A poem written for me on mother’s day by my daughter, Robin Kay Broussard. She’s in the 3rd grade and they gave the kids a choice of copying down a poem or making up their own. Robin chose the latter and I’m quite proud of her. In Italian it’s in rhyming couplets; my translation doesn’t achieve the same but I’ve done my best.
ATTENTION: This is not truly a story about a toddlers encounter with real farm animals or about expatriate Americans having an “Under the Tuscan Sun” experience. It is a story that extends forward and backward from the vanishing point of a life, the life of a baby goat. This is also not a story about how terrible it is to kill and eat animals: in this place, butchering a goat for Easter is like picking an orange, an ordinary part of life. These shepherds are kind to and value their animals for what they are – their livelihood. If you are squeamish about the idea of a goat being butchered, stop reading when you get to the picture of the heard of goats.
It has taken me four years to finish this story. The memory so visceral and the series of sensations so complex that it has resisted my every effort to make it into a comprehensible story or a poem as I have those things from Serra San Bruno or from inside the city walls. This is a liminal place, on the border between the named place – the city – and the lush density of the landscape as it thickens in a following line towards the sea.
A rooster crows, where is the sound coming from? Robin wants to find it. We wander and talk, Matthew’s work day will start soon, we put our feet on the path to go up, to say thank you and goodbye. The three men stand on the side porch. Peppe holds his hand up in warning, his whole body says don’t let the child see: Gianni has brought the stranger to buy a kid, they are slaughtering it, for Easter.
Peppe is an able butcher and there is not even a bleat. I turn with my child on my hip, my arm between her gaze and the house; I point out to her something on the opposite horizon. I look down and the whey in the gully is mixing with blood. Who would have thought such a tiny thing held so much? When do you explain this to a child…with our language that so neatly separates the words used for meat and those used for animals? We walk, gesturing and talking always pointing Robin’s attention away from the trussed and headless goat on the porch. I look back. It’s skin now hangs down in a tidy rope from the pallid, marbling of meat, veiled with the translucent tissue that keeps it all compact – lubricating the movement between skin and muscle – meat that is still anchored to hoof, hoof that is still tied to a rope slung over the porch’s lintel beam.
They’re hosing down the concrete in front, the dog that had been drinking a bucket of whey pokes his white muzzle down into the gully to lap at the water tinged with milk and blood. Walking back to my van I see the coursing streamlet of whey and blood as it mixes with the almost motionless trickle of shit and urine running under the passenger-side front tire. It flows across the dirt road and into a hillside so full of green that it looks like Eden – will the ground soak it all up, all of this nitrogen and potassium, everything good for making verdant things stronger?
I am nauseous, not simply from the death – all of my senses are too full: baby goats like ballet dancers, the thick scent of manure, the widening red streamlet coursing cheerfully through the green hillside and the little bucket of creamy cheese in my hand. The ancientness of the act dizzyingly dissonant with the shininess of the cars, the space-age plastic of my shoes. I look up.
The sick dog lies on a warm patch of grass. The healthy dog that is tied up ignores his tithe: a fluorescent red round of bone taken from the freshly slaughtered goat that still hangs from the lintel.
A consecutive flow of fluids convene into a single flow: whey/blood/water from the place of men – water/urine/feces from where men keep the animals. In the flow that reaches the bottom of the path in this moment, the color of blood predominates.
Behind the ovile rises the hillside full of breccia – the eroded face of rock worn away by the river far below, flowing towards the Ionian sea. This moment collapses inward and dilates outward: a vanishing point.
From the house there is now a flow of clear water, washing everything clean.
If you haven’t read “The Ovile of Memo and Pepe: Part One” (click here).
Inside, the room was clean and sparse. A bucket of water just inside the door held the meter-and-a-half-long wooden stick with which they stirred the cheese. The cheese was boiling in a black iron cauldron, with a mouth a meter wide, that hung over a wood fire burning so hot and clean that I do not recall even a breath of smoke in the tiny room. Some sausages hung from the rafters; on a table catty-corner from the fire a wood plank table held up two bottles of wine and several packs of cigarettes. In the far corner, opposite the fire, Mimmo and Peppe were busy at a shallow-sided, waist-high stone sink, squeezing whey from the cheese through plastic sieves. They looked up from their work, smiling, verbally poking at Matthew for having taken so long to bring his family down to the ovile, saying hello to me and saving all of the best sweet talk for Robin.
