'

'

Chapter 16

[Home] [Previous] [Next]
-

The roosters of Curia crowed in a fittingly solemn way on the morning of the Feast of Januarius. Adriana had been wide awake before dawn. Wolf still slept, floating on an ocean of peace, his knees up front like a child’s, his big hands cradling the chunk of wood on which his head rested, as if it were a bolster stuffed with down.

Leaving him asleep, Adriana went to the pond. A light morning mist curled up from the water; the air was quiet, waiting for the sun to warm it. She dived into the placid water and scrambled out whooping. She dabbed at herself with her tunic, pulled it over her head, and climbed the shallow ridge of rock that separated the pond from the valley. Across the echoing distance, the mountainside above Curia was touched with a soft rose-light.

"Good day!" she shouted, and heard a tiny echo.

She went to the house, knelt at Wolf’s side in the twilight of the kitchen, and kissed him on the lips. He stretched, examining her with one eye open.

"Where are we today, madam?" he asked sleepily.

"In the mountains of the Sila, where no one ever goes."

He smiled.

"Are you ready to hunt the Great Pig?" she said.

"I will spear him from tusk to rump," Wolf said, bounding off the bed.

They walked downhill in a cloud of herb-scent. The early sun spread over the slopes ahead of them, coloring the mists and shadowing the hayfields. White clouds hid the peaks of the Sila. The air was deliciously not-quite-cool.

Mellow sunlight gilded the red roof of the village church. The yard was littered with weapons and hunting-gear. The newcomers were late to Mass. Peasants, simply dressed, their eyes giving a guarded welcome, stood aside to admit Wolf and Adriana into the twinkling darkness of the little sanctuary. Mass at Curia was conducted with a kind of subdued hilarity on the day of Januarius. The cantor sang nervously off-key. Chickens ran through the nave. In his excitement one of the acolytes dropped his candle twice.

The sermon was, appropriately, about the martyrdom of the Seven Holy Brothers. Father Oppius delivered his message in his best ecclesiastical tone, like a bell struck by a soft mallet, and mixed his meditation with quotations from Virgil and Scripture. At the words of dismissal, a little boy, imitating the priest, turned to the crowd and raised his baby hands in blessing.

Outside the church, Adriana smiled cordially at her neighbors. Father Oppius’s congregation were pleasant-looking, tall and lean and tough as leather, awkward in the way of country people. They were often drunk on the fiery local wine, and occasionally they cracked each other’s heads with their hoes and nicked one another with dull knives. But generally they were dignified and cheerful, if not remarkably clean.

The people seemed to be holding their breath, licking their lips in anticipation of the hunt. They warmed quickly to the strangers. A woman smiled brightly at Adriana, as if to say, "Don’t you recognize me?" Another replied in rhyme to a question, and laughed on purpose to show her splendid teeth.

"Why did you come?" a white-haired old man asked courteously.

"I came," Adriana said, "because I was tired of Rome, and of people who smile the most when they mean it the least."

"Ah, ah," the old man and his neighbors said, nodding their understanding.

"You’re too late to see Probus the monk," a plump woman said. "He was something to see, when he came to our town, talking to himself. He had a strange accent. We think he came from somewhere in Egypt. No, it must have been Persia."

"Greece," someone said.

"We don’t know where he came from," the original speaker shrugged. "He was young and thin, and strange to see. We figured he had the Evil Eye."

"Or some kind of Power," someone else spoke up. "We think he cursed Benedicta on the day he disappeared, because the next day she miscarried triplets."

The peasants were animated in their description of the holy man: gaunt, lank-haired, yellow-toothed, louse-infested, diffusing an odor that caused even polecats to flee at his approach.

Father Oppius, who had vanished after the Mass, reappeared on the church steps when various mules, donkeys, carts, and hounds had been brought together for the hunt. The old people bowed; the young grinned their devotion. The children had been staring at Wolf, their fingers in their mouths. A little girl had relaxed enough to climb on his knees and touch his blond head.

"Be careful of the giant," Father Oppius teased the child, in such a way that she knew she was included in the joke. "See, he has the big teeth of the Germans. I saw him sharpening them with a file this morning, and who knows what he may decide to eat?"

An old woman jabbed two fingers toward Wolf’s face and muttered the word garlic. The onlookers giggled in embarrassment.

"Ah, beast of a pagan people," the priest laughed, "they think your blue eyes will make evil."

With his forefinger he traced the sign of the cross over each of Wolf’s eyes. The old woman relaxed and twinkled.

"Now you may ogle anyone you wish, my boy," the priest said, "except Mad Maura, who is apt to take your glances seriously."

