What did I, Ettore, know of Algiers when I was swept to sea in the year 1788? What could I know? I was barely more than a boy living in a hammock strung nightly from hooks in a kitchen at a seaside bordello.
My mother died giving birth to me at that bordello, the House of Beautiful Swallows, so she never told me the stories of the ruthless Barbary pirates, the brothers Barbarossa, Dragut, Mezzo Morto, and all the others. But Josephina did, the kindly old lady at the House whose promise to my mother on her deathbed was to raise me as her own. I loved her, I loved the stories she told me, and I loved the pirates.
I was five years of age when Josephina told me how the Spanish King Charles III sent his Irish general, Alexander O’Reilly, to defeat and occupy Algiers in 1775. Everyone in the Kingdom of Naples and the Two Sicilies was horrified that O’Reilly’s fifty ships and more than twenty thousand soldiers fell into an Algerian trap and were routed. I didn’t say it then, I was old enough to know better than to do so, but I was elated. I knew that in her own way, Josephina was too. The pirates had overcome the foreign king! The same foreigner who colluded with the Pope in Rome to reign over our lands, the Kingdom of Naples and the Two Sicilies!
Every night for years, I went to sleep thinking of Saracens and, in my mind, they drove the righteous Knights of St. John of Jerusalem time and again from their base on the island of Malta and into the sea. I thought of myself standing beside the pirates on the swaying decks of one of their fabled xebecs, the fastest ships in the world, raiding and plundering, slaying the robed priests who shunned us and our House, and trampling the flags of the Pope and the Christian king in Spain who presumed to rule over Sicily and half of Italy. When Claudia, another of the Beautiful Sparrows, told me if I misbehaved I’d be taken by Saracens, and when Delphina warned me not to use coarse language unless I wanted people to think me a Turk, I could not have been happier. Though still a child, I secretly applauded the Algerians. But I learned to keep those feelings to myself. They were secrets, like the secrets I’d learned to keep about the Beautiful Swallows themselves, never to be revealed.
Josephina and the ladies of the night who raised me thought at first that, given my interest in the sea, I might become a fisherman. I was such a clever boy, they said, that I might even have a menaida boat of my own one day. During the season, from April to July, the fishermen of Amalfi catch the little alici in their nets, the fish they make into barrels of anchovies, along with jars of colatura sauce. It takes months in those barrels of chestnut wood for the anchovies to be ready to eat. But the Swallows planned to apprentice me to a fisherman, to Grigio who was a brother-in-law to Josephina, and so introduce me to everything about the alici, and how to make the terzigno and then the spillatura that brings the colatura into bottles, one little drip at a time.
It was the Swallows’ desire that I begin working with the fishermen soon after my sixth birthday when, perhaps, they no longer considered me a child. But by that time, Josephina’s brother-in-law, old Grigio had stopped going to sea. Then we discovered the other fishermen wouldn’t have me since, as they said, ‘Bastards and loose women bring bad luck at sea.’ That night, Maria comforted me in my hammock by saying that Josephina had immediately replied to the fishermen by telling them to forget about visiting the Beautiful Swallows. “The only birds known to be attracted to fishermen are squawking and shitting seagulls,” she’d added before turning and thrusting her considerable backside in their direction.
So the Swallows put me to tasks around the great house located steps away from the grand piazza and across the street from the Luna Convent on the cliff by the water’s edge. I carried laundry downstairs to be washed, and up again to the roof to dry, and down again to the lush bedchambers on the second and third floors. I emptied chamber pots, disposed of refuse and kitchen cuttings, and accompanied old Josephina to the market twice every week in order to help her back to the House of Beautiful Swallows with baskets brimming with fresh vegetables on Saturdays and fish on Mondays and Thursdays. In addition, I ran errands all over town for my several mothers, many of which were of the confidential variety. I soon learned to say, even before the Swallow could, “Yes, and if I speak to anyone of this matter, you’ll paddle my behind with a fireplace poker!”
