Ex-Tempora — Toti O’Brien
Let’s start under the tree.
My braids pinned around my skull—an intimate hairdo I only sport in domestic settings. No make-up besides lipstick. I am holding my morning cup of coffee. My son takes a picture on his phone, without reason.
Later on, when he gives it to me, I realize the miracle. He has captured a moment of happiness, strange and spare, impromptu, incongruous. No one knew it was occurring. I certainly didn’t. But it was revealed in the print, as it sometimes happens with occult phenomena.
What is that? Not sure. Look! That halo! An alien? A ghost? The green ray. Aurora Borealis. Morgana.
Same for that shard of bliss, x-rayed. Did I save the photo! And the date!
History is a betrayal—at best a distorted vision, as it looks at the past through a lens that contains the future. Such perspective is necessarily false, because when the past occurred the future didn’t exist.
So now I look at that morning levity of mine under a green canopy, at the hand surrounding the cup, the confident smile, and I cramp with sadness—I know how quickly pain and mourning ensued.
Now that picture is tinged with weird undertones—a variety of them. Perhaps irony, or danger, or shame. A pinch of absurdity. A whole load of fragility. Some naivety. A sense of inconsistency. Illusion.
Now that picture has lost its integrity—all because history impudently twisted it, poking it with minuscule holes, blurring it with its wintry breath.
This isn’t about me though, girl. In fact, it is about you.
Pardon me if I took a detour before calling up your memory. It is out of respect that I linger on preambles. Sometimes choruses precede the verse in a song—light hors d’oeuvre before the main course.
Pardon me if I place myself before placing you. Also, because you have no place besides that of our meeting. Ostia city, the harbor of Rome. Italy, nineteen ninety some. The underground station.
It is night and we are waiting for the last train that never arrives, because train don’t in Rome, in the nineteen nineties. Especially in peripheries as remote as Ostia—this drab, ugly harbor town.
I am used to endless wait after exhausting workdays. So are you, girl, I’m sure. We are both used to cancelled trains, to compartments so crowded we can’t get in. I am hungry and sleepy. You? Perhaps I am cold but it doesn’t matter. This long wait is part of a pattern I know—an attitude I was born within. Patience. Maybe passiveness. Patience and a resignation of sorts. Also, at this time of life I know little happiness. Sadness waits without blinking.
You are taking off one of your socks, fumbling with it, then putting it back on. Now and again, but in haste—what if the train whistled… Could you run, jump in with a sock and sandal in hand? Would you miss it indeed? In a hurry you do your sock-business, then you take quasi-catatonic pauses, eyes riveted to some vague point in the distance.
Here I am. Not too far, but sufficiently to go apparently unnoticed by you. And for me not to capture what exactly you are doing with your footwear. Until, drawn by a mysterious power, you come sit by my side.
Then I see the packet of bills—all sweaty, almost wet—you keep pulling out, counting them in a frenzy, then hiding them back. Your lips murmur cyphers as they would recite a litany, a rosary—same trance-like monotony, but tinged with an anguished shade.
Then you speak. You say that you are worried. You have not made enough. Your dad will be unhappy.
I know of kids counting money…
I know of kids whose folks are part of the mafia, ‘ndrangheta or camorra world. They attend school sometimes—at least elementary. They are often the ones who collect mafia, ‘ndrangheta or camorra dues from the gas pump, bar, garage, diner, newspaper kiosk, you-name-it. They do it first thing in the morning, before class, of course.
Then in class they count up the cash, taking care of real-life matters while the bla-bla-bla goes on. Then in class, either under their desk or else in the open, they meticulously count thousands of bills.
They have enormous sums in their hands, say my friends who teach in those darn elementary schools. Huge amounts and those boys, my god, are so very tiny. They are not only young. They are thin, short and bony. They are ill fed, and poor.
You, girl, don’t count thousands. Yet the sum you didn’t quite make—the daily earning you need to bring home at night, having left at sunbreak, taken this same underground the opposite way—is ambitious. The equivalent of what I make in a week.
