I WAS BORN IN A lemon grove, the scent of blossoms everywhere. Mamma told me it was paradise on earth, and so she named me Angelica, whispering in my ear that life, like the lemon tree, houses both the bitter and the sweet. A breeze had brought to earth a cover of white blossoms, and Mamma said she imagined a far-off winter playground. The day I was born she removed a veil from my face while lying in a bosk of flowering trees and looked up to see tiny white zagarelle frame an ocean of sky that mirrored the straits of Messina.
Mamma insisted we speak Italian—the language of angels, she called it—but sometimes we’d slip into Sicilian. After she had my brother Peppe, Mamma lost four children before I arrived, followed by two sisters. Mamma prayed her guardian angel would send her a celestial being, but
instead she got me. Mamma had a thing about angels, saying we are born with a host of eleven thousand watching over us. She had promised that if I were born and lived, she’d make sure that I would be devoted to my own patron and, with God’s help, the seraphim could choose amongst themselves who would guide me. That poor angel didn’t have an inkling of what he’d be getting into.
Angelica—a name that caused me difficulty right from the beginning. Angels are listed in God’s Chain of Being as below God but above man. And man is above animals and animals are above plant life. This always troubled me because I knew I was human and humans suffered just like animals. And in my life on the farm I had learned to love animals.
ON AN OCTOBER DAY, EIGHT years after my birth, I started thinking about the heavenly trust with which Mamma had encumbered me. I couldn’t be an angel all the time, nor did I want to be. The sun warmed, yet the air was cool. Autumn announced itself with the acrid fragrance of burning leaves and the sweet scents from Mamma’s kitchen. Mamma asked me to pick up twelve eggs from the chickens so we could make ricotta cheesecake. I loved helping her.
I had a special chicken, Cluck, a true prize that laid the best eggs. On this day, I hunted all over but couldn’t find the egg she’d to have laid, not a pure white nor a blood-stained one. I couldn’t find her either. But when I finally found her near an abandoned stone cottage, she was dead. I looked at her outstretched body and open eyes staring back at me, unseeing. I swooshed my hand at the flies around her eyes and picked up her limp body, her neck hanging slack. She was lost to me forever, and there was nothing I could do about it. I put her in my apron and ran, my chest heaving, all the way to Mamma, who was waiting for me in the kitchen.
“Did a fox get her, Mamma?”
“I’m afraid not,” Mamma said.
I laid the chicken on the sideboard.
Mamma sat at the table sewing. She set her work aside, pulled me close, and placed her arms around me. She looked right up into my face. I knew by the set of her mouth that whatever she was going to tell me was not only going to be the truth, but was also going to be one of those awful lessons about life that I didn’t want to hear. Why couldn’t I have been born a for-real angel?
Mamma told me how life was paradise on earth. But I was beginning to learn that an earthly paradise is a canvas splotched with the color of sadness.
“Listen, sweet one.”
Oh, now I knew for sure it was going to be hurtful.
“Sometimes life doesn’t turn out the way we want. It has a way of presenting us with trials to deal with right then and there.”
“That chicken has given us many healthy eggs, and we are grateful to her, but now her time of egg-bearing has finished.”
“She died because she wasn’t supposed to have any more. She’s what we call egg-bound. The egg was either too big and she was too tired to push it out, or it might have been twisted or even cracked and the yolk . . .”
Mamma looked at me the way she did when I was supposed to have understood what she was saying only I wasn’t quite sure if I had.
“Do you understand, Angelica?”
She shook me gently by the shoulders and I answered, “Maybe, except for the breaking . . . Could this happen to a woman?”
She smiled and hugged me.
I’d gotten it right, but it vexed me all the same, Mamma pointing out life’s cheerless possibilities. My throat burned and clogged with something that felt egg-sized. I wriggled out of her grasp and ran out, grabbing my chicken from the sideboard.
I didn’t stop running until I passed Papà’s wine shed. I fell to my knees and cried, venting the sorrow that overcame me, shedding tears I couldn’t when I’d first discovered my chicken—perhaps because I’d been so shocked by her death. I cried and rocked my dead chicken till I heard my mother’s voice call me for supper. If I buried my chicken, Mamma might get angry. She never wasted anything, and probably had intentions of using that chicken, stuck egg and all, for soup. But I knew I could never eat Cluck, and the thought of cooking her was so horrific to me that I chanced Mamma’s anger and dug a deep hole with a shovel from the shed. Good or bad behavior? I tried not to think about it.
