EXCERPT FROM “THE GODDESS OF EDEN”
From her post on the terrace, Giuliana listened to the clank of pots in her narrow, tiled kitchen where Ayanna stirred and simmered and sautéed in another empty effort to tempt Giuliana’s appetite. These days, there was only one thing she hungered for, and it gnawed at her with teeth more terrible than the cancer feasting on her bones.
Not one of the myriad healing plants in the large bed that stretched alongside the restored Tuscan barn had the potency to relieve that kind of pain.
Giuliana shifted in the plastic garden chair, squirming for a more comfortable position. As usual, she found none. The air hung heavy with the promise of rain and her short-sleeved blouse stuck to her like a warm compress. Her left leg had gone numb while she sat, and she winced at the sudden sharp sting of a thousand needles as blood began trickling back toward her ankle. She was resigned to discomfort these days, much as she was resigned to the truth that she had few days left.
Each afternoon, Giuliana sat vigil on the square terrace at the back of her small stone house, surveying her garden as the trees sent out buds, then sprouts, then leaves. She closely observed each millimeter of further unfurling green, relishing the garden’s rebirth with the clear certainty that she would not be present to witness the crisp reds and golds and oranges of another Tuscan autumn. Allora. And so…
These new leaves would turn and tumble and twirl to the ground not long after she was below it. This was her last spring. She doubted she’d survive the summer, despite what the dottore said, and she was restless with one last piece of unfinished business. There wasn’t enough morphine in all of Italy to assuage the pain that this task might be left undone.
Giuliana gazed across the gravel driveway – past the umber garage, past the squat old olive trees sloping down the hillside in angular rows, past the church towers glowing pink in the sunset – and back to a springtime when her fingers were chubby and little and patting slips of some of these very plants into the warm earth. Her mamma and her nonna kneeling beside her in the afternoon shade as they poked their long fingers into the moist ground, carving out a little home for each seedling she then dropped inside and covered.
“This, piccolina, is basilico.” She could clearly picture Mamma rubbing a curling oval leaf with a mud black thumb and offering her a whiff. That pungent spicy sweetness still made her think of pesto and mosquitoes. “Good on tomatoes, no?” Mamma said. “But, basil also helps when your tummy’s upset, doesn’t it, bella? And doesn’t it always take away the itching when those mean zanzare try to eat up my sweet little girl?”
She pictured Nonna, waving fuzzy silver-green sage under her nose and the sharp scent prompting a sneeze. “Salvia, figlia bella. Crush it in the mortar with sea salt, and this will take a rose thorn right out of your tiny finger.”
And so it had begun. Little by little, year by year, her mother and grandmother taught her the name and usefulness of every plant and flower. They taught her when to pinch back a leaf and how to pick one in its prime. They passed on the magic healing recipes – le ricette – that their mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers had passed down to them. Mixed up together with prayers and blessings, Nonna had said, certain of these secret recipes even had the power to bring on dreams about the truth of a situation or to reveal the identity of a future mate.
There were so many plants for a little head to remember, but remember she eventually did. She wished she’d been able to pass down all that knowledge to Lia, but the two of them had run out of time – and there was still so much her granddaughter needed to know.
Giuliana found small comfort in the knowledge that, in Ayanna’s hands, the family’s special herb garden would continue to thrive without her. From the morning Ayanna Halemariam had returned to Lucca to care for her, the tall, sunny woman had well understood the secrets of Giuliana’s many herbs and plants, as well as the potency of countless others growing wild in the Lucchese hills. Come autumn, come winter, who better than Ayanna would know exactly what to concoct when the townspeople sought her help. Giuliana closed her eyes, and she saw that Ayanna would not stay.
The constant ache low in her back crabbed at Giuliana. Grimacing, she pulled herself straighter in the curved plastic chair. Beyond the town’s medieval ramparts, the sun dropped below the haze, a sudden orange smile that splayed light across the curved terra cotta roof tiles below. Before that glowing orb had the chance to slip from view, Ayanna would come bursting from the kitchen to prod her back inside for a bowl of something thick and
Another day in this cozy, cream-colored house her grandfather had originally built to shelter the cows was drawing to an end. Giuliana looked around her at the rose-bordered terrace with its umbrella-covered table and cheery pots of geraniums and chives. Who would guess this brick paved spot had been the threshing floor of Nonno’s barn, where she and her cousins played hide and seek in the hay?
She’d been born ninety-three years ago in the small back bedroom at the top of the short flight of tiled stairs. She’d napped in that room as a little girl, watched over by the portrait of the Black Madonna that hung above the thick walnut headboard. She’d spent her wedding night there, too, right under the Madonna Nera’s eyes. Now, Giuliana took pleasure in the simple symmetry that she would most likely draw her last breath there as well.
The hills of Lucca framed her life’s story like two sturdy bookends of hand-carved wood. The beginning and ending months and years were lived simply, her days falling one after the next at an easy and comfortable pace, anchored by a familiar and breathtaking landscape.
The middle chapters… Giuliana shook her head, her eyebrows knitting together with thought. Allora. Those were a mishmash of adventure and anguish. Those middle years, lived far, far from home, were scenes written in
laughter and tears, and some years the tears filled up more pages.
“Basta,” Giuliana blurted suddenly to the sinking sun. “Enough with the thinking, thinking, thinking. What are you afraid of, old woman? More tears? Reach out to Lia one last time.”
She twisted toward the kitchen doorway and lifted her voice.
“Ayanna. Can you help me here, per favore?”
“How did you I know was just coming to get you for dinner, cara?”
Ayanna’s low-pitched voice preceded her into the yard. The slender woman flew through the doorway and was halfway across the terrace when the kitchen door slammed behind her. A smile made her dimples burrow deeper into her cheeks.
“La cena è sulla tavola,” she announced, her tawny cheeks flushed from the kitchen heat. Ayanna bent forward, ready to cup Giuliana’s elbow to help her from the bucket chair.
“Aspetta.” The old woman shrugged her elbow from reach. “Hold on un momento piu, Ayanna. Dinner will certainly keep for a few minutes.”
Her mouth set in a determined line, Giuliana flapped her short, gnarled fingers in a shooing motion, ushering her companion back toward the house.
“Go bring some paper and a pen and stay out here in the fresh air with me for a bit. I need you to write a letter.”
Karen Tintori is an internationally best-selling author of fiction and non-fiction whose novels have been translated into more than 25 languages and to film. Her books cover a wide range of human experience, from the lives of Italian American immigrants to the mysteries of the Kabbalah. Tintori is a dual U.S.-Italian citizen, with roots in Sicily (il mare) and Emilia Romagna (le montagne). She lives in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan.
More at: www.karentintori.com