Original Fiction, Uncategorized

Angela Kirby Goes to Hell

[This is chapter two of a serial novel. Read the previous chapter here].

Angela was caught up in a cool flurry of feathers and honey-flavored air. She closed her eyes and her breath, half terrified, half thrilled. She was filled with thoughts of her imminent ascension to the throne in the Underworld. What would the job involve? Would she mainly do charity work and ceremonial duties among the Damned? Would she have a big wedding with the Prince of Darkness? If he was ugly she could just be a Queen who ruled single-handedly and had a series of demonic courtiers like Queen Elizabeth. She fell into a pleasant reverie.

It was bitingly cold and windy when she opened her eyes again. She seemed to be in some kind of cage made of four yellow bars. Stretching her neck up, she was alarmed to see that Thanatos had become a giant falcon and was holding her gently in a talon. When she looked down, Earth lay so far beneath them so that she could see the curvature of the planet. They were currently over a big ocean—the Pacific?–and she could just make out little islands and atolls with frilly white fringes. As she gazed, they moved towards a line of darkness that signalled they were entering the ‘dark side’ of the planet.

Atlantic view

Crossing into the darkness, she became even colder and her teeth started chattering. Noticing that one of Thanatos’ belly feathers had come loose, she pulled it down and wrapped it around her. It was extremely warm and she felt much more comfortable. Digging into her bag, she took out her smartphone and made a short video of the darkening Earth.

Suddenly, there was a prolonged, shimmering flash of fluorescent green similar in hue to the Northern Lights. Thanatos wobbled a little with the force of some great wind and Angela held tight to one of his talons with her left hand and to the feather with her right. After the flash, everything went completely dark—no stars, no sun, no little glow-worm carpet of electric lights down there. This time it was an inner chill that made her shiver, the fear that everything had disappeared forever.

Through the void she gradually  perceived a faint grey shimmering beneath them. There must have been light coming from somewhere, though she could not identify the source. She realized after some time gazing uncomprehending at the shimmering that it was liquid.

“Oceanus,” Thanatos explained, “We are at the eastern edge of Hades’ realm.”

Angela’s eyes adjusted and Thanatos flew closer to the surface of the sea so that she could smell its salty, brackish scent and hear the bell-like cries of unfamiliar seabirds. They skimmed the shoreline and flew over a great dark forest, absolutely silent, through which flowed a river of fire. She got out her phone to film it.


“That’s the river Phlegethon—and this region is Tartarus, home of souls doomed to torment. The Titans live there,” he swooped over three volcanoes light grey smoke billowed up into the air for miles around and made Angela cough.

They continued over high, forbidding icy mountains and deep quarries, over the river Acheron and a huge flat plain that Tartarus called Asphodel Meadows. It was brighter there, and Angela could make out groves of trees and fields of wild flowers. In fact, it seemed to be brightening all the time and when she remarked on this, Thanatos explained that it was due to a system of mirrors the people called a helioscope, which diverted sunlight from the Overland to the Underworld.

Swerving to catch a serendipitous zephyr, Thanatos flew over a different river, which he called Lethe, which meant Oblivion. Everyone who drank from it immediately forgot their earthly life. Across the river, the land was one large meadow, very bright and pleasant, with rolling green hills, beautiful gardens and sparkling lakes. As Thanatos swooped closer to the long grasses, Angela heard the sound of music and noticed a herd of white horses galloping.

“Not horses, Centaurs,” Thanatos corrected her. “They like to play their lyres when they run. This is the Elysian Fields, the happy resting place of blessed souls.”

Already, they were back at a beach but some way out, in the blue-green deeps of Oceanus, several islands jutted up into the sky. Forested and steep, they were encircled by colorful birds and here and there Angela could see a white sandy beach far below. The water was so clear that she could even see dolphins and whales swimming in it.

Phi phi
Actually the islands of Phi Phi

“These are the Isles of the Blessed,” Thanatos said, “Where only a few souls live—those who have been reincarnated three times and each time attained the distinction of blessedness. Not even I may approach them without censure. We must turn back.”

And, after describing three circles, he returned back the way he had come. They flew over the Elysian Fields and the Asphodel Meadows. When Thanatos approached the murky grey waters of the River Styx, he adjusted his wings to slow down and prepare for landing. There was a pier on one bank, crowded by men, women and children. Approaching the queue and leading them with a golden torch was a tall young man wearing a winged cap, a cloak, winged sandals and very little else.

“That’s Hermes Psychopomopos,” Thanatos said, shaking himself back into the form of a winged boy. “He leads souls here, to the ferry.”


“He’s not wearing very much,” Angela said, “Actually no one is.” A horrifying thought struck her. “I’m not going to have to dress like that, am I?”

Thanatos ignored the question and pulled her along towards the river.

 With her free hand, she took out her smartphone and filmed the mass of interesting humanity. “What have they got in their mouths?” she whispered as they walked briskly along the outskirts of the crowd.

“They keep a coin under their tongues to pay the ferryman.”  

“Ew, that’s disgusting. Imagine how many people have touched that coin! Poor him, too, having to take the coin covered with spit. Ugh.”

The pair finally burst through to the ferry dock and Thanatos pointed to Charon the ferryman. Angela immediately saw that this was a character who would not be fazed by coins covered in saliva. He was maybe the most revolting person she had ever seen in her life, including her uncle Ralph. His hair was like an eagle’s nest—a sprawling, bristling, dirt-encrusted mess. His eyebrows were stupendous, hanging over the deep, smoldering bituminous pits of his eyes. His nose was bulbous and red, covered with warts. His skin was crusty and yellow, like cooked wax paper. His lips were unpleasantly red and emitted a smell like compost. He was dressed in rags, and they weren’t clean rags. His feet were black and swollen.

“Fee,” he growled at Thanatos.

“No fee,” Thanatos said. “Hades’ orders.”

“For this juvenile skunk?” Charon folded his arms sceptically.

“Hey!” Angela squeaked.

“She is coming aboard. Hades’ orders.”

Charon narrowed his eyes and glared at Thanatos, who stared back at him. The crowd behind murmured and pushed.

“No fee, no ferry,” Charon growled.

Thanatos sighed.

Fine. Here’s your fee—but Hades won’t be happy,” Thanatos picked a silk purse out of a pocket in his tunic and thrust it at the ferryman.

Charon hocked and spat, then laughed like cold water squeezing down a hair-clogged drain.

Hades, ha! More like that coal digger of his wife. She’s up to something rank, no doubt. I don’t know what things are coming to when she brings living ”

“Get on the ferry before he changes his mind,” Thanatos whispered and pushed Angela onto a very small and unstable wooden dinghy.

