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Montelepre was a town of seven thousand people, sunk as deeply in the valley of the Cammarata Mountains as it was in poverty.

On the day of September 2, 1943, the citizens were preparing for their Festa, to start the next day and continue for the following three days.

The Festa was the greatest event of the year in each town, greater than Easter or Christmas or New Year's, greater than the days celebrating the end of the great war or the birthday of a great national hero. The Festa was dedicated to the town's own particular favorite saint. It was one of the few customs the Fascist government of Mussolini had dared not meddle with or try to forbid.

To organize the Festa, a Committee of Three was formed each year, composed of the most respected men of the town. These three men then appointed deputies to collect money and offerings of goods. Every family contributed according to their means. In addition deputies were sent out into the streets to beg.

Then as the great day approached, the Committee of Three started to spend the special fund accumulated over the past year. They hired a band, and they hired a clown. They set up generous money prizes for horse races to be held over the three days. They hired specialists to decorate the church and the streets so that the grim poverty-stricken town of Montelepre suddenly looked like some medieval citadel in the midst of the Fields of the Cloths of Gold. A puppet theater was hired. Food peddlers set up their booths.

The families of Montelepre used the Festa to show their marriageable daughters; new clothes were bought, chaperones detailed. A bevy of prostitutes from Palermo set up a huge tent just outside of town, their licenses and medical certificates adorning the red-, white-, and green-striped canvas sides. A famous holy friar, who years ago had grown stigmata, was hired to preach the formal sermon. And finally, on the third day, the saint's bier was carried through the streets followed by all the townspeople, with their livestock of mules, horses, pigs and donkeys. On top of the bier rode the effigy of the saint, crusted with money, flowers, varicolored sweets and great bamboo-sheathed bottles of wine.

These few days were their days of glory. It did not matter that for the rest of the year they starved and that in the same village square where they honored the saint, they sold the sweat of their bodies to the land barons for a hundred lire a day.

On the first day of the Montelepre Festa, Turi Guiliano was designated to take part in the opening ritual, the mating of the Miracle Mule of Montelepre with the town's largest and strongest donkey. It is rare that a female mule can conceive; they are classified as a sterile animal, product of the union between a mare and donkey. But there was such a mule in Montelepre; it had borne a donkey two years before, and its owner had agreed, as his family's duty share to the town Festa, to donate the mule's services and, if the miracle should occur, its offspring to the next year's Festa. There was in this particular ceremony a sardonic mockery.

But the ritualistic mating was only partly a mockery. The Sicilian peasant has an affinity with his mule and donkey. They are hard-working beasts, and like the peasant himself have flinty, dour natures. Like the peasant they can work steadily for very long hours without breaking down, unlike the higher-nobility horse, who must be pampered. Also, they are surefooted and can pick their way along the mountain terraces without falling and breaking a leg, unlike the fiery stallions or the high-blooded, flighty mares. Also, peasant and donkey and mule subsist and thrive on food that kills other men and animals. But the greatest affinity was this: Peasant, donkey and mule had to be treated with affection and respect, otherwise they turned murderous and stubborn.

The Catholic religious festivals had sprung from ancient pagan rituals to beg miracles from the gods. On this fateful day in September 1943, during the Festa of the town of Montelepre, a miracle would occur that would change the fate of its seven thousand inhabitants.

At twenty years of age Turi Guiliano was considered the bravest, the most honorable, the strongest, the young man who inspired the most respect. He was a man of honor. That is to say, a man who treated his fellow man with scrupulous fairness and one who could not be insulted with impunity.

He had distinguished himself at the last harvest by refusing to be hired out as a laborer at the insulting wages decreed by the overseer of the local estates. He then gave a speech to the other men urging them not to work, to let the harvest rot. The carabinieri arrested him on charges made by the Baron. The other men went back to work. Guiliano had not shown any hard feelings toward these men or even the carabinieri. When he was released from prison through the intervention of Hector Adonis, he developed no rancor of any kind. He had stood up for his principles and that was enough for him.

On another occasion, he had broken up a knife fight between Aspanu Pisciotta and another youth simply by interposing his unarmed body between them and with good-humored reasoning disarming their anger.

What was unusual about this was that in any other person these actions would have been taken as signs of cowardice masquerading as humanity, but something in Guiliano forbade this interpretation.

On this second day of September, Salvatore Guiliano, called Turi by his friends and family, was brooding over what was to him a devastating blow to his masculine pride.

