I was visiting a small village in Italy. I can’t tell you the name of it, but it’s not that I don’t remember; I’m just not allowed to mention the name, nor how to get there. I stumbled upon it by accident, really, so I’m not sure I could tell you anyway.
I had been exploring the countryside, camera in hand, snapping photos of the beauty that the Italian landscape boasted. I took a fork in the road that seemed less traveled than the other options–Frost-inspired, I’m sure. The path leading into the village was too narrow for any cars, but since I was on foot, it didn’t matter. I came upon two pillars constructed loosely of stones. There was no sign with the name of the village, population, or anything of the sort, but only a hand-written sign on a piece of wood that, translated, read “NO CAMERAS ALLOWED.” My fluency in Italian assisted me greatly during my ventures. I instinctively looked down at the apparatus hanging from my neck and shrugged.
“What are they going to do, arrest me?” I asked aloud. I have been known throughout my life to bend or break the errant rule. Maybe the sign was meant to deter reporters from exploiting the quaint and remote village. Well, my photographs would be for my own personal collection of memories, so these camera-shy occupants needed not to worry themselves.
As I passed by houses and other buildings, I noticed the extraordinary artwork on the outsides of the walls. Every one was so realistically done, I had never seen anything comparable in any museum or gallery I had visited.They were all representations of people of different ages engaged in everyday tasks. I took a photograph (my first infraction thus far) of one such example–which you’ll find in this post–of two children with a bicycle leaned against the wall, as if they were riding it. Some illustrations, however, portrayed individuals with expressions of great shock or fear. The artist was able to capture the visage so expertly, I could almost feel the emotion that their faces were conveying.
The village was sparsely populated, for I had seen only a couple of people, both of whom gave me wary looks and then quickly walked away. As I strolled toward a fountain in what seemed to be the middle of the village, I saw a young female toddler playing in the dirt. I squatted down to get a better angle and grabbed my camera to adjust the settings. As I began to raise the camera to my face, I heard a blood-curddling scream, causing me to drop my camera and stare at a woman race to the child, scoop her up and just as quickly, race back into a house. I was stunned and baffled as I stood up a little shakily.
“You there!” a voice came from behind me. I turned to see an old woman beckoning me toward her home. I approached hesitantly and said hello.
Without responding to my greeting, she barked, “Those things are not allowed in this place,” as she pointed at the camera.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize,” I lied, pretending as if I hadn’t seen the sign. “It’s only for my own collection.”
“Doesn’t matter the reason,” she said gruffly. “Not allowed.”
“May I ask why?” I asked, trying to sound contrite.
She squinted as she looked me over and then gestured toward a chair directly across from the old rocker she was occupying. I accepted the offer and waited for her explanation.
“I don’t normally tell this story to strangers,” she began, “but…you remind me of someone.” She sat back, closed her eyes and sighed. “It’s been just over twenty-five years now, but for many of us, it was only yesterday.”
A rather enigmatic beginning, but I maintained expressionless and waited for her to go on.
“There was a young man named Gabriel who grew up in this village,” she continued. “He was a quiet lad, and we knew even when he was boy that he was…different than the other boys.”
My mind immediately started working, wondering what difference to which she could be referring: Mentally handicapped? Physically impaired? A sociopath?
“He didn’t have many friends and didn’t spend much time with the other boys. He was very handsome and all the girls had crushes on him,” she reflected with a bit of whimsy. “He always got embarrassed when any of us suggested that he should ask one of them on a date or even to go on a walk. He never seemed to be interested in any of them. We thought it was on account of him being so shy.” She closed her eyes and shook her head slowly.
“The year he turned twenty-one, a young man named Jackson moved into the village. He was just a couple of years older than Gabriel and they immediately became friends. For the first time, it appeared as if he was coming out of his shell. For the first time, it seemed like he was happy. It was like new life had been breathed into Gabriel’s soul.” She paused for a few moments, and I wondered whether she would keep going.
“One day,” she said with a quavering voice, “one of the men of the village caught the two of them in the woods. They were holding hands and kissing.”
His “difference” was then revealed. He wasn’t just shy; he was gay.
“Paul, the man who found them together, told several people what he had seen. In a town this size, it didn’t take long before everyone knew. Many people were angry; especially some of the men. They decided that something like this could not go on. Gabriel grew up here and was one of our own, but they held no allegiance to the newcomer. A group of four men went to Jackson’s home and dragged him outside of the town and they…”
Her voice faltered as tears rolled down her lined, sun-beaten face. She wiped away the streams of water with her hand and very soon I was doing the same. I was familiar with stories of a similar nature, unfortunately.
“I don’t know if they intended on killing him,” she said, “but such was the result. Gabriel was forced to leave town, but he was so very angry. He vowed that he would get even with the town. He would make them pay for what they did. It was rumored that Gabriel consulted with a woman from another village who practiced witchcraft. A year later, he returned to the town with a camera. We were all surprised to see him return. He went first to Paul’s house and then to the homes of the other men who had a hand in killing Jackson. Screams were heard from inside the homes of the men, but were quickly silenced. We didn’t realize was was happening until it was too late.”
“What was happening?” I blurted out, too curious to wait for her to explain in her own time.
“He went around town, taking photographs of anyone he saw,” she explained, “but when he snapped the picture, the people disappeared. All that was left of them was an image imprinted on whatever was behind them. Most were plastered on walls on the outsides of buildings, inside the barn or shop where they were working, a few on trees. When people saw what was happening, they ran in fear or went into hiding. I went to him and begged him to stop. ‘This is not who you are,’ I told him. ‘It will not bring back Jackson.’ He started sobbing and reluctantly gave the camera to me. He left town and has never returned. The houses of the four men have been abandoned. No one wants to live in them now.”
“Weren’t you afraid?” I asked. “What if he had snapped your picture?”
She shook her head. “He loved his mother,” she said. “I loved him too, and still do. I was willing to take that risk.”
“What happened to the camera?” I couldn’t help but ask.
She looked at me pointedly and said, “It’s time for my afternoon nap.” Then she rose wearily and headed into her home. In the doorway, she turned and said, “Do not mention this place to anyone you know.” Then she closed the door.
I stood dumbfounded and then slowly made my way back down the road from whence I came. As I passed by the figures on the walls, they took on a new message, a warning. I now felt them, eerily watching me.
You can hear stories throughout history of groups of people, races, tribes who have been discriminated against, and the suffering they endured. The impact of their torment and even their deaths should serve as warnings not to perpetuate such hatred and bigotry, yet history continues to repeat itself. Stories may be heard and then forgotten, but a picture is worth a thousand warnings.
Copyright © 2022 Brandon Ellrich
This story was written in response to a prompt at Keep It Alive.
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