It was the night before Christmas Eve. The clock had just struck midnight, and a thick blanket of damp air hung over Villaggio Coppola. The towering cement buildings, crowded as beehives, were barely visible, and the murmur of the sea reigned over an otherwise tomblike silence. But every so often, the pop of a firecracker or the roar of an engine broke the calm in the streets.
The schoolteacher Antonio Castrese, leaning against the windowpane, concluded that this was no longer a separate world. There was no doubt about it. From then on, he would consider it his own, since everything that his eyes fell upon was becoming dear to him. And nothing would dissuade him any longer. Not the dim avenues with their sparse streetlamps reflecting on the wet pavement, nor the shabby Christmas lights, which he had always loathed, nor the hordes of beachgoers, who took the coast by storm in summer, not to mention the misdeeds of all the people as they dealt with their lives from morning to night. He would even turn a blind eye to the gunshots that left a body on the asphalt every so often. Sipping from the glass he was holding tightly, he told himself that this swarm of souls in torment was still better than the rundown neighborhood in Naples where he had been watching time die for fifty-some years. In this place, everything made him feel at home, down to the young Africans in the street, who were cackling and chatting noisily despite the cold and the late hour. He even smiled at one of them. Another, who was wearing a red beret that drooped over his ears, seemed to glance his way, furtively.
From the third floor of the condominium, looking out over the landscape disfigured by man, he kept smiling. And everything pleased him. Even the gigantic Christmas tree in the deserted intersection, the balconies and windows with strings of lights peeking through the haze, down there, in the distance. Yes, he smiled softly, even he, who had always promised himself he would leave at the hanging of the first lights and return when every trace of Christmas was gone.
That night, Antonio Castrese thought he was so drunk he could feel the ground swaying beneath him. But even more than the wine, it was the state he'd plunged into at that strange feeling that had pervaded him even before he'd started drinking. So as not to awaken from his daydream, he withdrew into the semi-darkness, convinced he didn't deserve this happiness. He couldn't have this kind of luck—because what was happening was a miracle, of the sort he had never dared imagine, not even in a dream.
So, turning toward the girl absorbed in oiling her bramble of kinky hair, he exclaimed, “It's you—you're the miracle!”
He couldn't believe his eyes, and yet there she was, at arm's length, within his grasp, smiling at him with her rows of white teeth and her big milky eyes glowing in the light of the candles placed around the room. He felt like raising his glass and toasting to her.
Her name was Ahou Cunégonde Denambili, she was twenty years old and had been born in one of the forty-six villages that, down there, near the equator, comprise the tribe of the Abigì. She'd been saddled with Ahou, her traditional name, because it was the name of one of her father's sisters. And Cunégonde, because she was born on February 3rd which, on her family's missionary calendar, was the day of St. Cunegonda, but nobody called her that. Denambili, which means “money is always useful,” had never been explained to her. One fact, though, was certain: in this name, which seemed to symbolically represent her existence as a black woman destined to live among whites, she foresaw the bitter signs of her fate. But like so many other African girls, she had yet another name: Maria. That's what they call all the girls in Africa who are with a white man or who want to be. To tell them apart, they add on the man's name. Maria, for example, at least that night, felt like Maria di Antonio.
The teacher tiptoed to her bedside where he kneeled down to look into her eyes. And then, two tears rolled down his cheeks.
“Is it shameful for a man to cry?” he asked.
“No, but no good. Why you crying?” Maria answered.
“I don't know. But I don't mind. I haven't cried for so long, not since I was a child.”
Then, sitting on the edge of the bed, she took his face in her hands and softly chanted an incomprehensible lullaby. From the other part of the house, where Maria's sisters were getting ready for bed, came two more voices and then three, and a soft chorus with an ancient flavor, from far away, filled the room.
Maria stopped singing and kissed him on the mouth with her big lips. She arose and joined her sisters, and they fell into a thick chatter.
