February 13th, 1969
Well. Here I was.
Here we were, rather. The van we'd rented, an ugly melon-green Italian breed, with just enough room for our photographic equipment in the back, groaned a bit as we slowed to a pleasant twenty-two miles per hours, driving in through the wooden gate pass and into the borders of the little Italian commune. The wooden sign stood proud by the side of the dirt road as we drove in, the name "Bacio" quickly passing by us in our headlights before we passed it. It was hard to make out most of the commune, in the dark; rows of simple little houses with clay roofs, in-between narrow dirt streets. Two-and-a-half hours we'd been driving now. It was barely under half that time to get to Bacio from Siena, but Doug had wanted to take the 'scenic' route. The radio w as non-functioning as it had been when we'd rented it from up in Siena.
I could appreciate the aesthetic of the Umbrian countryside as much as anyone, though two-and-a-half hours through mostly green countryside got somewhat tedious. It was nothing I wasn't already used to in my profession; we were as far as we'd ever be from the beautiful Italian coast, right in the country's forested belly where all the good wine was made up in Terni. I'd already taken some beautiful pictures with the pocket Kodak I still had slung around my neck. The heavy duty pictures, the stuff we'd hopefully be sending back to Harper's, were going to be taken in color by the bulky Nikon F in the back, through an 35mm lens with my steady hand behind it. Doug Greene and Anita Warren, up in the front, were going to deal with talking to the actual people, interviewing them whatever this cultural festival was. Thank God. I could feel the sweat on my brow as we drove down Bacio's dirt path and saw lights brighten up in the windows of bordering, single-floor houses, the entire commune seeming to fire to life in tandem with our presence.
If I was being honest, I didn't give much of a shit about Valentine's Day. I gave slightly less of a shit about the war up in Vietnam–God, the debacle had just made me want to move back up to Britain, back to my aunt's place–but the ever-predictable Bleeding Heart Doug behind the wheel, his aviators on both the lenses flipped up, had clutched onto words of this story-to-be and what we could do with it for three months.
Maybe, possibly, this would be worth it. It was hard to be optimistic with so much we still didn't know after these three damn months.
Did that stop Bleeding Heart Doug? Of course not. I could already envision his foot twitching on the gas pedal as we drove carefully through the tight streets of Bacio, anxious to get to Helen as fast as he could.
"You okay, Henri?" Anita called back to me, looking back at me through the rear-view mirror. Her tone was teasing, a smile implicated in the words, something I could perfectly imagine on her dimpled face. "I can already see you sweating."
"Shove off, Ann," I said, trying to remain equally teasing but my gaze still flicking back to the residencies behind us as we took a turn to the right. Bacio was a bit better lit now. All the houses seemed to have a predominant decoration of "red." The silhouette of a building taller than the others, some distance in the darkness, stood distinctly above the others. Maybe a school.
"They won't bite," Doug laughed. "Come on, Henri, man. Nobody you'll see here that isn't as scared as you are of them, huh?" He glanced to the side, to the side mirror for some reason. "Helen speaks English, anyways."
"It's not necessarily the language barrier that worries me," I muttered. "You know, Doug, swear to God if this turns out to just be more shit, I'm–"
"Yeah, I got the point of it back up in Siena," Doug said. "Back up in Cali, actually. All I'm gonna say? Sometimes you gotta dig to get a scoop, yeah? This goes well, we get a big score in a big publication. We get a chair to stand on, to speak from."
"Don't blow your expectations up any further than you need to, Dougie," Anita snickered. "Otherwise your head's gonna pop like a tomato."
I chuckled. "Yeah, Doug. You know, next time you drag us into this, get a better reference first. I don't care how good the payout is. Or your soapbox shit."
"Hey, like I said, we deliver to Harper's and they'll take this if we do it right," Doug said. "This is what keeping an ear out does for you, huh? Think of what the boys back in Ventura would say. We stumble on this authentic piece of Italian culture, right in the homeland of old Saint Valentine himself–one of them, anyways–snap some pretty pictures, what's left to lose?"
"You're right," Anita said. "So if this is a bust, you sold your yacht for no reason, wasted three months of your time, and three days of ours."
"The countryside is nice," I admitted, gesturing with my little Kodak. "But, God, next time? Let's not spend so much time in a van with piss in the seat leather."
"Alright, lay off," Doug said. I saw his grin flash wide in the rear-view mirror. "Next time I'll take you to coastal Mexico on the back of a burro. You can take some real fetching pictures up there, huh, Henri?" He paused for a second. "And Anita can pay for it."
