“I am living permanently in my dream,
from which I make brief forays into reality.”
—Ingmar Bergman, The Magic Lantern: An Autobiography
Erminia danced the Charleston. My friend Gianluca told me how, almost every evening, his grandmother would pause on the threshold of the French doors that opened onto the terrace and trace out the steps. Her arms swinging, legs twisting, a toe to the front, then to the back, a heel swiveling to the side, a toe to the front again. She confined her movements to the doorway as though she wanted to go unnoticed, and yet somehow she demanded the attention of anyone nearby. Whenever I was at Gianluca’s, I always saw her singing softly to herself.
Gianluca and I listened to her as we pitched the tent where we planned to spend the night. I got the metal tubes ready to put together, while he laid out the stakes. It was a blue pup tent that my dad had given us for the summer, but we used it throughout the year, either on the terrace or in Gianluca’s large and always messy bedroom.
“She’s singing, Who’s that walking down the beach?” he said as he smoothed out the canvas with his hands, arranging it on the ground. “She dances the Charleston, singing, Who’s that walking down the beach?”
“But the song goes ‘coming down the street,’ not ‘walking down the beach,’” I corrected him.
“But ‘walking down the beach’ is better.”
“Sometimes she stops and whispers in English, Yes, sir, that’s my baby. No, sir, I don’t mean maybe.”
“What does it mean?”
He handed the canvas to me and grabbed the tubes from my hands to feed through the loops. “You’re such a girl. You don’t know anything.”
Obviously, he had no idea what it meant either. But his laser-sharp memory and quick brain enabled him to pretend that he was always up on things, and he could lie to anyone.
“Well, do you know what white balance is?” I challenged him pathetically.
Gianluca shrugged and kept working with a sort of grown-up, patronizing smile on his face, saying, “Hand me that hook; hand me that peg.” He didn’t care about letting me down—he just didn’t want to embarrass himself.
“Probably something stupid that only you would know.”
I threw a peg at him, sat down away from the tent, and stared at the sea in the distance, pretending to grow sad in the scarlet glow of the sunset.
“And I bet it’s one of those boring things that your dad is teaching you,” he added.
With that I got up, threw everything on the ground—poles, tubes, tarps—and marched off, refusing to argue with him.
My dad asked Nonna Erminia to sit on the orange striped armchair. Then he made her stand up again, adding, “I’m sorry, Nonna Erminia—let’s move somewhere else.” He had looked at me and Gianluca for a few seconds while holding the lens of his Minolta. Then, as if he were coming to the end of a complex train of thought, said to us, “Do me a favor and move this armchair into the garden.”
Gianluca and I obeyed without batting an eye, since my dad was the only adult male that we listened to. Gianluca’s dad spoke too little to be understood and was too withdrawn for us to trust. As far as we were concerned, my father was more dependable and reassuring, and he had been the only one interested in our lizard huts.
We had three of them at the time, set up in the oleander bed, right in the middle of Gianluca’s garden. We usually pitched the tent under the oleander tree to be in the shade and smell the pungent scent of fresh leaves that drifted into the tent at dawn.
The lizard huts were behind the tree, in the tangled nest of branches winding up from the ground. The biggest consisted of two enormous rocks with a smaller one across the top. (“It’s a dolmen,” Gianluca had said. “Do you know what a dolmen is?” I said that I did, but in fact I hadn’t a clue.) We had stuck two lizards in that hut, a fat one, the color of green agate, and a smaller brown one. We’d covered the top with cellophane to prevent them from escaping and punched holes in it with a pencil to let some air through. We looked after the lizards as if they were staying in hotels. Occasionally, we drizzled water over them with a milk strainer, thinking we were quenching their thirst or cooling them off. We made sure that they were still alive and, at night, checked that they were sleeping. But in truth, even though neither of us said it out loud, we hoped the lizards would eat each other, and that was why we never fed them.
Gianluca asked my dad where he should put the armchair. “Is it okay over there, under the oleander?” He was mischievously hoping to make things more amusing: Nonna Erminia sitting under the tree, her eyes staring blankly at the camera, my father taking the picture, the two slimy lizards nearby, darting about and ready to attack the feet of a harmless old lady. It would be hilarious.
Gianluca would roar with laughter. I would have too, if not for the anxiety my father’s presence provoked in me, the burden that weighed on me because of his faith in my burgeoning loyalty.
“That’s good, just under the oleander,” my dad decided. Then, after struggling to position the armchair, he said, “Get the hat that’s on the bench in the entryway.” He was talking to both of us but looking at me. When I came back, I saw Gianluca kneeling next to the dolmen, freeing the lizards from the cellophane and clutching them tightly in his fist, lying in wait.
I put the hat on Nonna’s head, gently adjusting the wide brim that shaded her face. The dappled sunlight showered her with gray-black shadows, emphasizing the darkness of her gaze. She lightly touched the brim of her hat and said, “Do I look nice?”
She had always seemed a strong woman to me, astute and discreet, huddled around her tiny bones, her long hair completely white. She had been beautiful once, and her bent and tired body, despite being wrapped in long, shapeless tunics, still possessed the boldness that must have broken quite a number of hearts.
I understood why my dad wanted to take a picture of her. At the time, he was finishing a magazine article on World War II and needed a photograph of someone like Nonna.
Back then, I had the impression that the only ones who managed to spend time with her were my dad and us kids. Erminia’s son—that surly father Gianluca feared so much and regarded with leery affection—did the bare minimum. He provided her with food and lodging and bought her clothes, but that was it. As if she were no longer his mother just because she had a few screws loose. He had difficulty believing that this woman was the one who had raised him. It must have been hard for him. In all likelihood, she’d always been a bit quirky and old age had only intensified her eccentricities. The desire to be alone. To dance the Charleston. To forget the names of people and things.
She called everyone by her deceased husband’s name, Amedeo. Sometimes she would look at me with her tapered blue eyes and say: “Amedeo, have you got a cigarette?”
Only Gianluca boasted the occasional privilege of being called by his real name, despite the fact that he looked a lot like his grandfather, with his fair hair, thick hands, broad chest and identical nose. We thought this happened because Gianluca was the only one to give Erminia a few cigarettes, obviously on the sly. He would steal them from his dad’s pack, while I would take Nonna’s arm and lead her into the garden. (“Amedeo, where are you taking me?”) We’d hide her behind the wall of the barbecue, built with massive red bricks and surrounded by moonflowers and gentian shrubs. Each time, we would make her kneel down—she was still nimble with those thin bones of hers—and tell her to be quiet and not start singing Who’s that walking down the beach, so that everything would be okay. I’d put the cigarette in her mouth and Gianluca would light it. (“Thank you, Gianluca.”) Then, in silence, we watched her greedily inhale the smoke with such relish that we took a few drags ourselves. But we’d start to cough while Erminia, crouching down and squinting her eyes to gaze at the shrubs, would slowly bring the cigarette to her mouth and, just as slowly, pull it away. She’d keep staring at the flowers, as if there were a lifetime to contemplate in those petals, but probably she was just trying to make out their color.