One day at the market, Josephina met a fisherman she knew who said he might have work for me after all, though not at sea and not as an apprentice.
Based on her conviction that I would soon be old enough to make my own way in the world, Josephina accepted the fisherman’s terms.
But I soon learned that not only did I have to stay on dry land but, what was worse, I was charged with sitting in a hot shed where I sweated like a soaked sponge, pulling heads from tiny alici fish alongside dozens of chattering village women. It was foul smelling and distasteful work, and its monotonous repetition was so boring as to bring me to tears. I worked the entire alici season in that horrible shed with its doors closed against swarming black flies, and I never forgave Josephina for consigning me to that particular sweltering hell, or for the way she hurried me through my chores at the House of Beautiful Swallows soon after dawn so that I might spend all my daylight hours with those stinking fish. Hour after hour I dealt with fish after blessed fish, cursing the men who caught them and wishing that their sorry fleet might be overcome by pirates and sent to the bottom of the sea.
I returned to the House of Beautiful Swallows at night, slinking in through the kitchen door in back while out front, in the great house, merriment reigned as musicians and actors assisted the Swallows in entertaining wealthy, well-dressed and perfumed visitors. Regardless of how hard I scrubbed my ragged shirt, or bathed in the sea during those summer months, I could never rid myself of the stench from those silvery slippery fish and their severed heads. Nor could I escape the picture of contrast I painted against the backdrop of the House of Beautiful Swallows when I returned at sunset. The fine women of that house thought nothing of sending me into that hell every morning. But when I returned, they held their noses and banished me from every room in the house but the kitchen.
“Bathe yourself in garlic sauce, little Ett!” they’d titter, thinking themselves clever.
Every morning during that season I began my workday by taking wooden buckets of fish from the pier and lugging them into the shed, where I would arrange them by the stools that would soon be occupied by the village women the Beautiful Swallows referred to as ‘the brides of no life.’ That was the best part of the workday, even when it rained, because it allowed me to be outside the shed. When I was done, I spent the rest of the day inside the ramshackle seaside hovel. I began by positioning the bucket before a stool and between two empty barrels. Then I grasped a fish from the bucket in the middle—one I had carried inside—squeezing the fish just below the gills, and then pulling the head from the body and, if I was not careful, whatever came off with it. I tossed the head into the bucket on my right and the rest of the fish into the one on the left. Then came the next fish. I cannot explain how disheartening it is to work in such a way for what seems to be hours only to discover that the bottom of the buckets on your left and right is still visible.
We worked in pairs inside the shed, and the woman who sat beside me heard me crying one day soon after I had begun working there. It took little effort to hide my tears from her and all the other women because the heat inside the shed was suffocating, and all of us were covered with beads of sweat. But I was unable to mask the sounds of my sobbing that day. Without remarking about my outburst, she counseled me never to look down into those buckets.
“It’s not our place to see what becomes of our work, Ettore dear. We work all day, we collect our pay.”
Her name was Caterina and it was her function to take the headless fish from one barrel and arrange them in another barrel, occasionally adding handfuls of salt. Though she spoke very little, unlike the rest of the women in the shed, she explained to me how one needs to place the alici side by side in the barrel, very close together, row after row, with each row facing in a different direction. In my mind I imagined seeing schools of headless fish, swimming past one another in single files, and then moving in greater and greater spirals. More so than my own, Caterina’s task appealed to me. I took pleasure in seeing patterns develop and come together, even if the patterns were no more than processions of little fish.
The fisherman’s response, however, to my repeated requests that I do the same work as Caterina was always in the negative. He insisted that I must first learn about the fish. For my life, I could not fathom that answer. Was pulling their heads off the best way to know the alici? What was I to discern about the nature of alici by pinching their tiny heads off and then tossing them into a bucket? I thought that was a poor way to learn. I also thought I had merited that task for no reason other than that I was a boy while all the others were grown women. I think now that perhaps that was the most annoying of all the reasons I had to perform that odious task. I hated fishermen, I told myself as I yanked heads from the bodies of lifeless little fish, and I hated grown women. How I wished, throughout that summer, that pirates might come and take everything away.
