Love is a beautiful thing. Of my forty-three years, I have happily spent the last eighteen with my charming wife Lorena, and I wouldn't want to miss a single one of them.
The first love, however, will always carry a special place in the heart of every person. It is like an entrance into real, true life and it will always be remembered. Every love you meet is secretly measured against the first sensation you felt in your young life.
My first great love was Seraina Gadient, the flower girl, as we called her then. I had just turned fifteen when I realized with horror that I had a massive crush on her.
"You know, this is the lowest form of theft?" Gio said softly, looking over his shoulder. There was no one there watching us.
"Shut up, come with me," I answered him and struggled up the narrow footpath.
It had become cold in the last days of October, the slopes had lost their green and exchanged it for a nutty brown, the trees let their dying leaves slide to the ground. A chill wind blew through the valley and whispered in soft tones through the branches and bushes. In the Paradiso, the botanical garden of Chiavenna, there were hardly any visitors left; autumn had driven them back over the Alps to Switzerland or even further south of Italy. Nobody wanted to watch the plants die. In the spring and summer months, it was almost impossible to move around here on the narrow hill paths, which were lined on both sides with exotic and native plants and flowers, attracting not only people but also swarms of insects.
"That girl really twisted your head," Gio said, lighting a cigarette. Despite the cool air, drops of sweat glittered on his black hair and tanned skin. Soon he would lose that tan again and be just a cheesy fifteen-year-old Italo with excess hormones. Not unlike me.
"Why don't you just buy her a flower? Goes faster and is less tiring than climbing this damn hill."
"Because that would be the easy solution," I replied, annoyed. "Anyone can buy flowers. There's nothing romantic about it."
"I see. So stealing a wilted flower from a botanical garden is romantic?"
"Surely more than just walking to Lafrancos, slapping a few liras on the counter and buying a soulless tulip."
"She's really gotten into your head."
We reached a lookout dome and stopped. Our home spread out below us, enclosed between the steep mountain slopes and the roaring waters of the river Mera. We could see from above the jumble of narrow streets, squares and rows of houses, wherein the summer months hosts of tourists took pictures of fountains, cobblestones, and facades or enjoyed themselves at the ice cream parlours. Now the village belonged to the locals again. A little further to the east you could see the Castello, an old fortress with two round towers, which nestled up against a slope and looked like a remnant from an old pirate movie. Including two palm trees flanking the entrance portal. My view went over the railing at the foot of the slope. From above the cemetery looked like a model landscape. The terraces with the countless graves and mausoleums were almost deserted. Occasionally nuns dressed in black walked around and mourned their deceased men and children afterward. The silence was depressing: no rattling of motorbikes or cars coming from the passes, no loud, amazed voices, no screaming children. Chiavenna lay there abandoned. With the mountainsides on all sides, the place radiated a sadness. Clouds moved across the dark red sky, the sun had almost set. The garden would soon close its gates, and we had come here in vain.
"Can we?" Gio asked, kicking his cigarette out in the gravel. Unfortunately, he was right; many of the plants had withered, sad shadows of themselves. White flowers had turned brown, tight tissue had sagged. Gio pulled the collar of his brown sweater closer around his neck. Silently I walked past him around a bend. Small brass signs described flowers that had already wilted. Disappointed, I asked for a cigarette. Gio handed it to me together with a pack of matches. Although my parents were far away, down there somewhere in one of the houses, I nervously looked around to see if anyone was watching me as I stuck one of the cigarettes they hated so much between my lips. My father was a heavy smoker himself, but still thought I was far too young to be bothered by this vice.
My mood faded with the light of day. I had high hopes of finding a flower here, which I could give to Seraina that night at our not quite permitted meeting. She loved flowers of all kinds, and it was precisely for this reason that I wanted to give her something special that you couldn't find in every shop - and certainly not in Lafranco.
"You can get them in the box without any undergrowth, believe me," said Gio and laughed. "I see how she adores you. Il amore!"
"Shut up," I returned while inhaling the last puff of my cigarette and punched him in the upper arm. Giggling, we walked back down the hill along the narrow gravel paths and through the gate. In the guard's house, the ticket seller sat and gave us a searching look as we greeted him with a happy laugh and hurried away.
"I know another place where there are flowers," said Gio mischievously. "But then you'd definitely be a lousy scumbag." I looked at him curiously.
"And where's that place?"
"Follow me, Massimo. Follow the good Gio," he laughed and ran ahead.
"You're kidding, right?" I asked in anger when I saw where he was taking me. Gio shrugged his shoulders.
"Isn't it romantic?"
We were standing in the parking lot of the Cimitero, the cemetery I had seen from the observation deck just half an hour ago.
"The dead don't need them anymore. And when it comes to love, even the dead get sentimental." He winked at me and scurried through the entrance portal. I followed him across the deserted parking lot and entered through the gate. Inside I was reluctant to do it. It didn't feel right to be here. Love goes through the heart. Love goes through the stomach. But does love also go through death?
The grave crosses, stone slabs, and memorial plaques lay there in the red light of dawn. Elsewhere, the graves were already in the dark of the shadows. It had become colder. Gio's slender body scurried upwards between the monuments. His lively figure seemed strange in this necropolis. My grandmother was buried here, but that had been many years ago and I could not remember where exactly she lay. But it was too late for a visit anyway. And it would not let my deed go unpunished. Even as a child I felt queasy at this cemetery. From all sides, you were observed by angel statues, some bright white, but many weathered and grey. The higher you came, the more magnificent the graves became, until you reached the mausoleums on the top level. Directly behind them, in the distance, the jagged mountains of the Alps rose. For Christians, a magnificent symbol. Down here death, above the endless sky. But I felt only small and unwelcome.
"Gio, wait!" I shouted at him. He turned around, put his index finger on his lips and then pointed to a row of graves. On my knees, praying, I recognized a woman wrapped in black, her grey hair combed backwards. If she had heard me - and she had to because my voice still echoed from the slopes - she ignored me. I caught up with Gio, who went ahead, past the family tombs, which were modelled after Roman temples.
"Noble the world is perishing," I murmured as we passed an impressive mausoleum built entirely of white marble. "And what are we doing here now? Should I steal funeral decorations?"
"No, better." Gio looked around, searched, and finally scampered to the right at the end of the path. There, half-hidden by a small group of fir trees, was a magnificent tomb hidden in the shadows. It was marked by nature, weathered and stained. Climbing plants had grown up on its walls and had been torn down again. Beneath the grey, stone-carved gabled roof, which rested on mighty, straight columns, there was only a saying carved in straight, filigree letters: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my love will never wither.
That was all. No name, no dates, no origin. Whoever was housed in this mausoleum has been resting here for quite some time.
Abandoned, lost, forgotten.
"The lonely Giulia, forsaken by her Romeo. Sad, sad," joked Gio and approached the heavy barred gate that blocked the entrance to the crypt. "Come, Massimo, there's your flower," he said and pointed into the crypt. I stepped beside him and stared through the gate into the darkness of the room. It smelled of damp stone, almost like the cellar of our house. Through a small round window under the roof, some of the red evening light still fell into the room, illuminating the stone coffin inside. And through a lightning crack in the lid of the coffin, a beautiful red rose grew up. Astonished I looked at this scene, breathless, surprised by the morbid beauty. Death and life, so close together, united, if only for a fleeting moment.
"I must have it," I whispered and as nonsensical as it sounded, as bitterly serious I meant it. If ever a flower could describe love, it was this rose that grew from the stone coffin of a deceased lover.
