The Eternal Return

 

[This story is a continuation of “Cuma” which was published October 2015.]

I had every intention of using the train and ferry tickets from Naples to London that my lover had given me on his departure as his gift d’addio; but before I was to leave, I decided to visit Cuma again.  I hoped that the Sybil had something more to tell me.  I took the Cumana line from Montesanto,

img_2963
The Cumana Line

but instead of getting off the train at Cuma, I continued on, as if lured by the place, to the next stop at Torregaveta.

 

headland-at-torregavota
Torregaveta

I couldn’t have told you then why I was drawn here.  There is a restaurant near the train station, on headland that overlooks the beach at Torregaveta.   My former lover had taken me here many times for fresh mussels.  He loved mussels.  But that was the very reason that I wouldn’t have wanted to be there.  “What an affectation!” I thought as I made my way to the restaurant in spite of myself.  My lover had the English name of Morris, but wanting to be part of the local art scene, had taken to calling himself Maurizio.

The waters of the headland were calm and shallow, breaking only on the rocks that jutted out as if in response to the breeze floating in from the open sea.  Old Giuseppe was there with his knife and two empty string bags.  As Maurizio sketched him, I had often watched Old Giuseppe wade into the distance until he was one with the rocks that lay at the entrance to the sea.  About an hour later he would return with the bags bulging with mussels he had scraped off those rocks.  The instant he caught sight of Old Giuseppe, Maurizio would shove his sketchbook and charcoal into the portfolio.  This was because first time Old Giuseppe had noticed Maurizio drawing, he came to our table, looked over the sketch, then dropped his bag of mussels on it, ruining it with seaweed, salt water and black matter from the mussel shells as if he somehow he was fearful having his soul captured in the image.

***

She remembers the boat that brought her to Cuma 2500 years ago, although she had long given up counting those years.  She was young then and mortal and had been dedicated by her parents to the practice of the art of divination. Being sensual, she was condemned to virginity.  She had resented this.  Being unruly, she had employed her gift of prophesying to counsel young lovers rather than kings or warriors.  For this she was punished.  Banished from the sun-drenched beaches of the Peloponnesian peninsula, she was sent to dwell in the dark cave on the marshy headland of the newly founded colony Cuma.

On the way, the boat passed the settlement of Partenope, so named for the siren that had committed suicide because she had been rejected by Ulysses.  Parthenope’s body had washed ashore on this spot.  Be warned, Cumean Sybil!

She had been perhaps twenty years into her mortal life when she arrived, accompanied by a crone of a chaperon.  She had left behind her lover Machaon, a sculptor.  Her function now would be to foretell plots against the Cumean colonists by the tribes that they were displacing.  The colony throve.  Her predictions she would write down in books.  Centuries later, she would presage the fall of Cuma to the Etruscans. Later still, as an old woman although now immortal, she would visit Tarquin the Proud, the last king of Rome, and offer to sell him these Sibylline Books.

The boat had glided through the turquoise water that touched the shore of Partenope.  It followed the coast to Cuma, then maneuvered among the headland reeds until, tangled in them, it could proceed no further.  Sybil and crone descended and waded through the salt marsh to the cave.

img_0488
The Sybil’s Cave

A breeze swirled around her legs like a solicitous cat and whispered that her lover was dead.

***

In the restaurant I drank wine and waited a long time for my food.  The waiter had appeared promptly and I ordered a half-liter of falanghina and paccheri with shrimp and tomato sauce.  I wasn’t particularly hungry but it seemed a shame to waste the view.  I had taken a table outdoors on the beach where I could watch the sea.  Every now and then I caught a diminishing glimpse of Old Giuseppe out by the rocks.

The wine arrived immediately.  Sipping it, I watched the fishermen on the quay about twenty yards from the restaurant.  They were diligently attending to that morning’s catch.  Every so often, one of them would walk down to the beach and return with a pail of seawater that he would spill gently over the fish flopping in their enamel basins.  The fish were still alive.

The wine was working its spell.  I could feel the loosening of my body beginning at the base of my neck and traveling down my spine.  My shoulders were loose, but my feet didn’t want to move.  My body seemed at one with the soft wind that made the waves quiver.  I was aware of the intermittent whiffs of salt and fresh fish that this wind brought – a live mineral scent.

***

Now no longer mortal, the Sybil remembers her time as a living prophetess, and although pure spirit, she still yearns for Machaon.  She was still grieving when Apollo, god of the arts, god of male beauty, god of healing, caught a glimpse of her and wanted her to be his lover. He offered her immortality and she accepted.  Apollo granted her immortality, but not eternal youth, so she aged and withered until she diminished entirely.  Only her voice remains, carried on the wind.

 

img_0496
Ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Cuma

The breeze today is like that of long ago, but now the Sibyl and the breeze are one.  Someone, she is aware, is here to seek her guidance concerning a lover.

