By Marco Rafalà
An excerpt of the novel How Fires End, published by Little A, 2019.
“I had three brothers,” she began, “but now—” Nella took a deep breath, held it in, let it out slow. “Now I am the last Vassallo. After me, there will be no more. But our families, yours and mine, they were there in the beginning with the statue.”
She paused to sip her hot cocoa. The boy watched her, hungry for more. He didn’t move, not even to brush the curls of unkempt dark hair from his eyes. Her face wrinkled into a smile and she set the cup down, still holding it with both hands. She continued, not stopping until the cup had long grown cold.
“My father told my brothers and me the story of how the statue of Saint Sebastian came to the village of Melilli, the village we once called home. Like so many stories, this one started with danger. A ship was caught in a furious storm and ran aground in Megara Bay. The hull cracked open on the rocks, and the waves pushed our saint ashore. All the sailors survived. They thanked their cargo for their lives, but none of these men could lift the statue to carry it off. Word spread, first among the shepherds, then to the local villages and cities, until news reached the bishop of Syracuse. In three days, he came with clergy and a crew of men to claim the saint. Again the saint was too heavy to lift. From all over the province, people gathered on the beach, waiting their turn to try to break the spell and lift the statue. Some of the men built a fire. Some of the women cooked. At night they prayed, and in the day their prayers failed them.
“When the procession from Melilli arrived, our priest claimed the statue, saying, ‘Since the making of the world, Saint Sebastian has been painted here on the grotto wall in our village, here before even Sebastian himself was born. This is Melilli, the martyr Sebastian, tied to a tree and porcupined with Roman arrows.’ Then our men raised the statue on a wooden pallet and placed the poles upon their shoulders, and a great cheer went up among them as all the clergy prayed and made the sign of the cross. ‘E chiamamulu paisanu,’ they shouted. ‘Prima Diu e Sammastianu.’ He is one of our own. First God, and then Saint Sebastian. Another cheer seized the men, and they carried the saint home, our ancestors, a Vassallo and a Morello, among the bearers.
“Our families held hands and sang together bringing their patron saint home to Melilli. In the piazza, on the ridge overlooking the bay, their knees buckled. The men cried out. A force had suddenly burdened them with a weight they could no longer carry. The priest kissed the wooden crucifix around his neck and said, ‘No man can shoulder the might of God.’ So they left the statue there and built a church around it. This was May 1414.
“As children, my brothers and I loved that story. As children, we believed—as everyone believed in those days—that Saint Sebastian would protect the people of Melilli forever. When earthquakes destroyed much of our village, it was by his glory our families lived to marvel—the statue unharmed among the ruins. Etna erupted. We prayed to him, and our homes were spared. He saw us through all the wars and years of unrest and revolt in our history.
“‘Saint Sebastian always keeps us safe. He will always keep us safe.’ My father said these words as we hid in the cave, the war raging just outside. Gunfire cracked the air. Bombs whistled as they fell from the sky. Beneath our feet the ground trembled. The cave shook like it might come down on top of us any minute. In the back, our mother prayed her rosary before the ancient painting of the saint on the cave wall. She wanted me, her only daughter, by her side. But I wanted to work with my father and brothers. We hulled a bushel basket of almonds, the only food left to eat. All around us, Germans and Allies fought. Such noise as you would never imagine possible.”
My father and I sat on metal folding chairs at a card table in our kitchen, peeling the blackened and blistered skin from roasted bell peppers. Ashen flakes stuck to our fingers. It was a Friday evening in March 1986, in Middletown, Connecticut. The sunset hung framed in the bay windows over the sink, and the kitchen took on an orange glow. My father worked the pepper in his hands as a sculptor works sandpaper on stone, smoothing the coarse surface. I tried to ease off the burnt skin the way he did, but the red pepper was slimy in my clumsy hands. I ripped the flesh open, making a mess of juice and seeds on the table, like always.
“Easy,” my father said. He wiped his fingers clean with a damp towel on his lap.
“I’m trying,” I said.
“Beh, you try. You try but you no learn.” He took the pepper from me and finished peeling it. His fingers moved with a slow and delicate purpose, a memory kept in the muscles of his wrists and palms. He was still angry with me for what happened—for my lie—and what it made him remember.
The lie I’d told my father wasn’t about whether I made confession at Saint Sebastian Church. It wasn’t about how I’d gotten a fat lip at Woodrow Wilson Middle School—I always lied about how I got those. It wasn’t even about the fibs I told the priest when I did finally confess. No, this was a real lie with real consequences. I told my father I was going to the library Friday after school. But that wasn’t where I went. This was how I ended up in yet another fight with Tony Morello—a fight my father finally witnessed. A fight that changed everything.
