Authors: Genni Gunn
Print Edition ISBN 978-0921833-43-4
EPub Edition, 2011
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, for any reason, by any means, without the permission of the publisher.
Cover design by Doowah Design.
Cover art, “Identity, Displacement, and Spaces of Desire” (mixed media, 1998) by Ileana Springer.
Photo of Author by John Kim.
To all those in Italy â both family and strangers â who put me up, and put up with me over the past six years, I owe you deep gratitude. For first reading of this manuscript and insightful comments, I thank Frank Hook, Verbena Donati, Diane Watson, Leo, Carol and Cyan Donati. I am indebted to Karen Haughian for her meticulous editing and guidance, and for our long telephone conversations about words, and parents and Italy. My thanks also to the BC Arts Council and to Kwantlen Polytechnic University for awards that bought me time; to the Banff Centre for supplying a room of my own; and to my agent, Carolyn Swayze, whose friendship and support I deeply appreciate. And as always, immeasurable thanks to Frank for everything.
We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Manitoba Arts Council for our publishing program.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Solitaria / Genni Gunn.
PS.8585.A5454C43 2010 C813'.5 C2010-903590
P.O. Box 206, RPO Corydon, Winnipeg, Manitoba, R3M 3S7
Facilis descensus Averni:
noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis;
sed revocare gradium superasque evadere ad auras,
hoc opus, hic labor est.
It is easy to go down into Hell:
night and day, the gates of dark Death stand wide;
but to climb back again, to retrace one's steps to the upper air,
there's the rub, the task.
Fregene, Italy, July 15, 2002
They navigate through thick traffic, from Rome, for an hour and a half, in stifling heat, among stalled cars and angry drivers. Finally, the Fregene exit leads them off the freeway, and onto Viale di Pineta through the ancient pinery, down to Lungomare di Levante, where they turn left at the seashore, and continue until they stop in front of iron gates, chained and padlocked. Visible through the bars, a dilapidated villa rises among pines and wild hibiscus whose magenta petals shimmer in the July heat. Yellow police tape girdles the entire area.
Once, this villa was the pride of its owners, nestled in a sprawling lot facing the Tyrrhenian Sea, surrounded by palms and oleanders on manicured lawns where children played and cats sunned themselves. Over time, the children grew and moved to the cities. When the owners died, the villa was sold to foreigners who came only in summer. In the winter months, small boys climbed over the fence and played in the tall grass no one tended. Sometimes, they built fires on the beach, and tried to pry open the green shutters. The villa was sold and resold, neglected and abandoned by owner after owner, none of whom lived there.
“This must be it,” the cameraman says, pointing to the number on a pillar whose plaster has broken away in chunks to reveal old bricks and mortar. He turns down the air conditioner. The show's anchorwoman sits beside him, fanning herself with a small spiral notebook. On the side of the van, the familiar logo â a large
ending in a question mark, inside which are the words:
Chi L'Ha Visto
Who Has Seen Him?
A policeman unlocks the gate, checks their
s, and lets them in. While the crew unloads the van, the anchorwoman walks around, surveying the area for appropriate footage.
The villa looms over her, casting a dark shadow to the east, eclipsing the tent erected over the excavation site â a make-shift lab where forensic specialists gather specimens. She shivers under the unrelenting sun, then searches for the demolition foreman, interviews him, and jots his answers in the notebook.
The new owners want to tear it down and build something new.
We were going to take out the trees first, and that's when we found him
We thought maybe during the war. But
forensics said around mid-1950s.
When the crew is ready, she pins on her microphone and circles the excavation site.
“What you'll see and hear about today,” she says, “is a crime committed long agoâ¦”
Belisolano, Italy, July 17, 2002
Piera Valente sits alone in her kitchen and stares at the small television perched on the corner of the counter. The hot July air forms beads of sweat on her forehead and at the back of her neck. She waves her thin cotton nightgown around her thighs, then draws a handkerchief out of her sleeve and wipes her face.
On the screen, a nervous attractive woman in her mid-forties is describing her descent from fame into alcoholism, while the
host nods and cues the audience applause. The camera zooms in until her face completely fills the screen. Large tears spill out of the woman's eyes. Then the camera zooms back out, and the
host holds out a box of tissues. Finally, the woman stands up and sings a song she made popular in 1984, her body squeezed into a black jumpsuit. Seated in a semi-circle, behind her, waiting for their turn, seven other middle-aged singers are ready to tell their stories of falling from grace, ready to compete, vying for the
viewers' votes that could return one of them to former fame.
