Sunday, 13 May 2012
Revenge at Castiglioncello
I came at last to Castiglioncello, weary from the heat and the crowds. There was the scent of freshness in the streets despite the glaring sunlight, which I knew was from the sea. My good friend Giovanna was not on the station, but she texted me to come to her with an address. I got a taxi outside the train station and gave the driver the address in my casual yet rough Italian. He nodded silently and turning on the meter, drove out of the station through the city.
Italy's usual mix of architecture; the good, bad and ugly as well as the people in the streets occupied me. I love to look and Italy is full of wonderful things and people to look at. I had been doing research in Florence and having a weekend to myself I had called Giovanna whom I had not seen for a while. When I stepped from the taxi and paid the driver ten minutes later I felt at least a little more alive. I entered a street with a wall at one end. To my left was a beautiful old building that I guessed had been built in the 19th century. Around the high windows of the second storey at the building's base were shops and cafes.
I looked at the text again and a quick search revealed two large doors between the shops. I pushed at one of the heavy doors and it opened wide enough for me to slip inside. I closed it behind me and turned to find a shaded, cool stairwell and to the right of it a corridor that led to another set of doors. Beside the bottom of the stairs was a set of mail-boxes and I climbed the stairs, grateful for the coolness indoors. On the first landing I found the address I was looking for and knocked at the door. For a moment I heard muffled voices in quick, fluid Italian of the kind I wished I spoke. Then the door opened and Giovanna smiled and told me how glad she was to see me. I would have replied similarly but she kissed me, hugged me quickly and pulled me into the flat. It was a large, high-ceilinged flat with the sort of elegant beauty and a richness I knew neither Giovanna nor I possessed. I was led through to a bright, yet cool living room where, on a sofa sat a very well-dressed woman.
"Signora Ferrara, meet my dear English friend," Giovanna began and introduced me.
I told Signora Ferrara that I was honoured to meet her and her watchful dark eyes studied me even as she smiled and bid me sit. I took a chair opposite the sofa and Signora Ferrara called for coffee. A young woman with a ready smile brought us coffee in the sort of elegant porcelain that only a woman of a certain age will buy. At that age, one does not care too much of the opinions of strangers having determined to be oneself and be damned.
"You must call me Alegra, young man," Signora Ferrara said, "Signora Ferrara sounds as if I am old. I am not so old just yet."
I thanked her and she poured the coffee. When the three of us were settled she smiled at Giovanna very tenderly and said to me,
"I hear you like stories of all kinds, but especially about faeries and the like."
It was the sort of remark that usually felt like an accusation, but this time I felt that she was somehow testing me. I said that I had always loved folktales and legends as well as the old myths. For a moment she was silent, giving Giovanna a warning look when my dear friend put her arm in mine and squeezed my hand. Then Alegra Ferrara sat back on the sofa and crossing her long legs sipped her coffee.
"You know my dear that Castiglioncello is very old like so many of our cities. It has a fine history and many stories of its famous sons and daughters are well-known locally," she said casually.
"Dio mio! Tell him what you told me Alegra! He can visit the museum later," Giovanna said quickly.
I was aware then that my friend was full to bursting with something she knew. Something she wanted me to know - that she knew I would want to know. Alegra chuckled softly and took another sip of coffee. She winked at me.
"Perhaps you would like something to eat, my dear," she said to me.
At that I grinned and politely declined as Giovanna threw up her hands and exclaimed. Alegra put up her hand to conciliate Giovanna and chuckled again. Giovanna had always been impatient but charmingly so and I saw from this that the two women were old friends.
"Once upon a time - isn't that how these tales start?" Alegra asked.
I nodded feeling impatient excitement now myself.
"Well there was in the 19th century in this city a young woman. She was said in the reports of the time to be quite a renowned beauty, not like Giovanna and myself who are not famous for our beauty. This woman was said to be either a witch or in league with the devil. She was neither, but there, people will talk. This young woman, Agnella, had made a lot of money. She gave much of it to poor women who had been seduced by men and abandoned when a child came along. She was much loved as a result by many women in Castiglioncello and indeed some men.
Now there was a group of young men in the town who wished to bring her down. They saw her as a troublemaker - many men see a woman like that when the woman exposes the viciousness of some men. Among this group was a very handsome gentleman. He was rich too and he decided that he would seduce Agnella so that in the society of the city she would be ruined.
