The Infant with Elephant Ears

Tale and Explication

Lena Bertone



An old man lived with his three daughters in a straw cottage in the village of Acitrezza, and from the wooden bench on their dirt stoop, he could see three black stones that rose from the sea like great lumps of coal.

“Those stones were thrown by the Cyclops,” he would say to passers-by.

“Shut up, Old Pietro,” they would say, for this was his name, and

“Shut up, old man,” his first daughter Pana would say from the kitchen, where she stirred a bowl of wheat flour and water for bread.

So the old man shut up, but only until he felt a rumble beneath the earth and then he said, “I haven’t felt such a tremor since this entire village was toppled by the earthquake of 1152!”

And a child walking by said, “Shut up, Old Pietro,”

And his second daughter Vana, darning stockings in the bedroom, said, “Shut up, old man, and sit quietly and leave us all in the peace of silence.”

And the old man shut up, but only until he saw a pretty young woman carrying a basket, and in the basket was an infant with great big ears that pushed against the straw sides.

“Your ears are as large as those of Dionysus!” Old Pietro said to the child.

“And they hear just as well,” replied the child’s mother, and she smiled and walked on toward the sea.

“Who was that, Father?” asked Old Pietro’s third daughter, Gaetana, who had just returned from the field, where she had gathered dandelion greens for soup.

“I don’t know, Daughter,” he said, and they went inside together to prepare their afternoon meal.

*

Let me interrupt the story to point out what you already know — the template is now set: There are three daughters, one of whom is good, i.e. respectful of elders, listens rather than shuts out, which tells us that she will be the heroine of this story. If I felt like it, I could make her beautiful, or ugly-about-to-turn-beautiful with the catalyst of a good deed, with good defined as loyal, selfless, or fluent in a code that transcends her current life.

*

The next day, the woman and the child with ears like Dionysus walked by the cottage again, and this time Old Pietro said, “I have never seen ears so big and deep! With such ears, you must hear from one side of the ocean to the other.”

“Shut up, old man!” Pana called from the kitchen where she stirred her wheat and water. “Have you no tact? No mother wants to hear a stranger telling her how ugly her child is. Especially not from an ugly old man like you.”

Signora, no,” Old Pietro said to the mother, “that’s not what I meant at all.”

“Yes, I know, Old Pietro,” said the woman, and walked away toward the sea.

The next day, when the mother and child passed, Old Pietro could not help but remark, “My, but your child’s ears seem to grow larger with every passing day.”

To which Vana responded from inside, where she sat on the bed with her needle and thread, “Old man, mind your business and don’t embarrass me by trying to seduce beautiful young women.”

Signora,” Old Pietro said to the mother, “that’s not what I meant at all.”

“Yes, I know, Old Pietro,” she said, and walked away with her basket toward the sea.

*

Now we have ended the second cycle of the bad daughters’ abuse, with bad defined as mean, disrespectful, intolerant, and most importantly, incognizant of the meaning of the patterns in the story. These sisters do not know the code that Gaetana knows, and that will make her the heroine herein. But what if the code were different? What if there were another code and another story that the listener is not made aware of?

*

That night, when Pietro was asleep, Pana, Vana, and Gaetana walked together to the dandelion fields.

“Our father is old and a bother, and I don’t want to cook for him anymore,” said Pana, whose idea it had been to meet in secret while Old Pietro slept.

“Yes, and he’s filthy and smelly, and I don’t want to bathe and dress him anymore,” said Vana. “How are we supposed to find husbands when we spend all our time taking care of that decrepit old man? All he does is sit on his bench all day and scream absurdities to whoever happens to be passing by.”

But Gaetana replied, “That’s not true! And furthermore, he’s our father and it’s our duty to take care of him in his old age.”

“Well then,” said Pana, “if you feel that way, you can make his bread.”

“And you can bathe and dress him,” Vana added.

“But who then,” asked Gaetana, “will gather weeds from the fields for us to eat?”

“You can do that too,” they both replied. “And since we’re in the field now, perhaps you should get an early start.”