It was only a little thing. The town of Montelepre had no movie theater, no community hall, but there was one little cafi with a billiard table. The night before, Turi Guiliano, his cousin Gaspare "Aspanu" Pisciotta and a few other youths had been playing billiards. Some of the older men of the town had been watching them while drinking glasses of wine. One of the men, by the name of Guido Quintana, was slightly drunk. He was a man of reputation. He had been imprisoned by Mussolini for being a suspected member of the Mafia. The American conquest of the island had resulted in his being released as a victim of fascism, and it was rumored that he was going to be named as Mayor of Montelepre.

As well as any Sicilian. Turi Guiliano knew the legendary power of the Mafia. In these past few months of freedom, its snakelike head had begun weaving over the land, as if fertilized by the fresh loam of a new democratic government. It was already whispered in town that shopkeepers were paying "insurance" to certain "men of respect." And of course Turi knew the history, the countless murders of peasants who tried to collect their wages from powerful nobles and landlords, how tightly the Mafia had controlled the island before Mussolini had decimated them with his own disregard for the lawful process, like a deadlier snake biting a less powerful reptile with its poisoned fangs. So Turi Guiliano sensed the terror that lay ahead.

Quintana now regarded Guiliano and his companions with a slightly contemptuous eye. Perhaps their high spirits irritated him. He was, after all, a serious man, about to embark on a pivotal part of his life: Exiled by Mussolini's government to a desert island, he was now back in the town of his birth. His aim in the next few months was to establish respect in the eyes of the townspeople.

Or perhaps it was the handsomeness of Guiliano that irritated him, for Guido Quintana was an extremely ugly man. His appearance was intimidating not from any single feature but from a lifelong habit of presenting a formidable front to the outside world. Or perhaps it was the natural antagonism of a born villain toward a born hero.

In any case he got up suddenly just in time to jostle Guiliano as he went by to the other side of the billiard table. Turi, naturally courteous to a much older man, made an apology that was gentle and sincere. Guido Quintana looked him up and down with contempt. "Why aren't you home sleeping and resting to earn your bread tomorrow?" he said. "My friends have been waiting to play billiards for an hour." He reached out and took the billiard cue from Guiliano's hand and, smiling slightly, waved him away from the table.

Everybody was watching. The insult was not mortal. If the man were younger or the insult more pointed, Guiliano would have been forced to fight and keep his reputation for manhood. Aspanu Pisciotta always carried a knife, and now he positioned himself to intercept Quintana's friends if they decided to interfere. Pisciotta had no respect for older people, and he expected his friend and cousin to finish the quarrel.

But at that moment Guiliano felt a strange uneasiness. The man looked so intimidating and ready for the most serious consequences of any dispute. The companions in the background, also older men, were smiling in an amused way as if they had no doubt of the outcome. One of them wore hunting attire and carried a rifle. Guiliano himself was unarmed. And then for one shameful moment, he felt fear. He was not afraid of being hurt, of being struck, of finding this man was the stronger of the two. It was the fear that these men knew what they were doing, that they had the situation under control. He did not. That they could gun him down in the dark streets of Montelepre as he walked home. That he would appear a dead fool the next day. It was the inborn tactical sense of the born guerrilla soldier that made him retreat.

So Turi Guiliano took his friend by the arm and led him out of the cafe. Pisciotta came without a struggle, amazed that his friend had yielded so easily but never suspecting the fear. He knew Turi was good-hearted and assumed he did not wish to quarrel and injure another man over so small a thing. As they started up the Via Bella to their homes they could hear the click of billiard balls behind them.

All that night Turi Guiliano had not been able to sleep. Had he really been afraid of that man with the evil face and threatening body? Had he shivered like a girl? Were they all laughing at him? What did his best friend, his cousin, Aspanu, think of him now? That he was a coward? That he, Turi Guiliano, the leader of the youth of Montelepre, the most respected, the one acknowledged as the strongest and most fearless, had buckled at the first threat of a true man? And yet, he told himself, why risk a vendetta that could lead to death over the small matter of a billiard game, an older man's irascible rudeness? It would not have been like a quarrel with another youth. He had known that this quarrel could be serious. He had known that these men were with the Friends of the Friends, and it had made him afraid.

Guiliano slept badly and woke in that sullen mood so dangerous in adolescent males. He seemed to himself ridiculous. He had always wanted to be a hero, like most young men. If he had lived in any other part of Italy he would have become a soldier long before, but as a true Sicilian he had not volunteered, and his godfather, Hector Adonis, had made certain arrangements so that he wouldn't be called. After all, though Italy governed Sicily, no true Sicilian felt he was an Italian. And then, if the truth be told, the Italian government itself was not so anxious to draft Sicilians, especially in the last year of the war. Sicilians had too many relatives in America, Sicilians were born criminals and renegades, Sicilians were too stupid to be trained in modern warfare and they caused trouble wherever they went.

