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Sa Tanca

Sa Tanca (The field)
A tale of Sardinia.

Jacob looked at his mother insolently.

“You're going to send me where for the summer?”

His mother, Consuelo, habituated to his disrespect, answered simply and directly.

“Your father and I have discussed this and it's going to happen if you like it or not, giovanotto. You are going to stay with uncle Stefano and his family in Sardinia for the summer. You are leaving on Saturday morning and they will meet you at the airport in Nuoro.”

Jacob felt like the world was about to end. He could not imagine forsaking his friends in Rome, the parties on the beach at Ostia or the luxurious summer homes of other friends at Sabaudia in the shadow of Monte Circeo for a bunch of Sardinian troglodytes. He gasped as though in mortal pain.

“But, mother,” he announced, “they're so backward and they smell like cheese!”

His mother's hand was out before he could react and he felt the sting of her palm against his cheek.

“You listen to me, you arrogant, little brute. There is more dignity and respect bred into those shepherds than you have been able to show in a long time. Maybe, just maybe, if you listen and learn from uncle Stefano, you will return to Rome for the August festival and be much more of the man you should be at your age, rather than just another conceited Roman kid.”

Consuelo paused and collected her breath. She knew she had said too much and reproached herself for it.

“Go to your room and start packing,” she ordered abruptly, broaching no response. Jacob left the bright, sunlit kitchen and, a moment later, she heard the door of his room slam shut. Below the windows, the traffic was teaming in Via Vittorio Veneto.

The Sardinian blood was on her husband, Salvatore's, side of the family. Consuelo, instead, had grown up the daughter of an old Roman family. She had met him at the University of Rome in her third year.

“Who's that?” she had idly asked her friend, Sylvia, while indicating the robust young man in a black velvet suit and short-collared shirt sitting a short distance away.

“Oh, him?” answered Sylvia. “His name's Salvatore – he comes from Sardinia. I really didn't that they allowed Sardinians in University.” She began to laugh at her own slight.

Ashamed of herself, Consuelo had joined in but, later, she had found a pretext. Spotting him leaning against a wall, smoking a cigarette and reading a newspaper with his habitual, canvas book bag dangling from his shoulder, she had drawn close. She stooped and, feigning to pick something from the ground, extracted a fine, writing pen from her purse. She presented it to him.

“Did you lose this?” she inquired. The newspaper crumpled before him and he scrutinised, first, the pen and then her. She almost crumpled, too; there was no doubting that he was handsome.

“It's not mine,” he answered simply and made to return to the newspaper. Consuelo persisted.

“Are you sure?” she asked him. “I saw it right here.” She vaguely indicated the floor at his feet.

His eyes were blue and severe. His head was topped by short cropped, black curls.

“It's still not mine,” he said. His accent was thick and hard to mistake.

“Oh,” she said, crestfallen. “I wonder who lost it.”

“Look in your purse to see if you are missing one,” he suggested but without malice. He then smiled, showing two rows of large, white teeth. Consuelo felt like she was about to lose her footing. He came to her rescue.

“I'm Salvatore Murreddu,” he said quietly and extended his hand.

“Consuelo Ferrarri,” she responded automatically and curtsied, taking his hand. Salvatore returned the respect with a brief bow. “You are Sardinian?” she queried.

“Ebbe'?” he asked as if to imply 'so what'.

“It's just,” she fumbled with her words, “I've never met any of...”

“...of you?” he prompted. She blushed, looked away and attempted to soldier on.

“Yes! I mean, no! O Dio! What am I saying?” She began to giggle, losing control in her nervousness and the effect of having those blue eyes fixed on her.

“First a coffee,” he stated flatly. “Then we can talk.”
By a week later, they were dating.

Consuelo smiled and blushed anew thinking back on the situation that she had thrown herself into. It was, she acknowledged, the best fiasco she had ever created.

As she grew to know him, there was, she perceived, something within her that quickly responded to the man that he was. He showed himself to be of few words, quiet and intense but, what emerged out of that was a man of great integrity, solidity and honesty – the product of the harsh, unforgiving and, sometimes brutal, culture within which he had found his formation. He was also a loyal and dedicated husband and father.

Over the twenty years that they had lived as husband and wife in Rome, Salvatore's severe manner had become more relaxed but he retained the strict adherence to his pastoral values and reveled in the company of friends and family.

Of her son, Consuelo had more serious doubts about his growth into adulthood, his values and his ethic. She was certain that – it was only three months, after all – a summer with her husband's family would have a positive effect on his maturity.

It was just a matter of making Jacob see it that way.


Sa Tanca (The field).
A tale of Sardinia. Part II.

