By Attila Zønn
By the time Sarina turned nineteen, she was already considered a spinster in her Sicilian village.
There had been suitors since the age of fourteen, and her widowed father Gennaro, a butcher, had filtered many suitors, bringing only the best prospects before his daughter.
And Sarina evaluated:
Gaspare, but he was too short.
Turiddu, but he was too tall. An awkward young man — awkward in walk and awkward in talk.
Vituzzo, the shepherd — “Free cheese and ricotta for the rest of our lives,” Gennaro said.
“He smells of sheep,” Sarina said. “No!”
Bastiano — his eyes were too far apart.
Sariddu — his eyes were too close together.
Giovanni — big nose.
Gerolimo — pig nose.
Seraino — too many opinions.
Filippo — a shadow.
Then there was Giuseppe, a handsome man, much older, perfumed, whose black hair glistened in the sunlight, decorated with a fat gold neck chain and a fat gold watch — too vain. Sarina could never be with a man who put so much importance on his appearance.
So she was left with nothing — no husband, no future.
Sarina argued that she didn’t need a husband. She could stay close, continue to work alongside papà and care for Gennaro in his old age.
Gennaro smiled and hugged his daughter. But there was a problem.
“Cara figlia,” Gennaro said. “Your sisters,” — younger sisters Rosina and Pippinedda — “have found men that please them and will want to marry but they cannot until you do. Please consider your suitors with one eye closed.”
Iaga, from a few houses down, said she had a cousin in America who was looking for a wife.
“America!” Gennaro said. He turned to his daughter. “It’s like winning the lotto. You would be set.” His eyes sparkled. “America! America! Nuova York. Broccolini.“
“No,” Iaga said. “He is in the America they call Canada. In Toronto, a city by a lake.”
“Canada?” Gennaro thought a moment then shrugged.
“It’s not the America,” he said to Sarina. “But it’s close. At least it isn’t in the America to the south, that poor America — Argentina. I waved goodbye to an uncle who left for that place and never heard from him again.”
“His name is Angelo,” Iaga said. “Here is his photo.”
Angelo didn’t smile in the black and white photograph.
Why not? Sarina wondered. Maybe his teeth are rotten, or maybe he has no teeth at all, or his character is morose. He looks like a man who doesn’t know how to laugh. Sarina was about to discard Angelo as she had discarded all the others when she saw her father’s hopeful gaze. And she thought of her two sisters whom she loved very much. She sighed, looked at the photograph again and closed one eye.
Angelo wrote wonderful words. After a few weeks, his letters arrived every day. Sarina had Pippinedda write her letters back because she felt her handwriting wasn’t attractive. Angelo had a wonderful, but suspiciously feminine, flair with his characters—an artistic man, she thought. His grammar was precise—an educated man, she thought. Angelo wrote poems comparing her to flowers, and the ocean, and the sky and the stars. She became hopeful that the photo she scrutinized every day was just a split second askew of Angelo’s real persona.
After months of letters, plans were made for her departure for America/Canada. Angelo paid for her fare. Angelo had suggested that they should marry by proxy, but Sarina needed to see flesh and not commit solely to wonderful handwriting on paper.
How will Papà function without her help at the shop? How could she leave him? Since the age of twelve, she had helped him slice and debone, mince and fillet and accompanied him during that busy week before Carnevale when everyone in the county wanted Gennaro to cut the throats of their fattened pigs.
In that last week before her journey, she tried to observe and retain the vista of her native land—Sicilia. Would she ever return? She observed with fresh eyes it’s sun-dried terrain with sheep on the hillsides, its cacti abundant with prickly pears, its vineyards, its old men sitting in the shade of oaks, hands lapped over canes, with no more experiences to fuel their stories, only reminiscences left to them. She felt the sun on her face and the heat on her body. She was told it would be much colder in Canada. And snowy. How would she bare it? She had never seen snow except on mountains in the distance. She would miss her father. Yes, she would miss her father. Would she ever see him again?
The night before her departure, Gennaro sat his daughter down and said, “I know you are a strong woman — I am proud of you — but now you leave my house, and you should know that this behavior must change when you have a husband. You must never walk in front of your husband, yet never walk behind him. You must walk the road with equal steps. Never disagree with him in public. Wait until you are alone and then let him know that he is wrong. You must be the captain of the ship inside the house, but he must always feel like a man outside of it.”
Signor Grammatico, the proprietor of the market in the village, knew some English from his time spent as a prisoner of war in England. On sheets of paper, he wrote all the phrases Sarina might need on her way to Toronto. He also owned the only automobile in the village, and for a few lire chauffeured Sarina and her father to Palermo, where after many hugs and a tearful goodbye, Sarina boarded the Vulcania. A stop in Lisbon, then across the Atlantic to Halifax, then a train to Toronto, and she was there, and so was Angelo, wide-eyed and hopeful as she stepped off the train.
He was stocky, short and dark. He was a disappointment. However, he did know how to smile, and though his teeth weren’t the best, he appeared to have all of them.
Introductions were made.
His diminutive father stood behind Angelo’s squat, big chested mother. She did not smile. Angelo took Sarina’s hand. His mother slapped his hand away and said, “Not yet.” Then she straightened his tie and told him to follow as she lead Sarina off the platform.
It was all moving too fast. There were too many cars on wide roads — huge cars the size of ships. She saw many storefronts with the word SALE on the glass and assumed that Toronto must be the salt capital of the world. (Sale is Italian for salt).
She felt disembodied by the foreign air, claustrophobic among the crammed bodies in the car. They tried to engage her in conversation. They were loud. She didn’t understand them. What language was this? — part Italian, part something else.
Sarina thought of her papà and wanted to go home…
Copyright©Attila Zønn 2019