Cuore (Chapter 44)
Edmondo De Acimis
THE INFANT ASYLUM
After breakfast yesterday my mother took me, as she had promised, to the Infant Asylum in the Corso Valdocco, in order to recommend to the directress a little sister of Precossi. I had never seen an asylum. How much amused I was! There were two hundred of them, boy-babies and girl-babies, and so small that the children in our lower primary schools are men in comparison.
We arrived just as they were entering the refectory in two files, where there were two very long tables, with a great many round holes, and in each hole a black bowl filled with rice and beans, and a tin spoon beside it. On entering, some grew confused and remained on the floor until the mistresses ran and picked them up. Many halted in front of a bowl, thinking it was their proper place, and had already swallowed a spoonful, when a mistress arrived and said, “Go on!” and then they advanced three or four paces and got down another spoonful, and then advanced again, until they reached their own places, after having fraudulently disposed of half a portion. At last, by dint of pushing and crying, “Make haste! make haste!” they were all got into order, and the prayer was begun. But all those on the inner line, who had to turn their backs on the bowls for the prayer, twisted their heads round so that they could keep an eye on them, lest someone might meddle; and then they said their prayer thus, with hands clasped and their eyes on the ceiling, but with their hearts on their food. Then they set to eating. Ah, what a charming sight it was! One ate with two spoons, another with his hands; many picked up the beans one by one, and thrust them into their pockets; others wrapped them tightly in their little aprons, and pounded them to reduce them to a paste. There were even some who did not eat, because they were watching the flies flying, and others coughed and sprinkled a shower of rice all around them. It resembled a poultry-yard. But it was charming. The two rows of babies formed a pretty sight, with their hair all tied on the tops of their heads with red, green, and blue ribbons. One teacher asked a row of eight children, “Where does rice grow?” The whole eight opened their mouths wide, filled as they were with the pottage, and replied in concert, in a sing-song, “It grows in the water.” Then the teacher gave the order, “Hands up!” and it was pretty to see all those little arms fly up, which a few months ago were all in swaddling-clothes, and all those little hands flourishing, which looked like so many white and pink butterflies.
Then they all went to recreation; but first they all took their little baskets, which were hanging on the wall with their lunches in them. They went out into the garden and scattered, drawing forth their provisions as they did so,—bread, stewed plums, a tiny bit of cheese, a hard-boiled egg, little apples, a handful of boiled vetches, or a wing of chicken. In an instant the whole garden was strewn with crumbs, as though they had been scattered from their feed by a flock of birds. They ate in all the queerest ways,—like rabbits, like rats, like cats, nibbling, licking, sucking. There was one child who held a bit of rye bread hugged closely to his breast, and was rubbing it with a medlar, as though he were polishing a sword. Some of the little ones crushed in their fists small cheeses, which trickled between their fingers like milk, and ran down inside their sleeves, and they were utterly unconscious of it. They ran and chased each other with apples and rolls in their teeth, like dogs. I saw three of them excavating a hard-boiled egg with a straw, thinking to discover treasures, and they spilled half of it on the ground, and then picked the crumbs up again one by one with great patience, as though they had been pearls. And those who had anything extraordinary were surrounded by eight or ten, who stood staring at the baskets with bent heads, as though they were looking at the moon in a well. There were twenty congregated round a mite of a fellow who had a paper horn of sugar, and they were going through all sorts of ceremonies with him for the privilege of dipping their bread in it, and he accorded it to some, while to others, after many prayers, he only granted his finger to suck.
In the meantime, my mother had come into the garden and was caressing now one and now another. Many hung about her, and even on her back, begging for a kiss, with faces upturned as though to a third story, and with mouths that opened and shut as though asking for the breast. One offered her the quarter of an orange which had been bitten, another a small crust of bread; one little girl gave her a leaf; another showed her, with all seriousness, the tip of her forefinger, a minute examination of which revealed a microscopic swelling, which had been caused by touching the flame of a candle on the preceding day. They placed before her eyes, as great marvels, very tiny insects, which I cannot understand their being able to see and catch, the halfs of corks, shirt-buttons, and flowerets pulled from the vases. One child, with a bandaged head, who was determined to be heard at any cost, stammered out to her some story about a head-over-heels tumble, not one word of which was intelligible; another insisted that my mother should bend down, and then whispered in her ear, “My father makes brushes.”
And in the meantime a thousand accidents were happening here and there which caused the teachers to hasten up. Children wept because they could not untie a knot in their handkerchiefs; others disputed, with scratches and shrieks, the halves of an apple; one child, who had fallen face downward over a little bench which had been overturned, wept amid the ruins, and could not rise.
Before her departure my mother took three or four of them in her arms, and they ran up from all quarters to be taken also, their faces smeared with yolk of egg and orange juice; and one caught her hands; another her finger, to look at her ring; another tugged at her watch chain; another tried to seize her by the hair.
“Take care,” the teacher said to her; “they will tear your clothes all to pieces.”
But my mother cared nothing for her dress, and she continued to kiss them, and they pressed closer and closer to her: those who were nearest, with their arms extended as though they were desirous of climbing; the more distant endeavoring to make their way through the crowd, and all screaming:—
“Good by! good by! good by!”
At last she succeeded in escaping from the garden. And they all ran and thrust their faces through the railings to see her pass, and to thrust their arms through to greet her, offering her once more bits of bread, bites of apple, cheese-rinds, and all screaming in concert:—
“Good by! good by! good by! Come back to-morrow! Come again!”
As my mother made her escape, she passed her hand once more over those hundreds of tiny outstretched hands as over a garland of living roses, and finally arrived safely in the street, covered with crumbs and spots, rumpled and dishevelled, with one hand full of flowers and her eyes swelling with tears, and happy as though she had come from a festival. And inside there was still audible a sound like the twittering of birds, saying:—
“Good bye! Good bye! Come again, madama!”