the old tongue
A moment ago he was four years old and standing in that yard in South Philadelphia somewhere on the other side of the universe. A large fat cat rubs her white head against his leg. A rotting wooden fence turns into a shadowy blur behind him.
The sun spills all over his face, staining skin and hair.
Snap. His brother takes a photo. He’s caught forever within the confines of a black-and-white box: A smiling child holding a huge doll in his small arms.
A moment ago he walks away from that snap. His brother is gone. The doll is on the ground. There are things he wants to say, but he doesn’t speak.
Momma comes to the kitchen door moments after his brother snaps the photo. The women’s voices in the kitchen rise and fall behind her, voices that speak in the tongue of the old people. The old tongue is music. Its melodies invoke another world altogether, one that Gianni somehow knows tastes differently from this one in which his family resides.
Sometimes when the women speak, no separation exists for Gianni between that other world and this one.
In the bright sunlight Momma’s dark hair is stark against her light olive coloring. Lighter than the other women, lighter than Poppa.
“Gianni, where’s your brother Joey?” Momma says, opening the kitchen door, forgetting that this child doesn’t speak. He shrugs. She goes inside. A door slams. It is not theirs, not the door Momma has just closed. He runs to the fence between yards, placing his eye against a huge splintery hole.
“Come on over,” says Tomas, the boy with the deep olive skin and dark hair. When Gianni enters Tomas’ yard, the boy throws a coloring book down on the ground and empties a box of worn crayons. He opens the book to two blank pages.
Tomas laughs at Gianni approvingly when he colors outside the lines, then begins to do the same.
No longer interested in crayons, Gianni puts his finger on the space between Tomas’ deep earth-colored eyes, and traces down the boy’s nose to his lips. He lets his finger rest in the crack between those thick almost purplish lips.
Gianni is feeling something. Alien feeling. Ache. Deep in the darkest reaches of his stomach. Deep in his heart. Deep where no one’s ever taught him to look. Tomas grabs Gianni’s hand.
The contrast between their coloring is jolting.
“Stop that,” Tomas says softly.
Gianni drops his hand for a moment, then places it on the boy’s face, stroking his cheek. Tomas grabs his hand again, this time pushing it against the cement.
“No,” Tomas says firmly, shaking his head. Gianni understands; he has gone outside the lines again. He suddenly doesn’t feel like sitting in the yard with his friend.
Gianni walks back to his house through the narrow cement alley. Though he’s seen them many times before, he still stops to stare at the swarms of maggots gathered around a fallen garbage can, puddles of rotted vegetables and leftover food spilling from its mouth.
He waves his hand through the air to push away the flies that dart frantically in every direction. Tufts of browning grass and bony pieces of trees, their leaves punctured by insects, push up from every crack in the cement.
The stench from the alley follows him into the kitchen where the women sit around the table, coffee cups in front of them, housedresses unbuttoned or missing buttons, hair pinned to sweaty scalps or under kerchiefs, dark olive-skinned necks glistening with an oily perspiration, hands waving in the air or clasped together in a rocking motion, eyes on each other or raised to a heaven they swear abandoned them a long time ago.
The smell from these women is musty, their hairy armpits bared by the huge arm holes in these house dresses, their bosoms tucked snugly by cloth over yellowing white bras visible through damp cotton that has become translucent.
A woman close to where Gianni stands at the door, frozen for a moment, turns to the boy, her large brown eyes examining his body. Her bra strap has fallen over her right shoulder, hanging below the short sleeve of her dress.
“C’mere,” Concetta says in an accent that is thick like molasses and rich like chocolate.
He moves closer. She pinches his cheek with her fingers, her lips stretched in a strange sort of smile, then opening just wide enough to utter a drawn-out “ahhhhh,” followed by “quanda bella” and the tightening of her fingers on his flesh.
It’s a prayer.
Concetta says something to the other women in the old language. They laugh, animated, heads nodding and turning to each other, hands always moving, faces lit, music spilling from every part of their bodies.
“Why don’tcha speek?” she asks. When he shrugs, his cheeks burning, his eyes dropping to the floor, she looks at him with eyebrows twisted, lips pursed, head tilted slightly.
“You don’t wanna be wid us?” she asks, and he doesn’t understand, but the scolding tone of her voice frightens him. He starts to back away. Another pair of hands grabs him. He becomes rigid.
