Been Here a Thousand Years

A Novel

Mariolina Venezia; Translated from the Italian by Marina Harss

Picador

Chapter One

 

At around three o’clock in the afternoon of March 27, 1861, in the town of Grottole, which is in the part of Basilicata that lies about one hundred kilometers from the Puglia coastline, an event took place that would be the subject of stories for years to come.

 

In the hours that followed, the inhabitants of the town discussed all the possible meanings of this event, weighing every potential explanation. To some, it was a miracle, to others, witchcraft, or, if seen from a slightly more orthodox angle, a temptation of the Devil; only to a select few, the most educated residents, did it seem like a simple natural occurrence.

 

Perhaps it was somehow the fault of ZíUel the Potter, but given how things turned out, no one dwelt on this notion forlong. Sometimes, when a nodule in the clay was not completely ground down, the jar would develop cracks. But this hardly ever happened with his pots. His hands worked quickly and precisely on the potter’s wheel, and his singed fingertips delicately caressed the rounded sides of the pots and pitchers, just as God’s hands must have caressed Eve’s flanks on the day of her creation. He kneaded, modeled, baked. His kiln produced lamps, crocks, jars, which he marked with concentric circles like the ones used long ago to communicate with the dead in a language no longer spoken by the living. His delicately resonant terra-cotta pots were porous and damp, oozing moisture. His pitchers kept water cool. His pottery was so perfect and so delicate that a scream could have shattered it.

 

On the same day that the city of Rome, which had not yet been conquered, was chosen as the capital of an Italy that was finally united, the first person to notice the aforementioned event—altogether different, but no less prodigious—was the little Della Rabbia boy. When it happened, he was wandering around the old neighborhood known to locals as "S’rretiedd," a tight maze of streets and houses that the sun could not penetrate; he held a string attached to a sewer rat.His stomach rumbled with hunger.

 

He was pulling at the rat, who did not want to follow, when he saw a yellow liquid slowly cascading down the Saracen Straits; it gathered in small pools between the paving stones, and then descended, step by step, slithering over the stones that had been worn smooth by the hooves of mules and making its way down alleys and passageways until finally it plunged over the edge of the escarpment. At first he thought it was mule piss, but no mule he had ever seen, or even Totonno’s cow, could piss for so long. Nor could it be the contents of Don Filippo Cocca’s bedpans, because no matter how many guests his son, a student at the University of Salerno, brought home, it would have taken a battalion to produce so much urine. The boy was so intrigued that he did not even notice when his pet rat scampered off. He bent down and stared at the rivulet, his face so close that his nose almost touched the yellow liquid. It was still cascading down. It came down, its consistency fluid and viscous, limpid and golden in the sunlight, forming thick bubbles here and there, its flow increasing as if the source was growing rather than diminishing.

 

Finally, Rocchino stuck his finger in the liquid, sniffed it, and put it in his mouth. He made a face, whether of pain or pleasure it was unclear.

 

At that time of day, there were only women, children, cripples, and crazy people in the town. All the men of sound body were working in the fields. Rocchino began to lap up the liquid, immersing his face, then his entire body, in the current, rubbing his feet, hands, and even his bare head, and finally rolling around like a pig in shit. It was oil! Olive oil!

 

The ringing of the town bells boomed in his ears as he felt life flowing into him, thick and unctuous, and the aridity and brittleness of death released its hold. People said that during a particularly deadly winter, the Della Rabbias had eaten one of their own children at birth, grilled. A deliciously unforgettable aroma had lingered in the town for days.

 

As Rocchino growled with pleasure and almost suffocated with gluttony, the second person to encounter this extraordinary phenomenon was Felice la Campanella. When he saw the Devil’s piss pouring down the muddy lane that led to ZíTitt’s orchard, he was sitting absolutely still on a stone bench, waiting in vain for the afternoon sun to warm his heart.