Over those few days, all the adults were unusually attentive to Nonna Erminia: they bought clothes for her, underwear, slippers, toothbrushes, and toothpaste. We didn’t understand why, and she certainly didn’t either.
Just as my dad took the picture, Gianluca threw the biggest lizard on Erminia’s knees. Erminia sprang to her feet, the quick movement betraying the agile grace of her earlier years. Not exactly frightened, just bewildered by that sleek creature that had crawled along her calf. She kept rubbing her hands while Gianluca said to her, “Charleston, Charleston!” And immediately, as if we had pushed a button on a remote control, Erminia began to move her foot back and forth, swivel side to side, and whisper in a raspy voice, “Who’s-that co-ming down-the street,” and her hat slipped off her head.
I crouched down to look for the lizard in the branches of the oleander tree and the ivy growing along the walls. I was trying to hide while still keeping an eye on my dad and Gianluca, who was giggling with a hand over his mouth.
My father looked at me first, still sprawled on the ground, and then at Gianluca. For a few seconds he didn’t say a word; he knew he didn’t have to—his scathing glare was enough. Then we saw him move closer to Erminia, taking her hand and whispering something in her ear, and she slowly calmed down and stopped dancing. They walked toward the living room where the others were sitting, but before disappearing behind the French doors, my father turned toward me, saying, “Are you coming with me, or would you prefer to stay here and behave like a fool?”
I looked at Gianluca. He was shaking his head, his eyes pleading for help. (My dad would tell everyone what had happened, and if I had gone inside with the adults, Gianluca would’ve had to suffer his father’s scolding alone.)
I looked at my dad, at his broad, thin shoulders under the plaid shirt, at his calm, steady pace, holding the Minolta in one hand and Erminia’s little hand in the other, while she walked quietly by his side.
I would have liked to follow those shoulders, which were still a comforting, safe place to rest my head. But I stayed behind.
We started to collect some more lizards.
My parents slept in the guest room, a small but cozy space with its own tiny bathroom on the top floor. Normally, we spent just the occasional weekday evening at Gianluca’s seaside house for an Indian meal that our dads would cook or a barbecue in the garden, which in fact was just a big terrace with a few flower beds, a hedge along the border and the oleander tree. When summer arrived, we stayed there for a couple of days over the weekend too, “for the cool sea air,” as my mother would say. My father brought his work with him (the Minolta, the lenses, the filters), and my mother the exams to mark before the school year wrapped up. But then she would end up chatting with Gianluca’s mom, or helping her trim the rhododendron hedge or slice the peppers for the sausages. So, on Sunday evening, she’d return home with all the grading still to be done.
Gianluca and I slept in the tent, which was pitched on the terrace next to the lizards’ huts. We secured the central and side poles in tightly packed mounds of stones, and used ropes to loosely tie them to the terrace railing and the tree trunk. The slightest movement by either of us—fiddling with the air mattresses, grabbing a flashlight, or fluffing the pillow during the night—was enough to make the tent tilt slowly, dragging the tarp along with it.
“Why did you do that?” I asked him that evening.
“Because it was fun. Didn’t you think it was fun?”
“Yes,” I said. Then I stuck a slice of the watermelon that we had pinched from dinner into my mouth. “But your nonna was really frightened by those lizards.”
“No way. She hardly understands a thing.”
I used the pillowcase to wipe away the juice that was trickling down my chin.
“Exactly,” I said, without quite knowing why.
I looked at him.
That night, gray clouds were strewn across the sky, their edges frayed like torn fabric. Not a trace of light entered the tent. A mild wind made the central pole sway, and every so often the canvas would brush us with a caress or a thwack, depending on the strength of the gust.
I saw Gianluca’s eyes glistening, his nose, mouth, and chin enormous yellow shadows. The flashlight propped on his chest made him glow from top to bottom, like in a scary comic book.
“So? Exactly what, Miss Smarty Pants?”
I didn’t know what I’d meant to say, really. It just seemed that Erminia’s innocence should be protected, that the slow descent into her imaginary world should be eased in some way and not threatened with big lizards. But I didn’t know how to say that; I didn’t even know what was wrong with Erminia. I just liked the way she danced the Charleston.
Gianluca pointed the flashlight at my face and told me that I was weird.
“What do you mean, weird?”
He stroked my hip, sliding his finger further along to trace the line of my waist, my ribs, then the delicate mounds that swelled underneath my white T-shirt. I stared at him, and he looked away. A strong gust of wind rustled the leaves, causing the pole and the side of the tent to collapse. The canvas crashed down on us. I got up, shaking the sheet, the tent, and his finger from my body.
“Where are you going?” he said, trying to wrestle free of the canvas.
But I didn’t answer. I just turned my back on him.
I had not turned the light on, knowing my way by heart and feeling along the walls, the corners, and the furniture. I knew that house as if it were mine. I knew I was by the wall where the clay masks were hanging, the ones Gianluca had made with his mom, and that soon I’d need to climb over the mat that his parents had put at the bottom of the stairs so we could wipe off our feet before going up to the bedrooms. We were always padding around barefoot, picking up all sorts of things.
I was sleepy and had a stomachache. I shouldn’t have eaten the watermelon so late at night, as my mom was always telling me. And now I wanted to go to her. To hear her say “I told you so,” to slip under the warm sheets that smelled of their feet and their hot, moist breath. I’d curl up at the bottom of the bed like a hamster, needing only the presence of their bodies to close my eyes and get rid of that sense of uneasiness, whatever it was that was bothering me.
The taste of watermelon rose in my throat, and at the same moment I heard my mother scream. I was tempted to run away, but instead I froze. It wasn’t a real scream, more like a gasp, as if she was holding her breath in her hands and then throwing it away, a sort of blowing but with great pleasure. I took a step forward, with my hand on my stomach. I heard another cry, and then one more, but this time it came from my father, and a chuckle—who knows from which one?—and a few more breaths. I looked around instinctively, to check that nobody else was listening, feeling the need to protect both them and myself from any embarrassment. I thought of moving closer and bending down to peer through the keyhole. I wouldn’t have seen a thing in all that darkness, but if Gianluca had been there, he’d have said: “What are you waiting for? Let’s have a look.”
Instead, as soon as my mom started to gasp, moaning faintly with each breath, I turned and walked off.
I went into the bedroom on the opposite side of the hall and quietly opened the door, as if that was where I’d always intended to go. I closed it just as quietly, feeling a kind of satisfaction as I drew the curtains open. The clouds were more scattered now, and thick strands of vapor stretched across the sky like the steam from a geyser. Through the clouds, the moon cast diagonal beams of marbled light into the room.
She was snoring lightly, whistling softly at the end of each breath. I turned around and saw her lying on her side, with a hand under her cheek, her hair strewn across the pillow, and a foot slipping out from the sheet.
