‘The Kingdom of Fassa’ by Catherine McNamara
Here is our new short story of the month, Catherine McNamara’s ‘The Kingdom of Fassa’, in which a young man returns to the Italian Dolomites, to the village of his childhood, to the mountain trail that claimed his mother's life.
Catherine McNamara is a Sydney author living in Italy after many years in West Africa. Her collection Pelt and Other Stories was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. Her stories have been Pushcart-nominated, shortlisted and anthologised in the UK and Europe.
The Kingdom of Fassa
Two years after her death they agreed to do a commemorative hike on the mountain that had taken her life. He flew out to Venice and caught a train up to the Dolomites where he had lived as a boy. They’d chosen a few days mid-September when he and his father could both schedule time off work, a fortnight short of her anniversary. That date stalked them both. Before, there was still the hope and kitchen clamour of bootlaces being tugged and boiled eggs wrapped in worn tea towels, the skin moving in pleats over his mother’s forearms. After that date there was horror in every object and when the search was over, the seam of the mountain ridge divided the earth into rank shadow and a porous lilac world, where her plummet would be ceaseless and her bones remain whole.
He heard his father in the kitchen. Bruno could be trusted to make this into a worthy day, a day that would have brought about Annette’s chipped smile. He heard his mother’s terrier barking, shook his head thinking there would never be an end to Scottie’s vigilance. His father had moved into his uncle’s unused house, one of a handful raised on the hillside in the sixties boom, too flimsy to heat with their warped window sashes and faux-baroque tiled floors. For two years the family palazzo had been standing nakedly open in the village piazza. No one would finish the renovations now, and his father could barely glance towards the cobbled square without growing stormy.
He pulled on jeans and walked barefoot into the kitchen, zippering up a fleece. His bowels felt full, crimped with nerves. He had his mother’s finicky stomach lining and felt the slow burn of coffee every morning, but that had stopped neither of them from drinking a half-dozen espressos a day. He looked at the kitchen clock and saw it was later than they had planned to set out, but they had drunk Malbec deep into the night knowing that this morning lay ahead of them.
Bruno’s staple before these long treks was a bowl of watery plain spaghetti and he sat on a stool eating this, eyes on the table surface. The dog stood still. At Bruno’s back the dense ridge loomed: a backwash of rucks from the ancient motion of the mountain. The three-thousand-metre peak was visible from the other side of the house, and behind Bruno you could see the village stacked in the valley’s shadowy watershed. The kitchen window view included the old palazzo on the square, with the slate roof tiles and copper eaves and drainpipes that his parents had argued over for months, which he knew Bruno would have erased if he could. After arriving yesterday he had walked down there and said hello to his cousins. He’d looked up and the copper piping was still so vital, embracing the deceased building with a fuel of caressing arms and fused joints. At the bottom of the square an open tap endlessly replenished a trough and he’d put his hand inside, watched it become fishy yellow and felt the flesh burn.
He began to slice salami. He peeled off the skin and threw a piece to the dog. Bruno poured coffee for them both, producing a single grimy spoon and a supermarket packet of sugar splashing onto the table. Today there were no boiled eggs wrapped in worn tea towels, no mint tea in flasks. Bruno wore the leather hiking boots with rusted eyelets he had been wearing that day, a torn flannelette shirt tucked into shorts that showed the muscle grooved above his knees. At fifty-six he had the body of a young climber and every movement of his was choreographed by purpose, where Annette had grown plump and airy, her breasts becoming pillowy cushions she used to chide as she waved hands down her front.
His father’s face dropped towards the chewing dog.
‘We’ll bring Scottie,’ Bruno said. ‘She’d have expected that.’
