I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
When I was a young girl I passed by his house several times a day. He was always there standing at the front door. He was very tall, very thin, and very straight. The only man in my town to dress all in white. A large pink carnation sprouted from his lapel. He lived in a small house in the Alameda. A house made of white stucco with a small front door that framed him in a way that made him larger than life, some sort of giant staring into the palm trees that lined the boulevard. Looking at him in the morning light as I walked to school, I imagined him contemplating great thoughts like the ones of those philosophers who lived in the bookshelves at the library. Next to the house behind a wrought iron fence, he had a small garden where he grew the carnations that he sported in his lapel—the scent near his home was soft and sweet. In his solemn silence he ignored all of us noisy young girls in uniforms. Sometimes, on our way to school, we dared each other to talk to him, but we were greeted with an empty stare. For our parents and other adults, he produced a dignified hello. Once my father brought him a bottle of champagne for Christmas, and on that occasion I was allowed to join them. He and my father would have a long visit, standing at his front door. They talked about politics, about food, and about ailments but mostly, and idyllically, they talked about Italy, their homeland. They came from different parts of Italy and compared notes on the food that they grew up eating, and the way they celebrated holidays. I wondered who did Don Ilario’s cooking or cleaning? The house was so quiet, I did not think he had a maid and, being so elegant looking, I could not imagine him in the kitchen or cleaning the house. Besides, men did not do these chores in my town. The conversations I overheard were not of a personal nature. I listened carefully hoping to learn something about this puzzling person to report to my friends in school.
His name was Don Ilario Cambiasso. My parents spoke about him with the kind of reverence given to people whose stories are closed books for the young. To me, his mysterious presence was the embodiment of the exotic worlds that existed outside the monotonous life of my town. Worlds I couldn’t wait to explore. He became the instrument that allowed me and my friends to play out our young fantasies. At school, when we were left alone, we tried to outdo each other by inventing stories about this silent man.
Every night between the ages of 12 and 14, I made up a bit of Don Ilario Cambiasso’s life. The next day I would deliver the installment to my classmates. In order to embellish my story, I made use of the encyclopedia, segments of the radionovelas the maids listened to in the kitchen, my mother’s magazines, and any book I could put my hands on. My classmates, I assumed, used similar tricks.
My Don Ilario was a man born without the curse of death. He was eternal like the saints and the devil. He grew up in a small town in the Italian south and could not stand the poverty and desperation that surrounded him. At the age of 15, he left home and joined an ill-fated expedition to Portugal. The vessel he sailed in lost its course, and after several weeks at sea, in a violent storm, it capsized. Everyone died, except Don Ilario, who swam to shore. Without knowing it, Don Ilario had arrived on the northern tip of South America, a few years before Columbus. A group of natives rescued him. At first, they did not know what to do with this very white man with blond hair and blue eyes. When they realized that he was not only exceptionally strong but also kind, and that he could sing beautiful songs, they made him into one of their Gods. They called him Hatun Quilla (Great Moon). They fed him the best of foods, bathed him in goat’s milk, and perfumed his body with delicate scents. They built him a house with walls made of solid gold and moldings of emeralds and presented him with the most beautiful of their women. Soon, Don Ilario became bored by all of this adoration. He wanted to be rich and powerful among people like himself, he wanted books to read and food like the kind with which he grew up. One night, he stole the most perfect and largest of all emeralds, and, with Arauca, his favorite woman, he escaped to a deserted beach. He left behind his very many children, little mestizo children with blue eyes and dark skins, who would haunt him in his dreams.
On his deserted beach, with the formidable Arauca, he built himself a boat and they sailed until they reached the coast of Peru. Because he lived with an Indian woman and because he loved her so much, the Quechua Indians took him on as one of their own. He quickly learned their language and mesmerized them with his knowledge of the world, his tale of survival, and his stories about the Caribbean Indians. Don Ilario forewarned them of the arrival of the Spaniards and taught them many of the things that helped the Quechua when they appeared. He knew the degree of ignorance of the Spanish conquistadores and persuaded the Incas to protect their scientific knowledge. Because of Don Ilario, all the scientific information that was stored in Machu Picchu was removed and hidden away in places that are still to be found. He also instructed them to close their roads. The famous Inca Trail that linked the whole empire was made inaccessible to the Spaniards. The Indians gave him generous gifts of silver and gold, which he buried in a secret spot.
Eternity came to Don Ilario with a caveat. Every time one of his women died, he lost the knowledge as well as the properties he had acquired during his life with her. The one thing that stayed with him was the knowledge of the existence of his children. When Arauca died, he lost everything and was left to invent a new life. He even forgot where he had hidden his gold. Eventually, the Indians grew tired of him because he didn’t remember things. They ignored him and one day he wandered away in search of a new existence.
