To permanent board members of the Etruria Society (for publication after my decease, at members’ and editor’s discretion):
As you may know, an acquaintance, a man of some notoriety, left a posthumous account of two very strange and connected occurrences in his life. Since his recent passing the circulation of that account has given rise to some discussion of the supernatural in our little circle of scholars and enthusiasts. With the advance of age I now feel prompted to issue my own account of certain matters from my youth touching on a similar subject. The geographical and social setting, at least, will be of interest to E.S. members. A number of things have been explained for the general public, in case this account makes its way beyond the readership of our society.
I have the permission of the one other living person involved to divulge these events. No sensationalism or distortion is intended, however fantastic the events may seem. I vouch for the accuracy of what follows. The reader must judge what purpose is served by the telling.
Like my late acquaintance, I do not wish this to be circulated in my lifetime. I prefer to go to my grave with my deserved reputation for hard-headedness intact.
Before I take my turn at recounting a series of ghostly events – which I experienced directly – let me explain a couple of things. My nationality, my prosperity, my loyalty are Australian; my race is other. What was it like to be an outsider in this country of my choice? For me, gaining acceptance was a matter of patience, resilience, but not too much of either. Here in Australia the sense of race and apartness is a hard, abrasive shell – but also a brittle shell, easily shattered when tapped in the right places.
I must tell of another place, the place of my birth, where the sense of race is a tough, flexible hide, smooth and even polite, but which will not yield, not after centuries.
Reader, I am Italian and Tuscan. That is what I am meant to say. But I should say Sienese Etruscan. We Sienese, we senesi, have no real connection to Italy or Rome, not even to cities of our own region, Pisa or hated Florence, except as expediency dictates.
From me and from my kind you will seldom hear a loose word against Arabs, gypsies, blacks. Our racism, our sense of apartness, is sacramental, never to be exposed or expressed in such shallow, impulsive, popular ways – no! But those who dare to really intrude, to stir the aere bruno, the brown murk of the Tuscan heart, will know why Dante understood Hell better than the other places.
Be warned: This is a truly Tuscan tale, a story of rejection and alienation, which begins darkly, then gets much darker. It has terror, and yet…
Perhaps I should just get on with it.
My home region is the Crete Senesi. The name means Sienese Clays, a blunt description of a mystical landscape. That semi-desert to the south of Siena is now the renowned subject of agri-tourism and obsessive photography, as its colour progresses from the brief green fuzz of March to the golden desolation of the late summer. Near Asciano, the gold is replaced by beige or bleached grey, in an area known as the Accona Desert, marked by the eerie earthen domes formed by erosion and known as biancane. In another part of the world, Asciano’s moonscape would be called badlands; but cypress-guarded villas atop white hills carry too much mystique, too much unreality. If there is an essential Tuscany, it is surely there, in Siena’s little desert.
The vine and olive will not flourish in the Crete Senesi, though wine-rich Montepulciano and Montalcino are right on the region’s fringe. Yet the caustic mattaione clays under hard sun are expected to produce, because every part of greater Siena is required to yield something special. Behind the sentimental and picturesque lies an ancient, relentless obsession with production. Perhaps the Etruscans created the habit of grubbing for hidden wealth with their mines, and, when there were no more minerals to be had, the acute smell for riches remained. Grasping, thirsting Siena finds resources where no resource is apparent.
For example, much of that gold which carpets the region, as the year wears on, is the special farro grain for the unique Sienese noodles known as pici, so chewy and substantial. In the stunted oak forests, the white truffle and wild boar are still found and relished.
Above all, there is cheese. Sheep have grazed those hills since before the Etruscans, nibbling not just grass but aromatic herbs and spicy bushes on the grudging alkaline scrabble. The cheese produced is not rich, but, rather, so balanced that it needs no extremities of flavour or texture. The pecorino of the Crete Senesi would be no fare for gods. No, it is the food of sane, labouring humans. It is full, yet subtle: an Etruscan smile.
