Zio Ambrosio

131Hby Attila Zønn

“When I was a boy, around fifteen years old, I have this uncle. His name was Ambrosio. He was a big guy—very tall, with big hands, big feet, and his face was big and flat with high cheekbones. When he come through the doorway he have to lower his head. He was my uncle because he marry my mother’s sister. Everybody say he was the devil but he was always good to me.

“One morning, Zio Ambrosio come to my house. He is agitated. He say, ‘Lorenzo, please, you must take me to the City Hall. I must sign some papers but we must be quick. I have to be there in half an hour.’

“There was no way we could be there in half an hour. I don’t live close to the city, you see, and all I have is my old Vespa to carry us there. It would take more than an hour and it was almost late morning. We would have to go through the market, then the marina. There was gonna be too many cars and too many people, and I say to him, ‘Zio that’s impossible. There’s gonna be too many people’.

“He say, ‘Don’t worry. There’s gonna be no people.’

“So I get my Vespa. I kick the starter once and it start right away. This surprise me because usually it takes four or five kicks to start.

“I get on, he get on and we go.

“I accelerate all the way, put the Vespa in third gear and… we could have walked faster. When I hit a bump the back tire scrape against the fender.

“My uncle shout, ‘Andiamo!’ and the Vespa jump forward and take off. Oh, I was so happy! I was thinking there must have been something stuck in the motor all this time and now it was unstuck. Finally I have fast wheels!

“The road was a blur under me and the air was hard against my face. After a time I notice there was no cars on the road. We pass villages but there was no people on the sidewalks. It was just me and my uncle and the wind.

“Next thing I know we are entering the city. Next thing I know we are at the market. The stalls was full of fruits and vegetables but no people. We pass the marina with the boats bobbing in the water. Then come the fish market. The stalls was full of fish… but no people. We pass the shops with salamis and prosciuttos hanging in the window. We pass the bakeries—the smell of fresh bread was like heaven but… there was no people!

“We reach the City Hall. We go inside. I wait in the lobby, my uncle go upstairs. Soon I see this woman walking down the hall. I say, ‘Mi scusi, Signora, where are all the people?’ She look at me like I’m stupid and walk away. Then I see more people in the halls. Soon my uncle come down, he put his arm around my shoulders, he say, ‘Thank you Lorenzo. You really help me today. Let’s get some gelato.’

“When we open the door to go outside a blast of noise hit me—honking of horns, cars and motorcycles everywhere, and there was so many people. I stood on the steps with my mouth open. I was thinking, this is impossible! Where was all these people hiding before? I start to doubt myself. But there was no way—no way—I could be mistaken.

“When I tell this story everybody say I am confusing two separate incidents. But there is only one incident when I take my uncle to the City Hall.”

He looked at me and said, “What do you think about that?”

I thought about it. “So you think your uncle made the people disappear so you could get there on time?”

“I have no other explanation. I have done this road before and there are always people about. Why on this day when my uncle tell me that there’s gonna be no people are there no people?”

“But if he had such powers why would he need you to get him there? Why wouldn’t he conjure up something else? Why wouldn’t he remote sign the papers?” I couldn’t help cracking a smile. Lorenzo frowned.

“I believe that absolute power to change things does not exist,” he said. “There are limitations to power so there can be a balance. Maybe he had the power to move the people away, but not the power to transport himself. Or to do anything else. It is like the psychic who can see your future yet can’t see that he will be hit by a car when he crosses the street. Balance.”

I always thought Lorenzo was a pragmatic guy. But now…I was disappointed.

“You believe that stuff?” I said.

“For over forty years I think about this question. Where did the people go? And I still don’t have an explanation.”

“You’re overlooking something. The supernatural isn’t the answer. We live in the natural world. By invoking the supernatural you’re giving up on logic.”

He shrugged. “Strange things always happen around my uncle. What am I to think?

“There was another time. One morning, I am outside my house trying to start my Vespa when I see my uncle walking up the lane. He have a shotgun hanging from one shoulder and two baskets hanging from the other shoulder. His dog is walking in front of him. My uncle smile and say, ‘Buon Giorno Lorenzo. I am going hunting. Will you come with me?’

