Read an Excerpt
In Which We Learn How an Ebreo Travels Best in Tuscany
Nonno looked east across the roll of his farm at that particular moment in a late—summer dawn when the soon—to—be—risen sun threw an expectant hue of orange and purple across the horizon. It was a beautiful sight, indeed, but the day—breaking spectrum held a bit too much uncertainty for Nonno's comfort. The old man scrunched his eyes for better focus and continued his gaze outward, searching the horizon for some small harbinger affirming that their travels today would go safely and that he was doing what was best for his grandson. Then, in the distance, it lumbered into view.
It was the obstinate old stud, the one inherited along with the farm and the one Nonno loved the most. The donkey paused along the eastern border of the land, atop a slight knoll and between a pair of ancient fig trees. This alone was a sublime image, but when the gnarled beast suddenly dropped its prodigious cazzone to dangle before the horizon, careened its head upward and let go with an impassioned bray, Nonno knew the God of Abraham would be with him and his grandson as they traveled to Florence.
The mournful cry erupted from the donkey's mouth and filled Nonno's ears as profoundly as the sounding of a shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Against the still morning it was a sound of such magnitude that it rose from the horizon like a gust of wind billowing a ship's sails and drawing all hands to deck. Songbirds quieted and competing roosters halted in mid—crow as the lonely bellow ballooned to a mass, teetered on its own enormity and began to roll across the land. The sound, robust, anxious, a touch melancholy, tumbled across the farm, hurdling row upon row of tomato plants before leaping the old farm's wall. It rambled down valley and over hill. It combed through grape vineyards and rustled about olive orchards. It rumbled up the road and breached the village walls. It echoed through narrow streets and wide piazzas. It moaned in wine barrels and whistled through empty oil jugs, moving every like creature to concur until the entire countryside rang with the chorus of a thousand lonely donkeys.
Allied with the crisp dawn air and amethyst horizon, the bray had a supernatural quality that affected and connected all of our tale's characters. To begin with, it put a smile on the face of the Good Padre as he tended the church's vegetable garden. It eased the anguish of Cosimo di Pucci de' Meducci the Third, Grand Duke of Tuscany, after an awful week in Rome. It disturbed the stomach of Chef Luigi Campoverde as he stuffed ground pork and veal into sausage casings with fennel, sage, salt and yellow raisins. It startled and annoyed Giuseppe, as did anything that seemed to emanate from a power greater than himself, while it thrilled both Benito and Bobo the Fool for the very reason it unnerved their boss. With amorous serendipity it caused our heroine, Mari, to pause while stirring a batch of her favorite olives at the very same moment our hero, Davido, paused as he loaded a basket with tomatoes.
But for Nonno, the sound of an obstinate and misunderstood beast of burden wailing against an uncaring world was a physical and aural incarnation of what it meant to be an Ebreo in a gentile world, and a tear of both sadness and joy streaked the old man's face. By ways unexpected and through loss unimaginable, Nonno had managed to relocate his family and closest of kin from the ghetto of Florence, with its vicious plagues and politics, to a safer home and farm in the country. A place, he wished, where his extended family could peaceably prosper.
Though all the children who lived on the farm called him Nonno, his one true grandchild, Davido, was soon to be married, which meant Nonno would have something real to leave him—land and a wife. Nonno hoped that under Davido's leadership the farm would blossom into a place where Ebrei from Florence, Siena, Pitigliano, even as far away as Venice and Rome could seek refuge, flee the ghettos and create a new life. Nonno understood that this late—coming dream would not reach fruition in his lifetime. He could feel his power waning. His body was still fairly limber and his mind still somewhat sharp, but he knew it was Davido's time to come to the fore and prayed daily for the strength of his grandson.
He was an odd boy, his Davido, odd in ways Nonno admired and also feared. Goodness knows, Nonno was pleased by the seriousness with which his grandson took to farming. The boy was coming into his own. A year of hard country life had toughened up his grandchild and put a bit of muscle on his skinny frame, but Nonno found the boy's devotion to the tomato a bit obsessive. He had no problem with his grandson's newfound love of the earth, but he didn't want the boy turning into one of those half—crazed farmers he knew from the markets of Florence. The kind of folk who mumble and grumble when conversing with another human, yet speak clearly and sweetly when talking to the vegetables upon their stand. Truth be told, the way Davido would talk to the tomato plants—his nose pressed closely against the leaves as if to inhale their entirety into the depth of his brain-Nonno was concerned some of this countrified madness had already beset the boy. Nothing a good wife and some children wouldn't cure, thought Nonno. God willing, their trip today would help see to that.
