XXII. THE "GREEK" SILA
It was to be the Sila in earnest, this time. I would traverse the whole country, from the Coscile valley to Catanzaro, at the other end. Arriving from Cosenza the train deposited me, once more, at the unlovely station of Castrovillari. I looked around the dusty square, half-dazed by the sunlight - it was a glittering noonday in July - but the postal waggon to Spezzano Albanese, my first resting-point, had not yet arrived. Then a withered old man, sitting on a vehicle behind the sorry skeleton of a horse, volunteered to take me there at once; we quickly came to terms; it was too hot, we both agreed, to waste breath in bargaining. With the end of his whip he pointed out the church of Spezzano on its hilltop; a proud structure it looked at this distance, though nearer acquaintance reduced it to extremely humble proportions.
The Albanian Spezzano (Spezzano Grande is another place) lies on the main road from Castrovillari to Cosenza, on the summit of a long-stretched tongue of limestone which separates the Crati river from the Esaro; this latter, after flowing into the Coscile, joins its waters with the Crati, and so closes the promontory. An odd geographical feature, this low stretch, viewed from the greater heights of Sila or Pollino; one feels inclined to take a broom and sweep it into the sea, so that the waters may mingle sooner.
Our road ascended the thousand feet in a sinuous ribbon of white dust, and an eternity seemed to pass as we crawled drowsily upwards to the music of the cicadas, under the simmering blue sky. There was not a soul in sight; a hush had fallen upon all things; great Pan was brooding over the earth. At last we entered the village, and here, once more, deathlike stillness reigned; it was the hour of post-prandial slumber.
At our knocking the proprietor of the inn, situated in a side-street, descended. But he was in bad humour, and held out no hopes of refreshment. Certain doctors and government officials, he said, were gathered together in his house, telegraphically summoned to consult about a local case of cholera. As to edibles, the gentlemen had lunched, and nothing was left, absolutely nothing; it had been uno sterminio -an extermination - of all he possessed. The prospect of walking about the burning streets till evening did not appeal to me, and as this was the only inn at Spezzano I insisted, first gently, then forcibly - in vain. There was not so much as a chair to sit upon, he avowed; and therewith retired into his cool twilight.
Despairing, I entered a small shop wherein I had observed the only signs of life so far - an Albanian woman spinning in patriarchal fashion. It was a low-ceilinged room, stocked with candles, seeds, and other commodities which a humble householder might desire to purchase, including certain of those water-gugglets of Corigliano ware in whose shapely contours something of the artistic dreamings of old Sybaris still seems to linger. The proprietress, clothed in gaudily picturesque costume, greeted me with a smile and the easy familiarity which I have since discovered to be natural to all these women. She had a room, she said, where I could rest; there was also food, such as it was, cheese, and wine, and - -
"Fruit?" I queried.
"Ah, you like fruit? Well, we may not so much as speak about it just now - the cholera, the doctors, the policeman, the prison! I was going to say salami."
Salami? I thanked her. I know Calabrian pigs and what they feed on, though it would be hard to describe in the language of polite society.
Despite the heat and the swarms of flies in that chamber, I felt little desire for repose after her simple repast; the dame was so affable and entertaining that we soon became great friends. I caused her some amusement by my efforts to understand and pronounce her language - these folk speak Albanian and Italian with equal facility - which seemed to my unpractised ears as hopeless as Finnish. Very patiently, she gave me a long lesson during which I thought to pick up a few words and phrases, but the upshot of it all was:
"You'll never learn it. You have begun a hundred years too late."
I tried her with modern Greek, but among such fragments as remained on my tongue after a lapse of over twenty years, only hit upon one word that she could understand.
"Quite right!" she said encouragingly. "Why don't you always speak properly? And now, let me hear a little of your own language."
I gave utterance to a few verses of Shakespeare, which caused considerable merriment.
"Do you mean to tell me," she asked, "that people really talk like that?"
"Of course they do."
"And pretend to understand what it means?"
"Maybe they do," she agreed. "But only when they want to be thought funny by their friends."
The afternoon drew on apace, and at last the pitiless sun sank to rest. I perambulated Spezzano in the gathering twilight; it was now fairly alive with people. An unclean place; an epidemic of cholera would work wonders here. . . .
At 9.30 p.m. the venerable coachman presented himself, by appointment; he was to drive me slowly (out of respect for his horse) through the cool hours of the night as far as Vaccarizza, on the slopes of the Greek Sila, where he expected to arrive early in the morning. (And so he did; at half-past five.) Not without more mirth was my leave-taking from the good shopwoman; something, apparently, was hopelessly wrong with the Albanian words of farewell which I had carefully memorized from our preceding lesson. She then pressed a paper parcel into my hand.
"For the love of God," she whispered, "silence! Or we shall all be in jail to-morrow."
It contained a dozen pears.