Icy waters pierced his skin probing deep into his body, trying to freeze his vitals and his will to live. A ravenous wind howled across the lake under low, grey skies spitting spumes of spray into his face. Great clouds raced down the mountain sides in a manic onslaught only to be driven back at the last moment by unseen forces emanating from the belly of the beast that the lake had now become.
Only a few moments ago the small ship’s sail had been like a dagger cutting with great speed through the wind. Now it lay like a dead-weight sticking to the surface and refusing all attempts from Dom to raise it up with his only hand. Blood oozed from the stump of his right arm where he’d tried to secure a rope, leaving his good hand free to do the work of two. The blood mixed with the waves and seemed to feed the fury that was now all around him.
He clung to the hull of the small upturned vessel and screamed to a bundle of rags that was fast drifting away from him. That bundle was the ferryman who’d promised that the storm was just a passing fancy and that the passage would be swift and easy. Dom had heard the hollow crack as the smashed mast struck the ferryman’s head in that terrible moment when he himself was thrown into the wintery waters of Lake Como.
Even though the shore was only a few hundred yards away the wicked wind lifted the waves against him and taunted him as it blew great gobs of spume into his face and matted his hair over his eyes. His clothes began to feel like leaden weights welded to every part of his body. He lay on his back and tried valiantly to thrash his way like an upturned turtle towards that tantalising shoreline. But it was all in vain. He sank. His lungs threatened to burst and he was on the cusp of relaxing into the final swoon of oblivion when a strong hand gripped him by the scruff of his neck and pulled him up above the surface once more.
“I’ve caught a fine one here lads” a voice sounded in his ears.
Dom was pulled into a boat by unseen arms and slumped into it’s wet wooden bosom like a newborn babe. His screaming lungs devoured the rain filled air and for a moment his mind delighted in the fact that he was still alive. Then the shivering began. Being cold was one thing, but the power of the wind caused his wet clothes to draw out what remaining heat there was left in him and he shivered uncontrollably.
“Wrap that around you before you freeze to death” the rough voice repeated and pushed an oilskin blanket over him. “No point taking a dead ’un ashore with us is there?”. And whilst his voice was rough, his hands carefully helped Dom surround himself with an oiled shell that kept the wind from it’s prey and kept life in his body.
Perhaps the wind lost interest in that small boat now that it’s fingers could no longer claw at a heart that was almost in it’s grip. Or perhaps it was just that the storm was passing, but the winds eased and the rain lessened and the little boat made it safely to the shore. Dom was not able to move his frozen limbs and had to be lifted from the lapping water in the bottom of the little boat. After being carried like a baby to the shore, calloused hands began to rub life back into his uncontrollable limbs and slowly he was able to rise to his feet with the aid of his rescuers and stagger toward the shelter high above the water line.
The door of the building slammed behind him, caught by a final venomous spit of the wind. Dom slumped down on the floor near to the only source of heat, a small fire pit in the centre of the room. He stayed there transfixed by the flames which licked his body with their life enhancing eddies of heat. Slowly he began to test out more of his muscles, whilst behind him the sound of others filled the room with sounds of people taking off wet clothes and of sodden boots hitting wooden floors.
“Where am I” he asked of the fire.
“You’re alive and that’s all you need to know at the moment” came the reply from space behind him. “Here, eat this. It’ll put some life in your arms and legs”. Dom twisted around and reached out with his hand to receive a piece of bread which he held in his mouth, and then a mug of something steaming hot that he took with his hand. “What happened to the other one” said the stranger nodding towards his stump that was now cuddling the mug next to his chest whilst his hand ripped the hard crust in his mouth.
“Nerves” replied Dom. “My mother always told me not to bite my nails” he said with a weak attempt at humour. He tore another piece of bread off, dipped it in the soup and ate it as if it was the best food that had ever passed his lips. After a few minutes he paused from eating and said again to the fire, “I’ve never been so cold in all my life” Then turning once more to the man who’d saved him he added “I never thought I’d ever feel warm again: thanks for pulling me out. I’m in your debt”.
