The Stories that Remain

The island of Ortygia is both the symbolic and literal heart of Siracusa (Syracuse), the largest city on the eastern coast of Sicily. The streets are rich in medieval and Baroque palaces, one of the most light-filled piazzas in Italy and equally poetic wrought iron balconies bright with flowers and linen fluttering in the wind.

And water.

Ortygia is a small enough island that almost every turn opens out onto views of the Ionian sea, and the few enclosed narrow lanes that do exist seem to compensate. One of the city’s two main piazze features the Fonte Artusa (Arthusa Fountain), depicting the nymph Aretusa who, when pursued by the river god Alpheus, took refuge on the island of Ortygia and hid by changing into a spring. Though surrounded by the sea, the island’s drinking fountains built into walls run with fresh water.

Ortygia’s second public gathering place, Piazza d’Archimede (Archimedes Piazza), tells the story of the famous geometrician Archimedes who was born in Siracusa in 287 BC. Archimedes was so absent-minded that he would frequently forget to eat, drink and bathe. His servants needed to drag him to his bath, and it was there where he discovered his principle: any body immersed in water loses weight equivalent to the water it displaces. So delighted by this discovery, he jumped out of the bath and ran naked through the streets of Ortygia shouting “Eureka!” (I have it!)

Archimedes was also instrumental in defending Siracusa against the Romans by setting fire to the enemy fleet by focusing the sun’s rays with a system of mirrors and lenses. His concentration was so great that when the Romans succeeded in entering the town anyway by surprise, he didn’t hear them and a soldier ran him through with his sword.


fireflies-glowing.jpg.653x0_q80_crop-smartI miss fireflies. Or lightning bugs, which is what we called them in the New Jersey town where I grew up, just across the river from New York City. The last time I visited there, the houses were selling for almost half a million dollars, but in those days it was a gritty, run-down place, but I was too young to notice. I loved it. My parents shared a rented house with my grandparents—first generation immigrants in a neighborhood filled with mostly Portuguese, Polish, Italian and Irish families. My grandmother was a stern and imposing woman that my sister and I did our best to steer clear of. But my grandfather was a gentle, quiet man who worked as a tailor. He kept a tiny little garden in the back where he grew roses and vegetables and in the summers I loved helping him stake the tomato plants and heap mounds of dirt around the potato seedlings. We did our work early in the morning or at twilight—my favorite, since we could linger, taking our time, doing our work as the fireflies began to emerge.

I loved fireflies, of course. Everyone did, but at eight or nine years old, I couldn’t have articulated why. I’m not sure any of the adults could, either. It wasn’t a time when people talked about the beauty of nature or the importance of taking time for activities that sustained you emotionally. We went to school, my mother cooked, my father worked nights, my grandfather tended his garden, and the fireflies came every night.

I’ve been thinking this week about so many things that seem to be missing lately in our country and our world—peace, civility, tolerance, respect. It’s hard to find relief. Fireflies are in decline too, another casualty of development and light pollution. But even if they weren’t, I live in Seattle. Nobody is sure why, but almost no firefly species are found west of Kansas. So it’s been years since I’ve seen them in the massive numbers that filled my childhood summer nights.

I remember coming downstairs that morning—we lived in the upstairs flat above my grandparents in a railroad-style row house. It was late summer or the very early days of fall. Something was wrong, I could feel a physical difference percolating through the house, even before one word was uttered or I saw the faces of my family. The heavy drapes that separated my grandparents’ front bedroom from the main living area were drawn closed when usually at this time of the day, they would be pulled wide open. But my grandfather had risen even earlier than usual that day, in a wild panic, when he’d been unable to wake my grandmother from sleep. My mother had tried to help, but there was no help to give. The two sat stone-faced, inconsolable from the sudden loss of a wife and mother. In their desperation, my older sister—she would have been no more than eleven or or twelve at the time—had been enlisted to call the police station or maybe the hospital. It was the only way in those days before there was a 911 line, and I watched with a mixture of horror and awe as she struggled to negotiate this new responsibility she’d been given.

That day felt like it passed in a minute, and it felt like 100 hours until night finally came again. My parents and a dozen aunts and uncles were still downstairs, tending to my grandfather. I was supposed to already be upstairs in bed, in the room I shared with my sister. She sat in the half-dark, in no mood to answer my questions, a book open on her lap, still stunned from the events of the day. So I tiptoed across the hall into my parents’ bedroom—at the back of the house overlooking the garden—where it was harder to hear the outbursts of grief still rising up from downstairs.

I needed something solid. Something safe and permanent. There in the dark, I examined my favorite, familiar treasures on my mother’s dresser: the row of Avon cologne bottles, each one a crazier shape than the next, the pale blue opaque glass jewelry box that sits in my bedroom still today, the oval green and gold hand-held mirror. I loved each one of these objects. Some meaning of what had happened must be hidden here, I was certain. So I kept picking them up, one by one, twisting the top off a perfume bottle, holding the mirror up towards the dim light. I wasn’t supposed to open the window in the room, but I couldn’t help it. Maybe it was too many sniffs of cologne, or maybe because we hadn’t really eaten a real dinner that day, but the air felt so thick I was suddenly afraid what would happen next, so I pushed up the window and stuck my head out.

And there they were—the fireflies. Circling around and around the dark garden, flying in wide swaths, steady and strong, their spots of lights blinking on and off, on and off, the whole picture merging into a vision of what, to this day, I’m certain consolation must look like.