THE LORD: Therein thou’rt free, according to thy merits; The like of thee have never moved My hate. Of all the bold, denying Spirits, The waggish knave least trouble doth create. Man’s active nature, flagging, seeks too soon the level; Unqualified repose he learns to crave; Whence, willingly, the comrade him I gave, Who works, excites, and must create, as Devil.
--- J. W. GOETHE, Faust, translation by Bayard Taylor
Eliminating All the Traces
This morning Rino telephoned. I thought he wanted money again and I was ready to say no. But that was not the reason for the phone call: his mother was gone.
“Since when?” “Since two weeks ago.” “And you’re calling me now?” My tone must have seemed hostile, even though I wasn’t angry or offended; there was just a touch of sarcasm. He tried to respond but he did so in an awkward, muddled way, half in dialect, half in Italian. He said he was sure that his mother was wandering around Naples as usual.
“Even at night?” “You know how she is.” “I do, but does two weeks of absence seem normal?” “Yes. You haven’t seen her for a while, Elena, she’s gotten worse: she’s never sleepy, she comes in, goes out, does what she likes.”
Anyway, in the end he had started to get worried. He had asked everyone, made the rounds of the hospitals: he had even gone to the police. Nothing, his mother wasn’t anywhere. What a good son: a large man, forty years old, who hadn’t worked in his life, just a small-time crook and spendthrift. I could imagine how carefully he had done his searching. Not at all. He had no brain, and in his heart he had only himself.
“She’s not with you?” he asked suddenly. His mother? Here in Turin? He knew the situation perfectly well, he was speaking only to speak. Yes, he liked to travel, he had come to my house at least a dozen times, without being invited. His mother, whom I would have welcomed with pleas- ure, had never left Naples in her life. I answered:
“No, she’s not with me.” “You’re sure?” “Rino, please, I told you she’s not here.” “Then where has she gone?” He began to cry and I let him act out his desperation, sobs that began fake and became real. When he stopped I said: “Please, for once behave as she would like: don’t look for her.” “What do you mean?” “Just what I said. It’s pointless. Learn to stand on your own two feet and don’t call me again, either.” I hung up.
Rino’s mother is named Raffaella Cerullo, but everyone has always called her Lina. Not me, I’ve never used either her first name or her last. To me, for more than sixty years, she’s been Lila. If I were to call her Lina or Raffaella, suddenly, like that, she would think our friendship was over.
It’s been at least three decades since she told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace, and I’m the only one who knows what she means. She never had in mind any sort of flight, a change of identity, the dream of making a new life somewhere else. And she never thought of suicide, repulsed by the idea that Rino would have anything to do with her body, and be forced to attend to the details. She meant something different: she wanted to vanish; she wanted every one of her cells to disappear, nothing of her ever to be found. And since I know her well, or at least I think I know her, I take it for granted that she has found a way to disappear, to leave not so much as a hair anywhere in this world.
Days passed. I looked at my e-mail, at my regular mail, but not with any hope. I often wrote to her, and she almost never responded: this was her habit. She preferred the telephone or long nights of talk when I went to Naples.
I opened my drawers, the metal boxes where I keep all kinds of things. Not much there. I’ve thrown away a lot of stuff, especially anything that had to do with her, and she knows it. I discovered that I have nothing of hers, not a pic- ture, not a note, not a little gift. I was surprised myself. Is it possible that in all those years she left me nothing of herself, or, worse, that I didn’t want to keep anything of her? It is.
This time I telephoned Rino; I did it unwillingly. He didn’t answer on the house phone or on his cell phone. He called me in the evening, when it was convenient. He spoke in the tone of voice he uses to arouse pity.
“I saw that you called. Do you have any news?” “No. Do you?” “Nothing.” He rambled incoherently. He wanted to go on TV, on the show that looks for missing persons, make an appeal, ask his mamma’s forgiveness for everything, beg her to return.
I listened patiently, then asked him: “Did you look in her closet?”
“What for?” Naturally the most obvious thing would never occur to him. “Go and look.” He went, and he realized that there was nothing there, not one of his mother’s dresses, summer or winter, only old hang- ers. I sent him to search the whole house. Her shoes were gone. The few books: gone. All the photographs: gone. The movies: gone. Her computer had disappeared, including the old-fash- ioned diskettes and everything, everything to do with her expe- rience as an electronics wizard who had begun to operate com- puters in the late sixties, in the days of punch cards. Rino was astonished. I said to him:
“Take as much time as you want, but then call and tell me if you’ve found even a single hairpin that belongs to her.”
He called the next day, greatly agitated. “There’s nothing.” “Nothing at all?” “No. She cut herself out of all the photographs of the two of us, even those from when I was little.” “You looked carefully?” “Everywhere.” “Even in the cellar?”
