Looking at Max’s puckered eyebrow I was reminded of Hemingway’s hunter, who chased endangered species and exotic beasts only to blast them into oblivion. Hunters’ always prey on the biggest and boldest, assuming that the one with the most scars must be ‘of substance’. Kill the beast and inherit its potent integrity. Not that I saw our new friend as hunter; his were the eyes of the hunted. Max was a coiled spring, fiercely chauvinistic, proud of his Corsican roots, desperate to retain independence from the interfering mainland and keen to propagate his intolerance:
“It is not ‘maquis’ it’s macchia.” he spat again. “ The name comes from the mucchiu, wild rockroses that grow here in abundance. The French bastards took our word to give credibility to their fighters shivering and quivering in the bush. Maquisards? Pah!”
Max was easy company until Paris was mentioned, the tricolour a red rag to his bullish beliefs. It was our second evening in Corsica and we sat, as his guests, in ‘L’Arbre Cotier’ overlooking the glorious scope of Calvi Bay, the slopes beyond awash with the colours of spring.
“Pac. Easter is a fine time to walk the macchia; the winter rains are still feeding the hillsides making the valleys like a beautiful yellow blanket. You can smell the honey and myrtle. Tonight you will eat young lamb, agneu de lait, which feeds only on the macchia and is fire roasted with the branches of that myrtle. And later I will introduce you to myrte our famous liqueur. It removes all conscience, and” he added with a chuckle, “the grass stains that follow.” Our waiter approached us with a sanguine nod before placing a large platter of chacuterie on the table. Here were Prizuttu, Coppa and the lean Lonzu with that never to be forgotten smoky buttery flavour.
“Again, the benefit of free grazing.” Max spluttered through a mouthful of cold cuts. “Our pigs run wild in the forests and feast on acorns and chataigne. We call the chestnut trees ‘u arburu a pane’, bread trees, as they are so basic to our diet. The story goes that in the sixteenth century the ruling Genoese were unable to cultivate our mountains so they decreed that all landowners plant four trees a year; a mulberry, a cherry, an olive and a chestnut. Soon la chataigne reigned supreme et voila, we were self-sufficient. The Father of our nation, Pasco Paoli said, “As long as we have chestnuts, we shall have bread.” Of course the French despised us for this ‘food of laziness’, they saw our easy income as immoral and forbade us to plant new trees. We ourselves started to ignore this bullion and yet it endures.” With that he put his hand to his ear and produced an unearthly warble. The room fell silent and all eyes turned to our table, a few older heads nodding in solemn deference. Max finished his song with an uninhibited, tremulous crescendo. No applause, just a reverent silence.
“That was ‘The Chestnut's Lament’. Max blinked away the mist. “I will translate:
“For generations I have fed you, given fodder for pigs, wood for furniture and fuel, but now you forget me, let the maquis strangle me.”
On your wedding day you would be presented with a feast of twenty-two dishes, all made from the chestnut and its flour. Even Pietra, this beer we drink, is chestnut flavoured. It’s good, eh?” Max was now ahead of us and tucked into his main course, a ragu of wild boar, with almost indecent haste.
“I am late for a very important rendezvous. I wish that I could be more respectful to you and to this sanglier” he dipped his bread, “I will definitely need his strength, for tonight I shall be leading the Good Friday procession, a re-enactment of The Passion of Christ. I will be the penitent. I have sins to atone for”, he added darkly. “Tell no one as only the priest is meant to know my identity. It is a great honour and I have a great cross to bear.” He did indeed. The next time we saw him he was barefoot and hooded, dressed in red robes with that great cross on his broad shoulder, followed by others, the confrere, in white robes and hoods. As Max approached our station he relieved the sinister tension by releasing an almighty belch. “Pietra” he muttered as he passed. There then followed a snail-like coiling and uncoiling of the file of brothers. Now the mood was lightened by a stray dog that comically padded in and out of the brothers’ legs against the tide, a Gay Gordon to their cheerless conga.
“That is the Granitula, an ideological reference to death and rebirth.” Max explained later. We had reconvened to Bar de Golf for a nightcap. A burly barman with dancing eyebrows and a luminous shirt served us tiny glasses of myrte.
“Speaking of rebirth, this is eau de vie, our water of life and this,” said Max with a flourish “this is Maurice, one of my oldest friends. He can swim under water for a quarter of a mile and eat a whole pig in one sitting. He also has the finest collection of Hawaiian shirts on the island.”
“Do you like Disco?” asked Maurice.
The weight of expectation
Is the load of the luckless
I invest in the silence before the bell
For a moment
There it was, did you see?
If you look away they will come
Slipping in unnoticed
From corners that have never been dusted
Knowing they won’t be missed
If you miss them
Just out of view
Just beyond the corner of your eye
You’ll sense their shapes shifting
And hear their whispered promises
Of vague possibility