Praise God, never the wind
1996 - Luca Saracino is thirteen and has been completely blind for eight months when his parents move to a Southern Italian farmhouse they dream of turning into a hotel. With his brother dropping out of university and the family reeling from Luca’s diagnosis, they are chasing dreams of rebirth and reinvention.
As Luca tells his story without sight - experiencing the world solely through hearing, smell, taste and touch - he meets the dauntless Ada Guadalupi, who takes him out to explore the rocky fields and empty beaches. But Luca and Ada find they can’t escape the grudges that have lasted between their families for generations, or the gossiping of the town. And Luca is preyed upon by the feral Wanderer, who walks the vineyards of his home.
As Luca's family starts to crack at the seams, Luca and Ada have to navigate new lands and old rivalries to uncover the truths spoken as whispers on the wind.
Release date: June 7, 2022
Publisher: Titan Books
Print pages: 320
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Never the Wind
I became friends with Ada Guadalupi in the June of ’96, at the start of a summer that would shape my existence the way the wind shapes the land. Mum and I had recently moved South, and I was not adapting well. My troubles began straight away, on our first night in the farmhouse that had been Grandpa Ferdinando’s and now was ours, when I woke up needing to pee, terrified that I wouldn’t make it to the loo.
Yes, I do appreciate the funny side of this – now. At thirteen, I didn’t. I had been fully blind for a grand total of eight months, too short a time to master my new life; once or twice I had lost my way to the bathroom and peed myself like a baby, and even though I’d learnt the route since, the humiliation stayed with me. Half-asleep, I reached out for my cane, stood up and headed out, or so I believed, until I ran into a wall where I was expecting a door. I must have overshot, I thought, and shifted left. The wall was still there.
My brain finished rebooting. I had instinctively followed my Turin routine, but there was a silence around me which did not belong in a city: no hum of cars, no high-pitched sirens, only a faint chirping of crickets. I was not in Turin. I was not home. I was in the village of Portodimare, a thousand miles south of everything I knew, in a room which – up until this year – I had occupied for no more than one week every summer. I’d gone to sleep without first practising the itinerary from bed to loo – a rookie mistake.
The sighted master any place the moment they are in it, whereas I need practice. To the sighted, space is a container of things, such as trees and houses and people; to me, space is movement, a dance of things reaching to me with their sound while I reach out to them with my limbs and my cane. As I move, space moves with me, and I need to get the rhythm right, for if I fall out of time and pick the wrong landmark to turn past, I find myself down the wrong alley, and by the time I notice it I am utterly lost. I am a drummer, playing beats with feet, cane and hands. I practise a new place in the same way as a musician practises a new song; if I lose the rhythm, I lose the way, because the rhythm is the way, and I need to practise until I get it right, and then keep practising until I cannot get it wrong, until my body takes over.
I hadn’t rehearsed that room, that house, at all. I was not a deft blind person yet – there is only so much you can learn in eight months.
My anxiety racked up a notch. I badly needed to pee. I turned my back to the wall and stepped towards the bed, from where I hoped I’d manage to make my way to the door, using what visual memories I had. Tricky, but doable.
The bed was not where I thought it was.
Because I had followed my Turin regime, I must have veered right after leaving the bed; I had to correct to the left on my way back. Pee bubbled in my bladder like soup in a cauldron, sending steam up to my brain. It took me precious moments I didn’t have to realise that I had to correct to the right, because I was going the opposite direction, towards the bed rather than away from it. I veered right, too much, for my cane still didn’t encounter the bed. It found another wall. There were walls everywhere, encroaching on me from all sides. Where was this one? Left of the bed, or right, or…?
I was lost.
I was lost in my own room and I was going to wet myself.
Fuck. The indignity of it made me furious. I spun round, sweeping my cane in a semicircle, a Hail Mary for something, anything, that would help me locate myself.
My cane bumped into something hard.
I edged closer, tested the darkness with my hands, and felt sweaty cotton and a soft surface giving under pressure – a mattress. The bed. I swept my hand over it, searching for the pillow, to locate the bed’s head, and thus its orientation. I can make it. Or not: the soup in my bladder would slosh over any moment.
