"What's your name?" the old man asked.
"Cory Roarke." My hand popped mechanically forward to shake his. He didn't move an inch.
Five thousand miles from home and halfway up a nameless mountain, I stared at the man's leathery nose broken in two places, and began to feel seventy-two hours' worth of fatigue.
"Vito," he said pointing a knotty, wrinkled finger at himself, still without proper salutation. My outstretched hand vanished behind my back. He wielded power with his eyes. I could feel them, a tired shade of brown and set deep in his face, sizing me up. In almost a single motion I watched him stuff his pipe into a vest pocket and descend from the craggy, vertical slope. He set slow, timorous steps upon the dirt road and looked up at me, jaw set like dried cement.
"We take drive," he said, settling into the passenger side of my rented car.
Considering my present location, I could summon no conceivable reason for his ability to speak English. Choppy and tentative, it was adequate enough for limited communication. Observing his scant directions, I followed a path marked by a magnificent ceiling of thick-settled trees. Olive? Cypress? What grows in this part of the world? In the past twenty-five years I'd seen nothing but the tough blades of alfalfa, fescue and timothy rolling along South Dakota's Black Hills.
"Is it my imagination or are we going up?" I asked in my strongest voice.
Earlier, when I had stopped at the dead end and found him on the side of a hill with his eyes closed, he replied, 'I'm praying.' Lost, hungry, exhausted and drops away from being out-of-gas, I tried to explain the desperateness of the situation.
He resumed the smoking of his pipe now and turned my way. "Mountain has one road," he said looking past me. "Must go up to get down." And not a second after the words left his mouth did I nearly drive off the edge of the planet. Brakes screeched, dust bowled around the car and, in the clearing, I saw for the first time ever the alarming convergence of mountains and sea. All my blood drained into my feet; for a moment I couldn't breathe. "The Amalfi Coast," he announced, hand outstretched like an exasperated tour guide.
I had never seen such colors.
Vito seemed only concerned with his waning supply of tobacco. Every few minutes he added a word or two to his side of things. "I have six daughters," he mentioned, and then laughed making some crude gesture with his hands. I could already picture them -- charcoal-eyed and wide hipped, long dancing smiles and laughter that poured like summer rain. One of them planned to marry soon.
"What's her name?" I asked.
"Celeste, my oldest," he said with a proud smile. "She's forty-two."
Somehow, I felt I loved her already.
As we neared the coast toward the bottom of the mountain, the steepness started to level. "You understand we're out of gas," I said shaking my head. There was no need for words at that point. Blessed with a marginal decline, we glided the rest of the way into a small town he called Amalfi.
I'd never heard such a beautiful word in my life.
The waterfront shops and cafes peered over the west-booted edge of Italy about to be kicked into the Tyrrhenian Sea. "If I die this instant," I told him, "I will have seen more beauty than most people do their whole lives." Vito just grinned at me or at something, oblivious to my sentiment. There were no tables inside the cafe, only small round wobbly ones set outside on the uneven patio cobblestones; the dusky ambiance illuminated by tall, gnarled, green-lit lanterns. I heard music coming from the top floor of the cafe. A plump waitress wiping the tops of tables in long circles tapped her left foot to the beat. I smelled garlic in the air, in the bathrooms and on the collective breath of this country.
Vito moved like a tortoise, I think less from old age and more from illness of some kind. My grandfather, before he died, moved like that; death having shoved its way into his bones. When I took out my wallet to pay for our supper, Vito's hand snapped down like on a game show buzzer. "No-no-no," he said scolding. I looked down on the wallet, my shamed fingers tipping the folded edges of some over-sized lire.
My grandfather's money sent me to this country to look for my mother. I flew semi-direct from Sioux Falls to Rome via JFK, and rented a car to take me south of Naples. I missed the turnoff to Pompeii by fifteen miles, and by dusk I found myself halfway to the moon. Over dinner, the sky turned fuschia with ribbons of blue and gray woven into its startling tapestry, the greenish water below a mirror of its magnificence. Was she out there? In the sea? I could tell, somehow, that she had sent me here. Something felt right in this place where women wear see-through clothing and old men speak my language. My pores, gaping receptacles for basil and garlic-scented air and the fine briney mist blowing off the sea, my spirit cleansed. Vito and the accordion player embraced like brothers, and then Vito took over for him, dancing to the rhythm of his own music.
