The Ancients


Anna Maria and I walk across the Villa of Adrano under a bleachy white sky and a canopy of palm trees. It is before dinner and I’m hugging my shawl around me like a hunched-over widow. We don’t speak much. I don’t have much to say.

My cousin is a little stooped and pouchy around the middle and her glasses make her eyes look bigger and fishier than they are. Her clothes—clingy t-shirts, quilted coats—make it difficult to tell how old she actually is but she projects the air of a disaffected, chain-smoking soccer mom. Such things aren’t spoken of, but in hanging out with her, I get the distinct sense that she is condemned now to old maidenhood or maybe just to oldness. The bitterness of it has turned her words vinegary and short. In a week, I don’t recall ever seeing her smile.

Before I leave that tiny island, I will see her shout, lecture, swear, scold, and cry in wracking sobs like a little girl, tears rolling down her face. I never sort out whether she likes me or not. But she takes care of me. Unlike my Aunt Maria, she has a car and friends under 75, and she shows up, every single day, unsmiling and brisk, for an outing.

One afternoon, it is Adrano. It’s never totally clear what we’re going there to see because Anna Maria speaks more Italian than Sicilian, which I have trouble following. In the car, she asks me a question and I make a decent guess at an answer. She falls silent and then bursts out in her big, half-angry laugh and speaks to a third person who isn’t there.

“Jesus Christ, this girl doesn’t understand me.”

She tries another way of saying it and I still don’t understand. She taps her fingers on the steering wheel, trying to think of the word in Sicilian but she can’t.

“You know, Anna,” I say, finally, fishing for whatever words I know. The rickety old language. “In Italian, I’m kind of stupid.”

“No!” she says, feigning politeness.

“But in English, I’m pretty smart, I swear.”

Her laughter dissolves into a wheezy smoker’s cough.

In Adrano, she walks with me past the baroque town hall, glancing up at the sky and frowning as though she could frighten the clouds away with a glance. Fat stone cherubs cavort over the doors. Explosions of carved fruit and leaves grace the doors. I am exhausted from speaking Sicilian, my poor brain frazzled and clicking like an old computer, working hard for every word. So I stay silent.

I still have no idea what we’ve come here to see. She tries to explain but I just shake my head.

“Fine,” she says. “Just walk. I’ll show you.”

At the edge of the park, she points.


It is a castle. Right in the center of town. An enormous fortification—a single tower up on a high platform.

“What is it?” I ask as though I’ll be able to understand the answer.

“Ruins,” she says. Just like that. And I want to ask a million questions. What kind of ruins? Who left this here? But I know she doesn’t know and I know I wouldn’t be able to understand if she did, so I do the only thing I know to do. I reach into my bag and draw out my camera. I take a photo.

A year later, I will see an almost identical photo on Wikipedia in the entry about the Normans, the part about their incredible conquests in Sicily. The greatest rulers the island ever knew, according to some. The Normans! With their weird language that must have seemed so odd. They brought castles. They brought blue eyes. They left their stones behind.

We make a circle around the ruin and see some other things near the Villa. A tiny church that’s painted in music box colors. A stretch of green and ocher buildings, their facades perfect and crumbling and beaten down by the sun, the sulfur in the sky. A stretch of jewelry stores all in a row down one street.

When I was a baby, my grandmother made a visit back to Sicily and came home with a gold necklace for me in a tiny box, a Madonna in painted enamel on the medallion. I wasn’t allowed to wear it until I’d graduated from college. The box still bears the inscription of a jewelry store in Adrano. Maybe the one I stood outside of that day. Maybe one that stood on that spot.

Then there were the old men. On our way back to the car, we pass them. In chairs, wearing their hats. All in a circle. It is that hour of the day when old men in Sicily sit and talk and talk and sit. Wearing their best clothes. In that between-time around the edges of siesta. And they look, their heads all following in unison as though I am a tennis ball. They look as though I am an alien, newly coughed up from a gleaming space ship. As though I have sprouted a tail, an unruly tentacle. They grow silent as Anna Maria and I approach and she pays them no heed but I switch, manic, between cool disinterest and gaping fascination.

How do they know? I am wearing a red cotton skirt and a pair of sandals. The shawl renders me modest but I would have been anyway, shoulders under a t-shirt. It cannot be the clothes because other women are out and about. They look like me. They’re wearing less, in fact. It’s something else and I can’t see it and I don’t have enough words to ask about it. But I wonder what it is, this thing that makes me American.

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