So they left Gaetana to gather dandelion greens, and when she returned at sunrise, she bathed and clothed Old Pietro, and when she had set the greens to boiling, she started mixing wheat and water for bread.

That morning, Pana and Vana said, “We are going to Catania. Expect us back tonight.”

*

Here we see Gaetana becoming overburdened with the roles that she takes on when her “bad” sisters take advantage of her. But in truth, these extra tasks that Gaetana must perform are the first of many directives that will eventually lead her to win the spoils of this tale. Pana and Vana, on the other hand, are confirming their status as the static bad characters in the story, at best; but at worst, they are beginning to walk down a much darker path that may not even be accessible to Gaetana, who is unwilling to tread outside her familiar construct of goodness. For example, is it “bad” to question one’s living situation? Is it “bad” to refuse to be taken advantage of? It seems that Gaetana’s answer, conscious or not, would be yes, while Pana and Vana give themselves the space to explore aspects of self that are unfamiliar and dangerous — taking risks for the possibility of a better outcome.

What if, for example, because Pana and Vana have pawned off their daily tasks on Gaetana, they spend the rest of that night walking the streets of Acitrezza and finding everywhere around them signs that they should forego all other plans and go immediately in the morning to Catania? Signs: a discarded flyer with the appropriate coded message, a stray dog whose nighttime yowl eerily and impossibly imitates human speech, and tells them, in rhyme, to go seek Bartolomeo on Via Vico Bruno in the city. What if this were the case? What if, rather than the selfish reasons we presume, Pana and Vana go to Catania because they feel compelled by a mysterious code of their own?

*

At noontime, the mother and child passed by, and Old Pietro called from his bench: “Come inside and have soup and bread with us.”

“I don’t know,” said the woman. “I wouldn’t want to be a bother to your daughters.”

“You won’t be a bother!” exclaimed Gaetana from the kitchen. “Pana and Vana are out, so there are just enough chairs at the table for all of us and your basket.”

So the woman came in and sat down with Gaetana and Old Pietro, and their bowls of soup turned into beef stew and their bread sprouted pastries, and they had a lovely lunch, at the end of which, the woman asked Gaetana for a favor.

“I must travel to Etna for three days and I need someone to take care of my child,” she said, and she lifted the baby out of the basket and put him in her lap so that his ears flopped down past her knees.

“I would be happy to,” said Gaetana.

“But you must take great care of him,” said the young woman, “and never let him out of your sight. If when I return he is healthy and happy, I will give you a bag of gold coins for your trouble.”

*

Here we watch as Gaetana’s major task is set for the story. It is facilitated by the fact that her sisters are not home, and it seems that it may be that the strange woman and her very strange baby could have in some way caused the sisters not to be home, because it is rather convenient that they are absent, and the woman does call attention to their absence, doesn’t she? But while Gaetana is willingly taking on the child, and while she and Old Pietro accept the mealtime magic of the strange woman with no discernible reaction or questioning — the “good” thing to do — Pana and Vana are in Catania, on Via Vico Bruno, which is not much more than a crooked alley, a remnant of a one-horse-wide battle route, looking for someone called Bartolomeo, without knowing if that is his first name, last name, alias, nothing. They cannot find him on their own, and just as they decide to turn around and go home, a skinny old crow flies down from its nest on a balcony and speaks to them in the dog’s voice: “Bartolomeo will see you tomorrow.”

*

So the woman left and Old Pietro fell asleep on his bench and Gaetana strapped the boy to her waist while she made more bread for dinner. She wrapped his head in a great swath of linen to keep his ears from getting into the dough.

Pana and Vana returned from Catania that evening and kicked their father as they passed up the stoop to the door. “Wake up, old man,” Vana said. “You’re drooling and snoring here for all the neighbors to see, and we have good news to tell.”

They barely noticed the child on Gaetana’s hip as they told her their good news: that in Catania, the Queen was seeking a wife for her son, the Prince, and she would be receiving visitors for the next three days.

“Surely one of us will be chosen to marry the Prince,” Vana said. “Pana, you make the best bread in all the land, and I have the greatest talent for sewing, and you, Gaetana … well, there may not be hope for you, Gaetana.”

