The Italian Riveter: ALTARS by Cristina Ali Farah, translated by Clarissa Botsford

It’s nearly sunset. The Altar of the Fatherland is bathed in the dying rays of sun, and the seagulls circle above like clouds of cherubs. Maria climbs the white steps of the monument, feeling like her bare feet are walking on icing sugar, while the rush-hour traffic swarms around Piazza Venezia below her. She keeps going, past the guards standing like statues, her dress too tight, untied at the back, her imprisoned breasts bursting with milk. The days have gone by slowly, trying to remember how to make biscuits like she learned to as a child. Remembering simple ways to keep your hands busy while your body recoups energy.

Sieving the flour, freshly washed hands crumbling the butter, she remembers how her mother would sit her up on the marble table at work, to keep an eye on her while she made pastries for hour after interminable hour. Her opaque eyes, her gaunt profile: just a few more months and you’ll see, they’ll let me work a little less, then we can go to the park or to the cinema whenever we want.

Maria would smile back and work on her little piece of dough. She was keeping her mother company and didn’t want to worry her. How did she do it? That woman with her big hands and ramrod back, she hadn’t been scared to leave her country and tell everyone, she’s my daughter and she has to stay with me. She could have chosen an easier life, let Maria grow up with her grandparents and cousins while she started her life in the city. But no, she decided that being cramped together was better than being apart.

Here she is, that daughter, now grown tall, climbing up the Altar at sundown. Maybe the last portion of milky light will fill the hollow space she feels inside, right here in her middle, from her ribs to her hips, as if a root has been ripped out of the ground.

It all started the day she stopped at the pharmacy in Via Marmorata to buy a strip test, and said to the pharmacist, it’s for a friend, even though she’d never see the man again. And anyway, thinking about it, what does a pharmacist care if a girl dressed like a sugared almond buys a pregnancy test? Maria walked along with the packet gripped tight in her hand and thought about where she could rip it open. She walked towards the pyramid, which seemed to grow bigger before her eyes, its white tip thrust into the sky. She couldn’t wait until she got home, so she decided to use the spotless basement bathrooms at the station, the ones you needed a one-euro coin to get into. There she could stare at the lines on the stick for as long as she liked, the coloured bands getting wider while the little root began to grow.

The growth was so insubstantial that she couldn’t imagine it. Maria banged her head against the wall, hoping somehow that the presence inside her would dematerialise. She banged so hard the attendant was worried. Are you okay, miss? Don’t knock down that door.

She walked away thinking, yes, this is happening, after everything I’ve cost my mother, this is the last thing I need, to get pregnant. No, she’ll never find out, she’s three hundred kilometres away, that should be far enough, and anyway, she always has so much work to do, if she doesn’t see me for a while, she won’t get suspicious.

She walked along the pavement, and, suddenly, a little girl shot out of a store right in front of her. Maria managed to grab her just in time, before she went hurtling into the traffic, and the girl’s terrified mother, hard on her heels, gasped, thank you, thank God it was you she bumped into.

She felt the hollow space fill up with gratitude, and a kind of itchy shiver went up her spine, a quiver of hesitation, thinking how great it would be to travel three hundred kilometres with a surprise like this and tell her, Mum, I’m going to have a baby, just like you did.

She cradled herself in these thoughts, and the idea grew in her mind, the idea of a little girl, dressed in lace, with tiny little braids, the ones only she knew how to plait.

At the end of the day, she still felt full of tenderness, so she got her best dress ready and wrapped her thin muslin veil around her head. Everybody said she looked like she was going to a wedding when she wore it.

Maria was the pearly white colour that women emanate when they are expecting, but he didn’t take any interest in what he saw, they had just started going out and now she was here with all these requests, where’s your brain? How can you even be sure it’s mine? There was no point in talking about love, she knew that much at least.

A few days later she went to the hospital, circling the building until she garnered the strength to go in. She said to the doctor who asked her, yes, I’m sure, a woman on her own is not enough for a baby, nobody knows that better than me, my mother took me away from her home country and ruined her life by working too hard, as if keeping me by her side was enough for a daughter, and look at the result, this is what I’ve turned into.

Yes, she is sure, she says the next time she has to meet the doctor, yes, she is still sure, though she is crying desperately on the doctor’s immaculate white gown as she watches the delicate little shoot planted on the ultrasound screen.

The morning of her final appointment she goes into hospital with an empty stomach and sees how many women are in the same situation as her. A nurse goes from bed to bed, handing out suppositories and saying, in her rasping voice, remember once this is inside you there’s no going back.

There’s no going back is a cutting remark, especially for a girl dressed like a sugared almond, who has grown up making coconut biscuits for her dollies. Dollies she imagined to be like her little girl, dressed in lace, with tiny little braids, the ones only she knew how to plait.

This fantasy makes her get up and run out of the ward, her hand brushing along the plaster wall, it doesn’t matter what happens, we’ll take our time, delay things. It’s true, I’ve never done anything special, but today I have, today I feel important.

She returned to her routine, and the weeks went by. Getting up early to open the café where she worked, she was surprised to find she enjoyed the smell of freshly baked croissants, which reminded her of her mother, and she was surprised to find she liked licking off the four-leaved clover design of milky froth her colleague topped her cappuccinos with.

Everything went smoothly, her only problem was the rent she always found hard to pay at the end of the month, and now that she was nearly seven months gone it was maybe time to slow down, her legs swollen and her breasts starting to drip, it’s colostrum the doctor says, it will turn into milk.

Maria is slim and she dresses like a wedding favour filled with sugared almonds so she can hide her pregnancy for as long as she can. The days slip by, and she keeps the secret tight inside her.

Maybe she would have gone on dreaming of her porcelain doll if it hadn’t been for a trip with her friend to the seaside: Maria leaning over the railings in Ostia, staring at the waves. She had felt she needed some salty air, full of iodine, the desire releasing her thoughts. Leaning right over the railings she was close enough to feel that she could lick some of the foam, breathe in its hope.

At that moment her friend said to her, you’ll never make it on your own, don’t you realise what it means to bring up a daughter without any support? Maria saw herself asleep on the cold marble pastry table and thought, all my mother’s love for me has not been enough to warm me up, but I’ll succeed in giving my daughter the life she deserves.

And this is why, against everyone’s advice, she did what she did.

This is why, after seeing that spark of white light, instead of saying what everyone says, instead of saying I want to see her, she signed the piece of paper that gives children a better life than one’s own.

Now she is climbing the white steps with her breasts groaning with milk, and if she’s crying it’s because of the destiny she has not been able to live up to. She thinks that from up high she’ll be able to keep watch over her little girl, and she thinks that someday, the world being what it is, she will just happen to recognise her daughter skipping in her little lace dress up to the very top of the Altar.

By Cristina Ali Farah

Translated by Clarissa Botsford


First published in La Repubblica (2007)

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Cristina Ali Farah is an Italian poet, novelist and playwright of Somali origin. She has published three novels, Madre piccola (‘Little Mother’); Il comandante del fiume (‘The Commander of the River’); and Le stazioni della luna (‘The Stations of the Moon’). She is the recipient of the Lingua Madre and Vittorini Prizes.

Clarissa Botsford studied Italian at Cambridge University and Comparative Education in London before moving to Rome. She currently teaches English and Translation Studies at Roma Tre University and translates contemporary Italian fiction and poetry.

Category: The Italian RiveterTranslations


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