Saturday, July 3, 2010
History and romance interweave in this historical novel that seems to have a delicious twist in every chapter.
The reader is invited to share in this romantic tale of one woman's extraordinary life.
The first two chapters were posted on July 3, 2010. Subsequent chapters through Chapter Seven were added in the summer of 2010. Now, in November of 2011, Chapter Eight has been added. Look for new chapters about every two weeks.
Become a Follower to be alerted to the posting of each. Your comments are welcome.
My Heart Was Awake
Copyright © 2010, by the author. All rights reserved.
To the outsider’s eye, Noepoli is one of the more picturesque villages in the Southern Italian region of Basilicata, which was and had long been the least-visited, most obscure region of Italy, in the province of Potenza, a land that time and recorded history blissfully forgot or cautiously neglected for untold ages.
In a small house in a twisting street in the town of Noepoli, Italy, in 1882, Maria was born, the daughter of Joseph Fucci and his wife Grace Esposito. On the day of Maria’s birth, Noepoli could claim upward of a thousand residents.
Noepoli rises like a dream, dramatically on its high hill near the base of Mount Calvario. Maria, as all children who grow up here, felt as if they were the blessed cousins of the birds of the air. The gray-golden stone and rose and ochre stucco village dominates the higher area surrounding the Sarmento River, which is itself a tributary of the River Sinni. From afar, Noepoli resembles a fortified hill that has over the centuries overgrown its castle walls, accommodating newer homes by allowing them to tumble down the hillside. This is precisely the case. All of the tall, narrow homes have handmade red tile roofs; architecturally they are not unlike the famous homes that grace the villages of the Cinque Terre or Portofino. But Noepoli is far inland, in a region prone to earthquakes, in a province that time seems to have forgotten.
Noepoli was not always so remote. In the medieval period, the village was the seat of a Benedictine monastery; some of its stones may be seen in the fields surrounding the town. But that was before it was called Noepoli. The origins of its name date from the fifteenth century when it was granted authority to be the “State of Noia” (hence its town was literally Noia-poli or Noepoli) after which it was called Terranova di Noia until the middle of the nineteenth century, when the name Noeploli was adopted. The village was later ruled by the Pignatelli family. In 1863 Noepoli assumed its present name.
Those who take the twisting, upward road all the way through the town are rewarded at last with the only piazza which is surrounded on all of its sides save one with ancient homes and the pale pink church with its asymmetrical tower. The longest side of the square, however, is framed only by a low stone wall, over which the immense valley with its great distances may be appreciated.
Noepoli is a collection of ancient stone arches and well-worn stairways, deep window recesses, lanterns on iron brackets, some of these well-cared for and some crumbling. A combination of gorgeous sculpture fragments and dizzy heights; of narrow streets contrasted with vast distances. Some of the back alleys remind the visitor of forgotten corners of Venice.
Noteworthy landmarks in the village of Noepoli include the Church della Madonna delle Grazie which boasts a valuable Florentine-school painting dating from the 18th century, depicting the Madonna delle Grazie and St. Lorenzo Vinovo. Also of great artistic interest is the parish church dedicated to St. Francis of Paola, which was built in the 16th century and then restored in 1930. The church is home to a 17th-century altarpiece by an unknown artist and an 18th-century painting depicting the Virgin Mary, St. Dominic and St. Catherine, as well as a handsome wooden crucifix, a baptismal font in stone, the lid of a sarcophagus of the 16th century and frescoes and marble relief from the fourteenth-century.
Also in the historic city center there are visible the remains of the feudal castle. A circular tower is the chief feature that remains; yet, it is built upon the site of the ancient Lucani city (a Greek colony of the sixth century BC). Among the finer residences are the Palazzo Rinaldi (from the nineteenth century) in Via A. Rinaldi, and the Palazzo De Cicco.
Not very far from the village on the top of Mount Catona, it is possible to admire the ruins of a Basilian monastery of great age.
From the village, which is situated in the National Park of the Pollino, one can hike along the Serra Dolcedorme, the Serra delle Ciavole up to Mount Pollino. The lush vegetation of beech and chestnut woods is typical of this territory which is a tourist attraction during summer and the ideal place to pick mushrooms during winter.
It is also possible to admire the "Pino Loricato", (a type of pine growing in Lucania) one of the most important trees in Lucania from an environmental and scientific point of view. Its scientific name, "Pinus Leucodermis" means "white skinned" and refers to the white silver-colored dry bark. It is commonly called "Pino Loricato", a name deriving from the similarity between its bark and the "lorica", the cuirass used by the Roman centurions.
Maria’s father, Joseph worked for one of the landowners and is perhaps best described as a farm laborer. Joseph took care of someone else's sheep and cattle, or, more often, considering the region, goats. Joseph would sometimes bring home from his work fresh ricotta cheese. From time to time, he had access to the milk that made the ricotta. When what was left over could not be sold, due to the lack of any means of preserving it, he sometimes brought it home as a special treat for his family.
With this rare delicacy, his wife Grace would make a dish of pasta with ricotta which must have been very delicious, since Maria savored it as a child and told the story of it often in later years. Joseph and Grace had four sons and three daughters. In future years, Maria, their oldest son Giacomo (Jim) and two other sons would depart for America. Maria would be one of two of the three girls who left Italy. Her oldest sister would go to South America with her husband. The third sister would remain in Noepoli to care for her parents in their old age. As with most of the women of Noepoli, Grace Esposito Fucci lived her long life as daughter and sister, wife and mother, as homemaker, and never strayed more than twenty miles from her home town.
Such was not, however, Maria’s story.
Noepoli was dominated by the old castle, the church and the Palazzo Rinaldi. Maria grew up with the ancient stone faces of the Palazzo Rinaldi as her life’s companions, as silent secret friends. She would visit the façade of the palace often, and imagine who they were and what they would say to her. Over the doorway of the palace was carved the date 1845 and a woman’s face, with arching eyebrows and thick lips, wearing a coronet and supporting the Rinaldi coat of arms, which to Maria looked like Adam and Eve separated by the Tree of Knowledge at whose base rested the dove of the Holy Spirit.
These Rinaldi were dominated by women it seemed to the young Maria, or held them in high honor, for elsewhere on the palace were carved the faces of other women. One of them Maria had named “Grazie”—Grace—for she was the fairest of them all, with a heart-shaped face, perfectly combed hair and large earrings Maria was sure were pearls. Regal, Grazie seemed, and serene.
The other carved visage seemed slightly older; her features were softer, rounder; with a braded topknot bun of thick hair that had been parted in the middle. She pursed her lips slightly at Maria, bearing a perpetual expression of bemused disapproval. “Lucia” she called this one, after the famous patron saint of Italy.
The stone faces of the Palazzo Rinaldi listened. Kept Maria’s secrets.
Another of her ancient stone companions was the knight Jacuvill. The grave stone of Jacuvill dated back to the fifteenth or sixteenth century and on it was a carved relief representing the sleeping warrior, called Jacuvill.
Maria often wove tales of romance about Jacuvill and herself—wherein she was always the fair maiden of the ancient castle fortress, or alternating of the palazzo Rinaldi. Jacuvill she would see coming across the valley—a dashing, heroic figure of the “dintorini”. He would know where to find her, he would rescue her from whatever the danger might be, and take her off to the pretty pink church where they would in due course be married. Her parents would be elevated to a high station, thanks to the magnanimousness of Jacuvill and his love for Maria. All of Noepoli would smile upon them and all of the ranking girls of the town would tacitly acknowledge Maria’s superior status, as the lady Jacuvill, the bride of such a noble knight.
And he would whisper to her his love in words poetic and true: "Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare la donna mia..." "So kind and so honest my lady appears to me.”
Not all of Maria's friends were imaginary; nor were they all made of stone. There was Rosa Savino of the flashing eyes and fealess spirit. Also there was Lisabetta Bellafaccia, Maria's best friend since the day that they had been born. Often the three of them would gather by the public fountain, to talk of their day, to plan their tomorrow, to dream of their future.
And there was Lisabetta’s brother, Tanio Bellafaccia. They had grown up in sight of one another’s homes. Tanio was always the clever one, but kindness itself. He would show just the right way to tie a knot or make a reed of grass into a whistle. No one in Noepoli could whistle better than Tanio and none of the other boys could run as fast.
As Tanio grew he took on a saintly expression that hid a fiery soul. The skin on his face was almost golden and the brows above his eyes arched just so and were filled with expression. Tanio by now had the beginnings of a beard, which only partly hid the dimple at the center of his chin. Maria told no one how happy just the sight of Tanio’s large brown eyes made her feel.
How could she? The Bellafaccias were acceptable as friends but she knew, as an unspoken rule, that they could not be more than friends. There was something in the far past that the Fucci and Bellafaccia families remembered that kept them at a cordial arms length.