The van swerved a bit as Anita playfully leaned over and gave Doug a swat on the shoulder as I chuckled at the two bickering. It was hard to like Doug, yeah, but he was indeed harder to hate. Mexico was a hot ground for stories with what had happened in Tlatelolco and all, but maybe a bit too much of a hot spot for my liking. Doug would never seriously consider that offer at the moment. Not enough communists.
Of course, if Harper's took this, Cuba was bound to be next. Doug pursued this story because of the relative allure of Italy at the moment; everyone was going for the obvious sources in the continuing heat of the war, but a story from Italy for next Valentine's Day would surely turn a few heads, reasoned starry-eyed Doug. After that, though, he'd hop right on the bandwagon–"the only way to ensure continuous success in this scene," he'd said with a joint wedged between his lips two months before, stinking up our apartment back in Cali.
If he'd been ten years younger, he'd be neck-deep in groupies, eyes drowning in red and bullshit hippie paraphernalia hanging around him. I saw it like a framed picture in my head, and smiled, content we'd made this friendship last.
Ten minutes took us to a higher area of Bacio, where the residential areas started to border a thin stretch of wood wrapping around the southern side of Bacio. We drove up an elevating, curving street that wound around the trees on the length of a steep hill face. Below us, in what would have been the southeast part of Bacio, I could see more of the commune, and saw that it was indeed its own little community. It all looked very archaic, a large fountain with the statue of someone I couldn't make out stealing my eye immediately, lit up in a square of stone buildings with sloping red roofs, a church in the distance. The roofs, like the others, all seemed glazed red, freshly red in comparison to the weathered brick that comprised most of the buildings.
I couldn't see anyone down in the square. It wasn't odd–12:35 AM, after all, everyone here had full right to sleep as we noisily drove into their borders in this shitty Italian van–but I hadn't actually seen any faces we'd passed by, none in the windows that lit up and none that stood on the sides of the streets.
"There," Doug suddenly said after another three minutes, snapping his fingers and bringing our eyes back up to the street. Up on right side of the road ahead was a building that looked like a different century from the rest; a two-story inn with a chimney puffing smoke out, the entire place warmly lit up from every window it had, electric lights between them illuminating the blood-red roof and the modern design of its front. The tall sign beside it was lit up electrically in the night, the first I'd sign in Bacio so far, proudly displaying "VALENTINE INN" in bold, humming lettering.
"Well, this must be recent," Anita said, clicking her tongue as we drove into a vacant lot. "We already have rooms? Can't imagine this place would be anything but vacant."
"I expect we'll be meeting Helen in the morning," Doug said as he parked right in front of the Valentine Inn. "Bet you're all ready for a snooze."
"God, yes," I groaned, happy my feet were about to touch solid ground again as the van's power was cut. We'd made good time, at least; lingering jet lag and the fact none of us had gotten a wink of sleep in nineteen hours meant whatever accommodation we could get here was fantastic. I didn't care if the bed was full of Italian earwigs. Anything for a bloody pillow under my head.
We all got out of the car, made a deal of stretching out as Anita lit a cigarette by the side of the motel and Doug went to check in. I stayed by the van, the air chilly around me, looking through the small catalog of sixteen pictures I'd managed to take. Unfortunately, I hadn't seen any wildlife, or at least nothing beyond far-off birds. That was kind of a disappointment. One of my best had been a close-up of a bald eagle resting on a dead deer, posing luxuriously for the photograph and never moving from its perch even as I'd set up the camera. The night, save for Anita's coughing–I didn't mind, she could get as much of that drek in her lungs as she wanted if it helped her relax–was quiet. No chirping of crickets or bustle of late night traffic as I'd gotten used to, on our apartment by the edge of Ventura within view of the US 101, the memory of many tireless nights in that claustrophobic place passing through my head as I considered the quiet atmosphere.
Still nobody to see. Not anyone I could see, peeking into the pleasant-looking lobby of the Valentine Inn, all warm colors that beckoned me as I stood in the cold night. No use idling outside if Doug was just confirming the reservation, I reasoned. I took a step toward the glass doors at the front of the inn–
"Da nostro Padre," broke in a sudden contralto of a voice, Italian accented, honey to the ears that made me freeze up mid-step. "I hadn't even seen you drive in. I'm here on a midnight walk in the quiet of the night, and here I see long-awaited visitors already here! Dare il benvenuto! Welcome, welcome!"
