MADE IN NIRVANA
Maria and… knit, purl, knit, purl, knit, purl.
Maria and… knit, purl, knit, purl, knit, purl.
It was a cold and wet evening in mid-November and her mother’s birthday. Perhaps the baby had decided to come into the world that day to cheer her up? Gemma, her mother, had lost both her parents the year before, within just five days of each other. Her mother-in-law had not allowed her to go and assist them during their illness or their final days; she had this family to serve now. Gemma became ill with grief and lost the will to live. Had it not been for her two little girls she would have let herself go. While she was still in mourning, she discovered she was pregnant for the third time.
Being born was difficult. The baby was being pushed along the dark narrow canal when the pressure suddenly stopped, leaving her locked in a claustrophobic vice. Sitting upright in her chair, grandmother guarded the kitchen door, primly focused on her knitting. Knit, purl, knit, purl, knit, purl. At the same time, she kept a stern eye on the two little girls pretending to play in the corner, while they stretched their ears to catch the sounds oozing from the kitchen. Suddenly, the worrying muffled cries stopped and everything went quiet… too quiet. The children fell silent when auntie threw the door open.
"Call the midwife, mother!" she cried, flustered, her dark hair stuck to the sweaty skin of her sallow face. "She’s fainted. She’s not pushing any more. The baby's stuck!"
Through the doorway, the girls caught a glimpse of their mother. Lying on the mattress next to the burning stove her face was bathed in the red light of the fire, while the dancing shadows around her faded into thick darkness. She seemed to be asleep, her head turned to one side, a huge belly.
Grandmother’s expression changed only slightly. She pursed her lips while the knitting needles moved faster and faster. Knit purl, knit purl, knit purl. She was an experienced knitter and didn’t need to look at her work, but her eyes were fixed on the black wool wrapped tightly around her finger. Knit purl, knit purl, knit purl.
"Midwives cost a lot of money," she said dryly, "and that one is giving birth for the third time!"
Dressed as always in black, she wrapped her arms under her huge bosom, pushed it right up and let it settle heavily, engulfing her forearms. It was a clear sign that there was no use arguing. "Get a move on! Both of you!" she added, without taking her eyes off the black wool. Knit purl, knit purl, knit purl.
Fancy that, a midwife now! As if she, in her days, could have asked for a midwife. At least Gemma had a husband, her one and only son. Unlike her! Her husband had left her, and not for another woman, but for women in general. He liked them all, younger, older, rich, poor, educated, uneducated, clean, dirty, filthy! How could she compete with them? She was left alone with two children to raise and so much anger inside it hurt her heart. Her tight bun of thinning grey hair gave her a neat appearance, but her waxy complexion revealed that she never went outside. It wasn't that she didn’t like the sun or the fresh air, quite the opposite, but she was too fat to walk; when she tried, after a few steps she couldn’t get her breath. Moreover, she had no time, if she was to keep a firm and constant eye on her young daughter-in-law, lest history repeat itself! Her son was a lot like his father and it was up to his wife to ensure he wouldn’t go astray. Who else, otherwise? Knit, purl, knit, purl, knit, purl. She knew they copulated every night, whether the young woman liked it or not. Regular pauses outside the door and glimpses through the keyhole confirmed that. She was jealous of their intimacy, but it was essential to keep him satisfied, and well fed. Men were so base, just like animals!
Auntie ran back into the kitchen, absent-mindedly pushing the door behind her. It remained ajar, but she was too worried to notice. "Gemma, Gemma," she shouted. "Wake up! Come back! You can’t stop now, or the baby will die. You have to push!" She slapped her on both cheeks.
Gemma opened her eyes. "I'm so tired..." she whispered, her eyes unfocused, narrowly open for a second or two. She lowered her heavy eyelids once more as she slowly turned her head on the pillow.
