Excerpt translated by Tess Lewis
Anna Maria had trouble making out the child’s silhouette. A dense twilight reigned in the room with its single window and her eyes had lost the keen-sightedness of their youth. Crouching at the foot of the stairs to the upper floor, Pierino had lined up on one of the steps a row of empty snail shells, bleached by the rain, he’d gathered from holes in the walls. As so often, he kept himself entertained with his only toy, a Lilliputian wooden top, muttering unintelligible phrases all the while. The scapulary she had hung around his neck dangled outside his camisole and brushed his bare feet with every movement. There were no more embers in the fireplace, but the scent of grilled chestnuts from the night before still hung in the air. A handful of the chestnuts were on the table, saved for breakfast; but first the child had to milk the goat, a white stallina that was his favourite companion. Anna Maria didn’t send the boy to school regularly, discouraged as she was by his accounts of the miseries inflicted on him by Vittoria’s grandchildren, who had been raised by their grandmother not to allow a moment of peace to any descendants of the woman she called the vile one. In any case, poor maestro Giulietti spent most of his time trying to keep control of his herd, as unruly as it was protean, in the square room of the dilapidated house overhanging the church, where all the tusui of the three villages higher up the mountain gathered. He never managed to teach them more than the very minimum of Italian and arithmetic. They left school knowing how to write their names, wasn’t that enough? At playtime, the aggrieved teacher sought consolation with the instructor appointed to the girls, la signorina Venzi, a desiccated, weather-beaten spinster who had gone to seed in a small town in the lowlands. She was boarding in one of the villages below and took pleasure in humiliating her colleague by enumerating her coercive methods and the success they had brought her, before stressing the racket made by the male element in the school, who occupied the room above hers. The teacher barely noticed whether Pierino, or any one else for that matter, was present.