A few years ago, an acquaintance told me a story about his search for his family’s roots in Italy. He had tracked down some distant cousins through the internet, and he and his wife made plans to travel to Italy and meet his relatives. Off they went—affluent Americans laden with gifts, off to the coastal town from which his forefathers had sailed to America. When they arrived, they were greeted warmly, gifts were graciously received and a fine feast was laid out in celebration. Language was a minor barrier when hearts were so expansive. Still, the local priest, who spoke fluent English, was summoned to translate.
The grandmother of the family bade the Americans sit at the table she had prepared with her best linens and silver, while she served them the specialty dishes of the region: octopus, mussels, orecchiette, calzoni and fried polenta. When the priest arrived, he attempted to trace the family connection. Almost immediately it became obvious, not only that the Americans were not related, but also that they were kin of a rival family. The matriarch didn’t hesitate. Picking up the corners of the tablecloth, she whisked away the food, plates and all and shoved the bewildered Americans out the door. She kept the gifts.
I found this story so hilarious, in so many ways, that I became determined to write it as a short story—and I did. But during the process, I uncovered another story, one so compelling, that I couldn’t ignore it. Here’s how it happened…
I needed a setting for my story. In a different life, my husband had been to Italy to visit the relatives of his then girlfriend, and he suggested I place my story in Bari, a port on the southern coast of Italy. He remembered an old section of the city that had been standing since the heyday of the Roman Empire, and a medieval basilica that housed the relics of St. Nicholas. Perfect for my family and my priest. But that was just the beginning. The more I researched Bari, the more fascinating I found its history. How did the bones of St. Nicholas—the popular saint of Christmas—come to rest in Bari, when he lived, died and was buried a thousand miles away in the town of Myra in Lycia, now Turkey? And there were other questions, questions about Bari’s more recent history, questions about the bombing of Bari during World War II that changed the city and its people forever. I had to find the answers. And the answers called for something more than a story. They became a novel.
One of the great joys of writing a novel is the need to do research—it gives you a guilt-free respite from having to actually write and, as a bonus, you get to learn about all sorts of neat stuff. “Secrets of Bari” required research into two completely distinct eras of history, covering dress, speech, technology, religion, geography, weapons and weather, as well as momentous historic events. I travelled to Italy where I met with an anthropologist, an archeologist, Dominican and Resistanza historians, and a priest who is a world-renowned authority on the life of St. Nicholas. For the modern story, experts on and off the internet shared with me copious amounts of data about robotics, prosthetics, and medical conditions.
It is truly amazing how many details you can unearth about life seventy or even nine hundred years ago. The bombing of Bari during World War II is a little-known event, but a few excellent books and online articles by survivors of the disaster gave me a window into the shock and horror of the experience. The Middle Ages, on the other hand, have been described in countless books, movies and TV shows down to painstaking detail—except for one thing: Italian merchant ships in the late 11th century.
A key portion of “Secrets of Bari” takes place on the Mediterranean Sea in 1087, and recounts the experiences of a young boy aboard a ship bound for the Lycian town of Myra (now in Turkey) for the purpose of stealing the remains of St. Nicholas. When Tom and I travelled to Bari for the Festival of St. Nicholas, Dr. Antonio Brusa, professor of Medieval Studies at the University of Bari, took us into the restricted archives of the Museo della Cattedrale where we were thrilled to watch him extract antique parchments from a drawer marked 1087. Later, Fr. Gerardo Cioffari of the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari was kind enough to direct me to two detailed accounts of the translation of the bones to Bari, one written the week the remains arrived, the other in the 13th century.
I was excited to discover that the Basilica archives even contain a manifest with the names of all the sailors who were on board during that fateful voyage. There they were, sixty-two sailors, priests and merchants listed by name: Commandante Alberto, Stefano Tarantino, Gittagno, Summo, Leone Pilillo, Disigio and Matteo or Matthew, the sailor who smashed through the bishop’s crypt and bathed in the oil from his bones. All at once my characters came alive, their quest no longer just a story, but the adventure of real men who lived and died and who lay beneath my feet, having been honored for their service with burial under the Basilica. It was a week of such discoveries, so I was surprised that no one was able to shed light on the number or names of the ships that participated in the quest, or even the type of ship. What to do?