“I must take care of this child for the next three days, anyway,” said Gaetana, “and if the mother returns and finds a healthy, happy baby, then we shall all be richer by a bag of gold coins!”

*

Gaetana shows a naive confidence here that she can achieve the task that she has been given, perhaps because she is not familiar with the progression of this kind of story, in which more obstacles appear than are originally supposed. At the same time, Vana and Pana are subverting the truth of their activities in Catania — implementing self-created obstacles, as it were — in order to continue seeking out Bartolomeo, the mysterious, and the unknown, which may or may not end badly for them: they don’t know, and yet they persist. Or perhaps these two stories exist side by side: in one version, they really and truly do seek the prince that the Queen promises, and in the other version, they will pursue the dark code that has been initiated by their curiosity and ambition.

*

When her sisters and her father had gone to sleep that night, Gaetana took the boy and a loaf of bread for them to eat into the field with her, and laid him on a blanket to sleep while she gathered weeds. But she was tired from not having slept the night before, and soon dozed off amidst the yellow flowers. While she slept, Pana came to the field to steal the loaf of bread that Gaetana had made, because she wanted to take it to the Queen as a gift. But as she took the loaf, the baby awoke and one of his giant ears slipped out of the linen swath.

“It’s you!” cried Pana, “that child with the thunderous ears!”

“Yes, it is me,” the infant said, “and I will tell your sister that you stole her bread to give to the Queen as your own.”

“No, you will not,” Pana said, and she cut off his flopping ear, buried it under a mulberry bush, and threatened to cut off the other if he told.

She went away with the bread, and later that night, Vana came to the field to steal the linen swath that covered the baby’s head, to make from it an embroidered handkerchief for the Queen. But when she tried to remove the fabric, the boy awoke and his other ear came tumbling out.

“You have come to steal this cloth from my head!” he cried.

“It is my own cloth, stupid boy, and I will cut just a piece of it. But because you are so ugly, I will cut off this monstrous ear and if you tell anyone, I will cut out your tongue as well.” And so she sliced off his ear and buried it under a fig tree, and then cut a piece of the cloth, and rewrapped his head so that no one would know.

In the morning, Gaetana cursed herself for having fallen asleep, and returned to the cottage empty-handed, with the child on her hip, as her sisters were leaving to visit the Queen.

“We shall return tonight, once the Queen has chosen one of us to marry the Prince.” They were wearing their prettiest Sunday dresses and carrying in their bags their stolen gifts for the Queen.

*

Who are the gifts for? The Queen or Bartolomeo? It depends on which version of the story we’re observing. Here on the underside, we understand that the gifts are really for Bartolomeo, and the violent way in which they are obtained communicates that Pana and Vana have an instinctual dedication to the unraveling of their code. They travel to Catania and look again for Via Vico Bruno, but it seems not to be where it was yesterday. They begin to quarrel over this way or that way when Vana’s handkerchief, embroidered with the infant’s blood, falls from the shoulder bag onto the cobblestone street. A crow swoops down from the sky to pick it up, and tells them in the dog’s voice, “Follow me.”

*

Meanwhile Gaetana set about bathing and dressing her father, and when he was seated at his bench on the stoop, she took the baby into the kitchen for a bath in the sink. She removed the linen cloth from his head, and she saw that his ears had been cut off. She cried and her tears washed the blood from his head, and she ran outside to Old Pietro.

“Father, something terrible has happened! Someone has cut off this child’s ears, and now when his mother returns, he will be neither healthy nor happy.” She held the child out for him to see.

*

Notice here that Gaetana is either oblivious to the fact that this is the work of her sisters, or she is trying to hide the truth of their badness from her father. Since we have not yet seen or heard any evidence that Gaetana is capable of hiding, deceiving, or even having bad thoughts, I think we can assume that she is still, at this point, oblivious. And what does it mean that the heroine of the story is oblivious and also unable to successfully complete the task that has been set out for her? It could just be a result of the form of these kinds of stories — that no character is ever complete, that each character is really just a piece of a person, a two-dimensional being that can move only within a flat realm of experience, and that she/he can only be conceived as a whole person when seen together with the other, opposing characters in the story.

