First thing in the morning, I fed the chickens in their coop built into an embankment slightly down the hill from the house beside a tool shed covered by a rusted roof. The impatient poultry crowded the bolted door of their cage as I pushed myself inside and shuffled over the muddy earth toward the tall blue barrel of feed, careful not to trample anyone. They pecked at my shoe laces and shins like they hadn’t eaten in days, then squawked and battled each other for position as I hurled the meal into their trough with an old tin can. The smartest stayed away and waited until the largest and meanest roosters had their fill.
Outside the wire fence, the smallest member of the flock paced back and forth while her family and friends devoured breakfast. She’d slipped outside the enclosure sometime in the night somehow, some way I never could determine. Despite the wits and will to flee her prison, all she ever did was panic and clamor for re-admittance. That first day, I chased her around the perimeter of the coop for thirty minutes until I finally cornered her by the door and chased her back into her home. Each morning throughout the rest of the week I found her outside in the same predicament, but my ability to capture her improved with every experience.
I had hoped my charges would gift me fresh eggs to make Anne’s breakfast before she had left our upstairs bedroom, but every day the hens let me down. Too cold this time of year, I was later told. There were other benefits to waking up early, though. As we crept closer to the winter solstice, minutes of daylight were shaved off the evenings. It was important to make the most of the outdoors while the sun’s warmth still meant something, and sleeping late sacrificed critical hours of the day. Besides, the quiet Tuscan valley beneath us was perfect in the pale blue light of the morning, and when the thin veil lifted as the sun rose above the eastern hills and coated the world in a golden sheen, it was more beautiful still.
We were little more than housesitters that first week before our hosts returned from a vacation in America. Other than feeding the animals and keeping the home tidy, hanging sheets and other laundry on the clothesline like the quaint country folk we’d become, the hours were ours alone to fill. I spent entire days sitting in a black iron chair on the front lawn, my feet propped on the stone wall, an array of books from my hosts’ impressive library stacked beside them as I alternated between tales every few chapters. I finished Steinbeck on the second day and started on Hemingway, even though my approval of his direct, naked prose has always fluctuated.
I’d read while the two cats of the house sat beside me. Jimmy, streaked with black and white fur, hopped on the wall and rubbed against my feet. Rosso, an orange tom who worked his way into the family when he simply showed up one day demanding food, meowed lightly next to the leg of my chair because he always wanted more to eat, even though I fed the two together immediately after finishing with the chickens an hour or two earlier. Sometimes they tussled in the grass and I’d watch the match; though the domesticated one of the pair, Jimmy battled with more heart and ferocity while Rosso timidly rolled onto his back to signal surrender. Eventually one bite would sink too deep into the other’s flesh and they’d break it off, separating to opposite corners of the yard while they cooled down.
During lapses of focus on the book in my hands, I took stock of the scenery and sounds and scents of the Sieve Valley because this corner of the world so different and distant from any place I’ve called home had become the remedy for an ailment that flickered into existence after a week of indulgences in Paris and consumed me wholly when I checked our bank statements in Rome. Here, we tested the mettle of those well-rehearsed words I spoke repeatedly to inquisitive friends and family in the months leading up to our departure from Los Angeles: We will stay away as long as we can afford, even if it means spending every last dime, and when it comes time to head home with nothing in our possession besides memories and a desperation to find work, it’ll all be worth it.
Some days we didn’t leave the property at all. We read in our chairs beside each other on the lawn in front of the wall, ate long meals, and opened bottles of wine once the afternoon began its slide into night and imbibing didn’t feel inappropriate or premature. During restless afternoons we walked along the twisting mountain roads, picking a direction and following it until we reached a place to sip one-euro cups of wine or a steep incline that made us turn back. On each journey to and from the house, we passed a path at the foot of the steep hill a hundred yards down the road that led through trees and trampled earth to a destination unknown, reigniting my boyhood imagination that assumed every nook of the woods concealed great secrets and wonders. Once, with ease, we walked all the way down the mountain to the village and its shops below, then labored on the long climb home carrying full bags of necessary food and unnecessary but cheap local wine.
Every night as the sun began to set and the November air cooled, Anne balled up on the couch with her book while I ignited a few pieces of wood in the living room fireplace. I kept it small and added logs prudently to make our supplies last throughout our many long nights. For dinner, we made use of the ingredients our hosts left behind in the kitchen and pantry. We ate dinner in front of the television on the coffee table like we did so many times in our Hollywood apartment. Outside, the cats mouthed pleas through the glass panes of the front door while the twinkling embers from the fireplace cast shadows around the room. We locked up the house once our last bottle was empty and headed to bed with full bellies and content hearts despite having spent the day doing nothing at all, then we slept well and woke up early once more to repeat.
