Vittoria called. She asked me what I’d been up to. I described my visit to the thermal spring at Nitrodi, eating a lemon from a tree near a vineyard, and my encounter with an old man and his dog.
“It’s incredible,” she said.
“You found our vineyard! That old man was Roberto. He works for my father. You ate one of our lemons.”
“Why would I lie?”
“You never told me where your vineyard was.”
“True. But I knew you’d find it, sooner or later.”
I thought for a moment. Then I said, “You realize, of course, that I can't put this in the book.”
“A coincidence doesn’t belong in a work of fiction. Nobody will believe it.”
“Put it in anyway,” she said, “because it’s the truth.”
* * *
Steep, wet steps led down to a stone landing bordered by a wood railing, and then three steps below was another stone terrace that wasn't more than a couple metres square. A young girl in a bathing suit emerged from a dark cavern carved into the dark rockface. Her black hair was plastered down on her head; her face dripped shining beads of water. She pressed her palms against her cheeks. Her boyfriend stood above, leaning on the fence, watching.
In the cavern a solid crystal stream of water gushed out of a 15 cm pipe and spattered on the stone floor. Water also poured from another pipe, a smaller one, that extended from the outside wall. Two thousand years ago the Romans soaked here to cure their physical—and mental—disorders.
When the boy and girl left, I bent down, cupped my hand, and drank deeply. The water of Sorgente Termale di Nitrodi was warm, about 20 C.
At the fence I looked down. Stone steps led to a wet, muddy path alongside a stream. No sign indicated where this path led. It was slippery, steep, and obviously dangerous. But I went down anyway, and began to walk. I don’t know why. You might say I was drawn to it.
Soon I entered an overgrowth of trees and a dense thicket of 15-foot-high cane stalks topped by elongated tan tassles. Thorny vines, wild berries, and orange flowers covered a high slope to my right.
Several times I slipped and stumbled in the wet, gray, volcanic mud. The stream gurgled loudly. Further along the trail, at a small rocky waterfall, sunlight penetrated the overgrowth and illuminated soft clouds of steam that rose from the pool.
The path leveled, and led to a vast sunlit open space, an arresting panorama of mountains and the sea. To my left, several massive promontories sloped downward, forming a large canyon. I could make out a filigree of pale bare tree limbs and sunlit tassles of tall grasses on the farthest wall.
To my right another descending series of promontories led to a more level portion of land, on which were curved rows of rustic trellises. At the dead center of the right- and left-converging land masses was the top portion of the black rock that marks the village of San Angelo, on the southernmost coast, several kilometers distant.
The sea was the palest of blue, softened by a subtle haze. The air sweet with the scent of wildflowers. A dragonfly buzzed. I continued walking down the narrow path until I came to a vineyard. Reddish, dry, twisted vines were supported by weathered white-gray tree limbs and yellow cane stalks.
Beyond the rows of vines I came to an orchard. From a low branch I pulled off a weighty lemon almost twice as large as my clenched fist. I bit into the bright yellow skin, spat it out. Took off another chunk of skin, exposing the pale fleshy fruit. It was tart, but not unpleasantly so, and I smiled. This was likely the freshest lemon I had ever eaten!
The path ended at the edge of a cliff. I leaned over cautiously, dropped a bit of the lemon rind. It floated downward silently, disappeared. I turned around, headed back up the trail.
After a long climb I sat down on a grassy slope. The sun warmed my face. After a while a strange sensation enveloped me, as if I were experiencing a recurring boyhood dream. An extraordinarily pleasant one. That I’m in a beautiful sunny place like this, and I am safe, and I will live forever.
I lay back on the soft grass, closed my eyes. I dozed.
When I awakened I felt someone’s eyes upon me. I sat up. On the path was a dog. Its eyes were curious, friendly. I extended my hand. It came to me cautiously, tentatively. Sniffed my fingers. I patted his head, stroked his fur. I heard footsteps, a whispering shuffle.
A man trudged by. He wore a red knit cap, dark green sweat shirt, dirty brown pants with its cuffs rolled up at the bottom, and scuffed boots. A rope circled low on his waist, and from it dangled a taccariello, a knife. On his shoulder he carried a plastic jug and a dented, paint-stained caldarella.
I said, “Buon giorno!”
He did not reply.
I rose, pointed to my camera. Again, he didn't respond, but he did not turn away. I took his picture. Then he resumed shuffling down the trail. I took several more pictures as he approached the distant vineyard.