Nick DiChario is a Hugo, World Fantasy, and John W. Campbell Memorial award nominee. He is the author of two novels and many short stories. His fourth appearance in Galaxy’s Edge is another in his series of modern Italian folktales.

THE SWEATER

by Nick DiChario

Paolo bought the sweater at a seaside market in the small Italian village of il villaggio di Ombri. The old woman who sold it to him had set up her ancient, wooden pushcart beside the parking lot, almost as an afterthought to all the other vendors crowding the square. The people seemed to move past her toward their automobiles without acknowledging her existence, their arms laden with bags and baskets, fruits and vegetables, fish and cheese, antiques and second-hand trinkets. It was an overcast day, with the smell of a storm brewing over the Mediterranean Sea. Everyone was in a rush to escape the coming rain.

But Paolo saw the woman and stopped to browse her merchandise. It was there that he spotted the bedraggled sweater clinging desperately to the edge of the woman's carrettini. A sad and lonely garment, dull, dark and orphaned, with wiry gray hair and a sagging character. Paolo's heart went out to the dreary sweater. He wanted to rescue it. He worked at an animal shelter, and rescuing things came naturally to him.

The old woman handed the sweater to Paolo and said, "Are you sure you want to buy it? The sweater has a history."

"That sounds mysterious," Paolo said. "What kind of history?"

She shrugged slowly, painfully, as if the mere thought of the sweater's past was cause enough for anguish. Her hooked nose and birdlike eyes poked out from under a black cloak and cowl. She smelled pungent, like rotten eggs and figs. "A sweater as worn as this one has been through a lot. Old sweaters can sometimes be difficult. Some people say they bring misfortune. It takes a special person to own a sweater like this. Not everyone is up to the task. Especially kind people with delicate hands like yours."

Paolo glanced at his hands and laughed at her observation, which he concluded was fairly accurate. "It's just a sweater," he said. "It looks like it needs a good home. I'll take it."

"Do you promise to care for it?" she asked.

"Of course," Paolo said, although he thought it was an odd question.

The crone might have smiled. "Buona fortuna," she said. Good luck.

***

The sweater began talking to Paolo a few weeks later after his girlfriend Rosa left him. The breakup had come suddenly, unexpectedly, just when Paolo thought Rosa might be falling in love with him.  

"I miss her," the sweater said. "I'm lonely without her."

Paolo pulled the sweater out of his closet and held it up in front of the standing mirror in his bedroom. The mirror was an heirloom that had belonged to his great-grandmother, as had the tiny house on the street where he lived. He didn't wear the sweater much because he found it thorny. It was Rosa who'd adopted the sweater. She'd pull it on after their lovemaking, and then curl up with it in bed. Whenever Paolo rolled over at night and slung his arm over her shoulder, he'd wake up as if stabbed by pins.

"Of course you miss her," Paolo said. "I do, too."

"You don't understand. I loved her."

The garment sagged in Paolo's hands, its woolen threads scratching his fingers. The sweater's gray aspect reminded him of the day he'd bought it at the market, and how he'd been moved to pity. Rosa and the sweater made a good pair, Paolo thought. He'd rescued Rosa, too, in a way, from a stormy relationship with a dockworker down on the waterfront where she waited tables.

"I know it's hard to accept," Paolo said, "but it's over. I'm sorry things didn't work out with Rosa. I was sure she was falling in love with me, but she said I didn't make her happy, and there's no cure for unhappiness in a relationship. It's better to find out now rather than later, corretto?"

"No, not correct. And you don't make me very happy either. Not in the way she did—the way she would hold me, trust me with her body, fall asleep inside me—a love like that doesn't come along every day."

"Don't you think I know it?"  

"Do you? If you knew it, you'd go talk to her like a man."

"It's not that easy," Paolo said.

"Maybe it would be if you put aside your foolish pride."

As much as Paolo hated to admit it, he understood where the sweater was coming from. He did have some pride, after all. "I'm sorry, but I refuse to go crawling back to her. I have to respect her decision. If I don't, she'll have no respect for me."

"You could at least call her," the sweater said. "You could do that much, don't you think, for me?"

