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Hollow Heart

2011

 

I.

In 2011 the world ended: I killed myself.

 

On July 23, at 3:29 in the afternoon, my death set out from Catania. Its epicentre was my thin, supine body, my three hundred grams of human heart, my small breasts, my puffy eyes, my brain clubbed senseless, the wrist of my right arm draped over the edge of the tub, the other wrist submerged in a grim mojito of mint bubble bath and blood.

 

On July 23, in the full heat of summer, down the dusty steps of my apartment building, oozing downward insidiously like oily, boiling veins of asphalt, my death propagated from Via Crispi 21 through all the neighbouring streets, to the cathedral with its pigeons and shorts-clad tourists, to the Amenano River, which reeks of carrion, and then vanished underground. From my central nervous system to the streets of the city centre, from cold to hot, a perfect breakdown from which there is no return. Down into the black heart of the lava stone, from the Roman aqueduct to the dirt paths of the Parco Gioeni, overgrown with weeds and littered with empty beer cans, to the scalding steps of the Church of the Santissima Trinità, to the dingy gray faces of saints Peter and Paul outside the Church of Sant’Agata al Borgo. From there it shot off to the narrow sidewalks of the Scogliera, a scream in the depths of the sea, a puff of air in the seagulls’ lungs. Amidst the noise of the beaches, the sweat, the wafting clouds of deodorant and suntan lotion. Geometric under the spray of the shower, brutal down in the drains, down among the cigarette butts, inside used condoms, swirling down, martyred, into the sewers, down into the darkness and shit, tangled up in hair and the tails of passing rats. After four hours my body temperature plunged, especially that of my internal organs.

 

First the brain.

 

Then the liver.

 

Then the epidermis.

 

Then the Ionian Sea: it hardened like a fist.

 

At that point my death once again took wing. It flew all the way up to Mount Etna, darting among the pines of Linguaglossa, furious as an enamorment, secret as a virus. From the hollowed-out branches of my vascular system to the withered branches of the birch trees, from my long dark hair to the crowns of the maple trees, made unkempt by the muggy heat, from the dark expanses of my collapsed nerves to the expanses of sunbaked fields, off to the west, flickering for an instant as if being defibrillated and then falling still forever. Lightning – quick, wet, tangled up in the roots of every blue-green holm oak, in the Bosco Chiuso, inside every unripe acorn, all the way down into the parched soil and then up and away again. Up to an elevation of three thousand feet, black with the oak trees, tiny with the ants. Up and still farther up, all the way to the top, a fire running the wrong way round, from sky to crater. The incubation lasted two days and then, at dawn on July 25, the volcano’s southeast crater suddenly erupted. Lava sloughed down the eastern slope until seven o’clock that evening. A fountain of savage blood no longer hemmed in by veins.

 

At that point, a powerful wind sprang up and drove the ash toward the Ionian Sea. Looking up at the sky the people of Catania were astonished by a hard black rain. Something was broken, something was now beyond repair. They all turned their burning eyes back to earth; no one recognised me. They all took shelter in their homes, surrounded by their knick-knacks and their little loves. The ash is gone, the sun has set, the lava has hardened down the length of the long arms of dark earth surrounding the volcano. For two hours, the sky remained grey, grainy, soaked in red like a used gauze dressing. A light breeze began to blow like a solace, and my death, solitary and profound, left the island.

 

Since that day, it has silently infected the rest of the planet, slow as smog, solemn as a void, private as a prayer, quickly becoming one of the most urgent environmental phenomena, and one of the most invisible.

 

Things seem the same, but the substance has drained out of them: the Ionian Sea is no longer cold and it no longer wets my skin, the ancient rock lining the Cavagrande River isn’t hard enough to hinder my passage, and if I swim I can propel myself all the way into the grey uterus of the stone. Things seem the same, but the feelings have drained out of them: when I was little, the jelly that fell on the breakfast table stuck to my arms, the dust on the floor clung to the bottoms of my feet. But now everything keeps to itself.

 

Things seem the same, but they’ve lost their voice: when I was alive, if I held my fingers out toward the fire, the heat told the pain to my nerves, but now every flame has fallen mute.

