Chapter Fifteen-- Wherein the Poet Becomes Calabrian…
“War’ es auch nichts als ein Traum von Gluck,
War’ es auch nichts als ein Augenblick,
Musst gleich dem Fruhling es wieder entlieh’n,
War’s nur so lang wie die Rosen uns Bluh’n,
Ist’s nu rein Tag, den man glucklich ist,
Nur eine Stund’ die man nie vergisst,
War’s nu rein Trugbild, ein Wahn, ein Phantom,
Sag’ ich zum Gluck, komm’, komm’…”
And were it naught but a dream of bliss
And were it no more than a moment,
Were it like the spring to disappear,
Were it but as long as the roses bloom,
Were it but a day, that one could be happy,
But an hour one could never forget,
Were it a mirage, a dream, a phantom,
I’d say to happiness, “Come, come,”
Were it a drowning in the whirling stream,
I’d say to happiness, “Come, come!”
Franz Lehar, Eva
In the morning we set out for Scylla, a centuries' old fishing town nestled into the cliffs across from
. Pepe and Franco gave a synopsis of the myth of Scylla and Charybdis, the pair of monsters who lived on opposite ends of the Sicily . Strait of Messina
I looked for the narrative in the guidebook we had brought with us. This brief account said that Odysseus had lost his ship in Charybdis, but managed to save himself by clinging to a tree overhanging the water. Later the whirlpool spat up the ship, and Odysseus dropped to safety on its deck.
The legend of the two monsters had given birth to the phrase "between Scylla and Charybdis," meaning a situation in which one has to choose between two equally unattractive options. How appropriate, I thought, making notes on the back of the punched train ticket hidden away in my pocket.
We sped along the highway above the seacliffs in the beaten up Fiat. I sat in the back with my heart in my mouth.
“Hai paura, Jenni? Are you afraid,” Pepe laughed, navigating the turns with precision, down-shifting on the switchbacks.
Scylla glistened from the cliffs like a topaz, its many facets polished by the spray from the ocean. Pepe and Franco wanted to swim and sip Cinzano on the beach. I begged off, pointing to a small cafe I had seen.
I sat in the café, unaccountably but gratefully listening to Mozart, writing in my journal.
I penned quick postcards to my family and friends in
. I drank several cups of espresso and then as morning gave way to afternoon, I sipped a glass of Valpolicella, musing, wondering, writing down strands of imagery, caressing the stem of the glass. St. Paul
Who knew there would be Mozart on a jukebox, who could have fathomed a mere month ago that I would have been brought or led to such a place by chance, answering to a few kisses under the spell of antiquity, opera, the romantic inclinations I had thought I had shed at the dawn of my career?
In the shadows of the café, the good-bye that lay ahead for us loomed at me. The wine suffused me with the mysteries of the moment and I pushed the scenarios of our parting out of my mind. I ate a little bread and cheese and took a short walk along the lido, where I could barely make out Pepe and Franco still out on the water.
Here in the warmth and beauty of the Tyrrhenian coast, I thought about what it meant to live in the moment, the phrase “E vivere” Pepe had said to me. Our transcendent and jubilant time together already seemed as rich as Baci chocolates, glittering in my mind like the gilded tinsel where the signature Italian candy had been, having been consumed before it melted away.
I could feel the oppressiveness of life for the southern Italian woman and yet, the deep fulfillment and containment of the family. Mama was a matriarch, the heart and soul of the family. The other men in the family, the brothers in law, seemed extensions of strong women, in a reversal. But all barriers to conception were cast aside. Therefore in some ultimate way a woman was ruled by the tides of her fertility, enforced by the patriarchal church.
The night before, I had witnessed the family’s love of life. I had watched the interplay of men and women at the table. No one was alone. The only son is beloved, as Pepe was. The family found its way around poverty; Carmello brought home meat and delicacies that could be made into the delicious southern dishes that sustained everyone. Wine was cheap. Breast milk flowed. The hills of
were terraced into olive groves and vineyards and fish were plundered from the sea. Calabria
In the talk at dinner, there were shadowy inferences of
’s past during the era of fascism and the Second World War, and ongoing poverty. I had caught a glimpse of news of a captured Mafioso in the Reggio newspaper. I knew that high in the mountains the people living in tiny towns engaged in attenuated spiritual practices and folk healing, that one should beware of “malocchio,” the evil eye, of curses and the death of fertility. Calabria
This lore reminded me of the northern
towns and the hidden life of the Penitentes, also given over to a hybrid of folklore and Catholicism and it was said, to the practice of actual crucifixion on Good Friday. New Mexico
But light and air invaded even the narrow streets of the little towns. The Italian people could not, it seemed, be stripped of their capacity for joy and love. The darkness of mistrust seemed to me to be trumped by innate open-heartedness.