Detail of Charon and Psyche by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope

The river was thick and sluggish, as if comprised of something thicker than water. Pale shapes moved lazily in the liquid beneath the boat. As there was no breeze or air movement, Charon’s unusual fragrance settled over the whole boat. Angela felt dizzy from holding her breath. But they got to the other bank eventually.

Stumbling out of the boat and onto the other pier, Angela saw a stone wall and a large gate. Following Thanatos to the entrance, she wonderingly looked at a big rock on the left side of the entrance. It seemed untidy. She was about to ask Thanatos about it when it moved—a triangular section of it twitched a little. She gave a little scream and the whole rock suddenly came apart and reassembled as a terrifying beast. Through the mist of her fear, she saw that it was behaving somewhat like a dog. There was a tail-like thing wagging happily, though when she looked closer she saw that it was a long king cobra. It had three large heads, each one with a tongue hanging out goofily as it sprang about at Thanatos’ feet,

“Cerebos sit!” Thanatos commanded.

Obligingly, very seriously, Cerebos sat, the cobra still wagging.

“Good dog!” Thanatos flung him something that looked a lot like raw meat. The middle head snatched the morsel, revealing a set of very sharp teeth in the process. Appalled, Angela hurried in through the gates, followed by her guide.

Herakles and Hekate nicking the Hell Hound

“Can you believe the nerve of that ferryman?” Angela muttered to Thanataos as he strode through a Greek-looking town resplendent with marble buildings and fountains, “Just you wait until he finds out that I’m going to be queen around here. I can’t wait to see the look on his face,” she cackled.

“Mmm,” Thanatos said. “Ah, look, here’s the agora.”

“The what?”

“The—how you say?—market square. It is the same your courthouse. The judges sit there all day eating sunflower seeds with eagle eyes. I must show you to them.”


“They will make a shouting otherwise,” said Thanatos, chewing his lower lip. “They are the big men here.” After a thoughtful pause he said, “Keep quiet, OK? It’s better if I do the talking.”

Sure enough, sitting in the dappled shade of three bay laurel trees, three elderly men sat on benches carved from translucent white marble. They were dressed in white woollen cloaks and wreaths of hammered gold. They were gesticulating energetically and peeling husks off sunflowers as they chatted together. When they caught sight of Thanatos and Angela approaching, they fell silent and brushed husks off their laps, frowning with proud dignity.


“Joy and health to you, lords!” Thanatos said, with a heartiness that did not come naturally to him. “Let it be a joyous day for you.”

   They nodded coolly, and looked pointedly at Angela.

“Lords,” said Thanatos, “I present to you Angela, daughter of Gerry Smith of Wichita.”

They looked inquiringly at each other. The oldest judge stood up, with the help of a polished walking stick.

“Wichita?” he said. “Is that one of the lesser islands of the Cyclades?”

“Very near, Lord Rhadamanthus,” murmured Thanatos.

“You, girl, come near to me,” said the judge. “So I can look at you.”

Angela approached, trembling a little.

Rhadamanthus was as straight and stony as a pillar, his features unyielding, his eyes (though watery) sharp and critical. Nothing escaped his notice.

“This is a living soul!” he declared. “What does it mean?”

The other two judges rumbled with displeasure.

“Hades’ orders,” Thanatos bowed.

The fattest judge cleared his throat and extended his hand.

“Where’s the royal decree?” he said. “If Hades ordered it, there must be a decree.”

“I have a permit undersigned by Lady Persephone, Lord Minos.”

Minos exchanged a meaning glance with the thin, beaky judge at his side.

Thanatos proferred a papyrus scroll, which Rhadamanthus took reluctantly and unrolled.

Esteemed Judges,

The soul before you, one Angela Kirby daughter of Gerry Kirby of Wichita, has full license to enter the realm of the Dead for an indefinite period to be decided by Hades, Lord of the Dead. No argument on the matter may be entered into.


Lady Persepephone

“This is highly irregular,” muttered Minos.

The beaky judge spoke in a dry, cracked voice. “The law is very clear. No living soul may enter the realm without the signed permission of Lord Hades himself. This was decided to avoid a repeat of the Herakles debacle.”

“Right you are, Aeacus,” said Minos. “It makes a mockery of the system! What is the purpose of having us here if any warm-blooded worm can slither in?”

Excuse me,” Angela snapped.

“Shhh,” Thanatos hissed.

“My colleagues are right,” Rhadamanthus said. “Without a document signed by Hades himself, I’m afraid the girl may not enter. We need to uphold the standards of justice and right.”

“My Lords,” Thanatos bowed. “All praise to you for your unbending adherence to the Law. Hades will be happy to hear it. You have passed this test. King Hades wanted to know what your reaction would be if I tried to smuggle in a hot-breather. I congratulate you all, and My Lord Hades begged of me to present you with a gift in exchange for the peerless practices.”

Thanatos produced three bags and presented one each to the three old men.

Minos and Aeacus opened them up and their faces brightened as they fingered gold coins. Rhadamanthus, however, handed his back.

“We cannot accept these,” he glared at the other two, who looked crestfallen. “We do our duty to the people of Hades not for monetary gain but for Glory alone.”

Scowling, Minos and Aeacus handed theirs back too.

“Praises,” murmured Thanatos. “Hades will know of your reply, believe me. We must now go to him directly to inform him of your great integrity. I’m sure he will ask Orpheus to compose a song singing your virtues to the skies.”

With that, Thanatos grabbed Angela by the hand and hurried off down the street towards a great palace on a hill.

HyperFocal: 0
Mr. and Mrs. Hades at home, from the Colossal Krater from Altamura
Publishing, Translated fiction, Uncategorized

21 Approachable Publishers of Literary Fiction & Translation

If there’s one group of people who have already perfected the art of ‘social distancing’, it’s publishers. Like the endangered Ribbon-tailed Astrapias of Papua New Guinea, a publisher would much prefer isolation foraging in its native jungle habitat than having to deal with unknown authors. Writers, in their view, are the moral equivalent of blood-sucking poachers who will wring their necks and wear their beaks as nose rings.  



After a week of trawling through inhospitable websites/jungles, I’ve noticed some patterns in this avoidant behavior. The biggest publishers don’t even bother mentioning submissions. When they see you coming, they fly to the highest tree top where you have no way of reaching them without abseiling equipment and a flight suit. Mid-level publishers can’t quite reach those tranquil heights so they use a different strategy; they lead you away from the nest with a series of clever feints. First, they make you to scroll to the bottom of the home page to find a ‘contact us’ link (in the tiniest possible font size, in the faintest feasible color). Once you’ve clicked that link, you scroll to the bottom of the contacts page, down, down, down past all the people the publisher would rather to talk to: readers, booksellers, publicity professionals, lawyers, undertakers… finally, at the bottom of that page you will see a message addressed to you: “RarissimaAvis does not accept unsolicited submissions. Any unsolicited manuscripts, proposals or query letters that we receive will not be returned, and RarissimaAvis is not responsible for any materials submitted,” which is publishing legalese for ‘Bog off bumface’. But then there are the smaller, more sociable niche publishers—the litter-inhabiting wrens—who provide detailed submissions requirements, with the caveat that they only have five staff and millions of manuscripts coming in every minute and can only publish half a book a year and please don’t fax or email them and also they can’t reply to anyone and can’t really justify the cost of reading a single paragraph of your blather.