Popular culture has planted some ideas in our minds about old ships. If you were asked to picture an ancient Roman or Greek ship, you could probably conjure up a fairly accurate image of a long boat with a sweeping prow, a single mast and rows of oars issuing from the sides. Likewise, an ancient Viking ship would be easily imagined as a narrow, shallow vessel with tall posts at each end crowned with ferocious serpent or dragon heads. Descriptions and images of these ships abound in books and online, as well as in epic films about Biblical times, going back two and three millennia. You are probably familiar with later ships too—the ships that carried Columbus to America, carracks and caravels with raised decks and deep holds and three or four sails.
I scoured the library and the internet for information on the history of ships, but like the images in my mind, there was a frustrating gap about ships during the specific time and place of my story. Archeologists have not found any shipwrecks dating from that period, so we are in an area of what is delicately known as historical speculation. Was Matthew’s ship clinker built with overlapping planks or carvel-built with planks laid edge-to-edge over a skeletal frame? Was it powered by a square or lateen sail? Was it long and narrow like the northern hulk or flat-bottomed with towers fore and aft, like the cog? The next 300 years would be a time of transition for shipbuilding throughout Europe. In a few years, travel would expand with the first Crusade, and developments in navigation would lead to the building of faster, more sophisticated merchant ships with multiple masts, greater storage capacity and navigation techniques making them capable of extended voyages on the open sea. In 1087, however, single-masted ships navigated by the stars at night and crawled along the coast by day.
In Secrets of Bari, the vessel that carries Matthew and the Barian crew to Myra is modeled on earlier Roman merchant ships, with some features, such as the raised forecastle, that were developing in Northern Europe at the time and would soon be common in the region. Both square and lateen sails were used during the period; I’ve chosen the lateen, or triangular sail, because it was popular on ships venturing into the open sea, as it allowed a vessel to tack into the wind. Thus, we have Matthew’s ship—a hybrid of the boats of the earlier part of the millennium and the rapidly evolving ships of the later Middle Ages.
Research into real people, places and historical events can yield fabulously enriching discovery and detail—or frustrating dead ends. But thankfully, novels are by definition fiction, and where evidence is in short supply, we can use what we know to make an educated guess about the mysteries that still prevail.
The presents are all given out; the returns are back in the stores; the roast beef is eaten, and the cranberry sauce at the back of the refrigerator has been discovered and poured down the disposal. The renovation of Tom’s photography studio is well underway— we’ve chosen flooring, colors, furniture, rugs, placement of outlets, sample wedding photos for the walls. The workmen have ripped out walls, torn up carpet and strung Cat6 (whatever that is) all over the place. Now it is time to get back to writing—to get creative again, to get to work.
Getting back into a project after many days/weeks is intimidating. I have to reread and rethink—but it is also invigorating. I know from experience that I will see my characters in new ways and they may lead me in new directions. Those are the times when, if you let them, the characters write the story. The very first short story I ever wrote, as an adult, was like that. I had left my career behind me—the result of many factors—and was in the midst of a messy civil suit after having been forcefully assaulted by a co-worker. I had started my own advertising company and was more than busy enough serving clients and seeking out new ones. I had no intention of writing a story, but I woke up one night with the opening words to the story in my head.
Setting everything else aside, I sat at my computer and typed out the story of an incident in my childhood—an incident I hadn’t thought about in 35 years. It wasn’t on my mind—not my conscious mind, at least—and it had nothing to do with anything that was going on in my life at the time. But it insisted on being written. Until I was midway into it, I didn’t even know what it was going to be about. The words formed on the page, before they formed in my brain. Honestly, it happens that way sometimes—not often, but on rare and lovely occasions.
The short story, called “Ramar and the Pink Clouds,” is not technically my best work, and it has never been published. But, it is one of my personal favorites—and it won Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest Annual Fiction Contest. Scroll down to read it—I hope you enjoy it.