Suddenly he’s staring at a face lined with deep crevices and creases, a face with a nose like a mountain range, eyes like eclipsed suns floating in glassy ponds, fleshy lips that seem to stretch from one ear to the other.
Libby strokes his face with a hand that is calloused and worn. “I’m notta gonna hurta you,” she says gently, and he believes her.
This woman pulls him closer, pressing his thin body against her immense breasts, covering him with her smell. He involuntarily closes his eyes, feeling safe for the first time since he enters the room.
There’s magic in closing his eyes. He discovers it that morning. One moment he’s pressed against this woman, the next he’s drifting in some unknown place. A shape lies ahead of him.
It’s not a dream. Not the heat of that already 90-degree morning. It’s as if this woman has taken him somewhere. But before he can become solid in this other place he is back in the kitchen, Libby has released him, and Mamma is telling him to go outside and play.
He dashes out of the room.
A few hours later, when the women are gone, he glimpses that unknown place again. He’s swinging on the edge of the marble mantel in the living room, his sister stands at the window looking out at the street.
The mantel is cold to his touch. He climbs onto the arm of a nearby chair to reach the shiny slick surface, then pulls himself along its length, stopping once or twice to rock his body like a pendulum.
Marita turns to him, her dark brown curly hair combed flatly against her scalp and pulled tightly into a ponytail that falls down her back in long wavy pieces. Her face is Mamma’s, huge eyes set deep into her skull, and crowned by thick brows that meet in the center above her long nose.
“Why’re you doin’ that?” Marita asks, but she knows he won’t answer. His sister turns away and the mantel collapses on top of him, once again shutting out the universe as he knows it.
He’s floating in that unknown place, grasping for solid footing. Where’s the edge of the mantel? A figure grabs him, pulls him down, grounds him; he strains to see who — or what — it is.
It speaks, something unintelligible, a long dribble of words that run like water, flow like air. Is it the old tongue? Everything around him is a colorless blank, sometimes turning into a blinding white, then muting to a dull gray. There are objects, no specific shapes, no angles, only the fog-like presence of forms. The faceless figure begins to change into an old woman.
“Nono,” she whispers over and over.
But everything blurs and he’s suddenly lying in a bright room. Angles, lines, specific shapes appear again.
A man’s voice: “Are you with us? Ah, you are.”
He opens his eyes. They were closed? He’s in a hospital room under a mound of white sheets.
Flashback: the mantel groaning, splitting, its pieces breaking off, burying him, his sister screaming. For an instance he sees that scream take form and explode thickly in reds and whites and blacks.
Momma comes into the room, and though her heart races like a train without brakes when she spots her boy, she pulls him from the remains of the mantel.
“He’s not breathing,” she says, motioning to Marita, “Go get somebody.” But the frightened girl cannot move. “Don’t stand there like an idiot!” Momma screams to a now-deaf daughter, to no avail.
Without knowing why, she kneels over him, pounding on his chest, a constant string of words, some in the old tongue, pouring from her lips. When he’s breathing again, she takes him into her arms and dashes out into the middle of the street.
A car stops. “You gotta take me to the hospital, my baby’s dying,” this diminutive woman tells the confused driver.
It’s a moment Gianni will hear about for years.
But for the next few days all Gianni can think about is what the old woman said.
Gianni’s brothers are always in the living room after dinner watching the brown box with the moving people, the box Aunt Maria brought home from General Electric, where she works.
Tonight, two days after Gianni returns from the hospital, cowboys and Indians race across the screen, their insistent galloping and yelping ringing throughout the house. Momma tells them it’s too loud but they don’t move, eyes glued to the ever-shrieking picture.
“You’ll wake your Nonno,” she says when she returns to the living room for the second time. The boys still don’t budge, so she goes to the box and makes its volume drop.
“Nonno can’t hear nothing,” Joey says when Momma’s gone. Vinny agrees. “He just sleeps in there,” he says.
From where he sits in the corner, Gianni can’t see the cowboys and Indians. Scotty, the only surviving kitten of Queenie, the fat white cat, is curled in his lap. Not interested in the TV, he goes into the kitchen for a glass of water, carrying Scotty with him. “Why do you hafta drag that cat everywhere?” Poppa asks, his feet up on the table.
Poppa’s thin and small like Momma. But his skin is darker and his features larger, especially his nose, which dominates his narrow face. His eyes always have a worried look.
