CHRISTIE COCHRELL

★ ★ ★ ★

FICTION

She Who Hesitates

            Marnie liked how the two rooms of her sister’s villa were really just one, divided only by a high lemonwashed arch.  She liked that you could see all at once where you were here, without having to negotiate a warren of partitions, passages, as she did every day back home.  She was relieved to have escaped for the moment the fatal confusion of ways, the ramifications of missteps and wrong turns.

            Juliana had never been able to stand being closed in, and in the countryside around Montecatini Terme she had found this old stone house that was all light and grace.  She’d added only seagrass matting and a few pieces of furniture the same dark reverential wood as the ceiling beams.  Table, wardrobe, bed, six chairs. 

            “So I can have plenty of friends to dinner and still get to talk to all of them,” she said. 

            She’d come to Tuscany from Rome in January when the arthritis in her hands and knees got too bad to continue with the archaeology she’d been doing for thirteen years, believing those who assured her that balneotherapy would help.  She took the waters of hot springs and baths named for the Medici, for a satiric poet, for blackbirds.

            Marnie sat at the long farmhouse table in the room that was kitchen, dining room, and office, wishing there was a water cure for being lost.  For never knowing where she was or where she was going, despite the maps that had been her life’s work since graduating from Clark University—her first job after college in the Map Room at the Boston Public Library; and since returning to the West Coast with Will and their daughters, at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park.  It didn’t help that those recent maps, the stuff of her daily life, were maps of hazards, disasters waiting to happen.  And yet with none of the detail she needed to traverse the harrowing topography of adolescent girls, now that Winona and Cheyenne had become bonny, nubile, and terrible in their power.

            Marnie envied Juliana’s sureness, more than her easy successes over the years or the houses she’d made her own.  The little place in Abiquiu, New Mexico just outside Ghost Ranch, with its round adobe tower in which her boyfriend of the time had installed a kaleidoscope skylight.  The apartment with two balconies looking out on the Tiber in Rome.  This villa in the Tuscan hills whose walls she’d washed the color of first light. 

            Of course Juliana didn’t depend only on the waters, didn’t look for the single right way of going, of doing things, as Marnie did.  She tried a whole array of other things—whatever might help.  Meditation, acupuncture, evening primrose, turmeric, stinging nettle, thunder god vine.  And contemporary shamanism:  she’d gone to stay with their cousins in Tucson in the fall, flying from Florence to Zurich to San Francisco to Tucson, and went off into the desert for three days with the Peruvian healer who their youngest cousin, Consuelo, was living with.

            Juliana was resourceful, while Marnie always dithered, muddled along.  Instead of being stymied by her disability, she’d made more money in the last year than during her “eons”—as she put it—excavating Roman aqueducts.  She’d started a new business helping foreigners with the complexities of Italian property law, working mostly at home in the room that was office and kitchen and Italian light.  Sat industriously at the long farmhouse table in her Holy Clothing harem pants making order of astonishingly tangled regulations, or measuring spices, slivered almonds, for the yellow rice with orange rind which she made with turmeric to eat with roast chicken, feeding whoever came.  Juliana hadn’t married or had children, but collected friends, outcasts, and troupes of player kings, people she gathered up against the lonely days of winter rain.

* * *

            Having gotten as far as Juliana’s villa, Marnie couldn’t make herself go any further.  She wanted just to sit, in the pale Tuscan rooms.  She had no desire to see the spa town, sit in open-air cafés, photograph Medieval towers.  Those didn’t concern her.  She drank tea while Juliana talked to clients on the phone, the black tea flavored with cherries and apricots and plums that she’d found in a tin on the white shelves over the finicky gas stove.  She stirred the tea leaves studiously with a finger, trying to redraw her destiny, her past.

            Juliana was impatient with her sister’s reluctance.  She urged her to explore, to go on expeditions into town, to take the train to Florence or a country hike past Dante’s Bridge, a bus tour of Volterra or a private wine tour with her high-spirited Tuscan friend.

            “You know Albertina would be glad to fit you in.”

But Marnie was okay just where she was, in the two perfect rooms joined by an arch.  She’d found Albertina pushy, over-eager to sweep everyone in her path along with her enthusiasms, her woman of the world resolve.

