‘Poor creature! Poor child! If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes and heard it with my own ears, I wouldn’t believe it! Leave her be, maresciallo, leave her alone. Don’t harass her anymore. Can’t you see how she’s trembling? What more do you want to know? You’ve been questioning her for three days and regrettably, it’s all so clear! So terrible it feels like we’re living in the Middle Ages instead of the year 1909. That’s because God-fearing people no longer run the country, and the godless ones…’
‘Forgive me, Mother, but politics has nothing to do with this. With your permission, during the past three days I have only been doing my duty. Unfortunately these things happen a hell of a lot…Oh! Forgive me, Voscenza, Reverend Mother, I only meant that…I, well, yes, I’ve seen so very many cases that I can’t keep count anymore. It’s my duty to get to the bottom of the incident, to protect this creature as well.’
‘Oh, Holy Virgin! Be quiet, be quiet! Can’t you see that the moment she hears you speak she has another attack?’
This sweet, gentle voice – can’t you hear how sweet it is? – is the voice of Mother Leonora suggesting that I faint. It was easy: all I had to do was squeeze my eyelids shut and make tight fists, until my eyes began to tear and my nails, digging into the flesh of my palms, made me tremble like Tina did when Mama went out. I had learned it from her, and like her – I could see her stamped on my tightly shut eyelids
– I was really trembling.
‘Have you no heart at all, maresciallo? Leave her be! Didn’t you hear what Dr Milazzo said? She mustn’t be reminded of anything that happened that infernal night, nothing! The child must forget…You see? As soon as she saw you she grew pale as a little corpse, and as soon as you mentioned that nasty business…there, you see, she’s having another attack. What more do you need to know? Everything was confirmed by Tuzzu and his father when they brought her here, and afterwards, on several other occasions . . .’
‘With your permission, Mother, not quite everything.’
‘What do you mean? Those are just details.’
‘But we haven’t found the man who claimed to be her father, neither among her mother and sister’s remains, nor…And, well, you see, Mother, we have to find him!’
‘It’s up to you to find him. You found the jacket, didn’t you? It was even blue velvet, like this poor tormented child said. In the name of Saint Agatha who suffered torment like this little girl, don’t torture her any further! Can’t you see how she’s thrashing about? Go away, in the name of God who is our witness! You have no Christian soul, you carabinieri. And you, Sister Costanza, instead of standing there frozen like a mummy, help me lay Modesta on the bed. That’s it. Poor child! Do you feel what a dead weight she is? This is surely an epileptic seizure. She didn’t suffer from them before, from what Tuzzu told us, but this tragedy has ruined her for ever.’
Once again Mother Leonora’s voice let me know what I had to do: clench my fists even tighter so that the nails would drive more deeply into the flesh. Enduring this pain was better than answering that man with the black moustache, his eyes hard as stones: if he kept questioning me, he might make me say something I didn’t want to say. My eyelids hurt so much by now that I began to scream loudly, my cries genuine. So genuine that those two officers, confused by my tears and by Mother Leonora’s sweet supplications, vanished amid the frantic swishing of the long skirts those strange, tall women wore. Only when all was silent, except for Mother Leonora’s faint breathing, did I relax my fingers, but slowly, so she wouldn’t notice. I had to calm down slowly, so she wouldn’t become aware of my strategy. I had to follow the suggestions of that sweet voice. What was she saying now? What was it I had to do?
‘There now, there my child. Those dreadful men are gone and I am here with you. They won’t harass you anymore, my poor little martyr, body and soul tormented like our patron Saint Agatha! That’s it, take your time, don’t worry. Don’t be afraid, the wicked men are gone.’
I knew it, but I also knew that it was not time to open my eyes. This she had not yet told me.
‘They’re gone. Don’t you believe me? You’re right not to believe anyone anymore, after what you’ve been through. Yes, you’re right. But I will restore your faith. You must believe me. Open your eyes. Give me the consolation of seeing in your beautiful eyes that you believe me.’
There, she said it. I could open my eyes at last. One moment more and I would open them. She had guided me not only with her voice, but also with her smooth white hands, even smoother than that downy soft blanket, whiter and more fragrant than those sheets that had magically replaced the coarse grimy ones in the big bed where I had always slept before…before the blood had come. Fortunately, I had withstood my fear of the fire without running to Tuzzu. If I hadn’t had the strength to hold out, Tuzzu – with those legs of his that could run like a hare – would certainly have saved those two again.
‘There, that’s it. Look at me with those beautiful eyes. Beautiful and limpid. Think no more about that fire that clouds your gaze. Don’t think about it anymore; pray instead. Pray to Saint Agatha to perform a miracle, to make you forget everything and heal your tormented body and soul.’