Father Oppius mounted his mule with a remarkably agile leap. Facing his people, he sat erect, beamed, and made the sign of the cross.

"Children!" he shouted, "glorify God in your hunting, and beware the pig. We want no fresh souls dragged to Hades on the tusks of Belial."

He turned and tickled the mule’s sides with his heels. The animal started toward the east gate of the village, shaking his head and jingling his bells. Two yoked donkeys followed, pulling a rude cart full of Father Oppius’s hunting gear. The priest’s round features had a glow of transcendent bliss. Clearly, he was never so much alive as on his mule, straight-backed as a boy, leading his peasants and villagers on a bone-shattering chase over rough country.

His congregation, a river of dark-brown heads, flowed after him in single file. Their energy was remarkable, after a standing Mass and nothing to eat all morning except the Eucharist and perhaps a radish or a sour apple. The strongest of the men had armed themselves after worship with two spears apiece and hunting knives at their waists. Assigned to kill pigs that tangled themselves in the nets, they carried themselves with special dignity. A pair of peasant boys managed Father Oppius’s dog, on two leashes. There were several large mongrels, killer-hounds whose blood apparently preserved the instincts of some purebred ancestor.

"I have never hunted boar," Wolf admitted with a worried look, kicking at the tall grass.

"There’s one special rule," Adriana said. "When a boar comes straight at you like a rock out of a ballista, throw yourself flat on the ground so he can’t get his tusks into you. If he can, your guts will be strewn from here to Consentia."

The sun was high when Father Oppius led his flock onto a stony plateau surrounded by scrub-forested heights. Now the dogs were enthusiastic, straining at their leashes and nosing the ground for scent. The young men swung their arms impatiently, eager to begin the chase. Some of them squinted at the ground for fresh tracks, with a mysterious air that suggested they were skilled beyond ordinary understanding. Like Wolf, they hunted nude except for sandals, an occasional ragged cloak knotted around the neck, and loin-wraps that seemed ready to fly away.

A detachment of young peasants had been designated as beaters. They disappeared into the bush fringing the plateau, reappeared on high rocks, vanished again, springing from place to place like cats. The mongrel hounds rushed up a slope, into a stand of scrub. In a moment they raised a loud clamor, announcing that the scent was hot.

Crouching near a stagnant watercourse, Adriana and Wolf watched the construction of an elaborate ambush. Nets and feather-decorated ropes were stretched out on the stony borders of the plateau. Peasants with spears and long knives waited among the boulders.

The smoke of a tiny signal-fire rose suddenly in the east. Wolf clutched Adriana’s shoulder and pointed to a dark object, then another, clearly defined against the sky. Two tuskers of the Sila, the largest and worst-tempered boars west of Armenia, trotted along the edge of the heights. A murmur of satisfaction passed among the peasants as two more boars straggled along the ridge.

The unseen hounds gave tongue; the clamor of the beaters grew louder. A long line of howling men swept downhill, their bright cloaks fluttering against the yellow foliage of the slopes. The peasants stationed along the watercourse leaped up, a wall of shouting flesh, waving bright lengths of cloth.

An immense boar tore down the hillside, closely followed by a pair of hounds. The pig dived into the stagnant pool, rushed out of it dripping, and charged into the nets. The line of attackers broke into a dozen parties, scrambling along the slopes after three pigs. Two more of the desperate beasts ran into the nets, driven by the baying of hounds and peasants, the fluttering of feathered ropes, and a hail of thrown stones. The most dangerous phase of the hunt had been reached: a cornered boar might turn and front the dogs or dash into the crowd, ripping their flesh.

Near the water, the fourth boar, dark silver-gray, trotted out of a clump of broom unnoticed by the main body of peasants. There was foam on the jaw of the demon-face, with its murderous little eyes in a frame of tusks, and the bristles on the spine were poised like military spears.

The pig took aim at Wolf and Adriana, and charged with a grunt that rose to an acid whistle of rage. Wolf ripped off his cloak, flung it in the creature’s path, and bounced a well-aimed rock off the lowered snout. Adriana stood paralyzed for an instant, ran, and regained her senses at the summit of an egg-shaped boulder.

Whirling, the boar charged again. With an explosion of limbs Wolf threw himself into a neighboring scrub-oak, bending the tree like a twig and losing his loin-wrap on one of the lower branches. The triumphant pig whistled off into the bush.

Casualties of the hunt were minor, the usual wrenched limbs and tusk- and spear-wounds. There were three dead boars. Even in death, the creatures seemed satanic. Peasant boys clustered around them, open-mouthed. A youngster took a hair from his own head and laid it against one of the corpses’ tusks, to see whether the hair would burn.

