Book Five..: “I give you my tribe”.
An Act of Contrition.
I am moving into my “Italian period” with these few stories. I do like those extraordinary personalities and situations that mark the characteristic of the Italian short story..I don’t think you can find the depth of “commitment” to the random acts of delinquency or romance and indeed ; superstition from an Anglo-Saxon community..But I could be wrong!
My sister told me of this “event” when she was last here from Italy. I like it for it’s example of “the vendetta”,that long-lasting animosity that exists in these small villages and the resulting act of vengeance by both parties.
It went like this:
An Act of Contrition.
Gemano Filosi, the cobbler of the village of San Pietro di Messana was making his way back to his home one Sunday morning after attending Church . He was suddenly overtaken by a man on a horse going at a steady trot..Gemano had to quickly step aside as the horse and rider passed.
“ On the hoof, Gemano?..You should get yourself one of these.” The rider shouted as he passed.
Now, to any other person such a comment would have been seen as nothing more than a friendly mock…but the fact that it was spoken by one; Cesarino Marchesso , a son of one of the largest land owners in the district, and the lingering distaste of an old family hurt concerning these two families, made it strike home with all the force of a spear in the heart…
Gemano swore vengeance.
The insult dated from back to his grandfather’s time when a foal was purchased from the Marchesso family farm by Gemano’s Family which turned out not to be the expected horse, but rather a mule!..At least that was the accusation..in all probability it was just a goofy-looking horse..but that is the way with inter-family feuds..they mostly all start with a rumour…one can construct the ongoing feud without assistance from yours truly…and then even this last “slighting” may have been overlooked but for the painful corns that bothered Gemano with every step.
Gemano swore vengeance….but was yet to figure out how.
The solution came in a flash of inspiration with a request from his sister; Elvira, the next week.
“Gemano..for the love of Gesu , put some new heels on these shoes before I twist my ankles” she complained.
“Yes” he replied “I will have them done by next Thursday and I will leave them outside the shop door for you to collect as I have to go to the town that day.”
Indeed, Gemano was as good as his word, for he did finish those shoes and he did leave them outside his shop Wednesday night for his sister to pick up that Thursday…but not before using them to disguise his own footprints when he stole over to set alight to the Marchesso’s hay stack on that same Wednesday night before quickly scurrying off to make his alibi in the provincial town.
Of course, as anyone who has lived in a small village knows, every family has a ‘list’ of sworn enemies that can be referred to in times of conflict and the police wasted no time in looking up the list provided to them by the Marchesso family.
The upshot was that the clear set of woman’s shoe prints left at gate which led to the scene of the crime could be traced to the sister of Gemano Filosi. There was even a slight trace of the very soil from the site on one of the shoes. But naturally, the police would never imagine the possibility of Gemano wearing the ladies shoes as that sort of thing just wasn’t done ..
Of course, Elvira pleaded innocence and protested she was home that very night with her recently born baby..This fact threw the police a little, but still she was arrested at the insistence of the Marchesso family and placed in a holding cell on remand while they investigated. The baby could not be kept with her and had to be brought to her for feeding several times a day. This was a very distressing time for Elvira and though she suspected Gemano, she would not accuse him openly, so she sent him a secret message pleading with him to come forward on his own volition. Gemano refused and pleaded his innocence, claiming that since the shoes were placed outside his shop overnight for his sister to pick up in the morning, anyone could have used them and then replaced them with the deliberate intent of shifting the blame onto his family!
This was a line of reasoning that did have a degree of possibility about it..so that after exhausting their inquiry into Elvira, they had to admit defeat and after three months, released her. But the “stain” of accusation had been placed onto Elvira and such accusations cause long-term difficulties in a small village. Elvira and her husband moved away to the provincial city to live as a result. She still suspected her brother of the crime and never forgave him for dropping her into it and bringing such trouble and turmoil into her family’s life.
