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The Castle on the Tree by Monica Strina

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 towards 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, for ever falling short. On a summer of 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 my house from theirs, 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 overtaken the rest of his body, giving him the appearance of a heron. I moved a step back and flinched as he walked towards 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 towards me, 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 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 rather than at 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.

            I stuck my hands into the pockets of my shorts and found only dust and the wrapper of a lollipop I regretted eating.

            ‘That.’ With a dirty fingernail, Mirko pointed at the bracelet my parents had given me for my Fist Holy Communion instead of the BMX bycicle for which I had asked. I rolled it out of my hand without undoing the clasp and handed it to him. He placed it inside a small wooden chest which lay hidden underneath one of the two benches nailed to the wooden planks that made up the floor. Then, stooping not to bump his head, he gave me a tour around a room that was larger than I’d imagined and even had a sort of an alcove with cushions strewn on the floor under a glassless window, the wooden planks around it painted with planets, stars and little green men. There sat Filippo, grinding petals with a stick inside an old kitchen-spray bottle half-filled with water.

            ‘I’m making perfume,’ he said looking down.

            There were pots of acrylic paint in a corner, a sling, a handful of plastic Indians and cowboys with a wolf and a bunch of fences but no horses or sheep, a beach bucket filled with acorns and half a packet of Polo mints. Behind me, I could hear William scratching at that stick. The window framed a sky like a painting, so vivid you felt like you might touch a canvas if you leaned out. The call I heard coming from the emptiness out there made my legs weak.

            ‘Swear you won’t ever take anyone up here,’ said Mirko.

            ‘I swear,’ I said placing a hand on my heart and the other up beside my right shoulder, not knowing that one day I would break that promise holding up a baby so he could grab onto the sill.

            From there, if I had looked through the spaces between the planks that made up the walls, I would have seen my house. I did not look. And my mother’s slap, when I told her I’d lost the bracelet, I would barely feel.


Once, when I was about thirty and worked in an office where they paid me well and fed me abundantly, a colleague of mine, a friend I would have called her then, asked me what the happiest time of my life had been. It angered me that she would pry, because I wanted to tell her that time was now, with the man I’d chosen, with my steady job, but the branches of that old oak seemed to be suddenly growing out of my eyes, its roots perforating my chest. I could smell the citronella with which we doused ourselves to repel mosquitoes, could see the saffron light that slanted through the windows in the evening and gently painted our faces, my favourite time of the day and the saddest, for my call home would soon come.

            To that person – as to myself – I chose to lie.

            How many easy joys we lose, when we grow up! I remembered how happy I was when I succeeded in saving four Kinder eggs and climbed up the ladder with my treasure in my backpack, then hid it in the shade until the others arrived so it wouldn’t melt, and waited reading a book – that summer it had been Wuthering Heights, Ivanhoe and The Three Musketeers. They kept me company, but for once they weren’t my only friends.

            I wore bruises only on the inside, yet Mirko seemed to see them and came to sit beside me in silence. Then Filippo arrived and I could tell it was him by his robin steps on the ladder, the way he moved as though his heart beat so quickly it didn’t allow him to be still. He took up the paints and continued his murals, or struggled on his vain attempts at making perfume.

            ‘They lose all their scent in one day,’ he said, desolate.

            The last to come up was Will. He hit the rungs with his soles, and in the tree house hammered nails into the boards, cut or carved something with his knife or forced his little cousin to play marbles with him. He cheated, and if caught didn’t deny it. Even just the memory of the self-satisfied little smile he gave then was enough to annoy me for days.

            ‘Why is he like that?’

            ‘Why do you come up here all by yourself before we’re even awake?’ Mirko asked me.


It isn’t true that people age gradually. I was young until I turned thirty-seven, then several parts of my body organised a rising against me – my back seized, my abs slackened, my hamstrings tightened. Pregnancy sped up the decay, but I suspect that the revolution would have gone ahead in any case. Somewhere in me was a pocket watch like the one the White Rabbit carried around in Alice in Wonderland, and this watch, after moving lazy steps for years, had overnight launched itself into a demented run. Shame, frustration, indignation were no use. When I was young, I considered old age a vice, and carried my smooth skin, my high ass, my shining, thick chestnut hair as one would a medal. Only now do I see how undeserved they were.

            In the tree house, old age was as far as the moon that spied on me through the branches of the oak.

            ‘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 droplets of humidity 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.


My mother used to be beautiful. A lot more than I had any chance of becoming. It was a secret my brother and I had found out on one of the few occasions when we were accomplices. In her knee-length wedding dress, my brother already starting to push against the skin of her belly, she smiled at a camera that would ignore colours yet produce the evidence of a crime. What had happened to her? My father, I guess. Us.

            I was studying that picture the morning after our revenge mission, running my index finger on its zigzag edges, but put it away when Will stomped up the ladder. Behind me, Filippo kept his brush suspended, as though afraid the eartquake of Will’s steps would cause him to disfigure an innocent alien. The bruises around Will’s right eye were darkening into purple, some of them creasing into the frown on his forehead.

            ‘No one asked you and your little boyfriend for anything, you shitty little weirdo,’ he spat. The shadows under his eyes were so dark they could be mistaken for more bruises.

