Little Kastle

Translated from Italian by Joe Weintraub

The man lowered the newspaper to his knees, idly fixing his eyes on Little Kastle. He was tired of reading, and the late afternoon air was beginning to nip at his hands and the nape of his neck, and so, after carefully folding his paper, he set it aside on the bench and lifted up the collar of his coat. He didn’t have to look at his watch to know that it was already time to go. A quick glance all around assured him that the park would be closing within the next few minutes. For some time, the cries and the laughter had been fading away, were now barely distinguishable from the winds rustling the foliage of the elms and chestnut trees, and, subtly, they were being replaced in his hearing by the subdued but edgy drone of the evening’s busy life from beyond the wrought-iron fence.
“Michael!” he cried out, turning back toward the wooden, plastic, and aluminum structure towering in front of him. “Michael, please come out of there. It’s time to go home!”
He stopped to listen for a moment or two, trying to catch a stirring within, a voice. But there was no reply from his grandson. Only the wind whistling cheerfully through the cracks and chinks of Little Kastle.
He got up and approached the entrance to this imposing and multicolored structure. A metallic plaque proudly proclaimed the name of the construction to be “Little Kastle,” and right underneath, in lettering far smaller, visitors were reminded that the municipality disclaimed any and all responsibility in case of accidents, loss of personal items, and so forth. Some witty soul had taken it upon himself to change the letter “C” in the name with a black marker, replacing it with a “K.” Although the reasoning escaped him, the man felt that the “K” was not such a bad idea. It conveyed, to some extent, that sense of the alien that a small boy would surely find hard to grasp, but which, to an elderly person, seemed obvious.
From its outside, Little Kastle exhibited a solid construction, and was, in a way, enticing. At a height of approximately ten feet, it extended outward to form a miniature building, and were it not for the pastel colors alternating randomly across the squared paneling that made up its siding, it would have resembled an assemblage of prefabricated studio apartments. All of it was held together by an elaborate tubular web, and through the very many chinks and cracks, the presence of stairs, ladders, and footbridges could be glimpsed, along with so much else to support an architectural project suitably designed to arouse that instinct for adventure innate in all kids. In fact, they often had to be begged to leave.
“Michael!” he called out again, beginning to feel a slight discomfort in his stomach.
By now, the sun had been reduced to a red sphere, fragmented by the silhouettes of the pines surrounding the park. The man examined the entrance to Little Kastle, an orange plastic arc beyond which a series of green steps led up into the overhanging shadows. He took several paces forward until his foot made contact with the first step, and from there he let his gaze wander about, as if carefully scouting his position.
He truly did not intend to go inside; in point of fact, one part of his brain was still committed to believing firmly that he never would have done such a thing. Yet, as if spitefully evading such a sensible consideration, he gripped the doorpost with both hands, and yielding almost semi-consciously to impulse, he prepared to climb up the small staircase.
Perhaps he would have been better off to persevere, he told himself, although with little conviction; he ought to have continued to call out, to stay on the outside. But it seemed so natural to him, so inevitable, this intense need to enter Little Kastle, that even he was surprised at how casually he did it. Then again, he had found himself so often sitting in front of that curious structure, observing for so long that bizarre multicolored shell, his imagination had probably already ventured inside hundreds of times without him even being aware of it.
“Michael,” he whispered, a touch of breathlessness warming his throat.
Sounds from the outside world were already diminishing, reduced to raspy gusts pirouetting restlessly before fading into an air drenched with odd, darkening colors. Now it was the beating of his heart that began to disturb the silence.
Despite his age, he moved with considerable agility, reaching the top of the stairs and rising up like a sentinel to examine his surroundings. He found himself inside a kind of a cube whose walls could have been orange, or perhaps brown. The light outside appeared within as streaks of pink and rose, their tones changing from red to yellow depending on the direction from which they were viewed. In general, a peaceful, almost dreamlike air suffused the atmosphere.
The man fixed his eyes instinctively on one corner of the cube, where the entryway to a low tunnel disappeared as it plunged ever deeper into the heart of Little Kastle.
He did not hesitate. The way had to be, by necessity, sufficiently linear and intuitive; this was clearly the path to follow. At that point, he had to choose between turning around and going back down, defeated, or going forward at the cost of dealing with the predictable discomforts still to come, inherent in the lure of that immense contraption. Dropping down on all fours, the hint of a smile on his face, he slipped into the narrow tunnel.
The visibility there was even dimmer. Crawling along on his hands and knees—and imagining in what condition he’d find his pants and coat once out of there—he could not avoid rediscovering in front of his half-closed eyes fragments of his own childhood, when creeping inside a hollow tree-trunk seemed to be the quintessence of happiness. And perhaps, for him, it really was. That unexpected reflection led him to sense a hint of bitterness, a trickling that left in its wake a black streak barely perceptible among his thoughts.
