In the beginning, there is a stretch of black, punctuated by flashes of light. When the light leaves again, the color beneath my eyelids is blue and sharp. I reach out, feeling for chair legs, something to pull myself up. But the marble is cool and musty, so I give up and lie there, listening to the flip and brush of pages. Out of the darkness, arms grab and swing me up, my legs a ticking clock. His face shatters into wrinkles and smile, and rough hands push the hair away from my eyes.
In the afternoons, Nonno and I sit in the garden. We like to lean against the well, mossy with an iron tang. We watch the gardener cut the tallest grass with a scythe, and he reads to me about the second war of independence. When I get bored, I take the wooden lid off the well and peer inside. I can barely see to the bottom, where my face distorts and pulls, a mirror girl. Absentmindedly, he reaches up and tugs my ankle, pulling me back down.
“Piccola, not there. Tell me who Camillo Cavour was.”
“Because he’s historically significant in understanding Italian unification.”
“Why can’t I look into the well?”
“Oh. Because. Because a little girl, just like you, fell into the well and never came out. Just don’t lean so far in… Giuseppe Garibaldi?” He grabs my nose, laughs, and goes back to his book. The water is flat and black. I look for her, but all I see are flashes of me.
When I wake up, he’s gone. He comes home in the late afternoon, when my nonna is already twisting her fingers and worrying at her rings. He has a gift for me, hidden inside a massive cardboard box. We run away into the bamboo trees, and when he opens the lid, hundreds of snails spill out. I place them one by one on the stalks, and watch as they slip down, leaving behind slick trails.
The candies spill out, clicking over the counter. Each is marked with little black numbers, and I line them up into colors and categories, refracting into a mosaic. Nonno eats the blue ones at breakfast. Nonna Luci has to make him, forcing them through his pursed mouth.
“Why can’t I have one?” I ask. It seems unfair. He won’t eat them, and orange is my favorite. Nonna Luci inhales sharply. Nonno laughs, a laugh that cuts at her face, making it fall.
“These are just for your grandfather.”
“They’re special candies.”
“Why does he get special candies?”
“He needs them.” My nonna’s face is flushed and red, particularly around the eyes. I continue, even though I know they must be bad, that these candies don’t taste good.
Mom clutches my hand and squeezes just tight enough that I stop.
The orange ones are for after lunch, and he eats three of them with a tall glass of water. My nonna stand behind him and tries to speak to me, but I can see her watching the path each candy makes from hand to mouth. Sometimes he hides them in his pockets, maybe for later. I don’t know when he eats the white ones. I’m not there.
We go back to Bologna for the summer. In the taxi, Dad pushes his fingers, taut and white, over the leather seat. The gates open, and my nonna strains out the window like a demented Juliet, calling my name. The house is very cold. Nonno’s study is closed. Mom helps me unpack my new bag. It’s blue, and has bunny ears on top. I leave it in my room, because it’s new and I don’t want to make it sad yet. We drive out to a new house, where Nonno lives now. It’s in the country, and filled with other old people in wicker chairs lining the walls. When he sees me, he tries to get out of his wheelchair, and a nurse guides him back down. Dad takes the handles of the chair, and the three of us go for a walk.
“Do you like the new home?” Dad’s face has this new tint to it. It’s still ruddy, with the little lines intersecting, but all of a sudden there is a quivering, as though his face could slip, and beneath it would be something entirely new.
“I like your new nurse. She seems…capable.”
“Papa.” Daddy’s eyes, then his whole body, seem to collapse in.
“Go a little faster, will you?”
The road is sharp and winding, and Nonno shouts to go faster, faster. Dad starts to run, and I sprint, but the wind stings my eyes and I can’t keep up. He’s steering the wheelchair like a racecar, over gravel and twigs and roots. Nonno yells to Dad, tells him to let go, but he keeps a taut grip on the chair, and
together they fly past the trees, out of sight.
I go back to Italy to help get Nonna ready before she leaves the house. She’s moving to a smaller one, something more manageable than a crumbling façade and sprawling garden. I pack up the things I want before we shutter it, just some books and a Madonna from the kitchen. When she goes out to the store, I wait until I hear the crunch of gravel and the clang of the front gate, then try the knob to his study. The heavy doors stick, then suddenly split open. It is still dark and hazy, and particles of dust hang suspended in the crack of yellow light from the window. I open the glass a little more and lie down on the musty floor, listening for the sound of the wind, and the way it makes the pages flip.
For Carlo Scarpa
Carlo, how you played the card of
artifice. You knew only of the
ancient, the gold seam in the stone, the primordial
Expert stonemason, crafter of
tricks. You built
watery geometry, stairs under circle.
The seam of a square extends and
touches the wall.
You returned, not
under pork and cabbage, through wet
tomb, but down a flight of
Sendai. You beat
time, the lean line of history.
You rest in a column in Brion, in
St. Mark’s. The concrete
cracks. A hand extends.