Again, again, the child cried, the strained sounds of its anguish rolling up from an apartment somewhere deep in the rankled bowels of the building, just as it had every day for months without without ease. The noise echoed along the spiral stairwell like the song of some eldritch instrument, sinister in its apex, desolate in its lowest moans.
Often Lia had gone about, door to door, intent on seeking out the mother of the infant, whom she felt sure must be neglecting the poor creature for it to cry all hours of the day and night. But no one ever answered her calls, and every time she ran along a balcony or up a set of white and green marble steps the child’s cry dwindled away, seeming to come from some opposite direction.
The sound ate at Lia’s sleep with a diabolical hunger, and—being a painter, working from home—she was scarcely able to set brush to canvas through lack of concentration. Even music or television failed to mask the din entirely, for in between snatches of dialogue or melody Lia would hear the unmistakable keening and thrust her aching head into her hands.
Many times she’d written to her landlord, whom she rarely saw, receiving no reply, and once she’d accosted a custodian, chasing him under a bower of ivy spilling, unchecked, from a balcony to ask if he knew the source of the cries. The man had looked back over his shoulder with a blank disinterest, and rattled the bucket in his hand.
“Got work,” he’d said, and turned to mop an unidentifiable black stain from someone’s doorstep.
Lia’s neighbours were equally unhelpful. Many of the apartments around her own lay empty, bought and abandoned by the rich to gain in creeping value, and any residents that Lia did encounter were either eccentric to the point of uselessness, or else so brusque that they swept by her in the corridors as though she were not there. None of them seemed perturbed by the endless noise; perhaps they ignored it, or had grown used to it, unable, for one reason or another, to move away.
Lia couldn’t understand it. Often she felt close to tears herself, whether through frustration or a hormonal, empathic response to distressed young. She herself had never wanted to be parent; her childhood had been compressed into an abstract, feral loneliness, much of it spent walking up and down unfriendly streets while her mother filled the house with vague-eyed strangers.
Distant, there was the memory of being an infant, herself, left to scream in a room that smelled rankly of cigarettes and ammonia. But, then, perhaps Lia had only conjured up this fragment, a mirror-piece of the nameless child whose wails would never cease.
It wound Lia into its sadness, with it; this, at least, she could paint, but nothing more. Her work—canvas after canvas of it—reflected the building, as seen on her wanderings around it: cracked, pale stone, unwelcoming doors, all of them closed, the elusive shaft between the flats, narrowing down to the lobby below, seeming longer, somehow, than it should have been.
There were times Lia thought of the infant’s cry as the voice of the Rimanere building, which had fallen from a once majestic beauty into one of raddled yearning. From this she knew she’d been inside too long, and attempted, at internals, to leave, on walks and errands, to meet friends for lunch, or coffee, or in galleries for this exhibition, or another.
But she disliked the distance in the expressions of these acquaintances, their cautious voices. It repelled them from her.
Were Lia to sell a painting or two perhaps she could have moved away, into the city, perhaps, or else closer to the sea, a boundless mercy of inspiration. But what was purchased —the odd sketch, or print, here and there—gathered so little income that she was only able to feed herself, and pay her rent, and was, thus, forced to endure that constant cry.
Sometimes, in shameful desperation, Lia imagined putting at end to it, dashing the wretched creature at the bottom of a stairwell, horrifying herself with this and other hypothetical evils. Other times she imagined rocking the child to sleep, singing to it, badly, as she had yearned her own mother would do.
Most days she only wished that the child did not exist at all, and never had, a paradox neither kind nor cruel.
One afternoon, as she sipped a glass of wine and stared, unenthused, at another half-finished canvas Lia was alerted by a call to her apartment from the lobby— an irregularity, being that visitors seldom came by, if at all.
Her mother-in-law came up to the door, having persisted, after a laborious divorce, to keep contact, whether through malice or a peculiar sense of duty Lia could not say. Poala—a dark, preserved beauty in her early sixties—made the room seem particularly drab, or else more glamorous for her presence. She always stood too close when she talked, and her perfume lingered in the air when she left like a pungent haunting.
This time Lia felt convinced that Paola would never go. Like the cry, she was a thing that could not be refused, the source of a myriad of feelings Lia had little interest in unravelling from their coil.
