Read This and Be Smarter

‘The Moment in the Draughty Church at Smokefall’

by Joanne Riccioni

Westerly is the premier literary journal of Western Australia, publishing since 1956. Westerly produces poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction from around the world, with a focus on the voice of Western Australian authors. Westerly publishes two print editions a year and digitally year-round.

Joanne Riccioni has a Masters in Medieval Literature from the University of Leeds in the UK. She lives in Sydney and her stories have placed in competitions in Australia, Ireland, the US and the UK and published in The Momaya Review, Taralla, Stylus, Best of the Skive Short Story Prize, and Her Story: What I learned in my Bathtub (Adams Media, US).

‘The Moment in the Draughty Church at Smokefall’ was first published in Westerly 54.1, July 2009.

Westerly’s Response to the News of UWA Publishing Closure

News broke last week that UWA Publishing (UWAP) is likely to cease its current publication of literary works. UWAP is a vital part of the Western Australian publishing sector and the literary life of Australia more broadly. Losing the press would come at great cost to Australian literature.

We deeply admire the accomplishments of UWAP and Terri-ann White; we’ve issued a press release here to express our disappointment at the University of Western Australia’s decision and we call on the University to reconsider its position. Help to show your support for UWAP by adding your signature to the petition at change.org.

The Moment in the Draughty Church at Smokefall

He doesn’t remember the climb being so precarious. Looking up, he considers the unevenness of the ancient cobbles, the steps with no handrail, the ache of his bunions and bad choice of shoes. As a boy he would make the climb to the church of Santa Maria Del Soccorso barefoot and in less than half an hour. But at seventy-five he knows he will have to spend most of the afternoon on the trek, stopping far more often than he really wants to survey the hills panting in the sun, the huddles of buildings wedged like ticks in their folds, all the time thinking of the pumice of his tongue and the grind of his petrified knees. He will listen to the steady pulse of the crickets keeping the afternoon alive and worry about the dubious beat of his own heart rattling in his throat.

He hadn’t imagined it would be so physical, such a constant companion, this business of dying. Like someone unsavoury reading over your shoulder on the bus. His breath tastes permanently of old pennies and his skin seems to secrete the scent of boiled asparagus. Even his extremities no longer feel his own, like he is already dead around the edges. Perhaps that is why he has come back to the beginning – to make the end a little easier to bear.

He traces the wispy line of the river winding through the valley, a silver hair left behind on a sofa. Elizabeth had always wanted to visit Italy, to see where he grew up, but he never did bring her. There were always good excuses: the children, the cost, so much of Australia to see on their doorstep. But now he would have liked to watch her face squinting up at the bell tower slapped against the summer sky, or looking down on the tumble of rooftops in the village below. His eyes follow the patchwork of terracotta until he fancies he can see the roof of the old house in Via Garibaldi, until he is staring through the distortions of the ancient glass at his mother creaking in the walnut chair, nursing his new brother. There is mirth in her black eyes and he can almost feel the liquid tremble of her laugh, as he leans against her belly to suckle at her other breast, the milk bursting tepid and sweet against the back of his throat.

He stops for water at the roadside shrine of Santa Lucia. The statuette under her stone arch has recently been whitewashed and in her hand a plastic, battery-operated candle flickers weakly in the afternoon sun. She is his namesake. “The Saint of Light shines through you, Lucio,” his father liked to tell him randomly, while they were laying corn to dry or stacking firewood under the eaves of the pig house. “The night you were born, the Madonna of Succor smiled down on me from her litter during the Festa. She told me I would have a son who would shine with the pious light of Santa Lucia.”