I’d gone into that room a number of times, mainly when they sent us to wake up Nonna Erminia or when Gianluca talked me into joining in some prank, like hiding her slippers or putting her dentures in a drawer. But I’d gone in alone only once and looked in her closet, secretly rummaging through her things with an intense but respectful curiosity. Without Gianluca bothering me. Without his idiotic excitement.
One evening a while ago, Gianluca’s mom had asked me to get a shawl for Nonna because it was getting chilly on the terrace. Gianluca didn’t want to go upstairs, so I went.
The shawl was lying on the bottom of the closet. Nonna Erminia’s clothes looked old, but beautiful. Some woolen skirts, some shiny silk blouses with pressed collars and mother-of-pearl buttons. There was a smell of mothballs and cedar. Each dress, so elegant and graceful, was hanging neatly, and it dawned on me that Nonna Erminia had once been young, too. A woman wearing brightly flowered dresses, high-heeled shoes, red headbands, a skimpy sarong.
I switched on the bedside lamp. And when I opened the closet that night, there were no clothes left, no woman, no Erminia. Just a housedress with little turquoise flowers, a nightgown, and a threadbare suit. On the dresser, I saw a few packages of panties, some bras, camisoles and socks, and a toiletry bag with her creams and medicine. On one of the chairs next to the bed, a suitcase was still open with some of Erminia’s clothes inside, waiting to be filled with the pile of things on the dresser. But at the time, I took no notice. I was overwhelmed by the shock of seeing that empty closet, as though someone had robbed her of her life, of all her days, of all her nights. I wondered where things are put when they are no longer of use to anyone. But Erminia was right there with all her needs, still vital and compelling, with a body still able to carry off those clothes.
I edged closer to the bed, pulled back the sheet, slid one leg in, then the other, and slowly stretched out. I lay on my back at first, then rolled onto my side, finding myself in front of her wrinkled, quiet face, her eyes open and staring at me, as if she had known I was coming and had been waiting for me.
“Amedeo, where have you been?”
I thought the dreariness of her closet, that nasty joke of taking her clothes away, was unfair enough. That whole empty room was unfair. So, in a certain way, I wanted to give her something, because I needed something from her—right when I’d discovered how alone I was. And at that very moment, I said, “I’d gone out for a second, to buy cigarettes.”
“Oh, did you buy some for me?”
“Yes, I picked up a pack for you,” I said. “I put it in the drawer, so you can smoke one tomorrow.”
“And how about the party? Did you check on things for the party?”
“I’ve got everything sorted. We’ll eat octopus and potatoes.”
“In tomato sauce?”
“Yes, in tomato sauce.”
“And the gramophone? Did you fix the gramophone, for the music?”
“Of course,” I said. “I’ve got everything sorted—don’t worry.”
Then she nodded, lifted a hand and caressed my cheek, without tenderness or warmth, but with the habitual gesture of undeniable love.
We hardly sleep at all.
Erminia strokes my hair, as she must have done with Amedeo many times, and I let her do so. I don’t know whether she sees me or him, but her surrender, her way of slipping into fantasy, fascinates me and leads me to ask, “Are you still thinking about me?”
“Yes, of course.”
“And what are you thinking?”
“That you’re my husband, Amedeo. You’re so silly sometimes.”
“Do I still make you happy?”
“Oh, yes. Immensely happy.”
I take her hand and stroke her fingers one by one. “What is it that makes you so happy?”
“Cigarettes. And dancing the Charleston.”
“We’ve danced it together so many times.”
She chuckles. “You’re kidding! You never wanted to dance it.”
“And why was that?”
She shrugs, a bit uneasily because of everything going round in her head. “You said it was a stupid dance, because the Americans are all stupid. But that’s just not true.”
Then she adds, “The truth is that you were too clumsy, you were a hopeless dancer. I was much better.”
“So, who did you dance with?”
She doesn’t answer.
I stare into her watery eyes, quivering like petals. I bite my lip and insist, “Erminia, tell me the truth: Who did you dance with?” I’m surprised by how much I intentionally raise my voice.
She supports herself and sits up. Rests her back against the headboard. “No one.”
“You’re a liar,” I say. “You’re such a devil when you lie.”
I pinch her cheek to let her know that I’m still here, that I’ve never abandoned her. “I know you. I know what you tell me and even what you don’t.”
Erminia puts the sheet in her mouth as if she needs a curtain to muffle what she wants to say. “I’m not a liar,” she says defensively, half through the sheet. “It’s just that I’ve never told you about Paul.”
“You danced the Charleston with Paul?”
And then I wait. I place my hand on her knee, because I sense that my touch reassures her, comforts her.
When she reached so far back in time, her memory pushing beyond the bounds of reason, everything seemed to emerge more clearly. Things became vivid and distinct, and she was able to tell the story effortlessly. Everything had a precise name, a precise date, a precise location. It was all perfectly organized, in its rightful place, because there, in that secret part of her mind, each memory was crystal clear—they had become wings for a resurfacing fossil.
The day they had heard Marshal Badoglio’s voice on the radio, Erminia was sitting on the floor next to the gramophone, knitting the wool the farmers had brought. Those farmers, from the hills around Salerno, had welcomed them without too many questions. It was natural to take in a woman with two daughters, one a teenager and the other, Erminia’s little sister, with a bandaged head. Half of it, from her temples up, was wrapped in a yellow-tinged gauze that her mother or Erminia would make sure to wash in boiling water every evening. The farmer who sheltered them had given them a camphor-smelling ointment to rub on the nape of the child’s often painful neck. A rock, flung from the street by a grenade, had split her head open.
They slept in the barn at first, to keep out of the way. Erminia had found a place next to an opening in the wall where the light came through at dawn, and that moment—as she opened her eyes and marveled at the ashen sunrise spreading across the sky—was the only time she was sure they would make it, sure they would survive. She slept on a pallet made of old rags and a woolen blanket, like her sister and her mother. The two of them had placed their bedding next to the watering trough. There were a couple of goats and a mule too, but they soon got used to the animals’ erratic sleep, their raspy calls, and the pungent odor of their warm hides. Her sister had made friends with the mule and named it Beelzeblue, for its bluish-grey coat.
Sometime later they had been welcomed into the house, when even the farmer’s last son had set off with a sack over his shoulder and an onion frittata for the journey. He was wearing the boots that an army soldier had given him the day before, with rubber soles as thick as pork rind. Erminia had watched him walk away, bundled up in his uniform, the boots crackling the scorched stubble with every step, his figure a solid silhouette on the hill—broad-shouldered, with his back straight and his thighs sturdy. He had turned around only a couple times before disappearing, and each time he turned she was there, waving goodbye.
Finally they could sleep on cots again, on a real mattress, even if it was thin and moldy, and the back pain her mother had suffered from throughout the summer slowly began to ease. Her mother made soups with the vegetables the farmer brought every other week, and she and her daughters knitted sweaters, scarves, and hats with the wool he scavenged from the hills to repay him for his help and hospitality. After the garments were knitted, he would sell them in town, in between the bombing raids.
