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Story of the lost child

My breath was cut short, and for a fraction of a second I couldn’t understand what was happening. The coffee cup trembled on the saucer, the leg of the table bumped my knee. I jumped up, and realized that Lila, too, was alarmed, she was trying to get up. The chair was tilting backward, she tried to grasp it, but slowly, bent over, one hand reaching in front of her, in my direction, the other extended toward the chair back, her eyes narrowing, the way they did when she concentrated before reacting. Meanwhile thunder rumbled beneath the building, a stormy underground wind lifted waves of a secret sea against the floor. I looked at the ceiling; the light was swaying, along with the pink glass cover.

Earthquake, I cried. The earth was moving, an invisible tempest exploding under my feet, shaking the room with the howl of a forest subdued by gusts of wind. The walls creaked, they appeared distended, they came unstuck and were pasted together again at the corners. A cloud of dust rained down from the ceiling, adding to the cloud that came out of the walls. I rushed toward the door, shouting again: earthquake. But the movement was mere intention, I couldn’t take a step. My feet were like lead, everything was heavy, my head, my chest, above all my stomach. And yet the ground on which I wanted to step was receding: for a fraction of a second it was there and then immediately it subsided.

I remembered Lila, I sought her with my gaze. The chair had finally fallen over, the ceiling light was swaying, the furniture—especially an old sideboard with its knickknacks, glasses, silverware, chinoiserie—vibrated along with the windowpanes, like weeds growing in the eaves, stirred by the breeze. Lila was standing in the middle of the room, leaning forward, head down, eyes narrowed, brow furrowed, her hands holding her stomach as if she were afraid that it would slip away from her and get lost in the cloud of plaster dust. The seconds slid by, but nothing appeared to want to return to order; I called to her. She didn’t respond, she seemed solid, the only one of all the shapes impervious to jolts, tremors. She seemed to have erased every feeling: her ears didn’t hear, her throat didn’t inhale air, her mouth was locked, her eyelids canceled her gaze. She was a motionless organism, rigid, alive only in the hands that, fingers spread, gripped her stomach.

Lila, I called. I moved to grab her, drag her away, it was the most urgent thing to do. The lower part of me, the part I thought was exhausted but, instead, here it was reviving, suggested to me: maybe you should be like her, stand still, bend over to protect your infant, don’t run away, think calmly. I struggled to make up my mind, to reach her was difficult, and yet it was just a step. Finally I seized her by the arm, I shook her, and she opened her eyes, which seemed white. The noise was unbearable, the whole city was making noise, Vesuvius, the streets, the sea, the old houses of the Tribunali and the Quartieri, the new ones of Posillipo. She wriggled free, she cried: Don’t touch me. It was an angry shout, and shocked me even more than the long seconds of the earthquake. I realized that I was mistaken: Lila, always in control of everything, at that moment wasn’t in control of anything. She was immobilized by horror, fearful that if I merely touched her she would break.

I dragged her outside, tugging her violently, pushing, entreating. I was afraid the tremor that had paralyzed us would be followed immediately by another, more terrible, final, and that everything would collapse on top of us. I admonished her, I begged her, I reminded her that we had to rescue the creatures we carried in our wombs. So we flung ourselves into the wake of terrified cries, a growing clamor joined to frenzied move- ments—it seemed that the heart of the neighborhood, of the city, was about to burst. As soon as we reached the courtyard, Lila threw up; I fought the nausea that gripped my stomach.

The earthquake—the earthquake of November 23, 1980, with its infinite destruction—entered into our bones. It expelled the habit of stability and solidity, the confidence that every second would be identical to the next, the familiarity of sounds and gestures, the certainty of recognizing them. A sort of suspicion of every form of reassurance took over, a tendency to believe in every prediction of bad luck, an obsessive atten- tion to signs of the brittleness of the world, and it was hard to take control again. Minutes and minutes and minutes that wouldn’t end.

Outside was worse than inside, everything was moving and shouting, we were assaulted by rumors that multiplied the terror. Red flashes could be seen in the direction of the railroad. Vesuvius had reawakened. The sea was beating against Mergellina, the city hall, Chiatamone. The cemetery of the Pianto had sunk, along with the dead, Poggioreale had collapsed entirely. The prisoners were either under the ruins or had escaped and now were murdering people just for the hell of it. The tunnel that led to the Marina had collapsed, burying half the fleeing neighborhood. Fantasies fed on one another, and Lila, I saw, believed everything, she trembled as she clung to my arm. The city is dangerous, she whispered, we have to go, the houses are cracking, everything is falling on us, the sew- ers are spurting into the air, look how the rats are escaping. Since people were running to their cars and the streets were becoming congested, she began to pull me, she whispered, they’re all going to the countryside, it’s safer there. She wanted to run to her car, she wanted to get to an open space where only the sky, which seemed weightless, could fall on our heads. I couldn’t calm her.