Calabria, Italy 1907:
Jacopo had been there the day that his Nana died. He’d seen the labored rise and fall of her chest, her ribcage clawing the fabric of her well worn nightshirt as if grasping for just one more sip of life. He’d watched with one eye in a sort of horrified enthrall from the suffocating embrace of his Zia Corcetta. The well meaning woman had held him in her arms so tightly that the golden corno she wore around his neck had dug it’s way into his cheek, while her hot tears anointed his forehead.
Nana had worn the corno too, as did his mother before she passed. When he’s asked Mama why, she’d given the strange crooked thing an adoring stroke of her fingers and explained that the necklace protected her from malocchio, the evil eye. In the end, it hadn’t worked well enough for her or Nana.
He remembered how Zia Aishe had run about the house, covering mirrors so Nana’s spirit wouldn’t get lost within. All the while Zia Corcetta watched with narrowed eyes, muttering curses under her breath into the snarling curls of Jacopo’s hair.
Aishe had married into the family, “scooped up off of the streets” Corcetta had been fond of saying. The two had hated each-other for as long as he could remember, but of all his Zias, Jacopo secretly preferred Aishe. True, she held no bond to him by blood, but her myriad odd tales and rituals had won her favor in the boy’s now ravaged heart. She had been an orphan too, and she alone understood the value of fantasies and fibs in the fixture of a shattered life.
The day of funeral it had been his Zia Aishe and Zio Lazarro who brought him to see Nana in her casket. From his perch in Zio Lazarro’s arms, he looked down on the old woman who slumbered within. The familiar folds and wrinkles of her face had been drawn back by the fingers of gravity as she lay, sculpting her into someone who scarce resembled his Nana. Had the strange old woman’s eternal bed not been filled with her most beloved possessions, he might have been able to convince himself that this drawn and ghastly creature wasn’t really her at all. Nana’s old playing cards, her atomizer, still half full with her beloved “Violetta di Parma”, some jeweled brooches, the remaining pieces of an antique silver set and a dozen yellowed novels formed a scavenged halo about the woman’s silver tresses. Jacopo recognized one of the books, “The Adventures of Pinocchio” as the one Nana was reading him before she fell ill. She’d never finished it, and now she never would. His hands flew out, reaching for the mystery within its pages before his mind might halt him. Zia Corcetta rewarded his efforts with a curt slap on the hand.
“No, leave them be. Those things have to stay with her!” She spoke as sternly as her grief would allow.
“They’re impure now.” Zia Aishe explained.
“Zingari!” Corcetta hissed, the word dripping with her long brewed venom.
“Sister!” Zio Lazarro chided. “Now isn’t the time for your bickering. Run and fetch Papà’s pipe so she’ll have it for him when they meet up.”
Corcetta’s tongue, now kept from unleashing further ugliness upon her brother’s wife, sought victim in her own husband, who until now had been staring silently out the window.
“Eustachio!” She hollered. The plump, guileless man turned a tear strewn face towards his wife. “The pipe, go get the pipe!”
Issued this command, Zio Eustachio trotted off obediently to retrieve the thing, his massive belly quavering with each hurried step.
“Impurity has nothing to do with it!” Corcetta explained, pleased by the opportunity to at last snuff out Aishe’s words. “We bury the dead with their possessions so they don’t come back for them!”
The thought terrified Jacopo and he could but stare at his Zia in horror, trying to gauge her seriousness. He imagined awaking one night to find the worm savaged corpse of his Papi, rifling through drawers and cupboards in a frantic search for his estranged pipe, the knobby bones of his spine emergent through the festering crepe of his flesh.
“Eustachio!” Corcetta shreiked impatiently. “Do you need me to show you where it is?” She seethed as she stomped from the room to assist her husband. Jacopo was glad for the momentary reprieve.
“Don’t mind her.” Zio Lazarro whispered, sensing the boy’s ill ease. “She’s like a wounded dog, snapping at anything that comes by. That way, no one can get close enough to see how weak she really is.” He punctuated the words with gnashing jaws and a few wild howls that would no doubt require explanation upon his sister’s return.
Jacopo laughed, for a moment forgetting his sorrow in Lazarro’s antics.
“Can they really come back?” The boy finally asked.
Neither Aishe nor Lazarro were eager to volunteer a reply. Jacopo’s eyes darted back and forth between their faces, trying to read an answer from their furrowed brows and pursed lips. Lazarro gently set his nephew down. He crouched before the child for a moment, drawing a finger to his lips, begging his silence. Jacopo watched as Lazarro reached into his pocket, and pulled out a small leather sack. He stood, gingerly lifted Nana’s head and sprinkled a bit of the sparkling crystalline substance from within.
“Salt.” Aishe crouched down and whispered this single word as an answer to the questions in her nephew’s eyes.
“It confuses the dead, keeps them from trying to find their way back home.” Lazarro explained as he stuffed the sack back into his pocket, craning his neck to assure his sister was still well off. “It’s an old superstition but…”
“You wouldn’t want Nana to come back as a coxano would you?” Aishe asked of her nephew.
“Coxano.” The boy tasted the strangeness of this word on his tongue. Though it was a relic of his aunt’s former life it’s meaning was immediately clear. A ghost, the dead caught between this world and the next.
“Then the dead really do come back?” Jacopo whispered the words as if they were a secret, which was at once too beautiful and too dreadful to be carelessly revealed.
Aishe nodded. “I met one once, when I was young.”
Jacopo did what he could to mask the feverish excitement rising within him. “Were you scared?”
She shook her head, eyes cast down as the memory was reborn upon the stage of her mind. “It saved my life…he…it” The memory dredged up a sad sort of smile from within her. Her movements became unguarded, and Jacopo watched as she traced a finger along the cruel, puckered scar she now wore about her throat, one of the adornments of her former life she had been unable to shed.
“Then why wouldn’t you want them to come back?” Jacopo puzzled, his eyes transfixed on the vicious rake. He’d wondered before how she’d won this gory prize but had been told it was rude to ask such things.
“Because it isn’t fair for them to be trapped like that.” Lazarro took up the reigns of this conversation, his wife having found her tongue halted. “Spirits need to move on.”
“Do you think my mother will come back?” Jacopo asked with all the swelling hope of childhood resting firmly upon the backbone of this desperate utterance.
“Jacopo, don’t you listen to that dirty old gypsy’s lies!” Zia Corcetta bellowed, announcing her return with thunderous tumult.
Jacopo couldn’t help but notice how quick Corcetta was to tuck the pipe away in the coffin, how relieved she was to be freed from it’s burden. It all confirmed in his mind that Aishe’s words were far from lies.
It was at that moment a small seed of hope, long dormant in the ruin of his life, awoke within him. He made a secret vow to himself that he’d never use salt again. It was a oath vested on the thin hope that his mother might be among the wandering dead, seeking her way back to him. If a lost pipe might summon the departed, then surely a lost son would prove a potent lure indeed.