The Count of Montagna

 

By Gaither Stewart

 

 

Mornings Arnolfo and I sit in front of my bookstore on the high road near the cemetery, alternately arguing about politics and listening to the rush of the waterfall. At some point we walk down to Caffé Paini for a coffee. Several times we pass Town Hall just so he can get a look at Mayor Celestina.

Then, late afternoons, we lounge on the balcony of his big house overlooking the valley, he on edge and critical, I sinking lower and lower to the level of a vigilant spy. Both of us are observers—he from inside village life, I from without. From our strategic positions of my store and his balcony we are able to keep our eyes on the lives of our fellow villagers.

The village is what we eventually talk about. There is little room in our conversation for literature or art or his new faith, Theosophy, and his attempts at divine contact through contemplation. We largely ignore all that. Gossiping and joking like two old maids about the foibles of human nature, we agree that people are much the same whether in Montagna or Milan, Paris or New York.

Arnolfo might drop a comment about an old school friend, ‘Oh, Pietro had a lot of success, you know. But it went to his head and he became an alcoholic.’

I might say, ‘What about those super neo-Palladian villas higher up the hill? Where did the money come from? Political graft? Gambling casinos? Drugs? Prostitution?’

Arnolfo might chuckle, pat my shoulder and shrug. And we resume our detached contemplation until another person or other events enter our horizon. Arnolfo’s exuberant optimism seems to shield him from doubts as completely as the Chiesa di San Giorgio has protected the entire village of Montagna for a millennium of invasions and emigration, of plagues and floods.

 

One morning, standing under the arch of the former carriageway entrance along the steep side of his family mansion, Arnolfo kicks at the clogs of broken cement and stones of what was once his family’s private street. Lizards race madly up and down the cracked walls of an adjacent house in ruins.

“People used to care about these things,” he says, frustrated that despite his petitions the Town Council has not repaved it with cobblestones as it was five hundred years ago.

“Arnolfo,” I say, “our Mayor is too beautiful to get involved in cobblestones. Maybe what you need is more pull in Milan or Rome.”

“Oh, she will, she will,” he says, turning on me a sudden mad smile. “She loves me, you know. Haven’t you noticed? Now that I’m back for good she’ll come around.”

I haven’t attached much importance to his exchanges of furtive glances with Celestina. Actually their attraction is understandable. This sexy woman has lived her whole life in this Alpine village and could be fascinated by Arnolfo, the man from another world, who has never been indifferent to female pulchritude.

 

Arnolfo and I are no less well informed about Mayor Celestina than are the card players at Caffé Paini or the faithful at the Chiesa di San Giorgio. Everyone in the village is aware of her little affairs, as if staged to titillate their hidden desires.

In fact, our observation points are better than most—from Arnolfo’s high balcony and from my bookstore hanging over the village we’re on the qui vive, attuned to shifts of mood and humor. We know of ancient animosities surviving generation after generation. We know who is seeing whom. We know of marriages around the corner, of babies on the way, of new jobs in the valley, of houses in restoration, of church attendance, of drinking bouts in the café, of grape harvests, of unexplained opulence, of vacations on Caribbean islands … and we know of the rare extramarital affairs.

 

“Lü iol fa quel che iol fa tüc!” Arnolfo comments in his picturesque language about Celestina’s current love affair. We are idling on his balcony over coffee and grappa and lazily observing an aged couple below gardening and restoring the ravages of the cold winter. The six o’clock bells have sounded. The streets are quiet.

The corners of his mouth turn down, his eyes narrow, his forehead creases. “They’re doing what everyone wants to do … relive their youth. Celestina, I mean.”

Like Father Romano the parish priest and the card players in Caffé Paini, we have followed the course of Mayor Celestina’s liaison with a lawyer named Saverio. “A strange story,” Arnolfo whispers to me, the crazy gleam of vicarious romance in his eyes. “A return to the past ... or a leap to the future,” he adds.

