Anita Ronchini

and what i want to know is

how do you like your blue-eyed boy

Mister Death

Buffalo Bill’s, E.E. Cummings

He was panting as he walked his bike along the steep path leading to the dilapidated mansion at the top of the hills. The black bike was his father’s, who bought it shortly after Marcus’s birth. Riding with his father was one of his favorite childhood memories. During their summer outings, they often visited the old mansion. If he concentrated hard enough, he could still smell the rich scent of the fig tree that had grown in one of the building’s rooms. Some of its branches, heavy with fruits, hung out the rusty window bars. They would pick the ripest figs and eat them sitting on a nearby bench, their fingers sticky with sweet juice. One time he ate too many and got sick on the way home.

Now the bike was rusty, and its brakes were so rigid that he had to press the levers with all his strength if he wanted to slow down. His left foot slipped on the rotting leaves that covered the narrow path and he lost his balance for a brief moment. The warm October weather was followed by weeks of incessant November rain that dulled the woods’ bright autumn colors. Once colorful, the fallen leaves had turned brown and black after the rain. The air was so humid that Marcus had trouble breathing. His sweaty shirt clinged to his back and his hair was drenched under the woolen cap. The first multicolored Christmas lights were blinking on windows and balconies, and his father had been dead for almost six months. A few days before the trip to the ruins he had noticed that his recollection of his father’s voice was slowly starting to fade away into nothingness, like a pianissimo at the end of a concerto. He wondered how much time it would take for the memory to pass into oblivion.

In the last months of his father’s life, as he watched the once strong body become frail and thin, he had often tried to picture grief. During this morbid looking ahead, he had never glimpsed beyond the funeral as he expected it to be the pinnacle of his imagined pain. He had not yet known that grief is not a linear, orderly place. He had not known that he would be walking at the edge of chaos, a region suspended in a fragile dialectical interplay between order and disorder, known and unknown. In his teenage years, the concept of meaninglessness had often attracted him. He had found a secret delight in flirting with the Dyonisian pull toward an orgiastic annihilation. He had often listened to the alluring siren’s song calling him toward a sweet nothingness. But he had always recoiled in horror when confronted with glimpses of the void waiting for him, for he had desperately clung to the illusion that life is built on harmony and reason. His seemingly daring escapades at the fringes of order had the only goal of testing the strength of his control. He had never been brave enough to embark on a catabasis to the orgiastic realm of Dionysus.

Now, months after his father’s death, Marcus knew that he had misconstrued the nature of grief. It occurred to him that all the well-meaning, inspiring clichès were false.

“Time is the best medicine.”

“Time cures everything.”

In reality, grief turned out to be a place ruled by entropy, where pain grows exponentially and the void is unending.

Stopping to open his wind jacket, Marcus realized that he had walked past the fig tree and turned his bike around. Lately, these episodes of absent-mindedness occurred more often. When he managed to snap out of them, he would often find himself in a place without recollection of how he got there. In an effort to find some stability he had started writing a journal, but he quickly found himself unable to make order of his tangled thoughts. In the past, he found solace in writing. Now, however, putting words on paper was an exhausting task. Sometimes it took him a full day to jot down a couple of sentences that he later could not make sense of. The meaninglessness of the void left by his father’s absence had turned his thoughts into a succession of disjointed memories and undefinable feelings.

The bike ride to the old mansion was an attempt to fill the void. His father had loved the derelict building so much that he would often bike there to paint or draw. In the first weeks after his father’s death, Marcus had tried to find his presence in the countless paintings left behind.

“An artist never disappears completely, for he can always be found in his art,” his art history teacher once said. He liked the concept at the time, but now all he could find in his father’s paintings was the neverending absence. They were lifeless, meaningless, voiceless canvases on a wall. When a journalist came to the house to photograph his father’s studio for a brief obituary in the local newspaper, he found speaking about his father’s art tasteless and blasphemous.

“Before making a big decision, I always ask my late mother for advice,” said a relative during a rare family gathering. The phrase had impressed him then. Now the act of speaking for the dead made him feel like a sacrilegious impostor, a grave robber. For imagining what his father would say meant breaking the laws of the realm of Hades.

Leaving the fig tree behind, Marcus finally reached the spot where his father used to paint during the long summer days. He found a nearby bench covered in musk and sat down. The building’s facade hadn’t changed much since the last time he saw it. The yellow paint had almost completely peeled off the wall. The concrete doric columns adorning the grand entrance were covered with rust and moss. The rain had blackened the wooden shutters that were now starting to rot. But the roof had yet to collapse. He had found that old ruins tend to evoke melancholy. He once saw a woman burst into tears upon entering the Roman Forum.

“Why is the lady crying?” he asked his mother.

“Because it reminds her that we’re not here to stay.” He nodded, but he was too young to understand. Even when he became acquainted with the concept of death and loss, he still failed to grasp why people grew silent and uneasy in front of old ruins. While these testaments of past lives reminded others of their caducity, he found derelict buildings calming and comforting. He’d always felt a deep sense of belonging among them. For him they were the only barriers left to prevent ever-looming destruction and decay. These fragments I have shored against my ruins.

As he sat watching the barren tree branches slowly disappear into the fog that was emerging from the surrounding woods, it occurred to him that the mansion behind him was the only tangible evidence of the border between the living and the dead. In the exact moment his father crossed that border, he became forever lost to him, for death is infinite otherness. Marcus sat on the bench for a long time, waiting for the rising fog to engulf him. When the mist finally hid him from the world, he admitted to himself for the first time his unwillingness to move on from grief, for it was the only place where he was able to feel a feeble connection with his father. It could sense him at times, looming in the periphery of his vision. He knew that looking directly at it would cause its disappearance. Yet, how could he find the strength to move forward? How could he commit this ultimate betrayal?

About the Author

Anita Ronchini is a writer living in Italy.