We wash all the food down with fruity red and white wine which leaves the earthy taste of the mountains in our mouths and a deep warm sensation of satisfaction in our stomachs. Etna seems but a distant memory as we sip sweet hot espresso coffee spiked with whisky to warm us up as the sun begins to set. We pass the final few hours of sunlight telling and listening to stories about La Pillera.
Everyone recalls the work they had done here collecting hazelnuts through the years. The aches and pains in their backs, arms, legs and heads from being bent double for hours collecting the little brown nuts which fall to the ground when they ripen.
Someone recollects how one summer at the villa Nunzio got so drunk he fell off the stone wall and rolled down the steep slope between the hazelnut trees, stopping short of the big boulder at the base of the slope. How lucky he was not to finish up crashing head first into the massive rock. Black and blue from head to toe, with broken ribs, concussion, a dislocated shoulder, his arm hanging from torn tendons, at the hospital an incompetent doctor X-rayed him and told Nunzio he had nothing wrong. After many months of physiotherapy to help him recover, Nunzio never wanted to return to the villa and never did.
There is the story of someone’s uncles who migrated to Australia, how they were left alone at the villa for months, when they where only eight and ten years old. Their father had gone to Sinagra after Christmas and left them alone in the villa. The storerooms under the house were filled with freshly harvested hazelnuts, wood for the fire and other provisions put aside for winter.
It snowed for a week and blocked off all the roads, isolating the boys. Their father finally managed to reach them four months later in March. It was a miracle that the two survived by keeping the fire constantly lit, melting snow to drink, feeding the animals with stockpiled hay and making there own bread from rye flour, copying what they had seen their mother do even though they had never done it themselves.
Their father saw they were all right and then left them there for another couple of months. This story came from a cruel time just before the Second World War, when people were forced to be more savage and even the young struggled for survival. I can’t imagine such a brutal life, with so little affection and comfort, yet it was a reality here in Sicily. Stories like these remind me of the harsh poverty of the lives of the peasants and fisher folk depicted by Giovanni Verga and other Sicilian Veristi, realist writers, of nineteenth century which, when I first read them in Australia, they seemed almost too cruel to believe.
Through these stories Villa Pillera has become a place filled with bad spirits. It is the where fairy tales happened, once upon a time. The forest where Hansel and Gretel got lost or where Little Red Riding Hood met the Big Bad Wolf. It is where old folk tales and family history lived.
La Pillera was part of the powerful Barone Salleo’s patronage together with many hundreds of hectares of hazelnut trees which were harvested by peasants for a trifling wage. The peasants’ children and grand-children continued to work for the local Baron until only a decade ago. It is a place where fable and reality are easily confused with one another.