Shift your bones a little, my lovely. And get your teeth offmy shoulder. I know it’s not your fault we were laid out like this, all exposed to the wind, the leaves and the rubbish…and the sun, this awful sun that’s going to strip us naked, a lot more naked than when they caught us in the act, beat the shit out of us, and finally dragged us here.We knew they’d kill us. We had to die really, because deep down death had always been with us. Yes, my sweet, right from the beginning. Our poor little hearts were smouldering embers eating us up. That’s what embers do you know, they burn out eventually and die. We shouldn’t have done it, we really shouldn’t have, but we couldn’t help it. That’s just the way it was.
We’ve hardly had the chance to live…I think I hear your bones whispering inside that crow’s beak…we hardly make forty-three years between the two of us…Enough, I sigh. But you go on whispering and add the five months for the baby withering inside you.
Fair enough. Forty-three years and five months, but now move away a little. It’s hard to love you in your present state.
Where’s your hair now? It doesn’t look like it did when we were small, when I used to creep in behind your chair to stare at it. It looked so black then and shiny in the breeze. But what colour is the air? Sunita, my lovely Sunita. How could I ever have answered that? You always asked such impossible questions.
Actually, I really did know the answer, but I couldn’t find the right words.
We were born knowing nothing; but then we hugged and hugged each other so tightly that we nearly choked.
It wasn’t our bodies’ fault: We were just drawn to constantly seek each other out along the dusty village paths, the same village that condemned us. People don’t just love each other you know. People join forces. They merge; caste joins caste; patrimony aligns with patrimony. Most of them are happy, so they say. It’s proclaimed by the wedding bells.
But between us there were no sounds, only silences and lulls. And I silently drank in your smell, when age made it obvious to me. After that I simply followed you around, like a starving toothless dog, even though I wasn’t supposed to. I even trailed after you down to the front of your father’s house, where he spat at me; and then to the spring where I hid behind your mother’s laundry, while she swore at me. You just laughed and your teeth looked like they were made of salt.
Yesterday, a red flower sprang up near your shoulder blades. The night turned it black. Then the dogs made off with it. How could I ever love you again my sweetheart? How could I go on loving what isn’t there any more?
We were so young. We were so alive, and yet we didn’t have a clue. Even the new life growing inside you seemed like death. We knew exactly what was ahead of us. We knew you couldn’t sin against your village, against your father and against God’s will.
But God made us different: didn’t he? We were always running after something, and why should we let that kind of energy be stoppered. Isn’t it a better reason to live than any other? And doesn’t it apply to anything—and its opposite? Anything can be turned inside out and back to front. Like an old animal skin, an old tired animal hide: anything can be turned around and become soft and alive again. That’s what we believed in anyway.
I used to like touching your feet.
But they’re not around any longer. Your mother took them away, so she could bestow violent kisses on them at her ease. Then she buried them on opposite sides of your garden so you could never escape again. You are mine, she kept screaming at you, the day you ran away to be with me, me, an inferior nobody from a lower caste. You breeder of monsters. It’s forbidden here at Balla. You just can’t do it, and that’s that.
So here we lie, two hours’ drive from the modern obscenity of Dehli, with birds pecking out our eyes, because we sinned against the law. Here we lie, with our baby drying up inside you, inside that body I loved so much, inside this dead thing.
I came by and picked you up, but we didn’t run away. Where would we run? This was our home, a few pieces of wood and some chattels. Just like us.
Please, ease my bones off your temples can’t you, these poor temples I used to love to kiss and anoint with perfume just a few days ago. They weigh so heavily on my breastbone.
Don’t you get it? There’s no love in horror, my pretty one. Your father took away my dismembered dick and hung it over his window. And now unknowing animals are coming to peck at our secret joy.
Poor Om Prakash! Poor father! Those endless threats he kept making, the way he cursed us—all for our own good!
