A fort and a vantage point

They stopped as they suddenly came in view of a tall stone pillar about a hundred yards ahead. It was ten or fifteen feet thick and about sixty feet tall, and on top of it there was a small wooden bridge. The trees still hindered their vision but they could guess it was their destination. The road apparently had stopped going up steeply, but there was still a gentle slope up to the pillar. They started in its direction, suddenly hushed. The walk was about to be over, so was their conversation. Soon they would get down to investigations and other intellectual enterprises that had nothing to do with too private affairs. Half way to the pillar they found themselves all of a sudden out of the forest, into a glade, in front of other pillars, connected above by a wooden, very narrow bridge, and scattered on the (surprisingly) green earth in a winding pattern. The walls of the fortress. Now they could clearly see that the access on the bridge was gained by climbing a very steep mound of earth at the end of the tarmac road.

“Do you really think I’m handsome?” Peter whispered, almost embarrassed to hear his voice.

Mona stopped and faced him with a broad condescending smile on her face.

“Do you think I’d flatter you for nothing? Do I look like that kind of person?”

“No, actually, you don’t”, Peter laughed relieved by her irony. The matter clearly didn’t count much. It was just silly nonsense.

“I’ll be more honest to you than you expect me now, but Andrew is continually teasing me, thinking I like you. He told me the day before yesterday when you got a call – ‘It’s his wife, don’t worry’ – and I gaped, then laughed, then cried ‘Why should I worry?’ I think he meant that I shouldn’t be jealous, or maybe he meant to warn me that you’ve got a wife calling you, asking about your life and so on. I don’t know why he’s got this idea into his head, but I believe it’s because he sees it as possible, you know.”

“Or he’s just jealous of you and not him coming all the time with me. No, I know him, that’s just like him. He needs to invent things, he tries hard to see things that other people wouldn’t dream of, and maybe sometimes this is good. You know, I’ve been thinking, he’s never with us, but it feels as if he is always present, we’re always talking about him in one way or another. And what is happening to us is nearly always his doing, isn’t it?”

Mona shrugged and looked indifferently away.

“If you think so”, dismissing the subject. “Let’s see what he’s cooked for us this time”, and she set off heading for the mound.

He followed her and watched his steps for fear of stumbling over thick tree roots protruding out of the bare earth. Soon they were up on the narrow bridge, which was lined up by a wooden banister, and built of planks that gave a faint thud under their feet. Without being aware, they kept looking down, watching the boards and the tiny cracks in them or the extremely thin gaps between them, the slight sway under their weight as they treaded along. A glance over the banister revealed how high they were up in the air, almost reaching treetops if they would, hanging in the vast space from a five-foot wide promontory. Short momentary imagination brought Peter the vision of them falling over, crashing in the void beneath, losing the fragile anchorage that kept them so intoxicatingly high. The mountain peaks curved the skyline and the hillside they had climbed sloped down in a leafy precipice.  The sky felt like a roof right over their heads.

The bridge wound two or three times before it reached the gate of the fortress, supported on the pillars they had encountered down on the road. On the other side of the gate, opposite the forest and the gully, there was a flat clearing and the walls of the fort, built on two different levels. The first level was below, at the level of the road up the hill, while the bridge was now taking them to the upper level, where the fort had been erected.  The end of the wooden path looked like a delta, as it sprawled around in two or three narrower paths. Between these, they could see a hole, like a narrow pit, fenced in with vertical wooden planks for passers-by not to fall in. They took a look down the pit and shuddered, each in private. It was not so deep, but it was dark and narrow and the earth gleaming faintly on the bottom of it called up sinister thoughts.

They bought their entrance tickets from a very thin man with a swarthy drawn face and dark eyes. He had the skin of a sunburnt peasant and his hands were dry and bony but looked strong nonetheless. He was wearing a dark-grey woollen cardigan and coarse tweed-like trousers, smudged with whitish mud round the seams at the ankles. He didn’t have anything on the head and his ears had gone slightly red. He had ordinary mousy hair cut very short and in an old-fashioned manner.

Peter would have expected a higher entrance tunnel and wider space. But the halo of the gate only reached some eight feet at the top and the access inside was provided by a stone path about six feet wide. The path hung over a not very deep hollow, and was surrounded by stone walls enclosing the place in a short rectangular cavity only perhaps twenty feet wide. The wall on the left they could almost touch if they reached out. The arch of the exterior gate was reproduced in the stone slabs of the lateral walls and in the shape of the inside gate that ushered them into the fort.

