Women in Sunlight
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Frances Mayes
BY CHANCE, I WITNESSED THE arrival of the three American women. I’d been reading in my garden for a couple of hours, taking a few notes and making black dots in the margins, a way to locate interesting sentences later without defacing the book. Around four thirty on these early darkening days, some impulse toward dinner quickens, and I began to consider the veal chops in the fridge and to think of cutting a bunch of the chard still rampaging through the orto. Chard with raisins, garlic, and orange peel. Thyme and parsley for the tiny potatoes Colin dug at the end of summer. Since the nights were turning chilly, I put down my book, grabbed the wood-carrier from the house, and walked out to the shed to fetch olive tree prunings for the fireplace grill.
Yet another escape. I am putting off writing about Margaret, my difficult and rigorous friend, whose writing I admired. Oh, still admire, but this project feels more like trying to strike mildewed matches—I keep rereading instead of writing. I’ve read her Stairs to Palazzo del Drago a dozen times.
A book can be a portal. Each one I’ve written firmly sealed off one nautiline chamber (Is nautiline a word? Meaning pertaining to a nautilus?), and then opened into the next habitable space. Always before, my subjects chose me. I’m the happy follower of fleeting images that race ahead, sometimes just out of sight, of lines that U-turn and break like the downside of heartbeats. Isn’t boustrophedon the ongoing form of writing that mimics the turns an ox makes when plowing a field?
At times, writing conflagrates, a vacant-lot fire started by bad boys. That’s when I’m elated. But this time, I chose my friend as the subject. I feel as I did in college, slugging out a research paper on “The Concept of Time in T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.” I enjoyed the work but immediately felt humiliated by my limits.
I’m easily distractible. Those shriveled apples on the third terrace, still golden and dangling as brightly as in the myth of the three graces, lure me to make a galette. Fitzy has burrs in his silky hair and needs brushing. My own hair has turned unruly. I would like to have a few friends over for polenta with mushrooms and sausage, now that the funghi porcini are sprouting under every oak tree. My mind surfs over endless diversions.
When you’re propelled by a sense of duty, you’re easy to derail.
As I picked dried branches from the woodpile, I looked down from the upper olive terrace as Gianni, the local driver, turned sharply into the long drive of the Malpiedi place across the road, his white van crackling over dry stubble. Malpiedi—Bad Feet. I’ve always loved the Italian names that remind me of ones my friends and I adopted when we played Wild Indians in the vacant lot by my family’s house in Coral Gables. Wandering Bear, Deer Heart, Straight Arrow. One friend chose Flushing Toilet. But here it’s Bucaletto, Hole in the Bed; Zappini, Little Hoe; Tagliaferro, Iron Cutter; and stranger, Taglialagamba, He Cuts the Leg—maybe a butcher specializing in leg of lamb? Cipollini, Little Onion; Tagliasopra, Cut Above; Bellocchio, Beautiful Eye—how alive those names are.
Early in my years in Italy, fascinated by every syllable, I used to collect them. In hotels when there were telephone books, I’d read the names at night for the pleasure of coming upon Caminomerde, Chimney Shit—there’s a story there—and Pippisecca, Dry Pipe (or Penis); and Pescecane, Dog Fish. The sublime Botticelli? Little Barrel.
The Bad Feet were gone now. I attended the wake for Luisa, the wife, who had an erotically decorated cake at her last birthday—figures like those feasting frescoes from Pompeii in the Naples museum, where the phallus is so large it’s carried forth on a tray. Passing by their table in the restaurant where she was celebrating with friends, I was shocked to look down at the garish pink and green cake everyone was laughing over. After that, I was embarrassed when I saw plump, stoop-shouldered, rabbit-eyed Tito, her husband. She died of diverticulitis, some sudden rupture I couldn’t help but think was caused by too much cake, and Tito followed all too shortly. He did choke, but on pork arista, with no one around to perform the Heimlich. I try not to imagine his rheumy eyes popping out of their sockets. The daughter, Grazia, who snorts then brays when she laughs, painted some rooms, put in a dishwasher, and listed the house for lease before she went to live with her failing aunt in town. (I later learned that the rental terms included an option to buy after one year.) Grazia was not coming back to rattle around in the big stone house that was cool in the summer and cool in the winter. I missed them as neighbors. I even missed the years of Grazia’s squealing violin practice, Luisa’s piano, and Tito’s sax. Hours of sour notes wafting up the hill. We’d lived parallel lives on the same slope for eleven years, and then within six months the house stood empty, with the kitchen shutter banging in the night when the tramontana blew in from the Alps.
