Witness, By David Gerstel

There will be an end to this, our most current plague, and on that day there will be no more names to add onto glued paper. The board will be blank. But now is not that time.

Sarnano Witness
Sarnano, Le Marche, Italy. Photo: © Ignacio Maria Coccia , CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, via Flickr.

Just outside the Brunefort gate on the cobblestone exit road in the medieval town of Sarnano in central Italy, there is a manifesti di funerali which measures roughly five feet on each side. The dark metal frame, with its rolled edges and iron scrollwork on the top, suggest both solemnity and authority. The somber announcement board lives on the wall behind the gelateria. In the summer you can order a cone and read the notices, your gelato melting onto the lane while you look at the names of the dead. The shop closes for the winter and its normally technicolor display cases stand empty. The barren storefront now reflects the owner’s decision to sell; he’s taken a job with the comune and those are not the types of positions that one passes up. At night you can hear the fountains 200 meters away, the flowing water running peacefully through the village. There is a strategically placed waste bin next to the board, so everyone who finishes a cup or discards their customarily thin napkins passes by it.  

The board is filled with memorials to the dead that are set onto oversized paper sheets and glued down with a roller, a large brush and a kind of wet adhesive that allows water to bead down to the frame. The notices stay up for about four weeks, but they are almost always frayed before that. The rain inevitably arrives and the moisture lifts one corner or another, and the damp paper slides down diagonally to obscure a face, a life. The old bills will be covered by new ones. There is a continual turnover, always someone new, never a shortage of souls.

Today I counted twenty-four sheets, even and neatly positioned, if only for a moment. Two were notes of appreciation from employers, one from the town. The rest were written in larger, bold type with a uniform style that has become familiar to anyone who has ever looked. They listed the names and families of the dead and almost always included a photo: sometimes they were images of aged and sober faces, others were snapshots from a time when they were young and newly married, still others portraits of hardy citizens working the land in those days where the war had claimed all of the available young hands. They had hopeful faces with large heavy black glasses and dated hairstyles. Some incorporated a patron saint. Many of the notices included the word COVID, in capital letters. They noted whether care has been given in a hospital or in the home and if the disease was hard and short. These addenda are printed in a thick, deep red. 

When I walked past the board, I often thought that perhaps I was smarter, that distance and masking had rendered me, if not impervious, than at least a bit smarter. I deserved to be spared the plague. But I knew the truth, that I had simply been fortunate not to come into too close contact with a person who was infected or a carrier. Their health was my blessing, and my good fortune entirely accidental. 

The names on the wall are a common sight all over Italy. In Sarnano, they tell the story of large families who have gone from birth and baptism to death and entombment within the confines of the town, under the auspices of the same churches. Caregivers are frequently mentioned. The cause of death is not always listed, perhaps to avoid the stigma of contagion, or perhaps to bestow one final moment of privacy. Where the cause of death is disclosed, services and memorials are written in the shorthand dialect of a small town. Old age homes are noted. The homes for the needy are less than full. Spaces have opened up rapidly. 

More than 600 years ago, Sarnano was on the post road that helped transport the Black Death. More than a third of the residents died and both Catholic and atheist were thrown over the walls in panic for the rats, dogs and carrion birds to devour. The animals feasted lavishly and then died as well. The idea of quarantine was a consequence of the plague and it defined an entire epoch. Afterwards, society was reordered and countries took centuries to rebuild. Two hundred years passed and the plague paid another visit. 

For months Sarnano was untouched by the current pandemic and we watched as it roamed freely and with abandon through the large cities of the north. Nonetheless, lockdown rules and restrictions were observed, as were the rituals they created. We congratulated ourselves on our luck and attention to detail, washing our hands under the town fountains and staying away from each other. As a precaution, the town was sealed off by the polizia locale. But then August and the long days came: people visited, drank together in the cafes, attended graduation parties for their children, celebrated the warm weather and blue skies. The disease waited until we relaxed and then joined our festas and gatherings. The harvest was brought in during the month of October. We were the harvest.