Such is the sorry state of affairs, and no wonder writers are sad.




Ordinarily, self-publishing seems like a better bet. If I were looking to publish my own work, I’d skip the middle man and toddle over to Smashwords, where my memoir about Saudi living Teacher, We Girls! is simmering along nicely with more than 50 sales! However, at the moment I’m sitting on a hot bet—a translation the Sizzlingest Socialist Comedy of the Decade—and feel that if only I can get close enough to one of these secretive publishing birds I should be able to lure it off its branch long enough to gmake friends and let me into its special flock.

To wit, here are 20 of the less-shy publishers of literary fiction and translation. This list is not just for writers and translators, either, but readers who want to find a source of literature in translation. I was a little shocked to learn recently that translation is only 3% of annual publishing in the USA. Considering how quickly a virus can travel around the world, it seems a shame that the riches of global literature are still so inaccessible.


1. And Other Stories 

Est.:  2009

Who they are: A crowd-funded publisher of contemporary writing.

What they want: Literary fiction; translations of fiction of the past 40 years; narrative non-fiction.

Where they are:  Sheffield

Books: Endland by Tim Etchells, The Taiga Syndrome by Christina Rivera Garza (translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana) and Proleterka by Fleur Jaeggy (translated by Alistair McEwen) 

How to submit: Details here.

Notes: They provide Ros Schwartz’s excellent guidelines for translators submitting a book proposal.


2. Arcade Publishing  

Est.  2010

What they want: Fiction and literary nonfiction

Where they are:  North America

Star books: The Imaginary Girlfriend by John Irving , Thine is the Kingdom by Abilio Estévez and The Good Works of Ayela Linde: A Novel in Stories by Charlotte Forbes

How to submit: Detailed instructions here

Notes: They promise to respond, if interested, within the lightning fast time of 4-6 weeks.




3. Archipelago Books   

Est.  2003

What they want:  Translations of contemporary and classic world literature.

Where they are: Brooklyn, NY

Books: A Kitchen in the Corner of the House by Ambai (C.S. Lakshmi) translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Holmström, The Flying Creatures of Fra. Angelico by Antonio Tabucchi translated from Italian by Tim Parks and Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga translated from French by Melanie Mauthner.

How to submit: Send a query to info@archipelagobooks.org .

Notes:  To be honest, I’m not 100% sure they’re accepting unsolicited submissions but I like their stuff so decided to mention them anyway.




4. Arsenal Pulp Press  

What they want: literary fiction, works in translation and lots of other genres including cookbooks.

Where they are:  Vancouver, Canada

Books: The Walking Boy by Lydia Kwa, There Has to Be a Knife by Adnan Khan and Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi

How to submit: Details here.

Notes:  They accept submissions by snail mail only and try to respond within 6 months


5. Atlas Press   

Est.: 1983

What they want: ‘Anti-tradition’ literature that embraces experiment and dissent

Where they are: The UK

Books: Aurora by Michel Leiris, The Punishments of Hell by Robert Desnos translated by Natasha Lehrer and Chris Allen (verse) and The Sixth Sense by Konrad Bayer

How to submit: editor@atlaspress.co.uk 

Note:  They do not publish previously unknown authors but are open to suggestions for translations of well known works in other languages. The backlist is very niche–you’d basically have to be a furry cup to fit in. 




6. Atlantic Books

Est.: 2000

What they want: Novels, extensive partials [whatever they are] or short stories

Where they are: Bloomsbury

Books: White Tiger by Aravid Adiga, Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas, Consensual Hex by Amanda Harlowe, Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

How to submit: fictionsubmissions@atlantic-books.co.uk

Notes: Powerful publicity machine! 



7. Biblioasis 

What they want: Fiction originally in English or translated into it, non-fiction, poetry

Where they are:  Windsor, Ontario in Canada

Books: Granma 19 and the Soviet’s Secret by Ondjaki and translated from Portuguese by Stephen Henighan, Madame Victoria by Catherine Leroux and He Wants by Alison Moore.

How to submit: contact info@biblioasis.com but read the guidelines first 




8. Coach House Books  

Est.: 1965

What they want:  poetry, literary fiction, drama and select nonfiction

Where they are: Ontario, Canada

Books: The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann translated by Jen Calleja, The Imago Stage by Karoline Georges translated by Rhonda Mullins and Splitsville by Howard Akler

How to submit: Details here 

Notes: A very small press that mainly publishes works about Canada or by Canadian authors because it is subsidized by Canada Council for the Arts.


9. Coffee House Press  

Est.: 1972

What they want: literary novels, full-length short story collections, poetry, creative nonfiction

Where they are:  Minneapolis, USA

Books: Indecency by Justin Phillip Reed, The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán translated by Sophie Hughes and Reinhardt’s Garden by Mark Haber

How to submit: Details here

Note: They don’t accept manuscripts ALL the time (Heaven forfend!) but occasionally conduct periodic reading sessions so follow them on social media to find out when the next one is.




10. Comma Press 

Est.: 2012

What they want: Short stories and fiction in translation by new and established authors

Where they are: Manchester, UK

Books: The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim, Palestine +100 [a collection of science fiction

short stories by Palestinian authors] and The Sea Cloak & Other Stories  by Nayrouz Qarmout translated by Perween Richards.

How to submit: It will be 18 months before they start considering single-author collections again, but you can enter their competitions or anthologies in the meantime. Contact sarah.cleave@commapress.co.uk for questions.

Notes: They are especially interested in translations from smaller regional and minority languages.


sea cloak


11. Dedalus Books 

Est.: 1983

What they want: Translations of European literature, especially the bizarre or surreal mixed with intellectual fiction

Where they are: Cambridgeshire, UK

Books: The Dedalus Book of Polish Fantasy edited by Wiesiek Powaga, The Arabian Nightmare by Robert Irwin and Days of Anger by Sylvie Germain.

How to submit: They prefer submissions by post: “3 sample chapters, a letter about the author and SAE if anything is to be returned.”

Notes: They publish 1-3 books per year. Email info@dedalusbooks.com with questions.


2876-1507-sylvie germain
Sylvie Germaine



12. Deep Vellum Publishing  

What they want: contemporary fiction, narrative nonfiction, poetry, translations.