A trace of a curve toward the right, and the tunnel flowed into a new cubicle. Breathing heavily, he stood upright, and quickly he tried to figure out which way he would have to go. Confused in the blue glow that permeated the area, he caught sight of a gangway below a short ladder leading down. Taking a moment or two for a few deep breaths, he sensed the heat of sweat against his skin.
“Michael!” he ventured to call out, and regretted it at once, since his voice reverberated back into his ears, dark like a last gasp of breath, foreign, almost unrecognizable. Apart from that sad acoustic effect, the only reply to his flat invocation was a silence even more oppressive, if, in fact, that were possible.
The ebbing rays of an invisible sun remained to light up the interior of Little Kastle with fantastical tints and hues. Against the plastic walls, quivering, iridescent forms took shape with the help of the tiny droplets of sweat that trickled down his forehead to settle between his eyelashes.
He then stepped down onto the ladder, determined but aware that he was becoming a little uneasy. The idea that the place was infested with the harmless shadows of all the children who had wandered about inside provoked in him an intense desire to find an exit. Maybe his grandson was already looking for him, outside, in the park …
The gangway was made up of small planks suspended over a tangle of links and chains, and crossing it, he wobbled back and forth. At the sides of the passageway, as well as above, the structure was closed, so it was impossible for him to determine anything about conditions outside. He thought he might have heard a sound, something that resembled a muffled chuckling, but then he realized that the metallic links of the chains still swinging behind him were enough to produce that coarse rasp. “I have to stay calm,” he urged himself. “I have to …”
He didn’t have time to complete his thought, as a rustling from a corner drew his attention. He whirled his head about just in time to glimpse a small shadow in motion. His heart seemed to swell, beating against his ribs for a fraction of a second. Could it be there were mice inside, right there? However unpleasant, it still wasn’t such a remote possibility. Only that …
He wiped his forehead with his sleeve. His eyes seemed to be playing tricks on him. A mouse, sure. Or perhaps a hedgehog, hastily vanishing around a bend in that tiny room where he now found himself. Compared to the previous rooms he’d visited, the ceiling was lower here, forcing him to proceed with head and neck bowed. Awaiting him around the corner was a narrow corridor gradually losing itself within a series of shadowy recesses.
He wound up squinting, straining his eyes in an effort to figure out the hazy geometries of that place. What he had glimpsed a few moments before was not a mouse. He understood that perfectly well. It was the foot of a child. Certainly, it could have been Michael’s. Yes, without a doubt, that little foot would have been his, if Michael had ever really existed.
Regaining his courage, he ventured into the corridor.
With a chilly lament, the wind outside eased through the chinks at the edges of the tubing and the paneling. But through those cracks—which he confirmed as he drew near one of them—nothing but the smallest, most indecipherable details could be glimpsed. It must have been almost dark by then. He would have found the gates of the park closed once he got out of that damned maze. But no real harm. He would have found some way to clamber over or to attract someone’s attention. Once he got out.
Inside, however, a kind of shifting, diaphanous translucence still prevailed, allowing, at the very least, for a safe progress. Beyond the shadowy zone, three steps leading upward brought him into a small purplish room, with a circular opening gaping at him from its center. Drawing near to its edge with extreme care, he had to get on his knees for a full view of the yellow chute, which from that point led down into an uncertain lake of shadows. “It has to be the exit …”
Troubled by a growing discomfort in his joints, he sat on its rim, preparing to slide down. Instinctively, he closed his eyes, but just for a few moments. And, suddenly, he saw himself as a child again.
He’d always loved slides. He liked to lose himself in the sheer thrill of a headlong descent into the depths of his imagination, at a time when all of life was waiting to unravel before him, ready to unwind like a gilt-edged red carpet, opening for him a pathway, unique and wonderful. A time when all he desired was still worthy of being desired. When everything in the world stood before him, as ready to be conquered as he was to be the conqueror. Not like now, he thought, when the game was almost over. Even the temptations of love had by then, for a considerable time, ended up as a confusion of cloudy halos against the windows of the years, cold, always colder. While a desk, in that office plagued with piles of paper and fits of coughing, had day-by-day drunk every drop of his blood.
Tightly clenching his teeth, but with eyes again wide open, he surrendered freely to the descent. Much too quickly, the soles of his shoes touched down on another laminated flooring, where he was impelled to get back on his feet and probe the darkness that had received him.
A few yards to his left a sort of luminescence was visible, but weak enough to leave serious doubt about its true presence. It seemed rather to be the ghost of a light. He was determined to get there at once, not the least because the alternative would have been to grope forward, with the risk of his hands coming into contact with things that were made of neither plastic, wood, nor metal.
As soon as he got there, its pale reflection clearly revealed a passageway toward yet another small narrow and elongated chamber, lit by a greenish pallor that could have been taken for an expiring fluorescence. Feeling an initial surge of dizziness, he continued to move forward, aware that his sweat, burning at first, had now woven a veil of ice beneath his garments. But he could not stop, even as the thought of lying down to catch his breath persistently tempted him.