But the years passed and they all grew old..indeed, Gemano was ill for a long time and now he had reached the end of his life..He was on his death bed. But still Elvira had not forgiven him as he never confessed to her the truth of his deed. But now he was at his last days and the dottore had informed the family that he was slipping in and out of a coma and they should come to arrange last rites with a priest as soon as possible.
Elvira arranged for a priest to come with her to attend to her brother’s extreme unction. The old priest from the village being called away to the next parish that week, Elvira arranged for a new younger priest from the town to do the ritual..Gemano who had embraced the faith even closer to his heart in those later years, was not able to notice that his old mentor was not there.
Gemano lay still on the bed in the old family home. He was attended by the close members of his family and the doctor. They all moved respectfully outside as the priest heard Gemano’s last confession and was given the last rites. Being almost unconscious, Gemano could hardly comprehend what was being said to him by the priest. But there was one driving need he wanted to confess..
“Father”..he gasped weakly.
“Yes my son”..the priest replied.
“Tell Elvira….tell…tell her it was me..” and he nearly collapsed from the effort.
“Yes..the haystack..it was me” and he went silent from the effort. The priest smiled a little and whispered into his ear..
“I think it best you confessed that to her yourself…for the love of God and for your forgiveness…”
Gemano lay still for a while, then nodded weakly in consent…he knew it would be his last act of contrition.
The priest sent for Elvira and the doctor to come to the bedside of the dying brother.
“He has a confession to say to you my lady.” The priest spoke so both Gemano and Elvira could hear. Elvira sat at the side of her brother and leaned in to hear from his weak lips.
“It was I…sister…I set fire to Marchesso’s hay..” Gemano’s eyes were wide and he gasped and looked like this statement would be his last act, his last words..Elvira stilled him and held his hand to comfort him.
“Shh, shh…dear brother..” she whispered. Then she leaned down close to his ear so as to secretly whisper into it.
“I know..brother..I always knew..and I could never forgive you for the hurt you brought to myself and my family…but I do now..I..forgive you..But while you have performed your act of contrition to me…you also have a difficulty..You see that young priest at the foot of the bed?”…
Gemano, whose eyes were closed, weakly blinked and looked to the young priest who smiled quietly and gave him a little nod…
“..well that young man is not really a priest, he is an actor friend of my daughter.and he is pretending to be a priest and you really have not been given extreme-unction..The sin remains on your soul , so you will have to go to God and beg him to forgive you..”
Elvira sat back satisfied that she had at last taken her own sort of vengeance.
Gemano’s eyes went wide as this profound knowledge slowly sank in ..but it was already too late and indeed, this treachery brought on his demise by the sudden surge of shock to his system..He gasped, raised one arm to point to the “priest” and tried to speak..but only a gasp and a croak emitted from the dying man.
“Ah!..ah!..no!..” and with a last gaping gasp of breath, Gemano fell back stone dead onto the pillow.
Elvira leaned to her brother, kissed his forehead and tenderly said..
“Yes, dear brother..now I forgive you.”
Carmello Comes Home.
The plight of the “escaping from warfare refugee” has figured large over the last few years with much sympathy, while the “economic refugee”has been somewhat scorned as an “opportunist”…I can assure many that it is far from true..the desperation and need can be felt equally by the “starving stayers” as by the fleeing desperates..and it didn’t always go that well with such “legitimate” immigrants.
This might ring a bell with some of our older citz’ here…Do any of you Adelaidiens remember that strip of garden between Nth. Terrace and the wall of the Governor’s residence?…It ran from the Light Horse statue to the Arch of Remembrance, between the Governor’s residence and Nth. Terrace …and it was a real garden, not like now where it is just a lawn. It was once full of exotic flowers and shrubs and they would give blazing colour to that walkway that used to carry so much foot-traffic from the railway station to the university or Rundle St (as it was then)..I’m talking back in the 60s / 70’s …well, the entire kit and caboodle was planted and maintained by this little Italian Gardener…I remember seeing him there a couple of times, in those green bib-n-brace overalls. He used to work out of a corrugated-iron shed hidden snugly behind a hedge of some low shrub-like trees near the war memorial end…he could be seen there with his wheelbarrow and some tools in it…he would plant out and till-up where replacement was required or needed, according to the season.
