Unattended children

While you sleep, I imagine ships leaving their harbors unattended. Left to their own devices. At last, the world is free of speech.

On torrid afternoons mother went to work at the telephone exchange and I would call her to ask what time it was. Which was another way of asking: when are you coming home? My brother and I never asked for father. He was at work, somewhere. Late in the afternoon, when mother’s lips turned bruise mauve, he returned and prepared food for the pigs. He smashed the boiled potatoes with his hands and mixed them with bread and water and maize. In the barn, the pigs squealed and hit their heads against the wooden doors.

‘Get off the line!’ Mother would sometimes lose her patience and beat us with the rubber tube from the washing machine. Father never raised a hand and he was proud of that. In church, the gods often had raised hands and I winced at the sight of them, expecting a blow. ‘You’re keeping the line busy,’ mother said, ‘there might be an emergency somewhere.’ The phone was made of shiny red plastic. On Sundays, mother and father slept late and we were not allowed to make noise. My brother and I looked for ways to forget about the time spent in our parents’ absence.

At school, the teacher would place the notebooks of those who wrote flawlessly in a showcase at the back of the class. My notebook never got to that point. ‘If it hadn’t been for this tiny error,’ the teacher said pointing at a smudge with her red pencil, ‘your notebook would have been placed there, behind glass, for everyone to see.’ It felt like a tiny success to me.

‘You’ll get there,’ mother said and I went and hid in the garden and stared at the clouds. ‘Give me a sign,’ I would scream at the cotton candy above, ‘tell me I’m the chosen one, and I will stop being so sad and lonely!’ I wished for infinite knowledge and for everyone’s attention. I wanted to be a boy but not just any boy. Envy was what I pined for.

Instead, rain came and I couldn’t cry because there was nothing to cry about. ‘Stop being such a child,’ mother seemed to be saying.

That one looks like a bunny.

That one looks like an ice cream cone.

That one looks like a cock.

I looked for things to play with in the trash. ‘Behind the bar,’ one of the kids told my brother, ‘there are lighters galore!’ When we got there I wanted to pee really badly so I had to use the toilet behind the bar. There was shit and broken glass everywhere and it had no doors. I told everyone I peed when I had not.

Mother worked at the telephone exchange day and night. She slept on the table because of the mice. People called in the middle of the night. She listened to all of them, helped them connect to the source of their longing. At times she eavesdropped and told grandmother about men and their mistresses. On TV, people sang about love lost and I turned to my brother: ‘why don’t they just get married?’ He said it was not that simple.

Mother never received money from the telephone exchange. That is, I never saw her receive money. We were always running out of money. At the end of the month she went to the slaughterhouse and bought salami, which we cut in thin slices and ate on Sunday mornings.

When the salami was over we went back to eating potatoes and mother seemed to hide within her clothes. Her collars became higher and thicker; her hair grew beyond control. Her shirts seemed borrowed. Grandmother hid behind the tall grass in the garden and mother avoided our gaze. My brother and I searched for food and we found dried polenta and pickled cucumbers.

We ran from home, which was another way of saying: ‘when are you coming back?’. I jumped over fences and bruised my thighs.

My brother said Champagne instead of Spain.

Once, I was so hungry I stuffed myself with green plums until they started coming out through my nose. In between plums I said: if only I could find a friend.

I found him inside the food I wolfed down and in the prayers I read from a small yellow book. I burned incense and googled how to make a pact with the devil. I wrote notes on small pieces of paper and woke up in the middle of the night to read them. I wouldn’t cut my hair and saw myself as a mythological creature. I went to church and asked for forgiveness.

I discovered joy in eating meat and found nothing under the Christmas tree.

‘Stop eating!’ Mother screamed at me. When she wasn’t looking I searched for the sour milk and dried polenta. We ate crab apples.

Unattended, I ate.

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