The smell of the cinnamon from the kédjénou, the meat and vegetable stew that the girls had prepared for dinner, still lingered in the air. But it was only noticeable at times, since it was overpowered by the more intense smell of the jasmine incense that was burning just beyond, behind the curtain that separated the two spaces. And it was all a heady mixture of fragrances.
He undressed and lay back on the bed, motionlessly watching their shadows swaying against the light behind the sheer curtain. His heart overflowing with desire, he listened to their laughter and their cadenced speech, which was like an unintelligible but comforting prayer. And when he saw Maria emerge from the semidarkness and unclasp the pagne around her waist with a move that would have made a ballerina envious, he was swept away by a wave of desire.
The young woman had a graceful figure, but her shapely legs seemed like two columns placed on guard for a slight paunch and a prominent backside. Gazing at him with her dusky pupils floating in a sea of white, she lay, light, at his side like a petal dropped by the hands of an uncertain lover. Her taut breasts, parted just enough, seemed like an offering from the heavens, for him and only him. And so the schoolteacher, lying on his side, began to caress that velvety smooth black skin. At his every touch her muscles contracted and Maria trembled and arched her back. She slid down the sheets and then rose upward, arching her back. And when he made his way over her sweet, smooth mound, he was consumed by its pleasant fragrance. He remembered that Maria had told him about a whole slew of charms she wore at her waist and incense and powder she used to perfume the intimate areas of the body, with names like “Torment,” “Desire,” “Darling, don't go.” They were all strong, so that when a woman moved and emanated these scents she had been steeped in for so long, for a man it was a snare just waiting to go off, a direct plunge into an oblivion of the senses. And so it was for him. Down there in Africa they had taught Maria that they were no good, that honest Christian girls shouldn't use them. But she was in Italy and had left honesty behind.
“What's this one called?”
“White Christmas,” she said, laughing.
They made love, giving themselves to each other, eyes locked, their heads full of cinnamon, jasmine, and “White Christmas,” until Maria fell into a deep sleep.
But he, who always stayed awake deep into the night, struggled to fall asleep. He lay there watching her, thinking back on the many sleepless nights spent in front of the television without a single thought going through his head. Often the early sun caught him asleep with his head on the table.
Slipping beneath the covers so as not to awaken her, it occurred to him that these nocturnal vigils were nothing but the rebellion of his conscience, a sense of guilt for having squandered an existence in monotony. An existence that had befallen him by chance in the lottery of life, that didn't feel like his but that had been yoked upon him, passively accepted. For some thirty years Antonio Castrese had followed the same route: home, school, school, home, without any other scenario on the horizon. Not even teaching was fulfilling for him. He had confined himself in a suburban night school, dispensing what little knowledge he had to working students, or older kids in need of a middle school diploma. Just one activity, though, was able to remove him from all this idleness: painting. He tried to cheat time with trompe l'oeil. And he produced his works with the mastery and monastic patience of which only a solitary person is capable. But sloth gripped him to such an extent that a single painting sometimes took years and years.
In the semidarkness, brightened by the colored flames of the Christmas tree that he had given Maria a few days earlier, he began to pace to and fro, a blanket around his shoulders. The cold had become piercing. In the silence of the apartment he could hear only the muffled click of the lights and the heavy breathing of the girls sleeping on the other side of the curtain.
Meanwhile, outside, the fog had swallowed everything.
If Maria's ardor had quenched the fire that blazed in him, the river of wine had not been able to quell the effect of the kédjénou and its spices. His throat was parched. So he went into the kitchen and opened the fridge, its light revealing his scrawny legs. He grabbed the bottle and took a big gulp. Sated, though not completely, he went back to Maria and settled into the chair across from the bed to watch over her, at least for a while, before lying down by her side. Gazing at her disheveled hair poking out from beneath the covers, he thought about how that young woman had paved herself a new way with new paths, which now seemed illuminated by the changing colors of a wide rainbow. And it had been just three months.
