The blue water is calming, which is what Frank desperately needs right now. It’s the first moment he’s had in weeks where he feels at peace with himself. Free of anxiety, he walks up and down the promenade taking in the view. He fingers the papers in the front pocket of his jeans and remembers why he’d come here in the first place and for a moment, the anxiety returns.
The warm breeze calms him, the old men tending to their boats, the beautiful women walking along the promenade, it all returns him to the moment. Again anxiety free, he rests his arms on the stone parapet and gazes towards the horizon. He doesn’t have much time to do what he’d come to do. It’s still early yet, still has a few hours to kill.
A sudden urge for a strong cup of coffee comes over him. He remembers the little outdoor café he passed a few yards back. He can kill some time there.
. . . . . .
They’d never seen so much shit in their lives. Stacks of old newspapers and magazines, faded betting receipts from the racetrack, TV Guides from the 1980s, unreturned library books, ashtrays full of spent cigar butts.
This was only the beginning.
Gina poked her head into the kitchen, grimaced at all the grime, the sink full of dirty dishes, the grease splattered stove. She didn’t dare open the refrigerator.
Frank, meanwhile, rummaged through a cardboard he removed from the living room closet, tried to sort out the heap of papers that were thrown in without rhyme or reason.
As much as they loved their grandfather, he was most definitely a slob and a pack rat. Now Gina knew where her brother got it from.
. . . . . .
With a fresh cup of espresso at his side, he removes the old letter from his pocket. He reads it over again. He’s not sure how many times he’d read it at this point but with each reading the anxiety returns. He folds the letter, stuffs it back in the envelope and retrieves the other piece of paper from his pocket.
Margarita, it says, along with an address and a telephone number.
Margarita lives somewhere in this town, the very town in which his great-grandparents emigrated from nearly one hundred years ago. It strikes him as funny that such a beautiful seaside village had once been the scene of so much drama and he wonders now different it must have looked in his great-grandparents’ day. Some of these homes and buildings were probably there then, those now mixed with more modern structures.
He’d already visited some of the old ruins, wandered its ancient streets, marveled at the whitewashed homes with their odd coned roofs. He has no idea whether or not his great-grandparents lived in a house like that. Maybe, maybe not. He had already been by the house where Margarita lives, one of these odd looking homes, on a beautiful little street, adorned with colorful flora. Again, it seems too peaceful a place for the seeds of something so horrible to have been planted. Perhaps the people were more primitive, superstitious. Peasants, unlike today, where nearly everyone’s eyes are glued to their smart phones, or navigating their scooters around the throngs of tourists who come to partake in the town’s pristine beaches. It’s not what he expected at all.
. . . . . .
Buried under the papers inside the box was a red plastic cornicello. What it was doing at the bottom of a cardboard box and not hanging somewhere in the house was a mystery. Frank removed it, blew the dust off and set it aside. A keeper, among many other things he intended to bring home with him, that is, once he got his hands on it.
He paused a moment to stare at the faded red horn. Just like Papa’s, he thought, the one that once hung over the doorway in his childhood home, the same one now hanging over the entrance way to his own apartment.
It was supposed to protect you from the evil eye.
Key word: supposed to.
. . . . . .
Margarita is said to be part of one of The Triad Clans, which is three related witch clans known as The Tamarra, Janarra, and Fanarra.
These clans are known as ‘The Mystery Keepers’. Tamarra maintains the ancient stellar mystery teachings, Janarra keeps the lunar mysteries, and Fanarra are the guardians of the earth mysteries.
Margarita is said to lead her own Boschetto, or coven.
He already formed a picture in his mind about Margarita, imagined her to be a short old woman in a cloak with a dark weathered face and big hooked nose. He imagines her sitting at an ornately decorated table with tarot cards spread out in front of her, a crystal ball at the center of the table, lots of odd and disturbing nicknacks scattered about the room. The truth is he doesn’t know what to expect.
He got her name from his aunt — or rather his father’s aunt — who had kept in touch with relations who remained in the village all these years, that is until the last of them passed on. These old woman, who he never knew nor never met, speak very highly of Margarita and often paid visits to her, passed on any information she may have had about their family to his aunt, who in turn used to pass it on to his own relatives in America. It’s not something he’d ever paid much attention to, nor did his immediate family ever take seriously, though he does have memories of his grandmother taking these sorts of things to heart. Not so much his grandfather but he often went along to get along, not wanting to insult his dearly beloved.
Now here he is, sitting in this café, sipping his espresso in the warm late spring afternoon, asking himself whether or not he’s an idiot for coming on this excursion to begin with. Perhaps his sister was right, that he’s just superstitious, inclined to believe anything.
. . . . . .
Gina watched her brother from the kitchen doorway. She knew he was thinking of keeping the horn.
She had no problem allowing him to take Papa’s horn, though he made an issue of it when they went through his things. She had no use for it. Doesn’t believe in any of this superstitious nonsense. Papa didn’t either but he put it over the door anyway. It was a cultural thing.