Tuscany after the war was impoverished, land was worth little. Many left for the cities. To occupy marginal land and fill the labour vacuum, destitute Sardinians were encouraged to emigrate to Tuscany. Though there had always been a connection – the two regions are close across water, and both produce wine and sheep cheese – it was post-war desperation that changed the balance in places like the Siena region. The Tuscans, with their ancient, convoluted elitism, were forced to accept a peasant, southern race, one which had its own powerful sense of separation.
Yet the crafty and craft-obsessed Sardinians excelled in the care of sheep and production of pecorino cheese. So it was that even my obscure little valley of the Crete Senesi received its first Sardinian immigrants: a strange couple who spoke little or no Italian and whose odd name ended in “u”. It was easier to call them i sardi, and leave it at that.
The husband, il sardo, was a sullen, middle aged man, short and hairy, to match our expectations of southerners. His wife, la sarda, was tall, and quite striking in an angular, almost athletic, way. Her childlessness, stern glare and scant conversation completed the alienation that would have established itself in any case. Of course, like all Sardinian women, she was a strega, a witch, in the opinion of our elders. We children quickly conformed to the opinion, then exploited it. We avoided direct contact with la strega, while using her as an object of teasing and amusement. Surprisingly, she never retaliated, except to issue the odd incomprehensible complaint to our parents – which only intensified our amusement.
The newcomers had bought nearly worthless land on a slope outside the village. A narrow footpath out of the valley, unused since a road to Buonconvento was built, led to their miserable shack and enclosure. The best building was an old stone cheese-shed, built half into the hillside.Their sheep, a Sardinian breed, but long popular in the Crete Senesi, gave less milk with so little grass; yet that spiny mountainside produced a cheese of special quality. Or perhaps it was their Sardinian know-how with curd and seasoning that brought such unlikely success to their operation.
There were no signs of affection between the pair, and very little speech. The man drank occasionally at the village cafe, even discussing Palio races and football in halting conversations with a pair of elderly idlers who were always there. The woman was seen in the village for the usual reasons, but her cold stare and strained features ended any sluggish attempts at social communication. It was said she spoke no Italian at all. Certainly, at market in Buonconvento, she was content to point and grunt when selling her rounds of pecorino.
And never did that strega, that witch, smile.
She had a way of scrutinising children, with intensity, yet for no reason. Away from domestic and farming duties, we were her only external preoccupation. She stared at us, but it was as if she was staring across a gulf. So disturbing was this inclination, that we ceased to torment her and preferred outright avoidance.
What could an unsmiling, barren Sardinian witch want with children? We could not know, and did not want to know.
Workers in the fields near that hill-pass occasionally heard violent arguments. Once or twice the woman was seen in the village with bruising to her face. Our parents muttered that it had something to do with her failure to bear her husband a son, they referred vaguely to her angular, flat-chested body…but nobody really knew. People had given up any attempt to communicate with the strega.
Steeply sloping land crowned by stunted oak forest was dangerous country for sheep, especially since their owners could not afford a good dog of the Maremma breed, so indispensable to most shepherds of the region. The Sardinians experienced several predator attacks and other emergencies with their flock.
One late autumn day, a day of freezing drizzle turning to sleet, an adventurous ewe got herself stranded on some high and slippery rocks. In coming to her aid, il sardo took a bad fall and broke his leg. Though the local priest offered to arrange medical help, the man and his wife insisted on a home cure. After some days, the leg became infected, then gangrenous. The wife alerted the priest when her husband became delirious with pain and fever.
By the time a doctor arrived from Buonconvento, the man was dead.
The funeral could not have been more awkward. The widow would not or could not communicate. She stared coldly through the brief service, said nothing afterward, at the economical burial in the tiny churchyard. The villagers who came down to the church could not persuade their younger children to come; there was no attempt at organising a wake, or even a short reception.
In the months which followed, la sarda continued to work, with difficulty. Sometimes she hired a certain backward youth, paying him with a few scant lira or some cheese.
There were whispers that the woman had killed her husband, at least through neglect, but perhaps by stregheria, by witchcraft. Our old village priest, who had visited the patient several times, insisted this was not so.
