Excerpt from THE SUMMER WE FELL FROM GRACE
by ROSELLA POSTORINO
(L’ESTATE CHE PERDEMMO DIO, TORINO: EINAUDI EDITORE, 2009)
L'estate che perdemmo dio © 2009 by Rosella Postorino
Inquiries regarding rights may be addressed to literary agent
Vicki Satlow: email@example.com
English translation © 2010 by Anne Milano Appel
Chi focu chi ’ndi vinni! The words were a wail uttered by Zia Nuccia, in the corridor near the doorway, hand to her head. The hand then slid down her cheek, sealing her mouth as if to keep her from moaning them again, words that for years, forevermore, would give Caterina the chills whenever she thought of them. Her aunt too maybe, she doesn’t know, she never asked her. Zia Nuccia with her hand over her mouth, clamping her jaw, thumb and forefinger pressing her nose. Is she trying not to breathe? Or is she about to cry? She wouldn’t be able to, it’s not time yet for that lump to dissolve into tears, for now all she can do is knit her brow, as if struck by a physical ache, a stabbing pain in the back, the foot, the stomach, a sudden painful migraine, like ice on the forehead.
Zia Nuccia was in the doorway, she had just stepped in, and Caterina’s father and mother were in the corridor too with Zio Ignazio, Nuccia’s husband, and another uncle, Santo, the youngest of the brothers, the uncle who stuttered. He had come running like a maniac, as they sat outside the door enjoying the cool evening air, among the pots where the gardenias, Caterina’s favorite flowers, were blooming. They were sitting out there, on the white enameled chairs – only down below, on the legs, had the enamel flaked off, revealing the rusty iron, but no one would have noticed. They often sat outdoors in the evening, her parents, Zia Nuccia and Zio Ignazio talking, Caterina reading. In her summer pajamas with the tiny straps and minuscule flowers embroidered around the neck, the bottoms like the shorts volleyball players wore – she was so proud of them that she didn’t even feel the mosquitoes biting her – she flaunted those pajamas and read the same copy of her favorite comic book over and over again. She, unlike Margherita, was allowed to stay up a little later, while her little sister had already been sent to bed. A peace so pure, they might even have been fooled, maybe that night they had been fooled by it, even Caterina‘s mother had been misled, and Zia Nuccia of course, surely more than anyone.
But Zio Santo had come running, Caterina can still see him bursting in but it’s all blurry and she doesn’t remember what they were talking about, maybe they were even laughing. She can still hear him panting, not his stuttering, it’s hard to say what words he had spoken, Zio Santo, how he broke the news to all of them. Maybe he rushed into the house and pulled only one of them inside, maybe just his brother Salvatore, Caterina’s father. Her father came in with his lips already pressed tight, his forehead suddenly lined with a web of wrinkles, sensing the start of a colic attack. He left his wife Laura outside with Caterina, his older daughter, who was reading a comic book. By this time she knew it by heart, she had been copying it for days in a sketch pad. Before long the summer of her ninth year would be over, and Caterina would only have remembered this: the smack of her behind hitting the seat when she bumped down the stairs on her bicycle, the dunk shots against the wall, almost as powerful as those of the animated volleyball player Mila Azuki, the dead rats carried by the flow of water in the irrigation canal in the garden beside the house. Dry for most of the day, like the arid bed of a stone river, yet at specific times filled with rushing water. The children would rush to dip their hands in and splash each other, throw in toy cars and leaves and pebbles, whatever the current would carry away, then race off swiftly to try to recover them. And Caterina would have remembered that comic book too of course, if the summer had glided by peacefully night after night, if it had turned uneventfully into autumn, without anyone noticing, if it had not instead been stopped in its tracks, for all time, by the words Zio Santo spoke to her father that evening, words marred by an incurable stuttering, words that Caterina really can’t remember.
All she remembers is standing between the rigid bodies, she remembers the sweaty palms, the disjointed words and pale faces, the churning stomachs, weak knees, furrowed brows and the wrinkles, the millions of wrinkles that suddenly aged all of them. Years later they would appear on her face too: others would consider them a normal effect of time, but she would know that they came from back then, from that day, engraved on her skin by the anguish of that moment, visible only when the time was right.
