Tenuta Campo al SignoreTALL AND STRAIGHT
di Valeria Corciolani ♦
He lifts his chin and inhales the scent the morning brings. He squints his eyes and savours damp soil, cut grass, and softwood. As he digs a little deeper, he can even detect the tender fragrance of sprouts mingling with the pungent aroma of grapevines. They blend together with the austere scent of cypress trees cascading down the Bolgheri hills, merging with the salty breeze blowing from the sea. It is an intoxicating experience (for those who can appreciate it, of course). His sniffing abilities are, after all, quite remarkable.
He stretches his muscles in preparation for the run, glancing upwards towards the top of the hill and the pale facades of the village of Castagneto Carducci, pressed against each other as if vying for a front-row seat to enjoy the breath-taking view. Undecided about which route to take, he shrugs his shoulders and takes the path through the vineyards of Tenuta Campo al Signore, just to get started. He begins to run, the wind tousling his curls, the crisp air tickling his eyes, and a myriad of scents assaulting him from all sides. Many he recognizes immediately, while others unexpectedly arise, quick, fresh, unfamiliar.
Like this one.
He slows down, distracted by something his nose can’t quite identify yet, tugging him beyond the recently restored ancient gate, directly towards the field with stacks of paulownia wood, a rather amusing name for a tree, perhaps that’s why he remembers it. To be honest, he could just let it go, but the thought evidently passes through his brain without sticking. He continues running until he reaches the clearing and the wood stacks. There, the new scent is so strong that it lingers on his tongue, thick and heavy. That’s why he stops, almost expecting to see someone pop out and say, “Hey there!” But no, there’s no one. Except for the scent, of course.
“Astoooon! Astooon…” Valentina’s voice reaches him clear and distinct. He knows he should go, otherwise she’ll worry and call Luca. Then, all hell breaks loose.
He looks around, uncertain.
Curiosity gets the better of him. He crouches down and begins to dig.
“ASTOOOON!” Luca’s booming bass voice reverberates through the vines like a gunshot.
Aston looks up at the sky. Well, he really has to go. He shakes the dirt off his curls, scratches his ear, casts one last regretful glance at the hole, and walks away.
And that’s why, on a clear spring morning, amidst patches of dry grass and clay clumps unearthed by an enthusiastic and determined Romagna water dog, a large, plump, and unmistakable thumb now emerges.
Former Chief Inspector Jules Rosset shifts gears in his old but reliable Citroën and enters the long avenue, casting an irritated glance at “the tall straight cypresses in double row,” that “troop from San Guido down to Bolgheri,” the verse of a poem his elementary school teacher—a woman with the indulgent affability of a T-Rex with a migraine—had drilled into him with a series of head smacks. After more than forty years, it is still ingrained in his brain, so perhaps the strategy of jolting the limbic system with smacks, however debatable, might make sense. His son Alberto will be graduating from high school in less than three months, no one has ever laid a finger on him and the only poem he can recite in its entirety is the shortest one in Italian literature, the one that goes “M’illumino / d’immenso,” so…
Jules sighs and leans closer to the windshield. He must admit, however, that this avenue has its own charm. Perhaps it is the light playing hide-and-seek among the trunks, or that grey asphalt strip unwinding in never-ending ups and downs. He finds himself experiencing a shiver of excitement that almost (just almost) makes him reassess the stubborn determination of his “beloved” teacher.
He yawns and rubs his face, longer and sharper than usual, with his blond tuft hanging over his forehead, limp like overcooked lettuce. It must be said that he covered the over three hundred kilometres separating the Tuscan village from Monforte d’Alba, where he moved to when he decided to leave the police force, without even the solace of a comforting cup of coffee. All for that somewhat whimsical idea born at the bottom of a glass of red wine, after talking with his friend, anatomical pathologist Orlando Calabrò, one of those people who always speak and laugh out of turn. That is why he had dismissed it immediately. But then, on second thought… He still needs to adjust a bit. After all, he is a stubborn Valdostan, a mountaineer who found himself transplanted into the salty air of Liguria and then moved on to the Langhe, all to… well, let’s say to follow an urgent need to leave his previous life behind and reclaim Life itself. So he took over a library with a vineyard view, where one can buy or simply read and listen to collector’s vinyl records while sipping on a Barolo Chinato in the shade of the grape leaves. And that’s why he is here now, expanding his wine horizons in the cradle of the famous Sassicaia and “sniffing” the local production. Jules parks the car and frees his long, bony body from the seat, trying not to pay attention to the echo resonating in the empty depths of his stomach. Usually, when he has things to do, nourishment is the last thing on his mind, but maybe it is time to put something in his stomach before collapsing and causing a scene.