Until the day that Tanio told Maria about the secret spring.
They were at that time nearing age sixteen—with Tanio a few months older than Maria. He had grown into a strong youth, just under average height but about the same height as Maria herself. They stood, as he said, eye to eye. That is how Tanio stood, that afternoon at the fountain, as they were stopping for a cup of water on the way home.
“This is not as sweet as the secret spring,” Tanio whispered to Maria so that no one else could hear him.
“What spring is that?” Maria asked, curious but at the same time dubious.
“Down in the valley west of town,” Tanio said. “Not far, but it is a wonderful place. Quiet. Filled with strange and beautiful flowers that do not grow anywhere else around here. Such colors! And the water is sweet as honey. You should see it! You should taste that water!
“I have been all over that country, there is no spring there,” Maria replied.
“So I thought, too, but when Nino went astray and I had to bring him back. Then, I stumbled upon it. So now I call it Nino’s Spring in his honor.”
“Show me?” Maria asked.
“Sure, let’s go,” Tanio answered. They scrambled down the side stairways that led the quickest to the outskirts of the town. Halfway down they came across Maria’s father, on his homeward way up the hillside.
“Well, Maria,” Joseph said. Where are you and Tanio off to in such a hurry?”
“When Nino goes missing, Tanio has to look for him,” Maria said quickly. “I said I would help find him.”
Her father nodded. “Go. But do not be late.”
They hurried onward.
“That was quick thinking,” Tanio said when they were out of earshot.
“I knew he would not refuse my lending a hand. He is very fond of Nino.”
“Who isn’t?” Tanio said. “I just hope your father does not run into him around the next corner or we will be summoned back!”
By now they had reached the bottom of the hill. They both laughed and ran on toward the open countryside.
About a mile further they came to the old abandoned farmstead called by the locals the “Fattoria di Mistero”. This was a building long neglected, not large, with gaping windows, crumbed walls and a tumbled in roof. It was set into the hillside, in such a way that the two story house was only a one story house at the back—one could enter above or below. The small barnyard was surrounded by a low stone wall; the small barn adjoined the house, as with all farms of this age in the region. The house was nestled in the hill around it. there were some old trees nearby and all the bushes were overgrown. The “Fattoria di Mistero” must have been a fine, cozy place a century or so ago but no one had lived there as long as anyone could recall.
“The spring of Nino is just here,” Tanio said.
Taking a route that seemed to lead nowhere, Tanio went between the old house and the wall to the barnyard and then between some overgrown hedges. Beyond was a rocky hillside.
“Here take my hand it is dangerous,” Tanio said and without waiting, took Maria’s hand in his own. She felt a little jolt, a kind of a shock, not unpleasant but as if one had been stung by a particularly kindly bee.
What was this? She looked down at Tanio’s hand and noticed it in a way she had not before. The long, articulate fingers, broad nails and the soft brown hair on the back of his hand. It was not a boy’s hand. But a man’s. Maria saw this all in a glance and then she looked up at him. Tanio wore an odd expression. He was still looking at Maria’s hand, as if he had caught some rare songbird. Then he shook his head in the same way a man does to get water to fly away after bathing. It was just a moment, and then he looked her in the eyes and smiled.
“I wondered what your hand felt like. It is soft and warm and very nice.”
Maria smiled. “And yours is strong, so hold on to mine and lets go down the hill together.”
They did and at the bottom there were more bushes. “Watch for snakes,” Tanio said.
“Stop it, Tanio, you are making me afraid,” Maria scolded.
“No need to be, I am here,” and with this, Tanio squeezed her hand. “Besides, they are more afraid of you than you are of them. We made enough of a racket coming down the hill they are all probably half way to Matera by this time!”
“Why would a snake go to Matera, silly?”
Again, the two laughed at their little joke. Just then, they came through the underbrush and all of the sudden were at the spring.
“Oh!” Maria said, “It is beautiful!”
“I told you so,” Tanio agreed. Look at the flowers. Have you ever seen such color outside of a church? And that pool. Well, it is cool and deep and perfect to swim in. I know because I did so only yesterday. We can today too. But first you must taste this water.”
He led her to the source of the spring and letting go of her hands, cupped his together and then brought them up to her lips. Maria took one sip, looked at Tanio and then drank more deeply. “Yes, it is sweet,” she said. Now your turn. And repeating Tanio’s courtesy, she offered him a drink from her own hands. So close together that they could feel each other’s breath and she could smell the musty, leather scent of Tanio, and then he said, “Look, what kind of a bird is that?” He pointed to the treetops away from the pool.
Maria turned and scanned the area where Tanio was pointing. “What bird, I don’t see it?” Maria said.
“Keep looking,” Tanio encouraged her, “He is just there, at the top of that tallest tree.”
Maria did as Tanio said, until she heard a loud splash, behind her. While she had been looking for the bird, Tanio had run to the edge of the pool, shedding his clothing on the way, and dove into the water.
“Come on, we must have a swim!” Tanio yelled neck deep in the water. He disappeared and then surfaced almost at once, turned around and said, “See this is the life! Come on in and swim!”
Maria shook her head.
“Why not? It feels good and it is not so deep. I am standing here in the pool. Look! And he stood so that his chest and shoulders were out of the water. The droplets sparkled against his skin.
“Next time,” Maria said. Now we are almost late and I do not want to arrive at home with my hair wet.”
“What next time?” Tanio said, pouting. “Tomorrow?”
“No, tomorrow is too busy, too full.”
Tanio drew nearer, as if he were about to emerge from the water. She knew that Tanio would be wearing nothing at all so Maria turned away, quickly.
“Put on your things,” Maria said with her back turned. I will wait for you at the farmhouse.” She clambered up the hill and did not look back.
And then outside her window, Maria heard Tanio’s voice:
It was the day the sun's ray had turned pale
with pity for the suffering of his Maker
when I was caught, and I put up no fight,
my lady, for your lovely eyes had bound me.
It seemed no time to be on guard against
Love's blows; therefore, I went my way
secure and fearless—so, all my misfortunes
began in midst of universal woe.
Love found me all disarmed and found the way
was clear to reach my heart down through the eyes
which have become the halls and doors of tears.
It seems to me it did him little honor
to wound me with his arrow in my state
and to you, armed, not show his bow at all.
“Wait, Tanio!” Maria called from inside the house, not yet showing herself at the window.
“Ah, she is there after all!” Tanio said, and began again, “It was the day the sun's ray had turned pale…”
“Yes, yes! I know, Maria answered. “I heard you the first time! I slept, but my heart was awake.”
“What did you think of it?” Tanio said.
“I like the words but I like the speaker better,” Maria replied.
“Good, that makes it all worthwhile!”
“Pinching the book from the Padrone’s library! You don’t think I was saying the words by heart do you?
“You stole the book?” Maria asked, aghast, “He will beat you for sure when he finds out.”
“No, he will not, since he lets me go there and read his books whenever I wish. It will be back on the shelf before he knows anything about it! Here, this is another; it makes me think of you…”
“When Love within her lovely face appears
now and again among the other ladies,
as much as each is less lovely than she
the more I wish, the love within me grows…”
“Stop it, Tanio, the others will hear you!” Maria said, putting her head out the window at last. Tanio could see that she was blushing.
“My love within me grows,” Tanio repeated, with a loud and humorous emphasis on the last word.
“Hush!” Maria hissed. “You had better go now before you embarrass us both!”
“What? Why would we be embarrassed. It is what you do to me, my Maria!”
“Go away Tanio and calm down and leave me alone!”
“For now or for forever?”
“For now, of course. I will see you tomorrow.”
“At the Spring of Nino?”
“No, at the school, as usual.”
“Home and chores and you had better do the same.”
“Not when there is a spring of cool water just waiting for us. Come on, Maria, to the spring. And this time, let us both have a swim!”
“Only if you promise to put that book back and stop all this nonsense at the window. Come to the door like everyone else. No one will turn you away!”
“But at the door there is mama and papa and all the sisters and brothers all looking on with those eyes that say, ‘Maria can’t you do better than that ragamuffin Tanio’?”
“They do not say it! They like you Tanio. But they would like you less if they knew what you were up to right now.”
“But of course they think it. ‘Tanio is plain old Tanio.’ Who are they waiting for, the Crown Prince? I will sock him in the eyes!”
“That is more trouble than it is worth, besides the Crown Prince is a dull fellow and could never find the Spring of Nino. Not even with a map and a guide,” Maria said.
“So much for the Crown Prince!” Tanio whooped.
“Maria, why are you talking out the window?” Mama said, as she came in the room.
“I was telling Tanio about the letter from America,” Maria answered.
“Tanio!” Maria’s mother said, looking out the window. “Stop gawking there and come round to the door. You can hear all about it there.” She closed the shutter and then looked Maria in the eye. “That Tanio is a clever fellow but he will get himself in a lot of trouble one of these days, mark my words.” A moment later there was a rapping on the door and Maria heard her mother welcoming him into the house.
