Introduction by Jayson Carcione
This was the summer Sicily burned, another summer of lives lost in a graveyard sea – and I keep going back to Maria Messina.
Maria Messina (1887-1944) is a largely forgotten Sicilian writer who wrote about the forgotten – the women behind closed doors and shadow-filled windows, the women isolated by stifling convention, oppressed by crushing poverty, the women left behind by exodus.
She wrote when Sicilian villages were bled dry by mass emigration in the first decades of the last century, when nearly ¼ of the island’s population left for the Americas.
And now, that history is reversed with thousands of people fleeing war, poverty, and climate breakdown arriving in Sicily. They cross the Mediterranean, not in the hulking steamships of the early 20th century, but in inflatable death traps and wooden skiffs.
Messina’s masterful ‘America 1918’ is not an immigrant story of departure, but return. The brutish Petrú has been in America for eight years and his wife, Venera, does what she must to survive. When he finally returns to Sicily, he is a spent man, broken in body and mind by the mechanised brutality of working a clothes press for six hours a day. Venera is scornful of the man who once terrorised her, but is happy when Petrú announces his plan to open a grocery shop. The shop is a success and as Venera thrives, Petrú wastes away, waiting for death and muttering to himself in his own, fading world.
Venera and Petrú’s story haunts me. I think of my own great-grandparents who left Sicily for New York a few years before Messina published ‘America 1918’. I wish I knew their stories. I think about the thousands upon thousands of people today who are dying in a desperate attempt to reach a hostile and indifferent Europe -- their stories lost at sea, their names never to be known.
What better time to recover lost voices.
That Petrù was ever coming back was something Venera hadn’t thought about for quite some time. On Saint Michael’s Day it had been eight years, and eight years is a long time. When summer passes and winter passes, Christmas passes, and then another comes, you even forget about the dead.
Before . . . oh! Before, she thought she’d die because of it. She’d wept, railed, gone without eating for days on end, as though mourning someone in the house. Poor and abandoned, she’d expected nothing but sickness and death. Instead, she’d taken ill but didn’t die. Spring found her with fevers and the sun inviting her to sit out on the doorstep.
A life of hardship! Petrù wrote once a month, each time sending her a few lire. He’d left with the idea of becoming rich and, without ever mentioning his return, ended every letter with the same words: “I’m fine and hope you are, too. Am working like an animal, thinking always of home, and there are moments when I wish I had wings to come back.”
“Wings!” repeated Venera, annoyed. “Does it really take wings? Does he forget that his wife is wasting the best of her youth waiting for him? Or doesn’t he know that a woman can’t support herself on twenty-five lire a month?”
Every letter gave rise to outbursts with Brasi, the cobbler, who lived in the house next to hers. She would spin, he would pound leather; she would sigh, he would comfort her. And yet it did her good to know that at least one of God’s creatures was aware of her worries. In the evening, too, when the little street was empty and the yellow lamplight flickered on the rough cobblestones and dark houses, Brasi would come to sit beside Venera on the step. He always brought his dinner: a piece of bread, a little cheese, or a head of garlic.
“Take some!” he’d say, breaking the bread.
“Thank you, mastro Brasi, but I’ve already eaten.”
“What are you talking about! Your lips are white!”
“It’s that I can’t pay you back, mastro Brasi,” said Venera, biting hungrily into the bread. “My house, you know . . . you could rummage through the whole thing with one sweep of the broom. There’s nothing but poverty in every corner!”
And they would have supper together, almost happy, though they felt themselves to be the poorest and most abandoned ones on the street, with every other door closed and every family gathered round a steaming pot. Sometimes the light would flash on the rough cobblestones, and sometimes it stayed in the streetlamp like it had been gathered up and made smaller.
Only the stars could see them from the dark sky high above.
Venera went to confession often, always trying to persuade the priest to give her absolution as she trembled behind the grate. “Oh Father! I’m like a reed buffeted by the wind, like a hermit in the middle of temptations. . . .”
And Father Olivaro, who was old and saintly, would reproach her severely, but then, seeing that she was sorry, would give her absolution. And Venera left with her soul relieved.
But little by little she stopped going to confession, and whenever she would meet Father Olivaro she’d wrap herself up in her cape so she wouldn’t have to say hello to him. And she no longer got so worked up when she received letters. She just accepted it. Time passed, and it passed; and there were moments when she even forgot she had a husband in La Mèrica. If the neighbor women would ask, “Oh! Venera! And your husband?”
“He’ll come back when God wants. . . .” she’d reply. But it was only her lips that said it.
It seemed like she and Brasi were husband and wife. Brasi would give her what little money he had and tell her: “Find me some soup. Day-old bread isn’t going to do it for me this evening.”
