Anteo Raulli went out with the swill for the hogs but it was him and not the slop that ended up in the trough, face-down, felled by a stroke. When he wasn’t back home ten minutes later, Nives leaned out of the kitchen window and saw him there with the hog bucket beside him and Cyclamen, who didn’t fully grasp the question at hand but seemed fine with that, starting to chew on his master’s ear.
“Scumbag!” she yelled, flying out of the house. She grabbed her husband by the ankles and dragged him onto the gravel, out of danger. As she turned him to one side, she saw that his cheekbone was shiny, the flesh eaten away, leaving his molars exposed in a glistening grin with no blood in sight; the pig had polished him clean with lashings of his tongue. Anteo Raulli’s eyes were wide open, as if he were staring at the tip of his nose. Nives stood there looking at him, the wind loosening her bun, so that her hair whipped in her face in waves. Finally, she said out loud, “I told you not to go out when there’s a north wind.” She turned her gaze to the pig, who responded by wagging his tail as if to say, “Can you throw me a little more?” The woman turned away. She started walking slowly towards the house. She went in, without closing the door behind her. A moment later, she came out again, her two hands clutching St. Francis—that was what the Raullis called their hunting rifle. “Come here, my beauty,” she murmured to herself, clicking the safety catch with her thumb. The pig must have felt a chill in the air: he started stomping around in the muck, his back juddering. By the time Nives reached the pigsty, Cyclamen’s grunts were sharp barks, some of them high-pitched squeals. He was about to make a run for the pen but was suddenly hypnotized by the rifle barrel the woman was pointing at him. The shot hit him between the eyes; Cyclamen collapsed on one side, his stiff trotters spasming. And yet, you don’t need to be an expert to know that pigs should be slaughtered without their knowing it. Otherwise, stress breaks down the muscle and ruins the meat. And the skin.
Nives didn’t shed a tear, not even at the funeral. Unlike her daughter, who had come home from France and turned into a siren, wailing all the way from mortuary to sermon to crematorium. She didn’t cry when she got home, either. In fact, she kept pace with the appetites of her son-in-law and grandchildren, who never failed to show up with a craving for her home-made ravioli, and, as soon as she had changed out of her good clothes, there she was rummaging through the kitchen cupboards and drawers and ripping open a bag of flour.
“Mamma, we need to think about what you should do,” her daughter whined, her nose wet and snotty.
Nives rolled her eyes, “Laura, if you say that one more time, I’ll put my head in the oven. I have everything I need here. What do you think I should do? Come and live with you in the Languedoc? It would be like living on Mars. I can hardly pronounce your husband and kids’ names. At the age of sixty-six, it’s hard to uproot yourself. In any case, who would take care of the animals?”
She had to restrain herself because, if she’d followed her instincts, the conversation would have taken a different turn. Instead, she continued the conversation in her head. “You two have an eye for selling the farm; that’s what it is. Renting out the fields is not enough for you, even though you suck up the income every month, right enough. The Bandini family wires the money and— whoosh—it vanishes over the Pyrenees. All that fuss at the sight of your father in a coffin with his face bandaged up, and next thing I know you’re busy calculating how to holiday from one Christmas to the next. I can imagine the little Frenchman bleating with anticipation.”Anteo Raulli went out with the swill for the hogs but it was him and not the slop that ended up in the trough, face-down, felled by a stroke.
They stayed a week. When it was time to say goodbye, her daughter cranked up the tears again because she was upset at leaving her mother in that rambling house in the middle of nowhere. “We have a lovely bedroom waiting for you,” she said, throwing herself into a hug that Nives repelled by keeping her arms rigidly by her side, her thoughts repeating, “Good luck with that.” She leant down over the children. They were identical to their father: tawny-haired and taciturn. They had never been able to look their grandmother straight in the eye. They only ever started to loosen up when it was already time to leave. “See what we’ve come to,” Nives said to herself, planting two kisses on the kids’ heads, which shone in the new spring light. She held out her hand to her son-in-law. He was a champion of politeness, for sure, but he was a pillar of salt. One of those men you had to stab with a knife before getting any emotion out of them. The very opposite of her daughter, who carried on whimpering until Nives finally turned on her and snapped, “I’m not dead yet.” She’d said it partly for a laugh, and partly to let it out. But Laura didn’t take it well. It must have sounded like a sick joke so soon after her bereavement. Her face darkened, as if touched to her quick in an obscene way. “Ciao, Mamma,” she sighed, dragging out the final kiss on her mother’s cheek. The family clambered into the giant rental car. Nives watched them as they drove down the dirt track and disappeared onto the country road. The kids didn’t turn around to wave goodbye from the back window. All that was left was a cloud of dust, which only lasted a few minutes. Then Poggio Corbello went back to what it had always been: a place closed to outsiders. Nives looked back to the trough where her husband’s days had unexpectedly come to an end. She wondered how the Catani family were doing. They must have made a mint after twenty years in the slaughtering business. Following the tragedy, they’d honed in like missiles to pick up Cyclamen, but she still hadn’t gotten the payment for the 280 lbs. of hog meat. “Every sale is an ordeal,” she muttered. And went inside.
