from TRUE NOBLE, a novel
Alice. Castelbuono. June 2005.
It’s very simple here, Angela. I’m living in a tower that was built in 1266.
Though it might have been 1322. A book in the library claims 1266 but when I showed the custodian he said, “No no—it was 1322! 1322!” He’s insistent about certain things.
The tower’s attached to a remnant of the original town wall and like the wall it’s been heavily restored over the years. It’s where in 1338, as the Aragonese marched in through a gate at the other end of town, and the townspeople knelt to kiss the hand of the new king, the reigning noble, rather than surrender, threw a hood over his horse’s head, spurred him to a gallop, and leapt to his death. At least that’s what the guide book says.
It’s easy to get caught up in details like these.
There are two floors and a wooden spiral staircase between them. I spend a large part of each day going up and down. On the ground floor is a kitchenette with a small oven and stove, and a table with four chairs, and a large sink. There’s a small toilet behind the first half-dozen steps and a few shelves on the wall for pots and plates. To bathe I use a large sponge and the kitchen sink. Unthinkable back at home but I don’t mind here.
There’s a fluorescent light on the wall near the door but it casts a cold and ugly white light so I hardly ever turn it on. Unless I leave the door open a crack it’s generally dark down there.
Here on the top floor I have a double bed, a wardrobe, a chair, and a table. There are three windows. The largest window measures four feet by six. Someone at some point attached a set of doors to it and built a small wooden balcony, large enough for a chair or two. It’s where I was standing only a minute ago, looking out to the mountains. The other two windows are small, three feet by two. The original openings were fitted with shutters and mullions and glass at some point, whether decades or centuries ago I don’t know. When I asked the custodian he said—he was crouched over, working on something or other, the way he usually is—“All a long time before my blessed entrance into this town!”
I use the table as a desk. I moved it so that it faces the balcony and the mountains, which roll east as far as I can see. Vineyards and vegetable gardens, olive trees and stone cottages carpet the valley below. Around seven in the morning the goats walk past on their way to graze, and twelve hours later they’re back again, on their way home, around and through the scattered sheep and cattle. If I’m caught up in my own world they bring me back with the sound of their bells: a fluid, gentle clanging, in a pattern that’s impossible to pin down. Like the sound of water over rocks.
Other than that it’s very quiet.
The mountain plains are amber and softly rounded; the slopes are green, stubbled with beech, holly and evergreen oaks, encircled by ribbons of roads. Beyond the ridge is a perpetual haze. Beyond the haze is Etna. Or at least that’s what the custodian says—by the way his name is Angelo, a popular name here—but I still haven’t seen it myself.
The two smaller windows look out over town. In the foreground there’s a terrace of brown tile rooftops, the tiles weighted down with large stones; then the polychrome tiles of several church spires. Byzantine era, third-century. So far I’ve counted ten churches, though Angelo says there’s a total of fifteen. I don’t understand who goes to which church when, or if where you go is determined by where you live, or your patron saint, or by a schedule whose existence and logic I have yet to discover. Or if in fact all fifteen churches are open and functioning.
I’ve been here four weeks.
There’s no way to heat this place so they lock it in October.
The one thing I do miss is a comfortable chair for reading. Fortunately, the wardrobe was stocked with large cushions and pillows. Five of them. And thick, Turkish-style towels. I prop the pillows and cushions up against the wall at the end of the bed and lean against them, and that’s where I read. I have electricity on the ground floor but not up here, so I bought a battery-operated lamp for reading and writing at night, and a series of extension cords that now trails from my laptop across the floor and to the staircase and down to the outlet in the kitchen. I bought them at Pina’s, the housewares store across town. I prefer Pina’s shop to her competitor’s store on this side of town, my side. The proprietor on my side is not as friendly. Perfectly civil and not unpleasant, but Pina’s become a friend.
When people ask me what I’m doing here I say, “I’m writing a book. About a family. My family. It takes place mostly in New Jersey though my grandparents were originally Sicil— “
—and they cut in:
“Clifton? Clifton New Jersey? Is that where you’re from? Do you know—“
Because everyone here has at least one relative in Clifton. And that’s convenient—Clifton’s become a diversion. Because I don’t want to tell them the truth, that the book’s not really mine. That it belongs to my sister, my twin. I’m not about to say “It’s what she was working on when she died.”