***

Mentally I drifted off to London. I would soon be a part of the theater scene there.  A line from a play by Harold Pinter floated through my mind:  “There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened.”  “Morris,” I murmured and wondered if the Sybil had put that thought into my head.

“Michele Merisi, Michelangelo Merisi,” I seemed to hear the air respond.   Caravaggio?  Morris’s favorite artist.  Whose name was really Michelangelo Merisi.  Who worked in Naples in the sixteenth century.  An image of a young man, bearded, scarred floated before me.  He is painting, the movement of his fingers delicate, belying the sturdy force of his arms.  I know this demonic genius.  But it was Maurizio; Morris.  He was the lover who left me.  Oh, Fate!  Save me from artists.

I was startled to see my waiter approach from the direction of fishermen’s quay with a bowl of shrimp that would soon become my lunch.  One fell from the bowl and out of nowhere there was Ciro, the cat that lives at the restaurant.  His nose was twitching, his ears lay back.  He watched for a few seconds then turned his back to the fallen shrimp, pretending not to see it.  Then he made a swift leap and scooped the shrimp up with his paw — mouse-hunting behavior.  He has learned well.  With the shrimp in his mouth, Ciro looked around, deciding upon a secluded dining spot.  He chose to go under a table near my own, but surrounded on two sides by the wall of the restaurant, with an open view of people (and other cats) coming and going.

restaurant-at-torregavota
Restaurant at Torregavota

***

When the wind whispers, the sea listens.  The diver felt the calling of his name in the movement of the water.  He speared the fish swimming nearby¸ a fine orata of unusual size that would bring a fine price at the restaurant on the beach, and began his ascent to the surface.  The diver suddenly realized he was hungry.  He would have his usual feast.

Old Giuseppe heard the whispered words and smiled – at least it was as much of a smile as he ever gave.  She was at it again, the spirit that lived in the cave.

Allora, buona fortuna,” he muttered to himself.

He noticed something dark moving in the water, looked down and saw the diver making his way to the surface.  Then Old Giuseppe understood.  He scraped one final colony of mussels off the rock, forced it into his bulging string bag and began his swim back to the restaurant on the beach.  He had seen that woman there alone, probably feeding her lunch to that beggarly cat.  The man who usually came with her was noticeably not there.

Meno male,” he thought

When the wind whispers, the earth listens.  The sand moved with the breeze forming undulating m’s that moved along the beach.

The sound of mmmm carried on the breeze and the woman heard it whisper the name of her former lover.

***

Finally my paccheri arrived, topped with freshly cooked shrimp.  I put a piece aside to cool and extended my hand to Ciro.  “Come here.”

The cat looked puzzled.  I repeated in Italian:  “Vieni qui.”

Ciro installed himself under the chair next to me.  The waiter lovingly refilled my glass.

img_2958
Ciro the cat

I thought I saw Old Giuseppe returning.  No, it was someone else, a stranger out of the sea.  He was wearing a wet suit and in one hand is carrying flippers, while in the other dangled an orata.  The fish was two feet long!  That’s twice the length of the orata you find in the fish market at Sanitá.  I stared while the stranger passed his fish off to the headwaiter whose eyes lit up at its size.

The stranger then ordered linguini with mussels and disappeared.  I forced myself to focus on my paccheri, but was still not particularly hungry.

He returned a few minutes later, having changed out of his wet suit. He took a table near mine and requested a bottle of fiano, a very good white wine from this region, be brought to him immediately.  The bottle the waiter brought was obviously well chilled, dripping with condensation.  I noticed that the waiter also brought two delicate-looking wine glasses – tulip-shaped with an etched border.

Ciro was still under my table.  What a ragamuffin of a cat – white stomach and legs, striped back and muzzle and a long raccoon tail.  I slipped him another shrimp while the waiter was back in the kitchen.  The stranger noticed and smiled.  I thought it might be a smirk.

There was a portfolio on the floor beside the stranger.  Where had that come from?  He probably had an arrangement – a place to change his clothes, a fish that he had caught purchased by the restaurant.  He poured himself a glass of wine from his well-chilled bottle, opened the portfolio and withdrew a tablet and charcoal and began to sketch.

I turned away and this time I did see Old Giuseppe returning, his two string bags stretched to the limit with mussels.  A feast for tomorrow night after they have been cleaned thoroughly to remove the sand.  Some will be eaten raw; some steamed with garlic and butter; some will be cooked with tomatoes and herbs.  All will be accompanied with linguini lighted coated with butter and garlic.  Ciro will be disappointed.  He cannot eat the remains of mussels.  He prefers shrimp.

I pushed the paccheri around on my plate and slipped some more shrimp to the ragamuffin Ciro.  He gobbled it up, but then went to the stranger and rubbed against his legs.  Then this man from the sea filled the second glass and offered it to me.

