Grizzo lay close to the fire. It was warm and inviting on a cool night, and like every campfire, it bore an invitation to mystery, and to communion. Giovanni, as most other 12 year old boys at a campfire tend to do, practiced his fire twirling skills with the biggest stick he could find, much to his mother’s concern. I must confess, it was I who had gotten him started. I’d taken a twig and gotten its end glowing in the fire, and began to write my name and make golden glowing circles in the dark. Of course, the boy had to take it to the next level, and soon he held the biggest stick he could manage, both ends glowing in ember and spinning through his hands like a Samoan fire dancer.
Mariella prepared the water she had fetched and set the small metal pot next to the fire to boil. Some time in the next hour or so it would be bubbling. Armando gathered more wood from among the trees lining the hill on which we sat. Their camp rested in the field on a gentle slope, just off the path to the chapel of San Damiano, and their tent stood a few metres away. A clothesline stretched between the nearby row of trees, and a few shirts bounced in the breeze and glowed gold in the fire’s light. As Armando returned with another armful of wood, Grizzo pricked up his ears. I scratched those ears and petted his neck. I was glad, very glad, that I had said yes to this invitation.
Giovanni took a break from his stick twirling, and hunkered down to poke at the fire. The plastic rosary around his neck caught the firelight, the cross swaying thoughtfully and glowing faintly. The sky was quiet, the moon was hidden somewhere among the trees, and every now and then a fruit bat swooped past the edges of the firelight. To my left, and in the back of my mind, Francis sat with his closest friends, their faces smiling and lit with the same holy glow our own fire bestowed. No electric lights lit the plains at the foot of their hill, but the same small city rested above the both of us, and the same small church sat at our feet.
Armando stretched out a small blanket that would eventually serve both as Mariella’s kitchen and our dinner table, and she began preparing tomatoes and other garnishes I couldn’t quite see in the dim light. At long last, the small pot of water had come to a boil, and Mariella began mixing it with cornmeal. Armando offered me wine. I gratefully accepted, and he poured it into a small plastic cup, offering me a disposable chalice of deep, red joy.
“This wine is, ah, ‘Barberesco’,” he said.
“Ah,” I said. I recalled the photo we’d taken together earlier in the evening, of our little group of bearded tramps. If I could milk a joke a little further, especially one in a foreign language, I had to. “You mean ‘Barbosco’,” I mused, stroking my chin and recalling the term for a beard and a vagrant.
To my delight, Armando laughed loudly. “Barbosco!” And he repeated the bad pun for Mariella. “Italian-italian-italian, ‘Barbosco’!” he said, and laughed again. Clearly, I’d struck gold with this one. I glanced over at the other campfire. Francis and the brothers were laughing, too.
Eventually Mariella’s meal was ready, and we bowed our heads and joined hands for a simple prayer of thanks, and four hands made the sign of the cross over four hearts, in common reverence. “Amen,” we said. (It works in every language.)
I tasted the cornmeal and tomato concoction. It was perhaps the best thing I’d tasted since I’d come to Italy. “This is very good,” I said, my taste buds enraptured. “Um… Delizioso! What is this called?”
Armando translated my question for his wife. “Polenta,” she replied.
“Very old, Northern Italian meal,” Armando added.
“Polenta,” I repeated. “So good!”
Armando refilled my small cup of wine, and Mariella’s and his own, and a little for Giovanni, too. Sparks rose to the stars, and we all stared into the fire as we ate Mariella’s meal.
Our plates were soon cleared, and we sat back, satisfied, and drank deeply of the night air. Armando rose quickly, as if inspiration had struck, and said, “One moment!” He disappeared into their tent. He returned, and in his hands was an old guitar, and an even older songbook. It was in English, printed some time in the early 70s, and it was full of almost-forgotten folk songs. He opened the book, and found his glasses, and began to strum the chords to ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’. We stumbled through the words, his thick accent flavouring the lyrics like oregano. We laughed and clapped at our song’s conclusion.
Armando offered me the guitar. “You play?” he asked. I smiled as I reached for the guitar, and clumsily strummed through the one song I know: Johnny Cash’s ‘I Still Miss Someone’. After some gracious applause, I returned the guitar to Armando. He strained his eyes at the songbook and his mouth at the English words as I held the book for him, and we sang ‘Kumbayah’ (yes, ‘Kumbayah’) and ‘Down by the Riverside’ and the fragments of half a dozen other old tunes.
As this small group of poverelli sang into the night under the Umbrian stars, I glanced again to my left at my unseen companions. Francis and the brothers were singing, too, and all of our faces were aglow with the gentle, holy flame of joy.