Where they are: Dallas, Texas, USA

Books: El poemario del colibrí The Hummingbird Poems by Edyka Chilomé , Girls Lost by Jessica Schiefauer translated by Saskia Vogel and Life Went On Anyway by Oleg Sentsov 

How to submit: apply to Will Evans will@deepvellum.org

Notes: They especially want writers from Texas or writing about Texas.


Oleg Sentsov


13. Dzanc 

Est.: 2006

What they want: daring (wait, no, not THAT daring!) literary fiction

Where they are: Detroit, Michigan, USA

Books: Darkansas by Jarret Middleton, The Australian by Emma Smith-Stevens and Like a Woman by Deb Busman. 

How to submit: Submit using their ‘submittable’ form for submissions. For questions please contact michelle@dzancbooks.org

Notes: In 2019 Dzanc cancelled publication of The Siege of Tel Aviv by Hesh Kestin after allegations that it was Islamophobic.


14. Feminist Press  

Est.: 1970

What they want:  fiction, nonfiction

Where they are: New York

Books: Arid Dreams by Duanwad Pimwana translated by Mui Poopoksakul,  Fiebre Tropical by Juli Delgado Lopera and Mars by Asja Bakiç translated by Jennifer Zoble

How to submit: Details here.They prefer digital proposals in pdf. format and only look at completed manuscripts.

Notes: Founded by Florence Howe, a leader of the modern feminist movement.




15. Guernica  

Est.: 1978

What they want: Literary fiction and translations

Where they are: Ontario, Canada

Books: Lucia’s Eyes and Other Stories by Marina Sonkina, Sex Therapy by Mary Melfi and Itzel I: A Tlatelolco Awakening by Sarah Xerar Murphy 

How to submit: Email queries or manuscripts to michaelmirolla@guernicaeditions.com. They only accept ms submissions between January 1 and April 30.

Note: It may take 6-8 months to get a response.


16. Knopf   

Est.: 1915

What they want: Literary fiction, translated fiction

Where they are: New York, New York, New York

Books: Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips, Exhalation by Ted Chiang and Weather by Jenny Offil. 

How to submit: Knopf usually only accepts mss from agents. You might have a snowball’s chance on a chilly day in Hell, though, so why not try? Just send 25-50 pages and a stamped, self-addressed envelope to THE EDITORS/Knopf/1745 Broadway/New York/NY 10019.

Notes: It will take them a year to get back to you, IF AT ALL.


It’s got cake in it.


17. New Vessel Press  

Est.: 2012

What they want: Literary translations, fiction, narrative nonfiction

Where they are: New York

Books: I Belong to Vienna by Anna Goldenberg translated by Alta L. Price  Sleepless Night by Margriet de Moor translated by David Doherty and What’s Left of the Night by Ersi Sotiropoulos

How to submit: info@newvesselpress.com


18. Open Letter  

What they want: Contemporary literature (for adults) from around the world that is unique and that ‘will have a significant impact on world literary conversation’.

Where they are: Rochester, New York, USA

Books: The Brahmadells by Jóanes Nielson translated from Faroese by Kerri A. Pierce, The Smoke of Distant Fires by Eduardo Chirinos and To Hell with Cronjé by Ingrid Winterbach.

How to submit: Details here; complete manuscripts are preferred.

Notes: This is University of Rochester’s literary translation press. It publishes 10 books per year. Their website is called Three Percent because only 3% of all books published in the USA per year are literary translations. SAD FACE




19. PM Press 

Est.: 2007

What they want: Books by radical authors and activists.

Where they are: Oakland, CA, USA

Books: A City Made of Words by Paul Park, Fire by Elizabeth Hand and The Man who Killed Durruti by Pedro de Paz 

How to submit: Use this formatting guide, follow their careful directions here and then send to submissions@pmpress.org. Wait 2+ months.

Notes: They are more or less booked for two years, but will still might possibly have a look at some new stuff, though it’s not bloody likely.


Best book of 2019 from PM Press!


20. Seven Stories Press 

Est.: 1995

What they want: political guff, fiction, poetry

Where they are: New York, NY

Books: Babylon by Yasmina Reza,  They Hanged by Saintly Billy by Robert Graves and Darwin’s Ghosts by Ariel Dorfman 

How to submit: Send a cover letter and 2 chapters to Acquisitions/Seven Stories Press/140 Watts Street/New York, NY 10013/USA


It’s got a parrot.


21. The Unnamed Press  

Est.:  2014

What they want: Literature from around the world

Where they are: Los Angeles

Books: Vagablonde by Anna Dorn, The Cuban Comedy by Pablo Medina and  Mother of All Pigs by Malu Halasa 

How to submit: Send your work to info@unnamedpress.com




Sri Lanka’s Sensory Shocks

“It’s funny–it always strikes me how amazing it is–that in less than half a day you can be on the other side of the planet,” Lee, our fellow guest muses as the hostess carefully places dishes in front of him—dahl, rice, fried eggplant with mango chutney, bitter greens and chicken curry.

Lee has spent a few weeks in the country, a large part of it at an Ayurdevic spa doing nothing but meditating and having hot oil massaged into him, and he could easily be an advertisement for the practice. He must be in his sixties, but looks as healthy and lithe as a twenty-year-old and emanates perfect health and supreme calm. Pressed by us for an account of his travels, he obliges and gives some recommendations: especially the retreat in Bentota and the Bomburu falls at Ella.


By Buddhika Mawella – Own work, CC BY 3.0, 


Aside from me and John, Lee is the only guest at Randoni Villa, a secluded little place just 15 minutes’ drive from the airport. It sits at the end of a country lane, surrounded by greenery on the bank of Attangalu Oya river. Ananda, the father, is away doing his other job as a tour guide, so we are attended to by his wife, who is the talented cook, and his daughters, the eldest of whom, Huruni, speaks excellent English and acts as interpreter and travel advisor. The younger daughters don’t speak much but stand to one side smiling and looking on with interest, holding one of the three resident Persian cats.

Randoni Villa’s pool


Dining room


Our first night there John sleeps well but I’m kept awake by jetlag and scary noises. At first, there is something like a katydid but more metallic, emitting a sound like rhythmic audible sparks. Then there are the chirps of geckos. Later in the night comes the ghostly loon-like whipperings of waterbirds from the river, then scamperings and scritchings on the roof, and a tuneful singing that might or might not be a nightjar perched in a tree in the surrounding garden. I finally manage to drift off when I am wrenched awake by the terrifying roar of an airplane that seems on the verge of crashing into our hotel room. Stifling a scream, I lie very still and wait for the fireball that never comes. During the silent aftermath, a gentle scraping sound starts swishing on the far wall, somehow reminiscent of a garden hose and I start imagining a giant octopus made of vines that goes forth in the night to devour what it may. No sooner does that calm down than something lands on the roof, does a little dance and starts to hammer like a woodpecker drumming up grubs. This manages to wake John, and after a few drumming sessions, he yells at it to go away, which it does. I manage to sleep a couple of hours but around five in the morning, I have to get up to the bathroom, which is a sort of roofed shack with gaps in the walls so you can hear everything. Looking down into the toilet and noticing that a colony of ants has inexplicably decided that it’s a fantastic place to congregate, I hear something that chills my blood—a very low and tuneful chanting that sounds like the Red Army Choir about to perform a ritual sacrifice. And over this, suddenly, is the shrill, jingling tune of an icecream truck playing ”It’s a Small World After All”.

