[This story is a continuation of “Cuma” which was published October 2015.]
I had every intention of using the train and ferry tickets from Naples to London that my lover had given me on his departure as his gift d’addio; but before I was to leave, I decided to visit Cuma again. I hoped that the Sybil had something more to tell me. I took the Cumana line from Montesanto,
but instead of getting off the train at Cuma, I continued on, as if lured by the place, to the next stop at Torregaveta.
I couldn’t have told you then why I was drawn here. There is a restaurant near the train station, on headland that overlooks the beach at Torregaveta. My former lover had taken me here many times for fresh mussels. He loved mussels. But that was the very reason that I wouldn’t have wanted to be there. “What an affectation!” I thought as I made my way to the restaurant in spite of myself. My lover had the English name of Morris, but wanting to be part of the local art scene, had taken to calling himself Maurizio.
The waters of the headland were calm and shallow, breaking only on the rocks that jutted out as if in response to the breeze floating in from the open sea. Old Giuseppe was there with his knife and two empty string bags. As Maurizio sketched him, I had often watched Old Giuseppe wade into the distance until he was one with the rocks that lay at the entrance to the sea. About an hour later he would return with the bags bulging with mussels he had scraped off those rocks. The instant he caught sight of Old Giuseppe, Maurizio would shove his sketchbook and charcoal into the portfolio. This was because first time Old Giuseppe had noticed Maurizio drawing, he came to our table, looked over the sketch, then dropped his bag of mussels on it, ruining it with seaweed, salt water and black matter from the mussel shells as if he somehow he was fearful having his soul captured in the image.
She remembers the boat that brought her to Cuma 2500 years ago, although she had long given up counting those years. She was young then and mortal and had been dedicated by her parents to the practice of the art of divination. Being sensual, she was condemned to virginity. She had resented this. Being unruly, she had employed her gift of prophesying to counsel young lovers rather than kings or warriors. For this she was punished. Banished from the sun-drenched beaches of the Peloponnesian peninsula, she was sent to dwell in the dark cave on the marshy headland of the newly founded colony Cuma.
On the way, the boat passed the settlement of Partenope, so named for the siren that had committed suicide because she had been rejected by Ulysses. Parthenope’s body had washed ashore on this spot. Be warned, Cumean Sybil!
She had been perhaps twenty years into her mortal life when she arrived, accompanied by a crone of a chaperon. She had left behind her lover Machaon, a sculptor. Her function now would be to foretell plots against the Cumean colonists by the tribes that they were displacing. The colony throve. Her predictions she would write down in books. Centuries later, she would presage the fall of Cuma to the Etruscans. Later still, as an old woman although now immortal, she would visit Tarquin the Proud, the last king of Rome, and offer to sell him these Sibylline Books.
The boat had glided through the turquoise water that touched the shore of Partenope. It followed the coast to Cuma, then maneuvered among the headland reeds until, tangled in them, it could proceed no further. Sybil and crone descended and waded through the salt marsh to the cave.
A breeze swirled around her legs like a solicitous cat and whispered that her lover was dead.
In the restaurant I drank wine and waited a long time for my food. The waiter had appeared promptly and I ordered a half-liter of falanghina and paccheri with shrimp and tomato sauce. I wasn’t particularly hungry but it seemed a shame to waste the view. I had taken a table outdoors on the beach where I could watch the sea. Every now and then I caught a diminishing glimpse of Old Giuseppe out by the rocks.
The wine arrived immediately. Sipping it, I watched the fishermen on the quay about twenty yards from the restaurant. They were diligently attending to that morning’s catch. Every so often, one of them would walk down to the beach and return with a pail of seawater that he would spill gently over the fish flopping in their enamel basins. The fish were still alive.
The wine was working its spell. I could feel the loosening of my body beginning at the base of my neck and traveling down my spine. My shoulders were loose, but my feet didn’t want to move. My body seemed at one with the soft wind that made the waves quiver. I was aware of the intermittent whiffs of salt and fresh fish that this wind brought – a live mineral scent.
Now no longer mortal, the Sybil remembers her time as a living prophetess, and although pure spirit, she still yearns for Machaon. She was still grieving when Apollo, god of the arts, god of male beauty, god of healing, caught a glimpse of her and wanted her to be his lover. He offered her immortality and she accepted. Apollo granted her immortality, but not eternal youth, so she aged and withered until she diminished entirely. Only her voice remains, carried on the wind.
The breeze today is like that of long ago, but now the Sibyl and the breeze are one. Someone, she is aware, is here to seek her guidance concerning a lover.
Mentally I drifted off to London. I would soon be a part of the theater scene there. A line from a play by Harold Pinter floated through my mind: “There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened.” “Morris,” I murmured and wondered if the Sybil had put that thought into my head.
