The Periodic Stranger



When exile becomes home.

My roots are in a hilltop village west of Matera, where rabbit and boar run riot in the fields. Figs, apricots, and pears hang in heavy clusters, at eye-level and within easy reach. There, the local girls are famous for their calves, made firm and strong from hauling earthen jugs up steep and stony paths. The weather is as a rule clement, neither too humid nor too arid. The air smells of limes.

I think of it the way I think of the afterlife. It’s an improbable place conjured in equal parts from the gauzy descriptions of my parents and my own wishful longing. The crumpled photograph my father kept in the inner pocket of his leather satchel told me little other than the size of his mustache at the time he was forced to leave the village for good. The shapeless gray forms in the background, which he swore were self-sustaining orchards of peach and black cherry, looked like nothing of the sort. No girls were evident.

I have lived on this rock in the sea since two days after my birth. In all the years since I have not seen any sign of game—an honor of classification I do not confer on the gray, greasy-feathered gulls that sometimes take perch on the higher crags. I have never been to the village near Matera, the one from which my father was exiled with his wife and me, his newborn son, for reasons he never made clear. There was something about a fugitive Austrian soldier, a missing scabbard, a dented helmet, but the pieces have never come together, and by the time I was old enough to press for details my mother would interrupt with a shake of the head and say: Don’t even ask.

This rock is really two rocks, which are linked by a short natural bridge that twice a day is quietly submerged by the tides and, several times a year, somewhat less gently overtaken by the storm-churned seas. Lampedusa—and I understand there is much to recommend about that island—lies three turbulent hours away by supply boat, a small, steel-sided skiff that brings lemons and whatever fruit might be in season, along with cheese, bottled water, flour, ink, medicine, tobacco, wine, and the occasional newspaper. The skiff leaves with the octopus my wife and I catch in submerged pots arrayed like the beads of a necklace drawn snugly around the island. Octopus fetches an adequate return, and this exchange of goods, this bartering, is how we make our living, such as it is. And as it is, we need nothing more.

“See you in two weeks, God willing!” shouts Pallucci, the short, sunburned captain, as he fires the outboard and guides his dented craft back into the open sea.

I still have my father’s books, his writings, and the crumpled photograph of him. I have the education my mother provided, measured in the painstaking hours she took in teaching me to read, calculate, sing, and sew. I have a wife with whom I still occasionally make love. I’m seventy-two years old, but I know now that I know less than ever of what it would take to live in the world.

My father always implied that others decided his exile, an unjust punishment handed down by petty bureaucrats. Yet, what if he were its sole engineer? What if his exile was self-imposed? In that case, he made me a party to an obsession I had no say in indulging.

At dawn a pair of figures appears on the other rock. They are silhouettes against the eastern sky, only harder, like pillared extensions of the island itself, two stone fingers thrust up from the earth overnight. My wife asks, “Is that a rifle?”

I follow her concerned gaze and spy the barrel of a weapon taking shape above the shoulder of one of the men. It is not like any firearm I have ever seen, but that is saying little. My wife passes me the single-bolt carbine my father brought here with him, its black stock polished smooth from years of handling. It seems to weigh more than the painted wooden boats we drag into the water every day in checking the octopus pots. Surely this mysterious pair must know someone else is here; signs of habitation are all around, from the strung nets on which we dry our meager catch of fish to the pecking chickens that roam freely about—to say nothing of the tricolor Italian flag fluttering atop the rock on our side (my father may have lost his home, but not his patriotism). One of the men now lifts a pair of heavy binoculars to his face, makes a great show of taking in the surrounding sea, then swings back to train them directly on us…



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