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.