Jaycee writes (and thank you as always, Jaycee):
The story below is from an age of a kind of fading feudalism, an age when position and religion ruled the small villages dotted amongst the Dolomites of Northern Italy. It was told by my father to my mother and then to me. It is from around the turn of the 20th century, when the church creatures wielded enormous power in those communities. It is a tale that could be told from any number of small villages in those days – the tyranny of power, no matter how small, over those who could be exploited, who can be silenced – perhaps not THAT different from now! The actions by the criminals can be the same, but it is how the individual overcomes that bullying that is different. Some run, some succumb, some become violent . . .
The heroine of our little moment, from the lowest rung in the social ladder of such a community, chose instead – chose deliberately – to rely on her self-knowledge and confidence in her own honesty and character for no recognition, no reward and, but for this story, completely forgotten.
To me therein lies true courage.
I have dramatised it because in itself, if told as a passing anecdote, it could be related in a paragraph or two, but that would be to omit the background and the build-up toward the crux of the story-line. So c’mon – ride with us on the tail of the tale, so to speak . . .
Amelia di Cielo was a widow who lived many years ago in her sister’s house in the mountain village of Vigo Lomaso set snug at the foot of the Dolomites in the north of Italy. Being a widow in a small village had its drawbacks in those days, as she had no-one to support her. Being also without children, she would have no-one but her sister to look after her in her old age. After cautious consideration of her status in the village pecking order, Amelia di Cielo decided to take in laundry to earn a small income. She also would walk up into the mountains and gather bundles of thick-twigs which she would tie up with stout twine and cart back to sell for kindling. The money from these small enterprises would, she hoped, be enough to put away for her old age.
Every day she could be seen hanging her customers’ washing, like brightly coloured banners flapping in the breeze, on a long line between two trees at the back of her sister’s house. She would hang her customers’ washing between two shawls, one orange and one black, given to her by her mother years before; this was so there would be no mix-ups with her sister’s clothes. Amelia took pride in her humble little business, and as with many people of such penury, she put that extra effort in applying her labour, her elbow-grease – her clothes were so clean they seemed to glow with brightness! The other village women walking past always remarked with a shaking of their heads and a waving of their arm. “Amelia!” they’d shout in greeting, “Amelia di Cielo, tell us how you get your washing so bright!” Amelia would laugh and shout back, “Wouldn’t you like to know. But then I’d be out of business!” And the women would stump away shaking their heads and grinning, and Amelia would laugh in sympathy.
In the same village there lived an old widower. His wife had died only that year and he was having some difficulty keeping the house in order. Amelia did the laundry for the woman next door who told her about Signor Cacchio’s misfortune.
Being a kindly person, Amelia, after some thought decided, as there was only he in the house, there wouldn’t be much washing for only one old man. So she went to Signor Cacchio and offered to take in some of his clothes for free. She could easily fit in a few of his essentials with the rest of the wash: “A spoonful of water doesn’t make a difference to a river,” she said to herself.
But there: it’s a curious thing that the best of intentions can sometimes lead to the most insidious accusations. The parish priest’s assistant was a mean man. He could even be called a criminal, indeed, a criminal.
Lay brother Fichi had the eyes of a stalking animal; always looking, looking, looking. He saw himself as a self-appointed guardian of the diocese and printed a parish news-sheet. He wouldn’t neglect to print – if it suited his intent in a cunning, off the cuff way – any tasty bit of gossip he set his stalking eyes on and his large, large ears heard.
On one of his stealthy strolls about the village, he spied Amelia di Cielo coming out of the small flat of widower Cacchio with a bundle of clothes. To any other person this would have been logically assessed as Amelia picking up the laundry of another customer, and promptly forgotten; that is, to any other person, not Lay brother Fichi!
He slyly observed Amelia for the best part of that day washing those clothes along with the rest of her customers in an old copper out the back of her sister’s house. As she was pegging out widower Cacchio’s trousers, Lay brother Fichi smiled a wicked smile to himself. Taking himself out of hiding, he sauntered up to Amelia di Cielo with his hands in his pockets.
“Good afternoon to you, Widow Amelia,” he smirked. “A goodly swag of washing today – but rather a poor customer.”
He lifted the damp trouser leg of Signor Cacchio’s and let it flop down heavily on the line. “What would you charge a widower that everyone knows has less gold than a silver shilling?”
“I do not charge him at all,” answered Amelia di Cielo.
“But you go to his house?” queried Fichi slyly.
“And I take out his washing,” said Amelia quietly. For she was well aware of Lay brother Fichi’s wily tongue.
