Qualified Entry: Fiction Category
By: Johanna Lipford
They gazed up the rocky trail, flung in tortuous coils across a mountainside to be lost miles away in a sea of dull-green brush. Taking a step forward, Scott looked back to demand “Coming?”
Doris followed and they walked in silence, the only sounds their shoes scuffing the rough limestone and the locusts’ incessant monotonous drone.
“What a stupid way to spend a whole day of our vacation,” she erupted. “Chasing around the hills under a blistering sun after a puff of steam. We could be in Rome right now, sitting in the Forum, or sitting on the Via Veneto having a cool drink, or sitting—“
“Excuse me,” he interrupted. ”I thought you wanted to do something different. You’re the one always harping on seeing things not every tourist sees.”
“Well this sure is it!” She wiped sweat from her brow and looked back. The huddle of tufa-block huts that was the village where they had asked directions was already below them. “I’ll bet no one sees this!”
“You read that entry in the old guidebook. The Cul del Diavolo is ‘of interest to the hardy traveler’. That is why we are going to see it.”
Shading his eyes he scanned the droning sunblasted mountain. He did not see another human being, much more the guide’s “hardy travelers”. Miles away on the next mountain he made out a flock of browsing sheep, scattered through a meadow next a small grove of regularly planted greyish-green trees.
He told himself that he and Doris were explorers: when they returned to San Francisco and friends asked what they’d seen in Italy, he could say “Well, I was browsing in that old 1860 Baedeker I have and came across a note on the little-known Cul del Diavolo. Doris and I knew at once we had to see it; and I must say, it was a meaningful experience. It’s off the beaten track, of course, but that keeps the tourists away. Nothing distracts you while you view a truly magnificent ecological phenomenon.” And he would describe their journey through awe-inspiring scenery and (he saw in his vision) their sudden coming upon it: great blooms of flaming volcanic gas and jets of super-heated steam hissing from a
yawning sulphur-encrusted crater, with, pressed about it, grotesquely distorted by the scorching vapors, a ring of tall trees.
It would be like that.
Putting one foot doggedly before the other he told himself that he and Doris were native San Franciscans: sophisticated, original, adventurous travelers. Not tourists: not for them expensive hotels and touristy restaurants. They hard-nosedly scouted for bargains in off-trail pensioni, and they ate in real Italian restaurants where real Italians ate, not tourists – although it wasn’t easy to find a restaurant where there weren’t tourists; they were all over, nowadays…
Down the lifeless mountainside at the arid valley he looked, the vacant asphalt road to Rome a thin grey seam in it. No tourists here anyway, with their bovine faces and herd picture-taking. He smiled at their friends’ shock when he’d announced they were going abroad without a camera. But Doris had agreed it would be too touristy to carry one. And those slide transparencies sold everywhere were quite cheap anyway.
Not that they had to travel cheap! Barely thirty, he was earning fifty thousand dollars a year at International Computer, and Doris was a teacher of English in a private school. And they saved their money – they didn’t buy such useless consumables as a new car every year or satellite cell phones. So they could buy a trip to Europe. And when others were broke: Doris had figured out from an article she’d read that they were ninety-six percent ahead of other couples their age. Right in the top five percent.
“God let’s rest,” she croaked. “How much farther can it be? We’ve walked miles.”
He was glad enough to himself, without having had to suggest it. Thinking that if they walked much farther his feet would really ache, he said “We must have walked three kilometers by now; look around for olive trees.”
They peered about. From this vantage the mountain, which from the village had displayed a single peak, in fact had two, connected by a broad saddle, or crotch. The mountainside itself was a network of brush-choked dry washes through pasty limestone outcroppings. Glimpsing greyish-green foliage somewhat below the saddle, he pointed. “Isn’t that an olive grove?”
“How would I know? For that matter, how would you?”
“I know one when I see it.”
Across white shimmering distance he swung his gaze to the sheep-dotted meadow and trees he had earlier noticed. Could that olive grove be what the barman in the village had referred to? Impossible. That was still miles away; the barman had said “a few
kilometers”, not ten. And walking there would be too long and tiring. He studied the greyish-green patch above them.