“You look unwell,” Paola announced. “But the weight loss does suit you.”
Often she said things, at random, that might be harsh, or well-meaning, being that anything she said was abraded, through lack of inflection, into statements of mystifying intent.
“You haven’t seen Daniele,” she said, a not-question.
Lia turned her coffee cup about in her hands, wondering dully when it had chipped.
“Daniele?” she repeated. “Not for a year.”
She spoke the name as she might that of an acquaintance, flatly, without interest.
Paola upturned her arms, a great many expensive bracelets ringing along their slenderness like fairy death knells.
“I’ve told him to come here,” she said, “that you should talk. I’ve said that it wasn’t your fault, that there were two of you, after all, but it’s no good, with Daniele. If you’d been more emotional— well, I’ve said that isn’t your fault, either; something chemical. But he never listens.”
“No,” Lia agreed. “He never did.”
She sat as far across the room from the older woman as was politely feasible, yet somehow Paola was right beside her again almost at once, a stifling weight.
The sound of the unknown neighbour’s child crying was, obscurely, a welcome distraction, unmooring Lia from the room Her mind passed through the walls, like a mist.
“And you don’t speak to anyone, about it,” said Paola, emphatically. “No doctors.”
But there had been one, a therapist, months ago, an over-smiling caricature of a woman from whom Lia had excused herself before the session had reached its end, feeling soiled and shaken by the suggestion of so many thoughts that had never been hers to begin with.
“So,” said Paola, “you just paint.”
“It is my job,” Lia replied, plainly.
By now Paola was standing up, looking at the new canvas with unstirring eyes, that surely could not appreciate art at all, and yet were simultaneously acute to the point that Lia wished she’d thought to cover the painting with a sheet before letting her in.
There was a pause as Paola looked at it, a delicious mercy.
“It’s the view of the main stairwell in the building,” said Lia, helpfully, “as though you were looking down at it, from above.”
Paola shook her head.
“It’s a mouth. I see it clearly.”
She spoke as though correcting an obvious fact. Lia sighed inwardly.
“That’s not what it’s meant to be.”
Yet as she looked at her own work over Paola’s shoulder she saw, distinctly, the way the shadows playing on the red carpet at the bottom of the staircase resembled a tongue, that the incomplete brushstrokes of the circular balconies around each floor gathered like teeth in narrow jaws. Lia had not planned this symbolism, and that unnerved her.
What had she impressed upon her other works, unknowing?
“If you want to make money then you should paint landscapes,” Paola declared. “That’s what people like to buy, these days. Simple, pretty. These things—”
She gestured at the easel, and at the other pieces on the walls.
“Dark,” she said, decisively. “No one wants to be depressed.”
“I suppose they don’t.”
Lia tried to think of excuses for Paola to leave. An appointment, perhaps, although this would likely only invite another volley of abrupt interrogation. She set about tidying away the coffee cups, instead, rattling them at the sink with pointed glances towards the door.
Paola hovered around the kitchenette, impervious to every hint.
“It’s a shame, you and Daniele. You let him leave too easily.”
“Yes,” said Lia, for she had, and felt nothing much about it either way except the recognition of absence, the fact that she, at last, lived alone.
“I’ve always thought he might have stayed,” said Paola, “if you’d had another.”
“A baby, Lia. Another baby, after Salvatore.”
Lia shut off the water and stood quietly, thinking. With a floating coldness she recalled when there had, indeed, been a child, that she had not wanted, but that Daniele had made her keep, an usurper of peace, of time, of her own flesh.
Lia hadn’t loved the red, vicious face that had ripped at her breast as she ailed in bed, after birthing it. Nor had she hated it, recognising its innocence, its harmlessness, shrapnel in all of this. The creature was a duty to be catered to, like a houseplant, watered into smothering growth.
Daniele wasn’t good with the child, or at least claimed not to be. When at home he little bothered with the boy, waiting impatiently for him to become a miniature of himself. Frequently Daniele was away, at work, or else hankering for a fuck as though Lia were not worn and sore from dandling the child at hip and breast from dawn til dusk, and all hours in between. Lia felt as detached from him as a fruit dropped from some ripe tree, bruised, and hollowed out by the canker of worms.
