Author’s Note: Because I am fortunate enough to have my 96-year-old mother with me, I find that I have a viable passport into another time, another place, another country, a viable portal to Italy in the first half of the twentieth century. There are stories in my family that are too good not to tell—passionate tales both ordinary and extraordinary. From such a true vein was this essay written.
And the Stars Were Shining
E LUCEVAN LE STELLE. And the stars were shining. My grandmother, Anna D’oria, wept when she heard Caruso sing this aria, which was usually during a live radio broadcast of La Tosca by Puccini. O dolce baci. O languide carezze. O sweet kisses. O languid caresses. Anna sat with rapt attention beside the radio. The tenor quavered with such longing tenderness. She, too, longed for tenderness. She had yet to take that long difficult voyage to Staten Island with her sisters. Marriage, a child, a better life but not easier—all that lay before her.
What lay behind her was the love of her life. And although she was only eighteen, she knew enough to know that love would not come again. It was too rare—a jewel that rivaled the sun for only a summer.
TURN, IF YOU WILL, BACK TO THE ARIA, E lucevan le stelle, to the phrase where Caruso soars effortlessly to a high note, to the grapes ripening on the hills of Martina Franca, a small country town in the Province of Taranto, to the hills on the ankle of the boot called Italy. Hear the crescendo in the heat of the sun, the cool nights scented by the sugar of white grapes that are waiting to be trampled and pressed for wine. Turn till you can smell the heaviness of olives grown from gnarled ancient limbs, and the richness of soil darkened from compost.
The year is 1919. Anna, along with her mother and father, three sisters and brother, work the land tirelessly. They live in a trulli—that iconic home of white limestone with a conical roof pointed like a steeple, the dense walls ideal for keeping the house cooler in the summer, warmer in the winter. Trullis are sprinkled through the whole region of Apulia along with the wild brown tulips.
This is the day Anna will ride on horseback with Lorenzo Costanzo, a mounted policeman, a carabiniere. He rides a horse named Bella, a mare the color of golden chestnut. Lorenzo is a tall man, an elegant man, young and mannered and proper. He has come from the Festival of Saint Anthony where he rode with his company in the parade. He wears his dress uniform, the pants his mother pressed, the crease still neat along the length of the leg, the blue serge coat smartly accessorized with gold braid and silver buttons, his head topped by a triangular hat with a white plume.
Anna wants to attend the parade, but there is too much work to do on the farm. Last year, the harvest was mediocre due to an early frost. The family has to work harder this year. She does not complain—she sees there is more food on the table.
Lorenzo always comes home this way, over the hill where the wild roses grow, and because he is a gentleman, he stops and tips his hat. And because she is also polite and good-natured, she responds with a gentle nod of her head. And because he is decent, he responds with a greeting.
On this particular day, she is tired and wants to get home. She can see, she cannot help but see, how remarkably handsome he is in his uniform and perfectly waxed moustache, his black curly hair spilling out from under his hat and onto his forehead.
Would she like a ride home? he asks. He knows where she lives.
He is a gentleman, a carabiniere—it is perfectly respectable to say yes.
He dismounts the beautiful horse and lifts her up. How easily he lifts her and secures her on the saddle. And then, in a single swift leap, he mounts the mare, seating himself in front of her. She has to put her arm around his waist to stabilize herself— the terrain is rocky, and the horse too nervous an animal. His posture is perfect, upright, his head perfectly centered, his waist firm and trim, all muscle and tone. She can smell the sweet smell of soap and sweat on the back of his neck, the vanilla note of pomade through the black curls.
It is then she knows, even though it hasn’t happened yet. This is the man, these are the dark eyes, this is the back taught with balance, the lungs that breathe, expand and contract, the forearms, the hands holding the reins.
And indeed, the next night, he comes over for a visit, and the night after that, and after that. The summer quickly turns into a courtship of nights and flowers. And in the morning, sometimes, a trio of musicians play under her window to waken her.
Her family loves him. His family loves her.
Many evenings they walk into the higher hills where you can see the whole of Martina Franca. The wind picks up and causes her skirt to swell and billow. They weave among the tall grasses under the olive trees. The honeysuckle that has bloomed in the morning perfumes the evening. Sometimes even the nightingale sings.
The summer is long, and Lorenzo does not fail to disappoint in all matters of honor. They are allowed to be out until dark and are always accompanied by Anna’s little sister, Maria Teresa. Lorenzo proves to be just as winsome with the ten-year-old girl. She never lacks a cone of shaved ice with cherry syrup or a strawberry gelato before the evening is over.
When Lorenzo says his last goodbye, the stars are just coming out against the indigo of the sky. He bends the long elegance of his neck down to kiss Anna.