‘Who is Saint Agatha?’
* * *
But the promise of freedom, repeated by the waves and the wind, shattered against the walls of palazzos springing with roses and vines sculpted from sharp lava. There was no freedom in those back streets and narrow alleyways, those confusing piazzas swarming only with arrogant men sporting straw hats and canes, watched by shadowy female figures hidden behind curtains or from the darkness of ground floor doors, always partly open. The palazzo on Via Etnea opened its doors to a string of unwelcome receptions at which, two days after our arrival, a procession of impeccably dressed women, with white or black gloves and flowery hats, began parading in front of us, opening and closing their fans and offering protection and advice.
‘Oh, Jesus and Mary! No! Go alone to the Opera? Gesummaria, no! There’s our box, my dear niece…’
‘Absolutely! Indeed there was much talk about your absence on Sunday! Of course, you were both tired from the journey, naturally. But please, my little doves, Mass at noon on Sundays. It’s tradition. Absolutely.’
‘Go to the café by yourselves? Oh no, it’s unacceptable, dear cousin, unacceptable!…’
‘Of course, it’s quite unfortunate not to have a brother, a husband!’
‘Go to the cinema? That modern devilry? Oh no! We never go except on rare occasions, and always provided that one of our men makes certain beforehand that the film isn’t too licentious…’
‘An historical film, you say, cousin? Nonsense! History as a front for indecorous scenes, women in low-cut dresses, orgies…Not on your life! Everyone is still talking about that Cabiria! A true disgrace! And those in parliament who go around spouting high-sounding words about freedom. But what can you expect with all those socialists in the government? And our Holy Father a prisoner! Meanwhile, immorality is rampant in our own homes as well! Yesterday I nearly had a stroke hearing my nephew, only fourteen years old…what a barren generation of misfits and selfish egotists we’re raising!…but what was I saying? Oh yes, I nearly had a stroke hearing my nephew urging his sister to cut her hair like all those lunatics on the continent, the suffragettes. My husband, who saw them in Milan, says they look like men, with short hair and no corsets. All we need is for them to start wearing trousers and amen! Everything is being turned upside down, everything!…’
‘If I may say so, my dear girls, you read too much. It’s not good for the eyes. My uncle, a doctor, claims that reading causes wrinkles…Gaia permitted you to? Well of course, always one of a kind! A woman of great merit, no question, but too, too…’
‘Last Sunday at Mass, the Baronello Ortesi showed a real interest in our darling Beatrice. Of course they’re not from an old family, but these barons are wealthy! We must have him meet Beatrice…Oh no! Not here! You two are women alone and cannot receive men. You could accept cousin Esmeralda’s thoughtfulness, since she so kindly offered to arrange a tea. Oh, it would be nice if there were a man in this house…!’
Beatrice grew pale, and I no longer slept, increasingly oppressed by figures and accounts. Tossing and turning in bed, I banged my head against the walls of that prison of payments, property taxes, tenancy agreements…The campieri, the estate’s armed guards, and the sovrastanti, the gabellotto’s trusted men, were struggling to collect the rents, the peasants were rising up, the land wasn’t yielding, wages tripled. To read a book I sacrificed hours and hours of sleep. The piano was silent. Jacopo’s trunk, still closed, stood forgotten in a corner of the room next door. What kind of trap had I fallen into?
I pressed on, managing that seemingly immense realm which was leaking on all sides. And that odd house kept like a royal palace? ‘I would suggest that Voscenza refresh the drapes in the spring,’ the majordomo had respectfully directed. Which meant having them remade. The country villa, Carmelo, was still open, serving as a hotel, awaiting the return of all the deceased; twenty mouths to feed, twenty wages to pay each month. I couldn’t sleep anymore. Gaia had also suffered from insomnia. Now I understood her obsessed look, the way she remained shut up in her study intent on fighting that impossible battle. What had she sacrificed herself for? Out of duty, for a name to be held high in other people’s eyes or her own? In fact, all those lawyers, bankers and notaries had the same impervious gaze she had, fixed in one direction. Not Carmine. In my memory, Carmine, his white curls unruffled in the breeze, rode toward me on his horse, laughing…For months I had only seen him surrounded by notaries and attorneys imprisoned in their close-fitting black vests and jackets. As soon as he could, he fled. I too had to get away from those walls and those men whom I had so admired when I managed Carmelo, but who now seemed like inmates in a prison that they themselves had built day by day. ‘If I may say so, Princess, Voscenza should have been born a man.’ At one time I had thought those words were the highest recognition one could receive from other people, but now the terror of becoming like Gaia tightened my chest so that I couldn’t breathe.