Both in their early thirties, both married today, Saverio with small children and Celestina with a doting husband, they were sweethearts as teenagers. Then, as sometimes happens, the two inamoratas rediscovered each other and are reliving the fire of first love.

“Nothing spicier but nothing more dangerous than a re-found first love,” Arnolfo says, a familiar distant look invading his eyes.

“Or fulfilling something unfulfilled in their past,” I add in my Italian that seems stiff and flat in comparison with his dialectal speech that I have somehow forgotten. I’m aware that as far as Arnolfo is concerned there are more overtones to the story than I first imagined.

He ignores his cellular phone playing Imagine in the living room. The Beatles could be summoning him back to Paris. Or it could be one of his clients in Barcelona or a factory hidden in the wilds of north India. It could be his housekeeper in his villa in the medina of Marrakech. Arnolfo telephones but seldom answers.

“And they do it right up there,” he says, his eyes jumping around, envious of something he can’t yet define, his finger jabbing upwards toward the flat rooftop of the house next door, skeleton-like under its sheath of multi-tiered scaffolding. “They both have the key to the downstairs entrance. I get glimpses of them when they arrive … separately … nearly every evening ... she first.”

“Well, he has to tuck in the babies first,” I say, adding a bit of sarcasm to his romantic vision of the love story. Our Mayor, our Celestina, is a bit on the frivolous side.

“Hers is a naked heart,” Arnolfo says in a poetic vein. “She displays it all.”

Uncertain what he means, I tell myself to keep in mind that Celestina too is someone’s daughter, though she seems to reject traditional daughterhood. She wants more than the village, just as we did. I’ve come to believe that Celestina is in transition, looking for refuge. And she takes bits of it wherever she can, in marriage, in politics, and now in her revival of the past. A daughter of Montagna!

Later, the sun has fallen and conversation stops as Father Romano’s maddened vesper bells sweep over us exposed on the balcony. We look at each other during the tumult. What with both our failed marriages in our past, we are puzzled by this tardy Romeo and Juliet story.

Then, when the din subsides: “Celestina and Saverio have turned things around,” Arnolfo whispers. “But their lives are out of joint. He will never leave his wife … and Celestina knows that.”

From the gleam in his eyes it occurs to me that Arnolfo shares some of the couple’s futile grasping for a second life.

La vita l’é incsi!” Count Arnolfo says. Such is life!

“You mean it’s inevitable?”

            “They have nothing else to say to their spouses. They have reached the silent plateau of matrimony. What can they do? They try again! One thousand years of life here in our Montagna. The same things happening again and again.”

“So what?”

“So, this too will end like everything ends. But such passions will happen again and again ... forever and ever.”

“Let’s hope without tragedy this time,” I, the pessimist, add. 

“The thing about them is that neither is right and neither is wrong,” he says. “They are doing the right thing at the right time … grabbing what they can.”

“While they can.”

The Count nods.

           

The days pass. Days of hazardous speculation on the state of the passion of Celestina and Saverio that has assumed the proportions of a romantic novel becoming a Verdi opera. A sensation of foreboding overcomes me. Though Arnolfo in his crazy way appears to remain cool and collected, it seems as if he and the other secret observers also have a presentiment of tragedy. Word spreads that Saverio will never leave his children. Not even for his old sweetheart. The denouement!

Like the jagged current of Alpine summer lightening, two conflicting waves of reactions race through the watchers’ camps—fiery romance and the premonition of tragedy.

But not even Father Romano’s head-shaking could prepare us for the abrupt and brutal outcome. On the morning Saverio’s body is discovered among building materials scattered below the pinnacle of the couple’s love nest, word circulates that he was practically decapitated when his falling body struck the blade of an upturned shovel.

Now Saverio was of another generation. We hardly knew him. Though he lived his life here and practiced law in the valley, he bore out my linguistic point of view—like me he hardly spoke dialect either. You can forget. Sometimes you want to.

