The house stood alone, facing the sea, a modest little cottage that was getting on in years, on a small dirt lane bordered by tamarisks twisted by winter winds. She had noticed the sign affixed to the front door as she walked slowly along, following the setting sun that was lighting up the sea. It seemed like a sign from destiny. At the pension Sorriso, the overly loud voices of the guests and the children’s shrill cries shattered the quiet and made her temples pound: as the years go by, close contact with one’s fellow creatures becomes less and less tolerable.
The magenta plaster was faded and crumbling, and the ground floor shutters were loose and discolored, whereas those on the first floor had been freshly painted a nice bright green. Behind the house, toward the sea, was a garden, enclosed by a low wall topped by an iron railing corroded by the salt air. A garden grown wild with brambles, weeds and huge nettles everywhere, and tangles of bindweed clinging to the tree trunks. The oleanders suffered from dried-up stalks that no one had pruned, and two overgrown filiform palms swayed and rustled in the sea breeze, as if mortified by the withered branches that dangled alongside their trunks.
Melania stood enchanted as she stared at the abandoned garden and at once imagined herself enthusiastically engaged in restoring it to its former charm, bent over, hoeing and weeding, equipped with shears to prune the shrubs, crouching down to plant nasturtiums, petunias, and calendulas in the rock-bordered flowerbeds, watering toward evening when the heat diminished. The palms were too tall for her to be able to saw off the dried branches, she would call a professional gardener; she didn’t want to think about how he would hoist himself up there. With her eyes she stripped them of their desiccated appendages, restoring the fan-shaped fronds to their natural elegance.
From a French door, a small double flight of steps descended to the garden. A rust-worn iron gate, held shut by a lock and chain that must not have been opened for decades, led onto the narrow beach that stretched smooth and firm to the rocky promontory that enclosed the bay to the west. The place was secluded and protected, overflowing with peace. From the shore you could make out the little coastal village perched on steep hills covered with olive trees, its gracefully old-fashioned houses of pink plaster lit by the sun, its small harbor spiked with the masts of fishing boats painted orange, red, and mint green, as well as a sliver of the charming piazza with its arcades and old shops, its wooden benches shaded by palm trees, and crimson splashes of geraniums in terracotta pots on the low walls.
In that idyllic, solitary place, she told herself, nothing base or cruel could ever happen: the harmony of the landscape softened the spirit, resolved conflict, relieved the soul. Melania, standing against the backdrop of the sea being darkened by dusk, ran her fingers through her wind-tossed gray hair and smiled ecstatically at what she already considered her new abode.
In the morning, at an hour that she considered decent, she went to the address indicated on the sign. A brass doorplate read Attorney Sivieri. The sound of the doorbell seemed to her to travel across immeasurable, endless empty rooms; the tapping of heels announced a feminine step from a distance. A shapely, dark-haired woman, still youthful, wearing a garish summer dress that was too low-cut, her mouth and eyes smothered by heavy makeup, opened the door and greeted her with a smile that was so excessive as to appear imploring. A disagreeable impression. “My husband is in his office,” she said, her inflection that of the south.
On the other side of the desk, in the semi-dark room furnished with somber, lawyerly-type furniture, its walls covered in red damask, an elderly white-haired gentleman with a purplish face stood up with visible effort and came toward her. With a somewhat affected air of courtesy, he showed a reserved interest in her request to rent the house on the beach, and inquired about her with due regard, though with resolve. An aloof man, correct, meticulous and determined, she concluded; a property owner certain of his rights, demanding and uncompromising, though a man of fitting discretion.
As soon as the misunderstanding arose, his voice hardened abruptly though unaccountably, and frowning crossly, with eyes that had suddenly become imperious and hostile, he made it clear that he had no intention of renting the apartment on the ground floor, just the smaller one on the upper level. Melania felt a profound disappointment, but her desire to live in the peaceful, idyllic house at all costs forced her to hastily readjust her thinking to the new prospect. After all, she would still be able to care for the wild garden, restore order and life to it, and in the end enjoy it from the first-floor balcony. She proposed her plan to the lawyer, with the impulsiveness of one who does not intend to let a precious opportunity slip away, convinced, in fact, that she was doing him a favor. His vehement, almost angry reaction astounded her: No! the garden was to remain as it was, no one was to touch it. That’s how it was to be. She consented in great haste, afraid to lose the longed-for treasure, yet dumbfounded by such incomprehensible antagonism. The lawyer was certainly an odd, mistrustful sort, who knew what it was he feared. Well, she would renew her request later on, when they knew each other better and when she had earned his confidence.
