Wednesday, January 21, 1998

A Walk Through the Museum of Family History

          "I have some colossal nerve to be entertaining you in this living room of ours," I say to my friend.  "Your home is so beautiful and coordinated, and mine is such a mish-mash!"

          "Nonsense!" she says.  "This is a wonderful home!  It looks like you and your family.  It IS you and your family."

          She's right; it IS us.

          We call the chair she sits in our purple chair.  It isn't purple; it's orange, but back in the old house, it had been purple.  We had lived in the old house for twenty-five years before moving to this one.  For all of those twenty-five years, we referred to it as "the new house."  Now, of course, it is "the old house."   

          But to return to the chair...why did we have it reupholstered in orange when we moved into this present new house twelve years ago?  I don't remember why.  I do remember why it had been purple, though.  We needed an accent color, or so I thought at the time.  I had just been reading The Better Homes and Gardens Home Design Book.   Somewhere on one of the shelves in the den, I still have that book.  It's an antique of the fifties, just like me, and probably of some value now, the book, that is...not me.

          I love that chair.  It is the most comfortable seat in our living room.  My husband sits here to read.  If he sits in his lounge chair in the family room to read, he falls asleep; the same as I do if I sit in MY lounge chair in the family room.   Lately, we fall asleep so readily.  All we have to do is get fairly horizontal.  A slouchy sitting position will do.  We think it's either a clear conscience or low mentality.  It certainly can't be old age!  This was to be the home of our old age, but we refuse to be old...yet, anyway.

          When we were still in the other house, Ann, our youngest, and the only one still in the nest at the time, said, "Oh, please, please, please!  Don't sell this wonderful house until I have graduated.  I would HATE to come home to my bedroom and find it in another house!"

          When she would come home from long months at college, she would run right up the stairs to her bedroom in the old house (which even at that late date was still the "new house".)  "Hi, room," she would say.  "Did you miss me?  I missed you!"  We are a family that talks, talks, people, to rooms, to anything and anyone who will listen...and even if they will not.  We all are, that is, except my husband.  He economizes on words.  Sometimes it's fun to guess what he means by his one-word answers to my questions.  Sometimes it is less-than-fun.

          Linda, our oldest child, used to say she loved to go in and "read" Ann's room. Almost every inch of wall space, to say nothing of the large cork bulletin board, was covered with posters and tickets and all kinds of momentos of Ann's girlhood.

          We sold the old house a month after Ann's college graduation, and the three of us moved together into this new house.  Ann had already set her wedding date for a year hence, and stayed with us in the interim, rather than rent an apartment of her own for so short a time.

          The week-end before we moved, our son Tom came down from Sandusky to, as he said, "shoot a few baskets through the old hoop in the old driveway, one last time."  I heard the bounce of the basketball for a long while that evening, and when he came in, Tom's eyes were wet.  I felt guilty.

          "We're robbing our kids of their beloved childhood home!" I said to my husband that night in bed.

          "Just Tom and Ann," he said.  "Linda and Steve don't seem to mind."

          "Tell me again why we are moving," I said.

          "No steps," he said.

          I could only guess what he meant.  "Well," I said before dropping off to sleep, "since you put it that way....."

          So, Ann packed up her momentos, took them to our new house and plastered them on the walls of her room here.  Now since her marriage, that room is our guest room, as well as repository for the crib which has been there for each of our grandchildren when "staying over."   The Looney Tunes mobile over the crib is new, recently bought for our son Steve's little daughter, our brand-new sixth, and no doubt, last grandchild.  And the momentos that had briefly adorned the walls?  Well, Ann packed them up again when she and her then-new husband moved to their apartment, but I never saw them in evidence there, or indeed, in her present house.  Once married, I think her adult life, alas, overtook her, as it does with us all.

          During the brief year Ann lived with us in the new house, I said to her, "If you weren't going to be leaving to get married, Honey, I would buy a third lounge chair to put in the family room for you."

          "Oh, right, Mum!  Thank God I'm getting married!  Can't you just see the three of us asleep in our lounge chairs each evening?"

