Riomaggiore

Gail Chandler painting.

Gail Chandler painting.

             The man at the other end of the note bought her a coffee. They sat on the veranda, he lost behind sunglasses, she exposed and verdant in Italian sunshine. He touched her hand first. He touched her hand first. She squeezed his fingers and staggered through the debris of words learned from a dictionary and practiced in a mirror. He rose. She asked him where he was going.

            The cat is waking up. Antje sucks a breath and drops water on its lips. She strokes its cheeks.

            She found the cat in the lobby, swept aside with a pile of dust. She’d nudged it with a trainer and it hadn’t moved. It wasn’t until she’d knelt down and put her ear to its chest that she’d realized it was alive. It had lived in a bassinette since then. Antje often sits with the cat, rocking the swing, feeding it when it has the strength to open its lips.

            Now the cat is waking up. Antje puts it on her shoulder. There is a little heartbeat underneath the skin, next to her ear.

            Later, the cat is on the couch beside her, sleeping. Antje has one hand in its scruff, the other on her belly. There is a little heartbeat there, too, but more muted and much deeper. The television is on. In Labrador, a bus full of senior citizens has slid off a highway and into a stream. There are policemen helping old people out of the water. No one is hurt. No one has died. She watches to make sure that everyone is okay.

            He assured her that olives taken from the tree were clean. They tasted like oil, she found. He brought her down to the old path, so beaten that it would one day carve off a portion of the cliff and drop it into the Mediterranean. They went to the first of the five villages along the shore, it quiet with siesta except for the young woman who was cleaning a bistro that had no menus. They ate bread and drank wine from steel cups. Do you want to see the next village? he asked. All of them, she said. All of them.

            Antje opens the door and rushes to the bassinette. The cat is purring. It has been moving around. She takes it out and puts it on the ground, lets it eat out of a dish that she has heaped with food.

            “You have an appointment tomorrow,” says her sister on the phone, as though Antje has forgotten.

            “Pick me up at 10. Can you bring breakfast?”

            Hanne grinds her teeth, as though she would like to say no. But she cannot. Antje hangs up. Tomorrow is far away. Tomorrow is so lost that there is no hope in her but for seeing it eventually, as it creeps under the doorway, filters through the window, announces itself with the voice of someone on the radio.

            A little moon creature is kicking in her belly. A cat is eating from a dish. She goes to a cupboard and pours herself a drink. In the first sip, she sees what tomorrow is going to bring: how it’s going to provide a laugh, how it’s going to take it away, where she is going to go, what she is going to say and to who. The second sip is richer, sweeter. Tomorrow is just a word, she thinks. She is by the window, sitting on the sill. She is drinking and feeling and that is enough.

            On the beach of the village, there were hundreds of people. Some were laying on rocks in the water, backs arched and hands splayed. Others were rising and falling with the waves. A woman was running in the surf, screaming that she had lost her wedding ring. He laughed and asked her to come with him to his family stall, a birchwood hut with no roof. Forget these ombrellone people, he said, as though she were looking at anyone else. Inside the hut was a pressed lettino, next to a nightstand heaped with books. She lay down with him and looked at the sky through the square opening. Clouds crept into view, then were gone. Voices came, and passed beyond. There was the sound of the Mediterranean. He was speaking his language now, not bothering with what he knew of hers. She shivered, and soared. Grasped for the sky. Tumbled into the firmness of the lettino, until it had her. The door may have opened. Eyes may have appeared in the space of the missing roof. There is no rain here, he assured her. No need for shelter, or for hiding. We are outside. There are no walls. And as he said it, the sun crept into view overhead, burning away the shadow. Soon, it was all that she could see as she lay there with him, as their skin baked underneath rolls of sea spray, within the memory of shadows that were forbidden in the air of that small cabin.

            Hanne gives Antje a cheese roll. “What is wrong with your eyes? Why do you look like that? Did the doctor say anything about it?”

            “No,” says Antje, eating.

            “Did she say anything else? How is the baby?”

            “All is good. In two months, you’ll be an aunt.” In Antje’s ears, it sounds like a bribe. She hopes that this will be the last of it, but Hanne persists. Antje tells her what the doctor said, everything.

