By Lena Hari
/ Fiction /
Matteo’s hands, rough, raw, and badly bleeding, worked to turn the burnt earth. The fires were still burning in many spaces, over grass, crops, olive and scrub, but he was determined to keep it far away. He had tried in vain to keep it from the farm, but flames eased over the landscape like a well-oiled glove and now, he was but one person fighting a losing battle with buckets of well-water and a shovel. He fought, and sweated, and swore, as he worked furiously to keep the fires from the father tree. Just yesterday while drinking café in his empty kitchen, he had lamented over his unsuccessful efforts at farming, speaking only to the ghosts of family members long past. He cared for this land as did his papa before him and his papa before that. The earth, the soil upon which he stood, was in his blood, his dna, his very soul. But for him, and for others, it wasn’t just the land that was special, but what sat at the heart of the place.
Gnarled limbs, deep, bending and sometimes broken, the ancient olive tree grew beyond what anyone could have imagined. Thought to be thousands of years old, he was the largest of his kind in the village and all of the island of Sardinia. He watched over the people and the land and ensured abundance in all things. Since anyone could remember, his family had allowed the people to come from across the island and set gifts and offerings at his trunk. They would say a prayer or cast a spell, and Matteo imagined that their blessings would fly up into the air and kiss the silver leaves and limbs, as they moved upwards. The father tree had the power to make dreams come true, to bring love and fill one’s heart with grace. He was sacred. He was family.
Now he was close to the flames, too close Matteo thought, and he worried the fire would continue unabated and consume the tree leaving nothing but ash. He pulled the handkerchief from around his nose and mouth, pouring more water on it from his canteen, and replacing it as quick as he could. The smoke set his lungs on fire and he could only go so long without a covering. The flames licked the nearby fields and doubt crept over him. He began to worry that he could not do it alone. Even now after all this time, could it be that he still needed them? He fought those feelings most of the day and through the night as he protected the tree, but reality began to set in.
Dry years had plagued the land since the dawn of time. The small canyons and seeps would dry up. The troughs would run empty and the animals would wail and moan. Alone he would work the farm as best his could, only bringing on help when the tasks required more hands, and only people from outside the village, people that had not betrayed his father or his family. The drought plagued all things. Dust would blow from erratic winds along the roads and plowed fields and cover his home and everything that would stand still. The leaves on the father tree and all the other olive trees would start to shrivel and threaten to fall. And fire inevitably came, as familiar as the rain; it was ever present and the landscape longed for it. Matteo’s papa would burn the fields on occasion to bring balance to the land, but sometimes, the land had her own ideas. Occasionally, wildfires broke out and threatened the farms and nearby hills, such as the fire that changed Matteo’s life forever.
He was just a young man then, following behind his papa, learning about the farm and all that required, all the while thinking he knew everything there was to know. The push and pull of father and son were so great that when the big fire moved west closer to the farm, Matteo had been away, sowing oats of his own. He wasn’t there to see how his papa and farm hands used rakes, shovels, hoes and burlap sacks to impede and beat back the flames; or how the smoke and heat drained their energy and faith, and while they managed to save the family home, they struggled to keep the father tree safe. His father sent word to the village for others to come, but those friends and neighbors had their own battles to fight, their own affairs to look after, and no one came. Matteo’s papa knew it was up to him alone to protect the tree. It was the heart of the people he would say, and so as the wildfire spread and consumed, and devoured, he ran to protect the tree. He splashed buckets of water onto the trunk and dug shallow trenches to keep the fire from closing in. The work was difficult and endless and he fought on through the night. In the smokey morning light, upon his return, Matteo could see that the tree had been spared, but his papa had not. Heat exhaustion, fatigue- it mattered not, for Matteo, it was the villagers that had abandoned his papa in his time of need. Even now years later, on those sleepless nights, Matteo could still see his papa, a brightly lit flame in the dead of night.
Consumed by grief and bitter that his papa had died because no one had cared enough to help, Matteo began to isolate himself. They were simply too wrapped up in their own lives and their own problems, or so he thought. And so, he enclosed the property within a fence, long and high. It took some time, but he managed such a task alone, and when it was done, he hung no trespassing signs and installed locks on all the gates, shutting out the world. And then, slowly, he retreated, removing himself from the community and the people of the village completely, until he became just a myth, or a story children would tell one another, and the tree was his alone to care for and adore.