Piera gets up slowly and opens the glass balcony door. Red geraniums and pink snapdragons bask in the early evening glow. On the street three storeys below, families stroll the sidewalks, teenage couples huddle on benches, old men smoke in doorways, the front legs of their wooden chairs off the ground. In the building directly across from her, a young widow sits in front of the window, staring straight at Piera, looking through her. Piera shuts the door. She turns the blinds, sits down again.
“My life is perfect now,” says the blonde, her tired eyes smiling at the audience.
From one of the kitchen drawers, Piera draws out a large, grotesque mask her father had whittled from a piece of wood when she was a child. It's a replica of the
Bocca Della VeritÃ â
The Mouth of Truth
â that hangs in the portico of the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome. That cracked marble disk resembles the human face, its mouth ever open. According to legend and tradition, the mouth was used as a lie detector, and its mythical teeth would snap shut on the fingers of any liar. In fact, the disk may have been an ancient drain cover whose face belonged to a Roman fluvial god, whose mouth once swallowed rainwater and averted floods. Or the ornamental face of a wall fountain in a rich villa on the Aventine Hill. How it became the sole judge of one's honesty is unknown, as is who might have stood behind the mask, hatchet in hand, ready to pass judgement and sever limbs.
“Stick your hand in here and say that,” Piera says to the
Throughout her childhood, this crude wooden
mask hung on a thick nail at the side of the doors of all the railway huts they occupied. Her father used it, in jest, whenever he thought she might have been tempted to lie, unaware that she truly believed in the powers of the mask.
When her parents moved into town, PapÃ gave her the mask, and she hung it at the side of her bedroom door, like a ghost or a conscience, the crude carved face superimposed over PapÃ 's face in memory, so that his empty eyes watched her, his lips were ready to crush her bones. When people asked her about it, she said it was a reminder of PapÃ 's many sacrifices. But the mask hung in her house as a testament to her ability to outwit it. She crossed herself when she passed it. She took it down, finally, after her housekeeper died, when she decided to renovate the old house.
Steps on the stairs. Piera drops the mask into the drawer and turns off the
. She hurries to the bedroom and climbs into bed.
When Teresa's key turns in the lock, Piera takes a deep breath and falls back onto the pillows.
Teresa's slippers flap down the hall. Slap, slap. Flap, flap. Then, she stands in the doorway, a small tough woman, gaunt, with large black eyes, and bleached honey-blonde hair with white roots. Piera's sister-in-law. In her arms, a plastic basket piled high with laundry.
“About time,” Piera says, without raising her head.
“I see you've been up and around.” Teresa upends the basket on the chaise lounge beside the bed.
“I could be dead for all you care.”
Teresa shrugs out of the room, and returns a few moments later with a spray water-bottle, the ironing board, and an iron, which she plugs in. “Stop making a fuss,” she says. “I'm only ten minutes late.” She picks up a pillowcase, smoothes it out, sprays it, and begins to iron it. “Do you think the whole world revolves around you?”
Piera's eyes narrow. She and Teresa have been shackled to each other â giver and taker â in a complicated dance of insults and insinuations, ever since Piera's brother Vito abandoned Teresa, leaving her with a baby son to care for. Last year, after Piera slipped and fractured her ankle, an unexpected role-reversal. Teresa's voice softened, her hands gently massaged Piera's feet, she sponge-bathed her, and brought her delicious soups and pastas. For a few weeks, Piera savoured the attention, marvelling at Teresa's unexpected assertiveness. She lingered in bed longer than necessary, well past the time when her ankle had healed. But slowly, Teresa's resentment returned, her brow furrowed, her sighs expanded, and soon, she was leaning in the doorway, sullen and mocking. She has, however, continued to shop for Piera, who has become reclusive,
and has left the apartment only once or twice since then, yet has convinced herself that she knows all that occurs outside. She is certain, for example, that Teresa lounges all day in front of the
in the apartment Piera had paid for. Or that Teresa sits in bed and flips through the lives of movie stars in magazines and telenovelas. She imagines frivolous shopping Teresa might be doing and Piera might be paying for. She imagines, in short, that every moment Teresa spends out of her sight is wasted.