"Ah," Father Oppius said with satisfaction, inspecting the ruined pigs. "The back of a horse is the hunter’s throne, the air of the mountains is the breath of liberty—but the voice of the empty stomach is like the trumpeting of an elephant. Children, let us go home and eat!"

*

Adriana was in a splendid, mystic mood. The simple beauty of the chosen picnic-field stirred her deeply: the clear creek seemed like a god transformed into a stream; the meadow was an effigy of Peace; sorrow and evil had been carried away by the running water, absorbed into the feathery woods, drawn off over the golden horizon, never to return.

The peasants and villagers assembled in the open space: men congratulating themselves on the hunt; matrons all shouting at once about their poultry, their pigs, their husbands and children, their spinning and weaving; grandmothers carrying rugs and skins of wine; a little girl with a basket that could have held her; the priest’s dog carrying a stick; a blind man with a double-flute; the priest carrying a roll of Scripture and a pillow; boys and girls of various sizes and shapes.

Adriana listened to the gossip around her, very much like the gossip at Nomentum. The priest’s dog had been washed and clipped, and had nearly destroyed the three men it took to do the job. Lucius Livius had had his purse snatched when he went to Consentia to sell chickens. A tramp had crawled into Junia’s stable and slept the night there. Polemia’s chickens were sick with fever. Titus Ninnius’s cart had lost a wheel on the way to market, and had thrown his crockery into the ditch. Postumus’s little donkey had fallen and cut its knees. Vibiana’s ducklings were in good health, after being frightened half to death by a wildcat. Decimus’s wife had a cough.

Clearly, the mind of the peasants of Curia was not brilliant. It understood wine, oil, and flour. It knew that Rome was somewhere over the hills, and that Carthage, where the blond pirates lived, was somewhere over the sea. It believed in Father Oppius’s blessing on the fields, in the poisonous nature of bats, and in a witch’s ability to see the future in a dish of broth. But Curia also understood honesty and loyalty and restraint; and because of these qualities, Adriana thought, it was on a higher plane of existence than Rome.

The boars were dismembered and roasted under the direction of Basilia, the village’s high priestess of cookery. Fires were heaped up; sharpened poles were passed through the pig-parts, and a chunk of pig soon rotated on the pair of forks enclosing each blaze. The peasants took turns making the spits go round.

While the pigs cooked, Father Oppius organized games. He produced a mattock out of his donkey-cart and had several peasant boys dig a hole. A greased pole was planted in it, slippery as an icicle, with a squealing piglet at the top in a sling. Black-bearded boys gathered at the bottom, shouting and elbowing each other in the ribs. Baia, Crispus, Ennius, and Dexter all tried to climb the pole at once. The onlookers pounded each other and cheered. As Crispus reached the top, the pole fell over, dropping him on his head. The piglet escaped into the woods, shrieking.

At a wide spot in the creek, Father Oppius waved a coin in the air.

"Attention, children! Here’s a splendid silver nummus, the price of many drinks in Consentia for every hero who jumps over the creek without wetting his heels."

There was a clatter of young men to the spot. They looked at the stream, and looked at each other, measured the distance with their eyes, rose on tiptoe to look into the water, shook their heads, and said to each other, "You jump first."

A path was cleared for a burly youngster who backed off twenty paces, ran to the brink, and stopped.

"Shame! Shame!" rose from the crowd.

"I will jump! I will jump!" Baia shouted, and cleared a path for himself with pushes and blows. He took aim, ran with a flurry of fists and heels, and soared over the water, landing on the opposite bank, his arms thrust out to preserve his balance. The crowd cheered; Father Oppius flung the silver prize across the water, and Baia snatched it out of the air with one hand.

The other young men were encouraged. A tall boy leaped the distance easily. Dexter cleared the stream and fell on his face. A little round peasant took off with a flurry of limbs and fell like a shot bird into the water. The crowd roared and hissed, but when the boy climbed out, his soused hair draggling over his ears and face, his tunic clinging to his legs, the onlookers took pity and called for a drink of wine—Wine for Primus!—and a half-dozen skins were offered.

Basilia signaled that the pigs were cooked.

"Are we ready for boar?" Father Oppius queried in a grand voice.

"Boar! Boar!" the congregation responded, wagging their earthen goblets in the air.

