Authors: Elena Ferrante
214 West 29th St., Suite 1003
New York NY 10001
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously.
Copyright © 2006 by Edizioni E/O
First publication 2007 by Europa Editions
Translation by Ann Goldstein
Translation copyright © 2007 by Europa Editions
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
Cover Art by Emanuele Ragnisco
For my mother
My mother drowned on the night of May 23rd, my birthday, in the sea at a place called Spaccavento, a few miles from Minturno. In the late fifties, when my father was still living with us, we rented a room in a farmhouse in that very area and spent the month of July there, the five of us sleeping in a few burning-hot square meters. Every morning we girls drank a fresh egg, headed to the sea among tall reeds on paths of dirt and sand, and swam. The night my mother died, the owner of that house, who was called Rosa and by now was over seventy, had heard someone knocking at the door but, fearing thieves and murderers, didn’t open it.
My mother had taken the train for Rome two days earlier, on May 21st, but had never arrived. Lately, she had been coming to stay with me at least once a month for a few days. I didn’t like hearing her in the house. She woke at dawn and, as was her habit, cleaned the kitchen and living room from top to bottom. I tried to go back to sleep, but couldn’t: rigid between the sheets, I had the impression that as she bustled about she transformed my body into that of a wizened child. When she came in with the coffee, I huddled to one side so that she wouldn’t touch me as she sat down on the edge of the bed. Her sociability irritated me: she went shopping and got to know shopkeepers with whom in ten years I had exchanged no more than a word or two; she took walks through the city with casual acquaintances; she became a friend of my friends, and told them stories of her life, the same ones over and over. I, with her, could only be self-contained and insincere.
At the first hint of impatience on my part, she returned to Naples. She gathered her things, gave a last tidying up to the house, and promised to be back soon. I went through the rooms rearranging according to my taste everything she had arranged according to hers. I put the saltshaker back on the shelf where I had kept it for years, I restored the detergent to the place that had always seemed to me convenient, I made a mess of the order she had brought to my drawers, I re-created chaos in the room where I worked. And in a little while the odor of her presence—a scent that left in the house a sense of restlessness—faded, like the smell of a passing shower in summer.
It often happened that she missed the train. Usually she arrived on the next one or even the next day, but I couldn’t get used to it and so I worried just the same. I telephoned her anxiously. When I finally heard her voice, I reproached her with a certain harshness: why hadn’t she departed, why hadn’t she warned me? She apologized unremorsefully, wondering with amusement what I imagined could have happened to her, at her age. “Everything,” I answered. I had always pictured a weft of traps, woven purposely to make her vanish from the world. When I was a child, I would spend the time of her absences waiting for her in the kitchen, at the window. I longed for her to appear at the end of the street like a figure in a crystal ball. I breathed on the glass, fogging it, in order not to see the street without her. If she was late, the anxiety became uncontainable, overflowing into tremors throughout my body. Then I ran to a storeroom, without windows or light, right next to her and my father’s room. I closed the door and sat in the silent dark, crying. The little room was an effective antidote. It inspired a terror that kept at bay my anxiety for the fate of my mother. In the pitch-blackness, suffocating because of the smell of DDT, I was attacked by colored shapes that grazed the pupils of my eyes for a few seconds and left me gasping. “When you get back I’ll kill you,” I thought, as if it were she who had left me shut up in there. But then, as soon as I heard her voice in the hall, I quickly slipped out and went to hover near her, with an air of indifference. That storeroom came to my mind when I discovered that she had left at the normal time but had never arrived.
In the evening I got the first phone call. My mother said in a calm voice that she couldn’t tell me anything: there was a man with her who was preventing her. Then she started laughing and hung up. At first what I mainly felt was bewilderment. I thought she was joking, and resigned myself to wait for a second phone call. In fact I spent hours in conjectures, sitting vainly beside the telephone. Finally, after midnight, I turned to a friend who was a policeman: he was very kind and told me not to get upset, he would take care of it. But the night passed without news of my mother. The only certainty was her departure: Signora De Riso, a widowed neighbor about the same age, with whom for fifteen years she had had alternating periods of friendliness and hostility, had told me on the telephone that she had gone with my mother to the station. While my mother stood in line to buy a ticket, the widow had bought her a bottle of water and a magazine. The train was crowded but my mother had found a place anyway, next to the window, in a compartment jammed with soldiers on leave. They had said goodbye, warning each other to be careful. How was she dressed? In the usual way, in clothes she had had for years: blue skirt and jacket, a black leather purse, old, low-heeled shoes, a worn suitcase.
