2000 Drue Heinz Literature Prize Winner
Selected by Frank Conroy
In the Gathering Woods contains a cast of characters who hail from the same Italian ancestors, but whose stories come at us unbounded by time and space. The book opens early in the twentieth century, with a narrator’s boyhood recollections of gathering mushrooms with his grandfather—a narrator who seems still haunted by a terrifying local legend that tormented him as a boy. We skip backward to a young shepherd-artist in the Apennine mountains in the 1500s, who yearns to be discovered, as Giotto was. Later, a preverbal baby accumulates bits of the conversation carried on by adults at the table above her head; a neurologist from Chicago returns to the Apennines to deposit shards of glass at a grave.
Whether they speak in the lost dialect of an immigrant, of infancy, or of an adolescent girl’s school lessons, these stories call up fragments of language in a struggle to understand and attempt to console through the act of reassembling. The language of these stories is both lyrical and comic, providing insight through the details of Bernardi’s writing.
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In the Gathering Woods
It seemed that I had waited many years before my grandfather, Isaia, asked me to accompany him on his forays, and finally, when I was seven years old, he said to my mother, I think it is time you let the boy come with me.
How they unfolded before me, each taking its place in my mind, I learned from him. Each family, each category. He showed me their habitats, which ones grew in pastures, dead wood, dung. I learned from him how each fell into one of three categories: edible, toxic, mortal. During those many outings, it seemed impossible to me that I would ever know with certainty. How could I be trusted to know the difference between the prugnolo and the deadly tignosa bianca, both blindingly white? Those that were safe were frequently revolting in appearance, while the benign-looking often proved deadly.
I was a quiet child, with narrow shoulders, slender limbs, serious and withdrawn, who, beneath a polite, reserved self, had always been wildly fascinated with fright. Alone for hours on end in the fields, I would contrive tales and could, with a detailed telling, scare myself, take myself to the edge of a precipice, always able at the last minute to yank myself back and resume my task as if I had never summoned up the fear, simply whistle for the dog and begin to round up the sheep again. I drew from an ample well of stories, having heard of ravens who plucked shepherds out of pastures, of innkeepers who killed guests and served them for dinner to pilgrims travelling through. But during that yearwhen I began to learn the nature of mushrooms from my grandfather Isaia, I stopped the game of deliberately scaring myself, no longer certain I could check fright at will; increasingly, I became consumed with fear, suffering often from episodes of panic, terrified that I would make a fatal mistake and be responsible for the careless oversight that resulted in the poisoning of my entire family.
* * *
Early that October morning when Isaia first took me out, he shook my shoulder, waking me. He said in a whisper like far-off thunder, Indemma. Let's go. Instantaneously, I became alert and dressed myself quickly, the stone floor cold against my soles.
It was dark when we left Tavolanuda, each carrying a weathered basket. Fog obscured all but the closest trees. We walked on the via Giardini past Casacinque, through the hamlet of Barigelli. We turned onto a mountain path called Pianaccio Fiammineda, flaming path. We walked for several hours and met no one.
As we approached a thick forest of pine trees, Isaia said: This is where we leave the path. With his right hand, he grabbed the trunk of a tree above and hoisted himself up. He scaled the mountainside with ease, reaching from tree to tree, using each to pull himself higher up the slope, while I, on my knees, grasped at low bushes and saplings to keep from falling backwards. He waited above at a level place. When I reached him, I was out of breath and he was on his haunches calmly cutting a mushroom at the base of its stem.
Look at its shape, Costante, he said to me. A true mushroom shape: the cap, like a broad, flattened dome; the stem, thick and smooth.
Look at the parts. The cap is covered with a film, not dry. Look at the particles on the stem, which are grainy.
As he cut and gathered more mushrooms, he seemed to pay no attention to me. I moved quickly, hopping from place to place in order to quickly fill my basket.
Isaia stopped me. Do not be in too much of a rush; that is how mistakes are made.
