The boy calls me The Lady. Bed-ridden, surrounded by mountains of comic books and tissues of blood and snot, he looks for me in the cracks in the wall, the grotesque stains on the ceiling, smudged window glass. He should be looking outside where there is grey light upon the lake, where leaves turn yellow and red on the branches. He saw me once in the corner of a broken mirror in the old apartment in the city. He thought me very beautiful. I say this not out of vanity, but to note he saw me as the unblemished peasant girl I once was.
The young ones know I am here — they always do. They hear my footfall in the night. My shadow skirts the edge of their eyes and disappears. They do not run. They do not fear me — and I love them for it.
The old ones too. They know I am here. They are closer to the next world than their own. They talk about me in whispers, to themselves, to each other. They make the sign of the cross, wrap rosary beads around their cracked paper hands and mutter counter curses to ward off the evil eye. Even here in the New World as they write their own obituaries in cyberspace, they cling to the old ways. The blood of their ancestors runs deep.
I’ve been with this family for centuries — ever since don Capritti and his donkey-brained son violated me among the broken olive groves and left me for dead in a ditch black with frost. The frost had come early that year and snow dusted the foothills of Etna. Winter grew in our souls as it did for all people of the mountain and shadow-filled forests of the Nebrodi. I was so looking forward to winter. A lamb watched me take my last breath. A rangy little thing separated from its flock. Ice on its breath. What a beautiful creature. I was happy to be with it at the end. Give me an animal over a human any day.
You might say I’m the Capritti family curse — not that I purposely do bad things these days. But my mere presence — the fact that I linger, that I am bound to them — causes their cells to divide and grow unchecked. Arteries harden, babies bleed from wombs, money is squandered. Love withers on rotting vines. These things could still happen without me — but I doubt it. Mamma wanted it this way. She bound my furious spirit to this family. She was a great witch in her day.
The boy’s nonna sits by the day bed, a mint copy of Giant-Sized X-Men 1 resting on her lap like a delicate rose. She is dying, although you wouldn’t know it by looking at her. She wears blue jeans, a black cardigan, silver hair streaked with midnight. She is often mistaken for the boy’s mother. She feels no pain. I do what I can to make sure of that, considering I am most likely to blame for the rotten acorn in her left breast. When she found the lump a year ago, she did not call to god, she called to me. A curious occurrence indeed. I thought she had forgotten me. Like the boy, she glimpsed me — was in it in a puddle of bathwater vanishing down the drain? — when she was young. She called me La Donna, as did her mother and grandmother. They whispered my name around kitchen tables. The men had all but forgotten me — I was merely an old wives’ tale, a tattered scrap of family lore, a curse, a piece of bad luck.
The boy is dozing now, the fever upon him. Nonna puts a washcloth, semi-hard from the freezer, on his brow. I lurk at his bedside. His scarred lungs will heal. There will be no more dead children because of me. Nonna puts the comic back into the special mylar bag and sanitises her hands with the dispenser on the table. She lifts her right palm to her nose and breathes, she likes the clean smell of the alcohol. She stands before the floor to ceiling windows of the tightly-sealed porch. Her gaze is fixed at something out on the lake. I stand behind her. I don’t know if she sees my reflection trapped in the glass. She walks to the other side of the porch and puts another log into the mouth of the stove. A sudden rush of oxygen feeds the flames. I enter the stove — I want her to see me in the fire, but her back is turned. I want her to know I am still here.
The boy’s mother is asleep upstairs, an empty bottle of pills on the pillow. Ten hour days at the warehouse grind her down. She is on her feet all day, her back burns. She urinates in a plastic milk jug. Still, she likes being surrounded by acres and acres of books. She believes she is sending the books out into the world, to a good home. She reads the first line of every book she packs, a scandalous waste of time when there are quotas to fill under the eyes of a leering foreman. She looks older in the grey light of the bedroom. It is the same grey light spilling over the lake. Her face is as crumpled as the bed linen but I see her beauty in the grey light. Her breathing is steady and I take comfort in it. She is better alone in the bed. For too long, she has shared her bed with villains. The boy’s father was a gentle soul but he died before she gave birth. I had nothing to do with it. She was right to come here. She — her name escapes me now — woke the boy in the dead of the night and fled the city. They have found sanctuary in her mother’s home.
I hear the clatter of pots and pans through the floorboards. I pass through them and make them creak. What a lovely sound. There is nothing like the moan of a creaking floorboard. Nonna deftly peels the skin from boiled tomatoes. They drain in a colander before she chops them. The boy is slicing onions, he wipes tears from his eyes. Garlic is frying gently in a cast iron pan. Outside, the autumn evening deepens. I hear dry leaves rustle, the water lapping the edge of the lake, the hush of the earth. I feel the night close in, yet I long to smell the garlic in the pan. The boy — I had his name just a moment ago — wipes the steam from his eyeglasses. They are too big for his face but they suit him. He turns his attention to a mountain of basil on a chopping board and nonna kisses the top of his head. She leans into his ear and whispers. The boy stiffens and smiles. His eyes skirt the room and points to a forgotten corner of the kitchen. Nonna shrugs, takes a sip of red wine from a glass on the counter. I move from the forgotten corner and sit on a stool at the kitchen counter. I make sure they hear the folds of my dress rustle. Nonna takes another sip of wine and the boy drops a knife on the floor. As he bends to pick up the knife, nonna places a hand on her left breast. I reach across the counter and place my hand over hers. We are one but she does not move. The boy is back chopping basil and the moment passes. I return to the shadows.
