Part Six

 

And so she leaves, the long years echoing
where I may think on fading as a dream.
How curiously our hopes press on and leave
our fuller selves unhatched, and all those hopes
dissolved in recollections, which in time
fill out with poignant anguish and the hurt
in something still unread.

In our child's case —
Anna Matilda she was named — I went
then back and forth and sent her mother notes.
I worked whole nights or gamed in tavern rooms.
I was both young again and much retired,
repelled by memories and still drawn to them.

Long days I sat in silence, Benedetto
looking on. The honest workman that
he is could doubtless have divined the matter
but spoke of new commissions, days ahead,
the pigments now on order: studio talk.

Again I went and didn't, helplessly
I wandered round the streets, an adolescent
still at heart.

It was a girl, they said,
a pleasing-featured, forward little girl.
I thought of that hard frankness, that abundance
so cast in innocence and dimpled looks.
I thought of woolen clothes and how her feet
would make their first much-falling journey, how
that mouth would say its simple words, and how
she'd rush and hang excited to that mother's
breast I had so often clung to, strongly-
formed and for another warm and safe.
I thought as well how certainly her thoughts
would brood upon the absent father's name.
Across the months and years, there came a sense
of someone distant who was also mine.

I drift, as all the years were no doubt drifting.
I saw the donna Antonia's child at times,
if then too briefly: such a pretty girl:
her mother's nose and eyes were most distinct,
but head and attitude there spoke of mine.
I was consumed by thoughts of tenderness
and then of biting grief. I made at times
to see the Schiavoni. She refused.
I stopped her sometimes on the streets, and once
beneath the campanile. It was the same.
She smiled but with a bitterness, and then
appeared a small bent man I recognized
as one of our great names, who made his bow
and on his arm allowed the lady pass.

But on the child I marvelled more and found
God's handiwork's was with me from that day.

The trailing vesper bell that calls to prayer
50. us and our thoughts, has reveries no less
than these. I then reformed, was less at bawdy
houses, more at work, made such amends
commissions flooded in, from church and priory,
Venice itself and others, Verona even
50. where I first painted and was therefore feted,
the lad returning to his native haunt.

I met again my master Antonio
Badile who put me up and had his daughter
the young Elena wait at table where
I saw the small lithe body, neat and bony,
no grace about it but complete and comely,
round eyes and placid, smiling, questioning
and following each step I took. 'She wants
a husband,' said her father. 'You could do worse.
She'll wait upon you, run the workshop,
bear your children and be capable.
Think on it, Caliari.' I scarcely did
but said as was required, how at my age
the good Elena could well look beyond,
how many candidates were thereabouts.

He laughed. 'She's set upon you.'

She cannot know
me or my life.

'Caliari, think
of your good father gone these fourteen years
and thankfully to earth. He wanted only
ministrations and a house in order,
as your poor mother managed till she died.
You have the world before you but no place
to go at nightfall or to eat with friends.
What life is that? A painter may do worse
than wed another's bearing, who in truth
will serve you faithfully throughout her life.'

He said no more, but as I went each day
to finish apprentice work and was content
I knew at heart she would accept despite
what Venice knew, and not be jealous, no pledge
of faithfulness but piety and truth.
Nothing awaited me but wantonness
and drink and weariness as one by one
my old acquaintances were settling down.

In this I married. A short and country service:
Elena pretty, I most dignified.
We stepped out, smiling to the April sun
and settled life: and all went from that day
onward as by rote. Affectionate,
by turns attentive, I became in time
a father who would play with Gabriele
and then Carletto, happily, though toiling
at San Sebastiano, day and night.

At last there came Vitoria, a thing
most delicately fashioned, with a smile
so happy and ingenuous I might
have thought her recompense for someone else.
But then I met my Anna with her mother,
a thing of radiance and perfect grace:
100. there never was a more unblemished creature,
but twelve years old and fashioned with a high-
stepped disposition and a smiling self.

Elena knew? Most probably, and half
of Venice, like as not: I was
of course admonished, and continually
at pains to put her image out of mind,
to dwell, as priests and my confessor said,
on what I had and not the past, to walk
as on a road and endlessly so keeping
my eyes ahead, and never glancing out
to one of kinship who would travel close:
two lives adjoining that could never meet.

Or so I thought, and told myself, and yet
one day I found her looking wonderingly
as hung with cloths I was at that small church.
signor Pittore is what she said,

'Signore,
how is it that you paint but empty air?
How are the figures vibrant but in truth
but tiny dabs of paint?'

A trick, my lady.

She smiled and almost curtsied and I caught
my paintbrush quivering as she said,

'My name
is Anna Schiavoni, which my mother says
you know.'

I do, and bid you to please
excuse this artifice of handiwork.

'You are, Signore, much too modest. All Venice
knows you as the first of painters. Please
to paint some artifice for me.'

What could
a lady want that has so much?'

'My mother's face.'

Ah no, my little lady, that is yours
by right: you see it plainly every day.

'She said you would refuse. What then?'

What then?
My little lady, if you'd hold yourself
here a moment longer — this we have.
I showed it her, a rapid sketch on paper
that would not last, but still a speaking likeness
of that most gentle but still earnest face.

No more than that, a moment's daubing, yet
a thing I held about me when I went
to vespers or to workshop. There it hung
when I should kiss my own, or lie at night
consumed by differences that I must hide.

They both were pretty, true, but in the first
I saw her mother's counselling and grace,
her studies in deportment, languages
by which a woman's kindliness can reach
the unformed darkness in the heart of Europe,
beyond the battlements of war and princes
to worlds of learning, smiling wit,
where body in its soft and satined way
can weave a transport of delight and make
150. a fitting consort to its curtsied eyes.

So was my Anna: day by day she came
more willingly — what could I do? — to watch
me painting, tell me tales of friends and outings,
what mother said of her, what schoolmates planned
for Michelmass or Whitsuntide. I smiled
but took on seriousness when next she said:

'Why am I talking to you, signor Pittore?
Why are you listening to the empty chatter
as though this child were yours, as though your heart
wove in the incidents that make her life?'

These are your special years, I said, who have
a time to walk in sunlight through a world
that passes all too swiftly, a little time
before you take in aspects of a darker place.
Perhaps one afternoon, then grown a lady,
you will see my work, and think: Ah, what's
become of him? And smile and saunter on.

 

Now rewritten and published as a free ebook by Ocaso Press