 

In 1958, two scientists, Santini and Dell’Erba, studied the spread of rigor mortis through the body. But until now no one had ever thought to consider its geographic diffusion: how could I help but feel misunderstood? The rigor mortis of planet Earth started with my heart: not only was it the first organ in my body to stop, it was also the first to harden. Two hours after my death, while I was still in the tub, its cavities began to tighten in on themselves, and its walls thickened as if to brace themselves against this one last disappointment. Then came time for my eyelids and all the muscles of my gaunt face. Then for the muscles of my head and neck, my upper body, my belly, my slightly bowed legs, my feet. Twelve hours later, I was completely rigid. Then came time for the rest of the planet.

 

 

 

 

II.

My name is Dorotea Giglio.

 

I’ve always been pale: as a little girl, as a grown-up, as a corpse. My hair is brown and so are my eyes, that should help you to remember me. My face is gaunt and my body is as sharp and angular as that of a young girl from the third world, just right for stirring pity in photos posted on social media. My eyes have taut, downturned eyelids, like the wings of a wounded bird in a power dive, a bird that can no longer migrate. My eyes have always been best when they’re shut, like twin Pandora’s boxes. Lorenzo used to watch me sleep; I always thought it was a sign of love. Then it dawned on me that I was just prettier that way. My eyes—I don’t know whether it was my mother or Aunt Clara who closed them. I have freckles, like a connect-the-dots game where you make a picture, but in my case I remain invisible. My mother was thoughtful or lazy enough not to rent out my room, so I still live with her, even if she lives alone.

 

On the morning of July 23, 2011, I was twenty-five years old.

 

I was about to graduate with a degree in biology, I was taking my last five classes. I’d been working in a stationery shop near my home since I was twenty-one, and I’d been studying violin with a private tutor. For two years, I’d been taking Imipramine-based antidepressants, which made me a good daughter and a dedicated fan of TV shows like Friends and The O.C. I was always sleepy and I was calm and well mannered, with a heart that beat too fast and legs that moved too slow. My mouth was often dry; other times it refused to speak. Sometimes, at night, my pupils were too big or too small in the mirror. Now and then, lying in bed, I’d start shaking. It was all too easy for me to match shivers to memories. My own memories, or those my mother had infected me with.

 

Memories of Lorenzo who broke up with me via text message or of Aunt Lidia who left this world, swallowed up by water, her pockets filled with stones. Both these abandonments occurred on beautiful days in late April, in almost summery settings, with yellow sunlight and buzzing insects, with a neon-blue sky and agave plants striking coquettish poses.

 

Lorenzo had dumped me in seven hundred characters, the maximum length allowed for a text message before the double rate kicks in; I was sitting on the patio glider outside Aunt Clara’s beach house at Costa Saracena, studying. Lidia, on the other hand, left the world without a word sixteen years before I was born. Then there was my father’s abandonment: he too had left me, but at the time I was sightless and incomplete and still attached to my mother’s placenta.

 

None of those memories belonged to me entirely, not even the ones I’d actually experienced. Having a single body forced me to coexist with all my experiences, to keep them hot in my brain, stitched to my nerves. They were always ready to visit mayhem on the happy moments I spent with Lorenzo. It would be an instant, the popping of a balloon during a party. My knees would give way and I’d fall to the carpet in the living room screaming, my hands over my eyes. My mother would step past me in stiletto heels, Lorenzo would help me to my feet.

 

On the morning of January 30, 2009, the day of my twenty-third birthday, coming out of my comparative anatomy class, I found Lorenzo waiting for me in his car. He’d made an appointment with a wrinkly old psychiatrist with green eyes and a fancy office in Piazza Verga, across from the courts building. There was a potted cactus in the waiting room, and a girl in a red tracksuit sitting next to me reading her horoscope in a women’s magazine. Her hair was so thin that all the weirdness of the human skull was fully visible; silence reigned except for the muttering of the air conditioner. Lorenzo was talking to me, using words like ‘tranquillity’ and ‘calm’ and ‘quality of life’, hospice words that are good for only one thing: persuading an old person to pass away slowly in an unfamiliar bed after hours and hours playing cards with strangers. Then it was our turn. And that’s when the psychopharmaceuticals enter the stage to scrub everything clean, disinfect, and leave me as tidy and breakable as a glass-front buffet.