He trudges among the multitude of tourists clogging the stone-paved alleyways and establishments, searching for a quiet place to sit and peacefully finish his fennel salami and pecorino sandwich. Certainly, being an ancient village built around a mediaeval castle it exudes its own charm, but it is the ancient light-coloured stone buildings with flowers in the windows, small shops, and scents spreading through every nook and cranny that give the feeling of being in a sliver of paradise nestled among vines and olive trees, outside of time and space. Truly remarkable, if not for the fact that everything is so perfect that it almost intimidates him.
He continues to take bites of his lunch while sneaking to the right, finding himself along a wall with an arch opening onto a white gravel path. Jules wipes the crumbs off his chin and leans in, curiously examining the patch of land with small iron crosses planted among the grass, each one different. But before the information can make its way into his brain, a gentleman with thick glasses, white hair, a buzz cut and a heavy coat buttoned up to the neck appears in front of him, scrutinising him with a tilted head and the smooth composure of an alpine cow.
“Um, and this would be…,” Jules stammers, struggling to swallow the bite making its way down his oesophagus.
“This is Nonna Lucia’s cemetery,” the man interrupts him, “the grandmother of the poet Giosuè Carducci, she was born in Seravezza in the province of Lucca in 1770,” he continues, reeling off precise dates, events, and footnotes in a flat voice, his gaze swimming elsewhere. Jules tries to ask a few questions, but the flood of information leaves him no room to jump in, so he shuts his mouth and listens, stealing glances at the plastic badge hanging from the man’s coat, it reads “Ascanio.” He is absorbing the history of the Bolgheri cemetery, and even the somewhat despised “Before San Guido,” which now – as Mr Ascanio recites it as if it were a mantra – resonates within him like an “Om” and almost (just almost) pleases him.
After half an hour, the two of them are sitting on the wooden bench inside the small chapel, Ascanio alternating between endless quotations and his own thoughts, distinguishable only by the slight change in tone rising by half an octave and breaking the monotonous modulation. Meanwhile, Jules tells him about himself, perhaps due to that gaze of his that seems to see beyond and only what truly matters.
“The devil makes pots, but not lids, nor bottles,” Ascanio interrupts, just as Jules begins to mention his past as an inspector. “Here in Bolgheri, though, the devil takes the form of Our Lord, and he doesn’t make pots, he takes them. On his head.” As he says this, he touches his forehead, and for a moment, his gaze seems to abandon that distant past piercing his thoughts, focusing instead on the present, on a point beyond the entrance arch of the cemetery.
“The devil?” Jules cautiously probes, feeling as though he is in the presence of some kind of revelation, but unsure if he fully grasps Ascanio’s rapid mumbling.
“When it’s cold outside, she brings me hot tea in a real cup, because I am a guide, not a caretaker,” Ascanio continues unabated and out of context.
The “Madonna Lippina,” Ascanio nods, “and the devil made a mistake coming here because you know: the Madonna crushes the devil beneath her heel. And then the devil dies.”