 

He was roused momentarily from the image that had filled him for the last twenty years: that of his wife’s ample body cut down by thirty stabs of his knife.

 

By the time he had returned from the Royal Prison in Naples, he had lost the power of speech, except for the curses he mumbled like Ave Marias. The nightmares that tormented his soul seemed to have surfaced on his skin. From his neck to his waist— and surely also over the rest of his body, including his hands, the tips of his fingers, and perhaps even his private parts—he was covered in a snarl of devils, broken hearts, naked women, and obscenities. When he was younger, the figures came to life when he flexed his muscles, but now they seemed to conceal themselves beneath the graying fur that covered his upper body.

 

Devoured by his solitude, he wandered around the town with his hands behind his back, his black cloak fluttering in the wind. In a hopeless attempt to stave off bad luck, he made horns with his fingers and his waistband jangled with the sound of countless horn-shaped amulets of all sizes. Only children paid him any mind; they threw rocks when he wasn’t looking, and then scampered off to hide behind a wall or in a doorway.

 

When he noticed the oil, Felice la Campanella took it for the Devil’s bile, convinced that the Evil One had finally come for him. He blurted out a tremendous oath and prepared to follow, almost with a sense of relief.

 

A WOMAN IN THE TOWN had the bright idea.

 

Comare Teresa, or Cumma Tar’socc’, as she was known to all, was sneaking furtively along the cracked walls, diving into shadows and then emerging cautiously into the sunlight, wrapped in a brown shawl under which she hid a stinking bedpan that she was planning to dump out onto Largo Sant’Andrea. At that time of day, no one would see her; anyone who was not working in the fields was surely sleeping. She emptied the pot furtively onto the stones, worn smooth by cart wheels, just across from her sister-in-law Agnese’s house. Imagine her surprise when she saw the turds floating in a yellow lake much larger than anything the members of her family, numerous as they were, could have produced.

 

She stood there, trying to make heads or tails of what she was seeing, teetering on her tiptoes, her neck stretched and tense as a chicken’s, the bedpan resting on her hip. Suddenly her sister-in-law’s scream sliced through the stagnant air of the early afternoon, waking clouds of flies and the rest of the dozing town: "Ca pzz scttà u’ sagn’da n’gann!" ("May you vomit blood!") The prolonged ululation of the a in "n’gann" ricocheted against the stone walls and reverberated threateningly from street to street through the warren of alleys, and finally dissolved in a shower of echoes in the valley’s ravines. Women emerged from their half-open doors to watch the fight, but what they saw was even more captivating. Seventy years later some of them would still remember the events of that day and recount them to their grandchildren, along with stories about Saint Peter, the Devil, and the woman with the white pig who appears at the crossroads whenever a person loses his way.

 

Agnese and Tar’socc’ were just beginning to pinch and shove, their nails bared like cats, when Tar’socc’ stumbled and fell. She found herself with her backside on the ground, her bedpan broken, and Agnese on top of her, grabbing, pushing, and choking her, as their skirts, drenched in the viscous liquid, stuck to their legs.

 

The two sisters-in-law grabbed hold of each other’s necks as if to wring the neck of a chicken. Agnese’s hair was standing on end, her eyes were beginning to roll around wildly, and her face was turning purple, when she finally managed to grab hold of Tar’socc’s face and submerge it in the liquid. Tar’socc’ lay still for a moment, then came up for air; something was gurgling in her throat. She licked the hair that stuck to her lips, and mumbled: "Iè iuogghj!" ("It’s oil, olive oil!") The women looked at each other, convinced that the lack of air had deprived Tar’socc’ of her senses.

 

There was a moment of silence, broken by Lucietta, Peppino Paglialunga’s eldest daughter, who had drawn closer and cautiously stuck her finger in the liquid, inspected it, and finally given it a lick. "It really is oil," she said in perfect Italian, articulating the words clearly in her prim little voice, because she had gone to school up to the second grade.