Poppa operates a gas station with his older brother Guido a few blocks from where the family lives, a job he’s been doing since he was a teenager. He comes home every night in his coveralls, reeking of gasoline, his hands branded with greasy stains that don’t wash off, though he spends a long time scrubbing them.
“He’s not bothering nobody with that cat,” Momma says from the sink where she washes dishes. “And would ya get your stinking feet off the table.”
“What do you want, Gianni?” The boy shakes his head and Mamma returns her gaze to her dishes.
“I’m gonna lay down,” Poppa says walking out of the room.
Poppa’s like Aunt Maria. When she comes home from work, “I’m tired” is all she ever says. She often turns down dinner, her face worn and pale, her hair wind-blown from rain or wind or both, her legs barely stretching enough to take another step. Under her eyes it looks like somebody’s been coloring with a gray crayon. The creases in her face are like canyons.
Once in a while she stops in grandpop’s bedroom on the first floor next to the living room. This bedroom used to be a dining room, but when Nonno got sick he couldn’t climb steps and Mamma didn’t want to run up and down to bring him things, so it was easier to put his bed here.
Only the grownups can go into grandpop’s room.
On the days after he returns from the hospital, still reeling from the experience of that unknown place, Gianni is suddenly determined to know this man who sleeps in a room just a few feet from where the women gather almost every morning.
It is on such a summer morning when the women sit in the kitchen, their chatter creating arias throughout the house, that Gianni slowly opens the door to grandpop’s room.
It seems to take forever, this quiet twisting and gentle releasing of the knob so that the door swings open only enough to let a boy’s thin body slip through sideways.
The air from grandpop’s room slaps him in the face with a pungent moldy smell, like potatoes left too long in the cellar or a blanket after too many years in the attic. Grandpop’s breathing is a steady hum like Mamma’s vacuum, his face old and wrinkled, his mouth open, nose curved and thick, with hairs sticking out the openings, brows like fat caterpillars resting on his forehead, speckled with white, his hair gray with fading traces of mocha.
The room is dark. Only a sliver of light slides through the thick curtains on the tall window in the corner. Gianni stands just beyond the door, looking around the room, fascinated by every object: chairs, an old trunk, a chipped wooden clothes cabinet, a table with a lamp and lots of medicine bottles, papers and photos and a cluttered marble mantel above the fireplace.
On the mantel: dozens of small glassed, many-colored votive candles; statues of saints; medals; rosaries of different lengths, colors and substances; holy cards of various sizes and hues, some glossy, some matted; pieces of palm, some braided, others sticking up like tall blades of grass; and a dusty black-jacketed prayer book spotted with many brightly colored tassels and the fraying edges of cards. The stale smell tickles his throat. He starts for the door, afraid he’s going to sneeze or cough.
The man on the bed stirs, grunting a few times, his body quaking, his top half springing up stiffly, his eyes opening. Goosebumps invade Gianni’s skin.
Grandpop stares at Gianni for what seems like a long time, finally saying something in the old tongue. The boy’s eyes are so wide they hurt. His jaw is locked tightly in place; nothing will come out of his throat. Grandpop motions for Gianni to come to the bed.
The old man touches the boy’s face. His hand is like sand against Gianni’s skin. Still, the boy lets him caress his face. Grandpop smiles and continues to mutter the words of the secret language, his voice getting louder and louder.
“I gotta go, grandpop,” Gianni says nervously, pulling away from the old man’s hand, surprised to hear himself speak.
But the words flow from his throat easily. “I’ll come back, I promise.” Grandpop’s hand remains on Gianni’s face until the boy jerks away.
Clutching the door knob, Gianni turns to see that the old man is lying down again and closing his eyes. The boy opens the door slowly and slips out. The voices of the women are still loud in the kitchen.
Gianni walks to the living room — his heart racing, his cheeks flushed — and sinks into the sofa, still shaking. He’s swallowing large gulps of air.
Scotty runs into the room, leaping into Gianni’s lap; he pets her automatically, not totally conscious of the constant motion of his hand on her head and neck. She begins purring loudly, rubbing the side of her face against his hand.
As he sits there, his breathing beginning to slow down, his heart returning to its normal thump, he imagines grandpop’s hand on his cheek.
It doesn’t stop caressing him for a long long time.
originally published in The Eyetalian, summer 1996, winner of the magazine’s best fiction contest.