The Bed & Breakfast

by Molly Dektar

Our new home was an old stone farmhouse, cold inside, filled with dust and boards and trash, bottles, burlap, and nests. Despite having just ushered us through a trip involving three planes, a train, a bus, and a cab, my father was leaping with excitement as he led us from room to room. In the indirect light from the windows in the thick walls, my brothers looked as pink as plums. There was no electricity, no furniture, no kitchen, just a dark fireplace and a black stove in a room on one end and a line of empty, dirty rooms and then a room with hay at the other end.

The house was built on a hill. It had one story on the uphill side and two stories on the downhill side. On the slope above was the old garden with a broken chicken coop. The slope below was pasture for animals. My father said that he would fix the house up by the time the weather got cold. And then, over the winter, we would paint it, tidy it, and go antiquing, and by the spring we would open it as a bed and breakfast. I asked what that was. “A little hotel,” my mother said. I felt bad for my parents, because I didn’t see why anyone would stay here.

We moved from the Blue Ridge Mountains to Italy because my father wanted to. Around the time I turned ten, my father began to change the way he dressed. First, he exchanged his tie-dye and music festival tees for long-sleeved white button-up shirts. “Keeps the sun off my arms,” he told our mother. Then he switched his athletic shorts to long navy blue pants. “Better for fieldwork,” he told our mother. Then he bought suspenders. “They don’t cut into my waist as much,” he said. He grew a big beard, and one day shaved just the mustache. This, he could not so easily explain.

It was the fall and winter when I was eleven that my father began to work to convince my mother. He went much more frequently to the library, and returned with books on cottage restoration and Ita- ly and the hospitality business, which I thought meant hospitals. My mother liked North Carolina, her vegetable patch, her church friends. She often told us that God was watching us, and she had us sing grace before dinner: “For giving me the things I need, the sun and the rain and the apple seed.”

In North Carolina, my parents slept in the front room, my broth- ers and I in one big bed in the attic. I was the middle child. My older brother Lewis fed and brushed the horses, I fed the goats, and my little brother, Lindsay, fed the rabbits. The three of us were essentially one person. I was the holy ghost.

All that fall and winter, we could hear them talking and arguing. And then for a few nights they were quiet, and then the nights were full of my mother laughing and the song “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and one morning we woke to a big bouquet of store-bought roses on the table. That morning they gathered us and told us that we were moving very far away. It was springtime; the school year wasn’t even over yet.

“Your father wants to build a business,” my mother said, “but he promised me that he will also make it a home for us.” At the time, none of us were concerned. We didn’t understand. We thought if you lived in a place, it was a home. How could it not be?

We gave our firewood to the neighbor with the internet. We gave our dog, Sally, to one of my school friends. We sold the horses, goats, and rabbits. Even our table, chairs, pots, and pans men bought and stacked in their trucks and pulled away.

As soon as we came to Italy my father switched back from his white button-ups to tie-dye shirts. That first week, he cut my brothers’ bowl cuts. He cut them short on the sides and left them long on the tops, and slicked them up with water from his water bottle from the airport. Lindsay looked at Lewis and laughed.

“Louise, do you want a haircut?” he said. I said I would keep my braids.

“I think you would look lovely with short hair,” he said. I shook my head.

“Come on, Lou, short is better for the summer time,” my mother added.

“I can just keep it in braids,” I said.

“Come here,” my father said in a new voice. So I sat down on the stone wall on the hill and he didn’t even undo my hair from the braids, he just cut through them. It took a long time and made oddly a lot of noise, my hair crackling like a fire underneath his scissors. Then my two braids were in the grass and that was when our neighbor Claudio, cloudy-o, came to visit us.

“Ciao, ciao, ciao a tutti!” he said. “Benvenuti!” His face was so tan it looked metallic. He was a tall, rangy man, and he wore a brown felt hat. He switched to English, which I found hard to understand, and Lewis whispered to Lindsay and me what he was saying: he was so glad that someone had bought the old stone farmhouse, and he was so pleased to have new neighbors. He said that we should visit his farm; we could walk on the gravel road all the way or take a shortcut over the grassy hill. He told us about our property: when he was a boy, the peasant family had lived on the top level, and their animals had lived in the stables below. “What a beautiful family you are,” he said. “What a beautiful family.” He ate us up with his hungry eyes. Claudio had a clever face, with a dark beard and short gray hair. He was not much like my father, or like our internet neighbor, who’d always worn a mesh-backed baseball cap. He reminded me of a wizard, dressed all in gray with his lumpy, soft hat.

