By Joanna Scott
Published by Little Brown & Co
October 2002; 0-316-77618-1; 288 pages
Water laps against the quay of Portoferraio. Hungry dogs blink in the sunlight. A grocer stacks oranges. A carabiniere checks the time on his wristwatch. A girl chases a cat into a courtyard. Men argue in the shade of an archway. A woman rubs a rag over a shop window. Heels click on stone. Bottles rattle in the back of a flatbed truck. A boy writes graffiti on the wall above the steps leading to the Liceo Raffaello. German tourists hesitate before filing into a bar. An old woman, puzzled to find herself still alive at the end of the century, sits on a bench in Piazza Repubblica, her eyes closed, her lips moving in a silent prayer to San Niccolò.
I have seen the faded frescoes of San Niccolé in the church in San Piero. I drove to this little enclave yesterday in search of a grotto that is supposed to be full of tourmaline. After wandering through the hills without finding the grotto, I returned to San Piero to explore the village and the deserted ruins of the Appiano fortress. The emptiness felt so complete that the shadow of a man on the granite wall startled me-my own shadow, squat in the light of late morning.
Inside the church, Niccolé has watched the world with knowing eyes for six hundred years. Bloodied Niccolé, who knows everything about everyone and will never be surprised.
When the earth's ancient fire cooled and shrank toward the core, it left behind a hard, uneven shelf of land along the west coast of the peninsula of Italy that was extraordinarily rich with minerals- with hematite, magnetite, pyrite, quartz, agate, and tourmaline running in pure veins through the deep folds of metamorphic rock. Millions of years later, the fire inside the earth flared, tremors vibrated in the glaciers, and the Tuscan Archipelago broke away from the continent. Vents opened in mountain peaks. Basaltic lava flowed over the land. Rain cooled the lava into rock, storm winds wore the rock smooth, rivers cut channels, dust turned to soil, soil softened to fertile mud along the deltas. New forests grew, diverse species of plants and animals evolved. A unique species of poisonous snake made its home on Montecristo. Each island had its own kind of beetle. At one time, small brown bears lived in the caves of Elba, a prehistoric species of rhinoceros roamed the fields, and lynx hunted the newborn foals of wild horses.
Like all bodies of land, the island of Elba would continue to change. Everything on Elba would change, except the minerals. Deep inside the ground the minerals of Elba would remain what they were, pure, intact, untouched by measurable time.
At Pomonte, follow the road to the right of the church beyond the last of the village houses. Continue up the rise. At the fork, cross the little cement bridge and climb the granite steps to the mule track. Follow the track through the vineyards, keeping the stream to your left. Continue past the last vines and into the woods. Cross through a chestnut grove, go forward about a hundred meters, wade through the stream, cross a valley, and continue into another wood of white poplar and oak.
Eventually you will come to an old sheepfold and shepherd's cottage at the top of Grottaccia hill. If you look carefully at the dome of the cottage, you will see that no mortar was used. The skillful builders constructed the dome simply by putting one stone on top of another.
Four thousand years ago, a woman stood in the grotto of San Giuseppe and poured oil from a vase into a bowl. She crumbled dried rosemary into the oil and pounded it to make a paste. She rubbed the paste on the forehead of her sleeping child to take away his fever.
Three thousand years ago, two Greeks, who happened to be brothers, tended a smelting fire. When the burning wood suddenly popped and sparked, the brothers lurched back with a gasp. The fire burned on. The ore melted. The brothers laughed at their cowardice. They decided to name the island Aethalia after the sparking fires. They knew these fires would burn for centuries.
Twenty-five hundred years ago, an Etruscan patriarch stood on the steps of the acropolis on Volterraio and admired the island's beauty. He decided then and there to deliver an edict moving the smelting furnaces to the mainland territory of Populonia.
Two thousand years ago, a Roman mapmaker wandered the island, recording the contours of land, the presence of rivers and streams, the size of villages. The most prosperous villages belonged to the Ilvates-settlers who had come from Liguria-so the mapmaker decided to name the island Ilva.
The name of Elba, replacing Ilva, first appears in Gregory the Great's Dialogues, written in the second half of the sixth century A.D.
Hair tangled by the salty seabreeze. Sparkle of quartz dust. Pigskin ball sailing through the air. Clamor of American soldiers in pursuit. Confusion, laughter, protest, happiness, youth.
Still the men in the shade of the archway are arguing, still the old woman sitting on the bench in Piazza Repubblica in Portoferraio is mouthing a silent prayer. The boy who was writing on the wall has left. French tourists stand outside a bar, trying to decide whether or not to go in.
Follow the path from Marciana toward the San Cerbone monastery. At the little lay-by area beyond the woods, take the steep narrow track through the shade of tree-heath. Climb over the broad granite slabs and across the screes to the ridge, where the paths for Poggio and Sant'Ilario meet. Keep following the track up the eastern slope of Monte Capanne, through the scrub of lavender and genista, proceed in a steep climb for about half an hour to the summit. If the day is clear, you will be able to see the coast of Tuscany in one direction, the mountains of Corsica in the other.
