Sicilians treasure November 2, the Day of the Dead. Each town has its own way of celebrating this important feast. Take the fictitious city of Trano Mare. In the scene below from Death of a Serpent, the town commemorates Li Morti with a procession of actors from the cemetery to the arena.
And what would a festa be without food? Be sure to snack on the almond, cinnamon, and clove cookies baked for this day, ossa da mordere or “bones of the dead.”
For some stupendous photos of Sicilian cemeteries, visit baroquesicily.com
“Look!” Totò points to skeletons peeking from behind a large stone angel. Other costumed players emerge from mausoleums, assemble near the cemetery’s gates. As usual, the king and queen of the dead begin the parade. The queen, in snaky wig and blackened teeth, smiles at them. Scores of players wear military costumes, some dressed as Napoleon, Murat or King Bumma. A faded Redshirt stumbles toward them, stops directly in front of Serafina, and stares. Hands on hips, she fixes him with her eyes until, with a boozy whimper, he vanishes.
Decorated carts carry ghosts, skeletons, and lidless coffins with monks lying in repose. Onlookers roar when, green-faced, one sits up, a bloodshot eye springing from his forehead.
Spectators throw flowers as the procession marches through the piazza, winds into the older section of town, down to the arena. Last night when she and Beppe drove through this neighborhood, the road was choked with rubbish. They must have cleared it early this morning, she thinks. Nonetheless, Serafina steps with care, mindful of the lingering turmoil from last month’s uprising. Someone drops a bottle from the roof. She hears glass breaking, shouting, shrill whistles. The procession stops. Uniformed men shove past. Serafina holds her breath, but the disturbance ends quickly, and they moved on.
Vendors selling sausage, rice balls, sweetened figs, mulberry, blueberry, and orange ices line the road near the entrance to the arena. Even though Renata packed food for them, Totò wants some of everything he sees. Serafina obliges. “An ice, my little precious? Would you like another? One of these figs maybe?”
“Watch the coins,” Vicenzu says.
“Quiet, Mr. Money. It’s Li Morti, after all, and this is your brother’s first.”
“Tomorrow we starve, is that it?”
She doesn’t answer at first, balancing Totò on one hip. “You’re right. From now on I’ll take care, but I have a plan. We’ll talk about it after I find the killer of Rosa’s women.”
“You jest. Look no further than the royal box. There’s your killer.”
She follows his gaze, sees men in top hats, women in billowing skirts, sable capes, feathered hats. Perched in the center of the box is a shock of red hair. While Tigro cultivates fat nobles, his wife sits between their two sons, lost. Serafina waves to her. Elisabetta flutters back an anxious linen. Giulia, too, waves to someone.
“That baroness with the important nose, she wears your dress? What a gorgeous frock. Surpasses all the rest. Such haunches she has, yet she barely fills the top.”
“Not my design, that gown,” Giulia says. “I let out the waist, that’s all.”
“Maria, hold my hand, my precious lovely. We don’t want to lose you—who would play Brahms for us?”
Maria pushes up her spectacles. A clown in whiteface and sour breath smiles close to her nose. Maria cringes.
The throng mashes them. They stand for hours, it seems, squashed, immobile, then lurch forward, only to wait some more. Someone steps on Serafina’s foot. Again they advance.
Mario is missing, she realizes. She asks Vicenzu who says, “Went off with friends after you left. Told me he’d try to find us here, but, if not, he’d be back in time for supper.”
The wind off the sea mixes with the laughter and calls of the crowd. Black clouds mass. She can feel her curls pull in the dampness. Vicenzu limps ahead to scout for seats. When he finds them, he waves his crutch back and forth.
Serafina navigates the first step. “Come on, girls, let’s all stay together.” She trips, catches herself just in time. There it is again, she cautions herself, a sharpness to her movements. She misses Giorgio.
As soon as they settle, Renata passes the basket of food, Vicenzu, the wine, Giulia the fruit juice for Totò. He drinks it as if he hasn’t drunk all day.
Maria puckers her lips. “I’m too old for this. I should be home.”
“You’re eight. Now watch the stage and be quiet,” Giulia says.
Vicenzu tells Maria she sounds like a prima donna.
The audience shouts for the show to begin.
Clowns and skeletons roll out of entryways onto the stage. Actors dressed as straw men hit one another with sticks. Priests cavort with female clowns. Led by the ringmaster whose coattails puff like red sails, Barco’s circus performers enter. There are fire eaters and fat ladies, painted elephants, brown bears. Acrobats tumble, jumping high through hoops of fire.
Totò whispers to Serafina who picks him up, and, lifting her skirts, makes her way down the steps. Renata elbows Vicenzu, who swoops Totò from her arms. When they get to the water closets, he takes Totò inside. As Serafina waits for them, someone calls her name.
“Been a long time,” Don Tigro tilts his head to her. “About Giorgio, my condolences.”
She thanks him.
“You visit Betta on Sunday.”
“Bringing your children?”
His teeth, she notices, are perfect. Not inherited from her side of the family. Her mother must have been delirious in the last moments of her life: a burden you’ve given me. Her jaws clench. “Perhaps my daughter, Giulia. She’d like to see Elisabetta’s gowns. From Paris, no?”
“I don’t pay attention to those things. Maria comes with you?”
Maria, Serafina wonders, why would he ask about her?
As if reading her thoughts, he says, “One afternoon last year, the most exquisite Brahms came from the maestro’s workshop. I stopped. Maria’s piano, a prodigy, he said. If you bring her, she can play Betta’s concert grand.” He touches his hat and melts into the crowd.
Totò nearly knocks her down, running into her, hiding in her skirts. She gives him a hasty peck on the cheek.
“Didn’t you hear me?” Vicenzu asks.
“What? Oh, of course, dear.”
Strong hands reach for Totò.
“You’re back with us!” Serafina says.
Vicenzu smacks his forehead.“I just told you Mario was here. Watch your mind or we’ll be orphans.”