“Sit here, Tanio, and what is that you have?”
“Just a book,” Tanio said, smiling sheepishly and holding it behind him.
“Read me something from it,” Grace requested.
“Sure,” Tanio fingered the pages, rejecting the most passionate verses, until he found something that he though would be passable and draw no offence.
“Oh blessed be the day, the month, the year,
the season and the time, the hour, the instant,
the gracious countryside, the place where I was
struck by those two lovely eyes that bound me…”
“Oh that is pretty fine poetry but too much romance for my ears; I hope you were not filling Maria’s head with that!”
“I see. No wonder she was mooning at you from the window. Let us have done with poetry for today. Put your book away Tanio, before it catches your hand on fire.” She ruffled his hair good-naturedly. “Here, have something to eat; you are skin and bones! Doesn’t your mother feed you? Maria, come and have something to eat with Tanio!” Maria appeared from the other room where she had been listening to it all.
“Now, if you want to read something, try this letter,” Grace said. “From America! Maria’s brother. No, Tanio you eat, Maria will read.”
“My dear family,” Maria began, “all is well for us in America. You would find it to your liking, if a bit strange. The mountains are much the same, but more trees grow on their slopes. The valleys are much the same but the rivers in them are deeper and broader. The weather is much the same but hotter in the summer and colder in the winter, if you can believe it. There are a good many from our town and the towns near by who are here. Some work in the mills making steel. Others on the railroad. Many more are in the mine. It is deep and dark and dangerous but the pay is good—see I am sending you some dollars for yourself. There are no padrones to look over your shoulder in the mine. The bosses do not come down into the mines and the foreman is one of us, from Italy, and a good man, if a bit stupid. So my days pass by without complaint. In a month I earn more than in a year at home. Things here cost more to buy and there are many more things for sale than you can think of. Everyone goes about in streetcars and trains and think nothing of it. Even me! To church and back on the streetcar every Sunday. With our savings we have bought a house. Not a little one either. And we are taking in boarders, so that we can make some extra money, too. All of the men are single, young, greenhorns as we call them. Most are from Neoploi or Cersossimo or Sinese. So you know their people. All is well. Tell those who wonder about America that it is a fine place. The streets are not paved with gold as they say but the freedom is good. Everyone can answer to himself. Kiss the babies and pray for me. Your loving son, Giacomo”
“A good letter, isn’t it?” Maria asked Tanio.
“Very good,” he nodded, “It sounds as if America is a nice place.”
“But far, far away.” Mama said in a small voice.
“People go there and come home again. It happens all the time,” Tanio reassured her.
Maria agreed, “That is what my brother plans to do. Make enough to come home and open up a little barber shop with a dozen shiny new scissors from America.”
“He will do it, too,” Tanio said with conviction.
“Of course he will!” Mama dabbed the corner of her eye with her apron hem. “Here have some more to eat, Tanio; you are a string bean.”
“Mama!” one of the younger children called from outside.
“Momenti” Mama said and went out the door.
As soon as they were alone, Tanio reached out and took Maria’s hand and said, “My love within me grows!”
Maria frowned, then laughed and then ever so swiftly, brought their hands up to her lips and kissed Tanio’s palm.
“See what happens to that love within you now,” she said with a wink.
“Oh, stop, I am in agony!” Tanio answered. Just then, Mama came back inside with one of the smaller children in tow.
“Go home now Tanio, I have to get the supper ready and I need Maria’s help. That is, if you can tear yourself away.”
“I’m going,” said Tanio, “but I don’t like it. Thank you for the food.”
“Thank you for the poetry,” Mama said with a smile. “It is a long time since anyone read poetry to me.”
“Ciao,” Tanio said, and was gone. Maria and her mother began to make the supper.
“We will have to talk with your father this very night and speak with his parents soon,” Mama said when it was just the two of them, talking as if into the mixing bowl. Maria stood by, saying nothing.
“Won’t we, Maria?”
Maria put her hand on her mother’s hand, “Would you, Mama? I like Tanio ever so much.”
“He is a good honest boy and turning into a fine man. I think he will make a good husband,” Mama answered. “And better to have things all settled as they should be, rather than have him appearing who knows when outside the window reading love songs! Love songs are for indoors!”
They both laughed and continued making the supper.
The next day Tanio was not in school, and Maria felt certain that something bad had befallen him. She went to the Bonafaccia house on her way home and inquired after him.
“He is sick in bed,” Nino reported.
“How can it be? He was fine just yesterday?”
“In the night, he came down with a chill—his head is hot but he says he is cold and his joints hurt something awful. Mama said he has to stay in bed.”
“Is your mama here? May I speak with her?”
“Yes, come in,” Nino opened the door for her to pass inside. There, Maria waited. She was certain what Tanio’s mother would tell her, but she did not want to hear it.
“Malaria.” The dreaded word.
“But you must let me see him,” Maria insisted. “Our fathers were to talk together this very day!”
“Yes, Maria, I know. Alright, but do not stand too close and do not stay too long.” And then in a louder voice she called out, “Tanio! Maria is here to see you.” Then, very quietly, to Maria, she continued, “Here, see if you can get him to during some water,” she handed Maria the pitcher.
“Tanio, I came to go to the spring with you,” Maria said brightly.
“Not today Maria, I am sorry,” Tanio answered.
“So am I. I was looking forward to swimming with you.”
“Of course. Our fathers are to talk together today.”
“Yes, I am glad.”
“So you need to get well, as soon as you can, so there is more poetry and more swimming.”
“I will try.”
“Do you promise me, Tanio?”
“Yes, I promise.”
“Good, because I will not be satisfied until we have our swim.”
“How will we do it, I wonder?” Tanio asked in a whisper.
“Just as the day before yesterday. I will look for birds and you will get in the water. Then you will look for birds and I will get in the water.”
“And when we get out?” Tanio asked with a sort of slyness.
“Oh, more bird watching of course!”
“These birds are getting a bit tiresome, if you ask me,” Tanio grumbled.
“For now, we have to watch the birds.”
“Read me something,” Tanio said. He pointed to a shelf on which there was the famous book.
“You did not take it back?”
“No, how could I, I got so sick. Read something for me.” Maria turned the pages until she found this passage:
“Go into my lonely room with me
And stay a long time,
And I first will be her child
And she will lend me her bright crown
To hold and sing strange cradle songs
And lull the lonely pain
Then she will be my bride.”
“My Maria,” Tanio sighed. “I feel that way. Do you?”
“Oh yes, Tanio, and I will stay a long time and you can be my child until you are well and then, we can be married as our families have been planning.” She stroked his forehead. “But you are so hot! Here, have something cool.” She poured some water on a cloth and put it on his head.
“Better,” Tanio said.
“Now have something to drink, too,” Maria said.
“No, I don’t want anything now.”
“But you must, to cool off. Here. Sit up.” He did as she asked. “Now, you do the pouring and I will be the cup just like at the spring.” Tanio poured some water into her cupped hands and then drank from them. When he had finished, he took Maria’s hands with his own and cupped them on his face. The softness of his beard felt so good against them. Maria held her breath.
“This is good,” Tanio said. He lay back against the bed. “I have dreamed about your hands on my face all day long and now here they are. Just as I dreamed.”
“Tanio?” Maria asked. But he was asleep. She tiptoed out to the kitchen and told his mother that he had drunk and was resting at last. “I will come again after supper,” she promised. Tanio’s mother nodded. She hugged her friend Lisabetta, who looked at her tenderly. How like a sister Lisabetta had always been, and one day would be, Maria thought. And then she went to her own home.
The fathers had done as promised and from their point of view all was arranged, settled. But with Tanio so ill, they thought they had better keep it just between the two families for the time being. Maria agreed.
The next several days passed slowly. Maria fretted whenever she was not with Tanio. When she was with him, she was both less and more agitated. Sometimes it seemed as if he was almost well. At other times, the look of his sunken eyes made her frightened. But she did her best to look calm and bring him joy.
Then came the evening when, after supper, she hurried back to the Bonafaccia’s home and was greeted with long faces.
“Nino is sick, too,” Tanio’s mother said. It is just as bad as with Tanio. I have put them in the same room so we can care for them together. Besides, Nino loves Tanio so, it will do him good to see his brother’s face.”
Both Tanio and Nino were asleep. Nino looked flushed and pink. But Tanio was pale in the candlelight. His eyes had dark circles. Even so, he looked like an angel, with his lips slightly parted. Maria bent down and kissed them. Tanio stirred and awakened.
“Maria, are you really here?”
“Yes, Tanio, and I will be till it is time to sleep. How are you feeling?”
“As well as can be expected.”
“What do you mean?”
