Night Walk

The Ston’ench, so-called, or so pronounced, closed a while back, robbing us of our only local. Now it has reopened as Il Ranch Roccie Rosse and late on a Saturday evening, under considerable pressure from a bored twelve-year-old, I and my wife Rita are being pushed out of the house to go and investigate. “At least a Coke,” she demands.
That’s the Stonehenge, for those unfamiliar with an Italian take on English names, and the Red Rock Ranch. The place is just over a mile to the south following one of the steep ridges that run down from the Alps into the north Italian plain.
“Only if you walk it,” I tell Lucia.
It’s a condition that will usually stymie any proposal coming from a daughter who is sloth incarnate. But the girl is immediately on her feet rummaging for torches. A night walk is different; especially cross-country in pitch dark or starlight. We’ll have to pass the Witches’ Fountain, the Pilotòn, the Castello di Montorio. Lucia loves horror films. She loves being safely scared. “But Dad can walk ahead,” she says slamming the door behind us, “to break the cobwebs across the path.” She hates cobwebs.
No need for heavy clothing. This morning, March 17th, we heard the first cuckoo. Nature’s alarm clocks are going off early. Already lizards are slithering in the dry leaves. Of course, with all one reads these days the imagination immediately makes a menace of this mothy warmth. Oblivious to climate change, Lucia remarks on how very ugly our village Madonna is.
It’s one of those things you only notice at night: lit up life-size above a fork in the road, Our frescoed Lady has prayerful lips, faded blue robes and flattish feet apparently testing the temperature of a fluffy cloud. O Maria salvaci! We cut down to the right, past an open window whence an enormous television is illuminating the street with the day’s catastrophes, then the village is behind us and we’re out on the path, an old mule track that skirts the hillside, its cobbles occasionally surfacing beneath the chalky dirt of a century’s disuse.
But forget the pitch dark, Lucia, alas, forget the starlight. For months, through this mildest of mild winters, an industrial haze has been building up in the still air of the Po Valley. Whereas on windy days you see the Alps to the north and even the Apennines far to the south, now visibility is down to a few kilometres. Below our village the outspread lights of the town project their phosphor glare into a muggy sky reflecting an uncanny sheen even over the emptiest countryside. “Turn your torch off!” we’re immediately scolding. “It only makes things darker.”
All the same the night is still the night. Everything is transformed and the mind is more alert. Alert to sounds. When the path cuts left to skirt a gully, there’s some tree cover and something like real darkness. Then it’s natural to stop and listen. Shhh. As soon as the lights are hidden, it’s sound that measures out space across the blackboard of the dark. You can feel the distance in the insistent yap of a dog. It must be back beyond the village. The cool hoot of a barn owl tells us how much hillside is massed above us. Woooo! There it is again. And at once it’s answered by the thin high trill of some insect nearby. Surely it’s too early for crickets. At night the world is full of strange sounds. In particular, there’s an intermittent screeching that Rita is convinced must be some nocturnal hawk and Lucia insists is just a machine somewhere. I’m telling you a falcon. A factory. A vulture! Oh shush!
We walk on, rather more solemnly, and yes, there are threads of spider’s web to break here and there. Which I rather enjoy. A row of cypresses are candle flames of darkness against the sky’s ghostly shimmer: tall and straight and rigorously sombre.
It’s definitely mechanical, I pronounce. We’ve stopped again to listen. The screech comes every fifteen seconds exactly. Lucia times it shining her torch at her watch. Right. It must be some stone-saw mill, high up in the valley, slicing granite through the night. And the moment you know it’s a machine you resent the sound as an invasion. The genius of the night is indistinctness: the loss of clarity frees the mind to wander, in obscure immensity. Anything digital, mechanical – a regularly flashing light, the ticking of an electrified fence – is experienced as sacrilege, a crass attempt to divide up the infinite, the way these hills are constantly being reduced to so many stone slabs.
But meantime we can hear the enchanting trickle of The Witches’ Fountain. This is at the end of the gully we’ve been skirting and the darkest place on the walk. The path turns in a tight elbow against the rock wall of the ridge with ivy-hung trees clutching in the thin earth above. Water seeps from the mossy stone and is gathered in a sunken tank once meant to water the mules, but now no more than a tiny pond for dead leaves and frogs.
Lucia turns her torch on, directs the beam at the water and shrieks: “Mr Bimbo! Mr Bimbo! I don’t believe it!”
Nor does Rita. Nor do I.