Those who praise the intimacy and self-sufficiency of rural villages have seldom lived in one.
A slow-witted girl, cousin to the youth who sometimes worked for la sarda, had a child to an unknown father. The usual inquiries had been made, but sluggishly. There was a fear that her cousin was the father, so a story was floated that the girl had fallen pregnant to a soldier from a rail convoy that had stopped in Buonconvento. It was a merciful lie; but, as the child grew, it was all too obvious that he was afflicted with the marks of inbreeding. Nonetheless, our parish priest, a plain but wily old fellow, took measures to keep the child semi-secret – and out of the crowded post-war orphanage system.
The young mother was affectionate, but incapable. On one of the few occasions when she was left in charge of her own child, the three year old disappeared.
After hours of fruitless search, some villagers decided to check further away from the cluster of buildings and enclosures where the child would most likely have strayed. It was improbable he would have made his way as far as the house or land of la sarda, but the situation was growing desperate.
As they trudged up the winding footpath toward her house, they glimpsed her as she ducked inside from her small garden. The movement seemed surreptitious.
When they knocked and then called, there was no reply. At last, they forced the door open.
Inside, la sarda was crouched in a corner with the child hugged tight. All about the earth floor was a mess of cut material, cardboard, feathers, strung beads. The child had ribbons attached to his clothes and even to his hair. He was clutching a kind of doll – or talisman? – which had obviously been fashioned from the items on the floor.
Nobody wasted time speculating about the woman’s motives. A suspected witch who kidnaps or lures a child, and then appears to involve him in some kind of ritual – that is enough for an already suspicious village mentality. La sarda seemed to sense the outrage of the villagers, so that, when they advanced and seized the child from her arms, she did not resist, but let her arms fall limp as she slid lower to the floor.
There she stayed, staring coldly, emptily ahead, as the rescuers walked out, too indignant to argue or accuse.
The child had not been harmed, nor did he seem distressed at all by the experience. Our elders contemplated involving the police – but inviting public authorities into one’s community is a grave step in rural Tuscany. In any case, little could be proven, as our old priest pointed out.
Isolation was imposed on la sarda. It was no longer we children who avoided her, but our parents who insisted that we do so. Nobody would deal with her, and she was obliged to lug what cheeses she could produce to the rail at Buonconvento, for delivery to Siena.
When she bought goods in the village, no words or looks were exchanged. Her strained, cold expression took on a desperate, even furious quality.
As winter set in that year, she began to roam about her acres at all hours, often singing in a strange wail. The priest was willing to approach her, but she would not respond even to him. The conviction deepened that she had killed her husband and that her particular school of witchery involved the use of children. Perhaps the singing was a kind of lure.
La sarda stopped working. The sheep escaped or were released.
The singing stopped, the aimless roaming continued. She went mad.
She was found dead in the snow, frozen. Part of her arm had been gnawed by a boar. In her hand she clutched the doll or talisman she had fashioned for the abducted child.
There was discussion and even dispute over what to do with her body. Our priest insisted that, since she had been a church-goer and legally married, her crimes unproven, her suicide mere speculation, she was entitled to burial alongside her husband.
Most of the villagers would not hear of a strega sarda being buried in the middle of their community.
As still happens in the Siena region, the matter was taken in hand by a special form of authority, a special club, so to speak. Our village was affiliated with a couple of the ancient factions, or contrade, of nearby Buonconvento. (The whole of Buonconvento, in turn, is affiliated with one of the Sienese contrade. Those interested in this peculiar social system of the region could read an account by a friend of mine.) We were never told which contrada appeared in the night and took the body away. It was taken high above the abandoned farm and into the oak forest. There, we were slyly assured, la sarda was buried deep, and many heavy stones cast over the disturbed ground.
That winter had been the worst in memory. To make it worse, a new schoolmaster arrived in Buonconvento for the new year. He was a bolognese, with a renown for the knowledge and teaching of Latin. For those of my country and generation, Latin made one not just hyper-educated, but put one in touch with the divine as well as the highest reaches of science, art and secular society. It was as if all other forms of understanding followed easily from the ability to decline and conjugate.
