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The Earth Drowns Us

Story by Brenda Peynado (Read author interview) December 18, 2012

art by Katherine Burgess

For the earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy 2009

What is left of my village of Onna crowds onto the cracked, demolished steps outside our Red Cross blue tent city. I wedge myself between two steps pushed up from the earth like crags. Those closest to the Red Cross television whisper back that the Italian Premier has announced he will turn over his palaces to the victims of the earthquake. None of us expect him to follow through, but this is what I dream about in my cot: what it would be like to grow in my seventeenth year in those echoing, marble rooms filled with useless things.

The blue skin of the tent above us glows from electric lights. The Red Cross workers hung the battery-powered lanterns with such gravity, with so many in L’Aquila dead. They are still looking for my brother and Paolo. Still they churn up the concrete for bodies. Now we are reduced to pieces of bodies. When we in our FEMA-provided cots tremble on their trampoline skins with the cold, we remember the ground shaking. Papa’s snores are quiet; he is awake. I’ve once caught him standing over me in the dark, haloed by faint blue, listening to me breathe because he thinks it is a miracle I am alive. My father who taught me to pick the wild berries in the woods on the way to the church. We wait in the electric dark of our tent, and I listen to him listen to me breathe.

The hour before the ground shook, just after dinner, I told Papa and my brother that I was going to the church to pray, and they looked at me strangely, but they let me go. My crunching footsteps in the snow between the trees, the days worth of bread hidden in my shirt. I scraped my fingernails over the cold, burning earth and snow, and then yanked out the small suitcase I had buried the previous week. Paulo and I had agreed to meet at the church before taking a bus from one of the neighboring towns where nobody would know us. In the golden glow of the church, I prayed to Jesus’s face on the cross, I asked, for one last time, if I was someone who would desert my family for the idea of Rome and love with Paolo. My fingers, near-frozen with dirt, hung over the back of the pews, and I received no answer. Instead, I heard the door to the aisles creak open. I turned around to greet Paolo. In the brief glimpse, before the ground began to shake and my stomach climbed into my throat and I crawled into the space between two pews, it looked like my brother, and I called out Mia Fratello? And then Paolo?

Paulo with his eagle eyes, impulsive nature, his dream of Rome that he would tell all the schoolgirls, which brought me to him in the first place and pushed all the town parents away. My dream of more. His parents and my father picked fruit, and they believed in the power of being solid and having roots like trees. My older brother was protective of me, too protective, with the sliver moons of car grease always under his nails.

Hours after the shaking of the earth I was pinned under a church pew with the deep silence that comes when you are completely, absolutely alone in a dark without ears. Then the great, fallen dome of the church cracked open like an egg. The sound of a drill pierced the mute. I could see daylight, a man descending from a rope.

Qui dentro! I yelled. Eccomi!

He put his arms under my armpits and lifted me up. I told him there had been someone at the door, and he said everything but the center basilica dome was crushed. He said there was no one at the door now.

In our Red Cross cot, Papa listens to me praying to God to know what sort of murderer I am, with my endless greed, always reaching for more. I pray to God that I stop dreaming, and that I be content to breathe this pale fog at the far edge of the tent, my father next to me. But still, I imagine the air of the palace rooms are filled with the silence that hears no prayer, the emptiness of the heavens, that I will grasp with empty hands for a love I have lost, that in those cold rooms I will relive again and again the moment that the earth ground against itself to drown us, or when I was lifted out to German Shepherds crawling like ants over the concrete mash of the town, barking, sniffing for bodies; my father standing at the edge of the church, crying out E viva! E viva! And, rising on the rope and here in my cot, I know it cant be true.

About the Author

Brenda Peynado finished her MFA in fiction at Florida State University, where she was a Kingsbury Fellow, the fiction editor for the Southeast Review and won the 2011 prize for prose. Her work is forthcoming or published in The Threepenny Review, Brevity, and WSQ: The Women’s Studies Quarterly, among others. She is at work on a novel about Dominican Americans.

About the Artist

Katherine Burgess holds a BFA in painting from the University of Georgia and a PhD in creative writing from Florida State University.

This story appeared in Issue Thirty-Eight of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Thirty-Eight

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