She had been widowed too early, as my mother said sadly, thinking about her father who had died prematurely. “He had a nasty disease”, she would tell me when I asked for information about the grandfather I had never met.
I never really found out exactly what had caused his death.
Mentioning the word cancer could apparently be lethal. Instead, they were just nasty diseases and you could only speak about them in a low voice.
The station was crowded full of people saying goodbye, train guards whistling, workmen pushing trolleys, locomotives in transit, suitcases on the platforms.
It was the first time that I had ever climbed on board a train and the steps seemed really high.
In the carriage, I was struck by a strange smell that, still today, I only associate with the carriages of trains travelling around Sicily.
My grandmother made me sit by the window. She placed the bag with the cake inside it on the luggage rack above our seats and sat in front of me.
A man in uniform asked us for our tickets and punched them with a strange gadget; several gentlemen came into our compartment and, seeing my grandmother, took off their hats and bowed their heads in greeting. She replied with an almost undetectable nod of her head, without smiling or looking them in the eyes and turning towards the window.
Outside, there were a few people standing on the platform waving goodbye to their loved ones, about to be taken away by the train. A man wearing a red hat blew his whistle and the train left the station.
Glued to the window, I saw the sandy beaches and the cliffs overlooking the sea, a series of bays, coves and small villages perched up high on the mountains, fishing boats leaving their wakes in the water behind them and colourful houses on the shore, dazzled by the sun.
It was like watching the television, only in colour.
With slow, precise movements, the fishermen pulled their nets onto the beaches, as others repaired one of them.
Life goes slowly by in seaside locations. You never see fishermen running and their movements are true rituals. They are solitary men, in love with their freedom, who enjoy their own company. They have dark skin that the sun no longer burns like it did in the past. The corners of their eyes are marked by a web of wrinkles and their hard, rough hands are full of fresh cuts and old scars. These are the hands of hardworking men, who return home tired, but who can’t wait to go to out sea again. They are the hands of men who would not change their trade for anything in the world.
I was tired after the early start that morning and also because of the long journey, but I didn’t want to fall asleep because I liked gazing out of the train window.
We were almost at the railway station in Catania when my stomach suddenly refused to hold down the cake that I had eaten.
«Grandma, I feel sick.» I barely had time to say it, when she practically picked me up and thrust me into the toilet of the train where I immediately threw up.
My blue and white striped t-shirt got soiled, so my grandmother slipped it off and washed it with a little soap to get rid of the smell it was already giving off.
Standing there, in silence, in that little toilet, I was so ashamed I could not even speak.
My grandmother scrubbed as fast as she could, as the train had now stopped at the station and we needed to get off in a hurry.
She put the t-shirt under the jet of water from the tap, rinsed it, wrung it out and put it into the bag she was holding in one hand. With the other, she took my hand and we quickly got off the train.
At the bus stop, there were a few people in an untidy queue, waiting for the bus to Acitrezza. Two short, hefty women dressed all in black, from the scarves on their heads to the shoes on their feet, looked at me in disgust. Despite being a child, I was indecent in their eyes, because I was only wearing a vest.
We got onto the bus, showing our tickets, and sat down on the seats behind the driver.
«If we sit here, you won’t have any more problems with your tummy.» My grandmother said gently. «How do you feel now? Do you feel better, gioia mia?»
«Yes Grandma.» I replied.
I thought she was angry with me for what had happened, but she was only anxious, because she was afraid, we would miss the bus.
«Darn!» She said, frowning. «We left the Cassata on the train.»
«I’m sorry, Grandma.» I stammered, beginning to cry.
«No darling, it’s not your fault. Don’t cry. Don’t worry about it. We’ll buy another cake when we get to Acitrezza.»
It really was my fault, though. I remained in silence. My grandmother let me sit on her lap and cuddled me to keep me warm.
She had put my t-shirt on the seat next to us to dry, by the window, in the sun.
I fell asleep, peacefully snuggled up in her arms.
«Tommaso, we’re here. Look how beautiful it is outside.» She said, waking me up. I was excited to see the faraglioni seastacks, a short distance from the shore.
I will never forget that sensation. I still get the same feeling every time I find myself sitting in the little square of Acitrezza, looking out to sea: cones of volcanic rock look like they were thrown randomly into the middle of that deep blue sea. The shades of blue change continuously as sunbeams redden the black cliffs at sunset, while the warm wind caresses your skin like a lover’s delicate touch.
«Grandma, what are those big rocks in the sea?»
«This is the Riviera of the Cyclops. They’re giants with only one eye. One of them was called Polyphemus and, one day, he captured a man named Ulysses. Ulysses managed to escape by blinding the giant’s only eye. He reached his ship, which was waiting on the shore, and escaped, while Polyphemus, who was furious and now blind, hurled these enormous rocks into the sea, trying to hit him.»
«And did he hit him?»
«No. He managed to get away.»
«So, why is the village called Acitrezza and not Polyphemus?»
«That’s another story, I’ll tell you about it later. Let’s get off the bus now.»
It was wonderful to hear my grandmother telling me those Sicilian legends: whenever I asked my mother, she couldn’t remember any of them and always said “ask your grandmother”.
The bus stopped just in time to let us and a few other passengers off and then it left again.
- Her Name Was Aprile - April 18, 2021