 

I’d fall asleep all the time and everywhere, during my molecular biology class or on the bus, and I’d get off at random stops, in Gravina or on Via Etnea, in front of the Villa Bellini. I’d go in, wander down the shadowy walkways like a panicky animal, eyes downcast, greasy hair hanging over my eyes. Or else I’d sit down and rest on the white stone rim of the Fountain of the Swans.

 

That’s what they still call it, the Fountain of the Swans, but the swans were killed by vandals. In March 1983 the first one vanished. In March 1984, three more. They were found a few yards away, their throats ripped open by dogs. Then two more, and two more after that, impaled on the spikes of the gate on Piazza Roma. The last swan was the loveliest of them all, I still remember it. I was fourteen years old when it would sail around the empty basin, not looking for anyone. It would stop in the centre. It refused to approach my outstretched hand when I’d try to feed it my sandwich, on my way home from school. In May 2000 it was found with its throat cut.

 

The swans were replaced with large black ducks, raggedy and slow-witted, and then by depressing bronze herons. The basin is full of dry leaves, and gangs of thuggish girls hang around it and beat up other girls in front of anyone who cares to watch. People break off their walks and stand around, smiles yawning like genitalia, they set their glittering shopping bags down on the ground: first shopping, then a fistfight, then a pizza followed by a limoncello. Even the carabinieri, concealed at the corner behind long ficus leaves chipped with black, always stop to watch with feverish eyes. Sitting on the rim of the Fountain of the Swans I gradually tried to catch my breath. Not even Sleeping Beauty knows how short a distance it is from chronic fatigue to eternal sleep.

 

I got decent grades on my exams and I let the days pass just as they were, without the audacity to fill them with events and meaning: I imagined them as so many brown-edged holes left by a cigarette in a white sheet. I imagined plenty of other things, most of them monstrous, but the worst didn’t need to be imagined; they already existed. My mother existed: she was the realest thing there was.

 

On July 19, 2011, the day of my anniversary with Lorenzo, even though he’d left me a year and three months earlier, I wanted to commemorate the date by sleeping for twenty-four hours. Instead I woke up at seven fifteen in the morning in a pool of piss and sweat. This happened sometimes. I was a plant in its sopping-wet dirt. A plant, though not a sunflower, which has the healthy instinct to turn toward the light. I was a plant that never moves and takes in sunshine and water until the time comes to fold humbly in on itself and die.

 

My mother walked into the room wearing an iron-grey slip with a cigarette in her mouth. Her legs were glistening with moisturising cream.

 

‘When are you going to cut all this out? It’s ridiculous.’

 

‘Mama, I’m hurting.’

 

‘Oh really? You’re hurting? I ought to be the one who’s hurting.’

 

‘We’re both hurting.’

 

‘Christ on a crutch go get washed up what are you still doing here.’

 

The morning of July 23 it was 108 degrees out.

 

My mother went out at nine in the morning to take pictures of a row of withered trees on Corso Italia. She was wearing a rust-coloured silk dress, black vinyl wedge shoes, and a heavy necklace of rough-cut stones. Nine days after my funeral she would hang the best picture in the living room: three trees covered with marks and patches of missing bark like old people’s arms, with tiny shelves of white mushrooms sucking the nutrients out of them. Framed in light-blue plastic, the photograph would remain there for the two years that followed my death, until Aunt Clara took it down, leaving in its place a testamentary square of wall that was a brighter shade of white.

 

Aunt Clara was the pretty sister, my mother the depressed one. The eldest sister was named Lidia but she had drowned in the Cassibile River, taking all her adjectives with her. Aunt Clara was the one who dreamed at night about Lidia’s swollen body emerging from the water like weather-beaten wood, her face flaccid and expressionless, her fingers soft-boiled. My mother was the one who once found herself in the street late at night, standing in front of the dumpster, barefoot and wet-cheeked, so my grandmother had to go down and get her. I’m the one who would have the nightmare where there was a concave darkness like the bottom of a jar and I was suffocating inside it. All three of us taken together were a perfect hydraulic system of trauma. I was right at the mouth of the last stretch of pipe and I didn’t even know what Lidia’s face looked like, but the nightmare was crystal clear and it made me wake up drenched in sweat, my heart racing like crazy.

