Birds of Passage

Sante Matteo
Featured Image: First Communion, courtesy of the author

I’m floating over my town again, looking down at the clusters of attached stone houses in rows snaking along the contours of the hillside, surrounded by an irregular patchwork of fields along the steep slopes meandering down to the Biferno River valley. In the wheat fields only stubble remains, where it hasn’t been burned to charred brown residuum. Newly erected haystacks dot the landscape. Olive trees glint silvery green in the sunlight. Under the almond, hazelnut, and walnut trees the ground is carpeted with fallen nuts, many still in their green husks. Apples and pears, some bored by worms, and late-season figs, some pecked by birds, hang heavily from sagging branches or have fallen to the ground. Vineyards are laden with red and green grapes ready to be plucked.

I soar slowly over ochre-colored tiled roofs overlaying barren walls of hand-hewn granite blocks. Plumes of smoke waft from the chimneys, as they do year-round, because all the cooking is done in fireplaces. But now, in September, fires in the hearth are also needed for warmth; nights and mornings grow chilly.

I glide over the town’s only carriageable street, the via nova, the new road. There are rarely any motor vehicles on it: a bus in the early morning, heading toward Campobasso, the provincial capital, and another in the late afternoon going in the other direction. The children always know when the afternoon bus is coming because a quarter of an hour before it’s due, our mothers lean out their windows and shout at us to get off the street, if we don’t want to be run over. Most of the traffic on the road usually consists of the contadini, tillers of the land, going out to work in the fields outside of town in the morning and coming back into town in the evening, some with goats and sheep, some with a donkey. Sometimes there are horse-drawn carts, and once in a while even an ox-drawn wagon. But most of the time the road is just filled with us children playing: young ones playing hop-scotch or hide-and-seek, and older ones, those closer to my age, playing soccer with a ball made of rolled up rags tied with string; or p’zzill, played with a short stick sharpened at both ends with a pocket knife, and a longer stick used first to hit the short stick on a pointed end, to make it pop up into the air, and then to strike it as far as possible while it’s still up in the air. The street and alleys are our playgounds, until our mothers call us in for meals, or for the little ones to take a nap, or for the bigger ones to run errands, often to fetch water at the public fountain.

I swoop over the town’s main piazza, which serves as a border between the old and new sections of town. On one hillside, to the north, the old medieval quarter clusters around the ancient church, whose campanile can be seen rising above the rooftops, and whose bells can be heard from the fields all around the town, and when the wind is right, even from neighboring towns. On the other side, where the terrain is flatter, extends the “new” section of the town, built outside the old medieval walls and gates. Here, where my own house is located, the alleys between the rows of houses are wider and more sunlit, the homes more spacious, but built of granite stones as old as those in the oldest houses in the medieval quarter and in the ancient church itself, though not as big. From my vantage point up in the sky I can make out the difference between the old town, with weathered walls, and the new town, where the walls are less dark and sooty. The brightest walls are those of newest houses on the outskirts of the new quarter, whose freshly chiseled stones of pink-veined granite seem to glisten in the sunlight.

Some of those new houses were built by my grandfather and my father, assisted by their apprentices. They’re stonemasons—as I too will be someday, following in the footsteps of generations. I look down on those houses in the old quarter that have stood for hundreds of years, maybe more than a thousand, and the newer ones that will stand just as long, for centuries to come, and am filled with a sense of pride to belong to a family of builders. They sometimes take me along as their “helper,” and I’ve come to know many phases of their work: extracting stone from quarries outside the town; shaping and chiseling the rocks by hand on the ground floor of our house during the winter months, when it’s too cold to work outside; and then in the warm months constructing those rock-solid houses that stand for centuries; designing and building them from bottom to top, erecting walls, sculpting entries, lintels, fireplaces, mantles, cisterns. Like them, I too will become a muratore: quarryman, architect, engineer, sculptor, and mason all in one; and people will someday call me Mastro.

But will there be houses for me to build when it’s my turn to take up the family trade? So many families are emigrating, leaving empty houses behind. Will they be coming back? There are some schoolmates and play friends that have been gone so long, I can’t even remember them anymore.

