Pietro soon realized that his mistake had been in his selection of sample group. It was useless to gather data from cafés and bars: the layers of sound were so dense that his sensors couldn’t detect aberrant rifts or fissures among the jagged strata of people talking over other people. He thought to himself, It would be easier to tell the remains of a Shang Dynasty warehouse from a Zhou Dynasty noodle house!
So he decided to set up a research station in the nearby Giardino Inglese. He reasoned that the tranquility of an English garden and the spectre of a foreign culture might provide the calm laboratory-like environment where he could measure the gap between the intention to think something and the ability to say that thing.
Entering the park, he followed a wide path that lead toward a large pond with a statue of two children playing in the middle.
He saw a young woman of exceptional beauty sitting with a laptop on a bench. She was staring into the misty latticework of water, greenery, and light. Her green eyes shone like mystocryptic ore, bright with a million thoughts.
Pietro stepped across her line of vision and set down his electrodes, iron stakes, wires, hammer, and voltage monitor. Trying to be discreet, he sat down at a 45 degree angle. But he couldn’t stop staring at her. He turned his head left and right so that she would think he was just looking around the park.
After five minute of his head see-sawing back and forth, he began to feel seasick. Yet he couldn't stop himself from glancing starboard at her sea-green eyes, with their dark teal depths circling in swells around the black whirlpools of her irises. Her blonde hair swirled above his shipwrecked soul like a shredded white flag. 100% blonde. Roots and all. He grabbed a stake and hammered it into the ground to steady himself.
Encouraged by the fact that she wasn’t clutching a cellphone, Pietro wondered if he had found his Quiet Italian.
She simply looked around her -- at the statue of a boy and a girl playing in the mid-April sun.
She looked up into the bright blue sky. Pietro entertained the possibility that she was in fact the blonde angel of his dreams. Pietro was a man of science, and didn’t believe in angels. But there she was. She was beyond beautiful. She was a modern-day Beatrice Portinari! The purity of her face, the clarity of her eyes, could not be read by any meter.
In this one moment Pietro’s life changed forever. Like when Dante saw Beatrice at the water fountain, or on the banks of the Arno. Each vision deeper than the first.
He surrendered. It was fated to be. He realized that science was for dolts. Only poetry mattered. He would live to praise her, and she would guide him through the world to come. He would be her Dante, and sing her praises here in the world below.
In Palermo, a woman with aquamarine eyes is uncommon. A woman with aquamarine eyes and truly blonde hair is almost a miracle. In most cases, it warrants a consultation with the local priest.
Yet for Claudia these attributes were a source of tribulation. Because of them she was both hated and loved. The women hated her because the men loved her. The women were quick to add that the men loved her not because of any virtue or talent she possessed. Rather, they loved her because her hair was unnaturally blonde. Drained of all rich, natural colour. Because she was a freak of nature. Something the Normans must have done.
The men’s version inverted everything the women said. Leaning back in their caffé chairs, they resurrected the old Greek notion -- the old Mezzogiorno notion -- that beauty and goodness are one. They quoted passages from Homer in which the most beautiful goddesses had fair locks and light-coloured eyes. White-armed Nausicaa. Grey-eyed Athena. They concluded that a beautiful blue-eyed blonde was a gift even greater than the gold-studded mosaics that covered the inside of the Norman church in Monreale, just up the hill from Palermo.
Claudia had nothing to say about all that. Years ago she had turned her thoughts elsewhere -- to poetry and psychology, to geography and history, and to philosophies that explored the meaning of life. As soon as she finished her scuola superiore, she enrolled at the University of Palermo, taking courses in English language and literature, Human Geography, and International Politics.
Claudia’s biggest interest was the relation between doubt and belief. She was on the side of doubt, yet felt a deep need to know why so many people believed that they'd found the Truth. With a capital T. Catholics had the One Truth. Protestants had the One Truth. Muslims had the One Truth. Atheists knew with absolute certainty that all the believers were wrong. Claudia, on the other hand, had no faith whatsoever. In anything. Nor in nothing.
