THE VILLAGE SAGRA
The autumn day he received notification that his wife Mariana had filed for divorce, Federico became 35 years old. They had been separated a year. He believed she had someone else; yet he had long feared the official moment because he still loved her. Life the last year had hardly seemed worth living.
He was going out the door of his apartment when the concierge stepped out of the elevator and handed him the bulky envelope. Federico went back inside and ripped open the registered express letter from her lawyer. He scanned it absent-mindedly. He didn’t want to know details. He knew why.
He tossed the letter on a table near the door, went to the liquor cabinet in the narrow hall and grabbed a bottle of grappa standing alone in the corner of the shelf.
For a long moment he contemplated the half empty bottle when a car horn again sounded from the street below, a long strident blast. His friends were so impatient. The important question was, should he or should he not have a drink? What better excuse than abandonment by the woman you love! Yes. He should. It would be cowardly not to, he thought, as he drained off half of the half empty bottle. Wonderful the way it hit his empty stomach! The poor lonely bottle there in the corner. Nearly empty. Put that way, it sounded like an act of commiseration. Federico was a compassionate person.
Motivation: her husband’s drinking: she could no longer bear his personality change when he was drunk and she could no longer bear the eternal smell of alcohol on his breath. He smiled. She still didn’t understood that he was never drunk and that therefore there could be no change in his personality. It was just him. When she called him a drunk he felt his tear ducts quiver from emotion. That was the problem, he thought as stepped into the hall again and locked the door: how to get drunk!
If he could just get stinking drunk once in a while it would surely cure him. His real problem was that he was too sober. He was always searching in life’s bottles for his Nirvana. He had tried to explain the subtlety to Mariana that drinking was a metaphysical matter, his spiritual catharsis. Besides, he told himself as he again unlocked the door and moved back to the cabinet, life is not just a question of my body. My real life belongs to my spirit. That’s what Mariana can’t grasp. The truth that my spirit loves only her is not enough. Whether my body drinks or does not drink is immaterial, he rationalized as he again picked up the lonely grappa bottle but drank only half of the remaining quarter.
He took a black leather flask from the cabinet drawer and examined it, opening it and smelling its contents. He put it inside a white and red plastic supermarket bag. Cognac was just the thing for an outing to the country.
In the mirror in the elevator he looked at his eyes. Normal. He cupped his hands over his mouth and breathed out and breathed in through his nose. No smell. “Buon giorno, Federico, come va?” he said to the mirror to check his speech for slurs. It was perfect.
Fabio and Renato were sitting in the car. Smoke wafted out the lowered windows. He climbed into the backseat. It smelled like an Arab caffé. Both were talking at once and didn’t acknowledge him until they finished.
It was Saturday. They were going to the village festival in the hill town of Morlupo 30 kilometers north of the city. Federico had gone to the sagra every year since he met Mariana ten years ago. She had grown up in that old town in a stone house just under the tower of the 14th century church. By a stroke of destiny they rented their apartment on a city street of the same name – Via Morlupo.
“I’m bringing my spirit along with me today,” he said, aware they couldn’t have the faintest idea what he was talking about. He knew they considered him nearly over the edge. But they stuck by him out of loyalty. The three of them had been friends since elementary school. Today they were celebrating his birthday. He decided not to tell them yet about the divorce.
“Is that singular or plural?” asked Fabio, the twice married and twice divorced cynical sociologist, as he maneuvered the car out of the narrow lane, turning and eying the plastic bag between Federico’s legs.
Federico didn’t answer. He was looking at himself in the rear view mirror. He looked young - the straight reddish brown hair, strong nose, blue eyes and light complexion of his German mother and his Italian father’s high forehead and lithe body. He was too young to have the problems he had. He was strong too. Maybe it was just his spirit that was old.
“How come you’re not working today?” Renato asked, turning and grinning at him.
“I never work the day of the sagra. You know that. I never work on my birthday either. Besides they hardly need me at that silly job. They can copy the news as well as I can.” Federico worked for a small TV station four hours a day writing up their day’s telecasts, most of which he rehashed from the wire services or copied from newspaper web sites. Until two years ago he had been a top investigative reporter for Rome’s leading newspaper and wrote a column on “modern philosophy.” But his drinking had gotten out of hand. As time and bottles passed he had alienated himself from his work. They didn’t even have to fire him. The Editor-In-Chief had found him his overpaid sinecure at the TV station, “in respect for what you were and can be again.”
