Youth The Faithful Shadow
Here I am, old and decrepit, fidgeting, with nothing to do. My backside is sore, the little flesh cannot pad the brittle bones, and they rebel against my continually sitting. My legs lack the confidence to move this dried up carcass of mine. My arms are clumsy. My hands, oh my lovely hands. How proud I was of them. Now they are bony and only the blood vessels are the same, pitilessly exposed by the shrinking flesh.
I find myself looking at them, and I cannot help but admiring them. My blood vessels are like a river that flows in a desolate landscape, which has been subject to a long drought. They remind me of the strength I used to have. You see, I had big hands and I could pack
My eyes are sharp as they ever were; they don’t deserve to reside in this cadaverous skull of mine; they can still cast a telling glance. My voice is resonant and the spirit within me is still wild, and very helpful to the enfeebled body, willing away that dark ominous presence lurking, stalking me in the background. To me it is the shape of a woman and the experience of time immemorial has endowed her with reason and confidence.
I find myself wishing to get hold of her and give her a taste of my knuckles just to let her know who I am and what I am made of. It’s like an obsession, I know she will get me, but I promise you, she will not have an easy passage. So may the Lord of Heaven help me.
I try to do things around the house, but the moment the daughters see me they brush me aside, patronisingly, “Sit down and rest, we can do it”. I drag myself into the vegetable garden to potter about and the men yell at me, “Do you have to do it?”
“Yes,” I say.
“Why?”, they answer.
” Because I want to – anything else you want to know?”
“Suit yourself, but you should not be doing it, you know.”
But they don’t seem to understand that to plant something, to graft a new tree, to water a flower gives me a purpose, to see the result, to monitor their progress gives me interest. No, they are not going to deprive me of my little joys. But to think that all my life I’ve done things for a better future. Often the present has been painful and full of deprivation. What for? For a better future! But what’s the future? When and where does the present end and the future begin? I cannot sort that one out. You try.
I feel tricked. I think the future is like the top of a mountain. You climb its difficult face, looking up all the while, telling yourself: “after I reach the top everything will be all right”. You don’t realise that once you reach the top you cannot stay there. Life must go on and where do you go from the top? Down, friend, you go inexorably down and you know that at the bottom the earth is eagerly waiting to take you into the abyss of the unknown. You try to slow your descent; reaching for everything you can get hold of without losing sight of the top you left behind You ask yourself: is the future only a downward slide? After a while, you lose sight of the peak. Then you start concentrating on the things around you, they are small but have meaning, and you find you have ceased to hurry.
You start to take more care of your family, thinking they are the future now. However, to them you are the roots. It is like a tree: the roots anchor the plant to the ground, but the branches are only interested in shooting up towards the sky. They seek air, sun, freedom and to bear fruit. In the end, the circle is complete. You were useless when you came into this world and are useless when you are about to go out. The only consolation is that it is the same for everybody. You reach a stage when the future is too dismal a prospect to contemplate, so what do you do? Well, friend, you turn around and the past becomes alive again. You begin to relive your life and wish it were now, you wish it to come back to keep you company.
It seems yesterday when I was a youngster of seventeen years when my fists had their baptism of fire.
On a warm summer night of 1914, after a long and arduous day’s work in the field, I felt I had to pay a visit to a nice young girl. Her name was Rita; she had beautiful brown eyes and long chestnut hair. Her rosy cheeks and witty spirit were like paradise, and they exhilarated me. I was breathing heavily and my heart was burning. I didn’t know why, but I felt elated and blushed a lot. My smile was shy, my ways were naïve, and my heart had the will but lacked the sparkle of confidence.
Not that I did very much: In those days, winking an eye was a pass! A dare veiled in quick secrecy that conveyed love. However, she was so attractive that she drew me like a beacon, and whenever I could, I followed her in the hope of exchanging that magical fleeting glance. Oh, that furtive look expanded my chest and held my breath, making me beam with inner excitement that sent me back home with winged feet. Oh! Rita, oh, Rita.
I should introduce myself to you. My name is Carlo Nispita, and I was eighteen years old, five feet eight inches tall and still growing, with brown eyes and short brown hair. I am the only son of a comfortable farming family.
Back then, my native village had three separate zones: the old part, the new, and the countryside. During the day, it was easy to move about, but at night, anyone crossing from one zone to another did so at his own risk. Each zone had its own gang: the old part had the Dogs, the new part had the Cats and the outsiders were the Rats. I was a Rat.
Rita lived in the old part of the village and as the urge to see her grew I brushed aside the fear of being beaten up. My world was Rita. I didn’t care for gang warfare and their petty squabbles. That rabble had nobody to care for; I had Rita and felt contempt for them.
So on this beautiful night, full of moon and stars, full of glow-worms and alive with the humming of cicadas and crickets, I set off for her house. I walked for twenty minutes before I reached the village. I felt good in my light grey trousers, bright coloured short-sleeved shirt. My sandals were weightless after the clogs I wore during the day in the hay field.
In the perimeter of the village I met three of the cats.: two of them I knew, the third was older with squat shoulders, and he sported a moustache that in the extremities it turned upward like two miniature tentacles. He kept twisting and caressing them while talking to me, which made me feel like a baby, as I had not had my first shave yet. He read my thoughts and pressed the advantage home, saying:
“Don’t you know it is not good for little boys to wander off alone at night? … Does your mother know what you are up to?”
“Yes,” I said meekly.
“You should be at home drinking your milk.”
He pressed my chest with his forefinger. The bastard – I thought, and went numb. Nevertheless, he looked tough and strong and had two stooges that gave him morale support.
The thought of Rita flashed across my mind. This encounter was only the beginning. I felt I wanted to turn and run back home, but I knew if I moved they would set upon me like hound on a hare. My grandfathers and grandmothers lived in a house in the new part of the village, so I stood my ground, trying to look angelic and said tremulously,
“I’ve come to collect something from grandfather’s house, we need it tomorrow. I’m sorry if I inconvenienced you.” I lied, what a creep I was. I felt like strangling the man, but outward I was larding him with my submission
“What’s your name?”
I realised that my feigned humility was getting the right result.
“Carlo Nispita.” I said feebly.
“Ah, is your father Nicola Antonio?”
“Yes,” I said bending my head with pride.
“All right, you can get your things, but be quick about it.”
“Oh, thank you. Thank you very much.” And hurried away.
I was relieved and falsely grateful, but I did not intend to take his patronizing advice. I bolted along and could feel them looking in my direction with satisfied scorn, gloating over the fright he thought he had given me. Once I was out of sight, I changed direction, keeping to an unlit alley. Inside the zone, I felt safe, but I realized that to get out would be another matter. I was still smarting at the treatment I had received. My gut was rambling as if knotted with nerves. My hurt pride was recriminating at my inner-self prompting satisfaction.
I was feeling angry. A cold sweat indicated that the instinct for recrimination and common sense were at war. I needed both. Confused, I punched the air with impotent fists. The warm night air filled my nostrils with the stench coming from the animal stalls.
The sound of footsteps brought me back to reality. I started to walk away from the approaching sound, wondering if one of the cats followed me. I hoped not, as he would have notice I was heading the wrong directions. Alternatively, if he were a stranger he would think I was either a lunatic or a thief. While walking I casually turned round and saw the shape of a man, a big man following me. On the other hand, he might simply have been going my way. I quickened my strides, changed alleys and ran.
I wanted to see Rita and it was too late to change my mind now, but the shadow behind me was still at my heels. I directed myself towards the old part of the village, and at the boundary between the zones found a group of Cats guarding their territory against an invasion by the Dogs. The two factions were eyeing each other, and exchanging insults.
There were no trees, just houses. In the middle Ages, the Dogs’ territory had been an impregnable fortress. The old part of the village was on a tongue of land naturally protected by precipices all around except at the gate It was still occupied by cattle as well as people and the stench from the animal stalls was fouling the breeze and the flies. Were annoying beasts and humans alike. They made no distinction. If it had not been for Rita I would have gladly avoided the place. But Rita was there and nothing else mattered, so without hesitation I continued my approach.
The Cats surprised at my audacity looked startled. Then somebody shouted at me.
“Who is he?” asked another.
“Come back here” the first continued calling to me. “Do you hear?” However, their questions turned into greetings of scorn. I was in no man’s land and the Dogs were already barking away at me. I looked back at the Cats’ and found out who had been following me. It was Rualdo, the village fool. He towered above everybody, a clumsy Gulliver among a crowd of alert and mocking Lilliputians. He was tall, had a big head, big feet and hands, but above all the men teased him about his private. According to rumor, it could pass for the property of a donkey. Of course, their mocking was suppressed jealousy.
My walk came to a sudden halt as someone said,
“Where do you think you are going?”
“Eh?” I said, trying to sound surprised as the false laughter of the watching Cats’ starting echoing in my ears. I felt that they were expecting a bit of fun at my expense as the Dogs confronted me.
“I said, Where the bloody hell are you thinking of going?” The voice repeated with venom. It was Rita’s brother, Alfio. He was taller than I was, two years older than me, good looking, with brown eyes and long chestnut hair. Now his creased forehead, clenched teeth and tight lips showed me another side to him. He looked ugly and mean. His vest covered only his chest and his shoulders shone like those of a fighter raring to go.
Three of his companions were moving in around me, their shadows following and proceeding in an ever-changing pattern, which was distracting and disturbing. I blushed, thankful to have the moon and the lamppost behind me. They were seeking any excuse to beat me up. I could clearly sense it, the eagerness in their eyes, rubbing of their hands were the outward signs spelling doom for me.
“Hey, I’m talking to you. What do you want?” Alfio abruptly addressed me
“Well, I’m on my way to ask your father whether – “
“My father is not at home and I don’t want you coming around our place any more. Is that clear?”
Oh, that hurt, but I managed half-heartedly: “Why? I’ve done nothing wrong.”
“Of course not, I made sure of that. Nevertheless, you are a buzzing fly around my ear. It annoys me that an oaf like you keeps giving stupid smiles at my sister. Do you understand? Now go and practice your smile on your cows.” He glanced at his stooges who promptly closed in on me. Alfio stayed aloof. I backed away while looking at him.
“Thank you very, very much, Alfio.” I said shaking my head in disappointment.
“Oh, go to hell and stay there.” He replied curtly. One of his friends kicked my backside; the other two started slapping me around the face, mocking in dismissive patronizing way that hurt. Oh how it hurt!
“Now what do you want to do? You lost your way … You are a long way from home… Your mamma must be missing you” It went on for a long short time and all the time. Two of them gently slapping me around the face and head while the other kicking my backside. While they were not hurting my body, they were annihilating my pride and self-respect. They boxed me in and toyed with me like cats with mice.
I lost my cool and lashed out. My fists waved randomly, hitting nobody. From a safe distance, Alfio was the spectator showing sign of pleasure at my discomfort.
Then, more by instinct than reason, I realized that I must use my brains rather than my fists. I half turned and my elbow sank into the chest of one of my tormentors. A grunt of pain, a bending forward, and my fist met his face. Like a yo-yo, he changed direction and fell flat on his back. I was astounded to find that I packed some powerful punches.
The other two, shocked more than surprised, backed off temporarily, and Alfio lost his grin of satisfaction. I went and I hit the one next to me on the side of the head; he fell on his side, tried to get up, but collapsed with a lamenting grunt of pain. I looked for the other but he bolted running like scared rabbit chased by hounds. Maybe he was in need to change his underpants. Alfio looked apprehensively at his fleeing stooge, then at me. Galvanized, I challenged him motioning with my hand for him to come closer.
“Come on big boy. What are waiting for? You scared! …No stooges to help you now, it is just you and me” I moved all charged up like a torero tempting the bull.
He did not move. He could not believe what he witnessed. He looked at me and then at the two floored colleagues
“You are a scared rabbit, only brave when other people do your dirty work.” I taunted him, “You are a worm, a slimy snake who should live under a stone. That’s your place, you gutless nobody you.. And I believed you had guts. You are a piece of shit”
Alfio slowly began coming closer and thundering like Moses coming back from the mountain.
“I’ll make you eat those words, then push your teeth down your throat!”
“I’m waiting, I’m waiting. Come on.” I met him with a blow to the mouth, blood squirted from his nose. His hand covered it. I kicked him and, and he bent over, my fist met his chin, and he landed on his back. It was all over. I could not believe it. I wanted more. I came to the village wanting a glimpse of love, played the creep in face of derision, lost my cool when confronted with offensive manners and in doing so I discovered a new me. Like a gladiator looking around the arena, I weaved my chest. I felt good, and looked at my hands admiringly, saying,” Hello, nice to meet you.”
The cats looking from across the street muted watched me. No wonder I was not one of them, suddenly they had a perilous adversary, better not to provoke him
The thought of Rita flashed across my mind, but now I had no time for her. I was too pleased with myself. I turned around and started walking proudly back home.
The Cats decided to encourage Rualdo to have a go at me. He looked in my direction but didn’t move. As I closed towards them, I distinctly heard them say,
“Go on, show him.”
“What do I tell him?” he asked.
“Don’t tell him anything. Just bash him, that’s all.”
I was past them when Rualdo called me. “Hey,” he said, starting after me. I stopped and turned slowly. This feeble-minded giant sent on an errand he could not understand. I remained calm and before he could speak, I bade him good evening.
“Why did you fight them?” He sounded puzzled.
“Well, Rualdo, I’ll tell you, but only if you promise me you won’t tell ”
“Why?” He was unconvinced.
“Your so-called friends are making a fool of you.”
“Because all they want to do is make fun of you.”
“No. They make me feel good, they make me feel big,” he said in their defense.
“Rualdo, believe me, it is you who make them feel big, they think you are stupid. But you’re not, and that’s why I fought them tonight. You are a good man, and I resent what they say about you.”
“What do they say about me?” he asked, interested. I was winning him over. I moved closer to him and he bent down to listen while I replied.
“Bad things, Rualdo, things that you would not believe. Now you tell me, have they ever done anything for you? No, of course not. Why do they send you to fight me? I’ll tell you why. They want to laugh at you. Do you understand?”
“Yes! Yes!” he said, reassured, bending his head and shoulders like a giraffe.
“Rualdo, I’m going home, be kind and walk with me a little of the way.”
“All right then, but only a little while.”
We started to walk along the main road. The Cats were not all pleased and started throwing stones in our direction. I quickly pressed the advantage home. “You see, Rualdo, just a couple of minutes ago they said they were your friends. Now they are throwing stones at you. Why do you suppose that is?” And the moment I asked the question a stone hit Rualdo in the back. It hurt him and made him mad. He stopped and turned around and as more stones landed in our direction, he uncaring of the danger went back charging like an enraged elephant t after them .. Their reckless action made gentle Rualdo furious. They were running away now, really scared. Once olone I turned for home, talking unthinkingly to my hands, thinking of the Cats who were still ahead of me. “Please don’t let me down, please don’t let me down.”
They were waiting for me; the older one, flanked by the other tow, was still caressing and twisting his moustache. He challenged me instantly.
“I told you to be double quick, and you have taken half the night.” He looked at his two stooges as though to say, “Watch me deal with this fellow.”
“Are you talking to me?” I asked in a defiant tone, ready to take him on.
“ Oh Yes. I did you a favour letting you through. I think you need a lesson.”
“Oh, yes, and who is going to give it to me. You?” I laughed. “Just you try and see where it will get you”
“I can see now that you need a good smack, you are a stupid oaf who must ;learn to respect.”
“That’s the second time you called me stupid, it looks like I’ve to teach you how to address people.”
He tried to land a scornful slap. I stepped back and then went to work on him with both fists. I didn’t want him on the ground too soon, so I hit him on the body with a flurry of punches. He was startled and hurt.
Then I hit him on the head. Boom, boom. I broke his nose and his pride. The well-kept moustache became red with blood. Bang, bang on the head. Bang, bang under the chin, then boom, a big one between the mouth and nose and goodbye.
The two stooges were petrified as I told them, “I’ll give you no trouble, but just watch it. Do you understand I will pass by any time I want and you are not going dare try to stop me. Is that clear?”
“All right, all right,” they chorused taking backward steps gesticulating surrendering by lifting their hands.. I left them to resuscitate to life their floored friend and I set off for home, proud and elated. I had gone to the village a naïve youngster, but left it a proud man. Oh, I felt good. A new feeling was in me. Gone was the timidity, gone was the clumsiness, gone was the insecurity. I felt proud, confident and sure of myself.
Between the village and my house was the cemetery. Every time I passed it, fear gripped me and on dark nights, I became terror stricken; but that night, for the first time, I went by without even noticing it was there. The spirits of the dead left me alone, unwilling to spoil my triumph. Only when I was at home did it occur to me, I had passed the place without a tremor. I did not want to go to bed, I thought sleep would spoil my elation.
I sat on a stone in the yard with a bottle of wine on my hand in my hand and between sips my spirit kept wandering away, full of bubbles, enjoying the dimly lit panorama. Glow worms flying, their golden blinking and moving light fascinating, the hissing of the cicadas and crickets all mingled with the memory of my exploits. I kept stroking my face unconsciously seeking for the evidence that would mark the advance from boy to man. I went into the kitchen, lit the oil lamp and went to the mirror on the wall, grasping the lamp in one hand, the other stroking my face upwards trying to bring a beard to life, willing it to grow. Yes, a beard, it is the right of a man, and I want you, I want you. I found a few hairs trying to come through that blended well in the face. They were few a far between but they were like the first crop of fruit when the novelty is worth more than the fruit itself. I decided to shave the following morning. Oh, morning, hurry; I found myself wishing as I tried to sleep.
Sleep came late, very late and when morning came, Father shook me out of bed with his usual litany of compliments.
“Come on, out of bed, you lazy young sod. The night is for sleeping not the day. There are thousand of things to be done.”
I turned over, trying to steal another second of sleep. He cut in sharply, “I’m in no mood to play games. Get up or else.”
I jumped up, reached for my clothes and resisted the urge to stretch and yawn. I knew by bitter experience that he was heavy handed and liberal with their use. He was a good, generous man, much respected, but he had a way of trying to solve my problems and differences in his favour with a blow. When with him, I was no good, but to other people he never failed to praise me saying that I was marvellous. He applied his love in a funny way.
Once up, I went directly to the animal stall to feed our stock, the oxen Principe and Barone, and Diamante the horse. I opened the door and waited for the stench to clear. The animals turned towards me, full of expectations. Holding my breath I went between the oxen, both my hands patted them. They shuffled a few steps within their restricted space, shook their horned heads, making me quickly retreat to a safer distance. This was their greeting to me, but I had great respect for their blunt horns and brute strength. The horse was on the left, looking annoyed as he waited for his share of attention. I patted his collar, stroked his front leg, and then hugged him. He raised his head, gave a short neigh, his bony muzzle rested on my shoulder. Then up he raised, happily. Hello friends, what kept you seemed to say.
My father came with his hands full of freshly cut hay. He filled the managers and said, “Go and have something to eat, I’ll take it from here.”
“No need to, Dad, it won’t take me long to clean them.”
“All right, then, but hurry, we have a lot of things to do,” he made to go out.I looked up and hesitatingly said, “Dad.”
“Yes, Carlo.” He stopped. I hesitated again. “Come on son, do you think I have all day, what is it?” His tone was sharp but encouraging.
“Can I …. I want to shave; can I borrow your razor and things?”
“So, that’s what it is. Sure son, delighted. In fact, I tell you what. I’ll shave you.”
“No, Dad, I can do it myself,” I grimaced, feeling important and embarrassed at the same time I felt a weight off my chest.
“You have got your whole life to do it yourself. Just let me this first time, eh?”
“But… you just said there are plenty things to do”
“Yes but it can wait … I still remember my first shave you know”
We both were in the yard. It was a clear morning. The sky was loosening its deep blue colour, as the dawn mopped up what remained of the night. On the far away horizon southwest golden beams laced the sky announcing the arrival of the sun. It was going to be a hot, sunny day, but I was feeling already hot around my ears. Father looked at my face and chin, the back of his hand gently stroking upwards, shaking his head in mocking approval.
“Yeah, yeah, the time has come for spring cleaning.” And like two seasoned chums we went into the kitchen where mother was oiling the bread. There was already a jar of wine and some sausages on the table. Father went to the cabinet to fetch his shaving kit. He moved quickly to light the fire, brought the water, and helped himself to some wine. Only then did he decide to answer my mother’s quizzical look.
“Well?” he said. “That is a man problem, a problem that you don’t have”
“What is it? Something I don’t know?” Mother cut in jokingly
“Well, woman, you might as well.” He had an enigmatic smile.
“What has he done this time? “
“Would you believe it?” he teased her.
“How will I know if you don’t tell me what it is?” she asked dryly.
“Carlo here is ready for his first shave.”
She laughed and I could have killed her. She hugged me and joked.
“Well, Carluccio, you are in hurry. Where is your beard?”
“Here,” I said, pointing at my face.
“Where?” she insisted.
“On my face! Are your eyes failing you?”
“But I don’t see anything,” she said in a conciliating manner.
“Leave him alone, Marta. Son, get a chair and sit down.”
He was working the brush into the soap and the foam was forming rapidly. I sat stiffly.
Father, noticing my discomfort said, “It is lighter outside, let’s move out there.”
I quickly obeyed, relieved to get away from mother’s look of affectionate scorn.
”Stay, still. Shaving is like anything else. The first time it seems always odd.” He smiled, I grinned, half eyeing him as he began to rotate the brush full of warm foam on my face.
“Close your mouth,” he said. I did, I shut my eyes and went numb. Father’s prodding was friendly, understanding and soothing.
“Come, come Carlo relax, it is only a bit of soap, it can’t hurt you.” He kept on and on, and I relaxed as though hypnotized.
“It isn’t that bad … you soon see.” The soap was tickling my nostril so I inhaled a good breath of air and exhaled through my nose . It got rid of the discomfort. Father said, “Steady now. The razor is sharp, no sudden movements. Just stay still.”
“Yes ,yes,” I muttered, shaking my head.
“Don’t shake your head,” he started despairing. The palm of his hand went over my head and held tight, but as the razor made contact with my face, I moved my head violently away. Its cold steel gave me a fright.
“Beh! What are you trying to do?”
“Sorry, Dad, the cold blade made me jump.”
“And your spine shivered. I know”
Then his hand pushed the razor gently downward towards my chin. It felt smooth and reassuring, but it tickled, and I could not suppress my laughter for long. My giggling did not meet with my father’s approval; he stopped and put his fists on his hips. “I am trying to shave you. Can I get on with it?”
“Don’t work the poor razor overtime,” mother shouted from the doorway.
“Now see what you have done?” You’ve set her off again.”
“Sorry Dad,” I replied seriously.
“Okay, then.” He started again, and when he had finished, I looked at his big rough hands. They had been so hard in the past. Now they had shaved me so lightly that I had mixed feelings. Father was relieved and I was happy. Mother stopped her leg pulling. The cat was looking rather bemused from the corner of the house. The chickens were roaming the yard looking for food, the dog staring at the cat from the perimeter of the yard and then looking in our direction.
I washed in a pail outside and went inside to have breakfast. My parents and I always had an audience while we ate, Fido the dog sitting patiently, the cat under the table. It was just like any other breakfast in the Nispita household, but that is one, is the one I remember best with sweet pride.
Many of our fields ran alongside the torrent that during the winter months it was filled with water and became a river, but in summer the water was a trickle.. The torrent marks the borderline between Gessopalena and Roccascalegna. Our house was at the top of the hill, well away from it. Our fields had unwelcome visitors now and again. Hay was cut, fruit disappeared and meadows were grazed to the great annoyance of father, who swore retribution on the unknown offenders. He never caught anyone, but I gathered the offenders must have heard his loud cursing. However, we had no way of watching over scattered pieces of land, which were distant and out of sight. Our fields are smallholdings here and there, so far apart that we used to spend more time getting to there and back, than working them.
That morning I headed down the down the hill towards the torrent leading Diamante by the bridle with the dog running on ahead. In one of the fields bordering the road we had a one-roomed stall and a shack where we kept the animals in summertime. The ox stall was always our center of operations, when we were working, because several of our fields were nearby, some small, others bigger, but all within easy distance. Often at night, during the summertime exhausted by the work sleeping in the open, by the shack was the preferred option to walking all the way back home situated toward the top.
That day everything was the same, however it looked strange. I was a different person seeing things with different prospective. The fight the night before filled me with confidence, the first shave made me a man of the world feel, my father’s new attitude gave me confidence and with it came the flood of new resolutions. While walking down the bumpy road I promised myself to relieve my father and mother of some of their burdens. I really felt I could do it.
A new field, a new era, a new inner contentment was ahead of me and the eagerness to assert my manhood pumped my heartbeats and fuelled my will power. I wanted to prove myself to myself and why not to my father. After all, he had given me the okay. Yes, his changed attitude that morning had liberated me from the chain of submissive boyhood. Yet nothing had changed: the countryside was the same, Diamante was the same, Fido was his usual self and outwardly, I was the same, but in my inner, the feeling was bubbling. The future held an invitation and a challenge, an attraction and a motivation. Things had started going my way. Welcome to my new status. Well, my friend, in my place you would have felt the same. When ecstasy is you, you feel like an angel out of paradise who has one thing in his mind, make the world beautiful.
Today I had to finish the hay making on the field I had started the day before. Father would join me in the afternoon. I had with me food and wine to see me through the day.
When I reached my destination, I tied Diamante under the oak tree by the edge of the field with plenty of fresh hay in front of him. I went to a nearby well and lowered my wine, tied to a rope, into the cool water below, then, scythe in hand; I proceeded to cut the hay. The sun rose up into the sky and the shadows melted away. The field had no trees to give shelter. The hot sun would dry the hay nicely, but its heat would torment me.
Fido was out of sight, roaming and hunting for hares and snakes, and only an occasional bark reminded me of his presence. I could see other people hay making on the opposite slope of the valley, labouring sluggishly. At mid morning break, I had a snack by the well. While drinking from the bottle with my head thrown back, I saw four men up the slope looking in my direction. Fido raised his head and barked menacingly and tediously which made me look again, but saw nobody. They were not there, melted away and anyway I had work to do before the sun got too hot. I put curiosity out of my mind and went back went back to cut the hay.
I resumed my work with renewed determination sporting a straw hat to protect my head from the sun, which baked both the valley and me with its rays.
Perspiration impaired my vision at times, but kept my body moist. There was no wind, no breeze, not so much as a single cloud in the sky bringing the hope of a temporary shade, just the sun, sucking the life out of me. Only the lizards and snakes welcomed that horrid heat, and even they retreated to the cover of shade periodically. I worked like a automation unable even to think. Occasionally Fido barked or Diamante neighed, but it did not register. It was too hot. I could not be bothered. All I wanted to do was finish that field before noon, so I could take a break in the afternoon.
Toward noontime a welcome breeze came through the valley, it mollified the heat and made life more bearable.
The work was finished and I wet with perspiration and drained of energy could only think of the cooling drink and rest waiting for me by the well. That thought made me feel less tired. Full of hope I directed myself towards the well to waiting wine and shade of the tree. The horse seeing me approaching, moved, raised his head and stamped the ground with his front legs, and gave a short contented nay full of expectations. Out in the field the horse was not the pack animal but my friend and to him I was his friend too, not his master and because he could not communicate with words his feeling were stronger and his movements were his language trying to convey them.
I reached the well and the anticipation of a cool refreshing drink gave in to horror on discovering that there was nothing there. My flasks and the rope had vanished. I looked around me. Nothing. With my throat dry and body dehydrated crying for liquid I began to feel angry and scanned around for any sign of the culprit daring to play a joke on me.. Was it a trick ? A joke? Or just plain robbery? Whatever it was, I did not like it a bit. I was very thirsty and in no mood to play games.
I started shouting, “Come on, come out with it, where is my wine? … Come on, I worked very hard, I need it.” However, nothing happened. I heard only the distant barking of Fido and the occasional note from the birds in the treetops.
Displeased and swearing revenge I went to the horse, only to find that my knapsack heavy and with good reason. Instead of the bread ham and cheese I brought along it was full of stones Shock gave in to anger I exploded shouting to the seven winds..
“You bloody rotten sons of bitches wherever you are. I hope you choke on it…bastards….Oh, just wait till I get my hands on you.” I cursed repeatedly, stamping around with murdering intend. The horse stopped munching his hay and began eyeing me with a puzzled astonished look. Fido came up to me, puffed out from running in the sun, his tongue hanging out. gasping for air but still found the energy to fussy around my persona In my anger I yelled at him.” Nice help you are!”
He ran away, then turned around and barked at me sharply as if to say, “you so and so, where were you when I barked and barked, and barked?”
Then I heard mocking laughter, and there they were, in the same place where I had spotted them earlier, four men. I felt like kicking myself for not investigating when the animals had been making a noise while I worked. They were not thieves. Thieves rob and run, they were adversaries out to mock and toy with me. To react was to play their game. I calmed down, forced myself to accept the new situation and play for time. The men were too far away for me to catch them and I was spent of energy, so I took off my hat and shirt and put them in the sun to dry and sat down to regain my strength while they carried on laughing, making animals sound and calling me with derisory names.
Deprived of my own food and drink was bad enough but to be an object of ridicule. …oh, that hurt how that hurt. Oh, that was too much. I could hardly contain myself; the rage inside me grew and grew until it became a time bomb waiting the set time to explode. Revenge is sweet if you can wait. I stood still fighting the instinct in turmoil who wanted to go and confront the bastards. A war of nerves took place that in the end brought them down and announced their arrival with stones that luckily landing not on me but around me. I sprang up, animated by more energy than I thought I possessed. Before I could get moving one of them threw back at me my wine flask that shattered on impact with ground. It followed a familiar sound full of sarcasm and mocking.
“Have a drink” he yelled, “have it on me.” It was Alfio grinning stuffed with hate and wonting to reassert himself in front of his stooges by bushing me. However, I was in no mood to relent my new position. I looked at him realizing that in the night’s fracas I should have beaten him to a pulp and finish the job.
“You son of a bitch, you wait until I get my hands on you” I started to climb towards them, but showering of stones made me turn back towards the tree where its trunk gave me some protection. Fido, who had followed me, barking aggressively, took the safer route of retreat as well to be out of range of the flying stones.
Then a stone hit the horse, and he started, neighing and stamping the ground, frightened feeling constricted, making sing with head to be untied . I rushed to him to calm him, but ended up using his body as a shield. The horse kept pulling at his tether, anxious to be free. Who could blame him? Slowly patting gently his body I reached the bridle and while untying I saw Alfio and his stooges closing in. They carried sticks and made sure I was aware of what was coming to me. My anger turned to fear. With my fists, I could have licked them, but sticks were another matter. I had no defense against the sticks of four people. I opted for retreat. I untied Diamante and led him down the hill at a run, with Fido dashing along beside us. They charged after us, bellowing at the top of their voices. However, this was my domain. They were village boys, unused to running knee deep in uncut hay. I was soon well ahead of them, and when I thought I was safe enough I stopped to take stock of the situation.
They were struggling, I realized that they were trapped, bogged down by he knee-deep hay and waist high wheat fields all around them. It was my turn to hit back. I got up on Diamante’s back. He was eager fretting like hell and ready to go. The moment I mounted him he knew which direction to go and in that moment, I loved him more than life itself. .Without prompting he galloped towards them. I shouted a command at Fido who threw himself full speed to attack snarling along side Diamante. My pursuers became the pursued and scattered. Fido ran after Alfio’s henchmen, making sure they kept running so that I could concentrate on Alfio. He was my special treat. I particularly wanted him to remember his last meal, to curse the day he had crossed me and remembered this as the blackest in his life.
Now he became intimidated, stumbling and getting himself upright without looking back. Then he fell, and by the time, he got to his feet he had nowhere to go. Diamante towered over him, and I glared down at him. I began to taunt him. He kept changing direction but he had nowhere to go, Diamante responded swiftly by blocking the escape. His stooges were nowhere near, they from safe distances were shocked spectators
“Where is your courage now, Alfio, where have you left it?” I kept screaming.
He waved his stick to frighten the horse but his towering presence coupled with nervous neighs and fretting scared the shit out of him.
Fido after having scattered the opposition joined us. He had enjoyed the chase, and was barking enthusiastically as to demand acknowledgment for his feat. The clever bastard, my Fido was clever. He knew we had the upper hand and felt it was his duty to put in an appearance. He wanted his moment of glory, and why not? He was my dog, my friend.
Alfio kept trying to back away. Diamante trotted along after him, changing direction every time Alfio did until the poor bastard did not know what to do or where to go. He was sweating profusely, fear oozing from every pore and I was happy to see him suffer.
Eventually we reached the country road flanked by brushwood and blackcurrant bushes. Alfio, frightened out of his wits, tired, puffed out and broken, on reaching he tripped and fell into the hedge like a sack of potatoes. Suddenly he bounced back like a released spring The jump followed by a scream, he looked back at the edge ignoring us, then a scream again. He looked at his hand and the scream became a lament.
“My hand, ohmy hand! A viper bit me. Oh God, oh my God, what shall I do?” He kept shaking it as to put to flight the pain.
At first, I thought he was kidding, but soon realized he was not pretending. He was obviously in agony and had completely lost control. For a moment, I cursed the blasted viper, snake or whatever for depriving me of my hour of triumph. I jumped down off the horse and addressed him brusquely: “Show me.”
“Oh, my hands. It hurts” It serves you right I thought but refrained from telling.
“Where did the viper bit you, stupid?”
