What Better Way Than This
I’m slowly making my way south. Today I watched goats, grape vines and sunflowers from the train to Sicily. The sunflowers were enormous—elephant stalks, brown centers, yellow petals frantic for sun. Their keening was so palpable I turned away. The wizened old couple sitting across from me mistook my response for thirst and offered me their flask of ice water. I took it and bowed my head thank you. The man had a face lined with furrows, the kind made by a team of oxen laboring over a field. The woman’s cheeks were smooth but the rest of her face was a cobweb of lines. Their eyes rested on my nose ring and slid away unhurried, unapologetic. I let them. I am allowing everything.
At some point, the air conditioning died. The man—I thought of him as grandfather now—opened the window and I leaned into it, let the wind rush by and have its way with my face, my hair and my eyes, which had to close so they wouldn’t tear.
I haven’t looked at my phrase book once—mostly I’ve been miming my way through Italy. Everyone however understands the American dollar; no translation needed.
The train conductor had some English that he was eager to show off. He asked if I was traveling lonely.
“Alone,” I corrected.
“Ah yes,” he punched my ticket.
“There is a difference. But why alone?”
I told him how I’d decided to do all the things I ever wanted to do, sort of as a test. I told him that after I had a child, and after I lost it, the desire to cling to my house, my husband, my parents, was so strong, it felt almost like an affliction and that I needed to cure myself. I told him when I’d read about this volcano, Stromboli, on the wind islands, I felt convinced that the journey would scare the fear out of me. That it must. That I had been all my life too much a creature of anticipation. Always waiting—for love, then for a child—for life to begin. That for 35 years, I’d lived in essence in the future. Now, I said, I want to live entirely in the present, this moment, this now, this vacuum.
My rant drove all the English out of him. He walked quickly out of the compartment.
Waiting in a cafe for the ferry to Lipari, I met two Australian girls on their way to Palermo. One of them was a robust blond thing, white teeth and bronzed arms. “I always,” she said with the conviction of people who think they’re just super about keeping promises, “I always write in my journal, no matter what.” She took it out then and began scribbling into it. A leather-bound book with, for god’s sake, “Journal” embossed on the cover. Not that I’m one to talk. Most people write for themselves, for another self that helps them see better.
I, on the other hand, am writing to a stillborn child whose soul has reincarnated into a blue-veined thrush that doesn’t go south in the winter and stays huddled under the eaves of a cold house.
The Lipari harbor had hotels and restaurants and people asking if I needed a room. But I brushed them off and followed signs for the hostel, through the marketplace and up steep steps into the older part of the village. The hostel was a large white house with too many beds stacked side by side. It was full of high school girls, taut golden creatures who crowded the bathroom, giggling and washing their panties with bars of green soap that I wished I’d had the foresight to pack. I imagined their mothers as doughy matrons with thick calves who have forgotten that they were ever young.
One more ferry ride and I’ll be on Stromboli.
I think the gaggle of women at the tourist office saw something untoward in my face. How else to explain—through a painful process of broken English and pantomime —their giving me bad news and more bad news.
For one thing, there’s only one ferry to Stromboli – it leaves every other day in the afternoon and there’s no return ferry till the next day. So I’d have to find a hotel and spend the night there. They had a list of numbers but the hotels were all full. How can you know without calling, I asked. We know, they said. You call later, they said. How the hell am I supposed to mime a hotel room over the phone?
And for another thing, they said that there were strong winds and heightened volcanic activity at the summit. All guided excursions have been canceled. No telling when they will resume.
They repeated the guided excursions bit. I nodded as if I understood but it was apparent, both to me and to them, that I would not avail myself of this option. I’ve left all handholding behind.
As I walked out into the dismal sun, I repeated: you will not call Suresh, you will not call Ma. You will inhale this moment, this cobbled glinting street under your feet, that shock of purple flowers over the wall, and the unbroken line of ocean ahead.
Meanwhile, the volcano bellows on with no one to hear it.