            ‘Mirko says no name-calling,’ chirped Filippo in his thin voice, keeping his gaze down.

            Will’s eyes focused on him and narrowed.

            ‘Guys!’ the voice came from the bottom of the tree, and for once Mirko’s steps were hurried. ‘Hey, Will, you just wait–’

            But there was some kind of infection burning through Will that day, something that wanted to be passed on.

            ‘You,’ he said nailing his thumbs into my wrists, turning them up so the careless sun would silver the scars on my skin, ‘you will never be one of us. You’re an intruder, here, everywhere. And you!’ he said to Filippo, yelling on top of Mirko’s voice which, from the ladder, warned him to stop. ‘You’re only one of the men in your mother’s life, and from what I heard when your old man left, the figure runs double digits …’

            ‘Enough!’ Mirko leaped in and grabbed his brother by the collar of his t-shirt. The physical advantage he had on him – being taller, wider-shouldered, stronger – showed in the effort he made to keep his hands gentle. I saw Will lift his eyes to Mirko’s, muddy green into amber, and something primal, as pain-filled as raw flesh uncovered by a wound, pass between them. Then Will shook off Mirko’s hands, gave a furious swipe to his tears and disappeared down the ladder.

            At the back of the room, Filippo was sobbing softly.

            ‘Your brother’s a real prick,’ I said to Mirko. His face went rigid, the muscles in his jawline showing, then he got up the way only he could do, like a cat that can lay there all day but when it decides to do something knows the exact movements it must perform, and won’t do one more or one less than it needs to. He dug out the wooden chest from under the bench and sat beside Filippo on the floor. His cousin, with his features still untainted by adolescence, looked like a baby doll of fine China beside sprawling Mirko.

            ‘You get to choose a boon today,’ Mirko said to him, but Filippo shook his head, tears flying from eyes squeezed shut.

            ‘What did we say when we stole this treasure off those evil pirates? Mh?’

            Fili looked at his own bare feet, toenails carrying drops of paint.

            ‘That we would get according to need,’ he whispered.

            ‘Very well. Choose.’

            But Filippo could only shake his head, and it seemed to me like the treasure held inside the chest must be blinding him, dobloons and gold ingots and gems drawing shining prisms on his face. I had never opened that chest, not even when I was alone in the tree house, and even on that day I kept the lid between myself and the treasure.

            ‘Can you see a silver bracelet with a star-shaped pendant?’ I asked and Filippo nodded, his lower lip protruding. ‘Take it.’

            Filippo looked up at Mirko, who nodded, and lifted my First Communion bracelet out of the chest. His hands shook, but I could again see his missing front teeth.

            ‘Is it magic?’ he asked.

            ‘Of course it is, it’s a find-me bracelet. It means that, no matter how far away Mirko and I go, we will always find you. Just don’t wear it around my mum,’ I said. ‘She’s an evil witch, and if she sees it she’ll cast a counter-spell and it will never work again.’

            That afternoon, when I managed to escape a lunchtime torture of boiled beef and mushy carrots which would not dematerialise no matter how hard I wished for it, Mirko intercepted me on my way to the tree house and gestured for me to follow him. He was wearing a backpack and his usual tennis shorts after his idol, Boris Becker, and a creased t-shirt – which I envied when I looked at my own ironed-to-death-by-mother clothes. We went around the backs of our houses as I did not have permission to leave the garden without an adult, and it did not matter to me where we were going. The sky was so tall, so far away; the streets so deserted in the vicious afternoon heat, that I felt as though we were walking through a post-atomic world of which we were the only survivors. If back then, at age eleven, I had told an adult that the moment he took my hand was the happiest of my life, they would have laughed in condescension. So, I wonder what they would do if I, an old woman of eighty-one, told them now.

            We walked behind the primary school, its windows empty, and across the arid field where my brother had got a tick in his leg the summer before. Wisps of yellow-grey grass between clusters of pebbles and discarded bags of crisps and wrappers threatened me with the same destiny (I had thought he was going to die of it), and I walked lifting my knees really high and placing each foot down for only an instant. Used to being taunted, I looked at Mirko off the corner of my eye but, if he saw it, he said nothing. On the other side of the field was the church, where every Wednesday and Sunday we got told how awful we were, and beyond it the complex where kids did summer-camp activities when they weren’t taken to the beach. There was an ugly cement tunnel that lead to the pool and always smelled like pee, and there Mirko stopped and pointed at one of the many sentences written onto the wall. I laughed, but then I saw the look Mirko gave me and the screwdriver in his hand.

            ‘Too many people around for me to do it this morning,’ he said, then scratched at the wall until not one letter was visible. When he was finished, he stepped away from the mound of fine rubble he had produced and, with a marker, drew a crude spider on the wall.             ‘It’s not one of Filippo’s originals,’ he said, ‘but it’ll do as a reminder.’

            We walked back in silence, separated by what he knew I’d read. Under the tree, as the slanting sunrays tinged the sky between the branches of the most beautiful, saddest jasmine glow, I asked him.

            ‘Is Will really a faggot?’

            ‘Watch it.’

            ‘But it said … do you think he really tried to kiss Patrizio?’

            ‘That’s his own business. But there’s no name-calling in the tree house.’

            ‘He called me a weirdo just this morning.’