Once in, Peter’s eyes wandered on the walls, attracted by the sight of the small slabs lying neatly one on another and another and another, gradually erecting a thirty-foot wall. The building clearly lacked its upper part, but the stones were there in place and one inevitably got the feeling of enclosure that was normally impossible amid ruins and that lent the place a mysterious spirit of its own.

On the right hand there came in view another wooden gate, just as small as the first, which would have allowed direct access from the outside, and which was closed. It was there that they could see the walls were perhaps ten feet thick, so that a horse-rider coming in through that gate must have had to stoop throughout the low tunnel penetrating the stone.

In front, towards the central part of the enclosure, there lay a wide, open pit, encircled by a stone belt, and paved in stone all over, going about sixty feet downwards. It had to be the well, although it was now dried out, dozens of coins and a plastic bottle of Coke lying on its bottom.

Beyond the well there were other enclosures, once rooms, arches visible in the stone pattern on the walls, along with segments suggesting a second, maybe a third floor too, still discernible. A few steps led one into a dark humid basement, along a short narrow corridor where only one person could walk at a time, and bending too. There were no stone slabs here, the corridor had a smooth whitish surface as if it had been carved into one immense stone block.

Then opposite the disused gate there were narrow and steep stairs running by low hollow windows of another cellar, up the wall and onto a large terrace flanked by circular towers standing in the corners of the fortress. Between them, above the stone border of the terrace, there spread the clear blue sky. Pacing the flat surface of the platform they gradually came in view of the wide plain across which they had been driving. Perched up here the castle revealed a country that emerged graceful and true.

The sunlight striped the sky and fell in linear, unfailing beams, which blended into a fine, glimmering mass at the contact with the earth. From where they stood, it looked as if light was being showered from above onto a vast, flat container, whose bottom was already flooded by the milky substance. The contrast between the clear, discrete shape of the beams and the compact film spread over the earth was striking; they couldn’t fail to realize that the country must have been acting like a melting plate.

The white-and-yellow in the foreground went bluish and smoky in the distance, where the mountains receded and turned into uncertainties. Peter considered for a moment how green and real they had looked from nearby. Half way to that distant nowhere-land, there glinted a dot, both blurred and reinforced by the sunlight. Houses covered the space around it and everywhere closer, growing from dwarfish matchboxes to funny, conventional sketches of a child.

Beyond the outskirts of the town, the land ran ahead, striding with handsome strips plotted in irregular patterns. It looked so perfectly flat and the sight brushed it so entirely unobstructed, that they felt like treading every inch of it – an instinctive need to pace wide unknown spaces into something like a folded handkerchief that one can then put away as one’s own.

The commonness of the town was lost behind the familiar shapes of houses and blocks. It tended to look more like a natural growth of the landscape than a distinct world of its own. The emblematic feature seemed now to be its melting, unstriking and non-aggressive lines, in complete accordance with the hazy quality of the light. The town spread further towards the left, disappearing round the wooded mountain shoulder, and dwindled to some scattered cottages along a road right before their eyes.

There, just underneath but perfectly visible, flowed the river they had been driving across when entering the town. Its bed ran wide with whitish banks of rubble and sand faintly gleaming in the sun, by which the shallow, colourless river idled on. The stream wound, indeed, but retained its resemblance to a border, which it must have been indeed to the inhabitants of the castle in the past. The width of space came here to a bidimensional closure like a joint of two geometric planes. Peter even had for a second the flashing sensation that he was standing in front of a huge screen, watching something of a different nature beyond the edge, which he quickly dismissed as a totally ridiculous idea of a media man. Of course, he thought, it could be the other way round, too, us caught in the flat surface of a screen and out there the rest, but that’s sheer nonsense.

A few feet away by their side there stood a man with a telescope, inviting everyone to have a glance at the view through the lens. It was an ancient type, set on a rudimentary tripod, and trained at the expanse of the plain. Kids fidgeted around it, peeping through, then with the naked eye, comparing the views with excited chuckles and shrieks. Adults were fretting, too, pointing to things in the distance, watching the telescope to see if they can have a go at it, explaining, waving their arms and giving loud exclamations.