"Foolishly, don't you come in there,' Gio said, patted me on the shoulder and left. A joke, for him it was just a full-grown joke to take his lovesick mate in his arms. But for me, it had become a desire. I had to have this flower. The red light slowly disappeared and soon it was pitch black in the crypt. The rose had disappeared from my view, disappeared into the night and yet I was still standing in front of the door, my fingers bent around the cold iron of the gate. Gently I pulled at it, but the portal was closed. Of course, it was. A cool breeze blew towards me and, as if to seduce me one last time, brought the sweet scent of the blossom to my nose.
"Massimo!" I heard Gio's voice calling out from somewhere behind me in the distance. A few moments later, a second time. The thin ribbon I had woven with the tomb tore in two and I took a few steps back. It had become dark, almost night. How long had I been standing here? A few seconds? Minutes? I turned around and looked over the rows of graves down to Gio, who was already at the bottom, leaning against a wall and waiting for me. With a heavy heart, I stepped out from under the branches of the fir trees and walked back over the gravel path of the terraces.
There was a noise behind me.
Quietly, almost shyly, iron creaked. A long, high yaw.
As if a door had been opened.
Cold shot into my limbs. I sucked in the fresh evening air and scurried down past the graves to Gio.
Of course, I got a rebuke from my father at home for this, because I stumbled through the front door much too late. My parents sat in the living room at our round dining table and read the newspaper. They had already eaten and my mum pointed her hand to the fridge where she had put a plate of pasta aside.
"Can you heat it up yourself," she said and looked at me over her glasses. "Where have you been again?"
"I was out with Gio. In the botanical garden," I explained to her, while I pushed the gnocchi from the plate into a pan. The kitchen still smelled of food and my stomach growled at the sight of the cold pasta. Except for a few cigarettes and a chewing gum to cover the smoky taste, nothing had come between my teeth since noon. Papa struggled up out of his chair and staggered to the coffee machine. He let out two espressos and sat down again.
"Does Gio smoke?" he asked unexpectedly, not taking his eyes off the paper. My heart suddenly beat faster.
"Yes, sometimes. Why?"
"Do you smoke?" he asked without a sound.
"No, of course, I don't."
"Of course not," he repeated and then fell silent. I stopped, still holding the spatula while the gnocchi sizzled and waited to see if anything else came. But Father remained calm and turned the pages.
"We'll go to the cinema later. Will you come with us?" Mum asked me. Of course, I knew they wanted to go to the movies. That was one of the reasons why I really wanted the flower today because I was counting on being able to sneak outside unnoticed and meet Seraina. If my parents were at the cinema, I'd have at least two and a half hours free.
"No, thanks. Not today. I have homework I have to finish by next Monday."
"But it's the new Adriano Celentano movie. Il bisbetico domato. Ornella Muti is also in it. It'll be fun."
"I'm sure it will be fun. But I've got work to do.
"You like Adriano Celentano?" she kept trying, and I wasn't sure why she insisted I come along. Probably because she guessed that I'd do everything tonight except homework.
"Already yes", I murmured and tipped the gnocchi from the pan back into the plate, filled a glass with tap water and sat down at the table. There was an oppressive silence in our small, narrow apartment. I would have done anything to bring some life into this confinement. Even music by Celentano, whom I actually didn't like at all. Not as a musician. And even less as an actor. In autumn I always found our apartment inhospitable and strange. It lacked the lightness of summer or the Christmassy security of winter. In autumn it was simply lifeless, almost as if our apartment could only be defined by the decorations of the seasons. And Mama loved to decorate the apartment. She could spend whole days with it, even though she put the same objects in the same places every year, every season. Unless, of course, she had found something she liked at the market or in one of the many small shops.
"How was the Paradiso?" Father suddenly asked. He took a small, ladylike sip from his espresso cup.
"Trist. Almost everything withered away."
"That's what autumn is like, Massimo."
"I know. It's a pity, though."
"How's Gio?" Mom asked.
"How's Maria? Did she cure her cold?"
"Yes, I think so." Until then, I didn't even know Gio's mother had a cold. Dad drank the espresso in one more gulp and folded the newspaper.
"We should slow down," he said and got up. His massive body swayed around the table to the bathroom. A little later, I heard the toilet flush. The door opened and he came back, went into the dark corridor and took the leather jacket from the hook on the wall. Mama smiled at me.
"Do you like it?" She stroked my forearm. I nodded, my mouth full of delicious gnocchi. My mother managed to make them so tasty without any sauce that you only stopped when you could almost feel the vomit on your palate. She prepared them only with butter and sage and that's how I liked them best. Mama also stepped briefly into the bathroom but remained standing on the threshold.
"Franco!" she shouted in anger and put her hand in front of her nose. Dad laughed from the corridor.
"You've cooked," he said, raising his hands apologetically.
"This is the coffee, not my food. The miserable coffee!"
"That you bought!"
Mama sprayed some perfume on her neck and hurried back to the living room.
"If the Tomasos are at the movies, maybe we'll go for a drink later. Might be later," she finally said, throwing on a self-knitted jacket. "Don't stay up too late."
"Keys," my father muttered and came back through the passage to the dining table, where he took his bunch of keys from the sideboard next to it. Then he bent down to me.
"The smoke is also trapped in the clothes. Even the chewing gum can't hide this," he whispered in my ear and patted me lovingly on the shoulder. Caught, I looked up at him. He winked at me and went back into the hall.
"Ready?" Mama asked. Dad put his arm around her shoulder, pulled her towards him and kissed her on the mouth. Mama later slapped him on the chest with her flat hand.
"Piglet", my Mama scolded him and laughed now too.
"The coffee, I tell you."
Papa pulled the door shut and in the stairwell, their voices faded with each step more and more until they fell completely silent when the entrance door on the ground floor fell noisily into the lock.
I was now alone in the apartment. The clock on the wall showed a little before eight. I still had until nine o'clock to freshen up and go to the Nepomuk Bridge, where we had arranged to meet. While I washed my plate and the pan, my thoughts went back to the cemetery.
To the mysterious mausoleum
With the rose.
This red, beautiful rose.
And with those thoughts came the irrepressible desire to get hold of her.
Carefully I looked around the corner of the house. The alley was deserted and dark in front of me. My parents were nowhere to be seen. Above the roofs, the eight chimes of the church clock rang out. In some windows, a warm light still shone on the cobblestone. Carefully I cycled through the alley on my bicycle, crossed the Visconti square with the fountain, where the tempting smell of the local pizzeria penetrated my nose and turned into Via Picchi.
In the night the cemetery seemed even eerier. The main gate had long since been closed, as a measure against homeless people or young people like me, but of course, we had our loopholes and secret ways. At the eastern wall was a place where the path rose and with a little jump, you could easily grab the top of the wall. Carefully I lowered myself on the other side and wiped the sandstone on my jeans. The cemetery throned menacingly before me. Its terraces and the mausoleums and grave crosses seemed repellent, almost repulsive. If my inner drive, this fiery desire had not been so strong, I would have gone over the wall and back home again. But my heart wouldn't let me.
Some candle lights flickered on some of the graves. Soul lights, extinguishing thoughts and prayers. Fearfully I looked around between the rows, almost as if I expected to find the old woman still kneeling in prayer, but of course, she had long since left too. The wind had become stronger in the last few hours and rushed down the mountain slopes through the valley, pulling at my hair and making me shiver.
Under my sneakers, the gravel creaked and rustled. With every step I took, I apologized in my thoughts to the dead for this disturbance of the peace. When I reached the top terrace, I stopped. In front of me, a narrow path went further up, towards the plain. Even in the moonlight, the stone archway could be seen, which led to another, less magnificent part of the cemetery. Sadly I looked along this narrow path, which in my opinion should have been wide because little feet did not walk it anymore, but the parents, whose hearts had been shattered, parents who had to carry their children to their graves. I turned away from this path and walked to the left past the luxury graves. While my feet led me to the secluded little forest, I wondered if my ears hadn't played a trick on me that evening. And if not, why was I so brave - or stupid - to come back here. No heavy iron gate opens just like that – unless there's something wrong with it.