Many tried to visit the farm, but Matteo was always waiting at a distance. They would gather at the gate and sing songs and say prayers for the tree to grant them grace and protection. But where were they when Matteo’s papa had needed protection? Where were they when he needed help the most? Once, a group of young, mischievous boys picked the lock on the main gate in the middle of the night and tried to see who could make it to the father tree before getting caught. But Matteo always awoke, knowing somewhere in his dreams that he was not alone. He would change the locks year after year and even added barbed wire fencing around the property like the Americans he read about in his books, trying to keep out those he no longer needed. He became a recluse, a hermit, but he worked the land just the same and he would spend time every day at the foot of the father tree, telling him all his hopes and fears and saying a prayer for his papa in heaven. And his bitterness grew for his neighbors and his emptiness swelled.
Sometimes at night, Matteo would imagine his papa sitting with him in the study. His pipe in hand, and the smell of sweet tobacco smoke in the air. His papa there in his chair at the desk, poring over farm records, woodfire ablaze in the hearth and his favorite dog asleep at his feet. Matteo would sit in the doorway as a boy and watch him closely. His mannerisms, his noises. How he seemed to chew the pipe stem whenever he read something he disliked. His papa would look up then and smile at this son and say Bona Notte, Matteo and nod. T’amo.
He lost so much the day the fire took his papa. And today, Matteo struggled just the same as the winds picked up, pushing smoke and flames west and south. He watched it jump a distant stone wall throwing bursts of flames, like glowing orange arrows, into new fields and new fires birthed in a patchwork dance. He worried he was losing the battle and soon he would lose the light. What would come next? He ran to the pump to fill buckets with water, over and over again until his hands and arms were worn and shaking. He continued as best he could, exhaustion sinking in. Finally, he slumped down into the dirt, at the base of the tree, and breathed stale air through his damp handkerchief. For a brief second, he closed his eyes. Images of his papa working the fields haunted his memory. Gently, slowly, he drifted into sleep. Into a dreamworld free of smoke and fire and sadness.
So thin and veiled the memories flowed, and he was a small child standing at the base of the tree with his papa, in his hands sweet almond cake and wine as offerings to the ancient father, to watch over them and give them grace and peace as they made a life without Matteo’s mother, who had gone to meet the angels too early. Matteo asked the father to say hello to her for him, a child’s greeting. The tree became a bridge for Matteo then, a way to commune not only with the father and all of nature, but with his mother as well. The tree would carry his prayers and the prayers of others up into the heavens. When he felt troubled as a child, when he felt lonely or lost- he’d find himself under the tree and he would find peace.
As a man, Matteo would think on the dry years and the wet, he would find himself sitting in confidence with the tree and sharing fears about the farm, about the lack of water that year, or the flooding the next. Always alone from the world, with no one but the tree, Matteo would tell his worries to the weathered bark and far-reaching limbs. He would seek shelter there from heavy rains, just him and the sheep, weathering spring storms and watching as lightning danced on the landscape a tapestry of reds, whites, and yellows against a stormy sky. Those years of flooding were not bad. He welcomed the rain and was thankful for it. It filled the troughs, and ponds. It meant the crops and animals would survive. But drought, the bone-dry and sunbaked earth, was what he feared the most.
Wildfires would sometimes start from heat lightning up on the hilltops or down on the flats and Matteo would stay up some nights during the dry times to make sure no fires took hold. Those days held little sleep and he was in a fog most all the time, dancing between the night and day. This time the fires came quickly after a dry winter and spring. Matteo had known it was inevitable. When they took hold, he was ready with troughs filled to the brim and wooden tanks scattered along the farm. He was ready with buckets and shovels set at every turn. But what could one man handle alone?
He was so tired now, so tired that he drifted further into a dreamless sleep, his mind and body seeking the peace and rest it needed. But while Matteo’s weary body tried to recuperate, the blaze spread, and twisted and turned, and started to create its own weather and space. Winds picked up and embers jumped across the road towards Matteo’s home. As if to claim it for its own, the fire kissed the very edges of the house, tasting the years of love and family and struggle, and it wanted more. With a slight push of air, it moved over the roof and in through the windows and before long the house was engulfed in flames. Smoke billowed like mushroom clouds in the night, rising up towards the stars.
Svegliati, a voice said. Svegliati, it repeated. Matteo blinked his eyes and stretched, looking behind him at the fire’s nearest point. Steaming in the moonlight, his trenches had worked thus far. But the danger was far from over. He sighed and sat back against the trunk, thankful. But then something caught his eye, something bright and dancing and Matteo noticed then the raging fire, that had once been his home. Horror stricken he grabbed his shovel and jumped into his truck and raced towards the house. The bonfire lit the sky and everything around. What could he possibly save? Anything? Now standing near the blaze, he could smell the sweet tobacco smoke and burning herbs that had once hung in the kitchen. He watched as wooden beams and stucco walls, blazed brilliantly and collapsed- only the stone chimney hanging on, solid in a storm of fire. He dropped to his knees then, an emptiness filling his chest, and sadness overtaking his soul. He had not seen a fire so bright, not since that fateful night when his papa became a hero.
