Fiction

The Rainbow Festival

BY

Illustration by Kinomi


Illustration by Kinomi

I

I like to tell people I grew up in a small town, but really it was a town that was sometimes small and sometimes very large. I liked it best when it was large. In mid-June, the bay filled with a hundred colours of boats, big, little, nimble, slow, and the boats had African masts and American sails and prows adorned with Italian lemons. It was the Malin Herring-Gutting Festival. Visitors travelled miles and leagues to stay in Malin and watch the country’s finest herring-gutters—competitors who lined up on the pier and gutted fish, dusk to dawn. Bent over the herring, they made quick, precise gestures, careful as clockmakers, grasping and gutting and slipping the filleted fish into their allotted barrels. The boards were littered with silver fish scales.

The audiences of Malin marvelled at the herring-gutters. They hollered. They bought them pints of beer and drams of whisky and new red apples. Vendors sold cotton candy, sold peanuts. They strung paper lanterns across the streets and children scampered between the adults’ legs and all of Malin smelled like mermaids’ breath.

The women’s contest was always held on the second-last night of the herring-gutting festival. They removed the newspaper from the gutting tables and replaced it with linen.

Every year, my mother transformed our home into an inn. The parlour became the gentlemen’s lounge, the dining room became the breakfast nook, and most of the other rooms were turned into guest bedrooms. I slept with my mother in her bed. Instead of managing the books for Mr. Lowry, the harbourmaster, she spent June making suppers and sweeping the floors. I helped her butter the toast and make the beds. She wore her hair in a bun and she was happier then than at any other time; for two weeks every summer, the house seemed full. We fell asleep to snores and in the morning there were fishermen laughing, eating strips of bacon in two bites; in the evening, there were barristers from Newcastle who passed their fingers through candle flames; in the wee hours, there were Norwegians who played card games in their bedrooms, games with rules I did not know.

The rest of the year, our house was very quiet. It was too big for the two of us, a vestige of long ago, before I could remember, when my mother and father had imagined a large and rowdy family, with children in every bed, and no room for visiting sailors and farmers and Norwegians. But my father went out one day in his herring boat and never came back, and his photo hung on the wall, and one day my mother threw her wedding ring into the sea, and for as long as I had known, she and I had lived alone in the town of Malin.

When I was nine years old or maybe ten, a man called Jim Morrissey stayed with us. He presented himself at noon on the first day of the festival. He paid his whole stay in advance and after I dragged his trunk banging up the stairs, he gave me a pound coin. This was more money than I had ever possessed in my life.

When I came downstairs the next morning, he was talking in the kitchen with my mother. Usually, the guests stayed in the breakfast nook. They did not come in and talk to my mother. She was making eggs. I came into the kitchen and Mr. Morrissey said, There’s the boy. He patted me on the shoulder. My mother asked me to peel some potatoes.

He was a merchant of some kind. On his second night, he brought us a great jug full of olives and olive oil. When he held it up to the light, the olives looked like soft, bobbing stones. They smelled like something far away. He taught me to put an olive in my mouth and eat it very slowly, hardly chewing, getting accustomed to the flavour, tasting the different kinds of saltiness.

One morning, Mr. Morrissey asked if I would be his assistant for the day. I said I would have to ask my mother.

I found her pinning sheets to the clothesline. I could use you here, Christopher, she said.

Alright, mum, I said.

I was almost all the way inside when she called back to me and said, Never mind, go on.

Mr. Morrissey wanted an assistant to hold his bag, which held notebooks and pencils and his sunglasses. And sometimes he asked me to slip through the crowds to get the attention of another merchant or clerk, because he wanted to speak to them. They talked about business, and herring-gutting, and sometimes made jokes. He always introduced me as My assistant, Chris.

When Mr. Morrissey was not talking about work, or sitting with me on the church steps eating soda bread and hard-boiled eggs, we watched the gutters. He watched them very closely, very seriously. He could tell when someone was doing a fine or a sloppy job. He said, Look at him: Jersey-style. The gutter was using a very short, stubby knife. He cut the herring’s tail first. This was the Jersey style. Mr. Morrissey clicked his tongue when a gutter snipped a fish’s spine instead of lifting the herring’s whole thin skeleton. On just the fifth day, Mr. Morrissey gestured at the herring-gutter from Eigg, the herring-gutter who would later take the festival prize, the bowl of gold and seashell. Mr. Morrissey said, There’s a champion. He bumped me on the knee. Could be you, he said, before too long. Then he got up and called to Mr. McLaughlin, whose factory makes tires. Rethought that decimal point, he shouted, ya fucker?