They set out to the steps behind the house. These were wooden planks a prior resident had lodged into the hillock, now pitched unevenly and several refusing to bear weight. Some families had vegetable patches up there, preening in the light. There were serrated leaves hiding zucchini grown gargantuan beneath, and tomato plants stalled in acid yellow flower, and a cherry tree whose late fruit had been removed. The steps gave way to an earthen furrow between grass tufts and this cut across to the north of the village, where all paths to the mountain intertwined. These paths were the language of his boyhood; he had once hobbled down here dragging a broken leg. When they were far above the houses they heard an engine turning over, a woodcutter’s empty pick-up, before it rattled down the gorge. His father walked on with a hunched gait as the white dog tore through the grass in a mechanical frenzy. He followed, already short of breath; his synapses seemed to be trafficking his mother’s voice,
Where am I, my child? Where am I, my child?
That day he had barely seen her falter, had barely believed the disappearing act that started with a stumble, a waver in equilibrium. But Annette’s lurch had become a cart-wheeling, a battered rotation that he and his father stood watching, immersed in fragments while all logic became savage. Not a cry as her body shot over the line of rocks above the wide fogged-out gulf, as Scottie trembled and whimpered in a pocket of hair.
Bruno twisted back towards him. He felt salt excreted into his mouth, his senses jammed.
The path continued its wide swoop towards a border of blue pines. He concentrated upon this and knew that the smoky light and smell of resin within the forest would soften his nerves. He needed these moments before they trod upon the mountain’s bald Triassic surface and they would revisit that day, when it would open up unmarked ahead. He prayed the weather forecast would not betray them, that fog would not claw up the peak, choking as a cold gas.
He watched his father trek into the trees, the dog in white flashes at his heels. Bruno felt differently about the forest. For him it was a thing to be gotten through. Inside there were fenced-off patches where cows grazed, and these bestiame were shepherded by youngsters who came up from the cities on the plains, feral men and women with rasta plumes and hair shorn over their mangled ears, tattoos down their arms. They camped out in the deserted tabià, lit fires and had all-night parties. Bruno hated them, thought they had no place here. Yet there were no more shepherds born of the village. All youth had gone from the valley as fast as funds or initiative would allow. Some to Milan and Padua and Venice to study, others crossed the mountains to Cortina or Arabba or Val di Fassa where there was work. Annette had never wanted him to stay. She’d enrolled him in university as soon as his results came through, had found the flat in London and put paid to his homesick moaning.
Not for the first time he wondered how she had survived so long in this forgotten hamlet stuck to the mountain’s backside. The village with its sour sunlight sat at the end of a hairpin road prey to landslides and hefts of collapsed brown snow. In summer its single restaurant might be crammed with out-of-town vehicles whose owners strode laughing through the streets, while woodcutters and deer hunters stared up at lottery results on the television in Amelia’s bar, or leered at the pregnant Cuban one of them had snagged on a holiday abroad. These were men who shot russet deer, seduced by their great bodies folding to the ground, heads reeling and eyes bulging with torture. They gutted them, pushed their hands within sweet, slithering organs; they sectioned these beings into drained cuttings for freezers, ate platters of this flesh extruded into moist salami scented with grass and blood.
He knew his mother had been a prize here. He also knew that she had danced on tables and Bruno had ploughed into her at night. In the summer she had read Dylan Thomas to them both, the three of them sitting on rattan chairs as the day paused. He’d found it embarrassing, the way his father’s eyes foraged over her, hands quivering as though the language had borne him away.
Let me shipwreck your thighs –
Bruno couldn’t speak English to save himself.
Ahead, his father held open the last wooden gate and the forest passed behind them. The mountain stood ridden with raw early light. Scottie ran off. He began to feel pressure in his throat as they halted at the edge of the grassy maze before the colossus. He could not remember standing here with her, their conversation or whether they had even lingered. He could only sense the sheets of colour and the endless fracturing of geology, and that at this point Annette had entered the last hours of her life. He realised how little he had touched her since he’d left the valley, how their bodies had developed strict perimeters and she would watch over him rather than share her eyes, her inner knowledge of him concluded. He gulped and the air that entered him was saturated. There was no air more luxurious than this. He looked up at the summit tapering off and made half-invisible, the incandescent surfaces they would traverse where the light was sheer. He saw the trail cut into stone above the tree-line. This was the one that would bear them upward in tramping silence, sweat raining from them.