He borrowed some teeth from your cousins, some daggers from his brothers, some glass slivers from every woman in your house, and then what a party they had! Your grandmother spat on the knife they would use to slit your gut. Your sister mopped the blood off the floor with the wedding dress she had made for you, for your future official wedding.
People took to the streets to curse us and they also cursed all the foreigners, the journalists who had come to see our mutilated bodies and to report on what had been done to us. But what had actually been done to us?
Who are we to judge what they did? We couldn’t help loving each other, could we? We couldn’t avoid being hated, being torn to pieces, being left in the dust to die. We couldn’t avoid ending up lying here, in front of your parents’ house, exposed to our neighbour’s tearless, pitiless eyes. We wanted to change the world, and for that they had to kill us.
Anything that changes, it is written, transmutes like a snake and causes devastation. So we have been taught. We should have known better.
But you would go chasing lizards in the fields, and I just had to follow you. You were deaf; you were mad, heedless of my mother’s prayers and curses.
Having you was so easy, so natural, it was so right to get inside you.
How could I know that inside a woman’s body the bones would be so white? And the body fluids so sour and unpleasant? When you were still alive, you tasted of sweeter things. You tasted like the Indian nights we used to spend playing dice, when our eyes promised each other love forever.
But then they scratched our eyes out.
Now, please, my beloved, please move over a little bit.
We’ve really had it now you know.
And in the end the wise man came. He hugged the dishonoured girl’s father and said: “You did well. God is with you”.
Then the water vendor came and washed the mother’s feet. “Never give her feet back to her, to your daughter”, she said, “or she will escape again. Even if she’s dead. Let her spirit come and seek them on its own”.
Roberta Lepri (trad. Arabella Bertola (@BeaAry)
Translation by Matilde Colarossi.
It is written on our bodies, inside the buttery flesh. Soft as silk after the busses. Empty and weightless in its solitude. Bitter and acerose out of fear. Scaly and furrowed with memories.
It is written in our eyes. In the cavity of a glance, where the fold of the lid shrouds a tear. Reflected on our skin, in the mesh of blood vessels. A web of emotions, at times bruised blue implosions. Livid suffering spilling to the margins, thrust into the dark, waiting to be aroused again. Black holes, unknowingly, falling into themselves. Because, in the end, everything remains inscribed in the mystery of forgetting, when feelings harden into an unresponsive spasm.
Bodies do not lie. Ever. They are born inside glass vessels. Heedless. They germinate by drinking in the air and embroidering smiles on the faces of those who watch us. Imploding at the extremity of the uterine night. They bleed, permeating the skin, growing to the rhythm of having to be. They fall, soil themselves. They slither along timeless trails, leaving spittle-like memories and broken shells.
Bodies nurture themselves to remember the fullness. Alpha. Omega. They devour their own purged sense. They stammer. They distill. They create. They wait for the advent of a word at the end of a rhyme. They listen to the rustling of the world and learn to remember it.
Then, nothing more. Death is infinitely silent. Lighting sounds over the glittering earth. The heart’s crust breaks. The mud tethered flesh strips apart. Pivoted to its end, the story de/composes. It roams, unwitting, among its own ruins.
And after us, the absence alone, where the monotonous verses of uninhabited desire trickle.
Translation by Matilde Colarossi.
Matilde Colarossi is a teacher and translator living in Florence, Italy, but she grew up in English-speaking Canada where she learned that being different can be beautiful.
You can read some of her short stories here:
Traduzioni di Arabella Bertola
Ever since the day Giovina had started dating Tony Mannaro, she had been sensing a constant whirring in her head and her neurons were all ruffled like hair in the wind.
At first she thought love butterflies had fluttered further upwards owing to her hiatal hernia. But, as several months later the whirr hadn’t stopped (sometimes her ears resonated like radio sound boxes), she began to suspect she was being monitored by a spy satellite or that maybe someone had sneaked into her home at night to place a pirate radio station under her skin.