I knew that I had to go through the bedroom door – which was on the wall parallel to the bed’s feet – and turn right under a small archway, which gave on to a hall with four doors, and the second from the right was the loo. I walked quicker than I normally would, quicker than it was wise for a blind boy. I managed not to trip, found the door and marched out in triumph.
My cane bumped into something once again. I hadn’t a clue what it could be, so I squatted to touch it, letting my hand sink into a collection of broken objects, hard and cold. I almost cut myself on the edge of one of them. A brick in a pile of rubble. Like the one Mum had mentioned that afternoon. My parents were renovating the property; builders were at work during the day, knocking down walls, raising new ones, changing the layout of the house.
I waved the cane to the left, where I remembered there being a wall.
There was no wall.
I reached out further. My arm was extended to full length, the cane too, and I was trembling by then, as I still couldn’t find any wall. The references I remembered from my sighted days were gone; I was lost again.
It’s not fair. My eyes welled up. It’s not fair, it’s not fair, it’s not fair. When I’d found my way, the way had changed; I couldn’t win a game stacked against me. I had no option left other than to pee here, on dirt and broken stones, and tomorrow everybody would pretend not to notice, but I would know they did. I hated myself for that, and I hated myself for these baby tears. I sniffled and took a hand to my eyes to wipe them.
I felt on the back of my palm, not exactly a breeze, but a cold spot, like the ones said to manifest when a ghost is close. A ghost, or a draughty window. There’s one in the corridor. The tears stopped as quickly as they’d come. There was still a chance.
I trailed the cold, slow steps this time, squeezing my dick between my thighs (I wore only pants; it was too hot for pyjama bottoms), willing the window to be in its place. When I touched the glass, it was like unwrapping the best Christmas present ever. I groped for the handle. I found it and turned it right, too quickly for the old wood. It got stuck. I took a breath, turned the handle again, slower, and pushed the window open.
I pulled down my pants and fire exploded out of my bladder, along my dick, and out of the window, a blazing waterfall splattering on the pavement two floors below. It felt amazing. I peed and peed and got high on the unadulterated joy of it. I whipped my dick to shake off the last drops and pulled up my pants. I was pleased with myself, like when I’d managed to complete Wario Land on the Game Boy just before the Game Boy had smouldered out.
I stood there, facing a landscape I couldn’t see, quaffing the last traces of urine in the cool night air, the sweet scent of victory. I listened to distant waves coming ashore, the ever-present crickets and a lunar barking of dogs. Packs of strays roamed the countryside, where they found no shortage of things to bark at – foxes, hedgehogs, cats, the moon.
A change in sound occurred.
I noticed when I tried to switch back from the barking to the waves, finding their sound was gone. The sea had stopped making any noise. And now that I was paying attention, the crickets had stopped. Only the barking remained, fading away. Soon that was gone too; and the night was perfectly silent.
I could still hear my own breath, my beating heart, the brushing of my palms on the windowsill, but no sound, no sound at all, reached me from the outside. It was the silence our world would make if our world were dead, if it had stopped moving and breathing. I swallowed. I had no way of discerning what crawled under the cover of that silence, sneaking closer.
The air was thick with the anticipation that comes before something momentous is said. I expected to hear a voice, a call – human, or otherwise. I heard something else: a breeze barely blowing, like the breath of a child fast asleep. Before I could fully appreciate the uncanniness of it all, it was over. The night sounded like itself once again, with waves and crickets joining the wind. Not the dogs: those didn’t return.
I shut the window and forgot about it, as we do with things we would rather not confront, when we are pleased with ourselves.
* * *
The near-miss tragedy with the loo made it plain that I had to get a grasp of my new home. I told Mum that I was going to explore the farmhouse and the fields, to which she said, ‘I’ll go with you.’
‘You can’t! That’s the point. I don’t want to rely on you for ever.’
‘Just to get you started. I helped you in Turin.’
‘And how many times did I manage to go out alone in Turin?’
The answer was none, so she said instead, ‘You didn’t have enough time to learn.’
