I had forgotten about the DNA test for so many years, that by the time my nephew contacted me wanting to know the details for a paper he was working on, the password needed to be retrieved. After a few frustrating attempts, and denied access, magically the page opened, and a full inbox stared at me. Thirty-six unread messages! After swiftly filtering through the obvious spam, I kept the 7 remaining for review. They were all from one individual, who claimed to be a long lost relative living outside of Napoli. Massimo Gardino. Well, that had been my grandmothers maiden name, but really this seemed like a long shot. A wave of irritation swept over me, as I slogged through the long winded messages regarding locations and people I had never heard of. He wanted to connect, because all of his relatives had passed. Even those he knew who had emigrated to the U.S. were deceased. There was that one half-sister living in Spain, but he claimed she was a whore, and he didn’t want to have anything to do with her. He begged and pleaded that we make a familial connection, and after reading the 7th message, I caved.
Massimo and I became acquainted, via emails, and soon I found out that he was a widowed gentleman, and a very distant cousin of my grandmother. He lived in a mountain town in a dilapidated castle. An actual castle! He sent photos of himself, a cute petite man, with a shrunken apple face.
There was a family resemblance to my grandmother. There were photos of idyllic gardens and fields, where various cows and chickens grazed. Mountains sprang up behind pastures, and the rolling grassy hills were punctuated with small stone buildings, and narrow cobbled streets. Finally, there was a photo of the castle itself. The image was an old one, and I noted a few turrets peaking out from behind foliage. It was hard to see much else. So, when he extended an invitation to come visit the old country, I was more than intrigued.
The flight from NYC to Rome was easy enough, and I opted to take a train down to Naples, followed by a bus to the small mountain village. After the ardous but invigorating journey, I finally arrived at a small bus station around 6 am on a Sunday. The smell of fresh baked bread infiltrated my nostrils. A small stand was open, where I ordered a cappuccino, and carefully balanced it in one hand, while wheeling my trusty carry-on bag towards a roadside bench. Quietly, I waited for the car to arrive to take me to the castle, where Massimo would meet me. On the way up the mountainous roads, the driver and I shared our conversation in broken English and my awkward Italian. He seemed to be very excited about the castle I was headed to. I dozed, my head jolting side to side around the hairpin turns, waking, only to fall asleep again due to sheer exhaustion of the trip. The car slowed, and I felt the driver tapping my knee to wake me. “Ahhhh Eco’La!”, He exclaimed as we rounded a curve. I peered over his shoulder, and there it was on the horizon. Perched on a precipice, a large, stone castle , surrounded by olive and citrus trees. A few ancient cypress stood guard along the back cliff, which looked out towards even higher mountains. Shuttered windows swung open at the upper floors of the castle, sheer lace curtains breezing through the openings.
I gasped at the sheer majestic beauty as the driver pulled up in front of the main entry. Massive wooden double doors parted, and a small woman wearing what appeared to be a uniform waited for us. The driver came around to help me out with my bags, and we walked up the steps.
Entering into the foyer, the woman and my driver shared some hushed words in a dialect I couldn’t understand. They were friendly, and it was apparent that they knew one another quite well. I was far too mesmerized to pay much attention to them. Looking around at the grand entry, I gasped with awe at the ancient tapestries flanking the walls. The tiles on the floor were well worn, yet spectacular in design and detail. A massive Egyptian urn with remnants of gold inlay, stood proudly in the center of the vaulted entry way. Wandering in a daze, I passed the urn, and out another set of doors into an overgrown courtyard. An alabaster fountain featuring a goddess on a clamshell was the centerpiece. Although she was covered with moss and mold, I heard and noticed a stream of water trickling down over the smooth stone body and into a small pool below. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I sat down on a small stone carved bench to take it all in. A few birds flew to bathe in the water. Just then, a small black cat slithered past my leg, purring and pausing to lean against my bag. The driver and the woman came into the courtyard laughing and flirting with one another. He yelled out, “Massimo! Ma Dove Sei?” From afar I heard an old man’s voice straining to yell,”vengo adesso.” Then, from a distance, down a long passage way, echoed the footsteps of an old man shuffling in our direction.
“Tesora! Finalamente incontriamo! ” The man smiled revealing a couple of remaining teeth. His blue eyes sparkled in the morning light. The heavily lined face revealed a life well lived, and his thick tanned skin was testament to his farming years.
He embraced me and we laughed. The driver and maid were now sitting adjacent snuggling on a small bench under a tree. She let out a cascade of giggles, sounding like a schoolgirl, even though she appeared to be around 80.
Massimo rambled on and on about how delighted he was to finally meet a long lost relative. Looking at my tired face, he smiled and insisted on showing me to my room for a rest. The two lovebirds remaind in the courtyard exchanging glances and bursts of laughter which echoed off of the ancient limestone and marble. Massimo had a firm grip for an elderly man as he guided me through the corridors and continued to recite all of the various relations, as well as famous and infamous individuals who had passed through these halls.
