First published in La Lettura (January 1917). Collected in the volume Novelle per un anno (A Year’s Worth of Short Stories) Vol. 9 (Florence: Bemporad, 1925).
Donna Mimma Leaves
When Donna Mimma, with her blue silk headscarf tied loosely under her chin, walks through the sunny streets of the village, one might think that her tidy, petite figure, still upright and perky though modestly wrapped in a long black fringed shawl, casts no shadow on the paved alleys or on the cobblestones of the piazza.
One might very well think that. Indeed, in the eyes of children—and even adults who, seeing her walk by, suddenly feel like children themselves—Donna Mimma carries an air that makes everything around her look as if it were made up: the sky becomes a sheet of paper; the sun a glitter ball, just like the star in the nativity scene. The whole village, with its beautiful golden sun and brand-new blue sky, a village made up of little old houses and churches with chunky little bell towers, tiny streets and a large piazza with a fountain in the middle and a cathedral at one end—all of it, as soon as she walks by, suddenly becomes like a big toy brought by the Befana.2 One of those toys that you take out, piece by piece, from a large oval box that smells deliciously like glue. Each tiny piece—and there are many—is a house, with its own windows and balconies, to be arranged in a row or in a circle to make a street or a piazza. And this bigger piece here is the church, with its cross and bells, and this other one is the fountain, that you can surround with these trees that have crowns made of bright green wood chips and a disk at the bottom to hold them up.
Is this Donna Mimma’s miracle? No. It’s Donna Mimma’s world through the eyes of the children and the adults-turned-children who see her walk by. Children, of course, because no one can feel like a grownup in Donna Mimma’s presence. No one.
This is the world she paints for the children when she talks to them and tells them how she went and bought each and every one of them in a far, far away place.
Where? Far, far away.
In Palermo, yes, on a lovely, white palanquin made of ivory and drawn by two beautiful white horses without bells, through long, long streets, at night, in the dark.
“Why without bells?”
“So they don’t make any noise.”
“And in the dark?”
That’s right. Though sometimes the night is lit up by the moon and the stars. But other times in the dark, sure! Because night must fall eventually, when one travels for days, over such long distances. And then, on the way back, she always arrives at night, on that same palanquin, all very quiet so no one can see or hear anything.
Why, because the newly-bought babies must not hear any noises, or else they would get frightened. Nor must they see the sunlight at first.
“Bought? What do you mean, bought?”
“With daddy’s money! A lot of money!”
“So Flavietta, too, was bought?”
“Why, yes, Flavietta cost more than two hundred onze! 3 Much, much more. Those golden curls, that sweet little mouth, they’re expensive. That’s because daddy wanted her like that: blond, curly-haired and with those big lovely eyes that just stare at you—don’t you believe me, honey? Two hundred onze barely pay for those eyes alone! How could I not know it? I was the one who bought you, too! And Ninì, too, of course. I bought all of you. Ninì cost a bit more, because he’s a little boy. Little boys, sweetheart, always cost a bit extra. What’s more, they work, and because they work, they earn a lot of money, like daddy. Did you know that I bought daddy, too? Yes, I did! When he was a tiny little baby, of course! When he was this little. I was the one who brought him at night, on the white palanquin, to his mama, bless her soul. From Palermo, yes. How much did he cost? Oh, thousands of onze, thousands!”
Children stare at her in awe. They gaze at her beautiful blue silk headscarf, eternally new, arranged over her still-black, glossy hair parted into two braids that loop over her ears, whose lobes are pulled by the weight of two heavy drop-shaped earrings. They gaze at her slightly-bulging eyes, with thin eyelids and long, long eyelashes; her round little nose with thin blood vessels and large, purplish nostrils; her chin, somewhat pointy, with a few curly, wiry hairs. But to them it’s as if she were wrapped in an air of mystery, this neat little old lady whom everyone, including everybody’s mothers, calls Comare.4 Strangely, every time Donna Mimma comes to visit, mama doesn’t feel well, and just a few days later, lo and behold, another little brother or little sister appears, whom Donna Mimma herself went to buy far away, in Palermo, traveling on her palanquin. They stare at her, they tentatively touch her shawl and gown with curious, hesitant fingers. She is, indeed, a neat little old lady, who looks no different from any other. But then how can she travel so far on her palanquin, and how in the world was she given this task of buying babies and delivering them like the Befana does with toys?
Instinctively, they search for her hands. Where are her hands? There, underneath her shawl. That’s true, she never touches them with her hands! She kisses them, talks to them, is quite expressive with her eyes, her mouth, her cheeks, but she never draws her hands from underneath her shawl to caress them. It’s strange. Some of the bolder children ask her:
“Don’t you have hands?”
“My, oh my!” exclaims Donna Mimma, giving their mother a knowing look as if to ask, Who is this child? The devil?
“Here they are!” she exclaims, showing her little hands sheathed in fingerless lisle gloves. “What do you mean, don’t I have hands, you devilkin? My, what a question!”
And she laughs and laughs, sticking her hands back underneath her shawl and pulling it up over her nose to hide those giggles which, may the Lord forgive… oh my! She’s tempted to cross herself. It’s unbelievable what sort of things get into a child’s mind!
