“Murena, all crustaceans are pink now.”
“And I want them red. Like when I was a kid.”
Olì took up the electronic brush, chose a color from the menu palette, and mixed coral-red, lemon-yellow, and a bit of white to obtain the color called “Ceruti” by Giacomo Ceruti, author of "Still Life With Shrimp." Shrimp, lobsters, same family.
With small overlapping touches, she changed the lobster’s color in the image projected on the white wall. More than once, Ceruti’s work had saved her: the beige taken from the nuts, the right shade of Spadone pears, the roughness of the boiled kale—his works, five centuries old, but still vivid and bright.
Brushing it with her fingertips, she turned the mnemonic sphere and the subjective image changed. From the fish tray, which was served at his nephew’s baptism, Murena’s gaze shifted to a young athlete with curly hair, intent on chewing a roasted pig’s ear.
“Well, look who it is,” Murena said. “That cheat Curcaio. I want him erased. Shoo. Disappear.”
“You want to erase your son?”
“But he’s the father of your nephew, the child you have baptized.”
“So what? Three months ago, that wretch cheated me with that motorboat deal. Already we are … could you also remove the memory of just how much money I lost?”
“If I take it away, you’ll stop hating him.”
“Let’s do it like this: brighten the sun’s light, remove the oil stain from your pants, erase your brother-in-law’s comment When will you give me the lobster pot? and replace it with Keep your lobster pot clean, at the moment I don’t need it. But the memory of Curcaio’s presence remains. I can fade it a little with a filter, so it won’t be so strong. You’ll have to make an effort, to remind yourself who he is.”
“Perfect. You like eels?”
Olì closed her eyes: Giacomo Ceruti’s nickname was “the Little Beggar.”
“As big as my arm!”
“Anchovies?” asked Impiastera, stretching her neck toward the frying pan.
“Murena came to fix a recent memory.”
“Ah, Murena. That son of cheaters and parent of cheaters.”
“The thin eels are tastier,” retorted Olì, with a thrill of pride.
“And what is this?”
Shifting aside an embroidered curtain, Impiastera revealed a doll of uncertain sex assembled out of padded jackets and pants. Several loops of a scarf supported a yellow woolen balaclava, fitted onto a large, empty coconut, hidden in part by dark sunglasses.
“Garbage,” Olì replied, slamming the dishes on the table.
She was ashamed because, occasionally, at night, she embraced the doll in search of a soft body.
“You could call her ‘Nostalgia’.”
“Nostalgia for what?”
“For algos—pain, and nostos—return. The pain of return. Every memory is a little painful for us, because we know that we cannot go back to that time.”
“How boring! If you don’t stop, I’ll erase your memories of ancient Greek.”
“Seriously? But that’s my grandma’s heritage.”
“That’s helpful. There’s a great demand for interpreters.”
“You should get back to sculpting, or painting on that electronic canvas.”
“Sit down, it’s ready.”
Impiastera took a seat at the table. Silently, she devoured the pieces of fried eel, the seaweed salad, and a container of purslane. She wiped her mouth with a fine linen napkin and hastened to unwrap the dessert with her hands. Impiastera’s rock was right next door. They met each other often to chat and exchange courtesies. Olì had even asked her to become her wife in death. Who would bury her when the time came? There were people who didn’t worry about wasting away on this rock, in the position in which death caught them. Not her. She wanted a burial as it should be, with fire. Impiastera would put her on the boat, sprinkle her with alcohol, and set her on fire. She would drift, a flaming shell on the blue waters of Santa Igia. A beautiful end. An artistic end.
“In the holy name of Dagon!”
Her friend had brought to the table an emerald-green cake, covered in transparent jelly.
“My latest creation. Chlorophyll algae flour, white turnips, dates, and avocado cream.”
Every ten days, Impiastera produced a new dessert. Olì was her guinea pig.
“Flavor?” Her friend wrote down every impression on a spreadsheet.
Olì passed the bite of cake from one cheek to the other.
“Slimy moss. There are some …”
“… candied clams in the middle.”
Olì clapped her hand on her mouth, rose, and ran to spit the salty bolus into the trashcan.
To be reviewed, Impiastera wrote. “Maybe I can remove the clams and add a decoration of real pearls …”
“Is someone coming?”
Olì walked to a window. Above a large speedboat with its engine on, the bow raised above the water, and the prow loaded with oysters, was Curcaio, who gave her a sparkling smile.
“Olì, fairy of Memory, can you make my memories brighter?”
“You want to take away the memory of Murena from your son’s baptism.”
“That old bully ruined my party! The best fish of San Michele and he was going around telling the guests that it was all rotten!”
“I want five lobsters.”
Two days later, the radio trilled.
Olì had gone downstairs to check the nets. Many years before, the sea had smashed the door of the building, flooded the cellars, filled the elevator, and risen to the fifth floor. The other tenants had already fled, so she and her mother had moved to the top floor. Now the water lapped the steps of the stairs that led to the sixth-floor landing, nourishing a carpet of viscous algae, barnacles, and anemones with long tentacles.
In the nets she often found some mackerel, trills, and small bream, which supplemented her diet of edible algae and plums. They picked the plums from the trees that grew on the building’s roof, now covered with earth.
She wiped her hands on her sarong with some apprehension. She was always afraid to receive a call from Castello. She pressed the answer button.
“Yes, this is Olì of San Michele.”
“I’m Massimeh. God told me to call you.”
“What do you need?”
“Nothing for me. God needs you. Bring your magic ball.”
Removing the fish from the nets, she threw back into the water those with a suspicious blue stain on the muzzle and kept the others in a bucket full of fresh water. She was still inspecting the nets when a small octopus came out of a submerged jar, and wrapped her wrist in its tentacles. She considered the ease with which she could have captured it and hung it in the bucket, then laughed at the tickle of those elastic fingers. How soft they were! The suckers pressed delicately on her skin and then retracted in a ballet of affectionate little touches—almost like an animal, in the shape of Olì’s hand, had recognized a companion and wanted to speak to it.