Paolo sat down on the bed. He thought he could smell Rosa there, or was that just his imagination? It was true he missed her. Perhaps the sweater had a point. If he talked to her, there might be a slim chance he could convince her to come back. "Va bene," he said. Very well. "I'll call her next week to see if she's had a change of heart. But that's as far as I'll go. No more."

  ***

Unfortunately, Rosa neither answered his calls nor returned his messages. This went on for two weeks. After each call the sweater would complain that Paolo wasn't trying hard enough, and Paolo would explain that there was nothing he could do if Rosa wouldn't speak to him. The sweater demanded that he go to her apartment and confront her. He refused. It was too much, he said.

But unbeknownst to the sweater, Paolo would sometimes find himself drawn to Rosa on his way to work at the animal shelter, and he'd stand outside the diner where she waited tables, hoping to catch her attention through the giant, glazed finestra facing the street, until one day the owner came out and chased him off.

"Get out and don't come back, unless you're looking for more trouble than you can handle!" the owner hollered, shaking a gnarled old fist at him. "Rosa doesn't want you around."

Make no mistake, it was dangerous business to pester a woman in il villaggio di Ombri. Such men often disappeared. It wasn't clear whether the fishermen or the dockworkers or the mafia took care of them, but Paolo didn't want to find out the hard way.

So, one night, when the sweater's whining became intolerable, Paolo said, "Listen to me, you stupid sweater. I've had enough of your complaining. She's made up her mind, okay? It's over. Now shut up about it. It's time for me to move on with my life. Find someone else. Someone new. Wouldn't that be nice? Wouldn't you like that? A new woman to love?"

"No!" cried the sweater. "There will never be another Rosa."

It was true. Paolo could not argue the point. When love steals the heart and flees with it like a thief in the night, there is no easy way to replace what it has taken. You can sometimes move on, of course, but you'll not be the same as you were before. A lost love leaves an indelible mark, a deep depression in the soul that forever changes what love is and what love means to you.

"Look, how about if I wear you around town today? We'll take a walk. Just the two of us. Would you like that? Would that make you happy?"

The sweater didn't answer. Paolo took that as a yes. He pulled on the sweater and went for a long stroll. He ended up at the market, where he looked for the old woman with the carrettini thinking he might try to return the sweater to her. He could explain that the sweater wasn't happy living with him anymore, and ask if she was willing to take pity on it as Paolo himself once had. Maybe she'd been right about him not being up to the task of caring for it. But the crone was nowhere to be found, so Paolo, despondent, returned home.

"Don't just stuff me away in the closet," grumbled the sweater. "I want to talk to you."

Paolo sighed. "What now?"

"If you're going to give up on Rosa—and that seems to be the way this is going—why don't you give me to her?"  

"What? You're my sweater. I took you in off the street and gave you a home, and now you want me to give you to the woman who dumped me? You call that gratitude?"

"I didn't realize I owed you anything. You were the one who chose me, remember? Besides, who do you think you're fooling? I know what you were thinking at the market. If that crone had been there, you would have given me back to her."

Paolo grabbed the sweater by the neck. "Don't push your luck. I can still do it, you know, and then you'd be homeless again!"

"So what. You don't appreciate me. You don't love me. You're never going to make me feel desired. You felt sorry for me at first, that's true, but let's be honest, pity is no foundation for a meaningful relationship. I think all you ever wanted was to save me, isn't that so? If you're willing to return me to the old hag, why not Rosa? At least Rosa loved me unconditionally. You are not capable of that kind of love."

"What? You're pazzo! You're just like she is. Prickly and miserable. That's why you two got along so well. Okay. Fine. You're right. You belong with her. Go to her then, if that's what you want. I won't stand in your way. I'll be better off without you both."

Before Paolo could change his mind, he stuffed the sweater into a box, sealed it shut with packing tape, and scribbled Rosa's name and address on the label. He went to the post office and demanded the fastest possible delivery, whatever the cost.

"Good riddance," Paolo said to the sweater as he pushed the package across the counter. "I hope the two of you live happily ever after."

