It snowed three nights in a row, the first heavy snowfall in Livorno in more than twenty years. The Red Brigade, angered by U.S. involvement in Vietnam, were busy that month spray painting US GO HOME in jagged red letters all over the American-owned cars in town. No one had sprayed our car yet. It was only a matter of time. My mother was on the lookout.
On my way to the school bus stop the first morning of the snow, all the old women on the stoops were talking about the last great blizzard. This snow is heavier, some would say. No, this is nothing compared to that, others argued. The young men on the street were playing in the snow, rolling huge snowmen, throwing snowballs, snow-wrestling. I loved running around with them, watching them play football after school. They told me how beautiful I was going to be when I was their age. They told me it was a tragedy I was not older.
There were two brothers, Luciano and Oreste Borelli, who took my brother and me down to the beach the afternoon of the first snow. My brother and I stood high on the dunes, looking out over the sea coming in, wave after white wave flowing into the snow. We watched Oreste walk along the water, squatting every once in awhile to inspect something. He was fat and quiet, two years younger than Luciano. My brother loved to shout, whenever he saw Oreste in the street, “Arrest Borelli! Arrest Borelli!” One day Oreste asked me why my brother was always shouting his name. I tried to explain the joke, but he didn’t get it. He shook his head and walked off.
As we watched Oreste from the dunes, my brother began shouting, “Arrest Borelli! Arrest Borelli!” I took up the cry. The beautiful stretch of free, unbroken snow demanded it. Even Luciano, who was flinging snowballs from another dune toward the sea, took up the shout. “Arrest Borelli! Arrest Borelli!”
My brother understood Italian but never spoke it. Instead, he loved to combine Italian and English words. After two months in Livorno he began to speak a strange little language all his own. He always explained to me what the new words meant, so I was the only one who could understand him. I translated for him. In school, where we were separated by a grade, I suppose he spoke regular English, but at home even my mother began waiting on a translation from me whenever he said anything.
This new language had something to do with the house always being cold. We were living in a summer cottage during one of Livorno’s coldest winters. When the furnace didn’t work, and it rarely did, we all had to pile into the same bed to keep warm. My mother, my brother, my baby sister, and I would all sleep together under a mound of blankets. My brother didn’t like this. He could never sleep, he told me. It made him feel like a baby. He tried talking my mother into letting him sleep alone, but she was afraid he’d catch pneumonia.
The first time we all had to sleep together was right after we arrived in Europe. We had come to Livorno, a small beach town with an American army base and an American school, to be near my father, who was stationed on an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean. The idea was to visit him at each port where the carrier docked.
We’d arrived by plane in Luxembourg. From Luxembourg we took a train into Germany to pick up a Volkswagen my father had ordered for us from a factory there. We got off the train in the wrong town. No Volkswagen factory. We walked around town with all our luggage, looking for a hotel. My mother, who hadn’t slept since the plane had lifted off the ground back in New York, led us around in a daze. In ten minutes I could tell everyone in town knew who we were and what we were looking for, but no one spoke to us. We smiled; they smiled back. We circled the town and sat down in front of the station — across from the only hotel. I nudged my mother and pointed at the sign above the door.
The room was clean and old. A window looked out at the clock above the station door, marking time for us. The next train arrived the following day, but after spending money on the room my mother couldn’t afford tickets. We had to wait, watching the rain for three days, before my father got the message we’d sent and wired us the money. Meanwhile, there was nothing to do in that room but fight. My mother would wake up from her nap and tell us to quiet down. The rain washed the clock and the streets, and my brother and I fought quietly, pinching and digging at each other, waiting for the money.
Each night my brother would stare out into the small street, waiting for all of us to get into bed. Then he’d reluctantly peel off his shirt and pants and squeeze into bed next to me. He wanted to sleep on the floor, but my mother wouldn’t let him.
When we got the money we took our bags and hurried across the street to the station to catch the next train. By the time we got to the platform, the train had started pulling away. A smiling conductor leaned out from the steps of his car and offered his hands. My mother passed him the suitcases one by one, running alongside, then she passed him my little sister. My brother and I ran behind, trying to keep up. I was laughing and he was crying, and that made the conductor laugh. One of the porters came up behind us and scooped us up on the run. The conductor pulled my mother on board, and the porter handed me to the conductor. My mother was laughing. I was laughing. My brother was crying. It was like being handed over the choppy sea when we took the liberty boat to the aircraft carrier to visit my father. A sailor picked you up and handed you over to another sailor standing at the bottom of a ladder hanging off the ship’s deck. You’d look down into the black water slapping and pulling at the boat, the lights from the carrier deck singing off the surface, and there was nothing else to do but laugh. Maybe from sheer terror.