Her father, Tarcisio Giaccone, disliked Tony; he considered him socially useless. Actually, he tried in every way to discourage his daughter from dating a guy who always wore Texan boots summer and winter and even without socks and who, at the end of every meal, went tooth digging into his rotten molars like a potholer, then spat food boogers into the fruit saucer.
He tried in vain to warn Giovina with old sayings like: “Choose wives and cattle from your hometown” or “It’s easier to end up in a bad marriage than to eat well” or else “ Who gets married only for love, dies of anger” but Giovina had put her foot down: she would stick to that socially useless man for the rest of her life.
Tarcisio was so discouraged that one day he booked a low cost flight to the US and made an appointment with the NASA managing director at Cape Canaveral, where they held a ‘’second hand satellite” flea market once a month on Sundays.
He eventually came back to Italy with a huge box wrapped in many layers of bubble wrap containing the legendary (NRO) KH 11, the spy satellite which many military regimes had dreaded until quite recently.
The satellite was endowed with a 64thousand megapixel video camera and a microphone which could sense something as small as a snail crawling kilometres away.
The same night he got back home, although he was dead tired from the jet lag and couldn’t keep his eyes open, he decided to put the satellite right into his daughter’s head’s orbit in order to manipulate her thoughts, thanks to a nice little programme he had been gifted with his purchase.
As the months went by, Giovina became all the more desperate: that whirring would never stop, not even at night, it was just like radio static. She had the precise impression she was being spied on and she had a splitting headache which felt like a hovering red lighted hoola hoop (it was the satellite settling on its frequencies). Whenever she thought of her marriage with Tony, she would immediately see images from the movie “Sleeping with the Enemy’. Every time they had sex, the moment Tony’s willy encountered her ‘humidity’, it would instantly become electrical and she would get a 220 volt shock.
Sometimes she would also hear voices ordering her what to cook: ‘peperonata’ with sausage was the most frequently required recipe, followed by Moncalieri Tripe.
She came to the conclusion that someone must have put a satellite into her head’s orbit to manipulate her thoughts and monitor her moves.
And it could be none other than her father who loathed Tony and all his quirks and burps.
She had an idea.
She bought on EBay some strong alimentary magnet powder and cooked lots of ‘peperonata’, adding the magnet powder to it, offered a nice plateful to her father, who devoured it, asked for more and finally even mopped his plate with bread.
After eating, Tarcisio stood up all replete and happy. But, just before he could burp out his satisfaction, he was hit by 8 tons of legendary (NRO) KH 11 which crushed him like a fly between the dining room and the lounge.
I fell in love with you because
I was 21 years old, and when people looked at me they would say the word ‘flower’.
Same age as me, you were shortish pretty ugly and used to shave like a skinhead; summer or winter, you just wore Doc. Martens, tight black jeans and a leather jacket. You rode a Guzzi motorcycle and I was terrified at any speed.
I fell for you just hearing your voice on the bus while going to University. In a nasal tone, you were telling someone about a long post diploma holiday in Australia in search of your English relatives, and about a granny of yours who lived in one of the southernmost places in the world and could see penguins from her window.
My granny banally made homemade tagliatelle and from her window she could only see pigeons. A few months later, I also found out that your granny used to get drunk on cherry liquor chocolates you expressly mailed her from Italy, just because you liked the idea of her getting tipsy.
So, before I got off the bus and without even taking a look at you, I instantly decided to love you and I made such a theatrical approach shaking a head full of hair just in front of you that your forehead was lit up by a big fluorescent question mark.
Right. Why you?
Also your university mates wondered why when they saw us queuing hand in hand in the canteen and you looked at me, laughing and making fun of me all the time. I stared at you and I was always a bit upset because you organized English parties for your English mother I could not go to, Australian parties for your Australian granny I was never invited to, Scottish parties with your Scottish friends I was excluded from. I had the constant impression you didn’t like me. Too Italian, too tall, too blond, you kept saying to me.