Mamma always said I was good, but that didn’t mean I didn’t love to play hard and take risks. Somehow knowing I had such a strong presence around made me, well, not quite invincible, but able to take chances because I knew I was safe and protected. This invisible shield felt marvelous. I did things—some of them crazy and wild—with a sense that there was no danger. In fact, to me, there was little peril doing things like jumping from the hayloft and landing smack on the mule’s back.
Our property was extensive, not quite a latifondo. Fenced in from the road, the land could have been mistaken for a monastery. One hundred meters from our house, built into the side of a cliff, was a barn where we stabled horses, a donkey, and a mule. There was a pigpen, a chicken coop, and a hutch for rabbits, whose cages were always filthy. The day before, I’d cleaned them, but hated the task because of one fierce buck. He looked sweet but was mean as a snapping crab in a tide pool.
The arbor was a short walk of a few meters from the house. That’s where Mamma canned tomatoes, though I don’t know why it was called canning because we always used bottles. In the arbor was a huge stone sink and a marble table big enough for twenty people. One summer we went through one hundred kilos of tomatoes. About half were conserved whole and peeled in widemouthed glass jars while the rest we passed through a sieve. We poured the smashed pulp and juice through a funnel into wine or beer bottles. Even though it was summer, we made huge fires and wrapped the bottles in old newspapers, cooking them in boiling water. We couldn’t touch the cooked bottles till the next morning. We always lost some. A few broke in the water, others burst when we took them out, especially if the morning air was cool and the bottle still hot.
Our land was covered with fruit trees. We had a mandarin tree and other trees like walnuts and cork, the bark of which had many uses. Our lemon, orange, and almond groves were far from the house, and so was Papà’s olive orchard, which some years he would rent out. Even the alley down the orto was lined with wild asparagus. But the figs were my favorite. Sometimes when picking figs I could see raspberry apricot cloudlets perched between other trees, overspread and dense. Whenever my father found a ripe black fig pinched off at the honeyed end, he’d ask, “Angelica, who could have done this?” As I opened my mouth to answer, he’d say, “A bird perhaps?” He would then pick the fruit and bring his arm way back over his head, ready to hurl it, and say, “Shall we let the birds have it?” Then I’d grab it from his fingers and shove it in my mouth. When I finished chewing I’d say, “No use wasting a good fig, Papà.” I was the little bird, but he always played the game.
Mamma saw how upset I was at supper. I wouldn’t eat a thing, so she asked me what was wrong. I told her I buried my chicken. She said, “Of course. Did you think I’d cook it?” All I could do was lower my head. “It might be poisoned,” she said ever so quietly.
AFTER THE EVENING MEAL I paid a visit to the burial site of Cluck. When I got back I said to Mamma that burying my chicken made me decide to take extra good care of my little donkey, Pupa. Everyone made fun of me because I called her Doll, but that’s what she was to me. By then it was late, but Mamma gave me permission to make sure my pet was all right.
As I neared my donkey, I spoke softly, “Pupa,” and watched her prick up her ears. She knew me, knew the sound of my voice and touch. She hated my brother, who sometimes played mean tricks on her. Walking back to the house, I passed the carob tree and thought about how I loved to climb it and pick long brown pods to feed the horses and my donkey. I would even chew the pods when Papà wasn’t looking.
AFTER LUNCH THE NEXT DAY Mamma told me to clean the stable, but I didn’t muck out the stalls right away. Instead, I led Nero d’Avola, Papà’s black horse named for a grape, out by his mane, climbed up on the dead tree log in front of the stable, and mounted the horse. He took off at a trot, and at once we were cantering. Then he began to gallop, and soon I was bouncing hard up and down and all over and had a difficult hard time keeping my balance. I yanked his head back with all my might and he slowed somewhat, but it was then I realized he was going to jump the fence. I didn’t think he had enough speed to manage the jump, but he soared over it as I flew right over his head and landed
with such force I thought I saw stars.
It wasn’t just the feeling of the wind being knocked out of me, it was as if I’d run for kilometers and was hyperventilating. I couldn’t slow down enough to catch my breath. I remembered Mamma always putting a bag over my mouth when this happened, so I cupped my hands in front of my face and tried to breathe. Slowly, my breath came back to me. I was shaken, but knew I’d live, although I felt terribly sore in my private parts. I checked my body—no bones broken. But the horse was content, munching on some high grass. I took him by the mane and we walked all the way back to the stable. He was gentle as a lamb most of the time. What made him think he’d suddenly become a racehorse?