"You can’t do that!" cried auntie. "You have to push the baby out!" She ran her trembling fingers through her hair, again and again. With the back of her hand she wiped the sweat from her forehead and from her upper lip. "If you won’t push, then I’ll do it!" she said, desperate but determined.
With shaking hands, she rolled her sleeves up, lifted her skirt over her thighs and straddled her sister-in-law’s swollen belly. She pinned her knees firmly on the bed and, with her feet either side of Gemma’s head, she sat unceremoniously on her stomach. She began to push her whole body down and forward, following the instinct that drove her. "Come on, Gemma, if you want my ass out of your face, you better start pushing. Push hard!" she panted. She pressed firmly with her hands, down and forward, just above the belly, while with her muscular legs she clutched Gemma’s sides. "Go for it girl, I know you can do it!" she encouraged her, unnerved by her own fear. "Push, push, come on! Yes, like this! Don’t stop, come on, come on, and push! Let's get this baby out!"
Suddenly, like a wave, a surge of love for her little baby rushed over her. She wanted her baby to be born, safe and sound; she knew she could do it. Gemma began to push, trying to match the rhythm of her sister-in-law’s riding. She pushed and pushed and pushed...
The baby felt the pressure squeezing and prodding her forward. This time the force was overwhelming. Her long wait in the dark, suffocating tunnel was ending and she found herself thrust forward, desperately gasping for air. Her auntie’s hands, wet with her mother’s warm blood, were ready to catch her and pulled her out completely.
She felt a pain in her chest when she drew her first breath and then the world toppled over. Grabbed by her ankles she was held upside down and slapped repeatedly. Finally she started to scream. She screamed and screamed and screamed, for fear of falling into the endless void, for the shock of her fearful dark journey, for the pain of being rejected by her mother’s body.
"It's a girl, Gemma," said auntie, greatly relieved, looking at the baby. "Another girl."
"Can I hold her?" whispered mother, holding her arms out to her. "Thank you!" she said, shifting her grateful gaze from her sister-in-law's large brown eyes to the little tearful face. She kissed her wet cheeks. "I love you, even if you are a girl, my little Maria," she whispered lovingly, her eyes filled with tears.
Grandmother pushed the door open: "So, you’ve done it! See that I was right? You and your midwife!" She spat those words out, glancing briefly at the little screaming bundle, covered in blood. "And you’ve made another girl... as if two were not enough."
"It's not my fault," Gemma said weakly, clutching the baby to her chest.
"Do we have a new baby sister, mum?" The two little girls approached, full of curiosity. "Can we go and tell dad?"
"He'll be home soon," grandmother replied firmly. "There is no point in spoiling his English class. Had it been a boy..."
"Can we wait for him outside then?" begged the girls.
"Yes, you do that," auntie said, "while we tidy up the kitchen. But put your coats on; it's cold outside!"
They ran outside with neither coat nor hat and started to walk quickly toward the night school.
"Do you like the new baby?" the younger of the two enquired.
"No, I don’t!"
"Because she should have been a boy."
"But we're girls, too!"
"That’s why, there are too many girls."
The younger one started to skip.
"Stop skipping," said the older, slapping her on the head.
"Why can’t I skip?" asked the little one, keeping a safe distance. "Why can’t I?"
"Because I say so!"
Their father appeared on his bicycle, pedalling down the road. They ran to meet him, racing to be the first one to break the news.
"Dad, mum had a baby girl!" panted the six year old, her braids stiff in the damp evening.
"She's screaming really loud," shouted the four year old, her ponytail swinging.
"A baby girl!" said the father. "Another girl!"
He slowed his pedalling as he reached his two daughters.
"Can I ride on your bike, daddy?"
"I want to. Can I ride with you, dad?"
"I asked first!"
"I don’t care. I’m the oldest!"
He didn’t answer. They skipped alongside his bicycle, but he was riding too fast. They began to run to keep up with him, but even so they were left far behind, blowing out warm breath into the cold November night, competing with each other to exhale the biggest clouds.
