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Tana

The rain began that morning. Tana was coming home from school. Thursday afternoons they had sewing class, and now on the bus, she realized this was the first day she'd left school in the dark. It would go on like this for months. It was cold out, raining, and the bus, jammed with boys and girls, with students, was steaming hot. The windows were fogged up; someone had managed to pry one open, and Tana, already sweaty, was freezing. She thought: I might get sick, stay home a week. She didn’t try to get out of the draft; she didn’t protest. The rain hit her face, her eyes. It hadn’t rained in a while and the city and air were full of dust. She felt the rain burning against her face, her eyes. The bus was incredibly noisy, but so much noise filled Tana’s head that all the passengers seemed to be opening their mouths with no sound coming out; they were laughing silently.  She remembered reading in the encyclopedia about a South American Indian tribe that lived surrounded by ferocious enemies; as a result, the men and women hardly ever spoke and the rare times they did was just to whisper in each other’s ear; they bandaged the children's mouths until they learned the rules; they cut the hunting dogs' vocal chords with special, long, sharp knives. That way their enemies didn't hear a sound. Everyone in the village moved with extreme caution, with silent steps. They didn't build fires. Maybe, Tana thought, it wasn't even a real village: each person had a cloak, and that cloak over his head was home. Shut up in his house, the person from a distance must have looked exactly like a bare shrub, or the torn-up roots of a rotten fallen tree, or some rejected animal carcass. Something no one was interested in. To avoid any cooking smells, the animals they killed they ate raw, and they ate every last bit, down to the last bone and shred of skin, down to the last feather, not leaving even a trace behind. Maybe the tribe never gathered together; each of them wandered alone in the dense, dripping forest, wives and husbands meeting only now and then, always in different places, always on days set according to different rules. Though often, just to be safe, they didn't meet at all. Or more likely, a man wandered the forest, leaving it to luck or to the gods if he met a woman, and if he did, then she would be his wife, and if he met a man, then that man would be a friend or foe. It was her stop: Tana jumped up. At first the mass of students seemed to strain to hold her back, but then it pushed her out with more force than she expected. She stumbled onto the sidewalk, stunned. She opened her umbrella too late; rain ran down her hair and neck. There was an electric clock above the bus-stop sign: instead of the usual twenty minutes the trip had taken almost an hour .

Tana was shivering. Her backpack felt heavy; her arm holding the umbrella was already so tired, it ached. Her clothes were ice-cold. Let's hope I get sick this time, she thought. Tonight I'll have some broth from yesterday's stewed meat, nice and hot, with bread. And I'll have a little wine to bring on a fever. I'll put on two pairs of pajamas and an extra blanket so I'll sweat a lot. I want to stay in bed a week—I want to stay in bed so long I'll think my bed's disgusting from then on. Tana was walking slowly, almost blind, her umbrella over her face to protect her from the burning rain. She made no effort to avoid the puddles: good, she thought, I'll get even sicker. And I can always have as many shoes as I want. The passing cars splattered her thighs. Her shoes had come untied; her flowered leggings were soaked; her heavy-cloth jacket stank like a wet dog. Tana took the side street; she could barely make out the traffic light at the end, only some fifty meters away. She saw the angel just as she crossed the street by the traffic light. What she really saw was a pile of feathers, a sort of ball pressed up against the lowered shutter to the grocery shop. The shop's glass front came in slightly, by a half-meter, so those feathers were at least a little protected from the rain. You could tell they were white feathers, but they were filthy with rain and mud. The mud was blackish-red and made Tana think of blood. She approached carefully, holding her open umbrella in front of her, ready to defend herself. What Tana saw was like an enormous bird, but as she circled at a slight distance, there was a very pale, helpless foot poking out from under the cover of the wings. She came forward and saw that the pile of feathers was jerking slightly, an erratic, uncontrollable tremor. She came closer and tried to speak. She didn't know what to say. She said, “What’s the matter?” in more of a whisper than she liked, and at once she thought “What’s the matter?” was a really stupid thing to say. But what should she say, then? She came even closer, shifted the umbrella to her left hand, stretched out her right, and touched the pile of feathers; she leaned over the top. The pile jolted, the wing moved slightly, and underneath Tana saw some blond hair smeared with rain and dust. She tried to pull the wing aside—it resisted a little—and there was a face with closed eyes. She touched the angel's forehead, which was cold but not freezing-cold. That forehead didn't move under her touch. Once again Tana said, “What’s the matter?” but there was no answer. Then she said: “Can you get up?” and the mass of feathers answered with an uncertain shudder. That must mean no, she decided, and she closed her umbrella, slipped it through the loop on her backpack, and she lifted the angel, reaching into the feathers, raising him by the armpits. It didn't take much effort, even if her backpack threw her off balance. The angel was much bigger than she was but not that heavy. Tana tucked her shoulder under the angel's left armpit, put her right arm around the angel's waist, then his shoulders, and with her left hand gripped his left arm. From below, she looked up at the angel's face, at his eyes, which seemed slightly open. She said, “Come on—you can do it,” and they started off.