* * *
Anyone who’s had the good fortune to reach thirty knows how difficult, arduous and exciting it was to scale the mountain that rises from childhood to the summit of youth, and how quickly it goes: a waterfall, a geometric flight of wings in the sunlight, a few moments and…Yesterday I had the unlined cheeks of a twenty-year-old. Today overnight? – the three fingers of Time have brushed me, a warning of the brief span remaining and of the final finishing line that inexorably awaits…A first, false terror of turning thirty.
What had I done? Had I wasted my days? Not enjoyed the sun and the sea to the fullest? Only later on, during the golden age of fifty, an age soundly vilified by poets and registry clerks – only then do you realize how much richness there is in the peaceful oases of being by yourself, alone. But that comes later.
At the time, the anxiety of missing the past and the future gripped me powerfully: What was I doing in that study? What meaning did that search for words have, all those papers, poems, stories, notes? Was I, unknowingly, about to fall into the mystical lot of becoming a poet, an artist? Was I, unknowingly, retracing the path of Beatrice, who, in order to exist in her own eyes and those of others, moulded herself into the sacred statue of a grieving widow, beautiful and respected? Was I, with her same relentlessness and determination, unknowingly raising a temple within me? And, would I, like her, lay down my life just to comply with the subtle venom of tradition?
Imprisoned in mourning, as tradition demanded, Beatrice fell ill with ‘consumption’ like her husband. Little by little, and with appalling placidity, the wax wind-up doll, which for years had wandered among the flowers and books, stopped within months: she had wound down.
What was I doing among those pens and pencils lined up on the desk? Or was it an altar? I had started it for pleasure…But looking within myself I saw my future: caught in that snare, legs broken by the trap of ‘being someone’. Though I had escaped the convent, the piety I had sent packing was creeping out again from some hole in my room, straddling the rat of aesthetics. I saw it, that mystical rat. Its eyes, reddened by insatiable hunger, peered out from the shadowy corners, voracious. They scoured my young flesh, my breast, seeking a crack to enter me and gnaw at the backbone of my skeleton, which was held together by joy. Stopping it, I knew that I had been right to be mistrustful, and that just a few more instants of unawareness would have made me fall from reality into the grip of the ‘artist’ drug, a drug more potent than morphine and religion. The rat realized it, looked away and fled.
The scar throbbed from my effort to peer into my future, and in the mirror I saw it redden and writhe for a few moments. A centuries old message from my depths, it warned me to guard against myself, and go running in the sun. I would not resume the quest for poetry until I had proven to myself that it was for fun and only for fun, like picking flowers or riding Morella…
Bambolina was waiting patiently beside old Morella. Her dark bangs, wispy as a shadow, fell over blue eyes that were slightly more intense than Beatrice’s. I look for her across the lawn. Maybe she’s just hiding behind a hedge, waiting to pop out, making her sudden laughter more dear.
‘Don’t you feel like riding, Zia? Staring out at the sea like that…It’s all right if you don’t feel like it. Maybe you’re tired.’
The same considerate voice, Carlo’s same thoughtful, caring attention…The scar on my forehead throbs, keeping back my tears, and I can’t help hugging her and lifting her up in the air. I want her to laugh. I want to hear Cavallina’s laughter again.
‘Oh, what fun, Zia, you’re making me fly! It’s been so long since you made me fly like this! How come you’re so strong?…Oh! Enough, stop! You’re tickling me. Enough, Modesta!’
When I’m serious she calls me Zia; when I’m playing with her, I’m Modesta.
‘Oh, what fun, Modesta! How strong you are!’
‘You’re just a scazzittula di picciridda, a little bit of a thing!…You don’t weigh any more than a few ounces!’
‘But Prando can’t lift me.’
‘In a few years, you’ll see! And if you don’t watch out, he’ll send you flying right around the moon.’
‘Oh, what fun that would be, Modesta! Then when I’m big too, will you teach me how to fl y? I love airplanes a lot. You’ll teach me, won’t you? Like you taught me how to ride a horse and how to swim?’
Now she’s rattling on excitedly like Beatrice, Carlo’s careful attention forgotten. What is she saying? She’s talking about some photographs she found…
‘And who is that handsome man? Jacopo and I opened a trunk up in the attic. He took a bunch of books and a…what do you call that thing you look in to see everything bigger?’
‘And I took some photographs. Who was that handsome man near the airplane? Prando says he was my papa, but he was joking because my papa wasn’t a pilot, was he? So who was he?’
‘That was Ignazio, your Mama’s uncle.’
‘And were all those airplanes his?’
‘Oh, no! He flew them. He was a pilot.’
‘What fun! When I grow up I’m going to be a pilot too!’