I hover over my own house on the via nova—named Corso Vittorio Emanuele II after the first King of Italy, as I’ve learned in school—and watch the swallows emerge from their nests under the eaves of the roofs. The swallows, according to Nonno, my grandfather, are getting ready to return to Africa for the winter. They will all be gone in a month and won’t be back until April next year, eight long months away: a long, cold winter without their frenetic flitting and chirping filling the sky and supplying the background noise of summer days. There are more of them now than those who arrived in the spring. Their babies were born under those eaves, and it’s the young ones, Nonno says, that fly away first, all the way back to Africa across the Mediterranean Sea. They somehow know where to go even though they’ve never been there before. Nonno says that they even pause to rest in the same places where their parents stopped in their migration north to Italy and to our town. After a week or so of flying they’ll reach their destination: the same location from where the parent swallows departed and where they, the parents, will themselves return later. I don’t know how Nonno knows all this, but I believe everything he says. He doesn’t try to fool me like Papà or some of my uncles. I never know when they’re kidding, but Nonno doesn’t kid.

Nowadays, Nonno points out with sorrow in his voice, the swallows are not the only ones going away. Many of the town’s young men are also leaving, heading for faraway places that the townsfolk call “America,” by which they mean any foreign land where there is work to be found. Argentina, Venezuela, Australia, Germany, Belgium, the UK: they’re all “America.” A few of the men who left returned after a while, but most haven’t. Instead their wives and children have gone to join them in those faraway lands, in those Americas where people speak different languages than ours. Many of them, Nonno predicts, will not be coming back as the swallows always do, not next spring, not ever.

In the view of the old men who sit on the bench in front of the house with Nonno on sunny afterrnoons, the war, which brought a lot of destruction to the land, also destroyed our way of life. Many men were killed, or wounded, or detained for years as prisoners of war. The poorest families in the town, hard as life had always been for them, now face ongoing hunger, with no prospects for a change in the future, making them desperate to find some way to feed their children, even if it means leaving their homes to go into the unknown. The old men lament that long-established customs and age-old traditions are disappearing. Nevertheless, some of the younger townspeople, my father among them, argue that these changing conditions also present new opportunities for those willing to risk starting over in a foreign land, facing and adapting to strange ways and conditions and an incomprehensible language.

It is a sorrowful subject in our family, because my own father recently became one of those who left. He got a work contract in what the townspeople call Nuova York, or the “Good America,” although Nonno says that the country is actually called Stati Uniti, United States, and that New York, Nuova York, is the name of a city, not of the whole country; and he should know, because he went there several times himself, as a seasonal migrant when he was just a young man at the beginning of the century. He says that they were called “birds of passage,” those who, like him, went back and forth, following the work seasons. They were like the swallows that come to our town each spring and leave in the fall. I’m sure my Papá will be coming back, just like the swallows. Almost sure.

The swallows have emerged from their roof-top nests under the eaves and dart and chirrup all around me, zigging and zagging in their jerky way. They’re scolding me, I think, for all the stones I’ve shot at them over the summer with my slingshot—my own hand-crafted masterpiece, made with a perfect y-shaped twig and the elastic band from the underpants that my mother sewed. Soon, I realize with some apprehension that after the swallows have all left and it gets colder, I will have to change from my cotton summer underwear to woolen winter underwear, and I will have to come up with an explanation for what happened to the missing elastic: “I don’t know, it just fell out. . . . The Gypsies took it. . . . Those bullies from ‘ngopp a chies, the old part of town near the church, beat me up and stole it. . . . A witch came through the wall one night and just ripped it off.”

And then suddenly, over the chorus of the swallows’ shrill chirping, I hear a much more plaintive birdsong: “kyoo, kyoo.” I look around, puzzled and alarmed. The Kyoo owl only sings at night. Its call is out of place here and now: up in the sky, in the daylight.

And then I’m suddenly falling from the sky, gasping, my arms flailing wildly trying to regain my lift. Just before hitting the ground I wake up, thrashing in my bed

My relief that it has all been a dream doesn’t last long. Now that I’m awake I still hear the mournful cry of the bird of death: “kyooo . . . kyooo . . . kyooo.” It was what called me out of my dream. What’s worse, to my increasing dread, it’s very close to our house: just outside.

Is it looking at my window? To announce my impending death? That’s what the Kyoo owl does: It perches outside the house and looks right at the window of someone who is going to die that night.

