The day the flowers came to paper, it was like it always is when you know your stuff. Unfortunately, few people know about Amalfi, which was not just any Mediterranean city but was among the first European cities to steal cotton paper from the Arabs. This paper, called “Carta bambagina,” became so precious that Emperor Frederick II forbade the courts of Naples, Sorrento, and Amalfi to use it for documents. Even today, one occasionally finds such old paper on which under the writing stands a sheep with a bishop’s crook, dove hops, five crescents lie in a circle on its back, a rose grows out of the vase, the cross is enthroned above the coat of arms, a Cow stares and a little angel with a flag in his hand tiptoes, like an angel has to walk when it comes to paper! They are called watermarks, those translucent images on the paper, just like the ones on our banknotes, but they are just heads.
Well, on that day, not only were Carlo and Lisa sitting on the railing high above the sea, but a siren was crouching there, half-bird, half maiden, scratching the left foot with its right foot. Because nobody was looking closely, it flew away to where Africa was on the other side of the sea.
“A strange animal,” thought Carlo, “there is no such animal!”
“There are always things you do not have at home,” Lisa replied, “we should ask at the hotel.”
“They never know anything,” Carlo claimed, “they do not even know where there is a cobbler who can make my sandals whole for me. The strap broke.”
“We will find one,” Lisa hoped, “there are some in the streets; I can always hear them hammering!”
They ran up and downstairs, through archways and colonnades, until they found a cobbler who thoughtfully stirred the pot of glue in his tiny vault with his forefinger. Everywhere old shoes trampled on each other from floor to ceiling.
“Hello,” said Carlo, “can you put the strap back on my sandal?”
“But it will be a while,” answered the shoemaker.
“That does not matter,” said Lisa, “you can tell us something in the meantime. At the hotel, they never know anything.”
“You come from far away, do you not?”
“Yes,” Carlo nodded, “namely from Tyrol.”
“Is that where you are from?” exclaimed the cobbler in astonishment, as if they were from America, “give me the sandal and be careful not to step on the nails!”
“We saw a bird just now,” said Lisa eagerly, “it had a girl’s face.”
“Oh yes? As? It could have been a siren, but they are long gone. Not much is as it was anymore. It smelled of oriental spices here, and wonderful ladies walked in silk and velvet. Things flitted back and forth on the ship’s planking, sacks of real cane sugar leaned against the arsenals, and pearls, real pearls, filled the chests like the foam that milk makes. And…”
“Man!” shouted Carlo, “how do you know all this?”
“From my father,” answered the shoemaker modestly, pulling his finger out of the glue and wiping it on his apron.
“And he knows it from your great-grandfather?”
“You’re a clever boy,” said the cobbler and attacked Carlo’s sandal, “that is why I will tell you that Vesuvius is still rumbling.”
“It is a volcano,” Carlo nodded, “is it dangerous?”
“You get used to everything,” murmured the shoemaker, and Lisa urged, “Tell us something more, please!”
“Something creepy, like the siren, the bird with the face,” Carlo added.
“I never went to any school,” said the shoemaker sadly, “but I can tell you about the red hand in the paper mill.”
“What is that?”
“By the Canneto, the stream that comes down from the mountains, there are many abandoned paper mills where nobody makes paper anymore, although I have not been there for a long time,” he sighed, “soon, there will not be any more cobblers either.”
“But the red hand?” asked Lisa.
“Yes, when they locked up the mills because nobody was making paper there anymore, someone stayed inside, but only their hand is left on the wall.”
“And why is it red?” Carlo wanted to know.
“Here are the sandals. The strap will not last long. You will find the market if you walk down the Canneto street that leads inland from the piazza. You can buy new sandals there.”
“Why is the hand red?” Carlo prodded.
“Because it is a bad story, and all bad stories are red,” said the cobbler, putting his finger back in the glue pot and stirring.