“I told you, everywhere. And the box with her papers is gone: I don’t know, old birth certificates, telephone bills, receipts. What does it mean? Did someone steal everything? What are they looking for? What do they want from my mother and me?”
I reassured him, I told him to calm down. It was unlikely that anyone wanted anything, especially from him.
“Can I come and stay with you for a while?” “No.” “Please, I can’t sleep.” “That’s your problem, Rino, I don’t know what to do about it.” I hung up and when he called back I didn’t answer. I sat
down at my desk. Lila is overdoing it as usual, I thought. She was expanding the concept of trace out of all proportion. She wanted not only to disappear herself, now, at the age of sixty-six, but also to eliminate the entire life that she had left behind.
I was really angry.
We’ll see who wins this time, I said to myself. I turned on the computer and began to write—all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory.
The Story of Don Achille
My friendship with Lila began the day we decided to go up the dark stairs that led, step after step, flight after flight, to the door of Don Achille’s apartment.
I remember the violet light of the courtyard, the smells of a warm spring evening. The mothers were making dinner, it was time to go home, but we delayed, challenging each other, with- out ever saying a word, testing our courage. For some time, in school and outside of it, that was what we had been doing. Lila would thrust her hand and then her whole arm into the black mouth of a manhole, and I, in turn, immediately did the same, my heart pounding, hoping that the cockroaches wouldn’t run over my skin, that the rats wouldn’t bite me. Lila climbed up to Signora Spagnuolo’s ground-floor window, and, hanging from the iron bar that the clothesline was attached to, swung back and forth, then lowered herself down to the sidewalk, and I immediately did the same, although I was afraid of falling and hurting myself. Lila stuck into her skin the rusted safety pin that she had found on the street somewhere but kept in her pocket like the gift of a fairy godmother; I watched the metal point as it dug a whitish tunnel into her palm, and then, when she pulled it out and handed it to me, I did the same.
At some point she gave me one of her firm looks, eyes nar- rowed, and headed toward the building where Don Achille lived. I was frozen with fear. Don Achille was the ogre of fairy tales, I was absolutely forbidden to go near him, speak to him, look at him, spy on him, I was to act as if neither he nor his family existed. Regarding him there was, in my house but not only mine, a fear and a hatred whose origin I didn’t know. The way my father talked about him, I imagined a huge man, cov- ered with purple boils, violent in spite of the “don,” which to me suggested a calm authority. He was a being created out of some unidentifiable material, iron, glass, nettles, but alive, alive, the hot breath streaming from his nose and mouth. I thought that if I merely saw him from a distance he would drive some- thing sharp and burning into my eyes. So if I was mad enough to approach the door of his house he would kill me.
I waited to see if Lila would have second thoughts and turn back. I knew what she wanted to do, I had hoped that she would forget about it, but in vain. The street lamps were not yet lighted, nor were the lights on the stairs. From the apart- ments came irritable voices. To follow Lila I had to leave the bluish light of the courtyard and enter the black of the door- way. When I finally made up my mind, I saw nothing at first, there was only an odor of old junk and DDT. Then I got used to the darkness and found Lila sitting on the first step of the first flight of stairs. She got up and we began to climb.
We kept to the side where the wall was, she two steps ahead, I two steps behind, torn between shortening the dis- tance or letting it increase. I can still feel my shoulder inching along the flaking wall and the idea that the steps were very high, higher than those in the building where I lived. I was trembling. Every footfall, every voice was Don Achille creep- ing up behind us or coming down toward us with a long knife, the kind used for slicing open a chicken breast. There was an odor of sautéing garlic. Maria, Don Achille’s wife, would put me in the pan of boiling oil, the children would eat me, he would suck my head the way my father did with mullets.
We stopped often, and each time I hoped that Lila would decide to turn back. I was all sweaty, I don’t know about her. Every so often she looked up, but I couldn’t tell at what, all that was visible was the gray areas of the big windows at every landing. Suddenly the lights came on, but they were faint, dusty, leaving broad zones of shadow, full of dangers. We waited to see if it was Don Achille who had turned the switch, but we heard nothing, neither footsteps nor the opening or closing of a door. Then Lila continued on, and I followed.
She thought that what we were doing was just and necessary; I had forgotten every good reason, and certainly was there only because she was. We climbed slowly toward the greatest of our terrors of that time, we went to expose ourselves to fear and interrogate it.
At the fourth flight Lila did something unexpected. She stopped to wait for me, and when I reached her she gave me her hand. This gesture changed everything between us forever.