For a moment he remembered how he had doctored himself afterwards. That night Annette’s body had lain trapped in a cleft: back in London he had loitered in a city park at nightfall then nestled down to sleep. He had crawled under a wide tree, digging into the dirt, clutching for roots and gripping these with his scratched hands. As the hours passed he’d felt his pockets emptied and genitals skated over. He had wished for blows as he sobbed.
His father strode forth into the grassy currents in the foreground. He was headed towards the Rifugio Venezia, the only lodge on the climb. This stone building stood far off under the mountain wall and a tide of sunlight would soon envelope its roof. The dog yapped in the wind, plunging through tussocks. He thought of fossilised shells laid to rest in the bedrock, their ivory curlicues now swaying in the red uplifted cliffs above, graffiti from the land’s ancient marine epoch. Now the sea was a hundred miles away, a polluted gulf bearing the raft of Venice and sweeping the bora over Trieste. Soon enough, his eyes traced Bruno heaving up the steps of the lodge and he saw there would be no solace anywhere.
Inside, he found Bruno at the bar dunking a teabag into a mug of hot water, holding the attention of the waitress. It made him sick to see this. The woman was perhaps in her forties, probably Romanian; they were always foreign in the mountain restaurants and lodges now. Her peach shirt scooped low over small breasts and her eyes ruffled as he entered. His father looked up and asked him if he wanted a drink. He ordered a coffee, thinking stiffly of Annette. The woman turned to the machine while his father moved to one of the wooden tables and waved him over. He saw that Bruno’s gestures were kinder now, leavened. But when she brought over the coffee his father ignored her. Later she came to them, asking Bruno in accented Italian if she could feed the dog. Scottie gobbled morsels from her hands.
When an English maverick first scaled this peak in the mid-nineteenth century it had been all but nameless. The locals had lived in combat with the winter from a time beyond memory, when each season the trail south would be blockaded by ice strata the mules skittered over, dropping into ravines. Villagers subsisting on polenta and onions were driven insane by malnutrition and the endless coverage of snow, hardened by crystalline, ebbing days. Summers were a morass of steel rain and landslides, stillbirths, haemorrhage and fever. Annette said only an Englishman would look to the brutal crenulations above the sooty mice-filled hovels, and see a kingdom to conquer. Once this occurred the mountain began its venerable life, no longer an overblown wishing well rising above the catastrophic ranges.
He felt uncomfortable and stood. On the far wall there were photographs of tall men embracing even taller wooden skis, with spring bindings and dangling leather straps. They looked as though they had lived arduous, fleeting lives. He saw stark, familiar images showing the varying moods of the peak. With or without snow it scored the sky, thrusting with violence. He knew that all through the Dolomites there were memorials to the dead. This was one of the things they had talked about: Bruno was seeking a permit for a plaque in Annette’s memory, and the exact place had to be located for the rangers of the corpo forestale. He knew that Bruno had wrapped up two sticks of chalk from a kitchen drawer and put them in his pocket.
As he paid his father introduced him to the waitress as his son. It was said quickly and the woman’s eyes struggled over his face. Outside, Bruno glanced at him as they stood on the wooden deck in a corridor of sharp wind. But he bent over his boots and said nothing. He knew that a man’s organ is always there, like the branch of a supple tree.
He fell in with his father’s pace along the first trail banking upward. He tried to return to Annette, salvaging an image of her between them. Her brown faded hat and her cries to Bruno to call Scottie away from her heels. This made him feel a swimming bliss and for a moment he staggered. How was it that they had failed her that afternoon? Midway down, it had happened on a steady trail no riskier than any other. He saw her body begin to grapple with the air. He’d pushed down the path just as she rolled over, shot through with velocity. He saw her eyes were shut tight and the dog was beside itself in circles and he hadn’t looked away.