* * *

            Finally fed up with Marnie’s reluctance, Juliana deposited her unceremoniously at the funicular station and sent her up the mountain to Montecatini Alto with a dogeared guidebook and a wad of euros, insisting she have “lunch—gelato—new shoes—something” in the piazza of the old town. 

            While being conveyed by the bright red cable car, Marnie wasn’t unhappy to have been thrust out into the Tuscan spring morning.  Following fellow visitors to the piazza, she was soon enough transplanted in deep noonday shade at one of countless tables under a calm flight of bone-white umbrellas.   She ate tortellini with green peas and ham:  Italian comfort food.  She remembered the taste from childhood, something her father always cooked for her when Mama took the train to Penn Station for weekend visits to her mother and Juliana went along to see her favorite room in all the world—the Roman frescos from Boscoreale at the Metropolitan Museum, across Central Park.

            Marnie considered the town plan in her borrowed guidebook.  She might walk to the old clock tower, quietly shepherding hours, but pictured the confusion of stone waiting to waylay her.  The cobbled alleys all the same, sheer canyons crosscut by shadows; the high unsympathetic walls with an unblinking audience of shutters in tiers all along them.  And then there were the foreign street names to mix up.  She’d panic again somewhere along the way, realizing she had no idea where she was.  Like that nightmare she couldn’t wake from, trying to find her way out of the Santa Cruz Mountains with Cheyenne as the night came on and the ghost-ridden fog took both of them.  And then the dirt bikers, surrounding them.

            She sat on determinedly, finishing a large bottle of fizzy acqua minerale.  The cafés had all cleared, except a few other malingerers.  An old man at a nearby table with empty espresso cups and stacked saucers nodded to her.

            “Where are you from?”

            “I live in California,” she said, wary.  She noticed he had only three fingers on his right hand, as he laid out small coins.

            “Not Santa Barbara?”

            “No, Menlo Park—near San Francisco.”

            “The saint of animals.  Francesco is a good guy too, but la bella Barbara has my heart, always.  In the war she saved me.  Stopped me one step before I set my foot on a landmine.”

            Marnie felt in herself the charged silence, the enormity of that moment before catastrophe.  Like the whole world holding its breath.

            “They say ‘chi si ferma è perduto,’ but in my case it was the opposite.  Do you know this saying?  ‘He who stops . . . is lost?'”

            “Too well,” Marnie managed to answer him.  “Only we say ‘He or she who hesitates is lost.'”  Juliana had reproached her all her life; and then that crucial hesitation, pulling over to pull out the map, opening the car door to trigger the reading light.  Looking beyond the door, seeing the ring of unblinking male eyes.   Shaking with dread.  “Santa Barbara, though—what does she have to do with that?”

            “You see she taught me hesitation, signora.  My salvation.  She is the saint of explosives, which was my specialty back then—and so nearly my end, that blessed day.  She is invoked against danger, sudden and violent death.”

            “Didn’t I read that she’s the patron saint of Montecatini?”

            “Sì, certo.  Shall I show you her shrine?”

            That was after all why she had come, Marnie knew somehow, not surprised.  To follow this evangelist to the shrine of the saint of explosives, the saint of danger, the saint of terrible missteps.  To walk the treacherous stone labyrinth to its center, putting not a single foot wrong.  The old man, bent but spry, with a shapeless beret and gaptoothed grin, led her among the walls of the hilltown, twenty-some fallen towers.  She’d read in the guidebook about the town’s almost total destruction—battles, sieges, violent conquests.  Its fabric held the gray weft of defeat, if well disguised.

            They came to an enclosed courtyard with field artillery, a cannon, shell cases.  And prominent red firefighting equipment.  It felt oddly familiar to Marnie, as if she came here often, bringing a few stems of oblatory flowers.  The man removed his checked beret, crossed himself reverently with his three arthritic fingers.  She wondered if she ought to do the same.  She found it strange to pay respects to profane objects, though she had that sense again of being at the hushed center of something sacred and immense.

            “Donato!”  Marnie’s companion was accosted by a deeply browned man with contrasting white hair.

            “My friend.” 