The man who’d saved him and who’d warmed him and who’d fed him, now came around and stood in front of him. He was wrapped in a thick wool blanket and his feet were shod in thick sheepskin boots. His bearded face gave little away. He was probably in his late 20’s but looked much older. There was a gleam in his eye which was difficult to understand: it was either madness, which made Dom very nervous, or else it was inspired and that carried it’s own problems too.
“Did your mother warn you about peeping through keyholes too” the man said pointing his crust of bread towards the cicatriced socket that had once contained his eye. Dom’s hand involuntarily went to his face and he blushed at the ugliness that he knew the other saw there.
“Must ’ave come off in the water” he mumbled and returned his gaze to the all seeing fire.
“You’re a queer one, and that’s a fact. Here you are sitting in front of a warm fire with a full belly and breathing Gods pure air - present smoke excepted - and you’re worrying that we don’t find you pretty enough” and his glittering eyes danced playfully in the firelight. “I don’t suppose it would take too much skill to knock another one up would it eh? I’ll ask around and see if we have a dressmaker with us who can do a little needle work for us”. With that he drained his mug and disappeared into the gloom. He walked passed his companions who were seated on wooden stools around a wooden table where half spent candles lit a crusty loaf and a steaming iron pot and sat at the top of the table.
“When you’re ready there’s some blankets in the corner and you can bed down and rest until you get your strength back. Later on we’ll get the cook to make us something special and after that you can tell us who you are, where you came from and most importantly, where on earth you thought you were going on such a dreadful day like today” he said out of the gloom. “Don’t bother to dress up, you’ll find us all very informal here”. He spoke between sips of soup and every word he said was laced with a delicious humour and greeted with a rumble of laughter from those in his company.
Whether is was the heat or having a warm feed in his stomach or maybe just from the shock of so recently being on the cusp of death, but soon after those words were spoken, Dom was overcome with tiredness and one yawn chased another. He crawled into the corner and within seconds was fast asleep. How long he slept for was a mystery because the dark winter light within the hut was the same when he woke up as when he went to sleep.
“How long was I asleep for” he asked a pair of eyes that watched him as he rose from the blankets, wrapping one around himself to retain that blessed warmth that lingered in it.
“Does it really matter? Food’s not ready yet, it’s dark outside and it’s still raining. Sleep seems like a real good option if you ask me” a voice replied, but a kindly voice at that.
Dom wandered over to the table and slumped down. His arms ached, his legs ached and his neck felt like he’d slept in the back of a stone quarry cart for three days.
“Here” said the man “See if that fits” and tossed something across the table to him. Dom picked it up and smiled. It was an eye patch with fine needle work around its perimeter and a black ribbon to tie behind his head.
“Im much obliged” he said quietly “My little girls in Rome will be delighted that they have such a well dressed uncle when they see me again”. And tying it on, although such a simple act with such a tiny piece of material, he felt fully dressed once more. “What’s that delicious smell” he asked. “He wasn’t joking when he said the cook would prepare something special was he”, and a happy, safe smile descended on his face.
His saviour and host appeared and announced that supper was almost ready. Around the fire pit several forms took shape from the black piles that were littered around it, and came to seat themselves around the wooden table.
“We’ll eat first and then we can listen to our friends story with the comfort of full stomachs, dry socks and a warm fire” he added putting a large pewter platter with three cooked fowl and two large rabbits down in the middle of it. Returning from another room he added two jugs of some steaming fluid and four big crusty loaves. One of his companions passed around the platters and mugs. Then waiting for their leader, bowed their heads whilst he said a prayer of thanksgiving and a blessing on them all.
Dom was amazed. He looked up and down the table in the orange light of the wax lamps and saw the faces of four men leaning in to take their food and hungrily eat it, besmirching their beards and whiskers with the fatty yet delicious food. He thanked his neighbour who poured the steaming, red, aromatic fluid into his mug and took a sip. The first one burnt his lips but the taste lingered on with its herbal aroma and cinnamon taste. As it cooled and his body rejoiced at the pleasure of eating such an unexpected feast in such an unexpected place, the alcohol in the mulled wine reached his brain and he eased into the company of those around him.
There wasn’t much talk - they were all too hungry - this was the first time they’d feasted like this for some days, and they were wary too. A stranger can be a blessing or a threat, and only once they’d heard his story and made their judgments would they loosen their tongues too.
