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Short Story: Reverie in La Pietà
Reverie in La Pietà
By Eleanor Fisher
Beneath the white April sky, shadows banded across la Fontana of Four Rivers, and along the many bodies turning through Piazza Navona. Gypsy ladies begged nearby, three blistered faces each traced by a headscarf colored in August in Egypt and in dusk. They each kept scooping their dark hands upward into the hot air beneath all the turned chins passing below the sun. Their eyes rolled so that the white corners bulged over and became white half circles. Sybil waited for Art to turn and look at her. She watched the gypsies stare after all the heads going away, all the heads gesturing no. His body sat so close beside hers, and dark hands were falling down.
Sybil pressed down into the panino that she held between her fingertips, so that olive oil and arugula pieces slid out from its crust. A string of Hare Krishna worshipers, each draped in pale orange fabrics, turned together in circles within the far perimeter of the piazza. Green olive oil dripped down Sybil’s fingers. All along that far perimeter the circles chanted together Ha-are Krishna-a Ha-are-e Krishna Hare Hare. Rapping on their tambourines with white knuckles. Two green drops landed on her black skirt and she let them seep into the fabric.
Not far from Sybil and Art and the marble bench underneath them, there posed an older lady in a tall yellow suit with a wide-brimmed yellow hat. Like a worn out vision taken off a 1960s Vogue Italia cover. Not like some chimera, or one of those visions one gets from a new face. Whereby remembering a time or person from before, in sudden pieces. Sybil would not have thought to say that the lady even seemed Italian. She only seemed part of the scene by being the yellow of it. Under the sun, her skin appeared tanner than that Crayola crayon named burnt sienna. Sybil had to think how the lady standing there wasn’t a yellow lady. She just wore yellow.
Sybil watched the lady kneading into the joints of her left hand with the thumb of her right one. Ten copper-lacquered fingernails of which looked as if they melted from the tips of her fingers. She wanted the lady in yellow to turn, for their gazes to meet. Wanted to see when those eyes might notice Art sitting there beside her. Because he sat so close to Sybil. Maybe to assume that he was in love with her because of their proximity. Like a Rome-in-love. Eating sandwiches and sitting together in una piazza.
Art sat there on the edge of the bench and his torso was curved forward, with one leg wrapped over his other knee. His own quiet arrangement like in statuary. Ossi di seppia, a book of poetry by Eugenio Montale, faced down across his thigh. Cuttlefish Bones. His left hand clutching an olive and goat cheese panino wrapped inside parchment paper as he thumbed through the P-section of his pocket dictionary with the other.
-Alright, here go. we
Pozzanghere means puddles. Poh-tzhan-gher-ey.
-Poh-sen-ghee-ree, Sybil replied.
Art bit into his panino and took in a big breath through his nostrils. -Good bread, no? he said tor her.
He turned toward Sybil and she could smell the olive tapenade on his lips.
-It is. What does the word farfalla
I like that one.
She brushed her hands together so that white flour fell away from her fingers into the hot air.
-Furh-fahl-la. It’s either butterfly or mushroom, Art answered.
sounds like different words
for food, she said.
Sybil noticed the point of a long shadow settling onto the penny loafers of quella signora that lady in yellow. It reached out from the Egyptian obelisk that towered above the Fountain dei Quattro Fiumi. The fountain had stone portraits of four rivers. Carved the Danube. Carved the Nile. Carved the Rio de la Plata. Carved the Ganges. The shadow stretched over the cobblestones like a dark wing holding air. The point of it landed just across those two penny loafers under all the yellow fabrics covering the signora. There, the shadow appeared to Sybil like a fleur-de-lis shaped softly on the ground. With both arthritic hands folded together behind her, that lady in yellow watched one of the sidewalk artists of the piazza sketching a portrait. She watched from beneath her wide- brimmed hat as the artist drew lines together with his graphite pencil and made eyes on his paper. The eyes seemed to perhaps belong to a version of Paul Newman or some other Pope John Paul II.
Art lit a Gauloise cigarette and it flickered orange and it flickered white.
-What d’you think, Day ? he asked her.
