There were already five farmhands sitting in silence, on the steps of the Mother Church, closed in their thoughts. Enzo set his cloth cap on his head and leaned against one of the four trees on the square. The rough trunk of the tree tickled his back pleasurably through the fabric of his loose shirt. He slipped his hands in his pockets, and the fingertips of his left hand lightly brushed his thigh through the holes at the bottom. He always forgot that the pocket was broken, and each time he was almost surprised to feel the sensation of the bare skin under his fingertips.
He looked along the Via di Mare, but nobody was coming -- it was still rather early. Gradually, more farmhands came. Near another tree, a small group had gathered and the men were talking in low voices. Enzo could hear their slow, low tone, but couldn't make out any word, and thought it seemed almost like the subdued muttering of friends in front of a dead person.
Somebody arriving at the square made a greeting gesture to him, and Enzo answered with a brief nod and a smile. They all knew each other, at least by name and appearance -- they were there every workday morning, hoping to be hired for that day. It didn't always go well, especially for the older men, or for the less strong. Enzo had some luck. He was often hired, although not everyday. They knew he was a good worker, and he was never sluggish. At the beginning, when he had first accompanied his father, he was not hired often because he was still a kid, and they were afraid he couldn't handle the hard work. But then, they started to prefer him to his father as the old man gradually became weak and Enzo was instead strengthening. His father was now a man on the wane, in bad shape and in poor health. Once he had been a handsome and strong man. Also, his mother should have been a beautiful woman, but Enzo didn't remember her so much, other than the fact that she had a full head of beautiful golden hair, shining under the sun like the aureole of a Saint.
His father always talked about her with expressions like "that saint of a woman, your mother" and Enzo knew that it was not just an idiomatic expression. Also, their relatives spoke kindly about her and not only because they felt they had to speak kindly about a dead person. She died nine years ago, when he was just eight years old. He didn't know why and how she died. His father just said, "She went out like the lamp when the oil is burned up." When Enzo tried to ask him about how she died, his father would become gloomy and would not answer, so Enzo stopped asking him that question. The relatives also answered with vague expressions like "God called her to Him because she was too good" or something similar.
Now the sun was illuminating all the upper part of the front of the Mother Church, beautiful in its sober decoration of porous white or black stones, and with a central belfry from where the bell chimed five strokes. Soon the corporals will arrive to make their picks for the day. At this point, almost all the farmhands had arrived. Enzo never left his spot. They would come from the Via di Mare, and they would pass in front of him. Normally, one of them would point at him and say "you" and Enzo would be quiet for the remaining of that day.
In the evenings after going back home, he would give his father a coin so that he could go have a drink. Or rather, he would have "forgotten" the coin on the kitchen table, so that the man would not be embarrassed by taking money from his son. It had become a kind of ritual these days. Then, his father would come back home late in the evening, and Enzo would pretend that he was already asleep. His father would go near him, lightly trace the cross sign on Enzo's forehead with his thumb, and would murmur "God bless you, my son" and then go to his bed to lie down and sleep. Enzo loved that small domestic ritual. He loved his father.
His father seemed older than his forty-eight years. He seemed like an old man. "Me, I am used up by life," he said at times with a sad tone that made Enzo's heart ache. Or rather, it was like a hand seized and squeezed his guts. He could feel a kind of desperate resignation or resigned desperation in those words, and that made him suffer. He would have liked to earn some more money so that he could give his father a more comfortable life. Nevertheless, he was still lucky that he was hired almost everyday.
If the corporals didn't hire him on a particular day, Enzo would go visit all the shops and workshops, offering himself to do various small jobs, so that he could at least scrap some food, if not coins, to take back home. But sometimes these visits would yield very little, and he would go back home feeling dejected, almost like a dog with his tail between his legs. His father would say nothing on those occasions -- he knew from personal experience how those things went. So on those evenings, he would appear merrier than usual, almost like saying to his son, but without words, that he knew and understood that was life, and there was no need to worry.
After all, Enzo was lucky because he only had to provide for his father and for himself. Many other farmhands also had a wife and a number of children to feed. He was the only child, and for that, he was somewhat amazed. Although his mother died when he was only eight years old, she could very well had time to have two, three, or even four more children. After all, even if this would have increased his problems and his responsibilities, he would still have liked to have some brothers. He had several cousins, but it was not the same.
Enzo pulled himself out of his deep thoughts -- the first of the corporals was coming from the Via di Mare. The boy stood up straight to give a good impression, to show that he was healthy, strong, and ready to work hard all day. Almost as if they heard a signal, the other farmhands all turned towards the street, waiting with hope, with confidence, especially the younger and the stronger ones. Those sitting on the steps of the Mother Church also stood up and looked towards the street. The square went silent, and then the sound of the small iron reinforcing the shoes of the corporal was heard on the pavement.