When the fishing season finished and I was no longer required to spend long hours with those dwarfish silvery heads, I reasoned I might extract myself from the business of fish heads when the season came around again if I began coming home with coins in my pocket. That explains, in part, how I began working with Bruno and the pilgrims at the Piazza. I went where the money was. Pilgrims and tourists were rich, and I was not. That was how Maria explained the House of Beautiful Swallows to me one time.
“We’re here, Ettore, because wealthy men come here.”
“But they go away,” I objected.
“But they leave their money,” she answered.
Pilgrims and tourists did the same.
The great cathedral, Cattedrale di Sant'Andrea, is located in the Piazza del Duomo. Pilgrims come from all of Europe to see the sights in the beautiful coastal town said to be blessed by St. Andrew, and to marvel at the Cathedral’s magnificent frescoes and paintings, especially the Cloister of Paradise, the Basilica, the massive metal doors that came all the way from Constantinople, the intricate mosaics and, best of all, religious paintings by the great masters. There are nearly a hundred stairs of stone that lead up to that cathedral, and I came to know all of them.
In my ninth year, I planned how our business would work. Bruno’s father waited tables at the popular pasticceria in the Piazza del Duomo and therefore became acquainted with scores of tourists and pilgrims each day. When he encountered people he felt he might interest in a tour, he would recount to them that he knew a guide, one who was an expert despite his tender age, and who might show them the important sights at the cathedral. That was how I proposed we put coins in our pockets, Bruno, his father and I. But I made the proposal carefully because I knew Bruno’s father was wary of me. He never asked me outright about the House of Beautiful Swallows, and I certainly never mentioned it, not to him and not to Bruno; but I knew he suspected. Still, when I proposed how we would share our earnings, half for Bruno’s father, and half for the two of us, for Bruno and me, he accepted. For myself, I would continue to perform my household chores at the House of Swallows, to sleep in my kitchen hammock, to return there after dark, and to secretly observe the ardent gentlemen visitors at night.
When my mothers at the House of Beautiful Swallows saw the money I brought home, they saw reason too. Nothing convinces people like money, they always said. That was how I convinced Bruno’s father, and that was why Josephina allowed me to work every day at the Piazza. On the day I showed her the coins I earned as a guide to the pilgrims, the matter was settled. I would go daily to the pilgrims, but only after I had finished my daily chores at the House. I had also to assure her that I would never be caught cheating a tourist or a pilgrim. The last thing the Beautiful Swallows wanted, she cautioned me, was trouble with the magistrate.
Every day, Bruno and I walked with tourists and pilgrims through the streets and alleys of Amalfi. Sometimes we even rowed them in boats. Together we walked up the many steps of the cathedral, as I spoke to our clients of the holy relics we would see, and of their various histories and miraculous properties. Reaching the Cathedral at the top of the stairs, I showed them its many wonders, about each of which I had learned from the priests and older guides, and then committed to memory. Over time, I amassed encyclopedic information about the masters who created the great works of art on display there. Owing to my knowledge, by the time I was ten years old I had become the most sought after of all guides in Amalfi. That I was so young may have surprised others but, for me, I accounted the matter no more than a straightforward recollection of information, and hardly the feat that others supposed it to be. Still, I soon learned that there was value in knowing more than others, and I used it to my advantage.
The eloquent words of veneration I spoke at the tomb of the saint delighted the pilgrims and endeared me to the solemn and uniformly corpulent priests who tended to that shrine. I sometimes wondered if it was the words of devotion that brought me the admiration of those acting ‘in persona Christi’ or the fine shoes and clothing I had begun to wear when my earnings allowed me. Had the pious brothers known me to be a prostitute’s bastard son, and that I spent my nights at the notorious House of Beautiful Swallows, they would certainly have banished me from the site of their holy relics. But that, too, was something I had learned to keep to myself. I loved my mother’s friends, the Beautiful Swallows who raised me, and I detested the priests who reviled them. And me.
