by Theresa C. Dintino
— Chapter 1 —
Remedies Against the Malocchio (evil eye) for the Strega
In the light of the full moon, dig fennel
In the darkness of the new moon around your home, at all entrances, plant fennels
In the fullness of the Solstice, harvest Rue
In the darkness of the winter, crush the leaves and seed
Wear in a pouch around your neck always
Marcello Ciandella had rarely left his small hilltop village of Torre dei Passeri in the Abruzzi region of Italy. He had never been on a train and, most surprising, Marcello had never seen the ocean. He was not ashamed about this when he lived in Torre dei Passeri, called La Tor’, by locals. Scarcely anyone who lived in La Tor’ had seen the ocean. Nor was he ashamed of this when he boarded the train to leave La Tor’ to go to Naples and then board a boat for America with his three friends, Enrico, Pasquale and Totonno. He only became embarrassed that he had never seen the ocean when he looked at it and didn’t realize what he was looking at.
As the train snaked down the sloping hills into Naples, a landscape of cultivated hills and budding grapevines abruptly ended and a vast blueness took its place. Within
this limitless beauty there were countless shades of blue, glimmering, reflecting the late afternoon sun, extending into infinity. It was a blueness that was, curiously enough, not the sky.
Marcello moved his face closer to the scratched train window and still could not decide what it was he was seeing. He elbowed Pasquale, sitting beside him. “What is that?” he asked, pointing to the mystery.
Pasquale laughed. “You stupid peasant. That’s the ocean. The water you are about to cross to get to America.”
Marcello flushed, which he never did. His dark, olive skin rarely revealed his inner state. But here, now, was a reddening in his cheeks, heat rising under his skin. Indeed, how could he be so ignorant? The longer he studied it, however, the more he decided it was Pasquale who was the idiot. For, how could anyone look at such a presence and call it water? Sure, it was water, but it was also so much more than water. Water was something women gathered at the well and brought back home in copper conche (vessels) on their heads. This was a stretching vastness that tugged at the soul, hearkened of mystery.
When he stood at last on the dock at the port in Naples and introduced himself, breathing in its invigorating freshness and pungent smell, he knew he was experiencing life itself with its combination of indescribable beauty and rank odor.
The streets of Naples were dirty and crowded with people from all parts of Europe waiting for boats. On the docks were thieves of every sort. Enrico got into a fist fight with a man he chose to play cards with. “Break it up!” Marcello shouted and pulled Enrico’s large, husky frame off of him.
“Stupidi contadini” (Dumb peasants), the man yelled as they walked away.
Enrico turned to lunge at him again, but Marcello held him back.
“Basta! Basta! Enrico, we’re not even on the boat yet and you’re already making trouble.”
“He was cheating me!”
“Of course he was cheating you. What — you think they’re running a clean business out there on the docks?” He cuffed Enrico aside the head. “Wake up. Sometimes you’re as thick as a board.”
After purchasing macaroni from a street vendor, Marcello and Enrico sat with their legs hanging over the breaker wall, a good distance from the docks. The macaroni was overcooked and mushy; the sauce lacked flavor.
“Can you believe we have never seen the ocean?” Marcello asked.
Enrico shrugged and frowned. He was still bristling from the fight, shoveling the macaroni into his mouth while looking back over toward the docks. Marcello guessed he’d be heading over there for more trouble after he’d eaten.
“Madonna mia!” Marcello continued. “Pescara is not that far. Why did we never go there? A twenty-minute train ride is all. All my life I’ve been missing this.”
“What’s to miss?” Enrico asked, his mouth full of food. “Picked pockets? Dirty streets? Ugly whores? And,” he hissed, wiping his mouth on his shirtsleeve and looking over toward the docks, “cheaters.”
“Not that,” Marcello said. “The ocean, Enrico. This grandness.” He arced his long arm toward the horizon, then pulled it back in and tugged at his moustache as he contemplated the thought. “Madonna mia,” he said. “What madness could have allowed me to live thirty-four years without seeing this?”
“Phh, nothing but water,” Enrico said. He shook his head at Marcello’s words. “They call this macaroni?” He spit and threw his plate on the ground beside him. Then he stood and walked back toward the docks. Seagulls already covered his abandoned plate. Marcello set his beside it for the birds to finish.
He turned to face the ocean again. Already there was an unrelenting ache in his chest for his wife, Eva, and their three sons. He could have turned around then. Right then, he could have changed his mind and gone back to La Tor’, but he knew, already in Naples, with his experience of the ocean, that for him there was no turning back.
1892 Torre dei Passeri, Italia
When Stella went into labor, Eva and Giuliana, the town Streghe (the midwives) were apprehensive but not worried. Looking back later they would be able to identify the warning signs, the places where they should have taken more notice, seen how they could have understood they were not able to deliver this baby, that this mother needed to go to the hospital in Chieti to give birth.
Stella had gained an unnatural amount of weight at the end of her pregnancy, her feet becoming so bloated and full of water that many called them the feet of a pig. The joke in the village was that Stella had coupled with the “King” pig and was surely about to give birth to the son of a pig. King was the most coveted pig in town, the pig whose slaughter the entire village was looking forward to, so much so that their mouths salivated at the thought of it. Ah, the party that would follow. Imagining the smell of King’s body on the spit helped some of the villagers tolerate watery soup for weeks.