            ‘Yeah,’ said Mirko, hands in his pockets, kicking a rock with his runners as he squinted towards his house. ‘So you want to be like him?’


The truth is that you’re born with something written inside, like a fortune cookie. The truth is that, even if my folks had loved each other; even if my mother hadn’t made me afraid of everything and my father and brother hadn’t given me detailed lessons about my worthlessness, I still would have been in pain, living like a shell-less tortoise surrounded by nettles. Already, as a child, I was hurt by the impossibility of performing magic or owning the little black pig that featured in my favourite Japanese cartoon. I grieved when my father was disappointed in my being a scared creature, when my brother called me stupid.

            ‘How come you never asked?’ I said to Mirko one morning when we were alone in the tree house, laying my forearms tender-side-up on my thighs so he could see of what I spoke.              

             ‘You might not want me to.’

            ‘It was silence I wanted,’ I said, looking towards my house and the school behind it and the church behind that. ‘Silence, in my head. They said I was looking for attention.’

            He took his forefinger along the scars, and I was surprised when they did not disappear.

            ‘If you get like that again, promise you’ll call me,’ he said.


The time when I went closest to it after that first attempt was twenty-four years later, not because of Salvatore but because I had let him happen to me. Him, and mediocrity, and long, looked-for unhappiness, grey and narrow like that swimming-pool tunnel. That was when I gathered all the pills I could find, for I had grown cowardly since childhood. Everything had come to look like it had been washed too many times, at too-high temperatures. Absurdly, I remembered my promise. I didn’t want to make a phone call; I wanted to go to sleep. But the tree house and his face – they were the only things that retained true colours. I laughed and cried composing his childhood home phone number on my mobile: they would have moved by then; he would have forgotten. A voice answered that wasn’t his, and yet I knew it.

            ‘May I speak to Mirko Usai, please?’

            ‘He’s not here. Marta. Is it the promise?’

            ‘Will, where is–’

            ‘Just get your ass back here.’


What we did most days was the sort of stuff you forget growing up. If you do grow up, that is. We spent a whole day whacking pinenuts open with rocks and sticking them through the tight neck of a bottle, then just before our mothers called us home we ate them in handfuls, and the taste of them – earth and resin and the life of a tree that had trickled into each one of them – preserved in me the feeling of that day, the pale moon growing starker as the afternoon turned into evening, white-winged butterflies kissing the oak leaves above our heads, the scent of the sea wafting in from the gulf, marrying that of the bougainvillea that graced the gates of our gardens with purple and fuchsia flowers, their petals as wrinkled and precious as scrolls.

            On other days we played at being Indiana Jones, dodging invisible dangers we would name aloud so the others could see them too – darts! bullets! rocks rolling down to squash us! – or brought up picnics of sliced bread with mayo, biscuits and too-ripe bananas that collapsed in our hands. Filippo ate like the little bird he resembled, but the three of us would probably have roasted one of the pigeons that cooed on the branches had we been able to catch it. We exchanged footballers’ stickers for our albums – the World Cup would come to Italy the following summer, and we were going to watch it on Mirko and Will’s father’s tiny portable TV in the tree house – and played marbles on the uneven floor that did with our throws what it wanted, causing fights. We were sentinels, guarding the tree with the one available sling at hand, stones and acorns as ammunition; we were captains of a ship, and I used to climb to the highest point before the branches became so thin only birds could balance on them, and look far, far away for land. On those three months of summer, my house was the tree house; my family three boys who had never before talked to me. I had taken to visualising myself as an older girl and then a woman, still climbing on the tree house, Mirko waiting up there for me. And then, two weeks before school was due to start again, my mother told me we were moving to another town.


Geography is pitiless when you are a child who is powerless to travel where she wants to. Her world is medieval, a frayed map of places she can reach by walking, a flat, pre-Copernicus world with, at the centre, her parents, cruel sun deities.

            ‘You’re ruining my life!’ I screamed. They laughed, used the word ‘melodramatic’, yet I was not allowed lock the bathroom door or go up the tree house before the others. On the day before we left, as I sat hugging my legs and mentally unpacking again all of the cardboard boxes piled in our living room, Mirko sat beside me in silence and took my hand. He hadn’t done that since the day he had shown me what those boys had written about Will, but this time it was different, it was goodbye. He was strong, the strongest boy I had ever met, yet not enough to hold me there. My eyes felt like the marbles with which we played, bulging and glassy with tears and dead.

            ‘I want to die,’ I said, though it was a lie. I wanted to live. I wanted to live on the tree.

            He turned to me with a small smile, and I looked at the way the sunrays gilted his brown hair and turned his eyes to gold, the dancing sketches made by the oak leaves on his roughening cheeks, engraving them painfully into my memory so I could take them away with me. I did it so well that now I’m an old woman I can still see him before me, with the tan lines a longer-sleeved t-shirt had left on his arms, his features and muscles hardening into those of a man, hands and feet that had hurried forward overtaking his age. I would not see him grow into them.

            ‘Remember your promise,’ he said. From the pocket of his beloved tennis shorts he extracted a folded-up sheet of paper and a pen. ‘I wrote something for you on one side. You do the same for me on the other. We’re not allowed to read what the other wrote, though. Not now. We’ll do it when we meet in the tree house again.’


