If Paths Could Speak

by Jem Bossata

The neighbour Bruno and his old blind dog Rocky were the last of the old herders in the beautiful Alpine hamlet of Sant’Anna, Lake Como. Well into their old age they would lead their livestock up the mountain just before summer came. There, they’d see out the hottest months in cooler skies and return to the village in autumn. The clack-clack of cowbells rippled through these cobbled walkways twice a year, every year. And so for centuries, the generations have etched paths into the hillside like lines in the pages of history.


These paths have been walked by Saint Don Guanello, who went on to build orphanages all around the world but began with the poorest children in these very villages. During the war, the ground thundered with the boots of German soldiers. The air rang with their gunshots, too, when the sons of the village smuggled tobacco and fine meats from over the hills. Benito Mussolini slunk through in the dead of night as he tried to escape to Switzerland. He was captured in the next village along and killed a little further down. But of everyone that has trodden these paths, it is the herders and farmers whose boots left the deepest impression. And when Rocky died last year, Bruno hung up his for the last time.


My granddad was never a herder but he made paths of his own, up to the haphazard patches of land that belong to Bosatta family. On an October morning, he takes me to visit one of them, called the Fumia, a thirty-by-ten metre stretch of grass with a fig tree in the corner. The way is uneven and treacherously steep, but for all his health complaints he negotiates it steadily. His efforts are rewarded: though late in the season, the figs still hang heavy and sweet as if it were midsummer. Nature never lets you down, he says.


He’s in a rare good mood, and a nostalgic one. As we amble back down the hill the delicate aroma of late-blooming grass rises to greet us. He remembers the summer just past, my mother shimmying up those same fig branches with quite some agility: she's fifty-one! Six months ago, installing a makeshift gate in the Fumia, to protect his olive sapling from wild deer and boars. Wartime, the German soldiers are cruel rationers: his aunt lays snares to catch badgers. Tough, but good with polenta. Now the cows are down from the hilltop for the winter ahead. The boy Luigi sleeps on the summer's straw a few metres away from them; the smell of dampness and the animals' musty warmth mixes with the dry autumn air. In the middle of the night, a mother rustles and the bell around her neck wakes him up. Clack-clack. Indescribable.


He tells me of the Muccecc', thieving marauders from the neighbouring valley; of an old pet dog that used to keep him company on his walks, twenty-five kilograms on his back, lakeside-to-hilltop before the sun came up; of great curved hunter's knives which the locals would use one-handed to cut their bread and cheese – in the pews at mass you could spot the red handles peeking out of the men’s pockets in their Sunday best.


On the wall by the roadside lies a rusted hook, eight inches long and a centimetre thick, rubbed smooth on the inside of the bend. Nonno Luigi picks it up and reads it in a second. It's a relic from the old hay transport system, La Corda di Manda-Giù (the send-me-down rope). Once there was a series of such hooks that led from nearby Nebbia all the way up to the meadows of Giuan. The field workers would pass a long metal rope through the hooks, tauten it from both ends and rap twice on the line when they were ready to send down a load of hay. Then a large metal box, stuffed to the brim, would career down the zipwire at great speeds, eventually crashing into the road at the bottom. People died.


A lizard scurries up the wall. Nonna Laura found a snake once, near the outhouse, quite small but quick and poisonous. Their friend Mariangela stormed out of her door with pots and pans and killed it without a fuss. When its belly was split open, they found a litter of baby snakes inside. It was a mammal, says Nonno. These things do happen. So we lapse between history, legend, and comfortable silence.


This ground is also rich soil for the imagination. Once, Luigi saw a wild boar in the tangled roots of a fallen tree: he glued in a red glass bead for the eye and hung it above the pantry door. My brother and I inherited his eyes for the forest. We would cut switches from a hazel tree and whittle a bow or a dagger. There were monsters in every tree stump, an enemy ambush in every copse, and we rushed around for hours doing battle with the beasts of the woods. But when it was the season for wild mushrooms and chestnuts, it was still the old man who always spotted the best ones.


Six months after that day, I’m sitting at breakfast with Nonno once more. He tells me he can’t remember why the Fumia’s called the Fumia, it just is. Then he leaves us to our coffee and hobbles outside to run errands. We hear a crash, followed by silence. We guess he’s dropped something and stare into our cups until eventually Nonna peers out of the window and lets out a cry. Nonno’s lying on his back, stiff and stubborn and silent – too proud to call for help.


He’s already moving his good leg up and down, as if to say he’s fine. He won’t look us in the eye as we heave him to his feet. An hour later he’s walking around again without complaints. But I can’t help the feeling that after all these years, the winding path to the Fumia has already felt his footsteps for the last time, like so many other paths on this mountain; like the rows of woodworking tools gathering dust; like the chipped and faded paint on the hunters’ knives; like the rusted hook lying on the wall; like the crumbling stone cattle-sheds in the village. And with that I know that neither I nor anyone will hear these stories again. So I bite back tears and write them down.


JEM BOSSATA reads French and German at St Catherine's. He can usually be found floating around Europe with his guitar.

Somerville College
Woodstock Road, Oxford,
OX2 6HD, UK
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The ORB is published with permission of LM Publishing Ltd, Palladium House, 1-4 Argyll St, London W1F 7LD.
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