In his next life, Don Ilario became a traveling merchant. He bartered dyes and fibers that he found in the Peruvian jungle with the Indians in the Andes, in exchange for which he got silver and gold. He moved from town to town with Aymuray, his new woman who was always having babies. His dreams continued to be haunted by the presence of the beautiful children he had abandoned in the Caribbean. He did not want to attach himself to a child again. He gave his newly born children to the nuns in the Catholic convents that were beginning to appear in Peru. He donated large amounts of money to the religious orders, and made it a condition that his fatherhood remain a secret. The children were left with sufficient money to be educated in Europe. Many of them returned to Peru and became priests, nuns, scholars, and important people.
When Aymuray died, Don Ilario found himself in a prosperous town in the Amazon where a brand-new opera house had been built. One of Europe’s greatest divas was there performing Aida. Her name was Electra and she was extremely temperamental; the leading man found it impossible to work with her. One day he simply left. Don Ilario took over his role. The diva and he had a tempestuous love affair. They captivated audiences with their love duets. When the opera house closed for lack of money, they moved to Europe, where they sang together at La Scala, Covent Garden, and all the great opera houses, until they retired to a small town in Umbria. When Electra died Don Ilario returned to Peru.
His lives and his wives went on and on. In the 500 years of his existence, Don Ilario had over 30 different lives and had scattered the South American continent with hundreds of descendants. They all had his blue eyes.
One day a group of gypsies arrived in my town. They were very poor and very good looking. The women seemed so exotic to me with their hair covered in bright scarves, their long skirts, their very narrow waists, and their huge gold earrings. The maids were scared of them. The maids told me they could put curses on people, that they stole and sold white children. The gypsies made excellent material for another of my stories of Don Ilario. In this version of his life, he fell madly in love with Tatiana the gypsy queen and she made him into her slave. She taught him about opium and about the most exotic and perverse sexual encounters. They traveled from town to town because the gypsies’ curse is that they have to constantly move. Eventually he grew tired of moving and of Tatiana. He left her and took all her jewelry with him. She died of a broken heart. Having lost their queen, the gypsies of this tribe became crazy with anger and decided they would kill Don Ilario. They never found him—he had gone to a new life—but he continued to be haunted by the queen’s spirit, which kept him awake at night with the sound of her desperate crying.
The town where I grew up had a tumultuous history—many battles were fought on its outskirts during the War of the Pacific. At school we were taught about the very brave Peruvians who fell into the hands of the powerful Chileans. My father told me that wars were often about money and power. I gave Don Ilario a role in this war fighting on the side of the Peruvian heroes against the fierce Chileans. Don Ilario planned the few battles Peru won. His woman at that time was Pilar, the daughter of a Peruvian general, and he instructed the general on war strategies he had studied in European books. His involvement in the war was not due to his love for Peru but to his greed for power and desire for richness. After the War, he stole the titles of the properties Peruvians had to leave behind when Chile occupied a large portion of Peru. One of those properties, I assured my classmates, was the house where he lived.
What happened to Don Ilario was often an elaboration on scant facts that seemed exotic to me. So, when I learned that Machu Picchu was not discovered until 1911 by the American archeologist Hiram Bingman, I had Don Ilario accompanying him across the Andes and into the jungles, to arrive at this most majestic of sites. It was Don Ilario’s Indian lover, an Indian princess descended from the Inca Atahualpa, that led them to Machu Picchu. I even imagined that it was Don Ilario who named it Machu Picchu. Later, he treated his friends to sightseeing expeditions for people like my father, who visited it early on and made their way up the very narrow path in the mountains by foot and by mule.
As we grew up and began to discover the mysteries of sex, we knitted our scant knowledge of it into Don Ilario’s life. To me and my classmates, Don Ilario became the vehicle used to exchange the meager information we had on sex. We also idealized him as a young handsome man; he was the heartthrob of the class, and the guiding force of many innocent fantasies. He was the romantic embodiment of the heroes of the fotonovelas that our parents did not allow us to read and we secretly stole from the maids in our houses.
There was a large, somber building in my town whose doors were always closed. It was believed to be the place where the Freemasons met secretly late at night to discuss and decide political issues. My Don Ilario became the first Peruvian Mason with ties to the cruel dictatorships that tormented my country. He used his wealth to buy votes, bribe judges, and control the government. He made large profits from buying arms from the Germans for the Peruvian army. Defective arms that became mere toys for frustrated generals. Through the Masons he was able to buy his way into the English company that went to the Andes to build the railroad and open up the vast copper and silver mines. In this very rich life of his, he married a woman from the Peruvian aristocracy whose father not only protected Don Ilario but also benefited from his ability to create wealth. Don Ilario’s last adventure was based on a report I heard on the BBC. I took him to Antarctica where the English were building a military base. There he fell in love with the first English woman to join a secret military mission. She was the only woman who ever left him. His curse dictated that if a woman abandoned him while she was alive, he would no longer regain his youth. At 75, he left Antarctica and came to live in my town. He had heard about its clear air, its beautiful Alameda flanked with palm trees, and the exuberance of flowers that grew everywhere in spite of the lack of rain. His savings were enough for him to live a modest life. His last extravagant expenditure was the white suits that the best tailor in Lima custom-made for him. The calm of this town was the backdrop for his solitary old age. Uneventful days provided respite from his dreams, which, according to our youthful fantasies, were haunted by the confusion of his multiple pasts and by the existence of his blue-eyed children.
