The Long Table
The letter started with "My love Estafan, how I miss you, miss your opal eyes, your heart, and your daily love. These past days of my assignment here have been so difficult, so difficult without you and your body."
Maxine's occasional letters were less news than expressions of feelings of her heart. The news came in her emails every day or two, her letters were about their love connection.
Estafan sat back in his chair slouching into the seat not sure he would be able to read more of Maxine's letter. His mind wandered following the gaze of his Jean Paul Gaultier hidden eyes, an aimless eddy around the courtyard, falling on plants and flowers, brilliant hand painted Mexican pots filled with cactus. Santa Fe cactuses, strange iconic things from American Westerns, how he loved cactuses.......and Maxine.
The past weeks had been all but nothing than longing for Maxine.
Estefan drifted between the sounds in the space of the courtyard, the sun coming through the glass roof structure and memories of first meeting Maxine.
She was up on a scaffold in the sanctuary of the Byzantine monastery at Hosios Loukas in northern Greece, restoring a mosaic on the dome, covered in dust and paint when Estafan walked into the church. Travelling alone he had decided to take a detour at the last minute enroute to Delphi. It was day's end, hot and dry, he wasn't sure that he would still be able to get into the church so late in the afternoon. By this time most of the bus tours from Athens had gone back to the city. Which meant most historic sites were closed. Hosios Loukas was way off the main road going north and a bit of a risk.
He arrived passing the last tour pulling out of the courtyard, the bus leaving a bloated plume of diesel smoke wafting in the calm air. Peace descended. A fantastic ancient tree spread itself widely over a splendid stone paved and grass carpeted square. Bird sounds came back into the air and the mountains behind the monastery turned bronze with the setting sun.
Pushing open one of the heavily carved wooden doors he stepped into the main sanctuary, the sound of the door opening and his steps across the worn stone threshold reverberated around the space.
"You've just missed the last tour I'm afraid" a woman's voice said, the echo cascading down from high in the dome fused in mote filled light passing through the high arched stained glass windows. "I'm sorry but the guide has just gone home for the day".
Estafan looked up squinting to see a smiling tanned face embraced by a cascade of long thick black hair peering down through the scaffolding high above him.
"Hello,.....well that's too bad. Can I have a look round on my own? I've come a long way to see this and won't be able to come back." The reverberation of his voice filled the church.
"Yes of course, the church and grounds are fine, the monastery wing is closed though but there is a map booklet at the door you can take which will give you a little bit of history." Maxine was intrigued with this late visitor.
After going through the church proper, sitting in the side chapels and basking in the light and imagery of the incredible mosaics, Estafan went out to explore the grounds. The whole ensemble of buildings that had accreted over time were formed around a series of small courtyards and passages. He was taking a picture of the mountains through the arch of a buttress when he heard Maxine behind him.
"There you are", she said with a broad smile, "I've finished for the day, so I thought I would see if you were still around." Estafan caught off guard marvelled at the sight of this tallish young woman, tanned and still dusting off plaster bits from her T-shirt and cut-offs.
"Uh well yes, I am still here, it's beautiful and quiet unreal in it's peace isn't it? And the brick work is amazing not to mention the mosaics in the church. I can understand why they chose this place to put the monastery."
"It is, I've been here for five months and not ready to leave. I'll give you a short tour of some special things. My names Maxine by the way."
"Well that would be awesome.......I'm Estafan."
That was the beginning. They walked the grounds, the sanctuary, and the bone room, Maxine told him about the high quality of this eleventh century Byzantine Monastery now classified as a UNESCO world heritage site compared to other Byzantine period buildings and artifacts in other parts of Greece, about the mosaics from the Macedonian Renaissance in the Katholikon, and what she was doing to the art in the dome. Estafan asked her to dinner in Delphi where they discovered they were both staying, and later she accompanied him for a few days touring the Delphic valley hill towns which she knew well. That was five and a half years ago now. Maxine's restoration work had taken her away all over the world since they had been together, but her current absence in Florence at the Uffizi was the longest stretch apart by far, and consequently the most difficult.
The great hall was lined with Michelangelo's massive unfinished marble sculptures, blocks upon rows of blocks, the sculptor's hand frozen in different stages of progress in each great mass, forceful, utterly contemporary, brilliantly leaking energy in their incompleteness, more powerful than the finished pieces. At the end of the hall under a dome with a glass covered oculus in it, stood the enormous statue of David bathed in crystalline light floating downwards like falling frost creating an effervescent veil over the marble figure. The David suspended in motionlessness poise for centuries had witnessed so much turbidity of life around its feet; school children, tourists, lovers, thieves, desperate liaisons, inspirited and tragic artists, scheming despots.