Now I’m going to cheat, this is a blog and not a novel so I can show you a picture of Mimmo and Peppe that I’ve posted above and ask you to look at their hands. They are amazing hands, impressively large and smooth, these hands make almost anything they hold look small. I’m also going to break another writer’s rule and slip into something more comfortable, the present tense:
They offer us some curds of the cheese they’re cooking; it tastes like fresh farmers cheese, bright and dry. Mimmo explains that this is the first cooking and that they will cook it again, making it into creamy, rich ricotta (literally: re-cotta/re-cooked). In the meantime they are busily pressing and compressing the cheese, the whey runs down the slanted work surface and into the drain feeding the rivulet of whey specked with curd that we encountered on the way in. Matthew pops another bit of crumbly bright cheese in my mouth and I understand why the dog outside is so happy to lap up the remnants.
Robin is squirming and agitated by the fire, the dark room and the two robust men with hands bigger than her head. She says alternately, “want to go OUTside.” and “want to see BABY goats!” She wants nothing to do with the fresh cheese. She’s squiggled down out of my arms and hoisted up onto her papa’s shoulders. Matthew asks for permission to go through the door next to where Mimmo and Peppe are working; this is the door that leads to the enclosed concrete part of the ovile where all the goats, too young to go out to pasture, are kept.
Ducking through the door we see goats of all ages from ones that look grown to ones that are barely standing, only 24 hours old. Amongst the goats is a lone lamb with his tight white wool looking tidy in comparison to the splendor of speckles, spots and stripes that embellish the surrounding swirl of goats. Their legs and bellies thick with damp feces, the baby goats are still enchanting. Robin shimmies down from her father’s shoulders and her sneakers smack on the wet cement. The baby goats resist her attempts to pat them by dancing away on their delicate hooves in a wave, like startled ballerinas on point. We explain that they’re nervous, that she needs to walk slowly so she can get a little closer. She won’t get her hands on one this time but she’s happily talking to and about them, informing the world in general about which ones are what colors, and which ones are sleeping, or jumping. Then, like any toddler, her attention span is used up and she wants to go.
We come back into the cheese making room where Mimmo and Peppe have started the second cooking. Our shoes, everyone’s shoes, are slimed with goat shit so I am relieved to see that Mimmo meticulously rinses his hands and keeps the cheese stirring stick always up or resting in the bucket of clean water. Robin cannot be tempted to try the cheese and now wants to go outside, see pigs, see pretty, sad puppy. As we walk back down the path towards the pig pens Mimmo and Peppe’s brother, Gianni, is coming up the path with another man, he sees Robin and scoops her up on to his hip, like a veteran papa, and chucks her startled cheek with his broad knuckle and tells her what a lovely girl she is.
Robin balks at being picked up by Gianni but she doesn’t cry she just wriggles and chants her latest mantra, “mama gon pick you up!” Gianni gets the message and puts her down. He, the stranger and Matthew all walk back up to the cheese room and Matthew returns with a small, plastic basket full of hot and creamy fresh ricotta. He spoons bites into my mouth at happy intervals as we walk up and back down the path. Robin is balanced on my hip and we alternately shoot the breeze and point out things to her, rocks in the cliff face, flowers by the side of the road. The ricotta is magnificent.
In the spaces between the rains the sky runs and falls; gathers itself and plunges again towards the sea. Cumulonimbus titans strike their shins on the horizon line as they stumble through the Mediterranean, dead drunk and anxious to reach Ithaca. This is a place where mothers still name their sons Ulysses.
The houses are like barnacles on a rock; roof tiles buried in lichen and slathered with concrete where they meet at the crown in an uneasy sea-sick ridge. Below the rust-eaten white iron boundary of the balcony-rail I can see two flaps of a prickly pear struggling out from between two heavy arcs of terracotta.
The edge of the sky at dawn over the water is like Montale’s description, a singing strip of metal lath, a kite string straining against the rebounding vault of blue. His was the western sea, the Ligurian coast, a sunset light. Here the Ionian dawn makes eastern music…Jove’s mute mistress writes her name in the sand with a round hoof…IO.