Il Raglio Sacro, the Holy Bray, echoed into oblivion and returned Davido's thoughts to the day at hand. Woefully, he lowered his gaze from the horizon so to look into the basket held in his hands. His eyes could not help but mist with tears—the tomatoes were that beautiful. His first true crop: lush, round, slightly ribbed, a shade of red unmatched in all of nature, with a melding of yellow as the fruit bent and crinkled toward its green stem. What a shame, he thought to himself with an earnestness more appropriate to how the old look upon the young as they're sent off to die in a pointless war. He would rather be doing anything than traveling to Florence today to visit with the girl and the family who in sixteen short days would respectively become his wife and in—laws. Davido brought his thought full circle. He had already met the girl once and the notion that fruits so glorious were bound to waste their goodness and vitality upon an ignominious cause pained his heart exquisitely.
Davido took a few steps forward and set the basket of tomatoes onto the rear of the wagon, sliding it forward so to brace it against another basket. The wagon was nearly full with a dozen similar baskets: presents for old friends and a wife—to—be in Florence. She wasn't at all like Davido's late sister—shrewd, strong—willed, adventurous, beautiful—and she was nothing near what Davido had hoped for in a spouse. On the contrary, she was shy and skinny and she reminded Davido of himself when he was about her age—a puny schoolboy of Florence holed up in the lightless Seminario di Ebrei for hours on end—and for this he could not stand being in her presence. She was a child, just fifteen or so, a good five years Davido's junior and the youngest daughter of a successful merchant more than pleased to pawn off the last of his progeny to the grandchild of a legendary Ebreo like Nonno.
Though Nonno had explained to Davido a hundred times that this was the way things were done—that family knew best, tradition dictated the way—Davido was not convinced. He was repulsed by the girl, and the fact that their Chituba1 stipulated that they would spend the first year of marriage living together in the home of her parents, in Florence, was a thought so horrible it brought bile to his throat every time he thought it, and he thought it often.
Davido turned and walked to the rear of the barn. He knelt down and took a handful of hay and set it in the bottom of another wood basket. He slid himself a bit closer to the large burlap cloth stacked with ripe tomatoes-close enough so that he could catch one more whiff of their beloved fragrance—and then, one by one, he began to gently set them into the hay—lined basket. A layer of hay, a layer of tomatoes, a layer of hay, a layer of tomatoes, two deep and well cushioned for the bumpy three—hour ride ahead. It would be a hot journey too, and though the sun had just begun to rise, Davido found himself sweating uncomfortably beneath the heavy robe he wore. With a curt sniff, he caught an anxious undertone in his sweat that always reminded him of rotting onions. Of course, a heavy wool robe worn in summer made him perspire, but it was the girl who caused his sweat to stink.
The monk's robe was a necessary burden that Nonno had thought up many years ago while hiding about the cities of Tuscany. Nonno realized then that nothing protected a traveling Ebreo like the brown robe of a mendicant monk, a heavy wood cross dangling about the chest and a few well—said phrases in Latin. Hence, whenever Davido or Nonno or any of the extended family members living on the farm traveled to Florence, Pitigliano, Livorno or any other city, they did so draped in the hefty robes of Franciscan monks and pulled along by humble donkeys.
"By and by!" Davido shouted to his grandfather to let him know the wagon was just about set. Davido spread a large burlap cloth over the back of the wagon. The tomatoes would be fine exposed to the sun, but it would be imprudent for a pair of false monks to openly travel with a cart full of Love Apples. It was unlikely that anyone they happened to cross paths with would know what a tomato was, but nonetheless, as Nonno often repeated, it was always best to keep suspicions at bay. Davido then walked into the barn to load a basket with some provisions: a loaf of bread; a hunk of cheese; a few bottles, some with water, others with wine; a handful of figs and a half dozen peaches. He and Nonno would have tonight's Sabbath meal with the family of his betrothed, spend the night with friends in the ghetto and then leave early Sunday morning for the return home, but they would need food and drink for the journey there.
Nonno heard a touch of anger in his grandson's voice and it bent his lips into a wry smile. As of yet, the boy expressed no excitement for his pending nuptial. The day would be trying, Nonno was certain of that, and he took one more solid gaze upon his donkey for inspiration, when something about the absurd sight triggered his memory. "Mio Dio," Nonno whispered as the bizarre and often heartbreaking life adventure that brought him from Toledo to Tuscany flashed suddenly before his mind's eye: the three—month—long voyage aboard Cristoforo Colombo's ship in search of a new route to the Orient, and the stroke of pure dumb luck (Colombo's greatest virtue, Nonno always felt), whereby they happened upon an entirely new world instead. Nonno's ten desperate years after being abandoned by Colombo on the island of Guanahani. His life, his wife, among the island's natives. The return trip with Colombo back to Europe and his escape to Tuscany. The decade spent in semi—hiding while Spanish operatives searched tirelessly to discover the former finance minister who had so brazenly robbed Colombo of nearly half his treasure. The plague that ravaged Florence some fifteen years past—a horrendous scourge that took the life of his second wife, only son and daughter—in—law, and left him to raise a grandson of seven and a granddaughter of thirteen. But most raw upon Nonno's memory was the life sacrifice his granddaughter had made, dead now nearly two years. Nonno closed his eyes and let his past wash over him with the first breeze of the day.