          Anyway, if my husband and I have reading to do, we vie for the purple (now orange) chair, and he usually wins.  Then I settle for the long couch on the opposite wall, the green-beige-tan-and-brown-striped one with a bolster pillow on each end, four large cushions along the back, and two larger cushions on the seat.  Centered over it on the wall is an enormous oil painting of Hrachney Castle in Prague and the lovely Charles Bridge over the Charles River.  The painting had been my father-in-law's.  He grew up in Prague.

          Our daughter Linda and her husband were visiting us from Washington one day.  Linda saw Ann's little son (our first, and at that time, our only grandchild)  remove from that long green-beige-tan-and-brown-striped couch, all eight pillows, including the firm, round, wonderful bolster pillows, and throw them on the floor.  She watched as he then used the two large seat pillows as trampolines, bouncing from one to the other, and back again.

          "Ann!"  I heard her tell her sister,  "Look what he's doing!  Mum will have a fit!"

          "Oh, she lets him do that," Ann said.

          "She does?  That's the same couch she wouldn't even let us SIT on when we were little!"

          "The couch is older now, Linda," I said, "and so am I."          

          "If there is such a thing as reincarnation," Linda said, "I'm putting in for coming back as your grandchild!"

          "Not my child?"

          "Hell no!"

          My friend gets up from the purple (now orange) chair and studies the Russian icon on the wall behind the chair.  She fingers the gold-colored metal that half-covers the oil painting of Jesus' face.

          "Some big muckety-muck in the Russian government gave that to my father-in-law a long time ago," I tell her.  "He had to smuggle it out, because icons are considered national treasures in Russia, and must not be taken out of the country.  The government official liked him.  Just about everybody did.  What a charmer!  But the official told him that if it was discovered, he would deny ever having known my father-in-law.  Of course, with his proverbial luck, he was never found out.  My mother-in-law gave the icon to us after his death."

          I point to the statues on either side of the grandfather clock.  From where my friend and I are standing beside the purple (now orange) chair, we can see them in the hallway.  They are of dull, coppery metal, hollow, and about three-feet-tall.  One statue is a woodsman holding an axe over his right shoulder.  The other is an aproned woman in long peasant dress, with a bundle of twigs and kindling in her arms.

          "They came from my in-laws' house, too," I tell her.  "And the clock?  Oh, my husband made it from a kit.  The clockworks come from Germany.  It chimes the Westminster Chimes.  We turn the chimes off when the children are visiting, because it bongs throughout the house and keeps them awake.  The funny thing is, when the chimes are turned off, I have trouble getting to sleep!"

          My friend walks over to see the statues, and with love and longing, I remember my mother-in-law and her unique way of speaking.

          "You like those statues, don't you, Sugah?"  my plump, pretty little Irish mother-in-law from Boston had said to me.  "They were in our house in Nashville."

          That fabled house in Nashville!  My father-in-law had bought it fully furnished and had moved his young family there from Boston.  I had never before in my life heard of anyone's buying a house completely furnished from basement to roof top, from beds and sheets to elegant dining room suite, to metal statues.

          "They're called 'danz lays boys'," my mother-in-law told me.

          "Danz lays boys?" I asked.

          "It's written right there on each statue, Sugah.  Go over and read the little copper plaques at the bases for yourself  "Danz lays boys'."

          Sure enough, upon reading the plaques, I see that they are, indeed, called "Dans les bois."

          "That drop-leaf table here in the living room is also from their house," I tell my friend.  "But that stereo over there...that came from our very first house."

          Our first house...oh, yes, our first house.  If our other house is now the old house, then our first house, when we mention it at all, which is seldom, is the old-old old-old, in fact, that it is but a fond, distant memory of a tiny one-story place that we moved into with one dear little toddler, and out of six years later with three lively toddlers and a new baby.  

          "Interesting-looking stereo," my friend says.

