The bells woke Lara up at seven. When she opened her eyes under the tall vaulted ceiling, for a split second she felt as though she were inside a church. It had been her first night in the new house in the village and she'd slept beautifully.
She was emerging from the shower in her plum-colored, Moroccan-style bathroom when she heard a vigorous knock at the front door. Still dripping wet, she ran down in her robe, crossed the courtyard and opened the old wooden door, which had been painstakingly sandpapered and waxed. A small woman of indefinite age, with an old-fashioned perm, her body shaped like a box, was staring at her.
"You are the person who bought this house?" she asked, her voice loud as a trumpet. She was a local, as Lara could tell from her accent. She nodded.
"Ha ha! At last you are here in person!" the little woman said with a cruel smile and slid herself inside the courtyard like an eel.
"For months all I've been seeing are your builders. Very rude people. Where do they come from?"
"Martano, I think. Why?" Lara wondered if the small woman had come to give her some kind of fine, although she wore no uniform.
"I knew it. Martano people are all thieves."
"I'm so sorry, signora. Was there a problem?"
The woman ignored her and proceeded to take a long, critical look at the potted plants that filled the courtyard, at the indigo blue table and matching chairs that Lara had spotted in a magazine and bought online. She closely examined the pale dusty mauve of the walls, a hue that had cost days of trial and error.
"I see you have changed everything in here."
Lara wasn't sure where this might be leading.
"Well, I have restored the place. It was a ruin."
The woman ignored her and peered some more. "My great-aunt lived in this house," she said.
She brushed the smooth surface of the wall, then moved swiftly toward the glass door of what used to be the barn and glanced inside.
"She used to keep her donkey in there," she said, pointing at the space.
"Oh yes? Well, that's the living room now."
"She never married, she worked very hard all her life. She was a very clever woman."
Lara tried a friendlier expression. All this might be pretty sweet, after all. "So you knew this place from the time she lived here? How nice. Would you like to see what it looks like now?"
Lara opened the glass door, which gave into the ex-barn-now-living-room, but the woman was already snooping inside the kitchen on the opposite side of the courtyard.
"I knew this place like the back of my hand. We used to play in here all the time when we were children."
She stepped into the kitchen and Lara followed her. There were still unopened boxes on the floor; the stainless steel surfaces of the brand-new appliances glinted in the shady room. The woman gave a yelp.
"See! I had heard from people you had done this, but I wanted to see for myself."
"Had done what?" Lara asked.
The woman was glaring at the opposite wall.
"This thing you have done in here, is a mortal sin."
By now, had she been in Rome, Lara would have normally lost her patience and asked her to leave, but it was her first contact with any of her neighbors in the village and she sensed she'd reached a delicate intersection that required some caution.
"A mortal sin!" the little woman repeated in a thundering voice.
"Please have a seat. Can I offer you a cup of coffee?"
"Okay. Then please, what is it that I did?"
"The forno. You tore it down."
Lara crossed her arms.
"Yes I did, the architect ... my friend," she said, but immediately regretted bringing an architect into the conversation. "It was as big as a room. It took up too much space, it took half the courtyard."
But the woman was right; when, a year earlier, Lara had bought the house in the heart of the village, she'd taken Silvana, her architect friend, to see it. She was a towering woman in her forties with flaming hennaed hair who on principle never came off her high heels, especially when marching through building sites ("height gains you respect, it's Pavlovian"). Silvana had paced inside the old building not uttering a sound, with an air of concern. Maybe it was just her way, or maybe she didn't approve of the house. Lara had begun to worry. Silvana had taken one look at the opening of the gigantic wood oven in the kitchen and before Lara could say anything she'd climbed inside it with the speed of a crab, holding her flashlight.
"It's gigantic. And totally useless," her voice had boomed from the dark interior, like Jonah's from inside the whale.
She'd reappeared, her clothes coated in blackish dust, then effortlessly slid out of the oven mouth. She had a big grin on her face.
"Good. We can gain some space. I feel a lot better now."
So the forno went down, and what was once a dark chamber was now a third of her courtyard.
The little woman waved her index finger at Lara like a mad evangelist.
"You tore down the last oven of this village to gain a little space for your plants. That forno was a public monument. It was part of our history!"
The woman shook her head with disdain.
"Yes, I was told this room was the village bakery. But as I told you the wood oven took half the space of the courtyard. I mean, it went from here all the way to ..." Lara made a sweeping arc with her hand across the expanse of the courtyard.
"This was not a bakery. It was a communal oven. An oven where people could bring their own loaves of bread. Bread and pies, so that my aunt could bake for them. She only charged ten, twenty liras a piece. We all came here as children with our tins, everyone did, every Saturday ..."
"Did you? How nice. So, what did ..." Lara loved stories like this, it was part of what had drawn her to the village in the first place. But the woman was talking right over her question.
"... And in winter, when it was really cold, this was the warmest room in the whole village, so we sat in that corner, see? My aunt used to have a wooden bench right there."
The woman gestured to the wall where now sat the dishwasher still sheathed in its cardboard box.
"My aunt would give us sweets while we waited. In the summer we'd wait outside in the garden, and we'd play with the donkey. This is how things were in this village up until only forty, fifty years ago."
The little woman grabbed a chair and slumped on it, hands entwined on her lap. Her feet barely touched the ground. Lara was beginning to feel it had been a mistake to let this creature in. Obviously this was only the beginning of something far more serious than Lara had envisaged.
The little woman went on. "But of course, what do you care? You people come from the outside and assume everything here is up for sale and you think you have a right to take it down, rip it all up as you please. You even bring your own architect to destroy our history!"
Lara stared at the little woman, shocked. This was truly a disgrace. She'd come to this village with the best intentions, eager to learn and respect the local culture and traditions. And now—barely twenty-four hours after she'd moved in—she was already facing the enormity of her first mistake.
"Senta signora, I'm sorry about the wood oven," Lara said. "I had no idea how important it was. In fact nobody told me. I'm really sorry, I ... I wish I had known before, is all I can say."
It was true: the local real-estate agent—a young man with overly gelled hair and two cell phones constantly ringing—hadn't said a word about the oven being part of the village history, had made no mention of the old lady with a donkey who baked for the community; he didn't mention village women and children taking their tins of pies and bread into what was now her stainless steel kitchen.
"Why did you buy a house here?" the woman asked, a prosecutor for the defendant.
Lara widened her arms, resigned.
"Because I love this village and I wanted to preserve this beautiful house." She breathed in a bit and continued, "Which by the way would've crumbled had I not bought it."
The woman didn't balk; she shook her head.
"You people don't come here to buy property because you love it. You come because it's cheaper."
Such was Lara's welcome to her new life in the house she'd bought right after her divorce.
Excerpted from The Other Language by Francesca Marciano. Copyright © 2014 Francesca Marciano. Excerpted by permission of Random House LLC, a division of Random House, Inc.
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