            Hanne takes her to a diner, because she does not feel that she brought enough food. “I don’t understand your shape. You are pregnant but look so thin. You were always thin, even when you were fat.” She says this with a smile, as though Antje will recall some funny joke that Hanne has been saying for years, but she cannot remember it, does not know what this means. “I am going to move you into our house next week.”

            “Why?”

            Hanne’s teeth rub. “To take care of you, what do you think? We have space. You stay with us. We take care of you. Very simple.”

            “I can’t,” explains Antje, and lays out her reasons. Hanne has an answer for all of them. Each excuse that Antje can give has been planned against, as though this is a type of warfare and Hanne is a general who is practiced at moving her troops over the board to trap Antje. To surround her. To require her surrender.

            Antje puts her hands up. She is going to be shot, she thinks. She is going to die. But then she remembers, “I have a cat now. Hanne, I have a cat. I can’t leave the cat behind. I just can’t.”

            This is a weapon for which Hanne has not planned. She stares as Antje chews on bacon and eats jam from a pouch.

            “My children are allergic,” says Hanne.

            “I know. I’m sorry. But thank you, Hanne, for trying.”

            She walked to the other villages alone. She hadn’t expected him to reappear, no matter how many olive groves she visited. At the next village, the trees had been spoiled, the olives infected with fly larvae that looked like slugs. They served wine in glass at the last village. It was the place he lived, and though they had not promised to see each other again, she hoped to catch a glimpse of him so that she would understand his life. In a café filled with foaming cappuccino – overwhelmed by the taste of cinnamon and ground clove – she began writing. Words came, the ones she had been looking for all along on this trip, the same ones that had not been available earlier, tucked as they were in a tin box she had left far across the sea. Her handwriting looked unfamiliar, but there were twirls on each letter that pleased her. She was writing on the subject of that man, about whose life she knew nothing – but yet knew enough to fill in the spaces he had not shared, to reveal his story as she chose to do.

            Antje retches. In the mirror, her hair is shrinking.

            “I would have to give you away,” she says to the cat, still unnamed, as she considers Hanne’s offer again. “I would have to see you leave. I cannot do that, can I?”

            She is drinking beer. But it is raining outside, and beer is not enough for that. Vodka mixes with orange juice until she can barely taste it. One hand is on her belly. The other is raised to her lips. The whole world is quiet. It is completely alone.

            “I have you,” she says to the cat. “I thought you were gone, but you woke up. You woke up. You did.”

            When the bottle is finished, she makes a phone call. The deliveryman knocks on the door instead of pushing the doorbell. Antje stands off to the side with the chain on, as though she is afraid of intrusion, but really it is to hide the shape of her belly. She thanks him and he is gone, and then she is on the couch, and then there is no orange juice left, and then the beer bottles are swimming on the floor as the cat pushes them about. They clink and sound like music, accompanied by rain that does not seem it will ever end.

            In the middle of the country, she found other characters: a military man who rode a bicycle to his garrison, an old grandmother practicing tai chi, a despot writing his pamphlets of protest on a park bench. They melted into her words. She melted into the memory of them. And the story grew. It burgeoned beyond its bounds, willful with a life of its own.

            The television is dead. A bottle tried to come out of it, and is now stuck in the glass. The rain has stopped. Antje is looking at the mirror. There is a stranger in her apartment, who wants to take her life away. This stranger has no name.

            “You can’t have it,” she says to the stranger. The water is running. It is running and running and running and it sears her fingers whenever she puts them into the stream.

            Flying west over the Atlantic, she felt as though she would miss the old land. As though she had become a part of it, and that going back to the new world was a stamp of disrespect. But when she landed, there were people there, everywhere, and they were happy to see her. She hugged them and kissed them as she had never done. But she did not tell them about the lump in her satchel, the collection of paper that she had finished in the air, resolved with a final flourish that now lived deep within her. It’s a book, she wanted to tell them. But instead she had said nothing.

            “Eat,” she tells the cat, laying out more food. She falls. Her head is spinning. Her fingers are blistering. She drinks.

            There is a stranger in her apartment each time she passes the window. Outside is black. She turns the music on, but it will not work. Something is wrong. She tries to sing, but this is not what Antje knows how to do, and she cannot remember any words from any song. She picks up the phone, but it is dead. It is broken into pieces.

            The next time she goes into the bathroom, she smashes the mirror.

