Risto—Aristofano Al’Kair—is a rarity in contemporary Italy, an immigrant success story out of Africa. Born in Mogadishu, he’s earned Italian citizenship and lives in Naples with a wife native to the city. He runs a successful art gallery in a good neighborhood. But a couple of recent developments have left Risto badly unsettled, and he needs a long riposo at home with his wife Paolo. They make love and talk:
“And our kids,” he found himself saying. “Such a surprise, at first.”
“Oh, I suppose, in Tonino’s case at least. Rather a bucket of cold consequences on our torrid interracial affair.”
He stitched up a smile. In those days they’d both had a chip on their shoulder.
“Still and all, Risto-ri, haven’t they turned out nicely? Tonino and Rosa both? When I look at them, I think of the old saying: the color inside a melon…”
“Of course, an old saying. Another proverb out of eternal Naples.”
“Amore, I’m not the one who came home in, in such a state.” She couldn’t have looked friendlier, smiling in sweat-dappled nakedness. “Just look at you, first you need your wife and then you need to talk—and then you object to how I talk?”
“Paola, I didn’t need a bedtime story.”
“Honestly, anything more, I doubt you could handle it. Now, I’ll be there for you, but I’ll handle it my own way. Seems to me it’s high time you heard about the color inside a melon.”
Once there was a Neapolitan family with a pretty young daughter.
This girl had many suitors, and not just for the sweetness of her looks but also for the great-hearted nature of her kin, a family among the lights of the community. And with so many seeking the daughter’s hand (almost a healing hand, she was such an angel) was it not bound to happen that, in the fullness of time, one man would emerge as champion? A man of respectable family himself, and with a dependable trade. But this same fine catch, well—he was quite dark. And with the swell of his lips, the knots in his hair, there were rumors of an African uncle…
Paola paused, dropping her head.
She’d been bringing it off, more than a little operatic. If he’d been kept dangling, he’d found the air up there enjoyable. Risto could recall nights when, having tucked the children into bed, he’d settled on the floor outside their room, the better to hear his wife doctor up some story from his past or hers. Now, however, she’d fallen into silent caresses of his nearest foot, as if finger-painting highlights onto the chocolate and cherry. Eventually Paola wondered aloud whether her family had made it a point to keep him from hearing this particular story.
He kept his foot where it was. “I can see what it’s about.”
Her father, she murmured, never talked about such things. Babbo preferred to leave a disturbing subject alone. Risto reached for her hair, sweeping it back. “Paolissima.” Maybe this was what he’d wanted, a step outside the marriage’s familiar, both a hesitation and a seeking.
Throughout the piazzas in which the daughter’s beauty was legend, in any case, there were as well legends of a less kindly nature, regarding this otherwise splendid catch of a man. There were whispers of an African uncle, of African grandparents. Only talk, this was, impossible to confirm—but the love between the two young people, that needed no further witness or decree. To move the earth, it requires the hand of God, and so too with this pretty girl and dark boy: it was as if an earthquake had marked them. In short order the happy pair went to the church to be married, and they went off to the island for their honeymoon, and they returned to the neighborhood expecting a child.
Then it wasn’t much longer before the girl’s parents were hosting another celebration, this time for their grandchild-to-be, and they threw their doors open to every soul in the parish, laying out a veritable groaning board. The viands were delectably arrayed, in particular some fresh honey melons out of the garden. Most of these were at their succulent peak, to be sure. Most of the fruit split into halves that, as they rolled away from the knife, glistened like snow. A few however turned out diseased, worm-eaten, and dark. There was no way to tell whether your melon was good or bad until you cut it open.
And so ubiquitous is the Evil One and his influence, some few of the guests proved likewise rotten. Some two or three proved shameless enough to take advantage of the family’s hospitality, and of the young husband’s restraint, there in the presence of his bride and her father. The dark settebello sat with folded hands while these ill-behaved few again bruited about the vicious old gossip.
Africans in the family, they whispered. Apes.
Finally one of these guests, full of wine—a wine, let us say, touched by the hand of Satan—put his swollen red face in the face of the girl’s father and demanded to know just what he intended to do about this taint in his blood. At that, the host took up the heaviest knife in the household. A knife to cut muscle and bone at a single blow, it lent a terrible youth and strength to the arm of this grandfather-to-be, and as he whipped the mottled blade skyward, everyone fell back with a gasp. Yet when the man brought his weapon down, it was only to chop open another of the sweet, round fruits.
If the color inside a melon turns out white, the father declared, then what’s there to fight about?
Afterward, Paola wouldn’t sit still for his picking at the story.
“Oh, you, stubborn as a stump.” She waggled a finger. “Do you mean to tell me you understand a Neapolitan proverb better than I do?”
Risto cocked his head and repeated that his wife hadn’t grasped what the old man was saying. She hadn’t heard the threat.
What if the melon had turned out dark?” he asked. “The melon, or the baby?”
“Oh, honestly, as if you were the only realist in Italy.”
“But, just look at it, you’ve got the son sitting right there, steam coming out of his ears. Isn’t the father saying, maybe they do have something to fight about?”
“Risto-ri, you know as well as I do, this is a story about what’s inside. Under the skin, in the heart, you know perfectly well.”
She stroked his cheek with a knuckle. “A real Neapolitan,” she went on, would’ve gotten the moral of the story at once, because it also turned up in one of the city’s famous songs.
Risto rolled his eyes. “Of course it’s in a song. They’re all in some song.”
“Amore, they most certainly are, and that’s your Brave New World.”
“Everybody in Naples sits around their old piazza, telling the old stories and singing the old songs. And they say Africans are tribal.”
Paola, delighted, jumped up to fetch more wine. All right, yes—he’d take a couple of fingers himself.
Excerpt from The Color Inside a Melon
John Domini has three stories collections and three novels in print. Other books include selections of criticism and poetry. He’s published fiction in Paris Review and nonfiction in GQ and the New York Times, and won a poetry prize from Meridian. Grants include a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. The New York Times praised his work as “dreamlike … grabs hold of both reader and character,” and Alan Cheuse, of NPR, described it as “witty and biting.” He has taught at Harvard, Northwestern, and elsewhere, and makes his home in Des Moines.
Excerpt provided by Rhizomatic