SUN CLE RANCH
Gunda Murinni is the one to pick me up at the station in Fossacesia. She is blonde, blue-eyed, tall—not at all the matron I expect to greet me. Stringy muscles rope her arms and legs. A ponytail keeps the hair collected, out of her eyes. I lift my pack into the trunk of the car and slide into the passenger’s seat. We cleared a space for another tent, Gunda says. I had not known I would be living in a tent. I had not known there would be more than one tent. In the next few hours, I’ll learn that there is no toilet and only a warmed hose at midday for showers.
Despite her fierce, tanned presence, Gunda speaks a slowed, welcoming Italian. I am glad not to speak English, she says. No one expects an American to try a language that is not her own. She asks questions, and soon I am at ease and rattling off a broken story about my latest adventure in Pescara. I point to the Adriatic as we pass along the coast. This is the sea my great-grandmother loved. She lets me talk, asks questions. Your Italian is good, she says. I shake my head—it’s not true—but her surprise draws me out of myself. We turn up a steep road toward the ranch, its seat above the sea. I keep finding things to talk about. The moon will be full tonight, I say. It will be the final full moon I see in Italy, but this I am not ready to admit out loud.
Tent by Moon
Gunda walks me to the place I will pitch my tent, in a small cleared area beside the horse paddocks. The sun goes down behind us. Beyond the ranch, the tree line dips and opens to the Adriatic, now purpled and dotted with the lights of ships. The spindled bodies of zanzare emerge in clouds and land to bite as Gunda dumps the tent out of its faded bag.
Sun Cle Ranch sits north of Fossacesia in a place called Piano Favaro, a plateau overlooking the Adriatic and dotted with olive and fig trees. The Murinni family lives in a series of rooms Carlo has built between the chicken coop and his falegnameria—a kitchen, one room for Carlo and Gunda, one room for their two kids, Moreno and Lorena. They moved out of the villa a month before my arrival so they could rent it out for extra money. A German family is about to move in for the summer. A Russian family lives in a second house on the property, and Carlo’s sister lives in a third. Volunteers stay in tents at the bottom of the ranch.
Watch your hands, Gunda says as I wield the mallet and strike the stake to the final corner. We stand back to examine our work in the dark. Allora, qui é la casa, I say. So this is my home. Gunda laughs as I throw my bag inside the tent, and we head to the top of the hill for dinner.
Cigarettes and Coffee
At night the horses of Sun Cle Ranch whinny and paw at the ground, packs of dogs snarl, fox families yip and whine. Mornings start at 5:45. The dark tinges blue outside of my tent when my alarm rings. I head up the hill, alone, stopping once to take in the glow over the ocean. I have to duck two electric fences on my way to the Murinni’s lean-to at the top of the hill. Carlo, Gunda, and I meet in the kitchen with whispers, not to wake the renters or the children sleeping in the room nearby. Gunda brews coffee over the makeshift camp stove. Carlo rolls a cigarette and asks if I smoke, and I tell him I do not. His eyes twinkle inside of his thin face. Everything about Carlo is thin, but nothing is weak. The smoke from his cigarette drifts away from the table and out of the kitchen. Beads hang where one wall should be. A sheet of plexiglass leans behind a shelf filled with plates and utensils. What happens when it rains? I ask. The coffee whistles on the makeshift stove. We hope it doesn’t, Gunda says.
Chickens at Night
I take one last coffee and head to the chickens. Caring for them is just one responsibility I have inherited from Lorenzo, who sleeps later than he should. Lorenzo, from Rome, has been at the farm two days by the time I arrive. He is a scattered soul, a nested man. I learn that he is my age. This fact shocks me against the facts of his widow’s peak and wrinkled eyes. Just walking up the hill from the tents to the kitchen winds him. He does not get out, Carlo says. We need to help him before it’s too late. It’s why he is here. He stares out past the beads hanging at one entrance of the lean-to kitchen and shakes his head. He agreed to three weeks, Carlo says, but three weeks will do nothing. He must stay for three months, three years. Nothing changes so quickly, he says. I wonder about how long it might really take to become a different person.