Just once could I cross the threshold of your home, a big farm on the Maremma hills between the greenery and the sea. Your mother, and your father and your siblings were not there. And so you put me on your Guzzi and without a word you took me home to make love in your bedroom. From the corridor I glimpsed a Chagall watercolour hanging above your parents’ bed and my heart froze. That day of love is the only one I can remember of all the ones I had in my life: It was the day I decided to leave you.
I loved you and had my head shaved just to be like you and so one night some bastards molested us because we were kissing in a parking lot and they yelled “ faggots faggots” at us. I who just wanted you to like me but I didn’t know exactly how much I cared for you. I who from that day would receive all kinds of attentions from you, all the ones I had not received before, bunches of red roses and passionate love letters, all of which I would throw away crying because when I loved you it was you who didn’t want me, and had I taken you back everything would have gone back as before.
And I would certainly have died.
Until the day before my wedding, when you tried hard to make me change my mind. It was eight years since our separation.
In some way we still loved each other, you were there to remind me of that, to ask me whether I was sure, whether marrying someone else was what I really wanted. But I didn’t know what I wanted and I would never admit to that, not even in front of the Almighty.
Ten years later I ran across you in London, in front of the National Gallery. I was on my own, I had just lost my mobile, the Raffaello exhibit I had expressly come from Italy for was sold out and a black fatso woman had just told me I could go wipe my bottom with the online reservation I had in my hand. I was obviously about to cry. So I had no time to tell you anything.
As white as the marble of a Trafalgar lion, you opened your mouth and my name slipped out of it like a blasphemy, then you moved on to some formal greetings, while your girlfriend kept pulling you by the sleeve shouting come on come on Nicola, with an improbable Bolognese inflection, totally misplaced.
I swallowed all my tears. And since that day it has taken me a lot more time to make up my mind to clear it up with you.
Today I have finally decided to tell you all. I don’t feel like keeping things unsettled any more. Twenty-five years are long enough to feel the need for a full stop.
I just had to google your name and the video of your wedding was shown to me in all its wonder. A week ago.
You have married an Italian woman, what an idiot! You who only dreamt of English girls, humiliating me because I was too different from them.
I loved you the way you were. And now that I cannot tell you that any more, I am writing it to you.
The Laundry Day
This work won the literary contest
“ A Memory…A Short Story”
organized by Terre di Mezzo Press and Scuola Holden in Turin.
It was published in the November issue
of Terre di Mezzo-Street Magazine
The day the Germans arrived there was nobody at the old washhouse by the canal. Lucia was just slightly surprised by the instinctive smile she had unconsciously put on her face. Now she would be able to avoid useless tittle-tattle and do all the laundry. She had heard the Flax Mill hooters, even so she was persuaded she still had a good three hours ahead of her. The evening before, people in the village had said that Germans on the run from Milan were drifting around on foot. Still, that was the only morning she could go to the washhouse. She didn’t have any clean nappies left. And who knows when she would be able to do the laundry again. She had left Elia, her eldest son, locked at home to watch Achille and make sure he didn’t try to break out of the house. That child could jump out of the window and hide himself in the courtyard or in the orchard at the drop of a hat. She couldn’t trust the neighbours. They were people only interested in themselves. But she didn’t resent that, since she wouldn’t worry for them either, were they to be in real danger. Someone had told her once that war can only teach you selfishness, as if war could really teach you anything. Her neighbours had lost a child near Bologna, and she had lost her husband. Or rather, she never knew what had happened to him. She never knew if he was alive, wounded, or, worse, if she was supposed to shed tears over him. She had not cried any tears as she was not officially a widow yet: she was just a lonely woman, with a husband at war and two children to look after. To be able to feed her children, like many other women before her, she had even asked if she could replace her husband at the factory. If not the Flax Mill then the orchard. It was either the salary or the salad. But with the latter she could not buy clothes for Elia and Achille, who after all didn’t even like salad.