Sybil smiled softly every time he called her Day.
She glanced over both shoulders then ran her hands down against the pleats of her black skirt, patted her knees. And asked,
-Now I want to know, Art.
I want to know, have you ever loved me?
-There’s something I’ve always loved about you.
She swiveled the silver band of her dead aunt’s ring back and forth around her index finger. Turning its amethyst stone in the sunshine. It was a heavy ring and good for her pointer finger. She did not want to stop watching the white streaks that snuck sun across its heliotrope surface.
-It’s not me though. Does that something make you feel good? she asked him.
A blast of violet smoke let out of his nostrils.
-What are you wanting me to say? he asked.
You know, I do feel good here. Guess I’m happy. Or just different.
Art popped the butt of his Gauloise away with his fingers and it skidded over the cobblestones.
-And it seems like you want something so certain, he continued,
I’ve always thought it’s been too much for me to ever
really see what that is for you. To hard to follow. But I understand why you ask for it. And that’s maybe why you want it from me.
-You can stop.
She thought how the white from the sky, turning across her ring, seemed to be both captured inside and melting away from the amethyst.
-But not from me, Day.
-You say you feel happy here? she asked.
He stretched his legs out over the cobblestones. His tan leather shoes looked like wet wax in the sun.
-Every morning I wake up and it smells like butter and jasmine or something...
A row of pigeons lifted their wings all at once, departing from their roost along a lower border of the Egyptian obelisk. Streak of white. A boy lifted his small fingers out from the water of la fontana and pointed up to the synchrony of their departure.
-And cooked meat too, somehow.
And the Neri couple downstairs
will shout at each other
almost every morning about anything. Yesterday it was their slow internet. Maybe the family tomorrow.
You’ll hear. I’ll listen to Graziella go,
Che cazzo! Vi-val-do!
They’re nuts, Day, but they’re wonderful. I’m glad you came and that you get to see this
for a while like I am.
She watched the gypsy with an August headscarf tied beneath her chin approaching our lady in yellow who still stood close to that artist who still sketched the Pope. That portrait was for her. The mouth and brow between his pencil and paper no longer resembled Paul Newman. Sybil watched as the gypsy scooped her dark hands up and swept her dark skirts below our lady, whose arthritic hands and Crayola face waved no! Eyes widening for an instant, becoming panic, to roll sideways into white half circles.
Sybil’s eyelids fluttered for an instant. The scene before her fluttered. She also would have responded with no. She saw the dark skirts, the artist and paper, the cigarette smoke, the sun igniting itself on white fire. It all fluttered between her eyelids. Pulled her taut, and bewildered her by the look of it. She felt the tautness of the white lines extending from the sun that appeared to cut into the surface of her amethyst. How vivid, how deranged that lady in yellow seemed from the white shapes within her eyes, clashing against the yellows that covered her. She seemed like one muse for some idea of forsaken beauty. A movement captured between Sybil’s fluttering or flashing eyelids. Art asked,
-D’you remember back home about six months ago when we saw The Horse Whisperer together
and I told you how I’d decided to come here and live? -Wasn’t it Pleasantville? she said.
-I thought The Horse Whisperer. Yes. Well,
I remember you said that you guessed it was exciting for me
because I was going to be able to see all the real deals.
Bernini and Michelangelo, all of them and their sculptures. The real deals, you said.
-And finally now after yesterday we’ve seen Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican. You’ve seen the Pietà.
I couldn’t believe you, y’know. That
-Day, can you remember what
you thought about yesterday when we were in
the basilica looking at that? he asked.
Sybil watched his hands resting motionless on each other. Like closed eyelids. Of course she wanted to grab onto them.
-Why? What were you thinking about? she answered instead.
-I couldn’t stop wondering if Mary had déjà vu when she held Jesus’ body. If she
pictured herself holding her tiny baby again like in all those paintings.
But he was dead in this one.
And maybe she knew
gesture was the first and last one for them.
-You were looking at something made out of marble. Art gazed down at his hands. He said,
-A part of me thought then and somehow still thinks
it looked like the kind of love
Day’s wanted all along. She pictured the scene from yesterday.
