Exclusive Look Inside: The Curse

Wash Away Your Sins

Mama was acting strange. In itself, that wasn’t so strange. Mama was always a little bit off-kilter, but this weird interlude still stood out from the crowd. It was hard to say exactly when Mama started acting strange because it had always been the background noise to their life together. Not a day went by that she didn’t consult her cards or read her tea leaves before making a decision.

It was probably harder to see when the rest of the world was just as chaotic as the storm going on inside her head. When the earth was shaking, and they had to flee across country, all her talk of curses and magic seemed almost logical. It was hard to see the earth shudder and shuck you from your home without feeling like there were some dark forces at work.

Since they’d settled here and life had become more comfortable, Giuseppe had hoped that all of that would fade back into the background. It had not. If anything, access to a little bit of wealth had only exaggerated all of the problems, as though she’d always been waiting to blossom into this thing — this sideshow to the village. There wasn’t a man or woman in town that didn’t know his mother now, and none of them would have spoken about her fine sons or her soap shop in the first breath. There would’ve been stories about her reading their palms, warning them of dire omens, giving them the kind of spiritual guidance that the church would never dare. Among the young people of Correggio, there was an edge of humour about it. They rolled their eyes at their superstitious mothers asking advice from the fortune teller. Yet, none of them would stray from his mother’s advice if she gave it. They doubted if her fortunes were true, but the old superstitions ran deep even now, and they wouldn’t put themselves in harm’s way just for the sake of proving her wrong.

That was the background strangeness that Giuseppe wouldn’t have even remarked upon — the strange way that his mother lived on the periphery of society in town yet somehow managed to control so much of what went on. When he finally moved away, it was one of the many things that he was looking forward to never dealing with again.

He loved his mother, just as surely as he knew she loved him, but her certainty in the truth of her visions and premonitions made her difficult to live with. There would be days when he would walk past the soap shop and see that it was still shuttered at midday because Mama had a bad dream about something the night before and had to spend her day purifying herself in the woods. There would be nights when he stirred in his sleep to find her looming over him like the hag of the old wives’ tales, muttering under her voice in languages that he couldn’t understand. The first time he’d found a talisman under his pillow, made of bird bones and bright thread, he cast the thing out of his window in disgust, but now, he accepted such things as a part of her love for him. She saw the world through this lens, and these strange little gifts and blessings were her way of showing that she cared.

The only trouble was, Mama couldn’t be reasoned with. Normally, that meant little things like only eating fish for supper on a certain day, or walking to work by a different route, and he went along with it, unquestioning. He may not have had his friends’ cowed approach to his mother’s proclamations, but where they might have obeyed her to avoid some punishment from the universe, he did it because weird or not, she was his mother.

Today, it meant something different. Mother had stopped him from going out this morning, saying she had plans. She looked different from normal. Her usually full-face looked gaunt, her eyes sunken. She reeked of the chemicals that she used to make her soaps, and there were little scratches and burns on her palms when she brought them up to cup his cheeks and press a kiss to his forehead. She had been up all night working again. It was not often that these frenzies of activity took her, but each time they did, the shop would be almost entirely restocked in one fell swoop, and their kitchen at home would be left looking like a train had run through it — another one of the small oddities of character that Giuseppe had never really considered too seriously before.

The things that he’d taken for granted all his life were now standing in stark contrast to the future that he’d laid out before him. For the first time, he would live a life of his own, outside of his mother’s long shadow. He would have men, brothers-at-arms, all around him, and together, they’d drive back the moral degeneracy that flooded into Italy from all sides. They wouldn’t quiver at the footsteps of some old woman, no matter what fortune she told for them. They’d drive back the enemies of fascism and see the world put right, with the strength of arms and the force of their will. These were solid things. Real things that nobody could deny. Not like the half-baked dreaming of his mother that, even now, in his final days trapped under her control, he marched in step with.

He was a grown man. He shouldn’t be so subservient to any woman, least of all his mother. Yet, when she came to him with a tremor in her voice and a kiss on his brow, he would’ve done anything for her. If she’d asked him to turn aside from his course, suffer the indignity of being marked a coward, and stay home, here with her, then he would have. Pride or not, he loved his mother without condition. But all that she wanted was his help around the house. She was too short to reach the tin bath on top of the wardrobe, and she wanted him to have one last wash before he tried on his new uniform. That was the trouble with Mama’s odd behaviour. It always started out sounding so calm and reasonable that it was only when the sun had set, and you were still wandering the woods looking for a very specific kind of spider’s web, that you realised you’d been dragged over the precipice of madness again.