My father invited him to look at the state of the house. Lindsay asked Lewis and me, “Is Dad going to start dressing like him?” Lewis said shhh, so we could hear Claudio. In the house, Claudio was saying, “You will get wet under this roof, better pray the drought lasts.”

“The whole roof is screwed?” my father said. “In the kitchen, it’s okay,” Claudio said.

After a long while Claudio came out with my father and mother, who were laughing. He looked at my face and then at my braids in the grass. “Are you all right?” he said to me. I began to cry just from being taken seriously. I was a somewhat manipulative child—I thought he must not know many children, how we were always manipulating, working partly from true emotion, and partly from conceit. I wasn’t really so upset about my short hair. But also no one ever gave me much attention or sympathy.

A day soon following, my brothers and I followed Claudio up the hill and onto the dusty path. I remember the golden boil of bees and butterflies over the abundance of flowers I had never seen before: purple hairy flowers and tender red poppies on threadlike stalks amidst the yellow and white waving fields. Dust rose around my brothers, who made dark paths in the meadow. Below us, the distant hills were pale shades of blue. The valleys were poured with mist.

Claudio had huge fields and a small house that used to be a shepherd’s cabin. He was a woodsman from one of our forest survival books.

Shiny knives and shears hung against the wall and, most prominent, his great-grandfather’s hunting bow. He talked about how around here, he saw hedgehogs and wild boar, and once as a boy, he’d seen a unicorn, luminous and white. He talked about his great-grandfather, who shot with that very bow a boar almost the size of an elephant and fed the whole town on it, a feast for two hundred.

His four-poster bed was hung with red draperies, and he pulled back the drapes to show us his bed with its tidy quilt. And he also had electricity and a refrigerator. My brothers and I exchanged looks. We all wanted to live with Claudio, not our parents. He called us a beautiful family again.

From the freezer he took out a small coffin-shaped Styrofoam container of gelato. It had only a little bit of chocolate left and larger amounts of frutti di bosco—berries of the forest—and cream. My brothers and I all wanted the chocolate. He said I could choose first, but my brothers would not allow it. So he had us pick playing cards from a deck and the person with the highest playing card could choose their scoops first.

His cards were strange. Lewis drew the two of swords. The two swords were blue, with gold handles and a red ribbon wrapped around them. Lindsay drew the Fante of coins. Claudio didn’t know how to translate Fante. It was a young man with long curly hair and a Robin Hood hat with a feather in it, standing by himself, holding an ornate gold disk.

I drew the Horseman of Cups, a man with a big ruff on a pink horse, and won, or so Claudio said. I took all the chocolate.

“The house has a good foundation,” my father said many times.“Doesn’t matter that it’s out of level. It’s a good foundation.”

“If you don’t have at least the roof, the walls, the stove, the electrical, and the plumbing by September,” said my mother, “your children will freeze and starve in the winter and fail all their classes.”

“We’ll get it done,” my father said.

Claudio came from his house with a few tomato plants for us, and he sat with my parents on the low stone wall of the garden. When Claudio came, we all stopped playing and came to listen. It was sup- posed to rain that day, but it didn’t—my brothers and I had been pray- ing against rain, as Claudio had suggested. Down in the valley, the lightning moved like a glowworm, and on our hill the wind blew, our shirts contorted on the clothesline, and the gray cat and the black cat stalked each other.

Claudio leveled with my father. “You can get the roof, the walls, and the stove,” he said. “Electrical and plumbing, no.” The wind flapped his hat’s felt brim, and he pulled it down low against his forehead.

“I can’t get through this winter without a sink,” my mother said. “Fine,” my father said. “I’m dropping electrical. But not plumbing.” “Can you hire some people?” Claudio said.

My father glanced at my mother. “Obviously, the thought has occurred to me,” he said. “I appreciate it, Claudio.”

When my father turned his head I saw a huge green spider was climbing right next to his ear. I yelled and pointed and in an instant Claudio had risen and swatted my father on the side of the head, hitting off the spider.

