Rosa Scalia was born in 1896 in the tiny Sicilian village of Cattolica Eraclea in the Province of Agrigento. The village, which was founded in medieval times, is situated in the valley of the Plàtani River, a 64-mile-long natural thing of beauty which feeds into the Mediterranean Sea.
Surrounded by high chalky mountains, the valley has a bountiful production of grapes, olives, almonds, pistachios, honey, citrus plantations as well as cattle breeding and sheep farming.
These ancient mountains with their numerous caves and tunnels are fortresses and castles for young boys at play, secret rendezvous destinations for lovers and even hideouts for bandits and highwaymen.
When the almond trees blossom in Sicily, it is a glorious sight. Throughout February the trees dotting the cool green hills are bedecked in lacy blossoms. Almonds are ready for harvesting between the end of July and the beginning of September.
This was the happiest time of year for Rosa. Every morning during the summer it was the 14-year-old girl’s job to walk by the chalky mountains to harvest almonds. Her supplies consisted of two huge baskets, a long-handled broom and a sheet. The Sicilian sun was strong so to keep cool during her day of hard work Rosa would wear sandals, a long cotton skirt, a thin white peasant blouse and a straw hat concealing her lustrous raven curls. Tied around her waist was a sack with her lunch – fruit, cheese and a water skin.
Thanks to their protective shells, harvesting almonds was not difficult but it did require hours of manual activity. Rosa would begin by spreading her sheet under the almond tree, then shake the branches of the tree by hitting them with the broom until the almonds fell onto the sheet. She would then pour the contents of the sheet into her baskets, moving from one tree to the next until the baskets were full.
Before beginning her laborious walk back to her village, Rosa would grab the back hem of her long skirt, pull it forward between her legs and tuck it into the front waistband transforming the skirt into knee-length pantaloons. Rosa would then shake the debris off the sheet, fold it into a thick ‘scarf’ and drape it over her neck and shoulders to act as a cushion for her delicate skin. Hanging one full basket on each end of the broom handle, she would carefully balance it across her shoulders, grasping the pole firmly with her hands on both sides of her neck.
Rosa walked deliberately, her sylphlike hips swaying with each step. Her sheer blouse became translucent as beads of sweat trickled down her neck, chest and back. On the tender cusp of womanhood, Rosa was unaware of how desirable she could look at times. She continued her journey, peaceful and content with another day’s work.
However, this day was different for unknown danger lurked inside the caves of the mountains as Rosa innocently walked by.
In need of a rest, Rosa paused in the shade of a sprawling olive tree and carefully lowered the heavy baskets to the ground. Before she knew what was happening, two ruffians emerged from a nearby cave, whistling and taunting as they encircled her. One pinned her arms behind her back while the other tore at her paper-thin blouse revealing her developing breasts. Her hat was tossed to the ground and long black hair cascaded around her lovely face. The men were encouraged by Rosa’s beauty and grinned lasciviously at her naked and writhing torso as she fought their advances.
One wretch roughly groped Rosa’s breasts while the other who held her arms behind her back reached around to cover her mouth, but Rosa was able to let out a loud scream. Her cry ricocheted off the mountains and echoed loudly, powerful enough to reach the ears of a young man returning home to Cattolica Eraclea with his flock of sheep. His name was Francesco Schembre.
Well acquainted with the area, Francesco knew the shriek was not far away. He commanded his sheepdog Dante to hunt down the source of the scream while he followed as quickly as possible. A second dog, Rico, helped to keep the sheep moving along. Francesco reached for the shotgun which he always carried over his shoulder in case of a wolf attack so he was well prepared for whatever awaited him.
Meanwhile, Rosa was struggling for her life. She grew weaker by the minute and one attacker pinned her to the ground while the other dropped his pants. Just then the man’s eyes bulged in his head and he screamed in agony as Dante sunk his fangs into the would-be rapist’s dangling testicles and would not let go.
Francesco fired his gun once into the air and Dante released his clench. Both men quickly unhanded Rosa and began scrambling down the path, however they were no match for Dante and Rico. The fearless dogs jumped on the men’s backs and knocked them to the ground.
Francesco tied the attacker’s together and pulled their pants down around their ankles as the growling dogs stood by, teeth bared. Francesco commanded his faithful dogs to stand their guard. He then ran to Rosa who by this time had regained her wits. The feisty young woman had wrapped the sheet around her exposed chest and tucked it securely into her skirt. Francesco and Rosa walked back to the men who were still cowering in fear of the dogs, their shaking hands protecting their precious private parts.
The two men were still tied together as Francesco adjusted their pants around their waists. He demanded both men to pick up a heavy basket of almonds and start walking – no easy task. Francesco kept his shotgun aimed at them while Dante and Rico herded the sheep.
They were quite a sight as they walked into the village; Francesco quickly explained what happened although it was obvious to everyone. Rosa’s mother ran to her and embraced her, tearfully kissing her face while her father thanked Francesco profusely for protecting his daughter. The highwaymen were quickly taken into custody before the villagers could turn on them.
In the months that followed, Francesco and Rosa’s relationship blossomed and they fell in love. They were married one year later and began a family. The young couple had five children – one daughter and four sons. One of their sons, Vito, would eventually become my father.
Francesco and Rosa Schembre were my grandparents and this is the story of how our family started long ago and far away in the village of Cattolica Eraclea.
Written in memory of my grandparents, parents and many relatives, some gone a long time and others recently departed. May they rest in peace.
NAR © 2022