At breakfast I’m a little strung out after my night of sound effects. Even so, I manage to polish off the feast of dhosas and green chilli coconut sambol along with toast, butter, jam, fresh pineapple and coffee. As we munch away, I see movement in the trees behind John and realize it’s a kind of palm squirrel, with a stripe that reminds me of a chipmunk.


Indian Palm Squirrel


Hiruni tells us that our taxi has arrived—we are going into Colombo for a day—so we gulp the rest of our coffee and jump in. The ride takes about an hour and the contrast between the green peace of the countryside and the frenetic activity of the city is marked. There are motorized tuk-tuks everywhere, each one decorated in a distinctive way, though not as elaborately as the trucks, some of which are mobile works of art. I gaze with interest at the people: businessmen in white shirts and black trousers, workmen in hi-viz vests, women in dresses and heels, school children in formal uniforms, mechanics in oil-stained T-shirts, tuk-tuk drivers in T-shirts and jeans, policemen in meticulously ironed uniforms and very skinny elderly people in long batik sarongs.






Looming over the whole city is the Lotus Tower, which our driver points out on the way past, though he really doesn’t need to—you can see it from anywhere. As we reach the coast, looking out to the Indian Ocean, he pulls to a stop and points to an enormous mall surrounded by fences and policemen.




“Brand new,” he explains. We realize that this is what he understands as ‘the shopping district’ we requested as our destination. John explains that we are actually looking for a big street with lots of shops on it, where the locals go. The driver shrugs, which seems to mean there isn’t really anywhere like that. We get out and go through the entrance, which is manned by security guards and x-ray machines for bags. Just outside, cars are checked by a Malinois shepherd in a police vest. It has only been eight months since the Easter bombings that killed 259 people, so presumably the dog is sniffing for explosives. On this occasion, luckily, nothing is detected and the car is allowed to go on.

At 10 in the morning, the mall is only very slowly coming to life. John and I find a bookstore that is one of the few shops open, buy a few tomes on Sri Lankan history but are disappointed that there are no city maps available. Waiting for other shops to open, we wander around the mall. Already, a big crowd is gathering around an enormous Christmas tree and young couples and friends are taking each other’s pictures in front of it. As we learn later from our host, Sri Lanka has quite a small Christian population (about 7%) and almost all of it is concentrated in Colombo and on the west coast. This, he explains, is due to the fact that the Portuguese stuck to port towns and converted people in those towns to Catholicism. This perhaps explains why we saw so many trees and nativity scenes around the city.




The main reason we’ve come to the city is that John needs a foreign-legion hat, the other one is lost somewhere in Italy. But a quick reconnaissance mission on all five floors of the complex shows that foreign-legion hats are as rare as Sumatran rhinos. These are high-end fashion shops where the only hats available are baseball caps or those little short-brimmed hats favored by Justin Timberlake. So we go outside and get into a tuk-tuk asking the driver for a shopping street.

“You mean the city centre?” he asks.

“Yes!” We nod enthusiastically.

“OK!” he zips around town and deposits us outside another big mall, called ‘City Center Shopping Centre’. Resigned to our fate, knowing there will not be a hat here either, we trudge in and go through another security check. Sure enough, this place has all the same hat-less shops. We decide to make the best of it by getting John some linen trousers. Pants shopping is one of his least favorite activities but he does it quickly and efficiently with only a hint of anguished groaning.

To celebrate this achievement, we go downstairs to have lunch at the supermarket foodcourt, where businessmen are grabbing a bite to eat before going back to work. I order beef and noodles for John and tuna curry, which are filling but nothing extraordinary. Before going upstairs we decide to look at all the weird food: dozens of varieties of locally grown rice; wood apples; rambutan; headless sprats that locals chew like peanuts; egg hopper flour and aisles of spice. It gives me a nostalgic feeling to find Commonwealthy food familiar from my childhood such as Marmite (which you can use on noodles apparently), Milo and tins of golden syrup.



wood apples


At this point we are ready to head back to the hotel and venture outside in search of taxis. A man responds to our request, but when we realize he is leading us to a line of tuk-tuks, we stop and said we want a car—the mere thought of travelling the distance back to the hotel in a little open-air jalopy makes my bum hurt.

“OK, OK,” says the head guy, “I call car now. You wait 15 minutes, inside. I call you.”

We duly go back inside and sit down at ‘Il Caffe’ where I order a gelato.

“What flavor madam?”

“Um, rum and raisin.”

“Ahh,” he said knowingly. “Alcohol.”

“Yes, haha.”

“I no like this,” he said.

“Oh,” I said.

Soon enough, the taxi impresario returns, leads us outside and introduces us to a man with a moustache whose car is parked across the road.

“You know madam,” the driver says to me, sweating, “I need to drive by my shop, just ten minutes madam. There you go sit in shop. No need to buy, but if you want to buy OK. I need to pick up petrol vouchers there, two, three vouchers.”

He is avoiding looking at or addressing John, perhaps because John is glaring.

Sure enough, the guy drives us in the wrong direction across the city and decants us into a gem shop. The sofa by the door is taken, so we go and sit on a couple of chairs in front of a display case full of rings and necklaces. No sooner have we taken a seat than a guy drifts over and starts the hard sell, urging me to try on various rings and necklaces.

“Actually,” I say finally, with some apology, “We’re just waiting for our driver.”

He nods briefly and then just launches into the same spiel. John and I stand up and walk away, pretending to look at other stuff. The guy follows us.

“You like gemstones? We have many fine gemstones.”

“No thanks,” we say and sit down on the sofa, which is now free. We both start to read books intently. Coincidentally, just at this time our taxi driver returns to shepherd us back to the car. He has the Greatest Hits of Boney-M playing. They are very cheering, especially “Rasputin”  (there was a cat who really was gone) and “Rivers of Babylon”, which includes an illusion to Psalm 137:4, “Now how shall we sing the lord’s song in a strange land?”, which is used in a lot of songs and which I always find moving. However, even Boney M palls a bit as it takes us ages to get out of the city even though the driver takes plenty of short cuts through side alleys. By the time we near the airport, the driver starts periodically stopping the car and asking people where our hotel is. We’ve given him the hotel phone number, but his phone has run out of credit or something. Inch by inch we near our oasis. Finally, he makes it.

