Harry Clifton, ‘Umbrian Winter’ (1998).

[ Bibliographical note: ‘Umbrian Winter’ [extract], in Graph, 3, 1 (Spring 1998), pp.23-25. ]

In October, the question of wood arose. Through that fine autumn we had heard the sound of axes chopping and the whine of electric saws in the village. We had seen our neighbours at the back of the church neatly stacking their logs, and the warm yellow of these sawn-off ends began to seem almost lovely to us. In fact, those who were at work on their woodpiles this late in the autumn were the laggards. Most of the village had bought its wood from the local dealers the previous spring, stacked it green and wet under lean-tos by their houses and let it dry through the hot summer months to be ready for use now. The priest had advised us to find ourselves a local dealer and buy in a few quintales for the winter.

The message came home to us when the blue calm of autumn was interrupted, just once, by a low grey drizzle that settled over the village, hushed and occluded the mountains, and reduced visibility to a hundred yards. We sat shivering in front of an empty stone hearth, our feet damp from the road outside, our heaters without gas cylinders. A dead leaf blew down the chimney, a foretaste of winter. There was nothing for it but to go to bed until the weather cleared, and then start looking for wood.

We began, rather naively, with the kindling. We had seen old women at the edge of the village breaking off branches of trees with their horny hands, and tying the lengths of fine wood into bundles. Where the broken bridge was being reconstructed, there were woodchips in abundance. When we went walking in that direction, we brought refuse bags in our pockets and filled them on the return journey. But most of our kindling we collected on afternoon walks in the woods above the village.

There were old paths up there, beyond where the road petered out. It was the time of fruit-gathering, and the time when the animals were being brought down from their summer grazing. We were rarely alone in the woods, with the sounds of other people crashing about, and the thin, invisible tinkling that told of herds nearby. We came on open grassy areas scented with wild herbs, where once there had been cultivation. Now they were fenced in for sheep, and patrolled by massive white dogs, which slept in the middle of the flock with one ear open, and picked us up preternaturally long before we arrived. We took our time along those twisted paths, gathering wild berries to make jam with, flinging sticks into the trees that were heavy with sweet chestnuts. Half the women of the village were out, and the paths were littered with empty yellow cases. The women had their hidden places, which they jealously guarded. Between kindling, nuts and berries, the dry October woods were a hive of activity. One day, we even saw our squirrel, a blur of chocolate and cream, skittering home through the leafless top branches of the trees. When we had as much wild fruit and kindling as we could carry, we started back down to the village as the light began to fail, through a dry golden haze of ripeness and stillness, in which the whole of our summer and autumn seemed gathered up and suspended.

There was a rank smell of goat in the fields around Intermesoli and the roads were clogged with sheep on the move, solid masses of sheep moving with one will, the lamed staggering twenty paces behind, the lambs carried upside down by the shepherds. The dogs, trained to attack strangers, were nervous of us and we of them. The sheep, thousands of them from the surrounding heights, were penned for a day or two close to the village, and driven off in lorries to the Adriatic plain. For days on end, the lorries rolled past our windows, three tiers high, so that from upstairs we still found ourselves eyeball to eyeball with frightened sheep.

The horses, too, were being brought down. Our outside tap, through the hose under the road, had become their water supply. The water was hissing down from the attic twenty-four hours a day. Combined with the noise of the squirrel above the ceiling - Berardo had offered to guillotine it for us, but we refused - we needed earplugs, at times, to get any sleep. The horses, loosely corralled below the village, often broke loose at night and roamed freely, adding to the disturbance.

With sheep, goats and horses being channelled through it, the village in October became a quagmire of mud and droppings. The horses, in particular, brought out a streak of bestial cruelty in the men and boys. With the exception of one magnificent stallion, they were a neglected, malnourished lot. As they backed away nervously from the horseboxes, they were kicked and savagely beaten around the eyes and neck with sticks as thick as clubs. There was some idea of using them to give rides to tourists the following summer, but what would be left of them by then was hard to imagine. But they kept coming, the old, the pregnant, the dangerously skittish, down from the mountain, a clatter of hooves striking sparks on the road outside our house, and the cigarette in the mouth of the man riding herd on them dilating red in the darkness.

