“Emilia! Emilia! Di nuovo! Di nuovo!”
Antonio tugged on Emilia’s skirt and she narrowed her eyes, picking up another undergarment to hang on the clothesline.
“No more, ino. There is work to do.” She nodded towards a soapy bucket and Antonio’s abandoned bench.
“Per favore!” Antonio whined.
Emilia’s resolve crumbled easily and she gave an exasperated sigh before she turned to face the room. I watched everyone’s face light up, but I couldn’t find the energy to allow myself to get caught up in their excitement.
“Fine. Only one more.” Emilia’s lips quirked up as she watched the round, eager faces stare up at her with great admiration. “Which story do you want to hear?”
“The jungle!” Isabella called out. She ran to the corner of the room and picked up a page of newspaper that was hidden strategically beneath a threadbare blanket.
When Emilia’s hands gripped the torn and tattered sheet, her body visibly relaxed, mimicking the bow of the clothesline strung behind her. Out of the six of us, she was the only one who had learned to read. She often didn’t know enough to read it word for word, so they became known as ‘stories,’ especially to Antonio and Isabella, the youngest of us.
“It was January twenty-two of nineteen and thirteen in a place called the jungle,” Emilia began.
The other children in the room edged forward inch by inch, already captivated. On any other day, I would have squeezed in next to them, but not today. I snuck a glance at the door, then the window, wishing I could catch a glimpse of the street.
“This jungle was not like the others. Most jungles have trees and animali. But not this one. This one had food. Cibo solo.”
Emilia’s eyes had barely glanced at the page. This story had been read many times.
“There was meat–carne–everywhere. It was stored in piles and piles e cumuli. There was so much extra food that the men put out bread for even i ratti–the rats.”
“Caspita! Che fortuna!” Benito exclaimed and stared wide-eyed at Emilia.
“Sì! The jungle people are lucky,” Isabella added.
“Emilia, can we go to the jungle?” Antonio asked, giving Emilia’s skirt a tug.
Once the children quieted, Emilia began again.
“The men–gli uomini–in the jungle had to use shovels to put it into carts. And then they put it in barrels–botti–”
“Emilia! Emilia! I hear orme!”
Ruth came running from the kitchen and into the room. The pieces of hair that had slipped from her braid whipped her cheeks as she glanced around, panic-stricken. Emilia and the rest of us froze. The noise of the other families in the tenement was loud, but not loud enough to cover the footsteps of someone coming down the hall.
“We must work!” Emilia hissed, jumping up.
As everyone scrambled to their stations, I picked up my needle and thread, almost puncturing myself in my haste. I watched the door anxiously, silently hoping to see a woman in red.
The door opened forcefully and Mrs. Moretti stepped inside, covered in a gray dress and a dirty white apron. My heart sank. Her eyes narrowed as she scanned the room. I saw the slight tremor of Emilia’s hand as she reached for a clothespin.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Moretti,” Emilia murmured, dropping her gaze.
“Are you finished with the Romanos’ baskets?” Mrs. Moretti’s voice was sharp and unwavering.
Emilia nodded toward the two baskets piled beside the door.
The pitter-pat of Ruth’s feet was heard and she appeared in the doorway of the kitchen, breathless once again.
“Bring these upstairs to the Romanos.”
Ruth disappeared through the doorway, hanging her head.
I gazed longingly at the door as it shut behind Mrs. Moretti. Of course she would forget what today was. I rose, continuing to sew the torn undershirt as I walked to the window and looked out. The smell from outside became almost intolerable, but I pressed my forehead to the glass regardless, looking down at the street. I often found myself enjoying watching the people who traveled down East 13th Street, but today I felt my stomach twist. My hands worked the needle and thread absentmindedly until the hole in the fabric was merely a bad memory. I had begun to turn away from the window to hand the undershirt off to be washed, but a flash of red appeared in the corner of my eye. My heart jumped into my throat at the possibility and I pressed as close to the window as I could, hoping to glimpse the vibrant color just once more. My eyes caught sight of a bird perched on a rooftop of a tenement down the street. Its feathers were mostly black, but the shoulder had a streak of red, then a smaller streak of yellow. I watched the bird for quite some time. Enough time for my heartbeat to calm to its normal rhythm. The bird eventually disappeared from my sight, leaving the drab buildings in its wake. My eyes searched and searched, but there were only shades of gray and brown below. I sighed and retreated from the window, feeling my heart sink even lower.
The rest of the day was filled with much of the same, as every day was. But, oh, how I dreamed of grandeur.
“Cena a é pronta! Dinner is ready,” Emilia called to the main room. I was slow to leave as I set down my needle and thread.
I entered the small kitchen and we brought our dinner, one by one, into the main room. Mr. and Mrs. Moretti gathered Ruth and Antonio while Mr. and Mrs. Colombo sat with Emilia, Benito, and Isabella. I watched longingly from my spot beneath the window. We soon joined hands.
“Benedici, Signore, noi e questi tuoi doni, che stiamo per ricevere dalla tua generosità. Per Cristo nostro Signore. Amen.”
Together, we began to eat. It was an ordinary meal of stew and half a roll of bread for each. I tried to suppress the deep longing for something more.
Once the plates had been cleaned, I was standing at the window and staring out when there a was the reflection of a flickering candle coming closer. I turned to see Emilia holding a candle on top of a small bar of chocolate. She was surrounded by the other children. They began to sing:
“Tanti auguri a te,
Tanti auguri a te,
Tanti auguri Clarissa,
Tanti auguri a te.”
“Happy birthday, Clarissa,” Emilia said.
I smiled softly at them as unshed tears filled my eyes.
“You didn’t have to do this,” I whispered.
“Sì. I did,” she replied. “Make a wish.”
I sucked in a deep breath before closing my eyes and blowing. There was only one thing on my mind.
“Grazie, Emilia,” I thanked her, giving her a hug.
The other children joined in and we fell to the floor in a fit of laughter. We stayed there for a while, sharing the small amount of chocolate. Once the light of the moon began to illuminate the room, Mrs. Moretti ushered us to bed and blew out the candles. I quietly laid down on my makeshift bed, a pile of folded blankets and rags, and smiled at the dark room around me. I couldn’t see the people around me, but I could hear their light breathing and rustling. I was content as I drifted into a peaceful sleep.
Rustling woke me. I could barely distinguish the silhouette above me, but I knew. I knew who it was. She gently laid a piece of heavy fabric over my body. Despite the darkness and absence of color, I knew in the daytime I’d wake to a red coat covering me. I knew.
“I’m here, tesora. I’m here. Buon compleanno.”