Stella Mia
by Rosanna Chiofalo

Chapter 1 - Stella Mia (My Star)

April 16, 1969

"Stella mia, stell-ahhh mia, tu sei la piu bella stella. Steh-lah rosa, steh-lah rosa, tu sei mia steh-lahhh . . . steh-lah azurra, steh-lah azurra, tu sei anche mia . . . steh-lah viola, steh-lah vi-oh-la, tu sei la piu bella di tutte le stell-ehhh. Veramente, tu sei mia stella. Ma non posso scelgier-eehhh. Tutte le stelle sono i miei fine quando una brille piu sfogante e prende mio cuore per sempre. Stella mia, stella mia, tu sei la piu bella stell-ahhh."

"My star, my star, you are the most beautiful star. Pink star, pink star, you are my star . . . blue star, blue star, you're also mine . . . violet star, violet star, you are the most beautiful of all the stars. Truly, you are my star. But I cannot choose. All of the stars are mine until one special star outshines the others and captures my heart forever. My star, my star, you are the most beautiful star."

With my lantern in hand, I walk along the pebbly beach near my family's home in Terme Vigliatore, Messina, singing a silly song I made up the other night as I stared at all the stars in the beautiful Sicilian sky. Every time I sing the song, I change the colors of the stars. My four-year-old sister, Carlotta, loves the song, and as soon as night falls, she takes my hand and pulls me outside so she can look at the stars and decide which colors she's going to choose.

I've been singing for as long as I can remember. Mama told me I began to sing shortly after she began taking me to Mass when I was three years old. She said I immediately fell in love with the hymns and would try to hum along. To encourage my singing, she would play the radio for me, but only when Papa, my father, was not home. For one time he caught Mama and me singing together, and he yelled at us. From that moment on, I always knew never to sing in front of Papa. Of course, my younger siblings love to hear me sing. In addition to Carlotta, there are two boys-Enzo, who is six years old, and Pietro, who is just two. I share a bedroom with my brothers and sister, and I often sing to them softly at night so that Papa cannot hear me.

Only the stars and the ocean's roaring waves are my companions tonight. It is a little past midnight, and I am the sole person crazy enough to be out alone this late. But I'm not afraid. As I make my way barefoot along the shoreline, holding my ciabattas in hand, I squint, trying to make out the shadow of Vulcano, one of the Aeolian Islands, on the other side of the ocean. Since it is a clear night with a full moon overhead, I am able to discern the island's ominous shadow.

This is the only time that I have to myself. From the moment I wake up to shortly before I go to bed, my days are filled, helping my mother care for my siblings.

Though I am sixteen years old, my body often aches like that of a sixty-year-old woman. I started doing heavy chores when I was seven years old. Working hard and rearing my sister and brothers is the only life I know. The sole comfort I have is in my singing and attending church on Sundays.

My mother and I share few moments of laughter. For like me, she is burdened with the crushing load of running a household and tending to her children, not to mention keeping at bay my father's fury. My poor mother started receiving beatings at my father's hands not long after she married him at the tender age of fourteen. She had me when she was fifteen. Though she is now thirty-two, she looks closer to fifty. My father is a decade older than my mother. I've witnessed his hitting my mother for as long as I can remember.

Though I've become accustomed to my father's abuse, I still wonder why he is so cruel toward my mother and me. I received my fair share of lashings when I was a child, but the older I got the more intense his abuse became. I remember the first time he hit me. I was only eight. He came home from work and found me outside playing in our garden. I loved the flowers, plants, and herbs my mother had planted. She had begun teaching me how to garden and pick the herbs for both our cooking and to make healing ointments. I took it upon myself that day to help my mother by picking a few herbs. But when my father found me, he yelled at me for cutting too many herbs. I tried explaining to him, but that only angered him more, and he smacked me so hard that I fell to the ground. I was shocked, but I believed I deserved his punishment because I had done something wrong by picking too many herbs. Mama had come out in time to witness Papa hit me, and she yelled at him, but then he slapped her across the face, too. My mother soon learned not to intervene when he hit me because she would always get hit and often much worse than just a slap. Mama does whatever she can to ensure my father remains calm so he will leave me alone. But her efforts are rarely successful.

Even as young as three and four years old, I felt intimidated. Perhaps because Papa rarely said a kind word to my mother or me. Sometimes, he would surprise me by talking to me about how many sardines he had caught in a day. My father is a fisherman, primarily of sardines, which are abundant in the waters surrounding Sicily. I would take advantage of these few instances and engage him in the conversation, acting excited about the large catch of fish he'd caught and asking questions. He seemed pleased that I was interested. But there were few moments like these.

