“Does your mother ever tell you she loves you?” I asked Mirko one day as we dangled our feet down the ladder. I could smell paint as Filippo thickened the Martian population on the boards that surrounded the window.
Mirko blushed and answered looking toward the whitewashed exterior of his house. “Sure. All mums do.”
I was silent.
“My mum says I’m the love of her life,” said Filippo adding antennas to a little green man. Behind us, William sniggered, but the look Mirko gave him was enough to redirect his comment.
“Mushy stuff,” said Will, carving his name on the floor with his knife. “You’re all a bunch of girls.”
“He still calls her mummy,” Mirko whispered to me, and we laughed. Will lifted his head, narrowed his eyes, then went back to the task that had him all bent over like the hunchback of Notre Dame. That was what he seemed to me at times, a monster, with his meanness and a nose and arms that were all out of proportion and stupid skinny legs. Looking at Mirko and his handsome young parents, you’d wonder whether his brother had been adopted. But there was enough space for all of us in the tree house, and as the sky changed colour through the branches – from baby blue to cornflower to yellow and crimson and bruised purple and cobalt—we played pirates and Indiana Jones, ate biscuits and bread with mortadella, bantered, yet could be silent too without feeling uncomfortable, the way I could never be as an adult.
One night as I woke to my father calling my mother fat and making fun of her frizzy hair, I turned my head on my pillow to look at the tree house and saw someone in there. The shouting coming from the living room covered the noise I made jumping out of the window. My feet gathered the dew hidden in the grass and splinters from the ladder as I climbed. The sobs I heard were strong enough to snap the wooden boards, break the bonds between the rungs and the poles that made up the ladder, drive the nails out of the branches. When my eyes came to the level of the floor I saw a dark shape made by two bodies, smelled sweat and tears.
“The fuck’s she doing here?” Will’s voice was grotesque, swollen with tears. Mirko moved away from his brother and the three-quarters of white moon showed me the bruises on the left side of William’s face, his split lip.
“Who?” I asked, holding on to one of the branches that cradled the house, so it would scratch my skin and prove to me I was awake.
“Go away!” he screamed, but Mirko shushed him and came to grab me by the shoulders. His hands were as large as those of a man, gentle and extraordinarily warm.
“Come up early in the morning,” he whispered.
There was hardly any sleep for me that night, despite my parents growing quiet. My eyes kept opening and searching for the tree, willing the sky to light up with the periwinkle tints of early morning, the birds to start chirping on the branches and above the house where my imagination turned them into mythological creatures with tails and talons and horns. I arrived a long time before Mirko’s measured steps made the ladder creak.
“It was this guy at swim club. Patrizio Puddu,” he said to me.
“Maybe Will deserved it?”
“Want to help or not?”
I made a show of sighing. “What is he afraid of?”
"This book I read, 1984. The way the bad guys crack the main character is to use his worst fear against him. What’s Patrizio afraid of? Would Will know?"
It took us days to catch enough spiders. We had bottles full of them, their legs tangled, black as nightmares, the cannibals among them feeding on the smaller ones. I was a climber so Mirko interlaced his fingers and made a step for me. My arms and legs felt warm and strong as though electricity ran through them; my head so clear it was like standing above the crowns of the tallest trees. We ran to a soundtrack of screams coming from a first-floor bedroom, and that night I could not sleep for the happiness and the fear of it.