Driving along the few kilometres that separate Bolgheri from Tenuta Campo al Signore, Jules has done nothing but chew on the conversation with Ascanio, and he himself cannot explain why. Perhaps it is due to the infamous “investigation bug” that Calabrò always blabbers about, claiming that once you’re born with it, you can never get rid of it. But now he finds himself with his phone open to the image of the “Madonna Lippina”, the Madonna with Child by Filippo Lippi that he just found on Google. A fair and ethereal maiden with watery eyes and a rounded forehead that maybe reminds him of someone, but definitely nothing more than that. Or at least it should. He taps his thin fingers on the steering wheel and finds himself reckoning with the slight tremor at the base of his neck that he knows well. Now, more than the aforementioned bug, it feels like he has just awakened a swarm of rats. He grunts, tucking the phone into his pocket and opens the car door. He needs to stop this, damn it. He is here to take a tour of the vineyards, to taste the wines of Campo al Signore, and to learn more about this estate that has piqued his curiosity, among many others. And there’s also the not insignificant matter of the cars. Yes, because he, Jules Albin Rosset, former police inspector and generations-long mountain man, has only dealt with tractors, compact cars, and official vehicles in his life. But he has always harboured a desire to lay his eyes (and perhaps even his buttocks, let’s admit it) on a legendary Morgan. And in the extraordinary vintage car park of Campo al Signore, there is none other than a black three-wheeled Morgan with a shark-like nose, which immediately made his joints melt with excitement.
He opens the door, inhales the scented air of earth, grass, and blooming wisteria, sweeps away thoughts of Madonnas, devils, pots, and cypress trees, and rings the bell at the wide gate.
Jules observes the warm and rosy transparencies of the wine against a light, then swirls it, inhaling its fragrance as he has been taught, and takes a sip. He is delving into the wines with the same pragmatic intuition he had as a policeman, but behind the structure, savouriness, and fruity freshness, a memory of peach and orange zest emerges, managing to surprise him. Just as Luca and his wife Valentina pleasantly surprised him, the driving force and heart of this company. He also understands why they chose to literally put their faces on the label of this Rosato Bolgheri DOC, because every sip tells their story, their philosophy of life, and above all, their Gaze, made of elegance, work, study, trial and error. But, it is Passion, with a capital P, working real magic. Jules caught a whiff of it as soon as the gate opened to reveal the white farmhouse with the red tile roof, nestled like a jewel in the green treasure of the garden on one side, and vineyards, vegetable gardens, and olive trees on the other. There, every minute detail speaks of love, dedication, and care. Just like Jules, they had never thought of the countryside before, he as a business consultant and she as the head of a production and event organisation company linked to the art world. And yet, here they are!
“Well, one day, returning from a business trip, I passed through Bolgheri and fell in love,” Luca opens his arms, with the practical and enthusiastic demeanour of someone who knows how to always seize the good and the beautiful in life. Whether due to nature or professional deformation, Jules has never been able to do that, so he fully admires those who can do, or maybe it is because of that whole good-hearted Mangiafuoco persona, but it feels like he has known him forever. And the same goes for Valentina, who smiles with the elegant grace of a Merlot and drops an unequivocal statement: “To be so lucky as to own land and not ruin it. That is the most beautiful art form one could wish for,” which opens Jules’ heart.
“Ah, considering your Ligurian background, you need to try this,” Luca smirks, showing him a bottle covered with…
Jules furrows his brow, scrutinising those marks that have the appearance of marine encrustations, perplexed.
“That’s right!” Valentina laughs, correctly interpreting his bewildered expression. “The world’s first UnderWater wine, aged at the bottom of the sea at a depth of over 50 metres, is produced in Castagneto Carducci with grapes from Campo al Signore.”
“So, you’re telling me that…” Jules blinks.
“That instead of in a cellar, the bottles age at the bottom of the sea, precisely in Liguria, in the waters of Cala degli Inglesi, in Portofino.”
“Ah…” Jules exclaims sceptically. His experience with the Ligurian saltwater was not the most idyllic, but since curiosity is encoded in his cells at a level deeper than DNA, he doesn’t back down.
“I’ll admit, I’m sincerely impressed,” he sighs contentedly, putting down his glass.
“How about a tour of the vineyards, now?” proposes Elena, the very young, impeccable and sunny receptionist, with a wide and contagious smile. But as she opens the glass door to the tasting area, a caramel-coloured speeding bullet bursts in.
“Aston, settle!” exclaims Valentina, trying to grab hold of him.
