In the Ducal Palace of Urbino, there stood this triptych—three panels, side-by-side, painted in oils, each depicting a sacred mystery. The panels were hinged, the outer two angled slightly inward, so that the set stood on the floor, away from the wall. They were not much taller than me, so that I could study them without lifting my head. The central, larger panel was a busy scene, the Ascension of Christ, recognizable even to a long-ago lapsed Catholic. It was a swirl of figures and action, their dimensions slightly flattened, the colours varied but muted, perhaps by design, but also, no doubt, by the passage of centuries. The two panels flanking the middle one were half its width and depicted more tightly focused, less busy scenes. The left one was vaguely familiar to me; the other, not at all. Despite dredging memory till my head hurt, I remember no more: not the name of the painter, or the time of origin, or the name. Also lost to me is what drew me to this one creation, among so many paintings, sculptures, tapestries… Perhaps my feet were tired, or the sun glanced off its surface. But the triptych, its convention of grouping and framing phenomena in three parts, resonates with my earliest memories of Catholicism with its Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The idea of panels that can fold in on themselves, both concealing and revealing their truths, tantalizes.
Yesterday we returned home from Italy. Discombobulated but refreshed, I’m fully awake and thinking about writing—at 3 AM. For an hour I restrain myself, keeping the body still, even as thoughts and images churn. At four, in the light of dawn, I sit in the kitchen’s morning light trying to capture the germ of my ideas. The circadian rhythms are scrambled; still, I feel oddly buoyant, blessedly free of even headache or fatigue.
Italy, in May, made me feel like a poppy—open to the sun, closing off a bit and nodding into its rains, open to its heady atmosphere. Back home, I still feel blessed by its air and skies and earth. For fifteen days I absorbed what I could. A day after leaving Rome, eight hours from being spewed from the aircraft, I am not the same creature I was before. The skin is newly peeled from my nose; my cheeks are ruddy from wind and sun. I feel changed from the pores inward to my core in ways I can hardly grasp.
There is that elusive sense of change, and also these sharp memories crystallizing. Beneath it all, the trace of a unifying theme teases. There is the casting of memories, the framing of stories, the selection of genre. It feels like an adventure, to see what comes of it.
What to extract, and how to render and then to arrange and rearrange, are my decisions—if I slip on the robe of artist. I envision these three panes: each one capturing a marvel of Italy, served up by its landscapes as though to frame our two-week visit. Our own triptych. Of mysteries, surely—though not quite sacred ones.
The central scene brims with action. It would be baffling to any mere mortal, from within such a scene, to comprehend the whole, or, indeed, to register any perspective of the microcosm embedding her. Such is the gift of art, which freezes the moment, indulging the viewer with the potential to see what life cloaks in disarray.
We are a knot of family, among so many scattered on the piazza in the centre of Montalcino, the hill town where we are staying for a week. On this, our second night, we are flush with the satisfaction of our second perfect dinner. It’s a gift, the experience of passing hours around a table in the cool corner of a stone restaurant. The vino rosso della casa is, as we’ve come to expect, an earthy delight. The plate of eggplant slices that follows is its own work of art—each slice charred crisp and glistening with olive oil, so thin as to be translucent. Balsamic vinegar scrolls the surface. Fat looping ropes of hand-rolled pici are infused with the flavour of garlic tempered by tomato. Each dish is, in turn, a wonder (thanks in part to our never being sure of what we have ordered), and a delight. Now, dazed with satisfaction of fullness and gentled by wine, we are making our way back to our apartment.
As we climb toward the central piazza, we are not entirely surprised to discover a festival of some saint or another, forming itself in our midst. Of course we stop, finding a vantage point along the brim of this plaza, which forms a natural amphitheatre, an inverted bowl. We can see and hear everything from our spot, just to the side of our favourite, by now familiar, café bar. The focal point is an orchestra, led by a stooped but energetic conductor. The musicians include girls who could hardly be twelve, playing alongside ancient, black-suited players. Their music fills the plaza, transitioning seamlessly from discordant, muted sounds of both instruments and musicians warming up, into melody, with no fanfare or discernible formality. Music wafts over the surrounding alleys and twisting cobblestoned roads, drawing out their residents.