The angel kept nearly falling, but then right when they were both ready to tumble onto the flooded sidewalk, he'd take a step. Tana's condo was the fifth one on the left, just before the levee. The street was empty. The houses had their sliding shutters pulled down to keep out the rain. Tana announced at the intercom, “It's me,” and she pushed the angel into the elevator. She leaned him up against the elevator mirror and let go. She dropped her backpack. At her floor, she helped the angel into the apartment, dragging her backpack behind her. She quickly got the angel to her room and shut the door. Her mother was shouting something from outside the door; Tana shouted back that she was soaked through, that she was changing and then she'd take a hot bath and go to bed, she didn't feel well, didn't want anything to eat, she just wanted to be left alone. When Tana shouted like that, her mother never insisted on coming in or saying what she had to say. Her mother was the only one home at this hour. Her father and Sergio nearly always came in together, at eight, and tonight they'd be even later. Tana positioned the angel on the floor, propped up against the bed. Open, his wings were huge. The angel’s eyes were still closed, but while she was moving him, it felt like he was trying to help. She took off her shoes and tossed her soaked jacket over the chair; she stood there thinking, then opened the shuttered wardrobe door, and standing behind it, she peeled off her leggings, ankle socks, and undershirts and tossed them on the floor; she put on her heavy blue sweater and gray sweat pants. She was searching for her slippers under the bed and heard the angel take a deep breath. He hadn't moved. Tana cracked the door open—the way was clear—and praying no one would see, she quickly steered the angel to the bathroom that she shared with her mother.  She set him on the edge of the tub, his left shoulder against the wall, wings tucked in, legs facing out to keep him from falling. Without her help, he'd just be gripping the tub for support. His hands were very white. She didn't dare look him in the eye. The angel's head was down on his chest, like someone bobbing asleep on a train. Tana turned on the hot water and started washing the angel's wings with the shower hose. The angel wasn't what she expected. He was almost what you saw in Catechism pictures, but not quite. His wings weren't attached at the back, from the shoulder blades, but from the same place as the arms, though the arms rotated like a man's arms and the wings seemed hinged to rotate toward one another, then backward. And they weren't bird feathers: they were flesh, like very slender tongues, the skin paler and thicker than normal skin, rougher. The angel had on a sleeveless white tunic—but filthy—that came down almost to his feet, with slits up the sides to the knees. She ran the jet of warm water over his wings, scrubbing them with a sponge; she wasn't entirely sure what she was doing, but maybe he was chilled through, even suffering from hypothermia, and she had a feeling his wings were his weak spot: they were so much paler than his face or arms.

