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Once the whole of the island of Castellamare was plagued by a curse of weeping. It came from the caves by the sea, and because the islanders had built their houses from that rock, which had been the liquid fire of the volcano itself, very soon the weeping rang in all the walls of the buildings, it resounded along the streets, and even the arched entrance of the town wailed at night like an abandoned bride.
Troubled by this curse, the islanders fought and quarreled among themselves. Fathers disagreed with sons, mothers turned against daughters, neighbors refused to speak to each other; in short, nobody had any peace.
This continued for many years until, one autumn, a great earthquake came. The islanders were woken by a shuddering at the heart of the island, an awful tremor. The earthquake rattled the cobbles in the streets and the dishes inside the cupboards. Buildings began to tremble like ricotta. By morning, it had knocked every house to the ground.
While the fallen stones mourned and wept, the islanders came together to decide what must be done.
A young peasant’s daughter by the name of Agata had been visited by a vision of the Madonna, and developed ideas of her own about the curse of weeping. “Some sadness has seeped into the stones of the island,” she said. “We must take the ruins and build from them a new town, and when we have done that great labor, the curse of weeping will be gone.”
So the islanders, stone by stone, rebuilt the town.
From an old tale of the island, in the version first told to me by Pina Vella, recorded at the Sant’Agata festival of 1914.
He was woken by a scratching at the window shutters. Therefore he must have slept. “The baby is coming!” someone called. “Signor il dottore!”
In his great confusion he thought they meant his wife’s baby, and was up and at the window in a knot of bedsheets before he recalled that she was sleeping beside him. The face at the window was the peasant Rizzu’s, floating like a moon in the dark. “Whose baby is it?” asked the doctor.
“Signor il conte’s baby. Who else?”
So as not to wake his wife, he went to the door. The moonlight in the courtyard imposed on everything an odd clarity. Even Rizzu was altered. The peasant had on his Sunday waistcoat and tie; he wore them stiffly, as though nailed into them. “This is a mistake,” said the doctor. “I’m not under instructions to deliver the count’s baby.”
“But I was ordered to fetch you by signor il conte himself.”
“I’m not under instructions to attend la contessa during her labor. The midwife has had charge of her pregnancy all along. D’Isantu must have meant you to fetch her instead.”
“No, no, they already have the midwife. The count wants you, too. Urgently, he said.” Rizzu was puffed up with the importance of his message. “Will you come? At once?”
“My own wife’s baby is due very soon. I don’t want to go far from home if it can be avoided.”
But Rizzu would not relinquish his mission. “The contessa’s baby is due right now, this very moment,” he said. “I don’t think it can be avoided, dottore.”
“And the midwife can’t handle it alone?”
“No, dottore. It’s . . . a complicated birth. They need you, because the baby won’t come out without those silver sugar--tong things of yours.” Rizzu pursed his lips at having to speak directly of such matters; he had witnessed the births of none of his own nine children, preferring to think of them as having sprung out of the earth like Adamo ed Eva. “Will you come?” he said again.
The doctor cursed inwardly, for it was plain that he must. “I’ll get my coat; I’ll get my hat,” he said. “I’ll join you in the road in five minutes. Have you got your donkey cart or are we to walk?”
“No, no, dottore, I brought the cart.”
“Have it ready.”
He dressed in the dark. His watch stood at a quarter to two. He packed his instruments: forceps, steel scissors, a set of syringes—-all of which he had prepared for his own wife’s impending delivery—-as well as morphine and magnesium sulfate in case of emergency. When this was done, he disturbed his wife. “How often are the pains waking you, amore?” he said. “The count’s wife has gone into labor early—-curse her—-and I’m called away to attend.”
She frowned at being woken. “Still a long time . . . let me sleep. . . .”
God willing, he should be able to deliver la contessa’s baby and be back in time for his wife’s. Before leaving, he ran across the piazza and woke the ancient Gesuina, who had been the island’s midwife until she began to lose her sight. “Signora Gesuina, mi dispiace,” he said. “Will you sit with my wife? I’m called to attend to another patient, and my wife has been suffering labor pains.”
