The story below is from an age of a kind of fading feudalism…an age when position and religion ruled the small villages dotted amongst the Dolomites of Northern Italy. It was told by my father to my mother and then to me. It is from around the turn of the 20th century, when the church creatures wielded enormous power in the communities. It is a tale that could be told from any number of small village life in those days…the tyranny of power, no matter how small, over those who could be exploited, who can be silenced…perhaps not THAT different from now!..The actions by the criminals can be the same, but it is how the individual overcomes that bullying that is different. Some run, some succumb, some become violent…the “hero” of our little moment, from the lowest rung in the social ladder of such a community, chose instead, chose deliberately to rely on her self knowledge and self confidence in her own honesty and character…for no recognition, no reward and but for this story, completely forgotten…to me there in lies true courage .
I have dramatised it because in itself, if told as a passing anecdote, it could be told in a paragraph or two..but that would be to omit the background and the build-up toward the crux of the story- line. So c’mon..ride with us on the tail of the tale..so to speak..
Amelia di Cielo and the Blackmailer.
Amelia di Cielo was a widow who lived many years ago in her sister’s house in the mountain village of Vigo-Lomaso set snug at the foot of the Dolomites in the north of Italy. Being a widow in a small village had its drawbacks in those days, as she had no-one to support her, being also without children, she would have no-one but her sister to look after her in her old age. After cautious consideration of her status in the village pecking order, Amelia di Cielo decided to take in laundry to earn a small income. She also would walk up into the mountains and gather bundles of thick-twigs which she would tie up with stout twine and cart back to sell for kindling. The money from these small enterprises would, she hoped, be enough to put away for her old age.
Every day she could be seen hanging her customers’ washing, like brightly coloured banners flapping in the breeze, on a long line between two trees at the back of her sister’s house. She would hang her customers’ washing between two shawls, one orange and one black, given to her by her mother years before; this was so there would be no mix-ups with her sister’s clothes. Amelia took pride in her humble little business, and as with many people of such penury, she put that extra effort in applying her labour, her “elbow-grease”.. her clothes were so clean they seemed to glow with brightness! The other village women walking past always remarked with a shaking of their heads and a waving of their arm: “Amelia.” they’d shout in greeting “Amelia di Cielo, tell us how you get your washing so bright!” Amelia would laugh and shout back: “Wouldn’t you like to know. But then I’d be out of work!” And the women would stump away shaking their heads and grinning and Amelia would laugh in sympathy.
In the same village there lived an old widower. His wife had died only that year and he was having some difficulty keeping the house in order. Amelia did the laundry for the woman next door who told her about Signor Cacchio’s misfortune.
Being a kindly person, Amelia, after some thought decided, as there was only he in the house and there wouldn’t be much washing for only one old man, she went to Signor Cacchio and offered to take in some of his clothes for free. She could easily fit in a few of his essentials with the rest of the wash: “A spoonful of water doesn’t make a difference to a river,” she said to herself. But there; its a curious thing that the best of intentions can sometimes lead to the most insidious accusations. The parish priest’s assistant was a mean man. He could even be called a criminal, indeed, a criminal.
Lay brother Fichi had the eyes of a stalking animal; always looking, looking, looking. He saw himself as a self-appointed guardian of the dioscese and printed a parish newsheet. He wouldn’t neglect to print if it suited his intent, in a cunning ‘off the cuff way’, any tasty bit of gossip he set his stalking eyes on and his large, large ears heard!
On one of his stealthy strolls about the village, he spied Amelia di Cielo coming out of the small flat of widower Cacchio with a bundle of clothes. To any other person this would have been logically assessed as Amelia picking up the laundry of another customer, and promptly forgotten, that is, to any other person, not Lay-brother Fichi!
He slyly observed Amelia for the best part of that day washing those clothes along with the rest of her customers’ in an old copper out the back of her sister’s house. As she was pegging out widower Cacchio’s trousers, Laybrother Fichi smiled a wicked smile to himself. Taking himself out of hiding, he sauntered up to Amelia di Cielo with his hands in his pockets.
“Good afternoon to you, Widow Amelia,” he smirked. “A goodly swag of washing today……,but rather a poor customer.”
He lifted the damp trouser leg of Signor Cacchio’s and let it flop down heavily on the line. “What would you charge a widower that everyone knows has less gold than a silver shilling?”
“I do not charge him at all,” answered Amelia di Cielo.
“But you go to his house?” queried Fichi slyly.
“And I take out his washing,” said Amelia quietly. For she was well aware of Lay-brother Fichi’s wily tongue.
“You may say that, Amelia, but do the parishioners of this village know that. Or will they suspect an illicit ‘acquaintance’, an ‘opportune’ aquaintance with Signor Cacchio, who as everyone knows should still be in mourning for his dearly departed wife. Could this be an affair without the ‘blessing’ of our council?”