“I know that I have malaria. That is bad. And now Nino has it too. I am sure it came from our being at the spring that first time. Not the time you were with me. We both swam. It was dusk. When we got out of the water there were mosquitoes everywhere. We had to grab our clothes and run to get away, swatting at them all the way. We didn’t dress till we got to the old farmhouse. But then we were both stung all over and bleeding.
“Why didn’t you tell me all this before?”
“I forgot about it when the bites healed. But now…”
“Now I remember.” Tanio gazed into her eyes. “What an idiot I was to take you there!”
“Nonsense, I am fine and you will be fine too. It is a beautiful place and I will never forget that you took me there and gave me the sweet spring water and swam about like a fish for me. All of it, all of it is a great treasure for my heart.”
“But you could have been bitten too!”
“I don’t think I was. It must have been the time of day. There were no mosquitoes about when I was there with you. The only sting I felt was the sting of love when you took my hand in yours.”
For several more days, Maria came and cared for Tanio, and Nino as well. On the seventh day, she could see that Tanio was much worse. He had turned his head toward the window, looking out onto the sky. The light fell softly over him and made his skin look translucent. Again, Maria made a cold compress for his head and again she let him drink the water from her hands. But try as he might, Tanio was not able to stay awake long. All the while, Nino slept, too. So after watching her beloved sleeping, Maria quietly slipped out of the room and went home.
Sometime deep in the night Maria awakened to the sound of wailing. She stumbled out of bed and found herself in the front room with her parents. Mama was crying, and father looked ashen faced.
“Oh my poor child how can I tell you this sad news?” Maria read it in his eyes.
“Tanio? Not Tanio, Papa!”
“I am sorry my little one, but dear Tanio is with the angels.”
“Nooooooooooooo!” Maria screamed. She beat her fists against her father’s chest as he held her. And then she dissolved into sobs.
They sat there in the dark for some time, mother and daughter both wailing and the father stony silent.
“Tell me that it is not so, Papa,” Maria said at last.
“I wish I could. I wish I could change this so it never happened. Soon after you left he slipped into a deep sleep. He never awakened again.”
Maria gasped, as if taking it in for the first time, “Tanio! Dead?”
“Yes, and Nino is worse, too.”
“Nino is worse?”
“The course of the disease is going much faster with him now. The doctor says it is only a matter of a few hours at the most.”
“But I must go to them,” Maria said. She dressed quickly and went on the familiar pathway once again, but this time she was not hurrying to meet a playmate, but to see if it were true. That Tanio was truly dead.
When she arrived at the door, the whole family fell on her. “Tanio and Nino! My boys are gone!” This was all the grieving father could manage. And so Nino was with the angels, as well. They all cried together. Then Lisabetta led Maria to the death room.
“We must wash the body before burial.”
So Maria joined with the woman that would have been her mother-in-law and the girls who would have been her sisters-in-law. They gently removed all of Tanio’s clothes and set them aside. Tanio’s body lay before them, exposed, cold and white, yet still with the reminder of liveliness and life. Then with a cool sponge they washed him from head to toe.
“Look at these hands,” Lisabetta said to Maria. “Have you ever seen anything so fine?” She placed one of them in Maria’s. “Hold on to it one more time. Wash it with tenderness and care. He would have made you very happy.”
As they spoke, they washed every part of Tanio’s body, in turn. Then they dressed him in a new shirt and drew up a clean sheet over his body.
“We have done all we can do for Tanio. Now for Nino.” And the mother and sisters turned to do the same. But Lisabetta turned to her friend and said,
“Maria, you have blessed the living and the dead but you may go home now. You are my own dear sister, and we love you very much.”
The reader is invited to check this blog often to be able to read the next chapters as they are posted.
The church was thronged with the mourners, shoulder to shoulder – for Tanio and for Nino. There are always more to mourn when the dead are young. Besides, they had prolific relatives.
The church’s nave was a marvelous mix of high baroque artistry and simple folk art; with many places to draw the eye. Familiar to the mourners, it was so colorful and old. A great fresco over the sacristy was half moldered away and half intact, the portion that remained looked quite stunning, and as if it had escaped from some museum. Before it, Nino and Tanio lay in their open caskets, side by side, encircled by flowers.
The mass was long with many "amens", much sprinkling of holy water, and flamboyant swinging of the smoking censer. When it was over, Maria and all the others filed solemnly out of the church.
There, the mourners stood, waiting until the coffins were brought out of the church, carried by the pallbearers, Maria and Tanio’s fathers and brothers and uncles and cousins among them. Out of the church and placed onto the carts that would bear them away.
So Tanio was carried forth, his flowers following close behind him. As the mourners waited, all of the flowers were placed over his coffin and over Nino’s coffin, until there were so many that some slid off onto the pavement and were left there to wilt. And then the carts moved down the lane as everyone followed, to the cemetery.
At that, each mourner moved forward with the procession. They walked slowly, most of them crying softly upon this solemn occasion. All of the wailing and lamenting which had begun at the time of the death was, as everyone knew, forbidden during the procession, because the souls of the dead might hear the pleading and thereby lose their way. As they started out, Maria heard one of the mourners say under his breath, the old proverb, "After the game, the king and the pawn go back in the same box".
It was a long way. Maria saw the Padrone himself among those who walked with a dignity due the dead. In the place of honor, the Padrone walked, just behind the biers. A small band played dreadfully doleful music, on instruments completely unknown outside the region, that is, the organetto, zampogna, cupa-cupa, ciaramella and surdillina.
And then they arrived at the cemetery, ringed by the mountains, with the dark pines, the "Pino Loricato”, and the ancient olive trees clustered round, the many graves, above ground and of dressed stone, finer made than the homes of the living, were these many mansions of the dead.
So often, thought Maria, we lavish more expense and attention on the dead than on the living.
Lisabetta must have been thinking much the same thing. As the proceedings neared their close, she slipped her arm into Maria’s and whispered, “It seems wrong, somehow, to do all of this for them, now, when they cannot see or hear or know it.
Maria nodded, just as the interment service concluded. She then answered gently, “I remind myself that a whole lifetime of expense and attention for our dear Tanio and Nino has to be compressed into these few hours. So perhaps it is right, after all.”
They turned, still arm in arm, and began making their way out of the cemetery. As they did so, the Padrone, with a courtly gesture, bowed to them both, and then looking at Lisabetta, said, “My deepest sympathy on this sad, sad, loss of your dear brothers. It is all too much; the ways of the good Lord are beyond my understanding when such as these are called to heaven before their time.”
How surprising that the Padrone should speak to them, Maria thought. And of a subject so close to his own heavy sorrow of many years standing, which they now shared in their bitter loss. Maria had heard whispers of the story only. In his youth, the Padrone had been much beloved; he was a friend to all the townspeople—and much admired for his wit and style. “He brought life to every festival,” she recalled her mother’s way of describing the man who was almost as mysterious as the moon to the younger people. For, when he was a young man, not long married, both his wife and son had died under tragic circumstances. Thereafter, the Padrone had kept himself apart from the people of Noepoli. Indeed, from all the world.
His was a compelling, perfectly oval face, with a grand forehead and a jaw that exhibited strength of purpose. The mouth, nearly lipless, drooped down slightly at each side, not so much as to give an air of disapproval as a tone of discernment. The hair, though grey was not yet white; it had receded over the years, perhaps from severe brushing and plastering with pomata for decades.
Lisabetta thanked the Padrone quietly. He then turned to Maria.
“My dear young lady,” the Padrone said, “Tanio spoke much of you when he came to read the books in my library. I dare say not a day went by that he did not tell me some little tale about what you did or wore or said. It was clear that he loved you very much. As I am sure you have loved him. This will be a heavy sadness, but with every unfolding day, you must allow the love to be stronger than the sadness. “
“I shall try,” Marie promised. By now they had come to the gate leading out of the cemetery.
“Good. Good. That is good,” the Padrone said with a nod, as he rested one gloved hand on the stone gatepost. “You must both come to see me this week. I am an old man and see so few young people. If you are able, do try. The two of you, with your fathers’ permission, naturally.”
The girls said that they would do their best to honor his kind invitation. Then the old gentleman nodded and walked off in the direction of his home, the Palazzo Rinaldi.
“He really is a kindly man,” Lisabetta observed.
“Yes,” Maria agreed. “Tanio loved him too. We should have told him that. I think it would have done his heart good.”
“We shall tell it to him when we visit,” Lisabetta suggested.
“What better?” agreed Maria. And together they resolved to make plans to call upon the Padrone.
“What have you girls been saying to the Padrone?” asked Maria’s Mama, as both her parents and Lisabetta’s drew up alongside them. They told their families of the great kindness the Padrone had showed them and about his invitation as well.
“This is a rare thing indeed,” Joseph said, upon hearing it. “For the Padrone to ask anyone to come and see him.”
