LEAVING VIA CALLIA
The harbor was full of them that morning, big ships with sails like wings, sailors shouting and hefting big sacks of mysterious cargo down creaking gangplanks. Cloaked travelers disembarked gingerly down narrow walkways, stepping into closed carriages waiting to take them to some distant, rich destination. Ship captains, with plumed hats shading their faces and rapiers on their hips, swaggered into the town, looking for drinks and women.
“Someday,” whispered the wide-eyed boy watching the ships bobbing at anchor, watching the captains depart. “Someday, that will be me…”
But someday was far away. Pico’Marco was seven years old. His life belonged to his family, and it consisted of chore upon chore – stables to muck out, courtyards to sweep, firewood to stack, the roast to turn, water to haul, chickens to feed, and drinks to serve in the common room. Thankfully it was his sisters’ province to clean the rooms, scrub the floors, and fuss with baking bread.
All of that was still waiting – and the morning was half gone, and here he was, gawking at the ships again. At the dream. At the shimmering sea which he loved, so far out of reach. A ship’s captain needed wealth, connections. A sea captain could never have been an innkeeper’s brat with the rank smell of tobacco in his hair from serving ale in the smoky common room and the stain of beer and tobacco-colored spit on his britches.
Turning his back on the sun-gilded sea and the swaying masts of the great ships, the boy wiped the back of his hand against his eyes and started home. He would have to sneak back in, pretend he’d been there all morning, or there would be Mamma’s wrath to face again. And the Talk – duty, and loyalty, and family obligations. He would have made it, too, had Blanco, the soot-smeared kitchen cat who had last been white when he was a week-old kitten, not decided to show his affection at precisely the wrong moment and tangled himself, purring loudly, into the boy’s feet. The truant stumbled, barked his shin on the nearest bench, and was betrayed into a groan of pain.
“About time you showed up,” Mamma said with asperity. “Ships again, Pico’Marco…? I should have known. Wait till your father hears of it.”
“None of that. You’ve already skived your chores for the day. now make yourself useful. Here’s Nonno’s lunch; you can go feed him.”
Nonno had a seat in one of the courtyards, in the shade of a small gnarled tree that grew from a crack between two paving stones. He could be a pleasant, laughing old man who played games and told stories – but when he wasn’t…Ah, when he wasn’t, he was a harsh-voiced, demanding, drooling tyrant who didn’t know and didn’t care who was caring for him. He could curl his twisted fingers around a wrist with a death grip and pull a small boy right up close, nose to nose, while he spat out incomprehensible curses and the boy drowned in hot breath heavily flavored with the stench of rotten teeth. And you never knew which Nonno you would get – the gentle, kind grandfather who would tell you wonderful tales of travel and adventure or the nightmare creature of his senility.
Pico’Marco was lucky this time. He could tell as soon as he peered into the courtyard that Nonno was having one of his good days.
“Pico’Marco,” he said in greeting, his voice thin and almost transparent with age. “Come sit with me a while.” He patted the bench beside him.
Pico’Marco crossed the court and perched obediently where Nonno pointed.
“Talk to me while I eat,” said Nonno. “I sense you have had an adventure today.”
“How do you know?” Pico’Marco said, as he lifted a spoonful of gruel to Nonno’s lips.
“I heard your mother,” Nonno mumbled around the spoon.
“I was in the harbor,” Pico’Marco began, carefully feeding spoonfuls of gruel to the old man. “The ships, Nonno, the tall ships! I could see the brass shining, and there were all these people on the quay, and the captains wore scarlet feathers in their hats. And there were women…”
“You aren’t supposed to notice the women,” cackled Nonno lasciviously. A thin stream of gruel ran down the corner of his mouth. Pico’Marco wiped it with the edge of his sleeve.
“Someday, Nonno. Someday, that will be me on those ships. I’ve seen the things they bring from their voyages, the bright silks and the carved bone… and the spices, Nonno, I could smell the spices… someday I’ll get out of here. I’ll go far away, very far from Via Callia.”
“Ship’s captains need to know how to read and to cypher,” Nonno said, his voice thick with gruel.
There was a gleam of his malicious side in the old man’s eye as he cocked his gaze down on his small grandson. “Hah!” he said. “You’ll get out. I swore I would get out for years, boy, and look at me. I’ll die here and you’ll bury my bones and nobody will even remember I ever lived. I’ll tell you how you’ll know when you will get away from here,” he said, dropping his voice into a sudden conspiratorial whisper. “You see this tree? It blossoms every spring, the poor thing, I don’t know why because it’s never borne any fruit that I know of. White flowers, delicate, like lace. Like lace… On the morning, my boy, that you see those flowers opening in the dawn light, that’s the day you’ll leave Via Callia.”
