Lina is a little angel, with her red nose and blue eyes lined with tears. I take her outside of the court room, towards the couple that the judge defined “the people who accompanied you here”, and which instead she defines “Mom and Dad”. In the hallway she throws her self in the arms of her mother, the second one life has granted her. Her father, the only one she has ever known, hugs the sighing child. The psychologist observes, carefully, where their hands are going. The dad strokes her long blonde curls, the mom taps her on her little behind, slightly. Are these signs of affection or is it a kind of illegal touching?
I had gotten a whiff that there was something strange in this story when the clerk of the court emphatically announced, in the course of the phone conversation that, “This is an international case, we are dealing with a minor”. Better than the direttissime, the fast track trials I usually get called for! I get there at the appointed hour. The parties are already there, silently sitting on a bench- a girl around ten years old, silent between two upset adults; a little further away a psychologist with her hair done up impeccably. No policeman in sight, no arrested party with a demoralized look. The child has the same straight nose and light colored eyes as the father. Only if you really focus on them you notice the differences- her face, like that of a Russian icon, is illuminated by a different light.
I introduce myself and get a smile out of her: our names are similar, so we go on to talk about strange Italian names and surnames. Transformed by her Russian pronunciation they really sound funny. Gradually the child relaxes, and the proud mother boasts:
“Our Lina is too talented, she likes to study and would like to get involved in the theater, she is a born actress! You enjoy going to school, right?”
“Yes, I am in the fifth grade, I would have rather been in school today, but instead I have to be here.”
“What’s your favorite subject in school'”
“Tell stories, draw…”
“She especially loves fairy tales. Show her your blouse! Lina chose this!”
The girl smiles and shows her white blouse decorated with some flying fairies. We are so relaxed that we could be sitting in the waiting room of a doctor or at a beauty salon, a peaceful, if boring, situation. What is happening? When the girl leaves to go to the rest room, I ask the father:
“So, what’s the problem? What do we need to do?”
“You’ll do whatever you need to do,” he answers elusively.
“Is there perhaps a problem with the adoption?” I cautiously inquire.
“In a certain sense”, and with an embarrassed smile, he shuts himself into silence.
They don’t make us wait too long. The parents are left outside. Lina and I and the child psychologist walk in. The pale and slight little girl, a rare presence in a court room, sinks in a black leather armchair. The judge gives her a tender look, her hands leaning on a thick folder. She smiles reassuringly, making sure the girl speaks Italian. Then, it’s the psychologist’s turn. The institutional figures start their dance of getting close to her, with moves aimed at winning the girl’s trust.
“Lina now we’ll talk and you’ll only tell me the truth. Can you tell the difference between the truth and a lie? If I told you that you got here on a plane, what would I be telling you?”
“A lie,” Lina smiles, imagining a special airplane that takes you from San Crispino to Verona.
“And if I tell you that your blouse is white, what would I be telling you?”
She is measuring Lina’s reaction when she lies. But no one notices that the sweater is not totally white- it has fairies of different colors on, and if you are logical you should say “It’s not a true statement because it is partly white and partly colored”.
Then come some routine questions: what’s your name, where do you live, where do you go to school, who do you live with. “With mom dad, grandma sister brother dog cat and fish” – Lina answers without stopping to breathe. A touching answer: spontaneous or rehearsed?
Lina has no need for translation, she manages very well in Italian, is very serious and concentrated. She answers without hesitation, sharp yesses and nos, or, when needed, she expands on her answers looking at the psychologist in the eye. Only once was she not able to explain herself in Italian. They were asking whether her father had touched her private parts. She doesn’t understand that expression and I have to translate it into Russian. I had to think quick on my feet and say, “that part of the body where you put your panties”, a description that is precise and neutral. A word too many could have been an insinuation or a warning. You have to walk on your tiptoes, in a situation where you have a fragile boundary between truth and lies, reality and recollection, affection and abuse.