One day Erminia went with him, carrying a gunnysack stuffed with the three sweaters and socks she’d made in only a few weeks. She’d become skillful and quick, but knitting bored her immensely.
Her mother had begged her not to go, to stay there at Baronissi with the other evacuees, where they were safer. But she was determined. She wanted to see their home again, to understand what was happening in that inferno. She also wanted to salvage some books—if they were still there —for reading or studying.
They walked for a few hours from the hills to Fratte, where they could already make out the plumes of brown smoke rising from the town. There was nothing left; only a few buildings were still standing, some shops, the town hall. The houses in the center were mere skeletons: girders and rusty steel beams from which chunks of smashed cement dangled. Muddy-colored water was flowing along the road she’d walked many times on her way to school and back, carrying with it paper, stones, and branches and giving off the rotten stench of the sewer. Occasionally, a boot, a helmet, a rusty buckle would float by. A few armored Panzers were stationed on the road at every crossing, near the bomb shelters, and at the ammunition depots. Some soldiers were perched on the trucks, smoking and laughing, and Erminia forced herself to ignore their harsh, offensive language. So she sang some little tunes in a soft whisper.
The sun died between the woodland and the hills.
In the darkness your lips appeared, divine as daffodils.
Every so often she would hear the rumble of a tracked carrier coming from somewhere or the rapid, regular marching of dozens of men. She could distinctly detect the sour stench in the air, the same smell she sometimes noticed in the larder when the meat had gone off.
Even though each thing was in its place—she recognized Mrs. Savuto’s grocery store, the small shop where she bought buttons and lace for her dresses, the bookstore where she went to read—nothing was normal or reassuring like it had been when she walked home from school. Only some broken windows, the sign from the lace shop, the long shelves of the bookshop split into pieces.
Her house was there, beyond the bend, where it had always been. When she returned from school, she would amuse herself by approaching it slowly, seeing it gradually come into view, the beige side first, then the geraniums on the balconies, and finally the terrace with the sheets fluttering on the line. Now it was in ruins, ripped apart. The section above, completely destroyed. The ground floor had somehow retained a few familiar features, which gave her a sense of relief. The building looked like a battered woman, awash with wounds.
The farmer walked with Erminia for part of the way, but then left her before anyone caused problems for him. He had an appointment in the old part of the town center, in a lane off Via Mercanti where, in normal times, they sold shepherds and mangers for nativity scenes. He told her to be careful, to stop for no more than a few minutes and then immediately move on without listening to anyone. He took her gunnysack. They would meet at the corner in a quarter of an hour.
Her mother had given her the keys to the house, but she saw that the door had been forced open and the lock and hinges removed. At first she could only detect a wave of mold, and once inside, she realized that everything had been turned upside down, as if there’d been an earthquake.
In the living room, she immediately recognized the face of her grandmother Adele, painted on a canvas that had been ripped in half. She saw her deformed, heavy eye, her hair knotted on the top of her head like a dignified matron. Despite being broken and amidst all the debris, that face still offered no encouragement, staring down from the wall with that one eye which had always scolded her, even when she sat at the table after dinner doing her homework.
The other things—the sofa, the glass cabinet, the armchairs, the bookcase—were scattered here and there among the chalky heaps of rocks and stones. The china and crystal and the ceramic tea service—they were gone. She could still make out some vases and figurines that had escaped who knows how many hands. They had walked off with all the useful things—sheets, pillows, blankets—and a few others of greater value, like the silver. In the bookcase, she could see the spines of some of the books, but most had been ruined or destroyed. She used her feet to rummage through the rubble for the few that might have survived. Her mother and father collected the review La Critica, and the children’s magazine Il Corriere dei Piccoli, which contained the stories about Bilbolbul that she read to her sister. Actually, she was searching for something else—their Italian versions of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Little Women, the books that had always been in that bookcase behind her mother’s small plants—but at that moment even her father’s boring magazines would have sufficed. If only a single page had been left undamaged.
She looked around carefully before she reached the back of the sitting room and leaned forward to peer beyond a crumbling pillar that was standing precariously. Behind it, there should have been the armchair where her father used to sit, smoking and listening to music after dinner while they washed dishes or did their homework.
To ease the tension, she continued to sing softly.
I sensed your breath tender on my cheeks
As your lips were keenly trembling for me.
The armchair was still there, upside down with its slipcover missing. Next to it was the gramophone, splintered and split open on one side, but with the handle still intact, even if it had lost the lacquered ceramic knob that she’d held so many times.
She moved into the bedrooms. The mattresses, the linens, the clothes—everything on the floor.
In the kitchen, the marble sink was in its place, although full of cracks, with its rubber stopper still hanging from the small chain.
When she reached the corner of the street, the farmer was already there. He’d been waiting a long time, but didn’t scold her. He said that time seemed to grow longer or shorter depending upon how frightened you were, so it could have been just a few minutes.
“I want to take the gramophone with me,” Erminia told him.
He grabbed hold of her hand and tried to drag her away. She wriggled out of his grip and stood motionless in the middle of the street, in the dry early-September light. The farmer noticed that a few soldiers raised their heads cautiously to stare at them.
“We’ve got to go,” he insisted.
“I want to take the gramophone with me.”
They heard the rustle of a few steps and people chattering in the distance.
He said, “Okay. But we can’t carry it up the hill right now, just the two of us. And they might even confiscate it.”
“So what do we do?” she asked, her arms crossed and her blue eyes glaring at him.
“Leave it to me. I know who to ask.”
Erminia didn’t move.
He added, “I swear to you on my son’s life.”
The gramophone had arrived a few hours before Marshal Badoglio announced on the radio that Italy had surrendered to General Eisenhower. A bearded, lame man brought it. Erminia had seen him on other occasions, when he came to arrange certain things with the farmer. Along with the gramophone, he also brought some valuables that had survived the looting.
When the object was placed in the center of the room, in front of the fireplace, her mother burst into tears. She and her sister had no choice but to let her sob like that—embracing the gramophone—without saying a thing. It didn’t matter that they had no records to play. Erminia was just happy to see her mom so overwhelmed, kneeling beside that mute object.
Afterward, they took up their knitting around the gramophone, like it was their dog. That’s where they listened to the announcement on the radio. But her mom didn’t cry again. The war’s end failed to move her nearly as much.
They realized that the war was not yet over when word spread that the Americans would be landing in the gulf, who-knew-when. In those days, Erminia never heard the code name Operation Avalanche, but once the war was over and she became an English teacher, she would tell all her students about it.
It happened very quickly, the next day.
And of that night, Erminia would remember the fires.
They exploded over the sea, like at the feast of Saint Matthew—streaks of blue, yellow, red. And together with the colors, the slow, scorching blast of air reached the hills like a sudden gust of wind in summer. That night, there was not a cloud to be seen. The sky was endlessly ablaze with flares.
