Carlo Strazzi’s hurried ascent of Roccamonti faltered at the shadow of Santa Prisca. The light of dawn had projected the perverted silhouette of the church over the road and against the walls across the way, casting its pall over him as well. Shaking it off, he forged ahead, but was soon mired in the dark, elongated image of the bell tower. Although he could almost feel the tower’s likeness shriveling beneath his feet as the sun inched higher, there was no time to wait.
Besides, he was nearing the end of it, and beyond it lay only the specter of the statue atop the pediment. Forever impaled on an iron rod, the unidentifiable martyr had dropped to earth in a tortured genuflection, its featureless skull lost somewhere inside Donna Ginetta’s kitchen. Anxious wind and the momentum of distraction nudged Carlo to within a step of the sunlight, but the muted voices from above held him back.
“A minute,” he gave himself, squinting up at the two men on the scaffold.
The stonemason and his apprentice had extracted a large, decayed block from the gable above the rose window and were lathering the cavity with mortar. Blasts of wind fluttered their tattered trousers and toyed with the ingenious system of cords and pulleys that held the scaffold loosely against the facade. The apprentice wiped a spot of mortar from his brow and reached for the bottle of water wedged between the fractured stone they had chiseled from Santa Prisca and the new one that would heal her wound. A spidery young man with a rasping voice, he was reciting a litany of complaints about the sirocco – it was sucking the mortar dry, blinding him with grit, buffeting the scaffold, deafening him – when suddenly he caught sight of the figure below. Falling silent, he watched with dismay as Carlo approached and stopped beneath their suspended platform. It seemed to him as if Carlo’s eyes were peering into his own from just the other side of the heavy wood slats.
“Shit, it’s him again!” the apprentice hissed.
Sighing, the stonemason, a man too old for such work, kneeled on a plank and carefully leaned over the edge for a clearer view of their visitor.
Carlo could hear the two men arguing, but except for a few detached words, one of which was his own name harshly spoken, he could not unravel the agitated whispers sifting down through the wind.
The stonemason shrugged and shook his head in response to something the apprentice said, and then they both returned to the task at hand, though the apprentice continued to glance apprehensively at the road below. No one spoke, and the only sounds were of the trowels scraping against stone, more hesitantly than before, and the moaning of the wind entangled inside the bell tower. Every gust jostled the ropes of the scaffold and tugged at the taut nerves of the apprentice until a particularly violent surge snapped the weak fiber of his better judgment.
“Get away from here, God damn you!” he shrieked, startling his coworker more than Carlo. “Go away or I’ll drop this stone on you. Do you hear me, schoolteacher? I’ll crush that rotten head of yours.”
Horrified, the stonemason desperately tried to restrain him, but the apprentice squirmed free and slapped his trowel into the mortared hole.
“Mother of God!” he wailed. “How can I work with him down there? The lunatic tried to kill us once already, he’ll try again.”
“We don’t know,” said the stonemason.
“I know,” the apprentice insisted. “I know it was you,” he shouted down to Carlo. “Admit it, you coward! Lunatic! Jackass!”
Carlo’s upturned face reddened with fury under the shower of abuse.
“Every day he mocks us,” the apprentice went on, “every day he threatens us. Every blessed day, and no one dares say a word, no one dares stop him. What if I hadn’t noticed the rope? We’d be dead! Merciful Jesus, we’d be dead, and nobody would care.”
“Please, Ettore, calm yourself,” the stonemason pleaded, alarmed by the ominous silence. It was as if the world itself had suddenly been stilled. Even the sirocco held its breath. He stroked the young man’s arm and plaintively murmured, “Please, I’ll speak to the priest again. But, for the love of God, Ettore, let it go for now.”
“Damn your priest! He’s afraid of that madman just like everyone else in this stinking town. But he doesn’t scare me. I’ve had enough. Do you hear me down there? Cut our rope, will you? Listen, schoolteacher, I’ll teach you something. Come out from under there, coward, and I’ll crush that skull of yours with this rock.”
Every day, Carlo silently, furiously conceded. That much was true. He had been mocking them and threatening them every day since the day they arrived in Roccamonti. The days of planning and measuring; the days of hauling stones, lime, sand, rope, boards, tools; the days of assembling the ridiculous scaffold; the days – only a few – of actually working on the crumbling facade, of pretending to restore Santa Prisca. But no more. He had vowed that morning to leave them alone, the fools up on the scaffold and all those below. Idiots all. Let them burn their money at the altar. Let them believe in the restoration of Santa Prisca’s virginity. The screeching magpies of the church had raided the nest of Roccamonti again, not that there was much to lift off this Calabrian outcropping of hell. Again, damn them! And it would end as it had before, when even his mother’s money vanished in the dust. His father’s money, damn them all!