He was deaf to my question. He trembled like a leaf. His whole body seemed to experience a minor quake I got hold of him, shook him, there was no time to lose. I slapped him across the face to bring him to his senses, taking half pleasure in having an excuse to hit him.
“There is no time to lose, tell me where it bit you. It might be fatal. Speed is the very important” He finally showed me his hand
“Here in my hand. Here, here. Oh, what shall I do?” The mark was just above his index finger. I took my knife from my back pocket and made an incision like a cross, releasing the blood spurting out.
“Where is the pain now?” I asked him
“My hand. Oh, my God it hurt!” He distanced the hand horrified by the sight of his own blood and wonting to shake the pain away.
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself, do something good for a change. You have to suck the blood to stops the poison from spreading.” He looked at me as if I were a devil incarnate.
“Suck the blood!” He blurted out in disbelief.
“Yes and you better hurry”
He regained a bit of composure and said, “I can’t do that,”
“Why ever not?” I asked, incredulously.
“The blood, ugh, it’s revolting.”
“It’s your blood and it’s your life you are trying to save. However, if you don’t want to do it, good luck. I’m going.” I went back to Diamante and made to mount. Alfio stopped me in my tracks, imploring, “Please, I don’t know how to do it, don’t leave me. Tell me what to do.” He was terrified and I must confess I enjoyed to be in a position to patronize, make him suffer the other side of coin, the side he always imposed on others.
“Suck it. Just suck it. And you better hurry the poison is slowly spreading on you body”
“How ? Oh, how?” He implored
“Just like you sucked your mother’s breast”
“I can’t drink blood!” He meekly protested with a tone of disgust
“Damn you, for a person who pretends to be so clever you are pretty stupid. Suck and spit it, spit it out. The blood you suck is poisonous. You have to spit it out. Hurry, do what you have to do and no talk you stupid oaf.” I was really rubbing it in, but it produced the effect I wanted. He sucked and spat, sucked and spat and with practice he acquired a desperate speed.
I got him on the horse, mounted up behind him and started down the slope towards the river. We crossed over it, and headed up the hill for Roccascalegna. Alfio was shivering with pain and fright. Diamante kept his strides and Fido was running ahead. Up the slope, there was no breeze and the heat was suffocating. Alfio began to whimper.
“Oh, my throat is so dry.”
His words reminded me of my own thirst. My lips were dry; the saliva in my mouth was like glue. In addition, he was the one who had stolen my wine and food. “Do you need a drink?” I said feeling like hitting him.
“Then keep sucking, you greedy bastard. One more word about a drink and I will roll you down the slope and leave you there to rot.”
Diamante plodded up the hill. On reaching the top, a gentle breeze blessed our bodies. Roccascalegna was in full view, and going downhill, Diamante quickened his steps. When we reached the village, the place was deserted, not a single soul in sight, only dogs and cats resting in the shade. We dismounted by the doctor’s house. Alfio, by now, was white as a sheet and as helpless as a fallen leaf. I sat him in the shade, knocked resolutely at the doctor’s door. Nobody came. I knocked harder and longer. A noise of footsteps, then an angry voice seemingly out of Hell said, “Who is it?”
“I want to see the doctor.”
“You cannot see him now, he is eating.”
“A man has been bitten by a viper. He is in great pain.” I said, speaking only with some effort, because my dry throat made talking painful. The footsteps went away; I heard a heavier tread returning. The door opened and Doctor Cosmo appeared, looking none too pleased. He was a short, obese man. His puffed up face sported two big lips, still red with tomato sauce, and a white napkin tucked under his collar. Both his small fat hands came up sharply as he said,
“Beh, what is it happening?”
“It is him,” I said, pointing to Alfio. “He has been bitten by a viper or snake. I don’t know which, but he is hurting badly” Poor Alfio, he looked a mess, trembling with pain and terror. The doctor went to him, looked with disgust at the blood he had wiped over his clothes, and examined the wound. Then his head shot up and he said, “Don’t worry. You did a good thing sucking the blood. You will not die with a bit of luck you will survive, but you could have chosen a better time to confront the viper. What a world, I can’t even have my meal in peace.” He shook his fathead as a martyr going to scaffold.
May you choke on it, I thought, but only said, “He didn’t have much choice in the matter doctor.” And hated him, his arrogance made to want to pew.
“Bring him in, then. Let’s get it over with.” He gestured us to follow his obese body toward the surgery. What a mean, heartless man, I thought again. When he turned around, I felt like planting a resounding kick at his backside for being so unnecessarily callous. Alfio meekly followed him, with me bringing up the rear.
In the surgery he cleaned and disinfected the wound on his hand then opened a cabinet and addressed Alfio without turning around, “Pull down your trousers.”
Alfio’s bare arse had been badly in need of a good wash even before it became wet with recent perspiration. The doctor, needle in hand, bent over him slowly and quickly straightened up again. He gulped out a jet of air and inhaled in a fresh breath of oxygenated one. He let out a scream of despair, “Oh, my God. I’ve spent years and years studying only to end up smelling rotten, filthy arses.”
I was quietly having a chuckle, happy at this fat slob’s discomfort and at Alfio’s embarrassment. Then he moved fast. A deep intake of breath, spirit and cotton wool, a quick rub, whack the needle hit the buttock like a dart on a board. It was over.
The doctor replaced his needle; Alfio recomposed himself and moved with a pained limb. Silence descended, then the fat slob casually said,” You will sore for a while but that is nothing to worry about “ A pause followed then he added,” That’s it, now who pays?”
I looked at Alfio and he looked back at me lowering his eyes.
“We will pay, but not now. Is that all right?” I said, taking charge after all it was me who had taken that conceited buffoon there.
“Yeah, yeah! You will all pay, but I never seem to get any money from anybody. Who are you anyhow?
Alfio humiliated, weak and helpless was mute, and looked at me for guidance. I, on the other hand, tired, thirsty, thirsty and with the smell of the doctor’s lunch tormenting me, was fuming at this fat revolting and conceited man. His tone was offensive, his implications derogatory and his expectations unreasonable.
I came out with, “Who the bloody hell do you think you are?” Do you think you are the only person in the universe dispensing favours and asking money for it? Who do you think does the back breaking work to feed you?”
He glared at me. “Who are you, young man? How dare you talk to me like this, and in my very own house.”
“My name is Carlo Nispita, my father is Nicola Antonio. We pay our bills. Your attitude is offensive. You do your job I do mine. We don’t do each other favours. You try to cure people who are sick and I try to feed them when they are hungry.”
“So, you feed the world, do you?”
“No, just a few. I just do my bit and do myself a favour. Do you heal the world?”
“You are an impertinent oaf. Don’t speak like that to me.” He was trying to control his rage and I was looking for a chance to puncture his air of superiority.
“For a person who says he has been studying for a long time, you are particularly ill mannered. By calling us oafs you qualify for the description yourself.”
“How did you get here? Get out you ungrateful sod.” He was livid; his pale skin had become a vivid red. My fists were tight and they were a fair size. He saw them and his aggressive attitude moderated into a hurried desire to get rid of us.
“You know your way out. Should you come again, choose a better time.” “I hope never to see you again as a patient,” I said, “but I will see you again when I come to pay.”
He went back to his spaghetti. I hoped by now it had become a mass of glue. He made out he had not heard my parting shot, but the sound of a fist banging on a kitchen table proved otherwise.
As we left, Alfio said to me, “You know I’ve no money, why do you promise to come and pay soon.”
“You might have no money, but t I have my pride. My father has money,” I said, “and you are going to sweat to earn it in our fields instead of wasting your time stealing drink and food and playing the big boss. Don’t you worry yourself Alfiuccio, you are going to pay for it one or another. Don’t think for a moment that I intend to forget what you have done to me.”
He didn’t answer. I turned towards the nearest canteen. I was thirsty, and needed something to drink. I took a litre of cool red wine and emptied all of it down my throat, much to the surprise of the man serving me. Seeing the speed with which I emptied the bottle, he came out of his stupor saying “Thirsty weather, eh?”
“Tell, me about it,” I replied, paying with loose change. I went out. Alfio, expecting a drink, got only a blank glance from me, and retreated into his self-imposed misery. Rot on it, I thought and went back to Diamante, who was fighting off the tormenting flies, lashing wildly with his tail, turning his head to lick his twitching skin. Seeing me, he blew his nose with a noisy grunt as if to say, “At last. Take me out of this infernal place.” I quickly obliged and led him back to the road. Alfio followed timidly. He wanted a ride, but I was not going to offer him one unless he asked. Finally, after we were out of the village, he sat down in the shade of an oak tree and called out to me.
“I’m stopping for a while, you go on.”
“What?” I said, “Do you want to be bitten by another snake?” He got up and looked around frightened.
“I need a rest. I am not well. I feel horrible.”
I helped him up onto the horse and wearily we made our way back. We found father waiting for us and he became curious about the nature of our activity.
“How come Alfio is here? What is going on?”
“He came to help me drink the wine and eat the food.”
“Did he now.” He said looking at the pannier full of stones “It looks like you had a feast. Did you have any time for work?” Then he turned to Alfio, “What’s the matter with you? You look like death.” Alfio shrugged, “I’m not feeling ell,” he said.
“You see Dad,” I explained, “he was in a hurry to go back to the village and a snake or a viper I don’t know which did not like having his midday sun basking disturbed.” “If that’s true I don’t see what there is to joke about. Any reptile’s bite can be dangerous. Where did it bite you?” Father concern was genuine
“In the hand,” Alfio showed him the hand caked in blood
“You have already seen the doctor, well. Good health is a precious commodity. It is best to look after it. Often one realize his good fortune only when he has lost it”
“I am glad you approve, I told that fat slob Doctor Cosmo that you would pay,” I cut in.
“Oh, as long as we can keep in good health we can always pay doctors. When you go remind me I want to send him a nice present.”
“Why”? What has he done to deserve a present?”
“He is a doctor. It is always useful to keep on good terms with him. You never know, you might be sick one day.”
“Dad, the day I get sick Doctor Cosmo will be the last person I will want to see.”
“It is easy to talk like that when you are in good health, but when something happens, you see how quickly you change your mind Believe me I have been there..”
That was just like my father. He was always buying insurance, looking ahead. He used to say, “you never know”, or “just in case”, and every time I protested he would say, “We have plenty, more than enough, so stop worrying.”
On that occasion I saw the logic of it, but I refused to be obsequious to that conceited buffoon doctor Cosmo. However, “the one who governs makes the laws.”
Two days later, my father sent me to pay the doctor. He gave money and a basket of fruit and vegetables as a token gift. . However, I figured the only thing Doctor Cosmo had due to him was his payment. When he saw the basket, he rubbed his hands together, his eyes gleaming with greed.
“What do we have here now?” He shut his eyes and tilted his head to sniff the basket. I was tempted to land a punch on his chin, but contented myself with replying offhandedly, “Oh, nothing. It’s just my lunch.”
“Oh,” he said deflated, irritation was all over his face, confirming himself in my mind as an egotist of the first order. When I took my leave, he was happy to see the back of me and I was glad to be out of his cold glare.
I gave the basket to a white bearded tramp, shabbily dressed. He thought that I was kidding at first. He put some in his pack, and then voraciously ate the rest. His contented look gave me the best feeling I could wish to have. He needed that food to stay alive. I felt like the Good Samaritan.
On the day the snake bit Alfio, my father instructed me to take him home. We loaded the horse with a load of fresh hey and made the up hill journey on foot with Alfio holding to the horse’s tail to get some traction. Once we reached home, I fed the oxen with the fresh hay. Mother prepared some refreshment that I gulped it down, but Alfio hardly touched anything. When my mother nagged him he just said, “No, I’m not hungry thank you.”
“You are trembling all over, you should be in bed. Oh, why did I have to tell you where to find Carlo? If you hadn’t gone out there, you would not have been bitten.”
“What?” I asked, surprised.
“Alfio came here looking for you, said he had a nice surprise for you. Why, is there anything wrong?”
“No, Mamma.” I laughed. “It was a very nice surprise, but what he got afterwards was even nicer.” The bastard played the angel with mother so that he could create hell for me.
“Good then,” she left it at that without believing a word I said. We left for the village. Alfio needed help to mount Diamante.. I walked briskly, because this was a chance to see Rita, the apple of my eyes Approaching the old part, the idea of seeing her made all the trouble fade away. I was full of expectation. I wondered whether Alfio would try to argue, but he knew I was in the stronger position. Only yesterday he had been the undisputed leader of the Dogs, now he was broken. Twice in that short space of time he had been humiliated in front of his gang. It served him right; he should have left me alone.
The village was empty, because everyone was out busy trying to earn a living. When we reached the house, Rita was just leaving and on seeing arriving. She stopped and surprised greeted Alfio still on the horse and then she flashed a warm smile at me, which filled me with delight. The ecstasy of that moment was short lived as Alfio resented it and turned on her.
“Beh, what are you looking at you have nothing better to do?”
Poor Rita she went red with hurt and humiliation.
“What’s with you now” she retorted.
“Don’t worry about that, that’s none of your business. Carry on with what you are doing”
Rita turned and rushed inside the house
Alfio seemed possessed by demonic jealousy, which imbued him with a strength that I thought, had deserted him. Looking at Rita, my heart went out to her. It was not right to repay her concern and welcome so harshly! I began to feel sorry that I had helped that bastard of a brother. But I knew that if I showed my concern for her I would have made things worse, so I went to work on Alfio, saying with false concern:
”You have chosen a fine time to get upset. Come on, dismount and go to bed and rest. You need it. You lost a lot of blood and you have gone through a terrible ordeal.”
“You mind your own business.” His jealousy was coming to the fore; he knew what was on my mind regarding Rita and played the protective big brother. He dismounted and went in the house ignoring me. I followed him hurt, it was too much after all I done for him. I wanted to reproach him, “You talk like that now, but you didn’t say much when I saved your skin. Not even a thank you, now that I come to think of it. Well, I was minding my own business when you and your ruffians made sure that your business became my business. Have you forgotten, eh? Don’t tempt me, you have used too much of my patience for one day. You make regret I did not mind my own business”
He looked at me with hate in his heart. His fist hit the kitchen table, saying, “This is my house.” Then his eyes glazed over, and his body sagged to the floor. Rita rushed towards him, but I stopped her and held her close. It was the first time I had touched her, her and I could feel her breathing against me. I was electrified. Oh, heaven above, thank you.
She kept saying, “He is dying.”
“Don’t worry, Rita, he has just passed out that’s all. I’ll pick him up, don’t worry.” I planted a fleeting kiss on her cheek, but before she could respond, I went to Alfio with a ladle full of water. I poured it over his face then slapped him. With Rita watching, I redoubled my effort. He came around as I took him to his bed.
Back in the kitchen Rita was agitated. “What has happened? Why is he so ill?” she asked, agitated.
“He was bitten by a snake, that’s all.”
“A snake! Oh my God” Both her hand went to her mouth as to repress a scream.
“”Everything’s all right, don’t worry.” I reassured her
“Are you sure? He does not look well, he looks very ill”
“ Rita, stop worrying. He has seen the doctor. He will all righ”
“Thank God. You are very kind. Can I offer you something to eat or drink, Carlo?
“Well, I said, “It is thirsty weather. Any wine around?”
“Yes, I’ve got a bottle somewhere” and went looking for the wine. I noticed in the room loose linen .
I was ill at ease watching her while I drank; I so much wanted to be with her and now that was alone with her I did not know what to say, so I said casually, “I see you are already preparing your dowry.”
“Oh, it’s not for me, it’s for my sister Gina. She is nineteen, you know.”
“How old are you then?” I asked, blushing all over.
“I was seventeen last April.” She shook her head and her hair ruffled. It was divine.
“You don’t say.” I blushed again,
Our interlude of paradise was short lived as Alfio bellowed from the bedroom.
“Rita come here, you slut.”
We looked at one another with unbelieving eyes. It was time for me to go, so I said quickly, “I hope you can come and help us at harvest.”
“I would like that.” She said and transfixed me with her penetrating eyes that seemed two luminous lights adorning the path of Eden
“Good,” I said. “And thank you for the wine.” I was at the door but I did not want to go.
She said sadly, “Look who is doing the thanking.” She went to that horrible brother of his.
Outside the children and old women were hanging around to find out what was going on.
“Busybodies,” I shouted at them. The old women turned away, looking solemn in their black dresses, but the children returned my glare with sly smiles. Had they seen me hugging Rita? On the other hand, they must have learned of the fight the night before. With that thought in mind, I hurried away and went back home.
The sun was on his descent and it was getting cooler. The shadows were lengthening; the church bells were ringing, the seventeen hours, teatime, the ‘meranda.’
Diamante dipped his head, smelling the dust at my heels as I walked through the village. He was in playful mood. We were better friends when he was like that. Along the road, I met Rualdo, feeling very important, and he wanted to confide in me, to tell me what happened the night before. I was not interested, but I had to listen to his tale of prowess and his new resolution not to be friendly with the Cats anymore. Along the way, I met the young man with the moustache whom I had given a beating the night before, and he looked none too good or too happy. His face bore the evidence of his defeat. As I passed by, he said teasing, “Tell me who you go with and I tell you who you are.”
I couldn’t resist replying,” You need to know the company I keep to judge me, but I don’t need anybody to tell me that you are nothing. Have you forgotten last night? If you don’t watch it I’ll flatten your nose again.”
He put up his arms, but slowly, trying to make me out. He didn’t want a repeat performance, “All right, all right” And began retreating
“What’s your name?” I addressed him brusquely.
“Who wants to know?” He asked slowly; this time he was not caressing his moustache.
“I do.” My tone and manners were none to his liking.
“Buzz off,” he said and turned around and disappeared into an alley.
“You are full of shit,” I shouted.
Rualdo was rejoicing at my triumph, “His name is Carmine.”
“Who is his father?” I enquired trying to calm down.
“I don’t know his name, but he is the new man who works at the post office.”
“Thank you, Rualdo. Now I must go.”
“When will I see you next? You bring me food, yeah?”
“Of course. Plenty,” I reassured him.
“When?” He became alert.
“Next time I come to the village.”
“When?” he repeated again, his curiosity was unsatisfied.
“When?” he said again.
“When I come back maybe tomorrow yes.” I started to lose my patience, and I spoke gruffly. .
“I’ll wait for you. Don’t forget will you”
“Do that. Goodbye now.” And sped for home
I went back home thinking of Rita, the delight of the short embrace, the feel of her breathing against my chest and enjoying the lingering ecstasy.
Grandfather and grandmother were sitting in the yard. Grandfather got up and came to me saying, “Your mother tells me you shaved this morning, eh! My God, how time flies. So we have a young man on our hands, eh?” He pinched my cheek.
“I’ve not changed that much in one day, Granddad.”
“Ah!” He raised his forefinger as to make a point. “You were beardless yesterday, that makes you very different, my boy – I mean Carlo. Now we have to find you a nice girl.”
“Have I got any say in the matter?” I teased him with a mocking grim on my face
“Now Carlo, don’t you interfere, we shall look around until we find somebody good enough, then we will see what you have to say, about her.”
“Now don’t you start, Granddad?”
“Why? Don’t you like girls, that thing you have between your legs is not only for discharging pee you know!”
“Don’t remind me, not just now.” I went to the animals. They asked no awkward questions, I could talk to them without feeling embarrassed.
The rest of the week, we spent at haymaking. The weather was ideally hot and dry. The hay after one day, sometime two we turned in up side down and the relentless sun finished the drying in no time. Once the hay was dry, it was ready to be gathered. Early in the morning, father and I took a post to the field to drive it into the ground ready to build a small stack as a reserve for the oxen for when they did work on the field there and the ones nearby. It all made sense because of the intricate system of scattered holding. The bulk of the hay ended back home in the haystack. Once the hay is ready dry weather is essential as if rain comes the hay will mould rendering it useless, Therefore this work is usually done at speed in case the weather takes a turn.
My father was a constant moaner.” the job of a peasant is always at the mercy of the weather, you always get what you don’t want. You pray for rain and get sunshine; you pray for rain and end up getting sunshine. You cannot win”
The oxen were to put to work on the sleigh. The horse did his share of work as well. It was hard work, and two neighbors, Luigi and Peppe, came with their donkeys to help. They were in the field at the break of dawn, but father insisted on waiting for the sun.
“They hay must be dry, absolutely dry, otherwise it will mould. Let the sun dry the dew first.”
Therefore, we proceeded to put the post vertically in the corner of the field and reinforced its base with stones well pushed into the ground. Then we had a good breakfast of bread, ham, cheese, water and wine; my father would not have the water and every time the flask came around to him, he would say brusquely, “Come on now, don’t play jokes with me, the only thing water does for you is to make you pee. Give me the other flask. That puts fire into you.”
“But Dad, it’s first thing in the morning, and beside water is good for you” I woulf him.
“I don’t like water; it has no taste or flavour.” With that attitude, he was never short of company. Most of our helpers would end up going home drunk. Therefore, with bellies full and feeling merry we were ready for the arduous day ahead of us. Even the animals were eager to go. June is the time of the year when the fresh hay makes them fighting fit.
When the sun had been up for an hour, my father gave us the okay to start and we went to work with a will with our ropes and pitchforks. Soon the first load was ready. The sleigh had a high pile of prickly hay, which was more cumbersome than heavy. Balancing it required a skill in which my father was unsurpassed. He insisted on supervising the loaded animals, chatting to them sweetly. When the little caravan left for the journey home, he stayed behind to prepare the next load. When they set off Luigi said to my father, “Nicola Antonio look after yourself don’t you go getting into bad company.”
“My flask is the best company I have and I want none other.” He could drink and hold it. He enjoyed his wine, he prided himself on having the best head in the village and he was right. I never saw him drunk except on Sundays and feast days when he spent too much time in the canteen with his friends. However, he always protested that the wine had effect on him. He put down his occasionally Sunday drunkenness to the wine not being genuine grape juice.
“Rubbish,” he would say. “The wine they sell at the cantina has seen grapes with binoculars, that’s why it gets me.”
“But why do you go to the canteen, then? You have plenty of wine, better wine at home,” my mother reproached him.
“So I can meet my friends and have a few laughs.” His justification made sense, however when he came home wobbling of body and stuttering rubbish with his mouth it made no sense at all
Their meeting was a ritual: they would make a fleeting appearance at midday mass after the priest had delivered his sermon, dismissing the poor priest’s well-prepared speech. “Words, words, it is just words, always the same words. The wind blows them away. Anyway, he is always moaning. God said rest on Sundays, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Afterwards in the canteen ,they laid out bread, cheese and sausage, all of which they brought from home in brown wrapping paper, on a wine stained table, and began to entertain themselves with arguments and card games, while all the time more litres of wine were drunk, much to the delight of the landlord. Now and again, I would join in, but flee after a while with a belly full of wine and a head full of pain. That was the only time my father got drunk: the company, the smells, the fact they didn’t move around, all contributed to reduce him to a state of stupor which made me keep well away and distressed my mother who would explode when he arrived home in that state.
“You’re a drunkard, that’s what you are.” She shouted reproachfully at him.
“Shut up woman,” he would thunder back dismissing her angered concern.
“Shut up, shut up, that’s all you can say. Can’t you find something better to do?”
“Are you looking for trouble, Marta?” He would point his index finger at her while trying to keep his balance while his head twitched as if he had a tick
“Stop that kind of talk. You make me sick just to look at you!”
“Then leave me be.”
And that would be the end of the squabble, with mother busying herself and father looking at her, unsteady on his feet, restless head and a sly empty look, not too sure she had really given up the argument.
On the day of the hay harvest we were about to have our usual rest under the shade of the tree at midday when dark, menacing clouds began to gather in the sky, and the wind was getting up. The swallows started flying low, circling in a never-ending pattern over the fields. Fido barked at them periodically, and the other animals grew restless. My father looked worried. After studying the sky for a few moments he said,
“Eh, in a couple of hours, maybe sooner we are going to have a storm. We will have to do without the rest.” He then turned to me, “Carlo, take the hay to the stall now. Luigi can stay with me; we have got to stack this hay before the rain comes.”
Now we all had a sense of urgency. A race against time and the weather had begun. Every animal had a new load, and as I set off with Peppe, father and Luigi had already started to pile the hay around the post. We made haste, we pushed the animals, and Diamante was leading. The oxen Principe and Barone, were pulling the sleigh, the donkeys followed struggling. We hurried back for another load. The clouds had become compact, the sun hiding behind them. The swallows had increased their chirping, the dog had given up barking at them. The breeze had stopped. All across the valley, anyone who was harvesting was putting the final touches on the work. Father and Luigi were both drenched with perspiration and did not come to meet us. Peppe and I went to help, knowing we had made our last journey for the day, so we hurried to finish the stacking.
Father was anxious.
“We are going to have thunder and lightening and it is not safe to be handling iron. I’ve seen people struck by lightening because of it.” He made us hide the pitchforks under the hay in the sleigh. The clouds were lower the horizon was nearer. The noises, barks and chirping were more noticeable. The church bells from nearby Roccascaegna started ringing; their slow tolling filled the valley gloom and doom as if the end of the world was in sight. This was a dark omen. They meant two things: to warn the people of the danger and to pray to God to be good to the harvest. Their continuous slow repetitive peals filled everyone’s hearts with fear.
Harvest for a peasant who works the land is the golden word. It is the goal, the dream, the accomplishment, the reward and for some the light at the end of a tunnel. Harvest is like the American gold rush, it can fuel the same feeling or the modern footballers who sweat all week training and then play on Sunday with one thing in mind, like an obsession put the ball behind the post.
Harvest time is the time to repay a year hard work and a storm might flatten the crops, ruin the grapes, and damage the fruit. Sometimes violent hailstorms do irreparable damage to the crops and condemn all who have dreamed and hoped for a good harvest to a year of rations and misery.
The clouds were lowering sky and shortening the horizon even further. The storm was on his way to hit us it was a matter of time.
“Maledizione,” father was muttering. “Life is always marred by bad luck. Nature gives always what you don’t want. Now we get storms, maybe even hailstorms. Who wants this?”
We were in somber mood. The hay was in the stack and we all went to the animal stalls to await the storm. We tied Diamante, the oxen and the donkeys to the manger. The only place for us to stand out of the rain was jammed in behind them, fighting of the stinging flies. The church bells in Roccascalegna were still clanging away, adding to the torment and gloom that was palpable in the air. A distant roar began to take over the world; it was above everything and everybody. It sounded as if hell was marching with a troop of devils out to destroy the blessing of god that nature was giving us.
We just hung around in the yard waiting for the storm to break, and we kept looking up at the sky. Father began grooming the animals, combing them and drying the perspiration from their coats, talking to them gently trying to calm them and thereby himself. Steam was rising from their bodies. The light was poor, and a warm wind was in the air now. Hell was preparing to strike. Nevertheless, when was it going to rain? When was it going to happen? The suspense made us impatient and gloomy. Doing nothing and waiting was soul destroying.
The day before I had lopped the branches off the acorn tree and collected the leaves a couple of hundred meters down the slope in anticipation of the arrival of the animals. I rushed down to collect them, but as I bent to gather them up, I saw a herd of sheep happily grazing at the bottom of our meadow by the torrent. In spite of my haste to avoid the storm, I felt I had to investigate, so I sprinted down and found that the sheep were alone. I looked around, but there was no shepherd in sight. I started rounding up the sheep, herding them up the hill when a noise, a flurry of running footsteps made me turn around. A girl was heading my way and waving her hand in protest.
“Hey. They are my sheep.” She shouted. I stopped looking sternly looking at her approaching ready to tell her a piece of my mind. The girl once by me divested herself of her cape. She had come well prepared for the rain I thought, “While people look for shelter nobody would bother to check her sheep in our meadow. Nevertheless now I got you, just you wait” however m resolution melted double quick when I saw her face. It was like a full moon on a cloudy dark night, she was very pretty. A girl like this, I thought, should be encouraged to come this way. However, she took no notice of me and she went to head off the flock. I was hurt. She had not even seen fit to apologise for her trespass. This was my land she was treading on.
“What are you doing?” I demanded, trying to sound cross.
“I’m attending to my sheep the very sheep you were trying to rob,” her voice contained fear and urgency. Without looking at me she kept hurrying them away
“And what are they doing in my meadow?”
She looked up without stopping. “I got distracted for a moment, that’s all.”
Then the first drops of rain, big drops, began to fall. A lightening cut across. The thunder followed with a deafening roar just above our head. We both instinctively crouched. We instinctively run toward the cover of a big oak tree on the side of the meadow. Then lightening and thunder combined and began to feast. Lightening escaped from the cloud and darted wriggling across the sky aiming eventually for the earth heralding its partner the thunder who never failed with his boom to arrest our heartbeats. And the rain bucketed down. We were both mute and overanxious by the severity of the element around us, that kind of rain was a calamity for the land. The litany of father came to mind and now was proving his worst fears. However, sod the rain a beautiful girl was next to me. She looked scared, double scared.
“Does thunder and lightening scare you?” I asked. trying to break the ice
“No,” she replied, haughtily and turned her body away from me.
The world was in the grip of the storm.. The sheep, unperturbed grouped together and grazed. My father, from the animal stall started calling me at the top of his voice. The rain was belting down, lightening was flashing in all directions, and the booming of the thunder was ceaseless and the gloomy echoes of the peeling church bell ceased. I refused to answer father’s call not wanting him to know my whereabouts.
The girl looked at me. “Is that you he’s calling?”
“Yes,” I said, “So now you know my name, what is yours?”
The next clap of thunder was close, too close for comfort. She flinched and covered her face with her hands.
“I’m sorry, what did you say?” she asked when it was over.
“I just asked your name. I hope that is not too much to ask”
“Oh, I’m Lena.”
“Do you come around this way often?” The moment it came out of me, I knew she would misunderstand. It sounded like an interrogation what I wanted to say was ,”do come this way …every day, her answer was a denial.
“No, never, it’s the first time.”
Liar, I thought. “Well, now that you know the way I hope you come more often.”
Before she could reply, a flash of lightening hit the oak tree and an enormous branch crashed to the ground, knocking our false courage to smithereens. The thunder that followed was deafening. Instinctively we ran in unison to the open meadow, and found ourselves quite alone and so numb with fear, we didn’t even feel the rain soaking us. The sheep had run away, and father’s calling had become urgent. Lena and I looked at one another, seeking reassurance. I decided to make light of the situation and took off my shirt.“At least we can have a good wash.”
Lena smiled feebly, and I began to preen, rubbing my naked torso with the shirt, my face turned up to the rain. She took courage and relaxed a little. She shed her cape and began to wash her face, and then another bolt of lightening stopped our fun. Lena flung her arms around me, hugging me in her fear. She cast me in the role of comforter, but I needed comfort myself.
We embraced taking courage from the other, with no inhibitions, no pretence, and no prudery. Our clothes bonded to our bodies.
“Why don’t you take off your blouse?” I asked, hoping beyond hope. She smelt fresh, her face was warm, I kissed her behind the ears. She hugged me more tightly, and I kissed her more and more. The storm raged on, but instead of frightening us, it gave us cover, an excuse to indulge in things that in normal circumstances we would not have done. When I kissed her lips, she responded.
“Why don’t you take off your blouse?” I repeated with infinite tenderness, almost begging but fearing to get a slap across the face
Her head went back and she stared at me for a moment. My heart sank.
“What if somebody sees us?” she asked.
“Who is going to see? Just look around. Do you see anybody?”
The rain covered the earth and the sky like a blanket. We felt blessed in our solitude.
“But why?” She asked again without resistance. As if she was looking for excuse to justify herself.
“So we can make the most of the rain, that’s all.”
I started to unbutton her blouse. Her braless tits sprang out like two repressed spring and she covered them hurriedly with her hands, then changed her mind and hugged me trying to hid them against my chest.
In the lower part of my body, between my legs my pride and joy began to get agitated and like a ferret was trying to find a way out to spread its wings sort of speak and deploy his potency. Take the chance to go up market. The bugger demanded attention. The only experience he had was to masturbate and feel empty afterwards. Now he wanted to venture into greener pastures. I held her tight not daring to move. After a while, she kissed me. Oh! Welcome, welcome happiness.
Had my turn come to say goodbye to my virginity? Oh please, fate, be on my side, I beg of you. I was hungry, but wanted to give joy, I didn’t want to hurt her. Please, flood of pleasure, open the gate and let me in. Lena was submissive and caressing me, her skirt dropped to the ground, and she had nothing underneath. Instinctively I bent to my knees and felt her across my face. It was too much to believe it. My dream, my obsession, my every thought, my spiritual food was all there I wanted to cherish tat magical moment. The rose was warm and ticklish; she giggled as I caressed it and became embarrassed, then went silent. Imploring I said, “Do you want to?”
She shrugged her shoulders avoiding looking at me. When, where and how I start, I thought. In order to camouflage my virginity I asked her ,“Have you ever done it before?” All the while feeling like a trembling idiot.
“What!” She was hurt. I could tell by the way she startled.
“Please forgive me. It’s just that I’ve never done it before. I don’t know where to begin. Please, I didn’t mean to imply anything” I felt little a little baby confessing to his mother.
At that moment, I would have said anything, done anything, so as not to hurt her. She was lovely with a beautiful body, pretty face, firm breasts and shapely legs. What else did I want? From where I was, she had everything. I wanted nothing else, nothing at all, no other woman, not a single thing. The storm raged, the lightening came and went the thunders made noises. My duty was a particularly pleasant one. I felt better than a king did, more important than life itself did.