Heartsick, he knew there was nothing to be done for the house. So, with what strength he could muster, he turned back towards the father tree and began to work the earth again, starting to dig new fire breaks. He shoveled until his shoulders burned and his energy waned, until he found himself contemplating letting the fire take him, too. It would be so quick, so effortless and fair. He could give himself to the fire, perhaps in exchange for the tree, and it would be a welcomed peace. Leaning on his shovel he stared at the fire as it swayed and moved, until through the dust and smoke his papa’s face appeared before him stern and kindness all at once, and he knew then that no such bargain could be made. It was then that he began to see the distant lights moving toward the farm. It was then that he heard the singing.
Out on the gravel road, winding up through the valley, a sting of lights through the smoke, like a ribbon lead to his front gate and Matteo knew. He knew the people had finally come, but for a brief moment he hesitated. The anger in his heart pulsating once again as the memory of his papa held sway. He didn’t want to let them in, not now, not after so much loss, not after so long, and yet here they were. Reluctantly, he drove down to the gate.
He exited the truck. Dust, dirt and ash covered his face and neck, his shirt and pants. His hair a wild mess of tangles. No one said a word as he moved toward the gate. He looked them over, each and every man, woman and child, strangers all, waiting to aid him in his fight. He pulled the key from around his neck and opened the lock, swinging the gate wide so they could enter. They moved quickly, as if the farm was theirs as if the tree was family. They would be needed.
One by one they filed through the gate with shovels, hoes, buckets and more. Their cars and trucks turning dust in their wake. They meandered their way through the farm, some to fight the fire which neared the barn while others moved quickly towards the father tree.
In his absence, the wildfire had crept closer, making its way toward the ancient one. The orange, red, and yellow blaze, rose and fell, ebbed and flowed, pushed on by oxygen and other unseen forces. It moved like a dancer, like a living thing and he wondered if it was perhaps spirits or ghosts forcing the flames onward. As if possessed, Matteo jumped back into his truck and sped the short distance. He had already lost so much, his home, so many precious memories of his father and his life on the farm. The fire wanted to take the one thing he had left, the one thing he had to hold onto. He would not have it. Flames jumped forward and licked the ground around the tree and Matteo ran. Closer now he heard the crackle and pop of seeds and limbs as they burst into flames and exploded. The villagers formed an assembly line with heavy buckets of water needed to dampen the earth around the tree and keep the fire from taking hold. One of the villagers, a young woman, ran from her car with towels in hand, skirts flying. She placed the towels in the bucket near Matteo’s feet and soaked them through. He could only make out her slight frame in the dark and her dirty white handkerchief embroidered with delicate flowers covering her face so that she would not breathe so much smoke. She moved quickly and dropped to her knees before the father tree. He knelt beside her. The fire burned close now, with heat so fierce he thought his skin would surely melt. She took the soaking towels one by one and placed them along the trunk and up the tree. Together, they worked in unison until the father tree was wet and damp, as if the rain had magically arrived. They continued in this way for some time. The fabric covered the tree, but would dry quickly from the heat, and they would soak them again and again, a collage of patience.
Shirtless men ran to create firebreaks, to throw dirt on new flames and keep the fire at bay. Even as they tired from the work, they moved with certainty, they moved out of caring. Women who weren’t looking out for young ones swung hoes and shovels into soft ground or worked in shifts to fill buckets. Women so strong from laundry and farming, women he hardly knew and unfamiliar children who ran throwing water from small buckets. Strangers all. Prayers were muttered while they toiled and fought. Save this farm. Save our father.
Voices lifted soft against the flames, a gentle hum as the sky changed and the night slipped away to the west and magenta and orange streaks of light lit up the east. Perhaps his father’s spirit was there watching, waiting to see how his son would fare, knowing and acknowledging that Matteo fought until the bitter end, waiting to see if the villager’s aid was too little too late. What would the morning bring, he wondered? The woman changed the towels again, making sure they stayed damp against the tree. Matteo found her movements calming, like a healing spell cast in the morning twilight.
He felt bone-weary and completely spent. Yet, while the smoke, and rubble across the scorched fields of old had a new story to tell, the father tree remained and Matteo was there to bear witness. He rested his hands on the massive trunk, touching the rough bark and thought he could feel the thrumming of life in the wood. Was it the heart of the tree he could feel? Or was it the heart of the people come to surround him and take him in, their will and hope a steady drumbeat. The woman placed one hand on the tree and another atop his- a touch foreign and familiar, a sensation long missed. Around him, people fell to their knees. He had lost the house, but the tree had been spared and so they sang a prayer, an old song to the spirits, familiar once more, and for the first time in forever, Matteo sang too.