It was time, time to head to Florence, and Nonno inhaled deeply to inoculate himself against the ghetto's summer stench with the farm's good air, when, suddenly, the strangest notion crossed his mind. It was a thought so visceral that his hand almost mimicked the gesture he had witnessed ten thousand times, and he contemplated how, if he'd been born a Cristiano, this would be a perfect time to cross himself. Alas, Ebrei have no gesture like that, and as Nonno stepped to the wagon, he looked toward the heavens and sighed a slight "Oy"—perhaps an Ebreo's equivalent to signing the cross.
"Hurry up!" Nonno barked to his grandson in a tone more playful than serious. "Your wife awaits." Nonno was sitting on the wagon seat with the reins to the pair of donkeys ready in his hands.
Davido did not smile back. He set the basket of food between them and took his seat.
Nonno laughed nonetheless as he snapped the reins, and the pair of donkeys began to trot down the carriageway. "Come, now," said Nonno, "bad enough we're dressed as monks, must you be as silent as one too?"
Davido looked away. He didn't want to give Nonno the satisfaction that his foul mood could be so easily cracked. "You're jingling," he said after the urge to smile finally passed.
"What?" said Nonno.
"Your money vest." Davido pointed to Nonno's midsection. "I doubt a marauder's sense of charity would extend to monks who forgo poverty," he mumbled.
"Oh, dear God," said Nonno as he simultaneously re-arranged his robe to quell the noise and shot his grandson a disapproving glance. "Don't start that nonsense."
"What?" said Davido defensively, though he knew he was guilty.
"You very well know what."
"I have no idea," Davido lied as convincingly as he could.
Nonno frowned. "The rhyming."
"Oh." Davido smiled guiltily. "That. Sorry."
But he wasn't really sorry at all. True, the local village's nasty old padre had prohibited Nonno and his kin from setting foot in his town, but they were nevertheless living among rhymers now and Davido felt he should do his best to master the odd local dialect. The funny thing about rimatori, Davido recalled from the country farmers who would set up their fruit and vegetable stands at the weekend markets in Florence, was how they clearly felt their way of speaking made them smarter than the city folk. To the citizens of Florence, however, Nonno included, the rhyming, antiquated Italo—Etruscan they spoke made them appear like bumpkins. As far as Davido understood it, all public and formal speech was meant to rhyme, and all intimate conversation—well, Davido had never had one so he couldn't say and didn't much care. The truth was, Davido liked rhyming; it was just one more thing about country living that set it apart from life in the ghetto.
"How much is it these days to buy a bride?"
"Plenty," chuckled Nonno. "Her father charged a hefty prezzo della sposa."
Davido frowned as he turned his head to gaze over the land. The idea of having to buy something he did not want in the first place was beyond absurd to him.
"Tsst," Nonno clucked, "the problem with youth is that you think of love and marriage like a lucky fool who goes for a stroll and happens upon a delicious fruit hanging ripe on a vine and prime for the plucking. All the sweetness with none of the sacrifice."
Davido opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. What difference would it make? The die was cast, the bride's price to be paid this weekend and the Chituba already drawn up. Nonno would never understand his aversion to marrying that skinny—ankled little girl.
"Good God," said Nonno, breaking the silence, "do you think I am so old that I cannot hear what the young think?"
Davido couldn't take it anymore. "But what of love?" he blurted.
"Love?" Nonno raised an eyebrow sardonically. "Look at me, I have had two wives in my life and I couldn't stand either one."
This time Davido could not help but laugh.
"Davido," said Nonno, adopting a more thoughtful tone, "one does not love a seed, one plants a seed and tends to it. A plant grows, the plant bears fruit and we come to depend on the fruit for sustenance. God willing, after much effort and sacrifice you will at least come to acquire a taste for the fruit. And if you are truly blessed, like I was twice, the fruit will taste sweet and you will come to love it."
Davido sat in silence as they trotted along the road that led to Florence. He had met this girl already and the only taste he could ever imagine was bland—bland with a bitter aftertaste.
From the Hardcover edition.