          "My husband made that from a kit, too," I say.  She looks puzzled.  "Really, " I say, "he did.  When we lived in the old-old house.  Only it was called a hi-fi back then, not a stereo."

          "Does it still work?"

          "No.  That's why we have that CD player on top of it."

          "Well, that's progress," she says.  "And now I really must be going.  Thank you for the tea."

          "Thank YOU," I think, "for tour of life and family.         

Wednesday, January 7, 1998


"If I had known how all this was going to end, I'd have flown right home from Milan," Mike thinks.  "No, maybe I would have come on to Tuscany anyway.  Maybe it had to be this way."


It was Mike Davidson's first trip to Europe.  Because of the driving rain, he squinted through the windshield, barely able to read the sign:  "Uscita.  Lucca. Mezzo kilometro."  

"The Lucca exit," he said to himself,  "half a kilometer.  This is where I get off."  He eased his foot slightly from the gas pedal, in preparation for exiting the autostrada.  

Three days ago, after he and Bill Thomas, his assistant had completed their business in Milan, they had parted company.  "I want to visit Florence before flying home,"  he had said.   "If they can't do without me at the office for a few days, then they aren't paying me nearly enough!"

Bill had smiled.  "Well, I'm not an important exec like you," he had said.  "I don't dare take time off!  I'll take a morning flight home tomorrow.  Enjoy Florence, and I'll see you at home."

"Thanks, Mike had said.  "I  want to  rent a car and see Lucca as well.  National Geographic did an article on it a while back.  It's supposed to be an enchanting old Etruscan city.  Le Mura, the walls that encircle it, are said to date back to the Eleventh Century...some parts to even earlier."

"You deserve the respite," Bill had said.  "You did a great job in Milan.  I'm sure we'll get a big chunk of their business."

"No, I don't think so," Mike had said.

"What do you mean?  They said they were very impressed!  They said they're a little strapped financially at the moment, but that in the spring, when things are predicted to improve, we will be hearing from them without fail."

"No, " Mike said.  "That was just Italian etiquette speaking.  He was turning us down.  He wasn't impressed with our product at all."

"You've done business with the Italians before?" Bill had asked.

"No.  This is my first time in Italy."

"Then how do you know?"

"I sense it," Mike had said.  "Don't ask me how I sense it; I just do.  I 'd bet my next promotion that I am right!  Funny, isn't it?"

Now the exit to Lucca curved sharply on a bend, and the Fiat swerved on the wet pavement.  The rain augmented; lightening momentarily illuminated the road, and thunder followed.   "I should have rented a heavier auto," he thought.  "What a night!  If I were a mystic-kind-of guy, I'd think the fates have some dire purpose in store, staging such weather for me in these Tuscan hills!"

He missed Porta Sant'Anna, the first entrance after the autostrada to Lucca  proper, and after five minutes, found that he was on the road out-of-town, heading toward the suburbs.  It was by this time after nine o'clock, or what the Italians call "vent'un ore, twenty-one hours."  Through the heavy downpour, the car's headlights just barely defined the road.  Were it not for occasional bolts of lightening, he would have been able to see no more than scant inches ahead.  Loud thunder punctuated his route, until finally, in the dark and the rain and the flashes of light and the cacophony of the storm's thunder, the Fiat's engine gave a few death-gasp sputters and stopped.

"Shit!"  Mike said aloud, torturing the starter over and over to no avail.  On his right, he peered through the car window, and through the spray of rain droplets chasing themselves down the pane, he was able to make out a long driveway leading to an old, large, beautiful, well-lit villa.  He got out of the car, and pulling his jacket up to cover his head, he locked the car door and ran through the pelting rain.  By the time he reached the massive front door of the estate, his jacket and trousers were drenched, and his socks sloshed in his wet shoes.  He pressed the buzzer.

A tuxedo-clad man opened the door.

"Do you speak English?"  Mike asked.  "Please!  My car has broken down.  I must telephone.  God!  What a night!"

