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APPROACHING THE MONSTER
In his smaller library he kept a broken white rock, like a twist of coral, taken by a sugar merchant from the natural harbour at Lampedusa. In the afternoons he would hold that rock to the sunlight feeling the sharp heavy truth of it. He was that island’s prince but like all its princes had never seen its shores nor set foot upon it. To visitors he would say, wryly: It is an island of fire, at the edge of the world; who could live there? He would not add: A great family’s bitterness is always lived in. He would not hold that rock out and say: This is a dead thing and yet it will outlive me. He was the last of his line and after him came only extinction.
As a boy he had listened to his governess tell him the dust of Sicily came from the Sahara and this he had repeated all his life though he did not know if it was true. He imagined it blown across the sea in shimmering red curtains of heat, the hot winds of the sirocco billowing it north, raking the island of Lampedusa in its path. Each morning he would rise and walk his terrace at Via Butera, his steps traced in the sand blown in overnight, leading to the low stone wall over the Foro Itàlico and there ceasing, like the footprints of a ghost, and he would stand peering out at the rising day with his back to Sicily and the southern sea beyond it and beyond that the fiery island of his blood.
He did not love Palermo, its dusty stone streets, its wreckage from the last war. Though he knew he would die in this city of his birth what he felt for it was not love but a fierce desolation that took the place of love. There were greater passions than love. Love was petty, brief, impossibly human. He had loved England, loved Paris, had loved in a doomed way his suffering in the Austrian prisoner camps during the first war, had journeyed by railway and coach north to Latvia loving the vast dark northern forests that scrolled past. Yet he returned always here, to an unloved city, to his mother the dowager princess when she was alive, to the ancient streets of his family name after she was dead. Even as a child in his father’s palazzo the city had seemed to him demonic, low-lying and red-hot. Its dust would boil up out of the sea while the ferries from Naples cut sluggishly near, the souls on board drugged by the heat. That alone had not changed. Now, already old, finding himself in the middle of a new century, living in a decrepit palazzo at the edge of the sea, he would stand high above the harbour and scan their white decks in the offloading as if seeking someone he had lost.
And in this way, still in his slippers and morning robe, brushing crumbs of sand from the top of the wall and rubbing his fingers absently together, he would try to banish the night’s unhappiness and find his way into the day.
* * *
In the years since the Americans had swept the island, he had lived with his wife Alessandra in one half of a small palazzo in the medieval quarter of Palermo, on the narrow Via Butera, their windows glazed and facing the sea. If asked he would admit it was his house, but not his home. His true home stood behind thick walls several streets away, in a slump of cracked stone and wind-rotted masonry from a bomb borne across the Atlantic, a bomb whose sole purpose was the obliteration of the world as it had been. That bomb fell in April 1943 and his wife’s estate at Stomersee far to the north in Latvia had been overrun by the Russians in the same month. They had found themselves homeless and orphaned as one. He walked now the streets of his city a different man, a man burdened by his losses, not freed by them. For he had been born on a mahogany table in that lost palazzo on Via di Lampedusa and had slept alone in a small bed in the very room of his birth all throughout his childhood and into his adulthood and for ten years even after he was married and he did not know who he might be without that room to return to.
The war had taken everything. There was no running water in their half of the palazzo and the ceiling of its ballroom had collapsed in the bombing twelve years earlier. He had filled what was left of that with the furniture salvaged from his destroyed palace. And each morning he would wash using a bowl of scummy water left out from the night before in a bathroom that leaked when it rained. A most extraordinary room, he would joke bitterly; no water in the taps, and yet water running all the same.
He thought of that often now, in the early light, when he would rise alone and wrap a blanket around his shoulders and tread softly past his wife’s bedchamber. His dying mother had returned to the Lampedusa palazzo after the armistice and lived out her last year in its ruins. His wife held no such attachments to the old world of Palermo. Alessandra Wolff entered a room like a door closing, blocking out the light. She was a linguist and reader of literature and the only female psychoanalyst in Italy and she worked into the night with her patients in their historical library and he loved her for her mind and for the solitude they shared. She was the daughter of the singer Alice Barbi, last muse of the composer Brahms, and when her mother remarried she became stepdaughter to his uncle Pietro in London. Upon meeting her he had been, he recalled, unable to speak. You will call me Licy, she had said from the first. He had liked her black hair and blacker eyes and her broad strong shoulders with the power of a stage soprano in them. From his first glimpse of her in London, thirty years ago, when she was still married to her first husband, he had thought her handsome and remote. It amazed him that so much time had passed. He saw in her now the same woman he had seen then, a woman older than he, more worldly, a woman who strode always some feet ahead of him in the street and spoke to him over one shoulder, without turning, and whose stern grace could be mistaken for arrogance. But there was such tenderness in her. And because she was intelligent and not classically beautiful her opinions had often made her company unbearable to men, and he liked that about her too.
* * *
It was on a morning in late January that he was called back to his doctor’s offices, for the results of a spirometer test. He had risen in pain and twisted his bedsheets into a knot and swung his soft white feet out onto the floor, startled by a new dizziness, a shortness of breath, as if his body had decided at last to begin its betrayal.
That sensation had passed; but then, at the turn of the high marble staircase on his way out to breakfast, the pain had struck him again and he had gripped the banister white-knuckled, the paintings of his ancestors above hanging in the gloom, and had gasped and wrestled at the knot of his tie. He did not know if he was being fanciful. He had pressed two fingers to his heart and breathed. It was true that a newfound anxiety was in him which he did not recognize. At dinner the night before he had not mentioned his medical appointment to his wife but only smiled calmly and asked Licy when he had gotten so old.