Most children of school age, even several girls, were compelled to start making the trip to town every weekday morning, beginning in late January. A rickety bus was provided by the comune, and, sadly, it was quite a reliable vehicle, even in the heavy snows of that year.
The legendary freeze was followed by a legendary thaw – and then by spring downpours and floods. We were obliged to stay home for a month, sparing us the terrors of the third declension. By the time things dried out, the road to Buonconvento was impassable to most vehicles in a number of places. One old army jeep was serving the village till the road could be fixed, but its use was strictly limited. The road could be walked, but the distance was far too great for a group of children.
It seemed that we had been saved by nature even from the innocuous indicative mood, as well as the terrifying subjunctive. However, our parents were determined to be the progenitors of dottori, professori – maybe even of cavalieri or commendatori.
A way was found.
The disused track to the farm of i sardi continued around the steep hillside till it connected with a second track which led to the Buonconvento road. If the children could walk the few miles to that intersection, a bus could pick them up and take them the rest of the way.
So it was that, early one Monday, a group of us, shod as stoutly as possible for the rough gravel, headed out of the village and up the track. We passed the old farm without a thought to its former residents, our minds on the new physical challenge ahead, and the opportunities for truancy and childish competition.
We rounded the corner of the slope and the village was out of sight. Then came the one steep ascent of the walk.
Just where the hillside was almost sheer rock above, we saw something like a human figure in the lifting mist. Now, when you walk in wilderness in changing light, you learn not to trust your eyes too much. An animal ahead can be a bird, a human an upright log or dead tree. A couple of our group had been on the track before, accompanying adults on boar and truffle hunts. When I asked one of them, a staunch type called Manfredo, about the strange figure before us, he shrugged and murmured, with feigned casualness, that there were always odd things tumbling down from that high forest on to the track.
More slowly, we proceeded. One of the boys picked up a large rock.
Drawing closer, we saw that the figure was indeed human. As we all halted, the only sound was of the boy dropping his rock, as if he had been caught at some mischief. We huddled together and peered.
It was a woman, standing still, and in profile. She was lean, tall, flat-chested, clad all in black. The skin was livid.
Then she turned toward us.
It was la sarda.
It was her, and the familiar cold expression of her face was twisted into an unmistakeable malevolence. When the first child shrieked and turned, the rest of us followed instantly.
We ran screaming back to the village, some with bloodied knees or elbows from falling and sliding on the gravel.
Instinctively, we ran to the church and screamed for the priest. By this time, nearly all the village had rushed to us, as we sobbed and screamed and called for the old priest. Our parents questioned, shook us, but all we could say was “la sarda”, over and over. We hugged ourselves to adult bellies or legs or whatever else of an adult we could reach, hiding our faces, covering our vision and pointing in the direction we had come from. We wanted to immerse ourselves in the familiar and adult.
In such cases, parents will suspect a truancy conspiracy or an infectious hysteria due to a dislike of Latin and long trudges; but our terror was so stark that we were taken seriously. When the priest emerged from his small house hard by the church, he tried to question us individually, starting with the oldest. Yet the story was the same: we had all clearly seen an apparition of la sarda, and her expression of fury and even hate was unmistakeable.
Of all us children, only Manfredo had refused to seek comfort or make comment. Yet he did not deny, and those who knew him well could see his perturbation.
Of course, there was no question of going to school that day. We children found ourselves lingering on the side of the village away from the track and the farm of i sardi. We kept an adult in sight at all times. The adults themselves clustered about the central fountain or the cafe, talking in low tones.
The night was full or terrors, not just for the children. Most families with multiple rooms nonetheless slept together.
Very early, our priest came knocking, accompanied by Manfredo. The old man was looking for volunteers to accompany him on the track to school, and only Manfredo had consented. At first I was astounded; then I was terrified by the idea, and simply shook my head. The priest assured me that we would not proceed if there was any sign of…he left the word unspoken.