Under the light at the entrance door, the man scrutinized Mike's face and then, looking down at Mike's left fifth finger with its missing top joint, took a sharp intake of breath.  Mike, long ago assuming he had been born with the deformity, gave it little thought, but now that it had been so obviously noted, he self-consciously curled the little finger into his palm.  The man stepped to one side, motioning for Mike to enter.  "Venga  per piacere, signore....come in, please, sir." 

"That's strange," Mike thought.  "Just like that!  No questions asked...just 'come in'!"  

"My car broke down," he said again.  "May I use your phone?"    Then he saw the man's formal attire.  "Oh, I'm so sorry," Mike said.  "Am I interrupting a formal occasion?"

"No!  No!" the man said.  "Venga!  I am Giullio, the maggiordomo."


"The butler," he explained.  "Come into the salotto...the parlour.  But please keep your voice down.  The padrone, the man-of-the-house, il Conte, is a light sleeper with a heavy temper.  It would not be wise to disturb him."

"Conte?  You mean he is a nobleman...a count?"

"Si... yes," Giullio said, "Il signor' Conte Lorenzini."

"Well, now," Mike thought.  "On such a night as this, to happen upon the 'castle' of a count, wouldn't you think this should be the Draculan hills of Romania instead of Italy?"

Giullio bade him sit in the parlour.   "Si rest," he said, indicating the settee, "and I will telephone the garage in Lucca about your car.  They may not be able to come out tonight, but if not, we can make you comfortable until morning."  His English was stiffly correct.  "I will be but a moment, mio caro signore."

"My dear sir?" Mike wondered.  "He's being a little affectionate for having just met me, isn't he?  Maybe it's just a colloquialism."

Mike looked around.  The room was exquisitely furnished in white furniture with gold inlays.  Two settees, pillowed in down-filled, cream-colored satin, flanked a delicate white table, graced with a museum-piece figurine of a man and woman.  The porcelain woman, in the man's arms, was bent gracefully back, and her porcelain lover was pressing his lips to hers.  "Must be worth a fortune," Mike thought.  "An heirloom!"  

Suddenly he felt apprehension engulf him.  The feeling that he had been here before crept up his spine and settled on his shoulders.  He tried to shrug off the mood.  Why was this gem of a room somehow familiar to him who until ten days ago had never so much as set foot outside the United States?   "Could it be that I heard stories about this villa," he wondered, "in my family perhaps?  When I was very young...too young to remember consciously?"  Oh, but he knew that was not possible.  His ancestors, on both his father and his mother's side,  had been Bostonians since the very existence of Boston itself, and before that, no doubt, had been English subjects.  That they had ever ventured this far south at all was, to say the least, most doubtful.  And even if they had, what kind of coincidence would have led them to this very villa, nestled in the rolling hills of the Tuscan countryside?

Giullio re-entered.  "The garage made no answer," he said.  "We will telephone again in the morning.  I will ring for Menichina, la serva...the maid.  She has not yet retired, and will make up a room for you for the night."

Mike marvelled at the hospitality.  "For all they know, I could rob them blind and murder them in their beds!" he thought.  "Yet, he's offering me lodging out of the storm!"

Giullio pulled a long silk cord hanging from the ceiling, and Menichina, in old-woman black, presently came into the room.  Her dress, long-skirted, was covered by a crisp white apron.  She, as Guillio had done earlier, gasped upon seeing Mike.  She too looked down at Mike's left hand, and then immediately looked away..  She struggled, but quickly regained that impersonal composure universal to all servants.  

She put a finger to her lips, and motioned for Mike to follow her.  Yet, even before he did so, he knew there would be a buff-colored hallway on the other side of the parlour, and that from this hallway would be, on the right, a large sala da pranzo, the dining room, with a massive round oaken table, and twenty great, carved-backed chairs around it, and the floor would be of Carrera marble.  When they arrived far enough down the hallway for him to glance into the dining room, he saw that he was indeed right, and now his apprehension intensified. 

