The Years of the Tarantella
By Sarah Brooks
Illustration by Kim Gauge
They say that the bite of the wolf spider can be cured by dancing. If the victim dances into a frenzy, if the rhythm is fast enough, they say that the poison can be danced from the blood.
I don’t believe them.
He was two days dead when I folded his clothes into suitcases and tossed them out into the street. In the weeks to come, I would see children skipping rope with his ties, and beggars in his three-piece suits, his hats at jaunty angles over their eyes.
My Francesco! They are still playing his songs in the record stores, a year later, still phoning the radio stations to request their favourites, the ones that made them lose themselves, the ones that made them feel the lightning on their skin and the comets behind their eyes. They are still trying to find their way back to whatever it was — the madness, the magic. The things we have lost.
In the papers I was all in black, in a little black hat with a lace veil. I was all in black and so very brave. Everyone loves a widow, especially one so pious. I walked to the church every day and knelt in the pews at the front and when I came out the photographers caught me. Behind my veil my skin appeared unlined.
They thought I was praying for my husband’s immortal soul. They thought I was imagining him up there in heaven, that my eyes were raised to God to beg him to guide his loyal son, his son who he blessed with such gifts, such marvellous, marvellous gifts.
They were wrong. I did not pray for Francesco Camini’s immortal soul. I did not care what became of it. I prayed for my own. I prayed for the strength not to listen to what waited in the darkness.
We met in a piazza in Genua, far to the north of here. He sat on the edge of a fountain, a battered guitar in his arms and a sad, romantic song beneath his fingers. At seventeen I was much taken with romance and with melancholic, brown-eyed boys, so I went and perched next to him (I was bold, in those days! With my dark hair that hung all the way down to my waist, and my long eyelashes and my full lips that I bit down on to make them bloom further).
When the song ended, he held his guitar closer and stared down at the strings.
‘Can you play a happier song this time?’ I asked him.
He looked up at me through his hair, in that shy way he used to have. ‘I can play anything you want,’ he said, which I chose to take as encouragement, and asked him for song after song, hour after hour, from the fountain in the piazza to the evening’s crowded bars, and all the way down to the hot, dusty south.
Santa Marta, the birthplace of Calabria’s most famous son, is a town on a cliff-top, overlooking a sea as blue as a child’s painting. There is a hill above the town, and on the hill a cross. At night it lights up and appears suspended in the sky, miraculous, looking down upon all us sinners, looking down, all that time ago, at Francesco and I and our dark apartment where mould bloomed above the bed.
How we were happy, those first, long years! Just me and him and the music. On days when thunder crashed overhead and the sky turned green, he would play me the songs of his childhood on his battered guitar, his eyes closed as though he were listening to something beyond the storm.
But it didn’t burn him, not then. In those first days he was yet to be incandescent.
You can’t blame the guitar-maker. Gentle Gennaro Fonesca, who had known Francesco since he was a child, and liked to boast that he’d always seen him destined for big things. He made the guitar out of the best wood he had left over from his paying customers and he brought it round to our apartment with a big red ribbon tied around its neck.
It was a beautiful thing, made of warm, reddish wood. Francesco was like a little boy, taking it into a corner, sitting hunched over it, his hands possessive, leaving Gennaro and I to stand by and watch indulgently.
If I said that at Francesco’s touch the strings hummed as if in anticipation, or that when he picked the first notes, a mystic light came into his eyes, it would be the story the faithful expect. The story they want.
But he picked those first notes, and the sound was a fine sound. Just that. Remembering our presence, he swept Gennaro up into a hug that nearly crushed the poor man. ‘Thank you,’ he said, tears in his eyes, ‘Thank you.’
And if something crawled from the shadows one day, we did not see it. If something dropped from our high ceiling on a fine, fine thread, we were too late to catch it.
Something found the warm hollow of that guitar, and crouched there, like a black heart, beating.
He played for hour after hour, endlessly. The same tune, the same phrase. He wouldn’t stop until it was right. Until it was perfect. Our neighbours complained. I shut all the doors and stuffed cotton in my ears. But the more he played, the quicker his fingers moved. The more the strings responded to his touch. The more marvellous the sound.