Or it could be another example of the conflation of goodness and stupidity.

*

“Yes, it’s true, I can see it,” he said, “but I know something that you can do. Leave the child with me and go to Piedemonta to see the old woman who lives in the cave. She will restore the child’s ears. But be careful not to tell anyone where it is that you’re going, otherwise you will never get there.”

*

Aha! you say. So it is Old Pietro who is finally able to introduce deception and magic to Gaetana in order to help her achieve her tasks. And it is not so much in the role as her father, nor as the helpless old man who tests the kindness of those who pass by him as he sits on his dilapidated porch, but as he is rendered here in a third role: the secret facilitator of magic — the catalyst for the plot of the story.

*

Gaetana was reluctant to leave the baby, but she was also desperate to restore its ears, and a bag of gold coins would be theirs if she could succeed. As she walked away from the cottage, she heard her father say to the infant boy,

“Polyphemus threw those stones into the sea,” and when Gaetana was too far to hear, the boy replied,

“What for?”

“Well, to kill Odysseus for having blinded him.” Old Pietro told the boy the whole story of the Cyclops, and when he explained that Polyphemus had crushed the shepherd Acis into nine pieces with one of the jagged black rocks he had hurled at him, the boy asked,

“What happened to the nine pieces of the shepherd?”

The old man happily responded, “Nine towns grew from each buried piece, and a river that runs into the sea.”

“Well, then,” the boy said, “I wonder how long it will be before my buried ears sprout a new town and a river that runs into the sea.”

*

Here, for the second time, we see the results of listening kindly to the old man’s account of history: in the first instance, it resulted in the conjured meal, and in this instance, it leads to a revelation toward the truth of the infant’s cut-off ears. The child’s speech, in itself unusual for an infant, is another signal that there are codes in this tale which will come undone with the correct unraveling.

*

Old Pietro was so startled that he fell off his bench. “Maybe not a town, but certainly something will grow.” He took the boy to the field where one ear was buried beneath a mulberry bush, and the other beneath a fig tree, and sure enough, two trees had grown up in the field, and hanging down from each branch was a cluster of ears. Old Pietro tugged at a branch and held the ears to his own.

“Listen here, Old Pietro!” said the boy, and he pointed an ear at him. The voice that came out sounded like his daughter Pana.

“Queen, I have brought you, humbly, a gift,” she said, and after a moment of silence, the Queen responded,

“This bread is beautiful but it has blood on it. Whose blood have you brought me on this bread?”

“My goodness, your majesty, I don’t know! It must have been my sister Gaetana — she’s so clumsy that she cut herself and bled on the loaf.”

“That is a lie,” said the Queen. “And furthermore, you did not make this bread. Send this woman away.” Old Pietro and the boy heard Pana kicking and shouting as she was led out of the court, and they were about to put the ear down when they heard Vana say,

“No, your majesty, I have no idea who that woman was. No relation to me whatsoever. Please accept this embroidered handkerchief as my gift to you, my Queen.”

“Oh,” said the Queen, “this too has blood on it — blood in the very threads used to embroider it. Take this woman away as well.” And they heard Vana crying out and screaming as she was dragged from the court.

They put the ear down, and though Old Pietro realized what wretched women his daughters were, he could not help but grieve their badness, and as his tears fell on the boy, small ears sprang from the holes on either side of his infant head. They were lovely, small, round ears, and the boy and Old Pietro celebrated by picking figs and mulberries and eating them with rice when they returned home.

*

Old Pietro has just learned hard truths about Pana and Vana from a talking infant and ears sprouted from a tree. He grieves his daughters’ wickedness and the tears that spring from his eyes restore the infant’s sliced-off ears. There are many levels of implication here, the first of which is that perhaps Gaetana, in often covering for the depth of her sisters’ badness, had been in fact keeping their father from realizing how sinister and selfish they were capable of being. But that despite his willful ignorance he should so readily believe what the infant and the ears tell him, correct in their assessment of Pana and Vana’s violent qualities, reveals that he was already aware on some level that these two daughters were of a darker nature and willing to seek out mystery via questionable means and behavior. And though he weeps for them, has he not just sent his third daughter into the same potential darkness, a cave where she must do who knows what to restore the ears of the child in order to collect what: a bag of gold?

