A short story by Annalisa Mastronardi

In the semi-darkness of your room hundreds of tiny dust grains danced in the straights traced by the sunlight. You slowly opened your eyes and, still half-asleep, sat up in bed. Adrenaline suddenly invaded and rushed through your body from head to toe. It was August 30th, the day before your ninth birthday.

Although there wouldn’t be any celebration, you felt excited. You loved birthdays. Your schoolmates always threw amazing parties for their birthdays. Everything seemed extraordinary to you: the balloons, the clowns, the gifts, the cake.

You were at your grandparents’ in Abruzzi. With you were only your mother and your brother, Kevin. Your father had returned to work a few days earlier. Your grandparents had a small farm in the countryside where you and your family spent your summers every year. It was a quiet place, perhaps a little too quiet, especially at the end of August, when everybody returned to their town houses in Bologna and Turin. Apart from some old neighbours, there wasn’t any friend to play with.

Sometimes Laura, a child of your age, came to visit her grandpa Luigi, a grizzled skinny man who lived in the house next-door. Each time you heard a car approaching the drive, you rushed over to see if it was her. You had great fun together: you made mud pies, cycled downhill at full speed and, on occasion, had picnics in your grandparents’ cellar, surrounded by enormous bottles of wine and cans of olive oil. One day you even competed to see who could manage to spit a cherry stone into the flowerpot dish you had placed in the centre of her yard. Oh, those were real fun times.

 Yet Laura wouldn’t come that day, nor the day after.

You got out of bed and went to the living room in your pink and white pyjamas. Kevin was playing his Ps4.

“Oh, c’mon. Move your ass,” he mumbled into his headset mic.

On the bottom half of the tv screen a burp gun advanced fast. You stared into space while sipping a glass of milk into which you had poured some Nesquik powder. What could make your birthday a special day or, at least, a day different from all the others? There wouldn’t be any friends or gifts. So what? Your eyes lit up. Of course. You could make a cake, but not that grey sludge you and Laura prepared together that, upon tasting it, both of you immediately spat out. A real cake, like those displayed in the bakery windows at Via Roma.

You threw on a floral summer dress and tiptoed down the long hallway, being careful not to leave your footprints on the floor which was still wet. Your mother had gone to hang the laundry out on the terrace. Your grandparents were in town for groceries. You sneaked into the big room where the food was stored and made sure you had all the ingredients for the cake. One day at school you and your classmates were asked to make a cake made of Nutella and biscuits. Hold on. Aren’t you forgetting something? Oh yeah. Milk too. You checked the shelves. Let’s see. Cans of tomato paste, jars of cherry jam, blue boxes of spaghetti. A-ah. There they are. A packet of unopened biscuits and a big pot of Nutella. You unscrewed the tap. There was still a good half of the cream left. It would be enough. You would get down to work after lunch when everybody would retire to their bedrooms to take a nap, safe from the summer heat.

 Your mother never wanted you to be in her way while she was cooking, especially when it came to making cakes. “You’ll risk ruining the eggs,” she once said when you offered to mix the cream she was preparing to fill her sponge cake. It was therefore necessary to carry out the operation in great secrecy.

You spent all morning fiddling around in the garden. From the walnut tree’s branches little brown birds twitted relentlessly. You visited a litter of tiger striped kittens hiding among the logs stacked on top of one another that your grandparents would use to keep the fire going during the cold winter nights.

“Hey, come out,” you whispered, trying to draw their attention by smacking your lips.

Their humid little faces shily peeped out through the dark spaces between the logs but every time you approached them they quickly pulled back to hide again.

Back home, you walked into the kitchen. Your grandparents were unpacking the groceries. The boiling tomato sauce spread a delicious smell of basil throughout the room. Sitting at the table, nobody mentioned your birthday. Your grandad only said he had bought some chocolate ice cream in town. He was a lovely man and liked pampering his grandchildren. His was a common gesture of affection. Was it possible all of them had forgotten your birthday?

 After lunch you helped your grandmother clear the table. Out of the corner of your eye, you impatiently checked the hands of the copper clock attached to the wall. The heat was unbearable. The cicadas chirruped aloud. Every now and then, a pheasant sang wandering among the old olive trees near the house.

 Around three, everybody retired to their rooms. On the old armchair your grandfather now snoozed, his mouth open and his head thrown back. From time to time, with a mechanical hand movement, he chased away a fly buzzing around him. You peeped into your parents’ bedroom. Your mother was sleeping on her left side, her right arm bent. She snored, exhaling at regular intervals. The door of your grandparents’ room was left ajar. Reflected on the wardrobe’s mirror was your grandmother lying on the bed. What about Kevin? You cautiously knocked on his door.

“Come in.”

He was lying on his stomach, now playing his Nintendo Switch.

“What do you want?”

 “Nothing,” you said after a brief pause, “just looking for my summer workbook.”

“There’s nothing here.”

“Okay.”

There was no chance Kevin would catch you out. He was always busy playing with those stupid things.