He was the corporal of don Michele. Enzo hoped that he would call him -- he had hired him several other times and he must be happy with him. The man reached the center of the square, and pointed to several men, but not to the boy. Then the chosen group followed the corporal, leaving the silent square. Enzo relaxed again against the trunk of the tree, but now the contact with the coarse bark seemed less pleasant to him than before. But the morning had just started; there was still hope, the boy thought, trying not to worry.
Now the sun was shinning down on the front and the upper edge of the central gate, and the two statues to the right and left of the window of the central nave were illuminated in full light. On the right was Saint Cosmas, and on the left was Saint Damian, both young, dressed as Roman soldiers, who seemed to look at each other with the corner of their eyes. To Enzo, they always seemed like two friends who were planning to play a trick on somebody, and who threw each other a glance almost to ascertain that the other was also ready. Or they had some secrets to share, something that united them more than how two friends normally were. They didn't have so much the aspect of Saints, like for instance Saint Anthony inside the church. That one really seemed like he had already seen a corner of the Heaven, his eyes turned upwards, a mysterious smile barely hinted -- he really looked like a Saint. But those two young men on the front, strong and muscled, with that apparently serious appearance, betrayed by their closed mouths which seemed like they could burst into a loud laughter any moment, didn't give a sense of spirituality at all, especially Saint Damianus, whose lorica outlined strong pectorals, seemed more of a wrestler than a Saint.
Enzo was diverted from his thoughts by the sound of some new footsteps. He looked down the street and recognized the corporal of don Calogero, the elderly Matteo. There was another man with him, with a young and elegant gait, and they were chatting in a low voice when they reached the square. When they passed in front of Enzo, the elder man pointed at him and the boy nodded happily, and his eyes met those of the young man. Enzo was amazed to see the deep-sea-colored eyes of the young man. The two men walked past him, and Enzo was still thinking about the color of those eyes, full of mystery, and asked himself who the young man could be.
While following the corporal and the stranger towards don Calogero's orangeries, Enzo asked one of the other farmhands in a whisper, "Who is that one?"
There was no need to specify whom Enzo meant by "that one" or to point at him -- he was the only one about whom one could ask who he was, because everybody else knew each other.
"That one? Matteo's oldest son, Ruggiero. He studied in Palermo, he came back just yesterday."
"And why does he stop here?"
"They say he will take his father's place."
"Yes, don Matteo is teaching him," the man answered.
"How is he?" Enzo asked.
"Who knows! Young, and therefore a skunk," the man answered.
Enzo thought that it was partially true. The younger corporals were usually the harshest, trying to affirm their authority. The older corporals were normally quieter. At their age, authority was glued to them like a second skin, hardened by the years and the experience. But Enzo told himself that perhaps that Ruggiero was not a skunk or a bastard. He seemed self-assured enough, even though he was young. He had to be younger than thirty-years old. He was dressed with elegance, and it was evident he had lived in Palermo. Enzo noticed the golden chain on his waistcoat -- normally only the masters had them, not the corporals.
After they reached the plantation, Matteo gave them the tools and the orders for that day. Ruggiero was at his side, silent, and observed everything and everyone with attentive and penetrating eyes. For the second time, their eyes met and Enzo felt slightly troubled, without understanding why. Matteo called them by their names while he gave his orders, possibly for the benefit of his son. In fact, he always just used a short "you" when he was talking with the farmhands.
Enzo went to work, entering among the rows of the orangery. He knew his job well, even though he was so young, and he moved quickly, without wasting any time -- efficient, precise. He had learned the right rhythm to get to the end of the day without collapsing, but without losing his time. Usually the young people, and he too at first, tended to overdo things at the beginning of the workday, and by the end of the day they almost couldn't even move, so the good impressions they gave in the first hours were spoiled. Not Enzo. His father explained to him well, on the few occasions they were hired together, how to spend his energies in an optimal way. His father, before falling ill, had been a very good farmhand, appreciated and in demand. Enzo was becoming so as well, even though he was only seventeen.
It's not that Enzo liked his job. He would have liked to do something different, although he himself didn't know exactly what. He would have liked to leave the place, go to a big town like Siracusa, or Catania or perhaps even to Palermo. And why not? But to do... right, to do what? Perhaps to work as a shop assistant? He would be able to wear better clothes, and even shoes! He had heard that the people in those towns never went around barefoot. "Who knows what it feels like to wear shoes?" Enzo wondered while he was methodically carrying on his work. He wore them just once in his life, but he didn't even remember what they felt like.