Still hurting after I deposited the horse back to his stall, I had no energy to muck out anything. I would have done it later, but my nosiness won out and my feet wandered into Papà’s wine shed. I was preparing to receive my First Holy Communion. My uncle Don Ruggero, Mamma’s brother, who was a priest, said we only got the bread, which is both body and blood. But I’d never tasted wine, though I did think about sipping some on Sundays when everyone was napping. Something tempted me, so I decided to try some.
Bougainvillea, bay leaf hedge, and oleander blocked the view of the wine outbuilding from the house. Somehow I understood the importance of being out of sight, hidden by shrubbery, though I never had before. I entered the storehouse and felt a difference in temperature from outside. I nosed around, sticking my fingers into demijohns of this and that, sometimes forgetting which cork went where.
I walked around inspecting hoses and funnels. There were many wooden barrels on their sides. Everything seemed hazy and musty. The smell of fermented wine made me marvel at so many other things in nature, like how the sun rose or why a dappled pony stood in what shade he could find out of the sun.
I put my mouth to a spigot and trickled in some wine, sweeter than grapes. How was that possible? I took another sip. I wasn’t fast enough in turning the nozzle and splashed my feet, like rain. I liked to watch rain, how it gave me that magical feeling of knowing life through generations. Mamma said we have an inner voice, an inner knowledge passed down through the genes. She was right, because sometimes I’ve known things before they happened. I swallowed some more wine and felt my cheeks warm, my head become airy.
I closed the door. A shaft of light poured in from a high window, now the only source of light. I sampled another of my father’s wines. I began to think of my life as if I were seeing it from outside of myself. Sometimes I pictured it running next to me—like how a shadow moves along the wall. I owned up that life was a mystery. Why was there blood at birth? Why did females have to endure all that waiting like long-suffering saints before the baby came? But there was nothing in the world that seemed more wondrous and natural than the life my mamma led. I wanted that same life surrounded by children and love when I grew up.
A ladybug landed on my hand, and I wished for the promise of paradise on earth, which to me spelled family. Birds twittered in the eaves. A three note call, the cooing of the doves. I glanced upward, saw nothing, but heard another trill of two staccato and one extended beat. I listened again to two unstressed and one stressed warble. Then silence.
Demijohns, bottles of a liter, a liter and a half, and two liters, and all of them had small necks and were fragile. Mamma was constantly telling me to take care with them, except for the stout demijohns. The bottles were spaced out and lined the floor, maze-like. I stepped gingerly around and in between them. They were scattered in a narrow space like a corridor between two walls full of rickety old shelving that almost met. I leaned back on one wall and reached to touch the other with both hands and arms extended. I looked at the opposite wall from where a ladder leaned and saw the faint outline of an archway, pleased to discover the secret that there once was a door that had been sealed shut. How odd. Life cradles so many secrets, so many lies ahead waiting to be discovered. The ladder rested upon the wall to my left.
Curiosity got the better of me, and I wanted a better look at the archway. There seemed to have been a window on top of it. I lifted my skirt and petticoat, tucking them into my waistband. I began to climb. I climbed with slow, careful steps up the wooden rungs, higher and higher, my steps unsure. “Whoops, I slipped,” I said, thinking it couldn’t be the wine—I drank so little. Better stop. I reached shelving, skipped the first, and decided on the second. Then I sat balanced, though somewhat precariously, on a ledge. A lemon-yellow butterfly flitted by, the distraction underscoring what I already knew: I shouldn’t be here. The air stilled. The same peace that ushers in a storm reigned within the shed, and soon thoughts of my donkey crammed in on me. She would have to go through the rigors of birthing someday, Mamma said. And as I hoped to be like my mother, I trusted Pupa’s jennet would be like her. I’d made Mamma promise I could be there to help when the time came. All she said was, We’ll see.
I looked all around, down at the bottles below me and then followed the flight of the butterfly. So lost in thought was I that when Mamma called me from the garden to gather tomatoes, her shrill voice startled me and I slipped from the shoulder-level shelf that my father had built for his convenience. I grappled to keep my balance, but then everything dipped and pitched out of kilter, as if time slowed. My arms flailed, a bird, a butterfly in flight. I screamed, a wail that seemed to wake the dead. Reaching across for the opposite shelf, I grabbed for it but it gave way. Falling forward, I scraped my hands against the rough, opposing wall. I slid down it, crashing through planking that broke some momentum but did not stop or save me as bottles and wood shattered around me.
