Nose

At a cocktail party, a middle-aged gentleman told his fishing story. It was about a snake; not about the colossus that got away. He said that the incident had happened years ago but was one of those life moments, which haunts forever. Apparently, he was doing some deep-water wading when he felt a long slimy body slither between his legs. He instinctively knew that this was not a fish. Then, his eyes agog, he told of his subsequent horror when a six-foot-long water snake reared out of the water to stare at him with cold unblinking eyes. Its head was a few inches from his nose. Thoughts flashed through his mind, “If it bites me on the nose, and I survive will I have a deformed face with no nose?” and “What should I do to survive even if I do lose my nose?”

The man paused to take a sip, and I looked at him skeptically. His nose was intact. I wondered whether he was exaggerating the size of the snake, for most do in an attempt to validate fear. A snake enthusiast in our group commented this was probably a benign water snake; easily distinguished, he said, because the poisonous Cottonmouths are aggressive and have fatter bodies. The gentleman looked at us, gauging our disbelief and went on to tell how he managed to keep his cool demeanor and slowly raise his hand to cover his vulnerable nose while he gently blew in the snake’s face. To his relief, the snake took his suggestion. It backed off and swam away almost as though it were as scared as he. As for the type, he said that he was too frightened to be able to distinguish what kind of snake it was. I don’t blame him.

Jane Stansfeld 296 words

GRIM REAPER

Aimee was with Peter the whole time. She sat by the hospital window and watched while the doctors administered to him. They explained that they hoped to prevent his minor TIA from morphing into a deadly stroke. When they kept him overnight  she moved beside his bed and held his hand. By 2:00 am, she was exhausted and let her eyes close to catch a brief nap.

Peter moaned; Aimee opened her eyes to see a dark figure looming over the bed. She recognized him and tried to thrust him away.

“Go.” she ordered, “It is not time.”

“You are wrong.” countered the figure.

“You don’t understand.” she replied, “We two are soul mates. We found each other late in life, we haven’t been married long. We must have more time together.”

“Time together?”

“Yes, we are together. You must not separate us!”

The figure nodded and disappeared.

By 4:00 am the ward was humming with action. The man in the adjacent room had died. Aimee knew that this was a result of her conversation.  She did not discuss her suspicions. The the next morning she was delighted when the doctor told her that Peter could go home. She brought her car round to the door of the hospital and watched the nurse wheel Peter out. He climbed into the passenger seat with ease. She loosened her seat belt and leaned over to kiss him on the lips. She turned on the radio and they laughed as she drove away. The dog appeared at the first intersection. She swerved to avoid it. In that prolonged awful second that they slammed, out of control, toward a concrete wall she saw the nocturnal visitor again.

“Wish granted,” he said “You are together!”

The Puppy

I’ve been reading the recently published book “New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction”. The forward informs me that “a good micro hangs in the air of the mind like an image made of smoke,” and that it needs to be under 300 words. The following is my first attempt at this literary form. I hope that my readers enjoy it!

The eighty-year-old man’s hands trembled. He gripped his chair making his veins stand out against his aging thin skin. He turned to his wife, his eyes tearing, “They shoot a horse with a broken leg, don’t they?” he asked. She heard his question as she had heard it before, and nodded in affirmation. She watched him cast his thoughts back to his childhood.

He went back over seventy years to himself as an eight-year-old boy on a farm in South Dakota. He stood and looked north the flatness stretched seemingly unending through Canada to the north pole, or south to the Rio Grande and beyond into Mexico. East and west were the same thing from sea to shining sea even though logic told of the Black Hills three hundred miles to the west. He remembered how you knew that a vehicle was approaching on the dirt road by the cloud of dust seen above the standing corn. You heard the engine about the time that the dogs on the adjacent farm started barking, then it passed and the whole sequence occurred in reverse.

He was doing his chores and being responsible, feeding chickens, gathering eggs, slopping the pigs; while his parents worked in a distant field. He could hear their voices, mingled with the sound of a nearby yelping puppy. He found it in the dairy limping miserably on three legs. He picked it up and stroked its soft fur. As he did so he reminded himself of the sentence for a farm animal with broken leg. He fetched a pail of water and a gunny sack. Then, he knelt beside the bucket. He didn’t cry through the ordeal even as he realized that doing the right thing carries a heavy burden.