In a short time, the wings started moving, seemed to be stretching, and the tongues of flesh were rising, letting the warm water penetrate beneath; the skin below was no longer pale; it was bright pink, the web of capillaries pulsing: this didn't seem like skin; it was more like—and Tana had also read this in the encyclopedia at home—like an internal membrane. The tongues of flesh were captivating as they rose and fell, row by row, like a wave, the wings moving only slightly, as though the angel, checking to see that they still worked, was afraid to bend them any further. These wings were fascinating, almost a live thing on their own, and then seeing the pink beneath the tongues, Tana thought of her own tongue in her mouth, and she was suddenly filled with disgust, and she turned away from the wings; she raised her head to see the angel staring back at her over his shoulder, and she was afraid. The angel had red eyes. One of her classmates, Maria, had a mother with eyes like that: she was an albino with white hair and skin so transparent it was disgusting. The angel was staring at Tana, staring, his eyes steady and confident, and she didn't expect this at all; she thought he'd be afraid, shy, keep his eyes down; but he was shamelessly staring, eyes narrowed, as if to get her into better focus, with no shyness whatsoever, and no curiosity, no gratitude, either. Tana was frightened. She dropped the shower hose and ran to her room. She felt like crying; her head was spinning. What now? What now? she thought. The angel might be dangerous, cruel, she thought. With those red eyes, he might even be a demon. But then she thought how stupid it was—being afraid of an angel. And what if her mother went into the bathroom and saw him, she thought, and her stomach clenched with fear. She cracked open the bedroom door and no one was out there. She slipped into the hall; she hadn't shut the door to the bathroom all the way when she ran to her room. She peeked in: the angel was sitting with his legs in the tub, methodically washing his feet. She watched him, wondering why she'd been so afraid: there was nothing to be afraid of; it was stupid to think the angel had to be like she'd always imagined. She watched the angel, admiring how he took care of himself; he seemed perfectly capable, and she felt disappointed, then ashamed of herself for being disappointed. Of course an angel knew how to take care of himself and could wash his own feet. And Tana knew how completely wrong it would be to keep thinking the angel needed her help. She could offer her help, and she had, but she also needed to know when to stop. Feeling better, she went back to her room; she'd leave the angel alone. But she left the door partway open so he wouldn't think she was rejecting him. Her head seemed to be clearing; she felt brave and secure.

Just then, she heard her father and brother in the entranceway: when the weather was bad, they'd arranged that Tana's father always picked up Sergio. Her father worked in a shoe store and two years earlier had found Sergio a job in the store where he'd worked years before and was still friends with the boss. He'd never come get me, Tana thought. Her father and Sergio had never liked each other much, but they'd bonded since Sergio started in the same job. They were colleagues; they felt important and special. At night, the only thing they seemed to talk about was shoes; Tana couldn't stand either one of them. Sometimes she thought she should figure out a way to team up more with her mother so they could face the two males together, like women had to. But it seemed as though her mother had decided the only way to get the men to think of her at all was to serve them with absolute devotion, and that left no room for Tana. All of this came to her as she heard Sergio and her father returning home, and she realized she'd never find an ally in this apartment, or any place for an angel. They'd never even notice him, she thought. She heard her father and Sergio speaking, and she could hear that their voices were strange. She couldn't make out their words, couldn't tell what they were saying; their tone sounded sharp; they were almost shouting; but she had no idea if they were happy or upset; their voices were like a 33 LP set to play like a 45. Tana looked down the hall, and her father and Sergio were running around at high speed—just like their voices—not like people hurrying but like characters in a revved-up film. They were racing in and out of their bedrooms, the kitchen, their bathroom, moving so fast they jerked. They were doing what they always did when they came home at night; Sergio, always so fussy about what he wore at work, was taking off his shoes and putting on his sweatsuit; they both were washing up: but it was as if they had to push themselves to do the usual things; it took an exaggerated effort; as if, Tana thought, they had to put in their whole life's effort, the effort of every single cell. Now they sounded happy, but she still couldn't understand. She stepped into the hall and came toward them. They didn't even see her. Different expressions kept flashing across their faces, across her mother's face, and Tana couldn't make out any of them. Their faces were like those claymation figures she'd seen in the bitters commercial. She went into the kitchen; the red table cloth appeared on the table along with four plates, and she automatically sat down at her usual place. Her mother, father, and Sergio were eating in a frenzy, as though they hadn't eaten for a year. Tana sat still, dazed; at one point she felt her arm being steadily tapped, it was her mother, and she realized her mother was saying something in that new incomprehensible language, probably trying to get her to eat. But she barely had time to think this before the tablecloth vanished, her mother clearing off everything, racing, tossing the plates into the sink like a juggler tossing tennis balls or colored pins, not breaking a thing.