Those hands look as if they were made to mold the wax Baby Jesus that, on Christmas Eve, is carried to the altar of every church in a little basket lined with blue satin. Donna Mimma is well aware that her task is sacred, that the act of birth is holy, and therefore she shrouds it before the children’s eyes with the veil of decency. Even when she speaks to adults she never uses a word that might shift or disperse that veil. She talks about it as little as possible, and with her eyes downcast. She knows that her task of welcoming into life so many little creatures who cry as soon as they draw their first breath is not always joyful—in fact, it’s often quite sad. The babies she delivers to rich people’s homes may be a cause for celebration, for the baby, too, even though sometimes it isn’t a celebration there either. But delivering them—so many of them—into poor people’s homes… it makes her heart grow heavy. Still, for the last thirty-five years, she has been the only midwife in the village. Or rather, had been—until yesterday.
Now a twenty-year-old spoiled little princess has come from the continent, from Piedmont, wearing a short yellow skirt and a tight green jacket, her hands in her pockets like a tomboy. She’s the unmarried sister of a customs officer. A graduate of the Royal University of Turin. Stuff that makes you want to cross yourself with both hands! Jesus, a girl with no experience who gets into such a profession! And if one could only see her cheekiness! It’s only by a miracle that she doesn’t carry her title printed smack on her forehead! A girl! A girl, who knows nothing of… God, how shameful! What has the world come to?
Donna Mimma cannot get over it. She turns away and shields her eyes with her hands as soon as she sees the girl walk across the piazza swinging her hips, her hands in her pockets, the white feather of her velvet bonnet straight up against the wind. And the racket that her insolent little heels make on the cobblestones of the piazza, as if to say, Here I am! Here I am!
That one’s not a woman: she’s a devil! She cannot be God’s creature, that one!
“What? A door sign?”
Is that so? She’s had a sign with her name and title affixed to the door of her house? And her name is? Elvira—Elvira what? Signorina Elvira Mosti? She even had “Signorina” put in? And what does “graduate” mean? Ah, that she has a license. A license to shame! God, can one believe it? Who will call on that cheeky brat? What experience can she possibly have if she still… in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, must one be subjected to such things these days, in a village like ours? Shoo, shoo, shoo…
Donna Mimma shakes her little gloved hands in the air as if the flames of hell were leaping right in front of her eyes.
“No, Signora, no coffee, thank you! A glass of water, please, I’m all frazzled!” she says to her clients when, every now and then, she pays them a visit or, as she calls it, a “popping-in” just to find out—no? Nothing yet? Well, let God do His work, Signora, and may He be given thanks in heaven and on earth!” She’s become almost obsessed with it. Not that she’s afraid they might betray her with that one. How could she ever worry about that, knowing what sort of God-fearing ladies they are, all raised in the village and respectful of holy things! Not in a million years…
“But Holy Mother of God, I mean, it’s the principle… the scandal caused by such a girl! They say she talks like a soldier, that she says all those crude words openly, as if it were the most natural thing in the world…”
She’s so fixated on the monstrosity of the scandal that she doesn’t notice the painful embarrassment with which the ladies look at her. It seems that they have something to say to her but cannot muster the courage to do so.
Today the village doctor turned the other way when she walked by. Could it be he didn’t see her? But he did see her! He saw her and he turned away. Why?
She soon finds out that the shameless girl went with her brother to pay a visit to the doctor. To introduce herself, no doubt. Who knows how she kissed up to him, the way these nasty wayward foreigners do, coming from those big cities on the continent where they have even forgotten how to blush. And now, that foolish doctor… The diploma? What does the diploma have to do with it? Ah, of course, she went to tell him about her diploma! But come on, everyone knows that men are brutes, and that all it takes is batting one’s eyelashes, handing out a couple of caresses, and they burn up like straw—the old men too, now, with no fear of God! What about the diploma? What does that have to do with it? Experience is what it takes, experience.
“Yes, but a diploma, too, Donna Mimma,” sighs the pharmacist, when she complains to him about how the doctor gave her the cold shoulder.
“Why? Do I have a diploma?” exclaims Donna Mimma, smiling and touching the tips of her gloved fingers together. “Even so, for the last thirty-five years, thirty-five, I’ve delivered all of you—you, too, Don Sarino—with God’s blessing. I’ve taken a lot of trips to Palermo! Here, here, look here!”
Donna Mimma bends over and picks up, with those hands that don’t look like much but are quite strong, a big street urchin who has stopped in front of the pharmacy. She holds him up to the sunlight.
“This one, too! All of the ones you see, I delivered them! I went to buy you all in Palermo, without a diploma! Who needs a diploma?”
The young pharmacist smiles.
“Fine, Donna Mimma, yes… you… experience, of course… but…”
He looks at her painfully, uneasily. Not even he has the courage to help her see the threat hanging over her head.
Eventually, a stamped and sealed letter arrives from the City Prefecture, half printed and half handwritten, which Donna Mimma cannot read very clearly, but she guesses it’s about the diploma she doesn’t have and that, according to Article so and so… She’s still busy deciphering the letter when an officer comes to summon her on the mayor’s behalf.