Viewed from the first floor, the garden was a tumultuous tangle of greenery. The slender, perfectly rounded trunks of the two palms, like the sides of a frame, cut out a portion of cobalt sea as far as the horizon. Joy expanded her lungs and lit up her gaze. Her excitement woke her at dawn. She walked barefoot on the beach, damp with dew, as far as the promontory, pausing at the water’s edge to study a sky whitened by tenuous, residual nocturnal vapors. Orderly squadrons of migratory birds-ducks perhaps?-flew low over the water toward the north. The sun skimming the water turned the bay silver; the changing courses of the currents splotched the phosphorescent surface with gray. She caught herself smiling. The water reached out to lick her feet with lukewarm strokes. She returned at a trot, with the sun, already high, on her face, her breath short, her hair disheveled, gasping, hot, and ravenous. The slices of toasted black bread spread with butter and honey had a heavenly scent. The coffee gave off a sublime aroma. From the balcony she gazed out at the expanse of sea now rippled by a land breeze, the white sails offshore, the beach dazzling in the light, and flocks of seagulls in the wake of fishing boats returning to port in the early morning hours. Afterward she plunged into the water and swam for a long time; she came out dripping wet and ice-cold, stretched out on the sand, exhausted, to warm up in the sun, and carefully applied a light, fragrant cream to her tanned skin.
Later, at the piazza in the village, she bought newspapers, dark, crusty bread, salad greens, eggs, and fresh fish, the simple foods of this place where she had carved out a leeward niche, sheltered from storms. She cooked the fish on the grill and dressed the salad greens with the thick, golden local oil; she spread some oil on a thick slice of bread, sprinkled it with oregano and pepper, and bit into it voraciously. On the beach she closed the newspapers, bored, as soon as she had skimmed through them: the news seemed to reach her from another world, a remote, alien world that had nothing to do with her. With half-closed eyes, she savored a perfect state of bliss. From far off, she would occasionally hear voices muffled by a headwind or by distance, or the rumble of a boat engine that trailed off once having rounded the promontory, or the snap of sails swelling in the northwest wind.
In the afternoon, out on the balcony, typewriter on the table, she would translate, her head shaded by the beach umbrella, her bare legs in the sun. From time to time she glanced tenderly at the wild garden, promising to intercede on its behalf with the landlord whose inexplicable hostility she was the innocent victim of.
The unoccupied apartment on the ground floor stirred her curiosity: why did the attorney prefer to keep it vacant? Who had lived there? How long ago?
Through a loose slat on one of the shutters facing the lane, she had been able to get a look inside. The windowpanes were broken. She had glimpsed a large room in semi-darkness, the shapes of armchairs, a sofa and grand piano covered with white sheets, and large paintings hanging on the walls. There must have been an inch of dust everywhere. The fittings were somber and antiquated, in striking contrast to the dazzling radiance of the surrounding landscape.
In the evening she would walk on the beach as long as the last blood-red glow of sunset remained in the sky. Then she would sit at the bar in the piazza with a glass of chilled white wine and succulent, coastal green olives, until it was time to have supper on the terrace of the small trattoria facing onto the ramp where the boats were beached.
Attorney Sivieri, dressed in white linen and leaning on a cane with a silver knob, would arrive slowly from the arcade at the end of the piazza, out for a brief stroll before supper. He responded to the deferential greetings of his fellow villagers with a faint curl of his lips, touching the brim of his panama hat with two fingers. A circle of intimidated awe seemed to form around his forbidding presence.
Melania would sometimes run into his wife, on the other hand, in the morning. The woman would overwhelm her with insubstantial chatter, empty words that gushed out one after another in a frantic, unrestrained loquacity. Repeating “my husband” at every turn, as though to affirm herself and her position, she would adjust her neckline, pat her hair, and toy with her pearl necklace, her bright red fingernails flashing jarringly in the sun, while looking around with eager, restless eyes as if to make certain she was being noticed. She greeted passersby with pathetic emphasis and exaggerated familiarity, but received only quick nods or tight-lipped greetings in exchange. She seemed not to notice their dislike. What did the villagers have against her? That she was too young for the elderly lawyer? Or too common?