Peace and Love,
RAMAR AND THE PINK CLOUDS
I leap from my bed, Ramar of the Jungle plunging down a ravine. You know Ramar. He’s the white doctor who lives in Africa and goes around in a bush jacket and pith helmet curing epidemics and saving native tribes. He is on TV every afternoon and I love Ramar. In some episodes there are evil white men after ivory or diamonds, but they usually fall to the dangers of the jungle, especially quicksand. In fact, someone almost always ends up in quicksand on Ramar.
“Daddy, Angel won’t tie her shoes,” my sister yells. I can tie my shoes, I just don’t want to. I imagine my feet are made of glue. Not rubber cement or the thick white paste that Mrs. Dawson dishes out of a huge jar that-looks-like-a-mayonnaise-jar-only-bigger. More like the golden liquid that coats the insides of its glass bottle—and barely squeezes through a slit in the orange rubber stopper, when you smoosh it against the paper.
“Come on Angel, let’s go.” My father pulls the loops of my shoelaces tight and we pile into our Dodge station wagon, sea green with a white top. I’m wearing my red plaid with the big collar and the white cotton gloves that I wear to dancing school. After all this is a special occasion.
We are going to visit my mother who is having a nervous breakdown at Westport Sanitarium. No visitors before two weeks, but I got two letters from her, which were both censored, meaning someone read them to make sure she didn’t say anything crazy. My mother is not crazy, but she is tired and needs a rest. She wrote that all the rooms were padded and there were little green men with antennae running around the halls, but she was only kidding.
Westport Sanitarium is a very fancy place, my father tells us. And very expensive, which just proves how much he loves her to send her to the best. We drive between pillars in a long stone wall, which my father says is a masterpiece of craftsmanship. You can tell because the rocks have each been selected to fit together and there is no cement holding them. The sanitarium looks more like a mansion than a hospital. There are no bars on the windows.
Inside we walk down a hallway to a large airy room with sofas and chairs and some card tables set up. It looks like our club on bridge day. There are people sitting around and my mother is in here. Some of the people have on bathrobes, but she is wearing white pedal pushers with red and blue flowers and a blouse with a round collar. I slip off the gloves and tuck them in my pocketbook.
“Look at you both, you are so pretty!” After we hug her, I sit next to her holding her hand and looking around the room for someone famous. A lot of famous people live in Westport, and nervous breakdowns are very fashionable right now, my mother says. The room smells musty like modeling clay. I imagine our hands are made of clay which has been molded together into one big hand, and baked to make it permanent.
She asks if we would like to take a walk outside. “Can we? Will they let you?” “Oh yes.” She reminds us that she is here voluntarily. The sun makes me tired as we walk across the lawn. Still, I keep my eyes peeled for quicksand.
Later we go up to her room. There are two crayon pictures that I sent her propped up on her nightstand. On one I drew dozens of the little green men that she wrote about. Everybody laughs when they see it, she says.
I notice the other bed. “Where’s Mrs. Benchley?” I ask. Mrs. Benchley is my mother’s roommate. In her letters my mother said she was very nice and liked to paint trees. She was there for depression and had nightmares and screamed at night. My mother hesitates. “She had shock treatments yesterday and hasn’t come back yet.” Shock treatments. Don’t touch the socket, you might get a shock. They attach wires to your head. Don’t touch the light switch when your hands are wet, you might get electrocuted. Then they shoot electricity into your brain to change your personality and stop you from wanting to scream. Don’t go out in a storm, you might be struck by lightning and burn up. My mother won’t have to have shock treatments. They can’t make her, and she says if she’s scared, she’s going to scream if she wants to and no one is going to stop her.
The windows have blocks of wood nailed to them so they only open three inches.
The next two weeks are like a dentist appointment. You know it has to end, so you can stand it. I go to the neighbor’s after school and I’m very polite. No thank you, you can have the last cookie. My mother gets cookies from Hans Greiner’s, Linzer tarts with raspberry jam and powdered sugar that gets all over my face. The neighbors have popcorn one day, which I’m not allowed to eat at home in case I choke. I savor the salty kernals. Suck salty grease from my fingers.