294 words

The Face at the Window

My earliest memory is of the face looking at me through my bedroom window. I remember immediately feigning slumber because I deduced the face was there to make sure I went to sleep rather than get up to any shenanigans. I recall I was a strong-willed mischievous child who fought going to bed, especially when I believed interesting things to be happening in the adjacent rooms. Often, one of my maternal grand-parents would quietly sit on a chair in my room to ensure that I didn’t get up and engage in non-sleep activities. Looking back, I now find it strange that, even when she was around, my mother never took part in the ritual. However, the face, yes, the face, with its black hair and barely distinguishable dark features obscured by shadow, was often there. The street lights in the road beyond gave the head a halo-like silhouette. Far from fearing such an apparition, I found comfort in its demeanor and regularity. I regarded it a welcome watcher.

At that time, I lived in a small house with my grandparents, Mimi and Pop. I say, “I lived with my grandparents” for although my mother also technically domiciled with us, she frequently disappeared for weeks on end. How I loved the times when she was in residence. Her vivacity was contagious. We all felt it as she thrust our quiet home into temporary chaos. Often, she would spend entire days dedicated to me transporting me into a world full of fun and delight. Over time I became wary of these seductive times for they served to make her sudden absences more difficult to handle.

I remember one visit. I must have been about five or six years-old at the time, when Mama took to reading bed-time stories to me. She moved one of the living-room easy chairs into my bedroom so that we could cuddle together in its embrace. She smelled sweet and her long wildly luxuriant blond hair caressed my shoulders as I nestled my shock of straight black locks against her warm breast. I let her voice, which was always tinged with laughter, wash over me like the waters of a gurgling stream. It was heaven. The day everything got spoiled was when she was reading me a story about angels. As she turned the page I interrupted her to ask,

“Is the face at my window my guardian angel?”

“What face?” My mother’s voice sounded angry, and I instinctively knew she disapproved. I thought quickly,

“Oh, I sometimes imagine an angel. Is that bad?”

“Yes, my darling, faces at windows, real or imagined, are not good. I want you to tell me if you ever see one again.”

“But Mama after I’ve gone to bed I can’t get back up!”

“This is different. You have permission to get out of bed to come and get me.”

The next day she installed a black felt black-out over my bedroom window. I complained bitterly about my dismal windowless room, but Mama was emphatic. A week later, she packed up her nurse’s uniform and clothes into her back-pack and left on another of her jaunts. Mimi and Pop let me move into her bedroom. It was a second-floor room which looked out into the crown of a huge oak. Now there was no possibility of a face at that window. I don’t know for sure, but from time to time I thought that I saw the face looking at me from the sidelines of a playground, through the fence around the school play yard, or across the street as I boarded the school bus.

Mama continued her comings, and goings and sometimes sad men appeared looking for her. They were a mixed group from around the world; the English doctor who had served with her during an African Ebola crisis, the Thai, who knew her from the 2004 tsunami; the Pakistani from the 2005 earthquake. They kept coming. Their stories carried a repetitive theme, how her presence had brought hope, and even happiness, to a group of people struggling under dire circumstances. It was obvious that each was hopelessly in love with her and wanted to re-connect. Mimi and Pop let them stay a few days and then gently ushered them back to their lives without her, much as we were doing.

When I was about twelve Pop died, and Mimi sold the house and bought a smaller bungalow in the same neighborhood. She said that it was better suited to her advancing rheumatism. I was thrilled by the house, especially my bedroom which had a large window overlooking a manicured front yard. After we had been living there a few weeks, I saw the face again. It was partially in shadow again illuminated from behind by the street lights. I was happy for I liked the face which seemed to smile at me with a friendly grin. I decided that it would be best not to mention anything to either Mimi or my mother when she came to visit.

Time passed. The face continued to appear periodically even though it immediately disappeared if I moved in an attempt to make contact. Like the strangers who came looking for Mama, I knew the face to be a masculine one. I clung to the belief that he was my guardian angel and didn’t want me to acknowledge his presence. Sometimes I made up stories for myself to the tune that he was my guardian angel sent as a substitute for my missing father. Things might have gone on in this way except when my English teacher gave our class an assignment to write about their fathers I decided to write about the face in my window.