“My name is Michele,” he said.  “Will you please share a glass of wine with me?”

I accepted and introduced myself.   As we touched our glasses together in a toast, I noticed that dusk was coming on.  The waiter lit two large torches at either end of the restaurant.  Immediately I noticed bats circling in the distance, catching the evening’s insects before they had a chance to seek cover.  I imagined these bats have just emerged from the Sybil’s cave close by.

I wonder if I were the Sybil in a former life, punished with recurring mortality for betraying my calling and giving myself to a lover.  I have seen my lover’s powers of destruction.  I know there is also the power of creation.

img_0497
Looking out from the Sybil’s cave

Thanksgiving Caponata

My first Thanksgiving with my new wife’s family.  My wife is famous for her pumpkin pie, her mincemeat pie and her sweet potato cupcakes – all made with traditional New World  ingredients setting off “Olde England” traditions.  They are gracious, my wife’s family.  They suggest I bring a traditional Thanksgiving dish of my own.  I agree.

“What are you bringing?” they query.

“Caponata”

“What’s that?”

“A lovely concoction of eggplant and other things.”

“It’s Italian?!”

“An old family recipe I learned from my landlady in Naples”

“That’s not traditional.”

“Depends of where the tradition originates.  For me the tradition of being thankful originated when I was living in Naples.”

I was an art student wandering through the churches and museums of the most artful city in the world.  I had rented a small apartment in an old palazzo in Via Pisanelli and often Gina the landlady would invite me to come down to her apartment for dinner.

strada-pisanelli
Strada Pisanelli

In Naples Thanksgiving Day is just another Thursday.  The day before I had attended a sculpting class and afterward I wandered around the Historic Center looking at guglie.

statue-of-cardinale-sforza-and-dome-of-the-duomo-via-dei-tribunali
Guglia in Via dei Tribunali

I had never been one for sentiment, but something about the chill that had only just now crept into the air and the recent appearance of chestnuts in the open air markets made me thing of roast turkey and stuffing.

There was no question of returning “home” for Thanksgiving – no time and no money foreclosed that option.  So when Gina asked me why I looked sad, I told her about Thanksgiving and said I felt the lack of celebration that year.

“Tomorrow we will have something special for dinner,” she promised.

Gina was famous for her caponata.  Every guest who came to dinner requested it.  It was always a little different every time she made it.  When asked for the recipe, Gina willingly gave it, but because she always improvised, so that when her friends made caponata it was always different from hers.

The next day, Thanksgiving, Gina went to her favorite vegetable market in the Spanish Quarter.

img_3189
Buying Vegetables in the Spanish Quarter

I brought Gina a swordfish steak from the market on Via dei Tribunali,

swordfish-for-sale-in-via-dei-tribunali
Swordfish for sale in Via dei Tribunali

and hung around her kitchen and watched her while she prepared that and the caponata.  All the while we sipped some excellent Lagrima Christi. 

Since I have a very good visual memory, I was able to duplicate the Thanksgiving caponata and it has been my traditional offering ever since:

First, cover the bottom of a heavy 2-quart pot with olive oil (about 1/2 cup) and heat it.  When a drop of water sprinkled on the oil sizzles, it is time to add oregano, red pepper and parsley – lots of it – and a little salt.  (All this is to suit your taste.)

Next in this mixture of oil and herbs sauté 4 cloves of minced garlic, 2 ribs of celery and ½ green pepper, all chopped up.  Cook until the vegetables are soft and translucent.

Add 4 medium salad tomatoes, chopped.

When the tomatoes have melted and the mixture seems like a sauce, add one medium eggplant, diced in about one-inch pieces.  Cover and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally.  The time it takes depends on the eggplant, but it’s usually ½ to 1 hour.

When eggplant is cooked, add 2 tablespoons of wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons of raisins, 2 tablespoons of capers in brine, and ½ cup olives, green and/or black.  Cook another 10 minutes just to let the flavors blend.

If you let the caponata sit several hours before serving it, the flavor improves.  You can even prepare it the day before.

I am thankful to Gina for this delicious dish and for all the other wonderful things she made for me.

I told my wife’s family that I am famous for my Thanksgiving caponata, but I never give out the recipe.

© Antoinette Carone 2016

The Tinker and the Tailor

“Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief,” Tracy sang as her grandmother unbuttoned her coat. “Does that mean I am going to marry a thief when I grow up?”

“No,” said her grandmother. “Maybe you will marry a rich man.”

“A thief could be rich.”

“You don’t have to marry a man who is one of those things. You could be one yourself.”

Tracy thought about this. The coats were neatly hung in the closet and Tracy was tired after having played in the park. She curled up on the sofa where her grandmother was knitting. “Tell me a story   — a true one.”

