Saturday, 12 April 2014

Don’t talk about a ghost in the places he haunts. Or he’ll come.

That’s what I said to John and Piet at breakfast the morning after he appeared to me—or words to that effect. Don’t invoke the name of a spirit unless you wish it to materialize. Gabriele, one of Piet’s organ students, told him later that he could understand John’s English, but he never knew what I was talking about.

John had been teasing Piet. Well? Did you see your ghost last night? Did Teodoro walk?

We were sitting in Piet’s kitchen in a 16th-century house in a walled medieval city at the top of a mountain in Umbrian Italy. The city was Vecchio, half an hour from the nearest train station in Luogo, and an hour or so north of Rome.

A late-night thunderstorm had cleared the air. The sun was shining for the 15th day in a row. Maria had been in, as usual, to make the coffee before we woke. Piet was a bachelor then, and Maria was his housekeeper. Our espresso wasn’t as good as hers, although we had watched her make it the afternoon she came in to ask John a favour. She wanted a man to phone the bank manager for her. When Piet left to do a concert tour of Eastern Europe the day after we arrived, John became the man. Pronto, banca? she asked, when John gave her the telephone, Sono Maria! It’s one of our jokes. Hello, bank? we say to each other. This is Maria! We had to make our own coffee on Sundays, her day off.

I couldn’t eat breakfast that morning. I wouldn’t be able to eat until I got back to Canada more than a week later. Getting there would take four days. Half an hour to Luogo. Another hour or so to Rome. Thirty hours to Amsterdam by train. Two days sick in bed in an Amsterdam hotel. By the time we flew out of Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, I was almost too weak to stand.

I couldn’t eat breakfast. It might have been food poisoning from a restaurant meal the day before, the day Piet came back. When Piet returned from his concert tour, high on stories and things to show us—like a suitcase full of Czechoslovakian crystal—we had gone out to celebrate. It might have been food poisoning. It was probably the ghost.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Evening had turned into night, and the restaurant into home, and the wine into more wine, and Piet remembered something he had forgotten to tell us two weeks earlier. He told us about it in the matter-of-fact way he had told us about crickets, scorpions, and vipers in the few hours we had between the time we arrived and the time he left for Eastern Europe. If you see one of these—he said, pointing to a cricket in the corner—don’t kill it. They’re good luck. If you see a scorpion—a scorpion scuttled across the floor as if on cue, and he beat it to death with a broom, sweeping its remains into a dustpan—kill it. A scorpion won’t kill you. It will just make you sick. A viper will kill you. You have thirty minutes to live. But don’t worry. It only takes twenty minutes to walk to the hospital. It’s another one of our jokes. Don’t worry. It only takes twenty minutes to walk to the hospital. One day, a black viper snaked in front of the garden wall.

Piet had forgotten to tell us about the ghost. His name was Teodoro. He was an 18th-century sea captain who had murdered his wife.

The people of Vecchio must have seen Piet coming, selling him the house everyone in the city knew was haunted. But Piet was Other and fair game for a con. He wasn’t from Vecchio. He wasn’t even Italian. He was Dutch. He had come to Italy as a student to study at Rome’s Conservatorio di S. Cecilia, which was where John had met him. He had fallen in love with Italy and had stayed there. Eventually, even the people who had sold him the haunted house were won over. He was the maestro, an important man in Vecchio—however exotic his origins—because he was an important man in Italian music. The guests he brought through Vecchio’s medieval gates were even more exotic than he. We were among them. John, the Canadian maestro, and I, the only woman in the city wearing jeans.

When Teodoro first walked, the new home owner was terrified. He dragged his mattress downstairs and slept for weeks in the kitchen, which seemed to be neutral territory. Only part of the house was haunted—the part built before Teodoro’s time. You could feel a change in the air as you moved between the house’s older and newer parts. The air was heavy where Teodoro was, and it was hard to breathe. But Teodoro put a stop to Piet’s terror. He appeared to him one night and told him that he would never hurt him. And Piet accepted the promise and the presence and the heavy air and the strangeness of having a housemate from another dimension with a kind of grace. It was why he could talk about Teodoro so matter-of-factly and why he would answer John’s teasing questions about ghosts at breakfast the morning after he appeared to me with a simple—Yes, Teodoro walked last night.

Monday, 14 April 2014

I was in no mood that morning to joke about ghosts. I was convinced that Teodoro had appeared to me because he had been invoked. He had heard us talking about him. I wanted the talking to stop. I didn’t want him to appear again. He didn’t appear again to me. But he remained a presence in the house until we left. I didn’t tell John what had happened until our train to Amsterdam crossed from Italy into Switzerland. I waited until Italian became German, until the only languages I heard were a Swiss dialect and the High German I had learned at school.

Teodoro had robbed me of the peace I had found in Italy. He had robbed me of its joy. He had promised Piet that he wouldn’t hurt him. He hadn’t promised me anything. I am a woman. And he had murdered his wife.