“Is his wife due? So soon?” asks Donna Mimma, irritated.
“No, you’re due,” replies the officer. “At the Town Hall. For a summons.”
Donna Mimma frowns.
“A summons for me? Is it about this letter?”
The officer shrugs his shoulders.
“I don’t know. Go and find out.”
Donna Mimma obliges. At the Town Hall she meets the mayor, who looks embarrassed. Donna Mimma bought him, too, in Palermo, and even bought two children for him. Soon she’s scheduled to travel to Palermo again on her palanquin to buy him the third one. But…
“Here, Donna Mimma. See? We also received a letter from the Prefecture. About you, yes. Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do. You’re being interdicted from practicing the profession.”
“Yes, you. Because you don’t have a diploma, dear Donna Mimma. It’s the law.”
“What law?” Donna Mimma bursts out, so pale now it looks as if she has no blood left in her veins. “A new law?”
“Not new, no! But here in this village, for many years, there was just you. We knew you, we cared about you and trusted you, and so we turned a blind eye. But we, too, are in violation of the law, Donna Mimma! It’s these darn formalities, you see? As long as there was just you… But now that other one has arrived, she’s found out you don’t have a diploma, and since no one calls on her, she’s filed a complaint with the Prefecture, you understand? And so now you cannot practice the profession anymore. Or else you need to go to Palermo—for real, this time—to the university, and get a diploma, too, like that other one.”
“Me? To Palermo? At fifty-six, after I’ve practiced for thirty-five years? It’s outrageous to ask me for a diploma now! I’ve delivered an entire village… when did I ever need a diploma? When did I ever need to know how to read or write, to do what I do? I can barely read! And they want me to go to Palermo, me, who never left this place? I’ll get lost! At my age, and all because of that haughty little princess! I’ll be curious to see her at work, diploma and all… She wants to compete with me? What can the best professors possibly teach me, after thirty-five years? I can do and undo every single one of them. So… you’re saying I really need to go to Palermo? For two whole years?”
Donna Mimma just can’t calm down. Her questions erupt into more questions through a torrent of angry, desperate tears. The mayor feels sorry for her and wishes he could stop the outburst. He lets her vent for a while, then tries to stop it again. Two years will go by quickly. Yes, it’s hard to accept, of course. But no, surely there’s nothing they can teach her! It’s just a formality, just to have that piece of paper in hand! Just so she doesn’t have to give in to that nasty girl… Then he accompanies her to the door and pats her shoulder, like a good son, encouraging her to take heart. He tries to make her smile: come on, come on, how can she fear getting lost in Palermo, when she goes there three or four times a day?
Donna Mimma has pulled the black shawl over the blue headscarf, and her little hands clutch it from underneath to hide her tears. Children, that blue silk headscarf, the holy fairytale of your birth, is now in mourning! Off to Palermo Donna Mimma goes, on no white palanquin, to study meutics,5 sepsis and antisepsis, cephalic and podalic positions… It’s the law. Donna Mimma cries. She cannot get over it: she can barely read, she’ll get lost in the thorny science of those learned professors there, in Palermo, where she traveled many times on her magical white palanquin…
When she goes to say goodbye to each of her clients, she cries so desperately it breaks their hearts.
And at each house she bends over and with her little trembling hands—she now pulls them out without restraint—she caresses the tiny blond or brown heads of the children, covering them with kisses and inconsolable tears.
“I’m leaving… I’m going to Palermo.”
The children stare at her, dumbfounded. They don’t understand why she’s crying so much this time about going to Palermo. They think it may be a tragedy for them, too, for all the children who are still there, waiting to be bought.
The mothers reassure her: “We’ll wait for you!”
Donna Mimma looks at them through the tears, and shakes her head. How can she believe that merciful lie, she who knows all about life?
“Signora, for two whole years?”
She leaves, brokenhearted, drawing her black shawl over her blue headscarf.
Donna Mimma Studies
Palermo. Donna Mimma arrives there in the evening. A tiny woman in the enormous piazza before the train station.
Oh my God, are those moons? There are twenty, thirty of them all around. Is this a piazza? How big! Which way?
“This way, this way!”
Among all the buildings, ghastly gigantic shadows are pierced with light. Donna Mimma is blinded by the turmoil of flashing beams and, above her, by so many rows and strings of dazzling lights along endless streets. People bustle about everywhere, popping up threateningly next to her. She’s overwhelmed by the deafening din of cars that zoom past. Stirred from her stupor by one shock after another, all she perceives is the violent instinct to withdraw into herself, an instinct she keeps fighting in order to face that hellish bedlam after the dizzying train ride—the first of her life.
Jesus, that train ride! Mountains, valleys that moved, turned and fled past, along with trees, scattered houses and faraway towns. And every so often, the slamming sound of a telegraph pole, whistles, jolts, the frights of bridges and tunnels, flashes of light, gusts of wind and a sense of suffocation, a maelstrom of rattling noises and darkness… Jesus! Jesus!
“What did you say?”
