Yellow Mama Archives II

Joan Leotta

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Zumpe, Lee Clark

The Confession

 

By Joan Leotta

 

 

They say you can find anything and everything in Naples. Last year, in a flea market on Spaccanapoli, the street that bisects the old center, I bought an inlaid wood puzzle box. When I got back to the hotel, I promptly dropped it on my tile floor, and it shattered. I tried to console myself over the loss of the box, reasoning that it would have been hard to fit it into my luggage, when I noticed that among the pieces of wood were some tightly rolled pieces of parchment. A different sort of souvenir. Love letters? I tried to read them, but the message was partly in Italian, partly in what looked like Neapolitan dialect, and likely from the 17th century, if the dates on the letters were real.

So, when I returned to New York, I contacted my sister’s former Italian Renaissance professor, the well-known linguist, Giorgio Lupo, in Chicago and flew west to meet him very early on a clear November day.

On the phone he had said he was intrigued by the idea of these letters and agreed to do a basic translation over a lunch or two. Anything more, he would have to charge, he said. We met over pizza at Medici on 57th, Chicago pizza place near the university. We sat down, I peeled off my brown leather gloves, pulled the letters out of my navy-blue Chicago Pier day bag, and handed the letters to him across the table. When he lowered his eyes to the first page, studying the handwriting,  I studied him. He was as handsome as my sister had told me—green eyes, sculpted strong jaw, curly black hair, olive skin that looked as if it were perpetually burnished by the sun.

“This would be a lot easier if I could work with the originals,” he complained.

“I didn’t want to carry them on the plane. If you think they are worth something, I will have you do a real analysis – for pay—of the originals.”

“There is another sheet. A second letter.” I handed it to him, but it fluttered to the floor. He bent to pick it up. He took a bite of pizza and then seemed ready to read.

His long, elegant fingers held the pages loosely, and after a deep sigh, no doubt directed at me, he began to read aloud in English, as if the small, crabbed writing and hundreds-year old syntax were merely a set of contemporary notes:

 

 

Naples, 1650

 

Dearest Mama,

 

For years I hoped to honor you with my talent as an artist. But sadly, early in life, I realized my abilities are small in your field. So, mama, I write to you now, to tell you that thanks to a certain old woman here in Naples and the power of her concoctions, six years ago, with the help of God, I made sure that your enemy would not outlive justice.

 

I recall you telling me the story often, how Nonno was out, and no one came to your aid when you cried out as Tino raped you. And how in court, they squeezed your fingers with thumbscrews to test your truthfulness, boring down on your digits so that years later you still bore the scars of those cruel cuts. You told me that in spite of the pain you never stopped telling what was true. The pain and damage had almost cost your ability to hold a brush.

 

At this point the professor stopped reading. “A sad story.”

He looked up a me, green eyes glittering as if he had seen something valuable.

“Do you think it is the story of the famous woman painter, Artemisia Gentileschi?”

He looked a bit disappointed. I suppose he thought that since I was not in the art field I did not know her.

“Ah, you’ve heard of her. Possibly it is written to her. But then again, anything that is found in Naples is subject to review. Naples is known for thievery.”

I bristled a bit but said nothing. Our family originated in Naples.

He continued, “If you don’t mind, I would like to send these papers to a friend who can test the parchment and the ink.”

“Maybe after I hear all of what is in them. I don’t have much money and before I could pay more than a lunch for something, I would have to be a lot more sure that these are from Artemisia and her daughter.”

He sighed and continued to read:

I know that you won the case, but when Rome allowed that rat of a human to remain free, you and Nonno headed to Florence where you married Papa and where you won many good commissions from Medici. You once told me you often ate at the Medici table, and we laughed about tales you were not sure about where they told of dispatching their enemies by many clever means without waiting for the courts to decide.

Giorgio looked up. “The letter seems to break off as if she were interrupted and it began again in a different ink. “

I didn’t comment. He continued:

Sorry, Mama. Papa came to visit. He does not like Naples. I like the chaos of Naples. The great families think they run it, but I think it is the old herb women who hold all the power, they create a different sort of order here in the shadow of the great volcano.

I was on my way to see you when I encountered an old herb woman who seemed to know I had need of her services—even before I knew it. When she spoke, I recalled your tales of the Medici and well, I took some of my savings and made a purchase from her.

A few days after that, dressed in some of Papa’s old clothes I used more of my savings to make a trip to Rome. I told you and Papa I was going to stay with a friend on Capri.

