I made acquaintance with “normal” women for the first time in the free language school ran by community of St. Egidio in Rome. My companions lacked everything: documents, work, a place to live, language to express themselves, but their femininity was healthy, intact, not deviated by anything. They did not have to subscribe to female boxing lessons or blow up their lips with paraffin to feel like a woman. All naturally beautiful, emanating feminine charm particular to their country of origin, they concealed under the cloak of poverty rare wealth: true, profound normality, so difficult to find today.
But even that place reserved surprises.
Among other women clearly stood out one Russian girl, Nina. She was far from a stereotypical, fashionable beauty. Small of stature, with a few extra ponds more than female health magazines suggest, dressed modestly and simply, Nina possessed an extraordinary sex-appeal, lighting up eyes of men with desire and those of women with sympathy. She seemed to be Spring herself, one could not help but wish to get close to her, but it was impossible: a subtle but insurmountable line separated her happiness in bloom from the rest of the world. Maybe that’s why Nina had no girlfriends and few lovers.
While chatting during the break between lessons, Nina told me that she was looking for an apartment big enough for two people, awaiting the arrival of her sister. It had to be a sunny, huge, comfortable place because her sister was “very special”.
“Why is your sister so special?” I wondered. As if in response, Nina answered, “My sister is an Angel.”, in her trademark simplicity. A few weeks had passed, and for a number of unfortunate circumstances (lack of work, money, residence permit) Nina had to go back to her unloved motherland, leaving me a telephone number of her sister whom I, according to her opinion, “absolutely had to meet”.
Though warned in advance, I was stunned to meet Nina’s sister. Indeed, she was an angel. One could not see the wings, nor the halo of light around her head, yet Olga seemed to move inside a magic circle of impenetrable, quiet happiness. But if Nina was attractive only physically, Olga was irresistible both physically and spiritually.
The circumstances of Olga’s life would have made anyone shiver: she was in the ninth month of pregnancy without a husband, without work, without savings. With no support in Italy, she had to stay in a family house run by a secular nun, to live among pregnant prostitutes who used exclusively “hot” language to express themselves.
Olga’s room reflected her being “a world apart”: a huge mirror along the wall, recovered from the garbage, an old street light of wrought iron with a candle inside from the same source, a bed. With these few elements she has recreated a mystical atmosphere of severe elegance of St. Petersburg, the city where we had both spent our childhood.
Mirror and candle: implements of ancient rituals of Russian women who made magic… strange for a fervent Catholic living in the house of a nun. But no one seemed to notice it.
Such stark contrast was Olga’s room compared to those of other women who filled their space with hundreds of unnecessary objects, objects that reflected their fear of poverty!
In spite her angelic appearance, Olga remained an enigma for all of us.
There was something equal parts attractive and frightening in her detachment from pain and passions. Like her sister, she had no friends, no lovers. Had she been a hermetically sealed person, it may indicate fear and make her human and understandable. But Olga was a friendly, open young woman with a beautiful, sincere smile. What was perplexing was the invisible but insurmountable line which separated her undisturbed happiness from a world of eternal lament. It was as if she was not carrying a baby, but a cloudless blue sky within.
Fascinated, frightened, attracted, all the people who met Olga gladly put themselves at her disposal without her ever asking to do so. She appeared as a charitable Queen accepting help for the fear of offending her subjects. Everyone, even the most callous of people, were touched by her behavior, thinking, “What if I were to find myself in a similar situation? Where does her calm and strength come from?”
Olga’s sweet and secure smile eliminated at the root the legitimate doubt that she was merely a foreigner with no means of support. As if bewitched, everyone felt that it was she who was helping us by her mere presence on earth.
Disaster struck like lightning coming from the cloudless blue sky: Olga’s baby suffocated in the womb one day before birth. Everyone who knew Olga rushed to visit her at the Hospital.
Some were sobbing hysterically, others had shocked, scared, horrified faces… but that of Olga’s. Even if her usually blissful smile was gone, she remained calm, betraying no emotion whatsoever. An observer who did not know what was happening would think that Olga, with her calm and caressing gaze, was by the simple fact of her presence consoling a crowd of scared and depressed people, standing in line so as to receive the grace of her momentary attention.
Not knowing what to say (so horrible was the topic), I began to talk about casual things, the message contained between the lines being: ‘I am here just to keep you company in this difficult moment’. Olga seemed to awaken from emotional torpor. She seemed happy to talk about the suffocating heat outside, unbearable traffic, latest controversial bestseller discussed by everyone…
Looking at her with awe, I was thinking: ‘She seems unconscious of what has happened, so much the better! What will remain of her if the bubble of her inexplicable calmness should burst? Nothing. Something has to be done so that she does not wake up from her beautiful lunatic dream!’. As if reading my thoughts, Olga said, “Could you remain with me? Yes? Do remain. “
When the stream of those to be consoled dried up, she stretched out on the bed comfortably, I sat in the chair at her feet, that huge coffin-belly towering between us.
What a strange task awaited me: I was asked explicitly, by a woman who never asked anything from anyone, to help give birth to the corpse of her child, joyfully.
