I dreamt of Italy last night.
I was there on a family vacation, but somehow spending a day alone. I ended up lost in a small town, alone, wandering and trying to figure out how I’d gone so far off the beaten trail.
And that was when I met her, this beautiful woman in a magical world, and she walked right up to me as if she’d known me forever.
“You’re the one I am supposed to marry,” she said, in very good English, considering.
“Yes, you are. I have dreamt of you every night since I was a young girl. Everything I did led me to this moment, to you. I have been waiting here a long time for you.”
I looked at her in disbelief, looked around to see if I was being mugged by gypsies, but when I returned my gaze to her she took my face between her hands and forced me to look into her wide, beautiful brown eyes, and I saw an innocence in them that told me she was telling the truth.
I had finally found her.
She took my hand and led me to a huge festival, a carnival-like atmosphere where the town seemed to be celebrating something. She brought me through crowds, so many of the elders smiling at us, as she locked her arm into mine, as if they also knew I would someday arrive and marry her. Young girls followed behind us, giggling and pointing us out to others, who also started to follow, as she brought me to a large table with about thirty people seated. She said something in Italian I couldn’t understand, and everyone stopped talking and looked up at me. They looked serious at first, and then slowly smiles took over their faces, and the men started jumping out of their seats and running to me, clapping me on the back. Older women hugged me and kissed my cheeks, and eventually I found myself separated from my new love, surrounded by her family.
And elderly woman, wrinkles that seemed older than me covering her face, hobbled up. She was so thin a hug would break her, and she beckoned me closer; I had to bend down to hear her, and even then someone had to translate for me. She spoke slowly and deliberately, as if this would be her last speech. A younger boy translated for me.
“It is custom for a new man to find his woman. She has run off. You must find her if you wish to marry her.”
“Why?” I asked.
The boy translated for me, and the old woman frowned and responded.
“It is our town’s custom and it has been this way for hundreds of years. That is why,” he told me.
And so I left and wandered around the carnival for a while, suddenly compelled to leave it and wander a dark road. I’m not sure what drove me in the direction I chose, whether it was confusion or the love I found for this new woman leading me to her. I stayed on the road for a bit and when I saw a bus stopped in front of a large, ancient church, I turned towards the building to look around. It was full of people who traveled a long way just to see this place, and as I walked towards it I stepped through many small, glass jars that littered the ground. I looked down to find the grass, the path, and all of the land covered with little jars and lids.
I bent down and picked one up, examining the substance that once filled it. I could tell it was some sort of jelly or preserve, and I stuck my finger in and took out a tiny bit of it, tasting it. It was delicious. I placed this jar back on the ground and started towards the building, seeing a line of people waiting to get in.
As I approached the line, an Italian who seemed in charge beckoned me towards the front as if he knew me, and waved me in past everyone. Nobody gave me dirty looks, they smiled and clapped me on the back as I went ahead of them. Inside, it was an old church, hundreds of years old, and every open shelf or window was also covered in the little jars emptied of their goodies.
As I continued on I saw a shelf, low to the ground, jars piled on it, but this time they were unopened. I took one, and a little boy nearby walked up to me and started handing me more. “Free,” he said, although I’m not really sure he understood what he was saying. I took a few more and put them in my pockets, and then continued on.
The darkness of the hallway slowly disappeared as I continued towards a lit up opening, which led to a courtyard. My eyes took a moment to adjust to the sudden brightness as I noticed a woman facing away from me in the middle of the courtyard surrounded by children. They all began to giggle as I approached, and when I touched her shoulder she turned and I saw those large innocent eyes once again, and she smiled.
“You found me. You’ve passed the first custom.” She looked at me with such love that I felt my heart swoon, and I realized that I, too, was in love with her. I took her hand and kissed it, and the children circled around her and pulled her away from me.
“There is still another custom,” she said, smiling and reaching for me as they pulled her away.
The children all giggled as the girls pushed her towards one archway and the boys began pushing me towards another. I found myself surrounded by many men of all ages in a separate courtyard. They smiled at me and continuously congratulated me on finding her, and then they boy from earlier approached.
“Next, you must say to her the traditional words, but you must memory them.”
“Do you mean memorize?”
“You know, you must say them without help.”
“But I’m not from here, I don’t know the words.”
The boy translated to the men and all grew concerned, brows furrowed as they discussed what must be done. After much talk, the boy came back to my side.
“If you do not know the words, you cannot marry her. We are taught as young children. We know them. We get a little card and we learn it and then we return the card to our parents. Then on our wedding day, after we recite them, we get the card back, and it signifies our love.”
I sat down, disheartened that I would come so close to the love of my life and fail now. A man even older than the old woman who first explained the custom to me came up and looked me in the eye. Even seated I was taller than him, gravity and age had stooped him so much. He put a hand on my shoulder and spoke. He was speaking in Italian, but I knew he was telling me about his love, and how long they’d been together, and how perfect his wife was. I could sense his story as he told it, and at the end he reached into his pocket and pulled out a wrinkled scrap of paper with the image of a saint on it, and he handed it to me.
I flipped it over and there were words on it, and I knew they were the words I would have to say. The men folk of the town all began to whisper to each other, but remained quiet as I read it over and over again, hoping I could remember it. Then, the whispering stopped, and I looked up to find the old woman again, leading my love into the courtyard, only now she was wearing a beautiful full dress, her hair was down, and she seemed to glow like an angel.
She walked up to me and smiled, and I said the words. She leaned in and kissed me, and whispered, “You did it perfect. I love you.”
At this point, my alarm went off and woke me up. As I rose from bed, my memory of her faded a bit.
As I ate breakfast, I could remember some of the words I’d said. As I dressed for work, I could remember less of them, but I still remembered the jars of preserve, and the taste. As I drove to work, all I could remember were her beautiful eyes and the feeling I had when I realized I loved her. By the time I got to work, the memory had faded, but I still loved her a tiny bit. And now, I cannot even remember the look in her large, innocent brown eyes.
Original Photo by Charleen Artese http://www.flickr.com/this_is_she