Attorney Sivieri passed away unexpectedly one night in mid-June. Melania had gone to his house at the beginning of the month to pay the rent and found him ailing and spent. He had difficulty breathing and his purplish face had become livid. Since he was clearly ill, she did not dare speak to him again about her desire to care for the abandoned garden. The tapping of his wife’s heels as she moved about the house sounded frivolous and incongruous in that dark office.
Melania considered it her duty to go to the widow and offer her condolences. She found her sobbing, without makeup, wearing mourning, wringing her hands and stammering in bewilderment: “Now what will I do?”
From the bedroom where the deceased had been laid out on the bed with a rosary in his hands, people came and went with a kind of contrite, embarrassed reluctance. Some briefly shook the widow’s hand and murmured the customary words, while others ignored her and looked around the rooms curiously, as if it were the first time they had entered that house which had been the subject of so much speculation. No one showed any liking for her, neither compassion nor sympathy. Something unspoken chilled their gestures and words, and their sharp glances were probing.
At the door, as she was leaving, she happened to hear a man comment: “Now we’ll have to see about the will. If he made one, we’ll have to see what the children will do. They haven’t come yet.” “And his wife?” another asked. “Well, his wife, poor thing, what do you expect . . .” The meaning of the conversation escaped her.
At the fishmarket, a conversation between the fishwife and an elderly woman broke off abruptly as soon as she appeared in the doorway. She caught only the tail end of it, the proprietor was saying in a reproachful tone: “What goes around, comes around, she won’t get a thing, that one. Even if he made a will, the children will contest it.” She tried in vain to stitch together those meager elements and make sense of them.
She attended attorney Sivieri’s funeral. His wife, dressed in mourning, walked behind the coffin all by herself. A wide space around her signaled the extent of her isolation. In an impulse of solidarity against the village’s all too explicit ill will, Melania was tempted to walk beside her. What held her back was the fear of intruding, as an outsider, into the performance of a play whose script was known to everyone but her and thus of playing the wrong part. A fear, she acknowledged, that bordered on a somewhat base and egoistical concern that the story with its unknown aspects might also collide in some way with her own sheltered, leeward corner. The widow’s shoulders shook under the ample black veil that hid her. She kept her head lowered and from time to time wiped her eyes with a handkerchief.
“There they are, the children, they’ve arrived,” a voice whispered behind her. A man and a woman, barely younger than the widow, advanced alongside one another in the middle of the procession, keeping their distance and ignoring the woman as the villagers did. Offspring of the first marriage, evidently.
Melania was astonished that they were not dressed in mourning, that they did not even have a black ribbon on their lapel. They were walking proudly and with dignity, head erect, no tears, as though to emphasize their apartness and difference from their father’s wife. There is no child who accepts a father’s old-age love, Melania thought, nor the betrayal of their mother’s memory. Nor, much less, the loss of a portion of paternal wealth to the interloper.
“She was the maid,” a voice at her side stated clearly. “When she arrived in the house, he lost his head, he was already fifty-five years old, and she was twenty-five. They always passed her off as his wife, but he was never able to marry her. There was his real wife in that condition and both children sided with their mother . . . They never spoke to him again, they never wanted to see their father again . . . ”
A few days later, a car stopped in front of the house. Attorney Sivieri’s two children got out. Melania, appearing on the balcony, returned their polite greeting. There was some restoration work to be done on the ground floor, the man apologized, he hoped it wouldn’t cause too much disturbance for her. It’s in quite a bit of disorder, you see, it’s been unoccupied for almost twenty years.
They disappeared into the apartment, threw open the windows, and dragged a number of chairs out into the garden. Using them like a handrail, they draped carpets, blankets, and linens over them, to air them out, along with the faded, dusty cloths that had covered the armchairs, sofas, and grand piano. The garden was transformed into a gypsy camp.
In the midst of the bustle that lasted the entire day, someone-was it the man or the woman?-had relentlessly played the scales on the piano, hammering with insistence on the C-sharp, the B, and the B-flat; the exasperating refrain of those jarring notes had rent the air like a scream for help. The piano needed to be tuned, that torment was useless, they should have noticed it as soon as their fingers touched the keys.
