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Breath & Shadow

Spring 2016 - Vol. 13, Issue 2

"Cisalpine Gaul"

written by

Mark Cornell

The morning sky is silver. A smoking white sun threatens to break through the clouds. Fog snakes around the top of the nearby giant mountains. Pine forests stretch down to the lake. A beam of sunlight trickles down a light blue patch of sky to thaw my cold hands. The lakes of Lombardy were formed in the Ice Age, carved out by vast glaciers as they flowed down from the Swiss Alps; Alps which tower over half of the sky.


On the top deck of our ferry, The Oriane, in the middle of Lake Como as the sunlight burns off the remainder of the morning cloud, I recall how the Roman’s used to call this region of northern Italy ‘ Cisalpine Gaul’; Gaul on our side of the Alps. Archaeologists’ believe Celtic people settled here a thousand years B.C. Northern Italy is dotted with place names that can be traced back to a Celtic origin. For example, Venice is named after The Veneti, the original Celtic settlers. I speculate to myself as to whether any Celtic culture still lingers on in this beautiful part of the world.


Three women sit on the bench directly across from me. The younger one has a white veil over her golden brown hair, which also flows over the head of her baby, fast asleep on her lap. The lake breeze gently brushes the young mother’s hair. She has a faraway look in her blue eyes. The woman sitting next to her I guess to be the older sister. She has the same hair colouring but is taller, and slimmer. She communicates to her younger sister in a series of whispers and never seems to take her eyes off the deck below her feet. I notice a crow growling high up in the apex of the white bleached sky. The third woman is a dead ringer for the older sister, but is grey with glasses. I guess she’s the mother of the other two. She attempts to look out across the lake to take in the beauty around her. The three talk softly to each other now and then, their accents sound German.


I stare at the lush green hills and rugged mountains which reveal themselves around the corner and curves of this vast wish bone shaped lake. Our teenage son, Tim, takes many photos. He broke down and cried at the beginning of the trip, begging us not to take him. We put on our packs and told him it was too late to change his mind. He brooded for the first few days, but seems to be alright now. The beauty and history of Europe seems to have soothed his raw nerves. My wife Kath, smiles at the small villages of pink, pale yellow, with grey or white terraces and terracotta roofs that wind along the edges of the lake. Roman style mansions with cultivated gardens, meandering pathways and shady bowers impose themselves on the landscape. The sky is now chalk blue and laced with pink and gold tumbling cotton wool clouds.


The breeze picks up and I hear the familiar grunts and groans of an awakening baby. The mother stares down with loving awe. This vision of a beaming mother and dream like sky makes me feel like I’ve entered a renaissance painting. As she feeds her child, her breast reminds me of a silver crescent moon. Yeats’s words, “The silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun,” come into my mind. There’s nothing more beautiful than the curves of a woman. To me it’s always made more sense to revere a woman goddess, than worship a writhing god on a cross. The mother cuddles her baby, who slips back to sleep to the easy rocking of the ferry. Calm descends as the passengers take photos, talk quietly to each other or simply watch the passage of timeless beauty glide by.


As we get close to Bellagio the two younger women suddenly become teary. Their mother attempts to reassure them, then she cries too. I’m struck by a ripple of sadness and try to think of ways to comfort them. Would they understand my English, and if they did, would they see me as an intruder ? I desperately wish to help them. Kath reads my face, raises her eyebrows, then gives me a subtle no sign. Why are these sweethearts crying? My suspicion is the younger ones have lost their father, the older one her partner. Curiously enough I calculate he’s probably the same age as me. Did he used to take his family here for holidays, or had they come here to get away from it all?


Bellagio, “The Pearl of the Lake,” lies at the intersection of the three branches of the Y shaped lake. We three walk through its narrow and steep cobble lanes to find a cafe, eat Panini’s, Pizza, some gelati and then do a bit of retail therapy. I buy a T-shirt that says” Stay calm and relax in Bellagio” and a scarf for Kath, handmade in Como. Suddenly on the crest of a nearby tiny lane I see the three Germans. I step up to them to say that the baby is beautiful. I’m sure they recognize me from the ferry. All of them beam back to me and say thank you.


The shadows on Lake Como stretch and turn gold as we take our last look at Bellagio. The Germans aren’t on the ferry. I buy Kath and myself a glass of vino bianco. A cute little red haired girl called Evie, dances on the deck. It’s a muggy afternoon, an elderly craggy faced Italian man in a thick woollen jumper verges on sleep. I think about my first day in Cisalpine Gaul and hope I’ve given three German strangers a bit of joy. Tears are our first method of communication when we’re babes, then we learn to suppress them as we grow older. But for a fraction of time in the medieval cobbled lanes of Bellagio, we shared an understanding beyond language and culture. The lights of Como twinkle on the dark waters of the lake.

Mark is of Irish ancestry. As a child he grew up listening to stories; either in the form of tall tales told by his extended family or the lyrics of his favourite songs on the radio. He started writing poetry when he was seventeen. He has traveled to Ireland twice and during one of these visits was married to Kimberly in a Registry Office in Dublin. Mark has been writing Short Stories and Novels for a number of years. He took family leave for three years to look after his son Thomas. He now works as a Conciliator with Consumer Affairs.

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