Antonio was not a rich guy. His mother and father had died young during a flood when he was only ten, and his granny had left him some years later. She used to call him “mule” and whip him on his legs and arms with such rough birch twigs, which didn’t seem to be harmful but marked the skin with red fiery bruises that took long to heal. He didn’t miss the old woman a bit. When in town people talked about a bitter witch who roamed along the river, Antonio thought they were talking about his granny, but that was not the case, they were talking about the Roaming Witch, who was said to come back at San Martino every spring on her gipsy waggon. His granny was only a poor woman and some years after her death, one day that the labour in the fields had bitten him really hard, Antonio came to realise that it had been the daily struggle to harden her and turn her sour.
At that time, he was seventeen and had just made friends with the sharecropper son, who had come back from his time in the city boarding school. The sharecropper’s son, Daniele, was a pale thin guy about his age. Antonio first noticed him while he was reading seated on a windowsill of the farmhouse ground floor. He watched Daniele reading in the moonlight for some time before the guy noticed his presence and waved a hand.
“The bakery’s wife well said that the boss’ son was crazy for books.”
“Yeah – the blond guy smiled broadly – I study like a fool.”
He closed the book, jumped down the windowsill and stretched out his hand to the dirty sturdy guy in front of him.
“I am Daniele.”
Antonio rubbed his palm on his trousers before shaking hands.
“Antonio! Now I see. My father told me that you are always the last who leaves the farm and the first who comes in the morning.”
“Your father told you about me?”
“He likes your attitude.”
“My grandma used to call me “mule” for my attitude.”
“I think he likes that in a farm worker.”
Antonio nodded thoughtfully. Daniele looked at the moon for some time.
“What was that you were reading? There is too little light to read.”
Daniele smiled broadly, rising up the big book that still was in his hands. One finger among the pages to mark the sign.
“Antonio, what are you crazy about?”
The guy whistled and traced the shape of a woman in the air. Daniele chuckled.
“But they don’t go crazy for me.”
The guy, rather good looking under all that dirt, turned his empty pockets inside out.
“Oh! But it’s not all about the money, you see.”
“I see that everything is really about the money.”
He pointed to Daniele and his clean clothes.
“Oh… These clothes don’t strictly belong to me. My parents gave it to me.”
“I have no parents.”
“Why? It’s not your fault.”
But Daniele felt guilty and didn’t know what to say. He looked again at the moon.
“So… what were you reading about?”
“About a princess, thinking about the princess I am going to marry.”
“A princess? How? You are no king nor prince.”
“She’s not a princess with a crown. She’s a princess to me.”
“Ahhh! I see. – Antonio paused a moment – but are you a prince to her?”
“So… she turned you down.”
“Does she know you exist?”
Daniele waved a hand in the air.
“That book is doing nothing good to you.”
“You say I should stop reading poems and fairy tales?”
“I know nothing about poems but fairy tales are no matter for a grown up.
“But you were looking at me reading it.”
“I was curious.”
Answered the dark tanned worker lowering his forehead.
“Listen, would you do me a favour?”
Antonio raised up his chin.
“Take this book with you.”
Daniele pushed the book between Antonio’s hands.
“What? Are you mad?”
“Sorry. I thought you know how to read.”
“Sure I know how to read!”
Answered Antonio almost screaming.
“Did you go to primary school?”
“Sure! – Antonio seemed rather offended by the question – Sure I went to school! When my parents were above ground they sent me to school almost every day, in winter.”
“Then you must take it with you.”
“Please, do me a favour.”
“Is this book cursed or something?”
“Oh! Is my little book scaring you?”
“Sure is not!”
Antonio grasped the book. They both were keeping their hands on one side of the cover. One to push it away, the other to unwillingly hold it.
“You talk about curses. Do you know about the Roaming Witch?”
“She comes every summer and she leaves every winter. Anyone in San Martino knows about the Roaming Witch. “
“I didn’t. I spend most of the year at the boarding school. It was a man who works there who told me about the witch. Isn’t it intriguing?”
“It’s in the book?”
“No. This is an illustrated version of One Thousand and One Night. They are Arabian tales. See?”
Daniele tried to open the book but Antonio was grasping it too tight. He loosened the grip. Daniele opened the book at the page he was reading before. A draw as big as the whole page showed a beautiful woman dancing in strange clothes. Her blouse was as short as a bra while her pants were big, puffy and transparent, showing the profile of her legs. A long, painted scarf was twirling around her as she was dancing. Her hair and her eyes were as black as the night sky. Her lips were red like roses and her smile deceptive.
“Is this a princess like yours?”