“But… I’ve seen the flowers,” Pico’Marco said.
“I said, when you see the flowers opening, not when you see the tree in bloom,” said Nonno. “When you see the bud on the tree unfurl into the flower. I’ve watched that tree these many years and never once did I see the flowers open on that first morning. I would just wake, they were there on the bough, and it was another year of toil that lay ahead.”
“I think I want to sleep, now,” said the old man, slumping back and closing his eyes.
Pico’Marco beat a prudent retreat with the half-full bowl of gruel. Better to face Mamma’s ire than one of Nonno’s moods.
“Flowers,” the old man whispered in a lost, yearning voice as Pico’Marco crept away. “White flowers in the dawn…”
The following year, after Pico’Marco had turned eight, he’d been loitering on his market errands, as usual. He didn’t make it as far as the harbor this time. Something Nonno had said had stuck with him – ‘sea captains needed to be able to read and cypher’ – and it was this that focused his attention on the craftsman sitting cross-legged at a low table, dipping a goose quill into an inkwell, producing long lines of flowing black script while a customer sat opposite him with an air of reverence. Pico’Marco watched, fascinated, as the scribe finished his task, blotted the parchment with sand, and then read back to the customer what he had written. This was to the customer’s satisfaction. Several coins changed hands. The customer carefully rolled up his precious parchment and departed. The scribe busied himself topping up the ink in his inkwell, and then looked up with an arched eyebrow and a quizzical smile.
“Something you require of me, young man?” he asked.
“Teach me to write!”
It was unpremeditated, bursting out of Pico’Marco, surprising both of them. The scribe straightened, staring at the scruffy urchin before him.
“Lessons cost money,” he said laconically.
“I’m going to be a sea captain,” Pico’Marco said, horrified to feel hot tears springing into his eyes. “And sea captains need to know their letters.”
“Well,” said the scribe. He gave the boy a slow, appraising look. “Come back next week,” he said after a pause. “We will talk about it then.”
“Thank you!” breathed Pico’Marco, who had been fully expecting to be, at best, laughed at and at worst chased away with a horsewhip for his presumption. Without wanting to give the scribe a chance to go back on his decision, the boy turned and ran from the marketplace.
Mamma collared him as soon as he returned to the inn. “Pico’Marco! Where have you been? Do I have to set a guard on you? Go, wash up, your food’s getting cold. And then you can go and fetch fresh water for the kitchen.”
She whirled, busy, distracted, and was out of the courtyard before Pico’Marco had a chance to reply. He sighed and followed her. It was going to be just another long, weary day, in a string of them, all exactly alike, one following another…
The very next morning, the world was broken.
Their neighbor, the cobbler Caribal, came hurrying into the inn’s common room in great excitement.
“Have you heard?” he demanded. “The Duca has refused to pay the toll to the Master of the Straits. The Master has threatened to refuse our ships passage. The Duca said we’ll take what is ours by right. We’re at war!”
Hot on his heels came others. The common room did a brisk trade, a better day of business than many of late, but the news got worse and worse as the day grew older. The war news was confirmed, and then rumors started. Winters were bad for wars, but come spring there would be need for an army. An army could be trained over winter. Men were wanted.
A few volunteered. It soon became apparent that the rest would be taken, with or without their consent.
A recruiting officer duly turned up at the inn, and ran a bony thumb down a list as a clutch of sullen-faced young men waited in grim silence behind him.
“We have a Garanno Vanni here,” the officer said. “He is hereby ordered to accompany us to the barracks, to be trained as a foot soldier.”
“He is only sixteen!” Mamma burst out.
“That is correct,” said the officer implacably. “Do you want us to send grandfathers into battle, goodwife?”
“But he is a child, you can’t send a child…”
“Well, if you have a volunteer to replace him, send him to the barracks before sundown tomorrow,” snapped the officer. “Come on, you rabble, it’s high time you had some discipline drummed into you…”
Marco Vanni, Nonno’s son, father to Garanno, to Pico’Marco and his twin Martino, to Sarina and Venella, was thirty nine years old that winter. The day after Garanno was taken, Marco went in to volunteer on his son’s behalf. Neither of them returned. Mamma followed, the day after that, to find out what had happened, and was told that both her men had been taken away to a winter training camp for the Duca’s new army. She came home, dry-eyed, her spine straight, and parcelled out the innkeeping chores between her remaining children. Pico’Marco’s appointed day with the marketplace scribe came and went. He remembered his missed appointment almost two days after he was supposed to keep it; he crawled into the friendly concealing straw at the back of the stables and cried for an hour, alone. And then he shook the straw from his hair and straightened his britches and bent under the load again.
