A Short Story
Translated from the Italian by Peter Byrne
(Swans - February 28, 2011) At eleven o'clock on a clear and sunny November morning Signora Ersilia Proietti passed through a gate recently painted dark brown. She followed a brick path that divided a garden in two and went into the entry hall of the high school where her daughter was a third-year student. Asking directions of a grizzled man in blue work clothes, who seemed to be a caretaker, she went timidly into the teachers' staff room. There were two metal cupboards, which entirely filled both sides of the long room, a photocopy machine, a large table covered with publications, empty chairs, and two female teachers speaking in low, sullen voices.
From the doorway Signora Proietti asked for Signora Bianchi. One teacher said she hadn't seen her that morning and in any case staff office hours were posted in the hall. The other teacher kept silent and stared at nothing in particular.
Just then Signora Bianchi came in with a pile of drawings in her hands, her reading glasses looped around her neck. She excused herself, dropped the drawings on the table and, taking a full key ring from the jacket of her two-piece suit, opened a drawer in the left-hand cupboard.
Signora Proietti stepped into the room but stayed close to the door. She waited while Signora Bianchi fit the drawings into the little space that remained in the drawer, only then approaching her.
"So, I've come," she said, diffident, courteous.
Signora Bianchi looked up at the all but shabby gray-haired woman in a violet coat. It took a moment to see in her the lanky student Proietti of class Third B.
"You're Jessica's mother?"
"Yes," replied Signora Proietti, uneasily.
"I wanted you to come in..."
"Really, I asked you to come in because your daughter did a drawing."
"It wasn't good? At home she's always making a mess with those felt tipped pens..."
The two teachers came away from the windows and went out giving their colleague an understanding look.
Alone in the room, the two women sat down at the table. The photocopy machine, though switched on, wasn't being used.
"That's not it," the teacher tried to explain. "Jessica is a very serious girl who works hard. She seems well balanced and gets along with her classmates. I don't know how she is at home."
"No, no," her mother was quick with reassurance. "Even now that she's become a young lady, there have never been any problems. She's always been a good child, too good."
"I'll show you the drawing." Signora Bianchi got up and went to open her drawer. A pale pink folder protruded from a pile of various sized sheets. Signora Bianchi pulled it out carefully to keep the pile intact. Putting it on the table under her open hand, she sat down again.
"What kind of drawings does your daughter do at home?"
"I don't really know. A lot of pictures, but she doesn't always show them to me..."
"I understand. Here's how this one looks."
When the tapered fingers of the teacher had opened the pale pink folder, Jessica's mother bent her head over the sheet that her daughter had colored with tempera and stared for more than thirty seconds. Then, without looking away, she asked:
"Is it really Jessica's?"
"What is it supposed to be?"
"I wanted you to help me to understand. What does it look like?"
"My God, they look to me like worms all stuck together in -- I'm not sure -- mud or even... That can't be." Here Signora Proietti began to weep softly, her lips slightly trembling, her eyes slightly red and bright. "There are also hands, tongues and even sorts of..."
"Male and female sexual organs."
"Yes, that's it. And they all seem mixed in with the worms. And there are wide-open mouths and everything is dirty yellow, brown, black...It's like vomit on mud, maybe and..."
Signora Proietti used her hands to cover her eyes that welled with tears. She didn't speak.
The teacher put the drawing back in the folder and offered a few consoling words. In reply there was only the sound of a handbag clicking open and of a handkerchief brushing away tears. Then Jessica's mother stopped crying, put the handkerchief away, and started to speak again.
"My daughter has always been an angel, not the least wild, nothing at all like that. She always does her homework all on her own. I couldn't help her much even if I wished. The only thing is that she doesn't talk. You tell me that she is sociable but, Signora, at home she never says a word, and these days less than before when she was younger. And now this drawing..."
"As they develop, you know, children have these thoughts..."
"Worms with hands? Jessica thinks of such things?"
"Look, I don't know. Maybe it wasn't a good idea to show you the drawing. Don't worry about it. You might speak about it with your husband..."