I consoled myself with food. I chose a small place with views of the inlet and the village darkening into twilight. After great difficulty, I convinced the waiters that I didn’t mind eating alone. They left the other plate setting anyway, in disbelief, I suppose, or perhaps hoping it would somehow conjure up an escort.
My waiter was called Giuseppe but he asked that I call him Jim. In his English conversation class, he said, they’ve all christened themselves American like him and Bill (Guillermo) and Jack (Giovanni).
“Where you from?” he asked
“Ahh New York! New York.” He laughed, flashed white teeth. A dimple appeared in his cheek.
Later he invited me out to hear music, jazz, of all things, a lovely mournful piece in a little ristorante with colored lights on a trellis. Walking back afterwards, the lights went out and in the darkness barely lit by a moon, he led me to his room. It would have been simple enough to mime no; actually I wouldn’t even have needed to mime but I thought, hell and gave myself up to it. I didn’t think of Suresh or rather I did and cried as Giuseppe snored beside me.
In the morning I made him call the ferry office and reserve me a ticket to Stromboli. Then he called a hotel and got me a room. In ten minutes, it was all set up. High winds or not, I’m going.
In the afternoon, while walking to an observatory, I got on a scooter with a stranger who stopped when I asked him to. I said “observatory.” He nodded his head yes.
I am doing everything my mother said I shouldn’t.
The man had a white shirt stretched by a belly, and khaki shorts. The scooter was pale pink and reassuring. I tried holding onto the back rail of it but it was too wobbly and we were going too fast on a road that curved and twisted up and around the sea.
So I put my arms around his waist. He took my hand and put it on his thigh.
I moved it back to his waist, trying not to grip at the belly but I needed it for balance. A few minutes later, he tried again. I let him and then moved my hand back to his belly.
Like this, we arrived at the observatory, a white squat octagon on a stretch of very green grass sloping into a valley which became beach and then sea.
It looked abandoned. Not like the guidebook said, open for visitors. Not a single other car. He brought the scooter to a stop. It puttered into silence.
He moved my hand to his thigh again. I moved my hand away again.
It was all very matter of fact. He shrugged. I got off the scooter and faced him.
“Here,” he said. It was the first time he had spoken. Now I saw him properly. His face was square. His mustache was a straight line. His eyes were dark, fathoms below the ocean dark, inscrutable. I was unknowable in them.
“Here,” he said again, and this time it was a question. I didn’t know what to make of his voice.
“Here,” I nodded. He looked around, assessing. I wasn’t afraid. There was nothing left. Everything had gone into the greenness of grass. I wanted to put my bare feet on it. I looked at him. He shrugged again and turned the key on the scooter. The sudden sound of the engine made me afraid but by the time he had disappeared down a stretch of road, the fear too had gone.
I took my shoes off. I walked slowly around the octagon. It had a white balcony with hand rails – a verandah is what my mother would call it—where men in white lab coats and thick black rimmed glasses might have smoked and talked and pointed to the stars.
The sea was a lit blue, fire glinting on the waves, the other islands were ashen spots in the distance and the volcano was out of sight but near, below, under the green, under my feet, burning this hollow earth.
When I walked, all that was left inside me rattled, slid out of place, slid back into place, a ship teetering on the sea.
I imagined you a boy. I named you Milen. Your eyes were black as rocks made by lava, your skin was the brown not of your father but the man I loved when I was nineteen, a man with the sallow beauty of a lost poet who found himself in words. Not that I wanted you lost. I wanted you to search, from the very beginning. No waiting, not like me—from the start, you would seek and find.
Your name, Milen, came to me the day I knew of you, that winter morning walking to the mailbox to get the paper, padding on newly fallen snow. At that early hour, I was the only one in the cul de sac, the only one in a white world, bemused by my feet making tracks in the snow. I picked up the rolled paper, put it under my arm, and turned back. Then I saw another set of footprints beside mine. I saw the tiny flurries of your feet. Then I knew of you. And I spoke your name. I’d always dreamt of that name and now—then—I knew why. I said, Milen, be careful but you had already slid onto the snow, laughing, your black eyes snapping into a smile, your small brown body such beauty, the red mittens in your hands waving like fins of a seal. You laughed and I knew you and touched my belly to greet you.