With my heart in my throat, I tried to apologise again, trembling in my humility, “Are you cross with me because of what I said?”
I did not look at her. I was admiring the magnet facing me, that strip of oasis, that fountain with special water to give fuel the dream of the world. I wandered how from that small slit, humanity renewed its productive cycle by giving birth and pleasure at the same time. Rita mumbled something that I did no register somehow. She sounded consentient.
“I don’t want to hurt you. But I do want to love you,” I said in a rush of happiness and sincerity.
“Just don’t get me into trouble, please.” Her tone was shy and imploring.
“No, I won’t , I won’t. I swear. May God strike me if I do otherwise?”
A bolt of lightening flashed across our heads and made me sorry I had made such a rash promise. It sound like an ominous threat if to my promise She was submissive and willing and I was full of expectancy that I might be about to experience what before I had only heard talked about, to which I had listened with such a keen ear and vivid imagination, but had never experienced before. Heaven let me in, I prayed. Somehow it did. The storm raged, the rain pelted down, but the lightening and thunder had disappeared. Lena and I had taken over their roles. The charge was inside of us, our emotions were at exploding point, a delirium of ecstasy engulfed us and took us into another world, the one everyone looks for to fish on. We felt holy. We loved carnally, but our being were spiritually bonded, embraced in the experience of the first time that no matter who with one never forgets.. The touching, the caressing, the plunging of our two bodies started a reaction of feelings. The body enhanced the soul and all the inner emotions within the starved body were thanking the spirit, the shapeless soul. I welcomed it and loved it with glowing pride. What else mattered to a boy eighteen years old? The world was at our fingertips, we wanted nothing else. We didn’t talk, the touch, the looks and penetrating feeling that went with it said it all.
Now and again Lena would forget what we were doing for a moment to murmur, “Please be careful, and promise me.” And then retreated in her world of ecstasy
I would respond, “I will, I promise, trust me.” Then silently joined her in that the rarefied world, the world the only the act love can give. For that is the moment when the gods are blessing you
The fear of the consequences made our act more exciting. The danger was there to sharpen our wits. Too quickly, time passed, and so did the storm. Suddenly Lena said:
”Oh, my God, where are my sheep?”
She got up quickly and dressed the best way she could. Then, with clogs in hand she dashed off. The flock was under the oak tree munching away at the fresh leaves on the fallen branches. Did they know that lightening never strikes in the same place twice?
Our goodbyes were hush, hush, she thought she had better go home to dry herself and reassure her family. I did not want her to go, with her rushing she was breaking the spell. Was it her modesty that made rush away? The fright of the storm that was her excuse for letting herself go was no longer there. Now she felt exposed, vulnerable, shy, and afraid she have given the wrong impression. I loved her, the way she looked, the way her clothes stuck to her body as if glued. The shy matter of the fact look hid her emotion now. I was full love for her. I felt a king and her going away was taking with her the crown. I was again ready for love, re-enter paradise. She brushed aside my overture. In the end I asked, “Will you come again tonight?” I looked her in the eye.
“Tonight!” She was surprised at my question
”Tomorrow morning, then,” I insisted with mollified tone.
“I don’t know.”
“Will you come again?” I pleaded feeling the worst..
“Yes, maybe. What is the hurry? I only live across the torrent by the edge of the village!”
“I began to realize she was teasing me. “How do I kyou will come?”
“If I ever do, it will be around this time, okay?”
“Fair, enough, but it is you who hurry away,” I said a bit hurt and disappointed.
“My family will be worried about me … because of the weather … and beside I must change” She turned away and took a bit of me with her.
She went to herd her sheep across the torrent, which was flowing much faster now carrying the newly engulfed muddy water. Once she had waded across, she turned to wave and disappeared along a shortcut across the slope that took her back home. I went back to the tree and to the spot where we had been so intimate. My feelings were at once both sweet and sour. A feeling I could not put words to describe it. I was happy, I was contented and yet in a void. I could not accept that ecstatic happiness is but a fleeting instant. Now the returned normality was dull even ugly.
The field with wheat showed sign of damage, some part wee flattened that meant a less return. Rivulets of water were draining the slope and slowly heading down toward the torrent that was roaring now. The climb up hill was difficult because the soil now was spongy. Peppe and Luigi were waiting for me at the edge of the yard. And no sooner had I set foot into it Peppe asked in a worried voice:
”What where you up to running off like that? What have you been doing down there? Have gone mad? You kept us all worried sick”
I said the first thing that came into my head, “I went to relieve myself.”
“What, a mile off? What is so precious about your arse that you are afraid to show around?” He had a smile on his face. The bugger knew more than he was prepared to say.
“Well, I’m particular you know.” I tried to joke but I could see they accepted it with reservations. Inside my father was wringing out his wet clothes. He looked around and said brusquely, “Are you deaf, son? Didn’t you hear me calling you?”
I scratched my head and looked at his wet clothes. I thought the worst and felt defiled. I looked away.,
“Why don’t you bloody answer when I call you? You have the gift of speech why don’t make use of it” He read my mind and his tried to make amend
“Come,” he said, “wring out your clothes and we’ll start a fire so we can get dry. You must eat something, but first have some wine to put some fire back into you. That bloody thunder so near scared the hell out me”
I was terrified that he knew my secret. Had he come looking for me? Had he seen me?
“I’m not hungry, Dad, not right now.”
“Don’t be silly, you cannot take out without putting back in.”
“Maybe I’d better,” I said meekly, trying to close the argument.
“That bloody storm has damaged our crops. What a bit of luck we finished most of the hay making.”
We lit a fire in the yard to put our clothes to dry. They steamed while drying, the swallows returned and so had the beastly flies while the last of the rain was dripping from the branches of the trees. The wind had pushed the black clouds towards the Apennine’s Mountain range, its sinister and destructive force had moved on to create misery elsewhere.
“Good riddance,” father shouted to the sky. “Well, what’s done is done. We change a thing but we can drink and toast to our good health,” and he passed the wine around.
When we started for home, the church bells peeling again. This time they were calling the devout to evening prayers. I was on the sleigh driving the oxen, dreaming of the storm, of Lena, of the first experience, of the delights that I relived and longed to repeat, even though I knew that an experience repeated is never quite the same. It can be better, it can be worse, but it is never the same. Feeling on top of the world, I told myself aloud, “Come Carlo, you are too young too live in the past, here’s to the future. I’m ready, I’m ready,” I kept repeating with only one thing in mind. When you are young, your balls drive you along; they seem the very essence of your being. I felt good; things were really going my way.
A twinge of remorse hit me as I thought of Rita, but I quickly drove that thought from my mind. There would be a battle every time I tried to see her, with Alfio watching over her like a falcon. The rumour that I had a lethal punch soon spread and I bubbled with confidence. I confess that I often took to shadow boxing, practicing by hitting trees or anything else hard enough to toughen my hands.
By the end of June, teams of reapers began to stream by, heading for the valleys and plains. The ritual repeated every year. The wheat in the lower plain by the sea ripened well before than that in the hillside toward the mountains. The reapers were from the mountainous part and once by the sea plain they began their return back home offering their labour. By the time, they eventually got back home their wheat was ready and waiting to harvest. They were strong, rugged people who worked very hard with only one objective: work hard, very hard and earn good money. They preferred payment by the field, strike a deal before they started; they were the forerunner of piecework. Work started well before dawn and ended well after dusk. It was backbreaking work, they treated it like a holiday, singing as they worked, in chorus, harmoniously, filling the plains and hill with songs from the mountains. They scarcely took rest breaks, just enough time to eat. The landowners were well pleased. They provided food and drink free and paid the agreed price at the end everyone was satisfied: the owners had a quick harvest and the workers earned good money.
When the teams left there was always an air of melancholy. Wine flowed, the thanks were genuine and goodbyes carried a promise, something to look forward to the following harvest. Then the migrant workers wound their way into the hills and mountains to reap the harvest there.
Our harvest was usually ready in July. Father always employed local people, never migrants, but their arrival was the sign to get busy. Father went around looking at the wheat, ground some in his hands and if the wheat was ready, he got busy and summoned help. He was never short to get help in short notice as he had a reputation of providing good food and plenty wine that for some was like a feast.. For mother the day began with preparing food and filling bottles and flasks.
A team of a dozen people would be working for us for three days. Luigi and Peppe were coming. We asked Alfio but he refused. His sister Gina came instead and I hoped Rita would also be there.
The preparations went on. Father usually planned the harvesting like a military operation; this field first, then that and, after lunch, the other, the women on the right, the men on the left. The men would take turn to do tie the wheat into sheaf and gather them into a heap that would protect them in case of rain.
When the big day came, we started early, very early, in the morning. Father went to the field with Diamante and mother busied herself preparing while I looked after the animals and waited for helpers to arrive. As they drifted in mother offered, all of them breakfast and wine. Some accepted readily, while others had to be asked more than once to make them eat what was on offer.. This offering and accepting is a custom that goes back to time immemorial. The giver has to offer many times and the receiver to refuse with banal excuses before accepting the offering. Time moves on but the ritual performance remains
Gina came, but not Rita. I was disappointed, but shrugged it off. Gina was beautiful, a little taller than Rita was, and her ways and manners were open and teasing. Until that summer, she had scared me. She was the sort to wrap a man around her little finger – even Alfio could not break her. She was very independent. She could look after herself, behaving like a saint in front of her parents and relatives, but once she was out of their sight she came alive fuelling the young men of the village with high hopes, none of them honorable. Her ways and attitude were provocative. She raised the expectations of sex-starved youngsters, who would follow her, vainly hoping for a date. Her ways gave birth to many dreams and created jealousy at the same time discord with her brother Alfio
Dreams! Some times they can be just a figments of the imagination, an escape from the harshness of reality of every day life. All the young men of the village lived dreams, yesterday, today, tomorrow. In her way, Gina contributed to keeping those dreams alive. She was the oasis for these hungry young men lost in the monotonous desert of village life. Did anyone ever translate his dreams into reality? I don’t know. I never felt at ease with her. Rita made me happy because I trusted her, but Gina simply made me feel the truth of what I really was, a virgin. Wanting to but did not know how.
However, my experience with Lena gave me a taste that was really to my liking and I intended to pursue it. With Lena, I had entered a new world. I cast a casual telling glance at Gina when I passed her a plate full of cut salami and raw ham.
“Eat. Today you need a lot of energy.” I teased her with half smile on my face.
“What makes you think I’ve got enough?” she replayed equally with a teasing tone.
“Well,” I said, “actually I thought I would make sure you do have enough, for today anyway. It is going to be a long day.”
“For a boy, you think too much,” she started mocking. I met her stare, and she was the first to look away. I had won the first round. The seeds of doubt were germinating in her mind and I took courage from it.
On our way down the slope towards the field, I was behind the oxen, sitting on the sleigh. The sun rose in a silent golden fanfare, its rays like those on an icon, making me feel as though this was a holy day, this day of harvest so vital to peasant life. As the sun went higher lost the subtlety of colours and it became the master and from its high position went to work to light and heat the world. Be the provider of life. The sky was blue, the air was fresh, and the flies were not yet awake.
Gina walked behind me. I wanted to ask her about Rita so I offered her a ride.
She taunted me. “Poor boy, he is lonely. The poor lost little boy is looking for his mama.” She came to wanting to pull my ear. I moved my head sideway and retorted,
“If a boy is what you’re looking for, then I’m the wrong person for you,”
“Oh really? If you are not a boy then what are you? A child?” That hurt, bloody Gina.
“I can prove to you what I am any time, any place and any way you want. Who do you think you are the Queen of Hearts or something? Who gives you the right to mock me? Tell me; after all I want to be sociable.” I snapped at her, she was giving me the jitters.
“Oh, I know what you want. You want to ask about my sister Don’t you? … You want to know, why she is not here today. Well, I will tell you. She is staying at home and she is not going to have any boyfriend until I get married. Get it!” She was mocking me and telling me the truth I did not want to hear. I changed tactic, I looked in the face and blurted out, “You are jealous! Oh my God, you are jealous of your own sister! Shame on you, you are scared to become a spinster. She scares you … of course if the jump the queue … welcome to spinsterhood!.”
“Shut up.” She said with finality that I felt not to contest any further.
I hit a tender nerve and that ended the conversation, and the rest of the journey we continued in silence. As we made our way down the road, my eyes wandered across the valley and I listened casually to the others mumbling. I kept goading my oxen with my whip. I strew it into the air first then I pulled it back sharp without hitting the animals. The pull back produced a dry sharp sound that worried the oxen and in the end it rattled Gina, who said angrily, “Do you have to keep doing that?”
Slowly I turned my head around, “Why, does it bother you?”
“Oh forget it.” She slowed down to be absorbed into the group following us. Good riddance, I thought contentedly. She is not going to make me run around. If she is spoilt, that is her lookout. I’m nobody’s stooge, certainly not hers.
I started whistling, then humming, then singing. When we reached the animal stalls, father was waiting, the oxen went in were the manager was filled with hay. Principe and Barone strait away began munching away, first holding their breath and then exhaling with a forceful hiss jet of steam that flew from their nostrils and finally their horned heads tucked in the manger for the waiting food.
Father directed everybody towards the biggest field. Fido raced ahead of the group, eager to investigate everything along his path. Diamante led the work team, and so we started.
The golden wheat with its darkened horns was waiting, ready to start its true function – keeping men and beasts alive. Gently it swayed in the breeze, saying goodbye to its mother, the earth, and hello to man, his master. It shone like a bride who, alone with her groom, says with abandon, here I am, I am yours, take me.
The sight warmed the heart. As the reapers cut the wheat, they treated the stems with reverence, their minds wandering to hot loaves of bread and fuming pasta. It was a good feeling, the anticipation of food but without the pain of hunger. Mouths watered as we dreamed of the anticipated feast that would be in wait almost smelling the flavour and the aroma.
Harvest is a holy time, when nature repays man with what he mostly needs, food. The sound of singing filled the valley. A song with its words and music, happy or sad, is the mirror of the soul. When all the barriers are down, the heart, the soul, the mind, is unashamedly ready to give and take. People, earth and nature became one, each proud of the other, each creating a climax that they never forget. It is a communion of love that says please and thank you; a bond that renews itself annually, a refresher course on the origin of things, a sifting of impurities, a reminder of our mutual dependency, a brushing aside of adversity, a gentle hope, warm with the anticipation of a journey into the unknown tomorrow. The sight of a field with ripened wheat is a shrine and man feels in it like the faithful to prayer. Even the movement of cutting the wheat seems an act of reverence. No wonder songs are part of harvesting; a song lifts the soul to the beyond where people normally fear to thread.
We made good progress that morning. Father and I were tying the sheaves together after the reapers. Gina and I would bicker now and again, but the singing made us forget our morning squabble.
Mother arrived around ten o’ clock. We ate and drank, then set to work again. By midday, the field was finished and the sheaves heaped up into piles. From a distance, the field looked like hamlet of beehives now. By that time, we were on the crest of the hill where the breeze brought some comfort. I left with Diamante to feed the oxen. Out of sight, I spurred the horse on in a mad dash across the lane, and for once, the dog could not keep up. I soon covered the distance. On arrival, the horse was wet with perspiration, but he was grunting in satisfaction after the exercise almost thanking me. My business with the oxen was soon over, and then the horse got a double ration of oats. On my way, back he neighed and waved his tail in the wind like a banner. His alert bearing and head held high indicated to me that he was ready, saying, as the palm of my hand touched his collar, “Come on, let’s go. I want to gallop” I mounted and without any prompting he galloped at top speed. Once again, the dog did not care much for the pace we were setting, registering his disapproval with a litany of barks. On my way back to the field I passed by the vineyards where we had a deep well, rated for its cool water.
I pulled in the horse and found Gina there. She had come to fetch the water for the party.
“Does your father know how you treat that horse?” she said reproachfully.
“Why does he have to know?” I took the jug from her and had a refreshing drink, then swilled water around my neck. I wet my shirt, so I took it off.
Gina looked at my chest for the first time. She seemed to like what she saw, so I flexed my muscles and hoped. Did she fancy me? On the other hand, did she want to pull my leg? . I called her bluff and casually blurted out, “I don’t know what you are after,” I stopped. Then aggressively, “What do you want from me?”
Taken aback she quickly recovered and retorted, “I want you to leave Rita alone. I come first in the family you know. What would people think of me if you two were the first to were engaged? They would think something is wrong with me. They would begin to say that I was already a spinster.” She jet it out in a mocking way as if I was fly.
“I scarcely ever see your sister. To get a glance of her I need binoculars, for Christ’s sake. You have scores of young men making sweet eyes at you; none of them is good enough for you? Maybe you have too much of a choice, you find difficulty in choosing”
“What young men are you talking about, because I don’t know of any.”
“What you really need is a nice … a nice eh…”
“Don’t you tell me what I need; just think of what you need yourself. A good hiding …” She flared up at me in anger. She resented the unsaid insinuation. She was in heat all right.
I did not let her finish. I hit the ball at the height of its bounce,” Gina, What I need now, only you can give me.” I looked at her strait in the eye
She knew well enough what I meant. “You bad mannered scoundrel, how dare you!”
I shrugged my shoulders and said off handedly, “To dare is to hope.” I shook my shoulders sinking my collar in them.
“Some hope.” She sounded amenable she was not rejecting me!
She went back to the well to refill the jug. As she bent down, I could not resist the temptation to touch her buttocks. She turned on me and gave me a venomous glare.
I had to do some fast thinking to excuse my action. Had I gaffed? Did I have it all wrong?
“You go out of the way to treat me like a little boy. Well, what do you want me to do? I’ll be nineteen next birthday. I do my share of work. I feel as good, as any man does, and the only thing you can do is mock me. How do you think I feel?”
It sounded like a confession, but as I put an arm around her shoulder, I felt her starting to relax even trembling. Encouraged, I continued.
“Well, Gina let me tell you. I am a man. I see you a woman. What a pity. Maybe you want boys.” I resigned myself maybe to get a slap across my jaws
She put the full jug aside. For the first time she looked tenderly at me.
“Do you know what you are doing to me?” I’m flesh and blood like everybody else.”
“So give your flesh and blood what they want?”
“And then?” She was hoping for a convincing answer and I obliged willingly.
“They will make a better woman out of you.”
“A pregnant woman more likely,” she added shyly.
“Never from me,” I butted in quickly.
“Eh, what do you know about it?”
“More, much more than you think. You judge me wrong, Gina. Think again.” I sought to reassure her by boasting a little, sound if I was a man of the world.
“Who would have thought it? It does not show. You are too young. Yet you talk as though you had known many women.” What do you know? She was playing me a compliment! Maybe she was preparing her acceptance
”Well, I like to keep my secrets to myself. I let you into them because I want to reassure you. Just in case you might think I will preach to the world afterwards”
She put both hands on my shoulders. Her touch was patronizing, her talk soothing, her look wanting, and her heart willing. She was at exploding point. She was in heat all right.
“And how do I know you won’t tell,” she said, having difficulty in controlling herself. Her hands caressed me. She inhaled as though to devour me.
“I’m a doer, not a talker.”
“Promise me, promise me truly.”
“I promise. I promise with all my heart”
She came at me like a tiger. I thought she was going to eat me. She wanted everything, and quickly. At first, I was almost afraid. Our two bodies contracted in bestial union, our hearts in time with our heavy breathing, our undecipherable groans, quick movements, legs in the air went into overdrive The sound of drumming grew in my ears, then became louder as we reached the climax, then stopped. The groaning faded away, heaving first then reality took over. We were satisfied. But were we really content?
It felt different, with Lena it was a celestial experience, now with Gina it had a feeling of bestiality. It did not come from the heart it was mechanical action to satisfy a need and for that there was a prize to pay when soon afterward remorse made his regal appearance.
A dark cloud covered the sun filling the valley with shadow. A voice from the hilltop called Gina. “What the hell. We are waiting for water you know.”
The dog barked, the horse neighed as I rolled aside forgetting my aching knees. Gina jumped up and took off before she replied to the calling, jug in hand; she was speeding up the hill. Shouting,” I’m coming, coming.”
“About time, what kept you so long?”
“Oh, don’t go on.”
I watched hurrying up the hill she was a gazelle in motion. She never looked back
She tried to sound casual but she must have gone through hell. I felt sorry for her very sorry, I regretted everything. It was Rita I wanted, not her. However, fate or spite had brought Gina and me together. The after effects were not pleasant, remorse; uneasiness began having a field day. Oh, why did I have to do it? Poor Rita. My ego was happy, another woman under my belt, but my soul was ashamed, not for what I had done but to whom I had done it. To do it with someone so close to Rita was not nice. My feelings for Rita were genuine and to make love to her sister, well, it felt like incest. Never again never again, I will do a similar action.
Nevertheless while I was in Gina I loved her with all my heart, gave myself to her with all my passion. Soon after hollowness, embarrassment and repentance blanketed me. Going up the hill was like going to crucifixion. Somebody was bound to suspect. However, I had to face the music.
When I arrived all of them were under the shade of a big oak, mother was spreading the blanket where lunch would put. Gina was a willing enough helper but her ruffled dress and hair gave her away. Her eagerness to please looked like someone doing penance. Mother, trying to help her said softly and casually.
“What happened to your dress and hair, dear?”
“Eh? I slipped and fell on my way down the hill.” She said and felt more uneasy than before
“Put it right then. You don’t want all these people to think you’re untidy do you?”
“Right, how silly of me. I just plain forgot.” She proceeded to comb her long brown hair. And readjusted her dress
Out of the corner of my eye, I looked at her. She had a very shy smile for all, but for me she reserved a satisfied ogle. Peppe came to me and said, “Carlo, you are an enigma. You disappear under a storm for two minutes and stay way for hours. Now you go to feed the animals. When you return you make us wonder what you have been doing. Do you care to explain to me what is going on?”
“No, you are nosey sod. There is nothing to tell, nothing at all. Except that when you get caught up in a storm you find shelter where you can and when the weather is good and your horse is fast and you don’t want to spend too much time with the animals, you wander around so that people like you can ask silly questions.” I was trying to divert him but he was too near to the truth for comfort.
“Nicely put, but that is not what my little bird tells me. Are you hiding something from me, eh? I’m not stupid you know. Why you want to treat me like one.” He sounded serious and looked mean. Was jealousy playing with him? I wondered..
“Friends don’t ask difficult questions.” I hoped he would stop, but he retorted, “Friends share what they have, you scoundrel.” He was too near the truth. To me it sounded like blackmail.
“There is sharing and sharing, and if you’re thinking what I’m thinking, wanting something I can’t share, you have not got a chance.”
I was keeping my voice down, seeking to maintain a low profile. This kind of talk gave me the creeps. It made me feel uneasy. Oh, I wished he would stop. Belt up and be quiet and mind his own business..
“That’s a nice thing to say to a friend who is trying to do you a favour.” He would not stop poking, and I run out of patience and went into the attack. I pressed my forefinger to his chest and with mean look and cutting tone I warned him, “You do yourself a favour, friend, don’t meddle in my affair”
His persistence made me angry. My voice changed: instead of uneasy evasion, I flashed him a warning that he had better take.
Father looked up and gave us a reproachful shout. “Eh, you two. If you are looking for something to do you can go to the bottom of the field and start reaping. We are trying to eat and have a bit of rest. If you feel you don’t need food and rest, you can do without, but let us be. Is that clear?” His last sentence was shouted at me. We rejoined the main group and sat around the blanket.
Father went on reproachfully, “What’s the matter with you two?”
“Nothing,” I said.
“We were just talking and got carried away,” said Peppe.
“Young people … instead of being blissfully happy, they create their own problem to be miserable, eat drink … be happy that what I say to you two”
While we ate, Gina, whenever she could, cast loving glances that embarrassed me. Peppe, the rat, started courting her openly with a knowing smile and subtle remarks, which hurt her. I knew what was going on, but I was helpless to intervene in front of so many people. The more Peppe pushed his attentions, the more Gina looked to me for support, and failing to get it, she thought the worst and her fiery glances had the will to murder me. She was fuming and no doubt, she was plotting against my good self.
Not wanting to aggravate the situation and hoping that time would calm down the situation I laid flat on my back fainting slumber and wondering.
I had on one side Peppe blackmailing me and on the other side Gina wanting to murder me. Peppe wanted Gina discretion I promised her turned out to be false. I was in the middle between the anvil and the hammer. I had no way out and as long as Gina thought me a charlatan I had no way out. I had to explain to her. Would she believe me? Maybe not but I had to do something in order to pacify her tormented soul. The enigma came to the fore when the rest was over and we moved to reap the wheat to nearby field.
Gina came alongside and cast a casual glace in my direction and softly blurted out with an ominous tone of disgust carrying her repressed anger,” Nice one you turned out to be! You are a son of a bitch! You don’t talk, eh. What a laugh.”
If looks could have killed, I would not be here to tell you the tale. I tried to pacify her in a tone and manner that would not arouse suspicion.. “Gina, I’ve not said a word. He just suspects us, that’s all”
“Suspect! That is the understatement of the year. Have you seen the way he has been stripping me with his eyes? Look at that smirk on his face! … if he doesn’t stop, I’ll scream.” This time her body’s movement contracted briefly as in fit.
“Don’t take any notice, Gina. He is bluffing. He is just bluffing. He will tire of it. Remain calm, for Christ’s sake anything you do will only make it worse.”
Suddenly Peppe was on us and quickly snarled, “Eh, what is all this secrecy?”
Gina’s cheeks tightened at the temples as she went red all over. I tried to keep the peace trying to divert the sneer that was allover his face.
“We have no secrets, no secrets at all. We are just talking about nothing.”
“Then why are you whispering? Are you afraid somebody might hear?” he purposely raised his voice and attracted everybody’s attention. Suddenly I hated him. Gina was deeply hurt and at that moment, I experienced two contrasting feelings: love, tender and protective, for Gina, and deep hatred for Peppe, I knew I had to shut him up.
Peppe was tough, very tough, he had a big head and the collar that supported it seemed a small tree trunk. His weather beaten face and rough hands could withstand anything.
He knew his own strength what he could take and what he could give. We were neighbours, we knew each other’s weakness and strength. Nevertheless, I had certain advantages over him: speed and lightening reflexes. From friends to antagonists I threw to the wind restraint and venomously turned on him with pointed finger coupled with a venomous look, “Look here you! Your presence is not welcome. Fuck off. If you have anything to say on the matter, then when the work is finished, and only then, I’m going to teach you how to treat people, especially women.”
“Why wait until tonight? Teach me now. I’m interested to see how you do it.” He was a cocky bastard. I had gone over the top and issued a challenge and he greedily accepted, maybe that was what he wanted all along.
“You have to come to work and that is my father’s business. But after work I deal with my own business.”
“You think yourself a tough guy, don’t you? Well, let me tell you, I’m not one of your village softies, who drops after one punch. Watch your step. You are going to have a nasty surprise friend.” He really thought he could whip me and for moment, I thought that I was playing with fire and risking my own safety. But the gauntlet was out I had to play the game and so I retorted, “It is clear that one of us is going to have a nasty surprise, but tonight we will see. Now shut up and do your share of the work. Until tonight bye bye”
“Right, I am looking forward to that, tonight then.” He walked away all the while snarling at me with contempt.
Gina loved me for it. I could see it in her eyes, in her proud satisfied chuckle, in her glow that emanated justified action from her face. I was going to be her champion, she finally had the proof that I was worthy of her affection, of her trust, of her everything. So be it.
What contributed to create the impasse? I could only guess, maybe Peppe had cast sweet glances at Gina and seeing his chance evaporated, he began to lash out. Had he witnessed our intimacy from a distance? He must have been, all the signs confirmed my suspicion.
Jealousy is a terrible beast, it has the habit to hurt the people you love most. A vivacious girl wit a teasing and inviting smile is the ideal subject to instigate it to the maximum and once out jealousy repays its host by spreading its tentacles to alienate everything and everybody by giving suspicion a free reign to destroy.
Peppe was my friend. Why did he have to challenge my position with Gina? Perhaps it was the repressed passion combined with the hot weather that led jealousy to rear its head.. Jealousy easily finds unlimited excuses to cast upon you the dark cloud of suspicion fuelling revenge. Peppe was on the grip of it. Now there was no going back. It was too late. He had wanted a showdown. Now we had to work in a tense atmosphere that I did not want. As the reaping started, again, the communion with nature, that elated feeling, was no longer with us, Pepper, Gina and me. Everybody else was singing, except us. That stupid Peppe wanted my place, let him try. I’ll show him. Maybe the same thought was in his mind, but at least he left Gina alone.
Towards five o’ clock, I had to go and see to the oxen but I felt I had to clarify the situation, so I went to him and said:
“Now don’t you start thinking I’m running away, I’ll be waiting the moment you finish” I made it sound casual but a phrase was never fuller of venom.
He replied in the same manner, “For a moment I thought you were going to deprive me of the pleasure of thrashings you. I’m glad you have not forgotten, I look forward to it.”
“Right, that makes two of us then.” I went to the horse, mounted and galloped across the field, much to my father’s incredulity, and he screamed a protest after me.
When I reached the stall I dismounted and went, scythe in hand, to the river to cut hay for the oxen. I was tense and my mind whirled with hate. I was talking to myself, oblivious to the life around me. Half way down somebody touched my shoulder.
I jumped startled, turned around, scythe waving in the air. A scream and a fleeing female figure shook me back to my senses. From a safe distance and with a wounded look the woman turned around. It was Lena looking at me as if I was the devil himself.
“Lena, where did you come from? You made me jump. Why you didn’t call me, I could have hurt you” Seeing Lena rooted to the spot with fright all over her, I looked around fearing a trap. Then at her again and asked encredulously,”are you afraid… of me? For the love of god, what is it?”
She stood on the spot with her face was full of anxiety and her body trembling my heart went out to her.
Lena you are the joy of my life. What have I done to scare you that bad.. You introduced me into a world of manhood. You made me reach the impossible, I’m not mad. Don’t look at me that way. I was miles away. I did not see you. Oh, please Lena.
I must have looked quite a sight because instead of answering my question she posed to me one of her own, “Are you all right?” Her voice had concern.
“Of course, I’m a bit distraught, I was not altogether here.”
“Aren’t you pleased to see me?”
“With all my heart, I’ve come down here every day for the last two weeks.”
“Not yesterday,” she replied reproachfully.
“Right, yesterday I couldn’t come but I’m here today.”
She looked around scanning the facing slope and did a gesture of irritation.
“There are people on the opposite slope who can see us, but I must talk to you.”
“Well you talk while I cut the hay. Come.”
I started down the slope, and she followed from a distance, I began gathering the hay. She came and stand in front of me like a lost little girl, fear all over her, eyes black for lack of sleep, it was obvious she was trying to find the courage to say something, itching to ease herself of a burden, but not knowing where to start. So to help her out of her misery, I said, ”What is it, Lena. Come on, don’t keep me in suspense.”
“You are not pleased to see me are you?” She was almost crying.
“I’m very happy to see you. I’m upset about something else, that has nothing to do with you. Now stop talking nonsense. What is it you want to tell me?”
“Nonsense eh? That what it is to you,nonsense! Oh my God!” balls of tear began rolling down her cheek
“What is it, Lena? Tell me. Has somebody found out about us?”
“No,” she shook her head, “but, but…” Her face changed to the pitiful
“I’m not a fortune teller,” I encouraged her. “I can’t read your mind, you know.”
“Oh, my God. What shall I do? Oh my God.” She wiped her tears with her hands..
“I cannot help if you don’t tell me Lena.” I tried to keep her going although her worry was getting into me.
“I don’t know where to begin.” Disconsolate she shook her head.
“Try from the beginning.” I threw the scythe away
“Well, do you remember that day under the storm?” She looked at me with the pious look of a believer fervently praying to a patron saint.
“Yes, how can I forget it?” I began to get he jitters fearing somebody; maybe her father might have learned something about it.
“Well, since that day I’ve not had a moment’s peace, I hardly sleep or eat. You told me, you promised me, you swore to God you would not get me into trouble, remember?”
“Yes. So?” The truth said hello
“Well, I should have had…..you know, what a woman gets every month.”
I froze, “You mean to say that…..” Stunned I tried to sound normal, but my gut was numb.
“No, no, no, not even a blasted drop.” She blurted out crying gesturing desperation.
“How late are you?”
“Seven days. Oh, Carlo you promised me. Oh God, what shall I do now?
I sent up a silent prayer. Oh Jesus, son of God, don’t be cruel. Not with Lena, why don’t you take it out on me instead?
“I’m getting punished for my sins,” Tears came out of her eyes that marked her cheek with two rivulets that and marked with a darker shade of colour the blouse below. I had never seen tears flowing with such abundance6. I went to embrace her, her sobs shook both her body and mine. Poor Lena. She was so helpless and I pitied her sincerely. Compassion, love, and remorse mingled in me, as the warmth of her body flowed into mine. Nagging at the back of my mind was the thought of: how and why I got this beautiful creature in trouble. How? How?
“Please don’t cry Lena,” I said, stroking her shoulders, “Seven days is not very long. One week, every minute is full of worry. Give it another day, maybe, who knows.”
“That maybe is killing me, it is torture. It is plain hell. Oh, what am I going to do?” she stumped the ground unable to control her emotion..
“Pull yourself together, stop being despondent, think positive, maybe it is a false alarm, give it more time.” This time it felt as if I was trying to reassure myself.
She did not answer. She did not attempt to control her crying, warm tears were wetting my shoulder. Oh, how she cried. I let her, and at last, the crying abated into sighs.
