He stepped in the smoky kitchen of the Loggia not expecting to see anyone. It was too late for breakfast, and too early for lunch. The cook must be out in the garden gathering greens, or feeding pigs. He found her by the back door, butchering chickens.
“Gemma Bella, what can hungry men eat this morning?” Mingu spun her around before she had a chance to put down the bloody knife she was using.
“And why do you think that I saved you anything? We didn’t expect you back so soon.” She stopped to wash up as Mingu took her place and finished the butchering.
“Because you are crazy about me, just can’t help yourself.” He teased her as usual. “Mother sent you something.” He pointed to a package he brought her.
“Ma va ( go on..) stop teasing an old woman. What? What is this? Donna Maria Rosaria’s favorite shawl! It’s too much!”
“Mother wants you to have it.” He had finished the cutting and boning, and he too walked out of the smoky place to wash up.
Breaking into a song, he rubbed his hands in dirt before throwing hot water on them from the tub waiting for the morning dishes. He noticed how Gemma had stacked the dishes and would be washing them right after the chickens had been processed. When he came back, she had cut huge slices of bread and had scrambled some eggs to add to the peppers she had cooked for everybody else.
“Sit, sit down. Tell me about your trip.”
He told her the town was full of merchants displaying fancy wares up and down the piazza. This feast brought new products and excitements to town.
He thanked her for the meal and whistled out to make his rounds, letting men and beasts know that he was back on the job.
Gemma watched him go, happy, that young man, polite and sweet to everyone. He was the only one who could put in a good word with the Padrone. In the last couple of years, since he returned from the military, Mingu had been interceding with the Padrone, getting half days off here and there and on Sundays, as God himself took Sundays off.
“Sometimes, we treat beasts better than we treat men!” He had confessed to himself, finding courage to stand up to a Padrone that was mostly absent these days, glad to turn things over to his trusty foreman.
Mingu appreciated that trust.
He hoped to get a glimpse of Graziella. He saw Tiu`do playing around with his food and arguing with Lina. Mingu took the boy aside and talked to him, promising to take him on a ride if he behaved. Graziella was nowhere around. He left word that if the Padrone wanted him, he’d be at the stables.
The morning chores did nothing to ease his anxiousness. All those songs that spoke of love didn’t even begin to explain this feeling. He could eat a big meal, but the minute he thought about her, he would be hungry again, and thirsty, and nervous, and distracted. Having other girls chase him just made the situation worse. They increased his distress. They made him angry. How could he be so desirable to others, when the one he desired pretended he didn’t exist?
Maybe Graziella was just shy, waiting for him to take the first step.
Mid-day, Don Paoluccio found him.
“Mingu, I heard you came by earlier. How is your mother?”
“She sends her best. Her rheumatisms are bothering her.”
“Be sure she’s here for the Festa. Graziella won’t leave without saying goodbye.”
“Graziella is leaving?”
“She starts school in a week. She has been accepted to study medicine in Naples. Doctor Fabrizi arranged the whole thing. Actually, Mingu, you have a lot to do with that decision. It’s all your fault.”
“Yes, all your fault, and her mother’s, bless her soul. You convinced her she could do anything she wanted, and her mother when she was alive, convinced her that she needed knowledge, especially medical and scientific knowledge. Mariana was not happy with the girls stuck out here, so far from civilization. She wanted them educated, exposed to culture. Our plan was to spend winters in Naples, and return at the Loggia just for hunting, the way this residence was originally designed for.”
“A doctor! A good thing, for sure.”
“Did you know that I had planned to be a doctor before I entered the military? I thought about returning to it after the leg problem. Graziella will do very well, match any man at any thing. And why not? Women are always right, Mingu.”
“Yes, I suppose so. The workers want to know if they can spend an extra day in town on account of the Feast.”
“I leave you in charge of these things. I will need to be away, but I’ll be back for the Feast. I trust you will keep an extra eye around here. ”
“I KNOW. I have always been able to depend on you and your family.”
When Don Paoluccio left, Mingu could not stop his heart from pounding. How could he hear her name and stay calm? She was leaving, and so his dream will leave too.
Before Don Paoluccio was out of sight, Graziella came looking for him.
“Mingu, I want to go to town to pick up a few things for the Festa. Can you prepare the buggy? I was going to stop and pay my respects at your mother’s.”
“She will appreciate that.”
“We’ll leave in an hour.”
He would have loved to talk to her. But things were changing right in front of his eyes. She was going away, as she should. She was stretching her wings and finding things out for herself. He had no chance now. Now he needed to accept his lot in life. He could stay here, as his father did, or he could rejoin the cavalry and return to his first love. He could make a life for himself in the army. With Italy changing, with war talks in all the papers, life was about to change.
It was time to move on.
His dream lay elsewhere.
He hitched the horses and got lost in his own thoughts. His first love is already coming to an end before it was allowed to breathe, he thought. He needs to stay away from her, away from ever meeting her face to face again.