For years I taught ecological art to children and their parents so as to “awaken conscience”, though nobody asked me to awaken it; it was only my desperate attempt to do something to stop the upcoming ecological disaster. Why me of all people had been chosen to lull into sleep Olga’s consciousness in a critical moment?
My hands were shaking, I had to collect all my will so as not to think of what was contained inside her swollen belly, while in my head were whirling questions: ‘What if she is totally aware of everything, but is simply afraid to remain alone? What if she has a stone instead of heart, should one have mercy for a ruthless woman?’
But together with a sense of duty I felt curiosity: it has never happened to me to come so closely to Death and it’s secret. Before I had thought that Death was like turning around the corner, or like passing to the next page of the book, where begins a new chapter. Or like a fabulous transformation into some totally different form of life. ‘When it will come, we shall all see’, I thought calmly. However, so as not to remain deceived by the horrifying looks of transition I had always avoided situations where one could meet with corpses, but now…
Olga was looking at me attentively, waiting for me to talk (she never spoke first, but made comments here and there about what others said). Any “mundane” argument went well, so I started to talk about art, telling about my favorite performances, the ones which were very close to the games of children. From there I went on to argue that at the foundation of every “genial” work of art the structure is surprisingly simple, because the answer to every complex creative problem lies is in doodling of a happy child unspoiled by TV and computer games. I told her how once I had to come up with a scenery for a pompous theater play, among the characters was the spirit of the Earth…”How to represent the Spirit of the Earth?”, I mused for a long time. All of a sudden I understood: it is a carefree girl playing in the courtyard with a blue balloon, the globe, and its orbit: hula-hoop.
Suddenly interrupting myself, I thought that perhaps to hear of children’s games could be painful for Olga: her child will never play, I remembered. As if reading my thoughts, she reassured me: “Continue! I feel so well with you: there is no need to pretend. Others tell me ‘Condolences!’ but I do not feel anything, I am totally alien to all this. If anything, I’ve been told that giving birth is painful, it makes me wonder: why should I suffer if I never did harm to anyone? “.
‘Aha’, I made a mental note, ‘Apart from bliss, angels do have feelings. Here is one: the fear of suffering…’
To let her have the luxury of not pretending, I had to do it for her: “You are so charming that you will charm away the pain like you charm people…”
How could I tell her that pain is what differentiates human beings from angels? It was neither the time nor the place. So I tried to shift her attention by returning to the subject of Art: “Sometimes I think that Art is a consolation for those who do not live life in full, those who are not in contact with absolute beauty. You think Romeo and Juliet, having one night together, would pause to watch a movie Gone with the Wind? Does a bedouin need watercolors depicting a night in the desert? A proud soldier, drunk with fighting, will turn on the TV to see Lawrence of Arabia during the short truce? Blade runner walking on a knife-edge of his adventure will take a break so as to watch the Blade Runner, even if the film is beautiful?”
She objected: “I would put it in another way: when spirituality is released, people no longer need Art. Look at what happened in Russia during Communism. When religion was prohibited, all art forms thrived in spite of severe censorship. But with Perestroika came a liberation, which led to an explosion of spirituality, churches filled up with the faithful, so art no longer had the important function of once…”
I would not let her get away with that: “Both were substitutes for true life experiences, which are allowed to happen in our society once in awhile, instead of happening every moment of life.”
In the meantime, I was thinking, ‘Here we are–two lunatics chatting as if we are sitting in the kitchen taking tea together, while in truth we are walking upon a very high, pointed roof, walking upon the time line the end of which will be her child’s birth. When Olga will see the body of her dead baby, what will she feel then? And I, upon seeing the little corpse, will I be able to remain focused on the world beyond appearances?’
So everything was going well, she was listening to me avidly, but now the delivery began. As Olga breathed increasingly with difficulty, as her body was twisting in bed with advancing pain, I watched helplessly how she was precipitating into the human condition, so totally alien to her.
Luckily Olga did not remain “human” for long. Rather she was increasingly resembling a poorly functioning machine, a mechanism that is about to stop once and for all. In the critical moment the doctors came and took her away.
In an hour everything was over. I had to declare to be her sister, otherwise they wouldn’t allow me to visit her. Olga’s enigmatic smile was back, as if nothing had happened. She assured me that she felt well, almost as if to console me.
I saw Death for the first time in the Maternity Ward of a Roman Hospital. It was not the way people imagine it.
Death did not appear as the corpse of a child, nuns took care of that, nor did it look like a skull with bones as painted on the flags of pirates.
Put in focus, Death had calm smile, dimples on the cheeks, eyes sparkling with fun. She was irresistible even after the delivery. She appeared as a beautiful young woman with natural femininity, angelically kind, but at the same time totally indifferent to life.
Death? Yes, Nina was right: we absolutely had to meet!
In the Maternity ward there is a document attesting to our parentage.
I have not discovered anything new, I have been warned from the beginning that my “sister” is an Angel. She chose to talk about trivial things in a difficult moment, I pleased her to the best of my ability.
Neither one crossed the magic line, but we looked fascinated at each other for awhile, observing like in a mirror the exact opposite equal and found that “we fit well together”.