Cuccaro

Paul’s older brother Christopher died when Christopher was seven and Paul was just a baby. Christopher had gone down to the cellar searching for apricot preserves, the imprudent craving of a young boy who could remember a little too well the delight of a sugar-sticky mouth. But—and he had undoubtedly been warned of this—the wine, fermenting down there in the cool deep and swelling the bellies of its big round tanks, sent out its heavy pockets of flavorless, odorless gas, the secret feelers of the monster that trapped him on the floor. The whole town went searching for Christopher, up to the white church on the tallest hill, through the vine slopes and the slanted pastures, through gardens and kitchens and paddocks and even, presciently, down to the graveyard, but he was not to be found in any of these places. The father, thrashing down the stairs and holding his breath, found Christopher lying on the dank floor, frowning and pale as the dawn. He was not to be revived.

Now Paul sat in the kitchen, holding his hurt ankle, and watching the first apricots, delicate orange and swollen, tap against the windowpane. Paul was fourteen, and Christopher would have been in his twenties now, and married, and living in a cold stone building that the family would have built next to theirs. After Christopher’s death his father had put a lock on the cellar door, and his mother had put a small, blurred photograph of Christopher in a little silver frame from the jeweler’s in Alessandria, and Paul, at age four, had seized the frame and with an urge to reach its contents, its vacuous image of a small ghostly boy sunk deep beneath a fall lake, smashed it across the stone floor.

Now this morning the ugly sunlight edged through the windows and spilled its milk all over Paul, conveying with it a harmful level of nostalgia. With the girl Margaret here, Paul knew the sun would feel different. With Margaret, his old friend he’d seen again during this Easter break at home, it would feel like light, not failed sun, and so they would dunk themselves in its broad milkiness instead of sitting at the window feeling that the sun was veiled through a veil of memory. Paul felt the separation acutely, and was sick of himself.

The sun still felt white and wet like washed cloth from yesterday’s rainstorm. Yesterday a fast and monstrous storm had tackled the hills and scared Paul into running away. He’d tried to race the storm to the white church, that safe place on the highest hill of Cuccaro. He couldn’t escape, of course. But now the storm had vanished, and the morning sunlight slipped through the window and bandaged trapezoidal spaces of the kitchen floor and walls in white. 

Paul’s mother entered the room, as quietly as she did everything, pressed ground coffee into the coffee maker, and began pounding the air into milk for Paul’s coffee. Paul listened to her and looked out the window, at the first apricots hitting themselves against the glass. He did not want to turn around. He waited. 

In Paul’s bedroom there was a dead bee on the windowsill which had died a few months ago. During the worst of the winter, Paul had heard the bee buzzing against the pane for four nights, and when he looked the fifth day, it had died on the windowsill. It had been something so bright, so firm, so swollen, it seemed impossible that it would ever crumple in on itself, like any dead thing. But crumple it did, after a few months; its legs pinched together, the fine fuzz on its striped back diminished, its gleam rusted over.

Two nights ago, the night before the storm, Paul woke up (restless from his hurting ankle, and from thinking about the girl Margaret with whom he’d spoken in the garden that day) and saw the tiny dark bit on the mantelpiece, and in the vibrating dark he thought he saw it moving. The bee had been dead for months, and crumpled, and now Paul was sure it was moving. It seemed to be walking in circles. Paul pulled himself out of bed and ran down into the kitchen. The stone floors were terribly cold. They all wore slippers around the house (perilous not to wear slippers) but it had been too dark for Paul to find his. His whole life he’d never been to the kitchen alone at night, nor without slippers.

Now Paul had gone down to the nighttime kitchen to get a drink of water. He wished he could have drunk out of the faucet, but recently the water had gone yellow as urine and filled with black specks, as bad as it had been during the last year of the war, when Paul was ten.

The kitchen that night was quiet and cold and barren as a field. Paul’s hands shook as he took a glass from the rack. He felt like he was outside. He could feel the void of the sky inside the kitchen, like the walls were much too thin, like everything was shaking, about to fly apart. His feet stuck to the cold floor and made a wicky pattering against it that he feared someone outside would hear. He could feel the cold beaming up from his feet to his whole body, like lamplight pitched upward into fog. Margaret could have sat on a chair and steadied things, and he imagined her on a chair with him, but when he pulled her up in his mind she was a ghost on the chair, a mercury vapor light, veiled, horrible, and he banished her, because the real Margaret was not like that at all. He drank his water and crept back to his room. The bee was not moving. Paul hoped he was not going blind, like his grandmother, whose eyes were filled with clotted cream, who could not distinguish between dead moving bees and dead still ones, so long as they made no noise. 