Lisabetta’s father agreed, “The Padrone is practically a hermit in that old palace. Ever since his great tragedy. No one visits him. Except for our own Tanio. Somehow that boy charmed the old man from the start.”
“Is it alright then for us to visit him?” asked Maria.
“Under the circumstances, it would be a terrible thing for you not to,” Joseph observed. And so it was arranged. Naturally, the details were in the Padrone’s hand.
On the following Tuesday afternoon, Lisabetta and Maria presented themselves at the Palazzo Rinaldi “for tea” as the invitation had evolved.
They came to the palazzo filled with curiosity and some sense of awe as well as respect. No one visited the Palazzo Rinaldi in these days, nor had visited there for many years. Yes, the façade of the palace was familiar to Maria, as it was to all the townspeople. And perhaps she could claim a deeper kinship with it, having shared her inmost dreams with the friends she had made of the stone carved faces upon it.
“Grazie and “Lucia” smiled down upon her now, as she approached the palazzo. If they could only talk, they might assure her or bring some comfort. Maria listened. They kept silent as she and Lisabetta entered through the grand old doorway.
They were led into the salon of the palazzo, a room of no small distinction, by a solemn butler. The cool floors of the salon were travertine; the walls of a pale bisque colored plaster. Here and there were tall windows, deep set in the walls, with many panes of ancient glass, all of which were covered with curtains of the most delicate lace. The bright light was thereby diffused and made golden.
The salon was tall, and near the tops of the walls clerestory window provided more light, which allowed the visitors to see the ancient wooden beams to great advantage.
The walls were adorned with sculpted plaster frames, surrounded by leafy designs, which were painted a crisp white and thus stood out from their coral background. Inset within these were portraits of the ancestors of the Padrone, men and women whose memorialized stern faces peered out from backgrounds of umber and grey. Overhead was suspended a fantastic double tiered Venetian chandelier, though no candles were lighted.
The room was furnished sparingly. By the carved stone fireplace stood a matched set of two chairs and a divan, upholstered in golden mohair, with arms that rose upward to form something like wings. And at the top of the backs of each chair, the carved mahogany frames were embellished with the traditional masks of comedy and tragedy, the mouths of the masks being holes that had been carved straight through the wood, like the mouth of a jack-o-lantern.
The only other furniture in the room was an Erard grand piano, made of some fine light colored wood with marquetry flowers and ormolu mounts. If the two girls had been mystically transported to the Alhambra or the Papal Apartments, they could not have been more astonished.
The Padrone entered and greeted them warmly, “It is good of you to come to see an old man in his solitude.”
“We are glad to do so,” said Lisabetta, “You have done us a great kindness to invite us.”
“Yes,” agreed Maria. “And we have this love from Tanio that we share. He loved you very much, and praised you often.”
The Padrone nodded almost imperceptibly and then said, “I thought we would have tea here, in this room and then I would show you the library which was the favorite place of Tanio.”
To this, they agreed.
Then, tea was wheeled in on a gilded cart. There were delicate cups and lacy napkins and dainty tea cakes arranged with care. The woman who served them was not unfamiliar to Maria and Lisabetta. A distant relation to the Padrone, Marginalia Pericoloso was tall and gangly, and while she was not more than six or seven years older than Lisabetta and Maria, she seemed all elbows and knees and terribly out of place in the fine old room. She smiled at the girls, but the smile did not evoke warmth. It was like the smile of some cornered animal. Having served the tea, Marginalia departed.
As Marginalia disappeared out of the salon, under his breath, as if to himself, the Padrone said, “Le ragazze basse per marito, le alte per raccogliere i fichi,” which means, "The short girls for marriage, the tall to collect the figs."
Utterly surprised by this, Lisabetta snickered in spite of herself. Maria smiled inwardly as well, but bit her tongue to maintain her composure. The Padrone saw that both were amused, and laughed heartily. It was the first time either girl had seen such merriment upon his face.
“I am neither tall nor short,” Maria said, quietly, “so I wonder which will it be for me, marriage or figs?”
“These things the good Lord will show us in time,” said the Padrone. “Now tell me about your days, dear girls, as we enjoy our tea.”
They talked of many things, of their schooling, which was nearing its end, of their families and of course of Tanio and Nino. Maria told of her brother Giacomo’s letters from America. When they had finished their refreshments, the Padrone said, “Let us go into the library where you can see the place that charmed Tanio so.”
It was a short distance away, just through an anteroom and around a corner. The library was as one might expect, lined with bookshelves on most of the four walls, from ceiling to floor. A large table, covered in a Turkish carpet, and two deep armchairs stood with their backs to the tall windows, in the center of the room, facing the table and beyond it was another carved mantelpiece, a twin to the one in the salon. Above the fireplace was a portrait unlike those in the salon. Here was a beautiful woman in a gorgeous ball gown, filled with life and movement, signed with a flourish in one corner, “Boldini”.
The painting gave Maria a start. Not because of the contrast with the others in the salon, but rather, because it seemed as if she were looking at her own features when she gazed upon its face.
Maria gasped audibly. The Padrone looked at her with gentle eyes, “You see it too?” he asked her. Maria nodded.
“I was uncertain at first,” the Padrone confided. “So many years had passed. I thought perhaps it was wishful thinking on my part. But now that I see you in this room, standing before this cherished image, I am quite certain.”
“The two are much alike,” agreed Lisabetta, looking back and forth between the Boldini portrait and the face of her friend. “The eyes have that same dancing light; the cheeks, the same rosiness. There is much about the brow and chin that are the same. And the mouth of the portrait looks as if it is about to greet me in the familiar voice of Maria Fucci. Who is this woman? Is it as if they are one and the same, or sisters, at the very least.”
“That is what I first thought, as well,” said the Padrone. “No, but that cannot be, for my own dear Francesca, my lamented wife whom you see there, came to us from afar, from the chilly north of Italy, along the shores of the Lago de Como. There, she was born. There she was raised. There, I met her when I was just eighteen. She had never been far from her home in Cadenabbia. O, across the lake of course, to Bellagio. And once or twice as far as Como itself. But never beyond it, until I knew her. She was married in the little church in Cadenabbia, amid the scent of freshly cut oleander. Francesca never set foot in Noepoli until I brought her home to the Palazzo Rinaldi as my wife, at the conclusion of our honeymoon journey.”
“So this uncanny resemblance, it is a pure coincidence,” said Maria.
The Padrone shook his head, “I have never known the good Lord to deal in coincidences, Maria. It is more than that, I am sure.” He continued as if he were in church, as if he were praying a solemn prayer. “I believe that the Lord has permitted Francesca to send you as a kind of ministering angel, as a reminder of what once was, and as an encouragement to me, not to grieve as bitterly as I have done all these years.”
All three of them fell silent for a time. How long, none could say. And then the Padrone took from a bookshelf a velvet bound hinged picture frame.
“I hesitate to share this, for it may be another surprise and one too great to bear. Please, dear girl, be seated, and you as well Miss Lisabetta. And now, if you will, open it and look at the photographs there.”
Maria did as the Padrone requested, and upon opening the frame, which was mad like a small book, therein found two photographs, one of the woman of the portrait, and the other of Tanio.
“Here is your Francesca once more. And how dear Tanio’s face is to me,” Maria said, as she traced it through the glass. She was touched. Her heart was full to overflowing that the Padrone would cherish Tanio in so intimate a way. She looked at him and saw that there were tears in his eyes. “You are so good to keep his photo next to the one who claims your heart so completely.”
“You must believe me,” said the Patron. “You are not looking at Tanio, any more than you are looking at yourself. The boy in the photograph is my own son, who perished with his mother so long ago.”
“This is too much to comprehend,” Lisabetta said, as she strained to look at the photographs. “Can that not be Tanio? Do I not know my own brother?”
But Maria spoke in a whole new way, “Yes, I see. I see it is not Tanio. His clothes were never this fine, and these are of a style no one wears any longer. Also, this boy has a slight scar on his cheek—see here? As if some sharp thing had cut him there. At first I thought it was a scratch on the glass, but it is on his face itself. Tanio never bore such a mark, Lisabetta. This is not our Tanio.”
“My head is all dizzy,” Lisabetta said. “I understand these things less and less.”
“We must be dreaming,” Maria agreed. She turned to ask the Padrone, “You say this is your son?”
“I pledge you my word, this is a photograph of Domenico Rinaldi, my only son, taken less than a year before his tragic end.”
Then the Padrone told them the story of the disaster that had befallen his wife and son.
“I have not spoken of this in years, but it is with me every day,” he began. “In those days, I was often called to Vienna, on business. That time, as in some other times, I took Francesca and Domenico with me. We decided to combine business with pleasure, and so had arranged to stay at a hotel and to see a few entertainments. It was a few weeks before Christmas and we were all in a festive mood.