Amelia kept washing the clothes, but slower now as. she grasped the cunning insinuation of his conversation. She looked him up and down out of the corner of her eye.
“They do not ‘suspect’ yet Lay-brother Fichi, but I’m sure you could concoct a tale for them.”
“A tale, Signora? I see with my eyes, I tell. Let others believe what they will. I am but a messenger of the dioscese.”
“Of the devil!” muttered Amelia. “But why do you watch me, Lay-brother Fichi? I am innocently doing my daily chores!” Amelia struck her small clenched fist angrily on her chest. Lay-brother Fichi just smiled his cunning smile and spoke condescendingly, almost affectionately to the widow.
” Caro Ame1ia” he smi1ed. “At your age!, don’t you know its almost always the innocent that are accused! One rarely gets to see the ‘guilty ones’ commit their crimes.” And here he chuckled softly and gazed over his shoulder.
“Besides, he added seriously, “times are tight just now!”
“Well what is it you want Signor Fichi? To tell me these suspicions of yours?”
Lay-brother Fichi kept one hand in his pocket and with the other lifted the trouser leg of Signor Cacchio’s and let it fall, again and again, slowly, while he appeared to deliberate on Amelia’s question.
Though it may seem strange to you; an educated cosmopolitan, that any accusation of moral impropriety could have repercussions against such a person as Amelia di Cielo, you have to understand village thinking and social structure of that era. The church and it’s creatures were high powered figures in the communities, they wielded enormous influence on the peasants there. A village population has the collective personality of a single individual: a bit independent, whilst at the same time part of the crowd, a little suspicious, totally trusting, a free thinker a bored conservative .. All this and more, but at the same time it loves a lurid tale, especially an immoral one, and
Lay-brother Fichi was one of the best at ‘dressing up’ a lurid tale and Amelia was just the sort of innocent victim that such people love to pitch on .. Still more, other people love to criticise..and to be ostracised from the community in those times, when in such an impoverished state was almost equivalent to a sentence of death.
“I want you to be able to keep your little business going, Amelia di Cielo.” He looked slyly at Amelia who remained silent and continued to plunge the clothes into the steaming water of the copper.
“I want people to be able to confidently trust their washer-woman not to ‘stain’ their personal linen with any sin of impropriety. But of course, I must report to the parish any.. er, indiscretion that I witness..unless?”
“Unless what, Lay-brother Fichi?” Amelia whispered. Signor Fichi looked slyly over his shoulder, but this was not new ground to him.
“A small amount of liras could keep my lips sealed.”
Amelia froze in her actions for just a second and a puzzled expression came over her face.
“How much?” she asked, automatically curious.
“Oh, I know what you charge and how much you take in. Let us say ten per cent per month.” He smiled as though he had concluded a cunning business deal.
Amelia thought fast, for although Signor Fichi had the criminal’s cunning, Amelia too, was cunning and she had time on her side. It seemed so simple, yet so complicated. All the pros and cons of the situation went into and out of her head. It wasn’t a question of guilt, she was old enough to know how people thought; it was enough in bored people’s minds to be even accused of an impropriety. It was enough for people to savour the luxury of seeing someone else getting it in the neck for them to ostracize her and then she would lose her customers. One by one. Oh yes, a few would stay, but only out of being seen to snub their noses at village convention, But their custom would be like cold charity. No, there was no defence with whining explanations to all too eager ears: “No smoke without fire!” she could hear them say. No, she would have to think of something else to shake this leech off her back.
“All right Signor Fichi, give me a day … no two!
Two days to reconcile myself and I will see you again …………… but not here. I don’t want people to think the evil that you presume. I will meet you at the Trattoria on Thursday and we will conduct any business we have to do there.”
“Very well, widow Amelia, ciao till Thursday.” He lifted the trouser leg of Sig. Cacchio’s again with insinuating intent and smiling his cat smile, let it flop down heavily. “Till Thursday morning and no later.” He turned and slunk away.
“Oh Dio, oh Dio.” Amelia sat down on a small green stool next to the tub that held the wrung clothes, What to do, what to do. She needed time and quiet to think. She finished her washing and hurried off to the church. She enjoyed the dark silence of that building and there she could pray and think.
“Maybe God will find me a way,” she mused.
She spent some time there without coming up with a solution.
Many times she cried out in her heart: “Dio, Dio, please show me a way to deal with this thing.” But she could not see a solution. She rose achingly to her feet and started out. Just before the door was a shelf in the wall where a small wooden box sat, containing a collection of pictures of saints and other tracts of biblical quotations that would be taken home by the parishioners for their own perusal. Amelia stopped next to the shelf and reached for the box lid.
“Is it in there, Lord?” she looked back to the altar for a moment for she had a feeling…, then she lifted the lid of the box. It was always half full of those tracts and pictures, but now it was empty, not one in there ..
