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  • Toti O'Brien

Crux: Toti O'Brien

If we, the editors of ZiN Daily, were surprised to read this piece, in how it both tells and deconstructs a family fable with such permeating magical realist traits that make us question the meaning and borders of nonfiction, it should not surprise us that such a piece was written and submitted by someone who calls herself "the Italian Accordionist with the Irish Last Name." Toti O'Brien is the only such Toti we've ever known.

In "Crux", the short but powerful piece presented below, O'Brien reveals generations of familial pain. Redemption comes, infallibly, in the form of transfigurations, and unexpected earthly embodiments. What do we call each other once we become holy? The answers are wrapped in rapt hope. Enjoy.

Toti O'Brien is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish Last Name. She was born in Rome then moved to Los Angeles, where she makes a living as a self-employed artist, performing musician and professional dancer. Her work has most recently appeared in The Capra Review, The Write Place at The Write Time, Hamline Lit Link, and Bindweed Magazine.



A man hammered at Michelangelo’s Pietà, breaking off Mary’s arm and nose, on the year he turned thirty-three. “I am Jesus Christ,” he shouted. Then what? Why did he attack the effigy of his Mother? Because she was paying attention to the wrong guy?

It occurs to me a Pietà (as a general iconographic definition) is a cross—two figures perpendicular to one another, two lines intersecting. There’s a sense of finality about it, a mood of re-signation (a cross is how illiterate folks used to sign). Something irreversible is accepted, then accepted again. Does the pose signify: “Might your will prevail”? Not quite. It means: “What else can I do?” And the answer is: “Nothing”. Whoever hammered at the sparkling marble might have added to the piece what Buonarroti had omitted—the agony, the scream, the desolation.

The artwork was immediately and perfectly restored. A good thing, out of respect for Michelangelo’s genius—a tortured one made of passion, obsession, strenuous labor. Yet those in charge of the repairing wanted the smashing to be recorded—for historical purposes, memory, witnessing. Thus the glue keeping the fragments together can be seen under a particular light, giving out a greenish glare. Only in such way the woman figure reveals its mended landscape. Lines of fracture. Deep scars. The geography of suffering. Underground faults—to the naked eye, in natural conditions, the surface appear compact and smooth.

Such pristine integrity didn’t make sense in the first place, did it? I hope you agree. You will, if you put yourself in Mary’s shoes for a second. What could she say admitted she’d be able to talk? Her son’s corpse on her knees. What could she say? He is dead and I am falling apart. I am shattered, God, I am in pieces. If I don’t die now, life will go on and somehow sew me back, I know. I’m not sure I want to.

Did Mr. Lazlo Toth, the Hungarian geologist, have a reason for maiming the Madonna? Was his act born of compassion? Was he correcting a prettiness too remote from bloody reality, too edulcorated, too false? I don’t think so. He had a hammer and a need for attention, plus some notions of how to get it. But the world forgot all about him. He died in a psychiatric ward. Did he have any fun during the long years of his survival? Was it all dullness and gloom? History doesn’t remember.


My great-great-grandmother (Lucy) said to my grandmother (Kathy) that she used to feed her daughter (Mary, Kathy’s mom and my great-grandmother) after this last was married and had given birth thrice. Mary died of her fourth delivery at age twenty-one. She had started at fourteen, having eloped one year earlier. Due to her continuous pregnancies, she had grown weak and thin as a sparrow. She had no strength left for feeding herself. Her mom took her in her arms, sat her laterally across her knees and pushed soupy, creamy, pudding-like concoctions through her lips. Something simple, to keep her alive.

Did she swallow? I don’t know, and do I care? She passed anyway. What captures my attention, though I don’t dare dwelling on it, is the other girl—that tiniest of things, my grandmother. This whole story was told to her, she said, after Mary was dead. Did it make up for her disappearing, her desertion? Kathy didn’t recall seeing her mom cuddled away. Where was she when this scene occurred? Had she been fed already? Would she afterwards? By whom? Had she ever suckled her ethereal, vanishing mother? Hard to believe Mary could have got milk in such state of depletion. With her pregnancies so closely following, little time would be left for prolactin to circulate in her veins. Had a wet nurse been sought? Did Kathy suckle the nurse while her mom sat in Lucy’s lap? All is possible, and why whatever arrangements were figured would matter? What is there to judge? Nothing. Kathy was cared for one way or another. Not only she survived. She died a ninety-eight-year old. Mary had worse luck, though her mom tried her best.

