Gabriella Tonin – Essential


The skyline becomes narrower and narrower making room for that shining element that my father enjoyed more than I did. I am torn: it’s as if one part of me wants to tear itself away from this strip of land and the other wants to stay here, clinging to memories.

I have tamed this corner of the world, shunned by everybody and especially by my father, and have turned it into a rich soil. Now that I am walking away I feel confused.
I still remember with sadness the day my father decided to leave. He came into our house, exclaiming: “It is not worth working this land; it does not deserve a single bead of my sweat.” Afterwards, he slammed the door and shut himself in his room. He came out several hours later. The following week, we went to the harbour. Before boarding he kissed my mother, he picked me up and whispered in a tearful voice: “when you are older, I will take you with me.”
He came back every three or four months. On those occasions, he would tell me fantastic stories. “You see, Pietro, a man only finds himself when he is at sea, admiring breathtaking sunsets, and he falls in love with the sun that sinks below the skyline at days’ end. There are also difficult moments when you have to brave rough seas, huge waves that make you feel small and vulnerable, but our nature leads us to face up to our troubles. One knot after the other you carry on, leaving the storm behind you. Scenes of unrivalled beauty, smooth waters, enchanting islands open wide in front of your eyes.
I listened to his stories enraptured, but in my heart I nursed a deep grudge: daddy had not been able to tame the land that could have kept us together.
I always watched him when he left: he was there, standing on the deck and staring at the land moving far away; he watched my mother getting old and me growing up; his face hinted at a smile full of sadness.
Bewitched by his snow-white uniform, I said good bye to him, my hand raised, until the sea carried him off. Once again.
My mother received one letter a month, each letter came from a different country. In the envelope, my father placed a souvenir that he had picked up where he stopped: a leaf, a dried flower, a piece of silk, the powder of aromatic spices or simply the scent of a perfume.
The letters, yellow with age, and their precious contents, were kept in a box in perfect order.
When I was alone, I sometimes opened the box and closed my eyes: little by little, and with the help of my imagination, those scents carried me to far-off worlds.
One day, my mother caught me in raptures: I was running my fingers over a piece of snow-white silk, almost imperceptible. It was not bigger than a handkerchief; I raised it to my cheek to feel its stroke, like the stroke that I felt only three times a year. I missed my father very much.
I often drew him, always on the same ship and wearing the same white uniform, his hand waving good bye from the deck.
That evening my mother spoke to me: “Dear son, you will not suffer any less if you go away and leave this island. Unfortunately, all that I can give you is this land, it is up to you and your endeavours to make it bear fruit. Or you can decide to leave everything behind, like your father did, and go in search of something uncertain.”
The following day I began to bathe that little corner of soil with my sweat. I was young but determined.
In the evening I felt tired and disappointed, but every morning I was surprised with my desire to try again and get down to work: I was ready to face another day and not lose a single second. I made that corner of earth a little bigger every day.
In a few years the fields were luxuriant and well tilled. Pleased with myself, I admired from afar the shades of green alternating with golden tones and bright yellows; the fresh smell of newly mowed land filled the air with a unique fragrance. I was able to make my peace with what had taken away all my strength. Those fields saw my face sunburnt, made my hands as tough as leather, covered my body with sores and strengthened my character.
When summer came and the golden, ripe fields shone in the sun, like my father I began to gather in different envelopes a part of those seeds and fruits that I had grown: a handful of barley, a few strands of scented hay and golden ears of wheat.
The first envelope contained only soil.
Just like my mother, I put everything in a box meticulously in order. The scents that came out of it, brought me back to days of scorching sun, to afternoons of beating rain, to the smooth feel of oat seeds, to the fragrance of harvests, all skilfully preserved.
This was my treasure.
One day I would give this box to my father and urge him to feel that pinch of earth and then discover, in the other envelopes, those fruits, colours and scents that I had been able to dig out of the soil.
Each time my father was on leave we would take long walks through the fields. He was satisfied to see the way I arranged the acres. For our corner of land he always brought back selected seeds which he had collected around the world.
Together we chose the best place to plant the seeds: tea from India, coffee grains and cacao beans from Central America. The smell of our labour mingled with our passion; once again we were close, both anxious to see the first, shy seedlings growing.
I am proud of our corner of land, I take particular care of it; it must always be perfect for when he comes back. It is our meeting place; here we are accomplices, close to one another more than we had ever been.
Somebody knocks at the door.
It’s a man in a uniform, he takes off his hat.
It’s not my father.
He gives me the name of a hospital and tells me to hurry.
Now I’m here, on this ship that I have drawn so many times. I’m sitting on a bench. I look at the land fading in the distance. I hold my box tight in my hands; a scent of the last tea harvest emanates from within. Memories of strong emotions, because my father and I are strong men. And only now I understand that both of us have chosen, without knowing it, what is essential: land and water, because each of us needs the other.

Translation by Paola Roveda (edited by Ester Tossi)