Five hundred years ago, a mother hid with her three children in the family's dank lightless cantina in Marina di Campo. The father had locked the door from the outside and left to fight with his neighbors against Khayr ad-Din, the pirate known as Barbarossa. The mother sang to her children, and then the children took turns telling stories. They had only a loaf of bread between them and nothing to drink but wine. When the father unlocked the door three days later, his family tumbled out, dissolute, overcome with hilarity.
Four hundred and fifty years ago, twelve young men and women were dragged from their homes in the township of Fabricia onto a boat bound for Tunisia, where they would serve as slaves for the rest of their lives.
Two hundred years ago, the young British painter John Robert Cozens, son of the painter Alexander Cozens, looked out through a window of the chiesetta di Madonna di Monserrato and tried to mix colors on his pallet to match the color of the hills above Porto Azzurro. He decided the best he could hope for was honorable failure.
Follow the road to the right of the Fortezza pisana for about a hundred meters. Turn left onto the mule track that continues into the woods. Continue past the bronze statue of the angel to the paved road that is flanked by the fourteen Stations of the Cross. Follow this through the woods and up the rocky slope to the shrine of Madonna del Monte.
According to the legend, shepherds discovered an image of the Virgin painted on a chunk of granite. They carried the rock to their valley, but the next morning when they woke the rock had been returned to the exact place where they'd first found it on Monte Giove. The shepherds took this as a sign that they should erect a church at the site.
It was here that Napoleon stayed for two weeks during his exile in 1814.
The sun. The wind. Fragrance of rosemary and rock roses, lavender and beer. Sound of pebbles sloshing in the lazy waves. American soldiers breaking from a huddle. Run, jump, twist, crash, fall, get up again, and hike. Yessirree, we could get used to this place! Touchdown!
After the short reign of Napoleon, the island reverted to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and, in 1860, to the Kingdom of Italy. During the Risorgimento, the mines of Elba were expanded to meet Italy's growing demand for iron. During the First World War, more than two hundred young Elban men were killed fighting on the mainland. After the war, labor unrest escalated on the island. In 1920, miners occupied the administrative offices of the Alti Forni of Portoferraio, demanding an improvement in working conditions and a reduction in prices for food and dry goods. An agreement was reached after a two-month standoff.
The Cinema Moderno opened in Portoferraio in 1924. The Festa dell'Uva was initiated. Mussolini visited the island on several occasions between 1928 and 1936.
The Second World War arrived on Elba in September 1943. On the sixteenth of the month, beginning at 11:30 A.M., seven German bombers buzzed across the sky above Portoferraio. By 4:00 in the afternoon, more than one hundred civilians were dead, and the people of Elba had surrendered.
Nine months later, the Allies attacked in an invasion called "Operation Brassard," planned by General De Lattre de Tassigny. A group of "commandos d'Afrique" led the way early in the morning on the seventeenth of June, followed by French marines. During the night between the seventeenth and eighteenth, Portoferraio was bombed sixteen times. The fighting was swift and severe. The Ninth French Colonial Division lost hundreds of men but managed to take twelve hundred German soldiers prisoner.
What had begun as an apparently minor Allied operation reawakened and reinforced German fears of Allied landings behind the Germans' western flank. The Germans retreated into the Appenines. The Allies instated a military government on Elba. And in July an obscure American Division arrived to oversee the distribution of supplies.
The Americans, with their chocolate and cigarettes, Spam and rice. The American boys turning war into a holiday. The Americans wanting to do nothing but strip down to their shorts and play football on the beach at Le Ghiaie. Bare toes curling over hot gravel. Shining faces and salt-bleached hair.
The men are arguing about the war. I know because I started the argument. I'd fallen into conversation with one of the men, stopping to ask for directions and then going on to ask more probing questions in hopes of learning something about the history of the island. I asked him if he remembered the American soldiers who came to Elba in the summer of 1944. He said he'd been serving in the Italian navy in Puglia at the time, but he'd heard about the Americans and their games. We were joined by his friend. The two men got to talking about the occupation of the Germans and the invasion of the Allies. The men disagreed about the value of the Liberation. Other men joined us. They talked rapidly, but I could make out the gist of the argument. Some believed the Allies had saved the island; others thought they'd come close to destroying it. One man ripped up a receipt he'd carried from the grocer and threw the pieces on the ground. Eccola. That is what the man would have his friends do with the past.
They seemed to forget me, and I withdrew without a word. I walked from the archway into the piazza and saw the old woman sitting on the bench. I was about to go up and ask her for directions when I noticed that her eyes were closed and her lips moving in silent prayer.
I spent the morning wandering the island. Walking back through the piazza later, I saw the same old woman on the bench and the men still arguing in the archway. I saw an English couple coming out of a bar, balancing cones topped with towers of gelati. I read the graffiti on the wall above the stairs leading to Liceo Raffaello: "Michela è un sogno."
