The cry of a gull overhead pulls me back into the moment. But it wasn’t the moment I left behind. Beyond me the quiet piazza stretches to the infinity of the sea. On a day like today the horizon is gone, playing a game of hide and seek – and winning. The church is quiet today, taking a well-earned break from its Sunday duties. Two ornate street lamps stand out in silhouette. One lantern cocks its head slightly, as if beckoning my gaze on. A light is what is needed to lead the way to what is past and what is present, but they stand as only guardians to the gate of that journey.
Time stands still in this piazza, despite the hourly ringing of the church bells. The bells have always rung out the hours here and they always will. Something so regular to define time actually defies it. How many people have heard those bells ring out over the village? While hanging laundry out in the sunshine, while feeding their families, while making love, while crying? Those people are all still here and will also all be here soon.
Here there are the echoes of other sounds, too. Of children chasing a small orange ball across the piazza. A cat’s pleading meow, asking for something to eat. Of wind howling down the mountain valley on a stormy winter night. The click of my camera’s shutter as I capture this moment full of invisible sounds.
But most of all, it’s all the voices I want to listen to as they float through the piazza. There are stories caught in this piazza, countless stories. Not the kind you read about in the newspaper. These are moments of daily life, the moments that make a life, the moments that are forgotten, but nevertheless left behind. Stories crated day after day, lost to time except in the memories of those who stopped to listen.
There’s the hum of a fisherman early in the morning making his way down to the beach. He’ll pull his small wooden boat, blue paint chipped off around the edges, down to the edge of the sea. He’ll give it one last push as he hops aboard, perhaps with the hope about what he’ll catch filling his mind.
That hope floats through the maze of tiny, shadowed streets back up to the piazza. It finds an open window and settles into a kitchen – still quiet except for the sound of a moka pot bubbling its dark, intoxicating scent into the morning air. A new day has begun, and with it comes the thoughts for another day ahead. Another menu to prepare. While tying an apron around her waist, a woman wonders, “What catch will the fisherman haul in today?”
The clattering of steps brings new life into the piazza. Children with bags slung over their shoulders and sleep in their eyes run across it on the way to school. Always late, always running. Across the piazza they go and down the steps to the future, a future that is unseen and unknown from here.
Unknown and yet the same. An old man sits at his window and watches the children run, just as he once ran to school. He knows the future, he’s seen it. But now he watches the future of others, sitting there. The steps are cruel friends. They take you where you want to go, but they take their toll with every step as well.
And steps are what this village is made of from top to bottom. The sound of heavy steps carries through the labyrinthine staircases. Finding your way is like walking through an M.C. Escher drawing come to life. Even he was here, lost in the alleyways, inspired by the alluring confusion of this place. There he is in the quiet piazza, setting down his sketchpad, mind swirling in the haze of yet to be visualized designs. He stops for a moment of respite. Maybe he sees all the stories, too?
My feet are tired. I look down at the honey leather loafers battered by the steps of the Amalfi Coast. Glancing over my shoulder, my eyes land on a cement bench. There’s a spot to sit and watch the stories unfold. Settling in uncomfortably, I look up expecting to find the same scene, the same voices, the same time and place.
But it’s all gone.
A seagull’s taunting call fills the piazza, seemingly laughing at my confusion. The church bells ring, slowly eleven times. I’m going to be late. I grab my bag and throw it over my shoulder, hurrying off across the piazza and down the steps to my own unseen future. But before going, I stop to turn and look up at the balcony, half expecting to find the old man watching me. And he’s there. As my feet carry me swiftly down the steps, I know they’re all there.
– A short story by Laura Thayer inspired by Atrani.