More wondrous than the central performance is the audience, also amorphous, taking shape around us with increasing density. I stand on the curb, drenched in happiness, to the side of my daughter and her boyfriend. My husband stands one step in front of, and below me. Looking out over his head, I can take in the whole spectacle. Beside him cluster three earnest, fully costumed Carabinieri, protectors of peace and order. A long-haired, long-limbed beauty flirts with two of the three. In front of them a couple of far older men face one another, wholly impervious to the music or spectacle, engaged in an animated, impassioned exchange about work, or politics, or the price of beans.
It’s a vibrant mix of people that span three, maybe four, generations. After such a short time here it’s satisfying to recognize a few of them—a girl who’s served us pizza; a young man we sat across from on the bus. We are encircled, and feel benevolently embraced, a small knot of anglaise. The town is full of tourists, too, but out here on the square, this weekday evening, we have stumbled upon a local event, though we now notice the posters we’d missed (along with, apparently, all the other tourists). Luck has carried us here, though, and I allow myself a moment of smugness thinking this is our reward for being so hopelessly, happily open to whatever this land serves up to us.
All this and more, I think, taking it in, knowing I am blessed. And then, with a suddenness that takes “suddenly” to a whole new level, a force drops out of the sky, sailing right past me, and, with nightmarish precision, drops my husband to the ground, flattening him. I feel my own breath sucked out of me even as I grasp for meaning, finding only the certainty that violence has befallen the man I love, and yes, take for granted. It’s absurd, but also undeniable: He is down, face first, sprawled helplessly on this ancient, stony ground. The man whose strength I have grown comfortably dependent on has been taken out, in a moment of music and charm and benevolence. What kind of world is this?
Somewhere in the jumbled sequence of moments I have burst into tears, no doubt shocking our daughter who turns to comfort me, and perhaps provoking the handsome trio of police into action. Though it makes better sense to think they were already in motion—being just beside him and maybe noticing all on their own. However it unfolded, they have rushed to my husband, helping him up off the cobbles, restoring the wallet and coins which have flown from his pockets on impact. Assured that he is intact, the Carabinieri throw a glance my way, and redirect their attentions to search out the perpetrators. Not far from us they huddle, a mother and daughter, clearly as shocked as we are. None but the daughter seems to know what has transpired, and we can’t understand a word she says. Her mother is wailing and shouting. Daughters are consoling their mothers in two languages.
Those are the effects. Cause, which emerged with stupefying slowness, has been one protruding cobble in a narrow alley winding up behind us, steeper than you would imagine if you have never walked in the hill towns of Tuscany, nor noticed the sturdy bowled legs of their aged citizens, the fat muscled calves of their toddlers.
Mother and daughter, perhaps delayed by dinner or a telephone call or who knows what, had rushed down this ally, arm in arm, to get to the festival, when the mother, a woman not quite five foot but with a comportment of impressive solidness, caught heel in cobble. The shoe, functioning as catapult, served to launch her from her daughter’s grasp, straight into my husband, who cushioned her nicely from the street. Though I must have seen this woman collapse upon him, my brain never registered her. I never even noticed her being righted, probably by the daughter. For me, it was only my husband upright one instant; hurled to the ground the next.
In the ensuing recovery—first of bodies, and then of meaning, and finally, of dignity—we grasped story from chaos. Satisfied, apparently, in the absence of criminal intent and with their own resolve to restore order, the police removed themselves from the scene. Which left us to assess the damage and then to exchange whatever civilities the circumstances required and linguistic barriers would permit. My husband, bleeding from the elbow and knee, but with his usual equanimity, brushed off any trace of sympathy and was soon reassuring the two women with all the courtesy his handful of Italian phrases would allow. Gestures of apology were extended and accepted. Tears of fear gave way to tears of laughter, and hilarity was the tone with which we parted ways, all to the soundtrack of the orchestra, who played on.
I wonder how others around us may have registered the story, and if some version of it might wind its way through the remembrance of that particular saint’s day. Who knows? For a brief time, we may have played a noteworthy part in the lore of Montalcino.
Uncertainty seeps through this scene. Despite substantiation, an accumulation of evidence solid as rock, my sense of it is vague. It’s rendered in half light, its lines indistinct.
