In 2012 two things changed the life of fourteen-year-old Frankie Fretini forever. The first was the death of his father—we’ll talk more about that later. The second thing was the malocchio. What’s the malocchio, you ask? The Italian evil eye. A curse, jinx, hex, hoodoo. A whammy. “Malocchio” is pronounced a few different ways, depending on region and dialect. In Frankie’s family the dreaded Italian curse was pronounced ma-LOAK.
Belief in the evil eye dates back to ancient Sumer in southern Mesopotamia, which is modern day Iraq. From Mesopotamia, the idea of the evil eye spread like wildfire, and boy did it stick in Italy. To this day many Italians take precautions to guard against the malocchio. Some wear a cornicello, a small gold or red amulet in the shape of a gently twisted horn, hung around the neck.
The malocchio is believed to cause any number of misfortunes, from a mere headache to a long streak of bad luck and even death. In some cases, one can be affected by the malocchio even if it wasn’t cast specifically cast upon them. That’s exactly what happened to Frankie Fretini.
It all began long before his time. Rewind nearly eight hundred years to the outskirts of a mountainous medieval village in the Calabrian region of southern Italy. Lining the side of a rugged dirt road was a band of Gypsies busily setting up market stalls to pedal their potions and wares. Set into the tree line of a thick chestnut forest, behind each family’s stall, stood a colorful bender tent for lodging.
In the near distance, stacked one atop another, the stone row houses of local villagers clung precariously to the craggy mountain slope. At one tent, two beautiful identical twin Gypsy girls giggled and flirted with some nearby boys. The twins, Mala and Tsura, were fourteen years old, and the only way to tell them apart was by their colorful silk headscarves. Mala’s was a stunning red and Tsura’s, a splendid orchid.
At road’s edge, the twins’ father paused from stocking the shelves of his market stall to admire his daughters. He smiled proudly as he watched them with a twinkle in his eye. After a moment, he asked, “Have you girls finished preparing our quarters for the night?”
They looked to him attentively and cheerfully replied in unison, “Yes, Father.”
Pleased, he said, “Well then, perhaps a break is in order.”
The twins lit up with excitement. Mala, the more adventurous of the two, asked, “May we go gather orrisroot, Father?”
He stroked his chin as he considered Mala’s request, then answered in a kind, cautious tone. “I don’t see why not…but remember, do not travel too deeply into the woods.”
The girls scampered through the forest with impish grins on their faces. The rough bark of the aged chestnut trees gradually darkened the higher up the trunk one gazed. Beyond that, the branches reached out like charcoal black tentacles teeming with creamy yellow leaves set aglow by the sunlight beyond. The forest floor was covered with fallen foliage that had long since turned a pleasing burnt orange.
As beautiful as it was, the forest also held an indefinable, yet palpable eeriness.
As the twins traveled ever deeper into the woods, Tsura became increasingly worried. Hearing rustling leaves and snapping twigs behind them, she spun around and scanned the area.
“Did you hear that, Mala?” she asked nervously.
“Quiet, Vadni Ratsa,” Mala said teasingly, as she ventured further on.
“Father told you to stop calling me that,” Tsura complained.
Spooked by another sound, Tsura raised her voice at Mala, “We’ve strayed too far and Father said—”
“Father said, Father said. You’re always saying Father said,” Mala scoffed.
Just then, Tsura’s anxiety melted away and her face came alive with pleasure. “Mala, look!” exclaimed Tsura, as she pointed straight ahead. In the near distance sat a picturesque clearing naturally carved from the woodland. As the girls gleefully bounced toward it, their vibrant silk skirts fluttered in the wind. Once in the meadow, the girls marveled at the sun-drenched Eden they had stumbled upon. They spun joyous circles with wild abandon through the field of dazzling green grass and tall yellow bearded white irises.
“A treasure trove of orrisroot,” Mala exclaimed.
They dropped to their knees amid the irises. Tsura retrieved a small metal digging tool from a leather pouch tied at her waist, while Mala reached into her pouch and drew out a beautiful jewel-encrusted stiletto. With one press of the ruby-crowned button on the handle, a sharp double-edged blade popped out the top.
Tsura’s eyes widened. “Does Father know you have that?”
Mala flashed a naughty grin as she replied, “Father does not need to know.” Then she took to digging at the base of an iris and quickly pulled the plant from the earth’s firm grip. She held her prize high in the air admiring the blonde carrot-shaped orrisroot that dangled from the plant’s lanky stem. She turned to Tsura with an elfin grin and said, “This will make a fine love potion.” The girls giggled at the very thought.
Once again, the snapping of a branch at their backs startled Tsura. She cranked her neck around and scanned the area suspiciously, but saw nothing. Unbeknownst to them, they had indeed been followed into the woods. At the edge of the clearing, hiding behind a large rotting log, a young peasant boy cringed as he gingerly set down a broken branch. The boy had dirty blonde locks and a jagged scar that ran the length of his left cheek. He had a kindly harmless look about him, as he snuck curious peeks over the log at the twins.
In the clearing, the girls stuffed their leather pouches fat with orrisroot. Tsura took another anxious gander at their surroundings and warned Mala, “It’s getting late. We better head back.”
Mala didn’t even look up. She simply continued to dig feverishly. “Just a little more.”
