I placed my bare feet onto the cool tiles next to the sofa-bed, then pulled back the curtains and let the sunlight spill in. Opening the door to the little terrace, the salty air tousling my messy morning hair, I breathed deeply, taking in the flat ocean below, the olive groves.
That’s when I spotted it.
Stepping back into the room and perching on the edge of the bed, I turned to my partner Herman, whose parents’ house we were staying in that week. “There’s smoke in the hills.” No response. “It’s a lot of smoke. I wonder what’s happening.” Herman groaned and pulled the blankets over his face in an attempt to go back to sleep.
About an hour later, as we sat in his ancient yellow Fiat, driving to the local bar for coffee and breakfast, I noticed that the plume was growing taller. “There it is again,” I said.
“There what is?”
“The fire I saw this morning. What is it?”
“Maybe someone is burning something.”
“It seems awfully big to be a controlled burn…”
With our espresso and chocolate croissants, we took a seat in the sun to plan the day ahead. It was summer in Cilento, in the south of Italy; there were beaches to choose and important decisions to be made — such as if we should paddleboat before, or after lunch. It was a golden period, and we basked in the freedom. I had been teaching most of the year at an arts university in Rome as he worked on his master’s degree, and we were finally free of obligations, as the academic season had finally come to a close. We had packed our bags and taken the four-and-a-half-hour train journey south to where his parents lived in San Nicola, the smallest hamlet in the commune of Centola, with a population of 370. San Nicola is about a 10-minute drive from Palinuro, a faded postcard of a village, which enjoyed booming tourism in the ’70s and ’80s due to its beautiful beaches and caves, but now seemed to be forever stuck in that era, its hotels and restaurants aging along with its sleepy inhabitants. The coast and beaches, however, were still as beautiful as ever.
Palinuro and the surrounding villages all have a “then and now” feel to them. The posters and souvenirs displayed on swivel racks outside of shops selling inflatable beach toys are all sun-damaged and dated, displaying a version of Cilento where yachts would float into the harbor on the weekends, and tourists would pour in from the once-direct train from Paris to Palinuro. Those days are now gone.
When we first started dating, Herman had tried to convince me, the North American expat he sought to impress, to come and stay with him for a weekend, saying “It was like Amalfi, once.” Upon setting foot in Cilento for the first time, I marveled at its slow and languid lifestyle. A morning coffee could occupy an entire half-day, followed by an afternoon beer or glass of wine by the sea.
As we were soaking up the sun and taking our time to get moving, I turned to the mountains. “Hey, look.” Another plume of smoke, a thin, gray spiral rising from the trees. “It’s another fire. How strange…”
The young people who have all fled to the cities for university return each June and seem to spend their summers driving from one village to the next, sitting down for a coffee here, an ice-cream there, a glass of wine elsewhere. They hop from one beach to the next, play foosball in the day and poker at night, sometimes dancing into the morning in clubs on streets lined with cars belonging to other bored summer youth. I remember once catching a 7 a.m. train out of Palinuro, back to Rome, and hearing pumping bass emanating from the hills beyond, the partiers still awake from the night before.
As the day wore on, I spotted a third fire in the hills, and although Herman seemed unfazed, I pressed the matter further. “How did these fires start? Does this happen often?”
His grandfathers were both “mountain people,” as opposed to the “sea people” that lived below — farmers and fishers, before there was running water. His father’s father still makes oil and grows his own fruit. He introduced me to nespole, a sticky, yellow fruit he pushed toward me in a bowl crawling with ants, having picked them earlier that day from the garden. “Mangia,” he told me.
Herman said that sometimes there would be several fires each week during the hot months. I asked if that’s because it was so dry here, and he responded yes, it was dry, but there were also other rumors. He told me that everyone knew that the ones who put out the fires were also the ones who had set them. “There’s just not much to do around here. And people get paid when there are fires to put out.”
“But if people know they do this, why don’t they stop them?”
“Well, they can’t prove anything, and no one really cares anyway…”
I was sitting in a plastic chair at a beachside bar, watching the boys play ping-pong. They were caught up in their game, but I was distracted by the constant drone of a helicopter passing overhead, back and forth, from the largest fire to the sea and back, dousing the flames with water but not seeming to make any progress. “It’s really grown since this morning,” I said to no one in particular. They continued their game.
That night, as we were driving home from late-night drinks, the fire had crept undeniably too close to several houses. People were standing out on the street, watching as the flames tickled the edges of their lawns, threatening to light their lives on fire, consume their memories, and turn everything they called home to smoldering ash. I swear the olive trees were shrinking away, pleading with the crackling giant for their lives as it danced its way ever nearer.
The boys slowed the car down. The smoke hung heavy on the street.
When we arrived home, Herman placed the keys on the kitchen table and greeted his parents, who were watching TV. “Another fire today,” he said. His father grunted, shaking his head slightly without turning from the TV. “Caffè?” his mother asked.
As she milled about in the kitchen, I asked her about the fires. “Dove iniziano? Where do they start?” She told me she had heard stories of crazy people farther south, lighting cats’ tails on fire and releasing them into the dry brush. The idea is that as the cat runs, fleeing from the heat, the brush goes up in flames, consuming entire forests and fields, leaving behind no evidence but a poor dead cat, who is assumed to have perished in the sudden fire with an untraceable beginning. There were also some abstract mentions of the mafia, or conspiracies in the municipalities. But then again, she reflected, it gets quite dry in the summers — “quite hot, not much rain.”
I heard many stories about the fires. But the fact was, they happened all summer long. The hills burned, and then they were extinguished. They burned, and were extinguished again. And everything was okay. Everything was normal. Life went on in the tiny burning village, riddled with black scars and charred paths, which would eventually become green once again.