The Cilento

It’s the start of a New Year and of course all good resolutions and good wishes for health and prosperity abound. This year, I am hopeful. I recently published “Siren Shore”, a book of short stories set in Naples (and the Campania region). So far, it has been well received.

The inspiration for this story was a legend from my father’s village in the Cilento region of Campagna, Italy. He said that the belief was that anyone born when the bells tolled for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve was destined to become “a human wolf”, as he put it. My father did not share this belief, though he knew that some people in the village did. He loved to tell how he somehow acquired a wolf skin and snuck up on a friend guarding sheep one Christmas Eve. This was over 100 years ago, when wolves still roamed in the Cilento. They were a real danger to the local families who raised sheep and goats then sold cheese made from their milk in the nearby town. The animals grazed on community land in the countryside so it was the task of boys of the various families to watch over the flocks during the night.

Although the traditional time for telling ghost stories falls on Halloween and — in the past — on Christmas Eve, since today is Epiphany which also plays a role in my story, I feel it’s appropriate to include part of Maledetto here:

 

I was growing bigger by the day. At the beginning of Advent, Maria felt my belly and assured me and Sebastian that the baby would be born before time, that is before Christmas Day. Maria encouraged me to eat meat, saying that it was good for me now, but perhaps once the baby came, we would not have such an abundance. It might not be good for the child. Sebastian had grown up on only fish, cheese and vegetables and had been fine until….she did not go on. I craved meat and ate as much as I could at these family dinners while Sebastian watched me closely. I couldn’t quite decipher his expression which seemed to vary from vexation to tenderness.

On morning of Christmas Eve, I suddenly felt tired and touchy. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to hide from the joyous throng and read in solitude. I slipped away before aperitives were served and made my way into the library where my quiet alcove awaited. There was quite a collection of books – oddly enough, though, most dated from the nineteenth century.

I began to peruse the family Bible for names and birth dates of Sebastian’s relatives. I was curious about anything concerning Sebastian. He would never tell me his age or his birthday. The Bible contained old, old records, but I found an entry for “Sebastian, born 25 December 1899 at the stroke of midnight.” There was never any other man with his name in the family. That he did tell me. And it is very unusual in an Italian family that a son is not named for his father or one of his grandfathers. Written in the margin near the entry was a single word – maledetto. “Cursed”.

Since January in Naples is wet and rainy, I had stayed indoors since Isabella’s birth. Even Sebastian’s mother, La Signora, had not objected when I declined to go to mass that morning for the Epiphany. Epiphany – when the Divine or some mystery is to be revealed. For La Signora is was a Holy Day of Obligation.

“You will receive your revelation in any event,” she told me as she set off that damp and chilly morning of January 6th. “I will pray for you.” She looked at Sebastian, but I felt her words were directed to me as well.

“Do you want to accompany your mother?” I had asked Sebastian. “I don’t mind.”

“I cannot,” he replied

 

 

Jim and I frequently visited the Cilento when we were staying in Naples. This region is characterized by villages atop the mountain peaks and farmland at a distance below in the valleys. I have read that pattern of settlement is a feature of southern Italy, which developed under the Normans. Mountain top villages were easier to defend and the farmland became part of the large estates under the feudal system that the Normans imposed when they ruled the south of Italy from about 1040 to 1265.

Cilento Village on Opposite Peak

My father’s town, Campora, lies high in the mountains. When he lived there, it was probably one of the most isolated places in the world. Like the best of old and ancient Italy we have seen here, it is not to be found in the mainstream guidebooks. But sometime after the seventies, the Cilento region was made into a national park and it is now a destination of an elite British hiking tour; there are trails which can be followed, after a fashion, on your own. Campora, noted as a rural village of Cilento, lies amid some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in Italy.

Mountaintop Village in Cilento

To reach the village, you drive up a mountain that twists and turns like a snake. At a certain turn, you can see the village across the valley, on the other side of the mountain. We got there late one afternoon, just as the cows were coming home, walking down the middle of the road straight toward our car. For a moment we thought we were going to have a head-on collision with cows. But they nonchalantly moved to the side and let us pass.

