We stayed in a monastery cut up into condos, ours with a terrace of dried-up papery roses overlooking Fiesole. The clang of the bell in the morning and evening, the lights of bridges across the Arno, even the road—bumpy, rutted, in places washed out—had its charms. We’d come and go as we pleased, into Florence often, or drive to other hilltowns.
The road to the condo passed by the side of the big priest’s house where Sylvia now lived. She gave us the key and showed us how to turn the hot water on, a mystery I never figured out. The trick was to open the faucet even as you put a match to the gas. There was a whoosh and the pilot held. She spoke almost no English, we spoke less Italian, but she managed to answer most of our questions, with nods and laughs and hands flying around her head; enthusiasm was essential, a way to convey good will and patience when no one understood anything.
One of Sylvia’s front teeth was missing, the other one oversized and yellow, her pink tongue pressed against it constantly feeling for the missing tooth. Every time we saw her, leaving or returning in our little rental car, she wore the same flower-print dress that fell in folds over her generous middle. She watered geraniums on her porch. She sat on the steps with her knees apart, letting the cool of the shade flow under her skirt.
Farther along, another pair of ruts, hardly a road, cut through a vineyard to a warren of shacks, low to the ground, chickens in the yard. Several vacant-eyed older adults wandered about like children or stood and stared. A hulk of a man with hollow hunched-over shoulders in overalls—no shirt underneath, just the crisscross straps of his baggy overalls—held his tight-knuckled fists under his chin as he dug at the dirt with his heel, kicking the same spot over and over. Several yards away, a thin woman with strands of gray hair falling over her face sucked her fingers, two or three in her mouth, as if from a bottle.
We never talked about what we saw three kilometers from town. We never saw an attendant or any responsible adult, just those standing shadows staring at something on the ground or in the clouds or along the roof of the house—a snake? a shape like a face? a row of rose-breasted doves?—something so fascinating their heads bobbed from side to side as if to the beat of music in their minds.
The thin woman with gray hair falling over her face was always the closest to the road when we passed in our car, windows up, wheels stirring up dust as we headed down the hill through the narrow streets of Fiesole to the parking garage on the edge of Florence. From there we would walk to galleries and churches. On the last morning—but how could she know?—she looked up and I caught her large smoky eye so oddly cold blank and connected that it held my eye. Her arm lifted as if she were stretching on tiptoe. In the rearview mirror I saw she had turned and was waving good-bye.
That summer of indulgence, in fresco colors and hilltowns, a woman sat beside me in our little red car. She couldn’t drive a gear-shift; she couldn’t read maps. I was happy. Everything was seething with beauty. Sunflower fields and paintings in churches and especially my companion, the woman with the map in her lap. The heat and dust and ache of it, the enigmatic endurance of the silent and inaccessible, like the fringe of ivy under the eave of the eastern gable of the monastery, its root-like sucker-tendrils fastening in the stucco.