The Story Behind the Story
On 17 March at 4:49 PM, my daughter Beta (Bonnie) messaged me with a photo she had just taken:
“What do u think about this for a story cover, Dad?”
“I like it!” I replied.
“It was next to where we parked.”
“That’s a photo you took?” I asked.
“Yeah, it is.”
“What kind of story do you want me to write?”
“What do you mean?”
“Lighthearted or serious?
“How do you want it to end… happy or sad?” [I’ve explained to my daughters that not all stories should have happy endings, but all should have meaning.]
“Do you want the main character to be male or female?”
“What setting for the story?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Like when… in the past, present, or future?”
“Okay, how far in the past?”
A pause: “1800s…”
“Where… what city or country?”
A pause: “Italy.”
So—to illustrate for her what can be done, starting with just a few pieces—here’s what we came up with using her photo for the cover and the broad-brush decisions she made.
The Story (second draft)
Settling onto one of the wind-twisted branches, the bird reflected: Gods and goddesses, kings and queens, generals and admirals, from time immemorial I’ve counseled and cautioned them all. A messenger through all the cycles of mankind. Perhaps that effort is better spent on the common people as witnesses to manifestations of prophecy and change. If only they learn from them.
* * *
Napoli, Regno Regnu dî Dui Sicili (The Kingdom of Two Sicilies)
Maria’s grandmother’s small villa sat on a level area cut centuries ago into a hill north of Napoli at the promontory of Posillipo. Roman sources said the Greeks first named it Pausílypon, meaning respite from worry because of its beauty and solitude. She had lived with her Nonna—her mother’s mother—since the authorities had executed her father and confiscated their home. She and her mother had nowhere else to go, and she truly wished it would become their retreat from the troubles her father had brought upon them.
Her Nonna’s home had been in the family for two hundred years. A mix of tuffa, a blond volcanic store, and dark southern piperno formed the modest three-story structure. The foundation and floors were slabs of cut and fitted Vesuvian lava. Evergreen groves of ilex, palm, camelia, and umbrella pine surrounded it. Dramatically different, older, and taller, she wondered at the leafless tree whose top rose higher than the third-floor balcony she sat upon watching her grandmother suffer from the same wasting disease that had taken her mother the month before.
The open balconies brought in the breeze sluicing through the Procida channel, carrying a tang of the sea. A welcome relief during the hot, muggy summer when the sand-laden sirocco—born over the Libyan deserts—brought a stickiness blessedly ended once the wind shifted and rains came. The freshness was still a pleasure even as autumn arrived with its damp chill.
The black bird, a corvo Nonna had called it in a lucid moment, perched among the tangle of branches in that barren tree. No matter how early she rose, the bird was there as if waiting. Whether for her or for something… she had no idea. As night fell and its ebon feathers merged with darkening twilight, only a last blink of orange-red eyes showed its presence. She did not know if the bird remained and slept in the tree or not.
But the bird talked. As Nonna had said it had done since her husband, Maria’s nonno, had died twenty years before on the night Maria had been born. As she sat upon the balcony, Maria loosened her hair—as her grandmother had often done before her illness—to catch the wind. The tight high collar of her dress was also unbuttoned. And in those moments, she felt free. If only it would last. The first morning she had done that—despite the chill—was also the first time the bird spoke to her.
“Why do you not sleep later… the sun is barely awake?”
Maria had jumped to find who spoke. But Nonna slept, and no one was around. When she sat down again, where she could watch her grandmother in bed, the voice repeated the question. She held a pale hand against her cheek to test if the first flush of fever—the herald of the wasting disease—was upon her. But no. No warmth… just the coolness of the morning. A rustling in the branches, as if the bird wished her attention, drew her eyes.
“Why do you rise so early?” the bird asked her.
To her surprise—which never entirely faded in the coming days—she had answered with her innermost thought: “I worry I’ll miss when things might change. If I sleep too late, I’ll awake, and everything will remain the same.”
“You are alive and,” the bird had pointed with his beak at Nonna’s bedroom, “the old woman is alive.”
“My Nonna suffers, though. If nothing changes… she remains as she is.”
The bird dipped its head, “And what of you?”
“The same… I am stuck.”
“I do not understand. Stuck.” the bird sidestepped along the branch to come closer to the stone balustrade. Head cocked to the side, one lustrous eye questioned her without speaking.