In the darkness of the late hour, the unknown tomb looked even less inviting. It seemed like a dark memory of better times long gone. Nevertheless, I walked towards it, step by step, until I could smell the rose and stopped.
The gate to the tomb was open.
My mind told me to leave immediately. My heart, however, drove me on. The scent and the prospect of soon being able to touch this rose and hold it in my hands, this inexplicable pulling in my head, all these sensations were too strong to resist.
Inside the tomb, my hesitant steps echoed from the walls. The sour sweetness of decay and decay mingled with the scent of the rose. My hands groped forward over the cold stone of the coffin. It slid porous and rough under my fingers. Through the small skylight, the breath of moonlight penetrated, directly onto the lid, right on the rose.
I touched the thin crack in the hewn stone, which extended like lightning to the side of the head. In the middle rose the lonely flower. Hesitantly I groped for the stem of the rose, felt the tight root, the pointed thorns, could feel the power of this stubborn plant on my fingertips. The wind blew through the skylight and through the gate behind me back out into the night.
"Thank you," I muttered to the person buried under this heavy stone cover and tightened my hand around the stem of the rose.
With a tug, I pulled at it and tore the flower out of its prison.
I flinched back. Something had bitten me. I opened my hand and saw a thorn stuck in the palm of my hand. A thin trickle of blood trickled down over the skin and splashed on the lid of the coffin. A second and a third drop fell right into the crack of the cracked lid. I wiped my hand on my trousers, took the flower between my thumb and forefinger, carefully and hesitantly so as not to damage it, and left the grave. In the moonlight, the rose looked even more majestic. Proudly I held it up, delighted to finally hold it in my hands, to call it mine.
Delighted, to present it soon to my dearest Seraina.
I still had enough time to cycle back home and freshen up - even if I was in a hurry. With a cold shower (warm water was a small luxury in the colder season, which was only sporadically available) I washed the dust and dirt of the cemetery from my body — at least the visible ones. I had given up trying to tame my bushy curls a few years ago, so I simply dried my hair dry to avoid catching a cold outside. While I was still getting ready to go out, I kept looking at the rose that I had placed on the table in a filled water glass.
Seraina would freak out.
My heart was beating faster again, full of anticipation to see the girl and show her what I had found. The anticipation was clouded, however, by a small tickle that kept appearing in a hidden part of my head. A soft voice that whispered the same question over and over again: Why had the iron door to the tomb suddenly opened? I turned up the radio so that Italian pop singers could scare away this voice.
While my parents were amusing themselves about Celentano's attempts to walk as an actor, I walked through the narrow streets of the city, wrapped in my felt jacket and sprayed with my father's perfume. The houses that were built directly along the river were old and some of them even more dilapidated than the ones my parents and I lived in. But one could not deny them a certain historical charm. Gio lived in one of these houses, further up the river, where the less noble people live, and continuously complained about the murmur of the river under his bedroom window.
"You don't know how often I wake up and have to go to the toilet because of this," he once told me. I was glad I didn't have to change places with him. Between the houses and the rocky riverbed green, juicy bushes and tendrils sprouted. In high summer, when the forests on the slopes on either side of the valley were in full colour, the city looked as if it had been built in the South American jungle on the banks of the Amazon. On the way to the bridge, I met only a few people, and yet my heart stopped briefly with each couple because I thought I would run into my parents' arms.
They were not particularly fond of Seraina and her parents. Although her father was Italian, she was not one of us. Not really. Her mother was from Sufers, across the Maloja Pass, so she was Swiss. Rhaeto-Romanic language included, which my father described as incomprehensible gibberish. Her father was a travelling worker from Dervio, not a sensitive man, but one with his heart in the right place. I never understood why my parents couldn't do anything with them. They were simple but kind people. And Seraina's mother was a master in cooking pizzocheri. Delicious. The Gadients were tolerated but not accepted in the village. Seraina didn't mind that very much, because she kept talking about going back home after school via the pass and starting an apprenticeship as a cook there. If she had inherited the talent of her mother, she was on the safe side. That's what I thought at the time and although my heart didn't want to lose her, it was thrilled by the idea of seeing her happy. And at that time, in lonely hours of the night, I often thought about going with her and looking for work on the other side of the mountain, where the winters were hard and the people rough.
I saw Seraina's little figure even before I stepped on the bridge. She was waiting under the larger-than-life statue of St. Nepomuk, who watched over the bridges in the village with watchful, stone eyes. She heard my steps and whirled around. Her broad smile made me run the last steps towards her and close her tightly in my arms. I kissed her forehead. Her unruly black curls tickled my lips and cheeks.
"Buona notte", she greeted me and beamed at me through her glasses. Behind her head, the rose blossom rose up, which I still held in my hand.
"I have something for you," I said and gently released myself from the embrace. Seraina looked up at me, full of expectation. With a theatrical bow, I handed her the rose and watched her reaction.
It turned out as I had expected.
Seraina cheered with delight and accepted the flower with solemn grace.
"It's beautiful," she whispered. "Where did you find it?"
"That remains a secret."
"Thank you so much, Massimo," she said, throwing herself at my neck. The scent of almonds rose from her hair into my nose. We clung together for a while as the night grew darker and darker.
She took her head from my chest and looked up.
"Ti amo, Massimo."
Under the noble face of Saint Nepomuk, we kissed for the first time.
I was on cloud nine. A whole week later. It felt as if this feeling of altitude would never go away and secretly I hoped it wouldn't. If this was love, it was supposed to last forever. For everyone. What an infinitely better place the world would be if everyone felt as I did that night.
When my parents came back from their cinema visit still laughing and wavering slightly, I was already in bed, hanging on to my romantic thoughts. Again and again, I recalled the hug and kiss from my memory, relived the moment over and over again and it felt better every time.
Of course, none of these memories came close to the actual kiss. And of course, I wanted more of those kisses.
On the fifth day after our nocturnal encounter, an envelope was lying beside my plate at lunch. I had just come out of the Scuola, sweaty from gym class and sat down hungry like a wolf on the chair. My parents looked at me suspiciously, as it was anything but ordinary for me to receive letters. At least none that had been addressed by hand and thrown into our mailbox without a stamp or postmark. I pretended not to be interested in the letter at all and instead dipped my spoon into the soup that was steaming in front of me. Of course, I recognized the curved beauty of a fountain pen held by a woman's hand in the handwriting and already knew who sent me this letter, but I didn't want my parents to know. They were silent about it, although I could see that they were bursting with curiosity - just like me, who was dying to know what lines Seraina had written to me.
It was a photo. One of those pictures developed directly from the camera. It showed the rose, of course, standing on a windowsill in a thin vase. Rays of sunlight illuminated the red leaves and made them look like glowing fire. On the back, she had written a little message:
"It blooms as beautifully as that night.
Rumor has it that Nepomuk is expecting another visit on Saturday.
A long time to come, I know.
Good things take time."
All the football trading cards, the jerseys, and pennants that marked my room immediately lost all value in the face of this news, which I considered as sacred as good Nepomuk himself.
And of course, I would appear on Saturday.
But not empty-handed.
"Have you guys done it yet?"
"Why not? Isn't that what it always comes down to?"
"Maybe. Not necessarily."
"Are you afraid?
I looked up at Gio, his eyebrows wiggled, and he smoked his cigarette. We'd push our bikes through side streets, so nobody caught us smoking.
"What did you give her, anyway?"
