Excerpted from NOTES FROM THE LAND OF THE CRYSTAL SKY
We wade in the middle of the still blue waters of Capo Caccia. Vivienne, who has taken a break from preparing lunch, tells me the story of the island’s most notorious brothers. She and her husband George have lived on their yacht in Bosa for the past fifteen years, and they have taken us out, Nick and me and three other couples, to spend the day exploring the island’s surrounding caves and capes. We are in unchartered territory. Dolphins, bluefin tuna, amberjack, granite, and crystalline sea surround us. Nick has never been on a private yacht. The whole day is new and exciting and fresh, yet exudes an uncanny peacefulness, and this, Viv says, is normal. Nothing really happens in Sardinia, and no one minds. According to Viv, most of the action happens on the mainland, that is, in Italy. That’s where the criminals go, too.
But, yes, once, not so long ago there were two brothers. The whole island knew of them, these dashing young men, two years apart: Aurelio and Gabriel. In the early mornings, the sky so deep blue it was almost black, those two mischievous brothers would rob mopeds, de-petal flowers, and squeeze freshly stolen lemons on the pavement, wasting ripe juice as it flowed down the street. “Rebellious chaps,” says Viv, “as dangerous as it got.” That is crime in Sardinia: kin ravaging gardens at night.
There were those brothers. And then there was Pietro di Negri, better known as Er Canaro. Negri was born in Casaletta, a region of Sardinia given to the Tabarchini by King Charles Emannuel III, after said tribe fled the Tunisian coast for good. Like many villages, Casaletta, around an hour away from the island’s capital city, Cagliari, boasts the beauty of untouched beaches, making the path from sea to land a maze difficult, but worthy, to travel. Sardinia is the type of place whose roads take a few wrong turns to figure out, and Casaletta is no exception.
Legend says Sardinia is God’s land, the last bit, the best of the world, saved, not lost, just alone in the middle of the sea. Each day went like this: the shore sucked seaweed back to granite coves, red-footed falcons swooped in from the cliffs for a quick bite to eat, occasional waves thudded against jagged rocks. That summer was Nick and me and the sea. Wine. Good bread (pane carasou)…but never mind the sea - let’s return to Pietro di Negri. Delitto del Canaro, February 18, 1988.
Sniffing the last clumps of cocaine as they dripped down his nasal cavity, Negri’s body, not for the first time, was used as a punching bag for his best friend and fellow addict, Giancarlo Ricci’s violent ways. Ricci, an amateur boxer, was a boss of a small neighborhood, though some locals say it was he who was small, not the town.
To Negri, the scene was all too familiar. The promise of a fresh coat for a furry friend wafting from the shampoos and conditioners on display, the silent yelps from past dogs anxiously awaiting a cut and blow still lingering through the air like stray hairs, the metal crates, the bag of cocaine beneath the cash in the register. Negri succumbed to Ricci’s beatings one too many times, and with each visit his hatred for his so-called friend, and for himself, grew, until he could no longer stop himself from fantasizing about ripping each limb off the beast, of plucking his lashes, his scabs, his fingernails, and every bit of skin off of his body so that his blood burnt from the oxygen. Negri feared for his life for the last time, he would no longer feel weak or vulnerable. On this night, he’d murder the man who tortured him in his own coiffeur shop.
“The stars are soundless in the marvelous sky,” wrote D.H. Lawrence in Sea and Sardinia. Every Friday night at seven, the nieces and nephews and grandchildren of our neighbors gathered for dinner. We’d wave to each other from our balconies. The children ran barefoot and unwatched through the streets. The stray dogs slept through the night. Every creature was at peace.
When Ricci arrived, he got right to it. A little shove of the shoulders here, a push from behind there. But after some coaxing, Ricci quit roughhousing. Negri convinced him their dealer was dropping by with a decent amount of bianci, and if Ricci hid in that crate in the corner, Negri said, they could ambush the dealer within a few minutes of his arrival, then split the money and drugs. A perfect plan. Elated at the prospect of danger, his blood racing and mind already prepared for battle, Ricci agreed to Negri’s idea, and crawled on all fours into the metal crate. The echo of closing padlock sounded off the walls. On Negri’s first move, Ricci’s back was still turned.
Many Italians scoff at the rocky, steep, roominess of Sardinia then secretly jet off to its beaches. This is one difference between the Sardos and Italians. Sardinians will tell you what they love and love it wholly. Italians are seldom satisfied. The Italians make their presence known, perhaps acquire jealously quicker than any other ethnicity, and (maybe because of such a trait) have defined luxury. Sardinia seems a forgotten land, cherished mostly by celebrities and multimillionaires for Prince’s Beach in Costa Smeralda, or through the vivid observations of D.H. Lawrence: “Sardinia, which is like nowhere. Sardinia, which has no history, no date, no race, no offering.”
But Lawrence, I’m afraid, was mistaken. Sardinia is ripe in history.
For more than twelve hours, Pietro di Negri mentally and physically tortured the small town boss, his former friend, the faux-boxer, pulling Ricci’s nails off his fingers, his fingers from his hands, sticking his mutilated fingers in his ears. According to the coronary report, Ricci died of asphyxiation, most likely caused when Negri carved off Ricci’s dick and shoved it down his throat. Responsible for one of the most horrific murders to take place on Italian soil since World War II, Negri was released early from prison for good behavior, having served seventeen years of his twenty-four year sentence. He is the only recorded criminal to be of Sardinian descent.
