La Bellezza – Susan Fanetti

The new morning’s bright sun washed over the yard, and a faint breeze wafted from the west, carrying a hint of sea even so far from the Sicilian coast. The leaves of olive trees rustled in their grove, and the cattle lowed as Paolo and his dog led them out onto the hillside. Caterina loved this early morning hour in summer, when the sun was fresh and the problems of the day before had faded with the night’s rest. It was in this moment, and only this one, she could feel that life still held hope. The beauty of the world washed over her in this one moment, fresh and new and bright. Such great beauty, so easily sullied by people’s daily cruelties and pettiness. And yet each day started in this fresh new way. Gatto Giallo, the huge, ugly tom cat who lorded over the villa and his little realm of barn cats, perched on a fence post, licking a paw to wipe his whiskers. Every now and then, he lifted his pale, scarred face and blinked at the sun. Caterina smiled as she watched him enjoy the warming morning. He was a sweet boy, unless you were a mouse. Or another tom with ideas about taking over the villa. She stood in the chickenyard, her apron full, and scattered grains for the flock at her feet. They clucked and chattered happily, scratching in the yellow dust. Occasionally, two or three hens would bicker with each other, and she went to shoo them apart.

“Come, little ladies. Let’s all get along. The world is too unkind to fight with family.” “Caterina! I need the eggs!” her mother called from the kitchen window. “I’m almost finished, Mamma!” She scooped bigger handfuls and tossed the grain in the yard, careful to strew it about so the hens didn’t cluster too closely and fight over a single kernel of dried corn when there were so many to be had. She dropped her empty apron and brushed the seed dust away, then swiped her hands together before she headed to the coop to gather the day’s eggs. Caterina and her mother cooked for all who worked here at the Villa Cuccia, and for the Cuccia family as well, and they never had eggs left over from one day to the next. Indeed, sometimes, Caterina had to go looking to borrow more from nearby kitchens, or even into the village to buy some. This morning, she collected almost two dozen eggs and carried the basket back into the kitchen with both hands. Her mother took the basket from her at once and went to the pump at the sink to wash them.

“Wash up and prepare the flours, little treasure. Don Cuccia has guests this evening, remember.” Enrico Cuccia was the most powerful, and most dangerous, man in their little village and for some distance beyond it. He officially owned this vast estate, with its many hectares of olive groves and cattle pastures, but in truth he owned their whole village and everyone in it. Some were more ‘owned’ than others, but no one was truly free of Don Cuccia’s influence, or his will. Caterina’s family was one of those more owned than others, but they had secret, terrifying plans to change those circumstances. Her father was already free. They’d bought his freedom at the cost of Caterina’s, and her brother’s, and her mother’s, but it was a choice they’d made willingly, to save his life, and in the hopes that they all might follow him soon to the golden streets of America. Five years had passed since her father had left them, and they’d had word from him only once. They didn’t know if his letters simply couldn’t get through, or if he’d stopped trying, or if harm had befallen him.

But their plans continued, in secret and in risk. Someday, they would leave this place for a better one. Caterina washed her hands. She saw the big pot on the massive iron cookstove and checked the corn porridge, stirring it with a thick wooden spoon. The Cuccia family was at their breakfast now, an elaborate meal with many dishes to choose from. The porridge would sit on the stove for an hour or more; it was for the workers, who would come in when they could and ladle out a wooden bowlful for themselves. Seeing that the porridge was thickening, she added some fresh milk and stirred until it had new life. “The flours, Caterina. We need to start the breads.” “Yes, Mamma.

” She went to the wooden cook table and began to sort and measure out the flours for the breads they’d bake today. They milled the grains once a week, on Saturdays, so today she was able to measure from their bins. “He’s coming!” Isabella, who served the family meals and helped with the cleaning of the villa, bustled into the kitchen with a tray laden with dirtied breakfast dishes. She spoke under her breath but with an edge of anxiety. “He’s coming!” Caterina and her mother stood straight and smoothed their aprons and skirts as Don Cuccia came into the kitchen. He was not an ugly man, nor fat, nor bald, nor short. In fact, he was fine enough looking. At casual glance, a stranger might deem him unremarkably attractive. He was old enough to be entirely grey, head and beard alike, and his face showed the wrinkles of a life lived in the Sicilian sun, but nothing in his looks showed darkness or cruelty. When he smiled, as he did now, one might even think him capable of kindness.