I don’t want to talk about it. They’d be sympathetic of course but other questions would come up. We’d be talking about the school let’s say, about when the new roof might be finished. Or the route for next Sunday’s procession. Or how the unseasonal rain will ruin the wheat, or how soon the fog will settle in and how long it might stay and I’d know all along what was really on their minds. We’d finish and I’d walk on and they’d look at each other in a shrewd, subtle kind of way and I’d know it. And I’d feel uncomfortable.
So I steer the conversation elsewhere. Nevertheless in the end they always say, “Well it’s peace and quiet that you need—you’ve come to the right place!”
“Your sister wrote to me in December,” the ornithologist said, when I finally got the chance to talk with him alone. “Naturally, I was intrigued. I don’t run into fiction writers every day. She said your grandfather was quite a falconer.”
“Well I don’t know what to believe,” I said. “We heard stories when we were kids but later on I assumed they were for the most part myth.”
So then of course I was stunned to find those photographs.
I keep his portrait face down by the way. I see too much of Dad in him. And of you. It’s the eyes I think, more than anything.
I went to the address stamped on the back, to the studio where he had it taken. It’s a jewelry store now. And the street, Via Meli, runs down to the harbor. I went there my second day in Palermo.
I put one of the old falcon photos, one of the lanners, in a plastic sleeve and taped it to the wall above my desk, to the right of the window.
Lino has three falcons. Two lanners—falco lanario—and one lagger. He’s had the lagger and one of the lanners only a short time. He got them from a lab in Apulia where they were bred, after two others had flown away. “It’s a real mess when that happens,” he said. “Un gran pasticcio—you can’t eat, you can’t sleep, you spend every minute looking for them.”
The first morning I met Lino he invited me to the falconry. It’s an ancillary of the ancient castle that he converted years ago. I watched him tie the falcons to their perch: a long, narrow bench about five feet tall. He said he started working with falcons when he was twelve. An older falconer paid him to climb cliffs and filch an egg or two now and then. “For good purpose,” he said, “don’t misunderstand. The falcon population here was almost destroyed by DDT. The eggs were brought up to the lab where they were hatched. How did you find your way up here anyway? Usually only French and Germans come, for the hiking. Where are you from?”
“New York,” I said. “Manhattan.”
“I went to Manhattan once,” he said, “years ago, to visit an uncle. I couldn’t stand it. I don’t know how you do it, living between all those walls. That’s what it’s like, living between walls.”
I said, “Listen, Lino, could you tell me more about the falcons? About the two that flew off for instance. How often does that happen?”
He turned abruptly—he’d been working at the perch with his back to me—and walked over to his workbench, and started to clean some tools. “It can happen anytime,” he said, “I have no control whatsoever. I spent weeks looking for those two, I rode all over Sicily. I found one, only one, the male, on a ledge, looking down at me. That’s the very best feeling, when you look and call for hours, maybe days, maybe you go hungry and thirsty but you don’t care about yourself, you’re just a pair of eyes, a set of eyes searching the sky, looking for your bird, then finally you find it. All of a sudden it’s looking down at you, where you least expect it. I walked over to him, very slowly. He let me come close. I spoke to him, very low. I took him down and held him. But he died in my arms, only half an hour later. He must have eaten something, I don’t know.”
“And the other?”
“I have no idea.”
Then he was quiet. I sensed my invitation might be wearing thin and I made a move towards the door.
“Alice,” he said, “when that happens, believe me—it takes a big part of you. Something very difficult to put into words.”
I didn’t know what to say so I said, “Do you have children? And do you teach them falconry?”
“No,” he said, bristling. “Never been married, what’s the good of it anyway?” He picked up his satchel and swung it over his shoulder and stepped out the door, walking right past me. He looked up and scanned the sky, something I notice he does constantly.
“The first thing to understand,” he said, “is that this life is not for everyone. It’s either in your blood or it isn’t. Alice—are you married?”
“No,” I said. “Though I was. Once. Years ago.”
