“James, for Christ’s sake snap out of it,” the professor said. “You need to quit your morbid dwelling on what are only illusions.”
I almost laughed. He couldn’t have known how close he was to identifying precisely what had been occupying my mind for the past three, four days.
“You are in desperate need of a distraction, something interesting to do,” he said. “So go home, put on your hiking boots, pack a lunch, and climb to the top of the mountain.”
“And what is up there on Epemeo’s peak besides a restaurant, a gift shop, and a good view of the island for the tourists?
“A hidden, narrow, winding trail,” he replied, “that skirts the peak and leads through the wilderness to an ancient hut, carved out of the rock, once occupied by a religious mystic. When he died an old woman named Filomena moved in. She’s 80. And she will eagerly talk to anyone who takes the trouble to find her.”
Well, all right. Why not?
Filomena opens her weathered door, gives me a charming smile, and invites me in. She wears a man’s t-shirt, and a dark skirt covered by a white apron that is imprinted with bright red watermelon slices. Her skin is deeply tanned, and wrinkled; her hair a tangle of black, with streaks of gray.
When she sees my camera she tells me she does not wish me to take her picture. “I look like an animal,” she says.
“Oh, no,” I tell her. You do not look like an animal at all.”
Her eyes are bright, her movements are quick, and she is fully human and very intelligent.
She beckons me to take a seat at a large table, and puts the coffee on. The professor was right. Filomena is eager to talk.
I ask her if she’s lived here long. Yes, she replies. A long time because she likes it here, and doesn’t ever plan to move. The furthest she’s ever travelled in her lifetime was to Pompeii. Before she learned English from her son she spoke a Forian dialect, which she knows is considered substandard and vulgar by more educated folks at Ischia Porto or in Naples. What is her earliest memory? The question seems to puzzle her. All she remembers is work, hard work, which even now she now finds a pleasure.
Filomena thinks back to her childhood. At school she and her girlfriends played Campana Bell, or hopscotch. Or a game where she is blindfolded and is expected to find and then identify her schoolmates. She used to look forward to going to church on Sundays, because that’s where she met all her friends. But then when the cinema came to Forio, well, that was even better.
Back then most of the people did not own land, but worked on it and were paid a very small part of the grape harvest, and those times were very hard. There were no laws, no police. So the rich landowners did what they pleased. No one argued, no one questioned their authority, because everyone knew what these powerful people would when crossed.
“We all felt like slaves,” Filomena said. “There was no choice but to work hard. No one had much hope. That was how it was then. You have to remember that it wasn’t like it is now, with all these houses and hotels and shops and roads. This was a remote place, far from other people. There were no busses, you walked many kilometers. Or rode a donkey if you had one.”
Things began to change after the war. The government sent letters to families encouraging them to move to America, or to Canada. They did this because they knew that emigrants would send money home to their relatives still on the island, and thus would give the impoverished people the assistance the government could or would not. And also after the war the hotels were built, one after another. These hotels provided jobs, which were not available before.
“Hope finally came,” Filomena said, “when the tourists arrived.”
She remembered her school. Emilia was her teacher, a kind but firm woman who worked very hard to make sure the children learned their lessons. If you did not, you were sent behind the blackboard to kneel on the hard floor. She loved to hear stories about the pirates from Africa and Spain who came to Ischia in the old days, and how people fled to the stone towers that dot the village of Forio even now, and they poured hot oil down from the top of the towers onto the heads of these evil men.
“Please tell me. Do you know anything about Stregheria?”
“Si,” she says, “I’ve heard about la vecchia religione. Some are very bad people. Mostly they are up in the mountains of Serrara Fontana, on the southern part of the island.”
Many years ago she knew a man from Sardinia, a sailor. He was in love with a girl and told her he would marry her when he finished a two year sea voyage. But when he came back he learned she was engaged to marry someone else. This made him very angry, so he went to an old Strega. The Strega cast an evil spell for him. The girl became crazy, and was crazy for the rest of her life.
“Surely there are good spells.”
“Yes,” she says. “Love spells. They are even more powerful than the bad ones.”
“You may protect yourself from evil by wearing a necklace with a medal with a figure of a santi on it, not exactly a saint of the Catholic Church, but an image that is much more ancient, one that goes back a long, long time.”
“And love spells?”
She smiled. “Against those, Signore, you are powerless.”