The Old Woman of Corniglia

If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go? My husband asked this question on the morning of my forty-second birthday. I was slouched at the kitchen counter, elbows on the table, chin cupped in my hands – a posture we’re taught from childhood to avoid. This was more than laziness; I honestly thought I could not hold my head up without support.

My answer was immediate. “Away,” I said. I wanted to be an anonymous tourist in an unfamiliar land. I wanted to get lost in churches, disappear into museums, and con- verse, however badly, in a foreign language. I wanted to flee my life. I wanted to leave behind anger, bitter- ness and the desperate sadness I’d accumulated over the past year, like unwanted pennies in the dusty jar on my shelf. My goal… to stop being a spectacle and become a spectator. I wanted to find my life.

I leave behind the cool dimness of the train tunnel and squint in the bright October sun. What I see in front of me is not at all what I expected. I stretch my aching calves, as I contemplate what lies ahead. My husband emerges from the tunnel with the ever-present video camera jammed to his face. “Wow,” is all he says, when I point to the rock face and giant switch-back staircase.

My husband pulls a guide book from his day-pack and flips through the well-worn pages. “There are 370 steps.” He looks up at the stairs again. “The only other way up is by road.”

We look to the right, at the winding, steep lane that disappears and re- emerges behind vineyards and olive groves terraced on steep hills. It looks like a goat track. We turn back to the stairs that lead to Corniglia, a jumble of multi-coloured stone buildings huddled one thousand feet up at the crest of a windswept cliff. To continue our hike we must climb.

We join the ragged line of tourists and locals who take their place on what feels like a human chain. We move in unison, as if guided by the ame beat. We lift our feet and inhale, put our feet down and exhale. Over and over. Laboured breathing and the scuffle of tired feet are the only human sounds. I can hear the muted crash of the waves far below and the scrabble of pebbles dragged across the beach by the pull of the tide.

After the first hundred or so steps, my thighs are burning. My mind is numb. I pass other hikers who have stopped to catch their breath, wait for their hiking companions, or admire the brilliant blue of the Ligurian Sea. I inhale, take a step, and exhale. But I don’t stop, can’t stop, for fear I might not be able to start again. My legs might seize. I could be trapped in the middle of an enormous staircase far from home.

So many steps. If I think of each step as a day, then this staircase represents about a year. I consider the year I’m trying to put behind me, a year that started with surgery to confirm a recurrence of breast cancer. A year that included a six-month regime of chemotherapy: a drugged blur that somehow dragged into seven months. Sixteen consecutive days of radiation. A year of avoiding my gaunt face in the mirror. A year of ticking days off the calendar – measuring time in what must be someone else’s life.

The gift of one month in Italy – my incentive for finishing treatment – had led us through the decadence of Venice, the chaos of Rome, the hilltop towns of Tuscany and the museums of Florence. Nearing the end of our trip, we were eager to trade churches and art galleries for the gritty sand and crashing surf that will remind us of our Vancouver Island home. Our guidebook directed us west from Florence to the coast.

There are four ways to travel between the five towns of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare – five villages known collectively as Cinque Terre. Winding cliff top roads provide breathtaking views of the Ligurian Sea, but the scenic drive is interrupted by wild curves, blind corners and steep climbs. Many travellers prefer the more sedate train. If haste is not the issue, the most enjoyable way to travel is on foot, on trails that coil through scrubby plots of land dotted with gnarled olive trees, fretting chickens and weathered landowners.

Bryan and I had decided to hike the entire distance, which would take us most of the day. In the morning we boarded a local ferry that docked near our hotel in the northernmost town of Monterosso al Mare. After a wild, wave-soaked ride that stopped briefly at each town, we arrived at Rio Maggiore. The beginning of the trail was as smooth as a city sidewalk and was crowded with sightseers pushing baby strollers. When the cement ended and the dirt path began, the high-heeled tourists dressed for the French Riviera turned back. We set off for the next town followed by a group of German hikers using ski poles as walking sticks. We passed an elderly Italian couple, the woman in a baggy floral housedress and felt bed- room slippers. She looked both foreign and familiar, a face I couldn’t identify, but thought I’d seen before.

We stopped for lunch on a grassy bluff where we could see both ends of the trail weaving through the scrubby landscape – to the left our morning hike, to the right our future. We were perched on a flat table-sized rock, watching as the hikers we had passed earlier caught up to us. They nodded as they reached us, and we nodded back, pleased to be recognized, happy to be amongst this community of trailblazers. The autumn sun was hot and I worried about burning my head. I brushed my hand over my bristly crew-cut, still awed by the new growth, and wished I’d brought a hat.

A familiar couple came into view: the old Italians that we had met at the head of the trail. His arms were empty. Her flabby arms burst from short sleeves and wrapped around a large market basket overflowing with grey-green olives. They plodded along in what looked to me like a companionable silence.

“That’s us in thirty years,” my husband whispered in my ear.

The woman glanced up, watched me rub my head. Her blue eyes met mine. I knew why she looked familiar. A face from the past. And the future.