Tony Morello was big for a thirteen-year-old, already a mountain. He lived in a house under the Arrigoni Bridge, and his father beat him. All the kids at school suspected, but no one talked about it. The adults, too. They kept quiet because it wasn’t their business. But Tony was my business and I was his—for the longest time, he was my nemesis, and I didn’t know why. If my life had been a fairy tale, then Tony Morello would have been the troll.
He wandered out from under his bridge onto a derelict side street two blocks from the library—between me and where I was supposed to be. Underdressed for winter in his zipped-up wannabe “Thriller” jacket, he lurked in the red-brick shadows of an old carriage factory. He’d written his name in the dirt of the one unbroken window, a dog peeing to mark his territory.
I pulled buzzing headphones down around my neck. There was no escaping him, no winning against him. Not even sunlight would have helped me turn this troll into stone. Mouthing off made it easier to stomach. “Just learned how to spell your name?”
Tony shoved me down and we tumbled through a dirty snowbank. His breath reeked of corn chips. He sat on my back, pushed my face into dirty snow, black with soot. When my father came barreling at us from around the corner, he moved like a gnarled old tree uprooted from the soil by gale and gravity. He moved fast, a man who knew the speed of danger.
“Get off my son!” he bellowed as he pulled Tony off me.
A truck horn sounded, low and strangled, and a red Chevy pickup with white side panels crawled to a stop in the street. Tony’s father, Rocco, hunched in the driver’s seat, his elbow out the window. Rocco and my father: two men out searching for lost sons. “Antonio,” Rocco yelled. “Get the hell over here.”
My father chased after Tony but froze in the truck’s headlights when I called out for him to stop. The beams lit up the underside of his face, framed in the earflaps of his black fur trooper hat, and threw his eyes into shadow. He dented the hood with his fist.
When Tony climbed into the cab through the passenger door, Rocco shouted at him. “What did I say?” He smacked the back of Tony’s head, sending his forehead into the dashboard. “You stay away from that family. They’re no good.” Then he leaned out the window and spat on the pavement. “Put your hands on my boy again and not even that Fascist you hide behind can protect you.”
“Vaffanculo,” my father cursed. He was a man used to curses. He slapped his palm against his bicep, arm raised with a fist and bent at the elbow. He stood planted in the road, forcing Rocco to drive around him. My father watched the taillights go around the corner. An oncoming car honked him to the curb. He waved the driver away, his arm the swishing tail of a donkey swatting a fly off its rump.
“What happened?” my father asked me. His Roman nose chapped red from waiting in the cold for me. “I looked for you,” he said. “Where were you?” He held my chin, turned my face left and then right. He inspected the bruises the way he inspected pears at the grocery store. He made that same face, too, as he rejected the fruit, like he’d just smelled a fart.
“I hate him.” My voice cracked, and I hated that even more.
“That boy, he is a scimunitu like his father. Next time you fight back.” My father slapped snow from my shoulders and backside.
“I tried,” I said. But I hadn’t, not really. Not even close.
He touched the headphones dangling around my neck. “Where did you get this?”
I jerked away and fumbled reconnecting the headphone cord to the Walkman. “Can we just go?”
My father grabbed the Walkman and shook it in my face, and I flinched. “If you’d been at the library maybe that boy wouldn’t have bothered you. See what happens when you’re not where you’re supposed to be?”
But he was wrong. I had been where I needed to be. I was with my new friend, Sam—the one good thing that came of that troll Tony. Monday had been Sam’s first day at Woodrow Wilson, already two months into the new year. Lost on his way to homeroom, he stumbled smack into Tony’s massive frame, so Tony sent Sam sailing into me—and me, into a wall of lockers. Thus, the first fat lip of that week.
I picked up Sam’s blue Trapper Keeper, the flap decked out in the raccoon eyes of a Siouxsie and the Banshees sticker. When I asked him who they were, he grinned and bobbed up and down on the toes of his sneakers, high-top Converse All Stars. Black, like mine. “Are you kidding?” he asked. By Friday, Sam had invited me to his house to listen to records. I knew my father wouldn’t let me go to a stranger’s house, but I needed a friend, even just one. So I told my father I’d be studying at Russell Library instead.