 

The group began to buzz. One of the women started to tell a story about the time a spring of pure mineral water had suddenly appeared under Nascafolta’s bed, but no one was listening.

 

Was this the fruit of the prayers recently introduced by the new parish priest, a miraculous spring gushing forth to deliver the impoverished town from hunger? Cumma Caniuccia, with the authority of her ninety-nine years, commanded the women not to touch a single drop of this strange oil, which, sure as death, had overflowed from the cauldrons in which the damned were being boiled in Hell. But the women left her croaking like a Cassandra and threw themselves on the miraculous fluid.

 

Lucietta removed her scarf and dipped it in the oil, and then carried it gingerly, like a baby, to her house, where she squeezed it out into an empty crock. The others did the same with their aprons and handkerchiefs, or brought copper and wooden bowls from their houses, dipping and squeezing the oil energetically.

 

As the women followed the path of the stream to its source, they came to the foot of Don Francesco Falcone’s house. The youngest among them, Ninetta—Zica Zica’s daughter—noticed that oil was pouring out of openings at the base of the walls of the storeroom beneath the house. She turned to the others, as if wondering what to do next, and then the church bells began to ring as if it were a feast day.

 

DOWN THE HILL from them, the miraculous stream had produced a variety of reactions: quarrels, shock, and heated discussion. Don Valentino Blasone, the elementary-school teacher—as well as the recipient of a Certificate of Merit and the author of

 

a general history of the literature of Basilicata, in addition to being the doctor’s assistant and an honorary citizen of the town of Miglionico—had taken great pains to explain that there was nothing supernatural about the phenomenon. This was no miracle, just a question of chemicals, an accumulation of molecules. By some fortuitous confluence of circumstances, certain natural elements had come together in an underground stratum of the earth to produce the fluid otherwise known as olive oil. Before ingesting any of the aforementioned liquid, however, he recommended that it be observed under a microscope, to check for microbes.

 

Echoes of what had taken place had even reached the ear of Don Antonio, the young parish priest from Salerno. It was he who had decided to ring the church bells, just in case, either to thank some generous saint or to frighten away the Devil.

 

The last to hear about the event were those most directly affected, in other words, the Falcone family, and the very last was the most directly affected of all: Don Francesco Falcone himself.

 

In the uppermost room of the house, Concetta was once again in labor. The pain was so intense and her screams so loud that the vibrations had apparently cracked the large jars of olive oil in the storeroom, one after the other. At least that was what people said. The oil had then poured out of the round holes that were used by the cats to go in and out of the storeroom. Fifty quintali of oil, enough to supply every member of Don Francesco’s family and all their dependents for an entire year.

 

The first person in the household to hear about what had happened was Licandra, Don Francesco’s thirteen-year-old daughter by his former farmworker Concetta. Licandra was with her sisters at her mother’s bedside as Concetta went into labor for the seventh time, not counting four spontaneous—and five provoked—abortions.

 

No one, except Concetta herself, held out even the slightest hope that the Virgin might grant them the blessing they had so insistently prayed for all these years. The disappointment had been bitter on the other occasions—six in all—when Don Francesco and the members of his household had hoped that the longed-for male would finally arrive. This time, Don Francesco had refused to have anything to do with the matter. Even though Concetta had experienced her first labor pains during the night, he left for the fields at first light in a rage, growling at her to hurry up and get on with it and insisting that none of this had anything to do with him. Concetta hadn’t been hurt by his attitude; she was in too much pain to think of anything else. Besides, she had the strength of a mule, the docility of a lamb, and the lightness of a butterfly, qualities without which she would not have been able to survive for long with Don Francesco, who was by nature as stormy as the Maestrale wind, and who was not even her husband. This was why he could threaten to throw her out every time something made him angry, in other words every time she bore him another daughter.

