By Monica Strina
Giorgio saw the ad in the paper on Friday morning. He followed the words with his index finger, slowly, mouthing them under his breath before he read each of them out loud. Then he spent the rest of the day repeating them in a whisper, pacing up and down the kitchen trying to fit the entirety of each foot within a tile. Take a deep breath, his mother said, you’re as good as everybody else.
On Saturday morning he washed, paying special attention to the backs of his ears, got dressed, then pinned the empty left sleeve of his shirt just below his shoulder, folding the chequered fabric over his stump. He combed his hair with some water, parting it in the middle where it was greying, and gave his second-hand shoes a bit of a shine with a cloth and a drop of milk. Not owning an aftershave, he applied his mother’s perfume on his neck and wrists, a floral concoction that made him sneeze repeatedly. Then he crossed Quartu Sant’Elena on foot, jumping out of the way of a bucketful of water hurled onto the path by a brush-wielding woman and avoiding dog excrement, cracks on the paths and fresh chewing gum. At the Chaplin Café he had an espresso and a custard croissant for a total of €1.50, sitting at the usual table.
“I know, I know,” he whispered, “but that’s what the ad says, mamma. Listen.” In the tiny courtyard, he read aloud the ad he could by then visualize with his eyes closed. At 10:30 he rolled up the paper, paid the bill, and walked, slowly, to the address mentioned in the ad, which turned out to be an old house overlooking the cemetery wall.
The woman who opened the door was absurdly short. The steel curls on her head put Giorgio in mind of sea waves folding over on themselves, their white foam touching their roots; her fingers, though – they looked like nodous tree branches, their bark twisted and splitting in several places, so coarse it might scratch you.
“I don’t want to buy anything,” she declared, swinging the door towards his face.
“I-I’m here about the ad.” He pulled out the paper, squeezed it in his hand.
“Please.” He held the door, held the paper, held her eyes, though they were so heavy they had forced the skin underneath them into meaty folds. “Please, this is the address. It s-says … it says limbs available. Free of charge if you come to collect them. I lost … I–” The paper was trembling in his hand, growing limp with the sweat of his palm.
“Oh. Come on in, then.” She turned around and ambled into the house, but he stood before the step, looking at the plastic water bottles guarding the threshold against cat pee; noticing the chipped wood of the front door and the cracked tiles on the hall floor. Well? said his mother. His missing arm itched as he took a step forward, then another one. The smells of coffee and moldy plaster pushed him past a sideboard bearing doilies on which stood dusty frames with photographs of faded faces, black-and-white clothes, once-children. Covered with a bobbly orange jumper, the woman’s rounded back was bent on the gas hob where a caffettiera was gurgling on the flame.
“Sit down,” said the woman, using the formal, third-person form: “Si sieda.”
He was glad he had been told, not asked. The paper lay on his lap. Under his palm, the plastic tablecloth felt cold and oily. Paintings looked down at him from three of the four walls, unframed, their canvasses yellowing at the corners, all of them depicting hands and feet floating in the sky, in water, in lava; arms and legs entwined; knees rolling down hills; elbows lined up like pins on a bowling lane; fingers and toes playing the keys of a piano with no beginning and no end.
“L-limbs,” he whispered. The paper fell off his lap and into a bowl half-filled with cat food. He pushed against the table to get up, but as he did so the woman slammed a tray onto the tablecloth, two mismatched coffee cups jumping up from their saucers, tongs falling off the sugar bowl to reveal angels’ heads engraved on their silver tips. Without asking, she dropped one bright-white sugar cube into his coffee and handed it to him.
“Where’s your arm?”
Giorgio looked down at the space throbbing below his pinned-up sleeve. “Meningitis. I was eight. The doctor who cut my arm—he said the infection took a little bit of my brain, too.”
Even sweetened, her coffee was vicious, and he burnt his tongue on it. He drank it to the rhythm of the dripping tap, looking at the freckles of paint on the woman’s splintered nails. The light that filtered through the unwashed window panes led his eyes to the cupboard doors hanging askew; to the pile of clothes on top of the washing machine and the dark stain on the ceiling.
“Yes. Well. The bathtub,” she muttered, following his gaze.
He got up and carried his cup and saucer to the sink, where he did not pile them on top of the dirty dishes but washed them and placed them upside-down on the drying rack. It was after turning off the tap that he again noticed the dripping.
With his legs poking out from under the sink, he asked, “You have a toolbox? I will just be a minute. If you d-don’t mind.”
“I certainly do,” said the woman, “have one, I mean. But you’ll have to look for it.”
He found it in the room where she was now working at an easel. It was on the floor, behind one of the canvases that leaned against the walls all around her. After the sink, he went upstairs to have a look at the bath. Twisted clothes and towels were strewn along the corridor, and from the bathroom window he could see the walled-up niches that enclosed the coffins in the cemetery, the shards of glass cemented on top of the walls that encircled it.
He sat on the edge of the bathtub, looked at the absence of his arm, and remembered his mother teaching him to tie his shoelaces with one hand and his teeth; cutting his fingernails as he cried.
“Burnt umber!” the woman shouted from downstairs. When he entered the room, she was furiously tipping the contents of a large box onto the floor.
“The colour! Burnt umber. Where is it?” Her hands threw aside tubes of paint, spatulas, pots of turpentine and linseed oil.
“Oh.” He squinted at the labels. “W-what’s it like?”
She huffed. “Coffee. Earth.”
He picked up the discarded tubes one by one till he found it. She snatched it from his hand, and as she resumed her work on a forest of hands and feet he found some superglue in the wardrobe that stood behind the door, and a tub of white paint with a roll.
It was dark when he heard the woman pad towards the kitchen. The stale bread that had been in the cupboard lay, fried, on a plate he had plucked up from the sink, washed, and dried. Three types of leftover pasta were mixed in a bowl with a tomato sauce from a can he had found under the kitchen island while sweeping the floor.
“Something’s missing,” the woman frowned on the threshold.
“There was no parmesan to grate on the pasta. I–”
“Not from the food.” She toured the kitchen suspiciously, stopped before the sink. “Ah. The tap’s shut up.”
At the table they faced each other. There were circular rag marks on the plastic tablecloth. Giorgio took note of the flickering lightbulb, the lame table.
“I can see my son,” her voice came low, rough as sandpaper, “from the bathroom window. He’s down there … well, what limbs they could find. What’s the matter with you?”
“My mum isn’t there,” he said, looking at his overgrown fingernails. “She’s in the sea. She said that soles and turbots were going to hide under her ashes. And I t-think, maybe I should go too. Maybe I can climb the D-devil’s Saddle and… the Mistral wind’s strong up there.”
“The tiles aren’t fixed yet, and I’m pretty sure I saw black mold in the bathroom,” she said. “There is a cat napping in the second bedroom, too. You’ll want to put him in his place, unless you plan to sleep on the floor.”
Monica Strina hails from Sardinia, Italy, but went to Ireland as a student and decided to stay. Her work has been published on journals such as Adelaide Literary Magazine, TQR Stories, An Sionnach and The Bunbury, and has received several mentions of honour by Glimmer Train Press. Her story “The Fisherman,” published in Spontaneity, won the Lonely Voice award in the Irish Writers Centre in 2010. Monica is working at a collection of stories.