*

But the boy feared what Pana and Vana would do to him when they saw that he had grown new ears, so before dusk came, Old Pietro wrapped the boy’s head again in the linen. And sure enough, when the sisters returned home, they were angry and hungry.

“Where is our food?” demanded Vana, whose Sunday dress was dirty from the dragging.

“Yes, where is our soup and bread?” asked Pana, who had thrown her own loaf at a rough castle guard.

“There is no food, no soup and bread, for your sister Gaetana has run away from here, perhaps never to return.” Pietro chewed the inside of his cheek to make the tears come.

“Old man,” they both said, “we don’t believe you.” They pressed further, but Old Pietro had nothing more to say to them and went to bed, holding the boy close to him.

*

In their version of the tale, Pana and Vana had followed that crow, kept their eyes on it so intently that soon they could see nothing but its gray-black form in the sky, the buildings and people and cars melting from their peripheral visions. And when it set down, Vana’s bloody handkerchief still in its beak, Pana and Vana were no longer in a place that looked like the city, not even in a place that looked like Catania, or Sicily, but a cold, dark, pine-wooded forest with snow falling on their uncovered heads.

“This way,” the crow said, and led them into what seemed like a hole in the ground, but which contained a stairway that led to an underground house unlike any above-ground house that Pana and Vana had ever seen — long, dark corridors that led past room upon room of lush, serious furniture, and by each heavy wooden doorway, a servant stood, looking down at the floor and whispering prayers. The crow flapped his wings into a library room, filled with bookcases, and a ceiling-high fireplace, and an old man in a throne-like chair that rose above his head in ornate convolutions of gold and copper.

The sisters bowed to Bartolomeo and trembled as he spoke to them. “Here’s what you do. It’s very simple. Find your way home from here, and then show me your bravery by killing your sister and bringing her to me in pieces. In return, you may live and work with me here forever.” When he finished speaking, he stood, walked into the fire and disappeared.

Pana and Vana left the house and wandered through the forest, looking for the path home. They heard the dog’s voice whisper to them, “this way” and “around this tree,” and as they somehow wound back to Catania, Pana asked her sister, “What do you think Bartolomeo means by ‘work’ with him?”

Depending on which version of this story you’re more inclined to believe, then, Pana and Vana may have been seeking a husband or an escape from their world into another, more uncertain one. In either case, when they returned home that evening, their sister Gaetana was gone.

*

“I think the boy knows where Gaetana has gone,” Vana said to her sister. When their father was asleep, Pana wrested the baby from his arms and the hungry sisters walked to the field to gather greens for soup.

“You know where our sister has gone,” Pana said, but the boy pretended that he could not speak and did not know.

“I think she has gone to see the Queen!” Vana said. “She thinks she can be the one to marry the Prince. We’ll find her there tomorrow.”

When they arrived at the field, they saw the two new trees, but in the darkness, the ears looked like fruit, so the sisters picked every one and ate them hungrily.

“Tell us where our sister has gone,” they said to the boy, “or we will cut out your tongue so that you will never speak again.” But the boy would not say a word, so they cut out his tongue and buried it under an olive tree.

They returned home and put the boy back into their sleeping father’s arms, and resolved to return to Catania and the Queen the following day, disguising themselves with their Carnevale masks.

The next morning, Pana and Vana called out as they left the cottage, and Old Pietro was left to bathe and dress himself, and then to bathe and dress the baby, and then he sat at his bench and tried to feed the boy a bowl of rice and milk. But the boy wouldn’t eat it, and Old Pietro said,

“Have I told you that there’s a pomegranate tree in the field down the way, and it grew from the seeds of the fruit that Hades used to lure Persephone to the underworld?” And Old Pietro carried the infant to the field, but before they reached the pomegranate tree, the old man saw that a bush had grown up underneath the olive tree, and the berries on this bush were red and thick like tastebuds.