Quite a disproportionate task for a child your age! I wouldn’t believe it real, had I not seen the quasi-total crumpled inside your hand. Is it possible for such a small girl to raise that much money, begging from sunrise to sunset? Well, if she is conveniently scared. If she is very smart.
You relax as suddenly as you have come to sit near me, impromptu, after having entirely ignored me. Well, apparently. Who knows what you notice, in fact? Perhaps everything within a large radius.
You have known all along I could see your fidgeting—perhaps even the bills—but that I was harmless. Did you decide to trust me on a whim? You have known all along you could.
You haven’t asked me for a dime so far. I have offered you nothing. I have no change to spare, but why haven’t you asked? You haven’t met your assignment yet and you are worried. Either you have concluded my wallet is spotless or, as I suspect, you are done for the day. Basta, Father, basta.
You are starving as I am—the train is so late. You are tempted to pilfer a crumb of the booty and to get yourself a bite at the food machine. Just a chocolate bar or two crackers. You hesitate. How do I know?
You have loosened up. You have started talking. You have stated your alimentary dilemma—not asking for my opinion, no. You ask for nothing—no money, no advice. You just think out loud in my presence, and it is like a fountain.
How do they call water that springs from the ground, sprays up, ripples down, ricochets with a joyful murmur? Silvery, that is.
Not your voice. Your timbre is deep, grave and husky (yes, you smoke)—as unfit to your size as the stack of bills you are manipulating like cards. Your voice is worn out. But your stories, your thoughts—but your monologue—are silvery and shiny.
When I was a teenager, my folks asked me to meet with the priest who had baptized me. What for they didn’t say. I remember the lad was kind and he asked many questions. I forgot them, except for the last one.
We were sitting at a cafe terrace overlooking a lake. All around us was just beautiful and calm. I recall a feeling of peace, mixed with some perplexity and a nuance of embarrassment. That depended on being before a person-of-god. Such an ambiguous role—simultaneously familiar and distant, benign and judgmental, to be trusted perhaps, perhaps feared. And the habit, the blurring of gender—all that kept me on edge.
We were looking at a volcanic lake enclosed by steep hills, hidden like a precious stone. It was gorgeous.
At the bottom of it lay a ship, the priest said. A huge vessel, once part of a Roman fleet, most certainly arrived from the sea via a subterranean channel. A large boat, once loaded with slaves chained at the oars. A galley with its human cargo. It lay there in good shape—only skinned, a bit skeletal like a giant fishbone. Serene, finally at rest.
Then the priest asked what I was studying. “Art,” I said. “You an artist? How weird.” He smiled, frankly surprised. “I would have expected a philosopher.”
Because Father taught philosophy in school? I couldn’t see another reason. I recall how the idea seemed bizarre and, again, embarrassing—as if he had handled me a very out fashioned dress as a gift, and I should smile nevertheless. His projecting on me something so unbecoming, so unfit to my nature, suddenly made me doubt the legitimacy of my nature itself. But I was who I was.
“Me a philosopher? I am sorry.”
You are tiny and shrunk. Aged before you even grew. A small head like an apple. Thin, straight hair, dark blond, shoulder-length but wrapped into a scarf. Your teeth are no good, your hands raw, bitten around the nails, your nails hemmed black. Your clothes are the expected mix-match. Your calves, that you unintentionally expose each time you remove your socks, are exiguous and they make me cringe.
I also have skinny calves and I do not like them. To me they are a sign of penury. I always thought upper class is defined by muscular, fleshy calves more than anything else. Don’t know why… perhaps a biblical thing. Skinny calves make me cringe—mine or anyone else’s. Yours are toothpicks, girl.
You tell me everything about your routine. How you leave at the crack of dawn with all the other children, how you split to reach the assigned locations, how many hours you beg (you work 7/7), how much you are supposed to make on a weekday, on a weekend, how you come back on your own, at night, as most of the kids do—eager to go home as soon as the sock is full, the darn goal achieved. Some nights you have to run for the last train, no matter how far from the target you are. This is one of those nights.