He paused to let two other hikers pass, wiping his forehead. He felt the coffee stain on his stomach.
Where am I, my child? Where am I, my child?
They had agreed they would first climb the summit. On the descent they would revisit the place and mark it for the rangers. The weather was clear and the rangers would pass by tomorrow and affix the base for the plaque. He guessed that he and his father might make some sort of homage up there. Neither of them had ever spoken of responsibility. But even now, in the village, they both walked as guilty men. It was known that she had fallen as a bird between them.
For years before the accident Bruno had been with the soccorso alpino, men who dislodged bodies from the rocks or located children lost in the forest below. He brought home stories of madness or tragedy to the kitchen table. An able local had gone off-piste skiing in winter. This man’s clothing and equipment were found collected under a tree, but never his naked body. Before a group of people including his wife, a French journalist had thrown himself off the platform overlooking Marmolada and the pinpricked spread from Civetta to Antelao’s streaky cone. They had never found the body either. Or probably the brutal pitch against rocks had made carrion of him for the crows. He had calculated it would have taken the man’s free-falling body almost half a minute to plummet from that point. Seconds where the journalist’s eyes registered colour flashes and his brain may have entered a compressed lull as his clothing whipped. They say that falling is the easiest of deaths, that the body reinstalls its preternatural love of flight; that impact is delivery.
Last night they had fumbled with words that tried to invoke Annette. But it was Annette who had been the head of the triangle, who had immersed them in their own conversation, who had lit up and sounded musical. Whatever they said had been wooden, spoken by two men whose memories had collapsed: they were now the two men who had nodded at her bludgeoned face and torn shoulders at the helicopter pad, who had trekked home to separate bedrooms and wept. In all this time neither had visited her grave, nor would either man think of putting an anniversary notice in the local newspaper in a couple of weeks. Annette’s jackets remained pegged in the hall; her robe behind the bathroom door. His father had pushed across a piece of paper with what he was having engraved on the plaque. Just her name, just the dates. He felt a renewed shattering when he saw the slanted loops now spoke the syllables of her extinction.
When he had been living in London for several years he awoke one night. He was shaking and his heart pumped irregularly. He had paced around the flat trying to breathe calmly, wishing he had a woman to hold or more tangible friends in his life. His mother had said his birth had ruined her; they had been too long getting her down the valley and over the pass. She said that within him he held all the souls of the babies she would never have. When he was a boy he had believed her and felt the mass of these children dissolved in him, sisters and brothers who were limbless and mute. But that night he had waded into himself and seized upon his parents in a naked fury. He realised he was the banished outcast and felt betrayed.
On occasion he had brought friends from the city on the slow, nauseous climb to his village. They were astonished by the setting. He saw their discomfort before the tumbling dimensions of the landscape and the hyper-reality of the soaring rocks. They hedged themselves behind books or got irreparably drunk at the baita parties in the woods. Anything to reduce the vastness to an inactive background. Or they would hike at breakneck speed, rolling towards the peak with electrolyte-replacing liquids and GoPro cameras, telling him they couldn’t believe he had come from this. That was when he knew it had been a mistake to show his markings. He saw another girl from his village in a Camden club once; they had looked over each other and said nothing.
He had to concentrate now, his father shouted across. They were crouching along the cengio, a natural sleeve dug into the rock where one bump of a knapsack or shoulder could send you cascading into the void. Climbers paid the most attention here, but today he slipped through without trepidation. There was liquid along his limbs, behind his knees; his hands pulsed. Bruno waited for him at the passo del gatto, where the earth fell away and he had to reach out to the cold cable looped through rivets and half-leap to the other side, his boots anchoring on the rocks.
