The Summer of the Orphans
BY EDVIGE GIUNTA
We roamed the woods at dawn that wild summer without men. It was the summer of orphans and wolves. Some of us still had baby teeth. We had been warned not to steal from the Mother Superior’s grove. But we did, and cracked almonds with our teeth. We washed away the green fuzz that stuck to our teeth and sucked the juice of unripe almonds. Pine nuts were harder to crack. Still, we gathered them, held them gingerly between our young molars, then pressed hard, squinting. We could crack everything, everything, even a red-mooned night.
We left Gela for Piazza Armerina one scalding July morning in a gray FIAT 850, eight of us piled into a car for five. My baby sister was nestled in my mother’s lap in the front passenger seat. My brother, my sister, our cousin, and I sat in the back with our aunt, crammed in with bags and boxes of clothes, food, pots and pans, linen. My mother had brought blankets, too, because the nights would be cold.
I had never been cold in summer.
In school we memorized: “Gela rises on a hill 45 meters above the level of the sea.” The sea filled our eyes from wherever we looked—from our balconies, from my elementary school, from the Church of the Capuchins where my sister had received her First Communion, from the ruins of the Greek walls, from our farmhouse. In the summer, in bathing suits and flip flops, carrying beach bags and sand pails, we descended a steep stony path immersed in thick vegetation that led from the farmhouse to the sea. In less than ten minutes we were at the water’s edge. In the winter, we waited for those delicious days at the sea.
Piazza Armerina was the navel of Sicily. The islanders who lived there knew nothing of the patina of salt that coated the bodies of the Sicilians who lived near the sea, of the grains of sand that sparkled between our toes, of the smooth and ridged shells we collected to make necklaces, of telline, tiny clams we scooped up from under the wet sand, squatting at the edge of the sea. That quiet, wild summer I turned nine we didn’t crack telline open with our fingernails to suck the mollusk inside with a swoosh and return the empty shells to the sea. That was the summer of forests and mysterious creatures. There was a body of water near Piazza Armerina, the Lake of Pergusa, where once upon a time the earth had opened. Hades had emerged on a chariot drawn by wild horses and grabbed Persephone. He had dragged her deep inside the earth.
In the winter, when my baby sister had become ill, the doctor had come every day to give her shots. I couldn’t bear to hear her cry when the long needle pierced her chubby bottom. From behind the closed bedroom door, I heard words like “Pertosse” and “Broncopolmonite” and my father clearing his throat and my mother asking imploringly, “Duttù, c’amu a fari?” Our apartment smelled of rubbing alcohol and worry.
Spring had come. Our mother had put away the winter coats. Still, the baby coughed.
“Aria buona,” the doctor had said. She needed good mountain air, not sea air, to clear her battered lungs. My grandfather, who knew the Mother Superior, had arranged for us to stay at a stone cabin on the grounds of the orphanage in Pizza Armerina. When school ended, my mother packed us up for the mountains.
Stories of orphans had always fascinated me, perhaps because I felt a misfit in my own family. Although I was the second-born, I thought of myself as the newly arrived child. For most of my infancy and early childhood, I had lived with my grandparents. Now I missed them terribly and often wondered whether I had been adopted. I felt I understood orphaned children, those young exiles who had been expelled from the haven of family, deprived of love and tutelage, and placed at the mercy of a heartless institution. A child could be sent to an orphanage, even if their parents were still alive. “Ti mando in collegio”—another word for orphanage—was a threat I had heard irate parents yell at misbehaving children: I will send you to the orphanage. I knew a girl who had been left by her immigrant parents in the care of her aunt, a nun who ran an orphanage. Orphanages were alluring, haunting, and familiar.
