Dressed in thick woollen tights and long skirts to protect both her modesty and body from the bitter cold, Lavinia worked diligently alongside other local women during the winter olive harvest.
The year was 1960 and while Rome was enjoying a period known famously as ‘La Dolce Vita’ this remote and unconnected southern region of Italy seemed almost frozen in time.
Cesare’s occupation as a driver involved transporting road construction workers, employed to connect neighbouring mountain villages and towns. As the first male he had been afforded the privilege of attending school but a long held fascination for engines meant that the rare opportunity to obtain an education was squandered, much to the extreme disappointment of his parents and justified jealousy of his eight sisters.
Once again Cesare found himself fortuitously visiting Lavinia’s hill top town. In those days Malicchio was a thriving community and home to 3,000 inhabitants. Many worked in the surrounding countryside and many still travelled by donkey and horse. Visiting relatives and doing business in Basilicata was at times dangerous for the existing mountain roads were often treacherous.
Cesare enjoyed risk. His crucial task this day was to ensure that a troop of road engineers reached the fertile plains which spread out invitingly towards roughly formed mountain peaks tinged with snow. A main road running in parallel to the wide river would enable goods and services to reach the centre much faster, therefore greatly improving life for the hard working families whose survival would depend on it.
They had spied each other on a few previous occasions when Cesare had cause to pass through the main piazza on local business. He had watched her from afar as she stooped to wash sheets in the local fountain, scrubbing the rough linen and brushing back her long curly dark hair from her unforgettable face. He had admired the way the soft curls cascaded down her back in a rush. He imagined savouring the texture of just one of those ringlets between his fingers. He would press it warm under his pillow for safe keeping.
Majestic olive trees governed the land running alongside the arterial river, whose source flowed freely from the mountains. Lavinia was so lost in the song that accompanied the women while they worked that she barely sensed his approach.
He bid her a good day and asked if the olives were of good quality and plentiful this year. She smiled hesitantly, aware they were being studied closely by the inquisitive group of gatherers which surrounded them.
‘We still have many baskets to fill. We were unable to work yesterday due to the downpour… but at least today is fine.’ She glanced nervously at her sister, whose disapproving expression made it obvious that Cesare’s presence was far from welcome.
Cesare noticed Lavinia was blushing slightly… a sure sign they would speak again. The ice was broken now and he would be bolder at the next opportunity. The way her dark brown eyes with flecks of green shone as she looked at him moved his heart in a way he had never experienced before. He was no stranger to the powerful sensation of attraction and admired by women from disjointed towns, who found themselves unable to resist Cesare’s piercing sky blue eyes and teasing ways. As the driver of a juggernaut he had obtained almost film star status for being able to reverse in the piazza, winning bets from local men, convinced this was an impossible feat.
A couple of weeks after their exchange by the river, Cesare drove a group of local men to the surrounding mountains to hunt for wild boar. He would leave them to stalk their unsuspecting prey whilst he waited in the centre of town. She would appear at some point he was certain. The fruit and vegetable sellers were proudly setting out their local produce. As he sauntered past a stall he grabbed an apple. The young woman behind the stand did not protest. They exchanged a conspiratorial smile.
The church bells rang out their signature tune, beckoning the population to mass. Cesare spotted her. She was moving in time with the mid morning exodus, hair pinned neatly in a soft bun and a heavy grey shawl protecting her fine shoulders. She strode determinedly towards the sturdy wide open arms of the church doors.
Cesare had too much to confess and trusted no one. It was wiser to keep his thoughts and actions secret, especially as a free spirit, who refused to be confined within four walls for longer than half an hour. An irresistible urge often lured him towards playing cards at whichever bar was open.
He mingled cleverly with the throng which poured out noisily into the winter sunshine an hour later. She found him at her side, tipping his cap in salutation, smiling confidently. If his eyes had been a fathomless river she would have dived deep down to risk being lost forever.
‘Where do you live? I’d like to ask for permission to court you… if you agree… what do you think about walking out with me?’ He lit a cigarette. She couldn’t see his eyes too clearly but his voice was like that of a tenor. She felt she could listen to him indefinitely.
‘Via Scalicello thirty.’ She replied before thinking about the repercussions too hard. She found him incredibly attractive but suspected her parents would object to the match. She was aware that Cesare’s family was no comparison to her own.