The pose of the Pietà, or something like a family portrait, with Mother Mary cradling the limp body of Jesus across her lap. Just after their story about nails through his hands. Michelangelo sculpted the two bodies from a big piece of the white stone he found one day on la Montagna Pietrasanta in Tuscany. Mother and Son have been resting with each other, the two carved into each other for a long time just as the artist first saw them. Dark yellow, dark green and dark brown-marbled walls towering behind them. Held by stone by stone by stone, making a church about them.
Crowds of people from everywhere pressed in to look at the family portrait. White light reached up from the floor and beamed off the walls. It streaked along the figures in the Pietà and over faces from everywhere. Disfigured the look of it all. The crowds turned away and wondered, Come potrebbe essere così bella? How could it be so beautiful? The people seemed like some waves washing at the cliffs. To then turn back into the rushing and glistening within water. Sybil said to Art,
-Maybe Mary thought it was a dream and that the day could leave her. I saw how some people hardly looked at it.
And I saw some people didn’t know how to look at it, like me.
They took a picture and kept going. Going, What do I see?
Our lady in yellow had stepped out from the fleur-de-lis shadow softly traced along her feet and sat next to Sybil on the bench. Sybil had to glance at the face and examine its Crayola expression. It looked like a marvelous face. The old lady peeled away every piece of tape from the brown paper that encased her Pope portrait. The sidewalk artist had hastened to finish his drawing for questa donnetta and stood now beside his easel, a cigarette slack on his lips. Violet smoke flared from his nose in slow and hot circles into the air.
The lady in yellow turned to Sybil. She smiled and said,
Papa Giovanni Paolo,
il viso mi
ha ricordato mio padre.
Sybil looked to Art and asked him, -What did she say to me?
of her father. reminded her
it the more
watched the drawing she
that the more said
she -I think
-Tell her I can see the resemblance, Sybil told him. Art leaned forward and said in Italian,
-We see the r e s e m b l a n c e. Vediamo
r a s s o m i g l i a n z a.
-Grazie mille, the lady smiled toward them.
She gazed down onto her lap at the flat face that stared past her up to the sky. Art turned over Ossi di seppia and added more scribbles on the margins of one of its first pages.
-Listen to how these lines would go in English,
There are silences in which one watches in every fading human shadow something divine let go.
-Then what happens? Sybil asked.
She swallowed and it tasted like a thick penny dripping copper down her tongue.
-Then they go to
The Lemon Trees, he said.
-The lemon trees.
-That’s the name of the poem. Day, your gums are bleeding. -I know.
Days later, Sybil sat beside the window in carriage number nine waiting for the Frecciarossa train line to depart Rome for the Santa Maria Novella station in Florence. The density of her leather tote bag drooped across her thighs. Ten minutes earlier on the platform she and Art had stood outside a tabaccheria sharing a packet of hazelnuts. He had been talking to Sybil for several minutes about his efforts to find some new job like teaching maybe. No more time at another souvenir shop where the tourists hounded him about postage stamps and Lamborghini magnets. Other doodads. Working at that job had seemed sadder every time he noticed a white patch from the fluorescence overhead reflecting across the plastic countertop. He would place his hand on the patch and stare at his skin and the red plastic. He told Sybil that he didn’t want to think about doodads, then they said goodbye to each other.
On the train, the sun slanted through the window glass. It fell across her face and into her eyes and onto the amethyst, which drooped around her finger. Her body seemed ignited by the brightness. She parted her lips so that she could taste the sun. Sybil swallowed the light and it must have washed down her tongue. Doodads, she thought, what a pity what a waste.
As the train began pulling away, she gazed through the glass onto the platform. The people there appeared to be silent and motionless, or going backwards. Mother Mary must have seen the reality all around her as it happened. The people must have been moving, though they would not be riding with her to Florence this time. Their eyes swerved to white half circles as all their chins turned, watching another train leave another station. The idea of their synchrony. Sybil watched her train wash a continuous shadow over the bodies. Flecks of white. From her window seat, she could not have conceived their rushing.
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