She was about chide her brother but decided it was best to just leave it alone. She wasn’t in the mood for another argument over something so stupid. Let him keep it, along with whatever junk Grandpa had around the house. She just wanted to get things over with. She could no longer take the smell.
. . . . . .
Stregoneria was a form of sorcery found in pre-Christian era in this part of Italy. Once the Catholic church was established, stregoneria was opposed and eventually outlawed, though it seemed to have survived in fragmented forms well into the seventeenth century. Practices such as sortilego, erbaria, and fattucheria were regarded as stregoneria by the church. The last remaining vestiges of non-Christian elements in stregoneria appeared in the sixteenth century trial of Elena Draga (also known as Elena Crusichi), who confessed to using ocean tides, timed to lunar phases, to perform works of healing.
These elements illustrated the former pagan roots of stregoneria but as the centuries passed, any remnant of authentic stregoneria withered away, became incorporated into the new official religious tradition, much like all other ancient folkways have in other parts of what would become known as ‘Christendom’.
He doesn’t know anything about this, of course, though he is roughly familiar with the practice due to his grandmother, who carried some of these old traditions well into the twentieth century, those little odd things she used to do that never made any sense and sometimes amused him or outright creeped him out. There was always a part of him that believed in it, always thought that his grandmother would never dare do anything remotely related to ‘witchcraft’ so there had to be something to it all.
. . . . . .
Look at this, Frank said.
A stack of old Valentine’s Day cards, dated from the late 1940s. Yellowed and brittle, Gina carefully opened them one by one and read the odes to love, the romantic overtures, all in a remarkably neat penmanship. It made her a little uncomfortable to think of her Grandfather as a man capable of such expressions of desire. Grandpa would have been a very young man when he wrote these, she mused. She couldn’t imagine it. To her, Grandpa had always been old. The thought of connecting these words to a man she remembered is a bit off putting. She handed the stack back to her brother without another word.
Amazing, isn’t it? Frank said. I never knew such a cantankerous man had it in him.
Perhaps he wasn’t so cantankerous then, Gina said.
Frank considered it but didn’t answer. Instead he read some of the cards over again, wondered if his father had ever written such things to their mother. Somehow he couldn’t imagine it. Not Papa. He was too stoic for his own good, like Grandpa had always been.
Back when men were men.
. . . . . .
He is not to come one minute before or after the appointed time, he was told, which still gives him a few hours to explore the village.
He wishes he knew exactly where his great-grandparents once lived. To see their home — that is if it’s still standing — would be a great thrill. Despite this, he wanders about aimlessly, following wherever his instincts tell him to. Eventually, no matter where he roamed, he always wound up back at the promenade, where he’d kill additional time looking out over the sea.
That creeping anxiety again. Perhaps it’s just nerves, not knowing what to expect when he’s finally face to face with the old witch. He’s having second thoughts, considers the possibility that all of this is simply a waste of time.
. . . . . .
They spent three hours scrubbing down the kitchen in order to get it as close to presentable as possible.
Gina washed all the dirty glasses.
It was Frank’s job to clean out the refrigerator, which was full of moldy food, containers of curdled milk, unwrapped half-eaten sandwiches, unopened bottles of beer and cans of ginger ale. He tossed it all into a trash bag and immediately brought it outside to help alleviate the smell.
It’s amazing that he never had roaches, Gina said. Shit, if I were a roach, I wouldn’t come within ten feet of this place either.
. . . . . .
There’s a woman writhing on the ground as musicians play a rustic melody at a furious pace. A taranta. He knows what this is, a ritual dance said to exorcise the effects of the bite of a spider. It’s an ancient dance, traditional to the region and largely unknown to most Italian-Americans like himself. In America, most are used to the more watered down, family-friendly tarantella one usually sees at weddings. This is nothing of the sort and it too has its roots in the old pagan traditions from this ancient land.
He watches with fascination as the dark haired woman writhes about the white sheet laid on the cobblestone as the tourists begin to gather around capturing the moment on their cell phones. He’s enjoying himself and is distracted from his second guessing about the trip. If all else fails at least he got to experience his ancestral village, is able to witness some of the local customs, taste the local fare. Somewhere deep within his DNA this village is a part of him and for the moment he feels a part of it.
The woman flails about, the music becomes more frantic. A blur of black and white on the ground before him.
. . . . . .
Another box, this one filled with old subway tokens, an MTA patch, a name plate, and thirty year old subway maps. Frank remembered when Grandpa used to come to the house in his uniform, always wondered how he could sit in that booth day in and day out, passing tokens through the little slot, giving directions to the tourists and the lost. What a mind numbing experience it must have been. Grandpa seemed to like it though. Never once complained. He was proud of that job.
Frank set the box aside with every intention of keeping some of the old memorabilia, much to Gina’s chagrin.
Just throw it out, she says.
I want some of this, Frank says. It’s a bit of history.
If you say so.
There was an old token at the bottom of the box. Frank hadn’t seen one in years. He picked it up, examined it, ran his thumb over the cut out Y, then dropped it back in the box.
. . . . . .