“So then you know about compromise, yes? So then maybe you can tell me—what’s the point of it all? I’m not talking about the small things you know, about who cooks at night, who does the laundry. No. What I’m talking about is this: You can give up what means the most to you for this other person and then what? How many marriages last anyway? It all falls apart and what are you left with? You think you can go back? To what you had before? You think you can become again that person you once were? No. You can’t retrace your steps, you can’t even remember what it was you once cared about. Listen—these falcons are my children.”
He looked at me sideways and said, “Alice, you believe in destiny?”
Again I didn’t know what to say. I thought he was very odd. Anyway I said, “No, not particularly.”
“Well I do,” he said. “I believe if there’s something you were born to do then you must follow that path. If you don’t then something will eat away at you, from the inside, like a hungry animal. The first time I let a falcon loose, and I saw it soar, I felt a thrill inside me that I never felt before. I knew then I could never give this up. So here I am. People think I’m a fool, I know they do. A fool on a hill. And with this face of mine, a monster too. So what.”
I flew into Milan then took a plane to Palermo; I spent several days there. I went to the museums and churches. Then to Monreale and Cefalù; to Segesta and Selinunte; on down to the south. One morning in Agrigento I saw a bus with a sign that said Caos. I jumped on. I remembered the Taviani Brothers’ film with the same name but spelt with a K, Kaos, and that Pirandello’s house is there. We saw that film years ago, do you remember? At the Nassau Theater. The dining room was green, a luscious lime. It’s where he sits and talks with his mother and it takes awhile to understand that his mother isn’t alive, that she’s a ghost. So Pirandello tells the ghost of his mother that he remembers sliding down beach dunes as a child, and his mother tells him to do it again, to go back to that memory, to go inside it, all the way in, and slide down those dunes again. Again and again.
The way you did.
The house was closed, per restauro, of course. His grave was pathetic. In the middle of a parched garden with one dessicated, dying palm next to it. I had to walk a long way back to the road. There weren’t any trees, only a hot sun and the sound of cicadas. I sat on a large rock. I waited for a bus that never came. I thought about you. I said to myself: Alice, stop being a tourist, get to work. At some point a taxi appeared. I waved it down. I asked the driver to take me to Castelbuono. Richard, the ornithologist, said a falconer lives there.
My first night here I stayed at a small hotel about a half-kilometer out of town. The next morning I set out early. I passed an elderly shepherd on the road. I told him I was looking for a falconer who was supposed to be living here and for a place to rent, something isolated and quiet. He pointed to the hill above town and said, “You see the castle ruins? You see the tower? Enter town through the lower gate. Then work your way up the hill. You’ll find him there.”
Once inside the gate I walked up to the main piazza through a maze of streets. No one was out. I could hear the sounds of cups and plates from the open windows. Of faces being washed, throats and noses cleared. The morning news on a radio. The houses and streets here are all made of stone, in shades of black and gray. In the morning they’re cool and brushed with light; by midday they’re hot and bright. I continued until I reached a small plateau, and the tower, and remnants of castle walls all covered with yellow lichen. Beyond the tower I saw pastures, and fields of wheat, and clusters of rock and oak and beech trees. Here and there, remains of old farm houses. Wisps of yellow broom. I heard a clang of bells from a herd of cattle in a pasture and then all of a sudden I heard a strange cry that seemed half-bird, half-human. Fa-vor-hee! Fa-vor-hee! I walked higher up the hill, and I saw Lino. He was watching one of his falcons. The falcon was flying in broad swooshes against the dark blue sky, then against the fields with all their honey and amber grasses, and wild olive trees, and violet thistles. Lino was twirling what looked like a lasso, what I now know is the lure, a kind of leash with a weight on which the falconer attaches fresh meat, which is the prey the falcon hunts. The falcon flew from one arabesque into another and Lino raced from side to side, trying to catch the bird’s attention with the lure and his shout, urging it to come back down. At last he threw the lure up into the air and it fell, and the bird swooped down on it, sharp and swift. Lino shouted again and he raised an arm, holding his glove up with fresh meat on it. The falcon finished eating the meat on the lure and then it flew up to Lino’s glove and fist and ate a second time. Then Lino turned and walked down the hill towards me, with the falcon on his fist.