 

Thanks to Father Romano and despite the shadow of mystery and shame surrounding Saverio’s death, his is a village funeral in the Chiesa di San Giorgio. Count Arnolfo in his role of village patron insists on adhering to an ancient tradition of bread for the dead. Standing in the doorway, tall, slim, still fresh-faced in a long Indian shirt, and, it seems to me, suppressing a certain contentment, he hands out a loaf of white bread to those who show up at Saverio’s house for the recitation of the rosary.

It seems natural that Arnolfo and Father Romano also work together in the post-tragedy—the priest takes Saverio’s wife Melinda under the protective wing of the Church, while the Count takes over the consolation of Mayor Celestina. Only later would I realize how much was going on under the surface of village life that I, the spy, simply didn’t see. Arnolfo must be right. I missed the nuances of dialectal speech. Arnolfo and Celestina’s mutual attraction seemed at first no more than a village flirt. An abstract sort of thing, chiefly in Arnolfo’s imagination, I believed.

 

“He’s right of course,” Arnolfo tells me happily the day after village people watched Celestina’s cuckolded husband load his SUV with suitcases and bags and boxes, skis and a kayak on the roof, and drive off down to the valley.

“What do you mean? He seemed like Dante going into exile.”

“He has his reputation to think of!” Arnolfo says. “And he’ll never again be taken seriously here. Most certainly he doesn’t want to get any more involved than he is today. She’s an unfortunate child, his… er… wife, Celestina. But she is not exactly a Beatrice, you know. ”

When I ask about the official cars from Sondrio each day at our Town Hall and up at the Mayor’s house up near the cascades, Arnolfo assumes a grim expression and shrugs. He mutters that the state attorney’s office wants to be assured of the legality of things up here on the hill. After all! The Mayor. And her lover. A leap in the dark.

As the days pass I begin to understand that deep in his dialectal speech, now reaching far back into unexplored linguistic territories, he is trying to reveal to me those secret nuances inexpressible in mainline language.

“Quanc’ che né femma la pert la crapa dre’ a n’ume, la sa’ cüi quel che la fà, he says enigmatically. The significance of his age-old judgment is that when a woman loses her head for a man she’s not responsible for her acts. This then is the heart of the matter. 

 

Since the funeral, Mayor Celestina has taken to dressing even more provocatively than before. She has become a celebrity. Every day she drives down to Sondrio in her own cabriolet. Word spreads that she has been summoned to the procurator’s office.

Meanwhile, the Romeo and Juliet story—the lovers in their ‘tower of love’, as one Milan journalist headlined the affair—has reached the national media. TV crews from Rome and from Switzerland across the mountains are staked out on the parking spaces behind Town Hall. A squad of the scientific police from Milan spends a day at the scene of the caduta d’amore, the tragic love fall, just next door to Arnolfo’s house, examining, measuring, and testing on the flat roof where the couple’s passion was consumed.

A smart aleck young detective accompanied by a TV cameraman asks me what young Saverio could have been doing on the roof of a house under construction. Was he moonlighting as a mason? When I suggest he might have been studying astronomy, the cop slaps me on the shoulder and laughs and walks away satisfied.

“So, Signore Conte,” I say to Arnolfo that same afternoon, “has no one asked you if you saw anything?”

“They wouldn’t dare.”

“But you’re just next door. You spend evenings on your balcony. You know everything that happens in the village. You’re the village spokesman. Don’t they want your opinion?”

While I fire my ironic broadsides at him, the Count stares fixedly at me as if wondering who I really am. As if wondering if I am to be trusted.

It’s in that moment that I become convinced that he knows something no one else knows. He always does. I wonder if he saw what happened up on the roof.

“Giacomo,” he says, switching to standard Italian, an insuppressible tone of happiness in his voice, “we often know things we would prefer not to know. That is my case today. I wish I did not know what I know. I hardly believe what I know myself. And I do not believe you want to know either. Therefore I will not reveal to you what my own eyes have seen and what my ears have heard. Suffice it to say for now that Celestina wanted him to leave his wife and children for her ... but he couldn’t do it.”

“But in the end he did!”

