Va Via!

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.

Spirit

The seasons were all cold, with one far colder than all the rest. Just as the ice finally turned to water, there was only a short period of time before it began to freeze over once more. It was a cruel cycle, but the people had acclimated. They relocated here following the last attack. The pain of losing loved ones through battle and separation was unspeakable. Each new settlement became a place to heal, regroup, and rebuild. Seasons brought cycles, and cycles brought children. The circle of life continued. Occasionally, something, or someone extraordinary happened.

It was during a particularly brutal winter, that a very special boy was born. A beautiful baby, whose dark brown eyes glittered from within. He was extremely alert, with a stare so intense, that anyone who met him felt the presence of something greater. He had been here before. They called him Achak, meaning “spirit”. As soon as he was able to walk, he began to run. Swift and stealth, it was said that he could reach destinations before any messages sent on smoke, or sound. He was only 8 years old when the elders called on him to become a messenger.

Achak had the innate ability to effortlessly navigate all sorts of terrain. He began by taking simple short treks to give messages to relatives and loved ones. Nobody this young had ever been entrusted with such a responsibility, but Achak was extraordinarily lithe, and wise beyond his years. Even at such a young age, he was given respect typically reserved for those many years his senior. Achak loved his people, and felt honored to be their protector. He would return to the camp exhausted, but after a good meal and rest, he always awoke invigorated and eager for whatever duty was requested of him next. It wasn’t long before he was sent on more serious journeys to warn of pending attacks.

By the time he was 10, he had done countless treks, traversed many hundreds of miles, and knew details of the lands that not many could claim to understand. Achak could meld with nature, blend into the forest, glide through the underbrush, and slip through streams and rivers undetected.

During the very coldest of months, he was sent out less frequently, as threats were fewer during the frigid chills. However, there arrived from the east, an urgent warning, and Achak was summoned to carry this message to the next encampment. This time, he had to prepare for the journey with extra layers of warmth. The women prepared food in small parcels, which was tied close to his waist so that it wouldn’t interfere with his movement and speed. The snow would provide his drinking water. As he fastened the fur hood snugly over his head, his mother came over to him. Although he was growing quickly, Achak was still a boy, slender and sinewy. She held him by his shoulders in front of her. Staring into his eyes, she said nothing, while saying everything. A tear made it’s way through her thick lashes, and rolled slowly down her soft cheek. She pulled him close, hugging him tight to her. He could feel her tremble as she tried not to cry.

It was early morning, but he needed to move fast in order to arrive before sundown. He knelt down, adjusting the snowshoe straps over his thick suede and fur boots. Standing and closing his eyes for a moment, he inhaled. As he pushed aside the heavy leather tarp, a blast of arctic air assaulted is face. He pulled up the thick buckskin collar, covering his mouth and nose. His mother watched in silence through the opening, as he headed out, a figure silhouetted against the blinding snowscape. She watched through a tiny gap, as he got smaller and smaller, finally becoming a speck in the distance. Sighing aloud, her breath leaked a stream of condensation into the frigid air outside. Stepping back, she disappeared behind the resealed tarp.

Gliding effortlessly across the top layer of the sparkling blanket of snow, Achak used economy of motion to conserve energy. Lean and limber, he raced in the direction of the encampment. There was no time to waste. As he moved across the vast plain, the sun rose higher and higher. The moment when it shone the brightest was the optimal time to take a short rest. Pausing near a riverbed, he heard running water beneath the ice. It had to be fast, because removing a glove would expose his hand to the arctic air. He quickly unfastened a small leather bag from his waist belt, carefully unfolding it. From inside, he took a couple of pieces of jerky, putting them in his mouth. Leaning down to reach a crack in the ice, he gathered a bit of water and snow with the small sac. Carefully taking small sips of the icy water, he chewed slowly, savoring the salty meat. This would give him the strength necessary to reach his destination. Putting the glove back on, Achak fastened the leather pouch around his waist once more. Just then, he paused, hearing a sound. It was distant. Or, was it near? Across the stream, thick brush obscured his vision. He heard another sound from the darkest place in that wooded area. Pinpointing the noise, he focused his vision, and saw the faint outline of a group of men. He breathed. Should he pretend not to see them, confront them, or simply run. Instinctively, he ran. The snowshoes moved his body, a whooshing sound with the impact of each step so loud, but his heartbeat even louder. Just as he had momentum going, a huge sound obliterated everything else, and the pain that came with it knocked Achak off of his feet. He felt the cold snow rise to meet his face, but the rest of his body felt warm, his back drenched with sweat. He couldn’t move, and the light turned to dark.

Hours passed. Achak was woken by something relentlessly pushing on the back of his neck. Groaning, he opened one eye. His face was numb, and he realized he was lying on his side in the snow. It was nighttime now, and the waning moon hid behind a cloud. Hearing a low growl right behind him, his heart began to race again. It was the deep slow growl of a wolf. Terrified at the sound, he realized that it was the wolf nudging his neck. At that moment, he could feel the heat of the animal’s hot breath against his collar. The pungent scent of the beast hung in the air around him.