Stella’s previous four labors were difficult, producing large babies. Remarkably, Eva had been present for all of them but not as full Strega. Her long apprenticeship with Giuliana was coming to completion. Stella handled the pain with the fortitude of the local mountain, the Maiella. Eva prepared all the towels, the water was hot and clean. She released all the knots in the house, to open the energy for release, set up her altar to Diana, and spread out her Strega kit. Eva performed the cervical exam; the baby’s head was in the ready position. As the contractions continued, she instructed Stella to push, but every time a contraction came, Stella screamed an unearthly sound, unlike any Eva had heard. She’d heard plenty of screaming through the years but this was a howl of anguish and grinding, not one of release and opening. Though Eva massaged her vulva and perineum with oil, hours later, the labor was not progressing. Stella was fading. Her pulse weakened while the mattress soaked up more blood.
Giuliana and Eva stepped outside to convene. “Giuliana, what is happening?” whispered Eva. “The baby is too big and the mother is too small. It’s not going to work, Eva.” “What are we going to do?” “We must decide who to save, the mother or the child.” “Madonna mia! How does one make such a decision?” “If you think for a minute, Eva, you will see that it is an easy decision to make, but a difficult one to carry out. There are four other children depending on that woman and that baby is at this moment doing its best to kill her.”
Stella’s cries of agony interrupted their conversation.
“Go quickly, to my home. Bring more Iupiter’s Tonic,” Giuliana instructed Eva.
Eva stared dumbfounded, wondering why they needed more henbane.
“Hurry!” “What are you going to do?” “Mother, forgive me,” Giuliana said, crossing herself
before raising her fist to the sky. “I curse you for leaving choices like these to me.”
“Giuliana, what are you planning to do?”
“Eva, you’re a Strega. Someday you will have to do this alone, without me. I pray you do not live to see anything more horrible than this.”
Though Eva was moving at a very fast speed, the distance to Giuliana’s house seemed eternal. Once inside, she reached to the top shelf, the secret shelf, to the bottle labeled
Iupiter’s Tonic, a blend in which henbane was the main ingredient. It was one of the undocumented blends.
When Eva first began working with her, Giuliana was delighted to have an apprentice who could read and write. “So I don’t have to repeat myself, dear, write this down and keep it somewhere safe,” she often said. But not this one. “There are some things that cannot be written down, ever,” Giuliana had told her when she taught her this one. “There are secrets revealed only to a Strega.”
Eva’s heart pounded in her chest as she took it off the top shelf.
“The child will not suffer,” Giuliana was explaining to Stella when Eva returned. “If you conceive again you must be cared for in a city hospital. I must do what I can to save your life now. That is my job.”
Stella was sobbing, crying, tearing at her hair. “She’s going to kill my baby, Eva!”
Eva understood now what the extra henbane was for.
“It’s you or the child, Stella. You are needed more around here,” Giuliana repeated calmly.
Eva sat beside her on the bed, the marriage bed where Stella had conceived and borne four other children. She put her arms around her. “Stella, you must trust Giuliana. You must trust that she knows what is best. I’m going to give you something to help you relax.” She gave Stella a tincture of belladonna under her tongue. Eva held Stella tightly while she cried and fought until the herb calmed her.
Giuliana rubbed the head of the baby with the Iupiter’s Tonic and waited until there was no pulse detectable on the head. And then she did what she had to do to get the baby out. She worked with intention, seeing it through until Stella had birthed the placenta, until she was sure Stella’s womb was intact and safe from infection and would be able to house another child in the future. She worked her hardest to see that this mother would live to care for the children already alive and depending on her.
Giuliana carried out the deed with efficiency and care. Eva did not allow herself to cry or grimace at the sounds she heard, the sight of the cut and bloodied baby parts. She maintained a steady expression for Stella’s sake. “You will never do anything harder than this, Eva. Never. Nothing is harder than this,” Giuliana said. She shook her head and sighed. “If only they would share a little bit of what they know. If only a small part.”
Giuliana asked the family to bring her a small, wooden box and prepare a place in the cemetery. She wrapped the baby parts up in a shirt and placed them in the makeshift coffin. “It was a girl,” she said to the town priest as she handed it to him.
The priest immediately escorted them to the graveyard. The entire village paraded in honor of that tiny baby to pray, mourn, wail, and cry while Eva and Giuliana completed their work, making sure that Stella was going to survive, not leaving until she was resting well. They cleaned the room meticulously, removing any memory of what had taken place.
Stella’s husband, Armando, came into the room. “Thank you for saving my Stella,” he said to Giuliana, holding both of her hands in his. He looked at the bed that held his sleeping, but recovering wife, blessed himself and kissed Giuliana on either cheek. “Grazie, Giuliana.”
Giuliana nodded to Armando. As the two Streghe walked back through the town to Giuliana’s house, their dresses blood-stained, their hair disheveled, villagers stood in their doorways and nodded to them in respect. There was warm food waiting for them in Giuliana’s kitchen and a vase full of fresh cut flowers.
