At our get-together the other day on Sylvia’s veranda she told her guests the story about wearing her Odyssey T-shirt a couple years ago, when she and I were taking coffee at a table facing Piazza Luca Balsofiore. I remember the encounter. It made an impression on me.
Leonardo sauntered by. He was scruffy, as usual, with his dark cap down over his forehead, his eyes peering out of the shadow cast by its brim. He carried a cigarette pointed upward, held by his thumb and forefinger.
Sylvia waved, “Leonardo! Come sta?”
Leonardo tossed his cigarette. Shuffled toward our table. He bent over, peered at the Greek lettering. He lightly touched the lines with his gnarled forefinger. Suddenly he began reciting the passage in a deep, dramatically resonant voice. He pronounced each syllable with care and great love, as if on stage. I imagined it was precisely as Homer himself meant them to be spoken.
When he concluded, Sylvia said “Magnificent!” She gave him a couple Euros. Leonardo said “Grazie,” and ambled off.
“So this fellow was fluent in Greek, then?” Knut asked.
“Oh, yes,” Sylvia said. “Greek, Latin, several other languages. He was for a long time a distinguished professor at the university in Rome.”
“What happened to him?”
“He went crazy. Now he walks the streets hearing voices. Everyone knows him, helps him out now and again.”
“Hamlet’s ‘Oh what a noble mind here o’erthrown.’” Knut said.
“Exactly,” Sylvia said.
* * *
Afterward, on the hike back up the mountain, I thought about my Vittoria, and all the distressing things that were going on. About our last telephone conversation five or six weeks ago.
She was trying hard to sound upbeat, but I sensed her great fear about what was happening to her father. She and the rest of the family knew there would be no happy end to his story. And maybe she had a premonition that her own wouldn’t as well. The conversation put an ache in my throat.
She asked me if I were still writing every day. Of course, I replied. Then she said that she had been writing herself.
“Oh? What about?”
“My little bunny. And her adventures.”
“I’m happy to hear that. Writing is a good way to deal with tough times.”
“Uh-huh. Do you want to hear what I’ve written down so far?”
Her bunny—which she named Chloe—was clever and cheerful and cute. And Chloe had magic powers that could take her anywhere in the world she wanted to go. Vittoria then began a detailed description of a particularly exciting episode. It was long, and complicated.
I don’t remember the details. But she told the tale rapidly, almost breathlessly, and I felt her anxiety. Her bunny’s story was, I knew for certain, an autobiographical allegory. And I also sensed she was afraid that something bad would happen, and she wouldn’t be able to complete it.
“Will you help me?” she asked.
“Of course I will, sweetie! When you come here we can work on it every day until it’s done.”
“And will you get it published?”
“You and I will go to the post office together, and send it to my agent. She’ll be delighted.”
“But first you must eat, and rest, so you will get better. And then come here.”
“Hello? Are you still there?”
“Yes,” she said. “That’s what I’ll do.”
“Did you hear me?”
“Yes,” Vittoria said quietly, wistfully. “I promise.”