Irritated and distressed, Melania wandered back and forth between the rooms and the balcony without getting anything done, her rituals and rhythms upset by the noisy intrusion. From the windows she kept watch on what was happening in the garden. The man fumbled around at length with the padlock that secured the gate to the beach: he lubricated it, tried various bunches of keys, and finally succeeded in unlocking it. For a long time he worked at opening and closing the gate’s two panels, producing a creaking sound that gave you goose bumps. He had only distractedly glanced at the garden invaded by weeds and brambles. His sister, on the other hand, walked up and down the garden as if she were exploring an already familiar territory. She confined herself to looking and touching-observing every single little plant, shrub, or bush choked by invading grasses, touching the branches, caressing the leaves, sniffing some pitiable flower-but she did not do anything for them, not even the minimal act of uprooting a sprouting weed or snapping off the tenacious vines of bindweed wrapped around the stalks. She grazed the tapering trunks of the palms with her fingertips, one after the other, as if recognizing them by touch and reclaiming them, and raised her eyes to scan their unruly, wasted fronds. Her face was pale and melancholy. From the little gate she stared out at the sun-drenched sea, shielding her eyes with her hand.
The next morning, a van loaded with equipment and a crew of workers arrived along with the brother and sister. A jumble of strident noises could be heard from the upper floor: furniture being moved, walls being scraped, objects being dragged, floors sanded, furious hammer blows. The garden was filled with cans of paint and sacks of cement, lime, and sand. Clouds of whitish powder came from the open windows and settled on the leaves, covering them with an opaque patina. The garden appeared cast in plaster. The brother and sister carried drawers overflowing with papers outside and, bending over them, leafed through the pages, reading, consulting one another in low tones, rearranging them, separating various sheets of paper, letters, rolled-up documents held with an elastic band. Melania recognized a packet of musical scores.
Filled with helpless rage, she left the house in exasperation, unable to find peace in all that racket and disorder, and incapable of concentrating on her work. She mourned for her lost paradise. She imagined that the deceased attorney’s children, in such a hurry to get the vacant house back in shape so soon after their father’s death, must be motivated by their eagerness to rent it for the vacation season. Perhaps they already had renters lined up, a large, rowdy family, she figured: already she could hear the loud voices, the wild laughter, the calling back and forth, doors slamming, a portable radio turned up full blast, the incessant barking of an ill-mannered dog that ran up and down the garden without pause, the piano clumsily pounded by uncultured young fingers. She could even see all the lights turned on, spoiling the peaceful, seaside nights.
She was waiting for them to inform her about the fate of the ground floor apartment, which was also her fate: she had a right to know, she thought, why didn’t they tell her? Her pride kept her from being the one to ask; she expected some consideration. Her increasing anger as the days went by kept her mouth sealed. The two siblings greeted her politely, exchanged insignificant opinions about the weather, the season, the conditions of the sea, but nothing else. If they were uncomfortable about having to tell her that they would be filling the apartment with people, their discomfiture was certainly not her concern.
Upset and disappointed, she prepared her heart for an unavoidable leave-taking from that enchanted place that had gotten into her blood. Bitterly she unraveled her plans for a period of peaceful, productive work, for a secluded, quiet summer and autumn, lamenting the precariousness of all things and the unexpected turnaround of events. Even the wild garden would be taken from her. The dream of applying her loving efforts to restore it to its former splendor-a splendor whose traces it still preserved-vanished. Someone else would come to weed, hoe, prune, plant, and water the garden in her place, without the same passion. The indifferent feet of strangers would trample it: people come from the city, like so many, to wear things out and spoil them and scatter refuse everywhere. In their haste to exploit the property against their father’s wishes, the children of the deceased attorney were doing her an injustice, perhaps without even suspecting it. They didn’t even know what his wishes were, but she did, oh yes, she knew from the time of her first meeting with him that he had no intention of renting the empty house, or of touching the garden. Or perhaps, on the contrary, they were aware of their detested, derelict father’s intentions and were violating his wishes deliberately.
On the ground floor the work intensified, accompanied by an excruciating din. One of the workmen sang the same song over and over again, off-key, at the top of his lungs, to rowdy protests from the others. In the road, a concrete mixer groaned and rumbled in surges; an engine sputtered, a creaking wheelbarrow laden with cement came and went. The honeyed scent of the butter bush, the aromatic oil of the conifers, the penetrating tang of the sea, were overwhelmed by the fumes of paints and solvents, by the dense effluvia of cement and mortar. Given that feverish pace, the work would very soon be completed. And then what?