Trees are old, she had said, stone-faced. Princes are ancient.
At the little table in the foyer he adjusted his hat, peering at his face in the mirror, puzzled. A pain rose in his chest, receded.
Ah, he thought.
And he smoothed the wrinkles at his eyes with a rueful finger.
He was a man who had left middle age the way other men will exit a room, without a thought, as if he might go back at any moment. He was fifty-eight years old. He had smoked every hour of his waking life since the armistice of the first war. A sadness crinkled his eyes, a shyness, evident even in boyhood photographs. He had felt foolish in the company of adults then, he remembered, and that feeling had not left him. Soft-spoken, ironic, he had been mistaken for a good listener all his life though the quality of the light had always interested him more than any confided disgrace. He was a man of solitude and appetites and had got fat since his return from England in the 1930s and then fatter still on sweet pastries in Palermo. He did not like motorcars and walked through his neighbourhood with a cane, heavy, stooped, in the ailing body of a man two decades his senior, always a book or two folded under an elbow. He wore a small dapper moustache as he had since his youth and oiled his grey hair straight back and he dressed each morning in a fine blue suit long out of fashion. He read voraciously, in Italian, French, English, and had done so for more than half a century. Il Mostro, his cousins called him, for the way he could devour a book. The Monster.
He arrived promptly at ten o’clock for his appointment and Dr. Coniglio saw him at once. There was something odd in the doctor’s manner, stiff, which worried him and alerted him to the seriousness of the news. He had known Coniglio for years. They were of an age. A graceful man, with athletic shoulders, a clean stiff collar and shirtsleeves invariably rolled. He liked him, the cordiality in his speech, the clarity in his face like sunlight on flagstones. Coniglio had treated his mother at the end of her life, when she was dying in the ruins of Casa Lampedusa, had made the long drive from Capo d’Orlando to Palermo each week. Until the war, he had been the family physician for his cousins, the Piccolos, attending them at Vina, their villa, and it was only in the last five years that the doctor had opened an office in Palermo. He remembered now, seeing the man’s new consulting rooms, how his mother had used to look at Coniglio, the narrow cold assessment in her eyes. She too had thought him a fine gentleman. She too had not wanted to observe him standing next to her son.
He did not think of himself as shy but a certain shyness took hold in him when he found himself in the company of men such as this, men with a deference for his own station in life, men who had set out and achieved success, men of purpose, men of the world. Their easy manners left him uneasy, their confidence made him falter. He felt himself slow down, grow watchful, hesitant, until he had lost the moment for the quick retort or dry joke that came always to mind. Instead he would blink his lugubrious eyelids, and smile faintly, and meet the other’s gaze helpless.
He waited for the doctor to gesture to a chair before he unbuttoned his winter coat and sat. He took off his hat and folded his gloves in its upended crown and rested his walking stick across his knees. He set his leather bag carefully to one side, half unbuckled, the little frosted cakes in their paper wrappers from his breakfast at the Massimo visible, the spine of the book he had brought for later, The Pickwick Papers, shining up at him. He reached at once for the cigarettes in his pocket but caught the doctor’s eye.
Ah, Don Giuseppe—Coniglio smiled, tsking—not all that is pleasurable in life is forbidden. But some things are, or should be. You look tired, my friend.
Giuseppe withdrew his hand and crossed his legs, the bulleted purple upholstery crackling. The other had settled himself at the edge of his desk, one leg hitched up, his hands folded lightly over his thigh, those hands which turned and weighed and cut into the skin of other beings and sought out the secrets in their flesh. Calmly he met the doctor’s gaze.
Well? he said.
It is as I feared. The doctor’s voice was slow now, deliberate. Emphysema. It can be checked perhaps, but not stopped. I am sorry.
Giuseppe smiled faintly. He could not think what to say.
The spirometer is not always conclusive, of course. We could examine you again.
Would you advise it?
Coniglio held his eye a moment. I would not, he said at last, gently. Are you here alone? I had hoped the princess would accompany you.
He shook his head, calm.
You should not be alone, the doctor said. He rose and went behind his desk and opened a drawer and unscrewed the lid of a fountain pen. I shall write you out a prescription to help with the pain. But the only true medicine, you understand, is for you to cut out tobacco.
The winter morning was grey and diffuse in the curtains. Giuseppe closed his eyes, opened them.
And will that reverse the effects? he asked.
It is a chronic disease, Don Giuseppe—there is no reversing its effects. It will progress regardless. But it can be managed. You must change the way you have been living. You must exercise regularly. Walk. Eat rather less. Avoid stress and worry as you can.
There is no other treatment?
Well. Let us try this first.
But the disease will kill me? he pressed.
Coniglio regarded him quietly from behind his desk. Any number of things could kill you first, he said.
Giuseppe, despite himself, smiled.
I will give you this for the pain, and to help you sleep. The doctor took some minutes to write out the prescription. He then untied a red folder and withdrew two typed pages and perused them and then slipped them back into the folder. We are getting old, Don Giuseppe, he said. That is the substance of it. We may not feel it, but it is so.
Our bodies will not let us forget it.
Coniglio steepled his fingers before him. It was clear he was struggling with what to say next. After a moment, to Giuseppe’s surprise, he began to speak, in a casual way, of his wife. He had a French wife who was known to treat him badly. He said: Jeanette has returned to Marseilles. Her sister is ill. She wishes to be with her family. She has written me to tell me she would like me to join her. Permanently.
You and the princess lived apart a long while, did you not?
Yes. In the thirties.
I remember your mother spoke of it. Princess Alessandra was in Latvia?
Giuseppe nodded. He did not like to think what his mother might have said about it.
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