The boy’s mother joins them. She washes down a pill with a jolt of wine. Her lips are bloody like she has just slaughtered a small bird. Nonna — I know her name is a beautiful flower but it eludes me — puts down her pasta-filled fork, making sure it bangs against the plate. The boy’s lips are red with sauce, he does not takes his eyes off his mother. A strand of pasta hangs from the corner of his mouth and he quickly sucks it in. The mother drags her fork across the plate, packing books in her mind. She wants to say something, anything. She needs to hear words. Her face does not betray her but I know what she wants. I know these things. She stuffs words back into her mouth with another forkful of pasta, a gulp of wine. I rise from the empty chair next to the boy and pass through the chandelier above. The eco-bulbs flicker like dying candles and nonna whispers my name, the name she gave me as a young girl. The boy repeats the name in English. I do not remember my real name. I do not know what my mother called me, but I think it is also the name of a beautiful flower.
The boy is asleep now. He begged to stay in the day bed on the porch. He does not want his dreams to carry him too far from the women. I know things but I cannot penetrate his dreams. Some things are too sacred for a ghost to foul. The women have opened another bottle of wine. They sit around the burning stove, their shadows shiver in the light of the fire. Night creeps in through the slats of the wooden Venetian blinds. Wind taps the windows, frog song echoes from the lake. Strange for this time of year. Each sip of wine crumbles stone in the wall between them. The mother’s hand is on nonna’s knee. Nonna’s hand on her cheek. Tears mix with laughter. Nonna opens her arms and she rests her head upon the diseased breast. She cradles her daughter, so safe in nonna’s arms. They should have done this long ago. Nonna clears her throat. She says it softly and her daughter nods. She wants to see Sicily before she dies. She wants to see the land of her grandparents. She wants to take her and the boy across the ocean. She wants to go by ship, to rise and fall with the waves. If I still had a human heart, it would be lodged in my throat, a trapped sparrow struggling to be free. There is a shift in my being, a tingling in my non-corporeal self. Even the dead feel, even ghosts can cry. I have done so many times through the ages. They are not wet, mortal tears, streaming down reddened cheeks — they are dry convulsions, tremors coursing through ectoplasm. No one longs for the past more than a ghost. I miss the orchids on the forest floor, the pine and oak trees. I long for primrose growing from black slabs of petrified lava. I miss mamma. Poor mamma, she thought my fury would last forever.
The women dry their tears. They raise their glasses, toast this new beginning. The mother needs a new beginning. Her journey from the city was merely the first step. She did not expect to stay so long with her mother. But the boy loves his nonna, he worships her, and when he took ill, the weeks turned to months. She found work, demeaning, soul-sucking work. She is a number in a database, a cog in the wheel. She makes money for men to journey to the stars. She feels safe here, but she knows there is danger around every corner, danger in parked rental cars with tinted windows. She shudders with every missed call, avoids shadows under dark, dripping trees. She quit work and told them she was going to care for a sick aunt in California. She cleared out the apartment when he was on a bender. She stopped using her married name and became a Capritti again. She took the boy and escaped in the night.
The fire is dying with the night. Dirty streaks of light appear over the lake and nonna uses the metal tongs to catch a final log for the fire. The boy’s mother shuts the door of the stove and extends her hands. It’s no use, she can’t escape the dawn cold. Nonna goes to the kitchen and empties what’s left of the wine into the sink. A silverfish circles the drain and disappears with the wine. She runs her hands across her chest, smooths the wrinkles of the cardigan, and retrieves a carton of eggs from the refrigerator. The beautiful crack of eggs on the rim of a bowl. A coffee machine stirs to life, a kettle whistles.
Beyond the fogged-over windows, the grass is thick with the first frost of the year. The boy’s mother creates a portal with a rub of her shirt sleeve. The frost is beautiful, unbroken, free of footprints. He will not find her today. She sighs and makes the portal bigger. A rabbit scurries past the tarp-covered wood pile. A spider spins a web across two of the logs. She will be careful not to break it later when she collects the wood for the fire. Crows cling to swaying branches. The sun will bring little warmth today but she will rouse the boy and they will have a fine breakfast. They will take the rowboat and go with nonna to one of the islands on the lake. Nonna will forage for wild mushrooms. The boy will talk of adventure, seek out the best place to build a fort. They will raise their eyes and watch the geese flying south through the autumn-naked branches of the trees. They will row back across the lake, unthreatened by cloud burst. There will be a warm house waiting for them. They will be safe. I will be with them.
Every family should have its own ghost.
Born in New Jersey and raised in New York, Jayson Carcione now lives in Cork, Ireland, where he works for the Irish Examiner newspaper. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Lunate, Epoque Press, The Forge, Passengers Journal, Across the Margin, and Pigeon Review. His work was also highly commended in the 2020 Sean O’Faoláin International Short Story Competition.