And he was. But that kindness was reserved for his family and friends. When he was kind to those he considered beneath him, it always came with a bitter cost. “The breakfast was excellent this morning, Maddalena,” he said to Caterina’s mother. “Thank you, my don. I’m happy it satisfied you.” “It did. Very good.” It was not his custom to praise his servants. The atmosphere in the kitchen was thick and tense, with Caterina, her mother, and Isabella standing perfectly still, waiting to know what the don really intended by coming into the kitchen.

Normally, it was his wife who gave the food orders. There was a wooden bowl of apples, yellow with a blush of pink, on the worktable, near Caterina’s elbow. They were intended for that evening’s dessert. The don leaned close beside her and plucked one from the bowl, then turned and rested with studied nonchalance on the edge of the table. He slipped a pocketknife from his trousers and popped it open. As he sliced pieces from the apple and ate each one off the knife, he said, “I’ve had word in the morning post—we’ll have three more for dinner this evening.” “Very good, my don,” Caterina’s mother said, her head bowed. “Berto is coming home. His travels are over, and he’ll be home this afternoon.” He turned to Caterina, with the smile that could be mistaken for kind.

“What do you think of that, Caterina?” Berto was Don Cuccia’s fifth child and only son. He had been raised like a prince, free to chase his whims, until he was past twenty, and then sent out to learn the world before he took his seat at his father’s side. When she was younger, before she’d known better, while she’d still had her father here and didn’t understand the way things worked in this world, she, like most of the girls in their village, had thought Roberto Cuccia a dashing figure—handsome and mysterious, free with his wealth and with his smiles. He’d been like an idol, something to be worshipped. Since those young days, she’d learned there was nothing worthy of worship in the Cuccia family, though they all themselves believed otherwise. When Berto was last home, for the long December holiday, he’d paid Caterina a great deal of attention, despite her best efforts to avoid him once she’d realized that she’d gained his notice. On the eve of the new year, he’d forced her into a corner and kissed her. He might have done more, his hands had grasped for more, but she’d been saved by a group of drunken revelers coming upon the shadows he’d shoved her into, and she’d managed to slip away and stay scarce until he left the villa again. That had been her first, and so far only, kiss. She’d been seventeen.

She’d had a birthday since. Her mother knew about that forced kiss, and Paolo, her brother, knew as well; Caterina had never been good at keeping secrets, and she’d been badly shaken and in need of comfort afterward, with the bruising clutch of Berto’s fingers and the wet slick of his drunk lips and tongue still ghosts on her skin. Paolo had wanted to kill him; he’d been on fire with manly offense, a fire that he’d kept banked for five years, since their father left. But it was trouble with the don that had sent their father away, and Caterina and their mother had desperately persuaded Paolo to forbear. It was then that their plans for escaping Sicily and the reach of Don Cuccia had taken on an urgency, despite the lack of word from her father. Now, at the don’s remark, like then, when his son had grabbed her, Caterina was frozen with dread. Why did he think she would have especial interest in his son’s return? Did the don know, too, about that awful kiss? Did he think she would welcome Berto’s attention? “Caterina?” He set the side of his knife’s blade under her chin and lifted. She felt the sticky cool of apple juice and the harsh sharp of metal. “I asked you a question.” She swallowed, and the knife pressed harder at her throat.

“I wish your son a safe journey home, my don. I know you will be glad to have him back.” “Do you? Am I the only one who will be glad?” Caterina didn’t know what to say. No word was safe to say. She looked into the dark eyes of the smiling man with a knife at her throat and said what she guessed he wished to hear: “No, my don. You aren’t the only one.” “Excellent.” Still grinning, the don dropped the knife from her throat. He picked up the corner of her apron, wiped the blade dry with it, then folded it and returned it to his pocket. “Carry on, ladies,” he said as he walked from the kitchen as if he’d already forgotten why he was in there at all.

For a long time, her mother stared at the doorway he’d gone through. Then she turned to Caterina. “Call your brother in. You and he must go into the village. I’ll give you a list for the shops.” Paolo drove as if it had been the horse who’d held a knife to Caterina’s throat. “Mamma should have let me kill that bastard that night!” He snapped the reins, and the poor mare grunted and found more speed. They would arrive at the village square in half the time it normally took if he forced the horse to keep this pace—if the poor old soul didn’t collapse in the harness before they made it. She set her hand on his arm. “Bellina isn’t to blame, Paolo.

