Some things we leave behind have a voice, and they keep calling. There was a time when I walked looking back, so I hit my face hard enough to bleed. But the fear had a hold of me, and there was a man. My jumpers were in his wardrobe, my books on his shelves. When he took the decision for me, I boarded a plane and let my pride sear my chest as each mile I travelled toward my birthplace told of what a mistake each mile I had travelled away had been.
As an old woman, I continue having chocolate cake for breakfast and climbing up trees. In the dark, my bedroom is still infested by witches, vampires and knife-wielding murderers waiting behind the door. I suppose I would miss them if they left now. Memories of my childhood are closer to me these days, and at times I feel I could place my hands on that little girl’s shoulders and turn her, gently, to the right direction, now that I know—yet my fingers brush the air near her dark skin, forever falling short. Nearly seventy years ago, that child found what she needed on a tree house embraced by the muscular arms of an oak.
It was summer. Through the previous winter she had watched three boys climb up on it every afternoon, and for each step they had taken up the ladder she had thought of a reason why she was unworthy of such honour.
On the third of June, the last day of school, I went to my room to change out of my pinafore—the most hated piece of clothing I owned, together with two doll-like dresses picked by my mother—and looked out of my bedroom window. They were climbing up again: the youngest two still in their pinafores; the oldest, who was already in middle school, wearing a black Ghost Busters T-shirt and white tennis shorts. I jumped out of the window onto the lawn, climbed over the fence that separated our houses, picked up a stone and threw it at Mirko, the oldest boy. It struck the back of his skull as he held onto the ladder. I heard the sound it made. I saw the boy touch his head with his right hand; saw his fingers redden.
“What the fuck are you doing, you little weirdo!” yelled the middle one looking down from the tree house. William was eleven, like me, and in the school corridors pretended I was a bad smell or a slice of fried liver.
Filippo, the youngest, stared at me as though he could not swallow, his mouth open on two missing front teeth.
Mirko climbed back down, his right hand leaving bloody fingerprints on the ladder. He did it slowly, setting his feet heavily on each rung. His thirteen-year-old legs had outgrown the rest of his body, giving him the appearance of a heron. I moved a step back and flinched as he walked toward me, but did not consider running away. If I had, I could never have entered the tree house, and right then that was the most important thing in my life.
He halted and extended his bloodied hand, palm out. I looked at it and shrugged. Then he took another step. I blinked, but he seized my hand and shook it. I felt his blood on me, just as his brother would one day, though that was still nothing to us.
"Wanna come up?" Mirko asked. There were a few large pimples on his forehead, something still unknown to my skin, and it was there I looked instead of into his amber eyes when I said yes. Yet climbing up that ladder and stepping onto the tree house did not make me as happy as I had been sure it would: I was thinking of the time when I would lose that privilege; I was afraid of it being a disappointment, so I closed my eyes and felt as though I was falling backwards, out of the entrance, all the way to the hard ground.
“What did you bring her up here for? Everyone knows she’s not right in the head,” said William, blocking my way.
“What about him, then?” I pointed at their cousin with my chin. “With a whore as a mother?” As I said it, I saw Filippo’s shoulders close down on his chest like wings mounted the wrong way around. I saw it because I knew what it felt like.
“Be careful,” warned Mirko, but stood beside me until William scoffed and turned away, moving into the farthest corner of the room where he took to sharpening a stick with a penknife.
“How are you going to pay your way in?” Mirko asked me.
“Oh come on! No girls!” shouted William from his corner.
“How are you going to pay?” said Mirko.