They had explained themselves to me, the Beautiful Swallows, when at a tender age I asked why the priests didn’t like them.
Chiara and Claudia were sitting in the kitchen on a stormy winter afternoon. Josephina was making soup.
“It’s control, silly boy,” Claudia said, winking at Chiara while twisting a silver chain in her long fingers. “The priests, like all men, they hate the idea of a woman who remains beyond their ability to control.”
Chiara nodded in agreement, and I looked over to see Josephina at the stove, shaking her head and sucking at her cheeks in a gesture I knew to mean that, however uncomfortable she might feel at what was to come, she would at least listen.
“But I don’t hate that idea,” I said.
Claudia flashed her dark brown eyes at Chiara next to her at the table and replied, “But Ettore, amore, you are not yet a man. You just wait!”
I wrinkled my face into some sort of a frown and cocked my head to one side. She might have been right about my age, but I wasn’t going to allow her to tell me what I might or might not be like when I was a man. I was eleven, and old Grigio had remarked only a week before that soon I’d grow a mustache.
Claudia, however, anticipated my reaction perfectly and, with the gentlest of smiles, extended her hand to my face.
“Ah, Ettore. Ever the sensitive one! No, well, let me explain this matter to you. I think you are old enough now to hear it.” She looked over at Josephina, perhaps for approval to continue.
“You know the suore? The sisters at the convent across the street, yes?”
Of course, I did. I saw them all the time. I nodded.
“Well, we have much in common.”
“If that’s so, then why do the priests like the suore and hate you? And they even hate me because I like you.” Of course, I loved them, every one of the Beautiful Swallows, but I thought I was too old then to say it anymore.
“That’s the thing, Ettore. They have to show respect to the suore because the Church makes them. But they don’t really like them. Believe me. And for the same reason they don’t like us.”
“It’s because they can’t control us.”
“What do you mean, they can’t control you?”
Again, glancing over to Josephina at the stove before she spoke, Claudia continued, “The suore, like the Beautiful Swallows, like us, they use their femininity to remain in control of themselves.”
Claudia leaned over the table so as to bring her eyes closer to mine and said, “If you must hear it, young man, the suore use their virginity to remain in control. As do we.”
I wanted to make another objection just then, but Claudia’s final words were decisive. And her eyebrows were raised just a little, as if to curtail the contemplation of a challenge. I saw, too, that Chiara was nodding her head in agreement.
“The suore preserve their virginity and thereby avoid giving birth to children, maybe child after child after child, year after year like most women. They avoid years of breastfeeding. You know what that is? Yes, Ettore? And years of caring for children. And they sidestep having a husband, a man who rules over them like a spoiled prince for the rest of their lives, one to whom if they own anything, they must surrender all, including the right to own anything in the future. The suore, young man, use their femininity, their virginity, to avoid all that and to remain in control of themselves. That is what men hate.”
I was fascinated. And flattered. I had heard the Swallows speak among themselves of things like virginity and childbirth and breastfeeding, but none of them had ever spoken to me of them. And the suore? I thought them to be strange, the way they dressed especially, and somehow unworldly, the opposite of the Beautiful Swallows. My interactions with them, however infrequent, had always been pleasant. They were kind to me. So, I had no reason to ridicule them like some men and boys I’d seen in the streets. Moreover, the behavior of the suore toward me was completely unlike what I had experienced until then from the priests.
These thoughts were crowding my head when Claudia continued, “So now, of course, you want to hear about the Beautiful Swallows.”
“Yes, and your virginity!”
“Cheeky little devil, you!” Claudia looked at me with her eyes and mouth wide open. Then she smiled. “It’s the same with us, if you must know. None of us wants to be the slave of a man. No, Ettore. We want it the other way around. Or, if not that, then at least to be equals. But I think,” and she paused then to glance at Chiara, “I think that most of us have come to the conclusion that all that is simply impossible.”