Even though she was down on her knees rubbing the ash on the laundry, she hurried to finish as soon as possible. On hearing the second hooter blast, which lasted longer than the previous one, she gathered what remained to wash and headed back home. She took the way that ran down the Old Mill and along the gardens. They were so empty. Nothing planted or to pick in there. The crows had eaten all the flowers. Perhaps, she wondered, flowers were the only things left to eat, even for her and for those who had survived. While she was walking along the dirt road, still a long way from home, she started to spot some tyre tracks, not very reassuring because they were too large and couldn’t possibly belong to some village car. She felt her hands clutching the laundry basket so tightly that her blood almost stopped flowing. The iciness of her fingers, numb from being too long in water, was replaced by a throbbing which accelerated with every step she took. “There is nothing at home” she kept repeating to herself. “Nothing interesting for anybody”. “There is nothing at home”. She didn’t even dare to name her children.
At the yellow willow, where the canal deviated towards the factory locks, to be held prisoner after the women and farmers had taken advantage of its water, all of a sudden Lucia felt her back stiffen. All hard and still, she was like a mirror to a black and grey photo that appeared in front of her: the black of uniforms, the grey of two guns aimed at her. A smell of burning fuel mixture came from a sidecar that had stopped in front of her house. On the ground lay the corpse of one of her neighbours. His wife, all trembling, was kneeling next to him, pressing her hands on his abdomen, but her hands were too blood-spattered for Lucia to imagine she was being of any help to him. The two Germans standing there looked surprised at what they had just done. One of them slowly picked up a gun from the ground and then suddenly handed it to his mate: maybe he was trying to find some justification in the eyes of his companion. Lucia quickly glanced in all directions: she could see no other soldiers or motorcycles around. They were the only ones; probably some advance party or maybe just some drifting latecomers on the run and chased after. Twice as dangerous then. Then she froze again when she realized that Achille was standing opposite them and had been looking on the whole time. She wanted to rush to him to hug him and close his eyes, but what was before her had the flavour of an already accomplished disaster and looked just like a washed out photograph which she had seen too many times on the newspapers in display on the square. Her only fear was what was still to come. The soldier with the gun had started to look around, as if investigating the possibility of other lurking dangers. Then his attention was caught by Achille. His blonde curls shone brightly on that colourless morning. Wide open with fear, his blue eyes stood out. ‘Standing there in the middle of the bare orchard, he seemed like a burning lamp. The soldier made some steps towards him, put his hands on the gate and leaned forward, the better to look at him. An inward fire was devouring every inch of the flesh that had stayed sensitive on her body. She opened her mouth but remained speechless as she watched the soldier mysteriously stretching out his arm. What were his intentions? In the meantime, Achille had also taken a few steps. He was moving towards the soldier, stretching out his arm too, but suddenly he drew it back with a quick jerky movement. Some big black stains appeared on his hair. The soldier went down on his knees and then fell to the ground, squashed under the weight of his backpack: someone had sniped him from one of the nearby houses. The other soldier threw the gun on the ground, yelling something in German, which nobody could understand. Shivering, he whirled around, looking at the windows that were slowly being opened one after the other. From where Lucia stood, the noise of the shots arrived a fraction late: so, before she could hear another shot she saw the other soldier go down on his knees. The area around her house was now invaded by armed men whom Lucia hailed, lifting her eyes to the sky: she knew everybody by name. She began running and pushing through the small crowd. She reached Achille and hugged him so tight that he moaned a bit. With some clean garment she had just washed, she started to wipe away the German soldier’s blood from him. The man who had picked up the gun a few steps away from Lucia and her son drew near them and confidently asked the boy what the shot soldier had said to him. Achille wiggled away from Lucia’s hold with the typical pique of children when they want to prevent adults from excessive effusion. He turned his head towards the corpse next to him and then immediately went back into his mother’s arms. He didn’t reply to the soldier who had interrogated him, but looking at his mother he said,
“ He called me Hans, that’s all”.
To my father, Achille.