The tale of Azzurina has one foot in the realm of legends, the other tangled in the briars of fantasy, but my Nonetto told it to me as if it were gospel. In the hazy, golden dawn of childhood, I often wondered if the story had simply flit into his ear one day, like a leaf succumb to wind. It had all the makings of a yarn which vignaioli might rattle off to make light of their toils. Such dallies were not uncommon among the sun-tawnied men who kept the fields of Rimini. Yet there was that part of me which questioned, knowing where his youth had been spent, if perhaps he had stumbled upon the truth of this tale on his journeys with the Fatine.
In the years that followed his death, I would hear differing versions of this allegory told. All of which somehow took on too mythic a quality, allowed to wallow too deep into fantasy for my tastes. It wouldn’t be until I was much older that I would come to appreciate the tale for what he had meant it as, a parable. He had told the same story to my mother when she was my age. Then the tale was still half sheathed in fantasy. It had yet drawn blade to scar him, as inevitably it did. Words can be such ruthless things.
“Her name wasn’t Azzurrina you know,” He’d always begin. “Nobodies is, but that was what they called her. She was born Guendelina but you see she was touched by the Fatine, like you are.” He’d chuckle, resting a rough and calloused finger upon my nose.
“Was she like me?” I had asked.
It was no secret to me, even in the tenderness of youth that my appearance slackened jaws and blanched the rose from cheeks of passers by. The landlady, thinking me too young to comprehend her words had once remarked derisively that I wasn’t a child at all, but rather a toadstool.
“Yes, a toadstool!” She brayed. “It sprouted up in a dung heap and didn’t have enough sense to stay put and be shoveled up with the rest of the garbage!”
I’d cried for hours that night, despite Nonetto’s insistence it wasn’t true and the curses he hurled at the old woman. She cackling all the while, yet my mother became a mute. Mama stood, silent, her gaze rooted in the crumbling tiles of the floor. It was always Nonetto who came to my defense, who made me feel as though whatever manner of being I was, I was wanted. Azzurrina offered me a pale glimmer of hope. I’d never seen another child like myself, and longed to know there were others, at least once upon a time.
“Oh Azzurrina? She could have been your sister!” Nonetto would chuckle to himself, while my mother, all clenched jaws and folded arms would mutter something disapprovingly and spit.
“Her skin was pale as milk.” Nonetto would regale, stroking my bare head “though she did have hair,” he’d confess. “A head full of wild dandelion fluff!” the last words were invariably shouted as he’d threw out his arms and kicked up his heels to illustrate just how unruly the baby girl’s hair must have been. More often than not, he’d fall backwards off the stool upon which he sat. I always wondered if it was true folly, or the old man playing jester for my delight.
“Her father was a rich man,” He’d continue upon regaining his balance. “Ugolinuccio Malatesta was his name. He was the master of Montebello Castle, a man who simply couldn’t go about with a strange little girl like that clipping at his heels. So, when she was old enough, his wife, Azzurrina’s mother, tried to dye her hair black, in order to disguise what she was.”
He’d pause for a moment to puff on his pipe and then, in a low raspy voice he’d hiss through a curtain of rolling tobacco lace “but it didn’t work. The little girl’s hair simply wouldn’t obey, and was left only tinged a shade of blue. That is how she won her name, Azzurrina, the little blue one.”
I loved the idea of this little blue haired girl. I could just imagine her running merrily through the castle corridors, her azure stained locks cascading behind her like a captive scrap of sky. I wanted more than anything to find her, and play a game of rimpiattino, hiding and seeking one another out again and again in the shadow cloaked vestibules of Montebello.
“Can we visit her?” I’d ask, in spite of knowing full well how the story would end. Nonetto would pause, as if waiting for me to recite this line. Only then would he pick up the reigns of his tale and drive on.
“Perhaps you can, if you can find your way to the Fatine Court.” Nonetto would say with a wink. It was a phrase that always culled a sigh from my mother’s lips.
“For once the Fatine have taken interest in something, they never let it alone, and they had taken interest in Azzurrina long ago.” With this he’d cock his head and cast an eye towards my mother, as if inviting her concordance. She did her best to never meet his gaze, finding time just then to tend to a loose thread on the hem of her skirt or some imperceptible bit of dust that now commanded an urgent sweeping.
“Maybe she’s better off there.” Nonetto would shrug. “Dancing under the moon, frolicking through the long grass. Her father never let her out of the castle you know, didn’t want people to see her, the way she was.” Then, before I had chance to garner shame in my own peculiarity, he’d growl in that raking earthen voice of his “What a selfish old fool!”
“It was on the evening of the Summer solstice that they took her.” Nonetto explained, taking me up into his arms and cradling me protectively against the girth of his belly. “It was supposed to be a day of celebration, marvelous banquets and wild celebration to welcome the sun back into the skies! Her father even gave her a gift for the occasion, a red, rag ball to play with.”
Then Nonetto would whisper to me, his pipe sweetened breath hot upon my ear “What good a rag ball is to a girl kept hidden away in a castle I have no idea.”
I’d nod in agreement.
“Her father told her that on the solstice, the Fatine came to good children and brought their dreams to life. He was wrong of course, the Fatine never do a thing they can’t reap some benefit from for themselves. Maybe if she’d been properly warned…ahh it doesn’t matter now I suppose.
She was too excited to sleep that morning, woke up early, running up and down the halls chasing her new rag ball around. The castle guards heard her but they never gave it much thought. “ He’d scoff for a moment, letting loose the threads of his yarn. When he had once again gathered them up, there was a mocking tone in his voice.
“How much could happen to a little girl stranded inside the castle walls? Sciocchi! Not a full brain shared between the lot of them!” He’d sneer, his arms around me would grow tighter, the story awakening some jealously vigilant guardian from within the aged man.
“When her father called for her, her voice would answer back ‘Just a moment Papà, let me play a bit longer.’ Perhaps he felt sorry for her, trapped as she was in those stone walls, and he indulged her games. She played all through the banquet, and well into the night, her laughter echoing through the halls all the while.
But the next day…she was nowhere to be found.” He’d relay the sad news as woefully as if it had been his own child who’d vanished from reality’s theatre. “The guards searched all throughout the castle, through the servant’s passages and in the dungeons below, but she was gone.” He’d punctuate the word with a curt nod. “Spirited away by the Fatine.” He said with the certainty born of one who had taken his meals shoulder to shoulder with such creatures.
“Some people will blame witches, and others ghosts, humans have a dozen names they call what they cannot understand, but you and I know the truth.” He’d explain. I’d nod fervently in agreement.
“I would miss you too much to stay away.” I’d assure Nonetto, wrapping my arms around his thick neck.
“I’m sure she missed her Papà too. They say that every 5 years, on the Summer Solstice, you can hear her call for him through the castle. ‘Here I am Papà, come and find me!’ It is always the voice of a child, for she never grew up, the Fatine wouldn’t let her. Her father lays dead and buried now, but for her, time stands still.
“Don’t worry Nonetto, they won’t take me.” I assured him. “Never in a thousand years.”
“No, they won’t” He agreed. “They will never touch you. I’ve seen to that myself.”