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Mute Canticle

Giulio the singing fascist came to pick me up from the little airport in his Jeep. He made sure to come round and hold my door open from the outside. Giulio was best known in Spura for his powerful bass voice and the persistent rumours that he went out looking for illegal immigrants in the Tuscan hills. We made a point of not asking him about his beliefs because he was the only neighbour under sixty with whom my Grandmother had not yet argued. He saw it as his duty as a Christian to help her with tasks that required lifting and driving. My grandfather had always done such things for her.
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We rattled away from the dusty airstrip, to join the autostrada. I had seen it so many times from the vantage of Spura’s walls that I always thought of the roads as rivulets of magma spreading out across the plain. We passed half-finished tennis courts and artisanal handbag depots, punctuated by the occasional red-brown jogger. Two millennia ago, Hannibal had routed the Romans nearby, hiding his army in the forest and sending out men to light fires that made them look farther away than they really were. Many here still felt themselves closer to Etruria than Rome, which explained the numerous local restaurants named after Hannibal’s favourite elephant, Surus.
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As he drove with one hand and gesticulated with the other, Giulio told me about his battle with Communist mayor of Spura, who objected to him taking groups of Finnish hunters up into the hills without all the proper licenses. He was still adding to his collection of antique rifles and offered to take me along next time he went to shoot the wild boar. He apologised that he could not let me have a try myself, as it had been so long since I last fired a gun. The only dangerous boar, if you could follow a trail like Giulio, were the mothers, who tended to be unpredictable and instinctively violent. More wolves had been coming into Italy from Slovenia and found this region to their liking. He said it was forbidden to hunt them, though the way he said this seemed like he was considering it anyway. The forest above Spura is too thick to cull them from a helicopter. They ate the hunters’ deer and were driving the boar down into the vineyards, where they ruined farmers’ crops, overturned fences and devoured the grapes meant for wine.
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He made the case that he was only restoring the balance between agriculture and wilderness, he could show me how they used every part of the pig – I liked pork, yes? Good, the ragù di cinghiale was especially delicious this year, though much of what was served in Spura was not really wild. When something has lived free, you can taste the soil in its flesh, as you can with wine. I pictured his thick brown forearms holding cleavers, covered in blood and fat. I wondered what it would be like to watch something the size of a boar go down, twitch and slacken. I had only smelt living boar, pungent even after the creature has left. I had an interest in cruelty that might have been considered unremarkable in a man.
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The conversation was still winding down as he handed me over to my grandmother, coming down the little stone steps with my bag into her kitchen to make sure she had everything she needed. She was sitting in her high-backed wicker chair with the assegai behind it, the old grey fan chopping slowly overhead. Pushing ninety, you could still see the beautiful woman she been in her youth, though it looked as if she had been clenched and released by some giant fist. She did not understand the appeal of Giulio’s offer, and once he had left, she complained about his habit of shooting songbirds, which she said were barely edible. I had seen her nearly weeping over rabbit steaks in the butcher’s, a scene which might have been less comical had the good macellaio of Spura not chosen to decorate his establishment with cured pig faces. She said when she was my age and lived in Durban, they had gone out to the veldt to take pot shots at guinea fowl, but somehow that had been different, or felt like it was. And guinea fowl were ugly things, with bottoms ten times the size of their heads. They made a horrible cry, raspy but piercing and chattered as they ran.
