Kids coming out of the woodworkBy
I love the fact that this neighborhood is running over with children, like some cosmic bathtub.
Contrary to the Italian national average birthrate, which at 1.37 per woman is almost the lowest in the European Union (only Spain and Greece are lower), here in the heart of darkest Castello offspring are definitely not produced in fractions. I suppose they are seen as — well, I’m not sure what. Necessary? Fun? Inevitable? Normal? Probably all of these, and more.
In the morning, all is effervescence and charm; the little urchins are full of high spirits as they set off to conquer the world. Toward afternoon, though, the scene turns darker. Something happens to those shining little angels, tousled, chirping, frolicking, laughing in twinkly little voices, beings that can make you want to have a dozen just because they are the concentrated essence of happy-to-be-alive-on-Earth-with-youness.
As 5:00 PM slinks toward you, Things Change. It is the Hour of the Crying Child. You hear crying in the distance, or even nearby, as the little people begin to troop homeward, often goaded by their intolerant and domineering older siblings. (Yes, they have siblings here. It’s great.)
The crying, or screaming, or incoherent baby-vulture-like screeching, gets closer and closer, and as it approaches it also gets louder and more grating. Often it is lubricated with angry, exhausted, exasperated, helpless tears, the kind the kid can’t turn off even as they overwhelm him or her. The kind that gets ratcheted up with each attempt, increasingly harsh, by its adults to bring the hysteria to a halt.
A little boy was crying like this the other day as he and his entourage passed along the fondamenta across the canal from us. It was a sound somewhere between a shriek and a whine, more temper than pain, and was definitely under his complete control. It was that “I’m going to punish you till you snap” noise that you know he can keep up for hours, if need be, that stops being about anything other than itself.
I was heading over the bridge toward him, to do some errands. Two American girls crossed the bridge, coming toward me. As they passed, I heard one say to the other, “I’m never having kids.”
I went down the other side. Standing at the bottom of the bridge were three little old ladies — they’re always in three, like the Weird Sisters in Macbeth. As I passed, I heard one say to the others, in Venetian, “We always had a smile on our faces. Always.” Of course she was referring to the Golden Age, when she was the little boy’s age and life was hard but happy and people were simple and honest and children were perfect.
Yeah, right. Everybody was ready with a comment, no matter how irrational. I choked off the temptation to turn around and shout at all of them, “You’re lucky your mother isn’t here now!”
Late yesterday afternoon I was headed toward via Garibaldi at the Moment of the Swarming Children (when they all obey some primal signal and come out to, well, swarm), a festive interlude which briefly precedes the Hour of the Crying Child.
As I was walking along the fondamenta, I saw a little blonde girl, maybe four years old, standing at the railing looking into the water of the canal. Her mother and a couple of her female friends were standing near her but involved in hashing over whatever needed to be hashed. Meanwhile, the girl was transfixed, staring down.
As I passed by, curious to glimpse what she was looking at, her older brother went over to her. He might have been seven. She looked up at him and I heard her say two words: “E’ morto.” It’s dead. A pensive little voice stating a simple little fact.
It was a pigeon, floating in the water. I had a strange rustic impulse to say “Great! One less! That leaves only about ten billion to go.” But I didn’t. First, I try not to invite myself into other people’s lives, especially if I don’t know them (though via Garibaldi grants a lot of leeway for spontaneous badinage even among strangers).
But I couldn’t do it. Something in her voice had struck me. It wasn’t that she was sad, or repulsed, or anything you could identify with a single word, or even several words. She was standing there doing her best to grasp the fact that something which had been alive wasn’t alive anymore, and wasn’t ever going to be alive again. She made me feel strangely respectful.
I am sure that if I had said anything — anything at all — I would have made it worse. I think her brother sensed the same thing, because as long as I was in earshot, I didn’t hear him say one thing. They just stood there, looking down, waiting for their mother to stop talking.