The resultant uproar was unexpected and immediate. The school called Mimi and together we were sent for a session with a visiting school counselor. We met in the tiny nurse’s office. The counselor was an attractive young woman who seemed to me to be not much older than I. She told us that my story fascinated and worried her, for, she explained, children are not supposed to see faces at their windows, real or imagined. Mimi said nothing; she just sat there, while I instinctively knew my story was a mistake. I liked my face and didn’t want to give him up. The counselor’s demeanor was quietly reassuring, but I was wary, determined not to be seduced by friendly good looks. On the spur of the moment, I decided to add voices to the face in the hope that the package would convince everyone that it was all my vivid imagination.

That backfired, a second session was scheduled with a doctor who was called in to assist. His large portly body with strained buttons across his chest changed the tone of our meeting. I was given an extensive barrage of tests. I thought that I was doing well until he leaned toward me and began to ask questions about the voices. I kept quiet for I realized that my fabrication was back-firing. He asked,

“How many voices?”

“Can you tell if they are male or female?”

“What is said, what message?”

I stared at him, acting dumb while my mind raced. I didn’t know what people’s inner voices said to them. I knew that I ‘d have to say something or my ruse might be discovered. Keeping my voice very low, I whispered,

“Sexual suggestions!”

A great hush descended over the room. The young councilor twisted her fingers together and looked down at the floor. The doctor leaned forward with a smirk on his face; I sensed he was enjoying this. I turned to Mimi and pleaded with my eyes. I think that she understood, for she announced,

“That’s enough: can’t you see that you’re distressing the child?”

I hid my face in her chest to further reinforce her statement. I thought to myself that maybe, one day, I’d become an actress.

By this time, I think even Mimi was becoming convinced the professionals were right, and I was having delusions. I was prescribed a medication. I managed to convey my unquestioning, obedient, acceptance of both their diagnosis and recommended treatment. Mimi and I picked up their prescription at the pharmacy. I carefully read the drug company description attached to my bottle of pills and systematically flushed a pill a day down the toilet.

At my next appointment, I reported experiencing nausea when I began the treatment but told them this had worn off in a week. I hoped that this additional fabrication would help to convince my audience that I was obediently taking my meds. The doctor nodded approvingly and delicately inquired about the voices and face at the window.

“Oh those,” I waved my arm dismissively, “gradually faded and are gone!”

Everyone heaved a sigh of relief, believing my problem solved. I joined them, elated that my ruse had hoodwinked them. The consultation room hummed with the vibes of content people.

When I got home that evening, I decided that enough was enough, the face needed to unveil himself. I created a large sign on the back of an old science fair project. It read, “Who are You?” I propped it up against my bed in full view of the window. I went outside and looked in as the face did to make sure my writing was clear. It was, I knew he couldn’t miss it. A couple of weeks later, I got my answer. His message was written in bold letters on a similar piece of foam-core. I read “You KNOW who I am!” I leapt out of bed and ran to the window, when I got there he was gone leaving the board propped on the window sill. Early the next morning I retrieved it and stored it standing against my initial message.

When Mimi died, Mama appeared out of nowhere. She arranged an intimate memorial service. He came to the funeral home standing at the back his face, for the first time ever, fully illuminated. I was tormented by a plethora of mixed emotions; a deep sadness at Mimi’s death, coupled with a sense of completion as I watched my mother greet the face. I surreptitiously watched them, and realized she recognized and knew him. When she got ready to depart on her next jaunt, I was formally introduced and went to live with him; the most stable person in my life.

Kent and Helen – short story

On 2/6/2013, I posted a story “A Dip With Helen” in which I introduced Kent, his mother’s erudite cat Mack, and his niece Helen. Due to Kent’s father’s two marriages Kent is about the same age as Helen. Kent is attracted to Helen and is thwarted by their uncle / niece relationship and society’s mores associated with unions between such close relatives. On 2/26/2018, I posted “The Hidden Treasure”which is another story about Kent. This story doesn’t mention Helen and doesn’t completely jibe with the 2013 story, although minor edits could make the two stories fit together. From this you can tell that I rather like Kent and so write this story about him.