I was ten years old when my brother Enzo was born. My father was the happiest I'd ever seen him, and he remained in good spirits for several months afterward. My mother had had several miscarriages and two children who died shortly after birth before she had Enzo, Carlotta, and Pietro; hence, the large age difference between me and my siblings. Each of the miscarriages and the two babies who died had been boys. When I saw how elated Papa was after Enzo's birth, I began to suspect he hated me because up until that point I had been the only baby who had survived and grown. But I wasn't the boy he wanted. Yet just when I thought I understood my father's actions, he resumed hitting me when Enzo was six months old. And as I approached adolescence, his abuse got worse. After one grueling beating, I asked my mother why Papa hit us so much. She merely shrugged her shoulders and said, "It's his nature. It's simply who he is."

On my fourteenth birthday, Mama gave me a beautiful sundress she'd sewn. It was a rich emerald-green hue that complemented my auburn hair perfectly. I never loved anything I owned as much I loved that dress. A week later, I came home from buying a few groceries Mama needed for dinner that night. When my father saw me, he demanded I take off the dress. As I walked by him to head to my room to do as he ordered, he pulled me toward him by my braid.

"If I ever catch you again wearing something so suggestive, I'll cut off all of your hair."

And then he grabbed the hem of my dress and tore it with his hands.

"No!" I screamed. But it was too late. My beautiful dress was ruined. I glanced at Mama who was standing behind us in the kitchen. Her face looked pained. No doubt she was thinking of all the hours she had put into making my dress. And I'm certain my father's cruel act of destroying my dress was not just meant to hurt me, but also my mother. From that day forward, my dislike of him grew to an intense hatred.

Taking these late night walks to the beach could be the death of me if my father ever found out, but I don't care. I used to be terrified of him, but I am growing numb to his beatings and to the fear that he might kill me one day. Tears fill my eyes as I think about how I actually welcome death sometimes. At least then, I would finally be free of him.

I reach my favorite spot on the beach, where several immense boulders sit close to the water's edge. Climbing on top of one, I let my legs dangle off the edge. Staring out across the ocean, I fix my gaze once more on Vulcano. Maybe someday I will be daring enough to try and swim all the way there, and my father would never find me - that is if I don't die first from exhaustion. Sighing, I lie down on my back and stare at the stars once more, getting lost in all their twinkling lights. I close my eyes and listen to the soothing sound of the waves crashing against the shore.

Rain is falling down on me, but the pellets feel unusually heavy and sharp. Maybe it's hailing. Suddenly a sharp pain throbs throughout my head. I wake up and see pebbles and small rocks bouncing off my chest. As I sit up, my heart drops when I see my father is the one hurling the rocks at me.

"Brutta puttana! Ti uccidero! Ti uccidero!" Papa screams. His eyes look more deranged than usual as he calls me a whore and promises to kill me.

"Papa! Prega di fermarsi!" I plead with him to stop, but that only angers him more. He now resorts to hurling mounds of wet sand at me. Shielding my face with my hands, I sob uncontrollably. But I am not crying because of the rocks and sand hitting me. All I can think of is that I will no longer have this haven I can escape to, for he will now keep an even closer watch on me.

"Aiii!" I scream as my father yanks my hair, slapping my face with his free hand. He then releases my hair and begins undoing his belt.

I decide to make a run for it and jump off the boulder. Though I can smell liquor on his breath and suspect he's very drunk, he still manages to catch up to me. I run into the water, oblivious to the fact that I'll surely drown. But when my feet no longer feel the sharp rocks that line the ocean's floor, my father reaches me and grabs the nape of my neck. With little warning, he thrusts my face down into the water and then lifts my head up just enough so that I have a quick gasp of air before he plunges me back underwater. At first, I fight back, trying to overcome my father's massive strength. But on the third plunge, I give up. Isn't this what I wanted after all - to die and be rid of him forever?

As I discovered a long time ago, my wishes and prayers never come true. I'm amazed that I even love attending church and still pray to God. For it's become quite clear, He's forgotten about me. So why should now be any different? Instead of killing me as my father had vowed to do, he carries me out of the water, dropping me on the sand. He sits down next to me, holding his head in his hands. I turn over onto my stomach, coughing and spitting up water. My chest heaves as I gulp in whatever air I can. When my father sees I'm struggling, he merely comes over and gives my back a hard thump with his fist, which only elicits more coughing. And the stench of fish, which is always on my father because of his trade as a fisherman, makes me want to gag.

