4. The Vigil

IN THE EARLY AUTUMN of 1902, Vincenzo trod the dusty footpath leading to Farindola, a bindle of belongings slung over his shoulder and a beard more grizzled than people in the village would have remembered. His voyage to America and back had been six of the most harrowing months of his 42 years of life, and he dreaded now bringing the horror home to the rest of the village. He practiced his words in his mind and prepared himself to avoid questions from anyone until he could speak to the family first.

As he proceeded through the wheat fields, with his eyes fixed upon the distant dwelling of Angelade Mergiota and her seven children at the edge of the village, people in the surrounding fields recognized him, wondered why he was alone, and put their chores aside. Everyone in Farindola had known everyone in the group of four who had set out together for America. Sensing that something must have been wrong, the villagers followed Vincenzo but did not accost him, forming a solemn procession in his wake and allowing him to guide them where he needed to go.

One of those joining the spontaneous vigil was Nicola’s oldest son, a 16-year-old boy named Serafino, who had dropped out of school in the third grade to tend the fields. As Serafino advanced alongside the rest of the villagers toward the door of his own home, he started to breathe heavily. His upper lip began to quiver, exhibiting a faint moustache that portended the end of his youth.

Moments after Vincenzo entered the home, Serafino heard the anguished cries of his mother from within. As he pushed himself through the crowd toward the door, the others let him pass, tipping their foreheads.

“Serafino!” Angelade sobbed upon the sight of him, reaching out to clutch him.

“Mama!” he broke down in her arms as she broke down in his.

“È mort’!” she told her son that his father was dead.

Serafino grimaced, swinging his head from side to side.

“Anch’è perdut’!” she could barely mouth the words. “He’s also lost!”

Those were words that jarred Serafino, impeding his mourning. He understood death, but he could not understand how someone could be misplaced in death, tossed aside as if a human presence on earth meant nothing. Serafino had lived his entire life in the village, where keeping in touch with everyone was as natural as tilling the soil and where tending the tombstones and gravesites of loved ones kept them in touch as well. Those gravesites were not places of death; they were places that kept the dead alive as part of the village. They were permanent places for people who were visited—people with whom discussions were held and from whom wisdom was received. In Farindola, the physical and spiritual connections among people were both as palpable as the earth, and the gravesites preserved a space for the living and the dead to commune. To hear that the body of his father had been lost offended Serafino to the core, cutting so deeply as if to slash his soul. It was something that Serafino could not abide, not then. He had little knowledge of the world beyond Farindola, but he was determined to do right by his father, no matter how far the journey or how long it might take. Serafino knew that he could never see his father again, but the 16-year-old boy needed to simply be with his father again. To pray at his side, seek his guidance, and listen for his reply. To know that he was not forever lost in a foreign land, his final resting place beyond reach of the ones he loved. To confirm that he was not some kind of abandoned soul but that he was indeed at peace. And to pay him the respect and dignity that he deserved.

“I will find the grave,” Serafino announced to his mother as they clung to each other. “And you will come with me to help me find it,” he asserted to Vincenzo.

That was the only response for which Vincenzo was unprepared. Slowly, he nodded in assent.