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Authors: David Macfarlane

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BOOK: The Figures of Beauty
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So this was how it started. It started because Anna would not talk about the weather. Or the traffic. She felt it was a slippery slope. Next we’d be talking about something we’d read in the paper that day—and at that point, Anna believed, the population of the local bourgeoisie would have increased by two.

It grew from there. It was a game we played. Anna’s oblique responses to my perfectly obvious remarks became the beginnings of the stories we told to one another that summer. It was one of the ways we passed our time.

Anna came by possessions easily. Sculptors she knew in Pietrabella often left her things when they went back to Antwerp, or Frankfurt, or Pittsburgh, or Sheffield. It was
understood that these would be given back to them when they returned—but often their return to Italy was not as immediate as they had imagined it would be. In many cases, their return never happened at all. They got caught up in other things. Anna’s Cinquecento and an equally rusted bicycle had come to her this way.

One departing sculptor left a record player and a radio. But this made no difference to our domestic activities. The farmhouse had no electricity. We sat, surrounded by the hills and valleys, at her outdoor table, smoking spliffs and drinking cheap Prosecco and grapefruit juice in the day, black rooster Chianti at night, and ignoring what your mother regarded as the irritating constraints of time.

The Germans retreated through those hills in ‘44, backing off the Gothic Line, with the pincers of American, British, and Canadian tanks closing in on them from the south. As you well know, this history is connected to your mother’s own story. And it was only natural, given her background, that she should include the Second World War in the tales we spun. “I think the artillery is getting closer, don’t you?” This was the kind of thing she said in response to some banal comment made by me about distant thunder or the blasting from the marble quarries in the mountains above us.

Were I to mention something about potholes, she might say, “Charles Dickens passed me on the road today. He was on a donkey.”

Dickens spent a few days in the Carrara area during a trip to Italy in the summer of 1846, and your mother was immensely proud of this minor biographical detail. She liked getting stoned and reading a few pages about Oliver Twist, or David Copperfield, or
Jarndyce v. Jarndyce
—slowly, because her understanding of written English was painstaking even
when she didn’t smoke a spliff, and her appreciation of it all the greater when she did. Dickens was a presence for your mother in the same way Michelangelo was.

“Signor Dickens,” she would say, “was on his way back from his tour of the quarries when I saw him. At first I thought it was a statue of a man on a donkey because they were so covered in marble dust.”

Your mother liked Dickens because she felt she recognized a kindred spirit. She loved the way the fates of his heroes and heroines disappeared in the thickets of the past and then resurfaced, in unexpected clearings. This made sense to her. It’s why she also liked Mickey Spillane and Raymond Chandler. And it was the same with stone: Anna worked with the no-nonsense toughness of a hard-boiled detective. She was always finding connections she refused to believe were coincidences.

I was not so inclined to put the same faith in the universe. But I never succeeded in changing Anna’s mind. As she pointed out more than once: I wasn’t a sculptor.

As well, there was a weakness on my side of the debate that I found distracting. You must not take this as a boast because, believe me, there was nowhere to go but up, but I was becoming a more confident and a more generous lover that summer. Thanks to your mother. And while those summer lessons were unfolding, I sometimes wondered: if I’d previously understood so little about making love, perhaps I was equally under-informed about fate.

Teachers always take inordinate pride in a local history. I knew everything there was to know about the colonialists who settled Cathcart by the third or fourth year their dates were pounded into our heads at elementary school. I’m sure the same
enthusiasms prevail in Italy. You probably have no memory of a time when you did not know that marble is quarried near Pietrabella.

In the summer of 1968 I had come to a place that was all about the famous stone.

With its trappings of tombs, palatial lintels, and crumbled ruins, marble has never seemed new. Even in the Renaissance, the popularity of white Carrara marble had a good deal to do with its automatic allusion to antiquity—an allusion that was never on very solid ground, as a matter of fact. The artists and the great patrons of the quattrocento either didn’t know or chose to overlook the fact that it had been weather, not noble refinement of taste, that had washed away the gaudy colours with which the ancient Greeks painted their heroic stone figures.

