The Art of Joy
By Goliarda Sapienza, Anne Milano Appel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2013 Angelo Pellegrino, The Estate of Goliarda Sapienza
All rights reserved.
I'm four or five years old, in a muddy place, dragging a huge piece of wood. There are no trees or houses around. Only me, sweating, as I struggle to drag that rough log, my palms burning, scraped raw by the wood. I sink into the mud up to my ankles but I have to keep tugging. I don't know why, but I have to. Let's leave this early memory of mine just as it is: I don't want to correct or invent things. I want to tell you how it was without changing anything.
So, I was dragging that piece of wood. And after hiding it or leaving it behind, I entered a large opening in the wall, closed off only by a black curtain swarming with flies. Now I'm in the dark room where we slept and where we ate bread and olives, bread and onions. We cooked only on Sundays. My mother is sewing in a corner, her eyes wide in silence. She never speaks, my mother. She either shouts or keeps quiet. Her heavy fall of black hair is matted with flies. My sister, sitting on the ground, stares at her from two dark slits buried in folds of fat. All her life, at least as long as their lives lasted, my sister tracked her constantly, staring at her that way. And if my mother went out – which happened rarely – she had to lock her in the toilet, because my sister wouldn't hear of being separated from her. Locked in that little room my sister would scream, tear her hair and bang her head against the wall until my mother came back, took her in her arms and silently stroked her.
For years I'd heard her scream like that without paying any attention to it, until one day, tired of dragging that wood, lying on the ground and hearing her scream, I felt a kind of sweetness spreading through my body. A sweetness that then became shivers of pleasure, so that little by little, I began to hope each day that my mother would go out so that I could listen, ear pressed to the toilet door, and take pleasure from those screams.
When it happened, I would close my eyes and imagine that my sister was tearing her flesh, harming herself. And so, touching myself in the spot where pee-pee comes out, my hands urged on by the screams, I discovered a pleasure greater than that of eating freshly baked bread, or fruit.
My mother said that my sister Tina – 'the cross that God justly sent us because of your father's evil ways' – was twenty years old. But she was only as tall as me, and so fat that, if you could remove her head, she would look like the trunk that Nonno always kept locked. Nonno, who had been a seaman, was 'even more wicked than his son'. I had no idea what a seaman did. Tuzzu said they were men who lived on ships and went to sea ... but what was the sea?
Tina looked just like Nonno's trunk, and when I was bored I would close my eyes and lop off her head. Since she was twenty years old and female, all females at twenty must surely become like her, or like my mother. For males it was different: Tuzzu was tall and had no missing teeth like Tina; his were strong and white, like the summer sky when you get up early to bake bread. His father was like him too: vigorous, with teeth that shone like Tuzzu's when he laughed. He was always laughing, Tuzzu's father. Our mother never laughed, and this too must have been because she was a female. But even though she never laughed and had no teeth, I hoped to turn out like her; at least she was tall and her eyes were large and gentle, and she had black hair. Tina didn't even have hair: just a few thin strands that Mama combed out trying to cover the top of that egg.
The screams have stopped. Mama must be back, hushing Tina by stroking her head. Who knows if Mama too has discovered how much pleasure you can feel by touching yourself in that spot? And Tuzzu, I wonder if Tuzzu knows? He must be harvesting reeds.
The sun is high. I have to go look for him and ask him about this touching, and about the sea too. Will he still be there?
The light makes my eyes burn. Whenever I leave the room, the light always burns my eyes; when I go inside though, the darkness blinds me. The heat has let up and the mountains have turned black as Mama's hair again. The mountains always turn black as her hair when the heat lets up, but when the heat intensifies they turn blue, like the Sunday dress that Mama is sewing for Tina. Dresses for her all the time, and ribbons too! Even white shoes, she bought her. For me, nothing. 'You have your health, figlia mia, my dresses are good enough for you if I shorten them. What do you need dresses for, when you have your health? Give thanks to God, instead of complaining, give thanks to God!' She's always talking about this God, but if you ask her to explain, not a word: 'Pray to Him to protect you and that's that! What else do you want to know? Pray to Him, that's all.'
The heat has really lessened and the air is fresh. In a short time the mud has dried up and the wind has died down; the reed bed is still, and isn't screeching like it was yesterday. I have to look closely: wherever the reeds are stirring, that's where Tuzzu is.
'What are you doing there like a silly ninny? Catching flies?'
'I was looking for you, and I'm not a silly ninny! I came looking for you. Are you finished?'
'No, I'm not done. I'm taking a rest. And smoking a cigarette. Are you blind, besides being a halfwit like your sister? Can't you see I'm lying in the shade with a cigarette in my mouth?'
'So now you smoke? I never saw you smoke before.'
'Of course I smoke. I started two days ago. It was about time, right?'