"Forget it. Not in a hundred years."
"A plastic one? Stolen from your mother's cabinet?"
"Come on, tell me."
"I gave her the flower you showed me," I finally said, acting all nonchalant, like I didn't care if I broke into a tomb and stole a flower from it. Although technically I hadn't broken into the grave (only into the cemetery, I immediately repressed the thought). I was let in, as scary as it seemed. But it was worth every risk when I thought of the photograph and the nice lines hidden under my mattress that I read over and over again every night in the light of my bedside lamp.
Gio stopped. The fender of his rusty bicycle rattled.
"The funeral flower?"
"Don't mess with me," he said and shook his head laughing.
"I'm not kidding!"
"How did you get in there?"
"The lock wasn't locked. It was open."
"Cazzate!" Gio protested at the top of his lungs.
"Then why is it still here?" he asked me, grinning with a confident grin. He thought he'd called my bluff. Now I suddenly stopped.
"What do you mean, it's still there?"
"The rose, you fool. It's still there. And the door is locked."
"When were you here?"
"Yesterday. With Umberto.
"You went to the cemetery with Umberto?
"There's no safer place to sell marijuana than a cemetery," he said, shrugging his shoulders.
"Seriously, Gio. I was in there. The door was open. And I gave her the rose." We both looked at each other in the eyes, and I guess we both waited until the other one admitted he was kidding, which we weren't.
"Saddle up!" Gio ordered, and I saluted like an American soldier.
We cycled through the alleys against the brisk wind. Our hair tousled around our heads; the cigarettes were almost torn from the corners of our mouths. We felt great, despite the queasy feeling that spread in the pit of my stomach and slowly crept up my back.
We leaned our bikes against the cemetery wall, where a little further ahead, near the main entrance, a sign informed people like us that it was forbidden to put bicycles against the wall. Dry autumn leaves crunched under our feet and was pressed into the gravel as we walked down the rows of graves and made our way to the stairs.
The closer we came to the mausoleum, the more uncomfortable I became. I could not quite explain why. We stepped between the massive fir trees and between their trunks I could already see the weathered marble of the mausoleum. Gio shook the barred door, threw himself against it and hung back.
"You see? Closed." I lent a hand myself and found out with cold horror that he was right.
"Maybe a cemetery caretaker noticed it and locked it again," I guessed and went closer to the iron bars with my face to look inside.
In the glow of the autumn sun that fell through the skylight, I recognized the rose that grew from the coffin lid.
"Impossible", I said, shaking my head.
"Thou shalt not lie," scolded me Gio amused.
"But she has the rose. I can prove it!"
When my mother saw Gio coming through our apartment door, her first question was how his mother was doing, and the second question was whether he wanted to stay for dinner. Gio thanked her very much and accepted the invitation. He never turned down a meal, sweets and since a few months, cigarettes too.
We went to my room until dinner was ready, and I took out Seraina's photo card under the mattress.
"It's just the same rose," I said. Gio wanted to take the card, but I held it with both hands. Gio took the hint and shook his head in amusement.
"It's a rose, all right."
"It's a rose."
"Lafranco has roses too.
"Lafranco's got nothing but dead, overpriced plants," I said persistently. Gio grabbed the card from my hands and held it up to the window in the light.
"I don't want to hear stupid sayings," I said annoyingly, but Gio didn't seem interested in the back.
"Can be, can't be. It's just a rose. He gave me the card back, and that was obviously the end of it for him. It wasn't for me, of course. I knew what I had seen and done and that in this unknown grave off the path a new flower had grown within a few days, was for me an inexplicable phenomenon.
But one that I could undoubtedly exploit to my advantage.
The lattice door already gave me access to the masonry once.
Perhaps it would do so again.
And it did.
And I took the second rose, too.
"Who are you?" I asked the stone tomb. "Who lies here?" The tomb did not answer me. It remained silent, except for the light wind that whistled through the round skylight. In the fading afternoon light, I whispered to the grave, put my hand on the cold stone cover and walked my way. Outside, between the fir trees, I turned around once more and looked at the marble building. A strange atmosphere emanated from the place, whether good or bad I could not tell.
Drawn into a trance-like spell by the blood-red rose, I left the cemetery, saddled up and drove back home. Halfway home, I stopped and took a different direction.
Lafranco was a small shop on the corner of a busy intersection. The yellow mortar was already crumbling from the façade. The once brown shutters were pale and cracked. Even the large sign above the front door looked like a relic from old times. Mrs. Saccarola, the owner was almost as old as the house itself. And the desolate façade was an apt reflection of her character. Nevertheless, something drew me to the shop, and when I parked my bicycle and walked towards the front door, whose crooked sign showed aperto – open –, Mrs. Saccarola was busy giving water to a half-blown bouquet of tulips.
The shop smelled of flowers (of course), but also of something else. In the village, they used to say that they smelled the cemetery, the only customer whose wife Saccarola could still boast of. People used to buy grave decorations and funeral arrangements from her. And every now and then tourists in love lost their way into the shop. Saccarola looked at me critically. She did not trust young people. In fact, she didn't really trust anybody, and maybe she was right to do so.
"Good evening," I said to her. She didn't react and walked with shuffling, powerless steps to the next flower arrangement, which she poured with a tired hand.
"I have a question about roses," I tried again and once again fell on deaf ears. Undecided I stopped and watched the old woman calmly go about her business. She coughed a throaty, scratchy cough that did not sound very healthy.
"I know you," she finally said, turning her back to me. Her voice was frighteningly deep and throaty. It sounded like scratching metal.
Just like the creaking iron door at the mausoleum.
"You are one of those boys. I've seen you too. You smoke. People your age shouldn't smoke. Nobody should smoke at all."
I couldn't think of an answer, so I kept quiet. Mrs. Saccarola turned, staring at me with dull, gray eyes. She stared at me with a mixture of disgust and tiredness.
"What have you got there?" she asked and nodded at the rose in my hand. I held up the flower.
There was a sudden change on her face. The wrinkled skin tightened, blossomed itself. A youthful glow appeared in her eyes. She came towards me, staring at the flower in my hand. She was a small woman, smaller than Seraina and did not even reach my shoulder. Her gray hair looked like dry straw and rushed softly with every movement.
"Where did you get that?" she asked.
"I found it. In the forest," I lied. She looked up, incredulous, suspicious. Then the flower fascinated her again.
"It is beautiful," she breathed. "It is perfect. The leaves, the stem. Absolutely flawless. How much do you want for it? I'll buy it off you."
"I can't sell it. It's a gift for my girlfriend."
"How much!" An eerie urgency came over her old voice. Carefully, I took a step back. Saccarola registered my fear and went a foot long herself.
"Can you tell me how long it takes a rose to grow back?"
"Why? Are there more of them?" She pointed a bony finger at the flower.
"Probably," I replied without obligation. The old woman was still staring. I repeated my question.
"It depends," she croaked.
"Depends on what?"
"I'll tell you if you let me have the rose." The corners of her mouth twisted into a grin. A movement that her face hadn't experienced in a long time and looked eerie and artificial.
"The flower is taken," I insisted. "But I'll buy some tulips from you if you answer my question."
"Young love," she said contemptuously, clearing her throat. Her gaze went to the left to the shelves where she had just watered tulips. "A single flowering rose blooms once a year. A more frequently blooming rose twice, once in June and once in August or September. Either way, the rose season is over. They don't grow in nature anymore. So either you stole it from a greenhouse, or it's not real."
"It is real," I insisted.
"I can't tell until I touch it." Greed. Unbridled greed in her eyes.
"It doesn't matter where I got it or if it's real. You say the bloom is gone and it'll be months before it comes back. Not until next year."