With a dense mesh screen, Olì pulled a handful of silver fish out of the bucket and handed one of them to the octopus, which grabbed it by wrapping it with a tentacle and making it disappear beneath his head, where his mouth was.
On the jar in which the octopus had burrowed was text that read: C sar. C for casa. Sar’s house.
She freed herself from the animal’s grip, put it back in the water, and went back upstairs. She wore a hat of woven algae, bound it under her chin, and unmoored the boat—an old fridge filled with floating foam—on which she had tied a car seat. Two mudguards on the sides made it more stable and functioned like counterweights. She started out slowly, stroking the oars toward the hospital. The heat of the sun made the water heavy, viscous. Below the surface, she could see the squared platforms of submerged houses, on which pink and yellow madrepore grew extensively, along with tufts of algae and white coral. She made a wide turn, so as not to stick the oars in the antennae, often invisible under the layers of moss that covered them. She passed Deledda Rock, the last immersed area before the Big Pit. A few strokes, and she was in the shadow of the hospital.
The upper three floors of the building emerged from the water. She approached a smashed window, tied the boat to an iron spike, and lifted herself on to the windowsill. The interior was a succession of empty rooms—beds, machinery, even the door frames, everything had been plundered. Climbing up from an inner stairway, Massimeh lived within the helicopter, on top of the roof. As long as the gas lasted, he had been shuttling between the Castle and the various quarters of the city, carrying letters, exchanging fishing hooks and lines derived from medical instruments in plastic receptacles. When the carburetor died, Massimeh had started to build small short-range radios. He dove into the lower floors and found rust-free stainless-steel sheets, copper cables, plastics, and cutting tools. He carved transceiver shells out of the driftwood. They even came from Accoddi to buy them, in exchange for obsidian tools and coconut oil.
Olì came to the roof and Massimeh, tall, dark, and solemn, met her with open arms.
“God loves you!”
“Enough to pay me for the work?”
“God has great esteem for your work, Olì. You bring joy to the memories of each of us. Just yesterday, on this terrace, there was a beautiful gathering. We sang His praises and invoked happiness for everyone.”
Olì opened the briefcase and spread the equipment out on a hospital stretcher.
Massimeh lay down on his back, on an operating room table, and lifted his black T-shirt, faded from the sun. Olì stuck the glass ball in his navel and activated a connection with the computer.
“Think hard about yesterday’s gathering.”
Massimeh closed his eyes and, after a few seconds, the sphere projected the images onto the curved helicopter wall. Olì turned it gently with her finger until the images were clear. The “great gathering” constituted five people, kneeling in prayer before Massimeh, who officiated at the mass, using fish meal and palm wine.
“What do you want me to do?”
“Tzugata, Priogu, and Nubedicorallo would like to participate, but they are stuck on their rocks, so God wouldn’t be offended if we added some more people to the memory.”
Olì really doubted that a freak like Tzugata had the capacity to concentrate for the duration of a religious service.
“Could you also draw in some strangers?”
“Yes, of course.”
Olì opened the file “human figures” in the database and selected “kneeling.” She cut some characters from Caravaggio, some seventeenth-century adorations, and some miracles of the saints. All in all, the clothing was similar to that of Massimeh’s followers—shaved heads, threadbare pants, dirty hands—and she pasted them into the empty spaces of the memory, between one of the faithful and another.
The projected memory was filled with new kneeling followers, some with their hands folded, others with bowed heads, and still others with an ecstatic look directed at Massimeh.
“Beautiful! Beautiful! More, put in more, fill up the terrace!”
“It’ll cost you.”
“Doesn’t matter! It’s enough just to see so many heads!”
Heads! That’s the solution! There was no need to characterize each fake individual. From a certain distance, the human eye ignores the differences, perceives two eyes only in a vague way, a nose, a forehead. She cut the faces of the first row below the nose and pasted them behind the group of followers; she then cut a strip from the faces and placed it behind them. In a few moves, the roof of the hospital was populated by a crowd of men and women in prayer.
While Olì put away her instruments, Massimeh dug around under the helicopter seats, scattering spreadsheets everywhere, like white butterfly wings.
“I can give you one of my sermons. I wrote it just yesterday…”
“I’d prefer a few pounds of clams,” Olì replied. Among Massimeh’s followers was Monia, a mussel farmer.
“Here it is! It’s called ‘Brothers and sisters living together with joy.’ Or you can have a watch.”
“The watch, thanks.”
We live together in joy. Only Massimeh could believe that they were still a community.
As she rode back to her rock, Olì let her gaze drift. A mussel farmer, with a basket under her arm, collected mussels on top of a building, skipping across the gaps between one parapet and the other. The currents had accumulated earth and waste around the tops of the tallest buildings, forming conical islands, similar to many small volcanoes emerging from the water. Every accumulation of earth possessed an inhabitant, the lonely castaway of the old jokes, a comparison made even more apt by the coconut trees that grew on the islands. Each tenant’s bed, a hammock, swayed among the trunks.
Even the terraces of the hill of San Michele shone with water, dotted with green rice seedlings. The hill was one of the few places where, instead of a single individual, you found an entire family of seven living. They possessed a small desalinator, so they managed to grow rice. All the others got drinking water through sycamore trees, which collected humidity from the air.
She then remembered that her sycamore wasn’t working well. The last time she’d looked at the tank level, she’d found it half-full. She stopped at home just to take a full water bottle and a wider hat. The afternoon sun flared blindingly from the water. She moved toward Oja’s rock.
Oja Mommìa was the best sycamore technician in the area, but he refused to own a radio. “Hope for a warning, eh? And this is what you want. You want me to call you before the catastrophe takes place. That’s fresh! We will all die, and in silence!”
