THE ETERNAL RETURN
Five Thousand Lire
When I graduated from university, I had the good fortune to spend six months in Naples, Italy where, of course, I studied Italian and visited all the works of art to be found in that city of visual opulence. I wasn’t there alone, however. I was with my lover, a graduate student in art history. This was to have been our romantic interlude between the time of study, research and exams and the time of assuming a life of work and day-to-day responsibility. This was to have been a joyous time of fulfilled curiosity. We had arrived in May when the weather had begun to turn warm and the winter rain had ceased. This was to have been our time, utterly free.
Sometimes, I wandered the streets of Naples alone. My lover liked his solitude – he could spend hours in the Archaeological Museum sketching. He did not like learning foreign languages, so I took Italian classes by myself. It fell to me to achieve all our verbal navigation of the city, such as ordering in restaurants. I didn’t mind. It made me feel knowledgeable, essential to our Italian experience. After class, in the afternoons, my lover and I would meet for coffee in Piazza Bellini, a point between the Museum and the language school. Piazza Bellini was the local “hot spot” where I could sit in one of the cafes for hours reading and watching the small dramas that are played out in the square. I usually arrived first.
We were a modern couple, my lover and I. We would not marry because he considered marriage a legal fiction. We had left New York to study abroad and since Naples was (in his estimation) the most artistic city in the world, here we came. I would have preferred London where I wanted to enroll in drama classes (I had been accepted), but he said that would not be fair to him – he needed to make a living as an artist and had to be where he could study and observe properly. He had to live in a city of art. So, deprived of the language of my own métier, I made do with Italian, took classes and discovered I had a feel for this graceful and complex language – and its literature.
To get to Piazza Bellini, I usually passed near the monastic complex of Santa Chiara. Outside the gates, almost every day, I would observe a beggar and his dog. The man was swarthy, with thick curly hair. The dog was a black and white mongrel, very well behaved. I noticed that from time to time, passersby would offer the animal some tidbit of food. The beggar always seemed to have lire coins in the tin dish that he proffered. I noticed that he always wore gloves, even as the weather turned from warm to hot.
Then one day, while I was waiting for my lover at a café in Piazza Bellini, the beggar approached my table. My lover was late and I was reading – an English novel, I don’t remember which. I was tired and wanted to think in my own language for a while. I was startled by the words that interrupted my browsing, the tones, in rapport with the writing before my eyes:
“If you give me five thousand lire, I will be your friend for life.”
The beggar was American! I looked up, stupefied. He held out one hand. The other, gloved, he held up. The middle and ring finger of the gloves flapped, empty. His index finger and pinky were held up, palm toward me. This is the classic gesture of horns in their aspect of bringing good fortune. However, since two fingers were clearly missing, I didn’t take the sign literally.
The time that it took for me to collect myself, gave the beggar the chance to scrutinize me. I could not avoid looking back. He smiled. His eyes sparkled.
“I have seen you pass on your way from the school,” he said. (How did he know about the Italian school?) “I lived on Mulberry Street when I was little. After the war my family came back here.”
My cappuccino and cornetto arrived, along with the bill. The waiter stood by the table, waiting for me to pay. The change included a five-thousand-lire note, equivalent to about three dollars. This was a lot to give a beggar; usually a ten-lire coin or two would be appropriate.
He repeated, “If you give me five-thousand lire, I’ll be your friend for life.”
Something about this good spirited bargaining called to me. I passed him the note.
I spotted him several times afterward, by the gate of Santa Chiara or by the gelato store nearby. He always greeted me, first saying – in English – that he doesn’t want money; that he’s fine now. Sometimes, I would pet his dog, who actually was reasonably clean.
The last time I saw the beggar was again in Piazza Bellini, in October. My lover was with me. Our time in Naples was coming to an end and the weather was turning cool. The winter rain had started, slowly, just in the mornings. Afternoons were still warm but not so much as they had been and there was a slight but unrelenting dampness underneath the warmth.