Even during this time of severe drought and hunger, people stopped by with food for Giuliana. For weeks after this, the villagers honored her in this way, leaving it outside the door if she was resting. They did the same for Stella and Eva, but the greatest generosity, the most tenderness, was bestowed to Giuliana. She was seen at the gravesite everyday for two months and wore the black dress of mourning for the full year required of one who had lost her own family member.
When Eva returned home that evening, she spilled a large bottle of olive oil as she reached for the jar full of tea herbs. The olive oil was in its usual place, as was the tea, but on this night, when she reached for the herbs, dried and put up as tea, her elbow knocked the olive oil, and it tumbled from the shelf to the floor. The glass broke and the oil began to spread all over the stone floor of her home. She looked down at it, the green-gold liquid pressed out of the bitter, pitted fruit, watching as it widened itself happily, one giant blob, stretching out along the contours of the places where she stepped every day.
According to village superstition, spilled olive oil is the harbinger of ill will. Eva stood there observing it. Surely the worst had just happened. Surely the oil spill must be related to this most awful day. But the spilling of olive oil was about things to come, not what had already happened. She stood there, staring at it and thinking, Madonna mia! Don’t tell me the worst is yet to come. She blessed herself, making the sign of the cross.
Then her husband Marcello and her three boys rushed in. It was the first time she had seen her husband since Stella’s child died. He moved toward Eva to embrace her. She put her hand out to prevent him from stepping in the olive oil, which was continuing its journey across the floor. He looked down and his large, heavy, square jaw dropped open. He recovered quickly, ordering Leonino to get some towels. “Boys, help your mother wipe up this mess,” he commanded.
Leonino, the eldest boy, returned with the towels and they all began wiping and rubbing the floor together. Marcello grasped Eva’s forearm, wet and slippery with the ill omen of oil, and looked into her panicked and ashen face. “This means nothing, Eva. You just spilled some oil.”
She began sobbing. She sobbed for the horror she had witnessed and the thought of more to come. She could not get the image of Stella’s face or the small baby parts out of her mind. That night Marcello rocked her in his arms and sang to her. He brought her hot tea and warm compresses for her head. That night Marcello did not speak of leaving.
1893 Napoli, Italia
Marcello and his friends had secured places in steerage class on a boat called The Nectar. After first and second-class passengers had boarded and were well situated, masses of people began to board for steerage class. Steerage, located in the bottom of the boat with the ship’s steering controls and engines, was the cheapest possible way to travel.
Many carried large trunks full of possessions as well as handmade, stuffed mattresses. Marcello carried only a small cloth pack slung over his shoulder. All he had with him were the clothes he was wearing — brown wool slacks held up by a cracked and worn leather belt, a white shirt, yellowed from wear, a brown wool suit jacket over that, and a crumpled hat on his head. In his pack were two changes of clothing similar to what he wore, some pots and dishes (he had been told to bring these for cooking and eating) and fifty lire which he would immediately change into ten dollars and thirty-five cents when he arrived.
In the line in front of Marcello and his friends, a woman was inching along, attempting to move a large wooden trunk by pushing it with her legs while carrying a crying baby in one arm and holding the hand of another young girl, who was also in tears. She reassured her children with soft words in a dialect Marcello understood.
“Hurry up!” a crewman snapped at her. “Move it along. You’re holding everyone up!” He pushed her. She lost her footing, pivoted forward, almost falling onto the large trunk.
The baby wailed louder. “What are you doing, man?” Marcello yelled at the
crewman. “Have you forgotten all your manners?” He stopped walking and held an outstretched arm up to the crowd behind him. “Wait. Please,” he said to them. He set his cloth bundle on top of the woman’s trunk.
“Totonno,” he commanded, “grab that other end.” Totonno obeyed, setting his cloth bundle on the top of the trunk as well, and lifting the other end. Together they carried it down the stairs behind a tall boy struggling with another trunk about the same size. “Grazie,” the woman called from behind them.
“Grazie.” When they reached the bottom of the stairs, the boy turned to the woman with the two girls and asked, “Which way, Mama?”
“Women and children to the right. Boys and men to the left,” called out a crewman standing there.
The boy looked at his mother. “You come with me,” she said. “Wait a minute,” the crewman said, grabbing him by
the collar. “How old are you?” “Thirteen.”
“Over there with the men,” he said, pointing to the left.
“He must come with me,” the mother protested over her other wailing children. “There will be no one to look out for him.”
“He’s too old for that side,” the crewman grunted.
“He’s a boy. My boy. I want him with me,” she insisted. “Please.”
“He’s too old, lady. The other women won’t like it.”
“We’ll watch out for him,” Marcello offered. “What’s your name, son?”
“Luciano,” the boy said, standing and shaking Marcello’s hand.
“Luciano, I am Marcello. Come with us. We’ll watch over him, Signora. Don’t you worry. I have three sons of my own. We’ll take good care of him.”
Pasquale picked up the other end of Luciano’s trunk and they began to walk to the men’s side.
