The following is an excerpt from Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s new novel, A sister’s story, translated by Ann Goldstein. Di Pietrantonio’s short story was published by Granta Italy, and his novel, bella miawas nominated for the Strega Prize and won the Brancati Prize. A sister’s story was a finalist for the 2021 Strega Prize. Ann Goldstein has translated all of Elena Ferrante’s books. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship and is the recipient of the PEN Renato Poggioli Translation Prize.
I can’t sleep in this hotel room. I give in to exhaustion, but wake up with a start, open my eyes in the dark. It’s been a long time, and Piero’s graduation celebration is either an unreliable memory or a sketchy dream. I may not be able to establish the truth about anything after the phone call I received yesterday. The dim light from the hallway filters under the door, accompanied by the faint sound of footsteps. Other memories file past, hurry, disorderly. Memory chooses its cards in the game, exchanges them, sometimes cheats.
I traveled all day, on various trains, listening to loudspeaker announcements first in French and then in Italian. The names of the little stations where we did not stop flashed past; some that I couldn’t read. Suddenly, in the afternoon, the window filled with the sea, the rolling Adriatic, so close to the railway tracks in some places. Crossing the Marches, I had the optical illusion that the buildings leaned towards the beach, as if attracted by the water. Adriana doesn’t know I’ve arrived. I’ll go see her tomorrow, but not at Borgo Sud.
Here there is no smell of salt and the sound of the waves barely filters through from outside.
Here at the hotel they asked me if I wanted to eat, but I said I was too tired to come down to dinner. The strong and kind Abruzzo knocked while I was watching the news, brought me cookies and hot milk in the hands of a blonde girl. I did not add sugar: it was sweet without. The forgotten taste of our first food: I drank it in small sips, I did not expect all this comfort.
Christophe says that milk is bad for adults, that only humans are stupid enough to continue drinking it after weaning. But then I saw him come out onto the landing, rummaging through a bag of crisps. It’s my French neighbor opposite, who works at the Grenoble synchrotron. We share a cat and care for some plants that live between our doors. I left him a note before leaving; he will have to take care of them now.
But sometimes, when Piero came home late at night, he liked it: “I just take milk and biscuits.
We’ve always had them in many flavors, for breakfast. He dipped them into the cup one by one, holding them between his thumb and forefinger, and told me about the day.
The house we lived in as husband and wife is not far from here. I mentally review the side streets that separate this street from Via Zara. I still have an image of this apartment so precise that even today I could list every detail: the cracked tiles in the bathroom which sounded muted if you walked on it, the changes in the light on the walls during the day . The first awakening for us was a slight rattle at the window as the sun came to warm it, a sudden expansion of the glass. Piero was beginning to turn around, protesting the need to get up. We breathed an air that was still slightly bluish, coming from the balcony overlooking the sea. The sea evaporated in our house.
Here there is no smell of salt and the sound of the waves barely filters through from outside.
I didn’t sleep that night either in the oversized bed. It was our third summer there, the smell of new furniture was gone, and in the kitchen the stove had lost its shine. Piero was taking care of his father, who was in the hospital. At the darkest moment before dawn, someone angrily pressed the bell. She called out his name and in an instant was on my floor, breathing hard, her nervous steps arriving outside the door. I took a moment to turn the key to unlock the door, on the other side she grumbled at me. I hadn’t seen her for over a year: my sister.
As children, we were inseparable, then we had learned to lose each other. She could leave me without news of her for months, but it had never been so long. She seemed to obey a nomadic instinct; when a place no longer suited her, she abandoned it. From time to time, our mother would say to her: you are a gypsy. Later, I was, too, in another way.
I almost didn’t recognize her: she was wearing an almost shapeless straw hat, the brim frayed on one side. Below, however, the eyes were his.
She rushed inside and, with a backward kick of her foot, closed the door behind her. One of the panties she was wearing fell off and lay on the floor upside down. The baby was sleeping in his arms, his bare legs limp along his lean body, his head under his chin. It was his son, and I didn’t know he was born.