To hire him to repair the tree meant to sit through a speech on “the slow assassin,” as he called it: the sea. Mommìa spent much of his time measuring the water level. He was old enough to remember the Night of the First Wave, when the sea suddenly rose up and submerged the Marina and Santa Avendrace. Dozens of people, quietly sleeping in their beds, had drowned.
She had postponed her visit to Oja because, to reach his rock, she had to pass right by Argentiera, a dangerous place.
The sea forced her to follow well-defined routes. That jumble of recovered material—call it a “boat”—was cobbled together and could tip over or sink at any moment. Best if it was in low water, half a mile from the terrace of a building on which one could stand.
She had just passed the Falletti rocks when the right mudguard fender crashed against something submerged. Olì rowed backwards and out of the water appeared a shark fin.
“Hands up!” said a voice at her shoulder.
Behind her, three old people astride plastic tanks levelled yellow and green toy rifles at her. The black chasms of their pupils frightened her. The shark emerged, an accomplice in a scuba suit, with a fin pasted onto the cap. The man grabbed at the corner of the fridge and made it lean toward the water, threatening to overturn it. Behind the lens of the mask, Olì caught an amused glitter of evil.
The rifles contained water—or at worst, piss—but the old ones, who had shed their inhibitions with age, were further excited by drugs, whose use was only permitted to those who had reached seventy. Their reactions were unpredictable—they might rob you and laugh or drown you with equal hilarity.
“Give us everything you have,” an old man said.
Olì drew out the watch bag that Massimeh had given her and placed it on the oar, stretching it toward the robbers.
“It’s a precious object to me,” she lied.
The really precious object was the memory computer, which she always carried on herself, strapped around the bust, under her sarong.
At the sight of the watch, the old people glanced up and leaned forward to grab it, the shark-man arriving first, and Olì took the opportunity to paddle quickly away. She heard them arguing, screaming like gulls.
“Hey, you on the rock! Oja Mommìa, you there?”
A head shrunken by the sun, hairless, leaned through a gap between two axes of the house. So as not to lose sight of the plumb line, Oja let the house fall apart.
“Three millimeters!" he answered.
“That’s high tide.”
“Three millimeters isn’t high tide! It’s a signal!”
At the top of the rusty ladder leading to the pier, Olì was welcomed by a slim, tanned girl. For a moment, she thought it was Oja’s younger daughter here for a visit; then she saw the tattoo with the Quattro Mori—the flag of Sardinia—on her shoulder and she knew that it was Castello’s councilwoman.
“I’m Elis,” the girl said, introducing herself.
Too late to go back.
“Nice to meet you, Olì. I was just going to you, but I stopped by Mommìa’s to finish some repairs to Castello’s sycamores.”
Olì stayed silent; the other had enough words for them both.
“We founded a new city council. We are young and full of ideas. To begin, we want to restore the waste barge. It will be compulsory to own a bucket in which to perform bodily functions and, every three days, the bucket barge will remove it.”
The residents of San Michele would wipe their asses with that rule.
“We believe in Beauty and we want to return Beauty to the people. You are still our ‘community artist.’ I was just a little girl, but I remember well your splendid intangible art. All over the world, artists of the likes of Paivi or Timaro carry on transversal art …”
Olì contemplated the algae hat on the girl’s head. Did she intend to give her a lesson?
“… the suggestions of fragrances blended with the purity of the sea’s colors …”
Mommìa was shaken from slumber.
“The sea! Three millimeters! Three millimeters more than yesterday at the same time!” he bellowed. And, grabbing Elis by the arm, he dragged her to look with her own eyes at the stake in the seabed, on which he had carved various heights..
Olì walked away from them and onto the noisy pier, constructed from a car door, up to the furthest corner, in which still hung the big organic battery spotlight that she had mounted many years ago. It took three months of calculations, verifications, and inspections to establish the exact coordinates of places on which the spotlights were to be installed. In the places where the sea was deep, she had to anchor a small raft to the seabed, and above it she tied the lamp and the devices that operated it. Four more months to mount the equipment, paddling every day from one point to another to adjust the triangulation, waiting for night to do the tests, one beam of light at a time, so as not to reveal the whole operation.
She had called it Dream Time.
Olì leaned her hand on the spotlight corroded by the salt and looked up at the heavens, as if her sculpture was still there, in the blue tissue of the sky.
It was inaugurated on Christmas night, twenty-eight degrees Celsius, a weak breeze out of the south, the stars clear and bright. The music and scents had calmed her. Rich twelve-tone shades full of tonalities and unpredictable, and a precious blend of bergamot, cistus labdanum, iris, rose, and jasmine in spray dispensers. The essences were synthetic but the effect had been magnificent.
From her console, she controlled each spotlight from a distance. The beams of colored light lit up according to a musical tempo, at first only three eighth-notes on the treble clef and three pink ribbons in the sky, then slowly the sonorous and bright shapes had made entire landscapes appear—woods, mountains, prehistoric towers, hills. A flood of places that were now submerged, accompanied by their own earthy odors. So the lights had taken on the features of forgotten animals, horses, cows, and sheep—hundreds of small white explosions that remained fixed in the sky—accompanied by a shepherd. She had finished with bright Castello designs, their white and square towers, the flag with the Quattro Mori floating above the apparition.
The shrill squawking of a crow brought her back to the present, a present without art.
“We’d really like it if you wanted to resume creating for the community.”
The young Elis reappeared at her side, silly and tenacious.
“Which community? Everyone only respects the rules of their rock. Do you of Castello really believe that an archipelago obeys you just because you call yourselves the Communal Council?”
“Someone said ‘No man is an island.’”
“I’m not really inspired,” Olì said, cutting her short.
“Oh, that’s not an obstacle. For us, everything you create is good, as long as it’s beautiful and leaves us all breathless.”
I could invent a candy that sticks in your throat, Olì thought.
“If you need tools or specific materials, you can submit a request addressed to me …”
“And do it before the sea rises again!” Oja added.