Plates and platter were swept clean with the last crumbs of the crust and fingers dipped deep into the mugs to wipe out the very last taste of the mulled wine they’d drunk. They pushed their chairs back and looked to the head of the table where their leader and cook sat watching each one of them. “Come”, he said, “let’s build up the fire and hear some strange stories of how the one armed man came to be looking for his lost eye in Lake Como on a wild and wintery day.” He paused and looked at Dom saying “The floor is yours brother, you have our full attention”
Dom bowed his head in acknowledgement and went to stand up before speaking, as was the usual custom. “Stay where you are” his host called out “your standing will be measured by your words and not by your physical disposition”. So sitting down again, Dom began his story.
“My name is Dominic Acciai. I was reared by my Poppa who was a forester from Abbruzzo. He worked for a merchant in the city of L’Aquila and cut wood and hunted wild boar for him when he could. My sister and I were sent to him at a very early age. He was a widower by then: a good, kind and wise man and still very strong despite his years. He’d head out into the forest each day to find fallen timber and depending on its size would bring it back to the house. If it was a full grown tree then he’d harness his horse to it and drag it back through the forest and spend the next few days cutting it into lengths for timbers, and save the cut offs for the winter fires. I can still smell those pine trees and feel the sticky resin from the twigs that we swept up and used as kindling. And how at night the wood would crackle and spit in the fires and the dried pine needles softened the floor we slept upon.”
“Of my parents I knew very little. My father had been injured in a small skirmish amongst the warring factions that were always with us in those time in Abbruzzo. He just grew old too soon and slowly faded from life. He’d sit in a corner with dulled eyes watching the embers and hardly spoke a word to anyone. My mother was a beauty, so I’m told, and many suitors came to seek her hand in marriage when our father died. But she’d loved him too much to take on another. Perhaps that was why she loved and protected us even more. I can’t remember her face now, but her smell and the sense of her arms holding me close to her bosom are still as real as they ever were. My sister who was older than me said Mama had lovely smiling eyes. She said Mama tried to hide her sadness when she was with us.” Dom paused for a moment as if trying to see his mother in the flames that danced lightly in the fire before them. The group waited in respectful silence for him to continue.
“She rejected the suitors, but then wicked rumours began to spread that she was a witch who shunned the company of men and even that she’d been the cause of her husbands death. But I knew nothing of all this. My sister Ann told me that in the dead of night things were left outside of our house - terrible things - and then no one came to visit us any more. Mama arranged for us to secretly leave and go to our grandfather some way distant from L’Aquila.” Dom sighed a deep wounded sigh before going on “A crowd of people came up the road one night with flaming torches and dragged her from the house. They beat her and poured some tar on her. Then they took her outside of the town and threw her on a big fire. In seconds, the tar took light and she was burned alive as a witch. They killed my gentle loving mother in such a violent, hateful way”. And looking around at the others said “Why do people do such wicked things? There’s nothing brave about burning a weak and frightened woman. Why do these monsters hide their own fears behind such terrible deeds?”
“Of course we knew nothing of all this until a long time later. Perhaps Poppa knew, but the dear man kept it to himself. From the moment we arrived he never ceased to love us as his own children for the rest of his life.
They were hard times, but they were good times too. We lived and we worked as one, with Ann caring for the house and for her ’men” as she called us, whilst Poppa and I worked together in the forest. When I was small I used to lead the horse and make sure it had enough feed for each day. As I grew and became stronger, I joined him with the axe and the double handled saw. We all thought that I would take over from him when my time came as I was such a big strong lad. But the fates had other plans.
Poppa was getting old and the plague was always visiting our area. One day we came home from the town to find him close to death. He smiled his beautiful smile and thanked us for bringing so much joy to this later part of his life. But as he said, God was calling him to a new country and he’d have to leave us behind for now and go and join his wife and his daughter. And that simple thought made our tears so much easier to bear. He died soon after and we buried his precious body deep in the forest under the trees he loved so much”. Dom pulled on his earlobe as he remembered each detail as if it had happened just yesterday. Then with a deep sigh continued “And so the two of us were left alone once more- or at least we thought we were.
I’d never really thought about Ann being good looking, but Poppa said she looked so much like our Mamma. When I think back, she was a really beautiful young woman. But it was that beauty that betrayed her.