            She found a place to stay, something to keep her busy, but it was that lump in that satchel that kept her connected to the places she had been. She opened it often, surprised by the words, that they looked as though they had been composed in her handwriting but surely couldn’t have been. It was not what she knew how to do. But the characters were there, beckoning to her to come back, to stay with them. Asking her why she had chosen to leave.

            Antje bleeds from her hands. She finishes the bottle. Yes, she thinks, there is a collection of old thinking and ancient thoughts bundled between two blankets in the closet. She pulls it out, chews on the paper. She wants to take it back in. To reverse the flow. To make it hers again, because somehow it came out of her and somehow that diminishes who she is and what she can do. The words are unfamiliar. Written by a stranger.

            The glass is sharp. It hurts a great deal. It hurts and never stops.

            She found that she did not know, after a while, the person that had given her the greatest hope she had ever had. Something was growing within her. She could feel it move. Could see its face. Knew that it had something to say to her, its own story that it would like to put in front of the one she had made in a place far away, and then come here to forget. She had forgotten. But this other story was growing, and nothing would stop it. Nothing.

            She cuts. Slices into her abdomen. It should hurt. It should scare her, this pain. But it is just part of a story, a new one, and she cannot wait for the one inside her to finish its tale. She cuts. Blood drips on the floorboards, pooling around the beer bottles. The cat is drinking it. She puts her hand into herself, through the jagged opening that she has made. Feels her soul. It is right there. It is right there, and she pulls it out.

            A bundle of paper is on the couch. Her bloody handprint is on its cover, surer than any name, purer than any identity she could imagine.

            She is screaming. Beer makes that go away. The last drink is shattered glass in her mouth as she pulls a story out of her. It is found, fleshy, and tied to her. She cuts.

            There is no mirror anymore to guide her hands as she sews herself together. She cleans herself with rubbing alcohol. Drinks. The cat is in the corner. It looks dead but she knows that it is not. It is just sleeping. She puts her ear to it when she is done repairing herself. A little heartbeat is right beneath the skin, muttering away in a land made of dream.

            She goes to the bassinette. A little body is curled there, totally still. The mattress is thick with blood. She swings the child. She gives it a name. She remembers a story. She forgets it again. Antje wonders that the little thing should be so still. She rocks the bassinette, knowing that in time, the child will wake up. She will put her ear to it in an hour, a day, a week. And suddenly its heart will be beating. Suddenly it will make a sound and open its eyes to look at her. She knows that this will happen. She knows this because a new story is growing inside her, telling her that it must.

<<<<<this was a tough story to write. I was going to put a warning at the beginning, but decided against it. I hope it doesn’t bring anyone pain, certainly not my intent, but please know that if you need to let me have it in the comments, I welcome that discussion if that’s what’s warranted.>>>>>

101 thoughts on “Riomaggiore

  1. I didn’t need the warning, Trent. The only warning I needed was seeing your name in the reader.
    As for the story, I’m still processing that… which I guess is a good thing, because often I stop thinking about the story the minute I finish reading it.

  2. Holy Hell. This is not the first time I’ve witnessed the disintegration of a human mind at your hand…and it’s a stunner. I am, actually, stunned. The act of extraction aside (unfucking believable I might add), this is an incredible piece of work NB. I need to read it again, not to gleen anything I may have missed because it is written with such detail that being there was the easy part…but to enter once again, the mind of soft madness gone completely over the edge. Damn you’re good. So good.

  3. Hi Trent – First of all, I have a painting (not really a painting but a reproduced framed print) of Riomaggiore hanging in my house. Visiting the villages of the Cinque Terre is one of my dreams. Have you been there? You know I’m a fan now, so I was blown away by this and the many feelings it stirs on some pretty heavy stuff. I think you’re really brave for putting it out there and yes, it just shows me once again how versatile you are. I was excited to see your something new in my reader 🙂

    • Very nice – yes, I’ve been there. It is exactly what you might imagine, only better. Plus the wine is really good and really cheap… This piece is a bit heavier than intended, I think it was originally conceived to turn out happy, not sure where it went off the road.

  4. I was strangely satisfied with this ending, but my stomach churned at the actual thought of her cutting herself open and pulling it out, and then expecting it to breathe. >< I also enjoyed the imagery of the sea and the villages earlier in the story!