“I have three nice baskets of bananas, my dear. And I’ll also add two cans of anti-rust, your pier needs it.”
Once again, Olì stared distrustfully at the old woman who had arrived at her rock, together with a granddaughter, right in the middle of the afternoon. A nuisance at the hottest hour, painted blue and white, with pupils that were too bright.
“What do you want from me?”
The old woman put an arm around her shoulders and they moved away from the girl.
“The little one is always sad.”
Olì resolutely removed the old arm and glanced at the girl. A fishbone had more flesh on it.
“She cries when she should laugh,” she went on. “It’s the fault of that stupid memory. You’ll cleanse it and we’ll all be happier.”
Blue-face said she was her grandmother, but Olì knew that sometimes newborns were sold in exchange for a lobster pot.
“The girl agrees?”
“You do your job, dear, and you’ll be well-rewarded.”
“I need peace. Leave us alone.”
The old lady hobbled towards the ladder and disappeared. Shortly afterwards, Olì felt the buzz of an elastic-wrapped motor and the walnut shell with which the old woman skimmed forward, heading towards Tzugata’s rock.
“What’s your name?”
“Tilde,” answered the girl. “I gave it to myself; I read it on a box.”
“You want me to erase the memory that makes you sad?”
In fact, the old one was right, the girl had the air of one who believed that the world brings only disappointment.
“Well, let’s take a look and then decide.”
Too docile, Tilde lay on the couch, lowered her swimsuit, and let Olì insert the glass sphere into her navel.
“Think of the memory that saddens you, think with all your strength.”
Tilde closed her eyes and clenched her fists. The sphere projected confused images. A sky filled with seagulls overlapped with two infant hands that ripped off the barnacles on the buildings with the help of a sharp oyster shell.
“Why are the seagulls making you sad?”
The girl kept her eyes closed.
“I wish I could fly. Like them. Fly away, leave.”
Her eyelids trembled.
“The Earth is all water, by now.”
The fabulous north. It was said that beyond the thirtieth parallel, there were cultivated fields and even houses built on dry land.
“And the barnacles?”
“When I’m hungry, my grandmother tells me to go find barnacles. I’m barefoot and the shells hurt me.”
The submerged halves of the buildings were populated with shoals of sharp barnacles. The girl had misunderstood the request and was showing her physical desires and sorrows.
“Tilde, what is the memory that, according to your grandmother, makes you sad?”
The barnacles vanished, the seagulls disappeared, the sky darkened into the color of lead. A far-away rumble and then an explosion of thunder. The smooth surface of the sea was pierced by pins, then the drops became more consistent and the rain poured down.
The little girl danced on a plastic jetty and, when she turned her eyes to the sky, a bunch of silver arrows converged on her. Murmuring a song, she splashed into the puddles with her bare feet and laughed. She rubbed her face and continued to laugh.
Olì keenly observed the sky’s water, exaggerated, vivifying, she could almost feel the freshness on her skin.
The day of the thunderstorm had begun as any other day, hot as usual, calm as usual. Panting under the sun, Olì had reached Tzugata’s rock.
Tzugata was always at home, spending most of his time swinging on a hammock. Whatever he wanted, it arrived by sea. His rock was a magnet for other boats, because he alone had kept up the main activity of the district—the preparation of drugs, derived from lichen hybrids.
Officially, his customers were the elderly in search of fun, but after sunset, the age of the boats’ occupants decreased like the tide. From the teak balustrade, Tzugata would stick out a rod, on which a basket was tied. From the boat, the buyer put in the agreed-upon object, fresh food, fresh water, abbardente, sunscreen; sometimes, cat statues were enough; every kind of cat, curled up, seated, with an erect tail, with a movable head. Tzugata had fond memories of Perla, his rock companion, a Siamese with turquoise eyes that seemed to understand words and actions better than a human being.
After the exchange, the customers would go home, to dream in a hammock of a world less liquid and less hot.
“I can intensify Perla’s memory,” Olì had told him from the boat.
Tzugata raised himself from his hammock.
“You can really do that?”
Olì had shown him a computer demonstration and the magic glass sphere.
“Every time you think about her, it will seem like she was just there, that you can caress her. You’ll feel the softness of her fur and hear the exact intonation of her meow. Her eyes will look at you with that old adoration, and your fingers will send back the vibration of her purring.”
“What do you want in return?”
Olì remained silent for a moment, staring at the smooth surface of the sea.
“I need something to aid in inspiration. Give me an idea, a brilliant one.”
After receiving the treatment, Tzugata had given her a can of tuna.
Olì had held it in her hands, perplexed. It was very light. Too light because there really was tuna in there.
“Eat it in small doses.”
Returning to her own rock, Olì had opened the can. It contained fish eggs, mini gelatinous spheres that reminded her of, in a reduced version, the ball that she used to view memories. She looked for a teaspoon in the kitchen drawers and found a leather box that contained twelve pieces of silverware, lying in velvet. Forgotten by the previous owners.
Her hand trembled when she brought Tzugata’s caviar to her mouth, such that some eggs remained on her lips and she had to push them in with her fingers. In contact with her palate, the eggs dissolved, spreading the taste of salt and sea. She sat at her project table, in front of the designs of vortices of musical water and coral reefs made out of fiberglass.
She waited, tapping her fingers on the table.
She waited, with a pencil in her hands, drawing vague, round marks in the margins.
She waited, sitting by the window. The horizon was flat until the mountains and behind the Seven Brothers stood a column of white clouds.
The cloud seemed, with its air of an ethereal cathedral, as if it would tell her something, but the idea remained balanced between consciousness and nothingness, an elusive specter. The caviar’s effect was mild.
She returned to the can and quickly ingested the entire contents.
A saline reflux soured her throat. She swallowed several times and sat back from the table to examine her drafts once more, looking for an artistic idea for the community. She wanted to astonish, as with Dream Time. She wanted to achieve something that would be spoken about for months and months.