You are articulated and lively. You are incredibly clever. I imagine your mates that I didn’t meet resemble you in skills and intelligence. Five, six, seven-year old. Are you eight already? Perhaps, yet so tiny—a wren, and already worn.
So this is what she did—the gypsy, the beggar who came up to the driver door blocking his way out with her body, he says.
She said she’d tell his fortune for free, nothing in exchange. On the house, so to speak. He should show her a fiver, that’s all. He could keep it right in his hand and she wouldn’t touch it.
She wouldn’t try to grab it, he knew. That would be just stupid. Should he hold on it instinctively as most do, the bill would be ripped, then worth nothing. She would not try to grab it. Just show her the cash, that bit—a symbolic token—and she’d read his fortune in it.
Oh, no. He tried to sneak past her, of course not brushing, touching or bumping against her. Of course avoiding contact, for Christ’s sake. She didn’t let him by—strong, obstinate, desperate.
He would not show the bill, though. He knew the trick well. She would spit on it right away and he’d let it go, disgusted. She would pocket it at the speed of light.
I took the train from Ostia to Rome every night, that year, after long days of work. Sometimes a colleague shared the commute on the way back. We were tired, silent.
We stood often—sometimes holding a bar in order to steady ourselves, sometimes finding no bar, trying to keep our balance in spite of the rock ‘n roll. Such activity kept us awake, alert… Perhaps it lulled us to sleep.
We didn’t have much of a conversation, my colleague and I. We both were musicians. We rehearsed in the same garage band. Once, we talked about a new tune he had transcribed and we both were learning.
Suddenly he became animated, almost joyful. Usually laconic, he hatched a luscious depiction of the exquisite pleasure involved in writing a melody you hear. What a thrill is to decipher the pitches, the rhythm, key and time signatures, chords.
“It is like,” he said, “taming a wild horse.”
The train went part underground, part on surface. When the rail track emerged, it ran among slopes of dirt with scant vegetation, topped with rows of small trailers. These were the lots allowed by the town administration to our ‘local’ nomads. The gypsies. These were the places from where children left at dawn, to where they returned.
I haven’t listened yet to what you last said, girl, before the train arrived. And then what? I do not recall what happened. We must have parted company, but who removed herself? I think I saw you alight at some point, way before I reached my destination. You must have joined the camp—the non-verdant slope allowed by the municipality to the Rom.
I’ll be back after a detour.
It is evening. I have reached Claudia’s house ahead of time. Both her husband and mine will be here momentarily. While we wait we sit—drink in hand—at the round table on which Claudia has lit a large scented candle.
The day is fading outside—through the window I see a strip of paling sky—while inside the candlelight gains momentum. This osmosis, this transmutation creates a small magic. Almost imperceptible. Still.
The calmness is so thick, so palpable, even Claudia—a tireless raconteur—shuts up. Silence never lasts more than a few minutes with her. “Your face looks very beautiful,” she says out of the blue—her voice deeper, her delivery slower than usual.
I am embarrassed. I mutter: “Everyone looks good near a candle. It’s an effect of light.”
She pauses, puzzled. She walks to the window and she looks out. “What else is a face, dear, than an effect of light?”
Claudia takes her life a month later and her passing, of course, is now etched within the round table, flickering through the candlelight that looks ominous.
What’s a face?
Yours, girl, is an apple. Round and priced—at the time I’m talking about—pretty cheap. Too common a fruit. What you buy when nothing fancier is offered. Or your face is a shrunk, wrinkled apple—that’s why it is cheap. One that has slept too long on the market stall. One that has slipped behind the bunch and hid in a corner, unseen.
But you are visible, are you?