We get in and sleep for three hours, exhausted by the whole experience.





Paolo Orsi’s Potsherd Mysterium

A major hazard of travelling, especially travelling where you barely understand the language, is feeling confused a lot of the time. Admittedly, mystery has its appeal; it’s a pleasure to mull over possible answers, stalking meaning as it shies away from you through the shady thicket of doubt. You live for that exhilarating moment of victory, the sense of pride when you finally figure out that a tissue is a ‘fazzoletto’, or that what the man said was ‘the second street on the left’. There is, conversely, some irritation, not to mention rage, when you fail to understand something that should (you feel) be simple.

Sicily seems more confusing than other places. I’m not sure if that’s because I expected it to act more like mainland Italy, or because I have a cold or because the place is just fatally incomprehensible. Navigating this environment takes me back to my bewilderment as a tone-deaf student of music theory; there are nuances that I am simply unable, even after extensive effort, to get.

Take the bus system, for example. Our first week here in Sicily, we spent several hours (this is not an exaggeration) waiting for the bus. When you stand by the side of a road in a strange town waiting for a bus that never comes, it does something to you. You shrivel up inside. You wilt. You start looking cock-eyed at the world.

In the first place, it’s physically hard. There’s nowhere to sit, hardly even any room to stand. Backyards are defended by high concrete walls bolstered by spiny plants, so you can’t lean. Between the wall and the edge of the road there is a mere half-metre gap. The sun blazes down. A dog across the street stares at you through a fancy gate, intermittently barking. Cars zoom by.




You notice annoyingly insignificant details; a bougainvillea has managed to grow all the way up a lamppost and is now waving in the breeze; a ridiculous cat is padding stealthily towards a hedge as if it’s a panther; ants bustle about carrying off the dismembered parts of some winged insect. To escape these depressing trifles, your thoughts turn inwards. There are things you could have done differently—renewed your driver’s license, for example. Done a little more research about the location. Figured out how to use a phone. Things that take up so much time and mental effort.

It’s a relief when a couple joins you. They’re tall and have ironed clothes and a breezy holiday attitude. Maybe some of it will rub off on you. Twenty minutes pass, an expression of doubt flickers across their faces, the cheery breeze deflates.

“Excuse me, do you have a copy of the bus schedule?” the woman asks. You show it to her, and you can tell by her frown that it’s the same as hers, taken from the official website. And your collective schedule is not right because the bus was due twenty minutes ago.

Another ten minutes pass and shoulders droop. Anxiety builds. The couple starts to get testy with each other. You’ve seen it all before.

“Go and ask the shopkeeper,” she hisses to him.

“Why me? I did it last time!”

But the man goes into the shop, asks the shopkeeper. She will say, as I know from experience, that the bus arrives every hour at quarter past, a lie.

After an hour, the couple leaves, defeated, muttering sharp words. You’re still there, stoic, determined to stick it out all day, all week, until the end of time if necessary. You will stay until cockroaches go extinct and the sun shrivels to a red pinprick just for the satisfaction of telling the bus driver he’s a lousy bastard. Five minutes later, the bus arrives, screeches to a halt and barely stops long enough to let you on before speeding away again. And you’re so relieved that the bus really does exist and that you are now on it, that you are filled with elation and gratitude; the agonizing minutes of waiting vanish. The driver’s a good man, really, it’s not his fault if the company neglects its responsibilities. Besides, there was an article in the newspaper yesterday about how there are frequent assaults on bus drivers. In the latest case, in Catania, a bus driver honked at a guy parked at a bus stop. The guy ignored him, the bus called a towing company. The driver of the car got out of his car with a large stick and started whacking the bus and the driver too.


Artist's impression of the planet orbiting Proxima Centauri
Waiting for the bus in Sicily, Year 9878 (actually artist’s impression of Proxima b )


I have since learned that the bus company changed the schedule without updating any of its posted timetables except one: the sheet of A4 printer paper stuck to a pole on Via Onorevole Dottor Giuseppe Rubino.

A similar thing happened with the trains last week. I wanted to go to a mall in the northern part of town. The internet said a train went there. The ticket vending machine said it was a valid destination. I bought a ticket, got on the right train…and ended up in a town 30 kilometres away. The train never stopped at my station. Perhaps that station doesn’t even exist. Who knows?

Anyway, now that we are privy to the top-secret real bus schedule, we decided to go to Siracusa and visit the Archeological Museum. This building, containing a huge collection of artefacts, is named after the archeologist Paolo Orsi (1859-1935), who studied pre-Hellenic peoples of Sicily and discovered several important temples, necropolises, walls, tombs, coins and remains. Here he is, with his perfect moustaches:


Struggling to remember which ones were the Sicels and which ones were the Sicani…


The archeological museum was a twenty-minute walk from the bus station past the Syracusan forum, along to Euripides Plaza and up a hill to the lovely gardens of Villa Landolina. The Landolinas were (are?) one of Sicily’s oldest aristocratic families, arriving with King Roger and the Normans. That’s one of the disorienting things about Sicily—in one twenty-minute walk you have allusions to and remnants of all the disparate peoples who have lived and breathed on this soil. Neolithic, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Norman, Arab…Everyone has left their fragments, but you can’t quite tell how all the pieces fit together.

The garden was a park of trees of numerous varieties (all carefully identified on a sign near the entrance). Ancient artefacts such as massive millstones and huge amphorae were arranged along the path like garden statuary. The leafy setting reminded me of a beautiful lonely place John and I visited in Albania called Butrint—the ancient city of Bouthroton, where the ruins are overgrown with ivy and grass, nestled in a leafy wood of laurels and pine. Seeing a ruined city in a natural setting, up close, under the blue sky, is a wonderful experience, and echoes of that visit rang in my memory now.

We were both enthused and strode towards the museum entrance full of hope, barely glancing at the headless statues called, so the sign said, ‘togati’ or ‘the toga-wearing men’.

The ticket price was quite reasonable—six euros each. The lady at the cash register explained in English that there was a certain order to follow. First we must go downstairs to see the coins. Then we should come upstairs and see galleries A, B and C. OK, that all seemed clear.

We walked down the stairs, following a sign that said ‘medaglie’.

‘Is that coins or not? Are we in the right place? The door’s locked,’ I tried the handle.

‘Um, I think it’s closed,’ said John.

‘But she said it was down here!’ I insisted, and then saw a switch with a bell on it. RING BELL. I couldn’t help thinking of the instructions in Alice in Wonderland  to DRINK ME EAT ME.

‘What are you doing?’ John cried as I rang the bell.

‘It says there to ring the bell,’ I pointed out.

‘But…someone’s coming!’