Maxine had been summoned urgently from her work in Cairo old city by the director of antiquities at the Uffizi, Dr. Arlandro Pollinni. One semester during her PhD, Maxine had taken special studies with him on the forensic anatomical structure of artifacts. Pollinni was smitten with her deductive brilliance and they became fast collegiate friends. He could think of no other right person exceptional for this crisis.
These great unfinished marbles had mysteriously, suddenly, begun to dissolve. Each morning a skirt of fine marble dust was found around the base of each of the great blocks, a perfect outline of powder in a mirror image of the shape of each stone. It had been detected one morning by the opening administrator.
After the initial panic, the museum had decided not to have the situation go public and viral for the moment, until there was more definition around what was happening. So this wing of the Uffizi had been opening later in the afternoon to the public after the morning investigative survey; dust photographed, measurements taken, samples put in glass vials, thermography scans, x-Rays, just about every conceivable test known to archeology and forensic medicine. The daily survey started at five a.m. The air of panic and sweat in this gallery wing was palpable. The blocks were re-wrapped in plastic with cards reading 'Under Restoration Do Not Touch' put on top after each mornings session. The David continued to stand naked for the time being. Pressure escalated daily as more officials became involved, the most recent being the insurance carrier.
Maxine had been spending long nights in the Uffizi's labs after the conservation staff had gone home, pouring over test data and academic treatises about odd events surrounding antiquities. Topics of mysterious natural decay were not readily coming to the surface. Nothing had prepared her for this. First speculative questions focussed on sophisticated vandalism although no motive seemed present except for creating shear havoc and ruination of majestic artworks. Second speculations were criminal in nature, perhaps the intent was confusion and mayhem as a prelude to an elaborate theft of artifacts. Security was doubled and the Polizia were now involved secretly. Security cameras were installed focussed on the blocks in the hopes of discovering some ravaging spectre, a nightly visitation by a poltergeist, or just a plain human nut case. Part of the mornings prelude was reviewing hours of tape from the night before.
Maxine felt it necessary to abstain from too much official detail in her almost daily emails home to Estafan. It was safer first and second she didn't know if internet traffic was being monitored. Their hours were mismatched so phone calls were infrequent, and often resulted in a voicemail. These felt sad to both of them.
Eleven days into the drama Maxine was reviewing tapes late at night in the labs when an eery chill ran up the back of her neck. She realized that on each tape there was a short period around 3 a.m. every morning of awesome static that began to appear. It was not even. It began in flecks, increased to a light rain of diagonal scrambled streaks, and evolved into a blizzard of snow at its crescendo. It moved as quickly back in the opposite direction to nothing. The whole episode on each tape followed a similar pattern lasting about twelve seconds.
In an inspired moment, she thought to access the nights live video feed. It was already 3:38 a.m. There it was again, the same pattern of static, tonight clocking in at a 3:00a.m. start. Maxine scrambled out of the labs and up to the museum wing. The two guards on duty were doing their patrol through other parts of the gallery. She raced into the space and down the great hall and stood frozen near the blocks. Silence. Nothing was stirring, you could hear a neutrino fly through the space. But, what came to Maxine's senses was a strange lingering fragrance of flowers, not any particular kind of floral scent that she recognized but one that seemed to transport her senses to a place beyond her understanding for a few seconds. There were no flowers in the hall anywhere. As quickly as she grasped the scent it disappeared. She realized she had arrived too late, she was at the lingering tail end of the event.
To Maxine, from her experiences she felt the paranormal had entered onto the scene.
The rest of the night was spent in the lab going through texts online of bizarre religious paranormal experiences. She began to believe that she had missed some avenues to the miracle of incarnation of strange events, however unscientific she felt this line of pursuit might be. The stories around the strange and miraculous were unparalleled in number; St. Thomas Aquinas and a levitating nun, the undecayed body of Bl.Pope John XX111 when he was exhumed for canonization, the strange lights over the grave of Maronite monk Charbel Makhlouf when he died. Then she found a similarity, a recent account of a young Anglican priest who visited the resting place of St. Bernadette at the Convent St. Gildard in France. He experienced, in the presence of her tomb, the fragrance of flowers that transported him to a place beyond his comprehension. Maxine realized in that moment that the next night she would have to wait beside the blocks at the same hour as the static on the tapes.
But what to prepare for? What would be essential to have with her at that precise moment? And should she let someone know what she had discovered and was about to do? And if not, then she had to be out of the security cameras sight.
Given that she felt the paranormal may be implicated and therefore moving her into an unscientific postulation, she decided to say nothing for the time being. Her notebook and cell phone would be all that she take with her.
During the late afternoon the following day she excused herself for a few hours respite and slept in preparation for her vigil. At the end of the day going into evening she maintained her similar pattern of activity, with the exception of further research into methods of clearing paranormal apparitions. Dr. Pollinni visited her late in the day to let her know that the board had met and made crucial decisions that he would have to implement if they were unable to find a diagnosis and remedy in the next forty eight hours. He didn't elaborate on what the decisions were.
