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Verge 2013: Becoming

NON POTETE PRENDERMI

Sahara Wilson

The hot summer sun beats down on us as we run through the streaming arc of the hose. The park dogs snap at it, trying to catch the spray. We pull their tails like Mama has told us not to and shout, ‘Non potete prendermi!’ You can’t catch me!

They growl at us but will never bite, Bigman having trained them too well. When we run home to the van Mama scolds us for being so wet.

‘Mama, acqua, acqua!’ I cry, and my brother and I show her our water dance until she laughs and shoos us into the van.

We eat on our camp table in front of the van where Mama cuts people’s hair during the day while I play with their children. The round women who wear black and smell like pepper would sit and watch her cut, talking about Mama quietly in Italian. She ignored them.

So beautiful, they would say. Hair like gold. But that husband of hers, why would he bring her to live in a merda van? And the children, such beautiful children—hasn’t he thought of the children? Pazzo Englishman!

I would march right up to them and put them straight. Sicilian was my first language and it was all about attitude.

Papa would work on the van during the day and make little toys for us out of driftwood in the evening. Sometimes Bigman would come and ask him to do some work for him. Papa would get all sad when that happened and Mama would whisper to him, ‘No, I don’t like it.’

I didn’t like it either.

Bigman came around one night with his dogs trailing behind him and I ran to Papa’s side. Pa picked me up and I perched on his hip as we went from the van to meet Bigman. The dogs eyed me—Nero, the lead bitch, with a growl, my tail-pulling not forgotten.

I stuck out my tongue and jeered, ‘Non potete prendermi.’

Papa glanced at me and frowned as he whispered, ‘Not now, Sweetpea.’

His concern quietened me and I hoped my smiling Papa would come back.

‘You no pay!’ said Bigman, jabbing his finger at Papa.

‘I did. I paid yesterday. Ho … pagato ieri,’ Pa said, gripping me and struggling with his Sicilian. I squirmed, but he ignored me, so I started to whine.

He put me down and I stood beside him, mimicking his clenched fists and wide-legged stance. Bigman shook his head.

‘Non. New rule. You. No. Pay.’

With a click of his tongue the dogs moved into a pack in front of him. Nero was at the head. She growled at Papa and barked like I had never heard her do before. Quick as I could I leapt forward and smacked her hard on the nose.

‘Non potete prendermi!’ I shouted, crossing my arms like Mama did when I came home muddy and wet. The bitch yelped and jumped back. The pack swung their heads to Bigman. He raised a hand slightly.

Papa scooped me up and held me to his chest so tight I couldn’t even squirm. Ba doom ba doom ba doom went his heart. There was no other sound.

Then Bigman began to laugh. He moved forward and rubbed my cheek the way I hated, but Mama said it’s not nice to make a face.

‘Bambina, bella bambina—così coraggiosa!’

He looked at me and Pa, nodded his head once and then walked away still laughing. I turned from him and buried my face in Pa’s chest, breathing in the smell of motor oil on his clothes.

‘Non potete prendermi,’ I whispered.

Ba doom ba doom ba doom.

*

I tiptoe to the house’s window that is rotten and broken because Mario claims he broke it with a rock. I know better than to believe him though—he’s always just showing off. Still, I couldn’t let him get the better of me so I had to say yes to his dare. I’m already forced to marry him every time we play weddings and he’ll never let me be the man either. He said girls are all pussies and that we have to listen to men. I went to punch him but Teddy pulled me away and told me to just ignore him.

Never punch him Christina, never. He was very solemn when he said that and so I don’t punch Mario. His uncle is Bigman, after all. I just poke my tongue out at him behind his back.

I stare up at the window and wonder how I’ll ever get in. Teddy would know how, but he’s off playing with the older kids today—it’s the weekend. I hate weekends because suddenly I’m not cool enough to play with Teddy anymore and I get stuck with Mario and his baby friends.

I could try and jump but I know I’ll look stupid if I can’t reach. The others will be watching me from the roof of Nona’s caravan. Instead I pull over a milk crate that’s sitting next to the bins. It’s heavy but I bite my lip and pretend it doesn’t hurt.

On the crate I’m able to peek in and pull my body onto the windowsill. My arms hurt but I can’t give in when I’m so close. The window is open, just like Mario said it would be. Bigman gets really hot, he said. Quick as I can I slip in and head towards the desk. I slide the stolen key into the top drawer and pull it open.

I pause to catch my breath as light shimmers across the metal. When I move my head to the side the light seems to wink at me. I hold my breath, reach in and slide my hand around. And there it is, cold and heavy.