 

Another week passes. Arnolfo too makes several jaunts to the Office of the Procurator of the Republic in Sondrio. The Deputy Procurator handling the case, he reminds me, is from Montagna and was our classmate. Hardly a surprise then that shortly afterwards Saverio’s death is classified as suicide, police investigations cease, the press drops the love tragedy on the hill, the TV crews depart, and the neo-single Celestina resumes her official duties as Mayor of Montagna.

June days are long and dry, nights Alpine cool. During the siesta hours, village streets and the Caffé Paini are empty. Even the hells bells of San Giorgio seem satiate and stilled in the warm afternoon hours.

As usual the Count drops into my shop most mornings but he often begs off our afternoon sessions on his balcony. I suspect something rotten in Denmark and take to spending more time spying among the regulars at Caffé Paini where dialect is the spoken language. Trying to blend in with the village people, I have begun applying myself to using more dialect in my speech though I’m embarrassed when the card players laugh and slap the table at my pronunciation.

“Ah, you’re not like il Conte,” they say vaguely.

“You’ll never get it,” they say distantly.

“You have to be born here,” they say exclusively.

 

In early July the Count departs for his annual summer villeggiatura at his villa on the Ligurian seashore—for a period of theosophical contemplation, he says. I miss our morning meetings in the bookstore. My other companion, Father Romano, stays holed up in one of his churches, busy with the region’s cooling white wines. Mayor Celestina too is away. Caffé Paini is deserted. There is little to do except stare down at the narrow Adda River and the cars creeping up the valley toward Alpine passes to the Engadine and Swiss territories. Except for the faithful bells of San Giorgio and late-night motorcycles village life comes to a standstill. 

One day I take the train for the two-hour ride to Milan. I walk around the hot empty streets near the station, and get on the next return train. Another day I drive down the valley between the two Alpine ranges to see the villas on the steep mountainsides dropping straight down to the waters of Lake Como. But the lake and the boats and the colors only evoke the outside world and I race back to my aerie. In mid-August I close my store and drive to San Moritz and up the Inn Valley to Munich for the rest of the month.

 

In early September the world begins to move again. The rains have finished. Landslide damages are repaired. On the first afternoon of my return, anxious to reestablish our pre-vacation routine, I drop in at Ca’ Corradini where to my surprise I find Arnolfo and Celestina sitting with their heads together at a table in his romantically illuminated living room.

They are playing chess.

The indirect light plays off the elegant wood-paneled room. Niches here and there have their own little spots highlighting an antique painting here, a set of leather- bound classics there. Oriental carpets decorate polished wood floors.

Arnolfo smiles roguishly, puts his hand on hers in a tender way as he stands up, and says, “The ways of the Lord are mysterious.”

Celestina’s face turns red and she fidgets with her black knight. She stands up as if preparing to go, one hand still clutching the knight, the fingers of her other nervously touching a breast. The Count puts his hand on her shoulder and has her sit again.

She is wearing a short black skirt and sandals that show off her tanned legs and a revealing T-shirt with an image of a rocky seashore on the front. She has never looked sexier. The Count is wearing tan Bermuda shorts and an elegant blue Polo shirt. He is barefoot. I notice that his feet are nearly white…he didn’t take off his beach shoes. His scalp under his thinning hair is as tan as her legs. His pale blue eyes reflect a light as bright as the early morning skies over the Valtellina. He looks ten years younger. The devil of a Count is still seducing women.

            “He might as well know,” he says to her, a who-gives-a-fuck boldness in his manner.

The atmosphere is as highly charged as the bar in a whorehouse. I breathe in the sensuality filling the room. It’s her legs and her touching her breasts and his tan and his bare feet. It’s the purposeful lift of her knee revealing a naked thigh and denying that she was anyone’s daughter.

“He’s here every day,” Arnolfo says to her, now nonchalantly. “After all we have to start somewhere.”

Celestina lowers her eyes.

