Nick DiChario is a Hugo, World Fantasy, and John W. Campbell Memorial award nominee. His fifth appearance in Galaxy’s Edge is another in his series of modern Italian folktales.
Once upon a time there was a young woman named Elizabeta who lived with her husband on an olive farm in il Villaggio di Ombre. One day she walked to the seashore for her usual morning swim, and as she curled her toes into the sand and squinted at the sunrise, she noticed a huge block of ice the size of a fishing boat washed ashore. Com’è strano! she thought. How strange!
从前有一个叫作伊丽萨贝塔的年轻女人，她和丈夫生活在一个叫做阴影村（il Villaggio di Ombre）的地方。一天早晨她来到海边，想和往常一样去海里游泳。当她的脚刚刚踏进沙里，晨曦还来不及映入她的眼帘。她突然发现一块渔船般大小的冰块被海浪冲上了沙滩。太奇怪了！她想，简直太奇怪了！
Elizabeta walked over to investigate and peered through the ice. She was sure she saw a man frozen deep inside. She ran to tell her husband Crispo about it. He went to the barn to get his tractor, and they drove together down to the shore. Crispo wrapped a big hook and chain around the ice so that he could haul it back to the frantoio, the mill where they pressed olives into oil, and there he left the block outside the building to melt in the summer sun.
Elizabeta’s discovery fascinated her. She was curious to find out if there was truly a man frozen inside the ice, or if it was an optical illusion. She wouldn’t know for sure until the next day when the ice block melted enough for her to get a better look inside.
“It’s a man, all right,” she said to Crispo. “I think he’s a soldier. That might be a uniform he’s wearing.”
Crispo gazed through the kaleidoscope of ice. “You could be right. It looks a lot like an Italian World War I uniform. See the coat? And the boots? Just like the outfit my great-grandfather is wearing in the old picture on the fireplace.”
Elizabeta ran into the house, snatched the photo from the mantle, and brought it outside to compare. “Yes, look, it’s the same uniform! But how did a soldier from World War I get frozen inside a block of ice and end up in the sea? On our shore, no less?”
Crispo shrugged. It was common for strange things to happen in il Villaggio di Ombre, and he rarely questioned them as he hadn’t been born with the same natural wonder of the world that Elizabeta had. “I have no idea, but we should call someone. An official from the government, or maybe the police. The military will want to know, of course.”
“No, not yet,” Elizabeta said. “The authorities will just take him away. Don’t you want to know who he is first? Let’s allow the ice to melt all the way, then we can search his clothing.”
The couple stared at one another, wide-eyed as frogs, with the block of ice between them. Elizabeta was a tall, straight woman with severe features, quick, hawk-like eyes, and wooly hair. She’d had suitors when she was younger, all of whom had lost interest in her when they’d found lovelier, more cheerful girls with a greater eagerness to please and be pleased. Crispo was handsome in his own way, with a square, rugged face hidden under a mop of black hair and a messy beard, but he’d never bothered to pursue a suitable match on his own. He was unnatural in social situations and preferred talking to olives more than women.
They never argued, this man and wife, not even when they disagreed. They’d been together for three years, an arranged marriage to which neither had objected (although each secretly believed they’d settled). While it was true they longed for children, and children had not come, the olives and the land seemed enough for them for the time being.
Crispo removed his cap, scratched his beard, and dabbed his sweaty brow with the tattered handkerchief he kept in the pocket of his overalls. “I suppose there’s no harm in waiting for the ice to melt. But then we’ll call someone—an official from the government or the army. We are in agreement on this, sì?”
* * *
Is this folktale a romance story? It’s hard to say. Neither Elizabeta nor Crispo experienced the joy most newlyweds shared when they first came together as one. In truth, Elizabeta wanted a man capable of releasing her inner desires, her passione, while Crispo longed for a woman who could free him from his awkward bashfulness. But they could not help each other. They were intimate strangers. One day they were neighbors of passing acquaintance living on their estates—two of the largest olive farms in the village—and the next day they were married, sharing a villetta overlooking the blue-green waters of the sea, and expected to solve an age-old problem that had plagued both houses for generations.
Elizabeta’s family olives were of exquisite flavor, but the farm’s yield was low. Crispo’s family olives practically fell from the trees in hampers but, alas, they tasted no better than average. The parents of both families hoped that once the children wed, the olives would start sharing their secrets across the terraces, and both families would prosper.