Mona too kept watching the telescope and the people around, slowly getting closer to be able to grab the opportunity. She hurriedly fumbled in her pockets and took out a banknote that she handed to the man, telling him something and pointing to Peter. He felt vaguely embarrassed, both at her pointing to himself, and at the idea of aping the kids in using the instrument. What could be all the excitement about, they’re holidaying, but he’s a foreign professional who’s already gone slightly further beyond his concerns by travelling out here. Besides, the ancient telescope could probably be not much good either. You’d need here something more powerful to penetrate that haze and sunlight curtain. Something like what Don, his cameraman, has bought on his trip to Mozambique.

He started slowly, irresolutely, towards Mona, drawn as if by a rope which she kept reeling on with her hands, with the determination characteristic of very young people. He instantly realised that if it wasn’t for her abruptness and authoritative manner, single-minded as her view was, he wouldn’t have had the chance to catch a glimpse of so many meaningful angles. Her interpreter’s eagerness to unveil had undeliberately – even casually – revealed a multitude of further aspects, which, combined with the other prompts from different sources, were building one of the most fascinating personal experiences he’d ever lived. How many days ago was it that he’d arrived, and how many was he still to stay? He found himself unable to pinpoint the day of the week it was that day, with the awkward feeling that his effort was not only fruitless, but also irrelevant.

He watched Mona’s excited face as she glanced through the telescope, then back to him.

“Come on, it’s really marvellous!”

Peter smiled faintly and then put his eye to the lens.

The first thing that struck him was that the gleaming dot in the distance was now distinctly a church tin spire, in fact two or three of them, perched on immaculately white walls. The church lay at a very gentle mountain’s foot, surrounded partly by intensely green forests and partly by slightly waving meadows. The houses huddling around it were now distinct and no longer melted into a whitish blot.

He then noticed that the light, too, had lost that agglutinant aspect of haze, and regained its corpuscular quality. The scenery was now glistening with the intense force of sun beams deflected at the contact with material shapes and colours. The surfaces lay neat, as if swept by the daylight or the winds, and bore a mark of tranquillity that only now struck one as outstanding and emblematic.

Perhaps most of all, however, there seemed to be such an undeniable, material reality about the sight, drawing the viewer unfailingly to itself with the force of an ocean wave hauling one to the depths, that Peter felt overcome with indifference towards everything going on behind him, absorbed in the unfolding view before his eyes.

Trying to determine what it was that captivated him most, he decided on that shift in the nature of the light, from the thin veiling haze to the crystal-like web, which restored every composing detail to its individual value within the vast picture. The clarity, the brightness and the definiteness of the view stirred in the viewer a desire for exploration alongside a sense of unhindered freedom to improvise, seek connections, re-invent.

Peter gave a faint start and withdrew his eye a few inches from the lens, dazed at the discovery. It felt so discomforting to experience such processes that threw his entire biography into an inescapable past by producing one all-important finding. It now meant not only that he must be different from what he had assumed he was, but also that everything in his life – past or permanent – would suffer a process of rearrangement, of resetting in accordance with the salient data. It was not simply the natural sense of detachment one experiences on a trip to foreign places; it was mostly the dual detachment that he felt creeping in, both towards the land he was exploring as a foreigner – of which he could only hope to get a bird’s eye view as he did up here – and towards his own, until quite recently familiar and omnipresent. What seemed to be going on was that the farther he went on the trip, the sharper the angle became that pinpointed his relation to his home and his country. It was not the distance that kept increasing – it felt more like a complex process of redefinition.

The outcome was a queer sense of having got lost or of being suspended over a dark hole. The height of their real location – on the stony terrace of the fort – shaped this feeling with uncanny accuracy. This newly acquired unbelongingness was itself two-faced: it meant the upsetting encounter with otherness, but also the unleashing of impulses and overcoming of barriers – and he instantly remembered the freedom he had discovered a minute ago brimming over like a full-bodied promise through the lens of the telescope.

He stepped back from the telescope and turned to Mona smiling. He was for the first time aware, with a stab in his guts, how much older than her he was. A burdening though immaterial plot of suspended space had interposed itself, whose shape or content he could not yet fathom, or which was probably awaiting a content and a shape to be bestowed on it.

“Pretty view”, he remarked.