“My heavens,” he said, “Did someone cut out your tongue last night?” He looked into the boy’s mouth, and sure enough, his tongue was gone, and the old man wept with the boy tight in his arms, wept because he knew it was his daughters who had cut the boy’s tongue out.

But from the tears that fell into the boy’s mouth, a new tongue was formed, and soon the boy could say, “It’s all right, Old Pietro, I have a tongue now, and listen here to what this tongue is saying.”

They leaned in to hear the whisper of one of the tongues, and it was the voice of Gaetana, who was wandering through Piedemonta, unable to find the old woman’s cave and unable to ask anyone for fear she would never find her way.

*

Notice here that this is the second time that Old Pietro’s tears have healed the boy, and that all of the magic that Old Pietro has been witness to has resulted from the introduction of the strange woman and the infant into his life. But he is not too surprised by this — probably because he knew already of magic and strangeness. Otherwise, how would he have known to send his daughter to the witch in the cave that would restore the infant’s ears? So it seems that his innocence is feigned; but then so is that of the strange woman and possibly also her child, because as we noted before, it was probably more than coincidence that caused them to show up for lunch on the day that Pana and Vana were absent from the house.

*

“What can I do?” Gaetana asked herself, the tongue wagging itself at Old Pietro and the boy. “How will I find the old woman?” They heard her weeping, and then a nearby tongue called out in the voice of a goat,

“Here: I will show you the way.”

“A goat is always a good guide!” said Old Pietro to the boy, and he was satisfied that his daughter would find the old woman. Happily, he and the boy picked olives and pomegranates, and had a lovely meal and walked home to have an afternoon nap. They slept into the evening, and were still sleeping when Pana and Vana returned from Catania.

*

They hadn’t found Gaetana of course; she wasn’t in Catania. But neither were they sure that they wanted to work for Bartolomeo, if that meant being one of those servants, each praying at their respective door. Pana especially was unconvinced that they should go on with their task. She had no affection for that baby and didn’t mind so much the violence they were inflicting on it, but to kill their own sister and chop her into pieces … she had her doubts.

*

“Where is our food?” they cried. “We’re hungry and we didn’t even get to see the Queen. The line was so long that they turned us away at dusk!”

But they were only speaking to themselves, because Old Pietro and the boy slept soundly in the bed.

“Look at them,” said Pana. And then Vana noticed,

“Look, look there, Pana,” she said. “Their mouths are red from pomegranate juice. Let’s take the boy and make him show us where the pomegranate tree is.”

So they took the boy and shook him awake, and assuming that he still had no tongue, they told him to point to the pomegranate tree, or look in its direction.

“We’re hungry!” Pana said. “And if you don’t show us where the tree is, we’ll cut out your eyes and then you’ll never see it either!” The boy would not relent, so they cut out his eyes and threw them into the dandelion field.

“Stupid boy,” Vana said. “But look here, Pana, here is a bush with red fruit.” And they ate all the tongues from the bush, and then returned home and slept until four the next morning, when Vana woke Pana and they sneaked out of the cottage to be the first in line to see the Queen.

*

Vana was still very interested in Bartolomeo’s proposition. She was sure that he had something nobler in mind for her and Pana than servants’ work. And she didn’t feel her current life offered much of a positive alternative, so why not take the risk? She convinced Pana to go with her to search for Gaetana, and prepared herself for the eventuality that she would have to kill Gaetana on her own, and perhaps Pana as well.

*

That morning, Old Pietro rose and bathed and dressed himself. Then he washed and clothed the baby, and made him warm cereal from milk and wheat, and sat him at the bench on the stoop and prepared to tell him the story of the volcanic eruption of 1629.

“It covered the entire city of Catania,” he said, “and lava stretched its arms out into the sea. You can see the shape of the mountain behind us.”