“That has to be the olive grove.”
Up the mountainside they clambered, scratched by briars and pricked by thistles as they panted from clearing to clearing in ever-denser brush. After a hard half-hour’s climb they pierced the thickest brush yet and stepped onto a semi-plateau gently sloping up toward the saddle, a few acres of it planted in trees set in orderly lines, their gnarled black trunks and smoky foliage and oval green fruit evidence to justify Scott’s pronouncing them
“Olives! It’s not far now.”
A discouraged hour’s search of the olive grove and Doris, muttering, collapsed under a tree. He threw himself down nearby, unnecessarily saying “Take a rest.”
They lay, panting and sweating. He scanned the vegetation that, oozing over the saddle, clutched the olive grove in green pseudopods. It must after all be out in the middle of all that brush! Through the corners of his eyes he scrutinized her. She was ready to quit. If he waited till she did quit before telling her, then though they didn’t find it she could not reproach him later for the wasted day – he could remind her she had given up within shouting distance of the Cul del Diavolo.
“You know,” Doris interrupted this calculation, “I think he said ‘dietro, uh, the olives’. In back of the trees, not in them. That Cool must be out in the middle of all those bushes!”
“Why didn’t you say so before?”
“I just remembered.” Voice edged: “Anyway, if you understand Italian so well, why didn’t you know it all already?”
He stared at an unspoken agreement shattered. “I understand it better than you, anyway.”
“Oh yeah?” Childishly pleased by the noise the first had made, she wantonly broke another: “Well, I understand it enough to know that hag who runs our pensione is cheating us blind – she’s charging us double the usual rate for that filthy room.”
“If you understood Italian,you’d know she explained that: there’s a misprint on the price schedule—“
“You’d believe that!” she cut in, “just to show you understood her explanation.” Plunging deeper into rebellion she swung: “And besides that room, I’m sick of those slimy restaurants we eat in too, where the waiters don’t understand us and we don’t understand them and all we know how to order is spaghetti and veal scalloppini. I want to eat where
they cater to tourists.” He opened his mouth to sneer and she shrieked “Tourists! That‘s us, Scott! We’re tourists! You and I! Tourrrrr-ists!”
Shaken by her fury he stared at her and she defiantly glared back. He cast about for a devastating retort but found only “Well, we sure won’t find the Cul del Diavolo this way.”
“Ohhh— Who cares! Anyway, I don’t believe the stupid thing even exists—why don’t you just break down and admit you’ve wasted a whole day on an idiotic wild-goose chase when we could have stayed in Rome sit—“
“Well it exists whether you believe it or not Doris.” Incautiously he added “And I’m going to find it.” He rose.
“Coming?” Standing majestic, he looked down at her.
With lips and tongue she made an indelicate noise.
Blood rushed to his face. “All right,” he choked out. “All right, Doris. I’ll find it by myself!”
Thinking to call her bluff by exhibiting a serious plan, he announced “I’ll circle the grove through the brush. Alone. If it’s no thicker than it was coming here it shouldn’t be hard to get through.” Looking determined he advanced on the fence, expecting her to plead not to be left alone.
“Don’t get as lost as it is,” she sneered. “You have the car keys.”
Thinking he would never forgive her for this. Never! he rigidly climbed the fence and jumped down into the brush.
Dismayed, he saw it thicker here than farther down. But feeling Doris’s scornful eye on him and wishing to punish her by leaving her alone, he struck off up a dry wash paralleling the grove’s fence. When brush clogged the wash he left it to enter another parallel, as he did glancing at the olive grove to his right for reassurance: there was no chance of getting lost in a small country like Italy, he reasoned, but it didn’t hurt to keep the grove in view.
As he neared the upper fence corner a dense blackberry bramble crowding the fence forced him away. He began a wide circle, losing sight of the grove. Peering through the brush he saw somewhat to his left a clearing. He pressed through the thick intervening wall of leaves and spines and his feet trod air; he dropped six feet into a shadowy ravine.