Despite lying just above the Ionian Sea, named for Jove’s mythic mistress transformed into a cow, Caulonia Superiore is a place of goats. The goats, along with a few sheep, are kept in enclosures called ‘ovile’ just outside the town walls. There should be a better English translation for the Italian word, “ovile” (oh-VEE-layh) but there is not. “Fold” is inadequate, it’s too short in sound and too broad in meaning. “Goat fold” although accurate, is just plain ugly, clanking off the tongue like a broken carburetor. I mention this translation difficulty because I am about to tell the story of “The Ovile of Mimmo and Pepe” and I don’t want to leave readers scratching their heads as to what an “OH-vile” is until they reach the third paragraph. And so we begin…
THE STORY OF THE OVILE OF MIMMO AND PEPPE
This morning Matthew, Robin and I woke up early to go and visit the ovile of Mimmo and Peppe so that Robin could see the baby goats and we could all have a breakfast of fresh ricotta. The three of us piled into my big blue van and Matthew managed to squeeze, nudge, and coerce it through the slender streets of Caulonia Superiore until we found ourselves on the dirt road that meandered below the vaulting walls that are still (just barely) sustaining Piazza della Carmine above. Matthew parked the van atilt on the shoulder of the road, leaving room for another car to pass, maybe.
The ovile was what you would expect: a big fenced in plot of land for the grown sheep and goats in which every hint of something green had been eaten. Three rambunctious, gangly white puppies tumbled over one another, and a minor river of water, goat shit and urine ran across the road and under the front tires of my van. Adjacent to the large open pen was a roofed enclosure where the baby animals were kept separate and which was abutted by a cinder block shed where Peppe and Mimmo were working making the cheese.
As we walked up the path towards the porch that fronted the shed we passed by a fluffy white dog whose eyes were badly infected, the skin all around them pitted and inflamed. Robin wanted to pet it until she got a little closer and her good will towards animals banged flat up against something sad and ugly. She solved the struggle by resorting to reassuring herself with words, “Bobbie give sad puppy hug, now she happy puppy!” She looked obliquely at the dog while hugging her own round, pink arms. I found my self wondering when we should start teaching her to look at the ugly things straight on and with compassion instead of looking at the ground and calling them beautiful; then I remembered that I was still working on that one myself and our daughter was not yet two years old. Today would not be the day.
We passed by a small fenced in garden with olive and lemon trees. Across from this were a series of low-walled concrete pens one of which housed two large, pink pigs. Matthew held his hand down to their wiggly snouts saying, “See, it’s a pig. He has a wiggly nose.” Robin edged nervously against my leg saying, “Mama gonna pick you up. Don’t want pigs.” For the first time she was seeing the real animals and they were not wearing plaid shirts and blue jeans like the small, shiny, cartoon pigs in her picture book. They were twice as big as she, I would have been nervous too. I lifted her up. “Lets go see Mimmo and Peppe and the BABY goats,” I said.
As we neared the shed we saw another white dog, this one young and healthy, tied up near a large tree. He was lapping up the water and whey and bits of curd that came from a tube functioning as a drain that led from the cheese making shed out the door and on to the concrete sluice that angled down from the porch. As we reached the open door to the shed Matthew said the obligatory “con permesso” as we walked in.