The women’s contest was always held on the second-last night of the herring-gutting festival. They removed the newspaper from the gutting tables and replaced it with linen. The men wore their best suits. The fiddlers put away their fiddles and the upright basses were wheeled out and the women rolled up their sleeves and tied up their aprons and pinned their curls above their ears. My mother always competed. She was not the fastest, but she fixed the fish with her dark-brown eyes and held the knife with her long, strong fingers and she opened its body as if she were slitting the pages of a new book.

I slept with my head on my mother’s shoulder and I dreamed of grey birds on the beach, rapping mussels against stones.

She was always nervous on the morning of the contest. So I woke up early and started the broth; and I took in the washing from the line; and there was an egg poaching when my mother came down the stairs with her hair in its bun. She smiled at me a little fragilely.

Today’s today, she said.

I replied, Today’s today’s today.

Later I stood with Mr. Morrissey on the hill. We watched Mother place gutted herring in a barrel. It was dusk and the tide was low. The people of Malin moved below us in knotted throngs, lit up by candles, lanterns, and one bright strip of electric lights. Fish blood ran below the treads of their shoes. The air smelled of toasted bread and sea muck. I stood with Mr. Morrissey in his grey cardigan and cap, watching Mother. I was not old enough to recognize the expression on his face, but I knew it was an expression I had never seen before. His mouth was serious and sad and somehow content. Gulls whipped round the masts of the boats. After a long time he said, Chris, please get the brown notebook from my bag. I got the notebook from the satchel. I put it in his hands. He squatted in the grass, squinting in the dark.

I asked, Do you need your glasses?

No, he murmured. He opened the book to a blank page and wrote a few lines. He closed the book. We watched my mother until the competition finished.

Even though she is not the fastest, Mr. Morrissey said, into the air, I reckon she ought to have won.

On Mr. Morrissey’s last day in Malin, the day after the end of the festival, after Eigg’s Robin Kerr had won his bowl and we all cheered the fish cheer, after the lodgers in our house ordered up the whisky and the gin and the wine from France, to celebrate, and after we rushed through the house, Mother and I, bringing plates of kippers and chips, sweeping up broken crockery, shaking Norwegians’ hands, and always smiling, figures neatly tallied on a page by the stove; on the morning after all this, I walked with Mr. Morrissey down the road to the post office. He had a square parcel to deliver. I was carrying the parcel. The sun was dusty on the fields, but the sky was streaked with dark, thin clouds. I kept staring up at them, as we walked. The storm was moving toward us. I kept turning from the road to its approach through the light.

Don’t fall in the ditch, Mr. Morrissey said. Looking for rainbows?

I hadn’t even thought of rainbows. I glanced at Mr. Morrissey and then I looked back toward the sky, and this time I really did stumble and almost fall into a ditch. But there were no rainbows in the slanting afternoon, just columns of black cloud, and sunbeams.

Mr. Morrissey said, In Italy, there’s a rainbow festival. In a valley outside Siena. Near Grosseto.

A festival?

It’s in a village on the slope of a hill. Paluo. Opalo. Palermo. Not Palermo. Something like that. The sea’s nearby. The village looks out onto three mountaintops. And in the spring, in May, rainbows all gang together. They crowd the sky around the village. One front moves in, another departs. Like a crossroads. You’ll see six, seven, eight rainbows, shifting over the course of a day.

In one place, I said.

In Italy.

When it was time for Mr. Morrissey to leave our house for the last time, I helped him carry his trunk. Mr. Morrissey stood in the door, saying goodbye to some of the other men and saying goodbye to my mother. I glimpsed her, just, standing midway down the stairs. She had a basket under her arm. I didn’t hear what they said to each other, but when Mr. Morrissey turned, he seemed stiff and distant, and he did not look at me as we made our way down the road to the pier.

Illustration by Kinomi

Later, as I watched from the dock, Mr. Morrissey’s schooner caught a full head of wind.

Take care of yourself, he shouted.

Alright, I said.

And of your mother!

Yes, I said.

Maybe I’ll be back for your turn at the herring-gutting.

Or the rainbow festival, I shouted.

Or the what?

Or the—I said. He was too far away. I waved. I yelled as loud as I could, Goodbye!