She looked back at the scribbles in the margins. Bubbles. Soap bubbles. Soap bubbles produced by a musical instrument … her head had become heavy, she had to support it with one hand. Concentric bubbles whose convexities reflected different images, darting fish overlapping children playing “ring around the rosey”; ducks crossing the boundaries between two worlds, cutting the spheres with the V-lines of their formations.
V for victory. V for victor. V for …
Olì collapsed on the table. She opened her eyes for a moment, without seeing anything, but her ears registered a far-away sound, like a cannon shot.
The drumming of thunder and the bright effects of lightning had accompanied the first roar, Impiastera had told her. The rock inhabitants had hastened to arrange tubs, pots, vats, and plastic bins on the bridges. Massimeh had collected enough water to be able to trade; at Castello’s, they had opened the hatches of underground cisterns; Impiastera had stripped and washed under the flood; Oja Mommìa, in hysterics, had fled to the top of the building, where he always kept a canoe ready for emergencies, and had spent those hours shouting in horror, huddling in the life-jacket, draining the boat with a bucket.
Upon awakening, Olì had found the plum leaves glossy and bright, the bridge washed, spotted with bright puddles.
Forty years with no rain. She had never seen a thunderstorm, the last one went back to a time when she was too small to remember. And she’d slept right through it.
“You are the only one who remembers. All those I know have come to me to have that day erased. They want eternal turquoise skies and eternal glorious suns. Impiastera, my neighbor, told me that the sky had descended and pressed on her head.”
“The water from the sky was beautiful,” whispered Tilde.
“Rain. Water that falls from the sky is called ‘rain.’”
“Rainrainrain,” sang the little girl to herself.
Olì turned the ball to get a better focus on the images that slid across the scratched wall of the apartment. The raindrops formed an irregular pattern along the bare walls.
“Well then, do you want to erase it?”
Tilde sat down, the sphere staying stuck in her navel but the fold of her belly deforming the image, rounding out the edges and merging land and sky.
“I don’t want to.”
“Your grandmother said …”
“I don’t care. I don’t even know if she’s really my grandmother. She and her friends pass the time fishing, painting fish mouths blue and throwing them back in the water.”
This explained the fish with the blue muzzles that were sometimes caught in the nets.
“They grease the piers with coconut oil, to laugh at people who slip off. They tangle the fishermen’s nets and crucify gulls on the booms. Just because they are stupid, do I have to be stupid, too? I love rain. I’d love to see it again. They say that in the north, during certain times of the year …”
Delicately, Olì removed the sphere from Tilde’s navel and rubbed it with a soft cloth.
“You’ll have to laugh, too, when your grandmother and her friends do their tricks,” she warned her. “Otherwise she’ll know that I didn’t take away your memory.”
“I’m capable of pretending.”
The little girl jumped down from the bed and started to look around the apartment, curious.
She indicated the large fireplace covered in marble that occupied a corner of the living room.
“When it was cold, on winter evenings, there was a fire in there and everyone warmed up together, drank hot chocolate and mulled wine, and threw mandarin peels into the flames to perfume the air.”
The little girl touched the shelf, examined the hearth, put her head inside, and looked up towards the chimney.
“You can see the sky!”
Olì put the computer in a drawer and hastened to imitate her.
High above, very high, the black soot funnel of the chimney opened in a clear blue box.
The little girl had gone completely into the hearth and, with monkey-like agility, climbed along the funnel, resting her bare feet on the roughness inside.
“Come down, you could get hurt.”
The annoyance at Tilde’s invasion hardened her voice. After a moment of hesitation, the little girl descended. Her hands, her feet, her face, and swimsuit were black. And she left her footprints on the white wooden parquet.
“Look, I’m drawing a treasure map!”
The row of dark traces brought to mind the traced signs on the parchment of an old pirate.
“Look! It’s treasure!” laughed Tilde, embracing the soft dummy, hidden behind the curtain.
“Oh, how soft!”
The little girl clutched the human form, which appeared to reciprocate, wrapping its arms around her and leaning its small head on Tilde’s shaved skull.
“I’m here! I’m back!”
The grandmother had arrived just in time to claim her granddaughter. Olì received her payment and watched them leave. The sooty Tilde, aft, used all of her strength to wrap the elastic crank, with a fake smile printed on her face, while the old woman sat in the bow, chattering about her visions.
The presence of the little girl had really thrown her off balance. She was ashamed to feel relieved that they were gone. Was she becoming an oyster, like the other residents?
Olì woke up in the middle of the night. The house creaked, the wind was rising. She got up, and with a flashlight retraced Tilde’s tracks on the floor. A shadow was crouched on the path, scrubbing the boards, puffing and muttering. It was using the computer sphere to clean and when it turned, it had the face of a fish, the mouth twisted from one ear to the other, blue like the sky.
Olì woke up. It was dark. The house creaked, slammed by the wind. The feeling that something was going to happen gave her a strange excitement. She picked up the loose laundry, stiff, dried by the sun, and closed the window, even though the air was muggy. Already in the past, the clash between the hot and cold winds had caused tornadoes and cyclones, but now a cold terror gripped her.
Out there, in the darkness, a huge invisible animal stretched, expanding, taking possession of the air, the water, the fragile rock structure. A sudden blow, like the breath that extinguishes a candle, and stillness stopped every sound. Olì no longer heard the gentle lapping of the sea downstairs, the tinkling of the metal ropes that anchored the pier, the fluttering of the flag with the Quattro Mori on top of the corroded antenna.
And then the cold. An intense cold lay siege to the house, slipped under the door, breathed on the windowpanes, glazing them with an opaque material. Olì clutched the doll, tied it to her back, the arms knotted under her neck, the legs around her hips. A pleasant warmth spread through her body, restoring her courage, but the temperature continued to drop.
The house contracted, moaning under the wind’s icy caress. Olì’s teeth started chattering. She desperately searched in the drawers, remembered having seen, many years before, a woolen cap with earmuffs, there! A funny object, lemon-yellow, with a pompom on top. If she put it under her chin and the heat expanded her thoughts, she could think straight.