In the days that followed, the farmer brought back beautiful stories from the town, more beautiful than those you could read in a book. The Americans and the British were everywhere, destroying the Panzers, and the Germans were scampering away like ants. Sometimes you could hear an explosion in the middle of the night, whenever the Allies cleared away the enemy’s stockpiles and ammunition. The farmer said that one day they’d made a human chain to carry barrels and barrels of kerosene from the sea.
“And the ships? What about the ships?” Erminia asked.
“The ships are enormous. And there’s music on board. There’s music coming from the sea.”
Another day, the farmer brought home one of the many edicts posted at the town hall. Erminia read it to everyone, with a voice already like that of a little teacher. U.S. Army Colonel Thomas Aloysius Lane would officially assume command of the military government of the town, recommending relationships of cordiality and support between the new Allies and the citizens.
Erminia pleaded with her mom to let her go to the city and watch. But both her mom and the farmer forbade it; they wouldn’t give an inch. They would rather tie her up in the barn with the goats.
“But still, I saw the first American with my own eyes, right there,” says Erminia. “At the farmhouse in Baronissi. It was Paul. My sister called him Polletto.”
He was in the unit stationed at the foot of the hill to defend Highway 88, which gave access to Avellino and all the inland villages up to Naples. When it was possible, some of them would go to the farms for a meal, and at times they’d also take a nap on the woolen mattresses. Paul started going regularly to the farmhouse where Erminia had taken refuge to have his uniform washed. They saw him every other day like clockwork, at exhilaratingly precise intervals.
Erminia and her sister waited for him, sitting in the meadow outside the house. The younger one with her legs crossed, her hands making binoculars over her eyes, eagerly anticipating his arrival. Erminia pretended to be bored, lying on her back with her knees up, her calves—milky-white and full of freckles—sticking out from under the slip of her dress.
When I woke up, I was glad that the first thing I saw was her face. I’d never had a grandmother and didn’t know what it was like to be a granddaughter, but I imagined it to be like this. An encounter between kindred souls who recognize each other, the old and the young in the same bed.
I got up and went to open the window. There was a sharp breeze smelling of seaweed. I glanced down at the terrace, where Gianluca’s dad was sorting out the bills. My dad was next to him, his legs crossed, using a marker to catalogue the slides that were scattered everywhere. I heard Gianluca humming, then caught sight of him going outside in shorts and a blue T-shirt. His eyes were still swollen with sleep and his cheeks puffy, like those of a baby who’s just stopped crying. I watched him head for the oleander as he took a bite of a Nutella sandwich, probably made by his mom. I saw him squat down, crane his neck toward the lizards’ hotel, and stay like that for a few moments in total concentration.
Two frightened, miserable lizards, the smell of earth, a tiny house of stones.
Suddenly, all of that seemed terribly unsatisfying. Then Gianluca put the sandwich on the ground and reached into the hut. He rummaged around in the dolmen, took one of the lizards in his hand, checked it as though he were a doctor, then put it back inside, secured the cage and picked up the sandwich. He turned toward my dad, his mouth smeared with chocolate, and asked if I was still asleep. My dad said that I was, in Nonna’s room.
He looked up at the window but I had already moved away, like a guilty prisoner or a clever heroine.
I walked to the wardrobe and opened it, took out Nonna Erminia’s worn dress, and laid it on the bed. When I turned around, I found her eyes quietly looking at me, confident that I wouldn’t throw her away like an old rag. It delighted me, that way she had of falling asleep and waking up without making a sound, like an animal that is simply following the path of the sun.
I pulled out a pair of panties from one of the packs on the dresser, along with a bra and a camisole. When I reached the bed, Erminia had already tossed the sheets aside and was placing her feet on the floor, as if she knew what we were going to do and why.
I took her to the bathroom. She had put a hand on my shoulder and followed silently, the shuffle of her slippers accompanying us. I waited for her to pee, then I sat her on the edge of the bathtub and lifted her left foot. She said, “You’ve got the wrong one. This one first,” and raised her right foot, plunking it into my hand like a prize. The heel was covered with rough, calloused skin. While washing it, I felt a hand stroke my head. I waited while she used the bidet and rinsed her teeth. I slipped on her panties and the stockings—the right foot first—and then everything else. When I had tucked her blouse into her skirt, I let her look at herself in the mirror and told her she was very elegant.
“Do you think I look all right?” she asked.
I took the hairbrush, but she wanted to fix her hair herself, and she did it slowly, holding the strands between her fingers before brushing them. She asked me to wind her hair into a bun, and when I finished, she looked stronger, more severe, and more determined. She was ready.
I walked into the living room, alone. My mom was sitting on the sofa with her legs stretched out and curlers in her hair, smoking a cigarette. Gianluca’s mom was tidying up the last few things in the house before leaving. Both of them went around barefoot, in sleeveless blouses and loose skirts, and both wore their hair short with bangs. Both had refused to give their children formula or baby food, but instead breastfed them for a long time and chopped farm-raised meat and fresh fish by hand. Both went braless. Both had their students read Pasolini in class.
When Gianluca’s mom saw me, she asked how I’d slept. “Good,” I replied as my eyes searched for Gianluca, but only to avoid him. My mom said to me, “Come over here and give me a kiss.” I obeyed without much enthusiasm, sniffing her skin in search of some residue left by my dad that might have stuck to her. For a moment I thought that I must have been a residue of him myself, somehow materialized from the fusion of their cells, which, over time, with the severity and persistence of time, had been transformed into the blood, water, and breath that I was made of. And yet that morning, I felt nothing of them in me other than the color of his eyes and her long, chestnut hair. But my eyes had something that his didn’t, a few traces of green like those in certain river stones. And my hair was thick and full, while she had to tease hers every second to give it that bouffant shape she liked so much. Despite their genes, despite their efforts and their moans, I had been able to create something new on my own, something that did not depend on either of them, but only on the fact that I was there, that I simply was.
So, after kissing her like she’d asked, I moved away, saying, “Leave me alone, that hurts…,” and she took her arm from around my shoulder, without much regret. She told me that I smelled strange, perhaps because of the bed I’d slept in, and needed to take a shower.
“No,” I said. “It’s my smell and I’ll keep it.”
The two women cast a sly, knowing smile at one another. My mom raised her eyebrows slightly and nodded. Then she decided she wouldn’t scold me, as if the person in front of her was one that maybe she liked after all. “As you prefer,” she said.
To demonstrate her complete nonchalance, Gianluca’s mom asked me, “Is Nonna Erminia awake? I need to get her ready.”
“She is ready,” I said, and at that response, the two of them seemed to give in a bit, revealing the flaws in their absurd assumptions—like the one that children never change, for example. “But what’s gotten into you?” my mom asked.
I reached the garden, where my dad was still busy cataloguing the slides. He told me that Gianluca had been looking for me, but I ignored him. I squatted at the foot of the oleander, rolled the cellophane into a ball, and kicked down the dolmen. I saw the lizards scamper away, one after the other, like little electric sparks in the dense air of a brewing storm.
