The hog is limp, having shuddered its last breath after a single blow to the head with a mallet. Gabriella and some of the neighbourhood women watch her father Lorenzo and his friends urging each other on with cries of “Pull,pull!” as they hoist the hog with a crude rope and pulley system. The thick ropes have been drawn through a gash made in the hog’s hind legs to expose the hamstring, pulled over a log projecting from a hollow in the stone wall of the rectory, and nailed into a fork of the adjacent chestnut tree. When the beast is suspended, her father pulls out his sharpened knife and plunges it into the hog’s jugular vein. Blood gushes in a waiting bucket.
Gabriella wrinkles her nose. In the crisp February air, the scent of sweat from the men’s exertion mingles with that of the coals smouldering in the nearby fire. She watches as several of the children, fascinated with the orange flames licking wildly out from under the huge iron cauldron, throw in small twigs they have snatched from the chestnut tree, squealing and jumping back at the crackle and leap of fiery tongues.
Her seven-year-old brother Luciano, wearing a faded cap and knickers criss-crossed with dozens of sewing repairs, turns and cocks his head at his friend’s dare to touch the flame with his finger. A sudden breeze whips the fire toward him. Gabriella gasps as the handkerchief dangling from the back pocket of his breeches alights. Her heart pounding, she dashes toward the shrieking children to get to Luciano, throws him on the ground, and rolls him back and forth on the dusty earth as if she were kneading dough to make a huge filone.
When she is certain that the flames have been spent, she pulls Luciano to his feet and scowls at him. His tears are trickling down earth-streaked cheeks, exposing red mottled skin below.
“Enough tears,” she says in her sternest voice, wiping his face with the edge of her apron. “Consider yourself lucky. If you hadn’t roasted your bottom, I’d be roasting it right now with this.” She lifts her hand menacingly. “Now wipe your face and let’s get going. You don’t want to miss the cooking, do you? Don’t you remember how good the suffrittu tastes? Well, if we don’t get back to work, we won’t be able to enjoy your favourite stew. Hurry, let’s go.”
Luciano sniffles loudly and Gabriella hands him a fresh handkerchief from her apron pocket. He gives his face a quick wipe and then hands it back. With renewed vigour, he bolts down the stairs and tumbles into the waiting group of friends who swoop off toward the hog-dressing area like a flock of sparrows.
Gabriella reaches the area where her family’s closest neighbours and friends are gathering to butcher the hog of the parish priest, Don Simone. He will be back from his monthly spiritual retreat tomorrow. She smiles, anticipating his pleasure at the pork feast awaiting him… Turning, she sees Nicolina the village midwife hobbling into the church property, one hand gripping her hand-carved cane and the other clasping a cloth bag that Gabriella knows contains the spices and other ingredients for the blood pudding she is renowned for.
The hog has been lowered onto a wooden pallet, and Salvatore, the village butcher and his eldest son, Tonino, are pouring scalding water from the nearby cauldron on it to loosen its bristles. Some of the women are preparing the long wooden trestle table that will be used for the sausage-making, while others are busy stoking the coals that will shortly heat the second cauldron, the one that will soon sizzle with pieces of lard and pork.
Her glances keep returning to Tonino, who has begun to scrape off the bristles in long, experienced strokes until most of the hair is off the hide. Suddenly, he looks up and winks at her. Gabriella’s cheeks burn as a feeling of warmth spreads through her in ways that simultaneously shock and intrigue her. She averts her gaze hastily, and a quick scan of the group satisfies her that nobody has caught the exchange. She takes over the stirring of the coals, determined not to look back at him.
For months now, she has wondered if Tonino didn’t seem to be making it a point to deliver the priest’s butchered meat to her at the rectory every week instead of sending his younger brother.
Tonino’s sudden exclamation makes her glance up. His job is done, and he steps back as Gabriella’s father and the men re-hoist the hog, head down. After another dousing of the scalding water over the carcass, and the scraping of any missed spots by Tonino, her father announces that the hog is ready to gut.
“Not the kind of work one does without a little vino,” laughs Salvatore, her father’s friend since childhood. A bottle materializes, passed man-to-man until it reaches Lorenzo. He takes a healthy swig and passes it on to Tonino, waiting until the younger man lifts the bottle to his lips before giving him an approving swat on the back. Tonino chokes and some of the wine spills on his linen shirt.
The whole crowd erupts into laughter amidst cries of “To your health! Spilled wine is a sure sign of a wedding to come!”
Gabriella finds herself laughing with the rest of her friends and neighbours, and her eyes link with Tonino’s for the second time. He holds up his hand to lick the wine off it before unbuttoning his shirt and pulling the wet cloth away from his skin. Again she hastens to avert her eyes, trying to convince herself that she didn’t purposefully look at Tonino’s bare chest, thatched with curly, dark brown hair…
Salvatore proceeds to carve up the rest of the hog. Gabriella washes the pieces of pork, fat, and organ meats and adds them to the cauldron except for the small intestines, which will be thoroughly drained and washed, and used as casings for the sausages they will make the following day. With an oversized wooden spoon, she stirs the contents of the cauldron to begin the slow, even cooking of the frittuli.
Feeling quite hot from standing over the embers, Gabriella hands the mixing spoon to Nicolina and walks away to pour herself a cup of water from a terracotta gozzarella propped against the trunk of a fig tree. Tonino’s voice behind her makes her draw in her breath.
“Did you leave me a drop or two?” he teases.
Gabriella hands him the pitcher and an unused cup. “There’s plenty left, and if that’s not enough for you, there’s more out there…” Motioning toward the natural spring in the distance, Gabriella realizes how serious she sounds.
“Gabriella, I want to talk to you.”
She swallows. “Yes?”
Tonino shakes his head. “Not now. This is not the right time. Or place.” He searches her face for a moment. “Will you meet me down by the river this afternoon, past the place where you usually go to wash your clothes?”
Gabriella flushes and looks away. Does he think she will agree to a clandestine meeting, as if she has no scruples, no thought for her reputation?
He coughs. “I just want to talk to you. Nothing more.”
“You can talk to me now.” She glances at him sideways.
“There’s no time. In a minute, my father will be calling me to chop up the meat for the sausages.”
“I’ll be helping with the sausages.”
“I don’t want an audience when I talk to you.”
Gabriella wants to ask Why not? but bites back her words at Salvatore’s booming call.
“Eh, Tonino, how are you supposed to perfect your father’s trade if you’re playing with girls? Get your apprentice’s ass back here.”
Amid the laughter, Tonino looks wryly at Gabriella with a What did I tell you? expression. He sets down his cup on the rough stand and begins to walk away. Suddenly he turns and says, “I’ll be at the river at mid-afternoon. By the abandoned vineyard.”
Trying to steady the erratic drumming in her chest, Gabriella hurries toward the others, who are ready to begin the chopping and mixing of the sausage meat. She takes a spot at the long oak table. While Salvatore and Tonino chop up the larger pieces of pork shoulder, her father cuts them up further and slides them over to her. Gabriella salts, peppers and sprinkles the ground pork with fennel, stirring to distribute the spices evenly, before placing the meat in a wooden vat, where it will remain until the following day. She steals a glance at Tonino, and to her surprise and pleasure, he is gazing at her.
She flushes with the sudden conviction that she will be meeting Tonino later by the river, forbidden or not.
Excerpt from the forthcoming novel La Brigantessa by Rosanna Battigelli (Inanna Publications, 2018).