Il 4 luglio, 1924

by Marguerite Feitlowitz

 

Her hair in the roses, her fingers combing the dirt, in the gray before sunrise Lena was singing.

Her song was heavy as the heat, dark as the dreams that flooded the soft embankment of his sleep. There was a falling in, a slow collapse as the deepest grains of rest were loosened, floated, stirred, and swept away. Emilio stretched like a beast before it drowns, but the song stretched too, like a long black river.

And like a river, ran over him. His skin felt torn, as though by blades of broken shells, and yet was teased, as though by seaweed rising and falling and floating like a melody. He heard what he was seeing, saw what he was hearing, and bits of it lodged in his body’s crevices, like sand.

He felt a finger, a full and lazy lounging finger curl as if to sleep against his shoulder. Warmth, weight. Then sliding weight, awakening, and now the nail, fast, lean, and grazing till it hurt in the pit of his arm. He wanted to shout, but his lips were sealed, his mouth a whirlpool catching Anna’s laughter.

Outside, the singing changed. The waves were regular, each cresting at the crash of the one before it, each crashing as another one built. The rhythm was on beat with his body, whose hammering he was trying to quell.

He saw a cobbler holding Anna’s shoe, shake his head and roll his tongue across his teeth. Please he saw himself say, then please mocked the cobbler, please he pleaded again, then please please please please with every stroke as he hammered a new heel. Slowly, he slid the shoe from its mount, slipped it on again, slid it off, then slipped it on again—easy like this and you don’t break the shoes—lifted it off with a long, leering sigh. He fished in his pants for his money, but the cobbler was sliding away. You think I don’t hear? Laughing up there like a waterfall, and all cause of garbage like you.

He didn’t feel himself wash in. His body felt bloated, yet he wanted to bend, to press his ear against his chest and hear the waves. But he heard no waves, heard only a distant hammering.

* * *

Lena had slept with her arm around his chest, his back against her breasts, hips buoyant on the rise and fall of her belly. She dreamed of roses with heads falling off, of rosebeds like battlefields with trees so ill the limbs curled like smoke.

The ground gave easily now beneath her hammer, and the stakes slid smoothly to the bottom of the pots. Lena watered and kept singing, sat for a moment near the largest bush. She worried the soil, worked her fingers up and down the stem, then hammered the stakes to the side of the house.

Most of the bushes were low yet, the stems still slender, and the blossoms large, like the heads of small children. They rested on the stakes as though they were sleeping, and when suddenly the katydid buzzed, Lena reached, as though to stop an alarm.

* * *

When the hammering stopped, he awakened, stared out the window.

Hanging from the line was Lena’s dress, and next to it, her slip. The straps and bodice were laced with shadows from the pear tree, as sometimes when she wore it, the slip was embroidered with strands of her hair.

The dress was sheer, though royal blue, and hung evenly from the shoulders. He tried to see her as though she were wearing only the dress. But where her arm would swell inside the sleeve he saw a length of fence, where her hips would fill the skirt, the door to a garage. Her breasts he saw as flowers, but her neck was a stake, and he shrank back, his thigh stuck to his other thigh, his face cradled in the crook of his arm, his sweat gleaming and running, hiding in the hairs on his chest.

* * *

She combed through the soil and again she started to sing. The song was as old as their Sicily and she sang and sang and sang, as though each verse brought a newborn season, each harmony a harvest, and each refrain a precious rain.

He’d kissed her in front of the window, swung her this way and that, but she’d gazed in his glasses and from this way and that, their window flew free of their wall, the sun became a glint in his eye, and the tracks that brought him home were disappearing.

After the verses ended she kept singing, when the harmonies were done for, she kept on; until her throat would burst, she sang the refrain.

* * *

In his crib, Nickie whined like a woman. Emilio slapped his face to make him stop, but he cried so he slapped him harder, one cheek then the other, with the front then the back of his hand. He stopped sobbing after falling asleep, and the cradle rocked on its own.

* * *

Rosalie woke, found her hands between her thighs and blood, like delicate thread, binding finger to finger and her fingers to her body. Again, she’d urinated in her sleep and sleeping, scratched until she bled and spat to stop the odor, but she was coughing now on the salt and smell and coughing, her father came toward her.

He rocked and held her, whispered and held her, but he was damp and she cried in fear of floating free. He lay her flat against the bed, held still, held her shoulders in the palms of his hands, breathed in and out, in and softly out, and slowly, dried her eyes.

But Emilio’s eyes were drowning, and her mama’s song was rising and rushing, a tide unleashed by a lunatic moon.

* * *

But softly, Lena sang as they rode to the river, her eyes on the window, her lips poised and then prancing as she looked at her children. Rosalie held Nickie and the basket of peaches, nudged a pit with her fingers to his sparkling mouth. He gurgled and sucked, stretched and hid Rosalie’s face. To her hair clung fibers of fruit, and Lena smiled without singing, seeing petals in sun-spattered soil. Rosalie laughed when the bus gave a lurch, when Lena fell back and was steadied, framed in Emilio’s arm. She breathed deep from the basket of peaches, her eyes on her parents the whole bumpy ride to the river.