She can’t hear anything, she no longer knows how to put one foot in front of the other, she just hangs on to her nephew, who’s accompanying her—a young man, the pride of her family. He has the world in his hands, he does, and can laugh and move around confidently, because he spent two years in Palermo serving in the military.
“What did you say?”
Yes, of course, a carriage… What carriage? Ah, that’s right, a carriage! How can they enter the city and walk all the way to the inn carrying that large bundle of clothes?
She looks at the bundle: inside of it there’s a piece of her. She wishes she could crawl all the way into it, hide among her clothes under her nephew’s arm, turn into nothing more than fabric and the smell of garments, so as to not have to see or hear anything anymore.
“Give it to me! Give it to me!”
She would like to hold on tight to those clothes, to feel as if she were inside of them. But her soul is outside, out there in the fray, overpowered by so many stimuli that assault her from every corner. She answers yes, yes, but doesn’t quite understand the gestures that her nephew is making.
Oh, Jesus, why ask her? Like a tiny little creature in his hands, she’ll do anything he says. Yes, the carriage, yes, the inn, whatever he says. For the time being, it’s as if she were in a storm, and climbing into a carriage is to her like grabbing on to a lifeboat; getting to the inn, like reaching shore. She’s terrified at the thought that, in three days’ time, after her nephew secures some lodging for her, he will return to the village and she’ll be left alone, lost in this Babylon.
Riding in the carriage on their way to the inn, her nephew suggests going to see the fair at Piazza Marina.6
“The fair? What fair?”
“The Fair of the Dead.”
Donna Mimma crosses herself. That’s right, the Day of the Dead is tomorrow! She’s arriving in Palermo on the night of November 1st, the eve of the Day of the Dead, she who always traveled to Palermo to buy life! The Day of the Dead, right…but to Sicilian children the dead are the equivalent of the Befana. To them, it’s not the Befana who brings toys on January 6th. It’s the dead, on November 2nd, when grownups cry and children celebrate.
“Will there be many people?”
Many, many, there’s no end to them, so much so that carriages cannot ride through. Fathers, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, they all go to the Fair of the Dead at Piazza Marina to buy toys for their little ones. Dolls are little sisters, sugar figurines little brothers—the same ones that for many years, in the imagination of the children of her village far away, Donna Mimma came to buy in Palermo and delivered to them, traveling on her ivory palanquin: toys, but real ones, with live eyes, frail hands, purple with cold, their little fingers contracted, and their little dribbling mouths crying.
Facing the tumultuous spectacle of the fair, Donna Mimma’s eyes are even more awestruck than a little girl’s. She cannot accept the thought that, here at the fair, the tale of her mysterious journeys as she spun it for the village children almost becomes a reality. She cannot accept it, and not just because, among the lacerating cries of vendors in front of the stalls illuminated by multicolored lanterns, among the whistles, the chimes, the countless noises of the fair and the throng of people who continue to flock to the piazza, she’s becoming increasingly dazed and frightened. No, it’s not just because of that. It’s because, here and now, she is the little girl for whom the magic trick is being played. And also because the air that surrounded her in the village, an air of fairytale that followed her through the streets and into the houses and that led everyone, grownups and children, to respect her because she was the one who, through the mystery of birth, delivered the newborns into every home and breathed new life into the old, decrepit village—that air no longer surrounds her here. Cruelly stripped of her role and tossed among the crowd, what is she now? Just a poor, dazed, miserable little old lady. They’ve chased her out of the fairytale to crash and disappear in this violent reality. She no longer understands anything, she no longer knows how to move, to talk, to look.
“Let’s go away… let’s go away…”
Go away where? Out of here, out of this crowd. Leaving is easy, with a little patience, slowly, slowly. But then what? It will be hard to feel safe and calm again the way she used to. For now to the inn, tomorrow to school.
At school, forty-two she-devils, all with the cheeky attitude of tomboys much like that nasty girl who plunged from the continent into her village, pounce upon her on the first day she appears among them with her blue silk headscarf and long black shawl with fringes and lace demurely wrapped around her body. Oh, here’s Grandma! Here’s the old mammana 7 of fairytales, come down from the moon, who doesn’t dare show her little hands and keeps her eyes downcast out of modesty, and who still talks about buying children! They stare at her and touch her as if she weren’t real, as if she weren’t standing right there in front of them.
“Donna Mimma? Donna Mimma what? Jévola? Donna Mimma Jévola? How old? Fifty-six? Quite young to start! You’ve already been a mammana for thirty-five years? But how? Illegally? How could they let you do that? Oh, you have practice? Well, it takes a lot more than practice, you’ll see!”
As soon as Professor Torresi, who teaches Fundamentals of Theoretical Obstetrics, walks in, they push her to the front of the classroom and introduce her to him amidst giggles and cackles.
“Here’s Granny mammana, Professor!”
