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By Grace Anselmo D'Amato
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2008 Grace Anselmo D'Amato
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Chapter OneMessina, Sicily-1900
Hot, southeast winds blew through the city; the fragrance of citrus fruits permeated the region as dawn shed its cloak. Blue skies welcomed the morning, etched in variegated shades of pale orange and pink. Franca Raimondi awakened, glanced out the window, relishing the view of the flotilla of ships crossing the Strait of Messina that was twenty-four miles long and two miles wide. She poured water into a bowl, washed with castile soap, and dusted with lavender scent. Her eyes were glued to ships halting at the port as crews unloaded merchandise from all over the Mediterranean Seaport. Ferries crossed the strait from Reggio di Calabria to Messina, with passengers arriving en masse on foot, horses and wagons.
Franca dressed, walked into the dining room where her family breakfasted on cappuccino, blood red oranges and toasted bread. She noticed her mother's eyes glued to her attire and wondered if something was wrong. But Elena Raimondi studied Franca's flawless complexion, oval blue eyes, light brown, waist-length hair, straight nose and perfect teeth.
"Franca, you look lovely."
"If only she would concentrate on marriage, rather than her studies," Elena pondered.
Elena and GiacomoRaimondi belonged to the last vestige of nobility in the city of Messina, and they encouraged their daughters, Franca and Maddalena, to be teachers. Franca wanted to be a doctor, much to her parents' chagrin. Although, Maddalena did not have Franca's intellectual prowess, men surrounded Maddalena with her blond hair, brown eyes, and petite figure. Roberto, her brother, an academic like Franca, had olive skin, black hair and green eyes. Their father constantly spoke about the land that had sustained the Raimondis for many generations. Roberto was attentive but his mind wandered. He did not have the emotions and passion about the land that his father loved with such reverence.
"I have to go now," said Franca, grabbing her books.
"Don't be late," her father called out.
Tonio, Franca's driver, waited near the carriage to take her to the university.
"Buon giorno, Tonio," Franca said as she covered her face with her veil and climbed into the carriage.
Tonio, a bulk of a man and a friend of Giacomo, whipped the horses, battled torrid winds and dust that pricked his face like a thousand needles, finally reaching the University of Messina, a mile away. Students lolled around the university inside high wrought iron gates, wiping their faces and eyes from smarting particles of sand while majestic cypress trees provided some relief from the heat.
Franca removed her veil and shook it out as Dottore Rossi, her mentor and pathologist at the university's medical school, called out to her. Dottore Rossi was a diminutive man with a receding hairline, wispy black hairs at the nap of his neck, and black gentle eyes that peered above wire-rimmed eyeglasses.
"I have a cadaver ... three o'clock?"
"Si, Dottore, grazie."
Despite her parents' objections, Franca continued her furtive participation in postmortems, and studied about malaria and typhoid fever, prevalent diseases in the region. After her mid-day dinner with her family, she returned to the university, descended the concrete steps into a dark, dank cavernous basement, with walls a foot thick.
"Signorina Raimondi, we've been waiting for you. Gentlemen, please show the young lady due respect."
The doctor summoned the students around the cadaver on a cracked marble slab, where he dissected the male cadaver, handed the organs to Franca who, in turn, explained their functions while a student turned pale, keeled over, gagging as other students assisted him.
"Get him outside!" Dottore Rossi ordered.
After the completion of the postmortem, Dottore Rossi made the Sign of the Cross on the forehead of the cadaver, called out to the waiting drivers, who placed the man into a wooden coffin for proper burial. Franca and the other students removed their masks, aprons and gloves, dumping them into buckets of carbolic acid and scrubbed their hands. Then she sprinkled gardenia scent on her clothes.
"Franca, let me try again to persuade your parents."
"No, please, they don't want to hear it."
At the sight of her father pacing the verandah, Franca moaned.
"Oh, Tonio, I'm in trouble."
Giacomo Raimondi had a mane of dark brown hair, peppered with gray at the temples; a formidable man, he challenged anyone who dared to defy him. His black eyes penetrated into a man's eyes, sizing up his demeanor, honesty and motives during business dealings. Those eyes were now focused on Franca, who held her head down, pretending not the see his reddened face. He shielded his eyes against the setting sun that resembled half-an-orange, glanced around at the formal gardens, designed in geometric patterns, with fountains that usually spouted upward and downward. The water had dried up from the oppressive heat, spinning the color of maize over the city with the arrival of the Levante, bitter-east winds, the Maestrale, northeast winds, and the Sirocco, southeast winds that belched across the island from Northern Africa."
"Papa', I lose all sense of time at the university, there's so much to learn."
