Authors: Nancy Barone Wythe
Alex sat at the battered table under the veranda with his typewriter and manuscript. It was too hot to write today. He couldn’t concentrate. And he had completely forgotten to ask the village fishermen for a tour of the islands. From where he sat, he could clearly see them coming in, their nets loaded with fresh fish.
Alex wiped his fingers over his lips, deep in thought. He was losing concentration on his book. He found it more revealing to meet the people in flesh and blood, than to take deceiving pictures of the breathtaking landscape, for this, he realized, was a bitter island, where survival was a daily challenge, and love and passion a mere by-product. Yes, the mothers loved their children and the husbands loved their wives, but it all seemed functional to reproduction and their collective prosperity.
And Rea, who was barely surviving, was considered a loser because of her sinful femininity, an outcast, an encumbrance to their ultimate design of prosperity.
He pushed his chair back and walked to the piazza and into the shop where Don Antonio had just finished serving a customer. Alex slapped down a thick wad of Italian Lira onto the counter. The old man’s eyes widened, then narrowed.
“Rea is going to be coming in very often from now on. You will treat her with respect and have her goods delivered to my home.”
Don Antonio’s jaw tightened, his eyes flickering to the money, and he nodded curtly.
“Good. You can start by delivering some fresh meat and fish, some cheese, and your best fruit and vegetables. And the best fabrics. Is there a seamstress in this bloody dump?”
* * * *
As Alex beamed inwardly, Rea opened the door to receive a basket of goods from a young boy in an apron. She nodded at him, watching him in surprise as he made his way back down the path.
“Don Antonio sent these. Why?” she asked of him.
Alex made an effort to not look up from his typewriter, but he was dying to see the look in her eyes. “Because I paid him to. From now on when you need anything for yourself or this house, you tell him to deliver it to you.”
Rea stared at him blankly, then ran to the bathroom for cover. Alex knew it would take her a while to get used to it.
* * * *
In the second week of July a sign was put up outside Antonio’s shop that read “
Chiuso per Lutto
”, closed for mourning, Alex read. Had Don Antonio died? Or Donna Vincenzina? Had the good and just God finally struck them down for all their cruelty?
Don Raffaele emerged from the front door of Don Antonio’s home above the shop as a long procession of mourners disappeared up the stairs. Curious, Alex followed the flow into a large apartment with surprisingly beautiful white marble floors. The shutters had been closed and blankets draped over the mirrors as was Sicilian custom. Alex wondered whether it was in disapproval of vanity at such a solemn time, or just to block out the light, and he remembered Rea’s tiny mirror and her shack.
Don Antonio and Donna Vincenzina were sitting in the center of a large living room full of flowers and a picture of a young man on the table next to a votive candle.
Their only son, Paolo, who lived in Rome with his wife and children, had been killed by a truck in Trastevere. Alex grimly thought that if he had been allowed to chose his own bride, he would be happy and alive. Without feeling much sympathy, Alex paid his respects and went down the stairs and out into the blinding morning light.
His heart skipped a beat, recognizing her before his eyes did. On the corner stood Rea, stunningly bereft with a sober black shawl over her hair that she had pinned into a severe bun. She lingered alone, hesitant, as everybody watched her, challengingly, expectantly, and Alex knew she blamed herself for his fate. She had been the reason they had sent Paolo to Rome. Had she loved Paolo for real? A pang of jealousy for the dead man struck loud in his heart. What could he do to make Rea love him instead?
* * * *
Rea stood ensconced and numb around the corner from the wake. She had seen it happen. She had seen Paolo fall to the ground, his body already lifeless, before the truck drove off. She had seen it and had not been able to warn him as she no longer knew anything about him, nor where he lived, and if he was happy with his new life. And now none of it mattered anymore.
* * * *
At the news that Don Antonio and Donna Vincenzina were moving to Rome to help raise their grand children, Alex was struck by an epiphany. He had finally found a way to redeem Rea to the eyes of her fellow-islanders. He wasted no time; by the end of the week he had put a deposit down for the apartment, the shop and all its goods. Now all he had to do was convince Rea to run the shop. She had a keen mind and knew people at their worst.