When we got back to the village one day, with our bags of kindling, Silvio was waiting for us on a bench outside the church. By that stage, our search for wood must have been evident to the entire village. He stopped talking to his companion on the bench, approached us and motioned to a large woodpile between his house and the back of the church.

“If you need wood,” he said, “I can give you a supply.” At the scent of unusual conversation, the snake-eyed woman of the family slithered out onto her balcony to watch. We were uneasy with Silvio. He was darkly reserved, the wild man of the village, feted and esteemed. He was gaunt and emaciated, with dark intelligent eyes in which violence slept like tinder. He embodied the spirit of the village -taciturnity, erupting into violence now and again, like something too long victimised, lashing out in revenge. He was more complex than that, however. There was a gentle, henpecked side to him, ruled by his tough, realistic wife Franca, who held the house together through his alcoholic bouts, addictions and criminal excesses. His two children, a saintly elder daughter and a nervous, crying younger one, were loners who played together - we heard their ball bouncing against the back wall of the church every evening. He was, in short, a superior personality, shedding a luciferean light, a glow of spiritual anguish over the dull idiocy of the friends who egged him on, half in admiration, half in fear and contempt. All this we had picked up just by being about the place, exchanging the odd remark. When he worked, he was a dealer in wood, cutting it in the forests far back in the mountains, driving it to Teramo in his battered blue lorry. It was in this connection he was approaching us. “Go to your house and wait,” be said. “I will bring you some wood immediately.” A few minutes later, he arrived at the back door, with a wheel-barrow full of dry, mossy logs. Several wheelbarrows later, we had a couple of quintales stacked in the kitchen. We were about to pay him, but he waved the offer aside.

“Per la chiesa,” he muttered. “And take what you need from the big woodpile.” Although the October weather was still balmy, we decided to light an experimental fire. It taught us a number of things straight away. The first was that the supply of kindling we had would be burnt away in a couple of weeks, unless augmented by cofton soaked in alcohol. The second was that the chimney, as we had been warned, had the worst draw in Intermesoli. Within minutes, we could barely see each other through the blue smoke in the room. Only a blast of draught, when we opened the door from the kitchen into the unused parlour, partly dispersed it. Our big stone hearth was far too open. It would need something nailed over the top to increase the updraught. In the succeeding days, the house was visited by a small delegation consisting of Philomena, her husband Lino, Berardo and one or two others who had taken an interest in our prospects in the coming winter, in this famously cold dwelling. Berardo excepted, they were all moving to Teramo for the winter, having spent the summer working their kitchen gardens and doing what repairs were necessary on their mountain houses. It was not a good place for the elderly to winter, or those, like Philomena, prone to arthritis. The delegation brought with it a large piece of tapestried cloth, heavy and coarse, which they nailed in front of the fire. The result, when we got the fire going again, was not perfect, but a lot better than before.

Though they didn’t say so directly, they were troubled that we had entered into dealings with Silvio. If we had approached them, they said, they would have found us a better dealer, though by now there was only green wood for sale. Eleonora was already having trouble with green wood in her stove. All the dealers were robbers in some way, they said. For who but the dealer himself knew how much wood he was delivering to you? But there was Gegeto, perhaps we could still ask Gegeto. But the priest had already asked Gegeto, who had said yes, of course, and then forgotten the whole matter. So we were stuck with the ambivalent arrangement we had made for the winter. When we explained to the priest, on one of his rare visits, that we had not been allowed to pay for the wood, he shook his head and smiled condescendingly. “He knows what he is doing,” he said.

From Cristina, a few days later, we heard the background to this act of generosity. It seemed that the previous winter, Silvio’s household had been in a state of collapse, to the point that he would have had to sell up and leave had not a sum of money been raised. The priest, on his own initiative, had raised this money and Silvio had been bailed out. The offer of wood was an atonement, a salving of conscience. We, who lived in the village and knew it perhaps better than the priest did, took a less satisfied view of the outcome than he did. These were poor people. There was little room for generosity in their lives. We had established a false relation, in the web of relations that made up the village, and there would be a backlash.