 

*

 

The morning of July 23 I put on my favourite dress, the red sleeveless one. Looking in the mirror I felt like Jessica Rabbit, but every impulse of self-respect I might have had was a round-trip ticket: after a couple of seconds outbound, I returned straight home to the nuisance of being myself. I put on my black canvas polka dot shoes with little straps: I didn’t like to wear them much because the tension of the thin material stretched over the tips of my toes was bound to explode into a hole before long, and I didn’t want that to happen: they were my favourite shoes. I pulled my dark purple lipstick out of my makeup case, but it had melted in the heat: as soon as I opened it the creamy mass broke into two soft, greasy sections and the top part fell into the sink. I tried to use the broken stump that was still attached to the base but it was too short. So I dabbed my fingertip into the gooey mess in the sink and smeared it onto my lips. I succeeded in applying it, to an extent. I picked up the eyeliner, but it too was melted; I drew rings around my eyes similar to the bruise you get when someone punches you.

 

I left the apartment.

 

The bald lawyer who lives on the fifth floor was walking ahead of me and he held the street door open with a smile. As soon as I drew close to the slit of the half-open door, the muggy air and the sunlight and a slow scent of sunbaked flowers inundated my face. The muggy air and the sunlight and the flowers still had meaning, and I was tempted to press it to my heart, but I did not.

 

Catania in the summer: scalding, oozing, an open wound. Constant car horns, mangy dogs, people squinting and sandals made of eco leather. Humid, unbreathable air. The heat was a dumpster full of smells, old beer and urine, gasoline, deodorants going past, and the aforementioned flowers: red and purple blooms at the corner of the sidewalk, clutching the shrouds of their already-dried petals. I crossed the street and somebody nearly ran me over: a guy wearing a white Lacoste polo shirt and Ray-Bans leaned out the window and yelled at me to go fuck myself. His girlfriend had her feet up on the dashboard and was applying pink polish to her toenails.

 

At the supermarket across the street I bought red plastic plates, red forks, red party cups, a bottle of cheap spumante, a frozen paella, and a bag of single-blade disposable razors. There was a two-for-one sale, but I thought one death would be enough for me.

 

Sitting on an upside-down fruit crate outside the supermarket, a corpulent African woman wearing red lipstick and a long white mesh dress was clapping her large hands to the beat of something that didn’t exist for me. Hanging from her neck was a sign: I’M HAPPY, PLEASE HELP ME.

 

*

 

I invited two girlfriends of mine to lunch: Gaia and Flavia, a pair of well-mannered young women with a sad talent for settling, which they called ‘being realistic.’ I set the table with the red Christmas tablecloth covered with reindeer. At the right-hand corner was an old wine stain. I lit a white candle at the center of the table. I filled the bathtub upstairs. I placed the razor next to the tub.

 

The first to arrive was Gaia; she had a fashionable new asymmetrical haircut and a freshly ironed pink blouse. She did a lot of smiling. We sat down on the sofa together and she told me about a fight with Paolo, her boyfriend: they’d disagreed about the frames of his new glasses. Then Flavia got there. She brought me the birthday present that they’d been meaning to give me for the last six months: a shiny navy-blue-and-azure knee-length dress with a sixties harlequin pattern. I thanked them very much; I did a lot of smiling. We ate the paella, I tore every bite into little pieces with my teeth and sent it safe and sound down my oesophagus. All the windows and even the door had been opened in an attempt to let in some air, but there wasn’t so much as a breeze, and every time someone climbed the apartment building’s stairs the enormous sound of footsteps reached us from the landing. Sitting there at the table, with the candle almost melted, each of us waited with bated breath for the stream of air from the fan to hit us.

 

‘Dorotea?’

 

‘What?’

 

‘Why is this candle here, anyway? In the morning, with all this heat?’

 

‘ . . . ‘

 

‘Dorotea, did you hear me?’

 

‘Yes. Sorry, girls, I have a splitting headache.’

