Absent. Present.

Maria Teresa Cusumano
 
Absent. Present.
The white light of the midday sun competes with the shade of the firs, where floral fluff pokes through the green in gentle swirls.
One metre from the wooden outpost on the mountain edge lies a sea of dwarf pines. On the horizon, mountain peaks are arranged in a circle, immobile under the white stasis of the blazing sun.
The rustle of the turning pages is almost imperceptible, as are the thoughts that rest upon the words and gauge in them that same fragility, under the padded presence of unfathomable architectural spaces and voids, which remain suspended in mid-air.
‘It was here that she told me about your arrival. She had arranged everything meticulously, with close attention to detail. She said a long weekend in the mountains was just what we needed before I went abroad again on that last humanitarian mission.’
I watch you closely as you listen to me under the shade of that white curtain, books resting on your laps, which are as small as you, at fifteen, are young. The books are as big - as enormous - as our loss.
The silence is enough to give shape to your pain here, a few metres away from the still waters of the infinity pool. You watch me and I feel at a loss for words, yet still I have a need, an urge to speak.
‘We miss her so much, too much’ you say, and I nod, but I add that we only miss her so much because she was such an anchor in our lives: a ceaseless giver of life, a limitless love that stays within us and never dies.
‘She always said that she had grown up in these mountains and that here she would stay forever. She would say that the mountains contain our spirit and put us in touch with the universe. That’s why she tried to bring you up here as much as possible, so that you might learn the sounds and colours of nature in these valleys. And that you would grow up feeling part of a perpetually recurring whole.’
I keep talking to make you smile, regaling with you many anecdotes of that long-ago announcement. I tell you about the treasure hunt amidst the pines, the clues scattered about on the scraps of paper that I still have at home. I tell you about the joyful astonishment I felt upon learning that there would be two of you. For when I reached the end of the trail, which had led to our bedroom with its view of the peaks, I discovered two tiny pairs of baby slippers on the pillow.
I tell you how the rest of the holiday was at once unsettling and exciting, and how I had been overcome by an urgent need to extricate myself from that last transfer abroad, but your mother had been adamant: she said I should uphold my commitment, and should go for no less time than I had promised.
‘Because that’s what your mother was like: a woman who felt injustice keenly. Steadfast in her resolutions and prepared to demand of others that they be likewise in theirs. Her exact words were that we wouldn’t be deserving of the joy that you would bring us if we hadn’t fulfilled our duty to others. It was my duty to make that trip, she would take care of everything over the following months, and when I got back we would still have plenty of time to think about the room, the necessary furniture and everything else besides.’
We laugh to remember how sweetly authoritarian she could be with things: herself, work, you two, your studies, the house, the myriad of things that had to be taken care of. We recognise how the rhythms she impressed upon us continue to support us, how they give us a framework in this unstructured time.
As you get to your feet, implored by friends to have lunch with them, I have the definite sense that this talk has done you good, that it has revived you after those difficult first hours following our arrival here, as a group of three instead of four. And so I don’t mind staying here alone to read and to think and, somehow, to seek her in the silence.
I remember that which, during our holidays up here, I liked to think of as parentheses of beauty.
Like when I used to study her face whilst she slept on the sofa in our hotel room: I would trace the lines of her face and pray for her not to wake up, because even that detachment from her was necessary geography and one must in the interim become two, if one is to survive over time.
Like when the clear light of morning - glowing orange through the curtains - would flood the room and saying good morning to each other felt like a blessing.
My thoughts fly black to that summer of the announcement, and to the pages of the diary that I came across at the bottom of one of her drawers. “[. . .] I love that unsheltered darkness that cloaks this mountain refuge in stars. You laugh and I laugh too and we say that we can’t believe it. And at times we are still surprised to hear the same voice in the same wind. Because we have searched in all corners of the globe for a voice that would sweep ours along with it. And now the promise of this voice is about to become a reality.”
I think that some day I will bequeath that diary to you, and that it will be a wonderful legacy for you.
I think about myself, about all the people I’ve cared for and healed whilst I was able to do nothing for her, and I feel that I will never fully come to terms with that fact.
Just as I don’t know whether, beyond what I can and have to say in these days, it will really be of any comfort to me to think of what she called the “thousand metaphors of life embodied by the mountain, with its peaks and troughs, leading us away from and back to the valleys of our existence.”
I think again of you and of what will be a continuous oscillation of victories and defeats in your life; of battles fought for good and for ill. And I pray that these roots, her roots, serve you well in those fights.
It is late evening by the time we meet again at the dinner table: I look at your tanned and ruddied faces. You tell me about the games you played this afternoon, and the hike you’ve decided to do tomorrow. You explain it all to me, the route, the change in altitude, the time it will take to complete and you are adamant that yes, this is exactly what we need right now: ‘We need to summit a mountain.’
The dishes arrive, and the room is filled with warmth and life.
The serene humanity of those conversations, affectionate and mellow, wafts up towards the sky, amid the smell of the food and the heat of the woodfire. And little by little, the almost imperceptible rituals of dining make their presence felt.
It’s difficult now for me to imagine how we will resume our lives back down in the valley, what will drive us.
Up here, where the striking of the hours on the slopes is silent, and it almost seems as if time weren’t passing at all, that is a distant thought.
Tomorrow, once we have reached the peak, I’ll have only thought in my head: to seek out the voices.
The voices carried by the mountain wind over the peaks that man consecrates to the Lord, with the burnished iron crosses engraved against the blue of the sky.
Among those voices will be hers.

Translation by Rosanna Forte
 
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