When I was eight years old I decided to run away from home. There’s no sense explaining why right now. Maybe some other time. Let’s just say that where I used to live, on via Vincenzo Gemito 64, staircase B, apartment 12, my childhood fears were so real that they chased away the storybook fears I would have gladly braved—a shipwreck, a leap over an abyss, a fire-breathing dragon—which would make a brief appearance, subside, and sneak away. So I made my plans. Basta! I couldn’t take it anymore! I would run away from home.
There were various ways to make a getaway: on foot, by streetcar, or hidden underneath the vegetables in Luigi’s wagon, which was pulled by a donkey that was all skin and bones. He used to come by every day to sell fresh produce, crying out in the form of a lament, “Mulignanepuparoli“—Eggplant and tomatoes—or “Vruokkolifriarelli“—Fried broccoli!
My heart was set on one escape route in particular: the mailbox. This is how my plan went: I would leave the house as if I were going downstairs to play in the street; climb up on top of the red box; find a way to slip inside it; and then be on my way. But get this: I wasn’t going to go through the slot marked FOR THE CITY. I was going through the one marked FOR ALL OTHER DESTINATIONS. The city couldn’t have mattered less to me. What appealed to me were the other destinations. All of them.
Today I often ask the children who I happen to be around, “What do you think about the mailbox?” But they don’t give it a second thought. There are other more fantastic things. Every now and then, however, I can come across someone who imagines, “Inside the mailbox lives a dwarf who takes the letters and delivers them.” The imagination, a paltry thing, is busy with other things nowadays. No eight-year-old would dream of running away from home through the mailbox. The children do write, however. On summer vacation they write postcards to their friends, make someone buy the stamps, and then stick them on carefully. When I was little, I never had the chance to write a legitimate, properly posted postcard. I would have liked to, but it never came to pass. The best I could do was drop my parents’ letters in the mailbox, whenever they lifted me up so I could reach it. In those moments, I used to feel that they, too, were tense. They couldn’t stop giving me instructions—especially my mother—with a hint of anxiety. “Be careful! Not to the city! To all other destinations!” They filled me with their anxiety. I always got the impression that it wasn’t me that was mailing the letter, but rather a force, a vortex, a gust of wind that snatched it from my hand.
It’s true, children nowadays still sound a little worried when they get lifted up and have to ask, “Where should I put it?” But to me this seems like only one of the many uncertainties they face in dealing with the complications of grown-ups. In the end they just slide their hand in and mail the letter. Nothing more. No one’s heart starts to pound the way mine used to when I wrote letters in secret, on lined, elementary-school paper: no return address, no addressee, no stamps. I wrote for the pure sake of writing. I wrote that Luigi’s donkey had escaped. I wrote that it had sprouted wings. I wrote that it had given me a kick that landed me in the hospital for seven days. I wrote that it had set off on a gallop while I hung on for dear life. Lies, all lies. I wrote lies about everything: my grandmother, my mother, my father, my relatives. But the lies I wrote filled me with pleasure and fear, fear and pleasure. And the fear turned into anxiety, the pleasure into rapture, when I folded the paper up carefully, wrote “for all other destinations” on one side, and climbed up the mailbox—using stones that I had lugged there myself—and dropped it into the mail slot.
The time I prepared my getaway was late in the season: early spring or early autumn, perhaps. I was counting on two forces to set me on my way. The first was writing. I was convinced that letters, postcards, and my little pieces of paper would get to where they were supposed to by virtue of their being written. To my mind, the alphabet itself propelled them, the way electricity propels streetcars and gasoline propels automobiles. It was no accident that blank paper remains on the desk or at the stationary store, while paper with writing on it flies off to be read. So I was counting on writing as much as I could, before the getaway, and stuffing my pockets with the pieces of paper.