I swung around to see her walking toward me, frozen again as my eyes met hers. Helen Valentine was illuminated by the light of the inn, her arms crossed and a look on her face all indicative of pleasant surprise. She was six-foot, easily tall enough to stare at Doug eye-to-eye, in a cashmere coat as hot-red as any of the buildings I'd seen, her hair like braided raven feathers, her carmine fingernails long enough to be talons in their own right. Still, beyond the sudden introduction, nothing else about her disarmed. She was smiling tightly, evidently cold but letting it be of no distress to her, blue eyes like the colors of the ocean I so badly wanted to be snapping pictures of right now.
"You caught us at a good time," Anita said in response, putting her cigarette under her foot as she approached Mrs. Valentine. "It was Helen, right? Helen Valentine."
"Distinguished," Helen said in good humor, shaking Anita's hand brusquely. Her voice was heavy Italian, but like that of an opera singer; deep, but resonant and powerful, the kind of thing that would boom across a large stage without any need for a microphone or a speaker. "The honor is mine. If my guesswork is as good as I think it is... Anita Warren. Henri Barrow–" Helen's eyes flicked back to mine, and I pulled them in a fit of reticence, "–and... Douglas Greene will be acquainting himself with Oswaldo at the register."
"On the dot," Anita said. "Come on, Henri. You can cower in your room all you want but this is our contact. Don't try and hide behind your tripod."
I nervously shuffled forth as Helen's lips closed into a sweet smile. "The pleasure is mine," I said, stammering and averting my gaze again. Every time, I swore to God, I made a fool of myself when I tried to do this. Doug was the guy with the charisma, Anita was the girl with connections. I just pointed and shot.
Of course, there was more to photojournalism than that, but I honestly didn't mind being behind-the-scenes.
She took her hand in mind, and shook, gentler as she observed my unease. "No less a pleasure to meet you," Helen said, the grin returning. "Douglas sent me a catalog of your work over mail. It took some time to get here, but I was not disappointed." She turned to Anita. "I am so terribly sorry we never got a chance to communicate much beforehand, but Bacio has never prioritized long-distance communication, you understand. We typically keep to ourselves... honestly, in all my life, I never thought my humble little festival would be on the cover of an American magazine!"
"Potentially," Anita clarified. "Listen, Doug likes to get people's prospects up. It's a wonderful bargaining strategy, but he needs us to keep down-to-earth. If I'm being honest? There's no guarantee this will even turn into a story."
"Ah, but I'm sure it will," Helen said. "I've become quite acquainted with Douglas and his enthusiasm, yes, but don't think me a woman who doesn't know how to turn an eye when I need to. I'm quite thrilled to meet you at last." She turned back to me, and I shrunk back again. "I'm quite impressed with your work, as well, Mr. Barrow. You took a colored picture of a screech owl–yes, that was you?"
"Wildlife photography is mostly a hobby," I said, gaze still pointed away. "I'm interested in the kind of stuff that could... tell a story, I guess. Doug said this could be the key. The festival, it's..."
"This midnight when we hit the fourteenth, officially," Helen said. "Of course I'll let you sleep, first, though I'm quite anticipating our time together. You strike me as a very withdrawn man, Mr. Barrow."
"I... prefer to stay behind the lens," I admitted. Helen shrugged, non-judgmentally.
"All the same," Helen said. "Call it performer's irony. I once met a young lad, you know, visiting up in Florence. He had interest in the stage. Opera, actually. It was for an adaptation of an old play called La cena delle beffe, The Jester's Supper. But he was pale and clammy when you talked to him. He could never talk without stuttering and averting his eyes at the same time. But when I finally saw him on the stage... oh, Padre, he became a whole different person. He was consumed by his role, completely. I never thought I'd swoon at a tenor." She sighed, her recollection seeming fond. "Douglas said you... haven't officially published any of your works, yet? They're worth the cover."
"No," I confessed. "Well... there was a local magazine, back when I still lived in North Compton. The Roman, I think it was called. I thought maybe trying for an exposé on the narcotic scene around my old neighborhood–my uncle Vic had connections–but... I was only twenty at the time. Not worth potentially getting on the shit-list of any local hoods."
"Then you're a rational man, Mr. Barrow," Helen said. "We don't do any of that kind of thing here. It would go against the message."
"The message?" Anita said. Helen turned to her, spreading her arms out as though all of Bacio was coming from her.