After coffee I let the chickens out of their coop. Three wire cages hold three bunches of chicks and three mothers. I must wash the feeders, refill the water. Before the afternoon break, I let the chickens out of their enclosure to wander the yard. By night, the chickens return to the coop. How do they know to come back? I ask Gunda, who tells me it’s instinct. Gunda and I have many conversations about instinct, this drive to live and respond according to nature. So I count the chickens perched in the dark, their bodies hunched over, wings held out a bit from their bodies. If one is missing out of twenty-six, we know the fox has come again.
Marina from Madrid used to work with racehorses in Spain. Her hair is clipped short, her sarcasm sharp. One of her responsibilities is to bathe Étoiles, the horse Gunda uses for training. When I unzip the tent one morning and step out, I discover that I am not the first awake. Marina is holding the hose over Étoiles’ body. The sun has not yet risen. Lorenzo snores as always from the tent beside mine. Étoiles brings his head close to Marina’s, nibbles at the hood she has pulled up around her face. She spots me watching and says, He is testing me. Marina lets him chew, does not flinch, and after a moment pushes him away. They have six horses here and only one with an Italian name, Marina says, shaking her head. She turns back to the horse and whispers to him in Castilian Spanish, a chide or caution. There’s a language for everything. This is one the horse will know.
Walking with Lorenzo
One afternoon Lorenzo and I walk to the beach together. On the way there we speak in English. Before il cavaluccio mare, Lorenzo stops at a store for ice cream and sweets, two luxuries the Murinni family shuns. He comes out with a full bag of groceries and eats on the pebbled beach while I swim. The water is bath-warm, cottony. I float on my back and study the closest trabocco, a wooden fishing pier jutting out over the sea. Nets hang from protruding planks like elbows draping shed garments.
On the way back to the ranch, I am more insistent—we speak Italian. I ask Lorenzo where he works, what his hobbies are. I really like games, he says. I push him. Sports? I ask. Calcio? He says, I like basketball, LeBron James. Row after row of olive trees stretches out at either side of the road. Every now and then a small dog will come barking up a driveway and follow at our heels until we pass its territory. Lorenzo tells me he works in the library, which is good because he can read comics and play video games when there is no one to help. When I ask if he misses Rome, he shrugs. Do you miss your home? he says. I pretend to think about it for a minute—the world so far from me, that life I seem to have so easily forgotten. Not really, I say, opting for the half-truth, the answer that will hide what I know. Quando io sono qui non c’è mai lì. When I’m here, there is no there. Oil and water. There is no mixing them.
Carlo says the garden should not be worked in heat, not after ten in the morning. Already the sun beats. Giovanna—another new volunteer—and I work together in the garden, pulling garlic, watering zucchini, picking cucumbers. Giovanna from Genoa claims that she does not speak English. It’s better like this, I tell her. I only want to speak Italian, though I’m not so good. Our hands sweat through garden gloves. You’re a writer, Giovanna says. What do you like to read? I shrug, tell her a little bit of everything. Romanzi, the word that means “novels.” Che tipo? she says, I gialli? I ask her what she means, and she says that a “yellow” novel is one with a mystery. She teaches preschool, speaks with her hands even as we work.
I maneuver the hoe along a cleared space in the garden while Giovanna snakes the hose row to row. Do you think we’re doing this right? she says. How much water to use, how deep to turn the soil, how many chalky cucumber leaves to remove? Carlo and Gunda have taught us these things, but they sometimes give contradictory directions, and every afternoon Carlo enters the gate and shakes his head. It’s a mess, he says. It must take a lot to trust us—a rotating group of strangers—with l’orto, the soul of every Italian dinner table, the center of the family. We step where we shouldn’t. We water too long or too little. We are reverent but we make mistakes, commit small crimes we won’t understand until we have already finished our work.