“Dio ti benedica! (God Bless you!) the mother called to them. “Grazie.”
When the men rounded the corner they were stunned by what they saw: row upon row of iron beds, stacked on top of each other and unscrupulously close together. These stacks of cramped, iron bunks seemed to go on forever. Pasquale and Luciano could barely fit the trunk between the tight rows.
“Let’s stop here,” Pasquale suggested, putting the trunk down between a group of beds and stretching his back from the strain of its weight. They each claimed an available bunk.
“Mama mia!” Totonno said. “Two-and-a-half weeks like
Marcello looked around. He could never have imagined so many people could fit in this space, never mind sleep and travel. “Perhaps it won’t be so bad.”
“Phh,” Enrico said. “We haven’t even started moving yet.”
Totonno moaned. He squeezed his hat nervously within his hands.
“Look at this,” Pasquale said, walking jovially, his heels lifting energetically, toward several small doors lined up in the wall. He opened one of the doors. “These are the toilets. I picked this spot so we could be close to them, not have to walk far in the morning, eh?” He laughed at his own cleverness and puffed up his chest. They all walked to the bathrooms and admired the shiny steel sinks and toilets, marveling at the way the water ran out of the faucet automatically when they depressed a lever.
“Smart thinking, eh?” Pasquale asked, arching his pointed eyebrows.
They all agreed and patted him on the back.
1892 Torre dei Passeri, Italia
In the days that followed, Eva and Giuliana made many visits to Stella. Giuliana said, “It would be unnatural for you to not be angry at me, Stella. I give you permission to be.”
“Wasn’t there another way, Giuliana?” Stella asked. “There is a way but they won’t teach it to us, Stella.
For this reason you need to be in a hospital next time.” This answer reminded Eva of the other comments Giuliana had made during the birth and extraction. Later in Giuliana’s house, after they had unpacked their baskets, after Giuliana had taken off her shoes and unbuttoned her blouse, as they sat together on the sofa, she asked Giuliana about these comments. At the back of her small stone cottage, Giuliana had created a lush garden where she grew flowers and cultivated many herbs necessary for the craft: ruta (rue), malva (mallow), belladonna, and basilico (basil), being the most prevalent. She had altars spread about to her various deities. She had teased and tugged at the grape and jasmine vines so that they covered a large square arbor, creating a closed in place of retreat. Within this private lair she placed two enormously comfortable wooden lounge chairs, a small table and ornamental urns full of flowering plants. Often in the summer months deep into the night, or even, shockingly, sometimes during the day, she and her lover, Leon Ciandella, Marcello’s father, sneaked out there to make love under the scented and flowering greenery.
Giuliana sighed and shook her head; she removed her kerchief and dropped it on the sofa beside her. Her black hair was parted in the middle and braided. She leaned back against the sofa. “In Chieti, they know how to do it,” she said. She patted the strands of thick black hair that had fallen out of her braid back into place. “There is a procedure to take the baby out, saving it and the mother. I have tried to get information about it but they will not share it with someone without a license from the Academy. They say if a woman is in that situation they must come to them. Well, it is fine to send people to Chieti for things I don’t know about and when there is plenty of time, but with birth and labor, for emergency situations like this, it does not work. How am I supposed to send a woman in labor on a mule over the twenty-mile distance? Even to get to the train station is a four-mile walk. It’s not right, Eva. They say only doctors may know it, but there is no doctor here and there is no plan to get one. These things do not need to happen, Eva.”
“But Giuliana, isn’t it written somewhere? Surely it is written somewhere. Aren’t there any books we could learn
“I wouldn’t know. Not in this town, anyway, but perhaps in a library in Chieti. Leon might know.”
“Haven’t you ever looked into it?”
“Oh, Eva,” Giuliana sighed. “All these years, haven’t you noticed?” Her eyes squinted into a half moon shape as she studied Eva’s face. “Haven’t you wondered why I didn’t write all this down myself?”
“Are you saying you can’t read?” “That is what I am saying.” “How can it be? You are the wisest woman I know,”
Eva said. “Wisdom is not found in books, Eva.” “No, not wisdom, but information!” Eva said. She had a defiant look in her eyes. ”We could change this, Giuliana. We could make this different.”
“Eva, I really don’t think there is anything we can do.”
“Nonsense. There is always something to do. Don’t say there is nothing we can do.”
“We are two simple midwives in a poor hilltop village.”
“We are so much more than that.” “Not according to the people we would need in Chieti.” “We have to at least try,” Eva said, and rushed out the
door of Giuliana’s cottage. “Eva,” Giuliana called after her, as she watched her
hurry down the road toward Leon’s. “Remember to be discreet!”
1893 The Nectar
“A game of cards?” Enrico suggested once the boat departed and had settled into a steady rocking. They played across the bottom bunks, their legs almost meeting at the folded knee. Luciano sat next to Marcello and watched.
“Where are you headed?” Marcello asked him. “To America. My Papa is there.” “He called for you?” “Yes.”
