That's how Nonno Umberto told it. Ignazio listened, surrounded by wood chips, sure that Nonno was a liar. He could not accept his grandfather hammering at a gondola three days straight—when now his arthritic hands barely brought fork to mouth. He could not accept an angel perching anywhere. Nor could he see his own father, Diego, as the small boy mute with pain, when now he was the farthest thing from silent, the farthest thing from small. There always seemed to be too much of him: too much volume, too much hair, too many wine bottles emptying too quickly. Too much laughter at the wrong times (his laugh had claws; it unfurled sharply). He eclipsed everyone—Ignazio himself, his brothers, his sisters, his mother with her broad hips and bullheaded love, and Nonno, with his rocking chair, his window, his corrugated skin, the loosened hold on life that caused him to stop carving, stop trying to shape things, just let them float or sink in their canals.
One summer night, when dinner was over and heat thickened the house, Ignazio reluctantly left childhood behind. It was a Wednesday.
He was twelve. From the kitchen came the clanging watersong of his sisters washing pots and pans. His father slid his arms into his coat sleeves.
His cheeks were red with wine. Ignazio's older brothers followed suit and waited, hands in pockets. Diego Firielli turned to his youngest son and crooked his finger in the gesture of come. The brothers laughed. Ignazio flushed and rushed toward his coat.
Outside, their gondola sat, dispassionate, on the water. Ignazio stepped in last. The wind curled on the surface of the canal, and they glided along the water in silence. Diego turned to look at Ignazio with a strange expression, expectant, mocking. The thick bush of his hair blocked out the city behind him.
It was late, even for Venezia, but the house they went to brimmed with light, noise, and women. Red velvet drapes hung to the floor; wine poured freely; languid chords pushed out of an accordion; the women laughed and swayed and rubbed their bodies against men. Ignazio stood in a corner between a curtain and an ornate oil lamp and tried not to look at anyone. He wished the lamp would darken so he could melt into the wall. He stepped farther from its sphere of light, but his father approached, a girl on each arm. "Here," he said, thrusting one toward
Upstairs, on the stale mattress, Ignazio's hand shook as he touched the girl's knee. It was cool and smooth. Her shoulder preened with freckles.
Black ringlets fell around her face. She sat, half reclined, on the thin bed. He was afraid of her, uncertain, humiliated by the fact of his own fear. She drew his hand to the hem of her skirt and he did nothing and she rolled her eyes and reached to unbutton his trousers. Two minutes later, as he pushed into her body, he heard his father's voice through the curtain to his left, grunting rhythmically, and realized that his father could hear him too. What if he made an audible mistake? He groaned in time, his sounds overshadowed by his father, and the girl lay still. She felt like a crushed peach, soft, moist, alarming. His father finished and Ignazio bit the girl's neck to climax in absolute silence.
It began soon after that. The unraveling. When Ignazio turned thirteen, his voice deepened and his father broke his mother's ribs. At fourteen, he went to the kitchen one night and saw a thing that itched his skin: his father, seated at the table, sobbing. He made no sound. His glass was empty. His chin dripped with snot and tears. Ignazio crept out and raced to bed, where he lay in the sea of Nonno's snores, itching, until the sun returned.
Fifteen: Ignazio cut and sanded, carved and built, until his hands grew raw. He rose for work before dawn, and kept on into the night. One night, in his exhaustion, he sawed the tip off his ring finger. Still, the Firielli business teetered on the edge of disrepute. Orders arrived, Diego ignored them, half-made gondolas lay naked and deserted. Funeral dates came and went, their commissioned vessels unfinished. Customers grew wary; the family soups thinned. By the time Ignazio turned sixteen, his brothers and sisters had married, gondola orders had fallen to half, and hunger felt as familiar as the pulse of water under wood.
Excerpted from The Invisible Mountains by Carolina De Robertis Copyright © 2009 by Carolina De Robertis. Excerpted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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