Several weeks ago I was at the Italian version of Whole Foods Market (only much smaller). I was getting some nice organic flour for my bread making and on the aisle on the way to the register I ran across a package of ‘mixed seeds’ on sale, it had pumpkin, sesame and sunflower in there (some of my favorites) and then ‘grano saraceno tostato’. Thinking the Italian version of ‘hmmm, well, what d’ya know?’ which is the much shorter ‘boh.’ – I plopped the little package into my basket and went on with my day. Of course when I offered some to my curious 5 year old daughter – “Hey, want some of these seeds on your yogurt?”, her inevitable question: “What kind of seeds?!?” was not to be fobbed off with a quick, “Lots of different ones.” So, I had to lay one of each kind out on the table in a row from smallest to largest, and give them their appropriate names in English and Italian:
semi di sesamo = sesame seed semi di lino = flax seed grano saracenotostato = boh, I don’t know, toasted Saracen grain? semi di girasole = sunflower seed semi di zucca = pumpkin seed
And of course mamma’s “I don’t know” was pounced on. Robin Kay: “What’s Saracen grain?” Mamma: “It must be these little triangular ones that are so crunchy.” Robin Kay: “But is it called that in English?” Mamma: “I don’t think so, but I don’t know exactly what it’s called in English…let’s look it up”
On behalf of mamma’s the world over, I offer my profound thanks to Wikipedia! I found the entry in Italian and went down the language list to English and in a click there it was:
Mamma: “Oh look, it’s Buckwheat, like in Ol’ Suzanna (singing) ‘a buckwheat cake was in her mouth, a tear was in her eye…” Robin Kay: “What’s a buckwheat cake? Can you sing the rest of the song?” Mamma: sigh…
Needless to say the next time I went to the store I bought some buckwheat flour and I’ve been experimenting with using it in bread. Today, because I don’t feel like making something as complex as a cake, I found a recipe for a buckwheat shortbread cookie on the L.A. times website. I made only a few changes based on what I had in the pantry and what I didn’t: I used wholewheat flour rather than white for the 1/2 cup of ‘not-buckwheat flour’, I used brown (turbinado/demerara) sugar and, for lack of walnuts or almonds, I toasted a mix of pine nuts, oatmeal and flax seeds which I then went over a few times with the mezzaluna…
Yes, I know, it looks like a log of compressed wood; buckwheat flour is, well, gray. The dough has to be rolled up and put in the fridge for a few hours before slicing and baking so I’m hoping that, with a dusting of powdered sugar, the finished ‘Saracen grain cakes’ will look as good as they promise to taste (the the bit of dough that stuck to the bowl was delicious!). We’ll let you know how they come out…
Who knows how the helix wound,yours and mine together bound;to make the round globe of my eye insocketed belowthe straight line of your brow.And so this pale pink and golden flower of a girlflings her narrow arm, in sleep, across my breast:A peach.A wing.How came we, so patently imperfect,to make this perfect thing?
Saturday, April 21, 2007 for Robin Kay Broussard
by Bonnie McClellan
On the 15th of April 2007, I woke up at six a.m. I was, at the time, 8 months pregnant with my first (and so far only) child. Even lying very still on my side I could feel a trickle of water on the inside of my leg along with an achy squeezing sensation across the lower half of my stretched, egg-shaped belly. I thought, “Okay, this must be it.” She was a month early and also small for her gestational age but my daughter was about to be born.
We live in Italy and at that time were staying in an apartment in the basement of an old mill in a valley outside of Florence. Picturesque and romantic, a wood stove for heat and a camp stove for cooking; cold running water and our friends Sandro and Adele upstairs with a working bath. I spent my mornings lumbering along the paths near the stream gathering kindling or sitting next to the stove reading. We had already rented a new apartment in Carrara and had made appointments at the hospital there to go in and get the final tests and find out what we needed to know about what to do for the birth. I remember when we visited the hospital there, as I stood outside the maternity ward, I heard a woman in labour screaming and thought, “Can it really be that bad? Maybe she didn’t prepare well? I certainly won’t be that hysterical.”
Now all of those plans and appointments were off. Matthew helped me out to the car and we started the bumpy ride up the stone paved road that led out of the valley. About half way to the nearest hospital the contractions were five minutes apart and for every other one we had to stop so that I could open the car door and throw up…it was about then that I started wondering how many more hours of this I had to go. I was excited, we would finally see her! I was worried, why was she coming early, was there something wrong? I don’t remember if I was scared.
The one comforting thought was that it would end, I tried the slow breathing, tried imagining the contraction as a squeezing wave and tried relaxing into it. All of that worked, well, sort of worked on the alternate contractions when I wasn’t having the uncontrollable, stomach-emptying, nausea. Still, there was the space in between to gather my wits and try to get my brain around the idea that the baby was finally coming.
