The Child

Il figlio


Once, a man lived in this town with his wife and three children. She was always in and out of the mental asylum. He was on his boat day in and day out and, when he got home in the evening, there was his eldest daughter standing at the doorway with the little ones in her arms. The fire had gone out and they were all ravenous.
The house fell silent as the night drew in. The children slept. Only the eldest sat up restlessly. When she was not in the mental asylum the wife walked up and down the roof terrace amusing herself by rolling pebbles into the gutter.
The tuneless sounds of the household drove the father in on himself in a search for a home in which he could feel less alone. When his pipe went out, he retired to his bed knowing that there were only a few hours till the dawn.
Then, he took his boat out, ferrying visitors from the mainland to the island just waiting for night to fall and for the day’s work to end.
So it went on, night after night, day after day.

“Dad, I’m pregnant”
That changes everything. The littlest one says,
“What does ‘pregnant’ mean?”
The father sits down on the verandah and lights his pipe.
“Put the children to bed and then come back here.”
There was no need to say it; the little ones are used to putting themselves to bed. The girl comes back out and gazes across the sea.
“Are you sure?”
“I should know how a woman works by now.”
“How many months gone?”
“Too many for me to get rid of it.”
The father thinks quickly.
“We’ll tell the others that it’s their brother or sister.”
“I don’t want it in the house. I don’t want anything from its father. I told him he should marry me and then he went and married someone else. Don’t ask me anything more about it.”
“Give me some time to think things over until tomorrow.”
The girl goes up to the room she shares with the other children. The father gets ready to spend the night under the stars. Sleeping is out of the question. The pebbles sound like rain falling.
Next morning, he asks the man next door if he wants to earn a day’s wages and hands the boat over to him. Then he finds a quiet corner where he can just look at the water. He hopes the woman will pass by. On calm days you can see the bottom of the sea. Down there, in the darkest depths, there is a rotting boat. It is said to have belonged to a ferryman who was so weighed down with worries that his boat sank. He went down with his vessel.

The woman sees him and draws near silently. He starts when her shadow falls on the water, dispelling his dark thoughts of the submerged boat.
“You’re not at work.”
“You neither. At this time of day, a woman should be at the market buying or selling.”
“Not all women buy and sell.”
“I’m aware of that.”
She leans over and instinctively he puts out a hand tenderly to stop her from falling in. She smiles and sits down beside him.
“Your eldest is not well. I’ve been seeing her throwing up lately.”
“She’s pregnant.”
“So you know all about women.”
“Maybe. She was the one who told me.”
“Do you want your neighbour’s advice?”
“There was a time when you were more than a neighbour.”
“Yes, I was once.”
“What were you going to tell me?”
“It’s too late to get rid of it …
“I know that as well.”
“Send her to live with me and when her time comes, I’ll take care of the baby.”

The girl pretends that the neighbour needs help and moves in next door so that nobody will see her bump. The mother doesn’t notice her daughter has gone and the brothers and sisters go over to see her whenever they want. The father watches everything from the verandah, smoking his pipe.
In the months that follow, the girl starts to take an interest in house-work. She cleans the whole house, looks after the chickens, the rabbits and the goat from morning ‘til night before falling onto the mattress of leaves that the woman has prepared for her in a corner of the kitchen. She cooks for both families and the children come and go between the two houses.
She doesn’t like the way she is swelling up but seems to ignore it. If there is nothing to do, she makes work for herself and never tires. The woman, freed from household chores, has time to watch the girl. She looks like her mother apart from that mad glint in the eyes. Nor do her eyes have the compassion which her father’s eyes always expressed; that ability to comprehend without speaking and that melancholy that cannot find good in anything. As soon as she is free from the burden she is carrying, she will find another man to look after her. More children will be born and she will take no more notice of them than she does of the livestock.
As the months pass and she becomes increasingly large, the girl rakes to sitting under the back porch where no one will see her. She spends her time making jam with the fruit from the orchard. One day, she realizes she has not long to go and she speaks to the woman,
“I really want to know what’s going to happen, but what do you know about it? You’re not married …”
“It’s true, I’m not married but I’ve had a child.”
“A child …. So where is it now?
“He only lived for two days.”
“You were lucky.”
“I don’t see it that way. Sit down and I’ll tell you what’s going to happen.”

What happens is an easy birth. The girl is strong and seems to know instinctively what to do. She gets up from her mattress and resumes her role in the family home even before she sees her baby.
The father goes to see the child who can never be known as his grandson. The woman holds the baby in her arms. It is dressed in the little clothes made for another years before. People will think that she’s had another accident.
“What’s it going to be called?”
“The same as the other. The same as our child.”

English translation by Nic Parker

Illustration by Franco Blandino