(the following is a small excerpt from the first draft of my book)
“È una passeggiata facile. Vai dritto.”
Mario put a bitter espresso in front of me, added a shot of fennel liquor to it, and laid down a plate of soft freshly made sheep cheese with a selection of homemade jam; zucchini jam, tomato and honey jam, fig jam. Another plate in front of me had thin slices of speck, which comes from the belly of the pig and is fatty and salty, a bit tougher than prosciutto, with a little more pork flavor. He placed bowl of fresh picked nespole, small fruit with pits, a fruit that is perfectly ripe this spring season. They’re like nectarines, or maybe apricots, or an orange colored plums —and yet nothing like all of them, and unlike any fruit I have ever tasted. They are dangerously easy to chain eat, one right after another. Their skin is soft, and the flesh is bright orange, juicy enough for it to drip down your chin, but not so much to make an entire mess down the front of you.
“So it’s easy, but how long will it take?” I asked as I spooned some fresh cheese on a small piece of bread, and then topped it with zucchini jam, which tastes more like sweetness than zucchini, but the green of the vegetable was eveident under the sugar. I put some of the speck on on top of it all, to bring some salt in. He also handed me some freshly made cow yogurt, in a little ball jar, that was rich and creamy and sour and tasted like the smell of freshly cut grass.
Mario thought for a moment. “A couple hours, at the most.”
I was staying in a room at Mario’s farm he ran with his daughter Silvia and his wife Maria. They specialized in cultivated ancient grains, bu made their own cheese, meats, jams. This farm was in the Madonie Mountains. After I arrived in these mountains, in the heart of Sicily, I canceled my plans to go south on the island. I didn’t want to leave these mountains. These mountains felt more like home than anywhere I had ever been. I decided to extend my stay here. I considered never leaving, to be honest. Mountain living felt in my bones, in my blood.
I asked Mario earlier about a good place to hike for the day. He leaned forward and pressed his palms together in front of his face and answered. “Madonna dell’Alto, you must!”
Madonna dell’Alto was the highest sanctuary in all of Europe for those devoted to the Madonna. The story goes, around 800 AD, a wooden statue of the Madonna washed up on shore along the coastline that hugs the base of these mountains, in the seaside village of Cefalu. A monk found her on the beach and brought it somewhere in the village to place her. He didn’t know where she came from,but suspected she fell off a boat. So he tried to create a new home for her. The next day, he walked on the beach, and there she was, again, washed up on shore.. He transported her to another location and built a shrine for her there, hoping this would keep her content. The next day, as he walked the beach, again he found her on the sand. He then let her decide where she wanted to be. He strapped her to the back of a cow and said go where you want to live.
The cow walked straight up to the top of the mountain, and dropped Madonna off there. A sanctuary was built for her, on this mountain top that was surrounded by three hundred and sixty degree views. This spot became sacred to those who lived anywhere near here. It was a place of pilgrimage. The people walked up, barefoot, carrying offerings, and spent days and nights in prayer at the feet of the particular, mysterious Madonna that washed up from the sea and was carried to this great height by a cow.
I drove to one of the trails, the easiest one, according to Mario, and parked on a little dirt road. My car was the only one there, so I assumed I would be alone. There was a fleeting thought, as there always is, will I be safe? I was about to go on a trail inside a mountain, in a foreign country —all alone. I took a second to feel the heaviness, the anxiety, the reality of this kind of fear I have lived with my whole life. Scared to walk home at night, scared of walking in a parking lot at night, scared to go into nature alone— but then I pushed the fear far down inside myself —as I have always done. I would not be surprised pushed down fear has formed universes all on their own within me, ruling my body from the inside out. But, I cannot be taken by that fear in the moments. If I didn’t push it far away, I would never leave my bedroom.
I had enough water in my backpack. I had my old baseball cap that had the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe embroidered on the front. I had a tiny blue glass vile of placenta powder that came from the birth of my youngest daughter. The one that carries so much deregulation, so many volcanic traits. When she was born we dried her placenta. I ate most of it, to help the healing of my body. She was born on a night of raging wild winds that shook the windows like clattering bones. She was born in front of a fire, that lit the whole house. The moment she was born I felt sad and worn out. This isn’t a normal feeling with the amount of oxytocin that should have been flushing through my body. So I ingested my own placenta for nutrients and replacements in minerals. I took it for weeks until I felt better, which I did. Stronger. The color came back to me. The spirit resurrected in me. The rest of the powder has been saved in a mason jar in the freezer. I wanted to offer this blood of hers, of mine, of ours mixed together, and the blood of my mother, and her mother, and so on and so on, to the land. I wanted to offer the blood up in hopes the volcanic tendencies in my bloodline could be released.
I started on the trail, and first noticed the flowers. Wild roses with five petals, light pink, splayed out wide not unlike the nootka roses that grow on the land I live on, but with a sweeter, more vivid smell, that I could smell from feet away. Wild orchid, purple and white scattering feminine forms over the lower ground along the hillside to the left of the trail. Fennel towering and swaying, bright yellow and chartreuse green, tall, wide stemmed, larger than any fennel I had ever seen. The larger the space, the larger the plant, this is true. And borage— I ran to hold the sweet blue thing with such a prickly undercoat and steam— it’s so surreal seeing plants you know so well where you live- and then seeing them across the world. The borage, a flower for the heart— for courage.. These flowers, their beauty and medicine spanning land and generations. Did my grandmother’s pop borage in their mouths when they were scared? Did they lay rose petals on their wombs when their ovaries ached or the blood became too much? Did they gather fennel seeds and chew them when their stomachs twisted and turned? There was Lupine. Burdock. Cardoon. The beginnings of asphodel, the flower that Perseophone held on and climbed down into the Underworld, like a rope to discover the dark side of things.