KENT HELEN TREE 

Kent had been cleaning out his mother’s house for several hours before he came to her photograph albums. He took them to the dining room table to study carefully. He paused to enjoy every image of his niece Helen and book marked the pages on which her image appeared. There were only a few: the one of them sharing a bath as children: the one taken at his father’s funeral and the one of them in 2008 standing wet-haired under a “NO SWIMMING” sign at Pedernales Falls. He gathered the albums up and set them by the front door to take to his car. He would look at them again when he returned to his apartment. He didn’t need the photographs for his memory of her was vivid, but somehow having pictures and being able to touch them gave him a thrill. He stroked her luxuriant hair and outlined the curve of her lips. He traced her teasing eyes and blushed as he fondled the curves of her shapely body, as if the contact brought her closer. He shut his eyes and could see things not recorded in the albums. He saw the hidden pool at Pedernales Falls. He saw her seductive naked body slicing through the water. He felt the cool clear water against his body. He heard her voice.

He shook himself out of his reverie and spoke to Mack, his recently deceased mother’s cat, “It is such a shame that, although we are the same age, I am her uncle.” The cat meowed back, and Kent continued his monologue, “Yes. I know that an uncle / niece union is legal in Texas, but not in all States, but wouldn’t she and her parents frown on our having children?” Kent reached and stroked the cat who arched his back in response, “She is so beautiful, and I mean spiritually as well as physically. Humanity needs her to have children. She has to have children!”

Mack stood on the table and looked at Kent. He locked Kent’s eyes into glass-eyed cat stare. When Kent turned away he noticed a small snippet of paper torn from a newspaper lurking under Mack’s paw. He lifted the cat’s soft paw and looked at the paper. On it, he read the word ‘Helen’ accompanied by an e-mail address. It was written in his mother’s unmistakable hand. The newspaper date was a few days before her death. Kent’s mind flooded with questions. What was his mother doing with Helen’s phone number? If she hadn’t died suddenly might she have given it to him or did she intend to use it herself and if so why? He stroked the cat and as he did so he concluded that this was a subliminal message from his mother that a liaison with Helen was acceptable. As he thought about it he became increasingly convinced that this was maternal encouragement from the grave. He decided that he should waste no time, he shoved Mack off the table and opened his computer. He began to type.

His e-mail was a rambling affair in which he alluded to the fact that they hadn’t seen each other for several years, gave a brief outline of his activities and finally asked for her news. After he pressed “send” he re-read it again and wished that he hadn’t sent it for it seemed too brash. How surprised he was to get an almost immediate response. He learned that, yes indeed, she did remember him, and no, she was not in a relationship. Kent stood up, raised his arms in the air, shouted “Halleluiah” and danced around the table. He snatched up Mack to join in his jubilation. The cat did not appreciate this familiarity. He added meows to the halleluiahs until Kent set him down.

There is only so much that you can cover by e-mail and after a few weeks of daily exchanges, Kent suggested that they advanced to the telephone. They talked every evening, discussing the news, books, art, life, religion, and philosophy. They never alluded to their uncle / niece relationship and didn’t meet as Helen lived in Houston and Kent in Austin. There came a day when Helen, now a licensed architect running her own projects, informed Kent that her office had landed a project in Austin, and that she would be making a few business trips to Austin. Did Kent want to get together?

For their first date, for Kent regarded this business trip of hers a date, Kent took the day off work and met Helen at the airport. While he stood at the bottom of the escalator bearing down the incoming travelers, he worried that he might miss her but when she appeared, he had no doubt. His heart raced. He greeted her with a hug. He wanted to kiss her on lips right there on the concourse but restrained himself. He escorted her to the Magnolia Café on Lake Austin Boulevard where they ordered pancakes and coffee. Perhaps the excitement of their meeting or the day’s schedule stole their appetites for they drank their coffee but didn’t eat much. Kent drove her to her meeting, and late afternoon picked her up. She said that she had a busy day scheduled for the morrow, and so he took her to Mozart’s for a light supper overlooking the lake. When he dropped her off, he snatched a quick curb-side hug and a promise that she would be back. He sat mesmerized in his car watching her retreating figure until she disappeared, and he lost himself in dreaming about the impossibility of a real relationship with this love of his life. A uniformed airport police person broke through his reverie by tapping on his windshield with the admonition that he “move along please.” If only I could, he thought, as he drove slowly away.