In the street Turi Guiliano felt his moodiness fade with the sheer beauty of the day. The golden sun was glorious, the smell of lemon and olive trees filled the air. He loved the town of Montelepre, its crooked streets, the stone houses with their balconies filled with those gaudy flowers that grew in Sicily without the slightest encouragement. He loved the red-tiled roofs that stretched away to the end of the small town, buried in this deep valley on which the sun poured like liquid gold.

The elaborate decorations of the Festa – the streets overhung with an aerial maze of colorful papier-mache saints, the houses decorated with great bamboo-strutted flowers – disguised the essential poverty of what was a typical Sicilian town. Perched high, yet shyly hidden in the creases of the surrounding mountains, its garlanded houses were mostly filled with men, women, children and animals occupying three or four rooms. Many houses had no sanitation, and even the thousands of flowers and the cold mountain air could not overcome the smell of offal that rose with the sun.

In good weather the people lived outside their houses. The women sat in wooden chairs on their cobbled terraces preparing food for their tables, also set outside the door. Young children filled the streets chasing chickens, turkeys, young goats; older children wove bamboo baskets. At the end of the Via Bella, before it emptied into the square, was a huge demon-faced fountain, built by the Greeks two thousand years before, water pouring from its rock-toothed mouth. Alongside the surrounding mountains green gardens grew precariously, built on terraces. On the plains below were the visible towns of Partinico and Castellammare; the bloody dark stone town of Corleone lurked murderously beyond the horizon.

From the far end of the Via Bella, the end of the street that led into the road of the Castellammare plain, Turi could see Aspanu Pisciotta leading a small donkey. For a moment he was worried about how Aspanu would treat him after his humiliation of the night before. His friend was noted for his sharp wit. Would he make some contemptuous remark? Guiliano felt again the rush of futile rage and swore he would not be so unready again. There would be no regard for any consequences, he would show them all he was no coward. Yet in a corner of his mind he saw the whole scene sharp and clear. Quintana's friends waiting behind him, one of them with a hunting rifle. They were Friends of the Friends and would avenge themselves. He did not fear them, he feared only his defeat by them, which seemed so sure because though they were not so strong, they were more cruel.

Aspanu Pisciotta wore his wickedly cheery grin as he said, "Turi, this little donkey can't do it all by himself. We'll have to help."

Guiliano didn't bother to answer; he was relieved that his friend had forgotten about last night. It always touched his heart that Aspanu, who was so caustic and penetrating with the faults of others, never treated him with anything but the utmost affection and respect. They walked together toward the town square, the donkey behind. Children scurried around and before them like pilot fish. The children knew what was going to happen with the donkey and were wild with excitement. For them it would be a great treat, an exciting event in the usually dull summer day.

A small platform four feet high stood in the town square. It was formed by heavy blocks of stone carved from the mountains around them. Turi Guiliano and Aspanu Pisciotta pushed the donkey up the dirt ramp of the platform. They used a rope to tie the donkey's head to a short vertical iron bar. The donkey sat down. There was a patch of white skin over his eyes and muzzle that gave him a clownish look. The children gathered around the platform, laughed and jeered. One of the little boys called out, "Which one is the donkey?" and all the children laughed.

Turi Guiliano, not knowing this was the last day of his life as an unknown village boy, looked down on the scene with the sweet possessive contentment of a man placed exactly as he should be. He was in the small spot of earth in which he had been born and spent his life. The outside world could never harm him. Even the humiliation of the night before had disappeared. He knew those looming limestone mountains as intimately as a little child knew his sandbox. Those mountains grew slabs of stone as easily as they grew grass, and formed caves and hiding places that could shelter an army. Turi Guiliano knew every house, every farm, every laborer, and all the ruined castles left by the Normans and Moors, the skeletons of beautifully decayed temples left by the Greeks.

From another entrance to the square appeared a farmer leading the Miracle Mule. This was the man who had employed them for this morning's work. His name was Papera, and he was held in much respect by the citizens of Montelepre for having waged a successful vendetta against a neighbor. They had quarreled over an adjoining piece of land which held an olive grove. The quarrel went on for ten years, had in fact lasted longer than all of the wars Mussolini had foisted on Italy. Then one night shortly after the Allied Armies had liberated Sicily and installed a democratic government, the neighbor had been found almost cut in two by the blast of a lupara, the sawed-off shotgun so popular in Sicily for such matters. Suspicion immediately fell on Papera, but he had conveniently allowed himself to be arrested in a quarrel with the carabinieri and had spent the night of the murder safely in the prison cell of the Bellampo Barracks. It was rumored that this was the first sign of the old Mafia coming to life, that Papera – related by marriage to Guido Quintana – had enlisted the Friends of the Friends to help settle the quarrel.

