by PAOLO DI ORAZIO
Sun and strong wind woke me up. An unforgettable morning in May. I suffered from sleep apnea and my brain had orchestrated a little nightmare to wake me up.
I dreamed of a man, or a woman, an almost human figure, wearing clothes that appeared to be endowed with a life of their own. The presence hovered over my bed and tried to open my chest with a rake.
I sat up with a terrible headache, holding my chest, gasping for air. It was a while before my bedroom took shape before my eyes, emerging from the dark bit by bit.
‘A dream. It was just a dream.’
The plants on the balcony and on the windowsill, stirred in the currents of air powering down the narrow street. From outside, I heard the familiar voices of the neighbourhood. Women chatting with each other, or with shopkeepers. The sound of cars and trucks. My beloved Roman quarter.
I checked out the clock. 10.40 a.m. How could I have slept so much? I had to hurry and open my shop. I rushed to the bathroom and saw her.
She was on her knees, naked, bent over with head and shoulders in the bathtub. Water overflowed and ran onto the floor. From the kitchen, a cloud of gas billowed from the open oven. The lethal hiss made the dripping of bath water louder than thunder.
Coughing, spluttering, I ran to open the kitchen window. Then I turned to my mother. In that instant, I saw her hair scattered on the water’s surface and the wavering reflection of my frightened face. I pulled her out of the tub, face covered in a mask of grey hair.
‘Mario,’ she said, sitting on her heels.
Thank God, she hadn’t drowned. Like a helpless child, she let me pull her hair out of her face. Water poured from her mouth and nose.
‘What have you done, Mum?’
Daylight playing on the surface of the water in the tub made the moment unreal. I realised later that my mother wasn’t coughing as more water poured from her nose. She didn’t shiver from cold. She only talked softly, when I covered her with a bathrobe.
‘Mario, please forgive me. I was trying to figure something out.’
‘With your head underwater?’
‘I also tried with the gas.’
‘Don’t worry, honey. I figured it out. I understand everything,’ she said with a sad smile.
‘What are you talking about, Mum?’
‘I’m dead,’ she said.
I completely forgot about opening the shop. We sat on the bed, but I couldn’t feel her weight next to me. I watched her as she stared at the floor, her breast motionless. That scared me more than anything that had happened that morning.
‘I’m tired. But I don’t need sleep,’ she said.
She used air from the lungs only to move her vocal cords. When she had nothing more to say, she did not breathe. She had no pulse. Her skin was cold. Hands, legs, freezing. No emotional presence, muscle tone very low.
I put my ear on her chest: no heartbeat, no breathing. She looked absent, a fire that had gone out. The bed sustained her body as if it was a sack full of bits and bobs, a pillow made of flesh and bones.
I couldn’t understand it. My mother was telling me that she was dead, and I could not figure out what she meant. I only saw her sad face.
‘How do you feel, Mum?’
Her steady gaze revealed a languid melancholy, as if we had met again after many years’ absence. As if we had wasted all our time together.
Mother took a deep breath. ‘I feel nothing. Please, get me the scissors.’
When I didn’t move, she shuffled across the room and picked up the scissors from the dressing table. I saw everything from a great distance, as if my eyes were both open and shut.
She cut her arm. No scream, no tears, no suffering, no reaction. Nothing poured out from the wound. I am not a doctor, but everybody knows what happens when you cut a living person. Blood. Lots of blood. But she had none left to sacrifice.
‘I told you.’ She tossed the scissors on the bed and looked inside her mute flesh.
‘Don’t you feel pain, Mum?’
Her fingers opened wide the wound, a strange, detached expression on her face. I could see she was trying to figure it out. But she couldn’t find more than what was already there.
I hugged her. Then I started to cry on her shoulder. I gave her all the ungiven caresses. The skin on her face was sticky to the touch. I felt her arm – as cold as a snake – creep around my waist.
‘I have never seen you like this. Better call the doctor.’
‘No, Carlo, don’t. Maybe I am not sick. Maybe I am just healed,’ she murmured.
‘Healed from what?’
Mid-afternoon, she appeared to settle down a bit. I put her to bed and went to open the shop – a tiny local store where I sold household products. On the street, I felt drunk, even though I hadn’t taken a drop of alcohol. It was good to be among the living, the nodding heads and smiling faces of people I had known most of my life.
This quarter of East Rome, where I was born, is full of the song of the living. It’s a small country inside the city, imposing buildings close to each other. We have everything in a few blocks, surrounded by parks, woods and ruins. Everyone knows each other. A real family. There are no secrets.
Yet nobody had even an inkling about what was going on in my family.
Customers impatiently waited for me to open up. I apologised, told them my mother had a cold. They showed concern, but I was quick to reassure them.
‘Nothing serious,’ I said, waving away their words.
I spent the rest of the day in the same old way, happy to work and to see people come and go. But I couldn’t help thinking about what I would find at home.
Back at 8.15.
I found her on the balcony, watering her geraniums.
‘Good evening,’ I said, giving her a kiss. That’s when I saw the water can was empty. ‘Mum, plants need water. You’re giving them air.’
‘I can’t remember how to do it,’ she said.