“Where in America?” “I can’t remember how to say it,” Luciano answered. “You must be very excited to be going to meet him,” Marcello said. Luciano shrugged. He moved his leg nervously up and down and looked around the boat, then to his trunk. Marcello showed Luciano the card he was about to play. Luciano nodded. Marcello tugged at his moustache. “How long’s he been there?” The boat made a steady rocking motion back and forth, bobbing up and down, down and up. “Who?”
“Your Papa,” Marcello said. “How long’s he been in America?”
“Eight years!” Marcello hooted. “Mama mia! What’s he been doing there all that time?”
“Working,” the boy answered without emotion. He pointed to a card in Marcello’s hand, indicating what he thought to be the next good move. Marcello’s stomach lurched as the boat pulled violently forward. “Working eight years?” Pasquale said, whistling
through his teeth. The men exchanged glances. “What kind of work?” Enrico asked.
“In the mines,” Luciano said. He looked over at his trunk.
“Coal mines?” Pasquale said. Luciano rubbed his belly. He was beginning to feel ill. “Did he come home in the eight years?” Marcello asked.
Luciano shook his head. “I hardly remember what he looks like. I wouldn’t remember him at all except that Mama keeps telling me about him.”
“You were five when he left?” Marcello persisted. Luciano nodded. “I don’t feel so good.” “Perhaps you had better go lie down,” Marcello said.
He helped Luciano up to the top bunk and removed his shoes. “Don’t worry about your trunk,” Marcello said, as he pulled a gray, wool blanket up over the boy. “We are strong
men. We won’t let anyone take it.” “Grazie,” the boy said, resting. Marcello studied him for a moment, his smooth forehead, his young, boy face. He wondered what he had looked like when his father left.
“Get some rest,” Marcello said, patting his leg. The boy nodded. His eyes shut. “I’m not feeling so well myself,” Totonno said, throwing his cards down onto the pile on Enrico’s mattress. They each returned to their respective bunks. Marcello climbed up to his. The straw mattress smelled of vomit and urine, presumably from the passengers before him. He made a pillow out of his jacket and rested his head on that. He began to perspire. The rocking motion of the boat increased. He turned over onto his back and allowed the waves of nausea to pass over him. He took deliberate breaths, blowing puffs of air out of his mouth.
From the bottom bunk across from him, Enrico began to groan.
“It’s bad enough without that noise,” Pasquale said, flinging his jacket down toward Enrico in the bunk below him.
“Will it be this bad the whole way?” Totonno’s voice inquired, rising up from beneath Marcello.
“I heard it only gets worse,” Luciano said. “Shut up kid,” Enrico said. “Yeah, just shut up kid,” Pasquale agreed.
1892 Torre dei Passeri, Italia
Leon was right where Eva hoped he would be when she found him – sitting at his desk, smoking his pipe and reading the paper. He and Eva were two of the few literate people in La Tor’. The door was open. It was a sunny day. Before she raised her hand to knock on the doorframe, she stopped and observed him. She admired his continued interest in the world, the way his forehead wrinkled while he concentrated, the little grunts he made to himself in reaction to what he read.
It was hard for him, watching Marcello, his favorite son, suffer; to not be able to provide him with an occupation that would help him support his family, to not have any more land to give him. He’d had to give that to his eldest son. Those were the rules. Marcello, possessing the restless nature of a dreamer, longed for more, but Leon did not have the means to educate his son as his aunt had done for him. So here he was, relegated to farming land that was unsustainable to farm.
When Eva came knocking on his door, he was sure it was over this, over Marcello and his growing restlessness. He assumed she had come to ask Leon to talk him out of his plans for America. She smiled in the doorway. The sunshine outside flowed in around the silhouette her body created. “Ciao, Leon.”
“Cara Eva! Prego! Prego!” he said, motioning for her to enter.
“What interesting stories are you reading in the paper today, Leon?”
The shed had not changed much from the time of her youth. It was Leon’s hair that had changed the most. It had turned white. Fully white — not grey, not silver, not white and black but fully white. The same hair slicked back on his high forehead with oil, the same strong nose, but Leon now had a full head of white hair and a white moustache to match.
“Sometimes it seems as though I read the same paper every day,” Leon replied. “Therefore, interesting would not be an appropriate description of my experience.”
Eva walked around, running her fingers over the titles on the shelves. “How I would love to sit in here with you and read the whole afternoon as I did when I was young,” Eva said, referring to her early days spent reading about the Renaissance artists in Leon’s shanty.
“To have you to myself for so long would be a pleasure I could only dream of,” he said.
Eva smiled, her small, birdlike face lighting up as she turned to face him. “I need your help,” she said, “with a matter in Chieti.”
Chieti was a city, much larger than La Tor’, to the east going toward the coast. Cities had services. Villages did not have hospitals, schools, academies, libraries, and doctors. Leon journeyed to Chieti regularly to carry out his business. He knew right where the Academy of Science was, but he did not think they would be willing to lend books to Eva.
“Eva, these things happen in birth, very rarely, but they do happen. I hope you don’t feel that you and Giuliana have failed in any way.” “I understand that, Leon, but if there is a chance — any chance, even the slightest chance — that we can prevent it from happening again, shouldn’t we try?”