During afternoon break, I follow Moreno to his private soccer field where we take turns shooting on each other, reliving past World Cup matches. I never have anyone to play with, he says. We live so far from everything. Moreno is Carlo’s youngest son, nearly thirteen. Every time he leaves the house he gels and combs up his hair using a large metallic pot as a mirror. When we juggle, his hair falls flat. His tongue sticks out in concentration. I throw him the ball several times so he can volley it back and instruct him each time to tighten his ankle or lift his knee higher. In return he teaches me Italian soccer terms, important verbs, ways of moving. Italians have their own word for soccer: calcio, from the Italian verb calciare, “to kick.” A softly lifted ball—a “chip” in English—is a spoon, cucchiaio. The goal itself is la porta: the gate, the door, the portal. A way through one world and into the next.
There are eight of us now living in tents at Sun Cle Ranch. We are American, Canadian, Italian, Spanish. We need to be organized, Carlo tells us at breakfast. We must have a plan. The fourth pot of coffee boils on the camp stove and we pass a bowl of dates picked from trees by Carlo’s falegnameria. He wears the same shirt as always, a plain grey tee with a “Mr. Parquet” logo at the right breast. Carlo is a handy man, yoga teacher, cowboy. He speaks six languages, switches between them at will. I see him as a kind but firm man who calls for plans but does not necessarily stick to them. At the crowded table he holds up a small chalkboard scribbled with tasks: water the garden, harvest the onions, muck the paddocks, sort the roof tiles, rake the stones, build the woodpile. Nothing is ever finished. Our group splits, agrees on who’s assigned to what. Then we talk about what we want from each other, what could be improved. We will find harmony in chaos, Carlo says, this King Arthur, commanding our court of half-finished tasks.
The day has come for stacking the mound of bricks Carlo says he will use in unknown future projects. Watch for scorpions, he warns us as we crowd the kitchen table for coffee. Marina, Giovanna, and I raise our eyebrows. They won’t kill you, he assures us. Just a sting.
We tear the bricks from the pile and toss them to the ground so the scorpions will scatter in shock. From holes of porous bricks they come charging, bodies fat as black bullets, stingers curled and ready. I wonder what the point of this re-stacking is, or if Carlo just wants to make us useful. Organization, he says, is the most important thing no one has time for. Giovanna lifts a brick up and tosses it as far as she can, hopping up and down as several dislodged scorpions ricochet through the wreckage. Just a sting, Marina taunts. After the bricks have been strewn we will return to restack the bricks in line, building new columns of tiny empty apartments waiting to be occupied again or put to better use.
It is Giovanna’s night to cook. She boils pasta for promised pesto, un piatto tipico from her region, Genoa. At the table, I mince cloves of garlic. How much salt do I use? she asks me. You’re the Italian, I laugh. She says she doesn’t use much salt in her cooking. But how? I ask. Ma comé? She shrugs, says something about health. We stand together with a box of salt, faces over the pot of boiling water. Buttalo, I tell her, Pour it, keep pouring. She tips the box while I count three long seconds. Giovanna’s eyes widen. Too much, she says, pinching her fingers together and wagging her hand. Later on, we heap pasta onto plates for six volunteers and Carlo and Gunda and their two kids bunched elbow to elbow at the table. Carlo says Grazie and we raise our forks to our mouths. Si manca sale, Carlo says, Needs more salt. Giovanna and I lock eyes over the table and laugh. So much salt, she tells me later, I thought for sure it was too much.