Helen made a few more visits to Austin, and Kent managed to persuade her to spend a week-end. He talked one of his married female colleagues into letting Helen sleep in her spare room, for he still worried about where this seemingly doomed romance was going. On the one hand, he worried about their blood relationship and on the other, he was so addicted to the joy of her presence that he couldn’t give her up. He escorted her to Pedernales Falls, and they ate a picnic overlooking the waterway. Then they scrambled gazelle-like down over the smooth rock and crystal-clear pools. Their ‘secret’ pool was still there glittering in the sunlight. Kent wanted to relive that moment when they had slipped naked into the waters for an illicit swim, but this time, there were other visitors around and swimming was out of the question. They sat upon a rock and dabbled their feet in the water. Kent reached for her hand and held it. She turned and smiled at him “Yes. I remember” she said. He drew her into his arms and kissed her. She responded with equal longing.

“What shall we do?” he asked, and seeing her sad smile went on “I want to see you every day. I want to marry you. Oh Helen, how I love you!” He paused.

She didn’t move or draw away but looked at him with tears in her eyes. “Kent, I love you too; but what shall we do about this uncle / niece thing? I know that we could get married but would either of us be content with adopted children?”

“My Helen, my beautiful darling Helen, will you marry me and adopt children?” Kent was now on his knees before her. The bare rock surface cut into his patella but he hardly noticed.

Suddenly Helen was her usual bubbly self. “Get up. You fool,” she chided “Of course I’ll marry you, let’s talk to my parents.”

Kent and Helen arranged a weekend in Dallas with Helen’s parents. On Saturday afternoon, Kent found himself alone with them. He found it strange to be sitting there thinking of ways to ask his brother become his father-in-law. It took him half an hour to get to his point, but eventually he asked them to bless a union between himself and Helen. He bravely went on to admit that he knew their blood relationship gave such a marriage restrictions. He explained they had agreed to adopt children. At this point, Helen’s parents looked at each other and nodded.

“We have to tell him.” Said her mom.

“What, tell me what?”

“Well, Kent, your mother wanted this kept a secret, although just before she died, she told me that she was thinking about telling you. The truth is that the man we both knew as father was not your biological father.”

“What do you mean? Dad was not my dad?” Kent’s mind was in turmoil.

“Your Dad was your dad, just not your biological parent.”

“So, Mom had an affair, and they stayed married?” Kent was getting increasingly unhappy.

“No, your Mom did not have an affair. Let me explain, before they got married our father had a vasectomy because he felt that he was too old for any more children. However, as you know, your mother was a licensed practicing mid-wife and eventually told our father that she desperately wanted a child. Out of his devotion for her, he agreed to let her be artificially inseminated, and you were the result. Your biological father is some medical student somewhere.”

“So,” Kent’s head was spinning, “Helen and I are not related biologically – we can get married and have children!” He stood, hugged his brother and future father-in-law, raised his arms, and shouted “Halleluiah!”

Aunt Peggy – a memoir

Aunt Peggy wasn’t really an aunt. Indeed, I’m not sure how she and I were related. I think that she was the daughter of my father’s mother’s brother making her my father’s cousin. She was never married and carried my father’s mother’s maiden name. My father was an only child. He was modest and introverted such that, throughout my childhood, apart from his ailing widowed father, my Grand-pop, I never met any of his relatives. Until the appearance of Aunt Peggy in my life, I firmly believed that he didn’t have any; consequently, her materialization was a surprise.