But a shout of , “Lovers, lovers,” from the wooded slope on the other side of the river plunged her back into her misery. She held her breath, as if mummified, then exhaled violently. “Oh, God. Who can that be?” She scanned the slope, willing her eyes to see what her heart was afraid to see.
Poor, poor Lena, she was completely and utterly dominated by fear. Fear of pregnancy, fear of shaming her family, fear of our parents’ reaction, fear of gossip, fear of a future too black even to contemplate, fear of being found out. As her fear magnified, it became the hook of despair; it pushed her into the abyss, into a world of terror. Lena, in her young, tender years instead of reaping promises was utterly at the mercy of the monster feeling of fear. Her life already cut to shreds. She was like a flower that has just come into bloom and then crushed by a vengeful boot, one moment full of beauty, radiant, and the next nothing. The present was a million miles away, the futures melted into nothing.
Lena drifted away from me like a ghost, but I went after her and embraced her tenderly, saying over and over again:
”Lena you are beautiful and I love you, love you, and love you.” I truly did. My heart went out to her, wanting to share her grief, to lighten her load. It was not right that she should pay the price alone. Why must women suffer so much? They participate and enjoy the act of love just as much as men, but they become sinners while men can play the peacock, reveling in their conquest. Nature, the creator, gives us a perfect formula and we make a mockery of it. Life is for a man needing a woman and vice versa. Why is the action of one enhanced and the other scorned? Why does a woman have to pay for the act, which the man committed as well?
Oh, God, I prayed, I cannot change ancient customs. I cannot fight unjust tradition, but I humbly ask you to pass on to me the consequences that this girl is going through. You that can do everything, please make it possible. Give her back her vitality, her life, her beauty, her peace of mind, her self-respect. I love this girl. Fate pushed us together. Our act of love comforted us in the raging storm and out of the passing distraction came love. Why out of love comes tragedy? Love is an act of giving, love is an act performed by two people who become one for a while, love is elation, love is an explosive affection, when the beyond is the limit. Love is an emotional embrace. An act of love is love, a communion of two bodies’ intent on achieving mutual delight. Lena and I were both beginners. So why: Why such rotten luck?
Lena was relaxed now, she wanted to believe my reassurances and in the end, she believed in a positive future more than I did. We parted, both hoping that maybe it was a false alarm and wishing that she next time we meet she would bring better news. Sorrow had united us, sorrow had exposed us to what we really were, helpless souls, who made up in the feelings that we lacked in knowledge.
I had forgotten about Peppe and promised showdown. Oh God, could you stop it? Do you want to punish me through him? I can’t promise to turn the other cheek, because if he lands one on it there will be nothing left to turn.
I went back to the impatient animals with the hay. I tried to push aside my thoughts of my love, my pity, the pain I shared with Lena and to prepare for my showdown with Peppe. The two conflicting images came and went. The act of love with Gina, her proud glowing, then Peppe’s loud voice, his sarcastic smile, his taunting stare. My gut coiled like a spring and my knuckles knotted. The tension made everything black blunted the tender feeling, the love within me. I became a demon, full of daring, I did not care who I was going to hit. Within the space of just one hour, I must have maimed Peppe a hundred times in my mind. I kept talking to myself, and hurling imagined injuries at him. I never made a false move; every blow was a feat of genius. For every move Peppe, made, I had counter move. When I finished beating him once, I started all over again. By the time the party coming home was in view, my anger was spent, and I felt like telling Peppe to forget the fight. He was in the lead, strutting, head high. His bearing stabbed me, chilled my bones, coagulated my blood and froze my nerves. When he entered the yard I had to turn away to recompose myself. He sensed he had the advantage and pressed his point home.
“Eh, little cockerel, are you afraid? Are you afraid of the smacking I’m going to give you?” His chest stuck out as if to say, Hit Me. The others were astonished at the sudden confrontation. Father made to intervene, but changed his mind. I was on my own.
In order to gain time and regain mental bearing, I retorted “Afraid of you? You think highly of yourself, don’t you? Don’t make me laugh. Smacking me, you! I’d like to see you try it.” I made to leave, glanced at my father. He looked like death.
Peppe called me back. “I want to show you how it is done, but I can’t if you run away.”
That did it, I couldn’t lose my self respect, not in front of my father, Luigi and the others. I needed to recharge my anger, but Peppe gave me no respite. The women were concerned, arguing loudly, but the men stopped them.
“They have been at each other long enough, let them sort it out.”
Still keeping the game going I said, “The one who makes me run away has not been found yet. Don’t kid yourself, I’m not running, not from you, of course you would like me to do just that, but I’m not going to oblige. Make me run. Come on, make me, and see how far you get.”
I thrust my chin out, daring him. I was bragging and Peppe’s response served me right. He landed a backhander of the first order, making me spin sideways. It hurt oh how it hurt. Pride was gone. Boom, another one, Peppe was treating me with contempt. Just like a kid. Boom, yet another and another. I kept retreating but there was nowhere to go except run. Every blow hurt injuring my body hurting my pride He bashed so mush that he run out of breath. Now my chance came and in me there was a double reasons to hit back My anger and my instincts allied, screaming at me to retaliate. I found my other persona, the merciless batterer, a Lucifer who took joy in inflicting suffering on others. I caught him with an uppercut that lifted him off the ground, and as he reeled, thudded a left into his chest. Now I was in full flow with fighting fury.
Peppe was in difficulty began rushing me like a wounded boar. But the yard was large enough. There was plenty of room for me to avoid his wild charges and carry on hitting him all the while, on the chin, always on the chin. My fists were boiling hot, my anger insatiable, my reflexes razor sharp, and my feet nimble. I hit and hit again, always and always on the same spot. His chin had become red, the impact of each punch made his head half turn with a sudden jolt. His hair shook with each blow. After each punch, he sought to regain the initiative and bravely came forward, but it was in vain. Every time I stopped him with another punch, boom, boom, boom, Peppe staggered like a drunk, but kept coming back, asking form more, and I willingly gave it to him. He could not believe what was happening to him. All the time, boom, boom
“Stop them, stop them for the love of God,” the women chorused. I was enjoying his misery, but they were right. The time had come to stop. I landed an upper cut and a left hook and he found himself sitting on the ground. It was over. He needed help to get up.
I was sky high. Father looked at me with pride in his eyes. Gina was silently glowing, rubbing absently at her breast. Wine passed around. Peppe pushed it aside in disgust and refused the help that people were offering. He went up the road without looking back, beaten and humiliated, eager to escape the looks of contempt.
In the yard people glanced at each other silently, embarrassed, trying to find things to do to occupy themselves, but there was nothing to do. I tried to relax and ease the tension by stretching my arms and shoulders gently.
Father got busy putting the panniers on the horse and harnessing the oxen, readying them to pull the sleigh. “Let’s go,” he said, then turning to me, “Carlo, your ride the horse.”
“No, Dad, you take the horse. I’ll take the oxen. I want to be alone for a short time, but I’ll catch up with you. Please?” I finished almost begging.
In a flash of intimacy, my father understood and consented. However, before setting off he came to reassure me, “Don’t worry son, you fought clean and clever, like I want my son to do. Nevertheless, at the beginning, you worried me, you know. I could not have helped you out. Still, now I know you can solve your own problems. That’s good, Carluccio. But is it safe to leave you alone?” He was teasing me now, trying to make me laugh, “Will you promise me you won’t go making any more trouble?”
His light tone put me off my stride, as he intended. Reading the intention behind his words, I was truly grateful. How I loved him for it. I looked at him and he looked at me. We were in harmony. He was proud of me and me of him. I saw in me a man, I saw in him my God. He knew I didn’t need him to approve of me or tell me off any more. He had done his bit. Now he exercised the prerogative of a father, and let go. The gift of let go is the best act of love a father gives to his son. The let go costs little when done with a genuine heart. The father that exercises this prerogative will find that in the newly created void between father and son will soon fill with love and admiration. The silence will say more than words. I felt free, but in a way, I needed his love even the more now and I knew then that he would never fail me.
My anger had all melted away. I had a lump in my throat, as I replied, “No more headaches today.”
“Right then, see you later,” he replied and started up the road after the others.
He had only gone a few meters when I called after him, “Eh, Dad thanks.” Moreover, those apparently casual words summed up everything we both felt. He waved to me and was gone.
Driving the oxen along, with tired gestures and few words, gloom descended over me as I thought about the women in my life. Doubts and certainties, love and hate, fear and courage, hope and despair mingled together, revolving incessantly in my mind. Was it right that the union of two people in an act of love, an act of sublime abandon, should give rise to such fear, despair and jealousy?
The harvest the expected gift of nature, the coming to fore of Gina, the squabble with Peppe and the consequent fight, the sudden gloomy news from Lena and the let go of father. They all ruminated in my mind and while engulfed in it I was in the world of resolutions and could see the path ahead had some tricky problems, like repair work with Peppe, keep away from Gina and Lena. She was foremost on my mind. She shook me with her condition and fear, real and serious, Why did the act of love done with passion and sincerity never end in the way we intended at the outset?
As the dusk ate, the light of the day, the air-cooled and my melancholy ebbed away. The world somehow seemed more acceptable and a positive mood began to take over. Driving up the hill the drag and bounce of the sleigh on the uneven roads rocked me. The oxen grunted, their tails switched as they flicked away the flies. They were making good progress towards home. On the horizon, the sun was still fighting to make the day as long as possible, his golden halos shooting skyward from behind the mountain defiantly glowing in the western sky. The crickets and cicadas, were taking over from the birds song with their litany of sounds the prelude to a nightlong symphony. The house loomed in sight, the light granite wall standing out like a thorn in the incoming darkness. The shack and the stalls, the oak trees, were two-dimensional silhouettes against the darkening sky.
The activity in the yard was somber and muted; the helpers were sitting around on chairs and stones. They were economical with their movements, it was the end of a long day and the exertions had sapped their energies. Their backs must hurt from the constant bending while they reaped the wheat.
My arrival shook everybody out of their stupor. In the kitchen, where the lamp created a pool of light that was a magnet for the flies, my mother was hurrying to prepare dinner. The evening meal lacked the importance of the others consumed during the day. It was just a way of replacing some of our strength, of refueling the body, so it was a low-key affair. The talk was subdued, intermittent, punctuated only by the rattle of crockery. The only thing on our minds was bed, rest, the oblivion of sleep that would recharge our spent energy.
Father pushed the bottle around and mother encouraged us to eat the food the food. As soon as someone said, “no more,” she would quickly say, “Rubbish, eat, food is good for you.”
“I’m full up to here,” they replied, indicating their neck.
“Push it down, push it down and don’t think about it”
Peppe was missing, but no one really cared. However, the mood changed when Pia, Peppe’s mother, arrived howling at the door.
“I hope you are proud of yourself. Eh! I send my son to work, to help you and you send him back bruised and beaten up. I never thought I would see the day.”
Her dark clothes and irate movements made her look like a witch. “Nice people, very nice people you turn out to be!” Her voice rose to a scream, “Ruffians, that is what you are. Evil. And me trusting my son with you lot. Eh! Shame on you. You, Nicolanto, what have you got to say eh? Would you like your son to go and help somebody, and find him all beaten up on coming back home? Shame! Shame on you, shame on you all. One last thing I want to tell you, you will never see any of my family to help you again.”
With these, she vanished into the night.
The outburst ended the meal. For a moment, everybody sat stunned and silent. Then some one coughed to fill the silence, which became the signal for others to get up, yawn, stretch, and say goodnight.
“Sleep well, see you in the morning,” we all murmured as the helpers set off for the village. However, I did not get away so easily. My mother soon put paid to any notion I had of sneaking off to bed. Maybe she heard the story of the fracas from the helpers when she asked why Peppe was not present. Now the arrival of Pia and her disgust resolved her to defuse the situation.
“Come here, young man I want an explanation about what happened today, and I want it double quick.”
“Mamma, I said trying to avoid the issue, “it is late and I’ve had a long day.”
“My day’s been longer than yours, so don’t give me that. What has happened to Peppe? What has happened to your sense of hospitality? Come on. Speak up.”
“Nothing mamma, nothing.” I vainly tried to reassure her, but she kept on.
“Nothing is not what I heard. Today something has happened and I want to know, so don’t play the fool with me. I’m tempted to put you across my knee and give you a good smacking.”
Suddenly a figure took shape in the kitchen doorway. It was Peppe. Before we could open our mouths, he said, “Anything left to eat?” We all rushed to help. Mother gave him a plate of food. Father poured his wine. Peppe was clearly embarrassed. To come at all had been both an act of courage and a feat of humility. We were relieved and grabbed the chance to avoid a rift between the two families with both hands. I felt embarrassed and I loved him for what he was doing. We were fool to fight.
Peppe protested weakly, “It is too much, too much, I just want a little.”
“Nonsense,” father said, “You worked very hard, and you deserve it. Get it down you. A growing man needs plenty of food.”
As he began to eat Peppe relaxed enough to talk, “I’m sorry my mother made a scene. I don’t know how she got wind of the fight. I never said a word. It is important that you believe me. It is the honest truth.”
“Never mind you here know, and we are more than happy to see you” mother quickly but in putting going to Peppe and putting her motherly arm around Peppe wanting and wishing to keep normality between the two families. “Eat and drink as much as you want” having said that she signaled to father to follow her to bed.
When Peppe and I were alone, each felt embarrassed, each wanting to talk but afraid to be the first, each listening to the beat of his own heart, each trying for something to say made sense. The more time passed, the more our embarrassment.
I used my position as host to break the silence. “Some more food?” Of course it did not work.
“Oh no, enough is enough,” he replied, “I couldn’t eat another morsel.”Silence.
“Nice night,” I said again.
“Very nice,” Peppe agreed. Silence again.
“Tomorrow is going to be another hot day,” I started again.
“Yes, it looks like it,” he confirmed.
“You are coming tomorrow, aren’t you?” I tried to keep it going.
“Sure,sure I am coming.”
Silence again, it was harder to restart.
“We hope to finish the harvesting tomorrow,” I prayed that this time he would keep the conversation going.
“I’m sure we will, God willing.” He stopped again.
“And I sincerely hope….”
”I hope we will never fight again,” I said in a rush. I felt better the moment the words came out.
“You can say that again, Carlo. The next time I pick a fight, I’ll make sure it isn’t you, I don’t like the flavour of your punches. They made a real mess of my chin you know.
“I’m sorry Peppe, but I must say you can pack quite a punch. My chin is bloody soar I tell you. I was lucky to get you with a sucker punch that is all.” The praising of each other prowess was a balming benison to our awkwardness.
We were both sincere, the tension slowly vanished and the warmth grew back between us to re-ignite the friendship of old. Each taking they blame
“Don’t be sorry, I asked for it, and it serves me right.”
“We have both been silly. We should have known better than to behave like that.”
“We have been friends since we were born and this is the first time we have ever fought one another. Shall we forget t? Are we still friends?”
“Yes, we’re still friends.”
“Let’s shake on it.” I said getting up and extending my hand. Peppe also got up and shook my hand. We found ourselves embracing one another with renewed friendship, with a new and stronger bond. We sat up half the night waiting for the moon to arrive. We talked, we laughed, and we boasted, we praised, we dreamed but above all, we enjoyed each other company.
The rancour of the afternoon was distant memory. The fight had been an unpleasant experience, never to go through it gain. We parted as always, patting one another on the shoulder, but that night our goodnight wishes were more heart felt and had a twinge of sweetness for the inner soul.
The following day Gina warned me that her brother Alfio was planning a surprise for me – with Carmine, no less. Therefore, the Dog and the Cat were joining forces. At first, the news amused me it made me feel important. Then a sense of foreboding set in. It didn’t matter whether I chose to regard their plans as a challenge, a sign of my importance or a chance to teach them a lesson, it came down to a showdown between the hunters and the prey, and I couldn’t make a move until they did.
At the end of harvesting the slope with its piles of sheaves looked like a colony of beehive. The pile of sheaves soon found its way back home to the yard transported by the horse and donkeys and piled in a huge block, roof high. I lived and worked with an air of apparent calm, but I tormented by the constant worry over Lena, the urge for sex, and the fear of being jumped. It played havoc with my life. Fido came along with me wherever I went as my guardian angel, but his every little bark made my heart stop. Nothing happened for some time, and I was just beginning to feel reassured, but then came the day of the threshing the wheat.
I remember it well. It was a windy day, the ideal condition for the work in hand. However, that day the wind blew from the south, warm and suffocating. We threshed in the yard and being outside in that wind was tiring. It took our breath away, but we pressed on at speed in case the wind would cease. The oxen circled incessantly, trampling around and on the ring of sheaves, we did the final thrashing with bludgeons and then with pitchforks we threw the straw in the air for the wind to blow away the straw and the grain of wheat piled into the ground. Then we would remove the grain and start a new mound of fresh wheat, and the oxen would crush this straw and squeeze the grain out once again. At the end of the day, with food eaten, the usual niceties said, the helpers departed. My family rushed around to tidy things up, but I had a particular reason for hurrying.
Gina wanted to tell me something important. I gathered she wanted something very personal. I gathered what she wanted and my resolutions melted in the thin air and the saying that the spirit is willing but the flesh id weak it proved to be true. I told Gina to find an excuse to escape from the little party going with her back to the village and come back to the house for me. I had a good wash –I had too. The dust and sweat of the day had combined to make me look like a coal miner. Gina returned on the pretext of collecting her scarf, then like a professional actor, she said innocently:
“I’m scared to pass by the cemetery by myself. Would you come with me, Carlo, please?”
“Of course it will be a great pleasure.” I was ready before I replied. Then turning to my parent, I told them, “I’ll see you in a while.”
They acknowledged me with an absent glance and a tired nod.
We started our way toward the village. The countryside was ablaze in moonlight. The night sky was blue and adorned with twinkling stars. The wind howled muting the cicadas and crickets. It was an ideal set up for romance and Gina seemed not adverse to it
Normally I would have avoided the cemetery like the plague, Gina suggested using a spot above the little space by the cemetery entrance. We both wanted one another; both were on tenterhooks, both restless looking for a bit of ground on which to lie, reckless of consequences and to hell with the ghosts. We prayed that no living soul would be around to pry on our intimacy
We flung our arms around each other and rolled from side to side on the hard ground. However before we really got into it, I heard a whistle, then another. I stopped, hoping and praying that I was imagining things. Gina whispered, “What is it?”
“Only the wind,” I replayed hoping it was true
“I hope you are right,” she said, louder this time freeing her persona from me.
“Keep your voice down,” I got up onto my knees to look around. I had left Fido behind, and now I began to regret it. I felt quite lost and afraid. I stood up, but Gina laughed and said, “There is nobody here. It is just you and me, stop imagining things” She grubbed me in an inviting way consent to love.
I scanned the overlooking cemetery, what I saw it made me scream “my god”!
I could not believe my eyes, I passed the place countless time, always weary of ghost but I had never seen one, the howls with their daunting eyes yes, but not ghosts.
“What?” Gina sounded off ended
“Look!” I indicated the cemetery where white shapeless figures were prancing about, hissing and howling in competition with the owls and the wind.
“For Christ’s sake, Gina, let’s get out of here.” I was quite unashamed of my fear.
Frozen with panic we stood still looking horrified at the ghost prancing and howling making their way toward the exit. Suddenly they seemed to heading our way. We both took off at a run, but gesticulating ghost uttering guttural sounds blocked our retreat. I dragged Gina in another direction, but we came to an abrupt stop at a steep drop. The only option was to jump, but Gina refused to follow me.
“Jump,” I screamed. “For the love of God, Come on, Jump.”
“I’m afraid,” she said, “I can’t.”
The ghost appeared and Gina melted away. I cast my eyes around, looking for a way out, but the ghosts were everywhere. I wondered if it was a dream or a nightmare. I touched myself; no, it was not a dream. I lost my reason completely and yelled with all my strength. “God, help me.”. Ghosts never hurt anyone; even if they want to, they cannot hurt. However, the livings have that preconceived idea of being scared. I tell you I was petrified with a kind of fear never experienced before. They looked like an army from the beyond on a reconnaissance patrol, wanting to take a prisoner, me! In total panic I screamed, oh how I screamed. Even the wind could not hide the desperation, and the sound of my voice echoing made me feel a bit better. I made me feel wanting to be alive. I carried on screaming. Calling to God then for the dog, for mamma and for father
“Fido! Where are you? Father! Father. Oh, mamma!” I found myself surrounded by the ghosts who made a big circle around me shaking their white garment and making cavernous sounds. Then they closed in around me, dancing. I screamed again, this time yelling anything that came to mind, but gradually a persistent sound, like a foot tapping , caught my attention. I stopped yelling and looked their exposed feet. They were wearing shoes, I grabbed a stone and threw it into their midst. The dancing stopped and they scattered double quick, then stopped, blocking my way home.
“Ghosts my foot! You are rotten sons of bitches!” You thought to frighten me,” I yelled. “I’ll show you!” I yelled again with all my anger and strength, hoping that some kind soul nearby might hear and come to help. Then one of them spoke.
“Stop yelling and say your prayers, because we are going to kill you here and now … and…then bury you. See? The hole is ready and waiting. Instead of screaming you should say your prayers, recommend your soul unless you prefer the flames of hell.” The voice was familiar all right.
“You bastards, may a cancer get all of you.”
I sprinted into their midst, but they began to hit out at me with a flurry of punches and kicks. I managed to keep my footing and lashed out like a demon, but they were hurting me. Blood gushed from my nose and my vision started to blur. I began to retreat, trying to create some distance between us, lashing out and yelling threats, I had no hope of carrying through. By that time, staying on my feet was my priority.
Then I heard a dog barks, solitary and faint at first, but it was coming closer. Suddenly the crackle of two rifle shots cut into the night. The cavalry was coming.
The ‘ghosts’ stopped, listening, not knowing what to do. I chose the smallest of them as prey. I mustered the last ounce of strength and hit out at him in desperation. I managed to land two good punches, and he fell.
I sprinted downhill to put myself some distance from them. Fido was sprinting up the hill as if chasing a hare, he flashed past me. He did stop to acknowledge my greeting; he preceded his sprint toward the enemy and in no time he caused havoc amongst the false ghosts with his snarling and barking.
Sometime the instinct of an animal puts the reasoning of human to shame
Father arrived puffing holding his rifle. He was relieved to see me in one peace. He stopped to get his breath back before uttering questioningly.” Well! … Do you mind telling me what has been going on?”
“Nothing “ I replied, trying vainly to clean with my bare hands the blood from my face.
“Nothing you say eh. Why are you such a pretty sight? Who are those people running up the hill?” We both looked up and Fido was doing a fantastic job scaring the shit out of them. It took a lot of them to scare me but now one dog was doing the reverse
”That’s what I’d like to know,” I said to myself but wanting father to hear.
I turned and rushed back up the hill after them. The man I had hit was unconscious, and I stopped to revive him first and question him after. Father carried on up the hill after the others hoping to get some one but fide had created a rout and nobody was around to be seen only white scattered sheet were visible proof of charade.
When the boy came around, I tore the sheet away from his bodye. He stared at me, lost for words. I wanted revenge and answers, and I raged.
“Names,” I demanded, pulling him to his feet and gripping his cheek; my rough nails sunk into his flesh, and I could feel his warm blood on my hand. “Names!” I repeated, I was full of hate and my nails sunk deeper in his face.
“Yes, yes. Oh please My face my face”
I eased my grip.“Hurry. Out with it.”
“Alfio. Ouch! Carmine. Piero. Raffaele. Gina.”
“What? Gina!” I squeezed again.
“Yes, it’s true. They made her.”
I let go his face and punched him in the stomach. He doubled over, groaning. Pointing to the sheet, I thundered. “Pick it up.” He did so, quickly.
“Now move.” I commanded, indicating the cemetery. Scared out of his wits he started walking, looking back at me all the while. “Where is the grave you had prepared for me?”
“We were not going to kill you, just beat you and half bury you.”
“Was a grave dug up for me? Yes or no?”
He stopped by a half dug up grave. “Well what are you going to tell me?” I punched him on his buttock.
“Look that is the grave. It is just a little one and not very deep.” A moment of silence followed enough for me to take in the shock.
“Satisfy my curiosity, why so generous?
“We … they had little time” He was almost crying now.
My heart sank. There was a freshly dug grave, with a spade and a pitchfork in the pile of earth beside it.
“Bloody hell. You are a band of devils. Curse you all. You really meant to kill me.”
“Not me,” he protested.
“Yes. Jump in the hole now,” I commanded
“Oh no. Please.”
He made to run away, but I was quicker and I pushed him in. He scrambled to his feet, and made to heave himself out of the hole, but I snatched the shovel and pressed the edge to his throat.
“If you come out, I’ll kill you.”
“Please. I’m scared to be in this hole. Please let me out.”
“You stay where you are, and don’t move an eyelash.”
I started shoveling the fresh earth into the hole. He began to cry, but didn’t care, just kept filling the grave. I stopped when there was enough soil in it to make him stop struggle. I took a cross from one of the nearby graves, drove it into the earth behind him and tied him to it with his own sheet. He said nothing, just cried and cried. I left, bidding him goodnight and sweet dreams.
He called out after me. “Oh no, please, don’t leave me, I’m afraid.“Don’t leave me, please.”
“Don’t worry,” I reassured him, “the ghosts will soon come and keep you company. Perhaps Satan will pay you a visit as well!”
I walked on ignoring his desperate cries, which became fainter as I walked out of the cemetery and downhill towards home.
My mother was frantic with worry. “What has happened?” Where is your father?” Do you have nothing better to do than get yourself into fights? When are you going to learn? Look at you!” She rattled off questions without waiting for answers. “You have everything you want at home. I don’t know why you have to go looking for trouble. Come here by the light; let me see what you’ve got yourself into.” Then seeing my red chin, puffed black eye and the blood all over me, she let out a scream, “My God, who did that to you?”
I was silent.
“Have you had your tongue cut out? Can’t you speak? Who did this to you? That’s all I want to know!”
“Oh. So you are going to tell me that ghosts attacked you.”
I burst out laughing; a short laugh that soon became a painful groan as I tried to stretch my cut lips.
At that moment, Peppe came in. Seeing the state I was in, he said nothing. Strangely, I found his silent presence comforting, but I resented my mother’s fussing. Finally, Fido came back, wagging his tail, closely followed by my father.
“They slipped away from me, the bastards.”
“That’s all right, Dad, leave me the pleasure of catching up with them.”
“Before you start thinking about revenge, you had better take care of yourself.”
“There is plenty time for that. Anyway, thank you, Dad. Your arrival was heaven set.”
“Glad to be of help, when I heard the screams I thought you might me mixed up in it. I rushed well prepared and bur when I recognize your voice I let out a couple of shot to let you know that help was coming.”
Mother proceeded to wash my bruises with cotton wool soaked in spirit while I tried without success not to wince. Her quiet concern and light touch reassured but failed to relax me. My brooding generated adrenalin, the desire for revenge grew in my mind.
What a trap I had fallen into! Gina! The slut! How could she do it? How could she do it to me? Why had she tried to warn me they were going to try something? A bunch of idiots made a fool of me they caught me napping. . Oh, the embarrassment was frying my inside! Worse still was the scene I had made while I really thought they were ghosts. The humiliation of it all was too much.
I went to bed with my mind was plotting revenge; I got little sleep and felt the humiliation hurting me more the pain. I woke frequently from nightmares, drenched with perspiration. My heart was full of tension and hatred. Finally, I left my bed and went out to seek the company of the raging wind. Its persistent howling somehow gave me comfort, and I began to see my relationship with Gina in perspective. Gina! What was she to me? She was a flower without fragrance, a fruit without a seed, a union without ties. Moreover, the best thing I could do was to discharge her from my thought completely
At length sleep cast its cloak over me and I fell asleep under the oak tree. Dawn came, and the crowing of cockerels woke me. The wind had abated, and the flies began to buzz and bite again. The awakening arrived and with it, the pain seemed to hit me. My right eye was swollen shut; I could hardly move my chin and lips. My legs felt numb as if trodden by an elephant. That morning I did not feel very proud. I resigned myself to a few days of discomfort and let my mind wander over all the questions and recriminations that my appearance would subject me. I postponed my resolution of vengeance until I healed.
My commiseration came to an abrupt halt as a woman approached the yard. She was slim, and she had her head covered with a dark scarf so that I could not see her face, only her eyes, which gleamed accusingly, and her lips, which were tight and mean. She stopped by me and she had a good hard look at me and then “Are they up yet?” She gestured toward the house.
“My father and my mother will out soon” I realized that even my speech was suffering.
She removed the scarf from her face that proved to be prettier than anticipated. “So you must be their son Carlo”
“Yes I am What is it to you,” I said despondently.
She studied me with an air of authority, and then shook her head. “I thought so. You are a delinquent!”
“What do you want?”
“Shut your mouth, you devil, you brute!”
“Who the hell are you to tell me?” My anger came to the fore but the sudden eruption instigated the pain to a higher degree of subtlety
“Watch your words, you scoundrel. I am not surprised you look like that. Rogue like you always meet their match eventually. I am glad somebody has seen fit to give you a lesson. A beneficial one, I hope! Do you think your parent will be long in getting up?”
“Why? What do you want with them?” I felt that more bad news was on its way
“I want to tell them what a nice boy you are and how well you have looked after my Lena!” The penny dropped and I went numb. The problem was more serious than I anticipated. Bad news always travels fast.
She sneered at my expression. “I thought I would cheer you up.”
Of all the days in a year, Lena’s mother had to come with this news today, I thought.
“How is Lena?” I enquired politely trying to ingratiate her
“Thanks to you, she is very well.” Her voice carried sarcasm and repressed anger
I fell silent, with a lump in my throat. My mind went blank; bells started ringing in my ears as I waited for the worst. Father and mother, their eyes full of sleep, appeared in the yard and enquired absent-mindedly what the commotion was. I shrank into the background trying to make myself invisible.
It appeared my parents knew the woman vaguely. Her name was Nadia. They greeted each other casually, surprised, and our family’s instinct for hospitality prompted them to invite her in to have breakfast.
She sat down lazily, with the air of someone who has all the time in the world before she has to say her piece. She seemed calm, but I knew how agitated she really was. Her repressed anger, the humiliation of having to come to our home, the hurt and rage in her were like the water behind a dam, apparently contained, but should the dam break…..
But her mission was to find a way of saving Lena from shame and to do the best she could for the honour of her family. Under normal circumstances an intermediary would have come to discuss the question of marriage, but this matter was too serious.
I stood outside the door, listening. I wanted to flee, but I couldn’t move. I wanted to hear what I was afraid to learn.
The preliminaries were played with consummate skill. They talked about everything that meant nothing. Lena’s mother was seeking an opening and father wouldn’t let her find it. Then she said, casually, looking up to heave as though to ask God for strength and guidance.
“You only have one son, don’t you?”
“Yes,” said father.
“And he’s as much trouble as ten,” mother added. “I would love to have had a girl as well, but our sweet Lord didn’t see fit to give us one, so we are happy with just Carlo.”
“You don’t know how lucky you are. Girls are much more trouble than boys. Take it from me. Which brings me to the purpose of my visit. Beh, I’m afraid I’m not the bearer of good news.
“You know how it is,” she continued. “Young people do things. We tell them not to, but they do them just the same behind our backs. And when they get into trouble we have to pay the consequence of their actions.”
“Hear, hear,” my mother agreed. “Only last night our Carlo got himself into a mess. Why am I telling you? You have seen him for yourself.” Lena’s mother paused, irritated. She didn’t want to hear about the mess I had got myself into. But my mother went undaunted.
“He looks a sight. Some people have no heart.”
“Or scruples,” added the woman in a flat tone. Then she took command of the conversation again, “You don’t know how heart breaking it is to wake up one morning and be confronted with a disaster. The good name the family had tried for years to maintain goes, disappears in a flash. Things you wouldn’t wish on a dog. Oh, my poor daughter. She is such a good girl. She has gone to school, she is very clean and good around the house, such a help, such a pride. But all that is finished.
“Why? What happened to her?” mother asked, suddenly curious.
“Well, she has got herself pregnant. Your son put her in that state.”
“What?” mother said, lost for words. Then, fumbling for words, “It can’t be. He is such a good boy.”
“Yes, when he sleeps I’m sure.”
I could tell that father had half expected it, but mother looked at me aghast. Her astonished look told everything. I was her boy. I was capable of many things but not making love. Young people didn’t do those things. It was immoral and evil, only married people did it. In that moment she saw me as a stranger. She addressed me harshly, “Well, little son, what have you got to say for yourself? Have I raised a son in the way God intended or a monster?”
In that moment she saw me as a devil. I must be taught the ways of God, made to obey the teaching of the church. I could read her mind, and I hated her religion.
What is religion anyway to a youngster? When you are young, able and willing, religion is a pain in the neck, forever oppressing you with its don’t do this and don’t do that. A constant adversary to nature. Religion is forever pointing the finger at you, accusing, threatening you with the fires of Hell, condemning casting you as one of Lucifer’s band, condemned to eternal damnation. Religion makes it a crime to enjoy things that to a youngster as naturally as a spring does out of the earth.
God, do you condemn sex because you are too old to indulge in it yourself? Or is it that in your inexplicable ways are you trying to prevent its consequences? Am I so insensitive that I treat you with disregard when I don’t need you, then when things become too big to handle I come to you for comfort and repentance, putting my problems into your lap and hoping you will deal with me gently. Am I masochist? Why do I feel holy in the act of sex and so unclean afterwards?