The plane lurched, navigating the updrafts, and Jacob felt his stomach rise into his throat. Looking from the small, oval window of the twin-prop, commuter plane, he saw, far below, the snow topped highest peaks running down the east coast of the island and the tiny, dispersed and isolated villages. The largest centre, Nuoro, came into view – itself hardly more than a town - snaking over the appendages of the mountain. He had never dreaded anything more in his life or felt so far from home. He wanted to cry but, instead, slouched in his seat, a grim scowl drawn across his face and Litfiba blaring in his ears.

Finally, bumping and rattling over the cracked and weathered tarmac, the small plane came coasting to a stop in front of the terminal and, once again, Jacob raised his eyes to look out. His spirit fell even further.

What he saw had nothing to do with the sparkling glass and chrome and the bustle of traffic at Rome's Fiumicino airport. Jacob felt as though, rather than a thirty minute flight, he had just traveled back in time, what might just as well have been, a hundred years.

He was claimed by a stewardess as the other passengers rose, opening the overhead bins, and collecting their belongings. They began to file out. The stewardess cheerfully announced to him that the airline required a minor be escorted to the terminal building. Jacob glared at her. The only sound that escaped him was a grunt of distaste when he discovered that there wasn't even a tunnel from the plane to the terminal; you had to go down the stairs and then walk, between two yellow lines, across the wind ripped space and enter the spartan, cement structure, replete with cracked and fallen stucco, that looked like it came from the days of Mussolini. There was a call of recognition and, having satisfied her duty, the stewardess smiled and left, leaving Jacob with his canvas rucksack, while he studied the broad, stout man who approached.

“Iagu, fizzu meu!” said uncle Stefano standing before Jacob and extending a massive paw. Jacob reluctantly shook the hand while his eyes bugged out.

Uncle Stefano – who was, more precisely, his father's uncle - it turned out, was not a man to be taken lightly. Far from the tall, leanly muscled man who was his father, Stefano was only slightly taller than Jacob but as broad across the shoulder and, by the strength shown in that brief grasp which left Jacob wincing, clearly as strong as an ox. He sported a full beard and moustache, both heavily streaked with grey but, atop his head, what hair remained was full white, long and as wiry as a horse's mane. He wore a faded, denim work shirt that strained across his bulging chest and upper arms above baggy jeans that did little to disguise that his legs were severely bowed, the result of a childhood vitamin deficiency.

The aspect of uncle Stefano that struck Jacob most were his eyes; they were set deep amidst the folds and wrinkles of his time weathered face, like two black embers – alert, intelligent and evaluating – but also, suspected Jacob, quick to the ferocity of anger or of avenging an offense. The image brought to mind the tales of the Sardinian bandits heard from his father; those like Tolu, who lived in the mountains and evaded capture for years or even decades. He wondered if this man was carrying the honed knife – sa risolza Sarda - that was a constant companion to most Sardinian men. Jacob cleared his throat which had gone suddenly dry.

“I'm sorry, sir, I don't know what you said. I don't speak Sardo.”

Stefano grunted, chagrined.

“Iagu – tu sese,” said Stefano and jabbed a thick index finger toward Jacob's chest.

Jacob recognised in the man's usage, the same economy of word that characterised his own father's discourse. After all, why use four words if three are sufficient to express your meaning? In a way, it comforted him even though standing before a bull of a man who he had never before met in his life because, he knew with his father, that words were money – to be used sparingly. If his father said, 'That's good, boy', it was solid praise in that it was meant, honest and straight. Jacob smiled slightly.

“Iagu? That's my name in Sardo?”

“Eja,” said the other. “Makes me wonder what Salvato' has been teaching you.”

Stefano smiled, his broad mouth spreading even wider and showing large teeth stained, with age, to the yellow of antique ivory. He pointed to the canvas rucksack lying on the scuffed and dilapidated, tile floor.

“Pick it up, boy.” He turned and Jacob hurried with his burden to follow. “We're going home to Oliena. Maria wants to meet you. Church at 5 – make sure you are ready.”

“Oliena?” called Jacob. “Isn't that in the bandit territory?”

“Eja,” responded Stefano, striding purposefully on his bowed legs. Yes.


Sa Tanca (The field)
A tale of Sardinia. Part III.

A wisp of cool, refreshing breeze entered the open doorway of the stone and mud hut which provided them shelter while watching the sheep. Jacob sniffed as it passed and he watched the dogs for their reaction; Nieddu, the black mastiff, lifted its massive head, unconcerned, and then replaced it on the thick forepaws. Across the fire pit in the centre, on the other side of the small, circular structure, Stefano sat on his bedroll and, with the sureness of years of practice, drew the long, shining, silver blade of his knife across a river stone. Behind him, a shotgun, loaded and ready to fire, was propped against the wall.