Professor Torresi, bald and a bit paunchy but still a handsome, imposing man who looks like a cuirassier just dismounted from his horse, sports a gray mustache and a large, hairy mole on his cheek. The whole time he’s teaching he keeps pulling at that mole so as not to ruin his carefully curled-up mustache—how cute! Professor Torresi has always prided himself on his ability to maintain discipline, and indeed he treats those forty-two she-devils like fillies to be tamed with spurs and a whip. Still, every now and then he cannot help but smile at some of their mischief, or rather, he grants them a few chuckles as a reward for the adoration with which they surround him. He would like to give them a stern look for that rowdy introduction, but then, seeing that old, funny-looking recruit before him, he decides to have some fun with her, too.
He asks her how she plans to catch up with his lessons. He has already—“Come on, all of you! Pay attention, pay attention, go back to your seats!”—lectured at length—“Quiet, by God! Go back to your seats!”—about pregnancy, from conception to delivery. He has gone into depth about the law of organic correlation; most recently he has been discussing fetal diameters. In the last class he focused on the occipitofrontal and bisacromial diameters, while today he’s going to discuss the bi-iliac diameter. Will she manage to follow? Yes, practice is fine, but what is practice—“Pay attention, all of you, pay attention!” And here Professor Torresi pulls at the hairy mole on his cheek—how cute! Practice is implicit information. Is that enough? No, it’s not enough. In order for it to be so, information must turn from implicit to explicit, that is, it needs to come out, so it can be seen clearly in all of its parts, and be distinguished, defined, almost touched with one’s hands—with understanding hands, that is. Otherwise, no piece of information will ever become true knowledge. Is it a question of names, of terminology? No, the name is the thing itself. The name is the concept we have within us for every thing that is outside of us. Without a name we have no concept, and the thing itself remains invisible to us—undefined, undistinguished.
After this explanation, which leaves the whole class perplexed, Professor Torresi turns to Donna Mimma and starts quizzing her.
Donna Mimma stares at him with bewilderment, as if he were speaking another language. Forced to reply, she causes those forty-two she-devils to laugh so hard that Professor Torresi starts fearing for his prestige as a wild beast tamer. He yells, slams his hand on the desk calling for silence and self-restraint.
Donna Mimma cries.
The classroom turns quiet again, but the professor, now indignant, goes on a rant, as if he hadn’t been laughing himself earlier. Then he turns to Donna Mimma and yells at her, telling her it’s shameful to show up at school when one is so ignorant, and that it’s shameful to cry like a little girl, at her age. Come on now, it’s useless to cry!
Donna Mimma agrees, nods her head and dries her tears. She asks for permission to leave. The professor orders her to stay.
“Sit there! And just listen!”
Listen to what? She doesn’t understand a thing. She thought that, after thirty-five years in the profession, she knew everything, but instead she realizes she knows nothing, nothing at all.
“One step at a time, don’t despair!” the professor consoles her at the end of the lesson.
“Don’t despair, one step at a time,” repeat her classmates, moved to pity by her tears.
But as the famous implicit information referred to by Professor Torresi becomes more explicit to her, Donna Mimma, far from seeing things more clearly, cannot see anything anymore.
If before she held the idea of the process whole and solid inside of her, now that it’s been broken down, minced into bits, it has become confusing, lost in a slew of minute details, each of them with an odd, difficult name that she doesn’t even know how to pronounce. How can she retain all those names to memory? She tries very patiently every night, enunciating them from the manual, hunched over her little desk lit by an oil lamp in her meager rented room.
“Bi-sa… bi-sa-cro… bi-sa-cro-mial.”
Indeed, at school, one step at a time and with much struggle, she starts recognizing and marveling at each of those details, bursting out with comical exclamations:
“But this… gosh, is that what it’s called?”
Yet, she cannot see the reason for distinguishing them like that, with all those names. The professor makes her see it, forces her to see it. But then each detail becomes even more detached from the whole, it asserts itself as something on its own. And since there are many, many of those details, Donna Mimma cannot find her way around them.
It’s pathetic to see her when the professor calls on her during the obstetrics practicum at the maternity clinic. All her classmates are lying in wait for it, because that’s supposed to be her turf, where she’s had long years of experience. So much for that. The professor doesn’t let her do what she knows, but wants her to say what she doesn’t know. And even when it comes to doing and not saying, he still doesn’t let her do things her own way, the way she did them for many years without any problems, but according to the rules and principles of science as he has methodically taught them. As a result, when Donna Mimma gets busy doing things, she’s scolded for not sticking to those rules and principles; and when instead she holds back and does her best to pay attention to each rule and principle, she’s scolded anyway because she gets lost and confused and can no longer do anything properly, with confidence and precision.
But it’s not just all those details, rules and principles that encumber her so much. Deep inside of her there’s another, graver reason for her distress. She suffers as if a horrible violence were being perpetrated right where, to her, lies the meaning of life. She suffers, suffers unbearably before the crude, egregious spectacle of the function that for many years she regarded as sacred—because the shame and pain of every mother redeem the original sin in the eyes of God. She suffers and wishes she could cover up that spectacle as best as she can under the veil of decency. But no, there goes the veil, the professor brutally pulls it away from her and throws it in the air, that veil he calls hypocrisy and ignorance. And he mistreats her and mocks her using those vulgar terms on purpose, while those forty-two she-devils frolic around and laugh coarsely at the professor’s slurs, at his profanities, with no restraint or consideration for the poor patient, the poor miserable mother who all the while is lying there exposed, a guinea-pig to be studied and experimented on.
