Authors: Dörthe Binkert
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Text copyright ©
2010 by Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH & Co. KG
English translation © 2014
by Margot Bettauer Dembo
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Portrait of a Girl
was first published in 2010 by
Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH & Co. KG, Munich,
Bildnis eines Mädchens
. Translated from German by
Margot Bettauer Dembo
. Published in English by AmazonCrossing in 2014.
Published by AmazonCrossing, Seattle
Library of Congress Control Number:
Cover design by: Lindsay Heider Diamond
Look at me so that I may exist.
—Old Egyptian saying
“Her name was Nika, and she was here for only one summer.” Achille Robustelli gazed thoughtfully at the painting hanging on his office wall; tomorrow it would belong to the man standing next to him. “Then she moved on. God knows where she finally ended up.”
The painting showed a green landscape and a nude young woman with long strawberry blonde hair gazing at her reflection in a pool of water.
“You mean the woman who posed for Segantini in this painting?” asked the man who had purchased the picture for fifteen thousand gulden. He was a Viennese collector who considered Giovanni Segantini one of the most exciting painters of the era. He took a step closer to the canvas. The painting wasn’t very large, about thirty-nine inches high and forty-nine inches wide. It had been completed the previous year, and was dated 1897.
“And how is it that this painting is hanging here in your establishment?” he asked with a note of puzzlement in his voice. “In a hotel, without protection? After all, Segantini doesn’t give away his pictures just like that.”
“It’s a long story,” Achille Robustelli replied, his voice suddenly hoarse with emotion. He cleared his throat and asked hesitantly, “Would you like to hear it?”
The collector nodded. “Of course. Every art lover likes to know the provenance of the artwork he acquires.” He sat down in one of the easy chairs arranged below the painting.
Achille Robustelli took the seat next to his guest and began his story.
“I met her for the first time two years ago, in 1896. It was toward the end of May, or perhaps it was already early June, and I realized much too late that I had fallen in love with he
r . . .
Maloja, May 1896
Gian blinked in the bright light as he looked up. “The sun makes you half-blind,” he mumbled, holding up one hand to shade his eyes and pointing skyward with the other. With one finger, he traced the circles a bird of prey was making overhead. Such birds were not uncommon in this rocky part of the Swiss Alps, but remarkable to Gian all the same.
“Come on, let’s go,” said his brother, Luca. Gian reluctantly lowered his hand, and for the first time noticed a person lying crumpled, motionless, a stone’s throw from the path they were on.
It was a young woman. Her eyes were closed. Her bare feet protruded from a long black woolen skirt. One of her ankles was badly swollen. Her shoes lay nearby.
“How did she get here?” Luca asked in surprise.
Gian looked up again into the cloudless sky. “She’s beautiful,” he said. “She’s not from around here.”
He looked at the girl’s face, reddened by the sun and by sleep, then turned away, as if it wasn’t proper to be watching. But Luca continued to stare at her, undeterred. Some blades of grass had gotten caught in her thick hair—slivers of bright green intertwined with her unruly strawberry blonde locks. That seemed odd, since there wasn’t a lot of new grass yet, especially not at this high altitude. Even though it was May, and they stood in the noonday sun, the air felt cool.
“Let’s wake her up,” Luca said. Just then, Gian saw the young woman’s eyelids twitch. She was awake, even though she hadn’t opened her eyes. Luca tugged gently at the shawl the stranger had wrapped around herself. Cautiously she opened her eyes, blinking in the bright light, just as Gian had done moments before. Then she closed them again.
“She’s exhausted,” Gian said, “and that ankle of hers doesn’t look good.”
“You sound like quite the expert,” Luca retorted. Then he raised his voice and asked the young woman, “Are you sick? Where are you going?”
She didn’t answer.
“Maybe you know where she’s headed,” Luca said to his brother, “since you seem to know so much about her.”
Gian knelt down next to the girl, touching her swollen ankle with a knowing hand. It wasn’t unusual for someone in the village or an animal to sprain an ankle. The young woman winced at his touch.
“She’s in pain,” he announced. “She can’t walk. But we’ll get her down the mountain to Maloja somehow or other.”
“You think we can?”
“Yes,” his brother said.
“She’s a strange one,” Luca said, and kicked away a rock.
But Gian was happy. Finally something had happened, something quite unexpected. He’d heard about meteorites that suddenly fell to earth from space and created deep craters. It felt a little like that with this girl—her appearance had interrupted the eternal sameness of their days.
Luca and Gian were coming down the path from Grevasalvas, where the farmers from Soglio summered their animals. Now that the weather was warmer, they were going to bring the cows up. That morning they’d begun putting the hut in order and building a fence around the pasture.
