The past had waited patiently for me, and now I wanted to learn the truth.
The rusted hinges creaked in the quiet air as the old man swung open the churchyard gate. He turned to me, his gnarled fingers still curled around the thickly painted metal. His watery eyes widened with a question.
"Sei sicuro?" His words formed a cloud in front of his lips and then disappeared into the frigid air.
"Si, yes...I'm sure," I said. I watched him make the sign of the cross and step into the walled yard.
Snow crunched beneath our feet as I followed him past well-maintained graves surrounded by footprints in the wet snow. He turned toward a far corner and looked back at me, his brooding eyes partially hidden by paper-thin lids. I nodded at him; yes, I want to move forward.
Tangled branches of an old tree reached over headstones poking from the undisturbed snow in a dark corner of the cemetery. I looked back along the path behind me and saw only our freshly trodden footprints in the snow. The old man knelt and brushed crusted snow and dried leaves from a stone marker on the ground. He looked up at me and said, "Qui...here."
Time had nearly erased the name etched into the weathered stone; Angela Cuzelli.
Growing up, I'd heard my grandmother mentioned only in whispers, and only in Italian. Questions asked about her received only vague answers, if they were answered at all. The mystery of her life, and her death, was a closely-guarded family secret.
My father lived alone, and after his death it fell to me to sort through his personal papers. Inside a locked toolbox under his bed I found the address of his sister, who still lived in Italy. I also found a picture. On the back in faded ink, I saw her name.
It was my grandmother.
Between the curled corners of the scallop-edged photograph, a woman's soft smile dimpled her round cheeks, her dark hair was parted in the middle and pulled back into a tight bun behind her head. But it was her dark eyes, and the way they stared out at me, that made me feel a warm attachment to her.
That was a year ago, and now I sat with my aunt in her home in a small village in the mountains of Northern Italy.
I felt that the past had waited patiently for me; I came here to learn the truth.
I placed the black and white photograph on the table between us and watched Aunt Emma pick it up and study it. "Where did you get this?" Her eyes glistened with tears.
"It was with my father's personal papers," I replied. "He never said anything about her...no one did. I always wondered why."
My aunt's gaze remained focused on the photograph. "It was horrible what they did to her; a terrible injustice. There were many disagreements about what actually happened." Her fingers curled around the gold cross hanging from a chain circling her slender neck. "Most people believe the fire was an accident." She looked at me and frowned. "But some people think she set it on purpose."
"Fire? What fire...what happened?"
She remained silent as if lost in her own memories.
"Aunt Emma," I said softly, "I have come a long way to learn the truth.
She turned and looked through the window. Outside, the craggy mountains of Northern Italy loomed dark against the greying sky. She turned back to me, her eyes searching mine.
"Gino, my oldest brother, told me what happened that day." She made the sign of the cross. "He is gone now; all of my brothers are. I'm the last of my mother's children and I don't want the story to die with me, but please, don't judge her harshly."
"I won't judge her at all."
I sat silently as Aunt Emma poured two glasses of homemade wine and passed one to me. The delicate, sweet, flavor warmed my mouth as I took a sip. She held the photograph and ran her finger gently over the face beneath the spider web of cracks. With her eyes still focused on the photograph she said in a faraway voice. "The winter of 1937 was especially harsh. People starved; people died of easily-cured disease; families were separated by poverty and ignorance." She looked at me and sighed.
"It was a time of great suffering..."
"America was not yet involved in the war in Europe, but because Italy had invaded Ethiopia and signed on with the Axis Powers, America imposed sanctions. Your grandfather was working in New York and was now prohibited from sending money home to support his family. With no money coming from America, your grandmother was left to fend for herself, a difficult thing for a woman with five children. Many people suffered, and before long a crushing poverty settled over the valley."
Tears fell from her denim-blue eyes, her voice wavered as she continued.
"The last day my mother would ever spend with her children dawned cold and grey. My brothers and I slept while my mother prepared for church. Hoping to warm the house she opened the stove door and dropped in a log. Sparks flew like fireflies and she quickly shut the stove door. She wrapped a scarf around her shoulders and quietly walked out into the cold.
"Your grandmother had always found comfort inside the church in Bresimo, and just like her, all of her children had been baptized there."
She stared into the faded photograph.
"The fragrance of melted wax drifted in the warm air as Santa Maria del Assunta filled with people. Father Pietro walked to the altar to begin the service just as the heavy wooden doors burst open, and a rush of cold air swept into the church. A man stood in the bright sunlight shouting, "'Fume! Fire!'"
"The men in church stood and followed the man as he ran into the village; the women followed, your grandmother among them. Father Pietro's black robes swirled over the white marble floor as he hurried from the empty church."
"Your grandmother arrived at her home to find it in flames; the home where I slept with my four brothers. She tried to rush to her children, but her neighbors held her back. Horrified, she watched a long line of men pass buckets of water to douse the flames. Luckily, the fire was quickly extinguished.
"With our faces pinched in fear, the five of us ran from the smoking house and surrounded our mother. She kissed each of us, and her hugs pushed away our fear. She looked into the smoky sky and thanked God for our safety.
"People stood in clusters, their eyes moving from my mother to the smoldering house, then back to my mother; whispers of suspicion filled the air. But soon their whispers turned to shouts of accusations. "'You would rather see your children dead than to see them suffer,'" an elderly woman called out.
"Your grandmother pulled us tightly to her."
"Why would the neighbors accuse her?" I asked.
"What is the saying? 'Strange times produce strange actions?' Some of them may have actually believed it." She frowned and continued. "Your grandmother protested, calling out that the fire had been an accident; that she loved her children. Her neighbors glared at her and the accusations grew even louder and filled her with fear. Overwhelmed with stress, she fainted and fell to the cold ground." She sighed.
"The Carabinieri arrived and listened to the neighbors accusations. With their idea of an investigation over, they decided to arrest her, and they asked Father Pietro to help take your grandmother into custody."
"How could they do that?" I asked.
"It was a very different time than now. The laws of Pellagra, poverty, allowed them to have her committed to an asylum."
"An asylum! Was that why the family kept this a secret? The word asylum? I asked.
She stared at me. "As I said, it was a different time." She continued.
"Father Pietro's dark form hovered over my mother as she awoke. She looked around and saw the neighbors staring and whispering. She looked up at the Priest. "'Where are my children, Father?'"
"'It's alright, Angela.'" His lips sagged into a frown. 'The children have been taken to safety,' he said softly."
"'They are safe with me, Father, where are they?'"
"'They are with family, Angela. Come with me to my house.'"
"'But Father, I have done nothing wrong.' Turning, she shouted to her neighbors. "'I have done nothing wrong, please help me!' Her neighbors turned from her."
Tears dripped from my aunt's chin.
"As he led her away, her cries for help echoed through the valley below, where there was no one to hear them."
Aunt Emma sat silently, her wet eyes staring at the picture on the table between us. She looked up at me and sighed. "Now I have something to confess."
"What do you mean?"
She turned and looked through the dark window as she spoke, her voice just above a whisper. "Donali Pass is the highest point in the valley. As a child I thought I would see God if I climbed to the top." She turned to me.
"I was sixteen-years-old before I was allowed to visit my mother in that horrible, wretched asylum, where she had been committed fifteen years before. I was shocked by what I saw. My mother had suffered beyond belief, and I found it difficult to look at her. She could not speak. Thin, pale skin draped her bones. Her sparse, white hair was brittle and dirty." My aunt's voice cracked and she grasped her cross again. "But it was her eyes that shocked me most.
"She had the empty stare of the dead."
Aunt Emma stopped talking, wiped her tears and continued.
"The day after my visit, I made my way to the top of Donali Mountain. As a teenager, it was a long, but not difficult walk. I stood under the bare limbs of an old tree and looked out across the valley. Thoughts of my mother as a young girl playing in the lush fields below filled me." Aunt Emma's chin quivered as she said, "And then I saw her as I had the day before.
"I knelt and bowed my head and asked God to forgive me for the request I was about to make. I looked up into the sky and began my prayer." She looked at me as tears fell from her puffy, red eyes. "I prayed that God would look upon my mother with love.
"And then I prayed to God for my mother's death."
She made the sign of the cross as her body shook with sobs.
The fragrance of lilac rose from her hair as I hugged my aunt. We sat quietly for a few minutes before she sat up and wiped her eyes. I asked her. "What happened to your mother? How long was she in the hospital?"
My aunt hesitated and picked up the picture. Gazing at her mother, she said, "Until her death; she died two days after I prayed. She is buried in the churchyard in Bresimo, on the slope below the house that burned."
I shuddered with the realization of what my aunt had just told me. My grandmother's house had burned with her children inside. They were unharmed, but without proof, she was sent to an asylum because her neighbors accused her of setting the fire. She remained there until her death. Until her daughter's prayer.
And now I stood in the wintry air staring at my grandmother's grave. I looked up the hill to the charred remains of the house that had burned so long ago, its black timbers like old, crooked fingers pointing to the heavens.
After traveling six-thousand-miles, I had finally learned the truth. I sighed and fought back tears.
My journey had ended and now my heart ached.
3rd Place Winner, Short Shots Contest, October 2012.
Word Count: 1990