Did I say all my prayers and recite all the necessary incantantions before going to sleep? There are so many and they take so long that I sometimes fall asleep before completing the whole lot. I also have to cross my arms and legs to ward off the array of witches, ghosts, werewolves, and other horrid creatures that lurk through the town at night. But it’s hard to keep arms and legs crossed when I’m asleep. I must have uncrossed them when I was flying. Now, awake, I quickly cross them again and start anxiously to repeat the prayers and magic incantantions as fast as I can. For good measure I also cross my fingers.

Of all the frightening nocturnal creatures that populate my world, the one I fear the most is the Kyoo owl, because its doleful call can actually be heard at night; it is not just imagined. I’ve heard it many nights, sometimes far away, sometimes close by. But not this close! It sounds as if the deadly bird is perched in the big red-fig tree in our back orchard. Or it could be in the walnut tree in the neighbor’s orchard to the left, or the apple tree in the other neighbor’s yard.

After what seems like a very long time the kyooing finally stops, and I’m relieved to realize that I am still alive. I slowly relax, trying nevertheless to stay awake and keep my legs, arms, and fingers resolutely crossed. But it’s no use. Here I am flying up in the air again, with arms and fingers spread wide and legs extended, having forgotten all about the deadly birdcall. Now I’m circling under the rafters inside the ancient town church, where I’ve recently started to serve as an altar boy. Below, behind the marble altar, the recently arrived young priest, Don Benedetto, is saying mass to a sparse congregation of parishioners, mostly old women dressed in black. Once they reach a certain age, they’re always in mourning for someone, and it’s easier just to wear black all the time.

Don Benedetto arrived in town only a few months ago, and he enlisted me and the other altar boys to help him go through the archives to learn about the church’s and the town’s history. With our help, and to our fascination and that of the whole town, he has discovered that our austere, unadorned church is actually an “architectural jewel” that was built many centuries ago by the Templars, who were knights who fought in the Crusades, and that it is really a remarkable example of what he calls “Romanesque” architecture that should be studied and evaluated by art scholars and historians. Some people think he’s crazy; some think he’s given our town new prestige.

To tell the truth, I’ve never heard of Romanesque architecture or of the Templars. But I have heard of knights and of the Crusades, both in school and at home. On winter evenings, sitting around the hearth, my grandfather tells us many stories: memories of his youth and of family life, fables and folktales, ghost stories, Bible stories, and tales of knights and Crusaders. So, now as I float near the church’s ceiling I look at the austere, naked-stone walls and the two unevern rows of massive columns topped with strangely carved capitals with a new sense of reverence and admiration, seeing our imposing, unembellished church as something fabulous, built by legendary crusading knights.

And now I’m out of the church, out in the open air again, soaring over the town’s only school, which people call new, even though it was built before the war, years before I was even born, in the time of il Duce, Mussolini. Looking at it from above, I can see how different it is from the other buildings in the town. It’s made of bricks, not stones, and has two tall marble pilasters framing the entrance, in the form of two long fasces, symbols of the Fascist Party.

As I look down at the children filing in like ants—the black-smocked boys going in one side of the entrance and the girls, with white smocks, going in the other side—I hear my mother shout up to me: “Sendu’, scign’, get down here . . .!” I tumble from the sky again, startled awake, and hear the rest of her urgent command: “. . . iusht mo, right now! You’re going to be late for school!”

So, it’s morning. I’m alive. I listen anxiously. There is no more kyooing outside the window. I’ve survived through another night. And so has my mother.

I throw on my clothes, rush down to the kitchen on the second floor, and hurriedly gulp down chunks of crusty bread dunked in hot milk—taken just a few minutes earlier from a neighbor’s cow. My mother helps me put on my school smock and buttons it in the back and makes sure that my pen and pencil and homework are in my cartella, and I set off for school, a short walk from my house . . . or from any other house in town.

As soon as I step outside I see and hear the swallows streak through the sky as usual, wishing me and the world good-morning with their shrill twittering. But there is also something unusual in the air this morning: another sound that shouldn’t be there. After a moment I realize what it is: the goats are bleating next door. Strange! They shouldn’t be there at this time. Usually Zi’ Iuccio has taken the herd out of town to pasture well before now, at sunrise. I’m tempted to push the neighbors’ door open and peek in to investigate.

I like looking in on these neighbors, especially in the evening, when the goats have been herded back home from the countryside, because Teresina, the goatherd’s young daughter, often gives me a ladle of warm whey, or better yet, a clump of fresh cheese that she scoops up from the cauldron with a strainer and squeezes in her hand, forming what she calls a little bird, uccelluccio, because it really does look like a white, featherless, naked baby bird still in its nest. And it even squeaks when my teeth bite into it.