Lino’s full name is Virgilio, but when he was small he was Virgilino. And since everyone here goes by nicknames, he was, and now still is, Lino. He’s spent most of his life in the sun so it’s hard to say how old he is, maybe sixty, maybe seventy, who knows. His skin’s deeply creased; his hair’s gray; his body’s fairly taut with the exception of a small paunch. His voice is deep, his manner somewhat gruff. He holds his body straight and rigid and walks as if something inside him might break. Overall he exudes a strange magnetism.
Since that first day I’ve noticed several photos on the walls of the falconry, photos taken years ago. Simulations of medieval falcon hunts that Lino participates in, all over the island and the southern boot. He was very good-looking. I was reminded of that painting we saw in London, that time we took a vacation, just the two of us. Portrait of a Young Man by da Messina. You bought the postcard; I found it with your papers. He has a five o’clock shadow and thick brows and lips, and gray eyes that look off to one side. He’s about to say something cynical. Lino once looked like him. But now a scar runs the length of his face, from the right temple down to the chin. A dark welt in his beard, like a gorge in a wilderness. He said it was from a hunting accident years ago, a stupid mistake. And that he let the wound go too long. Because of this disfigurement I trusted him instinctively. I told him all about you.
At first he didn’t say anything. He gathered the falcon to his breast and smoothed its wings, one of his habits. “You need a place that’s remote,” he said, “where you can see everything but no one sees you. You can live in the tower. It’s primitive but it has all the essentials. You’ll be alone there, no one will bother you. You can stay until October.”
My first week here I’d see Lino come and go in the morning, from the balcony window. He’d have the falcons, wearing their hoods, on a portable perch. He’d put the perch in the back of his Fiat and drive off. Other than that I didn’t see him at all.
One morning I walked over. He was working at the bench. The falcons were on the large perch, still wearing their hoods—the hood being the leather helmet that covers the entire head except for the beak.
“Alice!” he said. “How about I give you a lesson in falconry?”
It was somewhat dark, since the falconry has no electricity and the only light is what comes in from the open door. A rustic candelabra hangs from the rafters but Lino hardly ever uses it. As my eyes adjusted I was able to see beyond the birds on the perch: various farm tools against the walls and on the floor; the bench where Lino was working, where he keeps leather pouches of different sizes, and the leather glove he wears for protection against the talons, and leashes, and cords that I soon learned were called jesses, for securing the falcon to the leash and glove; a scale for weighing the birds and their food, and a log for weights and dates, since their feeding is precisely monitored; jars of antibiotics; the day’s ration of eggs and freshly killed chicks; and a radio with the transmitters he secures around each falcon’s leg when he takes it to fly, so that if it flies off he can trace it and reclaim it, or at least hope to.
That first day I learned how to take the male lanner off the perch and put him back. To do this, you don the falconer’s glove, in my case on the left arm, and attach it by its cord and ring to the cord and ring of the jess, which is tied to one of the bird’s legs. Your arm must always replicate the angle of the perch, forearm always parallel to the ground, at a right angle to the upper arm and elbow. You untie the perch cord, and with your arm in the proper position, simultaneously pull the bird’s jess up and forward while offering your arm as the next perch. Always keep four fingers stretched straight, thumb slightly raised, forearm always at right angle to upper arm and elbow: this way the bird feels safe.
I did this about six times.
When the falcons aren’t flying, which is most of the time, they must be kept in the dark. Kept in the dark and wearing the hood, because if someone suddenly opens the door and they see light they might bate, which means try to escape, and being tied up they would damage their feathers. Seeing nothing renders them calm; dormant; free of anxiety; free of desire.
I said, “I still don’t understand whether the falcons are wild or tame. And where one draws the line.”
“The two females are wild,” he said. “You saw yourself that first day how they fly. They still want to hunt. The male, however, is tame. He imprinted when he was young, so I feed him by hand.”
“But you drew the females down with meat on the lure, the prey was fake. You say they’re wild and they fly to hunt, but they’re not truly hunting.”
He’d been bent over the knife he was cleaning, but then he lifted his head and said, “Yes, but the instinct is still alive, and very strong. Listen, Alice, I’m impressed you’re so interested but I don’t understand why.”