Mortified, filled with shame and anguish, Donna Mimma retreats to her little room at the end of every lesson and cries, wondering if she shouldn’t leave school and go back to her village. During the many years in which she practiced the profession she set aside a nice sum, enough to provide for her old age. She’ll be able to rest and relax, looking contentedly around her at all the village babies, toddlers, little boys and girls, adolescents, young men and women and their fathers and mothers, all of them, all of those whom, over the course of many years, she managed to deliver with neither rules nor principles, as the old mammana of fairytales on her ivory palanquin. But if she quits, she’ll give in to that nasty girl who, by now, has certainly replaced her by force as midwife to every family in the village. Should Donna Mimma just sit there and watch? Ah, no! There, there, she must get over her humiliation, suffocate her shame and anguish, and return to the village with her bona fide diploma, and scream it right in the face of that impudent tramp. Now Donna Mimma, too, knows the things that professors say, that God’s mysteries are one thing, but the works of nature are another.
Except that her little expert hands…
Donna Mimma stares at them pitifully through the tears. Will those hands still be able to move as they used to, now that they feel tied up by all these new scientific notions? Her little hands tremble and cannot see anymore. The professor gave Donna Mimma the spectacles of science, but made her lose, irretrievably, her natural sight.
What use will Donna Mimma have for those spectacles tomorrow, if she can no longer see?
Donna Mimma Returns
“Flavietta? Why, yes, little miss, she too. What did you think? In Palermo, of course, on the ivory palanquin. Yes, she was paid for with papa’s money. How much money? Over a thousand lire!”
“That’s right, I said lire but I meant onze. Over a thousand onze. What a sweetheart you are, setting me straight! Here, I want to make you a kiss, sweetheart… and another one… what a sweetie!”
Who’s talking like that? Look, it’s the Piedmontese! The same one who, just two years earlier, looked like a tomboy—green jacket, hands in her pockets. She has ditched the jacket and hat, and now she wears her hair like a village girl and over it, oh, a blue silk headscarf, tied loosely under her chin, and a beautiful long bright cotton shawl, with fringes and lace. The Piedmontese! And now she, too, talks about going to buy babies in Palermo on the ivory palanquin—with whose money? Papa’s? That’s right, she says papa because she speaks the proper language, of course! And she doesn’t give kisses, she makes them. Oh, she’s conquered them all with her proper Italian8 and dressing like a village girl. So nice!
“The shawl goes tighter around the waist!”
“Yes, just like that, just like that!”
“And the headscarf… no, pull it more to the front.”
“And over your head, like that!”
“Loose… a bit looser at the bottom; more open… that’s right, good job!”
Now, when she walks she looks down demurely, but there’s little harm done if every so often she casts a flirty little glance, or if a little smile reveals those lovely dimples on her cheeks. How sweet!
The mothers hear her calling them all Madam—“My respects, Madam!” “At your service, Madam!”—and they relish it (poor dears, with those big bellies!). They appreciate that, in dealing with her, it’s as if they, too, knew how to speak properly and were now familiar with all the refinement and civility of the continent. That’s right, because everybody knows that in the continent it’s customary to do things in a certain way. Also, isn’t it something? Now they can have the satisfaction of hearing everything explained to them, point by point as if by a doctor, with the exact scientific terms. And those terms cannot be deemed offensive, because by golly, nature may well be ugly, but it is what it is. God willed it like this, and it’s better to know things as they are, so that one can make plans, take precautions if needed, and even when in distress, one can at least have an understanding of what they’re suffering from and why. God’s will, sure, it says so in the Scriptures, “in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children,” but is it disrespectful towards God to study the wisdom of His design? Poor Donna Mimma, in her ignorance, contented herself with God’s will and that was that. This one, instead, respects God just the same, but on top of that, she explains everything about how God willed and designed the scourge of motherhood.
For their part, hearing the wondrous tale of the night journeys to Palermo on the ivory palanquin drawn by white horses under the moon, the children stare open-mouthed. The way she tells it sounds as if she were reading it to them, or as if they were reading it themselves in a beautiful book of fairytales in which the fairy leaps out of the page and stands right there before them, so that they can even touch her. This beautiful fairy must really travel in a palanquin under the moon if she brings their new little sisters and brothers all the way from Palermo. They stare at her almost in adoration. They say:
“No! Bad Donna Mimma! We don’t want her anymore!”
The trouble is that now the village women don’t want her either. With them ordinary folk, Donna Mimma would deal without much deference and treat them as if they had no right to complain during labor. Often, if it took a while, she would have no qualms about leaving them so she could quickly head over to dutifully assist some higher-class expectant lady. On the contrary, this one—oh, such a lovely young woman, beautiful inside and out!—is kind and patient with them, and does not discriminate. If a wealthier lady requests her immediate assistance, she replies politely but firmly that she cannot go right away because she’s busy with a poor ailing woman and cannot leave her. That’s right! It’s happened many times! Not to mention the fact that, for a girl who has not yet experienced those pains, she understands them quite well and does her best to alleviate them in each woman, no matter whether she’s wealthy or poor! She has ditched her hat, her frills and the airs of grand dame she had when she first came, and now she does her hair in their style, like a village girl, and wears her shawl and headscarf and looks like a darling!