“There is nothing in there, Lord!” said Amelia in a disappointed voice, She stared at the empty box and repeated in a fatalistic voice:
“Nothing,” she repeated again with a quizzical frown on her face. A small knowing smile came to her lips and she let the lid fall with a ‘clack’ Her eyes narrowed as she thought the thing out. Amelia turned sharply to face the altar at the end of a long flag-stoned aisle, smiled cunningly, genuflected and skipped, as lightly as someone her age could skip, out of the church.
The priest nearly collided with her as she went through the portal door.
“Ah, a lovely afternoon, widow Amelia,” he beamed.
“Yes, Father, but I trust it will be even better Thursday.” She didn’t wait to explain to the raised eyebrowed priest and just scurried back to her room at her sister’s house.
Thursday dawned bright and blue, the cool mountain air washed a song over Amelia di Cielo’s heart, her steps seemed to float and she hummed about her chores with a little song on her lips.
“Ah, my love, that you were with me now,” she sighed wistfully. Today was her saint’s day. Today she would deal with Lay-brother Fichi.
She busied herself finishing her customers’ laundry, hung them out to dry between the two shawls, changed to her street clothes and set off in the bright sunshine to meet Signor Fichi outside the trattoria.
Amelia plodded up the slope of the village; stopping a moment, she gazed back to her sister’s house and saw all the washing flapping in the back garden. It looked good, it was HER income, HER living. And there was this pest trying to blackmail her out of even that. “Bastardo!” she hissed. She plodded on to the trattoria.
“Ah, here you are then, widow Amelia,” Lay-brother Fichi greeted her. “Well let’s have it.” he nodded quietly.
“Not here in the street, surely, Signor Fichi,” Amelia replied, “Let us go into the trattoria and you can buy me a little lunch and we will conduct our business in congenial privacy.”
She smiled coquettishly.
Lay-brother Fichi narrowed his eyes suspiciously. He tried to fathom this little widow. But such people find it difficult to conceive treachery in their victims, so he dismissed her with a polite gesture of sweeping arm that gesticulated to the entrance of the restaurant.
After the waiter had placed her meal in front of her and gone away, Amelia gazed at the food happily and announced proudly:
“Today, Lay-brother Fichi, is my saints day!”
“So it is widow Amelia,” he acknowledged. “So it is. Happy Saints day.” And he poured her a glass of white wine. He filled his own glass, put the stopper in the bottle and raised the glass.
“To our little business,” he toasted sarcastically “and to St. Amelia as well,” he smiled wickedly.
Amelia di Cielo did not smile, but pulled a small packet of tightly wrapped paper from the folds of her dress and placed it in front of Lay-brother Fichi. He kept the glass of wine raised to his lips and with his right hand dipped the small packet down on to his lap. He placed the glass on the table and slyly started to unwrap the packet. He undid it with an expectant smile on his face, but this soon changed to perplexity as he reached the centre of the packet.
His mouth opened in wonder.
“But Amelia di Cielo,” he hissed softly, “there is nothing in here.”
Amelia put her fork down on her plate as Lay-brother Fichi sat there staring at her. She dabbed her lips with the napkin.:
“No, Lay-brother Fichi.” She looked sternly at him and thumped her fist loudly down onto the table. “And there was nothing in the trousers either!” she cried triumphantly.
Lay-brother Fichi sat there stunned. Amelia continued in a voice that drew the attention of other people there:
“And there is nothing in your empty threats. And there is nothing also in your public opinion. I call your bluff Lay-brother Fichi, I call your bluff! I am only the widow Amelia di Cielo..In your world, a little bell, YOU ; see yourself as a large hammer.. I have only my reputation,but it is a reputation I will stand firm on, so wield your hammer, Lay-brother Fichi, Mr.big-wheel in the diocese, print your insinuations and by the chime of my little bell, I and all the village will see you fall by them. And I say this; YOU-WILL-NOT take my living from me!” Amelia stopped and gazed so fiercely, so intently at the man, that he was thunderstruck by the power of this little widow. He just sat there open-mouthed staring back.
There is a moment in the confrontation between people, when, amongst all of the rambling argument a truth comes out and, as if lit by sunshine, it glows and as sure as while a lie will weaken and destroy a person or subject, a truth gives strength and power to a person or subject, all parties are at once aware of that power.. it can even stop the conversation surprising even the speaker of such truth as if it came of its own accord! Amelia di Cielo spoke that simple truth now. There was a silence in the trattoria..people were staring.
Lay-brother Fichi could sense in the heartfelt emotion of her statement that he was beaten. Only a fool would challenge such a strength and he was no fool, though he suddenly realised he had paid for her meal!
“Madonna mio, ” he gasped and clenched his teeth.
He stood up to leave, very red-faced. Amelia raised her glass of wine as he pushed his chair back into the table.
“To my Saint, Lay-brother Fichi,” she toasted. Lay-brother Fichi straightened sternly , took the remainder of the wine off the table, bowed his head and turned to the door, the crumpled paper package still clenched in his fist.