Beyond the cengio they advanced onto the bare flanks of the mountain. At any moment stones could be dislodged by climbers above, but he knew their helmets were hanging behind his father’s front door; there had never been any talk of wearing helmets today. Above, the slopes glimmered silver, with yellow trails etched across in slack lines. Bruno veered onto the steepest, most challenging path. As he watched Bruno’s stooped wet back and the stick he had taken up prodding the rocks, he wondered whether this would be a true commemoration or if some part of him needed to expunge Annette from his core. Since her death his moods were darker and he had become foul-mouthed. He lived in that dim, freezing house, feeding Scottie and himself with the same remnants. Last year there had been talk of leaving the village, of going down to Belluno to live with his brother. But he had seen his father in the city: his agility rifled around inside of him and the traffic set off his lacerating moods.
There were capriole watching them now, attracted by Scottie’s scent. Above he could see other climbers in bright clothing with scarves knotted at the backs of their heads; his eyes caught on a woman’s gleaming calves. Bruno quickly reached them and the group pulled to one side to let him pass. From the way they were braced, Bruno must have spoken sternly to them. He was rude to anyone not of the valley. One girl bent to pat the scampering dog but Scottie rushed on. They turned down to watch him ascending in Bruno’s wake and he glanced up at their tanned faces and sports sunglasses. How he wished to be among them! How he wished to be a visitor on the mountain! But even as a boy trailing after his parents he had known that his whole history was written here, and this was a tumultuous place. As they trekked he would stare into the land, imagining hunters pursuing prey or the shaman making a sacrifice between boulders, a crouching man with a box jaw and recessed eyes, an animal gutted just above the tree-line, blood spilling and hoofs ceasing to clack on the stone. Annette used to say that they were never born, so they could never truly die. She said that ‘self’ was just an idea, a passing.
Where am I, my child? Where am I, my child?
He greeted the group of climbers and they drew across to let him pass. Bruno had gone into shadow beneath the cliffs and as he paced he was alone. The highest reaches of the peak lay in mauve planes above and he smelt the mineral warmth the sun drew from the rock. He found himself in an arena of soundlessness and heat. This was the last expanse before the narrow summit climb, a parabola of whiteness. He could make out Bruno and the dog in small shapes up on the ridge. Soon enough he too was there, hoisting his weight up those same powdery steps. He had to measure his balance with every footfall. Millennia ago the great mountain had cracked apart, forming an isolated peak now standing in limpid facets across a gulf that ran a kilometre into the earth. The air howled and pulleyed through this shaft, bearing a crop of suspended falcons. As a teenager he had crawled on his belly up to the ledge, watching his white-knuckled fingers clutch the very delineation between ground and space. He had wondered what it was that held him from hauling his body over.
At the summit he found Bruno eating a panino with salami, the dog resting under him. They would not linger here, he knew. He sat down and drank from his flask. That day Annette had been last to arrive, she’d hugged the monumental cross at the top, needing to steady herself. Today the black spire rose high into the blue, rusted and clean. Bruno muttered to him as the brightly-dressed climbers joined them on the narrow platform. As these people marvelled at the spinning panorama and neighbouring mountains surging from sharp folds, his father stood and brushed his shorts and the dog peered upward, ready to chase his heels. Bruno marched across the uneven surface. His head and rigid neck dropped down the trail.
He finished his food and made a ball of his rubbish. Two years ago Annette had sat before him feeding salami bits to the dog; he remembered he’d felt bashful noticing her long white thighs. His head fell between his knees. One of the women lowered herself next to him, saying something about his companion being in a rush. He looked up and shrugged. He trod through them as they unwrapped food and passed across drinks. He could see Bruno moving at a pace along the ridge.