Is there talk of marriage? Yes, there is. Both parents give their consent but advise a year’s wait before announcing the engagement. So much passion in youth can easily burn out. A year will prove its constancy. The young people agree to their counsel because they are happy, and happiness is a dream they can hold fast to.
Turn back to the aria and turn away from the indigo nights. Hear the ache in the wind and the roll of the hills, hear the gradual fading of stars at day. Turn to the rituals of the little town, the rhythms the Catholic Church provides, the customs and the feast days, the back and the bend of farming, the labor and struggle, the hardness and sweetness of days.
It is a Sunday morning. A six o’clock mass at Our Lady of Sorrows. Anna and her mother and sisters are here. In Martina Franca, everyone goes to church. The women and girls go several times a week and visit the confessional every other week. The mass is early because farmers are used to getting up early. The wealthier class goes to the high mass at noon with the big choir and incense, and the bells ringing out from the carillon. The six o’clock is shorter—especially the homily.
Afterwards, Anna’s sisters go home to prepare lunch. Anna and Mother buy red and white carnations from the flower seller outside the church. On feast days, it is red and white roses. They go into the small cemetery, where granite saints and angels lend a charm to the sadness. Together, they lay the carnations on the graves and pull out the weeds encroaching on the tombstones. Everything is left ordered and beautiful.
And at the end of the cemetery is the mortuary.
The custom of the town is to keep open a presentation room where anyone can go in and see who has died. And even though the news of death travels fast, you don’t always know. Anna and Mother are in the habit of paying their respects. It is a simple charity—to find out who has died, to know what family needs visiting or a meal made and brought over.
When they enter the room, there are three bodies on view. The first person they do not know, a youngish man with a rugged face, a field hand most likely from the calluses on his hands. The second, Mother knows, an old lady from church. Anna leaves Mother’s side and walks over to the end of the room.
There she finds Lorenzo asleep on a slab of alabaster, the beauty of youth still present in the flush and rose of his cheeks and lips. He is wearing the dress uniform he wore on that day she first rode with him. The shirt starched, crisp, white. On his forehead a bright red gash in the shape of a star.
At first her mind cannot comprehend the vision. There is a long denial. And then the slow recognition and shock. And with the shock, the terribleness of it all. She screams out for Mother, who hurries over. Anna faints, and Mother barely catches her. Mother calls out for help. The mortician rushes out from the back room, his white shirt sleeves rolled up from work. He takes Anna from Mother and carries her outside to a bench. He waves a vial of smelling salts under her nose.
Anna wakes to grief, to pain, to tears. It is not a vision. Death has entered her life. No loss could be greater. No reality harder.
The mortician fans her, and Mother undoes the top button of her dress. She can scarcely breathe. She questions how it is that she is breathing. She feels she may faint again but the urge passes.
A young man is coming up the walk. He is Lorenzo’s brother, Mario—he has been looking for Anna since dawn.
What happened? Anna asks, her voice slowly returning. What happened to Lorenzo?
He was thrown from his horse on the way home from his evening with Anna. It was very dark as he was riding along his customary trail. The heat was unbearable all day, and the night was alive with flashes of lightning. Bella, a tense creature to start with, was frightened by the lightning. A single bolt lit up the entire night sky when she bolted, throwing Lorenzo against a stone boulder. A shepherd witnessed the accident. By the time the shepherd reached Lorenzo, he was unconscious. The shepherd bandaged Lorenzo’s head with his kerchief and went off to fetch the doctor, leaving another shepherd to stand and watch. Lorenzo never regained consciousness. When the doctor arrived, he recognized Lorenzo. The doctor said he must have died immediately on impact. The wound was so deep.
Anna cannot speak. She is beset by sobs.
He didn’t suffer long, Mario says. Take some comfort in that.
Anna is beyond comfort. How could Lorenzo be dead and she alive? The difference was too great to bear.
Mario says the funeral will be that afternoon.
“I need to see him again,” Anna says. “I need to see him.”
They go back in the mortuary and Anna stops crying for a time, but then the grief returns like waves crashing in on her.
“Oh, my poor precious daughter,” Mother says, trying to calm her daughter.
“Let me be,” Anna says.
When Anna has cried all she can, a cold numbness settles in. Mother and Mario walk her home, half carrying her down the road. Along the way, neighbors come up to them and inquire out of concern. Some girls burst into tears at the news.
Nearing home, her sisters hear the cries from the street and come out in alarm. Soon everyone in the family is crying. Mother sets Anna down on the sofa and fetches the calming pills the doctor once prescribed for her husband. Aunt Marie from next door comes in and sits down beside Anna and strokes her hair. Her aunt says it will take some time for her to be able to handle the tragedy. It will take time for her to grasp the pain. Her aunt is considered a wise woman in the family, and her words carry weight. Soon the sedative takes effect and Mother takes Anna to her bedroom to lie down. Mother sits beside her, holding her hand. Sleep finally comes to her like a blessing.
