Viggianello, 25 September 1635
The cart had taken us right up through the village, past the church and down the other side of the hill, where the road was no longer paved and we came up to the farm, on the next hill. Autumn was stirring but there was still a hint of summer, and some rather ominous looking clouds were closing in, this late afternoon.
Angela’s little spies had kept her well informed – they would have spotted us from far away – and by the time we were at the top, ready to unload our few belongings plus two huge barrels, she was waiting for us, along with her friend Sofia and a cohort of spies, mostly barefoot little boys, but one girl there too, and I marvelled at how she’d grown, as she came running to greet me first, my little Ilaria. She couldn’t have recognised me, surely? Perhaps they’d told her who I was, or maybe this was just the way she greeted visitors.
Johannes strode purposefully forward, while I held Ilaria up in my arms and he slowly smiled at Angela and Sofia.
“I am Johannes. You must be Angela. You are far more beautiful than my friend has described!” He graciously held out his hand, to take hers, knelt, and kissed as if she were an aristocrat. I wondered if Johannes had a secret drink that I did not know about.
Angela looked a little older than I remember, a little more care worn, her skin, maybe too much time in the sun, but her hair was still jet black and she gazed at Johannes with the same dark, piercing eyes that had once done for me.
“Your friend certainly knows how to say hello, Pietro! You are welcome here, Johannes. This is my friend Sofia…”
Sofia was just like her daughter – bright blue eyes and hair like flax – very rare for the south, but then, she wasn’t from the south. I set Ilaria down.
“You too, Sofia, are far more beautiful than Pietro confessed!” And he performed the same little act. “I should have brought you gold, not beer!” he gestured at the barrels. “But I see, you already have plenty of it…” as he motioned towards his hair, he tilted his head and did his best to smile coquettishly, in a rather pathetic attempt to imitate a beautiful woman. Sofia found this quite hilarious and burst out laughing.
“The beer is a fine gift, Johannes, do not worry! Angela, we should get the men to help us move these in… we can open them tonight… I am sure they will be very happy to help!”
Finally Johannes turned to Ilaria.
“You are the soldier man?”
Johannes crouched down on the ground so his head was level with little Ilaria’s.
“Yes, Ilaria, yes I am. And Pietro was at least accurate describing you, you are a fine young lady, are you not?”
She gave him a little hug.
“Can I go and play with the boys now? We are going to climb that tree!” She looked at Sofia and at Angela while pointing at the large olive tree just down the path.
“Ilaria, we have guests!” Then Sofia softened. “Very well, but you must come straight back if a storm comes in, and in any case be back for the meal.”
Johannes’s face suddenly went from smiles to sudden shock, but I think no one noticed apart from me. He quickly composed himself. “Ilaria! Wait! I have a present just for you!”
He drew the package from underneath the rest of his things, and held it behind his back. “Close your eyes, and count to ten!”
As Ilaria counted, Johannes carefully removed the muslin, and slowly revealed a beautiful lyre.
“What is it?” she asked.
“It is a lyre. You can make music with it. A lyre for Ilaria.”
I could see Sofia and Angela about to say something – this instrument was a work of art, and far too ostentatious a gift for a five year old girl – but I quickly looked at them, and motioned them to accept, knowing that Johannes had seen something, and that Johannes was doing this with his heart, which was a good heart, albeit one that had been broken.
Just then the lightning came and struck the tree. We all ran to the house as the rain came down.
“The letter from David arrived two days before you did. He is a soldier he says, and that you need to help him, and that I need to help you. He… has seen a lot?”
Angela was looking at me intently, as she had done years ago, and now, just as then, I wanted to confess all, but I thought of Johannes’s privacy, which was sacred, whatever sacred meant, and then again, of what he’d just done – hadn’t they noticed? What if they had? Should I not tell Angela of the future that was coming? I had to look away from her, just as I always did.
“That’s one way of putting it. He has suffered, very much. He came to me… I offered him absolution. But… there is more than that. It is very important, and we need to stay hidden.”
“Ah, do not worry. Nobody disturbs the two old ladies on the hill, and we often take on new labourers. Besides, you are family.”
We walked into the big room with the tables and benches, laid with food, where Johannes was recounting some adventure story to the delight of Ilaria and the boys.
“And what did they do then?”
“Well, they didn’t like being ordered to give up the kingdom, so they threw the good men out of the window!”
“Out of the window!” The children were all giggling.
“But didn’t they break their heads?” Ilaria asked.
“They should have done, but no, they were able to walk! Some said it was as if God had sent angels to catch them! Others said they fell into a big pile of poo!” The children laughed uncontrollably.
“Well, the good kings were so angry at the bad kings, why, they sent for an army, and we marched on the White Mountain and we scared them all away. And then…”
Johannes looked down. Perhaps this was not really a story he should be telling the children.
“And then we did many bad things too. We must not fight each other, children, not for kings, and not for crosses. All that happens is that we all get hurt.”
Ilaria plucked at her lyre. “Can you show me how to make music with this, Johannes?”
“No, I am sorry – I never could play. But the little girl who wanted you to have it, she used to play beautifully. Her mother taught her.”
I looked at Johannes, and then at Angela, and at Sofia, and we all knew now what had happened, and where the lyre had come from. Not wanting Johannes to slip into melancholy, I stepped in. “I used to play, Ilaria. I will teach you.”
The beer flowed, as did the wine, and I played and sang with Ilaria and Johannes, the boys, the labourers, their wives, with Sofia, and with my Angela, well into the night, until Ilaria fell asleep.
The next few days seemed to lift the cares off Johannes’ shoulders as he busied himself helping on the farm, mending things, and playing with the children, and indulging in his mock romance with Angela and Sofia. They did not seem to mind! I also discovered something new about him. He had a real skill with wood – not just for mending, but for creating. In the evenings he would work on a wooden chest, with chisels he would carve the most beautiful patterns into the sides. I wondered even if he had made Ilaria’s lyre. Such a waste, that he’d used his hands to destroy, when they could create such beauty as this. But now, he had found a purpose, and was filled with a positive energy, forgetting about the future, and concentrating on the now, the beautiful moment in which we live. I too, found that my spirits were being lifted, even though I knew that at some point we had to return to our task. For now, Johannes had found something he had missed for so long – a family – something I had missed too. God could wait. The end of the world could wait. We were home.