He saw the white flowers on the tree that spring, but he did not see them bloom, like Nonno had said. This would not be the year.
The Duca’s war turned out to be a longer, bloodier, more bitter conflict than he could have guessed. It dragged on through the spring of that year, into the summer, into autumn. That winter a few men started straggling back home, some of them missing an eye or a limb. Nobody came home to Via Callia. The winter dragged on into another spring.
Late that summer, a stranger with one leg cut off at the knee stumbled into the common room at an inauspicious hour. Sarina, who had been scrubbing the floors at the time, glanced up, startled, as the bearded apparition lurched into the room.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but we’re not open…”
“Don’t you know me, child?” the visitor asked, voice cracked and tired, but nonetheless familiar.
“Pappa…?” Sarina whispered. “Pappa?”
Heedless of his filthy clothes, of the crutches only barely keeping him upright, she flung her arms around him, weeping uncontrollably. “Pappa! You’re back! Mamma! Veni! Mamma! Pappa is back!”
He was, and he wasn’t.
His body had returned, but his spirit was still out there on a distant battlefield where he had held his oldest son in his arms and watched him die. Marco Vanni came back to his inn and his family, but he spent his days brooding in some corner, drinking heavily, drowning his guilt at having survived the war that had claimed his child. If Pico’Marco had hoped that his father’s return would lift the burden of the endless chores from his own shoulders, he was wrong.
The year that Pico’Marco turned thirteen, the family saw two funerals and a wedding. Pappa Marco had been fading, a little piece at a time, ever since he had returned, and one morning Mamma found him cold and dead in the bed beside her. He had barely been decently laid to rest when Nonno went into a steep decline. Very soon the old man could no longer sit in his chair underneath the courtyard tree. Pico’Marco was with him when he suddenly sat up in bed one morning, squinting at the doorway of his room, and said, “I am coming, Annina. I come…”
Pico’Marco turned, staring, but the room was empty except for the two of them. Nonno fell back on his pillow, his eyes filmed with white, his breath rattling in his throat. For a brief moment he returned to lucidity, recognizing his grandson.
“Pico…” he whispered. “The flowers…”
And then he was nothing, just a shell, his last breath leaving him like a gentle sigh, his hand falling from Pico’Marco’s wrist.
“You are no longer Pico’Marco,” Mamma said at Nonno’s funeral. “Your Nonno was Marco, and so was your Pappa. But they are both dead and buried now. You are no longer ‘little’ Marco now. You’re the only Marco I have left.”
Being Mamma, she did not cry. But her voice broke, just a little. And Marco’s heart broke with it, just a little. Because he knew that this was all the grief that Mamma would ever allow herself to show.
Two months after Nonno’s funeral Venella, Marco’s younger sister, was married. Her belly was already beginning to show when she stood up at her wedding; Mamma said nothing, but there was a slow humiliation in her eyes. This was flying in the face of everything Mamma had tried to instill into her children. But Veni seemed happy – smug, even – and could not wait to leave the inn and go off with her new husband.
Mamma taught the twins the rudiments of figuring, so that they could take over the day-to-day running of the inn. Martino seemed to take to the task with a great affinity. Marco still dreamed of ships – but there seemed to be fewer galleons now, after the war. His favorite, the Vincienni, was more warship than merchantman now, bristling with ports for the black-powder guns. It would take more than the ability to read and cypher to command a ship like that now.
The white flowers came and went with the season on the tree in the courtyard, and Marco noted their presence there every year in memory of Nonno – but he never saw them bloom, like Nonno had described. This was not the year.
Nor the next.
Nor the next.
Marco was very different from his twin, quieter, deeper. The boys had shared their hopes and dreams once, when they had been much younger, but they grew more and more distant as they grew older. Martino was aware of his brother’s unvoiced yearning to escape Via Callia; it was written in Marco’s face, in the sighs that escaped him when he thought nobody was watching, when his responsibilities did not sit on his shoulders, black and heavy like crows.
The boys were almost seventeen when, on a day like many another, they had been sitting at their book-keeping table in the back room beside a small window framing a corner of a crumbling tiled roof against a patch of open sky. Marco, his chin cupped in his palm, stared through it as though it bore the bars of a cage.
“Yes, the roof needs fixing,” Martino had said abruptly.
“I know,” said Martino. “I want it too. I’ve always wanted it. But we are all that’s left, I know. That changes nothing. I’ll tell you what – we’ll give each other a year, shall we? If you’ll mind the home fires here, I’ll go out and see the world. And then I’ll come back. And then it will be your turn…”
Martino had his own reasons for bringing the subject up. Appealing to his brother’s longing to escape would buy him the time that he needed to plan his own. Martino led a dangerous double life, of which his family knew nothing until Mamma found him gone one morning – complete with a large portion of the inn’s savings in gold and an incoherent message left with the stable boy which consisted, according to the lad, of only a few terse sentences: They are looking for me. I owe them a lot of money. Don’t search for me. Farewell.