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 travelled 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 hair, 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 youself.

            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.


On the windowsill, my legs dangling down, I called it back as I had been afraid to do since I had left; saw it all as they say you do before you die. Our days in the tree house, the chewing gum we bought at the minimarket, which got jaw-breakingly hard after a minute of chewing; ice pops dripping on our tanned, scabby knees as we watched Filippo paint his colourful world; ghost stories read and then retold in more disquieting detail as the sun, melting on the horizon, bloodied the outline of each cloud, set alight the seagulls’ wings. One night we’d been able to escape our houses undetected – all but Filippo, who had been so deeply asleep he’d remained in his bed, and who would cry about it the following morning – we huddled in the centre of the tree house’s only room, our legs under a sheet that kept the Mistral wind at bay, and in torchlight read from an illustrated book about medieval torture methods. Then I made up a story for each of the people drawn on the book, a real witch, a family man, a thief, and the stars between the dancing, dishevelled branches turned into a million eyes. And as I talked I saw the darkness trace shadows on the boys’ faces which I had not known were there, and which would fade in the morning. Will so silent, so still I thought he had fallen asleep, but as the moonlight set alight his eyes I saw them sparkle in reply, as though the two of them were entertaining a conversation from which all others were excluded. What was strange about it was that I knew I would remember it for ever; I felt my brain working hard at engraving my memory with every resin-scented gust of wind, every whisper of the leaves awakened by the wind. Magic was at work, that night, and we were the only people awake in the whole world.

            I was picking up every detail of it as you would a shrimp caught between two submerged rocks, when I heard the steps up the ladder, and thought I must make ready for adult Mirko. Perhaps he was bald now, he might have become heavier, he might not look as impressive as he did when he was thirteen. I did not want to be disappointed; did not want to look as though I was. So I waited and did not turn, and gave my mind time to ruin his broad, tanned face and fade the blackness of his hair; to ravage his body and dull the light in his eyes.

            ‘Well, well, well,’ said a voice just behind me, and I shivered as though someone had blown a cold breath between my shoulder blades. I turned then, and for the time of a heartbeat I thought the tall man facing me a stranger.


            ‘So it would seem. Sorry to disappoint.’

            Now, as I saw that old arrogant smile come back, I knew him. He placed a large hand, as graceful as a long-legged spider, against the boards that made up the right-hand side wall and leaned on it, crossing his legs at the ankle. I noticed his brand jeans, the expensive shoes, the polo t-shirt that seemed tailor-made.

            ‘Gosh, it’s not like I expected a snog, but something like “hello” would be nice,’ he said, and his voice was like ruined silk.

            ‘Sorry, I wasn’t expecting to see you. And for a moment there I had no idea who you were. You are … different,’ I said to his symmetrical teeth. This beauty of his – it was frightening. It was alien to the gawky, missized teenager he had been, and why would you keep something hidden for so long if not for some sleazy reason?

            ‘I’ll take it as a compliment. So, still ready to kill yourself? Shall I set up a suicide watch up here? It would be like old times.’

            ‘You never did know when to shut it, Will. Where’s Mirko?’

            Something passed in his eyes, a shadow like the outstretched wings of a dark bird.            ‘You think you have a right to everything you want, don’t you? My tree house, my brother. What makes you think any of it belongs to you, too?’ His voice had grown sharp, his pose no longer relaxed, hands balled at his sides.

            ‘Look, I made a mistake coming here. I’ll just contact him some other way,’ I said, making to step around him towards the ladder, but he stood before me unmoving.

            ‘I’ll take you to him,’ he said, jangling in front of me a set of car keys with a BMW keyring. ‘Just a short drive.’

            In the car, my stomach spun like the drum of a washing machine. There was a headache starting up in the centre of my forehead, burning outwards, stretching purposedly towards my temples. I was glad Will did not talk to me and I closed my eyes, fingers on the corners of my eyebrows, willing the pain to fade, the nausea to forget about me. I heard gravel under the wheels, felt the car stop, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata dying too soon. I was not wearing make-up, I had not plucked my eyebrows, I knew there were a few antennas of hair atop my head, and it all made me so angry at myself I wanted to kick a dent in that stupidly expensive car.

            ‘Madam,’ said Will, opening my door. With an effort to keep my stomach from heaving I got up and swayed, seeing with my eyes the black world I always carried inside. Hard hands caught me and remained locked around my biceps until I saw the sky again. Such a lying blue.

            ‘What the hell is this?’ I asked, realising where we were, but Will just walked in front of me, with steps too pretty for a male, and I followed him because I had nowhere else to go.

            ‘Here he is. Hope it was worth the twenty-four years’ wait,’ he said, pointing.

            ‘What a shitty, shitty joke, even for someone like you,’ I said, unsheathing my teeth, but my eyes fell into the grooves and curves and peaks of that name, carved in granite above a photograph of Mirko as I thought he would grow up to be, only thinner – above those dates that made no sense. Red carnations poked out of a metal vase attached to the headstone, and there was grass around it, as thick as green hair, and someone had left a card under a stone placed in front of it. I removed the stone; opened the card. ‘Still miss you every day,’ it said in careful letters under the drawing of a sad-faced alien. I threw it down as though it had scalded my fingertips.

