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Authors: Marlena de Blasi

That Summer in Sicily

BOOK: That Summer in Sicily
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That Summer in Sicily

As I write this, it is early November 2007.

Sometime late in January or early February 2008, a baby girl will be born to Robin Rolewicz and Matthew Duchnowski. And it’s to her, to this yet unborn child that I dedicate my book, with prayers and love for the beautiful life of

Marlena Pi Duchnowski

And for my own beautiful babies, Lisa Elaine and Erich Brandon

per Fernando Filiberto Maria, l’amore mio

That Summer in Sicily
is the story of actual people and actual events, but it is also a tale woven together from scenes that were described to me—often in Italian, more often in dialect—with all of the blanks and lacunae that characterize such accounts. In the way of storytellers everywhere, I have exercised some poetic license: events have been merged or enlarged, names have been changed, time frames collapsed or expanded to suit the needs of the narrative. In addition, to protect my protagonists and their way of life, I have placed the narrative at a geographic distance from the place where these events in fact unfolded.


Simona: 1905

Leo: 1912

Cosimo: 1919

Tosca: 1930

Yolande: 1931

Charlotte: 1932

Mafalda: 1933


Ayn as Jafat
is Arabic for “fountain of health.” Under the Saracen dominion of Sicily, this term was dialectically corrupted into
Over the centuries, the term was further corrupted into the modern
at which point its original significance was lost to its literal translation of “fleeing woman.” The term
has since been used as the name of various properties, both real and fictional, as well as the name of products and businesses in Sicily and elsewhere in the world.
is the name of the summer villa in Lampedusa’s
The Leopard.
Additionally, it is the trade name of the Sicilian wines produced by the Rallo family, fourth-generation winemakers of Belice, Pantelleria, and Marsala.


This could only be a story about Sicily. And Sicily could only be an island, less by the caprice of nature than by her own insolence. As though she might have quit Italy had she not already been born separate from it. Yet this is not a story about
the island but of a hamlet in the middle of that island. At the top of the island. A hamlet made of heaped-up stones and huddled in the cleft of an anchoritic mountain beneath the ruins of a temple. Above and all ’round the hamlet is a high plateau planted almost everywhere in wheat. On parched meadows, sheep and goats graze. The only water thereabout is a metallic smudge where the white sky meets the yellow earth and the only waves are of that wheat, the shuddering golden stalks of it roaring like the sea and crashing in the goddess-blown winds. Stone Age tangles of myrtle and broom and wild marjoram and wild thyme clutch at the steeps, and the only chink in the towering silence is the foul whispering of the scirocco.

Here, the substance of life lived three millennia ago or in the mid-nineteenth century or, as in this case, some seventy years distant, can seem essentially the same as that which formed the incidents of the day before yesterday. Nothing much has been lost or forgotten or left to languish from the time before now so a stunning tribal continuance prevails here. The ancient past, the more recent past, and the present congregate, abide together in that continuance. And apart from the evidence of a vacillating fancy for some fashionable goods and ideas, one might be hard put to divine a particular historical moment for the way it looks and feels and sounds here. Especially of an evening’s wandering in the fallow of Demeter’s broken temple. Tramping among the great fluted columns, supine, lustrous under the moon, our boots bruise the wild thyme and weeds tear my dress. A scrap of white linen on a rock rose.

It was here in these mountains that the Greek’s goddess of grain and fertility and motherhood once held forth. Where she does still, the locals will tell you. It was Demeter who illumined the magic of sowing seeds beneath the earth, protecting them, feeding them, growing them up into ripeness. Resonance of the female condition, of other seeds planted in the dark velvet corners of a womb. Under Demeter’s will, the local tribes’ harvests flourished, she conjuring the sun and the rain and the breezes on their behalf, and they, in turn, honoring her with great fires under the drenching light of a full moon and ritual offerings of bread and wine. All was Elysium until the day when Demeter’s daughter, her Persephone, was seized by Pluto. The child had been gathering flowers by the Lake of Pergusa just outside the walls of Enna when the god of the underworld saw her, was enchanted by her. He would have Persephone as his bride. Pluto carried the child to Hades and, tempting her with the seeds of a pomegranate, won Zeus’s permission to keep her. Demeter gnashed the sun, keeping the mountain villages and the fertile fields—and the world itself—in darkness until she’d made her pact with Zeus: for half of each year, her daughter would be restored to her. With Persephone again by her side, the goddess rekindled the sun and tipped down the warm rain over the earth only to suspend them each time her child returned to Hades.

The villagers and the farmers here tell the story of Demeter and Persephone with all the fresh wonder and anguish of a thing only just happened. They tell it in the same way they tell the story of Mary and Jesus. They believe the stories with equal fervor, resonant as they are of their own stories. Allegiance does not shift but only enlarges its endearment to hold both mothers—one with her crown of woven corn husks, the other shrouded in a rough woven veil.
Why must we pray to only one? To us, they are the same. Le addolorate
. Grieving women. In Sicily, the sacred and the profane are kin.


As it has been with other adventures in my life, this one began with an assignment. It was the summer of 1995—I’d been married to the Venetian for nearly nine months—when I was asked by a scholarly monthly magazine to write a seminal piece on the interior regions of Sicily. By then I’d written extensively of the glories in the coastal cities and towns. The lustrous footfalls of the Greeks. The splendored epitaphs impressed by Saracen sheiks and Norman kings. More even, had I written of the archipelagos where Aeolus’s winds still whine and screech among the violent crags of these unornamented outposts of the world as she was. Now it would be to the high fastness of the mountains that I would go.