All of a sudden it occurred to her that the brother and sister might be fixing up the house to spend the summer there themselves. She felt an abrupt relief. They seemed very well-mannered, perhaps she would manage to get by. One morning a piano tuner came. The annoying striking of the keys as he sought the right tone seemed an indirect confirmation that the house would be used by the siblings rather than rented to strangers. Her relief was short-lived, however: those two must also have a wife, a husband, children, maybe even friends of the children, a tribe of noisy kids indifferent to a mature woman’s need for quiet; they would overrun the house, the garden, the beach, the sea.
She caught sight of the woman unawares as she walked slowly along the shore at sunset, absorbed, her head lowered, tiredly straightening her hair. For the first time Melania noticed that she was wearing a plain, shapeless dress that aged her and made her look awkward. With the tip of her shoe she nudged the shells that emerged from the sand, then bent down to pick up a pebble, cleaning the sand off with gentle, painstaking gestures, as if the pebble were a precious stone. Every so often she paused with her arms folded and stared at the deep blue expanse. She stopped in front of the open gate, hugging her shoulders. Dismayed, Melania realized that she was crying silently, like an injured child without hope of consolation. Her forlorn gaze drifted from the garden to the ground floor windows. All at once, seeing those tears, Melania understood that the woman’s mother had endured the affront right there in that very house. It was in that house, under the terrified eyes of the girl and her brother, still only children at the time, that their father’s passion for the young domestic had erupted. She had not seen the widow again. In the village, the fishwife had whispered to a customer: “She disappeared, that one there, he didn’t leave her the house on the piazza, not even the one at the seashore, all she got was a large sum of money . . .” Nothing more. What exactly had happened, so long ago, in the little cottage by the sea? The villagers of a certain age must have been witnesses to the drama: the two children had sided with their mother against the father, or so people had said at the funeral. The mother had been overthrown by her younger rival: had her husband chased her out? Where had she ended up? Her children had surely followed her, far away from there, from their father’s house, from the spiteful, petty gossip. They must have had an unhappy life, marked by that rejection, by their mother’s misery and humiliation. Where was she now? She convinced herself that she must be dead, probably from grief. How the two children must have hated him, that father who had not hesitated to wreck their existence.
The woman was wiping her tear-streaked face with the back of her hand. She went back into the house through the garden, bowed down, as if she were still crushed by the pain of long ago.
Melania remained seated on the balcony staring at the sea that was drowning in the twilight. She didn’t feel like having supper at the trattoria at the harbor, she would make a frittata and boil a couple of zucchini.
The shattered lives of those strangers had touched her own life and infected her with their suffering. That setting that had seemed filled with enchantment, alive with perfect harmony, sheltered from unexpected currents and erratic thrusts, had instead been the scene of unheard-of cruelties. Now she realized how she had steadfastly defended herself from the threat of invasion by other people, from the fear of being forced to know, of being drawn into participating. She had stifled her own curiosity in order to preserve at all costs a peace that was now shown to be fictitious. She felt misguided and ridiculous, a mistrustful, solitary old woman, focused on herself, busy enjoying her small privileges and pleasures.
A full moon had risen in the east, its beams tracing a restless wake of metallic liquid on the waves. She struggled up out of the chair, listlessly ate something, and went down to take a short walk.
The dust-covered garden shone brightly beneath the moon. The fan-shaped fronds of the palm trees rustled in the nocturnal breeze. “Don’t even hope,” she told the garden, “things are desperately complicated. I’m afraid I won’t be able to do anything for you.” From the hills a horned owl gave a brief cry. Whoo, whoo, whoo.
The work on the ground floor was completed, the workmen had gone, two women had cleaned the apartment for two entire days. In comparison to the previous racket, their chatter had been truly refreshing. Brother and sister had gone, and for a few days the house remained closed up. The garden had not been touched. A strong wind from the west swept away the white dust that covered it. Peace and quiet had returned.
She had not been there when they arrived. Upon returning from her early morning walk, Melania noticed the attorney’s daughter in the garden with an elderly, white-haired woman. She stopped, taken aback. Who was she? An advance scout for the new renters? So she had not been mistaken, she thought, and a sudden fit of anger quickened her breathing. The daughter had spotted her and called to her, “Please, come on over, I want to introduce you to my mother.”