"He's working out of town until Christmas."
A teacher with a white goatee, in a dark jacket and trainers, came into the room holding his forefinger in a book to mark his place. He stopped in front of the photocopy machine.
Signora Proietti got up from her seat and held her hand out to Signora Bianchi.
"Thank you, all the same." Her eyes began to moisten again.
"After all, it's only a rather odd drawing," said the teacher, rising, "Your daughter is an excellent student and we mustn't dramatize. Let's keep in touch, shall we?"
From the photocopy machine, now in operation, came flashing and growling. Signora Proietti said goodbye again and left the teachers' room. In the entry hall she passed the grizzled caretaker who held a big ledger opened to a stained page full of erasures.
Outside, under a clear sky, the clean wind from the north had begun.
At dinner Jessica ate her soup slowly in silence, searching with her spoon for vegetable bits and pasta squares floating in the broth. Her mother sat at the other end of the table.
The small, box-like kitchen with light green walls had all the essential furnishings. But nothing was of the same brand or color. There was a stove, a cupboard, a fridge, and wall units. There was also a microwave oven and, above the fridge, a television set that was turned on.
Neither mother nor daughter said a word until the musical theme sounded that ended the television program. A little broth remained in the girl's plate.
"Aren't you going to finish it? Now finish it!," said Signora Proietti.
Jessica said no with the slightest shake of her head. It was a small head with long brown hair, regular features, thin lips, and a turned-up nose.
"Excuse me, Mama," she said, leaving the table. She had just touched the doorknob of her room when her mother caught up with her. Signora Proietti grasped the girl's right wrist with her strong, pudgy hand. Jessica tried to free herself but ended up with both wrists caught in a grip like a vice. She was backed into a corner unable to move.
"Where do you think you're going? Go back to the table and finish your soup." Signora Proietti's voice quavered with the effort of squeezing her daughter's wrists as hard as she could. Jessica abruptly ceased to struggle and went still, staring into her mother's eyes.
"Why are you looking at me like that?" asked Signora Proietti, loosening her grip. Her fingers had left white marks on Jessica's skin. The girl, motionless, without expression, said nothing.
"Stop looking at me!"
But Jessica kept staring till her lips quivered and her eyes formed two slits. Tears ran down her cheeks. Signora Proietti reached her right hand toward her daughter's face. Jessica avoided its touch by a brusque movement of her head that loosened her hair.
"What do you imagine? That you can help me? That your love does me any good? Idiot!"
Jessica stayed shut up in her room in total silence for two hours. But for the sound of television, nobody would have guessed that there was anyone at home. When Jessica went back to the kitchen, the late afternoon sunlight was dark and ruddy. The neon tube was on. Signora Proietti picked over spinach in the sink full of water. Her eyes were red and swollen.
Jessica toyed with the golden horn that hung from her mother's necklace.
"I never saw you with this. When did you buy it?"
The reply was sharp.
"Beg my pardon first for what you said."
For some seconds Signora Proietti, without saying a word, kept busy with the spinach while Jessica trembled beside her. Then, not looking up from the sink, Signora Proietti said:
"It was your grandmother's. It keeps away evil influences."
Signora Proietti dried her hands on her apron, took off her gold necklace and put it around her daughter's neck. Jessica didn't resist but denied that she was prey to evil influences.
"You never say anything," her mother complained, letting her hands go back to the spinach, "if you have nasty thoughts you ought to tell me."
"What nasty thoughts are you talking about?"
"That drawing you did at school, with those worms and disgusting things."
Jessica flared up.
"She spied on me!"
Signora Preietti backed against the sink, her hands dripping, and looked hard into Jessica's eyes.
"That witch Bianchi!" screamed the girl, stamping her feet in anger.
"But your teacher likes you and wants to help you. So do I..."
"And who are you to help me? Who do you think you are?"