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We sat out in her garden, under the palm, attended by her semi-feral cats. Italian vets did not like to spay them and so most people in the town had unofficial cats as well as housebroken ones. We ate green, vinegary olives from a little bowl and drank what she called gin-tonics. After every second one, she wiped the corners of her mouth with a napkin she kept on hand. I admired this gesture towards dignity. Somewhere towards the back of the garden, I could hear a little fountain, the noise of which made me feel cooler. Rubbery-leaved cacti spilled out of pots and morning glories wilted gently in the heat. Indoors, I could hear the rolling news repeating itself every quarter of an hour on the television. We ran through all the customary questions about my mother and my siblings and what I wanted to do with the rest of my life before we got onto my alma mater. When I was younger, I had been very terse with my grandfather about his politics. As a result, my grandmother tended to approach difficult topics diagonally, so that when she got round to voicing a thought she knew I would disagree with vehemently, it did not seem like a provocation. So it was that we started with a conversation about scholarships and ended up talking about whether the statue of a particularly vicious colonialist ought to be removed. I was forced into the uncomfortable position of insisting that the evil things someone has done cancel out the good ones. Certainly, I couldn’t see any way for the statue to remain without some acknowledgement of his crimes alongside it. She delivered what she believed to be the coup de grace:
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‘The town of — was founded by your ancestor, my great-grandfather Major — , and they put up a statue of him in the square. It was his job to defend the line between the Boer territories and the natives’. Do you really mean to tell me you’d let them take his statue down as well?’ She drained her glass and put it down on one of the little paper coasters she liked to use.
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‘I think he means something different to you than he does to me.’
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I might have grown up with more liberty to speak my mind than she did, but I had learnt how to hold a silence too. One of the outside cats chose that moment to leap onto my lap, a vaguely tortoiseshell creature with torn ears. It did not look as if it had mange and we both made a great fuss of it. After my grandmother had shuffled indoors and over to the cabinet where she kept the petfood, poured it out carefully into a bowl and shuffled back again to replace the bag, she announced she was tired and would be taking a nap. I knew that between various cats and bridge and repotting she would be preoccupied for some time and promised to visit her again in a few days. We both liked to be alone.
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The key to the other flat had a little bronze capitoline wolf attached to it, satisfyingly cold in my palm as I walked further into the town, the suitcase bumping on every single cobble behind me. Little alleys radiated off the curved main drag, connecting up with the concentric rings of streets that rose unevenly behind the piazza. The alleys ran uphill and downhill and broke off in dead ends. I pitied the fools who had tried to invade this place over the centuries. There was a sepia picture in this flat of Allied troops cheering and riding a tank into Spura and I had never been able to understand how they manoeuvred it through the street. I tried to decide which much-missed foods I would sample first. I settled on sugared almonds, painted silver to look like ingots, washed down with a glass of thick pear juice.
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The girl had said she might soon be passing through Spura, but I did not like to pester her and she had never been one for exact times. I cooked and read and wrote sarcastic postcards and wept only occasionally and I was mostly successful at not drinking a bottle of wine to myself every night. Always later in the morning than I’d intended, I walked along the parterre in the orange-beige dust, convinced the hard ground amplified the sound of the cicadas in the trees on either side. Some years there would be dusk performances by touring American orchestras here, but not this summer. I spent a lot of time in the little museum, trying to find something interesting to sketch. The best thing in there was a box that could have been a trousseau but was probably a coffin. It showed a kind of naiad figure, breasts straining through her robe, beckoning to a young man at the edge of the pool in which she stood. I had only menu-Italian and Latin, but from what I could make out on the placard, there was continued debate whether this was a scene from Ovid, or a Roman copy of an Etruscan motif. Either way, it did not look like an encounter that would end well for him.
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The text came at last. I sat in the piazza and waited for her, trying to look busy with my book. I watched a sulky blond boy at one of the other tables picking at a bowl of crisps, while the older man at his table cleaned a pair of aviators over and over again with a paper napkin. I looked away in case my gaze was interpreted by one of them as interest instead of curiosity. Even without the father’s burgundy trousers, one can always spot other English people on holiday because they look as if they’ve just had a blazing row. She came up from an unexpected direction, looking momentarily lost before marching over and slinging down her rucksack. It was implausibly small. I was halfway through a sidecar and was trying to determine if I could get away with ordering another one along with her drink.
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‘I couldn’t find a hostel last night, so I bedded down in an olive grove. It was lovely, I could see all the night sky. It’s still so warm you hardly need a sleeping bag.’
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I reached over and picked a bit of straw out of her hair.
