DECEMBER NIGHTS IN the mountains of the Abruzzo are long. People get cabin-fever in these snow-bound high villages on the Adriatic coast of central Italy. By the winter solstice, it is not unusual for the locals to devise escapades on the slightest of whims. Still, I was pissed off with my cousin Ennio, with my Abruzzese relatives and with Sean, my husband. They should never have let my father go with them that night, down the mountain into the valley, into the village of Rocca di Sangro.
Apparently Papa wanted to attend evening mass. Yeah, right. More like a smoke and drink half-a-dozen shots of the local spirit, centerba.
At ninety-one, my father was terminally ill. He wanted a lot of things belonging to his younger self. Like hanging out at Bar Zu in the Piazza Garibaldi, gossiping with the old men he grew up with, gli anziani with their gnarled olive-harvest hands.
The Italians, I complained to my daughter. Only the Italians would take off at night in the snow in two carloads of cousins and kids, down the precipitous mountain track to get pizza and local spirits. ‘So irresponsible. No idea of time. Kids going to bed whenever.’
‘Mum!’ snapped Rhiannon, ‘you can’t generalise like that. You’re so racist.’
Rianna, as her colleagues called her at the University of Bologna, was on edge since she’d come down from the north for Christmas. We were sharing a bedroom in my cousin Ennio’s farmhouse, staying with him and his wife Teresa until Rhi’s husband Lachlan was to join her after visiting his parents in London. Meanwhile, Rhiannon was juggling her thesis, the toddler and the baby. My littlest grandchild, bless her, was a terrible sleeper. Just like her mum.
Rhiannon was into her Italianita in a big way: international conferences, intersectional feminism, Elena Ferrante and pointing out how little I knew about anything. I wanted to tell her: I remember growing up eye-talian in 1960s Leichhardt, losing the language, multiculturalising, assimilating, globalising. I might not know much about my Italianita, my Rianna, but it is due to me that you are back in Italy like Arya returning to Winterfell. In her second year as a fine-arts postgrad at Bologna, Rhiannon was now speaking a passable academic Italian.
The local dialect was beyond her though. The sounds of these central Italian mountains, they’re not written down. You had to learn this tongue like I did, from mother’s milk and father’s arms.
FIVE-THIRTY AND still they weren’t back. That’s it, I thought: I’m going down to get Dad.
Rhiannon was dozing. Gently I lifted the car keys from her change-bag. ‘Be careful, Mum,’ she murmured. ‘There’s still wolves and bears out there.’
I got to the village just before the bells of Santa Maria Addolorata rang out six o’clock. Mario, the barista at Bar Zu, told me that Ennio and the others had taken Dad on to Vasto because the old man had wanted to see the lights of the towns of the Adriatic from Vasto’s high vantage points.
To calm my nerves, I downed a cappuccino into which Mario had poured a shot of centerba. In the supermercato I grabbed antipasti, pane di casa, buffalo mozzarella, packets of savoiardi and a bottle of centerba. On the way home I stopped outside the cemetery.
I parked outside the high iron gates. The moon and street lamps caught the reflective whiteness of the snow. I got out of the car, zipped up my puffer coat and pulled on my gloves.
Snow had settled in lumps over statues, vaults and crosses, fringing wall vases and urns, weighing down the plastic flowers of an eternal springtime. I pressed against the locked gates. The family vault lay deeper inside, beyond a winding path through pines, darkness and stone.
Dad wanted to be buried there, he was clear about that. Of six children, only he and Ennio’s father, Giuseppe, known as ‘Pino’, had lived to adulthood and old age. My Zio Pino, at ninety years old, had been one of the most gnarled of gli anziani that hung around Bar Zu. He was buried the summer before last. Dad, who had now lived a few months longer than his older brother, was determined to rest next to him, with his dates carved (in a slightly larger font than Pino’s) into the masonry.
Their mother, my Nonna Maddelena, was there on the south wall: she’d gone in the late-1980s. Long before that, Nonno Alfonso, dead at thirty-six by the outbreak of war, and before him, Dad and Pino’s three little sisters and a brother, all in childhood of unknown causes. For centuries in Southern Italy, il Mezzogiorno, war, hunger and poverty didn’t count as causes of anything. There was nothing unknown about those things.
Amara terra mia, Dad would sing to us in the Leichhardt shop, amara e bella. Bitter land of mine: bitter and beautiful.
Dad had come back here to die. He thought that because my mum was buried in Sydney, at Rookwood, that I would have her near me and I would be okay with his decision.
Not okay. No, Papa, don’t go. Back in the car, I laid my head against the steering wheel and cried.
