Paolo was sitting on the stool, slightly bent over, right opposite the trunk. A ray of milky-white light filtered through the skylight’s murky glass, exposing the swarms of dust, otherwise invisible, drifting thickly through the attic. Around Paolo’s heavy breathing everything was dead quiet, a quiet that resided there above and was now lingering in the dim shadows, waiting for the voice from inside the trunk to be heard again.
When it returned, the spider webs abandoned among the beams above vibrated as if trembling.
“Are you still out there?”
Paolo was startled, almost as if he hadn’t expected to hear his brother once more.
“Yeah, Marino,” he replied anxiously, “I’m still here. And you . . . do you really want to get out?”
The tiny voice of the boy imprisoned inside seemed to originate from another room, as if the trunk were bottomless, as if it had been sunk deep into the floor and been lost in a dimension that extended well beyond the old house.
“I can’t do it by myself, you know. You left me shut up inside here, and you have to get me out. If you really want to . . . .
Paolo drew his hand through his hair. “I . . . I want to let you let out, Marino, believe me. It’s just that . . . “
“It’s just that what?”
“I’m afraid of what you could do to me.”
Still more silence, for a moment or two. The leaden beating, in fits and starts, of Paolo’s heart made his head ache.
When Marino spoke again, Paolo could not hold back his tears any more.
“You knew I was hiding inside here, you knew it very well. But you didn’t tell anyone about it. You always cheated when we were playing hide-and-seek. You spied on me when I was climbing up into the attic, you knew I’d shut myself up inside here. . . . And you didn’t tell Mom and Dad. Why didn’t you?”
Paolo could not manage a reply. The tight knot clotting his throat prevented him from uttering a sound, while his mind was already casting backwards, fumbling through his memories, to the day when Marino’s disappearance from the great vacation house had imposed a drastic turn to their family’s well-being. He could still hear his mother’s wailing, and behind his eyes that image of his father persisted even then, with that gaze of his lost in emptiness and his finger intent on endlessly scouring an unshaven cheek. He saw himself, over and over again, as he closed and locked the attic door and carefully replaced that key in the spot where they had always kept it, in the small bottom drawer in the cupboard, in the hallway. They were playing hide-and-seek he had told his Mom, his Dad, and all the other persons who had questioned him. Marino had wandered off toward the brushwood, a hundred meters or so from the house, going back up along the beach, hiding who knows where. So he had said, and they had believed him. He knew that Marino would not have yelled or called out, suffering as he was from asthma. And after days of searching, days steeped in tears and grief, they finally got away from there, returned to the city, and from then on, they never set foot again into that quiet, solitary, mournful house, the home of their summer vacations. What he had always wanted, he had at last obtained. He was back to being the only son, he had recaptured all that love and attention his brother, four years younger than he, had taken from him. Mom and Dad were once again his.
“Come on, Paolo. Let me out of here.”
Marino’s voice was now just a whisper, the gray wing of a moth that snatched Paolo from a spider web of memories.
“Yeah, I’ll do it, Marino. . . . That’s what I’ve come back for.”
Having said that, Paolo grabbed the heavy metal hinge that, having fallen in place, had made it impossible to re-open the trunk from the inside. After a life spent consumed by remorse, he was now finally ready to take the step he had never ceased dreaming about.
The metal began to creak, for the first time since that accursed day sixty years before. When the lock was released, Paolo’s spine experienced an agonizing rasp as he straightened his back.
“There,” he whispered. “Now you’re free once again.”
Then he lowered his head, burying his face in his hands. He knew he would not have the courage to look.
Barely a handful of seconds elapsed, and then the groan of the trunk’s lid rising cut through the quiet like the chalky grinding of a dull razor, raising shadows among the frenzied thoughts thrashing about in Paolo’s head. The old man prayed for his heart to spare him, to stop right then and there. But that didn’t happen.
A terrible odor spewed forth into the attic, and whatever remained of Marino began slowly to emerge.
translated by J. Weintraub
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