He shut up and took the cigarette out of his mouth. He wouldn't talk anymore now. Whenever Tuzzu shut his mouth he wouldn't open it again for hours, so his father said. And if he used to do that before, imagine, now that he smoked! How grown up he looked lying there like that! Had he gotten bigger, or was it the cigarette that made him look older? How can I talk to him now that he's so grown up? He'll laugh in my face and say I'm a silly little baby, like he always does. All I could do was sit near him and keep quiet. At least I could look at him. I looked at him a long time and I'm looking at him now: his sun-darkened face was scored by two huge, limpid wounds – certainly not eyes – which wept a deep, cool blue water. I watched the assured way he brought the cigarette to his mouth and then took it out, the way his father did.
That self-assurance made me shiver.
No, he wouldn't talk to me anymore, and maybe he wouldn't even let me watch him anymore. The thought made me feel so cold that I had to close my eyes and lie down, because my head was spinning like the time I had a fever. I closed my eyes and waited for him to pass sentence. He wouldn't even let me watch him anymore.
'What are you doing, scimuzza, falling asleep, you little silly?'
'No, I'm not sleeping. I was thinking.'
'Oh, you mean you think too? A silly scimuzza who thinks, huh! What were you thinking about? May I have the honour of knowing?'
'I was thinking of asking you ...'
'What? Come on, tell me! A chicken about to have its neck wrung – that's what you look like! What is it? Talk!'
'Oh, nothing ... nothing. I wanted to ask you what the sea is.'
'Not again! Enough about this sea! Thick-headed, you are! I've explained it to you a hundred times. A hundred times! The sea is a vast stretch of water as deep as the water in the well between our farm and that hovel you live in. Only it's blue, and no matter where you look you can't see where it ends. What more do you want to know! Locca, a crazy fool, that's what you are! And even if you weren't locca, females, as my father says, have never understood a thing, not since the world began.
'But I do understand: water deep as the one in the well, only blue.'
'Brava! Congratulations! So, stand up and look around! Do you see the chiana, the plain around us? What's the name of this plain, huh? Let's see if you're capable of learning.'
'This plain is the Chiana del Bove.'
'Well then, the sea is a plain of blue water, but without the mountains of lava that we see out there. When we look at the sea's expanse, we don't see anything out there, nothing that limits our view, or rather, we see a thin line that is nothing more than the sea merging with the sky. And that line is called the horizon.'
'What's a horizon?'
'I just told you: it's where the vast stretch of blue water ends there at the sky. Way out there, where the eye can't reach.'
'A stretch of water blue as your eyes that meet the sky of your forehead.'
'Just look at that, what a thought! A troubadour, that's you. I swear to God, you're like a troubadour! What happened? Did you tumble out of bed this morning? Is that why you're having such poetic thoughts?'
'And you, did you tumble out of bed this morning, is that why you're smoking like a grown-up? You smoke and I'll ... can I look at your eyes? If I look at them, I'll have a better idea of what the sea is like.'
'Go ahead! Who said you couldn't? If it gives you so much pleasure to know what the sea is like, go right ahead. It must give you a lot of pleasure, seeing how you're blushing. You're cute, even if you're locca. Really cute! Who knows who knocked up your mother?'
'A man of course, and a seaman too, from what she says.'
'So, now we're being funny. What happened? The last time you were like a mummy! What happened? Did you wake up all of a sudden last night?'
'Yes, I woke up, and not last night. I wanted to ask you about that too ...'
'What? How should I know about your waking up! Go ask your mother. The sea is one thing but ... Hey, you're red as a beet. Have you been drinking? What else did you want to ask? Tell me, and stop staring at me! Enough! I'm tired of this. So help me God, all this staring is making my head spin. You have beautiful eyes up close like this. I hadn't noticed before. Honey, that's what they look like ... who knows who knocked up your mother? I'm going back to work now. Enough of this! Hey! Why are you holding me like that? Are you out of your head?'
The heat was rising again, the earth was steaming and the mountains receded, blue again. I couldn't let him get away, I had to ask him why – when I was watching him before, and now that I was holding his arm – why I felt that urge to touch myself in the spot where ...
'What kind of question is that to ask! At your age! You're a scourge! My father is right: a scourge! Aren't you ashamed of yourself?'
'Why should I be ashamed? I discovered it myself. Nobody told me, so it must mean that everyone knows about it.'
'Good for you! What logic! Watch out, picciridda! Let go of my arm, little girl, or you'll be sorry. You're making me lose my temper, watch it!'
'Why should I watch out? I'm not scared of you, and you have to answer me. So answer me, did you know about it?'
'Of course I knew about it! What do you take me for, a dunce? I'm a man and if you don't let me go, I'll touch you myself and we'll make a frittata.'