Melania felt a thumping in her chest. So she was alive! How could she have thought otherwise? She approached quickly, her heart thundering in her ears. She smiled, dumbfounded and confused. The elderly woman offered her hand and fixed her sharp, lively gaze on her. A little too lively, it seemed to her. “My mother will be spending the summer here,” the daughter said. “It was her house, you see. She hasn’t been here for many years, but she wanted to come back, like it or not, there was no dissuading her. My brother and I will come often to visit her.” She gave her mother a smile filled with apprehension. “That’s right, it’s my house,” the old woman exclaimed in a shrill voice. “All spruced up like this, it’s much better looking than when I left it . . . than the way I remembered it. The garden on the other hand is in very poor condition. It’s in urgent need of some drastic attention. Are the tools still there, Matilda?”
“Mother!” the daughter implored, “I told you I would send a gardener. Why can’t I convince you that you can’t do it all by yourself?” The mother protested vehemently and the daughter shook her head, discouraged. “She demanded that we leave the garden the way it was, she made us promise her that we wouldn’t touch it. She wants to see to it herself, and woe to anyone who says otherwise.” She sighed. “You know,” she added, “she has an incredible green thumb, at one time the garden was very beautiful.”
Quivering with excitement, the old woman moved among the flowerbeds and paths, her progress punctuated with sudden vocal outbursts, exclamations, exhilarated laughter, impetuous, excessive gestures. Her manner displayed a sprightliness that was unusual in a woman her age, jerky, like a spring-loaded toy, a bizarre, over-agitated parody. “Here,” she proclaimed in a voice that was much too high, gesturing with outstretched arm, her finger pointing, “here’s where the verbena used to be, a border of multi-colored verbena, pink, fuchsia, purple. Behind them, there was a row of single-blossom petunias, they’re more striking and have more fragrance than the others and they bloom in abundance if you know enough to cut the stems after the first flowering. And behind them, against the wall, I planted giant snapdragons, they’re very hardy and can grow to be as tall as two feet. I fertilized the flowerbeds with horse manure, I had them bring me a full cart, well ripened, at the beginning of the spring. That’s why my garden was so luxuriant. And on this side, close to the wall, there were Polyantha roses. If they were carefully pruned at the end of the winter, they bloomed uninterruptedly from May to December. And over here were the magenta-red Hansa Rugosa roses, they were quite a display when in full bloom. In this sheltered area I planted damask roses. They grew well, those roses, with full southern exposure, because they were protected from the northerly wind. You have to know how to choose the right place for each type of plant: there are plants that love full sunlight and plants that love shade, those that like sandy soil and those that prefer rich soil. You can’t just plant them haphazardly. It’s also true that there are delicate plants that find it hard to grow anywhere, while on the other hand there are those that are hardier, with few requirements, that adapt to whatever exposure and any type of soil. Plants are like human beings, they all have different characters, some suffer over the least little thing, others instead are resistant and can overcome any adversity.”
She broke off and bent down among the brambles, moving them aside and freeing the stalks of a paltry little shrub.
“Oh! Bravo, bravo!” she exclaimed, her voice vibrant with joy. “You’re still here! You survived all these years!” Lovingly she caressed a small, stunted hibiscus with chlorotic leaves. “Or perhaps it isn’t you, maybe it’s a younger brother of yours . . . Who knows, so much time has passed . . . Don’t worry, I’ll help you grow, now that I’m back here again . . . And here, every other year, I planted double crimson wallflowers. I would prepare the seedbed in February, starting the seeds in trays, and when the seedlings were big enough, I planted them. In May, at night, the fragrance of the wallflowers was so intense that it even overwhelmed the keen scent of the butter bush. The wallflowers’ heady scent dazes you, to the point of making your head ache. And over here, the portulacas would creep in from the beach, they trailed under the gate and established themselves in the sand. They were cyclamen pink, geranium red, sulfur yellow, a riot of color. I will see to it that you come back, my darlings, I promise you, I will smooth the way for you, I will attract you to my garden, like before . . .”
Melania was on the point of mentioning the idea she had nurtured and of offering to help restore the wild, abandoned garden. But she held back, not wanting to be too hasty. There was something in the old woman’s restlessness and excitement that worried her and prompted caution, something that was reflected in the alarmed eyes of her daughter as she followed her agitated bustle.