It’s the seventh and final day of our walking tour. We’ve hiked over six hours, making our way from Ubania to Urbino. The walk was lovely and sunlit, but with a final ascent that was arduous and hot. We were grateful to locate the Hotel Bonconte.
Our room is no doubt someone’s version of elegant, with a peculiar glass enclosure jutting out into the room behind which gleams a cedar tub. That asymmetrical enclosure—beyond which extends a more normal bathroom—leaves little space for more than stepping around the bed. Hanging from an interior brick wall two angels, cast in some plastic imitation of clay and painted gold, hover over us. Every inch of floor space is taken up our two suitcases. Hiking boots lie drying outside the small patio extending from our room.
The next day is ours to rest and recover, and to explore this city we’ve been learning about along the way. Tonight, though, we’re too tired for anything more than a light meal from a simple family restaurant. We’re stiff and sore on the short walk back to our hotel. Sleep is so welcomed and comes blessedly fast.
What feels like five minutes later, from the deep, heavy slumber of the bone-weary, I awaken to the sensation—or maybe the sound—of our heavy metal bed-frame shaking on the brick floor. My first thought is that my husband was grasping the bed to avoid falling—no doubt into my gaping suitcase, probably while searching for the glassed-in door to the bathroom. But no: In the darkness I can just make him out, sitting up beside me—fully awake. The simple fact of his wakefulness is illogical, and disorients me as much as the shuddering motion. I hear him saying something about an earthquake. From my stupefying state between dream and consciousness, I find a vague reassurance in his words. What a bewildering country, I think, and drift gratefully back to sleep, relieved to be spared having to puzzle it out. My sleep is only slightly perturbed by the dreamlike sensation of our room trembling.
Four hours later, now fully restored to wakefulness, we take in what we can through Italian newscasts. This was shocking. Is shocking, terrible. Terrifying. We see, over and over, the same images of ancient stone buildings with gaping holes torn through them, half a crucifix suspended in mid-air. We learn how walls enduring for a thousand years, have been reduced in an instant to heaps of rubble. Stone to stone, dust to dust.
People weep. Newscasters read, dazed facts that appear to change every minute. Six dead. Seven. Eleven. Seven. We watch, and listen, interpreting from the Italian as best we can, extracting from the unfathomable whatever sense we can muster.
We feel, at first, relieved to have been so close, and survived. Mont had been working out our escape route, he tells me as we dress for breakfast: our room opened, just past the angels, onto a patio. He had hoped to be able to push through the machine-operated blinds. I remember wondering, as I admired his practicality, if the hotel cat we’d spied from the patio had her escape route ready. Probably. She moved with the assurance of a survivor.
By lunchtime, we’ve become more aware of the extent of the earthquake. Now, we consider ourselves strangely lucky to have had this experience, to have felt, for ourselves, the force of the earth. Tremors are, after all, a phenomenon as much of this landscape, as are its olive groves, its poppies.
III. Traces of Viper
Admittedly, they turn out not to be the dreaded vipers, but vipere can work, in Italian, for snake, and so I take my liberties with veracity; my artistic license.
We are trekking from Montelcino to Sant’ Antimo, Monty and me, Nicole and Ryan. It’s a tame adventure, following a detailed route description, one instruction to the next. We’ve climbed up above the village, through thick brush, to a ridge with sweeping vistas, saturated with colour, infused by birdsong, pollen, and fragrance. For an hour we descend, sometimes steeply, following a small track that brings us out along the crest of a lower ridge and then into the valley below. It’s gentler going then, which frees our attention from watching where we place our feet to taking in our surroundings.
At the valley bottom, although we’re close to Sant’ Antimo, it has disappeared from view. As our track becomes a sandy path, we round a bend and quite literally stop in our tracks, piling into one another like cartoon characters.
Travelling toward us is a pair of cyclists, man and woman, though at this moment, arrested from motion. The forward one, the guy, stands—one foot on the pedal, the other planted on the path—arm extended, camera pointing, improbably, at ground before him, and between us. We’ve stopped, so it seems, to keep outside of the picture he shoots. Wildflowers? A bird? No, this is less distinct, marked by the most tenuous of motion, rather than any distinction of colour. What registers more sharply is the photographer’s trepidation. Finally, the eye takes in the staccato flickering midway between the pair of cyclists and our group, and then the unlikely image of two snakes, long bodies twining languidly around one another. Their dirt-brown forms are barely discernible against a background of brown dirt, which makes it hard to believe that the snakes are actually rising half-way off the ground as they writhe about one another.