  5. Well I’ve read this 2 1/4 times now. The 1/4 was because I realized reading on the phone at my daughter’s gymnastics practice was not going to work. When I got home I read it once as written and once again focusing on the two storylines separately. At a couple of points the writing reminded me of Alan Lightman, a writer whose style I admire quite a bit. Thanks for sharing this.

    Glad you didn’t start with a warning. Not a fan of that.

    • Good point on the warnings… they’re not really necessary, I suppose. I don’t think I know who Alan Lightman is, but I will give him a check. Thanks for reading 2.25 times! I could barely write it 1 time.

      • This is one of the parts that reminded me of Lightman:

        “She goes to a cupboard and pours herself a drink. In the first sip, she sees what tomorrow is going to bring: how it’s going to provide a laugh, how it’s going to take it away, where she is going to go, what she is going to say and to who. The second sip is richer, sweeter. Tomorrow is just a word, she thinks.

        If you are interested, my favorite book by Lightman is Einstein’s Dreams, which you can read a little bit about Lightman here: http://wp.me/p130NL-Gj. If you are not interested, no worries.

  6. Very well written Trent. It is very real – so real it gave me an upset stomache. I don’t usually seek out this type of fiction. I know that all of what you have written is hypothetically possible and humanity never ceases to amaze me – but it is not a genre i would pick up. Once I started reading, though I could not stop – it was that well written. i am sure many do cheish this type of story. Well done my friend..

    • Thanks Paul – honestly, it’s not my cup of tea either, to read or to write. I think I will make my next story about some spunky Mennonite grandmother exorcising maple syrup demons or something. I think I may need a change of pace.

      • You know Trent, the style reminds me a lot of Steinbeck- specifically Grapes of Wrath. It seems as if a cold wind blows through and between the characters; it makes me shiver. It is extremely well written, don’t misread me, I also don’t watch dark movies either, but there are some classics out there that are masterpieces. As this is.

        • Thanks again Paul – you are honouring me way more than I deserve. I’m a fanatic about Grapes of Wrath, just think it’s one of the most crummy but uplifting books I’ve ever read. That last scene along (the breastfeeding one) is so full of desperation and glory that I can never get it out of my mind. I would love to approach a fraction of that scene in anything I write, but it’s a tough situation climbing that high. Anyway, thanks again – I do like dark movies, but I don’t like to replicate them. An unfortunate tendency (honest, in real life, I am super happy).

  7. I’ve been waiting for the tears to stop rolling down my face. They won’t. It is a powerful gift to be able to move people the way you do. The tragedy is overwhelming in this piece but your writing of it is so beautiful that we can’t look away. I will be thinking about this story for a very long time.

    • Thank you Michelle. It’s too much tragedy for me to process, just glad it’s not real. I always seem to think that the average news spot brings deeper tragedies… I don’t even know what to think about that.

  8. Well, shit, buddy, I didn’t see that coming. I thought it was going to be a story to make me yearn for a vacation spot someplace warm. I couldn’t have been more mistaken. A sneak attack. But don’t post warnings. Trigger warnings are for wimps.

  9. Damn, Trent. From where in the depths of your mind and heart did you reach to pull this story out. I’m still wavering between loving it and hating it. I will probably have to come back later and read it again before I decide. It is gripping and it is provocative. But it’s also so full of pain and anguish. Wow.

  10. I’m kind of there with Doobster — loving and hating it. I read it this morning and didn’t have time for a thoughtful comment. Now I’m thinking that this might be what it’s like to actually write a book. It is like gutting oneself.

    • I’d have to agree with both of you. I don’t have a lot of love for this piece, still not sure how it arrived on my doorstep. I think writing a book is a self-eviscerating process for sure, though, especially if it simply sits there afterwards, and no one knows.

  11. Wow, very intense. I didn’t get to read this yesterday, and probably a good thing, but today…stlll wow.

    Amazing work as always, Trent.

  12. Wow Trent. You really know how to make me make that face. You know the one, with my mouth hanging open and a lost look in my eyes.

    • Julie! I bet you look awesome with that face… take a picture! Anyway, yeah, this one had me a bit open-mouthed myself when I finished it. Spent an hour and a half in a Starbucks writing it before work, and it just spewed out, some kind of projectile word-based vomit. It was messy. It is messy.