We were drinking expresso and avoiding conversation. I had suspicions that my lover had become involved with someone else and wanted to break up with me. He would not say so directly, but talked about wanting to stay in Naples a while longer. I should return to the States, however.
I protested that I shouldn’t be in the States right now. I reminded him that I had turned down a place at drama school in London to be here with him. He replied that I should go to London in that case; he didn’t want to disrupt my plans.
My “friend for life” came up to our table. He looked at my lover and then at me. He lifted his semi-fingerless hand, palm facing the ground and moved it back and forth, the classic gesture of cheating. Then he looked at me and smiled and shook his head.
“You will be all right. Go back,” he said.
As I stood up bewildered, my “friend for life” nodded and turned his fingers downward, making the sign that protects against the evil eye.
The journey from Naples to Cuma is long – not so much in distance as in time. Cuma was founded about 2500 years ago, as a Greek colony, not far away from late twentieth century Naples where I was studying Italian and hanging out at Piazza Bellini while waiting for my lover to be finished with his painting class in the Academy of Fine Arts nearby. Every now and then my “friend for life” would pass by and greet me in English. This made heads turn, for the local beggar held forth on many topics in the Neapolitan dialect. He also had a reputation as a fortune teller, but I think the Neapolitans are superstitious. They often mistake shrewdness and the ability to observe for supernatural powers.
There is a famous cave in Cuma where the sibyl, a prophetess, lived during the time it was a Greek colony. In those days one could visit her and ask her advice, as it was her undertaking not just to tell the future, but to offer guidance as well. In my Italian class we had read a story about King Tarquin who had come to Cuma to consult the sibyl. She had offered him nine books of prophesy at what he considered an outrageous price. Furious, she cast three of the books into the fire and offered him the remaining six at the same price. King Tarquin again refused. So, the sibyl cast three more books into the fire. I don’t know whether King Tarquin became intrigued about the prophesies the books contained or alarmed that their legacy would completely disappear, but he relented and paid for the three remaining books the price he would have paid for nine. The sibyl then vanished and so, it seems, have the books.
When I was living in Naples, there was still a tradition of visiting the cave at Cuma and asking the sibyl about the future. So, with some questions regarding what might be in store for me, I set out to find her one day when my lover said he wanted to work late at the art studio. I was disturbed by the hand gestures indicating a cheating lover that the beggar in Piazza Bellini had made over him, even though I had felt dubiously comforted by the gesture of protection the same beggar had made over me. In the back of my mind, also, was the thought that visiting Greek ruins might someday be useful for playing Medea or Iphigeneia, but where I could get such roles in Italian or in English, I had no idea.
I discovered that despite being only about twenty-five miles from Naples, it took several hours arrive at Cuma. I got an early train from the Montesanto metro station. The trains on the Cumean line were covered with graffiti, and moved slowly along the western shore of Campania, stretching back the time as well as the distance between Naples and Cuma. More than an hour after the train left Montesanto, it stopped in a village engulfed in reeds, hot and quiet, where I walked across the track to get the bus to Cuma. I waited and waited, doubting that the bus would come, but there were other passengers who assured me that it would. Just as I had begun to believe that living in this part of the world required an act of faith that I did not have, the bus arrived. I eventually arrived at “archaeological zone” where I descended and walked to the cave.
I made my way to the center and asked the sibyl about my life with my lover. The sibyl had nothing to say to me. My future was blank. I heard a voice speaking in English, coming from the entrance. I listened. My questions remained unanswered. It was only a group of British tourists reading aloud from Virgil’s Aeneid. They were reciting the part where Aeneas visited this very cave. The sibyl had been obliging to Aeneas. She guided him to nearby Lake Averno, the entrance to the underworld, where he descended to meet the shade of his father. Aeneas’ future was foretold: his progeny would be the founders of Rome. This prediction so delicately spoken encouraged me to ask a further question. Would I have a career? But the sibyl still offered no sign. The cave was dark, cool and dry, with light pouring in through a tall odd-shaped opening at one end. I sat on a ledge and enjoyed the British reading, their clear accents reminding me of the possibilities in London that I had abdicated.
