Agnes left me five years ago. Today is Good Friday. I went to church and looked at the vestments. The one day of the year when I go to church. I stare at the vestments and hope that they’ll enter my eyes, covering them. On Good Friday, it’s as if I am possessed. I know that the vestments last longer than a day. But as far as I’m concerned, they last a day. I don’t know what they may be hiding, those magnificent, exhilarating purple vestments. I have no precise understanding of the Passion. I mean to say that I have no knowledge of the liturgy. The crucifixion is, to me, without a body. Without a soul. Without an image. I know what nails and a crown of thorns are. Ornaments, as in a dowry. But all of that means nothing more to me. I’d just like to lie down next to it all and drink the blood. Yet on that day I become, by grace, by total ignorance, devout. Like the pagans. I collect myself. I am in union with what is hidden. If it’s a matter of love, I do not love. Other than that moment. When I stand, kneel, and, if no one is watching, bow down to the ground, my forehead touching the marble.
I live alone. I earn enough on my salary. There is shadow over the light, it’s fragile. From the dome another light shines down, sharper, frozen, harsh. I stare into the gloom of the vestments, at the visionary truth of the little box, a golden casket with a tiny door, the tabernacle enshrining the eye. And locked with a key. On that day I am devout. I fast. I am in the silence. I am moved and have to cry. Sometimes in Greece I entered the small Orthodox churches to greet the iconostases. I give an offering for the candles, the drachmas old and filthy. For those candles the color of honey, the color of faded sun, of memory. Of fire and sand, almost human to the touch. Slender, pliable, spirits. Then a hand seizes them all—as though they were being seized by the hair—and tosses them into a bin filled with sand. They go back to where they came from. They don’t put them out. They leave them to burn down to the last breath. There they remain, still upright, still burning, they burn down, toward dissolution, and they bend. Whoever grabs the dying candles doesn’t snuff out the flame. I wouldn’t like colored candles. I have a distaste for colored candles. Or red ones. Candles imitating Christmas. Hands clap and everyone laughs when the candles are blown out at a birthday party in one breath. Light blue, pink.
I met Agnes the day of her twelfth birthday. She had refused to blow out the candles. From then on we were inseparable. It was like an illness. At the age of eighteen, it was convenient to live together. She leaves a mother in need of affection. I leave no one. We invite her mother now and then. “If only I’d done as you did,” she said. Then, behind my back, I heard her say to her daughter: “Marry a man.” The little sentence had become an insistent litany. I was cleaning the house, my girlfriend slept. I went to her in sleep. Agnes was growing indifferent in bed. Our passionate coexistence began right away, by attraction. At twelve, my little girl, Agnes, was a fury. She pounced on me wherever I went. She took the initiative, I am only a few years older than she. The sexual initiative. At that time I was still using words. Little presents. Flowers. I courted her. She threw away the flowers. Laughed at the words. Had no use for the gifts. Before me, she had fallen in love with a school friend. She would pick her up after class. She left her after a few months. The school friend got sick. She had neither the strength nor the energy to accept amorous passion and abandonment. I saw Agnes drag the girl across the lawn by her hair.
The amorous passion that drew us together indissolubly (or so it seemed) is over. When Agnes was twenty-three, her mother and I decked her out as a bride. The bridal gown advances slowly to bow before the altar. Agnes looked at me. I caught an uneasy gleam. Agnes was mad about that man. Next to her, kneeling before the altar. I heard two yeses.
Let me go or I’ll kill you is what she told me shortly before getting married. That “let me go” offended me. The “I’ll kill you” filled me with joy. When I was designing her dress, it was like drawing a tattoo on her skin. The sheets of paper were her skin. And when she left, I felt relief. The relief one might feel in having been abandoned. The house seemed to me airier and more desolate. Her presence faded. And returned stronger each day. Agnes’s mother and I play cards. Agnes’s mother also tries to get me into bed. She says that her daughter always slept with her. And why should I care? I beg her not to talk to me about Agnes.
Then I take a leash and drag her to the door. She squats down, the old lady, in the hallway. Panting. We’ll only play cards, she promises. That’s all. That doesn’t make me unleash her. Hadn’t she instigated it all, her daughter getting married? Often, when I left the office, I’d go into some shops. I looked at everything meticulously. The small bottles of perfume, the jewelry. The cameras. I felt like stealing. For her. I’d make the gesture. Then I’d put back the gesture, the idea of the gesture. I bought little orchid plants. They came from Holland. From South America. I had seen them in the Mediterranean. Growing in the damp. White, with purple eyelets. Rosy, pale, an evil expression. Acidulous. Yellow. They last a long time. Not much earth. Not much nourishment. They reawaken in the dark, at night. Avid for company. When they wilt, they become small skulls in tuxedos. Tiny night birds. They look at me. I look at them.
I just had a visit from Agnes’s husband. Agnes was in the garden. I was forgetting to tell you that Agnes’s husband has a delightful little house in the country. A small kingdom for a newlywed couple. The garden borders other gardens. And more gardens, all the way to the garbage dump. He found her asleep on a deck chair. A book of poems on her lap. He didn’t tell me the author, he wouldn’t know. I think it’s Robert Frost. I gave it to her. He called her. “Agnes, Agnes.” He didn’t want to wake her. The vegetation reeked of an eerie maleficent calm, a brutal calm. I know the countryside. In winter when it’s cloaked in a delightful shroud. You know that kind of mist, tiresome. It seems inert—it isn’t. Agnes. She cannot reply. Or read. The book has just slipped from her hands. On the finger, the ring I had given her. I alone.
I imagine a man mad with grief in the lovely garden. He is beside himself. I can understand him. I can understand when a man is upset. I am slightly bored. I don’t let on. I am the only one who understands him. Didn’t I, too, love her? Before him. There are two of us who loved her. Really loved her. He says. It is superfluous for him to say “really.” But people always talk too much. He adds. Instead of subtracting. I am calm. A natural death, he says. Why? I ask, without much curiosity. Lately she was uneasy. I stop listening to him. I relax. As the man speaks, my mind wanders. I am not in the least moved. I feel no sorrow. Once—sorrow. It won’t be back. It doesn’t visit anymore. At home, in the room, sorrow returns. Like a grace received. In my house. As though the house alone were the place of loss. I listen to the man again. He uses the word happiness in his grimace of pain. He apparently had moments of happiness. What is meant by a natural death? Isn’t it enough to say, She died? He’d been happy, he repeated in his grief. He tries to burden me with his happiness and grief. He gained satisfaction from me. He succeeded. She would have killed me if I hadn’t given satisfaction to the one who was to be her husband. It was like a duel. I offered the wedding dress, the ring. And something I can’t say. He said he would take the ring from her. I thought, He took her life. Among other things. But the husband didn’t hear.
Now he goes to the cemetery often. Not far from his garden. Not me. I don’t believe in these material things.
—Translated from the Italian by Gini Alhadeff