My father drove us to Piazza Armerina—up, up, through narrow roads that snaked into the belly of the island. “Silenzio!” he yelled now and then to shush our chatter. He often turned to look at the baby with concern and frustration, as if her hacking cough and panting were a conundrum he couldn’t solve. The landscape mutated as we climbed and sank into the island. There was something rugged and eerie about these mountains, so different from Aetna, the volcano near Catania, a city where we visited aunts, uncles, cousins. Although it spit fire, the volcano didn’t frighten me. On the contrary, its daunting shape hovering over the city reassured me. Aetna didn’t hide. Now, we were going into a somber and secretive Sicily.
When we arrived, my father parked by the orphanage to get directions and the keys to the cabin. I pressed my nose against the window, hypnotized by the sight of so many boys of all ages. They didn’t look sad and raggedy, as I had expected. They all wore shorts and t-shirts or button-up shirts, not uniforms. A group of them balanced on a painted metal see-saw, two or three on each side. Some spun in a merry-go-round. Others sat on the ground, playing. A few teenagers stood in clusters. When they saw us, they nodded hello. One of them ran to the back of the building and returned with a nun.
My mother stepped out of the car with the baby and joined my father. They talked to the nun. Soon both my parents got back inside. As my father started the car and slowly backed away from the orphanage, a few of the younger boys chased us. One waved. I waved back. The car advanced slowly on the unpaved road, kicking pebbles, and spreading a cloud of dust. The boys vanished behind it. In a few minutes we arrived at the place that would be home for the next month. We got out of the car and stretched, yawning, stiff from the two-hour ride. The air felt lighter than at home. It was quiet, except for the sounds of invisible birds, not the swallows that flew openly in the sky of Gela, dropping whitish excrements on our heads and clothes when we walked on the Corso. My father helped us unpack and carry everything inside, then hurried back to Gela, eager to return to his books and politics, to his long walks with friends on the Corso that emptied of women and children late at night.
The cabin was old, small, and sparsely furnished, with no ornaments except for two stark wood crosses, one in each room, and a local store’s outdated, faded calendar with photos of flowers in vases. In the large kitchen there was a small stove without oven, a few cabinets, a table with chairs, and a narrow bed in one corner where our aunt slept. Everyone else slept in the bedroom. From the bedroom window, we saw the dark green expanse of the woods. I wanted to sleep with my cousin in the twin bed in the bedroom, but my older sister claimed both bed and cousin. I had to sleep with my mother and my younger siblings in the big bed. When the light went out at night, I listened enviously to the giggles and whispers of my sister and cousin, head to foot in the bed, so close to me but so inaccessible.
A dozen nuns and sixty boys lived in the austere building of the orphanage, less than a five-minute walk from our little house. There was no room for grown men that summer in the land where Hades had stolen Demeter’s daughter. After his chariot had plunged into the earth and disappeared, Zeus had done nothing to rescue the girl, not until Demeter’s grief and rage had turned the island into a wasteland and humans forgot to worship the gods. I loved pomegranates, but I knew men were not to be trusted. Boys, boys were different, especially orphan boys who picked the almonds too high for us to reach and promised to show us werewolves on a full moon night.
Every day we woke up at 5:00 am, drank small bowls of caffelatte in which we dipped day-old bread, then went on long, dreamy walks in the woods. We wore light sweaters but no socks with our sandals. The seven of us walked in formations that dissolved and reformed, then dissolved again, a crisscross of horizontal and vertical lines on that pristine land. My mother, my aunt, and my older sister took turns carrying the baby, though she mostly stayed in my mother’s arms, wrapped in a cocoon of blankets made fierce by love and the terror of loss.
The sky was barely visible through the thickness of the branches that roofed the forest. The trees were ancient and magnificent and housed countless birds that chirped louder when we passed as if to warn each other of the arrival of newcomers. Invisible owls hooted, but only before sunrise, then their hooting quieted and other bird sounds filled the forest. When we’d hear flapping of wings above us, we looked up to spy on the birds that hid in the trees. These trees were different from the trees in our farmhouse, many of which my parents had planted. Our trees were young and cheerful. They waited for us with their branches loaded with oranges, tangerines, apricots, plums, figs, pears. Our arms could reach up to gather the fruit, or we could easily climb up the trunks and sit on the branches. Our oldest tree, an apricot, held a swing of rope and wood. I pumped my legs hard and pushed myself higher and higher to the rhythm of the tree yielding to my weight. The trees in this forest were not playful. They were solemn and reserved.