And when the neighbor women shut their doors, Brasi would go into Venera’s house. She was terrified of him. She served him as though he were her master, never even buying a skein of hemp without first asking his permission. Sometimes he beat her, but she didn’t fight back; she didn’t even miss her husband in those ugly moments. Brasi or Petrù, it was all the same. Petrù, who was always in a dark and violent mood, had beaten her like an animal in their two years of marriage. Brasi at least, even if he was rather sickly and moody, had his good days, and if he came across a bit of money, he’d buy wine and pasta, saying: “Let’s live it up a bit just to spite your husband.”
Husband! Eight years are eight years. She hardly ever thought anymore that he might be coming back.
And so when the letter came at the end of the month saying, “As I’m sending this letter off, I’m leaving,” Venera felt the earth give way beneath her feet.
“Scoundrel! He could be here tomorrow, even this evening. Suddenly, just like that . . . as though the house were an inn, always open.”
Did he think he was going to find a celebration in the house? You don’t just leave a woman for years and years alone with no means of support.
But little by little she settled down. A husband is the head of the house. She was his, and he could throw her out, just like that.
Her husband! She remembered him, strong, well-built, violent. . . . She was afraid of him now just the same as if she’d seen a living person rise up from an open tomb, a living being angry and threatening.
But if he’d gotten rich?
She went to confession. She felt the need to be calmed and pardoned. And Father Olivaro, raising his trembling hand behind the grate, absolved her: “It is God who pardons you, God who sees you, miserable creature made of mud.”
And Venera left there with her soul relieved. She set out the few household furnishings and cleaned the house as though it were Easter. A new life was beginning. Terrified, she warned Brasi: “For the love of God, Brasi. . . . It has to be like we never met! A man like that . . .”
And she shivered. But once she rolled up her sleeves to wash the hearth she felt tranquil and at peace again because she’d fulfilled all her duties and was beginning her new life as a married woman, the same as if she’d done nothing but waited for her husband. But she also thought: “He could come back rich. Rich, yes. . . . And then I’ll have no reason to envy massaro Nitto’s wife.”
Petrù arrived in the evening with three large suitcases, wearing a cloth overcoat and felt hat, just like a gentleman. He was the same only much more pale, almost angry, like a living person coming out of a tomb. As for the rest, he hadn’t changed. It was him, with his broad, squared-off shoulders, one slightly lower than the other, and his slow walk.
When he came in he embraced his wife, then threw his hat on the bed just like he’d used to toss his cap.
“So, Venera?” he exclaimed looking around.
The terrified woman couldn’t unknot her tongue. She felt she was dreaming. It seemed that eight years were only eight days and that her husband had never left home. He walked around the room with a sleepy look, as though he were looking for something, as though he didn’t feel he was in his own house.
“Do you want something to eat?” Venera finally asked.
“Yes, I’m hungry.”
Venera knelt down in front of the clean fireplace. She lit the fire and blew forcefully, getting red up to her eyes from the heat and emotion. One moment it seemed that her husband had always been there, at that hour, waiting for his dinner; the next she was trying to make sense that he’d even returned and that from here on out she would have to live together with him. Petrù tasted the soup, then pushed the plate away.
“Don’t you like it? Oh . . . that’s right, now that you’ve become a gentleman . . .”
“I haven’t become a gentleman. I’m sick,” responded Petrù.
Venera stared back at him. There was a streak of gray in his thick hair.
“At least . . . at least you made your fortune?” she ventured.
“You were gone for so long! You would have been better off coming home sooner.”
“That much is true. Better than coming back now, old, poor, and sick.”
Venera heard only one word, and she repeated it, taken aback.
“Poor, absolutely, like the worst of beggars.” He followed his own intimate reasoning that Venera couldn’t grasp. Looking at her coldly, he said: “Don’t make such a face. We’ll have enough to get by.”
They didn’t say anything else because they had nothing more to say to one another. What had gone on in the past and what each of them carried in their hearts like a weight, no, that they could never confess. And they hadn’t yet had time to find something in common that might unite their lives.
Venera washed the dishes in a corner by the fireplace. While her husband got into bed, she lined up the small chairs against the wall. Then she walked around the room for awhile, unsure of what to do, and finally began to undress slowly.
Petrù had seemed the same when he first arrived, but he was another person. He was still a handsome man, tall and robust, but now his one higher shoulder was bent, and his cheeks were gaunt. And a wrinkle carved in the middle of his forehead gave his eyes an expression of fierceness and pain that wasn’t there before. He now stayed silent for long periods of time as though preoccupied by a fixed thought, and he observed everyone and everything with suspicion. At times he would stand just gazing about with the distracted air of someone who appears to be looking for something and then suddenly forgets what it is.
A few weeks after his return, he stretched out on the bed board and announced to his wife: “I’ve rented out don Ferdinando’s store.”
“To do what?”
“I want to open up a grocery.”