“When my mother – your great-grandmother – was eighteen years old, she was what was called in Italian ‘nubile’ which only means ‘ready for marriage’. To acknowledge this, she insisted on being called Regina instead of just Gina and she began to behave in a queenly manner. There were few suitors in her village in the mountains of the Cilento, so Regina’s father began to take her with him on Saturdays when he went to the market in the neighboring village of San Lorenzo, where he would sell sheep cheese and the ricotta his wife made.

Campora from a Distance

Regina was herself skilled at needlework. She was known in the village for her lace and had edged the linens for her trousseau and for those of her friends. To prepare for the Saturday market, Regina had made several white muslin blouses and worked various lace patterns for bodices, collars and cuffs. These she brought with her as samples.

Regina and her father left before dawn on Saturdays. They walked down from their mountaintop village to San Lorenzo. Their donkey pulled a cart laden with dairy products, but Regina carried her wares on her head. Her mother had taught her how to coil fabric to cushion the weight and help hold it up, so Regina could walk for long distances without tiring her arms or shoulders. That was how all the women carried baskets of fruit and vegetables.

When they arrived at the marketplace, Regina helped her father set up their stall. His space was next to that of Signore Pasquale the tin worker. Signore Pasquale brought his son Bepe after Regina had been coming with her father for a few Saturdays. It occurred to Regina – without too much reflection upon the obvious – that her father and Signore Pasquale were trying to make a match.

Bepe was himself a capable craftsman, even better than Signore Pasquale. Bepe quickly fashioned candle holders, bowls, serving platters from the sheets of tin that filled their stall. San Lorenzo was a rich town that lay in the valley between two mountains. The townspeople brought their pots for Signore Pasquale to repair, as well as their scissors and knives for him to sharpen. They almost always bought one of Bepe’s delicate tin baskets or a candle holder or even one of what he called his objects d’art. (Bepe read a lot and had dreams of going to America.)

When Regina began to grow restless in the afternoon warmth, her father suggested that she take a walk through the market. Perhaps she could find fabric or embroidery floss that would please her. He had already that morning taken a commission for a set of bed linens to be picked up at this stall this time next month.

San Lorenzo was only a few miles inland from the port of Salerno. Soldiers and sailors on twenty-four hour leave roamed the marketplace searching for gifts to send back home or trying to find young women to invite for a drink. They looked handsome in their uniforms, but Regina considered that their interest in her would be too fleeting.

She returned to the stall, loaded with sewing materials and also spices that she had purchased from an Arab merchant. The tinkers’ stall was empty, sheets pulled over their wares.

‘Are you hungry?’ her father asked her.

‘Oh, yes!’

‘Well, when Signore Pasquale and Bepe return, we will go to the Café Sapienza for a small feast. They will guard my stall from market thieves, as I am guarding theirs.’

Regina wondered if Bepe and his family were well off, but decided only to observe them rather than ask. It was just as easy to love a rich man as a poor man, of that she was convinced. She would wait and see.

‘Babbo,’ she said. ‘Last night I dreamed about Nonna Francesca. She was making pizzelli and she offered me one. I did not know if I should accept it.’

‘That is a good sign,’ replied her father. We must buy a lottery ticket. That may help you decide.’

After Bepe and Signore Pasquale returned, Regina and her father covered the goods in their stall and made their way to the café in the town center. A decrepit and dirty beggar approached them and asked for alms. Regina’s father gave him a coin. ‘For good luck,’ he explained. Before they reached the café, they stopped at the tobacconist and bought their lottery ticket.”

“Did they win?” asked Tracy.

“Yes. Did you know my real name is Pasqualina, not Patsy?”

December Farewell

He laughed at all I dared to praise,
And broke my heart, in little ways.

From THE SPRING AND THE FALL by Edna St. Vincent Millay

The autumn when we were still lovers and living in Naples, seems to be the time I was most contented with my life. Time, in fact, had dropped away and we lived from moment to moment. Or rather I did. My lover was absorbed in his painting. Like a true Neapolitan, I took pleasure in the bright mornings when, daily, I would go to market to see what was on offer for lunch. I expanded these shopping excursions to include a stroll along the bay. It would have been a pity to waste such a lovely day by hurrying back indoors.

Vegetable Market[Photo: Vegetable Market]

Swordfish for Sale in Via dei Tribunali
[Photo: Swordfish for Sale in Via dei Tribunali]
By the time I returned home it was time to cook. Nothing planned. No forethought. I cooked whatever fresh fish and vegetables were to be found in the market at the time.

After lunch, he went back to his painting while I tidied the kitchen. Then it was siesta time when all the shops and banks and business concerns closed from one to four o’clock. When it was too late for me to try to work on my writing, we would awaken, shower and dress for our evening passeggiata, stopping at some trattoria or other for an antipasto and a glass of wine.

