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 the corridor.
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 alcove.
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.
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