No “Negri” exists in Alghero, at least, no one talked about one; in fact, no one was scared of anything. Kids ran around fearful only of the watchful eye of their parents. The shopkeepers left their stores open, even throughout siesta. Before we climb up the ladder to dry off on the yacht, Vivienne insists Sardinia is the safest, most welcoming place she has ever lived; a list that includes London, Wales, Barcelona, and the middle of the Tyrrhenian Sea.
During our nightly walks through Old Town and down to the harbor, Nick and I noticed a group of young boys, anywhere from the ages of 15-19, ride three identical red Vespas to and fro, from the pier to strip to park, time after time, three nights in a row. They’d occasionally stop for a smoke or soda on the corner of the east side of the park, outside of the pizzeria/kebab place, the one with red and white checkered tables outside overlooking the east end of town. Back and forth. On the Vespa. Off the Vespa. Up the block. Gone. Back again. They met all sorts of people all over the place – we watched them with a myriad of faces: young, old, men, women, in well-shaded areas with benches or swings or fountains, each time shaking hands or pounding fists with whoever, it appeared, was waiting for them. It was clear they were pushing. We were curious as to what.
During the middle of one blue-skied Sunday afternoon, queued up at the beach bar on Maria Pia, a ninety year old man danced over to Nick and me whistling “That’s Amore.” His shoulders shimmied. His feet kicked. He wore a cerulean button down shirt and dark blue trousers. An NYPD cap sat on top of his spotted head. He smiled at me so I smiled back. He nodded to the bartender, and in doing so ordered three glasses of the house wine. He insisted we drink up, eat something, stay a while. In broken English, he told us he owned the place. As it happens, he did.
“New York”, he cried, after I told him where we were from, “only the best from New York!” He was a retired detective, born in and happily returned to Sardinia after living on the mainland for his career. Here, everything is betterer, he insisted. “Italia!,” he scowled, “segundo migliore.” In Italy, he said, the mafia breeds. There is no mafia like that in Sardinia he says: the whole concept is too modern. The Sardos cling to tradition.
He took my hand and led us around the bar, passed the showers and jewelry stand, behind a cluster of pine trees and dunes, where his grandchildren and children ate malloredus off tree trunks draped with white linen tablecloths. Wine glasses and bread knives. Two dogs sniffed for scraps in the sand. An entire family hidden on the beach. He said the two of us made him feel young. He whistled “You Make Me Feel So Young.” “To a beautiful couple,” he said, raising his glass. Una bella copia. And there we were, two strangers in the middle of Sunday dinner in the sand. Only in Sardinia.
Graffiti peppers the serpentine streets of Alghero as if it each mural were a page to a scattered book. Some beautiful, some graphic professions of teenage love exposed for tourists and shopkeepers to read, notes to Maria or Valentina or Bella can be spotted under the fluorescent signs of Hotel Florida and Hollywood Pizza that decorate the strip along Lido beach. In English, on rocks before the entrance to a main highway, someone has proclaimed in black, block letters, “SARDINIA IS NOT ITALY.”
In a tremendous, tragic accident, either Aurelio or Gabriel, one of them anyway, Viv says, was killed in a motorcycle crash, and soon after, unable to bear the tight squeeze of island life without his partner in “crime”, the other moved to the mainland.
Solitude seems genetically instilled within the Sardos, another contagious attribute: an eagerness to be alone, to simplify. Italians want abundanzo, even consider dinner an excuse to eat as if for the gods. In Italy, Lawrence noted, groups of people form together in the market, gossip on a bench in the park; there is always too much and too many. In Sardinia it is not odd to find a shepherd walking the land for miles, talking to no one but his flock of sheep.
One evening, before dinner, Nick and I decided to walk down to the pizzeria/kebab place to see what the boys were offering. We ordered a slice of fresh pizza each, split a coke, and waited thirty minutes. Nick checking his watch, concerned about wasting time. Finally, the putt putt of a motor in the distance. The three amici arrived. What they offered was simple: three weeks’ worth of hash for fifty euro. We agreed to meet in another half hour, on the bench under the umbrella of maquis in the park. Nick and I took our time strolling through Old Town, returning in due time, gelatto and cash in hands. But the boys never showed. And we never heard the putt putt of those red bikes echo off the cobblestone streets again.
A local farmer found Giancarlo Ricci’s corpse during the sunrise the morning after his murder. The plastic garbage bag his remains wrapped in still smoked-- Negri finished him off with some good-old-fashioned gasoline, but made sure to preserve the fingernails he had tastefully removed for means of identification.
Today, Negri works as a messenger in Rome, where part of his freedom restricts him from leaving the city.
No Casaletta, no mirto, no Sardinia, no home.
Before we leave, our new friend who owns the beach bar on Maria Pia makes Nick and I promise we’ll return one day, that we won’t forget Sardinia. I respond simply: “Of course we will return; naturalmente ci torneremo” but I say this only because my Italian is not rich enough to say what I mean to say.
I wish I could have described to him how in New York, everything is hasty, or worse, we are inside, day by day. Here in Sardinia I wake up, drink a cup of espresso on my balcony overlooking the mountainside. Nick rises late, and when he is ready, we enjoy a walk, eat a toasted loaf of bread with speck thinly sliced and spread between blankets of mozzarella for a casual lunch on the beach in front of the sea. Food, sunshine, and my man on a blanket beside me. To live any other life than this seems foolish.
Nights in Alghero were spent walking around Old Town, sipping sweet, chilled myrtle, watching the sun drop between the mountains near the cape. Nick was there, and I was there, and I believed we were made to live and love in paradise, in that one bedroom apartment on the outskirts of town.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Abriana Jetté is an internationally published poet, essayist, and educator. In the past, her work has been supported by The Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and has appeared in PLUME, River Teeth, The Seneca Review, and many other places.