It had been a good year for olives, too, that year. The farm trees, loaded with buds the year before, had all produced ripe fruit, despite the fog that had threatened their blossoms.
Zirafa, who had a good number of them on his farm Le Quote at Primosole, foreseeing that the five old glazed ceramic jars stored in his cellar wouldn't be enough to hold all the olive oil from the new harvest, had already ordered a sixth bigger one from Santo Stefano di Camastra, where they made them; it was almost tall as a man, beautifully round-bellied and majestic, like a mother superior to the others.
Of course, he had picked a fight even with their kiln man over this jar. Was there anyone Don Loll Zirafa didn't pick a fight with? He would pick a fight over every little thing, even over a tiny stone fallen out of a border wall, even over a wisp of straw. And because of this avalanche of summonses and legal fees, suing everyone in sight and always ending up paying their legal costs, he had gone half bankrupt.
People said that his lawyer was so sick of seeing him ride up on his mule two or three times a week that, to get rid of him, he had given him a precious booklet, tiny, tiny, like a missal: the legal code, so he could waste his own time looking for a legal basis for his lawsuits.
It used to be that everyone he was quarreling with, to make fun of him, would shout at him, "Saddle the mule!" Now, instead, they would say to him, "Look it up in your manual!"
And Don Loll would answer, "That's right, and I'll nail you, you sons of bitches!"
That new jar, expensive and costing four onze in hard cash, while waiting for room for it to be found in the cellar, was set down for the time being in the grape-crushing shed. No one had ever before seen such a jar: it must have been able to hold two hundred liters at the very least. Set down there in the humid cave, stinking of must and of that sharp and raw smell that lurks in airless, dark places, it was pitiful. Something really unpleasant would come of it, everyone told him. But Don Loll, when warned, would just shrug his shoulders.
They had been knocking the olives off the trees for two days, and he was furious, because he didn't know what to do first, since the people with the fertilizer, which had to be dropped in piles here and there for the new season's bean crop, had showed up with their loaded mules. On the one hand, he wanted to help with the unloading of that continuous procession of animals; on the other, he didn't want to leave the men who were knocking down the olives; and he was cursing like a sailor and threatening to nail first one guy and then another, if an olive, even one olive, went missing, as if he had counted them all one by one on the trees, or if every pile of fertilizer wasn't the same size as the other ones. With his beat-up white hat, in his shirt sleeves, his chest bare, all red in the face and dripping with sweat, he was running here and there, rolling his wolflike eyes and angrily rubbing his shaved cheeks, on which his heavy beard grew back almost as soon as it was shaved off.
Now, by the end of the third day, three of the farmhands who had been knocking down olives entered the grape crushing shed to store their ladders and poles, and froze like three logs when they saw the beautiful new jar, broken almost in two. A large piece in the front had broken off, all in one piece, as if someone-"whack!"-had split it with a hatchet, right through the middle of its belly, all the way down.
"I'm dying! I'm dying! I'm dying!" exclaimed one of the three, almost in a whisper, while beating his chest with one hand.
"Who did it?" asked the second one.
"Oh God!" said the third one. "What is Don Loll going to say? Who is going to tell him? It's the new jar, after all! Oh boy, what a shame!"
The first man, the most scared of them all, suggested they immediately shut the door and get away quietly, leaving the ladders and poles outside, leaning against the wall. But the second man was strongly opposed:
"Are you nuts? We're talking about Don Loll! He's capable of thinking we broke it. Nobody move!"
He went out, stood in front of the shed, and, cupping his mouth with his hands, called out, "Don Loll! Hey, Don Loll!"
He was down at the bottom of the hillside with the men who were unloading the fertilizer and as usual he was gesticulating furiously, every now and again using both hands to tug down his beat-up white hat. Sometimes he tugged so hard that afterward he couldn't yank the hat off his neck or forehead. The last flares of the twilight were already going out, and in the quiet that was spreading over the countryside with the evening shadows and the sweet breeze, the gestures of that always angry man were still going full blast.
"Don Loll! Hey, Don Loll!"
When he came up and saw the disaster, it looked like he was going to go crazy. First he rushed toward the three men; he grabbed one of them by the throat and pinned him against the wall, yelling, "God damn it, you'll pay for this!"
Then when grabbed by the other two, their despair overwhelming their earth-colored, sun-scorched, beastlike faces, he turned his furious rage against himself, threw his beat-up hat to the ground, punched himself repeatedly in the head and on the cheeks, stamped his feet and howled like someone crying over a dead relative.