Hours later, Mother carefully wakes her. The funeral will be in an hour. What does Anna want to do? Mario has come to escort her to the funeral. Anna tries to get up from the bed but can’t. Mother tells Mario she is unable to go, she is too grief stricken, the shock is too great, but that her husband and her son will go to represent the family. When Mother returns to the bedroom, Anna is shaking badly. Mother asks her if she would like another sedative. Anna says yes, she would. Mother patiently waits for the calm to descend. Her sisters come in the room to be with her and sit round the bed.
Later, Mother makes her some warm broth and begs—no, pleads with tears—for her to eat, even a few sips, and Anna, not wanting to distress Mother any further, submits. She can see the anxiety in Mother’s face, in the voices of her sisters, and particularly in the welling eyes of Maria Teresa. Anna is broken, horribly broken, but she cannot break those who love her. As awful as it is, she cannot put her family through another death.
When the sun has set and Anna hears her father and brother return from the funeral, she realizes how exhausted Mother is— her face is so lined and tired. Anna tells her that she can sleep through the night. There is no need to stay. Mother needs her own rest. Anna needs to be alone now. She needs not to be a worry to anyone, at least for the night. Mother sighs, taking some comfort in her words, and leaves her alone,
Anna falls into a profound sleep. Her anxiety and grief dissipate into the deepness of the pillow. Lorenzo comes to her in a dream. He is sitting atop Bella, the white plume in his hat glowing like a votive candle. He is smiling that kind gentlemen’s smile, and he is looking right at her. He has never looked more handsome. He bends the long elegance of his neck to speak to her.
“You came to see me today, but you didn’t even give me a kiss.”
Anna awakes with a start. Her heart is pounding, and the blood is rushing to her face. It was a dream, she says to herself. It was a dream.
The family is asleep and the house completely quiet. She has to get to the cemetery. She puts on her slippers and robe. She missed the funeral of the only man she would ever love. She has to go to the grave. She hopes beyond hope that his death isn’t real, she hopes he is alive, alive as he was in the dream—so present, so real.
No one in Martina Franca is up. If anyone were to see her at this hour in her robe and slippers, they would think her mad, but she doesn’t care. She can’t care.
It is predawn—the dark blue sky is lightening. The stars are disappearing from the sky. She stumbles her way along the cobblestone walks and up the trail, up the hill to Our Lady of Sorrows. Trickles of sun are breaking over gravestones, over stone angels and cherubs. There is Lorenzo’s family plot—a mound of earth covered with roses—white and red—white for his eternal absence, red for the love of his heart. And there, standing over his grave, is Bella, the long chestnut brown neck bowed down to the grave. There is nothing wild about her now, only the hushed deepness of the deepest melancholy. Anna goes up to her.
“Come on now, my girl,” Anna says, stroking that beautiful elegant neck. “I know, I know. We’ve lost him, you and me. But you can’t stay out here in the chill of the morning. You must be terribly hungry, out all night lost in the hills. What a terrible night you’ve had, a long, terrible night. Come now, my girl. Come now.”
Anna takes hold of the rein and slowly leads her away from the grave. Anna walks her down the hill—gently, steadily, so as not to frighten her. She doesn’t resist—she wants to go home, to Lorenzo’s home. Anna leads her where she wants to go. She kisses the loveliness of her long neck, the mane still tied and pleated, the coat wet from morning dew. She leads her into the farmyard and bids her goodbye with another kiss. And then she shuts the gate and walks the way back to her house of grief.
Aunt Marie said Anna would recover in time and with patience, and her words proved prophetic. She did go on, and when America presented itself like a long, lost promise, she left with her sisters. Anna did love again, but not in the same way. And although she discovered all manner of things in the new country that were good and better, she did not find the happiness that seemed part and parcel of America. She did find, however, much that gave her pleasure and gave her days music and meaning. She always loved opera and Caruso.
I own the remastered recording of Caruso singing E Lucevan Le Stelle. The record is dusty, but I wipe it clean with a soft linen cloth. I set it on the old turntable and carefully place the stylus on the record. And as I listen to that voice, that song, those crackles that evaded erasure, I can hear beyond the datedness of the recording and the dated style of singing. I can hear the beauty, and in that beauty, I can hear that love is passing and may not come again.
E Lucevan Le Stelle. And the stars were shining.
Roberto Christiano won the 2010 Fiction Prize from Northern Virginia Review. He received a Pushcart Prize nomination for poetry in Prairie Schooner. His poetry is anthologized in The Gávea–Brown Book of Portuguese-American Poetry (Brown University). His chapbook, Port of Leaving, was published by Finishing Line Press. He lives in Virginia. Website: robertochristiano.weebly.com.
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