At seven in the morning my mother telephoned again. Although I assailed her with questions (“Where are you? Where are you phoning from? Who are you with?”), she confined herself to reeling off, in a loud voice, a series of obscene expressions in dialect, uttering each one with enjoyment. Then she hung up. Those obscenities caused in me a disorienting regression. I telephoned my friend again, astonishing him with a confused mixture of Italian and expressions in dialect. He wanted to know if my mother had been particularly depressed recently. I didn’t know. I admitted that she wasn’t the way she used to be—calm, gently amused. She laughed for no reason, she talked too much; but old people often act like that. My friend agreed: as soon as the weather turned warm, old people were constantly doing odd things; there was nothing to worry about. But I continued to worry, and walked all over the city, searching in the places where I knew she liked to walk.
The third phone call came at ten at night. My mother spoke incoherently about a man who was following her so that he could take her away wrapped in a carpet. She asked me to come quickly and help her. I begged her to tell me where she was. She changed her tone, said that it was better not to. “Lock yourself in, don’t open to anyone,” she advised me. The man wanted to harm me, too. Then she added: “Go to sleep. I’m going to have a bath now.” There was nothing more.
The next day two boys saw her body floating a few yards from the shore. She was wearing only her bra. Her suitcase wasn’t found. Her blue suit wasn’t found. Her underwear, her stockings, her shoes, her purse, with her papers, weren’t found. But on her finger she still had her engagement ring and her wedding ring. In her ears were the earrings that my father had given her nearly half a century earlier.
I saw the body, and, faced with that livid object, felt that I had better grab onto it in order not to end up in some unknown place. It hadn’t been assaulted. It showed only some bruises, a result of the waves that, though gentle, had pushed her all night against some rocks at the edge of the water. It seemed to me that around her eyes she had traces of heavy makeup. I observed for a long time, uneasily, her legs, olive-skinned, and extraordinarily youthful for a woman of sixty-three. With the same uneasiness I realized that the bra was very different from the shabby ones she usually wore. The cups were made of finely worked lace and revealed the nipples. They were joined by three embroidered “V”s, the signature of a Neapolitan shop that sold expensive lingerie for women, that of the Vossi sisters. When it was given to me, along with her earrings and her rings, I sniffed it for a long time. It had the sharp odor of new fabric.
During the funeral I was surprised to find myself thinking that at last I no longer had any obligation to worry about her. Right afterward I was aware of a warm flow and felt wet between my legs.
I was at the head of a long procession of relatives, friends, acquaintances. My two sisters were close beside me. I was supporting one by the arm because I was afraid she might faint. The other was holding on to me as if her swollen eyes prevented her from seeing. That involuntary dissolving of my body frightened me like a threat of punishment. I had been unable to shed a tear: I couldn’t cry, or maybe I hadn’t wanted to cry. Furthermore, I was the only one who had expended any words of excuse for my father, who hadn’t come to the funeral or sent flowers. My sisters hadn’t concealed their disapproval, and now seemed intent on demonstrating publicly that they had enough tears to make up for those which neither I nor my father was shedding. I felt accused. When the procession was accompanied for a short stretch by a colored man who was carrying on his back some paintings mounted in frames, the first of which (the one visible on his back) showed a crude portrayal of a half-naked Gypsy, I hoped that neither they nor the relatives would notice. The maker of those paintings was my father. Maybe he was working on one of his trashy canvases at that very moment. He had made, for decades, and continued to make innumerable copies of that hateful Gypsy, sold on the streets and at country fairs, supplying for a few lire the constant demand of petit-bourgeois living rooms for ugly pictures. The irony of the lines that connect moments to meetings, to separations, to old rancors had sent to my mother’s funeral not him but that elemental painting of his, detested by his daughters even more than we detested its author.