He told me to close my eyes as he scrambled through some heavy metal keys. I heard a heavy sounding door being unlocked, and creaking open. He put his hand over my closed eyes, and I could smell the scent of ancient garlic and lemons. “Apri!” He exclaimed as he released his hand. Opening my eyes, I saw a fantastic, deep red velvet covered canopy bed fit for a queen. Mahogany furnishings adorned the chamber. An intricate small desk sat in front of a picture window looking out to the Cyprus row in front of the mountain. I sighed with amazement.
“Viene. Viene.” he said. At the edge of the bed, Massimo sat down, and patted in a motion for me to sit next to him. Putting his frail yet strong arm around my waist, he firmly looked at me. He told me he needed to talk about something very important.
He proceeded to inform me that he had cancer, and not long to live. He was going to go live at a home where he could get proper care. With no relatives, he didn’t want to leave the house empty. This was the reason he had been so eager to meet me. He went on to tell me that he was giving the castle to me because if he didn’t, that maid, the one downstairs, flirting like a whore with the driver, yes that one, well, she had long ago been a lover. When the rumors got to be too much, he tried to get rid of her, but she wouldn’t leave, so he allowed her to stay on as a maid. At this point, she had stayed so long, that she would be the one to inherit the property upon his passing. He just could not accept that, especilly since she had been cheating on him for years with every man in town. She had made a fool of him, and there was no way he would leave his family heirloom to such a “strega”!
I was overcome with emotions. Excitement at this sudden incredible opportunity, stress at the thoughts of how would I manage a property from afar, and the question of this maid.Massimo sensed my apprehension and took my hand gently in his crinkled soft palm. “Non ti preocupare…..daverro.” I sighed. I told him, of course I would accept and anything to help him out at this point in his life. He went on to tell me the maid, Rosa, was old as well. He said I probably wouldn’t need to put up with her for too much longer. But, he did tell me she would not be easy. She had a terrible reputation and she had a vicsious streak.
The day passed quickly. Massimo showed me around the property and the gardens, where we picked fresh vegetables. For dinner we sat outside watching the sunset, enjoying fresh greens, rustic bread, cheese, olives, and local wine.
Finally, back in my quarters, I was able to take a relaxing bath. I luxuriated in the spectacular, deep claw footed tub, inhaling the soft lemon verbena scented soap. In a comfortable tee shirt and shorts, I got ready for a much needed rest. Snuggling into the plush down- filled bed, I inhaled the fragrance of night jasmine as it drifted through the air. I brushed off any worries about Rosa, and only thought of the ways I could fix this place up, and how perhaps I would just stay here and never return to NYC at all. I could easily pursuade my boyfriend to come join me, and we would be able to do some sort of rental to make ends meet. I fell asleep feeling excited and hopeful for the recent turn of events, and the possibilities ahead.
I’m not sure what time it was, but the bump jolted me awake. It felt like a minor earthquake. Alarmed, I sat up in the massive canopied bed. Boooooom!!!! The bed swiftly elevated and dropped with a loud thump. I cried out with fear! Just as I was able to grab my cell phone from under the sheets to shed some light into the darkened room, it happened yet again! My heart raced and sweat beaded up on my upper lip. I cried out, “Massimo! Rosa!” The bed slowly elevated as I slid deep into the center of it. I felt something crawling just beneath the mattress….like a giant snake slithering and roiling.
I screamed and screamed, but nobody came. I cried tears of terror, but nobody came. I tried to make a call, but nobody came.
Fear paralyzed me and I held a pillow tight to my body as the bed neared the high ceiling. At that level, it began to vibrate, and I froze in horror. Just then, the door creaked open, and I saw a weak stream of light slip through. The silhouette of Rosa stood there in a cloaked robe, and she cackled loudly! “Sta Zitto!”, She cried. I screamed again. ”STA ZItt!” She yelled. I hugged the pillow, burring my head inside of it, as the bed hovered and shook pressing the velvet canopy into the ornate celing. “VA VIA!”, Rosa screamed, her voice trailing off with a bloodcurdling gurgle.
Just then, the bed lowered a bit, hovered momentarily, and suddenly with a slam, it landed on the Persian carpeted floor. Pillows scattered and I collapsed into myself, tears rolling down my cheeks. Rosa walked over and sat on the bed. Staring at me, her eyes glowed red and she smiled a toothless grin. With a low whisper she said to me, ”Adesso…..va via Tesora….Va via.” With that, as shaky as I was, I got up on autopilot, grabbed my belongings, and raced out of the room towards the exit of the castle. Oddly the driver was outside waiting, as though he had expected me. He laughed. “Andiamo.”
I got into the backseat in shock ,and he ferried me to the airport where I booked a one way flight, without ever looking back.