When I exited the shelter of the cave, the sun was low and the sky beginning to fade from bright blue to dusty pink. Time to return to … what? After another long wait, I took the bus back to the village. This time I did not have to cross the track for the train to Naples, but I arrived at the station just in time to miss the train. The next train was due in half an hour, but it didn’t come. I sat in the station, dismayed about my lover and regretting not being in London where I would be working with familiar words, in surroundings I could understand.
There was a bar in front of the train station where three old men sat drinking coffee. When they saw me, they vied with each other to attract my attention. I saw something fly at me and jumped back. A piece of hard candy, a carmelo, landed where I had been standing. I glared at the old men, but this only served to delight them and they laughed out loud.
“Oh, signora, it was only a little gift for you,” said one.
“Please take it. It will not harm you,” said another.
“Will you have a coffee?” asked a third.
I shook my head no, thinking that forty or fifty years ago, these men had been young and strong, probably soldiers, definitely hard workers for they still looked muscular and fit. They might have been handsome. Perhaps they had been world-class seducers. Now they were just silly.
I tried to imagine my lover in the future, past his prime, talent as well as body diminished.
“No,” I said aloud. “I will never know him as an old man.”
The moment as I uttered this phrase, the train arrived, as though in confirmation of my statement. I did not know it yet, but the sibyl had answered my question after all.
It was night when I got back to Naples. Our flat was dark and my lover was nowhere to be found. I noticed his easel was gone and also his paint box. I opened the closet and found only my clothes. There was an envelope on the kitchen table. When I opened I did not find the expected good-by note, not at all. There was a train ticket from Naples to Le Havre, a ferry ticket from there to Plymouth and another train ticket to London. Nothing more.
I had every intention of using the train and ferry tickets from Naples to London that my lover had given me on his departure as his gift d’addio; but before I was to leave, I decided to visit Cuma again. I hoped that the Sybil had something more to tell me. I took the Cumana line from Montesanto, but instead of getting off the train at Cuma, I continued on, as if lured by the place, to the next stop at Torregaveta.
I couldn’t have told you then why I was drawn here. There is a restaurant near the train station. It sits on headland that overlooks the beach at Torregaveta. Maurizio had taken me here many times for fresh mussels. Maurizio loved mussels. But that was the very reason that I wouldn’t have wanted to be there. “What an affectation!” I thought as I made my way to the restaurant in spite of myself. My lover had the English name of Morris, but wanting to be part of the local art scene, had taken to calling himself Maurizio.
The waters of the headland were calm and shallow, weaving around the long raspy grasses that bent in response to the breeze floating in from the open sea. Old Giuseppe was there with his knife and two empty string bags. While Maurizio sketched him, I had often watched Old Giuseppe wade in the distance until he was one with the rocks that lay at the entrance to the sea. About an hour later he would return with the bags bulging with mussels he had scraped off those rocks. The instant he caught sight of Old Giuseppe, Maurizio would shoved his sketchbook and charcoal in the portfolio. The first time Old Giuseppe noticed Maurizio drawing, he came to our table and looked over the sketch. Then he dropped his bag of mussels on it, ruining it with seaweed, salt water and black matter from the mussel shells as if he somehow mistrusted having his image captured.
She remembers the boat that brought her to Cuma 2500 years ago, although she had long given up counting those years. She was young then and mortal and had been dedicated by her parents to the practice of the art of divination. Being sensual, she was condemned to virginity. She had resented this. Being unruly, she had employed her gift of prophesying to counsel young lovers rather than kings or warriors. For this she was punished. Banished from the sun-drenched beaches of the Peloponnesian peninsula, she was sent to dwell in the dark cave on the marshy headland of the newly founded colony Cuma.