My father makes us take a bath together. Morgan says she is too old to take baths with me, but she gets in the tub. The water is scalding hot. My mother always makes it shallow so we don’t drown, but this is nice and deep and, once we get used to it, it’s a lot more fun. I put in all my bath toys, which makes my sister mad. Daddy hollers through the door to remember to wash. One night he cooks French toast and bacon for dinner. Morgan is mad that we’re having breakfast for dinner, and I act mad too, but I really think it’s a treat. Most of the time, Daddy sits in his red leather chair and reads.
She is coming home tomorrow. After Daddy tucks us in, I lie awake, thinking about Ramar of the Jungle. I know I am too young, but I intend to marry him. This poses problems, I think, but I believe old Ramar will wait for me. Love will win out.
When Mommy tucks us in, she holds my hands while I say my prayers. Then I sing a song. Usually it’s a little thanksgiving song I learned in Sunday school, but on special occasions I sing a lullaby. Every night I ask her, “Which song should I sing?” Usually, on ordinary days she says “For Home and Food,” but every once in a while she surprises me and says “Let’s sing Hush My Babe.”
“But it’s not a holiday,” I remind her.
“What, you never heard of the High Festival of Elves?”
Suddenly I am in the jungle with Ramar. We have pet monkeys and lions that eat out of our hands. Ramar rushes out to save the ancient tombs. But the evil hunter is after me. He chases me through the jungle, into the brush that hides the quicksand. Huge mud fingers rise up to grab me and suck me in. No problem. I know all the ways to escape: don’t fight it, grab onto a stick, hook a tree branch with a rope. Nothing works, but Ramar will come. I’m sinking fast now. The quicksand is up to my chin, my mouth, my nose. Ramar, where are you? Ramar!
I wake up and realize it’s just a nightmare. I think about screaming but remember the shock treatments and decide not to. I look over at Morgan but she’s asleep. We have twin beds from Ethan Allen, solid maple, four posters with acorns on top. I imagine my bed is a magic ship that keeps me safe as long as I don’t touch the water. Giant waves are tossing the ship from side to side. Still I can make it to the stern by crawling along the deck on my stomach. Stretching over the end, I can just reach my side of the twin dresser. The top drawers are our junk drawers and we can keep anything we want in there. I slide mine open and rummage around in the dark. I find a brass case that looks like a lipstick tube, but when you take off the top and swivel the base, there’s a brush inside for putting on powder. One hundred percent camel hair. I rub the brush across my cheeks. It’s soft but it doesn’t tickle.
My eyes are used to the dark and I check the white ceiling for spiders. Three of the bedroom walls are painted pale yellow but the fourth has brown wallpaper with little yellow roses all over it. There’s a window with cafe curtains in the same pattern. Morgan has the window on her side but I have the wallpaper. I pick my nose and wipe it on the center of one of the roses. You can’t even see it unless you know it’s there.
“Hey Morgan.” Stage whisper. “Are you awake?”
“No, what do you want?”
“Can I get in bed with you?”
“No, your feet are dirty, go back to sleep.”
“Morgan, listen please.”
“ Mommy tried to kill herself.”
“I know, now shut up.”
“But I heard them. I was awake.”
She sits up. “What happened?”
Crying now. “They were fighting like they always do, then he chased her down the hall and she locked herself in the bathroom and took pills, a whole bottle.”
She comes over to my bed and puts her arms around me.
“I didn’t know what to do. What should I have done?” I say.
“I don’t know. Nothing.”
“She said no one cared if she lived or died, but I care.”
“She was just saying that Angel.”
“But I didn’t tell her. I didn’t do anything. I just let them put her in the ambulance and take her away.”
She climbs into bed next to me and stays there until I fall asleep.