"The new jar! My expensive new jar! It was brand new!"
He wanted to know who broke it! Could it have broken by itself! Someone must have broken it out of spite or jealousy! But when? But how? There were no signs of violence! Could it have arrived broken from the factory? Impossible! It was sound as a bell!
As soon as the farmhands saw that his first flash of rage had subsided, they started to beg him to calm down. The jar could be fixed. It wasn't too badly broken. Only one piece. A good repairman could fix it, like new. The man for the job was Uncle Dima Licasi, who had discovered a miraculous cement glue, a secret glue only he knew about, a glue that not even a hammer could break once it had set. So there, if Don Loll wanted, tomorrow, at the crack of dawn, Uncle Dima Licasi could come and in no time the jar would be better than new.
Don Loll kept saying no to these suggestions; it was all useless; there was no fixing it; but at the end he let them convince him, and the next day, at dawn, punctually, Uncle Dima Licasi showed up at Primosole with his basket of tools on his back.
He was a twisted old man, with crippled and knotted joints, like an ancient Arab Saracen olive tree. You needed a hook to get a word out of him. That keeping to himself was a form of silence, it was a sadness rooted in his deformed body; it was also a lack of trust that anyone could understand and correctly appreciate his value as an inventor even though he didn't have any patents. That facts should speak for themselves is what Uncle Dima Licasi wanted. This led him to be very circumspect because he feared someone would steal the secret formula for that miraculous glue.
"Let me see it," was the first thing Don Loll said after having examined him at length, with mistrust.
Uncle Dima shook his head, refusing to answer, full of dignity.
"You'll see when it's done."
"But will it work?"
Uncle Dima placed his basket of tools on the ground. He pulled out a raggedy, faded, bunched up cotton handkerchief; he flattened it out, and from it he ceremoniously took out a pair of glasses whose bridge and bars were broken and held together with string; he hooked them on and began very carefully to examine the jar, which had been brought out into the open, onto the threshing-floor.
"It will work," he said.
"But if you use only cement glue . . ." Zirafa laid down a condition. "I won't trust it. I want wire stitches, too."
"Well then, I'm leaving," shot back Uncle Dima, loading his basket of tools on his back.
Don Loll grabbed him by an arm.
"Where are you going? You pig, is this how you behave? Look at him, he thinks he's Emperor Charlemagne! You miserable deadbeat, you're just an ugly fix-it man, an ass, and you should do what you're told! I've got to put oil in there, and oil leaks out, you stupid animal! A crack a mile long, with only cement glue? I want stitches. Cement glue and stitches. I'm the boss."
Uncle Dima closed his eyes, pursed his lips and shook his head. They're all alike! He was being denied the pleasure of doing a proper job, executed conscientiously like a work of art, and of proving the virtues of his cement glue.
"If the jar," he said, "isn't sound as a bell again . . ."
"No way, no way!" interrupted Don Loll. "Stitches! I will pay for cement glue and stitches. How much do I owe you?"
"For cement only . . ."
"Shit, how stubborn can you be!" exclaimed Zirafa. "What did I say? I said I want stitches. We'll settle up once the job's done: I don't have time to waste with you."
And he left to supervise his men.
Uncle Dima started working, full of rage and spite. And the rage and the spite grew with every hole he drilled into the jar and into the broken-off piece to pass through the iron wire for the stitching. He accompanied the whirring of the drill bit with increasingly louder and more frequent grunts, and his face became increasingly green with bile and his eyes kept getting sharper and blazed with anger. Having finished this first procedure, he angrily threw his drill into his basket; he placed the broken piece on the jar to see if the holes were spaced equally and matched up, then with his pincers he cut the iron wire into as many little pieces as the stitches he had to make, and called for help from one of the farmhands who were knocking down the olives.
"Courage, Uncle Dima," the farmhand said to him, seeing his distraught face.
Uncle Dima raised his hand in anger. He opened the tin box that contained the cement and raised it to the sky, shaking it, as if he were offering it to God, since common men would not recognize its value; then, using a finger, he began to spread it all around the edges of the broken piece and along the crack; he took his pincers and the already prepared little pieces of iron wire, and he stuck himself inside the open belly of the jar.
"From inside?" asked the farmhand to whom he had given the broken piece to hold.