But no, I don’t want to be late for school right at the beginning of the school year. My third-grade teacher, the same teacher I had in the first and second grade, waits by the door with his ruler ever at the ready to swat the hands of miscreant boys. I have never been swatted with the ruler yet—but I was slapped once, even though I had done nothing wrong; it was my deskmate who had made the noise, not me, but he wouldn’t own up to it, and we both got slapped in the face; and I almost peed in my pants because of the shock of the blow and the injustice of the punishment and my deep humiliation in front of my classmates. I don’t want to risk being punished now, and especially don’t want to get on Signor Leonardo’s bad side.

The punishment I dread the most, meted out to those boys who do get on the teacher’s bad side, is to be made to kneel on the ground, with a handful of hard, raw ceci, chick peas, placed under each bare knee, with those sharp little protruding nebs that bite into the flesh and leave marks on the knees. I love to eat ceci: whether still green, right off the bush; or dried and hard; or boiled and used in soup, or with t’bett, short elbow maccaroni; or just by themselves, after they’ve been boiled and cooled, with a little oil and salt; or best of all, toasted in the fireplace until they are browned and crunchy. To turn our beloved ceci into instruments of torture seems particularly cruel and menacing, since the boys so tortured are reminded of the punishment every time we eat them, which is pretty often.

What is even more frightening is that it is certain to be a double jeopardy, because if I were to go home with all those red, inflamed dimples dotting my knees, my mother would be sure to recognize them for what they were: evidence of my crime and punishment in school. She would then punish me all over again.

Worse still, she would then tell the whole extended family about it at the communal Sunday dinner at my grandparents’ house: “Guess what one of our own did at school this week?” And I would be shamed in front of all my relatives. It’s triple humiliation that is at stake! So, no dallying! I rush off to school and forget about the neglected and complaining goats, and so manage to avoid humiliation and torture for that day: no slaps, no swats, no kneeling on ceci.

When I get out of school in the early afternoon, the swallows seem to be gathered in groups on the rooftops, as if taking a rest from their frenzied flying. Or perhaps they’re pondering their upcoming departure across the sea. Maybe they’ve eaten all the insects in town, and there is nothing left for them to eat. Or maybe it’s getting to be too cold for the insects, and they have migrated too, or burrowed somewhere and gone to sleep.

Summer, a stegion’ bon’, the “good season,” as folks here call it, is coming to an end. Days are getting shorter, nights longer. But the grape harvest and wine-making are coming up, and they’re a lot of fun for young and old: summer’s last festive offering. Winter is not here quite yet.

As I approach my house I’m surprised to see a throng of people gathered in front. As I get closer I see that they are actually converged next door, outside Zi’ Iuccio’s house. They all look somber. Some seem to be weeping. I see my mother among them and make my way to her. She pulls me to her and tells me in a subdued voice that Zi’ Iuccio is dead. Tears come to her eyes again, and to mine too. The neighbors’ goats are noisy and smelly, but the old man was a kind and generous neighbor, always happy to let me drink some whey and taste the fresh cheese he was making, from when I was able to toddle into the ground floor of their next-door house. He even let me try my hand at milking the goats a few times, chuckling and praising me warmly if I managed to squeeze a few white drops into the bucket.

All the men in Zi’ Iuccio’s family are now gone. His two sons were both killed in the war. Only his widow Filomena and the daughter are left. What will happen to the goats? Will Teresina and her mother be able to tend to them and to cultivate their fields without menfolk to do the heavy work? Or will they too have to go away, like the swallows, but maybe never come back? No more warm whey, no more hand-squeezed “little birds.”

Later, inside, I ask my mother if she heard the Kyoo owl calling last night. Yes, she did. She too was afraid that it might be looking at our house, but it must have been looking instead at the window next door, into the bedroom of poor old Zi’ Iuccio, good soul! She shivers and makes the sign of the cross three times, and nods to me and my little sister to do the same, and we do.

Today more swallows have flown away, and tomorrow more will follow. Tonight the Kyoo owl will cry again.

Sante Matteo
was born and spent his childhood in a small agricultural town in southern Italy. He is a retired Professor Emeritus of Italian Studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Recent creative writing has appeared in Dime Show Review, Bark, The Chaffin Journal, and The New Southern Fugitives.