Carlo and Lisa thanked him and set off. They did not see the Canneto stream right away, it had been covered so it would not smell so bad, and you could not see the rats, the refuse that rocked on the water towards the sea, like lemon peels and fish heads, utensils, and pot lids. On the other side, they saw courtyards with fountains, door knockers that were hands, lions’ heads or just rings, and dark green little gardens. Finally, the paper mills appeared along the street, staring out of empty windows, behind which, if you got very, very close, ceilings dripped, and damp stairs without railings led to bricked-up doors. The market the shoemaker spoke of consisted of booths and stalls in the middle of the street. Colorful ribbons fluttered from hats, children’s rattles rattled, and mountains of scissors and soap swayed under the gray sunroofs. Lisa and Carlo stood undecided.
“You know what?” Carlo said aloud, “we will look at the sandals tomorrow and take mom with us.”
“Bet you are looking for the red hand?” Lisa exclaimed.
“Oh, shush,” said Carlo, “look, the stream appears again; let’s take a look!”
Indeed, it trickled gently along the side of the road, and high above the walls, the lemons shone like lanterns; tiny houses and groves, stairs, and even tall orange trees climbed the slopes to the right and left.
Suddenly it was hot and lonely, the water rushed very softly, and abruptly the road ended. Only one more grassy path led into the bushes and wound its way around inside and, who knows, may never find its way out again. The children watched the old building for a while, which stood all alone on the Canneto and to which only an open gate on a small bridge led.
“Are you scared?” whispered Carlo. Lisa looked down into the stream. Far below, giant, green leafy plants were dragging in the water, and everything was so dark, so wet, and so mossy it was spooky.
“I am going over there,” said Carlo; Lisa saw the big old man first, standing in the front yard, who was very friendly, pointing to a door, and acting as if expecting them.
“Do you have the red hand?” Lisa asked, and Carlo interjected, “This is a paper factory, a real paper factory!”
There were piles of paper in the large room’s dimness, people were putting them in boxes, and the old man let them in.
“It works almost the same as it did a hundred years ago,” explained the old man, “just look around; it starts up here.”
Water and mush made of white rags and animal gelatin ran from tub to tub via small channels that looked like gutters, and it got denser and denser until it finally came to a giant roller through which the mush had to pass. On the other side, the paper appeared, always two large sheets at a time, with no smooth edges, a bit thick and yellowish. Two women took the sheets and carefully placed them on top of each other.
Lisa and Carlo stood on the wet stone floor and stared and stared because what came out of the roller looked so different from any paper they had ever seen. Many, many miniature flowers, the tiniest ones that were in the meadows, had settled in it, thin as fibers, light green and pink, blue and red, yellow and violet, a few here, a few there, sometimes three or four together, one below, the other above. The old man explained that the flowers were poured into the paper pulp, and Lisa said, “Like raisins into a dough!” After a while, he led the children up a flight of stairs to a huge room under the roof where paper hung in wooden racks to dry like laundry; while the wind blew from window to window, the roller rolled below and turned lots of sheets of paper with tiny flowers out of the mush. Suddenly, a bird sat at the window, flapped its wings, and pinched its eyelids a couple of times.
“But it is curious!” mumbled Carlo.
“Shh!” said the big old man and took a drying sheet of paper. He held it up to the light, and the children saw the beautiful tiny flowers and the bird’s claws clearly in the middle. “You can keep this sheet as a souvenir.”
“What have you got there?” a voice asked in the fading light of the sunset. A silhouetted woman came into the light, her back bent. Her contorted, reddish hand rested on the handle of an old walking stick.
“There! Look!” Lisa screamed. Carlo turned and saw nothing. In horror, Lisa looked at the old man and yelled again, “Did you not see her? The weird woman? Her hand!”
The old man shrugged, raised an eyebrow, and said, “That was not a red hand, was it?” He carefully took the piece of paper and handed it to Lisa, uneasily looking around.
Carlo closed his eyes and quickly opened them again. He did not understand and thought: “What did I miss?”. He looked at Lisa and whispered, “You saw something?” Lisa was silent; she stared at the reddish spot in the middle of the sheet of paper and trembled.
“I have to replace these sandals; the strap broke again. We have to go back,” said Carlo.
The bird hopped from one foot to the other and stared at where the shadowy woman had been standing. It screeched and flew away, dried flowers in its claws, translucent in the light.
Lisa ran out of the building, and Carlo followed her, amused.