Zio Santo was breathing heavily when Caterina went into the house, someone said, Go outside, go back outside and read, don’t come in here, someone even nudged Nuccia, who had uttered that fateful cry before the child: a cry that held the beginning and the end of the world. Her aunt was the only one who spoke the words, the only one who sanctioned the gravity of that moment, and every future moment from that time on, she was the one who took it upon herself to say it. To say that the summer would never be the same, to say that it would abruptly be different, for everyone. All of a sudden it was no longer possible to pretend that they too were deserving of such peace, events would take a new turn, veering in a direction as yet unknown to everyone, yet inevitable. It was she, Zia Nuccia, with that single phrase uttered in dialect, it was she who voiced what had happened. That grim misfortune had come to them.
And that is why Caterina doesn’t remember anything, except her aunt's hand over her mouth, the hand that she had first run through her hair in a characteristic gesture of despair, hands that had clutched at her face tugging down her eyes and the skin of her cheeks, disfiguring her looks. It was only her innocence that led Nuccia to utter those words in front of everyone, even in front of the child. She had almost moaned them, keening and drawing the vowels out like a dirge, Chifocuchindivìììnni. What a curse, what an affliction has come down on us.
And it was only after hearing those words that the child became frightened, that she felt her face screw up. It was only after those words, that did not yet even have a meaning, that Caterina burst into tears.
Like a Curse
And I was innocent as a curse, Ed ero ingenuo come una bestemmia,
Francesco De Gregori, “Buonanotte fratello”
The bedspreads are sky-blue, maybe the washing machine shrunk them: the point is she always thought they were a little short, the edges don’t reach the floor, they hang there, exposing the legs of the bed that stick out below the boxspring. Caterina is looking at them, at that woven blue, wool and acrylic in unequal percentages, the acrylic undoubtedly prevalent. She can’t understand why her mother chose them, she must think the color blue is appropriate for a child’s room, even though Caterina is already twelve years old and in the seventh grade. At school they spend their time making lists of the most popular kids: the best-looking boy, the prettiest girl. In a class of twenty-five she is always ranked among the last, and it must surely be because of that ponytail her mother tightens just above the nape of her neck, the black hair pulled back with a wet comb. It must be because of those skirts that come below her knee, ultramarine blue, or pale blue, which her mother continues to sew for her even now that they have come to live in Recànto. She had taken a sewing class with her friends when they were still living in Nacamarina, and had used her daughter as a guinea pig, or as her mother put it, a model. Or maybe it’s because of the suede boots with the fur trim, no other girl at school has them except her. Or because she chews her nails, wears a boy’s windbreaker, has thick eyebrows – it’s not time to pluck them with a tweezer yet, she is forbidden to do so. Sometimes she hurriedly draws a thin line along her eyelid, with a black pencil stolen from the shelf: in the school’s bathroom mirror she sees herself and thinks she’s beautiful. She erases it just before going home, but today too she didn’t win any contest. Even the heaviest girls in the class came in ahead of her, probably because of their tight, ankle-revealing jeans, studded with zippers as fashion dictates, their mannish shirts, their cross-shaped earrings or enormous rings. Maybe because during the break they joked around with everybody, definitely more personable than she.
Still, awaiting her at home are the blue bedspreads, the identical twin beds in one room: there’s a reassuring sense of order, and today this is where her mother brought her when she came home from school, leaving Margherita in front of the TV in the kitchen. Caterina just had time to toss her book bag in the corner between the two armoires. Her mother doesn’t ask her to set the table, she’s walked away from the stove, it’s nearly two o’clock, what’s going on?
“I have something to tell you” her mother cautions. “Don’t shout.”
That’s what she tells her. Don’t shout.
Caterina realizes that what she has to tell her will frighten her.
“Zio ’Ntoni died.”
She doesn’t shout or make a scene. She holds her breath.
“This morning. They called us.”
“How did he die?”
“A heart attack.”
Her mother can’t suppress a laugh. That’s how she is, every time she tells a lie she just can’t keep from laughing. The corners of her mouth twitch and she can’t look at her daughter.