They saw him approach the house in his usual style, flinging his right leg over the bicycle bar and crossing it behind his left foot on the pedal. He covered the last few yards to their house, gliding elegantly toward it, like an ice skater on the ice rink.
Paul and the football match
When he was born it was cold too, but the end of winter was nearing and in the forest near the Major Oak the first timid buds were beginning to bloom. His mother was preparing the dough for a blackberry pie when the contractions started.
"I think we're near, love," she said to her husband, holding her bump with both hands. "It's starting, I'm pretty sure!"
"But it's Saturday, Jane!" Bill said with dismay. "The football match begins in less than... what... two hours?" His father looked worriedly at his wrist watch. "I've never missed a game! Are you sure it's started? Can it not wait till tonight?"
"It could be a false alarm, dear. The same happened with our Catherine," she conceded, rubbing her lower belly. "Why don’t you get the midwife? Then you can go to the match. We'll be fine and I'm sure you'll be back in time."
And so his father set off in his shiny black car and came back with the midwife. She was a German woman who had lived in the Sherwood area for so many years she had lost count, but had maintained her strong native accent.
"Take my suitcase upstairs!" she ordered Bill. "Let's see how farrr ve are!"
When she saw Jane busying herself in the bedroom the midwife lost what little patience she had.
"You're not rrready yet, voman! Vhy did you call me so soon?" Before listening to the answer, she ordered: "Take the suitcase back down. It's too soon. You’ll have to take me back home and I'll have to come back laterrr!" But, while Bill went obediently down the stairs with her suitcase, just to be on the safe side, she glanced at Jane’s 'exit'. Without a word, she ran to the window, thrust it open and leaned out. Waving her arms she yelled at Bill who was already in the courtyard: "Come back on! Brrring the suitcase. It’s not too soon. Baby's coming now!"
The baby was born quickly and in a way that was convenient for everyone; so quickly that his handsome father arrived at the game just in time to see it start.
Jane was holding the little bundle in her arms when Catherine appeared in the doorway. She stared at the picture on the bed, her mum with another baby; her big green eyes wide, full of muted concern.
"Come and see your little brother, Catherine." Jane held her hand out to her, but the little girl didn’t move. She kept staring in silence.
"Go and see your new brrrother," ordered the midwife. Seeing that the child didn't move of her own accord, she took her by the hand and led her to the bed.
"You can touch him if you like," Jane said, looking at her with love.
Catherine couldn’t tear her eyes from the baby’s tiny red fingers. She stroked them shyly with her finger and gasped in surprise when the baby’s hand tightened around it. Her eyes bright, she questioned her mother: "He’s got hold of my finger and is squeezing it," she said, startled and amused.
"That’s because he loves you already," Jane said, stroking her hair. "Come and sit on the bed."
"It is not hygienic!" scolded the midwife, whose name was Frida.
"Don’t worry, Frida, we'll be careful. You have done an excellent job, thank you!"
Frida frowned, but she knew that her job was over and when to remain silent.
"What do you think we should call him?" Jane asked the little girl. Catherine stared at the baby, curious, confused, and didn’t answer.
"Shall we call him Ernest?" the mother asked. The little girl shook her head, meaning no.
"Don’t you like the name Ernest?" She shook her head again. "Do you like Paul? Shall we call him Paul?" The child studied her little brother for a long while and then she nodded.
"Can I give him a kiss?" she asked at last.
"Of course you can give him a kiss. He is your brother and when he grows up he will look after you."
She leaned against her mother and kissed the baby gently on the cheek. He opened his small toothless mouth and yawned. Mother and daughter laughed together, excited.
"He is funny," said Catherine smiling, settling more comfortably on the bed next to her mother. She offered her index finger to her brother’s little hand and smiled happily when he squeezed it tight.