When my grandfather finished gathering the mushrooms, he waved for me to follow him back to the path.
As we walked along, I heard only our footsteps, Isaia's long strides settling loudly into his heavy boots, mine clicking lightly, unevenly, upon the stones of the path. I wore a new pair of wooden shoes, zoccoli, and my soles slipped against the slick carpet of moss and lichen. I slipped frequently. I veered from left to right on the path, peering into the woods above and below but not daring to enter. I lagged farther and farther behind my grandfather, looking into the dense layers of limbs, tempting pricks of uneasiness, hoping to see an animal move. Perhaps a hare. Or a boar, the cinghiale, a powerful, horrible beast with its snout rooting in the soil.
Isaia followed the path around a bend to the left, and by not following him I permitted him to disappear. I was alone. I stood still in my fear, able to run after him, but unwilling. I preferred to remain there, an epicenter separate within a sphere of fog. The fog caressed my face with a cool dampness, surrounding me, isolating me. Suddenly, it gripped my throat and I could barely breathe. From my throat, there rose to my ears, a quick-throbbing, murmuring thud, my heart beating so rapidly that I was unable to move, the fog so close I could not see. I was lost to the trees.
And there, in a tangle of branches entwined in a crushing dependency, I saw them for the first time, the Ugly Children, their bulging eyes accusing me. Their shrill voices called out, Guarzetto! Hey, boy! they called to me again and again. Hey boy! I can still hear the dissonant staccato as they shrieked, zetto, zetto, zetto! like giant, evil insects.
I ran from them, the soles of my wooden shoes slipping on the rocks, seeing nothing but a blur of grey ahead and charred limbs reaching from either side. I ran on a path I could not see, to a point I could not find.
At last, I heard my name. My grandfather sounded as if he had entered the valley below us. I ran until I saw his white hair bristling beneath the edge of his cap.
* * *
Our land was on an east-facing slope, one of the few farms with a flat expanse for pastures and fields. Above, on the culm of the slope, there was once a fine stand of chestnut trees. Our household consisted of my grandfather, my grandmother, my mother, and myself. My father, a stonecutter, had gone to quarry in Corsica and died in an explosion when I was still an infant.
Our farm was called Tavolanuda and had been in our family since my grandfather's grandfather married the only daughter of a prosperous shepherd. He came to own thirty hectares of land at a time when most others owned only five. His prosperity did not succeed him, however, and neither of his two sons achieved the station he had envisioned for them.
My great-great-grandfather, for whom my grandfather was named, dreamed that his first-born son, Orazio, would become a scholar and go down to the plains, to Modena, to teach classics. Instead, Orazio heard the voice of God at an early age and entered the seminary at Fiumalbo. He willed fifteen hectares, his entire birthright, to the Church, in whose hands the land has remained to this day, untouched, unused. The other son was named Napoleone Bonaparte. My grandfather's grandfather was a great supporter of France and of French culture; he wished for his son to be a leader of free men, but Bonaparte was not. After serving in the army for twelve years, he returned to Tavolanuda and continued to play the cavaliere, having grown accustomed to the privileges of a low-ranking officer. While his father was alive, Bonaparte's gambling debts were manageable, eventually recouped in subsequent games or with his father's assistance. With the death of Isaia, however, there was no longer a harness, and the debts accumulated until they threatened the welfare of the family. Little by little, Bonaparte sold off the chestnut trees from the property above, until it was completely deforested. It is from this point in time that the farm became known as Tavolanuda, the naked table.
After denuding the land, Bonaparte nearly succeeded in losing what remained. Besieged by friends and acquaintances to whom he owed money, he sold off seven hectares. For a pittance, he sold off the crest of the hill where the chestnut trees had once stood. Then, in order to pay off the remaining debt, he took a loan from a man named Orlandini who came from La Rocca. That village sat on an enormous rock, its houses, were made of slate-colored stone. Behind it loomed Sasso Tignoso, a bare mountain peak, whose name signifies "nasty and mean." The people of La Rocca had a reputation for stinginess and for avarice, and it was said that the infants there suckled, not at the breasts of their mothers, but on rocks, nourished only by dew.
