I remember very little of my childhood, and less as I grow older, each memory lingering like drops of dew on a mirror dropped, forgotten, in a garden.
What do I remember?
I remember my brother’s feet beside my face as they pumped up and down against the cold dirt of the cellar, in my ears the wail of sirens and the screeching of my nonna under her black kerchief, who was deaf and didn’t know, couldn’t be told, there was a war on. My brother’s feet in scuffed shoes, the diamonds of skin peeking through streaked with dirt. My face is pressed into the ground, and there is a rumbling coming up from the insides of the earth, as though it were about to be slit across its throat and down over its belly.
I remember the piercing sunlight, split into razor sharp diamonds by the olive branches spread with oily green leaves, fleshed, above my head, the bark scraping the skin from my palms, from the inside skin of my wrists. My sunburnt feet are wedged in the crotch of the tree, and I grapple the branches and shake, whoosh, shake, whoosh, and below me the little ones, cousins, their feet and bottoms bare, their shirts flapping against protruding bellies, scramble in snaky shapes, bent double, their chapped fists clutching the tender green olives. I disappear into the tree, fold into it, so that the olives that are being flung, I am flinging, by me, and they are mine, green and pungent, filled with my blood.
I remember the light bulb, a delicate glass balloon, in which a fairy creature, too bright to capture with the eye, has come to live with us, as a fairy has come to live in each house in the town, a gift from our Duce the men say, and there are three together in the priest’s house. I watch it until my head aches, watch the bulb, to see if I can glimpse the fairy in its house before it flits away all day, to do whatever business it is that fairies do, but she is sly and bright and blazing, so sly, so that even as she flickers in her house so bright I cannot ignore her, she’s dressed in her own light, and I can’t see her, naked underneath.
I remember a lump of lentils in my mouth, a bulge that I am too tired to chew and too tired to swallow. Or maybe it is the communion wafer and a hand will smack my backside if I break it with my teeth.
I remember impossibly tall men in tight, drab uniforms, men overfed on milk and meat, their cheeks plump and bumpy, reddened where a razor scraped the skin. The clump of their boots on the stones of the street, the whining squeal of a truck tire skidding against a stone block protruding from the earth, like an old man’s tooth, about to fall from his mouth, a man’s hand resting on my backside, squeezing gently as though testing an eggplant, and my brother, mouth clamped shut, clutching a bar of chocolate in a tan paper, his nose turned away from me, as though the soldier’s hand touching my body released a smell like rancid butter. The liberators, the priest calls these men in khaki and teaches me a new catechism, thank you, soldier, thank you, mister American man, thank you. Do as they say, he says, bring back the chocolate bars to your parents, thank the liberators.
I remember a great burst in the sky, white and yellow and red tails of fire, whizzing in the air, shrieking. Below I could see a wall of smoky darkness, rising up into the black night sky. In my nose, the scent of chalky flames, ash in the air. In my ears, the choked pealing of a bronze church bell, uneven, the stuttering tolls like the voice of the carpenter’s son, who they said was an idiot.
I remember my nonno’s nose, hooked, or, no, I don’t remember now. It’s vanished.
I remember the flickering silvery black light of a film on the back wall of the shoemaker’s house, figures standing and running as jerky and fast as insects, their shoes kicking up puffs of white dust. I am sitting on someone’s knee, and a fly is crawling up the brown-coated back in front of me. When the figures on the wall thrust their fists in the air, I can almost see needle-thin swords whipping up to the sky, stemming from the stiff fingers. Men in black shirts stare at us from the wall, medallions twinkling on their chests. When the pictures disappear, the wall is a white square, scrubbed clear of its dirt and bumps and hollows.
I remember a strip of grey paper, wrapped and pinned around my nonno’s forehead. It gets damp and the letters like ants bleed and die, and dye the skin in a dingy ring. The inside band of his hat is just the same color, as though someone had scraped charcoal round and round.
