A novel excerpt by John Domini[Risto—Aristofano Al’Kair—is a rarity in contemporary Italy, an immigrant success story. Out of Mogadishu, he’s earned citizenship and lives now in Naples, with a wife who’s a native. Here, the two take advantage of a rare quiet moment.]
“The kids,” he found himself saying. “Such a, a wonder.”
“Amore, yes, haven’t they turned out nicely? Both our children? When I look at those two, I think of the old saying: the color inside a melon.”
“Paola, are we—the trouble—are we even talking about trouble anymore?”
“Well, yes, certainly. But I’m hardly the only one beating around the bush. I’m not the one who came home in a state, begging for a, a kind touch. Honestly, Risto, I wonder if you can handle anything more demanding than a bedtime story.”
She couldn’t have looked friendlier, smiling in sweat-dappled nakedness.
“Then there was yesterday, amore, and yesterday evening. Out till all hours. Now you and I at last have a chance to talk, and Risto, we’ll do it my way. Seems to me it’s high time you heard about the color inside a melon.”
Once there was a Neapolitan family with a pretty young daughter.
A girl who had no end of suitors, and not just for the sweetness of her looks but also for the great-hearted nature of her kin, a family among the lights of the community. And with so many seeking the daughter’s hand (almost a healing hand, she was such an angel), was it not bound to happen that, in the fullness of time, one man would emerge as champion? A man of respectable family himself, and with a dependable trade. But this same fine catch, well—he was quite dark. And with the swell of his lips, the knots in his hair, there were rumors of an African uncle. . .
Paola paused, dropping her head.
She’d been bringing it off, more than a little operatic. If he’d been kept dangling, he’d found the air up there enjoyable. Risto could recall nights when, having tucked the children into bed, he’d settled on the floor outside their room, his head against the doorjamb, the better to hear his wife doctor up some story from his past or hers. Now, however, she’d fallen silent. She began to caress his nearest foot, as if finger-painting the toe, and wondered aloud whether her family had made it a point to keep him from hearing this particular story.
He kept his foot where it was. “I can see what it’s about.”
Her father, she murmured, was the kind of man who preferred to leave a disturbing subject untouched. Risto reached for her hair, sweeping it back. “Paolissima.” Hadn’t he wanted this sort of sharing?
She went into her next gesture.
Throughout the piazzas where the daughter’s beauty was legend, then, there were as well legends of a less kindly nature, regarding this otherwise splendid catch of a man. There were whispers of an African uncle, of African grandparents. Only talk, this was, impossible to confirm—but the love between the two young people, that needed no further witness or decree. To move the earth, it requires the hand of God, and so too with this pretty girl and this dark boy: it was as if an earthquake had brought them together.
In short order the girl and her beloved were wed, on an island honeymoon, and then back in the neighborhood expecting a child. Soon enough the girl’s parents were hosting another celebration for their daughter, more specifically for their grandchild-to-be, an occasion for the bearing of gifts. In return, whatever the gift, whichever the twisted soul who gave it, these stalwarts repaid the largesse. They greeted visitors with a veritable groaning board, the viands delectably prepared and arrayed, in particular some fresh honey melons out of the garden.
Most of the melons were at their succulent peak, to be sure. Most split into halves that, as they rolled away from the knife, glistened like new-fallen snow. But a few turned out diseased, worm-eaten, and dark. There was no way to tell whether your melon was good or bad until you cut it open.
And so ubiquitous is the Evil One and his influence, some few of the guests proved likewise rotten. Some two or three proved shameless enough to take advantage of the family’s hospitality, and of the young husband’s restraint, there in the presence of his bride and her father. The dark settebello sat with folded hands while these ill-behaved few again bruited about the vicious old gossip:
Africans in the family, they whispered. Apes.
Finally one of these guests, full of wine—if not with some Satanic brew, more rank and bitter—put his swollen red face in the face of the girl’s father and demanded to know just what he intended to do about this taint in his blood. At that, the host took up the heaviest knife in the household. A knife to cut muscle and bone at a single blow, it lent a terrible youth and strength to the arm of this grandfather-to-be, and as he whipped the mottled blade skyward, everyone fell back with a gasp. Yet when the man brought his weapon down, it was only to chop open another of the sweet, round fruits.
If the color inside a melon turns out white, the father declared, then what’s there to fight about?
Afterward, Paola wouldn’t listen to her husband’s chiding.
“Oh, you, stubborn as a stump.” She waggled a finger. “Do you mean to tell me you understand a Neapolitan proverb better than I do?”
Risto cocked his head and repeated that his wife hadn’t grasped what the old man was saying. She hadn’t heard the threat.
“What if the melon had turned out dark?” he asked. “The melon, or the baby?”
“Oh, honestly, as if you were the only realist in Italy.”
“But, look at it, you’ve got the son sitting right there, steam coming out of his ears. Isn’t the father saying, maybe they do have something to fight about?”
“Risto-ri, you know as well as I, this is a story about what’s inside. The gifts of the heart.” By then she’d gotten some wine (all right, he’d take a glass), and her touch was wet with condensation. “The color of the skin, the bric-a-brac on the outside, that’s not what this story’s about.”
A “real Neapolitan,” she went on, would’ve had a much better argument against her interpretation. A real Neapolitan would know that the moral of the story also turned up in one of the city’s songs.
Risto rolled his eyes. “Of course it’s in a song. They’re all in some song, all the old stories, and come to think of it, all the old streets and piazzas too.”
“Amore, honestly—isn’t this your Brave New World?”
“It’s a city that gets older but never gets anywhere. Everybody stays in the piazza. Everybody sits over the same old wines, around telling the same old stories. And they say Africans are tribal.”
Paola, delighted, insisted she was only talking about a certain melon in a certain ballad. The song wasn’t famous, nothing like “’O Sole Mio.” But anyone who’d grown up in Naples had heard it. “And in that version, you know, they’re talking about an unhappy marriage.”
Risto’s smile bent the other way. What had he been seeking here? A moment outside the familiar, both a hesitation and a seeking?