Beatrice – draft
by Chris Roughsedge
Five men and one woman were in attendance including the condemned. It should be noted that one of the men was, in fact, a sixteen year old boy who was known as Donato but in nineteen fifties Italy there was little distinction between man and boy past the age of fourteen. He was from Umbria but the remainder of those present were all natives of the Commune of Campania. One of the men, Raffaele was late to the event. The location was the basement of an isolated farmhouse in the mountain town of Palo, province of Salerno. As Raffaele entered the rather dank room he noted without comment or discernable emotion, the naked figure hanging via a knotted rope around his neck and threaded through a hook on the northern wall of the basement. A bare bulb in the centre of the ceiling lit the bleak tableau.
The rope stretched from the hook to about three metres from the right of the dying man to the type of mechanical hand winching mechanism one might see for lifting wool or hay bales. The man known as Giuseppe stood by the winch and held it steady against the violent jerking of its burden. The old man was corpulent in a rumpled sort of way and possessed of the grey face of one who was sick. He was dressed crudely in the manner of the rustics of the region, slightly stooped, once tall but now somewhat defeated looking and maudlin. The woman was also tall and heavy set wearing a lab coat and rubber gloves, spattered generously with blood. She looked around forty at a quick glimpse but was, in fact, only twenty three. They stood isolated to the left while Donato attempting to be inconspicuous, leaned against the wall to the right near the winch operator.
If he could he would have merged with wall itself; he was sick to his stomach and frightened. He tried not to tremble nor look at the dying man although he could not help but be surprised that he had an erection. To Donato this was strange but to the more educated in these matters, the robust appendage was a consequence typical of such a death. Raffaele moved from the doorway to stand beside the woman and the old man with whom he exchanged a brief and solemn nod. When Donato saw the three together he noticed the family resemblance. They had the same dark complexion of those from that area but also within the three there attested a bovine, ponderous demeanour, their bodies alone redolent with a weighty and indefinable menace. The same dead eyes peered from the lumpish flesh of their faces.
During the interrogation the man known as ‘la Volpe’ only, had been beaten badly about the head and body; a mixture of blood and saliva created streams down the length of his body and dripped from his penis and his toes to the flagstones below. It was the woman who provided the beating and the implement of her work lay at her feet; a smooth branch that had been hacked off an oak and fashioned into a serviceable and much used club. Earlier, she had greeted the van and its occupants in the farmhouse courtyard. An armed guard closed the gates behind them and watched carefully, his rifle resting across his arm; the woman silently watched Giuseppe and Donato remove their captive from the van who was by now waking up, albeit a little groggy. The farmhouse ground floor windows provided light to their exertions; their captive wasn’t a big man but the burden of his prone figure, nevertheless, caused a grunt or two. She noticed the boy was nervous and inexperienced but a handsome and strong looking fellow, one who may be useful in the future. She kept her distance from the odious Giuseppe who she had always found repugnant, with his bad manners and his lack of familiarity with personal hygiene.
Once in the basement and upon the woman’s instructions Donato, who was by now visibly trembling with fright, had stripped and slipped the noose around their captive’s neck. He was able to stand but was still wobbly while Giuseppe operated the winch causing him to correct his posture with the added advantage of gaining la Volpe’s attention. He seemed to suddenly become aware of his circumstances when the woman stood in front of him, swinging the wooden club in her left hand and with recognition of this cruellest of fates his countenance became a mask of unmitigated terror. He began a high-pitched whine of protest like a wounded dog which became a scream when the first blow landed in the vicinity of his kidneys.
She spent an hour questioning him on matters relating to the identities of various people and their subsequent association with several other people, some of whom were named and others whose names she would like to know and where some of these people went on certain dates and with whom they met and what was said and done. Her voice was monotone and deep, not like any woman of Donato’s experience; but then he had little such exposure.
To Donato it was all very confusing and would have been exceedingly boring if it had not been for the woman’s propensity for punctuating her enquiries with vicious blows to the body and head of ‘la Volpe’ when appropriate answers were not forthcoming. Three times she propped the club against the blood spattered wall to make a note in a grubby notebook she drew from her pocket as a result of the nods and barely articulated words uttered by her victim and occasionally she would signal to Giueseppe who would apply the winch for the purpose of either relief or pain depending on her satisfaction with his replies. Eventually she seemed sufficiently informed to cause her to turn to the old man, who nodded indifferently. Giuseppe was given permission, at this stage, to complete his gruesome task.
