Here comes the cradle covered with white muslin sailing into my room. There’s a moment of hesitation, and then the anchor is dropped in the very center so that the little world that was mine now revolves around this newborn sun.
When my sister arrived, there were already three of us—my two brothers, aged seven and nine, and I, who was two. Of the prehistory before she was there I have no mental image; it is before daybreak, everything completely dark.
The next thing I see is my sister in the cradle and a chair next to it on which I’m kneeling, my elbows across the back. I stay there for a bit watching her tiny translucent hands wave in the air. Then I get down and go off to play by myself, waiting for her to grow up.
Not long after that I see an upheaval in our house and a parade of furniture, trunks, and suitcases going down the stairs. Even my little bed is gone, and I’m left alone in the room beside the howling cradle, which is afraid of being alone. There is a frightening emptiness, and the howling cradle resounds in it. I cover my ears and cry.
We are moving to France, to Paris, in Caroline, our fifties Plymouth with gold fins. It’s crammed full with our baggage. My father is driving, my older brother beside him. In the backseat there are me, my brother Pietro, and my mother with Clara in her arms.
Our new place was on the ground floor and so dark that my mother dressed my sister and me in bright colors so she could keep an eye on us. Later on, when we’d grown some, she started dressing us in darker colors, but exactly alike.
As we stood in line in the front hall of the nursery school, Clara, expecting that we’d go into the classroom together, kept holding my hand. She cried if Bernadette, the teacher, tried to separate us to do different activities. Bernadette nicknamed her my “little limpet” and arranged the benches in two circles, one for the littler girls and the other for the bigger ones. The circles just kissed each other, and that was where Clara and I sat.
When I turned five, they decided to move me to first grade.
It’s evening. As usual at every serious moment my mother is sitting on her bed and I’m standing in front of her, our knees touching, my hands in hers. She explains to me that tomorrow I’m going to a new class but that she and the teacher have worked it out so that at first I’ll go to kindergarten as if nothing is different and then at a certain point the first-grade teacher will come to take me to my new class. While my mother is telling me this I feel a wave of fear and excitement, pride and guilt. It’s the first secret I have that doesn’t include my sister, and when I go back to our room I sit on the floor with my back to her.
The next day as we’re standing in line in the front hall, Clara laces her fingers in mine. Mine are limp and damp. We march into class and form our two circles. She starts drawing, peacefully absorbed. On my sheet of paper there appears a house with wavering walls. The first-grade teacher walks in, confers for a moment with Bernadette, and then here it is—she’s coming toward me, holding out her hand. I look at that hand, which seems enormous. I look at my sister, still bent over her drawing, then again at the enormous hand. If I take it, it’s all over. I close my eyes so it disappears. But then someone brushes my chin, and when I open my eyes I see the teacher smiling at me and I feel important, a sorrowful tragic heroine, so yes, I put my hand in hers, get up, and start walking with my head down. We’re almost to the brown door that separates the two classrooms when I hear my sister’s screaming that I know so well. But this time it’s louder and more terrible, and I, her betrayer, turn around. Bernadette is sitting on one of our little stools, covering it completely with her large body so that it looks as if she’s sitting on air. She’s holding Clara on her knees, holding her tight around the waist while Clara is thrashing her arms and legs trying to reach me, her mouth wide open in despair. I stand there petrified, but the teacher is already pulling me along, and together we disappear behind the brown door. She leads me to the first row, and still there’s that screaming, over and over again, and I collapse on my desk with my head between my arms and sob—long, low sobs during the whole lesson, a grieving faithful echo of the persistent screaming of my sister.Snow White
My first-grade teacher had very white skin and a ribbon in her hair. She called us her “dwarfs” and had us do a ton of fun things—such as pretending that our classroom was a plane, complete with pilot, flight attendant, and in-flight snacks, on its way to faraway lands. After landing, some of us, dressed as Chinese, Africans, or Mexicans, would greet the others, describing our country with the help of books and postcards. All that we did in school was, according to our teacher, “work,” and the gentle yet firm tone of her voice kept us in order. I was the youngest in her class, and she brazenly made me her pet. From the very first day she put me in the desk right in front of her and always kept an eye on me, encouraging and praising everything I did. She told my mother that strictness made me sad.
Sometimes she took me to her home after school. The first thing she would do was to feed me a bowl of soup that sat heavily on my stomach the rest of the afternoon. In that tiny, tidy apartment, with no husband or children around, I discovered the sound of my own footsteps. There were little porcelain animals perched here and there, and two children’s busts (a boy and a girl) whose cold, smooth marble cheeks I liked to caress with my fingertips.
Taking me by the hand, the teacher leads me over to say hello to her porcelain animals. “This is Bouncy Bunny, that’s Mouse Camembert, and she’s Skunky-who-never-listens with her friend Finchy-Pinchy.” She tells me that yesterday, with a prodigious jump, Bouncy Bunny landed on Skunky’s tail and she got mad as she often does, and let out her noxious cloud, and Mouse Camembert protested to Skunky, who said, “Look who’s talking, you stink more than I do,” and then Finchy-Pinchy took her friends’ side, and that set off such a to-do of pecking and scratching that she had to scold them all, every single one.
“And then what happened?” I ask.
“Then I put them to bed. You see how well they’re behaving. They’re sleeping.”
“I’d like to see them when they’re awake, just once.”
“Yes, maybe one day when you come you’ll find them playing or working.”
At night in bed I imagined the birds chirping, the mice nibbling, and the rabbits hopping in my teacher’s house, just like in Snow White’s forest. But I never saw them. In her apartment there must have been a spell of melancholy and silence that was broken only when she was alone with her animals.
In the Christmas play she cast me as the Virgin Mary. Mama pinned a silk scarf to my hair, a blue veil that gave my face a rapt and solemn look.
Then my teacher began to get sick, disappearing at first a few days at a time. When she returned she was more thin and pale. Then she disappeared for a long time—an interminable time—and she was replaced by another teacher who shamed me by snatching my notebook from under my nose and showing my classmates how messy my handwriting was.
The last time she came to visit us, she kept her coat on the whole time, and I felt that even then she was cold. When the time came for her to leave, she said good-bye to my classmates, kissing them on both cheeks. She kissed me only once and held my face between her hands for a long time.
She never came back. Not then, not the next day, not the day after that. But I didn’t ask any questions, and in bed at night I kept on imagining her in that house, surrounded by her mischievous scampering animals.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Enchantments by Linda Ferri Translated by John Casey with maria Sanminiatelli. Copyright © 2005 by Linda Ferri. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, 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.