Damage
Maryanne Stahl


Maria has come on the train from Brooklyn to the Amityville, Long Island, home of her brother, Nick, and his wife, Anna, who is in the last months of her first pregnancy. A hurricane has wreaked considerable damage to their farm, not so much to the crop, thank God, which is potatoes, but to the buildings and the equipment and the land. Nick will work two straight weeks with the young Irish boys he will pay to get things back to working order. Meanwhile, Anna needs help in the house, cooking for them all, and she will soon need a midwife.

Nick walks Maria from the train station, carrying her luggage. At the door to the kitchen he kisses her cheeks and avoids her eyes. Her chest is heavy with his hardship. He squeezes her hand and heads back to the field, lighting a cigarette.

Anna is sitting in a straight wood chair padded with bed pillows, her feet up on a milk crate. “Tia Maria,” she says in greeting, smiling, patting her protruding belly. She lays down her crochet work. (It’s a different style from what Maria’s mother taught her in Italy. Anna was born in America.) Her long, white fingers are still admirably slim. Maria’s own hands and feet swelled with her bambinos, especially in the warm weather.

Anna presses herself up to stand.

“Sit, sit,” Maria waves Anna down, walks over to her and bends for a quick embrace, the double kiss. She notes the pallor of Anna’s skin, the drape around the eyes. Her beauty, her face, has been taken by the baby; it will be a girl. Maria looks at Anna’s lap. She is carrying low. Yes, a girl.

“Vino?” Anna offers. “Café?” She gestures, a swirl of her hand to indicate the possiblities.

Maria considers, glances back at her two valises near the door. “Just a small glass,” she says. Through the window above the sink a breeze carries the scent of things growing. Maria breathes deeply, beginning to understand about this place.

Anna smiles. She has a look of peace, and Maria is surprised. Her younger brother, Anthony, has been nothing but agitated these months, and Maria thinks she knows why. She thinks it has to do with the six months he spent at this house, working with Nick. Living with his brother—and his brother’s wife. She thinks he may be going mad with it.

Anna gets up. Her long brown braid swings like a girl’s. “It’s all right,” she says. “I have to move my legs. I’ve been resting enough. It’s good now.” She waddles to the sink, bends heavily to reach beneath it, extracts a large jug of wine from behind a curtain. She finds two jelly glasses on the drain board and pours, then carries the filled glasses to the table where streaming afternoon sunlight makes liquid rubies of them.

“A little red wine is good for the baby’s blood,” Anna says. She lifts her glass.

She still wears her wedding band. Maria’s got too tight in the seventh month. “A salute,” Maria says, raising her glass.

The two women clink glasses. Maria thinks of her own children, at home with their father and his older sister, their aunt. She makes her usual wish, that they grow up to be healthy and find happiness. That’s all she can ask, the most she can wish. Children are gifts.

Anna sits down again, groaning as she raises her feet. She is twenty-three years old. Nick is thirty-five, married once before to a woman who could not bear him children. Two years ago they had the marriage annulled by the bishop who consulted a cardinal. Maria thinks her brother’s plea might have been heard all the way to the Vatican.

Anna swirls the wine in her glass. Her left hand traces a circle on her belly, soft and slow. “That hurricane scared Nick like anything,” she says, making the sign of the cross. “He worries so much.” She turns toward the counter, removes a package of egg biscotti from the bread box and offers one to Maria, who shakes her head.

Maria swallows a mouthful of wine. Slightly bitter. Homemade. She fingers the edge of the doily in the center of the table and looks around at the jars of tomatoes on the shelves, the cast iron pot on the stove, the blue pitcher on the windowsill. Her brother has made a good home here.

“My brother loves you,” Maria says to her sister-in-law.

Anna nods. “Si.” She looks into her glass, perhaps into the reflections of the whites of her own eyes. “He works hard. He is strong.” She touches her belly with her left hand, looks up at Maria and smiles. “He will make a good father.”

Maria sips again. She remembers but does not speak the news she came to tell. She does not say that Teresa, Nick’s first wife, the barren one, has just delivered twins.

“Yes,” Maria says. Then she gets up and goes to the stove; she takes the big, cast iron pot to start the tomato sauce.

She thinks of Anthony wailing in his sleep, his feverish praying and his despair. She thinks of Nick in the field, trying to save what he can. And she knows that storms do damage but they are acts of God.

 

“This story grew out of a family secret about my mother’s cousin’s true paternity. I have always been fascinated by—perhaps because I am also so fearful of—deceptions and betrayals. My second novel, The Opposite Shore, was inspired in part by something I heard about one of my sister’s friends. I think what intrigues me so is trying to figure out how people survive such things.”

 

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