As he set off his legs felt like jelly. Descent required no labour of the heart and lungs, just a sturdy set of knees with able hinges, and shock-absorbing thighs. But his legs were addled with weakness now that they had to return to that place. Below, his father emerged from the boulders onto the white terrain, half-jogging along the loose spirals over the mountain. Bruno would not wait for him. He tried to hurtle after him but there were places where the path slid over gravel or veered close to the chasm and he had to slow down and focus upon his boots. Several times he felt the seduction of gravity. It seemed his body wanted to plummet and he pulled back swaying, his head like a balloon on a string. He saw the mountain in billowing shapes and thought he could guess what dying felt like, the lonely slipknot of its sliding contours.
But when the time came he was thinking of another thing, a woman he had met in a pub who said she climbed in the French Alps. It had been a good night, not sexual. She had odd, wide-apart breasts and a narrow face. Yet when he called her the next week she said she couldn’t go out with him. No reason, she just said she couldn’t.
Enraged, he’d wanted to cry that he had never desired her.
That was when he found Bruno standing on the trail before him, his eyes guilty screens and arms lifeless. This was where Annette had fallen.
At first he could not reabsorb what had been scorched into his mind so he squatted, leg muscles twitching and the sweat rolling from him in the sun. His vision shifted over the quilt of rock spurs beneath and he noticed the dog patrolling the site and turning on itself. He thought its vivid fretting would make him scream.
Bruno had taken the chalk from his pocket and began to draw a vicious ‘X’ on the mountain wall.
He felt a pressure welling in his throat and was afraid he would faint.
When his father began to weep with a busted choking, head bent to his chest, he stood up. He could not feel Annette anywhere and his recollections were maddening. He said nothing, began descending the trail. Bruno remained bowed over while the dog agitated with small yelps.
He ran for a stretch, seeing the version of himself that had scrambled down for help, shaking a cell phone that could draw no signal from the air. As he tossed along he had nursed the hope that she was dead and knew she had to be; he prayed her eyes had stayed shut and she had never seen the mountain pulling away and the ground charging upward. An hour later the helicopter had fluttered upwind before steering into the valley where they watched its futile gyrations. He stilled under the rock face. Bruno came lumbering down without the dog. He waited, looking for Scottie. For the whole trip the dog had stayed glued to his legs. Then when Bruno pushed past and resumed hiking he understood. He grabbed his father’s upper arm and looked into the man’s revolted eyes.
‘What did you do to him?’ he cried. ‘What did you do to Scottie?’
‘He wouldn’t move,’ Bruno answered. ‘He wouldn’t leave her. He wouldn’t leave her.’
Bruno charged like a madman down the trail. In less than five minutes he had lost sight of him.
After the climb he wandered alone through the forest. He listened to cowherds yelling and whistling on another ridge. He pulled off a piece of resin and let it stick behind his front teeth, he lay down on pine needles. When it became too cold he walked into the soundless village where cars were parked around the lights of the restaurant. A row of heads sat under the deer antlers and bright television inside Amelia’s bar.
The doorway to his family’s empty palazzo was boarded up but he crawled beneath the plastic sheeting on a low window and moved into its damp silence. Just over two years ago the new wooden stairs had been sanded and they bore his weight up to the room where his parents would have grown old side by side. He lay down to sleep on the ruined floor, now a scored surface. His empty stomach gurgled and his shoulder and hip grew quickly cold. But he slept, he did not dream. Soon after dawn he awoke. He stretched his limbs, pulled his body into line, then climbed outside into the square again. He washed his face with numbing water from the trough. He looked around the piazza where he had played as a child, over the houses whose inhabitants he knew by name and gait and pitch of voice. The facades were clutched one on top of the other, a tight citadel with deer carved into front doors and displays of geraniums. He knew it was time to return to his father.
As he walked up the hill to his uncle’s house he knew that he would find them folded together, Bruno and the foreign waitress. The Romanian woman would have made up the bed swiftly; she would have her eye on the streaky windows and mildew in the shower. Her bare shoulders would be locked within an embrace that felt like stone and fire, that felt like the most defiant embrace she had ever known; and she would know this embrace was stolen.