LUCKY UNCLE GRIBOLO
from The Wooden Notebook
Marina Muhlfriedel

When I was five, and I remember it well, a revolutionary uprising swept through the province to the west of ours. At the time, I wasn’t sure of what a revolutionary uprising was, only that it was troublesome to grownups and that clusters of families no one knew had settled in camps below the dam on our side of the river. Day and night, men gathered in front of the Cathedral, chattering with great consternation about the situation. 

As I think of it now, it must have been difficult for Uncle Gribolo, who lived in the besieged province, not to consider his own odds. But even a gambler knows that a bet based on the probability of one’s own death, would be foolhardy. 

Instead, Uncle Gribolo put his money on hiding in the outer margins of the dense Teyocar jungle long enough for everyone to assume that he had left or was kidnapped. Tall and light colored, Gribolo didn’t easily blend in, but he paid one of the disenfranchised families that live in the jungle settlements, apart from the tribes or town folk, to put him up. He planned to slip under the cover of night back into his village, seize his only child, Jacinto, and trade a bag of gold cetas for ferry transport across the river. He would leave a note for his wife, Luisa and send for her later.

As Gribolo hid though, Luisa fretted with fear. Three days had passed without seeing her husband and the situation was worsening. Eight more men and six boys had disappeared; rumor was that they had been killed by renegade soldiers who had joined the militia. Livestock was missing and four more homes were burned.

Luisa cast stones and pieces of straw to read her prophecy. She prayed to the Blessed Virgin and her dead parents and came to believe that she must accept that Gribolo was now in heaven, protecting her and their son from harm. For an extra measure of security, Luisa pierced Jacinto’s earlobes and dressed the two-year-old in a pink frock before fleeing with him across the Eastern border, hoping to reach the Plateau Province.

Uncle Gribolo was a man who nearly always got his way and, as alive as he was the day he was born, nary a foot yet in heaven, he was devastated to discover that his plan to leave with Jacinto would not materialize. He had stealthily made his way back to his home, found that his wife and child were gone and assumed the worst. He froze for a moment, noticing his own photo on the family altar. He couldn’t help but cross himself as he stood before it.

Buying passage on the ferry and then on a fruit truck, he arrived, surrounded by mangoes, at our small village. My father, Gribolo’s half-brother, welcomed him into our home. Gribolo was bigger than my father. His broad shoulders, dramatic hand gestures, thick legs and loud voice made my father seem small and meek. As sad as Gribolo was to lose his young family, he was easy to cheer up. We would sing for him and taunt him into playing children’s games. He soon taught us to bet small coins on things such as whether the moon would be concealed by clouds at the precise moment mother called us for dinner or on how many teeth a dead squirrel lying in the road had in its mouth. He taught us card tricks and how to make the old bullet shells we collected disappear.

He made friends with our neighbors, was hired as a clerk at the grocery store, played cards, and before long, resigned to the fact that Luisa was gone forever, married again. His new wife had been a school friend of my mother’s and was named Flora. She was tall with long red hair, pouty lips and a square chin, horse-like in a proud and prancing way. Before I was ten, Uncle Gribolo had two more children, Paolo and Linda.

My father is an honest, hard-working carpenter. He is a good father and decent provider, but never, ever a gambler. Uncle Gribolo, however, subsisted on the energy of chance. Predicting the unpredictable and wagering money on it made his eyes squint and dance, the far ends of his lips pinch upward to meet his moustache in delight. Cards and dice were good, horse races sublime, but weighing the odds of real life situations felt, to him, like having a hand in destiny. Some days, simply wagering on the weather would satisfy his need to one-up the laws of probability. Gribolo would try to rope my father into his bets, but he would always refuse. One gambler in the family was plenty.

Uncle Gribolo was remarkably lucky. Soon, he bought the local grocery store and hired three more workers. Because of his financial prowess and generosity, our family escalated in esteem. With the revenue of luck, Uncle Gribolo would throw a yearly May Party where he’d provide everyone in the village with all the pheasant, toasted sugar cakes, and wine they could want and they loved him as if he had been there a lifetime. Flora would take my mother shopping for fashionable dresses and jewelry. We were even invited to the wedding of the governor’s daughter.