The second force lurked inside the mailbox, but it could be summed up in the word “destination.” I would be lying if I said that I knew what the word really meant, yet I had a clear enough idea thanks to my mother, who was given to saying, “It was destiny.” It was destiny that her cousin had married the young guy with the dark hair and the mustache, a traffic cop. It was destiny that she was living this life rather than another. It was destiny, she said, to be born a donkey, like the donkey of Luigi, who peddled his vegetables while the mangy beast lugged them around obediently, prodded on by whacks of the stick. It was destiny to get whacked and bray, to bray and get whacked. Destiny, in short—I was convinced—led you here and there at its whim. It resided in the mailbox and was particularly robust in the side marked “all other destinations.” All you had to do was stuff your pockets with letters, lower yourself into the red box, and—whoosh!—off you’d be toward foaming seas, waves of tall grass, rippling rocks against a stormy sky, or the gravelly death of big cities teeming with murderers and thieves. I let my imagination run wild with my destinations.
I studied my escape route well. On the pretext that I was going out to play, I got as far as the mailbox and surveyed the situation. I knew I would never manage to fit through the slots. They were too small. But I was convinced that on top of the box there had to be a lid. If I could climb up, maybe I could slide in there. Maybe yes, maybe no. It would take more than one look to decide. But I did not dare fuss about too much for fear that someone would say, “Little boy, get away from there!” The street was always on alert, filled with heavy breathing, yelling, and cries. The heavy breathing came from the skinny man on the corner, wearing a felt hat low on his head, ensconced in a seedy trench coat. He liked to put his hands down little boys’ shorts after paying them thirty lira. The yelling came from husbands and wives in their kitchens, shouting, “I can’t stand it anymore! I can’t take it anymore!” The cries came from the man dressed in white, passing by at a trot with a copper container balanced on his head, who would holler periodically, “Hot pizzas! Get your hot pizzas!” And from Luigi, who would grab his donkey by the bit, and drag it from building to building, street to street, crying out, “Mulignanenpuparuoli! Vruokkolifriarielli!” I was equally annoyed by the heavy breathing, the yelling, and the cries. Even the language spoken in my city annoyed me. I couldn’t wait to disappear through the letterbox. So I filled up sheets of paper with orderly handwriting and stuffed them into my pockets.
The time I had chosen to hit the road—I say this for convenience: I don’t know anymore whether the story I am about to tell actually took place on the day set for the escape—I found myself at the window surveying the street, waiting for the right moment. Luigi was slowly advancing. He was in a temper, haggard, wearing the usual singlet and droopy trousers. Then he came to a stop, with the wagon and the donkey. Orders rained down from the balconies: a kilo of this, two kilos of that. He set the merchandise on the plate of the scale, allowed the weight to run the length of the calibrated bar and then, holding the scale by a metal hook between his thumb and index finger, he would show the buyer, who had already lowered her wicker basket, the perfect balance of bar, plate, and vegetable: the exact weight. Then, after the iron ball traveling down the calibration marks had finished making its rasping metallic sound, Luigi would start to wrap the merchandise in a sheet of old newspaper. “Nienticchi?” he would ask. No, nothing else. Then he would grab the donkey’s bit, shout “Giddeeup!,” thrash the donkey if it balked, and continue on his way.
That day, however, it just so happened that both the donkey and Luigi must have been tired. The donkey yawned, flashing its big yellow teeth. My mother, who had just lowered her basket, called down, “Lu, merte duichilepatne?“—Luigi, can you give me two kilos of potatoes? He raised his hand absentmindedly, placing his thumb right between the donkey’s teeth.
The beast chomped down and refused to let go. Luigi started shrieking, “Uah, lassame—Wahhh, let go!” He flew through the air. The donkey yanked his thumb to one side and Luigi came flying after. With an even wilder look it yanked his thumb to the other side and Luigi went thataway. While he was soaring through the air, Luigi still found the time to throw punches with his free hand, and to kick with both legs, crying, “Zo, zo, zo!” To no avail. The animal kept Luigi’s thumb firmly between its teeth, slamming him down on the pavement one second, up over his ears the next. Every time Luigi landed on the ground, BAM! he would end up beneath the donkey’s rear hooves, his arm held high and his thumb disappearing into its teeth, the blood gushing down his wrist, down his taut muscles, all the way down to his armpit, his chest, and his singlet. Down on the ground the man rolled around, kicking and screaming, “Zo, zo, zo. Uah, uah. Lssame, lssame, chiavechemmerda!” Then he resumed his flight. And this rising and falling, shooting up and smacking down, lasted until the animal bit off his thumb and ate it.
