“Fold your arms round me close and strain me so that our hearts may break and our souls go free at last. Take me to that happy place of which you told me long ago. The fields whence none return, but where great singers sing their songs forever.”
― Joseph Bédier,
At the house in Moncioni the furniture looked like it had chosen its final resting place. I imagined giant boxes, unloaded from shipping containers that had passed through Melbourne and Hong Kong. Rugs, lamps, and vases spilling out, wearily falling into the positions in which they had come to rest. The ancient stone walls of the house, meeting at odd angles, absorbed everything inside – first the possessions, then, the people.
I had only been to the house once while Eva was alive. I’m sure I must have met her in passing that evening, but now, I can’t recall any specific memory of it. The house had been so full of people who looked at ease that it was hard to decipher who was a resident and who was a guest. A young man had sternly asked me to respectfully remove my propped up feet from a desk in a dark room where I hid from the drunken crowd. It wasn’t clear if it was his desk or if he even knew whose desk it was. In hindsight, it wasn’t his, but he did know whose it was, and he was right in asking me to respectfully remove my shod feet.
And now, as I appeared to be in the process of moving into the ancient house in Moncioni, I wondered how much had changed in Eva’s absence in the three fleeting months that had elapsed since her passing. Perched above the Arno River Valley, at the crossroads of unpaved logging thoroughfares, resided the centuries-old, countryside house. It was labyrinthine and drafty, full of staircases and corridors that led to other levels and rooms and wings – all to be found in various levels of furnishing, habitation, repair, and disarray.
After months of living there on and off, I discovered a tiny half bath whose existence had previously eluded me. It seemed even stranger since its door was adjacent to that of another, larger bathroom. One wall of the bathroom was mostly a window that looked out into the ancient building’s inner courtyard, really just a narrow rectangular space, strung up with laundry and decorated with the shadows of times gone by.
There was an inner room in the basement of the house that had no windows. Occasionally we ate dinner there, sitting on the couches, in front of a movie. Once we had adjourned there to listen and laugh at a few songs the family’s brother-sister duo had recorded during a previous era of life. At the end of one of the tracks, the sister, Alice, pointed out, you could hear their mother, Eva, calling her to Christmas dinner. And you could. Their casual recording had forever immortalized Eva’s words: “Ali! Dinner!”. We laughed when we heard it. And then we fell silent. Each of us likely wondering, silently, what it meant to be listening to Eva’s voice now that she was gone.
The room was called “The War Room” since it had been the place where everyone would gather during bomb threats throughout the wars. Its thick, windowless walls kept it cool in the summer. The walls must have grown thicker, with the settling dust of each passing decade, each new coat of paint, and perhaps even more so as they absorbed the souls of those who had sought shelter and found comfort in their impermeable solidity. I wondered if it was within these walls where Eva resided now.
Eva’s youngest son (four years my senior), Matthew, and I had stayed up talking in that room one early spring evening after dinner. I reclined on the couch, alternating between lying on my back and on my front, mostly in an effort to calm the storm in my stomach that signaled the end of a night of over indulgence. I could have gone up to the bed that his sister had prepared for me with clean sheets and extra blankets, but I liked the intimacy of that room, with its wall clock that no longer kept time.
He kept his distance, sitting on a chair on the opposite side of the room, slowly draining a box of wine. He asked questions with intention and listened to the answers ever more intently. He seemed to grow sadder the more he knew me, the more wine he imbibed. Everyone was always playing musical beds in the house, but I was fairly certain that his bedroom was the one directly off The War Room. I had never seen it. I wondered if that night I would. I wondered if I even really wanted to.
After many hours, I finally looked at the display of my phone and thought, and told him, that the sun would be rising soon and that we might as well just stay up for it. In the confines of The War Room it was impossible to detect the arrival of the impending dawn. So stay up for it we did. And, when we thought the moment of the sun peeking over the hills of the Pratomagno was near enough, we ventured out of The War Room into the chill and birdsong of early spring. We climbed up to the back of the house, the part that was mostly abandoned, and stood on the roof deck in awe of the glow that grew from the mountain tops and tumbled into the valley, catching the glisten and glean of riverbends and windowpanes. The valley of the River Arno unfolding before us in the morning alpenglow just as it had done before the eyes of all the centuries of inhabitants of that stone structure. I wondered if it was this very view that had urged Eva to settle her family on this hilltop; to live, and die, overlooking this valley, dotted with crenelated towers and plumes of olive wood smoke.
A year after the morning of the Moncioni sunrise, 15 months after Eva had suddenly collapsed on the tiled floor in one of the house’s expansive bathrooms, I was once again lying on my back on the couch in The War Room. I was looking through the open door into the room that I now knew to be Matthew’s. So much life had slipped through our fingers and washed through our hair in the year in between those two moments. Matthew’s sister, Alice, who I held when she found out her mother had died, had since gotten married. And now she was heavy with her first child. They had begun to rebuild the upper level of the house to accommodate the expanding family. The whole house was being christened anew with the dust of the work.
Matthew had rekindled an old almost-love at his sister’s wedding and she had promptly moved into the house herself. The night of the wedding they had danced and laughed; arriving at breakfast all smiles the next morning. They had quickly, seemingly too quickly, settled into a different room of the house, one with a little more privacy. Two seasons later they had their last too-loud argument. Even these walls weren’t thick enough to absorb and block out the painful noise of crumbling love. She had returned to her life in Germany without a trace. Matthew had moved back to his old room, the one where I had first suspected he lived.
And on this day, I first stepped foot into that room. I had roused myself from the couch and entered the room to inquire why Matthew kept his heavy wooden shutters closed in the middle of a beautiful sunny afternoon such as this one. I inquired if this was a usual vampirical habit of his. He smirked and replied that it was an attempt to keep out the construction dust that was accumulating from the expansion going on in his sister’s apartment above his room. Where did the windows even look out on to, I wondered, as I lifted the latch of the shutters in an effort to answer my own question. The layout of the house never becoming clearer to me. The view was of the inner courtyard, certainly not the best or brightest in that house.
While I had been laying on the couch contemplating those shutters, Matthew had been changing – from hiking clothes to dinner clothes – not that there was much detectable difference, really. The hike we had just returned from had been pretty impromptu so he had hiked in jeans and a long sleeve cotton sweater. I had driven into the Tuscan hills from my home in the valley to arrive at the ancient village turned hotel, where Matthew worked. From there we walked in the golden hours before sunset in the late afternoon of May.
It was so easy. To walk beside him. To laugh. To smile into the sunshine. As he picked juniper berries, crushing them between his palms before tumbling them into mine. Handing me wild fennel and thyme. The gin smell of juniper, the warmth of the sun on my skin, the faint trace of olive wood smoke hanging in the air – awaking a familiar ache. The intoxication and anticipation of the heady moment, the impending summer, and the swollen fullness of a year. A mysterious stranger, forever unfolding in front of me.
I wondered how many of these moments belonged to me and how many of them belonged to the house in Moncioni. Certainly Matthew had returned home laden with the same intoxication and anticipation. The flush of sunshine and perfume of juniper following him to bed, slowly fading as he slept. Tossing and turning the day into dreams, and dreams into dust, and dust into the all-consuming walls that surrounded him.