It was a slow Sunday in late July in a small northern Italian town. The sun bullied its way through as I stood in the crowds of people at the tiny train station. The afternoon heat reached out, bringing forth the smell of the metal from the train rails. Unwashed hair is what it smelled like.
He was just lying there, the boy, on the tracks, but all I could think about was the smell of unwashed hair. Dirty hair. It made me sick. His body lay twisted and perturbed, but not in pain. His arm was outstretched, the elbow bent at an unsatisfying angle from his body. In his palm, he held a small silver chain, dripping red droplets of blood that seeped down through the tracks where they became a mixture with the rust and dirt of the ground.
I kept wondering how long before his skin would melt into the metal. Would it hurt? Even with his body splayed across the rails, he looked so incredibly peaceful lying there, a sculpture of flesh and fiery steel.
“Andate. Andate. Per favore.”
The police officer in his bright yellow vest had a hold of my shoulders, guiding me to the stairs that led out of the station.
“Vini. No sta bene. Murio. He dead. Il ragazzo. Si? You go.”
Before I turned away, I traced a cross over my forehead, my chest, each of my shoulders. Maria. Mary. Forgive me.
“Bene,” the police officer said. “God is here, God choose this.”
No, he didn’t, I thought. “But the train,” I said. “Il tren. I have to get on the train.”
“No. We mourn. He die. No train. Bus. Now go.”
My head was screaming. I couldn’t make out the next things the officer said. All I could hear was the shrill screeching of the brakes in my ears. Some of the people in the crowds joined the nuns in song of wailing, a sob so low-pitched that it made my insides vibrate. Il ragazzo mio the voices said, closing in with every short breath I managed to gasp. I followed the crowd of passengers that had gotten off the train, the one that was supposed to take me away from here.
I had been standing for four hours in the godawful heat of the station, waiting for the train’s lumber up the rails. We all had some place else to go. Some important, some not, but all of us were meant to have been on our way. “Where is the train?” I had asked anyone who could hear me. “Il tren. Dov’è?”
“It come. Calmati. When it ready, you see it. Yes? You Americans, no time, no wait, just rush. No good,” said the attendant.
Nobody seemed to mind besides myself. Nobody appeared to care. They just sat in the sun, smoking cigarettes, drinking bottled water, talking. Their words rolled in speedy articulation from the espressos they were enjoying. How could they be waiting for the same train as I was?
The station felt even smaller as people continually packed in, every corner coveted. All the shady spots taken first; people flocked to them the way I used to flock to the spots of sun at the ocean. Families, businesspersons. Children, pets. I wondered where they were going when they did not even seem to care that they were late.
On the bench behind me, two old men sat, smoking cigars and talking animatedly. My Italian was not good enough to understand it all, but I could get the general gist of their conversation.
Yes. I wish I could understand.
To my left side had been the group of boys. Maybe there were fifteen, maybe more. They were young, dark haired, and big-eyed. Their group emanated cleanliness, two nuns supervising. I watched these nuns as they stood statuesque in their attire, wrinkled visions of Mussolini.
“Tranquillo ragazzi,” a nun threatened with strict conventional power.
“Si signora. Yes ma’am. We are being good.”
The young boys, however, were too careless to be afraid, all white linens and white socks pulled up to their knees. They knew how to win these short bursts of hierarchy and smiled to the words of the nuns, shiny innocence gleaming from their faces, only to turn around and continue their mocking behavior. With the turn of the nun’s head, a young fist would fly. Or a tongue would be shoved in the face of the child sitting beside. An elbow thrust into the gut of a boy laughing.
“Nicolo, no! Be nice,” the nun said. “God is watching, remember Maria sees you always.”
“Si signora. God watches and Maria always sees.”
I was the same age of these boys when I had gone to Sunday school. Dressed like these children, in white linen with the socks that itched all the way up my legs. I would hold my father’s hand as we walked to the schoolroom. His hand had been so much bigger than mine. I could still feel the skin of his palm, smooth but not soft, with distinctly marked lines running across it. When he folded his hand around my own, his skin would feel loose in his palm, like a piece of an old map held in between us.
Catechesis. Every Sunday we would make the walk to the old church so God would forgive me for my sins. I never wanted to go, but I did. Just as all god abiding Italian American children did in our neighborhood of Hamden, Connecticut. But I had always wished I were a good enough child to stay in pajamas and watch Sunday morning cartoons.
“Dad, can I stay home?”
“No. It would be a sin. We have to go.”
“But why, Dad?”
“We can’t question our teachings,” he would tell me. “We aren’t supposed to question God. This is what the church teaches us. You want forgiveness, do you not?”
“Yes, Dad. God loves me. Like I love God.”
I used to do the same as those boys, go to catechesis to sit there in the room that always felt a little too warm for me, forced to pay attention as the priest would tell me what I was supposed to believe in. What truths a little child was supposed to know before even being old enough to know too much of anything at all?
I hated those stone walls, and the small windows that would never open widely enough—only a tiny crack, giving a teasing glimpse of the gardens outside. Those outside gardens were the only thing I had liked about Sunday school, when explosions of color from the sun would spill in through the reds, blues, and yellows of the stained windows and dance across the stoned walls and ceilings. The freshly cut blades of grass brought in the most delicious smell. The gardens smelled like pie, a special summer pie, the kind that sits on the windowsill never to be touched.
We could not play outside until after we had memorized the Ave Maria. Not until we had perfectly repeated it five times. I would try my hardest to say it correctly, while icons of Jesus and Mary peered down from frames filled with picture book drawings from the Bible. Jesus saving. The crucifixion. But no matter how I tried, I never quite got it.
