She sits on the seventh stone step leaning forward, her elbows on her thighs. The oppressive heat and the long walk up the hill have sapped her. “How did she do it?” she thinks. “She was a young teenager, not even five feet tall.”
The sign to Monteleone proclaims: “Monteleone, the highest village in Puglia. The air is the most perfect cool breeze.”
Lucy has just retraced her mother’s steps from the fontana with no load except for a small purse. That famous breeze now begins to snake through the narrow streets. She is surprised when her hair blows in front of her face. She raises her head, arches her back, and like a day lily tracking the sun, she turns to face the cool wind washing over her. It revives her and she thinks that she might be able to make it to Via Limone. She might not die from heatstroke in Puglia after all.
Lucy’s mother had told her of doing the laundry across town when she was a young girl. It was done by hand and then carried home. This set of stone stairs was where Margherita would stop for a short rest.
The wash house, long abandoned and now a loved relic, is on the south-eastern slope of the village, not far from the Accadie road. It looks like an arcade with a large double arch instead of a front wall. Made of brick and stone, it goes back about twenty feet, where a pipe comes in through the rear wall. Spring water from the pipe splashes into a stone trough and flows toward the front, where it drains into a clay pipe in the ground.
All along the side of the trough is a flat stone sloping inward, with parallel grooves chiseled on the surface. This creates one long washboard, where the village women bend to pound and scrub their laundry. In the cool shade with the cool water, they gossip, talk of their homes, and husbands, and food. The younger ones giggle, and in hushed tones, talk about boys.
As each finishes her washing, she wrings out the water. Strong hands and arms twist with determination. Water is heavy, and they know that every drop of water left at the fontana is one less they have to carry up the slope home. The laundry is thrown over bushes and branches to dry in the Puglia sun. Any moisture left will be aired at home, though it’s not a problem in the hot summer, when the process is measured in minutes, not hours. The smell of sun-baked sheets rivals the comforting smell of fresh baked bread and is equally compelling. With baskets loaded, they each, in their turn, lift and place them on their heads to begin the ascent into town.
Lucy pictures someone trudging toward the stairs. She imagines that it’s the fifteen year old Margherita with a load of clothes and bedding on her head.
“Ma,” Lucy calls.
No response even though she’s close enough to have heard.
“Ma, it’s me.” She realizes the girl can neither see, nor hear her.
“Grazie a Dio,” the girl mutters as she approaches the stairs. The seventh step is a couple of inches shorter than her; a perfect height for getting the burden off her head and back on again. Sideling up to the stones, she reaches up and lifts the basket, placing the end on the step.
“Scuzzi,” Lucy says and scoots closer to the wall to make room for the load. The girl slides the rest of the basket far enough so it won’t fall.
“Oof.” She exhales with the release of the weight, rubbing the back of her neck. She begins pacing, shaking her arms, and rolling her shoulders.
“You are beautiful,” Lucy says to her teenage mother. The end of the last word breaks.
The girl looks at the basket the way a weightlifter looks at a loaded barbell he’s about to conquer. Walking over to the clothes, (with that sway of the hips which so entranced the boy from Delecheto), she dips slightly and slides it back onto her head. In a minute, she rounds the corner, and is gone.
Lucy sits quietly with her shoulders against the wall until the cool air brings her out of the sweet daydream. Standing, the sigh, not brought on by exhaustion, is deep and slow. She descends the stairs, turns and touches the seventh step once more, and walks down the narrow lane smiling, as she tries to mimic the sway of her mother.
On Via Limone, the sun backlights fresh sheets billowing from a balcony.
Larry Barrieau describes himself as non-writer who likes to write – mostly memories and observations. His wife is an Italian-Canadian from Toronto, and her family has introduced him to things like more-than-one-course dinners. A visit to his mother-in-law’s village, Monteleone di Puglia, was the inspiration for this story.
“The Fontana” was a finalist in the 12th Accenti Writing Contest and was awarded a $100 prize. Click here for more details.