Authors: Katherine Webb
This blind urge to destruction, this bloody and suicidal will to annihilation, has lurked for centuries beneath the patient endurance of daily toil. Every revolt on the part of the peasants springs out of an elementary desire for justice deep at the dark bottom of their hearts.
Christ Stopped at Eboli
They must all change trains at Bari and the platform fills with shambling people, creased and surly like sleepers newly woken. Mostly Italians; mostly men. Clare takes a breath and tastes the sea, and suddenly she needs to see it. She goes alone, leaving everything she owns and not caring; walking unhurriedly when once she might have been anxious – fearful of theft, of impropriety, of the next train leaving without her. This new fearlessness is one of the things she has gained. Everything she’s seen and felt over the summer, every wild thing that has happened has purged the fear from her; but she doesn’t yet know if gains like this one will balance out the loss.
Bari’s city streets seem alien after so many weeks in Gioia and at the
; they are too big, too wide, too long. But there are the same knots of restless men, and the same feeling of waiting violence. Clare draws some curious looks as she goes, with her worn-out foreign clothes, her fair hair, her air of detachment. This could well be the last day she ever spends in Puglia – if the choice is hers, it will be. After today, after she rejoins the train, she will leave it and every second, and every passing mile, will carry her closer to home. This thought slows her steps. Home is not home any more. That, like everything else, has changed; home is another of the losses, stacked up against the gains. But as she continues to walk she wonders about it, and decides it could also be a good thing. A part of her release.
The pavement is lustrous, worn by use, polished by salt spray; gradually the light in the sky changes, and seems to lift and widen. Her gaze is drawn upwards for a moment, but then the street opens onto the quayside and the sea is there in front of her, with the early morning sun still soft on its surface, and the colour of it is a revelation. Clare walks to the very edge of the land, until all she can see is the blue. A blue that seems alive, that seems to breathe. This is what she was looking for, what she’d hoped to see. She lets the colour soak her, like it soaks the sky, and even though it’s painful it’s somehow still a comfort. A reminder to go forwards, and not look back. She stays there for a long time because she knows that when she turns away this colour – this exact blue – will be just another memory, the best and bitterest of all.
He has heard another man say, on the long, dark walk before dawn, that hunger is like a stone in your shoe. At first you think you’ll just ignore it – it’s an irritation, but it doesn’t really hinder you. But then it makes you limp, and makes it hard to walk. The pain grows. It cuts deeper and deeper into your flesh, crippling you, slowing your work, catching the corporal’s cruel eye. When it reaches the bone it grinds in and becomes a part of you, and you can think of nothing else. It rusts your skeleton; it turns your muscles to rotten wood. The man warmed to his theme as they trudged, and felt their bones rusting. He kept thinking of ways to embellish it, hours afterwards – the comments coming apropos of nothing and puzzling the men who hadn’t walked within earshot of him that morning – as their arms swung the scythes to cut the wheat, as the sun rose and burnt them, as blisters swelled beneath their calluses. Over the squeak and clatter of wooden finger-guards on wooden handles, his embellishments kept coming.
Then it turns your blood to dust. Then it fells you. It creeps up your spine and lodges in your brain
. And all the while Ettore thought it was a stupid comparison, though he said nothing. Because, after all, you could always pull off your shoe and kick the stone away.
He can’t kick his hunger away, any more than he could wake up if Paola didn’t shake him. She’s rough as she does it, and punches him if he doesn’t wake at once; her knuckles are sharp against the bones of his shoulder. She moves as briskly and abruptly in the pre-dawn darkness as she does at day’s end, and he doesn’t know how she manages it. How she has the energy, or how she sees so well in the dark. Other men, conditioned from childhood, wake of their own volition at three, at four, at five at the latest, but by then the chances of work are slipping away – it’s first come, first served, and the queues are long. Other men don’t need their sisters to rouse them as Ettore does, but without Paola he would slumber on. He would sleep the day away soundly, profoundly. Disastrously. For a few seconds he lies still, and asks nothing of his body. Just a few seconds of rest, in darkness so complete he can’t be sure whether he’s opened his eyes or not. There’s a smell of tired air, of earth and the rank stink of the
, which needs emptying. Even as Ettore notices it, the collector arrives outside – the slow plod of mule hooves in the small courtyard, the creaking of wheels.
!’ the collector calls, all weary and hoarse. ‘
! Sighing sharply, Paola checks that the wooden lid is tight to the ceramic
pot, then hefts it up and carries it out. The stink gets stronger. In the dark, Paola says, at least your neighbours can’t see as you tip it into the collector’s huge barrel. But as the little cart moves away, jolting on the uneven stones, there’s always a trail of human waste on the ground behind it, slippery and foul.