“You may say that, Amelia, but do the parishioners of this village know that? Or will they suspect an illicit acquaintance, an opportune acquaintance with Signor Cacchio, who as everyone knows should still be in mourning for his dearly departed wife? Could this be an affair without the blessing of our council?”
Amelia kept washing the clothes, but slower now as she grasped the cunning insinuation of his conversation. She looked him up and down out of the corner of her eye.
“They do not ‘suspect’ yet, Lay-brother Fichi, but I’m sure you could concoct a tale for them.”
“A tale, Signora? I see with my eyes, I tell. Let others believe what they will. I am but a messenger of the diocese.”
“Of the devil!” muttered Amelia. “But why do you watch me, Lay-brother Fichi? I am innocently doing my daily chores!” Amelia struck her small clenched fist angrily on her chest. Lay-brother Fichi just smiled his cunning smile and spoke condescendingly, almost affectionately, to the widow.
“Caro Ame1ia,” he smi1ed. “At your age! Don’t you know it’s almost always the innocent who are accused! One rarely gets to see the guilty ones commit their crimes.” And here he chuckled softly and gazed over his shoulder.
“Besides, he added seriously, “times are tight just now.”
“Well, what is it you want, Signor Fichi? To tell me these suspicions of yours?”
Lay-brother Fichi kept one hand in his pocket and with the other lifted the trouser leg of Signor Cacchio’s and let it fall, again and again, slowly, while he appeared to deliberate on Amelia’s question.
Though it may seem strange to you, an educated cosmopolitan, that any accusation of moral impropriety could have repercussions against such a person as Amelia di Cielo, you have to understand village thinking and social structure of that era. The church and its creatures were powerful figures in the communities; they wielded enormous influence on the peasants there. A village population has the collective personality of a single individual: a bit independent, whilst at the same time part of the crowd; a little suspicious, totally trusting; a free thinker a bored conservative . . . All this and more, but at the same time it loves a lurid tale, especially an immoral one.
Lay-brother Fichi was one of the best at dressing up a lurid tale and Amelia was just the sort of innocent victim that such people love to pitch on. Still more, other people love to criticise – and to be ostracised from the community in those times, when in such an impoverished state, was almost equivalent to a sentence of death.
“I want you to be able to keep your little business going, Amelia di Cielo.” He looked slyly at Amelia who remained silent and continued to plunge the clothes into the steaming water of the copper.
“I want people to be able to confidently trust their washer-woman not to stain their personal linen with any sin of impropriety. But of course, I must report to the parish any, er, indiscretion that I witness . . . unless?”
“Unless what, Lay-brother Fichi?” Amelia whispered. Signor Fichi looked slyly over his shoulder, but this was not new ground to him.
“A small amount of liras could keep my lips sealed.”
Amelia froze in her actions for just a second and a puzzled expression came over her face.
“How much?” she asked, automatically curious.
“Oh, I know what you charge and how much you take in. Let us say ten per cent per month.” He smiled as though he had concluded a cunning business deal.
Amelia thought fast, for although Signor Fichi had the criminal’s cunning, Amelia too, was cunning and she had time on her side. It seemed so simple, yet so complicated. All the pros and cons of the situation went into and out of her head. It wasn’t a question of guilt; she was old enough to know how people thought. It was enough in bored people’s minds to be even accused of an impropriety. It was enough for people to savour the luxury of seeing someone else getting it in the neck for them to ostracize her and then she would lose her customer, one by one. Oh yes, a few would stay, but only out of being seen to snub their noses at village convention. But their custom would be like cold charity. No, there was no defence with whining explanations to all too eager ears: “No smoke without fire!” she could hear them say. No, she would have to think of something else to shake this leech off her back.
“All right, Signor Fichi, give me a day . . . no, two! Two days to reconcile myself and I will see you again, but not here. I don’t want people to think the evil that you presume. I will meet you at the trattoria on Thursday and we will conduct any business we have to do there.”
“Very well, widow Amelia, ciao till Thursday.” He lifted the trouser leg of Signor Cacchio’s again with insinuating intent and smiling his cat smile, let it flop down heavily. “Till Thursday morning, and no later.” He turned and slunk away.
“Oh Dio, oh Dio!” Amelia sat down on a small green stool next to the tub that held the wrung clothes, What to do, what to do? She needed time and quiet to think. She finished her washing and hurried off to the church. She enjoyed the dark silence of that building and there she could pray and think.
“Maybe God will find me a way,” she mused.
(Image Credit: Biblioteca Comunale di Trento)