“How did you get that lovely shiner on your cheekbone?”
“Mind your own business.” I slapped his hand away from my face, but he grabbed my fingers and held them away with his left, while with his right he tilted my head towards the light.
“Look, I’ve got some arnica at home. I’ll go get it,” he said softly.
“Don’t bother. It’s not worth it.”
“You’re not worth it?”
“That’s not what I said.”
“No?” he retorted, then turned around and climbed down the ladder, as silent as a snake. I squeezed all the blood out of a strawberry, let it run through my fingers and down to my elbow. My ass felt like it was shaping itself to the wooden planks, but I didn’t feel like moving. I don’t think I had since Filippo had left in the morning. I drank lemon iced tea from a bottle Will had carried up together with the strawberries and watched the symptoms of the evening spread through the sky. Like wrinkles, like varicose veins, like gray hair.
The ladder creaked and Will reappeared, a small box in his hand. He ordered me to keep still and applied something oily onto my cheekbone with fingers so light I might have dreamed their touch.
“What’s wrong with Filippo?” I asked when he had finished and wiped his hands in an actual fabric handkerchief. I had not seen one of those since the last one my grandmother had made had unravelled.
“Oh, I see,” he said.
“What?” I still felt my teeth bloodied, my fingers sticky.
“That’s how you see the world. If someone isn’t as pretty and sleek as you are, there must be something wrong with them.”
I laughed. It hurt. I felt like the dirt under someone’s nails.
“This just makes me miss Mirko even more. The way he knew me … and you don’t. At all.”
“Oh! And whose fault is that?”
“You never tried.”
“But you did?”
There was silence after that. A long quiet moment before the crickets started serenading the oncoming darkness between each blade of grass, and I wished I had night vision to pick out each one of them as it played its music, but then the thought of seeing troops of dark, untinking insects made me shiver.
Filippo came back that night, and the one after that. Each time he lay beside me, timidly pulling at my blanket, falling asleep before me so that his head rested on my shoulder, my thigh, the hollow of my arm. Then he started appearing at different times, at first withdrawn like a kitten courted out of a hole, then less circumspect as he found the paints and brushes I asked Will to bring up, and, focusing on the walls of the tree house, let drop at first a few words and then, when the colours of his ancient constellations reacquired brilliancy, whole, though hesitating, sentences. In them Mirko was the young god I had known, building the tree house with his father, bare-chested and invincible. He was the comforter, the protector I had missed when sadness had been so embedded in my existence as to turn into normality.
“He would say your name,” Filippo told me one day. I had returned, my hair still wet, from taking a shower in the house, where I had resisted the temptation to search for Mirko’s room, out of fear rather than respect. I ruined the feeling of cleanness I felt by sweating as my mind translated those words into images. My shoulders started hurting.
“He would say it at least once a year. I noticed, you know.” Filippo picked at my Communion bracelet, still loose on his wrist. “It made me feel better. Like you were … close.”
I placed the heel of my hand on the ache at the centre of my chest. It seemed to me that even that pain represented Mirko—his touch, cold and sore from where he had gone.
“Would you tell me about what I missed, Filippo?”
He put both his hands flat on the floor, and I thought I could hear minuscule tears open in his delicate palms.
“You just missed years. You missed nothing of who he was.”
And so in the smell of paint, in the heat of summer days that teased me with their endlessness which so closely mimicked my childhood, and suddenly like childhood betrayed me into darkness, I started moving. There were planks to be replaced, missing nails, dirt accumulated in the corners, some rungs of the ladder were askew and needed fixing. There were flaccid muscles in my arms and legs to be awoken, and sunrises that had to be witnessed. I remember, now, how it felt to become strong, as though my body could not be sated, as though it could always take more. Years of sitting on an office chair and curling up on a bed seemed to have created an enormous hole that could only be filled with physicality. The pain from it was blissful, each muscle wholesomely pulling, lighting up with a fluorescent ache.