When I went back to the house, Mother was in the garden, putting seeds in the ground.

II

I had decided that Mr. Morrissey was my father, but it was many months until I told my mother. I sat at school and wondered in which ways I was like him, and looked at the lines of my knuckles, and when I was at supper I would feel Mother watching me and consider whether she knew that I knew. I remember feeling the secret in the house, like a new cat, and not being certain if it was my secret or hers.

I asked her on Christmas morning, as we sat in the cold with bowls of ambrosia. This was our Christmas tradition, bowls of shredded coconut and oranges, angels’ food. I do not know where she got the oranges, the coconut, in Malin. But this was what we ate on Christmas mornings, with teaspoons.

I said, Was Mr. Morrissey my father?

Her gaze fell to mine. It was not a gaze I had imagined, rehearsing this conversation. It was confused, clear.

Who?

Jim Morrissey.

Who is that, she said.

He stayed with us this summer.

I saw her remember him. I ignored this.

No, she said.

No he’s not?

Mother’s cheeks were flecked. No, Christopher, he’s not.

Are you lying to me?

She straightened then. I saw her teeth between her lips.

Evenly, she said, You know who your father was.

I waited.

She stared. Then she realized I was waiting and I saw her suddenly angry at me. She clenched her fists. Your father was Fionn Sean Hurley, she said. Her voice was like flint. Not Jim Morrissey, not some man who stayed in this house. Your father was Fionn Sean Hurley, and he was a good man born in this town and he died at sea, Christopher, when you were one year old.

And you threw his ring into the sea, I said.

And I threw our ring into the sea, she said, in a hard voice.

I must have held in my face that particular childish skepticism, cruel and unashamed.

He was your father and I am your mother, she said, swallowing, glass in her eyes. There is no secret.

So he was not my father. The delusion left me and gradually I forgot that I had ever even held this idea, that I had ever questioned Fionn Sean Hurley’s photograph beside the stove, his nose like my nose. What stayed with me was not, in the end, Jim Morrissey, but the image he painted, blithely, as we walked from my house to the place where they took the mail. Months later, I had stopped imagining Jim’s lope. But I dreamed of a village in Italy, near three mountains, and of rainbows.

Mother told me to save up. If you want to go to this festival, she said, you need to save enough money to get us there.

How much money is that? I asked.

Lots and lots, she said, smiling. She rubbed away a spot on my cheek.

She said, If you want something badly you always have to save up.

So I decided to save up. I was at that age when you will chase a whim, indefatigable. I tended to my schoolwork and then in the late afternoon I ran down to the pier, scampered all over, caught thrown ropes and made quick knots and took pressed coins from the sailors. Thank you sir, I said. Thank you kindly. I carried messages. I took errands. I made myself useful.

Every night, when I came back to the house, I dropped my earnings into a jam jar. Slowly, the jar filled up. I asked my mother for another jar, and another, and another.

By the time of the next herring-gutting festival, there were five jars full of coins on my little table.

Is it enough? I asked. She smoothed the hair on my head. No, she said, softly, admiringly. Not yet.

I was not dissuaded. I worked through the festival, hustled, sold flat skipping stones I collected on the beach. Malin’s finest skipping stones! I shouted. Skip with the best!

It continued after the festival ended; when I wasn’t at the schoolhouse, when I wasn’t helping my mother at home, I was on the planks of the pier, dodging gulls.

Four seasons passed.

When they next lined up the tables along the water, and the barrels for fish guts, I called Mother into my room. I must have had twenty jam jars arrayed on the floor. I gathered them together in a circle.

I asked, Is it enough to go to Italy?

And she seemed surprised—surprised that this was still my question, after so long. She looked at my child’s fortune. Am I almost there? I asked. Mother grasped her elbows. She was counting, I think, making quick sums. Then she wasn’t counting anymore. Her shoulders fell and she laid a hand on my shoulder. Oh, Chris, she said, with disappointment in lines on her face. No. No, it’s not.

I said, Okay.

I said, Okay, well, I’d better get back to work.

I do not know what it was that moved her in that moment. Perhaps it was my childish naïveté, or the seriousness of my dreaming. Perhaps it was pity for the poverty of my treasure. I think it was my persistence. Her only son wishing, and keeping wishing, and keeping keeping wishing. Her husband’s son, never giving up.

Mother persisted through the herring-gutting festival, our house full of strangers. She competed in the women’s contest, and did not win. I sold skipping stones. I helped her steam men’s collars and polish their shoes. I crouched by the radio and then sold news to the tourists.