‘Mum, I’m begging you. It’s difficult enough as it is.’
That shut her up. She and Dad didn’t like to hear me say that blindness was hard, and not some great, madcap boy’s adventure.
The Masseria del Vento – the Grange of the Wind, to use its full name – had been built in the seventeenth century, one of the countless fortified masserias dotting the countryside. Puglia, the region in the heel of Italy, used to be invaded every other day by anyone who had ever built a boat, so the locals, that is, the descendants of older waves of invaders, came up with these self-sufficient structures, halfway between a modest castle and a glorified farm, in which to take refuge when a new wave came. Small communities would live in the vicinities of a fortified masseria, and when the invaders du jour arrived, they would retreat within the walls, where they would keep producing their own food and wait for the invaders to get bored.
Our place was never one of the most formidable, and it hadn’t aged well; today budding invaders could simply wander in from one of the many points where the walls had crumbled. But the property comprised a decent-sized vineyard, century-old olive trees and an area of Mediterranean scrub scattered with more trees – carob, almond, walnut, peach, apricot, plums and a copse of eucalyptus. Wild prickly pears stood here and there, with fruits whose mad colours were wasted on me now.
Back in my sighted days I’d liked all of that. Now I found it daunting. Walking down a city road is a cinch, once you get the hang of it; cars are frightening, but after you get used to their roar, you appreciate the easy rationality of the road layout. The countryside is another matter. Mediterranean scrub will get you lost in a heartbeat. There are no straight lines, no neat corners or markers, and what sparse landmarks you might come across – rocks, shrubs – are almost indistinguishable from one another to the unskilled touch of a newbie blind person. Also, it can shift: a passing herd of sheep might upturn rocks, change the shape of shrubs, and the next time you go there you better get the hang of the change at once, or you will be hard-pressed to find your way back without help. Nothing is certain in a living world; nothing is defined.
This was 1996, before mobiles were cheap enough to become ubiquitous. If I got lost, I would have to wait for Mum to come and find me. I wasn’t planning on straying far. No big deal, I thought. I had never ventured out on my own in Turin, a city full of strangers and fast-moving things, where walking was easier but also riskier. Here, I thought the only danger was humiliation. I was wrong about that, as I was wrong about a great many things that summer.
My young brain was a blank page easily written on. I learnt in no time the way from bed to loo, from bedroom to staircase to kitchen, from kitchen to garden door, from garden door to porch table. Seven steps, turn right, three steps, turn right, twenty steps, turn left. Those were simple beats. The challenging ones came in the wilds beyond the porch.
I started with the least ambitious routes: from the porch to the walnut tree, from the walnut tree to the wide-leaved carob tree that had been a favourite reading spot, from there to the vineyard. My right arm aches when I think of it. Sweeping the white cane on bare earth was hard, more of a continuous tapping than a smooth arc. I was using my marshmallow cane tip, one whose lightness and bulbous shape was meant for paved roads. It was only the following spring, if I remember, that I would discover the bell-sized flex tip for rough terrain, which I still use today.
In two or three days I was confident handling those routes and decided to venture into the vineyard. The vines were neatly planted in parallel lines, so I could enter a corridor between two rows, then get to the end of it and back without fear of getting lost. I planned to use the vineyard as a platform for further exploration: each line would take me to a slightly different point in the next field, so all I had to do was count rows and I’d know where I would end up. From there, I could push myself further, knowing that, as long as I made my way back to the vineyard, I could make my way back home. It seemed easy enough.
I first entered the vineyard late one morning. Not being able to see the other side, I couldn’t estimate how long it would take me to get there. The vines were only slightly shorter than me, and their coarse leaves brushed my face whenever I veered too much one way or the other.
There was a strong aroma – one I would come to cherish in later years – of not quite wine, but what comes before, like the yeasty scent of dough that will become bread. I touched a bunch of young grapes, each one little and firm like a milk tooth. I picked one and put it in my mouth. I spat it out immediately; it was tart, bitter. I wished I had water with me. I never carried water with me in Turin, where it was rarely that hot, and where I could just buy water at every corner.
