My friend and former student Marco Rafala is in the finals in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. The winner will be published by Penguin. You can follow this link here to download his excerpt for free and check out all the finalists, or you can read it, after the jump. But vote for Marco!
An excerpt from I See the Branch of an Almond Tree
by Marco Rafala
My father told me the story of how the statue of Saint Sebastian came to the village of Melilli, the village I grew up in. A ship was caught in a furious storm and ran aground in Megara Bay, and the saint was pushed ashore by the waves. All the sailors survived and 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. And 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 and some of their women cooked. At night there was prayer and in the day their prayers failed them. But 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, before his statue came. This is Melilli, the martyr Sebastian, tied to a tree and porcupined with Roman arrows. Then our farmers raised Sebastian 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. He is one of our own! they shouted. First God, and then Saint Sebastian! Another cheer seized the men and they carried the saint home, one of our ancestors, a Vassallo, among the bearers.
The men sang during the hour-long walk back to Melilli. When they reached the village center, on the ridge overlooking the bay, their knees buckled. The men cried out. A force had suddenly weighted down the statue. 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, the Basilica of Saint Sebastian. That was May 1414.
As a child, I loved that story. As a child, I believed─as everyone believed in those days─that Saint Sebastian would protect the people of Melilli forever. When an earthquake destroyed much of our village, it was by his glory that we lived to marvel at the statue unharmed among the church ruins. Etna erupted, we prayed to him, and our homes were spared. He saw us through war and occupation. Saint Sebastian always keeps us safe; he will always keep us safe. My father had said these words as we hid in the cave, hulling a bag of almonds with my younger brothers while my little sister and mother prayed their rosaries. All around us, Germans and Allies fought. Such noise as you would never imagine possible.
When the Allies captured Sicily in August 1943, men and women─children, too─all applauded defeat, all gave thanks to God and to the saints. In Melilli, we danced and cheered and cried, tired of hiding in caves, glad to be rid of Germans and Italian Black Shirts. I was a boy then─nine years old. I had come from the cave with my family to celebrate in the public square. A group of men ran down the steps of Saint Sebastian’s Church shouting, He’s safe! Our saint is safe! The crowd cheered for the statue and for the four descendants of the original bearers. Bring him out, they chanted. Vassallo, Morello, Cardella, Santangelo, bring him out! My father, along with these three men, went into the church to answer the call. My mother hugged my sister and then me. She went to hug my brothers, but American jeeps rumbled by, and we all turned to look and clap. When the convoy was gone she shouted, Emanuelle! Leonello! But the twins were lost in the crowd. She took Nella and I by the wrist and dragged us along the cobblestones, through the stomping legs and feet. She called for her sons while looking out from the top of the church steps. My father came to the door and asked what was wrong, and she yanked at my arm and said, Sal didn’t keep an eye on the twins and they’ve run off. My father mussed my hair and said, Salvatore, find your younger brothers. The men inside the church called to him, and he winked at me before going back in. I heard their voices: One, two, three! And then a groan and the people roaring as my father came out again, shouldering the statue with the other bearers. They clamored down the steps and parted the revelers as if it was the Feast of Saint Sebastian, when they dressed in white and wore red sashes and marched through the streets chanting, He is one of our own! First God, and then Saint Sebastian! They went around the rubble at the corner of Via Marconi, where our house once stood. There were no homes there after the Allied invasion. Only foundations. Family plots filled with stone.
So I ran from the celebration and found my brothers in our father’s almond orchard. The twins sat facing each other in a clearing among the trees. They banged rocks on an unexploded shell set between them. Emanuelle! I yelled, turning off the dirt road and running into the orchard. Leonello, what are you doing? Get away from there! They turned and smiled─that’s all I have of them before the flash and crack like the brightest lightning and the loudest thunder, before the tinny ringing in my ears, before the shock that came through the ground, up my legs, and into my chest, before the force of it knocked me down, and drove the wind out of me.