“Who’s the other patient?” said Gesuina. “Blessed Sant’Agata, is some other poor soul in the process of dying on this godforsaken -island, that you have to leave her at such a time?”
“The count’s wife has gone into labor early, and there are complications—-they need me to bring the forceps.”
“The count’s wife, eh? And you’ve been called to attend her?”
“From what I’ve heard, you’ve your reasons for preferring not to deliver signora la contessa’s baby.” The old woman fell into a silence full of portent.
“What have you heard, Signora Gesuina?” The doctor was unable to suppress his irritation.
“Rumors,” said Gesuina.
“Anyway, will you come and sit with her?”
Gesuina collected herself. “Yes, by Sant’Agata, of course. Where are you, boy? Let me catch hold of you, so I don’t lose my footing on these troublesome stones.”
The woman really was almost blind. Gesuina followed him across the square, holding the hem of his coat, and installed herself on a chair in the corner of the bedroom. He hoped the sight of the ancient figure would not alarm his wife if she woke.
Already it was past two. He kissed her forehead and left her.
Still cursing, he went in search of Rizzu and his donkey cart. Damn the count and his wife. She had refused to have him attend to her pregnancy, preferring the ministrations of the island’s midwife. Why now this haste in calling him to the villa, at two in the morning? This complication of hers was probably no more than a twisted cord or a particularly violent pain, and there was no need of the forceps at all—-and yet his own wife must be left unattended while he rode across town on their orders.
Rizzu was waiting, with his hat in his hands as though at Mass. They mounted his donkey cart, a fanciful contraption in green and yellow. Its painted panels told the stories of great battles, shipwrecks, and miracles belonging to the island. It was not a vehicle designed for haste. In a silence threaded with the blue crash of the sea, they traveled the sleeping streets. The moon burnished the palm leaves and lit the dusty back of the donkey. “Two babies due on the whole island,” grumbled the doctor. “My wife’s and the contessa’s, and both of them come at once. Who would be a medico condotto?”
“Ah,” said Rizzu, who was not much inclined to express his opinion on the trials of country doctors. “It’s a double blessing, though, dottore, isn’t it? Two babies born on the same night—-it’s never happened on the island before.”
“It’s a double inconvenience.”
They reached the count’s gate at twenty past two. The doctor took his coat, his hat, his bag and stethoscope, and made off down the drive at a jog, the sooner to be finished with this business.
The count was standing sentinel outside his wife’s bedroom in the modern part of the house. The electric glare on his face gave him a sweaty, reptilian look. “You’re late,” he said. “I sent for you nearly an hour ago.”
“I wasn’t under instructions to attend this birth at all.” Irritation made the doctor forthright. “My own wife is in the early stages of labor; she’s had pains on and off for days. It’s damned inconvenient to leave her. And I thought la contessa wanted only the midwife in attendance.”
“She did. It was I who sent for you. Carmela is in here; you’d better see for yourself.”
The count stepped aside to allow the doctor to push past his bulk and into the countess’s room. The electricity, newly installed, made everything pallid. The midwife was at work with a primal rhythm: breathe, push, breathe, push. But Carmela did not breathe, did not push, and he could see now that it wasn’t just a matter of a twisted cord or a particularly violent pain. For a patient at this stage not to push was never a good omen. He did not often feel fear at his work, but now he felt it, dragging like a cold current across his shoulder blades.
“At last, you!” said the midwife in contempt.
A tiny maid quaked at the foot of the bed—-what was her name? Pierangela—-he had treated her once for bunions. “Bring me something to wash my hands,” he said. “How long has the patient been like this?”
“Oh, Lord—-hours, signor il dottore!” wept Pierangela, bringing soap and hot water.
“She’s been suffering convulsions for an hour,” corrected the midwife, “and then these fits of exhaustion when she seems to see nothing and nobody.”
