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The Halloween Project 2018 Day 10: Cinque Terror - Corniglia

Cinque Terre (Five Lands) is an exquisitely beautiful area of coastal Italy on the Mediterranean. The five towns Of Liguria that compose the Cinque Terre are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. Remote, isolated and rugged; traditionally the home of fishermen, the last 30 years has seen a boom in tourism and the villages thrive while trying to keep the past alive. Colorful houses built one atop another cornice the steep rocky terrain that tumbles down to the sea. The cliff trails above invite hikers but can be both treacherous and extremely difficult. The views from the highest points are among the most breathtaking on earth. But there is a past in Cinque Terre rich in religion, superstition, hard life and hard living. Walled cities cannot always protect. Food is difficult to grow on the rocky terrain. Mortality for all, was high, and death is only tomorrow away. These stories are based on historical fact, remarkable physical and geographic beauty and my imagination. Much of what is presented here is very true. The photographs are mine. The rest is an indulgence. You can read any story separately, but they are best consumed as a series beginning with the first. I call the next five interrelated stories for this Halloween season:

 

The Cinque Terror Quintet - A Ligurian Ghost Tale Part I - Corniglia - year 1544

 

"Draghut is coming!! Draghut's pirates!! Run!! The Infidels are here! Run to the hills!!" Marco was screaming from his rampart far above the town. The burning bonfire aflame on the far cliffside high above Corniglia normally signified safety and calm. Begun 30 years ago it was tended all night, every night, all year. A steady flame meant all is safe, the harbor secure, sleep well in your beds tonight. A flickering flame, subdued by a watcher, then lit again, meant pirates had arrived to attack the town. In 1544 it was the best the townsfolk could do to give warning. Draghut and his fleet of cutthroats, killers and vagabonds stormed the beach. Marco Barini tended the flame this evening. He was forty, a fisherman, the strongest swimmer in Corniglia. He and his wife, Franchesca, had one son, Giorgio, a spry, engaging five year old who wanted to become a fisherman just like his father. He accompanied Marco to the beach each day to see him off, carrying his father's lunch in a bandana. When Marco returned Giorgio was always in the small bay, waving and jumping with excitement. He would help his father count the fish or haul small buckets of anchovies. He was a child who laughed long and hard and brought great joy to his parents. Marco and Franchesca had tried for a child for 13 years before they were blessed with Giorgio. He made their life complete and they were a happy family. When, once a month, it was his volunteered time to man the bonfire, Marco wore his responsibility with diligence and commitment. This night, he watched the dark horizon, impossible to tell where the sea met the sky. Tonight, all was murky. Moonless, with a low cloud cover, the October rain drizzled in a steady, slow fall. In the wet darkness it was difficult to keep the flame alight, feeding the fire with the dried branches of old, cut fig trees, pines and a collection of trimmed olive and grape branches. He knew that all around him on terraces, both steep and latticed, were the arbors of thousands of acres of grapes, especially the Vermentino, native to the region and loved by the villagers. Well past midnight, Marco tried to stay awake but found himself drowsy and nodding. He searched the sea but saw only gray. Vision obscured, he peered into a flat horizon of darkness. Then, past two, something moved on the beach far below. Small points of black shimmered with the slightest reflection from the flickering candlelight of a nearby structure. The points multiplied, again and again, and Marco knew, the pirates had come. Draghut had brought his pirates up along the coast from Ostia. They scoured the shore for easy prey. Larger cities were too formidable, tiny villages had nothing to offer. He had cast anchor with his three ships just to the south of Corniglia come ashore with a band of 50 men, and walked the several hundred yards along the beach from the south. Surprise for unsuspecting Corniglia helped fear blossom. They were already entering the city by the time Marco noticed, far too late. Marco tented the bonfire quickly making it rise and fall. He clanged the large bell on the post. He screamed when he noticed the first house on the beach go up in flames. Within minutes Corniglia was burning. Far away screams filtered to Marco's high post on the mountainside. He watched in terror as building after building began to spout flames from their windows. Only a few people were running from their homes. He knew that by the hour's time it would take him to return down the hill to town the pirates would be gone.