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‘Weren’t you frightened? Of wild animals? Or men?’
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‘Should I have been? It was an adventure! I didn’t get much sleep, but I hitched a lift here in a lorry and slept in that, they’re very comfortable. I sang him songs and he gave me some blood oranges in exchange.’
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She searched around inside the rucksack and then began to peel one at the table, defiantly unaware of our pomaded waiter’s fury. I could smell her sweat. This should have disgusted me, but it didn’t.
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‘I have more fruit back at mine if you haven’t eaten.’
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We had met less than a year ago. I had been restless at a party and looking for a smoker friend, so I would have the excuse to get some air. I saw her laughing with her hands on the shoulders of another girl and knew two things, which were really one thing. Over there was someone who would never want to be with me and for whom I was prepared to make an idiot of myself. Later, in the quieter room, I sat at the edge of her conversation and waited to speak. While I was engaged in this slow form of pursuit, the friend whispered to me that she was practically the double of the first girl I’d ever loved. She was also the ex of the fourth, as it turned out. I wondered if the universe had created her just to toy with me – and then castigated myself for believing something so selfish. We had a lot of shared tastes, though we tried not to discuss our ex-girlfriend. She had been finishing her education in another city before moving abroad, though she wasn’t yet sure what she would do after leaving England. Loping along the street, pointing out the mouldings over ancient drainage spouts and rushing over to the windows of antique shops, she annoyed the shit out of me. This was partly because it was so easy for her to look good after a night of sleeping rough. I hadn’t worn non-matching lingerie since I was thirteen.
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Vines grew thick and green along the trellis that kept our balcony veiled from the neighbouring houses. She had thrown off her clothes to put in the machine as soon as we got in and I had kept her company, but I was reluctant to try and turn companionable nudity into anything else. It might be construed as an abuse of my position as her host. Besides, uncertainty seemed to be a key component of our friendship. Every time, I tried to make sure I committed everything to memory as it happened, in case it never happened again. The air was so hot it felt thick in my throat. The reverberations of traffic in the valley below were distant enough that at this height they sounded like music.
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‘What’s up there?’ She pointed at the back wall of leaves.
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‘Up where?’ I said, thinking she had seen a lizard. I hated when people did this, they were always gone by the time you understood where it had been spotted.
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‘Behind the piazza. Is it only houses and streets like this one, all the way up to the top of the mountain?’
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‘Yes – no – I don’t know. I know I’ve been up there, but I can’t remember. There’s a fortress at the top, I think.’ As I spoke, I was trying to walk the steep incline in my mind’s eye. It felt almost vertical, but the little old women of the town managed it twice a day at least. Bent double by early deprivation and extreme age, the climb was the only time their heads and torsos were upright, because of the incline. There was a little church between the piazza and the fortress, but also something else, further up beyond the town…. A sanctuary? I remembered the cool of a great vaulted ceiling and incense, and, though I tried hard not to see it, the withered foot of a woman.
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‘Is the fortress worth visiting?’
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‘Probably not. Just wind and endless dry forest, I imagine. It’s mostly ruined and I don’t think it’s been used much since the 1850s.’
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‘We can find other ways to entertain ourselves.’
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In the hours between night and morning, when the cuts her belt had left in my back prevented me from sleeping, I tried to be sensible. This would have to be the last time. Aside from the low hum of the generator, I could hear at least one pair of cats screaming. A few streets below that, someone was driving a motorbike up and down with the silencer off. I would not to look at her asleep next to me. I wished I could separate myself from myself, give her everything she wanted while I lost nothing by its gift.
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We did not leave the house the next day, but the day after that we walked together along the parterre. We admired the broken body of a soldier being carried off by an angel in a statue to World War One’s casualties.
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I asked her, ‘How do you think it feels, to give yourself up entirely like that, to a sensation or a belief?’
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‘Are you saying you never have?’ She looked pleased with herself.
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I shook my head. ‘I’ve never yet found anything worthwhile.’
