The House at the Edge of Night - Catherine Banner

But islands can only exist

If we have loved in them.

DEREK WALCOTT

Once the whole of the island of Castellamare was plagued by a curse of weeping. It came from the caves by the sea, and because the islanders had built their houses from that rock, which had been the liquid fire of the volcano itself, very soon the weeping rang in all the walls of the buildings, it resounded along the streets, and even the arched entrance of the town wailed at night like an abandoned bride.

Troubled by this curse, the islanders fought and quarreled among themselves. Fathers disagreed with sons, mothers turned against daughters, neighbors refused to speak to each other; in short, nobody had any peace.

This continued for many years until, one autumn, a great earthquake came. The islanders were woken by a shuddering at the heart of the island, an awful tremor. The earthquake rattled the cobbles in the streets and the dishes inside the cupboards. Buildings began to tremble like ricotta. By morning, it had knocked every house to the ground.

While the fallen stones mourned and wept, the islanders came together to decide what must be done.

A young peasant’s daughter by the name of Agata had been visited by a vision of the Madonna, and developed ideas of her own about the curse of weeping. “Some sadness has seeped into the stones of the island,” she said. “We must take the ruins and build from them a new town, and when we have done that great labor, the curse of weeping will be gone.”

So the islanders, stone by stone, rebuilt the town.

FROM AN OLD TALE of the island, in the version first told to me by Pina Vella, recorded at the Sant’Agata festival of 1914.

I

He was woken by a scratching at the window shutters. Therefore he must have slept. “The baby is coming!” someone called. “Signor il dottore!”

In his great confusion he thought they meant his wife’s baby, and was up and at the window in a knot of bedsheets before he recalled that she was sleeping beside him. The face at the window was the peasant Rizzu’s, floating like a moon in the dark. “Whose baby is it?” asked the doctor.

“Signor il conte’s baby. Who else?”

So as not to wake his wife, he went to the door. The moonlight in the courtyard imposed on everything an odd clarity. Even Rizzu was altered. The peasant had on his Sunday waistcoat and tie; he wore them stiffly, as though nailed into them. “This is a mistake,” said the doctor. “I’m not under instructions to deliver the count’s baby.”

“But I was ordered to fetch you by signor il conte himself.”

“I’m not under instructions to attend la contessa during her labor. The midwife has had charge of her pregnancy all along. D’Isantu must have meant you to fetch her instead.”

“No, no, they already have the midwife. The count wants you, too. Urgently, he said.” Rizzu was puffed up with the importance of his message. “Will you come? At once?”

“My own wife’s baby is due very soon. I don’t want to go far from home if it can be avoided.”

But Rizzu would not relinquish his mission. “The contessa’s baby is due right now, this very moment,” he said. “I don’t think it can be avoided, dottore.”

“And the midwife can’t handle it alone?”

“No, dottore. It’s…a complicated birth. They need you, because the baby won’t come out without those silver sugar-tong things of yours.” Rizzu pursed his lips at having to speak directly of such matters; he had witnessed the births of none of his own nine children, preferring to think of them as