"So it's not possible for a flower to grow back in a few days?"
"Thanks for telling me."
"Unless ..." she said and her face receded into a grinning face. "Unless it's a magic rose." She giggled and coughed and giggled and coughed.
"Have a nice evening," I said, walking backwards to the door. The old lady gave me the creeps, and I didn't dare show her my unprotected back.
"How many tulips would you like to buy?" she said briskly. I exhaled heavily.
"Five would be nicer."
As I left Lafranco, I could still feel the piercing gaze of those old greedy eyes in my back. It was only when I turned the corner and went into an alley that this unpleasant feeling came off my shoulders. No wonder nobody went there shopping anymore.
The following Saturday was an unexpectedly sunny autumn day. The air was fresh and warm; the wind brought a touch of summer. It was a perfect day to meet Seraina. As it slowly darkened, I got ready to go out. I pretended to my parents to meet Gio and some boys. The amount of perfume I sprayed on my neck and jacket must have made them suspicious, but they said nothing. I carefully wrapped the rose in a newspaper and looked at the vase on my desk, where the five tulips from Mrs. Saccarola's boutique of dreariness were already dead and withered hanging over the glass edge.
"Tell Gio to send his mother my regards," my mother called after me even as I was already standing in the stairwell.
I was on the Nepomuk Bridge before Seraina and waited with my arms crossed in front of my chest. The Mera flowed past beneath me. Its surface glittered black in the light of the sinking sun. The tower clock struck quarter past eight. She was already fifteen minutes late. I remembered Seraina's saying and smiled.
Good things come to those who wait.
When I saw her running out of the alley and waving to me, my heart felt very light. I took a few steps towards her and we embraced. We kissed very briefly. She was breathing heavily and nervously wiped a curl of hair from her face.
"I am so sorry to have kept you waiting. "but I had a little shock in the bathroom.
"Why is that?" I asked. She stroked her hair, pointing to a spot on her forehead.
"Wrinkles! I got my first wrinkle! Look." I looked closer, not because I suspected a wrinkle, but because I wanted to be closer to her, to smell her scent. There was a little wrinkle indeed, but I guess you get that when you laugh and shine as much as Seraina did.
"I'll take you with me anyway. Despite the wrinkle," I said and took her by the hand.
"Thank you, how kind of you," she said, laughing. Her fingers felt warm and soft. "And where are we going?"
"You'll see," I said conspiratorially.
"And what's in there?" she asked curiously, pointing to the rolled up piece of newspaper.
"You'll see that too."
"Good things come to those who wait?"
"Good things come to those who wait."
The Paradiso was of course already closed and the guardhouse empty, but that didn't stop me from going there with Seraina.
"Massimo, it's closed," Seraina said uncertainly.
"What are you up to?"
"Just come with me," I said, looking around. The parking lot and road were deserted. There was no one around, so I climbed up the big iron gate and dropped down on the other side. Seraina stared at me in shock.
"Are you serious?"
"My buddies and I do it all the time. Nobody comes here. "Come on, I'll catch you."
"If you look up my skirt, I'll punch you", she said, shaking her head and pulling herself up by the iron bars. Of course, I didn't consciously look under her skirt, but when she swung herself over it, I couldn't help but take a quick glance.
"Ready?" she asked.
"Ready," I assured her and caught her. She landed hard in my arms, giggling. Laughing, I put her on my feet and took her by the hand again. We walked through the overgrown botanical garden, along the narrow paths to the viewing platform, where I stopped at a park bench and showed her the view. The sun was gone, but a thin red line was still visible on the horizon.
"It's beautiful," she breathed and leaned her head on my shoulder. "It's a pity the flowers have all withered. I'm sure it would be even nicer here in summer."
"Not all of them are withered," I said and slowly rolled the newspaper apart until I held the blood-red rose in my hand and held it in front of her face.
"Oh, Massimo! Thank you," she said, and just the sight of her beaming face was rewarding enough. She took the rose and sniffed at it, soaked up its scent. "It smells fantastic," she said and held it out to me — a delightful fragrance, sweet, innocent.
"Where do you find these roses?"
"Does it matter?" I asked. She denied and lifted the flowers to her nose again. With her eyes closed, she let the smell beguile her. "Now you have a new one. The old one should have faded by now."
"It's not. I potted it. My mom even bought fertilizer. It looks as beautiful as the night you gave her to me.
Magic roses, indeed.
We sat down on the bench, she leaned against me and I put my arm around her. We remained silent and watched the red stripe of light in the sky disappear behind the mountains. It was when it got chilly that we made our way back. I helped her get back over the front gate and we walked hand in hand back to the city. On the way, we passed the parking lot of the cemetery and I looked over her head to the sandstone walls that separated us from the dead. I thanked the unknown grave in my mind for giving me this moment and all those who might come.
We separated again on the Nepomuk Bridge and just as Seraina was about to turn the corner, she stopped, holding the rose in her hand. She turned to me.
"It's my birthday in two weeks," she said and took a step forward, towards me.
"I know," I answered and stepped forward as well.
"It would be nice to see you."
Another hesitant step.
"It really would."
"Are you coming?"
"I'd love to."
Another one. We were facing each other now.
"Massimo?" she whispered over the sound of water below us.
"I think I've fallen in love with you.
I took her hands. One of the thorns pricked my hand. I ignored it, concentrated alone on her pretty face with the hazel eyes, surrounded by those wild curls.
"I love you", I confessed, took my hand off hers and stroked her cheek tenderly. My finger drew a fine trail of blood over her skin. She stood on her toes and kissed me. My hands moved from her face to her neck, her back and to her bottom. She giggled and looked deep into my eyes.
"Good things take time," she said and winked at me.
"Good things take time," I said and watched her walk off the bridge, turn the corner and disappear into the night.
My parents realized what had happened. They may not have known which girl had turned my head, but they were amused by the fact that I had a dreamy grin on my face and I turned red at the slightest remark about love, relationship or girls.
Gio soon lost the desire to talk to me, too one-sided my subject, too uninterested in anything else. I didn't tell him that I had picked a second rose, and when he asked what I was going to give her for her birthday, I claimed that I didn't know yet.
Of course, I already knew.
And I also knew where I'd get it.
Already two days after our second meeting, the rose had grown again in the mausoleum. I picked it, thanked the coffin and went home. I put the flower in a bucket filled with water in my room. The rose looked lonely and lost in the bucket. But it would soon have company. Now I went daily to the cemetery, daily to the grave and daily the door would be open for me. Every day a new rose had grown. On the fourth day, I noticed that the crack in the coffin lid had widened a little. The brittle scar had grown just like the flowers. I apologized for this and thanked the grave like every time. It seemed to be the least I could do.
Soon the scent of the flowers beguiled my parents, and my mum asked where it came from. I showed her the bucket with the rose heads.
"They're beautiful," she said, enchanted and smelled them. She took me in her arms and kissed me on the forehead. "Whoever gets them will be very happy."
"She is," I said dreamily. My father brought the subject up only once after dinner when Mama was washing dishes. He said, that since I had met this girl, I didn't smell of smoke anymore and that he was delighted about this. It was true; I had lost the desire to smoke for quite a while. Seraina too much dominated my thoughts.
And the grave with the roses.
After six days, I went to the grave early in the morning, before school. As expected, a rose had already grown again. And with it the crack in the stone lid of the coffin. I ran my fingers over the crack, felt the cold it radiated and flinched back. As beautiful as the roses were, and they all were, every single one of them was perfect in form and smell, as cold and threatening seemed the coffin from which they grew. I hid the rose in a newspaper and went to school. After class, I went back to the cemetery.