It happened during my second year at University College London. I was a good student but so focused on my studies that I was incapable of making friends. This situation was further compounded by two factors; first my gradual emergence from Anorexia which had haunted me for over five years, and secondly my living arrangements. I lived in a “Student Rooming House” owned by the University. It was a lovely Georgian building scheduled for future demolition and temporarily converted into rooms for students. My room was on the first floor above ground level. I shared a tiny kitchen with the other two rooms of the floor. We used a communal bathroom located in the rear of the building on the landing between the first and second floors. This was shared between the rooms on both floors. I liked my room with its tall window and inaccessible Juliet balcony. The balcony had a beautiful Georgian wrought-iron balustrade which I photographed, and drew. Apart from the tiny kitchen, we had no communal area and didn’t interact with each other. Most weekends I would go from Friday evening to Monday morning without talking to anyone who knew my name. I was miserable.

This all took place in the late 1960s when telephones were still a luxury, indeed I don’t recall how I made or received calls; most of my communications were by letter. My father faithfully wrote every week; how I enjoyed his letters. They were always written on a folding flimsy blue air mail letters. His handwriting was small and since he only took his pen off the paper to change lines, the words blended together. Normally a fast reader, I’d have to take it slowly to decipher his meaning. I wrote back every Sunday evening. I attempted to be upbeat but my unhappiness often bled onto the pages of my text. Sometimes my mother wrote. He letters were long and literary written in her legible hand, she included wisdom about the future and exhortations on how to face my demons.

Aunt Peggy’s invitation came through the mail. She suggested a Sunday afternoon tea in her home in her home up Finchley Road. From my father’s letters, I gathered that he had asked her to make contact in an attempt to bring someone friendly into my life to break my loneliness. It was his attempt to make sure that I talked to someone who knew my name during those long weekends alone. There was no direct underground route from my rooming house on Bedford Way close to Russel Square tube station to her house in Hampstead. I took the Piccadilly Line from Russel Square to Kings Cross and changed to the Northern Line to get to Finchley Road. Upon arriving at Finchley Road tube station, I took the bus to her house. A house in London is a luxury, and Aunt Peggy’s was the best. It was a rambling red-brick place covered with Virginia creeper. It stood in its own gardens slightly set back from the main street. When I arrived, I looked in awe at this huge edifice and wondered if she lived alone.

Aunt Peggy turned out to be a matter-of-fact sort of woman of about my father’s age. She wore a tweed skirt, sweater, pearls and flat shoes. She looked comfortable in her home, which was furnished with non-descript antiques. Even though it was Sunday afternoon tea was served by a maid. We sat in her living room, with me perched anxiously on the edge of my chair as, I balanced a cup of tea and small plate laden with sandwich and cake. Conversation was strained as I was shy and awed by her home and presence. Half way through our tea joyous voices erupted in the hall, and two laughing girls came into the room. Aunt Peggy introduced them as her nieces and lodgers. Instead of showing an interest or asking questions of these girls with whom I must have been distantly related I politely shook hands and sank back into my chair to watch their happy interaction with their relative and landlady. I could tell that they had a special rapport and learned that Aunt Peggy shared her large home with a bevy of nieces.

The travel to and from Aunt Peggy’s took over an hour, so that, in conjunction with the tea, the entire excursion took in the order of four hours. Although I liked my interaction with Aunt Peggy, I didn’t exactly look forward to my visits because they took so much time. It was time I thought that I could otherwise have invested in studying. In June, at the end of my third, and last year I was awarded my degree. The Queen mother was scheduled to preside over our graduation ceremony and to hand us our official degrees. Unfortunately, this auspicious event was driven by her schedule and was set to occur the following April. The College made up for this by hosting a celebratory reception and tea for new graduates and their families. My parents couldn’t make the trip down from Durham, and so I invited Aunt Peggy to join me.

The on-campus event was the only time that I ever saw Aunt Peggy outside her home. She most graciously accompanied me to the reception which must have been very boring for her – it certainly was for me. Afterward, they served tea accompanied by cream puffs and other whipped cream filled cakes. Because the food was ‘free’, and I felt an obligation to eat as much as possible, this supported my emergence from Anorexia, which had swung me into a binge-eater. I loaded my plate and ate ravenously. I recall Aunt Peggy calmly remarking,

“If you eat like that you won’t remain slim.”