After the festival was over, my mother began working late for Mr. Lowry. I was young, I did not understand these changes. I thought this was simply what was happening, what had to happen. I didn’t realize until later that it had been a choice.

All autumn, she worked. All winter. And finally one morning, as the sky criss-crossed with Vs of birds, Mr. Lowry came up to the house. Mother was expecting him. She brought him into the parlour. She had taken the tablecloth off my father’s trunk. She opened the lid and showed Mr. Lowry Fionn Sean Hurley’s maps, his good suit, his silver pocket watch. A pair of fine shoes, made in England. A dusty framed photograph, of a woman I did not recognize. A certificate from the bank.

So? my mother said.

Mr. Lowry named an amount of money.

For the trunk, too, she said.

He glanced at me. He named a higher amount.

Can you do any better? she said.

Mr. Lowry cupped his cheek in his hand. I’m sorry, Sue.

Well, go on then, she said, and she turned and went out of the room.

Christopher, help Mr. Lowry carry it home.

She sold my father’s things and then she booked our travel to Italy.

III

We went together by train and ferry and ferry and train, past châteaux, lakes, forests cloaked in night. We changed trains in stations the size of Malin, with platforms like boulevards, clock towers, kiosks that sold fresh bananas and salted caramels. I slept with my head on my mother’s shoulder and she slept with her head against her neighbour, or against the window, rails clacking, and I dreamed of grey birds on the beach, rapping mussels against stones.

In Bellefontaine, we stepped out of the train and walked to the end of the platform and you could see the Winter Palace on the hill, like a suspended iceberg. Mother pointed at shapes on a map. There is Malin, she said, and here is where we are.

Where is Siena? I said.

She searched for a few moments.

There, she said.

Siena, I read aloud. Have you ever been there?

Mother laughed. No.

She was smiling, smiling so wide. She pointed at a place west of Siena, on the coast, where there was no name. Opalo, she said. That is where we are going.

How do you know?

I found out, Christopher. The valley of Opalo, near Grosseto. Near Siena.

Thank you for letting me go, I said.

She said, We are going together.

In Souvrin, there was a brass band on the platform, welcoming a dignitary.

A traveller in a brown suit taught me to play hearts. We balanced the cards on our knees. Between Lyon and Geneva I do not think I looked up from the cards’ faces, queens and kings, and I felt like a grown man.

At the border into Italy, a woman with an olive uniform, stars on her epaulettes, came into the compartment. She looked at our papers. Why are you coming to Italy? she asked. She seemed so stern.

It’s a holiday, my mother said.

Where are you going?

To Opalo.

Where is that?

Near Siena, I said.

Mother looked at me.

Why are you going to this place? asked the woman.

For the rainbow festival, I said.

Now my mother looked at me again, in a way that said I should keep from talking.

A rainbow festival? This time the guard was not addressing both of us, only my mother.

Yes, my mother said.

Wait here, said the guard. She went outside the compartment.

Then the woman came back and returned our papers and I saw Mother take a deep breath, and the woman said, Enjoy your trip.

There are mountains on three sides of the Opalo Valley and their names are Monte Rosa, Monte di Sogni, and Monte Nicolo Peli. Monte di Sogni and Monte Nicolo Peli stand facing one another, two jagged peaks wreathed in cloud. Monte Rosa, to the west, is smaller. It separates Opalo from the sea. Monte Rosa is made of pink granite and it seems to draw the clouds in from the coast, seems to draw them and then point them to the other mountains, Monte di Sogni and Monte Nicolo Peli, which pin the clouds to the sky.

To enter Opalo, you come from the east, from Grosseto, along a flat, white, winding road, like a ribbon.

Monte di Sogni and Monte Nicolo Peli are wreathed in cloud, and yet when my mother and I arrived in the Opalo Valley, their summits were barren. There were no clouds. The air was brisk and clear and dew lay on the mountainsides. Four cows maundered in a sandy field. The roofs of the cottages were all eggshell blue and roosters prowled like garlanded knights. The sign at the inn said BAR ARCOBALENO / BIRRA / VINO / CAMERE / ROOMS.

As the car that brought us putted away, I carried our suitcases across the threshold.

Mother had written a letter and a room was waiting for us, reserved, on the second floor. There were two single beds, a writing desk, an incongruous chandelier. A narrow window looked out over the village to where Monte Rosa and Monte di Sogni touched, a place called Lightning Pass. We kept our clothes in a battered cabinet that had tatters of dry leaves in the corners of the drawers.

