Michela Esposito is a recent graduate with a B.A. in English Studies from Trinity College Dublin. Aside from one or two pieces in university magazines, she is previously unpublished. She resides in Dublin and spends one month a year living her ‘other’ life in the south of Italy.
By Michela Esposito
They set out with knives at six in the morning and returned at eight, before the heat set in, before the others had woken. If anybody thought to rise now they would find a large hare by the metal of the kitchen sink and a table full of thorny leaves and pale orange flowers being swiftly skinned by the three of them – two old, one young. Although nobody would be up just yet so the women could look forward to at least an hour of peace together, cutting and chatting among themselves. Franca and Giuseppina spoke dialect, their language, occasionally breaking into Italian to instruct Antonia exactly how to use the knife to peel the stalks while retaining as much of the flesh as possible. Using the blade did not come naturally to the younger girl and the thickness of the stalks surprised her, as did the tiny bristles and spines that covered the body, and stung. They were more of a nettle or a weed than a vegetable and looking at them it was hard to believe that they were really edible, but then this far south in the Lucanian region they ate every part of everything – stems and flowers in plants, hearts, lungs and kidneys in animals. The hare had barely kicked out when Giuse’ had killed it, almost resigned to its own fate. It now lay beady-eyed, watchful; covered in blood.
Giuseppina caught her staring, ‘we’ll be doing him next.’
‘Anto-’ Franca dragged the sound with her tongue, in their way of cutting words and names so that she became Anto’, Giuseppina became Giuse’, Giusepi’, Peppi’ and once she was visibly aged – in the face, chest, hands – Sitsi’. Names were fluid, interchangeable and, Antonia noticed, often related to age or status.
‘I was just looking at all of his hair actually, there’s a lot of it.’
‘Well you can get rid of that yourself if you ever learn how to use the knife,’ Giuseppina added.
Antonia hoped the woman wasn’t serious. ‘That’s disgusting.’
‘Disgusting? And what will you feed your husband – McDonalds?’ Franca pronounced it Mac-dowen-ald in an attempt to speak English. Giuseppina laughed, her shoulders shook: ‘All that time spent writing and writing, always with her head in a book. Men will not wait forever bella mia. You’ll be old like us soon enough.’
Antonia banged her knife against the table. ‘For God’s sake, do we have to talk about marriage every time we do this?’
‘O- come on, we’re only joking. Modern women marry later these days, so I hear. But you must have babies while you’re young,’ Franca added, raising her eyebrows.
‘Tsk,’ Antonia rolled her eyes, ‘ – I’ll never have children.’
‘Not if you keep cursing God like that.’ Giuse’ blessed herself.
Antonia cocked her head to one side and stared at the woman; there was no point arguing.
‘Ay basta, and hurry up! Vito will be up any minute.’
The older women worked very quickly and had baskets of the stems already completed. The instructions for peeling and cleaning a zucchini plant with a blade were simple if one could stand the discomfort of the sting: the knife should be placed at the top and just beneath the skin, which was itself thin, before lifting and dragging down the body so the green veins and thorns came off in long and singular strips, exposing the supple flesh beneath. The knife was used to remove the spines that would catch on the lips and make them bleed, like barbed wire. They had been impossible to drag out of the earth and she was forced to wear gloves, to the other women’s amusement. Her arms were scratched and irritated from carrying the heavy plants to the house and it took great effort to draw attention away from the redness, which was difficult as she was fair. Her legs were covered in mosquito bites, angry red lumps that marked her. They seemed to sense it, smell it, know she was not of this place; they covered her naked body at night as she lay awake in the dark, listening blindly for their hum. Once the family had to drive hours to bring her mother to the nearest hospital, ‘Poison,’ the doctor had announced over the limp body of her mother, ‘all over the body. If pale, milk-skin women wore more clothes perhaps they would not be afflicted.’ Her mother had responded by stripping the sheets and curtains of Franca’s house, to Franca’s great offence.
‘Mosquito’s love cold, foreign blood,’ was her response.
As the other women discussed which sauce would be right for the hare, Antonia consoled herself with the thought of running her nails all over her body and washing in cold water that afternoon. Later she would examine the damage in the bathroom mirror, when everybody was resting and she could have some privacy, secrecy, behind the only door in the house with a lock. She would strip completely nude and wash by the sink, if she was lucky, or the buckets they filled every afternoon. There was never any water at this time of year, the drains responded with the glug, glug, glug of empty pipes when she tried to turn the taps. In the beginning Antonia shouted that they were living like animals, filthy, she couldn’t even wash her hair. This was met with Franca’s calls from somewhere in the house: Anto – deal with it! Everything has dried up! We know you are used to luxury in the city, but people are thirsty here. Why don’t you go to one of the rich houses to wash that long body of yours?
