What could you say about an old woman who died? Grazia lived, loved, bore children, some who lived, some who didn’t.
At eighteen she’d married Renzo, a man broken by the Great War that had savaged his generation, and brought him back to life with the love she poured into the food she cooked, though she refused to pass on her skills to their surviving daughters.
She had guarded those culinary talents jealously, as if afraid that, passed on, they might slip forever from her fingers. Those skills were all she had left, once her beauty had faded into silver hair and wrinkles, and her husband no longer saw her.
That’s not to say he’d become blind to the allure of women.
They’d lived in the city. During the sweltering summers, they’d rent a small house in the mountains where Grazia and the girls, adults now, would spend the hottest months. Renzo would come at weekends, with Lita, their youngest, who spent weekdays in the city with him. While he worked, she’d cook, wash and keep house.
Leaving for work one day, Renzo forgot his lunch.
In the rattling lift, on her way to the ground floor, Lita gazed out through the glass at the passing landings, hoping Renzo hadn’t got too far since she was still in her slippers. As the lift glided past the third floor, her gaze fell on a couple at an apartment door, locked in a quietly passionate embrace.
The man glanced over and caught Lita’s eye.
She stared back, her mouth half open. For some reason, she held up his forgotten lunch as if to explain her presence.
That evening, they didn’t speak of it. But she obviously spoke about it to her mother, because at the weekend, Grazia refused to look at Renzo.
From then on, she slept with her back to him. She still cooked for him, pouring all her thwarted love and fury into her food, and occasionally she’d retire to bed for the day, feigning sickness, and emerge only for the meals her untaught daughters would prepare. She’d bark instructions from the bedroom, misdirecting them in the hope their food would turnout poor so Renzo would see how badly he had messed up.
“The worst culinary school in the world,” the daughters called her kitchen, and, ignoring the elderly Grazia’s vindictive commands, would produce a meal as good as any of hers.
In the mountain village they retired to, she died angry.
Afterwards, Renzo would dream of her. Every night she’d visit him, returned from the dead to come and cook for him. Then as dawn would break, she’d leave. He’d call after her, beg her to stay, but she was firm, her heart shut tight against him, as she’d tell him what she told him every night – “I come and cook for you, then I go back where I belong.”
The cemetery. The family mausoleum that bore photographs of all those gone before – small frames with the likenesses of those lost, always younger than when they’d crossed over, as if their great age was something to be erased with their passing.
Every morning he’d wake, his pillow damp with grief, and on his calendar, mark off another day without her.
Renzo had no appetite now, though Lita, who had never left home, would cook lunch and supper every day, just as Grazia had done. She slept in his room, in the hospital bed that had been Grazia’s those last years, so that Renzo wouldn’t wake in the night, alone. But he was never alone. Grazia was ever in his dreams, angry, always leaving him.
One night she didn’t appear. In his dream, she had become lost. He found her in their old top floor apartment in the city. The windows looked out at a ravaged skyline. The sky loured, black and blood-red, and every building was a shell. There was not one living soul in this devastated city.
Other than Grazia, in their tiny, ruined kitchen.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
It was as if his words had unleashed hell, and the storm that had raged outside was now inside. A hurricane, building to a pitch that could never be contained.
“Cooking for you,” she said, her back to him, as wind howled through the shattered glass and whipped at the rags that were once curtains.
“There’s nobody left here – come home with me.”
“I’m staying, to cook for you,” she said, refusing to turn her face to him. “Then I’ll go home, to the cemetery.”
He went to her. Wrapped his arms around her waist and buried his face in her wild hair. His heart pressed against her, but she was rigid, every cell in her body turned from him.
“Then I’ll go with you,” he said. “There’s no home without you. I’m sorry, I love you, please forgive me, I’m sorry. There’s no home without you, there’s no home…”
He woke with a start, and as he turned to see if he’d woken Lita, he thought he glimpsed Grazia in the bed next to him, in lace and silk, like on their wedding day.
Lita switched on the lamp, her greying hair sticking out.
“Are you okay, Pa?”
He was alone in his bed.
The next night, he saw Grazia at the foot of their bed, and instead of a storm raging inside her, she was filled with stars.
She reached out, took his hand, and as she lifted him into the air, he seemed to move through her, into that glittering sky. As they drifted into the cosmos together, he glanced back, to see that Lita had woken.
“Pa, Pa,” she said, bent over his motionless form, and he saw that she was crying.
He watched her move through the house, switching on all the lights in honour of his passing, and as he and his beloved Grazia floated further away, the lights in his little house diminished till they were like distant stars. He watched them all wink out.