Paola shuts the door gently behind her, and keeps her footsteps soft. It’s not her brother or Valerio that she doesn’t want to disturb, but her son, Iacopo. She likes the men out of the room before he wakes, so that she can nurse him in peace, but this rarely happens. With the scratch and flare of a match, and the growing glow of a single candle, the baby is awake. He makes a small sound of surprise and then mewls quietly in protest, but he is sensible and doesn’t cry. Crying is hard work. Part of the ammonia stink in the cramped room is coming from the child. Without water to wash him, or his blankets, it’s hard to get rid of the smell; there’s the sourness of vomit, too. Ettore knows that once she is alone Paola will wet a rag to clean him, but she’s careful not to let Valerio see her do so. He is fiercely jealous of their stock of water.
. Ettore shuts his eyes on the candle flame; sees its red imprint on the inside of his skull. This is the order in which his thoughts run each day, every day: hunger, then the reluctance to rise, then Livia. Impulses really, rather than thoughts; Livia is as visceral, as connected to his body and his instincts rather than to his mind as the other two things.
. It’s less a word and more of a feeling, irresistibly linked to memories of smell and touch and taste and loss. Good losses as well as bad – the loss of care, for a moment; the loss of all responsibility, of all fear and anger, washed away by the simple joy of her. The loss of doubt, the loss of misery. The way her fingers would taste after a day spent cleaning almonds – like something green and ripe you could eat. The way she seemed to feed him, so that when they were together he forgot to be hungry. Just for that while. He can picture the exact grain of the skin on her calves, soft as apricots at the backs of her knees. And then there’s the loss of her, like a slash with ragged edges. Like the onslaught of ice a summer hailstorm brings: bruising, freezing, killing. The loss of her. The muscles around his ribs pull tight, and shake.
‘Up, Ettore! Don’t you dare go back to sleep.’ Paola’s voice is hard as well – it’s not just her face and the way she moves. Everything about her has gone hard, from the flesh on her bones to her words and the contents of her heart. Only when she holds Iacopo is there softness in her eyes, like the last remembered light after sunset.
‘You’re the stone in my shoe that I can’t ignore,’ he tells her, standing up, stretching the stiff cords of muscle that run down his back.
‘Lucky for you,’ Paola retorts. ‘If it wasn’t for me we’d all starve while you lay dreaming.’
‘I don’t dream,’ says Ettore.
Paola doesn’t spare him a glance. She crosses to the far side of the room, to the recessed ledge in the stone wall where Valerio sleeps. She does not touch him as she wakes him; she only speaks, loudly, near his ear.
‘It’s past four, Father.’ They know Valerio is awake when he starts to cough. He rolls onto his side, curls up like a child, and coughs, and coughs. Then he swears, spits, and swings his legs to the floor. Paola glares.
‘Vallarta again today, boy, if we’re lucky,’ Valerio says to Ettore. His voice rattles in his chest. Paola and Ettore share a quick, meaningful glance.
‘Best hurry then,’ says Paola. She pours them both a cup of water from a chipped amphora, and the ease with which she does it shows that the jar is already less than half full. Paola must wait for their appointed day before she can go to the fountain for more – it’s either that or buying it from a dealer, which they cannot do. Not at such prices.
Masseria Vallarta is the biggest farm near Gioia, some twelve hundred hectares. It’s one of the few, even now at harvest time, that has been hiring men every day. Before the war this was the one time of year when work was guaranteed – weeks of it. The men would sleep out in the fields rather than bothering to walk back and forth every morning and night; waking with soil in the creases of their clothes and dew on their faces, and the bite of stones underneath them. The debts of the winter could finally be earned back, and paid off – the rent on their measly apartments, bills for food and drink and gambling. Now, even the harvest is no guarantee of work. The proprietors say they can’t afford to hire the men. They say that after last year’s drought, and the vacuum of the war, they are going out of business. If they are hired to Masseria Vallarta today, Ettore and Valerio will walk ten kilometres to reach the farm, and start work at sun-up. There’s no food from the night before; they ate it all. There might be something at the farm for them, if they are hired, though it will come out of their wages if there is. The men stamp their feet into their boots, button their battered waistcoats. And as he goes out into the cool of the morning, into the ageless shadows of the little courtyard and the narrow streets that lead to Piazza Plebiscito, where they will queue for work, Ettore makes his promise. He makes the same promise every morning, and means it with every fibre of himself:
I will find out who did it, Livia. And that man will burn