It was a bad day for falls. I stood and pulled out my skirt and petticoat, dusting myself off, the glass falling and tinkling onto the floor. Smashed glass was all around me and on me, and I even had to pull a sliver of glass out of me, moaning as I did so, a trickle of blood oozing onto the legs of my knickers. Where had my angel flown off to when I needed the divine creature now? Poor cherub. How I wished so that he’d caught me. Probably crying somewhere in a tree because I’d disobeyed. My thoughts were cut off by pain. I hoped my insides were all right. I felt strange, but didn’t think I was dying. All the same, I needed assurance. I’d ask Mamma. She always had answers to my questions. I unwadded a handkerchief I had in my apron pocket and folded it across the inside of my ripped knickers.
My knees were scraped, but I offered this up to Jesus who died on the cross, suffering so much for me and for reparation of man’s sins. Although I wasn’t quite sure what reparation meant, Don Ruggero said it often enough, so I thought I should include it.
Blood on my hands. I wished I had been sewing so I could wipe my hands on a piece of cloth. I must have cut them before protecting them with my skirt when I pushed myself off the ground. I was about to clean my palms on my skirt, but thought better of it and wiped them on my knickers. Funny, I didn’t hear them rip when I fell. How could I in the soaring waves of broken glass and the sea of splintering wood?
I had never disobeyed Mamma before. Now I had sinned, broken God’s commandment and at least five of Papà’s bottles. I began to cry from shame and fear. I brushed the tears away when I reached the house, but something kept me from telling Mamma. Why? I stood there for
a moment in shock before she sent me into the yard to pick enough tomatoes to make picchi-pacchi, her name for tomato sauce. I usually scampered about, but I hurt too much to run around and wondered how I could tell her about the horse accident and my fall in the shed. My body was cramping and my insides throbbed uncomfortably. I slowed to a turtle’s pace because I was still bleeding. Hiking up my long skirt to keep it from dragging in the dirt, I washed my scraped knees and cut legs at the fountain near the vegetable garden. Then I collected a basket of plum tomatoes.
In the kitchen I started to say with urgency in my voice, “Mamma, I’ve something to tell you—”
“Not now, Angelica,” she said, rushing about, cutting me off with her don’t-bother-me-now tone. “Watch your little sisters. Prepare the picchi-pacchi. Heaven knows I’ll have enough to do when I get back from Zia Concetta’s.”
“Must you go?” I hoped Mamma wouldn’t chat a lot with my uncle Nino’s wife.
“Zu Nino went clamming in Acireale. He promised me some.”
As she spoke, I felt a throbbing dullness where I’d never felt anything like this before. A twinging. Pain yet not quite pain. I decided it could wait until she returned, knowing I had to confess. I was ashamed. How could I tell her that I’d been in Papà’s wine shed when I was supposed to have been mucking out the stalls? I was terrified to explain what had happened—all those broken bottles—and glad that I didn’t get a chance to tell her before she left. I heard Mamma’s voice instructing me to mind my sisters.
Not long after Mamma left for my uncle Nino’s, I remembered something that only last week Papà had told me about his brother. Nino used to be a great fisherman in the mattanza—the killing when the blue fin tuna ran. The thrashing fish were trapped in a vast water chamber
of heavy nets where they were harpooned and truncheoned to death in a chanted ritual dating back to Santa Rosalia in the eleventh century. I thought of Zu Nino, so skinny yet strong, clubbing a tuna ten times his size, of my father telling me that the massacre bloodies the sea for kilometers. A red sea of dead fish. Recalling the tuna killing, I quaked inside.
Still shivering, I watched Mamma take off her apron, hook a sennit of palms basket on her arm, and set off down toward the dirt road that led to my uncle’s farm. She glanced back to see me in the doorway. Mamma set down the basket and semaphored her arms. Waving back with one hand, I closed the door with the other.
Which should I do first? Clean up the mess in the shed or make the sauce? When would I clean the stable? Or groom my donkey? I couldn’t even ask my little sister Rina, who was napping with baby Nunziata. I dashed to the shed, nauseated by the run. With a twig broom, I swept up the shards of broken bottles.
As soon as I got back, I changed my messy undergarments. I sewed the ripped ones where they’d been torn, washed and hung them to dry along with the handkerchief. Dark shadows started to appear in the yard, and with the absence of light I felt two disappointments creep into my heart—one for me because I couldn’t clean the stable till tomorrow and one for Mamma because I hadn’t.
