So what now? This is the 1st of September. Puppi, my host and former rival, is holidaying in Switzerland and cannot be reached. Its bound to be a matter of mere days before he and Maddalena discover that I am here. Theyll try to squeeze the truth out of Anna. What will she tell or not tell them? How will I explain my ungainly flight from Mawle and my lubberly presence in Puppis palazzo a full five weeks before the start of the autumn vacanze for which I was invited? And worse still, how am I going to account for my sudden indifference to Bellini and all things connected with him?
I am full of shame and pain. Asleep in bed at night I am troubled by dreams of a frightening delicacy and tenderness: an open sash window, a shadowed lake, a silver sandal, still bearing the impress of a womans foot, left out in the spluttering rain. I awoke this morning with a numbness cauterizing my left arm from shoulder to elbow, as if an invisible body had been pressing against it all night.
The other, physical and more unsettling, change in me continues, occurring just as regularly as it did at Mawle. Once or twice a day, for no apparent reason, all six-foot-two of me, lean and red-haired, starts to shake. During these fits I imagine that the mesh of fine lines on my hands and arms begins to blur, and the contours of my limbs themselves to dissolve in an electric trembling, until I resemble an enormous insect, a large fly perhaps, the last of the summer flies, twitching its wings and rubbing its forelegs together. But then, when I peer into the mirror in Puppis bathroom (the large oval mirror, gilt-framed but not too ostentatious; although this is a palazzo it is, in spite of its ornate stuccoes, its marble stairway, its courtyard and well, its stables and barchessa, subdued and shabby), I see that I am after all still the same middle-aged man I was before the shaking started, T-bone of sternum and clavicles in place, my weak heart thud-thudding in its tented ribcage that still insists on rising and falling; my offending organ asleep, finally, in its bed of coirlike hair.
The self-hatred I feel is never-ending.
Artemisia, Puppis housekeeper, goes about with as much commotion as possible during the daytime, hauling pots and pans to the cortile to be scoured, and beating assorted rugs and pillowcases with a rattan whisk. The transistor radio which her son bought for her is on in the chilly mornings, through the hazy orange afternoons, into the chirruping dusk, belting out Buongiorno Tristezza (Buongiorno . . . tristezza! Oggi ho imparato che cosa è rimpianto, lamaro rimpianto, leterno rimpianto . . .) and other hits about unattainable women by Claudio Villa. They send a battery of fiery darts straight into my heart. The boy appears at midday on his scooter, forks down a silent plate of macaroni in the kitchen, and disappears in a cloud of rattling red dust.
Then I am fed. If I could just once cook my own food, dice a potato or peel a carrot, perhaps I would feel more like myself! But Artemisia has even the vegetal life of the villa under control.
Too afraid of what I might say if I were to use the telephone, I have begun two letters to Anna, one apologetic and firmly regretful and the other apologetic and tender, but the monotonous beating of rugs, so much like the pounding of a human heart, and the crooning, and the dust, make me feel like a fool.
All together it is, as my students would say, a bum deal.
To be frank, I think the heat is getting to me. Slumped between waking and sleep in the mornings I think again of the night a week ago when I crept upstairs to my old room at Mawle and saw Anna through the chink of her door, head averted and dressing gown partly unbuttoned, trying to pull the elastic band from her hair. A small porcelain lamp burning on the dressing table threw a shadow into each tired fold of her body. She must have been reading: an open magazine lay in the indentation on the bed. She did not hear me and as I could hardly bear to look at her I stared instead at her elbows moving vaguely in their loose sleeves. The August wind, more heat than air, blew through the branches of the elms outside and lifted the curtain, exposing a moon as thick as a cheese. She got up to close the window and I left.
Excerpted from The Bellini Madonna, by Elizabeth Lowry, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2008 by Elizabeth Lowry. All rights reserved.
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