Lina tells about Katia, the other Russian girl who was a guest at their home last summer. They spent their time chasing each other and playing hide and seek, went to the Gardaland amusement park, to restaurants and had pasta and pizza. They went on vacation to Spain, it was only Dad, Katia and her, mom had to work. Family stories, simple personal stuff that become public domain, acquiring sinister meanings. As she tells the story under the vigilant gaze of the psychologist, Lina torments her long fingers, index and ring finger crossed and bent. She rubs her nail against her thumb, leaving a thin pink line. She keeps on rubbing her nail over and over, her fingers tightening and twisting, while her limpid voice answers and her eyes are fixed on the person questioning her. The situation is complicated by the fact that Lina calls “mom” both her biological mother, jailed for homicide, and her adoptive mother. She blames Katia for everything: she was going around the house wearing only her panties, she pushed her to go inside the shower when dad was washing up, she did something under the covers at night. Katia went around rummaging among the videocassettes looking for weird movies, and Dad yelled only at her when he caught them watching one.
Dad,on the other hand, had done nothing wrong, had not harmed her. Had not watched her naked. Had not touched her in a dirty way. Had not photographed her and Katia naked in the shower. Had not made her drink wine, actually he was against it, he was even against drinking coke because it gives you a belly ache. Whenever he helped her wash up, he only touched her back and her arms. And that was ok with Lina because before (a vague concept in which she hid dark words such as Russia and orphanage) no one washed by themselves. The children were lined up, naked, in a big room with the showers and waited for the inserviente, the attendant- another word she didn’t know how to say in Italian- to come by and soap them up one by one. Dad, he didn’t do that, he had only treated her well. Katia is saying bad things about him because she is mean. She was a little older than Lina, she boasted that she already had tits, that she was beautiful, that she knew how to do the things that pleased Dad. Lina didn’t pay any attention to her: Katia was only a guest who after such a great vacation did not want to go back to the orphanage. That’s why she said such mean things. That Katia had talked to her teachers, and they had turned to the Russian judges who had raised a ruckus all the way to Italy, for Lina all of that was a story that should be forgotten. It didn’t mean anything compared to the love she felt for dad, mom, brother, sister, grandma, dog, cat and fish.
Having finished her long list of questions, recorded everything and signed the official transcript,during a pause the psychologist takes Lina’s hand and asks her with a sweet voice,
“I know you don’t know me, but I am a friend to you. We are all here to defend children. If you have something on your mind that makes you uncomfortable, you can say it!
Lina turns red, tears in her eyes.
“So why these tears?”
She looks elsewhere, turning towards the door behind which her parents are waiting.
“The judge clears her throat.
“I’ll go get you a piece of candy.”
“I don’t want any sweets, Lina answers, “Dad says they are bad for your teeth.”
The judge leaves anyway.
“What are you afraid of?”, the psychologist presses on, “Is there something you want to say?”
“I am afraid that you’ll send me away. i don’t want to live the way I used to. Please, don’t send me away!”
” No, no, don’t worry! We want to help you, get you a family that is right for you.”
“I already have a family!” says Lina, drying her tears on the sleeves of her white blouse
We get up. I hold her hand, even if I feel like holding her in my arms like a kitty, and ask her, so that no one else can hear, what kind of truth did she tell? If she lied, did she do it without knowing why she did it or did she know that Dad had done something wrong? If she did lie, is she protecting him out of fear, or because she accepts anything from someone who changed her life, gave her a family, a passport, a room of her own. clothes, dolls, colored pencils to draw, a chance to go to school, to the beach, to Gardaland and to the pizzeria, someone who showers her with attention and care even if once in a while he strokes her private parts? Or is this whole story just a nightmare of envy invading the frail balance of an atypical family that aspires to feel normal, in charge of its own rituals of tenderness and conflict, independently creating new kinds of ties, dreamt both by lonely children and adults on either side of the border?
Translation by Pina Piccolo, with the author’s permission.
From “Storie dal pianeta Veronetta”, by Marina Sorina, Tra le righe libri, 2018
Marina Sorina was born in Kharkiv (the Ukraine) and has been living and working in Verona since 1996. She earned her university degree in Foreign Languages in 2004 at the University of Verona, completing her doctorate in 2009 at the same university. In 2012 she got her certificate as a tour guide. She is active in the life of the Ukrainian community in Verona. Her first novel Voglio un marito italiano (I want an Italian husband) , 2006 was favorably reviewed. Subsequent short stories were included in anthologies and collections. In 2012 she won the “Scrivere altrove” (Writing elsewhere) award for short stories.