Just for a few moments, I thought. I had not told anyone that I was going anywhere as it was. To them, I was "out shopping", and before long they would all start searching for me. I just wanted to tell him I was there for him. He knew I was there, of course. He could come to me in my thoughts whenever he chose to, and see things through my eyes. Except that he would not, and I knew why. And then, I just felt I had to tell it to him face to face, to see him; to be together with him, even for a few brief moments, because there was something vital in it that no mental link could ever make up for.
I knocked and pressed the handle. If Francesco was there, he usually did not bother with locking himself in. It was that way this time, too; the door opened, and I entered the room.
The old-fashioned lantern just outside the window bathed the room in an ethereal glow. I could see the little octagonal roof above it, and the wrought iron branch to which it was attached, made in the shape of a spiral with tiny leaves protruding from it here and there, so that the whole thing looked like the living black stem of some plant. A vine that crawled up the wall wound itself around the lantern, and covered half of the window. Its leaves were glossy and had some soft, murky white smeared along the edges, which melted towards the middle into the dark emerald green. The light of the lantern caught the blossom of a nearby acacia tree, making it shine like snow would have shone in the sun.
On the window-sill, a single candle cried silently, the clear shining tears rolling rapidly down and slowing as they condensed into clusters of milky stalactites. The little tongue of light would waver slightly, touched by the wind, and would then steady again, throwing elusive shadows about which would shift and flutter as I looked.
The light coming through the window highlighted the silent black figure in the armchair. There was a book in his lap, and, as I looked at the tiny black signs on the old, yellowish pages, I understood it was in Latin. His fingers, surprisingly long and elegant-looking for a man of his build, were turning the pages with a steady, almost lazy movement as his eyes moved down and up again. He was reading far too slowly for a being of his kind, though a mortal could never even dream of such a pace. At one point, he parted the pages of the book and, taking out a small sheet of paper, put something down on it with his left hand, right-to-left, using a sort of backward writing that was meant to be deciphered with the help of a mirror. Then he put the paper back into the book, and resumed reading.
There had been some change, and it was such that I could scarcely dare to admit it to myself, lest it should disappear the very moment I thought of it openly. I feared even to catch my breath, though as usual, I could never get air enough; this seemed to be too fragile and barely believable a thing which would, it appeared to me, vanish as soon as I realized it.
I had long sensed that through the crust of ice, something had been shining and and thrashing hither and thither, sometimes, like the flame of the candle when the wind would blow and seek to extinguish it; and I had wondered when it would make the ice thaw away completely, and grow into a steady blaze. Now the ice was no more. No, he was still the same Francesco, shut in his shell and outwardly hostile; but, deep down in him, something had changed and would never be the same, and he had let me into the sanctum sanctorum of his soul. I could be sure I was welcome with him, no matter how he treated me, and I knew he was not trying to push me away anymore. We had melted together, and were truly one. It was like the feeling I had with Enrico, but much deeper, enhanced perhaps by our mental link as well.
Slowly, he lifted his head and gave me a long gaze that made a wave of warmth surge up in me.
This is me, I thought. I, myself, sat there in the old armchair in ragged black clothes; and I hurt, hurt more than anyone could ever come close to imagining, and there was no way to escape it. But this was not what I wanted, was it. The hurt did not matter, - together we would find ways of dealing with it, - it was not the worst thing ever to have happened. What did matter was that the walls were being torn down, and through the cracks the sun could shine at last.
He lowered his head again and went back to his reading.
I did not want to talk. The silence was soothing and wrapped around the two of us like a warm coccoon, and it felt wrong to tear it open. It was good to just stay as I was, in this little and oddly cozy room, with the man who was - me, as surely as I was now him. Almost on tiptoe, I went along the bookshelf and examined the titles of the books or took some and looked through them, just to have something to occupy myself with; taking care not to do anything that would disrupt the silence, and, above all, this new feeling of unity and of something altogether unspeakable that had come to us this night.
It was him who spoke first.
"The wine is in the kitchen," he said without lifting his head from the book. "If you want, you can make yourself a hot drink."