“We thought it a special treat to attend the second night’s performance of Jacques Offenbach’s opera "Les Contes d’Hoffmann”, which was already proving to be popular with a sophisticated audience, as well as being whistled about the city by trades people. By any standards, the Ring Theater was luxurious, an ornate place that hosted the most popular performances of the day.
“According to the custom of the time, it was fashionable to arrive at the very last moment and to sit up front, near the stage. We did not arrive until about 6:45 p.m. What happened next is hard to believe and painful to tell. One of the stagehands was using a long-arm igniter to light the row of gas lights above the stage. He inadvertently set fire to some prop clouds that were hanging over the stage.
“Flames soon caught the stage curtain ablaze. Quick thinking might have prevented the tragedy even then, had the management lowered the fire curtain. But instead they shut off the gas, which meant the theater was plunged into darkness save for the flames.
“The balconies became clogged, the exits were jammed. In a panic, people began jumping from the balconies. This was how my Francesca and Domenico died, as the poor frightened souls from overhead came plunging down upon them, killing themselves, as they also crushed my dear ones to death, instantly. I was right beside them, and it was only by chance that I remained among the living.
“About this time, nets were brought in. This allowed people to jump from the balconies in safety. I suppose as many as one hundred who jumped were saved. But for Domenico and Francesca and hundreds of others, it was too little, too late.
“Just then, the Austrian royal family, who had planned to come to the performance, arrived. There they stood, as the disaster was ending. The newlyweds, Crown Prince Rudolf and Crown Princess Stefanie were overcome with tears, weeping with us, over the hundreds of the dead.”
The girls sat silent and motionless.
“I went to Vienna a young and happy father and husband,” the Padrone said. “I returned to Noepoli empty and alone.” He reached out and took the photographs from Maria’s hands. “Now, you see why I was so fond of Tanio. From his first days, he reminded me of Domenico. And after he was older and came here often to read and told me of his love for you Maria, I made it a point to see who you were. As it happened, you were the young lady who had as a little girl, stood often outside the palazzo, gazing up at the carvings on the wall, as if you could hear what they were saying. And the young lady who grew to be so like Francesca. You can imagine my astonishment to find not one, but two young people who are so much like my perished family.”
And still, neither girl could say a word.
“You must pardon me for speaking of these things,” the Padrone said. “I do not do so to increase your sorrow, nor to sooth my own, but rather to explain to you why I sense there is a bond between us that traces beyond time. This is why I was first so fond of Tanio, but as I got to know him, I learned to love him for himself, as all who knew him did.”
“You have told us such astonishing things,” Maria said. “Frightening. Terrible. But they are also deeply wonderful in their way.”
“Yes, somehow I knew that you would feel that way.”
Maria felt that she must say something else, and so, took from her purse a book, “This, honored Padrone, is your own book. Tanio was reading from it when he fell ill. I thought it best to return it to you, as he intended to do, before the malaria overtook his life.”
“Ah, Francesco Petrarca,” the Padrone said. “Tanio had good taste in reading. I could always find him with something worthwhile in his hands.” He took the book and carefully placed it on the shelf, among many volumes, in its rightful place.
“Is there something more you wish of me”? A voice came from the doorway to the anteroom. It made the girls jump and the Padrone himself scowl. There in the door stood Marginalia Pericoloso, with her arms akimbo, as if she had come to scold them all. “The tea things have all been cleared away.” Maria wondered just how long the woman had been standing there, and how much she had heard.
“No, no, Marginalia,” answered the Padrone somewhat vaguely. “You may go home whenever you wish.”
* * *
It was some way to the small home of Briccone and Marginalia Pericoloso. The home of the Percolosos was scarcely that. A hovel really. Just two rooms that seemed more cave than house and this was exactly the case. The front room had been added on, at some time long before, to an ancient cave carved right into the living rock of the hillside. There were no windows to this dwelling, just a door that when opened during the daytime allowed some light to find its way into the front room, where Marginalia and Briccone took their meals. No natural light ever found its way into the back room, where they slept amid the rough hewn walls.
Briccone was already at home when Marginalia arrived there. She began making preparations for their evening meal, a simple dish of crusty bread crumbled over pasta with a few seasonings from herbs that she had secreted into her apron as she left the palazzo. To this, at the last minute, she added some shaved cheese and sausage, both of which were also courtesy of the larder of her employer.
Briccone grunted his approval as he downed the meal quickly.
“What do you think?” Marginalia said, as she saw him return to a more civil mood. “The Padrone had company today.”
Briccone put down his fork and stared at her as if she had said she had flown home from Noepoli on a broomstick.
“Company,” he scowled, “the Padrone never has company. The closest thing to it was that scamp Tanio we are now well rid of. So, what is all this about?”
“Tanio’s sister and Tanio’s betrothed,” Marginalia cooed. “They came for tea at the Padrone’s invitation.”
“This sounds like trouble,” Briccone said.
“That’s what I thought, too.” Marginalia cleared away the plate and set before her husband a pipe and his tobacco pouch. He rummaged in it till the pipe was filled and lighted and then she went on.
“So I listened at the doorway and you will be surprised at what I heard.”
She swiftly related all the details of the conversation between the Padrone and Maria and Lisabetta, for if the truth be told, Marginalia missed nothing that occurred at the Palazzo Rinaldi. There was a reason for this. If one were to track the linage of Marginalia back far enough, say three generations, one would find the name Rinaldi there, a younger son of a younger son, but still a Rinaldi. And because the older son of the older son tracked down to the Padrone himself, and because there were few other branches to be found by even the most scrumptious genealogists, the fact remained that Marginalia was the Padrone’s next living relative and presumptive heir. Everything that occurred at the Palazzo Rinaldi, was therefore of the deepest personal interest to Marginalia and to Briccone Pericoloso.
“We will have to keep a sharp eye on this,” Briccone said.
“Trust me,” Marginalia replied, “I will miss nothing.”
She did however miss the remaining conversation between the Padrone and his visitors. The Padrone asked them both to return the following week for tea. And to make this a weekly event. Lisabetta and Maria agreed.
The following Tuesday, they presented themselves as before. Again, the door was opened by the butler who took them to the salon. There, the Padrone greeted them warmly and again they shared the tea and cakes as they chatted together. The Padrone seemed infinitely interested in the small doings of their lives. Near the end of the visit, the Padrone was called away; something having to do with a message that had arrived. After a few minutes, Marginalia came into the salon.
“The Padrone begs your forgiveness but important business makes it impossible for him to return. He wishes to say he will see you next Tuesday for tea.” The girls were surprised by this, but made their way homeward.
“I wonder what it could have been to take him away like that?” Maria said.
“It must have been something very good or very bad,” Lisabetta replied.
The next Tuesday they came again to the Palazzo Rinaldi. Again they had tea. This time Maria brought along a letter from Giacomo, which she read aloud to the Padrone.
“I hope you will consider this, my family,” he had written. “Our house is now so filled with the borders, these men who work in the mine and in the mill, that Rosa is kept busy from dawn to midnight. If you would see fit to send Maria to us, she would have the benefit of a good life in America and also help us in our work here.”
The letter ended with a promise to pay for Maria’s passage to America, if all were in agreement about this plan.
“What do you think of it?” the Padrone asked her.
“The idea never occurred to me,” Maria confided. “Now that it has been proposed, I am of two minds about it. The thought of going to America seems exciting and frightening all at once. I have never pictured myself there. Nor did I think that I would end up being a maid in my brother’s house. But worse things could happen. Here, I have no real prospects except to marry and there is no one I am inclined to consider as a husband. So the idea is gaining weight with me.”
“You would miss your family here, of course,” Lisabetta said.
“And you most of all,” Maria relied. “And you, dear Padrone.”
The next several weeks passed uneventfully but on the third week, Maria had a strange experience which made her wonder just what was happening in her small world. She had been to visit her Aunt Gostanza in Sinese and was on her way home again when a man she did not know came walking in the other direction toward her.
It was a particularly desolate stretch of the road, out of sight of any farmhouse, where the road followed the mountainous terrain, hugging the slope, so that to Maria’s right the land fell away into a deep valley and to her left, it rose sharply toward a very high summit. As the stranger came closer, she felt a kind of terror inside of her that was unexplainable. Truly, her only choice was to move forward or to retrace her steps.
She decided to move along the road and beyond as quickly as she could, looking at the path instead of at the man, or off in a distance. Anything but to look in to his face. This, plan seemed to be working well, as they were about to pass one another, each going in their own direction when the man suddenly gave a stifled cry, stumbled and fell to the ground.
The man did not move. It was as if he had died right there. He lay face downward in the dirt of the road. But as she looked Maria could see from the rise and fall of his shoulders that he was still breathing in and out. So he was not dead. Perhaps unconscious. Maybe this was a fit of some kind. Epilepsy? No matter. It was not wise to try to intervene here. If she went on to the next farm, she could tell someone there to go and find the man.