After that event, I never saw Aunt Peggy again. Life went on for me. I did a year out in Edinburgh. My mother died. I finished my studies at Newcastle University close to my widowed father, moved back to London for my first architectural position, became licensed, met my future husband and emigrated to America to be with him. I always believed that Aunt Peggy’s kindness was due to a sense of obligation coupled with a love of young people rather than any rapport that she may have felt for me. I sent her Christmas cards with my news scribbled inside next to the standard pre-printed Hallmark greetings. She never responded and so in time I took her off my Christmas card list.

Thirty years later, I received a strange letter from a London Solicitor inquiring whether I was myself. The Internet wasn’t as sophisticated as it is today and I wondered how they had found me. I confirmed my identity and several months later received a check for approximately $5,000. Apparently, Aunt Peggy had remembered me, and left me 0.1% of her estate. I accepted the gift as I had accepted all Aunt Peggy’s graciousness and generosity. However, this time I felt saddened that I hadn’t given back more to this very special lady.

Francesca

20180311_085413

They expected to be met by a single business like, efficient custodian to usher them around, take their deposit, and give a receipt. They expected their holiday Tuscan villa to be a rental residence swept clean of unnecessary clutter. They expected an elegant place, sporting bare essentials, decorated with a few nondescript pictures of the sort which adorn the walls of most hotel rooms. Instead, the family of eight were met by a mottled triumvirate of three made, up of a middle-aged gentleman in nondescript clothing, a sleek young man who retired behind his companions and a stocky black man who spoke broken English. The three seemed to fit well into the miscellanea of objects festooned around the villa. As far as the visitors could determine the middle-aged gentleman owned the place while the black man was custodian. They were unable to determine the status, or role, of the young man. He seemed as out-of place as many of the ornaments and objects strewn around the villa.

Our group of eight settled in quickly although familiarity only served to further their curiosity. Why was the villa so cluttered? What did this collection of objects have in common? Why were there so many pots, pans, and cooking utensils? Why were there so many sets of glasses and China? Who was the beautiful lady whose portrait dominated the two main living rooms? Was the boy whose picture lurked in a side corner the middle-aged gentleman who appeared to be the owner? Why was the door which they were required to use as a front door quite obviously not the front door? Why were certain areas closed off by curtains? At dinner, they discussed these conundrums.

The mystery of the doors was quickly solved. The ancient villa had an associated support building which must, at one time, have been the carriage house and servant’s quarters. The original ‘grand’ entrance was under a portico which connected the two structures and provided an upper-level bridge between the two. The support building was now inhabited by the custodian. The curtains and screened off areas of the villa were an attempt to disguise and shut off the custodian’s activities. Since the clutter in the main, villa did not include anything, such as toys or other furnishings associated with children, the visitors assumed that children, if any, must have been raised, Victorian style, in the associated building. They speculated that placement of the tiny painting of a small boy confirmed the notion that children were not welcomed in the main villa.

Among the magazines festooning the coffee and side tables the visitors found an April 1992 issue of “Villa Giardini” (numero 269) in which they found an article headed “Casa Nelson Verde.” It described the 1962 renovation of the 1770 villa under the guidance of architect Alberto Bartalini. The photographs showed sparingly furnished elegant spaces. They recognized the furnishings which still occupied the rooms together with the accumulated clutter of objects and pictures, which now covered every wall and surface. They deduced that the additional objects must have been gathered during the 56 years after the 1962 renovation. They wondered why it had taken thirty years for a 1962 renovation to make it into the magazine.

The visitors spent their evenings under the gaze of a portrait of a blond-haired lady in blue evening dress and long black gloves. She stared down with a lurking mischievous smile. Surely, they thought, this dominating lady with impish personality, was responsible for the clutter of objects in the villa. They were tempted to name her Anna Maria Luisa after the last Medici heiress who donated her family’s art collection to the city of Florence to become the much-visited Uffizi museum. However, Anna Maria Luisa is too much of a mouthful and didn’t fit the lady of the portrait so her name became Francesca. They noticed that the villa’s collections appeared to have several biases. One such bias covered horses even including a riding trophy. These, the visitors decided, must have been Francesca’s. Another bias covered ships and sailing which they assumed must have belonged to Francesca’s husband. They named him Tito. Then there was the collection of over 100 hand-painted botanical images –perhaps the work of Francesca herself? Intermingled and suffocating these pictures and items was an accumulation of eclectic paintings squeezed onto every wall space; with an equal accumulation of art books crammed into the book shelves. Where these Francesca’s or her and her husband’s or a later man’s, perhaps the artist to whom she gave her whimsical smile as, he painted?