Moreno presents us with a hand-drawn map one day at our afternoon break. This is another way to the sea, he says. You can hike there through the woods. A child’s cartoon path curves around the paper, punctuated with symbols representing notable features along the way: stone wall, old farm, crossroads, yellow fig tree. You’ll get lost the first time, Moreno warns. We set out after pranzo, all of us together. At every fork in the road we stop to deliberate, turn the map in our hands, send scouts off in both directions. Then we meet again. Somewhere in the woods we pass a huge tree, its canopy stretched wide like an umbrella. It grows higher than we can see. But I don’t see any figs, I say, pointing to the tree on the map. The leaves are long, banana-shaped. The forest floor beneath it has been cleared around the trunk. We stand under the tree, taking it in. Later, we will learn that this is the yellow fig, that we had been on the right track all along—but confused, we turn back, take the long route through a private olive orchard to a monastery overlooking the ocean, before snaking finally down to the beach. It is after six by the time we get back, two hours late. Carlo watches us approach from the door of the falegnameria. Ci siamo persi, I say in apology. Everyone gets lost the first time, he says in English and turns back to his buzz saw. One more thing he will have to wait for us to learn.
Water to Wine
The sun melts in the sky, seems stuck inside my eyes. I try to blink out my headache at the kitchen table. I need to drink more water, I say, holding my glass under the faucet. Gunda, chopping cucumber by the stove, reaches over and slaps the faucet off. You drink water, you only sweat more, she says. She bends down and comes up again with a bottle of white wine. This is better. I try to turn it down, explaining that alcohol dehydrates and doesn’t everyone know this? The look on her face is one of horror. I haven’t seen her so affronted since her conversation with another American volunteer about breastfeeding. They teach you this in America? she says now. These lies? She fills my glass to the brim with white wine. You sweat and sweat, you will lose everything. I will learn to drink wine at every meal, to keep the good things always inside.
Wonder the Stallion
Lorenzo is in Wonder’s paddock, mucking. He lumbers over to a large pile of shit, digs in his shovel, grunts, wobbles back to the wheelbarrow. Wonder is the ranch’s lone stallion, boarded there one summer and then abandoned by the owner he bucked. It is not the horse’s fault, Carlo says. You must know how to handle a horse to be safe with it. That man had no idea.
I have come down to the tent for a long-sleeved shirt. It’s getting dark, the mosquitoes have returned. Everyone else is up at the kitchen cooking or in the garden harvesting onions. When I peek from my tent, Lorenzo stands before Wonder. He reaches out with one hand. The horse whinnies and tosses its head. I take a few steps toward them. Lorenzo turns his back on the horse, and before he reaches the wheelbarrow again, Wonder charges. Lorenzo veers to the right and barrels out of the paddock. The electric fence releases a hiss of static shocks. My heart jumps at my ribs. Wonder faces Lorenzo, the fence between them, the wheelbarrow overturned. Never run from a horse, I remember Carlo saying, unless you want to teach it that you are afraid.
At the table during lunch, Carlo speaks French with Charlotte from Quebec. I try to listen, pull apart sounds I know from Italian and Spanish, but after a few minutes I’m left shaking my head. Can you understand? I ask Marina, who smokes a perpetual cigarette beside me. A little, she says, You can’t? Charlotte turns to me. Canadian French is different anyway, she says. French people say it’s dirtier, ugly. I ask her to explain the difference, and Charlotte pronounces the same word in European French and Canadian French. You try, Charlotte says. She pronounces the word for “pig” very slowly in Canadian French—a warped, fattened version of the English word, pork. I take a deep breath, filling my mouth with air, and try to mimic. Marina and Charlotte break out into laughter. Carlo shakes his head. Stick with Italian, he says, smiling. I comment that I don’t speak Italian either, part of me hoping that Carlo might say something to the contrary. Instead he tells me, in English, to gather prunes near the driveway when I have a chance. We’ve forgotten and now they’re falling, he says. Already they’re too ripe.
