That much he knew. He had fallen into darkness. And at the instant he knew, he ceased to know.'
I was just about to overtake Salvatore when I heard my sister scream. I turned and saw her disappear, swallowed up by the wheat that covered the hill.
I shouldn't have brought her along. Mama would be furious with me.
I stopped. I was sweaty. I got my breath back and called to her: 'Maria? Maria?'
A plaintive little voice answered me: 'Michele.'
'Have you hurt yourself?'
'Yes, come here.'
'Where've you hurt yourself?'
'On the leg.'
She was faking, she was tired. I'm going on, I said to myself. But what if she really was hurt?
Where were the others?
I saw their tracks in the wheat. They were rising slowly, in parallel lines, like the fingers of a hand, towards the top of the hill, leaving a wake of trampled stalks behind them.
The wheat was high that year. In late spring it had rained a lot, and by mid-June the stalks were higher and more luxuriant than ever. They grew densely packed, heavy-eared, ready to be harvested.
Everything was covered in wheat. The low hills rolled away like the waves of a golden ocean. As far as the horizon nothing but wheat, sky, crickets, sun and heat.
I had no idea how hot it was, degrees centigrade don't mean much to a nine-year-old, but I knew it wasn't normal.
That damned summer of 1978 has gone down in history as one of the hottest of the century. The heat got into the stones, crumbled the earth, scorched the plants and killed the livestock, made the houses sweltering. When you picked the tomatoes in the vegetable garden they had no juice and the zucchini were small and hard. The sun took away your breath, your strength, your desire to play, everything. And it was just as unbearable at night.
At Acqua Traverse the grown-ups didn't leave the houses till six in the evening. They shut themselves up indoors with the blinds drawn. Only we children ventured out into the fiery deserted countryside.
My sister Maria was five and followed me as stubbornly as a little mongrel rescued from a dog pound.
'I want to do what you do,' she always said. Mama backed her up.
'Are you or are you not her big brother?' And there was nothing for it, I had to take her along.
No one had stopped to help her.
After all, it was a race.
'Straight up the hill. No curves. No following each other. No stopping. Last one there pays a forfeit,' Skull had decided and he had conceded to me: 'All right, your sister's not in the race. She's too small.'
'I'm not too small!' Maria had protested. 'I want to race too!' And then she had fallen down.
Pity, I was lying third.
First was Antonio. As usual.
Antonio Natale, known as Skull. Why we called him Skull I can't remember. Maybe because once he had stuck a skull on his arm, one of those transfers you bought at the tobacconist's and fixed on with water. Skull was the oldest in the gang. Twelve years old. And he was the chief. He liked giving orders and if you didn't obey he turned nasty. He was no Einstein, but he was big, strong and brave. And he was going up that hill like a goddamn bulldozer.
Second was Salvatore.
Salvatore Scardaccione was nine, the same age as me. We were classmates. He was my best friend. Salvatore was taller than me. He was a loner. Sometimes he came with us but often he kept to himself. He was brighter than Skull, and could easily have deposed him, but he wasn't interested in becoming chief. His father, the Avvocato Emilio Scardaccione, was a big shot in Rome. And had a lot of money stashed away in Switzerland. That's what they said, anyway.
Excerpted from I'm Not Scared by Niccolò Ammaniti. Copyright Niccolò Ammaniti 2002 all rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Canongate Publishing. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the publisher.
Translated from the Italian by Jonathan Hunt.
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