As Papera led the mule to the front of the platform, the children swarmed around it so that Papera had to scatter them with mild curses and casual waves of the whip he held in his hand. The children escaped the whip easily as Papera snapped it over their heads with a good-humored smile.

Smelling the female mule below, the white-faced donkey reared against the rope that held him to the platform. Turi and Aspanu lifted him up as the children cheered. Meanwhile Papera was maneuvering the mule to present its hindquarters to the edge of the platform.

At this point Frisella, the barber, came out of his shop to join in the fun. Behind him was the Maresciallo, pompous and important, rubbing his smooth red face. He was the only man in Montelepre who had himself shaved every day. Even on the platform Guiliano could smell the strong cologne with which the barber had showered him.

Maresciallo Roccofino cast a professional eye over the crowd that had accumulated in the square. As the Commander of the local National Police detachment twelve men strong he was responsible for law and order in the town. The Festa was always a troublesome time, and he had already ordered a four-man patrol for the town square, but they had not yet arrived. He also watched the town benefactor, Papera, with his Miracle Mule. He was certain that Papera had ordered the murder of his neighbor. These Sicilian savages were quick to take advantage of their sacred liberties. They would all regret the loss of Mussolini, the Maresciallo thought grimly. Compared with the Friends of the Friends, the dictator would be remembered as another gentle Saint Francis of Assisi.

Frisella the barber was the buffoon of Montelepre. Idle men who could not find work clustered in his shop to hear his jokes and listen to his gossip. He was one of those barbers who serviced himself better than his customers. His mustache was exquisitely trimmed, his hair pomaded and strictly combed, but he had the face of a clown in the puppet shows. Bulbous nose; a wide mouth that hung open like a gate and a lower jaw without a chin.

Now he shouted, "Turi, bring your beasts into my shop and I'll anoint them with perfume. Your donkey will think he's making love to a duchess."

Turi ignored him. Frisella had cut his hair when he was a little boy, and so badly that his mother had taken over the task. But his father still went to Frisella to share in the town gossip and tell his own tales about America to awestruck listeners. Turi Guiliano did not like the barber because Frisella had been a strong Fascist and was reputed to be a confidant of the Friends of the Friends.

The Maresciallo lit a cigarette and strutted up the Via Bella not even noticing Guiliano – an oversight he was to regret in the weeks to come.

The donkey was now trying to jump off the platform. Guiliano let the rope slacken so that Pisciotta could lead the animal to the edge and position it above where the Miracle Mule was standing. The mare's hindquarters were just above the edge of the platform. Guiliano let the rope slacken a little more. The mare gave a great snort and pushed her rump back at the same moment the donkey plunged downward. The donkey grasped the hindquarters of the mare with his forelegs, gave a few convulsive jumps and hung in midair with a comical look of bliss on his white-patched face. Papera and Pisciotta were laughing as Guiliano pulled savagely on the rope and brought the limp donkey back to its iron bar. The crowd cheered and shouted blessings. The children were already scattering through the streets in search of other amusements.

Papera, still laughing, said, "If we could all live like donkeys, eh, what a life."

Pisciotta said disrespectfully, "Signor Papera, let me load your back with bamboo and olive baskets and beat you up the mountain roads for eight hours every day. That's a donkey's life."

The farmer scowled at him. He caught the sly reproach, that he was paying them too little for this job. He had never liked Pisciotta and had in fact given Guiliano the job. Everybody in the town of Montelepre was fond of Turi. But Pisciotta was another matter. His tongue was too sharp and his manner too languid. Lazy. The fact that he had a weak chest was no excuse. He could still smoke cigarettes, court the loose girls of Palermo and dress like a dandy. And that clever little mustache in the French style. He could cough himself to death and go to the devil with his weak chest, Papera thought. He gave them their two hundred lire, for which Guiliano thanked him courteously, and then took himself and his mare back on the road to his farm. The two young men untied the donkey and led it back to Guiliano's house. The donkey's work had just begun; he had a much less pleasant task before him.

Guiliano's mother had an early lunch waiting for the two boys. Turi's two sisters, Mariannina and Giuseppina, were helping their mother make pasta for the evening meal. Eggs and flour were mixed into a huge mountain on a shellacked square wooden board, kneaded solid. Then a knife was used to cut the sign of the cross into the dough to sanctify it. Next Mariannina and Giuseppina cut off strips they rolled around a blade of sisal grass, and then pulled out the grass to leave a hole in the tube of dough. Huge bowls of olives and grapes decorated the room.