Every blessed day, but no more, he had vowed, for there was no longer any reason to care. Today, his brother Vittorio was giving up, fleeing to America. There was no work for him here, not even a make-believe job restoring a godforsaken church. No, that was for buffoons, he thought, glowering up at them. There was nothing here for his brother, no future here for his brother’s son. So they were leaving – Vittorio, Maria and little Stefano – and today was to have been different.
“A minute more,” he allowed himself, collecting his thoughts, a reply to the insults.
But what was that nonsense about the rope? He hadn’t cut their rope; he wouldn’t deny it if he had. He was about to say so with the appropriate derision – that and nothing more – when suddenly a gob of spit splattered near his boot. At that instant, he forgot his vow.
“You would have done better to drop the stone!” he roared, his voice cracking with wrath. Backing into the middle of road, he hurled his curse up the facade with a virulence that sent a shudder through those above him and drew a gasp from the young priest, Don Mosso, who was cowering inside the church. “Damn you, and damn this church, and damn all the bastards of God it harbors!”
With a shake of his fist, he strode to the row of iron cleats anchored to the foundation of the church and grasped one of the ropes that was threaded through the pulleys above the scaffold. He jerked it wildly, like a mad sacristan tolling apocalypse, savagely rocking the platform and everything on it. The water bottle toppled to the street. Chisels, mallets, trowels, a bucket of mortar rained down. And when he finally released the rope in exhaustion, the cleat to which it was secured ripped free. One end of the scaffold instantly dropped, falling from under the feet of the terrified workers like the trap door of a gallows. The two stone blocks slid off the planks and plummeted to earth, but the howling stonemason and apprentice managed to cling to the dangling boards and ropes. Their frantic screams for mercy pursued Carlo up the road until finally the priest abandoned his sanctuary to save their imperiled souls.
Up Carlo climbed, up to the piazzetta, where Giacomo Travicelli called out to him from the doorway of his tavern.
“We heard everything,” Giacomo laughed appreciatively. “ ‘Bastards!’ ‘Help, help, we’re going to die! Oh merciful God, save us!’ Magnificent, Carlo, magnificent!”
Carlo waved away the compliment and glanced warily at Sandro Travicelli, Giacomo’s grandfather, who was perched on a stool in the sun. The old man raised his cane in befuddled astonishment.
“Oh, merciful God, save us!” Sandro cried, choking on the shrillness of his voice. “You were dead and buried, Onorio Strazzi! I saw you dead, I saw them bury you. There, I tell you, the body was there, over there!”
Here, Carlo thought, reflexively looking down at the first step as he passed through the archway at the top of the piazzetta. It was here that they had placed his father’s body. Reverently, it had seemed to him at the time. His arms had been folded across the bullet hole in his chest, his cap was on his head, and his shotgun at his side. Sandro had stumbled over the corpse those many years ago in the unnerving, moribund darkness before dawn.
“Up, Carlo, up the steps! Hurry, run, go watch over Mama and Vittorio while I am away,” his father would say to him at the archway before departing once again with the fearsome men who were waiting there.
“I will, Papa,” he had promised for the last time with the earnestness of a child. Though still a young man, he was as old now as his father was when he was killed, and Sandro Travicelli could no longer distinguish him, the living son, from the ghost of his father. Only the drooping mustache was the same, and, perhaps, his eyes, he had been told, but there the similarities ended. To the old man’s addled mind, however, he was Onorio Strazzi incarnate, as fierce and imperious in death as he had been in life.
“Papa,” he sighed to his own demon, climbing slowly. There was no reason to hurry, to run, no promise to keep. Mama, too, was dead, and Vittorio was leaving home in despair. He had failed them all.
Up the steps, which cascaded through the rows of houses like a river down a steep, narrow canyon. Only from its zenith would the sun reach the ribbons of moss that traced the cracks in the stones. By then the train will have rolled away from Sant’Eufemia on its inexorable flight from Calabria. And he, meanwhile, will have returned to Roccamonti, to repeat this Sisyphean ascent through the eternity of his life.
“Carlo, you are chained to that rock by your own stubbornness,” his Zio Francesco had written to him in his last letter from America.
No, not chained, not Prometheus, Carlo thought, pushing his burden, himself, up the mountain.
