The volcano was on the island of Stromboli-the northernmost member of the Aeolian chain, just off the northeast coast of Sicily. Named after Aeolus, Keeper of the Winds, the secluded isles have received a gust of visitors over the ages. Settled by ancient Greek refugees, the islands were taken by the Romans, ravaged by waves of North African pirates and, centuries la-ter, turned into a makeshift prison for Italian exiles. The Aeolians were all but forgotten by the '50s, but my journey to Stromboli, the liveliest member, would shed a little, make that a lot, more light on things.
It was a surprise trip that came out of a quick phone call to an old college friend, an Italian exchange student from Milan. 'My dad died last month,' I told her. 'I've gotta get out of here. I can't eat or sleep. I'm going crazy. Can I visit?'
Giulia needed a break herself, and so we took off for Stromboli. She brought along Pietro, the on-again, off-again boyfriend who was mostly on-again while we were on Stromboli. Giulia told me that the sexiest thing they'd ever done was go to bed fully clothed in sleeping bags on top of the volcano. They had an agreement that they would hold hands and try to stay awake all night. As soon as one of them thought they couldn't make it, couldn't fight sleep any longer, they were supposed to gently squeeze the hand of the other. They ended up squeezing each other's hand at exactly the same moment, falling asleep together at the same instant and dreaming the same dream.
'Volcanoes do things like that to you,' she told me.
We took a train from Milan to Milazzo, then hopped a boat to Stromboli. From the ship we could see the volcano in the distance, a black mountain rising out of a blue-green sea, whitewashed houses clinging to the hillside in sharp contrast. Narrow roads wound up one side of the mountain, one of only two populated areas on the island, and black sand beaches spread out like the ruffle on the bottom of a girl's skirt. Most of Stromboli is deserted, thanks to stray lava.
The port was bustling with fishermen selling their catch and women bargaining for dinner. A few fancy restaurants and hotels lined the streets close to the port, flowerpots of blooming geraniums coloring their terraces. No cars are allowed on the island, just motorbikes ridden by Sicilian boys fetching goods, helping their mothers.
'My friend's house is up the hill, toward the volcano,' Giulia said. 'We can walk or hitch a ride with the motorbikes.' We decided to hitch. I sat on the back of one motorbike, Giulia and Pietro on another, our bags on yet another. The boys on the bikes, who couldn't have been more than 11, whooped and hollered as they sped up the narrow cobblestoned streets.
We stopped at a two-story house with faded blue shutters and a small, overgrown yard. 'My friend only comes here once a year,' Giulia explained. 'You can have the upstairs to yourself. We'll take the downstairs.'
I carried my things up an old, winding staircase and into a room awash with the gold of afternoon light. It was sparsely furnished, with only a bed and a small wooden desk. But it had a window that let in the sun. I walked to the window and looked out on a black hillside, a path that led to the beach and the Mediterranean beyond.
Once I got settled in on the island, I learned a tradition of its village girls. When they are young, they search long and hard for lava rocks shaped like hearts and save them until they meet their true love. Each girl gives a rock to her lover, and a miracle occurs: The relationship is sealed. I spent days looking for my lava rock and finally found one perfectly heart-shaped, round and soft, not like a rock at all, more like a piece of black candy. Later I would write a poem about it-about finding the perfect black rock, giving it to a man, taking it back a year later and then giving it back to him after another year had passed. I wondered if the girls on Stromboli ever took their rocks back, or if they knew their hearts better than the rest of the world-surrounded by all that luscious black candy.
All week long the volcano erupted-every 20 minutes or so. Sometimes it was only a small poof, like a deep sigh. Other times it roared, shooting off a wild display of pyrotechnics like a party gone too far. We would soon grow familiar with these fiery rhythms. During the day, we lay on the beach, swam in the sea and walked the dusty roads to town, exclaiming all day, 'There it goes!' 'A live volcano!' 'What a sight!' At night it was even more spectacular-the shooting flames visible, the pattern of the fire impressive, red-hot lava rocks roll-ing down the hillside like rounds of jagged cannonballs.