“Others have decided my life for me.” Maria had only talked about her dreams and frustrations with her grandmother, who was the only one who would listen. “My father, before he left, wished—expected—me to marry Giovanni.”
“And you do not want to?”
“I don’t love him… and Giovanni—as my father did—believes a woman, even a wife, is his property. And I dream of more. I cannot lose half my soul or all by marrying such a man, someone I’ll never love.”
* * *
Inside Maria was as fragmented as the country her father and the other members of the Giovine Italia had hoped to unify into a single nation. Napoli had—just five years before—become the capital of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies. The perpetuation of powerful men creating fiefdoms to enrich themselves and not the people. Her father, following the Bandeira brothers of Venice, had been executed with other insurgents just months ago. After her mother’s death, all she had left was Nonna, but she was losing her too. Then what would she do? She could not remain here with the only recourse to marry a man who treated her as chattel.
“What do you wish to do?” The bird had asked her that morning. It did not speak every day but listened to her thoughts.
She glanced toward her grandmother, who seemed to breathe easier as she slept. “I don’t know. No, I do, but not how,” she had answered the bird.
“All the branches of a tree grow from the trunk. And all trees that survive to reach their potential—what height they could reach—must have a strong trunk and roots.”
“What do you mean?” she had asked the bird, “I’m not a tree. What you say does not help.”
The bird had shifted and shaken the branch it was upon. “Your trunk is your character… and roots your integrity, and if you keep them intact, they will grow to anchor and support the branching of your life and your purpose.”
“I have no life, no purpose. When Nonna dies, I’ll be alone.”
“You sit here alone… but you’re not by yourself. Those who love you, both present and those passed… are with you. You need not see or touch them to know they love you. Those who are gone, those who may yet leave you, you must not think them ghosts that haunt. They are freed souls. Only you—the living—can turn them into ghosts. And the way one finds their purpose… is by determining they must find it and then doing so; else life is aimless and what it becomes may not be what you wish.”
Nonna, when Maria had cried on her shoulder about what to do when her mother died, had told her life is a maze of many doors that hint of what’s inside. Choosing which to pass by, which to open, which to then step through required knowing what you want. She had expected the bird to sense her thoughts and remark on them, but it said no more that day.
* * *
“You wish to go from here… to no longer sit… and never more wait for life to come for you?” the bird had asked her the next morning as she sat despondently remembering Nonna’s advice about life’s doors and her dreams from the night before and what they revealed.
“I do, but can’t… my Nonna…”
“Yes, but once she is gone, will you go too? Not in the same manner, I see your time is far off… but away from here to determine your life and not leave to happenstance.”
“I want to go to America,” she awakened with that fixed in her mind.
The bird hopped from the branch to land on the stone rail, craning its head toward her and nodded. “It is not where you want to go, but where you must. But remember the destination is not about distance. Where you should focus on what you want is where you are. You must have that understanding within you before you decide. Before you set forth on your journey, no matter where that leads.”
“So, I have within me how to change or determine my life, not merely by going someplace far from here?”
With a flutter of wings, the bird returned to its branch. “Exactly. You—your mind and soul—can form your solution. Seek it first and not just a change in setting or location, though that may be part of what you must do.”
* * *
The hour was late, and she had dozed. The call awakened and surprised her, “Nonna?” Maria unwrapped from the blanket to find her sitting up in bed. Face turned to catch the slanting light of the full moon streaming in. “Nonna!”
“Help me,” her grandmother lifted her arm to point toward the balcony, “I must see…”
“The moon… a final time.”
Maria lifted her to stand, and they tottered until Nonna stood with hands on the stone balustrade to stare up at the large luminous orb in the sky over the barren tree. The branches gleamed silver in the moonlight. Two flecks of orange-red flashed. The bird was there… awake and watching them.
“Bring me my coins from the bowl by my bed.”
Maria had, through the years, asked her grandmother why she kept them—the two coins at her bedside—only to receive an enigmatic smile in reply. She got them. Her grandmother had loosened the long wiry locks of white hair that reached past her shoulders with a moonbeam’s glow. Holding a coin in each hand, her grandmother stared up at the moon. “Benvenuta luna che mi porti fortuna, welcome, moon, and may you bring me good fortune!” She repeated the chant thirteen times, and with the last, began to shake. Maria barely caught her as she sagged and fell. “All my life, I wish this, and sometimes luna grants it. I have you, my nipotina though your mother was told she would never bear a child… a grandchild for me. What the moon may have remaining for me after all my years of pleading, I give to you, Maria. For the moon never beams without bringing dreams… follow yours,” she reached a withered hand to touch her cheek and closed her eyes as she slipped to the floor unconscious.