I said, “I can’t explain it yet.” I moved closer to the falcons to inspect their markings, brown and black ribs rippling down white breasts. “You don’t use them to hunt, so what’s the point?”
“The point is to keep them close, but to keep them wild. It’s all a question of equilibrium.”
“Theirs and mine.”
“Theirs in which way?”
“I feed them just enough,” he said, “so that they have the energy they need to fly, to fly high and well—but not too much, so that they still return to me and the food—listen, it’s very complicated.”
“What about your equilibrium?”
“That’s a totally different subject,” he said. “Not for today.”
“You’re attached to them.”
“And they to you?”
“Listen, Alice,” he said, “living with raptors is not about friendship—it’s about respect. It’s different than with dogs or horses, I’m not their master. The ones who hunt, the ones who still have that instinct—they’re never really trained, not really. We co-exist — that’s what it is. I have no guarantee that when one leaves my fist to fly that it’ll come back, there’s always that risk. But that’s where the thrill is, I tell you — when that bird takes off from my wrist, my soul goes with it. Nihil pulchrius, nihil difficilius. Nothing more beautiful than this art, nothing more difficult than knowing how. Here—look at this.”
He lifted a book from the top of a stack. The Art of Hunting with Birds. De arte venandi cum avibus. Imperatore Federigo Secondo.
“Stupor Mundi—Greatest king Italy ever had,” he said. “Greatest emperor Europe ever had. Some of the things I complain about—he wrote about the same things. People moving too far from the old ways. Moving away from nature, building too many cities, caring too much about man-made things. Then too the kids here today, they don’t know anything. All they care about is technology—computers, video. Then the parents are always working and they don’t teach their kids anything. Maybe they themselves forget the names of things, the difference between a sparrow and a starling. A vulture and a falcon. Anyway—everything we falconers do and believe is right here in this book. Everything. Eight hundred years later almost nothing has changed. If you want to see the real thing, or at least a copy, one that’s complete, go to the library. Right off the main piazza. Ask for Maddalena.”
Maddalena, the head librarian, has kindly given me my own private room, on the library mezzanine. Children go up and down the stairs all the time because school’s closed for the summer, and when they walk by they slow down and whisper and peek in.
Yesterday I went back to Frederick’s treatise. Chapter Thirty-seven, the passage on seeling: “You see you must first wrap the falcon in a moist towel to protect the wings and feathers and when your assistant has it firmly cradled in his arms then bring its feet up close to the lower body. Next taking a round needle which you have fitted with a long linen thread (the needle must be round for a triangular needle might very well tear the lid) insert the point inside the lower lid directly beneath the eyeball. Take care to not pierce the lid too close to the edge for that might tear it as well. Then draw the needle and thread through this bottom lid. Bring both threads up over the eye to the crown and next do the very same to the other eye. When you have finished take both pairs of threads and gently draw them up bringing the lower lids with them so that the falcon can see nothing now. The ends of the threads should be tied firmly so that the eyelids are held securely over the eyes and the two eyes are completely sealed.”
The point was to blind the bird temporarily, until it was accustomed to the smell, touch and voice of its keeper. Once the bird was used to being fed and carried by the falconer its sight would be gradually restored: the threads loosened bit by bit, and the level of brightness in the falconry increased, until the falconer could feed and carry the bird without any fuss.
Lino said that when Frederick traveled in the East and saw the hood that the Arab falconers used, he abandoned the seeling practice for the hood. In Lino’s falconry it’s always dark, the shutters are always closed, so really the hood’s not a necessity. Nevertheless he puts it on, just in case the door opens accidentally, so the falcon doesn’t become too excited by what it sees. Especially if it’s not tied to the perch. Because as I mentioned earlier, if that were to happen the falcon might bate, try to escape from being held, and damage its feathers.
I brought my notes to Lino, thinking I’d learned a fair bit.
He said, “Alice, philosophy is one thing. Knowing how to do something is completely different. I want to see you take that female lanner off the perch and put it on your fist. Today we’re going to work with the hood.”