Donna Mimma instead… what? With a hat? Yes, run, run over to see her! She’s arrived just now from Palermo wearing a hat, a hat this big! Mother of God, she looks like one of those monkeys that dance on top of barrel organs at the fair! Everybody has come out of their houses to see her. The street urchins have walked her all the way to her house banging on pots and pans as if they were following the Carnival nanna.9
“What? A hat, really?”
Yes, a hat. Hasn’t Donna Mimma earned her diploma at the university like the Piedmontese? It took two years of study—and very hard study, indeed! It made her hair turn gray, hair that was still black when she left for Palermo. And if the most distinguished doctor wishes to compete with her now, she’ll show him that it’s no longer worth trying to catch her off guard with high-falutin words because now she knows those high-falutin words, and even better than he.
The hat? What small town narrow-mindedness! After two years of study at the university the hat comes as a hard-earned right. All of her classmates wore it, and so now she does too, naturally.
The profession of obste—no, obstre—the profession of obstretician nowadays is hardly different from that of a doctor. The course of study is more or less the same. And doctors wear proper hats, they don’t walk down the street with ordinary caps on, do they? Why bother going to Palermo, otherwise? Why study for two years at the university? Why get a diploma, if not to earn an equal education and an equal status as the Piedmontese graduate from the University of Turin?
Donna Mimma is stunned and incensed when she finds out that the Piedmontese no longer wears a hat. Is that so? She ditched it? Yes, now she wears a shawl and a blue headscarf. And what does she do? What does she say? That she buys children in Palermo? Traveling on the palanquin? Ah, traitor! Ah, devil! So she did it all just for that, just to take the food right off of her plate! Murderer! She did it all just to get into the good graces of those ignorant villagers! What a devil! And the people… how can they let themselves be deceived by her, by the same one who used to say it was all nonsense and false modesty? But then, if this shameless hussy was going to end up serving as the village mammana exactly as Donna Mimma had done for thirty-five years, then why did she force her to leave for Palermo, study at the university for two years and get a diploma? Just so that she would have time to steal her position, that’s why! To take the food right off of her plate, to act like her, dress like her, say the same things she used to say! Devil! Murderer! Traitor and impostor! Ah, what… oh, God, what… what…
Donna Mimma’s blood rushes to her head. She cries angry tears and wrings her hands, still with her big hat on. She stomps her feet and her hat tips askew. And now, for the first time, an obscene word spills out of her mouth. No, she won’t take off her hat, ever! On her head it’ll stay in defiance! If that other one took it off, Donna Mimma has put it on, and on she’ll keep it! She did get her diploma. She did go to Palermo. She did kill herself studying for two whole years. Now she’ll no longer be just the little village comare, the little mammana, but the Obstretician, a graduate of the Royal University of Palermo.
Poor Donna Mimma, she keeps saying obstretician and she paces furiously up and down the tiny room of her house, where all the objects seem to be staring at her in bewilderment. They expected her to greet them with joy and lovingly caress them after being away for two years, but Donna Mimma has no eyes for them. She says she wants to look her right in the face, that miserable—and there goes another obscene word—, and see if she dares talk in front of her about ivory palanquins and buying babies. But for now Donna Mimma won’t take even a moment’s rest and intends to do the rounds and visit all the village ladies—just like that, with her hat on, yessir!—to see if, now that she’s back with her diploma in hand, they too will have the courage to turn their backs on her because of that floozy.
She walks out of her house, but as soon as she’s on the street she’s met again with gaping stares, laughs, jokes from impertinent, ungrateful rascals who forgot that she was the one who first welcomed them into the world, helping their mothers deliver them.
“Dirty mugs! Little shits! Sons of…”
They throw fruit peels and pebbles at her big hat, and hop around her making vulgar noises.
“Donna Mimma? What a surprise!” say the ladies, taken aback by that laughable, pitiful spectacle. With her big hat tipped askew and her bulging eyes reddened by tears and anger, Donna Mimma seeks, appearing before them in such a state, to arouse a hint of remorse. In her teary eyes is a painful reproach, as if they were the ones who forced her to study in Palermo, and who then made her come back wearing that big hat which, being the natural, albeit oversized, result of two years of study at the university, represents their betrayal.