Be easy.” Her brother looked sidelong at her and found some compassion for the beast. “Forgive me, Bellina,” he muttered and eased back a little. “I hate these arrogant bastards with the whole fire of my soul, Rina. They take everything from us and comb through the ashes for more.” Paolo was two years older than Caterina and had taken on the role of her protector even before their father had left them. Since then, he’d been nearly militant, despite his comparative powerlessness. They were only peasants, servants to the don. There was a severe limit to how much protecting he could do, especially when the don’s son turned his attention her way. But one of the reasons she’d never had a suitor, other than, it appeared, Roberto Cuccia, was that her brother wouldn’t let any boys of their own station near her.

She could have had attention otherwise, if she’d wanted it. When she was still a girl, not even in her teens, boys had turned their heads when she’d walked by. Then, when her understanding of the world had been simpler, more innocent, she’d enjoyed their goggling faces and kept fantasies of love in her heart. She’d imagined a simple village life, like that her parents had had, with a small, cozy cottage with red flowers in the windows, and a strong, good man to love, who’d tend their little flock while she made their home well and raised their babies. But now, she was glad of her brother’s shield, and that no one asked after her. Another reason she’d never had a suitor was that she no longer wanted one. Her life was not here in Cuccia. Since their father had left, they had all had their sights set on the day he would send for them, when they would make their better, safer new life in the wonder of America. “You can’t kill a Cuccia, Paolo. That’s how we got where we are now.

” Their father had killed a man who wasn’t even a true Cuccia. Only one of the don’s trusted men, who’d been drunk in the village square in broad daylight, shooting off his gun for no reason but his whim. The don’s men all carried guns wherever they went. One of his bullets had gone through the front window of their cottage and killed Paolo and Caterina’s little sister, Sophia, as she sat at the table, learning to weave a basket. Rather than seek redress from Don Cuccia, their grief-stricken father had taken matters into his own hands and stabbed Sophia’s killer in the heart, outside the church on the day of her funeral. If their father had gone to the villa instead, likely there would have been some kind of restitution, but nothing that could recompense the death of a child. So their father had taken his own justice. It was a grievous offense, to kill a man under the don’s protection. The people of the village had come together, pooling every resource they could, goods and coins and a safe contact in Napoli for papers, to send him away before the don retaliated. On such short notice there had been barely enough to send him, certainly not enough for any others of their family.

He’d had to go or die, so he’d left, in the black of a night, with the promise to send for them as soon as he could. They’d heard from him once since. Don Cuccia had gotten his thwarted vengeance by burning their little cottage, killing their tiny herd of goats, having their mother brutally raped in the village square, and taking them all into servitude. Their mother had healed, and then accepted her lot. She’d done what Don Cuccia demanded and had been his cook ever since. Caterina had worked at her side, trying to avoid notice of any kind, trying to be insignificant. But she had, in her mother’s words, blossomed in these years. Paolo, too, had done the work demanded of him. But he had seethed bitterly in that servitude for every second of the past five years, waiting for a moment he could avenge his family without putting what was left of it at even greater risk. There had, of course, been no such moment.

Nor would there be. Escape was the only hope they had. “Berto doesn’t fancy you, Rina,” Paolo said now. “Not truly. Not enough to make you his wife— and his father would never allow it, even if he did. Berto wants a toy, and he thinks he can have anything he wants. All he wants is to dirty you. And his father wants every chance to hurt us. He would stand by and watch his son abuse you. The way he watched Mamma.

” Caterina shuddered. Of course her brother was right. He noticed her reaction and took the reins in one hand so he could hook his arm around her. “I’m sorry. I won’t let it happen again. This time, I won’t let it happen.” “What can you do, Paolo? No one can stop them from having what they want.” He scowled. She knew how he hated his inability to protect his family. Then, he’d been still a boy.

Now, he was a man, strong in body and heart, but with no more power than the boy who’d hadn’t been able to save his mother. “Then it’s time to go. That’s what I do today.” “All three of us? How will that happen?” “We’ve been planning for years, Rina. Saving all we could, trading for help from our friends. There will be enough. There must be. We’ll send word to Pappa and hope he gets it before we arrive. But we must go.” She sighed and rested her head on Paolo’s strong shoulder.

At the least, they would not escape today. At the least, they would have to return to the villa on this day, and Berto would be there. Looking for her.

.

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