He can't explain it. He thinks, 'Even if I knew every word in every language, I still wouldn't be able to put together one phrase that means anything.'
by Anne-Marie Pedersen
Copyright © 1997 by Anne-Marie Pedersen. Reprinted by permission.
He thinks like this while he walks through the dirt roads while he watches the sky and its infinite movement of nothing. Sometimes he observes the trees reaching up for the nothing. He notices the blood purple leaves burdening the branches, tossing red shadows in the sun. Ghosts of hanging soldiers pull the trees' limbs to the earth. The trees will be brown and dead soon.
The newspapers say that it was the war to end all wars. 1920 now and no more war. But he knows that his war was enough to ruin all mankind forever. So every day since he's returned, he has wandered through Montebelluna, his peaceful village below the Italian Alps. On the road, girls wearing flowing dresses drawn close at the waist dance past him. Above the belt, the girls conceal their soft breasts and below it, their consoling thighs. They bury and hide everything here. He hates Montebelluna, it is his enemy. Do the people here remember their boys? When they celebrate weddings and birthdays do they notice those ghosts hanging from the trees, swaying to the music? The scars on his body cry every night as he sleeps. His beautiful Montebelluna and his war scars, how can he say anything?
He walks, all the while watching his thoughts. He tries to ignore the mountains and hills that secretly stalk him. Every day he passes her house. He never notices its white walls because he always stares up towards the sky. One day, though, it rains hard drops and he can look up no longer. For the first time, he looks through the window and he sees Maria, a distant cousin. She sews a dress, stitching invisible seams into the blue, silk sea. When she notices his soaking body outside, she motions for him to enter.
'Giovanni, please come in before you catch your death,' her voice reaches his ears slowly. She stares at his sopping shoes while he admires her blue eyes and yellow hair. When she was a child, her mother use to hide her in the closet because of her hair -- Maria didn't belong, didn't fit in with the rest of the dark family. But he knows for a fact that during the war, when the family escaped down to Assisi, the monk gave her the best room in the monastery because of that very same hair.
She rises from the chair and brings him a warm cup. Returning to her chair, she folds the dress, sets it aside, and reaches for a crocheted tablecloth. Metal sticks cross and uncross each other.
'You're the best seamstress in the whole village.'
She smiles and shakes her head. But never a pause, never a break in the rhythm as she creates another flower, then a row, then a field.
'You're getting married, aren't you, Maria?'
'I'm engaged to Vittorio, but he's somewhere over the mountains now -- Poland maybe -- keeping the peace.' 'Hiding from war, that's all keeping the peace is,' he thinks. A sigh rises to the ceiling then falls to the wood floor.
'You must miss him.'
'Yes,' she says tranquilly, never ceasing her work. If she does miss him, she refuses to keep the feeling close. She must hide it in her cupboard -- shut it up in the dark. Or maybe she feels nothing. Her hands continue. 'What do you do all day, Giovanni, besides work for your father?'
'Nothing -- walk, think too much.'
'You should come visit me. All day long I sit in this house alone; it's too quiet. You could tell me stories while I sew.'
Now instead of walking through the quiet streets, he sits inside her house. Only a crucifix, a framed Madonna, and a picture of Venice (painted by her dead brother for their dead mother) adorn the beige walls. The walls don't mind the emptiness, though. The shadows from the fire decorate the room. He loves the fire, with its violent gestures and exploding sounds.
He forgets the war and the village when he's with her. He tells her about his childhood, when his parents left the village and moved to Sao Paulo, Brazil. He paints a magic forest with monstrous tapeworms, bitter coffee beans, and monkey spirits. In that land, a person fends off the green just to survive. No peace, only life.
'What happened to the coffee plantation?' she asks. Her long fingers fight to knit the dense material. The wool spreads like a vine, twists and coils through the blanket. Winter will come soon.
'We left because my father didn't want us to grow up savages.'
She smiles, 'Giovanni, you're so far from a savage, even Sao Paulo cannot make a beast from an angel.'
But the men he has killed? 1916 -- bodies strewn like dead fish in a red river. And he shoots the gun, he transforms the lives of those boys and their families. He can't think about it, it can't count in life. It's a void that must exist, but only exists for a moment. Afterwards, it can no longer even seem to have happened. Maybe as a movement, an era -- The Great War -- but not as part of an honest man's life. He throws his thoughts away.
She listens to his stories, but not one day does she stop work. He wishes she would weave her gold hair into cloth. He knows what means something to him now; he knows that he loves her, but he can't say it.
The blanket she knitted for him rests on the chair like a bear -- warm, encompassing, ominous. 'Giovanni, please sit in the chair and wrap the blanket around you.' Delicately, she pierces the thread into the plain white material, embroidering her wedding dress with blooming chains of daisies.
'I hear Vittorio came back today,' he says as his fingers cut like knives into his lap.
'Yes,' she says -- no feeling, nothing.
Thoughts of Vittorio touching his Maria, stroking her hair, her hands of light, shoot holes in his brain.
'Tell me about the people there,' she says.
'Their skin is dark. The sun shines every day and makes their skin brown all year long.'
'I bet they never have winter there.' She looks up at him.
The next day he walks to her house, looks through the window, and sees himself sitting in his chair. It's not him, of course. He realizes this because the man in the chair has a dark hairy face and a thick frame, not Giovanni's tall slim structure. It is Vittorio. He watches Vittorio's mouth open and swell into a huge black tunnel. The walls shiver from the loud voice. He sees him jump up and slam his hands on the table, scattering pearl buttons everywhere. Vittorio flees from her house as hot tears stumble through his coarse beard. She doesn't move from her chair.
Giovanni waits ten minutes then walks in a whisper to the doorway. He knocks.
'Come in,' she speaks clearly, calmly.
He opens the door. He wonders, 'Is she crying, or do the rays of light pushing through the window just mimic tears on her cheeks?' Her face reminds him of the sky or the ocean because it reveals nothing but space.
'Did you see Vittorio?' she asks. She sews a line of pearl buttons, like a string of dew drops, onto the back of her dress.
She points to a letter and says, 'Yesterday I received this. It's a letter from a young girl in Poland who is pregnant with Vittorio's baby. She says he told her about me and that's how she knew where I lived. She writes, 'I have no money and my parents call me a whore. No one will marry me. Vittorio left me because he said he was engaged to the most beautiful girl in the village. I do not know if I want to warn you, kill you or beg you for help.''
Giovanni feels his fingers twist into the shape of a gun. Vittorio is a traitor.
She puts the letter down and picks up her sewing. 'He must go back and marry her; I told him that it would be wrong if he didn't.' The words sound serene -- it's all the same to her. But still she sews another button onto the dress.
Now the world comes to a point, an intersection, and he must take his chances. Giovanni walks over to her and pulls her out of the chair. He holds her cold body and tries to rub warmth into it. But her body and her golden hair spread around him. She holds him.
They marry five months later in the stone church above the village. When he proposed to her, she simply said, 'Yes, yes, I have the dress ready.' After the violent ringing of the church bells it is over. They stand outside, in front of the high rock walls, and look towards the infinite stretch of land. It seems unbearably peaceful and quiet from the clouds.
At night they sit in their house and make plans to move away. Maria wants to live in America or South America. Giovanni loves her so much, that home for him is to be with her. He tells her that she frees him from his demons. But still he remembers: he saw the ghosts, he watched the men in the trees dance to the music at his wedding. He hopes he has escaped.