Since the villa offered its clues in Italian and our visitors only spoke English, they finally created their own story, which follows:

In the early 1962s when they got married Francesca gave up riding and Tito gave up ships and sailing, for they wished to forge a life together unsullied by outside interests to which only one of them espoused. Everyone who knew them declared that the marriage was bound to fail. Those who felt kindly toward Francesca suggested that she had fallen for his intellect, and that it was to be a union of soul mates. Those who were less empathetic gossiped behind the couple’s backs and postulated that Francesca, a beautiful young woman of thirty, only married Tito, thirty years her senior, for his money, in the expectation that he would pre-decease her leaving her a rich widow. Everyone agreed that Tito, had fallen for Francesca for her beauty and a chance for he, himself, to have children and to cheat the onset of old age. In actuality, Tito’s wealth was an illusion reduced, at the time of their wedding to one Tuscan villa surrounded by producing vineyards. He didn’t regret his itinerant past but was now happy to give up ships and the seas, along with their associated costs, in favor of a quiet family life. Francesca, on her side, knew that her damaged right knee meant that she had to give up riding. She hoped to parlay her new status into one of gracious hostess. Most weekends she invited house parties to the villa. They ate lavishly with elegant settings of china and glassware. Francesca felt it only proper that they should have a variety of table settings. Whenever her cook produced a dish which displeased Francesca, she blamed her tools, and Francesca responded by buying new ones for her – hence the large accumulation.

Francesca and Tito’s age difference did not affect their fertility, so, by the time that they returned from their prolonged honeymoon, Francesca was pregnant. She found the prospect of motherhood in a remote Tuscan villa repugnant. To cheer her up, and to lure her into a full commitment to their proposed home, Tito agreed to an extensive renovation. Francesca took up the task of renovation with gusto. She added expansive exterior terraces overlooking the associated vineyard and a large swimming pool. She added a surreptitious back elevator for her to use when her knee acted up. Tito enjoyed watching Francesca working with her architect, but his main focus was on her pregnancy. He categorically refused permission for the renovation to be published, and urged Francesca to focus on her advancing motherhood for he couldn’t understand why she appeared so ambivalent. After the baby was born, they retained a Swiss nanny who took care of raising their son.

Tito arranged for Francesca to sit for a portrait for him to hang in his library along with his nautical memorabilia. The artist turned out to be an attractive young man of Francesca’s age, what he lacked in talent he made up for in wits and amusing banter. Francesca enjoyed her sitting sessions and was tempted to engage in more intimate relations with him. She decided to restrain herself as Tito’s age was already beginning to slow him down. She pretended to disregard the Tito’s signals of aging, and kept up an active social life intertwined with extensive travel. Tito worried as he watched the final remnants of his estate dwindle away. Before it was all gone, as so many had predicted, his body collapsed. One afternoon, on the road between Pisa and the villa, Tito had a massive fatal heart attack. The nay-do-tellers nodded their heads. Francesca had what she wanted; wealth and position, or did she, for she soon discovered that she had little wealth, only a villa which was rapidly disintegrating under her.

At this point, Francesca made two decisions; she immediately contacted the magazine to publish the story of the villa renovation and she called the artist who had painted her first portrait and to invite him to return for another sitting. One result was the picture which dominates the main living room and watched over the renting family. The other result was that the artist moved in with Francesca. He brought his household possessions to mingle with hers; his kitchen paraphernalia, collection of nick-necks, eclectic paintings and books about art. They quickly sold off most of the villa’s estate to create capital to live on. They never got married, but, co-existed in their clutter of possessions compulsively adding as they felt moved. They died within a year of each other leaving the middle-aged gentleman whom the family met on their first day as their sole inheritor for he confirmed, through his custodian interpreter, that,

“Yes, the lady in the portraits is my mother.”

Oh, to speak Italian and learn the true story!