“Papa left, for the funeral. He’ll be in Nacamarina tomorrow morning, early.”
And as she says it, the urge to laugh is already past. Her mother’s face is tense again the way it was when Caterina came home from school. Her little sister is in the other room watching television, every now and then she hums the theme song of some program, some advertising jingle, crooning softly to herself. Her mother is already lost in some inexpressible thought, drained by a worry that makes any further act, any further words impossible.
It is not a momentous scene. There is nothing to shout about. Maybe her mother feels like shouting, Caterina knows the anger that is eating away at her. Right now Laura isn’t thinking of anything except a husband on the train, miles and miles in second class, velvet seats musty with dust, newspapers, trash and empty potato chip packets left under the seats, a black turtleneck sweater and his leather jacket with the predictable fur trim, thinning hair that was once wavy, and those horizontal lines stamped on his forehead like a distinctive brand.
It’s Salvatore they’re thinking about, both mother and daughter, in the room with the blue bedspreads, at one thirty on an autumn day. They’re not hungry, and they don’t shout. This scene is a tracing, it is transferred with a sheet of carbon paper, its contours blurred. Even their anxiety is felt that way, muffled, muted by time and place, by the fact that today, here, in this house, in this northern city, it would be impossible to shout, no words would be utterable. Who knows what Zia Nuccia said when she heard: has her aunt, down there in Nacamarina, become less innocent? Her father will notice maybe, he’ll be able to tell her, her father will. Though maybe he won’t pay any attention, he must be grief-stricken and bewildered and, who knows, maybe even afraid – is it possible for her father to be afraid?
She writes a prayer, Caterina does, in her secret diary. After she finishes her homework, around five o’clock. Seven pages long. It has several stanzas and even a refrain. If she were able to write music she could sing it too. Still, she composes the melody by ear and sings it in her room. The only light is that of the desk lamp. She sings and cries, and it’s not for Zio 'Ntoni, she has to admit, not because of his death. And not even for her mother’s thoughtfulness, for having concocting a suitable cause of death for her, how could she ever thank her?
It’s for her father, he’s the only one she’s crying for, him there on the train, wordless, huddled in his jacket with his hands clasped, calluses rubbing together, lips clamped tight like they were then, like on that summer evening three years ago in Nacamarina when Zia Nuccia spoke. Twenty drops of Diazepam swallowed for the unbearable spasms.
A prayer fit for a devotional missal, verse after verse written in a crooked, wobbly hand on the unlined pages of her diary: the unshareable ritual, the magic formula, will lie protected behind the tiny lock: Caterina’s tacit, desperate covenant with God to protect him, protect her father, as only He can.
That August night, the night of the tragedy, Caterina did not sleep in the room she and Margherita shared. She fell asleep on the orange-striped folding chair. Now and then they had taken that deckchair to the beach. They always went loaded with stuff, insulated coolers packed with food, especially fruit, a bag full of beach towels, big ones and little ones for the children, the umbrella that her father would plant in the sand – he really didn’t like being in the sun – pails and shovels and little plastic molds – a butterfly, a bee, a flower – and magazines for her mother and Zia Fatima, sun hats for the kids. Caterina with her grown-up, size 5 rubber-soled sandals: they even had a wedge heel, who knows how she had been allowed to have them. Her parents, and her aunt and uncle too, had probably let themselves be persuaded because her cousin Maddalena – or rather Lena – had an identical pair. The children, Caterina, Margherita, Lena and Giacomo, were always treated equally, they all had the same trucks and the same water pistols, the same dolls and the same clothes, and they passed them down from year to year, from the oldest cousin to the youngest.
The night of the tragedy – summer still had a full month ahead of it – Caterina slept on the deckchair in the living room, not even trying to imagine that she was at the beach. She didn’t try to recall her father’s brown checkered bathing trunks – so out of style, according to her – as he ground out one cigarette after another in the sand, or her mother’s guileless laughter that sounded like the shrieks of a bird. Her mother always seemed so happy at the shore. She didn’t try to remember the swim races with her cousin Giacomo, both of them wearing life vests, or pretend she had her bathing suit on, the blue one-piece that Lena, the oldest, had worn the year before. She slept a sleep whose dreams she cannot remember, sterilized. In the morning she woke up in the living room and saw everyone awake on the couch in front of her, or maybe they had never actually slept. Only Zia Nuccia was missing, the one who the night before, with her hand over her mouth, had uttered that incisive phrase. She was probably at home, in the apartment upstairs, calming her racing heart with chamomile tea. But the others were all there and their faces were impassive: the skin drawn tightly across their cheek bones seemed parched, their gestures too slow or too jerky, their voices subdued, clinging to a dialect that remained the only certainty they had after what had happened.
