The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2015

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FEB 2015 Issue

from Miransù

to my grandmother Isabella

When the war was over your grandfather parted from the company and I went to help him in the shop, he needed somebody, if on the spur of the moment a client came, or for the pay for the workers. I understood accounting, I was ten years with a bookkeeper, he didn’t want to do anything, he had me do everything but he taught me. I wasn’t stupid and I learned fast, so I could help grandfather, he didn’t need anybody anymore. In order not to get in trouble with the workers I always went to the Camera del Lavoro to make some calculations, when we closed the shop I took the payroll, I brought it there and said, look, we closed, they’re paid handsomely, but there’s nothing funny because the calculations had been made by the Camera del Lavoro, how many years they’d been there, how much they were to have in severance pay etcetera. Instead if I’d done it by myself, even if I could have, there would have always been something funny.

Your grandfather had found a way to sell the shop, and well, it was a good price. So I said, bah, sell the shop. That’s how your parents got the place, and a partner who didn’t have ready cash gave him these lodgings that your aunt now has. Then your grandfather came to stay up here, he was dying to live in the country. He deserved it, from when he was born he was closed up in a shop, we’d never taken a vacation, then they didn’t close like they close now, one whole month, in August they all close for the holidays, then a week. He had to work, then we went to find a house for you, he wanted someone there to take you to the seaside, your mama took you for three months, remember, your sister wasn’t born yet, only you and your brother. If he hadn’t had this job maybe he’d never have gone into retirement, it cost us even this! He came to be up here and me fool that I was, following. My cousin sent us two Sardinians, they lived on the floor below, where now there’s the kitchen, then there wasn’t the staircase inside, only a wooden one like a trapdoor. He needed to be careful crossing the street, the wife always had the coffee on the stove and wanted to offer it to us. Then they gave us birds, we had the cabin and who went hunting brought us thrush, so we’d told them not to close the trapdoor so that we could use the hearth when we needed it. One day it was closed, they didn’t leave us the key and we couldn’t make the roast turn. The husband didn’t want the wife to go in the fields, to do the grass or to pick up the twigs from the pruning. So he had to pick them up all by himself. She made us cheese, we had three goats, sweet but she was simple, she said that they’d bewitched the baby, she was four, five years old, she didn’t feel well, but it’s normal for children to wake up at times in the night. She began to say that they’d been bewitched, then they had an argument with Berto, arguments and quarrels never sat well with grandfather, he was a peaceful man. So they went away. The contadina returned home to the house on the hill and put red ribbons in the barn, saying that the Sardinian had bewitched the animals. Things from another world. It was a place a hundred years behind the times. Those who lived beyond the ditch ate jaybirds. When you went out they came behind you, a very strange thing, like a cat, a dog, it flew about your brother, it slept on the porch light fixture, it accompanied you flying from tree to tree. It was brought from the Casentino, for your brother. He was a fanatic for birds. A fool of a girl crushed its head and she ate the bird. Between you children there was the one who wanted to beat her up, the one who wanted to spite her. In this house there were ghosts, a basket fell on your mama in her bedroom and she said that it was the ghost that had knocked it down, she had to go home her friend she wouldn’t sleep there, a ghost began to sit at the foot of the bed, it didn’t say anything to her, it was a woman all dressed up, another said that in the bedroom of your aunt there were ghosts, I didn’t hear them, not even you, I’m alone and I don’t think about it at all, I heard the ghosts, a big bang in the kitchen, but for me something had fallen. Before it used to be a convent, it used only three of these rooms, behind that wall there’s a vault where they kept a saint, the lintels of pietra serena are so old that they cost more than all of the rest of the house put together. The hearth especially has an inestimable value. All the history don Fosco had it there, he took it away when he abandoned the priesthood, now he’s dead, his wife will have had it, I don’t know at all where it ended up. Don Fosco had become headmaster of the science high school where your sister studied, one day she saw him coming from the window of the classroom, don Fosco! she ran to meet him, he was no longer a priest, he’d married good God, she ran after him and these communist friends of hers, you went to call him don Fosco, you embraced him, who is it? And her, he was the priest of our house in the country! Her, he saw her be born. We looked for a house in the country because your mama said, babbo me at the seashore with two small children and my belly out to my eyes I’m not going there, you always say that you want the house in the country so move. Here there was a farmer, he didn’t live there, in the beginning he took care of everything, then we began not to have contadini, first we had I don’t know how many big animals in the barn, calves to sell, then grandfather bought the tractor, machines suited for working, so we reduced the personnel. Fixed hours, even if they don’t go every day, Michele, Loredana, Luciana, they stayed, the gardener twice a year. I knew from Loredana, who do you think tells me these ruses, that Luciana, that widow that comes to bring me bread, had one. Then I began to observe her, she had a nice dress, simple but that I’d never seen, it shows when a woman is particular or cobbled together. That’s how this story came about, Loredana told me that this man has an infirm mama at home, in order to look after her they want two people there daily, one in the morning and one at night, she’s no longer good for anything. He lives with the mama and a brother, Loredana says, she knows how they are in the country, zibi, the younger brother who generally remains a bachelor has little judgment, is a little backwards you’d say, and this younger brother said, it takes both of us working to pay for these women who keep house for mama. They live in Pontassieve, Loredana knows them, he tells her frankly, that’s the woman for me. The daughter of Luciana did like many, she was engaged to a sub-farmer from a very beautiful small farm, she left him, or he will have left her and she in return quickly took up with the one that has the house on his own. So Luciana and the mama were left a little alone. The mama is old but on the ball, she always goes to the seashore with the Catholic association, in the summer they bring her to the country, in September to another part, as they take a trip by coach. Then