‘Of course, Bambolina. Now let’s ride before the sun gets too hot. Come on, that’s it. Faster!’
* * *
‘How shameful! How can it be? Doctor Antonio and even the midwife told me that I was in menopause. Such a disgrace!’
‘Enough of that refrain! I’m happy that you’re not ill. What would I do without you, with that house to look after?’
‘Aren’t you going to ask me who he was?’
‘You have no obligation to tell me if you don’t want to, Stella.’
‘But I…I have to tell you even though I’m so ashamed. If I’ve done wrong, I feel I must take responsibility for my lapse. But you mustn’t tell the carusi. I’ll tell you, and afterwards if you don’t want to look at me anymore I’ll go back home. Because Stella made a huge mistake, becoming pregnant by Prando. He mustn’t know, but you must, and if you want to get angry at me, and justly so, you have a right to be angry and to even raise your hand to me! Stella won’t say a word whether you insult me or hit me. It was a mistake.’
As she spoke she stood up slowly and now, sadly but without shame, she looks me in the eye. Her direct gaze makes me set aside my earlier shock and emotion and stand up straight in front of her…Foolish surprise caught you, Modesta. I read on her face that it could not have been otherwise: in the familiarity of living together, I had forgotten her beauty. Dazzled by that perfect face, I’m spellbound as I fantasize about her and Prando…I should be jealous, I tell myself. I had been jealous of Prando on the Rotonda at La Plaia, but even if I wanted to, I can’t seem to call up that jealousy. To clearly understand my feelings and hers, I move closer, and with my palms feel the perfection of those cheeks, that neck…
‘You’re caressing me, Mody? Then you’re not angry.’
I put my hand over her mouth to stop her words. Words seem out of place on those warm, perfect lips. She expects me to judge her, but I can’t speak because instead of jealousy, I envy the young man who was able to conquer such beauty.
‘You, Stella, nursed my Jacopo and raised Bambolina and Prando, and this devotion of yours is priceless, you know that. And you know that any mistake, as you call it, was one of affection, and neither I nor anyone else can condemn you for it.’
‘Could I have possibly denied that caruso consolation? Maybe I should have, but I’m not strong, and I would have done anything not to see him cry after that night.’
‘What night, Stella?’
‘The night you two went at it, and he felt he was thrown out of this house.’
The exact logic of life appeared to me so clearly that I heard myself say: ‘The ways of desire are infinite.’
‘The ways of the Lord, did you say, Mody? Do you mean to say that this creature is blessed?’
I mustn’t correct her feeling. She has a benign Lord made of flesh and blood, that starry-eyed woman.
‘Yes, Stella, for me this creature is blessed.’
‘E arrivato l’ambasciatore a cavallo d’un cammello…E arrivato… ,’ Crispina sings, the Ambassador has arrived, riding on a camel…
‘Oh God! Here comes Crispina! The carusi…I’m so ashamed! What will we do about the picciriddi, Mody? What a disgrace!’
‘Calm down, Stella. I’ll see to the carusi. You pack our bags. Ampleones; count on us being away for six months.’
Six months, Mody? Why?’
‘Because I don’t trust the doctors around here. Remember how simpatico that young doctor in Milan was?’
‘Oh, yes, yes! I didn’t feel ashamed with him.’
‘There, you see? We’ll do what he suggested: your baby will be born in Switzerland.’
‘But I’ll be lost up there alone!’
‘I’ll be with you the whole time. Jacopo and Bambolina will take over the reins of the household. They’re grown now, and it’s time they had to face notaries and tax documents. I can use a rest myself.’
‘If that’s the case, it’s all right with me. Only the continent is so expensive!’
‘Mattia took care of matters for me in America. He came back with a fortune. Bambolina will have to deal with this too…Come in, come in, Crispina. Jacopo, come in! Have you finished studying?’
‘All done, Mama. Teaching Crispina is a joy. It nearly makes me want to go into teaching…How beautiful you look this morning, Stella! Seeing how well they restored you up there on the continent, I’m glad I’ve decided to become a doctor.’
Stella’s eyes stare at me terrified as Crispina clambers up on her lap, still singing, ‘The Ambassador has arrived, with a feather in his cap! The Ambassador has arrived, riding on a camel . . .’
Stella is afraid of the carusi, and she’s right. To my surprise, I realize that I too fear their judgment. But I have Gaia inside me, whispering to me: ‘Don’t discuss it with them! Do what your conscience tells you to do.’ I would never have imagined that growing old brought with it a fear of young people. Was the anxiety I felt inside a sign of old age perhaps? When did it begin? Too many problems fill my head as Jacopo shouts and laughs, chasing Crispina around the room: he’s gone from being a teacher to being a child again…they’re playing cowboys and Indians.