TWO HORIZONTAL GIRLS
The little girl had taken all the postcards to bed with her. She called them the collection. They were scattered all over the sheets and wedged between the pillows, where she could line them up, arrange them in columns, switch them around, alphabetize them or put them into chronological order, or distribute them as if they were cities and towns and the mattress was one big map. The big girl, stretched out on the floor at the foot of the bed, had first explained to her that she couldn’t really refer to them as a collection, since they had all been sent by one correspondent, that is, her father, and then she’d done something far worse. With an enormous effort of the will, she’d reached up a hand from the linoleum-level where she lay to the bed-level, and she’d convinced the little girl to hand her the first three, four, or five postcards in the row. The room they were in was dominated by white. The walls were white, the sheets and pillowcases were white, the curtains on the windows were white, the gauze bandages on the little girl’s wrists were white. The big girl had laboriously opened her right eye, like a shipwrecked sailor blinded by that expanse of blinding white pack ice; then she’d checked the stamps and the postmarks and asked the little girl why on earth she thought the postcards had all come from the post office of East Verona, if each of them were marked with a different city: Amsterdam, Aosta, Athens, Bangkok, and Berlin. She had even been on the verge of explaining to the little girl that her father wasn’t an archeologist or an explorer, much less an agent working for the intelligence service, constantly moving around the world. Her father was quite simply just one more husband who had left his wife to start a new life, probably with a younger woman, somewhere in the greater Verona metropolitan area. Then the thought of family, any family at all, had triggered a surge of nausea, so instead all she’d said was: “Oh what the fuck do I care; as far as I’m concerned you can all just drop dead. I’m mustering my last ounce of strength to keep from vomiting.”
Maybe the little girl had understood or maybe she hadn’t, perhaps she’d already figured it all out on her own, maybe she’d just heard the phrase drop dead and had taken it to heart—whatever the case, she’d burst into tears. She’s started to sob and wail, stretched out on her belly in the middle of all those world capitals, and she hadn’t stopped since.
“Please, please, please, please,” the big girl had said, eyes shut tight and fingertips pressed against her temples. “I already have a million white-hot nails hammered into my brain.”
Now the little girl was crying harder and harder. At linoleum-level, as the big girl cursed her own bad habit of always standing up for the truth, no matter the cost, she heard a very familiar cadenced sound coming down the corridor toward them. Rubber clogs, on their way. They traveled the entire corridor and came to a halt just a few feet away from her head, right outside the door of the room. The big girl held her breath. She imagined the nurse stopping to consider, weighing the pros and cons of a possible intervention. She imagined the nurse putting her ear to the door, trying to decide whether that sobbing constituted sufficient cause to go in and check on the occupant, or whether the terms of therapy didn’t instead recommend allowing the crying to die out on its own. Then the little girl seized the initiative and, unable to contain her sobbing, took a lion-sized bite into her pillow. The good taste of clean linen helped to calm her down. Detergent plus fabric softener plus ironing and starch: a providential sedative that helped her to stop her sobbing in no more than thirty seconds. The big girl lay listening. Outside, the rain was tapping at the glass, inside a clock tick-tocked away. A couple of attendants had been sent out to look for her in the van along the asphalt road, following the one and only possible escape route out through the forest. The entire ward and the dormitory would be searched thoroughly, without haste, room by room, bed by bed, closet by closet, if the attendants were to come back empty-handed. The clogs reversed course and went back to where they’d come from.
“Christ on a cross,” said the big girl, once the nurse was fading into the distance. “I need a cigarette.” She was stretched out on the floor as if her back was broken or she had a bullet in her ribs an eighth of an inch from one lung. She said: “I have a million, no a billion white-hot nails hammered into my brain.”
“I’m shorry but I don’t have a shigarette,” said the little girl, as she sucked on a corner of her pillow at her bed-level.
“Obviously you don’t,” said the big girl. Cautiously, as if she were still in the crosshairs of the sniper on the roof, she extended her right hand toward her jeans pocket. From that pocket she extracted a transparent plastic cylinder, identifiable at first glance as the outer shell of a ballpoint pen, stripped of its ink reservoir and snapped in half. She lifted it to her lips, pinching it between her thumb and forefinger, and took a long, solemn drag of pure ambient air. She held her breath for a few seconds, then blew out that imaginary smoke. Then, last of all, she twisted her head to the right and to the left, cracking the vertebrae in her neck and relaxing her cervical muscles.