I’ve always loved their house—its big square self, rooted firmly on a long flat spur of our terraced hillside, and the great portone with sphinx-face doorknockers popular from the time Italy was ransacking Egypt. Over the door, the fanlight’s fanciful iron curls, twisted around the letter S, the initial, I suppose, of the person who built such a solid structure three hundred years ago. If you cut away the jasmine vines, you’d see VIRET IN AETERNUM, It Flourishes Forever. A prideful motto. The house’s name—Villa Assunta. Perhaps it was finished around the holiday Ferragosto, when the Virgin Mary assumed into heaven. Six big square rooms up, six down. Afterthought bathrooms but okay.
I would sometimes take Tito and Luisa a basket of plums when my trees were dripping with them. As their door swung open, a splash of light pooled on the waxed bricks. At the end of the hall I saw the great large-paned window full of splayed green linden leaves, and in winter angular black limbs like a dashed-off charcoal sketch.
DOWN IN THE OLIVE GROVE, I saw Gianni’s van weave in and out of sight. Through silvery trees, glimpses of white, scree of trees, flash of white. He descended the rough drive, pulling into the weedy parking spot beside the house, where Luisa often used to leave her blue Fiat Cinquecento ragtop open to the rain. I always wanted to use that image in a poem but it never fit.
Three women got out, hardly the three graces as they dragged carry-on bags and clumsy backpacks and totes. Gianni hauled out four mastodon-sized suitcases and struggled each one to the door. I couldn’t hear the women, who appeared to be exclaiming and laughing. I supposed they were here for an autumn vacation. There’s a certain kind of traveler who shuns the hectic summer months and arrives for the season of more solitude. I hoped they would not be noisy; sound travels in the hills. If their husbands are arriving and boozy dinners ensue, there could be chaos. Who are they? Not young. I could see that.
My own arrival here, Dio—twelve years ago, seems as vivid as yesterday. I stepped out of the car, looked up at the abandoned stone farmhouse, and I knew, what did I know? This is it. This is where I invent the future.
Could they be thinking the same? And Margaret, too, my subject, my lost friend, once arrived long, long before me at her golden stone house below the tower of Il Palazzone (big palazzo indeed), not knowing what life she might find. What she did find immediately was a huge, squealing pig left shut in the lower level by the farmers/former owners (peasants, she called them) as a gift.
Margaret was a firm exile, not like me, a come-and-go one, and in her embroidered slippers and Venetian black devoré velvet coat, nothing like these latest arrivals in magenta, orange, saffron puffy down jackets and boots.
The one in the electric magenta hoists a dog carrier out of the van’s rear door. She kneels and releases a small toffee-colored yapper that starts up right away running in circles around all of them, almost lifting off the ground with joy. So, I guessed, since they’ve brought a dog, they’re not here for a brief holiday.
Gathering more fire starter, I fell into sort of a reverie. Their gestures and movements below me seemed suddenly distant, a static tableau. Some latter-day illustration for a medieval book of
hours: under a dapple-gray sky, the stalwart house catching late rays, stones gleaming as if covered with snail tracks; the windows’ mottled glass bouncing back the sunlight as mirror. Between Villa Assunta and me, elongated shadows of cypress trees stripe the village road. As if behind veils (for the afternoon light here turns to a pale, honeyed transparency), the slow-motion
women walk toward the door, where Gianni fumbles with the iron key that used to hang by a tattered orange ribbon on a hook inside the door. I knew they’d soon inhale the old-book smell of the closed house. They’d step in and see that hall window back-blazed with golden linden leaves, possibly would stop to take in a breath. Oh, so that’s where we are. Why did tears sting my eyes?
Oh, Luisa, you never did get that craggy mole taken off your chin, never even plucked the coarse spike of hair that I weirdly had the impulse to touch. Too late; you are gone (what, a year?), and Tito, too, with his huge phallus or not, his meek smile, and now almost totally erased are the many seasons in the great old cucina with a fireplace big enough to pull up a chair, pour a smidgen of vin santo, and tell stories of the war, when many local men walked home barefoot from Russia. That flaky Grazia could have had the yard cleared up a bit. All gone. Gone with the Wind, the book I devoured in my early teens. Still a great title. (Margaret also via col vento.) What a sharp writer, la Margherita. What glinting eyes. I used to study her clean, clipped prose style. I like to use and because for me everything connects. She never used and because for her, nothing connected. In writing, you can’t hide who you are.