Tana got up from the table—she hadn't eaten—and she went back and slipped open the bathroom door: the angel, looking satisfied, was studying his feet, clean now, washed and warm, a lovely rose color. Water sparkled in his soft, blond curls. He’d managed to clean up his tunic a little. He looked more dignified and seemed very strong. Tana took comfort in this. When she opened the bathroom door all the way, the angel looked up, got to his feet, and smiled at her, not a friendly smile, she thought, more satisfied than friendly, but at least he was smiling, and she said, “You want to eat?” The angel said, “Yes,” without so much as a “thank you,” but he spoke so quickly that Tana thought: He's starving; and his voice sounded uncertain, still weak, without the force that seemed to fill his body and wings. Tana took the angel by the hand and led him to the kitchen. Her father and Sergio were watching TV in the living room, leaping up, constantly shifting positions on the couch, and speaking in their new shrill voices, probably about shoes; her mother was in her usual spot in the kitchen in front of the smaller TV, her chair turned so she could rest her left elbow on the table, her chin in her hand; the TV was flashing, but Tana could see it was the usual soap opera, and her mother was asleep like always, and she'd only wake up at the end when the commercials came on at a higher volume, and she'd curse about missing yet another half-episode and come up with a hundred theories about what had happened while she slept—though really, Tana thought, nothing ever happened on that soap opera: phone calls went on for hours when the old man was dying, everyone fighting over the money, with him in agony for maybe twenty episodes. Tana sat the angel down at the table; she took the small pot of broth from the fridge and started heating it up; she sliced some of the leftover bread, threw out the crumbs, and pushed the slices down into the big bowl she'd had since she was little and miraculously never broken, not even one of the handles; she emptied the grated-cheese container over the bread, then poured in the warm broth and slid the bowl toward the angel. The angel was staring at her the whole time. Tana had a cat some years back that stared at her in the same way, from a distance but paying very close attention while she prepared its food in a small bowl. Meanwhile her mother had woken up, turned off the TV, told her a few things in that new voice of hers which Tana didn't need to understand, and then sat down in her same spot to mend some socks. She's going so fast, Tana thought, she’s going to prick her finger, but her mother didn't prick her finger. And Tana tried to avoid looking at her mother, and her father, too, when he came into the kitchen for a match to light his cigarette; Tana sat facing the angel, trying to concentrate on him alone. The angel was slowly sipping the broth, taking a big spoonful, pausing quite a while, taking another; then he began to scoop up the bread at the bottom of the bowl, and she realized he was trying to get it all up at once without tearing the pieces apart.

The broth smelled nice and hot; Tana was extremely hungry, but she knew this wasn't the right time, not now. She watched the angel set the spoon on his plate and raise the bowl for the last drop. When he set the bowl down, he gave her another satisfied smile. His eyes seemed a little less red now, or maybe the red was a little less piercing and raw, as if the broth's warm vapor had dimmed his eyes, softened them. He must have been really cold, Tana thought, even on the inside. She recalled being achy and cold and how satisfying it was to wash herself warm, eat warm, cover herself back up in wool. She asked the angel: “What's your name?” The angel said: “Roberta.” Tana didn't know what to think; on the one hand, the angel had been quite comfortable saying “Roberta,” as if “Roberta” was the exact right name for an angel; she looked at the angel, at that simple, unmarked face, like the face of a child, without a trace of beard; but the tunic fell straight from the chest, and though the face was childish, it was definitely a male face, and those arms on the table were male arms (but they weren't resting on the table like arms do, Tana thought, they were more like two things the angel didn't need just then), and she'd seen the angel's feet in the bathroom and they were big, male feet. She forced herself to answer: “My name's Tana, but Tana’s really short for Gaetana. I've been Tana since I was little, though, and didn't really know how to talk—” She suddenly stopped: the angel looked bored; she stopped and thought: Why am I telling him this? A name's a name. He didn't ask me mine. His is Roberta; she looked at him, embarrassed, and he was staring back at her with no expression, just watching with the faintest hint of expectation—not that he wanted something, more like he was available—she didn't fully understand and just kept staring. Her family must have gone to bed, she hadn't noticed, but now she remembered that while the angel was eating, she felt something brush against her right cheek, and then her father hurried away; he kissed her every night, if she didn't shut herself up in her room first to avoid that kiss—it was so humiliating, like she was a child—but tonight she hadn't noticed, hadn't realized she'd been kissed. She led the angel back to her room, pulled her pajamas out from under her pillow, turned down the covers to her bed (which was a three-quarter bed, because ever since she was little she'd tossed so much in her sleep she kept falling on the floor, so they got her this wider bed a few years back), and she gestured to the angel that he should “make himself comfortable,” though she didn't dare say a word, and then she fled to the bathroom. She studied herself in the mirror: she was still filthy, her hair smeared with dirt, her eyes tired. What little makeup she'd put on had run down her cheeks. She was shivering. In the bathtub, she washed herself thoroughly, then sank down in the hot water to warm up some more; she was also hoping the angel had settled in and gone to sleep. But then she started worrying that while she was shut up in the bathroom, the angel might take the opportunity to leave, and she splashed out of the tub, wrapped herself in a big towel, and leaned out to check: the angel was sleeping on top of the blankets, using his wings as a pillow and also to cover himself up a little. She felt calmer and went back to the bathroom, dried her hair, and slipped into her pajamas that she'd laid over the radiator to warm. The angel was fast asleep on the side of the bed closest to the wall; Tana slipped under the covers, turned off the light, closed her eyes.

