The postcard, a photoprint is in sepia tones and yellowing with age. Still, it is clear, you can see that – and looking beyond there is a splendid view of the Duomo and the Campanile; as you might expect, there is also a middle-distance view of the Baptistry.
When you look again – it is of course the figure standing in the foreground, in front of the South Door, who appears so remarkable: a young woman in a white dress with her arms raised in front of her. You imagine she has just then walked into the picture, and she is turning to say something, to her right, gesturing with her arms.
What is so extraordinary is that the very moment the picture has been taken, the shutter opening, there is a flock of birds, their wings beating the air for a nesting place in the uppermost part of her body, entirely obscuring her face.
At that moment – the photoprint and my friend’s words coming together remind me what I had perhaps too conveniently set aside recently: that his girlfriend and once mine has been falling out of the world into herself for some time now.
From that city of light and dark, he writes that sometimes we fall into ourselves so completely that we can hear only the sound of ourselves thinking. A single sound.
Or is it the other way around?
She snaps her fingers in irritation, the girl, Marianina.
He is shaken by it, and he feels it. He is convinced, and it doesn’t take long, that she is trying to climb into heaven on her own, which is not good for her.
But what can he do?
Can you imagine, he asks, not hearing a sane sound for years uttered by anyone but yourself?
She is surrendering to certain signs so easily that what was once remarkable is becoming the stuff of commonplace – once you could glance up at the weathercock turning in the air, or the delicate print of trees against the sky and be touched by the wonder of it. Now – there are
And the only words he hears himself saying return to him, their wings clipped.
The only measure, he insists, is to hear what you see before you’ve actually seen it. Then of course the seeing is a distinct possibility.
Don’t you agree?
As you can see, my friend is a talker. He is also something of a philosopher by habit.
Of course he is worried.
Would you not be worried, or even fearful when he makes it clear that his girlfriend is obsessed with interior decorating?
She keeps decorating the flat, right here in the middle of the city, in what she says are post-holocaust images.
I know that her mother was once a smalltown movie star, and her father in vaudeville, and there was an uncle in arts and crafts.
But – it cannot be altogether that.
Consider when they first settled in the city.
What was once to us a comfort is no longer: when you look out, when you look in, those domestic signs that were so consoling: women ironing frocks and gowns in lighted windows open to the river breezes; some small and sinewy gentlemen leaning into their mirrors, carefully waxing their moustaches for an evening on the town; and at almost any hour you can hear automobiles turning corners, people on their way to dinner or racing to a weekend in the country.
Now – there are certain darkening details; you see, it is altogether different.
She stays home all day every day late into the night talking about the fatality in her mind; pasting up those terrible pictures, one after the other, in all the rooms of the flat – even on the doorframes, the mirror borders, yesterday the ceilings, the day before the bare spaces on the floors, carpets and rugs rolled neatly into the corners.
Until, if you can imagine it, all the spaces in the flat have been bandaged against what she insists has been a year of terrors, and where do you suppose God has got to in such a crazy hurry?
There are so many of them that at first it is quite bewildering. You have to look carefully from room to room, and suddenly you realise that they are actual photographs torn from magazines, newspapers, and books . . .
There are pictures of bodies with open wounds, bright edged gashes, bodies mangled and blasted apart without limbs without heads, bodies sometimes liquefied to a pulpy mass.
There is even the charred after-image of a running child pressed into the pavement. It could be a fossil-fact.
Soon, you begin to believe, don’t you, that there may be no bodies at all – rather, a whirlwind of torn pages, and printed light.
And sometimes there is writing. On one page scrawled in greasy red crayon inside the hook marks of someone speaking: Did you think the light could print all our desires? Even if light is the healer’s true God?
To which of course I have no reply.
But, it is true that I have given her flowers freshly cut, circus animals in rainbow-coloured tights from the stalls by the river, once even a singing bird happy in its cage.
I pleaded with her for a weekend in the country. On any windy day we could pitch a kite into the air, silk and paper, and let it fly. One way, wouldn’t it be, to feel the wind shiver in the palms of your hands? And other wind instruments. One way to say something about love – an afternoon of intimate photographs in the countryside, the brushwork of trees and tall grasses, the smell of stones in the sun. But, no.
She refused straightaway, you see. She asks do I realise, after all, that the gates to the future are being closed, if you think about it.
What’s more, she is convinced that on her daughter’s wedding night when a pillow falls it will break her ribs if not her heart. And no occasion for dancing, is it? A delicate matter.
All the while she is bandaging the flat against some shadow in her heart.
After a while, I began to inspect the flat each day to see where she had got to; I suppose to be of some use after all.
It was then I discovered the glue: small, hard ice-piles of congealed glue scattered everywhere – as if some fantastic snowbeast had invaded the flat, dropping one confection after another of glueturds.
I think that I began to understand more than what I was seeing. There is a furious energy in what she is doing. I feel it now. She is emptying herself, can you imagine turning a body inside out?
Lately, she insists on telling me her dreams; a rare privilege and I listen patiently to her.
She begins by picking over one fragment then another; sorting through beginnings and endings, how admirably she is able to elaborate on middle passages, not at all hesitant about a puzzle of parts.
She tells them well. I hear: that she wants to be restoryed. Sometimes there are even snatches of songs, filling the gaps with anecdotes to prolong my attention, or provoke my open admiration. Once she danced the dream of just waking up, ending with the words: What do you do when you have just finished putting your head into heaven?
Gradually, we are beginning to turn the corner.
Only yesterday she began the day by inspecting the heels of a new pair of shoes I had bought from a shop on my way home the night before. You could smell the new, uncreased leather even through the shoebox lid.
Stiffening – she held them out at arm’s length, the soles turned upward; points of light bouncing of the finely polished leather. And she showed me what I had never noticed before: the imprint of a lot number, 666. It may even have been the signature of a shopworker.
Suddenly – I was afraid that she might fall violently to the floor. She rolled her eyes back into her head, grinding her teeth, I could hear her just then gasping for air, repeating over and over, just what you might expect, just what you might expect, after all, just what you might expect . . .
And then, she just as suddenly fell into a deep sleep; she slept soundly for some time her head cradled in her arms on the table.
Finally, this morning she declared that after all she was determined to carry out a raid against the unspeakable, even if there is no turning back, and amen.
She spoke quite clearly, even calmly, almost I thought cheerfully, reading from a torn patch of notepaper held in the palm of her hand.
You will understand how much I was relieved. You can see there is simply no room left in the flat that hasn’t been bandaged in newsprint.
Then she asked me would I care to step up to the window?
I could hear it at once – humming out there on the streets.
It seemed constant and everywhere in the air, and not unpleasant.
She held my arm lightly at the elbow guiding my sight. Looking out as I did just above the great dome, I could see: a large, smoke-coloured ball.
Imagine my surprise, when I began to notice how the globe was turning on its axis, growing larger and larger as it continued falling slowly into the city.
At that moment, despite the darkening of the sky as the sun began to slide away, I saw for the very first time on the face of the turning globe, the milky contours of what looked like all the continents of the earth.
And I saw, but only for a fleeting moment, still clearly I saw the figure of Marianina above the smoke-coloured globe.
She was levitating in a shock of blue light.
From Giotto’s Elephant (John McIndoe, 1991)
© Michael Harlow