In fact, it was just this past Christmas, the last holidays I spent at my aunt and uncle's. The weather was cold, and fog blanketed the village. Life there was as boring as always, nobody ever called, nobody ever came to see me. My uncle fell asleep watching the dancers on television, my aunt crocheted huge bedspreads. The plastic tree blinked in the semidarkness like a broken traffic light.
Even at midday, fog lay over the house like a shroud. Every half hour I looked out the window to see if the sun had broken through. You could never see a thing. At night I dreamed I had long, long arms, so long that I could reach the sky. I reached up there and grabbed the clouds and pushed them aside, one after the other, as though they were curtains in a movie theater. I started to get angry. Does the sun really exist? I wondered. At last I found it, its bright ray struck me in the middle of my forehead. It struck me and no one else, because I had been the one looking for it, I I had flushed it out with my enormous arms, with the force of my will.
On New Year's Eve I went into the woodshed and got drunk. At intervals, the sounds of passing cars reached me from the outside. Everyone was in motion, hurtling through the fog. Going where? Going to kill themselves, perhaps, out of pure sadness, even before they ate the big New Year's Eve dinner. The wood smelled moldy. It looked wet and glossy, like the wood of a sunken galleon. Everything was whirling around me, and I thought, I'm in the belly of the whale. It's swallowed me, and I'll never be able to escape. I'm a prisoner in a castle dungeon, or maybe I'm already in the afterlife and this is my grave. The wood is rotting, and my bones have started rotting, too. If this is the grave, where's the next world? Eventually a crack should open, the Light should come in somewhere. Or flames should blaze up.
Was I supposed to believe this? To fall back into the trap and keep on believing?
All the same, my mother had to be somewhere. Maybe she'd gone to hell, and that's why I couldn't see her. Or maybe there wasn't anything, maybe there was nothing at all. After a year, you were worms, and after two, dust.
"Say a little prayer for your mama and for the souls in purgatory." When I was in boarding school, that's what the nuns told me every night. I obeyed them; I knelt there with my hands joined and raised my eyes heavenward. I expected my mother to appear at any moment, a sudden flash of light followed by wind. I would recognize her by the heat, by the little tornado of warmth that would rise up from the pit of my stomach. Love, I'd tell myself, has brought her back from the land of the dead.
I prayed and I prayed, but the only thing that flashed, on and off, was a defective light bulb.
Did love really exist? And if it did, what form did it assume?
The more time passed, the less I was able to understand. Love was a word, a word like a table, window, lamp. Or was it something else? How many kinds of love were there?
I had believed in it since I was a little girl, the way you believe that there are elves who live inside trees. One day, however, I looked into the cracks in some tree trunks, under the caps of the mushrooms. There weren't any elves, nor any fairies, either; only moss, lichen, a little mold, and a few insects.
Instead of embracing, the insects were devouring one another.
My mother died when I was almost eight years old. An automobile accident while I was at school. I remember that day clearly. The teacher brought me into the principal's office. One of them kept her arm around my shoulder, the other on moved her mouth: "Something terrible has happened...
I stood there, very still, without crying. I thought, I wonder if I'll ever find her smell again anywhere?
Why do faces disappear from memory as time passes, bu not smells? What was her scent made of, what was in it? Cheap cologne, for sure, mixed with the smell of her skin and the fragrance of soap or talcum powder. My mother was constantly washing herself.
During my first seven years, we were always together. We lived in an apartment. She was cheerful, flamboyant, brightly colored. At night, after she tucked me in, she went to work, and when I woke up there she was again, standing next to the bed. She'd announce, "Now arriving, a shower of kisses!" and throw herself on me, laughing.
That's how it was, and that's how I thought it would always be.
I didn't yet know our names weren't carved in stone, but scribbled on a blackboard. Every so often someone made a pass with the eraser and another name vanished from the list. Did he wield the eraser precisely, purposefully? Did he wield it inadvertently? Was that the very name he wanted to erase, or was it maybe the one just above, or just below?
We had hung a small picture of Jesus over the door in the kitchenette. Below the picture, a tiny light was always on. Although it didn't burn your fingers, it moved like a little flame. Jesus was holding his heart in his hand, but that didn't bother me, because instead of being disheveled and screaming in pain, he had perfectly combed hair and rosy cheeks and he was smiling and didn't seem scared at all. "Who's that man?" I asked, the first time I saw him.
"He's a friend," Mama replied, "a friend who loves you. "
"Does he love you, too?"
"Of course. He loves everybody."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Rispondimi by Susanna Tamaro. Copyright © 2002 by Susanna Tamaro. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.