My mother interrupted my dialogue with God.
Come on speak up. Is it true what this lady is saying? What have you got to say?”
I felt as though Judgement Day had arrived and the only thing that I could do was to beat my chest and say, “mea culpa,” but looking into their accusing eyes I thought it better to be non committal. I stood my ground, hoping that my battered face might yet instill some sympathy in my accusers. I tried to make my good eye look angelic but my mother had no time for that trick, and Lena’s mother had found an unexpected ally.
“It is true?” my mother demanded again.
“I don’t know,” I said looking at my feet.
“Of course it is true. Look at him.” The woman pressed her point by scowling at me.
“What have you done to this girl?” Mother was in full flight. “I don’t know.” What sort of answer is that? You don’t know. Have you or haven’t you? That’s all we want to know.”
“What did Lena say?” I said to gain time and maybe some support from what Lena had told her mother.
“We had to drag it out of her. You should see how black and blue she is. Her father near killed her. My poor Lena, I was afraid to leave her by herself.”
“Poor girl, poor girl,” my mother said, all sympathy.
“Last night she nearly jumped from the window. Eh, good job I was there my poor girl. I cannot recognize her anymore. She was such a happy girl. You should have seen her. Marvellous she was.” The woman began to sob, and put her hand on my mother’s shoulder, not losing a single opportunity to praise her daughter, and went on “And you know, Marta, she wouldn’t give his name, she wanted to protect him. After days of her feeling sick and wretching I confronted her. She admitted to maybe being pregnant but wouldn’t give your son’s name. My husband had to drag it out of her. He is livid. He wanted to come looking for him with a rifle. I had to plead with him all night to let me come. Two wrongs only make things worse. Imagine me finding myself with a pregnant daughter and my husband in prison. Somebody has to keep a cool head otherwise where would we all end up? We must stay calm, not let the situation get out of hand. But we must do something and quickly.”
“I don’t know what you have in mind,” she continued, “but I assure you that our family is a good family. She comes from good stock, ,my Lena. We are not rich, but we are not rich, but we are not badly off. Lena will have a good dowry. She is very healthy. She will be a good asset to you all and a great loss for us. But we mustn’t think of ourselves. But we mustn’t think of ourselves. We don’t count anymore. Lena is the priority.” She started crying and sighing.
As both the cause of the problem and its cure I felt destitute.
“Yes, we must do something. We must,” mother said looking at my father. But he signaled her to shut up.
Father had listened to this dialogue in silence. His feelings conflicted. On the one hand he felt the pride of a father who has found out that his only son is virile, on the other hand he was caution about the possible consequences of the situation. His mind was working overtime weighing which course was best to take, and he seemed to approve of my evasive attitude.
He cleared his throat, scratched his head and said solemnly, “Well now, this thing is all very sudden. Like lightening on a sunny day. We don’t wish to be disrespectful, but we would like some time to assess the situation.”
The woman stopped crying and began to plead, although there was anger in her voice. “Nicolanto, this situation we are in requires speed and tact. You don’t want to see my family disgraced, do you?”
“No, I don’t want to see anybody disgraced, but I do want to think it over. This is a very serious matter, Nadia. I want time to assess it. We have only our son, we have to think his case over. He is the one who must go through this marriage if it happens.”
“So, you want to play games?”
“No, Nadia, we want to digest what you’ve told us before committing ourselves.”
“Nicola Antonio, my husband wants revenge and he will use a gun to get it if necessary. I’m scared at what he might do.”
“I’ve a gun as well and I know how to use it,” Father parried. Nadia fell silent and looked at my mother, trying to get her support.
“You men always want to solve problems with your guns, without realizing that once you start you never know where you will end up. Let’s be reasonable. Let’s behave like adults, for the love of God.”
Mother shrugged her shoulders and stared at me. The she shifted part way to Nadia’s side. “I think what my husband wants to know is what you propose in the way of a dowry.”
“She will have a good one, I’ve already told you that.”
“Maybe you should be more specific. And we should meet Lena. I mean, we have not seen her yet.”
“If that is all that is bothering you I can soon put your mind at rest. In two or three days I can tell you every item of her dowry. And you will like my daughter. She is a beautiful girl, very good.” There was a pause, and she sensed that perhaps “good” wasn’t quite the right word to use in this context, so she qualified it. “Good at knitting, good at cooking, good around the house, you know Well, what do you say?”
Father was slow to sound enthusiastic. “Everything sounds all right, but we will hve to see and talk again.”
Being non committal kept the bargaining power with him, and Nadia left our house without any firm decision. She was not entirely happy, but she had been given enough hope to ward off despair. Postponement is only a temporary rejection. There would be another meeting, where decisions could be made with less haste.
Once we were alone a heavy silence filled the kitchen. The events of the last hour had hit us like a bombshell and left us numb, speechless. I studied my clogs and peeked at my parents who eyed one another with disbelief.
Father broke the silence:
”Look what a mess you have made, Carlo. Oh, hell, you want to seduce a girl, that’s fine. But why didn’t you bloody watch out!”
“Oh, you’re doing fine, my mother retorted. “Go on, encourage him to do more harm. You are worse than him. Instead of telling him off you are telling him he should have been careful.”
The squabbling went on, but my eyes never left my father’s hands. I was ready to back away out of reach if he decided to take a swing at me.
When eventually they finished with each other they turned on me. What kind of girl was Lena? Was she pretty? Was she strong? Had I been the first one. The words rained on me. The less ready I was to answer, the more they crowded me, justifying themselves with: “We are doing this for you. Don’t you understand?”
When it was all over none of us were satisfied. I felt battered, they were frustrated and unconvinced. So they decided to send a spy to investigate Lena’s family. Mother kept repeating the old maxim: “Women and oxen must be of your village, but….Oh, I hope we are doing the right thing.”
But once alone I began to feel something like a sense of contentment. The picture of Lena smiling came into my mind. In my imagination I was standing next to her, a proud husband. Goodbye frustrations, goodbye drama. I could have all the sex I wanted.
The memories of the storm, our strange meeting, her touch, all mingled in my mind. Oh yes, I thought. She will do. I’ll make her happy. I’ll make her my queen and next to her I’ll be king.
For a couple of days I didn’t do any heavy work but, as the pain diminished, my confidence grew and I was happy to get back into the swing of things. It was ploughing time, the time when our oxen really came into their own. Our neighbours wanted their fields ploughed and my father bartered with them. He only wanted piece work. Most of the work was done I the cool of the night by moonlight, and we slept during the day. Father and I took turns at the ploughing. As my bruises faded, I really tried hard to concentrate on my work.
That year my parents were not just making bargains about our oxen. My marriage to Lena was also under discussion. Mother and father were intensely active, going to and from Lena’s house. At first they were immovable, then close relatives and friends stepped into mediate. In spite of the fact that it was our lives at stake, Lena and I were just pawns, essential for the game, but unable to move except when someone else chose.
“You are too young,” they told me. Yet I was old enough to marry! The game intensified. Each time my family found fault with Lena’s background they demanded larger dowry, each time they found fault with us Lena’s family argued the price down. It was hell for me. I wanted to see Lena but she was kept at home, virtually a prisoner. If I tried to see her,I was told I’d have her father to reckon with, who would be more than happy to let his hunting rifle do the talking for him. Most of the time I was resigned to this, but every so often I had short rebellious moments.
After two weeks of these intense negotiations had passed my parents took up an intractable position and no amount of mediation would shift them. In spite of the relentless heat I felt a distinct chill. (I TOOK OUT THE COLD WAR METAPHOR BECAUSE OF THE DATE ABOUT WHICH YOU ARE WRITING.)
Then during the day the sun sapped your strength. People limited their movements to minimum to save energy. Every tree which provided shade seemed God given, every cool breeze a gift. The valley shimmered in a heat haze. The sun was a merciless tyrant, the night a welcome mantle as each day drew to a close and the breeze sprang up.
One evening I began ploughing a field down the slope, thankful for the coolness and well prepared for an undisturbed night’s work. The dog was running around, and the oxen were responding well, so I hoped to get a lot done. I was humming a happy tune, enjoying the quietness of the night, occasionally glancing around.
After a while the dog settled down to rest, watching me as I ploughed. As the oxen pulled down the hill the soil changing from a light grey into a dark brown, on the way up to begin a new furrow the plough rattled. The work became routine, and after a while I was doing it without thinking, letting my imagination wander. I was enjoying the solitude. I felt I had the world all to myself.
Then the dog got up and barked, shaking me out of my stupor. Another dog was running towards me along the slope, snarling, and Fido ran to confront him, barking furiously, the noise shattered the peace of the night, echoing across the valley. I stopped the oxen and called the dog back, but to no avail. I found myself alone.
I looked all around me. I couldn’t see anybody, but I was uneasy. I could however feel something unpleasant in the air. The dogs were fighting, snarling and howling, then whining as they received wounds. A man may go into a fight thinking he will win, but experience and reason teaches him otherwise. Dogs have only their instincts to go by: they sense danger, they spot the enemy, and begin to fight without weighing the odds.
I had the feeling that Fido was protecting me. But against whom? I looked around again for any sign of another person, my eyes are ears seeking, sensing, but I saw and heard nothing. I abandoned the plough and ran towards the fighting dogs. Then came the shot, whizzing over my head. I dropped flat on my face.
“Bloody hell,” I gasped.
What was going on? What was happening? Was I dreaming? I wished I was two hundred metres away. A little away from the dogs a man was pointing his gun in my direction. Boom. He was definitely after me, but what for? I wanted to ask, but my instinct got the better of me and I scrambled to my feet and fled down the hill like a gazelle, ignoring the stubble which ripped at my legs.
The man followed, shouting at me all the while, but I could not make out what he was saying. You will understand that my only concern was to put as much distance between myself and him as I could.
I raced down the valley towards the river, and gained some distance on my attacker. He had wasted too much time on shouting at me and reloading his gun. The shots began to fall short.
When I thought I had lost him I took a long detour to fetch the oxen. I could not leave them alone. They were my family’s most important asset. It was quiet, but I was very uneasy and afraid to expose myself.
The oxen had stayed patiently where I had left them, but there was no sign of the dog. I hesitated, uncertain whether to call him or leave him to his own devices. But I was afraid for him, so I crouched down on the ground and whistled softly. Nothing stirred, and I waited for a while before moving again.
Then I heard the sound of a dog barking and saw a man approaching me down the slope, and he had a gun at his shoulder. I remained totally still, but as he came nearer I realized the man was my father and the dog was Fido.
“I heard gunfire,” he began. “What has been happening?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Somebody has been taking pot shots at me.”
“The bastard,” he muttered, more to himself than to me. He fired two shots in the air, reloaded his rifle and went to see the oxen, saying to me:
“Take the rifle. If anybody comes near, shoot him. That’s an order.”
“Just like that?” I asked surprised.
“Just like that. Are you afraid of pulling the trigger? Is it too much work for you or are you gutless?”
“All right, all right, I’ll do it.”
He started ploughing again. I sat and watched, rifle at the ready, but nothing stirred. The night was the same as usual. I gradually adjusted to the situation and father pressed on with the work. Fido went to sleep, and the moon smiled as it sank towards the mountains. Gradually the stars lost their brightness. I fell asleep next to the dog and woke up alone, feeling chilly. Father had finished the fields and was feeding Barone and Principe.
Fido woke too and I began caressing him. When I felt the scars of the fight I was proud of him and sorry for his pain.
Father came up to me.
“Go home and see to the horses. I’ll start work on the next field and come home when it gets too hot.”
I was glad of the opportunity to get away.
“Shall I leave the rifle?”
“No, take it with you.”
“But what if…”
“I know who the bastard was, he won’t come back.”
I was anxious as I set out, feeling naked without my father’s protection. I glanced around me all the way home, and regretted not having asked him who “the bastard” was, so I would know who I was looking for.
When I got in mother was making breakfast. When she asked me what the noise had been during the night, I said I didn’t know. But as soon as my father got home he had a quiet talk with mother, then sent a message to Lena’s family. Not only did he refuse to alter the position he had taken previously, now, if the marriage was to go ahead, the dowry must improve.
The messenger returned in the afternoon and my parents seemed, on the whole, satisfied with the news he gave them. My mother, in particular, declared solemnly:
”Well son, not all ills come to hurt us, remember that!”
But father still had reservations, and it started a row between them.
“I have a mind to go to the law,” he said.
But mother reacted hotly to the idea.
“Nicolanto, are you going soft in the head? The law, God forbid. Leave the lawyers and carabinieri alone, let them sleep.”
“Why? Do you want me to take the law into my own hands, woman? Do you want me to go and shoot the bastard? Do you want that?”
“Before you start shouting your mouth off and using your wretched gun or calling in the law, are you sure it was him? Did you see him, did Carlo see him? And even if it was him, think more and talk less. Did he shoot at Carlo to kill him, or just to give him a fright? Have you tried even once thinking about his position. A father with a daughter pregnant. Have you thought what it would mean to have a bastard in the family?”
Mother was in full flight. Father tried to pacify her.
“Eh, eh. Whose side are you on, woman?”
“I’m on the side of reason and common sense, and if you had any you would understand.”
“Stop preaching at me, will you.” Normally when my father lost his temper my mother would back down. But not this time. She sighed heavily, she was not to be shouted out of the argument.
I felt like a sick man watching two doctors arguing about his cure when the illness was self inflicted. Oh, you can imagine the way I felt. Helpless, shattered, bewildered, guilty.
For everything my father suggested, my mother had a different proposal, and vice versa.
The squabbling went for ever. Then, in turn, each of them sought to enlist my support. “Tell your mother.” “Tell your father.” I remained silent.
My mother’s objection to my father going through legal channels was based in every peasant’s opinion: the carabinieri were the oppressors, the enemy of the people, while the bloodsucking lawyers got their living from the people’s problems.
“But they are there to keep law and order,” father thundered.
“Yes, they keep law and order for the King in Rome and those lawyers! Sure they fight. But they never mention the price, and when the bill comes you need a doctor! The shock paralyses you. This is a family problem. We can solve it. We don’t need those people.”
“How can you deal with a son of a bitch who keeps threatening to use his rifle, but has not the guts to show it to your face? He tried to kill your son last night. He shot at him time and time again.”
“Like I said, how do you know he was shooting to kill? He might just have wanted to frighten him.”
The argument went on and on until it reached a pitch. This was the way my parents always behaved. When they began to run out of energy their anger usually gave way to first to sighs of disgust, then to growls. Gestures of disbelief. At that point their nerves began to calm and they began to talk rationally again.
Gradually they reached an agreement. Mother would take my godmother and confer with Nadia, to see if they could come up with an agreement.
My mother had the last word in this argument.
“Women are more sensible than men in such a crisis,” she declared.
It turned out that a very similar row had taken place at Lena’s house. Her mother fumed at her father, disgusted with her husband’s action, which she considered stupid and dangerous. Her tone was despairing, her words contemptuous. And she had no intention of letting it happen ever again. Lena’s father, Nando, had the possible consequences of his action made crystal clear to him, and he felt impotent to sustain a convincing defence. Nadia insisted that henceforth she should do the talking, otherwise he might stain the name of the family for generations to come.
So the two mothers, Nadia and Marta, took charge. Each set out with their child’s godmother as a witness, and to their surprise they met on the hillside just above the river. There was some confusion at first, which became even greater when, after greeting one another, they discovered that each was bound on the same mission. They found themselves entirely in agreement in condemning the attitude and conduct of their men folk, and decided that the time had come to take the situation in hand in order to stop it from getting out of control.
Nadia agreed to do her utmost to see that Lena was given the dowry my parents had asked. Mother went out of her way to say that it did not matter to her, but of course it mattered to me, and it would make it easier for Lena and I to start our married life together. Also, Lena would be spared some shame if her family could hold their heads high.
Lena’s family just needed enough time to put the dowry together. So the two made a tentative date for the wedding to take place at the end of September or the beginning of October. Then, with goodwill restored, the four women went back to Nadia’s house to see Lena.
At last I was permitted to see Lena and meet the rest of the family. When I arrived, poor Lena was demure, weighed down with sadness. The lines around her eyes revealed her lack of sleep, her drawn face was evidence of the turmoil she had been going through. She appeared to my eyes a little too obedient, as though she had been broken, the result of fear of not being accepted.
But when she saw me her face brightened, her spirit lifted and she shrugged off her fear. My mother talked gently to her, helping her to relax, and soon Lena loved mother with all her heart. She clung to my mother’s kindness like a castaway lings to a broken log, seeing in her the sun, the moon, the light, the hope. After all, it would be mother who would help her with her delivery. And my mother, who had always wanted a little girl but been deprived by nature, saw in Lena a ready made daughter. So the two of them got on together famously.
Nadia, was well pleased, and observed smugly, “I told you she was a lovely girl.”
So it was that the day the men started disastrously, the women finished well, setting right their husbands’ wrongs.
It was the beginning of August when I went with all my family, including my grandparents, to visit Lena’s family for the purpose of going through the charade of asking Lena’s hand in marriage.
We took gifts, as was customary. In my breast pocket I had an engagement ring for Lena, which would seal our commitment to one another, but before I could give it to her the families had to go through the ritual.
It began with drinks, the conversation distant and casual. Then they served food enough for an army. Only when our stomachs were so full as to be uncomfortable, when our senses were blunted by alcohol and the acrimony of the past had faded, did my mother say casually:
”Well you know why we are here. Can our son marry your daughter Lena?”
Everyone fell silent. Lena and I blushed.
Nadia looked at her husband, then Lena and then me, then conceded,
“Well, young people can’t stay with us forever. Sooner or later they get married. I think the two of them will make a handsome pair, Ah..”
She broke off and false tears began to flow. There was a long silence before father turned to me with a proud smile but I failed to get his meaning.
“Well?” he prompted.
I looked at him, lost for words. He tried again.
“Where is it then?”
I still didn’t know what they expected of me.
“The ring son, the ring Has the wine washed your brain out?”
“Oh,” I said, startled and even more embarrassed at being the center of attention. I took the box from my pocket and opened it with trembling hands. The diamond (CAN THEY REALLY AFFORD DIAMONDS?) ring shone and everybody sighed with delight as I put it on Lena’s finger.
The touching of her hand reminded me of our first meeting, and I realized that this was the first time I had touched her in the presence of other people.
“That’s it,” my grandfather said. “That’s the way. Now you are betrothed. Good luck to both of you.” But he got carried away, and added, “I can’t wait to become a great grandfather.”
It was very much the wrong thing to say in the circumstances.
Everyone would much have preferred a normal wedding, without the hurried preparations. There was an embarrassed silence as we all avoided looking at each other, then a few people coughed.
Nadia spoke first.
“It seems everybody is in a hurry to change their status these days. Well, it varies life, it can’t be all bad.” But her tone was sarcastic.
“Let’s drink a toast to the betrothed,” someone suggested.
It broke the tension, and everybody began to chat again. The talking went on all night, with more eating and drinking. I was sitting next to Lena and our conversation was broken and intermittent; being in the spotlight didn’t please her or me, but to seek seclusion would have meant a stern reproach. We both knew the score. We would be allowed to meet from now on, but only if a member of Lena’s family was present to prevent us indulging our passion. The fact that she was pregnant and no more harm could come to her only determined their resolve.
It was at dawn when my family left for home. The village was still asleep and the silence, the fresh air and the open space were a blessing after the restricted noisy, stuffy room.
Slowly we descended the hill towards the river. No one spoke. To yawn was joy, to stretch a necessity, and our weary bones needed much persuasion to carry us home.
I was going back that night to court Lena, so I slept for most of the day and set off with Fido in the evening.
Lena was much happier and more relaxed. She was wearing her best dress and sat quietly working on her embroidery while we talked about silly little things. Her presence filled me with contentment. Her family were tolerant of our furtive glances, and Nadia and Nando were prodigal in offering food and drink. I was family now.
Towards eleven o’ clock I said my goodbyes and called my dog. Fido appeared promptly, wagging his tail. I set off for home.
There was no moon, so the night was very dark. The stars glittered, but they were often obscured by clouds, and there were few gas lights. I walked cautiously along the road, with the dog some way ahead of me. Then Fido started to bark. Full of apprehension I caught up with him. Two figures barred the road. I called Fido to heel, then edged closer. I intended to apologise for the barking, but one of the men addressed me sharply.
“Are you Carlo Nispita?”
The sense of danger became reality. “What if I am?”
“If you are, we have a score to settle with you.”
Here we go again, I thought. “Why, what has Carlo Nispita done to you?”
“To us, nothing. But he should leave the girls of this village alone.”
I moved closer to them, clenching my fists. I wanted to catch them by surprise.
“What is that to do with you?”
“Plenty, you oaf! This village has plenty of young men quite able to look after Lena.”
“You should have thought of that before.”
“That’s what you are going to think after we have finished with you.”
I was close enough, I commanded the dog; “Fido get them, get them.”
He obliged. Fighting the dog distracted them, giving me time to measure my punches and strike home with telling effect. The two men couldn’t take it. They turned and ran back into the village. Only when they were a safe distance away did they turn to yell at me.
“Next time you will not find it so easy.”
“Just be careful, we will be watching you.”
“I’ll be watching out for you too.” I set off again down the slope, hurrying along the dusty road. I was angry, weary and a bit afraid.
In those days, it was an affront for the young men of the village to have one of their pretty girls swept out from under their noses by an outsider. It was an insult to their manhood. The saying: “Women and oxen must be of your own village,” was taken literally. Only the less attractive girls were exempt and Lena was a very pretty girl indeed.
I had thought the reason for our engagement had been kept secret. But often when I worked along the river after that encounter, I was likely to hear screams of laughter from the wooded hills and anonymous voices chanting:
“Oh, young ladies of Roccascalegna, don’t you ever cross the Rio. On the other side is Carlo Nispita, who will jump on you like a ram.”
Husking the corn was considered a festive event. The harvest didn’t carry the same religious significance and urgency which we attached to the wheat, our basic crop. Neighbours took turns and helped each other. During the day the corn was brought to the yard from outlying fields and piled into a big heap. Then at night friends and relations arrived and crouched around the corn to work. And while they worked they talked, first casual remarks, then gossip, finally lapsing into jokes as the wine took effect. Then someone would begin a song which took our thoughts right out of the real world. The warm night was filled with happy, if discordant, melodies.
When the work was finished the only food on offer was corn, the greenest corn on the heap. That was the chance for some cheeky youngster to play jokes on an unsuspecting toothless elder by giving him the best looking but toughest cob. As soon as the elder took the preferred cob, the joker would nudge his friends, who all started to giggle. The pattern was always the same. The unsuspecting elder would take a bite, then stop as his gums failed to make any impression on the rock hard corn. He would then examine the corn in disbelief and looked around him suspiciously. But by then the youngsters would be studiously concentrating on their own corn, so he would try another bite. When he failed again someone would ask innocently, “Why aren’t you eating?” The answer would inevitably produce a howl of laughter, and the corn would be hurled at the perpetrator. Peace would be restored only when the accordionist struck up.
The mood that year was less happy than usual. It was 1914, and the news of the war had reached our part of Italy. As they talked, each man added his personal fears. Italy, was supposed to be neutral among the warring powers of Europe, but our country had been put on a war footing anyway. What we did not know was who our enemy was supposed to be. Some said France: France had take Nice and Corsica from us, and we wanted it back. Our national hero, Guiseppe Garibaldi, was born in Nice, and when the French annexed the town he was effectively made a foreigner. Others said the English were our foes: Italy had a bone to settle with England for resisting Italian colonial ambitions in North Africa. Others remembered the years in which Austrian rule had prevailed over (WHAT GOES HERE?) Also they wanted to (AND HERE?) the others.
It was mostly the women who had doubts. “What do we want war for?” they asked.
“It is good for our youngsters, they see the world and learn discipline,” the men replied.
“Good my foot, we have better use for them here in the fields. Why send them to die, and for who?”
“For the King, our Vittorio Emmanuele.”
“Why, can’t he solve his own problems? Why does he expect us to do it for him? What has he ever done for us?”
“He is our King.”
“Beh! All he does is set taxes. The only thing we have had from Rome are orders to pay, to give, give or else. And if we don’t pay he sends the carabinieri to lock us up, but he never parts with anything.”
As the argument heated up father hurriedly passed the wine around to cool down the increasing tensions. As the alcohol warmed their blood they started to forget their worries and a singsong began. Then the dancing began and went on until the small hours of the morning.
During the dancing a group of four youngsters arrived asking to join in the festivities. Father let them in, but I recognized them as the gang who had been playing ghosts at the cemetery. As soon as they walked in the atmosphere at the dance became uneasy, which from their attitude was just what they intended.
I had given up on the idea of getting vengeance but their arrival brought the desire back to me. Just by being there they were rubbing salt into my wounds. Were they preparing other tricks, like teaching me a lesson for burying one of their friends in my place? I decided that the time had come to make sure they didn’t try anything on me ever again, so I enlisted the help of Peppe and Luigi.
So a war of nerves started. Every time one of the gang started dancing with any of the women the accordionist stopped playing. The first time they were surprised. The second time they were confused. By the third time the message was going home. The fourth time they felt decidedly unwelcome. That was when I passed the wine around. They looked uneasy, as if uncertain about the contents of the flask.
“It is wine, not poison,” I said, but they were unconvinced. I started to bait them. “Do you know what I think, eh? Do you want to know? Well, I’ll tell you what you are thinking. You think that what we have to offer is not good enough for you. I’m surprised. We have music and you don’t dance. We have wine and you refuse to drink it. Well, nobody invited you here in the first place. So if you don’t like what we have to offer, you can go to Hell. Get out!”
Silence, everyone in the room fell silent. The intruders looked startled and speechless. Peppe and Luigi left quietly. My father came over, angry and confused.
“Well Carlo, where is your sense of hospitality?”
“Dad, please,” I protested.
The exchange gave the intruders a chance to leave and they filed out one after another, smiling embarrassed smiles to pretend normality. I followed them out into the yard, which was full of the husks of the corn.
The intruders started walking quietly up the hill, murmuring among themselves, trying to ignore the humiliation. I followed stealthily, then I whistled. Peppe answered with another whistle. That was the signal.
We rushed them, Luigi laid into them with a stick and, judging by the groans, he was putting it to very good use. Peppe pounded them with his fists, and very blow told. The dog appeared by my side, snarling and barking.
The fight was over before I could land a punch. The intruders had taken flight up hill, cursing. Only when they had put some distance between us did they start shouting and warning of future retribution. We went back to our party, our pride satisfied, and rejoined the dancing and singing. But my mind was made up, I was going to seek out the culprits one by one. And I intended to start with Alfio as soon as morning came.
I was up well before cock crow. I decided to skip washing myself and feeding the animals. Instead I set off up the hill with speedy strides and my mind full of nasty resolutions. The village was still quiet, only faint sounds from inside the houses gave a clue that people were up and about. Not a soul was on the street. I climbed the cobbled steps which led to the top of the hill and took up my position not far from Alfio’s home, hiding myself behind a rock a little further along the street.
Light was beginning to creep over the horizon, and the noises which marked the start of the new day grew louder. At length the cocks started to crow and the dogs began to bark. Windows opened for the villagers to empty their chamber pots. People started to come out of their houses, slamming their doors behind them, and donkeys brayed at the sight of their masters. The little children started to scream, and the older boys started to explore the streets, looking furtively up and down to find some mischief to do. Barelegged women balanced their pails on their heads fetching water. As the sun grew hotter, the cool morning air became suffused with the less pleasant odours from the animal stalls.
The peaks of the Appennines were bathed in sunshine, but the valleys were still grey, awaiting the blessing of the sun. They seemed to be gasping for more light. Life and nature started a new circle, a new day, but I was not part of it. My eyes and mind were fixed on Alfio’s front door.
At length the door opened, and Gina came out with ruffled hair yawning, and went around the side of the house to call her brother. After a minute, Alfio emerged, scratching his armpits, then he picked up his pitchfork, slung it on his shoulder and started down the street. I followed furtively. As soon as he rounded the bend and was out of sight of anyone else, I was on him like lightening.
All I said was, “Hello do you remember me?.”
He stopped and turned and I walloped him twice, both on his chin. His pitchfork dropped out of his hand. He did not attempt to pick it up, just stood there glassy eyed, swaying slightly, “You son of a bitch, what did you do that for?”
“I owed it to you. Besides, I always pay my debts. I like to remind you just in case it you forget, playing games with me will only land you in hot water.
I started hitting him again. He was completely stunned and never attempted to hit back. He was just parrying, clumsy and slow at that. He made as if to retreat home, but I barred the way. He was scared and hurt, but I wanted him. After another flurry he went down, and just sat there, quite unable to move.
“Next time,” I said, “I’ll split your head in two. Don’t forget. This is just a little warning.” I left him and hastened away, grunting with satisfaction, leaving him to his misery
I was elated, and went to give Carmine his lesson. I directed myself towards the new part of the village, hurrying along the main road, then up the cobbled alleyway that led to his house. Halfway along I saw him coming towards me. Seeing me he stopped, hesitated, then turned around casually as to give the impression he had not seen me. I sprinted after him. He heard me coming but he was too slow. He started to run, but before he could get away, I caught up with him and hit him from behind. He fell flat on his face and once on the ground he was at my mercy. I kicked and hit him at will. He started screaming, so I kicked him in the mouth. His screams turned to whining. When I thought he had enough I stopped and as he looked up at me with eyes full of surprise e and hurt, I pressed my forefinger on his face and viperously warned him, “if you ever again dare to trick me with your stooges be they friendly or allied, you will the first one to pay the consequences. Be warned”
I turned around and went back to the main street. The sun was well up and there were more people around. The shops were starting to open ad the air echoed with the sound of the blacksmith pounding away with his hammer. .
I left the village and headed off down the hill towards home. The sun was now high in the sky and it burned my eyes. My anger appeased. I started to sing and in no time, I reached home. A thousand jobs awaited me and without any fuss, I began to put the corn to dry. My parents did not notice my arrival
Father was tending the animals and mother was busy in the kitchen, but after a while, she appeared at the door. She looked at me quizzically, but offered me breakfast rather than ask questions. I loved that
The cat scurried out and had to do acrobatics to avoid my father coming in. Tired out, I slumped into a chair, emitting a groan of weariness. Father was quick on the uptake.
“Tired already What have you been up to I wonder!”
I shot him a look of annoyance, took the jar of wine and had a satisfying gulp.
“Thirsty as well, eh!” he went on and looked a t mother.
“Eat first, and then ask him questions,” mother reproached him.
“What is it with you two?” I grumbled. I cannot even breathe without you finding a way to criticize. Leave off! I’m alright, I tell you.” I bent down and began stroking the dog to lessen the effect of my remarks.
“Edgy as well” Father probed still. But he made sound like a tease
I registered my annoyance. “Offa!”
“Can’t take a bit of leg pulling? What is wrong with you? Take it easy!”
The dog gave a whoof and trotted out. A shadow appeared in the doorway and there was Rualdo, loose limbed and scruffy. Lately he had got into the habit of visiting our house, mainly to fill his capacious belly. Mother’s nerves were wearing thin and she showed open annoyance at his presence.
“He always arrives when we are eating, he has the nose of a wolf,” she growled.
“Where are you off to, then?” Father enquired.
“My God, he is not spending all day here!” mother said, alarmed.
Poor Rualdo was big and simple. He had little to eat and was always hungry. He was always looking for something to do. He was always available, but nobody wanted him, He had huge strength but no knowledge of how to utilize it. He tried to be helpful but usually ended up creating disaster. He could do only light and simple manual jobs under supervision. What a waste!
He stood transfixed by the food on the table, his desire for it making him tremble with anticipation. Father took a thick slice of oiled bread and passed it on to him.
“Toh! Eat. Grow a bit more.”
Rualdo grabbed it, his face shining with delight and his hand met his mouth half way. One bite and half a slice disappeared, another bite and the bread was in his gut.
“Hungry aren’t you?” teased Father while giving another slice
“Yeah it is very good.” Rualdo coughed, half choked in trying to gulp down the other slice of bread. After the fit of cough, he bent his head with an innocent glow.
“Don’t talk to him, let him finish so he can go.” Mother was angry with him for giving Rualdo a reason to talk and stay. However, her fears soon dispelled as Francesco de Cascine called him from the road.
“Rualdo, where are you? Bloody fool, where are you? Why do I waste my time with you? I must be crazy too! Why must you go bothering people? Come on, let’s go.”
Rualdo left reluctantly, we all went out to greet Francesco. He was leading his donkey we said, “Good morning. Where are you off?
He shook his head, looked at us and indicated Rualdo,” I just turned my head and this big good for nothing fool disappears before my very eyes”
Big! He could say that again. Next to Rualdo, he looked like a little chicken. Francesco was scraggy and short. He had a leg shorter than the other and when he walked his body rotated like an uneven wheel When he went down a hill one had the impression that he was going to topple over at any minute.
Francesco was over fifty, and had two sons who had fought in Libya, but no sooner had they settled back into village life when the shooting of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo put Italy on the warpath. They were promptly called back again to swell the Italian army, so Francesco, deprived of two able bodied sons, had to work the fields by himself, getting help from whoever he could. He cursed the government, the king, and the army with a sharp voice that would rise to a lilting hum, often competing with the cicadas.
