A Short Naples story for Sunday

When Kepler was mathematician to the Emperor Rudolph II of Germany, his primary task was to deliver good horoscopes.

J. D. Bernal
History of Physics

When I was six years old, there was the earthquake. I was an only child, and fled barefoot to a doorframe to stand between my parents.

“This is the load-bearing beam,” my father said with the air of an architect. “It’s safe here.”

We were in the dark. The next day we discovered that the only truly deep crack in the house was in that beam.

Three months later a famous psychic from the neighborhood announced to the residents the day and hour of the next tremor. People began sleeping with a suitcase under their beds—the psychic not being one to make mistakes—and when the appointed day arrived everyone headed down to the street. They lit bonfires.

My parents hadn’t been married in church. When I was born they bought Doctor Spock’s manual, and they strove to describe all of life’s events on Cartesian axes. I had heard about the prophecy at school and from the balcony saw the lighted bonfires.

“Mamma, why aren’t we leaving?”

“Don’t be silly: psychics aren’t real, psychic powers aren’t real; nobody can foresee anything because what’s to come, nobody knows how it will happen.”

I saw Katia go down into the courtyard.

“Mamma, Katia’s gone down, she even has her schoolbag.”

“That schoolbag won’t be of any use to her if her parents make her believe in what isn’t real: all that we can believe in is what we can see and touch.”

I looked up at the beam split in two and went to pack my schoolbag. I counted out pens, notebooks, slipped in a pair of panties with Tuesday embroidered on them, and grabbed my most powerful doll, the one that triumphed by night over the dark, by day over Voltaire.

Signora Russo came to knock on our door wearing an air-raid shelter suit.

“Are you going to get a move on, people?”

“Signora, please let’s not talk nonsense, sit down and I’ll make you some coffee.”

“What are talking about, coffee? You have to get going!”

“Signora, let’s be reasonable: what probability is there that an earthquake will come now? Or do we have to just stay out in the street?”

“But the psychic said now, in a half-hour.”

“And you believe the psychic? You’re such a courageous woman, you work hard from morning to night, and you believe these clowns who want to make money out of your superstition?”

“But if she’s got it right…whatever, do what you want, but you’ve got to give me this poor child at least.”

I was following the conversation, when she said poor child I understood that she was talking about me, and I went to my room to get my schoolbag. Seeing me leave my mother said, “Just look, you’ve frightened her!”

I came back into the entryway and held out my hand to Signora Russo.

My mother had the sadness of failure in her eyes and the anticipation of vindication in her heart.

We ran down: Katia and I found a place near a bonfire, and for twenty minutes we did our homework.

For twenty minutes my father and mother discussed the timeliness of my gesture; when my mother said Rùsso, my father stared at her, taken aback, and corrected her: Rousseau, dear, it’s pronounced Russó.

At the appointed hour we all stopped, Signora Russo took me in her arms.

Total silence enveloped us, then the earth creaked, the houses swayed a bit. We moved where we stood.

In slippers and jeans, my stunned parents ran out of the building.

***********

Valeria Parrella was born in 1974 in the province of Naples.  Her first collection, Mosca più balena (Fly Plus Whale), from which the present story is taken, was published in 2003 and awarded, among many other prizes, the 2004 Premio Campiello for the best debut work of fiction.

Picture by Daveness_98 via Flickr.

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