            ‘You sick fuck!’ My scream hurt my throat; I lifted the stone and threw it at him. It bounced off his forehead, leaving a cut that immediately looked old, swollen and circled with purple, as though it had been there from before.

            ‘You still have a good aim,’ he said, a blade of ice in his voice. ‘But I’m not my brother.’ He picked up the stone and flung it back at me. The skin on my shoulder stung and I placed my hand on it, expecting blood. But pain was a lier too, on that day.

            ‘Why did you do this? Why didn’t you tell me?’ I screamed, and here was the blood, only in my throat, pushing me to retch.

            ‘You can’t always get all you want for free. Being part of things has a price,’ he said, his words heavy and calm.

            ‘You know nothing about me!’

            ‘No, I don’t. You only talked to Mirko; never to me.’

            ‘You’re not telling me you were jealous, are you?’ I laughed an ugly laugh. ‘You are ...’

            ‘What? Gay? A faggot? A poof? Go on, say it.’

            ‘I didn’t mean–’

            ‘Does everything just have one level to you?’ he interrupted me.

            ‘You behaved like a shit when we were kids. You still do. Why would I have talked to you?’

            ‘Oh, of course, you were the only one who had problems. You still are.’ His lips twisted, taking nothing off the symmetry of his face.

            ‘You are nobody to me. I’m leaving,’ I said, stomping on the gravel towards the road, trying to remember what bus stopped near the graveyard. My mother had always driven there on our visits to my grandparents, to which I had been dragged under threats concerning to my tree-house access and evening curfew.

            ‘I’m not going to let you make your big, stupid gesture and bail out, you little coward,’ Will said to my back. ‘I made a promise to him. You’re not going to fuck with it.’

            ‘You … what?’

            ‘I found him. He was still there,’ Will said, and I heard the change in his breathing, the heaviness of it. ‘Just for a moment. And he gave it to you. To you. So, no, you’re not going anywhere. Not until I know I’ve kept my word.’

            I shook my head, my headache turning into a crown too small for me. I closed my eyes.

            ‘What happened to him?’


Salvatore had gotten me pregnant. Condom broke, or he refused to wear one, can’t even remember now. What I remember is sitting on the edge of the bathtub with my fingers digging into the enamel, doubled over, my toes sucking in the coldness of the tiles, spitting it everywhere inside my body. The pee stick lay beside me like a knife waiting to be used, its two blue lines cat-eyes glaring at me. My failure to protect myself had showed me what a worthless human being I was, but this – failing to protect a defenceless creature from being brought into such a life – this was the culmination of the waste I constituted.

            When it slipped between my legs one night, I felt its warmth and thought of how much warmer it would have been cradled in my arms. That was when I collected all the pills that were in the bathroom cabinet, counting them, feeling their shapes with my fingertips as I imagined them expanding inside me, filling out all that was empty. That was when I called Mirko’s old number, and found Will instead.


Back in the tree house, I sat at the window as though on a high swing, imagining ropes that went all the way up the darkening sky, willing the Mistral wind to push me harder and harder until I shot up into one of the constellations Filippo used to paint. Somewhere free from the constant danger of fellow inhabitants.

            ‘He killed himself. Cut his wrists, like you were too clumsy to do properly as a kid. He was good at everything, my brother was. Got it just right. I’m a surgeon, you know. I put people back together for a living, and I couldn’t fucking save him.’

            Will had said that at the cemetery, or when we were back at the tree house, I didn’t even know any more.

            ‘Why would someone like him do that? He had everything. He was handsome. He was smart. Everyone liked him. Everyone wanted to be him.’ My voice had been querulous, as though by stomping my feet in a tantrum I could undo what he had done.

            ‘Jesus, not even you can be so shallow.’

            An owl screamed and I shivered, feeling for an instant as though I was being called to dinner. That had been the most hated part of my days, on that distant summer. I reached for a branch outside the window and squeezed, as I used to do before leaving every evening, to ask the bark to remember me, leaving cells on the jagged edges of its scales, feeling shards of wood becoming embedded in my hand, parts of me. I had asked Will for some time alone and listened to his steps as he descended the ladder towards the house that was now his.

            When all I could hear was the soft rustling of leaves in the darkness, I pinched the letter between two fingers and lay it on my lap, holding to it what I thought was the same torch we had used to read those horror books. Like a teenager, I cherished his hands having touched the sheet before it came to me. Attracted by the multitude of mosquitoes, bats were performing a dangerous, blind dance, each one of them a black tear in the indigo fabric of the sky. It felt like a betrayal to read it without him, but he was lost, and the definitiveness of this was flailing me alive.

            Nothing had been written on Mirko’s side. The page was filled with the shape of his hand, already large at thirteen, each finger imprinted on it with the colour of old blood, each convuluted fingerprint a story about him which I could no longer decypher. I placed my own hand on it, still smaller than his even now I was an adult, and closing my eyes I wished it could penetrate into my flesh, become part of me just like the tree.

            On my side, only a plead, written in my round, childish scrawl with little globes instead of dots on top of the ‘i’s. ‘Wait for me.’ I had written it thinking – hoping – he would cheat and have a peek before I came back.