Raising his own goblet, Father Oppius blessed the congregation and the meal with a great rolling of churchly phrases ending in a cordial Benedicite. The children crossed themselves with their tiny fingers, imitating their parents. Basilia handed the priest a chunk of boar’s meat; he cast it into the fire as a tribute to the Blessed Januarius. Then the steaming carcasses were pulled to pieces and distributed on broad leaves to the outstretched hands of the people, with sheep’s cream and salt, and sweet-smelling herbs.

"Music! Music!" voices shouted. The blind flutist sounded a note on his instrument; Spino raised a muted howl, like the wind blowing in a bottle.

"Ah, the good boy, he has the gift of song," Father Oppius beamed.

A cool melody twined itself about the peasants as they ate, a mournful air, older than Rome and Greece, old as the green mountains themselves. Food passed from hand to hand, carved up with the jagged knives that every peasant carried next to the body. Adriana swallowed chunks of meat and washed them down with the hearty wine of the country. Wolf ate enormously, by way of revenge on the pigs.

Adriana sipped the strong, sweet dark wine and the tart red wine, and soon she felt a spark running through her veins, and her face tingled as if she had been slapping her cheeks. The women who clustered around her were eager to know whether life at Rome had anything in common with life in the hills. The village cobbler wonderingly inspected her boots. A little girl shyly asked to see her arms, to satisfy herself that there was blue blood in her veins.

She decided to drink more wine. She became very talkative. She sat in a circle of twenty people, and began simultaneous conversations with them all. She made revelations: that she had grown up on a farm, and had stroked all the farm animals with her own hands, and had experienced occasional impulses to do the same with the serf boys, though they were dirty and smelly, so she had decided against it. She went on to say that she had fallen in love with her first husband one day when she was crawling on a roof adjacent to the court in which he exercised naked; and that she had almost fallen in love with the man standing next to him, who was beautiful as a rose, and solid as a pine-tree, but had a red spot behind one ear which looked very bad, so she had decided in favor of her husband after all.

She announced that Valentinian had been too simple to govern Rome, and that Maximus had been too crooked; that Faustinus was a maniac; that the poet Claudian was preferable to Ausonius, though Ausonius was more nearly Christian; that expecting an army of Germans to defend the empire was insane; that she would like to live in the woods awhile; that the wine of the country was excellent, and she would not mind drinking a little more of it.

The afternoon grew more musical. A ribbon of cool notes went up from the blind man’s double-flute, a tune full of mountain streams and the rustle of beech-leaves in crisp air. A spindly old man produced a bagpipe and blew it in competition with the flutist, beginning in wild, warlike tones and ending with an ignominious splutter and hiss.

"Poor Magnus," the priest said sympathetically, "one must be in good health to play the pipes."

From clusters of young men under the beech trees, strange howling choruses came forth, with a melancholy scream at the end of each verse. Father Oppius droned a ballad of his own, in which the cheeks of a dead girl were like the flush of dawn, and her eyelids like the silken wings of swallows.

An enormous peasant jumped up and bellowed a song in which he imitated all the animals of the barnyard, confusing the animals somewhat, so that he crowed for the mule and whinnied for the pig. Other peasants offered imitations of their own. There were choruses of barking, mewing, chirping. A peasant with a genius for mimickry delivered a sermon in the style of Father Oppius. It was mercifully brief; the preacher lost his balance and fell into the crowd. There were cries, whistles, catcalls. A little man with splendid white hair imitated a cur baying at the moon. The performance would have deceived any dog in the village. A muscular boy did handsprings, and hopped about on one hand. The audience whooped, applauded, pounded the ground, imitated roosters and crows in their delight. Adriana laughed immoderately. Laughter made her thirsty, and thirst made her drink.

"Drink, sister!" sounded twenty times in her ear, and she obeyed twenty times and more.

"It is time to dance," Father Oppius said, with a grand, unsteady gesture. "Memorius will favor us with the music."

Cocking his head, the blind man adjusted his double-flute carefully, with anguished grimaces over the sound. He moistened his upper and lower lips, and began to play. The priest snatched up a tambourine and thumped it mightily, and the dance began.

The grass of the field disappeared under the feet of dancing peasants, each following his own drunken conception of the ancient movements, turning, turning again, touching face to face, back to back, hip to hip, bobbing right and left, treading on each other’s feet. A peasant and his girl romped together, he twice as large as she, like a barnyard bull and a little pink pig deeply in love.

Peasant boys grabbed handfuls of each other’s tunics and paraded in a circle, whooping and waving their goblets. In the middle of the circle, Spino sat up and begged. A woman tumbled, laughing; her neighbors fell over her in a heap. At the center of the turmoil Father Oppius danced imperturbably, swaying his hips, snapping his fingers, moving his head and shoulders in a grave, abstracted way. There seemed to be springs in his reverend knees.

