My neighborhood is full of characters. Really, at times I feel as if I'd landed in a Fellini film.
For instance, there's the woman whom everyone refers to as "La Pazzarella" ("crazy woman")--a wildly-gray-haired Hermes who rides up and down the street on her bicycle in the same ratty brown parka year-round, small suitcase akimbo in her basket, ranting and doomsaying at the top of her voice. Apparently, some years ago her lesbian lover died and she's been off her hinges ever since. There's Maria "La Sarda" ("the Sardinian," forever known by this moniker even though she's been in Florence 60-odd years)--a tiny, plump, witch-voiced widow with raven-dyed hair whose husband used to beat her, and who is partial to the skinned rabbits' heads my father-in-law supplies her for use in her Sardinian brews. Tullia, another old widow (we're rife with them)--so big-boned she looks like she could tear a man to pieces with her bare hands--often shows up at a strategic hour at my in-laws' house and stands beside the table, in tears, bewailing her widows' lot throughout their dinner, or at least until she's invited to sit down and eat.
I've only heard tell of a certain Valkiria (that's Valkyrie--can you imagine having such a name?!); I've never met nor seen her around. Legend has it she's morbidly obese and can't leave the house--one sees only her husband, Vittorio, scurrying about the neighborhood procuring victuals to take home to her. Maria Grazia, another heavy-weight, with a voice like a hen being slowly eviscerated--is to be avoided at all costs. If she manages to corner you, she will blather on and on until you begin to drool and your eyes roll back in their sockets. Margherita ("Daisy"), is an ancient, toothless, snow-haired crone who always sits on a tiny stool in front of her building, croaking "ciao bello!" to all the bambini and cadging groceries and handouts from any passersby with plastic shoppers in hand.
Then there's Don Germano, the sweet-yet-curmudgeonly chain-smoking club-footed priest, who is so infirm he can barely stand and deliver the homily (well, at least they're always brief). Our neighborhood convent boasts a small coterie of cloistered Benedictine nuns--all of them decrepit yet eternally girlish, in the way of women who have been cut off from men, the world, and dvd's of Sex and the City. There's Balestri, the local handy-man--a glossy-domed, ham-faced geezer who totters purposefully up and down the street in his weighty tool-belt, lugging power-saws, two-by-fours and ladders.
Our postino, Giovanni, is perma-tanned and handsome as sin, always jovial, and possessing the utterly relaxed air--endemic in many government employees--of one who never, ever works too hard or takes things too seriously. Lisetta (or "little Lisa"), a putty-lump of an old biddy with a voice like a sandpiper, is so averse to the (admittedly) voracious Tuscan-variety of mosquito that she goes around all summer wearing long-sleeves and trousers whose ends are secured with rubber bands, and a large hat covered with a gauzy veil--like some strange geriatric Florentine beekeeper.
I could go on, of course. But I wanted to relate the story I heard recently from Signor Coniglio (I prefer to think of him as Mr. Rabbit; it sounds rather fairy-tale-like in English). He's an old gentleman, egg-shaped, kind-faced, with a small, elegant mustache, who works as a part-time gardener at the rather grand villa up the hill behind our house. He is also a volunteer driver for our neighborhood Misericordia--the ages-old charitable medical/ambulance corps. I have a soft spot for Mr. Rabbit because of a kindness he showed me a few years ago. My daughter Gemma, then three, had seen fit to stick a small bead up her nose, and I needed to get her to the hospital so it could be removed safely. I walked her over to the Misericordia and Mr. Rabbit drove us to the emergency room. He stayed with us and even helped me, the doctor, and two nurses hold the banshee-like Gemma down while the bead was extracted--then drove us home, chatting softly and amiably all the way.
One day recently, on his way up to the villa, Mr. Rabbit stopped in our garden and, for reasons I could not fathom at the time, told his story.
"You know that I come from Sicily--my wife and I came up here in the 1950's. Well, I was born and raised in Palermo. My given name is Castrense, Castrense Coniglio, though I've always gone by Enzo. [Castrense, which is a decidedly odd name for a child, was an obscure medieval Southern Italian saint whose shrine is in Monreale--though now he does have his own Facebook fan page]
We were poor and my mother had to go outside the home and work. From just shortly after the time I was born, she would leave me in the care of my older brother. He would brutalize me. I have a memory from when I was six months old. How can I remember something from when I was only six months old, you might ask? Doctors have since told me it is impossible to have memories from only six months old, but I tell you I have this very, very distinct memory from that time.
I was alone with my brother and I was crying, as babies do. He became enraged, and took the safety pin from my diaper and jammed the sharp end into my backside. He pushed it in deeper and deeper, as deep as he could. He twisted it. I felt it hit my tailbone, then go in. I was screaming in pain, but he didn't stop, he just kept twisting it into the bone until the pin broke off.
As I got older--old enough to talk, I suppose--my brother would threaten me never to tell that story to our mother or to anyone. He said if our father found out he would kill him. So I protected my brother. To make sure I wouldn't tell, he used to grab my jaw and squeeze so hard I thought it would break, until I swore to him again I wouldn't tell a soul. My jaw and lower face became deformed with these repeated assaults.
I have always suffered from intense spasms of pain in my left leg, as a result of my brother's brutality. Finally, in the '70's, with the availablity of MRI's, the doctors were able to see the source of my pain--the pin that remained stuck in my tailbone. They operated on me to remove it.
Well, they managed to remove part of it--it had rusted, you know--but the rest of the pin remained embedded, too close to a major vein to be safely removed. Over time, layers of bone had grown over it and around it--which the doctor explained was the bone's way of trying to heal itself and minimize the foreign object. It's as if the pin became part of the bone itself. So, you see, I will never be completely free of the pain."
As he spoke, Mr. Rabbit's usually soft, round, mellow voice was edged--just slightly--with a certain rawness, and with what I think was a kind of longing.
For his faith, San Castrense was made a prisoner. His persecutors intended to load him onto a battered boat and send him off into the sea, leaving him at the mercy of the waves, sure that he would sink and drown. But an angel appeared to him and, telling him what trials lay in store, assured him not to despair. The angel said that, whatever fate awaited him, a wonderful place had been prepared for him, a place of peace in which he would be liberated from every horror. And so it happened. According to the legend, San Castrense's boat, quite miraculously, reached the shores of Campania safely. He went on to live his life, in service to others.