He’d already taken off her hood, so I was a little intimidated, because the lanner watched as I slipped on the glove and approached her. I moved slowly, mentally running through all the steps I’d learned. I took her down from the perch, slowly, holding my breath, and put her on my fist. She didn’t resist.
Once she was on my arm she stopped looking at me. She turned and looked off to some spot on the wall but I didn’t dare look to see where, I was afraid to take my eyes off her plus I had to maintain her balance. At least I thought I had too. It’s still not clear to me how much the bird will compensate for an awkward handler. It’s strange to hold an animal as powerful as she is so close. She’s very strong, yet at the same time her feathers are so soft and smooth.
“Okay now Alice—I want you to keep your arm parallel with the ground, and bring the bird closer to you. Closer. Don’t be afraid.”
I brought her close. I could feel her heart beating against my breast.
“Now, take the hood in your hand.”
The hood has two sets of cords at the neck, one for securing the hood, one for releasing it. The part of the hood that covers the falcon’s eyes mimics the eye’s curve and must fit each falcon perfectly. All Lino’s hoods have a feather pompom on top, for ornamentation, not function.
“Now—position the hood with the opening over her head and bring it down fast. No no not like that — I said fast. Okay—try again—listen you have to be quick. Be sure the beak is in the right place. Go!—Now!—Do it!”
I did this four times. Each time she quickly moved her head. But she didn’t try to fly away or otherwise resist me. My heart was beating fast the entire time. At last I succeeded.
“Alice—now—put one end of the tightening cord in your mouth and pull the other end with your free hand . . . now make it taut. Keep your arm parallel!”
I felt strange locking her in. When I had finished he said:
“Not so easy, is it? But you’re already much better than most people. And I’m not just saying that. It must be in your genes. What do you think?”
I didn’t say anything. All I could do was look at the beautiful bird, now blind and captive.
Most days after my walk I stop in to see Pina, my shopkeeper friend. She offers me a cold shot of espresso from a jar she keeps in the frig. As she pulls it out she always says, “Alice, did you write today?” If I say, “Yes” she says, “How many pages?” If I say, “No” she says, “Why not?” She knows more than anyone else here, other than Lino. When I first told her about the book I said, “It’s about a family, in which everyone has died except for one daughter, and now that daughter is the one telling the story.” She understood at once who that was; we stopped right there. I never told her that I had a twin sister. I never mentioned your papers. She thinks I’m writing something all my own.
As I’ve said, Lino’s the only one who knows. I told him everything that first day. About what you’d been trying to do. Your attempt to get things straight, to understand the past, all that had happened. Why and how it had a hold on you. Your anxiety. Your sense of loss.
And that I’d been distant. So stupidly unaware. And how it now haunted me. Suddenly you were gone and I understood, finally, how much you mattered to me. And I didn’t know anymore where I should be or what I should be doing.
After the funeral, Henry and I hosted a luncheon. Then he, Laura and I, and Nate—my first time meeting him—went back to the house. I stayed for most of the afternoon. Henry and I went up to your study. He said you’d been writing for months. He said you’d talked about sending all your writing up to me. That you’d been frustrated.
“When I asked her what the problem was she said ‘Well there’s more than one problem. More than Alice can help me with. That has to do with me. Not with the book.
“‘But as for the book—Alice is good at seeing through the details, getting to the heart of things. And she’s always been great at thinking up different ways to tell a story.’
“Alice, didn’t you and Angela try to write a book together once?”
I said, “Yes we did. A collection of stories. When we were in college. But we didn’t get very far. We could never agree.
“So what were those other problems she alluded to?”
“Something big was going on with Angela, Alice. Your dad’s dying hit her hard. More than she was prepared for, I think.”
Did I or did I not understand how hard it’d hit you?
“But she wouldn’t let me in,” he continued. “She never seemed to want to talk. I’d ask ‘Is something wrong?’ and the answer was always: ‘I’m not ready to talk about it.’
“She buried herself in her work. She stayed late at Firestone more than usual. But I figured that was okay. Probably the best thing for her, to be busy with work.
“But then there were nights she’d drive down to the library in Trenton, eat a sandwich in the car, and sit in the microfilm room until closing, reading papers from the twenties and thirties. And I used to worry, that area’s dangerous.”
