|VOLUME 20||THE UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN-MILWAUKEE | GRADUATE SCHOOL||NUMBER 1|
My first small literary successes, like some great successes, also brought deep disappointments.
My family prohibited me from writing, since my future was supposed to be quite different from the kind I dreamed about; it was supposed to be a future devoted entirely to home life, to household chores, bare reality, raising a large family.
So long as I wrote children's stories, no one bothered me much. But when the love stories started - with nighttime rendezvous, kisses, and sweet, compromising words - the persecution became relentless, from all my family, and was backed up by outsiders, who were the most frightening and dangerous of all.
A well-bred girl can't write about these things unless she is writing for experience or as a private outlet; if she somehow does arouse the curiosity of the young men in the district, not one of them will think of asking her to marry him.
It has always been the same the whole world over.
A voice has answered my thoughts, as if it were a mysterious echo within me. But no. The voice really belongs to someone else. Almost frightened, I turn around and see a tiny, old woman all dressed in black standing behind me, looking like one of the janas that live in the rock houses. Even her rosary is black. But two radiant objects brighten her apearance: a large, silver filigree medal with two sapphires, which hangs from the rosary, and her small face, which resembles the medal. Time has worn her face and the medal alike, leaving them with the same bright splendor. The old woman's eyes seem to have gotten their clear blue sparkle from looking at the two antique sapphires.
Now, her eyes are fixed upon me, and seem to have a new light, a sheen overlying the brilliance that was there before: the light of faith.
The old woman sits down on the ground, by my feet. Running her fingers over her rosary beads, as if she were kneeling before the Madonna of Valverde, she begins to tell me her request. "It's because of injustice that I had to find you, my dear girl. I came here to talk with you, because over there, where everybody is staying, too many spiteful people could overhear us. Why are you looking at me like that? Don't you know who I am?"
Yes, now I recognize her. She's the little old woman who brought along a basket with everything she would need for sleeping and eating - the most important thing of all, the coffeepot. She passes the nine days of the celebration in a corner of the small room we were given to cook our meals.
She continued: "They say you know how to write better than lawyers do. Even the Queen reads your writing. It's a gift that God has given to you, and you must use it to help the poor. I need you to write a petition for me. I'll buy the paper needed for a legal document, even if it costs one lira. Will you do me this favor?"
"What is the petition for?"
She looked at me, surprised that I alone was unaware of her troubles.
"What? You don't know about it? My son, Sebastiano, my only child, was wrongly condemned to 20 years of prison, for a crime he didn't commit."
Stories like this always begin the same way, so I replied, "Everyone says that ..."
But the little mother's face clouded over in an expression of such anguish that it upset me, too.
"When I'm the one who tells you that Sebastiano is innocent, you have to believe me. And if you don't what good is your talent?"
At first, I was flattered by her remark, then it made me think, it's true, lofty intelligence can penetrate and reveal the mystery of human events better than a serious judicial inquiry, however conscientious.
So I let the little old woman tell the long and complicated story of her Sebastiano. The beginning of the tragic story dated all the way back to his childhood and a tame hard he'd stolen from the pen next to his father's.
Whether it was real or imagined, I didn't try to check the mother's version of what happened. Nor did I have any way to do so. It was as if I really were a lawyer, who, just to have a compelling case, accepts it on good faith, giving himself over completely to the side that can win him success. I wanted this success, so that I could redeem myself, most of all, in my own eyes.
"We'll write the petition. But whom should we write it to?"
"You're asking me, dear girl? To the Queen, of course." The sweet old woman said this as if I were about to write a private letter to a close aunt of mine, or maybe to my mother. Meanwhile, the name of the great, radiant Queen, shining high above our hearts like the morning star, sent shivers through my soul.
And I was caught in the circle of faith and fantasy of the little woman who blindly believed in the magical power of the written word, a power nonetheless that can truly span centuries and infinite spaces, and reach from the beggar to the king, if it springs from the pure of heart. So with the written word I'll speak to our Queen. Through my silent voice she will hear the little mother's heart speak out, and justice will be done.
Time went by, and there was no news.
The mother always kept hoping. I didn't think about it any more, happy that I had regained my self-confidence.
One day Sebastiano, who still had three years to serve, was set free by an amnesty. His mother came to see me, beaming as she had that day among the red lentisk plants of Valverde.
"See! The Queen granted the petition for mercy!"
I tried to tell her otherwise, but without any success. If the Queen hadn't spoken, she kept insisting, the amnesty decree wouldn't have set Sebastiano free.
As a sign of gratitude she offered me a keepsake that I have to this day: a little traveling flask, made from a small squash finely adorned with figures all around it - a work of art, of patience, of waiting, that the condemned man had made in prison.