The poplar had to be pollarded. Actually it should have been cut down because the pioppolo fungus that had been eating it for two years and had meant that that summer the leaves had not grown as shiny as they could be again. Another sign of its decay was the presence of lively ants crawling on it But Rino, however, was an obstinate man and had decided that it would cut the trunk a few feet from the ground. He thought that a log could always be useful.
«Why, Daddy? It’s useless. It’s dead now», said Ilde, a month earlier. It was September.
«A log is always useful», answered her father.
«What’s the use of a trunk just in the middle of a garden? It ruins the garden. It will be like looking at a bald head surrounded by rose bushes and shrubs!».
Leaning over the sink, Rino continued to wash the peas, carefully placing them in blue plastic bags. Then he would put in the freezer for the winter.
«As you dad. I will call Gino to prune the poplar. I’ll tell him to pop by and you can arrange it».
Gino was the town gardener, a sturdy boy, with a wife and four children. He paid the rent with a cash in hand job. Just like the rent was.
«Never», said Rino. He had stopped washing the peas and turned around with eyes full of fire.
Ilde lost her patience.
«Are you crazy?» she shouted. «You will never, ever, to prune the poplar! Do you realize that you are almost eighty years old?».
Rino yelled more than her. That waste of abuse ended with Ilde’s threat shortly before she left slamming the door .
«You’re more stubborn than a mule. You’ll never change! If you hurt yourself, I swear, this time I will not lift a finger. You’re going straight into a nursing home».
Rino knew it was true. Ilde, of course, would have never done it, as she didn’t a year ago when he broke his ankle falling off the bicycle. They told him he could no longer use it, high blood pressure triggered some problems with his balance. Rino had carried on as before.
When he was discharged from hospital, the bike was gone. Ilde had not left him alone one single day: she cleaned the house, cooked meals, helped him to wash himself and during the early days she even used to spend the night there. However she had a husband, two children and a job. It had been hard for her. In those two months she had lost ten pounds and twenty years of marriage. He knew that while her daughter was smiling at him asking how he was, Ilde could not help thinking about how she felt sick. The nursing home was like the apple in the paradise. She did not bite commit the original sin because she did not want.
* * *
Rino was having a coffee while watching the poplar from the kitchen window. Only main branches and the trunk were left. It looked like a cross stolen from Christ. The last time he trimmed it was two weeks earlier. Then it started raining. That morning it was not. He could finally pollard. First, however, he would have seen the vegetable garden: the tree would have taken up most of the day. He put his blue trousers on, a flannel shirt, adjusted his braces and slid into his Wellington boots. Then he took took a bucket, a dibble and a pruning hook from the shed behind the house and finally went into the garden. He saw Mrs.Teresa, his neighbour living across, beating the rugs from the window. He bid her good morning waving his hand.
«Hello, Rino» she said «You are usually not in the garden so early, are you?».
As it often happened in the earsly October mornings, the sky was gray with streaks of pink. The rest of the street was silent. It took another half hour before the surroundings would come to life. Mrs Teresa was an exception, not even too strange as she was only ten years younger than him.
«Yes, Today I have to cut the poplar».
«What? All by yourself?».
Mrs Teresa leaned over the window sill. Rino nodded.
«But we cannot do these things at our age, Rino. It’s dangerous».
«Do you want some vegetables, Teresa? It has grown so much this year».
Mrs Teresa left the rugs over the window and joined him at the net that divided the two properties. There were only two houses that had kept their boundaries with barbed wire while the rest of the rest of the street was a hive of secured red brick terraced houses within cement walls and electric gates belts as restraints. Ever since the city had stretched its borders, Castegnato had turned into an annex where you could still buy a house with a thirty year mortgage. The only agriculture areas that had remained were the vegetable gardens.
«I’m glad you want it, Teresa», said Rino passing the bucket full of salad, a cabbage, fennel and of a good amount of bean pods. «Can’t let all this vegetables go to waste. I cannot eat it all by myself!».
«Well, there’s Ilde too. She has a big family», said Teresa, grabbing the bucket.
«She does not take it willingly. She always pretends to forget it. She prefers ready to eat bags that you but at the supermarket. I know it».
«Clean it for her, Rino» laughed Teresa.
He did it at one time before the accident happened. Then he stopped as he felt an unfair sense of resentment. The older you get, the more you do not care about increasing the originality of your sins, he thought.
«Come on, Rino. Do not complain about Ilde, she’s a great woman. She’s so busy and yet she does not let you ever miss out on anything. You are lucky. Young people are not what they used to be».
«Yeah. Not even the old ones».
Those words came out that way, but he was not sure he understood what he meant. He only knew that, while he believed in building his kingdom, he had lost the world along the way.
«Well, Rino. I return to my duties» said Teresa, «but first promise me you will not cut the poplar. It’s too dangerous at your age. Please promise me you will ask Gino for help!». He was sure Ilde must have told her about it. «Bearing this in mind, you know quiet well that even your wife wouldn’t have allowed you to do it. Do it for poor Clelia».
