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Some days the sea was all brute force. A throaty, roaring blast. It slammed its weight against the shore, almost reaching our door step, then receding, only to slam us again. On those days Mara sat on her red wooden chair, just outside the grotto, unmovable. The sea smashed and roared around her. She watched.

Surely this effort would bring her back, I thought at the time. But not yet, not then. She lived the life of the sea, submitting to its occupying force, almost like a lover, or maybe, a hostage. If you went near her on those days, her eyes would tell you she was a danger, the way all beauty can be a danger, a power that can singe and destroy.

Mara never tired of the roiling waves, the lapping and smashing, the wrecking and caressing. The moods of the sea suited her.

It was people she could not bear. The sea was her only love, then, her only tie to life.

When the sea was calm, Mara moved. She paced the rocky shore just outside our small stone house, several times a day, like meditative ritual. Sometimes she seemed to be humming quietly under her breath. Though I couldn’t tell for sure, and I never asked.

Carmela Circelli

I was certain Mara could hear the world even from our shore. Its grief and laments hounded her, pushing her, always, further in. At least that’s what I imagined. I imagined that she was done with whatever it was that had happened to her, done with the inevitable harm humans cause each other, done with the indifference of the fates, their tangled weave of beauty and horror. She wanted none of it. She wanted to drown it out. She wanted to wash it away. In this, the sea was her only ally, smashing and clearing. In this, even I was an adversary, and love itself, a fractured thing, she had discarded.

Or maybe, just maybe, I was only seeing myself. I too, was trying to get away from the world, away from my visions of the planet burning, the rivers flooding, oceans dying and the boorish moguls rising.

That is what I saw. I saw my brother dying, too, I saw an earthquake coming, I saw the judge and his wife teetering, his body guards falling. But I didn’t trust my visions, then. I was always getting lost in that thicket and bramble and dark wood of my sight. Then, I found Mara. She was the sensitive. She had the knowledge. That much I could tell.

I first met Mara when she was a patient at the Frullone psychiatric hospital in Naples and I was her nurse. I still had the vague notion, then, that maybe I could help cure souls the modern way. But I was not prepared for Frullone, a grim, dilapidated storehouse of tormented humans.

It had been 10 years since the Basaglia law had passed, outlawing asylums in Italy. But it hadn’t quite caught up to the South. A law is one thing, putting it into practice another. At Frullone they no longer electrocuted patients, or cut out bits of their brain, or chained them to beds for years. But the halls were haunted with the contorted expressions of broken souls, some half clothed, or crawling on hands and knees, some curled up in beds which they rarely left. There was Mara, with her torrent of black curls, seated as she always was, in the small alcove just outside the dining area, looking out the window, playing her silent part in this choreography of madness.

“Don’t waste your time, Cassandra,” I kept hearing from co-workers who saw me trying to engage her.

“She hasn’t spoken a word in 5 years. You’re not about to change that now.”

But I wasn’t convinced. Mara’s silence seemed to me to be an act of will. It was in her eyes, emerald green, deep and forlorn. Far, maybe unreachable. But I felt compelled to try.

Her file described peculiar hand movements which she used to make, repetitive hand movements, like those of a trumpet player. Though when I met her, her hands were always hung limp by her side, as she stared out the window, overlooking a small inner courtyard, which had a couple of poplar trees and an old, gnarled, olive tree. In front of the trees was a rusty iron bench that no-one ever sat on, to the side, a statue of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus. Mary’s nose was chipped and the baby’s head cracked, missing half its face. At their feet was a mossy pond, birds flapping in and out, small lizards sliding around on some flat rocks.

Her file referred to her as Micola Benvenuto, but to me she would always be Mara, Mara from the hilltop village of Volturino, not far from Benevento, where my mother’s side of the family was from, a place where the wind never stops blowing, and people wandered around with heads full of wind.

One such native came down from the windy hill in 1984 and brought Mara to the hospital, when her mother died. Her file mentioned something about a sister, Francesca, though nothing was known about her whereabouts. Mara had not spoken a word since she’d arrived, not about her mother, not about her sister, not about herself.

Because she did not speak, I began to speak to her. I would sit beside her at her window, in the mornings, make a cup of coffee for the both of us, and tell her things about myself. I told her that I had never married, that I had come to Naples from Amalfi to attend the university where I had studied languages and then nursing. I told her that I missed Amalfi, with its lemon scented air and cliffside homes tumbling into the sea, that Naples was wearing me down. I told her that my parents were dead and that I’d had a older brother who was killed in a car bomb in Rome. I told her that I had a house on the coast of Amalfi, which my parents had left to me, not a big house, more like a couple of stone rooms, where my father used to stay when he went out to fish. It was close to the sea, hidden by a stone wall, which my father had built himself, shrouded by ancient cedars, that you couldn’t see the house at all, unless you knew it was there. My father was a hermit, I told her, so he built his refuge away from all the other fisherman’s cottages, away from the sandy beach with its rows and rows of deck chairs and brightly coloured ubrallini.