Clouds, Lena thought watching Rosalie’s eyes. Dusky, bluish grey, they gave hue as though to a sky in autumn, worn white with waiting for a storm. Lena tried to look past, but Rosalie checked her, gathered her deep within her gaze. As one they began to drift. Lena felt thunder but heard nothing, felt cold but no breeze. Barely had she leaned, her eyes wanting warmth from the light of the peaches, when something in her daughter’s gaze dislodged and Lena slipped, transfixed by the fruit toward which she was falling. Emilio caught her as the bus pulled up short, reached for the spilling peaches. Lena looked up at their daughter who held Nickie and a peach like a giant its babe and a tumbled-down sun. Rosalie stared as Lena resettled, bit a piece from the fruit and kept staring, as Nickie ate from the peach at her lips.

* * *

The bus slowed when they got near the river, seemed to step rather than roll down the hill. Emilio pressed close to his wife, so her shoulder would rock in the pit of his arm. The sun on her arm warmed his fingers, calmed his hand, wrist, arm. Near his rib, her breast hovered, light, warm, and as softly she was singing, remarkably to him like a bird. For only his ears, she caroled and trilled, heart beating like the hummingbird’s wings.

There was sun on his children’s faces, bits of fruit and its juice on their lips. Emilio licked his lips and tasted peaches, felt joined as he never had to his family, silently swore he’d stop seeing Anna.

* * *

There was hide-and-seek within this river, in its slow and quiet stretch along the flats, in its quick-curling way of taking the curves. There was strength in the rippling muscles, and the riverback shone as with sweat. From all around they were aiming their fireworks, but when smoke hit the water, it melted. Emilio ran his fingers over the river, but the river ran faster, magically cool. He reached for his son and held him, so his legs were bent and his belly low, marveled as he rode the magnificent river.

Lena felt for Rosalie’s ribs, her fingers thrown off by the fierce in-and-out of her breath. Rosalie’s flesh slouched away from her bones, shored up the fabric where Lena meant it to flow. Her fingers gave up, lay down between the dunes, stretched thin and worked sideways. She slid a pin to mark a seam, several to arc a sleeve. When Rosalie shifted, she pressed down, drew back as her flesh slid free and resettled, like sand.

Peacefully, Nickie slept, his skin glowing in the light of the sun, eyes shaded by his father’s hand. Softly, the river lapped at his legs, and softly Emilio chuckled, called to his wife and his daughter to join them.

Mid-fitting, Rosalie came running; her hands on a seam, and pins on her lips, Lena was pulled through the air. The fabric took flight and Rosalie’s back was suddenly bare. Lena ran, reached till the cloth caught her hands, spit pins to the fabric in the shape of a star.

Star light, Emilio started, star bright, with a light in his eye.

Andiam’, she heard herself say, and his echo, Andiam’.

* * *

Lena raised her arms and stretched, her breasts high, her face level with the sun. The windowshade was warm, wavered with the weight of her hand; nervously, her fingers played, their shadows like birds on the bright water. With the breeze, her fingers stopped, then shifted, hungrily combed the flowing shadows of the leaves.

She’d listened as Emilio settled the children, talked them into sleepiness, started now as she heard him coming toward her. Her fingers fluttered, tossed up by waves that were darkling, picked clean.

He stopped outside the door and leaned, his head falling slowly, the travel of his hair across the wood the softest whisper. He called her name and then stepped in, again and again his lips forming Lena. She stepped toward him, then stopped.

Not daring to breathe, she opened her arms.

Her sleeves were wide, and billowed like the summer sky. Tiny birds, her fingers trembled in the blue, like points of land her fingers soared, and the flock did light in midair.

* * *

From the sky near the river there were rumblings; slow rolls of thunder, short bursts of light, and Rosalie woke, her gaze, like the curtain, spread flat against the screen.

The breeze pulled tighter the lace to the screen, and Rosalie started, as petals stretched flower to flower and a blossom was bowed to the base of its stem. Suddenly,the clouds were sizzling, a star flashed big, then burst, slid in pieces down the side of the sky.

Before she knew it, she was wet and her legs were terribly hot. She leapt away from her bed to the pantry where Emilio had arranged Nickie’s crib. He slept soundly on his back, his arms wide and his fingers open. She bent her head to his chest and waited, then lifted him to her shoulder. When he didn’t wake, she carried him to her bed, held him tight and leaned low, settled him softly on the stain between the sheets. She whispered and soothed him, though he slept, straightened his little shirt.

 

Tags:
Novels
BOMB 12
Spring 1985
The cover of BOMB 12
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