Rules of the Woodpile
Carlo crouches beside me, behind the villa where I am stacking branches of wood. This is still uneven, he says, gesturing to the angle of the pile, the way it leans off to the side. I’ll fix it, I say, although I’m frustrated. This is the third time Carlo has been over to observe my progress, the third time I’ve failed. The wood is not in even cuts—they are large pieces of brush and branches, misshapen and twisted, all different sizes. This is very tough work, Carlo says. It requires more than attention. He picks up an olive branch and lays it across the grid. You must know something about the order of the universe to stack a strong woodpile. I do not for a moment think he means this as a joke, but I cannot resist. I clearly don’t know much about the universe, I say. He winks and places a few more branches on the pile, evening it out. You have to detect the mistakes you make before you can see the stack leaning. Harmony, he explains, means understanding how everything reacts to everything else. Then he leaves to inspect another job.
Nearby, Marina has been whacking at bamboo roots with a pick. Her breathing beats between the thwacks of the pick sinking into dirt and root. Charlotte dumps another wheelbarrow of twisted branches at my feet. I continue the job and manage to keep the pile straight before Carlo returns. It has grown tall, just up to my forehead. He stands back, hand on chin, crouches and leans to one side for another angle. He smiles. Brava, he says finally. I could have done better, I tell him. But if what Carlo says is true—if we live in this universe, this set of reactions—then how can perfection ever exist? There is only watch-and-learn. Do something incorrectly. Try again.
The Germans have finished moving into the villa. There are so many of them, too many to count, not enough rooms for them all. Carlo jokes that half of the country has moved in. They have erected a temporary pool in the courtyard, a giant plastic tub. I don’t understand, Gunda whispers at the table after dinner. Not when the ocean is so near. Carlo waves a hand beside his head. You know how these rich people are, he says. Let them have their fun. Bad ‘80s American music pumps through a radio next door, where the Germans lounge in the new pool and eat barbecue. At least my people know how to drink, Gunda says. Moreno is hanging out at the table beside me hoping to talk soccer, revisit our old Ronaldo-versus-Messi debate. Have you heard them yet? he says. Listen. As if on cue, one of the men next door breaks out into the chorus of a pop song. Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me no more! Charlotte snorts and spits some of her wine onto the table. The singer’s voice is deep, loose, and loud. He seems to know all of the words. It’s difficult to hold back our laughter, but there are no walls in the Murinni’s kitchen, and we can be heard from the villa’s yard if we’re not careful. Tears stream down Charlotte’s cheeks. Giovanna presses her hands to her mouth and shakes her head.
The hysteria passes, but the music continues. The liveliness from next door seeps into the kitchen. We stay up for several more hours, talking sports and politics. The world is a tribe, Carlo says. We have to help each other. The Germans show no sign of fading, and at each burst of song we pop out of our stern philosophies, lose ourselves in a renewed effort not to laugh.
The Yellow Fig Again
A mountain biker nearly collides with me on the forest trail to the beach. He skids past, drops his bike, hurries toward me. Are you okay? the young man says, eyes wide. I nod and smile, searching for the right words. Don’t worry. It’s nothing. At the sign of my accent, his brow furrows. Sweat glues curls of long, dark hair to his neck. Non sei Italiana? he says. I won’t forget his disappointment when I tell him no, that I’m American staying with a family in Piano Favaro. His eyes harden, and he cannot think of how to respond at first. Oh, he says in English. Okay. Sorry. A moment later, he is speeding out of sight. I am left longing for a few more words as the biker disappears over a hill.
A little farther along the trail I find the yellow fig. It holds still enough in the windless afternoon to be a painting. I stop to watch the sun weave through its long leaves. It must have inspired old family tree drawings with its twisting and dividing branches, all part of the same root system but impossible to take in at once. If only I could see it when it’s fruiting, figs hung like a thousand fists waiting to open.