Clouds broke the blue sky in shapes of broccoli florets. The clouds shifted and their shapes disappeared. Everything moved around me except for the steady ground flat against my back. I felt a low throbbing in my head, and a ringing in my ears like the handheld Sanctus bells that the altar boy rings at the consecration during Mass. I sat up and looked at where my brothers had been and couldn’t understand what was wrong with what I saw─an arm by a patch of dandelions. Then I looked at my hands and saw the blood there, and I knew that what was wrong was that arm in the grass was bent at the elbow the wrong way. And I wasn’t sure I understood how it got that way.
I rubbed at the corners of my eyes, feeling dirt caught there but the feeling would not go away. I kept on rubbing─it was all I could do to stop thinking about what was in my eyes and about the fumes and what they’d carried into my lungs.
I don’t know how long I sat in the orchard before my father called out to me. He had been on the dirt road from the cemetery when it happened. He’d left the men and the statue, and the rest of them redistributed the weight of it on their shoulders. He approached, slowly, then dropped to his knees at the edge of his land, mouth agape. No sound issued from his throat. He was only an image of a scream. A crowd gathered as my mother rushed by and stood in the orchard. She swayed, turning in circles, her dress billowing around her like an umbrella spinning in a storm of dandelion seeds set free by the explosion. She knelt among the naked dandelion stalks to pick up a severed hand, cradled the blood-spattered palm against her cheek, and began to wail. I wondered which twin the hand had belonged to, and if a mother could tell the difference.
This is the reason I never went into Saint Sebastian’s church with you, David. So much of what has happened to our family started then.
We had two pieces of property─one above the village, and the other in the valley below. That was the almond orchard. The land above was rocky and good for figs and prickly pears. We had a small farmhouse and a well for fresh water. This is where we lived after Sicily was captured, after the bombardment destroyed our house in the village. I loved the view from the fig trees up by the farmhouse. On clear days, I could see the whole of Mount Etna with the gray smoke trailing from its mouth, and the concrete German bunker by Megara Bay, and down over the tiled rooftops of Melilli to the cemetery at the base of the hill.
That cemetery was like a little walled city with an iron gate where cobblestone roads led to headstones topped with angels and mausoleums housing long-forgotten families. All the newer plots had short, plain headstones or flat markers like the ones my father engraved for my brothers on the night of their wake. That night at the church, we had knelt together in front of the closed caskets to pray. My father made the sign of the cross and clasped his hands together. He bowed his head, resting it on his knuckles. I thought his head might roll off his neck onto the floor if it weren’t for the support of his praying hands, balled together into one giant fist. I looked up over his head at the statue of Saint Sebastian at the side altar and shrine, and I wanted to ask him what it felt like to be pierced with arrows like that. It must’ve happened so fast─Roman guards tied him to a tree, archers bent their bows, arrows shot through the air and into him─and I wanted to know how he survived? Why did God save Sebastian, only to have him later stoned to death and thrown into a sewer? Maybe God didn’t save him at all. And maybe the martyr never had the power to keep us safe. If it was just a lie, then the statue came to us for no other reason than the storm. The rest was made up, a story. It was all just a story. It was make-believe.
In the morning, my father carried a shovel and the two flat stones to the cemetery. I followed with a bucket of water and a tin cup. While he dug the graves in the hot sun, I sat in the shade with my back against the stone wall. It was cool and rough, and I pressed my back against it. I tapped on the bucket and watched the cup bob inside. My father stopped and looked at me─the sole of his right boot on the end of the shovel blade, a white-knuckled grip on the handle. Get me some more water, he said, and he drove the shovel into the ground. It made a lonely sound, tearing into the earth that way. He took off his tee shirt and tossed it at the wall. I walked between the rows of graves to hand him the cup. He drank some of the water, poured the rest over his head, and handed me the empty tin. Now go back to the shade, out of the sun, he said. It’s too hot.