Campora-Entering the Village

We stayed with my cousins Maria and Pasquale, who were in their late seventies. Most of the people in the village were elderly and had lived there all their lives, as did generations before. Maria says that the village was there before Roman times. For thousands of years the Calore River has been carving the gorge that is the valley and it is not hard to imagine people dwelling in the mountains from time immemorial. Maria took me down to the old water mill at the bottom of the valley. When she was a child, the whole village brought their washing to the public washhouse beside the mill. There was no running water in the houses.

 

I asked Maria how Campora had fared during the World War II. She said life went on much as before because they were so isolated that the Germans had no interest in them.

The villagers grew their own food, so ate well; their animals were not requisitioned; they got their water from the public fountain. It was only after the War that houses had their own running water. It was interesting to see my family name on the War Memorial plaque in front of the town café-bar. Carone’s from Campora had served and died in a war fought in 1896 and World War I. With the war deaths and the emigration of the male family members, the Carone’s have died out in Campora.

The young people, though, have left for jobs elsewhere in Italy, mostly in the north.  Many of the houses are abandoned now. We stumbled into one at the perimeter of the village. It looked as if it had once been lovely. The house where my father was born is empty now as well.

 

© Antoinette Carone 2019

Photographs © James J. Mauro

Siren Shore is available on Amazon and at Shakespeare & Co. http://bit.ly/SirenShore

All Souls’ Day

As November draws to a close and I think of our Thanksgiving Day tradition, one which we celebrated joyfully, I also remember other, perhaps darker, traditions observed in this month in another part of the world.  This episode of the Sebastian Stories was inspired by such.

Chiesa San Giovanni delle Monache-17th Century (Detail)

The simple pleasure of warm sun.  That was what I longed for and this was only the first day of November rain.  The damp of the villa penetrated my bones.  The chill was unrelenting.

The pool had been drained and covered for the coming winter.  This had been done yesterday on All Souls’ Day, that is November 2nd.  It’s odd to think that only three days ago, we were still swimming in its balmy water.  Even yesterday I remarked upon the trees surrounding the pool – at a respectable distance to avoid a clogging abundance of fallen leaves.  These trees still held on to their foliage, so stately and proud.  But Sebastian said one must think ahead and had the pool drained and covered while I was out shopping.

I walked down Via Costantinopoli in the stillness of dead and dropping leaves, leaves that had been on the trees yesterday.  The sun was out, heating the stones in Piazza Bellini where the old dog from a nearby café lay warming his ancient bones.  I made my way to my favorite pastry shop on Via Tribunali where my mouth watered at a display of nougat candy called torrone in the window – all different kinds vanilla and chocolate, of course; but also green nougat which was pistachio and also coffee nougat.  Some with almonds; some with hazelnuts.  I had noticed that these confections had appeared in the shops around the beginning of October, along with chestnut gelato.  (This I bought for myself every chance I got, since it was seasonal and would soon disappear.)

When I returned home with a large package of various torrone, I found the pool drained and covered.  I had hoped for one last swim, but it was not to be.  Maria took the package from me, saying it was too heavy.

“Why is there torrone only at this time of year?” I asked her.

“It’s for the dead,” she answered.  “The white nougat is molded into a long form and represents the bones of the dead.  For us all life has meaning,”

Maria then told me that All Saints’ Day and All Soul’s Day fall exactly between the time of the year when day and night are equal and the time when the daylight is shortest, that is the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice.  At this time of year the veil between the worlds of the living and dead was thinnest.  On All Saints’ Day, we honor all who were holy; All Souls’ Day is the appropriate time to take care of tasks for the living.  It is the day on which ordinary people are remembered and prayed for.  She said that we want the dead to assist us in life, so we must honor them.  The custom of propitiating the dead was initiated by Romulus after the founding of Rome.  Romulus did not want his brother, with whom he argued then killed, to return and seek vengeance.  Autumn can be a malevolent time and we must be cautious.

Sebastian and his family had begun their festivities even earlier, on the evening of October 31st.  Hallowe’en.  My favorite holiday when I could disguise myself as whatever grabbed my fancy.  I had always been attracted to costumes and fantasy.  But here in Naples, we spent the day wandering around the cemetery, wandering amongst graves and finally visiting the family vault.  I did not mind, however.  I had found another way of being in the quiet dignity of this place.  Just keeping still, letting something happen it its own good time.