The dawn air was wet and fragrant with the pungent smell of pines. We inhaled deeply. I closed my eyes and pictured my little sister’s lungs healing. We had never been in a forest before and I was anxious to find white spotted red mushrooms like those in fairy tale books, but the mushrooms that sprouted on the ground and even on the trunks of trees were brown-hued and their caps were not perfectly round. They looked like small animals that did not move because we were watching. My mother warned us not to touch them. Here and there, we bent to gather pine cones that beckoned at us from the exposed roots of giant trees that reached towards our feet like enormous, gnarled fingers. We searched for the tiny ovals of pine nuts that peeked through the leaves and moss that carpeted the forest. My mother told us to be careful not to break our teeth, and so we put the pine nuts in our pockets, though sometimes we ignored her and cracked them open with our teeth, hungry for their delicious insides.
We wandered away from the epicenter that was our mother, but never lost sight of her. Our voices echoed, mingled with the haunting calls of birds, the sound of crushed leaves and broken branches, and the cries of mysterious creatures who never revealed themselves to us. The trees followed the wind and hummed in harmony with the forest. The air filled with a crescendo of voices—then all sounds dissolved into an eerie calm. I loved the pine forest, but I would have never ever wanted to be there at night, or alone.
When we returned from our walk, we played outside the cabin, or ran to the orphanage. My older sister often had to stay behind to help, and she would convince our cousin to keep her company. So I went with my brother, three years younger than I and easy to get along with. Without the older girls, I forgot I was shy, even around the older boys, like fourteen-year-old Gino, nicknamed “ugola d’oro,” golden voice, because of his tenor singing voice, and thirteen-year-old Dario, with chestnut curls combed to the side and fierce brown eyes. Dario was my favorite. He had a handsome face, unmarred by acne. His lips widened in an ironic smile that softened his serious face. He enunciated each word, his voice marked by the rhythm of the Sicilian interior, thick and heavy with the lingering traces of Piedmontese and Lombard. Ours was a polyglot island: people from far and near lands had come, invaded, settled, and left, chased away by newcomers. But their traces remained.
When I asked Dario questions, he was kind and patient, never dismissive like my sister. He reminded me of Laurie from Little Women, which I had just read. Dario was an orphan, like Laurie. And I, like Jo, had short hair and loved books.
“Cut it short, alla maschietta,” my mother had instructed the hairdresser before we left for Piazza Armerina. My hair was wavy and fine. It tangled easily. With four kids, my mother had neither the time nor the patience for my whining when she dragged the comb through the knots. In silent misery, I had watched my curls gather on the floor and followed them while they were swept away by an indifferent broom. I wanted braids, the feeling of hair down my back like my older sister and cousin. I tried to compensate for my loss by feigning a disregard for all feminine things. Adolescence was still a few years away, but in the stories I told myself as I fell asleep that summer, I was the protagonist of a romance with Dario. Together, we ran wild, like Jo and Laurie. The pine forest was our kingdom.
In a photograph taken that summer I wear my favorite outfit, a terry cloth romper. It was one of the few items of clothing I had not inherited from my cousin or sister—and it fit me just right, not too loose like the hand-me-downs that my mother promised would soon fit. It had a zipper in front. Facing the mirror of the locked bathroom, I unzipped it and tugged gently at the tiny buttons on my flat chest. It felt good. I looked down at the ribbed white cotton underpants that almost covered my belly button. I pulled the elastic away from my slightly protruding belly, then snapped it back in place. A girl with cropped hair and thick glasses that shrunk her large hazel green eyes stared at me from the mirror. We both sighed.
