“Filomena by the Sea”
by Claudia Ricci
Suddenly she is there, my great great grandmother. She is sitting in the sand by the sea. She is bare-legged to her mid thighs, and her small face is raw in sunburn. She is crying. The waves are slopping over her legs, spread wide. The cool water rises between her thighs. The salt stings the tender dark skin there. The white flaxen gown she is wearing is pulled tight over her womb, and it is soaked and clinging to her swollen belly.
Her name, Filomena. Feel-oh-maina. In Italian, it means “loved one,” or “beloved,” or” the lover of song.”
The pockets of her white gown are filled with wooden clothes pins, grey weathered clips that she uses to hang his clothes on the line. She fingers the hard wood of the pins through the soft white gown, and something makes her take one out of her pocket. She throws the clothespin into the sea.
And then another. Due.
And another. Soon, all of the clothespins are sinking down into the greenish ocean. A new breed of tiny grey fish, she thinks. Avannotto. Small fry, that will swim alongside the bigger fish. Baccala. Pescespada. Cod and swordfish.
She smiles. Looks out across the water. Her teeth are perfect and white. Her caramel skin is tight across her nose. Her cheekbones arc at just the right angle, and her jaw makes a perfect presentation for her lips. The first time he took her into his bed, he blamed her lips. She was standing at the stove, stirring, when he slowly twirled her around and took her face in his two hands and grazed her lips with the tips of both thumbs. Then he parted her lips and kissed her. She dropped the wooden spoon and it splattered spaghetti sauce across the floor.
The sun slips out from behind a cloud and now the sea is becoming a light green dome. It looks to her now like an endless green belly, the belly of an ocean princess, un principessa, who, like Filomena, is fishing for love. Love that looks like liquid coins. Love that glitters gold in the sunlight. As soon as you try to touch the coins, though, or hold them in your hands, they slip through your fingers and sink through the water like hard grey stones.
She splashes her face with water. Licks the salt water off her lips. Across the sea, the sun is cutting up through the horizon, a red yolk splattering the white of the sky. Soon she will have to return to the house to fix his coffer. To warm the milk. To lay out his roll and butter. Soon she will begin to fix the minestra for his lunch.
But for now, she lies back on her elbows in the gritty sand. She lifts her gown above her navel. Up to her swollen breasts. The nipples are dark sea urchins floating in the sea. She smiles. She will have the neighbor women talking. She laughs, that deep throaty laugh he tickles out of her after they make love.
The neighbor women have been talking for months.
She gazes out to the sunlight dancing on the green water. Closing her eyes, she sets the edges of her belly at the wide green sea, and then, pinned to the ocean that way, she flutters freely in the wind like a piece of seaweed. A piece of ocean laundry.
Letting her head drop to the sand, she is everywhere covered in pale light. Soft water. The sea carries the morning light up and over her belly and her breasts and tickles her neck. Her chin.
The smell of seaweed is in her nose. The gurgle of waves is in her ears.
The water foam touches her lips. And then, just when she can feel that the next wave will scoop up and over her face, she hears the bell.
The bell. Always the bell.
She left half the laundry on the white flat stones by the house and she ran here to the water, and now no doubt Griselda has arrived for the day. But Griselda cannot tell her anything. Not anymore.
Filomena pinches her nose closed with her fingers and holds her breath and lets the water rise over her face. She bubbles the salt water out of her lips. Her dark hair flares, coppery brown seaweed uncoiling, in and out, in the green water.
The bell rings harder and harder. The woman’s old voice follows. It carries down the craggy hillside covered in fig and olive trees. It carries into the green water. It sinks into her ears.
Please, she thinks. Please. If she could swim, she would dive in now, and swim as far as the red splatter of the sunrise. She would swim until her arms ached and her legs would paddle no more.
But she cannot swim and she cannot run. Not now. Now she belongs to him.
Up at the house, the laundry she washes is not just his laundry anymore. Now, his laundry is mixed freely with her own. His white shirts. Her aprons. His briefs. Her bras. His handkerchiefs, each embroidered in blue. J.S. J.S. J.S. Her nightgown, edged in hand-crocheted cotton lace.
Next to the white clothes, he has left her his soft chamois riding britches. That is my best pair, my darling Filomena. Make sure you are careful with the soft leather patches there between the knees.
She runs out of breath and sits up and her hair coils down around her shoulders. The white gown is grey with grit. She places her hand over her belly. Whispers something inaudible.
She stands. Her hair is matted in wet sand and water drips in sheets off the bottom edge of her gown.
She turns around.
The laundry is waiting.