A few minutes’ walk from our village—down one hill and up another—is an old convent that’s been converted into an albergo, a rustic inn. Its name is Giardino della Luna, or Garden of the Moon—an oblique reference to Lunigiana, this hill-and-dale region at the northern tip of Tuscany, which is studded with little medieval villages and their churches, convents, and castles.
A small church adjacent to the inn serves as an occasional venue for chamber music. From the church’s lawn one can see our tiny medieval borgo of Castiglione del Terziere stretched out along a ridge: the castle’s square belltower and eastern façade, the lane curving up to the archway at the formal entrance to the borgo, and the lovely old house at the village’s far end with its panoramic views across the valley. From the inn I can even see the narrow stone house my husband and I are renting for the year. I like being able to observe where I spend my days, to watch my roost from a vantage-point that seems quite removed though it’s actually close.
Giardino della Luna boasts a small restaurant that serves (among other local specialties) homemade torte d’erbi, delicious savory tarts typical of Lunigiana. They’re filled with chard, leeks, or potatoes, depending on the chef’s whim and the garden’s production; no two torte are alike. One evening last summer, about fifty people showed up at the inn to have spuntini (drinks and a snack) before a musical evening in the church. A full spread was offered on a long table that had been set under a covered pavilion on the lawn. We were greeted by the scent of homemade focaccia baking in the pavilion’s brick oven, along with prosciutto, wild-boar salami, local cheeses, and (of course) torte d’erbi. Wine made from grapes of the inn’s small vineyard was generously poured. The guests were singles and couples and families, residents and visitors—Italian, German, Dutch, French, American; nearly everyone was bilingual (or even trilingual), so conversations frequently began in one tongue and ended in another. Everyone ate and drank avidly, no doubt spurred by the wind.
Yes, the wind. It was unusually gusty; in fact, it soon upturned several platters of thin-sliced cured meat, sending them spiraling like flying saucers. This failed, remarkably, to disturb the equanimity of the inn’s manager, who remained cheerful even as he picked up fallen slices of prosciutto and chased after napkins. (The plump female chef, on the other hand, trotted anxiously between kitchen and pavilion, looking displeased as she carted out more trays of food.)
The wind was really something, said everyone in various languages. Davvero! The wind dashed at us, wheeled away and sprinted back. The wind exposed the silvery undersides of leaves and made the palm tree in the courtyard above us swish its head. Our voices rose with a collective “whoa!” as our sweaters, wind-licked, were peeled off our shoulders. And the wind elicited in several children I sat watching—three girls and a boy—some behaviors that might be called “wilding,” but without any connotations of violence.
One of the girls, as it happened, my husband and I had seen earlier in the day—in the nearby village of Virgoletta, where she and her German-speaking parents were vacationing.
She’d been attempting a conversation with another child, an Italian, who kept trying to get her to understand one particular word. (Try though I did, I couldn’t catch what the word was; it wasn’t something ordinary.) The Italian child would say it, the German girl would smile and offer what she figured was the German equivalent, and the Italian girl would wag not just one but both forefingers in extravagant negation while yelling non!, repeating the Italian word yet again. If I’d been the German girl, I’d have burst into tears; this girl, however, remained unflappable.
Sitting with both her parents now, attired in a floral pinafore, leggings, and sandals, she ate a bit of cheese. I could tell her heart wasn’t in it; she had something other than food on her mind. Finally she pulled a jump-rope from her satchel and raised her eyebrows at her parents, who gave a nod after seeing she wasn’t about to be deterred. And despite the wind’s meddlings, she wove in and out of the adults’ groupings for a good half-hour—light, swift, and poised, her expression one of profound contentment with herself, the rope, and the wind. She settled down only when we entered the church and the music began.
Another girl, younger (the jump-roper looked to be ten or so, this child only four or five), was less freewheeling but still spritely in her own way. She wore a white shirt and a blue-and-white striped skirt that nipped in slightly at the knees, else it’d surely have been up over her head most of the evening, thanks to the blustery wind.
Her gaze was remarkable—light-blue-eyed, direct, evaluative. But what I mainly noted in her was her utter absorption in sound: as if the wind were singing to her, and she to it. She sat on the banked grass near us, fingertips touching, separating, touching again, then entangling, separating, snaking together once more. She seemed to be constructing something with her hands, an intimate space of some kind, and into it she softly sang a song, a windblown song—making up words as the song went along, her small round knees bent and spread as wide as her skirt allowed, like a boy’s. Her body rocked slightly as she played the air with her hands; now and then she modulated her song’s key in a voice at once delicate and firm. Looking at her, I recalled the last stanza of a poem by LeRoi Jones:
And then last night I tiptoed up
To my daughter’s room and heard her
Talking to someone, and when I opened
The door, there was no one there…
Only she on her knees, peeking into
Her own clasped hands
The third and fourth kids I observed that evening—a brother and sister—didn’t make an appearance til just before the rest of us (by this time quite sated) glanced at our watches and began gathering ourselves up, tugging on our sweaters and saying our thanks to the two beleaguered young waitresses who were left to deal with the napkin-scattered pavilion.