My lover left me shortly before the winter solstice – December 12th to be exact, the day before St. Lucia’s Day. I had returned from a visit to the sibyl at Cuma to find him gone. .I had heeded the sibyl’s omen and was not surprised by his departure. I had reflected upon the hand gestures that my “friend for life” and guardian demon had made to me one morning not so long ago. My lover had shown signs as well; he had begun to “break my heart in little ways…”

That first evening was hard nevertheless. The next day I did not know what to do with myself, so I went walking through the streets of Naples. Down along the lungomare and up Via Roma. The warmth of the summer had been prolonged that year which was why I had ventured so far out of Naples to Cuma. The sun continued to impose itself on all the unsheltered Piazzas. The shadows were chilly, though. Seeking some kind of obscurity, I left the open brightness of Piazza Dante for the enclosed shade of Via Tribunali, passing through the old city gate, Port ‘Alba.

“Alba means white,” I thought, putting whiteness behind me and wandering into the darkness of the historic center, the old part of the city. Buildings squeezing upon each other lent their shadows to the passersby. I nearly stumbled on the grey lava stones that made up the streets.

I had come to the church known as Santa Maria ad Santa Maria del Purgatorio-Exterior of CryptArco. Its presence was signaled by two brass skulls with crossed bones posed on three-foot high columns in front of its entrance.

[Photos: Santa Maria ad Arco -exterior of crypt and brass skull]

Santa Maria del Purgatorio-Skull 1Here the cult of the dead had originated. Having despaired of help from either the Church or the king, poor Neapolitans began to adopt skulls from this ossuary. They brought offerings as they could afford to them and prayed for them.

In return, they asked that the souls whose skulls were cared for now intercede with God on their behalf. This church is usually closed, but today it was open in honor of St. Lucia’s Day.

St. Lucia of Syracuse, Sicily had been executed in the early fourth century. She had been born into a wealthy family who had arranged her marriage to a man who was pagan. Because she had consecrated herself to Christ and wished to follow the Christian precept of giving one’s worldly goods to the poor, she began distributing what was essentially her dowry. Her betrothed, of course, became quite annoyed by this act of charity and denounced Lucia to the Roman authorities. This happened around 305 AD, at a time when Christianity was illegal in the Roman Empire. Lucia was sentenced to death for not worshiping Roman gods (including the emperor). Before her execution, so her legend goes, her eyes were put out and she is therefore known as the patron saint of the blind, as well as one who refused marriage.

Perhaps the date of my lover’s leaving was also auspicious. St. Lucia was, after all, known for having preferred martyrdom to marriage. Another hint dropped by fate.

I entered the church and descended into the crypt that was below, where I gazing at piles of bones. In the seventeenth century, when the church was consecrated, the crypt had been an ossuary for people too poor to afford burial. There are no adequate words to describe the cult of the dead. It is something to be seen and felt rather than described.

“The dead. The last resort,” I thought. I left the crypt and ascended out to the street where, in front of the church, I came upon a skull encased in glass — a skull crowned with a tiara and surrounded with roses. I found myself encountering another Lucia.   This Lucia was not a holy virgin whose story was the archetypal legend of early female martyrs, but had been a real woman. She had loved and been loved and now her skull was enshrined in this church. The placard below told her story: This Lucia was nothing like the saint whose name she bore; this Lucia had committed suicide because her parents would not permit her to marry the man she loved. Nowadays, so I’m told, couples whose parents don’t want them to marry bring her flowers and leave lighted candles on the stones below her shrine in hopes that she will intercede on their behalf and cause these obstinate parents bless their children’s choice of spouse.

I had nothing to offer Lucia. I had come to her shrine without awareness. I had tried to be blind to my lover’s misdeeds. What was this double Lucia – the martyred virgin and the virgin who died of longing – to me now?

Turning aside, I saw a presepio, the manger scene, in front of the church. Today was December 13th, not long now until Christmas. The shops were decorated; fresh pannetone was on display. I gazed into the presepio trying to distinguish all the folk there. It was more than just a Nativity scene; it included all the common people of the village – the housewife throwing out water after having cleaned the floor; the baker putting a loaf into the open hearth; the woodcutter and his donkey loaded down with faggots ascending the mountain – all the people of the village and the Holy Family at the center.

All at once a hand holding a single rose thrust itself in front of my face. I turned and met my “friend for life”.

“Merry Christmas,” he said in Brooklyn accented English. “Buon Natale.”

Tied to the stem of the rose was a red plastic chili pepper or cornicello, an ancient fertility symbol that the Neapolitans use to ward off the evil eye and which they also regard as a bringer of good fortune.

Grazie,” I responded. I reached into my jacket pocket and proffered him a five-thouand lire note. He shook his head.

Per buona fortuna,” he said, then touched his cap and walked away in the direction of Piazza Bellini. I was left wondering what good fortune the new year would bring.

