A Fire on the Mountain

Click  here to see a slide show. We were in the water when we saw the yellow plane.

“Why is it flying so low?” asked Elizabeth.

We were waist-deep in water when we saw it, a bright yellow plane banking steeply against the blue horizon, the mountains behind, then straightening.

“It must be part of some kind of air show,” I said.

It was an unusual-looking plane. It banked steeply against the mountains again, and when it went over us, you could hear the buzzing of propellers.

A few minutes later, it reappeared. Or perhaps it was another one. Elizabeth pointed it out, and we watched as it lowered and lowered and then, to our surprise, landed. We saw all this as we stood in the clear blue sea, whose water, even 30 yards from the shore, was only up to our shoulders. At sea level, the events of the world seem so pleasantly far away. All you have to do is duck your head underwater and all is quiet, muffled, and it feels as though coming up into the bright day is an option you can contemplate, deciding for or against at your leisure. We’d been swimming and diving and splashing around for a while, enjoying our last day in Corsica.

The previous day had been spent the same way, followed by an afternoon drive to the nearby town of Algajola, a tiny place with a gorgeous beach and a promontory overlooking the sea. We ate an excellent dinner in the square and then peeked briefly at the last rays of light on the sea—the dark blue sky settled onto the softly brooding sea. We stared at these two shades of blue, and there was a tension between the utter terror of all that emptiness and another stronger feeling of gentleness, lulling, a bedtime story. The lamps twinkled on, we took some blurry pictures, people played boules in the near dark, and we drove home with only the newly paved black road to guide us.

Now we were in the water, it was our last day; we wallowed in the sheer wastrel pleasure of time on the beach. There was a strong wind. More planes appeared.

And then we noticed the smoke coming over the mountain. It came over the ridge behind us like smog. There was a fire on the mountain. The smoke had a yellowish tinge. It filtered into the blue sky and soon began to overtake a section of the sky.

The planes came and circled down to the bay and picked up a load of water and took off with a thin spume trailing. We watched from the water. After awhile, the smoke got thicker. A big cloud moved across the sun, and all the colors on the beach changed to something a little sickly and apocalyptic. Another plane showed up, and this one flew a different route. It appeared over the mountains and flew above the town, dropping down for water on the other side of the citadel. It would do a very sharp turn just above the town, almost pausing for a moment before making its sharp descent down and out of sight. Gradually, we came to feel as though Calvi was under siege, which in a sense it was. The light colored. The wind whipped. Tiny little pieces of black and gray ash began to fall onto the water around us. The many sailboats docked in the marina rocked back and forth in the strong wind. Their bare white masts were like a chorus of manic metronomes, each swaying to its own tempo.

We retired to our hotel for one last siesta and then later walked into the citadel and then down into town. I assumed the fire was the result of the dry weather, the wind, some careless camper, but the news dealer, where I bought my International Herald Tribune, told me otherwise. He had moved down to Corsica from Brittany seven years earlier and lived here full-time. Like many of the French we had met, he was rather gruff at first but warmed up. The fires were not an accident of the wind, he said. Local farmers, to gather insurance money after their goats died, had started them intentionally.

“They set their land on fire because their goats died?” I said.

“It’s very complicated,” he said.

That night, as we stepped out of the Grand Hotel’s lobby, we looked up at the mountains. They were topped with a froth of fire. It looked a bit like a volcano that was slowly burbling lava out of its mouth. Alarming and beautiful. Other people stood and stared.

We dined at a lovely little restaurant, the U Fornu, just up the block, whose outdoor tables were, like many of the restaurants in Calvi, arranged over an ascending stairway dense with bougainvillea and trees. Elizabeth ran back to the room to get something, and I found myself chatting with the Viennese couple sitting at the next table.

Marcus played French horn with the Vienna Philharmonic, Lelila played harp. “Calvi is so beautiful, I think,” he said at one point. For some reason, hearing someone else say it in this unabashed, emotional way, brought my own similar feeling to the fore. Calvi was so beautiful. And so weirdly untrammeled, in spite of being a tourist town.

We had to rise before dawn the next morning to make our ferry in Bastia. The fire on the mountain had diminished, though it still smoldered. Later that day, reading a paper over someone’s shoulder, I saw that one of the planes dropping water on the fire above Calvi had crashed, killing the pilot.

We packed our bags in the dark, got in the car, and headed out of town. The road was empty. Soon we were twisting and turning as we began our ascent up into the mountains. Dawn was breaking just then. The sea announced itself as a faint metallic shadow on our left. The fiery glimmer of the sun illuminated the mountain peaks. It looked like the sun, a red disk, but it was just a cloud catching the light. The mountains stood before us in silhouette, bathed in red. That glimmer of sun hitting some faint cloud was so bloody in color. Maybe it was the effect of all that smoke from the fire. We were headed right for it. A morning redness in the east.