Paul was back home at Cuccaro for Easter, and for the things that happened that week: Margaret, the kittens, the bee, the rainstorm and the next-morning sun. Paul spent most of his time at school at Alessandria, boarding during the week to save gasoline. Paul didn’t care much for his school. There the mattresses were wiry and lower, the conversation louder, the food much poorer. The floors were just as cold as at home.  Paul also didn’t care much for his home. And every time he came home, to his mother, his father (childhood polio had kept Paul’s father from dying in the war, though it had not kept him from farming) and his grandmother, he despised himself for feeling such discomfort everywhere. His parents spoiled him the best they could—when he was at home, they didn’t make him do more than feed the animals and water the new vegetables.

Only one of his old friends was back in town for Easter—Margaret, who had a face as homely as Cuccaro’s gravel path and languorous square: a short nose, a wide mouth, eyes that squinted up when she smiled, which was rare. She had always been so thin, so glum, making up mountains of lamb-filled pasta or potato dumplings with her older sisters and her mother (her father had died during the war, shot fighting in Dalmatia). One of her eyes had never quite lined up with the other. Paul wanted to see her.  It had been months. And many of the families with children his age had moved away, to Turin or Genoa, as the town population veered down to seven hundred from the thousand it had been in his parents’ time.

After the war, this was an infertile place. The land robbed itself. The cat bore kittens every year near Easter and every year she didn’t care for them and they died. The chickens made eggs with yolks as orange as the late sun, but only occasionally. The chickens groaned when Paul tried to collect their eggs.

Now they were all living under the air’s silent clamoring, this shaking memory of shaking, like after the ringing of a bell. It reverberated over the hills and through the fuzzy radio which recently had quit itself, through the rounded hills topped with small yellow-walled towns, this place to grow up with a distinctly horizontal sky and so many hills to tumble down under it. It was in the land and in the air, a grieving sense of the thing just swallowed now passing through the land’s insides.  

Paul saw Margaret on the second day of the break, as she walked towards the square and he towards home along the gravel path that ran down the spines of the hills.

“Margaret!” said Paul.

“Hello, Paul,” said Margaret.

“How are you?” said Paul. He was happy to pretend no time had passed, though it had been since last summer. She looked different, though, undefinably. She was weightier, taller, but in a way that kept shifting back to how he’d known her before, as if how she looked now was just outlines over how she ought to look.

 “Walking,” she said. “Walking along.”

Her voice, Paul thought, was very smooth and beautiful, even in dialect—a voice which would not be a disappointment to hear coming from over a high fence.

“It’s great to be home for Easter, isn’t it?” said Paul.

“Yes,” she said. She looked away, down the road. 

Paul was desperate for her to look back. “How has school been?” 

“We’re making dumplings,” she said. “I ought to be peeling potatoes. I went for a walk. I didn’t mean to see you.”

“Oh,” said Paul.

She looked at him. She smiled. “I ran into you, though,” she said.

“I’m glad to see you,” said Paul.

“We ran into each other,” she said.

“Yes, yes!” said Paul. “What a nice day it is, right?”

“I have to go do the potatoes, or I’ll be scolded,” she said.

Paul took it all as a good sign, even though as she walked away she began to run. 

Paul couldn’t wait to see her again, he realized, as he walked home along the gravel path. 

The clotted veins of the grandmother, her cheese-white forearms filled with soft dimples—this was how he knew women. His quiet mother, with dark, gleaming hair, whose hands were always floured (it always seemed intentional), like she was trying to fade away into part ghostliness, like she could touch her son who lived in the other place—the place which Paul defined as the place you see when you carry a mirror around in your hands and navigate your house by looking at the ceiling, the place of broad colors you can see in a reckless way when blindfolded, the wind that blows out from the balcony in a joyful way over the fields like the hugest most invisible bird, the place visible through the sifting flour, through veiled sugar (veiled sugar, they called it, not powdered) falling on cake, a place where Paul thought his mother, with her floury hands, could reach. On the other side his brother Christopher would just see those hands emerging out of brightness and they would stroke his cheek and his hair and hold him and come back to this earth washed clean with tears. 

Paul’s mother was always crying, in a squawky way, like a dark bird. In the summertime she sometimes sat in a white plastic chair on the patio with no top on, sunning herself, and those dark oblong folds came down low on her concave chest completely unconnected from any thought of nourishment.

But everything was like that, even the pasta boiling away in its salted water, that swelled up so delicious sometimes it made Paul cry, though he pretended it was the steam—each piece was always so small, each bowl so close to being finished even at the first bite. Paul dreamed of the thick rich mash of risotto, threaded through with kneaded cheese, pots and pots of it on each burner of each stove in Cuccaro, and of an infinite egg custard and the warm thick grainy sugar of corn semolina pudding, made all with cream, not watered-down milk, things with no pieces.