“No one cares,” she says. Her face crumples, and her eyes spout tears that she angrily wipes away. “No one cares how much I've suffered, how much I continue to suffer,” she says, but even in her own head, the words sound hollow, ridiculous.
Teresa laughs. “Always melodramatic.”
Piera smiles weakly, but she can easily imagine herself as the heroine of a nineteenth-century novel, or an opera. She is Violetta,
, or Cio-Cio-San, when what she always wanted to be is Carmen, Aida. But it's all the same, she thinks. The divas die in the end, either for love or lack of it.
“If you got out now and then, you might see some real suffering,” Teresa says. She picks up the remote, flicks on the television, and turns up the sound. Credits roll down the screen, to the soundtrack of old familiar songs. All the singers stand together, their cheeks puckered into smiles. Phone numbers flash twice at the bottom of the screen, just before the commercial break, during which Teresa irons two pillowcases and two sheets. Flap, flap. Slap, slap. She walks to the bureau and folds them in.
“Why don't you buy some shoes?” Piera says suddenly. “Didn't anyone teach you that it's crass to go out in slippers?”
“Do you need to go to the bathroom?” Teresa slams the bureau drawer shut, and a small puff of dust flies into the air. “Come on. Let's get you up.” She begins to pull Piera's legs over the edge of the bed, then slowly bends to pick up Piera's slippers.
“And your hair,” Piera says. “It's disgraceful.”
Teresa stops, half-crouched, unmoving, and Piera thinks,
now I've gone too far
. She sighs loudly and lifts herself into a sitting position.
On television, the familiar graphic of
Who Has Seen Him
? displays the faces of men, women, and children who have been lost, and found through the marvels of the phone-in show.
“Poor families,” Piera says, anticipating the most recent losses about to be broadcast. She settles back into the pillows, as if nothing had happened.
Teresa, too, returns to her ironing, without comment. They both religiously watch this program, although Teresa prefers the end, the updates that tell them about a grandfather discovered wandering in a field, or a child found in an amusement park, a murder solved, a husband returned. Endings, closures.
The announcer begins this segment in a hushed voice. “What you'll see and hear about today,” she says, “is a crime committed long ago.” She pauses. “So long ago,” she says, “that we need your help in identifying the victim, and the possible motive.” She pauses. “We are here, in Fregene, a coastal town near Rome.” Behind her, the iron gates, the chain and padlock.
A policeman approaches and opens the gates. The announcer walks around, camera crew following. “We're hoping someone will recognize this location.” The villa sags, paint peeling, shutters dangling at odd angles, windows shattered, doors splayed open, marble floors cracked and filled with clumps of weeds. Outside the gate, children have gathered to watch the
crew, hands waving, faces pressed between bars.
“And now,” the announcer says, “we'll go to the excavation site.” Two forensic investigators step aside, while the camera zooms in to the bottom of the dig. Superimposed on the empty grave is a police photo of a skeleton gaping out of remnants of clothing.
Piera reaches across the bedside table, picks up a small bottle, and uncaps the lid. Her hand trembles.
“You don't need that,” Teresa says gently. She pries the bottle out of Piera's fingers and sets it back on the bedside table. “You don't need most of this stuff.” She points to the bottles and boxes of pills, drops, tablets, suppositories, lotions, syringes.
“How do you know what I need?” Piera says weakly, but she falls back onto her pillow.
Teresa swoops the belt of Piera's dressing gown from the floor, and hangs it like a dead snake on the bedpost, all the while watching the television program. She likes to know that people are found, that families can rejoice or mourn. What is terrible is not knowing.
“â¦please take a good look and call the number at the bottom of your screen, should you recognize any of these items.” The camera zooms in to another police photo: three objects tagged with letters and numbers: a bullet casing, a thin gold wedding band, and a pewter
amulet, engraved on the back with
V + T Forever.
Teresa sucks in her breath. She edges closer to the screen, stares at the
â a small hand, thumb thrust between the curled index and middle fingers in an obvious sexual gesture.
It can't be
, she thinks.
How did that get there
? Vito is in Argentina. Isn't he? Piera has received letters from him. Yet there, on the screen,
V + T Forever
. She frowns, brings her hand up to her face, her heart thudding. She turns to the bed, but Piera has closed her eyes.