Ages pass as the six of us, transfixed, watch the pair of them slither to the centre of the track, levitating in and around one another, taking on the form of a single, grotesque pillar.
Finally we are aware that our group is ready to move on. But it’s as clear that the cyclers do not intend to move past the snakes, who also seem in no hurry. The man—half a wheel-length ahead—protectively, but also tentatively, waves his arms in a futile effort to urge them into the grass. The snakes take their own sweet time to untwine, and then slide along, side by side, across. There’s one leading by a half-length, asserting what I imagine to be the snake version of manly protectiveness.
With relief, but also wonder, hikers move past cyclists, exchanging messages of good cheer and relief in differently accented English, all six travellers in this land, and privy to one of its mysteries. Our foursome, braced by what we’ve witnessed, and by now processed, stay a moment longer to study the intricate traces the snakes have left in the dust. I snap a picture that will turn out to convey nothing at all of the wonder we witnessed.
I step away to study, once more, the three scenes, arranged and rearranged, words and phrases adjusted for clarity, nuance, tone. One version drops away as the next takes form. Such is the act of writing—messy in the mental processes if not the materials.
How constrained that Renaissance painter in Urbino would have been—by convention, and by material limitations (the viscosity of the paints, the range of hues)—I don’t begin to know. Whether his rendering of the three sacred scenes was intended to be seen as literal or allegorical, I don’t know. Either way, the painter of the triptych—whether a believer or not—must have felt dwarfed by the magnitude of the miracles, intimidated by the possibilities of his own arrangement. By comparison, I feel blessedly unfettered.
My constraints are of comprehension and perspective, and of memory. My limitations are in a certain inability of my own vocabulary to bear the heft of the stories I mean to share. It’s possible that the three stories are no less mysterious, or spectacular—to me—than the parables of the sacred mysteries may have been to their painter. Through the lens of my own perspective—its scope not mystical, but rather, down-to-earth—each one was momentous. They’ve left their mark on me. And I have taken the leap of faith: casting them in words and stepping back to leave them standing.
Elizabeth Templeman lives at Heffley Lake, in British Columbian, and works at Thompson Rivers University. Previous publications include Notes from the Interior, a collection of creative nonfiction published by Oolichan Books (2003). Essays and book reviews have appeared in various journals including Room Magazine, The Globe and Mail, and Southern Humanities Review.
5 Questions with Elizabeth Templeman
TD: Tell us a little about this story? Where did the idea come from?
ET: I have a complicated relationship to place (e.g. no sense of direction), and am not, by nature, a good traveler. This piece arose from reconciling to the dislocation of having travelled, and rethinking the trip from the comfort of home.
TD: Who is your greatest writing influence?
ET: Greatest influence? Hm. I can hardly remember a Time Before—when I wasn’t driven to write. It would take quite the force to keep me from it, frankly. To name a single influence, though, I’d say Philip Garrison, who introduced me to the personal essay and guided me toward the confidence to test myself against the genre.
TD: What is your favorite place to write and why?
ET: My favourite writing place would be our breakfast nook. It’s at the hub of action at home and was never designed as a writing space. But I feel utterly at home there.
TD: Favorite word?
ET: No favourite word… (I have to resist saying “Sorry about that,” sorry being the quintessential Canadian word, I know.)
TD: Do you have a reading ritual?
ET: More than anything I love being in the grip of a good book, fiction usually, odd maybe, since I write nonfiction. The essay “Weight of Books,” does a fine job of capturing my feeling about books and reading. Home is probably where I most want to be, reading. But it’s also my way to feel at home when I’m away. No rituals to speak of, but one tradition, which is reading with the family on Boxing Day (Dec. 26th). When our kids were young enough not to care about being uncool, on that day you could find the five of us draped across every piece of furniture and carpet, reading for all but a few hours outside, or hunger inspired a feast of cold turkey leftovers