We unpacked our things and came downstairs. I was wearing a cap and Mother was wearing a dress.

Excuse me, sir, Mother said, to the man who was drying pint glasses behind the bar. The innkeeper was one of the two people in Opalo who spoke English. She asked, When does the festival begin?

He looked at her.

He said, It is late.

It is late?

He continued drying the glass.

The festival is late?

He put down the glass.

Yes.

Oh. Mother’s mouth was a short line. She gazed toward the doorway, where the green hills lay framed, and after a moment she turned to look again at the innkeeper. But what do you mean it is late?

He had a kind face but not a giving face, with neatly trimmed whiskers. He examined us. He said: The rainbow festival begins when the rainbows come. He said: They are late.

We were not the only visitors waiting for it to begin: First there was Paolo, a graduate student from the University of Rome. He was staying in a room at the back of the mayor’s house. He had short dark hair, eyes the colour of robins’ eggs; he had come to study the festival. This jamboree goes back to the Romans, he told me on one of our first afternoon walks. You know that, Chris?

There were two sets of honeymooners, from Grosseto, staying with us at the inn. There was an old man—a widower, Paolo said—from Yugoslavia; he had hired a shed near the goat farm. And there were three sisters, all young mothers, who had not booked a place to stay. We watched them going back and forth among the houses of the village, that first day, with babies in their arms, until a retired colonel took pity on them and let them take over his house, like daughters returning from a long voyage. Two of the sisters were from Bologna and one, the youngest, lived in Firenze. Her name was Sofia.

Their husbands are working, Mother explained to me.

It was the third or fourth day. She and Sofia had bonded as they admired the mayor’s garden; somehow they overcame their language barrier and related their life stories. The men were all working, and in a way, maybe, had not been invited: the sisters had come to Opalo for a getaway, and to reconnect, like old times. Reconnect what? I asked.

Their hearts, I suppose, Mother said.

She befriended Sofia and I befriended Paolo. We needed friends after a few days of wandering the village. Opalo was not interested in its visitors. It did not even seem very interested in its weather. It came to be that every morning, the eleven tourists (and the sisters’ three infants) would gather in a line outside the inn and squint at the horizon, seeking colours. Sometimes the babies would be crying and sometimes they would be held to their mothers’ breasts, nursing, and sometimes the old man from Yugoslavia would cough and cough into a grey handkerchief, like he was expelling bad luck.

Sometimes the Italians would make small talk and Mother and I would stand in silence, uncomprehending.

Inevitably, after a little while, the honeymooners would go back inside.

A week passed.

I liked Paolo because he treated me like I was older. We tramped through the wildflower fields and jumped the schist slabs across the creek, and he showed me how to dig up the roots of runno plants, to eat the minty, crunchy bulbs. He wore a barometer and a thermometer attached to his belt. When Paolo spoke of Rome, it was a great grey machine full of whirling parts. It was impossible and fast. He described nightclubs and cinemas, streets crowded with motorcycles, girls who tottered through ancient ruins in high-heeled shoes. To me they were stories of an undiscovered life, sounds and touches I was only beginning to be able to imagine. Camera flashes, snakes, pantyhose.

One afternoon we hiked to Lightning Pass, where there was no lightning, and when we turned a corner on the sandy path we suddenly came upon a patch of snow. It was a white triangle in the shadow of a boulder, about as wide as my arms. I had never seen snow like this: staying, on the ground. Can I touch it? I murmured.

Paolo shrugged. Do what you want. He was recording the temperature, which was a thing he often did.

I knelt in the earth, at the edge of the triangle, and I spread out my fingers without touching anything, just feeling the cold that rose in thin wisps, like steam, like forgetting, the snow’s breath lifting up through my fingers into sky.

Eleven degrees Celsius, Paolo said, in the sun.

The old man from Yugoslavia was the first to leave. As I was coming in one evening I saw the wagon departing, up the road. There was dust everywhere. The man was sitting on the back, legs swinging. He waved. His name was Sammy. Goodbye! I shouted. Sammy reached into his pocket and threw a fanning handful of sunflower seeds.

At supper, sipping her soup, Mother said, You’ll see: the rainbows will come tomorrow.