Striàra, in typical Salerno dialect, is a word that indicates witches — ‘legendary women’ — who according to popular belief, turn into scary hags dressed in black rags or turn into cats during evenings of a full moon. It is said that a group of these women went into the sea or burrowed themselves beneath an old walnut tree to surrender themselves to the endless dance of Dionysus.
Frank wanders the streets, killing time, thinking about this as he anticipates his meeting with Margarita. Is she one of these ‘legendary women’ of legend? His image of her deepens. She’ll open the door and stare into his eyes, hypnotizing him with her coal black irises, her bony hand will reach out to him. Her touch will be cold, like the touch of death. She’ll be able to read his mind, know every thought, even those he will have. She’ll then read him, tell him all about the family curse, will then offer to remove it once and for all. He’ll watch her strange ritual, listen to the strange words that he used to hear his grandmother chant, will watch in both awe and fear as she conjures up the spirits of the earth.
It isn’t long before every old woman he encounters is a potential striàra, hunched and slow moving, their bony shaky hands clutching their canes and grocery bags. Does the kid on the skateboard know what these women are? Does the elegant young woman strutting through the plaza talking on her cell phone even notice them?
. . . . . .
He remembered a time when his father took him on the subway as a little boy. Grandpa worked the booth at the IRT South Ferry station. He recalled the dank smell, the stifling heat, the screech of the subway breaks as the trains crept around the loop. Each time it did, Grandpa would cringe. Grandpa told them it was one the one thing about being stationed there that he didn’t like.
He remembered the fan inside the booth going at full blast, his grandfather’s hair being lifted away from his forehead, revealing his ever present creases from frowning so much, the first sign of age spots. He gave Frank a token, a Y-cut, just like the one in the box, as a souvenir then passed him another one to use in the turnstile.
Frank kept that token for years but it got lost over time. Now it had returned to him. A small reminder of a more innocent time, before everything started falling apart.
. . . . . .
Or perhaps one of these old women were one of the Streaking Incutevano, those capable of either throwing one the malocchio or free one from it. These women were amazingly skilled in preparing potions and ointments, were adept at incantations and macarie, were able to either restore or take away love from either a girlfriend, boyfriend, husband or wife, were said to kidnap infants and even scare away scazzamueieddhri — goblins — from a person’s home. They were living proof of the Manichean dualism that had always been present in human beings. They navigated the fine line between peasant wisdom and blind superstition, were always struggling against good and evil. During the day they were attentive mothers devoted to the family and home. At night they changed their skin, their bodies smeared with ointment whose formula was only known to them, recited an incantation and went into crazy wild dancing through the night.
Who knew what truly lurked behind these idyllic surroundings, behind the façades of these ages old buildings, these ancient ruins, under the medieval paving stones. The village suddenly took on a new veneer, those hidden faces, voices, and spirits still present, still breathing.
He still has time. Perhaps another coffee is in order. He keeps his eye out for the first café he comes upon.
. . . . . .
A failed marriage, three disastrous subsequent relationships, two lost jobs — it’s no wonder Frank always felt as if he were cursed. He never voiced this aloud to anyone, of course, but he always felt there was something to all the crazy rituals his grandmother used to perform, often to his grandfather’s chagrin. Old world superstitions. That sort of odd mixture of ancient paganism and devout Catholicism. It always lent an eerie vibe to their home whenever their family visited on Sunday afternoons.
He was always intrigued by grandma’s little red book, the one she kept near her bedside, filled with indecipherable verse — he was never sure which language it was written in — and strange medieval woodcuts and diagrams, now packed away along with grandpa’s other belongings. He used to think it was something satanic but grandma wouldn’t have anything like that. Not in their house. It sat below a giant painting of Jesus affixed to a shellacked slice of tree which hung directly over the bed. He remembers how Jesus’s eyes seemed to follow him around the room, how it creeped him out, as if what grandma had said to him were true, that Jesus — and God, for that matter — was always watching him. If that were true why would he allow his life to slowly come apart at the seams?
Gina’s life didn’t fare any better. She herself is divorced, forced to raise her two kids on her own, after her firefighter husband was discovered having an affair with a female coworker. Nothing ever went right for her. There isn’t one thing she’d ever done she didn’t have to fight and claw her way to obtain it, never once considered that perhaps their family was cursed by the evil eye as it was always rumored to be. She was always dismissive of it, chalked it up to grandma’s superstitious nature.
Frank was never so certain.
. . . . . .
He learned about streaks from his grandmother, who used to talk about them all the time, as if they were present in the suburban surroundings of his Queens neighborhood. Whenever she told him about them, he’d just listen politely, not wanting to insult her because he could tell that she firmly believed in what she was saying. It got to a point where he himself wasn’t so sure anymore. Perhaps Grandma knew what she was talking about. What did he know? He was just a kid. If they got him to believe that God was watching every move he made, why not this?