His voice, too, was not the same. It was just as detached as before, and just as stony, so that someone else would not have noticed the difference. But all the true hostility was gone from it. He did not sound dangerous, only imperturbably calm. What remained was a sort of superficial hostility he would put out like a shield in front of just about anyone, no matter how dear, - simply because he was very withdrawn, and this was the only way of treating people that he knew.
I smiled, glad there was something to do now, some little thing which would bind us together more closely. Just as cautiously, I opened the door and, closing it softly behind me, stepped into the tiny space, - too tiny to be called a room at all, - that joined Francesco's room and the kitchen. I took my shopping bag, which I had left there, and browsed through the things I had bought; I didn't even remember too well what was in there. While at the supermarket, I had hurriedly thrown just about anything I came across into the basket, just so that I"d have something to excuse my absence. Now I was glad that among the things I had bought there happened to be a small packet of ground spices and several white rolls. I took them and opened the kitchen door.
The kitchen was dark and even more dusty. It was apparent that Francesco was hardly using it at all. His presence made the room where he stayed and sometimes slept alive, and so did the scent and light of candles, and the fresh, invigorating smells that came from the street; but here, the window was shut tight, and all I could feel was the smell of dust, old wood, and faint tinges of something fake akin to plastic or rubber that was even less pleasant. The desolation of the whole place was suddenly very obvious and striking here, and it hurt me. Francesco was a man who was a stranger in his own dwelling. I couldn't help wondering what was "home" to him, if there was any such place at all.
There was no light bulb fitted into the socket that hung from the ceiling on a thick, crooked black wire, but the stove worked normally. The neon blue tongues made me feel a little better, and, in spite of myself, I wondered at their bright, unusual color. I came up to the window, turned the handle on the frame down as much as I managed, and pulled hard. The window gave way and burst open, letting in the noises of motor scooters buzzing by and people shuffling along the wet sidewalk, and the chirping of crickets, and the sweet, fresh, damp scents; a small splinter of wood flew off in the process.
On the stove, there was a small pan that had hardly ever been used. In the small cupboard I found a bottle of excellent sweet white wine and two glasses. Who was it meant for, I wondered. It must have been for me that he had bought it; he would never drink wine himself, as a "luxury" that was not fitting for a crude and worthless creature like him anymore. I remembered the stories that were told about him, - the way he would either go without food and drink for months, or would have just a handful of olines or an onion bulb, and a slice of mouldy black bread, every other week or so.
And, as I held the bottle in my hands, the warmth surged up again, like a fount of liquid gold that begged to be let out, or else it would drown me. Sweet Francesco; still trying to be harsh and indifferent, and yet I find wine in this shabby, dusty place which was meant for me. He knew, of course, that hot wine was among the few things that could if not restore me back to life, then at least make the pain and illness a lot more tolerable.
I mixed the wine with spices and heated it, and tore open the buns before bringing them into Francesco"s room. I put my roll on top of my glass, and set that on the floor beside me; and held out the other glass and roll to him. He shook his head.
I wondered how long had it been since he had eaten something like wine or wheat bread. The stories came to mind again.
Slowly, he took the glass and the bread from me. There was something like bewilderment in him, as if he had never seen such things before. Tentatively, he took a tiny sip and then cradled the glass in his hands, enjoying the warmth of it. Then he seemed to catch sight of something on my chest, and shuddered slightly as if an electric current had passed through him. Then he averted his eyes and lowered his head in reverence. He had seen my crucifix.
"You can look at it, Francesco," I said quietly. "Who told you that you"re cursed? You"re a man, just like all of us, though your body isn"t the same and you may live indefinitely. There"s this thing living in you - in us - that makes us what we are, a microorganism. It enters each cell of ours, and changes our bodies. It"s just that, nothing more."
Outside, the lantern shone in the dark, and the crickets were chirping, loud and sonorous.
"Look at me. I"m like... like you, but I"m wearing it and it doesn"t burn me or anything of the sort. It wouldn't hurt you if you had one, either. And you can come into a church if you wish. Try it some evening. Just come and stand there, and listen to the service. You'll see how good it feels. It won't hurt you....do you hear me? You made yourself believe that God has left you, even though He never had and loves you as much as ever. It was only you who left Him. But you can always come back."
He sat silent and rigid. The pain was immesurable, and he had tensed against it as much as he could, because this was the way of keeping it within him and not allowing it to rule.