While mother proudly donned her new wardrobe, Father would say that Gribolo relied too much on luck and that some day, when he wasn’t paying enough attention, it would turn its back on him.

Uncle Gribolo picked a brisk autumn day to take Flora and their children on a day tour of the mountainside and invited me along. My father had heard an unusual weather report, saying storms were blowing in from both oceans, from East and from West. But Gribolo grinned and said, “I will bet you a hundred cetas they miss us.” Father, of course, declined.

The winds soon quieted to a serenade of gentle breezes and it appeared that had my father taken the bet, he would have lost. But on the way up the mountain, the sky darkened and the bus began to pitch and pull in the resuscitated gusts. I watched as a few chickens suddenly and frantically become aloft, an old fence post jumped from the ground and blew like an angry ghost toward the village. Helpless trees bowed nearly in half, while riptide gusts drew out cloud formations that swirled madly in the sky. It was windier than I, in my thirteen years, had ever seen.

Paolo, the youngest of Uncle Gribolo’s children, became frightened by the abandonment of polite tree behavior and huddled with his sister Linda under Aunt Flora’s blue cashmere coat.

We finally reached the top of the mountain and parked by an old inn. Our driver, a handsome man with flat, shiny combed-back hair, who moonlighted as a singer at a club in our village, instructed us to stay with the tour group. Uncle Gribolo, seizing a moment of relative calm, wandered off in his expensive, ocean-colored, patent leather loafers to enjoy a cigar on his own. Other than winning, this was his truest pleasure–solitude and a fragrant Cuban.

The driver seemed nervous and marched Aunt Flora, my young cousins, the other tourists and me into the inn. I overheard him tell the owner that he didn’t want to damage the bus and wanted us to be safe and enjoy the visit, but needed to get home to sing at the club that night. Aunt Flora was upset that she couldn’t find her husband, so leaving her little ones inside with the other tourists, took me back outside. I was at thirteen, to some, I suppose, an adult. 

As the door slammed shut behind us, the winds began to argue again and then, without warning, rally their forces for war. Their bursts struck so fiercely that hilltop villagers and employees at the inn struggled to board up their windows, tether animals to posts, pull children inside, and pray loudly for peace between the quarrelsome winds of the East and the West. 

Flora and I inched outside and, holding onto the building, hand by hand, slowly made our way around the inn to the steep canyon view. The wind screamed in our ears and, being very musical, Flora, as she later repeated over and over again, could pick out the notes it made: F#, A, C, D, F#, A, C, D . . . . It momentarily comforted her to fit the blasts into melodious categories. Her crimson hair whipped wildly and dust filled our eyes. I was very thin at the time, barely 80 pounds, and could feel the wind penetrate my shirt, go through my chest, and out my back, as if I were hollow.

Then Flora and I saw Uncle Gribolo. He was clinging desperately to a tree. The wind was blowing toward the deep cliffs behind him and each time he would try and take a step away from the tree, he would be shoved back by his invisible assailants. Flora screamed for help but the wind notes blared so loudly, no one could hear or come to our aid. For a second, the look of Gribolo’s jowly face and the tips of his mustache pressed back made me laugh. I felt that we were party to some sort of joke of which the punchline would come, and everything would be fine.

As long as I had known Gribolo, problems had been solved simply by peeling a couple of bills off the thick roll in his pocket. Not this time though. Were he even able to reach for his wallet, all the money would have just blown over the valley and rained on the lucky ones below. My chuckles turned to fear and shame as we watched Gribolo collapse to the ground and reach for handfuls of short, tough shrubs to keep from blowing away.

Gribolo curled up, digging his solid form as deep as he could into the ground, but he seemed to weigh almost nothing. A garbage can flew off the mountain followed by boxes, chairs and a rooftop. We watched him try to crawl in his balled up form back toward the road, but he couldn’t seem to let go of the shrubs. 

How absurd, he must have thought, a man like me in such a predicament. No gambler wins every wager but even in that moment, I suppose he was formulating a bet he could offer the warring winds. The winds however seemed more interested in feuding over Uncle Gribolo – each intent on claiming him as a war trophy. It looked as if it was hard for Gribolo to keep his eyes open, but he momentarily peered up in our direction. I thought he spotted Flora and I hugging the building and I called his name.