There was a moment of confusion for my father and mother and brothers. Then Lewis went to find the spider. It was still alive, as large as a tarantula but with slim black legs and a green body. Gray-green like the storm clouds in the valley, which we had prayed against.

“You didn’t need to do that,” my father said. I looked at Lewis to see if he had noticed: my father was angry.

“Your girl was scared though,” Claudio said.

He didn’t know how it worked, how I could be scared and not scared at once. And how the fear was for my father to resolve. My father’s arms were stiff at his sides. He opened his hands from their fists.

Claudio was quiet for a moment. He gave my mother a small smile.

“Claudio, do you have any thoughts on laundry?” she said.

“There’s a place in town,” he said. He pushed his hat back on his head, in a gesture of resignation, and the shadows left his face. “All I want is for you to let me know how I can help.”

When he was leaving, my father made a sort of apology.“Just getting our arms around everything here,” he said.

“I’ve never left the place I grew up,” Claudio said simply. My father shook his hand.

I remember my mother with her face in her hands, and my father saying, “Sara, don’t worry, I will have the plumbing in by fall.”

In the beginning, we slept on old hay in the hayloft part of the house, with its slotted walls that let the breeze in. To use the bathroom, we dug little holes in the woods.

My father said that we children should be responsible for filling a few plastic jugs each morning with water from the pump. My brothers competed over who could do it fastest, while I kept time. Then we brought the jugs inside in the wheelbarrow.

My father went to town and returned with hundreds of paper plates and napkins and plastic forks and knives, and foam pads for sleeping with knobbly bumps all over them, and one pillow each. He also brought our mother a blue broom and a pack of yellow sponges. We started sleeping in the kitchen instead of the hayloft, in case of rain.

In that first period, we didn’t eat any hot food. My parents stirred instant coffee crystals into the well water in their paper cups. We ate bread, and cheese all warm and sweaty from the sun, and raw carrots and tomatoes in olive oil, and off-brand M&Ms that squirted out of their coating when we bit them. My father was happier now. He pumped water faster than Lewis and came up behind Lindsay and me as we stood on the garden wall and roared to frighten us. His hair had grown over his ears. My mother had a different kind of happiness. She found old glass soda bottles in one of the old stables, scrubbed them out with the well water, and arranged little bouquets in them—daisies were the only flowers I recognized, the rest were yellow dragon-heads and little pink rose-like things that were not roses and so many bright indigo trumpets. We bathed in a big plastic bin next to the pump. My brothers and I all used the same water, taking turns for who would go first. Too much trouble to pump it each time. If I went third, the bottom of the bin had a layer of lavender dirt on it that spun up dreamily when I agitated it. It was impossible to wash the soap off all the way.

Soon, Claudio and his friends had dug us an outhouse, and cleaned out the stove in the one room that was our kitchen and bedroom. My mother lit a fire in the stove and our first hot meal was Brunswick stew with half its ingredients different from at home. Claudio ate it with us sitting out on the stone wall. My father had come around to him by then. “We’re making a house sandwich!” my father exclaimed. “Foundation and roof first. They are the bread of the sandwich. And the rest— the walls, windows, plumbing, another stove, furniture—is the delicious ingredients. And the foundation is all good!”

Claudio laughed and they conversed vigorously about foundations and roofs. My mother cleaned the kitchen with the water from the pump, and then went into the garden to weed the patch she’d begun to tend. She kept her shirt on under her overalls.

“How old is Claudio?” Lewis asked her later. “The same as your father,” she said.

We all found this shocking. He seemed so much older.

I’d found that we could walk along the garden wall until it ended, then there was a field with no fences, and across the field, the hill turned down suddenly. I didn’t like walking alone, so I made my brothers come with me. I liked to feel like we were all one person. I had decided that I didn’t like winning the chocolate gelato, or Claudio’s good favor; I didn’t want attention that pulled me away from them. And, equally, I didn’t want the house to become a bed and breakfast, and all this dirt and strangeness to wash away.

We walked across the field and came to the steep edge. The hillside below was too steep to walk and covered with dry, tough brambles. There was a view of the whole valley, patched with sun. We looked down at it together for a while. Lewis looked for boys he could make friends with, and Lindsay looked for tractors, and I looked for unicorns and boars.