 

‘Take an aspirin, do you have one? I might have some Tylenol in my bag, you want me to look?’

 

‘No, no, thanks, I’m super tired too, I think I’ll just take a nap.’

 

‘It’s still because of those pills, isn’t it? Why do you keep taking them?’

 

‘No, they don’t have anything to do with it. I just want to get some sleep.’

 

They left, promising that we’d go to the movies the next day and see Paranormal Activity 3. Flavia’s boyfriend, Moreno, preferred going to the second show so he could study until late. I closed the door behind them. I turned on the TV; they were showing an American series with vampires or ghosts or young couples in love, it wasn’t clear yet. As I climbed the stairs to the second storey of our apartment, canned laughter accompanied me: so it was supposed to be funny. What was it called? Who produced it, who conceived it? Who has laughed or wept or hated life while watching each episode? I would never know the answers to these questions. I’d never get any kind of answer at all, ever again. Before slipping into the chilly water I hung up the dress in my wardrobe. It would have gone perfectly with those light-blue ballet flats, the velvet ones with the bows.

 

It was 3:20 in the afternoon and my mother was at Aunt Clara’s, celebrating. Aunt Clara had just gotten a promotion at the textbook publisher where she worked; that’s why—as I slipped into the tub—crystal glasses were being raised on a terrace filled with carefully tended plants in Costa Saracena. I picked up the razor. I closed my eyes.

 

I thought of the ascomycete. That fungus whose spores land on an insect and then dig into it. The fungus grows inside it, slowly destroying the insect’s organs, until the insect becomes an empty sarcophagus. Finally, the mushroom erupts, enormous, disintegrating in an instant the body that by now belongs to it alone. It was a story Lorenzo had told me: at the time he was taking his doctorate in entomology. I listened with interest: at the time I was alive. We were sitting on the glider at Aunt Clara’s beach house, where we always spent hours and hours in the summer. We were wearing swimsuits; mine was a strawberry-coloured bikini. The heat was atrocious, my mother was dressed in white, watering plants, and she seemed like a woman dressed in white watering plants. For the past few months she’d been doing much better than usual, and she would persist in that radiant normality until my death. On the balcony of the house next door a German shepherd was sleeping, wearing an orthopedic collar. My water-puckered fingers clutched the plastic razor, my eyes focused on the blue of my veins, I sliced my right wrist: error.

 

I tried again: error.

 

Nausea flooded my throat.

 

On the third try I felt a profound shock surge up from beneath the skin, sweeping through the entire organism, crying out for a full range of the body’s ambulances. The blood was warm. The blood wasn’t strange. I moved on to the left wrist. When the mushroom is about to split the insect open, the insect goes racing crazily up a tree, and then it suddenly shatters into pieces. The razor fell to the white tiles. Downstairs, on TV, there was a burst of canned laughter.

 

*

 

I still wonder why the insect starts running.

 

What is it trying to reach up there, at all costs? What is this thing, so strong and so punctual that every invaded insect feels it, always in the same instant, the moment before dying? Why did this thing not exist until just a second before, and why does it suddenly announce its existence in such an absolute manner? And who is it, inside the insect, that senses the arrival of the final moment? Is it the insect, what little remains of it, or is it the fungus?

 

I don’t know why I would be thinking of insects just before shuffling off. If only they too—from the tiny flies to the Nicrophorus humator, terrifying stowaways in my corpse—would be still for a second and think of me in the pitch-darkness of my flesh, perhaps they’d rethink their destructive campaign and finally stop making me die.

 



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


was born in Catania, Italy. She now lives and studies in London. Her first novel, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool, won the 2011 Campiello First Novel Award and was a finalist for Italy's most prestigious literary prize, The Strega. This is an extract from her second novel, Hollow Heart, published in June by Europa Editions.

Antony Shugaar is the author of I Lie for a Living and Latitude Zero: Tales of the Equator. For Europa Editions he has translated Margherita Dolce Vita and Timeskipper by Stefano Benni, Valeria Parrella’s For Grace Received, First Execution by Domenico Starnone, two novels by Massimo Carlotto, The Fugitive and Poisonville, and Carmine Abate’s Between Two Seas.


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