I was just about to overtake Salvatore when I heard my sister scream. I turned and saw her disappear, swallowed up by the same wheat that covered the hill.
I shouldn’t have brought her along. Mama would be furious with me.
I stopped. I was sweaty. I got my breath back and called to her: ‘Maria? Maria?’
A plaintive little voice answered me: ‘Michele.’
‘Have you hurt yourself?’
‘Yes, come here.’
‘Where’ve you hurt yourself?’
‘On the leg.’
She was faking, she was tired. I’m going on, I said to myself. But what if she really was hurt?
Where were the others?
I saw their tracks in the wheat. They were rising slowly, in parallel lines, like the fingers of a hand, towards the top of the hill, leaving a wake of trampled stalks behind them.
The wheat was high that year. In late spring it had rained a lot, and by mid-June the stalks were higher and more luxuriant than ever. They grew densely packed, heavy-eared, ready to be harvested.
Everything was covered in wheat. The low hills rolled away like the waves of a golden ocean. As far as the horizon nothing but wheat, sky, crickets, sun and heat.
I had no idea how hot it was, degrees centigrade don’t mean much to a nine-year-old, but I knew it wasn’t normal.
That dammed summer of 1978 has gone down in history as one of the hottest of the century. The heat got into the stones, crumbled the earth, scorched the plants and killed the livestock, made the houses sweltering. When you picked the tomatoes in the vegetable garden they had no juice and the zucchini were small and hard. The sun took away your breath, your strength, your desire to play, everything. And it was just as unbearable at night.
At Acqua Traverse the grown-ups didn’t leave the houses till six in the evening. They shut themselves up indoors with the blinds drawn. Only we children ventured out into the fiery deserted countryside.
My sister Maria was five and followed me as stubbornly as a little mongrel rescued from a dog pound.
‘I want to do what you do,’ she always said. Mama backed her up.
‘Are you or are you not her big brother?’ And there was nothing for it, I had to take her along.
No one had stopped to help her.
After all, it was a race.
‘Straight up the hill. No curves. No following each other. No stopping. Last one there pays a forfeit,’ Skull had decided and he had conceded to me: ‘All right, your sister’s not in the race. She’s too small.’
‘I’m not too small!’ Maria had protested. ‘I want to race too!’ And then she had fallen down.
Pity, I was lying third.
First was Antonio. As usual.
Antonio Natale, known as Skull, Why we called him Skull I can’t remember. Maybe because once he had stuck a skull on his arm, one of those transfers you bought at the tobacconist’s and fixed on with water. Skull was the oldest in the gang. Twelve years old. And he was the chief. He liked giving orders and if you didn’t obey he turned nasty. He was no Einstein, but he was big, strong and brave. And he was going up that hill like a goddamn bulldozer.
Second was Salvatore.
Salvatore Scardaccione was nine, the same age as me. We were classmates. He was my best friend. Salvatore was taller than me. He was a loner. Sometimes he came with us but often he kept to himself. He was brighter than Skull, and could easily have deposed him, but he wasn’t interested in becoming chief. His father, the Avvocato Emilio Scardaccione, was a big shot in Rome. And had a lot of money stashed away in Switzerland. That’s what they said, anyway.
Then there was me, Michele. Michele Amitrano. And I was third that time, yet again. I had been going well, but now, thanks to my sister, I was at a standstill.
I was debating whether to turn back or leave her there, when I found myself in fourth place. On the other side of the ridge that duffer Remo Marzano had overtaken me. And if I didn’t start climbing again straight away Barbara Mura would overtake me too.
That would be awful. Overtaken by a girl. And a fat one too.
Barbara Mura was scrambling up on all fours like a demented sow. All sweaty and covered in earth.
‘Hey, aren’t you going back for your little sister? Didn’t you hear her? She’s hurt herself, poor little thing,’ she grunted happily. For once it wasn’t going to be her who paid the forfeit.
‘I’m going, I’m going… And I’ll beat you too.’ I couldn’t admit defeat to her just like that.
I turned and started back down, waving my arms and whooping like a Sioux. My leather sandals slipped on the wheat. I fell down on my backside a couple of times.
I couldn’t see her. ‘Maria! Maria! Where are you?’
There she was. Small and unhappy. Sitting on a ring of broken stalks. Rubbing her ankle with one hand and holding her glasses in the other. Her hair was stuck to her forehead and her eyes were moist. When she saw me she twisted her mouth and swelled up like a turkey.
‘Maria, you’ve made me lose the race! I told you not to come, damn you.’ I sat down. ‘What have you done?’
‘I tripped up. I hurt my foot and…’ She threw her mouth wide open, screwed up her eyes, shook her head and exploded into a wail: ‘My glasses! My glasses are broken!’
I could have thumped her. It was the third time she had broken her glasses since school had finished. And every time, who did mama blame?
‘You must look after your sister, you’re her big brother.’
‘I don’t want to hear any of your excuses. It hasn’t sunk into your head yet, but I don’t find money in the vegetable garden. The next time you break those glasses I will give you such a hiding…’
They had snapped in the middle, where they had already been stuck together once before. They were a write-off
Meanwhile my sister kept on crying.
‘Mama… She will be cross… What are we going to do?’
‘What else can we do? Stick them together with Scotch tape. Up you get, come on’.
I put the glasses in my pocket. Without them my sister couldn’t see a thing, she had a squint and the doctor had said she would have to have an operation before she grew up. ‘Never mind. Up you get.’
She stopped crying and started sniffing. ‘My foot hurts.’
‘Where?’ I kept thinking of the others, they must have reached the top of the hill ages ago. I was last. I only hoped Skull wouldn’t make me do too tough a forfeit. Once when I had lost a bike race he had made me run through nettles.
‘Where does it hurt?’
‘Here.’ She showed me her ankle.
‘You’ve twisted it. It’s nothing. It’ll soon stop hurting.’
I unlaced her trainer and took it off carefully. As a doctor would have done. ‘Is that better?’
‘A bit. Shall we go home? I’m terribly thirsty. And mama…’
She was right. We had come too far. And we had been out too long. It was way past lunchtime and mama would be on the lookout at the window.
I wasn’t looking forward to our return home.
But who would have thought it a few hours earlier.
That morning we had gone off on our bikes.
Usually we went for short rides, round the houses. We cycled as far as the edges of the fields, the dried-up stream, and raced each other back.
My bike was an old boneshaker, with a patched-up saddle, and so high I had to lean right over to touch the ground.
Everyone called it ‘the Crock’. Salvatore said it was the bike the Alpine troops had used in the war. But I liked it, it was my father’s.
If we didn’t go cycling we stayed in the street playing football, steal-the-flag, or one-two-three star, or lounged under the shed roof doing nothing.
We could do whatever we liked. No cars ever went by. There were no dangers. And the grown-ups stayed shut up indoors, like toads waiting for the heat to die down.
Copyright © 2001 Niccolo Ammaniti