***

That might have been the end of our story, but sometime later Paolo received a letter from the sweater. It went like this:

"Dear Paolo, I'm sorry for the cruel things I said to you. Please understand I spoke in the heat of the moment, my heart was broken, and I felt hurt and helpless and abandoned. I regret my words and wish I could take them back, but it's too late for that, isn't it? All I can do now is speak honestly. Rosa is treating me badly. She has fallen under the spell of another garment—a leather blazer, stylish and attractive. She won't wear me to bed and doesn't appreciate me the way you once did, my dear friend, you, who understood me even though I could be coarse at times, although not always! The truth is I'm not wanted here. I have to leave Rosa's apartment as soon as possible. I'm begging you to take me back. I know I have no right to ask. You must think I'm awful. Maybe you've moved on to another sweater and have no interest in seeing me again. You might be happy if I hung neglected in Rosa's closet until the moths ate holes in my wool and I died of shame. But maybe you still have some kindness left for me in your heart, some of the old pity you once felt, or even a sense of responsibility. I think Rosa has come to loathe me because I remind her of you—don't take this the wrong way—I'm not accusing you, naturally. But still. I'll ask just once. I have some pride, after all, like you. Godspeed, Paolo. Come for me if you care."

Paolo crumpled the letter and threw it in the waste basket. But later that night, after dinner and espresso and wine, he pulled the letter out of the trash and re-read it, and his heart began to soften toward the sorry old sweater as it had when he'd first rescued it from the crone at the market. Was it loneliness he felt? Pity? Or, as the sweater had suggested, a sense of responsibility?

Regardless, one hot and humid night, Paolo found himself standing outside Rosa's apartment. The palm trees and crowded buildings held the wet air in the narrow alley where she lived. He heard the distant, whispering sound of the sea, a squeaky bicycle making its way through the rows of the brick buildings and, from a nearby open window, the unmistakable pounding of a roller pin pressing out dough along a wooden block table.

What should he do? The longer Paolo stood hand-in-hand with his indecision, the more afraid he became of exposing his frail emotions to Rosa. But he was doing this for the sweater, he told himself. It was true he felt accountable for it in some convoluted way he didn't fully understand. He and the sweater were woven together, like it or not. Finally, he gathered his courage, strode up the brick steps, and pushed the buzzer to Rosa’s apartment.

After a long moment, a man swung open the door. His skin was more tanned than Paolo's, and he had a young, handsome, rugged face. What he lacked in height he made up for in muscles and broad shoulders. He was wearing a dockworker's skullcap, and his neck bore the menacing tattoo of a fishhook stabbing into a bleeding eyeball.

"Who the hell are you?" the man asked, his breath smelling of whiskey. He'd clipped his words in such a way that didn't exactly invite an answer.

"I'm Paolo. I wanted to talk to Rosa for a minute."

"What do you want, Paolo?" he asked, full of sarcasm.

"Actually. I was hoping. I mean. I came for my sweater. Rosa has my sweater. I just wanted her to return it. It's true I mailed it to her in a fit of rage, but I think that was a mistake. I thought if I could talk to her for a minute—"

The man socked Paolo in the nose so fast he never saw it coming. Paolo stumbled backward. His foot missed the bottom step, and he fell hard on his back, leaving him dazed and gasping for breath. He rolled over onto his elbows, grabbed his nose, and tears began to well in his eyes.

The man came over and hauled Paolo off the ground by his shirt. "You get one warning," he said. "This is it. If you ever come around here again, you're going to disappear, and no one will know what happened to you. Not your madre. Not your padre. Not your goldfish. Not even the pope. Is that clear? Answer me!"  

"Yes. I'm sorry. Yes." Paolo couldn't focus on anything but the dark stars flashing in his eyes threatening to black him out. The pain in his nose was awful. "I didn't mean to bother her. I just wanted my sweater."

"Screw you and your sweater."  

The man shoved him into the alley. Paolo flailed like a clown, crashed into a row of trash barrels, and fell in a heap of garbage. The rats ran squealing. Paolo lay there cupping his nose, rocking back and forth in agony, moaning softly. He pulled off his T-shirt and pressed it up against his dripping nostrils to stanch the flow of blood.  

The man came out again and threw the sweater at his face. "Rosa doesn't want it," he said, and turned around and slammed the door behind him as he went back inside.