At the far end of the chamber, he could turn only to his left, following a U-shaped curve beyond which another stairway, shimmering with opalescent reflections, beckoned him to climb back up.
His shortness of breath, by now, had turned his lungs into empty bellows. Numberless multicolored points of light swarmed in disarray just beyond his line of sight. And there he found himself in an area where the floor sloped so much he was forced to plant his feet firmly down to proceed without falling. But in truth, he wasn’t at all sure that the floor alone was at fault. His mind now seemed to be showing the first serious signs of failing, of surrendering to the vertigo. In any case, he ended up with his back to a wall, and finding no better way to pass through, he stayed there, leaning against a shoulder, dragging himself along.
And again, he thought he caught sight of, in front of him, at a distance truly difficult to make out, a shape, lighter than the darkness, disappearing just beyond a spur in the wall.
“Michael,” he again whispered. And he heard a chuckling, his own, bursting out to strike against the walls behind the shadows. He would have liked his grandson to have had the same name, Michael, had he arrived to fill up his ever more empty days. Through him, he would have been under the illusion of being able to continue to breathe and to dream and to recover everything that life had only promised him. He hadn’t even had a son. Not even the memory, indelible, of a child smiling, extending his hand toward him …
He held back a tear from where it was emerging, from that arid well of regrets. And passing beyond the bulging spur, he next bumped into a kind of a rod fixed into the floor. He took a few clumsy steps to the side, and then forward, before realizing he had wound up in a cubicle filled with such poles. Again and again, he struggled from one rod to the next, advancing blindly, panting with raspy, steamy breaths. Cursing, he let the silence trim and turn his bitter muttering into something like splintered darts. It would not have taken much more for that general sense of nausea that was hanging over him to overwhelm everything else. The night seemed inhabited with forms, and although he was fully aware of the fact that each of those elusive phantoms was spawned from his own feverish brain, he found it impossible to keep from trembling.
As the thicket of poles began to thin out, a rope ladder materialized from the darkness. In the heat of the moment, he clambered upwards, spitting out curses, biting his lip. Above, a narrow space swallowed him up into its obscure belly.
And then he collapsed.
Staggering at first, he had afterwards fallen to all fours. In a fit of coughing, he pushed himself forward until bumping headfirst into a wall. Then he twisted around to sit up, leaning his back against the plastic surface, stretching his legs outward. His body was enmeshed in pain, his thoughts a wild tangle of brambles. All around him, a universe without light extended outward, ravenous, watchful, mocking him.
Then, all of a sudden, he heard the voice.
“Michael …”
His heart surged, inflaming his mind in red. That frail, amiable voice emerging softly from the darkness, he knew it, for sure. He recognized it.
He knew instinctively what he had to do. Supporting himself on the floor with his left arm, he slipped his other hand inside his coat, rummaging through until his trembling fingers tightened around his lighter. He had to try three times before he managed to raise a flame, and when he held the small light out in front of him, he knew he had not been mistaken.
Standing upright, just a few yards away, was a small boy. He was wearing shorts and a checkered shirt. He was staring steadily at him in silence, and in his eyes languished a terrible, painful awareness.
He would have liked to speak with him, but he already knew it would not have made any sense. He knew who that little boy was. And although he was incapable of telling how many years, what an abyss of time, separated one from the other, he thought it a sort of peaceful insanity to be there staring at himself, yet a self still far away, infinitely distant from any surrender to the harrowing mechanisms of life.
That little boy stood there regarding him with a gravity that was frightening. Both reproach and pity were clearly engraved in his eyes.
“Forgive me,” he felt almost compelled to say to him. “Forgive me for what I haven’t had the courage to be …“
But before he could open his mouth, a gust of wind grazed his lighter, and the darkness returned to blind him.
He raised his thumb right away, ready to reignite the flame. But then he froze.
He might have found the boy still there, in front of him. Perhaps he would have had the chance—concealed, lying in wait in the depths of his consciousness—to be forgiven, redeemed from the ineptitude with which he had buried his proudest and most brilliant dreams. But what if he was no more to be seen? If once he had ignited the flame, he was confronted only by emptiness? Better, then, to wait. As long as he remained in darkness, he could believe that his little self was still there, waiting to listen to whatever he had to tell him.
A prisoner of that little plastic, metal, and wooden netherworld, he lowered the hand that was gripping the lighter. Dawn would be coming, sooner or later. It had to come.
It was only a matter of time.

RIO-PARIS-RIO (Chapter 1)

Happiness comes naturally to Maria, but freedom sometimes overwhelms her, scatters her, causes her to latch onto the parked train on the grand boulevard of the imaginary.

The Dead Girl's Room

“Though I knew she must sometimes have felt the way I did — had laid in the same bedroom feeling awful for sleeping too late, procrastinating, cutting corners — in her death she had, it seemed, become perfect.”