            ‘Why didn’t you wait? You fucking idiot!’ My scream reverberated around the tree and in my head, and even my tears, each one hurting with the knowledge that he was no longer, seemed like such a puny way to grieve someone like him.


A touch awoke me and I started, knowing not where I was, what time or day it might be.

            ‘Sorry. Ssh. It’s just me.’ A small man was kneeling beside me, and there was a flannel blanket on my legs and feet. ‘I didn’t mean to wake you up. It cools down a lot on the tree, at night. Don’t … don’t you remember me?’

            ‘Filippo, Jesus, give me a chance! You just scared the crap out of me.’ I sat up, glad now for the comfort of the blanket. There was something startling in the way his face had remained like a porcelain doll’s even through adolescence, through all the years I had missed, and was, at the same time, cracked under and around the eyes, on the forehead. Obeying my gesture he sat, his small hands fidgeting with the shorts of his pyjamas as he pointedly looked at the floor, chewed fingernails surrounded by inflamed flesh.

            ‘We all missed you,’ he said, ‘we were always hoping you’d move back.’

            ‘Filippo, you don’t need to try to make me feel better. It was only one summer.’

            His face went slightly backwards, as though I’d hit him.

            ‘How are you?’ I asked, but he just shrugged.

            The insecure light of an early morning coming through the window imprinted in my eyes as the perfume of bougainvillea talked of another summer. Would that I had woken up back then.

            ‘I loved him. All this time,’ I said, realising it just then.

            ‘So did we.’

            Why did he do it, I wanted to ask, you’re his cousin, you must know something! But the hassled look of his skin, the way he sat with his back forward and his knees out, like a child, halted me. I took his hand and felt the wounds around his nails, and on his wrist was a silver bracelet with a star-shaped pendant.

            ‘You found me,’ he said, ‘like you promised.’

            Holding hands in the silence, we watched the sky blush pink and let the damp breeze lick us. My shoulder felt the slight weight of Filippo’s face, my neck was tickled by his hair. An instant later, he was sleeping. I stole that time to study him, to notice his smell of soap and fruit pastilles, the way his feet were still rounded and unworn, the thinness of his limbs which had always reminded me of a little bird.

            ‘What happened to you?’ I whispered as the sun started becoming ruder, pushing out the fresh air of the tree house. He mumbled something, smiled, and started snoring softly.


For years after we moved away from the house on the tree, I told myself that I would go back there as soon as I could – when I had enough money; when I broke free from my parents. And for one year afterwards, I wrote Mirko three letters per week, then two, then one, using up all the scented writing paper I had received for my birthday and then continuing on sheets pulled out of my exercise books and sketching pad. There were drawings in the margins of each letter, and sometimes feathers or sand and shells mixed with glitter glued onto them, sentences stolen from a novel or a poem, and I cannot remember what I wrote – what way I used to tell him that where he had been ripped off me there was a jagged gash, and touching with my mind the raw edges of it – feeling that pain – was what awakened me to my aliveness each time I felt like giving in to exhaustion.

            My parents laughed at me when I asked them to post the letters (are you in looove with him?), and then they sent one or two – that is what they said – and I got no pocket money until I was a lot older, so the letters were relegated to a drawer, seeking comfort from inutility, solitude, in their closeness; tied together with a red ribbon that had belonged to an Easter egg and smelled of chocolate for a long, long time. Sometimes, as I lay in bed at night, I thought I could hear them whisper, their voices overlapping, my longing for the tree house spiralling out of them like thick smoke. But even I compromised. The bars of my prison rubbed away all the magic dust from my child’s wings, and the tree house fell farther away from my reach. And why would they want to see me again, when years had passed, years that must have enriched them but had impoverished me? There was a need for me to be out of my folks’ house as soon as I could, so I found work and bowed my head to its thefts – hours, days, months, years, dreams – giving my family the umpteenth proof of my disloyal stupidity when I did not go to college (my brother went all the way to a PhD).

            Salvatore came to take all this away. He could be my family; erase the hurt from that move away from Mirko and the tree house by making it all sound like a childhood fantasy; give me worthiness. When the insults came, I accepted them as a result of my failure.


‘Put down that book and eat, you nerd.’ Will dropped the most enormous punnet of strawberries on the floor beside me. ‘And by the way, you can use our shower facilities. Before you start to stink. Oh wait, too late.’

            ‘Dick,’ I said, dropping The Bell Jar open on its front, grabbing a handful of strawberries and biting each off its hull before I had swallowed the previous one. It felt like sucking on sugar. My stomach, empty since the day before, produced obnoxious noises.

            He sat on one of the benches, his jeans ironed, his hair wet from the shower he must have taken after work, smelling like you do when you wash yourself after a day at the beach and make ready to go out. We were both thirty-five, yet I felt as though I was nearly finished while he was starting.

            ‘He didn’t call me,’ I said.


            ‘Mirko. He made me promise to call him if I felt like ending it. But he didn’t call me.’

            ‘Did you ever give him your new number?’

            ‘Fuck. Fuck.’

            Will took a strawberry and ate it in dainty bites, twirling it around between his thumb and index finger.

            ‘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 after 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 sympthoms 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, monstruous, unsentient creatures 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 … closer.’

            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.

