The noise I heard coming from my Aunt Mary’s yard following our Sunday dinner came from a group of men who seemed to be barking while throwing fingers at each other. Was it a fight? No, they were enjoying “morra,” the game of fingers.
When I first watched them play –Dad, uncles, older cousins, and grandfather– I was reminded of the game of rock, paper, and scissors, but it was far from that. This game was more difficult because it involved more choices than the three in the game I knew; choices that had to be made instantly.
The rules of the game are not difficult.Two players face off and throw out one or more fingers of one hand while crying out a number. The object is to guess the total number of fingers extended and to win two of three throws. Gestures and sounds, though not in the rules, are an integral part of the game.
After the banquet, the players adjourned to a rear yard shaded from the hot sun by a huge oak tree. Sunbeams trickled through the leaves. There was no breeze. It was humid. The women settled in one area, fanning themselves while sitting in a circle; their conversation droning, soft and muffled. The men were uniformed with long dark pants, black shoes, open collared white shirts with sleeves rolled up to just below the elbow …sweat staining their yellow underarms. They stood on a macadamed track of yard that looked like a speedway, but acted as their Coliseum. Bottles of beer in hand, they strutted to the end of the yard, and, as their excitement grew, the pitch in their voices rose.
“Viene. Viene qua. State attento!”
Two teams of five, evenly matched with years of experience, faced off. The two at the kickoff point of the row, oozing with confidence, squared off, looking at each other with half-hearted smiles and ready for battle.
With a cadenced count of uno, due, tre, accompanied by three arm pumps, the throw was made, play hand in front, non-play hand folded behind the back and across the belt line. The players shouted uno to morra (all fingers) as they extended their fingers. The count was blurted in a flash, and while shaking digits in the purplish red face of his purse lipped opponent, the winner closed in with a short, strange, bleat that sounded like ‘faaaaccce’ or ‘aaagh’… an Italian version of “Aha, I win! Vinto!”
It seemed simple enough. I thought I understood, but as soon as the match got underway, things moved with such blinding speed that I lost track. Uno, due, tre…the pumps, the shout…throw, throw, throw… fingers everywhere… red faces, eyes bulging, neck veins screaming. “…Qwattroow…sayeeee…orrtttoo…morrrrraaa…faaaaccce, aaagh,” and the sequence was over! Then another came just as quickly. Then another, and another. The speed stunned me. How did they keep track? The winner, after leaving his fingers in the face of his opponent for a moment, stood back, superior and arrogant, and puffed on his closed fist. He took a swig of beer and then turned on the ball of his foot to face the next in line.
The disinterested drone of the women from the other side of the yard continued. The competition continued through the late afternoon, ending when espresso and dessert were served.
I wanted to play. I wanted to show the men that I knew the rules, the gestures, and the sounds. They let me try, but I was slow, much too slow for the real game, and my body language was unrefined. They assured me that I had a future with the game and that I should stick with it.
Morra was an Italian ritual of Sunday afternoons, a ritual that again, and necessarily, included family. How lucky I was to be there.