"Why I am primo cittadino here," she clarified. "What I brought to Bacio. Before I came along, it was a piece of the sixteenth century that had gotten lost in the twentieth. You know, perhaps you have picked up, but... perhaps one of the leading tenets of Bacio's community, as far as can be called such, is derived from the same reasons why Valentine's Day is celebrated as it is. Because of courtship. Romance. Peace."
"That's exactly why we're here, Helen," said Doug from behind us, suddenly. He strode up, aviator lenses flipped down, now, as he strode up to Helen, extending one of his greasy palms toward Helen. "We're so happy to meet you all at last."
"Mutually!" Helen said, vigorously shaking my hand as I backed away to the van again. "I see you've gotten your reservations, and all? You'll stay for the night, and for Valentine's Day?"
"Indeed," Doug said. "Toothpaste in the car. That's all I needed to bring, honestly. No toothbrush. I just put the stuff in my mouth and swirl it around."
All he needed except for his passport, his IDP, and the yacht money he hadn't already blown on the flight.
"Every man has his quirks," Helen said. "It seems terribly late for us to only now meet in person, Douglas. You fit beautifully in here. The ride, it was nothing too... draining?"
"Nothing me and the crew couldn't go through," Doug said, cheerfully. Nineteen hours and he still looked ready to run a marathon, and still spoke like he was on NBC. "The festival. Charming stuff? We've been antsy, so, so antsy to see it."
"We get like that when we haven't heard much about it except vague word-of-mouth," Anita chirped. "No pictures of this place. Nothing but a few mail exchanges in which you didn't request for any details, Doug. We could have been driving into a trafficking scheme, for all we knew."
"I can trust this trip will not be a waste of time for you all," Helen assured. "It would be a discourtesy to see you come all this way for nothing. It would do me no less of an honor to see Bacio's values brought to the West."
"With luck," Doug said, "and maybe a bit of quick talking–of which I promise I'm capable of–the story we'll get here is going to be the cover of... ideally, the February edition of Harper's. My name on the headline, your town on the cover, beautifully brought to life by our brilliant photographer Henri Barrow."
I smiled, a bit sheepishly, as he threw a grin toward me.
"Interviews commence tomorrow, with you and some of the native people here... if necessary, we can record, and translate later. And of course, anything we can do for the festival is grand. The kinds of peace you stand for here, Helen? It's wonderful. The kind of stuff those crackpots in office back in the USA need to listen to."
"The war in Vietnam is a sad situation," Helen sighed. "Men dying in the dirt for no reason, villages shot to the last woman and child, pesticides thrown about as though they're feasible weapons in warfare–hmph. You know, in my family, there is a recurrent saying: il segreto della felicità è libertà. 'The secret of happiness is freedom.' Now, I'm a woman who believes in liberation. Those communist oddjobs and their invented social equality baffle me. In what flawed system could you ever preach something like that to be truly free?" She scoffed. "The leaders of the 'free world' today drown themselves in their politics. They think because they can preach their idea of a justification to all their atrocities, committed in the name of a flag or an ideal, and that some people will applaud that... that they have the right to do anything they want. That is not freedom. The wars they incite with those justifications attached, like the one that made me grow up in a fascist nightmare, where men were free to... liberate themselves, in violence and slaughter and rape done in the the name of a nation that could not give a rat's ass about them? This is not true freedom."
"What would you define as 'true freedom,' Helen?" Anita asked, already in full-interviewer mode. Man. I just wanted to get to bed.
Helen looked at her, a glint in her eye that knew everything. "I believe... that true freedom is beyond us, at least for the moment. So long as we spill blood in the service of men who ride the accomplishments of their lesser under the name of patriotism–it can't feasibly be done. But the steps can be taken. Freedom... is when we liberate ourselves from that system. When we engorge ourselves on the love of our brothers and sisters. When man can look at man and see not with the fog of hate but the bliss of love. So long as human wars are fought for human reasons, we will be neither free nor happy–but when that cage breaks, maybe, one day, we will find the secret to happiness." She took Doug's hands in his, bowing her head.
"I hope you feel a little bit closer to that ideal in dear Bacio," Helen said, with promise in her voice. "This is a place where we love. My husband and I are honored to welcome you with such open minds into our little commune."
Doug seemed confused. "Husband? You never mentioned a husband."
Helen chuckled. "My beloved. You know, we actually married on Valentine's Day." Her eyes became starry. "And what a wonderful way, indeed, to celebrate our anniversary... la benedizione del Padre."