At the edge of the grassy terrace, in the shade of a big umbrella, the painter stands at his easel, tipping his brush into little pools of color.
At the table under the umbrella, the writer sighs, opening her notebook.
All the other people who are staying in the rented house—Americans, middle-aged, connected to the arts peripherally or at the core—have scattered. The somber theater director and his shy, frightened girlfriend (together, they are like a thorn bush that encircles a trembling dove) have set off for Cortona where they will look at the Fra Angelico “Annunciation” before the director, awed and querulous, goes out to search the dark side streets for the little ristorante someone at home recommended; and his girlfriend, staring at the painting, will remember that soon she will no longer be able to bear children.
The calm, sad playwright whose opportunity to make a name for herself passed, with startling swiftness, some ten years ago has gone off with her husband, the lawyer; his luggage was lost in the Rome airport and he feels unprepared for the demands of the day. However his wife has studied the map and will help him find the back road to Siena. Their hostess, the writer, has been no use to them; she doesn’t speak enough Italian to straighten things out over the telephone, and she is vague about the location of the nearest gas station.
Now the light wind lifts the blue-and-green tablecloth where the writer sits with her notebook, waiting for the last car to pull out of the drive: her son, his wife and their little girl. When they are in the house, she feels the assurance that comes only with the conviction of being needed. Seeing her granddaughter’s white sun hat on the couch in the sala, she remembered the hat her son wore, thirty years ago: white pique with (for some reason) a buttoned-on brim. Her granddaughter’s face, rosy as a raspberry, is not the face she remembers from her son’s childhood, and yet the little girl’s long, soft, dark stare reminds her of her son’s light, piercing look. Father and daughter stare out at the world curiously, even challengingly. They do not expect to be bored or rebuffed.
As for the child’s mother—the dark, almost velvety young woman who, pregnant again, seems to be overflowing—the writer feels for her the awe and detachment she feels for her own short row of published books. This woman, her daughter-in-law, will always be mysterious, like the shadow of the writer’s hand, moving steadily now across the sun-bleached page. But the mystery does not need to be explicated, any more than the mounds and curves of her shadow hand need to be diagrammed: here a knuckle, there a nail.
Now the last car churns down the gravel driveway, leaving the painter standing squarely at his easel, his strong, bare feet turned out, leaving the writer, who has edged her chair into the sun, beginning on a new page.
They are silent for a while. Below them, in the valley, fields of dying sunflowers and long rows of flourishing tobacco set off abandoned farmhouses, clay-colored, the tiles on their roofs bright orange in the misty sun.
“We all go home next week,” the writer says, finally. The wind dies down. The cypress are still at last; even her shawl, flapping from the back of the green iron chair, droops like a forgotten flag.
The painter is tipping a fleck of black into the olive green on his palette, for the gloomy evergreen at the end of the terrace. Waiting for his response, the writer studies the painting, over the crook of his elbow: a brown wall, the tree, a stretch of grass.
“Yes,” he says eventually.
She remembers her son’s short answers to impertinent questions, years ago.
Down below, along the shadowy path that was once part of the castle’s moat, the gardener’s shears begin their regular clipping. “Mohammed is late getting started today,” the writer says, not expecting an answer.
She remembers the evening before when, looking down the table at her assembled guests and thinking of this story, she wondered, What do they really want—old friends, dearly-beloved kin? A good dinner, yes, with plenty of the thin local wine, and afterwards, deep sleep on new mattresses. Perhaps, during the day, after a long drive, a moment of recognition in front of a Renaissance Madonna.
Waking after midnight, she has felt them sleeping all around her, here an arm thrown out on top of a light summer coverlet, there a face dug into a pillow, or a hand, seeking the warmth of another’s thigh, creeping slowly across space in the moonlight. They were like the images on the Etruscan tombs in Cortona, where a man and a woman lie against each other, on their sides; but in the dark old house, by the light of the waning moon, these images—her sleeping friends, her family—stirred and turned.
“Yes,” the painter says, brushing in the lowest layer of the pine. It is no longer clear what question he is answering.
She remembers being slightly disappointed by those tombs in the dim little museum. All of them were for couples—closely-linked male and female figures, reclining together. Only in the basement of the Minerva temple in Assisi has she seen ancient stones inscribed and set up to honor the lives of individuals. A girl, dying young, was given an outline of a flower, carved inside a circle. But these stones are fragments, broken and defaced.
“Everyone here is a couple,” she says, “except for you and me.”