HALFWAY UP COLLE Santo Stefano, the snow thickened. Big flakes whirled suicidally into my window-wipers, which crunch-crunched as they hit the mounting drift on the bonnet. I dropped down to second gear; there were hairpin bends to negotiate and the Apennine road snaked upwards to the summit’s ski fields and villages at two thousand feet.
The wind in the pines forced them to bend and recoil, their Christmas arms swaying with snow. It was a sight so strange to me that I was hypnotised and a little frightened: I wanted to be back at Ennio and Teresa’s casale, to shut the door on this chiaroscuro of cold.
I was at the fork where the Via Croce met the Contrada San Paulo when I passed a man and his kids walking precariously along the shoulder of the road.
I turned on my interior cabin lights and opened the car window. I removed my spattered glasses to peer into the eye-watering storm. ‘Eccola qui!’ I called out. ‘State tutti bene?’
In the headlights was a youngish bloke in an old military-style greatcoat and heavy boots. He had a toddler girl wrapped in a blanket in his arms, while two older girls helped their little brother sink and rise his way through the slush towards me. The children were dressed in 1930s coats, tatty mufflers and threadbare gloves: unusual for the fastidious Italians of the village.
Naturally I offered them a lift, and they all piled in.
I moved my shopping to the back seat to allow their father to sit in the front. He made no effort to put on his seatbelt and neither did his children; perhaps they had scant regard for such in these parts but I was mindful of my insurance, and when I insisted, he seemed perplexed. Eventually I had to find the seatbelt and buckle him in myself. Turning to the back, I motioned the others to comply, which they did with a similar, somewhat aggravating clumsiness.
It was then that I saw how thin and dirty the kids were. The infant on the man’s knee was clearly very sick, her eyes glazed and feverish, her manner lethargic.
Indeed they were all reserved and somewhat slow; numbed, I imagined, from the cold.
‘Grazie, Maria Rosaria, molto grazie,’ said the father gravely, in formal Italian.
So apparently he knew me. I suppose you would know the foreigners in a village as small as Rocca di Sangro. In this one-bar, two-deli town we ‘stood out like tits on a bull’, as Sean kept saying – to annoy me, I suspect. He always amped up his Australian English to super-bogan levels when he hung around with my relatives.
‘So,’ I said to the man, in formal Italian, ‘where are you going?’
I was careful to use the polite third-person dove va, dove andate?
‘To my son’s,’ said the man, switching to dialect. ‘My oldest. He’s not well. E tu, dove vai?’
Tu: the familiar. I switched to dialect too, though somewhat self-consciously.
‘To Ennio and Teresa’s,’ I said.
He smiled. ‘Brava, Maria Rosaria,’ he said. ‘Molto brava. Mi fa molto piacere.’
I didn’t see that staying with my first cousin was an especially brilliant achievement on my part. But it was nice that it made him happy. Certainly better than a poke in the eye with a burnt stick, as Sean would say.
‘I hope your son gets better soon,’ I said.
‘Thank you but that’s not possible this time. He’s done.’
He’s done: that’s what it sounded like but, as he was unperturbed, and the children placid, obviously I misunderstood. His dialect was rounder, different to what I was used to.
SLOWLY, CAREFULLY, I drove the five-and-a-half kilometres up the mountain towards Teresa and Ennio’s casale.
My passengers were so quiet that my breathing seemed noisy and the engine rough. The crunch crunch of the wipers and the hum of the gears intensified. I turned up the heating; soon the car smelled of pine needles on damp woollens, of skin returning to rosiness as the children’s cheeks and lips thawed. I told the kids to help themselves to the bags of bread, antipasti and savoiardi. Bright eyes, smiles and rustlings filled the interior. Even the listless baby began to stir and chafe, her curiosity reanimated.
Not three generations ago, I reflected, a car in these parts was a miracle. Go back four, five generations and it was not even in the possession of kings. With each hundred metres upwards, I became aware of the powerful gift I steered through the dark.
Yet against the great flank of the Maiella mountains, the car shrank to a toy with its tiny passengers and headlights aglow, a bauble on the branches of a fir tree bending and dancing in the wind.
They piled out at the turn-off near the old farmhouse, the older girl taking the baby from her father’s arms. As the kids picked their way through the dangerous icy edge of roadway to a gap in the hedgerows leading to the fields, the man turned back to me.
‘Mari’Rosar’,’ he said in his odd dialect. ‘Can I take the rest of the food?’
It was a surprising request but I didn’t mind. I took it as an acknowledgement that I too was a local, dealing with the black ice, the cutthroat winds, the fields under snow. As if we were all in it together: us against the encircling mountains.
‘Sure,’ I said, passing him the groceries.
The state of the children made me wish I could have given him more. Cash maybe, but I was mindful of bella figura, Italian pride: the art of hiding your need from anyone but your most intimate relations.
So I said, ‘Prego, aspetto. Take the centerba too.’