“I don’t want to go. I say, ‘I have to fix my Vespa.’

“He say, ‘What is wrong with it?’

“I say, ‘It won’t start.’

“He say, ‘Let me try.’

“He take the Vespa, give it one kick and it start. Oh I was so happy! ‘You see,’ he say, ‘ it is fixed. Now you can come with me. Please, you keep me company. It will be a great adventure. I bring some food for us. You bring some water for yourself.’ His dog lick my hand.

“‘You see,’ my uncle say,’ he want you to come too.’

“I love this dog—he was a Spinone. Beautiful dog. He have long blond fur with orange patches, floppy ears and a big beard, and his bark was full and resonant.

“So I get a canteen of water and off we go, toward the hills behind my house. We walk for a long time behind the dog, his nose to the ground. Then, the dog stop. His head go up. He start to whine. My uncle cock the shotgun.

“Then the dog move fast, his nose to the ground, toward some bushes.

“A little rabbit run from the bushes, straight toward our feet. My uncle shoot. Bang! And the rabbit… disappear. There is fur and guts all over the place but no rabbit. On the ground there was two little ears. ‘Mannaggia!’ my uncle say and pick up the ears, lift the lid and put in one basket.

“This was my first time hunting and I decide I don’t like this hunting.

“Off we go again—walk, walk, walk. Follow the dog. Maybe another hour. Then, again, the dog go for the bushes. Another rabbit run out. My uncle shoot. The rabbit fall down but it is still alive. It’s rolling on the ground. My uncle pick up the rabbit from the back legs. It is twitching in his hands. My uncle go to a big rock and smash the head of the rabbit against the rock until the rabbit don’t move no more. He put the rabbit in the basket.

“I feel sick. I want to go home. Already the day was hot. My feet was on fire. David, have you ever been so thirsty that you can identify with those people in the movies who are stranded in the desert? That is how I felt. I start to drink my water. My uncle say, ‘Lorenzo, slow down. Don’t drink all your water. There’s no water around here.’ He scare me. He make me very nervous. I don’t want to touch my water no more because it was a long way home.

“We walk some more for a long time, up this hill and then we must have reach the place where all the rabbits of the world was hiding, because one after the other the dog flush the rabbits from the bushes. My uncle shoot, shoot, shoot and I swear to you—I swear to you, I never see him reload! It is a shotgun. After two shots he must reload but he shoot forever!

“It was like a battle. I have to plug my ears.

“Soon, the basket was full. The lid would not close. I am thinking it is over now. He have enough rabbits for a month of stews. There was blood dripping from the basket onto my uncle’s trousers. But no! He was not finished. We keep walking!

“At that moment I feel like crying.

“After some more follow the dog we stop. Across all these hills of bushes there was only one tree. It have no leaves. It was dead. We sit down under this tree.

“My uncle take two glasses from the second basket and a bottle of wine. He pour me a glass. I drink it but it is terrible. I make a face. My uncle smile. He say, ‘I’m sorry but the wine did not come so good this year. It is a little bit sour.’ A little bit sour? It was vinegar! Then from the same basket he take a round loaf of bread. It was fresh. I could smell it. My mouth start to water. Then he search in the basket, then he become furious and start to swear, ‘Mannaggia la miseria! Porco Cane! Porco Dio!

“I say, ‘What is the matter?’

“He say, ‘I don’t have a knife! That idiot did not give me a knife! How am I supposed to cut the bread without a knife?!’

“I say, ‘But Zio, you don’t need a knife to eat the bread. ’ He look at me. He say, ‘What are we animals?’ So he put the bread back in the basket. My heart drop. I was so hungry. My guts was asking me for food. I was looking forward to the crunch of the crust and the soft inside.

“He take out a plastic container and from it a wedge of cheese. He break a good piece off and give it to me. The cheese was wet, juice run down my hands. It was so salty. I want to say to him, ‘Zio, you see how you broke the cheese? You can break the bread the same way.’ But I say nothing. I eat the cheese in miserable silence. But soon this misery start to boil in my head. Here I was sitting under a tree that give no shade, eating sweaty cheese and drinking vinegar, and I become angry. So I say to him ‘Zio, what is the purpose of killing all these rabbits?’ I thought he would get angry but no he was thinking. He say, ‘There is no purpose. It is sport. It is relaxation for the soul. You see, this morning your aunt drive me crazy, so I say to myself, should I go shoot some rabbits or should I shoot her?’