Sam’s house was only a mile from mine, but it felt light-years away. And he wasn’t Sicilian or Sicilian American like everyone else I knew in this town—like me. He had the coolest hair, buzzed in the back, long and floppy in the front. His bangs were so long they touched his chin. He chewed on the strands when he was thinking hard about something. In his room, a checkerboard of album covers and posters papered the walls. I’d never seen people like these—men, women, I wasn’t sure—with smeared red lipstick, heavy black eyeliner, and wild hair, each one like some dolled-up Medusa. At Sam’s house, the records crackled and popped like a campfire, and I warmed in the glow of those sounds. Then he lent me his Walkman so I could take that glow with me.
When I lied to my father about going to the library, he said, “Go straight there after school and wait for me to get you.” And I answered, “Sure thing.” But he grabbed my arm before I could jet, and he looked at me in that way he had, as if he could see his dead brothers in my eyes.
“Bad things happen when you don’t listen to your papà,” he said.
“I’ll go right there from school,” I said. But he only held my arm tighter, pulled it toward him until he’d pulled what he wanted to hear out of me. “And I won’t leave until you pick me up. Promise.”
Imagine an object so massive that not even light could escape the pull of its gravity. If light could not escape, nothing could. That was how my father loved me.
“Okay,” he said, as if he could breathe again, and he released me back into his orbit.
At home, after the fight, I shucked off my soaking-wet clothes in my bedroom and changed into dry jeans and a black turtleneck sweater. Out the window, my father stood ankle deep in snow in the backyard. He had dragged the charcoal grill from the shed and was roasting store-bought peppers. My reflection overlaid the scene in the glass, black hair cut short and parted at the cowlick on the right—the twig offspring of that thick old oak.
Outside, I held open a brown paper lunch bag for my father to fill. The craggy lines of his face tightened in the light from the fire. His mouth sagged to a frown. He clicked the tongs in his hand, a metronome of disappointment, and turned over a pepper. The fire spat a red spark. He pulled back his hand. “See,” he said, “you have to be quick so the fire doesn’t bite you.” He picked up a steaming and blackened pepper with his bare hand. “And you have to be strong,” he said, and dropped the pepper in the bag.
In the snow behind him, deep drag lines from the grill and footprints alongside them tracked back to the shed. Smooth waves of snow covered his garden beds. Months of hard work and care would make those beds flush with spinach and chard, peppers and eggplant. Everything he loved grew from the hard work of his hands in that garden.
“I got a couple good hits in,” I lied. “Before you showed up.”
“Yeah,” my father said, stretching out the sound of the word. He laughed a small laugh that made me feel small. “Okay.” He squeezed my shoulder. “Go inside before you catch cold.”
“What did Rocco mean by that Fascist?”
My father turned the peppers on the grill. He took his time with each one, a tempo set by his tongs. Click-click. Click-click. Peppers sizzled. “That word, it does not mean what you think it means.”
I inched closer to the heat to keep from shivering. “So tell me.”
Click-click. Click-click. The fire bit him and he shook his hand. “Mannaggia la miseria,” he cursed. “See what you do?” He placed his burnt thumb in his mouth and decided what to do with me, the boy who’d lied and distracted him from his work. He hung the tongs from the grill handle and motioned for me to follow him to the tarp-covered woodpile by the old shed. I rolled the paper bag closed, set it down on the porch step, and traipsed through the snow after him. He’d made the shed himself from scraps of plywood and mismatched siding planks, roof felt and corrugated iron. Icicle teeth sharpened the edges of the rusted metal roof. A twist of black-and-copper electrical wire held the door shut.
He handed me a thin stick of kindling, and I carped, “What am I supposed to do with this?”
“You break it.”
I snapped it in half.
Then he collected a bundle of thin sticks and said, “Now these.”
The bundle wouldn’t break. I tried again, this time against my thigh. It wouldn’t even bend, no matter how I strained against it.
“Now you understand,” my father said. He wiped his hands on the thick canvas of his work pants.
“Can you do it?” I asked him.
My father pulled my knit hat down over my ears. “No one can,” he said. “But some men, they like to fight anyway, and men like that are crazy. Better you stay away from them.”
“Is that what you would do?”
“Never mind what I do.” He returned to the grill, his face lit and unlit by the cloven fire, moving in and out of darkness and light, as if he belonged to both. “What I do?” he said to the crackling flames. It was a question that clung to the air the way the smell of charcoal and smoke and sweet grilled peppers clung to my father’s clothes.
Later, when we moved inside, he posed the question again. We were in the kitchen, peeling roasted peppers, and I had made a mess of mine. When he finished salvaging my botched pepper, he held it up for me to see. “What I do?” he asked. “I take care of my family.” Then he dropped the skinned pepper in a clear glass bowl of sliced raw garlic and olive oil. “How old are you now?” he asked me.