 After gathering up the necessary ingredients, you walked straight into the spare room your grandmother had converted into a second kitchen some years before. You spilled everything onto the marble table and poured the milk into a green plastic bowl. The recipe was rather simple. You’d soak the biscuits into the milk and place them side by side in an aluminium foil container until you formed several layers spaced by an abundant veil of Nutella.

You emptied the packet of biscuits into the milk and searched for some icing sugar you would eventually dust on the top of the cake. In the cupboard, a sachet of vanilla icing sugar from an old Pandoro box lay beside a bone china teapot. You took the sachet and returned to the table but, when you grabbed the biscuits, they unexpectedly split and fell into the milk. You swallowed hard. Now your mother would have every reason to be furious. You tried to put the biscuits back together in the container in vain. They had totally disintegrated in the milk.

You quickly threw everything into a plastic grocery bag and tied it in a slip knot. After leaving the dirty bowl in the sink and putting back the rest of the ingredients, you climbed out the window. The room was on the ground floor. You grasped the bag you had dropped on the yard floor and closed the window a little. Outside the heat took your breath away. Beads of sweat dripped from your forehead. You stooped and walked below the windows so that they wouldn’t see you from inside, then headed to the vineyard on the hill next to the house. When you were far away enough, you dug a hole by hand and got rid of the body of evidence among the rows. Bunches of blue-stained grapes were hanging from the shoots. After covering the bag with soil, you hid behind an apple tree and, eventually, burst into tears. What kind of pickle had you got yourself into? Your mother would go on a rampage and give you a good hiding, that was certain. She wasn’t mistaken. You couldn’t do one thing right. What did you expect?

You curled up into a ball and fell asleep in the shade of the tree. Its dense foliage offered you shelter from the scorching sun of that summer afternoon.

“Marina,” someone yelled some time later, “Marina, where are you?”  

What time was it? A few hours had passed since you fled. You completely lost track of time and didn’t have a watch. Actually, you had never owned one. It would be a good idea for your birthday gift, you thought. You climbed the tree to gain a better view of the house. The hill was about half a mile from the road. From there you could monitor every movement. Nobody would see you.

Your mother appeared on the terrace in the form of a tiny dot. It was the first time you saw yourself bigger than an adult. Once, soon after a fight with Kevin, you furiously set down an invective against adults on a scrap of paper. “Why do adults always pick on children? Why can they be always right and we never are? They are so unfair,” you wrote through tears. Your brother was then a little over 16, yet he already seemed a man to you.

At that very moment, you saw him walk out the door and get in his car. Maybe he would go to look for you in town. He knew how much you liked the church playground.

Your grandparents paced up and down between the house and the yard calling out your name.

“Marina! Marina!” Your grandmother shouted with her hand at her forehead.

You descended the tree and, after resting your back against its trunk, slid down to the ground. How much longer where you going to hide for? Feeling the adults’ wrath wasn’t an option. You lowered your gaze, your head on your scraped knees. Below your tanned legs, an army of ants formed an orderly line on the ground. Some of them scurried in and out of the holes in the soil, others carried fragments of leaves on their backs. In the distance, your mother’s cries blended in with the dog’s barking.

You heard the engine of a car approach the house. You jumped to your feet and, pulling yourself up, climbed on top of one of the branches. A grey Fiat 600 stopped in the middle of the road, just in front of the yard. It was Gino, an old uncle who lived nearby. You guessed he had heard all the bustle and had come to see what was happening.

 You imagined your grandfather saying that you had disappeared and that they had been searching for you for hours. Gino would no doubt mention the river. You envisioned him going there in hope of finding you. Sometimes you and Kevin went for a walk down there. You liked playing with the clay on the river bank.

The car accelerated, raising a cloud of dust and soil. What to do now? The sun would set shortly and it would be pitch dark all around. You would be easy prey for stray dogs and wild boars up there. A light breeze blew among the branches, swinging its green leaves. You caught an apple and bit its juicy pulp. Its taste exploded throughout your tongue, eventually spreading to your entire palate. For a moment you were grateful to nature, pleased with its sweet fruits.

Meanwhile, back at the farm, Kevin parked his car in the yard.

 “Nothing. Nobody has seen her,” he shouted, slamming the door shut.

Just then your mother and Luigi emerged. When she noticed that Kevin was alone, she immediately covered her face with her hands. Luigi put his hand on her shoulder and appeared to say something to her.

On seeing your grandfather walk into the house, you jumped out of the tree and, staying in a crouch, began to look around nervously. Was it possible that he would call the police? They would turn the whole area upside down and look for you with dogs and helicopters like in the movies. And all this to… to what? To find out that you were hiding behind the vineyard?

The situation was getting out of hand. The sun was slowly disappearing on the horizon. You stood up and, with rapid hand movements, removed the dry twigs which had stuck to your dress. You rushed through the vineyard, hitting your arms more than once on the concrete poles on which your grandfather had fixed the vines. In your lines of vision, grapefruit, soil and trees came in succession like a series of slides, all equal. You couldn’t continue hiding. Someone would die of a broken heart soon.

 Across the road, the house stood out grey and grim against the opaque sunset sky. Everybody was now inside. Your heart was pounding. Fear was flowing wildly in your veins.