“She is nothing like her. My princess is blond and pale like a fairy from the North.”
“Oh, too posh for me. I think I could fancy this princess – Antonio took the book in his hands – she is dark like rich soil.”
“They say the Roaming Witch is dark skinned.”
“She can’t be this beautiful.”
“Witches aren’t beautiful.”
“But what if she is?”
Antonio turned away from the book and looked Daniele right in the eye.
They could not verify their bet straight away because it was already November and the witch had moved to an unknown destination. But they kept on talking about her legend for all the winter and the next spring. Daniele also continued to lend books to Antonio, who came out to be a passionate reader. He loved the most the stories of the German and the Russian tradition because a lot of those tales were about young brave underdogs like him, who built up their way into the world. When he discovered that the guy was reading that much, the parish priest of San Martino himself asked him if he was interested in studying privately to achieve a high school diploma. It was a foggy March morning, and Antonio had gone to the church to confess before Easter. He wasn’t a fervent Christian but on her deathbed, her grandma had made him promise that he would have attended at least one Mass per month. The church was empty but to a pair of old women praying on their beads at the Vergin altar. The parish priest, Don Clemente, had come from the sacristy’s door and gestured Antonio to follow him at the confessional.
“Studying means money, father, and I don’t have any.”
“That’s not always true, Antonio.”
“Books cost money and studying costs time. The more I study the less I have time to work at the farm, which is the only way I have to gain some money.”
“You can start with some of my old books.”
“AND THEN WHAT?”
At the scream, outside the wooden confessional the two old women stopped their prayers and rose up their heads from their beads. Antonio noticed the sudden absence of murmuring and bit his lips.
“Sorry father. But then what? My boss loves that I am a sturdy mule and he would be less than pleased if he knows that I am studying. No boss wants a beast that knows Latin.”
“Forget Mr Agnello, soon the Duce will be your boss. Next year you’ll receive a postcard from the Ministry of War, telling that the army needs you, like all the boys your age, and if you don’t want to be an ignorant mule that wears a black shirt and a stupid hat, you’ll better study and join a police armed force, like Carabiniers. That would secure you a respectable job after your required military service is over. As a parish, I can recommend you, but you’ll need a degree to have a chance to be accepted.”
“With all the due respect, don Clemente, but you wear a black robe and a stupid hat all the time.”
“God blessing, yes – on the other side of the grate, the mature priest cleared his throat. – Listen! Starting this very Saturday you will avoid your duty as a Balilla and come to my house to study Latin and mathematics. I’ll do the talk to the podestà.”
“Shut up! Do you want absolution?”
“Good! As I was saying, you will study Latin and mathematics under my supervision. You will stop reading all those tales of wonder and you will give back that book you were talking about to his owner.”
“Alert your mentor, Agnello junior, that I’ll be expecting him to come for his own confession within Sunday. Are we good?”
“Dominus Noster Jesus Christus…”
“Shouldn’t I say some prayers or something? As punishment?”
“Prayers are not for punishment – he sighted – still… recite an Ave Maria and a Salve Regina every night before sleep. Try to concentrate on the purity of the Holy Vergin instead of dreaming about that indecent dancer of your book and if you still feel that kind of mundane urges plunge yourself into the river. It should be cold enough to cool down your hot spirits.”
That said, Don Clement gave Antonio his absolution and exhorted the boy out of his church. Antonio went to work at the farm with a full mind. He really didn’t want to return his book to Daniele just as he didn’t like the idea of studying Latin under the priest supervision. What for? A stupid degree could not change that fact that he was a poor devil who lived in a shack. Or could it? Maybe he wasn’t just a stupid mule, as his granny used to call him. Maybe he was destined to a better future. When that night he met his friend Daniele and gave him back his copy of One Thousand and One Night he showed on his face the turmoil of his mind. Daniele laughed.
“Sherazade really put a spell on you. Or maybe do you want to retreat from our bet? Don’t you wanna know if the Roaming Witch is a beautiful enchantress or a disgusting old hag?”
“All witches are disgusting old hags. I dream about her treasure.”
“Why? You are already rich!”
“My father is sick and tired of paying for my studies. He’s pressuring me to leave university and came back here to work with him.”
All the joy had gone from Daniele’s face.
“I could use the witch’s treasure just as much as you – he kicked the ground – what a pity that it’s all a fable.”
Antonio patted on his shoulder.
“Maybe it isn’t a fable. If you promise to cheer up, I renew my promise to go check – he offered his hand to his sad friend- Do we have a deal?”
Daniele smiled from one ear to the other and grasped Antonio’s hand.
“We have a deal!”