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I relished chances to demonstrate my reciprocal carelessness.
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When we reached the municipal pool, she persuaded the lifeguard to give us two loungers for free, since we had come so late in the day. She floated on her back under the fading afternoon sun, while I read her copy of the Life of Benvenuto Cellini, towel judiciously stretched across my shoulders and tucked firmly under either elbow. From this angle I could see the topmost crenellations of the fortress above the ridge of the hill, with grey clouds massing behind them. When she got tired of floating, she came to lie beside me and tell me stories about her travels. She had once convinced a group of young Turks to take her out with them on their boat and watch the sun set over the Bosphorus, although they spoke no English and she no Turkish. Another time, she had been allowed to wander the crumbling Museo Capodimonte by herself in the dark, looking for Gentileschi’s unattributed paintings. It occurred to me she had a genius for getting what she wanted. If anyone else had told me these stories, I would have questioned them and tried to catch them in a lie.
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We wandered back into Spura with the vague notion of buying some eggs before becoming distracted by the view from the town wall. Rows of fields and vineyards stretched out and away beneath us, while closer by and ringed with cypress trees was the cemetery. She marvelled at the way evening light shone off the white and pink mausolea and, with one slender arm around my shoulder, told me her pet theory that different Italian regions have different kinds of light, which must be part of why the styles of painting varied so greatly between them. I did not tell her that one of the graves belonged to my grandfather, because I did not want her to think I wanted her pity. I thought about how he used to make me shake my shoes out every morning for the little translucent scorpions that liked to hide in corners and under furniture. My head felt heavy. I could tell she was getting bored.
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In my peripheral vision, I saw a familiar shape moving along the street, before realising it must belong to my grandmother. Without much pause, I took the girl’s hand and shot into an alley, pulling her after me. It was not easy to explain to what my motivations had been.
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‘Why can’t I meet her? From what you told me about her girlhood, she sounds interesting.’
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‘She doesn’t like for me to have guests in the flat. She complains I’m using it like a hotel.’
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‘Are you sure you’re not ashamed of me? I could put on my clean clothes and come over to meet her.’
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‘Of you, no. But it is easier if she has the option of ignoring…things. I should have visited her again before now.’
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I allowed her to think that I might well be ashamed. What I was really feared was having to explain or carefully not explain what my relation to her was to anyone. That I could have become so accustomed to being so unnecessary.
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The heat would usually have lifted by this point in the evening, but it seemed to be getting worse. The flat smelt like long-opened wine and unmade bed. We had not been back for long before the lights began to flicker. Summer storms were a feature of my childhood and the one now was sufficient explanation for the pressure in my skull. Tendrils of pain wound up from the back of my head towards my eyes. Many of the oldest houses around here had hexafoils carved into their lintels to ward off lightning strikes. These could do little to avert power cuts, however. We went out to the balcony to retrieve some candles, only to find that they had melted during the day, so we sat inside in the shuttered dark.
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‘Do you really feel no shame?’ I asked her.
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‘I used to wish I did. It would make everything so much more fun, to have it be forbidden. But no. I suppose I’m envious of Catholics, it’s a very appealing religion.’
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‘Bits of it. You know they used to believe that if you lived a pure life, your corpse would remain incorruptible after death. Some churches don’t just have little bits of bone, but whole bodies.’
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‘I know. I ended up stuck in Zadar and went into the church of St. Simeon. He looked so funny in his glass case.’
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She couldn’t see my expression. ‘He was the one who said he could die happy now he had seen Christ. Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine.
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‘Yes, that sounds right. But my favourite is St. Sebastian.’
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‘He’s everyone’s favourite, I think.’
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She laughed and felt for my neck in the gloom. It had begun to rain.
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She left in the morning for the next town, away down the track until I could no longer see her. Then I turned and went up into the hills.



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


is a writer based in London and has had short stories published in Oxford's Notes magazine and the Oxford Failed Novelists anthology. Her story 'Yucatán' comes out on theshortstory.co.uk next month.