Parenthesis. Eight years ago, when we moved into our house, we discovered a salamander at the bottom of the deep cement well beneath the semi-basement window. This handsome creature, promptly christened Mr Bimbo, survived there for five years, living off the water from the lawn sprinklers, catching whatever insects inhabit such places, growing to an impressive eight inches long. Until finally, I surprised him in his autumn lethargy and took him to The Witches’ Fountain.
Now Lucia’s torchlight has fastened on his glossy black reptile body with its bright orange spots. Can it really be Mr Bimbo, three years on? It seems so strange that we should have a direct connection to this most alien of animals swimming in the very darkest place on the hillside. With marvellous elegance, Mr Bimbo flicks his tails and vanishes in the slime. This disappearing trick seems to confirm that the salamander is the very spirit of the night. We’re all three rather awed.
But everything alien or antique is more itself at night and every step in the dark can take you back millenia. The path climbs steeply and unevenly now up a loose flinty scree, treacherous with gnarled roots, to surface at the top of the ridge where the Pilotòn stands at the meeting of six paths.
This is a column of rough stone, about two feet in diameter, nine feet high, and dating back to pre Roman times. No one knows who put it here, or why. Rita shines her torch at the surface to show Lucia where a large cross was carved centuries ago to appropriate this pagan thing to Christianity. Panting from the climb, the blond girl gazes at the sacred image in the torchlight. Actually it was a cross that almost destroyed the Pilotòn when the zealous clergy of the seventeen hundreds planted an iron crucifix on top, which was promptly struck by lightning, reducing the pillar to half it’s original height. One wonders what the superstitious made of such an omen.
The air is fresh and sweet at the top of the ridge and we can stride easily side by side on a broad chalk path. Across the valley that’s opened to our left, lights cluster in small villages or wink from solitary farms that seem suspended in the sky. Ahead of us are the three towers of the Castello di Montorio.
But all of a sudden, round a bend, the path is alive with a score of torches coming toward us. Lucy is anxious. Who can it be? Rita thinks soldiers on night training. But surely they would march in silence without lights. Now a face glows in the light of a mobile phone screen. A girl. As we approach, unlit, someone hisses anxiously, “O dio, tre assassini!” Three murderers! And Lucia bursts out laughing. It’s the scouts. We stop a pair who tell us they are hiking to Santa Maria in Stelle – Saint Mary in the Stars – four miles away, to camp the night under this starless sky.
The castello is a disappointment. Floodlit and surrounded by street lamps it has been robbed of any potency or magic. Except for lovers of course. A SUV is parked below the medieval walls, driver and passenger clasped in an unequivocal embrace. And when Lucia pretends to be scandalised Rita tells her there were once monks in the castle and much nocturnal to-ing and fro-ing with the nuns in the convent further up the ridge. Perhaps the good sisters caressed the moonlit Pilotòn as they passed, then in the full glory of its proper height. In any event, the scandal led to monks being sent packing.
We know we’re getting near our goal, or rather Lucia’s, when we hear the sound of children. Far below. Their chatter and shrieks rise up the hillside and tell us where to make a shortcut down a breakneck path that drops almost straight into the terrace and playground of the Red Rock Ranch. Why do Italians choose these names? It’s an old converted barn. Inside, the parents are packed tight, eating and drinking in asphyxiating heat, twisting their heads to a screen showing the dying moments of Sampdoria Palermo. Outside their children are running wild. We sit on the terrace with cokes and beers watching them. Lucia doesn’t seem disappointed at all.
Then in one of those gestures of generosity and intuition that only a wife could make, Rita tells me she and Lucia will walk back quickly on the road. I can return alone across the ridge. She’s sensed I want that. “I don’t need the torch,” I tell her.
At first I can’t find the shortcut up the hill and have to flounder at random in dry grass and stones. On the ridge, some teenagers have lit a fire and are singing and smoking in a circle. After that I’m on my own. I pass the Pilotòn and scramble down to the witches fountain where I stretch out on my back beside the pond.
It’s intensely still here now. The soft trickling of water is of a substance with the darkness, fluid and shadowy. And with eyes closed the liquid mind merges with them, thoughts darting through the consciousness like salamanders in a pool. We do everything to keep night and nature at bay then have to come back here to renew ourselves. I’m woken from these reflections by the distant chime of our village clock striking midnight. And hurrying home along the luminous path I feel grateful for Lucia’s Saturday night restlessness, but anxious too that The Witches Fountain may soon be bulldozed or floodlit or somehow violated as almost everywhere else has been. And the darkness taken away from us.