I returned to my hotel room and opened the window. The hotel is adjacent to the vineyard of La Chiusa, and I can smell the ripe grapes. I hear doves cooing in the palms, a rooster crowing up in the hills, motorcycles buzzing and trucks rattling along the main road.
On the table in front of me I've set out the faded deed I found among my father's papers last month when I was helping my mother get ready for a yard sale. The deed names my father as owner of five hectares of Elban land. I flatten the worn creases with my thumb. Though there are many signatures and a stamp on the last page, the claim is worthless, local officials have already informed me. Why, then, don't I just turn around and go home?
The woman I lived with for seven years called two weeks ago to tell me that she is getting married. When I invited her to come to Elba with me, she laughed, her tone one of easy fellowship, as if she'd just chucked me on the shoulder.
This is my first visit back to the island since the mid-1950s, and though I've only been here for three days I'm already looking forward to returning again soon. I consider myself lucky to have the liberty and resources to travel. My brothers agree among themselves that I'm indulging in nostalgia and remind me that there are better ways to spend my money.
Our father had been to Elba himself during the war and stayed long enough to play football on the beach and swim in the tepid sea. Based on his firsthand experience, he could assure us that the sun always shines on Elba, wildflowers bloom year round, Elbans will give away the jackets off their backs, and pirates know it is a good place to bury stolen treasure.
Where on earth is Elba? we wanted to know. It is an island not far from the coast of Italy, our father said. Napoleon once reigned in exile there.
Where is Italy? we asked while we watched our parents pack for the journey. Who is Napoleon? What is exile?
Forty-three years later, I am like a blind man feeling my way through a house that has appeared repeatedly in my dreams. I recognize everything, though nothing is familiar. Much has changed, of course. When I came here with my family, Elba was still dependent on its mining industry. Now it is an active tourist resort. It is just after the high season, and the island seems tranquil to me, but it is overrun in summer, people say. I have been warned to stay away from the main centers of Portoferraio and Porto Azzurro during July and August. Hotel reservations should be made far in advance, expect traffic jams, don't bother with the crowded beaches at Bagnaia and Procchio and Marciana Marina, forget about getting into the Villa Demidoff or hiking to the top of Volterraio or riding the Monte Capanne cable car. Better yet, avoid Elba altogether and go to Corsica.
The soft breeze of the scirocco. The rustle of palm fronds. Piping of a nightingale. Two girls riding bareback on the same brown horse. The granite cap of Monte Capanne shining like snow in the distance. Dust rising behind a jeep as it climbs a cart road to Buraccio and disappears beneath the holm oaks. Mouflons grazing on the grassy slope of Monte Calamita.
The war might be continuing elsewhere, but it is over on Elba, and the American soldiers are leaving. Mementos are traded. The Americans give the Elbans matchbooks and dollar bills. The Elbans give the Americans quartz crystals and polished hematite. My father comes away with a small chunk of a dusky mineral tinged at the center with blue, identified for him later as tourmaline, which he will carry back to New York and sell to a jeweler for twenty-five dollars, telling himself as he walks away from the shop that he'd just made the best deal of his life.Copyright © 2002 Joanna Scott
Reprinted with permission.
In the mid-1950s, Murray Murdoch transports his wife and four young sons to Elba, an island off the northwest coast of Italy, in a desperate attempt to escape the embarrassment of his financial failures in America. Seduced by the wealth promised in the island's surfeit of semiprecious tourmaline, Murray struggles to establish a homestead and a fortune. But the allure of one of Elba's other treasuresa bewitching local girl named Adriana Nardiputs his quest into a tailspin. When Adriana mysteriously disappears one night, Elbans start having violent dreams in which Murray is her murderer.
The suspicion cast upon Murray is fueled by the accusations of Adriana's mentor, an English historian named Francis Cape, and in the months that follow, the growing scandal upends the island and the Murdochs. Claire Murdoch, weary of her husband's reckless antics, retreats from the world. Oliver Murdoch and his three brothers, left to govern themselves, wander hills and cliffs, creating a fantastical world with dangers as real as those that threaten their parents. What was meant to be a new start becomes yet another self-orchestrated disaster, and Elba becomes for Murray what it was for Napoleon before him---a place of exile.
Nearly half a century later, Oliver returns to the lush landscape that inspired the magical daydreams of his childhood and sets out to reconstruct the events that nearly ruined his father.
her characteristic insight and grace, Joanna Scott illuminates the wonders
of a foreign land, the romance of a bygone era, and the fragile bonds
Joanna Scott is the author of four novels, including 1997 Pulitzer Prize finalist The Manikin, and a short story collection, Various Antidotes, which was a finalist for the 1995 PEN/Faulkner Award. She has received a MacArthur Fellowship and a Lannan Award. She lives in Rochester, New York.