Two thuggish men had come asking for him not long after. Not finding him, they left, threatening to kill him when they caught up with him.
In the summer of the year he turned eighteen, Marco met Annina, who shared the name of the grandmother whom he had never known. She was a year older than him, and considered ‘difficult’, with a reputation – she was not passive and biddable, as was expected of young girls, but a capable businesswoman who had been running her father’s wine shop and the small family vineyard since she was fifteen. She had come to the inn to settle some wine sales, and had dealt for the first time directly with Marco. He was quiet and gentle but possessed of a strength of character that appealed to the girl; her reputation as a headstrong shrew mattered little to him when weighed against the impact of vivid blue eyes and a cloud of wheaten hair.
There was something else, too. Annina was the only heiress to that small vineyard out in the hills. It wasn’t the sea, but someday, maybe, there would be a place for Marco to go.
They were married before the year was out. That spring, waking beside his new wife, Marco noticed the white flowers already on the tree in the courtyard, and knew that this, again, was not the year he would leave Via Callia. But, for now, he was content.
Mamma died the year Marco’s first child was born, a girl they called Vincienna. Annina had asked why he wanted to name the child thus, but he could not tell her that he was naming his daughter after the ship he would never command and so the name remained a mystery. Sarina, still unmarried, helped care for the child. The two women took over the day-to-day running of the inn with Marco shouldering the rest.
Before he was thirty his family had grown to four children. In the year that his youngest daughter was born he thought he had caught the flowers unfurling on the twisted old tree – but it had been a trick of the light. That same year Annina’s wine shop, which she now ran in her own right since her father’s death, had burned down; without its income to support the vineyard, it had had to be sold. On the day that the sale deed came through Marco had walked for a long time on the quays, staring at the ships which stood mocking him in the harbor.
Via Callia tightened its grip on him with every year.
Marco no longer waited for the white flowers on the courtyard tree. His children grew. Vincienna made a good marriage at seventeen, and had presented her father with his first grandchild, a boy she named after him, in the first year of her marriage. Sarina withered and died, and was buried in the family plot. Marco’s grandson joined her there before he had turned two, dying of some childhood megrim that had no cure in their world. His mother had already been brought to childbed again with a set of twins, and there were new babies to care of – but none of them bore Marco’s name, and he missed his sunny little namesake fiercely.
The winter of Marco’s fifty-second year was harsh. Ice caught on the shallows of the sea for the first time in living memory, and trees cracked with the hard frosts with sounds like thunder. Annina caught a chill and started coughing at night, quietly, trying to muffle it against her bedcovers. Marco heard it and worried about it. He remembered Martino and the gold he had taken with him so many years before, and thought about how much firewood that gold would have bought for his family this bitter winter. But his brother had not been heard of since he had left the inn. His married sister, Venella, had moved to another town and had disappeared from his life. This was all he had left – this woman, their children, the children of those children. This was Via Callia.
On a morning with the scent of spring in the air Marco woke and sat up in bed, rubbing his eyes. The air was still chill but it had a promise of warmth to it, a harbinger of change, of better times. He slipped out of bed where Annina still slept, pale and exhausted, and padded out into the courtyard. It was early – dawn was only just beginning to paint the eastern sky a pale pink streaked with gold. A nightingale was finishing up the night’s song and other birds, the morning chorus, were starting to pick up where he had left off. The cobbles of the court were slick with dew, but it was no longer frozen. And in the far corner…
Marco stopped, open-mouthed, staring. He had almost forgotten, but now his Nonno’s words slipped back into his mind: White flowers, delicate, like lace. Like lace… On the morning that you see those flowers opening in the dawn light, that’s the day you’ll leave Via Callia…
And there they were, on that twisted, ancient old tree that had survived everything, even the bitter frosts of this unforgiving winter. Unfurling like the promise of spring. Like lace. White flowers, delicate, opening in the dawn.
“Annina!” Marco called, entranced, anxious not to disturb the beauty that was unfolding before him. “Annina, come, quickly, quickly….!”
“Oh, Marco…” he heard Annina’s voice, very soft, but not filled with wonder – filled, instead, with a strange, bone-deep, unutterable grief.
He turned, saw her kneeling, her red, work-worn hands clasped gently around the hand of…
He was lying there beside her in the tumbled coverlets of their bed. His eyes closed. His face pale, pale… white, like the flowers trembling in the dawn.
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Leaving Via Callia is copyright 2014 by Alma Alexander, all rights reserved