This was all that she felt, for a very long time.
Lia couldn’t recall exactly what it meant to be happy or sad, or if she had ever really experienced these emotions at all. Sometimes she thought that she must have only played them out for herself, and others, the amphitheatre of existence; more likely she was a somnambulist, convinced of her own wakefulness through the perpetuity of borderless night.
It went on, this dreaming existence, until, with a start, Daniele seemed to notice it for the first time, and looked at Lia obliquely, as though he did not know her, which, in fact, he never had.
There came a day their child had cried for so long and at such a pitch that Lia stood up within her living sleep and said, “Hold him. I have to go somewhere.”
“Go where?” Daniele had demanded, in selfish outrage, but Lia had simply gone out of the door and walked out, leaving the man alone with his son.
She didn’t leave for long, nor did she walk far, only around the many winding corridors of the Rimanere, down to the strange little water garden where residents would sometimes read, or walk their pets. Here Lia had sat on a bench and watched a fountain, observing the mundane marvel of tumbling silver from its spout, unaware that she was at peace.
Then she had gone back up to the apartment again, and as she opened her handbag to look for her keys she realised, with a slow shock, that her son’s cries had ended.
He must have fallen asleep at last, she’d thought; later, when a doctor had come to look at the little blue body in Daniele’s arms, it was explained that Salvatore had died, quite suddenly, without known cause, as infants of his age sometimes did. But it wasn’t the sight of the pale corpse that had drawn Lia up from her wandering slumber, nor her husband’s roaring hysterics: it was death’s taking away of so short and simple a relief, the notion of a sleeping child.
Lia wasn’t sure that she’d ever begun to mourn. Not at the funeral, where she’d stood, dry-eyed, over a coffin as small as a lantern, nor afterwards, when Daniele had struck her for her perceived coldness, anguish contorting his features like something daubed by Edvard Munch.
Where other feelings returned grief would not come to Lia, a foreigner whose face she’d never seen. Now, standing with at the kitchenette with soap suds congealing on her hands there was a new emotion, hot, and trembling, and strong.
“I’d like you to go now, please,” said Lia, without turning around. “I’m tired.”
“Well,” said Paola.
She lingered, and Lia rounded on her, striding for the door. Her arm seemed to force it open with a force detached from her body, the handle denting the wall.
At this the older woman looked suddenly taut, and unpleasant, her beauty quelled.
“Well,” she said, again, and went away like a cat turned out in the rain, her nose held high.
When Paola had gone Lia stood still, for a moment, feeling at her brow, as though she might take the temperature of that sudden anger, and determine it an illness.
The unfinished picture stared at her from the easel, oddly personified by Paola’s critique. Lia couldn’t bear the thought of finishing it, nor even painting over the image, knowing the ambiguous ugliness beneath. On a whim she seized the canvas under one arm and carried it out of the apartment, feeling the same repulsion touching it as one might holding a live spider.
With a jerking reflex she threw it from her, and with a disembodied voyeurism observed as it sailed over the balcony opposite her apartment. Lia rushed quickly to the side, fearing that the canvas might strike some hapless neighbour wandering in the lobby, far below. Yet as she looked down the painting was only caught in the ever-expanding net of ivy that had been allowed to seep throughout the building, as though the plant had thought to save the image, for its own.
Lia’s hands, on the cold marble rail, were shaking. She had always endured a certain vertigo looking down from this vantage point, and now it was overwhelming, carrying her away with the stupid fear that she might vault helplessly over the balcony’s edge, against her will, as so many things in life had taken her.
It was as she stepped away from the railing that Lia was struck by the quiet of the Rimanere, not merely an absence of sound, but the unmaking of it. The child’s scream was gone, and Lia couldn’t pinpoint when exactly it had ended, whether it had done so abruptly, or simply trailed away.
Lia cried out, the noise carrying across the building, engulfing the void of doors and stone. She found herself seized by an abundance of squabbling terrors—that the anonymous infant had died, that someone had taken it away—before an understanding came to her, gliding in with the inevitability of the sea returning to the shore.
Slowly Lia sat down upon the floor and wept, embedding her voice into the silence, and as she swayed amongst its echoes it was as though the Rimanere itself was singing to her, soothing her to sleep.