But at home such rich foods, when there were any, went first to Paul’s mother and grandmother. Sick was needier than young, Paul learned, and palliative more important than strengthening. 

On Easter, though, they ate a high cake shaped like a dove, some before church and some after. Paul’s father gave him the best part, the top all crusty with sugar, and dunked the soft center in sweet wine.

There was never a priest at the white church, not even on Easter. Everyone attended services at the orange brick church in the center of town, the church with the flat bell face that Christopher Columbus’s family built. Margaret was there, with her sisters and her mother, and they took up one pew but left room for their father, whose ghost, it could be assumed, had found a way back from the anonymous flowered Dalmatian field where for him the world had shaken a little too hard to keep its pieces. Paul’s family sat on the other side, Paul could feel his pulse or the trembling of the ground through his thighs on the hard pew, the sun made trapezoids on the stone floor and revealed dust in the air, the women wore lace and murmured Ave Maria sixty times (Paul always wondered if they were actually counting; their words blended into a numberless throb, like bees) and then the priest spoke for a time always much shorter than Paul expected, and then they all felt the wine sink deep into their tongues.

There were never services at the white church. And it stood on the hill so bright, so firm. It seemed like it would never crumple in on itself, like every dead thing. Up on the hill, it felt like something visiting from a separate place. It was a square moon sunk into the land. 

Paul had only once been inside. He’d been with his friend Mark, whose family had given up farming and moved to Turin to work on automobiles. Mark had noticed the hinges of the left door were so rusty they were getting pulled down by the doors’ weight, and they were so curious they spent an hour wiggling the left door and forcing against its hinges (each time, it shrieked horribly) until they broke it away and pushed inside.

It hadn’t felt like normal air, like the air outside or in other buildings. The air had been heavy and sweet as soil, touched through with glorious light from the high diamond windows, rich with the smell of growing things. Birds flew in and out. Both boys had felt fearful and they hadn’t stayed long.

The next week Mark and Paul coaxed Margaret and one of her sisters to come see it too but both doors had new hinges, bright as silver, in which they could see reflections of their stretched-up faces and all the trees collapsed in behind them like an accordion. The doors were locked shut and would not open.

They ran back home instead, along the gravel path on the ridge that connected the white church to the rest of the town. Paul had fallen on that gravel path and skinned his knees more times than he could remember. He didn’t mind falling because falling was always preceded by that moment, right when he felt he was running so fast he couldn’t stay up, when he ran so fast he started tipping over, when he felt the beginning of flight. Then he’d fall and smash his knees and sometimes his hands and his face, and if he smashed them hard enough when he walked back the grass would turn white and the sky would fill with black explosions and still things would start to move. 

It was on the afternoon before the dead-bee night that Paul ran into Margaret again. He’d gone to the store in the square to get bags of ground corn and dry pasta. His mother had gotten him new stiff trousers for the holiday and his legs itched around his knees and ankles. As he went up the gravel road he watched the blue bus walking smoothly up the hills. There used to be two buses, but the war crushed one of them in, so now there was just one. The Alps smoldered quietly far away. The sun came into the dry-goods store and rang off the thin crinkly plastic bags of dry pasta.

As he came out of the store, he saw Margaret on the road, holding a piece of red ice on a stick. On the road, she walked, with her hair with its wheat-furrow parted so straight. She blushed delicately, on purpose Paul thought.  

“Margaret! How are things?” he said. 

She looked to the side. “Good morning,” she said.

“What are you up to?” said Paul.

“Do you want this?” she said, holding out the ice. “I don’t like it.”

“No, thank you,” said Paul. 

She let it drop to the gravel ground and laughed. She was wearing a yellow dress and yellow socks folded down over her sandals. Lovely—she was very lovely. Her eyes did not interest Paul as much as the way they crinkled up.

“Well,” said Paul. “I have to bring these things home. Would you like to come?”

She looked out over the hills, at the blue bus creeping its way to Lu. “I should be helping my sister,” she said.

“All right,” said Paul. He stood there for a few minutes hoping she’d change her mind, but she didn’t speak, so he turned to start walking back to his house. She started walking along with him.  She hummed a little as they walked. Paul worried about what they would do when they got to his house. He’d show her the kittens, he decided—all four had still been happy and in their box when he’d checked on Easter. And he’d offer her coffee.

