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Excerpted from Vita by Melania G. Mazzucco. Copyright © 2003 by Melania G. Mazzucco. Translation © 2005 by Virginia Jewiss. Published in September 2005 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
My Desert Places
This place is no longer a place, this landscape no longer a landscape. Not a blade of grass remains, no stalk of wheat, no bush, no hedge of prickly pear. The captain looks around for the lemon and orange trees Vita used to talk to him about, but he doesn't see a single tree. Everything is burned. He stumbles in grenade holes, gets entangled in shrubs of barbed wire. This is where the well should be—but the wells are all poisoned now, rotting with the bodies of the Scottish fusiliers killed in the first assault on the hill. Or maybe they were Germans. Or civilians. There is a smell of ash, of petrol, of death. He must be careful because the path is strewn with unexploded bombs, lying right in the middle of the road like big-bellied carcasses. Dozens of empty cartridges, useless rifles. Rusted bazookas, 88-mm stovepipes, long since abandoned and already overgrown with weeds. Dead donkeys blown up like balloons. Clusters of bullets like goat droppings. Bones stripped of flesh stick out of the dirt. The captain covers his mouth with his handkerchief. No, it can't be. My God, it wasn't supposed to be this way.
The road to Tufo is cluttered with burned-out vehicles. Motorbikes trucks cars. Bullets have opened dozens of eyes in the doors, the wheels are reduced to scrap iron. Heaps of wreckage appear in front of him. As he gets closer, he realizes they're tanks. He passes them warily, as if they were a monument to defeat. He's not sure if they are the Churchills they lost in January or the Tigers the Germans lost the first time they abandoned the village. He climbs over the wing of a plane—intact, severed clean, the Luftwaffe symbol still visible. Its cabin lies exploded in the valley below. Finally he sees a tree: the first—or last. He quickens his step, his soldiers trudging along behind. It's hot and the sun is already high. What's gotten into you, Captain? Take it easy. It's an olive tree—completely incinerated, black as ink. It crumbles in his fingers. The cloud of dust makes his eyes water despite his Ray-Bans. Or maybe it's the smoke rising off the stones. Those smoking stones strike him more than anything else he has seen so far. His thoughts flow uncontrollably. Suddenly he has the feeling of having reached the place that was destined for him.
On the slope an emaciated old man approaches him. His hair is crusted with dust, his gaze glassy. He passes the captain as if he were a phantom. As if he weren't there. The captain is sweating in his uniform, and wipes his forehead with his palm. His men slow down, start joking around. They're young, recent arrivals sent to fill in the gaps on the southern front. But he knows why he's here, and he knows he is late. He should have come earlier, he really should have. But every now and then he was assailed by fragmented and involuntary images of memories not his own, vexing somehow, like the residue of a dream. They harked back to a lost and incomprehensible land populated by individuals with alien, remote faces, and the fear of having his estrangement confirmed had kept him far away. In the end, though, he'd come. They had entered other towns on top of their tanks—and to the sound of applause. But here the road is blocked, and they arrive on foot. His pockets are full of gifts, even though he's ashamed of bringing them, for his arrival also brings dust, destruction, and noise. The smoke clears; a stone wall emerges. So this was the spot. This, the first house of the village. But it is no longer a house—behind the wall the ground falls away. "That one came down in January," the old man mumbles. Or at least that's what the captain thinks he said because he can't really understand him. The old man studies the captain's uniform, the stripes on his epaulettes. Only twenty-four and already a captain. But the old man is not impressed. When the captain holds out a pack of Lucky Strikes, the old man shrinks away and disappears behind a heap of ruins. Could he be his grandfather?
He has come too late. The village no longer exists. His village? Vita's? Whose village? This place that is not a place means nothing to him. He was born far away—on another planet—and feels as if he's stepping back in time. The only road through Tufo is cut across by narrow alleys that drop into the valley on one side and climb up the hill on the other; now it is nothing more than a canyon between two walls of rubble, filled with the atrocious stench of dead bodies. Is this the odor of the past? Or of the lemon trees she still remembers? "The bombs, the bombs," repeats a feeble-minded old woman hunched on a straw chair in front of what might have been her house. She is knitting furiously. Her house is now a door hung on nothing. Dusty shadows wander among the ruins; they don't know who the soldiers are, and don't want to know. They're afraid it won't last this time either, and aren't sure if these soldiers have come to liberate them or to bury them for good. Everyone is old here. Where have the children gone who used to play in the streets? "Where is Via San Leonardo?" he asks the old woman, forcing himself to dig up a bit of the language they have in common. "My son," she responds with a toothless smile, "this is it."
This? But this isn't a street. This is a hole full of dust. They have destroyed everything. We have destroyed everything. Only one building is still standing. The roof has fallen in and there's no door. But standing nevertheless. The church. Its yellow facade is riddled with bullets, pieces of plaster have curled up like paper. There's no statue in the niche. And the three steps where Dionisia used to write…splintered, the second one completely eradicated. Her house is right here, opposite…Where?
