At the Gate
by Jose Recio
In the late nineteen-forties, the seasonal workers that some Italian farm owners hired to pick up olives came from faraway lands, places impoverished by the wars. They arrived by train, traveling in third-class compartments—some families brought their children—and returned to their villages with the first frosts. Occasionally, a family settled there.
Sitting in front of a tiny brick-and-plaster house where she lives with her parents,a girl of six, with hazel eyes and curly dark hair, arranges little bouquets of wildflowers. A stone’s throw from her house runs a river of narrow bed and fast current. From this river, the kids fish trout, and the locals call it Il confine acquoso (watery boundary) because its course divides the vast olive fields at which front the seasonal workers live in their humble dwellings from an urban zone where the wealthy reside. Several wooden bridges facilitate the transit between the two areas.
This girl loves wandering around. She enjoys crossing over to the other bank and peeking into wealthy people’s properties. She stands at a gate of a mansion. In the front yard, inside, a girl plays. She must be my age, the girl with hazel eyes guesses. She stands there, watching the other girl until something else—the flight of a crow over her head, a sudden rising of the wind—makes her attention shift, and she leaves.
As she walks back home, she envisions being wealthy like the girl behind the gate. She wonders why she isn’t, but the answer escapes her, like a lizard that now runs on the trail and quickly disappears. She wishes everything showed clearly, like the bunch of flowers she carries in her hand—white, red, and pink.
“Why we aren’t rich?” she asks her parents.
“We came to this land when you didn’t have teeth yet,” her father explains. We work, stick in hand, shaking the branches in the trees and picking the olives, row by row, and day by day for as long as the weather remains warm. It takes time to get wealthy.”
The little girl gazes at him without understanding very well. The mother seems to ponder what might be in her daughter's mind.
“We do what we can so we can live here, and you go to a nice school,” she said.
The girl puts a distant look in her hazel eyes.
“Everyone has what they have,” her father says.
The little girl turns to him inquisitively. “But why we aren’t rich?”
The parents produce no quick answer, and this delay bores the little girl. Without understanding, she walks out of the hut and sits near the door, grateful for the December pale sunshine, after the cold of the previous night. She begins to join the flowers she has picked up earlier to make a bouquet: pale cyclamens, resilience pansies, and perennial daisies.
The mother wakes her up the next morning and puts a rag doll that she has made in her daughter’s arms.
“Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) left her on the window sill,” she says. “Merry Christmas!”
A tender look of love and appreciation shows in the girl’s hazel eyes. She kisses and cradles the doll; she smiles at her mother and thinks of the wealthy girl of the mansion. From the kitchen table, her father observes them with contentment.
“If you go outdoors to play, make sure you wrap the doll with a kitchen cloth and don’t venture to go too far,” he says, and the little girl nods.”
“It’s snowing!” her mother adds with joy.
The little girl goes outside and plays with her doll all day long. The trees, the roofs, everything looks bulky and white. Her eyes squint as sunshine hits the layers of snow and reflects on her face, but she doesn’t want to miss any of the scenes around her. But it’s getting dark, and she still wants to go and see the wealthy girl.
In spite of her father’s warning, the little girl ventures to walk across the bridge. When she reaches the gate she knows, the view of a dispersed yellowish, mysterious light surprises her. It comes from a large wooden-framed lantern, with glass walls and a thick candle inside. A stick anchors the lamp, which wears a snow hat, into the white ground. She wonders who set it there. In this pool of yellowish light, the wealthy girl plays with fancy toys in the company of some friends. The whole scene reminds her of the fairy tales her mother reads to her before falling asleep. She stands there, but something inside her tells her the wealthy girl won’t come to the gate, and her feet are cold. “Everyone has what they have,” she addresses her doll, and turning around, she hurries back home.
Jose L Recio is a physician and a writer. He is particularly interested in short fiction. His work is published in The Acentos Review, Cecile’s Writers Magazine, The Literary Nest, Aether and Ichor, Adelaide, and With Painted Words magazines, among others. He is originally from Spain but lives in L.A. with his wife and their whippet.
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'A Safe Place'