At our young age, we even imagined that Don Ilario grew a carnation plant for every woman he had loved, and that he chose to wear a pink one because pink was the color of love. Soon, we became teenagers and had loves of our own and the focus of our fantasies shifted to the movie stars of the day. We forgot Don Ilario. The day we left to go to college he was still standing at his front door, white suit, blue eyes, pink carnation, and all.
Every year when I came back for my school holidays Don Ilario was still there. Sometimes he was seated in a straw chair, sometimes he stood with the aid of a very elegant cane that looked as if it was made of ivory. I never had the courage to speak to him and he continued to ignore me. He still occupied a large space of my imaginary life. As I was growing up and beginning to think about my own life as separate and different from the life of my parents and my hometown friends, Don Ilario continued to be a vehicle of my transformations. I wondered how it was that he chose to end his days in this small remote town where he chose to have no friends and how it was that one could live a life where the whole universe was just you. I was curious to know how the grown-ups had dealt with this figure.
The day came when I left my small town for good and Don Ilario became a distant figure, one that inspired me to make up stories and become a writer.
I went home the year after Kennedy had been assassinated, and I was feeling confused, as if, by dying, the young president had taken with him hope and a better future. Kennedy had given us a firmer ground to stand on and now it was gone. Yet, Don Ilario was still there, smelling his carnations and profound in his thoughts. I asked mother about him. She laughed the way she always did when I asked what she considered senseless questions. “I do not know very much about him,” she said. “He just appeared one day and bought that little house no one wanted because it was said to be haunted. He planted carnations and they grew and he just stands there. My friends, when we play canasta, have so many silly stories about him. They only apply their imagination when they think about him. It is a relief to hear them talk about Don Ilario. Much better than the endless conversations about the maids stealing or not doing their work. Margarita, the wife of the mayor, thinks he is a spy. She says her husband does not want to talk to him but reads his mail. He apparently sends letters to the government of Argentina written in code. Just try to imagine what kind of information he can gather standing at the door refusing to talk to anyone. Margarita says he has trained pigeons that land in his garden at night carrying messages. Well, those pigeons could fly directly to Argentina. This goes to tell you how ridiculous grown-ups without an education can be.” Mother never missed an opportunity to preach her passion for the education of women. I knew Margarita, she was a sweet, pale-faced woman whose husband was a real tyrant and crook. It seemed appropriate that he told her such a story; that way people could imagine he had his own pigeons that spied for him. I began to realize that mother enjoyed telling me these stories and I asked for more. “Rosa, she thinks Don Ilario keeps a mistress locked in his bedroom and claims to have seen her once when he took her to the midwife to have an abortion. The mistress is young and blond and very, very thin because he is a miser and barely feeds her.” According to Rosa, he bought her from her poor parents. Mother added, “Of course, this is a very Rosa story, since her husband keeps a mistress, it must help her to believe that all men are like that.”
“Who do you think Don Ilario is?” I asked her one day. We were sitting under the large pine tree in the garden. It was a warm afternoon with a gentle breeze that caressed mother’s long hair. The shadows were such that she looked especially beautiful with her wide green eyes sitting above her high cheekbones. She was dressed in a yellow dress and in that soft voice of hers she told me, “I think he must have done something very wrong,” calling attention to the outfit and not the person. “Why would he not want to have friends? Why would he move to a place where he knows no one? Why does he have to dress in that silly, all-white custom with the ridiculous pink carnation? To me, he is running away from some bad past. A crime or stealing money or maybe even both. I do not like it that father stops by and chats with him. I know it is because he feels sorry for him. You know how kind your father is. But I think we need to be very careful with strangers. Everyone has a different story to tell about him—maybe that is good. It keeps imagination going. Even the bishop said the other day at lunch that Don Ilario was Satan. Just imagine that! Every maid in town was doing voodoo to keep the spirit of Satan at bay.”
Not long ago my brother sent me a book on Italian immigrants in Peru. I searched but could not find his name. The last time I went back to my hometown, I went to the cemetery and looked for his grave. A simple gravestone, in the part of the cemetery reserved for Italians, read: “Ilario Cambiasso. 1881–1969. Modena—Tacna. From his devoted family.” A faded, pink-paper carnation had been left in the otherwise empty flower vase. Don Ilario Cambiasso, a quiet Italian immigrant, who in his old age fancied white suits and pink carnations.
Gabriella De Ferrari is a writer and art historian living in New York City. She is working on a novel based on this story.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee