The House of Galceti
Today I am to marry la Paola. It is over five years now since my Maria died giving birth to Gina, our youngest. A woman is necessary in a house. The children are growing wild like rabbits let loose in a field. The boys are a gang of young ruffians. The girls are coquettes, who will soon get into trouble without a mother.
My second wedding will take place at ten o’clock. Paola has asked the priest from the village to act as God’s agent and perform the rites of marriage. It will be a fiercely hot day.
Paola has opened all the shutters in my room. She is a good woman. I see the gated Villa Fiorini in the distance, and the rolling green hills of Galceti where my mother was born.
The celebrations went on till late last night. They came from far and wide to wish Enrico Luchi well on the night before his wedding. The pungent odours of bread yeast and young wine rise from the courtyard as the men scrub and hose, singing a song that sounds left over from their drunken dreams.
I am Enrico Luchi, sole surviving son of Mauro and Idonetta Luchi. I have survived two world wars, the birth of six children – all alive and healthy, Grazie a Dio – and the death of my first wife. And now I am to remarry.
La Paola and the girls are busy downstairs, laying the tables in the restaurant for the wedding guests, with the white tablecloths and the crockery and cutlery that are used for all God’s occasions. The intense heat of the midday sun is still four hours away. Here inside it is as cool and dark as a cave. My father built this house in Galceti with his farm hands to withstand storm and grief, and to provide hospitality and shelter to the travellers who passed by on the road that runs directly in front of its doors. When I was a small boy it was nothing more than a bicycle track, but I watched it widen under my father’s instructions, until as a young man I saw the German soldiers pass this way with their tanks. Now it is a main road taking heavy traffic from Prato to Pisa, the gateway to the Adriatic sea. It is certain that one day – perhaps before La Torre di Pisa can lean no further – it will be a highway to the provinces of the North. When that day comes they will bring in the bulldozers, and the house of Galceti will be brought to its knees.
Maria was the girl of my dreams. Her father has outlived her. He lives at the Villa Fiorini as a paying guest. He keeps his shutters closed so he does not have to see the house of the Luchi’s. He still blames me for her death. I stole her from him and married her.
It was not a courtship like other noble girls had. I kidnapped her and then married her. She agreed to it all, once I had explained. The old monk married us. He was terrified of her father, Il Baronetto, but he was more terrified of me, the eldest and wildest of the Luchi sons.
I rode past Villa Fiorini on my bicycle each day, on my way to the Luchi lands and back. Sometimes I would see her walking in the garden. I spent every free moment writing love poems dedicated to her, and threw them over the wall for her to find. At first she walked with her large dogs, who barked if I stopped in front of the gates. But soon she locked them away.
On Saturdays there was dancing in the town square. But Maria was not allowed to attend. I had no interest in any other woman. It was Maria or no-one. My mother grew concerned when I became feverish and lost my appetite. Finally, when I refused to eat a delicacy of fried pumpkin flowers, she sent me to a doctor. I agreed to go to put her mind at rest, although I knew he would find nothing. To be sick with love is not a disease a doctor can diagnose, any more than a man can know what is on the moon.
Matters became worse. The Luchi family was not much affected by the war except that we had to play host to the German soldiers. We were fortunate to have farmlands and the restaurant. We were not any trouble to anybody so the Germans came to eat good food and wine, and to sing and dance with the unmarried girls, and then they left.
But at the Villa Fiorini they were less fortunate. The Germans commandeered the villa to use as their headquarters. It was whispered in the piazza that Il Baronetto had sold his soul to the devil. I suffered silently, a thousand plagues burning me up, imagining my Maria surrounded by German officers.
One afternoon a week Maria was allowed out of the gates of her family home. She took sewing lessons with an old cripple woman in the village. It was on one such day that I acted. While my brother Gespardo distracted the elderly housekeeper who accompanied her, I grabbed hold of Maria, leapt on my bike and pedalled off with her in my arms, straight to the old monk. How she laughed at my foolish courage that day!
When her father came to bang at the big wooden front doors of Galceti, shouting blasphemies and raining curses down on my head, it was already too late. Maria and I lay together in my narrow bed, untouchable in our happiness. He never spoke to her from that day on. She suffered this separation from her family for me.
La Paola is a girl I have known all my life. The daughter of my father’s good friend. Maria has agreed to my plan. I have explained everything to her, that she is my only love and the bride of my dreams, but the children need a woman around, and a stepmother is better than no mother.
Paola understands. We will have separate quarters. We will live as man and wife. She is barren so there will be no children. This is a relief to me. I will honour and respect her, as a man must a woman whom he freely chooses to marry. I will overlook her peasant ways and she will take care of my family, and open and close my shutters every day. Her aunt who approached me spoke highly of the unmarried girl, saying that she could cook and clean and mend socks neatly, adding that her poor dead mother was a good honest woman who had taught her daughter well.
I brought Maria back to the house of her family, after Gina was born. It was the least I could do. The old monk (the very same who married us) commended her spirit to God. We buried her body in the stone-walled cemetery behind the gates of Villa Fiorini, all built in the eighteenth century by Il Grande, the first Baron Fiorini. I have never been back, although no locks stop me now.
After the war Il Baronetto, now penniless and alone in the dilapidated mansion, sold his family inheritance. Villa Fiorini and all its grounds went for a pittance to the new communist municipality. The communists wasted no time in turning it into a sanatorium for the people who suffered from nervous ailments; there were enough of those needing refuge after the war. In recent years, as part of Il Rinascimento, the state has provided funds and expertise to restore the old villas. So Villa Fiorini will have a new lease on life. They tell me the sanatorium is overrun with trained restorers from the cities, and that one day it will be open to the public. Occasionally I get news of Il Baronetto, from those who still visit family at the Villa Fiorini. Il Baronetto eats less than a sparrow, and insists that his shutters be kept closed at all times. He is withering away.
La Paola comes in with my necktie. I let her put it on under the white collar. Her cool fingers work with stiff exactitude. The sky outside is a flaming blue. I close my eyes for a moment.
I can feel the warm sunshine on my head, Maria leaning back in my arms, her black hair wrapping itself around my neck, the sound of bicycle wheels, turning and turning. Peals of laughter rise and fall with each breath she takes. I am nineteen years old and time has stopped. We are immortal.