I heard Gianluca’s voice from far away; then I felt his finger tapping my shoulder. When I turned to look at him, he still had the Nutella smeared on his lips and he seemed embarrassed, which made me uneasy. It was not so much because, from that moment on, we would drift apart, but because of a dawning intuition, a complication that had to be acknowledged.
“Why did you do that? Why did you free them?” he whined.
“I felt sorry for them.”
“But not yesterday. You didn’t feel sorry for them yesterday.”
“Actually, I did. But I didn’t tell you, because you’d have kept bothering me about it.”
“They were our lizards. We built the hotels together.”
“They weren’t real hotels, you idiot.”
Gianluca glared at me as if I had offended him. He couldn’t find anything sensible or offensive to say, so he slapped me. One stupid slap that hurt him more than it hurt me. I gave him a shove, and he shoved me back, pushing me into the oleander bed, where I stumbled barefoot onto what was left of the cages.
With my hands on my hips, I glared back at him. “Do you know what I’m going to do? I won’t tell anybody. I won’t tell your dad or mine that you slapped me. I won’t go whining to them. But I’ll do something worse.”
I left him alone.
His parents left him with my mom and dad—that was why we’d been staying there the last few days: so that my parents could look after us while they took Nonna Erminia away. But I asked to go along with them; I would go and keep Nonna company.
It was hot, and the idea of staying in the garden, splashing around in water from the hose, really appealed to me. But by then it was a matter of principle, a commitment to the choices I had made. That’s what I discovered that day. The importance of dedication and loyalty. I’d already gotten Erminia ready, and now I had to see things through.
It was my father who said, “Okay, go ahead then,” and no one needed to say anything else.
Gianluca stood there, still and silent at this turn of events. He sulked, taking on the disappointed expression of a rebuffed child. He didn’t even try to ask if he could come with us, as if he were offended—or simply just scared.
His mom said to him, “Now give a big kiss to your nonna.”
As we drove away, I turned to stare at Gianluca. My mom had put an arm around his shoulder; his face was red, and he looked hurt. I don’t know whether it was because I was going away or because Erminia was.
In return for their help, Paul regularly brought them cans of meat and vegetable stew. The farmer grumbled about it, saying that the rubbish in those cans was surely less healthy than the potatoes and peas from his garden. But then we caught him wolfing down the meat straight from the tin, sometimes just with his hands.
Erminia stayed with Paul while he waited for her mother to bring him his cleaned uniform and collect the dirty one. It had become a ritual that took place in the kitchen beside the large window, as the morning light struck the pane. Her mother always lowered her head in his presence, a slight smile appearing on her lips—but was that lipstick? Then she would raise her eyes to look at him or thank him for the gifts that he brought. Shyly, she would say Grazie, but in a clear, sweet voice.
Along with the tins of stew, Paul turned up with sacks of buttons, packets of cigarettes, and lighters that were shiny and elegant. Erminia gathered these things up graciously, convinced that they were gifts he brought only for her, and she always replied in English with a thank-you. Her mother then sent her off to do this or that, and she was forced to obey in silence, but she was filled with anger and resentment until she went to bed.
In addition to the gifts, Paul started helping the farmer carry his sacks up and down the hill. He brought them the newspapers whenever he could. He fixed the kitchen tap. And adjusted the gramophone.
On one occasion, he arrived while her mother was with her sister at the doctor’s, the one who had taken refuge in a house down the road. He was a very old man whom they had never consulted before. Her mother had noticed a strange, weeping redness around her sister’s wound, along the hairline, and wanted a doctor to see her right away. They had left a few hours before Paul arrived.
He greeted her with “Good morning,” and she replied in English, “Good morning.” Then she turned away (she’d noticed how her mother turned away from him whenever he arrived, as if it were a code, a silent expression that signaled something to him) and went to the sink to get him a glass of water. She spent too much time filling up that glass. She had put on the cotton polka-dot dress with the lace collar and cuffs that highlighted her long neck and tiny wrists. And she had slipped on the only shoes she owned, even though they were old, since they had small, square heels that made her look especially slender. She was standing up straight, her posture perfect. The whole time the water was running, she felt his gaze on her back, resting tenderly like a head.
But when she turned around, he was looking out the window. She banged the glass on the table and he looked at her, revealing his perfectly square teeth. He thanked her.
She waited for him to say something else. He told her that she looked very nice in that dress. He said so in broken Italian, but she understood. She sat on a chair across from him and let her hand rest casually on the table, next to the glass.
He was not as young as the farmer’s son, Erminia thought. But all his teeth were in place, and he was slimmer and also kinder.
She told him he could go and undress in the utility room and she would bring him the clean uniform.
In his faulty Italian, he asked, “Your mother where?”
Erminia rose quickly, grabbed the glass, and put it in the sink. “She’s at the doctor’s.”
At that, the soldier’s smile disappeared from his face, and Erminia caught sight of a feature she had never noticed before: something in his jaw so rigid and manly, which reminded her of her father.
“Your mother sick?”
“Yes,” said Erminia.
“What is it? Where?”
“We don’t know. She has some splotches on her back. Maybe she has a disease that’s contagious.”
When the soldier closed the door to the utility room—where their stockings, slips, and camisoles were hanging—Erminia heard the shuffle of his movements on the wooden boards. A foot lifting. The other one put down. The unfastening of the buckle. The belt slipping off. The zipper being pulled down. The clumsy, bulky uniform slumping onto the floor. The naked skin rubbing between his thighs.
When she stretched out her arm to hand him the clean uniform, she turned for just a moment to peek through the dim light at the reddish hair spreading across the fair skin around his groin.
She waited for him in the room with the fireplace, sitting on the armchair, her hands resting on her knees, a smile on her face.
He joined her, wearing his clean uniform. He looked around and then suddenly began searching for something in his bag. After he took out a leather flask and several letters bound with twine, two small records appeared, still wrapped in their sleeves. She couldn’t control herself, even though she wished she could. She jumped around and clapped her hands, thrilled that, after the silence of all those months, she would finally be able to listen to some real music. She insisted that he put the record on the turntable right away and started turning the crank to activate the spring. After a crackle, Erminia recognized the lagging drone of notes that had yet to reach the right speed, that unintelligible, murky sound which gradually grew clearer and sharper as she spun the crank.
A few English words and some music that she’d never heard before spilled out of the loudspeaker. Sparkling and syncopated. She couldn’t keep still, and stomped to that rhythm like she was squashing crickets.
Paul smiled, expecting that reaction. He took her hands and hopped along with her, teaching her how to move her feet and dance to the beat: a toe to the front, then to the back, a heel swiveling to the side, a toe to the front again, front and back.
If you ain’t got religion in your feet,
you can do this prance and do it neat.
Charleston! Charleston! Made in Carolina.