The painter does not reply.
Earlier, in the courtyard where they were eating breakfast, her son called her—his mother—an object of desire, but he was explaining what he imagined might have been his father’s view, more than thirty years ago. She was pleased, then, the writer who is now always alone, as though some rays of that sun long set might reach and warm her, and she looked at her daughter-in-law, who is still the cynosure of men’s eyes and who complains about their staring.
“Everyone else is joined at the hip,” the painter says.
She knows he has never expected or particularly desired the comfort of being one half of a couple. He has no money, he is lean and tanned, he knows how to satisfy himself. Now and then a woman flings herself across his horizon like a falling star. He is grateful for that. He also knows the star will die as soon as it enters his atmosphere.
And if there is one that remains on fire for a little longer, like the excellent craftswoman of silver bracelets and necklaces who now and then visits him, he knows the ordinary currents of necessity will carry her away, in time, to her studio in the desert; and although few of her designs decorate the throats and wrists of rich women—her designs are said to be angular, and cold—she will continue to work for as long as she can, and he will continue to support her.
The painter paints, a little, the writer adds a few more densely-packed pages to her story.
Finished on the day before their departure, the painter’s oil of the terrace and the pine will hang on the wall of his small, tidy living room, its dark olive tones setting off the golds and corals of the landscapes he paints at home in the Southwest. (These sell.) In a year or two, he’ll take down the painting of the terrace, which has never entirely satisfied him, replacing it with a dark orange representation of the kiva at San Ildefonso.
Eventually—perhaps even today—the writer will finish this story, close her notebook and screw the top on her fountain pen. Eventually the light morning wind will drop and the sun will break through the clouds and Rina, the donna di servitzia who is also the queen of the place, will call them to lunch—sliced tomatoes from her father’s garden, with goat cheese and olive oil.
At home, when the summer is over, the writer will copy the handwritten pages onto the screen of her computer, and the clicking of the keys will reassure her that something is being completed. She will send the manuscript to the editor of a small but distinguished literary quarterly.
The editor, sitting at her desk one fall or winter morning, will flip the top page aside after reading the story’s title and the author’s name. The name will be vaguely familiar. As she begins to read, the terrace, the wind, the clouds, the sun breaking through and the pine will exist again, briefly, before she shuffles the pages together and puts them on a pile.
No one who thinks of that summer, searching for proof of lost love or desire, will remember the painter standing at his easel on the terrace, or the writer sitting at the table with the green-and-blue cloth. They will be unaware of the existence of the craftswoman, shaping silver in the desert. Rather, they’ll remember a glance—the quickening of an eye—or a hand placed lightly, ambiguously on a shoulder: the point of possibility, the place where the story begins.
“We are alone, the two of us,” the writer says as she turns over a filled page.
“Yes,” the painter says, tipping his brush into a pool of brown.
And Pia, the old washerwoman at her sink in the basement, whose brother will die suddenly in the hospital in Florence, and who will kiss each guest tenderly the morning after the funeral—what could this story or the painting or the silver bracelet mean to her? Life comes, and it goes. She is far along in her own, approaching the time when work will be impossible (all that stretching of the laundered clothes of foreigners on plastic chairs and garden statues to dry, all that toiling up stone stairs) and then she will have to depend on her daughter:
Rina, whose bright flower face never fails to shine on the guests assembled at the table in the courtyard, including the painter and the writer, but who does not trouble herself to glance at the painter’s canvas, or to wonder about the writer’s long, crammed pages, because there is so much work to be done (the beds, tossed or flattened, the plates heaped high, the bottles of water and olive oil, and of wine).
Or the little child, the rose bambina riding her father’s shoulders through another museum, who looks at the painter as someone whose sweater sleeve she is allowed to pull, at the writer as someone who paints her tiny toenails with a coffee-colored polish; what do their products and productions mean to her—although one day she’ll wear on her elegant, tanned wrist a silver bracelet designed by the woman in the desert?
What does it mean? What does it all mean? The intent profile of Fra Angelico’s announcing angel, or the curious smiles on the faces of the Etruscan couples, or the Madonna’s forefinger parting her robe over her pregnant belly—except the continuation of life, its eternal unrolling, without mitigation, like the clipping of the gardener’s shears as he tops the hedges below the terrace—which the writer hears, early on their last morning, and stirs uneasily in her sleep.
Painting: Near Cortona by Frank Croft ( Oil on Canvas, 12″ x 16″ )