I’ll tell them later, he thought. He knew Mariana would be at the festival. Maybe with her new lover. He would also run into her parents, who still loved him. What do you say to the woman who is divorcing you, whom you still love and who, he believed, still loved him?
He opened the flask inside the bag. At the moment he raised it to his lips he saw himself in Fabio’s sardonic smile in the rearview mirror.
“Who knows if it’s safe to go into that earthquake zone,” Renato said. “It’s quaking out there nearly every day now. Two days ago, level 3 on one of those scales.”
“Ah, they haven’t had a real earthquake in centuries,” Fabio said.
“Old people in Morlupo wouldn’t agree with that,” Federico said. “The hill they live on is the result of earthquakes.”
The heart of the town was a steep kilometer-long street that descended from the old Roman Consular road, Via Flaminia, down to the historic center that was inhabited by old Morlupans, artists from the city, and a colony of Romans who had rebuilt earthquake-damaged stalls and storage spaces as weekend homes. The remains of a grandiose 14th century Orsini Castle dominated the Medieval Town, which was a maze of alleys and cobblestone lanes and connected stone houses built on the steep slope. Dark and mysterious under the shadow of the church, the Old Town looked out over a green fertile valley. In the distance lay the ancient Tiber River. Morlupo ended at a precipice.
Halfway down the long hill, a street to the right led to the town’s main piazza, with restaurants and bars, shops, the municipal buildings and police station, and a small park with a few scrawny trees and bright flowers. The park bordered on a ravine. The town’s many old people passed their days on a row of benches looking over the ravine in contemplation of the valley below and talking about the last earthquake two decades ago that had cost them a pretty penny in damages. On clear days the Sabine Mountains and the snow-capped Mount Terminillo were visible in the northeast.
When they turned off the main highway, Federico pointed out the prison at the top of a hill. “You can usually see their faces at the windows…. Aren’t those faces there now?” He had once done a reportage on the conditions in the rural prisons and visited this one. “That must be the loneliest place in the world,” he muttered.
“People here must worry about it,” Fabio said. “Escapes, I mean.”
“What with all the teenagers killing their parents today escaped convicts seem like a lesser danger,” Renato said.
Federico took another sip of the cognac.
They parked on the downhill street and walked toward the piazza. Unfinished stone houses lined the cobblestone street. Cracked masonry, bricks and hardened chunks of cement lay inside gaping doorways. Above, TV antennas, an occasional dish, and a confusion of electric wires that sagged limply between the rooftops. Motorbikes raced up and down the hill, their gutted motors roaring and their shrill horns blasting.
They rounded the corner and stopped to take in the crowds milling around the piazza where the official sagra took place. People were eating roast pork sandwiches and drinking beer at the colorful food and drink stands. Children eating cotton candy and yapping dogs raced around the piazza. Balloons floated in the air. Firecrackers went off in the distance. Soon the village band would arrive.
Renato and Fabio ordered roast pork sandwiches. Renato handed him a cup of foamy beer. As he raised it to his mouth, his eyes scrutinized the horizon beyond the low parapet along the precipice. Mount Terminillo stood there majestically, silently, the dark of the tree level topped by the white of the year’s first snowfall glistening in the fall sun. His mother had taught him to ski there. He first met Mariana in a hotel there when they were snowed in for three days and supplies had to be brought in by helicopter.
Dark clouds were drifting southwards toward the Sabines but there was little wind so they wouldn’t spoil the festival.
They sat on the low parapet overlooking the precipice. Dead calm reigned below in contrast to the hubbub at the piazza. At the bottom of the ravine masses of trees had grown out of piles of volcanic stone, rocks and assorted building materials, beneath which was concealed the real depths of the ravine. If you listened, you could sometimes hear the running water of a hidden stream. He watched a lizard slither down the bougainvillea-covered wall.
Federico opened the flask inside the bag. As he raised it to his mouth he saw her. She was standing about ten meters away, looking at him, and smiling sadly. She was standing between her mother and father. For a long moment he regarded her without expression. He stood and walked toward her. He had difficulty placing one foot before the other.