There will be an end to this, our most current plague, and on that day there will be no more names to add onto glued paper. The board will be blank. But now is not that time. Now, this is the cost of war. These are the casualties of battle, the butcher’s bill of death to mark when the virus came and stayed. The missing and the fallen in a war that Italy, like all other countries, has lost. Like every other war. It is the only mark of consistency over centuries. This is our way, walking on a boulevard of loss. 

On the day that it ends, this board will be a streaked muddy white with men and women who lived long and quiet lives. Memories of the virus will be written in books and lived in missing chairs at the kitchen table and smooth bed pillows on beds never to be slept on again.  

The people on the board met here, spent time together in this town. They lived in this community and were known to each other. The board is their final gathering before they go silently to separate tombs. Where once they shared lives they now share an epitaph: COVID, in thick, deep red. It is held in the mouths of those who say farewell and wait for delayed and abbreviated burials.

Who were these people? I wanted to know the details of their lives and not just their deaths, catalogued as page numbers in thick books written in the script of the town and stored behind damp walls. I want to know because they were from a town I wanted to call mine. To me, the ordinary was extraordinary: people buying an espresso, repairing vehicles, working on the farms or in shops. Eating gelato while it dripped onto the ground. None were wealthy. One or two were active in the church, two or three drank more than was healthy. Most had families and a few had been alone for a lifetime. 

What I found was that they fit the rhythm of the land. They renewed licenses and paid taxes, kept homes which their great-grandfathers had acquired. They patched worn trousers and never attended a ball. They did not travel beyond the borders of the province and were not ambitious to do so. They lived within the boundaries set by their fathers and that was considered a virtue. By most measures they were neither inspiring nor did they rise to any level of fame. In a short time, they will be largely forgotten. But this is not an issue. It is expected and a testament to how they lived. 

Among the many names on the wall there is only one I knew, a woman I met years ago when my wife and I stopped for cappuccini in one of the local bars. She spoke English and asked if we liked the town. She worked at the hotel and lived in the centro storico with her elderly parents and a small child. After that, we saw each other occasionally and whenever we met on the street we greeted each other customarily with a wave and a smile, our salutations echoing off ancient brick walls. 

Her death was caused by a heart ailment, complicated by coronavirus. I only found out when I saw her picture before me on the manifesti. My wife had died of a cerebral hemorrhage several years earlier. My grief is therefore embedded in me yet ever-expanding, intimate and far-reaching. I am weary and sad that this woman is gone. I knew her, although not well or long. She knew us from our first days living in a storybook hill town. She was a witness. Many of us are, one for another, whether we know it or not. 

Joseph Conrad said that a departed shipmate, like any other man, is gone forever. He was right. The sea takes some; wars and the graveyards claim the rest. The witness sees an arc of life and then he too is gone. The bending light holds life in place and then it too slowly fades away. There is a moment where tears will run dry, or there will simply not be enough to properly mourn the immensity of what we have lost. Memory will run together in a loop, one more legend within the walls. 

But I have learned that I was mistaken about my solitude. I had believed myself to be a lone witness, but I know now that we are legion, and that it must be so. I can see only a part of another’s journey just as they see a portion of mine. I saw that woman around town and she saw me when my life here began. We see facets, fragments, and together they make up the whole. There is no single person who could bear witness to the entire span of our years. 

For my part, there are few left standing: some from the maritime academy of my youth, some that I sailed with on merchant ships and fought alongside in a foreign war. Friends are come and gone, my witnesses departing while others, for others, remain. I think of absent friends and unknowns as the night arrives and the clouds pass by in waves. The street lights illuminate the manifesti di funerali. I look into the dark, pleading for a moment’s pause without realizing it. I look up towards a galaxy of light. The stars are witness.

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