A staff member with long blonde hair, the kind of woman who sells high-end cosmetics in a department store opened the door, ushered us in and explained that here was the coin collection showing coins, weapons and jewelry from ancient and medieval times. The door closed behind us and we noticed that behind the glass door an armored door about a foot thick stood ready to slide shut and lock into place.

John had not really come here to look at mere coins, so he found a comfy armchair in which to muse as I pored over the shiny things. Admittedly, I usually skip coin exhibits, but this was more than usually engaging. Maybe it was the locked door, giving it an exclusive feel? Or maybe the lighting helped me see the things better.

The coins were surprisingly fat and three-dimensional. Starting from when city of Siracusa minted its own coins up to the tyranny of Dionysius I (405 BCE), the biggest kind of coin kept the same distinctive design elements. On one side was the ‘quadrigia’ (four-horsed chariot), which referred to the city’s aristocracy; on the other was the head of the nymph Arethusa, the nymph associated with the city’s freshwater spring, surrounded by dolphin’s to indicate the city’s location on the sea.




When the coins ceased to delight me, I moved to the jewelry, some of it ancient, some of it not. Here are some of the most striking pieces:


Earring from the second half of the second century BCE


Snakey ringsesss


signet ring sant angelo muxaro
Signet ring found at Sant’Angelo Muxaro


Other eye-catching bits were Roman carnelian rings with intricate intaglio portraits that resembled holograms when backlit; a golden ring in the shape of a frog, a beautiful ivory bracelet featuring a stag where the material had been into a network of tree branches; thin golden leaves that had been part of a wreath; a cameo of Diana in some luminous milk-white stone. John, meanwhile, was drawn to a collection of very thick, very sharp iron ax heads and spear points.

Aware of how much more of the museum we still had left to see (galleries A,B and C), we decided to leave the coin room.  We didn’t know we had to wait for the polished blonde woman to let us out. She was busy chatting to another couple of museum viewers and as we started pounding on the door, not a little claustrophobic, she rushed to let us out.

We climbed upstairs and entered gallery ‘A’. This took us all the way back to the island’s geological formation, through the sad march to extinction of amazing island fauna, to the first hominid scratchings. We jogged past all of it  way, past the Neolithic, the Copper Age, the Bronze Age, the late Bronze Age…One of the few things that made John stop and stare was this strange item from Thapsos 1500-1200 BCE




And that was mainly to point and mutter something about that sneak-thief Picasso.

‘When do things get Hellenistic?’ he added, with a hint of desperation.

‘It must be here somewhere,’ I said. ‘Let’s keep going.’

We kept going, and going, and going led on by arrows along many more dark corridors. We passed so many glass cabinets containing inscrutable terracotta figurines, bronze tools and bone ornaments that everything started to look the same. Finally, we came to a dead end. Everything was roped off.

‘Where’s Section B?’ John said, looking around in confusion.

‘Oh my god,’ I said, ‘We have to go back the way we came! The sections don’t link up with each other!’

So, we hurriedly retraced our steps. Now and then we’d end up in a little cul-de-sac and had to rescue each other by finding the right way. By the time we realized we were near the door, we nearly cried from happiness.

Back in the main connecting corridor outside, I scanned the vast building and in the distance, to the left, saw Section B.

‘OK, there it is!’ I called to John, who’d gone to look in the other direction.

We went in and immediately realized we were into the Greek colonization period. But, just as I let my guard down, the same old Confusion started clouding around me again. I tried reading the English translations of the signs provided but, between the technical jargon and the unnatural phrasing, none of the information stuck. While brain fog is a normal condition for me, even John was puzzled.

‘It’s not chronological. They’ve organized everything by town,’ he said. ‘Naxos, Messina, Syracuse…as if they’re completely unconnected. And they don’t even seem to mention the war with the Athenians. I mean, it was probably the most important battle of the Peloponnesian War!’

‘Oh, here’s a passing reference to it,’ I pointed out contrarily.

‘Three words. Three words, for that battle!’ he threw up his hands in exasperation.

Let down, we decided just to saunter through the rest of gallery B with lowered expectations, stopping where we felt like it. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of potsherds, statue fragments  labelled with numbers that were often difficult to match the signs, because there were two sets of the same numbers next to each other. So many tantalizing ancient mysteries were staring out from behind the glass, like the urn containing the charred bones of a man and a woman, but they were crowded out by a modern mystery: why should a museum be so hard to visit? We’d actually felt enthusiastic when we went in, but by the time we left gallery B we were tired, defeated and confused.


Snub-nosed Sicilian kore laughing at me


Sighing, we listlessly browsed the books on display near the ticket counter. One book on the Pelopponesian War, but it was only in Italian. There was a whole set of Montelbano mysteries—the beloved detective series by Andrea Camilleri that showcases the Sicilian way of life. There was also an English translation of Il Giorno Della Civetta, The Day of the Owl by Leonardo Sciascia. I was struck by the coincidence because I’d just watched the film version starring Claudia Cardinale and Franco Nero the previous night.  I promptly bought it and we set off homewards, with a short stop at the supermarket near the station.

The supermarket was closed.

‘Is it closed for lunch?’ John asked hopefully, and I understood. He wanted a reasonable explanation, something solid to hold onto.

‘No. The sign says here it’s open right through every day except Sunday,’ I said in a faint voice. There was no explanation. Not even a piece of paper scrawled with ‘closed for family reasons’ or ‘back in an hour’. Nothing.

Luckily, the bus was on time. I started reading my book; I wanted answers. Riffling through, I stopped on a conversation between Captain Bellodi and a woman talking about Sicily:


‘What’s it like?’

‘An old town with plaster-walled houses, steep streets and flights of steps, and at the top of every street and flight of steps, an ugly church.’

‘And the men; are they very jealous?’

‘After their own fashion.’

‘And the mafia, what’s this mafia the papers are always going on about?’

‘Yes, what is the mafia?’ urged Brescianelli.

‘It’s very complicated to explain,’ said Bellodi, ‘it’s just incredible.’


Pretty good excuse to include a picture of Franco Nero

September in Sicily

Exploring new landscapes on foot is one of my favorite activities so, since we’re lucky enough to be in the countryside of Southern Sicily at the autumnal equinox, it seemed like a good time to go for a jog.




It was already ten o’clock when I set out, and the late-summer sun was blazing; good news for the laundry but not for me. No sooner had I stepped outside than my whole body was prickly with sweat. This was despite being covered with a foreign-legionnaire hat, sunglasses, sunblock, long-sleeved top, long running pants and even white gloves. It may be important to ‘celebrate the aging process’ but that doesn’t mean I want to invite it in and serve it hors d’oeuvres!




