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“Cheerful Michela”

“Human rights”, or “Cities of the World” will be the title of the novel set in Sicily that Vittorini is currently working on: we are pleased to offer our readers some unpublished pages

 

[…] They were travelling by train in a third-class carriage with an aisle down the middle; the man Gioacchino and the young Michela had left at dawn from the little station of Serradifalco; he was happy and finally she was quite cheerful.

“To hell with them” the man Gioacchino continued to say while waiting in line for the tickets with a crowd of sulphur miners. As he waited, groups of miners in close confabulation surrounding him, the express for Girgenti appeared puffing its way up the hill to the still-lit signal visible in the feint-blue air. He had repeated this again and again on the slow commuter train, every time he seemed have a sense of satisfaction: that moment when the sun had just cast its first glorious light on the rocky terrain that they were travelling through; when the rascal miners alighted from their compartment in the middle of the countryside, leaving them alone as in princely carriage; or when Michela rummaged through the wicker basket she kept by her side to share some dried fish-roe and a loaf of bread. “Cheerful Michela” he had said for the third of forth time, relishing the blissful performance that she gave of bewildered placidity and free from concern or irony. He wasn’t able to make her smile, but he was happy enough and just kept repeating “cheerful Michela” as if trying to convince her that she was indeed “cheerful”, hoping that she would stay so and not change mood. He showed her the wooden towers of the sulphur mines, and he repeated “cheerful Michela”. He indicated the smoking chimneys of lime-kilns dotted across the stony countryside and repeated “cheerful Michela”. Even when pointing out a crow flying past –it black and blue hues glistening in the sunlight – he repeated “cheerful Michela”.

At a certain point he got excited speaking of places he knew, those barren deserts above Capizzi surrounded by mountains like mothers; her, a mother pregnant with her first child or a young bride, there, a mother carrying her second child, or even a mother with a horde of children and still with her next, and then those old and haggard or old and wrinkled mothers, but still mothers. The high terrain passing by the side of the train towards Caltanissetta started to show steep drops with round shouldered edges, and he told her that these were small compared to the even bigger ones where he came from. He told her that it must be splendid up there on a day like today. The woods invading the mouths of the valleys on a day like this seemed blue; the gentle curves of the rocks were smooth and soft, and even gleamed in the sunlight; in that period of the year, green could be seen at the edges of the snow, and even in the middle of the snow and reaching the peaks to cover them with green instead of white. That solitude, he told, was something that opened ones heart; almost brazenly he repeated “cheerful Michela” as if taking the liberty of giving her the pleasure that she would feel on such a day, going back-and-forth with her chores in the fields of beans, in the woods and the coal pit, knowing she was fifty kilometres from the nearest town and it was easier seeing a beech marten at the stream or an eagle flying above than meeting another human. “Cheerful Michela” he continued to repeat, “cheerful Michela” as if trying to convince himself of the reasons why she was cheerful, and he told her that the new house he had constructed – half hewn into the rock and half outside – stood next to the old one, but twice as big and with a window where he would live once he had a wife. “Cheerful Michela” he repeated, and reflected, and reflected again; he stood up and reflected and again when he sat down, he reflected and then looked out of the window. When the train stopped at the Caltanissetta signal he reflected again; he smiled and reflected again, and then in the end asked if she knew what they would do. Know what? “In Caltanissetta” he said, “we are not going wandering around the city and we’re not going to a hotel. We’re going to take the first train for Enna, not to get off at Enna, but at Pirato, the stop after where we’ll catch a bus for Nicosia and Agira. Is that ok?”

“As you wish” replied Michela.
“And when we get to Nicosia” he continued “we’ll get off and catch another bus to Capizzi, or the one to Cerami and then hike for a day from Cerami or Capizzi along the hill crests to the house. We’re going straight home”, he shouted. “Cheerful Michela! We’ll soon be on the road home and we’ll get there straight away”
“As you wish”, replied Michela.

But on the express train that the lady from Madonie followed with her telescope to the east, from Santa Caterina Xirbi station, the man Gioacchino travelled without saying “cheerful Michela” anymore and Michela – no longer with her placid and bewildered mood like that morning – seemed like she was in Serradifalco and even before Serradifalco, questioning and ironic.

The train was no faster than the workers’ train that had taken them to Caltanissetta; if it didn’t stop in stations, it stopped for long pauses in front of train signals, or on parts of the track being repaired. It was crowded in the eight third class carriages, and no less so in the three first and second class carriages; the man Gioacchino had to stand hunched over Michela who was sitting to protect her from that hot mass of people that every so often would bump into her.

“Cover yourself” whispered the man Gioacchino in Michela’s ear. He looked around the wall of shiny faces in the crowd; he observed sharply those young men with dark laughing eyes, he saw them winking and rubbed his legs against those of Michela. His face became longer, and little by little heavy with sadness, and thoughts clouded his mind. He became pale and then his face immediately flushed. It was almost as if he was fighting against some fear, and he caressed Michela’s head, but his fingers touched hair instead of her headscarf, and so once again he bent down and whispered in her ear, “I told you to cover yourself, Michela!”.

It was about one or quarter past when they got to the station in Villarosa, but no one was able to pull out their picnic baskets full of provisions to eat; with great difficulty some people actually managed a quick sip from a bottle. At half past one, Gioacchino repeated to Michela, “Come on, cover your face!”. The only answer that Michela gave was “yess”. And then again, not simply “yes” or “yes Gioacchino”, but a sort of slurred “yes sir”. Or even “noss”, not ti simply say “no” but again slurred to avoid saying “no sir”. The man Gioacchino asked her if she was hungry, and Michela replied “noss”. The man Gioacchino asked her if she was thirsty and Michela replied “noss”. Her heavy reply was as if she had lifted her gaze to convey all that worry and irony she could communicate with her blue eyes. And when it got past two o’clock, under the brief short tunnel just before Enna, the man Gioacchino said, “As soon as the train stops, we’re getting off”; and then he said, “Get ready”; and grabbed in the dark the two bundles that were in the luggage rack.

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