He had been a courageous if unlikely partisan during the war. In later life I understood his approach: the only way to expunge the destructive terror from our lives and neighbourhood was to face it. It would have to be the children themselves who advanced immediately on the fear; so he had proposed his plan to the village and they had accepted it. After all, the apparition may well have been some fool from another town, dressed up for a prank. The events of that morning must not be allowed to govern all our lives thereafter.
It was the sight of rock-featured Manfredo which decided me. He was born staunch, and I could tell that he, alone of all the children, was ashamed at having run. Composure was the foundation of his nature, and he had lost it the previous day. He had something to redeem, and Manfredo’s moral gravity began to influence me.
I agreed to go.
Both my companions were resolute. I walked between them, and occasionally one of them flicked his eyes sidewards toward me, as if I were the weak link. It even occurred to me that the old priest and the boy were in competition. As we proceeded out of the village and up the track I heard adult voices behind me, invoking great deeds of the past, never forgotten where there are contrade.
“Alla montagna, partigiano!”
And just for a while, pride was greater than fear.
As we advanced, the first terror was the abandoned farm. I kept forcing my eyes toward it, while not turning. When my eyes met those of the priest, I was slightly ashamed.
Soon we had passed the farm and travelled around the back of the hill. As we began the ascent toward the rocky face with its many overhangs, my insides were twisting. I remember feeling the abrasive contact of the priest’s cassock against my cheek, as I edged closer to him.
We came near the spot where the apparition had at first become visible. It occurred to me that, not only were we out of sight of our village, no sound could penetrate back to it. Even a bomb would be muffled. There was a massive, tree-crowned hill between us and our home.
When a porcupine scuttled across the track I gasped and nearly stumbled. Manfredo laid a hand on my shoulder and squeezed a little courage back into me.
Again there was heavy mist, since we had started out at exactly the same time as the day before.
There, just as before, was the figure of a woman, in profile to us. Black hair and clothes, livid skin, no movement. The priest hissed at us to stay where we were. He advanced a few metres, then stopped.
Now the woman turned.
It was la sarda. Her face was no longer cold. It showed a far more active malevolence. First she turned her glare on the priest, then lifted her chin a little and fixed us two boys. Her eyes met mine directly, paralysing me. I was like a tiny animal confronting a lethal serpent. The shriek I wanted to let loose froze in my throat.
I could hardly stand, but stand I did, my shoulder pressed to that of Manfredo.
Our parish priest turned about and rejoined us. He was white faced, but straining to keep all expression from his features and voice. “We are going home now. Don’t look back.”
We walked quickly. When Manfredo tried to turn around, the old man nudged him hard. Just before we went to turn out of sight of the apparition, he allowed us to stop and look back. We could see nothing. “Do you see? It can’t follow us. Now, we must all bless ourselves, quickly now…”
“But Father…you saw it. It was her! Manfredo… it was her, wasn’t it.”
Manfredo was pale, said nothing. The granite composure was gone, but he refused to speak, maybe fearing he would babble.
“Let’s go home. You won’t be coming back here. Nobody will be coming back here. And when we get home…zitto!” The priest made the universal sign of silence by pressing a finger to his lips.
On returning to the village, Manfredo and I were sent immediately to our homes. The priest enjoined us not to speak with anybody other than our parents about what had just happened. He would confer with the village that day as to what should be done.
Walls of silence or discretion are the underpinnings of Tuscan society, especially in the Siena region, with its contrade, its Knights of Malta and its concealed wealth. We two boys understood in our bones that the time had come to start building one of those invisible walls.
What followed were many whispered conversations, not about la sarda or the nature of the apparition, but about practical and ceremonial measures to be taken. The actual cause was no longer to be mentioned. The terror would be submerged in Sienese ritual and fuss.
Firstly, the track was blocked off at both ends with trenches and boulders. At the village end, a series of hurdles made from thorny branches formed a long fence across the track. The villagers even planted seedlings to hasten the over-growing of the ground beyond all the barriers.
For a couple of weeks, open air rosaries were held near those barriers, but facing the village. Some sessions were attended by richly garbed members of contrade, not just of Buonconvento but also of Siena and Asciano.
