Nearing the end of my father’s sabbatical year in Florence, my mother convinced him to rent a house in the mountains. She slipped the Holiday Homes brochure on top of his computer: “This one has a Ping-Pong table and a waterfall.”
It was June, 1994, and I had just turned eleven.
Northern Italy had been deluged by months of rain, causing mudslides and avalanches. But until we arrived in the mountains, soldiers waving our car around roadblocks, my mother hadn’t realized that the house we’d rented was at the epicenter of destruction.
She stared at the small cement house—mountain rising steeply behind, waterfall roaring thirty feet away—and told me, “Leah, you’re not to go near the waterfall unless we’re out here.” Across the valley, half a mountain had been amputated by heavy rains, trees washed down the slope, houses buried in mud. The waterfall’s constant splash was loud, but not loud enough to block the sound of controlled explosions set off to prevent further landslides. In the distance, chainsaws roared as soldiers cut fallen trees.
Each morning, I followed my parents up the mountain, a daily trek for gelato at the bar near the summit. Wooden crosses dotted the path along the road, some with small bouquets of plastic flowers. Outside the bar, we sat on the wall overlooking the valley and licked ice cream cones. Bees hovered above violet blossoms. The world smelled of sour, trapped water.
One morning, a week after we’d arrived in the mountains, my father’s cell phone rang, and he fumbled to open it. He’d only recently bought a cell phone, presumably to talk to his editor in New York while we were on vacation. He flipped open the phone, then closed it, shaking his head, telling us he’d been cut off.
“Who was it?” my mother asked.
She stared at him from behind dark glasses. “But she just called a half-hour ago.”
My father looked past us toward the road, a worried gaze, something different in his eyes, something that hadn’t been there before. “Wait here.” He told us he was going to the village church, where reception might be better above the trees.
He didn’t come back.