these women took a room together in Pontassieve where they get together, these old reunited women give so much for each one and they meet up every evening for knitting and monkey business. Luciana didn’t tell me, Loredana told me everything, she told me that even to her they’d proposed something, a widower that needed a woman, though rather lively, you understand Loredana is seventy years old, in truth it’s not really like she’s that old, she’s not decrepit. By God, they all take a husband, there’s only my daughters that don’t take one. Your mother had several men, your aunt was good with the one she had, your mother at least had the courage to say, no, I was too good with the first, I don’t even want to try again, I suffered too much, now I’m free, I do as I please. Your aunt instead had already had the cousin of her friend, with whom they’d gone to high school together, doctor and everything, but she says that she didn’t like him. I told her, be patient, you realize that you’re almost forty years old, what are you waiting to catch, the bus? But her, no, I don’t feel anything, and me, try, it may be that you see being together that you can make it. She said that he was repellant. Another time one, poor thing, took her out, one of her girlfriends got married where Michele goes to buy the flower seeds for me, the father was a notary, and we saw this one here coming, he wasn’t much to look at, very short, pudgy, but well put together, clean, he was a lawyer and was going to take the exam to be a notary, notaries earn an arm and a leg. Your aunt met him at the wedding of this friend of hers. When she returned from the honeymoon she had another dinner for all the friends that had participated in the ceremony and she telephoned your aunt. She didn’t really want to go there and she answered, I don’t even know where you live. Don’t worry, Mr. So-and-so will come get you. But I don’t know him. He was the one eating next to you. Ah, sì, I understood. This poor devil telephones, he says, let’s fix where I must come to get you. I don’t even know who you are, she tells him. But what, don’t you remember, I was next to you at the wedding lunch. Ah, wouldn’t you know, you’re the little fat one. I heard this, with my own ears. Him being a lawyer and studying to be a notary he must have been of a certain age, her on the other hand she was thirty-seven, thirty-eight years old, she wasn’t a young thing either. Well, after a couple of days she came home in the evening, she had a rose and was laughing like a crazy woman. What’s making you laugh so much, I said, and her, look at this idiotic thing that he brought me, he came to get me at the hospital. He had brought her a rose poor thing. He understood that there was no point in insisting inasmuch as he couldn’t break her down. Loredana instead her husband she met him at Pontassieve, in the country. A stroll, in those days they didn’t go out dancing. If there was a flood they couldn’t cross between the Arno and the Sieve, she needed to cross the Arno. The small boat was attached in front of his house, and she saw him get out, younger than her. When the Sieve flooded the Arno took the overflow, it was like a plate of oil, and they went to make landfall from its side, it wasn’t kilometers away, the Arno divided Pontassieve by the zone of small boats, Volognano, where her husband was from. The young in order to have fun they went on the other side. She saw him and she liked him, he wasn’t ugly, not too tall, with a nice face, she still has some photographs of him on that small boat. He began to chat. They spent time with you, shadowed you, and when it was the time that they knew that you went back, they posted themselves on the street and they came to detain you. If she hadn’t liked him she would have gone straight by, she certainly wouldn’t have said, I don’t like you, he would have answered, look at yourself how you are. He asked her very quickly to get engaged, he gave her compliments, but before dark they needed to be home. He introduced himself and her father made small talk with him, that he wasn’t thinking of going and making a fool of the girl of the family. Her brother was happy, he was still a young man and he married after her, he wasn’t in a hurry. Loredana went to live with his mama and a sister-in-law, she didn’t get along there and luckily she stayed only four or five months. The trousseau she still has it, they gave everything, remaking with thread, hooks and eyes, measuring tape, night shirts, underwear, undershirts, stockings made by hand, made by machine, socks, insoles, skirts, towels, only linens not pots and pans or money. They were content with little and the beautiful thing is that, that they were content. Now instead you have and have and there isn’t anything that you long for, selfishness, spite. All the stuff they put it in the trunk, in the boxes, in the baskets, it crossed with the small boat and once there reached the house on the sledge, with the animals. She had a room all to herself, the chest of drawers and the night tables she still has them, she sawed the wardrobe in half because up there it didn’t go, it had four doors, she brought the whole thing and half she threw away. The father-in-law died thirteen days before they got married, given that they’d already prepared in order not to postpone the wedding, then death wasn’t like now, their padroni on the 22nd of April had them marry in the little chapel of the farm and they brought them to eat in Montecatini. Loredana was happy, she wasn’t scared of change, the mother-in-law never put in her two cents, her husband was more the one to talk, there was misery in the homes, they had enough to eat, but misery reigned everywhere. They stayed three, the mother-in-law never left home, but they sometimes on Sunday they went out, to get together with a relative. Loredana worked on the small farm, her, her husband and that’s it. Her son was born after four years, the mother-in-law watched after him, when he cried she called her in the field and she went to give him milk that wasn’t hers, she didn’t have any. She had a lot of trouble because of him, with his development, he didn’t ever want to eat, she was so fed up that she didn’t want anymore. It was a mistake, for him. Her husband always said, me to those that say that it was bad luck, I don’t believe it, if you don’t sow you don’t reap. When they decided to try they pressed on unrestrained six months. In summer in order to bathe they went down to the Arno, it was that time there, she became pregnant, in the dark, in the water, otherwise she didn’t linger. The yearning to be pregnant sometimes generates a block, you need not to think about it, then it becomes something natural. Loredana days that a person more meticulous and exact than my husband doesn’t exist, he had survived more than twenty years going and getting her and bringing her back, in the beginning he was still young, but never had he said a cross word, furthermore me in her I had a blind trust, otherwise I wouldn’t have sent him, I had come to know her. Filomena was young, a discreet woman, and I said, where did my husband go Loredana, did he go to Filomena’s?