Tsura bit her lip nervously and peered around with wary eyes. She was so distracted with anxiety that she did not notice the large hideous looking spider creeping toward the hem of her skirt. The spider was the size of an old blacksmith’s hand who had struck iron day in and day out for the better part of his life. The menacing arachnid’s bulbous abdomen was blood red and stippled with vivid yellow dots, and its long articulated legs were patterned from top to bottom with alternating bands of titanium white and gloss black. The spider’s stunning electric blue thorax shimmered in the sunlight, and its eight eyes arranged at the front of its head varied in size from small to large. Each eye was like a cold, black bottomless pit that could suck your soul right in. The lengthy opalescent fangs that protruded from its mouth looked like curved hypodermic needles. Droplets of toxic venom threatened from their razor sharp tips. The spider crept methodically up Tsura’s midriff with a steady gaze to her bare throat, lifting and placing each long hinged leg so gradually and gingerly that Tsura would not feel its presence until it was too late.
Mala squeezed a final handful of orrisroot into her leather satchel and smiled contentedly. “There! Now we can go,” she said as she looked over at Tsura. When her gaze fell to the deadly spider encroaching toward Tsura’s jugular, Mala pointed and screamed, “Morte Ragno! Morte Ragno!” This was the Italian Death Spider.
Lore held that much of Southern Italy was cursed with an epidemic of poisonous spiders. But, it was a rare occurrence when someone actually laid eyes upon the dreadful Death Spider. More often than not, the Morte Ragno struck in the dead of night, while its victim slept. It would then skitter away quickly into the darkness, unseen. Once bitten, the victim sprang from a sound sleep, ran out into the town square, and danced wildly and erratically before falling to the ground dead. This feverish dance of death, the tarantella, is named for the town of Taranto where the first person fell victim to the spider’s bite.
When Tsura saw the terror on Mala’s face, and heard the mortifying words Morte Ragno, she brushed herself off frantically, knocking the spider to the ground, avoiding certain death. She then quickly stomped the spider before it could right itself and escape. At the very moment Tsura crushed the heinous arachnid beneath the sole of her high leather boot, an unearthly shrill whistle of rushing wind rose from the depths of the forest. Startled, the twins gawked at one another with panicked eyes. With her hands pressed tightly over her ears, Tsura, screamed in terror, “What is it, Mala? What is it?”
There wasn’t even time for Mala to hazard a guess as a speeding blur blasted into the clearing with a swirling mass of dead leaves swept along in its wake. The whirlwind flattened all vegetation in its path as it circled the twins three times. Then the entity stopped so abruptly, it was as if it had hit a brick wall. What was then revealed was beyond bloodcurdling. It was Il Strega Diavolo, the wretched witch devil of Italian lore. Severely hunched, with a long hooked nose, she appeared to be a hundred years old, maybe more. She glared at the twins with dark piercing eyes that were sunken and cold, then raised her nose slightly and sniffed the air like a beast that had just caught wind of death. All the irises in the clearing slowly drained of their vivid colors. Shriveled and dead, the blackened petals fell to the ground. Il Strega Diavolo began to slowly circle the terrified twins.
In a raspy cutting voice she snarled, “Lost, girls?” Her eyes darted abruptly to the dead spider on the ground and fury washed over her face. She turned a fierce eye directly to Tsura and growled, “You will pay dearly for killing my baby!”
Mala, with stiletto in hand, edged her body in front of Tsura to protect her. The horrid decrepit witch cackled wickedly at Mala’s bold move.
Mala screamed, “Run, Tsura! Run!”
Tsura tore off toward the woods, but only made it a few steps when Strega whipped forth her right hand and struck Tsura with a capture spell that lifted her several feet into the air where she hung immobilized. Enveloped by a plasma-like energy field, Tsura appeared peaceful, in a sort of suspended animation.
“No!” Mala screamed and sprang at the hag, stiletto gripped tightly in hand.
But she was no match for the inhuman powers of the old witch. With blinding speed and an evil eye, Il Strega Diavolo whipped forth her left hand and pointed directly at Mala with her pinky and index fingers extended. “I curse you and your people for all eternity!”
This was the malocchio of all malocchios—a curse for untold generations.
With that, plasma bolts shot from her fingertips and struck Mala in the chest like a ton of bricks. Her helpless body blasted up and away at a sharp angle. She soared through the air so rapidly that her silhouette shrunk to the size of a pin’s head in less than a blink, before simply vanishing into the ether. Pleased with her bit of devilry, Strega smiled wickedly and turned her attention to Tsura. The witch slowly approached Tsura’s floating body. Tsura’s eyes were wide open. Her arms outstretched to the sides. She gently bobbed in midair.
Il Strega Diavolo slowly reached for Tsura. As her crippled knobby hand penetrated the white energy field enveloping Tsura, it became youthful and fine. She stared at it with evil joy. Strega drew in a deep breath of plasma and slowly transformed into a beautiful, albeit still evil, youthful witch no more than thirty years of age. Long black ringlets cascaded down her back. She studied her fine hands carefully. Caressed the soft taut skin of her face, and smiled sinisterly.
At the edge of the clearing, behind the rotting log, the peasant boy trembled with paralyzing fear. He squeezed his eyes shut as tightly as he could and prayed the wicked Strega would not discover him.