And so according to strict traditional dating codes, Cesare sent a letter of introduction together with a photograph for Lavinia to present to her parents. So far she had received as many as twenty letters from socially desirable young men requesting permission to court her. She had found the letters either arrogantly expressed or their photos quite unappealing. Lavinia’s parents cherished great hopes for their middle daughter and how Signora Luchetti had scolded Lavinia when she had rejected a proposal from the head manager of a railway company.
Lavinia was greatly upset but not surprised when her father told her to politely decline Cesare’s offer. She knew that his family background and lack of education would be an obstacle but she continued over the weeks ahead to implore him to give Cesare an chance.
When Cesare arrived at the historic Palazzo to honour an introductory lunch, he glanced up at the family crest which belonged to its original owner. Lavinia’s maternal grandfather had left for America at the turn of the century to make his fortune and upon his return a decade later had ensured that each child received enough money to buy or build a home of their own. Although the family was descended from nobility, times were hard and yet the dishes provided were delicious and plentiful.
Twenty-five family members assembled around the huge olive wood dining table. Aunties, Uncles, sisters and cousins were eager to find out more about this charismatic figure from out of town.
The young would be lovers naturally gravitated towards each other. Immediately Lavinia’s formidable mother sprang to her feet and admonished them both publicly. In her excitement Lavinia had completely forgotten that it was against etiquette to sit next to a man who was not yet a husband. Dutifully they moved to seats a little distance apart and the evening progressed successfully.
Once the dishes were cleared away the men retired to an adjoining room to smoke. Cesare’s interest in the advancement of local infrastructure and vast knowledge of all things mechanical sparked great interest and generated many questions from those eager to own their own vehicles.
The early evening passeggiata marked the first official occasion in which Lavinia and Cesare were permitted to lose themselves in conversation, albeit not entirely privately. Walking together alone as a young unmarried couple was prohibited and so close family members chaperoned, following a discreet distance behind like a flock of curious ducklings.
Lavinia was deeply in love but firmly believed that parental will must be respected. She admired her father in particular and knew she was his favourite. It was his word which had permitted Cesare to ask for Lavinia’s hand. She would never have disobeyed even if it had caused her pain.
Lavinia did have a few doubts based on Cesare’s popularity and local gossip but cared only to follow her heart. Cesare was so very good looking, in possession of an excellent sense of humour and endearingly witty. Always ready with a prompt response, his lack of education was barely noticeable unlike the sky blue eyes which had beguiled her from the first.
The engagement period continued for the necessary minimum of two long years and Lavinia fantasised about the day she would walk down the aisle. Her wedding attire would be modest, make up minimal and hair delicately curled.
Cesare had already learned a great deal from the knowledge Lavinia had acquired from her all too brief years at school. As a bright ten year old she failed the final year deliberately in order to stay on an extra year. Women were not expected to pursue classes beyond the age of eleven. Instead they were required to support their husbands, raise children and manage the running of the home but also to labour in the surrounding countryside.
Lavinia was unafraid of hard work and from the age of six had baked bread for the family, supervised closely by her strict mother who also taught her to cook, clean and mend. She did not resent these chores but her mind wandered while she worked with her hands. How she missed reading, the exchange and expression of ideas.
The time of the annual olive harvest approached. This would be the third harvest after the first realisation that she had fallen in love. Again it was November and Lavinia held the stout wooden ladder for her youngest sister who shook a middle branch, causing huge dark olives to fall soundlessly upon the nets strewn beneath to catch them.
Lavinia felt humbled by the miracle of the olive harvest. She thought about Don Antonio’s description of the dove, who having returned to the ark with an olive branch in its beak, communicated safety to Noah. The waters had safely receded and God’s creatures could be released once more onto dry land. The promise of a new beginning was thus signified in a spirit of hope and peace.
The morning of the wedding in December arrived at long last. Lavinia’s mother and sisters adorned the interior of the church with silver olive branches. Large wicker baskets cradling a plentiful supply of round dye black olives waited by the altar to be blessed.