I remember the silky touch of a ribbon, pink, if I rubbed it one way, and the fuzzy roughness, like the hairs at the nape of my brother’s neck, if I rubbed it the other.
I remember the glossy rind of a watermelon, cupped in my over-stretched hands, heavy with pink flesh, that leaves a sugary icing, stinging, on my tongue, a taste that is good the way the taste of vomit is bad. I spit out the seeds onto the baking ground, cracked and dotted with droplets of watermelon juice, dripping onto the ground like blood from a split animal hung by the door of a stable. A black seed, like a tiny tick, slithers down my fingernail, sticky, and there is a small moment when I think it is a tick, so I shake my hand, and the seed falls to the ground. A passing dog sniffs at it, pulls back and hesitates, then sits in front of me, wagging its tail, its eyes looking up at me, liquid, clear, what water would look like if water were black.
How old am I now? Old, I must be very old. There are knockings on the door of the room, on the other side of the wall where the headboard rests, and sometimes voices reach me, but they are too far to hear anymore. When I wasn’t a child anymore, when I was a woman in a mended dress in a crumbled city, everything became hard, nothing blurred anymore, until now, again, in this room of knockings and whisperings. When I wasn’t a child anymore, the buildings rose up, or the skeletons of buildings, dying or being born, dust scattered in the air and filling the lungs. In a room without a wall, I was a woman alone. The squeals of pigs and sheep being slaughtered in the yard pierced the crowded marketplace and my feet ached in leather shoes that were my mother’s, too small. At night, music kept me from sleeping, music from the cafés and cantinas, raucous voices that called out women’s names in the night. There wasn’t enough to eat, still, and sometimes I went to church because I could take communion and it was something to put in the stomach. Maybe that was yesterday; maybe it was a thousand years ago. The murmuring, the whispers, they come through the walls, but so quiet, so hushed, and I think someone is dying somewhere nearby.
I remember, too, a picture of a guardian angel, in a spotless white robe, resting on a cloud, his wings covered in feathers like the feathers of a goose, soft, a whiteness that you could feel with the hands. The priest pressed it into my hands as I stepped out of my child body and into my woman body, wearing my mother’s tiny shoes. His hand on my elbow as I step into the bus, its windows gone, and a khaki tarp stretched over the top, smelling sourly of gas, so that I’m dizzy, the last moment of dizziness before I step up and away. The priest’s hands raised in blessing, his old, rheumy eyes filled with tears, a plaster bandage on the side of his face.
The war died.
I remember how the war died.
I remember, too, the body of my nonna buried beneath a stone, her legs like the legs of a chicken sticking out, her black skirt torn to the knee and darkly wet, the body of my brother in three pieces, a head and arm next to me, a leg by the door, another leg and arm draped over the body of my father, his arms folded over the baby in a blanket, his head tilted back and half vanished into the rock, his neck opened wide. The body of my mother is nowhere to be seen. In her place, a pile of stones, jagged and dusty. On my skin and tangled in my hair bits of blood, flesh, and blood, in the folds of my dress, in the seams I sewed with a glittering needle, bits of blood and flesh. When I open my eyes, something dark and red, like a squashed grape, slides down over my forehead, and falls, plop, in between my rigid hands, someone’s eye. In my mouth, the taste of iron and soured milk.
Where am I now? And how long have I been here? I am not moving, this is not my home, but I see the shadows hanging in the corners like cobwebs and I hear the voices still whispering beyond the door. I think I must have grown old. They say, when they built the shed where they slaughtered the pigs, they found a painting in the ground on a stone wall, and they thought their fortunes were made, a miracle painting of a woman in a white robe, her hands stretched to us, growing in the ground like a seedling of a signore’s house, and as they poured the wine, to toast the painted lady, growing up out of the ground, the painting vanished, the white of the robe and the red-brown of the hair, the black of the eyes, and the pink of the hands, she vanished in the sticky air.
Image by: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_British_Army_in_Sicily_1943_NA4561.jpg