I am moving into my “Italian period” with these next few stories. I do like those extraordinary personalities and situations that mark the characteristic of the Italian short story … I don’t think you can find the depth of “commitment” to the random acts of delinquency or romance and indeed; superstition from an Anglo-Saxon community. But I could be wrong!
My friend told me of this “event” when he was last here from Italy. I like it for it’s subtle example of “the vendetta”, that long-lasting animosity that exists in these small villages and the resulting act of vengeance by both parties.
It went like this:
An Act of Contrition
Gemano Filosi, the cobbler of the village of San Pietro di Messana was making his way back to his home one Sunday morning after attending Church. He was suddenly overtaken by a man on a horse going at a steady trot … Gemano had to quickly step aside as the horse and rider passed.
“On the hoof, Gemano? You should get yourself one of these,” the rider shouted as he passed.
Now, to any other person such a comment would have been seen as nothing more than a friendly mock … but the fact that it was spoken by one Cesarino Marchesso, a son of one of the largest land owners in the district, and the lingering distaste of an old family hurt concerning these two families, made it strike home with all the force of a spear in the heart …
Gemano swore vengeance.
The insult dated from back to his grandfather’s time when a foal was purchased from the Marchesso family farm by Gemano’s Family, which turned out not to be the expected horse, but rather a mule! At least that was the accusation … in all probability it was just a goofy-looking horse … but that is the way with inter-family feuds … they mostly all start with a rumour. One can construct the ongoing feud without assistance from yours truly … and then even this last “slighting” may have been overlooked but for the painful corns that bothered Gemano with every step.
Gemano swore vengeance … but was yet to figure out how.
The solution came in a flash of inspiration with a request from his sister, Elvira, the next week.
“Gemano … for the love of Gesu, put some new heels on these shoes before I twist my ankles,” she complained.
“Yes,” he replied, “I will have them done by next Thursday and I will leave them outside the shop door for you to collect as I have to go to the town that day.”
Indeed, Gemano was as good as his word, for he did finish those shoes and he did leave them outside his shop Wednesday night for his sister to pick up that Thursday … but not before using them to disguise his own footprints when he stole over to set alight to the Marchesso’s hay stack on that same Wednesday night before quickly scurrying off to make his alibi in the provincial town.
Of course, as anyone who has lived in a small village knows, every family has a ‘list’ of sworn enemies that can be referred to in times of conflict and the police wasted no time in looking up the list provided to them by the Marchesso family.
The upshot was that the clear set of woman’s shoe prints left at gate which led to the scene of the crime could be traced to the sister of Gemano Filosi. There was even a slight trace of the very soil from the site on one of the shoes. But naturally, the police would never imagine the possibility of Gemano wearing the ladies shoes as that sort of thing just wasn’t done …
Of course, Elvira pleaded innocence and protested she was home that very night with her recently born baby. This fact threw the police a little, but still she was arrested at the insistence of the Marchesso family and placed in a holding cell on remand while they investigated. The baby could not be kept with her and had to be brought to her for feeding several times a day. This was a very distressing time for Elvira, and though she suspected Gemano, she would not accuse him openly, so she sent him a secret message pleading with him to come forward on his own volition. Gemano refused and pleaded his innocence, claiming that since the shoes were placed outside his shop overnight for his sister to pick up in the morning, anyone could have used them and then replaced them with the deliberate intent of shifting the blame onto his family!
This was a line of reasoning that did have more than a degree of possibility about it … so that after exhausting their inquiry into Elvira, they had to admit defeat and after three months, released her. But the “stain” of accusation had been placed onto Elvira and such accusations cause long-term difficulties in a small village. Elvira and her husband moved away to the provincial city to live as a result. She still suspected her brother of the crime and never forgave him for dropping her into it and bringing such trouble and turmoil into her family’s life.
But the years passed and they all grew old … indeed, Gemano was ill for a long time and now he had reached the end of his life. He was on his death bed. But still Elvira had not forgiven him as he never confessed to her the truth of his deed. But now he was at his last days and the dottore had informed the family that he was slipping in and out of a coma and they should come to arrange last rites with a priest as soon as possible.
Elvira arranged for a priest to come with her to attend to her brother’s extreme unction. The old priest from the village being “conveniently” called away to the next parish that week, Elvira arranged for a new younger priest from the town to do the ritual … Gemano, who had embraced the faith even closer to his heart in those later years, was not in a state to notice that his old mentor was not there.
Gemano lay still on the bed in the old family home. He was attended by the close members of his family and the doctor. They all moved respectfully outside as the priest heard Gemano’s last confession and was given the last rites. Being almost unconscious, Gemano could hardly comprehend what was being said to him by the priest. But there was one driving need he wanted to confess …
“Father,” he gasped weakly.
“Yes, my son,” the priest replied.
“Tell Elvira … tell … tell her it was me,” and he nearly collapsed from the effort.
“You, my son?”
“Yes … the haystack … it was me,” and he went silent from the effort. The priest smiled a little and whispered into his ear:
“I think it best you confessed that to her yourself … for the love of God and for your forgiveness … ”
Gemano lay still for a while, then nodded weakly in consent … he knew it would be his last act of contrition.
The priest sent for Elvira and the doctor to come to the bedside of the dying brother.
“He has a confession to say to you, my lady.” The priest spoke so both Gemano and Elvira could hear. Elvira sat at the side of her brother and leaned in to hear from his weak lips.
“It was I … sister … I set fire to Marchesso’s hay …” Gemano’s eyes were wide and he gasped and looked like this statement would be his last act, his last words … Elvira stilled him and held his hand to comfort him.
“Shh, shh, dear brother, ” she comforted. Then she leaned down close to his ear so as to secretly whisper into it:
“I know, brother. I always knew … and I could never forgive you for the hurt you brought to myself and my family … but I do now … I … forgive you. But while you have performed your act of contrition to me … you also have a difficulty. You see that young priest at the foot of the bed?”
Gemano, whose eyes were closed, weakly blinked and looked to the young priest who smiled quietly and gave him a little nod …
“ … well that young man is not really a priest, he is an actor friend of my daughter and he is pretending to be a priest and you really have not been given extreme-unction. The sin remains stained upon your soul, so you will have to go to God and beg him to forgive you.”
Elvira sat back satisfied that she had at last taken her own sort of vengeance.
Gemano’s eyes went wide as this profound knowledge slowly sank in … but it was already too late and indeed, this treachery brought on his demise by the sudden surge of shock to his system. He gasped, raised one arm to point to the “priest” and tried to speak … but only a gasp and a croak emitted from the dying man.
“Ah! … ah! … no!” And with a last gaping gasp of breath, Gemano fell back stone dead onto the pillow.
Elvira leaned to her brother, kissed his forehead and tenderly said:
“Yes, dear brother … now I forgive you.”