The latter addressed Melania, lowering her voice. She said she would only be staying for a few days, then her mother would be left on her own. It was she who wanted it that way, they hadn’t dared offer much opposition. Then again, she was certain that nothing worse could happen to her than what had already happened to her there. She had to force herself to have confidence in her, otherwise her mother would become a victim for a second time. Besides, as Melania could see, she had remained miraculously lucid and rational-apart from a slight, harmless eccentricity-despite all the years she had spent in there.
In there where? Melania wondered bewilderedly. But she quickly understood and the horror of it took her breath away. A sudden flush rose to her face, the blood began to pound in her ears. She brought her hands to her cheeks. The truth was turning out to be more tragic than any speculation. All of a sudden the veiled hints made by the villagers at the lawyer’s funeral took on distinct meaning. With a shiver of fear, she waited for the answer to the question that was on the tip of her tongue to emerge from the daughter’s words.
“You must have heard the story in the village, I imagine,” the woman continued. “Everyone knows what happened, everyone talked about it and still talks about it. My brother and I weren’t yet twenty years old. This is the very place where it happened. Even at such a distance in time, I still can’t speak about it without crying. Given all she suffered in this house, we thought it would be the last place she would want to come back to. But no. She was adamant. As if she wanted to start over again, from the time and place where her life was interrupted. No matter how much we tried, my brother and I were unable to obtain her release as long as our father was still alive. Marital authority . . . the law at that time would not allow it. He had been the one to commit her and therefore his consent was required. But he refused to grant it, despite our insistence. We wrote to him, we went to speak with him, we insulted, threatened, and implored him, but he was unbending. From a certain moment on, he would no longer receive us. He was a cruel despot. Perhaps things are changing now, in the psychiatric field . . .” She sighed disconsolately.
“She seems perfectly normal,” Melania whispered with a tight throat.
“Exactly,” Matilda said. “The tremendous injustice, the cruelty of it all . . . How can one do such things? She was completely defenseless, do you understand?” Tears streamed down her cheeks.
“She surprised them together in the bedroom, in her bedroom, they hadn’t heard her come back. She shouted and shouted . . . like a mortally wounded animal . . . My father beat her viciously to make her stop. She overturned the furniture, the tables and chairs, she smashed everything that came within her reach, there were broken shards everywhere, she even shattered the windowpanes, we had them repaired just now . . . Anyone in her place would have done the same. That was enough, you understand, to declare her insane, a danger to herself and others. They took her away in a straightjacket, my brother and I were there, I’ll never be able to forget her cries . . .”
She blew her nose, wiped her eyes, and gazed with affection at her mother who, squatting down, was pulling weeds from the flowerbeds on the other side of the garden. Then she added: “Now can you understand how much we hated our father? Such cruelty, such brutality wasn’t necessary by any means. She would have left of her own accord, along with us, all he had to do was give her time.”
She paused, sighed, and said: “If you could be so kind as to keep an eye on her, after I’ve gone . . .”
It was the piano that woke her. Melania sat up suddenly in bed, and listened intently. She recognized a youthful composition by Brahms. The milky light of dawn filtered through the shutters. She got up soundlessly, opened the window, and leaned on the windowsill. The windows on the ground floor were also open. The sea was gray and pale blue, with lightish streaks; small, calm waves lapped at the deserted shore. The wild garden, silent and motionless in the still air, sparkled with heavy nocturnal dew.
The touch of the old woman’s fingers on the keyboard was halting. Every so often she would break off a musical passage on a wrong note, correct herself, start over again, falter again and then start over once more, like a persistent pupil. She had returned amenably to her long-ago passion, unearthing skills rusted by time. She was putting herself to the test, challenging herself. How right she had been to insist that she remain alone in her house: her daughter had barely departed and already she was picking up the threads of her life. It was a miracle that she had not been shattered by so many years of isolation. How had she managed to live in seclusion, surrounded by others’ madness, without going mad herself? How had she been able to preserve her mental equilibrium? Melania imagined her wandering around the white walls, without cause, proud though hopeless, stubborn and unyielding in her mute indignation. She must never have bent, just as she did not give in now at the uncertainty of her fingers on the keys. Because little by little her touch became surer, access to the instrument was all it took for her hands to once again discover the old mastery. The sun appeared behind the hills at the edge of the bay, the sea suddenly sparkled, and a light breeze arose to ripple its surface.