From his hand on hers, from his words, spoken and unspoken, from the desire in his eyes and the voluptuous trepidation in hers, I grasp their situation. He has fallen in a passion!

But in their touch and speech, his tender, hers fearful, I also see the block letters of one big word—COMPLICITY.

 

I think it was in that moment that I discovered something about Arnolfo that I once knew and had forgotten. Something that he successfully concealed from himself but perhaps not from the people of Montagna—his underlying otherness. Emerging from the fire of desire, Arnolfo appeared to me in his true guise—he was the world’s loneliest man.

I think the truth of him must have also been mirrored in the hounded but confused look that rose up in the eyes of Celestina looking from him to me as if wondering what she was doing among such people as us—another generation, another breed. Celestina must see in him an incomprehensible mystery. A system of values that long ago vanished from the valley. A system that does not concern her or her municipal administration or her Let’s Go Italy generation whose dialect was already Italianized.

What does her generation care that the village dates back to the Etruscans? Who cares that the Guelfs and the Ghibellines fought their battles here and that the plague struck Montagna centuries ago? Who remembers the three centuries of Swiss occupation?

Arnolfo the Count of Montagna cares. For despite his attempts to ignore time, he has his problems with it. Like his having no clocks in his house. And his watches stashed in the bottom of drawers. He once told me he dreamed of a place outside of time when only night and day measured its passage. Though he wants to recapture the past, I suspect he is trying to forget that someday he must die.

But in his dream he goes countercurrent because people here are forward-looking. Here the future is always better. No one here forgets the march of time. There are the bells of San Giorgio to mark it, continuously, constantly, forever and ever. Clocks everywhere. People remember that old times here were not good times. No one wants time back.

Incomprehensible to me also is Arnolfo’s attempt to ignore the vulgar present of our country. Up and down the peninsula, from the Alps to the boot, from shore to shore, it’s rampant. But he doesn’t see it. The Count only cares that the names of Corradini and Venosta and Paini and Credaro have been here forever—his recorded old name and his restored five-hundred year old family home lend him a bit more immortality. He cares that these territories have hosted the Longobards and Napoleon and long bordered with those of the Venetian Republic and that the nobility lived here in Montagna. The Count knows all the village people by name and distant cousins and descendants of other branches of the Corradini. He knows the town history back to the Thirteenth century. He salutes everyone on the streets and everyone salutes him, “Buon di, Conte” or “Buon di, Corradini.”

Yet, despite all the familiarity and his sense of belonging, there is that otherness about him. His fears are like mine. His manias are mine. It’s something that all his dialectal speech and knowledge of the territory cannot alter. It’s because of distance and time. For he too once left. He is both here and simultaneously elsewhere. Only part of him has returned.

It occurs to me that if the card players in the café could be frank with him, they might say to him as they do to me, ‘You’re not like us” or ‘we don’t speak your perfect dialect anymore’ or ‘it’s as if you weren’t even born here.’ They would say he is off the map of reality.

They would say, ‘you can’t come back.’

At heart I think Celestina would agree.

Not that Arnold started out in life different. He became different. He didn’t start out as Il Conte. He became the Count because he became worldly. That’s not to say that villagers hold this against him. On the contrary, he adds spice and a cosmopolitan air to the village. Yet, he is different. Though he has held tight his images of childhood and village life, he is a man who claims two lives. The true village is one of his lives. Perhaps he believes Celestina belongs to the other.

 

“Pleasant or unpleasant,” he says one afternoon on his balcony, “our roots are our raw material for living life. You were always looking for the edge and wanted to be a stranger. But I’ve always wanted connections. I want to belong. My idea has always been permanence. Everywhere out there I looked back. I felt like a stranger everyplace else.”

“Yes, but you’re still a stranger here.”

Arnolfo looks at me sadly, purses his lips, and says, “Everybody’s a stranger to everyone else.”

“Hardly. Not anymore.”