I knew you too when you left. I knew you that spring morning when I woke to blood in the bed. Where did you go, my love?
My feet were burning. I put my shoes back on. I started the long walk back to the village. Other cars passed, curious eyes noted me but no one stopped. I am always the girl on the side of the road walking alone. But not lonely. No, I walked with the sun beside me, and the volcano near, only a day away.
It’s a sleepy little town, sleepier now at the height of afternoon siesta. Fishing boats line one side of the harbor, a row of cafes the other. Red-tiled roofs peek out of the hillside that tapers up into the cone of the volcano. The very top, the side I can see, is a placid browny-green. You’d never know this place has a great fire in its belly, never guess at the scores of magma tubes and such that must seethe underground in some deepest darkest core.
Some of the other passengers from the ferry have settled themselves at a cafe. There’s a British couple in spandex and fashionable backpacks. A trio of French boys, lean and dark, throwing glances at a pair of curvy schoolgirls in tight black pants whom I recognize from the hostel.
I ask a scowling waiter about the hotel. He nods towards a narrow street going uphill. “It is on the way to the vulcano,” he says wearily.
I walk slowly to the hotel which turns out to be a white house with a blue door. The owner, a ruddy man with fleshy jowls, gives me a deliberate once-over and then cautions me about high winds at the summit.
“How did you know I was going?” I ask.
“What else?” he shrugs.
In the room, as I wash my face, I see a fierce brown stranger looking back at me. I blow her a kiss, pack a small backpack and set off.
My ferry companions are already on the road. Once we’ve settled into our different strides, it becomes a regular procession: The Brits lead the way, followed by the French boys then me dodging the intermittent volleys of glances and giggles between them and the school girls behind me.
Soon we come to the end of the path where there are signs in six different languages that this is an active volcano, and must only be traversed with official guides. Climb at your own risk, it says. The Brits barely glance at the sign and keep going. The boys, on the other hand, pose in front of it, preening just so for the schoolgirls who have lingered to watch.
We begin climbing. The vegetation underfoot is coarse grass and shrubs with violet flowers and thorns.
The mountain begins tapering, narrowing. There are more rocks now, jagged boulders, some a smooth black, others with little gaseous holes in them. My backpack feels heavier, thuds against me and sometimes is in danger of pulling me backwards down a steep slope. It’s a long long way to fall. Finally I have to stop and catch my breath, wait for the roaring in my ears to stop. The village below is a speck of white houses. The sun is dipping low in the sky. My companions stop too and we all crowd onto a wide rocky ledge. There are more mountains ahead of us, stacked side by side, folds overlapping. I hear one of the girls gasp and point to a slope, some distance away. I narrow my eyes but all I can make out is a trail of dark brown rocks. I concentrate instead on taking deep gulping breaths but the roaring in my ears refuses to subside. Rather, I feel it increasing like the whirring of a plane shooting down a runaway. I look up and there, my love, there in the darkening sky, I see a plume of smoke. Then a loud burst and a fountain of orange lava, thick molten flecks groan and splatter out of the mountain. The mass is suspended and then falls, dots the slopes with red and patters patters patters down the sides of the mountain into the ocean.
The girls are shrieking but it’s far enough away. Still if the wind changes or the force increases… But then it happens again. And again. The girls grow silent, bring forth cameras and begin clicking. The Brits stand very straight, as if they’re waiting to hear their name called. The boys are grinning from ear to ear, patting each other on the back, whooping into the sky.
I brandish my camera at them. Okay, one nods, and steps forward. I turn so the volcano is behind me, place my hand on my hips and just when I hear the rumbling, I nod. The boy clicks the shutter. The flash goes off. A font of lava arcs over my shoulder.
Is this where you live now? In these red bursts against black sky. In this roar that is your name. In the volanco making itself known to the world.
If it all ends this second, if some apocalyptic event vaporizes us here and now, I’d welcome it. What better way to mark a moment than to have nothing else follow it.
Shebana Coehlo is a Guest Writer for Panorama.
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