Grimaldi’s Thanksgiving

Grimaldi knew something interesting was afoot. There was much hustle and bustle in Anna’s kitchen. She and Salvatore were speaking loudly in strange words that Grimaldi was just beginning to understand, although when they spoke to him they said the familiar words that Jon had used. Grimaldi had twigged that when Anna talked about latte, she meant milk and that carne meant meat. When he heard these words no matter what the language, Grimaldi would come running to his bowl.

Grimaldi still missed his old home. He still grieved for Jon, although he loved Anna. The combined hubbub and melancholy drew Grimaldi into the kitchen, where he jumped up on the windowsill to sniff good smells and try to figure out what was going on. His thoughts drifted to the beings that had disappeared from his life. He knew that after Jon had vanished, Jon’s mate Lucy did not want him and had moved to a place called Naples, leaving Grimaldi with Anna and Salvatore. He would henceforth be Anna’s cat.

As far back as Grimaldi could remember Lucy had never liked him. Lucy did not like cats and for his part, Grimaldi did not like Lucy. On a bustling day like this, just before Jon vanished, and Grimaldi was still in his old home, he had stretched out on the kitchen table, knowing that Lucy had gone out, so would not come in and throw whatever was at hand at him. She had no business being there, but was allowed to stay only at Jonathan’s sufferance. Lucy cooked and cleaned. That Grimaldi would give her. She did not encourage him to stay around when she was cooking, however; so he would plop himself down in the middle of the doorway between the kitchen and the dining room, pleased when Lucy would just miss tripping on him. She never shared tidbits from her plate. Jonathan did. Grimaldi heard the key. He jumped down from the table and stood in front of the door.

As Lucy entered, he put his tail in the air and slowly walked away from her up the stairs. Lucy snarled at the cat’s departing rear and went into the kitchen to continue her preparations. She noticed cat hairs on the table and felt the surface. Warm. “Damn that cat!” she shouted. She left the kitchen and went to look for him. She felt like throwing him out the window. Jon spoiled that cat and that cat was awful! When she couldn’t find Grimaldi, Lucy returned to the kitchen. She grabbed paper towels and soaked them with soap and hot water and scrubbed the kitchen table. She could not begin to think of cooking with cat stuff all over.

Grimaldi in the meantime was very pleased with himself. He had gotten away with something. He considered jumping up on the bed but then thought he’d better not push his luck. He knew that if Lucy eventually figured out that he had been sunning himself in the middle of the kitchen table she would have it in for him.   He meandered into Jon’s studio.

Jon was absorbed in his painting. There was a cup of cold tea and a cheese sandwich on a side table. Grimaldi jumped on the table, lapped up some spilled milk and nosed the sandwich. He pushed the top piece of bread off and ate the cheese. Then he yowled his Siamese yowl. Jon turned around and smiled. He loved to look at Grimaldi. The cat was beautiful. Grimaldi sat and regarded Jon, blinking his blue eyes.

Jon stopped painting to admire Grimaldi. His colors were perfect – dark brown tail that began to meld into a sandy tan touched with sienna on the body and to flow back into dark brown down the graceful legs and upward to the ears. This warm autumnal brown, color of dried and dead leaves, was startlingly interrupted by the blueness of his eyes. There was something in the eyes that recalled the Mediterranean. But viewed from afar. Gazing down on the sea from the mountains above Amalfi. A blue like a cool bright turquoise (but not quite) sliced by glints of white sunlight. Jon could never quite capture their luster in paint. They were defined by light, not pigment.

In Jon’s mind Grimaldi was always associated with Naples and the Amalfi Coast. Years ago he had spent the autumn in Naples, looking at art and taking classes at the Accademia di belle arti. One day, returning from hiking the mule trails that wind upward from Amalfi, Jon had arrived in Naples and was making his way through the Circumvesuviana train station when he had spotted a mother cat in the dilapidated garden on the side of the passageway. She was nursing a number of kittens. Kittens of all colors – black, tiger, calico, even a single Siamese. It was odd that this mother cat was nursing so publically. It occurred to Jon that she might be hoping that some passersby would adopt them, for they were big enough to be on their own. Jon had been tempted to take the Siamese, but did not because the difficulty of getting a cat back to the States would have been too great.

Later, when a friend had two Siamese kittens he wanted to “get rid of” Jon took them, much to Lucy’s dismay and over her objections. They were regal; their coloring told of sand and sea and a distance that no human could ever transverse. He named one Grimaldi, for the ferry company that travels the seas surrounding Italy, and the other Grazia for the grace by which the kittens were saved from the kill-shelter.

In Jon’s studio, Grimaldi finished Jon’s lunch. He warbled, jumped down and careful not to disturb Jon’s paints, wove himself around Jon’s legs. He rubbed the easel with his upper lip to mark Jon’s place as his own. That was when Grimaldi smelled it. He smelled not Jon’s scent but an odor that meant the end of life. Grimaldi’s instinct was to hiss and run away from him.

