Copyright © 2019 Paola Corso. All Rights Reserved.
CATINA’S HAIRCUT A NOVEL IN STORIES by Paola Corso An Excerpt From the short story "The Rise and Fall of Antonio Del Degro" A story told and retold through the generations: father to daughter, grandfather to granddaughter and on to her children, each time changing details that portray the land—the worn face of Italy. Told and retold. But each time, the ending is the same. Antonio Del Negro walked two and a half hours out of San Procopio and back looking for work. He gauged distance by the color of the earth. When it was a sheen of bright green spikes in the lowland, he was a long way from home. As grass began to thin and fade, he approached half way on his return trip, and once the land had become a crust of gray at the base of a steep hill, the longest stretch of his journey home was behind him. Soon he would face Celina and what he must tell her. San Procopio stood on a mountain of rock. After every rainy season, the soil eroded, exposing more. Farmers built half moon lunitti walls around trees to protect the soil from further erosion, but it was futile in this region of Calabria. On the days when Antonio was hopeful, he imagined that each stone was an egg of white and yoke that seeped into the earth and replenished it. When struck by heat and weary, he saw one- legged chickens with no feathers, hopping out of cracked shells. Today he was superstitious: he reached down and separated two stones, one on top of the other along his path, fearing he'd soon find three. But what was sure to multiply were the reasons he must give his wife for not losing faith in him, for not setting her sights on the talk of revolution. As he scaled the hill, Antonio turned around and eyed the plain below. Muddy coats of silt from overflowing mountain streams in the winter had fertilized it. Come summer, the valley would become a malaria-infested swamp, but this time of year, the lowland soil was drained. Earlier that day, he had reached down to scoop a handful. Moist, dark and robust, it almost renewed his belief that if he walked far enough away from his rocky hill town, he could live off the land. But Antonio’s contract to farm a few hectares in the valley wasn't renewed. What he had to tell Celina was that he had no piece of paper from a property owner that named him a sharecropper. He knew as well as the patruni that his shovels for hands and arms as stern as axle rods weren’t enough. The proprietor sought a sharecropping family large enough to farm the land but without too many vucchi inutili, useless mouths to feed. Antonio was once blessed with five sons. Then his twins died in an epidemic. His two eldest left to find work in Switzerland. Both Antonio and Celina lost their parents in an earthquake that killed everyone attending Sunday Mass except for the priest who ducked under the oak altar as the church collapsed. This made an atheist out of Antonio, a man whose only dream for his youngest son was that he die a natural death in San Procopio. At the top of the hill, Antonio faced a lone cypress tree behind his village wall, a mass of unruly stones built after Italy's unification. According to legend, the wall was never intended for defense. Proud San Procopians simply didn't want to give outsiders the impression they never had any good fortune to protect. The sky's twilight was a slow burn to black. As Antonio walked through the archway, the faint sound of a bagpipe blew in the evening breeze. Villagers gathered under a lantern in the piazza to dance to a zampogna player who squeezed his instrument as if he were milking it. They kept beat to the music by clapping loose stones they picked up from underneath their feet. The sound of stone, more stone. Antonio changed his direction. Rather than pass through the square, he chose a quiet mule path with grooves from carriages his father once told him dated back to the Roman Empire. He turned on a dirt road so narrow that he couldn't extend his arms without touching a doorway or window. Antonio stopped to look down at his shoes. They were camouflaged by the dust and blended in with the road. That morning, he had polished the tips but not the heels, convinced that a man always makes an impression when he first approaches. By the time he turned to leave, judgment had already been passed. Now, he would face Celina’s. She waited outside for him on a narrow balcony where clusters of peppers were hung, the loose seeds inside rattling in the wind. She could tell by the way he dragged his feet that they were bubbling with blisters. Because they refuse to form calluses, she thought. His weakness was her strength. Four years ago, when Italy entered the First World War in 1915, she led the attack on a soldier who was confiscating their grain for feeding the army. She and a group of women stormed his loaded wagon, threw the sacks to the ground, and slit them open so they couldn't be lifted without spilling out. After the deed was done and he ran off, she told her husband that she would have defended herself with a farm tool. When he raised his voice in disbelief, she replied coldly, "If I had stabbed that soldier with my pick, wheat would have gushed out of his body. Not blood." Celina, who even parted her hair off center, didn't believe in a middle ground. There was one side or the other. Strands swooped across her forehead, a black moon shadowing the white cotton cloth that covered her hair. She hadn't yet turned 40, but the lines under her eyes were almost as dark as her brows. Droopy lids made her look tired, yet as soon as she uttered a word, they rose as if to reveal piercing weapons behind armor. She peered beneath Antonio's hat. One side of his mustache was visibly wider than the other. He claimed he was farsighted, but Celina knew he intended to distinguish his broom from the other job-seeking perdijornu. This was his way of getting a second glance. Maybe the patruni would look Antonio in the eye, offer him work. Celina shook a tablecloth, but very few crumbs flew into the air. "You left shortly after the cock’s crow, Antonio." "Prosciutto," he replied with a tired voice as he pushed down the sleeves of his muslin shirt. Out of habit he rolled them up to hide the holes on his elbows. "Prosciutto?" Celina repeated, asking her disheveled husband what had happened. "The man who got the contract presented a gift of dried ham. You know what I told the patruni? I held up my two hands and said, 'These are more valuable than the ass of a pig!'" Antonio promised his wife that he would try another landowner tomorrow. Celina shook her head as she tossed the thin tablecloth to one side and began thrashing a quilt against the railing. Sternly, she said, “Maybe there is no tomorrow. Like today."
Read Paola’s Ellis Island essay in The New York Times
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