"It is too fast, I am like a man dancing in witchgrass, I stumble at every second step," Wolf complained.

Father Oppius led a chain dance, twirling a white handkerchief. The peasants clumped after him in a straight line, a semicircle, a serpentine figure, bawling the tune as they danced, kicking and bobbing with enough force to bring down Jericho. A peasant snatched up the priest’s fallen tambourine and banged it with frenzied energy, whooping with every other crash. Maura, the village madwoman, danced more wildly than all the rest, chanting uncouth rhymes. She pinched the boys on the buttocks and quickly kissed them on the ears, then skipped away to their embarrassed laughter, singing madly as she flew.

Adriana belched often and laughed at herself. Her spirits rose ever higher. She recited verse as she danced, as if she were on the stage. She danced through the circuit of peasant women, offering wine and honeycakes. She saw double, and began tacking from side to side. Wolf pulled her to himself when she passed him, making her indignant.

"You’ve had too much to drink," she said, trying to slap his face, and nearly slapping the peasant next to him. Her knees were weak. She sat down, more or less on top of Wolf.

"Your health, sir," she said, raising an empty goblet, and suddenly she fell asleep.

When she woke, the dancing had stopped; the flutist had put away his instrument. Raising his blind eyes to the sky, he intoned the songs of Southern legend, about goat-girls and Greek pirates and lustful demons of the forest, and young Modesta, who died a virgin with a smile on her face, and young Spurius, who rose from his grave to attend his sister on her wedding day.

A chill breeze came down from the heights at sunset. The crowd threw beech trunks on the fire, and gathered closer around the fragrant blaze. Old gaffers recited love-poetry, and made the evening shadows creep with more tales about a Greek-tongued demon of the hills. Roast chestnuts were passed from hand to hand. The fire adjusted itself with a crash, sending up a fountain of sparks. Children yawned; old women nodded.

As the last light evaporated from the mountains in the east, the peasants rose to bid each other good-night and seek their warm beds. The peasant boys were late to go, still singing out of tune, the soberest of the party stumbling ahead with a torch.

Last of all, preceded and followed by torchbearers, Father Oppius was carried off to bed, rolling on the bottom of his donkey-cart, singing love songs to the stars.

*

In a corner of the kitchen Adriana lit a lamp under a small image of Christ that had been forgotten in the household chapel, and on her cold knees she confided the care of the house and grounds to the Triune God and the Virgin Mary. Over the head of the bed she fixed a branch of olive, now dry and rattling, that had been blessed on Palm Sunday, a gift from Father Oppius.

She was well pleased with her decision to set up housekeeping in the kitchen. It was cheerful; it had a weather-tight roof, a direct view of the garden, and good access to the pond and the forest. Wolf hauled a three-legged round table and a rusted brazier from other corners of the house. The bed fit snugly next to the hearth. Adriana fashioned herself a broom with river-grass and a willow pole, and attacked the massed cobwebs in the corners. She washed the walls until the frescoes began to crumble. With a collection of sodden pine-cones she scrubbed the floor, bringing the mosaic pattern of fruit-laden baskets out from under a weather-crust of decades.

In a corner of the garden she found good salad-greens growing wild. An olive-oil cache stood at the bottom of a shaft carved in solid rock, not far from the kitchen door. The oil had long been gone. Adriana scoured the crock and put away fresh oil from the valley.

The townsfolk and country-folk of Curia came up the hill singly and by twos and threes to help the bride and bridegroom, as they said. Father Oppius brought pots and pans, clanging against the sides of his mule like a pedlar’s assortment. Women came driving donkeys and weaving straw; children climbed by their sides, full of exuberant chatter. The women brought eggs and honey, marveled at Adriana’s housekeeping accomplishments with rude tools, and pulled so many weeds in the garden that it looked like an incompetently barbered head of hair. They stayed to gossip.

Basilia, the priest’s housekeeper, came up the hill late in the day and sniffed her way through the house, not unkindly, smiling at the primitive condition of the kitchen, the lumpy bed, the ragged laundry drying on the garden statues like an ill-considered choice of evening wear. Father Oppius himself inspected everything: the beds, the rugs, the food-stores, the patch of woods where pine cones were abundant, the standing deadwood intended for the hearth. He made thoughtful suggestions with his finger on his chin, inquired politely about rats and mice, put his foot in a rabbit snare, and covered his tunic with dust in a tour of the upper stories.