According to popular tradition, those in service of the streaks — macare — were forced to walk upright and were not allowed to bend. For this reason the inputs of pajare — temporary shelters used by peasants — and suppinne — the stone cottages of the peasants — were built to a height shorter than normal, to keep out these mal’Umbria. Many of these peasants would put a sprig of St. John’s Wort, or olive, rosemary, bay leaves, juniper and sometimes a whole nut in order to dive these devils out of their home. Grandma didn’t do all this. She had the requisite red horn as well as horseshoes and, strangely enough, a pair of open scissors along with a jar of salt and an upside down broom by the door. One time he remembered reaching for the broom in order to help her clean up and she nearly had a heart attack, reprimanding him for trying to take it.
The more he thinks of these things, the more nervous he gets. Grandma did what she could to ward off the malocchio, to cleanse her home of any and all nefarious spirits and influences. His own father never did such things, which is perhaps why things were always so difficult for everyone. Soon enough, he muses. Things will be way they were meant to be.
. . . . . .
It took a full week to finish going through all Grandpa’s belongings. Most of it thrown away, Frank set aside what he wanted to keep, packed away in cardboard boxes stacked in the garage. The question was what to do with all the furniture. Gina wanted to sell it all, make some money, then split the proceeds between them. Frank was indecisive, dawdled.
What are you going to do with all this junk? Gina said. It’s old people furniture. Don’t tell me that you’re even considering taking some of this home with you.
There’s nothing wrong with any of it, Frank insisted. If you don’t want any of it, fine, but selling it? I don’t know. This stuff has been in the family for a long time. Do you have any idea how old some of this furniture is?
More the reason to sell it, Gina said. We can probably make a good amount of money off all this. I’m sure some antique dealer would love to get their hands on it.
They’ll lowball us and you know it.
The only other option is to put it out at the curb and allow whoever wants it to take it.
We’re not doing that.
Then let’s sell it. Those are our only two options.
You really have no attachment at all to any of this?
Just like Gina. Not a sentimental bone in her body. Never mind that a lot of this furniture was handed down from their great-grandparents who brought most of it over from Italy when they first came to America. Their great-grandparents weren’t like most southern Italian peasants who made the pilgrimage to the new world due to dire poverty. With virtually everyone in their small town gone, they figured they’d just follow suit, perhaps find a better life in America. They had enough money to ship over some of their belongings, particularly the old Celino grandfather clock, which had been in the family for generations. Frank always loved that old clock and his grandfather cared for it as if it were another child. It would be a shame to see that go. If there were a way for him to take it he would and he considers that for some time. Then again, not knowing whether or not they even made them anymore, there was a chance it may be very valuable. He could use the money.
Some of the older things we can have appraised, Gina said. The rest of this shit we can sell in a garage sale. And before you say anything, don’t worry. I’ll organize everything. You just be here with me. You don’t even have to do anything.
. . . . . .
It is said that on stormy nights witches dance and scream in rock cavities and don’t hesitate for a moment to take away anyone who dares go near the cliffs.
It is also said that these screams are the sound of the two seas — the Mediterranean and the Adriatic — meet, that a baby cries every windy night. That legend originated with the periodic Saracen invasions.
A woman fell in love with a Saracen looter, gave birth to his son, then later went mad, threw her son off the cliff.
The legend most likely stems from the many women who were raped and impregnated by the invading hordes.
Frank isn’t even sure he’s remembering it correctly, having heard this story from his grandmother ages ago, when he was a boy. It had always captivated — and frightened — him, wondering if these ‘Saracens’ were devils sent forth from the gates of hell. It wouldn’t be until he was in junior high school did he learn that Saracens were not devils but an army of invading Arabs who once annexed this part of Italy as part of their ‘emirate’.
He wants to visit this site, wonders if these so-called screams could actually be heard, or perhaps some other sound playing around the surf and the rocks which will explain the source of this legend; but he’s running out of time and he hasn’t the first clue as to where to even look for it. Instead, he finishes his coffee, again reads the letter in his pocket. He suddenly feels foolish. There’s nothing around to indicate anything nefarious at all. In fact, everything is beautiful. He dare not ask any of the locals, not wanting to embarrass himself. He folds the letter, puts it back in his pocket, walks along the promenade, gazing out over the sea.
. . . . . .
Oh, how grandpa loved that clock. Handled with such tender care. Frank can’t remember a time when it ever looked weathered or aged, or even when the time was off. Polished and gleaming, it always looked as if it were newly bought, not the near one hundred year old object it was. He watched in fascination as grandpa wound it, studied the internal mechanisms visible through the hole in clock’s face where its ornate hands slowly moved from one minute to the other, followed the gleaming gold pendulum with his eyes as it rhythmically moved back and forth. Out of all the objects in that home, it was this old Celino that grandpa cherished the most.
The idea of giving it up is painful. He wouldn’t know the first thing about how to care for it, what to do if something went wrong, how to clean it, handle its delicate mechanics. Perhaps selling it to an antique dealer is the best route to go, after all
Seeing it there in the corner of he living room where it always had been, it’s as if a piece of his grandfather was still alive, still present in the house.
But Gina had to insist, didn’t she. Gina and her God damn cleaning!
