I am living in Trieste, a city 150 kilometres east of Venice, where I look after two small boys: Frederico, (he is ten), and Leonardo, (he is eight). We call Leonardo ‘Leo’ for short. My days here are marked by routine, a domestic tempo that is surprisingly easy to follow. I rise at seven, shower, then wake the boys. I help them with their breakfast, oversee the brushing of their teeth, coax them into their jackets, put on their backpacks and begin the walk through the forest to their tree-lined school. The boys speak incessant Italian the whole way there… perché… io non voglio…. basta! They kick the stones beneath them as they walk.
The city of Trieste is situated at a sort of crossroads, a unique amalgam of Latin, Germanic and Slavic cultures, tucked away in Italy’s most eastern corner. It is a place to stop mid-transit, a place Jan Morris deemed the ‘allegory of limbo’. For centuries, the city has been locked in the middle of a political tug of war, pulled at from every angle by hungry men hungrier for power. I arrive here in summer and sense a city resting, the tension settled, indiscriminate and soft, calm nestling into the mossy ground. It is a city long-forgotten, and I am ready to let myself vanish in it.
Sometimes the boys can’t really believe I’m here. At night I bring out the atlas and tiptoe my fingers along the map till I reach Australia. The boys blink through the hazy concepts of distance and time, abstraction sitting heavy on their eyelids. I tell them about my home back in Melbourne, how it always smelled of dust. How the renovations next door meant nothing could settle, fibres constantly dislodged, floating around us like snowflakes.
People forget about the animal in us but with children it is just there. The switch is quick and grotesque, but you can never miss it. Sometimes the boys fight and I need a level of force I wasn’t aware I’d need to use with children. They begin innocently enough, but a fast strike snaps into a tousle of limbs. I am always in the middle of it, animal and alive. Voices roar through all corners of the house. I try to mollify; I try to ask them what is wrong? But words have no place here. The boys know this. I am still yet to learn. In the heat of it all, Leo waves up his little arms, pumping his fists high into the air. It feels wonderful to be alive to see it.
With children I learn the beauty of capriciousness, the comforting element of a mercurial mood. Here, tension rises and falls almost inconsequentially, and when the moment passes I gather my breath. We all do. We capitulate into that wordless void, exerted and exhausted, gathering and breathing. In these moments I feel connected to these two small humans who are essentially strangers. I am propelled by the unexpected. I go downstairs and wash the dishes, slowly and with purpose, the faint sloshing sounds of bubbly water gliding off the porcelain plate lulling me into a deep sense of ease.
I wash their little clothes and hang them out to dry. I tidy their room, fold the sheets over on their bed, just so, just the way they like it. I set the table: five places, the father at the head. This codification of a day stretches into weeks, creeps over into months, nestles into my bones, finds space in the cavities of my body. It is cyclical. And I do not know where one begins and ends.
In the afternoon I walk through the forest to pick the boys up from school. I watch as all the mothers collect their children. I say all because they’re all always mothers, and they’re all there, all the mothers from my childhood, the faces I saw as I emerged from those doors, soft and expectant. Their voices rise in a confluence of maternal pride and fall around me as rain does, soft but aware, always aware of their force. And the children are absorbed in these cocoons of love. I say love because that’s what it is: simple but shadowy, wholesome yet incomplete. The colours of it pop right above their heads, little arms swinging out the school gates.
When they speak to one another, the mothers, you can sense they’re writhing out of something. They’re on the move. When I watch them I feel my fears pulling at me rudely. I feel a lurch in my stomach and turn to face the empty space. I look back and see the mothers have gone, the remnants of their shed lives left like snakeskin on the grass. Fragile, intricate. There will be more.
My desire for their voices and for their tiny hands had scared me. It was unprecedented and strong, springing from a place murky and unnamed. I’d postulate their prospective features, like I could actually predict, like I could actually know. Like I could escape the real consequences of raising a child. I will be different, I say, cool hand on belly, eyes closed as if in quiet prayer.
They have a name for the wind here. La bora, they tell me proudly, an emphatic wave of the hand, a delicious roll of the rrrs. The Italians are proud of her disruption, of her crude insistence to blow. When I walk through the city it is not only me that shakes, but everything around me. Trees are coerced into undressing, forced into complete nakedness. They become shaking skeletons in the wind. Look at us, they tell me. Look what we’ve become.
I buy a postcard with a beautiful drawing on it that’s meant to represent the bora. A young woman, maybe a nymph, is soaring above the ocean, the city behind her tiny and fragmented, the sky above her grey. She holds a stick in one hand and is wearing a long, ornate dress, the delicate folds unravelling in the air. A small boy, maybe Cupid, is holding her left foot. Gentle. He is naked, his blonde curls raised like tiny, enthusiastic arms coiled, joined in the wind. But I can’t tell if his touch is pulling her down or connecting him to her stride. Is it stabilising or encumbering. A gesture of love, or a subtle coax to imprisonment. Maybe it is both, but maybe it is neither. The problem is I never stay long enough to find out.
Alana Bridget Scully is a writer and student from Melbourne. Her fiction, personal essay and interviews have appeared in various publications including Seizure, SPOOK and The Ripe. She loves Rihanna, queer literature and journalling. Find her at alanabridgetscully.com