During the service at the cemetery, I stared at the two wooden caskets suspended by ropes over the holes. The statue-bearers had carried the caskets down from the church in procession after Mass, and the rest of us followed behind. Near the marked gravesites, the men hesitated. Morello whispered to Santangelo, Which one goes where? Ask the priest, Cardella said. My father shut his eyes.
After the service, Father Joseph shook my father’s hand and told him to be strong. Then he told my mother how sorry he was for her loss, and that she must find comfort in the knowledge that her boys had been called back to Heaven. I asked him why, and he got down on one knee, and gripped my arms as if to shake the devil out of me. Ours is not to question God’s plan, he said. These are the paths laid out for us. The best you can do is to remember your brothers. As he stood up to leave, he laid his hand on my sister’s head and said, Look after your brother, now.
My mother squeezed Nella’s shoulders while my father went to work, lowering the caskets, shoveling dirt over the graves, stopping to wipe his brow with a handkerchief from his back pocket and to gather strength for one more shovelful, for the last. His job wasn’t finished until he’d filled their graves. My father measured his care in hard work. That’s what we do. It’s true what the Bible says, about the father being the vine and his children the bloom there on the branches. My vine has withered and was cast into fire and was burned. That was my punishment. And yours.
When everyone had gone, my father sat down on the ground beside his sons’ graves. He smoothed over each fresh mound with his hand, patting them down. He looked at my mother, then turned away. I was waiting for him to cry or to say something. I was looking to him for a clue for how I should be acting. My mother cleared dirt from the flat markers. Nella whispered to me that the flat stones were like pillows at the heads of their new beds. I took her hand in mine and we stayed that way, watching our parents. We dared not move until they stood up and brushed themselves off.
That night in my dreams, my brothers erupted into a fireball. I felt the blast of hot wind and the wet hail of torn-away body parts─so fast and hot in the air that the blast and my brothers became one. The force hit me, pushed me down, and my brothers entered me. We were all together again. I never told anyone about that dream, not even Father Joseph after Sunday Mass or in the confessional.
Every morning after the funeral, Mother fried eggs for us before leaving with a bucket and a washcloth. She walked to the cemetery and poured hot soapy water over the markers. Steam rose from the earth as she scrubbed the stones. She scrubbed around the letters of their names and around the dates, used the wet cloth over her finger to clear dirt from the engravings, the way she used to wash the fleshy curves of their ears.
Father would always let his eggs get cold. He sat at the kitchen table listening to the news broadcaster’s voice coming over the hand-crank radio. He wanted to know what had happened since Mussolini was ousted from power, but the crackling voice talked about food and water rationing, the Allied invasion of Italy that September, and the Italian surrender a few days later. The war had passed over us like a hurricane, and we were in its eye.
Sometimes I would sit alone in the orchard at night, pressing my back against the bark of one of my father’s almond trees to force myself not to slouch. I looked at where it happened─where I knew the star-shaped crater was with a ring of burnt grass around it─and I was glad that the dark swallowed up that spot.
I tried to imagine us as we had been before the war came to Sicily, when the fighting was just something we heard about from crackling voices on the radio. We listened at dinner to the newscasts about what was happening in Europe and in Africa, and our father would nod his head and say, Remember what I told you about planting. You have to care for the seeds in good soil for them to grow. And if you take good care of them, they will take care of your family.
The earth did take care of my brothers. When I tried to picture them before the war, I could only imagine them buried in the cemetery. The dirt around their caskets cradled them like they were babies again. I can still see it now─the unexploded shell on the ground between Emanuelle and Leonello, and I try to imagine having the power to save them. But I know that I’m not fast enough to reach them in time, and even if I could, I’m not strong enough to carry them. So even in my imagination I can’t save them.