Claudio showed us a place where we could swim in the river. A gravelly incline, lined by very tan Italians, led down into deep green, unshaded water. “If the drought keeps up this pool will be gone by August,” Claudio said.

“But we’re supposed to pray for the drought,” Lindsay said, “so we don’t get wet in the house.”

“Do what you like,” he said, and shrugged. “The farms need rain.”

I whispered my question to my brother. I was still afraid to talk to Claudio directly.

“Will our father fix the roof in time?” Lewis asked.

“Of course he will,” Claudio said. “Your mother deserves it.”

Within a few weeks, my mother had obtained an old round wooden table, with white paint flaking off. Candlesticks and a few long taper candles. A two-burner hot plate and a bombola of gas. She turned the second room into the children’s bedroom. She made raised bedsteads from flat pieces of wood raised up on clay blocks.“Just make sure to fix the roof over their room,” she told my father.

“I’ll do it before anything else,” he said.

He often tracked mud into the kitchen, and at night they had long fights about him being distractible and messing up all her careful cleaning, and about her focusing on small easy things and not helping with the items in the House Sandwich. He said she was wasting time roaming around the churches, and she said that she was getting back in touch with religion. They fought more here than in the Blue Ridge. I went with my father to the tile store. We drove past tomato fields, then factories, with their acres of large empty cans, ancient farmhouses and barns with their perforated walls, huge rounded arches. Everything was so dry.

We entered a lot filled with huge ridged-clay tiles. A white cat with a big pink nose and small squinty eyes came over and rubbed against me. My father spent a long time negotiating the tiles with the man.

On the car ride back, he said, “What do you think of Italy, Louise?” I imagined telling him about Claudio’s cabin with his knives and his bow. Or about how Lewis was starting to leave Lindsay and me alone, going on long walks, looking for something else. I wanted to apologize for being scared by the spider that had crawled over my father’s big sunburned head. We were all barely holding onto each other.

“Do you like it?” he said. I told him yes. He smiled and pulled at the ends of my hair, which was starting to grow out. The truth was I didn’t like being singled out and asked like this.

Right away my father started installing the tile over our bedroom. I overheard Claudio arguing with him, “No, no, that’s not right at all.”

Once he was done with our bedroom, he hired some workmen to help him with the other parts of the roof.

“Are you sure it won’t leak?” said my mother. “I’m not a fucking idiot.”

“I know,” she said.

“I built our old farm.” “You did.”

The drought continued, but one night when a light misty rain fell no water came into our room, and my mother was so happy the next day she sat on his lap and kissed him right at the breakfast table. My brothers and I made retching sounds and went to eat outside on the garden wall.

Lewis got tall that summer and pink dots appeared around his nose. He was thirteen; Lindsay was nine. In the green pool in the river I saw Lewis’s armpits had grown dark hair. My heart beat to see it.

We made friends with another group of siblings. The older sister was named Simonetta. She was fifteen and wore a beaded choker necklace, and she helped translate at first. Enzo and Tommaso were thirteen-year-old twins, but much shorter than Lewis. From them, we began to learn Italian.

We walked downhill to their apartment building. It was near the tomato-canning factory, on the flat plains. It was an orange building in a neighborhood of orange buildings. They had a soccer field nearby and a park with a slide, and a bakery with focaccia and a gelateria, but it wasn’t quite a town. More of a stop on the way to the town where we would go to school. On their balcony, under the green-and-white sunshade, we ate pasta using Mickey Mouse forks. The whole time we talked about how we wished we could stay there. Simonetta’s mother had us take showers, and even while I soaped myself, gray grime and sand came flowing into the tub. I hadn’t been clean in months. She gave us each two euro coins with gold centers and silver rings, to go to the gelateria. I saved mine.

The new friends didn’t play our forest-survival games. The twins liked war games. They liked to put on armor—goggles and helmets—and to carry toy guns and swords. We bruised each other’s arms and necks. Their scent of fresh soap and shampoo was the scent of war. Lew- is played with us only once. He wanted to walk with Simonetta.

I asked Lewis what he and Simonetta were doing when they crossed over the dry fields and disappeared behind the hills. He tried to scare me. He said, “Looking for spiders and feeding them flies.”