Luca pulled Gian off to one side. “What now?” he asked impatiently. “What are we going to do with her? Should we just sling her over our shoulders and carry her down?”
“She isn’t a ewe,” Gian said.
Meanwhile, the young woman was sitting up, leaning against a rock, and watching them. She had picked up her shoes and was holding them.
They could see she was wearing a white blouse under the rough woolen shawl still wrapped tightly around her. The topmost buttons were unbuttoned, so that you could see the hollow at the base of her neck. Luca pushed his black hat back and scratched his forehead. The girl was wearing a chain with a golden locket that glinted in the sunlight. In the center of the locket, a small gemstone glowed in the sunlight like a drop of red blood. It confused Luca. People who were so shabbily dressed never had any jewelry, or at most, they wore a little cross. It struck him as strange; there was something suspicious about it. He nudged Gian in the side, but his brother just smiled idiotically.
Luca put the stranger’s shoes into his rucksack. Then the two boys helped the young woman get up. They held her between them. She grimaced with pain.
“Put your arms around our necks,” Gian urged her gently. “You’re not heavy; we’ll carry you.”
She looks like a bird with a broken wing, he thought. It wouldn’t have surprised him if she really had wings. Broken wings. Because otherwise she certainly wouldn’t have ended up in this place.
Benedetta pulled the soup pot over to the edge of the stove, where it was less hot, deciding not to add any more wood to the fire. Where could Gian and Luca be? Gian always found something to distract him, to make him dawdle. Hard to believe that he was her oldest. Maybe it was because the birth had taken too long; neither the midwife nor the doctor had wanted to undertake the long, difficult journey to their house. Gian was a winter child, born in snow and ice, lucky that he had survived a birth that could have gone terribly wrong. Not like Luca. Luca was strong and would get along, as her husband, Aldo, liked to say. Aldo made sure that his favorite son didn’t miss out on anything. But Gia
n . . .
It was just as well if he spent the summer up in Grevasalvas with the cows. The quiet life was good for him, and he had fewer attacks up there. Besides, there really wasn’t much else he was able to do.
Benedetta stepped outside the front door and turned her face to the sun and the transparent blue sky of spring. The sky always seemed lower in the summertime. She glanced up to Lagrev. Then she blinked in disbelief. Luca and Gian were coming down the slope, but who was it were they dragging with them?
“There’s no room in the house for her,” Benedetta said firmly as soon as she saw the stranger.
“But we have to take a look at her ankle,” Gian said.
They let the young woman slide down onto a chair, and even Luca nodded in agreement. “Her ankle looks really bad. Is lunch still warm? We’re hungry. I’m sure she is too.”
Benedetta pointed to the soup pot and the bowls they used for everything—coffee, milk, soup, and polenta.
Then she bent down to the girl and said without much sympathy in her voice, “Let me take a look at your foot. Let’s see if it’s broken.” Carefully, she touched the swelling. The young woman winced.
“Where were you going?” Benedetta asked, thinking a question might distract the girl from the painful examination. But there was no reply.
“She doesn’t talk,” Gian said.
Benedetta straightened up and, putting her hands behind her back, turned to the young woman whose sea-green eyes were fixed on her. “The ankle is just sprained. But it’ll be a few days before you can really put any weight on your foot. I’ll make a compress. Gian, bring me the arnica tincture from the night table.” Benedetta put a bowl of soup in front of the girl. The whitish barley was thick and had soaked up almost all the liquid. “Here, first have something to eat,” she said. Her tone was kinder now, and she even fished a piece of sausage out of the pot.
The stranger hungrily ate the soup. Benedetta gave her a slice of bread as well. Then, while she was bandaging the sprained ankle, she returned to the subject that was on her mind.
“There’s no room here in the house.” Benedetta looked meaningfully around the room that served as both kitchen and living room. “For years we’ve wanted to go back to Stampa in the Bregaglia Valley.” She moved her head vaguely in the direction of the mountain pass. “But the way things turned ou
t . . .
We got stuck here because there’s always work at the hotel. Aldo, my husband, does carpentry. He works everywhere, that is, except here in the house, where there’s so much that needs to be done.” She checked the compress she’d placed on the young woman’s ankle. “But if you like, you can sleep in the barn until you feel better. Where are you from? And you probably have a name to
o . . .
La straniera non parla
,” Luca said. He was annoyed by the girl’s silence.
“But she can hear,” his mother insisted. As if to prove her point, she asked, “Are you tired? Do you want to lie down in the hay?”
The girl nodded gratefully.
“All right then. Luca, take the stranger to the barn. Here,” she turned to the young woman, “here’s a blanket so you won’t be cold.”