* * *
Maria awoke from a melancholy of regrets but kept her eyes tightly closed. Her mother and father had died with them. And carried so many when they were alive, it affected how they lived. She did not want that burden.
“Have you decided?”
She didn’t need to open her eyes to see the bird. “Yes. When it is time,” she could not say it would be with her grandmother’s passing, “I will go to America. To my cousin, Virginia, and her husband, Edgar.”
The bird bobbed its head, “But carry no ghosts with you and no regrets… do not become haunted. Free yourself of them, so there is room for the spirits—the souls—of those you love to strengthen you.”
“Then, it is time.”
She opened her eyes at the flutter of wings to find the bird gone. Inside the bedroom, her grandmother had found peace.
* * *
The promontory of Posillipo ended in the south at the Sorrentine peninsula. Opposite it, south at the entrance to the Tyrrhenian, the island of Capri formed a partial breakwater the ship had just passed, marking their exit from the Bay of Napoli. And still, Maria had not looked back. The past was past, and her future was ahead. Standing near the bow, face into the wind, she turned to go to her stateroom. She had thought the bird might visit a last time before she left after Nonna’s burial. It had not but now sat upon what she had heard a sailor call a capstan encircled by thick rope.
“Remember this,” the bird began without greeting, “ghosts and regrets haunt. The souls of those you love will strengthen you. And always,” the bird looked up into the sky, “you have your grandmother’s gift to believe in.” The bird flew away out to sea.
The ship’s speed increased, and she felt the first pitch and roll of greater swells. She untied the ribbon that secured her headscarf and released the band holding her hair in a tight bun. Her long tresses—an ink-black shawl—lifted on the wind to stream over her face. She turned around, forward, and the locks flowed behind her. Free. Virginia’s letters told her Edgar was a writer with interest in the unusual. She wondered what he would think about the bird and talk of ghosts and souls… and what her grandmother believed of the moon.
NOTE FROM DENNIS
I’ll likely tweak and refine this a bit. Mostly, I wanted to show Bonnie the process, including the crafting of a message, and how it turned out.
Edgar and Virginia are the Poe’s. [Sidenote: my whimsical premise is that he—Edgar—because of the tragedies of his life, chose ghosts and became haunted and his Muse drew from many sources including Maria’s telling of her story. His last completed poem, Annabel Lee, begins with for the moon never beams without bringing me dreams.]
For centuries, the raven’s role as a messenger has been widely used in stories from many cultures to deliver portents and omens. In Norse mythology, Odin possessed two ravens named Huginn and Muninn, representing thought and memory. According to Hebrew folklore, Noah sends a white raven to check conditions while on the ark. It learns that the floodwaters are dissipating, but it does not return with the news. It is punished by being turned black and being forced to feed on carrion forever. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a raven also begins as white before Apollo punished it by turning it black for delivering a message of a lover’s unfaithfulness.
In 1844, two brothers from Venice, Attilio and Emilio Bandiera, members of the Giovine Italia, planned to make a raid on the Calabrian coast against the Kingdom of Two Sicilies to support Italian unification. They assembled a band of about twenty men ready to sacrifice their lives and set sail on their venture on 12 June 1844. Four days later, they landed near Crotone, intending to go to Cosenza, liberated the political prisoners, and issued their proclamations. Tragically for the Bandiera brothers, they did not find the insurgent band they were told awaited them, so they moved toward La Sila. They were ultimately betrayed by one of their party, the Corsican Pietro Boccheciampe, and by some peasants who believed them to be Turkish pirates. A detachment of gendarmes and volunteers confronted them. After a brief fight, the whole band was taken prisoner and escorted to Cosenza, where several Calabrians who had taken part in a previous rising were also under arrest. The Bandiera brothers and their nine companions were executed by firing squad; some accounts state they cried “Viva l’Italia!” (Long live Italy!) as they fell. The moral effect was enormous throughout Italy, the action of the authorities was universally condemned, and the martyrdom of the Bandiera brothers bore fruit in the subsequent revolutions.