Before leaving I had asked some Roman artists visiting Naples about Tassi and had learned where he was living. I took lodging not too far from the ugly area where he resided.

I told everyone I was looking for a painter to do my portrait. I made sure Tassi got one of the notices. He sent a proposal. I made an appointment with him for an early morning visit to determine if I would select him—so I said.

Slowly, on the appointed day, but well before the hour of the appointment, while the moon still lit the sky on morning, I picked my way through Rome’s narrow streets descending into ever less salubrious neighborhoods until I arrived at Tassi’s door.

I shouted out for him in a deep hearty voice. Tassi appeared at the window—slovenly awful. Although he was clearly upset that I had come so early, he agreed to come down and let me in and sent the half-asleep student to the market for some food.

He motioned for me to sit on the cleanest looking stool in the place. Then he pulled out two dirty cups. There was a bottle of cheap wine already on the table.

“Even this early, no, especially this early, I cannot drink that swill,” I snarled at him.

I pulled out a fine bottle from underneath my cloak. “This wine is good for any time of day.”

Tassi was happy to drink the more expensive offering while we talked about the portrait.

 At first, he sipped from his filthy glass. Then, as the fine quality of the wine grew apparent even to his debauched taste buds, he gulped the rest.

“Can you make a little sketch for me, to show me your skills?”

He turned to his pile of pencils, papers, and paints. I switched glasses with him as if I had also drained mine and pretended to pour more for him as he returned with a sketch pad.

He put the pad and charcoal on the table and greedily gulped the other glassful.

In a slurred voice, he directed me, “Remove your cape so I can begin. Let me show you where to sit for the best light.”

He moved me toward the window, still overshadowed by nearby buildings. He began to sway.

“More wine might steady you,” I suggested. He nodded, grabbed the bottle, and guzzled a large amount. “The better to steady me,” he declared in a sloppy slur.

“You were never steady,” I replied in my own voice.

I stood and dropped the cape. Tassi saw the fullness of my bosom under the blousy shirt.

“Who are you?”

“You don’t remember the love of your life as you declared her to be in court? They say I look just like her.”

He peered more closely at me, then stumbled back. “No!” He tripped on the stool that had sufficed as chair and fell to the floor, striking his head on the table.

I leaned over him and whispered in his ear. “I am her daughter, her avenging angel.”

I knew that the poison in the wine would take effect soon enough but smiled to myself that maybe fate had killed him for me with the table, absolving me from all blame and guilt.

 

Just to be safe, I gathered up the filthy glasses and my bottle. I put another two of his cups on the table and his bottle. I spilled some of its sour contents into his mouth—enough to mask the aroma of my better vintage.

Thanking God for the late sleeping habits of this undesirable neighborhood and the long distance the boy had to go to get to the market, I strode quickly back toward my lodgings.

When I got to a bridge, I consigned the wine and glasses to watery grave, knowing that the Tiber would never betray me or the belladonna I had add to the wine I brought. I changed to my own clothes, left a coin to pay for the room, slipped out the back and walked, a countrywoman with a basket to the coach station. I dropped the men’s clothing on the steps of a church, knowing the beggars would appreciate them.

On the coach ride back to Naples. I began to fear you would not be pleased with my deed. I often heard you say to let God have his way. I was fearful you might not approve. But, Mama, perhaps Tassi died from the fall against the table, and I was merely allowed to watch? God will tell you, soon, for I know, my dearest Mama, that you are more ill than you have led me to believe. Only you know my secret, Mama, that you are avenged upon Tassi and not just in your paintings.

Tanti Baci, Tua figlia,

Prudentia

He stopped reading and looked up. This is pretty solid. If the letters are authentic…”

“You seem to have one more sheet in your hand. I’d like to know what that one says.”

He obliged.

Naples, 1650

                               

Carissima Figlia, Prudentia,

 

So much happened to me in my life, so much good—and so much sorrow. I wept when I received your letter. No one has ever shown me as much love as you have, my daughter, in taking up my cause, in battling for me as no other, not even my father, not your father, not the courts, not even the kings I painted for –as no one else has done. I am sure God has forgiven you, if there is even any blame at all that could be set on you.

My dear child, I shall keep your letter by my bedside reading and rereading it until my life ends. When I soon join your brother in the hereafter, I beg you to destroy this note and your letter to me so that no one on earth will ever come after you. It is dangerous to have made a confession on paper. My hands still remember the terrors of the ropes tied on them as I testified at my rapist’s trial.

Con molti baci and abbracci

Mama

The gold flecks in Giorgio’s eyes began to glitter again. “If we can authenticate this letter, there are people in the art world who will pay huge sums of money for it—a letter from Artemisia, in her hand and a letter from her daughter that seals the fate of Artemisia’s rapist. Do you realize this could be worth millions?”

I replied with a question:

“Tell me professor, do you think it was right for Prudentia to avenge the rape of her mother?”

He smiled widely. It was the first time I had noticed the wolfish nature of his mouth. While he was reading, the full lips had seemed sensuous, not sinister. “Of course. Blood is blood.”

Now it was my turn to smile. “I agree. Blood is blood. Mothers, sisters. Rape, murder, they should be avenged.”

“Well, Tassi didn’t murder Artemisia. In fact, some could say her rape put her center stage for a great career as an artist.”

I cringed thinking about how the court had maimed Artemisia’s hands,, how she had to live the entire rest of her life with the memory of his smarmy hands and more upon her. “Tell me, do you think that all of this applies to modern life as well?”

He looked puzzled. “Who are you? I wasn’t sure I taught anyone named Fusillo last year.”

I looked him in the eye. I didn’t give him my name. “Maybe this is the story of you, my sister, and me.”

“So, you’re Annette Ruolo’s sister, not the person you claimed to be. You made this all up, didn’t you, you little idiot. Trying to get me to confess to something I didn’t do! The Chicago police can’t solve her case. What would ever make you think I did it, anyway? Professor Giorgio Lupo stood up, tossed the papers and his napkin on the table, and strode toward the door. Two years after my sister’s death and he guessed who I was. He was guilty. I felt vindicated.

I slipped my gloves back on, grabbed my coat and bag and stood up as if to follow him and knocked over the table. The busboy came running over.

Looking upset I told him, “You go get a tray; I’ll pick up the pieces. I’m so sorry I knocked things over.”

“Do you want to follow your boyfriend out? I’ll clean it.” The busboy tried to push me aside.

 

I tried not to laugh. “It’s ok. He is not worth it. Please let me clean this up. It will help me feel better. I don’t think he ever cared for me.” The boy turned away to get a tray, I began to stuff the Professor’s plate pieces and utensils into the trash bag inside in my Chicago Pier shopping bag.
When the busboy returned and handed me the tray, I scattered the broken pieces of my dish around on it and gave it to him. The waitress helped me up and handed me the bill. I paid cash and gave her a large tip for the busboy and herself. The restaurant didn’t charge me for the broken plates.

I walked slowly out, holding my head high, pretending to hold back tears. After walking a block or so, I ducked into an alley and deposited my gloves, the plastic bag of crockery and after removing my purse, even the Chicago Pier bag, into the dumpster. It was worth the effort to make sure no one else would find or be harmed by the remains of amanita mushroom I’d sprinkled onto Giorgio’s slice while he was picking up the manuscript page I’d dropped earlier.

Yes, I’d used a fake name for today’s appointment. And I was wearing a wig in case anyone would later question who the professor had met, but I wasn’t really worried. The mushroom powder was the perfect instrument. Professor Lupo would be mildly ill tonight, something he would probably attribute to the upset of my tricking him to meet with me. But in two weeks the poison will have done its job, by destroying his liver. He would sicken and die in pain.

Was I right to take justice into my hands? Like Prudentia, I questioned myself, but I was more sure because my sister wrote of his raping her in her diary—a book I only discovered a few months ago among things she had sent home—just two weeks before she died, two years ago. Her book confirmed he had raped her and she was pregnant. In her diary she wrote of her plan to confront him just before she went to the airport to come home. However, she never made it home.

She’d been suffocated, and her body left on the side of the road near the University. But the murder was only circumstantial in the eyes of the law. My sister’s diary, his jumpy guilt, these were not legal evidence. He would never be charged. Even to charge him with her rape would be problematic since no one knew of it at the time. In the diary she had talked about his penchant for redheads with green eyes—green eyes like his own. I wondered how many other girls he had raped, and maybe even murdered.

My own smoldering Neapolitan blood made it difficult for me to accept that he could never be brought to justice. I went to Naples for comfort. I bought the painted wooden puzzle box in the market and dropped it while still in Naples on the elaborate but unforgiving tile floor of my hotel room. My own Italian was good enough to figure out the gist of the letters. I found an herb lady on Spaccanapoli, a street that is said to divide the old town in half. For me, the purchase bridged a divide between ancient and modern, an old cold case and new way one and opened a way to find justice. I followed the example of Prudentia. However, instead of belladonna, I brought special mushroom powder home with me and then to Chicago along with photocopies of the pages of parchment. Were the originals really from Artemisia and her daughter? Maybe.