Tana, eyes closed, was thinking about the angel's sex organ. She hadn't realized it, that this was what she was thinking about, until the angel said his name. Maybe he'd said it on purpose, and it wasn't even his real name. A few months ago, at the end of June, she and a group of around fifteen others, boys and girls, had taken mopeds to Camin's pit, just outside town. The sun was hot, but Tana was cold, even though she had on a light sweater and was sitting behind on the moped and out of the wind. It only took ten minutes to get to the pit. The water was gray and still. The pit had been dug two years earlier, for the new beltway, and then no one filled it in. And so it stayed. The road was a few meters away, hidden by the line of trees. There was grass, some bushes. The pit was somewhat forbidden because apparently there were weirdoes wandering around. And sometimes drifters set up camp but never for more than a few days. A few posted signs read, “No swimming allowed.” It was filthy behind the bushes. At the height of summer, a lot of people came, and the city council sent workers in once a week to clean, even though, theoretically, no swimming was allowed. At this time of year no one came, so no one came to clean. There was also some netting around the whole area, including a small ditch, but the netting was half torn down and someone had found a couple of good places to lay boards across the ditch. The boys and girls knew that over there all you had to do was slip behind a bush or cover yourselves up with a towel, and you could make love, and no one would say a word. One boy threw the idea out there, and then all the boys were racing not to be last, as they stripped and jumped into the water. They splashed around a bit, the water just up to their waists (it was only deep in the middle of the pit), and then they climbed up the bank of the pit, looking slightly blue and numb. They made excuses about having to dry off, and so they stood in front of the girls sitting on the bank. One girl was shocked and screamed and went off to sit by herself, her back to the boys. The boys stood with their hands on their hips, shivering, their genitals just at eyelevel. All the boys were thin and beautiful, at least Tana thought so. The boy closest to her, who went to a technical school, she'd only seen a few times before in the group. She moved over a little without getting up, so she could see better.