One Sunday afternoon, a monsignor came from Assisi. The word “exorcist” was not used, but he was known to be a specialist in certain rituals.
For this ceremony, only the monsignor and our parish priest faced toward the barrier. The rest of us, as for the rosaries, turned our backs and faced the village. Behind me, I could hear much Latin, the tinkle of metal, the rustle of stiff garments and the smell of incense.
This was the end of it. We scarcely needed to be urged to complete silence on the subject, but we were urged severely – just in case. After that, there was a simple policy: oblivion. The track and farm were to disappear, not just from our sight, but from our memories.
Of course, we children spent nights of terror, especially in the first year after the events. Our eyes were always averted from that track and that abandoned farm, our games moved spontaneously to the opposite side of the village. Nothing was quite the same again.
As a compensation to our village – but also as a way of changing a psychic balance? – the comune and other authorities immediately arranged for truckloads of gravel to be deposited over concrete pipes, so that the road to Buonconvento became roughly passable again, and less likely to wash out.
So it was that I was able to attend to my Latin. Thanks to tangling then with such monsters as the passive subjunctive, I became the very literate dottore that I am today. (Fortunately, I also bought much inner-west Sydney real estate, long before its gentrification by other literate dottori like me.)
Was my decision to leave the village and emigrate a result of certain events, not to be mentioned? I would not say so. No, I would not say it.
As I grew wealthy in Australia, I was able to re-establish a connection with my Crete Senesi. My particular interest has always been in things Etruscan, and one of the number of Etruscan museums which dot Tuscany is partly funded by me. Some nearby digs are fruits of my co-sponsorship with institutions in Italy and Australia.
Only two years back, I was in Murlo, a town not far from my village, and a Tuscan site of some import, with its own museum. I was there to receive an honour, negotiate exchanges with my own museum, and scout for new archeological possibilities in the area.
After a pleasant ceremony at the museum, I was chatting with various locals over ricciarelli and vin santo, when I was approached by an older man of the town. He showed me an intriguing fragment of faience ware, possibly imported from Egypt by Etruscans, which he had found in a landslip many years before. He had been searching for truffles in an area of high forest when he heard a loud boom below him. Moving cautiously downward and toward the sound, he arrived at a broad overhang, most of which had just collapsed on to a lower slope, and on to a track which cut across that slope. Such landslips, or frani, are common and very dangerous in my region.
Because he knew the track to be disused, he was not concerned for anyone’s safety. The fragment, close to the top of the landslide, caught his truffle-hunter’s eye. Because there was nothing above him likely to collapse further, he was willing to slide downwards and across to retrieve the impressive piece, which, all these years later, he wished to donate to my museum. I was a little embarrassed by the offer, since his own town had an excellent museum; but he explained that the object had been found not far from my village, possibly during my childhood there, so it would be a very apt honour.
When I asked him if the place was in sight of the village, he explained that, from high above, he had heard our morning bell at seven o’clock. The landslip had occurred on the other side of the enormous hill, straight after that bell. My first thought, which I kept to myself, was exasperation that the old peasant had kept a possible rich archaeological site a secret for so long; but the post-war years were not like now, and mere survival was far more important than potential Etruscan digs. I thanked him warmly, and assured him that the display of the object would include his name. I also took note of the date and year of the find, which he remembered.
Of course, another thought flickered through my mind – but I had long ago learned to keep it no more than a flicker.
Manfredo and I had remained friends, though our lives and careers lay so far apart. After a successful time as a banker (and ultra-discreet Palio bookmaker) in Siena, he had retired early back to our village, where he enjoyed further success as a fixer of large deals in produce such as Chianina veal, white truffles, Brunello wine. Manfredo had never ceased to belong to the Crete Senesi. Now a widower, his children dispersed through Europe and Canada, he seldom advanced further than the railway town of Buonconvento, where his staunch rustic character had made him a virtual mayor-for-life. Back in our village, he was nothing less than a king, sparing of word, immoveable, a bounty.
