Maryanne Hillis Del Gigante
Date of Birth: 6/16/52
Location: Canberra, Australia
Published in: Cottonwood, Sulphur River Review, Redoubt, Four W, ‘The Canberra Times,' SITUATION, Gestalten, poetry down under, "Red Cat Country", "There is No Mystery"
Books: I Never Lie To You
CASA LA MATTA
Zia Linda's hands, brown as grapevines, held a heel of bread as though it were a thing unknown. Her aprons went round twice. Her flanks emptied. It's still a war, she said when they tried to tell her that Antonio had nothing to do with the war, that they don't send military trainees to war. It's my son, she said. "Mio figlio." Zia Linda moved food around her plate. She pushed fava beans here and there the way thoughts slip round in a circle. She scraped congealed things gone cold into the feed-bucket. She washed the dishes in the plastic basin, as if expecting to see Antonio's black hair floating on the surface among the scrapings and the spent lettuce leaves.
She stopped digging the vegetable garden, which reminded her of a graveyard, and padded about in slippers. Her work boots dried out by the door. She went as far as the stoop to toss scraps to the hens, but her heart wasn't in it. The hens stopped laying. There were no eggs for the Christmas pizza dolce. There were no more holidays.
Zia Linda was wakeful at night. She got used to the silver light of the full moon, the raven-light of the new moon. Her eyes took on a patina of carbon. The shadows of her eyes invaded her face, and settled in the valleys below her cheekbones. She prowled by the pattern of moonswell, beyond the confines of sleep.
In the village by the sea, her sister, Zia Nilda, wrung her hands and went on pilgrimages to women who had certain powers because her Antonio, known as Antonio of Sperlonga to differentiate him from his cousin, Antonio of Monticelli, had taken to locking himself in his room and refusing to speak. Zia Nilda took her post by the door and begged. She threaded words through the keyhole -- prayers, threats, promises. She worked the lock with hairpins. So that when the door remained stone mute, she began to travel round the villages looking for the wolfish women with the power. The neighbors called the priest, who came and went away defiant.
Zia Nilda became fine and white as the bleached sheets beaten by the washerwomen on the rocks down at the quay. She cooked eels for Christmas Eve, she braised chickens, fried artichokes, boiled turnip greens to feed her husband. She lived on one strong black coffee with two sugars a day, and waited. At night, she sat by the Capodimonte lamp and fingered the relics and the scraps of paper in little leather bags she kept tucked down the front of her dress. She padded herself with magic.
And it was through her that it started to rain. She called up all the tears of the world to bathe her gritty eyes and dissolve the walls that shut in her son. Water gurgled in gutters and spattered the whitewash. The neighbors wondered behind her back when it rained for a month. She bore the burden of broken axles and cars bogged in mud, the havoc it played with the fishing-cycle, the ruined feast-days, the rusted wheat. She endured her neighbors' unkind thoughts and dark looks hurled on her doorstep like spit.
Her son unlocked the door one day and announced that he was going to take a train up to cousin Bartolomeo in Bonn, where he would work as a waiter.
Zia Nilda accompanied him to the station the day he left, having taken up his silence where he'd left it like a coat thrown on the floor, slipping her thin arms into the sleeves and turning the collar up around her ears so she couldn't hear the rush of the last big rain that washed out the tracks after the train had passed. It rained out of season this one last time, and when it stopped, the village gossips took it to mean that she'd lost her son for good. And they smiled with spite behind the Persian blinds, later, when she took to catching the bus to Monticelli once a week.
By the end of the same winter, the mother of Zia Linda and Zia Nilda, Nonna Assunta, began to fade with the hard frosts. She kept herself company talking to the rabbit-cages in the cowshed. Waiting. Then she began waiting by herself in bed. The farmhouse returned slowly to the wild. The stones fell from the walls, the tiles from the roof. Nonna Assunta kept her own wildness to herself, a wrinkle in the big white bed. They had trouble combing her hair when they laid her out.
Weeks after she died, and after the villagers began calling the place Casa La Matta - House of the Mad, an iron lock appeared on the door now belonging to Zia Linda and Zia Nilda. Before the lock, furniture had started to disappear. There was a shadow-rectangle of faded paint on the wall where the carved chest had stood. The land around the house was good, as everybody knew. But unlike bedsteads and night-tables with chamber-pots and washstands and rush chairs, coffee-grinders, and the iron pots from the hearth, unlike the coffers for grain in the attic, and the bent forks in the drawers of the dresser, the land belonging to the house was nailed down.
So when the villagers had quickly laid the lingering spirit of Nonna Assunta to rest and had seen to most of her belongings, the daughters retaliated with a lock against the outside world and unspoken plans against each other. They agreed the house was half each, and that was all.