No kidding. Academy Street? At night?
“She taped a lot of your dad’s pictures up on the walls here. In this room, then out in the hallway. Even going into Laura’s old room. On some of the walls she taped up her notes and drafts, in big print. When I asked her why she was doing that she said, ‘It gives me some distance. I’m having a hard time seeing the whole.’
“There were nights she’d wake up at three, four in the morning and leave the house and go for a drive. I wouldn’t hear her go out, but the next morning she’d oversleep and I’d have to wake her up. I’d go out to get the paper and I’d see her car was parked in a different spot from the night before—because I always checked our cars before I went to bed, and I’d remember. I’d ask her at breakfast where she’d gone and she’d always give the same answer. ‘Nowhere in particular. I just needed some fresh air.’”
We were sitting at your desk. While we talked my eyes ran over all your collections, all arranged so carefully. The first editions. The books on printing and typography. The printer’s tools. The wooden type. Pictures of Laura as a little girl, winning spelling bees and violin competitions. On the wall by the door, the antique pendulum clock that you brought back from southern France that I love so much. Very beautiful but its tick is really loud, I realized. I don’t think I could write the way you did, with that clock in the room.
“Then too I was out a lot,” Henry said. “This time of year’s always busy for me . . . I had a conference in Chicago—the night before it happened I was packing for that trip. She said she wouldn’t be here when I got back. She was going up to Cornell, to meet Richard Fallows. She said she’d stay in Ithaca overnight.”
Richard Fallows, the ornithologist, came down for the service. I was surprised that he made the trip all the way down from Ithaca. My surprise must have shown, because he introduced himself and said:
“I knew your sister for all of three hours. Three hours, that was it. There was something about her that affected me. She was intense. Very focused. She said understanding falconry might be the key she needed to finish the book she was trying to write.”
I invited him to join the luncheon. At the end of the meal we left the group and found an empty room at the back of the restaurant, and sat down to continue our conversation.
“Did she say anything else to you about our family. Or about the book?”
“No she didn’t. Our discussions were for the most part technical. Though she did say she was planning to travel to Sicily next summer, to visit the town your grandfather came from, where he’d kept his falcons. I gave her the name of a falconer I’d read about there. In Sicily that is. I don’t know anything about the town the falconer lives in. I read about him only once, online.”
He said he’d been concerned that you’d insisted on driving back that night. That snow had been forecast for days. That he’d offered to find you a hotel but you said you needed to get back.
Get back for what?
He said, “I was shocked—next morning I was making breakfast and turned on the radio.” How many times had I heard his description in some form or other? A car with New Jersey license plates, at the bottom of a gorge. The crash through the barrier, the fall down the embankment. And no one hears the explosion, no one sees the flames. No one discovers the burnt chassis, the burnt woman, until six the next morning.
My mind circles back to Henry.
He said, “Alice—remember that year we went to Paris? When was it? Early ‘80s? She had a grant to write two monographs. One on Garamond, the other . . . I forget . . . ”
“ . . . Granjon?”
“Granjon . . sounds right . . she was happy. But then your father got sick. She dropped everything and flew home, just like that. Even though you told her you’d be around to watch out for him.”
Henry put his head on my shoulder and I put my arms around him. I told him I loved him, because I really do. I love him. His patience. His tenderness.
I think back to the times when we were small and fantasized what our lives would be like if we’d had a brother. Henry might not have been the guy I’d have chosen back then, but what did I know. He’s the guy I’d take now.
We sat like that a long time. My mind flashed back to that last time you and I spoke. I’d been in Singapore when you left two messages on my cell. I could have called you right away but I didn’t. I waited until I was back in New York. You hadn’t said it was urgent.
When finally I called you said, “Last weekend Laura came down for dinner with her new boyfriend. His name is Nate. Nice guy, we like him a lot. He plays bass. They’re excited. They’re starting their own string quintet with three other kids from Eastman. But Alice I have to say—it’s embarrassing but I’m going to tell you anyway—sitting there, listening to them talk, seeing them so excited, I felt a big pang of jealousy—no kidding. I should be ashamed to admit but there it was. Very ugly.”