Somewhere in the rhythm of the new day as my eyes fell across the valley floor, my mind would consider the world we had fled, the reality we had scorned, and our need to return sooner rather than later. In the beginning, I’d been naive enough to believe I’d never work behind an office desk again, that for the last time I’d devoted my energies and passion to boost the profits and prestige of someone who already had plenty. I believed Anne and I had made the first decision of new lives, and from that moment on we wouldn’t settle and we wouldn’t feel unsatisfied and we wouldn’t defer to an uncertain future date what could bring us happiness now. We’d work hard at labors we desired to do and would prosper because of it. I’d sell my novel and write another and the next time I’d step foot in an office to talk business, I’d sit on the right side of the desk across from an agent or editor.
But if that won’t happen, if two months from now I’m sitting behind another desk answering to a new boss, heading home at the end of long days unsatisfied but justifying the sentiment because bills are paid and mouths are fed, I’ll need these memories of our three weeks in the Tuscan farmhouse on the side of a mountain overlooking the Sieve Valley.
When we leave this place and the next one and however many destinations we have left in us before we board a plane bound for home, I’ll need to remember the valley was beautiful in the crisp evening when we first arrived, when there was still enough light left in the world to showcase the towns laid beside the coursing river and the smaller villages on the opposing hill. I’ll need to remember the quilted countryside alternating patches of vineyards and olive trees and pine forest and bare fields stripped of miscellaneous crops until the coming of spring. I’ll need to remember the unthreatening clouds in the northeast bobbing above distant mountains, how the autumn trees on their slopes beamed with an auburn glow. I’ll need to remember the chill that snapped at our noses but we fought off by huddling closer on the front lawn with this new heaven sprawled at our feet slipping into its dreamy night.
I’ll need to remember the valley was beautiful when our first morning arrived despite the thick gray canvas that blocked the sun; that the ranges enveloped us and a soft cool breeze strode up our mountain from the riverbed; that there were bare columns of vines rolling throughout the country because we came after the harvest and there were indigo dots shaking lightly in the breeze on the branches of olive trees because that harvest was still to come; that there were barking dogs and clucking roosters bouncing around the hills with the light crisp air carrying their calls.
I’ll need to remember the valley was beautiful when the fog blanketed Rufina and Montebonello and masked the opposing mountainside; that it was beautiful when lightning cracked and sheets of rain chased us from the olive grove back to the house up the hill; that it was beautiful when the rain cleared and a thin gray mist evaporated off the valley floor; that it was beautiful at night when the full moon brightened the eerie sky and the villages and sporadic isolated houses gleamed from afar; that it was beautiful when morning returned and a bright sun rose above the mountains on the other half of the valley to commence its short journey through the November sky.
I’ll need to remember the sad plight of the nameless hen who tormented me every morning. I’ll need to remember two feline best friends that made up after every scrape. I’ll need to remember sitting and reading beside my wife along the low stone wall blocking the steep slope down the mountain toward the town, and I’ll need to remember that the valley below was beautiful when we looked up and saw it stretched wide before us and heard nothing but the chattering birds hiding in nearby trees. It was beautiful when the birds went silent and the soft blowing wind sounded like a howling wolf. It was beautiful because we paid nothing to be somewhere that made us feel both wealthy and unworthy. It was beautiful because it felt as far from home as we’ve been since this journey began, and though we missed our family and our friends and our bed, we were there now in the Sieve Valley and its great beauty brought us happiness whether it was home for three weeks or a lifetime.
I’ll need to remember that’s the way it was, whether things go back to the way they were or some version of the same when we descend this mountain one last time and re-insert ourselves into the reality we shrugged off and scorned. I’ll need to remember those final hours in the afternoon before our hosts returned home to complete our week of solitude, when Anne and I took a final tranquil walk together around the kingdom that felt wholly our own. I’ll need to remember leading an expedition down the path at the foot of the hill and, after twenty yards of thick tree cover, finding a clearing of tall wet grass that yielded to olive trees and a vineyard further up the hill, more of the same of what the valley held and we’d already seen, and I’ll need to remember following the path back to the road and trekking up the final hill to the farmhouse with my wife at my side after a fruitless exploration that left me satisfied just the same.