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.

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.