A shining, exemplary life. Is that what he has led? He thinks of all the years behind the Formica at the Deli in Brookvale, slicing salami for young Australian housewives dreaming of Mario Lanza and thinking themselves a little adventurous. Perhaps he did shine for one or two of them, although not in the way his father had envisaged. He refers to remember the story his mother whispered to him when he dreamed of blindness and cried out in the dark. Her lips on his ear, she would tell how she had climbed the mountain at Colle Lungo with him swaying in her belly, just to smell the living rock of the cave and taste the mossy water of its natural spring. Cupping her mouth under the stream, she had felt water fill her shoes and saw them steaming in the freezing December air. Alone, she delivered him into the blanket of dusk, while across the valley she watched the trembling snake of lanterns winding up the mountain to the Church of Santa Maria del Soccorso for the Festa. He was her light, her Lucio, she told him. She brought him down the mountain in the dark and he lit her from within.

He looks at the Church of Santa Maria squatting stubbornly above him on the hilltop, the clouds and time rolling on behind it. Its immutable, looming presence exhausts him more than the climb itself. He leans back against the cool stone of the shrine and listens to the sawing complaints of a donkey rising up from the valley. At his feet a column of bull ants is circling a discarded peach stone.

In the honeycomb light of morning he would squat in the Vigna Alba, lining Father Ruggiero’s willow baskets with fig leaves. Wedged in the fork of a peach tree, his father would twist off the fruit with woody fingers and roll them, precious as eggs, into his palms. He would imagine those stiff hands growing gnarled and ancient from the branches, would will his father to turn to wood and disappear into the hoary trunk. But when he looked up again, there he was, industrious and sullen, not leaving a single split fruit for the ants, never stopping to let either f them taste the orange flesh. Afterwards, Lucio would be sent to Santa Maria’s to deliver the basket to Father Ruggiero. More than once, stamping up the track, he had gorged himself, biting into the velvet skins two at a time, choking on the juice and his own breathless anger. Later, at evening Mass, he would not take communion and looked away when the padre placed the wafer on his father’s cracked tongue, still tasting the yeasty sweetness on his own.

His father left the village for the first time in his life, marching under the flag of the axe and rods. He could not single out his face among the lines of men being blessed by Father Ruggiero in the piazza. He could think only of the empty pocket of his father’s new uniform, the space where his gift should have been: the perfect ripe peach wrapped in a fig leaf and cradled in his hand all the way to the piazza. He had wanted to run up and press it into the bark of his hands, but the sun flashed on the lines of new boots and liquefied the cobbles until all he could see was the flag tugging impatiently at the air. As the soldiers moved out along the Viale Roma, he had squeezed the peach in his fist. The juice had dribbled down the backs of his bare legs and dried sticky in the wind.

Halfway up the track to Santa Maria’s, he reaches the boulder of split granite. His shirt clings with sweat and his legs tremble beneath him. He steadies himself, placing his hands on either side of the fissure in the enormous rock. Rocca del Spaccone, they had called it – Braggart’s Rock. It was his brother’s game. “Sono Re!” he pants into the crack, “I am king!” And Thomasino’s voice, high and still unbroken, answers back across the years, “Salta! Salta, Re!” Of course, the king had to jump. It had been worth their endless errands up the mountain, loaded with ruit baskets or sacks of vegetables for Father Ruggiero. The King of the Mountain had to climb the split rock and jump into the scree twelve feet below, rolling with the cuts and bruises. That was how they had found the ammunition left behind by the Germans. It was their secret, their one toy. They would squat, the two of them, across the split in the stone platform, the languid valley breathing below and the line of bullets winking, complicit in the sun. Only a true king had the skill and the courage to smash a bullet with a rock thrown from his bare hands. When the explosion bounced back at them from the valley, the ravens chasing the echo and the quail beating out their applause from the nodding grasses, they felt they had the power of kings, standing up there with the world coming alive before their eyes.