My mother is coming home in the morning, but we have to go to school anyway. When the bell finally rings, I take the shortcut home without waiting for the other kids, cutting across the playground and behind Russo’s newstand where we get tootsie pops and orange creamscicles. Today I zip right by, fly up the hill and around the corner. I can see our house now, way at the end. Yellow ranch, two car garage and a big picture window. She’ll be happy to see me. Past the Borchs, the Knapps and the Bensons. There are the Staffordshire dogs in the window, where they sit on the maple drop-leaf table. I run across the grass and up the walk, but when I get there, the door is locked. I ring the bell and pound the brass knocker over and over, but she doesn’t answer. She’s not around back or at the neighbor’s either. I don’t know where else to look, so I sit on the porch steps. I listen to my heart and count the beats. Finally, I spot her walking up the street, a bag of groceries in her arms.
“Where were you? Why weren’t you here?” She had walked all the way to school especially to meet me, but I took a different route, missed her.
“Don’t you know I don’t go that way anymore?” I want to turn back time, come home the regular way, enjoy the surprise. “Go back,” I cry, “go back.” Clenching my fists, I cry until I can’t stop sobbing, while she holds me tight.
“I’m sorry, so sorry.” She holds up my hands, curled into tight balls.
“Look, your knuckles are like shiny pearls.” We both laugh, but even I know it’s not funny.
After that, when I get home from school she is always there. She pours me a glass of milk and has cookies on the table. Mallomars that you have to peel the chocolate off of with your tongue, then suck out all the marshmallow and save the chocolate coated cookie part for last. Or sugar wafers, delicate layers to split apart and scrape your teeth across to get the icing. And Greiner’s Linzer tarts. Then she sits sideways in my father’s red leather chair with her legs dangling over the arm and me on the floor beside her, while I show her my papers. I hardly ever have time to watch Ramar anymore, though I still think about him. I’ll go back to him someday, I think. One day I ask her if she’s still tired.
“No, I’m floating on a pink cloud now,” she tells me. “As long as I have my pink cloud I’m fine.”
So I make her tiny pillows of cloth scraps, stapled together over cotton and colored pink with a crayon. I thread a needle and run it through each puff so it hangs in the air. She is delighted with her pink clouds and they become our secret. I tell her I will make pink clouds for her, whenever she needs them, forever.
Everyone tells me I’m a really good cook. A gourmet cook. Friends, family, my book group—all rave about the dinners and desserts I prepare for them. Dinners like lobster paella or herb marinated Greek lamb with yogurt mint sauce, and desserts such as Valrhona chocolate mousse with fresh berry coulis, crème fraiche and homemade hazelnut praline crisp. When company is coming, I sometimes spend two or three days in the kitchen, planning, prepping, timing. And often, I’m proud of the result. I’ve been told I should start a restaurant.
But I do not think I am a good cook. In fact, with every meal, I am terrified that I won’t be able to pull it off.
To me, a great cook is someone who scavenges through the refrigerator—or the farmers market— and throws together ordinary ingredients to make something fabulous. Someone who intuitively knows what will work, someone who has such flair that they can create a memorable meal in an hour. Someone who chops and stirs and whisks and sautes while also talking up guests and pouring a new wine she has discovered. In other words, a cook with talent.
What I have is the willingness to spend hours scouring cookbooks to find a recipe that I’m confident I can make, then days prepping and preparing, so I’m not caught off guard on the day of. Yes, my plate is beautifully presented with a garnish of homemade chutney—but only because I spent three hours making it two nights ago. And only because I followed the recipe, step-by-step. If the meal is great, it is because I was willing to put in the work.
Writing is like that. I know there are talented people out there who can whip off bestsellers at the rate of one a year. And there are creative writers whose sentences flow so beautifully, you want to read them over and over to bask in their loveliness. I, personally, hate those writers. For most of us, writing is just a lot of hard work. Yes, there are those glorious moments when my character takes off and writes herself, when I don’t know how the words appeared on the page. Bravo! That’s what makes it all worthwhile. But most of the time, my writing gets on the page because I forced myself to plan and outline and research and revise. I am driven by the same terror that drives my cooking—terror that I can’t do it, so, in order to do it well, I have to put in the work.