A few hours after the flight I was on a plane back to New York and to Staten Island. I took a few hot dogs out back and lit my grill using the rolled-up paper. Neighbors waved. We New Yorkers are a hardy breed and backyard grilling wearing a coat—not that unusual. I waved back.  Then, while I waited for the grill to get hot enough to char my hot dogs, I slipped the parchment pages into the flames, along with the fake ID I’d used to buy my ticket and the ticket stubs from my Chicago flight. The old parchment cackled wildly, and the ink seemed to dance along in the flames as it were a string instead of a liquid marking the page. Or was that just in my mind. I didn’t care if the letter was really from Prudentia along with her mother’s reply. I did hope that in some way, Tassi had been brought to justice, whether by the hand of God or one of his servants, just as I acted on His behalf in the case of my sister and her predatory professor, Giorgio Lupo. The letter of confession and Artemisia’s reply were not worth anything to me now. They had served their purpose in guiding me to the way to avenge my dear sister. I was sorry to have had to toss the leather gloves and Chicago Pier bag, both gifts from my sister. But then again, tossing them was part of my gift to her, of avenging her. Before consigning them to the flames, I copied out a quote from Artemisia directed to Prudentia into my own diary, the only reference to my actions, of my day in Chicago:

       “When the world has long forgotten me and my art, beloved child I hope that you will not forget me or the trials I suffered and why though I cared very much for you, your brother, and your grandfather, I had to strike out on my own, be separate from your father, even from you and them, and be my own person.” Artemisia Gentileschi

Note: Records on the death of Artemisia in Naples, differ on the dates of her death. Some say she died from an illness in 1653, others that she died of plague in 1656.



At the Funeral Lunch

 

by Joan Leotta

 

The preacher paid verbal homage.

“Praise the Lord”

(and numerous accolades for the

newly-departed).

Then, slowly,

slightly out of tune,

mourners moaned out

hopeful hymns about

hunger for paradise

while stomachs rumbled.

Tributes continued

until, blessedly, the preacher

extended the awaited invitation:

 “You are invited to lunch

fixed by our church ladies.”

All descended to the basement

for the parting party—

collards, ham, fried chicken,

deviled eggs, pimento cheese

triangles sandwiches.

The desert table anchored

the end of the culinary send-off.

Its array of sugary comfort was

guaranteed to stop tears while sending

sugar levels soaring with

ten-layer coconut cake, brownies, chess 

pecan, and sweet potato pies,

and banana pudding.

Saints and sinners, relatives, friends,

and hungry folks who wandered in, 

sidled up to table to assuage

their sadness with this midday feast.

As they waited in line, conversation

shifted from sweet to tarter memories

of the dearly departed.

As I watched them consuming

all my favorite foods, I wondered,

would their appetites be

as great if they could see me

drifting about the desserts,

a guest at my own funeral lunch?






Dreaming My Way Home

 

by Joan Leotta

 

Yesterday, as I drove home,

a dove-shaped white cloud

rolled down the sky ahead of me.

I’d endured a throbbing head

and roiled stomach all that

day so, taking the dove as

a sign of better things to come,

I began to breathe deeply and relax.

Afraid the day’s troubles

might provoke a nightmare

I concentrated on the white

dove cloud, trusting it to fly

me softly through the night.

Before long I was deep

asleep and in that state

I was back on the road

but this time I

Leapt out of my car,

into the sky,

onto the back of the dove

who carried me high, higher

at an uncomfortable speed,

until, just in front of

the safety of my home,

a cloud as dark as my

blackest childhood colorings

blocked my door.

When I looked down,

my dove had become

a fearsome crow, carrying me

into that dark cloud,

as it suddenly glittered

with lightning bolts.

As bird and I entered

that dark space, I awoke,

wet with sweat, tingling

with fear, glad to have

learned so cheaply that

dove’s white and winged,

self may hide another

way and that clouds

are not for us to ride,

even in dreams.




Joan Leotta tells tales on page and stage. Her short stories have appeared in overmydeadbody.com, Crimestalker, Mystery Tribune, and others as well as appearing in two Guppy anthologies. She lives near the beach and often dreams up new stories while hunting for shells.

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