“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”
(Lipari Island, Sicily, 1619)
They played here as children, the two brothers, no older than I was when witnessing their awkward reconciliation as old men. They would have scampered up here each day without a care in the world. I, by comparison, can hardly catch my breath after the walk from town.
This is Crepazza Point. The Point. I’m finally here, after years of equivocation and excuse. Vulcano’s barren heights, all lurid yellows and whites, are just as Great-Uncle Nico described them, looming out and across that same stretch of water he and Grandfather once believed full of pirates.
Far beyond the age when rolling around in rough grass might be considered endearing - even my youngest grandson might baulk at the idea of such childishness - I nonetheless feel the pull, if for only one sweet moment, of their innocent rough and tumble. Two boys confident in the protection of their parents and their stories.
Yes. I feel it. It’s all around me.
Yet they’ve been in their graves these last thirty years. Even Grandmother, outliving both of them for almost a decade, has lain long beside her husband in the family tomb in Milano. My questioning of local residents, as I walked south from the harbour this morning, furthers the idea that the world has moved on without them; no-one here has ever heard of any Cusmanos or Bellomos. Unsurprising, perhaps - all the old families were cleared out by Barbarossa. The heap of timbers and boards next to the derelict farmhouse at my back holds no hint of my family or their time there. Perhaps it would be more upsetting if it did.
Such forgetting seems peculiarly heartless.
That late summer and autumn in Milano, when I was barely six, sits extraordinary with me to this day. I don’t claim to have detected or understood even a fraction of the emotional currents frothing and flowing around me as Uncle told his story. I try to explain the time’s hold on me to Andrea sometimes, on those rare occasions when a lull in his duties brings him home to me in Siena. “It’s as though I was bewitched, husband. By the way a life can be so full, yet so lost.” He humours me, I know, but does so by encouraging me ever further to find a home for my writing. On his last visit, he petitioned the printers of Venice, seeking their opinion on the likely readership of a Sicilian family saga. If they offer even modest hope, I’m convinced now that I will make this happen.
I twist to my side and pull for the thousandth time the crumpled sheets smothered in Uncle’s handwriting from my shoulder bag. I’m still not comfortable removing them from the protection of their drawer in my writing desk, nestled beneath a window overlooking the city wall and the houses on the north side of Aquila. But to have made my journey without them would, I think, be a cause of much future regret. Loyal companions through all these years, they’re sandwiched between pages filled with writing in my own tiny, ill-formed hand. Full of notes taken from conversations with Edo and Hadice in the years following Nico’s departure to rejoin his friend Baiardo, inked under the spell of an unquenchable need to understand and record.
It doesn’t look like rain, but at its first sign I’ll head down and get these back to the safety of my lodgings.
My own life has in some ways followed that of Great Aunt Rusulia’s, despite being blessed with the children she was unable to have. She spent most of her married life away from her roots, just as I’ve taken up residence in Andrea’s Tuscan homeland. Rusulia’s second misfortune, that of the loss of her husband, gives me frequent worry…will Andrea’s next visit home, or the one that immediately follows it, be our last time together? I pray for the day he decides to come back for good. Perhaps then I’ll shake off such morbid concerns.
Siena has its compensations, though. Despite its persisting obsession with banking and the accrual of money, the drama readings in the piazzas continue to divert and entertain, and polite company is always on hand to show off their latest paintings bought from under the noses of the Firenzi.
By comparison, I hear that Milano’s similar obsessions have all but driven the performing arts away. Leandro’s valiant attempts to persist with puppetry continued several years after his father’s death, but failed to stem the rise of plays and their real-life actors. Even cousin Matthia, the most promising of us all, finally accepted that the future of storytelling really lies with them. Despite this, I look forward to the day when, who knows, tastes might change, and the name of the Cusmanos will once more be spoken of with affection.
Around me up here, the sun’s slow fall into the sea is almost done. Its lower edge touches the horizon to my right, the sea becoming an expanse of burnished, dazzling light. The grass around me turns a blaze of orange that is gone moments later. Gulls begin their graceful spirals to their nests on the cliff side below me.
It’s easy to imagine the pull of such a place, but Nico was never to return here after he left us. Why would he? The ravaging Turk and his own years on Levanzo tore out any lasting reason for him to do so.
He did, and I know this for true, fulfil his promise to his friend, that “Prince among horses. Clever and fearless. Loyal. Swift”, as he named his mule that first night in the barn. I smile still at how his initial kindness brought him so many years of lasting friendship. It was a particularly sad day when we heard from Signor Puleo, about a year later, that he had arrived in Taormina, a small shrunken version of himself, telling of Baiardo’s sad demise.
“I don’t think I hear his voice that way Edo heard Mama”, he’d confessed. “But I do sometimes catch a hint of his wink in the eyes of other creatures. Men and women, sometimes.”
His last days, then, were with Giovi, his other real friend, surrounded by the Baron’s books. I imagine their conversations, each strong in their opinions of any book’s merit, yet looking forward to the moment when, their debate ended, they sit back in their chairs and raise a glass to the world and all the fine words contained within it.
But look now.
I must be getting back. The breeze strengthens, and the light begins to fade. I’ve stood above these towering cliffs at last, having threatened to do so for years, seeing what those two first saw before leaving to make their mark. I’m more determined than ever to share their story. The story of the remarkable Cusmano Brothers, the Master Puppeteers of Sicily.
(C) Graham Bullen, April 2023
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?