Italy had been one of the greatest surprises of my life. Like Piet, I had fallen in love with it.

Friday, 15 August. I feel as if I’ve fallen through a time tunnel. We’re living in a house built in the first half of the 16th century (the walls are four feet thick), one street down from the top of the hill that is the walled medieval city of Vecchio, Italy. Our first instructions were to enjoy the crickets and to kill the scorpions. At the top of the hill is the duomo, the cathedral. At the bottom is the bed of what was once a moat. Beyond the hill and the city walls is a Roman dam. The city was incorporated in 1346, although it has existed since Roman times, and it is celebrating that incorporation this weekend in a festival. The five wards of the city, the contrade, are decorated with their respective banners—the colours of our contrada are yellow and red—and all day, cars and motorbikes and people have been climbing up streets just wide enough for a Fiat and an Italian grandmother in anticipation of the festival.

John’s friend Piet, whose home we’re in, had to be driven to the train station in Luogo, another walled medieval city half an hour away, at 7.30 this morning, and he left John with sketchy directions and a Fiat with bad brakes. Driving up to our hill in the old city took as long as driving to Luogo and back. Every narrow street looked like every other narrow street. The Fiat kept stalling, and the bad brakes sent us rolling backwards every time John tried to get out of the stall. Men on the streets watched, silent. The morning’s experience, however, turned out to be a kind of blessing. We were able to get lost and to stall—that is, to find our way up and to learn how the car works—in relative unconfusion. By 9.30 a.m., the confusion had begun in earnest, and I found myself thinking Anglo-Saxon thoughts about banning traffic from the old city for the rest of the day.

 At 6 p.m., we went to the duomo. A band and a crowd had gathered outside—there was going to be a parade. A few minutes later, the band went down the hill. The doors of the duomo opened, and the censer, a banner bearer, several priests carrying a large altar, the presiding priest and his acolytes, the congregation, and the people who were waiting with us outside went down the hill. We went down the hill with them. The band played, and the priest sang as we went down, and people sang responses. Halfway down, a car pulled up behind the procession, and a frantic mother and two blue angels got out and pushed to the front. We walked from the duomo to the city gates. The priest led the banner, the altar, and the congregation to a church at the gates, said a short prayer on the steps, and headed back up the hill. The feast day of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary—a national holiday .

At 9 p.m., we followed the festival noises and smells down streets lit by oil lamps to the churchyard of S. Agostino. In the lamp light, the city seemed even older than it does in daylight. Each contrada had its own celebration, and ours was there. There were hundreds of people. The churchyard was dark—only the passages around it were lit—and in the shadows, people were dancing a kind of polka to the music of three accordions, children were running around and through the dancing couples, and there were games, garlic bread, grilled sausages, and wine. The cook was an immense woman wearing a chef’s hat, and she stood sweating over her sausages and mopping her face—a latter-day Italian version of Ursula the pig-woman in Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair. We stayed for about an hour and a half. It’s after midnight now. The accordions are still playing, people are still talking and laughing, and there’s still garlic in the air.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The next day had the magic of the first. Townspeople in medieval dress walked and rode horses from the duomo to the city gates and back again for a ceremony commemorating the incorporation of the city. In medieval dress, they looked like the people of old Italian paintings.

By Monday, the oil lamps and banners of the festival had been taken down. The people of the old Italian paintings had put their medieval dress into storage. And we began to settle into the rhythms of small-town Italian domesticity—the morning shopping, the meal at noon, the afternoon siesta, the early evening activity, the late evening meal—and the sensuality of eating, drinking, and making love.

For the first time in our lives, the world of work had nothing to do with us.

We shopped for the day’s food in the morning. We slept in the afternoon with the rest of the country—including its broadcasters. We walked in the early evening, along the city walls or in the country beyond the walls, smelling the sharp, sweet smell of burning foliage under the olive trees. Once we were startled by a lizard who ran across our path. We listened to music. Or we made our own. Piet’s harpsichord sang in the Italian summer, unlike ours, whose strings snap every winter in its cypress case. We often read. There were English books in Piet’s library—an eccentric collection in many languages—Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Travels with My Aunt. We ate again at 9 or 10 p.m. We wrote letters to friends. And then we slept the deep sleep of satiety, of contentment, of heart’s desire.

Piet spoke at least five languages. While we were with him, he spoke English to us, Italian to his fellow Italians, and Spanish and German to people who telephoned. He reserved Dutch, his mother tongue, for a small grey cat who found its way into the house every day.