He migrated to this country around 1960 and intended to settle here with his new family..this is a little piece of his story.
It went like this..:
“Carmello Comes Home”
( I )
“All journeys start in hope,
So many end in despair.
The migrant sets his mind to the first,
Tho’ his heart overflow with fear.”
Carmello Notori stepped off the boat at Outer-Harbour on a very hot February day. The year was 1960. The sharp sunlight cut daggers spark-ling off every bright object into his eyes so that he squinted continually and some obscure god had scattered wanton stars onto the sea that glittered and danced.
“This is a pale country,” was Carmello’s first thought. “I hope it treats us well”. By “us” he was referring to himself and his wife and two year old child who were to join him later, about six months later, after he had got a job and set up a house for the family.
Carmello obtained employment with the city council and rented a small flat in a near suburb and wrote short informative letters to his wife back in the village in Italy about his progress in the new country. After six months, he wrote for her to come and join him, but she put it off as “the child was ill with influenza and she needed to rest him.”
Three months after that it was something else that would delay her. His letters became a little more terse and then cajoling in the hope of persuading her to come out, but she stay put in the village. After a season of excuses which Carmello “saw through”, she finally confessed she was too scared to go away from her family, her friends in the village. Where would she get help with the child? Who could she talk to in the lonely hours that plague the mothers at home. No, she was too scared to be alone in a strange house in a strange land. He clutched that letter in his hand and rested his cheek on his arm on the kitchen table. He could see her point in his heart and he did not try to argue her out of it, for he too had felt the loneliness of a faster lifestyle, a more grasping lifestyle that left little time for friends to gather impromptu to savour the joy of a sweet moment. He changed the tone of his letters gradually to one of fatalistic acceptance and sent money back home on a regular basis.
He would have liked to have gone back to his family but he remembered the acute poverty that drove him, and many others alike, away. He remembered too the bragging he had done in the local cafe of the good life he would have in the “new country”, so he stayed, though it was mostly the memory of the poverty that kept him at his work and he sent money back home to his family.
Carmello worked for the council looking after a long stretch of garden next to a busy city street. It was a narrow piece of land that ran from the main city intersection by the Parliament House, a half a kilometer to end at the War Memorial. He would till the soil and plant shrubs in the autumn. He would rake the speckled yellow and red leaves from the deciduous trees that lined the street and shed their foliage in the cool autumn days. In the winter he would sweep the path that ran through the garden or sit quietly in his hut amongst the creeper vines when it rained. After some years he was left to be his own boss so that his schedule was a very obliging one that saw him through the years. When the spring buds came out he weeded and tilled between the flowers as they grew. A small fire always burnt in one corner near his hut, where he would incinerate twigs and leaves and bits of scrap paper people discarded on their daily commute through his garden.
The softness of the small fire cheered him in some lonely times and sent a slim, scented plume of blue smoke twirling up, up over the trees into the city skyline. No-one noticed him so no-one bothered him. He was an anonymous immigrant in a big country, and so the years passed by and he sent money back home to his family.
One day a woman stopped and admired a flowering plant just near where he was standing.
“They’re nice aren’t they?” he spoke.
The woman gave a little start. She hadn’t noticed him standing there. She gazed at him and blinked. He blended in so well with the leafy backgound that he almost seemed a part of it. His brown cardigan hung loose on his short nobbly frame.. a pair of bib and brace green overalls untidily covered his body, the knees of these overalls had been crudely patched as if he had done the job himself (which he had). His face was “chunky” with a big nose and his curly hair, though not dirty, was neglected so his general appearance looked as one who needn’t impress anyone.
“You have a garden?” He asked.
“Why, yes I do”, the woman answered cautiously.
