Hanna climbed the metal steps to the poop deck and chose a bench on the landward side. For a moment, her eyes closed in contentment, her head rolled back to catch the sun on her face. After eighteen hours on the sea, the ferry had rounded the southeastern cape and was nearing Casteddu, so close to shore that she could distinguish each cove. The somber greygreen vegetation and bare, sculpted rock of the island was set off by the bright turquoise water of the coast, an image, she realized, that had been impressed in her mind even before she saw it. Vittorio had described it to her innumerable times.
At the thought of Vittorio, her mood changed brusquely. She was not, she reminded herself, on a holiday.
She felt weak with exhaustion. From the moment the letter had arrived only five days before, she realized nothing had counted but reaching Casteddu as quickly as possible. She had been granted a special leave of absence from the retirement home where she was a social worker, a position she had obtained with a great effort and one that she would hate to lose. She had withdrawn her savings and changed her money, reserved her ferry tickets, packed her bags and closed up her room in the house she shared with two other working friends. Withinfive days she had been on the train for the south, filled with misgivings about what was awaiting her. From her backpack she removed a blue and white, hardcovered notebook.
"May 6, 198_, Dear Diary," she began.
From the moment she had boarded the ferry, she had been reminded of all Vittorio had told her about living on the island. The sense of isolation that always accompanied the description of his homeland grew as the hours passed and the sea swells intensified. There were, she knew, planes that landed in Casteddu, a mere hour from the nearest Continental airport, but, as Vittorio said, one always thought twice before confronting such an expense.
For hours after departure, she had sat by the window in the first class bar, reluctant to go down to her tiny cabin in the very bottom of the ship. She needed to reflect, to prepare herself. Her life had taken a turn; it was floundering dangerously and she had been watching it happen without protest. Yet she felt, for the first time in years, as if she were in the right place.
The bar was full of people who seemed used to the long trip. There were children with their mothers gathered in front of the television which blurred occasionally as the ship veered from the coast; there were businessmen intent on card games or deep in conversation. Over the drone of the motors, Hanna could hear the sounds of the strange language that she knew was the ancient dialect of the island. It was not, she could tell, the same language she could hear from the television. She remembered Vittorio telling her that the island dialects were so incomprehensible that they had been used during the war to send secret messages, something which seemed to amuse him.
Next to Hanna sat a tiny woman, so beautiful that she found it hard not to stare at her. She sat perfectly still and poised, her head and neck balancing an invisible burden. Her small, capable hands rested in her lap, her ageless face, framed by black hair gathered in a smooth bun, showed neither boredom nor curiosity for the comings and goings around her. She wore a long, pleated skirt of a coarse brown material, covered by an overskirt of fine linen, a starchy white blouse with full sleeves which was held together over her breast by a gold filigree brooch. On her shoulders rested a large brown scarf.
There was a hush as two foreigners crossed the room and sat down across from Hanna, nodding at her as if recognizing a fellow alien. She observed them as they set out a bottle of continental wine on the table and drew from their backpacks clean glasses, a selection of cheeses and some bread. One was about medium height, heavy set, with the face of a boy and the habit of staring upwards, whether he was talking or listening. His friend was dark and thin, perhaps North African, she thought. "To our future on the island," said theNorth African with a thick pied noir accent, raising his glass. "Life in Paris is becoming unbearable," the heavyset one added, with a quick glance in Hanna's direction. "They say the island is one of the last pieces of paradise left. Think of it: a little house in a village in the mountains!"
Hanna wondered aloud if one would ever belong there.
"People don't bother to understand uswhy should we try to understand them?" said the boyfaced man defiantly and his friend nodded. The two of them finally left her to return to their cabin. The tiny woman rose and placed the scarf on her head, fastening it just below her mouth with an elegant gesture. Hanna unrolled her sleeping bag and threw it over her legs. She badly needed some sleep. The sea was calm enough, she soon realized, but the nearempty bar was now the domain of young boys and aging sailors who clicked their tongues at her and called her "fraulein", gesturing at her whenever they could catch her eye. In a short while, she was forced to take refuge in her cabin which she shared with three other women and a small child whose constant whine accompanied her fitful sleep. Then the steward was banging on the door, ordering them to leave the cabin. It was morning.