Workmen were preparing another vault.  For Sebastian and me?  There was a third unmarked stone on the ground, so small that I tripped over it while looking at the names in the mausoleum.  It seemed ominous at first, but then I considered that I was merely being drawn in by the mood of my surroundings.

Sebastian’ mother, Signora Flora, talked about her late husband Raimondo as if he had only just been placed in the mausoleum, whereas he has been there for twenty years.  The stone is already beginning to wear at Raimondo’s name and likeness because Signora Flora has passed her hand over it so often, letting it linger over his face.  She has not remarried.

La Signora tries to keep close to Sebastian and he does not seem to mind.  I sometimes wonder how he ever managed to get away to New York.  What must La Signora have thought when he returned with a wife!

Today the scirocco came.  It started with a few drops of rain.  Then wind – in full force.  Sebastian had been right about draining the pool.  By the afternoon, the trees were completely bare, and the cover was chocked with leaves and red dust.  The cars on the street looked as if they had been in a sandstorm.  Red dust covered everything, and craters had formed where giant rain drops had landed.

“This is the dust of Africa,” Maria told me.

I stayed inside the villa and tried to stay warm.  I was tired just waiting.  I felt heavier and bigger today.  I could hardly move and nowhere, but nowhere accommodated my great belly.

“Soon,” said Maria.  “It will be soon.”

But it would not be so very soon.  Isabella was due on Christmas Day.  (Maria had said it would be a girl.) We were hoping she would come early because Christmas Day was Sebastian’s birthday.  La Signora said that it was a sin to be born on Christ’s birthday and the poor creature would suffer just as Sebastian did.  La Signora, I suspected, had prevailed upon Maria to brew a potion that would make Isabella come ahead of time.  I intended to refuse all drinks that I didn’t brew myself until the middle of December, when I felt it would be safe.

To stave off the damp left by the sirocco, late in the afternoon I made myself a cup of expresso and arranged a sort of nest of the cushions on the divan.  Sebastian brought me a small piece of each of the torrone I had bought.  As I sipped and sampled, blue seeped through the sky and with it the sunlight.  I thought of the next holiday, one that Sebastian and I would celebrate together.  I lay back in gratitude for the warmth of both the sun and Sebastian.

Haunted

The vision took place in the West Fourth Street station – the one where the Sixth Avenue and the Eighth Avenue lines converge, then go their separate ways.  I had no intention of getting off there.  I was just passing through on my way to meet Janna at a nouveau foodie restaurant on Spring Street. 

I was safe now living a life far from any city and from mountains, just stretches of beach.  Although, the ocean occasionally caused anxiety.  Because here the ocean is too low, away from the road, at the bottom of a bluff.  And it’s as calm as a pool, no waves.  Everything on the bluff is flat – no soaring mountains, no hidden villas, no mule trails winding down, down, down to the seductive turquoise Mediterranean.  Nothing to call me into it’s depths.   My ocean is a real ocean, cold until late summer, always a greenish grey, never bright blue.  Not as beautiful as the Mediterranean, but safe.

On that day, I had left my cozy house by the ocean because Janna wanted to be a lady-who-lunches.  It is to be a celebratory lunch because Janna has a new show opening in the prestigious Broome Street Gallery.  Janna always manages to be involved in the most prominent of galleries and to be in the center of the most important of events.  I am celebrating Janna’s good fortune despite my unwillingness to share in it.  It is safe that way.

So, I undertook a journey on the Long Island Railroad to help Janna affirm life and her love for art.  I myself am now childless and have renounced a promising career.  It was a bright day, neither hot nor very cool.  I knew the restaurant on Spring Street (apt for the season, now that I think of it).  I remembered that they don’t accept credit cards, but I had already gotten off the LIRR and made my way into the subway, the Eighth Avenue line and was on the E train.  I knew that there is a branch of my bank near the West Fourth Street station.  Hence my getting off the train at that stop.

I knew which exit to take – the one on West Third Street.  It seemed that the bank was now where O. Henry’s Steak House once had been.  I had memories of very happy times at O. Henry’s Steakhouse with Sebastian, where, ravenous after a performance, I always had a rare sirloin burger – rare, I say, but it was in fact raw in the middle and charred on the surface.  Red wine accompanied it, at least two glasses and sometimes three.  Salad, though.  Never fries.  Fries were seductive, their appearance and aroma beguiling, but their substance nothing but disappointment. 