Flora tried to keep her eyes on him, the notes of the wind flashing like lightning bolts through her head. They ran in succession over-and-over again and she looked at Gribolo thinking he could hear them too because, just when they reached a perfect harmonic pitch, Gribolo let go of the shrubs and allowed the East wind to sweep him into the air. It had won.

•••

My father built the most beautiful coffin our town had ever seen. Fine cherrywood lined with the softest white silk. Two days later, Uncle Gribolo had been brought up the mountain on a mule. He was found completely naked with even his mustache torn off. How undignified for a man of his stature. Flora cried and cried; she couldn’t get the notes that took him out of her head and for three days sang them in succession, over and over again.

Then she stopped, claiming the notes, as a final insult had been stolen back by the wind and that sadly, she could no longer remember them. She blamed herself, and I believe, she also blamed me for not saving Gribolo or committing the notes to memory.

The news of the rich man blown from the mountaintop traveled quickly, even across the borders into the neighboring provinces, and that was how Gribolo’s first wife, Luisa, and their son Jacinto heard what had happened to him. After believing for eight years he was dead, Luisa cried the rare, sweet tears that accompany the witnessing of a miracle. Miracle or no miracle though, Gribolo was dead just the same and she would never, on this earthly plane, be reunited with her beloved husband. The miracle had been wasted on something useless.

Politically, things had calmed down and she and Jacinto easily obtained permission to cross from the Plateau Province, through their native land, and into ours. Of course, I didn’t recognize her. Even my father had a difficult time placing the woman and the vaguely familiar 10-year-old boy with pierced ears. He had only met Luisa once, at her wedding and she had since grown heavy and slow moving.

Uncle Gribolo had told my father that his wife had died during the revolution and never even mentioned Jacinto. Luisa wept nearly as much as Flora until she saw Gribolo laid out in an extravagant silk suit. She was puzzled by the absence of his mustache and drew her finger over where it had been. As she touched his face, her tears stopped and her face hardened into an admonishing, bewildered mask and stayed that way throughout her many remaining years.

Luisa wasn’t angry that Gribolo had married Flora; she had had boyfriends of her own. As the days went by though, she felt deceived and betrayed by the Blessed Virgin and her dead parents, who swore he had long been with them. Life had been difficult and having always worked very hard, Luisa was envious of Flora’s fine clothes and large home. Her son felt cheated that he had grown up fatherless.

Jacinto had, however, inherited one irrefutable quality from Gribolo, a need and a knack for gambling. After the funeral, with all of us within earshot, he offered Flora a wager. If he could sing the wind song that stole his father, she would accept him and Luisa into Gribolo’s home as family.

Flora was appalled by the audacity of the child, yet, recognizing a glimmer of her beloved husband on Jacinto’s light, broad face and in the glint of his eyes, she agreed. And there they were again, as pitch perfect as the East wind­–F#, A, C, D, F#, A, C, D–notes of a song Gribolo had sung Jacinto as a baby.

Flora reached for the boy and held him close. She told him that he and his mother could join their household, but that in exchange, he must sing the notes whenever she asked and vow that when the time came for her to embrace eternity, he would sing the notes as the wind carried her spirit to heaven. Jacinto closed his eyes and promised. 

My father tried to intercede, to stop Flora from committing to these people we hardly knew, but there was no going back. He, like the rest of us, knew from Gribolo that a bet, big or small, was a bet just the same, a juncture in which the outcome of chance sets the future into motion. Jacinto immediately declared himself my cousin and Luisa became known as New Auntie. It was as if they had been there forever.

___

MARINA MUHLFRIEDEL's career was launched by simultaneously serving as the Entertainment Editor of ‘TEEN Magazine and as a keyboard player in the early female punk band, Backstage Pass. With her next group, Vivabeat, she spent several years touring and recording, before veering into the film business, where she served as a producer on projects such as The War of the Roses and Throw Momma From the Train. It's writing, however, that has always quickened her creative and professional pulse, manifested in mediums from screenplays to copywriting, and magazine, newspaper, online articles to recently having two haiku poems featured in a Washington D.C. public art installation and a poem in Angels Flight, literary west