Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The Wisdom of Time

Happy Post-Election Day! I hope everyone voted in their local elections yesterday and are pleased with at least some of the results.

But enough about politics! Let's get into some storytelling. This week's story is a first chapter to a novel called The Wisdom of Time by Gloria Attar. This excerpt represented the chapter-version of what I think first paragraphs should be. It established the main character and the setting, and turned the seemingly innocent set-up into something darker that made me want to read more.

Gloria Attar declared her intention to live in Italy when she saw the movie Three Coins in the Fountain at the age of ten. As an adult, she was fortunate enough to arrive in Rome and throw her coins into the Trevi Fountain. For the next three years she lived out her dream in Bologna as a writer and founder of the "Mama and Me School of English" for parents and children. Gloria now lives in the Midwest with her daughter, Sasha, and Charlotte, her rabbit. Go visit her blog about her life in Italy at:

The Wisdom of Time
By Gloria Attar

Antonella struggled with her boot laces. She knew if she didn’t hurry that her father would be halfway to the cellars before she even got to her feet. She needed to catch up with him before he passed through the iron gate, or she’d risk being locked out and have only her father’s lackluster technical description of what had happened to the wine. No matter how incredible the reality was, her father had a habit of melting everything down to such a practical level that she was sure the only time he had any fun was when she arrived home from the States. When the housekeeper, Maria, asked for a recap of Antonella and her father’s summer travels, both would stand in the kitchen and take turns recounting their adventures. At the end of their recitation, Maria was never convinced they’d been on the same vacation, as Antonella’s penchant for drama always eclipsed Vittorio’s restraint.

Antonella hoped that whatever had happened, that she’d be the one to tell Maria. She loved hearing Maria’s ‘oh my’s’ and ‘oh Dio’s’ touched with a tinge of the Bolognese accent and the way the woman rolled her ‘r’s’ on every English word. Although Antonella had grown up bi-lingual, she sometimes rolled her ‘r’s’ as well until she’d been back in the States for a couple of weeks and replaced every ‘r’ with a Boston ‘h’. She faced a similar struggle when she returned to the vineyard and Maria couldn’t understand her Italian until Antonella began rolling the ‘r’s’ correctly again and remembered not to pronounce ‘h’s’ at all.

Nothing fun ever seemed to happen at the estate during Antonella’s summer stays. Most of the time, she had only tales of her imaginary playmate to share with Maria. But this morning, when her father answered his phone and three seconds later jumped up from behind his mahogany desk, thereby tipping over his leather chair, Antonella knew something bad, but perhaps exciting had finally happened. She was less concerned with what it was, than how much mileage she could get out of it back at her private school in Boston. When Antonella’s father barked ‘get your boots,’ she knew at least that they were headed to the cellars. The vineyards were so dry in summer, boots weren’t needed. Something was wet.

Her imagination ran forth to casks spewing a claret liquid in tall fountains you could put your mouth under. Although she had only been permitted to drink an occasional watered-down glass of wine, Antonella promised herself that if she saw a fountain of the nectar, that she would taste it in its purest form. It was July and half her summer vacation was over so she hoped the forthcoming sight would be a spectacular display that she could recall every day until she returned to the United States. Antonella would spend the first week of school lunch hours sitting with her best friend Amy; reciting every detail of the summer between bites of turkey and pesto sandwiches. Amy would then elevate her own status in the various cliques by relating all of Antonella’s summer adventures, embellishing where she thought necessary and constantly reminding all those in attendance as she held court, that only she, Amy Abbott of Exeter Street, knew all the details, some of which she had to keep to herself as Antonella had sworn her to secrecy. Antonella didn’t mind Amy’s sensationalizing the details a bit. It kept the boys from taunting her about stomping grapes with her feet, although the cry of ‘no one would ever rescue you from the castle tower’ had remained.

Antonella stood up and grasped the oak railing to steady herself. She pounded her foot on the marble stair until she felt her left boot slip into place. She poised her right foot in the air and jumped to the foyer fearing the time it would take to plant her feet on the last two steps would cause her to miss her father. She flung open the door to the villa and winced as she heard the doorknob slam into the wall with a thud. Her father had told her to stop doing that. Maybe it hadn’t hit hard enough to reopen the large hole she’d made last summer, when she’d run out to see her new horse.

The blinding Umbrian sun halted her steps until her eyes could adjust to the brightness. She squinted to try to make out her father’s figure in the footpath, but it was no use. Her blue eyes were no match for the intense rays. If she didn’t move soon, she knew she’d hear the clank of the gate lock and it would be too late. She wanted to break out into a run, but the rising heat factored that as a non-possibility and as the beads of sweat formed on her forehead, she realized she’d forgotten to bring her water bottle. She’d never catch up with her father unless she ran.