Once, my husband Tom suggested that I make something “easy” for our company meal. Relax, he said; keep it casual (I think he was hoping it would relieve him of sous chef duties…). So I bought taco kits, chopped a few onions and tomatoes, and put out bowls of the ingredients for guests to make their own. I can’t say how it went over—our friends may have loved it—but I was too busy feeling humiliated to notice.
So ultimately it’s about what works for me. Do I always feel like cooking for company? No, but if I know they are coming, I get the cookbooks out and start making lists. Do I always feel like writing? Absolutely not. In fact, I’d almost always rather do anything else, from playing solitaire to folding the laundry. Writing is terrifying. What if I can’t pull it off? But I’ve learned, just as with cooking, the more time that goes into it, the more confident I can be of the result.
I’ve been asked about the title of my novel, Secrets of Bari. What are its secrets? First, and most horrendous, is a true but little known episode in its history that resonates appallingly today.
Chemical weapons have headlined the news lately, with the United States in the forefront condemning their use. I’ve cringed to hear reporters and commentators declare that the US has never employed chemical agents in warfare. Though technically correct, this statement fails to acknowledge that the US is responsible for the largest chemical weapon disaster in history and the only known deaths due to chemical weapons in World War II. Today, few people are even aware of the German attack on Bari Harbor that exploded an American Liberty ship secretly carrying poisonous mustard gas. The Allied nations were transporting large quantities of the toxic chemical for use should the enemy use gas first.
The news about Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons conjures up what I believe to be the most horrific of ways to destroy life. Of course, the idea of mass destruction (how blithely we use that term) is repugnant in any form, but there is something about the poisoning of the very air we breathe that is particularly chilling. Victims of Sarin, the nerve agent suspected of being used in Syria, die a ghastly death as organs shut down and they experience diarrhea, vomiting, seizures, and convulsions. The situation in Syria is complex—but one fact remains clear: it has been against international law to make, stockpile or use any chemical weapons since the Chemical Weapons Convention, effective 1997. The use of gas in WWII was banned by the Geneva Protocol, yet every warring nation produced stockpiles to have on hand in case they needed it. In Bari, that policy proved deadly.
Bari is a port city on the heel of the boot Italy forms on a map. On December 2, 1943, a few months after the Allied armistice with Italy, Bari Harbor was so crowded with supply ships that they were lined up perpendicular to the docks.The German air force had been depleted and was no longer considered a threat, so harbor security was lax. Lights blazed as personnel worked into the night to unload the trucks, Jeeps, bombs, weapons, ammunition and hospital supplies needed for the offensive operation into Northern Italy. The scene was set for disaster, and at 7:30 pm, disaster struck.
In the most destructive bombing of Allied shipping since Pearl Harbor, German planes swept across the port, destroying or severely damaging 40 of the approximately 50 ships waiting to unload and devastating the surrounding town. The worst was yet to come. As fires blazed across the oil and gas-covered harbor, ships, heavy-laden with tons of bombs and ammunition, exploded throughout the night. The contents of one ship, the SS John Harvey, vaporized in an explosion so catastrophic, it was felt 20 miles away. No one remaining alive in Bari knew that the ship had been carrying 200,000 lbs of mustard gas. The toxic chemical mixed with the muck in the harbor and hung heavily in the air over the port. An estimated 2000 military personnel and civilians died in the attack, but countless others suffered the terrible effects of the noxious mustard gas.
Why have so few people heard of this attack? The answer is nightmarish in its simplicity. It was covered up. As casualties streamed into hospitals and clinics, doctors and nurses struggled to treat them, without knowing what they were dealing with. Had they known, many lives might have been saved. But officers were sworn to secrecy about the attack, and information was not forthcoming. The word had come down from the top—from Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt—Bari never happened.
Three enlightening non-fiction books tell the story of the bombing of Bari: Nightmare in Bari by Gerald Reminick, Disaster at Bari by Glen Infield, and Poisonous Inferno by George Southern, all from the point of view of the occupying forces.
In one part of my novel, Secrets of Bari, I tell the story of the raid through the eyes of four friends who grew up in the section of the city known as the Old Town. The attack on Bari changed the direction of their lives in ways unimaginable only hours before.