The weather was hot. Such weather is beautiful if you can spend it in the shade of a tree with a breeze caressing your face but if you had to work in it it was a different story
The fields were arid dying for rain and everything and everybody exposed to the scorching sun roasted. It was like being in Hell’s waiting room. Working the soil was hard. Often the fork would bounce back when you tried to push it to the ground, and when it penetrated the soil, the earth refused to be turned over. Men overtaxed themselves. Muscles ached, soaked with sweat and strength sapped. The buzzing of the flies was a constant irritation and as nerves wore wafer thin the swearing began. Men cursed the elements, the government, even the saints and sometimes God. I was keenly aware that this would be the pattern for the day’s work as I watched Rualdo and Francesco go into the fields.
It was mid morning when Gina passed by carrying the customary round basket full of food on her head. Francesco’s wife was not well, so she was standing in for her. At first, I refused to look at her, smarting at the way she double-crossed me. Nevertheless, after a while the thought of the rose made me forget the thorn. I gave her the eye, but it had the opposite effect to the one I intended, and she scurried away.
Around noon time Francesco rode past hurrying for home to find out about his wife condition. From the yard I scanned the slope where his fields lay, hoping for a glimpse of Gina and Rualdo, but nobody was in sight, the countryside seemed dormant under just the blue sky, ridden by the sun, offensive to the naked eye. Noontime and the early afternoon hours are the hottest of the day. People take refuge to the shade to rest and recuperate the sapped energy.
The countryside was an immense oven, the fields were brown and even the trees looked as though they were gasping for water. Everything seemed quiet and subdued. Only the cicadas humming gave sign of life. Suddenly a scream of a woman broke the silence then another and again another, it shook off the lethargy of the valley and the people that were resting.
I shook off my slumber, rushed to the edge of the yard, and looked toward the commotion. It was Gina scarring across the field with Rualdo at her heels. She was screaming repeatedly, “Oh no, oh no!” She ran with the speed of a gazelle, with the Gorilla like figure lumbering behind her. I was galvanized out of my listlessness. I had never though Rualdo capable of lovemaking. Was he trying to rape her? I kept wondering. As Gina tired, she screamed with greater desperation. The countryside came alive. Dogs barked, people came out of their stupor and called to one another.
“What is going on?”
“Don’t know, a man is after a woman.”
“People have got nothing better to do!”
“Who are they?”
“Who knows! I think it is a man trying to rape a woman.”
“What? In this heat!”
“Please help me, please help me!” Gina kept screaming. I ran down the slope to give help and so did many others.
By this time, people were converging towards the scene of the commotion. Some wanted to help, some others were curious, some were merely annoyed at being driven out of their shade. Some were pleased at the change from the oppressing monotony; others were just itching to gossip, thirsty for a new subject.
Gina gave one last desperate cry, and then there was nothing. I stopped, but the ominous silence filled me with foreboding. I hastened once again. Some voices were asking for directions now and others were relaying them.
“It’s that bloody fool. This time he’ll end up in a mental home.”
“Wait until we get our hands on you, you stupid son of a bitch!”
Then Gina screamed again. “Get off, you wild beast. Don’t touch me”
People began to throw stones at him and some raised pitchforks. Women screamed in horror. “The poor girl. Poor poor unfortunate girl. That beast! He should not be roaming the countryside. He should be locked up.”
Rualdo became aware of his danger. When he looked around and saw the people rushing towards him he took fright and bolted down the slope like a charging buffalo, but he soon tired. As the women went to calm the terrified Gina, the men ran after Rualdo. As I wondered what was going through his mind he reacted, charging at his pursuers. The man in front, despite being the possessor of a pitchfork, lost his nerve, dropped the weapon and ran back to the others, who by now had stopped. Rualdo had changed instantly from hunted to hunter.
Until that moment I had always treated him as though he was sane, following my father’s advice – “Treat fools as though they are wise, because you never know how they will react.” I had never worried when I was with Rualdo, but now, seeing him bear down on his pursuers, I realized what enormous strength was in that massive body.
The man running before him was Matteo, all bones and moustache, who, terrified, headed back toward the others, but by now they scattered. Matteo looked back as though renewing his fear might give him more strength. He gasped out, “Call him off! Get him off my back!” Then he tripped and fell. Rualdo pounced, but instead of hitting him as we all feared, he grabbed him and lifted him into the air with an ease that left everybody stunned. He shook Matteo like a sieve as though to drain the last ounce of his courage and then screamed, “What do you want? What do you want?”
“Put me down this minute, I’m telling you!” Matteo looked in vain in our direction, begging. “Do something! Help me get away from this ape.” However, seeing our frightened faces remaining to our spot he screamed, “You are a bunch of impotent idiots. Don’t you see that he’s too big for me to handle alone?”
The choleric sun looked down passively, the crickets and cicadas were quiet, the birds had retreated to a safe distance. We, the judge and the jury, found ourselves scared and helpless. Rualdo had the trump card of brute strength in a frame bigger than us. He was revealing himself also unpredictable. Normally he was so quiet, it was apparent that now that his temper had broken he was unable to control it. Poor Matteo, in the air he looked like a toy. Rualdo spun him around. Matteo screamed. We felt helpless pigmies facing a Gulliver
When Matteo pleaded for help, I was impotent as the rest. It was a dog that took the initiative. He snarled and launched himself at Rualdo, stopping just a little short of the giant to bare his teeth and bark furiously. Rualdo turned on him, using Matteo as a club. The dog retreated but continued to circle, his eyes, focused on Rualdo. It was then that I found my courage and I threw a stone at the dog, first then attempted to placate Rualdo.
“Bloody dog, he has nothing to do than bother people! Ah, ciao Rualdo ! What are you doing to Matteo? Let him go. He did not mean you any harm”,
Rualdo merely thundered at me,”Go away, go away”
“Oh come off it!” I went on. “I know you are upset, but I only want to be your friend, that’s all. So is it all right if I talk to you?”
He gave in and dropped Matteo, although he still threatened him with a gesture and a menacing growl. The relieved Matteo scrambled away, stunned. Rualdo seemed to be considering the new situation. His heaving chest gasped for air and he mumbled strange sounds, which were none too friendly.
“Don’t worry,” I said, “Don’t worry, Rualdo, everything is all right. Who wants to harm you, eh? Will you tell me what the matter is?”
Failing to get a response I added, “All right, you don’t want to tell me, all right! But for the love of God, calm yourself down, come let us go he the shade, it is too hot to be in the sun.”
He did not move. I did not dare move either, but I kept talking, hoping to allay his fears, although I was ready to sprint away at the slightest sign of trouble.
From a safe distance, Matteo started bellowing, “Mad, you are completely mad. I am going to report you to the carabinieri and
I will make sure you will end up getting what you really deserve, the lunatic asylum. That’s your place, your right place.” He sounded to have found back his courage. Everyone stared at him, taken aback at his change of attitude. Moreover, I was all alone with this demented and dangerous giant. I asked myself “What am I doing here? For Christ’s sake why do I have to risk my life?” Rualdo was still sulking, then suddenly he trotted down the slope without looking back. This time I did not try to stop him.
When I joined the others, I had to listen to their pity for Gina. Her suntanned face had turned white from the experience. All around her, the people voiced their concern. “What has that bastard done to you?” When she replied, “Nothing, nothing,” they reiterated, “Don’t worry, we will make him pay, we shall have him locked up once and for all in the mental home. It will be good riddance.
Rualdo became the target of a vendetta. He was a danger to their womenfolk, an unthinkable threat. No, he was not a man to touch their women, any woman. He was an animal! The sooner he was removed from their midst the better. I was too young to make them listen.
I could not help wondering whether Gina had been flirting with Rualdo, tempting him, arousing him to fever pitch and when he unbolted his trousers and the donkey size truncheon inflated she panicked and run. Her avoiding look confirmed my teory . Poor Rualdo, he had become a sinner because nature had not provided him with enough wit. Who would believe him? My reassurances to Gina were deliberately sarcastic.
“He does not talk much, and when he does he does not make sense Don’t worry you will be all right.”
Nobody took any notice of what I said except Gina, who went red in the face.
That evening the village was a hubbub of gossip. Rualdo was condemned, Gina’s position compromised; who would marry her now?
Gina, the pitied and Rualdo the condemned were both losers. The damage done would affect them both in different ways for the rest of their lives. Yet nothing had happened. Still the villagers went to sleep anticipating more excitement to come.
Matteo was true to his word. He reported the incident to the carabinieri. However, in those days the carabinieri, with their uniform and weapons, were the oppressors, spies, and as such to keep them at bay. They looked for Rualdo in his one room shack, but they did not find him there. So they asked around, but all they got was negative answers, vague hints, shrugged shoulders. It the end the mayor mediated between the locals and the carabinieri.
For a while, Rualdo kept away from the village. He roamed the fields and stealing the fruit to ease his hunger. When spotted he was advised to watch for the carabinieri. Two days he eluded them, but on the third day, they found him. He went with them without a word.
Every village had its traditional feast days for its Patron Saint and other recurrences. They took place in summer and autumn times, during these times brass bands, that could number up to seventy musicians, toured the villages to play at these festivals and were always the main attraction. People, young and old, cultured or illiterate they all milled around the stand. They listened transfixed to the classical music as if they were in a trance. The result was that everybody tried to memorize it Some were expert critic and always proved their point of view when and if a note would be out of place, the band leader never escaped a mild telling off that was their way of telling that they knew the music. Bright and fancy lights illuminated the main streets. The families living along the street opened their balconies to allow old people to enjoy the view and the activities below. People from outlying villages streamed in. A dormant village acquired the air of a metropolis for the few days. Old friendships rekindled hospitality and refreshment given with a free heart and accepted with feigned embarrassment.
Religion took always center stage during the day; the High Mass of the eleven o’clock followed the procession headed by a young man carrying the cross and flanked by two parallel lines of young children in virginal white. The lines continued by women, many of them mothers keeping an eye on their offspring. The priest was just ahead of the statue saying prayers and now and then starting religious song. The statue of the honored saint rested on the shoulder of four young men who kept step all the while through the meandering streets and somewhere along the route at a prearranged place someone called out four names and four young men took the carrying of the statue.. The band followed behind the statue playing sacred music and accompanying the religious songs. After the band the men, loosely, make up the rear. The route was festive with flowers and coloured blanket that adorned windows and balconies. . The old people paid homage from balconies and doorway. At the passage of the saint the men removed their hat and stood in silent attention while the women, rosary in hand kneeled down crossing themselves mumbling devoutly with trembling lips silent prayers.
Once the procession ended, everything went quiet and the people retreated to their lunch and siesta. Pity the busy flies did not take a rest as well!
I had a hard time convincing Lena to attend the festival to our village, but in the end, half her family came, eager to normalize relations between our two families. Even the gangs had called a truce, although as they paraded the streets they still eyed each other with mistrust and caution.
We attended mass and took part in the procession and lunch and siesta and at around
five o’clock, we returned to the village who began to come to life again, the heat of afternoon a welcome riddance. As the evening approached, more people began to come in from the countryside and neighbouring villages. The peasants, their faces burned by the sun were ill at ease in their best clothes. By the time night fell the cantinas were merry with noisy drinkers, while the main street was full of people strolling up and down. The faces of happy children sported signs of smear of ice cream and chocolate. Here and there, group gathered to participate to games. However, when the band struck up, the hubbub stopped and all attention went toward the bandstand.
The square was full when the band assembled on the podium. As each individual player tuned his instrument, the evening air filled with a cacophony of sound of discordant notes and the voices of the audience chatting to each other. As soon as the first piece began the crowd fell silent, and only the odd uncontrollable cough or restless child made any interruption. Listening to the band was a sacred and nobody wanted to miss it. Even the half-literate peasants professed experts although their faces remained blank as they listened.
During the interval people hurried in all directions to their little pleasures. There wee always competitions, my favorite being the one where the contestants had to eat spaghetti without using their hands. On a rough rectangular table, there were half a dozen plates of steaming spaghetti, which always contained a liberal quantity of hot chilies. The contestants had their hands tied behind their backs, and watching them eat was quite a spectacle. Amidst great laughter, the participants sucked on the juicy spaghetti, almost choking in their effort to swallow. The winner was the one who finished his plateful first, and by the time the race was over the table, floor around it were littered with spaghetti, and the competitors looked like circus clowns with sauce smeared around their mouths. Often the winner would be violently sick when he presented with his prize, and the audience’s laughter would quickly change to an expressions of disgust.
Another competition involved climbing a greased pole at the top of which a bicycle wheel was full of tempting goodies. Many people would decide to have a go on the spur of the moment, regardless of the fact that they were wearing their best clothes.
The evening ended with fabulous display of fireworks on the outskirts of the village that shook the silence out of its stupor and the night sky became embellished with an ever-changing mosaic of multi-shaped forms and colour preceded by exploding sounds.
When it was over most people gone home, happily sighing, the fun was over, tired but happy. Other people started new festivities of their own. An accordion player set peoples’ feet tapping and dancing began. That was the time, when things would happen to spoil the fun
That year, on the last day of the festivities, a crowd of youngsters from a nearby village hovered around. They were drunk, their faces made ugly by alcohol, and they yearned for action. Some of the locals overheard these young men making unwelcome remarks about a girl and the competing factions took up position. The girl vanished as the men eyed one another with evil intent.
The fight began with them trading insults. Then someone picked up a stone and threw it, and almost instantly, the punch up began. The threats and counter threat gave in to grunts and groans as the blows began to fell. As the melee moved on blobs of blood were visible on the pavement. Lena, her younger sister and I were slowly heading for home making sure to distance ourselves from the fighting zone.
Then a balcony opened and old Luca came out wearing his trousers pajama and a vest and the cap. Old Luca was a dear old man with a white moustache yellowed by time and nicotine, a toothless grin and a cap as old as he was. He stood up on his balcony and surveyed the fracas below with disapproving shake of the head. Soon he lost his self-control. Hi apparition made us stop.
He started shouting and shaking his fist, yelling at the youngsters, “Beh! What is going on in here? Can’t you go and bash your heads somewhere else? There are people in this world who want to sleep.”
Nobody took any notice of him, he changed from telling off to cure they needed,
“The army that is what you lot need. The army will teach you how to behave… teach you some discipline…. A war will clear the deck of a few of you. Bloody scoundrels”
A warning shout rang out as two carabinieri rushed to the scene. The fight stopped at once, and the two factions took to their heels, fleeing in separate directions. The carabinieri began pompously asking the onlookers what had been going on, but everyone protested innocence and blindness,” We saw nothing. We arrived just now”
Old Luca stopped screaming from his balcony and disappeared inside, bolting the window behind him. Soon everybody melted into the night. I made for home with Lena on one arm and her younger sister, Laura, on the other.
However, unaware and joking we were on our way leaving the village in good spirit. Suddenly we heard running footsteps behind us and I turned, but before I could make them out a blunt instrument hit me on the back of my head. I collapsed to the ground, hearing a scuffle as Lena and Laura dragged away, but then I lost consciousness.
When I came around, I was cold, and my head was wet with blood, slowly I managed to get up and found some difficulty to make my wobbly legs keep me upright. My head throbbed, my heart was beating hard and my mind was hazy. Therefore, with a heavy hand and unsteady walk I made for down hill for home. I tried hard to sort out in my mind what had happened to Lena and Laura, but it was all too hazy I could not focus..
Mother met me at the door, “What is the matter with you? Are you stupid or something?
“What?” I asked, stupefied.
“What do you mean what? What kind of a man are you? You are about to be married, but are you quite unable to look after your fiancé?. Shame on you!” What makes you think you are ready for the responsibility? It is obviously too much for you. Don’t you realize that when people put trust in you, you got to live up to it? Where is Lena? You fool; do you want to make yourself the laughing stock of the village?” The tirade went on forever.
Mamma, Santa Mamma. Please tell me what you are going on about?”
Then I noticed Laura, sitting and trembling in the corner of the kitchen with frightened eyes and torn blouse. However, before I could ask her anything mother started up again.
“That’s right. Look at the mess you have made. Feel proud! That poor girl was counting on you. What have you done to protect What you done is to get yourself in one of your usual messes. You never fail to find one, do you? You could have come home with us, but oh no. You had to be one of the last to leave. What were you trying to prove? Did you think Mamma would pick up the pieces again? I will not be here forever, you know.”
She went on and on, her shouts echoing in my throbbing head like clashing symbols. I put up my hand up to surrender.
“All right, mamma, all right.” Then I turned to Laura and asked what had happened.
Her eyes brightened as her fear retreated.
“Well, they took us. They were strong, very strong, and they covered our mouths so we could not scream. I managed to escape and run here. My mamma and my dad, and your dad have gone after them. My dad is carrying the rifle.”
She tossed her head defiantly, approving of his action, but it was the last thing I wanted to hear.
Mamma had said her piece, and now she became the loving mother. She soaked a cloth in spirit and started cleaning my head. I just sat back and let her do her work, but continued to question Laura.
“How many were they?”
“And what did they do to you?”
“Nothing, they just dragged us along.”
“Do you know them? Who heye?” I was trying to sound casual, but I was very anxious.
“I don’t know, I’m not sure.”
“Think hard, Laura, it is very, very important.”
“Well one of them sounded was Angelo, the baker’s son, I think.”
“Do you know him?”
“I don’t talk to him, but he has been buzzing around the house and looking at Lena with sweet eyes.”
I saw the light then. In those days, when a pretty girl got herself engaged, men who had previously been faint hearted would suddenly find their courage and literally steal the girl. This was what had happened to my Lena. Washed and refreshed, I set out after them with both fear and hope in my heart. I walked quickly. Everything was still and dark, the humming of crickets punctuated the night. I was half way to the river when I first heard Lena’s cry. It filled the night, cutting me like a blade.
“Let me go, let me go,” she was screaming. Silence, then another cry echoed in the air,
“You do not know what you are doing “. Her screaming sounded like an imploring reproach.
Then a new voice cried out. It was Nadia, “Oh God be praised…please help my daughter, We are coming, we are coming. Oh God, oh thanks you God …
A crackling shot reverberated in the night, then another and in the stilled silence that followed Nando’s voice boomed. He had no intention to thank God,” Just you wait until I get you bastards, I will show who Nando is, don’t you worry. I will deal with you my own way … Even hanging is too good for you, but I have something that will deal with you, quicker and less bother.. “. His voice filled the night with promises and carried doom for abductors
Lena’s shouting became authoritative. “Leave me alone, leave me alone, may the devil take you. Just go follow them while you still have a chance”. I concluded that Angelo’s accomplices were deserting him.
Then after a while of non-stop shouting,. Nando exclaimed with a deliberate salvo of sarcastic laden words, ““Here you are!” The party had caught up with Angelo. I feared the worst.
After a little pause, a feeble voice implored,”Before you do anything, sir, I want you to know that my intentions are honorable.” He sounded like a scared child
“Shut your trap, how dare you. Now get this and see how you like it”
Boom! A deafening shot sounded. Before the echo died down came a desperate cry:
“My leg, my leg.”
There was a short silence, then a new cry.
“Please no, please no, Oh my God, my God.”
“Yes, call him to help you. No one else will.”
My father got to the scene first and began to shout at Nando. “For the love of God, let him be. Have you taken leave of your senses? Do you want to kill him?
“Why not? He asked for it” Nando screamed.
“You have a family to think of,” father shouted back.
“My God, what have you done to him?” Shouted Nadia
When I arrived Lena was hysterical, as was her mother. Nando had used up all his shot, and had been battering Angelo with the butt of his rifle. My father continued remonstrating with and finally managed to take the rifle from his hands. On the ground, Angelo was wriggling and groaning as though he had only his last breath in him. My own anger changed to compassion, “Are you all right?” I uttered more to do something than the will to help him.
“Oh my legs, arms, Oh my head, he is mad!”
I bent to help him but he screamed, “Don’t. Please don’t.”
My hand was wet with blood.
I went to Lena, but her mother turned on me in fury.
“You are the cross of my family. What kind of man is my daughter going to marry? God help her.”
“Mama, please don’t make it worse than what it already is.” Lena begged her.
“What are we going to do now?” father asked.
“We are going home,” said Nadia, but Nando was brooding.
Father protested, “We can’t leave Angelo here, for Christ’s sake, not like this. He is hurt, very hurt, he needs a doctor.”
“No he needs a priest so he can make his last confession.” Nadia spoke quietly but with great deliberation. “He and his accomplices should have their tails clipped.”
Nando started again on Angelo with a kick. “I’ll show you!”
Angelo howled in anguish. Father rushed to the rescue.
“Stop it. Do you want to kill him? He’s in a terrible state already.” However, his was deaf to reason.
“I’m going to finish him off, he needs a lesson, a good one, a lesson he will never forget.”
Nando was completely out of control and father had to use force to restrain him. Angelo lay on the ground screaming with pain and fearing for his life. He then began to shout back,”“Keep your blasted daughter, leave me alone, leave me alone,” then he returned to his moaning.
Father was having problem to contain Nando’s fury, who prevented from using force kept up a barrage of words. “I want to shut him up once and for all … the bastard.”
“Forget it, Nando, forget it, it is not worth it you have a family to think of.”
Father went on and on and somehow managed to placate Nando. Lena was running out of tears. Nadia was understanding and reassuring. Angelo moaned in agony, but none of us really had any sympathy for him.
Father sent Nando, Nadia and Lena back home. We remained with Angelo trying to comfort him and see what we could do to help. Nando’s unpredictability took all out attention while he was around. His two accomplices returned to the scene once they knew the coast was clear. They carried him up the hill and my father went with them just in case Nando would surface again. I was on my own, feeling useless. What a contrast from the evening before when, buoyant and cocky, I had felt like a proud cockrel parading my fiancé in the village. I wanted to hide myself but where would I go? Where can a man hide from oneself?
I stared at the ground and kicked the dry earth, careless of the battering my Sunday shoes were taking. Slowly I descended the slope, crossed the torrent and started up hill making for home.
Mother was eagerly waiting for news, but I was not in the mood to answer her relentless questioning. I made an excuse that I had a headache and went to bed, hoping it would be the end of the matter.
I went back downstairs late in the morning, by which time my father was back and told us the latest news. The doctor had removed the pellets from Angelo’s leg. Angelo’s father had reported the shooting to the police and had sought advice from a lawyer. Nando was proposing to do the same.
My father was skeptical. “If this matter is in the hands of the lawyers, God only knows where and when it will end. We can only hope that everything will turn out for the best.” He shook his head. “That bugger Nando should never have fired that shot. Think, it could have been Carlo, but luckily he had the good sense to run away.” Father continued his monologue without expecting a reaction from us. He needed to let off steam. “I can’t help thinking that Nando could have hit him in the eyes, or the heart, instead of the legs. And we are involved in this mess.” Father shook his head in disbelief and resignation.
The good name of a family is so important. My father was right to be apprehensive. The immediate future looked very grim, and I felt so uncomfortable. I had planted my seed on Lena irresponsibly, too keen to assert my manhood, but with what result! It felt like caught up in a nightmare wanting to wake up and end it. However, the truth was that the situation was very real and I had never anticipated these consequences. I felt I had let down my parents, everybody, and myself. How strange, only months before I had been full of confidence in myself. Now I felt naked and lonely like a caged animal at the zoo, to observe with sympathy but also fascination. What made my situation even worse was the advice of people made wise after the event, who spoke smugly of might have been if I had acted differently, of alternatives I had no longer had. What good does it do a person caught in a sudden downpour to be told afterwards that he should have taken an umbrella? I wished to undo the damage done, but I could not. The supposition of butts and ifs blackened even more the path ahead
I wanted to explode with anger. I had pretended manhood and now the elders looked upon me a boy. And that hurt and hw!. At eighteen, you want to be a man amongst men, and the rejection was shattering. Tell an eighteen year old that he is a boy and you have an enemy for life. I hardly knew what to do. Should I ask for sympathy? Sulk? Alternatively, hit out, careless of the trail of destruction left behind. I was full of shame, of contempt, of revenge. Quietly I left the house and went for a walk, but my mood lasted all day and half the night. Only when hunger finally became more important than any other sensation did I become calm. Nevertheless, it was a strange feeling, empty somehow.
By that time, I felt like some company, and I was a long way from home. However, my Uncle Alberto’s house was on my way, and I often stopped there for a chat there whenever passing by. His dog Silvino was good guardian, he made sure nobody got near the house and the ones that did, they remembered the experience for a long time afterward. To avoid surprises I was careful to call him out well before my arrival. When he recognized my voice, he ran to me and made a fuss ranning around my legs, joyful expecting a pat and letting out the odd submissive bark. “Be quiet, you monster” I said, rubbing his neck and the two of us proceeded toward the house..
Uncle Alberto was sitting on the porch smoking his pipe. He was now a very old man, and he and his wife lived alone. Their children had all married and made them grandparents and great grandparents. The five daughters still lived nearby, but the two sons were now in North America and he often talked about them with pride.
The dog recognized me soon enough, but Uncle Alberto was still having trouble, senility and bad eyesight combined to incapacitate him. When he worked out who I was, he invited me to sit down and have a drink.
“Is it true what I hear, that you have got yourself a fiancé and a lot of trouble with it?” he asked.
I answered guardedly, afraid that he had heard about what happened to Angelo the night before. Sensing my reluctance, he became less inquisitive and congratulated me instead.
“Being married will do you good,” he reassured me then, as is the way with old people, he went on to reminisce about the past, “How time flies. To think that not long ago you were running around in short trousers with snot running from your nose.”
I did not need reminding of those days, it made me feel as though he was treating me like a boy too. “That was long, long ago.” I shouted with a negative gesture of the hand.
“I know,” he apologized and with a flash of lucidity he went on “To you it must seem like a long time, but to an old man like me, it seems like only yesterday. Nature is like that. A boy grows up to be a man, the man becomes an old man, then he starts thinking about when he was a boy because otherwise he feels decrepit and useless. You will find out soon enough. You will uphill first, downhill afterwards.”
Not bloody likely, I thought. This I did not need. For all of his kindness Uncle Alberto could be a pain.
I tried to change the subject. Knowing how eagerly he waited for the mail from America I asked after his sons. He started well enough.
“Giovanni works with Pasquale now. They earn good money and they never forget the old man.” He shook his head and then went on. “If I were younger I would try my luck overseas. Here is the only thing that the pitchfork gives you is misery and a broken back. Youth, oh youth! When you are old, they just grin and put up with you. The world belongs to the young.” He could come out of the shell of senility when presently engaged.
”Cheer up. What is the matter with you uncle?” I remonstrated, trying to cheer him up
“Young man, the only thing wrong with me is that I’m old, just too old, that’s all.”
He looked closely at me and and went on,” enjoy life while you can carluccio”
Secretly I agreed, but I tried to cheer him up. “Don’t think about it. Where is that drink you promised me?”
“I talk too much that’s the luxury of old age.”
He got up slowly, but tottered when he reached the door, grumbling to himself. He lit the oil lamp and after some time came back with a bottle.
“You took your time,” I joked.
“Toh! Here is your drink. You see, there is no need to be impatient. I don’t want you to die of thirst, drink to your heart’s content. You know, I can remember a time when there was never enough drink to go around, but now I don’t know what to do with it all.”
“Why? Have you stopped drinking?”
“Well, I have the odd sip here and there, but I don’t like to drink alone.”
“Well, there’s no excuse now.”
We passed the bottle between us, Uncle Alberto was glad to share the wine in company and I was happy that the wine made me forget my predicaments. With the second bottle came cheese, bread and salami. Now Uncle Alberto was telling happy stories about his past and I liked it. We started singing, each trying to shout louder than the other did, but then my Aunt Maria waddled out of the door looking none too happy. The light inside the kitchen threw the shadow of her unkempt white hair and barrel like body into the courtyard.
“Ah, here comes trouble,” said uncle Alberto.
With the severity of a school mistress who has caught her pupils misbehaving, she cut in: “You should be ashamed of yourselves. Don’t you know what time it is?” Then she turned on me. “And who are you, anyway?”
I was too surprised to answer at first, but Uncle Alberto came to my rescue. “It is Carlo, Maria. The son of Nicola Nispita. Don’t you recognize him? He his your nephew!”
“Not in the dark, Do you think I’m an owl.”
Nevertheless, she looked like one to me. She was a nice old woman really, but when she was upset she be a harridan, and I was beginning to realize how slurred our talk was. Somehow, I managed to mumble an apology, but she carried on.
“You are both drunk.” She rounded on Alberto. “And you should know better, old man. Don’t you ever stop to think? The boy’s parents must be missing him”.
“He is not so much the boy now,” Alberto said. “He is engaged to be married, you know.”
Aunt Maria’s tone changed then. She knew all right, and she had heard about the fracas of the night before. The desire for gossip sweetened her tongue considerably. She began to pester me with many questions, but I didn’t answer and decided it was time for me to leave. However, when I got up I had great difficulty standing, so my departure was much undignified. As I started up the hill, my head was heavy and my legs had a will of their own. I walked. I stopped. I walked again. I stopped again. I found myself talking to trees lined here and there along the road. I hugged them and wrestled with them, then began to confess my miseries to the sky, crying out my fears.
When I finally run out of trees, I began wobbling in the middle of the road.
I met Peppe who looked at me as if I had come out of Hell. My parents had sent him to find me. He was flabbergasted to find me drunk.
“I don’t believe it, look at the state you reduced yourself!” he said.
“Don’t you bloody start,” I mumbled and found myself unable to keep my body still. My movements were as if I were a puppet on a string.
“All right, all right, but let’s get you home. Put your hand on my shoulder.”
“To hell with home. I want to sing, yes I feel like singing”
“Sing to whom?”
“Sing to the trees. … Sing to the world and fuck the mess I’m in.”
“All right sing to the trees! And enjoy fucking the mess but do that while we walk”
“ All right, all right … Now I want to pee, keep away, go-go-go.”
It took me a long time to unbutton my trousers and longer still to find my deflated tube
It was like trying to catch an eel with my bare hands. Peppe tried to hurry me up.
“Come on. What’s keeping you?”
“Hold on, I have to get to the blasted hose first, my friend. When nature calls, you must oblige. Ah! Here it is. Stand back, Peppe, well back. I want to irrigate the fields.”
As soon as I had finished, a sudden urge to see Lena took me, and like an automat, I charged down road. Peppe had a tough job catching up with me.
“Get away from me,” I yelled at him. “ I want Lena. She is my fiancée and nobody … and nobody … else must touch her.”
“Where do you think to go in that state? Nobody wants your fiancé Come on you will see her tomorrow.”
“Don’t make me laugh. You! That’s a joke. A big one. Even you … tried to pinch her from me. You! My best friend.”
“That was Gina, Carlo.” Peppe parried.
“Gina, Lena, Lena, Gina. What’s the difference?”
“Let’s go home, Carlo.”
“Lena is my fiancé. Gina, you can have her, I have finished with that slut. Nevertheless, she’s a bloody bitch. Never, you must not trust her. I never wanted her you know, Rita was the one I was after. However, I ended up with Gina and now I must marry Lena. What a life! Good luck, my friend, and stop being a virgin.
“Oh God, have you finished preaching?”
“No, come on. I’m your friend. You can tell me. You have not yet. Have you?”
“Haven’t what?” Peppe retorted, fed up.
“Had a girl, a woman. It is lovely, I recommend it, and it makes a man of you.”
After a lot more nonsense, talk and much dragging of feet we finally sighted home. My head started spinning, and nausea hit me.
“Please let me be, I don’t feel so good.”
I sunk to my knees, my hands clutching my head as though I was trying to squeeze the pain out and restore a cohesive line of thought. I felt wretched; I began heaving and vomited violently. The munched cheese and salami caked in red wine were there on the ground ejected from the chamber of my inner body as the guests who had the temerity to upset the smooth running of things. With the evidence of my ill-fated feast out of me, I felt a great relief; however, the pungent halitosis that followed made Peppe jerk his head away from me. At that moment even in that state, I felt that I could have done with a gargle to wash away that unpleasant after effect when the intended food choose the wrong way out.
Somehow, we reached home, where my parents were waiting with reproachful words but seeing the state I was in, they concentrated on getting me into bed. I lay on it with the room spinning around me as though the bed was a wheel and I was weak and broken on it.
The morning was agony. My eyes refused to open in the light, and my ears rejected sound. The thought of food or drink made me want to be sick again. I wallowed in self-pity. People kept trying to help me, giving me advice on how to get through the pain more quickly, but I just wanted to be alone.
I said a thankful goodbye to my first hangover. If you have been through it you have my pity, but if not, are warned.
The following day I was famished and full of vigour, I went about elated feeling full of bubbles, humming happy tunes and overall I was in a state of elated good humour.
However, by that time the news of the fracas had spread like a bush fire. Suddenly everybody knew more than I about it did.
The first sign of bad news came from my grandfather, usually he was very tolerant of me, but he thought my buoyant mood out of place and reproached me. A dark cloud came over me.
“You are a fool, Carlo. You don’t know what you are doing.”
I protested that I did not know what he meant.
“You don’t eh? Maybe you should take a walk along the main street and find out for yourself. No, that won’t work. They will smile while you are watching them, but once you are gone they will laugh at you.”
I was numbed by his words. “Granddad, I’ve done nothing. Nothing at all.”
“That’s exactly it. You have done nothing. And by doing nothing you have become a cuckold.”
I felt as if the sky had fallen on me, but Granddad was cheerful, very cheerful indeed.
“Who says that? Who made me a cuckold?” I thundered.
“The gossip is not who, but how many.”
Incredulous I felt the ground sinking under my feet. What the bloody was going on here I thought and looked granddad in he eye.
“I don’t believe it. You are pulling my leg. It isn’t true.”