            By the time I noticed that Will was coming up earlier on weekend mornings and staying later in the evenings, the three of us were moving like in our rehearsed routine, only to be adapted due to the lack of one component – although Mirko was in that absence, too, in the way we danced around it afraid to invade the space that had been, and still was, his. There were sunsets to the soft music of Will’s guitar, when each note assumed a different shade of red and Filippo’s brush was slower, new galaxies climbing up the wall like ivy. As gold threads wove in and out of the horizon, piercing it, I kept thinking of what I had lost. What cruel creator would allow you to understand your mistakes yet not let you go back to fix them?



The evening when Will came up and found me crying belonged to a day of 40 degrees and 90 per cent humidity. My clothes adhered to my skin like leeches; they stank, and so did my hair, yet the shower down in the house seemed a thousand steps too far.

            ‘What now?’ he asked, the scent of his aftershave wafting towards me. Locks of wet, black hair fell onto his forehead in annoying perfection.

            ‘I don’t understand,’ I said, drying my nose with a corner of my t-shirt.

            ‘Does anyone ever? If you, who tried to do it, don’t, who else can?’

            ‘But he was ...’ I said, opening my arms in what I hoped was a large span, like the wings on an albatross.

            ‘To us. Yes. But to himself?’

            ‘It’s so unfair that it should have been him. It’s like … a betrayal, or something.’

            I didn’t expect to see such disgust in Will’s face.

            ‘Oh, of course, it should have been me. The prick. The homo. Right? Or maybe even Filippo, with his promiscuous mother and all his crippling sensitivity. The two of you, the elected, should have survived the storm and gotten married and made beautiful babies. That it?’

            ‘What the fuck? Will, get help.’

            ‘No. No. No! You have no idea.’ For the first time since my return, I saw anger contort Will’s features into those of the disproportionate, graceless boy he had been. Those of the hurt adolescent on the day when Mirko had scratched out that sentence from the wall of the tunnel. ‘You don’t get it. You don’t know what it’s like when your fucking brother who will always be better than you but never admit it bleeds in your arms and all you are, all you ever did is useless. When he just decides to leave you. You had left a long time before that!’

            ‘It wasn’t my choice!’ I screamed, my spittle settling on his face. ‘I was a child!’

            ‘You haven’t been a child for a long time,’ he hissed. ‘Where were you?’

            That night I asked Filippo to paint me a wall of falling stars. Luminous dots started appearing, and to each of them I entrusted the same impossible, blasphemous wish. Outside the window of the house on the tree, the moon shone vigorously, so alight as to seem like a hole showing a brighter world on the other side.


Some days I feel that time – the time spent on the tree house as a child; those days and nights in my mid-thirties when the house had reformed around me like a necessary shell; early motherhood – is all enconsced in me, still, hidden in the folds of my old skin, just waiting to grow back and make me young and powerful again. Time between late childhood and early adulthood seemed like centuries; that between the ages of twenty and sixty like minutes. And now, now it’s a little like dreams, lacking logic and going in circles, trying to reveal secrets I can rarely grasp. Only Mirko has remained young, untainted, and it seems strange to think of how short my time with him was – a few months, seventy years ago; nothing but a tiny fraction in a long existence – when I compare it with his effect on my life.


‘Will said a m-man called ... looking for you,’ said Filippo one day before he had even set foot off the ladder. His face was paler than that day’s lattiginous sky. ‘You … aren’t leaving, are you?’

            I closed my eyes and clasped my hands together, and cross-legged before the window of the tree house I set my teeth and fought off the image of Salvatore’s face, his lips shaping the word ‘stupid’. Filippo came to sit beside me and took my hand, just like when we were children and someone at school had mentioned his mother; like the times when Will had barked at him for not playing a game the way he wanted him to.

            ‘Bad things can’t get you in here,’ he said into the back of my hand.

            When I woke up it was night and Filippo’s head was on my thigh. Silent, lined up with the stars behind them, Will’s eyes regarded me in the dark.

            ‘Of all the freaks!’ I hissed, the speed of my hearbeat, the sweat breaking on my back making me angrier than I was scared.

            ‘You are not going back to him,’ said Will, his face impassible.

            I looked at him for a long time, at the way the moonlight silvered his profile, chiselling it into a connubial union between marble and darkness. My breathing slowed, the sweat turned cold into the night Mistral, while somewhere among the balsamic bushes of arbutus a cricket broke his own heart singing.

            ‘You know,’ I whispered to Will, threading my fingers through Filippo’s thin, fair hair. ‘I used to pity the kind of embittered woman who recommends keeping away from men; who says they are all bastards. And now … the thought of it – of him pressing that thing against my ass as though he imagined I should feel glad, aroused, excited …! What I felt was rage and dread and disgust. You tell him in a thousand different ways that you don’t like it and yet he behaves as though you should love it and is hurt and angry if you don’t comply. He makes you pay if you don’t do it. It’s a chore. You just feel like cleaning yourself. And if you dare say you don’t enjoy something, then he says you’ve got a problem – there’s obviously something wrong with you. But you know what? My body is mine. It belongs to me.’

            Will clapped his hands silently, a mocking smile on his lips.

