Through the Fire

Once I went to Italy for three weeks and roamed around the streets
of Milan, buying shoes wherever I went. I ate rabbit stew and
polenta cooked in large pots over a stone fireplace in a house with
frescoes on the walls. I visited a few museums, the Duomo,
buildings from other centuries. I drank grappa one night nonstop
until I thought I was hallucinating. And then I took off south,
climbed to the top of a live volcano at midnight and stared down
into its fiery mouth.

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.

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