Menichina, again putting a finger to her lips, beckoned him to follow her up the wide stairway, banistered in gleamingly-polished mahoghony.  A luxurious red carpet covered the stairs, and was held fast at the base of each riser by heavy, shiny brass rods with ornate knobs at  the ends of each.  A crystal chandelier pended over the staircase, effecting a twinkling gleam of elegance.  It was then that Mike saw the large, gilt-framed portrait at the top of the stairs.  It seemed to be his own face, although much sterner, looking down at him.  

"Who is that?" he asked, pointing to the portrait, but Menichina made no answer.  Suddenly the wind battered against a window.  A flash of lightening was followed by a crash of thunder.  He and the woman stopped and stood still until the noise ceased vibrating around them.   His heart pounded.  He became conscious of Giullio standing two steps behind him.  

"Who is that?" Mike asked again of the portrait, this time to Giullio.  

"Your grandfather," Giullio said.

"But how can that be?"

"Please, mio caro signore, be very quiet.  When we reach your bedroom and have closed the door, I will tell you all.  I promise.  But for now, very quiet.  The Count is not a man to be crossed, even now in his eighties!"

When they were in the bedroom and Menichina had taken her leave, and Giullio had shut the door, Mike said, "Now, Giullio, as you promised....."

Giullio took a deep breath and began.  "The wife of il signor' Conte died in childbirth," he said, "their first -- and only, of course...a daughter.  Elisabetta was her name, and she grew to be una propria bellezza, a true beauty.  But he kept her isolated, to himself, here in the villa....with only her tutors and us servants for company.  We adored her, and our hearts ached for her.  She was an angel, un'angela!... and she played the harp like one.  The Count would sit in the salotto almost every evening and listen to her play."

One day, a handsome young falegname, a carpenter, Giancarlo by name, from the village of San' Carigniano, was commissioned to redo the fireplace panelling and bookshelves in the library.  It was a job that would take several months, during which time he lived with us in the servants' quarters below.  With his black, tousled curls and lively dark eyes and his happy disposition, he soon captured our affection....that is to say, the affection of all us save the Count, who hardly acknowledged his existence.  The young man would stand sometimes, unseen, beyond the doorway of the salotto, listening to Elisabetta as she played the harp for her father.  When il signor' Conte was not about, Giancarlo would hum the melodies softly as she played.  Soon, at such times, he would join her in the salotto,and we loved how he made her laugh and be happy, as a young woman is meant to be."

Giullio cleared his throat and continued.  His eyes were wet.  "Before long, la natura and la gioventu, nature and youth, being what they are, the young couple became lovers.  We servants knew they met secretly, late in the evenings, in the garden beyond the courtyard, but we kept our own counsel, fearing for her her father's wrath."

"She was my mother, wasn't she?" Mike asked.

Giullio's eyes glistened.  He nodded.

"And she became pregnant...with me..."

Giullio nodded again, took out a white linen handkerchief and quietly blew his nose, then went on.  "She and Giancarlo left before her body showed evidence of you.  They lived together, without benefit of the Church, in his mother's modest house in San' Carigniano.  You were born there.  Your grandfather was mad with rage.  "The fruit of her noble womb is diluted with peasant blood!"  he shouted when he learned of your birth.   He vowed to hate you forever, but even more, he hated Giancarlo, who, he felt, had betrayed his daughter and him.  He sent three men to San' Carigniano, and your father was   beaten mercilessly.  It was Elisabetta who found his bloody and broken corpse in the vineyard.  The Count forced her and the come back to live with him."

Giullio cried softly, unashamedly.  "We grew to love you were a beautiful child, but your grandfather never stopped hating you.  One day he even took an axe and chopped off the tip of your little finger!  I thought I would go mad with grief, but it was Elisabetta who shrieked and raved and tore her hair.  Menichina and I helped her stop the bleeding and bind your terrible wound, and that night, under the cover of darkness, your mother took you and left forever.  We never saw either of you again...until now."  Silent sobs shook his small frame.  "Forgive me, mio caro signore," he said.

Mike's voice was husky with rage.  "How did he get away with it?" he asked.

"Your grandfather was...and is....a very powerful man," Giullio said.