“Are you smoking a ballpoint pen?” asked the little girl. She still had a corner of the pillow in her mouth but now she wasn’t sucking on it anymore, she just nibbled at it every once in a while, observing with great interest everything that was happening at linoleum-level.
“This isn’t a ballpoint pen,” said the big girl. “It’s a metaphysical cigarette.”
“What does metaphysical mean?”
“Something that you can’t see but it’s still there, you understand?”
“And why did you want us to all drop dead?”
“Oh, that’s nothing but a manner of speech. I always talk that way, I always say drop dead, drop dead all of you, I’m dying, or else kill yourself, go hang yourself, why don’t you all just kill yourselves, but no matter what I say nobody ever dies. It’s just a way of letting off a little steam.”
The big girl took another drag on the cylinder. Even during their conversation her sense of hearing was focused like a sonar device in certain key points of the compass. The courtyard, the corridor, the other patients’ rooms. At the moment, she was not receiving any anomalous noises.
She said: “Anyway, what’s your name?”
“Margherita,” replied the little girl.
“I saw that on the postcards. It’s a perfectly nice name for a well behaved little girl, but it sounds like just the kind of name your parents must have stuck you with.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Do you know anything about Indians? I don’t mean Indians from India, I mean redskin Indians. The Sioux tribe, you know about them?”
“More or less.”
“Then listen. Try to pay close attention and understand everything I tell you, because I have no intention of explaining this twice. When a Sioux child was born, its parents gave it a sort of provisional name. Just a name to call it by while it’s still small, you follow me? Like Margherita. But when the child grew up, and his nature revealed itself, the tribe’s medicine man would observe him for a while until he had come up with the right name for him. You do know what a medicine man is, don’t you?”
“Of course I do. A sorcerer.”
“Right. But it wasn’t the medicine man who was choosing the name, it was the name that made itself known. The medicine man was only a good observer. You understand the difference? You understand that no one else can decide who you are?”
“But I like Margherita,” said the little girl.
“Oh Christ. They ought to study you at the university. You may be a freaking lunatic who just sliced open the veins of her wrists, but at least you like being named Margherita.”
The little girl swallowed with a gulp. It wasn’t clear to her whether freaking lunatic was an insult or a compliment. Finally her curiosity got the better of her.
“So what’s your name?” she asked.
“Jonah,” said the big girl.
“But isn’t that a boy’s name?”
“That doesn’t make a bit of difference.”
“How long has that been your name?”
“Since right now. Since two seconds ago. Since three or maybe four seconds ago. I, the undersigned, stretched out on the floor of Margherita’s room, hereby declare that from this instant forward my name is Jonah, and I choose to be called Jonah until I change my mind.”
“What did your name used to be, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I do mind you asking, because that name no longer exists.”
“That’s a shame,” said the little girl.
Meanwhile, as the big girl was talking, her supersensitive ears had picked up a signal from the courtyard. Tires on gravel, in a puddle, on muddy grass. Attendants back from their sweep of the forest. The van pulled to a stop, then voices penetrated from outside. There wasn’t a lot of time left now. The big girl took another drag on the cylinder.
She said: “So, anyway, Margherita, I beg your pardon for the invasion. I just needed a change of scenery.”
“How’s your headache?” asked the little girl.
“Can I try it too?”
“The megaphysical cigarette.”
“That’s absolutely out of the question.”
“Drop dead,” said the little girl.
Image courtesy and copyright Fulvia Farassino.
Paolo Cognetti is an Italian documentary filmmaker and novelist. His first short story collections are called Manuale per ragazze di successo (Handbook for Successful Girls, 2004) and Una cosa piccola che sta per esplodere (Something Small That’s About to Explode, 2007). Cognetti’s book about New York, New York è una finestra senza tende, was published by Laterza in 2010, and a translation published by the University of Chicago Press is forthcoming under the title New York Is an Open Window. Sofia si veste sempre di nero (Sofia Always Dresses in Black) is Cognetti’s third book published by minimum fax and was short-listed for Italy’s highest literary award, the Strega Prize, in 2013. His personal blog can be found here.
Antony Shugaar, Asymptote Italy editor-at-large, is the author of Coast to Coast and the coauthor of Latitude Zero: Tales of the Equator. He is a translator: among his most recent titles are The Crocodile by Maurizio de Giovanni, Resistance is Futile, by Walter Siti, Other People’s Trades, and If Not Now, When? by Primo Levi. He is working on a book about translation for the University of Virginia Press.