“The various effects which from love spring
By one same madness are brought into play.
It is a wood of error, menacing,
Where travellers perforce must lose their way;
One here, one there, it comes to the same thing.
To sum the matter up, then, I would say:
Who in old age the dupe of love remains
Deserving is of fetters and of chains.”
Ludovico Ariosto, “Orlando Furioso”
This is all Ludo’s idea.
Not that I’m not flattered. Or slow to say yes.
That said, three weeks into my stay, I’m still not sure of the wisdom of the thing. What is it the children will learn about me, beyond what they’ve already seen or heard?
My misjudged, stumbling attempts to walk down villa corridors. My undignified, grunting collapses into chairs. What must the children already think of me, their peculiar great-uncle. The crazy old man, all skin and bone and watery red eyes. Who is he, Mama? Why is he here?
Overnight lightning hasn’t settled my nerves any - humid, restless sheets; shattered air, hammering rain blown from the cool, lofty Alps to our north.
Sleep, when it came, was barely a release, full of dreams of older, deeper anxieties. Tugged or severed strings dropping me to the ground.
The day, then, meets me hours before I’m ready to greet it.
Sounds of early morning Milano pull me from my bed (the way sound ripples around the place, muffled and softened by an abundance of wall coverings, is still a curiosity). The drift of moments lost pulse through the years, unbidden yet urgent; I feel them press. Should I remain here? Am I in trouble?
And then, I ask you again - what about those children? A niece and two nephews. Their eight offspring. Eight! I’ve less chickens, back on the farm.
I hid from them at first. More young, soft surfaces around whom sound behaves differently. Too many new faces, after so many years alone.
Yet here I am. A previously unacknowledged terra incognita of the Cusmano family. My presence here might be troubling for others too. How many of my discoveries over the last month, travelling with Edo and Ludo, are widely known here?
And, and, and. This whole thing is overwhelming.
Despite all this, Ludo is right.
“This way”, he’d said, wrapping his arm around my shoulder in what I suspect is already a habit. “This way, Uncle, you can make up for lost time with all of them at once. How long would it take otherwise?”
I overlook any veiled reference to my age and condition.
I’m old, yes, but look older. Bald other than a few spidery wisps above my ears. Near toothless. A skull dried and mottled by decades of southern sun. The bent-spined, skinny-legged shuffle of alms-seekers. Small pebbles strung and hanging from an emaciated neck still crimson and angry from the reintroduction of daily shaving.
Since breakfast I’ve been considering what I, the brother of Granpa Edo, might say to them all, this house full of youth and future promise.
Ludo has told his sisters, Pia and Isabetta, to tell their offspring that I am (hear this) ‘a very famous storyteller’. Hah! I’m already run up the flagpole, feet off the ground, flapping in the breeze of building expectations set without my approval or involvement.
Here I am, then, sitting nervously in one of the many reception rooms in Edo’s villa, less than half a mile south of the Duomo. Behind me, through a bank of ornate glazed doors, stretches a broad garden courtyard. The sky shows no hint of the previous night’s storm.
The first of my guests arrive, brought in by Serena, Ludo’s wife. Her curtsy is, I confess, a pleasant and welcome distraction. Her children, a boy and a fresh-faced girl all silks and white cottons, maintain a wary distance, moving to the chairs furthest from me.
The dam is breached, and in come the other six, boys and girls of mixed age. That’s Matthia, almost fourteen, nursing a look that’s half scowl, half reluctant curiosity. I’ve no doubt he’d rather be elsewhere.
To my story then. How much of it do they already know? The bare bones, I imagine. Even if Edo hasn’t told them, Ludo would have stepped in with something appropriate.
Will my choices - what to share, how to share it - bruise any future affection for me? An old man with his strange ways. I wouldn’t blame them. I’d probably feel the same aversion. Instead, perhaps, my story will simply wash over them - a passing breeze barely felt, on afternoons quickly forgotten.
Either way, I’m quaking a little.
I’m about to clear my throat when heads turn towards the sound of unhurried footsteps reaching us.
“Hello, my little ones. Are we all looking forward to Uncle’s stories?”
It’s Hadice, their grandmother.
I didn’t expect her.
She moves amongst them to the last remaining seat, a broad sedan, and pats her lap. “Come, Caterina. Come sit with me. If my hearing fails me, you can help fill in what I miss.”
The youngest girl, carrying more than a hint of how her grandmother appeared in her own younger days, climbs up beside her, the warmth of the woman’s promised embrace already playing across her face.
Hadice’s eyes, brown and clear even now, sparkle from the light entering the room over my shoulder. The dress she wears, despite the hour, suggests the best of evening finery. Wishing to look her best?
“Children, have you been looking forward to hearing Uncle Nico’s stories?” She glances briefly across at me. “I know I have. It’s been so long since I had the pleasure.”
A second glance, more deliberate, stays on me for a longer moment. The air around the back of my neck cools a mark or two; or perhaps my own skin has momentarily flushed.
This will not do.
If I don’t start now, I fear I never will.
“Yes. Hello, everyone. I’m your great-uncle Nico. Your Granpa’s brother. And it’s so very good to meet you all properly. A real honour and pleasure for me. Have your parents told you about what we’ll be doing?”
Several nods. One quiet “Yes, sir”.
I tell them my full name. Nicola Cusmano. Just like my own Papa’s. That I have spent all of their lives, and all of their own parents’ lives, hiding out, living, on a remote island off the northwest coast of Sicily. Did they know where Sicily is? Secondly, that I’d spent much of that time on a hill farm, in the company of my best friend Baiardo. Pretty much since his birth, in fact.
“But do you know that Baiardo, my longest and dearest companion, is a mule?”
It’s good to hear some hesitant chuckles. Small eyes widening just a little.
“And I miss him terribly. I’m told I spent almost thirty years in his company. For more than twenty of these, he was my only companion. We spent hours together every day, he and I, telling each other stories. He’s a poor old thing, now. So if you don’t mind, while I tell you about your Granpa and me, about our adventures together, I’ll just pretend that my friend is just over here, in the corner, quietly listening in with us.
Polite nods. From Hadice as well as the children. “I think that will work really well, don’t you?”
(C) Graham Bullen, April 2022
An old man sits in his brother’s house, amongst grownup nephews and nieces he has never known. Imagining himself back on the remote Sicilian island he has been hiding on for decades, he tells the story of his life.
For those listening, it is a tale of adventure, wealth and fame. Of The Cusmano Brothers, the unrivalled court entertainers of Renaissance Palermo. Of Edo, The Puppet Master. For the teller, it’s a final chance to set the record straight, and confront the fundamental truths of his life.
Lean in with him, the most extraordinary of storytellers, and travel through a century in which a family is torn apart by ambition, jealousy, and the saddest of all misunderstandings.
Is it too late, or will his story finally bring peace to them all?