KEPT FEELING SICK, AND Mamma came back shortly after I retched. She entered the kitchen and put the dripping basket of clams that she’d gotten from Zia Concetta in the sink. She sent Rina into the yard to pick basil and parsley near the rosemary hedges and leaned over
the crib, picking up baby Nunziata who had begun to cry.
Seated comfortably, Mamma unbuttoned her blouse and suckled the child. I watched her switch breasts and thought of the Maternità, a painting of the Madonna and Christ child in one of the side altars of our church. Mamma was more beautiful than the painting of Mary.
The baby dozed off. Mamma looked content. Rina came in from the yard, and Mamma told us that she herself was an excellent clammer and next summer she would teach us how to dig with our feet in the muddy shoals and pull up vongole veraci. She even told us on some beaches it was possible just to move the sand where the waves break and tiny purple and
green and gold tellini, thumbnail-size clams, would come to the surface.
“Your father calls them ‘fool’s food’ because they are so small. You need to eat a basket worth to get full,” she said.
I went to pass water in a chamber pot that Mamma kept outside back of the pantry for emergencies. I noticed there was still blood. When I returned, I wanted to tell Mamma I’d messed myself, but how to begin?
Mamma looked at me as if I were someone else. I felt embarrassed when she asked what was wrong.
“Angelica, you’re so pale.”
“I’ve soiled myself . . .”
She didn’t seem overly concerned and said, “Angelica, speak up, you’re whispering.”
“I’ve sullied my bloomers, but not in back. In front. It’s blood, but honest, Mamma—”
She slapped me across the face. Maybe I said it wrong. I didn’t mean to frighten her.
“Mamma, you’ve never slapped me before. I’m sorry.”
“Oh, my love.” Her hand flew to her mouth. “It’s an old custom that means you’re a young lady now. Don’t be afraid.”
“I’m not. I just wanted to hear my innards wouldn’t fall out.”
“They won’t. The slap’s a tradition, not because you were bad. You didn’t do anything wrong.” She hugged me to her.
She released me. “To bring back color to your cheek because of losing blood.”
Mamma brushed hair out of my eyes. “This is natural, it’s just that you’re only eight . . . It usually happens later.”
The baby woke and Mamma said, “Rina, sit here.” Mamma put the infant into her arms. “Now rock gently, but stay put. I’m taking Angelica to her room.”
"Is she naught, Mamma?" Rini asked.
"Never - she's an angel."
Mamma showed me how to attach cut diaper cloths for the bleeding. She pinned them to my bloomers. She was so patient with me, not at all like when she washed and combed my long chestnut hair, which sometimes snarled; if ever I’d start to cry, Mamma in her haste yanked my tresses free. But now she looked like the Madonna in the painting above her bed. Calmly she cautioned me to wash the strips immediately with brown soap and hang them on the far side of the pigpen away from the rest of the wash where no one could see.
“Where are your other bloomers? The ones you wore today?”
I told her I’d washed them, and she caressed my cheek saying, “You’ll blossom into a fine woman.” She told me to lie down.
“But who’ll help you set and clear away?”
“Tonight, little one, you’re excused. Rest before supper.”
She sat next to me and explained that when the time came, the bleeding was necessary to make a cushion for the baby, like the one Zia Concetta was carrying inside her.
I imagined a baby pillowed on blood, squinted my eyes tight shut, and hoped with all my heart that the baby could swim like my brother, Peppe, had taught me over the summer.
Mamma said the bleeding would come every month now, and questions in my brain darted left and right. Forever? Did the same thing happen to boys? Would it interfere with play? Somehow I knew things would be different. I had the feeling this was going to crimp my climbing and jumping for sure.
“Why am I bleeding? I won’t be old enough for babies for a long time.”
“Your body wants to be prepared.”
My head felt like it was trying to swim somewhere. I needed to ask more, tell more, but I couldn’t.
“I wish you’d sing me a canzone now.” I seemed not quite myself.
She began to hum and I said, “Maybe the bleeding won’t come every month.” But what I didn’t say was that I thought the bottle might have caused the bleeding.
Now pain was all I could think about.
“Oh, this hurts. This is my punishment for drinking wine,” I said.
Mamma was talking, but I could barely hear her because my head was floating around the ceiling. She seemed to be asking me about the wine. The last thing I remembered was her telling me that the walk to my aunt’s farm had been hot and dusty and dark clouds had appeared without rain. My eyes felt hooded. As I looked toward the window where the dusk light poured in and as Mamma closed the shutters, she said something like, “Penumbra. Twilight. Time of dreamy dreams.”