Catina’s Haircut: A Novel in Stories spans four generations of a peasant family in the brutal poverty of post-Unification southern Italy and in an immigrant’s United States. The women in these tales dare to cross boundaries by discovering magical leaps inherent in the landscape, in themselves, and in the stories they tell and retell of family tragedy at a time of political unrest. Through an oral tradition embedded in the stone of memory and the flow of its reinvention, their passionate tale of resistance and transformation courses forward into new generations in a new world.
A woman threatens to join the land reform struggle in her Calabrian hill town, against her husband’s will, during a call for revolution in 1919. A brother and sister turn to the village sorceress in Fascist Italy to bring rain to their father’s drought-stricken farm. In Pittsburgh, new immigrants witness a miraculous rescue during the Great Flood of 1936. A young girl courageously dives into the Allegheny River to save her grandfather’s only memento of the old country. With only broken English to guide her, a widow hops a bus in search of live chickens to cook for Easter dinner in her husband’s memory. An aging woman in the title story is on a quest to cut the ankle-length hair as hard as the rocky soil of Calabria in a drought. A lonely woman who survived World War II bombings in her close-knit village, struggles to find community as a recent immigrant. A daughter visits her mother’s hill town to try and fulfill a wish for her to see the Fata Morgana. These haunting images permeate Corso’s linked stories of loss, hope, struggle, and freedom.
An official selection of The Sons of Italy® Book Club
Best Books for General Audiences, selected by the Public Library Association
|Publisher:||University of Wisconsin Press|
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About the Author
Paola Corso grew up in the Pittsburgh area. She is a Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award winner, a John Gardner Fiction Book Award finalist, and author of a book of poems, Death by Renaissance, and a collection of stories, Giovanna’s 86 Circles. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Read an Excerpt
Catina's HaircutA Novel in Stories
By Paola Corso
Terrace BooksCopyright © 2010 Paola Corso
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Rise and Fall of Antonio Del Negro
A story told and retold through the generations: father to daughter, grandfather to granddaughter and on to her children, each time changing details that portray the land—the worn face of Italy. Told and retold. But each time, the ending is the same.
Antonio Del Negro walked two and a half hours out of San Procopio and back looking for work. He gauged distance by the color of the earth. When it was a sheen of bright green spikes in the lowland, he was a long way from home. As grass began to thin and fade, he approached halfway on his return trip, and once the land had become a crust of gray at the base of a steep hill, the longest stretch of his journey home was behind him. Soon he would face Celina and what he must tell her.
San Procopio stood on a mountain of rock. After every rainy season, the soil eroded, exposing more. Farmers built half moon lunitti walls around trees to protect the soil from further erosion, but it was futile in this region of Calabria. On the days when Antonio was hopeful, he imagined that each stone was an egg of white and yoke that seeped into the earth and replenished it. When struck by heat and weary, he saw one-legged chickens with no feathers, hopping out of cracked shells.
Today he was superstitious: he reached down and separated two stones, one on top of the other along his path, fearing he'd soon find three. But what was sure to multiply were the reasons he must give his wife to not lose faith in him, to not set her sights on the talk of revolution.
As he scaled the hill, Antonio turned around and eyed the plain below. Muddy coats of silt from overflowing mountain streams in the winter had fertilized it. Come summer, the valley would become a malaria-infested swamp, but this time of year, the lowland soil was drained. Earlier that day, he had reached down to scoop a handful. Moist, dark, and robust, it almost renewed his belief that if he walked far enough away from his rocky hill town, he could live off the land.
But Antonio's contract to farm a few hectares in the valley wasn't renewed. What he had to tell Celina was that he had no piece of paper from a property owner that named him a sharecropper.
He knew as well as the patruni that his shovels for hands and arms as stern as axle rods weren't enough. The proprietor sought a sharecropping family large enough to farm the land but without too many vucchi inutili, useless mouths to feed. Antonio was once blessed with five sons. Then his twins died in an epidemic. His two eldest left to find work in Switzerland. Both Antonio and Celina lost their parents in an earthquake that killed everyone attending Sunday Mass except for the priest who ducked under the oak altar as the church collapsed. This made an atheist out of Antonio, a man whose only dream for his youngest son was that he die a natural death in San Procopio.
At the top of the hill, Antonio faced a lone cypress tree behind his village wall, a mass of unruly stones built after Italy's unification. According to legend, the wall was never intended for defense. Proud San Procopians simply didn't want to give outsiders the impression they never had any good fortune to protect.
The sky's twilight was a slow burn to black. As Antonio walked through the archway, the faint sound of a bagpipe blew in the evening breeze. Villagers gathered under a lantern in the piazza to dance to a zampogna player who squeezed his instrument as if he were milking it. They kept beat to the music by clapping loose stones they picked up from underneath their feet.
The sound of stone, more stone. Antonio changed his direction. Rather than pass through the square, he chose a quiet mule path with grooves from carriages his father once told him dated back to the Roman Empire. He turned on a dirt road so narrow that he couldn't extend his arms without touching a doorway or window.
