I climb the creaking wooden stairs, moving cautiously up the steps leading to the attic. I had not been there for years; every time I visited my mother it was only for dinner, for an errand, for a quick hello and above all for those memories I never wanted to recall. I already had my own life , and I did not want to remember what I had left behind.
I reach the landing at the top of the stairs and try to push the heavy wooden door. It won’t budge: as I imagined, I need the key. I pull it out from the back pocket of my jeans, thinking that my mother had hidden it really well, too bad that I’m smarter than she is!
The key turns easily in the lock, and the teeth move smoothly to operate the mechanism: four clicks and the door opens.
A pitch-black darkness awaits me beyond the door, pierced here and there by thin rays of light penetrating from cracks and gaps. It is cold, but fortunately, I am wearing a woollen sweater from my high school days. I really liked it and I always brought it with me when I used to go to the mountains with my friends. I left it behind at my parents’ house when I moved out, almost like a symbol of a past I wanted to forget.
I stumble in the dark until my fingers feel the wet surface of the walls, now completely eaten away by saltpetre, the peeling paint crumbling to my touch. I take a couple of tentative steps keeping to the left, until I come across an edge. I fumble for the switch, and the light explodes in my face like the sun after the alarm clock sounds.
I rub my eyes and keep them closed for a few moments, trying to get used to the light gradually.
The room is short and narrow, more than I remembered it; its size probably remained that of my memory of it as a child. On the left lies an old wrought-iron stove that was already unusable when I was a child, and next to it, a dozen old frames, which had contained my grandfather’s paintings – my mother sold them in a moment of extreme need. Some wooden planks, that I don’t ever remember having seen, are stacked against the wall along the short hallway on the right. And against the back wall, there is an antique cabinet that belonged to my grandmother – “I know it’s lovely, but I cannot keep it at home, it reminds me too much of my mother “- and the trunk.
The webs abound in a shapeless jumble around and over the lid, and the two ring handles on the sides are barely to be seen. An accumulation of dust has deposited there since the last time I opened it, the day before I left. Seventeen? No, eighteen years ago.
I linger staring at the trunk, with all its beautiful embroidery of cobwebs. That trunk cointains the whole weight of my oppression, the whole legacy of childhood apprehensions, and opening it would mean plunging into my deepest fears. The ghosts contained inside are hopping around making faces at me, and their warning and invitation are all too clear.
I lower my eyelids, and I realize that I am sweating profusely, as if I had been running. My heart is pounding wildly in my chest, and I cannot stop my fingers from trembling. “I do not love him, I’m sorry, but I do not love him. – What prevents you from loving him? – He’s not like I wanted him to be. But I loved you all the same, I had only to see your face, catch a smile in the folds of your mouth, the glint of a reflection in your eyes. I was a little king, I was happy, I believed in your love, and you lied to me knowing the reason why you did it.
I wipe my eyes with my hands, and then rub my hands on my trousers. I have to open it; it makes no sense standing here waiting: I have to face my memories, whatever I may find – and I have to hurry, before my mother returns for dinner.
I remove most of the cobwebs with one of the blanks of wood that are up against the wall and blow the rest away as best as I can, and then I stand there contemplating the lid, riddled with termites. I’m scared, and I cannot stop shaking. I put the key in the big lock and I make it click. The trunk is unlocked, I can open it now.
Now I have to open it.
I click open the side locks and insert my fingers into the grooves hidden there. All I have to do is force it a little and and lift the lid.
Lift the lid.
I close my eyes, and push with my arms, fast, impetuous. I hear a thud as the wood comes up against the cement wall behind it.
I open my eyes and I see – I see the apparition, the ghost, the same ghost that haunted me every night when I was a child, the same ghost that my anguish generated after listening to the words that I did not want to acknowledge.
My mother stands before me with a stern look, immaculate like Justice in her white silk dress, and she is beautiful, but she waited for me in the trunk and now she’s coming out with her usual reproaching air. “I hate you, my little one, I hate you and you know it, but we keep pretending that nothing happened.” I know she will give me a kiss, her lipstick printed on my forehead, and I’ll be happy all day. For a long time, for a long time yet I will not take the stagecoach.
But no, this time it is not like this, see how the picture of my mother is already changing, while her clothes melt away to make room for the dark void of a presence that I cannot decipher – grim, curved, cruel. For a moment, I think of my grandmother, whom I never knew and whom my mother hated, then I move my hands in the air to make the spell disappear. My grandfather is now staring at me from the depth: I still remember him, so affectionate but so incredulous, so incapable of understanding. I grab his hat, I feel that it is he who is handing it to me, I grab it and keep looking at him in silence. The fabric is worn, the edges are consumed, but it still retains a certain miserable dignity. I place it on my head, and discover that it sinks over my eyes: my head is much smaller than my grandfather’s.
Something glimmering attracts me from inside the trunk. I think it’s still that sharp look, but I realize that it is a mirror, a small round mirror with an inlaid frame. I look at myself: it’s true what dad said, I look like my grandfather.
I put the hat on the floor next to the trunk, in the dust, and a handkerchief falls out. I know whose it is. I grab Marta by the arm. She is still wearing that peach coloured doll-like dress of hers; her smile is still that of a thirteen-year-old and seduces me with its candour. She smiles at me with a look that bears no malice, and I am infused with joy. We are still on the lawn, barefoot in the dew, and we laugh for no reason, with muddy clothes and dirty feet. We are happy without knowing why, we are together, we’re fine, we’re having fun and we do not have to account to anyone. Then her smile is gone, her face is troubled, her voice becomes husky and I see that she is looking behind me. Worriedly I touch her face, and in that moment I can see a short, stubby shadow approaching. I turn and I recognize her mother, and from her eyes I can understand that from that day on Marta and I will not see each other again.
