Chris and I were hiking in the alps above Lago di Como, on the border between Switzerland and Italy when we encountered a man on the trail. He was small and wiry, with a dark, deeply lined face and curly dark hair shot through with silver at the temples. His blue work shirt was rumpled and thin. He wore a cotton scarf around his muscular neck.
When he saw us, he held up his hand. We stopped to see what he needed. He said nothing, but leaned against a stone jutting from the mountainside on the shaded narrow path. He reached into his knapsack and removed a small package wrapped in newspaper. He bid us to join him with gestures and a broad, rugged smile. I looked at Chris, noting his banker’s glasses, smooth skin, and clean and shiny gear.
The man took a loaf of bread from the pack between his knees and tore off three large hunks, which he then proceeded to rip open, one after the other. He peeled back the newspaper revealing a ball of damp mozzarella and pulled a knife from his back pocket.
He sliced the mozzarella into three thick pieces. Then he took a bulging red tomato from the pack and cut it into three pieces. He placed the pieces on the bread cut side down and then pressed and rubbed each of them into the bread. Pink juice and seeds spilled into the soft, white center. The tomato skin rolled into little red logs. He worked with a quiet intensity.
Once the bread was soppy with tomato juice, he laid the mozzarella slices atop and sprinkled the entire offering with grainy salt he took between thumb and forefinger from another small newspaper packet.
He gave me one of the pieces. His eyes were flecked dark green and brown, like autumn leaves. His deeply tanned face was wreathed in a smile. His strong jawline was sprinkled with short wiry white hairs. I received the offering. I bit into the bread. Juice ran down my chin. I closed my eyes.
Chris laughed nervously, but accepted the proffered meal. He looked over the summit, glanced at his watch.
The man sank into the mountain. He seemed to be one with the mountain. I leaned into his shadow and ate my bread contentedly. I avoided Chris’s gaze.
“Okay, thank you!” Chris said, as he finished the bread and stood up.
I hesitated. I wanted to stay. In fact, I wanted to stay forever. Chris’s shiny silver watch glinted at his wrist. The mountain man smiled at me. His teeth were stained. His gaze was warm. He touched the top of my head briefly, stood up, and melted into the mountain.
On the way down, Chris spoke of banking.