Mike did not stay the night.  "I understand," Giullio said, daring to embrace him.  "I will arrange immediately for a limosine to drive you to Rome.  I can phone ahead to Leonardo Da Vinci Airport to reserve a seat for you on the next flight to the United States."


Mike paced the floor now in the living room of the woman who, all his life heretofore, he had thought of as his mother.  "You should have told me I was adopted," he said.  "You and Dad should have told me."

She twisted her handkerchief in her hands.  "We wanted to," she said, "but she made us promise....Elizabeth, your mother, did.  She feared her father would somehow track the two of you down and kill you.  She came to work for us when you were but a baby.  It was obvious she was not used to servitude, but she did her job diligently, and we quickly grew to love her...and you!  She died less than a year later, the dear, lovely, sad little thing!  She was ever the lady...did her chores always with a black velvet ribbon tied at her throat."

"I'm going back!" Mike said.  "I should not have left without ending the story."

"Oh, Mike, dear," let it go," his mother said.  "Don't let it ruin your life.  How can such a story possibly end?  Just let it go."

"How can such a story end, Mother?  I'll tell you how.  He must pay!  I'm going to return and kill the son-of-a-bitch!"

"Michael, please!" she said.  "Your father and I raised you to abhor violence.  You mustn't go against the nature we've instilled in you!"

"The nature you strove to instill in me is one thing; the cruel blood of my grandfather that flows in my veins is another.  He will die!  I will see that he suffers first, and then he will die!  I am the bastard grandson of Count Lorenzini, and blood will out."


Less than a month later it is over.  Mike's cell door clangs shut, and the sound reverberates throughout death row.

Monday, January 5, 1998

The Sojourn

The woman who answered his knock was in old-woman black.  Her dress, long-skirted, was covered by a crisp white apron.  She was neat and tiny, a tidy little woman.

He told her his tale of woe, how his car had broken down almost directly in front of her house.  He was grateful that she seemed to trust him, and better still, that she understood his English.

She smiled.  "Venga!  Come!  Venga nel salotto!  Come into the parlour!" she said, beckoning him through the door into her front room.

Immediately upon entering, he felt a strangeness engulf him.  The feeling that he had been here before crept up his spine and settled on his shoulders, like some gargoyle looking at him.

"My English not good," she said.

"No!  No!" he protested.  "It's fine!  I wish I knew Italian so well!"   He heard himself speak these words,  but they were a mere echo to the clamor in his brain that was shouting, "Why?"  Why was this old, old house, on this little dirt road nestled in the hills of Tuscany....why was it so familiar to him....who until three weeks ago, had never so much as set foot outside the United States?

"I learn a little English from the American soldiers."  He was aware of her speaking.  "You know...the occupation...twenty years was more than twenty.  The years go so fast!"   Engrossed in his thoughts, he made no response.

"Could it be that I heard stories about this house," he wondered, "in my family, perhaps?  When I was very young...too young to remember consciously?"  

Oh, but he knew that was not possible.  His ancestors,  on his mother's side, at least,  had been Virginians since the very existence of the State of Virginia itself, and before that, they had been loyal subjects of British monarchs.

"Then why do I have such an intense familiarity with this modest farmhouse in this remote Tuscan village?"

"Scusa?  Pardon me?"  the woman asked, and he realized he had spoken the last thought aloud.

"Oh, nothing, nothing," he said.  "I was just thinking....that is, I am very tired...."

"I get you un' apertivo, you say...apertif?" she asked.  "It is late to repair your automobile tonight.  Perhaps you rest here, then go in the morning.  Yes?  But first you have un' apertivo."

"Thank you," he said.  "That would be very kind of you."

"Si riposa un po'... you rest alittle," she said.  "I return subito...immediately."

He sat on the divan and returned to his thoughts.  His father's lineage was German, Prussian more accurately.  Maybe that was it.  "Nonsense!" he told himself.  "Prussia is a far distance from these hills, and it would be too coincidental to suppose that my paternal ancestors, had they ever ventured this far south at all, which is doubtful, would have come upon this very house, nestled in the rolling hills of the Florentine countryside.  Besides, even if they had, how would their knowledge of this place have jumped into my brain?  It's not something that becomes part of one's genes!...Or is it?"