'So let's make this frittata. I'm not scared! You're the one who's scared. Some man you are! You're all shaky.'
He had pulled away and was getting up. Strangely, I had no strength left in my arms, but when I saw him standing there picking up his coppola without looking at me, I rolled on the ground, unable to get up, and grabbed his ankles with both my arms. I was afraid he might kick me but instead, cap in hand, he first leaned down with his hands out as if to push me aside, then dropped to his knees and fell on top of me. His eyes were closed. Had he hurt himself falling? Had he fainted? An eternity went by. I didn't dare say anything. I was afraid he would get off of me. Besides, even if I had wanted to, I didn't have the energy even to move my lips now. That strange languor was unfamiliar to me, a sweet lassitude, awash with shivers that kept me afloat. Behind my back a precipice had surely opened up, making me dizzy, but those shivers kept me suspended in space. I opened my eyes and heard my voice saying, 'Now I know what the sea is like.'
He didn't answer. Staring at me without moving, he pulled down my skirt, lifted my petticoat and tore off my panties. He didn't move, but with his fingers, continuing to stare at me, he began to stroke me just like I did when Tina screamed. Abruptly he turned his face away with a shudder. Was he leaving?
'No, I'm here. Where do you think I'm going? This is where I should be now.'
Reassured, I closed my eyes. Tina was screaming, and my whole body was shaken by those tremors I knew so well. Then the stroking went so deep that ... what was he doing? I looked at him. He had spread my legs, and he sank his face between my thighs, caressing me with his tongue. Of course I wouldn't have known if I hadn't looked at him. That was something I couldn't do by myself. This thought made me shudder so deeply that Tina's screams were silenced, and I was the one screaming loudly, louder than she cried out when Mama locked her in the toilet ... Had I fainted or had I fallen asleep? When I opened my eyes there was a profound silence in the chiana.
'We have to stop here now, bambinella. Even though you're a naughty little girl, I don't want to ruin you. Put on your panties and scram. Just be thankful I managed to get my head straight after you made me lose control. Oh, you really made me lose my head, so help me God. Who would have thought it? You're tempting, really tempting, but I don't want to ruin you. On your feet, beat it!'
I got up and put on my panties, but I didn't run off, even though his voice was gruff and he wouldn't look at me. It wasn't like before. I wasn't scared of him anymore, and I didn't even say goodbye. I walked home slowly, teetering from fatigue and the recollection of those tremors that made me stumble at every step. It had been beautiful.
The earlier stroking seemed like day-old bread compared to Tuzzu's caresses. I had been right to ask Tuzzu. He knew everything, and although he got a little angry, he answered. Even now, staring at that lopsided wall that Mama called a house, I knew that beyond the distant mountains that appeared and disappeared like the spirits of the dead there were other, real houses, and roads, and the sea.
The old woman who came once a month always talked about the spirits ... She must be coming today or tomorrow, that old woman. She must be because this morning Mama fired the oven and made bread. Mama always makes bread when the old woman comes, and along with the bread she bakes cookies that she then serves with rosolio.
I can hear talking behind the curtain. It must be the old woman with her bag full of rags that Mama will later sew together side by side.
Pushing aside the black curtain, I stood in the doorway, frozen. Right there in front of me, sitting at the table as if waiting for me, was a tall, vigorous man, taller and more vigorous than Tuzzu's father. A giant with a mass of tangled hair falling over his forehead and a blue jacket in a shiny, furry fabric I had never seen. He was staring at me, smiling, with eyes as blue as his jacket. His teeth were white like Tuzzu's and his father's.
'Well, well, just look at what a fine piece of skirt my daughter turns out to be! I'm happy, truly pleased! I was sure your mother would produce nothing but Tinas. I'm delighted to see that it's not so, my darling daughter. It's a great satisfaction to see the flesh of your flesh turn into such a striking bit of skirt like you.'
'Stop it! Don't talk that way. Leave Modesta alone! She's not a piece of skirt. She's still a child, a little girl! Get out of here! I've been telling you that all evening. Get out, go away or I'll call the police!'
'Listen to her! The police! And where do you think you'll find them? Around the corner? Go ahead, go! Run down to the chiana, it'll do you good! You've turned into a fat cow. Look at me, what a fine figure I am. I've run all my life!'
Saying this, he stood up to his full height, tapping his robust chest and hips that revealed not a trace of fat. After twirling around to display himself, he came toward me, laughing. His voice was soft like the fabric of his jacket. I had never touched a fabric like that. He took my chin in his hands and stared at me, still laughing.
'You're tall, too, and round and red like a pomegranate.' (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Art of Joy by Goliarda Sapienza, Anne Milano Appel. Copyright © 2013 Angelo Pellegrino, The Estate of Goliarda Sapienza. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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