“Here, I give you one of these,” he spoke softly, confidentially.
There was a small heap of cuttings of a green shrub with spiky blue flowers which he had been pruning. Kneeling down with a small trowel, he grubbed up a bulb of one of the plants, then rising and looking over his shoulder in a secretive way, put the bulb into a plastic bag supplied by the woman. They exchanged pleasantries about the flowers and gardens then bid each other cheerio. Once a month the woman would come down the path on her way to the library and they would chat and exchange details about their gardens and the weather and this and that…
“Fifteen years I have worked this garden now,” he told her one day. She seemed surprised she had never noticed him up to when they first met, such was his anonymity.
“Soon I have my long service,” he smiled.
One rainy winter’s day there was a ceremony going on at the War Memorial so that he wasn’t working just then. There were a lot of people standing around listening to the Governor giving a speech. The Governor and other dignitaries peeked out from under the broad black brims of umbrellas. Here and there you could see some old soldiers, medals and service ribbons on their coats and them just standing out in the pouring rain, the water streaming in little waterfalls over the brim of their hats and their gaunt faces streaked with the drenching rain so you’d think they were crying rivers of tears.
Carmello stood under the lee of his hut. The woman stopped next to the gardener.
“Oh hello missus”, he greeted her quietly and they stood there listening to the address. After a little while Carmello leant over to the woman and softly whispered: “I’m going back to Italy soon.”
“For good?” the woman asked.
“No, No,” he shook his head emphatically, “Only for a short while ; a holiday..I have my long-service leave.” He smiled at the thought.
When he returned from his holiday he seemed unsettled, a bit more determined as though he were fighting an uneasy desire.
“If I could go tomorrow, missus…,” he would say, shaking his hand in a gesturing way and he’d sigh. “But I must save, missus, I must save now”, he turned as he spoke, the rake in his hand with the head resting on the ground. “I must save now,” he spoke earnestly.
He was sad at leaving his family back home, and to make matters worse, he had learnt that his wife was now expecting another child and he could not be there to assist as a husband ought.
Another wet day she came along the path and saw the gardener sitting huddled just inside the door of his hut with a little fire of sticks burning by the door. He looked miserable sitting there.
“Are you well?” She asked.
“Ah! no missus, I have this cold..una raffreddore!..I should be home..but what is the use of staying alone in an empty house?” he stared at the fire as he spoke, and it was around that time he decided he would have to go back home…the final decision was made as he read the latest letter from his wife in the village. She told of the everyday events of the season in the village ..and he was not there…
“…it was a good year for the grapes,” she wrote “ but the olives were not so good, with many rotting on the trees..Alfonso ( the grandfather) got a good deal from the miller for his wheat and we now have plenty of flour for the pasta this year…” Carmello read on..”…the saint’s day parade went well as it was a lovely day with the sun shining bright and all the children dressed up and the flowers so pretty placed at the feet of San Giovanni…” the memories flooded in..all this was happening as he had himself seen so many years ago..and he was not there.
Carmello looked up at that moment from his reading as he heard a strange noise across the road..There , dressed in their light, flowing bright orange robes, were a troupe of half a dozen Hari Krishna shaved-head devotees chanting and ringing their small cymbals and tambourines as they skipped and swirled down the footpath opposite in single file…It was the strange sight of this totally , to Carmello, alien image that steered his course of action, a craving for the familiarity of homeland swept over him so he almost swooned from a sense of isolation and loneliness ..but he would stay and save and save..then after three more years, he calculated, he would return to his home.
The woman’s husband had a stroke at around that time, that knocked him flat and kept her home for several years so she never saw the gardener again. A long time after she was walking through Carmello’s stretch of garden and she noticed the gardener’s hut was being pulled down by some workmen.
A little way along the path another man was digging up the green shrubs with the spiky blue flowers. The woman stopped .
“Where’s the little Italian gardener?” She asked one of the workmen there.