Moreno and the Stallion
I must clean out a place in the bamboo where Carlo stores the equipment for sun-drying tomatoes. The barrels and sheets are char-black. The stuff comes off on my palms, my clothes. Someone yells. Through the bamboo, a bloom of dust rises into the air from the horse paddocks at the bottom of the hill. Carlo runs from his workshop waving his arms, his Italian too frantic to decipher. I drop the barrel and run until I can see the paddock beneath the dust. By then everything is still. Charlotte stands nearby with her arms crossed. Wonder tried to buck Moreno, she says. The dust clears, revealing the boy with his arms around Gunda, his face pressed into her chest. A few moments later, a shaken-up Moreno walks up the hill with Carlo. He did the right thing, Carlo says without looking up. He held on.
Two days before I leave Sun Cle Ranch, Carlo insists on giving me a day off. We are going to Lanciano, he says. We want you to come. Moreno combs his hair tall and Carlo puts on his best belt buckle and paisley shirt, a true cowboy. The Murinnis and I pile into the tiny car and head off to Lanciano. We wander a few streets together, and then Carlo points me toward the old section of the city.
After exploring alone, I head to the transportation center to find a bus that will take me closer to the ocean again. I already know what to expect. Italian buses are difficult to figure out, and I will have to ask questions and consult schedules. I walk onto a waiting bus. The driver is young, around my age. I ask him where he’s going. He smiles and tells me to follow him. We walk off of the bus and into the restaurant at the station. We pull out a schedule and search the time. I have half an hour to wait, so I order a slice of pizza and un caffé.
The driver wishes me luck and leaves, but the man behind the counter is curious. We speak for a while about what I have been doing in Italy, where I have gone. Tu hai molto corragio, he says. I nod and take a sip of my coffee. It would be rude to protest, but bravery is the wrong word for what I’m doing here, traveling alone. But you will come back, he says, when I tell him I have only one week left in Italy. I know it.
My bus arrives on time, and I let it take me away from Lanciano. My time there has come and gone so quick, and I wonder if I’ll ever see the small city again. The new driver makes no announcements about the name of each stop. Three girls, talking loudly and tossing a volleyball, gather in the seat beside me. I will ask them where to get off for the marina as soon as the bus begins to follow the coast. One of the girls throws a glance my way, as if she knows I’m listening, trying to follow the conversation. Or maybe she is wondering who I am, where I come from—it’s one of the first phrases we learn how to ask about and answer in a foreign language. The space behind a mirror, a reflection impossibly exact, yet always opposite: one half waves, because in reality, it is waving. But the other half can simply mimic, will only ever pretend.
Work ends early on my last day at Sun Cle Ranch. Gunda and Giovanna prepare a picnic: cucumber salad, bread and olive oil, figs, tomato pie. Two full jugs of house wine, tasting faintly of kerosene—a taste I’ve come to love. Carlo chauffeurs us in fours to La Foce, the family’s favorite beach, too far off to walk to in one afternoon. When I ask about translating the name of the beach, Moreno explains: It’s like a mouth, or—I don’t know what you call it—a place where the water comes together?
La Foce is a part-sand, part-pebble beach at the base of a small cliff. The water is deep and clear, cooler than the waters of il cavaluccio mare or the marina. A familiar trabocco juts out over the beach to one side. When I walk into the sea, the water wraps around my knees like silk that’s been warming in the sun. I catch sight of Carlo’s impossibly thin legs disappearing into the blue.
I part off from the others and head toward the trabocco, where the water becomes shallower, the floor rougher. I lie back on a sun-white rock and listen to the ocean lap forward and backward. It’s a moment that I’ll claim to have dreamed of before it happened—but as I grasp the thought and try to turn it to memory, something twitches under my leg. A pinch. I jerk away while a small black crab scuttles to the side beneath another rock. I should not care about the crab, but the fact of its interruption disappoints me. These careful meanings and neat methods of organization I’ve been searching for dissolve, and Gunda is calling. Everyone is already seated on the white, pebbled sand under the Murinni’s umbrella. Dripping and salty, the crab still on my mind, I take a place in the circle and wait for Carlo’s simple declaration before meals. Grazie, he’ll say for the last time. Let’s eat.