It took us twenty minutes to reach the emergency room at Ospedale S, Maria Annunziata at Ponte a Niccari just outside of Florence. In a very brief time I had a bed in a room with about a dozen other women, some in labour, some there for tests, some there because they had a scheduled birth. They may have done a sonogram, they may have done a quick cervical check…I don’t remember. I will say now that despite having read descriptions of labour, listened to friends describe their childbirth experience, and seen preparatory films, none of it truly prepared me for the experience. I suppose that would be impossible, each labour and birth is as unique as the child that comes forth from it and the woman who experiences it.
It is true that I don’t remember the pain, per se. I remember it like I might remember a photograph, in describing it, it’s as if I were watching an almost silent film of myself. I remember more than any other sound, the sound of the monitor that kept track of the baby’s heartbeat. I remember Matthew asking the nurses and obstetricians questions, or at least I remember the sound of his voice. I remember hearing sounds come out of my mouth, and not really caring what they were, being surprised to hear myself saying in Italian, “Dio Santo, aiutami.” But mostly the beeping of the monitor and the red numbers that went up and down.
So the labour continued…contractions closer together and they decided to move me to the birthing room, which was cool with low lighting. Our girl was very small so I had thought she would come quickly but instead she kept starting out and going back in again. The obstetrician checked and indicated it would be soon but then no. The baby was turning and so they were moving the monitor around to find her heartbeat and then the surgeon came in. I didn’t understand what he was saying but I saw Matthew’s face blanch and knew. I said, “They want to cut her out don’t they?”
A cesarean section was the very last thing that I had wanted. I had made a list of things to tell the hospital staff when we had planned to have the birth in Massa, #1. No Cesarean unless absolutely necessary! So here we were. Matthew asked him if it was absolutely necessary and the surgeon said yes, the baby was small and her heart rate was going from 40 to 200 she might not have the strength to do that much longer. I could tell that the obstetricians didn’t agree with the surgeon, they were saying things I didn’t understand completely with clouded expressions. Now I was scared.
They wouldn’t let Matthew come with me into the operating room, they took my glasses off so that all things except the anaesthesiologist’s hands were blurry. The obstetrician leaned my head against her shoulder, and put her arms under mine to help me hold still. Nothing like being told to relax and not move so that they can put a needle in your spine while having a pushing contraction! After that they laid me back down and within a few minutes, no more contractions, no pain, nothing. I was so frightened and tense that I was shaking uncontrollably, could not hold the top half of my body still, could only unclench my teeth with great difficulty and I felt terribly cold. The anaesthesiologist was a gem, he spoke some English, was careful to ask for my name and say it correctly, he held my hand and explained the one of the reasons I was shaking so hard was an effect of the anesthesia. He asked me about what I did. When I told him I was a poet he teased the surgeon into reciting some Wordsworth. He explained everything that was happening on the other side of the drape where i could vaguely feel some pulling. And then I heard her…she was out, she could breathe, she was safe. That sense of relief and joy was as profound as any I’ve ever known. Matthew said that standing outside the door of the operating room he heard her and cried and checked the time, 3:39 pm.
The staff in the operating room kept saying, “Look, you have a beautiful daughter!” I kept trying to explain in my inadequate Italian that without my glasses she was a small fuzzy blotch in the midst of a sea of blue scrubs. Finally they brought her over to me. I was still flat on my back and unable to move so I saw her upside down little face. I wanted terribly to hold her but was afraid to touch her with hands still shaking so uncontrollably. I touched her only lightly, she took her tiny hand and put it in my mouth. She weighed just under 4 lbs. so they took her immediately up to the neonatal unit to stay in the incubator, stopping to let Matthew see her for the first time.
It was 24 hours before I could see her again, between her need to be monitored and my inability to get out of bed I had to wait. Matthew went up and down between floors and told me how she was doing and what she looked like. The next day I went up in a wheelchair to see her (right side up for the first time). And, I imagine, like most new mothers, I thought she was the most beautiful baby I’d ever seen.
Every few days there is rain in Serra San Bruno; this is not good for the filming. Most of the movie takes place out of doors where the charcoal burners are working. There is lots of expensive equipment, including a camera that costs as much as two houses which needs to stay clean and dry in an environment full of wood smoke, charcoal, and rain. In sum, this is not an easy combination for getting things done on schedule. Today the wind was so fierce that half the film crew came back black-faced from the charcoal smoke.