Innocence ends when wrenched away from you. And there is my mother too, furious, with judgement already stamped on her face and her inability to reproach me, her absolute lack of willingness to understand me. But that handkerchief, pink like the morning dawn, stayed with me always. It was the only thing she ever gave me, and I am only sorry that she never had anything of mine. And here is the pioneers’ stagecoach and the old cowboys and tin soldiers. It moves slowly across the prairie, and the indians could arrive at any moment. I am the one on the roof aiming my shotgun. I will defend it with my life because it is the stagecoach that will take me to my destination and I have a mission to accomplish. The valley we are crossing is filled with flowers but I do not have time to look at them. I am a tough man and I have to watch the horizon. The sun is beating down on my head, and I can’t breath from thirst, my throat like a knot in a noose, but I don’t have the courage to ask for water as a moment’s distraction would be enough for an arrow to strike me in the chest. I know, it has already happened. And now I have a mission to accomplish, a place where I can hide. Troubled past that of a gunslinger. A past best forgotten.
Dad, however, is lounging about, always busy with a book: what was the first book he gave me, Alice in Wonderland. I did not like it but he insisted that it was a wonderful book, which I would understand better when I was a bit older. I never reread it. And now he is sitting there, on a deck chair straddled across the trunk, with a straw hat on his head and a book in his hand, and he keeps on ignoring me, too absorbed in his reading, while the wind ruffles the few hairs on his bare chest and the sun beats down on his delicate skin.
I put my father back and dig deep in the trunk. Here Laviana, my first female friend, my first declaration of love, my first ring rejected. It ‘s too small, it doesn’t fit on my little finger. She was so delicate, she seemed so fragile. Small, fine, sensitive. But so energetic in saying “no.” And now she is still there peering at me with her questioning look, after all this time she has not figured it out yet and Tatiana takes her by the hand and leads her away. There she is, Tatiana, always kind to me, always so present. Now that she has taken Laviana away she’s back, carrying Brown, my teddy bear. I still remember that Christmas: I sensed that there was no Santa Claus, and I hid behind the door, spying. “Well, we should be done now! – Actually, ma’am, there is this too. – What’s that? – A gift for your son, ma’am. A thought from me. You spoil that child, Tatiana. – Maybe it’s true, but I love him. He is a delightful child.” And I cry, and go back to bed with the blues in my heart. I found them out and now I know their secret, and they will never again be able to pretend they are Santa Claus.
Then Tatiana leaves and takes a stagecoach too, but she does not go in the same direction. “Now you’re grown up, there’s a good boy, and in the afternoon you have so many things to do, and also, your father is home often. You’ll see, you’ll get used to it soon. “
“But I wanted Tatiana!”
Her breasts are soft while I hug her, much more maternal than my mother’s, and her tears wet my head while I cry too. Then my mother’s hand on my shoulder leading me away, separating us.
The sweet and good-natured eyes of Professor Maffei surprise me, she forgives me with her eyes even though I have not done my homework this time too, she smiles and tells my mother I will pass the class. She stands on her solid heels, swirling her brown skirt, and as she moves away a chrysanthemum petal falls from one of her sleeves.
I hear the wind howling through the cemetery, it makes me uncomfortable, and the dried chrysanthemum I keep in a jewellery case is the only ornament left on my father’s grave. I kneel down and I cannot pray, I cannot find the words, maybe I forgot them, and I am ashamed before God that I do not remember them anymore. My mother’s hand once again takes me away.
Sergio is also at the bottom of the trunk, with the marbles he swapped all the time, “in any case my dad makes them, marbles”, and Giovanni keeps him company with his note: “Happy birthday from a friend I will never forget”. The two brothers still wave hello to me with their little hands from the back window of the car, and if they move house again and I meet them in the future, I know I won’t recognize them.
The polar bear grins, his mouth open wide and its red jaws ready to devour me. I can still see him chasing me in my sleep, I’m running around my parents’ bed shouting “help” to them and they continue reading undeterred, not deigning to look at me. With every step the bear seems to catch up with me, I can feel his mouth closing over me in vain, I can feel my breath getting shorter and shorter, my exhaustion increasing. And that animal is getting closer and clicks his tongue.
Waking up is never pleasant and it’s not pleasant to wake up at the age of eighteen and find out: “You’re not my son.” You always loved her, you have always considered her more than dad and now you find out that she has always lied. “Mom, what are you saying?”. “I wanted you, I wanted your father … I could not …”. The world is beautiful, the sky is blue, the air clear and mild. The suitcase has no key, and is ready for a journey that will make any return pointless and absurd.
But the return is a path to Mecca that we all have to make once in a lifetime. I close the trunk and stay there thinking. My gaze wanders over the lid carved by termites in patterns that seem to simulate microbes and bacillus, my thoughts retrace all those finished events and they fade away in a shudder of deep unease – sounds of footsteps on the stairs.
«Dear, are you there?».
I get up, go back to the hall, turn off the light, walk out on the landing, leave the door ajar.
«What have you done?». Her authority is weak, far away.
«I looked in the trunk».
«Where did you get the keys?». She is alarmed.
«You know where I found them». I begin to go down the steps.
She faces me: «Why?».
«For the same reason which made me come back».
I made it to the last step, she hugs me, I kiss her on her cheek.
«Mom, were you jealous of Tatiana?».
She looks at me sternly. Then she looks down, turns around. Even if it were so, she would never admit it. You cannot be jealous of your daughter in law. It would not be decent.
The light fades, the sky is covered in twilight and memories seem distant things. In the shadows of the evening, warm in a sweater that I forgot I owned, I look back at fifteen years of marriage, and I know that I would never go back, ever again.
Translation by Silvia Accorrà*****
(Published for the first time in the anthology “Write me a story,” May 2013)