She could barely sleep the night before such was the intensity of her excitement. Cesare had wished to conduct their engagement in the most dignified manner, resisting the temptation to suggest a secret lover’s tryst away from prying eyes. Nothing would taint the purity of the moment they would be declared husband and wife. They would make a wonderful home together and raise many children. Lavinia’s Father was ready to retire and there was talk of the electrically powered mill being passed on to his wife to be. He would be his own man and take no instruction from others. He would work hard to make his wife and children proud and prove to his family that he was a capable business owner. Lavinia was clever with numbers and he was ingenious when it came to furthering his own interests. He knew how to weigh flour using hidden stones so that the foolish bought less than they had paid for. With a silver tongue and a winning smile he would make a success of this golden opportunity.
His eyes filled with tears as he gazed upon his beautiful Bride. She walked proudly towards him, her right arm linked firmly within her father’s reassuring left. With each step Cesare’s heart seemed to beat more audibly. A sudden craving for a cigarette passed as Don Antonio placed their hands together and welcomed what felt like the entire town.
The mass was due to commence and they knelt dutifully side by side on the low bench before the altar made for the purpose of benediction. Lavinia fixed her eyes upon the scarlet thread of the cushion which supported her unsteady knees. She felt she would burst with love and excitement for the man she had chosen.
Don Antonio motioned for all to rise and the first notes of a traditional hymn beckoned the largely poor congregation to praise a merciful God and two unique souls about to be joined in Holy Matrimony.
The church doors were suddenly flung open and an icy breeze shot straight as an arrow along the aisle, piercing the peaceful space occupied by the betrothed.
‘You think yourself worthy as a husband to this woman Cesare! You would not keep your promise… you betrayed my trust and I will not hold my peace… and YOU will have none for the rest of your life!’
Cesare lifted his head to address the threat but it felt suddenly very heavy… too much weight to bear for his brawny shoulders. He recognised her voice but sudden shock dimmed his senses and he could not initially place her. Then he remembered… it was Agata.
Auburn haired and fiery eyed, she stood firm of purpose and unafraid in the doorway, her gaze defiant. At her side could be seen a young boy of around five years old. He held tightly onto his mother’s skirt and on sensing her distress the boy’s tiny chin begin to tremble and his sky blue eyes began to fill with tears.
‘How dare you trespass and disrespect God’s house! What is the purpose of this intrusion?’ The silver haired Priest’s voice was severe but his expression was one of pity. He had experienced something of this nature before many years ago when a young woman with child had been blackmailed into silence… a pact she broke when she could no longer bear the thought of her lover marrying another woman.
Lavinia meantime was outraged. Unlike her dumb struck fiancé she rose immediately to her feet and answered, ’Who on earth are you and what in God’s name are you talking about!?’
Agata ignored her and yelled loudly in Cesare’s direction.
‘This… this is your son. Yours and mine!’
Cesare’s blood coursed immediately to his brain, leaving his arms and legs paralysed and breath shallow. He still could not fully focus upon the small boy, who at that moment suddenly let go of his mother’s skirt and running down the aisle towards him shouted ‘Daddy, daddy… you are not dead! Yyou are not dead! My… Daddy!’
A collective gasp rose from the stunned symmetry of the pews.
‘Wh.. what?!’ Lavinia demanded of Cesare in complete disbelief, her world suddenly crashing down around the feet which seemed to root her to the spot.. roots holding her fast, like the ancient roots of a sacred olive tree.
As the young boy hurled himself towards Cesare, pandemonium ensured. Lavinia’s father sprang forwards, grabbing the edge of Cesare’s smart black jacket and pulled him roughly away from eager little hands. A chorus of angry voices rang in Cesare’s ears like the bells which had earlier heralded a wedding which was not to be. Their affair had ended a couple of years before he had met Lavinia.
Why had Agata not told him of the existence of this child, a son! She had declared her wish to be his wife but Cesare did not return her affection to the same degree. In a moment of passion he had rashly promised to marry her but at eighteen years old felt far too young to be tied to a woman he saw as a diversion.
A year later Lavinia reluctantly accepted a proposal from a wealthy landowner, settled in her home town and bore four healthy children in relatively quick succession. Gossip would follow her in whispers sometimes as she went about her daily business in town. She cried tears of anger, pain and humiliation when she was afforded the rare luxury of being alone.
Cesare continued to transport local workers to construct a future for an impoverished land. Each time he reluctantly drove along the now completed road which connected Lavinia’s new life to the valley, it was all he could do to resist winding down the window of his newly acquired motor car to catch the song of yet another olive harvest.
© 2018 Diane Rossi All Rights Reserved