Once upon a time there were nine

Emanuele Quindici
Once upon a time there were nine
It’s midday on Good Friday and I’m in the town square of Monte S. Salvo, in the Campanian Apennines. Urban reconstruction has given new, anonymous faces to all the buildings that have been renovated since the earthquake of 1980, and yet you can still see the remnants of the old ruins, abandoned for eternity. I was five when we moved to Turin. For a while after Mum and Dad left, we would go back to the village every summer and every Christmas; later we went only for the occasional visit; and eventually we stopped going at all. After all, my brother and I had grown up at odds with our life before the earthquake: Mum and Dad always told us not to talk about where we were from, not to use dialect; not to mention the earthquake at all. The grief that had come with loss, the shame of emigration, those were grown-up things. This story, though, begins with a move.
Moving forces you to settle all those little accounts you had lost track of, and to open others, accounts you will be aware of having opened only later. There are the objects lost behind furniture too big to move, the others that simply disappear into that vague territory accessible only to our memories, on the top shelves of wardrobes, into boxes whose contents, over time, become less and less clear. This contrived biographical inventory is, for better or for worse, par for the course when you move house. It’s part of the road that winds between the sweet pleasure of reconnecting with some things, and the process of emotionally detaching from others. In other words, between the sentimental value of those things which have matured sufficiently with time to merit the label of antique, and the indifference with which some objects are tossed aside onto the pile marked old.
And so, as I was holding my old schoolbook from the third year of primary school, a scrap of paper fluttered from its pages, bearing scribbles in my handwriting. On it I had copied out a nursery rhyme. It was one my grandmother used to sing to me, half in her coarse mountain dialect, half in Italian,because we children were to grow up speaking properly now that we had moved away. The scrap of paper was torn, meaning that the nursery rhyme began with the second verse:

“Once upon a time there were two
Who hid behind an ox for the thrills,
When the ox turned round, to see what was new
They both of them ran for the hills.”

The little scrap of paper had appeared from between the pages of the book like a genie emerging from an old lamp that has lain discarded for centuries. Little by little, the nursery rhyme emerged from that chapter of my memory where my childhood memories were stored, folded up and tucked away for many long years. One verse at a time, the nursery rhyme took shape:

“Once upon a time there were six
Who counted their moles with some picks,
He who had most, knew what he must do
And dyed every one of them blue.”

One by one the verses came back to me, and I noticed how the nonsensical was interwoven with the more savage: the cat that scratched the four who pulled its tail, the old hag who caned the five who stuck their tongues out at her. And the dog that ate the biscuit, over which the eight had been squabbling, was no sweet little puppy, but an ugly black dog. The mischief of those little rogues, whose number increased with each verse, was met each time with inexorable punishment. Old age is ugly, black invokes fear: because life isn’t all sweetness and light and at one time not even children were spared that fact.
Over the course of three days I was able to reconstruct nine of the ten verses. The final verse in particular filled me with a strange sense of unease:
“Once upon a time there were ten
Who sat counting beans in a heap,
They got to a hundred, then cried amen
And promptly fell soundly asleep.”

I could just picture it - the ten kids overcome by sleep, perhaps from exhaustion or maybe as the result of some evil curse - and this scene of lethargy, coming right at the end of the nursery rhyme as it did, made me uncomfortable. It even reminded me implicitly of death, the idea of each one counting out his own days to their end. But I went completely blank each time I tried to get even the slightest foothold on the ninth verse. “Once upon a time there were nine . . .” I would begin, but I could never get further than that.

I was in the new house by this point and would have forgotten about the nursery rhyme entirely, had I not still had that little scrap of paper tucked in my wallet, and every time I had cause to recollect the nursery rhyme, or the number nine, the provocation of that missing verse would return, like the niggling irritation of a splinter lodged in your finger for days. I decided to get in touch with someone from my parents’ village (since my brother had only a very faint memory of our grandmother), but only a couple of names sprang to mind. It was my cousin, Enza, who responded in the end.
And so here I am, waiting for her at the bar in the square. Hearing the voices from the village again, I am aware of the old feelings that the sound of the dialect stirs in me. The words fit somehow, they are familiar echoes in the architecture of my auditory memory. For years I had heard them: firstly from everyone in the village, then from my grandmother and my parents, and eventually just from Mum and Dad. Eventually, only traces of them remained in my memory, and even they grew sparse over the years. Now I can close my eyes and listen, sitting at the little table in a bar in Monte S. Slavo, as I wait for Enza. She’s coming from the laundrette she runs, having closed early today in my honour.

As she drives me back to her house, Enza tells me about the village, about the initial hardship after the earthquake; their gradual recovery; the things that had been lost: houses, streets, people, stories. But the village is a different one at this point: I observe the alleyways and the little squares. Some of them seem familiar but perhaps I’m mistaken, and yet I can feel something coming back to me from the depths of long ago. Enza lives a little outside the main village, in a hamlet with little to distinguish it from all the others. We are about to get out of the car, when, unable to contain myself any longer, I ask her apropos of nothing if she too can remember our grandmother’s nursery rhyme. She doesn’t say anything, and for a moment I think she hasn’t understood. Then with considerable effort she stutters out a few verses and I help her, already knowing all of them by heart. All except one. Does she remember the ninth by any chance, the one I seem to have wiped from my memory? And yes, it turns out she does. With immediate precision, she recites it:

“Once upon a time there were nine
Who cried there’s no-one can shake us,
But then came an earthquake, and all in a line
Cast each one of them into the abyss.”

For a moment, the smile on Enza’s face vanishes. Then she says to me “You know, people are still afraid of that word here . . .”
And finally, I understand. Once she had left the village, my grandmother had erased the earthquake from the nursery rhyme: we children were to forget that day in our family’s history when the mountain had tried to shake us off, to cast each one of us into the abyss. That day was to be eradicated from our existence. And yet so little of who I was, even by that point, could be separated from that earthquake.
I go into the house which – in contrast to mine – is bright and pristine and crammed with ornaments of every variety. I haven’t yet met her husband, Giovanni, but he embraces me warmly; he’s proud of me returning to the village after so many years. They too moved house recently. The whole time she’s showing me round, Enza’s smile never falters.

Translation by Rosanna Forte
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