She knew better now than to complain – they really would bring her to the house with money down the road, a relative somewhere down the line, and she could not bear the humiliation.
Every afternoon during the dry month of August they went to the nearest fontana, usually a pipe sticking out of the mountain side in a spot only the locals knew, to fill up buckets and empty bottles, which they would then drink from, wash from and throw down the toilet. Occasionally the water places could be quite beautiful, with great columns and stone that she imagined were ancient, historical, standing long before she was born. Mostly though they were covered in black graffiti displaying English words that the village boys had picked up somewhere, usually ‘fuck’. One popular spot had an image of a penis, small, accompanied by a drawing of a woman’s open legs to reveal a mass of black hair that embarrassed her as a young girl and impressed her now. No torso or feet, just legs. It had been there so long it seemed to become part of the structure, inherent somehow, and she was fascinated by the detail of the hair that overshadowed the small penis next to it. It was almost modernist, she thought with amusement, a jumble of female body parts. She herself was bare; every day she used her five minutes in the bathroom to silently wash with a damp, soapy cloth, followed by a razor, which she had become accustomed to quickly running over the curves of her body to remove any trace of hair before it had a chance of growth. She would then examine herself, striking various poses and pulling at the skin of her stomach and hips to see how much she could get between her fingers; bending over to survey the dimpled skin on the backs of her legs, her thighs; tracing the stretch marks almost whitened from the sun, and newer, purpled streaks. She had read in a two-year-old English magazine that she had found in a neighbouring village that twenty-one was a man’s ideal age for a woman, the point when, according to the male consensus, women were just right with supple breasts and legs. She was twenty-five, her breasts were unspectacular, limp and sagging. If she pinched the nipples so that they stood pointed and pink they looked marginally better.
One afternoon she walked in on Franca in the bathroom, dressed in a pair of flesh coloured tights and covered but for her top-half, which was completely nude. She had been washing herself with water from one of the buckets and her breasts were large and bare and soaking wet; Antonia felt instant guilt. Franca had whooped and laughed while she had covered her eyes and retraced her steps out the door to the older woman’s protests: Stop, why? It’s alright, we are both women. The older women seemed not to be conscious of themselves at all, with hairy underarms, hairy stomachs, noticeable black hair that made her stare and feel embarrassed for staring. She had grown accustomed to hiding any blood, hair, sweat, which was difficult in the heat and left her exhausted. When she had started bleeding herself over ten years ago it was quiet, and in secret, hidden until Giuse’ announced to their relatives: Tonina has become a woman. She cried for days and became Anto’.
That year was the first that Antonia felt ashamed of her body. On the church steps of San Giovanni Rotondo various women wrapped her in paper and accused her mother of indecency. This was before they had come to the village and her father decided that they needed a day pilgrimage, now that she and her sister were becoming young adults. A sweaty man had barred their entry and pointed to her in reason. It would be sinful, schifo. She had bare arms and legs. Her mother protested until other worshippers began to stare and openly accost them, shouting that Padre Pio himself bled in this exact spot, for her. They crossed their fully-clothed bodies. She thought she would die on the spot but for her mother who held her by the shoulders and would not relent. People looked to her father in commiseration and he apologised, embarrassed. My wife, she’s not from here, she does not understand. Eventually her mother relented, resigning herself to her husband, and she allowed strangers to wrap the bodies of Antonia and the smaller body of her younger sister in long sheets of industrial toilet paper. At the time Antonia thought the abundance of paper here strange, considering the portable toilets beside the church had none and you had to pay to enter them, but she said nothing. The man examined her, chest, arms and legs, his eyes travelling from top to bottom. He concluded she was to be covered and was forbidden to touch any relics. Layer upon layer the two girls were wrapped until the skin underneath was no longer visible.
Anto’ had almost completed the last of the stems; it was oddly rhythmic and meditative, this back and forth, back and forth between the women, the plants, the bags of peelings. Her palms were scratched and raw. Franca was skinning the hare and chatting contentedly about the upcoming market dates; which stalls had the best underwear, the best shoes; a neighbour who had a difficult birth the previous week. Every so often Giuseppina responded with a satisfied ‘eh’ or ‘mm’, all the while nodding in constant agreement. Only once did Antonia pause her work, alarmed. The women were discussing a distant uncle who had fallen down the stone steps of his home, dead, dying, and in the most awful way.
‘What are we supposed to do, Anto’? Go always forward with your life,’ Franca said, waving her knife in the air.
‘Mm, Nonna’s right. You are young and this is life,’ Giuseppina added.
They discussed the late seasons, the figs and the peaches, tomatoes that had taken in the suntrap on the roof. They shared thoughts on the movement of the moon, the sun, important dates and days; all in the quiet relaxation of their close company, in the clipped words and language of the region; all things of complete importance.