"Why do you disobey me? Why?" Papa's expression is full of hatred.

"You never told me I was not allowed to come here." I cringe in anticipation of my words provoking another attack.

"You know you are not to go anywhere without a chaperone and at this time of the night? You do not need me to tell you that you are forbidden from leaving the house so late. I rarely allow you to go outdoors alone during the day. Do you really think I would allow it in the dead of night? There could only be one reason why you would do such a foolish thing. Who were you meeting?"

"No one. I swear, Papa. It is the only time I have to myself and don't need to worry about the children."

"Ah? So now you need time to yourself? What is his name? I will make sure he never walks again. Tell me his name. Now!" My father towers over me with his hand raised in the air.

"Please, Papa! Just think. Where could I have met anyone? I am always with you and Mama and the children."

"Here! You could have met him here. How do I know he isn't hiding behind one of these boulders right now, quivering like a coward?" He squints, trying to see in the darkness, and screams, "Come out! You hear me? Come out! Be a man!" Then he begins searching for my imaginary lover, looking behind each of the boulders that sit along the shoreline.

My father's search momentarily rescues me from another thrashing. But I know it has just bought me a few minutes. For when he doesn't find anyone hiding behind the rocks, he'll beat me until I tell him who I was meeting. Tears stream down my face. I don't know how much longer I can go on living like this.

"I'll find you! You hear me? Maybe not tonight, but I will find you!" Papa continues yelling into the night, his voice only muffled by the waves crashing against the shore. "Come on, Sarina. That boy's blood will be on your hands. You have disgraced me and your mother. She will be so disappointed in you." He pulls me up by my arm, dragging me back home. I try shrugging his grip off me, but he sinks his fingernails into my flesh until I wince from the pain. My body is always covered in scratches and bruises.

When we reach my house, I see the light on in my parents' bedroom. I can make out my mother's form behind the window. But as soon as she sees us approaching, her shadow disappears, and the light goes out. No doubt she is afraid of angering my father. Sometimes I wish she were stronger and would stand up more to him. I feel so alone. The only consolation I have is that she was worried and waited until she saw I was all right.

"I have lost sleep because of you," my father says once we're indoors.

I begin making my way to the bedroom I share with my younger siblings, but Papa comes over and blocks the entrance.

"You wanted to sleep outside like an animal, so you will have your wish." He turns to the cabinet in our kitchen and takes out from one of its drawers a long rope. Wrapping the rope around one of my wrists, he creates a tight noose. Then as if I were a dog on a leash he pulls the rope, leading me outside and to the fig tree in the yard behind our house. He kicks me hard in the shins, causing my legs to buckle as I fall to the ground. Undoing the noose around my wrist, he places the rope instead around my body and ties me tightly to the tree. The rope's fibers dig into my skin. I begin shivering from my wet clothes.

"You are lucky I decided not to give you another beating once we got home. But you do not appreciate anything I ever do for you." He walks away, slamming the door of our house.

This is not the first time he has tied me to this tree and left me out all night. He has been doing it since I was ten years old. I used to beg him not to leave me all alone in the dark, which I was afraid of until last year, and I also pleaded with him to let my cat Tina stay outdoors with me. But of course my pleas always fell on deaf ears. Eventually, I stopped being frightened. For I realized it wasn't the dark I needed to be terrified of, but rather my father.

I suddenly hear a twig snap behind the tree. Sitting up, I see two glowing yellow eyes beaming right at me.

"Tina! How did you get out?"

I didn't hear the door open after my father went inside, and I know he would never feel any compassion toward me to give in to my request of having my cat stay with me so that I wouldn't be terrified. She must've been out earlier, and no one had noticed she wasn't inside when they went to bed. My father always keeps her indoors at night to ensure she catches any mice we have. That is his sole purpose for having the cat. He's always frowned whenever one of us showers any affection on Tina and treats her like a beloved pet.

"Meow!" Tina rubs up against me. I tilt my head toward her and let her lick my cheek.

I start sobbing, feeling so wretched tied to this tree with only my cat to console me. My distress only elicits further meows from Tina. She's always hated it when one of us cries. She senses our anxiety and in turn becomes agitated. Tina is now licking me more frantically until finally I stop sobbing. Content that I have calmed down, she curls up against my side, keeping me warm. Even her purring soothes me as it reverberates throughout my body. Comforting myself as I always have by singing, I whisper the words to the song I sang earlier, "Stell-ahhh mia, stell-ahhh mia," imagining I am one of the stars up in the universe and far, far away from my cruel father.