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By Jessica Reidy
Florence caught our steps with smooth stone streets and the sound scattered through the alley. The walls with chipping sunflower paint tossed our noises back to us like lucky clattering coins. Len and I had been travelling for only a few days, and we had already managed to forget our route. We made our way under dark blue scaffolding and I clicked my tall boots beside his steel-toed shuffle. The sun was chariot-bright but the air was painted with the dry note of winter—my green hands reddened. Occasionally I glanced and smiled back at Len, absorbing the day building itself up from morning.
We lingered in front of a Russian train-set enthusiast shop, its door gaping open-mouthed. The shop was filled with men in hats and thick woollen coats, turning over trains in their thick wintered hands. Len, the enthusiasts, and I all turned at the sound of a bicycle, chiming a wild proclamation, untranslated to the street. A bicycle with wheels wheel as thick as a milk snake rolled around the corner, through a brown arch between artfully decaying buildings. The cyclist issued an explosion of poetry--his mouth stretched wide under his dark, greasy eyes, whitened with excitement. He had a hurried, bombastic breath, rising and plummeting, clanging along with his bicycle bell beside a wicker basket. A feral cackle, and his gray lumpy coat fluttered behind him as he passed.
Len’s steel toe stepped forward onto my plastic heel and ripped the bottom off. My pen exploded in his pocket. Ink spread like a wound over his heart. He stared at my heel on January’s pavement; his eyes watered. The capped Russians slid out of the open door uniformly, bemused and holding their trains.
“Jessica, I think that man was reciting Dante,” Len said, his eyes shifting from blue to green as they tend to do when he thinks abstractly. His hand looked as though he had been petting cuttle-fish, and he took out a tissue and began diligently cleaning.
“I think you’re right,” I said. Literature had appeared in strange ways already. We had good reason to believe that Percy Shelley was guiding us through Tuscany. In Pisa, we took a picture of a plaque dedicated to Shelley and a cherubic face appeared in an orb, and since then our travels had become a kind of playful hunt with verses for clues. We followed the myths, the poems, and we read the book of alchemy. The art and stories and the black egg and sublimation drew a map. A nearby café made chocolate keys—we ate them on the Arno! We wove figure eights over the city, lost ourselves in parks and stood before strange gardens and churches, all bearing another symbol, another line of poetry. I couldn’t help feeling apprehensive about what Dante would bring to the mix.
The Russians with trains returned to their business. I picked up my heel and slid it into my triangle purse.
“Should we follow him?” he asked.
I considered long enough; it was time to answer.
“No,” I said, staring through the arch. The cyclist’s recitation still reverberated. “He’s too long gone. But I think that we should do something today.”
Other plans were made for us. We were inundated by Hell all morning as we drifted though the Basilica. Hell sat on a wall and pouted on our right. Hell shot us bitter looks from the corners of Paradise. The frescoes kept our bodies suspended between the two, just hanging between death and her daughter.
Jessica Reidy's work has appeared in several journals including The Los Angeles Review, Arsenic Lobster, Frogpond, Moloch, and Ribbons. She is the 2008 winner of the Nancy Thorp Poetry Prize. She has given readings in Ireland in both Cork and Dublin, including the SoundEye Cork International Poetry Festival in 2009 and 2010, and in 2012 at The Warehouse in Tallahassee, Florida.