He calls a little louder, now that his legs have become solid again. “Sono Re!” But this time there is no echo. Only Thomasino’s eyes staring back at him, wide as a snared hare. His brother’s arm had pumped glossy rivulets of blood which snaked between the rocks, copying the river below. An American soldier had snatched them down. He remembers his hair, yellow as maize and the jacket of his uniform thrown inside-out at his feet. In the lining under the arms there were dark wet circles and, on one side, a small tear. Lucio had stitched and re-stitched it with imaginary thread. When he could look up again, he saw the soldier pissing on Thomasino, pissing all over the raw stump of arm and into the pools of blood that curdled in the dust. Just as Thomasino was folding into the chalk road, the soldier had scooped him up around the waist and run the rest of the way to Santa Maria’s, the boy swinging limp as dead quarry under his arm.

The Virgin of Succor had watched Lucio, vague and expressionless. He had sat at her feet listening to the silence rising up from Father Ruggiero’s rooms and sucking on the brown bar the American had given him. It was sweet as honey and sultry as the dregs of the coffee the padre used to drink with the Germans. He let it melt on his tongue like the communion wafer, but it felt warm and comforting and wrong. He wanted her to look wrathful as a powerful Queen should, or draw him to prayer with a mother’s soft look. But she didn’t. Afterwards, under a pale fingernail of moon rising in the watery sky, he had vomited into the lake behind the church. On the way down the mountain, the American spoke to him in a soft voice, but he didn’t understand a word.

The heat of the afternoon bears down on him like a burden. On the ribbon of track winding below, he watches a willow basket swaying rhythmically towards the village. Underneath it a woman intermittently sings the chorus of an American pop song in unintelligible English. She has been collecting snails. Elizabeth would always order the polenta with snails and wild mushrooms at Fellini’s, urging him to taste it every time, but he never could stomach the irony of war food becoming a delicacy. On the slope below, the long grasses exhale, the crickets are silent and the world stops turning.

His mother would sing at harvest time, strange songs in the mountain dialect. The harvest before the Germans left, she put his father’s scythe in his hands and rocked him in her solid arms, teaching him the rhythm of the raccolto. He had felt glad then that his father was on the other side of the world. His mother kept the letter from the POW camp at Hay tucked behind the picture of the Weeping Heart of Jesus. In the letter his father told him to remember communion and to ask Father Ruggiero to watch over them. He was to pray to the Virgin and Santa Lucia to become a guiding light for Thomasino and the children of the village. At night he would hold a candle to the frail envelope and wonder whether the water stains were his father’s tears or just the rain, the elements of countless countries as it travelled across the world.

It had been a good harvest that year. Father Ruggiero held a Mass and asked Santa Maria to deliver it from the Nazis. Afterwards the padre had asked his mother if she could not spare two more sacks of maize. Back down the mountain, they watched the rest of their crop disappearing down the Viale Roma in the back of a German truck. He prayed to the Madonna to help him shine, but he knew it was just the habit of words. When you were hungry prayers tasted bitter.

At the Festa of Light that December, Father Ruggiero had asked him to carry the Virgin’s litter. He wanted to feel grown up and proud, but he knew that he and a few scrawny kids were all that were left since the older boys had been taken in the Nazi recruitment. In the clean night with its lacing of frost his stomach creaked louder than his shoes along the frozen mud of the lake. A group of German soldiers were stamping the ground like horses and he could see their white breath in light of the lanterns. His mother nodded at him as the procession passed. The Virgin on her dais surveyed him blankly, her skin pearlescent beneath the golden coronet of rubies that flashed red as coals, black as blood.

She was stripped of her crown that night. After mass, Father Ruggiero closed the vestry door on him and he stood watching the torches floating down the mountain, waiting for his mother to come forward from the blackness. A dog howled in the valley and the icy night cracked in two, as if the beginning and the end of something had come at once. His fear drew him to its source among the naked chestnuts. At first he thought the soldier was stabbing his mother, her body rocked so violently against the tree, her mouth slack, her head lolling backwards. But the soldier’s grunts subsided and she pulled away, letting her skirts fall and her eyes open. Lucio watched her walking alone towards the dark bulk of the church, while he stood with his lantern among the trees.

