“God ministers to old and young alike.”
On the Montagnazza, Amalia Cuffaro, wet nurse to Costanza Safamita, chats with her niece Pinuzza Belice as she braids her hair.
Amalia Cuffaro finished spoon-feeding Pinuzza with the pap made from dry bread and goat’s milk. Using a corner of the napkin tied round Pinuzza’s neck, she wiped her mouth and chin—Pinuzza dribbled and would often spit out the food, even the things she was fond of—then gave the napkin a good shake and flicked off the bread that Pinuzza had spat onto her shoulder. The ants were lying in wait: the most populous colony had settled inside the hollow stone where the big water jug stood; from there they would emerge in compact formation to head for all the manna that fell from on high every morning.
Disheartened, Amalia was lost in thought: a lot of bread and milk was thrown away in the household, where the only thing they had in abundance was hunger; they were bad ants—warlike, with big bodies and reddish heads, the kind that bite—and bold enough to climb up onto the chair to which Pinuzza was strapped. They would run all over her, their bites leaving her skin covered in red spots. Sometimes Amalia even found them inside the poor dear’s mouth. Pinuzza could not defend herself, and Amalia would have to stick her fingers into the girl’s mouth to rid her of the audacious little creatures.
Still supple despite her years, Amalia straightened up in the middle of the cave, legs apart, ready to renew her stubborn, endless battle against the ants. She bent down and ran her arm between her legs to grasp the back hem of her skirts; on straightening again, she pulled the cloth forwards and tucked it into her waistband, turning her skirt into a pair of baggy, Oriental-style pantaloons. Then she took the short palmetto leaves that served her as a brush and got down to work, making sure that her skirts didn’t trail on the ground, lest even one of the horrible insects climb on her. She swept carefully, throwing the columns of ants into disarray as they converged on Pinuzza’s chair from every corner of the cave. She pushed the little heap of rubbish swarming with maddened ants onto the tiny ledge at the entry, and finally, with a last swipe of her brush, she sent it over the precipice—dust, bread crumbs, ants, and all.
After the premature death of her mistress, Amalia had refused to join her son, Giovannino, in America and had returned to her family. Her younger brother, Carmine Belice, took her in out of a sense of duty, but reluctantly; after the death of her parents-in-law and Giovannino’s departure, Amalia had squandered her wages and even the property given to her by the Safamita family, and she came back to the Belice household as poor as she had left it to marry Diego Cuffaro forty years before. There was no room for Amalia in the Belice home—a hovel in which eight people lived and slept crammed together, along with the hens, the goat, and the donkey—so her brother had found for her and his daughter, Pinuzza, a cave on the Montagnazza, where there was no landlord. Moreover, as he would say to scandalmongers and to the merely curious, a doctor had suggested that the fresh air and sunshine would be good for Pinuzza’s health.
On that part of the Sicilian coast, there is a white marl cliff standing about six hundred and fifty feet high and about six miles long, and its slopes contain a wealth of natural crevices and caves. In places this cliff protrudes into the sea like a promontory, and in others it retreats, curving back inland to form little beaches and coves. In one of these stood Riporto, the fishing village nearest to Sarentini, where Carmine Belice and his family lived. Since time immemorial the indigenous population had taken refuge in the natural caves of the Montagnazza—the local name for the cliff—enlarging them and digging out new ones when they had to hide from marauding Barbary pirates or Turkish corsairs. Access to the caves was impossible for those who didn’t know them; in fact, only a few renegades had ever managed to reach them and carry off Christians doomed to Turkish slavery. Then these enemy attacks petered out, and by the mid-eighteenth century pirate incursions had become a thing of the past.
As people grew poorer and poorer, the caves were repopulated and inhabited by fugitives, criminals on the run, and young men bent on dodging the detested military service imposed by Italy’s newly united government. In the caves on the lower, more accessible levels, a small colony of poor wretches, invalids, outcasts, and birds of passage took up residence. They dug out precipitous, treacherous flights of steps which the rain made smooth and even destroyed with implacable regularity, turning them into dangerous slides. In some areas the mouths of the caves had been widened in apparent symmetry and could be reached only by narrow access passageways that ran along the edge of the sheer drop.