As if it had been waiting for me, another rose was already waiting for me. And it was here that I hesitantly reached for the prickly stem for the first time.
This was not natural. It was against all logic.
But, as Mrs. Saccarola had said.
They were magic roses.
I stared at the lid that was beginning to crack.
I took the rose anyway.
And the next morning. And at noon. And evening. And night.
And all the following days as well.
Meanwhile, the beguiling smell of roses reached the staircase of our home, made the neighbours come to the windows and sniff the air — smiling faces behind every window. The bucket soon didn't have enough room for all the flowers, so I fetched a second one from the cellar and started all over again.
Morning, noon, evening, night, morning, noon, evening, night.
It had become an obsession. My days were dominated by the idea of having as many roses as possible to give to Seraina.
No, I didn't want many.
I wanted them all.
In the early evening of Seraina's birthday, it was a sunny, mild November Sunday, I went to the mausoleum one last time. It was to be the final rose I wanted to collect as the missing piece of the puzzle for Serainas large bouquet of roses as a sign of my youthful love.
The pleasant winter air was blowing towards me as I rode my bicycle out of the alleys and onto the main street. Full of anticipation for our dinner together, I drove to the parking lot of the cemetery and left my bicycle leaning against the wall. With a feeling of happiness that was utterly inappropriate for the place, I walked up the graves and along the gravel path to the fir trees that stood off to the side.
The mausoleum was already waiting for me; the iron gate was wide open.
Like the longing arms of a lover.
Or the maw of a beast.
It was bitter cold in the crypt. Mist wafted in the pale light of the winter evening light. But the rose rose rose from the stone, seductive as all her sisters before her.
Only this one, I said to myself — just one more. An intangible fear made me hesitate, my feet no longer approach the coffin. I froze, but not only because of the cold. There was something in that crypt that gave me a cold shiver that slowly crept up my legs and settled in my chest. Had this confining aura, this approaching darkness always been here? Like the lid of the coffin, the illusion of beauty seemed to crumble gradually.
Just one more, I told myself well. With cold, pale fingers, I groped for the rose, touched its leaves, ran over the thorns, grabbed its stem.
It slipped effortlessly from its roots into my hand. I exhaled with relief. It was done. It was over. I would never have to come back here again.
Then the lid of the coffin crumbled. A small piece of stone broke in two, fell into the coffin. I could hear it echoing inside the coffin. Shocked, I took a few steps back, leaned against the cold, damp wall, clung to the rose.
Nothing happened. The cold gathered around me, the darkness, the shadows. And in front of me was the coffin, resting, threatening. I calmed down, took a breath and went to the iron gate.
Then I heard a breath behind me.
Immediately I turned around, expecting to see a corpse from days gone by rising from the grave.
But there was nothing — only the crypt, bathed in shadow by the evening sky.
My head told me in a screaming voice to get out of here at once.
But I did not.
I walked towards the coffin, step by step, walked along its side and watched the crack that had grown bigger and bigger, longer and longer in the last weeks. Slowly, carefully, I bent over the lid to the spot where the piece of stone had fallen inwards.
The scent of roses poked into my nose.
Then there was a sigh from the darkness under the lid.
A woman has rested in this stone prison for ages.
"Thanks for the flowers", I heard myself whisper in a broken voice.
Something scratched inside the coffin.
The fear had tightened around my chest and was pressing harder with every breath.
Then another abrupt scraping.
And out of the darkness of the coffin, an eye suddenly stared at me.
Cold, blue, icy.
I cried out, stumbled back and fell to the ground. Panicked, I pulled myself up, ignoring the pain in my back and ran, running for my life, running past all the graves. Away from here, just away from here. I forgot the bike and only stopped running when I slammed the front door behind me and saw the safe, familiar sight of the staircase in front of me. My whole body trembled and I slipped onto the cold stone tiles where I sat crouched for several minutes, breathing heavily, pushing this icy eye out of my head.
It must have been an illusion, a delusion. It was impossibly real — a cold, maybe a fever? There had to be an explanation. I felt my cold hand on my hot, sweaty forehead. Fever, yes, I definitely had a fever. That must have been it.
"Are you all right, Massimo?", the old lady who lived on the ground floor asked me, sticking her head out of the doorway.
"Yes, thank you," I stammered and jumped up. "Just running. I'm in a hurry", I continued to explain but saw that the old lady did not believe a word I said.
"Give my regards to your parents," she said and slowly closed the door again, not letting me out of her sight until the last moment.
I put the last rose in the second bucket with the others. There were so many. They still smelled tempting, but there was something about them now that frightened me.
This eye, this blue eye, carved from glacial ice.
But the roses were beautiful.
So incredibly beautiful.
And they made Seraina so indescribably happy.
I took a hot shower, washed away all the sweat and dirt and then looked at myself in the mirror. What a pathetic figure I was, frightened by my imagination.
They were only roses. Roses that grew faster in this particular climate of the crypt. There was nothing else there. No sighing, no breathing, no eye. It was only natural that the crack widened, I pulled at the roots, straining the centuries-old rock with my pulling power.
When I tied the flowers into a huge bouquet, the little escapade at the cemetery was almost forgotten.
Seraina's mother immediately took me into her arms.
"Hi, Massimo, glad you could make it." She beamed the smile her daughter had inherited down to the tiniest muscle excitement. "Seraina's been on pins and needles all day because of you," she confessed to me in a whisper. Then she saw the bouquet in my hands.
"These roses are beautiful. The other two are already little wonders. If it weren't rude, I would ask you where you got them." She winked at me and then said, "But a magician should never reveal his tricks."
Seraina wore a pretty white dress that reached up to her knees. Her unruly curly mane of hair fluttered around her young face. She stood out from the crowd of her friends standing around her. The moment she saw me, she broke away from the group and hurried towards me. She kissed me while her mother stood next to me and pulled the massive bouquet out of my hands at the right moment so that it would not be crushed between our stormy embrace.
"At last", she whispered into my ear and radiated her mother's smile.
"Massimo has something for you," her mother said and gave me back the bouquet.
"All I could find," I said and handed her the roses. Behind her, the other guests audibly gasped for breath. The words stayed away from Seraina. She marvelled at the sea of flowers with her mouth open. A tear glittered over her cheek. Wordlessly, she looked up at me and pursed her lips again for a kiss.
"I'll get the vase," I heard her mother's voice next to me.
Seraina had invited all her girlfriends from school. Also, some of her male friends were present, some of whom I knew by sight, but all of whom punished me with feigned politeness. Apparently, I had shattered many of their fantasies, hopes, and secret wishes. I didn't care. I enjoyed the evening, the attention, the sincere love Seraina gave me. Her father only came home later, surprised and overwhelmed by all the noisy, youthful crowd, whom he welcomed with a general hand greeting and then immediately moved into the kitchen. We ate pizzocheri, which Mrs. Gadient scooped fresh from the salt water, and then an almond cake with icing. Fifteen candles were burning on the back of the cake. She blew them out with two sharp breaths. We clapped. Someone asked if she had made a wish.
"Of course", she said, looking at me across the table.
At eleven o'clock in the evening, the first guests left, and a general atmosphere of departure broke out. We had school the next day, and so Mrs. Gadient shifted us all out one by one. Hands were shaken, compliments on the food were expressed, congratulations were repeated, and cheeks were kissed.
I was the last to leave, and as I held Seraina in my arms she whispered in my ear:
"Tonight I'll leave the window open. Just follow the scent of roses."
At home I found my parents sitting in front of the television. Mum had already fallen asleep and father was watching a game show with tired eyes. It smelled like cold tea. Dad turned his head towards me and smiled.
"The guard has an end," he mocked and woke up Mama, who greeted me drowsy asleep.
