John Paul is a recently retired academic with a background in psychology and philosophy.
A Tale of the Impossible....
Several people in the small Ligurian town in which these events unfolded a few years ago still remember the lonely, bookish foreigner who lived among them for a short while, and who felt compelled to recount to one of them, an older woman fond of sea birds, the following story. Quite possibly, in relaying it to me, the good lady saw fit to elaborate it well beyond the teller's original narrative. Or perhaps the man himself constructed a dark tale out of some far less uncanny experience of his own, born perhaps out of his isolation. And my own attempt at reconstructing it is bound to wrap yet another layer of imagination around the kernel of genuine experience this story just possibly stems from, although what such an experience ultimately points to is an altogether different matter. Regardless, for some reason, though wildly implausible this story captured my imagination, and may perhaps do the same for my two or three readers...
Here it is, then, as told from the perspective of its protagonist.
... Born of Solitude
'I am a solitary man, though by no means a loner. My solitude is largely due to my current circumstances. An American, I am slowly recovering from a nasty accident that nearly killed me. I chose to convalesce in a small quiet town on the Italian Riviera. B**** is located just a few miles from the French border and glamorous places like Monaco and Cannes, which hold no charm for me.
'I was seduced by this unpretentiously genteel town of well tended gardens, classically proportioned villas, unassuming low rise buildings, and sumptuous 19th century mansions, reminders of the bygone era when families of the British upper classes used to spend the colder months here. The mild weather and an abundance of tall, slender palm trees remind me of Santa Barbara, California, my birthplace. Stunning sunsets bring locals and tourists to the elegant seaside promenade (or 'passeggiata', as they call it here) to watch the red disc of the sun slowly drowning in the wine colored sea. It is not by chance that great French painters flocked to this place: to learn about light and color, Monet said.
'My Italian leaves a great deal to be desired, though I am working diligently at it, and this lack of fluency contributes to my relative isolation, even though the locals are a friendly if somewhat reserved lot.
'Which is why I was grateful when one late afternoon on the passeggiata a young woman came to share the bench I was seated on. Dark blond hair, fair complexion, green eyes who looked briefly at me with frank interest. Taller than average, slim, she wore a pearl grey suit which disguised its elegance through the simplicity of its design.
'She noticed my book. “Are you British?” she asked amicably in an educated English accent.
“American,” I answered. “Kevin, Kevin A****.”
“I like to be called Claire. You too a sunset addict?”
“I suppose so. I like this time of day. Its calm.”
“I read somewhere that the ancient Egyptians perceived the sun as the body of a deity, Ra. Once it crosses below the horizon, Ra boards the Night Vessel and sails the black waters of the Underworld where he encounters and merges with Osiris, the god of the dead. Ra will then board the Morning Vessel and continue his journey toward the East and a new dawn. ”
“So perhaps we are drawn to the sunset because it reminds us that day and night, life and death are entwined, two sides of the same divine mystery? And are you a scholar?”
”Oh, no,” Claire answered, her face enlivened by a warm, amused smile. “It’s just that I am fascinated by ancient myths, which I first heard of from my father, in my early years.”
'Our conversation meandered congenially for a while longer. Then Claire got off the bench. “Now I have to go,” she said. “I hope to see you again. I enjoyed this”.
'We agreed to meet the next day, same place and time.
'Thus did my short-lived elation begin. Over the next several days as I got to know her I became increasingly enthused by her personality. Her face was subtly sculpted by her feelings. Joy and sadness, awe, nostalgia and melancholy all found a way to reach me through her intense emerald eyes. Though not Italian, she had learned to embody her thoughts with subdued gestures which emphasized the native grace of her deportment. She was mature and knowledgeable well beyond her years, although she carried her wisdom lightly, as if slightly embarrassed by it.
'Surprising myself, I felt I was close to falling in love with her. Still, our relationship remained strictly platonic. She managed to convey through her body language that though attracted to me yet she did not welcome physical closeness. She even refused to share simple intimacies like dining together, or even having a drink. She insisted that we meet by the promenade, and all too briefly, just as the sun was setting.
'Neither did I make any progress in finding out where she lived and who with, or what she did for a living. Capitalizing on her command of language and graceful manners, she always skillfully avoided answering my questions without seeming offensively reluctant. I cannot say that I became suspicious that anything was amiss. But my desire to know more about her grew stronger.
'It was with a feeling of guilt, and oppressed by the thought that I was sullying our relationship, that one evening, shortly after saying good bye to her, I turned around and followed her unnoticed.
'We walked for quite a while in the gathering darkness, beyond the small town center and along a lonely road skirting the sea which eventually took us out of town and towards the hills. The narrow street was poorly illuminated. A few lamp-posts shed a pale light which barely reached the opposite side of the street, along which ran a long wall which enclosed the town’s cemetery. At a bend of the road I lost sight of her, and when I passed beyond it she was gone. I continued on, but the road narrowed further and finally morphed into a beaten dirt track snaking into the woods.
'The next day Claire failed to show up. And the next. On the third day, I revisited the road by the cemetery. The mailboxes outside the sparse houses displayed Italian names, and I felt certain that Claire did not belong in those farmers' dwellings. Could she be however improbably the daughter of the cemetery’s custodian, whose bungalow could be seen to the right of the entrance? Perhaps this could help explaining Claire's reticence about her family, and where she lived.
'I walked through the cemetery’s gate and found myself in a serene, somber place, which included a British section which attracted my attention. I walked slowly there, the gravel crackling beneath my shoes the only sound borne by a gentle sea breeze which stirred tall, mournful cypresses.
'Astonished, the body pierced by a chilly sensation, I stopped in front of an imposing family mausoleum. A white marble slab sealing one of the burial niches carried this inscription, in age darkened bronze letters: ‘Clara F*******, 1887-1912’. Beneath it, an oval plaque framed the faded portrait of a young woman: of Claire, without a doubt. Her eyes seemed to fixate me with the familiar intensity. Astonished, horrified, unwilling to consciously draw the implications of what I had just seen, somehow I found my way home.
'Over the next few days I went to sit on ‘our’ bench. Claire did not show up. On the last evening an old lady who daily visited the area to feed the seagulls addressed me, a kind smile brightening her still handsome face. “Well, sir,” she said, “I am really pleased. You know, you had me a bit worried when I saw you talking all by yourself day after day as if someone were sitting by your side. But you have not done this lately, I was pleased to notice. A lovely sunset, isn't it?”
'Who or what are you, Claire, Clara? Just a waking dream, the dark creation of a mind unhinged by solitude?
I dream of you every night: I hear your voice calling me. I catch a glimpse of you through a caliginous mist, your gestures inviting me to come and join you. But your smile, one I never saw before, frightens and even repels me. I make out a dark immensity behind you. Where does it lead? What does it hide?
'I never get an answer. But I know all too well how to get there: a voice, issuing from the murkier depths of my being, yet unknown to me, continuously whispers it to me. Day by day it is gathering strength.
'But I shall not join you, Claire. Not yet. Non for a long while.'
© 2015 John Paul Quester