I couldn’t have imagined the revolution that was about to begin: if I had foreseen it, I might have left them outside. Adriana believed she was an angel with a sword, but she was a negligent angel and sometimes hurt by mistake. If she hadn’t arrived, who knows, maybe everything else wouldn’t have happened.
Our last meeting had ended in a quarrel; after several weeks I had looked for it in vain. I was expecting a move from him. None of our mutual acquaintances had seen her in town, but every once in a while she sent a postcard to our parents up in town. They showed them to me when I went to see them: port of Pescara, Pescara by night. Lots of greetings from your daughter, then signature with a flourish. She knew I would read them, they were for me: proof that she was alive and close.
His move took place at three o’clock in the morning of a day in June. I don’t know how long I would have stayed still and silent watching them. From the back like that, the baby looked like a big doll, one his mother had never had as a child.
I almost didn’t recognize her: she was wearing an almost shapeless straw hat, with faded fake flowers on the wide brim, the brim frayed on one side. Below, however, the eyes were hers, bright and piercing, but wide open, as when she was afraid.
She asked me about Piero, I told her where he was. Then she got impatient as we both stood in the hallway and almost walked right through me. She hadn’t forgotten the house, where she had been several times, and was heading confidently towards the bedroom. She put the baby on the bed and covered him with the sheet, then sat down next to him. I was in front of her and she wasn’t talking, she was holding her sweaty face in her hands, elbows on her knees. At her feet, the bag she had dropped from her shoulder.
“What happened?” I tried to ask.
She didn’t answer, but went to the window to hide her tears. She was shaking slightly, her shoulder blades protruding under the nightgown I had taken for a summer dress. The brim of the hat hit the glass and it fell. Above her right ear, a single snip had cut her mid-length hair neatly, like a hairdresser’s game that ends badly. She immediately covered the damage, ignoring the surprise on my face. A slight rustle, the baby had got rid of the sheet and had turned to the lighted lamp. He slept in the same position he had in his mother’s womb, cheeks round, hair damp on his forehead.
“What is his name?” I asked softly.
“Vincenzo,” Adriana answered from the window.
I knelt down beside the bed, sniffed my nephew. He smelled clean, his head of bread still warm. I risked a caress, barely touching him.
“You’re going to have to keep us here for a while,” Adriana said.
His serious tone frightened me more than his request.
“I’ll ask Piero.”
“Piero is good, he will want us for sure. Maybe you don’t want us,” and she turned again to look outside, the cones of white light from the streetlights on the sidewalk.
I left her there and went to the kitchen to boil some water. She rebelled against the cup of hot chamomile, then blew on it to cool it and took it like a bitter syrup, in loud sips followed by a grimace of disgust.
A brief moan from the baby, he reflexively unrolled his hands, but did not wake up.
“Are you in danger?” I asked.
“Here, no,” she said thoughtfully.
Then she went to the bathroom, still bare foot, the other stuck in the sandal. I went to Vincenzo, looking for similarities, but it was hard while he slept, only his somewhat impudent mouth sounded like his mother’s. And the shape of his nose recalled the other Vincenzo, the uncle he would never know.
Over time, he looked more and more like him, in his face, in the way he walked, his head thrown back. When his mother brought him to town, the people of the place stopped to look at him, so similar to the one who was no longer there. He also has the same determination, but my nephew knows where to apply it. At six years old, he concentrated for hours on his Lego bricks: he built complete ships down to the smallest detail. Now he wants to become a nautical engineer.
“I’ll give you a beating if you don’t study,” his mother sometimes threatens him, but it’s not worth it.
Adriana was able to raise a child different from our brother, different from her too.
The name of the child impressed me that evening. Repeating it to myself later, I found it truer each time. Vincenzo sounds fresh and old in the same three syllables. Adriana tied her child to a story of misfortune and miracle, death and survivors: the unadorned story of our family. This Vincenzo seems to me stronger than adversities, even now I would bet on his future.
Extract of A sister’s story by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, translated by Ann Goldstein. Reproduced with permission from the publisher, Europa Editions.