The first thing I noticed is that there is no shortage of vegetation. In the village itself, the smallest yards seem full of fruiting trees and vines—grapes turning to raisins in bunches, almonds still in their husks, gross quinces, lemons dropping from the branch and degrading prettily on ceramic tiles. Showy flowers burst from unpruned shrubs that explode over high walls—oleanders, hibiscus, jasmine and bougainvillea. Beyond town, in the countryside proper, is the productive rural area. The roadside is are overgrown with sprawling natural hedges: blackberry, prickly pear (rather romantically called ‘Indian figs’ in Italy—fichi d’India), firethorn and some other shrub with nasty two-inch thorns. Luckily, there also more austere, not to say rustic, fences. Beyond these are the fields, some newly ploughed, their soil red-brown, soft moist and full of pebbles and clods for good drainage. Others are well along in the growing process, with neat rows of some unidentifiable crop—rabbage or rape or foreseed or something. There are also fields where the hay had been neatly collected and rolled into bales, reminding me that tonight is the Harvest Moon.




Sicily has been synonymous with fertility for centuries. That was one of the reasons Greeks moved here in droves starting from the eighth century BCE. During the Roman Republic the island was the great city’s main source of grain. And throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance a huge amount of Sicilian cereal was exported all over the Mediterranean, adding to the fabulous wealth of certain shrewd merchants. It’s easy to understand the ancient belief that Demeter and Persephone–the mother-daughter pair associated with agriculture and fertility—were especially fond of the island. Writing in the first century CE, the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus confidently gave the exact place where Hades kidnapped Persephone, condemning the world to three sterile months per year. This place (though some say otherwise) was Enna in central Sicily:


“… the Rape of Kore, the myth relates, took place in the meadows of the territory of Enna. The spot lies near the city, a place of striking beauty for its violets and every other kind of flower and worthy of the goddess. And the story is told that, because of the sweet odour of the flowers growing there, trained hunting dogs are unable to hold the trail, because their natural sense of smell is balked. And the meadow we have mentioned is level in the centre and well watered throughout, but on its periphery it rises high and falls off with precipitous cliffs on every side. And it is conceived of as lying in the very centre of the island, which is the reason why certain writers call it the navel of Sikelia. Near to it also are sacred groves, surrounded by marshy flats, and a huge grotto which contains a chasm which leads down into the earth and opens to the north, and through it, the myth relates, Plouton [Hades], coming out with his chariot, effected the Rape of Kore. And the violets, we are told, and the rest of the flowers which supply the sweet odour continue to bloom, to one’s amazement, throughout the entire year, and so the whole aspect of the place is one of flowers and delight . . .”  Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 5. 2. 3 – 5. 5. 1 (trans. Oldfather) (Greek historian C1st B.C.) 




Agriculture is still very important for the local economy: Sicilian grain is the backbone of Italian staples such as pasta, biscotti and bread. Not only that, but some of the local multi-grain bread I’ve tried is unbelievably delicious, and a few enthusiasts like Filippo Drago are bringing ancient varieties out of plant libraries and back to tables. Apart from grains, the island is proud of its vines, olives, walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds and honey, and it produces a lot of garden vegetables too. Not only that, but Sicily is Italy’s largest producer of citrus fruits.


prickly pear


After a kilometer or so I turned down a road into a little town where I had a chance to see Sicily’s other great beautiful, myth-making and food-yielding feature—the sea.




Last week, as soon as our train boarded the ferry from Italy to Sicily, we were entering mythic territory, the narrow body of water famously inhabited by Scylla and Charybdis. Messina Strait, whose opposing shores are hardly more than an ‘arrow shot’ apart, is the most likely real location for the spot mentioned in The Odyssey. On one side we have Scylla, originally a lovely sea nymph and Poseidon’s girlfriend. In a fit of jealousy his wife Amphitrite poisoned the water where she bathed and…Scylla changed:


Her voice is indeed but as the voice of a new-born whelp, but she herself is an evil monster, nor would anyone be glad at sight of her, no, not though it were a god that met her. Verily she has twelve feet, all misshapen, and six necks, exceeding long, and on each one an awful head, and therein three rows of teeth, thick and close, and full of black death. Up to her middle she is hidden in the hollow cave, but she holds her head out beyond the dread chasm, and fishes there, eagerly searching around the rock for dolphins and sea-dogs and whatever greater beast she may haply catch, such creatures as deep-moaning Amphitrite rears in multitudes past counting. By her no sailors yet may boast that they have fled unscathed in their ship, for with each head she carries off a man, snatching him from the dark-prowed ship.

A.T. Murray (Book XII 73-101)


On the opposite side was Charybdis–Poseidon’s daughter who took her dad’s side in a spat with Zeus, who objected. She was turned into a giant bladder-monster with flippers and an insatiable thirst for seawater, sucking it all up three times a day, then spewing it out, creating whirlpools. Fortunately for our crossing, both these ladies were in a serene mood, the crossing was quick and the island looked calm and mysterious but monster-free.


The approach to Sicily across the Messina Strait


Today, during my run, I saw another aspect of the sea—rocky pools of clear aquamarine, a sparkling blue horizon, the mesmerizing motion of gentle waves (nothing like the more energetic Southern Pacific of my hometown). It was so pretty and relaxed it was easy to believe that sea nymphs would like to paddle about in it. The nearby town of Ortygia has its very own Nereid—Arethusa, whose backstory provides a kind of magic underground link with the old home country.




The story goes that Arethusa was originally from Arcadia (in the Peloponnese) and was having a bath in the river one day when Alpheus the river god was passing by and…you can guess what happened next. Arethusa prayed to Artemis, who hid her in a cloud but Arethusa had the fear sweats, which gave her away. Artemis opened up an underground tunnel leading from Arcadia all the way to the island of Ortygia (near Siracusa), where Arethusa emerged in liquid form. Unfortunately, the persistent Alpheus flowed through the sea to reach her and ‘mingle with her waters’. There is a statue in Ortygia by Giulio Moschetti that illustrates this story. I must admit, though, I’ve walked past it about four times and never realized it was anything but Diana with a few deformed Roman ‘dolphins’ cavorting around her.


Fountain dramatizing the myth, photo from this site: http://www.italianways.com/the-fountain-of-diana-in-syracuse-and-arethusas-metamorphosis/


I plodded along the coastline a bit and took in the sights. A group of cycling tourists stopped at a parked van for refreshments and listened carefully to their guide’s instructions on getting to their new destination. Near the marina a group of construction workers let out a loud cry, possibly related to the fact that a Polizia Penitenziaria van cruised into view a few moments later. A little car drove about 15 km per hour giving a shaggy dog some exercise. In the hazy distance was a single cone-shaped mountain– Mount Etna.




With a glimpse of this I’d seen enough of Sicily to keep me going for a while, and my new shoes were giving me blisters. Besides, there was a bottle of Nero d’Avola waiting for me. I flew home as if my shoes had wings.