June 21, 2019 by The Citron Review
by Emanuele Pettener
Translated from Italian by Thomas De Angelis
In the middle of a golden summer during my childhood, I was heading home, leaving the rocks where I had fished for the entire morning, carrying my little white rod and reel. I was feeling so blessed, immersed in the jumbled smells of suntan lotion, grilled ćevapčići, wild fennel, and crabs cooked on charcoal embers. I proceeded along the path (a burnt sienna color) that led to our trailer, taking me past the coastal pines and prickly bushes: by then it was noon, two beautiful silver fish were slowly dying in my green fishing pail, stoking my pride, and mom and dad were expecting me for lunch. Ah, those summers in that little campground on the Croatian coast! I don’t think I’ve ever been as happy. Of course I would experience other moments of impetuous joy, a girl’s impassioned glance, the first audaciously awkward attempt at slipping my hand into her blouse, a radiant day borrowed from a Van Gogh painting–but never again would I know that heavenly bliss, in perfect symbiosis with nature, of me as a young boy quietly getting out of my tiny bed at seven in the morning, being careful not to wake my parents, slowly opening the door of the trailer, and seeing the sublime charmingly calm sea, oily, blue, clear, immense, stretching out before me. The cloudless sky was as blue as the sea. In the sleepy campground, only the soft sloshing of the water against the rocks, everything bright, peaceful and happy, and it was part of me, it was in my bones; it was natural.
I grabbed my fishing pole leaning against the trailer and the container of worms in salt water (my father and I, our backs baked by the sun, had gotten them by lifting up the rocks at low tide) and I headed off, young and perfect, toward the brilliant blue sea, jumping from rock to rock, choosing a suitable spot with an old fisherman’s instincts, baiting the hook with a worm (feeling a thrill of pleasure when the minuscule metal hook pierced the worm’s mouth forcing out a tiny bead of blood). I tossed out the pole with all the strength I had in my young muscles and, in the absolute silence of the soothing campground sparsely flecked with yawning seagulls–plop–the sweetest sound I ever heard: the sinker skimming the water’s shining surface, then slowly sinking.
But on that July day a small crowd of people was in a circle, obviously excited by something at its center, I was curious, briefly abandoning the straight narrow path, and placed the rod and the fish next to a tree, threading my way through the adults, to understand what they were watching so frenetically–and then an icy hand grabbed hold of my heart, my limbs became stiff, as if they would snap off my body, a quivering sensation completely permeated me: an extremely long silver snake was coiled around itself, horrendous and threatening, I jumped backwards, bumping into a pair of legs, I felt my pulse beating furiously and the blood flowing back into my throat like some psycho–but I was hypnotized, I stayed where I was and then a girl (in hindsight I would say she was probably around fourteen, very pretty, with intense eyes and chestnut brown hair cascading down her shoulders) grabbed the snake by its tail (I felt like I was going to faint) and she tugged it, and the snake uncoiled itself in all its repulsive length (shining and writhing in the midday sun, people were mumbling admiringly, someone was laughing) the girl was petting its head as if it were a kitten and then with both hands she placed it around her shoulders (I was dying, my heart was throbbing its last beats, I felt it sinking into my stomach, farewell, farewell ma, farewell dad!). Then the snake, with horrifying sluggishness, slithered across the girl’s skin, slithered across her young breast, slithered down to her groin, it was so very long, so very slow, so very silver, it slithered around her hips (the tail still clattering around her neck) and the girl let the snake totally wrap itself around her, she was enjoying herself, and the people applauded and the last thing I saw, which chilled me to the marrow, was the rapid-fire snake’s tongue flicking the girl’s belly button, and I felt a ferocious rage, a terrifying rage, I wanted to tear the snake, and the girl, to pieces. I hated them both, and then I fainted.
There’s no point in telling you how, from that moment on, my perfectly happy summer days, that perfect harmony between nature and me ended. I carefully monitored each step I took, afraid the snake would suddenly slither out. I went fishing but I could no longer calmly look out at the water because I had to keep glancing over my shoulder, and, terrified it would get into the trailer despite my father trying to convince me otherwise, I thoroughly inspected it every night before going to sleep. That was our last summer in Croatia. After that, the tantrums I threw convinced my father to sell the trailer and rent an apartment in Jesolo, Italy, overlooking a colorless and piddling sea. You couldn’t even fish there, but at least it was very sandy, no rocks, no unspoiled nature, no sun-parched trees or bushes or expanses of stones or any red tinged Istrian soil and yellow flowers, only beaches and swimmers and gelato stands. There was no path, or any poppies, just toilets and changing rooms, nearby a few buildings, hotels, and guest houses, it was so boring and flat and dull.
No way were any snakes there.
Emanuele Pettener teaches Italian language and literature at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida. His collection of short-stories A Season in Florida has been translated by Thomas De Angelis and published by Bordighera Press (New York) in 2014.