One day she felt like there must be a Divine Scheme of Things that made everything come together. Yet the next day she felt that the world was a mess of hatred, prejudice, tyranny, and absurdity. Whenever she looked around her, she saw life from a different angle. In the morning her eyes seemed bluish green, and in the afternoon they seemed greenish blue. A world of seems. Her skin was honey-coloured at dawn, amber at dusk.
She opened her laptop and wrote a poem, which she dedicated to grey-eyed Athena:
A Trick of the Light
The morning glistens and there has to be a God,
because space has crystallized.
Then the day wanes, and there can’t be a God,
because everything is swallowed up in darkness.
A Trick of the Night
The day wanes, and there can’t be a God,
because everything is swallowed up in darkness.
Then the morning glistens and there has to be a God,
because space has crystallized.
She shut her screen and looked up at the children, frozen in childhood in the mist. How innocent it all seemed! Yet she knew she wasn't like the girl in the fountain -- made of bronze, forever stretching her arm out gently through the spray, forever lifting up the boy she cared for. Her life wasn't a Grecian Urn. The words of Keats skipped through her mind -- Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair! -- and disappeared in the mist.
She knew that the boy would grow up, grow out of love, go off on his separate path. She knew that she too would grow old, put on Shakespeare’s lean and slippered pantaloon, and die. The park itself would succumb, in time, to space. The great globe itself -- / Yea, all which it inherit -- shall dissolve, / And like this insubstantial pageant faded, / Leave not a rack behind.
She opened her Mac Air. Looking up to the blue sky and then down to the luminous white square beneath, she started her philosophy term paper:
Can we not affirm, with geometric precision, that we all see the world from our own unique angles? Do these angles not change every time we turn our heads, every time we walk into another room? Do they not change every minute we breathe, as the currents of thought and feeling reinvent the world outside?
We float in a sea of indeterminacies, yet most people cling to platonic notions of certainty. Even atheists cling to Science, as if it were the Sun and all the religious people in the world were worshipping candle-lit shadows in a cave. How can so many people be so completely convinced that they see the world as it is? As it is. What on Nature’s green earth does that mean?
Claudia looked up into the sky -- the blue sky that people had peopled with fantastical beings … this majestic roof fretted with golden fire ... nel ciel che più de la sua luce prende fu’ io … in the Heaven that receives more of His light was I … . How, she wondered, do people go from giving airy spaces a habitation and a name to believing that their fabrications are real? How can anyone profess to know the truth about this life or the next? If there is a next, she added to herself.
She closed her eyes and tried to imagine it: one moment she's lying on her deathbed and the next moment she's in some other where, some other when, all of which pops up in front of her the moment she dies.
She opened her eyes. The sky was still blue.
She knew there were other skies beyond the sky she knew. There had to be life elsewhere in the universe. She hoped that there would also be another life for her. But did hoping make it so?
As a girl she had been frustrated with adults and their explanations. When her parents told her, Gesù è morto perché abbiamo peccato, Jesus died because we sinned, she would ask, Ma perché? They thought she wanted to know the cause behind the cause they had just given her. Her mother seemed to think that everything was one big chain of Cause and Effect, going back to the Primum Mobile, the ninth heaven where everything was spun into motion. At least this is what they'd both been told in church, although most of it went above her head. Sort of like the Primum Mobile.
Her father put it more bluntly: Because the Bible says so. Yet she wasn’t anywhere near the Primum Mobile and the Bible seemed to her like a collection of old stories. She wanted real reasons -- not the circular arguments they were passing off as reasons.
Was she really supposed to believe what the priests were telling her? She had watched the way the priests watched her. By the age of fourteen she had decided that you couldn’t trust a thing they said. Or did. Or said they did.
She found some relief from her endless questioning in her third and final year at university. She found this relief in the oddest place: a course called Defining Politics in North America. It was taught in English by a visiting instructor from Canada -- a bald, straggly-bearded man in his early forties. The focus of the course was on the way political definitions affected foreign policy.
Professor Kent had a jovial air, yet he also had the Devil in his eye. He was always joking, yet his jokes always lead to some point, uncomfortably lodged between the respect students had for traditional ideas and the urge they had to burn these ideas in a bonfire in the middle of a dark forest.