My dad had talked about him for years: Harold was a man who for the past fifty years has lived in Asolo, a hill town in the northern Italian province of Veneto. He inhabited an old house that had no electricity. No heat. No indoor plumbing. “He’s a great guy,” Dad would say. “You’ve got to meet him.”
“He’s a hermit,” I’d say. I had images of an old man with long, twisting fingernails and a tattered Rip-Van-Winkle beard.
“He makes his own wine,” Dad would counter. I added this to my mental picture. Rip Van Winkle with a funnel and an old cask, dribbling wine into rows of bottles.
“He’s a writer,” Dad added.
Okay, I’ll admit it. That part intrigued me.
So it was that Dad and I guided our rental car through the small village at the base of Monte Grappa. A light rain fell beneath a textureless grey sky when the GPS pointed us off the main road, up and up a steep grade into the hills. Above a tree-line mostly denuded of leaves hung Asolo’s iconic grey castle. The paved road gave way to a dirt track. I had the curious feeling that for every foot we ascended, we were traveling back another decade in time.
The house that emerged out of the woods was far grander than I’d imagined. Dad’s description of Harold’s simple life suggested a simple structure, but the two hundred year old house looked more like two houses pushed together, with an upper story veranda. Partially covered in vines, the stone edifice had seen better days. Part of the red tiled roof seemed to be falling in on itself and the wood around the windows looked grey and weathered. Yet it was utterly beautiful and charming, like something you’d find on a movie set.
We parked next to a small, ancient-looking vineyard. The first thing that struck me as we got out of the car was the utter silence. No sound but the gently falling rain. We spotted a man, presumably Herald, pacing on the second story terrace, fiddling a cell phone.
He disappeared into the shadows and emerged a few seconds later from one of the house’s front doors. In his mid-80s, his white hair trimmed short, he wore jeans, a brown sweatshirt, and a black jacket. “Hello,” he called out to my dad. Dad had written that we were coming on this day, but no time had been mentioned and had been no way to verify that Harold had received the letter. But wait, a cell phone?
Harold had something of the look of actor Ian Wolfe, with the same soft gentleness. There wasn’t a trace of Italian accent in his voice when he invited us in. His living room also made me think of a scene from a motion picture. You see movie sets with faded walls like Harold’s faded walls, but they aren’t real. They are faded for effect. Everything about the room–bookcases, antique table and chairs, books piled as if choreographed to be random and casual–was charmingly, artistically shabby. A blazing fireplace filled the room with heat and light, added to by the lamps on either side of the hearth. Electric lamps.
Harold invited us to sit in front of the fire, opened a bottle of his wine, and as we chatted, the tale of his life unfolded. Born in Chicago, he grew up in Wyoming. After a stint as a naval officer, he returned home to become a successful attorney. He was in his thirties, three years into a successful practice, when he decided that being a lawyer wasn’t for him. He’d been to Italy before with friends and now he decided that was the life he wanted, living alone, living simply; making wine; bicycling to town for food and supplies; befriending the local literati. Occasionally he traveled, but mostly he read books and wrote.
As I listened, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was living a story, that Harold was the wise mentor character that the protagonist visits for advice. Something he would say would be the key to how the story ends, the answer to the riddle, the means to defeating the villain.
The lesson in the end was Harold himself. Here was someone with a dream of getting away from the noise of civilization and making it happen, of spending time in the quiet woods in the shadow of a castle like something out of Middle Earth. This was the result of a path seldom taken, living the simple life, walking the woods, reading, and writing for the simple joy of putting pen to paper and creating.
Brian Mercer is the author of the supernatural YA novel, Aftersight (Astraea Press, 2013). He is also co-author with Robert Bruce of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-Day Guide to Out-of-body (Llewellyn, 2004) and The Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). A board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and senior editor at Author Magazine, he lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara, and their three cats. URL: www.brianmercerbooks.com