Zia Nilda set a kitchen chair in the hallway of her house and pondered the small and vacant room of her son. She decided that Antonio of Sperlonga would come home to be married if she gave him somewhere decent to live.
Zia Linda begged the postman in vain when there were no more letters from the barracks, and thought of setting out to search for him, but it was too far north. Besides, she knew the terrible truth she admitted to no one -- Antonio of Monticelli was dead.
So they rolled up their sleeves and tackled Casa La Matta, Zia Linda in grief for her dead son, and Zia Nilda full of hope for hers.
Zia Linda went at night. She found where the wood-doves roosted on the rafters under the hole in the roof-tiles, which she widened to facilitate their passage. She observed that they came and went at dusk, settling for the night, head-tucked, at about the time Orion set through the attic window looking west. In the pale light of stars she began gathering all the loose stones that had tumbled from the outside walls. The cairn rose steadily in the threshing-yard.
Zia Nilda began her weekly practice of catching the rural bus from outside the fishmonger's and traveling an hour on the backroad to Monticelli. At the Saturday markets she bargained sharp-eyed and down-to-the-penny for plates and cups, peelers and sheets, saucepans and buckets -- a mirror-household to her own, fit for a newlywed. She stood at the bus-stop in a nest of plastic bags.
On her first trip, however, she paid the extra fare and continued past Monticelli and on to Pontecorvo, to the silversmith's, where she bought a hand-tooled silver heart, the closest she could find to what she wanted, although she had no intention whatsoever of taking it to the church and hanging it there with the other ex-voto with its note saying "In thanks for favors received." On the way home in the bus, it seemed to be burning a hole in the bottom of her shopping-bag, so she hastened to make an extra trip to the old house next day, where she pried out a loose stone and concealed it in the wall under the bedroom window.
The next night Zia Linda sensed its presence -- there! where her night eyes picked out the warm rosy spot in the wall. She was aware of the stealthy stuff it released into the mortar, seeping like venom. She also noticed the cabinets gradually filling and the pieces of furniture that arrived by car on the weekends, and heard the poisoned clang of wedding-bells and the night time toll of funeral bells, and she sat at the top of the ladder in the hayloft patterning her thoughts in and out of cupboards like the scurrying feet of nocturnal mice.
She smelled the musk of incense in dark apses, heard the smoky sighs wisping heavenward from the wicks of candles, saw the sullen glint of brass on altars. "I am the Life, Alleluia" the words said. "I am the Light." It was springtime, and Easter.
Next afternoon, she made the hour-long trip on foot to the only shop in the valley, where she bought several eggs. Choosing only spotless white ones, she selected them from the basket and wrapped them herself in a cotton towel.
On Ash Wednesday, when Zia Nilda came with workmen to have the fireplace ripped out of the kitchen, she found that every light bulb had disappeared from all the rooms of Casa La Matta, and an egg had been placed in the center of the floor directly under each empty light-socket. Gathering the eggs without comment, she dropped them into the well beside the vineyard. The well was covered with a rattley sheet of tin, because its deep circle of water was afloat with opalescent green patches -- lilypads of contaminating verdigris copper used to spray the vines.
An electric stove was circled in the catalogue, and the thick oak mantel torn out of the kitchen wall under Zia Nilda's approving and watchful eye -- the ashy flagstones pried up, the sooty throat of the hearth bricked up like a tomb. The place in the wall healed slowly from its scab of fresh plaster. But the new paint, blue to waist-high with whitewash above, was barely dry when Zia Nilda noticed the heavy wooden dresser had been dragged out of its place in the corner and set right in the middle of the wall. At first, she ignored it, and that it always stood open, always empty. Later, she ignored the cheap but sturdy lock when it appeared across its doors, like a finger laid on lips.
When she had gathered all the stones that were lying about among the brambles, Zia Linda began to scavenge loose ones from the walls. Then she began transporting them inside one by one, and set them in a row.
Zia Nilda plodded up the road in the late morning and discovered the line of stones forming on the floor across the middle of the kitchen. As the number of stones increased, certain little things began to disappear -- the lids to the saucepans, the forks from the cutlery-drawer, every second pillowcase she had hand-edged with crotchet. Zia Nilda shook the dresser on its squat wooden legs to see if it rattled. She mopped at muddy footprints on the floor. The row of stones increased steadily. Finally, she summoned back the bricklayer and had a permanent wall erected in its place, right through the center of the room. She looked at the grey cement drying slowly in patches, sour-smelling, wet-rag smelling, and laid a hand on the dry place in the center. It was a wall that meant business.
The East half of Casa La Matta ripened steadily like the wheat pulsing with sun in the fields, filled with juice like the grapes distilling sunlight on the vines. Zia Nilda came on Wednesdays bountiful with gifts, wearing a flush of blood under her skin like a bride. She baked in the oven and supervised painters. The walls smelt of sugar cakes and purple, fennel cakes and yellow. She lay across the hand-woven sheets in the master bedroom, and her heart unfolded, like the wings of a moth.