Leon took down his fountain pen and the parchment, and they went to work drafting the letter. Eva insisted on writing it herself in her very best penmanship.
Academy of Science Chieti, Pescara
Most Honorable Sirs,
I write to request the loan of some of the books in your lending library. I am a Strega working in Torre dei Passeri who needs information to help my practice. Books on difficult births and maternal distress would be most helpful.
Please help me in my quest for knowledge,
Signora Eva Ciandella Torre dei Passeri, P Pescara
Eva sealed the envelope. They put Leon’s address on it for ease. The post knew him well. Now, Eva needed to make the four-mile walk to the train station to post it. She wanted to post such an important letter herself. She did not want anyone else to know what she was doing.
“You know he is planning to leave?”
“Yes,” Eva replied. “He talks about it often. I’m still hoping…I don’t know what to hope for.”
“I am afraid I cannot stop him. I want you to know I have tried,” Leon said.
“You have tried? I would have thought you would be
“To see my son go away, and then call for my favorite daughter-in-law and my grandsons? No, I am not glad for that to happen.” “Yet, you have always spoken so highly of America and democracy. You have made him feel…” Eva dropped her eyes. “Molto dispiace (I’m sorry), Leon. I do not mean to cast blame. I am simply surprised. I thought you always wanted this for Marcello.”
“It was fun when it was all talk, Eva,” Leon said. “I didn’t know he would take me so seriously. And who could have predicted this drought, this hunger?”
Eva nodded. She looked out the window behind the desk. Leon approached her. They were face to face, but she continued to look out the window. He put his hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry Eva,” he whispered. “I hope you will be able to forgive me.”
1893 The Nectar
It would have been preferable on such a long journey to get up and move about. However, this was not a desirable thing to do. Since the aisles between beds only allowed one person at a time to move about meant to wait in line or push through narrow spaces while exposing oneself to various stages of seasickness and waste of other passengers.
Though it was better to stay in the bunk, Marcello was so tall that when his legs were fully extended, they hung out over the edge. Passengers walking by constantly bumped into them.
For meals, there were moldy biscuits and hardened, tough meat, or soups made of first and second-class leftovers. They were required to clean their own dishes, but the only sinks available were the ones in the bathroom, and those had been clogged and overflowing since the fourth day. Unable to handle the volume of people using them, the beautiful steel bathrooms that Pasquale had been so proud to locate bunks near had turned into a source of unending bad smells.
Who could eat in these conditions? But there were those who did, theirs and the leftovers of others. Marcello had to look away as Enrico slobbered down his own meal as well as those rejected by others. He tried not to listen later as Enrico heaved back into the same bowl he ate out of.
There was the movement of the boat, some days worse than others. There was the claustrophobic atmosphere, the complete lack of fresh air, mixed with the smell of overfull toilets, yesterday’s soup and other people’s vomit.
At least once a day Marcello pushed himself out into the tiny area of the open-air deck allotted to the steerage class and breathed in some fresh air. There he would often meet Luciano’s mother, Delfina. Her face was long and drawn, her skin sallow. She had large, dark circles under her eyes. The journey was hard enough, yet she had the added burden of a crying baby, a moping and ill nine-year-old daughter, and the separation from her son. Marcello wondered if she had slept at all. Although she looked older, she couldn’t have been much past thirty.
“God Bless you,” she said, greeting Marcello in the way she always did. “Grazie.”
“I’m sure someone will do the same for my sons someday when they come with their mother,” he answered as he sat down beside her. He took the crying baby from her. “What’s the matter, little one?” he asked.
“I don’t think he’ll grow up to be a sailor,” she said.
Marcello lifted the baby to his shoulder and patted him on the back, but he continued to cry.
“How many?” Delfina asked. “How many left behind?” “Three boys and their mother.” Delfina nodded. She pursed her lips. “Two years I was promised,” she said. “Two years turned into eight. Hard to believe that it’s been that long.” She shook her head and took the baby back from him. “I have a few things to say to him, if I survive this trip.”
“Where is he in America?” “In Penn-syl-van-ia,” she said.
“Penn-syl-van-ia,” Marcello repeated. “I only hope he is there at the port waiting for us,” she said.
“I’m sure he will be,” Marcello assured. He hesitated to ask the next question, but it had been bothering him for some time. “Does he know that you are bringing a baby?”
She nodded. “My sister’s baby,” she said. “She had too many. Since I only had the two, I took him in.”
Marcello scanned her face, her eyes, for clues to determine whether it was the truth. Delfina looked at him, then out toward the water and sighed. “Don’t leave your woman for eight years, Marcello, whatever you do.”
Certainly he wouldn’t. He couldn’t survive it. He wanted to say it but did not. “Pardon me, Delfina, but do you know why it has taken him so long to send for you?”
“Chi lo sa? (Who knows?)” she replied. “From what I know it was not from lack of trying. He sent money whenever he could. He’s been working hard. He’s a good man. But eight years…”
“When will we get there, Mama?” Luciano interrupted, appearing in front of them on the deck.
