Every afternoon after school, children head to the playing field to play football. Parents go along, because the field is in the town’s outskirts. While their children run after the ball, parents meet up at the nearby pub, from which they can keep an eye on the match, whereas the girls play on the street and have fun skipping the rope. The echo of children singing resonates all around the neighbourhood. As daylight begins to fade, the façades of the surrounding buildings, which have been shining in the light of a relentless sun, turn to sweet shades of blue and purple. The neighbours thrust their doors and windows open, to let the evening breeze refresh their houses. As the vases on their balconies still drip from the recent watering, they carry their chairs outside on the pavement and sit in a circle. Next to their mothers, little girls eat their snacks without stopping their games. Tiger, the stripy cat without an owner, strolls around their feet, in case someone let something drop for him to eat. Then he lazily crosses the street, lies against a random wall and yawns. From time to time, a car drives by and slows down. Silence drops and the whole street stares at the driver. Zenón draws the curtain from his window with his big hands and gawps at the little girls. He is fascinated by their hair which move in unison with their skipping, their short skirts which rise at every skip and land back on their tights. He stares, entranced, at the rope which turns in the air as the shoes rise to avoid it. The boy’s head swings according to the rhythm of the songs, grimacing in a sort of smile. Sometimes the grimace would turn into a laugh, a rampant noise which sounds like someone choking.
Of all the girls, Gina is the one who looks prettier to him. The first time he saw her, she was younger than one month. Her mother was holding her and all the neighbours were cajoling her. Zenòn was standing right next to them. His father had just finished shaving him and he had got annoyed, like always, and had started crying. The sight of the baby calmed him. Look how adorable this baby is, they told him. She looked so little, so vulnerable to him. He started laughing and swinging his large body, satisfied.
It’s Gina’s turn to turn the rope. She’s holding the last piece of a biscuit in the other hand. She eats it in one bite, without stopping the game. Zénon has good memory for certain things. Especially those concerning Gina. Like that time when she was learning to walk and had let him hold her hand for a brief moment. Zenòn leaned towards the baby, his free arm shielding her from any obstacle she might trip over. Look at him, he heard someone say, he’s usually so clumsy, while now… The women, sitting in a circle, watched the scene and smiled, moved. After Gina was given back to her mother, Zenòn stepped away from the group. He peeked at them, sticking his chest out.
But the one that causes him the greatest excitement is the memory of the first time he heard Gina utter his name. She said Zenòn, she said Zenòn, she said Zenòn!, shouted he excitedly, stamping his feet on the ground convulsively and pointing at the baby. Tiger, who was sleeping under some chairs nearby, sprinted away, frightened.
Zenòn laughs remembering the event. The children sing, run under the rope and skip it. Gina looks up. She sees him at the window and greets him, then waves at him to come down.
Zenòn wishes he could go play football with the boys, but his father cannot go with him because he works in the afternoon and doesn’t want him to go alone. Until a little while ago, Zenòn would spend time with the girls. However, since they’ve began to play with the rope, things have changed. When he approaches them, they abruptly interrupt their game. They say
he’s not able to skip it. He always steps on it. Zenòn walks angrily away and watches them from the steps of his house. Gina walks away as well and goes sit next to him. So he goes back in, coming out minutes later with some toys to share with his friend. Sometimes he brings a yo-yo, sometimes a jigsaw puzzle, sometimes marbles. He looks like a giant next to the girl. Gina’s parents from time to time argue about their being so close. I don’t like the girl to spend so much time with that boy, she says. Who knows… Gina’s father diverts his gaze from the newspaper and, clicking his tongue, looks at his wife from over his glasses. Dooon’t start, answers he wearily, going back to his article. She, however, doubts. The memory of Zenòn’s mother comes to her mind. Where is she? she wonders. Since she left leaving behind only that note, some years ago now, no one in town has ever seen her again. One day or another, I’ll leave everything and run away, Zenon’s mother would say when it was just the two of them talking. She said it with a laugh. Gina’s mother never thought she was serious. They had been neighbours for a long time; she would have sworn she knew her well.
Zenòn was twelve the day his mother left. It was on a Sunday morning. In spring. She waited for her husband to take their son fishing tadpoles at the pond of a friend’s garden. No one saw her leave home. Someone run into her some days later in another city. She was with a man. Zenòn had called for her for several days, screaming her name. He did it at night. His father used to come back late from work. As soon as he turned the corner at the end of the street, he would hear his screams. In their houses, the other families, upset, had dinner. They could hear Zenòn, driven insane, scream through their closed windows, and his father as he tried to calm him down.
The little girls continue with their game, but sing another song. Zenòn stares at the horizon; the sky is coated with pink clouds. His gaze moves to the verge of the village, where the yellow and ochre fields begin. He measures the distance with his thumb and index. Gina’s voice calling him makes him turn again towards the street. He opens the window and looks down. Gina tells him that she has a present for him. It’s a surprise. She’ll give it to him tomorrow. Zenòn suddenly remembers. He feels a pang in his stomach and his smile remains fixed on his face for quite some time, like a smirk. The guttural sound of his laugh seems out of tempo. Tomorrow it’s his birthday.