Over the years her work simply evaporated from public view, even Sun Raining on Blue Flowers, which had impressive critical attention and despite that still managed to appear on best-seller lists. Most of my writer friends never have heard of her. I feel compelled to reawaken interest in her few books, not that I have the power to secure her a place in the canon, if the canon even still exists.
ARRIVALS. ALL POTENTIAL. I REMEMBER mine, the black iron key the real estate agent Pescecane (yes, Dogfish) handed over after I signed the last paper, me walking through the empty rooms—counting them: eleven, most of them small. Four below once housed farm animals and still had enormous, smooth stone floors and a rime of fluffy white mold from uric acid. Upstairs the ceilings soared because there had been attics (long since collapsed) for grain and chestnut storage. I’d forgotten the dank cantina tacked onto the long kitchen and dining room wing. I remember the creak of the latch, then pushing open the shutters, the view pouring in like grace received. Casa Fonte delle Foglie, fountain of leaves. Maybe that’s why I fell for it, that poetic name scrawled on the oldest local maps. Apt for my leafy plot of olive, linden, ilex, and pine layered around a curve of hillside. I’d only seen the inside once and didn’t even remember the two upstairs fireplaces, or the sagging beam in the kitchen. Not mouse skeletons in the pantry. My house from the outset seemed mine. I literally rolled up my sleeves and set to work.
What the three women are seeing now—will it imprint forever, or will it slowly fade once the vacation ends? Like that house I rented one July in the Mugello north of Florence—the vintage fridge formed such an igloo that the door wouldn’t close. If you touched the handle you got an icy shock. I can’t picture the bedrooms at all, but I remember decades-old Christmas cards and
christening invitations in the sideboard drawer. Memory has shut the doors all the way down a long hall. Only one stands open at the end, an empty white room with white pigeon dung in a line on the floor under a rafter. Who snatches up their roots and roosts in a foreign country where they have no people? I did. Margaret—well, she was born to roam. “Now you can never go home,” she used to threaten.
But you can go home; it’s not drastic, that is until you’re not sure where home is. How many hopefuls have I seen arrive and begin life here only to wake up one day—after the restoration, after the Italian class (I thought Italian was supposed to be easy), after the well gone dry, after the boozy lunch-after-lunch with others who speak little Italian, after stone-cold winter—and
think, What in hell am I doing here?
Even so, powerful propulsions drive us. Drove Margaret, drove me. In the Florence train station, arrival signs flash right next to the enticing departures. Treni in arrivi, treni in partenze, one suggesting the other. (I still want to board every one.) Margaret abandoned her Casa Gelsomino, Jasmine House. Long her destiny, then not. Two summers she returned, staying with us. By that time, she was critical of Italy, and one night when her patience snapped she said to me, “You’re like a child. Naïf. Perpetually astonished.” I said nothing. She’d ripped into me once before.
Colin chided her. “Oh, Margaret, you know that’s bullshit. Kit sees all.” And he poured her a shot of grappa to end the evening.
“Italy’s an old country. That, at least, you know. Babies are born old here. That you don’t know.” She threw back the grappa in a gulp, looked wide-eyed for a moment, and said, “Buona notte.”
And these three, just choosing their bedrooms and flinging their luggage on the bed, just noticing that these Tuscan manses have no closets, just a cavernous, creaky armadio in each room. What
brings them to Luisa’s stern villa? Is the end of their story already embedded in the beginning? Eliot’s in the beginning is my end exasperated me as a college junior. How dreary, I thought then, but now, I do wonder, when and how will my time here come to an end? Fate, too propitious a word—but what red thread connects an unforeseeable end to the day I arrived in a white sundress, opened the door, threw up my arms, twirled around—to the surprise of the agent—and shouted, I’m home.
WALKING TO THE HOUSE, BASKET of sticks in hand, last rays of sun exploding in molten splotches on the lakes out in the valley, an armful of chard, sprigs of thyme and rosemary in my pocket, Colin waving from the front door, Fitzy springing after a copper leaf spiraling toward the grass, Stairs to Palazzo del Drago left on a lawn chair, Gianni beeping, mouthing buona sera, signora as his van freed of passengers speeds by, a little music—Lucio Dalla?—drifting from my house, there, like that, the subject chose me.