The admonition of Mrs. Teresa was like a whiplash. Since his wife had died two years earlier, he could no longer hear her name without a nail piercing his soul.
He no longer left his house except to sort out the things that Ilde could not attend to. He was not going to the bar for a bianchino and to play cards anymore, neither was he going to the pitch to see the boys playing football. He had distanced himself from the few friends who were still alive. He was confined within the boundaries of his home.
It was not because of the memories. He did not live for the memories. He’d rather try to erase them. Ilde had taken away from him all that bound him to his wife, during one of their furious quarrels. She did not understand why he wanted nothing around him anymore.
«Dad, by pretending that mother didn’t exist you will not get over the pain» she said , looking at the black bags in the living room.
«Will you or shall I take them up to the attic?».
Rino had repeated that phrase at every observation his daughter made like a broken record. Even when she went away slamming the door.
However, he had collected all the pictures had put them in a drawer and then he had locked the room and threw the key into one of the innumerable boxes stacked in the basement.
Little by little Clelia had slowly passed away. The surgeon and the tumor had been fighting over her as if she was the ball in a table tennis match. First the cancer spread from one breast to another, then to the armpits, next to the liver and finally to one lung. They returned her to him at the end of the game. During the next two terrible months Rino looked at that devastated body while it was getting empty. They had torn her out name too.
When he went to registry office to sort out the death certificate, a foreign employee sunk behind a glass which had a mailbox-like hole, was filling out a form on the computer.
«Are you Mr. Raimondo Girelli?».
Rino took a bit of time to realize that he was talking to him. He had heard that name maybe three times in the course of his life, and each of those had occurred during his childhood, when he took the sacraments but never at school. He left after three years of primary school where his teacher used to call everyone by their full name. The real one. He attended through third grade and his teacher called everyone under their own name . The real one.
«Yes, I’m Rino Girelli».
«Rino or Raimondo? What is your full name?».
«Raimondo Girelli», he said with hesitation.
«Are you the husband of the deceased?».
«What’s the name of the deceased?».
The clerk glared at him.
«Mr. Raimondo , I need to know your wife’s full name».
«It’s Clelia Rizzi in Girelli» Rino spelled it out, finding it difficult to remember.
«Are you sure?». The clerk was not convinced. «The computer does not recognize any Clelia».
Rino was confused. His wife’s name was Clelia. He had been married to her for fifty years, engaged for ten and her name was Clelia.
«Raimondo Girelli, married to Antonia Rizzi» said the clerk looking proudly computer. «Therefore Antonia Rizzi is the deceased. Do you confirm that?».
The clerk needed nothing more than a yes.
The stonemason didn’t want to listen to reason either. «Rino, if you want we can put in brackets ‘nicknamed Clelia’ under her name», he said .
«But her name is Clelia» protested.
«We cannot do that, I’ve already explained it to you. It is the municipal regulation. Tell you what: we remove the brackets, which stands out the most and we write it in bold. Is it okay?».
Rino had left without saying goodbye.
«She will live forever in the memory of her beloved ones», the plaque said, He did not remember anything about Antonia. He thought of his own death and about his tombstone’s inscription. Raimondo Girelli. Who was he?
* * *
Rino stored the dibble and the sickle in the shed. He picked up the ladder, the highest one. As it was more solid. He placed it against the poplar, grabbed the saw and climbed up. He between the two head branches. He began to saw the first branch. When the cut was deep, he put the saw aside for a moment on the ladder and then leaned over to give the last push with his arms. The branch fell down, dry, to the ground. Perhaps it was that dull thud, maybe that sweat dripping from his wet forehead into his neck just inside his shirt. He felt his head spinning like a crazy blender.
‘You have high blood pressure’, he thought to himself.
Rino leaned with his back on the only branch left. From the top of the vortex in which his blood was buzzing, he could see the cemetery of cement that Castegnato had become. It seemed like the time in which houses and men were like trees in the middle of wheat fields had never existed.
At the beginning he had believed in the promise that industry promised would redeem them from from a world of fatigue and hardship, and the city flourished, generous, like an industrious and tireless anthill. He had believed that. Then something happened: it was as if the pace of life things had violated the rhythm of the day and night and the revenge we had all been waiting for had become only a mirage, while would be repeated indefinitely. Dazzled by time he did not realize they were robbing him of his life.
* * *
The street’s hives had turned their lights on. The road was lived up by rows of cars in a row, and drivers rushing to get to work. Rino felt a pinch on his back and face. The ants of the poplar were crawling on him and had also gone inside his shirt.
He shook them off his face with a hand. Then went down the ladder and got off the tree. From the bottom of the garden he could see what was left of the poplar. A trunk and a main branch. He smiled cheekily.
«Next spring you will rise again mutilated» he sneered.
Translation by Amneris Di Cesare (edited by Sabrina Macchi)