Orlandini, the man to whom my great-grandfather owed money, had made a modest fortune with his flock of sheep. His commercial success earned him a reputation as the local moneylender, and, for this, he was excommunicated. Orlandini's younger brother had served in the cavalry with Bonaparte, and so he took pity and bought off Bonaparte's remaining debt for a modest rate of interest. Over the years, the debt remained and interest accrued. With Bonaparte having no timber left to sell, and making no move to repay the debt, Orlandini called in his loan.
The night Bonaparte attempted to win back his losses, the stakes were very high. In a game of briscola, he bet the land against a man from Buccoterra whose name was Brut'figlioli. My great-grandfather lost one tract of land, then two, then all eight remaining hectares. On the last hand, his rival thumped down the three of spades, the trump, a briscola. He had lost the house itself.
Bonaparte challenged Brut'figlioli to another game.
Ma cos'ad ghè a scommar'? What do you have left to bet? he asked. The land was gone, the house.
Me fiô, Bonaparte said to him across the table. My son. And that way if I lose, you'll have one good-looking heir.
The men crowding around that table were with my great-grand-father. Not that they cared for him, they didn't; he was arrogant and had soft hands.
But Brut'figlioli, they despised, for it was said, he had begotten the ugliest children that God had ever created. They had wild hair, knotted and twisted like mildewed rope into hideous snake curls, and their eyes protruded from the sockets. They resembled insects and spoke in shrill, incomprehensible voices. They were, it was said, conceived in the womb of a gypsy by the seed of a bedouin. These were the children known as the Ugly Children, the very ones who called out to me in the forest, the very ones whose piercing shrieks had sent me running toward my grandfather. It was to the Brut'figlioli family that my great-grandfather had risked losing his son.
At midnight, Bonaparte said to Brut'figlioli, And now we'll change the game. I want to play scopa.
Brut'figlioli agreed and Bonaparte wagered his son. They played only one game.
All the cards fell to Bonaparte, and some took it as proof that the Lord blesses those who remember the Church in their offerings. It was said that Orazio, by this time at a monastery in Ferrara, had heard the prayers of his brother, and that he had prayed. O heavenly Lord, as I have offered Thee already my entire earthly estate, please look with favor upon my brother Napoleone Bonaparte in this his hour of need. It was said that he prayed in Latin and that then he prayed in the language of the mountains. Aiutatelu che gioga ben'. Help him to play well.
Bonaparte, who had bet his son for the return of the house and the land, won in three hands, sweeping up each time the set' bello, the majority of diamonds, the majority of the cards, the queen and a scopa. In only one hand did Brut'figlioli win a single point, the unenviable point, for taking the sixes and sevens. With three scope in his hands, Tavolanuda and the child were his again. On the day he won back Tavolanuda, my great-grandfather gave up gambling and turned his attention to the land, and my grandfather grew up knowing how to cultivate and how to read.
* * *
In our mountains, the snow fell from October until April, and those too weak to push open the doors jammed shut by snowdrifts were known to have died of starvation inside their homes. It was a lonely time at Tavolanuda, and during the winter, we desperately anticipated the voices of the men who had been hired by the road supervisor, the cantoniere, to clear the snow. As they neared from the direction of the house called Campanile, we would first hear a gravelly hum, which grew gradually louder. Then we would hear the scraping of shovels, the tromping of boots, and, when they were upon us, the squeaking of snow and ice beneath their soles.
They were led in song by a man named 'Cello, christened Marcello, nicknamed Violoncello, because the pitch and depth of his voice were as precise and as stirring as that instrument when it is finely tuned.
Heard perhaps four or five times a season, 'Cello's voice infused hope, and his song helped break the monotony of our muffled silence. In winter, these men were one of the few reminders that others inhabited the universe.
He would sing and call, Un mazzolin' di fiori. A little bouquet of flowers.