From the sea, this part of the Montagnazza appeared to sailors by day like the undulating white façade of an immensely long building; in the evening, after sunset, when the oil lamps were burning, it looked like a fat, phosphorescent worm. The rest of the cliff curved southwards, then plunged steeply into the sea. Indomitable, it granted refuge to seagulls and, in spring and summer, served as a resting place for migrant birds. Lashed by wind and rain in winter, dazzling and almost incandescent under the summer sun, it was always most beautiful. It reminded Amalia of an immense, gleaming mass of sheep’s milk curds, trembling and smooth, freshly removed from the mould by the shepherd.
Aunt and niece lived in one of these caves, the only one in the third row, almost immediately beneath the flat cliff top. The monotony of their days was relieved by weekly visits from Carmine Belice or from Pinuzza’s brothers, who would bring food and firewood. It was a hard life, but Amalia was grateful to have escaped from her brother’s hovel, where she could no longer bear to live after so many years spent in the palatial mansions of the aristocracy. Amalia loved solitude and nature, and on the Montagnazza she had these in abundance, while Pinuzza was a constant and agreeable companion. Amalia even managed to earn some money by mending clothes for the women below, which they passed up and down in a basket attached to a rope, and so she could indulge in her only luxury: Revalenza Arabica, a restorative powder to which she ascribed every property imaginable.
As for Pinuzza, the Montagnazza was an improvement over Riporto. Her father and her three brothers had lowered her down to the cave; they had wrapped her in a blanket folded into a kind of cradle and bound like a cocoon at the end of a thick rope, which two of her brothers wound around their bodies and then fed out little by little as the third brother bore Pinuzza down the face of the Montagnazza, hanging on to the spikes fixed here and there to the marl to guide his burden and keep the sharp outcrops from hurting his sister. Thus had Pinuzza moved from confinement in the hovel, damp and almost devoid of light, to confinement in the cave. But there, tended by her aunt in the healthful fresh air and the warmth of the sun, she was restored to better health.
Pinuzza was awaiting the ritual daily grooming. She was fourteen. Despite her infirmity, she cherished hopes and desires like any other young girl and looked forward to the pleasure of feeling neat and tidy. Amalia cleaned her mouth once again, wiping away the drool with a damp cloth, then lifted her chair and put it down carefully at the mouth of the cave.
Before Pinuzza there was sea and sky, nothing else. The winter sun was pleasantly warm. “Today I’m going to delouse you and redo your braids,” said her aunt, and Pinuzza smiled. Her tormented and twisted little body had but one ornament: a head of thick, glossy black hair. Amalia took a large bone comb whose handle was embellished with mother-of-pearl decorations and began to comb the nits from Pinuzza’s hair, using the part with fine teeth. She parted her niece’s hair with nimble fingers, light and sure, as if the locks of the plump braids were bobbins and she were making pillow lace. It was a moment of particular intimacy for both of them: Amalia would go back over her fondest memories, and her talk would begin to flow freely. Pinuzza listened to her entranced.
“When the marchesa was a lass she didn’t like having her hair done. It took hours to persuade her. And you couldn’t blame her neither, because her hair was all tangles, not like yours, which is manageable and straight. Only when I sat her at the window with the sea before us in the distance, only then could I do her hair proper.”
“Why?” asked Pinuzza.
“She had special hair, she did. But it wasn’t fine, for all the blood of barons that ran in her veins: it was wiry as horsehair and curly as unpicked wool, so the more you smoothed it down the more it would curl. You couldn’t keep it in order, and it even escaped from braids. But what a wonderful colour! As a little girl she had hair red as gold; the noonday sun it was. As she grew up it got darker and darker, like lumps of sulphur among the rocks; and when she became a woman it went the dark red of the sunset, with coppery highlights. When the sun shone on her head, her braids would gleam like the coals in a flatiron.”
“She must have been beautiful, and she must have had lots of sweethearts,” said Pinuzza, sighing.
“But she didn’t. People didn’t like her, for she was very different. They’d stop on the street and stare at her when she went by in her carriage, and they’d cross their fingers to ward off bad luck: people who are different aren’t liked. I don’t understand why, but that’s the way it is.” Amalia broke off, the glossy locks of Pinuzza’s hair taut between her fingers, her gaze lost in the distance.
“Did she like her hair, or not?”
Amalia began braiding again, slowly. “Do you know, I’ve no idea! I loved her like a daughter and I served her to the last, but there are lots of things about her I don’t know. The fact is, she was different from everyone—from the Safamita family, from the other nobles, from folk like us . . .” Amalia realised she was digressing; this was a conversation she often held with herself.
