translated from the Italian by Clara Mucci
Francesco Marroni is Professor of English at the University "G. d'Annunzio" of Pescara (Italy), where he is currently Dean of the Faculty of Foreign Languages and Literatures. He is Director of the Center for Victorian and Edwardian Studies (C.U.S.V.E.—Pescara) and editor of Rivista di Studi Vittoriani. He is also editor of the journals Merope and Traduttologia. He is the author of several monographs (George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, Henry James, etc.) His most recent books are Spettri Senza Nome (1997), La Poesia di Thomas Hardy (1997) and Silverdale, a collection of short stories (2000).
From the outside, the convent looked like a ramshackle old building. Its whitish and shabby facade gave off a strong smell of mold and rotting leaves. Going further, Giacomo noticed several stray dogs wandering about some huge agaves growing around a circle of dark soil in the dampest corner of the little piazza—shreds of paper, bus tickets, plastic bags and all kinds of rubbish were scattered here and there. The state of neglect was announced also by the imposing main door of dark oak wood which probably had not been opened for decades. It was dirty and covered with thin dust which, in that hot afternoon hour, looked like the trace of a gold vein. To the right of the main door was a narrow little door, not more than one meter and eighty centimeters. The same facade had only two little windows, strangely asymmetrical. The one over the dark main door had iron bars which the rust had reduced to reddish scales. The other one, which opened opposite the long wall, although situated at a different height, looked slightly bigger. It was open and it showed a white curtain wavering almost imperceptibly.
With an unsteady gait, Giacomo got closer to the building. Except for the dogs, nobody was around. He stopped in front of the main door which seemed to him heavy with immobility. He thought that, certainly, as years went by, it had put down roots and was now there more as a barrier to the gaze of the curious tourists than as an entrance to the Iglesia de San Jacinto, which presumably was at the end of the inner garden. "What on earth am I doing here?" Giacomo asked himself. The question voiced the anguish which invariably assaulted him every time he had a few hours to himself—hours subtracted from the control of his mathematical mind always ready to allocate hours and minutes to a definite daily schedule.
He immediately realized that in order to get in he would have to ring the bell of the little side door, which—it was easy to guess—was the only access to the church. He looked up. The sun was high in the sky and the heat was shimmering even in the alleys of the old part of town. The sky, more than blue, looked like gold: a plate of precious metal which reflected the whitish light of the sun onto the ground, melted gold which, on its falling down, blinds forever. He adjusted his dark sunglasses and lit a cigarette nervously in the hope he could dispel a persistent feeling of unease. Smoking in the shade of a big wild orange tree, Giacomo let his mind travel to the cells of the convent: he imagined them cool and clean; small, comfortable and quiet in their essential bareness. It would be pleasant to be in such a place, far from the uproar of the world, far from the fax machine which filled with print every moment of the day, far away from the colleagues tiring him with their annoying requests, not to mention the employees in his office who irritated him even more. They all seemed slothful, incapable of any act of volition or understanding.
Somehow the cigarette was calming. The ash was reluctant to fall: it was as if it were attached to the tobacco through the strength of an old tie. It came to his mind that perhaps even the cigarettes, imprisoned inside their colorful packages, lying there together one next to the other, establish a pact of solidarity, some kind of dialogue. Then, right as he was tossing the stub, he thought that his wife and himself had not exchanged even one word at breakfast, nothing except the conventional greetings. They had had breakfast in silence. After twenty years of marriage Dora and I have nothing to say to each other anymore; we stick together out of laziness or inertia…. a non-belligerent agreement… fuck life, marriage, such a trap! Maybe, if we had had a child, at least… a son, or daughter, a daughter like Rosalynd, quiet and gentle. Before leaving, Dora had simply informed him that she would go to Plaza el Duque with Rossana. They had met during the flight, then they met again in the same hotel in Plaza Benitez—by now they had become great friends. Giacomo understood that his wife would go shopping at "El Corte Inglés." He knew her very well at this point. In the department stores she would try to spend the last pesetas before returning to Italy.
He could not make up his mind: motionless he kept looking around. He wanted to light another cigarette, but decided to follow the doctor's advice. During the first month, you should reduce the number from thirty to fifteen, and then gradually take it down to six or seven cigarettes a day. No more than seven, I repeat. With some effort he had reached an average of twenty a day. The problem was that, since he had been on vacation, the goal had become almost impossible to reach. He was motionless yet nervous, nervous because he kept thinking every once in a while of the operation he was scheduled to undergo at the end of the summer. "Nothing serious," the oncologist had told him, but nonetheless he felt around him an atmosphere of conspiracy. Right before leaving for that week of vacation in Spain, while entering their bedroom, he had overheard Dora's conversation on the phone with one of her many friends. She had affected indifference, but he had not liked the way she said, "Yes, I don't want to even think of it…. Of course I'm worried, maybe sooner or later Giacomo will have to…." What she meant was clear enough, but he, at the time, had not noticed those words left hanging in the air like soap bubbles. He went back to the present. But it was an unfamiliar present—that strange little piazza, the strange muffled sounds surrounding him. It was pointless—he could not fill the present up. His mind was like a worn and torn net from which minutes and seconds slipped away before he could drag them on board. He felt terribly lonely.