Did I help you sort out your feelings? No.
I said, “Angela you’re crazy. Listen, you have a wonderful daughter, beautiful, creative, out in the world finding herself. And a nice young man in the mix. Can’t you be happy about that?”
You said, “Alice I am happy about that. But what I’m saying is that on the other hand I feel that we all get old so fast. Or I’m getting old. Whatever little bit of magic we once had—poof—guess what?—you wake up one day and it’s gone. I told you that Cees called—you remember Cees right?—right after Dad died, you remember I told you he called, right? All I could think about right then was what Cees said to me how many years ago? Think of yourself Angela—put your own life first, put your own work first.”
I told Henry that I wanted to check on Laura and get back to New York. He said he’d pack all your books and papers into a box and bring it out to the car.
Laura was with Nate in the living room.
I sat on the sofa next to her. We didn’t feel the need to talk, we just needed to sit with each other. Actually twice we did try to talk but we broke down. It’s too much.
But she’ll pull through. I told her that. She’ll never get over it—I loath the way so many people talk about death. About “getting over it”. She will live with the pain of your death forever but she will learn how to live with it. We will all learn how to live with it.
I told her to come to my place, and sleep over, whenever she needs to.
I think Nate’s good for her. It’s clear he thinks the world of her.
He told me about a CD they’re planning to make. They’re looking for funds. I told him to send me a budget.
I told Laura she and I could come back down together to go through your clothes. Whenever she was ready. Or I’d do it alone. Her choice. I don’t want Henry doing it.
Back in New York I emptied the box out on the floor and read until three in the morning. All the papers you’d taped to the walls, the tape still on them. Folders of photographs. Books on falconry. It was a lot to take in all at once.
After a while I put everything back into the box and put the box in a closet and then went to bed. In the morning I went to the office. All day long I tried to not think about the box.
The next night, a little past midnight, I woke up all at once with a chill. You were in the room, you were standing at the dresser. But it wasn’t New York anymore, it was our first bedroom again in all its pink girly splendor. Dad thought he’d paint only the walls but he got carried away, remember? So that the radiators and the trim were also pink, and the bed and the dresser. Mom hung white curtains for relief.
You carried a brush and a small bottle of paint from our desk to the dresser. You faced the mirror. You picked up the brush, dipped it in the bottle, and started to write on the mirror. There you were, carefully filling the reflection of your face with layers of words. Soon the mirror was covered with black paint and Mom walked in, and she didn’t know what to say. She said very little. But she always said very little. In any event I couldn’t hear her.
But listen—I don’t want to write about how unpredictable you were. Or what people did or did not say about the things you did. I want to write about you, yes, but I don’t know where to start.
Your memories are not my memories. Your history, though so close to mine, is not mine.
Had it been possible for me to wear a dress that rendered me invisible, like a figure in a fairy tale, I would have bought it at any price and never left New York. I would have stayed where I was—I might as well say it—I would have stayed where I was, repeating myself.
Remember how Mom always said that? How she always said Might-as-well? Misewell, misewell. Misewell eat something now before we leave the house. Misewell clean up now we’ll only have to do it later. There were other phrases too, contractions pronounced in their own peculiar way that we used to laugh about in bed at night.
I withdrew from the firm three months ago. Yes, my own advertising agency, the baby I nurtured like a maniac for years. I asked my partners for a buyout. They were shocked and it’s somewhat complicated, but it’ll work out.
I’ve lent my condo to Laura and Nate. Because he’s moved in with her, into that Chelsea shoebox and they’ve been living on top of each other. They can stay at my place for as long as I’m here. I’m not sure how long that will be.
I should have put New York behind me long ago, I know that. I was sick of advertising. Tired of manufacturing images, of inventing souls. I was burned out.
And now I’m here—living in a tower in Sicily.
Yes it’s strange.
Though not really.
We would have been here together, you and I, right now, had things turned out differently. We’d be looking for Nonnu Fabio’s little town together. Learning falconry with Lino, together.
It’s the first thing I think of every day, the second I wake up.
I need to take stock of my life, is what it boils down to. So I decided to write the book you started and couldn’t finish.
There may be better ways to proceed but I don’t know them.