He has come too late. The village no longer exists. His village? Vita's? Whose village? This place that is not a place means nothing to him. He was born far awayon another planetand feels as if he's stepping back in time. The only road through Tufo is cut across by narrow alleys that drop into the valley on one side and climb up the hill on the other; now it is nothing more than a canyon between two walls of rubble, filled with the atrocious stench of dead bodies. Is this the odor of the past? Or of the lemon trees she still remembers? "The bombs, the bombs," repeats a feeble-minded old woman hunched on a straw chair in front of what might have been her house. She is knitting furiously. Her house is now a door hung on nothing. Dusty shadows wander among the ruins; they don't know who the soldiers are, and don't want to know. They're afraid it won't last this time either, and aren't sure if these soldiers have come to liberate them or to bury them for good. Everyone is old here. Where have the children gone who used to play in the streets? "Where is Via San Leonardo?" he asks the old woman, forcing himself to dig up a bit of the language they have in common. "My son," she responds with a toothless smile, "this is it."
This? But this isn't a street. This is a hole full of dust. They have destroyed everything. We have destroyed everything. Only one building is still standing. The roof has fallen in and there's no door. But standing nevertheless. The church. Its yellow facade is riddled with bullets, pieces of plaster have curled up like paper. There's no statue in the niche. And the three steps where Dionisia used to write splintered, the second one completely eradicated. Her house is right here, opposite Where?
The captain clambers up onto a mound of debris. His heavy boots kick up whirls of dust that burn his lungs and eyes. He scrambles over window frames, shredded curtains, a closet door, a mirror shard stuck in a slipper. His dust-covered face stares up at him. He sinks down onto a rafter resting atop the headboard of a bed. Only the brass pommel rises out of the rubble. The soldiers turn away so as not to look at the captain as he weeps. The old woman continues to knit, and the soldiers offer her a bar of chocolate. The old woman refuses; she doesn't have any teeth. They insist that she take it for her children. "I don't have children anymore, there's no one left," the old woman stammers. The soldiers don't understand her. All of a sudden the captain asks her, "Do you know Antonio? The one they called Mantu?" The old woman's eyes are clouded by cataracts. She looks at him a moment, then places her knitting needles in her lap, and points to a spot on the hill. "He went away," she says. The tone of her voice makes it clear he won't be coming back. "Do you know Angela, Mantu's wife?" Again, the same place on the hill. "She went away, too." Only now does he realize that the old woman's gnarled hand is pointing to the cemetery. But not even that exists any longer. The walls have crumbled, and in its place is a crater, an ulcer in the hill. The earth around here is redas if it were wounded. But it isn't. There is no water in these hills. Whoever knew how to find the water underground would have been the lord of this village. "Do you know Ciappitto?" he murmurs, now fearful of her answer. "The Americans took him," the old woman mumbles. "They took him to Naples, to prison." "Prison?" he asks, surprised. An eighty-seven-year-old cripple? "He was a fascist," the old woman explains patiently. "But even he went away. He was ashamed because the people threw rocks at him, so he had a stroke on the way to Naples. Or so they said."
Excerpted from Vita by Melania G. Mazzucco. Copyright © 2003 by Melania G. Mazzucco. Translation © 2005 by Virginia Jewiss. Published in September 2005 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
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