I slept on a cot that night at the foot of Vito's bed in a room upstairs from the cafe. The air smelled musky and stale. It became quickly apparent that Vito hadn't bathed in a number of days. But neither had I, come to think of it. Hours ago we seemed to be on our way somewhere, yet now we slept to the lulling swoosh of waves. I tried to ignore the obvious facts of reality: lost, out of gas, grinding noise my brakes made the whole way down the mountain, and no clear destination. I especially ignored the last one. My eyes shut down like trap doors the minute I felt the soft pillow beneath my head. I dreamed of the time my extended family of forty-eight Roarkes ate at a huge table set up in the horse barn behind our ranch, then of a woman in a dark mask swimming in a lake, her scarlet dress trailing her in a shadowy pool of blood. The mind asleep always reminded me of an unmanned lawnmower.
Vito's oldest daughter approximated a modern Egyptian princess. Conceivable, I thought, Egypt just a hop across the Mediterranean. Her skin revealed her heritage -- dark caramel with chocolate eyes surrounded by the illusion of white opals, red elongated lips, angular features like Modigliani women. When he introduced me to her, she was standing on top of some scaffolding set up at a construction site, tool belt hanging loose on her waist. I could feel my heart throbbing in my wrists and temples. I fell in love in the time it takes to sneeze.
"Buon Giorno," Celeste said, large round breasts swelling within a tight red sweater. At that moment I recalled Vito's gesture in the car. I waved, secretly praying I wouldn't say anything stupid.
"American," Vito yelled back as if she wouldn't have known. "We're building a wedding house," he explained walking me around to the front of the structure. "For Celeste and Francisco."
On the way, Vito mentioned the word Scala, strictly in passing. I could only assume that's where we now were. The hollowed edifice faced the main square of town, cobble-stoned like Amalfi's streets. Rows of tables with endless dishes of food overlapped like DNA strands on one side of the square attended to by colonies of women in smocks and aprons. The men, accompanied by Celeste and one other woman, assembled the building's walls. I recognized an Amish quality about the entire scene, something out of place and beyond just old-fashioned. These people, old and young men and women, knew each other, intimately, connected by the same genetic thread. I milled around them hiding my sweaty palms and tried to look comfortable. I caught on quick to the village's most peculiar feature - no plumbing or electricity. Could this be? A farm boy like me, though, is used to such inconveniences. I saw something so fondly naive about their way of life, insulated from a modern orb of hairdryers, coffee grinders and copy machines. On our way to the village the other day, I watched Vito pull a cellular phone out of his jacket pocket. "Only for emergencies," he explained with a red face.
"You are from America," one young woman said with a crooked-toothed grin. In an instant I recognized her as one of Vito's daughters, same jaw and nose bridge. This one seemed much homelier than Celeste; less refined, but more genuine. I liked her right away. "I'm Mona," she said and grabbed my hand. "Vito's youngest daughter." Finally, someone with manners.
"I'm a … farmer from South Dakota. Near the Black Hills," I added as if this detail would mean anything to her. "I mean, I do other things too." She was busy searching my face. We sat down on a huge flat rock intended by nature for just this purpose. "Your sister's getting married?"
"In just a few weeks. She does not speak any English, only Papa and me. I work as a seamstress. Mostly making dresses for the church choir and for the elementary school down the hill."
"Do you sing?" I asked, taking inventory of her physical features. She didn't look like the women in Sioux Falls, nothing like a rancher. Her skin, unwrinkled from youth, would be satin smooth, I thought, stroking it with my mind. Her eyes — bright, wide, innocent; hair shiny like wet petals on a black rose. She carried extra weight around her middle between her stomach and hips, and her behavior offered no apology for this trait. She gave herself to me in the simplest of ways. "Here I am," she seemed to say.
"Yes," she answered. I'll be singing at the service on Sunday if you'd like to hear me. I am told I sing like an angel." Her white, crooked-toothed smile sawed right through me. I knew, then, there could be nothing hidden about her.