My brother was the last one on the train. The porter’s face was red from the strain of running with him. He barely made it. He kept crying after he was handed over. Maybe he imagined being left in that lonely hotel room, alone forever.
When we got to Livorno we lived in a pensione for a few months while my mother looked for a house. It was the only time that fall and winter when it wasn’t cold, and my brother was allowed to sleep in his own cot. Then we moved into the little cottage without heat, and we had to share a bed again. That was when my brother began making up his own language.
After the second day of snow, my brother and I were out in the yard building a snowman when an old woman hobbled up to the fence. She watched us for awhile. She’s a bird, I whispered to my brother. See the way she cocks her head from side to side, as if her ears were eyes? She’s a bird trying to figure something out.
She was bent low, net bags of groceries in each bare hand. She didn’t have proper shoes for snow; the seams were split near the toes. She wore thick beige stockings that bagged at the ankles. I told my brother to keep building the snowman and ignore her. She isn’t a bird at all, I whispered, she’s a witch.
Recently there had been a scare in town about a man who’d been stopping children on their way home from school, asking them to touch his crotch, to kiss him, to get into his car and go out for some ice cream. I’d begun looking suspiciously at everyone I didn’t know. I stared across the yard at the old woman, imagining her as the dark, crazy mother of the child-thief. She boils children in a huge cauldron, I told my brother. He shook his head, patting snow onto the belly of the snowman, ignoring me. The old woman strained her head over the fence, trying to listen. Her eyes glistened the way blind eyes do — sparkling, blank — seeing things on the inside.
We crouched behind the snowman until the old woman left, then ran to the fence and watched her hobble down the street. I told my brother about the shoes. She’s very poor, I said. Watching her walk off after we’d hidden from her made me feel lonely. I thought it was the old woman’s loneliness I was feeling, but maybe it was my own. I decided she wasn’t a witch, just a poor woman who’d stopped in front of our house to catch her breath.
That night it snowed for the third time, and the furnace stopped dead after dinner. My mother called the landlord and asked him, in her broken Italian, to come over and fix it. She knew he wouldn’t come that night, but she called anyway. It was a matter of principle with her. She told me that you must show people like him that you are not afraid of them. But no matter what time she called about the furnace, he would always say the same thing: “Domani.” It was one of the few Italian words my mother understood. Tomorrow. Then she’d hand the phone to me and ask me to translate for her while she paced the kitchen, furious, the purple sweater without buttons wrapped tight around her, her crossed arms holding it closed. When I’d hang up she’d say that the man was taking advantage of us because he knew her situation: her husband was at sea, out of reach. “Does he think I’m stupid?” she’d say. “I’m not paying rent until he comes and fixes that furnace.” But he always came before rent was due to tinker with the furnace. It would work for a few days — then another month of cold.
The night of the third snow my brother and I pleaded with my mother to let us stay in our own room, and she did. She was relieved, I think. We piled on the blankets and spent the evening reading in our beds. Around nine o’clock the power went out. My brother padded over to my bed, trying to scare me, but I heard him coming and let go a wild scream, which sent him screaming back to his own bed. He ran into one of the legs of the bed and stubbed his toe. My mother came in with a candle while he was groaning on the floor and told us to pile into her bed. We refused.
We stayed up for another hour telling scary stories until my mother beat on the wall and yelled for us to quiet down. She was having trouble sleeping. It wasn’t just the furnace and the Red Brigade. For nearly a week we’d been eating fried cornmeal mush every meal. The only way we could get it down at this point was by pouring gobs of maple syrup on the yellow-brown cakes. That morning my brother had dropped his fork onto his plate and complained that he couldn’t eat it anymore. My mother picked up the plate and dumped his cake in the garbage. There was nothing else to eat, though — not until the check from my father arrived.
The morning after the power went out we stayed home from school. The buses weren’t running. The old lady came by in the late afternoon and watched us play again. She beckoned me over to the fence with a bony finger and asked if I wanted some candy. The pity I’d had for her the day before vanished. She’s a witch after all, I whispered to my brother. I backed away from the fence, pulling my brother along. We made a run for the house.