So Maria maintained her distance and while keeping an eye on the man, she resumed her pace, toward Noepoli.
She had just about rounded the hillside to the spot where the fallen stranger would be no longer visible. Then out of nowhere a voice cried out loudly and with malice, “Beware! Stay away from the Padrone! He means you harm! Never go to the Palazzo again!”
Maria sensed that the warning was coming from the man in the road, but he was still lying there as if unable to rise. She rounded the hillside and then as soon as she was out of sight of him, Maria began to run. She ran most of the way back to Noepoli, at least till she came close to where there were houses of people she knew.
Slowing down, she looked back for the first time, and assured herself that no one was on the road behind her. Panting and overheated, Maria longed to stop and rest, but she feared that the stranger and the evil voice might catch up with her. So she walked onward feeling the pounding of her heart with every step.
By now, she was between several larger land holdings and was drawing near the abandoned farmhouse, behind which was the Spring of Nino. Maria had not been there since Tanio had shown it to her, but she thought that if she were just to make her way through the bushes and to the other side, she could drink some of the cool water and rest herself there in the spot that was hidden from the road. This, she did.
The secret spring was just as she remembered it. Maria was careful to look about for snakes and for mosquitoes as well. None were to be seen. So she went to the edge of the spring and drank some of the water. It was cold and sweet. She placed both of her wrists under the flowing stream and allowed the coolness to calm her. All was quiet and still.
“O Tanio,” Maria thought to herself as she rested there, “where are you when I need you more than ever? Will you go with me and watch over me as I make my way home?”
Feeling herself refreshed, she stood and quietly went as far as where the bushes hid the stream from the road. She looked through them, keeping under cover as much as possible. There was no one about. Maria parted the branches and walked toward the road. Just as she reached it a chilling sound broke the stillness.
“Beware! Stay away from the Padrone!” It was the same frightening voice—coming from inside the abandoned farmhouse! “He means you harm!” It threatened. “Never go to the Palazzo again!”
In sheer terror, Maria ran again, ran as if for her life, as fast as she could, until she reached the stairway that would lead her up into Noepoli. As for mentioning that the man in the road had fallen, and might need help, the whole idea had gone out of her head and never returned. Instead a new idea had formed there. The idea that here she would be forever wondering what dire voice, what tragic event waited around the next turning. To Maria, Noepoli had become an exclaimation point of shock upon shock. America was a question mark, but one that at least held some measure of hopefulness.
And so it was, that evening Maria told her parents that she would go to America as her brother and sister-in-law had suggested.
The reader is invited to check this blog often to be able to read the next chapters as they are posted.
And so it was, Maria prepared to go to America. As she left Neopoli, her thoughts of parting turned to every scene that met her eye. What a farewell it was, to look no more on these mountains that soar against the clouds; these rugged and majestic crests. Maria knew them in every light—every season. And they knew her, too, their creases and folds were as familiar as the smiles and frowns of her family.
How to say farewell to quiet streams, whose whispering sounds Maria could recognize with her eyes shut, just as she knew the sounds of the voices of her dearest friend, Lisabetta? How to part with the narrow yellow, white and pink houses that tumbled over the countryside, like the goats of the pastures? How to say goodbye to the familiar carved stone faces of Lucia and Grazie and the heroic form of J'vill? How to part with the memory of the promised love of Tanio Bellafaccia, and their quiet covenants of the rustic farmhouse?
Yes, this was the time for farewell! Up until this day, the thought of the new adventure had meant a lither step, but now, the day was upon her. And so with a cumbersome slowness she went through the motions of leave-taking.
Even though Maria was going of her own free will, to seek her way, to find that dream of happiness that beckoned from America, she wondered at her own ability to have made this resolve to leave.
They descended from Neopoli and with every turning of the road, Maria looked back and thought of calling out to stop, to return, to put this idea out of her mind. To stay—what would it mean? That her sister would go in her place? That she would be the spinster sister ever consigned to care for her aging parents, year upon year, until she became old and frail and alone?
Maria told herself that she would go now. But not forever. She would come back when she had made her fortune in the new world. Others had done it, so could she. Return with stores and provisions that would last a long time and stories and money that would bring the admiration of the town. Then, no threatening voice could frighten her.
As they rose from the Sinni valley, Maria resolved to look forward instead. To see what would appear. What the world would show her, if she paid attention. In another mile or so they would go beyond the stolid house of Nazarie Pignola, “Il Tiranno”, and then, beyond the furthest limit of her life’s experience. From there, all would be new and if she would see it though hopeful eyes, all of it could be hers.
Home is where the heart is, they say. What did it mean, this "Mogli e buoi, paesi tuoi"? Home is where the heart is, so of course Maria would set her heart on what lay ahead not what was left behind.
The decision to go was hard, but saying farewell was harder still. Maria had spent one last tea time with Lisabetta at the Padrone’s. She could not keep it from this dear friend and in fact told him the moment that she and Lisabetta arrived at the palazzo. They had only entered the salon and the tea things were not yet there. The Padrone became close to tears when she told him of her decision.
“I will send you off with many heartfelt prayers and many good wishes for your new life in America,” the Padrone had told her, “and I would not do anything to dissuade you from your chosen course. You seem resolved to go, so we, your dear friends in Noepoli, must be resigned to see you go. But are you certain, my dear Maria?”
She hesitated before answering, “Yes, dear Padrone, I am certain. While so many I love are here, you will understand when I say that everything I see reminds me of Tanio. How he would dance the pastorale and the tarantella. I look at the view from the piazza and think of when Tanio would talk with me there. I stop at the fountain and remember conversations with Tanio there. I cannot ever enjoy the carnival; since I will look for Tanio's face behind every mask. And how can I bear the feast of S. Antonio, when I will think always of Tanio as he climbed up the fir-tree to win the prize. The streets he walked and the houses that he once looked upon will see him no longer but they all remind me of the one who is no longer there.”
The Padrone nodded; he understood her feelings. “I had hoped that over time and with the love of friends such as we who are with you now, these feelings might have become tender instead of sorrowful memories.”
And Lisabetta said much the same. But it was no use. As for the other, terrifying experience on the way home from visiting her aunt, Maria had not told a soul.
“Here is the tea,” said a brusque voice, as Marginalia wheeled in the cart. She said it brightly, as if she were in a very happy mood. “Look, I found special cakes at the baker’s today. And in honor of Maria’s decision I have placed little American flags here and there on them.”
The three shared the tea together, not in a festive mood, but rather a muted one. It was not until she had returned home that Maria wondered to herself how Marginalia had known to buy the special cakes, and the American flags.
Before she made her farewells to the Padrone, he handed her a small package, wrapped in a silk scarf and tied with a ribbon.
“This you must take with you to America, and open it when you have arrived there safely,” he said as he presented it to her. “Promise me that and promise that you will let us know in letters how things go with you.”
Maria made the promise and took the gift with a solemn gratitude, and thougth of it as she continued on her journey. It was packed safely away for the long trip ahead of her.
* * *
As the little party advanced over the countryside, they looked not at the view around them, with its vast uniformity. They paid more attention to each other, as they spoke of everyday inconsequentials. Yet, they sensed this would be a parting of long duration.
So even the air they were breathing seemed heavy to then. They were in turn sad and preoccupied. They leaned against each other, as one road led to the next.
Maria was prone to wave upon wave of an uneasy longing, for the dear house that was her home, for the table around which the family took their meals, for the view from the window near her bed, with its glimpse of mountain and sky. And every sound from the horse’s hoof seemed to say, “Farewell to your father's house, your mother’s smile, your sisters’ secrets, and your brothers’ laughter. Farewell. Farewell."
“There goes the little pest,” Marginalia said to Briccone Pericoloso as she watched the cart disappear in the distance. “We are well rid of that one. I knew we could make it happen. Aiutati che Dio t'aiuta. Help yourself and God will help you.” The two had stationed themselves high on a hillside where they could assure themselves that the girl was truly going away.
“She was worming her way into the Padrone’s heart, for sure. Troppi cuochi guastano la cucina. Too many cooks spoil the broth,” Briccone answered. He spat in disgust. “Not that she can do such a thing from America, no matter how many letters she may write.”
They opened the bottle and each took a healthy swig.
"Ride bene chi ride ultimo!" Briccone chortled. Then in a husky voice he added, "Beware! Never go to the Palazzo again!"
Nodding her head, Marginalia echoed, "He who laughs last, laughs best!"