Mona and I went swimming after supper in the lake behind the church. She told me of her independence in getting a degree from a small liberal arts college in Rome. Since graduation she had been studying, independently, English, German and French.
"It is my dream to be a translator, and to leave this mountain forever," she confessed in a whisper.
With her, I felt again like I had as a child, intrepidly willing to try anything. In the days I spent in Vito's village, I came to realize that these inhabitants were a pod all belonging to the same family, all watered by Vito's potent seeds. While my car got fixed by Cinzio, one of Vito's sons, I agreed to help work on the wedding house. Having grown up on a farm, I had no trouble making friends with hard work. My mother, Regina Roarke, left us the day after my tenth birthday in 1978. I had been straining milk in the barn when I heard the screeching tires on her pick-up for the last time.
In spite of my connection to Mona, I could not ignore how my body reacted to Celeste's ethereal presence. I perspired from every possible orifice. My tongue fell asleep when she spoke my name. Her accent made it sound oriental, as she interchanged the "r" in Cory with an "l." Of all Vito's daughters, it was Celeste who asked to know the details of my life, with Mona always inches away blue and brooding. Celeste barely spoke any English but I could tell she comprehended my words. I sat with her on the same rock I'd sat with Mona the first day. One night after supper she carried a lantern in one hand and a jug of wine in another. We sat on the stone, the impending silhouette of her wedding house towering over us like a quiet mountain. Mona chaperoned our every word and movement; I heard her soft body moving around in the brush between the structure and the church. Celeste looked up.
"Mo-na!" she yelled. The movements ceased. "Mona, lei il piccolo topo. È venire qui. Che fanno lei?"
Mona emerged from the dark woods with leaves stuck in her hair.
Celeste stared into her plump form with glass contention. "Lei è stato ci spia?"
Mona nodded, sat down on the ground at our feet. Ah, I thought. A translator.
In response to their question of my profession, I answered, "I work as a wrangler on a cattle ranch. I drive the cattle between pastures, mend fences, repair heavy equipment." They acknowledged this like I'd said I was an ambassador to a foreign country. "South Dakota is a place of terrible winters and terrible summers." The two women repeated the word 'terrible' to each other several times. This talking triangle went on for six nights, and during the days I sweat under the sun and shadows of cypress trees standing like soldiers around the perimeter of the vacant lot, hammering nails, adhering sheet rock to the wood frame, outlining windows. And every day for lunch, the women prepared a feast of salads covered with anchovies and olive oil, crusty breads and focaccia with no butter, linguini and penne smothered in a simple red sauce of pomodoro tomatoes, long floppy basil leaves and roasted garlic. I could feel the pasta in my belly pushing against the waist of my pants.
After two weeks I started inquiring about my mother. Nobody in Scala knew of her. The last postcard my grandfather received had stamps from Naples and Calabria on it. According to my triptik, Scala lay somewhere between the two. Mona agreed to assist me on my search.
"She's probably changed her name and long gone from here. Could be in Northern Africa by now," I suggested.
The town stayed busy preparing for Celeste's wedding to Francisco, a young, sinewy handsome brute fifteen years her junior. He was Scala's only electrician. I watched through a peekhole in the church wall as Celeste got fitted for her wedding gown. At forty-two, she had the figure of a ballerina half her age. Even though I took every precaution to insure discretion of this visual invasion, I looked behind me checking people's faces for two days after, soiled by my own conscience.
That night I dreamt of my mother. It was a dream I'd had hundreds of times. "Cory, go feed the pigs in the corral. And then separate the sick ones from the ones that aren't infected," she told me in a vibrating voice. She wore a white dress with short sleeves and ruffles on the bottom, no shoes protecting her thin, porcelain feet. Her skin glowed from the sun's reflection off the layer of freckles on her face, neck and arms. She resembled the Roarkes with her light hair and coloring, but her side came from northern Italy up by the Yugoslavian border, indicated by her pointy nose and cheekbones. All the pigs died that year. Every last one. My father had died of shingles the year before, and besides a few hundred cattle, the pigs were all we had. My mother left that summer. I was ten.