“Oh him? He’s gone home, lady, back to Italy.”
“Oh?” She queried.
“Yep” the man continued. “Twenty years here was enough for him.” He laughed. The woman turned to go away, then stopped.
“Tell me; what was his name?” She asked for he had never told her.
“To tell you the truth madam,” the man scratched the back of his head “I wouldn’t know. We called him ‘Gino’ but we call all the eyeties ‘Gino’.” And he laughed again.
( II )
Pellegrino Rossi sat outside on the footpath under the blue and yellow lighted sign that said “Tony – BAR”. The word “Tony” was smaller than the word “BAR” and was in the top left hand corner. Pellegrino Rossi sat out in the morning sunshine at a small round table drinking a cup of espresso coffee and observing the movements of the people of the village. The daily bus from the big provincial city pulled up over the other side of the road with a squeal of brakes and a hiss of air. Pellegrino could not see who had alighted as the bus was between himself and the far footpath. But he knew someone had got off as the driver too had alighted and there was a clatter of baggage doors opening on the far side of the bus. After a short time and a degree of muffled conversation, the driver sprung back into his seat and with a hiss of shutting doors, the bus accelerated away in a cloud of fumes, smoke and dust.
A short nobbly man of about fifty remained on the far footpath where the bus had left him. He was escorted on both sides by two enormous tatty brown suitcases with large belts and buckles around their girth. His suit of clothes matched the colour of the cases. They were crushed and misshapen from being worn on a long journey. His belt, like the ones on the suitcases, was pulled tight around his girth so that his trousers were “lifted” high on his waist and left too much ankle showing down around his shoes. Pellegrino squinted at the man who remained standing there as though trying to comprehend his situation. A smile of recognition gradually crept over Pellegrino’s face. It had been a long, long time. He called out:
“Well, well now, “Panerello” (for that was Carmello’s nickname), we were wondering when you would come home.” His hand was shaking at the new arrival in that flat openhanded on edge way that Italians do. Carmello smiled and nodded as he recognised his old friend.
“Hey! “Dry as sticks”,” Pellegrino called into the doorway of the Bar. “Pour a glass-full of the fatted calf to welcome the prodigal home!” He laughed as he stood.
At the mention of “the prodigal”, Carmello’s hand went automatically to the inside pocket of his suit coat. There it felt a fatted packet. Fatted with banknotes of a foreign currency. Payment for all those years of tending the gardens. Payment for all those years of loneliness in a strange country. Payment for all those years of patience and endurance. He gave the packet a squeeze and it seemed a weight fell from his shoulders.
“Payment for the children” he sighed.
Carmello smiled happily as he surveyed the scene, the Bar, his friend, the round tables on the footpath, the yellowing paint on the house walls, the orangey-pink of the old church in the square, the cobblestone road, the sound of his friends’ greeting, the feel of the mountain air on his cheeks.
“Carmello, Carmello!” a woman’s voice cried from down the narrow street, the sound rebounding off the walls of the canyon of houses. He recognised her sweetly,…the photos,…the memory of her longingly treasured in his heart…his wife called again in a gentle dropping inflection of voice.
“Carmello…Caro, Carmello” she came quickly down the street in little skips and runs as older woman do when they want to go fast on foot. He could see the tears in her eyes, a couple of people stopped and some popped their heads out of nearby houses. His friend, Pellegrino called again from across the road.
“Ah Panerello, Panerello, it’s been too long.” He was smiling as he came onto the street. Carmello looked to him, at his approaching wife, a tall young man at her side..his son.. the young girl at her skirts…his daughter..had it been five years already? A sob of joy welled up inside him, he lifted his hands as though wishing to explain something with them but no words would come to his lips…his wife coming closer, his friend reaching out for his hands with both of his, his village shone bright in the morning sunlight, a shaft of sunshine snipped a star off the glass ashtray on one of the tables at the “Tony-BAR”. Carmello felt the tears run freely… He was home,…at last…he was home!