So, I got off the E train at West Fourth Street.  I had a vision of Sebastian standing at the Third Street entrance, as he did long ago.  But maybe it was something more substantial.  As I approached the stairs I saw a rat looking at me with sad eyes before he ran away.

 

Darkness and Light

Christmas Eve is the traditional time for ghost stories and so I am offering the beginning of one.  It is also an offering to the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year that marks the return of the sun.  I wish everyone a very meaningful holiday.

Darkness and Light

She died on the shortest day of the year.  At four o’clock in the afternoon.  The day and her life closed at precisely the same moment.  Her four-year-old life and the fourth post-meridian hour. 

I had hoped that Isabelle would recover.  I had imagined her dancing in the sunshine on midsummer’s eve, at the festival we held every year at the villa.  Our villa on Via Costantinopoli was the best-kept secret in Naples.  And at out secret festival all Sebastian’s friends danced around the pool.  It was always warm enough to swim on that June evening, the longest light of the year.

It had taken Isabelle half a year to decide that she no longer wanted to dance and perhaps she did well to decide thus.  Perhaps – if she had recovered – she would no longer have been able to dance, and this would have been too much to bear.  For her and for me. 

She had been in quasi-drowsiness through the September harvest fest.  She seemed to wane with the light during the autumn.  The arriving winter eclipsed her.

I didn’t cry.  I had been grieving since that other earlier solstice, the one that so deceptively prolongs the light.  You don’t notice the dying days because they are so bright and lively.

Maria tried to comfort me.  “All that lives dies,” she said.  “Isabelle will go into the earth, like the seed for a lovely tree,” she told me.  “Somewhere she will bloom again.” 

Was Maria suggesting re-incarnation?  There is a glimmer of hope in that.  At least she didn’t say that Isabelle was so pure that God took her for Himself.  This confirms my suspicion that there is nothing Catholic about Sebastian’s household.  They are all pagan.

If Isabelle, like plants and hibernating animals, is only lying dormant – like the wild creature that she was, or perhaps is still – seeking darkness only for a time – I can hope.  Maria says that the light is returning.  Nothing truly dies; it just changes form.

Storyteller Strega

Villa Spanelli, Naples, Italy

Maria was the only one who could calm Isabella when she was in the throes of an emotional collapse.  No matter how I tried to hold her close, rock her, pat her back, she would wriggle out of my grasp and I would follow her around the villa, grabbing her to prevent any destruction of precious statuary.

In response to Isabella’s sobs, Maria always appeared – in whatever room my vain efforts at comfort happened to be taking place.

 

Maria was always calm and that serenity had a soothing effect on Isabella.  Maria seemed to be possessed of some ancient wisdom – long-kept secrets and stories that have been floating around the villa and the city since the beginning of time.

“Come,” Maria would say in Italian, which Isabella could speak fluently, but which I was only just beginning to comprehend, “you see how your crying makes your mamma sad.  Let’s go all three of us to my rooms.  I will make us a cup of tea and tell you a story.”

And Isabella would cease mid-tantrum!  I was always relieved by Maria’s quiet manifestation.  Her room were far from the family’s apartment.  How did she know?  I was always jealous of Maria.  What did she know about my child that I didn’t?


Maria had her own small kitchen where she brewed a strange kind of tea – made of roots and herbs.  It was bitter and sweet at the same time.  To this she added honey and a slice of orange.  She on the calming effects of this brew.

Isabella would sit on the floor while Maria was making her potion.  Usually out of nowhere would emerge Maso, Maria’s black tomcat.  

“He is a good cat,” Maria would say.  “See, he has a kind face.”

He was all black, with green eyes which I loved.  I would be sitting on the small couch by the fireplace.  Maso would jump on my lap.

When the tea was served, Maso would move to the side and Isabella would climb onto my lap in his place.  And Maria would begin a story.  I was grateful for her tales for I had no books to read to Isabella.  In those days books in English were hard to come by in Italy.  Maria knew all the old myths and superstitions.  Reciting these, she transmitted to Isabella the wisdom of the ancients.  I was happy for Maria to give Isabella what I couldn’t.

“What story shall we tell today?” began a period of tender serenity.