“Unless,” Chiara said to me, “We could wait for you to grow up.”
All three women laughed. I didn’t know if I, too, should laugh. So, I smiled back at them.
“It’s true, alas. We sell our virginity, Ettore, you know that. By doing so, we become like the suore. We retain control of ourselves, our bodies and our souls.”
Josephina turned to me, holding a wooden spoon over the pot of steaming soup, and said, “It’s this way, Ettore, and don’t you ever forget it. The suore are Brides of Christ. We Swallows are Brides of Price. All the rest are Brides of No Life. Hai capito?”
My eyes opened wide in astonishment, I nodded, yes, I understood.
“And those priests are worse than the rats in the drains of their stinking cathedral.”
The Saracen Tower was one of the sights in Amalfi to which I always guided my tourists and pilgrims. Among them, it was common knowledge that pirates from the lands of Barbary were the natural enemies of religion and had been for centuries. Standing at its massive stone base, I explained that the great tower overlooking the harbor had been built by order of the Viceroy of Naples following the ruinous attacks of Saracens at nearby Conca dei Marini, Cetara, and elsewhere along the coast.
When I recounted those Saracen outrages, standing in the shadow of the enormous tower, the pilgrims I guided would cross themselves and look reverently from the tower’s massive hewn stones to the vast southern horizon of the Gulf of Salerno. Each time I told those stories, the expressions on the pilgrims’ faces were suddenly and uniformly arrested, as if each one of them expected at any moment to see the feared triangular sail of a swift Saracen vessel. It was at that moment that I related to the enthralled pilgrims the miracle of Amalfi’s own Saint Andrew, who on June 27 in 1544 caused a great wave to come up and sink the entire fleet of Barbarossa. Every year thereafter, June 27 was a great day of feasting and summer celebration, and everyone looked forward to it. To me, the importance of that day was no more than that the weeks leading up to it were the most profitable of the year for my growing business as a guide.
I had never met anyone from Algiers, or from any other place in North Africa. They were Moors and they were universally reviled, or nearly so. Certainly the Holy Mother Church despised them. It was therefore only natural that I should find myself drawn to them. Claudia had described seeing dark and sweat-soaked Saracen slaves at work in the harbor at Naples, and I had heard whispers among the Swallows—they often turned to whispering when they sought to keep delicate subjects from my young and, I suspected, male ears—and it seemed to me that Moors were somehow of particular interest to them. Still, I had never myself seen one, though for years I hoped I might encounter one among the fashionable nightly visitors to our ‘house of appointment.’ What if one of them was my father, I wondered. A pilgrim of another cloth?
As a guide, my natural facility in the matter of recollection served me well. I became acquainted with a great variety of people, with their particular ways, and with their several languages. By doing so, I brought great opportunity to Bruno too. Although I never felt it important to tell him or his father, there began to be discrepancies in the sums that I shared with my partners. It was just business and, as I often heard from the mouths of the Beautiful Swallows, business and friendship are two different matters.
Furthermore, my facility with languages was a boon to our business, and we had gathered a good number of English clients, since the English seemed always to require someone who could speak their language and assist them in their affairs while vacationing. Then, while I guided the English, Bruno ran their errands and, in this manner, we made ourselves indispensable to them. This distribution of work between us, Bruno and me, soon became the norm. Whether our clients were English, German, Spanish, Dutch or French, I would guide them around the city, and Bruno would see to their various practical needs, whether culinary, hospitality or travel-related, sartorial, devotional, medical or otherwise. At parting, when accounts were settled, the fees we charged were shared between us as agreed. The gratuities, however, I kept for myself, in keeping with the greater quality of services I performed. Bruno never knew, and he was more than satisfied with his share from the fees anyway. Or so it seemed to me. Moreover, his father’s share was more than generous. Insofar as Josephina was concerned, I kept my promise to her because I wasn’t cheating the tourists. So I kept the matter to myself. And the extra money.