The sun rose higher and higher, and was starting to scorch, barely mitigated by the small tree branches. At times, a light breeze coming from the mountain and blowing towards the sea would alleviate the heat in the air. But Enzo preferred the night breeze, which blew from the sea to the mountain and had a faint scent of saltiness. Wiping away his sweat, he looked up towards the mountain and gazed at the light, lazy and long smoke trail that run parallel to the powerful sides of the Mongibello. The air was heavy today, the boy thought, and continued to work with a will.
At the signal for the first break, the men gathered, queuing in front of the table to receive their share of food, then went to sit in small crowds.
Turi sat near Enzo. "Your pa?"
"As always," the boy answered the man.
Turi asked him that question almost each time, and yet Enzo knew that Turi and his father met practically every evening at the tavern to play cards together. Anyway, Turi had been the best friend of his father. Perhaps the question was more of a rite than anything else, to remind the boy that he was close to his father. Be as it was, the boy thought, still at least once a day from Turi came the question "Your pa?" and Enzo always unfailingly answered "As always" whether his father was well or ill, merry or sad, angry or serene.
It is something like when somebody asked you "How are you?" and the only possible answer among men, without breaking the balance of interpersonal relations, could just be "Fine, thank you, and you?" even if you are dying or your house is on fire.
Enzo discovered that when he was an adolescent and answered "Bad" one day.
"Oh, and why?" the other asked in an alarmed tone.
"If I eat, I puke..." Enzo answered.
"Ah, but besides that?" the other asked.
"Dad is in bed and has fever."
"Ah, but besides that?" the other insisted.
Enzo listed a set of problems that were troubling him, but every time the other countered him with his "Ah, but besides that?" until Enzo answered frustratingly, "Besides all the bad things, all is fine!"
"Ag, happily..." the man then said, finally satisfied. Thus Enzo understood that people didn't really want to know about your troubles, your problems. They could be informed about them, but it's understood that if they ask you "How are you?" you just have to answer "Fine, thank you, and you?"
It is different among women. They seem, on the contrary, to get pleasure from hearing about other women's problems and then try to compete with each other to see who has more problems. At the fatal question "How are you?" a woman would answer "Ah, don't ask me!" and she would start to spill out all her problems -- "I have a little pain here at my knee. The hens have lice. Mariella has constipation. Oil is more and more expensive. The only mirror at home broke into pieces..." and so on and so forth, until the other wife interrupts her, "To whom are you telling it! Our donkey became lame, and the roof will have to be repaired but..."
All considered, Enzo preferred men. At least, they were of fewer words. If a man needs to talk about someone, for instance, he would say something like "You know, Saro, son of Gesualdo." But a woman would say, "Don't you know, that thin man, Saro, whose houses is right past the bend, is married to Venerina and has three children, and the oldest one, Angelina, is starting to cause them problems as she flirts with all the boys, even during the Holy Mass..." and so on and so forth.
At the new signal, they all went back to their work. Matteo, with his son at his side, was walking around and exchanging a few words with all the farmhands, again calling them by their names. Then he talked in a very low voice to his son, obviously, to tell his son about his evaluation of every farmhand, so that Ruggiero could start to know them. Enzo reflected that he had not even heard the sound of the young man's voice, just his deep eyes that seemed like they could penetrate inside you and read you like a book, a straight nose, a straight mouth with lips that were not too thin and not too fleshy, almost sculpted, and the faint olive-colored skin of his face made them seem more pinkish than they really were.
At the end of the day, the men lined up in front of the table. Matteo looked in a register book the work done by each farmhand and announced the pay. Ruggiero, standing near him, counted the coins and put them in front of his father who verified them, wrote the amount on the register and pushed them on the table towards the farmhand. The man would gather the coins, say his thanks and set off on his way to go back home. Each man said his thanks, no matter how happy or unhappy he could be. That was not the place for complaints, even if there were complaints and even if there was really a need to express them.
Enzo also gathered his pay, thanked and went back towards his home. While Ruggiero was counting the coins for him, Enzo looked at his long, tapered hands, and noticed a gold ring that looked like a wedding ring, but it was different than a traditional wedding band -- it had what looked like tiny leaves all around it. He never saw such a ring and thought it was a city fashion. So Ruggiero was married. Well, it was just natural for his age. Perhaps he could even have two or three children already.