And the gang would answer, Che vien' de' la montagna. That comes from the mountains.
My mother Beatrice allowed me to stand in the doorway and watch and listen. She even allowed herself, a widow, to stand in the doorway to hear better. But she would not allow me beyond the threshold because, she said, the men were atheists and used foul language. I stood with my back against the wooden door, looking at the road and, across it, at the mountain wall, which was a dazzling white, triumphantly emerged for a moment from the clouds that had locked it away for days on end within an ashen chaos. I would wait and watch as this gang of twenty men neared, each man built like a mule, flinging shovels full of snow, clearing a path so that people could travel until the next snowstorm. This was the road that the emigrants travelled each autumn, the charcoalmakers and the wet nurses and the shepherds and the stoneworkers like my father, who went down out of the mountains. They went far away and many houses were left empty. But we remained in our house and were comforted by the sight of this benevolent swarm, a mist of white surrounding it. We were consoled by the sound of its merciful humming, as it moved slowly up the road toward our house, swelling as it neared us, then dissipating as the last man rounded the bend and disappeared in the direction of Serpiano.
* * *
Like spring, my birth was eagerly awaited, and I was welcomed with relief. I remained for the old people a perpetual reassurance that endurance would be rewarded with survival. The spring of my eighth birthday followed an exceptionally long winter. When my birthday arrived that year, the feast day of San Bernardino at the end of May, I was to accompany Isaia again on one of his outings; this time, however, he did not need to shake me awake, for I was already dressed and sitting downstairs on the wooden chair beside the door when he came down the granite steps.
As we walked, I peered into the dark, trying to guess where he was taking me. For a kilometer, he said not one word. The main road curved to the left, and we followed a footpath to the right which descended gently. As we walked among the scattered trees, the sun's fingertips emerged across the valley from behind the mountain called Cimone, and by the time we had crossed through the thin woods, it was daylight. My grandfather pointed to a pile of rocks at the edge of a field, a mas'rin, it was called, a mound of stones made by the women and children who had cleared the field. We sat down on this heap, and ate our breakfast of bread and cheese and onion.
Eat a mushroom only if its identity is certain.
With his pocketknife he cut a piece of bread and handed it to me.
If you have a speck of doubt, my grandfather said, leave it alone. Only ask the opinion of someone you trust.
I absorbed his warnings through my skin. I had heard from my schoolmates about a family from beyond Piandelagotti that had been killed years ago by ingesting poisonous mushrooms.
The boy had been whipped by his father for losing one of the sheep. To get back into his father's good graces, he arose early one morning and went to a faraway field to collect mushrooms. He gathered dozens of deadly mushrooms, mistaking them for a similar-looking white mushroom called the pratatiolo, which is benign. When he returned home, the father was skeptical, but relented because the boy was so confident and convincing in his argument. The mother cooked the mushrooms in butter and garlic that evening. The next morning they were all dead, even the old grandfather.
After we finished our morning meal, we started walking again, continuing another half-kilometer along the edge of the field. There, in the grass, was an expanse of little sponge-like creatures. Isaia bent down over the mushrooms, squatting with an elbow resting on his knee.
Look at the stem, child.
It was thick and white
Do you know the butcher Mazzinelli? Do you know his hands?
I did. Who could forget the hands of that man? Broad, with short thick fingers, wider at the nail.
Think of his thumb and you will remember this stem, Isaia said. The top of this mushroom is a yellowish brown, round like the sponges the Fontana brothers bring back each season from Sardegna.
That day I learned to identify the spugnola gialla. The thick-stemmed morel. There is nothing else that resembles it, Isaia said, nothing edible or toxic or deadly. If you see it once, you will remember it forever.
In teaching me about the mushrooms, Isaia selected as his earliest examples the edible mushrooms that are most easily identified.
When we had filled my grandfather's basket, he said, Ora turnemmo it, dré. We'll go back now.
That evening for my birthday, we feasted on those mushrooms and roasted hare.