*

A week after the feast of Januarius, Adriana had settled into a routine. In the kitchen of the old lodge, sweet herbs and dried pork hung once again from the rafters, and a fire burned all day in the hearth. The fragrance of pine-smoke greeted her every morning when she got up before dawn to bathe in the clear water of the pond.

She imagined herself a peasant woman. The thought gave her pleasure. She worked until midday, growing peasant-brown and peasant-tough, looking for edible roots, bringing in dry deadwood knocked down by the mountain winds, gathering ferns to refresh her bed, searching out medicinal herbs that she traded in the village for eggs and wine.

She raked up pine-cones, hauled water in clay jars, and picked wild berries. She made a hard but tasty bread from town flour and wild oats that she gathered herself. Sometimes Father Oppius sent goat’s ham up the hill, or a little gift of eggs or honey. Wolf hunted and fished all day, and went from lean to steel-gaunt with a rapidity that fascinated Adriana. He proved clever with traps and caught a hare or two every other day, the basis of a flavorsome if somewhat monotonous stew.

From the priest’s housekeeper Adriana learned to bake chestnut-flour cakes on flat round stones, and to make highly seasoned messes of winter beans with garlic and olive oil. She gathered fungi, growing around the roots of the holm-oaks in the lower reaches of the forest, and she cut watercress at the springs in the hills. She made herb-soup, and poached the little pullet-eggs that the peasant woman sold her in the valley.

Wolf learned to cook. His wide-ranging grace in the battlefield became utter clumsiness in the kitchen. He burned his fingers, fell over the hearth, dropped the food on the floor. But his cooking improved with practice, and he threw fewer messes out the door for the squirrels.

Some of the rude arts of the forest and farm had stayed with Adriana since childhood. She practiced what she remembered. Like fingerings for the double flute after a long absence, the old skills came back with surprising speed: the uses of deadwood and tree bark, the knack of setting a rabbit snare, where to look for strawberries. She cut broom and heather. The work made her hands hard and horny. She softened them for lovemaking with olive oil and herbs.

She washed her clothes and Wolf’s in the pond, beating them on flat rocks with grim purpose, her fine arms shining like marble in the sun. At first Wolf squatted naked on a rock nearby, watching her.

"Good God," he said at last, in a chastened voice, kneeling down beside her, "if the empress beats her own linen, the emperor will not sit and watch."

She admired his boyish energy as he pounded the clothes alongside her. He seemed able to make any activity boyish. She watched him with pleasure as he carried the wet rags to the villa garden in a lightly twisted mass on his shoulders.

Except for the basic garments Adriana had stored for eventual travel, the clothes were going to ruin. It was clear that soon they would be gone altogether. The prospect was not entirely unwelcome: she enjoyed the sight of Wolf more, the less he was wearing. At last, for the sake of decorum, she made simple clothes for herself and Wolf. Often she walked to town with her distaff in her hand, spinning as she went; and sometimes she came back with a small jar of wine balanced on her head, in the fashion of the peasant girls. Sometimes when she went to town she brought mountain flowers to the old women of the village. Always she petted all the dogs on the main street. She bought carrots and cabbage-leaves in the village market for the priest’s donkeys, and sometimes a couple of honeycakes for Spino, who thanked her by jumping on her and licking her face with a tongue like a mop.

*

In the mornings she was a peasant; in the languid noons and afternoons she was a little girl again, dozing on the steps of her mother’s marble summer-house with her chin in her hands, listening to the prattle of fountains, the song of nightingales, the rustle of the sculptured trees.

With Wolf she relearned the art of the siesta, getting out of her meager clothes and lying naked in the shade of a great pine by the villa door. Often she lay with one eye open and watched Wolf stretching his splendid legs in the sunlight, stirring the pebbles in front of his face with a huge forefinger, or lying on his back and watching the sky with a smile.

What could be circulating in that odd brain? Bits of barbarism, she thought; demented legends from the German forest; splinters of old and new creeds; raw memories of furious life and death; residues of runic lore and the fearful wisdom of the northern gods.

But certainly he was more boy than German. After the siesta she watched him at his characteristic little-boy recreations: standing in mud up to his knees to catch frogs, which the peasants called singing fishes; hypnotized by the jerky movement of water spiders on a calm day; building a raft with logs and withes, and pushing it out to the center of the pond with his head; sitting nude on the boulders by the pond with an enormous straw hat on his head, intently reading a roll of Virgil borrowed from the priest.

The wide-brimmed straw hat, a gift from Father Oppius, became an inseparable part of Wolf. It amused Adriana to watch him dress for the day, a predictably ridiculous and magnificent figure in boots, loin-wrap, the axe Scatter-brain, a long knife, and the straw hat.