No one in the village knew for sure who took the crown, so they blamed the Germans. After all, they had taken everything else. But Father Ruggiero never did leave him alone again as he prepared the silver censers in the vestry. He didn’t care. They had food on their plates after the Festa that year. His mother would hum and rock on her heels as she stirred the polenta or kneaded gnocchi and he would think of the Loaves and the Fishes when he and Thomasino delivered bowls to half of the houses in the Via Garibaldi. Sometimes he even sensed a faint glimmer of light within himself.

Long after Liberation, when the days and nights had begun to follow each other again without notice, he came home from school and found his father kneeling at the Weeping Heart of Jesus, the rosary turning in his wooden fingers. In the kitchen he saw his mother with her head bowed over the sink, struggling to breathe. The next day, his father had taken him door-to-door asking their neighbours for money, calling on their love of the Virgin, their pride in the village, their own self-respect. His father wrote the donation of each family in his little pocket book, like a tax collector. Only Assunta Onorati, who had lost three sons in North Africa and two grandsons to the partisans, stood square and silent in her door. As they turned away, the old woman’s voice rumbled like gunfire in the mountains, “Plenty of food in Australian prisons, eh Guido?”

On the table his father counted more money than he had ever seen. Lucio watched as he drew an even bigger role of notes from his own pocket and added them to the pile. “Weaving baskets can make a lot of money in the right country,” was all he said. He pressed his lips between his teeth for a moment and then bowed Lucio’s head with his hands, closing his eyes emphatically, just as Father Ruggiero did when he wanted him to pray for forgiveness. In the kitchen, a pan clattered and rang on the flagstones. Through the door Lucio could see his mother on her knees, running her hands through the passata, smearing it over the stone and up the cracked walls as she sobbed.

His father went to Rome to collect the new crown. He had over a million Lire rolled up to look like a panino in his pocket. Afterwards he said the jeweller looked him up and down and complained because he thought the notes smelled of salami. He would have liked that, his father. Christ was just a peasant, after all. And he would have liked that it was drizzling slightly that year at the Festa as he solemnly handed the coronet to the Bishop of Segni, the rain dripping down his neck and running into the sleeves of his uplifted arms, the jewels shining through it all. But all Lucio saw was the Virgin’s face, languid and apathetic underneath.

It was all he could see then and it is all he can see now as he leans in the draughty doorway, breathing in the damp stone and feeling the years come and go with each trembling rise of his chest. It is just the two of them, now. She is not conscious of the past or the future. She looks down, but not quite at him in particular. He might be one of a million motes of dust spiralling at her feet, or a mosquito buzzed into the musty quiet from the throb of summer outside. He looks up at her ageless face, her radiant skin, the slender grace of her figure under the blue robes. She is timeless. No one can touch her. How could she ever understand the conflicts of the world of men or of the human heart? He shudders and coughs, the sweat chill on his skin in the dank air. He is dying around the edges, dying right at her feet and she looks on, oblivious. She always has.

Behind her through the high windows he can see the honey light turning smoky. He moves towards her. He wants to get it done before nightfall. He wants to feel the gold, cold and solid in his hand as he takes the crown from her head; he wants to watch the rubies blink in the last of the sun outside; to see the grey glass of the lake shatter as it hits the water. But most of all he wants to watch each ripple fanning out from the circle of gold as it sinks to the silent depths.

The State Library of Western Australia promotes literacy for all ages. To this end the ‘Read this and be smarter project’ has been developed, providing a short piece of writing from Australian publications every Monday to Friday to read on your commute or lunch break.

Westerly acknowledges all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as First Australians. We celebrate the continuous living cultures of Indigenous people and their vital contributions within Australian society.

Westerly’s office, at the University of Western Australia, is located on Whadjak Noongar land. We recognise the Noongar people as the spiritual and cultural custodians of this land.

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