Sometimes the new friends came over to our house. At the house we each had a box for our clothes. Lewis was outgrowing his but still too small for my father’s. My mother told us to go ahead and look through his box and see whether we could find anything shrunken. While my brothers and the twins looked through his box, I looked through my mother’s, and found a pink lace-edged satin slip. Lindsay and the twins laughed hysterically at it, but Lewis flushed and told me to put it back at the very bottom of the box.

My mother went to Ikea in our big truck—we had a car and a truck by now—and returned with masses of pink, red, and white candles, tin lanterns, colored gauze curtains—“What are these?” my father said and she said, “They were no more expensive than standard curtains!” plus three small mattresses.

“Are these for the bed and breakfast?” I asked. My mother laughed.

My father said, “No, the bed and breakfast will have all beautiful, antique things. No Ikea. We’re going to get chairs from the Renaissance, you can still find them at flea markets. We’re going to get four-poster beds with gilt on the wood. We’ll get Murano lamps.”

“It’s too much,” my mother said.

“The walls will be pristine white,” my father said. “Please don’t talk about it anymore,” my mother said. “You think I’m jinxing it?” he said.

“We need to focus on what we have,” she said.

She took our foam pads to the kitchen. We children got the good mattresses. She hung ropes along the ceiling of our bedroom and pinned onto them those gauzy curtains that had purple at the bottom and faded to pink and then yellow at the top.

At night when I pulled the gauze curtains around my bed I could see the vague shapes of my brothers, and through the window the night sky washed with soft cream, and when we woke our room bloomed with color. Even Simonetta, when she visited, was amazed.

My parents slept on our old foam pads. Three for her side of the bed, two for his.

Next my mother was finding us school desks and chairs, because we were heading into August. She bought us each one new pair of jeans and three new shirts.

At the height of summer, when the drought had reduced the river pool to a fiercely green puddle, Claudio helped Lewis, Lindsay, and me fix up the old chicken coop. We held the chicken wire against the beams while he stapled it. Then we tossed the hay into the nesting boxes. He brought us five hens, carried down in a cardboard box in the back of his truck. My mother came rushing out when she heard his voice. “How can we ever thank you?” she asked.

“I have too many chickens,” he said. My father appeared behind my mother. He was less pleased than she was.

Lindsay ran to open the little door of the coop, and Lewis and I carried the meek red hens over in their box, then brought each one out and dropped it inside the coop. The hens fluttered away, and regarded us with their twitchy eyes. My mother offered Claudio a coffee. Now that we had the two-burner stove and the bombola of gas it was easy to make.

Claudio sat next to my father on the wall. He was tall and thin with his striking beard and mushroom-colored hat. My father had long rock- star hair and muscular arms, a sleeveless shirt with a lightning skull on it, and a bright red, freckly face.

“I’m impressed with you for fixing up this place,” Claudio said. “Americans always move here to try to take our tourist dollars, they start hotels and tour companies. But you, you’re strengthening our local agriculture and our traditions.”

“It’s a pleasure,” my mother said.

My father looked down at our clothesline.“Lewis,” he said suddenly, “go re-pin your mother’s shirt, it’s coming loose.”

Lewis kicked the dusty ground. He wanted to stay and hear what Claudio had to say. But he obeyed, and my father watched him go with an expression of satisfaction.

“Italy is a place of wonderful tradition,” Claudio continued. My par- ents nodded. “The problem is, all of our farm workers these days are from dirty countries.” He sighed and looked down over the hill. The sun illuminated the dust around Lewis. His legs were so long now, his shoulders still so narrow. “They’re taking over Italy.”

“Claudio,” my father said, “I think those immigrants are the only thing keeping your country going.”

“Sure, the economy,” said Claudio, and shrugged. “But they’re not Italians …”

“Neither are we,” my father said. I didn’t understand why my father was being so rude to him. Don’t push him away, don’t lock him out, I wanted to beg.

“Never mind about the coffee,” Claudio said, rising. I had the sense that Claudio had been testing my father—and that my father had come up short.

“Oh, the coffee!” my mother said. She ran into the house. Claudio watched her go. Then he saluted me and Lindsay and shouted “Ciao, Lewis,” and turned to climb up the hill without a look at my father, for which I was grateful because my father looked so unhappy.

My mother returned with the coffee pot. “What will he think when we tell him we’re doing a B&B?”

