During the flight from Samsara Heights to Italy, I surrendered to recollections of my first visit to the D'Allegro family farm in the Apennines. At first, I had felt a huge dullness. Not because the place was boring or ugly -- in fact, it was the first landscape that somehow fascinated me since we had moved to Europe. Although I missed the sea, always missed the sea so much, that harsher and tragic landscape of the Italian mountains, associated to my father's meaningful memories, had awakened my admiration and interest. Quite unlike the rural countryside of France where we lived that, beautiful and domesticated, had succeeded in arising only ennui -- and alienation in me.
I cultivated sadness, at that time of my life. Other boys had dogs or cats as pets -- I had my sadness. The sadness of having left Punaouilo, the strangeness of being a foreigner in France, the alienation derived from not recognizing any place as mine, the hollowness of having no good memory anywhere to be found in my new life. Nor did I have any friends, because I felt French children were very aggressive and competitive.
What I remember most of my great-grandfather's house is the small room that I occupied on a corner of the second floor, which had once been my father's, when he had arrived to that home as an orphaned child. Not the plain furniture, that did not go beyond a rusty bed, two wooden chairs and study table that seemed to have been locally built, the rough mattress and my dusty pillow -- most of all, I remember the breathtaking views that I had from the windows next to which my bed stood. I sat on it and watched the valley at our feet, where a lake was fed by innumerable small streams, the ever flowing fillets glittering under the sun, giving the impression that the whole land was on the move, too. All around me there were ragged mountains to be seen, shaping the horizon with their capricious crests, and no other houses at all.
A world that seemed deserted, but not empty. From hairy spiders in the rooms to hungry wolves in the woods, I had been warned about the whole lot that ranged from pretty hares to the intimidating wild boars-- I had a bewildering perception of danger coming from the fact that, in those mountains, humans were far outnumbered by animals. Though overall there was a coexisting harmony that was very quiet, if incredibly lively in its natural rhythms. Birds singing from their nests announced the sunrise, and frogs hidden in the swamps told of the forthcoming rain -- just like at twelve I never watched the news on the television, I was deaf to those natural meanings, but overwhelmed by the endless symphony that enveloped us day and night.
In the evenings, perhaps because it was my very first time living on high mountains -- though, in my childish memories the volcanic peaks of Punaouilo had been much higher, especially since I had never climbed them --, I thought the sky was incomparably star-filled, and the moon shone much brighter and looked much bigger. Not only higher on the planet and closer to the sky, I truly believed that I was closer to heaven.
I slept looking at that sky, and the clouds passing by between me and the stars carried me into my sleep and dreams. Literally, I believed to be living in heaven.
But since all the time I had been cultivating the vines of sadness and boredom in European lands, most of the time it was also just that, what I felt at my great-grandfather's rural house -- and a frustrating alienation in the very land that had belonged to countless generations of the D'Allegros before me.
Since Carlo had returned to Europe, after having lived for almost 10 years in the tropics, it was the second time he was visiting his grandfather. His first time, I had been little and we were just newcomers -- Catherine had forbidden me to accompany my father on his return to Italy, the country he had left at nineteen years old. This time, however, Carlo and I had urged Catherine, and since she was in the final stages of writing her latest novel, she too was happy for the chance of taking a break from us.
However, the trip began with a setback for me. I had wanted to fly to Italy -- it would be my first time on a plane -- and I knew my parents could afford it! Catherine was writing one best-seller after the other, and after my destitute childhood in the tropics, money was not a problem in our household any longer. It was the terror of flying that made her eagerly support Carlo's idea of going by car -- at this point in our life, my father had his works exhibited and sold in Europe, the Americas and Asia, and he had bought a row of modern and fast, very fancy sports cars. That must have been his third, or even fourth model, that he enjoyed changing almost early.
Obviously, the trip had lasted much more than if we had taken a plane, but it proved to be also much more pleasurable. At the first turn we made on road, leaving our rural house and Catherine with her writing routine behind, Carlo had started talking to me in Italian. His was enriched with dialect, or 'contaminated', in my mother's own words, being that the main reason why she never allowed him to teach Italian to me -- for his way of speaking it being "so far from Dante's language!"
I discovered a very different Carlo during that drive. The man who had always been quiet and even melancholic in our everyday life, keeping to his atelier that was the single place where he almost ruled in the house, always submissive and bland in Catherine's presence -- once away from her, speaking in his original idiom, moving his hands so much and so often leaving the steering wheel that it was making me nervous... On the way to his homeland, and to his ancestral roots, that man became expansive and cheerful, exactly like the Carlo I had known in Punaouilo, when Catherine had returned to France.
All along the winding road that took us across fields and over mountains, he enthusiastically shared stories of his childhood and youth on the farm, and a little more about the death of his parents and on his difficulties in living with Tarso -- my dad had actually been discretely warning me about the difficulties I might have, too --, his grandfather, that soon we would meet. On the way, we stopped a few times so that Carlo could show me the landscapes of his memories. The road was very scenic, truly beautiful, but my enchantment, rising with the altitude, was all dedicated towards my father, and his new enthusiasm and joy that deeply affected me.