Turi's father was working in the fields, a short working day so he could join the Festa in the afternoon. On the next day Mariannina was to become engaged and there was to be a special party at the Guiliano house.

Turi had always been Maria Lombardo Guiliano's most beloved child. The sisters remembered him as a baby being bathed every day by the mother. The tin basin carefully warmed by the stove, the mother testing the temperature of the water with her elbow, the special soap fetched from Palermo. The sisters had been jealous at first, then fascinated by the mother's tender washing of the naked male infant. He never cried as a baby, was always gurgling with laughter as his mother crooned over him and declared his body perfect. He was the youngest in the family but grew to be the most forceful. And he was to them always a little strange. He read books and talked about politics, and of course it was always remarked that his height and formidable physique came from his time in the womb in America. But they loved him too because of his gentleness and his selflessness.

On this morning, the women were worried about Turi and watched him with a loving fretfulness as he ate his bread and goat cheese, his plate of olives, drank his coffee made of chicory. As soon as he finished his lunch he and Aspanu would take the donkey all the way to Corleone and smuggle back a huge wheel of cheese and some hams and sausage. He would miss a day of the Festa to do this just to please his mother and make his sister's engagement party a success. Part of the goods they would sell for cash on the black market for the family coffers.

These three women loved to see the two young men together. They had been friends since they were little children, closer than brothers in spite of being such opposites. Aspanu Pisciotta, with his dark coloring, his thin movie star mustache, the extraordinary mobility of his face, the brilliant dark eyes and jet black hair on his small skull, his wit, always enchanted the women. And yet in some curious way all this flamboyance was overwhelmed by Turi Guiliano's quiet Grecian beauty. He was massively built like the ancient Greek statues scattered all over Sicily. And his coloring was all light brown – his hair, his tawny skin. He was always very still, and yet when he moved it was with a startling quickness. But his most dominating feature was his eyes. They were a dreamy golden brown, and when they were averted they seemed ordinary. But when he looked at you directly the lids came halfway down like the lids carved in statues and the whole face took on a quiet masklike serenity.

While Pisciotta kept Maria Lombardo amused, Turi Guiliano went upstairs to his bedroom to prepare himself for the journey he was about to make. Specifically to get the pistol he kept hidden there. Remembering the humiliation of the previous night, he was determined to go armed on the job he had ahead this day. He knew how to shoot, for his father took him hunting often.

In the kitchen, his mother was waiting alone for him to say goodbye. She embraced him and felt the pistol he had in his waistband.

"Turi, be careful," she said, alarmed. "Don't quarrel with the carabinieri. If they stop you, give up what you have."

Guiliano reassured her. "They can take the goods," he said. "But I won't let them beat me or take me to prison."

She understood this. And in her own fierce Sicilian pride was proud of him. Many years ago her own pride, her anger at her poverty, had led her to persuade her husband to try a new life in America. She had been a dreamer, she had believed in justice and her own rightful place in the world. She had saved a fortune in America, and that same pride had made her decide to return to Sicily to live like a queen. And then everything had turned to ashes. The lira became worthless in wartime, and she was poor again. She was resigned to her fate but hoped for her children. And she was happy when Turi showed the same spirit that had possessed her. But she dreaded the day when he must come into conflict with the stone-hard realities of life in Sicily.

She watched him go out into the cobbled street of the Via Bella to greet Aspanu Pisciotta. Her son, Turi, walked like a huge cat, his chest so broad, his arms and legs so muscular he made Aspanu seem no more than a stalk of sisal grass. Aspanu had the hard cunning that her son lacked, the cruelty in his courage. Aspanu would guard Turi against the treacherous world they all had to live in. And she had a weakness for Aspanu's olive-skinned prettiness, though she believed her son more handsome.

She watched them go up the Via Bella to where it led out of town toward the Castellammare plain. Her son, Turi Guiliano, and her sister's son, Gaspare Pisciotta. Two young men just barely twenty years old, and seeming younger than their years. She loved them both and she feared for them both.

Finally the two men and their donkey vanished over a rise in the street, but she kept watching and finally they appeared again, high above the town of Montelepre, entering the range of mountains that surrounded the town. Maria Lombardo Guiliano kept watching, as if she would never see them again, until they disappeared in the late morning mist around the mountaintop. They were vanishing into the beginning of their myth.

CHAPTER 2 | The Sicilian | CHAPTER 4