A great big dog, all skin and bone, barked on a chain.
Behind the house were some corrugated iron huts and the pigsties, on the edge of a gravina.
Gravinas are small canyons, long crevasses dug by the water in the rock. White spires, rocks and pointed crags protrude from the red earth. Inside, twisted olive trees, arbutuses and holly often grow, and there are caves where the shepherds put their sheep.
Melichetti looked like a mummy. His wrinkled skin hung off him, and he was hairless, except for a white tuft in the middle of his chest. Round his neck he had an orthopaedic collar fastened with green elastic bands, and he was wearing black shorts and brown plastic flipflops.
He had seen us arrive on our bikes, but he didn't move. We must have seemed like a mirage to him. Nobody ever passed by on that road, except the occasional truck carrying hay.
There was a smell of piss. And millions of horseflies. They didn't bother Melichetti. They settled on his head and round his eyes, like they do on cows. Only if they got on his lips did he react, puffing them away.
Skull stepped forward. 'Signore, we're thirsty. Have you got any water?'
I was worried, because a man like Melichetti was liable to shoot you, throw you to the pigs, or give you poisoned water to drink. Papa had told me about a guy in America who had a pond where he kept crocodiles, and if you stopped to ask him the way he would ask you in, knock you on the head and feed you to the crocodiles. And when the police had come, rather than go to prison he had let his pets tear him to pieces. Melichetti could easily be that sort of guy.
The old man raised his sunglasses. 'What are you doing here, kids? Aren't you a bit far from home?'
'Signor Melichetti, is it true you fed your dachshund to the pigs?' Barbara piped up.
I could have died. Skull turned and gave her a glare of hatred. Salvatore kicked her in the shin.
Melichetti burst out laughing, had a fit of coughing and nearly choked. When he had recovered he said: 'Who tells you these daft stories, little girl?'
Barbara pointed at Skull: 'He does!'
Skull blushed, hung his head and looked at his shoes.
I knew why Barbara had said it.
A few days earlier we had had a stone-throwing competition and Barbara had lost. As a forfeit Skull had ordered her to unbutton her shirt and show us her breasts. Barbara was eleven. She had a small bosom, just flea-bites, nothing to what she would have in a couple of years' time. She had refused. 'If you don't, you can forget about coming with us any more,' Skull had threatened her. I had felt bad about it, the forfeit wasn't fair. I didn't like Barbara, as soon as she got the chance she would try to pull a fast one on you, but showing her tits, no, that seemed too much.
Skull had decided: 'Either show us your tits or get lost.'
And Barbara, without a word, had gone ahead and unbuttoned her shirt.
I couldn't help looking at them. They were the first tits I had seen in my life, except for mama's. Maybe once, when she had come to stay with us, I had seen my cousin Evelina's, she was ten years older than me. Anyway, I had already formed an idea of the sort of tits I liked, and Barbara's I didn't like at all. They looked like scamorzas, folds of skin, not much different from the rolls of fat on her stomach.
Barbara had been brooding on that episode and now she meant to get even with Skull.
'So you go around telling people I fed my dachshund to the pigs.' Melichetti scratched his chest. 'Augustus, that dog was called. Like the Roman emperor. Thirteen he was, when he died. Got a chicken bone stuck in his throat. Had a Christian funeral, proper grave and all.' He pointed his finger at Skull. 'I bet you're the oldest, aren't you, little boy?'
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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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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