“And who is going to tell them? Do you think by hiding yourself you get out of this mess? Because if you do keep hiding yourself humming song and being stupidly happy, you will give the gossipers reason to conjecture and embellish their imagination at you expense. You will become the laughing stock of the village! You are stupid. Your silence absence only confirms their suspicions. Now I see you have started getting drunk. Fine, you are really coming up in the world I am proud of you.”
That was the first time Granddad talked to me like that. He was hurting, for me and for the reputation of the family.
”Hold on, Granddad. People can think what they like; I don’t give a damn to what they say.” I tried to be aloof but being dismissive. It hurts.
”Maybe you don’t care but I do. I don’t want the name of my family dragged in the mud. And since you are the cause you yourself should do something about it.” He poked his forefinger to my chest and hunger was in his words now.
He was getting more cheerful by the minute. Stunned I stood my ground.
“And what do you suggest I do? Go out and Shoot a few people? Sorry Granddad, I can’t oblige” That was a lie, I felt I could do with lashing out and bash the gossipers so that they could be reminded to mind their bloody business.
I found myself quivering with anger. It was no use explaining to that my retreat was not from the world, it was from me. Did they want me to live my life for them instead of myself? My only fault was to allow some sons of bitches to hit me on head while I was not looking. Granddad guessed my dilemma. The turmoil scarring in me made me hungry and agitated, he tried to calm me.
“Now don’t be sore me. I am only trying to open your eyes to the facts. I am your Grandfather or have you forgotten? You are an extension of me. You carry my name; I want you to carry it with pride Believe me hurting you I hurt myself”. I patted my shoulder with lovingly. I liked that it had a soothing effect on me, it made me more rational, ” I don’t see what I can do about it.”
“You can break off the engagement. Show you have some pride. Do something”
“Pride is something I’ve inherited from the family. I’m not going to bend just to prove the gossips right.”
“OK, good. But there is another option.” He sounded more accommodating
“Thank you, but I’m not interested.” I dismissed off hand thinking he might have in mind, Nandish option.
“Look blockhead. I am not as strong as I used to be, but I can still plant a good kick on your backside if you don’t listen, and listen well, to what I’m saying.”
He began sounding more like father by the minute damn it. He looked mean and I decided not to call his bluff. I put up my hand surrendering and ready to listen.
“All right, I’m listening. However, before you say anything I am telling you now. I am not going to shoot anybody”
“ Don’t run away with your imagination and listen to me Carluccio. Now you go to the village. Show your face, walk the street go to cantina and be a man of the world.”
“No Granddad. That is not my style”
“Look, listen to me. You make it your style. I am only trying to help. Will you hear me out?”
“But I don’t feel like going to the village to be laughed at. Lena is a good girl, I know it, and I will not change my mind to satisfy everybody else except me.”
Granddad stormed away, hissing and gesticulating. He went to my mother to let off steam while I tried to collect my thoughts. How easy it was for people to jump to the wrong conclusions. All this stunned me. A cuckold before I was even married. It was too much! What was going on? I fumed. How could one little incident wreck your life?
Nevertheless, I had to do something, and Granddad’s advice was probably sound. In the end I offered to go with him when he went back home to the village.
“You have some sense after all,” he sneered. “Come on then.” He was relieved and purposeful. I could see him bouncing with resolve. The adrenalin in him made him feel like a gladiator hurrying to the arena.
Like a wounded tiger, with head high and spirit defiant I walked silently next to him. When we got to the village, people met us with the customary greetings; everything seemed normal. However, their eyes followed us along the road. Commiseration no doubt was in their thoughts
In the lengthening shade of the houses were Alfio and Carmine, dressed in military uniform, holding court to a crowd of attentive youngsters. On seeing me, Alfio said something I could not hear, but it made everybody laugh, and they all turned to look at us. The laughter made my ears burn, but what followed was even worse. A shout of “cuckold” rang after us down the street, then others took up the cry and the insult echoed in our head like tin drum.
“Sons of bitches,” I muttered to grandfather. “They are good at yapping, but when the fighting starts they all fall flat on their faces or run away. I’ll get them. When I am ready, I’ll get them. I’ll shove their teeth down their throats and make them eat those insults. The bastards!”
Granddad reproached me. “Young man, right now, it is you who is doing the yapping. Where is your pride? I can see I will have to sort them out myself.” He turned and portentously began walking slowly; fixing the group like a tiger about to begin the chase, he was trembling with anger and reckless of the danger he went forward. I went after him, I had to back him up, I could not allow my grandfather to be insulted
“Look here, you sod. Have you nothing better to do?”
His directness caught them off balance. The faint hearted retreated to a safe distance leaving the arena free, but close enough to have a front row view of an imminent bit of fun But Fulvio and Carmine stood their ground having other idea in mind. Fulvio retorted arrogantly:
”Don’t you see we are soldiers on leave? You should have respect for the force”
Granddad was not impressed. “That uniform might make you look like men, but you still have snotty noses.” His finger jabbed at each of them in turn, but he waited before starting to fight, as a cobra poised to strike. I circled behind them. Carmine, seeing me, said” ”Keep away, your horns are dangerous.”
I answered him with a punch. He backed off, surprised and hurt, but tried to hide his reaction with a sarcastic remark to his brother.
“Eh, Alfio. Look here at this cuckold. He is looking for a fight”
Fury exploded inside me. I hit him on the chin, he went numb, I hit repeatedly. Within five seconds, I must have thrown twenty punches at him. Alfio went to help him, but grandfather barred the way. Alfio pushed him, and he fell like a sack of potatoes, but by that time Carmine was finished. He slowly sagged to the ground, no longer interested at the fight.
Alfio came at me. I fainted, then lunged forwards, hitting him full on the mouth and drew blood. He was full of bitterness toward me. Despite the licking, I had given him he had not learned to respect my fists. Now I had another reason to hurt him, and hurt him I did. He kept looking to Carmine for help; Carmine was too preoccupied with stopping the blood flowing from his nose.
Then grandfather got up and hit him from behind, and Fulvio looked to his stooges for support. “What the hell? Can’t you see I need help? Will somebody give me hand?”
They preferred to be passive spectators.
“You are all sons of bitches. Wait until I get hold of you” he threatened them.
When Grandfather saw that, I did not need his help he stepped aside and starting urging me on. “Give it to him. Hit the bastard. That is it. Serves him right, that is the way to shut them up. . Show these people what the Nispita are made of”
I kept on hitting Alfio until my hands hurt. When I stopped, he could barely stand. Only minutes before he had been the king of the group, but now, battered and humiliated, he was lonely and lost. As his erstwhile supporters began to jeer grandfather rubbed salt into the wound.
“So young Alfio, tell me who is the cuckold now. See if can say that again. You better wash your mouth before you talk to my grandson” He turned to the group and other curious gathered around, “that goes for the lot of you”
“They are just what I told you,” I added with venom. “Shit.”, I made to go, but grandfather restrained me. “What’s the hurry?” I sensed he was expecting an accolade of clapping.
“The sight of these cowards disgusts me.”
Granddad came along unwillingly but not before firing his last salvo at Carmine and Alfio. “That will teach you a lesson. And another thing. The Italian army with you and the likes of you in its rank will not accomplish much”. Then he turned to me to explain. “That delinquent Alfio pushed me when I wasn’t looking, otherwise I would have landed one on him.”
“I know. Granddad you were great and you were right taking me along”
“Eh. You must realize my fists are not as good at they used to be. Nevertheless, … I still have some strength left. You are too young to remember, but your father can tell you. I had my moments with one man. I can’t remember his name now, and he is dead, bless his soul.” He shook his head as his mind went back to the past.
“Amen.” I said.
“Do you know how he died?”
“You killed him?” I guessed, trying to mask my disinterest.
“Oh no, God forbid. It was forty years ago when we fought. Now I remember he was Donato that was his name. He was having dinner and he asked his wife for a glass of water, she went to get it, but by the time she gave it to him, he was dead. What a way to die. And his family is still fighting over what he left.”
At that moment, Gina and Rita came towards us along the street, and Gina called out derisively:
“Carlo, what are you doing here? You should be guarding your fiancée.”
In spite of my engagement, I could not help thinking how beautiful Rita was, but Gina distracted me with her mocking. “Oh, Carlo, Carluccio mio, you should be guarding your fiancée, you should not be here! Of course, you cannot be in two places at once. You have a problem there. My heart bleeds for you. Poor you”
That bitch was really piling it on, it irritate me even further, “Get lost Gina.”
“Look here, miss,” grandfather butted in. “You should save your energy to help your brother. Hurry along. What’s left of him is right ahead.”
“My brother can look after himself.”
”I do not think so. You should see him. Take care of him, like a good girl. We wouldn’t want to deprive the Italian army of one of its precious soldiers.”
Rita and Gina began to walk faster, towards the scene of the fight, but grandfather called out after them.
“When you find him give him our best regards. And make sure he cleans his nose.”
“Why don’t you look at yourself in the mirror, old man? You need to clean more than your nose.” Gina retorted.
“How dare you!,” grandfather thundered. “She is an ungrateful bitch.” He shouted after them, going on and on about how many times he had fed their family, but they carried on up the street deaf to his reproaches. He turned back to me, but before he could start, I urged him to go home. I received punch in the eye during the fight and it was starting to hurt. I did not want anybody to know. Granddad grudgingly walked with me towards the house, but he was still going on about Gina.
“Do you know what they say about her?
“I don’t but you are going to tell me even if I knew”
“They say that she is easy meat she is a puttanella”
“Do you think it is true? No it cannot be” I teased him patronisingly
“Maybe. Far too many men hover around her. There no smoke without a fire and after what happened with Rualdo I’m inclined to believe anything. That poor fool had never hurt anybody all his life. Now he is in a mental hospital because of that bitch. Who knows, it might have been her fault? She doesn’t exactly behave like the Madonna, after all. She needs a good scolding It is a bit of a cheek to talk to you like that … considering her compromised position”
I agreed with him to end the diatribe, and he changed the subject, patting me on the shoulder, “Don’t ever let anybody push you around.”
That marked the beginning of a long story of his successes. I nodded every so often, but I was not really listening. Eventually he stopped talking, and I was glad. Nevertheless, he slowed his walk, and his steps had lost its buoyancy. He started dragging his feet and I turned back to see what was holding him up. He had broken into a sweat, and suddenly a tremor seized his body. Anxiously I rushed back to him.
“Granddad. What is it? Are you all right?”
“I don’t know,” he gasped. The answer revealed at once both the turmoil within his frail frame and the indomitable spirit fighting it off.
“Come on, granddad. Let’s get you home.” And put my hand under his arm as a cry burst from his lips. “Oh my arm! My chest” He started to lose his balance
“Granddad. What shall I do?” Everything else went out of my mind as alarm bell told me he was fighting to keep his life.
He opened his mouth but no words came out of it. Instead, his body shook more violently, and his eyes became watery as he started gasping for air. He crumbled to the ground. I grabbed him before he hit the pavement and held him close.
“Granddad, granddad,” I kept repeating. “Please, please,” I implored. However, he was past caring. People gathered around us. The world fell on me
“Lay him down, lay him down. He needs air. You, run for the doctor. Better quick about it!”
I was vaguely aware of doors and windows opening, of voices asking questions, “What has happened? Who is it?”
I laid granddad gently on the ground and someone offered a folded jacket for a pillow. A man came over and made everybody back off. “He needs air, get back, get back” he ordered. With one hand he started fanning grandfather’s face and with the other he felt his pulse. The women started praying, and around me I could hear other voices. “He was fine a moment ago. He was walking along like a young man.” It all washed over me, It wase a nightmare in slow motion.
When the doctor arrived, the thing that hit me was his foul breath. He had an unshaven prickly white beard, thin gray hair and a big asinine nose. Nevertheless, he was caring and quick to feel grandfather’s heart and pulse. He began to massage his heart, but it was no use. In the end, he closed grandfather’s eyes and said, “I’m sorry. He is gone. He does not need me anymore. Has anyone called the priest?”
”No, I don’t think so.”
“Well, he is too late, but do call him anyway.”
Only then, I started sobbing, calling out to granddad. Hands reached out to drag me away but I would not move.
“Let him pour out his pain, poor boy,” a woman said.
“What can he do? Now the poor man is dead, may rest soul.”
“Just let him be. He is the nephew”
Don Pasquale, the priest, arrived too late to give granddad the last rites, but he prayed anyway, which pleased the crowd. Then he turned to me.
“My condolences my son,” he said embracing me. Then he asked the crowd, “has anyone alerted this boy’s parents?” Nobody answered. “Well, someone go and tell them.”
. Granddad was dead and all my problems became insignificant. Death is too big, too cruel. It is a leveler, but who knows whether it is the end or the beginning? Even now, old as I am, I cannot answer with certainty. I remember that when granddad died a part of me seemed to die too. As the tears fall self-pity blooms like a flower in a desert after a storm. Praising the dead and sobbing are the only actions that come easily. Disbelief and shock refuse to give in to reality. Unrestrained sorrow is such a relief it almost becomes enjoyable, and the wake is often the celebration as relatives and friends stream to the house to give their condolences.
However, for the dead it is truly over. Moreover, the faces of the old people can make the funeral a frightening experience. They feel more the company of the dead than the living. Their sunken eyes seem to ask, “Am I going to be the next?” Their limbs labour to follow the will of the spirit, they dread the future, and begin to behave like soldiers who have surrendered the fight and are waiting for the enemy to take them.
Looking at the haunting looks of those old people at the funeral, I was happy that Granddad did not go through that metamorphism. His had been a quick death and for a long time the only thing that I remembered was his teasing, his advice, the times he had interceded for me when father was angry. The good times we had together. His death was a great loss. It left a void within me, a pain that was with me for a long time.
Grandfather’s death had thrown the arrangements for my marriage into disarray: it was customary for close relatives to observe a year of mourning, and to contemplate a celebration would be a sacrilege to granddad’s memory.
Lena’s family had now the added dilemma of mourning besides the court case in progress for shooting incident. There was a very bitter feeling with Angelo’s family. Both parties seemed irreconcilable since they felt to be on the right and were prepared to go to court to prove it. However, the intention was to make the other pay for the damage. Nando was unrepentant, and steadfastly refused to negotiate with a mediator.
He took the attitude of the hurt head of the family. He justified the shooting as the only way who could rescue his Lena from Angelo’s clutches. He also wanted reparation to the damage done to his family name. He hinted more than once that Angel had got away too lightly, “But you never know …” used to be his parting shot whenever the subject came up..
However, Angelo took a turn for the worse when the infected wound went skeptic.. Camillo the chance to take his son to the hospital and made him remain there
The situation reached explosion point. Camillo wanted justice and he went to to denounce as the one who shot wanting to kill his son. It was his was his chance put to Nando behind bar. Nando refused to go and to talk to him. It was nerve wrecking both combatants not prepared to give an inch. Lena and I were the puppets who would have to bear the consequences.
In the meantime, we had the funeral to think of. Grandfather had three daughters, two sons and a tribe of nieces and nephews. The family gathered in the house to receive condolences. We sat in a circle in the kitchen, while the coffin was in the bedroom. As each neighbour arrived all of us were brought to a new level of grief.. Don Pasquale’s words at the funeral filled the whole church with sighing. We then went on foot to the cemetery, the rhythm of our steps dictated by the slow rhythmic tolling of the church bell. A crowd of mourners mutely followed the coffin. As we passed by, women at the roadside crossed themselves in prayer and the men removed their hats. In the cemetery, the gravedigger hurried the burial along. We stood in a circle as Don Pasquale blessed the coffin. When the coffin reached its resting space, the tension was such that many of the mourning relatives cried out, and other members of their immediate family hurried to comfort them with an embrace.
Afterwards the family went home. A meal had been prepared, but nobody wanted to eat. It took a lot of encouragement before we could start. Everybody was subdued and only the odd word broke the clink of cutlery on the plates.
Afterwards, at the parting, the goodbyes were sincere and prolonged; the promises of help were plenty. Nevertheless, there was no crying.
Late in the afternoon, I went to attend to the animals, glad of something to do, but I found that Peppe had done it all. He was sitting chewing on a straw. He was sympathetic and bored and I was sad, bored, and full of repressed energy. The dog echoed my mood, focusing its eyes on me, waiting for a signal, ready to spring into action.
Peppe stretched, yawning. I began the conversation with an idle comment about the work he had done.
“You didn’t have to do it. But thanks, anyway.”
“I was glad to do it.”
“I feel like running some place. Do you want to come?”
“Where?” he asked, coming alive.
“Who knows?” I spread my arms.
We rushed down the slope. The dog dashed after us and soon overtook and showed his posterior and disappeared in the vegetation around. We ran in a frenzy of release. Uncaring of the dry wheat stumps prickling at our legs, we zigzagged in between the fruit trees. Peasants interrupted their work to watch our approach, ready to remonstrate at our intrusion in their land. However, when they recognized me, their anger mellowed into compassion. Other dogs joined Fido and their barking filled the valley. We sprinted, ran, trotted and eventually slowed to a walk, breathing heavily. We were sweating profusely, and very thirsty, so we set a course for Uncle Alberto’s house.
Our dog and uncle’s Alberto began announcing their presence and intentions with a threatening barking. Well before we reached the house, the two dogs run at each other like two night fighting a duel on horse back but on meeting their snarls changed into a mutual muted tail waggling and smelling each other. They soon made a pair and run around loosing themselves in the vegetation.
As we approached the house, the first thing we saw was Aunty Maria picking her nose. Her determination and concentration were total; her admiration for the gem mined from her nostril was disgusting. We hid ourselves to watch, fascinated by the sight. Peppe imitated her with great exaggeration, which made me laugh. Then the dogs arrived, breaking the silence and we had to show our faces. Aunt Maria scowled at us.
“Hot, eh?” said Peppe to start the ball rolling.
“It is summer,” she rejoined curtly. Then she turned to me, offered her condolences about granddad and invited me into the house. “I’ll call Alberto. He is around here somewhere, “Alberto!”
His slow voice came from behind the house. “What is it?”
“Carlo Nispita is here.”
“What can I offer you?” she asked.
“Water, please,” we replied in unison.
When Uncle Albert saw us drinking water he let out a sigh of disgust. “What is that you are drinking? Why don’t you have wine?” He turned on his wife, “Maria, how come?”
“They wanted water,” she protested.
“Prepare some food so we can have a real drink with it.”
She gave him a cold stare and went into the kitchen. We didn’t need anything to drink or eat but he was deaf to our protests. “Nonsense, I’m going to eat and drink and you are going to keep me company. The good things in life are more enjoyable if you share them.”
I was grateful for his hospitality, but my full stomach was choosy. The thought of Aunt Maria handling the food after the performance on her nostrils made my insides wriggle, but to refuse would have caused offence. I accepted a little food, but I could not face eating it. Peppe was not so fussy. I watched him with horror. How could he eat food prepared by fingers, which had so recently been up someone’s nose? As my revulsion grew Uncle Alberto’s admonitions for me to eat became more persistent. I ended up swallowing some food quickly washed down with wine, but it nearly choked me. My insides had put up a barricade. Then I hit on the idea of calling Fido and gave him my cheese and bread. The dog gulped it down and looked up for more. To save my face I pretended to chew and caressed the dog to make doubly sure he would remain with me.
“We must go,” I kept repeating, but Peppe would not back me up. In the end, I decided to go without him.
“You stay here. I have some errands down the road. I’ll go and do what I have to do, and pick you up on my way back.” I was lying, and he knew it, so it took some effort to persuade him. Uncle Alberto protested, offering more food, but I managed to get away. I ran down the road feeling free and relieved like a mouse scrambling away from a hungry cat. I ran, but Fido overtook me and surged ahead, barking as though to greet friends. As it turned out, he was right. Great was my surprise to see Lena and Nadia coming up the road. I had not seen them since the accident. I felt ashamed and defiled because I had not behaved as the protector I set out to be.
Nadia’s greeting was loaded with sarcasm. “Look who is here.”
“Good afternoon,” I panted.
“Where are you going in such a hurry?” she demanded.
“Down the road to the field. Where are you going?” I ventured to ask. I was hoping that the loss of my grandfather might soften Nadia’s attitude, but no. She brushed my question aside.
“Are your parents’ home?”
“Yes,” I said submissively.
“Good. We must see them, and we must hurry because we want to get back home before dark.” A pause followed.
I looked at Lena, Lena at me and Nadia at us both. I wanted to tell Lena so many things
“I will come with you,” I said. “What I have to do isn’t very important it can wait.”
As we passed Uncle Alberto’s I heard him say, “Oh now I know why he was in such a hurry. Youth! What a beautiful thing.” He shot me a congratulatory smile, a sign of approval at my taste in women. Peppe joined us, and he began talking to Nadia, freeing us of her oppressive glare. I decided it was time to apologise to Lena for my behaviour.
“I am sorry for what has happened. I should have been your protector and faile I let them take you away, the bastards.”
“They hit you. It was not your fault. I am sorry about your grandfather.”
“What are we going to do now?”
“Don’t worry about that, we must and will find a way, God willing.”
“What are you two muttering about?” . Nadia butted in looking suspicious.
“About nothing, mother,” Lean replied.
“Then why are you talking?”
I surprised myself with my answer. “Just to pass the time. Why, is it a sin to talk?”
“It is a bit late for talking.”
I was about to answer her back, but Lena tugged at my sleeve and stopping to create a bit of distance from her. “She is very upset; she has been to the hospital.”
“What happened?” I said and foreboding of bad news to come filled me.
“You will soon find out, that’s why we are coming to see your mama and dad.”
“Can’t you tell me anything?”
“Be patient, it is best if mama says it.”
“Lena, you are a good girl.”
“Thank you, Carlo. My family doesn’t think so.”
The stare Nadia threw our way subjugated us into silence. We rest of the walk a muted affair.
At our house Nadia expressed her sorrow and apologized profusely for not being at the funeral. Lena, overcome by emotion did the same. Then Nadia dropped her bombshell.
“Nando is in the hospital.” Then, seeing our looks of surprise she hastened to add, “don’t worry, he is all right.”
“But why? How come?”. My father demanded.
“I’ll be frank and sincere like a mirror. Afterwards, Nicola, I want to ask a great favour of you. You all know that imbecile Angelo started the drama. May that day be cursed! Now his father wants to make matters worse for us, so he claims that Angelo has an infection-gone skeptic and he has taken his son to hospital. And everybody knows about it!”
My mother was sympathetic. “Things happen in a flash, but the consequences last a lifetime.”
“With that delinquent in hospital, my husband risks prison. Moreover, what will happen to my family? What would be the effect on all of us if he went to prison? I went to our the solicitor for advice, and do you know what he told me? “Your husband must go to the doctor and have himself admitted to hospital.” “But he is bursting with good health,” I said, but the lawyer insisted. “Pretend he is ill.” I protested. “The doctor will laugh at him, he isn’t stupid.” Nevertheless, the lawyer insisted, “Madam, he said. He called me madam” “Listen to me. You have employed me to look after your case and I will try to do my very best for you. So do what I say. Take him to the doctor. Say he does not eat or drink anymore. Say he does not work or sleep. Say that he has lost his nerve and has turned into a frightened rabbit,. Say his pride is gone. The doctor cannot diagnose feelings.
“But will Nando agree? He is such a stubborn man,” I protested. Again, the lawyer says, “It is for his own good, for your own good, for the good of the family. He must agree. When it comes before the judge this will be our counter move. The judge will see before him a scoundrel who tried to shame your family, a father who acted trying to protect his daughter. Madam, convince your husband and convince him quick.”
“So I went home and convinced my husband, took him to doctor Cosmo where he played deaf and dumb and the doctor agreed that a short spell under observation at the hospital would be a good idea. So now is he in the same hospital as Angelo.
“But who is going to pay for it all. The lawyers can make their moves and counter moves all right, but it all costs money. The fields need attention and now, on top of it my husband being in the same hospital as Angelo. It makes me nervous.”
“Come on now. Nando can look after himself,” my father reassured her.
“I am not worried about him getting hurt. My worry is that he might do something to Angelo and it really would be the end. That’s why I would like a big favour of you, forgive me, I know that it is not the time to bother you, but I thought perhaps because you are in mourning, you might pull it off. Could you please speak to Camillo and use your influence to have him bring home his son, and make them drop the charges against my husband?.”
“What makes you think he will listen to me?”
“It is just a hunch, but he might be soft with you, with you losing your father and all that. I am sorry to ask, but I have better use for my husband and the little money we have. I’ve thousands better ways of spending it.”
Father clearly showed his reluctance for the task he was being asked to perform, but Nadia did not let up. She kept apologizing for her bad timing and assuring him that he was the only one capable of pulling it off.
“I hardly know the man”, my father protested.
“Nonsense, you are highly thought of in our village. Please, please do it for us. Had your father lived he would have approved.”
“I don’t know about that and I don’t know where to begin, I can’t think straight.” Father exploded with anger, resentful of her persistent intrusion into his inner sorrow. Then, wishing not to offend her, he added with a humbleness that only sorrow can produce, “Maybe tomorrow, but now, please, we would like to be left alone.”
Therefore, that was that. Father, although willing to help, did not like the timing and resented her putting words into his mouth. He knew how to conduct himself and I suspected, he had a few words of his own for the baker, and getting his sympathy was the last thing on his mind.
The following morning my father did his morning chores in silence. At breakfast, he drank a fair amount, preparing for battle. When he left, I asked whether I could go along with him. I had no idea what help I could be, but this was my business to. My father was reluctant, but my mother interceded on my behalf. “Come on, Nicolantonio, take him along. He can stop at Nadia’s house.”
“Well, all right then, if he promises to stop there. He is not coming to the baker with me. What I’ve to say to him is for his ears only.”
I felt discarded and that hurt a little, “Why?” I retorted. “It was his son who knocked me on the head. I still have the scar.” I said with justification.
“Perhaps you would prefer to handle this yourself? Maybe you think you can do a better job than me.”
“I never said that what I can or cannot do. I am merely saying . I want to come along with you to see how it you go about it. One day I might have to handle a situation myself A bit of practice will do arm.”
Maybe it was the say I said it but father took it the wrong way and cut in sharply.
“I’m not planning to die just yet,”
“Of course not, I hope you live longer than me. That’s not what I meant and you know it!”
In the end mother made us our mind. “The two of you can argue along the way,” her said decisively. Therefore, it was.
As we went on our way towards Roccascalegna, I told dad how sorry I was about the mess I had created and the sudden loss of granddad and the difficulty I had to accept it.
“You will get used to it” he said, “It is the way things go sometime.”
“No, I will never get over feeling responsible for his death.”
He stopped in his tracks and replied, “Who said you were responsible? Tell me who can say a thing like that? It is rubbish.”
“Nobody said it. I know it. I created a situation and things happened, the consequences killed granddad”.
“Look here, son, recrimination after the event is useless and a waste of time, that is the way sometimes life goes, We all have to go sometime but none us knows how and when. Stop blaming yourself. It was the will of God. People are born every day and people die every day. It is as simple as that. That is gone and finished. The healthy thing to do is to cherish his memory all right”.
“I will try but it will not be easy”
“Now let us concentrate on the task ahead of us”
“That bastard Angelo got what he deserved, may he rot where he is. To think I felt sorry for him now I wish I had broken his head.”
“Now, now,” my father said, putting his hands around my shoulders, “don’t go getting funny ideas” That gesture had opened the door to my guilt and pain, and father had a hard job to stem the tide of my remorse. I poured out my thoughts and he reassured me all the way to the village. We reached the village before we knew. I took advantage of the intimacy that had grown up between us to ask again if I could go with him to the bakers.
He tightened his lips and scratched his chin, “All right, but….”
“I understand. I won’t get involved. I just want to watch,” I reassured him.
The bakery was a big room full of shelves, where bread was still waiting collection. The heat was dry, the smell pleasant; flour dust was everywhere, even on Camillo. He was chatting idly to two women. By God, they were a beautiful pair! The elder was toothless, her voice was screechy, and she gave the impression that she would bombard anyone facing her with spit. The younger one was as thin as a rake, mousy faced and she sported a moustache that would have looked out of place on a dragon. They recognized us and looked at one another to hide their shock, then smiled at each other as if to say, “Look who is here now.”
As soon as he saw us Camillo began to busy himself, but my father was having none of that and insisted on greeting him, his voice full of irony.
“Good morning, Signor Camillo.”
“Morning” came the baker’s curt reply. The tension filled the room. “You are not very generous with your hospitality this morning,” remarked father. Then he turned to the women. “By the way, ladies, am I interrupting something important?
The women were shocked, lost for something to say. After a pause one replied, “We are just talking about his son, Angelo. He is sick you know, thanks to a lunatic who saw fit to use him for shooting practice. But of course that does not concern you.”
“On the contrary. By a strange coincidence, I have come here to ask for news of him.” Then he turned back to me, mischievously making them aware of my presence. “This is my son, by the way. Do you know him? No? He is the man who someone saw fit to hit from behind with a brick. The wound has not healed yet and he will have a scar. Nevertheless, don’t worry yourself too much, the scar will not be visible. How lucky, it could have been so much worse.”
The older woman shot a poisoned arrow. “He should have been more careful.”
“But he was careful. He was minding his own business. However, some stupid twit wanted to practice with a brick and used my son’s head as target. Hit him from behind as well! Don’t you think it is a mean feat? It takes a lot of courage to hit someone from behind.”
At this Camillo decided it was time that he entered the argument.
“What do you want?” I asked abruptly
“I want to talk to you.” Father said pacifically.
“Well hurry up and say” His tone was almost challenging.
“What I’ve to say is for your ears only. Do you mind telling these ladies to clear off?”
“You are forgetting, you are in my bakery, you do not come here to impose conditions on me since I don’t want to talk to you and besides, these ladies are my friends.”
“They are befitting company. It is just right for you.”. Father looked at the women and then at Camillo. Paused and shook his head in mock appreciation.
Tension was sizzling. Camillo’s face showed the telling effect of the allusion. He needed time before coming back with his salvo, “I don’t think I like your remark!” I sounded like the throwing of the glove
“Truth never fails, it always hurts.” Father kept up the pressure
The baker, red as a cherry, reached for the wooden shovel he used to put the loaves in the oven. Father calmly warned him, “I wouldn’t advise it, I don’t scare so easily.”
“Get out. This is my bakery. I do not want you here; I do not want to listen to you. If you have anything to tell me, you can say it through your lawyer.”
He waved the shovel, and the two women crept towards the door. My father began to reason with the baker. “Look Camillo. I have come here to talk, not to have a fight, and forget the lawyers. I am doing you a favour by coming here. I want you to listen; otherwise, I will sue you for everything you have. That shovel, let me add, might give you courage, but it is not scaring me. Now do you want to listen or not?”
“I’ve told you already, no Fuck off.” He thundered, the shovel went in the air in a threatening gesture more to scare than strike.
Father did not move an eyelid only thing that moved was the hand with the pointed fore finger sticking out from the closed rest that pointed in Camillo’s direction, “Look here, you cretin. Yesterday I buried my father, and while he we lowered him into the earth I felt like wanting to wrench the neck of the one who started it all. And do you know who that is?”
“No, and I don’t care.” Camillo raised the shovel again in defiance. “Save your breath, I know why you are here. I will not drop the charges. That bastard must learn a lesson. You can’t let a man like that roam around, he is a menace.”
“That’s no way to talk. Think of the families involved, yours, his, mine.”
“Your family has nothing to do with our quarrel.”
“Of course we do. My son is engaged to Lena.”
“My argument is with Nando. He was the one who pulled the trigger.
“No, it started before that. Angelo should have thought of the chance he was taking before starting this bloody mess. Have you asked him what he was hoping to achieve when he knocked my son on the head?”
“If you are trying to get round me this way you are wasting your time.” He lowered his shovel limply.
“I’ve lost my father, and sweet words will not bring him back. In addition, another thing you must know Your Angelo has made my family the subject of gossip and derision, his cowardly action has made him the laughing stock of the village”
”I’m sorry about your father, but don’t try to pin it on my son. He has nothing to do with it, so don’t go round looking for thing to pin on him.”
“Do you know how he died? Of course, not, how could you? You were not there” father persisted.
“What difference does it make? My son is in hospital fearing for his life.”
But father carried on as if there had been no interruption. “He died of a heart attack. My son had to fight a gang who kept calling him cuckold. My father went to help him and he died soon afterwards.”
“Bless his soul, but what all that has to do with me?”
“It has nothing to do with you personally, but it has plenty to do with your son Angelo. If he had left Lena alone, nothing of this mess would have occurred, no shooting and no fight afterward and my father would be still alive. Are you following me? All I am asking for you to take your son out of hospital and drop the charges against Nando, and let’s forget everything, otherwise I am obliged to enter the scene and sue Angelo.”
“Oh yes, and who is going to believe that” Camillo challenged.
“That is for a judge to decide”.
“You are bluffing.”
“I’ve done my duty to tell you, now the choice is yours.”
“Get out of here. That’s my answer” That was the end of the meeting.
“Well have your way. I have come here with on open mind, prepared to forgive and forget, but the only thing I get is insults. I should have known better. Well you live and learn that some people are obtuse to reason”
Father spoke calmly, but he was showing his agitation. As he left the bakery, he cast his eyes up and down the street, and then turned back to Camillo, who had followed him out, now standing by the door poised as cobra watching us go.
