[Published in The Northern Virginia Review, pages 61-73, Volume 27, Spring 2013.]
“The Other Side of War”
Ashley Mildred’s last day in Italy dawned with a cold northeasterly wind and scudding clouds the color of slate. She stood at the window in her hotel room, gazing at the whitecaps ruffling the Bay of Naples. For Ashley the gray day reflected her remorse. Marcello was dead. And she was stuck, chained to what she had said to him on their last night together, the night before he left for the war in Afghanistan.
By the afternoon, when she approached the lookout on Vomero hill, the sky had cleared. Standing in front of a stone balustrade, she turned up the collar of her overcoat. The wind, tinged with the scent of the sea, stung her cheeks with knife-points of winter.
Against the icy-blue sky, strokes of cirrus clouds littered like fish bones. High in the distance, a jet flew, flying westward, a sharp silvery point reflecting the sunlight, tracing dual lines of condensation.
Ashley withdrew a small object from her coat pocket and held it in the palm of her gloved hand. It was a gift from Marcello, given to her on their last night together. It was a Neapolitan red coral amulet shaped into a horn.
Biting her lips she glanced southward. The sky behind the Sorrento Peninsula hung dark, as if it were raining beyond the mountains. The strip of land stretched like an arm embracing the bay, and beyond its promontory, separated by a narrow span of water, reclined the island of Capri.
Six seasons ago in 2010, her first summer in Italy had opened full of dreams and wonders and promises.
The afternoon luncheon reception hosted by the NATO Joint Forces Command had set a perfect occasion for the introduction of a tall Italian officer. He stood with grace, with poise as if carved by Michelangelo. He held the stem of a glass filled with white wine and gesticulated with his free hand, as if he were a protagonist on a stage, talking to Ashley’s boss. The young Italian wore a black Carabinieri uniform, red stripes on the trousers, sharply tailored, matching his dark southern Italian skin. Ashley couldn’t help walking up to her boss, coming up with some silly pretense, and breaking into their conversation.
“Oh, let me introduce you to my colleague,” Commander Randall Sherwin said to the Italian officer. “This is Lieutenant Ashley Mildred. Just transferred to Italy. She’s a surgeon.”
“How delightful to know you,” the Italian officer said, and extended his hand. “I am Captain Marcello Pasquale.” He took her hand and bowed his head, his brown eyes warming into her gaze.
“Nice meet you,” Ashley said, feeling the softness and gentleness of his hand.
“I was just speaking to Commander Sherwin about our marvelous Campania wine,” he said, and held up the wineglass. “It is Lacryma Christi. It means the tears of Christ. For centuries it was made by monks on the slopes of the volcano Vesuvius.”
Ashley stood captivated, not by the story of the wine he told, but by the man, by his boyish features, by his wavy black hair, by his English spoken with the musical inflection and intonation of Italian. Every time he glanced at her, every time he gazed into her eyes, every time his lips formed a coy smile, as if he were a boy blushing in front of a girl, Ashley felt her heart tickle, as if it were stroked by a feather.
When the party waned they stood together away from the crowd. Then suddenly Marcello held her wrist.
“Where are you taking me?” Ashley asked.
“To a view most spectacular,” he said. He donned his headgear, a Carabinieri hat with an insignia of a flaming grenade. “It is not far from here. I must show it to you.” He led her out of the reception hall.
Ashley followed, feeling a curious squeeze beneath her breasts, which made her chuckle. They walked down the cobblestone street of Via Cimarosa, then through a tall iron gate into the park of Villa Floridiana, then to the back garden of a lemon-colored palazzo, where finally they stood at the stone balustrade of a lookout.
“Guardi,” Marcello said, and spread his arms over the city below and the stretch of sea beyond. “Have you seen anything more wonderful?”
“The world looks like toy. The buildings. The cars. The ships. The people. Everything looks so tiny,” Ashley said, resting her hands on the stone rail. “What is that island over there?”
“That is Capri.”
“I’d love to go there.”
“I will take you there if you wish.” Marcello said, and turned to Ashley. “Do you know what Neapolitans say Capri was before it lay there?”
“What do they say?”
“That it was a beautiful woman.”
“My mother tell me this story when I was a boy right here on this very place. Do you want to hear it?”
“Yes, tell me.”
“If you like.” Marcello leaned his back against the balustrade. “A very long time ago a woman falls in love with a man. The man also falls in love with her. Amore passionate.” He circled his hands in the air. “Love that makes you mad.”
“I hope the story’s not tragic.”
“You shall see,” he said, and winked. “Now. This man is a very good man. Has a very good heart. Works very hard. He is very handsome. Unfortunately he has very short temper. Yet worst he is very, very poor. So the woman’s father and mother do not approve. They do not approve of her love for him or of his love for their daughter. So they decide to marry their daughter quickly to an old but a rich man.”
“That’s awful. What does she do?”
“Of course she cannot stop loving the poor but handsome man. She loves him even after she marries the old but rich man. One night she runs away, away from her husband, and she goes to the poor man’s house, where she declares her forever lasting love. Do you know what the poor man did?”
“He took her in his arms and they ran away together and they lived happily ever after.”
“No. The poor man rejects her.”
“He rejects her because he is angry. Because he is jealous. Because he burns with hate. And in his temper he throws her out of his house.” Marcello gazed at Ashley. After a pause he continued, “Now this woman has gone against her father and her mother and against her husband and now the poor man has also turned against her. She had nowhere to go. So she goes to the edge of the sea. She prays to God. Then she throws herself into the water and dies.”
“I told you I don’t like sad stories.”
“The story continues. Like this. God sees everything. Everything that happened to this woman in love. God takes compassion.” Marcello faced the Bay of Naples. He pointed. “Guardi. There she now lies. Beautiful. Everlasting. God turned her into Capri.”
“It’s still too sad.”
“You think this story is sad?”
“It’s terrible. She died because the man’s stupid.”
“Yes, the poor, stupid man—,” Marcello said, his voice fading into the evening. “But the story is not finished.”
“You must finish it.”
“When the poor man learns his woman is dead he realizes the depth of his love. He realizes his mistake. He loses his mind. Thereafter he roams the land as a man gone mad. For years he wanders. He knows not where to go. He knows not what to do.”
“I’m not sure if I’m going to like the ending.”
“But maybe you will like it. The story goes like this. Night and day the man prays to God. He begs the Almighty to help him. He begs Him to release his soul from his pain. After many, many years of wandering, of praying, of suffering, God finally opens His heart to the poor man’s prayers.”
“So what happens next?”
“God releases him from pain.” Marcello pointed. “There. God turned him into Mount Vesuvius.”
In the distance the volcano’s double-camelback shape loomed above the Neapolitan skyline. Its western slope slid down, gently, to merge with the cascading shape of the Sorrento Peninsula, as if the strip of land were the arm of the mountain, the arm reaching to embrace the island of Capri, its hand almost touching the woman of his love.
Ashley stood close to Marcello. In the twilight, the lights of the houses built up on the volcano’s slope glittered like necklaces around a slumbering giant.
Six seasons had swept by since her first visit to the park with Marcello. Now she stood alone, shivering in the cold northeasterly wind, hating herself for not understanding in time the depth of her love.
She gazed at the tiny amulet. “Good-bye Marcello. I must go now,” she whispered, and looked at Capri one last time. She placed the red coral horn back in her coat pocket and turned away from the sea.