The Watcher: Sicily continued VII


Again a town, and again, a people to discover. The soldiers on the bus from the railroad station to the town itself were singing the songs of the Alpine troops. Perhaps it depended on the time of year, but the doors of Taormina seemed perpetually closed, jealously hiding their life behind the stone walls of houses and gardens.

A carnival mask passed by, its eyes empty and staring, the open mouth emitting sounds without words. But it was not a mask – it was an idiot. I saw a youth, tall, slender, graceful. He was walking a small fluffy dog on a leash. I saw him sitting at a bar, talking with an old lady, a rich old lady. I saw him walking the dog, talking with the old woman – in the morning, and in the afternoon. He was very beautiful, but he seemed without life. The few tourists encountered in the streets, in high heels and fur coats, were encased in a shell that isolated them from reality.

There were also others though, for whom Taormina was more than a tourist spot. They sold eggs, they swept, they watched the rest go by. They smiled, but there was no joy in their smiles. The open doors struck me as great open mouths waiting to be fed with the money of the tourists. “Embroideries. Buy your handkerchiefs here. Not big enough to use, but sweetly worked. Or a blouse, the workmanship exquisite. We do not wear them, but it is for you, Signora.”

Next stop Catania. I went to see the churches by myself. One had white gilt-edged doors that led into a hall of gold and curving scrolls, of cloud and angel-painted ceilings. At the far end lights burned by the altar. Silent black figures were seated on the benches. Mute hooded anonymities. An air of expectation. I waited. A black draped figure – man or woman? – carried in two candelabras and carefully placed them, moving them inch by inch, into position on the altar. Turned and left. Silently. And still the others waited and still seemed to be expecting. Was this also carnival or was it part of some other life?

For throughout the land it was carnival time. Floats were made of flowers that had somehow escaped the frost. Girls clad in evening gowns shivered in the gusts of wind. Wobbly-headed figures of paper machè grinned hideously down on the surrounding crowd. Come to Catania, come to Acireale, come to Messina for the biggest, best, most beautiful carnival. But this year it was a continuous juggle between the sun and the rain. The sun won by half a day. It didn’t make any difference to the littlest children. They solemnly paraded the streets with a mother or an aunt, decked out most elegantly as 18th century ladies complete with big hoop skirts, as knights in shining armor, as moors and page boys, as harem girls and pussy cats. And with every costume, or without it, it was a day for wearing lipstick. Strange solemn little faces with painted lips. It was a day for the big girls too. It was carnival time and they could blink great eyes at any young man, could walk through the crowds and brush their hips against a handsome boy, having now the liberty of inviting – and perhaps…

We caught up with each other once more in Catania. And from here, up to Etna. The earth became black rock, bleak wasteland. The snow still lay in drifts on the unproductive earth. A priest appeared at the side of the road. He crossed. There was nothing behind him and only space before him. Sparrows chirped and fluttered as we threw them breadcrumbs. Our fingers turned pale with the making of snowballs.

Messina to Milazzo took us through the mountains. Taormina now belonged to the past. It was not, for me, a view of the ocean and Etna with palm trees and almond blossoms under a full moon. In other circumstances – perhaps it might have been. Still the Greek theater was beautiful and must have been wonderful once, the columns gleaming against the blue of the sky. Now, the greens and greys and blues of the landscape kaleidoscope together, shifting, mirroring bits of all of Italy. With the swiftness that comes from traveling by car, the scenes follow one after the other, like the waves breaking on a beach, overtaking each other and mingling into one. The houses of Messina, new and smooth and sure of themselves in rose and azure, flaunted poisonous green shutters.  Messina had survived disasters, the earthquake of 1908 which left 70,000 dead and utterly destroyed the cathedral, the Allied bombings as the Germans fled, which once more turned the buildings into rubble. The people and the city rose again like the phoenix from its ashes. The cathedral was rebuilt in its original forms, the houses new and clean and modern. But they had lost their memories, were objects without a past, had little to say.

Up into a country that was suddenly Tuscan, black cypresses spearheading the sky. Silhouettes of hills with small rounded trees marching up and down their spines, playing follow the leader. The wilderness was more Lombardy than Sicily. With its underbrush and an almost luxuriant growth of forest masking the gauntness of the mountainside, it was not the Sicily I had come to know.

A small side road led down into a valley, geraniums on either side, a twisted willow leaning over the road, the house simple and made of brick. It might almost have been early Salem. There was even an orchard, although it was olive and not peach or apple.

Back up the rough earth road, up to the high fortress-like Sanctuary of Tindari. A black Madonna, a black Bambino. “Black I am but powerful” is written over the figure.  Nigra sum sed formosa. The wind caught hold of my coat and tried to pull me higher, higher to where one looked out over the astonishingly green landscape and the ocean of pure turquoise and violet, the violet of the anemones scattered among the stones of the Greek theater, blowing in the wind where one sad-eyed goat was tethered by her foot. Tall stone arches on the left, with the mysterious purpose of simply existing, of being part of the landscape. And everywhere the wind that even found its way into the impenetrable cactus thickets. The houses sheltered each other. In a doorway comfortably deep, a group of warm-looking chickens gossiped together and fluffed up their feathers.


Milazzo once more made me think of Piranesi, with the fortress on the hill, the church inside, half in ruins. The swinging cannons had once been stationed on the roof to which  large holes, edged with an embroidery of plants, bore witness. Blind corners and angles, and the strange unused church. The beach was also part of the same dream, which had turned into a nightmare, the theme music changed from Richard Strauss to jazz. Polyphemus’ Grotto – the cave of the one-eyed giant whom Ulysses blinded with a red-hot staff before escaping – was now a nightclub with Chinese lanterns from the carnival party still hanging from the ceiling.

Since I would be catching the morning boat for Lipari, I stayed overnight in a hotel in Milazzo. Early morning. The room was still filled with darkness, pallid under the yellow lights of the lamps, faint under the cold light of dawn. The sound of bells, someone at the door. The voices of men. Black-capped, they were lining up their pushcarts of apples underneath my window. The sound of church bells. But it took time for the sounds to penetrate my mind. All was dark, sleeping, empty. Then the cold water that I splashed on my face and the chill of the clothes lying limp over the chair. The icy air – here quiet, outside moving. My mind finally woke to an awareness, and to the view of the mountains of Sicily, rising dark from the mists, peering over each other’s shoulders at the ocean and the peninsula of Milazzo.

To be continued . . .

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