No one turned to look at her to say, Caterina, Caterina you’re awake. The girl saw them as if through gauzy tissue, then she turned away, curled up on the deckchair, stared at the tiny flowers embroidered on the straps of her pajamas and thought about how she felt like drawing, like any other day.
She doesn’t know if she really did draw, or what she had for breakfast. Whether even that morning they served her hot milk laced with coffee and some Atene Dorias, those rectangular biscuits with the holes that her father brought home from the market by the boxfuls. And almonds picked from her grandfather’s garden. She thought, no one has a breakfast like this, not even on television, while she instead, in the summer time, could eat almonds as soon as she woke up. She had this bizarre morning meal, fit for a queen, as she decided what to do with her day. Sometimes she dressed up like Magical Emi, a pair of very short shorts, a peaked cap, a tee-shirt with a somewhat loose neck – if necessary she tugged it until it stretched– that she let slip down to reveal her shoulder. Sneakers and a plastic bracelet completed the masquerade. It was easy to become someone else, only the ruined tee-shirt irritated her mother a bit, but afterwards she was Magical Emi for the entire day and no one could tell her otherwise.
That morning, Caterina did not dress up as any animated cartoon character. She didn’t ask any questions, didn’t look for any explanations, and barely spoke to the adults. There was no need to, for one thing. She knew everything, though she made believe she didn’t understand, as was expected of her. Nobody ever asked her to do that, yet she had learned the drill on her own. And so the way she pretended to still believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, so she pretended not to understand the tragedy that had struck them, each and every one of them. Instead she masqueraded as a younger child, interested only in ball games, comic books , colored markers and glue: this was the only form of masquerade possible.
The girl got up from the deckchair, said good morning to everyone and went toward the bathroom. Again she became a Caterina who didn’t exist, though for years the others considered that pretend-Caterina to be the only Caterina. She was so convincing that everyone mistook the pretense for reality.
Salvatore tries to adjust the headrest, he slides it up and down, rests the back of his neck against it, then his right temple, his cheek, part of his forehead, the back of his neck again, the left cheek; finally he gives up on the headrest, bends forward and puts his elbows on his knees. He stays that way, gazing at the floor, his back a perfect hypotenuse on the base of his sprawled out legs.
Once more he’s making this journey, going back yet again, later he’ll retrace the same route back home. Then in a year or maybe even less, there will be another misfortune that will make him take this train again, repeat this same long trip, watch the sea vanish then reappear. Cities at night are all dark: if he stays awake beside the window all he sees are distant lights, winking like trapped fireflies. No matter where, that’s all Italy is to him as he travels through it at night in second class, huddled in a black, double breasted leather jacket. As he sits hunched in his jacket with his arms crossed, or leaning his elbow on the folding table in front of the seat, the weight of his head pushing against his thumb. He makes believe that the strength of his sturdy thumb, with its square, tough nail, is all it takes to support the heavy thoughts that weigh on him, that the finger pressed against his brow will keep his head from falling off. The passengers would see it roll under the seats, or maybe they wouldn’t even notice it, but would go on dozing or doing their crossword puzzles, his decapitated body there by the window, Italy behind him, streaking by live in real time, where at night there's really nothing to see. Italy is nothing but a series of train stations, everywhere the same sound of doors closing, whistles and shouts, newsstands on the platforms, the chill, the sleepy faces, Italy is nothing but an accumulation of night-time desolation that builds up, hour after hour, until dawn, until his village becomes the first thing he sees, the first thing that stands out from all the rest, the first that smiles and calls to him – he speaks to it and it responds. It is no longer Italy: it’s home.