They didn’t come tomorrow. They didn’t come the next day. Lightning Pass was bare. Almost two weeks had elapsed since the festival was due to begin. Birds moved in the spaces where rainbows were supposed to bend. Then on the fifteenth day, in the morning, clouds were suddenly roaring in from the north and south. We were all grinning at each other, the tourists; even the three babies seemed to be smiling. But Paolo’s smile had faded by noon. The rain is supposed to come from the west, he said, across Monte Rosa. The western sky was the one place you could still see blue.

Maybe it’ll come later.

Paolo pursed his lips. Si. Maybe.

It rained. Paolo finally taught me backgammon. We sat in the inn, in the dark. Mother and Sofia were silhouetted in the window. The valley was smeared green behind them. The room felt humid, staticky, and I was excited. We were all excited. The rain would clear, the blue strip of sky would still be there, the sun would streak through, and rainbows, rainbows, rainbows.

The innkeeper came in from the kitchen. He straightened some chairs. He opened the inn’s heavy front door. Two of the visiting honeymooners were squared in the distance, under the downpour, tilting at each other. We all looked. The innkeeper clicked his tongue. Festival season, Paolo muttered dryly. The innkeeper shook his head no. Not today.

What? I said.

Not today, he repeated.

He was correct. It rained and rained for two days and when the deluge finally lifted, it was the middle of the night. There were no rainbows. We had been in Opalo for eighteen days. The quartet of honeymooners ordered a car and went back to Grosseto.

How long will you stay? Paolo asked me.

I said I didn’t know. That night I lay in bed and Mother was in the bed beside me, and I wanted to ask her this question. I imagined my voice travelling a short, invisible arc to where she lay. It was beginning to rain again. I turned my head to watch the valley outside the window. You could see only the front of the mayor’s house, illuminated with an electric light bulb. There was no lightning in Lightning Pass. I imagined the triangle of snow, drained away by days of rain.

In the morning, when I was tying my shoes, Mother asked, Do you want to stay?

Yes, I said at once.

Alright, she said, after a moment.

I caught her looking at us in the mirror.

The sisters and their infants departed before the end of the week. Sofia apologized to my mother. She had tried to change her sisters’ minds, she said, but the babies were too irritable, the Opalo colonel wanted his house back. And their husbands were waiting. Sofia, tanned and willowy, with long blond lashes, kissed Mother on both her cheeks. I very sorry, she said.

I understand, Mother said.

Sofia ruffled my hair. Monte Nicolo Peli lay on the horizon like an arrowhead.

The innkeeper took me out to see the henhouse. Are there years where the festival doesn’t happen? I asked him.

Mmhmm, he said, pushing his fingers through straw.

Mother began working at the inn: peeling potatoes, cleaning dishes, sweeping. I worried that it was because she was bored, that she wanted to leave; in the mornings I tried to cajole her into walks and I pressed her with questions about her feelings. Do you like the inn? I said. Did you sleep well? I even suggested that it would be alright to leave, if she wanted, before the rainbows came. But Paolo was the one who made me realize why she was waking up early, dusting the mantel at an inn where we were two of the only guests. On a brisk afternoon, one of those moments that you abruptly become a little older, turning a corner. Is your family rich? he asked. We were hanging around near the well.

What? No.

I—I didn’t think so, Paolo said. I just wondered. You know.

What do you mean?

This is an expensive holiday! He grinned. Not everyone can afford a month in Tuscany, just hanging about.

I replied, matter-of-fact, We sold my father’s things.

Paolo took out his notebook. Must have had some nice things.

For the first time, that night, I saw the list of prices above the mirror at the bar. I saw the purse that Mother had left out, on top of our cabinet. This is a world of costs. The innkeeper brought in a bag of brown fish and Mother gutted them for him, at the high wooden cutting board. Each fish is a coin, I thought.

Me, my mother, and Paolo stood outside the Arcobaleno, where the sky was clear and white, and the mountaintops were unhidden, and the sun shone coldly.

I am tired of always wearing the same two pairs of trousers, Paolo said.

One of Opalo’s residents was kneeling in her garden, collecting tomatoes from vines. She scowled at us.

The pressure keeps rising, Paolo said. I’m leaving. I’ll find another thesis. Or I’ll wait for next year.

Mother was watching us. Alright, I said. I did not believe him.

He went back to the mayor’s house, to look over his notes.

Come on then, Mother said.

The next day I stood in Paolo’s room as he packed up his suitcases, gathered his papers. The mayor’s going to drive me this evening, he said. I’ve already wasted so much time on this thing.