She went downstairs and found that the water in the buckets in which she kept fish was hardened. She poured out the contents; the animals were locked in a tower of ice from which stuck out tails, fins, and some algae. At the bottom of the ladder, where the sea first lapped the marble, there was an irregular slab, dark blue. The doll’s heat couldn’t dissipate her fear.
And the small Sar with eight digits? Had he been able to take refuge in her den?
As the doll’s head rose quickly up the stairs, the coconut broke off and rolled down a step, producing a sound dampened by the ski mask. Olì quickly disassembled her creation (feeling a small bit of regret for the soft creature), loosened the joints, got rid of the pressed wadding that formed the jacket, emptied the pants and woolen gloves of dried seaweed, and dressed herself. The thermal material seemed to activate upon contact with the skin. When she put the ski mask over the woolen cap, she felt a sense of protection like that exuded by ancient armor. In her database, she had a folder dedicated to “metal finishes.” In some works, the angels wore camisoles and iron leggings.
Her feet, used to sandals, didn’t cope well with the rubber-soled boots, but she still tightened the laces.
She went upstairs, bringing the lobster bucket next. She was hungry, very hungry. She poured the contents into a pot, brought it to a simmer on an electric plate, and for the first time in her life, savored the lobsters boiled. She broke every claw and greedily sucked out its contents.
Refreshed by the food, she opened the door of the house, an armored frame on which she had welded some polycarbonate planks, and stuck her nose outside. The frost slapped her cheeks, clutched the tip of her nose in a vise. She immediately closed the door once more.
She assessed the few pieces of furniture in her apartment and finally decided on the basket in which she kept the linen, a kind of rectangular bamboo chest. She unscrewed the hinges on the cover, flattened the corners, and put it in the hearth. She tried to light it on fire. It didn’t work. The lighter blackened the edge but the braided fibers resisted. There must be a way. She consulted some antique paintings of tables, gathered in the “Fires” folder. The English Parliament fire of Turner and The Fire of Rome didn’t help. Nothing showed how the ancients ignited it.
While gazing at the pictures, something pinched her side. She put a hand in her pants, scratched, and pulled out a piece of dried algae. Pieces. She soon had a nice mound in the middle of the room. She put them in the fireplace and lit them. They burned immediately, with a creeping smell of salt and the abyssal depths. Olì blew on it and the tongues of fire reached the basket, which started to hiss and complain.
After some minutes, the basket became a bonfire that stretched up to the chimney in a bold attempt to escape. The heat punched her in the face, intense as the sun at midday. Olì sat in front of the fireplace, trapped by the spell of the flames. So this was how they warmed up in the past. She only lacked the hot chocolate, a drink she had never tasted.
When the better part of the basket had turned into ashes, Olì stirred the fire with small wooden objects, stools, salad containers, statues of sea gods carved in times of boredom, using floating wood fragments that the sea had carried up to her rock.
Finally, the sun peeped in through the condensation on the windows. Olì walked out of the door. The air was still sharp but the light gave her courage.
She rubbed her eyes in disbelief. The sea had become a solid slab. The boat’s counterweights were trapped in ice and the refrigerator case was raised up, almost as if the appliance wanted to straighten up, to return to its old purpose.
She admired the sycamore on top of the roof. The conical weave of the branches turned up to the sky, ready to pick up every little drop of moisture, had turned into a crystal nest supported by the icy column of the trunk. A sculpture full of magic.
She descended the outer ladder and reached out to touch the sea. Solid. As hard and compact as earth. She pressed it with the tip of her foot. The ice resisted. She beat her foot on that turquoise floor and perceived layers and layers under her soles.
She took a few steps, with a pounding heart. She walked on water! She was walking on the sea! You could reach the other rocks by walking.
Feeling bold, she went faster, slipping and slamming her ass on the slab. The padding in her pants cushioned the blow but her coccyx hurt. She stood up and began walking cautiously.
She headed for Impiastera’s rock.
Her concern mounted with every step as she remembered that most of the houses had no windows. She came under her friend’s pier, lowered the ski mask, and called to her loudly. Her breath crystallized and fell to the ground with a slight rattling sound.
No one responded. She climbed up the ladder and opened the door. Impiastera was in the hammock between two sunken poles, naked under a sheet, rigid like dried fish. The windows of the house were veiled by striped cotton curtains and the hammock was placed in such a way that the current between the two openings flowed day and night. A great strategy to deal with heat, a bad idea with the cold.
Over the table shone five plates sugared with frost, each one containing the same fish-shaped dessert and for sure every sweet was a variant of the recipe that her friend was studying. Everything inside was covered with a frosty coat.
Two tears rolled down Olì’s cheeks and immediately changed into glass sticks. She pulled them out of her eyes because she couldn’t blink.
The fear of being left alone, of being the only survivor, made her flee. She had to find out if the others had left her.
She started to run toward the hospital, stumbled, but managed to regain her balance. She began to walk with exasperating slowness.
“Everything is fine! God protected me!”
Massimeh waved his arms and leaned out of an upper window. From the terrace above his head shimmered the helicopter’s tail, the original red faded into rose, like a giant frozen shrimp.
“I woke up during the night and heard the voice of an angel. It said: Massimeh, arise and cover yourself! I grabbed all the blankets I could find, but they weren’t enough, I was shaking. Then I went down into Intensive Care and looked for a drug to help me.”
“And did you find it?” asked Olì, happy to be able to speak with another human being.
“God knew what would happen and had anticipated that I’d need it.”
He showed her some disposable syringes, sealed in plastic envelopes, filled with a yellowish liquid, and soon after, Olì heard him come bustling down the stairs. Massimeh dragged a stretcher, piled high with thin, shiny blankets.
“I’m coming with you. I must bring God’s salvation to everyone.”