Still I can’t help perceiving a shadow—a tear, a blotch, a stain in the corner of the picture. A bundled-up figurine—grandma, one or two years old—trying to enter a darkened room full of golden dust, were a kind of sacred image is enthroned, almost motionless yet quivering with a rustling of taffetas, almost silent yet emitting small muffled sounds (a shush of reproach, a moan, an invitation, a plead). The small girl’s hand leans vertical against the door, both to push it open and to find support. She hesitates. She would like to get in but she needs encouragement—a sign of recognition, even at a distance. Just a moment and she’ll get it, I’m sure. Lucy will notice her, and smile.

Too late. Someone has taken hold of the child from behind, and is now leading her towards the opposite side of the corridor—maybe towards the kitchen. Such a different place—smelly, sharp, full of angles. Noisy and clattering, yet solid and comforting. She has been lifted onto a tall stool without back or armrests. Quite risky, but whoever rescued the girl will keep en eye on her. She is the quietest thing anyway, thank God. Now she is staring at the table in front of her, enthralled by an intricacy of cracks in the wood, all embroidered with spills, dirt, and crumbs—a fascinating geography. She looks down. She stares at a V-shaped confluence—rivers coming together. She knows nothing of rivers. Her eyes strain. They converge too much. They cross (giving her fistful of a face a strange severity, utterly ridiculous). They always will.


Did Mamie Till get to touch the body of Elmer, her son, when it finally arrived to Chicago by train? We know she chose to put it in a clear-lidded coffin—disfigured and maimed as it was—for the world to see. Did she touch it? Maybe not. Did she want to, at that point? I don’t know. She wanted the world to realize (as she had the strength and courage to openly formulate) he was a Christ sacrificed by human meanness, like Jesus (only nineteen years younger). She never claimed she was Mary, though the analogy is obvious.

For years, I have carried in my mind a picture of Mamie I have never seen (for it doesn’t exist). It is a nonsense product of my imagination—one of those collages the unconscious fabricates, patching odds and ends that don’t belong together. I see Mamie under a tall tree. She is very tall herself, though she is seated on dirt, her son lying on her knees, stretched across her thighs. He is tarred and feathered. Where did I get that? I have read an essay1 where the expression was used as a metaphor, to intend the boy was punished as traditionally done in the area where the violence occurred. Only, his punishment (for things he hadn’t committed) had been way more radical, tragic, cruel, definite. I know the facts. Still my mind has drawn this picture of him tarred and feathered.

I don’t know if he’s dead. I think he is. And those feathers, that tar, make it worse. They are like thorns. They are arrows piercing a young, innocent Saint Sebastian. Mamie needs to pull them one by one. They are needles into a haystack—millions of them. They are needles into the eyes of which generations of bulky camels are stuck. Mamie Till is paralyzed by helplessness and pain. Do I understand Elmer is Icarus, spat out from the sky? If yes, no hubris has caused his fall. Hubris doesn’t exist. Not because he flew too close to the sun he precipitated. Does Mamie know? Does she care? Does it change anything? He was stabbed by those who envied him. Perhaps angels? I bet. Perhaps god-the-father himself. The boy was tossed down by those who can’t stand seeing anything rise.

Stop the metaphor. Stick to the facts. He is dead. The tree hovering above Mamie Till hovering above her child is naked, leafless, upturned. Its branches clumsily claw at gravel and stones, its root aimlessly grope the dry air. The tree also came from the sky—it happens in such days when the universe is head over heels. Days of revolution.


Katy’s (my grandmother’s) last son married at the age of thirty-three. She was sixty-three by then. On his wedding day she had trouble swallowing. Her esophagus cramped up and shut. Diagnosis for her ailment didn't come easy. Sometimes her illness was given physiological causes (such as cancer), sometimes mental. She spent a long time in psychiatric institutions, then in hospitals. She was prescribed all sorts of medications, heavily altering her state of lucidity. Not her mood. She remained very meek, very quiet. The whole medical circus didn’t have the slightest effect. She could not gulp a thing for the next thirty-five years.

She needed to be fed a semiliquid diet—soupy, creamy, pudding-like concoctions. But they did hardly pass, and she got tired. Someone had to help her, encourage her, a small spoonful at a time. Usually that somebody was me—a teen, still home. And why not. I have mashed, smoothed and spoon-fed my grandmother’s meals for as long as I remained at my parents’. Of course she never sat on my knees. Grandma dear. There are things that can’t be repaired.

1John Edgar Wideman, Fatheralong, Harper Magazine, 2010


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The image of Quasimodo is by French artist Louis Steinheil, which appeared in  the 1844 edition of Victor Hugo's "Notre-Dame de Paris" published by Perrotin of Paris.


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