The boy in the tree house, he knew a different Marta, the one I wanted to be. But that’s not the girl my parents drove away in their old Fiat Uno, beside a brother whose silence she interpreted as carelessness, wondering not whether he, too, hurt. The girl who kept her eyes on the tree house, on the legs of three boys almost as dark as the bark of the old oak, was the quivering, worthless creature she saw herself as; a girl who would go through school thinking as little as she could, find a soul-murdering job, and end up like the unfortunate soldier in the ‘Samarcanda’ song, who runs away from Death only to discover the place he has chosen to seek refuge is where Death had been expecting him all along.
I threw my backpack on the tarmac that had replaced the grass beside what had once been my house, and sucked in damp air. Though I had traveled on a plane I felt as though I had sea legs, and my breath hurt my throat and nostrils. The buzzing of bumble bees in those daisies perfumed with earth and the sweetness of summer and dog pee; a car tearing a little girl away from something that was important only in her eyes.
My biggest fear was that the oak might have been cut down, but even as my eyes reassured me of its continued existence it took me a while to allow them to focus. By God, it was there and it was the same—I had stretchmarks on my ass, more than a few grey hairs, wrinkles starting to dig into the tender skin around my eyes and mouth, but the oak had only grown taller, hairier. It had grown more beautiful as I withered. Cradled in its arms, the tree house showed signs of decay. My house. I forgot about my backpack and ran to it, my knees pulling my feet out of the tall grass, a nettle bush grazing my left ankle with fire fingers. The branches had lengthened, stretching towards me in silent invitation. The old ladder greeted me and I felt each year passed since I had last touched it as a waste. Grief at what I had lost was all the more intense as time is irretrievable—only human stupidity could allow us to feel pain for it. I touched the raw rungs, ran my hands on the splintered wood and placed them, side by side, on a rusty stain which, I was sure, was Mirko’s bloody handprint from the day I had struck his head with a rock.
Pulling myself up I felt all the heaviness of my adult body—surplus cells I had not needed when I had been at my happiest, in the embrace of the oak’s arms. The wooden boards creaked under my runners and a spider scuttered away on the top-left corner of the entrance, leaving a grisly booty of mummified flies and moths. Some of them could still wiggle a leg, a wing, weakly; I broke the web with my fingers and set them free, but seeing them writhe on the floor, trying to reclaim their lives, I wondered whether freedom, at such an advanced stage of incarceration, is not just cruelty. Especially when you haven’t earned it yourself.
I touched everything: the rotting boards that formed the ceiling, the nails that were being pushed out by the rebellious wood, the oak branches that held up the house, the thick grey dust on the benches and window sills. Filippo’s galaxy had expanded onto three walls, but was now so faded I could only make out a Martian or two, their frog-like eyes standing on their head in what had been brilliant green paint. Under a bench, the treasure box was wrapped in silk curtains of spiderwebs laden with dust. My eyes had been searching for it, knowing they wouldn’t find it, eager to drive home to me that this was not my childhood, that such time was too far to matter now, but when I saw it my legs disappeared. The floor hit me, pushed out all the air from my lungs, painting me with a bruise I would cherish. It seemed the only way Marta Senni understood things was by having them hurt her.
I sat up then, pushed myself on my hands and bottom until I reached the spot where Mirko and I had hidden our letter, in a tight space between two boards nailed on top of each other above the window, and ran my hand there. I cried, whether for the child I had been or the adult I had become I knew not. But I didn’t take the letter. I waited.