“Here, take my seat.” Marcello stood and gave Luciano his seat. “Sit with your Mama. That will make you feel better.” He tipped his hat toward Delfina as he walked away.
Marcello stood at the edge of the deck and breathed in the ocean, the salt air, thick with cool moisture. It was a tapestry of color, brown, blue, green, purples and whites.
The soft sound of a woman’s laughter drifted down to him from the first class deck. He looked up and saw her. She was holding a fancy, blue cloth parasol open over her head. She wore a matching light blue dress made of delicate fabric with ruffles that fluttered with the breeze. A man in a three piece suit was leaning in toward her, speaking to her. She laughed in response to his words. How Marcello missed Eva’s laugh.
Marcello had left home two days after Easter. He wanted to depart sooner, but he couldn’t leave during Lent. That would have been considered a bad omen. There had already been so many signs that had upset Eva, he couldn’t bear to add one more. On Easter Monday, the day the entire village took to the hills to picnic, the day before Marcello was to leave, there had been a grand attempt at cheerfulness, although the underlying mood was somber. The villagers sang as they strolled, the birds whistling with them as they walked over the hills covered with blooming wildflowers and herbs spreading intoxicating aroma everywhere.
The adults sat around on their blankets visiting, telling stories, eating their picnic meal. The kids ran wild through the hills, the grasses, playing games, rolling down steep inclines, climbing trees. Eva sat in front of Marcello and leaned into him. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her closer. He leaned down and kissed her head.
A stranger approached their blanket. “I hear you are one of the men leaving for America tomorrow. I’m from Tocco,” he said, pointing to the group of people from the nearby village picnicking on the other side of the hill. “My cousin’s there, working. I was wondering if I could send something with you, a letter for you to mail when you get there?”
“As long as it is small, I see no reason why not,” Marcello said.
“Only a letter from his wife. She’d feel better if it goes with someone rather than the mail,” he said. “She’s certain he has not been getting her letters.”
“Where is he?” “In New York.” “How is it going for him there?” “Tutto bene (All right). I suppose.” “How long has he been gone?” Eva asked. “Seven years already.” “That’s a long time,” Marcello said. “It takes time,” the man replied.
Eva’s body stiffened within Marcello’s arms.
“It won’t take me that long, Eva,” Marcello whispered into her ear.
“One day is too long, Marcello.”
1892 Torre dei Passeri, Italia
Two months after she sent the letter, Leon was at Eva’s door holding an official looking envelope out to her. Eva tore it open at once.
Cara Signora Ciandella,
I have received your letter requesting to borrow some of the lending books from our library. It is with much regret that I write to inform you that I am not permitted to lend our sources to those who are not doctors and, more specifically, not men.
Though I would like to, I regret that I am unable, under these conditions, to assist you in your search for knowledge.
Most Cordially, Dott. Sam Giacometti Academy of Science Chieti
Eva held the letter in her hands. She was shaking with rage. “Two months waiting and this is what I get in return?”
“I am sorry, Eva,” Leon said.
“Not a doctor and not a man,” she continued. “Unlucky in two ways.” Along with the letter of rejection, however, was a page with the list of books available for lending. “Why did he send this to me after he tells me I cannot borrow any of them?” Eva exclaimed.
“Hmmm,” Leon grunted, puffing into his pipe. He took the list from her and looked it over.
Eva read the letter to herself again. There was something in the tone of the letter that made her feel the “no” was not final.
“There is quite a lot available to you if you are a man and a doctor,” Leon commented, handing her back the list of books.
“Yes,” Eva responded. “If you are both a man and a doctor, the world seems to open itself up to you.”
It didn’t take Eva long to figure out her next step. This time she did not elicit help from Leon. This time she saved up the money to buy her own paper and pen and wrote her own letter.
Dott. Sam Giacometti Academy of Science Chieti
Cara Dott. Giacometti,
I have recently completed my schooling in Rome and
require the following books for review before I begin my new practice:
Eva listed the books she required and walked the four- mile walk to the station to mail the letter.
A few weeks later Leon was again at Eva’s door. “The man who dropped off my post this morning wondered if I might know who this is,” he held forth a package addressed to a Dr. Evan Colella.
Eva reached out to take the package, but Leon held it tight to his chest. “I told him I might know who this Evan is.” He looked at the address on the package. “It’s curious,” he said, holding the package toward her so that she could see the handwriting. “If we remove only one letter, the ‘n’ at the end of Evan, the name is clearly yours before you married.”
“Leon,” Eva said impatiently. “Give it to me.” He held it back again. “They refused to lend to me when I was just a Strega and a woman.” “And now you are neither of those?” “Give it to me,” she snapped. “You have no right to it.
It has my address on it. You can plainly see.” “What if he had brought it to someone else? What would happen then?” “But he didn’t, did he?” Eva grabbed the package and
unraveled the string and paper surrounding it. Inside were a letter from Dr. Sam Giacometti and two medical textbooks on difficult birth procedures and fetal extraction in time of maternal crisis.
Eva yelped from joy and hugged Leon.
Leon was laughing. “I would have never believed it,” he said. “Am I to call you Evan now?”