Often in the afternoons he discarded everything but the hat and the axe. "I am practicing the art of warfare," he explained when she caught him crouching and gliding through the woods like a two-legged serpent, naked under the straw hat, stopping now and then to ply the axe against an unlucky sapling, or to spar with his own shadow in the late afternoon.

A natural swimmer, he spent much of his life in the pond, diving and sporting like an otter, vanishing under water for lengths of time that agonized Adriana, cutting through the wavelets on his side, somersaulting backward and forward, floating motionless on his back. He was hardly a natural fisherman, but he mastered the location of the trout at certain hours of the day, and developed a fisherman’s faith in the ultimate certainty that he would catch fish.

In time he learned to land trout without a net. It amused Adriana to watch him do it, balanced in a crotch of his beech tree, fishing for hours in the morning and after a long nap in the heat of the day. Sometimes he took wine into the tree with him, and on those occasions he sang a little, sending his honest baritone out over the pond.

There were days when Adriana craved the luxury of loneliness. On those days she tied herself into a homespun tunic, took a skin of wine and a sack of dried figs, and followed the creek up into the high woods, wading and hopping from stone to stone, sometimes sinking up to her knees in a hole. It pleased her to think that the excursions were a preparation for a future summer when she would wander on the mountains as long as she liked, gathering berries, composing verse, drinking from springs known only to herself, lying on beds of moss to watch the clouds and dream of impossible things.

At the end of an afternoon of solitude, she was ready for Wolf’s company again, ready to enjoy the small repertory of rituals they had invented for closing the day. They borrowed their neighbors’ pleasant habit of telling stories and singing songs around the hearth-fire at dusk, over the last of the supper wine. They made the discovery that they could sing together. Wolf taught her the barrack-room ditties of the German soldiery, and Adriana sang along in her incompetent German, with great animation and no embarrassment.

On clear evenings they sat on a log by the pond, singing in the light of a small fire, while the forest disappeared into the gathering night. Sometimes Adriana built her cookfire in the garden; when she and Wolf had eaten, they sang in the afterglow, watching the smoke of damp pine-knots curl up beyond the roof of the house and vanish across the face of the moon.

Once the mountain night was so bright that they could see to cross the creek and climb the cliff-face to Probus’s place of worship, where they sat and watched the stars. Adriana dug deep in her memory for the stories of Pegasus, Capricorn, Virgo. When she had exhausted her knowledge of the constellations, and Wolf had told all he knew of the odd, grim, bloody mythology of the North, they lay back in the cleansing air and watched the sky in perfect silence until they were ready to sleep.

There were times when the stillness of the forest nights troubled her; the slightest woodland sounds—the snapping of a dry twig, a splash in the pond—set her on edge. On such nights she kept a small lamp lit by the bed, and her stiletto next to the lamp. One night when a gust of wind blew the lamp out, she woke in nameless terror, groping for her knife. She sat in the dark, not waking Wolf, and watched the red glow of the hearth, hugging herself until her shivering stopped.

Often she took strength from watching Wolf sleep, admiring him in the lamplight as she had once admired Quintus, taking comfort in the drift of strong sinew and muscle under his skin; and sometimes she touched him lightly all over as he slept, taking from him the reassurance she needed to finish the night in peace.

*

She had spent the midday lying on her back in the sun, dreaming of the perfect garden she would create if she escaped Faustinus. Though the Dog Star still reigned in the heavens, there had been anticipations of autumn all day: touches of icy air from the mountaintops, the fall of a yellow leaf from an otherwise green tree, a suggestion of age in the plants in the kitchen-garden.

The impending change of season made Adriana melancholy. Wolf, lying beside her with his feet in the pond, sensed her mood and tried to lift it.

"Do you think there are sharks in there?" he asked very seriously, making a splash and startling her.

"Where?" she asked, sitting up.

"In the water."

"Are there freshwater sharks?" she asked, still daydreaming, watching an odd ripple on the pond-surface.

"A wise and holy man told me that there are. But they are too small to do any damage."

"Do you think we have enough energy to catch those turtles?" she asked, pointing at a log on which three large specimens sunned themselves. "If so, we’ll dine in the lap of luxury. ‘Turtle-meat pacifies the statesman and excites the poet.’"

"I will catch them, Adriana," Wolf said, and dived into the pond.

She lay with her chin on her forearms, deliciously amused at the sight of Wolf plunging through the shallows, growling like an amphibious tiger. The turtles disappeared forever.

She laughed, but almost at once she was melancholy again.

