Fortunate that cypress shadows fall in wide bands across the sunlit road; fortunate that on the first day back in Cortona I see a carpenter carrying boards, his tabby cat balanced on his shoulders, tail straight up, riding like a surfer. The carpenter tosses the wood on sawhorses and begins to whistle. The cat bends and leans as he moves--a working cat. I watch for a few moments then walk on into town for a cappuccino. Thank you, I think. Fortunate that yellow blazes of forsythia light the hills. After seven summers on this terraced land, Ed and I feel a rush of happiness on turning the front-door key. I'm enchanted by the rounded Apennines, this quirky house that takes in the sun, and the daily rhythms of life in a Tuscan hilltown. He's far in love with the land. By now he knows the habits of every olive tree.
Fortunate. Otherwise, we might want to post a For Sale sign on the gate ten minutes after arrival because neither well pump is working: a grinding noise in the switch for the old well, a buzz for the new well. We peer into the cistern--at least there's enough water for a few days.
When the pump went down into the new well six years ago, I never expected to see it again. Now, on our first morning, three plumbers are hauling up ropes, their heads down the well. It's a beast. Then Giacomo stands on the well wall, the others beside him. They're counting, uno, due, tre, giving the heave-ho. Soon they're stripped to their pants, cursing and laughing. Up it comes, and Giacomo almost falls backward. They carry it to the truck.
The old well's pump--replaced just last year--they yank out easily. The contraption comes up with fig roots dangling and is pronounced dead on arrival. Why? They begin to dig for wires. By noon, the walkway is torn up, the lawn is carved into ditches and the mystery is solved. Mice have eaten the insulation around the wires. Why would they eat plastic when they can eat hazelnuts and almonds? The pumps have shorted out.
The new well's pump, it turns out, is also dead. Fizzled. Kaput. By the third day, we have new pumps, new wires sealed with silicone, which the original electrician neglected to do, lots of water, a patched walkway, and a depleted bank account. If mice eat plastic, what's to keep them from eating silicone?
Fortunate that we are served pheasant with roasted potatoes for dinner at the trattoria up the mountain, and that the early March dark spills forth a million twirling stars, because otherwise Ed's scrawled list might seem daunting: new grass, prune trees, build a shed for tools, remodel two old bathrooms, new septic system, paint shutters, buy desk and something with space to hang clothes, plant trees, extend garden.
Primo Bianchi, a stonemason who has done extensive work here during our restoration, arrives to discuss the projects. He can start in July. "I was on your roof in January," he tells us. "Your friend Donatella called and said there was a leak." We've seen the dripping stain on the yellow wall of my study. "It was the wind. You lost some tiles. When I was working in the afternoon, the wind came again and blew down my ladder."
He laughs, pointing both forefingers at the ground, that gesture meaning Let it not happen here. Dark comes early in winter. I imagine him, his back against the chimney, sitting on the cold tiles, his pale blue eyes squinting at the road below, the wind standing his hair on end. "I waited. No one came by. Then a car but he did not hear me. After perhaps two hours a woman walked by and I called for help. This house was empty so long--she thought I was a spirit and let out a scream when she saw me waving on the roof. You need to think of a new roof soon."
He walks off a measurement of pipes we'll need for the new drainage system. It looks like a plan for trench warfare. "Hurry and order the furnishings for the bathrooms if you want everything here by July."
Excerpted from Bella Tuscany: The Sweet Life in Italy by Frances Mayes. Copyright © 1999 by Frances Mayes. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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