You mustered the courage.

“Mum,” your voice echoed around you.

Your mother rushed out the wooden front door, followed by Kevin and your grandparents.

“Marina, where have you been?” She stared blankly at you.

You advanced into the yard, your eyes down on the pebbles. In a few seconds you would be faced with her fury. You couldn’t escape it.

You stood in front of her, still, your head lowered. Seeing her plump hand lift up, you instinctively covered your face with your arm, your eyes opened and closed intermittently. Her heavy body was now approaching you. You could feel its warmth. She stepped forward. You tensed up, held your breath but, abruptly, found yourself enveloped in a long and desperate hug. You slid your arms along her hips and both of you began weeping. Her tears mixed with yours.

“You had us so worried, Marina,” she said, finally releasing you and looking you in the eye.

“I made a mess in the kitchen. I thought you would be mad at me,” your voice strangled with sobs, “I won’t do it ever again, I promise.”

“Dear God, Marina. We’ve been looking everywhere for you,” Kevin snapped. “I’ll inform dad that you’re here.”

He walked away, the phone pressed to his ear. You briefly followed him with your eyes, then went silently into the house.

Once inside, you headed straight for your bedroom and laid on your bed. Your nerves were still shot, your mouth was trembling. You stared absently at the ceiling above you. Some cracks ran along the corners of the walls like thin black veins. An earthquake had struck the surrounding area a few months before. Soon your father would take care of that. With trowel and lime he could work miracles.

In the hallway, your grandmother talked on the phone, chopping the air with her hands. She stopped in front of your room.

“Yeah. I’ll get her. Take care”

You looked at her suspiciously.

 “For you. It’s your aunt,” she said, handing you the phone.

Here we go again. You thought your aunt would tell you off, say that a good girl shouldn’t mess up and trouble her mother like you had done, but no, you were wrong. She spoke to you in a delicate and gentle voice, trying to reassure you in her own way. You told her about the cake, your failed experiment. She was a great cook and used to work in a local restaurant before she retired. On Christmas and at Easter, she always brought trays of homemade cookies to relatives and friends. That was her act of love for all of you.

“You know, you didn’t need to throw everything away,” she explained calmly. “After all, you didn’t have to exhibit your cake at a show.”

“I guess…” you said, unconvinced.

“Once, while beating eggs and sugar in a bain-maire,” she went on, “I immersed the saucepan with the eggs in boiling water so much that they became cooked.”

You tried to imagine the scene but had no idea how the eggs could become cooked while being beaten.

 “And do you know what I did?”

“No, what?”

“I added some milk to the egg mixture which immediately returned to its fluid form.”

“Ah,” you simply said.

You doubted that cake was a success. Adults always exaggerated. Did they really think you were that stupid?

“Remember, Marina. There’s always a solution to everything. Except for death. See? Cooked eggs can always return to liquid form. You only need to add some milk.”

“Yeah… I’ll get mom,” you said, cutting her off.

Death? You didn’t like that word. Your grandfather Franco, your father’s dad, died when you were only four and you didn’t remember anything about him. Could you really feel grief for someone you barely knew? Death, however, scared you. “I don’t want to die young,” you once yelled after falling and scraping your face in the yard. However, more than yours, you were afraid of the death of a member of your close family. You thought of your classmate, Chiara. Her mother died of cancer the previous year. In school, she continued behaving like nothing had happened. How was it possible? You just couldn’t comprehend that.

 At dinner, your family gathered around the kitchen table. Your grandfather talked, chewing between sentences, watering his reasonings with red wine from. Your mother was listening to him absentmindedly, fanning herself with a tissue. Kevin glanced over at the clock on the wall and pressed the remote controller. It was the time of day when the news came on. Your grandparents watched it every evening. On the screen an image of a white villa appeared. In front of it, a group of people wearing concerned expressions. Your grandmother asked for the volume to be turned up.

 “Sofia Gallo, a three-year-old child, disappeared in Soverato, in the province of Catanzaro, this afternoon.”

 There was silence in the room.

 “It happened around four. Sofia was playing with her cousins outside the front door of her house at 33, Via dei Tulipani when she disappeared. She walked away and has not been seen since…”

Your grandmother stood up and went to the sink.

“Poor creature,” your mother shook her head and turned to you. “My God! It could have been you, Marina.”

The television was now showing the missing child’s picture. Sofia had dark eyes and straight brown hair gathered into two lovely pigtails on both sides of her head. She was smiling at the camera. You smiled back at her but it soon disappeared from your face. The fork, which was heading for your mouth, dropped on the table.

Annalisa Mastronardi viene da Roma. Ha ricevuto una Laurea Triennale in Lingue e Culture Straniere a Roma Tre nel 2016 e completato la Laurea Magistrale in Letterature e Traduzione Interculturale nel 2018. Dal 2019 vive a Dublino dove sta svolgendo un dottorato sulle eredità Joyciane nella narrativa contemporanea femminile irlandese presso la Dublin City University. Le sue precedenti pubblicazioni sono apparse su HeadStuff, Writing.ie e contemporaryirishlit.wordpress.com.