The structures built by the charcoal burners (or carbonai) are incredible, they look like sculptures by Andy Goldsworthy and seem more beautiful being constructed so of necessity rather than invention. The movements, the decisions, the rhythm of constructing these “scarrazzi” (in english this translates as a ‘charcoal clamp‘ are intuitive for these men. For the film Matthew needs to make some pieces of wood to be used in the construction of the centre of one of the scarrazzi appear very white and as if the bark was trimmed off by hand…so he’s trimming it off by hand with a big machete. The wood is fresh pine and exuding resinous sap, Robin calls it “Papa’s sticky wood” and is very excited to see the capo of the carbonai, Artemio, using a chain saw. In general she likes the men in their black dusted clothes and faces and remembers all of their names: Artemio, Bruno, Zeno, Salvatore.
The smell of woodsmoke chases through the town on the tail of the hard wind like the ghost of a warm fire searching for a place to sit down. I am unsure if it’s smoke blown down the long river bed from the charcoal burner’s works or from the cumulative fireplaces of Serra San Bruno, long and narrow; clustered along both sides of the river like Lancelot and Guinevere on either side of Arthur’s sword. Robin and I go out and take our walk in the wind and smoke…amidst the baroque granite landmarks remains the rest of the town, getting on with it’s normal life in the south:
There is a store that sells real fruit and fake flowers, the sales woman inside is wearing her winter coat and a hat, the small heating stove is off, we are the only customers I have seen in this store in a week of passing by the door twice a day. The saleswoman will not take my money, she gives Robin an apple for free. This is Calabria.
We keep walking and pass by facades of ridged brick both holding up and falling down, the sad leftovers of Mussolini’s vision, shoving up against both the slender, solid granite posts of the old houses that support gracious granite arcs as well as the concrete walls of apartment blocks made to ward off both earthquake and beauty; battened down with corrugated steel that sends streams of rust enriched rain water down into the flaking plaster of the house next door.
What a place. And next we’ll be going to another paradoxically beautiful and squalourous Calabrian town, Caulonia.
Matthew is anxious to get back to Caulonia because there are many other things that need to be worked on there. On the one hand, it’s been a real break for me, staying in a hotel; there are other people doing the cooking and cleaning and lots of big spaces for Robin to explore as well as lots of new people to make friends with. Still, I think we are all ready to be in a place where we can wake up in the morning, make our own coffee and drink it in bed. So we’re looking forward to being in Caulonia where we can stay in an apartment with a kitchen.
We made it to Calabria about a month ago. Robin was wonderful on the airplane; she sat on my lap for the whole flight without much wriggling at all, ate chips, drank juice, and looked at the Easy Jet magazine. It happened that there were lots of other kids on the plane and the older ones ran up and down the aisle paying her occasional visits complete with kisses and games of peek-a-boo.
We arrived right on time and Matthew was there about 2 minutes after we walked through the exit door. Robin was very excited and we were all very happy to see each other. We went immediately for a slice of pizza because it was 1:30 by then and we were beyond starving! Then we got chips and hot water to go and packed ourselves into the van.
As we started down the road Robin talked to her dad while I ate a huge orange (one of several that were in the car). This part of Italy is orange country and this is the season for them. People give them away by the sack full and this one was really delicious. I had forgotten what spring looked like. Up north we still had snow in spots and frost on the fields every morning where standing water was dull with ice. Things had just begun to turn that hopeful shade of gray that presages green the week before we left. Here, in the far south, there were lush swaths of green grass poking up around olive trees as big as live oaks. It was a pleasure to see these trees again, two and three hundred years old they dwarf the smaller olive trees of Tuscany and as torqued as the trunks and branches are it is easy to imagine them as more than trees.
In Serra San Bruno Bobbie and I took a walk every day. First we would stop at the piazza which is closest to the hotel. There is a church façade covered in scaffolding, some benches and it is here that we stop for cookies. Then Robin goes up and down the steps of the church, occasionally stepping inside the door where she’s been heard to say (unprompted): “No more church for MY daughter.
Our next stop is the “Lion Fountain” where Bobbie can put her hand in the running water and beep the noses of the lions that are not spitting water. On the way we pass this lyrical baroque church façade carved surprisingly in unlyrical granite. The contrast of the form and the material is pleasantly diverting to the eye.