The Golden Tree of St Francis

 

What the fuck was that? 

A woman was screaming.  Pitched halfway between fear and anger, loud and sustained. An adult woman, Dan thought, yet there was a note of petulance, the suggestion of a toddler tantrum.  It came abruptly to a halt.

He looked around as he spooned the last of the pistachio ice cream into his mouth.  The couple at the next table hadn’t reacted.  Dan looked down the street to where the sound seemed to have come from.  Seven people walked up together, chatting and laughing, three generations of a family.  Had no-one else heard?

*************

Dan had travelled with his family to Tuscany for a week in August to join his brother-in-law’s 50th birthday celebrations.  There were nine of them, plus the two dogs, staying in a beautiful villa near Arezzo.  A few days passed pleasantly, eating, drinking, swimming, reading and chatting, but soon he had become restless.

So after breakfast he had set out to explore the nearby town of Lucignano, parking just outside the city wall.  The morning was spent seeking the shady side of the ancient paved streets, sometimes finding relief in the air conditioning of the souvenir shops. He wandered into the rather faded Church of San Michele, where a dusty old funeral carriage was on display, accompanied by a hooded female figure in black.

His ancient travel guide proclaimed that the Golden Tree of St Francis or Albero d’Oro was “a masterpiece produced in Sienese goldsmith’s shops during the 14C-15C” and worth a detour so he navigated his way to the municipal museum.  As he waited to buy his entry ticket he had that sense of a chore to be completed which always accompanied his visits to museums and galleries.  So much information to be taken in, sifted, so many things competing for his attention, how could he be worthy to choose between them?

If history and art were so exciting, he mused, why did he feel this weight, this dull foreboding?  He would thrill at the rise of the curtain in the theatre, at the opera: hearing the referee’s starting whistle, signalling a tiny, unpredictable new chapter for his team, his chest would tighten.  When the lights went down and the cheers rose at a rock concert, Dan felt sixteen again.  Back in the day, even the old Pearl and Dean theme, for god’s sake, stirred anticipation.  Maybe museums just weren’t his thing: still, what else had he expected to find in the town?  Anyway, he was here now.

Before long he was standing in front of the famous reliquary: round boxes of irregular size hung from spindly curved branches.  He felt instant revulsion.  It was no doubt a superb example of the goldsmith’s art, but it seemed horribly ugly: over-ornate, and at the same time slightly shabby.  According to the descriptive plaque it no longer contained any holy relics.  Apparently it had taken 120 years to make it: expert craftsmen had spent years, decades of their lives working on it, knowing they would never see it completed.  Was that wonderful or was it ridiculous?  Dan was no Christian, but he knew that Christ had embraced poverty, simplicity.  How many of the people of Lucignano, of Siena, had died of malnutrition, had seen their children taken away for want of clean water, while on the orders of the Church the goldsmiths plied their patient and costly craft?  Slightly to his surprise he heard himself mutter a curse under his breath, hypocritical bastards.

Eventually he emerged from the gloomy museum, greeting the scorching sun in the square with relief.  It was half past one, and he was hungry.  He chose a narrow street at random, and after a few turns came to a trattoria with a couple of small tables in the shade, where he sat down and ordered a pasta dish and a glass of rosé.

***************

Dan had already settled his bill, so he picked up his bag and strode briskly up the street from where the cry had seemed to come.  He didn’t know if he was motivated by chivalry or curiosity as he climbed the steep cobbles, now in full afternoon sun.  There was no-one in view, but he thought he saw something dark disappearing up a narrow turning to the left, halfway up the hill.

He quickened his pace as he followed the shape up a flight of stone steps, once more just catching a glimpse of a figure in the distance.  Dan wiped his brow: all shade seemed to have disappeared from the town, but his curiosity intensified.  He had the impression of light, furtive movement ahead. The figure might be quite innocuous, but Dan wanted to see it for himself.

The chase was on. Whenever he turned a corner, he just caught sight of something vanishing, never a clear view.  The heat reflected mercilessly from the pavement.  He took turn after turn in pursuit, in frustration breaking into a run, the sweat now dripping from his forehead.  But it made no difference: he was no closer.  As if he was being taunted.  Once the figure took a turning just a few metres ahead of him, but when Dan turned the same corner it was already disappearing from few, seventy metres ahead.  How could that be…

He was the pursuer, yet he sensed perhaps he was being hunted…or led into a trap? This thing could have easily shaken him off, but no, at every corner it lingered just long enough to show him the way.  But Dan was not thinking clearly: he had started this game and he would finish it.  He felt his pulse thudding in his temple as he came back on to a main street: the sun now seemed to be directly overhead and he was surprised to notice that the streets and cafes were deserted.  As he ran, he realised he had lost his quarry: as he turned the corner this time there been no glimpse.

He slowed to a walk, then stopped and closed his eyes as he tried to regain his breath. He found himself laughing: this was ridiculous, a trick of his imagination.  How strange he must have looked, running through the scorching streets, chasing some ghost…he looked up and saw that he was once more by the Church of San Michele, and moved inside to escape the sun.  He wandered around exploring it again, trying to compose himself.

He looked at the funeral carriage again.  Wait, hadn’t there been a figure next to it?  Yes, there, to the left of the carriage, he could make out faint marks on the floor where the feet had been.  In a playful spirit, he planted his feet in the marks…

 

*****************

Signore, posso prendere questa sedia? 

Dan surfaced abruptly and waved the chair away, Si, Si. The ice cream dish was still in front of him. He was no longer seated in the shade.  The relaxed bustle and chatter of the trattoria resumed.  What a strange dream…but…

But now he was standing again…his vision constrained by something dark…he tried to turn his head, move his feet, but he could not.  He stared out passively at the dusty church…he tried to scream but no sound came back to him.

 

Midnight

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I had to bring Emily to this place, to this beautiful place, where my mother brought me twenty-seven years ago.  “Remember this time.  It’s the way life should be.” And I sensed, even at the time, she was telling me that happiness is elusive and fleeting, as she held me in her lap, as we sat on the sand and watched the waves rolling in under the moonlight, and as I examined the pebbles in my hand.

And now in her memory we come back to this same cottage, arriving late and in darkness after the working day.  Emily settles in bed and is soon asleep while I look out of her window towards the sea.  I’m tired, but sleep won’t come.  I get up, and look at the moon shining through the trees, the trees which border the track down to the beach.

And an open top car quietly pulls into the driveway, and there is Emily’s father, but as I first knew him.  I know he cannot be there, and also that he is, and that I am seventeen. He waves and opens the passenger door and gestures me into the seat.

I leave the cottage and go to him, and we drive off through the forest without a word passing between us, and the wind blows our hair.  My heart races with fear, with excitement.  He gets out and stands at the edge of the trees, looking down on the sea.  Suddenly I feel the deepest longing.  I follow him and he looks in my eyes and we kiss, slowly and tenderly.  He extends his arm towards the sea.

“But…”

He puts his finger to my lips.

“Shh.  There is nothing but you and me, the sea and the moon.”

And I see it is true.  So we walk to the waves, and paddle, and wade and swim.  And we play and laugh and hold each other in the silver sea.  Then as he looks in my eyes I feel myself being pulled down.  I struggle at first, but he smiles at me reassuringly, and I feel a sweet calmness upon me.  All is well.  All is well.

(Based on Midnight by Five Fathoms Deep, and The Big Big Sea by Martin Waddell and Jennifer Eachus)