The clock didn’t appear to be as heavy as it was. How much effort would it take to simply slide it out from against the wall, enough for Gina to get the broom behind it?
It happened in slow motion, the clock tumbling forward, smashing to the floor in a horrible crescendo of chimes, splintered wood and breaking glass. Gina just stood there, her hand covering her mouth, the other hand still clutching the broom.
Frank stared at the clock, now in pieces, scattered about the living room linoleum. It was an accident but he didn’t blame himself. It was Gina’s fault, her insistence on getting every scrap of dust out of every nook and cranny of the house. She couldn’t leave well enough alone, couldn’t wait until the furniture was removed from the house.
Speechless, he squat down beside what remained of the clock, began to pick through the debris.
I’m sorry... Gina said, but...
Don’t say anything, Frank said without looking at her. He didn’t even look up when he heard her leave the house.
Perhaps there’s a way to fix it? he thought. No, it was utterly destroyed, bits and pieces of glass, wood, gears, and springs scattered all over the floor. Even if it could be fixed it would never be the same. Who knew whether or not he’d have been able to find all the little mechanisms which burst forth from the face of the clock, sent scattershot all over the living room floor.
He sat back, stared in disbelief at what was now nothing more than a monstrosity.
Then, under a piece of broken wood, he saw it.
Who the hell knows how long it had been sitting inside the clock. Nearly brown with age, the glue from the flap had long since lost its adhesive. What Frank found most odd was the envelope was addressed to him. He recognized his grandfather’s distinct penmanship — the slant of the bold capital letters, the way the last letter dipped downward, just like he’d seen in the Valentine’s Day cards that were sent to his grandmother. Was it something that grandpa had forgotten to give to him from many years ago, perhaps a birthday card or some money?
No, there was no birthday card inside. Too flimsy. He shook it in the air, blew off the dust, hesitated a beat before finally lifting the flap and removing the three yellowed sheets of paper, folded in fours, from inside the envelope.
I know you will probably find this strange but by the time you get around to reading this whatever I have to say will make sense to you. I am writing this to you on the day of your birth. Right now, you’re still in the maternity ward. When word came that you were born I was beyond ecstatic. My first grandchild! You have no idea how proud that makes me. I can’t wait to lay my eyes on you for the first time. Do you look like your mother or do you look like your dopey father (who I never thought had it in him to produce a child, much less even find a woman foolish enough to put up with him).
Francis. That’s your name. As soon as you were born, your father called to tell me he had a son and that he named him after my father, something else that filled me with an immense sense of pride. My father was a wonderful man and I have no doubt in my mind that one day you will grow up to be as fine a man as he was. Perhaps you look like him? One could only hope.
He was a handsome man. The women around Salento loved him, so much so that there was often many women who fought over his affections. You may wonder why I am telling you all this but I have my reasons, which you will soon see.
After I finish writing this letter, I will place it inside the old Celino grandfather clock which my father had brought over from Italy. This clock has been in the family for generations. I’m not even sure how old it actually is. My father got it from his father, who got it from his father, but that’s all I know. When I took possession of it, I made a promise to take the utmost care of it. It’s an important family heirloom and it’s my hope that one day you will take possession of it since your dopey father has no appreciation of anything beautiful (save for his wife, your mother). I’m not even sure if they make these clocks anymore. They may but this is a very old one and if they do, I’m sure they don’t make them like this one. I told your father that one day, when you grow up, I wish you to have it.
But I digress, as always. Now I come to the point of this letter.
I want you to know that our family has been subjected to a curse — the malocchio — and this goes back to the days when your great grandfather was courting your great grandmother, my parents. Like I said, my father was a very handsome man. The women in his village adored him and they often fought one another for his attention. He paid no mind to any of them, of course. He only had eyes for one woman — Maria — my mother. Santino Giordano was an honorable man and he would never entertain the idea of messing around with any other woman once his heart was set on someone.
There was an insane woman who lived in his village, who gave him and my mother a hard time. She did everything in her power to come between them but as I said, my father was honorable, decent, and he rejected her advances. On the day my mother and father were to be married, this woman gave your father the malocchio, vowed that every male member of the Giordano family will be suffer. The curse came true. I lived a good life up until now, however it was never without hardship. Even your father had a rough time growing up and as an adult he struggled to find his way. Nothing ever came easy for him. Now I worry, since you are the next generation, that you too will suffer from the curse of this woman.
You will be eighteen years of age when you read this letter. I am instructing your father to give this to you on your eighteenth birthday. It is my hope that by this age you will understand what I am talking about, that perhaps you will have experienced some hardship throughout your life that you will not understand. Here I am explaining it to you. It comes in the form of this letter because your dopey father never believed in what he called these ‘old world superstitions’, though the evidence always stared him straight in the eyes throughout his entire life. He was always stubborn that way, always pig headed. I used to tell him that he had a head like cement but he naturally just shrugged it off, dismissed me like he always does. I’m hoping beyond hope that you will grow up to be a more reasonable man and listen and learn. As your grandfather, I will do my best to help steer you in the right direction.