They all heard the sickening sound of the la Volpe’s neck cracking and the hangman waited until the body had stilled before releasing the winch, delivering it with a slap back to the cold and now slimy blood-coated floor. The old man sucked on a tooth thoughtfully, murmured something unintelligible to no one in particular and then turned to leave the room followed by the woman and Raffaele. Donato, who was now as grey as the old man and Giuseppe remained.
“Took a while…hung on that one, ha, ha. To be honest I thought the beating would have done him in.” It was Giuseppe who spoke. “Look his cock’s still hard, they call it angelo lussuria you know.” Donato tried not to look but the member in question was hard to ignore; he didn’t want to be there and if he had known what was to transpire he would not have accompanied the older man on his ‘errand’. “What’s a matter kid, looking a bit pale. First time for everything…you’ll get over it.”
Donato had little choice but to be involved, he was reluctantly indebted to Giuseppe for a roof over his head and the few lire he provided in assisting him with his various activities. These activities generally involved collecting ‘taxes’ from the local shopkeepers who could be relied on to cough up with the mere mention of the mysterious la Onorata. When Donato’s father took him to Perugia to catch the train south he pushed an envelope addressed to uncle Giuseppe into his son’s hand and told him firmly to do as he was told. He said it was an opportunity and not to fuck it up.
Donato’s father was a hard man and the son of a harder man. They worked the stony hills that surrounded Lago Trasimeno tending olive trees and vineyards for the local farmers. They were paid little and had less to put in their bellies, hence Donato’s exile. He was the eldest and he would have to go and make his own way in the world. He had been apprenticed for two years to a potter who threw his wares in the Terra sigillata style, a trade that had been handed down from the ancient Etruscans. The red clay of Trasimeno served the potters well until a directive from Perugia limited the mining of the resource and Donato’s employer had to let him go. He was deeply unhappy about the loss of his apprenticeship but what could he do.
La Volpe was drunk when they lured him into a dark alley off Vico Tofa in the seedy Spagnoli district of Naples several hours before. Giuseppe produced a German luger from his coat pocket and hit him hard over the back his head with its complicated handle and la Volpe dropped like a stone. Donato, now alarmed at the unfolding drama was instructed to keep an eye on the prone man who actually started snoring, while Giuseppe drove his old bread van into the alley. They put him in the back of the van and Giuseppe gave him another wack with his Luger for good measure; they had a long journey ahead. I should relate here that it was a long journey in 1951 of five hours due to the terrain but a relatively short one today with bitumen highways and the prominence of tourism in the region. Once they reached the hill town of Eboli, they took the southern inland highway for a while and then onto roads that were old and so dilapidated it was a matter of conjecture as to whether they were roads at all. Giuseppe seemed to know where he was going as they continued moving south and always climbing higher past San Paolo and a great stretch of uninhabited and relentlessly winding pass into the mountains.
They stopped for bread and drink in Serre, a town overshadowed by the impressive Mount Alburni. Giuseppe bought a large bottle of local rough wine, which appeared to Donato his only form of liquid intake; the rougher the better, the boy had tried it and spat it straight out the window in disgust. Before they left he filled and old wine bottle with water from the town well in Piazza Maggio. Two men in black hats and jackets idling in the square eyeballed him and Giuseppe’s van with suspicion. Once they had headed out of Serre there passenger woke groggily and started to moan from the blows he had received. A little line of blood ran from his matted hair down his nose and Donato climbed over the passenger seat to give him some of the water. He moaned some more but without conviction and soon passed out again. When he resumed his seat Giuseppe looked over at him with a sneer and uttered…
Dimenticalo! Uomo morto. Donato looked out of his window and silently prayed into the night sky for an angel to deliver him from his circumstances. He had never ventured this far south before and felt a disquiet enter him, the darkening hills continued to dominate the landscape around him as they climbed. Sometimes they dipped into a verdant valley only to head for yet another ridge in the distance. Slowly they traversed the mountain passes until finally they made their way down into a wide plain at the foot of Mount Terminio . In the dark they saw the winking lights of a town. They came to a fork in the road, a sign pointed left to the town of Volturara Irpina and to the right Palo. Giuseppe took the one to the right, driving slowly over the rocky terrain until they passed the small village of Palo and then after a kilometre a freshly graded road appeared, overhung by chestnut trees on either side with their strange swirl of deeply furrowed bark. A man with a hurricane lamp appeared from a small hut beside the road. He wore dark clothing and a cloth cap pulled down shadowing his eyes, a leather strap held a rifle slung to his back.
