map The Wine Container

by Stef Smulders

Published in Issue No. 281 ~ October, 2020

This is the story of Messer Dezza, a middle-aged Milanese businessman who, after years of suffering the famous oppressive heat and the annoying mosquitoes of the Po flatland and being tormented by the traffic noise and the hustle and bustle of the city, decided to move to the quiet and cool hills of the Oltrepò Pavese for the summer.


Eleonora, his wife, a real city lady, resisted at first.


“I hate the countryside,” she objected. “All the dirt and the stench of animals and then all those creepy insects, spiders, flies, beetles and what have you. And the property owner is certain to be an ugly old farmer whose little eyes will ogle me all the time!”


But Messer Dezza, being the patron of the house, insisted. If only he had known what was about to happen! The history I am about to relate exemplifies that Fate often has surprises in store for us and that most of these are Nasty.


Messer Dezza rented a spacious ground-floor apartment at an agriturismo in the hills of the Oltrepò Pavese, with a view of the surrounding vineyards and the plain in the distance. The farm was positioned within easy reach of the city. This was essential as Messer Dezza had to travel to his office in Milan each working day. The farm had vineyards and cattle and was run by Alessandro, a dark-haired young man who was still single.


As they arrived, Messer Dezza got out of the car and took a deep breath.


“Come on out, Eleonora,” he called. “Breathe the fresh, uncontaminated air. It’s so much healthier here than in the city.”


Eleonora put one beautiful design shoe on the barren brown earth, watching out for any insect that might creep up her leg before she exited the car, smoothed her dazzling white dress and looked around.


“Healthy? I smell the stench of the stable. Do I have to…”


She fell silent. Alessandro had appeared to greet them. He wore a checkered shirt with short sleeves, displaying his muscular, bronzed arms.


Benvenuto, signore,” he said to Messer Dezza and then made an elegant turn to Eleonora. “E molto benvenuta a Lei, signora!” he continued, his voice melodious now. He completed his performance with a gallant bow and a kiss on Eleonora’s hand, hidden in an immaculate white leather glove.


The first few days, Eleonora stayed inside, afraid of the insects that were crawling and creeping everywhere. Gradually, she overcame her fears and her disgust, became used to the rustic smells and went for an occasional stroll around the property. Sometimes she saw the young farmer at a distance, working in the fields. Why was he still single? She wondered. He’s such a handsome fellow, much more attractive than she had imagined a farmer to be. She hoped to encounter him one of these days and have a friendly chat about his life on the farm.


One working day, while Messer Dezza was off to the city, Alessandro was passing the apartment as Eleonora was preparing lunch.

“Hi, Alessandro,” she said. “How are you? Why don’t you come in and have lunch with me?”

Why did I say that? she thought when she noticed Alessandro’s hesitation. She had surely offended him. But Alessandro, being polite, accepted.


After that first acquaintance, she and Alessandro often took lunch when he came home from the fields. This seemed justifiable as they were both alone. And then, the age difference prohibited anything more than friendship. Or did it? After they had set the kitchen table and had covered it with the fresh and healthy products of the farm, Alessandro poured rich, creamy milk in Eleonora’s white porcelain cup and she broke a piece of the soft, sweetly smelling cheese and put it carefully on his plate. Lovely fresh perfumes filled the simple kitchen and Eleonora thought to discern the masculine scent of Alessandro’s sweat among it. While they ate, Alessandro told her stories about life on the farm, which he peppered with funny anecdotes. She told him about the books she read, romance novels mainly, at which he smiled. He introduced her to the secrets of winemaking while she glanced at him with an admiring look.


One day, when the weather was exceptionally fine, the temperature moderate and a soft breeze caressed the skin, Eleonora proposed to have a picnic. Alessandro was enthusiastic and together, they collected the food, the cutlery, the plates and cups as well as a large cloth to sit on and put these in a wicker basket. All the while Eleonora sang popular tunes and Alessandro joined her with his humming baritone.


The walk to the meadow that they had chosen as the ideal spot for lunch was very pleasant as they chatted about the people of the neighbourhood and the animals on the farm and pointed at the playful squirrels that followed them along the way. Somehow everything seemed funny and frolic. Once they had settled, Alessandro said “Surprise!” and displayed one of the farm’s best wines, which he had secretly brought along. And while they tasted this sweet, delicate drink, Eleonora showed the book she had taken with her, to read together after lunch.


It was Manzoni’s famous novel ‘I Promessi Sposi,’ ‘The Betrothed,’ which tells the story of the lovers Renzo and Lucia who became separated during the infamous plague of the 17th century in Milan but who both survived and were reunited in the end. Eleonora was very fond of the story, had read it many times since her youth and now wanted to share her love for the novel with Alessandro. After lunch, Alessandro lay down and Eleonora started reading. Her voice was soft and fluent. At a particularly sensual phrase, she blushed and fell silent. Alessandro looked at her in surprise, rose and, with a trembling hand, took the novel, softly closing it and putting it aside.