“When he say this it scare me because I think he was serious. And I realize who the idiot he called an idiot was and it trouble me. He say ‘Hunting is good for release the frustration. I don’t like rabbit. The meat stringy and wild. I will give these rabbits to my neighbors. They are animals. Why you ask? You feel sorry for the rabbits?’

“‘ Well,’ I say. ‘ It is a waste to kill for the sake of killing.’

“He say, ‘Don’t think about it like that. We are doing these rabbits a favor. Think about it. The rabbit has a terrible life; if he don’t find food, he starve. Also, he is in constant agitation, watching for the hawk, the fox, the wild dog and me, the hunter. Besides God made these animals for us to kill, so who are we to question his purpose?’

“I was not satisfied with his reasoning. I start to look at him different. I don’t like what he say about my little aunt.

“The dog was lying down. My uncle call out, ‘Bo’bee!’ When the dog hear his name he jump up and start to sniff the ground. My uncle throw him a piece of cheese. The dog lick the cheese off the ground and swallow without chewing. Then he sniff where the cheese had fallen, then he look at my uncle, then he lie down again.

“We sit for a while longer then my uncle say, ‘I have to take a piss.’ He go behind the tree to piss.

“I quickly go to the dog. I get on my knees. I take his face in my hands. I look in his eyes. I say, ‘Please, do not find no more rabbits!’ My uncle come back from his piss and we start to walk up the hill. But you know, I think I make a connection with the dog because he don’t walk in front of us no more. He walk beside me. My uncle say, ‘Bo’bee. Caccia!’ The dog look at him but keep walk beside me.

“Finally we reach the top of the hill. The dog lie down. My uncle say, ‘I should have not fed the dog. Now he is lazy.’

“From the top of this hill I could see more hills and in the distance there was the sea—blue and shining. There was a large ship on the sea heading for the port. I look behind me. My heart drop. Far away, I can see the colorful houses of my village. And there was my house, the green one.

“My uncle look toward the sea, then he look at the dog, then he look at me, then he look at his basket full of dead rabbits. He hang his shotgun on his shoulder and say, ‘Let’s go home.’

“David, when I reach home it was like I return after many years away. I was thinking of that bottle of aranciata in the fridge—cold and fizzy. I say, ‘Ciao, Zio,’ and start to walk up the lane to my house. He stop me. He say, ‘I know it was a bad day for you today. I want to make it up to you. Come to my house and have dinner with us.’

“I was so tired. I look to my house and in my mind I ask God why is this day never ending? My mother appear in the doorway. My uncle shout, ‘He is coming with us for dinner.’

“So I go to my uncle’s house. We walk in the kitchen. My little aunt is standing by the stove stirring a big pot. My uncle say, ‘Look, Betta. I have brought our nephew home for dinner.’ I don’t think she was happy to see me. She keep stirring the pot then look at me. She say, “You have a good time today?’

“No! I did not have a good time…but I nod my head.

“My uncle smile and pull a chair out for me. I am telling you, to finally sit down was like taking the weight off my soul. My uncle put the basket of dead rabbits in the sink. The dog lie down on the floor. My uncle say, ‘I go get some wine.’ I am thinking, no, please, no more of your terrible wine. He come back with a bottle and I can see from the seal on the top that it is not homemade. As he pull the cork he say, ‘Don’t worry this is good wine. I bring back from Toscana.’ It was very good wine; it was smooth on my tongue and I start to think, this isn’t so bad. I’ll have a nice meal and then later I’ll go to the piazza with my friends and look at some girls. I was feeling good.

“Then, suddenly, a terrible anxiety take my body. The air in the room become heavy. The dog get up from the floor and walk out of the room.

“My uncle say, ‘What are you cooking?’ My little aunt stop stirring the pot and she look at my uncle. Again my uncle say, ‘What are you cooking?’

“My little aunt say, ‘ Spaghetti.’

“He say, ‘But… I don’t want spaghetti. I told you this morning to make penne.’

