Tired after the stress of the early start and irritated by the endless stream of trucks heading out of Rome along the autostrada I drove across the back roads into Umbria - the landscape by now sun drenched and pleasant - the blue sky cloudless. Past Bolsena with its lake and cathedral the road climbs steeply upwards merging into the high ridge that carries on to Orvieto. At the brow of the hill a pair of limestone gate piers, well kept and unweathered, somehow familiar but out of place here. A parking spot offering an excuse to briefly breathe fresh, unfreoned air. From the gate a gravel path pointing through thick stands of dark green holm oaks,tall leafy acacias,faded wild irises and bee swarmed gentians towards another set of piers and a small bronze gate, three feet high, the upper edge burnished with use.
Beyond, the view widens - the lake in front, fields of golden autumn wheat on either side, ahead and above a glimpse of the purple mountains of Tuscany - a tranquil scene of sweet,gentle,timeless grace. And then the shock. On the slopes below, invisible at first,five hundred,maybe more, identical purbeck tombstones in parade formation. The hidden,almost forgotten,resting place of Dominion boys fallen along the isobars of their advance.
Whoever chose this untroubled spot must have grieved like a father for each of these young South Africans,New Zealanders,Australians,Canadians and Scots. No human hand alone could have set these stones here with an intimacy as real as wandering into a gathering of close friends. A place so secret that the sheltering forest seems to wrap its arms around its ever sleeping charges denying access to winter storms and summer squalls. Ranks of eighteen and nineteen year olds, the brief carved outlines of their lives: - birthdate,nationality,regiment,date of death, age - sometimes a couplet from a non-conformist hymn or a line that honors the name with thin substance 'loving father,dutiful son'. Flesh condensed to stone, unquantifiable mothers grief expressed in no more than sixteen words.
Few now find their way to this scented place, their generation gone and the road beckoning to brighter,happier destinations. A Quebecois, clearly moved,had written in the visitors book the simple comforting line " et Dieu essuiera toutes larmes de leurs yeux". I'd like to think so, and the rest too - "neither sorrow,nor crying,neither shall there be any more pain". Italy should be a destination of happiness and joy so I won't go back to this place; but I'll remember it as hallowed ground, an achingly majestic spot where the veil between the worlds is worn yieldingly thin. As I left to climb the hill the acacias rustled lightly in an absent breeze as if berating me for my lack of manners. I closed the gate,turned and said out loud, where no one but these resting sons could possibly have heard my voice, 'thank you'.
Wilf and Digby played half heartedly when I got home and then sat by the gate looking up the hill waiting patiently for the 'font'.
Benign to malign
3 years ago