“No, I can’t see it,” said the boy, and Old Pietro realized that the infant’s eyes had been cut out. This time, the old man was angry and could not cry, but he carried the boy to the field, and he saw flowers had grown up all through the field, and each blossom was a blinking eye. He looked into one and saw Pana and Vana making their way up the steps to see the Queen in their butterfly Carnevale masks.

“Who are these ladies?” asked the Queen, “And why are they wearing masks?”

Pana stepped forward and curtseyed, bowing her head down low, but when she opened her mouth to speak, a hiccup came out, and then a cough, and when Vana approached to see what was wrong with her sister, she too began coughing and wretching, and before the Queen could command them away, the sisters were expelling great gobs of ears and tongues that flew from their throats to every corner of the royal court.

“Execute these witches!” cried the Queen, and they were dragged out of sight, still coughing and vomiting bits of ear and tongue, unable to defend themselves as their masks dropped down to the ground.

*

Pana and Vana were as surprised as anyone that they vomited up the fleshy, half digested body parts as they searched the city for Gaetana.

A voice called them to the alley behind the castle, and as they wound through the musty curves inside the city, they found themselves emerging into the forest clearing, where the staircase hole led down to Bartolomeo’s home.

They clung to each other and descended, walked the long corridor to the library, and entered, sick to their stomachs that they had come again without having fulfilled their task. Bartolomeo knew.

“Why are you here?” he said. “Your sister is still alive and she’s bringing good news to that old sap of your father. You haven’t done what I asked of you and still you have returned here seeking reward.”

“We seek nothing,” Pana said. “I’m sorry,” and she turned to leave.

“No, wait!” said Vana. “You must take us. We’ll do anything. I’ll do anything.”

“You’ve already failed.” But Bartolomeo fussed with his wild hair. “The only thing you can do now,” he said, “is walk through that fire.”

He offered no explanation, and though Pana cried and screamed, Vana dragged her into the fire, and there, they both burned and vomited and screeched until their faces melted from their heads and they had no way of seeing their way out to the other side.

*

At the sight of their tortured faces inside the eye-flowers, Old Pietro began to cry for their imminent deaths and his tears restored the boy’s eyes, and the boy held the old man close and comforted him. Over Old Pietro’s shoulder, the boy saw in one of the eye-blooms that Gaetana was returning home, and that she was at the door of the straw cottage.

“Old Pietro, let’s go home, for Gaetana has returned. But first, let’s pick dandelion greens for soup.” So they picked greens, and then walked home.

But this was the third day, and at the cottage, they found that the boy’s mother had also arrived, and she was furious that her child was not with Gaetana.

“How dare you let him out of your sight!” she cried. But when she saw her baby with Old Pietro, she was relieved, and took him and held him tight to her, and he gurgled and smiled at her. She unwrapped his head from the linen, but was so shocked to see his small ears that she dropped him hard on the ground, and he laid there still, as though sleeping.

“What have you done to my child? Where are his beautiful ears?”

Signora, please, let me explain — ” Gaetana pleaded, and told her the tale of the sliced ear, and her visit to the old woman in the cave at Piedemonta. “A kind goat showed me the way, and then waited outside while I talked to the old woman.”

While Gaetana told the story, Old Pietro picked up the boy and laid him on the table, and began stirring wheat and water for bread.

“The old woman said that to restore the baby’s ears, I would have to travel to the mouth of the volcano Etna and look in to see if it was angry and red. If it was, I would have to sacrifice my own ear to restore your boy’s. The goat carried me to the top of the volcano, and I looked in and it was red and bubbling.

“I started to slice off my ear, but the goat said, ‘Wait! Don’t cut off that pretty ear. You can cut mine off instead and Etna will never know the difference.’ But I cut off my ear and threw it in, and looked again into the volcano. It was still red, and the goat said, ‘It wants another ear — but this time, cut off mine so that we will both have one left.’

“But I cut off my other ear and threw it in. Still, the lava was red and it rose to my feet, and the goat said, ‘Quick, cut out my tongue and one of my eyes and feed them to the mountain! Quick, before she consumes us both!’ But I cut out my own tongue and one eye and threw them in, and now when the goat and I looked in, the lava turned black and sank back down into the earth.