She returned with a tray and two glasses.  They sat for awhile, sipping their refreshment and groping for conversation.  Finally they arose, and even before he followed her out of the parlour, he knew there would be a buff-colored hallway on the other side, and that from this hallway would be, on the right, the sala da pranzo, the dining room, and that it would be large and bare, save for a round oaken table and twelve massive, rough-hewn chairs, and that its floor would be of earth.  But when they arrived far enough down the hallway for him to glance into the dining room, he saw that he was wrong, for the floor of the sala da pranzo was concrete, and this puzzled him, for in his mind's eye, he had been sure it was a dirt floor.  He looked around then, and saw that all the floors were of concrete, and it disqueted him, because his memory told him it should not be so.

She beckoned him to follow her up the narrow wooden stairs.  "Venga, please.  Come," she said.  "I show you the bedroom.  It belong to my son, but he is now gone.  You will be comfortable here for the night."

Suddenly the wind battered against the window and for an instant, the Spartan bedroom was brightly illuminated.  He and the woman stopped and stood still until a crash

of thunder ceased vibrating throughout the house.   

Under the influence of the nature of the night, he found himself wondering if perhaps the fates had some purpose in store...given the odd circumstance of his rented Fiat's having chosen precisely this house before which to stage its breakdown.  In truth, the very breakdown itself gave him pause--so strange it was that the car had purred merrily along the road one moment, and then had become utterly and completely immobile the next.  He shrugged off the haunting thought, convincing himself that his friends were right when they often told him he was too much the poet.  "A veritable Edgar Allan Poe," a young lady friend had once called him.

He smiled now at the Signora.  "You are most kind," he said.  "Of course, I shall expect to pay..."

She smiled and protested,, and bobbed her head, and protested anew.  Somewhere in the far recesses of memory, he knew this was the deeply embedded etiquette of this particular countryside...that they protested no, no, and expected  the other one to go on insisting, both realizing full well that the outcome would and should, in all civility, be the very thing so much protested at the start.  There flashed in his mind, a scene, he knew not from when or where, of himself, in pantaloons and a rough shirt, seated at the oaken table in the dining room of this very house.  His shoes, under the table, loomed large in his mind's eye, and unexplainably, they were wooden.  He saw a man, in like pantaloons and shirt, standing in the frame of the doorway, smiling, and he saw his parents, but they didn't have the faces of his parents.  Still, he knew these to be his father and mother.  How he knew was a mystery.  At any rate, his parents bade the man enter and share their repast.  The man politely protested that he had just eaten, but they insisted that he join them at dinner.  He said he really could not eat even one more bite, and they persisted, and he persisted, until finally he entered and sat at their table, and an earthenware plate was set before him, afterwhich the man ate with such enthusiasm, that it was clear he had not had a meal for several hours.and he ate with them.

The scene, so vivid, caused his heart to pound within his chest.  He wondered if the Signora heard it.  If she did, she took no notice, and the question of payment seemed to have been bandied back and forth enough to now be settled, for she said, "Twenty-five-thousand lire will be very acceptable.  You are most generous."  She told him she would fill a the wash basin in the room with water from the kitchen, for him to wash with in the morning.

Mention of the kitchen reminded him of a fireplace, a great stone fireplace, and a large pot hanging therein, and of a small, dark woman stirring its contents.  

"Tell me, Signora," he said, "the it....does it have a fireplace?  And on the wall beside it, is there an oven...that is, a door in the stone wall, with a tunnel hollowed out, and is it used as an oven?"

She shrugged, and the gesture was so typical of these parts, that he felt an inexplicable fondness for her.  "You have seen one of these old houses," she said, "and you have seen them all.  Si!  Yes, it has such a fireplace.  It is old, very old, this house.

