Pande.Me | Reading time approx. 21 min.


Viola Casciaro / Oluwafemi Erhun 23.06.2023

Even in the wind one could feel the mugginess. The sweaty bodies made the shirts wet and sticky. Not even the air broken by the stolen motorbike could cool them down. It remained oppressive. In all that drought and yellow they were dying of heat, but Gaia was running fast, on the curves almost touching the asphalt, and every time Francesca saw a pothole or a wall, possibly the same ones on which a motorcycle and a body had smashed, she closed her eyes and held them tight.

They usually left their bikes in the stone house where kids and adults would go to stick syringes in their veins, swallow pills or snort stuff. Or where they would go to touch each other. They turned offshore. Gaia had decided to hide the motorbike farther away among some dry brambles that just looking at them might have caught fire, and with them everything. It had not been easy to hide it since it was big and heavy. But the muscles of the two girls were always ready for effort and work. Later, the shoes in their hands and the hard, strong feet on the spiky rocks, every step knew by heart, the movements automatic, imprinted in the memory of each of them. Thus, the two figures moved between the rocks, their wide, powerful hands clasped to a rock, their calves outstretched to give thrust to the whole body moving between the rocks naturally. Arrived where they wanted to be, a small space of strangely smooth, flat rocks, Francesca watched with her knees clutched to her chin as Gaia undressed and let her old, laddered T-shirt fall to the ground.

"Come on, move."

The rocks near the shore were so sharp that every time they made so many little holes under your feet, but as soon as you put them in the water a lot of fish, tiny little ones, would come and tickle them. The cold, salty water made you forget about the sore soles of your feet even though then on the rocks on the opposite shore where the water came in and seaweed formed you would make new ones. The two of them were so hot that touching the cold water made them shiver. Francesca took time to wet her belly and neck, while Gaia, capable of running even in the water, was already swimming with big strokes. A pleasant air was coming in from the sea, and in that blue they could finally breathe again.

When she had cooled off enough, Francesca would jump in like a child at dead weight, and stay underwater still with her eyes open, only to come up again when she would run out of air. As a child she had been sure that she could know how to breathe, in tiny breaths, with her nose underwater. Actually, even now she did, breathing in tiny breaths underwater, and in fact the water in her nose did not enter her. It was one of the sensations she loved most, silent and calm. It was the only place where she did not feel the mugginess and where she felt like she was breathing. But in the end, she always had to climb back up.

On the flat side of the rocks, Gaia would shake her head to get the water off. Then she would rub her hair with the towel and look at her, immediately tying her short, black hair into a low scowl that she always kept. Francesca hated that waiting moment when they both lay on their backs and leaned their elbows on the rocks to dry in the sun. She became part of the rock. She would petrify and burn waiting. It had happened several times before, but she was still always afraid of rejection. And while she was thinking this, Gaia's face was already on her shoulder, her gaze was getting closer, and Francesca felt like the happiest person in that far corner of southern Italy.

Francesca sat at the Sunday family lunch table, her eyes fixed on the hot croquettes fresh out of the kitchen, thinking that they were the only thing that put her in a good mood in that house. Perhaps not even those, knowing that her grandmother had been baking croquettes for the family for a lifetime, setting foot outside the house only to buy the necessities to cook them. She stood motionless and spellbound as men sat on plastic chairs and women of all ages, after setting the table, hurried back and forth to carry food from the kitchen to the terrace. They were hot with fatigue, strands of sweaty hair, tied up with large clothe-spins bought on sale at the supermarket, falling over their faces. The foundation had melted and eyeliner formed a stain that accentuated the dark circles under their eyes. In the kitchen choked with steam and out in the mugginess, they were undoing their hair and tying it up again and again, trying to wipe the sweat off their faces with their hands. Bored children would remove soil from old pots with the same plants in them for years and then be smacked. Francesca was not moving, completely covered in sweat. She did not know how she was not suffocating, how it was possible that in the midst of that mugginess there was enough air to keep her alive. Making a minimal movement, she brought her hand close to her mouth and with the tip of her tongue began to touch the back of her hand to feel the salt of the sea.

"Vanessa! Giulia! Francesca! Help Grandma!" Her cousins mechanically stood up, but she remained impassive with her eyes on the croquettes, so her uncle had to repeat the sentence in a louder and louder voice. It was funny, those failures either didn't say a word, or shouted.