“Asshole,” my father said. Lindsay giggled.

“Please don’t tell him, Peter,” my mother said. “It’ll be at least two years until we open—well, at the rate you’re going, maybe faster,” she said. She kissed his cheek and the top of his head the way she kissed us.

“Let’s not see him for a while. But no need to tell him, okay, Louise? Lindsay?”

We nodded.

My father turned to us. “I’m not going to talk to him again,” my father said. “And neither should any of you. Sara?”

She glanced at my father. There was a strangely triumphant look in her eyes, but her voice was quiet.“Yes, I agree,” she said,“I think it’s time we let him be.”

The truth was, now that we had chickens, we had as many eggs as we could eat, and they were, to my brothers and me, the most delicious food on earth. Eggs with their edges lacy and golden, dripping with olive oil. Eggs and pancetta cooked in the same pan. Eggs on big rough chunks of bread.

I found a patch of clay by the stream that led to the swimming hole, and I made a few little model chickens and dried them on the window sill. I put the best one in my pocket and walked to the gelateria with the two euros from Simonetta’s mother, and I asked for a barattolo, I knew the word now, of gelato. Three flavors, the server told me. Aware that I was doing something illegal, I told him chocolate, frutti di bosco, and hazelnut, which he said was better than cream. When it was time to pay he asked for eight euros and I handed him my two. In Italian, he said, “I need six more,” and now I pretended I had no idea what he was saying. “I’ve ruined all this gelato,” he said. “You’re not allowed to come back here.” I started crying.“I would just give it to you,” he said,“but my manager will be mad. You’ve made me spend my own money on you!” He put the Styrofoam container in a bag and told me to get out.

I carried it up to Claudio’s. My tears quickly dried. It was a long walk up the dry golden hills, past the little hut filled with saints, and up his gravel path. I didn’t like to be alone this way. The wind was much stronger now, almost shouting loud in the fields. It lashed the branches of the trees. The sky was blank and relentless. “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, watching the evil and the good,” my mother sometimes said. I imagined the sky was the blue of His eye. I preferred to be under the cover of the trees. The old farm in North Carolina had been all cream, green, and smooth ovals—smooth pebbles in the creek, our round bellies. Italy instead was red, silver, and gold, and its shapes were stars and webs. The wind blew too strong here, and the dust filled my nose and mouth.

I knocked on the wall of his tiny house. The red curtains around his bed were drawn. I imagined the trouble I’d have if my parents were hiding behind them, watching me.

“Louise!” he said. “What a pleasure.”

I placed the bag with the gelato container on his table, feeling sud- denly shy. “Did you walk all the way here?” he said.“You must be thirsty.” I nodded. He filled me a large glass of water, and I was envious of his tap, which was so much better than our pump.

We sat down at his table. I looked around at the herbs hanging from his ceiling. It was like the house of a woodland fairy, so beautiful and clean.

“Now, let’s see what we have,” he said, and opened it. The ice cream had entirely melted, and become a red-brown soup with pale chunks of hazelnut floating at the top.

My eyes filled with tears again.

“Mmm, I see,” he said. “What are the flavors?” My throat constricted, and I didn’t say anything.

“It’s delicious this way,” he said. We drank it out of cups. A clashing confused drink, creamy and icy, nutty and fruity. He patted his stomach.

I took the clay chicken I had made out of my pocket, and put it on the table.

“What’s this, dear Louise?” he said. He picked it up and looked at it.

His face changed. He looked nearly as upset as I felt.

“I have too much pride,” he said quietly. “That’s why you all have stopped seeing me, isn’t it? I made an error of pride.” He leaned his chin on his hand and looked away from me.“I’ve been thinking a lot about it.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I agree that not everyone can be Italian.”

He sighed, and tucked his chin down to look at me from his deep bloodshot eyes. Bloodshot from too much sun and sky. “Don’t let your- self grow into an old man already, Louise.”

“Okay,” I said, disliking his serious tone. I did not like being corrected.

I had been trying to comfort him. “How did you afford this?” he said. “I got in trouble.”

He went to his cupboard and pushed aside many boxes of pasta and took out a pastiglie tin that looked heavy in his hand. He placed it on the table and when he opened it I could see it was filled with euros. He handed me two small pale five-euro notes. “Go pay him back,” he said. “That boy is Giuseppe, he’s a good boy.”