“Not a word of this to anyone,” Eva said, putting her fingers over Leon’s lips.
1893 Ellis Island, L’America
Marcello had almost forgotten the trip across the ocean would end when they finally arrived at New York Harbor and docked. He stumbled onto the transfer boat and was greeted by a sight he would not soon forget. The ocean turned into rivers and extended in long paths in front of him. The cities of Brooklyn and New York were looming shadows of tall, clustered buildings arranged upon these extensive water- ways. Then Marcello saw her in the distance, the statue’s green, gleaming body, the unbelievable strength in her arm and torso as she held her torch of freedom toward them in welcome.
Marcello’s father, Leon, had read them the story of the French and American people coming together to raise money to build this statue to commemorate their friendship.
“The lady,” Totonno said, pointing. “Mama mia!” Pasquale replied. “Libertas,” Marcello nodded.
At Ellis Island, passengers were herded into the main processing building. The four friends made sure to get in line together. They had decided before they left, if one of them was turned away, they would all go back. They had been told not to tell the immigration official they had work waiting for them or they would be sent back.
They were nervous about being able to lie when asked, and even knowing when to lie as they were not sure they would understand the questions when they heard them. They also had false addresses to where they were staying in America. They had been promised work by a man named Vincenzo Constantino in the Abruzzi. They were to look for a group of men from their village who would be holding a sign that said Poughkeepsie on it.
Marcello approached the inspector with trepidation. He was a thin, pale man with eyes that were wide apart, making him resemble an eagle.
“Name?” “Marcello Ciandella.” “Where are you from, Marc?” “Non, Marc. Marcello,” Marcello said. He had seen this official write Marc down on his paperwork. “You’re Marc now,” he said, writing hurriedly the last name as “Candlo” beside the Marc. “No!” Marcello said, pointing at the word Candlo. “Non Candlo. Ciandella.” He wanted to tell him to change it, that it was wrong, but he didn’t know the words in English. The man did not respond. He simply looked at Marcello and asked. “Where are you from Marc? Dov’e?”
Pasquale, who was in line behind Marcello, nudged him and urged, “Tell him where you’re from.”
Marcello tugged his moustache once more. He looked the man in the eyes. The man’s eyes met his. “Marcello Ciandella,” Marcello said loudly, “da Torre dei Passeri.”
“I don’t want your village. What country? Paese?” Pasquale nudged him again. “Italia,” he said. “Say Italia, Marcello. Che stai facendo? (What are you doing?)” Marcello continued to look into this man’s bird-like face, the small freckles on his pointed nose. A breeze blew in that smelled of all the things that were waiting for him in the new world. “Italia,” he said.
“Marc Candlo from Italy,” the man said, stamping the papers and thrusting them into Marcello’s hands. “Welcome to America, Marc.”
Marcello, Pasquale, Totonno and Enrico had entered immigration and processing but it was Marc, Pat, Tony and Rick who were released onto the docks of Manhattan on the other side.
“We made it!” Totonno said, “We’re in America. We’re here. The place that will make all our dreams come true.”
Marcello scanned the crowd. His eyes fell on a sign with the word Poughkeepsie written on it.
“This way,” he told his friends, leading them in the direction of the three men holding the sign. “Ciao,” Marcello said as he approached them.
“Do you come from the Abruzzi?” the tall, muscular man holding the sign asked.
“Yes, yes,” Totonno answered, excited. “Is it you? Constantino sent us.”
“Shut up! You dumb fool,” the same man said. His thick eyebrows almost met in the middle. “We’re not to use his name. You’re supposed to say…”
“Abruzzi is my home,” Marcello said with him. They took some time to size each other up.
“Where have you been?” he grunted at Marcello. “We’ve been meeting every boat for three days. Our train leaves in less than thirty minutes.”
“We got on the first boat we could,” Marcello answered. “We have to hurry. Come.” Marcello and his friends followed after them, pushing through the crowd.
“What’s your name?” Marcello asked as he walked beside the man he had spoken to, trying to keep stride with him.
“Salvatore.” “You’re from La Tor’?” “No. Tocco.” “Tocco? Constantino said you were from the same village.” “He thinks it is the same village.” “What’s your last name?” “Ianucci.” “No. It can’t be.” “Are you saying I don’t know my own name?” he snapped, rounding on Marcello in anger. “No. That is not what I meant to say.” “What is it then?” Marcello bristled but continued. “It’s really something amazing,” he said. “I have a letter for you, from your wife. Your cousin gave it to me on Easter Monday at the picnic. I was to put it in the mail but since it is for you…”
“Hmm,” Salvatore said. He stopped and looked Marcello over. “You may be of some use after all. Where’s this letter?”
“Here in my pack.”
“Give it to me later,” he said. He pointed to the man next to him. “This here is Antonio.”
Antonio smiled and nodded toward Marcello, exposing a large gap between his front teeth. Then Salvatore pulled forward a young boy who could not have been more than sixteen. “And this is Pietro. He’s my brother’s kid.”
The other men with Marcello introduced themselves. “Have you been here seven years?” “That’s right.” “Why haven’t you sent for your family?”
“You think that is any of your business?”
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