“Marble has been carved for centuries in Pietrabella’s famous workshops.” This must surely have been a caption on one of your annual projects for a history or geography class when you were little.

I could have helped. I could have told you that it was Elisa Baciocchi, the princess of Lucca and grand duchess of Tuscany, who, in the first decade of the nineteenth century, saw the possibilities of the souvenir industry. She established the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Carrara—an initiative designed to make the region an exporter of finished sculpture as well as raw stone. Dozens of new studio workshops established in the bustling streets of Carrara were the result.

Elisa’s intention was too commercial to be strictly artistic—but she was one of those great benefactors of the arts whose generosity depends on misunderstanding. These were reproductions, after all. Not art. But the idea of reproduction was not yet ubiquitous, and mediocrity was not part of the princess’s thinking. Beautifully carved Venetian lions in the public
gardens of provincial towns, surprisingly detailed Bernini paperweights on the desks of actuaries, quarter-size
Cupid and Psyches
beneath the palm fronds of hotel foyers, devotedly transposed
Davids
beside Royal Doulton figurines on mantelpieces, and marble busts of her brother in antique stores everywhere owed their existence to Napoleon’s youngest and most culturally ambitious sister.

A sad thought—your being little. It’s an odd regret to have—with so many others from which to choose—but I am very sorry to have never helped you glue
National Geographic
photographs of mountain peaks, and quarry workers, and dusty-white artisans to bristol board for a grade school assignment. I would have liked that.

When I was with your mother she spent her days—as I’m sure she spends them now—working marble with her battered wooden mallet and her chisels, her points, her punches, her drills and rasps, her sandpapers and emery. And with her tanned, strong arms. I loved watching her work. She was always at the side of the farmhouse, in her shorts and construction boots. She could work for hours without saying a word. She never gave any warning when she was about to speak.

Anna was pushing the back of her wrist across the sweaty white dust on her brow when she said that she didn’t think our meeting was an accident. She said that she believed it was marble that brought us together. She thought the evidence was indisputable.

But I couldn’t see it. Not at first, anyway. Marble seemed to have nothing to do with what had happened to us.

When you place your hand on Carrara marble—whether a piece of sculpture or a bathroom tile—there is always something sepulchral in the sensation. Its cold beauty seems to belong to the same realm of time as the distant stars.

Anna’s warm skin and dark, rosemary-scented hair were the very opposite of marble. Or that’s how I thought of her. If there were
memento mori
carved into the frame of those four summer months—skeletons and skulls and Grim Reapers in the overgrown hedge that surrounded the property on which the farmhouse stood—I didn’t see them. I’ve never been further from death. Anna brought something to me that I was simultaneously young enough and old enough to enjoy most completely. But white stone is not the medium I’d choose were I ever to describe what that something was.

On the surface, there were no signs that I had ended up with your mother in the hills outside Pietrabella by anything but accident. But your mother isn’t all that interested in what’s on the surface of anything. She is a sculptor. Which is an unusual thing to be, really—since every other art I can think of is accumulative in some way. Even writing this letter is an addition of memories. But carving marble is the opposite. It’s all about finding what lies beneath the surface. It’s about taking away what is there in order to find what isn’t.

Anna and I were lying in bed. We were talking.

There were other things we did in bed, of course. And while it’s probably wise for me to avoid their description, my discretion should not be mistaken for our restraint. We spent a lot of our time doing exactly what you’d expect us to be doing that summer. But for some reason, I cannot picture anything as precisely as I can picture the two of us lounging in bed afterward and talking.

I had just told Anna of a childhood memory. It involved the church in Cathcart to which I was taken, every Sunday, by Winifred and Archie Hughson when I was young.

Your mother was not exactly riveted. As you well know, she has little patience with organized religion, and no patience at all with the formal trappings of Christianity. Fury at the circumstances of her birth had set her against the notion of a single, benevolent god from a surprisingly young age. A few nuns and priests had attempted to claim her as a kind of miracle when she was little, but they retreated quickly enough from her fearsome tantrums. Even as a girl, Anna made it clear that this was not a battle she was prepared to lose.