I remember the air being motionless. The noise of the building works, until now an ever-present hubbub at the edge of my consciousness, didn’t make it here. I was lost; a dread came over me and choked my throat like a thief in the night. It was a terror completely out of proportion to the objective circumstances. I think what I felt was a sense of foreboding – of the encounter I was about to have, of the extraordinary events I was to go through before summer’s end. I think I was afraid because of things yet to come.
Don’t be absurd, I told myself. I put one hand on the vine next to me and reached out with the other to a vine on the opposite side, and I remained with my arms spread for a while, like a statue of Christ abandoned in the sticks. There we go. I was still in the same place, I wasn’t lost, I couldn’t be lost. Nothing to fear. And yet I wanted to go back to the farmhouse, to human sounds and voices.
I forced myself to push forward, until my cane told me the vines had come to an end. I moved another step and felt a breeze on my face. I was out. I was far from home, a grizzled adventurer who had just landed on the other side of the world. It gave me an intoxicating sense of freedom. It also made me uneasy. That’s enough for one day.
Or was it?
The vineyard had been a piece of cake, as I’d expected. To break free I had to push myself. On this side was an expanse of scrub, a terrain I had to explore sooner or later. Only a few steps. I’d walk in a straight line, until I reached a rock, a tree, anything I could make into a landmark; and then I would move on from there.
I gave myself forty steps. If I didn’t find a landmark in forty steps, I would turn around, re-trace my path. It’s safe, I told myself. Safe, I repeated.
I walked on, conscious of the flip-flops I was wearing. Trainers would have been better on that rocky, spiky soil, but I didn’t want to go back and change, and have to answer Mum’s questions. Eight, nine, ten steps. I barely avoided kicking a half-buried rock, and kept walking. Eighteen, nineteen, twenty. My feet were rough with grit. I was thirsty: the grape’s tartness had taken root in my mouth. The sun was beating hard. I passed a hand through my hair, wishing I’d put my baseball cap on. I’d gone for a walk with no water, no shoes and no hat; I knew the Southern ways as little as I knew the ways of the blind. Twenty-nine, thirty. A stab of pain. I panicked for a second, before realising that something had slipped between a flip-flop and my foot. Leaning on my cane for balance, I lifted the foot, and took out of my sole a tiny hard object with spikes on all sides. Some drops of a substance more viscous than sweat poured onto my fingers. I smelt it, and it was metallic – blood. Only a few drops. I flipped the thorny thing away. I wiped a layer of sweat from my forehead, and took off my soaked t-shirt, leaving me in just flip-flops and shorts. What are the signs of heatstroke?
Forty steps; no landmark.
A part of me was grateful, because if I had found one I would have had no excuse to head back. Rationally I knew I was close to the farmhouse and civilisation, but it didn’t feel like it. I felt like an astronaut whose cable had snapped; I was floating in space, unmoored. A memory came back to me of the impossible silence I’d heard on my first night in the Masseria del Vento, of the certainty that something crawled beneath it. But there was no silence here. There was a soundscape of crickets, rustling leaves, an intense chirping of birds. Something else too; a different kind of rustling, coming from below rather than above, from the soil rather than the foliage. Coming closer. And behind the rustling, I picked up an undefinable gait, a tap, tap, which sounded like nothing in nature. They sounded like steps of sorts; an animal’s, perhaps? Tap, tap.
‘Who’s there?’ I called.
The wind took the gait away, but the rustling got stronger, and whatever was coming started running towards me. I heard heavy breaths, beastly pantings. I turned and hurried back towards the vineyard, too late, for now the pantings were accompanied by guttural growls, and when the barking started I knew it was stray dogs. The breeze brought the rotting scent from their throats.
The barking got louder, and it got closer.
Every cell in my body begged me to break into a run. I managed not to listen, and just keep walking. I only had to make it to the vineyard, and then…
… then what?
The vineyard was not a magic circle, and the dogs were not foul-smelling demons; leaves and grapes offered no protection. If the dogs wanted to get me they would, and there was not one thing I could do about it. ...
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