Grimaldi had not forgotten his littermate, Grazia who one day suddenly emanated this same deadly odor that rendered her unfamiliar to him. From the time he first smelled it, had Grimaldi kept her at a distance. Grazia crept into the basement where she hid behind the furnace. She had stayed there for two days until Jon crawled underneath the furnace and pulled her out, limp and dusty. He had wiped her off and laid her ever so gently in a box. He then had put the box into the car and drove off. He returned alone.

Grimaldi did not like the way Grazia had changed and then vanished.   Jon seemed dispirited too, as if he were retreating behind his easel but Lucy did not notice. Only Grimaldi was aware of the sense of something coming to an end.

These events had happened a long time ago in the span of a cat’s life, yet they were still with Grimaldi. His recollections were soon, however, sidetracked by Anna who was unusually busy in the kitchen. Interesting smells were floating all around. Grimaldi decided to take advantage of Anna’s good nature and plop himself down in the middle of the table to see what he could procure to eat. Anna didn’t mind. She was glad of the company and happy to be in a place that did not relegate cats to outdoors where they were expected to hunt their own food. Her adopted culture condoned treating animals as sentient beings, which Anna knew they were. So, working around Grimaldi, Anna began her American Thanksgiving preparations. She was making pumpkin pie, another custom she had adopted.

She offered Grimaldi crumbs of crust; she put a bit of condensed milk into his bowl. He happily consumed all, but when Anna opened the can of pumpkin, he went mad with delight. He mewed and rubbed her legs, nearly tripping her.

“Pumpkin is for cows, not cats,” she told him.

When the pies were finished baking, Anna put them on the dining room table to cool. Grimaldi jumped on the table and tried to lick one. Anna picked him up and carried him out of the room. Then she closed the door.

While Anna was relaxing, reading the Corriere della sera Grimaldi made his way to the door of the dining room. He jumped and grabbed hold of the door knob with his paws. As he dropped, the knob turned and the door opened a crack. Grimaldi pushed it open, jumped on the table and ate the center of one of the pumpkin pies, grateful that he had figured out a way to get in and grateful that Anna loved life too much to deny any creature a measure of enjoyment.

Presentation of CIAO, NAPOLI at Bella Italia Mia on November 22, 2015

I have been asked to present Ciao, Napoli at Bella Italia Mia on November 22, 2015 at 12:00 pm.  Bella Italia Mia meets once the third Sunday of each month at Christ the King High School, 68-02 Metropolitan Avenue, Middle Village, NY.  Their telephone number is 718 416 1240.

I am excited about my upcoming event and invite any and all who would like to attend.  There is a $7 admission charge, which includes a buffet of Italian delights, wine and dessert and coffee.

Here is an excerpt from Ciao, Napoli :

Visually, Naples is a dark dream. Like a dream it is cluttered with artifacts from the past. Remnants of now dead civilizations poke out from surfaces. Faces of gods or demons greet you as you walk down the streets. Fountains and carvings are everywhere.

Blue Fountain in the Historic Center
Blue Fountain in the Historic Center

The streets are narrow, made of uneven, loose stones. Since Naples claims to have had stone streets when the streets of London and Paris were dirt, the streets of Naples must be paved with the oldest stones in Europe. Bits of grass grow in the cracks of the walls. Vines climb the walls. The streets are littered with discarded wrappers, water bottles, cigarettes.

 

However, if you are lucky, when you peer into the courtyard at Palazzo San Felice,you will see an intriguing face carved into a stone wall.

IMG_0240 Face with Chain

Not only are carvings of gods or demons everywhere, but angels are hiding in alleyways. If you are adventurous and poke your head around a dark and crumbling wall on Vicolo Gigante in the centro storico, you may be startled by the looming presence of this angel waiting to warn passersby, but of what we can only imagine.

 

Blue Angel  Painted by an unknown artist on a wall in the Historic Center
Blue Angel
Painted by an unknown artist

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cuma

The journey from Naples to Cuma is long – not so much in distance as in time.   Cuma was founded about 2500 years ago, as a Greek colony, not far away from late twentieth century Naples where I was studying Italian and hanging out at Piazza Bellini while waiting for my lover to be finished with his painting class in the Academy of Fine Arts nearby. Piazza Bellini was the local “hot spot”. I could sit in one of the cafes for hours reading and watching the small dramas that are played out in the square. Every now and then my “friend for life” would pass by and greet me in English. This made heads turn, for he was a local beggar who held forth on many topics in the Neapolitan dialect. He also had a reputation as a fortune teller, but I think the Neapolitans are superstitious. They often mistake shrewdness and the ability to observe for supernatural powers.