"Paolo," the sweater said softly. "Thank God you came."

Paolo sat on the pavement. "Why didn't you tell me Rosa was dating someone else?"

"I'm sorry. I was afraid you wouldn't come if you knew. What took you so long, by the way? I was beginning to lose hope. And, technically, if you must know, he's not someone new."

"Her old boyfriend?"

"Yes."

"All that stuff about the leather blazer was a lie?"

"No. Yes. Not exactly. When I was talking about the blazer, I was speaking metaphorically about the boyfriend. I thought you would understand, of course. I didn't mean to deceive you."

"Oh, no, of course not, not you, my dear friend, il mio amico. How long has Rosa been with him? Was she seeing him when we were dating? Did she ever really leave him?"

"Don't torture yourself with the details. She has betrayed us both. You aren't the only victim here, Paolo. Look what she's done to me."

"You knew all along! How could you keep something like that from me? Something that important?"

"I think you've lost sight of the main issue. Rosa has done nothing but cause us grief. She's come between us. We're better off without her. Let's promise each other never to speak of her again. We'll move on to another woman. Like you said before. Wouldn't you like that? Wouldn't that be nice? A new woman to love?"

Paolo felt like crying. "Don't you see what you've done? If I had known, I could have saved our relationship before it was too late. Rosa and I might still be together."

"Wishful thinking, Paolo, as I'm sure you know. But you're right. It was selfish of me. There's no excuse for my behavior. Except that I didn't want to interfere, naturally. And then all of a sudden it was too late. What could I do?"  

"Damn you!" Paolo kicked a trash can and sent it spinning down the alley. A bag of pork rinds and banana peels spilled on the road. A stray cat hissed at him. It was the first time in his life a cat had ever hissed at him. He shook his head, causing more pain in his nose, and then tucked the sweater under his arm and began walking.

"Yes," said the sweater, "let's get out of here. We deserve better than Rosa. She took us for granted when all we did was love her. We never asked her for anything, but she couldn't handle that. It was too much for her. She needed someone to make demands of her, to treat her badly, like that barbarico boyfriend. She was impossible to satisfy, too, wasn't she? Even in bed."

"What? How would you know such a thing?"

"Never mind. It doesn't matter. She's gone now. It's just the two of us. Like in the beginning."

Paolo needed to clear his head. He marched like a soldier, walking, walking. The mountains with their dark peaks loomed in the distance, the palms rustled in the breeze like spooks in the night, and the smell of the ocean and the salt followed Paolo down to the waterfront. All the while, his nose throbbed mercilessly. He could feel his eyes blackening and bruising around the edges. Rosa's boyfriend sure knew how to hit a man. Paolo was going to look like hell for days. He wanted some peace and quiet so he could think, but the sweater wouldn't shut up.

"Paolo, are you listening to me? I think we let Rosa control us. That was our mistake. It's okay to be loving and caring and sensitive to another person's needs as you are, possibly to a fault, but there's no substitute for open and honest communication, like what we have together, isn't that so?"

Just as Paolo was about to go mad from the sweater's ceaseless jabbering, he happened upon the old woman with the carrettini in the market square. She was blanketed in darkness, with only the light of a single, flickering candle to illuminate her.

"Thank God I've found you!" Paolo cried, falling to his knees as if liberated from prison. "The sweater. You were right. It's cursed. Take it back. Please. I beg you!"

The hag gazed at him from under her shadowy cloak and cowl. "I understand. But if I take back the sweater, you must then pick something else from the cart."

"Anything," Paolo said, practically throwing the sweater at her. "Give me whatever you want. I don't care."

"No. It doesn't work like that. You must choose."

Paolo leaned against the cart and grabbed the nearest object, a large, garish goblet studded with faux rubies and emeralds and canary-colored glass stones, ornately designed, with a sparkling gold rim and a wide crystalline base. Although a bit jagged to the touch, it was a shining star compared to the stupid old sweater.

The crone might have smiled. "Eccellente," she said. "I commend you for your choice. But you should know that a goblet of such rare design has a history...."

Copyright © 2017 by Nick DiChario