- Iuxta crucem
Saturday Maurizio calls from Caracas. It’s 10 PM in Italy. There is desperation in his voice. He’s howling, sobbing and panting, all at the same time. Says he wants to say goodbye. His mother won’t go to the phone and locks herself in her room to cry. His father, frustrated, doesn’t know what to say:
–Calm down… Calm down, son. Maurizio! Calm down, O.K.?
–I can’t take it anymore. Dad, I want to end it all.
— Just leave everything and come back home immediately. Buy a ticket first thing, tomorrow morning.Then I’ll come to Caracas and take care of everything. O.K.? Did you get that?
— Wish me luck.
–Don’t say that, Maurizio! For God’s sake! You must calm down. Take something, do you hear me?
–Wish me luck, Okay?
— Maurizio! Cut that out! Please! It’s me who can’t take it anymore. This has been going on for months now. I’m going to get a heart attack, understand? Your mother is a nervous wreck. You are killing her, you know? We want you to come back here, son. You must come back home, first thing tomorrow morning. Listen, just yesterday your mother and I got all your books nicely arranged on the shelves in the new cottage.
— Yes, Maurizio?
— Wish me luck, that’s all, Dad.
–Again? O.K. then, Good luck. What the hell…
Maurizio hangs up. The father is left there holding the phone in his hands. Having lost his patience, he had said the sentence he should have never pronounced. He’s shocked by that inauspicious wish he just proffered. His wife comes out of her room asking what their son had said. He can’t answer her. Softly he says “the usual things” and then locks himself in the bathroom.
- Animam gementem
[There are two forms of temporary and precarious wholeness. In childhood, the child is whole, together with those he loves and those who love him. But the time fast approaches when, one after the other, they’ll all have to leave him alone. But it will only be for a short while. In maturity, man is again together with those he loves and who love him, but this time, it’s him who is fast approaching the time he will have to leave them all. Within the above life cycle, though, he is always and at any rate whole, he’s ready to sustain the losses suffered and those he inflicts, in spite of sadness and longing for others and himself. He’s ready to confront that ineluctable fate that he himself is part of.
However, when your son or daughter dies, any kind of preparation is futile, any kind of logic is subverted, and you are confronted with something that is unacceptable, absurd. You are forced to answer the riddle of the Sphinx… but there is no right answer. And so the Sphinx tears you apart and gobbles you up without any mercy. ]
- Pertransivit gladius
Sunday they get the phone call they have feared the most.
They were leaving the train station and going towards the parking lot, when the father’s cell phone rang. From the other side of the world a woman’s voice was describing an accident. In the early hours of the morning, Maurizio had left his apartment building and hurled himself against a car that was driving at high speed in the semi-deserted street. He had been taken to the hospital in extremely critical conditions. [What happened to the car and its unfortunate driver was never to be learned.]
The father stopped on the sidewalk, cell phone glued to his ear, face turning purple. He was agitated and nervous. The mother, ten meters away, watched him without listening, but she had feared that moment so much that now she was able to guess every word. She didn’t dare get close to her husband. Her face was livid. Her legs weren’t holding her and her body swayed. She didn’t fall to the ground only because a woman who was passing by in that moment, seeing her falter, held her up with her arms, made her sit on the sidewalk, with her back leaning against the glass door.
- Quae Moerebat
[Maurizio’s first major depressive episode had happened three years before, around the time of his thirtieth birthday. In less than a month he quit his job as Lecturer of Italian at the Universidad de los Andes, in Merida, had a fight with the girlfriend he had been living with for years (she went back to her parents when they split) and, finally, even left the city. When he returned to Caracas, he asked an ex-student of his if he could stay with him. Starting from that inexplicable episode, which seemed more like a conscious existential explosion than a depressive episode, Maurizio never returned to his old self, his old cheerfulness and analytical lucidity, his two distinguishing features, never came back. He started a two year long, aggressive treatment with psychotropic drugs, and, because he didn’t want to leave Caracas for anything in the world, his father decided to buy him a studio there. But aware that his son’s condition was growing worse, his level of frustration steadily increasing and his ability to connect failing, the father also started to prepare for his return to Italy. Following his wife’s wishes, he started to furnish the cottage next to their villa so she could be close to him.