Laying still, he listened to his own heart beating so fast, feeling as though it would spring out of his chest. He felt the sensation of the animal literally breathing down his neck. As his eyes adjusted to the dark night, Achak rolled his body over, ever so slowly to see the outline of a massive grey wolf standing next to him, staring intently with amber eyes. He gasped with alarm. The majestic creature had snow crystals encrusted along its dark grey and black fur, and its breath came out in white puffs against the darkness. At this moment, just when Achak thought his life was over, something unexpected happened. The giant grey wolf knelt down next to him, with a soft whimper. Instinctively, the boy slowly reached out a shaky gloved hand to touch the majestic creature’s soft grey mane of fur. Brushing away some of the small pieces of crusty snow, the wolf closed its eyes, and moved closer to Achak, leaning it’s body onto his. The weight was heavy, as the wolf was huge. He was bigger than Achek and easily weighed over 150 pounds, nearly double the boy’s weight.

The wolf nudged him some more, but as Achek tried to get up, a searing pain radiated across his back and down his leg. He cried out in agony, piercing the silence of the desolate night. The wolf nudged him again and leaned closer. Achak realized the wolf was offering him to climb onto its back. He reached up with both arms and grasped the dense fur collar, hoisting his weak body upwards. As the wolf rose up, it maneuvered so that the boy’s body was lifted, and it slowly stood up on all fours. Achek wrapped his arms tightly around the thick fur collar, and positioned his legs so that he wouldn’t fall off. His snowshoes still on, he let his legs hang on each side of the enormous wolf. Leaning his head down, he felt himself sinking into the dense, warm coat. He buried his face in the fur, relishing the musky odor and damp warmth rising from beneath. Just at the moment he was securely attached, the wolf began to run. He ran with a grace, unfamiliar to Achak. The motion was steady and powerful, yet safe and secure. Too exhausted and pained to wonder, Achak entrusted the wolf to take him wherever he was going. His eyes had adjusted to the night and as he lifted his head to look around, he saw the glowing plain stretching out in all directions. In the far distance he noticed a tiny glowing light. Too exhausted to keep his head up, Achak buried his head in the fur once again, and prayed that they would be safe. The motion of the wolf’s gait lulled him into a trance, and he forgot the pain, and even the very reason for his very being. Time passed, the heat of the body beneath him, radiated to thaw his aching limbs. The rhythmic breathing of the wolf kept time with the pace, and Achak felt one with all of nature. Time passed and he strained to lift his head once more. This time there were more lights, and he could make out the settlement outline under the starry sky. A blanket of fresh snow surrounded the encampment, and the pristine white was untouched by even a footprint. He smelled the scent of pine and burning wood. As they got closer, he heard faint voices carried on the wind. The pace of the wolf slowed, his panting louder now. Gradually they came to a gentle walk, and finally halted outside of the entryway. The wolf stood at attention and slowly sat, allowing Achak to slide down his back onto the soft snowy ground. He turned his majestic head to look at Achak with the glowing golden eyes. The boy reached his hand to touch the wolf’s nose and thick mane once more. The wolf closed its eyes. The boy slowly stood, although in great pain. As he walked toward the entry of the encampment, he called out to announce himself in a low voice. There was a rustle, and a tarp was pulled back. A tall man dressed in many layers of leathers and fur, stepped outside onto the snow. He stared at Achak and a smile crossed his lips. Achak turned around and the wolf was gone. The footprints in the pristine snow trailed away into the invisible distance. The man came forward and put his arm around the boy, ushering him inside. The warmth of the home enveloped the child. He was seated and given food and water. Women came in and tended to his wounds. They gave him fresh warm layers to wear, and made him lie down by the fire. He soon realized he was at his destination. He shared the warning message with the people. They thanked him for being so fast. There was plenty of time for them to relocate before the footmen arrived. They gave him a gift of a protective feather amulet, signifying flight and swiftness. The cluster of feathers, wrapped in suede strips, was strung with intricately detailed clay beads. He told them that the amulet really belonged to the wolf that had rescued him and carried him to the camp. They listened to his tale in disbelief, thinking he might just be delirious or exhausted. They told him to get rest before heading back at dawn. He insisted that his story was true, and he got up, heading to the doorway, asking them to come outside to see the tracks of the wolf as proof. When he pulled back the heavy leather drape, they looked out and saw nothing but a velvety coating of fresh snow. No wolf in sight. Achak felt deflated. Maybe he really did imagine the entire thing. Exhausted, he lay down on the soft bedding and fell into a dreamless sleep.

The scent of cooking woke him. He heard the elders talking in low voices. As he approached them, they stood up to thank him once more for his bravery. He was offered a meal, and given another layer of warmth to wear on the journey back. He adjusted the snowshoes, and wrapped the coating closely around his body. Stepping outside, a glaring sun met his eyes. Blinded by the snowscape, Achak set out to make his way back home. He searched again for footprints, but the night storm had erased any evidence of the previous evening. He began to move as fast as he could, but his injuries made it difficult to maintain his speed. He managed to get a good head start, but needed to pause and rest more frequently than usual. As he sat for a moment, taking a bite of the food, he heard the sound of footsteps. Turning around swiftly, he saw the beautiful grey wolf approaching across the plain. As it got closer, it slowed its steps, and sat next to Achak. They sat in silence together for a few moments. Then the wolf leaned down and Achak climbed onto the grey wolf’s back once more. Achak was home before dusk. The wolf instinctively left him off at the edge of the camp. Achak wrapped his arms around the heavy fur collar, inhaling the scent. With eyes squeezed tight in concentration, he spoke of his appreciation. Standing up once again, he walked towards the entrance to his home. Pausing, he turned around for a moment, only to see the trace of a powdery snow cloud drifting into the black sky. Tears formed in his eyes, as he called out signaling his arrival. His mother peeked out from behind the leather tarp, beaming as she saw her son. Opening the doorway, she reached out to brush snow and fur off of his coat as she welcomed him home.