            The two were soon engaged in heated conversation.  Marnie stood forgotten in the shade of the little piazza, completely enthralled by the unorthodox shrine.  Against the far wall, what was seemingly the back of the Church of San Pietro, built in the 11th century, she saw a figure turning toward her.  Someone who might have been mistaken for the glowing dark-skinned woman from county fire dispatch, the brawny officer with box braids and a khaki ranger uniform who’d stopped at the wooded pull-off, stopped the bikers with her presence of mind, her radio, barely in time.  A streak of lightning up the inside of the arm she put around Cheyenne, leading her steadily back to the car.  In Italy now, half a year later, Marnie watched the woman turn and put sunglasses on, unhurriedly, under a greenish statue of the saint she’d only just noticed.  Hearing again, close by, the explosions from the revving and retreating dirt bikes.

            She slipped away, dazed by the apparition, the mid-afternoon sun streaming through the trees.  She made her way around to the front of the church.  Inside, it was cool, all white and gold, like the inside of a domed egg.  Simple and whole like Juliana’s villa.  She sat gingerly on a wooden pew.  Imagining herself hatching.  Newfound, newborn.  She wasn’t sure what had just happened, if anything . . . .  If nothing else, though, the old Italian had sanctioned her hesitant nature—bestowing it on her like the gifts of the fairy godmothers at Sleeping Beauty’s christening.  He’d brought her to the saint responsible for lightning, fire, being blown to pieces.  Barbara—manifested in the scorched shadows behind shell case, cannon, in Marnie’s need of being led back to the moment before she’d gone wrong.  The warp thread of redemption joining that gray weft of defeat.

            She had no fear of wrong-turnings here anymore; instinctively she headed straight for the perimeter of the hilltown.  There she could get perspective, see Montecatini Alto clearly, from without, a birds-eye view.  On the calm road that circled its outermost edge, Marnie skirted the village.  A green sea of countryside lapped around the hill, all Tuscany revealed.  The valley there was called Valley of Fog (something to do with the ancient marshes, she’d read), but it was absolutely clear.  She continued around to where the grassy track of the funicular threaded its way up from below, under stone bridges, through various green waves of silvered olives, mulberries and oaks, a spray of red poppies.  Not deviating once.

* * *

            Marnie had time for a long shower before changing into a cotton sundress for Juliana’s dinner party.

            She listened while Gianni, a visiting professor of philosophy and literature from Siena, told Juliana about his work on cognitive mapping while they grilled the biftekia over olive wood and herbs.  He talked about the ways we map our world, trying to situate ourselves, make sense of our surroundings.

            They ate beefsteak and new asparagus, and drank the vodka Juliana had infused with cardamom pods.  Marnie thought of the tattoos on her older daughter’s skin marking her interpersonal journeys; the notes of music Winona followed on her flute, finding her way through Fauré’s Fantaisie.  She saw again, always, the looming trees, the consequences of her wrong turn on the back road outside Saratoga.  The saint of hesitation, firefighting, who had kept her from the worst.

            “Spatial memory,” Gianni went on.

            “In archaeology, memory is situated in objects.  But it’s also absolutely spatial.”  Juliana cut the rice and custard torta flavored with orange peel, fingers deft despite her arthritis, delineating her particular, always equable map.

            Walking through Juliana’s bedroom after her shower, Marnie had found a book of saints on the bookshelves, all of gold-leaf and Renaissance pigments, and read that Barbara’s father had ordered a bath-house built for her, with two windows—but while he was away she commanded a third, as Juliana would have done.  A “Trinity of light,” the book said.  Her bath-house had become a healing place, a place of miracles, with healthgiving waters like those Marnie’s sister had found for herself.

              Contemplating her halting progression earlier, that week, that afternoon, Marnie began to understand that she too might find small ways forward.  Open vistas, strangers’ voices, light-washed rooms . . . those chance pieces like bits of colored string tied to tree branches for direction.  She might yet learn to make her own slow, hesitating way forward, backward. 

Christie Cochrell’s work has been published by Tin House, New Letters, and Catamaran, among others, and has won several awards including the Dorothy Cappon Prize for the Essay and the Literal Latté Short Short Contest. Chosen as New Mexico Young Poet of the Year while growing up in Santa Fe, she now lives and writes by the ocean in Santa Cruz, California.  She loves the play of light, the journeyings of time, things ephemeral and ancient.

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2 Comments

  1. Darcy Scholts

    This is just lovely!

    Reply
  2. Jeni

    Christie – your writing always enchants me. It transports me with all your sensual descriptions and poetic detail. Yes, lovely!

    Reply

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