      So… feel like doing up a guest post so that I can erase the flavour of this? I need something fun!

  13. I’m certainly not going to let you have it, and I am glad you didn’t post a warning – because I would have read it anyway and a warning would have just spoiled the twist.

    However, this was tough to get through. Not because of the writing (which was incredible), and not even necessarily because of Antje’s story. It was the association with Riomaggiore and Italy with such a horrific event, and now I feel like my connection with that place is tainted, somewhat. Italy holds my soul and Cinque Terre is paradise, and I guess I don’t like it being defiled like that? Silly of me, I know.

    • I understand that… I have great memories of the Italian coast and there is nothing that ever happened there to create this story. I hope I haven’t sullied the place for you too bad… I’m sure another vacation out there would cure that – but if you go, take me with you!

  14. Wow. I knew we were headed somewhere not so nice, but I didn’t expect that. Good for you for telling the story. I know I find myself trying to censor my characters when they’re about to do something people would find horrific, or even distasteful, and I have to stop myself and let them go about their business. It is their story after all. And your writing is superb, as usual 🙂

    • I agree Jennifer, the characters make their story and you just have to let them have their say, icky or not. Thanks for the comment about the writing – really appreciate that.

    • I don’t know, Jaded. I don’t think there is any such thing as inspiration, at least for me. Just voices and whatever they’re saying. I don’t always listen. Sometimes don’t want to listen. Sometimes don’t have a choice though.

      • I always say I want to know what happens next in your stories. In this one, the best case, the bebe would breathe and cry.

        In reality, someone might enter her place and see the baby corpse, the cat and poor Antje waiting for the next story that won’t happen.

        Be well, Trent.

  15. Brilliant as always, Trent. The beauty of your words is juxtaposed with the horror of the imagery you create. I can’t get this out of my head.
    I’ve said it before- your writing really reminds me of JD Salinger’s. You both have a gift when it comes to descending into such trauma without the reader really noticing where the horror begins. You do it in such a subtle way that your protagonist’s actions seem almost normal, but when you finish the story, and come back to the real world, you realise just how awful her circumstances are. The fact that your readers can become so involved and so empathetic with your characters is a real testament to your abilities. Thank you for this story.

    • Ah Janey – thanks for that, I am totally blushing. Sorry for late reply too, I’m currently knee deep in work life. Glad you can empathize with the characters, I always feel odd about what I put them through.

      Anyway, glad to you see you around the blogosphere and hope to be seeing more of your posts, you’ve been missed.

    • Well spoken, Janey. You are not likely to notice until he has dragged you deep into the drama. I almost told him that some time ago in words like: Sir Trent, you seem to play a trick. You start your pieces as though a meaningless harmless joinery of words, but only to make the theme of the story and climax stand in sharper contrast.

      Trent, one of the wisest words I heard when starting my training as a psychiatrist (which I had always believed) was that: anybody could break down. Stretch the mind long enough and it probably could snap. What do you think of this?

      • I think you are inevitable right, Doc. But I am always amazed at how far people can stretch before that breakdown. I hope that’s a good thing. I think we might be resilient – is that the right word?

        • Maybe, Sir. Maybe we are. I say this because, at times, it seems some can never afford that luxury and they don’t go far before the string snaps. I cannot confidently say if that is the right word. I do not mean to meaninglessly complicate matters, but what standards have we measured our strength against, before we can lay a claim to the word resilience? For all we know, we are all really like the common thread, and by no means an elastic band.

  16. I keep rereading this.

    I am in love with this piece.

    The gutting imagery, Antje’s hands wearing blood, holding to the story, the kitten’s heartbeat, your relentless throb of imagery.

    You knocked it out of the park with this one, Lewin. You said you wanted to try to be more fearless, and you fucking nailed it. This is gorgeous.

    I stumble along and occasionally find a raw gem; you’re mining and shaping the fucking Koh-i-Noor with each post.

    Brilliant. Never hesitate, and never flinch. This is glorious.

  17. WOW Catastrophe is right!! that was amazing… you started on a beautiful road and ended up in a darkass alley! sometimes I wonder though if you have multiple personalities… and one is really really.. sick. lol 🙂

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