“But did she like being different from everyone else?” insisted Pinuzza.
“The nobility are different from everyone else in any case, and that can’t be anything but a pleasure for them. First of all, they’re never poor or hungry and they do as they please, and then . . . Of course, she liked being rich all right . . . But looking different brought her only misfortune and sadness: people took her for a creature of the Devil. Once they even threw stones at her.”
“Do you know how she felt inside when they threw stones at her?”
Amalia had talked too much, and without thinking. Her sister-in-law had told her that when Pinuzza was a little girl she had put her at the door to get some fresh air while she tidied the house. Later she found the girl covered in blood: the local children had picked on her. After that Pinuzza had not seen the sunlight.
Amalia replied briefly. “She felt bad inside, but she forgave them. They were ignorant youngsters, and she had a big heart. A heart of gold like her hair, though the others couldn’t have cared less about that.”
“I would’ve had them thrashed, that lot, had the soles of their feet beaten until they couldn’t walk. That would’ve taught them!” Pinuzza became agitated and raised her voice. “They threw stones at me, too, the way they do with dogs, only I couldn’t hide, and I curse them now as I cursed them then.”
Amalia hurriedly finished the braid and draped it over Pinuzza’s shoulder, leaving it to hang down over her breast, so that her niece could admire it, glossy and tidy.
As Pinuzza was happily toying with it, she asked suddenly, “What did her mother say about it?”
“About what?” Amalia didn’t like talking about Baroness Safamita.
“About her daughter’s hair, and her being different.”
“Nothing, what was she supposed to say? She was her daughter.”
“You mean your marchesa was special for her mother, too, when she was born and her mother saw she was so different, or what?”
“Of course she was. But let’s go inside now, it’s hot in the sun,” Amalia replied hastily.
Pinuzza rested in a niche in the cave wall, on a straw mattress. Amalia went back outside. It was midday. She stood looking at the sea, gleaming and flat as a board. There were no boats at that hour; silence reigned supreme. The memory of Costanza Safamita’s birth came back to her, vivid and painful, casting a shadow over her heart and her eyes.
“Coughs, smoke, and loving sighs:
these three things you can’t disguise.”
The wet nurse’s first encounter with Costanza Safamita
Huddled in a corner of the large room, almost hidden by a screen, Amalia watched the comings and goings of the women, and the bustling of the midwives. She was horrified by the pains of the woman in the throes of labour and at the same time fascinated by the opulence of the baroness’s bedroom.
Given that Baroness Safamita was in the seventh month of her pregnancy, donna Titta Cuffaro, Amalia’s mother-in-law, had brought her that afternoon to the mansion house to arrange for her move into the baron’s household, where she would await the birth of the child she would breast-feed. Sitting in the little kitchen where the scullions worked, Amalia listened entranced to the chatter of the serving women as they shelled a mountain of late peas piled on a marble work top. Lina Munnizza, the assistant cook, divided her time between the stove and the table, where she stood carefully selecting the smallest, sweetest peas for the young baron’s table, which the head cook would prepare in his own fashion. The other peas, the big, hard floury ones, would be served to the household staff lightly sautéed in olive oil with a little green onion and garlic. Amalia’s mouth was watering; they had offered her some empty peapods: her mother-in-law would be well pleased with this gift. She was looking forward to going home, her thoughts on Giovannino and the tasty broth she would prepare that evening.
But fate decreed otherwise: don Filippo Leccasarda, the majordomo, summoned her to his office, where donna Titta was waiting for her with Giovannino. She was to go into service immediately, don Filippo informed her laconically: the moment of farewell had suddenly arrived. Everything happened as if in a dream. The hushed atmosphere of that singular house soothed the emotions and smoothed out the rough edges. Clinging to her breast, Giovannino had fallen asleep as he suckled. Nora Aiutamicristo, the baroness’s personal maid, came to them with an order: the young baron wished to reassure his wife in labour that the child about to be born would find instant nourishment, so he wanted the wet nurse to be taken into her presence on the main floor. The farewells were rapid: Giovannino slept on in his grandmother’s arms, and now he belonged to the Cuffaro family alone; Amalia had become a member of the Safamita household and would remain in its service for as long as the masters pleased.