He had met her on a warm morning in late September. She was on the side of the Domizio coastal road, the stretch of highway that borders Varcaturo, where on the other side of the long pine forest dozens of seaside resorts pop up one after the other. She was alone, hiding in a thicket of reeds. A little further ahead, a police car had stopped some of her companions who had tried to escape through the marshes of the uncultivated fields. Then, he thought and acted in unison. He pulled over, opened the door and asked her to get in. He had always toyed with the idea, but had never found the courage to go through with it. That time, however, turned out to be fateful.
He had never been with a whore and he didn't know what to say. She was the only one who talked. With some gestures and a few words, she directed him down a country road that brought an end to her escape in a paved courtyard, where a peeling sign bore the name “Motel le Dune.” All around, among the sparse vegetation of a few eucalyptuses, there was a series of wooden shanties covered with metal sheets that were enflamed by the sun. The mere idea of staying there for a single moment made one's skin crawl. A disgusting place run by a Pole. Under the marquee, another placard indicated the hourly rates for parking and a room. Thirty euros. It gave the impression of all else but a motel, and yet there was such a bustle that the crowd at Christmas mass was nothing in comparison. One Maria went in and another came out. One of Sergio's and another of Mario's, one of Franco's and another of Carlo's. So many black Marys, none of them Sorrowful.
Once there, safe from prying eyes, Maria took a baggie out of her purse and passed it to him, then she removed her tight red leggings and settled onto the bed with her legs parted. Actually, she wasn't bad looking at all. Antonio Castrese stayed on his feet, silent. He gazed at her and her hair that looked like a honeycomb filled with bumblebees, and he didn't know what to do. He felt an urge to run away, leave her in that scorching oven with its nauseating odor, but when she flashed him a wide grin of gratitude and invited him to make himself comfortable, he felt like he was allowed to take her, without regard for anything else. In an indecent way of which he had never suspected himself capable. And she let him, as the sounds of all the commotion echoed in the courtyard.
When they finished and he asked the price, she said that for him there was nothing to pay. That if he hadn't happened by, she would have been sent back home for sure. She had just left Africa to join her sisters who were already in Italy. From then on, she became his Maria, Antonio's Maria. Even despite the pimps she had to answer to. In the months that followed they continued to see each other every so often. And he never failed to show up with a gift: a watch, a special lighter, a camera. Later on they met more regularly. After school he would go pick her up where she was working and would wait for the last client to leisurely finish his business. Then he would come home with her, and sometimes they would stay up talking till late. Maria told him about the village she was from and the ancient legends that reigned there, about her father who had AIDS and spent his time in bed waiting to die, about her mother who did everything possible to feed the other seven children and the grandparents. She told him about Madam Celeste and the ransom she'd have to pay to get her passport back. For this and so many other things Antonio Castrese fell in love with her.
It was Christmas Eve and the morning broke with an unexpected cold. Beside him, Maria had the soundless breathing of someone still traveling in the world of dreams. In contrast, behind the curtain, one of the sisters snored with a cadenced rhythm. The heavy scent of the night hovered in the air, intermingling with the smells of the food and the other fragrances from the previous evening, while the weak light revealed the disorder of the house. To his eyes, though, it was a world brimming with happiness. Everywhere his eyes fell he found life: in the plastic bin dripping under the window, in the white formica credenza with its cracked glass, in the suitcases resting under a wardrobe without a door. And even in the several knickknacks with an African flair, in the haphazardly strewn clothing. Dots of color here and there that defied that pearly light. The greens, reds, and blues seemed, like in a Kandinsky painting, frenzied slices of life. And he realized that he had woken up just as he had fallen asleep, with his heart full of emotion over this miracle that wouldn't die. His bones cramped, his head scrunched down, he walked over to the bathroom, barefoot on the freezing floor. He put a pot of water on the electric stove and washed himself as best he could, trying to fend off the desire to cry that was rising inside him. Then he came back by the bed and silently dressed, moving almost on tiptoe. Before leaving, he sank down into the chair and stayed there watching Maria sleeping for a little while. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed something hanging out of the purse at his feet. It was a photo album, one of those plastic ones that they give you when you have photos developed. There were pictures of Maria, by herself and with her sisters, and with a group of friends from her homeland. All happy and smiling, posing in front of a restaurant in the country. One of them, however, caught his attention. There was Maria clutched in a man's arms. He was tall and he wore a red wool beret. He had big eyes too, black like pitch floating in a sea of milk, and scars on his burnished face, like poorly healed gashes. And Antonio Castrese had the impression that he'd seen this man before. In that instant, his girl opened her eyes and looked at him with the bewildered expression of a child who had woken up with a start.
