“More people are killed by lightning bolts on Etna than by lava flows,” says Donato as we walk up a shallow incline, paved with blocks of lavic stone. He points to a corner a little ahead of us. “My grandfather was hit by lightning just there, in fact.” Davide and I gape at the point Donato’s just indicated, a little unnerved. Donato, meanwhile, carries on walking, unperturbed. “Ooh, look: blackberries!”
We’re out on a gentle Sunday morning hike-slash-foraging session on the south-eastern slopes of Etna: Davide’s colleague Donato and his girlfriend Roberta, their friends Bruno and Tania, and Davide and me. The day started early with a volley of WhatsApp conversation in Catanese dialect between Davide and Donato. ‘Will we need jackets?’ asked Davide. Quick as a flash, Donato replied: ‘Mate, you’ll need woollen knickers’.
Backpacks duly stuffed with extra clothing layers, we make our way to the assigned meeting point outside Planet cinema. We’re the first ones there. We sit and discuss the English legal system – as you do at half eight on a Sunday morning – and I realise once again how much I’ve forgotten (or how little I knew in the first place) about my own country. Thank god for Wikipedia.
Davide’s phone dings. It’s a message from Donato. ‘Where are you?’ Davide replies: ‘We’ve been here fifteen minutes already!’ Donato sends another message. ‘We’re by the edera.’ I look at Davide. “What’s an edera?” He snorts with laughter. “It’s a plant.” He twists in his seat and looks behind him, then waves his hand at the ivy crawling up the building at the end of the road, exactly as it does on pretty much every street corner in this zone. “Like that.” I giggle; I’m beginning to get the measure of Donato’s sense of humour, and I like it.
A battered turquoise Ford Fiesta with peeling paint zooms around the corner and screeches to a halt beside us. Donato winds down his window and grins at us. “Right, let’s get some breakfast.” He revs the engine of his little car, loaded down with people, and accelerates away, leaving us momentarily standing, despite our bigger, more powerful car. Davide nods towards the streak of blue disappearing into the distance ahead of us. “He’s had that car since twenty years ago. For an engineer, it is a disgrace!” I laugh. “The bodywork may be falling apart, but the engine’s still going strong – I’d say it’s exactly the kind of car an engineer should have …”
Later, up on the mountain, Davide calls across a clearing to Donato – our resident foraging expert – to check whether the mushroom he’s just found is an edible porcini or something more ominous. Donato shouts back, “Nah, mate, that one’s poison – don’t touch it!” Davide’s shoulders slump in frustration. Every time he’s thought he’s struck mushroom gold this morning Donato’s been forced to disillusion him. Bruno’s the first to cotton on. He starts to laugh. “Davide, don’t trust him – he didn’t even look! He’s just going to pocket it himself when you’ve moved on!” Donato roars with laughter. “Busted!” Davide admits cheerful defeat and heads across to the ancient, giant tree in the middle of the clearing to concentrate on what he’s best at – sport. Specifically for today, tree-climbing.
It’s no easy task. The one branch that comes down low enough to be able to get hold of is smooth and slippery, and set at a forty-five degree angle. He slides backwards more than once, struggling to pull himself high enough to get a hold on the main branch above. I turn on the video camera. Tania shouts with laughter and calls across to me: “Kate, I hope you’ve got his car keys!” Ignoring the good-natured teasing from Donato and Bruno about monkeys, Davide hauls himself up into the tree, reaches the main branch and crouches on top of it, froglike, chest heaving from the exertion. A moment later he leans forward and drops his legs either side of the branch. He then snorts with laughter and calls across to the others. “I tell you what, guys, monkeys are STRONG!”
On our way back down the mountain in search of lunch, Donato and Bruno divert off the path in search of more mushrooms, leaving the rest of us to walk on. There’s a shout from the bracken above us. “Roberta!” Roberta, deep in conversation with Tania, either doesn’t hear or ignores it. There’s a more urgent yell: “ROBERTA!” This time she responds, and Donato’s voice floats down to us, muffled by trees and undergrowth. “You want to see a lightning strike …?” The four of us look at each other and without any further ado start up the hill through the ferns.
We reach a clearing to see Donato and Bruno kicking at what looks like a pile of earth and cinders. Donato looks at us knowingly. “This was a tree, once upon a time.” Bruno doesn’t look so sure. Roberta isn’t convinced, either. “No, you’re crazy! This was a bonfire. There isn’t enough of it to have been a tree.” Donato shrugs. “A direct strike, and the tree’s vaporised. Look at all these bits of carbon.” Roberta, Bruno and Tania turn away, disappointed. It feels like a lightning strike should result in at least a crater, and hopefully more, like bits of glass, or diamonds, or pieces of stars. Davide kicks deeper into the pile of ash. I watch him uncovering bigger and bigger bits of carbon and lose the thread of the conversation for a moment. When I come to, Donato’s talking about trees making a noise when they’re super-heated. “There’s so much water in them that they start to boil.” I don’t know whether he’s talking about when they’re heated from underneath by lava, or from above by lightning, but the child in me – the one who wanted to be a fairy when she grew up, who’s read all the Narnia books ten times over and who loved the Ent characters best of all in Lord of the Rings – can’t help but imagine the sound as a scream. I shiver and head out of the clearing, back into the sunshine. Behind me I hear Donato exclaim in delight: “Ooh! Pomegranates …!”