Mara flashed me a look for the first time, her fiercely, sad look, which startled me and left me breathless. Prescient, feral. That’s when I knew she could hear me.

A very old man came to visit her one day, dishevelled and skinny, wearing a black suit and a fedora, a suit way too big for him, as if he had borrowed it for the occasion. Mara became agitated at the sight of him. The man became upset and quickly left when he saw that Mara didn’t want him there. No one got a chance to ask who he was or what he knew. He never came again.

Mara remained inscrutable. We had no personal history. We did not even have fragments. Except for the reference to trumpet playing, and her ancestral roots on a windy hill, we knew nothing.

I tried to find her sister Francesca. It did not help that I had no idea what part of Italy she lived in. About a year after I met Mara, I made a trip to the windy village in the mountains of Puglia. At that time of year, in early November, it was filled, mostly, with toothless old people, who seemed to have no interest in speaking to me about the Benvenutos. Finally, someone directed me to Lorena Vespa, a round, hefty woman, with the face of a beauty queen, owner of the local flower shop in the central piazza. When I mentioned the Benvenutos, Lorena gasped and went pale, expecting the worst, I could see. But when I told her who I was, her eyes softened and she let out a sigh of relief.

“I loved that girl,” she said. “They never should have taken her away from here, not even when her mother died. I tried to find her sister in Rome to ask her to come back, but she didn’t seem to be anywhere. When she left, she said she was going to Rome to meet up with her cousin Ottavio, who was going to help her get a job. We never heard from her again. We heard that Ottavio died in 1979, gunned down at a demonstration. Turns out he was a member of a terrorist group, the Red Brigades. We never knew. We just saw it on the news. I think that’s what killed the mother, she couldn’t bear it anymore, a daughter who had stopped speaking and another who had disappeared, involved in God knows what.”

“When did Micola stop speaking?” I asked.

“I don’t know. They had immigrated to Montreal, and then they came back in 1977.”

Micola was already mute, then, and they never said anything about it, just that the father had died and that’s why they had returned.”

“What is your relation to them?”

“No blood relation. Everyone comes through my shop, at one time or another, birth, death, love, marriage. Micola liked flowers. Her mother would bring her here, sometimes. She would sit with me for the day. “She pointed to a small wooden chair parked in the corner of the store beside a red Oleander bush. “There, she would always sit there, just in the corner.”

I asked about the old man in the fedora. She said that was the uncle, the mother’s brother, but that he had died, recently, as well. No one else in the village was related to the Benvenutos. The rest of them were all in Montreal.

“Why didn’t Micola stay with the uncle when the mother died?” I asked.

“He felt he was too old and couldn’t handle her care, but then I think he felt bad about it afterwards.”

“Yes, that’s probably why he came to visit. But Micola did not take it well. She refused to see him, or at least became too agitated.”

“I’m so glad you decided to come,” she said, “so at least I know she’s OK.”

“Yes, I’m glad I came too,” I said, though I was no closer at all to understanding what had happened to Mara.

When I returned from Volturino I decided to take Mara away from Frullone. If there was any hope for her, she needed to be away from that place. I too had become demoralized by the mere custodial demands of working at the hospital and tired of the frenzy and chaos of Naples. I had my savings, my small house on the coast, and a shift in my heart, that was pulling me back to an ancestral calling I had been resisting.

I packed Mara’s things. There was very little, a few items of clothing, a copy of Let Us Compare Mythologies by the poet Leonard Cohen, some photographs that seem to have been taken in Canada, somewhere in the woods, pine trees all around, a lake. There was a jade necklace with some matching earrings wrapped in some red tissue, a pair of sandals, a leather case with some money in it, some blank notebooks and a vinyl copy of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks.

Excerpt from the novel Love and Rain by Carmela Circelli (Guernica Editions 2023). Reprinted by permission of the author and the publisher.

Carmela Circelli was born in Southern Italy and grew up in Montreal. She has been teaching in the Philosophy Department at York University for 30 years and also works as a psychotherapist in private practice in Toronto. In 2014 Quattro Books published her philosophical memoir Sweet Nothing: An Elemental case for Taking out Time. Love and Rain is her debut novel.

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