The Darkness You Hold

(for Joseph Altobelli)

Imagine this: you are twenty-four years old and you long to take the world in your fingers. It’s yours for the taking. You know it’s yours, as you lie wide-awake in bed to watch the dawn spread like wonder across the sky. You watch until day fully blossoms, opening as gently as Giulia’s mouth, which yielded several weeks ago to your soft kisses.

Yes, the world is yours. You know it is, just as you know that the September morning light is gaining sway and the darkness that lingers is safely cached in the inset pocket of your black coat—a coat you bought with the extra pay you stashed away in August; a coat you purchased to impress Giulia; a coat that your Italian mother brushed clean while laughing and teasing you, her son who asks her to do these things.

Imagine. It’s not just the world that is yours: Giulia is too, and you long to hold her, to gaze into her soft eyes. You need touch her red lips just once more to be invincible. Three short months and yet you think this is the girl you will marry. So you slip the gleaming keys of your truck into the darkness you hold in your back pocket, sip coffee, and converse idly with your mother; you tell her about Giulia, whom you know your mother will love.

You are eager to be out in the world, yet you sip your coffee slowly. You linger because your mother is not always there in the mornings when you wake. While darkness still hovers over your home, she shakes off heavy sleep from her shoulders and leaves for the local bakery. Six days a week she kneads and pulls at dough, slips it into great ovens that glower like angry gods, smoking and threatening, until she rescues the golden, scented loaves. Today, she shares her philosophy of bread, tells you this is life: take the heat, for the results are rewarding. You know her optimism is rehearsed, held up as a puppet performance, for your benefit alone. You know she doesn’t feel such faith. She feels fear—especially for you. You nod, only half-listening, for you are eager to be out in the world.

Yes, you are eager. Oh God, yes: you are impatient to be in that truck, its immense steel bulk glowing in the driveway; that truck, which your mother dreads, its grime and traces of gasoline, its throaty growl and powerful surge when you start it, makes you seem invincible. That truck will be yours. It’s only a matter of time. Last night, your boss, Jeremy, ran his calloused hands over its steel grill, raised your sturdy arm to toss you his keys, and gruffly announced, “One last delivery”—the last one for the week, this Friday morning, before you see Giulia again. Oh yes, you are eager: to throw yourself into that truck, into the day, into your life, into the sunshine that streams through the kitchen window and gilds your mother’s profile, her hands, her coffee cup, and the wood table you bought for her, where you both sit.

You tell your mother about Giulia and about this truck she so fears because you know your mother dreads the darkness. She would keep you in the bakery to guard you. But no, the spark of machines fascinates you. So you tell her about your life to ease worries that run like electric currents in her hair, grey strands that have all but overtaken her fine black curls.

Il buio. There is darkness, everywhere,” she murmurs, pushing away those grey wisps as she would push away the darkness—firmly yet gently, because she’s Catholic and fears that too much light will bring as much darkness, or more. And also because she understands loss—for she has already lost her parents, a baby she never named, and her husband and your father, who died when you were too young to remember. And because she traversed two continents, faced one war, and a hunger more painful than patriotism, and because she worked her hands as dry as crusted earth to put food on the table in a country where people speak a language as unfamiliar as what they eat.

You enfold her compact body in your long arms before going because, God knows, you would hold the darkness away from her. You would bring her light. So you spend your money from your deliveries to buy her that wooden table, the very coffee you drink together, books she cannot read, and hairpins and scarves, which she saves for special occasions that almost never come.

You hold her an instant longer to take in the scent of fresh bread that lingers in her skin and hair, and to calm her fears—it is the last errand, and then you will see her at supper. And with Giulia too. Your mother smiles, and you know that she is pleased, yet feels the tugging loss that comes when an Italian mother must share her son’s love with someone else.

You believe, as you leap into the same truck that your mother fears and drives out of the city to make your delivery, that they will learn to love each other just because you love them both. As you reach the crest of a steep hill, you take in the impressive descent before you, a vertiginous landscape as expansive as your future. You notice, too, a cluster of children crossing the roadway at the lowermost point of the hill, where they are cheerfully oblivious of the claims that life makes. And as the truck picks up speed in its downward descent, you think of those children who have mothers like your own, and so you tap the brakes, gently, in sympathy with such mothers.

But the truck doesn’t slow down. Its gaining speed gives you a small, cold tremor. You push the brakes again, to their limit, until the darkness you thought you held in your inset pocket suddenly dims your vision. It is a moment that slows to a strange, precise, and almost unholy point of stillness, even as the speed of the truck sounds like shrill panic. Your calculation comes swiftly. Swerving one way or another means hurling the truck into the dark pools that are ditches on either side of the road; going straight means that darkness will overtake the lives of so many mothers, not just your own.

You think about Giulia’s red lips and your mother’s grey curls, and you consider that you may have a moment—a chance—to leap before the hurtling truck rolls and plunges into the ditch; you have a moment to consider the sorrow that is for a lifetime, the darkness you cannot hold, and the fact that, even as you take that chance to leap in the few seconds left of your life, that darkness will overwhelm you.

Linda Morra is a professor of Canadian Literature and Canadian Studies at Bishop’s University. She is the author of Unarrested Archives (UTP 2014), shortlisted for the 2015 Gabrielle Roy Prize in English. She is the current president of the Quebec Writers’ Federation.

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