It was her fault. Not too long before—ten days, a month, who can say, we knew nothing about time, in those days—she had treacherously taken my doll and thrown her down into a cellar. Now we were climbing toward fear; then we had felt obliged to descend, quickly, into the unknown. Up or down, it seemed to us that we were always going toward something ter- rible that had existed before us yet had always been waiting for us, just for us. When you haven’t been in the world long, it’s hard to comprehend what disasters are at the origin of a sense of disaster: maybe you don’t even feel the need to. Adults, waiting for tomorrow, move in a present behind which is yes- terday or the day before yesterday or at most last week: they don’t want to think about the rest. Children don’t know the meaning of yesterday, of the day before yesterday, or even of tomorrow, everything is this, now: the street is this, the doorway is this, the stairs are this, this is Mamma, this is Papa, this is the day, this the night. I was small and really my doll knew more than I did. I talked to her, she talked to me. She had a plastic face and plastic hair and plastic eyes. She wore a blue dress that my mother had made for her in a rare moment of happiness, and she was beautiful. Lila’s doll, on the other hand, had a cloth body of a yellowish color, filled with sawdust, and she seemed to me ugly and grimy. The two spied on each other, they sized each other up, they were ready to flee into our arms if a storm burst, if there was thunder, if someone bigger and stronger, with sharp teeth, wanted to snatch them away.
We played in the courtyard but as if we weren’t playing together. Lila sat on the ground, on one side of a small barred basement window, I on the other. We liked that place, espe- cially because behind the bars was a metal grating and, against the grating, on the cement ledge between the bars, we could arrange the things that belonged to Tina, my doll, and those of Nu, Lila’s doll. There we put rocks, bottle tops, little flowers, nails, splinters of glass. I overheard what Lila said to Nu and repeated it in a low voice to Tina, slightly modified. If she took a bottle top and put it on her doll’s head, like a hat, I said to mine, in dialect, Tina, put on your queen’s crown or you’ll catch cold. If Nu played hopscotch in Lila’s arms, I soon after- ward made Tina do the same. Still, it never happened that we decided on a game and began playing together. Even that place we chose without explicit agreement. Lila sat down there, and I strolled around, pretending to go somewhere else. Then, as if I’d given it no thought, I, too, settled next to the cellar win- dow, but on the opposite side.
The thing that attracted us most was the cold air that came from the cellar, a breath that refreshed us in spring and sum- mer. And then we liked the bars with their spiderwebs, the darkness, and the tight mesh of the grating that, reddish with rust, curled up both on my side and on Lila’s, creating two par- allel holes through which we could drop rocks into obscurity and hear the sound when they hit bottom. It was all beautiful and frightening then. Through those openings the darkness might suddenly seize the dolls, who sometimes were safe in our arms, but more often were placed deliberately next to the twisted grating and thus exposed to the cellar’s cold breath, to its threatening noises, rustling, squeaking, scraping.
Nu and Tina weren’t happy. The terrors that we tasted every day were theirs. We didn’t trust the light on the stones, on the buildings, on the scrubland beyond the neighborhood, on the people inside and outside their houses. We imagined the dark corners, the feelings repressed but always close to exploding. And to those shadowy mouths, the caverns that opened beyond them under the buildings, we attributed every- thing that frightened us in the light of day. Don Achille, for example, was not only in his apartment on the top floor but also down below, a spider among spiders, a rat among rats, a shape that assumed all shapes. I imagined him with his mouth open because of his long animal fangs, his body of glazed stone and poisonous grasses, always ready to pick up in an enormous black bag anything we dropped through the torn corners of the grate. That bag was a fundamental feature of Don Achille, he always had it, even at home, and into it he put material both living and dead.
Lila knew that I had that fear, my doll talked about it out loud. And so, on the day we exchanged our dolls for the first time—with no discussion, only looks and gestures—as soon as she had Tina, she pushed her through the grate and let her fall into the darkness.
Lila appeared in my life in first grade and immediately impressed me because she was very bad. In that class we were all a little bad, but only when the teacher, Maestra Oliviero, couldn’t see us. Lila, on the other hand, was always bad. Once she tore up some blotting paper into little pieces, dipped the pieces one by one in the inkwell, and then fished them out with her pen and threw them at us. I was hit twice in the hair and once on my white collar. The teacher yelled, as she knew how to do, in a voice like a needle, long and pointed, which terror- ized us, and ordered her to go and stand behind the black- board in punishment. Lila didn’t obey and didn’t even seem frightened; she just kept throwing around pieces of inky paper. So Maestra Oliviero, a heavy woman who seemed very old to us, though she couldn’t have been much over forty, came down from the desk, threatening her. The teacher stumbled, it wasn’t clear on what, lost her balance, and fell, striking her face against the corner of a desk. She lay on the floor as if dead.