The two siblings—she about eight years old, he perhaps four—were with their parents, a conservative-looking pair of Italians, evidently city rather than country folk. The mother was pretty, dark-haired and petite, with a skittish air. She wore an elegant black linen shift, sleeveless, whose bateau neckline exposed the tensed cords of her neck and her fragile-looking collarbones. The father was a little overweight, balding, and somewhat florid. He had the look of a man who’d been working long, dull hours in some Milanese office all week, needed a break, and was relieved to pop down to Lunigiana for a weekend with the family. In contrast to his wife, he seemed like someone who could readily drop the measured plot of his normal life and give himself over to occasional off-the-grid pleasures. He shepherded the kids toward the church when its doors opened, while his wife politely offered her elbow to the ancient stooped matron who’d donated the funds for the performance and now needed some help up the wind-smacked path.
Once inside, the wife assumed the task of monitoring the kids’ behavior during the music—two hours of not exactly child-friendly Bach (Suite No. 5 for solo cello) and Brahms (a sextet for two violins, two violas, and two cellos), with only a brief intermission. She pulled the boy and girl close to her sides, her arms snugly around their thin shoulders. As everyone took seats on the church’s narrow, hard pews—a bit of business rather like a game of musical chairs, since there were more bodies than pew-spots—the children tussled quietly for their mother’s lap. First the girl had it, then her brother nudged her off. A bit of whining broke out, quickly extinguished by the mother’s softly emphatic hiss of disapproval.
The father, meanwhile, hunted down a folding chair that he plunked at the end of the pew on which his family sat, so he wouldn’t have to shift across the aisle. The boy was told to go with his dad, while the girl (her triumph unostentatious but clear) reclaimed her mother’s lap.
And then the music began. And all of us, despite being full of torte d’erbi and wine, began that migration into the interior which always happens with Bach, and which continued as the cellist took her applause and the sextet emerged from behind the altar and seated themselves and began the Brahms—its first movement, played allegro non troppo, initiating with a hushed lovely melody.
I watched the young Italian girl. She was very quiet. Now and then she twisted round and murmured something to her mother, who responded quickly, putting a hand up to the child’s ear and whispering into it. But for the most part, the girl sat still and listened. Well, not merely… She was wearing a strand of delicate blue beads on one wrist—one of those long, elasticized bracelets that goes round and round so it seems to be ten bracelets instead of one. As the Brahms continued, its quiet melody becoming more assertive, the girl picked at the beads, loosening and tugging at them. She kept lifting one stretch of blue slightly above the rest, perhaps mimicking the cellists’ percussive string pluckings. And then, as if fascinated by the fact that her finger and thumb were indeed capable of such fine-motor skill, such deft manipulations of the softly sparkling ornament snaking around her wrist, the girl pushed the whole bracelet well up her forearm and opened wide the fingers of both hands—rotating them slightly before her, turning them front and back as if admiring them.
I don’t think she was.
Her movements weren’t those of vanity but of discovery, even awe. My hands can do this, these are mine, no one else has hands like these—I had no real idea til this instant… I wondered if she’d seen the other child, the little singer-into-her-hands, earlier in the evening, and was unconsciously imitating her. Or maybe something in the music itself (now starting its second movement, a scherzo, with more aggressive pizzicati and a lilting, dance-like feel) was giving rise to this activity. In any case I felt I was watching the birth of some deep essential self-awareness, as this girl left the realm of her mother’s lap and entered that of her own self.
I sensed she’d never been conscious of its boundaries, let alone explored them. Or, put differently, it’d simply never occurred to her to take her selfhood seriously. Hence that moment of recognition—when her hands became worth considering, when they suddenly struck her as being equal to the music in their mysterious beauty and capability—was opening a new portal in her. Now, I imagined, she’d begin to wander paths whose existence she’d never suspected. Wind-swept, some of those paths would be; bleakly so, at times. But she’d heed their call and thus perhaps be spared her mother’s twitching nerves, her social circle’s concern for appearances, all that rushed noisy indifference to the silent interior life…
Perhaps, I thought, she’d be able to avoid the fate of “La Speakerine de Putney” in Stevie Smith’s brief, acidly comic poem of that title. It’s an ambiguous poem, open to multiple readings. Might it refer to a witch burned at the stake? I think not. Instead, I sense it’s about the price that must be paid by a “learned girl,” a verbally adroit know-it-all, who is somehow being untrue to herself. Her external form—the social self, I imagine, constrained and distorted by social obligations—is false and frightful; the words she produces are mutterings. Invoking the wind (and, implicitly, fire), the poem’s speaker wishes for this girl’s false form and words to be scattered like ashes:
This heap of ashes was a learned girl;
Oh how the ashes shift to the words’ smoke-curl!
Blow wind, blow, blow away the frightful form, scatter
The false girl-form and the words’ mutter.
While all this was going on, the girl’s father and brother teetered on their chair, the former with his arms round the latter’s tummy.
The son squirmed from time to time, predictably. Now and then the music took him down, as a wrestler overwhelms another on the mat. In those moments the child grew still as a rock and stared entranced at the players, mouth slightly open, absorbing it all through his body.
For his part, the father spent the entire concert with his nose buried in his boy’s brown hair—whose citrus-sweet scent I could almost smell myself, so palpably great did the father find it.
Martha Cooley’s monthly essays are in conversation, directly or slant-wise, with editor Jennifer Acker’s “From the 17th Floor” series. Together the two writers reflect on their recent physical and mental travels, on displacement and (re)settling, on explorations and discoveries that excite or discomfit, and, naturally, on literature and other arts.
Martha Cooley is the author of The Archivist, a national bestseller published in eleven foreign markets, and Thirty-Three Swoons.