The captain clambers up onto a mound of debris. His heavy boots kick up whirls of dust that burn his lungs and eyes. He scrambles over window frames, shredded curtains, a closet door, a mirror shard stuck in a slipper. His dust-covered face stares up at him. He sinks down onto a rafter resting atop the headboard of a bed. Only the brass pommel rises out of the rubble. The soldiers turn away so as not to look at the captain as he weeps. The old woman continues to knit, and the soldiers offer her a bar of chocolate. The old woman refuses; she doesn't have any teeth. They insist that she take it for her children. "I don't have children anymore, there's no one left," the old woman stammers. The soldiers don't understand her. All of a sudden the captain asks her, "Do you know Antonio? The one they called Mantu?" The old woman's eyes are clouded by cataracts. She looks at him a moment, then places her knitting needles in her lap, and points to a spot on the hill. "He went away," she says. The tone of her voice makes it clear he won't be coming back. "Do you know Angela, Mantu's wife?" Again, the same place on the hill. "She went away, too." Only now does he realize that the old woman's gnarled hand is pointing to the cemetery. But not even that exists any longer. The walls have crumbled, and in its place is a crater, an ulcer in the hill. The earth around here is red—as if it were wounded. But it isn't. There is no water in these hills. Whoever knew how to find the water underground would have been the lord of this village. "Do you know Ciappitto?" he murmurs, now fearful of her answer. "The Americans took him," the old woman mumbles. "They took him to Naples, to prison." "Prison?" he asks, surprised. An eighty-seven-year-old cripple? "He was a fascist," the old woman explains patiently. "But even he went away. He was ashamed because the people threw rocks at him, so he had a stroke on the way to Naples. Or so they said."
The dust has settled. The hill is a mound of gray ashes. Below him, the Garigliano River is a sparkling green ribbon on the charred plain. The sea is as blue as it has always been. "Where is Dionisia?" he finally asks. Vita wants him to ask this question. It's the reason he's here, after all. The old woman doesn't say anything this time. She pulls at the ball of wool, picks up her needles, crosses the tips, knots the threads, and then loosens them again. She nods and points to where he is sitting. To the mountain of rubble. And so the captain realizes there is no coming back. He is sitting on the body of his mother's mother.
• • •
All this took place many years before I was born. At that time the man who would bring me into the world was in high school and the woman in grammar school. They didn't know each other and could just as easily not have met in 1952 when they both enrolled in an English language class, convinced that knowing that language would improve their lives—and the fact that they preferred to fall in love and bring two children into the world to earning diplomas in English would not have changed anything or altered the substance of things. So what about the captain who came to Italy to fight with the Fifth Army on the southern front? I never met him, and I don't know what thoughts were running through his head on that day in May 1944 when he took possession of the ruins of a village called Tufo, like the stone from which it had been built. Until a few years ago, I didn't even know who he was, and in truth I don't think I know now. Yet this man is not irrelevant to me—in fact, his story and mine are so inter-woven they could be one and the same. Now I know he could have been my father, and could have recounted his return to Tufo a thousand times as we barbecued steaks on a Sunday afternoon or did yard work at our house in New Jersey. But he never told me the story. Instead, the man who was my father told me another story. He spoke willingly because he loved telling stories and knew that only what gets told is true. He took his time, but when he was ready, he would clear his throat and begin.
We have always had something to do with water, he would say. We know how to find it where it can't be seen. In the beginning—our beginning—a long time ago, there was a dowser; his name was Federico. He would travel about the countryside with his divining rod, listening to the vibrations of air and earth. Wherever the rod pointed, that's where he would dig until he found the spring. Federico was a visionary, very thin and very tall, but a war of liberation buried him in the same earth he had chosen to live on. He was from the North, and settled in the South because of his idealism, his foolishness, and an obstinate vocation for defeat, all qualities or defects he would pass on to his descendants. "And then? Go on." Then there was a very poor stone breaker, an orphan and a vulnerable soul, who loved the land and would have liked to own it, but hated water. Even the sea. Dreaming to get back the land he'd lost, the man of stones twice crossed the ocean, but stones always sink to the bottom, and so twice he was condemned and sent back home with a cross marked in chalk on his back.
"And then what happened?" One day, in the spring of 1903, the fourth son of the man of stones, a twelve-year-old boy, small, clever, and curious, arrived at the port of Naples and boarded a ship of the White Star Line—it flew a red flag with a white star. His father had set him the task of living the life he'd been unable to live. It was a heavy burden, but the boy didn't know it, so he climbed the planks, all slippery with salt, that led to the passenger decks. He was happy, and had forgotten to remember to be afraid. The boy's name was Diamante, Diamond.
He didn't go alone. With him was a nine-year-old girl with a great mass of dark hair and deep dark eyes. Her name was Vita.
Posted March 15, 2008
I agree that the book is a bit disjointed and hard to follow, but nontheless, an eye-opening experience for the Italian-Americans of today to know the enormous difficulties our ancestors had to endure for the abundance we have today. A must read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.