The August night had come on slowly but surely as the sun sank over the planes  of the western side of the island – out toward Oristano and Alghero – but tonight, far from them being enveloped in blackness 'as dark as a liar's soul' had commented Stefano, a brilliant moon had risen and, instead, lit the land around them with it's flattening, blue-tinged, pale glow. Outside, their horses were tethered, brushed and fed. The sheep had been counted and enclosed in a makeshift corral of prickly-pear cuttings.

Stefano began humming and then began to sing, softly, in a voice surprisingly pure, accompanied by the swish of the blade across the stone.

'Dammi sa manu, chi so gherrende,
faghem'isperare impare a tie.
Dammi sa manu, Santu Laurentu
deo so gherrende intro a mie.'

“What is that? asked Jacob, scarcely raising his voice above the beautiful and haunting melody.

“Unu rammentu est,” said Stefano, stopping. The fire, now burning low, reflected in his dark eyes as he raised them to fix the boy.

“A lament? What is it about?”

“A father asks Saint Lawrence for strength to avenge the death of his son.”

“Are all your songs about death and vengeance?”

Stefano began to laugh, gazing across the fire's glow to where the boy sat, his eyes wide in the semi-darkness; it was a low rumble in his chest, like the sound of ocean waves heard from a distance and, when he finished, he resumed honing the blade and answered simply, 'Yes'.

Jacob kicked off his boots and lay down on his own bed, pulling up the rough wool blanket to cover himself. It gave off a scent of horse sweat and smoke but he didn't mind. He wasn't aware, even as his eyes closed and he drifted off lulled by the sound of Stefano's singing, of the changes that had occurred in him.

He had no intention of changing when he arrived, of that there was little doubt. Change, however, has a habit of happening – even especially so – when you are not thinking about it. So it had been for Jacob.

Under Stefano's tutelage, he had little time to think about anything. The man was in constant motion and he very quickly gave Jacob to understand that he should keep up. Jacob did his best; he learned to tend the animals, care for the horses and, even, ride the perimeter of 'sa tanca' – the large, productive property that had been in the family's hands for more generations than anyone remembered – and he fixed the stone and bramble fences when storms, animals or passing bandits brought them down.

Stefano never taught Jacob a single thing but, rather, carried out his duties with constant vigour, requiring only that Jacob observe. Sometimes, they would go to a bar at night and that is where Jacob got more education than he knew. Stefano was a leader – a man to be respected. The other shepherds would come to him with their issues. Stefano would listen with seriousness, nodding from time to time and, for courtesy, refilling their glasses of the thick, red wine that was served in the place. Then he would give his advice – even offering to mediate in cases of serious dispute. All of this, Jacob watched and, without understanding it's effect on him, he grew out of his Roman pettiness – forgetting the 'friends' there that would have just dragged him into more of the same. He learned responsibility and respect.

The whining of a dog awoke him and his eyes flew open in the darkness. Nieddu, the enormous black mastiff, was pressed flat to the ground, cringing. Stefano was already up and Jacob could see the glint of moonlight against the barrel of the shotgun. He heard the horses stamping their hooves and there was a rustle of movement from the corral. He could imagine the sheep moving against one another, their eyes wide and panicked.

“Tiu,” he whispered, “what is it?” Stefano only shook his head.


Sa Tanca

Stefano carefully posed the shotgun against the wall of the hut and, grabbing the collars of two dogs there huddled against the ground, quickly attached the chains buried on stones in the packed earth floor to keep them staid. 'Nieddu' growled but, far from the voice of aggression that would normally come from a dog of it's size, it was contained, expressing fear and anxiety.

“It is a good night to stay here,” he stated. “Put some wood on the fire, boy.”

Jacob rose immediately, quickly donning his boots and a shirt, to comply. He placed some dry sticks on the pale embers and, fanning them, a flame quickly erupted. He added some more and, soon, the fire burned brightly. His curiosity overcame the silence in the hut.

“Uncle, what is out there? Are there bandits passing?”

Stefano only shook his head and produced, from his 'bisaccia' – a heavy bag, embroidered in the style of Oliena and used to carry necessary supplies – a wine skin. He took two small water glasses in his thick fingers from the side of the fire pit. The liquid – a clear and potent grappa – gurgled to almost fill one glass. In the other he placed a splash and passed it across the fire.

“Bevi,” he said to Jacob. “Drink and then you will sleep and not know of these things.”

“But tiu,” whispered Jacob as though fearing to wake the dead, “I want to know! What is there that we must stay here?”

Stefano downed his glass without hesitation and gazed across the fire expectantly for Jacob to do the same. Jacob looked doubtfully into the glass and the small amount of liquid that swirled there. He took a breath and launched it down; his throat erupted in fire and his eyes watered as the grappa descended. He felt its warmth in his belly immediately. He coughed, and then, wiping his eyes, looked back defiantly at Stefano. Stefano nodded.