"When you graduate, start thinking of marriage. Your mother and I will find someone suitable."
"Papa', no disrespect, but I will choose my own husband."
They entered the winged-symmetrical house that spread out like the wings of an eagle. The family lived on the first floor while the second and third floors accommodated visiting relatives and guests. Tapestries hung on the living room wall on each side of large mirrors but the rest of the wall had family portraits. Velvet chairs, brocade couches, and marble tables graced the room. Crystal chandeliers, with lit candles, hung from the ceiling and a rosewood concert grand piano stood regally, overlooking the garden. Franca's mother, Elena, stood in the foyer, arms akimbo, and waited for an explanation. A petite woman with light brown hair, she had delicate features with bony cheekbones and a cast in her right eye did not diminish her patrician beauty.
"Sorry, Mamma," said Franca, kissing her mother on both cheeks. Elena threw up her hands in futility.
"Why do you always insist on getting your own way? I know ... you were studying."
"Get ready; we're going to the interior."
With the earth scorched from the oppressive heat, the Raimondis and their servants loaded the carriages, closed the house, departing from the city in their annual journey to the mountains. They rode along the ocean drive, overlooking the Ionian Sea, four hundred feet below. The horses neighed in rebellion, fearful of the fragile earth that bordered the hazardous edge of the road. Ships crossed the sea, upon a depression of fifteen thousand feet, resembling toy boats that sailed to and from Greece.
Two hours later, they entered a gravelly landscaped road arrayed with leguminous Judas trees, blooming with pink and purplish flowers. Suddenly four fawn-colored mastiffs halted the carriages; their powerful bodies climbing and clawing at the carriages, their bark echoed through the mountains.
"Papa', I hate those dogs!"
"Franca, once they recognize us, they'll calm down. Men, put their leashes on!" Giacomo ordered.
"Si, Signore Raimondi, subito."
Contadini rushed toward the carriages, controlled the mastiffs that weighed one hundred and fifty pounds each, held them into submission, patting them and led them away. The cool moderate winds danced through the stately columns of palm trees, prodded their fronds while massive growths of pink, white and red geraniums bloomed side by side with prickly thistles. A mixture of white, pink and yellow daisies tilted to the music of the winds. Delicate angel trumpets gently swayed and overgrown agave grew wild behind the house, thwarting prowlers with sword-like leaves.
Elena, Franca and Maddalena entered the terra-cotta villa, an upside-down house with bedrooms on the first floor. The kitchen, dining and living rooms were on the second floor, which provided an expansive view of the mountains. While the women checked the house to make sure all was in order, Giacomo and Roberto rode out to the field, where fruits and vegetables burst with life. Giacomo beamed; Persephone, the goddess of agriculture, had blessed the crops.
"Roberto, this will be yours someday."
"Thank you, Papa'," Roberto replied, turning his head away.
"It is your heritage, my son."
Roberto nodded, climbed back onto his horse and waited for his father who glanced at him with puzzlement. They rode back in silence. Giacomo sped ahead of him and reached the stables, with Roberto trotting along.
Quietude pervaded throughout supper, and Roberto avoided his father's eyes that castigated him. Elena, aware of the tension, chatted incessantly but Giacomo remained mute. Outside the larks' song lifted the gloom while dusk illuminated the azure skies with lavender and orange hues. Finally Giacomo stood up, excused himself, went outside and grabbed one of the mastiffs from the contadino, and strolled the fields with a torch, relishing the abundance of Nature's bounty, finding solace in the bucolic setting.
"Roberto, what's going on? Did you have an argument with your father?"
"No, Mamma, I wouldn't argue with him. I respect him too much."
"Well, something is wrong?"
"He constantly lectures me about the land. I am not really interested in farming."
"You should be interested. Your forefathers have fought and worked hard for this land. Why your uncle was killed during the Reunification of Italy in 1860. Your father does not talk about it. The pain is too great."
When Giacomo returned from his stroll, the millennial stars topped the mountains, and his family sat outside waiting for him. Roberto leaped to his feet and embraced Giacomo; words were unnecessary. Elena ordered the servant to serve fruits, pastries and espresso.
Giacomo strummed his mandolin, singing ballads about the land with its turbulent history; conquerors ravaged Sicily, causing the assimilation of many cultures.
"Papa', we have the blood of many nations running through our veins."
"Yes, Franca. In our particular genus, we have Greek, Carthaginian, Roman, Spanish, French, Jewish and German."
"Jewish? How can that be?" Roberto asked.
"The Jews lived here for fourteen hundred years, and in 1492 under Spanish rule, they were forced to convert to Christianity or leave. Some went to parts of Southern Italy, Rome and Northern Italy as well as Northern Africa."