"I am not worthy even of looking at it," he said hoarsely after a long pause. "I can never come back to Him. Not after what I have done. He shall never accept me again."
"You can, Francesco. We too are God"s children. Perhaps we"re His lost children, - but His children still. And our eyes can see so much beauty in the world He has created that the wonder of it may lead us to Him more surely than it would anybody else. And whatever sins may be yours, He"ll still accept you; the only thing that matters is that you"re sorry for what you"ve done."
I reached out and laid my hand gently onto his. For a moment I thought he would tear it away, - his whole body tensed up, and it seemed that his flesh became even harder and more like stone. But he relaxed, and my hand remained lying over his; both of them cold, yet heated at the moment by the wine, and indistinguishable from one another like a single warm and strong thing.
I looked at the shining rectangle of the window, with the little light of the candle twitching and wavering against it, and the lantern outside, - a body of light encased in etched glass and placed within a small, black iron house. A soft rain was tapping melodically on the wet pavements and on the metal of the lantern top, and whispering something secret to the leaves of the acacia tree. The sweet, contemplative scent of melting wax mingled with the scent of fresh rain and cool night air, and the intoxicatingly sweet aroma of the blossom.
....When I was little, I used to suckle acacia flowers. It was one of my earliest memories. I took the blossoms, one by one, and would first press their white cheeks and bend away the full white bottom lip, so that the mouth with the dark stain like a tongue would become visible. Then I would look inside. I had this strange fantasy that there should be a little bit of light in each of them, very deep down, at the bottom of the curved tube of the flower. I often wondered how these little lights must shine in secret, hidden within the white vessels from anyone"s prying eyes, and it filled me with wonder. So I peered hard into the flowers, trying to find them, and when I didn"t it felt like this was somehow my own fault, and it was only I who couldn"t see them. And each new time, I hoped I would see them at long last, so that the mystery lived on. "Open, - open for me," I would whisper, wonderstruck, as my fingers tenderly touched the flower, and I took a peek inside. Then I would suck at the edge of the tube, drawing the delicious honey. It was sweet but with a unique bitterness to it, and the fragrance was almost unbearable.
One day like that I was standing in the garden, and the sunlight washed over the white blossoms and my head was spinning with the scent. "Gee, how lovely," I thought. I felt oddly whole, and filled to the brim; and I thought, how truly great, how wonderful, all this, and thanked Him Who, as I had been told, must have created it all.
Since then, I began thinking about God. At least, this was the first time that I could recall being really aware of Him.
There... See, Francesco? What beauty. You can have it too, Francesco, you can have it all again as though you would never lost it. It is all yours! It's right there, just outisde your window. It's waiting for you. Just open your eyes and see. Just open your heart and ask. He has not forsaken you, He is waiting anxiously for you to come back to Him, and all He is going to do when you manage it is welcome you and shower you with beauty. All you need is to turn to Him again. And believe that He can, and will, forgive...
Francesco was as still as a thing made of stone; lost, it seemed, unable to make anything of what was happening. And the hurt was there and the warmth was washing through me, too, and it seemed it overcame the pain, or at least made sure that it no longer mattered.
I searched in my pocket for my rosary and took it out. It had beads of amber that ranged from transparent brown to milky yellow, and a small golden crucifix. I had given Jim my ordinary crucifix when he swore to be as a brother to me, and now had his instead, which I could not give away. But my rosary was with me, and for now it was the only thing I could give Francesco. I hung it over his neck. He shuddered more violently than before as the amber beads touched him; but then he was calm again, and did not stir as I put the beads underneath his shirt so that nobody would notice them.
"Wear that, Francesco. Do not take it off."
Then there was the warm silence again, - the silence that was deeper and more meaningful than any words, - and the light streaming through the window, and the gold glittering on the backs of the books, and sweet inebriating fragrance that seemed to be permeating everything....
It was a great pity to leave. I wished I could stay for good with this man, who was one whole with me; it was here that I belonged. But for now, I had to go, or I would run into trouble.
"I need to go, Francesco," I whispered. "They must"ve already lost me by now. I"m sorry I can"t stay - but I"ll come again soon."
He did not lift his head to say farewell. But, as I rose, I saw that his lips were touched, for the first time, with something akin to a smile.