Boldly going back and forth, alone on the train like a grown up. Boldly extruding your wages from the extraneous crowd of indifferent or hostile passers-by. Boldly counting your booty in the open, in this station of the cross, this circle of hell. Boldly speaking your truth to a stranger.
This does not make you visible, no. You go entirely unseen.
It’s so late, the train must arrive. Any minute—you feel it just as I do. After all we share the same instincts, same intuitive skills.
Suddenly there’s another change in your attitude. You decide to come even closer, shedding yet another defense. Your voice sounds a bit sharper, more passionate. Your delivery hatched, bizarrely fragmented.
“What is this for?” you say. “What is this all for?” Automatically my brain fumbles for answers—as if truly I were asked, as if these were questions. My mouth has the sense to keep shut.
“What is all of this for?” You are touching your body—assertively, proudly? Starting from the infamous socks, you go upwards—roots to crown as if you were a tree—cataloguing all parts with impressive thoroughness. Feet and ankles, calves, knees—demonstrating a keen mastery of anatomy…
You add details. “What are nails and teeth, gums and lashes? What is hair for?” You get brighter as you speak. I mean shinier, more luminous. You enjoy your presentation, for sure. You are hurried as well, hence the excitement.
Rapidly you switch mode, entering a temporal field of reflection. You are staring into my eyes—do you seek my opinion? Perhaps a tiny tad. “Why are we doing this?”
“Why what?” Do I reply? Just thinking.
“We are born, we grow up, we eat, bleed, marry and make babies”—yes you say this all—”then we feed babies and they do the same we did. Why?”
Is there an obvious link that I do not grasp, between these grand questions and your day job—the bills you are carrying along. Of the kind—“Are these bills meant to pay for my body? Do they buy my legs and hips, lips and tongue? Does this body-life cost so very much, truly? Is it worth it?” Or else—“Did I get hands, fingers and nails, narrow chest, thin thighs, empty belly in order to beg from daybreak until night?” Do you mean those things between the lines? Not sure. Your lines are thick enough, need no filling.
You shift to the collective domain while you look at me, as if earnestly seeking my contribution. In fact, only trying to make your point crystal clear, to make me understand.
“Why so many of us? Why mothers, grandmothers? Why older and older? Then daughters, then granddaughters, smaller and smaller. We die and then more babies are born. Why so many? Why don’t we ever stop?”
This is just surreal.
No one else but me is hearing this squirt say these things. Yet she is saying them. No one’s asking if she plans to be an artist or a philosopher. I guess she could be both, in the best of impossible worlds. She won’t.
Here’s the train. We rush in. Conversations with strangers stop the way they begin—abruptly and prodigiously.
Girl, are you alive? If I look at your snapshot from a future standpoint…
I see you exactly as I saw you then. Nothing in my memory has changed, since no history has piled up as far as you are concerned. I have met you no more.
Does history alter the memory of me? Sitting there, dead tired, stunned by the epiphany of you—Little Sibyl, Fairy Queen, Pocket Fate, Personal Cassandra. Does history alter the memory of me? Not much. Little I knew, little I know.
History seems to skip the cameo wherein the two of us have crossed path. We were stuck in wait, niched in a suspension where only patience belonged, distilling its wisdom. You were talking of things circular, cycles and spirals, of a space where we are distinct but are one. Correct?
Was any of your thoughts meant for me, small sister? I guess not, but I took some.
I have carried them along ever since. Not sure if I have done anything with them, if they were of help. Perhaps it is my turn to say, “What for?” Because, truly, what are questions without replies but a scratch, an irritation, a scar—and yours are, you know, perfectly unanswerable.
What did I gather from you except for a sense of awe, an indelible wish to hold you within my arms, to reassure you—because you were so small—and to thank you again and again—because you were infinite.
Toti O’Brien is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish Last Name. She was born in Rome then moved to Los Angeles, where she makes a living as a self-employed artist, performing musician and professional dancer. Her work has most recently appeared in Lotus-eaters, Altadena Poetry Review, Arkana, and Ragazine.