We sat at the dining room table, lights off. The narrow street under our windows was busy with cars and people, returning home from work. Shops played the sounds of closing gates, one by one.
‘What did you do while I was out?’
She took a deep breath. Her voice, her words, were spat out, like the long drawn-out chords from a bagpipe.
‘I did a mountain of things. I looked at the photo album. I looked our clothes in the wardrobe, and at everything in the drawers. I can’t remember the stuff we own, so I have to discover a sea of things that are new to me, an entire world. At dusk, I went to the kitchen, but I don’t know why. Then, you came back, but I don’t know where are you went,’ she said.
‘Work, as usual, Mum.’
‘Nice. You have a job.’
‘I’m the owner of a store. It used to belong to you and Dad.’
She did not touch her meal. I ate in silence and then stared out the window in bewilderment. What was happening to her? Where did my mother go? Had she already left?
‘Who are you, sir?’ she asked out of the blue.
‘I’m your son.’
Her eyes were empty. ‘I have no children. Get out of my house. A stranger must not stay here. I am a good lady.’
‘I am your son. My name is Mario. I am forty-five and I was born in this house.’
‘You liar,’ she said.
Still, she allowed me to put her to bed. Lead her down the corridor and tucked her in. I asked her if she was all right.
‘Yes, I am. Thank you. You are very kind, sir. What’s your name?’
I started to cry. ‘Mario,’ I whispered.
‘Let’s sleep together, Mario. Don’t leave me alone, tonight.’
I climbed into bed beside her. She turned on her side and looked at me. We lay like this for a while, listening to the sounds of the night. My breath. Her unbreath. It was unsettling, intimate, and oddly comforting. I felt a stone burn in my chest. We wait for nothing in the dark, face to face, looking at each other. She was calm. Maybe a smile, maybe not.
A dog barked, a car roared, a woman talked on the phone.
Under the sheets, no heat, no scent. We shared only our undying gaze. Until my mother closed her eyes and started moving her head towards my face. I thought she was going to kiss me. The idea caused a storm in my mind. I kept watching her. Our faces came closer and closer. Until our noses touched and our foreheads collided in gentle contact.
I closed my eyes. A patch of colour started to enlighten my thoughts, like a dream. Oh, yes, that was a brand-new dream. How strange… I felt like I was inside that world. I blinked, opened my eyes and found myself in an exterminated field of grass. A slight hilly slope. I was ten years old, playing in the dirt with a twig. I felt the heat of the sun, the air’s perfume. I heard my young thoughts. Mum stood in the sun. Young, maybe forty, beautiful and smiling. She sat on the ground, kissed by sunlight, and laughed at my heroic phrases while I fought invisible enemies with my wooden sword.
‘This wonderful summer will never end,’ she said.
She waved at someone behind me. I turned and saw my father. He was picking weeds with a rake. He waved back.
‘Are we dead, Mum?’ I asked, pointing at her with the wooden sword, cutting our joy in half.
I opened my eyes. Another day had begun. Mum was still on her side, staring at me.
‘I have to go to work.’
She waved as I left the apartment. ‘Have a nice day, honey. Be careful.’
Maybe a half smile, maybe a worried face, I don’t know. I was bone-tired. Head afloat as I walked the uneven pavement. Eyeballs dry as my tongue.
Why do I feel so sick?
Because, said a voice in my head, the previous morning you woke up in an apartment full of gas. Your mother tried to kill herself while you slept, and you breathed in a lot of methanol. You should have died. Yet here you are, going to work.
Yes, of course, that must be the reason.
‘Here I am, Mario.’
My mother’s voice woke me up. Startled, I realised I had fallen asleep while standing up in my shop, hands resting on the counter.
Mother stood in front of me. She had come for her daily visit, like she had done every morning for years.
‘Are you all right?’
I nodded. Now she recognises me, I thought.
‘I wanted to take a walk, see some friends.’
‘It’s a good idea, Mum,’ I lied.
Actually, I was afraid of what might happen. But maybe, I told myself, this is still part of the dream. My mother is here, dressed up and in good health. I was sleeping in my shop and perhaps I dreamed of her bizarre death. It must have been a strange flash in my head.
‘See you later, honey.’
After that, I must have spent a lot of time staring at nothing in particular from behind the counter. I didn’t know what else to do. Stock shelves? Wash the floor? Unbox products? No idea. To fill in time, I picked up a pair of scissors and tried to cut paper into nice decorative shapes for the shelves, but I just made a mess of it. My hands seemed disconnected from my brain.
I was about to give up when I heard a car engine roar. Startled, I looked up. A faint thump. A second, louder thud. Tires screeched as a car drove away. People screamed.
When I looked down, I saw that I had cut off my fingers with the scissors. I should have been screaming. Blood should have been gushing. But there was nothing. No pain. No reaction at all.
What the hell was happening? I couldn’t even feel my body.
That’s when my mother walked back into the shop. She was limping, body twisted to the left. Legs broken, spine snapped, head crushed, she walked towards me.
‘Mario, why are people screaming?’
Paolo di Orazio was born in Rome in 1966. He pioneered splatterpunk horror writing in Italy. His novels and short stories in Italian and English have been published by major and independent publishing houses.