The following excerpt is from an in-progress work tentatively called An Oneiric Education, a novel and/or novella that blends together elements of a murder mystery, the erotic, and the identity quest.
[…] We have discovered an old well. It is on an ancient side street in Catamaran di Chianti in Tuscany. There are three levels to the well: Medieval, Roman, and Etruscan. We have found artifacts from all three periods. The bronze, silver, and ceramics pots from the Etruscan period are the most exciting. There are some Roman votive coins and wine seeds. It will add to our understanding to the history of wine in the region during Roman and Etruscan times. We are all excited by the finds. It should add a few chapters to my PhD. Don’t ask what the ticket cost. It’s your Christmas present. You will love Perugia, a pretty hilltop town north of Rome. I booked rooms for us at the Priori Hotel off Corso Vannucci.
There is a great view of the valley and Assisi in the distance. Let’s go there for Midnight Mass.
Florence and Rome are way too expensive. See you soon.
Gerard had called a week before on a Sunday night to say he would be late coming home. We were in bed when he called. They spoke in Italian; I could hear his voice sounding remote and tinny. She pushed my face away from the phone and mouthed the word private.
I responded by playfully pulling one of her breasts out from her nightshirt and encasing half her breast in my mouth. She gasped and pushed me off with her free hand.
-That was not smart. He heard me gasp. I told him the tree branches outside the apartment had scratched against the window and scared me. There is no need for you to be jealous. Accept what we have now.
I was not good at being the cool self-possessed lover. Her rebuke made me feel childish and unsophisticated. I resented her detachment about us. I left the apartment without saying goodbye.
The bus shuttle from Fiumcino airport to the train station took about forty-five minutes but not before we passed a series of arid apartment complexes in a dusty scrub landscape outside of Rome. In the distance there were the ancient dark mountains against a blue sky; ruins dotted the landscape, old fallen walls and aqueducts looked abandoned and forlorn.
We entered the city via the old Aurelian walls and past the Pyramid of Cestius near the Porta San Paolo. Here the magical jumble that is Rome took over; old and white pock marked columns from antiquity stood embedded beside dark sixteenth century windows and walls, remote baroque churches glared at eighteenth century paving stones. Big and small fountains splashed in the streets. Drowsy palm trees jutted out from behind high courtyard walls. Laundry on balconies and everywhere patches of soft buttery light- the kind you only see on a Roman winter morning-hit the old brown, red, and yellow and graffiti sprayed walls
The bus headed up up Via Nazionale, towards the Termini train station. Traffic slowed just long enough for me to make out the sweep of Gerard’s hair to the left of his brow, the distinguished gray, and his arrogant uplifted Roman nose. He was impeccably dressed, much like the last time I saw him, only this time he was wearing a black wool over-coat and a rich blue scarf and gold tie. Franca, my sister, was on his arm leaning towards his face and dressed in a black navy pea-jacket, collar up, partially covering her cheeks. She wore an elegant gold and yellow scarf. Her black curly hair was tied up in a casual French bun, a few long bangs hung in curved impish gestures on each of her face. She held a small paperback -or was it a guidebook- under her other arm. They looked happy together.
My first thought was to jump off the bus and surprise them but when I took a second look I became confused and fell into a state of disbelief. Was it truly Gerard and Franca? Before I could decide what to do the bus accelerated and at that very moment the couple turned on to a side street and vanished.
I got off the bus and took a moment to look down Via Nazionale before heading off to the train station. The marble stairs of the war memorial at the bottom of the street floated in the distance under a bright blue sunlit sky. What I had just seen? Was my exhaustion causing me to see things? Was the richness of Rome confusing me? The fountain in the Piazza Della Repubblica splashed softly in its quiet and realistic way.
The Termini train station at mid-morning five days before Christmas resembled an over-turned anthill. People were rushing to and from the station from all directions in all manner of shape, size, and dress. Some sat in the station caffe and enjoyed a morning cappuccino, others knocked back an espresso in two quick gulps.
I ordered an espresso, drained it quickly, and bought a fresh pack of cigarettes-Italian- and a new lighter before heading over to one of the ticket gates. I felt haunted. It occurred to me that Martin Delano looked like Gerard.
A train left for Perugia on time an hour later. I changed trains twice. This involved a heart-stopping dash from one side of the train platform to another by way of a tunnel under the station. The last change took place at Foligno half-hour before we reached Perugia. The people on the train were in a festive mood carrying Christmas packages even though we were standing. She, however, had managed to find a space beside me. She looked exhausted and asked me to make room for her small black carry-on luggage.
Her eyes were alert and although she was tired she took great delight in nimbly plucking a cigarette from my fresh pack. She stood with one hand under her elbow holding up the other arm with the cigarette between her fingers waiting for me to give her a light. Her black winter coat was hung over her shoulders. Underneath tight blue jeans and a maroon V neck sweater. A mixed orange, yellow, and gold scarf lay loosely knotted around her neck. I guessed her to be my sister Franca’s age somewhere between twenty-eight and thirty.
-Ah, Muratti my favorite. So what brings you to Perugia at Christmas? Its too early for the new semester at the university.
– I am here to meet my sister for the holidays. She is working on an archaeological site in a village near Florence. Please excuse my bad Italian.
-I can understand you perfectly. You left your parents behind at Christmas? Shame on you!
– My parents are dead. Car accident.
-Oh, I’m sorry.
She turned embarrassed and stared out the window at the landscape as it flickered past in a blur of red unplowed fields and neat green gardens, farmhouses, fences, and brown limestone huts. She inhaled deeply and blew smoke up towards the top of the train window.
– Oh, Dio…I travel too much. It makes me so tired.
A weary melancholy descended over her and then disappeared.
– I would like to meet your sister. You think we can meet before I go to Florence for Christmas. Lunch, a drink, and a few cigarettes? Come to Bar Turreno behind the Cathedral. It’s a socialist bar. You can meet my friends. Ok?
It was late afternoon when I finally checked into the Priori Hotel. She was right about the view from the hotel: ancient stone houses organically followed the rise and fall and curves of the hill. Well- ordered fields stretched far as the monastery of Assisi. Dark blue mountains sat in a blurred hazy outline far in the distance. Large island shaped clouds hung low and gray with bits of blue between them.
I walked down Corso Vanucci past the crenellated Palazzo dei Priori and its thick medieval doors towards the Cathedral and the piazza and its fountain from the 13th century.
Men and women of all ages were out for a stroll elegantly dressed before dinner. Some had stopped for a quick aperitif and chat; groups of students moved like schools of fish eating pizza slices and joked with each other, Older gentlemen in winter wool coat and scarf sat in the outdoor cafes smoking and talking, newspaper tucked under one arm.
Franca had bathed and was waiting for me when I returned from my walk. Her thick curly hair on the pillow looked like woven rope. One foot was tucked under a bare thigh.
-Welcome back, she smiled.
I fell into her arms relived we had at last a few days together to once again try and shed our impossible grief away from Gerard and the eyes of the world.
Carmelo Militano is an award winning Italo-Canadian writer of five books:
The Fate of Olives (Olive Press, 2006) non-fiction, Ariadne’s Thread (Olive Press, 2007) poetry, Sebastiano’s Vine (Ekstasis Editions, 2013) novel, Morning After You, (Ekstasis Editions, 2014) poetry, The Stone Mason’s Notebook (Ekstasis Editions, 2016) poetry, A Filo Doppio, Un ‘antologia di scritture-calabro-canadesi, (Donzelli Editore, 2017).
Featured image: photo by Melina Piccolo.