 

Don Francesco had not found it opportune to formalize a contract for the ownership of that which was already his to do with as he saw fit, in other words Concetta’s body, along with her good will, devotion, and something that he took for love but that was instead a kind of pity, a deep compassion that Concetta reserved for injured animals, beggars, and for him. It was unclear why she felt this, since he was rich, healthy, strong, and it was he who put food in her mouth.

 

The only thing that might convince Don Francesco to marry her was the birth of a son, but this event, so keenly awaited by their six bastard daughters, had not yet come to pass and its likelihood seemed to decrease with each passing day.

 

BEFORE TAKING IN CONCETTA, Don Francesco had been married to Donna Nina, a woman from Grassano selected by his father. She was already somewhat advanced in age when they married, yellowish, and a bit soft around the edges, with small, hollow bones like a bird’s, but she had brought with her several pieces of land—Arsizz’, Mazzam’pet, and San Lazzaro, as well as the farm at Serra Fulminante, which brought in over a thousand ducats every year.

 

Donna Nina had been educated at a convent in Naples, where she learned the lives of the saints, how to hem handkerchiefs, and above all, how to look down her nose at those whom she considered beneath her—and particularly at Don Francesco—as if they might infect her with smallpox at any moment. She and Don Francesco despised each other. After their wedding night, during which Don Francesco had done his duty, delivering the blood-stained sheets to his mother, he and Donna Nina, by mutual agreement, had continued to sleep in the same bed, but facing in opposite directions. After a year of marriage they were still childless.

 

Donna Nina spent her days wrapped in an air of rancorous dissatisfaction, hardly setting foot outside her marriage chamber, usually stretched out on the canopy bed suffering from one ailment or another. The air in the room was so stale that Don Francesco felt faint as soon as he set foot inside. There was a stench of death, augmented by the insistent fragrance of the lilies and candles that guarded over a prissy-looking Virgin to whom his wife was devoted.

 

Lying next to Donna Nina, Don Francesco was unable to fall asleep unless he was completely exhausted, perhaps out of fear of waking up in Heaven, his arms and legs bound by the slender cords of envy, haunted by his wife’s mummylike charms. But he dared not ask to open the window to let in some air, or to leave the room. Nor did he dare to abandon his conjugal bed because of the scandal it would cause.

 

BUT ON THE EVE OF THE FEAST of San Giovanni, an early, suffocating heat wave had made Don Francesco’s blood boil in his veins. He could hear the muffled sound of singing in the streets. Finally, he had to leave the room to get some fresh air, with the urgency of someone who has been buried alive.

 

Around the twenty-first of June—the summer solstice—the days are at their longest before beginning their gradual decline. In the town, the farmworkers would build piles of brooms in the streets and piazzas and light bonfires to help the sun light up the sky. Then they would take the ashes home to drive away evil spirits and bring prosperity. There was singing. The men jumped over the embers, always with the same look of astonishment, hoping to find a wife with whom to share the joys and suffering of life.

 

Don Francesco opened the window and the night wind swept in and caressed his dark hair and beard, making him feel young and vigorous. But for the first time in his life, along with this sensation, he was struck by a thought, or a kind of dark foreboding, that no matter how things turned out, even if he avoided the traps of the evil eye, spells, envy, wars, and contagious diseases, sooner or later he would die, and there was no way to escape the fact that this great strong body of his, which seemed hewn out of the wood of an olive tree, would grow soft and dissolve like the corn husks and leftover food flung into pits to make fertilizer. The noise that came up from the street, mixed with these thoughts, made his head spin. He leaned against the windowsill. The arms and eyes of the girls shimmered in the shadows. He heard someone laugh; it started down low, like the sound of the cupa cupa drum, and then rose, clear and clean as a bell, distinct from all the other sounds. Don Francesco Falcone peered into the darkness. In the light of the moon and the glow of the flames he realized that something extraordinary was taking place.

 

She had bloomed overnight, her lips red as cherries, her hair still loose around her shoulders, her body small and round, shapely and dark as a grape, with breasts that seemed to blossom before his eyes.