* * * *
“I have a business proposition for you, Rea,” he braved as she bent over the sink, washing the only other dress she owned. Boy, was he going to change that! The woman was so stubborn and proud she would accept nothing from him without giving him something in exchange. But then, she had never been taught what generosity and charity were. He was going to help her to never need the charity of these people again. But, as badly as they had all treated her, Alex knew she would never want to leave this rock in the sea.
Rea stood straight and eyed him. Her silence told him he could continue. “How would you like to work somewhere else?”
Her eyes saddened. “You’re not happy with me.”
Not happy? How could he explain that he had been happy only since he met her?
“Of course I am, but I think you can do better than cleaning. How about working in a shop?”
“I’m not leaving Panarea.”
He grinned. “You don’t have to. I mean Don Antonio’s shop.”
She put her hands on her hips and huffed. “Work for a man that hates me? Never! I’d rather starve till I’m thinner than a sardine!”
He felt his throat tighten. What about working for a man that loved her? He wanted to pull her to him and smother that red mouth with hot kisses and confess his passion to her. But he knew that too many men had done that and that was not the language he wanted to use. Yet. One day he would take her hand and confess his feelings to her. One day, when she felt like everyone else’s peer and not an outcast.
Forget Don Antonio and that
of his wife. I bought it.” For you, he wanted to say, but held his tongue.
He had never seen her eyes so wide. “You bought Don Antonio’s shop? The
He nodded, his own eyes bright.
“To make a profit. And you’re going to help me make it.”
Rea shook her head. “I can’t. No customers will come if I’m there. You’ve seen it. Everybody hates me.”
Alex’ face softened. “They don’t hate you, Rea. They just don’t know you. In any case they need our goods, and when we start introducing new ones from the continent they’ll need those, too.”
Rea’s head snapped up. “The continent?”
“Have you ever been to Rome? Naples? Milan?”
Rea shook her head. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Would you like to go? For a holiday?”
Rea considered it. The continent. Cities…people…many people. No. She couldn’t. As much as she hated the islanders, she couldn’t leave her home. It was the only place she remembered since she was twelve. Before that, she only had shimmery memories.
“No,” she said finally.
“Rea, please. I need you. I need your knowledge about your people. You know what they need, what they like. I need you to do this for me.”
“No!” she cried and fled.
“Rea,” he called, following her, but only so far. She wanted to be alone. He would have to respect that. It had been useless; the sleepless nights and days before the purchase, the joy and anticipation of seeing her face when he told her the news that her life was going to change for the better. He had done it all for nothing. Rea didn’t want to better herself. Maybe he had been wrong and everybody else had been right. Maybe she didn’t want to elevate herself. Maybe she wanted to be considered the wild creature that she resembled. Suddenly Alex lost all interest in the island, and in his book. Let someone else write about this Godforsaken place. He would leave as soon as he arranged for someone to run the shop and rent out the apartment.
The next day as he was surveying the beautiful furniture that Don Antonio and his wife had left behind, there was a knock at the front door down below. He went to the top of the stairs and yanked on the rope that pulled the door open. Rea stood on his doorstep, squinting up at him, uncertain. Finally, she nodded, and he beamed at her. He could tell she wanted his approval. But he was past that, God help him.
“How does it feel to be back up here?” he asked as he took her elbow, then cursed himself as she stiffened.
“It feels so strange without Don Antonio and Donna Vincenzina,” Rea whispered, as if entering a sacred temple as he held her by the hand and lead her inside. She stood in awe as her eyes caressed the pristine embroidered linen curtains, the gilt mirrors and the precious, heavy furniture that she remembered all too well.
How many times had she scrubbed these floors? How many times had she washed and pressed these crisp linen sheets? How many times had Don Antonio crept up from behind her and grabbed her? Until Donna Vincenzina had caught him. But every time the woman forgave him. The tragedy struck instead when Rea and Paolo fell in love.