From the west part of Scala, you could see the ocean. At dusk, the pink horizon framed the emerald sea even lovelier than it had in Amalfi. I discovered by accident, however, the much more interesting view from the east. Mona bathed naked in the lake every morning at six o'clock. Her round behind, full breasts and plump middle seemed almost elegant as her wet skin glistened in the glow of early dawn. Despite my tongue-tiedness around Celeste, I found myself hungering now for that which only Mona could give me. She's Vito's youngest daughter, I repeated to myself as if he were some Roman god capable of vile punishments. Celeste, over a period of three weeks, began to take on a somewhat Oedipal aspect to me -- her beauty still so infectious it forced me to look away. Yet her maternal affection, a gesture of both friendship and intimacy, warmed a deep freeze within my hollow chest. I came upon her one morning in a field of yellow grass collecting flowers in a silver bucket. All frumpy in a kerchief and long dress, this vision of her struck me in a way one's favorite childhood toy or blanket does decades later. She reminded me of my mother for reasons I couldn't describe.
After witnessing Mona's bathing ritual, I fell asleep on a soft pad of grass surrounding Malagari Lake. The sun massaged my body, sore, cramped and callused from three weeks of hard labor. The house was almost finished. This realization caused me mixed feelings. Soon I would be leaving, yet I felt as if I'd been born into this primeval land of olive trees, tepid sea and smiling women. Constant dreams bubbled through my weary consciousness like water from an imaginary current. This time, I saw my mother in the lobby of a small pensione in Rome. Her blonde hair grayed, smoking the same brand of cigarettes and shaking her right leg crossed over the left. A family trait. I sat down at her table, and when I held her hand she cried. In that moment I almost forgave all her sins, so touched by our sad reunion three decades later. This ghostly image returned to me the dense, milky pieces of a lost life I never wanted back.
Dreaming again, my mind returned me to the town of Salerno just south of Naples where I stopped to buy gas, food-to-go and items for the road. "Vore una pellicola per questa machina photografica?" I asked in a rehearsed voice. The man behind the counter, confused and scowling, had opened his mouth, dry and cracked in the corners and said simply, "Film?" Now, while he danced with my mother, she wore the same red dress as the swimmer in my dream weeks ago. Lately I could find no clear boundary between reality and my dreams. Something was happening.
The night before the wedding, Vito refused to sleep. I know this because I'd been staying with he and his wife in their spare bedroom off the kitchen. He stayed awake in the kitchen all night alternating between cooking, mumbling to himself, singing and banging pots and pans together. At five a.m. after memorizing every dip and fold in the stained ceiling, I got up. A cup of warm milk mixed with strong coffee appeared before me.
"You couldn't sleep?" he asked. I felt like strangling him. Hands red and dripping with marinara sauce, hair stuck out at ninety degrees, he resembled an emergency room surgeon at the end of a seventy-two hour shift.
"Not with all the noise you're making," I blurted out, nerves raw from over-exhaustion. "What are you doing out here?"
"My wife says I cook to calm my mind."
I looked into his eyes, tiny black seeds submerged in deep layers of wrinkled, dark skin, and at once understood. "Your daughter's getting married," I said.
He stopped what he was doing and sat opposite me at the square kitchen table. "Celeste is my oldest daughter but has lived with me the longest," he explained with full gesticulation, a tear filling his left eye. "I've lived with Angelina for fifty-seven years," he smiled, "and we fight ev-ery day. I wear a hat that makes my hair too thin, I walk like a hunchback, smoke too much tobacco, snore in my sleep. But my smart, beautiful daughters see me a different way. To them, I am a spicy old sage, the wise elder, the hero of our village."
"Celeste will live just a few houses away," I argued, gulping the hot coffee.
He patted my hand with his tanned, armored paws. "You see, when a man's daughter grows up and leaves his house, it's like getting a finger cut off. At first you are blind with pain. And then, over time, you learn to get on without it. But," and then he stuck out his index finger and held it with his other hand, "nothing ever takes its place."