After my talk with the truffle hunter who gave me the pottery, I drove straight to Buonconvento, where I knew Manfredo would be installed in his favourite cafe, which he probably owned and which served as his railway office.
Waiting till we could talk alone, I told him exactly what the truffle hunter had told me. He nodded slowly as he listened, always with that gravity, that granite composure. There was never any point in urging him: one waited for wheels of his massive mind to grind out a few spare words.
“Tomorrow, before the bell, we take a walk.”
“But…why walk at that time? And the time zones are changed…and there is no bell, Manfredo…”
He tapped his head on the side, just once, to say that there would always be a bell there.
After that, we talked of the pottery find and I showed him the piece. He agreed that it looked Egyptian in origin, a typical import for Etruscans at the peak of their wealth.There was an assumption that our walk in the morning was somehow connected with finding more such pieces. And somehow not. Where words would not serve, Manfredo never uttered a single one.
Both of us had an urge to see something again, to revisit a place called Oblivion. Neither of us could say why: the pottery would have to serve as a reason.
Fifteen minutes before the bell – which existed still in Manfredo’s head – we walked off along a path which no longer existed, but which we well remembered. The old hurdles were no longer there, the boulders had rolled away or disintegrated in the course of sixty years, the trenches had filled. The scrub had reclaimed everything.
Moving along, we could no longer see the old sheep farm, just tangled oak forest. Manfredo, still fit for his years, was weaving quickly through the thickets, and I could tell he was holding a pace: the pace of a group of children walking along a clear track. I just managed to follow.
We came to a turn, the turn which would take us out of sight of the village. The increasing steepness made moving easier, as there was less undergrowth, and only flimsy pines to obstruct. Thanks to wild boars and other animals, the old track had been maintained slightly.
Manfredo turned and looked at me a moment. He repeated the gesture of sixty years ago, and grabbed my arm to squeeze a little reassurance into me. I nodded. We pressed forward, moving up the slope, toward where there had once been a sheer overhang and where…
We stopped. The whole side of the slope had changed. There was no more cliff above, just an enormous gash which had overgrown where plants could find a hold. Where the track had been was now slope, also overgrown and full of rock, probably impassable now.
Manfredo spoke low.
“Details? The date again?”
I knew what he was referring to.
“It was a Wednesday. A few weeks after…after what we saw. We would have been walking here. Probably right at the moment…”
He glanced at his watch.
“Fifteen minutes. The bell is chiming back in the village…
“The cliff falls.”
His face was set firm, as always, but I could see his eyes glisten.
“Manfredo, you think…?”
He stared ahead for a long moment. Manfredo had never admitted to seeing anything all those years before. What he said next was not what was filling his mind.
“Perhaps there are good relics amongst all this rubble.”
“Manfredo…did she do this, for some reason? As revenge? In rage?”
“This?” He swept his arm across the massive landslip of six decades before. “How could she do this? No. This just happened…
“What she did was stop us. Twice she stopped us. And she would have gone on stopping us. She would have raised demons from the pit to stop us, to close all this off, so no child would tread here.”
“You mean…we are alive because…?”
“What did she have to stop us with? Only our fear of her. It was all she ever had from us…our fear.”
We stood and pondered the imponderable. It was wrong to move forward, wrong to turn back home. Manfredo’s eyes were more than just moist, for the first time in his life, perhaps.
“She had nothing else. Nothing else. For us! All for us!”
The rest of this account you may believe or not. I do not know what really happened next, only what my eyes saw, and what Manfredo’s eyes may have seen. We never discussed it after.
Out on the slope, in the lifting mist, appeared a still figure. A woman, clad in black, with black hair; an angular, flat-chested woman, with livid skin, standing in profile.
What was she now? Dryad or genius loci?
My friends, this occurred only last May, and I am too old to imagine or to lie.
La sarda – whatever she was – turned toward us, fixing her gaze on me as she had done more than sixty years before.
But she, with the recovered warmth of sixty lost Tyrrhenian springs, was now smiling on us.
Our mother was smiling.