How could anyone argue with their mother suggesting they take a bath and look their best for their first time out on parade? It was the most reasonable thing that Giuseppe had ever heard coming out of her mouth, yet just one glance at her glazed expression spoke volumes. There was some great working rattling around behind her stare, some new crazed intention behind her very reasonable request. Yet still, he obeyed.

With a grunt and a heave, he fetched the corroded old bath down, and with far less complaining, he set about carrying the pans of hot water through from the wild mess of the kitchen to the silent living room where it had been set in front of the empty hearth. He might have complained about the state of the kitchen, but he couldn’t deny that the soaps that she’d been making smelled absolutely delightful. It was some new recipe, rich with the usual perfumed oils, but tempered with some soft creaminess that he didn’t recognise. The same intuition that led Mama down strange paths also brought her to exotic ideas. Without her adventurous spirit, he had no doubt that the soap business would have closed down years ago. She conjured new ideas as if out of thin air, and for every one that had turned his hair green or left his eyes watering at its scent, there’d been a dozen that were so good that the shop had sold out of them in weeks, with people travelling in from across the countryside around Reggio Emilia, as news spread.

He would ask her to give him a bar to take away with him when he travelled so that he could remember home each time he stopped to wash. That was the kind of sentiment that she appreciated. It might make her well up with tears, but he supposed that’s what she expected of him. She would cry, but she’d be satisfied that he was going to miss her instead of suspecting that he couldn’t wait to be free of her. The truth wouldn’t have brought tears — it would’ve brought the hook-clawed, slack-mouthed rage that he’d only had the misfortune of witnessing a few times in his life. He’d rather she cried and thought kindly of him.

By the time the last pot of water had been carried through, the water had begun to cool enough that it only reddened his skin instead of blistering it. By the time that he undressed, he would be able to tolerate it. He started on the buttons of his nightshirt, but Mama wandered into the room, and he paused. She had the new soap clutched in her hands, creamy white against her raw fingers. Her stare wasn’t fixed on him. It was as if he wasn’t even in the room. She was lost in the labyrinth of her thoughts, chasing whatever her latest obsession was through all the twists and turns that would’ve left a normal woman howling in an asylum. There was no etiquette for situations like this, so Giuseppe stood paralyzed by confusion until she dragged her stare back into focus and came over to him, tutting. Those same wizened hands reached out to unbutton his shirt as he mumbled his protests, and when she abruptly yanked the cloth over his head and out of his fumbling hands, he immediately moved to cover himself, cupping his hands over his manhood.

For the first time, Mama seemed to be herself again, aware of what was happening around her. She cackled, ‘You think I’ve never seen one before? You think I’ve never seen that one before? I dressed and bathed you for all your years, and now you’re getting shy?’

He may have been a grown man now, but he hadn’t been a grown man for long enough to refute anything she’d said to him. He bleated, ‘Mama!’ and tried to back away, but she had a dry hand in the small of his back now, pushing him forward towards the tub. ‘In you get. Before it gets cold, come on now. Such fussing.’

When she said it, it all sounded reasonable, yet every part of him wanted to scream. This was too strange by far. He didn’t like it. He stepped into the tub, if only to get away from her. He sank into the water with a soft hiss of pain, to hide as much of his bare skin from her gaze as he could.

She still wouldn’t leave. She hovered there by the side of the bath, the soap snatched up from the stool and in her hand again. He reached out for it, hoping that if she could just fulfil her purpose here, she’d leave, but instead of passing it over, she took hold of his hand. ‘You are very precious to me, Giuseppe.’

‘I know, Mama. You’re precious to me, too.’ He tried to pull his hand back but succeeded in dragging her to her knees by the side of the tub. Her grip was like a vice.

‘If something were to happen to you, I wouldn’t be able to bear it. My heart, it would break.’ She dipped the soap into the water and started rubbing it up his arm.

‘Mama, I can wash myself.’

‘You’re my baby, and I’ll always take care of you. No matter what happens. No matter what it costs. I will take care of you, Giuseppe. I promise this to you.’

He’d stopped straining now, worried that he’d drag the old woman into the tub with him. His expression softened. She was just sad that he was leaving. This was just her bizarre way of showing it, like the talismans and the chants. He smiled up at her. ‘I know, Mama, I know.’

‘Such a good boy.’

Mama worked the soap into a lather on his chest, and he let her. He only had to endure this discomfort for a little while, after all. He’d then, finally, be free.

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