* * *
All too soon Maria's family reached the train station. There as they waited for the train, Mama held Maria’s face in her hands. "You are going to your brother’s house and there he will be your protector. Do what he tells you as if you are being instructed by your Papa and by me. We do not yet know what will happen, but we do know that in America so many good things are possible. Be not sad. The freedom there will lead you to new joys. Be patient. Be brave my little one. Your future will unfold, tempo al tempo," Grace said to her, "All in good time.”
While still in this tender embrace, Maria held back tears as she said to her mother, “Una buona mamma vale cento maestre. A good mother is worth a hundred teachers. I will do what you say and I know all will go well with me.”
Joseph, looking on, said, “Remember when you arrive in Naples, to look for your cousin Giovanni and his sister Fiametta. They will see that all goes well for you in Naples and that you find your way to the boat that will take you to America.”
Maria hugged her father and gave way to tears.
She embraced her sister and brother who had come along with them. Then turning to Lisabetta, Maria said, “You must tell me all the news in letter after letter.”
“I promise, if you will do the same for me.”
The train drew up at once and with these farewells still beating in her heart, Maria departed, waving to her dear ones until she could see them no more. The train journey, though long, was uneventful. At its end, she found her cousins as planned and was welcomed by them into the vast and unfamiliar city of Naples. Since it was Maria’s first night in Naples, her cousin Giovanni took her to dine at a place where he was well known.
They had no sooner been seated when the proprietor of the café, Umberto Targioni, stood up and in a loud voice, announced, “Now my good friends please give your kind attention to a very dear friend of mine, a great man with a great voice and yet a man of the people of Naples—Mr. Rico!—who will sing for you what I know is one of your favorite songs, as it is mine.
The musicians played a few opening bars of the song, which at once everyone recognized as “O Sole Mia.” For the past twenty years, the rage not only of Naples but all Italy, and some would say, the whole world. But it was Naples’ own, written by two of Naples most creative citizens, the poet and the composer. And now, sung by a dashing looking man, with raven black hair and a trim moustache, impossibly handsome, who stood up from a table on the opposite side of the room, nearer the musicians, and began the words that everyone in the room knew by heart.
“Che bella cosa e' na jurnata 'e sole,
n'aria serena doppo na tempesta!
Pe' ll'aria fresca pare già na festa
Che bella cosa e' na jurnata 'e sole”
And while it was not spoken aloud, it was as if the whole room gave a collective sigh, and settled in to hear anew the beloved melody.
“Ma n'atu sole,
cchiù bello, oje ne'
'O sole mio
sta 'nfronte a te!
'O sole, 'o sole mio
sta 'nfronte a te!
sta 'nfronte a te!”
“Quanno fa notte e 'o sole se ne scenne,
me vene quase 'na malincunia;
sotto 'a fenesta toia restarria
quanno fa notte e 'o sole se ne scenne.”
Awestruck, it was as if with Maria’s every breath he was singing. The song made time stop. The song made all of yesterday disappear as a forgotten tale. The song made tomorrow a misty dream. There was only this moment. But this moment was also forever. How could it be?
“By all means, Rico, join us,” Giovanni invited.
“I thought you would never ask me, my friend!” Rico sat down at once, and looking at Maria again as if there were no one else in the room, said, “Miss Fucci, now that you have brought all the charm and wonder of yourself all the way from enchanting Potenza to right here in sorry old Naples, the city has suddenly become a lovelier place. It is for you to pass judgment on it. What do you think of our city by the bay?”
“I hardly know what to think, sir,” Maria replied softly. “I have only just arrived. What little I have seen has been in going to my cousin’s home from the station, and then from there, to here.”
“What? You have not been to the Bay?”
Giovanni grinned, and looking at the two young people, he winked and then said, as if to himself, “Now that she has seen Naples’ greatest charmer, she is ready to see its other great charms!”
They all dissolved into laughter.
“But no, really,” Rico continued, “it must be arranged! A tour of the city! And a trip up the mountain on the funicular! For sure! Allow me to be your guide! To make it happen! It is the very least that I can do for my friend Giovanni, the great poet and for his belissima cousin! When I have here at one table both the man who wrote the words, ‘O Sole Mia’ and the woman who inspired me to sing them as they should be sung, well! I am honor-bound! I must show Miss Fucci the city and you will be my guest and her chaperone. I entreat! I implore! I insist!”
“I have had a request that our friend Rico delight us with another song,” he announced. “What will it be?"
From somewhere in the crowd a voice chimed, “Santa Lucia!”
“Ah, I see we are a discriminating audience!” Mr. Targioni nodded. “Santa Lucia it shall be. Yes?”
Rico stood up and nodded, “Santa Lucia, for my old (very old!) friend Giovanni Capurro and for my new friend, his beautiful cousin, Maria Fucci! Who has not yet seen Naples, not even the Bay! Let us show her Naples from the Bay, with words and music, only! In this song!”
The pianist struck up the introduction, as the other musicians joined in. With an aching sense of longing and love, and yet as light as a bird on the wing, Rico sang,
“Sul mare Luccica l'astro d'argento.
Placida è l'onda; prospero è il vento.
Venite all'agile Barchetta mia!
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia.”
All at once there it was. The silver moon, the glowing sea, the calm waves. Maria felt the soft winds blowing, balmy zephyrs. And this sense of pure joy that comes where the water and the sky meet. Immediately, the whole room was, as it were, waltzing, swaying to and fro, on the gentle winds and waves, along with the music. As if the walls of the café had suddenly parted, and the expanse of the Bay was all around them.
"O dolce Napoli, o suol beato,
Ove sorridere Volle il Creato"
Tu sei l'impero Di armonia!
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!"
Maria could see in her minds eye the “Holy ground, smiled upon by the Creator” and the Santa Lucia quarter, the "impero dell'armonia"—the empire of harmony. So different, this song was, from the first. And yet, together, they somehow defined the idea of Naples. The ideal of Naples. The sun and joy and the calm, with the water and wind, all the moods of this city.
“Now that you have this picture of Naples, what is your judgment, Miss Fucci?”
“It is all I had hoped it would be, and more,” Maria answered.
“Good! And now that you have had this glimpse of it, I must show you the rest. Giovanni, will you agree to my plan?”
“I don’t see why we should not do so,” Giovanni replied.
“Wonderful! When shall it be? Tomorrow, I think. Yes? Good! I will make all of the arrangements! And I will call for you at your home in Montecalvario, tomorrow at half past nine. Chi dorme non piglia pesci. Those who sleep don't catch any fish! Agreed?”
“Agreed, my friend. Tomorrow at my home in Montecalvario!”
“Until then Giovanni! Until then, Miss Fucci!” Rico bowed and took their hands, shaking Giovanni’s and kissing Maria’s.
Soon after Rico departed, Giovanni and Maria did so as well.
As they made their way along the via Roma toward the Spanish Quarter and back to Montecalvario, Maria asked, “Who is this Mr. Rico, Giovanni?”
“Ah, you have seen and heard him, so you know him well already!”
“Yes, but a bit more about him if you please.”
“He was born right here in Naples, as was I. A fine fellow. A good Catholic. Baptized in the Church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo. His voice is like an angel’s as you know. He started in the usual way, singing in church. Others heard and liked what they heard. Some who appreciated it helped him along, some noble persons, patrons, as one always needs when one is an artist. Yet, like me, he also sings in the cafes and sometimes we even sing together. Rico began his singing career in earnest, here in Naples in eight years ago—in 1894. He did a fine job as Enzo in La Gioconda at Palermo three years later. The first major role that Rico created was Loris in Giordano’s ‘Fedora’ in the Teatro Lirico in Milan, four years ago (1898). Two seasons ago, he sang Nemorino in L′elisir d′amore at La Scala. This autumn he is to create a new role at that same theater, in November; in something by Cilea.”
“So he is a serious singer; he sings opera, then?”
“Yes of course!” Giovanni answered. “This café singing is his bread and butter just now, but not forever and not for long, if I can predict. His is an extraordinary voice, with verismo, range, power, and beauty. I think he will be doing only opera before a few more years have passed. Chi la dura la vince. He who perseveres wins at last.”
“And does he have a family?” Maria asked.
“Everyone has a family! His parents, to be sure. And there is a brother who took his place in the army when one of the Padrones felt his voice was too important to be hidden behind an infantry uniform and a rifle.”
“What a good brother! But has he no wife, no sweetheart?”
“None that I know of. None to speak of. Say, you aren’t thinking about that for yourself, are you, little Maria?”
“What woman wouldn’t, after he has sung to her?”
“You’re right. What woman indeed!” Giovanni shrugged. “But remember! You are off to America in a few days—so nothing serious, please or I will have to face the music with your mother and father. Not to mention your brother and sister-in-law who are expecting you to come to them and be of help to them. Please, Maria! Enjoy tomorrow and then let it pass. Tomorrow and no more.”
Maria sighed, “Tomorrow and no more. I promise!”
The reader is invited to check this blog often to be able to read the next chapters as they are posted.