A few hours later when the sun broke through a brick wall of clouds, the women bathed first in the lake while the men watched and snickered from behind rocks and trees. Vito seemed in rare form despite his lack of sleep and mental agility.
"Only one left," I saw him whisper in Mona's ear; he glanced at me after saying it. Mona wore a stark white dress gathered at the waist with darts accentuating her bust line, a single strand of pearls and makeup on her face that softened some of the hard lines. She looked beautiful then, not because nature bestowed upon her the gifts of a slight build and good bone structure but because she was trying to.
Celeste hid in Vito's basement for most of the morning; Francisco paced in the front yard. Cinzio and I sat on the talking rock and argued about the fate of my rented vehicle. A master mechanic as I'd been informed, he insisted that the transmission needed rebuilding. What had he been doing with it all this time?
"Quanto costa?" I badgered him with no reply. My work on the wedding house was to be used in trade for repair to my car. I had no idea about the workings of any vehicle besides a tractor, but I knew transmission work to be costly. I resigned myself to our argument and just watched Cinzio's frantic dialectal sign language, with Mona always in my periphery. All morning I watched her wipe down the long tables, unfolding tablecloths and assembling complex native dishes, all without breaking a sweat. Mona's body twisted and gabbed in exaggerated movements, the striking antithesis to her sister's gracefulness. Watching her, I thought of ships in choppy water.
By eleven o'clock, one hour before the ceremony was to start, Vito's six daughters fluttered around the front of his house like a flock of geese. Screaming, crying, laughing, arguing, all in ruffled, diaphanous gowns bigger than themselves. Being around stiff, minimalist ranchers all my life, I had never known anything like them.
Cinzio looked about my size. He invited me to borrow a dress shirt, tie and pants for the ceremony. We swarmed together like bees from Vito's yard to the church. A tiny old woman with hair wrapped hard into a bun of tar played the organ. When she smiled I saw two yellow teeth interrupting a wall of red gums. I glanced over at Mona now, sitting with her brother, Cinzio, half her size. She was not pretty. No one would think so. Yet I watched her bathe in Malagari Lake every morning and could not stop the flood of feelings in my heart and in my body. Mona's face sank in the time I spent staring at her. Something wasn't right. Cinzio frowned beside her, moving his hands around in his pockets.
"What's wrong?" I whispered to Vito. Every two seconds he kept wiping his palms on the legs of his pants, and the itchy, gritty polyester fabric made his hands sweat even more. I knew this feeling.
"Celeste is gone!" he yelled in a tight whisper. My stomach churned. Seventy-five people dressed in black and white sat in the church pews. Waiting.
"Where is she?"
Vito put a hand on my shoulder.
I knew what was coming. "She took my car," I said and realized at the same moment. "She must have; I heard her tell Mona she had to pick up something at Cinzio's."
Vito nodded and looked at the ground. "Do you love my daughter?" he asked with an unfamiliar, almost devious spark in his eye.
"Uh, yes, Celeste is wonderf—"
"No-no-no," he yelled. "Mo-na!"
I knew the answer without having to think for an instant. I responded with my eyes.
"Come with me," he yelled again and dragged me by the hand to the other side of the church. Cinzio sat alone now in the second row. Mona disappeared from sight, Vito loomed above the empty space in the pew.
No one got married in Vito Ciambrone's village that day, or that year, from what I heard. I used Vito's secret cell phone to dispatch a taxicab from Amalfi to Naples -- a four-hour drive through an enchanted countryside. My face remained stone hard while I said goodbye, my nerves ready to "pop" at any moment. Mona appeared at Vito's door the morning of my departure dressed in modern blue jeans, boots and a long shirt. In my month's stay, I never saw her out of a full dress except at the lake. Moved by this courageous symbol of change, I stepped back to get a good look at her.
I found myself looking at my mother the way she was dressed that day in 1978. Mona did not resemble her in the least; but because of her, my unresolved feelings about my mother seemed diluted.
"You have seamstresses in Sioux Falls, no?" Mona asked with a sly smile and pulled from behind her back two full suitcases. When I grabbed her hand, I wiped tears from her face and gazed down at the turquoise sea, a million miles from home.