Nevertheless, while the ice block continued to thaw, Elizabeta had little interest in the secrets of the olives, the operations of the mill, or the details of the farm. She could not concentrate on any of her chores. She checked the progress of the melting ice at every opportunity, gazing with fascination at the mysterious figure trapped within, wondering who he was and where he’d come from. Crispo, on the other hand, would only shrug, carry on with his farm work, and wonder what had so mesmerized his wife.
Then, on the third day, with Crispo out in the fields and Elizabeta watching the ice drip and drizzle away in the sweetness of an early morning summer haze, the soldier suddenly rolled over and sat up, cracking the layer of ice that remained around him. He shook his head and sent a cloud of frost flying in the air, looked at himself, and then straight into Elizabeta’s eyes, and said, “Where am I?”
Elizabeta almost fainted from shock, but she regained her composure and told the man what little she knew: that he’d washed ashore frozen in a block of ice, and the ice was so thick it took three days to melt, and he might have been frozen for more than a hundred years. “And here you are, alive and well. I can’t believe it.”
“I’m cold,” he said. “And starving.”
“Of course you are! I’m not thinking. Let me help you.”
She led the man inside and showed him how to work the hot shower. He was much taller than Crispo, so she borrowed some dry clothing from one of the field hands for him to wear. She started a fire and sent a worker out to the groves to fetch her husband. The soldier sat wrapped in a blanket in front of the fireplace with a giant plate of cheese, olives, bread, and soppressata, which he devoured like a wolf, with water and wine to wash it all down.
When Crispo arrived, he could not believe his eyes. How was it possible that the soldier was alive? Even he had to agree it was a miracle. They asked the soldier his name, but the young man couldn’t remember, and Elizabeta found no identification in his clothing. He was just a boy, really. He looked to be no more than eighteen or nineteen years old. He was gaunt, but seemed healthy, other than the starving and shivering. They asked him how he ended up frozen in ice, but he had no idea.
Elizabeta sat beside him and grasped his hands. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
The boy shrugged. “I was fighting the Austrians in the mountains. It was the dead of winter. We were all freezing. It was impossible to stay warm. No one had a pair of gloves or boots without holes. Snow had piled high all around the trenches. There was almost no fighting because it was too hard to move in the snow. But one of our generals came to the front and demanded an offensive against the enemy’s position. Imbecille. We all knew it was a death march.”
“Do you remember the general’s name?” Elizabeta asked.
He shook his head. “No. I don’t recall any names at all. Isn’t that odd? But I remember the captains asking for volunteers to go on a night raid. No one was willing because we all knew we’d be killed, so they had to order some of us to do it.”
“How horrible,” Elizabeta said.
“That’s the way it was in the war,” he replied, sounding much older than he looked. “The generals sat at their desks and sent men out to die. One side would order their men to charge, and the other side would mow them down. Then the other side would return the favor. Back and forth. There was no point to any of it. Just to kill and die.”
Elizabeta trembled. “What happened next?”
Crispo had remained standing, hoping the conversation would end so he could resume his work among the olive trees, but now that it seemed as if the talk would go on, he perched on the arm of the sofa and sighed under his breath.
The boy pressed his lips together and closed his eyes in concentration. “All right. Yes. It’s coming back to me. We wrote goodbye letters to our families in case we didn’t return from the mission. We put on our packs and snow shoes, grabbed our rifles, and walked out into the night. It was hard going. We could hear the snow and ice cracking under our feet. I remember it was pitch black. Not even a sliver of light from the moon to guide us. The cold filled my lungs with every breath. The Austrians must have heard us as we drew near. A flare went up, and there we were, all of us exposed, standing no more than a dozen paces in front of the Austrians’ trenches like targets waiting to be shot down. Some of us hit the ground, a few tried to turn back, most never got a chance to decide. I was on the flank and ran to escape the circle of light. My heart was pounding. I was sure I was going to die.”
“What a nightmare!” Elizabeta cried.
The soldier opened his eyes, knitted his brow, and spoke gravely. “War is a nightmare.”
“And then?” she urged him on.
