Cuma

The journey from Naples to Cuma is long – not so much in distance as in time.   Cuma was founded about 2500 years ago, as a Greek colony, not far away from late twentieth century Naples where I was studying Italian and hanging out at Piazza Bellini while waiting for my lover to be finished with his painting class in the Academy of Fine Arts nearby. Piazza Bellini was the local “hot spot”. I could sit in one of the cafes for hours reading and watching the small dramas that are played out in the square. Every now and then my “friend for life” would pass by and greet me in English. This made heads turn, for he was a local beggar who held forth on many topics in the Neapolitan dialect. He also had a reputation as a fortune teller, but I think the Neapolitans are superstitious. They often mistake shrewdness and the ability to observe for supernatural powers.

We were a modern couple, my lover and I. We would not marry because he considered marriage a legal fiction. We had left New York to study abroad and since Naples was (in his estimation) the most artistic city in the world, here we came. I would have preferred London where I wanted to enroll in drama classes (I had been accepted), but he said that would not be fair to him – he needed to make a living as an artist and had to be where he could study and observe properly. He had to live in a city of art. So, deprived of the language of my own métier, I made do with Italian, took classes and discovered I had a feel for this graceful and complex language – and its literature.

There is a famous cave in Cuma where the sibyl, a prophetess, lived during the time it was a Greek colony. In those days one could visit her and ask her advice, as it was her occupation not just to tell the future, but to offer guidance as well. In my Italian class we had read a story about King Tarquin who had come to Cuma to consult the sibyl. She had offered him nine books of prophesy at what he considered an outrageous price. Furious, she cast three of the books into the fire and offered him the remaining six at the same price. King Tarquin again refused. So, the sibyl cast three more books into the fire. I don’t know whether King Tarquin became intrigued about the prophesies the books contained or alarmed that their legacy would completely disappear, but he relented and paid for the three remaining books the price he would have paid for nine. The sibyl then vanished and so, it seems, have the books.

When I lived in Naples, there was still a tradition of visiting the cave at Cuma and asking the sibyl about the future. So, with some questions regarding what might be in store for me, I set out to find her one day when my lover said he wanted to work late at the art studio. I was disturbed by the hand gestures indicating a cheating lover that the beggar in Piazza Bellini had made over him, even though I had felt dubiously comforted by the gesture of protection the same beggar had made over me. In the back of my mind, also, was the thought that visiting Greek ruins might someday be useful for playing Medea or Iphigeneia, but where I could get such roles in Italian or in English, I had no idea.

I discovered that in spite of being only about twenty-five miles from Naples, it took several hours arrive at Cuma. I got an early train from the Montesanto metro station. The trains on the Cumean line were covered with graffiti, and moved slowly along the western shore of Campagna, stretching back the time as well as the distance between Naples and Cuma. More than an hour after the train left Montesanto, it stopped in a village engulfed in reeds, hot and quiet, where I walked across the track to get the bus to Cuma. Cuma

I waited and waited, doubting that the bus would come, but there were other passengers who assured me that it would. Just as I had begun to believe that living in this part of the world required an act of faith that I did not have, the bus arrived. I eventually arrived at “archaeological zone” where I descended and walked to the cave.

Sibyl's Cave
Sibyl’s Cave

I made my way to the center and asked the sibyl about my life with my lover. The sibyl had nothing to say to me. My future was blank. I heard a voice speaking in English, coming from the entrance. I listened. My questions remained unanswered. It was only a group of British tourists reading aloud from Virgil’s Aeneid. They were reciting the part where Aeneas visited this very cave. The sibyl had been obliging to Aeneas. She guided him to nearby Lake Averno, the entrance to the underworld, where he descended to meet the shade of his father. Aeneas’ future was foretold: his progeny would be the founders of Rome. This prediction so delicately spoken encouraged me to ask a further question. Would I have a career? But the sibyl still offered no sign. The cave was dark, cool and dry, with light pouring in through a tall odd-shaped opening at one end. I sat on a ledge and enjoyed the British reading, their clear accents reminding me of the possibilities in London that I had abdicated.

When I exited the shelter of the cave, the sun was low and the sky beginning to fade from bright blue to dusty pink. Time to return to … what? After another long wait, I took the bus back to the village. This time I did not have to cross the track for the train to Naples, but I got to the station just in time to miss the train to Naples. The next train was due in half an hour, but it didn’t come. I sat in the station, dismayed about my lover and regretting not being in London working with familiar words, in surroundings I could understand.

There was a bar in the train station where three old men sat drinking coffee. When they saw me, they vied with each other to attract my attention. I saw something fly at me and jumped back. A candy landed where I had been standing. I glared at the old men, but this only served to delight them and they laughed out loud.

“Oh, signora, it was only a little gift for you,” said one.

“Please take it. It will not harm you,” said another.

“Will you have a coffee?” asked a third.

I shook my head no, thinking that maybe forty or fifty years ago, these men had been young and strong, probably soldiers, definitely hard workers for they still looked muscular and fit. They might have been handsome. Perhaps they had been world-class seducers. Now they were just silly.

I tried to imagine my lover in the future, past his prime, talent as well as body diminished.

“No,” I said aloud. “I will never know him as an old man.”

The moment as I uttered this phrase, the train arrived, as though in acknowledgment of my realization. I did not know it yet, but the sibyl had answered my question after all.

It was night when I got back to Naples. Our flat was dark and my lover was nowhere to be found. I noticed his easel was gone and also his paint box. I opened the closet and found only my clothes. There was an envelope on the kitchen table. When I opened I did not find the expected good-by note, not at all. There was a train ticket from Naples to Le Havre, a ferry ticket from there to Plymouth and another train ticket to London. Nothing more.