“ My little aunt say, ‘But we don’t have any penne.’

“He slap the table and shout, ‘Then why didn’t you get some? You’ve had all day!’ He stand up and walk toward the stove. My little aunt back away from him.

“There was a small pot on the stove. He lift the lid. He groan. He say, ‘Tomato sauce.’ He look at my little aunt. He say, ‘I don’t want tomato sauce. I told you this morning I want salsa arrabbiata! ’ He open the oven. He step back and look at my aunt. He say, ‘Chicken? Again?’ He slap his hand against his forehead. ‘Chicken! Chicken! All the time always this chicken! I don’t want chicken! I told you this morning I want pig!’

“My aunt say, ‘But…’

“ ‘But. But,’ he say. ‘It is always but with you. Why don’t you listen? I work hard. I make money. I should get what I ask for. What have you done today that has not allowed you to go to the market? Where are the children you are watching?’ He look at the floor. ‘Where is the house you are cleaning? Not this house!’

“ She say, ‘But…’

“He start to growl and pick up the spaghetti pot, not by the handles but by the sides – I’m sure he was burning himself – and he throw it at my aunt. It just miss her head and bounce from the wall to the floor. I have to jump up. Hot water splash everywhere and spaghetti is all over the floor.

“Then, he start to move towards my little aunt. I jump in front. I say, ‘Zio, what are you doing?’

“His hands was like claws. His face was red. His eyes was black.

“I put my hands on his chest and grab him. He look at me. He stomp his foot and he say, almost crying, ‘I don’t want spaghetti!’ And leave the room.

“I turn around. My little aunt is on her hands and knees cleaning up the spaghetti from the floor. I say, ‘Zia, what happened?’

“ She say, ‘Nothing. Don’t worry. Sometime he get like that.’

“I say, ‘But Zia, that’s crazy. How can you live like this?’

“She say, ‘It’s not so bad. Don’t worry.’ She shrug and say, ‘One day…he’s gonna die.’ She smile and touch my arm. She say, ‘Dinner is ruined but I can make you a cup of coffee. Please, don’t leave without a cup of coffee. And don’t tell your mamma. I don’t want her to worry.’

“Now, I am all fucked up. I am too uncomfortable to stay but if I leave what if my uncle come back and tear my little aunt to pieces?

“ She say, ‘Don’t worry. You get the cups in that cupboard, I make the coffee.’

“I am in a trance. I go to the cupboard and open it. My aunt say, ‘No, not that one. The one beside.’ But when I open that wrong cupboard I look inside and I see there was two boxes of penne. And a thought come to my mind; that if I open the fridge I’m gonna find some pork. I look at my aunt and she is humming while filling the coffee pot with water.

“When I leave I pass my uncle, sitting by the side of the house. I say, ‘Ciao, Zio,’ But he say nothing to me. He just stare at the ground. The dog was beside him, and when I pass he follow me all the way to the lane. I feel sorry for the dog. To me he was like a child between two fighting parents. I point and tell him, “Go back.” He put his head down and walk back toward the house.

“This incident trouble me very much because of all the people I know, my uncle and aunt was the most in love. This is what I think, anyway. They had to be because they was so miss matched; he was so very tall and she was so very short. During the festivals, when there was dancing in the piazza, I remember seeing them; my uncle hunched over with his arm around her back and her on her tippy toes holding his hand in the air and like this they would dance. Now, I feel sick because I don’t know what I thought I knew.

“Until that day in the kitchen I never understood how severe was their arguing. Sure they argue all the time. From morning till night. But they still loved each other. I think so. You can argue constantly and still be in love? No? We could hear them from our house; shouts back and forth. The sound of things being thrown, yet when they come to my house they show up arm in arm with smiling faces.”

“If they stayed together they must have loved each other.”

“Oh, David, you do not understand the culture. It is not like here where you can break up and get your own apartment. Marriage was permanent in their minds. You make a choice and you are stuck with it. For better for worse. That’s what the words say. The only way out is death.

“The woman does not complain. I hear this saying all the time when I was a boy, even women say it—the woman must suffer in silence.

