He had a plan of his, to reach sixty years old and to be able to say, if I were a subordinate I’d have retired on a pension, I worked more than a subordinate, I’m taking my pension the same as them. And he retired in the country.
While he was hoeing along the washout of a field at the edges of the path in order to plant a canebrake there Michele sheered off with the hoe the tail of a three-toed skink. I stumbled backwards and he took it between two digits in order to show it to me, the eyes closed at the pad of the thumb, tenia of motionless dragon, somewhere to sheathe the legs of the lizard. Like a form of stiff bread that isn’t even used to revive it in order to remedy a soup, in spite of the wind baptizing me with its scented trailing of petals from the almond-tree, while so maimed he kicked it back to go down inside a hole in the ground I went back home, where the fire was spent and a vase of daffodils prevented my brother from observing me. He was petting a dog, pheasant feathers on his customary hat. He’ll be furious that I’m here, that even though he yelled I didn’t do too bad slipping a faltering knitting needle between the ring finger and the pinkie of my left hand. I moved the photo in the first row on the marble surface of the cabinet, the silver frame is held to the glass with some pieces of Scotch tape that time has yellowed. On the right shoulder wrinkled in the knit often in a sweater made by hand my brother has several twists from a string. I’m holding onto an end of this, so that he doesn’t run away, too far.
The day of my wedding we ate the roast. It was a wedding in a manner of speaking. His mama did nothing but cry. She brought us bad luck. Someone that always cries, instead of laughing, happy. Her son was leaving home! He wasn’t an only child, he had a sister, a good daughter, she was an embroideress, a seamstress of linens, of slips for women. She gave me a nightgown as a gift, in those days you used to wear a short slip with a lace underneath, high, that acted as underwear. Two or three years later she got married her too. With the relatives I didn’t have a good relationship, not even with those of my brother, I haven’t gone there since he died, it effects me, I seem to see him coming with open arms, like he always did, Isa! He wasn’t well, poor man, seeing me for him was as if he’d seen his mama, he was the eldest but we cared so much for each other, he only messed me up at school, the professors held him in high esteem. We’d had the same professor, who when on the register he saw the name Perroud said, but you have some relative here at school? My brother! And him, clever boy, let’s hope that you’re like him. He ran to us like Christ at the smell of feet! In the evening I used to bother him, he did the translations for me, in less than no time. The first mixed class was mine, they began to run out of classrooms, so they came up with this marriage.
I always remember Pampanalisa, she had blonde hair, long down to here, they put her with Degli Albizi, in the same little desk. They were one on top one on the bottom, in order not to touch each other. The son of the owner of the society for the protection of animals made up poetry for each girl, here comes Bice Galliani mammoth maiden who one fine day at the weigh in broke the scale. And for me it began like this, here comes Isabella really bella. The girls instead were serious, to mix it up came Tina, my desk mate, I had an old classmate with whom I’d done all the grades. As soon as we got to quinta ginnasio Professor Terlizzi, a snake, separated us right away. The first day of school he put me next to Tina, she was seated on another side but him instead, since she was new, put her next to me, I was a mischief maker, he will have done it because he was at a loss. She came from a school in Marina di Massa, they were more undisciplined than us Florentines, the Galilei was a serious high school, the most accredited. Up until Tina died we wrote each other if we couldn’t see each other, but almost every year two or three times she came to our house. One day she gave me a small bottle, bear with me, you take this perfume, they gave it to me as a gift, I can’t smell it, gives me a headache. I sniff this thing, but she doesn’t know anything! What do you mean doesn’t know anything, it’s such a strong smell, terrible! Bah, smell, it will give you a headache too, me it gives me nothing, I’m taking it go, don’t get dizzy. Because I have no sense of smell, I don’t smell odors or stink. Loredana instead stink she smells it all. Tina was protestant, the mother didn’t have her baptized, she said, when you reach the age of reason you choose the religion that’s best for you. So true that the sister of Tina is Catholic. Me before I go to sleep I say an eternal requiem even to her, but it’s the wrong thing, what’s the Catholic eternal requiem got to do with her who’s Protestant, then as soon as I see him I want to ask Valerio, tell me the prayer for your dead what is it. Every evening before sleeping eternal requiems I say a series of them, I begin with grandmother, mama, papa, my brother, my husband, for Lapo I don’t pray, Lapino, you don’t need our prayers, it’s us who need yours, pray only for your little sisters and for your nieces, me, I talk with the dead, even if they don’t hear anything. I say these requiems even if I don’t believe because they baptized me, so I’m Catholic, by race. Then I say some for ten people for whom nobody prays, there are so many that don’t pray for the dead, I pray only for them. The living take care of themselves. Lapo is an angel in heaven, he’s in paradise. Unfortunately even he does his best, the one for him is an eternal requiem for a soul that’s no longer, but not that he needs it. Grandfather instead needs it, he was a great person, who knows how many terrible sins he will have committed! My father for example was like yours, he cheated on mama, she knew it too. He adored mama, he was so jealous, he knew what he was doing! One day he went to a jeweler and he bought a beautiful emerald. Of course the son of the jeweler was a pupil of mama’s. This foolish boy, you must say foolish, told her, signora, you’ll see this evening what a beautiful present your husband will give you. She knew that him he hid the presents on her, he didn’t let on and then he pulled out the surprises, so as soon as he came home she kissed him, like husband and wife do, but time passed and he got up to go to bed, then she began to touch him, and give me what you’re hiding from me, give me what you bought me, till she discovered the ring. He didn’t want to give it to her at any cost, he pretended not to have bought it, so mama discovered that it was for the lover. He was a sales representative, then it wasn’t like now, they traveled by train. In the compartment you were acquainted with so many people, he was pleasant, then he was a signore, he carried himself well, by and by they invited him into their homes. There was one who wrote to him, and the letter ended, in a manner of speaking because I don’t remember the name, Cecchina is waiting impatient. My mother read them all. Then there were scenes. These are things that I would never want to find with my husband. One time Tina during a Latin lesson took a notebook page, with a pencil slipped inside made an umbrella and sang to me, how it’s raining, how it’s raining. She was worse than me! When there was a noise in class, immediately the professor, Perroud! It wasn’t me, I was over here very quiet! Tina stopped going to school too, she went to learn English.
The Rail is proudly running Miransù as a serial which began in the December 2013/January 2014 issue and will continue through the winter of 2015.
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.