I enjoy scanning the police blotter section of the Thursday newspaper. It being nutty Florida, the items inevitably include one or more stories of human folly. Here’s this morning’s item: a woman is attacked with a broomstick. I wonder if it might have been on Halloween; lots of evildoers out on broomsticks on October 31st.
Or, maybe, it was an early encounter with La Befana, the Italian Christmas witch. My sister, Susie, and I had one such encounter. It was outside Bologna in December of 1960, when I was just 6 and Susie not quite 4 and we went to visit our maid’s home for the day. I think our mother needed us out of the house to wrap presents and organize Santa surprises. ….
Mom tucked us into our Winona sweaters. “Now, you girls have a good time at Angela’s home. Remember, you’re her guests. Speak in your best Italian – she and her family don’t speak English, you know. And you can tell us all about your day tonight at dinner.”
Susie and I had never taken a trip, even just for a day, without our parents. As we passed kilometer after kilometer of brown fields, I realized that Angela’s day must start very early and end very late as she traveled to Bologna and back every day. After a while, we slowed to a stop.
The pale sun barely warmed my face as Susie and I followed Angela down the steps of the train, and right into the arms of a lady that had Angela’s bushy eyebrows. “La mia sorella Lucrezia,” Angela said, introducing her sister. The woman pulled us into her black-sweatered chest and I was instantly back in Fina’s arms. I squirmed back onto my own two feet.
“Andiamo, bambine!” Let’s go, girls. Angela lifted our day bag and reached for me with her free hand as the train horn blared. My stomach squeezed as tight as my fingers. I felt myself fall backward as the train pulled out.
Susie and Lucrezia followed us down the dusty road that away from the tracks. The front doors of the beige single-story homes rose straight out of the road. The smell of frying onions streamed out of an open window. I caught a glimpse of a woman in black stirring a pan. From the back, she looked like Angela, and like her sister, all layers of baggy black sweaters and long dark skirts.
I tugged at Angela’s arm. “O fame,” I said, I’m hungry.
Angela smiled down at me as we hurried along. “You’ll see what a feast we’ll have at my house,” she said in Italian.
I scuffed my shoes as we walked, raising little clouds of dust. A few blocks from the train station we stopped in front of a small house. “Benvenute,” Angela said as she opened the door. Welcome to our home. I noticed she didn’t use a key.
The sister ushered Susie in behind me and closed the door. The dim interior slowly came into view as my eyes recover from the bright outdoors.We were in a large room, part kitchen and part living room, dominated by a wooden table and unmatching high-backed chairs. On the far side of the room, a radio sat between two easy chairs, and a couple of doors to the right were probably the bedrooms.
A rooster crowed. Angela threw open the back door, letting in a bright green square of grassy light. “Are you girls ready for a real country lunch?” She said, and disappeared outside.
Lucrezia gestured to the table. I climbed onto one of the chairs and Susie onto another. The sister picked up a round loaf of bread from the kitchen counter and began laying plates in front of us. Angela was back quickly. She held her hands behind her back.
“Guess what I have here?” she said. Before we could say a word, she pulled out her hands, revealing four eggs. “Fresh from the gallina,” Angela said. “And this is how we eat them here.”
She set three of the eggs on the table and reached for a spoon. She cradled the fourth egg in her palm and gently tapped its top. A bit of shell popped off. Angela lifted the egg to her mouth, tilted her head back and swallowed. A whole raw egg in the mouth?
Angela reached for another egg and tapped the top off. “Per Sussi,” she said, offering my sister the treat. The corners of Susie’s mouth turned down.
“Oh, come on,” I said, reaching for the egg myself. The warm shell nested in my cupped hand. The golden insides looked up at me. I remembered Mom’s words: we were guests, and guests do what the host asks. I raised the shell to my lips. A warm gooey syrup filled my mouth and slid down my throat. I licked the gummy crust off my lips, tasting salt.
“Brava!” said Lucrezia, squeezing my shoulders. Her fingernails were raggedy. I smiled over at Susie. She pressed her lips together even more firmly and reached for a chunk of bread.
After lunch, Angela picked up our bag and we walked a couple of blocks deeper into Angela’s village where there were sidewalks and apartment buildings. Susie and Lucrezia followed us up some stairs to a second story apartment, where a smiling lady not wearing black opened the door. “Ah, ecco le bambine!” Here are the girls. A television was on.
We had just gotten seated on the living room couch when there was a knock at the door.
“Qui e?” called Angela’s friend, standing up. Who is it? There was no answer.
Angela walked toward the door, looking at Susie and me over her shoulder. She put her hand on the doorknob. “Qui e?” Still no answer. Angela slowly pulled open the door.
There stood a witch. A long horrible nose quivered in the middle of a face framed by stringy black hair. She opened her mouth, revealing a few yellow teeth and dark holes where other teeth should have been. She carried a broom of grey sticks.
Susie let out a yell. I grabbed her hand and ran to into the bedroom, slamming the door closed behind us.
“No, no, bambine,” Angela called from the living room. “This is the Befana, who brings you Christmas.”
Oh, I knew all about the Befana from my friends at the Montessori School. She brought coal to kids. Well, get that witch out of here. I tightened my leg muscles and squeezed Susie tight. A tear dripped onto my cheek.
Angela’s flat shoes slapped the linoleum as she came to the bedroom door. “It’s just the Befana,” she said coming into the room.
Out in the living room, the adults were laughing.“Bambine,” Lucrezia called out. “The Befana has brought you a present.” “And not coal like she brings to the bad children,” Angela yelled back. “N’e vero, sorellina?” Right, little sister? “Oh, I wouldn’t know anything about that,” Lucrezia teased back.
I released my grip on my sister and let my hand slip into hers. Angela was smiling. “Sta bene,” she said. It’s okay. “E andanta via.” She’s gone.
I kept my eyes down as Angela steered us back into the living room. When I dared to look up, the Befana was gone and a regular grown up was there. A pretty Christmas box of candy sat on the coffee table.
“I went pee-pee,” Susie whispered. I squeezed her hand and nodded. We both had spares in the day bag Mom packed. “Grazie,” I said to no one in particular as I picked up the candy and walked it over to our bag. Susie changed her underwear in the bathroom. I did too.
It felt like forever before we were back on the train and headed to the safe harbor of our parents. I held my breath until Christmas morning.
Instead of coal, or even candy, there was a thank-you note next to the half-nibbled carrot and empty milk glass: “Rudolph loved the carrot, Janie and Susie!” It was signed Santa.
We had evaded La Befana. We were still stranieri, still foreigners.