He searched his memory for more details, pulled apart another piece of bread, and dipped it into the olive oil. “I ran. And then there was no snow or ground under my feet. Just like that, I fell and kept falling. I must have let go of my gun. I remember trying to grab hold of something, but it was too dark to see, and there was nothing to hold but air. The cold wind whistled in my ears. I have no memory of what happened after that. I might have fallen into a crevice, but we were very high up in the mountains, and I think I would have died if that had happened. More likely I fell from one cliff to another.”
Elizabeta nodded. “Sì, sì. And the snow was so deep, you must have sunk like a stone. You could have fallen unconscious and then frozen. As the winter wore on, you became encased in ice. Maybe you lost your identification in the fall. How you lived and ended up in the sea, and then on our shore, is a mystery.”
The boy took a long drink from his glass and nodded. “This is the best wine I’ve ever tasted. The wine on the front was horrible, what little of it we got.”
Crispo stood, sensing an opening. “Well, now that you’re here, it’s clear we must contact the authorities. I’m certain the military will be able to identify you. And the world will want to know all about you. You’ll become a sensazione internazionale.”
Elizabeta could tell by the boy’s expression that he was wary of becoming an international sensation. She didn’t like to challenge her husband, but she was not afraid to when she thought it was necessary. “He’s barely had time to wake up,” she said. “Can’t we put some weight on him before we call the authorities? Let him regain his strength and get used to the idea of living in the modern world? In a little time, he might even remember who he is and where he came from.”
Crispo didn’t like to say no to his wife. He much preferred to maintain peace in the household. “Is that what you want?” Crispo asked the soldier, trying to conceal his irritation.
The boy studied his hands as if they held an answer. “It’s crazy, isn’t it? It doesn’t seem possible so much time has passed. Yes, if you would be so kind as to let me stay here for a while, I think that would make me happy. Who won the war?”
* * *
It didn’t seem right to Elizabeta that the soldier had no name, or at least not one that he could remember, so she called him Emilio after her brother who’d died in her mother’s womb. She cooked grand meals as she’d never done before, doted over him during the day, and kept him company in the evenings as he sat wrapped in a blanket beside the fire. Each day Emilio gained strength, but he could not rid himself of the chill in his bones, as if he’d thawed on the outside, but the ice was still holding him together on the inside. Each day his eyes glowed with frost, a reflection of the cold sealed deep inside him.
He also became restless and sad at night for reasons unknown—loneliness, perhaps, or a sense of loss or longing for his own place and time in the world—so to help him through these difficult evenings, Elizabeta would read to Emilio from books in the library. She would tell him about some of the historical events he’d missed and how much the world had changed. He was distraught to learn about World War II, Mussolini, and the fascists in Italy. The television and computer seemed like magic to him. He couldn’t believe airplanes had become so large and fast, crisscrossing the globe with hundreds of people inside them, and that men had walked on the moon.
Emilio loved wine, which had been a rare treat for him during the war, so Elizabeta would often uncork a bottle, and they’d sip a mellow red or white and talk late into the night together. And so, with il vino liberating her tongue, Elizabeta would tell Emilio things about her childhood, her family, and her love for the olives and the groves, things she’d never been able to tell anyone, not even Crispo. She never felt self-conscious in Emilio’s company as she did with so many other people. She couldn’t explain why things were so easy with Emilio, why she felt so free with him, or why her heart beat so rapidly in his presence. But she could feel her pale skin flush when he smiled at her, and she soon found herself thinking of Emilio all the time, worrying about his incessant shivering, and fretting over his lost memories. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t recall his name, his family, where he’d lived, or anything at all about his childhood.
Then one afternoon, Emilio told her he wanted to work in the olive orchards. “I don’t think I’m ever going to remember who I am,” he said, “and I can’t sit around the house doing nothing forever. You speak so passionately of the olives. I want to learn about them.”
“You shouldn’t be working yet. You’re too weak.”
“I’m much better, and I need to feel useful again. I must earn my keep, after all. It’s not right for you to say no to me.”
“I think it’s too soon. But let me talk to my husband about it.”
Crispo didn’t like the idea either, although for different reasons. He couldn’t understand why his wife was so preoccupied with the soldier. If the boy began working for them, he’d become even more entrenched in their home and lives, and they might never get rid of him. It was time for the boy to go away, he thought, so he and Elizabeta could return to their normal routines and peaceful existence together.
“I’m sorry, Elizabeta. You wanted to nurse him back to health, and you’ve done that. In fact, you’ve done a remarkable job. But we agreed to call the government when he was well.”