“Now I feel free and I’m going to show you what I’m made of. In addition, you can tell your Angelo that the moment he walks the street my son will see to him, face to face this time. Provided he will stand his ground and will not take the cowardly option of running, away shit scared. For your information those fists of his pack quite a punch. He takes after me and that is saying something.”
His hand went up, tightened into a fist. Camillo’s face reddened,
“Stuff it up your arse.” He shouted back in dismissive arrogant way.
“Down your throat would be a better place.” Retorted father.
“And who is going to put it there?
“Don’t temp fate too much, it might come true. You will be surprised. Come on Carlo; let us get away from this shit place, the sight of that sack of shit begins to disgust me.”We began walking away and turned once again, “Think very hard, Camillo, and if you have any sense, use it.”
The look of disdain on Camillo’s face was his eloquent answer.
The street had filled with people, all attentive ears and piercing eyes. As we walked on, they made way. Father was like a tank, powerful and careless of their looks. I was not so composed. Red faced and self-conscious I felt as though I was treading on eggshells.
We went to Lena’s, when we arrived she stopped embroidering to offer us chairs. “What a nice surprise. Sit down. Mamma should be home any moment now.”
There was no news of Nando. Lena offered us wine, and father drank heartily. While we waited for Nadia to return Lena showed me her embroidery, but father was impatient.
“ Do you think you mother will be much longer?”
“Yes. She should be here already” she reassured him. Soon afterward hurrying footsteps announced Nadia’s arrival. As soon as the pleasantries were out of the way, Nadia came straight to the point.
“Have you been to see the baker?”
“Yes. I have been to see the bastard,”
“And you didn’t succeed to make him change his mind.”
“Well, you guessed right he will not budge.”
“Oh my God!” Nadia’s hand went up in despair.
“Now only time will tell,” father continued.
“Time is something that we haven’t got. Time isn’t on our side.” She looked from Lena to me and then back, her face in turmoil. Gloom sat on us. Nadia was frantic, father reassuring. Lena and I were simply afraid. It was so oppressive that I could hardly breathe. Lena and I we both felt as if we were on a boat sailing without a rudder on a stormy sea.
At the hospital, Nando was behaving himself, playing the part of someone deaf and dumb. He was bubbling with good health. The rest was doing wonders for him, but he had one thing in his mind, to find Angelo and scare the hell out of him. He roamed the wards until he found him lying on his back, contemplating the ceiling.
Nando stopped and smiled a malicious smile. Angelo felt an evil presence and shifted his gaze. He rubbed his eyes and looked again. A sigh of fright left his chest and the hands stretched the sheet up to his neck. He felt like shouting, but Nando’s glare froze his voice in his throat. The scene was so still that the other patients scarcely noticed anything.
Only the arrival of a nurse broke the spell. Nando left, looking back with a sardonic smile on his face. Angelo sighed with relief and started living his private hell. He was cornered. Later, when he went to the toilet, Nando stalked him. Angelo locked himself in for an hour until his long absence came to the notice a nurse that went quickly to look for him. The next time Angelo needed the toilet he was so afraid that Nando might be waiting for him that he asked for a bedpan, but the nurse rebuked him.
“What’s the matter with you? A bit of exercise will do you the power of good.”
“Please nurse, I beg you. I can’t go to the toilet by myself.”
“I’ll come with you then. Come on.”
“Please give me the pan. Just this once,” he begged.
“All right just this once, it would be different if you were sick but you aren’t.”
But as he sat on the pan Nando appeared at the door to watch him. Angelo became as red as a freshly cooked lobster. The nurse, a no nonsense middle-aged woman, with white hair at her temples, rounded on Nando, scolding.
“What are you doing here? Go back to your ward, double quick.” Nando signaled that he could not hear but she went on.
“Explain yourself. What is it you want? You should not be here, do you understand?” However, Nando kept up his dumb show, and eventually she was convinced that he could neither talk nor hear, so she led him back to his ward.
As they proceeded along the corridor, both were satisfied: she for doing a human act and he for having done a demolition job on Angelo. That noon Angelo collected his meager belongings and left for home on the first afternoon bus.
When Nadia heard of it, she thanked God for his mercy. Father thought his pressure had done the trick, but had to swallow his pride when Nando, back himself, hinted otherwise. Therefore, father started court proceedings against Angelo. What a mess! Three sets of solicitors each fighting, as they were the only ones who deserved justice.
While the trial was on Nadia took to praying and sighing with despair. Lena took it as a sign of retribution from God and cried silent, bitter tears, but worked feverishly to prepare her dowry. Father and mother went on living their daily life, getting used to the void left by grandfather’s death and learning to live with its pain. Grandmother was a more frequent visitor and when she left each time; her goodbye had a touch of desperation.
I was not happy either. I had both grandfather’s death and Lena’s pregnancy on my conscience and, on top of that, tradition had put me on the spot. People felt free to reproach and deride me.
While the lawyers wrangled, Nando and Camillo became impatient. The wheel of the law did not spin fast enough. Their boiling tempers and vehement hatred of one another made them take the law into their own hands.
It all started with words. Denigration preceded threats and counter threats followed denigration. Therefore, Camillo spread the voice that Nando was very liberal in using his rifle and with he added that the time was ripe to give him a lesson.
But when Nando heard this he retorted, ”And who is going to teach me? That buffoon! Let him try, I’ve prepared a nice cartridge for him.” He started spread a counter story of how Camillo’s true father, a gipsy, after sampling his mothers delights kept going back surreptitiously for more until one day he was found shot dead still holding his trousers down, “An end like that is too good for him.”
“Oh yes, we will see about that,” challenged Camillo.
Words were no longer good enough, they proved the aperitif before the feast of hate that followed..
One Sunday night, Camillo and some friends sprung a trap for Nando. They organized themselves like a platoon in a search and destroy mission. Some kept watch while the others pounced on Nando like a pack of wolves. Poor Nando he did not stand a change
The ambush was so well coordinated that it was over in minutes. They did such a good job on him that he lay on the ground semiconscious unable to get up. A passerby went to call Nadia who arrived at the scene to find him still on the ground shocked and bewildered as in daze unable to believe the happening. He needed coaxing to get up and grudgingly accepted his wife help going back home where the lamp light close up showed the scars of the tussle. Caked blood was on his face, his lips cut, teeth missing, around the eyes the white skin was turning blue and his air was glued with red blood. He looked an utter mess. Beneath the torn clothes, the flesh was full of bruises. . He refused the attentions Nadia rained on him and rebuked the family staring at him. He stood still and silent as fish while Nadia cleaned and disinfected with spirit his wound and for a week he nursed his misery in silence For a week he did not come out of the house. He seemed a wild horse domesticated and one wondered if it was really true.
All the while Camillo’s tail was up, he and his friends strutted up and down the main street and stood longer in the square with an air of arrogance. They had defeated the enemy physically. Now they were out to crush him morally as well.
However, to Nando that was the tonic for him to get well better and once the wound heeled chose to fight back his way.
The following Saturday, early in the morning, when Camillo as usual was opening the bakery. Nando was waiting with his best friend, the rifle. He took aim and called out.
“My dear Camillo. Son of a good mother. I have a very special present for you. Let me see how brave you are now.”
Camillo turned and before he make out where he was; Nando shot hit him on the forehead splattering his brain over the wall. By the time the villagers woke up Nando was gone leaving no trace of him.. The bakery stopped baking bread.
The carabinieri arrived to the scene and asked questions. The inquiries led to Nando but he was nowhere. Fort three days and army of them looked for him but on the fourth day they left their spies and gave up the search.
It was a trying time for all of us. We could do nothing except wait for events to unfold. Shame, fear, worry and remorse oppressed us during the daytime and took over our nightmares. Nobody helped the carbinieri. Those who could have done knew that Nando would not hesitate to use his rifle on them if he ever found out. Therefore, fear produced silence and the work of the carabinieri was fruitless.
Camillo’s funeral took place three days after his death. The cries of anguish mingled with impotent threats of vengeance, like a wind-fanned fire looking for dry grass.
I was working in the vineyard on the slope facing the cemetery and I heard it all as the breeze carried the sound. I tried not to listen, to close my mind, to make it no business of mine. Nevertheless, it was to no avail. I was involved. A couple of weeks earlier when Camillo had argued with my father I had felt like punching him on the nose, but now couldn’t help but feel sorry for the man. I stopped work, sat with elbows on my knees and my face in my hands, and with heavy heart, I prayed to God to grant Camillo eternal peace and to look kindly on his family. I was oblivious of the world around me, when a whistle, short and cautious disturbed my concentration. Startled I looked around. I could see nothing. However, I jumped up like a kangaroo as a little stone landed at my feet.
Then I saw a figure moving amongst in the wine coming my way. Then Nando head popped up above the vine, like a periscope of a submarine above the water. I got a a fright and he seeing me shaken said,“If I had wanted to blow off your balls I could have done it already”
He was dirty and unshaven, his general state of unkemptness and the gap left by his missing teeth had added years to his appearance since the last time I saw him. He glanced around to reassure himself before stopping. I was speechless, it was as seeing a ghost, and the rifle across his houlder was not conducive to trust. He must have read my mind, as he said,”Don’t be afraid, you fool, I’m not going to hurt you.”
At that moment a gust of wind carried the cries of the mourners across the river. Nando and I turned towards the cemetery. I wanted to say, “I hope you feel proud you bastard.” My courage failed me, but Nando started to explain.
He pointed in the direction of the cemetery from where the sounds were coming from and said, “All that is of their own making. I never went to that family looking for trouble. The son started it, and the father did his best to make a meal of it. It is easy to condemn a killer, but who ever asks the dead about what they did to provoke him. I’ll tell you, nobody.”
“I hope you’re satisfied,” I said trembling with fear and anger.
“I don’t know that yet. I haven’t finished.”
I was incredulous. “Why isn’t Camillo’s death enough for you?”
“He will be lonely in that graveyard. He needs company. Maybe he won’t have long to wait.” He paused, then resumed with shocking calmness, “think yourself lucky that you are still in one piece, young man. You took advantage of my daughter and I am prepared to let it go, provided you do the right thing. But if you don’t, I warn you, you are as good as dead.”
I reacted quickly. “Have I given you any reason to doubt me?”
“That is why you are still around!” He smiled. It was the smile of a tiger.
“Oh, thank you. Thank you very much. You are generous today.” I retorted with an element of disgust and a considerable degree of fear.
“Just you remember. Don’t make me play a different tune.”
“All right, I can take a hint!” I could cheerfully have killed the bastard.
“Good then, that’s settles it. Let’s talk about something else.”
“You talk, I’ll listen,” I challenged.
“Is there any food in your rucksack?”
“The usual. Why? You hangry?”
“I could do with something to eat yes.”
“Help yourself,” I said, thinking, I hope you choke on it.
He ate voraciously, and I was surprised when he thanked me afterwards. Then he dismissed me brusquely,“And don’t tell a soul that I am here. Tomorrow I want you to bring me some more food – it doesn’t matter what, but make sure there is plenty of it.”
“All right. I’ll bring it to the animal stall An leave it there. Is that all right”
“”Remember. I will be watching you. Do not forget. Not a word to anyone.”
“I’m deaf and dumb and blind,” I replied with unrestrained sarcasm.
“Good then, if you can do that you don’t have to worry about a thing.”
“Me! Worry Why should I worry?” I said trying to keep him quiet.
“If you don’t behave yourself you’ll have plenty to worry about. Goodbye for now.”
During the night, I lay awake for hours imagining all the alternative disasters, which could occur when I met with Nando again. When morning came, I was tired and fidgety. I had a solid breakfast, then furtively filled the rucksack with bread cheese and salami and everything I could find and went down the hill for my rendezvous, feeling like the man who approaches the enemy carrying the white flag. The countryside was coming to life, a bark, a neigh, a bird’s song. Then two rifle shots rang out in succession. All the other noises stopped. I could hear my heart beat drumming in my chest. Then a long drawn out lament began, filling the valley with an echo so prolonged that the lament and the echo became one.
At last, I heard woman’s scream that cut down the valley like lighteningt.
“ Oh my God, Get a doctor, someone, quickly. Oh my God. Who has done this to you? Can anyone hear me? Get a doctor, someone, please. Hurry.”
The voice was coming from the slope where the sewer emptied its waste down the valley to the river, its contents fertilizing the vegetable gardens along its bank. Someone from the village shouted back.
“Who is hurt? What has happened?”
“Never mind that. Send the doctor, for the love of God. Hurry.”
The urgency and the tone told their tale. “All right, hold on, I’ll do what I can.”
Now the lament has changed to short moans, clearly indicating that someone’s strength was ebbing away. Fido barked and came close to me. After a while, pandemonium broke out. People rushed to the scene with the doctor. Nevertheless, I had to get to Nando. I went down to the animal stall, left my rucksack in the yard and made to go away. However, the dog’s bark made me turn and there was Nando, sneaking up the slope.
He looked the spitting image of the devil with his rucksack slung across his shoulder, a belt studded with cartridges and his rifle in his hand. His face showed that he was in another world, as though he had just committed an act, which had brought not satisfaction but horror. It put a blind fear into me. I made to sprint away, but he was already in the yard. He stopped me without raising his voice.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going? Are you afraid, you bloody son of a bitch.” He was going to say more but then he saw my full rucksack.
He felt its contents and approvingly put the sack across his shoulder. Then he studied me. I was petrified.
“Look at me, Carlo Nispita. Look at all this bloody mess. I hope it will make you think.”
“It has, it has I never stopped thinking.”
“And what conclusion have you come to?” he asked sharply.
“Well … what do you mean?”I had no answer.
“I thought so,” he sneered. “With a head like yours, that would be about right.”
I remained silent, There was a moment of hesitation, then he said in a gentler tone, “Can you give a message to my wife?”
“Of course. What do you want me to say?”
“Tell her that the best thing I can do is to disappear, it will be better for her and for the family.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’ll survive. Just tell her what I just told you. Moreover, make sure you marry Lena. one more thing – do not ever put yourself in my predicament. Look at me.” And with that he left. He never looked back and was soon absorbed by the trees of a fruit grove.
His victim (Angelo?) never reached the village alive. That afternoon an army of carabinieri flanked by civilians searched for him, but Nando was never caught. Only his family was left to live its shame.
The hatred everyone felt for Nando meant that his family was ostracized despite his departure. But nature has no care for people’s opinion: Lena’s pregnancy progressed inexorably and we had to face up to reality. So the wedding bans were posted went up, which gave the local gossips a field day.
Under normal circumstances there would have been a procession with people and animals carrying the dowry through the streets, and the bride preening in public, but our situation meant that traditions had to be waived. Lena’s dowry was brought to my parent’s house in a silence on the day before the wedding. When our wedding day dawned we were not expecting any celebration at the church, with guests and onlookers clapping, and the children cheering as they ate the sweets which were thrown as confetti when we emerged from the church.
Lena and I were to be married in secret at five on Sunday morning. I woke bleary eyed and with my stomach full of butterflies. My half of the wedding party consisted of myself, my parents, Uncle Alberto and Aunt Maria. We arrived at the church to find it locked, because the verger was late. When at last he did arrive the sight of us shocked him: we looked more like people attending an execution than a wedding.
The priest arrived soon afterwards. He was a good priest, even if he took a double dose of wine during mass. He was also a very big man, and I followed meekly as he led me off to confession. The solemnity of the occasion, the rustling of his black cassock as he walked, and the mysterious Latin with which he gave me my penance sent me scurrying for the nearest bench to mumble my prayers. But I did not feel like any sense of absolution. All I felt was my family’s looks piercing my back.
Lena and her family arrived soon afterwards. She was flanked by one of her uncles, who looked uncomfortable dressed in his Sunday best. Lena’s step was hesitant, her look shy. Her family too looked as though they had come to attend a funeral, not a wedding. The silence before the service began was sepulchral, and when the priest started to speak his voice echoed through the empty church. Standing next to Lena I felt acutely her pain and humiliation. Since the moment she met me nothing but trouble had followed. Her pregnancy had brought reproach and shame, and Nando’s revenge for Angelo’s action had added hatred to her burdens.
My role in her life was about to change. I had been a demon, now I was to be her guardian angel. After the hurried mass and the assenting “I do” from each of us, I felt that I was in the middle of a raging storm, but I was not afraid of the elements, only of my new responsibility.
Nadia cried noisily throughout the ceremony, repeating over and over, “Oh my daughter, my daughter!” When the priest pronounced us man and wife Lena added her own tears to her mother’s, Lena clutched my arm tightly, sobbing violently.
Camillo’s widow was waiting outside when we left the church, and she immediately began to bombard us with abuse.
“Shameless whore! Murderer! You profane the house of God. You have no respect for the dead!”
She was dressed all in black, her face consumed by sorrow and hate. Some of her front teeth were missing and as she screamed at us some of her spittle oozed out into her chin. She looked just like a witch. Her howling woke the village. Windows opened, inquisitive heads looked out. Everyone now in the village knew. Feeling naked we rushed home, leaving the priest to calm her down.
At home hardly anybody touched the wedding breakfast, mostly we drank wine. There were few smiles: it seemed more appropriate to be subdued and sad. If either of us had dreamed of a happy wedding, with a sumptuous feast, food enough to feed an entire village, of drinks galore, of singing, of our neighbours good wishes, it was not to be.
I was itching to get away from the village. Everyone who lived there looked at me with accusation in their eyes. It was worse to know that my new father in law had killed two people and his victims were still fresh in their graves. But, dear friend, there was no escape.
It was late morning when we left, using the short cut to my home. We walked silently, looking straight like blinkered horses. Only the dog distracted any of the condemnatory stares from the people we passed. We welcomed the open countryside with a sigh of good riddance and at last felt some dignity again. At eleven the valley was filled with the sound of the church bells calling the faithful to mass. It was the first happy sound to follow our wedding.
When we came to the fork in the valley the rest of the wedding party went on ahead while Lena and I lingered. Alone at last, and do you know what? Neither of us knew what to say to each other. We had dreamed of being alone together for so long, now we didn’t know what to do with the seclusion. In the end we exchanged embarrassed smiles, and I took Lena’s hand.
The sun was high in the sky by then, and the walk up the slope became increasingly difficult for Lena in her condition. I hesitated before teasing her with my concern.
“Are you feeling allright, Mrs Nispita?”
She blushed. “I don’t know, I think so. I just feel tired.”
We were close to Uncle Alberto’s house, and I comforted her by saying we would stop there a while, but they had not returned; only the dog was there. It barked violently, as usual, and ran towards us, but after it had reassured itself about me sniffing my leg it dashed off at full pelt across the fields.
“Did you get any sleep last night?” I asked Lena, trying to ignore my embarrassment.
“Not much.” She was panting for breath by this time.
“Rest, we have plenty of time.”
She hesitated for a moment, then began hesitantly. “I wanted to tell you something. I want to reassure you that despite everything, my father, your grandfather, the pain and shame of our marriage, despite all these, I’ll make you a good wife, I promise.”
“But of course you will make the best wife, the very best.”
“You don’t mind about my father, then?”
“Your father, my father in law, is a shit, but shit grow the best flowers, and that is where you are.”
Perhaps it wasn’t the happiest phrasing, but it had the desired effect. Lena smiled and I felt ten feet tall. We had broken the ice. She took my hand and placed it on he swollen belly to feel the baby. With the uneasiness gone, our smiles became sincere, each other’s company a comfort, our talk pleasing. And as a married couple we were last permitted to give in to temptation. We became a couple and did what all couples do when they are courting.
When we arrived home our waiting made it quite clear that they thought we had tarried too long. Their words of greeting were double edged:
“You are in a hurry, aren’t you?”
”Lena is very tired,” was my excuse.
“That’s not surprising.” Their laughter contained a distinct shade of sarcasm. But the tension eased and the lunch, was quite relaxed, although it never quite reached celebration pitch as a wedding party should.
It was late afternoon when the party broke up and people began to leave. Even my parents had arranged to give us some time alone together: for three nights they stayed with my grandmother overnight, only returning to see to the farm during the day.
That was our honeymoon. You can laugh, but in those days three nights to ourselves was a gift from God.
On the fourth day, we started the grape harvest. The wasps had the same idea and were quite prepared to fight us for the fruit. They were a nuisance and often a pain.
Once we got the grapes home, they were put first into open casks, then into a sack to be trodden. There is a special art in treading grapes: you start at the edge of the sack with your heels, trapping the fruit under the soles of your feet. Your heels lead all the time, first backwards, then forwards, then vice versa. The running juice cascaded into buckets filling the room with a sweet fragrance, the heart with hope, the palate with dreams of the pleasure to come.
The young wine was safely fermenting in vats when October came, and our interest turned to sowing of the grain. Every farmers anxiety mounted as he tried to guess what the weather would do. It is essential to plant the new seeds just before the rain – a seed which falls on dry soil is at the mercy of foraging birds, give it rain and it puts the roots down too quickly for them.
Lena worried us all. Increasingly she complained of tiredness. She was putting on far more weight than is normal in a pregnancy, and she was having difficulty breathing. It was obvious that her strength was failing.
Father made no comment, but my mother became outspoken. Whenever she saw Nadia she remonstrated with her for having dumped her sick daughter on us. Nadia retorted that Lena had been a picture of health before she came to live with us; she had never needed a doctor before. But mother remained skeptical. In vain I tried to reason with her.
“Give her a chance, mama. You will see. After the baby is born she will be as good as new.”
“And in the meantime? She is only half way through her pregnancy and she is useless. When I was carrying you I worked until the last moment. She must have some disease the family hid from us.”
“For Christ’s sake, mama.”
“Look here, Carlo, if she goes on like this, in one more month she will take to her bed.”
We called in the village doctor but for all his expertise he couldn’t find anything wrong. In the end, all he could advise was that we be kind to her and let her rest.
“That’s all very fine, but will she get better?” my mother demanded.
“If she gets over her pregnancy she will be all right.”
That was ominous, and it worried us all. Ironically it was Lena who tried to dispel our gloom. “Don’t worry, I’ll be allright. You will soon see. Don’t worry Carlo, I’ll make you a good wife yet.”
I had a lump in my throat. I loved her so much that every inch of me hurt. “Don’t talk rubbish. You are a good wife now.”
“Only in spirit. But it is this baby of yours that’s causing all the problems, you know.”
As the October days became short the sun lost its ferocity, but another problem came to plague us. Italy had been invaded. Many arguments broke out: in the country the politics seemed irrelevant, and no one was willing to let their sons join up.
“What do we care about the war? What does it do for us? Why don’t the Savoias fight their own war? The King has spent years taking the food out of our son’s mouths. He wants them to fight for him.”
My age group was the next for call up. My parents and Lena were agitated, but secretly I was excited. The adventure of the unknown had a certain fascination. I didn’t care about the war, but somehow I was afraid to let it go on without me. My friend, before you learn the brutality of war it has a charisma all of its own. It blinds youngsters and conceited fools. I looked at the soldiers on leave with their fancy boots, their uniforms, and began to fantasise about the adulation I would receive when my turn came. And I longed to escape the village, to have adventures in places I had never seen. But I never revealed my thoughts to anyone; Lena’s condition dampened my enthusiasm, and I was the only son. If my parents had learned what I was thinking they would have been furious. So I carried on with my work and wondered if I would still be around when harvest came.
The village clairvoyant, Ada, started coming round. She was very popular at that time, because all the parents wanted reassurance about the fate of their sons going to war. But her appearance was enough to put me off my food: she was ugly and toothless, and so fat that her thick legs rubbed against one another when she walked. But my mother ignored my revulsion. If anything she asked her to visit more often.
“He is a shy boy, let him get used to you.”
One morning I gave in and agreed to talk to her, due to a tragic and strange circumstance. Lena was getting worse, so we asked Doctor Cosmo for a second opinion. Ada recognized his donkey tethered outside our house, and came nosing around, so my mother made her stay.
Doctor Cosmo confirmed what the village doctor had said. There was nothing specific he could do to help Lena. She was simply having a difficult pregnancy. He spoke a few words in confidence to my father, then left.
Mother cleared the table and asked Ada to read my future. Reluctantly I agreed. She examined my hands, muttering, “Good lines.” Then she brought out her cards and dealt them out on the table. To me they were just strange pictures, but to her each card, each combination meant something.
Her face saddened before she pronounced her verdict.
“Shortly you are going to have very bad news. Also a long journey awaits you. I see the devil lurking around you. You will suffer.”
“Is he a horned devil with a waving tail and a pitchfork?” I teased.
“I wouldn’t joke about it if I were you,” she retorted.
My mother was glaring at me.
“I’m sorry, I won’t make any more jokes,” I said apologetically. Ada went back to her cards. “You will live a long life, but you will go through hell more than once.”
After that she made to go, but mother demanded that she look into Lena’s future as well.
Ada protested. “I shouldn’t stay. I am tired and I have errands to run.”
But my mother insisted. After looking at Lena’s hand for a few moments Ada shook her head. “Her hand is too swollen, I cannot see the lines properly.” She dealt the cards again, studies them, mumbled to herself, look back at the cards, then at Lena.
“I’m too tired, I cannot read the cards properly. I’ll pop in some other time. I can’t do justice to them.” And off she shuffled, with that characteristic waddle of hers.
I felt very gloomy. “It is all rubbish, anyway.”
“Don’t say that,” reproached mother.
“Why not?” I challenged.
“She has correctly predicted many futures.”
“Rubbish,” I said again.
“I’ve just told you not to talk like that, She’s not just a fortune teller, you know. She can cast spells.”
I had heard that rumour before. It was said that a woman who had been scorned by her lover had asked Ada to put a spell on him, and overnight he had changed form being a vivacious extrovert to an irascible introvert and a recluse. Whenever someone found the courage to ask whether the story was true, Ada would avoid a direct answer.
“I have to do what I’m asked.”
But she refused to tell Lena’s fortune. That worried me, and I really did not want to believe what she had said about me.
Ada had scarcely been gone more than a few minutes when an urgent scream rang out.
“There’s a body in the well, a body. Help!”
Silence fell across the valley. Some time later Peppe came past the house. He was going to report the discovery to the authorities. Later still the silence was broken by the sound of wailing as the identity of the drowned man was discovered and his family began to voice their grief.
The body was that of a man from the village called Rino. His wife had discovered that he had a mistress some time before, and had demanded explanations, but all she got were denials. She and Rino argued continuously after that, and before long the children began to take their mother’s side. Rino was ostracized, and when the villagers found out what had happened he became the butt of derision and sarcasm. The situation was more than he could take, and without even the support of his family he lost the will to live.
Because he was a suicide the church refused both the funeral service and burial in the cemetery. This attitude disgusted me. The Church, which preached love, understanding and forgiveness of sins in fact practiced condemnation. Why can the Church not forgive people who have punished themselves?
That the body was discovered on the very day when Ada had predicted that I would shortly receive very bad news only added to my apprehension. Maybe the old woman had some talent after all. If so, I should be very concerned about the devil who was supposed to be hovering near me, and the promised suffering.
As October gave way to November the rains became persistent and it began to get cold. The mountain peaks were covered with snow and it would not be long before their mantle spread to the foothills and the valleys. Everyone began to look forward to Christmas. The long evenings were spent by blazing log fires, telling jokes and playing cards. Sometimes the conversation would become more serious and we cursed the war, but for the most part everything was normal for the time of year.
One frosty morning, with flurries of snow whirling around the yard, I was the firstr to get up and start my chores. Father joined me soon afterwards.
“If this weather keeps up the snow will be deep this year.”
Everything was still, the chirping of the birds was muffled, even the sound of the wind was muted. Peace was in the air and in our hearts. Mother reset and relit the fire. Lena was still in bed and my mother, who had finally accepted that she must care for her ell until the baby was born, took her a cup of chamomile tea.
Moments later she came running down the stairs again.
“Come quickly. I cannot wake her up.”
I ran up the stairs and into our room. Lena was lying quite still on the bed. I shook her gently, calling her name, but to no avail.
“She needs a doctor, Carlo. Go to the village,” father said.
I was already out of the room before he finished speaking. I saddled the horse and off I went, forcing the horse to gallop all the way up the hill to the village in spite of the snow, which was falling much more heavily now.
When I arrived at the doctor’s house he was still in bed, but when his wife told him who I was, he dressed hurriedly and declined the coffee she had prepared for him. Much to my frustration, he refused to ride my horse, and so we both walked back to my parents’ house.
He went straight to Lena and ordered everybody out of the room. I went down to the kitchen, offering up a silent prayer. After a while the doctor came back down, and my father thrust a glass of home made Grappa into his hands to warm him.
“What is wrong with my wife?” I asked tremulously.
“It is very serious. We must wake her up, we must wake her up, otherwise it will be the end. Don’t worry I will do my very best for her.”
He went back to Lena before I could ask more questions.
I felt helpless. As the minutes dragged by I took refuge out by the animal stalls, and stood looking out at the falling snow. After a time my father came out to me. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Go to Rossacalegna and fetch her mother and Doctor Cosmo.”
His manner and tone of voice told me that he knew more than he was prepared to say. A shiver ran down my spine. Again I galloped all the way. The snow had stopped but it was very cold and the grey sky hung low and oppressive over the valley.
When I arrived at Nadia’s house the horse was steaming and wet with perspiration. Nadia knew that something was wrong.
“What has happened?” she demanded.
“It is Lena. She is sleeping and we cannot wake her up. We have to fetch Doctor Cosmo.”
She looked up to heaven. “Oh God. Why do you keep punishing me?” She could say nothing more and started to cry, weeping incessantly until we reached Cosmo’s house. He was reluctant to go out in the snow, but Nadia pleaded with him, promising that he could ride the horse both there and back.
When we arrived home, more people had gathered in the kitchen, their faces solemn, as the occasion demanded. While the two doctors conferred and fought to save Lena’s life, Nadia’s weeping became louder, and my mother and the other women soon joined her. Father and I tried to console ourselves, but our mood was grim.
Some time passed before the two doctors came to the kitchen.
“Is she dead?” someone asked.
“Not if we can help it.”
“But will she live?”
“We cannot say. But as long as there is life we must hope.”
“What can we do to help?”
”Only prayer. Who knows, it might help.”
All the women went up to the bedroom to say the rosary. Don Pasquale arrived and took charge of the litany. “Santo Bartolomeus. Oro pro nobis. Santa Marai. Oro pro nobis.” The plea for intercession was quiet and steady, the sound rising and falling gently against the silence in the rest of the house. But Lena did not stir, and eventually she was given the last rites to prepare her for death.
I felt as though my heart had been pierced with a knife. I wished desperately that the end would not come, but I had run out of prayers.
Poor Lena my young bride, who had wanted so much to be a good wife, never had a chance. Luck fate had denied her the joy of pregnancy, the pride of motherhood, the fulfillment of a wife.
I felt like Judas. As the hope of Lena’s survival faded, Nadia turned on me, and who could blame her? I had planted the seed that led first to Lena’s shame and then to her death.
The doctors did their best, but they could do nothing, and the prayers did not produce the desired miracle. It took two days, during which a constant stream of relatives and friends came and went. I was rendered almost senseless by hugs and kisses. I sat like a dummy: I wanted only to cry. My wife, not yet eighteen was dead.
It was such a waste. How do you justify the death of somebody so young?
“It is the will of God.” I heard the phrase repeated over and over. If it was supposed to console me, it failed. I wanted to scream at God for his cruelty. “To Hell with Him, why doesn’t he mind his own business? I don’t interfere with his life, why does he mess up mine?”
I felt numb. Even when Nadia screamed, “You ruined my family, malediction to the day you two met,” I could not react. Her accusations simply bounced off me. For the two days before the funeral I didn’t sleep or eat. I was dry of tears, insensible to pain, hunger, thirst or sleep. After the service the wake was held at Uncle Alberto’s house, but I did not attend. I made the excuse that I needed to relieve myself, but instead of going back inside I walked home with the dog. He seemed to sense my mood, for he wasn’t his usual self. He kept close to me and now and again he looked up at me and gave a single bark as though to say, “cheer up.”
It was quiet at home, and I appreciated it. I went to our bedroom for the first time in two days. While Lena’s body had been lying there I could not bear to go in. But I scarcely recognized the room. Nadia had taken all Lena’s things away, including our bed.
What a bitch my mother in law was. She had stripped the room of everything but one table, which she had pushed up against the wall. On it was a letter. My call up papers. Oh yes, my friend. That must have given her great satisfaction. As I laughed at the irony the sound echoed around that empty room, and for the first time since Lena died I began to cry.
They were sweet tears, tears of release. I felt Lena closer to me more than ever before. I was alone but I was not lonely. I shut all the doors and windows in the house, and screamed with all my strength.
When I stopped, my throat was sore, but my whole being, my soul included, felt free, ready to start again, like someone who has just stepped out of a bath, clean and refreshed, and dressed in a new set of clothes. The dog had heard me, and was howling outside in the yard. As I opened the doors he stopped and hurried to me lovingly rubbing his head on my legs.
It was a time of extreme pain, and my reaction was equally extreme. In the end I was to find comfort through God, and the will to live again. When finally I knocked at His door, the humility of the act was soothing, like balm on an infected wound.
Thank you for reliving with me that part of my life, so dear to me. Looking back, it was only the first of many painful times. I wanted so much to be a man then, but when I think of what has happened to me since I often wonder why I was in such a hurry. I am old now and my life is circumscribed by pain. Back then, it was my elders and the prevailing traditions which restrained me.
Dear friend, in life you never strike the right balance. The pendulum swings constantly, it did, it does, it always will.
I am tired now and in need of a nap. Maybe another time I will tell you the rest, but for now, thank you again, and God Bless.