“Dio mio,” he said. “Almost a man you are. A few more years yet.” With his towel, he cleaned the juice and seeds from the table. “I was younger than you and already a man,” he said, “when the war came.”
His calloused hands trembled. He worked the last of the peppers. His eyes locked on something in the distance, something I could never quite see. “Get me the wine,” he said.
I brought a bottle of his murky red up from the basement, pulled on the white T-shirt fabric that held the cork in place. He stopped me from pouring him a glass.
“Let it breathe,” he said. “It needs to breathe before you drink it.” He nodded at the empty foldaway chair. His look pulled me back down into its flimsy vinyl padding. “We prayed,” he said. “In caves, we prayed the bombs would not find us. Even as the mountain shook like one of Mount Etna’s earthquakes, we prayed, and when the fighting stopped—” He cocked his head to one side and tsked. “They destroyed everything.”
He opened a can of sardines at the counter. Then he cut two slices from a loaf of crusty sesame seed bread and dropped them into the toaster. “It was August,” he said, moving into the story I knew well, the one he always circled back to even now, forty-three years later. So I did what I always did. I listened and I tried to see them, who they would have been, who we all would have been if my uncles hadn’t died.
“August,” he said again, this time in Sicilian. “A hot day, the day my brothers wandered away from the celebration in the piazza. I had to find them. My papà wanted me to find them. And you know where I find them? Those stupid boys.” He frowned, thinking about the answer. When he spoke again, he spoke in English, his voice almost a whisper. “They were in the almond orchard playing with an artillery shell. I yelled at them to stop, I did.”
When he talked about his brothers, there was a lesson in the story, unspoken—and he told me that lesson all the time. If I wasn’t careful, if I didn’t listen to his every word, if I didn’t watch out, I could end up dead like them. A fear like that could crush you.
My father poured wine into a mason jar. He sat back down, leaned over his food, elbows on the table. He stuffed a forkful of peppers into his mouth, and bit into a slice of dark toast topped with sardines. “Those stupid twins,” he said. He wagged a finger at me. “I told you to stay at the library until I came for you.”
I sank into my seat and forked green and red peppers from the bowl. “I’m sorry,” I said.
The kitchen grew quiet except for the clank of utensils against dishes and teeth. My father raised his head from his food. He pursed his lips. His brow furrowed. He drank his wine, and then raised the jar to the light for me to see the rusty hues. “Just a sip,” he said. “Go on. Try.”
When I tried his homemade wine, I scrunched up my face. “It tastes like vinegar,” I said.
He snorted like a horse. “A few more years yet,” he said.
My father never talked about my mother the way he talked about his brothers. She died when I was five years old and he never mentioned her at all, so I didn’t either. One day she was there, and then she wasn’t. And all her belongings, all the pictures of her and of us together, they disappeared, too, as if my father wanted me to forget her. It was like she never stopped disappearing. But I still had my mother’s glow-in-the-dark stars on my bedroom ceiling—the stickers she and I had put there together. The stars she had taught me how to read.
Tell me the story again, I’d say. The one about Pisces, and I’d point at the green constellation. What are they? she’d ask me, and I’d yell out, Fish! How many fish? she’d say. Two fish tied by their tails, a mother and her son transformed. They swam free from the monster, Typhon.
Typhon sought revenge against the gods for the deaths of his serpent-footed brothers. He stood as high as the stars, a sickle-winged colossus, roaring with the heads of a hundred wild beasts. He rained down a barrage of mountains and fire on the gods, and the gods trembled before his wrath. They changed into animals, retreating in a thunderclap of mighty hooves. The world shuddered. Waves cut the horizon with glassy teeth, an ocean gnawing at the sky, frothing at the mouth in the pitch of Typhon’s storm. All seemed lost until Minerva goaded Jupiter into fighting back. But even the king of the gods could not destroy Typhon. So Jupiter buried the monster under Mount Etna, where he still spews fire and ash into the air. In this way, a volcano was born.
Sometimes my father was Typhon, fueled by an inconsolable rage for what had happened to his brothers, trapped under a mountain of rock but still burning and angry at everyone, even me. Sometimes Tony was Typhon, a stupid beast bent on mindless destruction, always able to spot the weakness in me. But now I understood that Typhon was something else, too—a secret, long-simmering hatred between Rocco Morello and my father. And my lie had banged on that secret, like an unexploded shell between them. It had freed a monster not even the gods could tame.