Nora Aiutamicristo led Amalia up the service stairs, through rooms, corridors, and parlours. Overwhelmed by the giltwork of the furnishings, the glitter of crystal chandeliers, the painted ceilings, the deep-piled carpets, and the sumptuous tapestries, she struggled to keep up with Nora’s rapid pace.
“We are coming to the baroness’s bedroom.”
“Where does the young baron sleep?” asked Amalia curiously.
“Nobles each have their own personal rooms, those for the wife and those for the husband, then they do as they wish between themselves.” Nora turned round with a severe look. “Let me give you some sisterly advice: you don’t ask questions in the Safamita household. Bear that in mind, if you want to stay here.”
Amalia said no more, but she did not forget this. In silence, they made their way along a corridor as wide as a gallery, furnished with chairs and small, narrow tables. Nora stopped in front of a large door. She put her ear to it, then knocked gently and without waiting for a reply opened it, gesturing at Amalia to go in.
Amalia saw herself again, just turned eighteen, alone and insecure, walking into the room with little steps: it was immense, big as a sacristy, the furniture dark and imposing. The baroness’s table had been placed in front of the balcony, where it could catch the dusty reddish light of the dying day; she could not take her eyes off that huge table surrounded by women, who formed a screen around the baroness. Pina Pissuta, the midwife, was bent over the woman in labour, while the others bustled about. Then the midwife straightened up and turned to Amalia; she extended an arm in her direction with the palm open towards her. Amalia obeyed and stopped where she was, in the middle of the room. A cry. Then the sound of many voices. She could sense the reproving looks of two maids: she wished the ground would swallow her up, make her disappear, and carry her back home to her son; even the thought of her husband was not entirely disagreeable. Looking up, she saw that she was right underneath a chandelier whose bronze arms branched out and upwards, menacing as an upended spider. She murmured a charm against ill luck; she felt faint. Pina Pissuta had left the group of women and was coming towards her. In the same autocratic manner as before, she told Amalia to keep out of the way, pointing at the nook assigned to her: she would be summoned when the time was right.
Amalia was left there for hours, relegated to the corner, almost forgotten. She in turn forgot home and son and, numbed, didn’t notice that milk was oozing from her nipples, wetting her bodice, now stained by two large damp rings. The other midwife brought her back to reality. “Wash her carefully,” she said, hastily handing Amalia the newborn baby girl wrapped in a cloth, and then returned to the table where Pina Pissuta was dealing with the mother, who was having difficulties. Beside Amalia stood a little table adapted to serve as a changing top, with lots of enamel basins and towels, cloths, nappy pins, swaddling clothes, a little blouse, a frock, a bonnet, gloves, a jacket, bibs, shoes, and a small basket with the first necessities. In the half-light, Amalia slowly removed the clots stuck to the baby’s skin, using cotton wads soaked beforehand in warm water with a dash of rose water and then well squeezed. She washed the baby’s hands and carefully tried to remove the slimy mucus that still stuck to her hair.
Intent as she was on washing the baby—she fitted perfectly in the hollow of Amalia’s hand—pouring lukewarm water over her head with tender, solemn movements, as if she were at a baptismal font, Amalia didn’t notice the arrival of Baroness Carolina Scravaglio, or the gleaming light of the candlesticks that she had ordered brought closer. She was staring intensely at the creature to whom she would devote the next two years of her life or maybe more; waves of tenderness welled up within her like mild labour pains, and a powerful love for the baby girl grew in her. In the candlelight she discovered the rich red colour of the baby’s hair as she gradually dried it with a muslin cloth. She looked up and exclaimed, “This is a really special baroness. She has hair red as the sun. Happy the man who will marry her; look how plump and firm her flesh is. She’s really long, too, the biggest seven-month baby in the world!” She wrapped the baby in a shawl and clasped her to her bosom.
Amalia still remembered the words with which she had had the audacity to address the young baron when he presented himself, standing with his legs apart, before her: “Would your lordship like to hold his daughter?” She had forgotten that you don’t give newborn babies to men to hold, that only women handle them, yet the young baron took that red-haired daughter of his and held her close, looking at her like a lover.
Amalia dried a tear—the memory of Costanza in her father’s arms always moved her.
Excerpted from The Marchesa by Simonetta Agnello Hornby; translated from the Italian by Alastair McEwen. Copyright © 2004 by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore Milano. Translation copyright © 2007 by Alastair McEwen. Published in March 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.