Right now I can’t wait to hold you, to look into your eyes, to see if you have that spark that my father had, that most men in the Giordano family had, yes, even your father. If by any chance, when you read this letter, you feel what I am saying is true, please, for the love of God, do something to break this curse. I tired, believe me, sought help but for some reason nothing I tried ever worked. Even your grandmother, who believes in this stuff more than I ever did, tried but it seems the curse still remains as strong as ever. I implore you to do something about it before it befalls your son one day. Life isn’t meant to be an endless struggle from birth to death. We’re meant to be happy, joyful, full of life.
One last thing — after reading this letter, please destroy it and don’t allow your father to read it. He’ll only mock it. I implore you to listen to me. In the meantime, I will do my best to make sure you get the love and guidance you deserve, help you grow into a fine young man.
Welcome to the world, Francis, my grandson.
And now that you are about to be a man when you get around to reading this, I hope you learned from me whatever I was able to teach you.
Your loving grandfather,
September 23rd, 1968, the day of your birth.
At first, utter disbelief. Then, uproarious laughter.
Why, in all these years, hadn’t grandpa ever mention anything? Had he forgotten that he written the letter? It was possible. Perhaps he put it in the clock then forgot all about it. His memory had been dodgy in the last years of his life. All these years he never said a word about this. Not once. Holidays, Sunday visits, weddings, funerals, never a single word. Nor had grandma ever said anything about it.
He was supposed to get this letter over thirty years ago. His eighteenth birthday came and went without much fanfare. His father was still alive then and grandpa was even at the house for the family celebration. Yes, he must have forgotten about it over the intervening years, stuffed in the back of the clock of all places, weathering, aging, collecting dust. Perhaps it was something else? Maybe he didn’t think him worthy of receiving it, that he turned out to be a disappointment, more like his own father than he was his great-grandfather like grandpa hoped?
No, he must have forgotten about it. That had to be it.
Frank stuffed the letter in his back pocket, began to clean up the mess, raised the broken clock off the floor. Grandpa would be beside himself if he saw what happened to it. It looked as if someone had taken a hammer to it.
The malocchio. Perhaps it played a part into what happened. Nonsense, he thought, and did his best to prop the clock up against the wall. No antique dealer would be interested in it now.
. . . . . .
His grandmother fervently believed in il malocchio. His grandfather, not so much, or so he thought. He must have read the letter over a few dozen times now and with each reading the less it made sense and the more confused he becomes.
Grandma always told him that the malocchio was often given by one who was envious of another’s good fortune, that whoever is victim will suffer some misfortune. She did everything in here power to ward it off, especially whenever something good happened. If she found money in the street, if she received an expensive gift, whatever it may be. Papa once told him that she once tried to ward off the malocchio when his uncle bought a new car. She walked around blessing it, performing a strange ritual before tossing salt under the hood onto the engine, which naturally caused a minor scene. But that was Grandma for you. Grandpa would stand around, with a smirk on his face and a cigar in hand, rolling his eyes over Grandma’s antics. The whole family used to snicker behind her back over such things. This is why the letter came as such a shock. Grandpa, after all these years, had been harboring a secret.
One thing that confuses Frank more than anything else is the nature of this so-called ‘curse’. Wasn’t the evil eye something individualistic? Was it possible for it to be passed down from one generation to the other? Apparently his grandfather thought so. There it is in black and white.
As he walks towards the house of Margarita, he feels his stomach beginning to turn somersaults. What there was to be nervous about he didn’t quite know. He takes slow, deliberate steps, being careful to stay out of the way of traffic and oncoming pedestrians. He doesn’t want to take any chances. If there were a chance to remove the curse, he didn’t want to tempt fate, perhaps invite some misfortune along the way. How ironic that would be, he muses.
. . . . . .
That time when papa slipped on the ice, hit his head on the concrete. The subsequent hospital visit revealed how sick he actually was. Five years later he was gone.
Or when Grandpa, going up the gangplank to the cruise ship on his yearly summer vacations, twisted his ankle so bad that he was virtually incapacitated the whole two weeks.
The night Jessica lost the baby.
The rainy morning when she asked him for a divorce.
When he got fired over a what he thought was an innocent joke.
When he discovered his new girlfriend was cheating on him with his (now former) best friend.
When, on the eve of closing on his new apartment, the bank rescinded the loan.
That time when he was ten years old and he fell of his bike, broke his arm in two places.
That time he bent down to tie his shoe and got hit in the head with a metal swing, requiring five stitches to the back of his head.
The list goes on.
Maybe there was something to it.
Seriously? Gina said. This is what you wanted to talk to me about?
Gina skimmed the letter one final time. She never thought grandpa believed in such nonsense either.
Here, she said, handing back the letter. Don’t pay it any mind. There’s a reason why he never gave it to you. He was probably drunk on grappa when he wrote it. Why did you wait so long to show me this?
I don’t know, Frank said. Probably because I knew you’d react the way you’re reacting right now.
Don’t tell me you believe this crap.
Frank didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to.