Sometimes my father would come to get me when he knew that I’d gone to the orchard at night. Come on, he would say. Your mother is worried. But I wouldn’t move; I couldn’t pull myself away from that place or out of that moment. I wanted him to talk with me about what had happened. I wanted to know if he blamed me. I think he did.
Don’t worry your mother, is all he said to me then.
Soon, construction crews in Melilli began rebuilding houses and roads. The school reopened. It was Nella’s first year, and in the mornings and afternoons, I walked her to and from class. While she was in school, I worked the fields with our father. Life went on in the land─in the planting, in the watering, in the spreading of the piles of manure. Life was in the harvests of those last three years as the war came to an end─when I was ten, and then eleven, and then twelve. Those last three years of living again as it was before. But with never any talk of the twins or of my dreams or of my nightly visits to the orchard. Never another May Feast of Saint Sebastian with my father as one of the bearers. Morello’s son was old enough at fifteen to hold my father’s place until he could come back to carry the statue.
It was during this time that some of the men in our village left on ships bound for America hoping to make money to bring home to their families. Other men took their wives and children and left for good. They all left for the same place. A place called Middletown. We knew of it as Little Melilli. We heard that they had built a church there and that someone had carved a statue of our saint from memory.
They moved there for the same reasons. They left Melilli to forget war, forget death, forget poverty, whatever it was in their lives that made them restless for a fresh start. My father and mother refused to go because they could not leave the place where the twins were buried. My father said that the people who live in Little Melilli had abandoned the memory of their relatives.
One morning, in April 1946, my father cranked the radio at the kitchen table with his head low to the speaker while my mother left with her bucket and washcloth. When the news came that partisans had captured and executed Mussolini─his body on display in the public square of Milan hung upside down by meat hooks─my father’s hands shook and he held onto the table edge to steady them. Take your sister to school, he said to me. Then he got up and went out to his garden. He knelt down next to the tomato plants and wiped dirt from their leaves. He spoke tenderly to them, and I knew─even then, I understood─that these were now my father’s sons, back from playing hard in some field, hands and faces dirty. He washed them up, those green boys.
It was in December 1946, when I was twelve. In the evening, Nella helped our mother clear the table. Father pushed his fork around a plate of spaghetti with runny tomato sauce he made himself during summer harvest. He prepared the sauce with onions and basil and stored it in lidless jars in the sun to dry. He stirred the sauce over three days while it thickened and reduced to a paste. Then he sealed the jars and stored them in the farmhouse to be reconstituted with oil and water throughout the lean winter months.
The tines scraped the dish. What’s this? he said, This is water. You ruined my sauce. Then don’t eat, my mother said. She took his plate away and upended it over the garbage. He pushed himself away from the table. The chair legs scraped against the floor. Salvatore, she said. I can see the war on your face. I had finished eating, but I held onto the plate. She tugged it, but I did not let go. It’s in your eyes, she said. You have a hard face for a boy. She pulled the plate from my hands, smiled and said, Last night I dreamt a knock at the door and I knew it was my Emanuelle, and my Leonello. How? I said. And she said, Because a mother, she knows these things. Father got up and went into the other room, the one we all shared as a bedroom. And then my mother said, I could pick your brothers’ voices out from among the other children playing outside. Such good boys, always coming when their mother called. Why didn’t they come, Sal? The years would’ve given them sweet, deep instruments. All the men in our family have nice baritones, but none of them had those eyes. They shared my eyes, my very long eyelashes, so long that people mistook them for girls when they were infants. This made your father mad. She turned to do the dishes.
Emanuelle and Leonello were good-looking boys. Not like me. I had a nose as large as a man’s, a Roman nose, and a scowl. People always asked me what was wrong. They still ask. I have kept this boy’s face even as creases in my forehead and around my eyes and mouth all pull my frown off the bone.
My father walked out of the bedroom carrying a pillow and a hunting rifle. Get your jacket, he said to me. Papa, what’s the gun for? He said he had more poling to do in the almond orchard and would sleep there.