A few years later: Maria
She played alone with dolls while her sisters were at school; her favourite doll was black with short, curly hair. While her mother did the house work, she dressed and undressed them, changing their clothes a hundred times a day. Curious to know how they were made, tugging their arms and legs, she tried to look inside; the temptation to pull was irresistible, even though she knew the dolls were hollow. Sometimes the elastic band that held them together snapped, and arms and legs would fall off, defeated. At last she could put her finger through the holes and feel the smooth plastic.
"Oh, your sisters will be very upset when they come home from school and find the dolls broken!" Gemma would warn.
With a new elastic band she reattached arms and legs to bodies, a difficult skill she had refined, but they were never quite as taut as before. As a result all the dolls in the house had loose, dangling limbs and, when made to sit up, would fall forward in protest. Angry with her, whenever mother was not around, her sisters took the opportunity to get their own back and slapped her. But curiosity would always win and the day after Maria would pull the springy band again.
Grandmother sat in the kitchen all day, always on the same chair, knitting in stony silence. Knit, purl, knit, purl, knit, purl. From her chair she controlled everything, taking special care that mother didn’t leave the house, except to buy fresh bread. She would scold her if she moved the curtain to look out. What was there to look at? Men?
"What are you making grandma? Is it for me?" asked Maria. She liked her grandmother, with her large comforting body, and would often sit on the chair next to hers, gazing at her knitting.
"No, it’s not for you. This cardigan is for your older sister."
"And when you've finished that one, will you make one for me?"
"You’ll have to wait. First I have to make one for your other sister."
"How long will that take you?"
"Two weeks, three if I'm not well. You’ll have to wait."
"Will you make it pink?"
So she waited. They always reminded her that she was the third female, she knew she wasn’t important. They told her she counted for next to nothing, that she was the runt of the litter! The three weeks would pass and grandmother would make her a sweater; Maria trusted her.
Her mother made all their clothes. She laid the fabric flat on the dining table and marked it with white tailor's chalk, which was smooth and didn’t soil her hands; she cut the fabric with large scissors and tacked the parts with pins.
"Would you help me, Maria?" she’d ask the little girl sat watching her across the table. "If you thread the needles I can work much faster."
Maria was very good at threading needles and quicker than Gemma was at tacking. She licked her finger, made a knot and then smoothed the thread on the yellow tabletop, watching, waiting.
Gemma fell pregnant again when Maria was four. In the spring she had a big belly and the evenings were warm. After dinner the whole family sat in the garden overlooking the road and drank beer, because it encouraged the milk flow. It was true that they were not all going to breast-feed but they joined in the beer drinking nonetheless, children included. Maria hated the bitter taste but, since for once she was treated as an equal, she drank it too. After the beer they laughed and jumped on the beds, especially the evening when Gemma went into labour. As if he knew that this time it was going to be a boy, father took her to a clinic. Maria's brother was born ten minutes after they arrived; indeed, he was nearly dropped down the loo when Gemma went for a pee. Fortunately, she managed to hold onto him while she ran to the nearest bed. It would have been quite an undignified start for the heir of the Dal Fiore name! Within minutes he had come into this world and the next morning all were back home.
One day, an ambulance came and took grandmother away. Maria was on her way to the hospital with her aunt to visit her when they met father coming back on his bicycle. He paused, one foot on the ground and one on the pedal. Watching his sister, he shook his head. "Her heart…" he said. Maria and her auntie went back home.
She missed the presence of her grandmother, sitting on that chair knitting, but they hardly ever talked about her.
A month later father made them all go down into the courtyard and proudly showed them a large red car with a black roof, a second-hand FIAT that was as good as new. He had learned to drive in secret and passed his driving test, but for years to come they would wonder whether this was really true as he didn’t drive very well. He was irritable and pushed in front of other cars as if to prove his superiority to all other drivers. Mother, sitting beside him, was always full of fear. She’d put her hand over her mouth and say: "Go slowly, Piero. Don’t overtake now, there's a truck coming!" or: "The bend is tight. Why don’t you slow down a little?"
