Saints and Sea Monsters in Sicily
I arrived at the seaport windblown and disheveled, trying to channel the spirit of Ulysses and feel at one with his epic struggle. My own passage between Scylla and Charybdis had been less eventful than his, no doubt. But I had suffered the monsters’ wrath nonetheless, as my ferryboat had tossed about the Straits of Messina like a toy in the bathtub. It was late March and a strong Sirocco had swept up from Africa, bringing with it an angry current.
My queasy stomach lurched as I walked down the pier, but I was starving. I found a small bakery only a few hundred meters away and decided that a simple loaf of bread was probably my best bet. I bounded through the front door impetuously while wrestling to remove my heavy backpack.
However, my legs seemed convinced that we were still at sea—a sudden wave of vertigo threw me headfirst into the glass display case. The glass survived the collision but my dignity did not, as I splayed out across the floor like a drunken sailor.
A moment later (two seconds or two minutes, I’m not sure), a gentle hand on my shoulder roused me back to reality. The concerned face of an old woman hovered over me, although I couldn’t quite determine if her concern was for my health or her display case.
It took me a while to summon my Italian, but eventually I squeaked out a heartfelt apology. “Mi dispiace, Signora, sono imbranato!” I’m sorry, Ma’am, I’m so clumsy!
Hearing my words, she offered a hesitant smile and then I recalled that many older folks in Sicily spoke only their local dialect and couldn’t really communicate in Standard Italian—especially when sullied by a thick American accent. To my great surprise, not only did she speak perfect Italian, but pretty decent English too.
“No problem, mister, do you feel fine?”
I was fine. Embarrassed, but fine. She helped me up off the floor and led me to a tiny table in the back of her store where she sat me down and gave me a glass of fizzy water with a slice of lemon. She stepped away for a moment, then returned with a dish of almond cookies and placed them in front of me as she sat down too.
“Mangi, mangi!” she exclaimed, as if I needed the encouragement.
As I munched, I perused the environs and noticed that there was nobody else in the little shop. It certainly wasn’t a busy place, but I couldn’t imagine that this seventy-something year-old woman could manage it by herself. I glanced at her wedding ring and blurted out, “È sposata, signora?” Are you married, Ma’am?
She paused, then spoke in English, “My husband is died. Twelve year ago, is gone.” Not exactly sadness in her voice, more like a detached nostalgia as she stared at the wall.
I followed her gaze and spotted a faded black and white photo of a man leaning against a horse cart, wearing a Coppola hat and smoking a cigarette. Her husband, I assumed. I couldn’t be too certain of this choppy, bi-lingual conversation, so I just nodded sympathetically and took another bite of cookie.
Then without prompting she began to speak, telling me her life story as if it had been on the tip of her tongue for days, maybe years, waiting impatiently for the captive audience whom she had just found in me. She spoke mostly in broken English, but inserted a few words of Italian or Sicilian whenever her vocabulary was taxed.
She was only five years old in 1943 when the Allied bombs fell on Messina, killing her entire family along with thousands of other civilians. The nuns took her in, as they did with so many other war orphans. They cared for her, educated her, and became her new family. She wasn’t obliged to join their order, but she was expected to do her share of the work, which she performed daily without complaint.
The sisters were typically strict and reluctant to allow her out in public unescorted. But as she got a little older, she was occasionally sent into town to buy food and other supplies for the convent. During one of these excursions, she began to take notice of a young man following her at a distance. He was a nice-looking boy, but his attentions made her uneasy.
Day after day he followed her through town, moving in a little closer each time. She’d catch him peaking at her through the garden fence. One day as she was walking back home, he approached a little too closely and she got spooked. Luckily, as she rounded a corner, she spotted the church of Saint Anthony where she quickly dashed inside, hiding, and then knelt down in front of a statue of the famous saint and started to pray.
She prayed in earnest that Saint Anthony would protect her from this relentless stalker—and if he did, she vowed to marry a man named Anthony one day to show her gratitude. When she got back to the convent that afternoon, she found a painting of Saint Anthony and hung it in her bedroom as a constant reminder. She prayed to him every day without fail. And her prayers were answered. For the next several months, she never again saw that strange boy. But she occasionally stopped back into that same church to thank the blessed saint for answering her prayers and to renew her promise to him.
About two months before her eighteenth birthday, she was on her way to the market again, as usual. She was picking through some tomatoes when she was startled by the sudden appearance of a young man standing right next to her. She turned and they were practically face to face. It was that same boy who had shadowed her all over town several months before. This time he had been quick and sneaky, sidling up to her before she had time to escape.
He threw out his cigarette, removed his Coppola hat, and introduced himself. His name was Anthony. They were married a year later.
(*You can read the full story in Chance Encounters: Travel Tales from Around the World, available on Amazon.)