“Michele Merisi, Michelangelo Merisi,” I seemed to hear the air respond. Caravaggio? Morris’s favorite artist. Whose name was really Michelangelo Merisi. Who worked in Naples in the sixteenth century. An image of a young man, bearded, scarred floated before me. He is painting, the movement of his fingers delicate, belying the sturdy force of his arms. I know this demonic genius. But it was Maurizio; Morris. He was the lover who left me. Oh, Fate! Save me from artists.
I was startled to see my waiter approach from the direction of fishermen’s quay with a bowl of shrimp that would soon become my lunch. One fell from the bowl and out of nowhere there was Ciro, the cat that lives at the restaurant. His nose was twitching, his ears lay back. He watched for a few seconds then turned his back to the fallen shrimp, pretending not to see it. Then he made a swift leap and scooped the shrimp up with his paw — mouse-hunting behavior. He has learned well. With the shrimp in his mouth, Ciro looked around, deciding upon a secluded dining spot. He chose to go under a table near my own, but surrounded on two sides by the wall of the restaurant, with an open view of people (and other cats) coming and going.
When the wind whispers, the sea listens. The diver felt the calling of his name in the movement of the water. He speared the fish swimming nearby¸ a fine orata of unusual size that would bring a fine price at the restaurant on the beach, and began his ascent to the surface. The diver suddenly realized he was hungry. He would have his usual feast.
Old Giuseppe heard the whispered words and smiled – at least it was as much of a smile as he ever gave. She was at it again, the spirit that lived in the cave.
“Allora, buona fortuna,” he muttered to himself.
He noticed something dark moving in the water, looked down and saw the diver making his way to the surface. Then Old Giuseppe understood. He scraped one final colony of mussels off the rock, forced it into his bulging string bag and began his swim back to the restaurant on the beach. He had seen that woman there alone, probably feeding her lunch to that beggarly cat. The man who usually came with her was noticeably not there.
“Meno male,” he thought
When the wind whispers, the earth listens. The sand moved with the breeze forming undulating m’s that moved along the beach.
The sound of mmmm carried on the breeze and the woman heard it whisper the name of her former lover.
Finally my paccheri arrived, topped with freshly cooked shrimp. I put a piece aside to cool and extended my hand to Ciro. “Come here.”
The cat looked puzzled. I repeated in Italian: “Vieni qui.”
Ciro installed himself under the chair next to me. The waiter lovingly refilled my glass.
I thought I saw Old Giuseppe returning. No, it was someone else, a stranger out of the sea. He was wearing a wet suit and in one hand is carrying flippers, while in the other dangled an orata. The fish was two feet long! That’s twice the length of the orata you find in the fish market at Sanitá. I stared while the stranger passed his fish off to the headwaiter whose eyes lit up at its size.
The stranger then ordered linguini with mussels and disappeared. I forced myself to focus on my paccheri, but was still not particularly hungry.
He returned a few minutes later, having changed out of his wet suit. He took a table near mine and requested a bottle of fiano, a very good white wine from this region, be brought to him immediately. The bottle the waiter brought was obviously well chilled, dripping with condensation. I noticed that the waiter also brought two delicate-looking wine glasses – tulip-shaped with an etched border.
Ciro was still under my table. What a ragamuffin of a cat – white stomach and legs, striped back and muzzle and a long raccoon tail. I slipped him another shrimp while the waiter was back in the kitchen. The stranger noticed and smiled. I thought it might be a smirk.
There was a portfolio on the floor beside the stranger. Where had that come from? He probably had an arrangement – a place to change his clothes, a fish that he had caught purchased by the restaurant. He poured himself a glass of wine from his well-chilled bottle, opened the portfolio and withdrew a tablet and charcoal and began to sketch.
I turned away and this time I did see Old Giuseppe returning, his two string bags stretched to the limit with mussels. A feast for tomorrow night after they have been cleaned thoroughly to remove the sand. Some will be eaten raw; some steamed with garlic and butter; some will be cooked with tomatoes and herbs. All will be accompanied with linguini lighted coated with butter and garlic. Ciro will be disappointed. He cannot eat the remains of mussels. He prefers shrimp.
I pushed the paccheri around on my plate and slipped some more shrimp to the ragamuffin Ciro. He gobbled it up, but then went to the stranger and rubbed against his legs. Then this man from the sea filled the second glass and offered it to me.
“My name is Michele,” he said. “Will you please share a glass of wine with me?”
I accepted and introduced myself. As we touched our glasses together in a toast, I noticed that dusk was coming on. The waiter lit two large torches at either end of the restaurant. Immediately I noticed bats circling in the distance, catching the evening’s insects before they had a chance to seek cover. I imagined these bats have just emerged from the Sybil’s cave close by.
I wonder if I were the Sybil in a former life, punished with recurring mortality for betraying my calling and giving myself to a lover. I have seen my lover’s powers of destruction. I know there is also the power of creation.