Suddenly I hear voices coming from the other room, growing louder. I freeze. It’s Bigman. He’s talking about the dogs and how much he reckons Nero will fetch down at the track when she wins next week. He’s very close. I hear his horrible booming laugh like it’s right in my ear. I scamper over and grip the sill tightly as I vault across to land squarely on the crate. The stolen treasure in my overall’s front pocket almost throws me off balance. Half-cat, Mama says.

Later I meet the others under the old fir tree. Hangman’s tree, we call it. Mario says his older brother once saw a man hanging there, strung up by his toes, dead. To send out a message, Mario says. Porca vacca—he’s such a liar!

I smile as I lay the prize on the ground in front of Mario. He gasps. I’ve laid it down so that it’s pointing at him.

What you gonna do? The gun mocks him.

*

Sometimes when money’s running low Mama heads to the market with Mrs De Luca for the day so she can get more customers. Papa is often too busy running errands to watch us. When that happens Teddy and I play beside the van in the shade of the old fir tree while Mrs Romano watches us. When Ma’s away Teddy and I play by ourselves without having to worry about showing off in front of all the other kids. As much as I like having free roam of the caravan park, I prefer it when it’s just Teddy and me.

We’re playing quietly with our toys when Papa comes running, shouting at us. Teddy jumps to his feet, stuffs cars into his pockets and then grabs my hand to pull me along. As Papa gets closer I see that marching behind him is Bigman with two of his men by his side. One of the men is holding what looks like a messy bundle of rags. Running to keep up with them is Mario.

Teddy tries to pull me towards the van but I’m too terrified to move. I don’t understand what’s happening. Mrs Romano hurries over to us and kisses our heads, whispering, ‘Ave Maria,’ after each kiss. Then she disappears into her van.

When Papa is only a few steps away I can finally move. Teddy and I scramble into the van and Papa slams the door so hard from the outside that the whole van shakes. We lift the cushions from the seats and crawl into the storage space where Papa keeps his tools when we travel. Teddy grips my hand as our world becomes pitch black and muffled, our breathing filling the space.

Non potete prendermi, non potete prendermi…

The van shakes as something thumps against the outside. My children! Angry shouts in Sicilian, English, Siciliano, English, English, Siciliano, Sicilian, Siciliano, Inglese.

Non potete prendermi, Non potete prendermi, non potete prendermi…

The shouts continue from outside and I hear somebody sobbing. I close my eyes and hug my knees to my chest, holding Teddy’s hand to my lips as I whisper.

Non potete prendermi, Non potete prendermi, non potete prendermi…

Then there is light everywhere. In the corner of my eye is Bigman swaying in the light. He is huge, monstrous, his hands dripping with red, clasping my hair and pulling me away. Teddy disappears.

Non potete prendermi, Non potete prendermi, non potete prendermi…

He looks like il diavolo from the books. His eyes hold me frozen. He hisses at me and drags me along the floor. I scream at Papa who is floating, no, lying on the ground next to the bundle of rags in a pool of red water. But no, not acqua, rosso, rosso, sangue? Yes, sangue, blood.

Non potete prendermi, Non potete prendermi, non potete prendermi…

Papa pushes himself from the ground and sways, a golden crown heavy on his head. He can’t sit up straight because of the crown. Long hair flows around his shoulders. But there is no crown, his face all out of order. Sweetpea, I think he whispers. He follows me through bleary eyes. All I smell is piss. And then there is Nero—they’re not rags, but the bitch. She’s panting, whining, her body a mess. It’s Nero’s blood, not Papa’s. No, non, sangue, blood, sangue. Bigman lets me go and I fall to the ground.

Non potete prendermi, Non potete prendermi, non potete prendermi…

He forces my clutched palms apart. Cold, heavy, hard in my hands. Mario shouts, She did it! She did it! Tears pour down his face. He looks at me with disgust, his mouth all twisted. Nero whimpers. Heavy and hard, smells like piss, metal, fire, blood, like sangue.

Non potete prendermi, Non potete prendermi, non potete prendermi…

My little finger swims around the trigger. I’m pushed towards Nero. Finish what you started, bella bambina … he hisses in my ear. It’s so heavy. I feel myself slipping away. Papa’s eyes don’t leave me. Sweetpea.

Non potete prendermi, Non potete prendermi, non potete prendermi…

Hand gripped by the devil. Ave Maria, piena di grazia, Ave Maria. Then everything explodes.

Verge 2013: Becoming

   by Peter Dawncy and Camille Eckhaus