She was only about sixteen in 1924, but already flowering into a truly rare beauty with dark brown eyes, high cheekbones and hair of dark sheening chestnut. She had climbed the side of the base of the Calabrian mountains in the south of Italy on a windy, sunny day with her mother, my grandmother, to pick wild fruit and figs from their farm. The two women had separated for a while as a pair of anxious eyes was watching from a short distance.
From behind the brambles near a cherry tree, the eyes watched the lithe arm reaching for the fruit and placing most in her apron to be put eventually into a small sack nearby. The eyes coveted her body and face. They slowly ran up and down from head to her half-covered shapely calves as she reached for the free bounty of the mountain.
The heart of the interloper was beginning to beat within his chest as a blacksmith's anvil being beaten rapidly by a hot hammer. His legs were set apart for balance to spring sideways and reach her in two or three of her heartbeats. His hand perspired as he gripped his knife more firmly.
As he waited anxiously for the older woman to widen the gap in her search, he constantly gauged all the distances between the three, on the lonely mountainside. Thoughts surely must have raced across his mind constantly flashing to put away his knife and walk back down the path he used to follow them. Surely he knew that what he was about to do was a heinous act loathed by both God and man. He must have been close to folding the glistening blade, but as do all evil acts, some go forward to fruition with little or no restraint until the great impulse is satiated by blood and screams.
So it must have been with Francesco Mattera that summer day in the glare of August. The young girl, Alba Pelosi, started to hum and sing one of her many love songs as she reached for an unusually large purple fig just above her reach. She must have that one! She would eat it there, and savor its delicious meat and grind the small delicate seeds as part of the reward. She placed the fruit of her apron into the sack to enhance a longer reach and perhaps jump for the prize.
The silvery blade of his knife was sheathed for some unfathomable reason. Perhaps it was conscience, perhaps fear of the consequences if he were caught, imprisonment, retribution by her family, or perhaps,… perhaps even pity in hurting this innocent creature of the countryside. For like most men, he was not totally evil. There were occasions when he helped people courteously, helping older men and women in and out of his carriage. He lovingly took care of his horse and gave the poor children of the village free rides when he was going somewhere without a passenger. The thousand good characteristics resided with ten evil ones for the equipoised conflict for his soul, but an evil trait is one hundred times the weight of a good one.
The older woman called something to her and the girl answered above the gentle wind. After retrieving the succulent fig and enjoying it as her last, she moved up the incline away from her mother for the last picks of the day. Around a slight bend, she was now completely out of her mother's sight. Any screams now would be carried by the winds to the valley and dissipated to unhearing ears far below.
Mattera half-circled silently to a new vantage-point, hidden like a crawling leopard approaching its unsuspecting prey, gauging, watching, checking as his hand again grasped the knife and exposed the steel talon to the golden sunlight. It would do its work after all. There was to be no retreat without blood on the steel this day.
The smaller evil had overcome the larger good. The thoughts of tolerance, love of humanity and goodness, coruscating across his mind, were stifled and silenced. God was cast out of his soul that day on the mountain, as his moment had come. In four silent steps he approached her from the rear and was upon her like the great cats of the savanna on their unsuspecting prey, without sound until it was too late. The iron grasp of his left arm and hand around her neck, mouth and head was unbreakable by this frightened girl as her eyes widened in fear.
When she recognized who it was, for a brief moment, she thought it was just a bad joke. Just a young man, frightening a defenseless young girl. Something to laugh and joke about later, something to build a future conversation on. Perhaps, she thought, he played this little joke because he really liked her and a romance would blossom from the incident. But this was not the case, for the blade held close to her left jaw moved quickly and sliced open the alabaster flesh studded with many tiny beauty marks. Although her mouth was slightly uncovered, she did not scream. She felt no pain as the bright crimson fluid ran down in a sticky cascade between his fingers.
He released her in shock, she began to feel the great sting of the wound. As he walked away quickly like a cowardly jackal, he yelled, "If I can't have you, then no one will want you ...except me!" In the days that followed, he was arrested by the carribinerri and held in jail until he was remanded for trial in the Supreme Court of the Provence of Calabria.
Alba's wound was attended to. She could not understand the savage paradox perpetrated in the name of love. Mattera had declared his love for her, but my grandfather, a respected architect and published poet, had rejected him as a proper suitor for the hand of one of his daughters. In his twisted dementia, he believed that this act was a vehicle to circumvent the edict of her father.
The man was lucky in many ways without the fulfillment of his desire:
He was incarcerated before he could be repaid in kind a hundred fold. Her brothers, my uncles, were of such personalities of noblesse oblige who, fortunately for the assailant, believed in the fulfillment of justice within the law.
My grandfather did not have him killed.
My brother was too young, seven years old, to seek vengeance.
And I, I had yet to be born.
By coincidence, many years later, as I taught in high school on Long Island and knew the story of my aunt, I knew a very fine man and teacher named Francesco Mattera. One day out of curiosity, I asked him if his parents came from the mountains of Calabria as I did, but they did not.
Weeks followed and the trial of Mattera began in the packed courtroom of the Supreme Court of the Provence of Calabria. The prisoner was guarded and flanked by two carribinieri with their dark uniforms and Napoleonic type hats. Witnesses were called establishing times, places and events. The families concerned were present. One to see just punishment for an dastardly, savage and cowardly attack on a helpless girl with a spotless reputation, and the other hoping for blind justice not to see or hear.
Alba was in the courtroom with her jaw still bandaged from the surgeon's skilled hand. There was no plastic surgery in those days. The sutures were fine and the wound bathed with antiseptic the first few days as it sealed. She wore a bandage under her chin and tied on the top of her head to compress the inner bandage beneath it. The surgeon had a sterile, oil-soaked compress on the skin hopefully to keep the scar tissue forming down to a minimum. He had given several internal stitches to muscle, so they could be removed externally above the epidermis.
The defense attorney argued that, although possibly guilty, the defendant was insane with frustrated, unrequited love for this girl. In his twisted logic, he thought that no one would have her if she were disfigured and that he alone would possess her. The counselor asked for mercy from the court.
The king's prosecutor argued that the despicable act cried out for the most punishment allowed under the law, since no woman was safe from maiming if this crime went unpunished severely. The message must be sent, he argued, that such an action is intolerable in a civilized society. 'Animals' like the defendant were not fit to live among decent citizens.
Alba was called to the stand trembling with anxiety, as the silent spectators held their breaths. Her shyness also played against her. With a subdued voice, she of told the incident of that day, looking down mostly on her folded hands. After many questions, she cried silently mostly out of the fear and nervousness attacking the realm of shyness innate to her nature.
Mattera looked straight ahead without apparent emotion, but there was no remorse in his cold stare forward.
Finally nearing the end of his summation, the prosecuting attorney, turning partly to the packed courtroom asked, "...and because of this disfigurement to this beautiful innocent, who would want this poor girl now?" My father's nephew, Rudolpho, a young man of twenty, who loved Alba from afar for a year, stood up in the middle of the silent sea of shocked faces and announced vociferously, "I would!"
Mattera served but a little over a year in an Italian prison and thereafter escaped with his life, however miserable must have been its nature.
Rudolpho once stated, years later in Argentina where they lived, that all he needed out of life was a tent to live in and his Alba of the mountains.
Although their lives were touched, as are many others, with salt and tears, my fraternal cousin and maternal aunt were married for forty-one years until her death in 1980 in Buenas Aires.
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Dante's Story List and Biography