After a while, that voice becoming too annoying for her, she slowly turned her gaze, still fixed and impassive, toward the seat at the head of the table where he sat. A human obstruction, all sweaty. A bug to squash, wearing a white tank top and a tattoo of a blue dolphin on his right arm, the few black hairs on his skull forming five separate greasy lines with gel. All she would have liked was to take that spiky, irritating insect head and slam it on the table until it was no longer able to make a sound. Thinking about this all she saw was his red face that she wanted to destroy, and as that sound in the background had become unbearable, she gathered what little energy the sultry heat gave her to say, "If you're in a hurry to shove these croquettes down your throat, then get your shitty ass up and help Grandma or shut the fuck up." What came next Francesca did not listen to him and see because she resumed looking at the kibble. Thinking that they were probably getting cold, she began to eat them. So did her father, who scrambled in front of her and stopped smoking his cigarette-he always smoked it very slowly-and began chewing calmly, looking not at the croquettes but at the sauce with the meatballs that had meanwhile been brought to the table by one of his nieces.
"Jesus, please deliver her from the madness and forgive her. It's not the child's fault. It's not the child's fault." So she heard Grandma Lucia pray every night after cooking the croquettes, kneeling before the wooden crucifix given to her by her son. For Francesca, the sound of her grandmother's slippers clattering noisily down the empty, silent hallway was the sound of unhappiness.

The sun burned the limestone slabs of the small terraced roof, and the white pillowcases hanging from the hot wires had dried quickly. The rays were setting things on fire, and from there Gaia could see the neighbours' houses, filled with other miseries and deprivations. More rooftops with more white linen hung by other unhappy women. In the center of the village, she looked at the church, visible from every corner of the town. Only from the sea was it not visible, but if the inhabitants were there, its effects could still be felt. In the minds, in the spaces, in the air. Gaia could not wonder how it was elsewhere. Neither could Francesca. For them only that place existed, at most those reachable by moped or bicycle. Everything started from that center. Who had power and who did not. Who was free and who was not. But who was free? That center crushed and warped him as it pleased. It had always been present in the lives of everyone they knew. And not just for that couple of hours on Sunday. It was the central point, determining every aspect of their failed lives. From there the rules branched out. The rules and the boundaries, there was no alternative. That's why the country hated those two girls.

Gaia looked straight at that center point and, finished smoking her cigarette, spat downstairs.

They were running on the motorcycle Gaia had stolen from her neighbour. He had discovered it and beaten her, but the next day, with a split forehead, she had stolen it again, and now she and Francesca were running on it. It was dark, a darkness that Gaia loved. It seemed to her that soft blackness concealed everything. There was a blue kiosk near the sea, situated on the asphalt before the sharp rocks began, first grey and then darker and darker, almost black at the end. Parents turned the corner to snort drugs, people with grey faces even though it was August.

Once at the kiosk, Gaia immediately headed towards her aunt. Like every evening Rosetta sat in a chair of her own, her gaze fixed on an indefinite point. As a young girl she had been the most beautiful girl in the village. Her hair, according to legend, had been remarkably straight, long and blond. In her honour, the restaurant above the kiosk had been named The Little Mermaid. "She had tried to commit suicide for love," was the phrase spoken with enchantment. "She swallowed a bottle of detergent and that's why she lost her sight and her mind." Now, that big woman sat every day before that sea like an old untouchable myth. She was full of gold, the fingers of her long-nailed hands, full of old aged gold rings, always handed you a red Malboro. She wore long dresses and her grey hair still fell long and straight down her back.

Gaia gave her aunt, now old and forgotten, a kiss on the cheek. Accepting the two cigarettes, they allowed themselves to be lulled by her raspy, deep voice. They looked at the reflection of the moon on the sea. The moon shone bright and huge above them, but no one had the lightness in their chest to look at it. An outsider would have said it was the most beautiful view ever seen.

Now Gaia asked Francesca, "Shall we go for a walk on the rocks?" Even in total darkness, they walked on the rocks barefoot guided by body memory. They started kissing and hugging each other. Anybody could have caught them in that moment of intimacy, but Francesca didn't cared. The only gaze she could feel was the one of Rosetta. She could see her inhaling at the top of her lungs and slowly exhaling the cigarette smoke, her eyes becoming alive again after ages, while watching the two girls among the rocks.

Now that she thought about it, Francesca had never stopped to look at the moon or the sky. Those were tourist things. As a child, she had once tried it and had felt so crushed by their weight that she had never dared again. Now she looked ahead and saw Gaia's body advancing between the rocks, and she found herself automatically raising her head: at the sight of all that blackness she loved so much and that enormous splendour, for a very brief moment her mind was shot through with thoughts of what it would be like to be elsewhere.

This short story is a result from the digital writing and illustrating workshop Pande.Me. It was written by Viola Casciaro and illustrated by Oluwafemi Erhun,