“I got your letter today,” he said before even acknowledging her parents. Then he kissed her mother and her father. He wanted to kiss Mariana but restrained himself. The last year had only enhanced her dark Italic beauty. They had long been considered the handsomest couple in the Rome journalistic world.
“Where’s your friend?” he added.
“What friend, Federico? If you think there’s someone else, you’re wrong.”
“Then why?” His head was spinning pleasantly.
“It’s in the letter, Federico.”
“I love you, Mariana.”
She smiled sadly, took her parents by the arm and led them away. Her mother looked back over her shoulder at him. Tears were in her eyes. He watched them disappear in the crowd. He turned away and stared at Mount Terminillo.
After another beer and a turn around the piazza, Fabio proposed they grab a table in the Ristorante Il Falco Nero before it got too crowded. At the bar they ordered aperitifs – Federico with a double shot of gin in his Bitter Campari. They got a table looking out onto the piazza. The waiter brought them a carafe of white wine and another of red. Federico felt secure.
He drank off the aperitif, poured himself a water glass of red wine, and told them in an aside about the divorce. He was surprised when after all the grappa, cognac, beer and gin he choked on the wine he thought of as a chaser.
“This is serious earthquake country,” he said to change the subject quickly. “Old people here still claim they suffered enormous damages in the subsoil under their houses and demand official intervention. One mayor after the other spends time, money and effort trying to disprove that there was ever an earthquake – so the township doesn’t have to pay damages.” He saw himself in a nearby mirror and wondered if he was slurring his words.
“Bah!” said Fabio. “I remember the earthquakes in the north and the big one south of Naples but I never heard about earthquakes here at the gates of Rome.”
“No? Well, you just have to look at the cracks in the walls and abutments under this hill. It’s a wonder all the houses haven’t slid over the precipice.”
“Well, the town’s still here after six centuries!”
While Renato ate three hearty courses and Fabio his usual salads, Federico ordered roast chicken and vegetables, which he hardly touched. Alcohol was food, especially beer so full of vitamins and the red wine for his heart. Instead of dessert he ordered a digestive.
Afterwards, the crowds on the piazza thinned out. They walked down the now silent main road toward the Medieval Town. The road narrowed and was shaded by some of the town’s rare trees. It ended in a little piazza in front of the church. He stopped to look at Mariana’s parents’ house in the lane to the left. She was there for lunch. They used to go there often on Sundays.
Walking back up the hill he felt the disgust at living alone, his piddling job and the daily drinking cycle. Days of bottles and sleepless nights during which he vowed no drinking tomorrow. He stopped, took the flask out of the bag and drained off the cognac. He was at the right point. He seemed to emerge from a form of detachment into a coldly analytical frame of mind. He could have 30 more drinks – or none. He wanted to walk on the wall over the precipice the way he used to in their first years together - he playing the clown walking on the parapet along the edge of the abyss and laughing and waving his arms like an acrobat while Mariana squealed in delight and fear. He wished she could see him do it. It might make her reconsider. The best of him, he knew, lay down there in that valley, among those foothills, and on the slopes of Terminillo – his fading youth, his former hopes, his love. Were they not recoverable? Or was life so brutal and so malicious as to offer only one chance? It was unfair.
The piazza was deserted. Fabio and Renato were ready to leave. But Federico didn’t want the moment of his omnipotence to end. He had worked hard to arrive at such sensations. While his friends ordered espressos at the only stand still open, he sauntered toward the ravine overlook. Casually he put one foot on the parapet and stepped up on it. He felt he could walk a high wire. He put his hands in his pockets and strolled along the top of the wall. As he turned toward Fabio and Renato and grinned, the world began to move. At first ever so slightly. But yes, the planet was definitely spinning. He should hold on. But hold on to what? The parapet was quivering. Fabio and Renato crouched down on the cobblestones. Federico felt the wall cracking and crumbling under his feet. Cracking and crumbling until, at last, he was walking on air.
© 2001 Gaither Stewart
Gaither Stewart is a writer and journalist who lives in Rome. His articles and fiction have appeared in many international publications. Two of his e-books are available from Southern Cross Review. See E-book Library