“Sos spiritos,” was his only response.

“What do you mean, 'the spirits'?” questioned Jacob.

“They are called 'sas pannadas' – the washerwomen. They are the spirits of women who have died in birth, taking the child with them.”

Jacob shivered and pulled on a quilted, leather vest over his shirt. Listening intently, beyond the fussing of the animals and the whisper of wind in the trees, he heard another sound, distant – a song - a lament so tortured that tears welled in his eyes.

“They gather – sometimes we hear them – at the stream on the low side of the property to wash the linens of their dead children. They are pitiable creatures, driven to madness by their own guilt and sorrow. Many of them, it is said, still have the shade of their dead child with them; they will hold it to the teat but, the little creature is gone – only a shadow. When it will not suck, their madness grows the more and, the lament for their pain, louder. There are none more lost among sos mortos than they.”

Jacob, hearing the story and listening to the lament emanating from the moonlit night, felt a weight upon him. He thought of the insults he had thrown at his mother and his disrespect to his father.

“They have no peace?” he asked, timidly. “Could we not go to them and, maybe, read some verses – give them solace?” He fished about in his own bisaccia – a gift of his great aunt, Maria – and produced a Bible.

“Diventar maccu bi cheres?” shot back his uncle. “You want to lose your head? You cannot go to those creatures!  They are so lost in their torment that no Word will reach them. Any man who has seen them has gone mad – felt the pain that fills them. The living stay to their part and the dead to theirs. That is the proper way of the world.”

Stefano made to put the, rarely used but on the coldest night, thatched door into it's place.

“Wait,” hissed Jacob, still hearing the distant song. “The grappa...” he intimated.

“Eja,” responded Stefano.

Jacob buttoned his vest and, as he exited to find relief, he felt the weight of the Bible hidden under his waistband. He finished quickly at a copse of trees nearby and, then, keeping his eye for his uncle and the flickering firelight issuing from the door of the hut, headed down the incline to the steam.

He knew the path. In the evening, when the day had been long, he and Stefano had come to this stream to quickly bathe themselves in the frigid, runoff from higher in the mountains. Neither one of them relished it but, afterward, sitting close to the fire, they both laughed at their dimpled skin.

Jacob had never been there at night, alone, much less with a sorrowful lament ringing in his ears, a Bible in his waistband, a weight on his heart and the pale blue of the moon witnessing all. He followed the path – weeds, herbs and grasses pressed flat by their previous passings.

The song grew louder. It's intent was clear even though he did not understand the word. It was a song of love for a child lost. As he approached and entered the tree filled depression where the stream flowed, the shadows covered and filled him, the moon's light blocked and he passed into a world of darkness.

He passed on silent footfalls among the trees, become almost a shade himself, nearing the shallow pool where the water slowed its tumble from the mountains. As his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, he became aware of another light, as pale as the moonlight which he had left behind, which flickered by the water's edge as the sound of water over stones grew closer. Jacob pulled the Bible from his waistband and began to whisper the 'Ave Maria' in Sardo as Stefano had taught him:

'Deus te sarvet, Maria
ke ses di grazia plena...'

As he finished and crossed himself, he emerged from the trees and onto the grassy bank of the river, slick from the spray of falling water. He saw the woman and, at the same moment, he felt the waves of profound sorrow that emanated from her ethereal presence.

Behind him, he heard a voice: “Iagu, torna custu momentu!”

The woman was kneeling at the side of the pool and, while one hand repeatedly dipped into the still water rinsing invisible linens, her other arm held a tiny, still form to her exposed breast, enticing it to suck. It did not move – the barely visible limbs dangled limp from her arm. Her pain was too much and, in an instant, she threw back her head, emitting a piercing wail of torment.

Jacob panicked, assaulted by that terrible noise and, forgetting his initial good intentions, he turned to flee but was caught in a cloud of remorse. He felt himself overcome by sadness and stinging, bitter tears erupted from his eyes, clouding his vision. He stumbled, unseeing, along the bank, regardless of the narrow strip that separated the trees from the water. He sobbed uncontrollably.

His boot slipped on the grass and, unprepared and scarcely heeding his balance, the other followed and he tumbled heavily, face first, into the water. The washerwoman ceased her lament and vanished, leaving the glade in darkness. Jacob's body moved a little in the water and then was still. He felt the sting of the cold water in his lungs and the chill invading him.

'No,' he thought. 'No more pain,' and then nothing.

The water continued to gurgle over rocks in the darkness and the pool stilled, disturbed only by ripples from the floating body.

From the distance, an approaching voice echoed.

“Iagu! Jacob! Don't go near them!”

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