Picking himself up he anxiously estimated its banks. Seeing them too steep to climb, he followed the twisting slot in the rock a hundred yards, where he clambered out. A narrow path snaked off less to the right than he liked, but he entered it. He blundered out onto a level rocky clearing.
Its center held a shallow depression, a yard deep and three or four broad, its bottom littered with loose boulders. Stepping to its verge he stared at the shimmering disturbance in the air over the heated stones in it, reminding himself that it was too hot for vapor to condense. He slid down the slope and stood in the basin, searching its sides for sulphur deposits and nicely comparing the dull yellowish scales there with the dull yellowish scales of stone-lichen he saw on rocks outside. A boulder in the bottom felt warmer than sun-heated rock, he thought. Straightening he looked about, seeking the scorched trees, but seeing no real trees at all; only, to one side, there was a single, small, freshly-cut stump. Stepping from the shallow pit he stood again at its rim.
“Well,” he said aloud, “this must be it.”
Gazing as thoughtfully at his Cul del Diavolo as the day before he had gazed at Michelangelo’s Judgement Day, he stood, telling himself that really it was quite interesting and he wasn’t disappointed at all. Attention wandering, he speculated on the meaning of cul. Not mouth – that was bocca. Ear was orecchio. Throat, gola… It wasn’t in his pocket dictionary. Must be some dialect word. . Seeing no reason to look further for what he clearly had found he decided to return and report triumphant success. As he was thinking Doris wouldn’t want to push there through all that brush anyway, it occurred to him that some time had passed since he’d seen the grove.
He circled the clearing, trying to recognize where he had entered, though he had made no distinguishing observations. Concluding he’d found the point he plunged in. As he pushed aside branches a leafy ceiling formed and lowered, compelling him to duckwalk. Here and there he glimpsed queerly coloured mushrooms, puffy and lethal-looking, and small secret wood anemones, their bright petals poisonously crimson.
Uneasily wondering if he had walked this far from the grove, he spied a splash of sunlight. Cheered by the prospect of a clearing he speeded up and, after a cautious glance down, entered a tiny space a yard in breadth, a sort of cistern sunk in the vegetation.
In the damp mould at his feet two hoof-prints lay side by side, cleft, spoor of some unknown creature that had paused on its way to an unguessable destination. Unaccountably he shuddered, as if spite of the heat a chill exhalation had risen from the earth. His mind crowded with vague unsettling fears and he concentrated thought on the direction he must take. Finally, he need only keep moving downhill; sooner or later he must strike the olive grove…
But (ice touched his spine, his belly turned to water and his legs almost buckled) when he had issued from that treacherous ravine he’d come out on the saddle…why, he
might have got turned around in the clearing and be on the other side of the mountain, forging his way downhill to nowhere at all.
Heart racing he visualized fighting his way for hours, lost in a labyrinth of brush and ravines. He might break a leg, or get bitten by a viper, and not be found for days—! He grew aware of the creepers and pale tendrils touching his body at a hundred points. Seized by loathing and fear of the supple live things that yielded at a touch yet subtly resisted, he turned as if to evade them, but they slid easily over his body, lightly slapping his face. He must remain calm, he told himself.
A glance at his cell phone showed no signal. Thinking that men had once somehow used the friendly sun to find their direction he looked up at the yellow disc tangent to the branch-crossed blue circle a yard or so above him. His hands half rose in supplication. He let them drop. Burning impersonally the remote thermonuclear furnace gave no clue at all.
Doris would be sitting alone in the little cultivated island of the olive grove, wondering where he was. Perhaps if he called out she would hear and call out too. He shouted her name once, twice, three times… The leafy thicket swallowed his voice. Straining to listen he heard only the locusts’ odious omnipresent nerve-wracking drone. He cried out again, almost screaming, and breathlessly listened… Tears of exhaustion and fear trickled down his cheeks, never before had he felt so utterly alone.