I’d suspected that I was not the editor’s first choice among the qualified journalists writing in the English language, and even before my departure, my suspicions were summarily confirmed. Several people had already turned down the job, including one staff writer who’d lived in Sicily longer than a decade. The reason? It was the same as the warning railed down upon me by other colleagues and friends:
The center of the island is an aloof and pathless place and the colossal silence of it all is reflected in its people.
But I said that silence is the admission of mystery. And mystery is good. Unshrinking, the caveats served only to intrigue.

But it was not just Sicily that was on our path that summer. My husband and I would spend three, perhaps four, months roaming all the regions south of Lazio, south of Rome. Exploration and research for a book. All along the southern routes we met with an almost sacrosanct kindness. There was beautiful food at the humblest tables, people who laid down their shovels or mops, who descended from tractors or the backs of mules, to guide and inform and encourage. Swept away by this generosity, we approached the mountains, unguarded.

I’d set some fundamental plans by telephone and post with museum docents, with professors of art history and archaeology, with writers and journalists, cooks and bakers. Or so I’d believed. My professional welcome seemed relatively assured. Once I’d arrived at the first destination and taken the most perfunctory measure of the place and those few of its inhabitants who showed themselves, I understood my error. At appointed hours in appointed places, I sat alone. Numbers dialed rang into infinity. Not to worry. There was the next place. And the one after that. But the next place was always the same as the place before it.

Nearly two weeks had passed when, having purposefully left my once precious roster of names and numbers behind in a hotel room, I began a spontaneous campaign directed at the locals. Elegant business cards from a celebrated American magazine proffered to tourist office workers, or museum guides or cleaning ladies or baristas or old men playing cards beneath the scrawny shadows of a clump of eucalyptus roused nothing more than mumbles. Primal grunts. From young men who leaned against church walls, thumbs cradled in their belts, eyes at half mast like ancient lizards deep in the torpors of the drugging sun, they raised no sound at all.

Even those pivotal interviews that had been arranged by my editor were ignored or forgotten. The meticulously drawn route was marked only by misanthropic silences, closed doors, and epic heat. I surrendered. I telephoned the editor to tell him so. There was silence then even from him.

The weight of the work put aside, Fernando and I say we’ll wend our way down from the mountains and head southwest toward Agrigento. Or perhaps southeast toward Noto. Almost anywhere away from here. First, a day or so to recover, to rest in an even minimally cordial atmosphere. In a bar one morning, I risk posing a question to a pair of military policemen whom we’d seen—same time, same place—for several days running. Could they suggest a place where we might stay out in the countryside? A small hotel or
? Unexpectedly, they say yes. There is a woman they’d heard of who receives guests—when she chooses—offering room and board and hospitality. The concept of hospitality in this unchivalric desert makes us smile. We take directional notes from the policemen.

one of them says, twisting his body away from the bar, raising his half-ration of breakfast grappa—reduced for duty’s sake—in salute as we leave.

“The woman is called Tosca. Her place is
Villa Donnafugata.
Although there’s no sign to tell you so,” he shouts.

The road is paved with sun-bleached stones and whorls of yellow sand are gritty, blinding veils upon the windows. The July heat is vicious heat. Strangling heat. After more than two hours of a tormenting pilgrimage up goat paths and across great gashes through wheat fields masquerading as roads, we can’t tell if we are progressing or only circling back upon land we’ve already traveled. Illusion, the sliding panel. The dupe. Another substance of Sicily.

Leaving the car in a rocky niche, we climb a stony path up into the hamlet that we think is the one indicated by the policemen. We’ll find someone who can help us. Panting, feverish, we come upon a small piazza. There is a fountain shaped like a sleigh and trickles of water fall from its four baroque curlicues into a basin where women are washing clothes, slapping the wet things rhythmically against the stone and wailing some vestigial Arab chant. There is no one else about save an old sheepdog who sleeps near their feet. No children. No men. We greet them and wait to be greeted in return. They stop their singing. They look at us but no one speaks.

“We’re looking for
la signora
Tosca,” I say again and again, each time employing different hand movements and intonations. “
Villa Donnafugata.
Can you tell us how to find it?”

Nothing. Believing my speech to be unintelligible to them, Fernando steps closer in toward the group, languidly lights a cigarette, takes a few puffs before he says, “
Ci serve il vostro aiuto.
We need your help.”

As though Fernando’s words were a cue, still looking straight at us, they resume their chant. We turn away, begin to walk back across the piazza to the downward path. I look back and, at chest height, wave good-bye. I understand what a foolish sight we must have been to them. Especially me in my big hat and dark glasses. If we’d scaled the hill in white muslin britches, flailing scimitars, we would have been more familiar. More welcome. Still, I would have liked to have washed my own soiled shirt in that fountain, to have bent over the murky water and slapped the cloth against the stones, the glint of long gold earrings caressing my face. My wave connects. With her chin, one woman gestures toward a hill that sits behind the hamlet. The same hill over which we have just traveled.

Fernando refuses not only to drive but to speak. I retrace the route back through the wheat fields, easing the car once again between the stalks. The overheated chassis, sensing danger, chokes, then bravely shimmies inside the dense growth. Our only view is of the bronze curtain the wheat makes, and we must either raise the windows or be slashed by the knife-sharp fronds that swipe at us as we move along. We lurch inside this suffocating dream until, with no warning, the field ends scant centimeters from a stand of poplars. A shy wind moves the crisp leaves of them and we heave open the car doors, breathless as from a chase, to let the air touch us. Beyond a meadow grown in purple vetch and beyond that to what seem like acres of gardens, we see turrets and crenellated towers and juliet balconies and a red and yellow porcelain-tiled mansard roof that, lit by the climbing sun, seems ablaze. We see what looks like a castle. As we walk toward it, a gaudy scent of roses and rotting oranges agitates the breeze.

BOOK: That Summer in Sicily
13.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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