When the ship passed the lighthouse and rounded the last peninsula, Hanna caught sight of Casteddu. It seemed, from a distance, a granite quarry cut in the hills surrounding the gulf, but, as the ship drew closer, she could make out the ornate facades along the treelined port, the dense tile roofs which rose sharply to a hill topped with cupolas and towers. She stood immobile on the deck while the city came slowly toward her. The city as she saw it and the mental image of it that Vittorio had left with her merged into a single, comforting picture.
She took a last look down at the people gathered at the dock. A young man with curly hair and a black tshirt seemed to be staring straight at her from his motorcycle.
He greeted her with a big grin when she set foot on the ground. "I'm Silvio," he said. "I recognized you right away from Vittorio's photograghs." She felt dizzy and confused. "I'm Silvio," he repeated. For a while he would have to speak slowly, she told him. He laughed cheerfully, as if it were a game, and helped her and her backpack onto the motorcycle. "To begin with," he said in comical slowmotion, "I propose a cup of coffee." He indicated the covered walkway across from the port. "On the boulevard."
Cafe` tables were set out along nearly the entire length of the walkway. People were strolling back and forth in little groups, it seemed, like in the small towns back home, stopping to chat with acquaintances or to window shop at the elegant boutiques or buy a newspaper at one of the many kiosks that were placed along the arcade. The place was oddly situated, separated from the port by lanes of traffic which created a wall of noise and madethe walkway into a tunnel of activity that belonged neither to the port nor to the city.
Silvio chose a table, one of the few free, and they sat down. There were mostly men, older men, at the nearby tables. Hanna noticed a foreigner not far from her with shoulderlength blond hair, fine and thinning at the hairline, who was making notes on a pad of paper. When he rose, a moment later, he stood a head higher than the others. He smiled at Hanna as he passed and disappeared into a side street. "A fellow countryman of yours," said Silvio with a hint of distaste. "He's crazy."
Silvio kept up a constant chatter. Like Vittorio, he had a filial way of talking about the island, whether it was to criticize or to brag. Their particular sun, the sea, the landscape, were not foreign physical objects, but seemed impressed into their very genes. They couldn't avoid talking about the island, since it was an integral part of them. He went on to explain that he had known Vittorio for years, since he had left his home town in the interior. Wild years. His talk came faster and Hanna was able to make out a very incomplete account of a community for exdrug addicts run by Father Efisio. Silvio seemed to be living there.
Finally he stood up, saying, "Let's go to the Clinic."
At last she could ask, "How's Vittoro?"
"A little better. He's still in the hospital though."
"What did he say when he heard I was coming?" she asked. Silvio helped her into her backpack and walked her to the motorcycle before answering in a barely audible voice: "He doesn't know." The roar of the cycle overruled her question. "He doesn't know," she thought with a bubble of exhausted fear in her stomach. What was she doing in the middle of the Mediterranean, with the evening drawing near, on the back of this stranger's motorcycle?
The street was narrow and damp despite the heat of the day and climbed toward a hill she could make out beyond the rooftops. Shops on either side spilled out onto the street with racks of special offers. Sidewalk salesmen guarded tables loaded with watches, sunglasses, and tapes; those who couldn't be bothered with a table exposed their wares on rugs. Traffic was frenetic with all these obstacles. Hanna watched the tiny car in front of them, whose driver seemed to regard every stop sign or pedestrian as a personal challenge. "What do you mean, he doesn't know?" she yelled into Silvio's ear.
"It means I didn't tell him," Silvio answered simply.
"Then why did you write me to come?" she asked.
The cycle came to a brusque stop. A stocky man with a beret pulled down tight over sulky eyes crossed the street just inches from them. "I didn't tell you to come. I thought you ought to know he was sick. As a matter of fact, I didn't expect you til summer." Silvio manuevered the cycle around a badly parked car and continued at a snail's pace."Oh fine," she thought. But what else could she have done? "I knew you were important to Vittorio," Silvio went on. "His room is papered with pictures of you. He talked about nothing else when he came back last summer. I just thought you might feel the same about him."
"But he didn't write me at all. Not once."