"Go to bed, you two," I advised them. Mama peeled herself off the sofa and stretched herself.
"The same to you," said Papa and took the cups of tea into the kitchen. "How was it?"
"What was for dinner?" Mama asked.
"Mrs. Gadient made pizzocheri. And almond cake."
"Mrs. Gadient?" Dad asked. He and Mom exchanged looks. She nodded tiredly and then turned to me, smiling.
"I hope you thanked her."
"Of course I did."
"What's her daughter's name again?" I heard father ask from the kitchen.
"That's right", he growled.
"Then you must return the favour soon and ask her to dinner, too," Mum said. Dad came out of the kitchen and looked at me sternly.
"That would only be polite," he finally said and wrung a smile from himself. It took a load off my mind. I couldn't have expected any more courtesy from my papa. That alone was a big step for him, and I appreciated it.
"Did she like flowers?" Mama asked me.
"I'll miss the smell," she said.
When I got out of the shower, I could hear my father's snoring through the closed bedroom door across the hallway. How Mom could sleep with all that noise was beyond me. Although she already missed the smell of roses, it was still omnipresent in my room. It stuck to my bedspread, to the curtains, to the pennants of my beloved football teams. I associated Seraina with that smell with every breath I took.
But also the cemetery.
And the grave.
My bed gave way when I sat down to put on my sneakers. I looked out the window into the night. The moon was high in the sky, veils of clouds crept by. Carefully I stepped out of my room and crept down the hall. I turned the door lock and squeezed myself through the crack to the outside staircase. Conscious of coming back as a different person, I stepped outside.
After that night nothing would ever be the same again. I would have done it, matured into a man. There wasn't much to it, many others in my class had done it - or at least claimed to have. Umberto was one of those braggarts. As I scurried through the deserted streets and shared the quiet night with some stray cats and late passers-by, I realized how nervous I was. Nervous about what lay ahead.
And nervous about what I had done to get this far.
Seraina had said it in jest, not knowing how true her words would become. But I could actually smell the rose scent from afar. I walked around the house, past dustbins and a group of parked bicycles, past a Vespa and a rusty Fiat without rims, and saw the window open at the back of the house. Behind it was darkness. Like in the mausoleum, the sweet scent of roses lured me in. Before I stepped over the ledge, I called out Serainas name.
More clumsy than planned, I climbed over the windowsill into her room, where the scent of roses was even stronger.
But I smelled even more.
Among the sweetness of the roses, I smelled rot.
With a trembling hand, I felt for the lighter in my pocket. After three attempts, a small flame burst through the blackness in the room.
"Seraina?" I asked again and walked through the room in small, hesitant steps. The flame threw the flickering shadow of a bed against the wall. In it, under a blanket, the imprint of a sleeping body. I went closer. I felt uneasy. For the second time that evening. I held the flame closer to the bedsheet towards her face.
A shrill scream ripped from my throat.
Suddenly, footsteps rumbled beyond the door of the room, which was torn open with force. Voices. A hand felt for the light switch. The light bulb on the ceiling illuminated the horror below. Seraina's father stood in the doorway, his hair was dishevelled, his chest naked and hairy. Right behind him, with curlers in her hair, her mother, her face a mask of fear. Far from the inviting, cheerful smile that had greeted me a few hours ago. Both of them stared at me.
"What are you doing here? What have you–" The father looked at the bed, and every colour disappeared from his face. Behind him, the mother screamed, stumbled backwards, fell to the floor.
In the bed lay Seraina, but all life had drained from her body. Her skin had dried out, stretched like grey parchment over her bones. Rotted lips had shrunk behind her yellow teeth, jaws drooping crooked, a horrible caricature of a smile. The hazel eyes had disappeared, and in their place two black holes stared at me, half-covered with dry, leathery eyelids. The curly hair was white and sparse. A bony hand protruded from under the blanket, reaching out for help that never came.
Or too late. On a dresser, facing the bed, I saw the enormous bouquet of roses I had given her.
The blossoms were all withered.
Brown, dry, dead.
"What have you done?" I heard the father say in a tearful voice. Then again, firmer, more definite, "What have you done?"
Yes, what had I done?
I had loved.
Seraina's funeral took place on a snowy morning. Shortly after her death, winter had crawled with all its might over the mountains and buried everything under a layer of snow and ice.
There were questions, many questions and unfortunately no answers, no explanations. It soon became clear that I could not be responsible for what had happened. Because nobody knew exactly what had happened.
Only I knew that, felt the doubt in my conscience. But what could I have said? Nobody would have believed me. At least that's what I told myself. Keep telling me.
A whole funeral procession made its way through the fog to the cemetery, past the graves of the long-dead, of people who had been given a longer life than Seraina Gadient. We moved up terrace after terrace. At the top, we did not take the path to the left to the mausoleums. We went straight ahead along the narrow path. The path that no father or mother ever hopes to take. My parents walked with me, both on my right. On the left was Gio, who accompanied me in silence and with his head bowed. I loved him for that.
The children's cemetery was a sea of memorial plaques and headstones in miniature format. The dates drove tears into your eyes.
And so many.
And on this day, there was one headstone more.
The priest spoke his words, expressed his sadness. Words, just words. Nothing but empty shells. Nothing to ease the pain, the loss. None of it brought Seraina back. Many had come, many would miss her. I saw all the friends who had celebrated her birthday. Her last birthday. Many cried. I was one of them. Gio put his arm around me, pulled me tight, kissed my temple. I sobbed unscrupulously into his shoulder.
The ceremony was over. One by one, the people approached Seraina's parents, expressed their condolences. I didn't go. I didn't dare. I didn't feel welcome.
I felt guilty.
Because I was.
Mourners who had condoled moved back down the narrow path. I looked after them because I couldn't stand the sight of Seraina's parents, let alone the sight of her headstone, that just couldn't do justice to her. No cross, however pompous it was, could ever grasp her nature, her happy nature, her curly hair, her brown eyes, her warm smile. All that was no more, shrunk to a handful of ashes in a container, buried under frozen earth.
In the corner of my eye, I saw a figure breaking away from the crowd and coming towards me with gentle movements. I winked away the tears and saw behind the veil, a woman with long black hair striding through the mist. A wide, black cloak blew around her body. Something was wrong. In her manner, her walk, her expression. Then she stood before me, bent down and held out her hand. Red gloves.
"Grazie," she said. Undecidedly and surprised, I shook her hand.
"What for?" I asked.
Then I saw it.
Cold. Icy. Blue like glacier water.
She smiled at me, let go of my hand and turned. She seemed to float through the fog, back to the other people who were going down again.
"Massimo?" I heard my mother's voice behind me. They were standing a little away, Gio beside them. "Who was that?" she kept asking. I looked back at the path. The woman had disappeared.
With mother's worried voice behind me, I hurried down the path, past the mourners, ran and slid through the snow. At the terraces, I followed the way past the mausoleums. Crows came out of the fir trees. Snow was trickling down on me.
The lattice door was wide open.
The lid of the coffin lay in pieces on the ground.
The coffin was empty.
I stumbled outside and fell.
Above me, engraved in marble, were the scornful words:
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my love will never fade.
I never became a footballer. Not a good one, anyway. Not one who would have made it past a school team. My life had other plans for me. I was drawn over the Maloja River to Switzerland, where I did an apprenticeship as an office clerk in Davos. It wasn't planned in any of my dreams, but it just happened. I saw Gio less and less. My parents, too. They understood.
I had to get out of Chiavenna. Away from those memories.
Unfortunately, memories make damn good runners.