“That Mark, my boyfriend,” she answered, when he showed it to her. “He in prison,” she added, yawning.
Antonio Castrese gave her a good morning smile, then he squeezed in beside her and embraced her, while he was overtaken by the “White Christmas” still wafting up from her body.
“You go already?”
“And later you see me?”
“Sure, I'll see you . . . ” he answered, with the hint of a smile.
“In a couple days.”
“Good Christmas to you, then,” she said.
“What are you doing?”
“Friends come. Everyone here for chop and then we go church.”
Antonio Castrese reached into his heavy jacket and pulled out a folded wad of cash.
“Here . . . This is your Christmas gift . . . It's the five thousand euros you need for the lawyer.”
Maria grabbed the money and quickly set it on the bedside table, then lowered her eyes, perhaps out of embarrassment for not being able to act surprised enough in front of him. Saving her from the predicament, he rose, gave her a squeeze and headed for the door, but she rushed after him, barefoot. Meanwhile, one of her sisters crossed the room, stretching her bones. Thus they parted, in silence, though they were saying that they already missed each other.
Maria had talked to him about needing that money before, but she had completely forgotten. She told him about it one night, when she had begun to trust him, with her heart in pieces, confessing her troubled relationship with a reckless young man who was also from her country. He was the first guy she met upon her arrival and the first she fell in love with. He was wrapped up with the mafia as a dealer in a dirty drug ring. And her warnings to stay out of trouble were to no avail. But he had been arrested and risked a serious sentence. And he had asked her help to pay for a lawyer. Now Maria wanted to get out of the whole thing and the only way to do it was to give him the money and the sack at the same time. Only then could she hope to be left in peace.
Early in the morning, Antonio Castrese drove through Villaggio Coppola, which was already teeming with people, despite the bitter cold and the possibility of snow. The air was heavy and gray. The fish markets, with suspended cables, kept their lamps on, which in turn reflected in the crates that overflowed with a whole cornucopia of goods, eels and fish galore. And in the cafés that were open people came and went, loaded like mules with packages and bags of their purchases. Near a street vendor selling fireworks, a few kids were scaring people in the crowd, throwing little firecrackers at their feet and running off. His car moved almost at walking pace, and it took an eternity to reach Via Domitiana, where the road then turned toward Naples.
Nothing had made him anticipate it, but this was to be one of those days that remained engraved in memory for a long time, the kind whose bitterness is not easily diminished by time. As he got further away from that place, he noticed that his strange feeling of happiness was dissipating, making way for a kind of suffering he had never known. He had the taste of contrasting flavors in his mouth, like when one eats a fruit with sweet flesh but a sour pit. The thought of failure overtook him. For a moment, looking at himself in the rearview mirror, he found his face suddenly aged. He examined the suddenly whitened crown of hair around his otherwise bald head, the hooked nose that protruded more than usual, his lined face, the deep wrinkles on his temples that looked as if a bird of prey had scratched him with its talons. In the blink of an eye he realized that, little by little, he was growing older and older as he drove away. Nothing like the self-assured man he felt like when he was with Maria. But what was doing this to him? What was this vacillation between pain and joy? He looked into his little bleary eyes and it came to him. The guilt, he told himself. Is that what it was? But about whom? About what? Was it about Maria, who seemed like a castaway battered by the waves, or his wife and daughter, who had been waiting for him for days, who vainly attempted to throw him a rope to pull him out of this stormy sea? He began to feel a mild physical uneasiness, and so he tried to find a reason for absolution in the many channels of his mind. And he found one. He thought: life follows its course and that everything that happens is part of a logic of the possible. No tradition, no vow, no religion could ever dispute such an obvious truth. But this, however, did not alleviate the sense of despair that had gripped him.