“It was not long after this incident that my uncle did die, and the circumstance of his death was very suspicious. At least to me. The police say he was accidentally shot by another hunter. Now, I have been hunting rabbits with my uncle and I can say for sure that there is no way you could mistake my uncle for a rabbit. They never find this hunter and my uncle’s dog was missing.

“It is custom in my village for the women to wear black when someone in the family die. If it is your husband then you wear black forever. Or until you marry again.

“My little aunt wear black for only three days.

“Also it is custom for there to be silence at the dead man’s house for seven days out of respect; no radio on and no television, but after the funeral the whole village could hear my aunt’s record player and it was playing all happy songs. This behavior would have been a scandal never to be lived down, but everybody allow this. They say Poor woman, she has lived a terrible life with that man, now she can rejoice her freedom.

“I remember one day a few months before my uncle die. I come home from school. My little aunt is sitting with my mother at the dining room table. There was black cloth on the table and my mother was cutting patterns from this cloth. My mother was a seamstress and she make clothes all the time for the people of the village.

“I ask, ‘Who die?’

“My little aunt say, ‘No one… yet.’

“Another curious thing—my uncle own two shotguns. One day our families was together for Sunday dinner at his house. He say to me, ‘Lorenzo, come with me. I want to show you something.’ We go in his bedroom. He open the wardrobe and leaning inside was a long black case. He take it and put it on the bed. He say, ‘Open it.’

“Inside was a shotgun, but not like the one he always use, with the barrels side by side. This one have the barrels one on top of the other. The barrels was black and around the triggers was a silver plate with etching of hunting dogs and ducks flying from the water. The stock was a wonderful dark wood with veins that look like swirls of smoke.

“ ‘How many rabbits did you shoot with this gun?’ I say.

“He say, ‘No rabbits. No ducks. No pigeons. I never shoot this gun and I never will. It is a work of art. I save a long time to buy this gun.’

“He take it from the case. He say, ‘It have perfect balance.’ He look down the sight and point it around the room. ‘Perfect.’ He hand it to be. I look down the sight too but I don’t know what I’m looking at. I give it to him. He put it back in the case. He say, ‘I have no children. So, when I die I will leave this to you. If you want to shoot it, you can do as you will.’

“So I was thinking of this gun one day and I ask my little aunt about this gun and I tell her he leave it to me. She stare at me. She say, ‘Your uncle only have one gun.’

“I say, ‘No, there is another one. He show it to me. It is beautiful. It is in the wardrobe.’

“ ‘No,’ she say, ‘He only have one gun. I give you that one if you want.’

“One rainy morning about a week after the funeral, I open the back door and my uncle’s dog is lying there. I call his name, ‘Bo’bee! Bo’bee!’ He lift his head, but he look terrible—all wet and there is streaks of blood on his fur.

He limp toward me with his head down. I carry him to the garage and wash him. His body tremble under my hands. I lift his head, I look in his eyes—they was so sad.

“I take him to my room and put some blankets on the floor for him. I bring him food and water, but he don’t eat. He don’t drink. I cover him with the blankets and hope for the best. The next morning I bring him fresh food and fresh water. He eat a little bit. Drink a little bit. The next morning I wake up. He have his head on my bed, looking at me. His tail is wagging.

“That same day my little aunt come to my house. I say, ‘Look Zia, Bo’bee has come back!’ When the dog see her he put his tail between his legs, lower his head and run under the kitchen table. She stare at the dog for a long time then she say, ‘You can keep him but if I catch him around my house, I will kill him.’”

“So your aunt got away with murder?”

“Possibly, but she did not live long enough to enjoy her crime. After her days of happy music and colorful clothes she withdrew in what I now think was a depression. She would come to my house and have terrible arguments with my mother. I had never seen this before. They was always very close. And every time she look at me she have a frown on her face. Maybe she knew what I was thinking.”

“You never told anybody what you suspected?”

“No! Are you kidding? Accuse someone of murder? Because of suspicions? And where is the proof? A missing shotgun? I was too young to involve myself with these complications. I have thought about her depression, but I don’t believe it was because she regretted shooting my uncle, if that is what she did. I believe she was depressed because she no longer had anyone to argue with.”

© Attila Zønn 2015

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