Bite in the Moonlight

Sante Matteo


Something woke the young mother.  Her eyes opened, but she couldn’t move.

The baby whimpered in the crib by her side of the bed.

In the light of a full moon she saw an old woman approach the crib and lean over it. It was not her mother-in-law.  Francesca realized what the hag was doing: she was biting the baby!  But she couldn’t budge or cry out to wake her husband sleeping next to her.

She stared helplessly as the horrid, black-clad old woman rose up, glided across the room, and vanished through the wall.

The baby was quiet again.  Pasquale continued to sleep peacefully by her side.  It must have been a dream. But it seemed so real!  And if she was awake now, hadn’t she been awake the whole time?  She tried to move, but still couldn’t.  She could only close her eyes; but then couldn’t open them again.  She sank back into sleep.

The next morning the baby was irritable and feverish.  When Francesca changed him, she noticed patches of chafing on his midriff, extending down his right leg.  Bite marks!

She took the child to old zi’ Carmela, the town’s traditional healer, and recounted what she had seen druing the night, now convinced that it had not been a dream, despite Pasquale’s skepticism.

The old sorceress accepted the chicken offered as payment and asked to see the baby’s sores.  She dribbled some oil into a basin of water, tipped and turned it slowly, and studied how the oil drops dispersed on the surface.  Muttering unintelligible orations, she dipped her fingers into the oil spots and stroked the inflamed areas on the baby’s body—the witch’s bite marks.  She also prescribed a follow-up remedy: on three consecutive nights, when midnight struck, with the baby in her arms, Francesca was to walk around the outskirts of the town, and at each of the town’s three gates recite the incantantions that she had to memorize and bury a clove of garlic, with which she had previously rubbed the baby’s inflamed skin.

Francesca performed the ritual faithfully, but the child’s condition worsened.

Pasquale had served in the second world war and had witnessed many battle casualties, which had been treated by medics and doctors using medical procedures and equipment, not magic spells.  He persuaded his wife and the rest of the family to take the child to the hospital in Campobasso, the provincial capital, to have him examined and treated by a physician.

There the baby’s illness was diagnosed and treated, and his mother thus learned the name of the night-time visitor who had bitten him in the moonlight.  The Italian name, Poliomielite, was too strange for her or Pasquale to remember and pronounce in their dialect.  They used its shortened form, Polio.



Sante Matteo was born and raised in Italy to the age of ten. He resides in Oxford, Ohio, home of Miami University, where he taught Italian Studies before retiring.