“Come out,” my sister knocked loudly on the door. I forced a smile of encouragement at the girl in the mirror.
In the late afternoon, around five, my mother made us wash and wear clean clothes and we walked to the orphanage. She and my aunt visited with the nuns in the back of the building. The Mother Superior, a tall, serious woman, spoke to us kindly and calmly, enunciating her impeccable Italian. With the boys, she was not mean, but not gentle either. She spoke to them quickly, and in dialect.
I was curious about the nuns, their private lives, what they hid underneath those long dark habits. Was it true that they shaved their heads? Did they get undressed in front of other nuns? What did their underwear look like? We rarely went inside the building, but once I saw one of the rooms where the nuns slept. It was so plain that it made me sad. Not a photograph, not a painting or a knick-knack.
I never saw the boys’ dormitory.
Although it was hard to differentiate the nuns because they all wore the same habit, I learned to recognize them from their height and their voices. There was a hierarchy: some of the nuns were busy with chores and the children while others sat quietly or walked with their arms and hands folded. An ancient-looking nun sat on a chair outside. She was deaf, and still like a statue, except for one hand that stroked the goose that sat in her lap. Other geese sauntered in the yard. They flapped their wings and honked when we approached them. Sometimes they chased us.
During those late afternoon visits, we kids spent most of the time on the playground in front of the orphanage, on the seesaw, the slide, and the creaky merry-go-around with the younger boys. Or we played tag or hide-and-seek with the older boys. Sometimes we ventured to the edge of the forest to hide behind enormous tree trunks and the forest palpated with our repressed laughter and the excitement to be found. Before it got dark, my mother called us, and we reluctantly headed back to our cabin.
Most of the boys were kind and sweet. They spoke Italian to us but switched to the thick singsong rhythms of their mysterious dialect when they spoke between themselves or the nuns. That summer, together, we made a world where we forgot the adults who ruled our lives, whether through their presence or their absence. But we were so different from those boys. We ate spaghetti with freshly made tomato sauce—no chunks—and grated caciocavallo my mother had brought from Gela because it was our favorite cheese. When she made veal cutlets a bagno maria, she trimmed the fat off and beat the meat with the mallet until it was almost transparent—or we wouldn’t eat it. As preoccupied as she was with my baby sister, she made sure we ate well and tucked us in at night. I wasn’t one of sixty orphan boys who had no parents who cooked for them, kissed them good-night, or scolded them if they forgot to brush their teeth.
On Sundays the playground crowded with adults from the outside world: grandparents, aunts, uncles, fathers and mothers too poor to keep their children home. I lingered on the borders of the playground, a curious and shy spectator. A heightened emotional current saturated the air. The boys looked younger and vulnerable. They were no longer the kids with whom I played all day long during the week. I realized then the depth of the solitude and sadness they carried and that most of them, certainly Dario, masked so well. I didn’t know whether he had lost one or both parents. He never spoke of his family. I don’t remember anyone ever visiting him and didn’t know how long he had lived at the orphanage, though it must have been a few years. You saw it from the way he walked, how he talked to the nuns, to the other boys, like someone who was at home in this strange place. Sometimes, though, I would catch a shadow across his face. It wasn’t sadness. It was something hard like the anger that marred my father’s face when we didn’t listen to him.
There was a lot of crying when relatives and parents left. All the boys cried, even the teenagers. Some wandered wide-eyed and lost on the semi-deserted playground.
One day my uncle, aunt, and cousins came to visit. They brought ice cream. One of the adults instructed us not to let the orphans see us, or the boys would feel bad. Why couldn’t we buy ice cream for the boys, too? I thought. But I didn’t have the courage to ask. I remembered when Luigi, a scrawny boy of eleven or twelve, had shared the chocolate wafers his mother had brought him with us. I licked the ice cream slowly, until it bled into the cone. I chewed the mess. The wafer stuck to the roof of my mouth.