On the third day we met Zazu, a tall, bearded man, reticent and rugged. He was the local guide who took people on hikes up the volcano. I liked his eyes, which were lighter than they should have been, and the way he walked-as if he didn't care much about anything. Joining us for dinner one evening, Zazu brought his own homemade liquor, a strong and bitter-tasting drink. I took one sip and had to spit it out. Unfazed, he put the bottle on the table next to him and sipped it quietly all night, while the rest of us drank wine and ate fish stew. They spoke in Italian, and Giulia translated when she could. I picked up pieces here and there. But by midnight, I was speaking Italian too, practically fluent, laughing at all their jokes, telling a few of my own. So when Zazu said in Italian, 'I'll take you to the top of the volcano, farther than I take most tourists,' I responded with a loud 'Si, voglio andare. Adesso!' I want to go. Now!
We gathered some things-sleeping bags, blankets, flashlights-and began the climb. We followed a narrow trail that wound its way up the safe side of the mountain. 'I'll take you to a place where we can see everything,' Zazu promised, leading the way, Pietro shining the flashlight from behind so we could see our path. Below us, I could hear the sea lapping at Stromboli's shores. A perfect half-moon beamed from above. Suddenly the island felt deserted, dark and quiet, as if we were the only ones brave enough, or stupid enough, to take on a volcano.
The trail steepened. The wine wore off, and I wondered what I was doing in the middle of the night halfway up an exploding mountain. 'Va bene?' Zazu asked, scrambling up the mountainside like a goat, while the three of us struggled to keep our feet on the ground. Then our flashlight batteries died, and we had only the light of the half-moon to guide us. And the light of the volcano, which erupted on cue and lit up the sky in bursts more frightening than helpful.
'It didn't look so high from down below,' I said, breathing hard.
'It's the nature of volcanoes to deceive,' Zazu replied. 'Didn't you know?'
The closer we got to the top, the more intense it all became. The volcano seemed to be sending a message-something like, 'You'd better not come too far.' Ignoring it, we pushed up beyond the path and into a lunar landscape filled with large craters and slanted fields of volcanic ash that swallowed my feet with every step.
We arrived at our campsite, a smooth, friendlier spot without rocks or craters. We put our things down and peered into some nearby craters where hidden cauldrons of churning gases and flames whooshed up and down the sides, falling back and then rising again. It was like watching the devil brew his pot-a little bit of this and a tad more of that, as the whole burning concoction bubbled away in his pit. But it was also like looking into the faces of God and Mother Nature, as the lava and rocks communicated something deep to the earth below, then erupted high into the night sky, a show so breathtaking, we all dropped to the ground in awe.
I was mesmerized, afraid the fire would come my way and yet leaning in closer and closer to the danger. I felt the heat of its flames on my face as a burning shower of multicolored rocks dropped in a cascade of red, orange, yellow, purple and blue. I looked at the others. Giulia and Pietro were as stunned as I was. Zazu was the only person laughing. He smiled and nodded at the volcano in secret communion.
The wind picked up, and we all huddled together for warmth. I sat transfixed for hours, watching God and the devil fight it out below me. Eventually I grew sleepy, realizing that neither of them would win. Just as in life, one takes the advantage for a moment, and then the other takes it back.It was late in the morning when I stumbled into a strange and eerie consciousness-a consciousness changed by what I'd seen the night before. Below me the Mediterranean glistened in the morning light as if nothing had happened. The volcano smoldered, not much more than a smoking, gurgling mess in the daylight. Zazu was already up, and I wondered if he'd slept at all. Giulia and Pietro opened their eyes slowly at the same instant, smiling at each other. Without a word, we all gathered up our things for the descent.
'There's an easier way down,' said Zazu. 'Straight down the face into town. We couldn't have climbed that way because the earth is too soft.'
We literally tumbled down the mountain, a sandy slope right near where we'd slept. It was like being a kid again. I ran and tumbled with the others, laughing the entire way. It took us maybe 20 minutes to get down the mountain, compared with the three hours it had taken us to climb up.
We walked into town, dusty and sleepy, and entered its fanciest restaurant.
'Quattro cappuccini,' Giulia ordered.
When my cappuccino arrived, I gazed down at the foam swirling at the rim of the cup. It looked vaguely familiar-like the top of the volcano we'd climbed, the foam like smoke, beneath it a mystery. In that instant I knew that I would live out this mystery-survive the death of my father, climb more mountains, see more unimaginable colors. And someday know my heart as they do on an isle of black candy.
FromEscape(Oct. 1999). Subscriptions: $18/yr. (4 issues) from Box 462255, Escondido, CA 92046.