“PapĂ !” she gave all her lungs had and hoped he was close enough to hear her.

“Up here,” he called. “Hurry up.”

She kept her head down and propelled her body forward into a fast walk. She knew he wouldn’t come back for her, but would wait at least until she caught up.

“I’m right here,” she heard as a shadow passed over her.

Antonella reached out her hand, as her eyes searched his long silhouette. If she raised her gaze any higher than the tip of his black boots, her eyes would begin to water.

“Your boots are on the wrong feet,” he laughed as he took her hand.

“I didn’t have time...,” she said, lifting her head only slightly to look at him.

“It’s not important. You’re with me, not your mother.” Her mother always worried about Antonella’s appearance and care whenever she left her daughter in Italy. Antonella never worried. She knew as soon as her mother’s plane left the tarmac, that her father would keep a close eye on her, but not so close that she couldn’t get a little messy now and then. Antonella’s father seldom reproached her for her appearance, unless they were expecting official guests at dinner. Most of her crisp cotton and linen blouses were stuffed at the back of her closet along with her one, more formal, party dress. Summers at the vineyard were the time for dark shorts and t-shirts. Once she had tripped over a clod of dirt and landed in wild boar droppings and apart from being disgusting, the stain had remained in her white shorts.

Antonella’s smaller steps were no match for her father’s longer than normal stride, and every couple of feet he lifted her up with one hand, which mimicked their airport greeting game of judging how much she’d grown since her last visit. Her father always told her that the day he needed two hands to pick her up, would be the day he knew that Antonella was no longer his little girl. Something told Antonella that by the end of this summer, her father would stop thinking of her as little, and she felt certain the something would have everything to do with the vineyard.

When Antonella and her father reached the inside of the old castle, blue spots floated over her eyes as the only illumination in the grand foyer streamed in through the high narrow openings in the stone walls. Her father released her hand and descended the stairs, two at a time. Antonella stood at the top of the staircase with her foot poised over the first step. She shivered. The old corridors below played with sound and already carried the echo of her father’s footsteps through the tombs. Antonella steadied herself against the cold wall and took the steep steps one at a time. As always on the thirteenth step, the light from above faded and for the next eight steps she was plunged into complete darkness. Each time she navigated the cellars’ stairwell, she remembered her first visit to a haunted house in the States and the moment that a blacklit gloved hand had reached out of the shadows and grabbed her wrist. Antonella rubbed her arms to erase the rising goose bumps and the memory of the phantom’s touch. Finally she saw the glow of the catacombs’ overhead lights on the last few stairs. Antonella expelled a long sigh as she emerged from the darkness and the light once again bounced off the shiny vinyl of her red boots.

Antonella couldn’t see evidence of anything amiss until she reached the bottom landing where her father waited for her. Although there were no fountains of wine, and it couldn’t really be called a river, a small claret tributary flowing down the middle of the floor seemed accurate enough.

“Stay there. I don’t want you falling in,” said her father.

Antonella strained her neck forward. Other than the obvious leak, everything looked the same. The oak casks gleamed from the overhead lights and the temperature monitor on the wall read a steady 13°C. The humidity monitor was above the temperature gauge and although she couldn’t see the digital display, she assumed the slight cast of green light on the stone wall meant it read a normal 70%.

She saw Piero, the cellar manager waiting for her father halfway down the catacomb to the right. His sleeves rolled up, he seemed to be inspecting a long narrow stick. The two men walked through the dark liquid, splashing other casks with their steps as they proceeded further into the tombs. Antonella lost sight of them, but knew they’d stopped because the splashing sound had ceased. She heard talking, followed by a knocking sound, then a splintering of wood and a larger gushing sound. More wine filled the floor and the trickling grew louder as the liquid rushed to the drain. They’d lost a red wine, but she didn’t know what kind and she wasn’t adventurous enough to want to taste it from the floor. She wondered for a moment if they’d lost a sparkling white wine, would the oozing liquid fizz? She hadn’t learned the wine-making process yet, though she asked questions and paid attention when her father explained something new.

She looked up at the arched sepia walls. The castle had been restored, but still housed much of the original stone and decor of the medieval period. Many of the iron rings where Antonella assumed prisoners had been chained, still hung from the cellar walls, and a wooden stocks, similar to the ones she’d seen in Salem for punishing people accused of practicing witchcraft, sat at the end of one passageway, covered by a sheet. Antonella didn’t like thinking she may accidentally come across it one day, and asked her father to put it out of view, along with a few of the old chains they’d found. Her father had also put the old helmets and bayonets from World War II that he’d found in the fields, with the rest of the remnants of hateful times.

1 comment:

  1. It's always fun to read about Italy and all things Italian! Thanks for posting this.