It had been seven years since Draghut had savaged Corniglia. His men were too strong, too evil to be stopped by a small band of fishermen, farmers and grape growers. There was little booty to be had. But there was food, supplies and hostages. This night they took seven women, three young boys and killed four men. Women could be used as slaves or sold, boys were ransomed or kept and raised as pirates. They moved quickly, setting fires, binding their captives and moving through the rain back to their ships. Marco ran, stumbled and careened down the steep trail, falling often, scraping knees, arms, elbows as he tried to get to Franchesca and Giorgio. Missing a step he fell ten feet down a small sloped precipice in the path, grazing his forehead, blood streaming from an opened cut. He arose, smeared the blood with the rainfall and continued on. Finally entering the town, fires and screaming surrounded him on all sides. Crying, wailing children clutched their mothers and hid in alleys and viaducts. Through the narrow cobbles Marco rushed, arriving at his small home and burst through the door. Franchesca knelt on the floor rocking back and forth, a whimper less than a cry emanating from somewhere in her body. Marco rushed to her. He looked quickly, left, then right. "He is gone. He is gone. He is gone!" she began to wail, over and over again. The next morning, rain still falling, a group of men waited on the beach. Marco stood with them. They had clubs and knives at hand. Before the dawn clawed its way over the crest of the mountains to the west, three of Draghut's men came slowly up the beachside, armed with curved blades and knives. "We have three boys to ransom," an older pirate offered. He gazed at them with his only good eye, the other a dark hole without a patch to toss fear into their own eyes. "Perhaps we kill you three right now," Giovanni, an older villager replied, no real fear in his heart and clearly the leader of the group. "Ha! Good. Good. I like nerve," the one-eyed man threw back, his Italian as good as his Turkish, "Kill us? Go ahead. I have seen more, been more places, drank more wine and killed more people than you fear in your nightmares. I can certainly die. Kill us. Draghut would love to crucify your three boys just on the beach down there," raising his arm and flicking a finger to the south, "and maybe your women too." "And the women?" Giovanni questioned. "Ah," the pirate shrugged a single shoulder, "They have had quite a night. They will be of no use to you. They are now ours. But the three boys? That is up to you. There is ransom price to be paid." "What is the ransom cost?" the spokesman for the villages asked. Marco stepped back and forth, pacing, slightly behind the gathered group of villagers. He ran his hand over the cut on his forehead, combing his dirty fingers through his coal black hair. He muttered, he wanted to scream, but kept from actually crying out. "200 florins," the pirate demanded. "200 florins?!" Giovanni replied, his voice a dagger of shock and anger. "Each," the one-eyed pirate demanded, more harshly this time. "Each!" Men grumbled, turned their backs, looked at one another. The older one turned around. "Marco, come forward!" he called out. Marco froze, hearing his voice called, as if from a far distance. "Come, man!" Giovanni called again. Marco moved, trance-like, through the small group of friends and neighbors. Giovanni asked Marco a question. "Marco, five years ago, you brought us this idea. Each family, each single man, every old widow, we all collect throughout the year, every year just for this...," a grimace of disgust crossed his face as he gestured to the pirates. "You are the most trusted among us and the keeper of the coin. How much do we have? How many florins, Marco?" Marco knew exactly how many florins the village held for ransom just for this. Often a passer-by would toss him a coin having sold an extra load of fish. If the grape harvest was good the wine makers were generous, even the peasants who broke their backs carrying 100 pound loads of grapes up the terraces handed him florins. Not a member of the town ever complained. If someone had not contributed that year he might knock on a door and they would apologize offering what they could. Families who suffered a loss or a bad crop were never asked. Marco and Franchesca always gave. "437," he answered flatly. "437 florins," his voice sounded dead. "Will you take 437 florins for the three boys?" the old man pleaded. "200. Each! That's 600 florins. Pay. Or leave them to us. We can use them," came the quick reply. "Have mercy!" a man shouted from the back of the group. "Drown yourself," came from the one-eyed man. "Who are the boys that were taken?" Giovanni asked. A man near him answered softly, "Angelo Bianchi, Roberto Conti" and he hesitated, looking down at his feet,"and Giorgio Barini." Men turned, not looking each other in the eye. Sunrise was a half hour yet to come. Torches held aloft inspired shadows. The rain slackened. "Rudolfo," he pointed to a young man standing at the edge of the crowd. "Go to the weeds over there. Pull three pieces of straw. Each one just a bit longer than the last. Close in size, but clear enough to tell the difference." Rudolfo returned quickly handing the grass pieces that would determine the fate of three young boys. Giovanni grasped them quickly and turned his back on his fellow villagers. He arranged them in his gnarled, knuckled fisherman's hand. Then he turned to face them. "Hurry up, old man!" demanded the one-eyed. "The tide! The tide!" "Three fathers come forward," Giovanni commanded solemnly. A priest hovered over the events, thinking it best to keep quiet, finally called out, "There must be another way, Sir!," he shouted to the pirates, "On the Blood of the risen Christ!" "What has Christ done for me!?" the pirate yelled back. "Men. Fathers. Choose a straw, each of you. The two longest straws will see your sons returned to you. The short straw...," his voice tapered off. Marco looked at Giovanni's fist. That hand that had taught him and helped him to mend nets, showed him the best shoals where the anchovies were thick in season, shared his wisdom and advice. "Mother Mary, help me now," he murmured to himself. The other two men blessed themselves. All three hands reached forward, equals, with no future blame to deliver. They each plucked a straw and held them out for all to see. A full minute passed. Giovanni finally spoke. "Angelo Bianchi and Roberto Conti will be returned to us. Then you will receive your florins." The pirates moved off. Marco returned to his house, pried the floorboards from under the small rug in their bedroom. His wife grasped at him pleading, questioning, grabbing his arm, hope and anguish in equal measure in her voice. Marco did not speak. He counted out 400 florins and returned to the beach. When the exchange was complete he stood on the beach for a very long time. Others coaxed him to go home, but he could not. He could not move, his gaze directed south. A shimmering fog had replaced the rain and despite his constant vigil he could see no ships moving away in the distance near the cliffs that descended like stony monuments to the sea. Later, Marco climbed the steep path to the bonfire now dark with soot and a low smolder. He watched the embers die into an orange glow. He attempted a prayer but none would come. Then he stood on the edge of a large outcropping, gazed down at Corniglia and threw himself from the high cliff.

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