It was a semi-annual festival and flea market. Rides for the kiddies. Long rows of junk-laden tables with no prices on anything. Sylvia had cautioned that you must appear indifferent because the more interest you show in an item, the more you will have to pay for it, most especially if you are a foreigner.
I ambled through the noisy crowd. A radio blaring here, a knot of laughing tourists there. Mothers and children. Children chasing one another, dogs following, barking. Aromas of baked bread, tomatos, garlic, basil. Familiar street merchants from Senegal, who’d been moved from their usual spots. At a candy stall I asked for a small bag of honey-roasted peanuts, maybe about a quarter of a pound. The humorless clerk demanded four Euros seventy five. I did not feel like arguing.
At the entrance of the church next to Municipo was seated a theatrically mournful beggar woman with her four-year-old daughter. I put a few coins in her basket. She pointed to my bag of peanuts, and then to her little girl. “Per favore, signore,” she said. I gave the child a handful. She had such big sad eyes, and what the psychologists call a “flat affect.” No enthusiasm whatever, not even for sweets.
Inside the church I pressed the Nikon against a door jamb to get a timed exposure of the dim interior. The congregation was reciting a novena. True believers. When the service concluded they all trooped out. I studied their faces. Had the prayers in that sacred place improved any of them? Did they feel enlightened, calmed, cured? They looked like ordinary folks to me, seemingly in a hurry to get to their cars to get back to the house to cook dinner, to settle on the couch and watch Calcio.
More stalls and tables lined the road to the Soccorco Chapel. Green parrots in cages. A multitude of tiny goldfish swimming in a blue plastic bucket. Six puppies, snoozing. I snapped pictures automatically, feeling very little emotion as I did so. Gone was the excitement and twinges of fear I experienced in my first days on the island, brought on by being surrounded by alien things I knew I would never understand.
* * *
In one of our earliest conversations Francesca told me that Vittoria often talked about the interesting book that her life story would make. It would happen someday, she just knew it. All she needed was a writer. Enter James Stephens, famous novelist. A man who writes down everything he sees and hears.
But now it turns out that her life story is basically a lie. Not only that, it’s a disturbing tale about a mother who does not love her baby enough to keep it. All mothers love their babies, so obviously there must be something terribly wrong with this one. Look! She is not like the other babies, that much anyone can see. She is ugly. She smells, she makes too much noise, she holds her breath and turns blue when she doesn’t get exactly what she wants. So naturally mother is eager to give it away.
So now Vittoria is thinking: Who would want to read a pathetic story like that? So forget the book. Forget the writer. He is no longer necessary.
It’s natural in times of crisis to turn to others. When I’m feeling down in the dumps I’ll head right to Sylvia’s, or the Professor’s, or I’ll see if I can rouse Jack out of a sleep. Mom was always there to hear me out patiently, and so was Dad.
Vittoria never comes to me. Not once had she ever called or visited when something was bothering her. No, she always does the opposite. She goes into hiding. And what’s more, she always picks someone other than me to hide out with. How long was she in Rome with that Vogue photographer who helped her escape from the monastery? And more recently that 40 day stretch with another “friend.”
A less gloomy view might be that the current silence is because Vittoria has finally gotten the emotional and physical strength to talk to her father about the adoption. But then this will bring a fresh round of trauma that will require her another 40 days to process. Meanwhile, just leave James in the dark. After all, he’s only the typist.
* * *
Back up the mountain in my villa I thought: If I had all my books with me, I’d look up “The City of Brass” from A Thousand and One Nights. The ancient market full of rich goods, but dead merchants. Or more in line with my mood right now would be Joyce’s Araby, from Dubliners. Stephen Dedalus walks through the noisy streets, bearing the chalice of his love through “a throng of foes.” And the lovesick boy arrives late at the darkening bazaar, and most of the stalls are closed. The perfect metaphor of longing, missed opportunity.
But wait—that’s one of the books I brought with me to Italy. A handsome little volume with a dark blue cloth cover and gilt text on the spine. I opened it. Out fell a little slip of paper. I reached down, picked it up. It was Vittoria’s handwriting:
“I love you, James.”
When had she hidden it in the leaves of a book she knew I loved?
Out of her long solitary silence, this tender message. And just in time.