 

Not that he hadn’t seen her before; that would have been impossible in a town where everyone was a relative, or a godparent, which in some ways was a tie even stronger than blood. But some girls blossom from one day to the next, like roses, which bloom one night and by the next are already withered.

 

He stood there, bewitched, watching that miracle, tortured by the desire to go down and join the carousing countryfolk, as he had always done before he married Donna Nina, longing to mix his flesh with that of this young girl who was becoming a woman, to feel the life blossoming in her body drive away the death that advanced inside of his.

 

The touch of a limp hand on his shoulder made him jump. It was Donna Nina asking him to close the window because the draft was coming into the room and she couldn’t sleep. Don Francesco obeyed, docile, and followed his wife to bed. He feared her because she knew how to read and write and her blood was as cold as a reptile’s.

 

When they turned out the light, Nina said that it is a sin to be married without children. Don Francesco knew it well, and secretly it tormented him. He said that they had time, but she had decided that the time had come. She made the sign of the cross twice and then held out her cold, dry hands to him. Don Francesco, who was strong and vigorous but often felt as lost as a child without its mother, had been unable to turn away and had consummated the act, while inside of him he felt clear waters turn cloudy and roses fade, night vanquish day, and life surrender to death.

 

At dawn, while Nina watched him through half-closed eyes, like a cat, Don Francesco dressed and left for the fields.

 

It took a long time to vanquish the disgust that had overcome him during the night, the nausea at the sensation of taking a woman by force, the sense of foulness on his skin produced by the absence of desire. And it took even longer for him to find what he was looking for, because his lands were so vast that the hours between dawn and dusk were not long enough to traverse them all.

 

It was the harvest. In the late morning he ate bread and fried blood with the other men who had come from the coast to work in the fields, and he felt better.

 

He found her at Ai Mar, gleaning, as the sun was beginning to set. He watched her with sad eyes, like a bird of prey, then abruptly asked who had given her permission to do what she was doing; he was a man of few words and had not been able to come up with any other words with which to court her.

 

As soon as Concetta saw him she knew that what had happened to her mother, her grandmother, and to most of her cousins, the subject of whispered conversations with her friends when they went to fetch water, was about to happen to her. The idea of running away did not cross her mind. She left her little brother, still in his swaddling clothes, under an oak tree and walked toward Don Francesco. He felt her heart beating as he carried her away on horseback.

 

But when they reached the shed at Santa Lucia something strange happened, something that had not happened to her mother, her grandmother, or her cousins. When he took her by the waist to help her off the horse, Concetta was overcome not by the quality of his clothes, or the virility of his hands, but by the power of his melancholy, and she decided to give him an additional gift, of the kind the poor usually give to the rich. Along with her body, she gave him something of herself that she would not have known how to describe or name.

 

He took her on a bed of corn husks in the shed. Concetta’s skin tasted of grain. The blood of her lost virginity mixed with that of her first menstrual cycle.

 

The harvest at Calvarès and San Lazzaro was not yet finished by the time Concetta’s belly had become round as a full moon, which made him desire her even more. Nina’s belly was growing, too. After they aired out the house Donna Nina took to her bed for good because of morning sickness. They were planting the fields when she suffered her first threat of a miscarriage, and the fields were green when she went into labor. It lasted through a night and the following day, and it was night again when she gave birth to a monster with a head like a fish that survived only a few hours. She did not survive, either.

 

And so Don Francesco took Concetta, who was about to give birth, into his house to be his servant and his whore, swearing to himself that if she bore him a son, poor wretch that she was, he would marry her. After all, his father was dead and he no longer answered to anyone. But it was a girl, and they called her Costanza.

 

After the birth Don Francesco observed a strict period of mourning. He became even more insufferable and ill-tempered and, ironically, only Concetta, the one responsible for his ill humor, knew how to calm him down.