It was hard for me to fall in love again. No matter what I did, I would always see Seraina. As I said before, first love is and always will be special. In the early years after Seraina's death, I was driven by great anger. Anger at myself, but also against what was inside that coffin. Again and again, when I wanted to think of all the beautiful things I had experienced in the short time with Seraina, the kisses under Nepomuk, the warmth of her hand, how she had leaned on my shoulder on the bench in the Paradiso, between all these pictures I saw the flashes of what had been staring at me from her bed that night. This dead body, robbed of a whole life. Angry that we did not have the time we deserved. That she deserved.
It took time.
I needed time.
Time heals wounds.
Unfortunately, not all of them.
Years later, I was happy with my life. I was also satisfied with my love for Lorena. She was a good woman, an excellent cook, and she endured all my moods.
But she didn't know a thing about Seraina. No one on this side of the Maloja knew. I had left her behind the barren peaks.
A phone call two days ago nevertheless led me back to Chiavenna. Years later. I returned there with mixed feelings. It was summer, and the streets and alleys were filled with tourists, bikers, and people passing through on their way south. Lorena walked silently by my hand. She felt that I needed the peace, that I needed time to find my way back here. We stopped at a crossroads where in the past years a lot of things changed. Lafranco and Mrs. Saccarola did not exist anymore. Where once the crumbling façade and faded sign hoped for customers, there is now an overpriced branch of an American coffee chain. And there was apparently no shortage of customers, although their products were even more short-lived than Mrs. Saccarola's inferior flowers.
My school was still standing, but it was abandoned because it was summer vacation. Nevertheless, some boys were playing football on the playground, and I couldn't help thinking of how often Gio and I had done it.
With Gio, we met for dinner at the Grottino next to the tennis courts.
"That's where we smoked our first cigarette," he said happily on the phone. Gio has aged better than I have. His hair is not quite as black as it used to be, but his belly hasn't taken on my dimensions. Gio was happy too. When he introduced us to Mario, I wasn't in the least surprised. Somehow I always knew that. And it was great to see him so happy with himself and his life. And even though we hardly saw or talked to each other after my escape from Chiavenna, I haven't forgotten him all these years. Missing, but not forgotten.
It felt strange to stand outside the house of my youth again. Over the last thirty years, I had returned here a few more times, but now our visit had something final.
My father had become demented two years ago, and my mom could not and would not take care of them both anymore. She had become a busy little woman. Resolute, but not indestructible. The sun and life had left deep marks on her face. From time to time I called her my prugna, a nickname she always rejected with feigned indignation.
We sat down at the dining table, the same table I had sat at as a teenager.
The same table where I found Seraina's photo letter. The four of us sat there, Mom, Dad, Lorena and I, and we drank coffee and ate cookies.
"I don't do everything myself anymore", said mom apologetically and took the cookies out of the packet.
"It's okay," I said and took one.
"They're delicious", Lorena confirmed after a bite with her mouth full. Crumbs floated through the air.
"I've been thinking," said Mama and took a deep breath. "I want to go to a retirement home. Matteo and I... we have earned it. It's time."
I was aware that this day would come. Even on the phone, when Mom said we had to talk about something urgently, I had a feeling it would be about that. Still, it wasn't easy hearing it now. It was closure.
And closure was never my strong suit.
Mama was of course well prepared, she always was, and she presented us with a brochure of a retirement home on the outskirts of the city, facing south. Living room, bathroom, and two separate bedrooms.
"I've put up with this snoring long enough," she said with a laugh. "He forgets everything, but not that." Papa sat up at the table, where he'd always sat, and looked at the cookies with glazed eyes. "Sometimes he has good days. But they're getting rarer and rarer. Sometimes I can hardly get him out of bed." She lovingly patted his forearm and pulled him out of his lethargy. He had grown thin. Though I doubted he understood what we were talking about, he smiled at my mother.
"I thought... we thought maybe you would like to take over the house," my mum said. "I know it's not exactly a dream home, but with a little time and money you could certainly make something of it." Her eyes flitted through the living room as if she was already renovating it in her mind. "Of course you can sell it," she added hastily. "I could understand it. We could understand it."
I looked at Lorena, squeezed her hand.
"Why not? It's worth thinking about. Maybe as a vacation apartment?" Lorena said. We both knew our salaries weren't good enough for a vacation home.
"You can take your time and think it over. There's no hurry."
"Thanks, Mom. Thanks, Dad." Dad picked up, looked around lost, then stared at the box of cookies again.
"Do you need help moving your stuff?" I asked. Mom didn't answer, and I knew they definitely needed help.
"There is a service available from the nursing home, but if you don't mind..."
"We're happy to do it," Lorena replied. Dad looked up again and stared at Lorena. You could see how his brain was searching for a memory, a name that matched this face.
"It's nice to finally meet you, Seraina," he said.
"Lorena", Mommy corrected him. Lorena covered up the embarrassing silence with a soundless smile. Dad looked at me.
"Do you still have the roses? They were beautiful. They were the most beautiful I've ever seen."
A little too abruptly, I pushed my chair back and got up.
"I need some fresh air," I said, turning to face the window so no one would see my tears.
It hurt to clear the house. And it was even more painful to see my parents go into those little rooms that smelled of disinfectant. They deserved better than that, much better.
"Think about the house. We would be happy to have you near us," said Mama when we said goodbye. "You have to let go, Massimo," she whispered into my ear. "Let it rest. Life belongs to the living."
There was now an official bicycle stand on the cemetery wall. Our silent protest from back then bore fruit. I couldn't help smiling. Lorena had lunch with mom, and I took the time I needed to implement my mom's advice.
To come clean.
Not much had happened here. Some gravestones had been added; others had disappeared. The cemetery had become smaller. In my memory, it was a massive, disorganized labyrinth. Today I saw it merely as an arbitrary arrangement of crosses, headstones, and plaques. And above it all, there were still the mausoleums, shining white in the sun. I went up the wide steps and stopped at the top landing. The small path to the children's graves had been allowed real stone steps in the past. As if that would make the way easier.
I did not go straight on.
I went left.
Past the mausoleums.
At first, I thought it had been torn down, but then I saw it behind two magnificent temples of recent times. It lived a shadowy existence, even now that the fir trees had been felled. But the weathered walls had remained the same. The gate was locked. Rust had eaten through the paint. I looked up, towards the archway, to face the spell that had ruined my love – and felt my heart stop.
The spell was not there.
There was another one.
I looked down into the crypt. A bright, white ray of sunlight shone through the round skylight onto a stone coffin lid.
Through a narrow crack, barely longer than a finger, grew a beautiful white rose.
In fear and disbelief, I stumbled back. Once again, I looked at the inscription, which was carved into the weathered marble, as if it had been there for centuries:
Good things come to those who wait.
Under the writing, iron creaked and the door slowly slid open inwards.
Lorena and I are sitting opposite each other at the dining table. A new dining table, a more modern one. Since we painted the walls white and installed a few new lamps, it is no longer so dark in the apartment. Beyond the open window, we hear birds whistling a summery song. Children's voices come up from the alley. Even further away, we could hear the roar of motorcycles that have just crossed the pass. We eat pasta with homemade pesto. From mama's stash. One of the few remnants.
"I'm meeting Gio later," I tell Lorena. She looks at me over her water glass and puts it down.
"What happened to our movie night?" she asks defiantly. I forgot all about it. "Say hello to him. And have Mario send me the recipe for his burrata."
"I'll tell him."
As I leave, I kiss her and stroke her cheek.
"Massimo?" With the doorknob in my hand, I turn to her one last time.
"If you happen to find one of these on your way, you're welcome to bring it along." She points to a vase on the dresser.
In it, a white rose shines in the light of the evening sun.
"Doubled is better," says Lorena.
"Doubled is better", I repeat.