Between their flat on Via Ghibellina and Santa Croce, dark as the narrow street except at noon, lay a tiny shop that one day caught his eye. The simple facade consisted only of a tight entryway and a display window the width of his outstretched arms. It was the objects in the window that first attracted his attention, a half-dozen boxes, some quarto sized, others octo, each embellished with a different, whimsical illustration, a Victorian lady fending off a monstrous egret with her umbrella, a naturalist’s beetle like something from Napoleon’s Description D’Egypte, a cover from a paperback book Ernest Hemingway never actually wrote. It wasn’t until he stopped there three or four times that he began to wonder about the shop’s hours. Shops close in Firenze afternoons, but Pietro Carabini Atelier, charming as it was, seemed always closed. Stranger still, every week it seemed, the window display changed, as if on its own or by some other unseen force acting at a great distance–first the boxes; then a set of bottled potions, certainly magical; then six or eight pairs of ladies’ gloves, lace and kids’ leather and pearl buttoned; and on and on, like something from a dream directed by Joseph Cornell. It finally came to him with a certainty he could not have explained that what was really being shown at a Pietro Carabini were not so much the curiosities just described, all of them of impossible provenance, but the shop itself, ever in the shadow, never open, and most very importantly, nothing for sale.
At the Parco Nazionale they would all rise at about the same time, the adults take their coffee together, and the children occupy themselves as best they could.
One morning the three were playing at something in the woods. Y was running over the underthatch of a close stand of pine when he caught up with young Elena. For a moment they just faced each other without speaking. She had this light tunic on, sleeveless and short, with a goldish zipper that ran from the neckline to about where her navel would have been. It was a shade of red like a dark rose. But then she hooked her finger through the ringlike tab at her neck and opened the garment with one slow pull. With it undone now down the whole length of her, she moved her hands again to its neckline and lowered it from her small shoulders.
She was soft and lithe. She was showing him the little swale at the top of her thighs.
A heartbeat later, she snatched the tunic slit closed, spun around on the pine needles and darted off through the trees.
He was running very fast now, weaving a path through the forest. He could see the red tunic flashing here and there. Then like lightning the jagged tip of a broken branch ripped through his skin along his jawline, a long deep gash that would need thirteen stitches, and the scar was visible just under his chin to this very day.
What if, she mused to Y, what if there are people there, people more or less like us biologically? Like what if primate evolution is always something that comes of small arboreal mammals?
That seems, well, improbable, he answered. That three billion years of natural selection would unfold the same way.
Ok, she changed course, forget about primates. What if the dominant species arose from a very different biological order? Like an aquatic species with advanced intelligence? Primates aren’t the only path to that.
Let me try a different way of explaining, she said.
After Parisi left, Y and M sat in the dark without speaking for a time. For Y at least it was as if the Real itself had just fallen away, what he had thought was real, a universe whose physical laws few people better understood; now he saw something else, something very different, and it stretched out in every direction. In the first he had enjoyed a sense of genuine agency, adapted though it was in almost every way to the limits of the contemporary life-world. In the second, at least as he began to take its measure, he felt like something vastly reduced, at least in a metaphysical perspective, like he was just another binary digit in the unmappable array of post late whatever-it-was, a switch that was always only either on or off, a one or a zero, just part of the flickering of one of its obscure subroutines.
Give me one minute, she told him.
He watched her retreat to their bathroom, face the small mirror there and take up a brush for her hair. Good, dark hair it was, nearly black, and long. She wore it pulled back, she wore it twisted atop her head, she sometimes wore it down, where it came to just below her shoulders. He watched her take the simple hair tie from it now, give her head a little twist to shake it down, then begin to pull the brush through it, chin down and looking up at herself in the mirror. From where he watched he could hear the shush shush shush of the brush as she worked.
One afternoon M stayed behind when Y walked up to town; there was some bit of work she needed to finish. But when he returned an hour later she had herself gone out. He stowed the things from the market, then went to the bathroom, which like everything else in the apartment was only just big enough for human habitation, and was now also strung with what looked like a week’s worth of M’s underthings.
It seemed a very particular kind of encounter, meeting with a woman’s delicate items that way, very particular but of a texture so strangely woven he could only begin to tease it apart. There was the hint of something erotic in it, to be sure, perhaps more than a hint in this instance, for M he could now see owned some very lovely laundry, with a strong tilt toward the dark and diaphanous, but there was also something mean in it, all those lovely things wrung out and hung up to dry like that, like wild birds shot out of the sky.
For several days then it preoccupied her, this idea that at each moment she was branching into two of herself, then each of these into still others. One afternoon she sat very quietly in their living room, trying to see if she could feel it on her skin, all of that atomic splitting. At first she felt nothing, but after keeping very still for a while and thinking of nothing but her body in space, she became aware of something only just perceptible, like a very, very low tone, a kind of agitation in her depths. Could this be it? she wondered. Could this be the vibration of all that branching?
Her last thought before she pulled herself up and out of this dark meditation was of an infinite universe of X’s in which she could never hope to locate herself.
She thought of it again after her confrontation with Y, about his terrible branching universe, but she could see something very different in it now, a strange kind of freedom or absolution. If it really were true, as he insisted, that in the grandest scheme of things every possibility is realized, there seemed very little sting in the question whether she had been right to leave him. It was after all only in this space and time that this is what she chose–in another, she had not betrayed him, in still another she had never met him in the first place, and so on through what was almost certainly an infinite set of such variations.
No, what she had done was neither right nor wrong, just her infinitesimally small part in the cosmic unfolding of things.
The week before they took a break from their work at the biblioteca and walked down the lungarno to Melaleuca for coffee. It was one of those days in November between the rains when things clear but for a few painterly clouds and the whole city flashes like a jewel. When they turned onto the lungarno, the palazzi along the river were one great wall of light all the way down to the Ponte Vecchio. Halfway there he slipped his hand into hers, but when they had to let others pass on the narrow sidewalk, she right away let it go. There was a kind of sweet intimacy in it that she wasn’t quite equal to.
When she turned up via dei Gondi, Nettuno himself came into view. It was her favorite angle on the monstrous marble, from the rear, where she could take in what was almost certainly one of the hardest asses in all of Italian sculpture. She tipped her small umbrella to the wind. Boots had been the right thing for the weather that day, but they were wet now and she wished she had taken a taxi to Massimo.
She saw him as she came around Neptune, standing in front of the fountain under his own umbrella, better sized for the earnest rain. He didn’t spot her until she stepped up to him, and as he turned to her she felt that very particular pleasure in seeing a lover’s face again, a kind of lightening or brightening of heart–it couldn’t be held in memory, a dear face in all its life.