"Look, Laurent! That's your great-grandfather's house!" Carlo had finally pointed out, when we saw a lonely house high on a hill with a sparkling lake at its feet. We had crossed two countries, and after seeing towns become villages, those villages had become even smaller hamlets, until at last we had seen only sparse and isolated houses. Now, the dramatic mountainous landscape had totally enveloped and departed us from the rest of the world, which seemed to exist only like a faint possibility behind those walls of rock. No more railroads, the road itself having become a dirt path were we jumped and bumped and laughed, only when the poles had also disappeared did I start wondering if there was electricity at my great'grand-father's house. And if I were going to be able to play the video-game I had brought along -- which, in fact, never even left the trunk. Anyways, I was all on my own trying to figure out how to play it, and hadn't quite.
"Bellissimo ragazzo! Ma troppo delicato e mingherlino!" Tarso, my great-grandfather, had commented upon seeing me, leaving me both embarrassed by praising a beauty I did not think I had, as well as pointing at my dreaded thinness, that actually haunted me. To my dismay, later I came to understand that the last word he had used -- Tarso spoke only Italian, from which I understood just the few words I had gotten during our drive from France -- meant not just thin, but also weak.
"Let's make this boy a man!" Tarso then proposed, scaring me a little when he punched me on the shoulder. My great-grandfather was a tall, strong man with the biggest hands I have ever seen, and I was afraid of him. What is he going to do to me?, I thought. I had heard that older boys went to brothels, sometimes taken by their own fathers, and I feared that my great-grandfather had something similar in mind. Or even worse -- since we are in those desolate mountains where no other houses or villages were to be found, I imagined there could be something even more primitive and horrifying for a rite of passage.
Somewhere I had read that one needed to look at the quality of the perfume and not so much at the bottle's beauty, since it was after the fragrance that we would be scenting -- and before my extreme thinness and my total lack of grace to walk, sit, speak (my voice had started changing, sometimes deep and muffled like a truck's exhaust, other times sharp and tuneless like a little jumping frog), I tried to compensate showing some content.
Frustrated with the video-game, as soon as I entered my great-grandfather's house I went to the bookshelf. There were a few books in French, which I would quickly devour in a couple of days -- but it was the Italian books that fascinated me, for the challenge it represented trying to learn a new idiom for the first time in my life.
And it was not just at Tarso's that I had been taking refuge in the books, where terrible and awesome adventures were experienced only by the others.
I think I had started to read trying to understand how a book could be so fascinating that it would steal my mother from me. Because I had the impression that she liked them more than she liked me. She spent more time with them, reading them or writing them, than she had ever devoted to me.
And when I actually took interest in reading, it was as if I finally shared a secret with Catherine. I had the notion that we read books of different kinds. But when I lifted my eyes from my book to find her reading too, I knew that I had inherited her love and fascination with letters, and I felt reassuringly closer to my mother. Even in the Apennines, where she would never set feet.
For almost a whole day, Tarso had forgotten me, since Carlo, his adored grandson, was back home. I could then explore the house that, contrary to what Catherine had imagined and always told me, was not poor. Simple and rustic maybe, but so huge and solid! Yet, I could understand why, in contrast to Celeste's luxurious Parisian apartment, brimming with Art -- a pair of Chinese vases from my grandmother's collection was probably worth more than all the furniture in my great-grandfather's house -- I had been warned about the lack of modern comforts on my holidays in the Apennines.
With two floors, a magnificent and broad staircase made of impressively thick logs, there was a multitude of rooms opening to other rooms to explore. And differently from Celeste's museum-like apartment in Paris, I was not forbidden to touch anything. "Questa é la tua casa, bambino!" I had heard from Tarso, or something like that, expressing that I should feel at home. Before he gently pushed me away from the living room, where he wanted to be left alone with Carlo, "Scoprila" had been his invitation -- or challenge. With his authorization, I reluctantly ventured further into the house.
That first day, night fell before I had even left the house or the books to explore the garden, not the mention the rest of the farm. I just wished I had brought a flashlight, because often the switches weren't working and I was afraid to enter unknown rooms immersed in the dark. The wooden floorboards squeaking to the changes of temperature, and blinds banging open or shut with the wind, that also inflated the curtains as I opened the doors and made them flog me at my passage along the deserted corridors, led me to think I was being followed by my great-grandmother's spirit. It was similar to the feeling that, in the Parisian apartment, Celeste's eyes were continually watching me, through her watchful staff and even through the eyes of the sculptures and the paintings -- but not as uncomfortable. While Celeste would scold me at any of my faults, I sensed that Tarso's wife, despite being a ghost, was there to protect, guard and even guide me through the house. Otherwise, how to explain that a wardrobe's door would mysteriously crack open to reveal more books to me? When there was no wind in the room to blow it open? Carlo had told me that the poor woman had died in a bed in that house, and since we had driven past the family cemetery on the property, where she and unaccountable ancestors were buried, I believed she had hopped on the car with us.
Since it was the weekend, and my great-grandfather had already made his daily rounds of the land, we did not go out. Carlo and Tarso spent the whole time in conversations before the big stone fireplace which, according to my great-grandfather, had been erected on the same spot where a bonfire was lit by pastors since the times before the Roman Empire. Standing so wide and tall, the fireplace looked a little scary to me, like a great devouring mouth. Its primeval fire -- that according to family legends was continuously lit so not to lose the millennial flame burning since the times of the first shepherds --, should be able to burn the concerns and fears of those who talked before her.
And it seemed that Tarso and Carlo truly believed it, because they talked for many, countless hours by the fireplace, day in, day out. They lowered their voices every time I approached, though they actually conversed in Italian -- in fact, a dialect particular to those mountains, of which I could not understand anything.
Still, I could sense there was something they wanted to hide from me.