Antonio stopped to look down at his shoes. They were camouflaged by the dust and blended in with the road. That morning, he had polished the tips but not the heels, convinced that a man always makes an impression when he first approaches. By the time he turned to leave, judgment had already been passed. Now, he would face Celina's.
She waited outside for him on a narrow balcony where clusters of peppers were hung, the loose seeds inside rattling in the wind. She could tell by the way he dragged his feet that they were bubbling with blisters. Because they refuse to form calluses, she thought.
His weakness was her strength. Four years ago, when Italy entered the Great War in 1915, she led the attack on a soldier who was confiscating their grain to feed the army. She and a group of women stormed his loaded wagon, threw the sacks to the ground, and slit them open so they couldn't be lifted without spilling out. After the deed was done and he ran off, she told her husband that she would have defended herself with a farm tool. When he raised his voice in disbelief, she replied coldly, "If I had stabbed that soldier with my pick, wheat would have gushed out of his body. Not blood."
Celina, who even parted her hair off center, didn't believe in a middle ground. There was one side or the other. Strands swooped across her forehead, a black moon shadowing the white cotton cloth that covered her hair. She hadn't yet turned forty, but the lines under her eyes were almost as dark as her brows. Droopy lids made her look tired, yet as soon as she uttered a word, they rose as if to reveal piercing weapons behind armor.
She peered beneath Antonio's hat. One side of his mustache was visibly wider than the other. He claimed he was farsighted, but Celina knew he intended to distinguish his broom from those of the other job-seeking perdijornu. This was his way of getting a second glance. Maybe the patruni would look Antonio in the eye, offer him work.
Celina shook a tablecloth, but very few crumbs flew into the air. "You left shortly after the cock's crow, Antonio."
"Prosciutto," he replied with a tired voice as he pushed down the sleeves of his muslin shirt. Out of habit he rolled them up to hide the holes on his elbows.
"Prosciutto?" Celina repeated, asking her disheveled husband what had happened. He didn't know she still received money from their sons in Switzerland, although he wrote and told them they were making do. She instructed them both before they left to disregard his letters on the matter.
"The man who got the contract presented a gift of dried ham. You know what I told the patruni? I held up my two hands and said, 'These are more valuable than the ass of a pig!'"
Antonio promised his wife that he would try another landowner tomorrow. Celina shook her head as she tossed the thin tablecloth to one side and began thrashing a quilt against the railing. Sternly, she said, "Maybe there is no tomorrow. Like today."
Antonio stared up at his wife. She stopped to brace her back, aching from the days she stooped to pick ripe olives off the ground. It wasn't like her to give in to a fami. Celina had furberia—the shrewdness of a fox. She had told her husband long ago that if he died first, she wouldn't wear black for years like most widows. Once she returned to her chores, she'd wear light clothes to repel the heat. "The sun has no mercy, Antonio. Why should I?"
He kicked off his shoes and tossed them at a lizard darting through the brush. "No tomorrow like today! My feet touch this earth, and your head is in the clouds, Celina. Never mind what anybody says. Talk. All talk."
San Procopio had four hundred villagers who congregated at church for morning prayers. They met in line at the post, awaiting letters with money from relatives who had emigrated abroad, and at the communal oven to bake festive honey biscuits shaped like fish, or their daily bread if their supply of wheat did not run out. As the bread rose, so did their voices. They gathered around the village well to fill jugs or strap barrels of water on either side of their donkeys and on the steps to embroider pillowcases for their daughters' trousseaux. Sitting together on door stoops, men carved musulupare, wooden molds that gave ricotta cheese as many crevices as a volcano, while their sons learned to work with wood by carving spoons.
While washing clothes at the fountain that morning, Celina had overheard men talking inside the ritrovu at the fork in the road. They usually had an espresso or glass of wine in their hands as they settled into their conversation. When she heard a cork pop and a vinegary smell drift out of the open green shutters of the café just above the fountain, she knew to listen carefully for news.
Although carrying wet laundry made the load twice as heavy on the return trip home, her spirit had been lifted that day. She had learned that the town's most devout Catholic, Peppina Santuzzo, had taken down a picture of the pope hanging above her bed and put one of Lenin in its place. Peppina's husband, Adelmo, even tied a red rug that she wove from remnants on her loom to the flagpole at town hall. "Now she prays for a revolution like the one in Russia instead of saying the rosary," Celina told Antonio. She too began to show her support for revolutionary land reform by wrapping a wide red ribbon around her head instead of a white cloth.
"We just got done fighting against Russia in the Great War. How could they be our ally?" Antonio said.
She told him how the men at the café said workers up North took control of the estates. Cattle were led to the stables and set on fire. "We can claim our land too," she said, lifting her eyebrows.
"But not keep it," he told his wife.
Antonio had reason to despair. Italy had been promised land after the war, and it was to be divided so that every man could support his family. Despite the fact that the war cost more than twice the amount Italy spent in all the years since it had become a country, the Treaty of London had been violated.
"We lost so many in battle and for what? We never got so much as a clump of dirt," he said. "Six hundred thousand men were killed, with room to bury each and every one, yet we have no land to plant life!"