“As I was crying into my hands, the goat turned into the old woman and she put her hands over my ears, restoring them, and then breathed into my mouth, returning my tongue, and kissed my blind eye, which grew right back into its socket. And she told me that if I came home and loved the child, that his ears would grow back just as they had been.”

Gaetana lifted the still baby from the table, and put her hands over his ears, and kissed his face. As she cried over him, his ears began to grow, but to her surprise, the rest of him grew too, and soon she had before her a full-grown man with ears to match, dressed and looking every bit a prince.

His mother turned too, and Gaetana realized she was looking at the Queen, with a scepter and a crown, and a smile on her face as she said, “I would be honored to have you for a daughter.”

They sat and ate beef stew, and bread sprouted with pastries, and made plans for Gaetana to marry the Prince, and for Old Pietro to come live with them in the castle at the center of Catania.

But Old Pietro said, “I would prefer to stay here,” and he did just that, taking care of himself in his straw cottage by the sea.

*

Yes, that’s nice. Innocent Gaetana gets a prince, conveniently grown from her very own tears, and she has completed her tasks, overcome obstacles, and appeased the angry lava. This is how such stories should always end.

*

Vana dragged her sister through that fire, screaming, wanting to know what was on the other side and more sure every moment that she would kill her sister if Bartolomeo asked her to, that she would do anything he asked her to do.

They emerged from the fire into a snowy patch of mountain. Pana collapsed to soothe the charred skin of her naked body, from which every thread of clothing and hair had been burned. She rolled in the snow, steaming it with her heat, while Vana observed the wall of lava that moved toward them silently, wondering how she would surmount this test that Bartolomeo had surely designed for her — just for her — so that she could prove her commitment to his will. She might be able to outrun the wall, which she could see crackling red and black despite its silence, but running was no way to show her courage. So instead, she grabbed Pana’s shrieking face, told her that she could no longer stand the sound of her lispy whistle, and drove a pine branch through her mouth and deep into the snow and ice. With Pana’s head firmly affixed to the cold ground, she grabbed her sister’s feet and pulled, her own naked breasts swinging down in the wind that threatened to yank her into the lava like an undertow. She pulled and her sister’s legs stretched like the bread dough she was so good at kneading, and Vana pulled her ten meters, twenty, thirty, until she could no longer see Pana’s face and she thought the legs might snap if she pulled them any farther. She thrust a second pine branch through Pana’s feet and the ice beneath them. Now she had a barrier between her and the lava, albeit a thin, stretched one, and she asked into the sky,

“There, is that enough?”

But she got no answer, and so she returned to her sister’s chest and reached into it with her ragged fingernails and pulled out her heart, and smeared the blood of it over her face and arms, and then she pulled out her own heart and smeared its blood over her neck and body, to fool the lava into thinking that it had already burned her.

“There now,” she said. “Is that enough?”

But she got no answer, and the wall of lava was closer now. It was close enough that she could smell it. She could smell everything in it — the center of the earth, the rock it had decimated in its path through the earth, the air it had swallowed on its way out of the earth, and the seared flesh of every person it had eaten on its way to her. As it came closer, she could see those people too — bits of them that stuck to the exterior of the rolling wall: fingers and tongues, bones cooking black then white.

It was inevitable. She would be consumed by the wall — and perhaps this was as it should be — and fearing that the sight of it would make her run, she plucked out her eyeballs and let them lie there against her face, feeling them heat and blister as she waited to be enveloped. But now, inside her head, the wall spoke.

“You think your actions will please me?” its sooty voice asked her.

“I don’t think anything,” Vana said as the lava rolled itself over her. Her charred, bloody flesh felt the lava like a blanket, and the lava whispered sweetly, incoherently, in her ear.

And then Vana found herself back in Bartolomeo’s library, a robe over her tender skin and a glass of chilled sweet vermouth on the antique table beside her. Bartolomeo rose, closed his book, and said as he exited the room,

Coniglio con agradolce1 will be served in the dining room in twenty minutes.”


1 Sweet and sour rabbit.