That day they read no further.


The days after the picnic, Eleonora and Alessandro saw each other as often as they could, intoxicated by their love. They chatted, laughed, teased and kissed. But there were worries. How to avoid that Messer Dezza would discover what had happened? Fortunately, Alessandro could comfort Eleonora somewhat.


“At one time,” he said, “your husband asked me why I was still alone. And as I was already in love with you, I misled him by telling him I was gay.”


Eleonora burst out with laughter.


“Gay? You? Well, I don’t think so. You’re more masculine than most men, including my husband. I can’t believe he fell for it.”


“To be honest, I’m trying to exaggerate my more feminine aspects whenever he’s around.”


Another fit of laughter followed, from both of them this time.


So the lovers were relatively safe for the time being and free to consummate their love. The weekends were the most difficult as Messer Dezza was around all the time. He seemed a bit annoyed by his wife’s absentmindedness and by Alessandro’s constant presence near the house. But no suspicion or jealousy took root in his mind.


After many weeks had passed, Messer Dezza noticed that he was looking forward to their return to Milan and to their normal life, which only a month ago had seemed so dull. He fixed the departure date.


“We’ll leave after Ferragosto, Eleonora,” he announced. “You must be happy, my dear, to hear that your ordeal is soon over.”


Eleonora was shocked and walked back and forth through the house for hours on stretch, not knowing what to do. Return to the city, living with only her husband around, day after day. That’s impossible! She panicked and went to Alessandro, neglecting the risk that her husband might become suspicious. Or had he already sensed something and was that why he had fixed their return? The lovers conferred. What were they to do? Alessandro came up with an idea. Eleonora hesitated.


“Is it really the only solution?” she asked, sobbing. But she already knew that it was the only way out. They worked out the details of the plan and fixed a day when they would put it into action. Alessandro prepared Messer Dezza by talking to him about the beauty of the winemaking process, cunningly inserting or hiding little details, inspiring Messer Dezza to ask questions and arousing his curiosity until a few days before the planned date:


“Say, Alessandro, some of these wine containers don’t seem to be closed at the top. Why?”


That’s it, Alessandro thought. Now he finally is there where I wanted him to be.


“Brilliant question, Messer,” Alessandro said. “I’ll show you next Saturday when I’m at work in the cellar.”


Saturday arrived. Eleonora was very nervous, which even her husband noticed.


“What is it, dear? You seem so restless.”


He hadn’t been so sweet with his wife for years.


“Nothing, dear, just excited as we are going back to Milan in a week.”


“Yes, I understand that. I look forward to going home too.”


As Alessandro came to pick up Messer Dezza to visit the wine cellar, the lovers exchanged meaningful, worried glances.


In the cellar, a ladder was standing upright against a container filled with red wine.


“Okay, climb up if you will, Messer, and have a look inside the container. I will follow you, so you’ll be entirely safe.”


Slowly, insecure, Messer went up and had a peek at the bubbling red wine in the container. Alessandro was close behind him, supporting him with a hand against his back.


“You need to bend over a bit further to have a good look, Messer,” Alessandro said. “Don’t be afraid, I’ll hold you. And in case you fall inside, think of what a pleasant death that will be, drowning in red wine! Haha.”


Messer Dezza smiled and bent over further and further and then…


He lost consciousness because of the high level of carbon dioxide produced by the fermenting wine. Now Alessandro only had to give him a little push and in he went.


The days after Messer Dezza’s disappearance, Eleonora and Alessandro were happier than ever, but they had to be careful not to expose their love not to draw suspicion. After a few weeks, it became clear that Messer Dezza had probably gone away from his own initiative for unknown reasons. The people in the neighbourhood felt sorry for Eleonora and didn’t think badly of her when she decided to stay at the farm instead of returning to the city. Things settled and life returned to normal.


The following spring, at the yearly festival for the celebration of the first wine, Alessandro presented a new type of red wine, which he baptized ‘Il Cornuto,’ the one with the horns. People smiled at this name. They had already noticed the love that had developed between the young winemaker and the lady from Milan, who had been left by her selfish husband. So they approved of her love for Alessandro and if Messer Dezza was the betrayed husband: right by him.


The new wine turned out to be delicious. It had a mysterious aftertaste, the origin of which nobody was able to fathom.

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Stef Smulders is a Dutchman who moved to Italy in 2008 to start a bed-and-breakfast in the Oltrepo Pavese wine region south of Milan. In 2016, he published ‘Living in Italy: the Real Deal’, a collection of short stories about his life as an expat.