The Watcher: Sicily continued IX

Campino

Because I was a friend of one of their families, I was somehow not a stranger in Campino. It was a tiny village up in the mountains. Including the chickens, there were perhaps 150 inhabitants. Threaded between the houses with their thick stone walls and heavy stone roofs were narrow pathways and under passageways, little gardens, two open piazzas. At one end of the only street wide enough for a car was the church, which rang for mass early in the morning and again at night for benediction. At the other end there was a trattoria where a television set was king every evening. Brooks ran down towards the valley, locust trees hung heavy with white blossoms, the fields were filled with daisies, forget-me-nots, scabiosa, and a hundred other flowers whose names I did not know.  In the small piazza by the house there was a fountain spouting clear cold spring water. Pails clanked and the voices of the women coming to get water were woven around the main thread of the sound of the fountain. Someone sang Annie Laurie. There were two stores, selling mostly food, but also bottled gas, snap buttons for a dress. The people were not poor, but because they wanted ready money, many worked down in the towns in the valley where every other building was a hotel and the ones in between private villas.

The apartment was on the second floor with a balcony that looked out over the small square with its fountain. Andrea had told me of the fountain, of where the blueberries grew, of the charred marks on the furniture licked by flames from an incendiary bomb. I looked through the books in the case with its broken glass and found a schoolbook of poetry with a de Chirico like square drawn in ink on the paper cover. Anna found a box of watercolors and said I could use them if I liked, she didn’t think her brother would mind. And then she went back to Milan and I was alone.

That night I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that it was continuously raining. The church bells rang at five in the morning and a bright beam of sun was already touching the blankets. Still I heard the sound of water – but it was water rising up out of the earth. Mist slowly moved in from the valley. The house at the end of the street had three pink-rimmed windows with geraniums growing in pink-painted pots. The bells rang again at seven. The street was full of voices. Someone was taking a goat out to pasture. The husband made fun of the creature, and the wife defended its good qualities. A neighbor arrived and said that verily it was an ugly animal. Whereupon, the husband rose up in its defense. His wife laughed and responded that he liked it so much he would even go to bed with it.

Now and then I would walk down to the valley and might get caught in the rain. It didn’t seem to matter though. The big drops took little notice of my dress, my thin purple dress, and were immediately cool on my back and shoulders. It was a fresh rain that stepped lightly over the landscape. The rain and I took the path through the woods. There was no one else. Sometimes I thought I heard a footstep behind me, but they were only the footsteps of the rain. Like the wind, he was behind me, yet before me. I found a rose-colored cherry he had knocked down in his haste, and it was still sour. And two strawberries, which held the perfume of the morning sun.

A brooklet ran along the side of the road, separating the dusty way from the field of forget-me-nots and daisies and grasses. It was not just any brook for it was loved. Halfway between the first stone wall and the big clump of elderberry bushes a small fragile grass had bent over the surface of the water to caress it. It moved gently over the water a bit, and then jumped back to stroke it all over again.

In the first few days in the village there was a birth, a death, and a marriage. The scales were balanced. There was sun and there was rain. Summer and winter. Tranquility and a sense of order. Within this, more time for oneself.  If there was tragedy it was of a man among men, not of man in a world of nature. The boy who brought me milk whistled and sang but was not at all attractive. All his friends were married. And when he had too much wine, which was fairly often, he rationalized saying one can find a girl any time, and that it was wise to think before entering upon such responsibilities. There was the owner of the osteria. One day Anna took me there to see the big fireplace with seats at each side built into the wall. He was sitting at one end, his feet resting on a fireguard, the black cloth shoes torn in several places. The rooms had been scrubbed clean. Behind him the copper pots shone. On the wall in the first room were four large charcoal drawings of pieces of Greek sculpture – a horse’s head, a mask. We asked and he said he had made the drawings thirty-five years ago. They were quite good. But he talked no more and he did not smile. Anna said he was an intellectual and that he read a great deal, that he was alone. 

The people of the town were kind, but they also took what they could. The land around the village was divided into a multitude of little fields and squares. Sometimes only two trees, or perhaps an electric light post, marked an invisible boundary. Trees had sometimes been cut down, or replanted, and land belonging to one was simply used for many years by someone else and then claimed as his simply because he had always used it. The owners often lived in the city and infrequently came to check on their land. So it was with one man who had a stone house on a small plot of earth. He had not been there for several years and one day made a special trip to see how things were. He followed the road, and came to where the house should be — but there was no house. Strange, he thought. Perhaps I have taken the wrong road. It is after all several years since I’ve been here. So he returned home shaking his head. But during the night, thinking it over, he was sure he had not mistaken the road. The next morning he returned. Upon arriving at the field, he looked around and found four stones, upon one of which he sat to try and figure out what had happened to his house. A man tapped him on the shoulder and asked him if he wouldn’t sit on the grass instead of on the stone. Obligingly he moved over, watched the newcomer pick up the stone, and walk away. Curious, the owner of the lost house followed him. Finally they arrived at the peasant’s house where he proceeded to put the stone on top of an almost completed building. “But, but, that is my house” the owner exclaimed. Whereupon, the peasant hastened to assure him that it was his, that he had built it with his own hands. When the owner insisted that it was his, the peasant finally asked him if he was the owner of the land where he had taken the stone, and upon receiving a reply in the affirmative, calmly said, “Oh, well, then I will replace the stone immediately.” The final result was that the peasant had to rebuild the house in its original location.

When Anna came to the village, I always noted a sense of unrest, and searching insecurity in her. She was looking for an answer and seemed to have found it in religion. Her brother had turned to direct human relationships. Anna belonged to a movement that began in Milan. One must love everyone because they are human beings. Suffering enriches the human spirit, and no one is given that which he cannot sustain. (Suicides are lacking in faith in God, and therefore do not disprove this). The inspiration behind this movement was a woman named Giuliana. Ten years or so ago she found everything around her crumbling. The only thing that could not be taken away was faith in God. So she went to the Bible and discovered the exhortation to love. It was not a new idea and has been done many times before. But she took this as her belief, and felt that if everyone loved, then gradually the world could be remade. They would have liked me to be an apostle for them. One day Anna took me to Giuliana’s home where I was talked at. She was a beautiful woman, perhaps 35, with touches of grey in her hair and large dark eyes. She talked of love and a faith in God with immense sweetness. When she talked she looked at me, but her eyes did not see me. I found this disconcerting. Constantly during the conversation, which was rather one-sided, she asked for confirmation of what she had said. “Isn’t that so?”

 The sexes were separated in their group activities, so that I found myself in a room filled with girls and women. There were no formalities and the familiar tu was used from the beginning, as well as the editorial we. Everyone smiled. All was sweetness and light. Love beamed from every face. And I felt suffocated. I looked at them and felt that something was lacking, somehow a part of them was dead. They had not actually withdrawn from the world, for they were also committed to finding converts, to pulling outsiders into their own world, to finding a way to escape from the real world. But it was accompanied by an ignoring of material discomforts, refusing to acknowledge that physical surroundings were part of their environment. Before a thing can be changed, its existence must be recognized. Anna, herself, had a warmth and a delight in loving others and I hoped with all my heart that she would keep enough of her vital interests, that she would not lose the chance to live her life to its fullest.

Don Rinaldo, the village priest, also loved his fellow men. But I had the feeling that he was spiritually still very alive. He was a small slender man with a boyish face that would never seem old. Don Rinaldo. He asked me one day to come and listen to some music. How did he know that my heart was in need of this? He stopped reading when I arrived and led me into his study where there was an old piano, out of tune and hollow sounding since the moths had chewed away some of the felt. But his hands moved rapidly over the keys and made music. Open books lay on the table in the center of the room. Shelves, filled with books and music, lined the walls. The empty spaces were filled with landscapes and religious pictures painted by his father. And photographs. His sister in her wedding gown. Don Rinaldo when he was 15, together with an older priest. Don Rinaldo playing the organ. A warm lived-in room, with all the space occupied, but somehow always room for more. He told me a little of himself as he made me a cup of coffee. For a year he had been in a boy’s camp, but it had been too much for his health. Now he was in this small village where he had been for five years. It was quiet. He could lead the scholar’s life that he loved so much. He talked of poetry, of Leopardi. He promised to send me some of his own when I was once more in my home. Outside was the garden. It overlooked the valley, was closed off from the village by a wall. All the silence of the village seemed to have found its resting place here.

Outside the clouds were racing through the valley and the first drops of the thunderstorm, of the temporale, fell. The sky descended, impassioned, to the earth and the dry fields burned with their desire. The rain beat down in waves of passion. Spasm after spasm of ecstasy enfolded the fields and the roads and the whole earth. Until exhausted, he ceased, and in the sky-impregnated earth life began to stir.

All of the town assured me it was only the change of air, that I had just taken too much of it. But the doctor said I had mumps and prescribed antibiotics. Even so the villagers added their suggestions. I should come and visit with them so I would not be lonely. The children? Oh well, if they got sick, then they would simply get sick. I decided to stay inside. An old man sent me a big handful of sheep’s wool, with the instructions that I was to wear it around my neck – unwashed of course – for three days. I would then be cured. I tried it for a day, figuring that the lanolin in the wool and the heat it provided could do no harm. But it smelled a bit too strongly and was too scratchy. It took me more than three days to be cured.

In the meanwhile from my room, I could follow the day as it progressed. In Campino, it started slowly, with the heavy footsteps of the men going to the fields. There was a halting quality to them, as if each step was an immense effort. The distant roar of a motorcycle or a scooter. The tempo of the voices passing Buon Giorno back and forth quickened as more and more people opened their shuttered windows. The half-grown chicks in the yard behind the house peeped and scratched. There was a clatter of buckets and pails as the women got the water for breakfast. The church bells rang for mass. It was 8 o’clock. The church bells rang for benediction. It was 8 o’clock. The quiet of the evening settled over the still light streets. The sweet sound of people talking softly in their houses lay over the village. The muffled notes of someone practicing the trumpet. Later from my bed I listened to the family across the street. They were seated in the doorway, leaning against the wall. Two brothers from Reggio Calabria. They explained their dialect to the others. Spoke of Garibaldi and the story of the soap that was mistaken for cheese. Two girls sang. It was like a game, a wheel which needs an extra push at the end of each revolution. They slid their voices up to a pitch as they finished each phrase and began all over again. Soon I could hear them saying Buona Notte, and everyone went to bed. There was only the fountain left, talking to itself all night long and perhaps for always.

The sounds in the dark were threads of silk that tied me to the life of the conscious. They moved in from all sides – ribbons and threads of pale silk – wrapped themselves around me in a cocoon of sound. There was no escape. I floated, suspended in the darkness. The lines stretched tighter … and tighter … I slept.

My Milan family had sent me a letter. Written in English: “We were very happy to know you were so content to stay in Campino but now that we know you are ill, we feel much in pain for you, for you are there quite alone; but you are alone only in sense material because our hearts are near you with all the Brotherhood that God taught us, so you must never be sad, sorrowful, you must always feel the heat of our affection and cheer-up in it. I will beg you to take under consideration if it is not the case to retorn to Milan until you are not get quite well, near us you will feel more at home, and us could fight with you, your illness until her complite defeat. Your parents are far from you, but allow us to do all that they would do for you, at least in all our possibility. You are for us, a nice dear sister of our Anna, and so also a nice new daughter for us, . . . Good bye, dear daughter, be strong, courageous, thrusty, calm, and never prostreted, remember always thet here are three hearts beating, praing, and wishing every thing nice and good for you, specially your good health.  Goodbye dear and cheer-up “lo spirito sereno vince ogni male”.”

The days followed each other in indistinguishable sequence. I was tied to a wheel, which continually turned, and it was day and night and day again without end. I ran along behind, continually out of breath from trying to keep up. The mornings awaken with a heaviness. Here was another day to be filled. A sense of suspension. The future hung waiting like a cloud. Waiting for a final puff of wind, the addition of one more drop of moisture, before it broke its lining, which grew ever tenser, and … poured.

Return home

It was inevitable that I return to the States. The future … my future was there and hopefully, a job. My Italian parenthesis was coming to a close.  Experiences are lived and then forgotten. But the beautiful ones remain inside of us in our private museums. Every so often we wander in and rediscover each thing in its own separate beauty, its sharp immediacy softened by time. They are not objects that have space or weight. They are moments, or they are hours. Being wakened at night by a serenade. A voice singing slightly off key. The sharing of an idea. Anna had found pleasure in a Bible text – he who does not love is with the dead. Her delight and joy in sharing those lines are part of my museum. It is walking home from the temples of Agrigento at night and running out of gas, the white cat asleep on my bed in Florence, the snow on the almond trees, the warmth of a friendship. It is Ravenna and Palermo and Catania. Carlo and Riccardo and Andrea. Rome and Florence. And the Arno at sunset and the bells…

It was July of 1956 and I stood in the bow of the ship and watched the gulls clamor along behind. I hadn’t made it in time in Genoa to catch a passage on the Andrea Dorea. Perhaps it was fate for on July 25 the ship collided with the MS Stockholm and sank.  So now I was on the Cristoforo Colombo, my skirt and hair moving with the wind. Italy had given me something that had changed me forever. Here I had felt “at home” as I never did in Germany, akin somehow to the people as well as to the art. Call it a parenthesis if you like, and like any parenthesis it is finite.  Like any parenthesis, it would eventually be closed, perhaps even removed from the story, but like the memory of a smile, it would never completely disappear and would be reopened time and time again, when the rain falls on the cypresses, or a nightingale sings, or a shaggy long-horned goat ambles over the rocks.     

THE END

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