Suddenly, Venera cheered up considerably, and from that moment on she showered her husband with all kinds of attention and consideration. But he just lowered his head, remembering that first evening when his wife had repeated: “Poor?” with that stunned look on her face.
The grocery store took off quickly, with all kinds of things coming in from il Continente. And rather than pay an outsider, Petrù taught his wife how to keep the books, how to weigh,
and how to slice. As people crowded around the counter, husband and wife took in money by the ton because in their store you could find fresh, quality products the likes of which had never been seen in don Calogero’s shop.
But Petrù wasn’t happy. One day he said: “Venera, success has come, but my health is gone.”
It was the truth. He ate little and suffered constant stomach pain.
“Over there your body doesn’t realize it, but in the peace of the village you feel the effects,” he continued. “In La Mèrica they ruin us. No one can escape it. It’s like droplets of water
that corrode a rock.”
He asked himself why he’d worked; who he’d come back for. . . . He was as alone here in his town as he’d been in the huge American city. He suffered a burning, unquenchable thirst.
“I feel like my stomach’s in shreds,” he’d complain. “All I did was work a clothes press, six hours a day, pressing pleats, nothing else. An iron so heavy it ripped my stomach in two.”
He called the doctor, who was puzzled. “It’s a new illness!” he repeated, observing Petrù.
The doctor prescribed cool liquids and just to be sure put him on a diet of broth and milk. Petrù followed his instructions faithfully. He even stopped going to the shop because the smell of fresh cheeses brought on a feeling of weakness, a violent and irresistible desire to eat that would then make him cry like a baby. And he wanted to get better. But he got worse.He would spend whole days seated on the bed with his hat thrown back on his head and his restless gaze fixed on the door.
If friends stopped by to keep him company, he heard their conversations without ever listening to them. Whenever he changed positions he would sigh heavily or bite his lip in pain. And he became silent. If he did speak, he retold the story of his trip to La Mèrica, using the same words. “I went there,” he always concluded, “so I could open a grocery store.”
And he never added anything that might help explain what he was thinking. What he wanted to say was that he’d wasted his life for nothing. With his eyes on the door, he seemed to be waiting restlessly for someone who never showed.
He knew death would come, today or tomorrow. And he was afraid of death.
Venera would put the pot of broth on the fire and then go out. At noon, when the store closed, she busied herself for a few hours tending to her husband: “Do you want soup? Milk? Do you want me to plump up the mattresses? Do you want to put on a wool sweater?”
He didn’t want anything. He sipped his broth and forced liquids down, overcoming his nausea with the pained hope of getting better. He now answered his wife’s questions only with gestures, but gradually he came to enjoy her attentions and would say to his friends: “A man without a wife isn’t a man.
Only a wife takes care of us and looks after us the way no other woman can.”
Venera ran the store better than a man. The daily handling of money, the constant reaching for Swiss cheese and mortadella, had given her a new purpose. Having put on some weight and now dressed in the finest wool and always cheerful, she was a consolation to see.
And since Petrù had abandoned the store, Brasi no longer worked as a cobbler and instead just hung around the doorway, yawning between jars of preserves and a barrel of dried herring. He was waiting to become boss of the shop so he, too, could get behind the counter and wear a nice cloth apron.
Venera wasn’t in a hurry, however. As things stood, she felt like a queen. With her husband sick and in need of medical attention, she was free to do what she wanted. And Brasi, not wanting to be cast aside, now treated her like a lady. If a poor relative stopped by to ask, “How’s Petrù doing?” Venera would respond rudely. “Better. He’s better!”
And then, turning to the vendors with her knife raised above the prosciutto, she would add: “Vultures! They’re all vultures! As if the poor man hasn’t earned his money.”
Needy relatives were the only thing that worried her. Petrù had brothers and nephews who were dying of hunger, and in a moment of weakness he could write who knows what kind of nonsense into his will.
But had Petrù made a will? No one could understand that man. What was he thinking? What did he want to do?
“He’s making me crazy,” said Venera. “It’s like he lives in another world.”
Was he tormented by some regret? Was he hoping to get better or had he resigned himself? Uncommunicative, taciturn, and consumed by suffering, he was plagued by one fixed and painful thought. And he spoke simple words, sometimes even nonsense, with a sigh that made his broad chest heave. Often he would repeat: “I came back to start up a grocery.”
But he wasn’t saying it to his wife, or to his friends, but to an invisible someone that only he could see, terrified, there at the closed door.
Born in New Jersey and raised in New York, Jayson Carcione now lives in Cork, Ireland. His short fiction has appeared in The London Magazine, The Forge, Lunate, Epoque Press, Passengers Journal, Across the Margin, Dark Winter Literary Magazine, and elsewhere. He has been nominated for a Best of the Net 2024 and his fiction highly commended in the 2020 Sean O'Faoláin International Short Story Competition.