The old woman played for an hour and a half-always the same Brahms sonata-until she achieved that sonorous intensity, that precision of execution that she was after. Then she started over again for the last time, and the sound of the piano became resounding, victorious. That was joie de vivre, Melania thought with a surge of admiration. Then the playing stopped. All that could be heard was the subdued lapping of gentle surf. Melania remained there at length, contemplating the restless expanse of sea.
At eight o’clock, when the sun was already high and she was sipping coffee on the balcony, the old woman came out of the house wrapped in a terry-cloth robe and crossed the garden. Once on the beach, she took off the robe. She was wearing an old-fashioned black bathing suit, somewhat slack, that was too loose on her. Facing the sea, she raised and lowered her arms with regular rhythm and energetic movements, breathing deeply. After fifteen minutes of exercise, she put on an orange rubber bathing cap, walked across the beach with determined steps, entered the low water, and kept walking until it reached her thighs. Then she dove in. She headed offshore with vigorous, regular strokes. The orange cap grew visibly smaller in the deserted sea. Every so often she paused, then she continued toward the open water. All of a sudden she disappeared. Melania felt her heart skip a beat. Hastily she put on her glasses and anxiously scrutinized the surface of the water. She breathed a sigh of relief: the orange cap was there, a moving dot barely visible at that distance.
Uneasy, she too went down to the shore. She remained standing, her feet in the water, to keep an eye on the little spot of color that moved slowly, disappearing every so often. “Why doesn’t she turn back?” she wondered apprehensively. “She hasn’t swum in such a long time, it’s not wise.” She stayed there watching for her, ready to plunge into the water at the least sign of trouble.
At last the orange cap stopped moving further away and changed course. Now it moved along parallel to the beach, in the direction of the sun. Now that the tension had diminished, Melania sat down on the already warm sand without losing sight of the old woman’s head. She felt exceedingly relieved when she saw the bathing cap advance slowly toward shore. She smiled without even realizing it. She felt an unusual lightness, a kind of irrational gaiety. A blackbird twittered in the scrub behind her, a brown and yellow striped hornet droned among the broom, and the sun was amiably warm on her skin.
The old woman came out of the water dripping wet, her thin, wrinkled body blue with cold. She greeted Melania with an expansive, friendly gesture. “The water is beautiful!” she said. Her teeth were chattering, and she was panting and coughing as she rubbed herself energetically with the terry robe. She tore the cap off her head, shook out her hair, combed it with her fingers, sat down on the sand, and began smearing suntan lotion on her skin. “I haven’t been out in the sun for nearly twenty years,” she remarked laughing, “I wouldn’t want to get burned. How many miles do you think I did? I don’t have the wind I used to have, it’s natural, years have passed and for the most part I’m out of shape. But I’ll soon improve, I guarantee it. You know, at one time I swam two and a half miles every morning.”
She laughed again, squinted a bit and winked, a flash of irony in her eyes. “It all happened when I came back from a long swim, did you know that? A swim that was a little shorter than usual, unfortunately.” She laughed. “Formidable,” Melania thought with astonishment. The woman was laughing at herself. Not waiting for a reply, she stretched out on the sand and closed her eyes. Soon afterward she added, chuckling: “A fatal swim, one might well say. Don’t you think so?”
For a long time she remained silent. Melania noticed she wasn’t sleeping, however; her fingers were toying with the sand. All of a sudden she said: “I hope the piano doesn’t bother you at such an early hour.” Melania hastened to reassure her that she too loved to get up early. And then too, Brahms’ sonatas were among her favorite pieces. The old woman smiled and nodded with a pleased expression.
There was a long silence, and Melania thought she might have gone to sleep. Her breathing was calm, a slight smile stretched across her lips. Still more time went by. It was heartening to lie stretched out in the sun, eyes closed, without speaking, beside an elderly woman whom life had so cruelly injured: a wise old woman who was voraciously approaching life again even after such a long, enforced absence and who, simply put, was giving her a huge lesson in courage. She wondered how her early mornings had been, those days she awoke in there, within the high, white walls, for so many years; she wondered what had sustained her so that she did not lose herself. God only knew. There was all the time in the world to find out.
She started when the woman’s voice unexpectedly broke the silence. “What would you say,” she asked, “to helping me get the garden back in order? Would you like that?”
From Adagio un poco mosso (Milano: Feltrinelli, 1993). Copyright © 1993 by Elena Gianini Belotti. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright © 2004 by Anne Milano Appel. All rights reserved.