He began by sending her poems on her beauty, which she ignored. These were not the first poems she had been sent recounting how beautiful she was. She knew that true beauty is not in mere flesh for age can destroy good looks as easily as it wishes. But then this young man would serenade her in the evenings so that her neighbours knew how he felt. She responded by sending her maid to ask him to keep the noise down for she was reading and did not wish to be disturbed.
The young man persisted in his aims and wore her resistance down. She could not deny that he was attractive and this blinded her to his lack of inner beauty. She longed for him as those in love will long for each other. Before long he had seduced her and only then did he leave her well enough alone. She wept, she raged, she became a recluse and all of Castiglioncello heard of her ruin. Strange as it may seem, she was pitied rather than disdained, but in many ways that was worse.
Now it happened that one night she awoke to find a very attractive woman in her room by the balcony. She started up in horror, but to her surprise she could not move to call her maid or cry out.
"Agnella you have been ill-treated, but when your child is born you must give it to me. Once you are avenged you must build a palace in my name. I will tell you my name when you give me your babe," the woman said and promptly faded into the moonlight.
You may imagine Agnella's astonishment at this visitation. She was not sure how she felt about her illegitimate child being taken from her. On the one hand the child must remind her of the cruel father, but on the other, a child is not at fault for the actions of it's parents. She lay back on the pillows and fell asleep. When she awoke the following morning she was sure she had dreamed the incident and that it could not possibly be real.
Before long however she was delivered of a beautiful baby girl and as she fell asleep exhausted at the delivery, she heard strange yet gentle music. She dreamed, or so she writes in her diaries, that the beautiful woman came to her in a meadow and kissed her.
"Don't forget to build my palace when you are avenged. Name it after the Queen Amasella. When you awake no-one will remember that you have given birth. Your child will be with me and I will keep her safe and well. She will return to you when you are a very old woman," the woman told her.
When Agnella awoke it was as the strange woman had told her. Her own body was clean and fresh and nobody remembered that she had ever been pregnant let alone given birth. Agnella kept her own counsel and said nothing to anyone. She continued her business from her home and did not go out, though she always read the journals and newspapers of the town.
Occasionally she wondered what her daughter was doing, what she looked like and if she was happy. A week later she read in the local newspaper that the man who was her daughter's father had been seduced and humiliated. He had left the city in disgrace - Agnella had been avenged. She built this building and it has been always called Casa Amasella after the faerie queen.
From that day forward Agnella went back out into the city. To her mild surprise, nobody recognised her. Not long after, she fell in love and married a good and honest man who helped her to build her business. After some time, she became pregnant again and gave birth to another girl child whom she called Elisabetta. She took great care of that girl and loved her becoming both a friend and mentor to her. Her husband also loved Elisabetta and cared for her.
So the women grew and aged and yet Agnella did not forget her firstborn. When Elisabetta was old enough, she told her of the sister she had and what had happened to her. She was told never to forget and to be kind to her sister when she should return to the family.
When Agnella grew old, Elisabetta had married and divorced. She returned to her mother's house and took care of her mother. It was one sunny bright, crisp Spring day when a young woman appeared in the garden of Agnella's house. Agnella had been sleeping in a chair under the cherry tree, which was pink with its blossom. The young woman approached her dressed in a red dress with green shoes and softly spoke,
"Mama are you fast asleep?"
Agnella was not fast asleep, but merely dozing and at the sound of a voice she awoke and gave a cry that brought Elisabetta to the door to the garden. She watched her mother reach up to the young woman and embrace her, sobbing.
Quietly, Elisabetta stepped into the garden and approached the young woman. Agnella kissed the young woman's face and held her hands tightly. At the sound of footsteps behind her, the young woman turned and looked into Elisabetta's eyes.
"Sister?" Elisabetta asked.
The young woman smiled and Elisabetta reached out to touch the young woman. But as the young woman stepped from the shade of the cherry tree into the sunlight, she faded and disappeared. Agnella gave a cry that broke her heart and she died that evening. From that moment on, Elisabetta dedicated her life to finding her sister again. She has not found her yet though she has not given up searching.
You smile my dear, how do I know that. I am Alegra Ferrara, the first born daughter of my mother, the woman who built this building. I too have been searching for Elisabetta."
She took another sip of coffee and gazed out of the large windows as if she were not a grown woman but a little child abandoned in a crowded city.
"I thought we might be able to help," Giovanna said softly to me.
Well, we are still looking, but like Alegra Ferrara we have not found Elisabetta just yet.