The misery of the scene rose all the way to my window. Later my mother would say, “What an awful destiny,” but for the moment she limited herself to weeping and wailing. My grandmother, leaning way out over the railing of the balcony, tried to soothe Luigi’s pains by shouting out an incantation to ward off evil:
Male, male, sfiglia, sfiglia, va’ luntano mille miglia!
The donkey for its part kept braying, “Raaah! raaah!” Luigi stared at his mutilated hand, howling, “Vuardte kmmaftto stuchiveche,” Lookit what this son of a bitch done to me! The whole building was in an uproar, tossing household utensils—some of them quite heavy—down at the animal, at the risk of delivering the coup de grace to Luigi.
I could hear the voices of Luigi, the donkey, myself, and imagine my mother uttering the words, “What an awful destiny!” The whole building joined with my grandmother in a chorus of, “Alleluia, alleluia, tutto il male fuia.” The tensions were about burst. Suddenly the idea of destinations terrified me. Out on the street alarming possibilities were encroaching. Take the donkey’s destiny. All of a sudden it had reared up, carrying Luigi far from his own, utterly predictable destiny as a normal, ten-fingered street peddler. Who knows what would happen to the poor animal now? Or the thumb’s unimaginable destiny. Or the scale, which thanks to its owner’s mutilated hand would never regain the balance to which it had seemed destined every time that he held it by the hook between his thumb and index finger. So many mutilations, so many pathways abruptly cut off, so many sudden detours and discourses now, right here on Via Vincenzo Gemito 64, and not god knows where, and in my own dialect, not in god knows what language. Awesome. The reality of my household fears had seemed destined to continue on without so much as the consolation of a fairy-tale plot, without so much as a word of surprise. And now instead . . . I could hardly believe the change.
Moreover, this extraordinary event had given me no pleasure, only terror, only guilt. By accumulating so many pieces of paper, I had consigned far too many donkeys to the mailbox for one of them not to break away haphazardly and end up accidentally getting a good chomp of a rewarding carrot, a punitive stick, a thumb that passed beneath its nose. Too many donkeys, too many Luigis, too many mothers, too many grandmothers, too many me’s. I had unleashed a mob and dumped it into a mailbox. My mother was wrong: it had nothing to do with destiny. I wrote at random, I invented at random, I wanted to run away to some random place. Destinations—to my current state of mind, although I might have thought so back then unknowingly—are marks that we write on envelopes to hoodwink our fear at having no goals, to lessen our panic at not knowing where to seek shelter, to set the pressures of the possible in meticulous order.
I received proof of this a while later, when, although I was no longer thinking of running away, I often circled around the mailbox with circumspection. People came by in a hurry, dropping off letters, at times for the city, at times for other destinations. Some of them noticed me and asked, “What is it? Would you like to put the letter in? Come here and I’ll let you.” I cringed and for the most part didn’t accept. Until one time a man in uniform arrived, placed a canvas bag below the box, opened the bottom with a knowing gesture, and let the letters tumble out. In doing so, he did not take a single glance at me. He was a mailman, without any interest whatsoever in children. A short man with a broad, unperturbed forehead and gray eyes. I recognized him. I had often seen him, and even knew where he lived: Via Vincenzo Gemito 58. He walked in a funny way, bowlegged. Even when he didn’t have his clerk’s cap on, he still had its mark on his hair. He sorted out the pieces of paper that I had been mailing for practice, tossed them on the sidewalk with irritation, and continued on his way.
From “Altre destinazione,” published 2006 in La retta via: otto storie di obiettivi mancati (Milan: Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore Milano). © Domenico Starnone. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2005 by Michael F. Moore. All rights reserved.