Celina said there'd be land and they weren't going to settle for farming with primitive tools anymore either. They'd have nmacchina to do the work for them like the ones at the factories in Milano. And this thing called electricity where you could turn a light on and off through a wire. The way the men at the ritrovu were describing it, people gathered around a streetlamp to witness a miracle!
"There are no miracles, Celina."
She quickly folded the quilt and signaled for Antonio to come eat.
He entered the ground floor of their home where the farm animals were kept, a mule and a few goats. It smelled of damp hay. He pulled a few lemon peels out of his pocket and rubbed them on the straw sack where his son slept.
Antonio climbed the narrow steps up to the second floor, took off his vest and hat, and hung them on a hook along with his leather satchel. The room was dark from the smoke of the fireplace. At one end was a bed without a headboard. A gauze curtain of mosquito netting hung above it. Below the bed was a ceramic chamber pot. Beside it, a chair with a plaited straw seat. In the corner, a pine table with a water pitcher resting in a bowl and a linen cloth for bathing.
At the other end of the room, Antonio seated himself at the table as Celina served his meal—a bowl filled with suppa, the usual broth with fava beans. He looked at the color to see how runny it was. There was no golden cast of olive oil around the rim. There was no onion to flavor the soup, although she threw in chicory or other wild greens and mushrooms picked in the woods. On a plain white plate were a few figs glazed with their own juices. She lifted the lid of a deep trunk where she stored linens and dry goods, placing a quarter loaf of bread beside the fruit rather than his usual half.
"The price of bread went up again. I could not afford a second loaf," Celina said.
Antonio pounded his fist on his plate so hard it broke in two. "They just raised it! The cittadini are cornering the grain supply again to create shortages."
Celina gasped before she spoke. "There is a meeting at the ritrovu tonight. Socialists from the North will be there."
"As soon as they leave, the organization will crumble. Like the Popolare," he said.
Everyone in San Procopio had heard about the Popolare, the new Catholic political party. But there had been too much infighting between feuding priests from competing parishes. One wasn't willing to tolerate an action for which the other might receive credit from the Vatican, so the movement floundered.
"What makes you think they are any different? Stranieri," he muttered as he threw down his soup spoon and drank from the bowl.
"They are not all outsiders. Members of our provincial council will be there," she said.
"Show me a public official who refuses bribes and I will show you a white fly!"
"You will see for yourself how many people in this town wave the red flag."
Antonio dipped his bread into his soup bowl, then stopped. "What happens outside this family does not concern us," he said, chewing intermittently. He was no different from many peasants who believed they lost their say when they paid officials to resolve public matters.
"They will divide the property and give us all a plot. But we must join them!"
He broke off a corner of his bread and said, "The only land left is the Baron's."
"That is almost all the land," she scoffed, picking up the largest piece of the broken plate.
"You know they will not let this happen," Antonio said. "And even if it did, it would not be for long. We would have to start all over again. Maybe with less!"
Celina stood beside Antonio, clearing the table. "How could we have less than we have now?"
"We own land. What do you think this house rests on? This house is my estate! I inherited it! I own it!"
"The government cannot take it away from you," she said. "And if the Socialists win more seats ..."
"No," he shook his head. "No."
She stopped cleaning when she saw his face grow pale. "Why not? Tell me."
"The government can do what it pleases."
"You are mistaken, Antonio. You said yourself, this house is yours."
Antonio lowered his head on the table.
She tapped him on the shoulder. "You are hiding something. Answer me. Answer me!"
He looked up and said, "I have no deed."
"How could that be? You own this house. You must have a deed—"
"Did you hear me?" he interrupted.
"No deed?" she asked in disbelief.
"I said no!"
Celina collapsed into a chair. She leaned her forehead on a clenched fist and bit her lip. "And you never told me?"
"I am telling you now."
She shook her head. Suddenly she screamed, "Before I married you!"
Staring into his soup bowl, he said, "My father was too proud to admit he could not write his name. And I was too proud to tell you."
"You lied to me, Antonio."
"And the revolutionaries lie to you! We are here by our good graces! And that is the way it must stay!"
"Even Don Marco is with the Socialists!"
"Then why do mules cultivate his vineyard instead of the men he used to hire?" Antonio asked. "That is ten people out of work. Don Marco speaks from his mouth! Not his heart!"
Celina jumped out of her chair. "It worked up North! It can work here!"
"When they ring the bell for revolution, we stay at home! There's work to be done right here," he said.
She turned and walked away. He followed close behind. They both stopped when they heard the sound of bleating sheep.
The rickety stairs shook as their eleven-year-old son slowly climbed them, pausing at each rung to catch his balance. Rather than continue, he stopped midway and shouted, "Mamà! Papà! Come down! Look what I brought you!"
Excerpted from Catina's Haircut by Paola Corso Copyright © 2010 by Paola Corso . Excerpted by permission of Terrace Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Rise and Fall of Antonio Del Negro
St. Odo's Curse
Hell and High Water
Giorgio's Green Felt Hat
Jesus Behind Bars