A betrayal, yes, a betrayal, my ladies, because if you wanted the mammana that Donna Mimma used to be, a mammana with a headscarf and shawl who told your children the tale of the palanquin and of the little siblings bought in Palermo with daddy’s money, you shouldn’t have allowed her blue silk headscarf and shawl and old tales to be usurped by this cheeky continental who, when she first came straight from the university with her own hat on, had mocked Donna Mimma and, through her, them too. You should have said to the Piedmontese: “No, my dear: you forced Donna Mimma to study for two years in Palermo, to wear that hat so she wouldn’t be mocked by brazen little bitches like you, and now you take your own hat off? And you put on a headscarf and shawl to tell the tale of the palanquin, to steal the seat away from the one you sent off to study? What you’re doing is imposture. When she used to dress like that and talk like that, it was real! No, my dear: you’re betraying Donna Mimma, and in the same way as you mocked her for her headscarf and shawl and the old palanquin tale, now others will mock her for her big hat and the obstetric science she learned at the university.” That’s what you, my ladies, should have said to the Piedmontese. Or, if you truly prefer this “civilized” mammana who knows how to explain to you, point by point, how babies are made and even how they may not be made, then order her to put her hat back on, so that Donna Mimma, who followed a doctor’s course of study and returned with a hat on, won’t be subjected to such mockery!
But you, my ladies, shrug your shoulders and this tells Donna Mimma that you no longer know how to dismiss that other one. You justify yourselves saying she has already assisted you once and done a good job, a really good job, yes… and so you’re already committed to her for the next one… as for the future, you don’t want to make any promises, and so you say that, God willing, you might be done with this scourge of bearing children.
Donna Mimma cries. She would like to find some consolation at least among the children, and so to draw them closer she takes off that scary black hat, but it’s all in vain. The children don’t recognize her anymore.
“But how can that be?” asks Donna Mimma among the tears. “Flavietta, you used to look at me with such loving eyes… And you, Ninì—how’s that possible? You don’t remember me anymore? You don’t remember Donna Mimma? I was the one who went to buy you in Palermo with daddy’s money. I went, on the ivory palanquin… come here, little ones!”
The children don’t want to go near her. They keep at a distance, looking surly and hostile, staring at the ugly black hat on her knees. And so, after trying for a while to wipe the tears from her eyes and cheeks, seeing that there’s no use and that in fact she’s making things worse, Donna Mimma puts her ugly hat back on and leaves.
But it’s not just because of the ugly black hat that, as Donna Mimma believes, the whole village has turned against her. If it weren’t for the anger and the spite, Donna Mimma could just throw that hat away. But what about science? Alas, that science that tore her beautiful blue silk scarf from her head and replaced it with this ugly black hat; that science learnt late and poorly; that science that gave her a pair of spectacles and took away her sight; that science that mixed up all her thirty-five-year-old experience; that science that, at her age, cost her two whole years of torment. No, Donna Mimma will never be able to throw that science away, and that’s the real tragedy, the irreparable tragedy. Because tonight it just so happens that a neighbor, married for only a year and already about to become a mother, cannot find a single nook or cranny in the four little rooms of her house to get relief from her suffocating sense of turmoil. She goes out on the balcony, looks up to the… no, she’s the one who feels strangely looked at by all those stars twinkling in the sky. It’s as if those stars were prickling her flesh with pins and needles. She shivers and starts groaning and screaming that she cannot take it anymore! She can wait, they tell her, she can wait until tomorrow. But she says no, she says that if it keeps on like this, she’ll be dead before tomorrow. And so, since the other one, the Piedmontese, is busy elsewhere and has sent word that she’s very sorry but cannot come tonight, and since now there are two midwives in the village, well, they can try and call Donna Mimma.
What? Is that so? Donna Mimma? Who do they think Donna Mimma is—just a rag to plug a hole? She will not be a stand-in for that other one! In the end, however, she gives in to their entreats. She fixes her hat, very carefully, on her head, and off she goes. But did she really have to take this opportunity to demonstrate that she studied for two years at the university like that other one? That she now knows how to do things like the other one, even better than the other one, following all the rules of science and the principles of hygiene? Wretched woman! She insists on displaying them all one by one, those rules of science, and on applying every single principle of hygiene. She does so much displaying and applying that, at a certain point, the Piedmontese and the doctor himself need to be rushed over to save that poor laboring woman and her little creature, who almost die of suffocation, strangled by all those rules and principles.
Now it’s really all over for Donna Mimma. After this test no one will ever want to have anything to do with her—and understandably so. Embittered against the whole village, every day Donna Mimma goes down to the piazza, with her hat on her head, and makes a scene in front of the pharmacy, calling the doctor an ass and that Piedmontese thief who came to steal the food right off of her plate a little whore. Some people say she’s taken to the bottle because, when she goes home after these scenes, Donna Mimma cries inconsolably, and this, everybody knows it, often happens when one has been drinking.
Meanwhile, the Piedmontese, with her blue silk headscarf and long bright cotton shawl wrapped around her svelte, petite body, runs from one house to the other, looking down demurely, though every now and then she casts a flirty little glance and flashes a little smile that reveals her dimples. She says regretfully that it’s a shame Donna Mimma has come to such a bad way, because she had been hoping that Donna Mimma’s return to the village would bring her some relief. Relief, that’s right, because these blessed Sicilian daddies have too much money to spend on buying children, and they make her travel back and forth day and night on her palanquin.
Translated by Marella Feltrin-Morris
 Piazza Marina, in the center of Palermo, used to host a popular fair around November 2nd to commemorate the dead. According to a folkloric tradition still observed today, dead relatives return on the night between November 1st and 2nd to bring sweets and toys to children.