The last chapter of his history can be summarized as follows: suddenly and on his own, Maurizio stopped taking all medication and got worse. His psychiatrist had gone on vacation to Isla Margarita and could not be reached. The psychiatrist who was her replacement had gone on vacation as well, without telling her, and Maurizio had lost his cell number anyhow.
- O quam afflicta
The stretch of the road between the train station and their home is their first station of the cross. The father’s fingers grip the wheel so hard that they become yellow. Next to him, his mother mumbles incomprehensible words and lights one cigarette after the other, starting to smoke again after months of abstinence. She smokes in the car with the windows up. She doesn’t want to breathe anymore.
- Qui non fleret
The same woman’s voice that called before phones again to say that Maurizio can’t stay at that hospital anymore because it lacks the right equipment and minimum standards of hygiene.He must be transferred to a private clinic as soon as possible, if they want him to have some chance of surviving. She tell the father that she found him alone in the infirmary, tied to a bed with leather straps, agitated, delirious, banging his head against the metal bars repeating senseless words, with his limbs all twisted and in unnatural positions, a nightmare image.
The father then decides to borrow a little cash from his cousin and leave right away, take the first flight for Caracas without waiting for the banks to open on Monday morning.
He wants to travel alone. He doesn’t know exactly what awaits him and doesn’t want to have his wife with him under those circumstances. Dazed as she is, she would only be one more problem. Later on, as things calmed down she too could come and be next to her son… The mother gives in and accepts this decision. Marco, their youngest son, and his wife are to move in with her in their villa while the father takes off on an unlikely flight, the only one available, with stops in Paris and Mexico City.
–I want to know how my son is doing… but I’m terrified when the phone rings…
- Quis non posset contristare
Wednesday morning her husband calls her:
–We moved him to a private clinic, had a lot of tests done, a bunch of X-rays. Now he is being monitored in the intensive care unit. The doctors say that he may survive, but the next forty-eight hours are crucial. It’s the most critical period, especially because they are afraid of brain damage. We need to wait. Everything depends on how he reacts over the next hours, understand? Come on, let’s hope for the best. Are you listening to me?
–Yes, I am listening.
–Now I’ll pop in the hotel to shower. I haven’t slept at all since I got here. Actually, I haven’t been sleeping since Sunday. Then, when this thing is all taken care of, I’ll have to stay a little longer to sell the apartment and pay for the hospital. It’s costing over ten thousand Euros a day. That’s all right. We had to sell the apartment anyway. That’s the least of my worries at this point.
— Stay with him all the time. Talk to him. Don’t ever leave him alone. I trust you.
–You get some rest too. We can’t do any more than what we are doing.
- Pro peccatis suae gentis
[As happens in every corner of the world, there is often a predatory exploitation of desperation. The administrators of private clinics, though well aware that a patient has no chance of surviving after an accident, play on the fact that no parent wants to live, for the rest of their lives, carrying with them guilty feelings for not doing everything possible to save their child, at whatever price. It’s nothing but heavy handed blackmail against vulnerable people, a slimy kind of commerce leading to the financial collapse of families that are already struck by tragedy. Who would ever dare challenge the authority of “Medical science”? Who would ever feel sure enough to doubt official statements? So it is not an exaggeration to say that often the powerless family succumbs, along with the victim.]
- Flagellis subditum
More than one hundred hours have passed since the accident, but it is always the same day. And more hours are being added on.
The daughter-in-law, with her baby in her arms, is preparing some chamomile tea. Sitting at the table, the mother’s gaze is fixed on a broken tile, next to the faucet. Once in a while the muscles on her face contract for a few seconds, as though she swallowed a mouthful of bile. With that grimace frozen on her face, she mumbles almost inaudibly:
–Breathe, my son. Breathe. Come on! Keep on breathing… steady now…
And suddenly her face collapses, as though her soul were flying away from her body.
And then she lights up another cigarette.
- Mater dolorosa
[The mother knows.
The mother knows more than what reason allows, knows beyond any urgency of hope, knows what no one else knows, knows what one is not permitted to know.
And in spite of all, just like a child, she goes on with her sorrowful, imploring litany.]
- Morientem desolatum
She gets the father’s last call Friday morning, at eleven. She was expecting it by now.
–I have awful news. The doctor said that Maurizio had a respiratory complication. His lungs have given up. And now even his heart seems to have problems.
— What does that mean? No, for God’s sake, don’t say it!