            ‘So, what makes you think Mirko would have been different? He had a dick, too.’ He snorted. ‘You look at me as though I’d just pissed on his grave. But there’s something that’s going to eat at you a lot more than what your charming ex-boyfriend did to your pygmee self-esteem. If you keep thinking of Mirko as of the god Apollo, you might as well dig a hole beside his headstone and say goodnight.’

            ‘Great fucking suicide watch you keep.’

            ‘If he wanted to keep you alive so much, he should have stayed,’ Will said, turning away. I saw his eyes trace the new constellations Filippo had painted and then trail up to the sky, blindly, just as mine did when my thoughts turned to Mirko. When he talked again he left his eyes there, but put all his breath into his voice.

            ‘You need to stop thinking of him as perfect. He wasn’t. He was a lazy fucker who kept settling for less than he could have had. Instead of going to uni he just ended up doing what he was already good at, fixing stuff for people, getting himself filthy and coming back so tired it was like someone had pulled all his bones apart. Settled for someone he wasn’t all that crazy about because it was easy while leaving her wasn’t. He wanted to find you.’ Will looked at me as though he wanted to swat me. ‘But he never searched. It was easier to be unhappy than ...’

            I waited for him to finish, but he shook his head, opened his hands showing the carvings cut by his nails onto the soft flesh of his palms.

            ‘He stank after work. He was just like all of us,’ he said.

            ‘Was he?’ I said, wanting to throw back at him the pain he was causing. ‘So why are you up here? Why do you still live in that house with your little cousin? Where’s your boyfriend?’

            ‘Accept the fucking pain,’ he growled at me, ‘grow up!’

            On my leg, Filippo started, woken by our voices. Will gave me a look as admonishing at it was angry while his cousin sat up, rubbing his eyes.

            ‘What’s the matter?’ he asked through glued lips.

            ‘You shouldn’t sleep up here. It’s too humid,’ said Will, reaching the ladder with one step of his long legs. An instant later, nothing remained but the early calls of the seagulls and a thread of aftershave, the kind that will give you a shiver for the boy you liked thirty years ago when you smell it again.


The day after, I did not go straight back up to the tree house after my shower. I tiptoed towards the closed door at which I had glanced every time I had been in the house, and placed my hand on it as though that wood, cut such a long time before, tortured into a rectangular shape and whitened with viscous paint, could still pass on to me the wisdom of the tree of which it had been a part. What should I do? I asked it, but it was silent. It was dead. I turned the handle and pushed the door, just a little, enough to see colours through the crack, to smell cleaning spray and dust and the long lack of life from which its air suffered. I knew that when Mirko was there it must have smelled of Big Babol, of sawdust and sweat and of his skin, which had a scent that I will never forget. Not something that can be described; an ache that never really left me, like a phantom limb. I had inhaled it secretely on that walk to the tunnel; on the evenings spent dangling our legs out of the tree-house window, when the Mistral, still gentle on its first day, would pick it up like drops of rain and offer it to me with invisible, cupped hands. The door creaked when I pushed more and I stood still waiting for Will’s mocking, for his anger; for Filippo’s wounded eyes. A poster with the lyrics of Linkin Park’s ‘My December’, a base guitar with a broken string, the tickets for a long-ago cinema showing – The Crow – tacked onto a wall above a couple of tennis trophies submitted themselves to me with one warning: this was a shrine, the untouched room of a young man who had left home for a new job, perhaps, for the girl Will had thought wasn’t enough for him; for adventures that would end too soon. Ours was an unrelationship, a scam made up of all the things that we’d never done together.

            My fingers grazed the dusty spines of rows of Mickey Mouse magazines and Ranma ½ manga; pulled at the curled-in corners of a handful of photographs sellotaped to the corner of a shelf, where I searched for myself despite knowing the three of us had never brought a camera up the tree.

            The drawers beside the low bed were empty but for a couple of scurrying earwigs and a size-L jumper with a hole under an armpit. Sitting on the wooden floor, I closed my eyes and brought it to my nose, but Mirko was no longer there. The bedsheets were clean, if dusty; the desk around the old-fashioned, bulky PC had been wiped.         

            ‘I wish there were something left of him,’ I said, with my eyes closed, to the steps I heard on the threshold. ‘Anything.’

            The door creaked and footsteps padded over the threshold. Will walked over and sat on the floor beside me, his back against the bed, his right leg all but touching my left. It was the closest we had ever been to each other.

            ‘Marta, Marta,’ he sighed, looking up at the light fixture, a white paper globe lined with dust the early afternoon sunrays were turning into silver. ‘Always presuming you’re the only one to grieve him. Sometimes I dream that I saved him, held on to him so hard he had to stay. But all I have of him, beside memories, is our shared genetics.’ He turned to look at me over his shoulder with a rueful smile.

            Between Will and me it happened only that one time, and we never told anyone. With my eyes closed I saw Mirko’s shoulders materialise, their outlines moulded by the particles of dust that danced above his bed. I felt, with my hands, the curve of his back; with my skin the shape of the man I had never really got to know. When a tear fell on my forehead, it smelled of him.

            It happened only once, but it was enough, as though my body had been waiting all those years to seize on the tiniest fragment of Mirko’s essence, discarding everything else.

            My son’s eyes are not green; they’re amber. And when I look at him, even now in my old age, I believe that somehow, though he could not stay, Mirko came back for me.