For the moment, however, the problem of the wood was solved. The weather continued fine through October, the whole mountainside turning yellow. There were piles of leaves on the ground, but many of the tough little oak trees kept their foliage right through the winter. In the mornings, in the places of shadow, white hoarfrost bristled on the dead vegetation of the ditches, but in the sun it was hot. The sun rose and set in a shorter arc in the mountains behind the village. At night, in the deep black of interstellar space, we followed the Plough on its way round the wheel of peaks surrounding us - now upended over a peak, now vertical beside the gable end of a village house in the dead of night. We could feel the earth, over weeks and months, wheeling us towards the solstice.

We had time and space. We followed the logging trail above the village far back into the mountains. It was powdered with white dust from the endless passage of lorries through summer and autumn on the tunnel construction project. The vegetation, for the first mile or so, looked blasted, dusted over. The slopes above the track had been stripped of trees by the loggers - a moonscape of dead trunks, with woodpiles by the road to be carried away. We heard the rasp of electric saws, and watched the tall young trees groan as they keeled over and subsided with a soft crash into the forest. Frightened by the vibrations, lizards skittered into dry crevices.

The roar of water in the valley gave way to a weird, waterless silence, then resumed again. The torrent was emerging and disappearing in the soft, porous rock of the Apennines. Beyond the tunnel construction site, three miles deep in the mountains, it petered out altogether, and we found ourselves following a dry watercourse on rising ground through the yellow light of a vast beech forest at the end of autumn. The ground was littered with beech nuts and heavy with the undisturbed leafmould of years. It was a place of solitude, and the deep, almost frightening silence of still woods, unpeopled and birdless, floored with wild cyclamen. Landslides had gashed their way through the trees, leaving huge boulders. Higher up, the trees themselves were warped and hooped with the weight of ice and snow on their branches. If we went on, we would reach the treeline. Beyond that were the high pastures, sloping up to the barren scree of the peaks.

Lost in their own dark weather, the peaks themselves were off limits until the spring. We had often watched the rockclimbers, from all over Italy, rehearsing for them on the outcrop of rock behind Pietracamela. Roped intricately to each other, they stemmed up the cracks in their designer climbing gear, hammering steel spikes into the crevices, moving balletically in unison against the force of gravity. It made me queasy to look at them. Only a while back, in early autumn, a young friend of the priest’s had been killed up there. After concussing himself, he had continued to climb and had lost his balance higher up. The Corno Grande claimed lives like that every year.

By mid-afternoon, so late in the autumn, it got cold and shadowy up there. The beauty was desolate, inhuman, something out of Shelley’s “Epipsychidion”. In blue space far above us, the pair of ravens that lived on one of the high ridges floated in slow figures of eight about each other - hunting. We saw them drop suddenly deep, deep into the valley, and begin their slow rise again, spiral by spiral on steadied wings, wafted upwards on invisible thermals, until they reached their hunting altitudes again. They were the only two birds in that vast area of mountain. Lower down, an occasional jay flashed yel

low through the trees, but it was the hunting season, and the birdlife that had not been shot had gone deep into hiding. It was said that the Italian cities in autumn were aswarm with birds, guided there by a collective instinct for safety. But here, since the swallows and swifts had departed for Africa, there was little or nothing. Sparrows and songbirds, for the hunters, were delicacies on a platter.

Work on the tunnel construction project was about to stop for the winter. The endless rolling of lorries that had accompanied our stay in the village through summer and autumn, was about to cease. And the last of the summer residents had closed up their houses and moved down to Teramo. It was as if the various levels of sound that we had known through the summer and autumn had been stripped away one by one, as the village reverted to an original mountain silence and isolation. Ironically, it was just then that the road connection to Pietracamela was restored, and our few commuters to Teramo, spared their detour through Fano Adriano, drove across the new bridge, through the first light snowshower of winter.

[End extract]

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