I felt tired of everything. I hadn’t stopped for a moment since arriving in the city. For days I had been making the rounds with my Uncle Filippo, my mother’s brother, through a chaos of offices, visiting small-time brokers who might be able to speed the bureaucratic procedures, or, after waiting in long lines at windows, testing the willingness of clerks to overcome insurmountable obstacles in exchange for generous gratuities. At times my uncle succeeded in obtaining results by showing the empty sleeve of his jacket. He had lost his right arm at an advanced age, fifty-six, working at a lathe in a workshop on the outskirts of the city, and, ever since, he had used his disability to ask favors, or to wish the same bad luck on those who refused him. But we got the best results by handing out a lot of undeserved money. By that means we had procured the necessary documents, permissions from I don’t know how many proper authorities, true or invented, a first-class funeral, and, hardest of all, a place in the cemetery.
Meanwhile the dead body of Amalia, my mother, butchered by the autopsy, had grown heavier and heavier as we dragged it, along with name and surname, date of birth and date of death, before bureaucrats who were sometimes rude, sometimes ingratiating. I felt the urgency of getting rid of it and yet, still not sufficiently exhausted, I wanted to help carry the casket. They had given in to me after a lot of resistance: women do not carry caskets. It had been a terrible idea. Since the men who were carrying the casket with me (a cousin and my two brothers-in-law) were taller, I was afraid during the entire journey that the wooden box might slide into me, between the collarbone and the neck, along with the body it contained. When the coffin was set down in the hearse, and it had started off, a few steps and a guilty relief were enough for the tension to release that hidden stream from my womb.
The warm liquid that was coming out of me against my will gave me the impression of an agreed-upon signal among aliens inside my body. The funeral procession advanced toward Piazza Carlo III. The yellowish façade of the Reclusorio seemed barely able to contain the pressure of the Incis neighborhood that weighed on it. The streets of topographic memory seemed to me unstable, like a carbonated drink that, if shaken, bubbles up and overflows. I felt the city coming apart in the heat, in the dusty gray light, and I went over in my mind the story of childhood and adolescence that impelled me to wander along the Veterinaria to the Botanic Gardens, or over the cobbles of the market of Sant’Antonio Abate, which were always damp and strewn with rotting vegetables. I had the impression that my mother was carrying off the places, too, and the names of the streets. I stared at the image of my sisters and me in the glass, among the wreaths of flowers, like a photograph taken in dim light, useless for future memory. I anchored myself to the paving stones of the piazza with the soles of my shoes, I isolated the scent of the flowers arranged on the hearse, which was already putrid. At a certain point I was afraid that the blood would start running down my ankles, and I tried to get free of my sisters. It was impossible. I had to wait until the procession wound through the piazza, ascended via Don Bosco, and broke up in a crush of cars and people. Aunts and uncles, great-aunts and uncles, in-laws, cousins began to embrace us in turn: people vaguely known, changed by the years, seen only in childhood or perhaps never. The few people I recalled clearly hadn’t shown up. Or maybe they were there, but I didn’t recognize them because I could recall only details from my childhood: a crossed eye, a lame leg, the olive color of the skin. To make up for it, people whose names I didn’t even know drew me aside to recite old wrongs done to them by my father. Unknown but affectionate young men, adept at social conversation, asked me how I was, how things were going, what kind of work I did. I answered: well, it was going well, I drew comic strips, and how were things going for them? Many wrinkled old women, completely in black except for the pallor of their faces, praised the extraordinary beauty and goodness of Amalia. Some embraced me with such force and shed such copious tears that I wavered between a feeling of suffocation and an unbearable sensation of wetness that extended from their sweat and tears to my groin, to where my thighs joined. For the first time I was glad about the dark dress I was wearing. I was about to leave when Uncle Filippo went off on one of his rants. In his seventy-year-old head, which often confused past and present, a detail must have knocked down barriers that were already shaky. To everyone’s astonishment, he began cursing loudly in dialect, and frantically waving the only arm he had.