On the way, the boat passed the settlement of Partenope, so named for the siren that had committed suicide because she had been rejected by Ulysses. Parthenope’s body had washed ashore on this spot. Be warned, Cumean Sybil!
She had been perhaps twenty years into her mortal life when she arrived at Cuma, accompanied by a crone of a chaperon. She had left behind her lover Machaon, a sculptor. Her function now would be to foretell plots against the Cumean colonists by the tribes that they were displacing. The colony throve. Her predictions she would write down in books. Centuries later, she would presage the fall of Cuma to the Etruscans. Later still, as an old woman although now immortal, she would visit Tarquin the Proud, the last king of Rome, and offer to sell him these Sibylline Books.
The boat had glided through the turquoise water that touched the shore of Partenope. It maneuvered among the headland reeds until, tangled in them, it could proceed no further. Sybil and crone descended and waded through the salt marsh to the cave. A breeze swirled around her legs like a solicitous cat and whispered that lover was dead.
In the restaurant I drank wine and waited a long time for my food. The waiter had appeared promptly and I ordered a half-liter of falanghina and paccheri with shrimp and tomato sauce. I wasn’t particularly hungry but it seemed a shame to waste the view. I had taken a table outdoors on the beach where I could watch the sea. Every now and then I caught a diminishing glimpse of Old Giuseppe.
The wine arrived immediately. Sipping it, I watched the fishermen on the quay about twenty yards from the restaurant. They were carefully attending to that morning’s catch. Every so often, one of them would walk down to the beach and return with a pail of seawater that he would spill gently over the fish flopping in their enamel basins. The fish were still alive.
The wine was working its spell. I could feel the loosening of my body beginning at the base of my neck and traveling down my spine. My shoulders were loose, but my feet didn’t want to move. My body seemed at one with the gentle wind that made the waves quiver. I was aware of the intermittent whiffs of salt and fresh fish that this wind brought – a live mineral scent.
Now no longer mortal, the Sybil remembers the boat. Although pure spirit, she still yearns for Machaon. She was still grieving when Apollo, god of the arts, god of male beauty, god of healing, caught a glimpse of her and wanted her to be his lover. He offered her immortality and she accepted. Apollo granted her immortality, but not eternal youth, so she aged and withered until she diminished entirely. Only her voice remains, carried on the wind.
The breeze today is like that of long ago, but now the Sibyl and the breeze are one. Someone, she is aware, is here to seek counsel about a lover.
Mentally I drifted off to London. I would soon be a part of the theater scene there. A line from a play by Harold Pinter floated through my mind: “There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened.” “Morris,” I murmured and wondered if the Sybil had put that thought into my head.
I was startled to see my waiter approach from the direction of fishermen’s quay with a bowl of shrimp that would soon become my lunch. One fell from the bowl and out of nowhere there was Ciro, the cat that lives at the restaurant. His nose was twitching, his ears lay back. He watched for a few seconds then turned his back to the fallen shrimp, pretending not to see it. Then he made a swift leap and scooped the shrimp up with his paw. This is mouse-hunting behavior. He has learned well. With the shrimp in his mouth, Ciro looked around, deciding upon a secluded dining spot. He chose to go under a table near my own, but surrounded on two sides by the wall of the restaurant, with an open view of people (and other cats) coming and going.
When the wind whispers, the sea listens. The diver sensed his name in the movement of the water. He speared the fish swimming nearby and began his ascent to the surface. He was pleased with his catch, a fine orata of unusual size that would bring a fine price at the restaurant on the beach. The diver suddenly realized he was hungry. He would have his usual feast.
Old Giuseppe heard the whispered words and smiled – at least it was as much of a smile as he ever gave. She was at again, the spirit that lived in the cave. “Allora, buona fortuna,” he muttered to himself.