A loud crack sounded behind him. He whirled round and a thorn laid open a shallow gash in his forearm; infuriated he snatched at the offending branch to vengefully twist it off but its sharp spines bit into his hand, licking his blood. Suddenly he wanted to escape that hateful thicket as he had never wanted anything before in his life. Thinking hysterically that he would escape! he plunged into the brush, viciously slashing at it and being as viciously torn by it. Fury drove him till an intricate tangle of vines and briars dragged him to a halt.
Chills cascaded down his spine, hairs at the base of his skull rose in warning. He imagined the imprisoning creepers tightening around him, pulling him relentlessly down to the thick mould where, he sensed in a vision vivid and horrific, the vegetation around and over him spread pumping roots beneath him. Eerily surrounded he felt, by sheer malignance.
He ripped free and plunged off again, in panic terror now, crashing through brambles, stumbling and falling, whimpering, picking himself up to throw himself again and again into the sinister murmuring green, crying out as razor-edged whips and barbed thorns hissed and lashed at him, yet unconscious of pain, conscious only of the terror that like a
supernatural presence implacably stalked him gibbering that he was lost and would die and rot there, victim to the alien green world he had intruded on. A root thick as his leg seemed to writhe across his path. Shrieking out, he swerved and stumbled to fall flat on his chest, wind knocked from his lungs. He feebly struggled to rise and slumped back, sobbing, breath whistling in tearing gasps from a dry throat, his parched tongue pointlessly licking at chapped lips.
Minutes passed. A dead leaf fell on his neck. He dared raise his head and, looking below the branches, glimpsed greyish-green. Picking himself up he plunged headlong toward it. Vaulting a barbed-wire fence he fell in a heap inside an olive grove. Dreading to find himself in some other island-grove lost in a brushy universe he wildly looked about. At the far end of a row he made out Doris’s red blouse…
“Back so soon?” she lazily greeted him. She straightened, staring at the rents in his clothing and at the gaping furrows plowed in face and arms. “You’re bleeding! My God Scott, you’re— What on earth happened?“
“Nothing.” Forcedly casual: “The brush was pretty thick in places, and a few thorns scratched me.” Covertly he looked down. His arms approached in color and texture freshly-ground hamburger. “I’d hardly noticed!” he snarled.
She raised an eyebrow but changed the subject. “Did you find that stupid Devil’s cool?”
“Yeah, I think so. I found a good sized crater – several yards wide – and I think steam was rising from it; and the boulders in it held yellow flakes that looked like sulphur deposits…” He paused, unwilling to commit himself further for fear she might want to be guided there. “Looks like the scorched trees around it have all been chopped down, though,” he informatively added.
“Is that all? Wasn’t there any more than that?”
“Well what did you expect?”
“That it would justify a trip all the way from Rome to see,” she airily replied, not bullied. “It hardly sounds like it.”
“Well I think it does… I’d never seen anything like it before.” He at once added “But I’m afraid the way there would be too rough for you.”
“Well if you can’t say any more than you have, I don’t want to see the stupid thing anyway. Let’s get back to Rome…” She paused and, tone harder, said “…and look for a decent restaurant for once — at least where we can read the menu.”
He tried to muster an annihilating glare, but felt as if kicked in the crotch. His wounds, noisy and ridiculous witnesses to an abjectly sustained humiliation, hurt as he rose. She surveyed him anew and laughed: “I’ll have to slosh you with a bucket of iodine!”
They clambered down the mountain and took the path. The village hove into view. He suggested a cold drink before driving back to Rome, but thirsty as he was he thirsted more to know that he had found the Cul del Diavolo. It was impossible that he had not. Why, otherwise, he would have wasted a whole day of an expensive vacation pointlessly climbing a mountain in the crushing heat to get lost and crash about in the brush then climb back down. This seemed Doris’s estimate now: as he plodded along she walked buoyantly ahead, and he sourly thought that she seemed to think she was in charge.