Since the helicopter had stopped, he welcomed the faithful to the hospital’s great rock, but avoided moving himself. The ice was changing things.
The preacher wore a plain garment, made out of blankets. Olì felt a sleeve.
“It’s too thin.”
“But hot, very hot! I sewed it this evening with a no. 3 saturated wire. God inspired me.”
He threw one of those sheets on her and within a few seconds, Olì felt an intense heat. It had to be a special yarn, which collected the solar rays and used them to generate heat.
Slipping on the ice, Massimeh kneeled over the stretcher, pushing it with an IV pole. Olì sat at the other end. The rubber wheels advanced without slipping.
First they headed toward the rooftops populated by clams and mussels.
The wires between the walls looked like the lines in a notebook, drawn on the white sheet of the ice. The black shells of mussels were dreary words, incomprehensible. Olì knocked on the door of a terrace and Monia opened it a crack. Teeth chattering, wrapped in a cotton jersey, a sarong around her head, her face and hands bruised.
“We’re alive. We closed the windows in time and burned the mussel rope to heat up.”
From the house came the strong smell of roasted seafood.
They left three blankets, a blessing, and continued on.
Tzugata’s rock threatened the worst. His apartment had a roof supported by four pillars, on the rooftop terrace grew date palms, the fronds paralyzed in the dry air like large green stars.
They went around the house, between cat statuettes and ragged cushions, calling to him loudly. The answer came from a small screen inserted into a wall.
“What do you want, pests?”
“Tzugata, where are you?”
“In a safe place. What do you want?”
Olì approached the screen. It was a closed-circuit monitor and showed the corpulent owner of the house soaking in a hot tub. The temperature of the water, judging by the rising steam, had to be like a broth.
Olì felt stupid. She should have known that a rich man like Tzugata had a refuge to withstand any weather. Probably the surface apartment was only a facade, a hidden trapdoor leading to a lower floor, equipped with every sort of comfort.
They went on their way.
A little further down, they found a fisherman with a pickaxe. He shattered ice and collected it in plastic bags. Heavy rubber boots covered up to half of his thigh, but from there he wore only shorts and a T-shirt.
Massimeh threw one of God’s blankets across his shoulders, but the man shook him off.
“I’m hot,” he muttered.
“You’re tiring your heart,” the preacher replied. “You need to get warm.”
“Go away, you make me waste time.”
And with even more decisive blows, he sprayed fragments in every direction.
“I need ice. I need to conserve fish.”
“The fish are frozen now,” said Olì.
The fisherman kept mumbling between filling the buckets.
When Massimeh insisted that he at least accept a blanket, he looked at him like he was crazy and threatened him with the pickaxe.
“It’s hard to do good,” the preacher commented.
An explosion made them turn toward the rock of Monte Claro.
Halfway there was Oja Mommìa’s rock. He was displaying a sheet that was partitioned into four sections; on two quadrants were painted white towers, and on the other two, the curve of a gigantic wave, crossed with an “X.”
Mommìa, clothed in a black and yellow wetsuit, was skipping happily among the sycamores.
“You’re done!” he shouted at the frozen sea. “We beat you! You can’t do anything anymore!”
And he smashed the little frozen crests of the waves with the depth meter tip.
Another explosion, and blossoming in the sky were red and green fireworks.
“Hurrah! Hurrah!” shouted Oja.
At the height of the tumbledown cocoon they called the Library, a group of ancients pierced the ice with electric battery rods and dropped in fireworks as large as sticks of dynamite. Covered with synthetic fur, their faces were painted red, black, and white; they danced in a circle, making a racket with their anklets, to drums beaten by trembling girls and boys.
“Today it’s hot, eh!” a man painted partially red shouted, euphorically. With a kind of large gun, he fired rockets in the air, which burst a few meters from the ground, falling in the form of gold and silver confetti. The old ones danced joyfully in the sparking swirl and the drummers were crying from the cold, without stopping their pounding, looking for some heat in the convulsive rhythm of their arms.
Olì recognized Tilde’s grandmother in the group, her face painted blue. She was dancing “ring around the rosey” with her comrades, frantically moving her feet. Her group was wearing fish-shaped masks, thin, transparent plastic gills stretched over wooden slats, pointed fins on their backs.
“Today it’s hot, eh!”
The dance sped up. The old ones wore heavy mountain-climbing boots but their legs were bare, covered with varicose veins reddened by the cold.
Olì moved on to search for Tilde. She wasn’t among the drummers. She searched within the library walls that emerged from the ice, covered in barnacles and algae blackened by the low temperature. She found her crouched beneath a sloping roof, trimmed in thin opaque icicles, wearing only a bathing suit, a drum abandoned at her feet. She crawled up to her and wrapped her in two hospital blankets. Tilde didn’t even notice, paralyzed with her forehead against her knees, with bluish nails and skin. She massaged her back and arms. Tilde was already rigid! Perhaps the heart had surrendered and she was trying to resuscitate a corpse, but after a few moments, the little girl lifted her head and turned her gaze on that which had woken her.
A harder explosion than before showered them in icy crystals. The old ones exulted—a huge firecracker, trapped in ice, had opened a breach in the rigid expanse of the sea, and they immediately rushed to enlarge it with hot sticks, revealing the water underneath, dark and firm.
“Today it’s hot, eh!”
“Let’s take a bath!” a woman replied.
Without thinking twice, the man dove toward the pit.
“Do it!” shouted another.
“It’s like Poetto!”
Massimeh went from one to the other, trying to prevent them from plunging into the water, but they dodged him and rushed happily into the breach. Even Tilde’s grandmother followed the group of divers, waving a fan of colored scales. A few seconds after touching the water, the smiles turned into contracted grins. The old ones, demented, fell silent in the glassy obscurity, arms at their sides, their bodies numb from sudden freezing, without a groan.
Those who had remained dry, after a moment of uncertainty, burst into silly laughter.
Massimeh had seized a man half-immersed and tried to remove him from the packed ice.