“They would die if they knew I was here right now,” she whispered.
“Forget them. Now, let’s go down to the shop and get you some nice clothes for the continent. Choose anything you like.”
Rea stared at him in shock.
* * * *
When he nudged her softly, she turned to the stall with women’s clothes. Her fingers caressed a beautiful bottle green fabric, soft and rich. It was like touching another world. She had never even looked in this part of the shop, knowing she couldn’t afford any respectable clothes.
Next came the shoes. She chose a dark green suede to match, and he nodded his approval. “They look very respectable.” She looked up at him and smiled shyly, her teeth a stunning white. “Take more. You’ll need at least a change a day. When we get to the continent we’ll get you some even fancier ones for the theater.”
He left her alone to choose her underwear and stockings, and when she was done, she found him hanging a sign in the window,
Cercasi donna delle pulizie. Ottima paga.
What do you need a cleaning lady for? You have me.”
Alex turned and grinned. “No, you’ll be busy all day running the shop, and I have a book to finish. You’ll need a housekeeper. Do you know anyone trustworthy?”
Again Rea stared at him, stunned.
* * * *
The week before they reopened the shop Rea and Alex cleaned it to a shine, getting rid of the old rotting stalls and commissioning new ones from the local carpenter. Alex also had new ceramic tiles from the continent brought in, along with a new bar counter, but he left the cracked mirror, and Rea’s eyes shone fiercely. When they opened the following Monday people poured in, anxious to be part of this social event; the first in years.
* * * *
Rea chose a young girl from the poorest family in Panarea. Her name was Margherita and at fifteen, she was the oldest of seven. Her father had died at sea and her mother was a struggling seamstress. The first thing Rea did was deck her out in several uniforms and aprons and a few good dresses for Sundays.
Every Saturday Rea would send Margherita home with a large basket of goods of every kind, including beautiful fabrics. Rea knew that her mother, who had a keen sense of style and brains, would know what to do. As a last thought, Rea added a doll for each of her young sisters. Rea had never had a doll before, or at least she couldn’t remember. Alex saw the gesture and beamed at her. He knew Rea needed to pass on the good that had been done to her.
In only a few months Margherita’s family flourished. The children, who had always been clean and well-mannered, could now also dress in good fabrics and not the coarse wool that made their skin itch. Rea had been their little miracle.
Alex was no philanthropist, and he wondered if he would have done this for just about anybody. He was desperately in love with Rea but was far from ready to confess. Beverly had depended on him totally, and when he wasn’t there she had found another man. Alex wanted Rea to be independent and become his woman only if and when she ever fell in love with him. In the meantime he would have to be content with her mere presence about the shop.
Although Rea had moved in with him to be closer to her work, she had maintained her own quarters, a large wing of the house, and kept to herself at bedtime. Alex had spent endless nights willing her to open his door and lie down next to him, but he knew it would be a very long wait before she could trust him completely.
* * * *
Business was booming for such a tiny island, and Rea was an acute partner with innovative ideas. Giuseppe, the carpenter, their first and favorite customer walked in and ordered his usual lemon granita. He downed it without a spoon and smacked his lips in the end. And every time he said the same thing. “These are good. Donna Vincenzina’s granita always tasted like pee.” And Alex always laughed heartily while Rea grinned from the counter. She had hand-picked the lemons and stirred and stirred the granita herself for hours on end. But she knew just how it should be. Rea knew a lot more than Alex had ever suspected, and turned out to be a shrewd businesswoman.
A few months later Rea approached Alex with a business proposition. With the fabric that Rea had given her, Margherita’s mother had begun to make dresses from her home. Rea offered to give her a space in the shop window where she would be able to sell them at a higher price. The extra profit would pay for the window space and new fabrics. Alex agreed and Margherita’s mother happily went to work. In the space of a few months she had made enough to add an extension to her small house.