“When was the onset of contractions?” asked the doctor.
“Early yesterday morning I was called in. Seven o’clock.”
Seven o’clock. For nineteen hours, then, they had been at this struggle. “And it was a simple pregnancy?”
“Not at all.” The midwife thrust a stack of papers at him—-as though it would help to read her case notes now! “La contessa has been confined to bed this past month with swollen hands and violent headaches. I’d have thought you would have known,” she muttered.
“Swollen hands!” said the doctor. “Headaches! Why wasn’t I called?”
“La contessa refused,” said the midwife.
“But you—-you could have called me.”
“Signor il conte’s mainland doctor saw her last week. He said it was nothing. What could I do?”
“She should be delivering in the hospital in Siracusa, not here!” The doctor rounded on the midwife and the terrified Pierangela. “I don’t have the tools to perform a cesarean section! I don’t even have enough morphine!”
“She refused to see you,” said the midwife. “I suspected a preeclamptic state, dottore, but no one ever listens to me in such matters.”
This throwing up of hands enraged him. “You should have fought to get her into the hospital,” he said. “You should have insisted on it!”
Pierangela began a spontaneous lamentation: “Holy - -Gesù - and‑Mary - -Mother - -of - -God, Sant’Agata - -saint - -of --misfortunes - -and - -all -the--saints—-”
The knowledge of what had to be done came to steady his hands. It always did, sooner or later. “Get everybody out of the way,” he said. “Prepare boiling water, clean sheets. Everything must be clean.”
The water was brought, the sheets stripped from under the limp body of Carmela. The doctor sterilized a syringe, loaded it with magnesium sulfate, and injected it into her arm. The work led him now from task to task as though it were some ritual, the noon angelus or the rosary. He prepared morphine, steel scissors, forceps. “Find a needle and thread,” he told the midwife. “Prepare swabs, prepare -iodine. You’ll find it all in my bag.”
Carmela, in a moment of clarity, spoke. “I wanted only the midwife,” she said. “Not you.”
Without addressing her directly, the doctor said, “That can’t be helped now. We need to deliver the baby as soon as possible.”
He prepared the morphine and injected her slender arm once more. While Carmela sagged under the weight of the drugs, he lifted the scissors and planned his incision, making it first in the air. One neat inch--long snip. The sheets—-where were the sheets? “Bring the clean ones,” he ordered. “At once.”
Pierangela stumbled about in consternation. “Everything must be clean!” raged the doctor, who had learned his trade in the mud and ice of the trenches at Trentino. “Everything. If the fits don’t kill her, sepsis will.”
Carmela, again lucid, met his eyes, and her own were sharpened with fear, the way he had seen a hundred etherized soldiers look during the war, when they surfaced. He put the back of his hand on her shoulder. Something altered in her at his touch, as he had known it would. She lifted her head and, with all the force of a malediction, said, “This is your doing.”
“Give her more morphine,” he told the midwife.
“This is your doing,” Carmela said again. “The child is yours. Everyone suspects it but you. Why won’t you look at me, Amedeo?”
He injected her without even glancing at her face, but he could feel the room tighten under the force of the accusation. As soon as Carmela sank again he knelt and made a single incision, reached inside for the baby, and turned it by a quarter. Then, with the aid of the forceps, he delivered it in one motion into the room.
A boy—-already breathing. He cut the cord and deposited it in the arms of the midwife. “She still isn’t safe until the placenta is delivered,” he said. Then, in a slither, the whole mass of it came free, and everything was over in a confusion of blood and weeping.
Carmela began to revive in the following minutes, as he had known she would. She hauled herself up on the damp sheets and demanded the baby. Relief, and the burden of hiding it, made him nauseous. He went to the window. He looked down the avenue that led from the count’s door to the road. He saw how the lamps among the trees made spheres of green light. He saw how, beyond them, the vista was melancholy, just the empty hillside and the black and endless sea. Everything was altered since he had last looked upon these things. The room was altered. Carmela was altered. He would not have recognized either.