At some point, he placed his hand on her hip, next to her thigh. And she moved closer to him, close enough to feel his chest brush against her breasts as they danced. She wanted him to hold her more tightly. The violence of her desire, so mysterious and liberating, overcame any sense of decency, embarrassment, suffering, or fear. She wanted to feel his body against hers. And she discovered, in that moment, that there were ways to make a man do what you wanted, that there were ploys and tactics. It didn’t matter whether he was a soldier, an American soldier, a potential womanizer, or even a man who had shot another man. He was a man. And Erminia slowly broke into a smile, gazing into his eyes. Her lips parted; she rested her cheek on his chest; made a subtle, graceful move with her hip; and magically his hand slid into the hollow of her back. She felt it pressing against her body. She could distinguish the buckle of his belt crushing against her stomach. Through the thin fabric of her dress, she could make out all five of his fingers pushing into her spine. They were hot and sweaty. It seemed to Erminia that the whole of the war had been designed for this, to feel his burning hand on her back.
Occasionally she had to stop to rewind the crank, but then she would return to him, slip back into his arms, and he would hold her tightly, each time more confidently than the last. They sang:
Ev’ry step you do leads to something new, man.
I’m telling you it’s a lapazoo.
Buck dance, wing dance, will be a back number,
but the Charleston, the new Charleston,
that dance is surely a comer.
Just at that moment, her mother and sister returned home to find them twirling around, clinging to each other in that bare room filled with the smell of burnt wood. Her mother stopped in the doorway and stared at them, bewildered, unable to understand all that excitement and intimacy. But her sister shuffled toward them. She was exhausted, and yet you could see that she was trying to take part in the festivities. Only when her sister stepped between them—looking up from below, first at him, then at her—did Erminia realize that her head was completely shaved. Just the bandage was left, and it seemed to blend in with the whiteness of her bald scalp. Her thick, dark eyebrows, the same as her mother’s, stood out sharply.
“What happened?” she asked her. Erminia also noticed that the whites of her eyes were milky.
“They had to shave my head, even though I didn’t have lice,” she said.
Erminia and Paul turned toward her mother, who was slipping off her silk scarf. She took off her shoes too, in that room, in front of him. First one foot, then the other. Her ankles, her heels, the small toes of her feet enveloped by the stockings…. Erminia had to hold back her astonishment. Exhaustion and tension had made her mother look so solemn; it seemed she had never been as seductive as she was at that moment.
Paul slowed the speed of the record, stopped the crank, and waited for the music to die down. The rhythm, the voice, that foreign song slowly became a distorted lament. Erminia hated it. And she hated her mother and her sister’s bald head.
Paul moved toward her mother and, without giving it much thought, laid his hand on her arm. She stared at him. And when he realized that her mother was not sick, that in fact she was perfectly fine, he gave Erminia a puzzled look. He wasn’t angry, but he was clearly disappointed.
Erminia bent over the gramophone and raised the brass arm holding the needle, perhaps to hide from him or to stop that dull hiss from the record’s relentless spinning.
“My daughter has an infection,” her mother was saying to him, even if she wasn’t sure he understood the meaning of the Italian words. “We’ve run out of medicine here.”
After two days, Paul still had not turned up.
That afternoon her sister began to tremble. She was shivering from head to toe, and her teeth were chattering. When Erminia touched her flushed face, it felt hot. They were listening to the other records that Paul had left behind, even though their mother had urged them to go on knitting and not laze about.
Her sister was working slowly and moaning, like she was half asleep. Her eyes were as red as burning iron, and she could hardly keep them open. Erminia noticed that she was having difficulty breathing and couldn’t hold the needles for very long; she was shaking so badly that they slipped from her hands.
Her mother put her to bed; gathered up all the towels, sheets, and blankets that they had found; wrapped her in them; and lit the fire. Outside, the sunlight was shining on the meadow and the leaves of the lime trees were sparkling, while indoors it felt as though autumn had arrived.
Erminia was told to stay by her side and to cover her face with moist cloths every few minutes while her mother made some broth from what she could find in the kitchen.
Erminia obeyed. But occasionally she left the room to stretch her legs and discovered her mother leaning against the doorway in the hall, staring outside, her eyes brimming with anger, fury, and desperation. She was begging the hill to speak to her, to reveal a secret that might save her daughter.
The smell of zucchini and boiled potatoes filled the kitchen and spread through the whole house, even into the room where her sister was buried in blankets.
It was almost evening when Paul arrived. He had never come to the house at that hour, when it was so dark. As he appeared on the path that wound through the hill, Erminia’s mother’s hand flew to her chest. She could finally breathe again and began to smile. Her face slowly softened into a hushed state of bliss. Her loose, unkempt hair spilled onto her shoulders.
All the while, Erminia was leaning against the wall with her arms crossed.
Her mother greeted him, and this time she didn’t lower her head, as Erminia had always seen her do before. She even brushed against his shoulder as she let him in. When, a few minutes later, she threw herself into his arms in tears, Erminia stood still, listening as he consoled her sobs. In English, with warmth, with strength.
What could her mother understand? Nothing. But for her it was enough.
He embraced her delicately, but Erminia could feel the tension that was reddening his neck and pulsing through his veins, forcing him to keep his distance, to be careful.
As it turned out, her sister would make a full recovery, because Paul had some vials of penicillin in his backpack that he’d taken from the soldiers’ medical kits. Who knows whether he had asked for them, paid for them, swapped them for something else, or just stolen them?
She didn’t care. If they had started dancing again like the other day, if he had taken her hands again as they moved to the beat of that crazy rhythm, if right then she had cranked the gramophone and broken up their embrace, perhaps she would have asked him. But she did none of that.
Instead, she would disappear.
Flee. Shelter in the barn. Curl up under the opening in the wall, waiting for that beautiful moment at dawn when the sky turned the color of ash. Listen to the warm snoring of the goats. Sleep the whole of the night in that place. Safe from the gunshots in the distance, from her mother’s enrapt face, from Paul’s hands, from her sister’s shaved head.
She fell asleep, singing:
The sun died between the woodland and the hills,
And in the darkness your lips appeared, divine as daffodils.
When she woke up, she found a yellowed, foul-smelling blanket on top of her. For a moment, which she tried hard to prolong, she believed that Paul had covered her with it. But she knew perfectly well that it had been her mother.
She tossed it off. The sun was just rising as she approached the house. It was very quiet, immersed in a light so pure, so removed from the surrounding atrocities, that you’d think there had never been a risk of dying, that life was beginning again, right there, from those yellow-tinged walls. It was cold, some roosters were crowing nearby, and the smell of toasting bread was coming from the farms down the road.
She edged up to the window of the room where she and her sister slept. She leaned against the glass and could see her sleeping peacefully. Judging from her calm, rosy-cheeked face, free of the cloths that had been drenched with sickness, her fever seemed to have broken. Her lips were parted, and she was breathing easily.
When Erminia moved to the other window—the one in the room where her mother slept—she was careful to keep herself well hidden against the wall.