Jessica rushed to her room and locked herself in. Her mother tried to force the doorknob, beat the door with her fist, begged her daughter to open it. Then Jessica's stereo exploded at maximum volume with the unvarying rhythm of an electric bass and drums. Signora Proietti walked very slowly back to the kitchen.
Outside the window the sky had turned almost completely dark. The street lights shone on the asphalt, on parked cars, and on the bags of garbage that leaned against the overflowing dumpster where the cats of the block would go in the small hours to rummage and fight among themselves. A man cleaned the windows of his car with a gray rag and a plastic bottle full of soapy water. When he finished he threw the remaining water into the drain running along the sidewalk and went off.
Signora Proietti left the window where her breath had etched a halo of white vapor and went to open the cupboard drawer to get her wool and knitting needles. Under the already half-worked skein lay her husband's watch. He had another watch, but this was the one he liked best. She preferred it too. It had a fine, big round dial and three large hands that were easy to see even without glasses. The dial said five thirty. She wondered why Oreste hadn't taken the watch with him. She held it beside her own small gold plated watch that was always ten minutes late. After comparing them for some time, she undid her little watch, put it in the drawer and attached her husband's to her wrist.
Supper was ready at eight. There wasn't a sound from Jessica's room, and she came out without being called.
"You could smell them."
Jessica couldn't have spoken more warmly. She slipped nimbly into her place at table and proceeded to eat her steak and peppers with relish.
"This is good. Why are you wearing Papa's watch? Did he forget to take it?"
"Yes, and let's hope he gets back soon, because then you can tell him what's wrong with you."
"Mama," said Jessica, opening her eyes wide, "Papa is an even bigger idiot than you are!"
Signora Proietti stood up and slapped Jessica with the back of her hand. The girl laughed hysterically for a whole minute.
"Then you have really decided to go back to Alessio?" It was the television. A handsome boy spoke to a beautiful girl. As at an agreed signal to mark a truce, mother and daughter stopped fighting and sat one beside the other before the screen. They never stopped firing sidewise glances of disapproval. At the second publicity break, Jessica rested her neck on her mother's knee, closing her eyes for a moment, and played with the golden horn that hung from Signora Proietti's necklace.
Just before going to bed and after leaving the bathroom in her pajamas, Jessica knocked at her parents' bedroom door. Her mother, already under the covers with the light off, gave a grunt of assent. The girl opened the door a crack.
"Was I naughty today, Mama?"
"Go to bed." Her voice was thick with sleep.
The dark sky, dotted here and there with the lights of coming and going planes, gave a feeling of peace. There was neither light nor sound from the neighboring tall buildings. No one was in the street.
It was now three o'clock in the morning and Jessica couldn't get to sleep.
With effort Signora Proietti opened her eyes. The bedroom door had been opened with such force that it banged against the wall. Jessica threw herself at the foot of the bed, her face wet with tears and her hair all ruffled.
"What's wrong? Go back to bed."
The girl gave her mother a violent hug.
"Jessica, just tell me. You aren't in love?"
"Mama, help me. I can't go on any longer."
Signora Proietti lit the bedside lamp and noted the girl's unhealthy breath.
"Don't worry. I'm right here."
"I know that. Here I'm all right," cried Jessica. "Something else scares me. It's terrible, disgusting. I want to die."
"What are you saying, silly! Tell me what happened. Did someone bother you?"
"No, no, no! It's those that live down below."
"The people on the third floor?"
Jessica exploded in a muffled cry and started to weep again, uttering a drawn-out syllable of lament. Signora Proietti sat up in the bed now. There wasn't a trace of sleep left on her face and she'd gone so serious as to seem even much older than usual.
"But what is underground?"
"Creatures that live in the sewers and even farther down in tunnels. They aren't human, they're larvae with ever so white skin that you can see through, slimy, repulsive. They eat each other and never come up into the light. They're sick and outnumber us ten to one."
"Who told you all this?"
"Nobody. I know it."
"How do you know it?"
"I saw it in a TV documentary and in a magazine while I waited for you at the hairdresser's."
"But don't you understand that it's all nonsense?"