When I was a teenager, I had a vision of an old woman. She was on a winding path that stretched out far in front of me. The path was often as thin as the stuff of spider webs and it twisted behind hills and forests but I had no doubt that the path she was on would someday connect with mine. She was lean and strong, content with her white curls and abundant wrinkles, at home in her aging body. I recognized that she was both a witness and a woman who writes her way through crisis. She was a storyteller. She was me. I was her.

I disregarded her for many years, but I have felt her close to me these past months; lifting me up when I could not walk, holding my hand when I felt alone. She is the spider who weaves strands that are invisible in the shade but glisten in the sun- light. I am a fly caught in her web of gossamer threads. She is my future.

“There is an old woman in my mind,” I whispered to my husband with a nod to the woman approaching us. I smiled at her, and with new energy, clambered off the rock and headed down the trail. We had reached the halfway point of our hike feeling pleased with our steady progress. The next section of the hike was supposed to be the most difficult. We followed the path down to the beach, rounded the corner, stepped cautiously through the dim train tunnel, and came face to face with the stairs to Corniglia. 

As I pass the midpoint of the staircase, I am certain I will reach the top. And with each step I am salvaging my life. This moment is my zenith; a moment of connection with everyone else trudging up the steps and a feeling of belonging to the community of travellers. And to the world we share.

The opposite, the lowest point, had hit me five months before. It was then that I discovered the meaning of the word nadir, used so frequently by oncologists in reference to low blood counts. A time of deep despair. The lowest point. Recurrence. Five months of chemotherapy and still two months to go. Nothing prepared me for the fatigue. I was too tired to be angry, and anger was what had sustained me for so long. Anger and determination. Although I admired the shape of my bald head, I was frightened by my yellow skin and hollow cheeks. I felt old and wise but the cost of that wisdom was almost more than I could bear.

A naturopath helped my battered body cope with the strawberry coloured Epirubicin and jet-black Fluorouracil – drugs that coursed my veins looking for enemy invaders. Drugs that I wanted to believe would save me. I practised yoga, I meditated, I visualized. I sought out mentors who had walked this dark path before me, who could guide and encourage me. I joined a support group, looking for positivity that might be contagious. When members of my support group who had sustained me – or did I sustain them? – succumbed to the relentless disease, I could not bear to look in the mirror.

I place my foot on the last step. There are no more. I can barely draw a breath, my legs are trembling, and I’m light-headed, but I’ve reached the top. I clutch the railing and look behind me. The energetic German tourists are devouring the stairs with their long strides and swinging arms. Behind them is the Italian couple who move more slowly but with the steadiness and sureness of a couple of adept mountain goats. The old woman shuffles steadily behind her husband, her slippers flapping against her calloused heels, her flaccid arms still clutching her basket. Her ample flesh shifts and slides under her loose dress. A soft body in a hard land.

She glances up. Our eyes meet. I smile encouragingly, though I suspect she has travelled this way many times before and has no need of my support. She grins, revealing the gaps between her yellowing teeth. The ancient toothless man pulls his blue bandana from around his neck and mops his sweating face.

She reaches the top of the stairs and stops beside her husband, just feet from where I lean against the railing. She puts her basket down, smoothes her dress and rubs her arms vigorously, the loose skin rippling like waves. Her husband re-ties the faded cloth around his neck and turns toward a narrow alley. She turns to me and nods ever so slightly, hoists her basket onto her abundant belly, and weaves through the maze of panting tourists clustered at the top of the stairs. The couple slip into a steep, narrow alley between two stone buildings, their bodies sliding from sight as they plod down the hill. My last sight of her is of silver curls floating.

I turn back to the stairs and the struggling climbers. What I see is not our differences, but our similarities. They all look the same, young and old, male and female, fit and flabby. We are on the same path. We are pilgrims with the same destination.

I turn and look ahead, a long view beyond the Easter-coloured buildings of Corniglia, to unseen horizons and home. I am confident that I am safely in the middle of my life’s journey, just as I am at the mid point of the hike. Cool clarity washes over me as if the slight breeze that tickles my warm skin has delivered it. The only way is forward.

I follow the path with my eyes. It leads down the cobbled street and disappears between ancient buildings. The path continues on the other side and eventually meets the next town, and the next. I cannot see this, but I know it is true.

If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go? I think about this question, asked so many months ago. The answer has changed. I’ve changed. By the time I’ve caught my breath, Bryan has reached my side. I reach out my hands to him.  

“I’m ready to go home.” 

“The Old Woman of Corniglia” won Second Prize in the Accenti Magazine Writing Contest, and was read at the Accenti Magazine Awards during the Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival in April 2007.

Laura Fee was born on Vancouver Island and has lived all her life on the west coast, as an instructor, a farmer or a student. Home is acreage in the Cowichan Valley where she grows wine grapes. She is a founding member of the Dragon Divas, a dragon boat team of women living with breast cancer.

First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 12.

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