He played the tarantella in the piazza and in the bars and he played at weddings and feast days and on long warm evenings when there was nothing else to do, when I would bring out dishes of bread and olives and pour glass after glass of wine for our friends who gathered to listen and dance. He began to earn money, real money, even my mama, who had never liked him, couldn’t deny it. I was so, so proud of my husband. Of his talent and his fame in our little town.
‘For you,’ he would say, his arms around me, his chin resting on my head, ‘For our family.’
And yes, I would not be human if I didn’t admit I was also perplexed, by all those endless hours, by all that effort expended on just one thing. If I didn’t admit that I was angry, at times, at what it meant that he missed. That I missed. But then he would come to sit behind me, and place my hands on the strings, curve my fingers into the shapes of the chords. And afterwards, as we stumbled to our creaky, sagging bed, I would tell him about the kind of mama I would be, the kind of papa he would be. ‘The kind who listen to everything their children say, that’s what we’ll be,’ I said. The kind who hug them tight and tell them they are clever and lovely and good. And he’d say, ‘Yes, bella mia, yes.’
In Calabria, they call the tarantella sonu a ballu, music for dancing. Dancing like there’s poison in their blood, like it’s the only thing keeping them alive. At parties, at weddings, in piazzas and bars.
But it was at Carnival where the tarantella really lived. Where music made the whole town mad. And it was at Carnival that I began to be afraid.
It was hot in Santa Marta that year, much hotter than usual. People crowded the pavements and the piazza, hanging off lampposts, climbing up trees, squeezed onto balconies and in bars, voices too loud, sweat on their skin. And the carre, the floats, huge and grotesque with their bulbous politicians and their bright, fake flowers, travelling through the crowds, through the shouting and the confetti and coloured string, like huge beasts through a slow moving river, unstoppable, though the tide of people crashed against their sides.
We turned alien, our hair and clothes full of paper and string. I got confetti in my eyes. I could barely see Francesco, alone and small on a rickety stage at the far end of the piazza, his guitar in his hand.
He began to play.
Slowly, quietly at first, plucking the strings as if careful that each sound should hang alone on the air. Then faster, his foot beginning to stamp time, his fingers beginning to dance. And the crowd, the crowd began to listen. Conversations stopped. Heads turned.
It is hard to write music on the page if you do not write in crotchets and semiquavers, in fat black bubbles and thin, scratchy lines. So all I can say is that it came up through our feet, the music, it came into our bones. It lifted our arms to the sky, it made us stamp and turn and we were skin to skin, all of us, dancing with strangers, dancing steps we never knew, faster and faster as he played on and on, his eyes closed, his hair stuck to his forehead, dark stains blooming beneath his arms. We never wanted him to stop. The paving stones of the piazza cracked beneath our feet, the palm trees trembled and the tarantella made us mad, as though the spider had crept to us in the night, gifting us its poison like a kiss.
When it was over darkness had fallen. I looked around me at faces flushed and sweating, blinking as though they stumbled from sleep. I looked at the figure on the stage, cradling his guitar like a child.
They began to play Francesco Camini on the radio. A music producer came to our door, sat sipping coffee in our living room and said that talent like this should be heard, that folk music was the future. ‘Out of the piazzas and into the charts’, he said, though I couldn’t take my eyes off the dribble of coffee on his chin.
Photographers began to wait outside our new house, with its high ceilings and wrought-iron balconies, and they called to me to ‘Smile, belleza!’ I smiled for them, and wore my fine new clothes, and sent all his press clippings to my mama, who never spoke of him on the telephone.
And the tarantella started to seep into all our lives.
Ask anyone. Ask them how you could hear the radio from all the open windows along the street, playing Francesco’s songs. Ask them how the coffee on the stove smelled and they’ll tell you — like warm midnight and good darkness. Ask them how the tomato sauce tasted, when all they’d added was garlic and basil and they’ll close their eyes and remember and say — like magic, like music. Like fire and love and endless evenings.
The priests spoke of miracles. The papers said a blind girl fell to her knees and sobbed, ‘the sky is blue, such blue!’ Wounds were healed. Old bones gained new life. Summer flowers bloomed all winter. And I, I waited for the music to work its magic, for new life to stir inside me, to make us into the family we longed for. That I longed for.