–Listen. You must prepare for the worst. Nothing else can be done. Pack a suitcase with the things you need and take the first flight you find for Caracas. Let’s make this last homage to our son, all together.
— What do you mean?
— You must be strong. I need you. I’m exhausted. I am expecting you tomorrow, O.K.? Let me know what time you get here.
— Yes, all right.
- Fons amoris
The daughter-in-law looks at her silently, as she is nursing her baby, fearing she’ll say something wrong. The mother observes them.
–When Maurizio was born it was the happiest day of my life. I was a child who had given birth to a child. It seemed like a miracle, an impossible deed. It was the most important thing I had done up to then, actually the only important thing. I was able to make another person, a very beautiful baby, all mine! I couldn’t believe my eyes! I never tired of watching him. How beautiful he was! And he was mine! I was his mother. I have never felt as happy again as I felt those days. We were two children, the two of us. And we grew up together, Maurizio and I. We learned everything together. He was my best friend, my son…
The daughter-in-law lowers her eyes and goes on nursing, while she listens. She knows that in a moment like that she is expected to be her best friend.
- Flammis ne urar succensus
Saturday morning Marco gives her a ride to the airport. He too will take that flight to go and bury his brother. They are silent inside a car full of smoke. The landscape of the freeway, full of big trucks, signs, white and yellow lines seems unreal, like a scene from an American serial. Suddenly, the mother asks.
–Do you think it’s safe for a CD to pass through the X-ray machine at the airport” I mean, it doesn’t mess it up, does it?
–You mean, does it de-magnetize it? Does it erase the data? On a CD, I don’t think so. On CDs the recording is done with tiny perforations; it’s not something magnetic like tapes. It’s a different system. But why are you asking me?
— For no reason. I just wanted to know.
— Are you taking some CDs with you?
— Only one. The one with your brother’s voice on it. Do you remember what beautiful voice he had? A deep, manly voice… Didn’t he? I have this CD he had sent me a few years ago. There he tells some stories about Venezuela, funny things. He was so cheerful. He even sings, a song in Spanish, romantic, a little over the top, funny…
–And why are you bringing it?
— This morning I asked your father to have some friends of Maurizio find me a stereo for tomorrow. I want everyone to listen to this CD, while he’ll be there, in that awful place…. Because I want them to remember what he was really like, not what his illness turned him into. I want him to really be present in that place. And this CD was the only way to do it.
–I think it’s a good idea.
— It’s as though, through his voice, he would come back among the living for a while. To keep us company, in that place. Do you understand?
–Yes, mom, I understand.
After half an hour that the airplane is airborne, the mother’s eyes close, her head falls on her shoulder and she sleeps, for the first time since she received the news. This long day has finally come to an end.
When she wakes up, a few hours later, another day will have started, the day of memory. This day will be even longer than the other one, a day that will never end.
- Ut animae donetur paradise Gloria. Amen
Julio Monteiro Martins
Unpublished piece by Julio Monteiro Martins, translated by the author himself, published here courtesy of the writer’s estate.
Júlio Cesar Monteiro Martins was born in Niterói, in the Greater Rio, in 1955 and died in Pisa in 2014. His Portuguese literary production includes several short-story books: Torpalium, Sabe Quem Dançou?, A Oeste de Nada, As Forças Desarmadas, and Muamba. Monteiro Martins is also the author of three novels: Artérias e Becos, Bárbara, O Espaço Imaginário and a volume of essays: O Livro das Diretas. He was one of the founders of the Brazilian Green Party and from 1992 to 1994 worked as a lawyer for the Brazilian Center in Defense of Children’s Rights. He taught creative writing at the Goddard College in the US and was a professor in Italy, teaching literary creation and Brazilian literature at the University of Pisa. His Italian language literary production (under the name of Julio Monteiro Martins) is extensive and includes short story collections, novels and poetry. Among his most important works: “Racconti italiani” (2000), “La passione del vuoto” (2003), “madrelingua” (2005), “L’amore scritto (2007), the poetry collection “La grazia di casa mia” (2013) and the posthumous book “La macchina sognante” (2015). He was the founder and director of the online international literature quarterly “Sagarana”, which he directed uninterruptedly from 2000 to 2014.
Cover image: painting by Carolyn Miller, “Brushfire: Missouri 1948”.