 

Once he had recovered from his disappointment, Don Francesco became much more attached to little Costanza than anyone, especially he himself, could have predicted. When she ran toward him, toddling along and crying out, "Pappà," his eyes would light up and his heart would melt like a child’s. Costanza was allowed to get away with things that no one else had even dared to imagine possible: she pulled at his beard, stuck her fingers up his nose and ears, flung his hat from the balcony, and dug around in his pockets for presents.

 

Sometimes, in a sudden flash of lucidity, Don Francesco would try to impose discipline on his imperious bastard daughter, but she had become so spoiled, and was so stubborn and despotic by nature, that there was nothing to be done. Don Francesco could only console himself with the thought that she took after him. Instead, he took out his frustrations on Concetta.

 

He would tell her—after making sure Costanza was out of range—that if her bastard daughter tried his patience one more time he would kick them both out without even a shirt on their backs, and that he could easily marry whomever he pleased and still had favorable prospects. But these threats went in one ear and out the other. Concetta knew that no one had ever burrowed as deeply into Don Francesco Falcone’s heart as she had, and that though he was as skittish as a racehorse, as well as misanthropic and ill-humored, he was in great need of love. Emboldened by this secret knowledge, Concetta lived in his house without worries beyond the usual ones; she always made sure that there was a pot of chickpeas and one of fava beans on the stove for the poor, and she thanked the Madonna every day for giving her and her daughters bread for their stomachs and something to eat along with it, besides.

 

AFTER COSTANZA, came, in this order: Albina, Candida (known as Licandra), Giustina, Gaetana (known as Chetanella), and Giuseppina. Their arrival had brought tempests, tears, and regrets, but after the birth of each daughter, again and again, Don Fran-cesco’s heart had softened, though none of the girls occupied as large a place in his heart as Costanza.

 

To make up for his perennially thwarted desire for a son, Francesco had decided to educate his illegitimate daughters, imbuing each of them with an aspect of the virility that their household lacked.

 

He had taught Costanza mathematics, and in fact during the time of the events described here it was she who, at the tender age of seventeen, kept the accounts to her father’s holdings and farms, and kept track of all that was owed to him by his tenants, as well as all the unavoidable expenses.

 

Albina’s masculine qualities—inherited directly from her father—were her inability to express emotion and her frank, cold, and tough nature, in other words her obstinate pride, which meant that she would implode rather than openly reveal her passion or yield to another’s will.

 

Licandra could shoot a rifle. In every other way she was pretty, sweet, and feminine, and she died at a young age of malaria.

 

Giustina decided she wanted to go to school, and later when she was forced to earn her own living, she did so by teaching.

 

Even as a little girl, Chetanella could ride a horse like a fury, with her legs astride the animal and not, like most women, together and to one side.

 

Giuseppina had the most unseemly masculine trait: she inherited her father’s passion for women, and when this tendency became an embarrassment, she was kept in a back room where she

 

was eventually forgotten by everyone and where, once her sensual excesses had been placated, she lived out an interminable existence as an unobtrusive old maid.

 

On that March afternoon in 1861, which history would make famous for a very different reason, it being the date of Italy’s unification, Concetta was giving birth without the help of a midwife. Comare Rachele, the mammana who had assisted in the births of all the children in Grottole and had returned many others to their Maker through the application of her special infusions of parsley and knitting needles, was now too old to do the job and only showed up in the most desperate cases.

 

Between one scream and the next, Concetta called out instructions to her daughters. By now she knew exactly what had to be done, but this time things were complicated by the fact that it was a breech delivery. With all Costanza’s pushing and pulling, Concetta’s belly had become one big bruise, and Albina, who never missed an opportunity to criticize her sister, said it was all her fault that things were not going as they should. Amid her mother’s screams and her sisters’ reproaches, Licandra had heard strange voices coming from downstairs. At first she thought there might be bandits; their terrifying, glorious feats were recounted high and low. The idea filled her with excitement, because in her heart of hearts she was on their side. As soon as the people outside told her what was happening, she went down to the storeroom, where she was able to judge the undeniably serious nature of the situation.