Inside, I told my mother breathlessly what had just happened. She looked out the window and watched the old woman disappear down the street. “I’m sure she’s harmless,” she said. “But you were right. You should never take anything from strangers.” She let the curtain fall back across the glass, her mind elsewhere. “Next time she comes, ask her what she wants,” she said, then went to wake my little sister from her nap.
The woman appeared the next day at the same time. She stared at us without cocking her head, without saying a word. I asked her what she wanted. She pointed to herself and pointed back at me, saying in broken English, “Me — I am American, too.” I told her she didn’t sound American to me. “It has been a long time, child, since I was in America,” she said in Italian. “I was from a land of snow. I saw you playing with your brother, and I remembered my own brother. It was snowing and snowing all the time, and we played in the snow, just like you.”
My brother stood behind me, silent, listening. “Where are you from in America?” I asked her.
“Wisconsin,” she said. “It was always snowing. I had forgotten until I saw you two playing in the snow. It was always snowing. And quiet. Just like this snow.”
I asked how long she had been away from her home. “Oh, a long time,” she answered. “Right after the Great War I came here to nurse the sick. It was the great flu epidemic.” She nodded and said to herself in English, “Nurse.” I nodded back, encouraging her. “There were bells ringing all the time, bells ringing for the dead.” Her eyes seemed to focus on something deep inside herself. “There was really nothing we could do.” She looked at us and smiled.
“I thought she was a witch,” my brother said in his secret language. His lips were blue. His teeth chattered. I knew he had to go inside, but I didn’t want the old lady to leave. There were too many things I suddenly wanted to ask her, like how she had forgotten her own language. So I invited her inside for hot chocolate, which was all we had besides cornmeal mush.
The old woman sat down at the table, and my mother busied herself with boiling water and washing some mugs with the freezing tap water. I told her everything the old woman had told me. My mother asked why she had stayed in Italy. I translated, and the old woman told me she had fallen in love with a young man, a most beautiful man, the most beautiful man she had ever seen. She leaned across the table and tapped me on the shoulder, saying that I would one day understand what it’s like to give up everything for a beautiful man. “But you don’t know that’s what you are doing at the time,” she said.
My mother seemed content to watch the steam rise from the kettle, so I translated only bits and pieces of what the old woman had said. “She stayed on because she married,” I said. My mother nodded and smiled at the old woman, who smiled back. She repeated the word married to my mother in English. My mother nodded, smiling her late-afternoon smile, repeating the word like a soft echo. “Married . . . yes.”
“Ask her if she ever went back,” my mother said. She poured the water over the chocolate powder in the mugs. I translated.
“Who has money to return?” the old woman replied. “Time slips away. You spend your time bringing up the babies, and then there was the war . . .”
“Where is your husband now?” my mother asked, sitting down to her steaming mug.
“Oh, he died in the war.”
“And your children?” I asked. “Do they live in Livorno?”
She smiled, her eyes sad, and said, “The war — it took many people away.” I looked down into my hot chocolate, and the old woman patted my hand. She told us not to feel sad. “Many people lost family during the war, many people,” she said.
She got up from the table and asked where my brother had gone. I told her he was probably in our room playing soldiers on his bed. “Yes, my little boys would play war,” she said.
My mother sat there, smiling, not understanding a single word. She looked out the window at the dark blue snow on the ledge. Night had already fallen on one side of the house. I offered to walk the old woman home. I needed to know more about Wisconsin. I needed to know about this woman’s lost America. My mother agreed to let me go if I took my little brother along.
On the way, I wanted her to tell me more about Wisconsin, but she kept asking about my school. Did I go to an Italian school? I told her no, that we went to the American school on the base, wondering how I could work her around to Wisconsin again. “But how did you learn Italian?” she asked. “Oh, we have Italian friends on the street,” I told her. “Two young men, Oreste and Luciano, they take us to the beach.” My brother cut in and told her about shouting “Arrest Borelli!” at Oreste, but she couldn’t make out what he was saying. She turned to me and said, “I can’t understand a word he says. Is that Italian he’s speaking?” I translated my brother’s joke for her. She was still confused.
Her apartment was tiny and dark. Little trinkets and boxes covered the shelves. She told me I could come by anytime for cookies. I asked her if she would tell me more about Wisconsin when she was a girl. She shrugged and said, “It was a long time ago. There is not much to tell.”