Zio Francesco, or Uncle Frank, as he now wished to be called, had been urging both of his nephews to join him in America, a country whose virtues he extolled with the religious fervor of a prospering immigrant. “God Bless America!” he scrawled in English at the bottom of every letter. He and his older brother, Martino, had gone to America together, but then, for reasons never explained, they parted in New York, and Martino, Uncle Marty, disappeared into Canada, never to be heard from again. “Come to America,” Uncle Frank had exhorted his nephews time and again from his burgher’s bungalow in the state of Pennsylvania. A wealthy man with no children of his own, he wished to share his good fortune with his sister’s sons. He became intensely, strangely insistent after his sister’s death. “Never,” was Carlo’s answer, time and again. God damn America! Why should he leave his home? Let everyone else run away, everyone, and leave him alone in peace. God damn Italy!
“Go!” he said aloud as much to himself as to his brother, to hasten his climb up the steps. The houses on each side of him stood wall-to-wall three or four stories high along the spine of a hilltop in the Calabrian Apennines. He gazed up at the strip of blue sky and drifted inattentively to the right, brushing against an ocherous patch of lichen. The walls were not parallel. Were six men abreast to enter at the archway, one would be squeezed out before they scaled half the steps and another before they reached the house at the top, the house where Carlo was born and where he intended to die. He passed underneath the first of the three arched bridges that spanned the steps, wondering anew when the fractured span would collapse, and upon whom. Soon, he thought, cocking an ear to the creaking floorboards as someone crossed unseen overhead. He glanced blindly at his wristwatch and climbed on with distracted haste. His mind was elsewhere, everywhere but on the steps, when without warning a sheet of water dropped like a curtain before his eyes, splashing suds over his polished boots. Stumbling at the shock of it, he imagined for one irrational instant that the apprentice had by some miracle of vengeance arrived there ahead of him.
“Impossible,” he muttered, scanning the windows. All were empty, all silent.
“Imbecile!” he shouted indignantly. “Where are you? You don’t look before throwing your water? Damn you, too, whoever you are!”
His voice reverberated up and down the steps, rattling every door, every window. A face safely beyond the range of suspicion popped into view and cried, “What happened?”
Then others appeared at windows and doorways, left and right, above and below. “It’s Carlo Strazzi,” declared one head of this Hydra. “What’s wrong?” asked another. “What is he yelling about?” “What does he want?” Until finally someone answered, “A tub of water, that’s all. It’s nothing.” The explanation was passed along, satisfying everyone except Carlo. One by one they disappeared back into their windows and doorways, leaving Carlo with neither an apology nor a confession.
Cursing them all, he stormed up the remaining steps and burst back into the noise and confusion of the impending departure. He had escaped it earlier that day for a moment of peace at the old tower at the edge of town – only to have that taken away from him at the church – and he had hoped to return to some semblance of calm. Instead, he found himself at the threshold of chaos: his brother Vittorio frantically rifling through a suitcase while their neighbor, Gaetano Martello, stood over him spouting Marxist prophecies; his cousin Rinaldo trying desperately to wrest a knife from Maria’s suicidal father; Maria herself racing up the stairs in tears, her howling sisters in tow; a conflagration of some kind in the kitchen; and his nephew Stefano and Rinaldo’s boy Renzo trying to shove each other off the deck of an imaginary ocean liner. There was that to be said for this miserable day: by the end of it, he would have this house all to himself. Tranquility. At long last, solitude. But for Stefano, he would have fled back to the tower.
“Zio!” his nephew cried, leaping from the steamer trunk. “Look, Zio Carlo, we fixed it with the rope. I found it, see?”
The battered old trunk with its twisted hasp and ruptured seams had been trussed as neatly and securely as a capocollo.
“You found it at the church,” Carlo surmised.
“Where the men are working,” Stefano nodded proudly. “Bruno and Purcu lifted me up and I cut this piece. See, it was long enough, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, it’s perfect,” Carlo laughed.
The rope did indeed make the trunk much easier to handle when the time came for him and Rinaldo to haul it away, though it was still very heavy. They made their way slowly down the steps while the others streamed down ahead of them with their own, smaller burdens and lamentations. They tipped the trunk through the archway and carried it swinging between them across the piazzetta and past the church, where the scaffold lay in a heap on the road and the workers nowhere in sight, and then on to the piazza at the center of town. There, amid a whirlwind of dust and farewells, they hoisted it atop Rinaldo’s car.