For the first time, she wasn’t able to sleep a wink. While her family had been there, she hadn’t had any trouble, not even with the shock of tragedy in the air. Now, she lay there on her side of the bed and suddenly knew why: when she closed her eyes, she felt funny, as if the familiar room might change into something else while she slept. All at once, it felt unacceptable that the world could carry on going about its own business. It was as if Anteo was lying there next to her. She was terribly tired, and on two occasions nearly succumbed to her exhaustion, but if she so much as started to let the moorings slip away, her eyes would spring open again and she would come awake with a jolt and a heaving heart. This was compounded by a nauseating sensation, which luckily only lasted a few minutes, of not knowing exactly where she was. Odd, as there was really no mistaking it. She had lived on the hillock for just under half a century. There was nothing untoward in that place that could trouble the waters. The old house where she was born, so full of vivid memories, might have put her out of sorts, but that was truly a lifetime ago. It was during the second delirium of twilight sleep that she had a fright: someone was calling her. She heard her husband’s voice clearly, as if from the next room, calling “Nives!” A timbre that had punctuated her life, day after day, from her girlhood to now. She thought about it this way throughout the night, putting on a brave face until she heard the first calls of the sparrows. “Anteo watched me grow up, from twenty to over sixty. A half-dream that feels like a hallucination is normal enough; I’m no monster.”
When she went to look at herself in the bathroom mirror, she almost said out loud, “Who the hell is this?” The bad night stayed with her as she did the rounds to check on the animals. She fought back a tremor under her skin. Her side vision was watery.
The hutches started shaking as she approached, the rabbits competing madly to be first in line. She went over to the side of the house with her bucket of birdseed and lifted the latch of the chicken coop. The hens gathered into a clucking cloud. Nives went to look for Giacomina, who was always last out because of her right claw, which only had one lumpy nail. Anteo had been saying for ages that they should make broth out of the old thing, ever since that afternoon when she’d been maimed by the mutt that had gotten out of Potenti’s gate. “A chewed-off claw like that could rot from one day to the next. Better in our soup than leaving her to waste.” Nives shook her head. In the meantime, Giacomina was right there in front of her mistress. This was her way now. The hen looked her up and down, her head cocked a little to one side, her eyes dull and vacuous. The woman was desperately fond of that disaster-stricken expression, like a query openly asking the world, “What am I doing here? Do you have any idea?” That moment of intelligence vanished on the spot, of course, as soon as the shower of seeds landed by her beak, and she started pecking. In order to eat and stay upright at the same time, she was forced to keep her left wing lifted a little to balance her injured right leg. Nives spoke to her softly, “My friend, that’s the story of my life for as long as I can remember.” She stood watch, making sure that the unfortunate creature could eat, and that her companions didn’t steal her food. Next she went to work on the vegetable garden.
She soon realized that solitude changed everything about life in the countryside. Each hour passed like a slow-motion smack in the teeth with a shovel; her usual chores took an abnormal turn. From the start, Nives accepted these changes bitterly. “Am I not enough for myself?” she asked herself. Discovering that she may not have been so late in life was a blow she could have done without. Her tasks were more burdensome with the knowledge that what was not shared was lost. Especially the little things, the nothings, like drinking a glass of water. Not even a dog to say, “What’s up with this thirst?” for no reason, just to make conversation. Meaning: I see you; you exist. Not having a living soul around to see her made her feel like a ghost.
Nives ate her dinner on the sofa in front of the big TV. After eating, she drank a drop more than usual, until she felt calmer. Every now and again, however, she glanced across the room towards the corridor and the bedroom. The idea of getting into her nightdress made her stomach shrivel to the size of a pinhead.
Three days later, she opened the front door, her face dry and her bun lopsided. Her baggy work sweater looked massive on her, like an evacuee’s smock. Her rubber boots made the gravel crunch, but she felt as if her feet weren’t touching the ground. If she turned her neck too fast, she felt like she was going to faint, and she’d say to herself, “I wish! At least I’d get a quarter of an hour’s rest.” Then she remembered how she’d found Anteo. She hated the idea that the chickens might peck out her eyes in a feeding frenzy.
In the end, she was forced to face up to the fact: it was because she’d been abandoned. During the day she could put up with it one way or another, as she was kept busy with the animals and all the rest. When night fell, a deep well opened in her. It wasn’t normal fear; she knew that. Her anguish went elsewhere. As soon as she became drowsy, she would find herself gripping onto her covers, heaving like a bull. The disorientation of sleeplessness sharpened her perception of things, which made her want to eat her heart out. She thought she felt Anteo toss and turn in bed, for example. Or she would hear the sharp explosion of a loud fart echoing around the room. “It was just me,” Nives told herself. “Letting my nerves go loosened my asshole and I gave myself a fright.” Her eyes would snap open if she brushed the sheet with her hand, because it felt like she was receiving a caress in the dead of night. She had pins and needles all over. Insomnia gave her that strange feeling that her skin was as thin as tracing paper. Or, worse, that it was evaporating into thin air. The death mask she saw in the mirror every morning spoke volumes. She was a ghost: no curlers in her hair, skin like wrinkled parchment, and shriveled cheeks. She didn’t even look like herself when she stuck her dentures back in.
She started to stare at the telephone. She had conversations with it out loud, as if the thing were a person. “You think you’re tempting me? For all I care, you can die there on that side table.” Or “Nobody’s ever seen Nives Cillerai blathering into a telephone, so there’s no point in staring at me like that.” She usually won battles of this kind by thinking about how the bill would skyrocket if she dialed a phone number on the other side of the Alps. She would get angry at herself when the phone rang in the evening and she found herself running down the corridor to answer it. “Hello?” she’d gasp, her breath stuck in her throat. On the other end, Laura would listen silently for a few seconds. “Are you doing okay, Mom?” she’d ask, skipping the preliminaries. “Couldn’t be better!” Nives would answer. At times, she’d catch a glimpse of herself reflected in the picture that had been hanging there for ages, which they’d bought in Venice in ’84. What she saw were bull’s eyes, sticking out like torpedoes. “What time is it in the land of the cheese-eaters?” Her daughter counted to ten and said, “The room is here waiting. Waiting for you.” Nives scoffed. “Tell the room to rest in peace.”
Excerpted from Nives by Sacha Naspini, translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford. Excerpted with the permission of Europa Editions. Translation copyright © 2021 by Europa Editions.