I mean to say that like most places in the world Montagna today is accessible, unlike its isolation of the times when we left the valley. Yet it’s less accessible than most of Europe. Geographically and culturally, people here are the antipode of vulgar modern Italy. They still recognize vulgarity when they see it. My home of the Valtellina is to Italy what the Himalayas are to Asia. What the Yukon once was to the United States. The higher Alpine valleys are what most of our country once was and could be again … without the globalization madness, without its record number of cell phones and automobiles per capita and its blind imitation of America.

 

One afternoon in Caffé Paini I hear the rumor that Celestina’s husband, Giancarlo, has begun divorce action. Everyone agrees he is right. But everyone sides with Celestina in the same way they elected her as their Mayor. Though Giancarlo was cuckolded and had to leave her, the card players conclude that Celestina couldn’t help herself. She is not wrong either. What was she supposed to do? the barman opines. Saverio was away doing his military service and she was ready for marriage.

She married the wrong person, one recalls.

She could have waited, another objects.

She’s a passionate woman, says another.

It was their destiny, someone points out.

‘Destiny!’ echoes around the café.

La vita l’é incsi!” one card player pronounces.

 

During our matinal tête-à-tête the next day Father Romano hems and haws about the divorce action. His Church rules one way, he wants me to understand, and he formally bows to it. Still, his ideas—and who knows, perhaps also his acts—lead him in other directions.

“Justice would be done,” the loveable little wine priest says, standing in the door of my store and gazing absently toward the valley. He speaks in a confusing conditional tense in the curious Italianized brand of the local dialect of his sermons.

When I ask what he means, the village priest, the man who believes in miracles, links his tiny hands with their cracked fingernails behind his back, leans forward intently as if zeroing in some object on the flanks of the Orobic Alps to the south, clears his throat, and casting aside his jovial mask, still partly in Italian, partly in dialect, in a tone as if he were torn between right and wrong, between soul and flesh, between law and passion, pronounces:

“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”

“What do you mean to say, Father?”

La vita l’é incsi!” he says, turning back to me.

With thumbs and forefingers of both hands he adjusts his white collar and gazes in my eyes as if asking himself if I, the outsider, the stranger who doesn’t even speak the local language, can be entrusted with village secrets.

“Figliolo”—though we are about the same age he calls me ‘son’ in a church sort of way—“Figliolo, sometimes we must admit defeat. I am a weak man, a man of the flesh, perhaps a sinful man. I accept destiny as my people here do. And like them I am also a man of passion.”

I think he wants to say that Giancarlo was right to move to the valley and to divorce his unfaithful wife. But that Celestina is not to be blamed. Right and wrong is one thing. Good and evil another. She is guiltless. Maybe he’s hinting that he knows about Arnolfo and Celestina, too.

In any case Father Romano is not going to thrown any stones, most certainly not at Celestina-Maddalena.

A wave of compassion comes over me. Goose pimples run down my spine. I would like to embrace the simple little priest who loves Montagna’s white wines, who believes in miracles, and who throws no stones.

“Figliolo,” he says softly, “things are never what they seem. Speak more with your friend the Count. Speak with him and you will understand.”

 

In the afternoon I’m back at Arnolfo’s. Celestina is not to be seen. The chessboard and the black and white pieces mark a game still in progress. The Count makes coffee, pours grappa in his favorite crystal jiggers, and we retire to the deck chairs on the balcony.

The sun dropping toward Lake Como is blinding. I wipe the sweat from my forehead with my arm. Automatically my eyes fix on the rooftop next door, only one story above us, the rooftop like a stage. I conger Saverio tipping over the low railing and dropping into the abyss toward his appointment with the upturned shovel below. Illogically I wonder if it was before or after the chaos of the midnight bells from San Giorgio.

When I reach for the coffee, I meet Arnolfo’s eyes boring into me. For an instant I detect deep in his eyes the same questioning look I saw this morning in Father Romano’s eyes when he sighed and said, “La vita l’é incsi!”

So I say it point blank: “Padre Romano said I should speak with you about events.”

“What events do you mean?” he says, the arrogance of conquest and possession in his voice.