This evening the moon seems like a drop of burning liquid reluctant to separate from the blue of the sky. I would like to see it dash down parallel to the trunks of the two pine trees that ring it, sink over the jagged dark of the hill and full of torpor let the hunger of the earth devour it. I would stay to watch, seated on the step, I would continue to stare at its liquifying without noise. I would no longer experience pain from that which now has convinced me or observe it, barely brushed by a velvety white that stirred breaks up at the confines of her presence, suspended as if by chance shining on the back of the leaves of the olive tree beyond the distraction of a melancholy butterfly and the distant barking of a dog. My hand brushes against the stone from which I contemplate the night that gathers, what it absorbs from the contact will resemble the indifference with which the listless moon gave off its dim light the evening of the feast. It was there, from the window it could have been grasped between the frozen branches the sweet head of light, uncovered by a stone when the body suddenly fell backward from a gunshot jealous of so much tenderness. If they were to find me between the cracks in a mountain in putting my bones back together they would say that I was a woman. But it’s too little, not enough. The heavens pour down on me like wheatears in the abyss rising from the hood of the hearth, spectral abode of the murmur of those that one time were here, stooped over to clean a windshield or with legs astride of the guardrail to gaze beyond the swash of the cars on the run the lighting up of a puddle if a prostitute inserts her heel there.

