Once upon a time there was a beautiful woman with long, dark hair and two eyes so big that watching them you could even get into her soul. Her smile was a breeze that reached the heart, her soft hands caressed in a so sublime way and she used to feed her lips, kissing me. Her scent pervaded the whole house and her lullabies continued to rock my dreams until morning. It was nice to be with her; together we saw the sun rise and enjoyed the day until the night came, always close each other. The meals, the chants, the smell of her milk, the tales that she told about a world far away, that by her words became close and real to my eyes. It was rousing discovering that the Universe, through her eyes, was a bright horizon where all our wishes could have been realized. An endless succession of fairies and gnomes that seemed to materialize, making us part of their infallible magic. And the beautiful woman turned her happy gaze to me and to my harmonious growth.
All this festivity going in and out of the countless enchanted castles stopped the day when an evil witch made me see the beautiful woman, even before dawn, ready to go out wearing a grey apron with her long hair gathered in a white cap.
“Where are you going?” I could hardly say, trying to speak my first syllables, a question that she realized just by my infant eyes.
How beautiful was that woman, even wearing an apron that mortified her figure and a cap that hid her thick hair. She smiled at me, and her smile was less vibrant than the ones I was used to, it was almost sad.
“You’re grown up now, I’m going back to work at the factory, our neighbor will soon come here to stay with you.” She gave me a quick kiss on my forehead that had become pale and light. Alone, she was leaving me alone, no more spells to be created! I tried so hard to recall my fairy friends, asking them to realize the only desire I felt growing out of me which was to have her close to me once again.
The enchanted castles had collapsed under the blows of that one fact: she had to go to work, even if I wasn’t grown up, didn’t speak yet and couldn’t even feed myself. And she had to do that just to give me a life.
So day after day every morning, without mercy, and before dawn, she had to leave the warmth of our bed and, even if it was raining or snowing or thundering strong, she had to go. In her eyes without a future you could see the tears that would never fall. I feared that she wouldn’t return to heat up my nights.
“When will you come back?”
A furtive glance, no longer smiling:
“Soon, very soon!” But it was never soon; in fact, at times it was longer., There was a crisis and she had to work harder not to lose everything we owned. When she was with me it was always night, and no longer did I see the sun’s rays filter through her hair which was now shorter and more sparse. Her soft and radiant skin, as I remembered, was withering more every day and her eyes were no longer immense.
At night she was able to sing only a verse of my lullabies because she was too tired. Her scent was gone and out of her hands, the skin now rough and battered, you could have guessed it was just the terrible stench of trichloroethylene.
Poor beautiful woman! In the factory of optics they had assigned her the hardest work. The glass lenses came out of a ribbon that flowed fast, one after the other and she, faster than them, had to wash them in trichloroethylene for testing by the light of a lamp to insure there were no imperfections. Then she had to prepare the cardboard box and wrap each lens, all before the arrival of the next one. If she didn’t do all those steps in seconds, the coming lens would fall to the ground, and she would have to pay for it with her already meager salary.
Would she ever go back to being a beautiful woman? In desperation I told myself that no, it would have never been possible. Now she was drowned out by the stench of trichloroethylene, and her eyes were perpetually bloodshot because of the acids whose vapors invaded the whole environment where she worked.
I was growing up and I asked myself many questions. Sometimes, while I ate what she had cooked, I felt it was the appropriate time to ask her some questions:
“Don’t you wear gloves at work?”
She looked at me in the sweet and gentle way that made me recognize her.
“At first they gave me a pair of plastic gloves but with the use of acids they were quickly destroyed, and the company did not provide for more. So, working with gloves damaged in that way, I didn’t have the necessary grip on the lenses and, after I had dropped some that I had to pay myself, I haven’t used them anymore. “
Meanwhile, she was baking an apple pie. She always did it on Sunday, and that would be my breakfast for the whole week. I did not have the courage to tell her that at the end of my greedy mouthfuls, while pressing the pine nuts and apples between my teeth, I always sensed that unmistakable, nauseating, bitter and deadly odor of trichloroethylene which inexplicably had invaded our house.
“You always have red eyes, can’t you protect them?” I wondered, staring straight at her tired glance. She reflected a while and replied with a faded smile:
“Yes, at first I used a plastic mask which soon got striped and when testing the lenses, I must be sure that there are no veins on them, so I decided not to use the mask anymore.” Her answers hurt me because they were logical, but terrible. In order to keep her job, she was forced to not protect herself from the dangers of the elements that surrounded her. It was like walking around in a circle from which she would never emerge.
Meanwhile, I saw her, my good mother, fading and sacrificing her youth and beauty on that pagan altar that was production, an infinite assembly line that, when measured across its length, would spread a creaky tape from the earth to the moon. The work that crushed those who did it with no satisfaction and understood it was their only means to survive.
So sweet was that woman as she sewed something to dress me on the night between Saturday and Sunday.
“You must study, we need the money to buy books, and you won’t have my life!” She said with a flash of pride that lit and stretched her contracted features and moistened her eyes with emotion, “You’ll have a man who will respect and marry you, not like me who has been used and left alone!”
“Who was my father, mom?” I had the courage to ask of her who had once been a beautiful woman.
Coughing, she looked away from the sewing and smiled as if lost in a dream.
“He was handsome. He had red hair and green eyes like yours and freckles scattered all over his body like those you have on your nose.”She was still in love with that man about whom she didn’t intend to tell me anymore. Was he tall, thin, good, where could I see him, at least for once in my life? Those were the questions that she, with a steady and proud gaze, forced me not to ask.
Once upon a time there was a beautiful woman with two eyes so huge that watching them you could even get into her soul. One day in those eyes something came that should never reach them, a relentless barrage of glass fragments fired from the demented automatic tape.
Sitting next to her in the hospital ward, while I held her hand, I heard her crying, and her despair was not only for what had happened to her but, most of all, that she had to abandon her dream about my life. It was as if, in the reality that lay ahead where perhaps she could no longer see, the only thing that hurt her was the fact that she wouldn’t be able to observe the images that concerned my future just as she had dreamed it. She coughed and cried, and my hand close to her did nothing but worsen her sadness.
My beautiful woman won’t live long, the doctor told me today. The cough is due to the damage her lungs suffered, exposed for too long a time to acids and powdered glass.
“There were no filters in the factory where your mother worked?”
“No, as far as I know there were only ventilators working, but she told me that the glass dust covered all the tables, including the one where she used to eat together with the other workers, near the assembly line!”
“Unfortunately, the fans were not enough, I am sorry.”
Once upon a time there was a cute girl with red hair, green eyes and freckles on her nose, who some time ago had believed in gnomes and fairies. One day before dawn, while outside it was raining and thundering strong, she closed her books in a drawer where usually the dreams are kept. Slowly, she wore a gray apron and hid her auburn curls in the white cap. She glanced at the warm bed that, unmade, would wait for her until late at night. Then she opened the door and stepped outside into the rain.
This short story of my collection was published by a magazine of Italian Radio and Television and by several weeklies. It is part of the collection “Echoes of the soul” you can find entering the following link.