Back at home, I couldn’t sleep. I sat up thinking aloud, whispering questions to my brother in the dark. “How can someone forget a whole part of their life?” I asked. It didn’t seem possible. “How can you forget where you came from? How can you forget your own brother?” He grunted in the dark. “It’d be as if you and I forgot we made a snowman today, forgot that I sat here asking you questions . . .” It’s as if I will not exist, I thought. This Livorno, this room, my little brother in the dark there — when I return to the States, it will no longer exist. And what will become of me?
I pulled my knees up to my chin. I held my breath and listened to my heart beating underneath the blankets. I imagined all the places where we could possibly end up living — different worlds, where this life here in Livorno would be lost. I held myself and wondered, What holds all these worlds together? I imagined myself dissolving in the dark and fell asleep with my knees pressed up to my chin.
Later that night my sister crawled into bed with me because my mother kept turning restlessly in her sleep, making frightened little dream sounds that scared her. I made room for her and we dropped off together, holding each other, plummeting through our own separate dreams.
Two weeks later the snow began to melt. The yard was a sea of mud, and the gutters overflowed with old snow. Since we’d walked the old woman home, I hadn’t stopped thinking of her, but I couldn’t bring myself to go back to her apartment. I waited for her to pass by our house carrying her bags of groceries, but she never did. The day the snow was completely washed away I asked my brother if he wanted to walk to her place with me for some cookies.
We knocked on her door, and the old lady opened it, clapping her hands, surprised and smiling. We sat down on the sofa. She pulled up a huge chair and sat in front of us, offering small, pink, glazed cookies. My brother chose one, looked at it, took a bite, put it down, and picked up another. I was so embarrassed I slapped at his hand when he reached for a third cookie without finishing one. The old woman just laughed and told me she knew all about little boys. She began talking about her own two boys. I cut her off and asked if her brother was still alive. She said she didn’t know. “There are so many years that have passed,” she said. I told her that I would always know where my brother lived when I grew up. “That may be,” she said. “That would be a good thing.”
My brother asked where her bathroom was, and she understood enough to lead him to it. When he was gone she leaned close to me and asked, “Was that Italian he was trying to speak?”
I told her about his secret language. She nodded and nodded while I explained that he didn’t speak strangely in school, only at home. It was because of the cold, I told her. “Sometimes we all have to sleep together,” I said. She seemed to think this was an adequate explanation for his behavior, listening with one ear cocked to one side. I told her Luciano had once pulled me aside and pointed at Oreste and my brother, who were walking side by side along the beach. He’d said they were meant to be brothers because they were both so quiet and strange and full of thoughts, and that he and I were meant to be brother and sister because we were full of smiles and laughter and talk. He’d told me Oreste had made up a language of his own when he was a boy, just like my brother. “But why keep what you have to say a secret?” he had said to me. “Why not say it to someone else!”
The old woman told me that each person is like a snowflake. “Very different,” she said. “Very different.”
My brother was in the bathroom a long time, probably playing with his soldiers. When he finally came out, the old woman had nodded off to sleep. I woke her to say goodbye, and she smiled, still dreaming. We tiptoed out of the apartment and quietly shut the door behind us.
That night Luciano rapped hard on our front door. Without waiting for an answer, he rushed into the kitchen. He had been crying. We were in the middle of a grand spaghetti dinner. My father’s check had finally arrived. My mother was having wine and offered Luciano a glass, which he took. He sat down and told us Oreste had been arrested. My brother looked across the table at me and smiled. I frowned back, hoping he wouldn’t break into silly laughter. Luciano would never understand.
Luciano kept apologizing for his brother. Finally, my mother asked me to ask him what Oreste had done. He told us it was Oreste who had spray painted YANQUI GO HOME on all the American cars.
Luciano finished his wine and got up to leave. At the door my mother asked, and I translated, “Why didn’t Oreste ever spray our car?” Luciano shook his head. “Maybe it’s because your children know Italian,” he said. He rubbed the top of my head and smiled sadly at me. “But who really knows? You tell your mother that I cannot explain my brother. I have never been able to explain my brother. Who can explain the actions of another?”
Luciano never came back to take us to the beach. I don’t know what happened to Oreste. I never saw him again, either. Poor sad, quiet Oreste. I never said this to anyone, but I was always secretly proud of him for not being who everyone thought he was.