“No, I didn’t agree. You agreed. We can’t just send him away now. He still gets cold at night.”
“He will probably always get cold after being frozen in ice for a century. Look, he’ll be better off if he leaves us. Think about it. Someone in the military might be able to identify him. A psychiatrist could help him regain his lost memories. Doctors will want to examine him to figure out how he survived. They might even cure his shivering. And his family has a right to know he’s lived through the war, don’t you think?”
“His family is dead. Everyone he once knew is long gone. Imagine the heartbreak he’ll suffer.”
“Even so, his descendants have a right to know.”
“Why can’t we just keep him here with us? No one ever needs to find out anything about him.”
Crispo frowned and rubbed his furry black beard. As much as he disliked arguing with his wife, he needed to put the situation aright before things got too far out of hand. He thought Elizabeta’s strange attachment to the boy, the way she doted over him, might have something to do with the lack of children in their home: “I think I know what you’re doing. You want to make Emilio our son because we haven’t been able to have children of our own. I’m sorry. I know it has been hard for you, but it’s time for the soldier to go. He’s a grown man, not a child, and he has a right to live his own life. If you won’t contact someone in the government tomorrow, I will.”
Elizabeta stood up straight, her arms anchored to her sides. She was stunned at how badly her husband had misread her heart. Or perhaps not so stunned. Crispo knew nothing of la passione. Of amore. For the first time in her life, Elizabeta was in love. If Crispo had guessed this, she could have done nothing but tell him the truth. She would never have lied to him or denied it. But no, now she could remain silent for a little while longer, maybe long enough to do something about it before it was too late.
“Very well,” she said. “If there’s truly no changing your mind, I’ll call the authorities myself in the morning.”
Crispo nodded. “It’s settled, then.”
* * *
That night, Elizabeta was so upset she couldn’t bring herself to visit Emilio. She went to bed early and pretended to sleep late the next morning to avoid talking to her husband. If he sensed she was avoiding him, he said nothing about it, and went to work in the fields as he did every morning.
Elizabeta rose and showered and tried her best to put on a smile before going to see Emilio. She found him sitting beside the fire, and she began trembling and struggling to find the right words to express her emotions, but the words would not come. Emilio grabbed her shoulders and asked her what was wrong and why she hadn’t come to visit him the night before.
Finally, Elizabeta blurted out the answer. Crispo wanted to send him away, turn him over to the military to be studied by doctors and become a celebrity, and she’d never see him again. She not could hold back her tears or her feelings any longer. She began to weep and confessed her love for him. “Ti amo, Emilio. I love you!”
“I love you too, Elizabeta.” He hugged her to his chest. “I’ve wanted to say it for so long. I can’t live without you!”
They each swore to one another they’d have nothing to do with Crispo’s terrible plan, and they would never be separated. No. Not ever! And so it was decided….
* * *
They quickly devised a plan. Elizabeta packed a suitcase with a few things for them and gathered all the euros she could find around the house. She went to the barn, started up the old flatbed pickup truck they used for hauling weeds, branches, and gardening tools around the farm, and drove herself and Emilio to the train station. She left the truck in the parking lot with a note in an envelope on the dashboard, explaining to Crispo that she was running away with Emilio, they were in love, and she would not return. She bought two tickets to the farthest city from the village she could find, and together they boarded the train and left il Villaggio di Ombre behind.
Once they arrived in the big city, Elizabeta asked the taxi driver to take them to a hotel, something affordable, out of the way, nothing for tourists, where they might stay among good people for an extended time. The driver knew of such a place, an antiquated inn just outside the city that catered to locals.
There she and Emilio ate a romantic dinner for two in the inn’s tiny bistro, where an old man played violin, and they could hear pots and pans clanging in the kitchen, and their meal of la pasta e fagioli con le cozze (pasta and beans with mussels) tasted so transcendent it must have passed through the gates of Heaven.
Back in the room, under a slowly turning ceiling fan, they lit a polished brass candelabrum and kissed passionately for the first time. All the feelings of awkwardness she’d experienced with Crispo were gone, and her body came alive under Emilio’s inexperienced touch.