Walking home from church, my friends told me they kept the radio on all night, they told me, ‘The songs, those songs, how they keep us from sleeping!’
How our skin was alive, in those days and those nights.
‘Are you happy?’ I asked him, when we lay beneath the slow ceiling fan, the music still dancing behind my eyes, lizards silhouetted on the wall and a spider spinning its web high above us. ‘Is this what you want?’
And Francesco said, ‘I just want the music. That’s all,’ his hands on my skin as though I, too, could sound notes clear and strong. ‘The music. And you.’ He tilted my head towards him, ‘I’m happy if you are,’ he said, and although he was looking right into my eyes, he never saw the untruth when I told him I couldn’t be happier.
He looked up, and smiled. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘A new friend wants to see us.’
The spider seemed unsupported in the air, tracing a lazy path towards us, blown gently by the fan. Francesco reached up his hand, and eight black legs curled around his fingers.
‘He likes you,’ I said.
‘Who doesn’t?’ said Francesco, with a grin, as he let the creature run off his hand and onto the floor.
I hit him. ‘Just because they’re playing you on the radio doesn’t mean you’re any more charming than you used to be.’
Later, when I curled up, Francesco’s arms around me, I saw the black shape of the spider on the floor beside the bed. I stretched out my hand but it ran away from me, into the shadows by the wall.
When the guitar-maker died, Gennaro’s family asked Francesco to play at his wake. They said he had been so proud that Francesco played his guitar, that he still played it, even after seven years. And how well it had lasted! Barely a scratch on its fine wood. How well Francesco had cared for it, loved it.
The day of the wake, I sat on the floor of our bathroom and mourned again, my horrible, monthly ritual. I had stopped crying, by then. Francesco knocked on the door, softly.
‘You go ahead,’ I called, trying to make my voice sound normal, though the effort made me tired. ‘I’ll come later.’
I knew that he stood there, his forehead and his palms pressed against the door. And I knew that he would leave, soon, because the guitar called to him louder than I did. Because the tarantella wanted him more.
Later, I danced barefoot in a small apartment in Via San Rocco, and forgot the things I didn’t have. Francesco played for Gennaro and I danced the poison of loss from my blood. You couldn’t dance to Francesco’s tarantella and be sad. You couldn’t remember why you were crying.
The apartment was full of all the people from a long, good life. In the middle of the afternoon, the windows smashed, raining glass down on the street below. By nightfall cracks had appeared on the walls. The apartment was evacuated at midnight, and the dance went on in the dark streets until morning.
Should I have known, earlier? Miracles are a dangerous thing. Once I thought I saw something reaching up through the strings of the guitar. Black and thin and delicate. I thought I saw it touch Francesco’s fingers, for just a moment.
When he wasn’t looking, I ran my fingers over the strings, put my ear to the smooth wood. There was nothing there. Of course. But the guitar had begun to scare me. I had begun to see it for what it was. A malign thing, a wondrous, terrible thing. We were wrong to think that gifts were uncomplicated, foolish and wrong. So I took it from him when he slept, crept down in bare feet into the garden and lit a fire.
But the flames would not consume it. They danced around the wood and made its richness even brighter, they held it and made it stronger.
I say this before God.
I walked away, left it burning but not burning. In the morning the fire had died but the guitar sat untouched in the ashes, triumphant, mocking. I watched from the kitchen window, coffee brewing on the stove behind me.
When Francesco woke he walked into the garden and he took the guitar without a word, without a glance at me.
After a concert in Rome, the police were called to prevent a riot. The saints in the church of Santo Spirito began to weep, said the papers, real salt tears.
In Naples, the bells in every tower and steeple began to chime at once.
In Venice, the waters rose around the dancers’ waists but could not stop the dance.
Night after night he played. City after city. I listened on the radio, in our empty, echoing house. I listened to the miracles and I was the only one who was afraid. Though he always came back to Calabria, he came back a shadow. A man who was only half in the world.
I told him I wished he would find another woman, that he would go down to the docks and find one there. Take a long-haired, big-hipped beauty to a bed in a shabby house and lose himself in her smell and the feel of her skin. I wanted it to be a woman he burned for. Not a thing. I wanted it to be something I could understand.
