(first published April 2)
There are different ways to get up and down from the woods from town. Mostly you have to go through the borgo, the oldest part of the village, and from there, take one of the three or four steep rocky trails. Today I come from a different part of town and take the path across the scrubby hillside, then up through olive groves, mainly abandoned, and through chestnuts, to where, at the head of a deep crevice, that trail intersects another. I can either continue up the old stone footpath to make a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Madonna of Monte Carmelo (a roughly three hour uphill hike), or I can return to the heart of town through the borgo. I’ve never gotten all the way up to the shrine on foot and today doesn’t seem like the day for it, however fine a day it is.
Returning through the borgo, I meet Pasqualina in a warm patch of sun on the steps that run past her home.
She is one of the very few residents left in this part of the village. It used to be that it was full of people, families of 11 living in two or three room stone houses; children having the run of the streets, the hillsides and forest above full of activity. Pasqualina lives with the couple that has looked after her since her parents died: her mother some 40 years ago and her father many years later. Sometimes she talks about going back to her father’s old house to live, but has never done so. She wouldn’t know how to live alone, she says. Sometimes she complains that she would like to be more independent and spend her government stipend the way she wants to and not have to give it to her guardians. On further inquiry it’s come out that she’d mostly like to spend it on candy. Mainly when we see each other she asks me questions, one after the other after another. Today she is looking more like a little girl than she usually does, even at 60. She’s scared. Her words come quickly and mostly in dialect rather than Italian, but I understand that she hasn’t left the house really, no, no, no, and that there are people sick in this town, and there have been funerals but no one went and it’s really a terrible time.
It takes me a moment but I realize she’s outside because she’s waiting, watching for her guardians to come back home. She keeps looking up the stepped road behind me, towards the trail I just came down.
I turn and there she is.
Descending the wide stone staircase like a queen, a bundle of firewood perched on the jacket folded like a pillow on her white-haired head, the branches thicker than her arms and longer than she is tall, she steps lightly, her posture perfect. She is one of the last like her here in this village, one of the ones who live almost entirely from the land and know how to survive just about anything.
She has the same name as my great-grandmother on my father’s side and somehow this makes me feel an odd sense of connection with her.
You’re so strong! Clutching 7 wilted spears of asparagus in my hand, I state the obvious.
It’s not strength, she says and laughs. It’s anger.
I laugh too, knowing about strength and anger, though mine never helped me carry half a forest on my head.
It isn’t until moments later, stopping to pet one of the usual dogs, that I wish that I’d asked her why she’s angry.
I added this blog as a way to share some thoughts and experiences around the impact of Covid-19 on my life here in Southern Italy. These posts have been a near-daily practice during this time and are largely unedited, most having been first posted on Facebook. They are of course in order with the most recent entry on the first page. I invite you to explore previous posts or even start from the beginning.