My great grandfather remembered his great-grandfather telling of this house in his youth.  Very old, this house.  Tomorrow you see.  Now you sleep.  The walk to Lucca will take perhaps more than one hour tomorrow.  There you can telephone.  Reposa bene, SignoreRest well, sir.   I go now to bring you water."  She gave a half-courtsey, picked up the wash basin, and was gone.

"That must be the answer," he reasoned, willing himself to believe.  "To see one such house is to see them all."  But he had never, never to his knowledge, seen one before.  His flight from London had set down in Milano only four days ago, and his stops since then, up to this unplanned sojourn, had been in hotels and albergios.  The gargoyle loomed, and he tried to blot it out, for after all, this voyage had been planned so that he could settle his nerves, quiet his anxieties.  His doctor had advised it. 

He lay awake most of the night, sleeping only in snatches, and waking in a sweat of remembering some other facet of the house, some other little scene that had taken place ancient scene, of other times, of another era.

Finally, the chatter of birds outside his window, and a shaft of sunlight across the cold floor heralded the morning.  How did he know the floor was cold, still snug abed as he lay?  He pushed the question from his mind.  The fantasies that the darkness of night had magnified were not be fearful in the lovely light of morning.  In all honesty, though, he could not convince himself that they had been mere fantasies. 

He washed and shaved, using the long, old-fashioned, leather-handled razor hanging at the side of the washstand.  The washstand was not familiar, and for that he was grateful, and felt an affection, an unreasonable relief and love for the impersonability of the washstand, for he knew nothing of its past, and it recalled for him nothing of his.

The old woman, in the courtyard, was calling to her cat.  He saw the courtyard in his mind, although it had been dark when he had arrived last night, and in truth, he had not approached the house from that side.  "Miscia, miscia," he heard her call.

He had never, not to his conscious knowledge, heard the word before, yet he knew she called her cat, and he wondered how he knew.  "Her tone of voice, perhaps," he thought.  "Perhaps 'Here kitty, kitty' and 'Miscia, miscia'  have a universal inflection."

He shivered and dressed hurridly, and descended the stairs, anxious to quit this house, this vicinity, this very country, as soon as possible.  He intended to return to The States immediately, submerge himself in his work, surround himself with his sophisticated friends, and forget such a place as this existed.  "I have to," he told himself.  "My sanity demands it!"

The Signora, having already set breakfast at the oaken table for him, bid him 'buon giorno', and he returned the greeting.  He did not feel up to protesting the amount of work she must have  gone to in preparing his breakfast.  Yet he knew he should, and being of breeding, and knowing she expected it, he did.  The formalities of protestations completed, he pulled out her chair for her, then circled the table to his own place, and prepared to sit down, but the cat chose that precise moment to skitter into the dining room, almost upsetting him as it darted through his legs.  Catching his balance, he remembered clearly another cat, a similar cat, but they had never had cats in his home.  His mother was allergic to them.  He faced it squarely then...the gargoyle.  And strangely, he was no longer afraid.  He even found himself interested to know if perhaps this cat, this very cat....  "Hmm.  Is it also true of animals?" he thought.  "And  if so, were they always animals, or did they once enter life  as other forms?"

He wondered then if he himself had always been human, and would he always be so?  Or would he someday, some century, some eon from now, when the elements were rightly aligned, and the mood pregnant...would he someday get a glimpse of grazing in a grassy field, his snout close to the ground, the smell of grass in his nostrils?  

"Perhaps it isn't only the human mind," he thought, "that is capable of memory.  Perhaps the bovine mind...the feline mind...the mind of an ant...."

The thought was ridiculous, but it was there, and it made him smile.

He sat down to breakfast, and felt akin to the cat, to the woman, to all mankind, indeed to the world, the universe, and far beyond. 

"Well, cat," he said aloud, lifting his breakfast cup in salute, "here's to other times and other places!"

The woman looked at him, not understanding.  He, however, at last understood perfectly, and could hardly wait to get on with this life of his. 

"And the next," he told himself, and the next, and the next."