I nodded. “Are you going to come visit us again?”

“No, no,” he said. He saw my face. “Are you disappointed? Come here, Louise.” He knelt on the floor, and opened his arms wide. I walked toward him and he embraced me tightly, something my father never did. His beard was against my cheek. “Oh, Louise, I like you so much,” he said. “I wish you were my little daughter.” My tears wet the shoulder of his green shirt.

September arrived. We’d begun school at the Liceo Scientifico, the scientific high school. It was fortunate that we knew Simonetta and the twins, but I was still sad without any of them in my classroom. I tried not to say a single word.

My mother had told my father to have the roof, the walls, the stove, the electrical, and the plumbing by September. Claudio had struck the electrical. Out of the four that remained, my father had only managed the roof and the stove. They argued constantly about the plumbing, and about the walls—walls meant windows and doors too, and several of our windows had empty panes, and the doors let cold air under them. My brothers and I would eavesdrop on them and they were always talking about what they could afford.

“At least we have the foundation and the roof,” my father would say. “That will get us through winter.”

My mother told him to set up a second stove in our room or we would freeze. But he delayed. He was trying to do the walls first. Didn’t want to waste all the wood, a stove in an uninsulated room. “They can always stay in here with us,” he said. But she did not like that idea.“Lewis is a big boy now,” she said.“You’ll drive him out of the house if you make them miserable like this.”

“They’re not miserable yet,” he said. “Just see, it’ll all be good for the winter.”

The first frost came, and the two garden cats came in through our bro- ken window. We shivered and I was barely asleep when Lewis woke me for a midnight meeting. In the end we were too afraid to go into our parents’ room. So we slept, the three of us, in Lewis’s bed, the way we used to before he became what my mother called a big boy. Toward morning Lewis woke us and made us go back to our own beds. The stone floor froze my feet even through my socks. That was the last time the three of us ever slept in one bed. I recognized it as it passed. One body in front of me, one behind, their legs, bony and warm, tangled with mine, much more worth praying for than drought, much more an answer to my prayers.

Breakfast was unpleasant.“You need to go find and install that stove today,” my mother said.

The next night was the decisive one. The storm finally reached us, the spider green clouds that meant the end of the drought. It was the night of icy rain. This was the first big test of our father’s roof, and he failed. The water poured into our room and soaked my mattress and the mattresses of both of my brothers.

We had no choice. In the drenched dawn, we went into our par- ent’s room. My father looked betrayed when he saw us. It was almost as though he’d wanted us to soak and freeze in our own room.

And we understood why, because our mother left the next day. “I have put too much into this, Peter,” she said. “I am not coming back until you do what you have to do.”

“Their roof? Their stove?” my father said. She shook her head.

We did not know where she went. It rained three nights in a row. My dreams those nights were deserts, hellmouths, because we slept so close to the stove. My father found other holes in the roof, but our former room was the worst. Our nice mattresses were waterlogged, even though we lined them up against the wall in the stove room to try to dry them. The sunset-colored curtains had come unpinned, and lay against the stone floor with the gray water creeping up them.

She was gone for days. We ate only bread with cold things on it. It was impossible to do homework. My father was awake all night every night.

I was aware that what we needed was money. That was what was delay- ing everything—new roof tiles, workmen, new stove. I thought about discussing this with Lewis, but the family didn’t seem to hold much interest to him anymore, and even when I determined I would talk to him, it was impossible to find him by himself. Either we were all lying near each other in my father’s room, or he was disappearing over the hills. I would have to do it by myself.

When I realized this, I left school at break and went walking. It was a cold, beautiful fall day. I loved my new jeans and my sweatshirt that Simonetta had given me. I felt so grown up walking the four miles. The fields were shorn, their dancing insects and dust gone, the twinkling myths, unicorns and boars, harder to believe now in this tremendous raw coldness that was getting greener and colder by the day. I passed the saints and silk flowers behind the bars of their little white hut.

I looked in all of Claudio’s windows first. The curtains were drawn around the bed but that was the way they usually were. But Claudio would never sleep in: he was a farmer. The little clay chicken I’d made sat on his table.

I entered his house. I listened for a moment. It was entirely quiet. I remembered my mother who always said, “God is watching.” But if I completed my task, she would come back home. I wasn’t, of course, going to take all of his money.