It dawned on him that he was fascinated by the building right at the center of Seville among the white houses and little nameless lanes. It must have had very thick walls, maybe up to one meter or one meter and a half. Who knows? It was like that. A few minutes had gone by, when he heard voices coming from the inside. He followed the noise of hurried steps which became more distinct near the little dark green door. Giacomo was curious and yet hesitated: the door opened. Five or six people came out of it; they looked like tourists from the North—German, maybe English. They were tall and blond, rather young. All possibilities considered, and on the basis of his personal records, he concluded they probably were Irish. Against this hypothesis, nonetheless, stood the fact that he had never successfully imagined a group of Irish tourists. They probably were the usual Germans from Bavaria traveling with their hard currency and their intransigent Catholicism.
All of a sudden a little old woman came out of the door. One would have said she was a dwarf if it were not for the fact that her tiny body was of normal proportions. She was so short that she barely reached one meter and forty centimeters. Her legs were as curved as those of a cowboy, clumsy in her movements but in her own way perfect. Perfect in those surroundings, a bit magical, a bit absurd. To Giacomo this character seemed strange, inviting and alluring. She greeted him with an encouraging smile without malice:
"Please, please, come in. Italian?"
"Yes, Italian. May I visit the church?"
"Yes, the church, yes, San Jacinto. Please, please. The convent, it is not possible, but the church, of course, you can visit it, señor, of course señor."
She ran ahead, leading the way through the garden which led to the church. Giacomo kept observing the old woman, reflecting that that was probably the way she spent her days. The inner garden was rather neglected, but along its sides were some willows and several orangetrees yielding their sweet scent to the air. The old woman with her odd little green skirt and the woolen socks up to her tiny knees understood that perhaps the Italian visitor did not feel like speaking. Suddenly she stopped and let him enter the baroque church around which a Carmelite convent had been built. Immediately, he was struck by the enormous amount of gold in contrast with the darkness reigning inside. There were no windows, only simple or stained glass, except for the light entering through the central rose window.
After the glare of the sun, the semidarkness of the church impelled him to think about himself. He sat on a pew; the wood was cool and he felt the desire to pray. He leaned on his elbows and hid his face with his hands, realizing that he had forgotten all his prayers. He could remember only the beginnings and then the words escaped the net of his mind. That realization terrified him. He touched his throat and cleared his voice as if to speak. He let down the long socks which the heat of June made unbearable. Their rubber bands had left imprints below his knees: he rubbed his calves with indifference while the old woman wandered around the church, picking up some leaves and little pieces of paper with her small hands. He was tired. Terribly tired. He had walked all the way through the Paseo de Cristobal Colon from the Torre del Oro up to the Puente de Isabel II Triana in order to reach the Museum of Fine Arts. From there he had arrived at the Puerta Macarena and then, still on foot, he had found himself in that little piazza of orangetrees and agaves. Watching the Gaudalquivir he had let the river hypnotize him by the slow gliding of its blue water and its ever changing reflections. On its golden surface he saw mirrored the years and seasons of his life: as if by magic, all the images of his life were flowing with the rhythm of photo slides on the face of the water.
Ten years before, when his niece was only twentyone, he had believed to find in her innocence a sort of anchoring. He had taken the train to visit her in Bologna, where she was studying architecture, and that day at the end of January, they had had lunch together in a pizzeria in Via Santo Stefano. It was cold and Rosalynd had pressed her body close to him as they were walking under the Portici. They had kissed and then, embarrassed, had parted at the train station among the clamor of a group of soldiers, probably recruits, awaiting the orders of some corporal. What he remembered of her was the innocence of her kisses and the scent of her curly chestnut hair. He also remembered the words they had exchanged as they said farewell to each other at the station: "Uncle, in spite of the twenty years between us, I know I would be happy with you…. Maybe I'm saying this to comfort you, but I believe in what I say. Please, please, Uncle, let's forget each other and also, please, do not put me on a pedestal. Please…."