Meanwhile, the sky had turned black and the air charged with electricity.
Once at home, he dragged himself from one room to another in the semidarkness. Without turning on the lights, he inspected the beautiful house he had inherited from his mother, with its empire style furniture, wrought iron trivets, little clawfoot tables and columns. He followed his shadow as it glided along the hallway mirrors and was almost afraid. He went into his bedroom and came out immediately, he entered his daughter's room and jumped at the squeak of a little teddy bear he'd stepped on. Finally he closed the door and returned to the dark living room, where he sank down on the sofa, examining the painting he had started a few months earlier. It was a detail from an illustration by Tyrone Geter. It depicted an African girl sitting at a table, staring out with an arm resting on the back of a chair. For a while he lingered, fantasizing about the girl's parted lips, and lost himself in the thoughts that, one after the other, pressed down on him.
The ring of the telephone made him start.
“Hi Papa, when are you coming?”
“Hi darling, how are you doing?”
“Good. When are you coming?”
“Soon, darling, in a little bit. Are you happy over at your grandparents' house?”
The teacher heard his wife asking for the receiver, and his daughter insisting on talking to him.
“Did you get back home late last night?”
“Yeah, I went to dinner with some of the teachers, and got back home around midnight. You know, the good luck toast, then chatting with everyone . . . “
“Sure . . . Listen, I can't hold my parents off anymore . . . they keep asking about you… they ask questions . . . “
“I'll be there for dinner, I just have a little work to get in order. I'm leaving this afternoon and should be there in a few hours, traffic permitting. Right now all the roads are packed.”
“That's why I told you to come with us two days ago.”
“Clara, we already talked about this . . . you know that the country depresses me and anyway I had a few things to finish up at school . . . I'll see you tonight.”
“Fine . . . did you get the present for Martina?”
“Yes, I have it here. Ciao.”
He hung up without waiting for his wife to say good-bye. For fear of another call with that interrogatory tone, which he wouldn't have been able to take, he unplugged the phone. Then, wearily sinking back down onto the couch, he gave in to the enchanting stare of the girl sitting at the table in the café, who was the spitting image of his Maria. And he fell asleep.
Suddenly, though, the deafening sound of firecrackers, as if they were going off right in his house, woke him up with a start. Although in his head he had the traces of a myriad of dreams, which were already fading away, leaving only a vague impression, he felt like he had only dozed off for a few minutes. But the neighbors' loud voices, behind the thin wall, made him realize that it was already nighttime. Hours must have gone by. In the semidarkness, then, he looked at his wristwatch and saw that it was almost eleven. His mind flew right to his wife and his in-laws, who would definitely be worried. He grabbed the telephone, but remembered he had unplugged it. For a second he paused to think about what to do, and even considered not calling. He told himself that his wife was surely at her wits' end, and who knows what she could be thinking. Then he called, confessing half the truth. He told her that he had wanted to wait for the right time to leave and avoid getting stuck in traffic, but unfortunately, fell asleep. Her response was exactly what he had expected. Silence. Before hanging up she said only: “It's starting to snow . . . Martina and I are here. If you want, you know where to find us.”
Antonio Castrese, though he had the road wide open in front of him, drove in the slow lane and proceeded down the highway without any rush. Every so often two lone headlights whizzed past, blinding him. Although the heater was on full blast, his feet were numb with cold. He thought back on the warmth that had cradled him the night before at Maria's, the array of scents that had lifted his soul, the fruity bouquet of that wine and the floor that had swayed under his feet. He felt her absence so strongly that the feeling of happiness that had left him once he had returned home started knocking again at the doors of his wayward existence. He even felt that a voice urged him from within to follow his path, even if it would be painful. And so it was that, won over by hope, he came up a theory that described him perfectly.