The day after he came home for the last time, I saw a spider crawling on the guitar. A tiny thing, and very black. I brushed it off, sent it scuttling under the sofa. Later, when I passed again, there were more, very small and very black, all crawling over the white tiled floor. I took an old postcard down from the wall and nudged them onto it. Then I took them out into the garden and shook them off onto the flowerbeds underneath the kitchen window.
When we woke the next morning, there were webs covering the windows, like the frost you get in the north. All the way across the glass, so that the light turned greyish and pale.
And Francesco burned. I put my hand to his forehead and the heat scared me. He lay in bed for days, the sheets soaked. He shouted things I didn’t understand, and other things I did. Bad things, shameful things. He burned and there was nothing I could do, nothing but sweep away the black spiders that crept towards his pillow, nothing but tear down the beautiful, fragile webs that hung like lace shawls from the bedposts and crush the tiny bodies between my fingers.
Of the end, of the last tarantella, accounts differ. Some say he fell to his knees and looked to the night sky. God called him, they say. Others swear that he took a last bow and danced off with a shadow that appeared at his shoulder. Still more say that blood trickled from his ears, that it stained his white shirt but he played on and on, to the end.
It was a concert for the church of San Rocco, crumbling for years. The priest himself had asked Francesco, and of course, he couldn’t say no.
‘Got to keep the saints on your side,’ he said, though where were the saints these last years, I thought, where were the relics to protect my Francesco, whose lips were cracked and eyes sunken, whose hands shook but for when they held his guitar.
The church of San Rocco, protector against plagues.
‘You’ll be there, won’t you?’ he said, unsteadily, taking my hand in his, and those familiar calluses, those hard grooves on the tips of his fingers, made me want to throw my arms around his thin shoulders and tell him not to go, to throw away that terrible thing and stay here forever with me.
‘I’ll be there,’ I said, ‘You’ll see me in the crowd.’
That night, I sat on our balcony, a shawl around my shoulders, a book unread on my lap. I heard the music from the piazza, heard the roar of the worshippers. I drank glass after glass of red wine. I heard the music end.
Soon the doorbell rang, and the doctor stood in the doorway, his collar undone and his tie askew. ‘Signora,’ he said. ‘Signora.’ His voice broke. Tears dripped onto his shirt. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, again and again, ‘I’m sorry, Signora.’
The country fell to its knees with grief. I put on my black suit and my black stockings and my black high heels. The country wept. I lowered my black veil over my face so they could not see that my eyes were dry.
Candles burned night after night at the shrines that they built for him, made out of flowers and photographs, out of tambourines and old, much loved guitars.
I closed the door to all callers, tore up the condolence cards, unread. The guitar I wrapped up and stowed away in a trunk in the attic, hidden from view, hidden with all of my fury and all of my sickening grief.
There in the darkness I sometimes thought I could feel it, as though the floors and the walls pulsed with its strange, impossible, life.
Life continued. Coffees were drunk, shuttered windows opened and closed, the church bells called their congregations together on Sundays. Francesco Camini was played on the radio, day after day. Carnival came around again.
But when the confetti was thrown and the carre rolled along the streets and the men with guitars came to play the tarantella, the magic was all gone. Francesco Camini was dead and nothing could ever be the same again, nothing would ever taste or smell or feel like it did in those years of the tarantella, those years of the magic coming up through our bones, breathing out through our skin.
The days went on, one much like the other, the weeks, and the months. A year passed.
And I woke one morning to tiny black spiders, spinning their webs above me.
Beside me on the white sheets of a bed that is far, far too big, I have placed Francesco’s guitar, as warm and red and alive as the day it was made. I run my fingers over the strings, and the notes they sound are clear and true. I curl up against the pillows, cradle the guitar and close my eyes. Francesco’s arms are around me, his hands over mine. ‘Like this,’ he whispers. And my fingers curl around its neck, they find the places I thought they’d forgotten.
I play. The chords, and the half-remembered songs. Soft bodies brush against my skin, delicate legs scuttle over my hands. I leave them be.
And from within the guitar, something hungers.
Something promises lightning and magic.
Something turns and turns in its web.