Thirty years back, on a day full of sun, he had met a girl whose eyes sparked with wit and vitality: with Dora he had come to know what passion and love were. It was not easy for him to understand immediately why he loved that woman—she was beautiful, very beautiful. And this had been enough for him to fall in love. Many days together—many words, many gestures. Then, time had eaten up their words and gestures. Silence no longer had the taste of passion—it had taken on a grey color; it had filled itself with emptiness. Observing the placid and smooth river, with its series of locks, it was not easy for Giacomo to deny his eyes the image of his wife the day she had declared all her disappointment, all her tiredness for a man whom the years had made more and more fastidious, more and more silent. He remembered that night, not long ago, when he had realized that his life with Dora had been a complete failure:
"You don't realize it, but you're becoming more and more hollow by the day. You look more and more lifeless, without feelings."
"But I, actually…"
"Don't say anything, there are no excuses! Once you would tell me what you were doing; you told me about your research, kept me informed of your accomplishments…. Your eyes smiled as soon as you stepped into the house…. I used to understand and I was happy with you. Now you keep quiet and you don't talk even if I ask you…."
"But I feel that you have no interest in me anymore… at all."
"Maybe you are right. Years have made our hearts cold and we are here like two strangers. You are calmer than I am; you don't care about anything… as long as your things are in order."
"Don't say that!"
"What should I say then? That you love me, that you are fond of me I can't really say…. I can't even say I feel love for you, the same love I felt when I met you…. We have grown estranged and it is already a lot if I still feel affection for you."
"Don't say that because you…"
"`You hurt me,' right? This is what you wanted to say! I should be very careful not to hurt you, while you already hurt me with your absent stare. Come on, let's stop this role playing and let's call things what they are: we are strangers to each other, but you are the most selfish of the two and the most introverted. I need life, I need to be with people! You, on the other hand, seem to hate them!"
"Don't say that, tell me you don't really believe that, please!"
"On the contrary, I tell you I'm sure of what I said, more than sure!"
"I actually love you still. And I wish you would love me still."
"You are lying to yourself. Your world is sterile and your words are empty—a void, no facts… you betray yourself with your lies."
"You really hurt me."
"The only thing we can do is to bear with each other: we have no way out, in any case."
It had been painful to remember that scene. Then, as a matter of course, they had learned to tolerate each other. After Dora's words, so drastic and destructive, he had also learned to hate her…. Bit by bit he let the passion that had bound him to her all those years erode away. Bit by bit, he erased her body, still beautiful. He had eliminated all the positive spaces of her memory, and right when Dora seemed about to regain the affection she had negated in a moment of anger, he had learned to wear the garments of indifference and cynicism. Sometimes he felt so hypocritical he could not even find the strength to smile at her.
He took advantage of the tranquillity of the place and especially of the absence of other people to try to relax, or, better, to feel as if inside there was still room for a moment of respite, for a little peace—to prove to himself that his restlessness had not taken possession of his entire being. He felt that a certain happiness was slightly stealing its way inside him, was finding its way through…. The little old woman was not bothering him. He knew that she was secretly watching him and perhaps she was wondering what he had in mind. Since he did not know any prayers, he decided to pretend. The old woman looked reassured. Several minutes went by before a group of people—this time he could tell they were French coming from the Provence—entered the church. With a start, he looked around: the first thing that struck him were the finely carved frames situated on the right nave. They were golden frames and spread a particularly rich and scenic light contrasting with the shadows inside. He wondered who the barely visible saints depicted were. He thought he could recognize only one: in the middle of a sort of a wooded area full of strange animals, he was sure he could detect St. Blaise with his strongwilled face. And all the others? He had no idea, but for some reason, looking carefully at the landscape, his mind went to St. Francis and St. Catherine from Siena. And yet, the very moment he thought of the two Italian saints, he realized they could not possibly be there. He would willingly read a book on the life of saints—hagiography was beginning to have considerable appeal to his fervid mathematical mind. He touched his throat and struggled to avoid succumbing to his imagination.
He stood up and walked toward the exit. As he was about to cross the dark green main door, the old woman approached to show him that in order to have light in the church to see the portraits, he had to insert a coin in a slot near the door. Partly to avoid disappointing the woman and partly moved by curiosity, Giacomo dropped two coins into the slot. In a moment the church was illuminated as though basking in full daylight: the effect was extraordinary. It was like discovering another reality—the church now looked huge and, above all, he noticed that at the end of the side nave there were thick bars. Beyond those, in the shade, five or six nuns were intent on praying and meditating. It seemed to him a vision of days gone by—a break into the past, into the times of the Holy Inquisition or even earlier. For some reason the scene conjured up in his mind images long gone, and he wanted to get closer to the bars. He dropped two more coins into the little slot, the old woman looking at him satisfied with a bewitching smile at once satanic and fierce.
