The earthquake came on a Tuesday. There were no tremors beforehand—nothing that might have warned me.
I was in Italy when it happened. I travel frequently. I find it easiest to visit countries I know, and I used to go to Italy a lot. So I go back every now and then.
Italy is a beautiful and dangerous country because it reminds me of my sister.
Anna, who loved Italy even before she ever went there—Anna, who got herself Italian lessons on tape and listened to them so often that the tapes wore out. Anna, who saved assiduously for a Vespa and then careered around our home town, as if she were winding recklessly through the narrow alleyways of Rome.
Italy reminds me of my sister and of the way things used to be, before the darkness. I keep trying to drive away the thought of Anna, but it’s sticky, like old-fashioned flypaper. Other dark thoughts get stuck to it; there’s no stopping them.
So it was off to Italy, in spite of everything. For an entire week, I retreated to three spare rooms upstairs that I never use, and named them Italy. I put on Italian music, watched Italian films, immersed myself in documentaries about the culture and customs of the country, leafed through coffee-table books, and had delicacies from various regions of Italy delivered by caterers. And the wine. Oh, the wine. It almost made my Italy real.
And now I’m walking through the alleyways of Rome, in search of a particular restaurant. The city is muggy and hot, and I’m exhausted—exhausted from battling against the current of tourists, exhausted from warding off the advances of street hawkers, exhausted from drinking in all the beauty around me. The colours amaze me. The sky is hanging grey and low over the Eternal City but beneath it the Tiber flows a dull green.
I must have fallen asleep because, when I wake up, the documentary on ancient Rome is over. I’m confused when I come to. I can’t remember dreaming, but I have trouble finding my way back to reality.
I seldom dream nowadays. In the first years of my retreat from the real world, I dreamed more vividly than ever before, as if my brain wanted to compensate for the lack of new impulses it was receiving during the day. It invented the most colourful adventures for me—tropical rainforests with talking animals, and cities of brightly coloured glass inhabited by people with magic powers. But, although my dreams always started off light and cheerful, they would sooner or later grow dark, like a sheet of blotting paper dipped in black ink. The leaves in the rainforest would fall, and the animals would stop talking. The glass became so sharp you could cut your fingers on it; the sky turned the colour of blackberries. And inevitably he would appear—the monster. Sometimes it was a vague sense of threat that I couldn’t get a proper hold on, sometimes a shadowy figure lurking almost out of view. Occasionally he would pursue me and I would run, trying to avoid looking back because I couldn’t endure the sight of his face, not even in a dream. Whenever I looked straight at the monster, I would die—die and wake up, every time, gasping for air like a drowning woman. And in those first years, when the dreams were still coming, I had trouble driving away the thoughts that came at night and settled on my bed like crows. There was nothing I could do about them; no matter how painful the memories, I couldn’t stop thinking of her in those moments—thinking of my sister.
No dream tonight, no monster, but I still feel uneasy. A sentence I can’t quite make out is echoing in my head. There is a voice. I blink, my eyes gummed up. I notice that my right arm has gone to sleep, and I try to massage it back to life. The television’s still on, and that’s where the voice is coming from—the voice that had found its way into my dream and woken me up.
It’s a man’s voice, business-like and neutral, same as all the other voices on these news channels that broadcast the lovely documentaries I’m so fond of. I heave myself up and grope for the remote control, but I can’t find it. My bed is vast, my bed is the sea, all these pillows and duvets, waves of coffee-table books and a whole armada of remote controls: for the television itself, for the receiver, for the DVD player, for my two Blu-ray players customised for different formats, for the sound system, for my old VHS recorder. I snort in frustration, and the news voice tells me about things in the Middle East I don’t want to know—not now, not today. I’m on holiday, I’m in Italy, I’ve been looking forward to this trip!
It’s too late. The real-world facts that the news voice is reporting on—all the wars and disasters and atrocities that I’d been hoping to block out for a few days—have forced their way into my head, chasing away my sunny mood in seconds. The Italy feeling has gone, the trip’s off. Tomorrow morning I’ll go back to my real bedroom and clear away all the Italy stuff.
I rub my eyes; the brightness of the screen makes them ache. The newsreader has left the Middle East and is now reporting on domestic affairs. I watch him with resignation, my tired eyes watering. Now the man’s finished his spiel, and there’s a live broadcast from Berlin. A reporter is saying something about the Chancellor’s latest trip abroad, while behind him the Reichstag rises up out of the darkness, majestic and imposing.
My eyes sharpen their focus. I start, I blink. I can’t believe it. But I see him! Right here in front of me! I shake my head, dazed. It’s not possible. I can’t believe my eyes. I blink again, blink frantically, as if I could get rid of the image that way, but it makes no difference. My heart contracts with a pang. My brain thinks: impossible. But my senses know it’s true. Oh God.
My world is shaking. I don’t understand what’s going on around me, but my bed starts to tremble and the bookshelves sway and then crash to the floor. Pictures fall, glass shatters, cracks form on the ceiling—hairline cracks at first, and then rifts as thick as your finger. The walls collapse, the noise is indescribable, and yet it is silent—utterly silent.
My world lies in ruins. I sit on my bed among the debris and stare at the television. I am an open sore. I am the smell of raw flesh. There’s a flash in my head, so dazzlingly bright that it hurts. My vision turns red, I clutch my heart, I am dizzy, my consciousness flickers. I know what it is, this keen, red feeling: I’m having a panic attack, I’m hyperventilating, any second now I’ll faint, I hope I’ll faint. This image—this face—I can’t bear it. I want to avert my gaze but it’s impossible; it’s as if I’ve been turned to stone. I don’t want to look anymore, but I have to. I can’t help it; my eyes are fixed on the television. I can’t look away—I can’t; my eyes are wide open and I’m staring at it, staring at the monster from my dreams, and I’m trying to wake up at last, trying to die and then wake up, the way I always do when I see the monster up close in a dream.
But I’m already awake.