The grey cat who had adopted Piet adopted us, too, with a cat’s pragmatism. It was a stray. The neighbours cursed and chased it. Piet fed it. So did we. It came in every day at noon. When we sat down to eat, the cat would materialize, landing on my lap with its claws extended, sometimes drawing blood, to scout the table for food. We fed it cheese rinds and the fat we had trimmed from our prosciutto or whatever else we were willing to sacrifice. It was not friendly, but it had no malice, only the single-minded self-interest of a creature who had to fend for itself. It could always find a way into the house. We never knew how it came in.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

As the days passed, the people of Vecchio began to acknowledge us as neighbours, as they had come to acknowledge the exotic Piet. The white-haired widow, our neighbour to the left, who spent her days under a vine outside her front door with a bowl and a knife and whatever food she was preparing, began to nod and say Buon giorno or Buona sera as we came and went. The cheese store owner began to ask John for his professional opinions. Would the Canadian maestro please tell this customer which of these two cheeses he prefers? The city’s children began to ring our doorbell during siesta—a bell on the end of a string—and run away laughing. The postman began to explain himself. He needed to explain why he couldn’t deliver Piet’s cheque. It was late. Again. My cheque is always late, Piet told us before he left. The postman will need to explain. Non parlo italiano, I told him. I don’t speak Italian. It was the only sentence I knew. He began again. Un momento, I said. He couldn’t deliver Piet’s cheque, he explained to John, because it was late.

We saw our neighbour to the right only once. She slammed her door early one Sunday morning and stormed down the street. A Lady in Red. We were up, getting ready to go to Rome. Her red heels clicked on the cobbles. One morning, as the sun came up, we heard a lovers’ quarrel through the bedroom wall separating the houses. Once we were wakened by the sound of breaking glass. We wondered if the Lady in Red had thrown something, or if Maria, who came in at dawn, had broken Piet’s crystal downstairs. But no one lives there, Piet told us later. The house has been empty for years.

As the days passed, Piet’s friends became ours. Gabriele and Lina, his girlfriend, took us on a tour of the city’s organs. In one church, Gabriele opened the peeling aquamarine case of a small gallery organ. The pipes fell out. We caught them, stuffed them back into the case, and left the church quickly, trying not to laugh like the children who rang our bell during siesta.

As the days passed, Italy began to work an unexpected change in us. We surrendered to its sensuality. It rewarded us with a kind of heightened awareness. We began to reclaim what was animal in us, sensing things we would not have sensed before. In a city whose open shop doors are hung with strings of beads and whose windows are shuttered, not screened, insects and small creatures invite themselves inside. We began to feel their presence in the house before we saw them. We began to feel them watching us, waiting for our sapient selves to settle into our books and music, especially in the hour between dinner and bedtime. Mosquitoes hung on Piet’s dining room wall as we ate, waiting for our animal attentions to be diverted before attacking. John found one of them feasting on his arm. His blood and hers mingled at her death. One morning, I found a spider with a three-inch leg span in the sink. I sensed her before I saw her. I couldn’t kill her. I’m going to turn my back, I told her, and you’re going to disappear. She did. One night, as we were reading by the yellow light of Piet’s living room lamps, John looked up. There’s something in here. A scorpion moved, knocking the ashtray on an end table. John killed it. As the days passed, even the grey cat ceased to startle us.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

The night Piet came home—the night Piet told us about Teodoro—I woke during a thunderstorm. John was asleep, in a bed to my right. Lightning lit the bedroom. Thunder crashed. Rain battered the roof and came in the open window. The shutters slammed against the house.

And Teodoro walked. Up the stairs and into the hallway, stopping at the door. I believed in ghosts. But I also believed that I could scare myself to death. Piet had been telling ghost stories. It was A Dark and Stormy Night.

Teodoro waited. I thought of Piglet, worrying about Heffalumps. What was a Teodoro like? Was it Fond of Women at all? If it was Fond of Women, did it make any difference what sort of Woman? Supposing it was Fierce with Women?

Teodoro walked into the room. The ghost who had killed his wife.

Teodoro walked from the door to the foot of my bed and stopped. He was a pink shadow, wearing what could have been a high pink hat and a pink silk suit. His legs were obscured in green, as if he were standing in tall grass or behind a bush. I couldn’t scream. My heart was pounding, loudly, erratically. I couldn’t hear the storm. I’m going to have a heart attack. If he comes one step closer, I’m going to have a heart attack!

Teodoro came closer. He filled me from my toes to my collarbone, like water pouring into a glass. He became my body. My wild heart beating stopped. Then he left me, passing by John’s bed, through the wall, and into the house of the Lady in Red.

We spent four more nights under Piet’s roof. I didn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. The days were heavy with presence, with something in the air. The grey cat did not come in again.

The Saturday night before we left, Piet gave a party for us. Gabriele and Lina, handsome Paulo, Rosa, and their two-and-a-half-year-old son, and Piet, John, and I laughed and talked long into the night. We said our goodbyes at the door. The child stared into the dark hallway. His eyes widened. Fantasma, he whispered. Phantasm. Ghost. We looked. There was nothing.

Thirteen years later, we found ourselves in Italy again. John telephoned Piet from our hotel room in Florence. He was married. He had two sons. And Teodoro? He left the house, Piet said, the day I got married.


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