They arrived at the house, unlocked the gate, and went through to the garden, where the apricot trees and cherry trees and new-planted squash and tomatoes met them with their reeling turmoil of color and scent. Paul went around to the shed to check for the kittens, but their cardboard box was empty.

“Early apricots this year,” said Margaret.

“We need to find the kittens,” Paul said.

“Why?” Margaret said.

“Because they’re not in their box,” Paul said.

“Why not?” Margaret said.

“The mother cat never takes care of them,” said Paul, rummaging around the zucchini pots more and more quickly. “Here, help me find them,” he said.

“I’m sure they’re fine,” Margaret said, sitting down in the plastic chair and closing her eyes.

“I don’t think they are!” said Paul.

“Fine,” said Margaret, reaching out to touch one of the apricots.

Paul saw a bit of gray next to one of the tomato stakes. His heart beat fast. He reached out and grasped the kitten out of the cold dirt. It was limp and very dead. He held it delicately, then realized he didn’t have to.

“Margaret! See?” said Paul, standing up to show her. 

She wouldn’t look at him—if she wasn’t crying she certainly looked upset enough to be crying. Her eyes were squinted up. “I’m going to leave,” she said.

“Stay,” said Paul, hiding the kitten behind his back. “I’ll make you coffee. We’ll put cream in it. And we can take a walk.”

“No,” said Margaret.

“Well—” said Paul.

“I hope to see you soon,” said Margaret, like she meant it. 

Margaret left and Paul squeezed the kitten and put it behind a tree, then went into the kitchen and took out the sifter and the flour and sifted through the flour and watched it fall. It hissed like a breathing thing.

The apricots outside the window were small and firm. He wondered how it was that apricots don’t need to be fed apricots to grow apricots. He wondered how they formed out of the dirt, what was under the dirt, and what was under that. Certainly there were things under it, moving things and buried things and things both at once.

Paul got out of his chair, too miserable to stay still. His mother was upstairs sleeping, where she spent most of the day, and his father out in the fields. He felt the freedom of an empty house. So he hit his head and arms and legs against the stone ground and pressed himself into corners and bruised himself pulling the table onto himself but he could not find something that would resist him all the way. He went outside to the garden where the earth was plowed up to receive the zucchini seedlings and he plunged his thin arms into the dirt. He put his face onto the heavy clods. He lapped at it like a cat at milk. He pushed the soil into his mouth. He felt lost in his dread. It was dread, this heavy feeling, that made the sky feel like something he could fall into, too dangerous to look at with a mirror, dread that made things shake as if they were going to fly apart. Nothing was working, so he decided to run down the gravel path to the graveyard. At the graveyard there was a little round photograph of Paul’s brother under glass, on the front of his upright grave. The photo, and the flowers planted in baskets and placed on the stones with no way to root into the actual earth, usually kept Paul far away. 

But as he ran closer and closer to the graveyard he realized that he wasn’t tired at all, and he wouldn’t get tired, and he could run to Alessandria and back, if he wanted, if it weren’t so boring. So he turned and sprinted back to his house, steady and lost in dread, this monster, like a sky, thickening everything into shaking dimness.

He went back into the kitchen (stiff trousers ruined), found a heavy glass and the cellar key. The cellar was safe this time of year; the grapes were still tiny and green. He went down the stairs to the cellar, past the dusty jars of preserves and bottles of wine, avoided looking at the tanks which had watched Christopher die, and went to the winter storage room, where no one would come for months. 

The glass was heavy and sweaty in his hand, and he regretted that it was empty. He threw the glass at the ground and watched it smash. Then he picked up a jagged piece of the glass and dragged it over the soft pits of his ankle, where no one would look. But his skin beckoned the glass painlessly, and the knife embraced back, and everything gave: not what he wanted at all. Paul went back upstairs, neglecting the blood, which would not show on the floor or the steps once it dried.

The next day the storm came. 

The morning after the rainstorm, Paul sat in the kitchen by the window, in a crooked wooden chair with an embroidered seat, and watched the pale gold apricots bounce on and off the windowpane in the wind. They made light meaty thuds against the window, but they wouldn’t break it. They split the sunlight into ghostly shapes on the glass, dirty shapes that, where they caught on the dirty edges of dried raindrops, were bright as the sun. 

Paul listened to his mother walk softly into the room with her slippers. He smelled the fervid smell of coffee rushing out of the canister in her hands. He listened to her push a whisk through milk to fluff it up for him. He thought of Christopher: how easily his mother would have spent twice as many minutes every day fluffing up milk for both of them.