He didn't answer. He motioned him to stick the broken piece on the jar, just as he had done a little earlier, and he stayed inside. Before starting to stitch, he yelled, "Pull!" from inside the jar to the farmhand, with a tearful voice. "Pull as strong as you can! See if it comes off at all! Damn anyone who doesn't believe it! And hit it, hit it! Can you hear how it sounds, even with me here inside? Go tell your big boss."
"Who's on top commands, Uncle Dima," sighed the farmhand, "and who's on the bottom is doomed! Keep stitching, keep stitching."
And Uncle Dima began passing each little piece of iron wire through the two side-by-side holes, one on each side of the mend, and with his pincers he twisted their two ends. It took him an hour to do them all. His sweat poured like a fountain inside the jar. While working, he softly complained about his bad luck. And the farmhand, on the outside, comforted him.
"Now help me get out," Uncle Dima finally said.
But wide as it was in the belly, that's how narrow the jar was at the neck. The farmhand had warned it was going to happen. But Uncle Dima, in his rage, had not paid attention. Now, try and try again, he couldn't find a way to get out. And the farmhand, instead of helping him, stood there, doubled up with laughter. Imprisoned, he was imprisoned there, in the jar he himself had repaired, and that now-there was no other solution-in order to get him out, had to be broken all over again and for good.
The laughter and the yells brought over Don Loll. Uncle Dima, inside the jar, was like a wild cat.
"Get me out!" he was screaming. "God damn it, I want out! Now! Help me!"
Don Loll at first was stunned. He couldn't believe it.
"What do you mean? Inside there? He's sewed himself up inside?"
He approached the jar and yelled at the old man:
"Help? How can I help you? You stupid old man, how? Didn't you measure first? Come on, try, stick an arm out, like this! Now your head, come on . . . no, easy now! No way! How did you do this? And what about the jar now? Keep your calm! Keep your calm! Keep your calm!" he started to tell everyone around him, as if they were the ones who were about to lose it and not he. " My head is exploding! Keep calm! This is a new lawsuit! My mule!"
He tapped on the jar with his knuckles. It really did ring sound as a bell.
"Beautiful! Like new . . . Wait!" he said to the prisoner. "Go saddle up my mule," he ordered the farmhand, and, scratching his forehead with his fingers, he mumbled to himself, "Look at what just happened to me! This isn't a jar! It's a device from hell! Stop! Stop it!"
And he ran over to steady the jar in which Uncle Dima, furious, was struggling like a trapped animal.
"It's a new lawsuit, my friend, one that my lawyer will have to handle! I don't trust myself. I'll go and be right back, hold on. For your own good . . . Meanwhile, stay still, keep your calm! I'll do what I have to do. First of all, to protect my rights, I'll do my duty. Here: I'm paying you for the job, one day's pay. Three lire. Is that enough?"
"I don't want anything!" yelled Uncle Dima. "I want to get out!"
"You'll get out. But meantime, I'm paying you. Here, take three lire."
He pulled them out of his vest pocket and threw them in the jar. Then he asked, attentively, "Have you eaten? Give him something to eat, right away! You don't want it? Give it to the dogs! What matters is that I gave it to you."
He ordered that the food be given, saddled up, and trotted off to town. Those who saw him thought he was on his way to commit himself to an insane asylum, because he was gesticulating so much and in such a strange way and was talking to himself.
Fortunately, he didn't have to cool his heels for long before seeing his lawyer, but he did have to wait for quite a while for the lawyer to stop laughing once he had laid out his case. He got upset at the laughter.
"What's so funny, excuse me? You haven't been gypped! It's my jar!"
But the lawyer couldn't stop laughing and wanted to hear the story again, how it had happened, so he could keep on laughing. Inside, right? He had sewn himself up inside? And, Don Loll, what did he expect? To keep . . . to keep him in there . . . ha ha ha . . . to keep him in there so he wouldn't lose the jar?
"Do I have to lose it?" asked Zirafa with clenched fists. "What about damages and pain and suffering?"
"Do you know what this is called?" asked the lawyer. "It's called unlawful imprisonment."
"Unlawful imprisonment? And who imprisoned him?" exclaimed Zirafa. "He imprisoned himself! It's not my fault!"
The lawyer then explained to him that there were legal issues. On one hand, he, Don Loll, had to free the prisoner immediately if he didn't want to be accused of unlawful imprisonment; on the other hand, the repairman was responsible for the damages he had caused due to his bungling or his stupidity.