Aunt Cora recounted this fact, a son had died on a foreign gentleman that had bought a villa in Fiesole, and he always said, Fiesoli, Fiesoli, was disastrous for me. And me the same, Miransù, Miransù, was disastrous for me. Not to speak of how much it cost us, here it costs, in the plain it’s different, they can use machines, we did the threshing of the grain, we brought it in the yard, now they insert the sheaves inside a machine, from one part exits the straw, from the other the grain already hulled, before you kids used to fight to go and pull the strings to tie the presses, now they do all rectangular blocks of straw already pressed, and then they go in the fields, they don’t bring the machines in the yard at all like us, it was entertainment, I wasn’t entertained much, the commotion always bothered me, there were about fifteen contadini, the feeders, the one that managed the machine, those that did the pressing, they passed the straw down to the boys that tied it, the famous strings, a chore that lasted a long time, now you no longer see anything, they’re in the fields, they do everything there. We could do it, but it’s not worthwhile, very little came from the grain, in order to use an agricultural machine they want big open spaces, then the machine doesn’t need help, what was carried out with twenty workers with two they do it, it’s a big difference, sure these machines cost hundreds of millions. For the threshing we prepared minestrone soup, they were disheartened to eat pasta, everybody made pasta, rabbit, goose, then we took the meat from the ox and we cooked big roasts, to be different, this way they gladly came to us to eat, then we offered them something to drink while they were threshing, we took extracts, from mint, and we brought some flasks of fresh water with these syrups inside that gave them a little flavor, they gladly came to us, there were some contadini that lived where the Belgian sculptor now lives, the old lady came to do the grass for the cows, and she said, my daughter-in-law doesn’t go by anybody to thresh, she comes only to you. She wanted to come her too but not everybody could, so she said, what do you want, I can’t come, my daughter-in-law when you thresh she needs to come! We had a bathroom, with a wood-burning water heater but anyway even that was enough, they worked and they took a bath poor women, with that itch all over, the dust from the grain, from the hay itches, but they all washed themselves, they combed themselves decently and they came to eat. In the kitchen there was Natalina, then Gina and the mother of the one who killed Lapo, Assunta it seems to me. They stayed to serve at table too, whoever wanted to. When grandfather bought here the grain was already there, we handed over ten thousand lire, otherwise they cut it, they took away only the sheaves. We bought in March, the grain was already seeded, the berry was already on it, the contadini that had planted it wanted the price of the grain, grandfather said, if you take the sheaves from me it will be the same to me as uprooting the plant, we bought the land, not the grain, then he asked them to leave it and it was the first year that we made bread at home. The threshing machine we rented it, I remember one time, the first tractor that grandfather bought was called Oto, with the threshing machine they couldn’t get out of the ditch. They were looking for someone that had a tractor and they came to ask us. Carlino arrived with Oto, it was very small, but with incredible power, it was made in La Spezia in a factory that manufactured cannons, war supplies, it was well equipped. As soon as they saw it, but why did you bring us this cart, we’ll use ours and you keep whatever he brought. And Carlino said, wait, wait and you’ll see. He attached the tractor and, brrrm, brummm, in a minute… But where did you find this thing! It was powerful that little tractor!  The way it broke it couldn’t be repaired, grandfather called the one that sells old vehicles and he turned the key, we had to pay him just so that he’d take it away. The jeep, you remember, it was left over from the war, a real American one, a Ford, we found it through a builder and we gave him faucets in exchange! It was used to go in the field, your father one time drove us into great danger, he was going onto the little paths, onto the little trails, it had also gone to war that Ford, green and mountain-green blue, they used it in order to deliver the copper, it wasn’t at all for going into town, it didn’t even have license plates, the tractor was heavy, slow, with this we ran like devils, your father drove us there on the knoll to see the fireworks, it made the hills, ducked round the corner, it was perfect for the pathways. That one too ended up together with the tractor at the junkyard. There were other machines, like that one for crushing corn, grandfather would have been rather modern, he would have gradually bought what came out, to see, to try, he died too soon, he left the shop too soon, pig-headed, he had this damned job, here was his life, he loved living here, he was happy here, someone who all his life was closed up in a room in front of a lathe. He wasn’t at all the type that has to die at work, but he was never idle a minute, as soon as he finished at the shop he came up here, old Pedro, the dog, he went with the men in the fields, he took refuge from the sun under a tree, when he sensed that your grandfather was about to arrive he got up and came towards the house. Carlino noticed this and said, beware, the padrone is coming. Pedro stayed up there with Ugo and Natalina, he loved them in vain, when they went away to return to live in Florence he ran after them up to the brook, to get the dog and bring him back here you had to beat him, otherwise he ran away with them.