"Mama, I know that it's absurd. Sometimes I think that none of it is true. Most of the time, though, I feel that underground there are millions of larvae on the move day and night, slithering, rubbing, and eating one another and able to eat us too if they choose."
Jessica stopped hugging her mother and only held her hands tight, staring at her wide-eyed. Signora Proietti bent over to give her a kiss on the forehead, but the girl avoided her touch. She let go of her mother's hands and retreated to a corner of the room a few feet from the bed, where she sat with her legs folded beneath her.
"So that explains the drawings...," said her mother in a sing-song.
"I'm going to die," said Jessica starting to bite the nails of her left hand and staring at the tips of her toes. "You see, Mama, the larvae really disgust me, but I'm drawn to them and can't do anything about it."
Jessica paused. Her mother drew a deep breath.
"Up here everything bores me."
"And me? And your father?"
"Sometimes I wake up at night about this time and feel that I've become a larva too. I don't know whether to throw up, kill myself, or go underground with all the others."
"Tomorrow morning I'll take you to the doctor. Go and sleep now."
"No! I'm going out. I can't continue like this. I'm going down there."
Jessica got up and went to the door of the room. Her mother's guttural sob stopped her and she had to turn around.
"Come with me, Mama, if you have the nerve."
In no time she was outside the front door, dressed in trousers and a red ski jacket. The icy humidity of the night tore whirls of vapor from her mouth with each breath. The buildings around echoed with her determined steps. At a distance, bundled in an old astrakhan coat, Signora Proietti, visibly troubled, plodded after her daughter.
The girl stopped before a wide orange tape that circled a hole in the asphalt of Via Tiburtina and stood still until her mother caught up to her. Then she took a rope from her jacket, wound it several times around the nearest lamppost and gave one end to her mother. She tied the other around her own waist with a double knot.
The hole was only a few feet deep and Signora Proietti sighed with relief to see her daughter at the bottom uninjured. The girl took a flashlight from her jacket and lit up a trapdoor in the center of the hole.
"Come back up here immediately," said her mother in a breathy, strangled voice.
"Don't be afraid," said Jessica handing her the flashlight, "shine the light." She lifted the trapdoor with both hands and revealed the first steps of an iron stairway.
"We don't even need the rope," said the girl starting to go down through the trapdoor. "Hand me the flashlight or else come down here too."
Signora Proietti, using the rope, lowered herself, grazing her knees.
Jessica's voice boomed from the hole: "They are here, right down at the bottom. I sense them. Hurry with the light."
Her mother stopped breathing. She clearly heard the pulse in her jugular vein, the water running in the sewer and the slap of Jessica's trainers on the metal rungs.
At first she couldn't get her hips through the trapdoor, but taking her coat off and pushing with all her strength she finally succeeded. She let go of the rope and it slithered downward. Holding the first rung tight with one hand she sought Jessica with the beam of the flashlight and saw her going down the narrow sewer corridor with her shoulders to the wall.
"So where are those larvae? You said you saw them!"
Jessica didn't reply and kept going. For Signora Proietti the descent was difficult and painful. Her back ran with sweat and her joints creaked. When her feet hit the ground she felt a rat slip between them. She proceeded sideways a step at a time shining the light on the space that separated her from her daughter. Jessica stopped with her back turned, waiting motionless for her mother.
"You had nerve," Jessica said when she felt her mother's hand on her shoulder.
The flashlight lit up the area before them showing the corridor ending abruptly and the sewer forming a kind of waterfall.
"Let's go back up," said Signora Proietti, "this is nothing but a sewer."
"No, they're down deeper. I must go farther down."
Jessica took the flashlight and turning to look below saw that there were no steps on the projecting wall. But leaning for a moment against it she caught sight of a metal hook only inches from her. She made sure it was firmly fixed and said:
"I'm going down with the rope. You put it through the hook and pull hard."
"You're sick, my girl."
"Be sure to keep it tight and let out a little at a time," said Jessica. Then she hung in the air, clinging to the edge of the sheer wall until she finally let go.