"Aha!" Ziarafa signed with relief. "He has to reimburse me for the jar!"
"Hold on!" said the lawyer. "Not the same as for a new one, remember!"
"Because it was broken!"
"No, sir!" contradicted Zirafa. "Now it's like new. Better than new, he says it himself! And if I have to break it another time, it can't be fixed again. The jar would be lost for good!"
The lawyer reassured him that this would be taken into consideration by calculating its worth based upon its current condition.
"In fact," he advised, "have him give you an estimate in advance."
"Thank you very much," said Don Loll as he hurried away.
When he returned, toward evening, he found all the farmhands having a party around the lived-in jar. Even the watchdog was partying. Uncle Dima had calmed down to the point that he had started to enjoy his strange adventure and was laughing with that twisted kind of glee that sad people have.
Zirafa pushed everyone aside and leaned over to look into the jar.
"Well! You all right in there?"
"Great. In the cooler," he answered. "Better than at home."
"Nice to know. Meanwhile, I'm warning you that this jar cost me four onze, when new. How much do you think it would cost now?"
"With me inside it?" asked Uncle Dima.
The farm workers laughed.
"Shut up!" yelled Zirafa. "You've got two choices: either your cement works, or it doesn't work; if it doesn't work, you're a crook; if it does, the jar, as it is now, is worth something. How much? You tell me."
Uncle Dima thought about it for a little while, then he said, "Here's my answer. If you had let me fix it using only the cement, like I wanted to do, first of all, I wouldn't be stuck in here, and the jar would be worth more or less what it was before. But all messed up with these ugly stitches that I was forced to make from inside here, how much can it be worth? More or less one third of what used to be worth."
"One third?" asked Zirafa. "One onza, thirty-three?"
"Maybe less, certainly not more."
"Well, then," said Don Loll, "I accept that, so give me seventeen lire."
"What?" asked Uncle Dima, as if he had not understood.
"I'm going to break the jar to get you out," said Don Loll, "and you, according to my lawyer, have to reimburse me for what it's worth: one onza and thirty-three."
"Me, pay?" jeered Uncle Dima. "You've got to be kidding! I'd rather rot in here."
And, after managing to pull out his gunky little pipe, he lit it and started to smoke, blowing the puffs out of the jar's neck.
Don Loll took it badly. This other possibility, that Uncle Dima would not want to get out of the jar, was something neither he nor his lawyer had considered. Now what?
He was about to order, "Saddle the mule!" again but he stopped himself, realizing that it was already dark.
"Is that it?" he said. "You want to live in my jar? Everyone here is a witness! He doesn't want to get out because he doesn't want to pay for it, but I am ready to break it! Therefore, since he wants to stay there, tomorrow I am going to sue him for squatting because he won't let me use my jar!"
Uncle Dima blew out another puff of smoke, and then he calmly said, "No, sir. I don't want to stop you from doing anything. Do you think I want to be here? Let me out, but I won't pay anything! You've got to be kidding, mister!"
Don Loll, overcome with rage, raised his foot and was about to kick the jar, but he stopped himself. Instead he grabbed it with both hands and shook it hard, while trembling and yelling at the old man, "You should be in jail, who caused the problem, you or me? You want me to pay? You can die of hunger in there! We'll see who wins!"
And he left, forgetting about the three lire he had thrown into the jar that morning. With that money, to begin with, Uncle Dima decided to celebrate that evening with the farmhands who, having stayed late because of the strange incident, were spending the night camping out on the threshing yard. One of them went to buy provisions at the local inn. On top of it all, the moon was so bright that it felt like daylight.
At some point Don Loll, who had gone to bed, was awakened by an infernal uproar. He leaned over the balcony of the farmhouse and saw, on the threshing yard, under the moonlight, a bunch of devils: the drunken farmhands, holding hands, were dancing around the jar, and Uncle Dima, from inside, was singing at the top of his lungs.
This time Don Loll lost control of himself; he ran down like a mad bull and, before anyone had a chance to block him, with a big push he sent the jar tumbling down the hillside. Rolling, accompanied by the laughter of the drunken men, the jar ended up smashing against an olive tree.
And that's how Uncle Dima won.
Excerpted with permission from Clay Creatures by Mark Ciabattari, translation by Maria Enrico, published by Canio's Editions ([email protected]). All rights reserved.