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Afternoon in a Garden of the Palazzo Barberini

by Darlene Madott

 

 

“È chiuso.”

 

This is how Francesca learns there is no such thing as “closed,” in Italy, no rule that somehow cannot be bent to accommodate. She stands in her khaki shorts, with her loose white blouse, different from the American tank-top, because of its chaste suggestion of a sleeve, slightly draped over the shoulders, her bare brown legs with the bobby socks and runners. Crowning this glory is a visor, like a half ball-cap, with her riot of dark curls extending beneath and overtop, and her knapsack, filled with research.

 

The Chief of Police tells one of his subjects to find out what l’americana wants, creating this disruption at his gates?

 

“Non sono americana, sono canadese. È ben diverso!” she declares impetuously, finding the words, she knows not where. But something in her, the way she makes this proclamation, slight stamp to the foot, almost-tears smarting her eyes, about having come all this way, with this squadron of men before and behind him watching the scene at the gate, must somehow have charmed him, for the Chief of Police smiles and approaches.    

She has come all this way. From Canada, she explains to him directly, on the other side of the gate, hands clutching the bars. She is searching a painting, by Artemesia Gentilesche, a Cleopatra. It exists here, in the Palazzo Barberini. Only here. Or so says the book. What the book does not say is that the Palazzo is closed, for renovations. È chiuso.

 

Ma non è possibile! Io non posso ritornare!”

 

The comandante, taking pity, makes the command, and the gate opens. “Non si preoccupi. I show you a galleria di dipinti.”

 

He pats her half ball-cap, and she sees a look pass between two soldiers at the front of the line, on the ascending stairs, and she isn’t certain what the look means, but she follows after him, like a lap puppy.

 

He leaves his men on the stairs, escorts her across the courtyard and into the cool darkness of the Palazzo.

 

As they cross the first hallway, someone clips along at a rapid step, and there appears the soldier, with his silver tray, with the two glasses of prosecco and the bottle. Her high-ranking escort stops the soldier, asks sharply where he’s headed, confiscating the two glasses. He hands one deftly over to her. The lower-ranking soldier, flustered but powerless, clips off to a fate unknown but certainly unpleasant, given his confusion.

 

And so he opens a galleria with the huge set of keys at his belt, and begins his leisurely tour of the place. But not the painting she has come to see. She can barely conceal her disappointment. This is not the Artemesia painting. When will he take her to see the Artemesia? Pazienza, he counsels, always with this slight amusement about the lips. He shows her, instead, the Rape of Lucrezia, and one seduction scene after another, and stands before each, displaying the artworks, not as an art historian, but as a voyeur, as a pander might, thinking to placate this americana, hell bent on something or other. He is indulging her, and she, she realizes, is also indulging him.

 

***

 

The small elevator is like a gilded cage. It is only when he closes the second ornamental door and they begin the ascent that she feels raise in her the panic of sudden comprehension. All unsuspecting, she has entered a trap. Wordlessly, her eyes meet his. He must read the fear in hers. She sees a slight embarrassment in his, before he looks away.   

 

Moments later, they arrive, and he opens the series of cages and releases her with a flourish of an arm. He guides her toward a terrace, shaded by trees, and seats her at a white wrought-iron table. They are high above and hidden from the muted sounds of Rome. She sits and gazes into an elaborate boxed garden, with lemon trees and other shrubs she does not recognize, an established growth of many years, aromatic with the smell of herbs, gracious statuary, and full of a joyous sound. A yellow canary, not caged, but not fleeing either this internal paradise, sings in a tree, not far from her. She is totally charmed – giddy with surprise and relief.

 

Grazie,” she says to him, and reaching out, pats the hand he has authoritatively left on the table. He places his free hand over hers, as a soldier arrives. He breaks his hold to permit the soldier to spread the white linen, and then to lay the table with a modest repast of cheeses and fruits. The soldier manages to see nothing and everything. Again, it has simply and unexpectedly appeared. While the soldier does all this and places the bottle in an ice bucket, the comandante returns Francesca’s smile, obviously pleased with himself to be able to have this pleasure at his disposal and to be able to share it with her. He pours her another glass of prosecco. He dismisses the soldier meaningfully, with a finality that indicates there are to be no further interruptions. Francesca again feels an intense anxiety. After the soldier is gone, the old man makes his apologies. He is diabetic, and must eat simply. But she takes another meaning from his explanation, and after this, worries no more.

 

Although they have little language with which to communicate, he manages to convey to her that he has a ball to attend, this evening, a gala event, at which there will be many dignitaries, and would she be willing to accompany him? Again, she touches the aged hand, this time to point coyly at his wedding band:

 

Sei sposato,” she says.

 

Non è importante.

 

Si, è importante.

 

They both laugh. But she suspects he does not really expect her to say “yes” to his invitation. It is something he must do, part of the play.

 

***

 

What do they do the balance of this afternoon? How do they manage to fill the hours? Nothing. Simply nothing. Wait out the siesta – together. She gives this to him: the silence of a single afternoon in her lifetime, full of the song of a single canary. Her comandante eats, as does she. Then her comandante dozes in the chair beside her, his hands folded across his stomach. She finishes the prosecco, and turns the bottle neck down into the floating ice. While he sleeps, she dips her finger tips into the ice bucket and takes the blessing onto her face and back of her neck, and feels the shard of ice melt down her back. She explores a little of the walled terraced garden, the object of which appears to be to exclude Rome, not see it, for there is no looking over these walls. Nor does she want to leave. Just as the canary. Flit, she might, from here to there, but leave? It does not even occur to her, but to give into this afternoon in her young life, with a stranger, asleep at her side.

 

After the siesta, the comandante escorts her down the staircase, where they first met, and she sees the men, lounging about the upper terrace, the landings, the courtyard, roused from their siesta by curiosity at the spectacle of their leader emerging with the young americana. She understands. She understands completely. She was never at any risk. She turns back and kisses him on the mouth, briefly. Then she runs down the stairs in her running shoes, and pauses a second time, in the middle of the staircase, to waive. She calls back to him, looking only at him, as if all his men do not exist:

 

“Grazie mille. Sei molto gentile. Sei magnifico!”

 

And he smiles, like a peacock, every inch the comandante.

 

“Sei magnifico.”

 

She has made him this gift – of thanks, for what never happened, but for all his men know, most certainly did. Let them think so. This is her complicit gift. His is her travel story.

 

Darlene Madott is a Toronto lawyer and fiction writer. Her most recent collection of short stories, Making Olives and Other Family Secrets (Longbridge Books), was published in 2008.

 

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