December 10, 2017

Nonfiction by Toti OBrien: "In the Water"

Toti O'Brien is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish Last Name. She was born in Rome then moved to Los Angeles, where she makes a living as a self-employed artist, performing musician and professional dancer. Her work has most recently appeared in Fiction South East, NonBinary Review, OVS Magazine, and The Adirondack Review.



    The wide cistern where the main supply of water is stored has a strange name. Later she will know it is derived from Arabic—as are all eerily-sounding words, in the island. The huge tank is mysterious and scary. Almost nothing else frightens her. Neither the stable where the bull is kept, nor the pigsty—though its dwellers can scream loud and sharp, especially on slaughtering days. Neither the moonless night, nor getting lost on the hills after sunset. Not vipers, with their snappy bifurcate tongue. Not thunderstorms. But the gebbia has something about it, like a buried secret, a mute threat.
    Its concrete walls are grey, nude, severe. From the outside it looks a sad bunker, but if you climb the stairs etched in its sides you realize water fills it to the top. Imagine a giant cube full of liquid, rising towards the sky. Think of one of those walls giving up. It won’t. That is why the construction is bulky, solid, secure. Water comes to the edge—olive, dense, impenetrable. The green hue and oily consistence make it mischievous, mortuary. This water is grieving.
    Or indeed it is murderous. It has been clearly spelled—no secret—a boy has fallen inside and he has drowned. It will happen if she doesn’t pay attention. She does. Water has gulped the boy. Murderous depths. The opaque stillness of the surface—the inability of seeing what is below, appraising how far is the bottom—slightly trouble her.
    Yet of course she can’t resist playing at the edge, where she spends long hours, because of the frogs. They are emerald jewels. They swim… do they? They hop and jump, so close to her hand she can catch them, fearlessly grabbing their cool slippery bodies. Such a thrill! Each capture makes her feel brave and competent. She relishes holding them in the cavity of her palm, then releasing them. What else should she do? She can’t bring them home like blackberries or flowers. She can brag about it, though.
    Frogs are only to be found in the gebbia—smaller basins, culverts, irrigation channels spread all over the orchards aren’t favored by their kind. Yet they are only the official reason of her visit. Rather the conscious one. Well, she is aware, though slightly, of the charm the column has on her—the square pillar built at the very center of the tank, with no apparent function.
    She likes its forlorn unreachability, rigorous geometry, more than all the tuft of vegetation (a small cactus, a palm, a bunch of bamboo reeds) that makes it look like an island. A grey little world of concrete, inaccessible. How does it crystallize her attention, tickling her ear like a background drone. How it calls her—deaf murmur in the distance.
     Still what most attracts her to the water edge is danger itself, with its irresistible magnetism. Because only if you look at peril from close, again and again, you’ll come to realize it is a meek companion—simply asking for a little respect, a nod of acknowledgment. In exchange for your discrete frequentation and prudent behavior, danger gives you great gifts (delivered in shy, tiny installments). Makes you strong. Makes you free—she doesn’t know yet.

    Grandpa has introduced her to frogs, as well as he has acquainted her with vipers and larger yet less dangerous snakes. He has taught her how to catch lizards into a noose made with a blade of grass, then walk them around like dogs on a leash. He has given her sound, wise, precise instructions for whenever she’d wander alone. He has told her the habits of insects, birds, mammals, the nature of plants and rocks. How to interpret the sky, clouds, wind, bark on tree trunks.
    There’s another dangerous place on the property, he has said, where she is supposed to behave. It’s a hole in the hillside—the opening of a cavern. He has told her not to get in and she obeys, though temptation crawls over her body. But she manages to stop by the entrance, made almost invisible by accumulated debris—a mound of slippery rock on which a fig tree has sprouted, partially obstructing the access. She should carve her way among its crooked, curvy, tentacular branches in order to proceed. The fig tree winks at her like a Jiminy cricket. It reminds her of her promise of sensible, prudent compliance. It would spy on her, perhaps. Perhaps, too late.
    The tunnel was originally shaped like a horseshoe, with two entrances/exits. If the soldiers found one of them, with some luck they might not spot the other, and then… What a silly thought. Soldiers had nothing to do with it. The obvious reason for the two holes was fear of a landslide. In case bombs would cause the hill to collapse and thus block one entrance, they all would run the opposite way, trying not to be buried alive, munched up by a cold jaw of dirt and stone.
    That is what occurred indeed. One entrance collapsed. Only, years after the war had ended. But she should be alert! The other opening might, will close up as well. Still a pull, like a tide, irresistibly makes her climb the irregular slope, linger under the sappy, sticky fig leaves. How she wishes to see the little chamber! Of my. Decades later she will vividly recall it. She’ll be sure she has gone inside, probably accompanied—her memory is too neat not to reproduce real data.
    And yet no. Reason dictates no sensible grown-up would have stepped into the tunnel, especially not ventured to the small room, hidden deep in the guts of the mountain, far removed from daylight. A tiny cot was inside it—Grandma said—where she carried her third son, five or six years old, ill with typhus and burning with fever. Why did she have to conceal him in such remote corner? In her words it sounds like protection. Was it fear of contagion instead?
    She could swear she has been in the room, a minuscule cell with dirt walls, dirt floor—and she has seen the cot. The remains of it—a pile of wood slates—the bare skeleton of a bed come undone. Of course it isn’t possible. And the wood would have been rotten by then. Positively no one ventured into the shelter. This must be a fruit of her imagination, activated by Grandma’s tale, busy fleshing it up. She has never ever seen the dungeon where the sick boy has lain, night after night.
    In the walls of the tunnel, all along, there are little indents. Little shelves where candles were put—the only furniture. Children, women, cripple, sick, old, would squat on the floor, the most fortunate resting their back against rock—many of them, as many as they could fit, gathering from the village, the farms. They would sit in silence, waiting for the plane raids to subside.