How would I deliver it to my father? I would just leave it folded up in paper in the kitchen somewhere. No, I didn’t want him thinking Claudio had dropped it by. I would tell him I won a school contest.

I went to the cupboard and moved aside the jars and the blue card- board boxes of pasta. There was the pastiglie tin. I pulled it out and brought it over to the table. He did not really have so many bills inside. A few fifties, a few twenties. Mostly fives and coins. I took one hundred euros total in a mixture of different denominations and coins. I replaced the lid and wiped it off with his dish towel, for fingerprints, and pushed it back into the cupboard.

I don’t know why I stopped on my way out. Maybe I heard a quiet stirring behind the bed’s drapes, or maybe I was just very nervous and wanted to be sure. I thought, if I find him there, I’ll just apologize and explain. He might even give me the money. So I reached out a hand and tried to draw back the drapes.

They wouldn’t pull apart. They seemed to be pinned—then I realized, there was a hand clasping them from behind. There was someone hiding back there. I tried a minute more to open them—a silent struggle between me and the hand—and then I darted around the side of the bed and opened the other drapery. And there in the dim little tent was my mother, in her pink satin slip.

When I looked at her, Claudio’s quilt rumpled around her, I just wanted her to come back to us.

“Hello, Louise,” she said, in a high, breathy voice. I thought she was going to scold me for stealing, but she said, “Are you going to tell your father?”

“Hello,” I said. I didn’t have a thought of pressuring her. This didn’t feel like power on my side. I was thinking: Oh, he likes her more than he likes me.

Her face was flushed and crumpled.

“Are you coming home?” I said. “We’re going to get another stove,” I added.

“Your father won’t take me back if you tell him about this,” she said. “Okay, I’m not telling him,” I said.“What have you been doing here?” She laughed and said, very sadly, “Oh, Louise.”

I didn’t understand why she was laughing at me. “Anyways,” I said, “I’m taking the money.”

This was a kind of test, but she did not, as I expected, tell me that I could not.“Claudio will notice, and then what will I tell him?” she said.

I thought about it. “Why not tell him you stole it for us?” I said. “I’ll tell him I suspect you or your brothers.”

I shrugged.

“How much are you taking?” she said. “A hundred,” I said.

“Okay,” she said, again with a sort of silent laugh shining in her face. Then she got serious again. “You’re not telling your brothers or your father.”

“I told you, I won’t.”

“I’ll know if you do.”

“I know.”

“Then I’ll come back once he has the stove and the roof fixed,” she said.

I still don’t know whether she had planned to come back or not— maybe my childish desire for her to come back changed her mind, or maybe she’d already decided not to abandon us.

I told her I missed her and asked for a hug. It was so different from hugging Claudio. Claudio’s hug was a secret, I knew; there was something zinging in it, jittering around, something that needed to be contained. But my mother’s hug was soft, sad, and desperate. Her chest was soft against me, and I felt the familiar embarrassment. She seemed to have forgotten that she was my mother and therefore I would obey her.

I never told anyone—not my brothers, not my father. It’s possible that she told him at some point. We found her at home after school one day. Of her list, roof, walls, stove, the electrical, and plumbing, we only had partial roof, partial walls, and two stoves. I was worried that she would size it all up and leave again.

She kissed each of us on the head. None of us said anything about her absence until my father started, picking up a conversation we had interrupted.

“I thought you cared most about the children,” he said. I hadn’t understood this. That she didn’t care most about us.

“I wasn’t going to use them as bargaining chips,” she said.“I can only make myself a bargaining chip.”

“Instead of bargaining, you could simply communicate with me,” he said.

“Peter, I have tried many times,” she said.

We could tell they were going to have a whole long fight, and so my brothers and I went out into the fields. We agreed that if, in the night, the cold rain fell on our heads again, we would not tell anyone.

The bright afternoon nipped our necks and hands. The cats followed us along the garden wall. There were many perfectly geometric round webs growing on the shrubs and trees. We walked past the edge of the garden and across the field, shorn now, to the edge of the hill, where we could look down at the plains and all the broken old farmhouses that didn’t have us to rescue them.

Published on April 11, 2024

Originally appeared in Harvard Review 60.