Do me a favor, Gina said. Stop thinking about it or you’re going to drive yourself nuts. Like I said, Grandpa was probably drunk when he wrote it, stuffed it in the clock and forgotten about it. Wouldn’t be surprised if he even remembered writing it. He had to be crocked. Why else would he stuff it inside the clock in the first place?
It seems so sincere, though, so urgent.
Gina didn’t even bother to answer him. He’d been in a funk ever since the garage sale. She usually paid no mind to his penchant for worrying himself to death. He’d been that way ever since he was a kid, always worrying, always paranoid, always superstitious. She thought he’d be happy to have pocketed close to fifteen hundred dollars from the sale of the old furniture, never mind the money they stand to make for selling the house.
On the drive home he couldn’t think of anything else. He worried. Good things were happening. He had a few extra dollars in the bank and soon he’d have more money than he’d know what to do with, just the recipe for some unknown disaster to unfold. What would it be this time?
He took the side streets, avoiding the expressway, keeping to the speed limit. So what if it took him a half hour longer to get home.
. . . . . .
Margarita is a woman in her mid to late seventies, more hippie than witch to Frank’s eyes. Long well groomed grey hair frames her dark, weathered face. Her flowing flower print dress barely fits over her somewhat rotund figure. Numerous necklaces with smooth precious stones jangle about her ample breasts. Her dark green eyes are hypnotic and he feels a bit unsettled when she first looks at him, as if she were seeing right through him. He can tell that she must have been a very attractive woman once. Hints of her former beauty peeking through her now aged features. Those eyes of hers must have made young men tremble in their shoes back in the day.
Her home is exactly as he imagined it would be, filled with odd curios which initially put him off. The smell of incense permeates the air, an odd odor, one he’s never smelled before. It’s frighteningly close to the stench of burning hair. Strange prints of old woodcarvings, ornately framed, remind him of those very same pictures he used to see in grandma’s little red book of spells. She barely speaks English but she knows enough to communicate with her non-Italian speaking guest. Although still somewhat unsettled, Margarita is a pleasant woman, smiling from ear to ear. She welcomes him in and guides him into her studio. She takes a seat behind her desk, looks at him warmly.
Marianna is your aunt, she says in a heavily accented English.
Yes, Frank replies. How well do you know her?
Many years. Since she was little girl. I never met her, of course, but I have communicated with her, either by telephone or letters. Your relatives that used to live here, they always talked about her.
I never knew my relatives.
That is shame, she says, still eyeing him with the utmost warmth. They were good people. They live in this village for generations. My grandparents knew your great-grandparents before they leave for America. Wonderful people.
That’s nice to know.
Margarita shrugs. However... she says, then lets it go.
Frank knows what she’s getting at and he doesn’t say anything as he watches her rummage through the drawers of her desk. She places a deck of tarot cards on the top of the desk, sits back and takes a moment to think. After a long moment, she says, The woman who put curse on your great-grandfather, she was an evil woman. Petty, jealous. I know. Everyone in the village knew all about her, despised her. She was legend around here. She die long time ago. I not know her personally but my relatives, they knew. An evil, evil woman.
What happened? What did she do that was so terrible? He digs his grandfather’s letter out of his pocket, hands it to her.
Margarita puts on her reading glasses and takes her time reading the letter. Frank studies her, tries to gage her reaction but he doesn’t give any. Instead she simply places the letter on the desk and offer a warm smile.
This woman, she says, Helena — she no good, very bad. She practice what is known as stregoneria, which is different from stregheria. Stregoneria refer to a form of sorcery found in pre-Christian times. Church no like it, no like it at all. It is malevolent magic. Stregheria is more pagan oriented religious system with magical structure for rituals and spells. It’s really just words but there is malevolent and benevolent. Helena practice malevolent.
Who was this Helena? My grandfather never says in the letter.
Oh, she not good woman. Evil, like I tell you. Whole village want nothing to do with her. She alone, always alone, die alone. She resent others for love, love she never found. She die long long time ago. When she die the residents bury her in unmarked grave in cemetery. No one remembers where but she still there. Of course, ritual done in order to keep spirit from still being present. I know this from stories around village, what my grandparents tell me. It was long time ago now.
She waves her hand dismissively.
What did she do? What is this curse my grandfather is referring to?
Common, Margarita says. Whenever someone is envious of another. Malocchio. Only she did something to have it passed down from generation to generation. Simple fix. What? Your grandparents never tried to fix?
In the letter he says that he tried many times but failed.
Margarita nods, picks up the letter and skims it. Yes, she says. He not know what to do. I know what to do. Simple fix.
Margarita retrieves a book from her bookshelves, flips through it until she finds the page she’s looking for.
Here, she says. Simple fix. Problem solve. If you want, I can fix for you.
I came all this way.
Margarita smiles. First, allow me to read you.
She begins to flip through the tarot cards.
You have hard life, she says. Nothing comes easy. Everything you do is struggle. Whenever something good happen, something bad come and cancel it out, yes? Life is like rolling big rock up mountain, like the man in the Greek myth. One step forward, one step back, a never ending cycle, yes?