I guess that’s true, I said. The sun was shining out the window. Earlier he had proposed that we go on one last hike to Lightning Pass; now he was preoccupied with thoughts of Rome. He talked to me about his housemate, who was messy and liked to throw parties. I bet the house is a goat pen, he said. I should move out.

Yes, I said.

Do you want the backgammon set? Paolo said.

To keep?

You can teach the other kids back in Malin.

Okay, I said.

He was folding a coat. With his foot, he skidded the wooden box across the floor.

Thanks Paolo.

Prego bambino, he said.

There was no hike. Paolo had an early supper with us at the inn, and he drank two beers, and then we all went together to wait for the mayor to come with his car. The sun was a low orange orb and the sky was lavender. The fields seemed like they were made of brass. Paolo put his suitcases in the boot of the mayor’s little Fiat. He kissed my mother on both cheeks and kissed me on both cheeks and waved. He got into the car. It went away down the road, under Monte di Sogni.

Mother and I stayed in Opalo for one more week and then we went home.

I said I was sorry. At the border between Italy and France, in a lonely train car, idling.

She lifted her eyes from her book.

Her look was soft but there was something stern in the rest of her face, her lips and brows and the skin around her eyes.

Don’t be sorry, she said.

But I am sorry.

Don’t be sorry. There is nothing to be sorry about.

We didn’t even see one rainbow, in all that time.

It doesn’t matter, she said.

We waited for so long. We spent so much money. When you think about it, we weren’t even waiting. In the end. All those weeks—we weren’t even waiting. It’s not waiting when what you’re waiting for doesn’t happen.

Of course we were waiting, mother said.

It wasn’t waiting, I persisted. Hanging around expecting something, when that thing doesn’t ever come—that’s not waiting; that’s wasting your time.

No, she said.

Yes, I said, almost shouting.

Her mouth twitched. She turned her gaze to look out the window, at the still autumn trees. Then we’ll have to disagree, she said.

IV

The episode in Opalo stayed with me. Of course it stayed with me.

Upon our return to Malin, the village seemed like a more minor place.

Sometimes my mother talked about Italian plums, the three sisters with their babies. As I grew older, I wished I had been old enough to have a camera, to have brought a camera, to have photographs of the journey and the destination.

My mother always hated cameras.

I rode in friends’ cars up and down the coast, past the lighthouses, to strange pubs and darkened beaches.

I went away to school.

Near the end of college, I made a film about Opalo and the festival. We shot it in Susan’s cellar, in miniature, with cotton batting and little mirrors.

When I finally visited Rome, for an exhibition at the Carlo Bilotti, I searched for Paolo. I failed to find him. Paolo, my meteorologist. He is out there somewhere.

Then recently I was sitting with my mother in the hospital where she has lived for the past four years. It is noisy and quiet there, with stillness in the curtains, with alarms. Nurses stand laughing beside their trolleys. Televisions squawk in the lounge. Patients’ paper slippers shush down the corridor. When I visit Mother, we sit peacefully in her little room. It’s a good room, I think. There is green in the window and a real light, not fluorescent.

Mother has forgotten her life so she is mostly silent when I sit with her. She listens. We eat sandwiches and I tell her about my past few days, or the weather, or about parts of the news. I talk to her about the people in my life, and my envy for certain other photographers. Most of the time she stares at her lap, but when she looks at me, her brown eyes are sharp and clear, vivid. They seem to understand everything. Oh Christopher, she says, whenever I arrive. No matter anything else, this would keep me coming.

Oh Christopher.

Two days ago, I watched raindrops roll across her window. It was humid inside, like summer. It is only spring.

I smoothed my hand over her hand. Do you remember the festival? I said.

The silence was like a raft sitting on the water.

Do you remember the festival, Mama?

Again, for a moment, she didn’t show any reaction. She went on staring at her long fingers. Then she raised her head and looked at me; her face had come alive, those brown eyes, and her chin wobbled.

She said, We’d open those rainbows right up.

I think about how one afternoon she will not say, Oh Christopher, and she will simply gaze at me, and what will I do.

This appeared in the June 2016 issue.

Sean Michaels (@stgramophone) won the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his debut novel, Us Conductors. He writes about music for Believer magazine, the Guardian, and his Montreal blog, Said the Gramophone.

Kinomi produces mixed-media art for Reader’s Digest and Today’s Parent , among others.

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