Climbing behind the wheel, Rinaldo calmly mumbled a paternoster along with the sign of the cross, a ritual he never failed to perform, and then, despite Vittorio’s fretfulness, and even though Maria’s father was hammering at the windshield on the verge of hysteria, he paused to offer Carlo another lesson on the operation of the machine. Explaining what he was doing and why, he jammed the obstinate gearshift into the appropriate slot, waited for the black exhaust to turn blue, released the emergency brake, and engaged the slippery clutch. The car lurched forward and sputtered out of the piazza, rattled over the cobblestones to the edge of Roccamonti, and raised a cloud of dust as it passed the schoolhouse that Mussolini had built two kilometers outside of town to harden the Empire’s littlest foot soldiers.
As it plummeted down the torturous road, Rinaldo guided his overloaded vehicle with the grave concentration of a man locked in a death struggle. He gripped the steering wheel at precisely the horizontal axis and stiffly held it at bay with his short, powerful arms. His entire upper torso leaned into very turn, and before every turn he beeped his horn twice to alert the innocent of his approach. “Beep-beep,” went the horn, once, twice, over and over again, at frequent intervals, until the final switchback at the bottom of the hill.
From there, at the base of the western slope of Roccamonti, the road meandered southward past unproductive farmland and poorly tended orchards, veered eastward and girded the neighboring mountain whose jagged peak cradled the monastery of Arcangelo, climbed northward through a narrow, wooded valley, and then spiraled up the hill and into the town of Vigliano, where it merged with the main road and then forked. The right led to the alpine forests and meadows of La Sila, higher, deeper into Calabria; the left to the Gulf of Sant’Eufemia, to America.
Vittorio was calmer now, though dazed from sleeplessness and misgivings. Exhaling a cloud of cigarette smoke, he said, “Zio Francesco says the roads in America are as straight as the engineers can draw a line.”
“That’s what I’ve heard,” Rinaldo nodded. “They say you can drive a thousand kilometers without once turning the steering wheel. Not like our roads. Cugi’, that Dutchman – oh, I forget his name – remember what he said? ‘Your roads are like a pig’s tail.’”
“No, like his shoelaces,” Carlo remembered.
As boys, he and Rinaldo often wandered through these mountains, exploring and foraging far from home. One day, somewhere near the town of Pedivigliano, they came upon the Dutchman, an enthusiastic young man with a trim beard, twinkling eyes, and wavy hair. They had never seen a foreigner before. He was dressed too warmly, his skin was too white. He said he was an artist. He showed them some of his sketches to prove it. There was one of Rossano, and Rocca Imperiale, and other towns they recognized, or thought they recognized. Those places aren’t really like that, they told him. He laughed and replied, “They are to me.”
“He was drawing pictures of our towns,” Rinaldo explained to the rearview mirror. “A couple of years ago, we even saw one of them in a magazine. He’s become a famous artist. Isn’t that right, Cugi’?”
“Yes, those drawings must be worth something now, and Rinaldo has one on his own wall,” Carlo said, slapping his cousin’s shoulder.
“Ishmael – that’s it!”
“Escher,” Carlo said.
“Did he draw Roccamonti?” Stefano inquired.
“I don’t know,” Carlo answered. “When we saw him, he was drawing mountains and clouds. He told us to look up and down, as the fish and birds do. ‘Up and down,’ he said, ‘over and under your remarkable Calabria.’ ”
His nephew was the only one who heard him. Maria’s thoughts were with her father and the flowers she had left on her mother’s grave; Vittorio was studying the railroad timetable; and Rinaldo was trying to recall whether it was he or Carlo who had stolen the drawing from the Dutchman, as he didn’t want to boast of it only to be contradicted.
“Up and down,” Stefano repeated. He poked his head out the window and gazed down the winding, sinking road, through the hills, up at the immense clouds that were rising in the western sky, and back at the receding mountains, and his arm rode the current like a fin, like a wing. Below him was the river Savuto and up ahead was a bridge, someone crossing it. “A boy with red hair!” he squealed.
What the others found more astonishing than the color of the boy’s hair was that he was in the company of Fra Quinzio of Arcangelo.
An enormous bear of a man with short, curly hair and a beard like the blade of a shovel, he was one of the few monks who ever strayed off the mountain of Arcangelo. When they were alongside, Carlo remarked, “You’re far from home, Fra Quinzio.”
The monk’s smile broadened with recognition. He raised his huge hand in a salute and nodded agreeably, but walked on without slackening his pace.
Clutching the monk’s billowing habit, the small boy lagged a step behind and stared at the strangers. He was a bit younger than Stefano, thinner, and dressed in a very fine suit with short pants and a tie a shade redder than his tousled hair. Stefano waved to him, and just before they lost sight of each, the other boy smiled and waved back.