Beyond the tips of outstretched fingers, a beautiful ripe fig twisted in the breeze.
Andrea’s foot began to numb as he wedged it deeper between the trunk and the cliff. He had nothing lose; he told himself. There was no other time this could ever be done, therefore climbing back up empty handed was not an option.
‘Andrea! Just give up already!’
‘Everyone knows Lolo is the only one who can bring one up,’ a shower of gravel fell between the fig leaves and was lost to the water below. Andrea withdrew his foot and began to edge further down the trunk.
‘Andrea, come on, we have 5 minutes then it’s done.’ An excited chanting of his name began, but the shouts and laughter were lost to the sea breeze.
5 minutes was more or less exact however, and given the slow 600-year history of the tree, it seemed unfair that Andrea had just 5 minutes to grab his fig. But the reality was that in just under 10 minutes, the tree was being burnt out the side of the cliff.
Over the last hundred years or so, much time had been spent over the issue of the fig tree. It was widely acknowledged by the locals on the island of Sabranio that the figs from this particular tree were some of the sweetest, if not the sweetest in the world. However, few members of the community had ever tasted the figs and by and large as many still wanted to taste them. And moreover, the tree and its figs had become something of metonym for evil.
As with any good tradition, its roots lay in age-old misunderstandings of the world. The condemnation of the fruit was founded on two essential facts. 1) The inordinate number of youths throughout the centuries who have fallen to their death whilst climbing down to harvest the romanticised figs. 2) A small species of turtle who had turned their shells pink over the centuries by visiting the tree in the summer months and feasted on the fruit. The tree, and therefore its fruit, was found to be guilty of a double association with the malevolent: death, and devilishly coloured turtles.
Signor Conte appeared not to have read the words Private Meeting; No disturbances; Quiet please sellotaped to door as he entered the meeting room holding a pink turtle above his head.
‘End this nonsense!’ he said, rapping the shell until the room fell silent. ‘Do you see what you want to put an end to! 600 hundred years!’ persisted Conte, sliding a piece of cucumber under the turtle’s mouth.
He searched the room for the effect of his bold entrance. The patchy crowd seemed unaffected by the accusation, and the elderly gentleman leading the meeting sighed and re-centred his pencil.
‘Look Conte –’ began the man.
‘How many children do we have to lose to save these ridiculous turtles?’ started a lady from the side.
‘13 children in as many years! Countless over the centuries, all for those demonic terrapins,’ put in a man from beneath large heaped cotton shirt collars.
‘You know as well as any of us,’ said Conte ‘you can’t go ahead and burn out that tree.’
A chorus of old chairs squeaked violently in response, and the man’s head craned up out of his stiff shirt in disbelief. ‘We have no interest in the university or any of that claptrap,’ he snapped. ‘The turtles can live off anything! It’s eating cucumber right now.’ The meeting agreed with its impromptu orator with more squeaking of chairs and nodding. 'And what's more, it might put an end to their ungodly shells,' the nodding exploded into a round of yeses.
Signor Conte turned to the door, ‘Chiara Maio is here from a university on the mainland, she’s been studying the effect the figs have on the pigment of–’
‘Stuff your turtles’ shouted a straw hat from the front row.
‘She’s here to explain to you all the –’ A paper folder came flying straight for Conte.
‘We’ve heard your side Conte,’ said the elderly man, standing slowly and flapping his arms about for quiet. ‘You’ve had your say, but the vote speaks for itself.’
‘I’ve lodged a complaint with police on the mainland, they’ll be–’
‘Let it go,’ said the man raising his pencil with authority. ‘It’s as good as done… Anyone who wants to bear witness to the burning should follow Ciro and myself up the hill, all others, I thank you for your time…’
News of the mob’s approach preceded its elderly march up towards the fig tree. The gaggle of children scrambled as the group abandoned the idea of a tasting the figs, and Andrea.
‘Hey,’ shouted the Conte, grabbing an evacuee by the arm. ‘Where are you going? Have you been playing up by the tree?’ the child gave a horrified guilty shake of its head and slipped away.
From Conte’s position in the half circle around the edge of the cliff, a gnarled fig branch could be seen reaching out to sea.
‘Alas, it is a shame,’ began the elderly man, seizing the plastic can of oil from Ciro. ‘It’s a shame that maybe the very oldest tree on our bright little isle chose to grow not on the island but shooting out the side.’ To which there was a round of inaudible agreement. ‘But the greater shame is the many who have lost their lives in the dumb search for its fruit.’ At this Ciro began to sob. The elderly gentleman doffed his cap and began to soak the fig tree emptying the petrol out over the cliff edge.
‘I can’t let this happen,’ blurted Conte, grabbing Professor Maio by the arm, ‘we will stand in the way, you’ll have to burn us along with it,’ at which Professor Maio began to back away.
‘Look,’ she started.
‘Gladly,’ boomed the elderly man splashing the remains to the petrol can in their direction.
‘Ok, Tommaso, you’ve made your point,’ said Conte moving sheepishly back into line.
‘Anyone else!’ he said, withdrawing a flare from his jacket.
He raised the burning rod above his head with a surprising alacrity – savaging the cloudless sky with its smoke. ‘Anyone else!’
‘Stop,’ cried a child stumbling into the centre, ‘stop, we need to–’
‘Shut that child up,’ shouted Tommaso, and dropped the flare over the cliff edge.