by Giulio Mozzi
translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris
Two years ago, we called someone out to replace the windowpanes on the small, enclosed porch that was there when we moved in, twenty years ago, built onto the tiny balcony overlooking the back courtyard. It’s a metal-frame porch, with windows about a half-meter square. The glass panes might have been naturally tinted gray, but they were also caked with filth. Some were broken, others cracked. Some must have been replaced already: the panes that looked the oldest had strands of wire in the glass. We wanted a nicer porch, one with more light. The balcony space is small, only one and a half by two meters, and just fits a few pots of geraniums and, in the winter, some small crates of fruit and some bottles of wine. The porch worked well enough, but we decided to fix it up anyway. The man we hired didn’t even try to pull out the old glass: he taped cardboard to the inside of the frames with packing tape, then hammered out the windows, spraying broken glass over the gravel below. Then he pulled off the cardboard and any glass still stuck in the frames, and he tossed all that into the courtyard, too. Then he installed the new panes. For a few days, we went out and picked through the gravel for glass shards. Then we gave up. On Sunday mornings, after a long, hot bath, I like to go out in the courtyard around ten o’clock for a cigarette, my first of the day. If it’s raining, I lean back against the door, just under the balcony. Winters, I’ll still go out in a t-shirt: I like the cold after a hot bath. If it’s not raining, I’ll take a walk by the plants and look at things. I especially like the dividing wall between our yard and the neighbor’s to the right. It’s just a dividing wall, and that’s probably why it was thrown up without much thought, back when they built the house, after the war. It must have been a brownish-orange once, like the house, but the paint seeped into the mortar, leaving only some dirty-gray stains and a touch of blue. The sun never hits the wall: it’s damp, blotchy, shaded and streaked with dark-green and silver moss. In some places, you can see swellings, blisters—popped blisters. In other places, the mortar’s flaking off or crumbling. The layer beneath is yellowish, dusty. Years ago, the wall was covered in Virginia creeper that spread from the courtyard next door. I’m not sure why, but our neighbor decided he didn’t want this vine anymore, so he cut it off at the base and dug up the roots. The vine shriveled up, and we finally tore it off on our side. Some of the stems took bits of mortar with them, but others stuck to the wall and are there still, thousands of tiny paw prints, like the signature of some disease. Clotheslines hang from one end of the wall. The expansion screws are old now, rusted, and under each one, there’s a trail of rust creeping to the ground. I like looking at this wall, at its meticulously worked surface, and I see it as deliberate work—not a person’s deliberate work—I see it as the work of things, of chance. Naturally, I can’t help thinking that I’m like this wall, that I’m a worked thing, too, adorned with this same almost endless variability. There’s something I keep trying to say, that grammar won’t permit, won’t allow. Clearly, a person didn’t do all this work, though there’s definitely a purpose here, and I’m the one who’s decided this purpose, because I’m really happy seeing all of this, and I’m happy thinking the purpose was making me happy. Last Sunday, I was outside smoking, and I saw more glass shards in the gravel, so I started picking them up, tossing them in the bucket that’s still in the courtyard, probably from the last time the painters came, last summer. I pick up glass fairly often, and there’s plenty in the bucket already. Last Sunday, I must have found a dozen pieces. When you first look down, all you see is gravel, but there’s still so much glass. You have to look closely. When you see a piece, even if it’s just two steps away, you have to keep looking while you take those steps, and then you have to keep looking while you kneel and reach for it, or else it’s lost. Some pieces are almost buried, or they’re so dirty you don’t see them right away. I like picking up shards, because whenever I want to I know I’ll be able to find some, and if they’re getting harder to find, I’m also getting better at finding them, which seems like a fair tradeoff to me. Last Sunday while I was gathering shards, I started thinking that it’s almost like trying to gather important memories, that you have to look for memories in something like gravel, something so indistinct from far away and so varied close up, it’ll make your head spin. And sometimes you think you’ve found them, but take a step in their direction, they’ve disappeared. And I understood that this thing I thought I was doing for sheer pleasure, I’m really doing so I can imagine I’m doing something else, something that gives me the strongest feeling, but that I can’t describe. I take it as a sign, and I’m extremely grateful to those things that—without my even being able to ask—have given me a tangible symbol of something I’ve been working on a long while. I understand now that gathering shards strengthens my soul, comforts it, helps it to see that even if the windows have shattered, they can still be recovered, piece by piece. Each shard is dear to me. And I’m glad this is the sort of work you can’t finish—really, it would be extremely sad to finish, to find yourself with your soul all in one hand. I’ve come to think that each part of the soul is the entire soul, and that the entire soul is made up of infinite parts, like shards of glass, like gravel, like the surface of the wall.
Giulio Mozzi has published twenty-one books—as editor, fiction writer, and poet—with presses like Theoria, Einaudi, and Mondadori. His first collection, Questo è il giardino (Theoria 1993, Mondadori 1998, Sironi 2006) won the Premio Mondello; “L’apprendista,” from that collection, appears in Mondadori’s anthology of the top Italian stories of the twentieth century, I racconti italiani del novecento (2001).
Elizabeth Harris teaches creative writing at the University of North Dakota. Her fiction and excerpts of her translation of Mario Rigoni Stern’s Le stagioni di Giacomo appear in journals like Northwest Review, Denver Quarterly, Other Voices, and Alaska Quarterly Review. Her translations of Giulio Mozzi’s stories appear or are forthcoming in The Literary Review and The Missouri Review. (9/2007)