XXXII. ASPROMONTE, THE CLOUD-GATHERER
Day was barely dawning when we left Delianuova and began the long and weary climb up Montalto. Chestnuts gave way to beeches, but the summit receded ever further from us. And even before reaching the uplands, the so-called Piano di Carmelia, we encountered a bank of bad weather. A glance at the map will show that Montalto must be a cloud-gatherer, drawing to its flanks every wreath of vapour that rises from Ionian and Tyrrhenian; a west wind was blowing that morning, and thick fogs clung to the skirts of the peak. We reached the summit (1956 metres) at last, drenched in an icy bath of rain and sleet, and with fingers so numbed that we could hardly hold our sticks.
Of the superb view - for such it must be - nothing whatever was to be seen; we were wrapped in a glacial mist. On the highest point stands a figure of the Redeemer. It was dragged up in pieces from Delianuova some seven years ago, but soon injured by frosts; it has lately been refashioned. The original structure may be due to the same pious stimulus as that which placed the crosses on Monte Vulture and other peaks throughout the country - a counterblast to the rationalistic congress at Rome in 1904, when Giordano Bruno became, for a while, the hero of the country. This statue does not lack dignity. The Saviour's regard turns towards Reggio, the capital of the province; and one hand is upraised in calm and godlike benediction.
Passing through magnificent groves of fir, we descended rapidly into anothsr climate, into realms of golden sunshine. Among these trees I espied what has become quite a rare bird in Italy - the common wood-pigeon. The few that remain have been driven into the most secluded recesses of the mountains; it was different in the days of Theocritus, who sang of this amiable fowl when the climate was colder and the woodlands reached as far as the now barren seashore. To the firs succeeded long stretches of odorous pines interspersed with Mediterranean heath (brayere), which here grows to a height of twelve feet; one thinks of the number of briar pipes that could be cut out of its knotty roots. A British Vice-Consul at Reggio, Mr. Kerrich, started this industry about the year 1899; he collected the roots, which were sawn into blocks and then sent to France and America to be made into pipes. This Calabrian briar was considered superior to the French kind, and Mr. Kerrich had large sales on both sides of the Atlantic; his chief difficulty was want of labour owing to emigration.
We passed, by the wayside, several rude crosses marking the site of accidents or murders, as well as a large heap of stones, where-under lie the bones of a man who attempted to traverse these mountains in winter-time and was frozen to death.
"They found him," the guide told me, "in spring, when the snow melted from off his body. There he lay, all fresh and comely! It looked as if he would presently wake up and continue his march; but he neither spoke nor stirred. Then they knew he was dead. And they piled all these stones over him, to prevent the wolves, you understand - - "
Aspromonte deserves its name. It is an incredibly harsh agglomeration of hill and dale, and the geology of the district, as I learned long ago from my friend Professor Cortese, reveals a perfect chaos of rocks of every age, torn into gullies by earthquakes and other cataclysms of the past - at one place, near Scido, is an old stream of lava. Once the higher ground, the nucleus of the group, is left behind, the wanderer finds himself lost in a maze of contorted ravines, winding about without any apparent system of watershed. Does the liquid flow north or south? Who can tell! The track crawls in and out of valleys, mounts upwards to heights of sun-scorched bracken and cistus, descends once more into dewy glades hemmed in by precipices and overhung by drooping fernery. It crosses streams of crystal clearness, rises afresh in endless gyrations under the pines only to vanish, yet again, into the twilight of deeper abysses, where it skirts the rivulet along precarious ledges, until some new obstruction blocks the way - so it writhes about for long, long hours. . . .
Here, on the spot, one can understand how an outlaw like Musolino was enabled to defy justice, helped, as he was, by the fact that the vast majority of the inhabitants were favourable to him, and that the officer in charge of his pursuers was paid a fixed sum for every day he spent in the chase and presumably found it convenient not to discover his whereabouts. [Footnote: See next chapter.]
We rested awhile, during these interminable meanderings, under the shadow of a group of pines.
"Do you see that square patch yonder?" said my man. "It is a cornfield. There Musolino shot one of his enemies, whom he suspected of giving information to the police. It was well done."
"How many did he shoot, altogether?"
"Only eighteen. And three of them recovered, more or less; enough to limp about, at all events. Ah, if you could have seen him, sir! He was young, with curly fair hair, and a face like a rose. God alone can tell how many poor people he helped in their distress. And any young girl he met in the mountains he would help with her load and accompany as far as her home, right into her father's house, which none of us would have risked, however much we might have liked it. But every one knew that he was pure as an angel."