That summer my mother was less strict than at home. Except for meals, sleep, and washing once a day, she had relinquished the care of us girls, aged nine, eleven, and thirteen, to that place. Our skin became tanned and tough, marked by scratches and bruises from when we ran and fell in the forest in the morning, and when we played with the older boys in the afternoon.
After lunch, we escaped naptime and sneaked out of the sleeping house. We crossed the dusty country road and ran downhill, all the way to the big almond tree that had become our meeting point. We twisted the almonds, pulled hard, a seesaw with the reluctant tree. Most almonds were not yet ripe. The green shells were still soft. Some we could crush with the palm of our hands. If they had started hardening, though, we had to crack them with our teeth.
My sister dictated the games we would play and ordered the boys around. One afternoon, our talk slow and lazy from the heat, she turned to Dario and, flashing her most seductive smile, said, “A chi ti vuoi sposare di noi tre?”
My heart skipped a beat as I waited for Dario to say which one of us he wanted to marry. I sat in the tree, swinging my legs, caressing almonds. The small mound of green felt alive in my lap.
Dario looked at me, lifting his chin lightly.
“E’ nica, ‘na criatura,” he said, slipping into the Sicilian tongue. Criatura. Creature. That’s how the adults referred to babies.
Dario had reasonably narrowed his choice, stated the obvious. I had seen the admiration in his eyes when he watched my brassy sister and my blushing, blonde, blue-eyed cousin. Yet all along I had felt he belonged to me. I saw myself through his eyes: short hair, thick glasses, knobby knees, no hint of puberty, the graceless, shy follower of my sister and cousin. I made as if I was not paying attention. I chose with care one almond, held it between thumb and index finger and studied it, then placed it between my molars and cracked it open. I extracted the fragments of the crushed almond and placed them one at a time in my mouth, then chewed the tender skin hard, grinding my teeth. My fingertips were speckled with green fuzz.
So much beauty and sadness permeated that haunting summer when the orphan boys taught us about the creature that haunted the forest, half man, half wolf.
Wolves were familiar creatures on an island where mothers and grandmothers rocked their children to sleep singing lullabies that threatened to give the children away to the black wolf lest they fall asleep. Ninna nanna, ninna o—a lullaby as ancient as our Greek ancestors. Women have always known that feral beasts lurk nearby.
I knew about lupi mannari, the half-human half-beast creatures that terrorize people on full moon nights. It was the orphans of Piazza Armerina, however, who taught me about that lore that must have spoken to them with a power and veracity that I, a child with parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and neighbors who doted on me, could not understand.
Werewolves were taller than regular humans and could run both standing and on all fours. No one could outrun them. You should never be out alone on a full moon night, or the lupo mannaro would snatch you and devour you, piece by piece. You had to be smart and go out in a pack, with boys who knew how to elude those terrifying beasts.
They were sad, unfortunate creatures, too, the lupi mannari. It was the moon that woke the dormant beast. Their human form returned at dawn. When they woke up, all bloodied, they had only vague memories of what had transpired, like a bad dream. During the day, they were regular men—decent husbands, loving fathers. But when the moon was full, especially if it was red—beware: they could kill their own children.
We listened to the stories of the werewolves in terrified silence. Only my sister, with her usual bravado, said she didn’t believe in werewolves. Dario smiled.
Did we want to see the lupo mannaro? All we had to do is meet the boys near the orphanage three nights from now. They would show us. With them, we would be safe.
On the night of August 8th, a big round red moon hung in the sky. I was so nervous I could not eat. I kept glancing at my sister and cousin. My cousin, incapable of lying, blushed and smiled too much. But my sister, master of all situations, chatted with my mother and aunt and distracted them. She got up to clear the table without being reminded. My mother changed the baby for the night, and we all got into our pajamas.