When I’m here alone and there’s no one I think that my life could have been different, grandfather though being a good person, a worker that knew how to get the family ahead, everything that there is he made it, he wasn’t affectionate. I needed to be pampered, coddled, for him it was enough to say, don’t you worry, I’ll take care of it. Even that’s a consolation, but it’s a poor consolation. He came home from the fields at six o’clock, when the men were partying, he came home alone to get a bite to eat, then he rushed off, and I was here crocheting. It’s not that I ever felt lonely, me by myself I’m fine, unfortunately, I make up stories, which I can’t tell you. Grandfather was a man that had only work, any foolishness he didn’t understand it. With this I don’t mean to say that I was unhappy, mercy’s sake, just the security of daily life, was what made me respect him more than ever, I’d never had any before in my life. I didn’t miss merriment in the least, but I needed to be considered something. We used to go to the seashore, in those moments I was happy, your mother brought me very beautiful dresses, I changed one a day, everybody said, ah, the signora, always elegant. Stupid things, but I felt assured. At Castiglioncello especially I felt like someone, at Forte dei Marmi a little less, there they were real signore. Instead Castiglioncello was more provincial. I’ve got a stomachache, I feel like throwing up.

The Rail is proudly running Miransù as a serial which began in the December 2013/January 2014 issue and will continue through the winter of 2015.


Monica Sarsini

Monica Sarsini was born in Florence, where she lives and teaches writing. She is also an artist who has shown her work in Italy and other countries. Libro Luminoso (Exit Edizioni, 1982) was followed by Crepacuore, Crepapelle and others. A collection of her work was published in English under the title of Eruptions (Italica Press, 1999). In Alice nel paese delle domandine (Le Lettere, 2011), Sarsini collects stories written by women from the creative writing class that she taught at Sollicciano prison, outside Florence; a second volume Alice, la guardia e l’asino bianco was just published in Italy.

Maryann De Julio

MARYANN DE JULIO is a Professor in the Department of Modern and Classical Language Studies at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2015

All Issues