He raised the bottle in thanks and farewell.
‘Troppo gentile, Maria Rosaria,’ he said, adding, ‘Tell your father we’ll come to see him tomorrow morning.’
Thinking back though, in dialect what he might have said was closer to: ‘Tell your Papa we’ll come for him in the morning.’
IT WAS TEN o’clock by the time the others got back from Vasto. After the children were bedded and Dad medicated and settled, the adults sat at the kitchen table drinking Ennio’s house wine. I told them about how I had driven their neighbours home.
‘You got conned,’ they laughed.
‘What neighbours?’ scoffed Ennio’s brother-in-law. ‘It’s all our fields from here to the Osento River.’
‘I know that,’ I said, flushing. ‘But you’re renting out the old farmhouse, right?’
‘I wish it were so!’ said Ennio. ‘Maybe when I win the lottery.’ Laughing, the men agreed: growing olives to market through the cantina was still unprofitable for them and they all had day jobs in local industry. Agriturismo was not yet one of them.
My cousin, seeing my discomfort, stopped laughing. ‘No, Maria Rosaria. We got Nonna Maddelena out of there in 1962 when my Papa built this place.’
‘Il vecchio casale e rovinato,’ said a relative. ‘The old farmhouse is a ruin. Nothing there now.’
I shrugged, forced to play the stranger card. ‘Well I don’t know,’ I said. ‘They seemed to know you. He knew my name, he knew Papa.’
‘They’re Romanians, gypsies probably,’ said Teresa. ‘They find out who you are by looking in your letter box, stealing credit cards, information. Trust me, they’re not from around here.’
‘Pity,’ I muttered in English to Rhiannon. ‘Because I just gave them our food and booze.’
‘What’s this stuff then, Mary Rose?’ said Sean, coming in from the garage.
He had my supermercato bags – all of them, brimming with groceries – and the liquor, pristine and sealed, in his arms.
My heart beat fast. I gasped: ‘Where did you find those?’
‘You left them in the back of the car.’
I stood up as the room wrapped around me.
I was choking: no air, no air. For many long seconds I watched myself trying to push the next breath into my lungs.
Consternation erupted at the table. No one knew what to do.
Then suddenly my breath returned: in and out, warm and sweet, there and here.
Rhiannon helped me sit down as Teresa rubbed my arm and Sean poured me a glass of water.
‘What was that?’ said my husband. ‘Someone walk on your grave?’
‘Quite possibly,’ I said, embarrassed.
And more than one, I thought.
Teresa made me swallow bread softened in wine and Ennio blamed the chilli in the sopressata di calabria.
Rhiannon sighed and rolled her eyes. ‘Mum, you’re losing it,’ she said in English, squeezing my hand. ‘For godssake stay off the centerba.’
True to their word, they came for him early that winter morning. At first light, when I brought my father his breakfast, he was already cold.
A good death for a long life, gli anziani said: in his bed and taken ‘between the hour of the wolf and the eagle’.
I GOT BACK to Sydney in February. It was so humid it was like being simmered in a bain-marie. Grief numbed my days, staring at shelves in Kmart, Bunnings – anywhere with aircon. By night, I walked my dog through Camperdown Park. Fruit bats flew out of the Moreton Bay figs and I had to be careful around the tiny, hard figlets: Yabby loved them but couldn’t digest them.
Under the tree one night, an old Koori had his swag laid out. I’d never seen him before: people who slept rough rarely appeared down our end of Australia Street. Mostly the Newtown Indigenous community met around the I Have A Dream wall in King Street or busked outside the IGA supermarket.
‘Hey sista,’ he called out to me. ‘Where you been?’
‘Thanks for asking,’ I said. ‘But I’m not really a sista am I?’
He scanned me carefully. ‘Nah,’ he said. ‘But you been gone a long time a long way, hey?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Back to my country. My father died.’
‘My country here,’ he said. ‘Cadigal Wangal people.’
Yabby had settled on the guy’s blanket, so I squatted down beside him. We breathed it all in: the frangipani air, the flapping bats, the warm moon.
‘Got anything to drink?’ he said.
As it happened I did. In my backpack I still had a duty-free hundred-millilitre split of centerba: about three shots.
I took a swig before handing it to him.
‘Who-a-ar,’ he gasped. ‘What d’ya call that?’
‘From my country. Hard to pronounce.’
I did a round of the park with Yabby and by the time we were back under the Moreton Bay figs, the swaggie had gone. Against the tree was the full split bottle, screw-top sealed, contents untouched.
Amare terra mia. Amare e bella. I took the bottle, opened it, and, pushing Yabby away, I knelt on the ground.
I did my best with I would like to acknowledge…on which we meet today…
Then I poured the liquor tenderly into the thirsty soil.