We waited until the rhythmic sound of the sleeping bodies and the cicadas outside was all we could hear. We crawled out of bed, got dressed, and shoes in hand, climbed out of the window my sister had left ajar.
Once we were a few meters away from the cabin, we ran. The strangest animal cries accompanied us. The glow of the moon was a searchlight on the darkened road. The distance between the cabin and the orphanage seemed to have grown since we had left the orphanage a few hours earlier.
“Wait,” my sister hissed as I ran ahead. I reluctantly slowed down until she and my cousin caught up with me.
A dozen boys waited a hundred feet from the bulky, haunting mass of the orphanage. Its features had been swallowed by the night.
Our silhouettes were all heavy breath and suppressed laughter, smell of fear and excitement. I could hear the muffled voices of my sister and my cousin but couldn’t see them. I heard Dario’s laughter. And then it all went quiet. The nocturnal creatures that had been crying to us went mute too.
When the howl came, it was deep, long, pained, unearthly. We shrieked, then pressed our hands over our mouths, looking left, right, behind. The howl continued, as if it had been released from a sealed well of sorrow, raw and thick and ancient, not the sorrow of one creature, but the sorrow of all the sad men and boys of the world. Breathless, we listened as it crawled towards us.
A shape emerged from the darkness, making fierce animal sounds. Screaming, the kids scattered everywhere. I stood there, mesmerized. I could not make the creature’s contours out. It seemed clumsy as if it struggled to orient itself. A hand grabbed mine.
“Come,” a boy’s voice said. “Run.”
We ran in silence broken only by the heaviness of our breath and the thumping of feet, not just ours. Finally, my companion stopped behind a tree and signaled to me to squat. In the shadow, I recognized Dario. He brought his finger to his lips. I nodded.
My knees pressed against the bark. I felt the trunk with my hands. Its rough solidity was impenetrable and reassuring. My right arm extended along its circumference. I could not reach around it. I inhaled its smell. It must have been one of those ancient pines the top of which was barely visible during the day. We had run all the way to the forest. My eyes adjusted to the darkness. The thick shapes of the trees looked like giants willing to give us refuge. My left thigh pressed against Dario’s. The red ball of the moon looked at us through the branches.
The howl continued, lonely and desperate, but it stayed at the edge of the forest. The other children were whispers amidst the sounds of the night, harsh, jarring, so different from the music of the forest at dawn. There were no mothers, no aunts, no nuns. We were not children. We were small animals wild with fear.
The howl was no longer feral, just a weak cry for help. It sounded closer. The night breeze rushed between my scrawny legs. Dario turned towards me. His eyes gleamed. In the dark, I couldn’t see his nose, his mouth, only the shape of his head. Would he, too, turn into a werewolf? The cold hand of the night caressed my spine. I shivered and closed my eyes. When I opened them, his eyes had disappeared, but I heard and smelled his breath, fast, sweet.
Someone called my name.
“Where are you? Where are you?” It was my sister. She sounded scared. Dove sei?
I stayed quiet.
The sounds of a struggle rose and fell near me, sudden, abrupt, uneven—then, the thump of feet running away from me. Other noises mingled with those wild sounds— flapping of wings, hooting, screeching, scraping. Something was being dragged.
The thumping stopped.
I pressed myself against the trunk of the old pine, flattened my torso as if the tree could draw my skin inside its cortex, then slid my feet, pressing my toes into the soil and the exposed roots. My legs wrapped around the tree base. The sting of scratches was on my thighs, knees, sandaled feet, arms. The base of my neck burned. I didn’t know where that fire came from—perhaps from inside me.
A boy’s cry from a distance, a cry of despair and surrender.
Was it Dario’s?
I mouthed his name, then crawled in the direction of the cry. The leaves lifted off the ground. They hissed. They wanted me, and so they covered my back. They moaned. I held my breath. My teeth bit my lip hard. Before the forest took me, I tasted my own blood.