And, I had found a Calabrese who practiced an utterly appealing philosophy of giving oneself to life—-a windfall for a worn-down poet whose sorrows remained at the bottom of her duffel bag. I was lucky, to put it mildly: I was living a windfall, the golden hours of a dream.
When Pepe and Franco returned we walked along the beach at Scylla and Pepe told me about the Calabrian resistance, giving me a crash course in the German occupation. He sang the song to me again; we sat on a bench along the path, and he copied it into my journal. Against the dried ink I pressed a rose he picked from one of the wild bushes growing among the ruins of a fort that looked across the strait between
Italy and . Sicily
Then, as we sat at a table near the docks at dusk, the trawlers came in.
Men fading against the twilight unfurled nets heavy with catch, dragging the bodies of the swordfish up to beach. My heart broke for the great pesce spada, the heavy swordfish, captured out of the ocean to be butchered and sold in the market.
I wanted to see them, to touch them. We strolled together to the sea’s edge, where the tide had come in again, mouthing the pier.
I turned to look back at the clustered, ancient villas of Scylla, fading in the light. I imagined our remaining there, living on... how would we make the crossing from the rose in full bloom of our new love, to daily life?
Looking out at the “tramonto,” the sun setting over the sea, the white gulls in their ballet over the
, I could unfetter my heart, permit it to ascend. Strait of Messina
Yet, out in the sea a buoy with a bell tolled, so that, having learned from Odysseus, the mariners would find their way. As I listened, it became a knell that warned me that I could drown. Perhaps I was drowning now.
I pulled myself from the stage of my fantasy, and reached for Pepe's hand. We walked together to the Fiat with Franco, winding our way through the dusk, impelled down switchbacks below which the darkening sea glittered, back to Reggio.
We pulled up to Angela’s palazzo for a late dinner. I had agreed to cook, and I decided to make a rich chicken Alfredo, American style.
As I was attempting to explain that I needed flour for the sauce, I was brought up short. Angela looked at me expectantly, noting that I had assembled garlic, butter and cream on her counter, and that there were pieces of chicken in the refrigerator.
Finally, I gestured as if I were crumbling something small in my hands and said, I need “piccolo panini.” Tiny breads.
Pepe laughed heartily, his cigarette between his lips, clapping.
Angela looked at him and at me.
“Jenni,” she said, earnestly, putting her hands on my shoulders. “Farina, dire. F-a-r-i-n-a.”
Farina was produced and crushing garlic into bubbling butter, adding a tablespoon of flour, cream, stock and finally the dredged browned chicken, I was proud of my creation. It had taken several hours to make and it was nearly midnight when we sat down.
By then we had all consumed more wine and the baby had wakened and been nursed several times.
Bravely I set three places and lifted my glass. We all toasted each other.
Pepe took a bite, and looked at me, chewing thoughtfully.
“Jenni—che brava. Per non posso mangiarla- e’ piu troppo rica per me.”
I was crushed. He had said in essence, “Good effort. But I can’t eat it; it’s too rich.”
Still, I had tried. We put away my tour d’force, devouring salad and bread before stepping back out into the redolent Calabrian night.
In our room in Salvatore’s palazzo, we lay together in a moon-drenched, star-crossed state. I looked down at my lover’s face, memorizing his crows’ feet, the lines at the corners of his mouth half-hidden by his mustache. I was free as he dozed to let tears fall.
In another surge of vulnerability, I felt myself running in the world without clothing, pierced by starlight, in some place of polar cold. The suffusion of wine that rendered me brave would dissipate and then, fear that would sometimes give way to terror, would overcome me. I would need to still myself and affirm that I was strong, whole, no matter what happened, and that despite these surges of anxiety and panic, safe.
I lay next to Pepe, holding him against me, listening to the tide. Breeze lifted the curtains-- there was clearing weather over the moon, where clouds had amassed and then parted.
He stirred, seeing me looking down at him. He sat up.
“Che c'e, amore.” He traced my breasts with his fingers, cupping my chin in his hand, kissing me again.
“Niente.” I took a deep breath and drew him tightly against me, caressing his hair.
“Ti voglio tanto bene, amore,” I said, revealing all.
He looked at me in rapture. He lit a candle, and we tossed the coverlet aside. This time, I could look down at him, at his half-closed eyes, almond-dark, the flash of his teeth, his consent, and quiet laughter.
I covered him with kisses, from his instep, along his thighs, to his stomach, gently sucking his skin of its salt. He half-sat against the pillows and I unbound my hair, giving him all of the bread of my Botticellian body, which had the task of housing the pounding heart of a young poet.