Frank doesn’t know what to say, simply nods.
Yes, this is problem, Margarita continues. In love life, same problem. I see separation, conflict, no love. Even love struggle.
She gives him a warm look, reaches for his hand.
I fix, she says. No problem to fix.
What do I have to do?
Just simple ritual. I can do here and then you do when you return home.
What is this going to cost?
Margarita removes her glasses, sits back in her chair. For this? Two thousand, five hundred euro.
That’s outrageous, Frank thinks. That’s close to three thousand dollars American. He doesn’t have that kind of money on him and there’s no way he can take that much out of one of the local ATMs, nor does he have a blank check with him. He thought it would be two hundred at most, maybe two-fifty.
No worry, Margarita says, then reaches into one of her desk drawers. Putting the portable card reader on the desk she says, I take everything, just not American Express.
. . . . . .
He never felt so humiliated. Stripped naked to the waist, Margarita’s cold, wrinkled hands begin to apply an ointment she concocted all over his back, torso, neck and face. The way she touches him makes him uncomfortable and there’s something oddly sexual about it. The smell of the ointment begins to aggravate his allergies and it takes a lot for him not to sneeze. He doesn’t understand a word she’s saying, though the words sound familiar, again like the strange words in his grandmother’s little red book. He tries to distract himself, closes his eyes and tries to think of other things, like what he’s going to do when he returns home, how Gina will laugh her ass off when he tells her what he had to go through. As Margarita’s hands caress his naked torso, he begins to feel mildly aroused, only adding to his humiliation.
Sutta sutta water and lu jentu. Sutta nut lu lu mulinu to jentu.
Sutta sutta water and lu jentu. Sutta nut lu lu mulinu to jentu.
Sutta sutta water and lu jentu. Sutta nut lu lu mulinu to jentu.
Then it’s over. Margarita walks over to her desk, wipes her hands dry with a small cloth.
That is all, she says. Simple fix. Now let me give you this.
She hands him a small box. Inside is a sprig of St. John’s Wort, an olive, rosemary, bay leaves and a whole chestnut complete with husk.
When you return home, places these by your door. Over door, you place either open scissors or a crescent. If you no have that, a simple jar of salt or an upside down broom will do. This will prevent evil from entering your home. If evil try to enter, it will be forced to stop and count the grains of salt of the whisks of the broom, preventing it from entering. The incantation I say to you, say it as well. Here, I write it down for you.
Frank doesn’t know what to think. Staring down into the box, thinking about the salt and the broom, it all reminds him of his grandmother and the crazy things she used to do around the house. He feels ashamed, foolish. At the same time, he feels, oddly enough, an overwhelming sense of relief, as if the curse had been lifted once and for all. Silently, he tells his grandfather that he heeded his advice, that he can now rest easy, wherever he is.
. . . . . .
The breeze coming off the sea. The warmth of the sun. Looking out from the promenade at the fishing boats and the old men tending to them, he feels an odd sense of peace wash over him. Suddenly the old village looks as it should look, a modern town, filled with people of the twenty-first century doing their twenty-first century things. He no longer feels the ghosts of the past lurking over him, watching his every move. The skateboarding kids, the young women sitting together giggling over photos on their cell phones, the young men speeding by on their scooters, the tourists taking selfies and consulting their maps, he’s where he should be, in the present, content, calm. For the first time for as long as he can remember, he’s looking forward to a new day.
. . . . . .
The trip home is long, harrowing, crammed in little seat for over eight hours. Going through customs is a nightmare, especially when the customs agents fuss over the objects Margarita had given him. After much fanfare they let him through, then comes the the long cab ride home, stuck in traffic, listening to the symphony of car horns and Type-A personalities losing their shit. After another grueling hour on the road, he’s finally home.
He checks for the mail, finds nothing but bills, stuffs them in the inside pocket of his jacket. While waiting for the elevator, he thinks about what he has to do once as he enters his apartment. Before anything else, before unpacking, before taking a shower, before taking a much needed nap, he’s going to do what Margarita said he should do. It isn’t over yet.
He puts his bags down, fumbles for his keys. Something feels wrong when he inserts the key into the lock. I didn’t forget to lock the door before I left, did I? he thinks, then slowly opens the door.
It takes a moment for it to register. The cushions of the couch upturned and thrown about the floor, his socks and underwear hanging out of half-opened dresser drawers, the missing television, the laptop gone from his desk. He drops his bags and looks on in disbelief. Closing the door behind him, he steps into the middle of the apartment and looks around at the disaster waiting for him. He doesn’t even think about calling the police right away. Instead he opens his bag, removes the box that Margarita had given him. He opens it, stares at the items without saying a word. Maybe now? he muses. He throws the box against the wall, its items spilling out to join the rest of the debris scattered across the living room floor.
New York City, September 2017
About Julian Gallo:
Julian Gallo is the author of 'The Other Side of The Orange Grove' (Empty Canvas, June 2018) and other novels. He lives and works in New York City
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