Now the full moon hid behind towering mountains. Tonio put out the torches and went to his cottage, where he lived with his wife Maria and daughter Costanza. Then the Raimondis retired to a benign sleep. The next morning, Giacomo toured the village with his contadini and was visibly upset at the illnesses of the children and elderly.
"Why don't you go to the clinic in the city?"
"Too far for us," an elderly woman replied.
Giacomo nodded, rode back to the villa and called out to Franca.
"The villagers need a doctor. We have to notify Dottore Rossi."
"Papa', he is busy at the clinic. I can examine the patients and the ones that are seriously ill, we can send to the clinic."
"You? You've been studying with Dottore Rossi!" He shook his head.
"Please don't be angry. I know a great deal."
"I'm sure you do. I'll have the men set up a tent. Only women and children ... understood?"
Was there a glint of pride on his face?
"I'll pick up the supplies tomorrow."
"Tonio will go with you."
During the first two days, the farmers' wives shunned Franca; only two women straggled in with their ill children. She examined them and gave them medication, reassuring the mothers that their conditions were not serious. The women kissed Franca's hand, much to her embarrassment.
"Please, do not do that. Just persuade your neighbors to come here. If I can't help them, I'll send them to the clinic in the city."
"Si, Dottore, grazie."
"Prego." Franca did not correct the woman.
The following morning, a parade of women with infants and children queued up in front of the tent. Franca could not hide her astonishment, welcoming them with open arms; perhaps embracing them would lessen their fears. At sunset she finally sat down, tired but pleased, when a young woman ran in, begging her pardon.
"Can I help you?"
"Si, Signorina, my four-year old daughter has a rash. I had the mal'occhio removed but she still has it."
"Signora, that is primitive. Those ways must stop. I'll give you some salve and in a few days, she'll be fine."
Soon word spread about Franca's gentleness and competence. She lectured the women about personal hygiene, urging them to relinquish the old superstitions. Young women nodded their heads in approval, while an older women stood up, shaking her finger.
"No, Signorina, you have your ways and we have ours."
"Signora, with all due respect ... do you want to remain ignorant peasants?" Franca exclaimed, unable to hold back her frustrations. But instantly, she regretted her outburst as the women streamed out of the tent. She sat down and wept. That was the end of her medical work in the village.
The evil eye was ingrained in the nature of the people and women visited certain women who had the gift to remove the curse. Those women poured water into a dish, added a whiskey glass of olive oil, and if the oil and water did not blend, someone had cast the evil eye upon them.
Men did not visit the women, but sent their wives with their ties cut off, wanting an explanation for their headaches. Who had wished evil upon them? Shrewd women understood their husband's tension headaches, and their warm, receptive lips and bodies alleviated their anxiety when their bodies exploded in a torrent of passion. Elderly women warned young mothers to place something red inside of their babies' cribs and never allow anyone to compliment their children's beauty. That was considered envy, a curse, and could mar the children's beauty.
Now with the end of summer came the arduous task of carting fruits, vegetables and wheat along the roads. At dawn, women, children and elderly parents emerged from their homes in the roseate mountains, applauding the procession of donkeys, horses and men. Wagons were painted with tiny designs encircling the rims, and large panels depicted splendid knights and paladins-heroic champions-from the twelve peers of Charlemagne the Great's court during his conquest of the West. The dreaded Moor and his vanquish were scorned in the paintings.
Finally, the parade reached the port of Messina for shipment to the rest of Italy and Western Europe, aboard ships that navigated along the Tyrrhenian Sea. Giacomo, relieved at the completion of the first harvest, supervised the contadini as they set the land on fire, returning nutrients to the soil. Three days later they prepared the ground for the second harvest.
Now Giacomo, Elena and Maddalena returned to the city. Giacomo and Elena strolled along the sickle-shaped harbor, and watched the giant steamers crossing the Strait of Messina. When sailors came ashore, Giacomo conversed with Greeks, Spaniards, Frenchmen, Ottoman Turks and Arabs. With Sicily facing three continents, Africa, Asia and Europe, it was a natural progression to learn different languages. Franca and Roberto returned to classes at the university. She was in her last year and continued her studies with Dottore Rossi, while Roberto entered his second year.
In mid-October, guests arrived from Palermo, Catania, Siracusa, the Italian mainland, France and Germany. Most came by ferry, while others came by carriage. Women alighted from carriages, dusting off and primping themselves while their husbands pounded the dust from their knickers and loosened their ascots. They arrived in Messina for the annual ball.
Excerpted from Splintered Lives by Grace Anselmo D'Amato Copyright © 2008 by Grace Anselmo D'Amato. Excerpted by permission.
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