    She has seen piles of charred planks on the ground, though, for good. But that was the little house at mid-hill—a shed where Father stopped to read the paper when (once on a while) they hiked to the top all together, as a family thing. Dad obliged but not for too long. He wasn’t fond of exercise. At mid-way he gave up, opened a folding chair he had carried along, spread out his magazine. The shed was his landmark.
    Though neither he nor anybody ever entered it, though she didn’t know what it was for, she loved the small cabin where Dad was lost and found (on their way down). She was flabbergasted on the day she saw instead a flat pattern of smashed bricks, tiles, burned timber. All had fallen straight down, drawing a two-dimensional version of the previous volumes. Is it what fire does? Is it what melting means? This kneeling, meekly reclining.
    Fire has devoured the cabin, leaving a brisk emptiness in return. She can feel the wind from the sea, claiming yet another playground. She can see it (the wind) summersaulting, unbound, enthusiastic and arrogant. Where will Father rest now, on their way to the top? Alas he stops coming, tired of these vain, childish strolls—only needing an opportunity for his final desertion.
    At the very top of the hill there’s a lone locust tree—the most elevated specimen of vegetation around. Its daring and solitude give it an eerie majesty, as for an ancient hermit of sorts. Beyond the tree is a fence. What does barbed wire do up here, separating two contiguous slices of wilderness?
    She understands it marks property limits, signaling the end of the world she is allowed to explore. She accepts, more than truly comprehending. In a recess of her mind contradiction arise—itching, stubborn, disturbing. Exploration, she ponders, should be inherently endless. Exploration doesn’t steal, harm or hurt. At the top of the hill, past the locust tree, a crooked, bunched up, yet not less impassable fence clumsily cuts the trail, embossing the hill with a long irregular scar. She has to retrace her steps before these Pillars of Hercules, where—she is sure—even birds hesitate, turn in circles, get lost.

    Grandpa had a dream, Mother told her. Mom used to picture her father as a melancholy man who had given up wishes, aspirations, desires. Well who hasn’t, at least partially? By the way, at the time she was granted the confidence she already knew there were dreams in Grandfather’s past. At least two.
    One—the easel, canvases, set of oil paints she had found in the attic. To whom did these belong? No owner claimed them. The attic was off-limits during her childhood, separated from the house by unfinished restructuring work, only accessible if a ladder was pulled across—a drawbridge she carefully crawled upon.
    In the abandoned attic the easel stood like a monument, sporting a thick coat of gluey dust and an incomplete charcoal sketch—delicate, evanescent outlines of a turn-of-the-century mansion, a faint color of rust. Each time she accessed (unpermitted) the forgotten sanctum, her eyes drank in the drawing, her heart squeezed with nostalgia—not sure of what. Yes, he had painted in his youth, and that wasn’t all.
    In the cellar, after he was dead, she found a shelf of Russian books, with a plethora of red and black illustrations. As she mentioned her discovery to relatives, the anecdote came up he had been (oh-so-briefly) a communist, then an anarchist. Momentarily, promptly resuming his land-ownerish, aristocratic notions. Just a spur of juvenile foolishness.  But that wasn’t all.
    Last but not least was his archeological passion—the obsessive hope he would discover something some day. After all, Egyptian, Greek, Carthaginian and Roman conquerors had claimed this land in turns—these sweet hills overseeing the blue. He did find—Mother said—fragments. Not sure what, but evidence of a larger something. He could have pursued, excavated. He got scared instead. Permits. Licenses. City. Government. Taxes. Regulations. Expropriation? Maybe loosing the land, god forbid.
    Not only he didn’t dig. He decided to build over the hot spot—something large, heavy, unmovable. Something muddy, opaque, mysterious and mute. The wide tank—eater of children, immature aspirations, young dreams. The tall gebbia where emerald frogs thrived, uncaring and mindless, where the girl liked to play, mildly aware of some obscure evil lurking underneath.  

    Perhaps only regret.

~Toti OBrien

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