“Help me!” he shouted.
The others continued to shoot off firecrackers, dance, and shake their anklets. The drum players had stopped, uncertain, but with a pinch on the neck, the old ones made them continue. Olì carried Tilde to the stretcher and covered her with all the remaining blankets.
Massimeh had succeeded in dragging the man out to dry and aimed a syringe at his neck.
“The heart, in the heart,” Olì suggested.
The preacher pierced his chest and pushed in the plunger.
After some seconds, the old one coughed, lifted his chest, and took a deep breath.
“God is great.”
Massimeh raised his eyes and hands to the sky, but a moment later the old one, unsteadily, threw himself back into the chilly water.
Olì decided that she had had enough of idiots and idiocy. She made the kids stop playing and wrapped them in blankets.
The old ones tried to stop her, wanting more music, more dancing, more casks. Olì responded by hitting them with the drumsticks; a woman tried to bite her arm, and Massimeh had to detach her.
The arrival of the municipal motorboats broke up the festive group.
The boats were hoisted onto wheeled carts, tugged by small crawlers. Olì recognized Elis in the cloaked figure in the bow. The crew came down and made the kids drink hot fil’e ferru diluted with water, before getting them on board. Olì was curious to see how they would convince those crazy people to cover up but the rescue team just sprayed them with a frothy foam. It stuck to the skin and developed a pleasant warmth, isolating the body, while they were still wiggling and dancing.
They’d been around since dawn, Elis explained. The apartments on Cadello’s, Armi’s, and the Students’ rocks didn’t have windows, the inhabitants had died of cold, struck down in their hammocks while they slept. But the small family that lived on Magistero’s rock were saved, thanks to the habit of keeping the north-facing windows closed, to counter the waves due to the speed of the boats.
She knew from the radio that her colleagues had found other survivors on the Cep atoll and the Quartiere del Sole.
Massimeh asked the counselor to take him with them. The stretcher was too heavy to push; Olì demanded a drum, put Tilde on it, and dragged her to the ice by pulling her with the straps that the players had hung around her neck.
“Back to my rock.”
“How did you lose your leg?”
Murena lifted his left leg: from the knee to the foot was smooth, white, completely synthetic; the insertion of the kneecap disappeared into the short, fringed trousers.
“Nice, huh?” he said, knocking on it with his knuckles. “A shark attacked me while I was fishing. It’s a story to tell the grandkids.”
“Tell me the truth.”
Murena looked around, cautious. An unnecessary precaution because they were the only souls on Olì’s rock.
“Look here, I’ll tell you because you’re like a doctor. When there was the Great Frost, I made a bet with a neighbor over who could stay longer in cold water.”
Olì nodded. She had heard every sort of hare-brained story over the last few days, while the ice melted and the sea became navigable again.
“I won the bet, but the leg was black and they had to cut it off.”
“I’m sorry, Murena, I don’t do memory embellishments any more.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means you’ll remember the bet.”
“But I want to forget. I also want you to erase the memory of the Great Frost. That Curcaio bastard was able to fill an ice store and now sells frozen fish he passes off as fresh. That too I want to forget.”
“I’ve decided that remembering is better than forgetting.”
“I’ll give you a box of lobsters.”
“Frozen, I imagine. No thanks.”
“You’re lucky, Murena. The leg reminds you always of the Great Frost, the day on which you could walk on water. That’s a story to tell the grandkids.”
Murena started toward the door with a resentful haughtiness. He turned at the threshold.
“I could say that during the Frost we had nothing to eat, and I cut off my leg to roast it!”
The fisherman went out, swollen with renewed pride.
Olì returned to the table on which were scattered the elements of her new artistic work: the cold binoculars. Using fragments of glass honed by the sea, she had reproduced the reflections of the sunlight on the ice. By rotating the eyepiece ring, one could observe a maritime landscape that slowly changed, the colors moving from blue to gray; dark clouds taking possession of the sky, the sea wrinkling, the waves raging. Tilde had suggested that she insert a rumble of thunder, and so, from a small side microphone, it could also have sound effects, exactly as the child remembered them. The grumbling of the thunder gave way to a crescendo of wind that froze the sea, producing a shrill crystal sound that Olì had kept in her memory from that night.
The frosty effect was intensified by the insertion, in the eyepieces, of some menthol crystals that made the eyes tear up when the binoculars were put on the nose.
Persistence of Memory was the name of her new artistic project.
Copied from Dalí, but no one would ever know. The commune had commissioned a hundred cold binoculars; they had paid for it with fruit and items to barter.
She looked at the dock. Tilde was standing on a surfboard, the oar in front of her.
“It’s all ready.”
Olì looked to the west, the sun had almost disappeared on the other side of the mountains, the sea reflected the violet sky, streaked with red and gold. Small, irregular icebergs broke the monotony of the water’s expanse. A great number of boats were waiting, heading eastward, a few meters from her rock. Every raft, wood, or surfboard hosted at least two citizens. On communal motorboats were arranged the whole city council.
Before leaving the house, Olì slipped into a jacket and pants. The air was still biting. She sat on Tilde’s surfboard and was escorted to Impiastera’s rock.
Her friend’s body was stretched out in a canoe, soaked in oil, and covered with red hibiscus flowers.
With wide and solemn gestures, so that everyone could see, Olì lit a soaked wooden torch and placed it on Impiastera’s chest. She then cut the mooring and the canoe slid toward the sunset. She had carefully calculated the current and wind direction. The pyre rose slowly and rivaled the flames of the sky.
The boat stood out against the dark backdrop of the mountains, an island of fire between islands of ice, in the deep calm of sunset. Tilde blew into a shell and a sad bellow went through the neighborhood, a note long and deep, announcing the end, predicting the end, accompanying the end.
Many years later, the citizens still remembered that day, a moment in their hard, mundane existence in which life, color, scents, heat, cold, air, and water were fused in a work in which they themselves had been a part.