His head remains attached to his neck, no startling sound will wake the other passengers in the compartment unless a thief shows up tonight. It’s not that improbable, unfortunately. Salvatore doesn’t drop off to sleep until Naples and afterwards he is even more wide-awake, his head still on his shoulders. He should have chopped it off three years ago, bashed it against the rocks, slammed it into the wall, drowned it in the sea and renounced all responsibility, instead of scouring every inch of his brain day and night – night and day – groping to find urgent, immediate answers that would benefit everyone, his wife, his daughters, his sister, his brother-in-law, their children, his mother and father and his brothers and his wife’s family. Even his friends at the café, it seems stupid but maybe he thought of them too during those days. He had tried to find a reason why the bridge in front of the church in Nacamarina should make him want to stay, that bridge, a place of simple laughter and unassuming chatter. He tried to forget how dangerous even a card game at the café had become, even going for coffee. It was this small world so suited to him, so at one with him, this is what they had taken from him. He who has all of Italy to choose from, who has traveled up and down the peninsula too many times by now. Tonight he will pass through Rome for the umpteenth time. Yet he will pass through it with his behind glued to the seat. He has no idea what lies outside Termini station, to him all that expanse doesn’t mean a thing. Pisa is no better than the little ball field behind the church in Nacamarina, where he was baptized. That was where they went to play when they played hooky without anyone knowing, they grew up in that neighborhood: there – that’s where they were born.
Before long he reaches Naples and breathes a faint sigh of relief. The other passengers rub their eyes and try not to doze off, handbag crushed against the belly, shoulder strap wrapped tightly around the arm. He on the other hand feels the desolation begin to recede, and senses a smattering of acceptance, of solidarity. Naples is where that world which is not understood north of Naples begins, that world from which they uprooted him. He was the one who made the decision, but had he really thought of everyone? Wife, daughters, sister, brother-in-law. His brother-in-law made him decide, on his own he would never have left, and he doesn’t know if he thought about his parents as well, but how can you choose for everybody? How can you make such a radical decision in just a few hours? Salvatore couldn’t have imagined never going back, except for a few days once or twice a year, nor did he realize that Italy was so big, so much the same everywhere. The only thing he doesn’t find anywhere else is the sunlight shining on the wall of his parents’ house, the smell of freshly washed laundry and the chairs set side by side in the yard, under the fig trees. In a few hours he’ll be back home in a world of things that can’t be explained, but can only be shared, like his mother’s bony knuckles, the liver spots on his father’s face, his neck, that cigarette smell like the scent of his skin.
He gets up, goes out to the corridor to smoke. He has to be rational, once again, he has to be so for everyone. He’s the older brother, this is expected of him. Laura must be in the big bed with the girls by now. When he’s away he knows she clings to their bodies to take her mind off the fact that he’s not there. She can’t say a word to him this time, his wife. She can’t pressure him. Tonight on the train he can’t even imagine any alternatives, and maybe there won’t really be any choices. There’s nothing more to be done.
His mother will embrace him as if he were still far away. She will call out his name, her son, the joy of her life: Sabbaturi, she’ll say, figghiu, beddu r’a me’ vita. She’ll be dressed in black, Cata will, smelling of soap, her long, thin hands and broad face unchanged. Salvatore will let her hug him, tomorrow morning at the gate in front of the house, he’ll hear her laugh and cry, after a while he will pull away to embrace his father. Cece will remain seated in the straw-bottomed chair, unable to stand up on his own for some time now, Turi, he’ll say, ’rivasti, beddu. Yes, Papa, I'm back.
The pain of this new tragedy will mingle with their joy at seeing one other again: conflicting feelings, a fire in the body. Salvatore feels it burning like an ever-smoldering ember, it reminds him who he is no matter where he may be, it reminds him where he came from.
It will be home. It will be everything he lost and the reason he went away forever. At dawn he will open his eyes to the only station that makes his heart beat a little faster as soon as he spots it. The emotional impact will hit him like a blow to the sternum, he’ll have to squeeze his eyes, swallow several times and make an effort to try and speak. Because he’ll have to have answers, if they should ask them of him. And this time his brother-in-law ‘Ntoni will not be there to help him.
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