“Hey, you must be the famous mascot!” Jules chuckles, bending down to pet the curly-haired Lagotto who can’t decide between jumping up to greet him or sniffing his shoes. “He’s really irresistible,” he mumbles as the dog licks his face. “How about we take him with us?”
And so it went. Jules and Aston are now strolling through the vineyards and olive groves. In reality, they have already explored the nine hectares of the estate from top to bottom, seen the small botanical garden, the guest lodge, the meticulously manicured garden, and met Andrei, his hands as large as wheelbarrows and his eyes kind. He is the one who tends to the land and looks after each patch and individual plant as if they were his own creatures. And yes, Jules also laid eyes — and buttocks — on Luca’s splendid caramel-coloured three-wheeled Morgan, sat behind the wheel of a sleek red MG MGA roadster, been enraptured by a breathtaking Alfa Romeo SS, and surrendered in front of the sumptuous splendour of a green Jaguar XK 140, amazed at the sheer luck of being able to contemplate all this wonder in one single place. Then the others returned inside, while he decided to stay a bit longer and enjoy the colours and scents of that place. He stretches his neck to glimpse the shimmering sea strip, which seems almost like a mirage to him, accustomed as he is to the Piedmont hills. Now, actually, he would like to go back, but Aston tirelessly keeps trying to pull him beyond the field of olive trees that create a long and silvery avenue all the way down to the recently restored 18th-century gate.
“Hey, Aston,” he tries to hold the leash, “you know, I’m not twenty anymore, damn it. If you keep pulling, I’ll end up falling apart like a Lego, and then it’ll be your turn to pick me up from the dirt, just so you know…” But no, Aston seems determined to drag him beyond the olive trees of the estate, to a field full of wood piles that look abandoned.
“Are you happy now?” Jules gasps, exhausted from the unexpected ten-metre sprint.
But Aston does not listen and plunges his nose into one of the woodpiles, kicking up clumps of dirt all around.
“Um, I don’t think Valentina and Luca would be happy to know you’re here digging the…” Then he stops, sensing the greasy and heavy whiff of a very familiar smell.
He grabs Aston by the collar and pulls him out of the hole without much ado.
And he sees it.
A wide, chubby thumb, attached to a hand, which seems to be attached to a wrist, and…
“Merde de la vache putain…” he hisses through his teeth.
Then with a sigh, he rummages in his pocket and grabs his cell phone.
“Inspector Rosset, we’re almost there…”
“Former inspector,” Jules grumbles darkly, “I retired over a year ago.”
“Yeah, sure,” says Mr Giusti, the Superintendent from the local police station in Cecina, nodding as if the matter didn’t concern him, determined to split the burden of a corpse buried under a pile of paulownia with anyone, even an ex-cop about as friendly as a punch in the mouth.
Jules stares at him with barely concealed annoyance, knowing full well what is going on, but unfortunately, not seeing a way out of this predicament other than running away. He huffs, rocking on his heels with his hands in his pockets, his neck tucked into his collar, wondering why. Why did he choose to indulge the adventurous spirit of a Lagotto instead of following his own desire to return to the estate… By now, he would be sprawled on a comfortable couch instead of standing with his boots sinking into clumps of dirt, waiting for them to unearth a stiff.
“There, they pulled him out,” the Superintendent calls him back.
Jules exhales and takes a few steps towards the hole, stretching his neck.
“Jesus!” he exclaims, approaching to get a better look.
“Well, yes, it’s not a pretty sight,” the Superintendent concedes.
“That was not an exclamation,” says Rosset shaking his head, “I was referring to the dead man: René Francescatti, called ‘Jesus’ because of how he looked, you know…” and he waves his bony hand to indicate the Nazarene-resembling beard and hair of the body that has just been laid in its black plastic shroud, awaiting the medical examiner. “A man from Marseille. He had a ring of girls in Aosta, mostly from Eastern Europe, he beat them, abused them, and nearly killed one. We arrested him, then she retracted everything out of fear, and he was released, fresh as a daisy, ready to start all over again. No, he was not a nice person.” He crouches down to observe the bruise on “Jesus” Franceschetti’s forehead, although to his belief it was the large wound on the opposite temple to have caused the death as if he had fallen onto a stone or something sharp, and the lack of blood around the area makes him suspect that he was brought here after the fact.