She only took a quick look, her hand, chin, and shoulder still pressed into the icy wall. Through the window, she saw his uniform heaped on the floor, her mother’s shoes turned upside down. His boots were in a corner, neatly lined up next to each other; her stockings were dangling from the back of a chair.
When she looked toward the bed—a single low bed, made of wood—she was trembling.
Her mother was lifting herself off of him, like she was climbing down from a horse. Only her bare, bony shoulders appeared from beneath the sheet. As she moved, she exposed her back, then her hips and her bottom. Erminia had never seen her mother’s bottom. It was as white as a cow’s, but thinner and just as flaccid. She couldn’t see much of Paul, only his big feet sticking out from the blanket and his arm resting on her mother’s belly.
She drew closer to the window to get a better look, no longer bothering to hide. She was not the one who ought to be ashamed, was she? There was nothing for her to keep secret yet, whether that was good or bad. She stared at those exhausted bodies lying in the dark for a long time, as the day brazenly unveiled itself.
In the purity of that morning light, her mother raised her face. Beyond the window, she saw her child. She stared at her daughter, her face creased like a crumpled leaf rotting in the water; in the same way, she seemed to slowly crumble under her daughter’s gaze—those eyes that no longer belonged to a child but to an accusing woman who was experiencing scorn for the first time.
Her mother buried her face in her hands.
Erminia turned around. She spotted the farmer on his mule trudging up the hill, loaded down with sacks. He was wearing a hat pulled low on his forehead.
She went to meet him with a brisk, rhythmic step, like the soldiers’ steps that she’d heard so often during those years, impenetrable and assertive steps that would not surrender. She marched toward the farmer in the waking light, without hesitation, and as she marched, she softly sang:
If you ain’t got religion in your feet,
You can do this prance and do it neat.
Charleston! Charleston! Made in Carolina.
There were no other girls, except a young one my age sitting in the garden. It wasn’t pretty, that garden. There were large concrete tiles with a few measly weeds pushing up through the cracks. It was surrounded by a low wall that separated it from the street and overlooked a pine grove. Depending on the direction of the wind, either the stench of urine or the sharp tingle of resin would drift in from the trees. A marble fountain topped by a triton dominated the center.
Gianluca’s parents asked me, “Could you wait here while we go and sort things out?”
I said I would, feeling a bit less confident than I had when I’d woken up that morning, a bit less bold than I’d been at home. I looked around nervously: the walkers the elderly women used to support themselves as they shuffled around the fountain scared me; the smell of disinfectant and boiled cabbages made me feel queasy; the bored nurses holding the hands of some of the old ladies annoyed me.
I sat on the bench next to Erminia, who was humming a tune. Across from me, the other girl was reading a book with a colorful cover, perhaps Alice in Wonderland. I’d read it a few months before and liked it, and ever since then I’d been convinced that everyone I saw holding a book was reading Alice in Wonderland. She’d noticed me too, because every time she looked up from the book, she gave me a curious glance. She was swinging her feet back and forth, and when I saw that Erminia had started swinging hers too, dragging them over the gravel, I started laughing and began to swing my feet, back and forth, back and forth. And over time, we decided that the swinging should be precise and methodical and not just a game to pass the time. So I swung my feet in sync with the girl’s, who still pretended to be reading. The three of us threw amused glances at one another without speaking.
At some point, Erminia asked the girl if she had a cigarette; she said no and slid closer to sit next to me with her book. She had a lot of curls, so I asked her if I could touch them. Lowering her head, she let me run my fingers through her hair. We started leafing through the book together, first showing Erminia the Cheshire Cat, then Tweedledee. But Erminia knew all the characters and remembered them perfectly well. She told us that the Queen of Hearts actually represented Queen Victoria and, at one point, brought her hand to her throat, shouting, “Off with her head!”
The girl giggled. I noticed how much Erminia changed, how she grew serious and her eyes regained a sense of awareness whenever she spoke in English, as if someone other than her was speaking through her voice.
I asked her, “Did you ever see him again?”
She started to sing softly, “Who’s-that co-ming down-the street.”
The girl asked, “Who’s Polletto?,” but I didn’t bother to answer.
I asked once more, “Did you see him again, after the war?”
She rested her hands on her lap. She wasn’t the least bit nostalgic; still, a submissive sort of resignation clouded her eyes.
“Later, Salerno burst into flames. But by then my sister had recovered. And the whole of the city was on fire, burning like a sheet of paper. There were devils in uniform, and the sea disappeared. A storm of sparks instead of water, bonfires so high that they incinerated the ships. The devils threw balls of fire over the town, turning the inhabitants to ashes. The fire devoured masses of people. Have you ever seen the devil?” But my response didn’t really interest her. Erminia lifted her head and gazed up at a cloud. Then she looked around like she was searching for something: the barn with Beelzeblue, the gramophone, her mother… “But where are we?” she asked.
“What happened to Paul?”
She shrugged, and I couldn’t tell whether she’d never seen him again or just didn’t want to talk anymore.
Gianluca’s parents returned, accompanied by two nurses. One was wearing a stack of bracelets that jingled every time she raised her arm.
As they were about to take Erminia away, Gianluca’s father had to turn aside for a moment, hunching his shoulders as if he wanted to hide his face, to pull himself together after a sudden change of heart. The girl slowly shut her book.
“Where are they taking her?” I asked, even though I already knew.
“She’ll be fine,” said the nurse with the bracelets. “You can visit your grandmother whenever you’d like.”
I looked at Gianluca’s mother, who nodded, giving substance to those words. The girl squeezed my hand, as though she wanted to let me know that she’d already been through this and understood.
When I moved closer to Erminia to say goodbye, I kissed her, as if for the last time. I pulled her close, placed my hand on her back, and rested my cheek on her neck. I whispered, “I’ve hidden a pack of cigarettes in your beauty case.”
She said, “Thank you, Amedeo,” and when she set off, she was smiling and once again said goodbye. And as she walked away, she was singing softly, no longer questioning, no longer having any notion of time, no longer wondering how afraid of time she should be.
From Il silenzio del lottatore, by Rossella Milone (Roma: minimum fax, 2015). Copyright © 2015 by Rossella Milone. Published in agreement with the author through Piergiorgio Nicolazzini Literary Agency (PNLA).
Rossella Milone is a Neapolitan writer currently living in Rome and the author of six books. She founded and coordinates the Cattedrale project, which is dedicated to promoting the short story as a literary form. “Operation Avalanche” is the first story from her collection Il silenzio del lottatore to be translated into English.
Laura Masini lives in Tuscany and is a former teacher of EFL and literature in English. Her translation of Matthew Lipman’s Mark was published by Liguori Editore and her co-translation of Ada Negri’s “In the Fog” appeared online in The Common.
Linda Worrell divides her time between England and Italy. Her co-translation of Ada Negri’s “In the Fog” was published online in The Common, and her translation of Giuseppe Pontiggia’s “The Naming of the Partners” will appear in the autumn 2022 issue of The Southern Review.