John Taylor’s translation of Franca Mancinelli’s story « An Earthquake Story » has appeared in the journal One Hand Clapping. Here is the story:
An Earthquake Story
Having landed in the world at a short distance in time from each other, they were now both able to get around on their own two feet by holding onto something. The period had just ended when they would edge themselves across the cold floor by using their hands as levers while remaining seated, in that strange manner that the littlest one had adopted to move around. Along with his sister he had learned to crawl up the stairs and then to let himself slip back down, his legs straight, stair step by stair step, relying on the softness of the diaper, in a descent interrupted by short halts. Later, one after the other, they would climb down the wooden handrail like unexpected firemen, slowly and cautiously at first, then rushing down joyfully. The house was a playground that was getting bigger day by day, with the garden, the garage, and the basement whose most remote nooks, in a few years, would let themselves be discovered.
One afternoon, while they were playing in the room between the yellow floor tiles and the sofa, a dark silhouette sounded the alarm, shouting: « The children! The children are here! » Wearing her black, flowered apron, their grandmother came back to utter these words in a tone that became more and more shrill, pleading. Following in the wake of the call, the two siblings were drawn to the parallelepiped of the hallway, where vast movements were making the air shake and tilting the walls from one side to the other. The children stopped between the panels of a glass door that created a sort of anteroom, from which they could watch. At the other end of the hallway, their father and mother were fighting. Shaken at its foundations, the world was trembling. As the threat spread through the air, it came back acutely again, the words cracking at the end: « The children! The children are here! » The words came from the grandmother’s body, from all her solid matter, as if she had stood up, wearing her apron, to divide the two contenders, to block the view from the grandchildren. And instead, with the irresistible force of a precipice, she had led the children right there, to the threshold, into a space and a time in which they should not have been. Standing side by side, exposed to the long beam of light that began to outline their shapes, they were like shadows immersed in the darkness of a photographic negative. « Here we are. We can no longer disappear » – the little girl felt her solid legs, which kept her standing next to her younger brother, an unsteady tightrope walker, but standing. « We are a mistake, but we can no longer disappear », said a voice that was not thinking, that was only reading the things it saw as syllables printed in the mind. And as the fight continued, at the other end of the hallway, with the spectators blinded by the turned-around spotlight, « we will be with one or the other, perhaps we will be separated », said the voice that was reading the reality to the little girl: a book without illustrations, which she would not have wished to leaf through. And she imagined that her brother, so small, with his broken alphabet, was protected and confused by something opaque, and that he did not understand. And with some magical dust from her mind, she gave him two leaves to cover his eyes.
Suddenly the fight stopped: the mother’s forehead had been opened into a small gushing cut. Shortly thereafter, their aunt arrived and the children both sat in the back seat of the car accompanying their mother to the emergency ward. Turning around towards them, their aunt immediately said it’s nothing. Nothing has happened to her. They argue but they love each other – as if she were getting down on her hands and knees to talk through a tiny door.
The words said the opposite of what the girl had seen; in a firm, persuasive tone, they imposed silence on her, spreading a shroud over that sequence of images, as is done with the dead.
Years went by and that corpse that didn’t smell seemed forgotten, so well camouflaged in all that everyday life can seem, or try, to be. But one afternoon, in one of her first years at school, while the girl was walking home with a classmate, she heard the classmate asking if it were true that her parents were separating. She answered immediately that no, it wasn’t true; she didn’t know anything… But as she was uttering these words the sweetish smell of death had, in the meantime, risen and started to tingle her nose; then she asked: « Who told you that? » « My parents », said her classmate confidently. They were talking about it and she had overheard them from the next room. Two squealing swallows flew down with these thoughts: « They’ve tricked me… without even telling me… and they aren’t thinking of me, of us… » And then, having swept low over the ground, they suddenly flew back high. She saw the scene where someone, acting like a gnome, would bend over to her and her brother to say that one of their parents would go to live in another house but they would continue to love each other and, naturally, to love them. Before this scene came true and the most terrible earthquake devastated the world, she still had time to do something. She would keep a close eye on them to see if it were true (but it was true) that they were not united. She would also look behind the shroud of words that was spreading carefully over the gangrene and, at the first clue, while the sweetish smell was advancing, she would fight to claim her presence. The image of the little brother suddenly appeared to her, so funny and lost in his games that she decided that she would not rouse him: she would give up on having him by her side, she would guiltily remain silent, but she would fight for him too.
Translated by John Taylor (translation © John Taylor)