“It’s too hot. Can we please go outside? Why do I have to say the prayer?” I’d ask the priest.
More prayers were my penance for questioning his infallibility. “It will cleanse your soul,” he told me, his voice exhausted. “Everyone is a sinner. Mary heals this.” Hail Mary, full of grace.
I never told my Dad on our walks home because the priest said Mary was listening, and she would tell God I had complained. I still wonder what my soul needed cleaning from when I was only six years old.
The Lord is with thee. I couldn’t shut out the image of the crucifixion on the train tracks, the red blood like the stained-glass windows in that Sunday school room. The small boy’s body still lay there, motionless. I kept wondering if he would get up. If he would just decide to jump back up and play his game and go back to teasing the other boys again and bothering everyone around him. But he didn’t move, his chest as still as the iron rail.
As we made our way to the bus stop across the street, the afternoon grew even hotter. The pavement played her game of mystery, breathing her mirages, making it look as if the road were in motion, as if it were trying to run away from what it had just seen. But I was not able to run, not able to turn my head, the heaviness of concrete weighing down my body.
Half stunned, I was pushed across the street just as the bus was pulling into its stop. One by one, passengers boarded the rickety bus, finding seats and trying to fathom what had just happened. Some had been on the train that had run over the boy while some, like me, had been waiting for it to arrive. In those couple of seconds, everything had changed. How could something so drastic happen so quickly? How could God allow this to happen to a child, a young boy?
Inside the bus, the driver sat in his wobbly seat, his cigarette ashes falling into his lap. An old gentleman of green and off-white color, he looked wearier than I felt. Dismayed at the number of passengers forced onto his bus, he made no welcoming gesture. I hesitated before I stepped onto his stairs.
“No, scusami signorina. No room. Full. You wait.”
“But the next bus isn’t until tomorrow. My flight leaves tomorrow. I need to go.”
“Move. Ok, you come.” He hastily ushered me to the back.
He answered only with a flip of his wrist.
My eyes burned from the tears I tried to hold back and the sweat and hairspray from my bangs. I was trying to understand what had happened. Il ragazzo mio sung from the streets with such solidity that I felt my legs would wilt beneath me.
Looking down to my wrist, remnants of my bracelet hung in my shaky hand. Madonna immaculata. Maria. Mary. I had never taken the bracelet off. For forty-three years, it had stayed put. It had never broken, even with the links being so light and small that they were nearly invisible. It had caught itself in every sweater and on every doorknob a million times a day, but it never broke. It was a gift, an Italian blessing of my birth. A symbol of my salvation. I knew every miniscule detail of Mary’s face as it had constantly watched me from in the tiny emblem of pink pearly stone.
Now, only a piece of the chain remained. The miniature emblem that hung on the thin, quiet whisper of silver was buried deeply in my hand. I held on to it so tightly, I felt Mary ripping into my skin. Wrapping my fingers around her, feeling the small etchings in the gold and stone, like a rigid version of the guiding map of my father’s palms. I gazed down at my summer dress, wrinkled and soiled, and my fingers felt as though they were caked with invisible filth, just like when I was a little kid. Just a few hours ago, my hands had been clean, dipping into the holy water at church. Would the holy water still be with me? Could it be enough to save me now?
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women…
I recited the five repetitions like the priest taught me. He said that this is what opened Mary to hearing us.
“Signorina. Sit. Come.”
I felt the touch of a hand on my forearm and looked down at the beautiful elderly woman showing me the empty seat beside her.
“You take window, si?”
“Grazie. Grazie mille.” I slid past her to the window, my body succumbing to the welcoming seat.
“You ok? You cry?”
“Okay. Bene. Il ragazzo, the boy, Maria save him. She take vengeance on his hurt.”
Hands in my lap, folded in prayer.
…and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus…
I gazed out the cracked open window. The dirt caked into the corners bragged of its own architectural importance. The bus was eerily hot, yet the windows remained shut, years of filth locking them. I struggled to breathe. I wanted to see outside. I vigorously wiped my hand in spastic circles and attempted to wipe the window clean.
“No e possible. Signorina. No work, you understand? Sporca. Dirty. Fermata.”
Stop. Fermata. Dirty. Sporca. No air, no gardens, for I have sinned. My hands open in my lap, and I slowly looked upon Mary.
…Holy Mary, Mother of God,
I had not noticed the train, so accustomed to waiting for it that I had forgotten it would eventually make its arrival. The boy. Il ragazzo. He had pushed me so many times. I was so hot and tired and the train was so late. Nobody cared about my needing to leave. Nobody paid attention to the young boy jabbing his elbow into my back. Again, and again, and again. Why had he chosen me?
I listened to the fading remnants of wailing voices in the distance. The words vanished into the dusty clouds. I thought of the boy twisted on the tracks, as he held the piece of silver chain in his open palm, the other half still dangling from my fingers.
….pray for us sinners…
His smile had taunted me. And I pushed at him. I don’t know if I meant to. Nobody in the busy crowd had even noticed. It had happened so fast that not even I had seen it. But he had fallen, just as the train was arriving. He grabbed my wrist to keep his footing. But all he had gotten hold of was my bracelet.
…now and at the hour of our death…
As the bus clinkered on, I recited my prayers. The passing fields donned the reflection of The Virgin as she evaporated into the passing landscape. I awaited her forgiveness in the emulation of the sunset, her holy colors washing over me.
Charlotta Amato currently resides in Norway, the land of Vikings and trolls, where she teaches high school during the day and spends evenings writing, painting, reading and doing yoga. She lives with her two teens, their crazy Labrador, Louie, and their reckless kitten, Romeo. This is her first publication.
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