Again, late in the day, she sensed an early autumn in the long rays of the sun and the crispness of the air. A highland smell of dry grass and mould, smoke and hayricks, rode the breeze that pressed against her face. The golden weather turned her melancholy into nostalgia. She knew, without yet knowing the reason, that soon she would be gone, leaving the village ways behind her within the old circle of the hills: work, holidays, weddings, burials, stretching back a thousand years, and forward, God willing, a thousand years to come. It seemed to her that the present was already a memory.

"Let’s go to Old Baldy," she said, and Wolf nodded, as if the same thought had occurred to him.

Ordinarily she leaped every other flat rock, crossing the creek bed, and scrambled up the cliff-face with the energy of a child. Now she lingered over the familiar sensations of cool stone and cool grass against her feet, as if they were about to be taken away.

The smell of parched grass and wood-smoke followed her to the height. She sat still, surrounded by the sky, and listened to the world. There was a tiny rattle of oxcart wheels somewhere far away, and a tinkle of goat’s bells. She saw autumn in the purpling mountain-tops against a sunset of old gold. She would have given a year of life to sit on high and watch the valley of Curia in the spring, a great flowered lawn, mingling the fragrances of blossom and damp earth with the tart aroma of the pines that vibrated softly on the heights.

"I feel a poem coming on," she said, trying to make light of her melancholy. "Look at the sunset. It’s enough to make one give up sinning."

"The peasants say there will be rain soon," Wolf said, turning his face to the sky. "It will fall through the holes in heaven, which is like a sieve, they say."

An eloquent silence settled on them.

"What are you thinking?" Wolf asked after a while.

"Morbid thoughts."

"What is ‘morbid’?"

"I was thinking," she said, "that the sunset on the valley is the same color as the silk stola my mother was married in. She wore it every year to her anniversary banquet."

Her voice caught in her throat.

"I hate sentimentalism," she said. "Why do I do this?"

"There is a time for it," Wolf said quietly. "Are we made of marble?"

In the darkening valley a shepherd boy and girl were driving their small flock homeward. The girl played the double-flute as she walked, and the boy sang in a wisp of a tenor. A puppy scampered at their feet. The sheep converged like well-disciplined clouds into a gravel road that wound between rustic walls, enclosing stubblefields that would laugh with fertility in the spring.

"See them," Wolf said softly. "Do you think they are worried about anything, as we are? When I was very young, I used to think how good it would be to be like that—a simpleton, with a simple girl to warm me, and that I would live with her peacefully under the same roof that our children would live under, grinding wheat with the same water-wheel, and watching their children swim in the same mill-race, forever and ever."

"I’d gladly be the simple girl in your dream," Adriana nodded, a lump in her throat. "My grandmother had a very old Greek vase—as old as the world, I thought when I was little—and painted on it were youngsters with double flutes, dancing down a country road. I used to imagine that if we could go back to then, before all the world’s mistakes had been made, we might make things come out right. What a wonderful beginning, to be a child in a fresh cosmos, and to know there’s a future."

She turned by habit and appraised Wolf’s spare outline against the colors in the west. His hair was growing long, his beard dense. Soon only his blondness would distinguish him from the charcoal-burners and ice-cutters who roamed the Sila in winter. Life in the woods seemed to have hardened the curves of his body, producing a structure as elemental as fire.

She moved close to him and touched his shoulder with her lips.

"We can’t stay in the mountains forever," she said.

Wolf nodded sadly. "Perhaps my father would give us a ship, and we could come back in the spring."

"We won’t come back," she said. "We’re bound to the world by promises and ambitions, and appetites and curiosity."

She swallowed hard. Tiny clouds roamed the sunset, fleecy little bodies enjoying perfect peace and perfect freedom. She moved to kneel behind Wolf, circling his chest with her arms, and laid her cheek against the back of his head.

"I was dying," she murmured, "and you healed me. I’d give up a thousand times what I had at Rome, for that. God be thanked for sending you to me."

"God be thanked," he repeated in a whisper.

In the last dusk they climbed down from the height and wandered through the woods to the house. The chirping of woodland birds died away with the light that sifted through the leaves. A tree-toad sang out in notes of lamentation, like a tiny prophet of woe.

When night fell, they sat on a ledge of rock overhanging the pond and dangled their feet in the water. In silence they listened to a family of frogs on the far shore, and to the tiny rasp of crickets in the grass behind them; and in silence, arm in arm, they watched the play of starlight on the dark water, like fishermen’s lights glowing at the edge of the sea.

-
[Home] [Previous] [Next]

 

'

'