Silvio didn't answer. It really wasn't necessary: she knew Vittoro was an "immediate" type; he needed live people and emotions. He lived a raw life.
It was going to be good to see him.
The narrow street suddenly became steeper, then opened onto a circular piazza with a flower bed in the center and a monumental marble structure on the left that towered above the square. They parked the cycle and climbed ramps of wide, white steps, more than a hundred, Hanna counted, til they reached a spacious platform on the spur of the hill. "The bastion," Silvio said, "and that's the Clinic over there." He pointed to a 4story building across the square.
Hanna rested on the low wall, which was all that separated her from a drop to the red tile roofs below. "Could we?" she asked breathlessly, nodding toward the Clinic.
They crossed the square, climbed the steps to the Clinic. Once inside, Hanna felt her exhaustion. It wouldn't be long now, she reminded herself as they climbed more stairs. They were pushing open the door to the second floor ward when a cry from the stairwell made them turn back. Two young women in bathrobes flew down the stairs to embrace Silvio.
"This is Hanna," he said, "a friend of Vittorio's. We're going to surprise him."
From their expression, Hanna understood that something was wrong and her heart jumped. She looked from them to Silvio, helplessly. "No, no," Silvio comforted her, "it's not that at all. He's been dismissed." "What are we going to do now?" she wailed, feeling lost. "As long as we're here..." Silvio began. "Give her a bed, girls. She's tired out from the trip."
A young woman in a yellow bathrobe which smelled violently of tropical flowers took her firmly by the shoulders and led her back down the stairs, along the hall past the entrance and into a room. In slow gestures and fast words Hanna was made to understand that she was to lie down and she collapsed onto the mattress. The room swirled. The smell of disinfectant and institutional cooking reminded her she was in a hospital but that was all.
Six young women, who seemed to have spent their day trying out makeup and perfume, crammed gaily onto the bed next to Hanna's, leaving the only older woman next to the window to continue her knitting unperturbed. Silvio glanced at her, then at the girls who raised their hands in a "no problem" gesture. Then, with the convenient ritual, he rolled two fat cigarettes which he lightedand distributed to his contented group. The girl in the yellow bathrobe moved over next to Hanna, stroked her arm affectionately, and smiled into space. From the movements of the old woman's lips, Hanna guessed she was praying.
When dusk had filled the room with a pale grey light, the door opened and the Doctor entered. He was tall and thin, in need of a shave, and with an almost African crimp to his short black hair. "Silvio and his harem," he commented, while the girls bustled back to their beds and to open the windows. "Are you a new patient? he asked Hanna, sniffing the air.
"She's come from Germany to see Vittorio," Silvio explained. "Ah," said the Doctor with a pleased look. "Vittorio needs some good company right now. If you can find him, of course.
It was late before they left the hospital. They paused a moment on the steps of the bastion under the arch which framed the city lights. "Don't worry, Hanna," Silvio said, "we'll find him." He pointed to the maze of houses below the bastion. "Down there, most probably. He's most likely sleeping with some friend in the Marina tonight. I doubt if he went back home. He feels like he's got a lot more to do, you know, since he's been ill."
Hanna looked at Silvio. She liked to hear him talk about Vittorio. She imagined he was referring to Vittorio's "political" work, something she knew practically nothing about. She had heard him talk about island autonomy and foreign industries, but he had never pronounced a word about the practical side.
Not far from the foot of the bastion, they turned the cycle onto a straight and narrow street that ran alongside the base of the hill. With few lights to illuminate it and the rows of twostory houses on either side, it formed a tunnel in the darkness.
"Tonight you can stay in the San Rocco Community," Silvio called over the roar of the cycle. "Father Efisio gave me permission when I got your card." Hanna was too tired to care.
"The Community is in an old convent..." Silvio went on, but she was no longer listening.
Minutes passed before the convent door was opened by a
halfasleep girl. Hanna remembered going down some stairs and being led into a moonless courtyard, then into a cell furnished simply with a rusty iron bed, a bedside table, and a small chest that looked like a ship trunk. Silvio deposited her backpack by the bed and left her by herself.
She fell fully dressed onto the bed. She would write in her diary another day.