“Come on! Village events! Celestina, Saverio, the divorce … and more.”

“Giacomo, what is it you want to know exactly?”

“I don’t know exactly what I want to know. You said there are things you know that you’d rather not know ... unbelievable things you saw.”

My gaze returns to the rooftop. With increasing clarity I can see the elevated stage. I imagine the complicated sex up there on the cold concrete under the stars. Bells ringing. Motorcycle motors revving. The card players on their way home. Her cool legs hot in the mountain air.

Arnolfo follows my eyes. His long fingers tapping the arm of his chair, he lets me see he is watching me. Only later would I understand just how much of the truth was in his look.

“You saw it, didn’t you?” I blurt out, losing patience with his cryptic speech, part in dialect, part in Italian.

“Yes, I saw it,” he says. “In the same moment Saverio fell I saw Celestina next to him. Our eyes met.” The Count repeats the same dialectal words of the card players and the judgment of Father Romano. Celestina is not guilty. Celestina is innocent. Passion is the point.

 “Father Romano knows too,” I say.

“Yes, he knows,” Arnolfo says, a little smile at the corners of his lips. “He spends a lot more time than people think up in his bell tower … the lovable old spy!”

“But I still don’t know what everyone else seems to know!”

I feel the blush of the outsider rising from under my armpits. My brain is working fast. The atmosphere of conspiracy is palpable. But I feel excluded. I want to hear Arnolfo say it.

“It’s the village secret,” Arnolfo adds, and chuckles ironically when he sees he has gotten a rise out of me.

“Secret! But if everyone knows?”

“You have to be on the inside to know ... and also to accept.”

“For God’s sake, know what?”

“That he yelled she was a whore and was flirting with me. That Celestina gave him a little push over the railing,” he says. “It was pure instinct!”

“Instinct! you say. Pushing him off the top of the house?”

“Of course. But what I saw and what I heard is not the point. The point is she is not guilty for what she did.”

“Of course?” I stammer. “Of course? But…but why? What do you mean, of course?” But I do understand. It was her passion. D’accordo! For before the end of her affair Celestina also knew that Count Arnolfo wanted her! Arnolfo didn’t speak of that. She knew it all the time. Saverio knew it too. She had wanted Saverio but that was not to be. I know she wanted the Count. For her the Count was more.

The Mayor and the Count! The love story of the century, she must have thought, crazy in her removal from reality. Was that not evil?

But Arnolfo, I know, instead was thinking of her black miniskirt and tan legs.

“She knows you saw it!”

“She knows. And that I heard him call her whore and name me.”

In the silence of my amazement that this is really happening, Arnolfo continues gazing at me with a puzzled expression in his eyes. He seems to be passing in review centuries of time and history in the Valtellina, the centuries of invasions and plagues, of poor times and rich times, of departures and returns.

His expression is filled also with compassion. Compassion for me the maverick. That I will never understand the fundamental things that everyone in Montagna has always understood. I have thought in terms of complicity. People here think it is human nature. Neither good nor bad. 

Yet, I believe I understand something the others do not, something Celestina couldn’t even imagine—Arnolfo might want to return but he is still different from them. The Count is a man of romance, of passion, even of complicity for the sake of justice. He is not made for conjugal love. Nor can he, the theosophist, the man who wants to stop time, ever really return. But, I know, he will risk anyway. He will try anything, just to remain.

Arnolfo goes inside to the cupboard. I hear him pouring drinks. He returns with two full glasses of grappa.

Dark is falling. Vespers bells erupt onto the terrace. Living rooms in the houses below us light up like miniature lunaparks. Down in the valley roads look like nighttime landing strips. There is the brilliance and clarity of a dream. We’re sitting among the gods and watching the ugly realities of life down in the city.

“A little push over the railing,” I murmur. “Pure instinct. But she is not guilty. So if she is not guilty then no one is guilty. Is that what you’re saying?”

La vita l’é incsi!” he sums up. “Such is life.”


© Gaither Stewart
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