Excerpt of The Bellini Madonna by Elizabeth Lowry
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What can I say? She was radiant, heavy, impassable, and
I waited for hours for the light under her door to go out so that I
would not have to feel the weight of her wakeful presence across
Time passes very slowly here. Getting through it is no mean feat.
I either crawl about the town, my heart shuddering in the heat, or
sit inertly at my north-facing bedroom window, breathing in the
cool slope of the Dolomites. More oftenand since my stay at
Mawle this has become my real occupation, one which I try to
put off but always give in toI do some purposeful snooping.
The palazzo is full of curious junk and old bric-a-brac: behind
a sparse frontier population of sheeted winter coats and flaccid
trousers every cupboard seems to conceal a secret interior life rich
with yellowing suitcases, chipped flowerpots, cracked picture
frames, skittering mothballs, and, most annoying of all, shoeboxes
stuffed with tight-lipped family photographs and trite
Puppi family correspondence.
My darling Ludo, beware of the American, Lynch. That
slippery fish knows everything, he knows about the existence
of the Bellini and has even been sending me insinuating
letters! Shall I invite him to Mawle in order to
reel him in? Surely he can find the damn thing, if anyone
can? Write soon to your anxious Maddalena, my big stud
[stallone maschio mio].
No, I lie. I made that one up. There is no such vulgar and incriminating
message in Signora Ropers hand, just as there is no exact
Italian equivalent for my big stud.
One afternoon I thought that I had at last found what I had
been looking for. My wits weighed down as if with lead sinkers
by Artemisias gnocchi margherita (potato dumplings, pulpy pomodoro, glittering green oil, a talcum spray of parmesan; you try
it), prowling through the flagged rooms in search of something
that would pull together the bizarre web of secrets into which I
had so recently stumbled, I came across a low, dusty, glass-paneled
bookshelf with a tasseled key, standing all on its own in a snug
Here, surely, I would discover, among a stash of calf- and
leather-bound volumes, a second diary or notebookits thick
coffee-colored pages crisp under my prehensile fingersthat would
at last give me the full account of how my Madonna had arrived
at Mawle in the possession of Annas great-grandfather
James Roper; the frank story of his tragically brief marriage
every last detail! But in it I found nothing, nothing at all, except
for a pile of curling National Geographics (Lucy: the Real Eve?
An Interview with Richard Leakey), an old flower press of
the kind constructed from blotting paper pinned down between
wooden boards by metal screwsreleasing, at a twist, a starry
head of silver-haired edelweissand a first edition, with some of
its furry pages still uncut, of Robert Brownings last collection
of poems, Asolando.
On Sunday, three days ago, I left the house a little after midday to
escape Artemisias pitying glances and strolled for an hour in the
thin shade of the Foresto Vecchio. Across the rooftops the old
clock tower of Catarina Cornaros castle stood white as a bone in
the glare, its empty colonnades crowded with sunlight. The campanile
of the cathedral tolled one slow saffron note: mass was
long over, the throng dispersed. Behind Santa Maria a cramped
piazzetta gave way to a row of stone steps, above which the faultless
cornflower-bright sky unfurled its smooth banner of heat.
The whole day, caught in a globe of pure color, seemed to proclaim
its radical innocence. Even the trees on the horizon looked
self-sufficient, their undersides gleaming as if stroked by a glazing
brush, each tiny scalloped leaf outlined by a cloisonné shadow.
Excerpted from The Bellini Madonna, by Elizabeth Lowry, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2008 by Elizabeth Lowry. All rights reserved.