We were a modern couple, my lover and I. We would not marry because he considered marriage a legal fiction. We had left New York to study abroad and since Naples was (in his estimation) the most artistic city in the world, here we came. I would have preferred London where I wanted to enroll in drama classes (I had been accepted), but he said that would not be fair to him – he needed to make a living as an artist and had to be where he could study and observe properly. He had to live in a city of art. So, deprived of the language of my own métier, I made do with Italian, took classes and discovered I had a feel for this graceful and complex language – and its literature.

There is a famous cave in Cuma where the sibyl, a prophetess, lived during the time it was a Greek colony. In those days one could visit her and ask her advice, as it was her occupation not just to tell the future, but to offer guidance as well. In my Italian class we had read a story about King Tarquin who had come to Cuma to consult the sibyl. She had offered him nine books of prophesy at what he considered an outrageous price. Furious, she cast three of the books into the fire and offered him the remaining six at the same price. King Tarquin again refused. So, the sibyl cast three more books into the fire. I don’t know whether King Tarquin became intrigued about the prophesies the books contained or alarmed that their legacy would completely disappear, but he relented and paid for the three remaining books the price he would have paid for nine. The sibyl then vanished and so, it seems, have the books.

When I lived in Naples, there was still a tradition of visiting the cave at Cuma and asking the sibyl about the future. So, with some questions regarding what might be in store for me, I set out to find her one day when my lover said he wanted to work late at the art studio. I was disturbed by the hand gestures indicating a cheating lover that the beggar in Piazza Bellini had made over him, even though I had felt dubiously comforted by the gesture of protection the same beggar had made over me. In the back of my mind, also, was the thought that visiting Greek ruins might someday be useful for playing Medea or Iphigeneia, but where I could get such roles in Italian or in English, I had no idea.

I discovered that in spite of being only about twenty-five miles from Naples, it took several hours arrive at Cuma. I got an early train from the Montesanto metro station. The trains on the Cumean line were covered with graffiti, and moved slowly along the western shore of Campagna, stretching back the time as well as the distance between Naples and Cuma. More than an hour after the train left Montesanto, it stopped in a village engulfed in reeds, hot and quiet, where I walked across the track to get the bus to Cuma. Cuma

I waited and waited, doubting that the bus would come, but there were other passengers who assured me that it would. Just as I had begun to believe that living in this part of the world required an act of faith that I did not have, the bus arrived. I eventually arrived at “archaeological zone” where I descended and walked to the cave.

Sibyl's Cave
Sibyl’s Cave

I made my way to the center and asked the sibyl about my life with my lover. The sibyl had nothing to say to me. My future was blank. I heard a voice speaking in English, coming from the entrance. I listened. My questions remained unanswered. It was only a group of British tourists reading aloud from Virgil’s Aeneid. They were reciting the part where Aeneas visited this very cave. The sibyl had been obliging to Aeneas. She guided him to nearby Lake Averno, the entrance to the underworld, where he descended to meet the shade of his father. Aeneas’ future was foretold: his progeny would be the founders of Rome. This prediction so delicately spoken encouraged me to ask a further question. Would I have a career? But the sibyl still offered no sign. The cave was dark, cool and dry, with light pouring in through a tall odd-shaped opening at one end. I sat on a ledge and enjoyed the British reading, their clear accents reminding me of the possibilities in London that I had abdicated.

When I exited the shelter of the cave, the sun was low and the sky beginning to fade from bright blue to dusty pink. Time to return to … what? After another long wait, I took the bus back to the village. This time I did not have to cross the track for the train to Naples, but I got to the station just in time to miss the train to Naples. The next train was due in half an hour, but it didn’t come. I sat in the station, dismayed about my lover and regretting not being in London working with familiar words, in surroundings I could understand.

There was a bar in the train station where three old men sat drinking coffee. When they saw me, they vied with each other to attract my attention. I saw something fly at me and jumped back. A candy landed where I had been standing. I glared at the old men, but this only served to delight them and they laughed out loud.

“Oh, signora, it was only a little gift for you,” said one.

“Please take it. It will not harm you,” said another.

“Will you have a coffee?” asked a third.

I shook my head no, thinking that maybe forty or fifty years ago, these men had been young and strong, probably soldiers, definitely hard workers for they still looked muscular and fit. They might have been handsome. Perhaps they had been world-class seducers. Now they were just silly.

I tried to imagine my lover in the future, past his prime, talent as well as body diminished.

“No,” I said aloud. “I will never know him as an old man.”

The moment as I uttered this phrase, the train arrived, as though in acknowledgment of my realization. I did not know it yet, but the sibyl had answered my question after all.

It was night when I got back to Naples. Our flat was dark and my lover was nowhere to be found. I noticed his easel was gone and also his paint box. I opened the closet and found only my clothes. There was an envelope on the kitchen table. When I opened I did not find the expected good-by note, not at all. There was a train ticket from Naples to Le Havre, a ferry ticket from there to Plymouth and another train ticket to London. Nothing more.