 

IT WAS SUNDOWN when, just as every evening, the farmers returned from the fields, some on the back of a wagon, some by mule, some hanging on to the tail of a donkey, most on foot, while in Turin the master pyrotechnician that had been brought

 

in especially from Naples for the occasion was preparing the fireworks. Don Francesco came last, on his black horse, followed by his two helpers’ nags.

 

The bells were ringing the Te Deum. The farmers, exhausted from toiling from dawn to dusk, paused momentarily as they climbed up the hill toward the piazza wondering whether the new priest had gone mad, was simply confused, or whether something truly unexpected had happened, which in their minds was synonymous with disaster.

 

Wrapped in his black cloak, sporting an upturned mustache, gun tucked under his arm, Don Francesco was thinking about Concetta, hoping with all his might that things had gone for the best, but he would have confessed these feelings to no one, not even to himself, not even under torture. He was approached by Tommasino, one of the innumerable children of the many women whom the foolhardy Concetta allowed to scrounge around in his kitchen.

 

Tommasino had been chosen because he could run fast, to be the first to tell Don Francesco the news. When Don Francesco saw him, his heart stopped. If Concetta had given birth to another girl they would not have dared send someone to meet him on the corner of the Via Nuova. It must be a boy! This was the only possible justification for such haste. He felt himself go weak with joy but his sanguine face did not betray the least emotion. Tommasino explained in a whisper that the jars had burst and that the oil had been lost, all fifty quintali, down to the last drop. At first Don Francesco could not understand what he was hearing.

 

Tommasino repeated the news three times. He watched as Don Francesco’s face darkened like the ocean, which he had never seen, before a tidal wave, or the sky, which he had seen many times, before a storm, and then he scampered off with all the strength and speed he could muster on those skinny legs of his, and disappeared into the dark, narrow alleys of San Nicola, where the horses couldn’t follow him.

 

Back at the house, Concetta was crying. Partly because she was so grateful for the grace the Madonna had bestowed on her, partly because spilled oil brings bad luck, and partly because for once she had no idea what Don Francesco would do. She cried and laughed and held the child to her breast. It was a boy.

 

Earlier, when Licandra had returned to the room where Concetta had been in labor for several hours and had described the events below, Concetta had become so agitated by the news that she felt her insides churn and the wretched boy finally turn over. In a few minutes he was out, pulled by Albina, who, before even cutting the umbilical cord, cried out in disbelief: It’s a boy! It’s a boy!

 

Don Francesco entered the room with a tempestuous stride, his face like a hurricane, his gun still slung over his shoulder, and his cap pulled down low on his brow. Enough! They should all just get out, all of them, every last one of them! They were all bearers of bad luck who had brought nothing but ruin to his house, a bad lot, and this time he didn’t want to hear any arguments. Nothing those simpering, insolent, louse-infested girls said or did would move him, nothing, they should just get out this instant and don’t take anything with you, I’ve already spent enough on the clothes on your backs, I don’t even want to hear your names, just get out and that’s it, as if you never existed. Fifty quintali of oil! Spilled onto the streets like dishwater, like mule’s piss, that’s what happens when you keep too many women in the house!

 

Concetta pushed away the bed sheet and scooped up the newborn, who had not yet been swaddled. She raised him slowly, by his armpits, with his tiny manhood exposed. Don Francesco stopped cold, like a devil before the consecrated Host. He took a

 

few steps back and dug in his heels, like an old broken-down horse. He looked more closely at the tiny, limp penis, the little undescended testicles, and all the rest, and he couldn’t believe his eyes. His face trembled like a mountain just before a landslide. He pressed his lips together to keep himself from crying. He picked up his gun, walked to the window, and shot into the air for a long time out of sheer joy.

 

Excerpted from Been Here a Thousand Years by Marina Harss.
Copyright © 2009 by Marina Harss.
Published in 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

 

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