Paul thought again of Margaret. He was sure she would know his shaking dread, if he could explain it to her. He thought over and over the thing that had happened yesterday when the storm had come.  He had been next to Margaret and he had felt a heartbeat either in his hand or his neck or in her hand or her neck—a heartbeat. She would say that the earth’s deep, pitless throb was its heartbeat, even if the rhythm was spaced in such a way that they could not feel it, only because they were inside it. A heartbeat with neither heart nor beat, for all things are veiled and unveiled—the sky, shaking from misted to cloudless, the cold stones and the compost heat, the grapes, the floating poison, the boy dead on the ground, his brother. Paul felt his throat.

He looked out the window. Past the apricots he could see the hills—steaming up in the early sun, pale green fading in the distance to pale blue, where they blended into the sky like watercolors. He could hear the chickens, and the jangling of the horse’s bridle in the paddock. Paul wondered what it would be like to be everything, both wondering and feeling what it would be like to be everything, hill, beast and sky. The hills swelled up and almost breathed, neither asleep nor awake.

This is how it ends: with everything, everything, feeling different to him. 

      Yesterday there had been a terrible sudden storm. Paul had been in front of the house, having found the last kitten dead next to the outdoor sink. He lifted up the kitten, which was soft and wet and only as heavy as an egg, and turned to look down at the garden and the hills to see if he could see his father. He didn’t see his father, but he saw the sky had changed.

A curtain of rain quickened across the far hills—immense, gray, trapezoidal. A tin whirligig flapped haplessly on the balcony in vertiginous circles. A crew of black birds rose from a cedar, cawing, and tilted off over the hills. The rain was coming up fast, ghoulish, bigger than any monster Paul had seen before. He gaped at it.

Paul watched the rain patter up the gravel road, darkening it bit by bit, more terrifying than the darkest night. He needed to be with someone, to find someone with whom he could turn this horror into wonder. He scrambled backwards, ran out his front gate and to the right, towards the shop and caffe at the dip at the center of town, past the small crooked fountain and up the far hill, towards the small white church that stood on the flatness of the hill’s center, surrounded by lowering layers of narrow black-trunked trees. It was a long run up, past the highest houses. Paul’s left arm ached, and his ankle.  He had a jagged stitch in his side. Bits of trees and plants blew over the hills hard enough to knock tiles off roofs or horses to their knees.

The church door was locked. Paul sat on the small stoop, the smell of rain hitting dust rising against his limbs and face. He felt terribly alone. Then his eye caught on, or predicted, almost, a young body coming around the corner of the church. Margaret, of course. 

“Margaret!” he yelled. “We need to get inside!” 

She didn’t ask why. The branches were about to fly off the trees. His panic inflamed her panic. They needed to get out of the storm. The countryside was blowing in around them, erasing them.

They slammed themselves against the doors, which would not open.

They worked frantically at the doors. They battered against them like their wood was made of longing. They slammed their fists against the heavy dark doors and against the rusty hinges, as if they were going to break into the other space. The rain wet their ankles. They were maniacally terrified of the storm. As they pounded at the doors, cracking one a little, tearing at the splinters, they moved into what they would both consider the best kind of meaninglessness, the meaninglessness of oneness, where nothing else needs to be said.

Finally the distance was so thin he broke through and clawed her out. They clawed each other out. They yanked at each other, like wrestling. They yanked each other through the opening they’d made in the door. The splintered door scratched them with its claws. They bled, and they lay on the ground. They waited. The storm ceased—gravel to sugar to nothing but air.

As his terror faded, Paul began to look around. The ground was covered with dim moss. Soft things moved in the corners. What stones there had been had mostly rotted away or washed away. It was different from what he remembered. Maybe it was a house, not a church. They’d all always thought it was a church. Maybe it was a house.

For a little while, Paul thought, this! This was the other space. Where was Christopher, and his mother’s hands? 

But of course when he looked around—there was only Margaret.

The half-circles of sun, modulated with shadow, rocked delicately across the floor. And soon enough Paul felt discomfort. He hated himself—even here, even now, he could not hold up the sliding cielo of dread. He felt fear dangling all around him, dawdling dark shapes that evaded his blind grasp. He began to know that lying here in this space could not be the solution. They were inside something, and interiors must not be the solution, Paul felt deep down in his heart: interiors and burials, even in the richness of blackness, even in this shut space where the air sank down heavier than water or skin and embraced them, even here engulfed in the mantle of this glorious moon.

Meanwhile, the birds flew in and out above them. It was clear when the sunlight struck them that the feathers on their wings were perfect. Their feathers overlapped their feathers gray into milky white, their quills fine as brushstrokes, their bodies firm, their inky black eyes and gnarled feet blooming, their contours elegant and unruined as a pen line on a white page. And Margaret said, “I bet those birds can see the hills.”