Animals follow their nature. Two clouds that meet generate thunder, rain falls and doesn't dissolve in the air, the earth turns on itself and doesn't plunge into the abysses of the infinite, the sun warms day after day, birds travel thousands and thousands of miles only to return where they were born. A primordial force pushes every being to follow its own destiny like a perpetual dance, and nobody knows how much desire and how much suffering it costs each of them to obey this law.
In an instant, as his heart started to beat faster and faster, he made a U-turn and directed his car toward Villaggio Coppola. At full speed.
It was about to strike midnight. The lights, up there on the third floor, were turned off, and the schoolteacher remembered that Maria had planned on going to the Christmas mass. But he didn't know at which church. Beneath a white canopy of snow that was unlike anything he had ever seen before, he scoured the empty streets one by one. He turned and turned in the hopes of seeing at least a sign, a cross that would show him the way. There wasn't a living soul around, nobody to ask. The cold was harsh, and he was losing hope of seeing her. But all of a sudden, a soft ring of bells made him take heart. And, his heart in turmoil, he followed the sound through the crumbling buildings, like a dog looking for its owner in a crowd of people.
In the wide clearing between him and the dark countryside, he spotted a church that stood out in the whiteness of the lights. It was a grayish cement building, low and wide, without a belltower, more like the bow of a ship than the house of the lord. At that moment, plump snowflakes began to fall from the sky, and all around the landscape seemed like it had been painted by the expert hand of an impressionist. Everything was dotted with white. He parked his car among the many others, and squeezed through the people that filled the clearing, all incredulous before the spectacle. A few steps from the stairs, some dark shapes stood out in the dazzling brightness. It was Maria and her sisters. There were a couple of guys with them, and they were all motionless, noses in the air. Among the others, one in particular caught his attention. A gangly young man with a red beret. He thought he had seen this one before. Suddenly he realized that it was the guy who had been spying on him from the street the night before, the same guy from the photo, her boyfriend, the one in prison. Mark.
How did he get here? he wondered.
He sensed that something didn't add up. At that thought, he felt the ground sway beneath him, and not out of happiness. It was his legs trembling. Perhaps out of fear. He thought back on the theory he had come up with for himself, and told himself that if this was his path then he had to follow it to the end. To pluck up his courage, he plastered a smile on his face and made his way toward them, just as Maria was entering the church with her sisters. He tried to call out to her but the words died in his throat. From the church, meanwhile, the melody of an organ and a song broke out. When he reached the foot of the stairs Mark and his two companions barred the way. The guy stepped in front of him and he was much bigger than he had seemed. Showing the long scars on his face and his two eyes of coal, he kept the schoolteacher from proceeding. The other two advanced, discreetly guiding him to the car and pushing him in the backseat, where they held him tight between them. Maria's boyfriend got behind the wheel and the car lurched into the darkness. They didn't go far. They stopped in a remote clearing, away from prying eyes, and they dragged him out and beat him senseless. They punched his head and his stomach and his back but he didn't fall. He didn't make a sound; his bloody mouth even curved into something resembling a smile. The schoolteacher, Antonio Castrese, yet again felt that strange feeling of happiness pervading and sustaining him. What was happening was, in a sense, even comforting. He was sure that Maria had nothing to do with it. Otherwise, what reason could they have had to keep going at him like that?
He fell to the ground with his head in the mud and stayed like that for a long time. He was so happy that he was in no hurry to get up. With his eyes toward the sky, he lay there, motionless, watching the light snow coming down as if dancing in the air. From who knows where came the sound of a zampogna, as he caught a waft of the scent of White Christmas. He closed his eyes and thought of Maria. When he opened them again he found her there, next to him, wiping his face wet with tears.
“No good you crying.”
“I don't mind. I haven't cried for so long, not since I was a child.”