She agreed and they stepped through a clicking bead curtain into cool gloom. Blushing under the barman’s curious stare, he ordered a liter of mineral water and a couple of Orange Pellegrinos. The barman, maintaining averted eyes and discreet silence, set the soft drinks before them. Scott greedily drank off half the mineral water – Doris insisted on sponging his wounds with the rest – and gathered his courage. As if disinterestedly offering a conversational gambit, he remarked in Italian to the barman “I believe I found it — that Cul del Diavolo.”
“Si?” The barman sneaked a look at his face.
“Si, I think so,” Scott pursued, reddening at the covert scrutiny. “I must have: I found a crater…”
Scott’s description finished the barman looked doubtful, perhaps because of the
foreignly accented and fragmentary Italian. The barman shrugged and asked something. Scott understood only “…vapore…?”
“Well… Yes, there was a little steam.”
The barman pursed lips and ejaculated something that meaninglessly translated to Scott as “Kill yourself a little steam!” The barman polished a glass, looking at Scott through the corners of his eyes. He volunteered nothing else.
“Don’t…don’t you think I found it?”
“Eh! Beh.” The barman spread his hands. The barman sympathetically surveyed the rents in Scott’s clothing and his livid welts and purpling bruises and blood-crusted gashes. “It may really be,” he now allowed, voice soothing. He added something whose point Scott did not grasp about having walked there as a child. He finished, not sounding convinced, “…maybe…changed….”
“That’s probably it,” Scott assented, dismally unsatisfied. He turned to Doris and, trying to sound impressive, said “He says I must have found it.”
“I heard what he said. But even if you did, so what?”
In the ensuing silence the barman polished and repolished the glass and Scott wretchedly and Doris insouciantly sipped their drinks. The barman presently asked something about the crater’s location. Scott didn’t understand and the barman hopelessly muttered his question again. Loath to request a third repetition, Scott feigned to think, and mentally flipped a coin:
The barman’s face broke into a triumphant smile. “Then without doubt…!” he clearly and definitely pronounced on a matter Scott did not grasp.
Scott tentatively smiled back, in suspense.
The barman, beaming, said “E’ ‘na cosa spettacolà, giusto?”
“What did he say?” Doris blurted.
“He said ‘It’s a spectacular thing, right?’” Scott confirmed. He jubilantly nodded, as pleased with himself for having at last understood something the barman had said as for his vindication before Doris. “Si, si, molto! It is a thing we shall tell all our friends about.” Energized by this sudden relaxation of tension he shuffled his feet and half-turned. His eye fell on a tarnished-grey tin-topped table, around it four battered steel folding chairs. The words with which to relate his experience popped into mind:
You’ll never find it, he imagined telling friends, unless you ask the colorful proprietor of a quaint unspoiled little bar in the picturesque mountain village nearby. He’s eager to be of help…of course, you have to speak Italian…
The barman broke in upon his thoughts with something lengthy as unintelligible of which Scott caught two phrases: “..traveled kilometers… …no longer…”
He paused to extract a point. “Probably, because it’s so hard to find – I doubt ordinary tourists could.”
The natives too, he was telling friends, admit that most tourists couldn’t find it – even with detailed directions I still could have missed it. But I kept searching, and when I located the clearing I literally held my breath. As I entered I looked and there—
“It may be,” the barman allowed, like a man amiably agreeing though he hasn’t understood.
“Well,” Doris said, looking from the smiling barman to him, “you might have taken me to see it, if it was so great.”
Scott carelessly leaned on the counter. He jerked away as his wounds opened anguished mouths and screamed. He saw a terror-crazed man lunging through a green nightmare. Pondering the man, he dismissed him: there was simply no meaningful way to fit him into the story.
“I wanted to,” he severely pointed out, “but you wouldn’t come.” She looked crestfallen. Seeing her again under control he relented and, with a victor’s graciousness conceded “But you were close enough to hear the escaping steam: it would make a sort of vibrating hum. Think about it and you’ll remember.”
Why on earth, he honestly wondered, hadn’t he thought to listen for it? He had been right at the spot! But the locusts had been so loud around him, he recalled, its very similar noise would have been hard to discern through theirs. He drained his soft drink and stepped away from the bar.
Confidently he said “Coming, Doris?”