When he had steadied himself, he returned to his patients. He checked Carmela’s heartbeat, the baby’s heartbeat. He stitched the incision he had made and swabbed everything with iodine. He presided over the burning of the placenta, the bloody sheets, the swabs and bandages. Only then did he allow himself to look properly at Carmela. Absorbed in contemplation of the baby, she was unaware of him now. Strange to think that the body which labor had so assaulted, which he had injected and incised and manhandled on the bed just now, had been whole and young when he had last seen her. This is your doing, she had said. The child is yours. He allowed himself one brief glance at the baby. A lusty boy with a puff of black hair—-why, a baby at this stage could belong to anyone. It seemed as he studied it to assume the count’s features, his jowly neck and protruding eyes.
But either way, she had accused him, and that was what mattered.
A great tiredness came over him now that his work was accomplished. The count came to the door, and Carmela was hastily wiped and covered. It fell upon the doctor to announce the birth. This he did, with more bravado than he felt, playing his own part, bringing forth the expected phrases: “A fine child . . . a strong boy . . . case of eclampsia . . . hope for a good recovery.”
The count inspected the baby and inspected his wife, then gave the doctor a nod, and he understood that he was dismissed.
Unwanted now at the scene, he cleaned his instruments, packed them, and made his way through the dim passages of the villa and out into the light. The sun was breaking, with the quiet brightening belonging to the Mediterranean. It was just past six o’clock.
A figure came running between the palm trunks. Rizzu. “Signor il dottore,” the old man yelled in exultation, “you have a baby boy!”
In his extreme tiredness, he did not at first understand. “A baby boy!” cried Rizzu again, startling the doves from the palm trees. “Your wife is delivered of a baby boy!”
Cazzo! He had forgotten. He met Rizzu at a run. “A very quick birth,” said Rizzu, his modesty forgotten. “One hour, and Gesuina said she could have delivered the baby with her eyes closed!” The old man reflected a moment. “Which is just as well. Ha! Praise be to God and Sant’Agata, praise be to all the saints—-”
The doctor refused the tiresome donkey cart, and went at a run through the waking streets. The cicadas had begun to sing. Light entered the alleyways and the squares. A hundred widows in a hundred courtyards were sweeping with a brisk, impatient sound. As he ran, he felt a great converging of the light inside him and without him, so that the whole world seemed charged with it.
The bedroom smelled of blood and exertion. Gesuina dozed, straight upright, on a chair at the foot of the bed. The baby was sleeping, too, hunched in the fold of his mother’s waist. “I’m sorry, amore,” he said.
“It was easier than I expected,” she said, with her usual practicality. “All that dreading, and it was over in an hour! Gesuina and I managed very well without you.”
He wiped off the last of the afterbirth. The child was a little stretching, mewling creature, as alien as a newborn kitten. He took the tiny weight of the boy and inspected the legs and arms, pressed the soles of the feet, separated the fingers and—-with a thrill of pride—-listened through his stethoscope to the birdlike beating of the heart. In the extreme joy that broke over him he waxed tender, even poetical. Oh, it was different to be a father than merely a lover—-he saw it now! Why had he waited so long to beget a child? He understood that no other part of his life had mattered; all of it had only been a gathering of pace toward this hour.
But now there was the problem of the other baby. By afternoon rumors would be at large in every corner of the island, thanks to that witch Carmela—-a miracle, twins born by different mothers, leaping into the world as though by agreement! He knew how they would talk.
His wife lay with the lassitude of a distance runner. He checked her all over, covering her with kisses—-more than he would have given, true, if guilt had not been goading him. He knew that a storm of trouble was coming: The midwife and Pierangela had heard Carmela’s accusations. A rumor like this would be enough to make an enemy of his wife, his neighbors, perhaps to drive him from the island. But just now all that he permitted to dwell within him was the light.