Her mother went rigid with the effort to keep the rope tight between her fingers, losing her balance for an instant when she felt the sudden jerk. But she quickly regained her equilibrium by repositioning her feet. The abrasions on her forearms and palms got deeper and more painful as the rope ran through her hands. The strap broke and her husband's watch fell. Sweat dripped from her forehead and met with her tears.
At last the pull on the rope stopped. From below the girl's voice echoed faintly:
"I've made it. They're all around me. I found them. Goodbye, Mama."
"But whatever have you found?" cried Signora Proietti. "What is it?"
The flashlight had gone dim and no longer penetrated the darkness.
"The things you talked about aren't there. The larvae are in your imagination, in your head. They don't exist!"
"Then you think I'm crazy?" came the reply. Jessica's voice had become scarcely audible and was blurred by its echo. "Say it, am I crazy? If I come up there, you'll take me to the doctor, won't you?"
"Liar! I'm going to stay down here. Now I'll untie myself and you'll never get your hands on me, not even if you call all the firemen in the world."
Signora Proietti turned the rope several times around her left wrist, pulled it tight and worked her way to the edge of the sheer drop.
"Jessica," she cried. "I'm heavier than you. If I throw myself down and you still have the rope around your waist, you'll come up. Then you can call for help and get me out. But if you untie yourself, I'll fall and get smashed up. I'm going to count to sixty."
Signora Proietti, getting no answer, began to say the numbers without hurry, one at a time. When she said "Forty-two," the rope seemed to be pulled. But she didn't have that impression before or after saying the number. She said, "Fifty-nine" with her voice rising. "Sixty," she merely murmured with no emphasis at all. Then she threw herself into the void.
The rope tightened and raised Jessica up. Her mother, touching down in complete darkness, looked upwards. Just visible in the half-light she made out her daughter trying to clamber up the sheer wall a few feet from the top. Summoning all her strength, Signora Proietti pulled hard on the rope and Jessica rose just enough to get hold of the pit's edge and scramble onto the floor of the corridor.
Two hours later, when Signora Proietti came up the firemen's ladders into the open air, Jessica, numb with cold, stood near the wide tape that circled the hole in the street. She bit off a piece of tart and pretended to listen to a policeman who was being paternal and telling her about his youth in the country where there were no sewers at all.
Mother and daughter looked into each other's eyes in silence. Signora Proietti's arm was bloody.
"I know we have to stop at the police station before going home," said Jessica. "But you ought to have breakfast. The coffee bar over there has just opened. The officer has cotton and bandages."
The sky was losing the solid black of the night and rectangles of light stood out on the gray facades of the buildings. Parked cars hid the edge of the sidewalks. Along the street, except for the rare vehicles that sped past with their headlights still on, there were only the squad car and a fire truck both pulled up crossways with their lights flashing.
"You were right after all, Mama. There are no larvae," said Jessica, walking toward the coffee bar arm in arm with her mother while a sleepy policeman trailed behind.
Signora Proietti didn't answer. She was so happy that she couldn't speak.
"You have your breakfast now," she finally said. "We'll go home, you'll wash and then go right to school."
"Don't whine. You're grown up now."
"No, I'm a baby! And where's the watch?" asked Jessica, pointing to her mother's empty wrist.
"I must have lost it down below."
"What will we tell Papa when he comes back?"
"That the worms have eaten it."
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About the Author
Fabio De Propris is a Roman writer who has also lived in Istanbul. He has published three novels (Brenda e Plotino, Se mi chiami Amore, Nero Istanbul) and translated books from English (Markheim of R. L. Stevenson, Paradoxes and Problems of John Donne, An Anthology of William Hazlitt's Essays) and from Turkish (Two Girls of Perihan Magden, translated with Mehmet S. Bermek, The Clown and His Daughter of Halide Edip Adivar.) Fabio teaches in Rome and writes occasionally in Il Manifesto. He is presently at work on his fourth novel. His poems appear in the paintings of the group Artisti di Fortebraccio. (back)