Written by Silvia Pellegrino,
Illustrated by Simona De Leo
Epiphanies of a "lost" mind
In the tight space of a small car we found ourselves, she and I, alone, talking. I watched her fingers caressing the seatbelt as you would a stray dog. Her gaze was dull and clear at the same time. A warm-light streetlamp, weatherproofed and yet ready to surprise you in the dark.
It was lunchtime on a day in the middle of summer. The city, still overflowing with people, was tidying itself up by covering the acrid smell of piss in the central station with sparkling wines and nauseating talc perfumes.
‘It’s hot eh, miss?’
‘Very, look at me,’ I said, pointing to the dark stains on my shirt around the armpits: ‘I’m dripping.’
‘It would be nice if we called on my cousin Rosetta and we all went to see mum and dad at the cemetery. You know, they died in the summer, by the river.’
‘And where does your cousin Rosetta live?’
‘In the centre of the village, in the yellow house next to the bell tower.’
‘Do you think if we go now we’ll find her in?’
‘Umm, what time is it? What, what day is it? Is it Sunday?’
‘No, it’s Wednesday.’
Suddenly her dusty light stiffened, solidified, turning her to stone.
I watched her for a moment and, avoiding sudden gestures, I put my hand on her shoulder. That slow, gentle movement made her jump up in her seat like the spring of a pinball machine.
‘Is everything alright? Did I scare you? I’m sorry if I did.’
‘No no, dear, it’s me who’s sorry. I was lost in a field and the ears were tickling my shins.’
‘Don’t worry, we’re in the car now. Are you hungry? I’ll take you to eat some fish, what do you say?’
‘Uuh, fresh fish, why not? But are you and me going alone? Do your parents know you’re not going home?’
‘Yes, yes I told them.’
‘Ah, but do they know you’re with me? Maybe we should invite them. Where do they live?’
‘Nearby’, I replied, without giving further details.
‘So, come on let’s go and get them, you can introduce them to me! How old are they?’
‘Dad is 85, mum is 72.’
‘Ahhh, a little older than me but still, almost the same age.’
She smiled, rubbing her hands hard as if she wanted to erase the brown spots that had multiplied on her skin with the passage of time.
I started the engine as soon as I had wound down all four windows and put on a compilation of Giuni Russo songs. The first song was Letter to the Governor of Libya, in a duet with Franco Battiato.
‘Ah, Graziani! The Graziani family is one of the wealthiest in the village. Giuseppe Graziani is a doctor, his father Aldo was a doctor . . . They are clever people. What do you do for a living?’
‘I’m a Yoga teacher.’
‘A what teacher?’
‘What's that? A foreign language?’
‘No!’ I stifled a loud laugh so as not to offend her. ‘I teach my students to take care of their bodies, and also of their minds.’
‘You mean you teach gymnastics?’
‘Yes, let’s say yes.’
‘Ah, nice, but you can’t do it for much longer, can you? That is, time will pass for you, too. Didn’t you study at university, or maybe you have other, more practical skills?’
That question threw me into the darkest corner of my memory. One made of threats, retaliation, and long silences. She noticed my probably livid face and my grim expression.
‘Oh come on! You’re still young, indeed I should do some gymnastics, because every now and then when I get on my bicycle to run errands I come home with tired and aching legs. Maybe you can help me?’
‘Of course, but we also train the mind and we relax by not thinking about anything.’
‘How can you not think about anything? I don’t have many worries but Father . . . Father has many, poor fellow.’
She was about to petrify again when I distracted her by pointing to the sign of the fish restaurant on the beach.
‘Look, there it is, we’ve arrived. I’ll try to park as close as possible so we don’t have to walk too much under the sun.’
‘You need a hat . . . Oh my! Sorry, sweetiepie, I’ve forgotten your name.’
‘Aaah, what a beautiful name, my favourite! Like Scarlet O’Hara! Have you seen Gone with the Wind? Beautiful, splendid! My name is Mena, or rather Philomena, but everyone calls me Mena.’
I gave her another smile and turned off the engine.
‘Take off your seatbelt, then wait for me to help you get out.’
She obeyed like a well-mannered child, with her fingers crossed and resting on her thin thighs. As soon as she got out, she slipped a hand under my arm and we walked slowly towards the entrance.
‘Hi, I’ve booked for two, the surname is Cinquegranelli.’
‘Cinquegranelli’, she repeated in a low voice, frowning. She said nothing more.
Then we sat down at the table with a view of the sea in front of us and ordered a portion of fish fry and spaghetti with clams, which arrived fragrant and steaming.
When the short, curly-haired waiter walked away from the table she got up from her chair holding a napkin in her hand, and moved closer. She then placed it on my breast, rolling it together with the edges of my shirt collar.
‘There you go, Scarlet, I know you: you’ll get oil from the clams all over yourself, and then who’s going to wash your shirt?’
This time it was me who turned to stone. Breathless, in apnea, focused on crystallising that instant with all my strength.
‘Are we going to school tomorrow? Do you know if we still have quinces at home or if we used them all for jam?’ she asked me.
‘No, we should have some of them left.’
‘And tell me, dear, tell me what happened to that handsome dark-haired boy with the blue van . . . What’s his name?’
She was talking about Raffaele. She had always had a soft spot for him, despite all the pain he had caused me.
‘I don’t want to sound outrageous but that guy is such a charmer! When he came to fix the door the other day, I ran to my room to put on my lavender dress that looks great on me when I’m tanned! But he is a gentleman and has not even managed to look me in the eye.’
‘His name is Raffaele.’
‘Oh yes, Raffaele.’
Again the light froze in her eyes.
‘Ooh dear, my dear, I’m so sorry but don’t worry, I’m talking to your mother. He didn’t deserve you anyway. Listen to me, better alone than . . .’
‘Badly accompanied, I know.’
‘You don’t have to worry, you are beautiful, young, intelligent, you will find a good husband who deserves you.’
As she showered me with an unprecedented sweetness, I realised that two tears were making her cheeks shine.
‘Scarlet, sorry, I am so, so sorry.’
She suddenly burst into deep, desperate tears.
‘No no, don’t cry now.’
I put my hand on her cheek and she grabbed it, kissing it without stopping.
‘Why are you apologising?’
‘Because I’ve been a witch with you.’
‘But that’s not true, come on, stop it, nothing’s happened.’
‘Oh Scarlet, how could I?’
‘What, what’s happened?’
She stopped crying, suddenly, just as she had started, and she took my hand and placed it palm-down on the table, and then she put her hand on mine.
‘You . . . you were born in the summer.’
Again that impulse of mnemonic clarity resurfaced in the present. I wanted to take her by the arm and take her out of that intricate labyrinth of thoughts that were distracting her, leading her towards an innocent and lost past.
She was still my mother but different, stripped of all her rigidity, and on my fortieth birthday she had come back to me.
Just for a moment, she became flesh and soul again.
Just for a moment, she was mine again, and I hers.