Tender summer leaves canopied the West half of Casa La Matta, whispering night-chants.
In the course of her ranging, Zia Linda sought out the source of the spring at the place where the eddies had sculpted deep pockets among the willows trailing in the shallows, where the water twined in dark curls pinned back with the silver flick of fish. She found safe footings among the treachery of rabbit-warrens pocking the pale grass on the slope downhill. She found the skeleton of a fox in its fraying blanket of fur, and the carapaces of beetles. She cut willow fronds, stripped and dried them, burnt them black to charcoal over simmering night-fires. She bundled willow sticks, cut beech boughs, piled roof tiles. She built a seat of tiles and branches by the window in the attic, where the midsummer night tumbled in turquoise, swirling up again and out through the bare dark rafters.
One by one, she moved stones from the yard where the workmen had piled them.
In the attic, she observed the path of Orion and kept track with charcoal, plotting the tilt of his belt on the wall. The soil in the vineyard crazed, leaves wilted before their time, grass turned to paper. On Wednesdays, Zia Nilda, with her eyes unaccustomed to the rhythms of the country, noticed none of this. So the summer advanced, nights blue as quartzite, dragonflies dipping on a mirror-still pool
One evening in mid-autumn, Zia Nilda arrived to find the front door draped in black crepe. She tore it down and hurled it into the well, where it billowed and settled like a bilious cloud. She found the bed festooned with twine and feathers and a coverlet of straw. She found jars out of cupboards, pillows tumbled, canisters empty, twigs in the drawers. On the table set for a party, a cake made of mud amidst garlands of pond weed.
That night, she let herself into the other half of the house. It smelled of wheat-sacks and wet leaves and fresh blue mildew, and she found herself standing among maps in shifting patterns of moonlight cast through rafters and the overhanging trees. She saw where the moon's long nails had picked at locks, scraped on shutters, spilt sugar, sowed dusty green mold in the bread. Where it had blasted the vegetables tumbled in the winter bins. She heard the metallic sound of its stomping on the red iron staircase grafted onto the wall outside -- the ruckus that kept Zia Linda awake. Chipped paint covered the walls with the shapes of things seen out of the corner of the eye. The roof had rearranged itself on the floor in tall stacks of tiles. The dresser stood beetle-browed in the middle of the room. She found a good-sized rock and smashed in its doors. By unsettled candlelight her fingers pried among splinters, poked among the magpie-jumble and tore off the ribbon binding sheaves of letters tied together tight around the middle. Each envelope bore the same address in her sister's unschooled hand. Each was postmarked Monticelli, Province of Frosinone. Zia Nilda tore them open -- one ... twelve ... twenty -- and found neatly folded sheets of blank paper. She pillaged the dresser and lit a bonfire in the garden, and the smoke swelled black and putrid with burning plastic and buckling aluminum, singed feathers and paper -- drifts and drifts of charred paper soaring. She combed every corner for fire-fodder.
At last she stood looking up the ladder to the loft in the rafters, at a bare sky unsettling.
From the rocks at the wellspring, Zia Linda smiled at the yellow leap of firelight at the foot of the slope. As she worked, she saw Orion topple slowly to the brink of the world with his cudgel and his bearskin, drawing behind him a pall of cloud.
At the top of the ladder Zia Nilda put out her hands to feel for a footing. The floor smelt of insects tunneling, dry-rot gnawing, timbers splintering. The half-light filled with pattering and feather-preening, the sounds of leaves slick with rain, dry hide on bone, rain falling like acorns. It rustled with branches and whispered with spiders busy with cobwebs.
Zia Linda tumbled stones, lifted stones, rolled stones aside, unblocking the spring. She watched first a trickle form, then a gushing, then a jet as thick as her arm, as her waist. The banked-up water surged out of her dam. Zia Linda felt her boots fill with water, water surge round her skirt. She watched first a ribbon descending, then a rivulet, then the river itself descending, bent toward the house.
Her eyes were all darkness with the fox and the wolf, the night-vision of predators, sharp teeth, the stealthy set of the paw, the swoop of dark wings soundless, the rush of the kill. Her eyes were black coals, seeing distant, her hair the wind beneath darkwing hunting. She saw moon and stars and rain wash together, the river roaring into first-light nudging clouds streaked with rain. She stood behind the dawn, the sun in the East, her livid morning a peacock-tail fanning over the valley, glinting with moon-ripples, a pall speckled with stars. The valley a smooth lake, a cloud-mirror melting, edge-singed with silver. Her ravenous morning lapped the horizon, meeting the Hunter finally descending.
She rose up from the water, from the stones on the hillside, her mind riddled with moonlight, three stars in her belt.