“But how did he end up getting killed here all the way from Aosta?” Superintendent Giusti asks angrily as if dying “on the road” was some kind of personal insult.
Jules shrugs and spreads his arms. The look on his face is clear: he has already given a name and a past, dammit, what else? He does not have a crystal ball! And besides, the last time he had anything to do with this man was five years before when he was still an inspector in the Valley and…
And in that very moment, the usual jolt shoots up his spine, reaching his nape.
He moves away from the hole, grabs his phone, browses his search history, and zooms in on the painting’s image on the screen. Suddenly, it all makes sense.
Now he is back in Bolgheri. He quickly glances at the red brick tower of the Counts della Gherardesca’s castle. He passes through the arch that leads to the village, walks past the bars preparing for aperitivo time, narrowly avoids knocking over some wooden crates filled with lavender and other merchandise displayed in front of a small shop, and with long strides he walks up the alley until he reaches Nonna Lucia’s cemetery. Ascanio is still there, trying to impart some of his knowledge to a Japanese couple who does not understand a diddly squat but still listens, composed and attentive. Jules waves his hand in a quick greeting, heads straight to the chapel, grabs the porcelain cup with an inch of tea still floating in it and recognizes the logo stamped next to the handle: the name of a nearby establishment, the one with the red wooden chairs and the hanging string lights. That’s why Jules is here now, waiting for her, sitting on the low wall next to the bell-shaped glass recycling dumpster.
He sees her coming out of the back door, looking like the Madonna with Child by Lippi, with a large pot full of empty bottles. Her blond, thin hair is tied back at the nape with a blue elastic band, a bulging forehead and watery light eyes. They look up, frame him, and with a slight start, recognize him, but she continues to walk towards him, clutching the heavy pot with the resigned acceptance of the “inevitability” that has haunted her as long as she can remember.
“Hello, Irina,” Jules greets her, getting up.
“Good morning, inspector,” she replies, without looking at him as she starts throwing the bottles into the dumpster’s opening.
“It’s over,” he says.
“I know. Let me throw these away and I’ll come.”
“No, you misunderstood,” Jules approaches and starts helping her, “it’s over. Meaning that you’re free.”
She turns around and stares at him.
“No one will ever know who you were and what tied you to him, you have my word. I didn’t think you would follow the advice I gave you five years ago.”
“You mean running away and starting a new life? I didn’t believe it either. I lacked the courage. It seemed easier to let myself die than to start living again. But I was thinking about it. Constantly.”
“Then last winter, he beat Ludmila to a pulp. I took her to the hospital, and when I came out of there… well I, I hitched a ride on a truck, then another, and…” She gives a sad little smile. “I was sure I had made it. Except that three days ago, I found him there,” she nods towards the low wall, “Irrrrrina, he was laughing with that ‘r’ rolling in his mouth, as if he wanted to chew me up.” She shudders. “He wasn’t expecting it. He kept laughing as he approached me, with his arms open and those devilish eyes. All I did was raise the pot. And let it go.”
Jules slightly nods his head, indicating that no further explanation is needed, that it doesn’t matter, that he would give a medal to anyone who helped her move that body as wide as a beam, that she only defended herself, and that any jury with common sense would acquit her, that is if all juries had common sense.
“What’s your name now?”
“Goodbye, Lucia. I wish you a good life. You deserve it.” He throws the last bottle, hands her back the large pot, and bids her farewell with one of his crooked smiles. He tucks his collar up and walks away.
“Is everything okay, Jules?” Valentina asks, pouring wine into the glasses.
Jules gazes at the open, genuine faces of his guests through the ruby reflections and looks around. He thinks about projects, the ones you build together, step by step, you nurture and you watch them grow. He thinks about Irina and those like her who convince themselves they do not even have the right to dream. He thinks about choices and about life, the one worth living. And he nods.
They raise their glasses “tall and straight”, yes, just like the famous cypress trees but… with something more.