Yesterday I got a letter from the Italian Consulate-General in Miami, reminding me of an upcoming deadline. I have to go back to the village where my great-grandfather was born and do some ceremonial stuff before my next birthday. That’s good and bad. The bad part is that it involves flying, though I suppose I could take a boat over there, or drive if it’s cold enough in the Bering Strait. The good news is a bit complicated but bear with me:
A ridiculously long time ago, a patrilineal relative of mine named Vincent Tibère le Biscardi left France and wandered into a little village near Naples called Airola. Noted not so much for his bravery as he was for his avarice and irascibility, he was hired by the villagers to retrieve a calice d’oro that belonged to the village’s oldest church. Legend has it that the calice was stolen by three dragons. Within a week, Biscardi tracked the dragons down to some nearby catacombs, killed two of them, evaded capture by the third, and returned the chalice to the church. He refused payment in local scrip–not out of nobility, but because it was hyperinflated–so he agreed to four terms:
First, he was entitled to a fish dinner every night he spent in Airola for the rest of his life.
Second, he had the right to override the hiring of any Airolani church official for the rest of his life. Considering the power the Church wielded over the villagers and the civic government, this was a huge concession.
Third, Biscardi would be entitled to the first “goatsweight” (rough translation) of gold discovered by any Airolani miner in the nearby hills. A “goatsweight” would be the weight of the heaviest goat alive in town at the time of discovery. Gold has not yet been found in those hills, and probably never will be.
Fourth–and here’s the kicker–these terms of payment could pass only to his firstborn son, to that son’s firstborn son, to that son’s firstborn son, and so on… all the way down to Your Humble Narrator. One of my ancestors, Tiberio Tommasino il Viscariello, almost broke the line; he didn’t have a son until 1437–his 71st year on this Earth. I’m also cutting it kind of close, you’ll see why later.
The village elders agreed to his terms (otherwise he might let the third dragon eat them), but they added a few of their own, mostly ceremonial in nature. One of the conditions was that Biscardi must reside in Airola for the rest of his life, partly to defend the village from the third dragon, partly because they liked that he held some power over the church. He remained in Airola, and sired many children by his wife, Maria Serafina Francesca di Maria, and over the generations, the name “Biscardi” morphed into “Viscariello.” There was a riot when my great-grandfather Raffaele Tomaso Viscariello moved to America in 1881, because the church and government argued (incorrectly) that Raffaele’s departure violated the residency requirement (which would free them to sell the golden chalice in order to pay for a desperately needed hospital) while the townsfolk argued that it didn’t (because “selling the chalice would enrage Biscardi, and his ghost would lead the third dragon back to Airola to kill everybody,” translated from Storia di Airola tra il 997 e il 1922, p. 243).
Another condition was that each firstborn male heir in the direct lineage must re-enact “l’avventura” (the local name for Biscardi’s escapades) before his 35th birthday, because Biscardi was 34 when he retrieved the chalice. Otherwise, the deal’s off. My 35th is this November, which means I’ll be the second-oldest to do the reenactment. Raffaele Tiberio Viscariello was a week away from his 35th when he and his ten-month-old firstborn son, Vincenzo Guaglio Giacomo Viscariello, retrieved the chalice in 1782.
So this July, I’m going to fly to Airola and spend a week there. The guide and translator will walk me through the town on the first day, and then they’re going to put me up in a clean-but-not-too-fancy hotel. The first night I’m there, they’re going to move the calice d’oro to the catacombs under heavy guard and they’ll start building three giant papier-mâché dragons. Each night I’ll have to eat a fish dinner in one of the town churches on a rotating basis (the village’s oldest church burned down in 1881 and was never rebuilt), which doesn’t thrill me but at least I’ll be able to sample all sorts of authentic Italian cuisine and wines the rest of the time. I’ll take part in various ceremonies each night I’m there, including rubber-stamping some church appointees and presiding over the wedding of two goats named Beppo and Apollonia (I don’t know why the town’s economy is so goat-centric; I guess it’s the proximity to the hills). But I’ll have plenty of time for visiting distant relatives, working the family farm, sightseeing, etc.
At midnight of the sixth night, l’avventura begins. I will carry a sword and the town scepter into the nearby catacombs, “kill” two of the papier-mâché dragons (the yellow one and the green one), grab the chalice, and “outrun” the red papier-mâché dragon back to the oldest remaining church in town. I won’t actually have to run, it’ll be more of a midnight parade back to town, with the red dragon walking behind me at arm’s length, occasionally swiping at me with its tail, until we get to the Chiesa Annunziata. As I cross the threshold into the church, the townsfolk will close ranks behind me and the dragon will retreat to the catacombs. I will then carry the chalice to a display case behind the altar, lock it inside, and hand the key to a priest. The chalice will remain locked up until the day my son, should I ever have one, comes to Airola for his avventura.
Wine and fish until daybreak, and that’s that–the goatsweight of gold is mine, if they ever find it. Actually, if they find it while Dad’s still alive, it goes to him and I’ll inherit it one day (which reminds me: I’m told that when it was his turn, my dad “accidentally” “killed” all three dragons, tearing up the red one so badly they had to chase after him with what was left of the green one). If they find it after he passes away, then it’s mine directly. But this is almost certainly moot; if there’s gold in those hills, they would’ve found it sometime in the last nine hundred years.
The fish better be good, otherwise the dragon can keep the chalice and eat the villagers.