Emilio couldn’t remember if he’d ever made love to a woman, and admitted he didn’t know the first thing about it, but it didn’t matter. There was no self-consciousness or shame in him. Elizabeta showed him what to do, and they spent a long night together with many rounds of lovemaking, the old bed creaking under them. When they finally fell apart, exhausted, and could carry on no more, they curled up together, glistening in each other’s dew, and spoke in hushed, exuberant tones of the future. The plans they made! The lives they would live!
They would rent a flat for very little money somewhere in the city. They were almost certain to find work in such a big tourist area and needed almost nothing to be happy, just a little to get by from day to day. They spoke of love and the lives ahead of them without a care in the world like excited children. They believed fate was on their side—il destino—and they would surely live a great love story. Nothing other than this simple, improbable joy mattered to them.
Emilio turned to her just as the candles began to flicker and die. “Elizabeta,” he whispered, “I no longer feel cold inside. Look. I’m not shivering.”
She felt Emilio’s heart pounding under the palm of her hand, burning like a hot coal. She smiled, gazed into his wide, damp eyes, and for the first time saw no frost in them. This was the most romantic moment of Elizabeta’s life. She’d never been happier. But the moment would not last. Ecstasy never does. La passione is an ever-passing storm. Maybe if Elizabeta had known more of love, she would have expected the inevitable fall. But no….
When she woke the next morning, Emilio was gone, and in his place there was nothing more than a large pool of water. She fell out of bed and wept, adding her own fountain of tears to the puddle that was once the body of her young lover, her beloved Emilio.
* * *
Elizabeta might have stayed in the city forever, heartbroken, ashamed, and alone, were it not for Crispo. It had been easy for him to track them. Everyone in il Villaggio di Ombre knew her, including the ticket master at the train station where she’d abandoned the truck and purchased the one-way tickets.
When Crispo arrived in the city, he asked a lot of questions outside the station. He talked to a taxi driver whose friend had mentioned taking a young man and woman to a certain inn outside the city. When he found his wife alone in the room, weeping over the pool of water in bed, he guessed what had happened, and his heart melted just as Emilio’s must have.
He went to his wife and held her in his arms. “Come home with me, Elizabeta.” He’d never been good at expressing his emotions, but now, unexpectedly, his words were at the ready. “It was my fault this happened. I didn’t realize it before, but I’ve grown to love you with all my heart, and I should have made you feel loved. If I had, you never would have wanted to run away. You’re my wife, and I want to live with you forever. Please, come home with me.”
Elizabeta’s heart responded to her husband as never before. “I want to come home,” she said, surprising herself, but knowing it was true. “I’m sorry for what I’ve done. I was wrong to run away. I love our farm…the land…the olives…and I love you. I just didn’t know it until now…here…holding you like this in my misery.”
* * *
So Elizabeta and Crispo went home to start their lives over. And it was as if they had become different people. For the first time, Elizabeta opened her heart to her husband, her brief but intense affair with Emilio having taught her how. Crispo no longer felt indifferent toward his wife’s thoughts, feelings, or emotions, nor was he bashful around her. He began to enjoy talking to Elizabeta even more than talking to the olives. Losing her even for one day had taught him that to hold onto love, he must give himself over to it.
Soon they began sharing many passionate nights in each other’s arms. They grew very happy together and agreed there was much to be said for arranged marriages. Love, they discovered, could be cultivated and grown like olives once you began to share its secrets across the terraces of the human heart.
Then, finally, the following spring, with the flowers in full bloom, the farm bursting with the smells and colors of new life, they learned Elizabeta was pregnant. After that, they spoke of the soldier only on rare occasions, late at night, with il vino loosening their tongues. They eventually became convinced that the mountains and the sea had conspired to give life to Emilio, wrap him in ice, and send him to their shore to help them in their marriage. He was a ghost, a fantasma, whose purpose was to show them how to love one another.
In the years to come, as the olives thrived, so did Elizabeta and Crispo. The couple would go on to have many children together, although their firstborn, a boy they told everyone they named Emilio after Elizabeta’s lost brother, would grow taller and leaner than the others, and not resemble anyone else in either family.
None of the workers on the farm ever spoke of the little boy’s snow-blue eyes, which always seemed lost or searching for something in the world, or how he was cold all the time and could never get warm even in the summer. No, they never mentioned his likeness to the soldier who had washed ashore long ago, not even to each other, except in winks and nods and knowing, furtive glances.
Copyright ? 2018 by Nick DiChario