She was not, therefore, well disposed to a story of anything that happened to me in a church. But this was not because she wasn’t interested in my childhood memories. Usually, she encouraged me to tell her about the neighbourhood in Cathcart where I’d grown up and the hillside trails where I played guns with my best friend when we were boys. She wanted to know all about Winifred and Archibald Hughson. She was interested in how they came to own the old Barton pool.

She also listened, amazed, when I told her about Cathcart as it pertained to the subject of food.

“No,” she gasped, when I informed her of tinned spaghetti. “This is not possible. And what do you drink with such horrible a dinner?”

“Milk,” I replied.

I’m not certain that she was only pretending to gag. Anna enjoyed being horrified by America.

But listening to my memories of church was not what your mother had in mind. Not at that time of night.

It was late. We’d come inside the farmhouse. We’d undressed quickly.

Those nights in the hills had their own perfume. I know that sounds improbably romantic, but it is true. Drying hay and dewy wildflowers were the most immediate additions to a
breeze that, coming from the sea and across the patchwork of gardens and little farms on the coastal flats, flowed up into the hills like a slowing wave. Those evenings—all purple sky and fireflies—were so gradual in their fading, it seemed as if the light would never really go. But it was never a disappointment when finally it did. “A big amazement of stars” is what your mother called our view over the valley. Crickets were pretty much the only sound.

The bedroom window was always open, and when it was late, it was as if the darkness that drifted over us was a quilt of scent. And as the sky above the farmhouse turned from inky blue to black, the perfume shifted its tone—the warm floral notes of summer began to slip away. Night air fell from the mountains.

It was cool as satin. Under the duvet, your mother pulled herself closer. She smoothed her left leg over mine while I spoke.

“This does not seem so interesting,” she said very softly into my ear.

I was getting a little sleepy with the story myself—but that may have been a factor. Had I lulled myself into some kind of trance? Was I remembering things more completely, the way dreams sometimes allow?

With your mother nestling in against me, I came to a memory I hadn’t visited for a long time: the cold, smooth marble floor of Montrose United Church. This was where I had to lie—uncomfortably, on my stomach—during the Thursday night rehearsals for a Christmas pageant called
The Wayward Lamb
. This occurred during the chilly late autumn and the cold early winter of 1958. And what I remembered about those rehearsals was not only Miriam Goldblum—not only her rich, black hair and the way her choir gown folded over the pale chancel stone when she knelt beside me. What
I remembered was not just her perfume and the way she smoothed my hair off my brow. What I most clearly recall about those rehearsals was that I was flushed with embarrassment throughout all of them.

I told Anna what had happened. This caught her attention.

“There,” she said. Her lips moved against the side of my neck as she spoke. “You see.” I could feel her smile. Her hand slid slowly across me.

When I closed my eyes, I pictured Anna’s hair as the shadows in a forest. I’m sure it was the rosemary infusion she made herself and used to wash her hair that inspired this association. And Anna had a way of touching me that always made me close my eyes. She pressed her hips into my side. “You are obsessed, aren’t you?” she said.

Because Anna could usually count on my co-operation, there were not many moments when she wasn’t capable of my immediate seduction. She didn’t much like doing dishes, and so, despite my instinct for order and good housekeeping, they often didn’t get done. When she was tired of our stories, she was quite adept at getting me to stop.

“You see,” she whispered. “You can’t deny it.”

“Deny what?”

“The thing you have. For marble. I knew always that you did.”

Anna made it sound as if we’d been discussing the subject for years.

“You have always been obsessed,” she insisted. “Haven’t you?”

“Me?”

“Totally obsessed.”

“I hardly know anything about marble.”

“This is true. But you do not need to. What you need to do is remember what you just told me. About what happened
when you were the shepherd boy. In the Christmas play. When you became … on the marble floor. When you had to lie on your stomach …”

BOOK: The Figures of Beauty
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