Cumana

Below its acropolis, Monte di Cuma – an igneous blister on the western perimeter of the Phlegraean volcanological complex – is a trypophobe’s nightmare, riddled with pore-like cavelets interconnected into small, stratigraphically stacked systems within the hill (“quo lati ducunt aditus centum, ostia centum,” perhaps) that the Cumaeans, Greco-Romans, Paleochristian squatters, and Italophilic Germanic tribes all used and extended for their various re-purposes.

On Monday, the painter Eric Sweet and I scrambled about halfway up the mountain into a set of Nazi-renovated cave mouths that we and our high school friends used to drink in occasionally. They were full of poignant graffiti from people we knew as adolescents, some recently dead. Like entering a personal Chauvet, long after its use but before the deep future discovers it and wonders what all the huge carved penises were supposed to mean.

Inside those caves, we knew, there is one passage unlike the others: narrower, much higher-angle, with steps carved into the stone. My archaeologist kid sister remembers it being called the “Stairway to Heaven”. Kids.

Thirty-odd years after last using that stairway, I found it. It’s now mostly covered in chunks of ceiling and sidewall breakdown and unconsolidated, perilously slippery dirt, but it still zigs and zags until it reaches a small natural fissure at the bottom of a larger, fenced-off rock declivity within the oracular complex of the Cumaean Sibyl. It was broad daylight above and people might have been about, so I didn’t pop all the way out of the hole. I had, moreover, to hang onto cracks in the walls so as to not tumble backward down the steep slope. Hence, no great photos of that final view. But it was heart-thumping.

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