But this irritated her father even more and, when he deigned to answer, he would say: "If you don’t like it Gemma, you can get out and walk!"
Sitting on the backseat with her sisters and brother, this sentence always made her laugh. Indeed, sometimes it would be the children themselves who’d say it, laughing out loud: "If you don’t like it, Gemma, get out and walk!"
Most of the time mother kept her eyes squeezed shut in terror. When they arrived, father would say: "You had a nice nap, huh, Gemma! We're already here and you didn’t even notice!"
A few years later: Paul
The older he grew the more he resembled his sister, with blond ringlets and big green eyes. They played together in the large garden where his mother grew beautiful flowers of all sizes, shapes and colours. There were flowers in spring, in summer and even in the autumn. He liked to look for 'creatures' in the ground, but Catherine ran away screaming whenever he tried to show her the worms he had found. Fortunately, their cousins often came to play, two girls and one boy of the same age as Paul. They dug the ground together, finding worms and all kinds of insects.
Jane grew vegetables in the garden, she baked bread and cakes in the oven, filling the house with wonderful aromas, and she also made wine. In autumn she sent the children to pick blackberries, handing them a big iron bucket. They returned home only when the bucket was completely full, so heavy they had to carry it between them. Jane was always very happy when she saw they had succeeded and with those blackberries she made wine and tarts. She told them they had done a good job and they would always find a slice of cake and a glass of milk on the table waiting for them, on a little plate with a napkin next to it.
His father was almost always in bed in the upstairs room overlooking the garden. Paul brought him the newspaper and Bill's face lit up with a smile. He took the paper with his lean, elegant hands. Despite the pallor and the illness Bill was very handsome and his eyes were full of kindness.
"Sit down here with me and I’ll read you the news," he used to say, making room for Paul next to him, "unless you'd rather I told you a story!"
"Can you tell me the story of the little Buddha?" asked the young boy, hopefully.
"Again? But I've already told you that story many times. Are not you tired of it?"
But Paul was never tired of hearing it and his father always added new details. He sat cross-legged on the bed, next to Bill, ready to listen.
"I'll tell you the story of when he came face to face with a tiger. You like that one, right?"
Paul loved that story and nodded enthusiastically.
Bill began: "One day Siddhartha, that was the Buddha’s name, went tiger hunting with his father, king Suddhoddana. It was the first time he was allowed to go hunting tigers because until the age of eleven children could not take part; it was too dangerous. But as Siddhartha had just turned eleven, after the huge party in his honour, with tables laden with sweets and fruit, his father decided that he was old enough and took him along with the men."
Paul was listening intently. "Was he not afraid?" he asked.
"Who, Siddhartha?" Bill looked at his son. The child nodded. "Oh no, Siddhartha was brave. Like many good people, he had a lot of courage! Shall I carry on?"
Paul nodded, smiling happily.
"They were riding the king’s elephant; Siddhartha sat on his big soft neck, with the king seated behind him. Without realizing it, they were separated from the rest of the hunting party and suddenly the elephant stopped. He had heard a worrying noise from the bamboo grove and instinctively knew there was danger. The elephant bent his front legs, preparing to attack with his tusks any animal that threatened him!"
Paul lifted his face to look at his father, his eyes wide open, knowing what was going to happen. Bill winked at him, put his arm around him and continued: "Both Siddhartha and his father were holding on precariously to the elephant's neck and, when he made a sudden jerky movement, they were thrown to the ground. Suddenly, a huge tiger appeared from the bamboo thicket. The king put his hand on his son's shoulder and Siddhartha felt that his father was shaking. Without a second thought, he stood before the king to shield him."