What happened right afterward I don’t remember, I remem- ber only the dark bundle of the teacher’s motionless body, and Lila staring at her with a serious expression.
I have in my mind so many incidents of this type. We lived in a world in which children and adults were often wounded, blood flowed from the wounds, they festered, and sometimes people died. One of the daughters of Signora Assunta, the fruit and vegetable seller, had stepped on a nail and died of tetanus. Signora Spagnuolo’s youngest child had died of croup. A cousin of mine, at the age of twenty, had gone one morning to move some rubble and that night was dead, crushed, the blood pouring out of his ears and mouth. My mother’s father had been killed when he fell from a scaffolding at a building site. The father of Signor Peluso was missing an arm, the lathe had caught him unawares. The sister of Giuseppina, Signor Peluso’s wife, had died of tuberculosis at twenty-two. The old- est son of Don Achille—I had never seen him, and yet I seemed to remember him—had gone to war and died twice: drowned in the Pacific Ocean, then eaten by sharks. The entire Melchiorre family had died clinging to each other, screaming with fear, in a bombardment. Old Signorina Clorinda had died inhaling gas instead of air. Giannino, who was in fourth grade when we were in first, had died one day because he had come across a bomb and touched it. Luigina, with whom we had played in the courtyard, or maybe not, she was only a name, had died of typhus. Our world was like that, full of words that killed: croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection. With these words and those years I bring back the many fears that accom- panied me all my life.
You could also die of things that seemed normal. You could die, for example, if you were sweating and then drank cold water from the tap without first bathing your wrists: you’d break out in red spots, you’d start coughing, and be unable to breathe. You could die if you ate black cherries and didn’t spit out the pits. You could die if you chewed American gum and inadvertently swallowed it. You could die if you banged your temple. The temple, in particular, was a fragile place, we were all careful about it. Being hit with a stone could do it, and throwing stones was the norm. When we left school a gang of boys from the countryside, led by a kid called Enzo or Enzuccio, who was one of the children of Assunta the fruit and vegetable seller, began to throw rocks at us. They were angry because we were smarter than them. When the rocks came at us we ran away, except Lila, who kept walking at her regular pace and sometimes even stopped. She was very good at studying the trajectory of the stones and dodging them with an easy move that today I would call elegant. She had an older brother and maybe she had learned from him, I don’t know, I also had brothers, but they were younger than me and from them I had learned nothing. Still, when I realized that she had stayed behind, I stopped to wait for her, even though I was scared.
Already then there was something that kept me from aban- doning her. I didn’t know her well; we had never spoken to each other, although we were constantly competing, in class and outside it. But in a confused way I felt that if I ran away with the others I would leave with her something of mine that she would never give back.
At first I stayed hidden, around a corner, and leaned out to see if Lila was coming. Then, since she wouldn’t budge, I forced myself to rejoin her; I handed her stones, and even threw some myself. But I did it without conviction: I did many things in my life without conviction; I always felt slightly detached from my own actions. Lila, on the other hand, had, from a young age—I can’t say now precisely if it was so at six or seven, or when we went together up the stairs that led to Don Achille’s and were eight, almost nine—the characteristic of absolute determination. Whether she was gripping the tri- color shaft of the pen or a stone or the handrail on the dark stairs, she communicated the idea that whatever came next— thrust the pen with a precise motion into the wood of the desk, dispense inky bullets, strike the boys from the countryside, climb the stairs to Don Achille’s door—she would do without hesitation.
The gang came from the railroad embankment, stocking up on rocks from the trackbed. Enzo, the leader, was a dangerous child, with very short blond hair and pale eyes; he was at least three years older than us, and had repeated a year. He threw small, sharp-edged rocks with great accuracy, and Lila waited for his throws to demonstrate how she evaded them, making him still angrier, and responded with throws that were just as dangerous. Once we hit him in the right calf, and I say we because I had handed Lila a flat stone with jagged edges. The stone slid over Enzo’s skin like a razor, leaving a red stain that immediately gushed blood. The child looked at his wounded leg. I have him before my eyes: between thumb and index finger he held the rock that he was about to throw, his arm was raised to throw it, and yet he stopped, bewildered. The boys under his command also looked incredulously at the blood. Lila, however, manifested not the least satisfaction in the out- come of the throw and bent over to pick up another stone. I grabbed her by the arm; it was the first contact between us, an abrupt, frightened contact. I felt that the gang would get more ferocious and I wanted to retreat. But there wasn’t time. Enzo, in spite of his bleeding calf, came out of his stupor and threw the rock in his hand. I was still holding on to Lila when the rock hit her in the head and knocked her away from me. A sec- ond later she was lying on the sidewalk with a gash in her fore- head.
My Brilliant Friend