But when on the following Sunday at the eleven 'o clock Mass, Enzo saw don Matteo's family, he was amazed not to see anyone at Ruggiero's side who could be his wife or children. He thought that Ruggiero's family could still be in Palermo, and that they would move to the village later. He had heard that Ruggiero left the village ten years ago, and that's why he didn't remember him. In Palermo, Ruggiero attended the university, then worked for a famous lawyer for some years, but now his father called him back, as don Calogero wanted a new superintendent and had chosen Ruggiero. But first of all, the master wanted the young man to learn his new job well, so Ruggiero had to work as a corporal for a while.
Enzo got all that information from his father who gathered the news at the tavern, where the coming back of Ruggiero was the news of the month.
Coming out of the church, Enzo said to his father, "I didn't see don Ruggiero's wife..."
"He is not married," his father answered.
"But he wears a wedding ring."
"No, that's the ring they give to those who have completed the university."
"And how come he is still not married?"
"Who knows. Maybe it's because he was far from home. Maybe don Matteo is already planning on something. That young man will go a long way, he is educated, he knows influential people in the capital, and even in the Continent, they say. His father just wants to find him a suitable wife, maybe even a girl of name."
"An aristocrat?" Enzo asked with a dreamy expression.
"Perhaps not as rich or noble, but I think so," his father said entering their home.
Enzo started to cook. "But, how old is he?" he yelled from the kitchen.
"Older than you, but you were born in the same month."
"He was born in May too?"
"Eh!" his father answered. When he said "eh" instead of "yes", Enzo knew it meant that his father didn't feel like talking, therefore he stopped asking questions.
After lunch, Enzo went to his bed to take a nap. His bedroom was quite dark and the outside heat couldn't get in. Later, he would go to the belvedere where he would meet his mates. Boys didn't gather on the square like all the other people. For generations, they preferred the belvedere. When they became engaged, then they would start going to the square. It was some kind of unspoken convention that everybody respected. How it started, nobody knew, but it was all right with everybody.
Enzo fell asleep almost immediately. The weariness of the week came out, and Sundays were good for that. You could recover your strength and be ready for another week of hard work. Anyway, getting tired on Sundays was a good sign -- it meant that you had worked hard all week.
He woke up hearing a faint rhythmical creaking from the next room. He smiled when he recognized that noise -- his father was giving vent to his needs. The first time he heard that strange and mysterious noise, about three years ago, he went to peep with curiosity from the slit on the old door of his father's bedroom. And he caught a glimpse of him, in the half darkness of his bedroom, lying on the double bed, his legs widespread, his breeches opened, his big pole held tight in his fist that was moving up and down in a vigorous rhythm, while his other hand was caressing his hairy chest. Enzo spied on him, and was fascinated. The man was completely engrossed in that ancient solitary rite, and Enzo thought that his father's face had the same intensity of a priest sacrificing to his god, and when his father released his offering, the face of the man reminded him of the expression on the face of Saint Anthony in the Mother Church.
Just then, Enzo was able to leave the peeping slit on that door and silently went back in his bedroom. He lay down on his bed and spread his legs instinctively. He opened his small breeches and repeated that magic rite until he too reached ecstasy. And he was aware that at that moment he was the priest sacrificing in that mysterious liturgy. And when some time later he heard his companions talking about it with more or less veiled allusions, he smiled to himself, hearing how they talked about it in a very superficial way, almost as if it was a mere pastime, a trivial game, although pleasant. He knew perfectly it was something different. Just looking at the ecstatic face on the statue of Saint Anthony and recalling the time when he spied on his father was enough for him to be confirmed that it was something else. He shared with his father and the Saint, the knowledge and conscience of that secret.
And when his mates talked with light contempt about those "who take it in their asses", Enzo thought that it had to be, on the contrary, the highest and most sacred expression of intimate communion between two people, between two males. It had to be so, Enzo concluded, because when he pushed his fingers between his buttocks on his soft and warm hole while masturbating, he felt the ecstasy multiply -- both of his hands were giving him pleasure, one in the front, one in the back, moving in unison. For sure his mates didn't know what they were talking about.
So Enzo, upon hearing the faint rhythmic creaking coming from his father's room, opened his breeches, and lowered them to his ankles. He folded up his knees, spreading them, and while he was starting to masturbate, he wetted two fingers with his spit and pushed them up inside his hot channel. He closed his eyes and abandoned himself in the strong and deep pleasure of that secret rite. He would let somebody "put it in his ass," but certainly not one of his companions, who didn't understand the beauty of that ultimate union and only talked about it with sarcasm. No, he would only welcome inside himself someone who also knew and understood the mysterious beauty of that primeval rite. When he would meet him and recognize him, he would offer himself to him so that the sacrifice could be completed.