He noticed something dark moving in the water and looked down. It was the diver making his way to the surface. Then Old Giuseppe understood. He scraped one final colony of mussels off the rock, forced it into his bulging string bag and began his swim back to the restaurant on the beach.
He had seen that woman there alone, probably feeding her lunch to that beggarly cat. The man who usually came with her was noticeably not there. “Meno male,” he thought
When the wind whispers, the earth listens. The sand moved with the breeze forming undulating m’s.
The sound of mmmm carried on the breeze and the woman heard it whisper the name of her former lover.
“Michele Merisi, Michelangelo Merisi.” Caravaggio? Morris’s favorite artist whose name was really Michelangelo Merize. But it was Maurizio; it was Morris. He was the lover who left me. Oh, Fate! Save me from artists.
Finally my paccheri arrived, topped with freshly cooked shrimp. I put a piece aside to cool and extended my hand to Ciro. “Come here.”
The cat looked puzzled. I repeated in Italian: “Vieni qui.”
Ciro installed himself under the chair next to me. The waiter lovingly refilled my glass.
I thought I saw Old Giuseppe returning. No, it was someone else, a stranger out of the sea. He was wearing a wet suit and in one hand is carrying flippers, while in the other dangled an orata. This fish is two feet long! That’s twice the length of theorata you find in the fish market at Sanitá. I stared while the stranger passed his fish off to the headwaiter whose eyes lit up at its size.
The stranger then ordered linguini with mussels and disappeared. I forced myself to focus on my paccheri, but was still not particularly hungry.
The stranger returned a few minutes later, having changed out of his wet suit. He took a table near mine and requested a bottle of fiano, a very good white wine from this region, be brought to him immediately. The bottle the waiter brought was obviously well chilled, dripping with condensation. I noticed that the waiter also brought two delicate-looking wine glasses – tulip-shaped with an etched border.
Ciro was still under my table. What a ragamuffin of a cat – white stomach and legs, striped back and muzzle and a long raccoon tail. I slipped him another shrimp while the waiter was back in the kitchen. The stranger noticed and smiled. I thought it might be a smirk.
There was a portfolio on the floor beside the stranger. Where had that come from? He probably had an arrangement – a place to change his clothes, a fish that he had caught purchased by the restaurant. He poured himself a glass of wine from his well-chilled bottle, opened the portfolio and withdrew a tablet and charcoal and began to sketch.
I turned away and saw Old Giuseppe returning, his two string bags stretched to the limit with mussels. A feast for tomorrow night after they have been cleaned thoroughly to remove the sand. Some will be eaten raw; some steamed with garlic and butter; some will be cooked with tomatoes and herbs. All will be accompanied with linguini lighted coated with butter and garlic. Ciro will be disappointed. He cannot eat the remains of mussels. He prefers shrimp.
I pushed the paccheri around on my plate and slipped some more shrimp to the ragamuffin Ciro. He gobbled it up, but then went to the stranger and rubbed against his legs. Then this man from the sea filled the second glass and offered it to me.
“My name is Michele,” he said. “Will you please share a glass of wine with me?”
I accepted and introduced myself. As we touched our glasses together in a toast, I noticed that dusk was coming on. The waiter lit two large torches at either end of the restaurant. Immediately I noticed bats circling in the distance, catching the evening’s insects before they had a chance to seek cover. I imagined these bats have just emerged from the Sybil’s cave close by.
I wonder if I were the Sybil in a former life, punished with recurring mortality for betraying my calling and giving myself to a lover. I have seen my lover’s powers of destruction. I know there is also the power of creation.
Antoinette Carone was born in West Virginia. Her father was born in Campora, Italy, in the Cilento region of Campania. She holds a BA in Romance Languages and an MA in Cinema Studies. Upon retirement she spent a year in Naples where she began writing, the result of which is her book Ciao Napoli. She is an active member of the New York Writers’ Coalition.