The story never lost its charm and Paul was holding his breath. Bill patted him on his knee and continued: "Only king Suddhoddana had a sword, because Siddhartha was too young to be allowed a weapon. Nevertheless, the boy was not afraid. He was face to face with the tiger; she had thick and shiny hair... She was beautiful! He looked into her eyes; they were yellow, large, and full of fear. The tiger was staring at him, motionless. For a long moment they studied each other intently. 'Don’t be afraid, I won’t hurt you,' he wanted to say, but because words would not work, he tried to tell her with his eyes and with his whole being. He was sure she understood. The concern in the tiger’s eyes slowly vanished and turned into curiosity. Siddhartha saw a kind of interest, perhaps even complicity."
Paul was leaning forward absorbed in the story and his father continued slowly: "So, to reassure her, he screwed his eyes to tell her that he respected and understood her. In response, the tiger imperceptibly lowered an eyelid. They had become friends and were able to communicate. The jungle was silent, as if all the animals were holding their breath. Siddhartha took a step toward the tiger; she didn’t move. Slowly, he raised his hand, palm up, to tell her she could relax. The tiger bowed her head slightly, with a grunt she turned around and walked away slowly, swaying her hips, disappearing back into the bamboo grove."
Paul let out a long sigh of relief. His father concluded the story: "The king was very proud of his son. 'You beat the tiger,' he said. But Siddhartha had just spoken to her with his thoughts, sensing her fear. For her part, the tiger had felt his compassion, this thing so special within this child. She had trusted and understood him."
Paul smiled, trembling inside with emotion, as if he had heard the story for the first time: "Siddhartha was braver and stronger than the king, wasn’t he dad?"
"Yes, much stronger. He was strong inside. He had a lot of compassion and this was his strength."
The little boy snuggled closer to his father, who held him tight to his side; he looked up at him and Bill kissed his fair head. They were silent in the warm bed together, for a long while.
When his father went to hospital, Jane went to visit him every day, while they went to play at their cousins’. One day Jane arrived at auntie's house with red and swollen eyes. She kept blowing her nose into a men’s handkerchief, one of Bill’s large white ones with blue piping. Once back home, she prepared three cups of hot milk and they sat around the kitchen table, sipping it in silence.
"Daddy is gone," she said to her children, "but I am here and will never leave you, so you mustn’t be afraid."
"Where has dad gone?" asked Catherine, feeling the panic grip her heart.
"He has gone where there is no suffering," said Jane, looking at the children from one to the other. "But he will always love you. You must never forget it!"
"Has he gone to Nirvana?" Paul asked.
His mother looked at him with surprise and smiled sweetly. "It's not a place, my love, it’s a state of peace and tranquillity... but yes, now daddy is in Nirvana," she said, stroking his head.
"Dad said it was a state!" he said confidently.
"Yes dear," replied his mother, with a sad smile.
Paul knew many things about Nirvana. Bill had told him that it was a state in which there was no suffering, rather it was just fine! Just like his mother said, there was peace and tranquillity and no fear. Paul thought it was probably a state where tigers were not afraid of people and children could play with them, maybe even ride them. And, probably, in Nirvana children had some good naps with their dads in warm, comfortable beds, and dads didn’t have to leave, ever.
They started to go to auntie’s every afternoon while Jane was at work. Auntie had another baby and let Paul hold her in his arms. The baby-girl had big blue eyes, she smiled at him and this made him happy. Every evening Jane came to pick them up and went home. She had bought chicks that grew and became chickens. Every morning Paul went looking for eggs and sometimes he found some that were still warm. Even though they were a bit dirty he brought them home wrapped in his sweater. Jane had also bought some rabbits that were kept in a box with a net in front. The children tore handfuls of grass and handed them to the animals through the net. The rabbits were delightful. They took the grass with their front paws and chewed it quickly with great enthusiasm, making them laugh with satisfaction. After a while, since none of them could or wanted to kill them or eat them, they let them free in the garden, where they multiplied and hopped happily, but one day they ate all the flowers and Jane gave them away.
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