They had left Naples eight hours ago and now they would have to dump la Volpe’s dead body back in the city. The corpse was wrapped in a canvas tarpaulin and dragged up the stone steps, out the kitchen door and shoved into the back of the van. Donato wasn’t looking forward to spending the long trip back in Giuseppe’s rust bucket nor with Giuseppe himself, a disgusting old murderer and who eventually would himself one day suffer at the hands of the family in Palo.
Before they could leave the farm Giuseppe was obliged to wait in the van for Donato to finish vomiting on the grass beside the driveway. It was bad; perhaps the unfamiliar sausage their hosts had provided for the supper was rancid or was it the very strong espresso and he did insist on a little of the unpasteurised milk, what a little idiot, who ever heard of milk in espresso anyway. Whatever the case, Giuseppe thankful for his own cast iron stomach merely contentedly and repeatedly farted for the entire duration of Donato’s evacuations and guzzled from a cheap bottle of Chianti. The sun was rising tentatively to the east, a cock could be heard crowing somewhere behind the farmhouse and in that aurora of dim light a figure stood at a third floor window and looked down on the old van sputtering to life and the boy prone on his hands and knees in the dewy grass.
The woman’s name was Beatrice and she watched the boy finally climb into the passenger side of the van’s cabin and immediately roll down the window, even though it was the dead of winter.
“Bon voyage sweet boy,” her breath clouded the cold glass of her bedroom window, only an approximation of a smile – more like a smirk – ventured onto her big face. “Bon voyage.”
The woman, whose name was Beatrice watched the boy finally climb into the passenger side of the van’s cabin and immediately roll down the window, even though it was the dead of winter.
“Viaggio sucuro sweet boy,” her breath clouded the cold glass of her bedroom window, only an approximation of a smile ventured onto her big face. “Viaggio sicuro.”
The van disappeared beyond the gates to the property and Beatrice turned from the grey glimmerings of the new day and made her way down the narrow rear staircase that ended at a doorway to the dining room. She walked through to the kitchen and removed a large blackened frying pan from a hook above the Aga oven. She removed the warmed Castagnaccio from the hotplate, placed portions of fatty pork in the pan with some green onions and began to prepare breakfast. She started to sing the tune to the partisan song Bella Ciao. She was not feeling tired from the evenings work, actually quite exhilarated. Her deep dulcet tones echoed off the rough plaster walls. The sound resonated through the house with a strange and terrible beauty. For some the singing of such a song would ring a discordant note but for others it was as ancient as the land beneath the chestnuts.
One morning I woke up
O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao
One morning I woke up
And I found the invader
The drive back was hideous for Donato and he asked Giuseppe to stop numerous times for the purpose of further stomach evacuations but there was nothing left and dry retching is all he could achieve. It suited Giuseppe he could slouch at the wheel of his van and guzzle his gut-rot unhindered. One stop was by a beautiful lake in the mountains. Giuseppe told him it was not there last year. It just appears occasionally, he said. A tree ablaze with a shocking orange crown – even further illuminated by the sun climbing above the mountains – stood twenty metres off-shore, its feet soaking in the cool shallows. It was autumn so he understood that the leaves had changed and were in the process of dying but still it seemed otherworldly to Donato. He thought about the strange lake that rose out of the earth. He wished he could lie down and be drawn into surfacing again in another time, the earth washed clean of his sadness. He sat at the edge of the lake for a while and cried for his homeland on the shores of Trasimeno. He wanted more than anything in the world, that his father would summon him back home.