The boy turned slightly toward her. A patch of hair rose from his groin, thinning, disappearing toward his belly button. His chest was smooth, white, with just a few long hairs twisting around the nipples. Tana looked down at that thing dangling in the clump of dark hair. It seemed weak, strange. She raised her right hand and touched it with one finger, and she saw it jolt. She pulled her hand back; the thing was swelling. The boy shifted just a little closer. Tana held her hand out straight and slightly cupped so she could lift that thing and see the semi-hidden testicles, and she felt it rise on its own, still swelling, growing stiff, and on the tip, there was an opening in the skin, and a purple stain. Tana kept staring, amazed, at this thing in her hand, watching it change, and she felt the boy's hand from above, touching her neck, pushing down, trying to get her closer. Tana let go; she drew back, scrambled to her feet; she stood there staring back and forth at all the boys; she didn't know what to do.  Then the boys put their clothes on, silently, and they all went back to the piazza. The boy Tana had touched tried to get her to climb on the back of his moped, but she kept her distance. A few days later, he called (one of the others must have given him her number) and calmly suggested that they go out next Saturday; his parents would be gone until Sunday night. They could go to the movies and then she could come over; he'd make them some dinner and get them something to drink, some cigarettes. Tana listened, and then she hurled as many insults at him as she could, calling him every name she knew, and even some she didn't. She saw him a few more times in the piazza but always avoided him. Once while she was out, she turned around to see him laughing and talking with two other boys, and she could feel them watching her. She screamed something after him, and the boys started laughing until her friend pulled her away. They slipped into a coffee bar, and the girl said she really didn't understand Tana: she was really an idiot not to go out with him, this girl had actually tried, but he didn’t give a shit, and all the other girls there told her he was really a good guy, he always paid, and he always had a rubber, and they'd have fun together. Tana, lying in bed with her eyes closed, the angel breathing beside her, remembered what she'd decided that day: that god had been especially cruel to men and women, giving them this awful reproductive system, jumbling up the organs, so those organs that gave the greatest pleasure, the parts concentrated on love, were all mixed together with the most disgusting parts; and so, ever since the pit, her vagina was disgusting to her, and she stopped touching herself, stopped masturbating, though she still felt desire—sometimes at night, a raging desire—and more disgusting yet was that with this desire came the boy, standing there naked, and he was beautiful, gorgeous, whatever she touched she was touching him, and she saw the two dark stains of his nipples, and in her hand, that flesh, soft at first, then swelling, enormous, and the purple stain opened, there was a sour smell—Tana, during her nights, forced herself to look at that reddened flesh, which, if she kept imagining long enough, suddenly threw out a jet of yellow, foul-smelling, never-ending urine; she felt it gushing out, that urine, with its rotten smell, felt it wet on her body, lukewarm, revolting, she even tasted it in her mouth, and it was only then, thanks to this remedy, that the image faded, her desire grew indistinct, weaker, then almost disappeared, and Tana stopped feeling and lost herself to sleep. 

Now Tana turned on the small lamp, and rolled over to look at the angel while he slept. She got to her knees on the bed. She inched forward as quietly as she could. The angel's wings were slightly spread; he looked a little disheveled. He looked like someone who was sleeping so deeply, his extreme exhaustion had to wear itself out before he woke up again. His knees showed under his tunic. Tana was afraid, but she also had a thought she couldn't shake: that this was why the angel was here; this was why he'd allowed her to find him, clean him, feed him: to make her understand that he was available, that she could do whatever she wanted. Anything you could do with an angel would be OK. Tana slipped her right hand under his back and lifted him a little, and with her left hand gingerly drew up his tunic. She laid him back down, and knelt by his knees; she hesitated, then lifted the hem. The angel's sex organ wasn't circled by hair. It looked like a child's, only larger. Tana thought it was beautiful. The flesh was very pale, like the rest of his body.  His belly peacefully rose and fell with each breath. Tana, propped up on her left hand, touched the angel's belly with her right, not pulling away, running her fingers over his left thigh, between his legs, up his right thigh, onto his belly. Her fingers came near his sex organ, but she didn't dare touch it: not out of disgust, absolutely not, but out of respect. She wanted him to stay asleep. She brought her face closer to his sex organ, to see it better in the half-light; it was smooth and clean and didn't smell bad. She touched his sex organ with her lips, a small kiss, like you'd kiss a sleeping infant, kissing him without waking him. His sex organ didn't rise. Tana kept looking, kept running her fingers along the same path, never touching it. She liked doing this. After a while, she felt sleep pressing down on her, from inside her head, her legs and left arm were tired in this position, and then she covered the angel back up and looked at him. She looked him over, from head to toe, his wings and arms and fingers, and he seemed entirely beautiful. Looking at the angel, she felt no desire whatsoever, just pleasure, pleasure at touching him and giving him that very light kiss on his sex organ. And then she thought it must be very late, and she burrowed under the covers and shut her eyes tight so she'd fall fast asleep, and she dreamed that the angel was leaving, flying away. He was flying away and all along his path, below, the roofs were coming off the houses, and from the houses rose a golden light piercing the dark night sky. The next morning, Tana woke with a wonderful fever, and she was filled with tenderness and dreams and the joy of staying cuddled up in bed and phoning her school friends to come see her, to make them jealous of her good luck, a week's vacation while, outside, it was raining everywhere, and the rain was washing the world, preparing the world for winter, so lovely.

"Tana" © Giulio Mozzi. By arrangement with Sironi Editore. Translation © 2012 by Elizabeth Harris. All rights reserved.