Portents come in all manners depending on the country one lives in. But one portent that remains fairly universal in its ostensible “badness” in every metropolis or countryside town is the sight of a coffin being hauled into a church. On one especially gloomy February afternoon, sometime shortly after Valentine’s Day, Editta Tremontino bore witness to this very Poe-esque symbol spelling inevitable calamity. Indeed, she had never, in all her twenty-seven years, caught sight of a coffin, neither inside or out of a church. She supposed that was the benefit of having such healthy friends and relatives. And the only benefit of both her parents dying in a car crash along the Amalfi Coast when she was just three years old. That goddamned Amalfi will kill anyone who isn’t Southern Italian. It’s positively prejudiced in the lives it chooses to take.
So it was that Editta grew up in the care of her aunt and uncle, Silvestro and Ana, who were happy to watch over her as they never had children of their own. It was Ana who instilled within Editta a certain predilection for superstition. Warning her of the number seventeen (just another reason to mistrust Irish people for having one of their major celebrations on March 17th), trying to cheers someone with water in your glass (what kind of barbarian would even do such a thing?), black cats (of course) and putting your hat on top of a bed. Editta didn’t have the heart to tell Ana that she had done the latter the night before Ana’s second cousin died. She was rather young, too, a mere forty-six years old. They claimed it was a result of natural causes, but Editta knew it was her fault. It cured her of wearing hats altogether, that was for certain.
As Editta grew older, reaching her early twenties, Ana started to unearth more superstitions, specifically those targeted at single people. Though, to be sure, what is meant by single “people” in Italy is a woman. Soon, Ana forbade Editta from remaining in the kitchen with her while she swept, for if a broom should brush over her feet, it meant she would never get married. The same went for Ana ensuring she was always seated correctly at the table. The corner was out of the question, for this, too, meant Editta was sure to miss out on marriage.
She smiled to herself thinking of these superstitions. Since she had moved to Modena, they felt far away from the small village she had inhabited, way up in Sauris near the Austrian border. She was starting to actually not let them dictate her everyday life. In fact, she even took it upon herself to adopt a black cat from a friend she had met at university who needed to move on from Modena in order to accept a job in Milan. She renamed him Timoteo, preferring it to the too cutesy Pinocchio. Soon, he became her most trusted confidant, cozying up to her each night as she studied the gamut of Italian philosophers, from Boethius to Machiavelli. All of their takes on existence rather depressed her, and she wondered why she felt inclined to pursue this degree in the first place. If perhaps she was a masochist. It seemed to be a family trait if Silvestro’s profession as a member of local government was any indication. And the fact that her parents had never taken a vacation in their lives apart from the one that ended up killing them. Whatever the reason for her self-flagellation, it was here to stay, and Timoteo was there to bear witness to it.
She did wish, however, that she didn’t have to keep him a secret from Ana, who might suffer a coronary if she learned that Editta had defied all of her tutelage in choosing to harbor the number one agent of bad luck, a black cat. Yet, so far, the universe had not imploded and life carried on as usual. Editta was finally letting go of all the brainwashing that she had not, at the time, realized was brainwashing. Learning to unlearn the behaviors that had made her seem rather peculiar to the friends she was making at university, especially that time she recoiled at the mere sight of a broom propped up in a corner of a restaurant. She couldn’t even bother to explain the real reason for her fright, knowing full well it would sound absurd to them. So she started to suppress these reactions that she had been conditioned to have, dropping oil and salt on the kitchen floor without so much as a gasp these days. It was major progress, as far as she was concerned. But next time she went to see Silvestro and Ana, she knew they did not see it the same way, shocked and appalled when she flouted the usual seating arrangements by sitting at the corner of the table. “What’s next?” Ana squawked. “Do you want to set the table for thirteen people, too?” Editta rolled her eyes, aware that this was a reference to the only instance of thirteen being unlucky, with the “thirteenth man” at the table representing Judas Iscariot in the permutation of The Last Supper.
In response to Ana’s sarcasm, Editta returned, “Sure, why not? Maybe we should.”
Ana did, in fact, look as though she was experiencing a heart palpitation at the sound of Editta’s utter insolence in the face of everything she had been taught from such an early age. It was as though the “big city” had corrupted her completely, and Ana was starting to regret having ever agreed to let her go to school there. She said none of this, however, as she took to the wooden chair in the corner of the kitchen near the fireplace and proceeded to fan herself, flushed from the hotness of her combination of anger, fear and embarrassment over what Editta had become. Comprehending how severely her behavior was affecting both of them, Editta decided to put on a mask for the rest of her time spent in the house, taking back everything she had previously said and assuring them that her comportment before was nothing more than an innocent scherzo.
Several days later, at the end of her visit, and with renewed faith in her commitment to the Cult of Superstition, they accompanied Editta to the train station, sending her off with a cornicello charm attached to a new bracelet they had bought for her as added protection from the wolves that were constantly swarming. But she was no Red Riding Hood, and she herself had become more lupine than supine since departing from their insulated world. Silvestro and Ana would never be able to fathom this. To them, she would forever be the lost little orphan in need of protection. Well, let them have their opinion of her if it comforted them. That’s all people wanted to be. And if that’s what made them believe everything was going to be okay, then why not let them have it? It was not as though there was any chance of talking them out of their convictions anyway. Why waste one’s well-spared breath?
And so, Editta returned to Modena and her black cat and her violation of every superstition. That is, until the day she saw the coffin going into the church. She had never been told by Ana that it was bad luck to see a coffin, but something about it rattled her and she couldn’t say why. She was apprehensive for the rest of the day that something was going to happen to her, or that she was going to get some awful news. But it was only minutes after seeing it that she picked up a twenty euro bill that was breezing along the ground like a tumbleweed. She stepped on it, holding it firm in its place in order to grab it. She used the bounty to go to the store and buy more wine. Yet, as it would happen, such a purpose would prove frivolous. For when she arrived back to her apartment, there it was: wine coming out of the tap water. The second miraculous and absolutely non-terrible thing to happen following the coffin’s portent. Evidently it was a result of a pipe from the bottling line malfunctioning to siphon off some of the Lambrusco from a nearby winery. Editta’s palazzo was one of about only twenty others to experience it. If that wasn’t divine, she didn’t know what was.
Even so, her mind kept flashing to that coffin, being carried into the church as a priest looked on in solemn regard. It couldn’t possibly be a good sign–it couldn’t possibly be what had brought on these strange tidings of goodness. Somehow, Editta kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. It took weeks for her to start to somewhat forget about the coffin, resuming her normal routine without so much caution. And then one day, it happened. The third thing she knew must be directly related to that corpse of a portent. She arrived home at the end of her school day to find Timoteo rigor mortis on her windowsill. In a panic, she swept him in her arms, swathed him in a blanket and ran to the vet in the center of town. He could provide no explanation other than “natural causes,” just as had been the case for Ana’s second cousin, another death directly related to Editta’s ignoring of signs and superstitions. She had been a fool to believe she was immune to them. That Ana was just another country bumpkin who didn’t know what she was talking about. It was the “country bumpkins” who knew about the philosophies of existence better than anyone. At the same time, she might never have let Timoteo into her life at all had she heeded Ana’s warnings. Leaving her to ask herself if it really was true about it being better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all (for Christ’s sake, Alfred Tennyson was so English in his clinical assessment). Based on her experience, it seemed like the latter.
When she arrived back home from the vet, the Lambrusco from the tap had returned to being just water.