A full moon. A national holiday: the Day of the Republic, commemorating the day, in 1946, on which Italians voted by referendum against rule by monarchy and for a republic and banned any male members of the House of Savoy from ever setting foot on Italian ground. (The female members of the family, however, continue to be welcomed). Even with the perimeter lights of the neighbor’s agriturismo (Torre Prima)going full blast, making the neighborhood look like a high security prison, the male fireflies are clearly visibly. This must be close to the height of mating season. They are so dense , flickering waist and chest and head high, that the entire garden glimmers like a 1960s disco dance hall. Their pulses are mysteriously synchronized in dynamic patterns: some pulse in unison, others in syncopation, still others flash on and off intermittently.
My sister set off across the lawn, dragging her feet through the tall grass and raised small clouds of sparks that put me in mind of a night thirty, maybe forty years ago on the Atlantic, in Greenwich, Connecticut, when my boyfriend and I and “Big” Linda and her brother (with whom I was casually flirting on the side) and some other friends strolled down to the sandy cove, and for the first time ever, I waded into the night surf. As I moved through the warm water, my feet trailed ribbons of phosphorescence. When waves crested and crashed, they churned up a chaos of bioluminescence. We swam in a marine constellation. My arms, parting the heavy water, sparkled with tiny lights. My hair glowed with microscopic organisms. My eyelashes and eyebrows shone with a mysterious light. We were enchanted with the night, with the sparkles on our skin, with the sudden power in our hands to ruffle the water and make it glow like the night sky.
All that flashed through my mind as I stood on the threshold of the garden, half listening to my sister issuing, for the sixth time, instructions for the care of my aged mother: cut back on the oil and butter, make early meals, simplify, don’t overdo activities, make sure she naps, get her to bed early, don’t tire her out, don’t upset her…
My sister has perfected the art of worrying, of being anxious and fearful almost to the point of paralysis. And certainly to the point of draining most of the joy from even the most common activity. Everything is beset with pitfalls, down sides, threats, excessive exertions of energy, potentially harmful consequences, potentially negative implications. I repeat the word “compassion” to myself over and over and over again, reminding myself that she, and not I, was the particular target of my father’s impatience and rage; that she, and not I, endured the trauma of 9-1-1; that she, not I, is exceedingly sensitive to loud noises, garish colors, sharp and spicy flavors, pungent smells, novel experiences, every possible type of technological implement from a blender to a computer. She is a whiz at reading maps, making money last, economizing, finding and extracting bargains, whipping up a hollandaise, psyching out cats, painting watercolors, anything involving visual judgment.
A forthnight ago I nearly wept with joy when I spotted my sister and mother coming down the corridor of the arrivals gate at the airport in Florence. The anticipation, so long dragged out, erupted in joy when I saw my sister make her little butterfly wave in greeting. That was the moment of pure joy, the recouperation of that delight and total rapport that existed between us all the years of childhood and adolescence, until that difficult year when I left college and set off on my own stumbling way. Then came years of schooling apart, and boyfriends who stood in the way of our intimate confidences. I remember being appalled that there would be some Bob or Eric or who knows who with whom my sister would suddenly have more in common than she had with me. I suppose there was a sense of abandonment and loss, even though I was busy with settling for the wrong boyfriends, as daftly indiscriminating as a 1960s Communist tourist in a capitalist department store, blindly settling for whatever blouse or dress or coat my hand happened to grab, finding all equally acceptable as some sort of “place holders” for the real thing, for what Bunuel called “that obscure object of desire” whom I one day spotted, entirely by chance, when I had already blundered my way through one life-altering tragedy, in front of Butler Library on a late spring afternoon. By then, too, I was already deeply “involved” with a talented but totally unsuitable young man from Long Island, the first in a series of inappropriate “Jeffs” who was besotted with me and consequently flattered my vanity and sense of female insecurity.
All this, of course, is another digression from the dance of the fireflies and my sister’s instructions, and my remorse at not showing her enough respect and patience. But, let’s be clear here, she does try my patience with her negative salvoes, and sarcasm and criticism. Most likely it’s my thin skin that’s most at fault here. I feel like that poor Saint Bartholomew (Marco D’Agrate 1562) standing in the Duomo in Milan, flayed and holding his skin, or, more recently seen, the Red Marsyas (14-69 AD; copy of a Late Hellenistic original; on the subject commemorated in Ovid’s Metamorphoses as the competition between Apollo and the Silenus, who dared to challenge the deity on Athena’s double flute.Ovid truly drills into those disastrous competitions between mortal or demiurge artists and the gods, masks for the Emperor Augusts, self-declared divinity who — like subsequently Stalin and Mao Tse Tung and Kim Jong Il, etc — crush anyone whose talent and brilliance threatens to upstage them.
When the sky is so bright in early June, transparent and lit up with the reflection of the sun sinking into the sea beyond the line of the Appenines; with the moon rising and Venus reclining on the horizon decked out in bright light, a great emptiness fills my soul. In the distance, a young dog barks. The roar of the crowd at a soccer match swells and fades. The announcer whips up the spectators. His excited, baritone voice, amplified by the speakers, eggs the crowd on. A strange bird — or perhaps fox or rabbit — makes pleasant sounds. The turtle doves are settling down. All these sounds — including the exploding fireworks punctuated by the oohs and AAAA of the audience– tug at my soul which is trying to sneak off, somewhere, to be alone and give freee rein to the tears;