Getting closer to the area restricted to the cloister, just next to the iron grating, he noticed the white and smooth face of a young nun. Her eyes were focused neither upward nor downward. She was neither praying nor meditating, she was simply staring ahead as if gazing intently at a faraway landscape—maybe a bleak landscape of blinding light such as the one you see among the hills of Segovia.
Giacomo remained motionless like a statue. He was no more than one meter away from her and reciprocated her piercing gaze with his. Gorgeous, motionless, she upheld his gaze until the end, so that when the lights went out, he decided to leave in a hurry as if to escape an enchantment, as if to avoid suffering. He thought of Rosalynd: the lips of the nun were exactly like those of his niece; beautiful and delicate lips, though sensuous and full of life. In the steadiness and serenity of her eyes, she reminded him of "La Vergine Annunziata" by Antonello da Messina. He fled from that scene like a thief, and for some unknown reason he was shocked, incredibly shocked.
The next morning Giacomo was to take his wife sightseeing by coach on an organized trip to Granada. He faked a terrible stomachache so that he could remain in the room and lie in bed until ten or so, without breakfast and without any toilette routine. Around noon he decided to go out: he drank coffee that he found absolutely disgusting. He reached the gardens of Murillo and stayed there wrapped in his thoughts. He was glad to be alone, underneath those orange trees extraordinarily beautiful and perfumed. His mind wandered to Rosalynd : he had not seen her for three or four years. She had married an established architect in Bologna. Her mother told him she worked with her husband and they were very welloff. He could not remember if she had one or two children. For some unknown reason, Giacomo was convinced his niece must be sad and was forced to live in the shadow of an important husband, relegated to the role of mother, not to the more creative one of interior designer which most fitted her.
After lunch in a cosy local restaurant, not far from a plaque commemorating Washington Irving, he started ambling aimlessly. Suddenly, he found himself in front of the wall of the convent from which he had fled the previous day. Not a living soul around except for the usual dogs that roamed in the piazza similar to the indolent employees of some ministry. They pretended to pee against the trees and lazily sniffed each others' behinds. Once more Giacomo stopped in front of the main door, which seemed darker than yesterday. It gave him a feeling of foreboding. After a while the bandylegged old woman peeped out; she recognized him and smiled. Giacomo walked up to her asking for information about the nun who had so strongly touched his imagination.
"The one who was praying yesterday in front of the iron grating."
"I don't know who you are talking about."
"The young nun, very beautiful, really gorgeous, with eyes full of life and skin so white and smooth…"
Puzzled, she insisted: There is no young nun here. The youngest is fiftyfive, sir. I'm afraid you are mistaken, sir.
"How do you mean, the very young nun I saw yesterday sitting here in the front at this same hour. Don't you remember, when I turned the light on?"
"Yes, I remember, señor. There was no nun sitting in the front, no question… I know everything about the nuns coming in and out of the convent. Here there are no novices; there has never been a young nun…. They are all old, very old."
"Then the woman I saw…. The one I saw yesterday; what was that? A vision?"
"I don't know. You should know! The old woman exclaimed, rather puzzled and a bit sorry."
"But in the front, right against the grating, do nuns ever pray there?"
"No, there, in the front, nobody ever sits…. That was the place of a Mother Superior who died several years ago, maybe twenty years ago…. She was ninetynine. May her soul rest in peace…."
"Yes, since she died nobody has ever occupied her seat in front of the grating."
"What was the name of the Mother Superior, do you remember?"
"Of course I do! Her name was Teresa Maria de la Muerte. She was not beautiful, not even when she was young…. Actually, they say she was quite frightening, with her face all wrinkled and wizened…."
"Teresa Maria de la Muerte…."
"Yes, that was her name! She had chosen that name because she was convinced that death was always with her, like a faithful companion… but as you can see, she died in old age, serene."
"So, Teresa Maria de la Muerte! Death!"
He did not enter the church garden, did not even step into it. The old woman looked at him and did not understand the intense terror in Giacomo's face. She could not have known what was in his mind. He had hurriedly lit a cigarette and looked up at the golden sky of Seville, which seemed to be closing around him like the blistering metal of a cage.
Those still and serene eyes, real or imaginary, would remain with Giacomo. They entered him like an unsolvable enigma, with all their unthreatening tranquillity. In his imagination he returned to the Church of San Jacinto, to the sudden shift from dark to light. The effects of the coin-operated illumination had been an incredible experience for him. It was not a miracle, but the lights had revealed to him a secret whose ultimate significance escaped him. The only trace left was the memory of the eyes of the beautiful nun whom nobody seemed to have ever met.
When Giacomo died, one year later, Dora did not shed even one tear, except for the customary ones.