Today is a great day for Zenòn. His father got a day off work. He bought a big cake and the little boys and girls from the neighbourhood are invited to eat it in the afternoon. They all have paper plates with green and red butterflies printed on them. Zenòn is very excited. In the general chaos, his laugh resonates. After he has blown out the candles, the children hand him their gifts. Gina approaches him with a big box in her hands; there are several holes on the top. Everybody is looking at the two of them. Zenòn shakes anxiously as he opens it. He sees a cage inside. He looks at it with curiosity. There’s a white and beige guinea-pig in a corner, with bright black eyes. Zenòn’s mouth opens wide when he sees it. Gina takes him out of the cage and puts it in his hands. Zenòn can barely breath. He doesn’t even move. He holds him carefully, without daring to stroke him. The girl shows him the right way to hold it. It’s hard for Zenòn to put it back in the cage, but there are other gifts to unwrap.
Some weeks have passed and Zenòn is constantly with his pet. The animal walks on his shoulders, eats from his hand, sleeps in his pockets. At first the children would approach Zenòn every time he went out to see the giunea-pig. He would show it to them with his tone-deaf laughs, but now they are used to it and don’t pay almost any attention to it any more.
More and more often the street remains silent in the afternoon. There are hardly any children running around. Lately, the girls have been playing football, as well. They go to the playing field now. Their parents go with them. The street seems dumb without their songs. Quiet without their skipping. There’s just Zenòn with his pet, sitting in front of his door. He’s very sad these days, and angrier than ever. He rarely sees Gina, and when he does, she’s always in a hurry.
Today is different, though. It rained for the whole morning and they can’t play in the football field. It’s full of puddles. Children go out on the street holding their snacks. Some of them put on their skates and run up and down the street. Others trade stickers. The girls have their rope. The neighbours’ circle is larger. The sky is grey and clouded. Gina’s friends wait for her, but since it’s taking her too long, they start playing. Once again, children songs echo. After a while, Gina has not come yet, so the girls decide to go look for her at her place. The windows are open so they call her from the street, quietly at first, then with louder voices. Eventually, they ring the bell. Her mother opens the door. Isn’t she with you?, asks she, surprised. The girls exchange a glance. They all try to remember if Gina told them where she went, but they all shake their heads. Gina’s mother gets back inside, warns her husband and checks the rooms. On the street, the neighbours know nothing. Neither the children counting stickers, nor those who skate, nor the women sitting in their circle… No one saw her. Suddenly, Gina’s mother straightens her back as if she had been whipped. What about Zenòn? Couldn’t she be with Zenòn? Everyone looks around, looking for the boy, but nobody sees him. They go to his house and notice that the entry door is opened. They call him from the street, and since nobody answers, Gina’s father and the other men go in. The mother of the girl waits outside. Her hands, her crossed fingers, shake. Minutes feel like hours as they wait for the men to come out. There’s no one inside. We have to call the police, says Gina’s father while dialling the number on his phone. There’s blood in Zenòn’s room, says a boy who sneaked in. Gina’s mother covers her mouth with her hands, holding back a cry. Her husband calms her. It’s nothing, there’s very little of it. Maybe Zenòn scratched himself with something, he tells her. The police will be here any moment. Tense silence drops. There’s nothing to do but wait. Gina’s mother refuses to go home. She prefers to wait on the pavement. A light rain starts falling, but no one seems to be bothered. They’ve been waiting on the street for a while now. Swallows fly low, restlessly. Listen!, says someone, don’t you hear it? Silence drops. A guttural, repetitive sound comes from afar. It seems to come from a little alley nearby. Some children run in that direction. Zenòn is here! He’s here! they shout upset, waving their arms. The whole group heads there. Zenòn is crouched behind the corner. His shirt is stained with blood, like his hands, like his face. However, he has no visible wounds. Everyone is watching him. What happened, Zenòn? Where did you come from? Have you seen my daughter? asks Gina’s father. Zenòn looks at him with eyes wide open. All those people around him make him shake. He wrings his dirty hands and moans desperately, louder and louder. He wants to speak, but his is no voice, it’s a strange sound that fills the air with anxiety. Almost a noise. The boy’s father walks to him, pushing through the crowd. Someone called him at the factory. What’s wrong, boy? But it’s impossible to get anything out of him. Gina’s mother gets sited on a chair. Night is falling, the sky is turning purple, the houses look whiter. Three squawking magpies cross the sky. Two figures start approaching the group from afar. They are holding hands. As they see some children running towards them, they immediately let go. The shout “It’s Gina!” resonates in the whole neighbourhood. The girl’s parents hold their breaths. Surrounded by their neighbours, they walk toward their daughter. They hug her, crying. Gina looks at them, frightened. On the other side of the street, Zenòn’s father wipes his eyes, hiding it. He tries to calm his son, but cannot understand what causes him so much anguish. Gina hears his friend’s moans and runs at his side. Zenòn looks tearfully at her. He puts his hand in his pocket and takes out the devastated body of his guinea-pig. He does it with extreme care, as if he were still afraid to hurt it. It was Tiger, he says, showing it to her.
translated by Irene Brighenti