She sent an evening email to Estafan. He had suggested he come to Florence to be near her for a few days. She dissuaded him from this idea on the basis of being premature with the elevated pressure of the moment and the urgent search for solutions. He acquiesced. The day coalesced into evening with lab staff slowly leaving. At 2:30a.m. Maxine went upstairs, carefully avoiding the security guards and the cameras by tucking herself in between the blocks and gallery wall. She moved along the space undetected and settled for midway along the gallery. And there she waited, with her timer set on her cell phone. Eerily silent, the guards away doing there rounds, Maxine felt for the first time a fear of being at risk alone.
At 2:59:07 moistening of the air became present, there was the sensation across her skin that the air had begun to stir.
At 3:01:11 the scent of flowers arrived filling the moist air with its density drifting through the entire space with its increasing thickness.
It was silent and there was restlessness.
At 3:02:10 Maxine began to feel a weightlessness descend over her, her mind pulling her earthly frame up into space. She began to see thin blue spectral light forming around her fingers, hands and other limbs, and a peculiar sensation of crystalline thought, a feeling state without real feeling but becoming transparent in absolute clarity of consciousness, a weightlessness in her mind free from thoughts normal thickness.
She became conscious at 3:08:07 lying on the cool marble floor, the remnants of an out of body sensation dissipating like mist over moors. Had she gone somewhere terrestrial? Did she have a divine illumination. If she did, she couldn't seem to remember what it's focus was even though she felt a heightened state of comprehension mixed with longing. Longing to go back to her elevated state. She looked at the blocks either side of her. The nights new skirt of dust lay all around them.
At 3:45:00 she realized the guards were back. She was stuck where she was until the next rounds. She was solidly back in space and time.
What Maxine had discovered to do next, the remedy, to this weird malaise was absolutely not scientific and completely in the realm of voodoo and black magic. In fact it might be called scientific heresy and outlandish irresponsibility in not determining a cause based on scientific understanding with a reasoned deduction and a repeatable fact based solution. But at the risk of losing great works of art now was the time to engage in a dual, a hypothesis with risk yes, but a dual none the less with the paranormal. There was one last night in which Maxine could engage a possible mystical solution.
In the small hours of the following night Maxine engaged a plan that included a false alarm to distract the guards and a silent rubber wheeled cart that could be easily hidden, laden with glass beakers. In the beakers a liquid so diabolically and insanely mundane and domestic that it escaped every shred of credibility. Maxine hurried her cart into the lift as her diversion went off elsewhere in the Uffizi wing. Rushing through the hall of blocks she placed a beaker behind each one, twenty four in all.
3 a.m. came, it came, that damp moist thickening air. The scent came sweetly carrying its effervescence. And on the back of this Maxine's limbs illuminated and became irradiated in blue spectral light. And just as she began to ascend into a higher plane of consciousness her body lifting out of itself, she saw the liquid in the beakers vibrating wildly as if registering an earth tremor.
The liquid particulated into individual droplets as the vibration increased and they began to float out of the mouth of each beaker. Higher the droplets went into the gallery space spreading out creating a heavenly constellation across the room. The gallery took on the quality of science fiction, a space filled with terrestrial dots expanding across the large hall. Their apparent reflection of light became brighter and brighter. Maxine realized that this light was not a reflection upon the droplets but an inner light within them that was growing rapidly more intense. Then came a sound at first undefinable, sort of like moving air through poplar leaves but increasingly thicker. And in a few short seconds that seemed an hour this sound turned into the full audible quality of an enormous waterfall emanating from a black void.
In the morning Maxine was summoned to Dr. Pollinni's office. The moment of non-scientific reckoning. She was exhausted from no sleep, drained. Pollinni was explosively animated in a strange congruence of jubilance and incredulous rage spouting a volley of questions. What went on in the gallery last night? What possessed Maxine to initiate an experiment with unknown results(yelling now)without any one else being aware? What if something had gone wrong, did she realize she was putting herself at risk? And what in the name of the holy ghost did she think she was doing with glass beakers strewn all over the place that reeked of vinegar? And what was the concoction that had been in the beakers? And how are we going to explain the elimination of the event?
Three hours later Maxine left his office after a long dissertation on her findings and cogitations that lead to her experiment. Which it seemed had produced results. The nightly dust from dissolving blocks had not occurred. As the days went by it became apparent that the bizarre and still unknown causal event had ceased. And yes Pollinni was correct that she had used household vinegar in the glass beakers. An ancient mystic remedy for unknown spirits. They agreed upon a story for the board and that it was unnecessary to make the whole episode public. Pollinni would also provide this story to the polizia and insurers to close this bizarre happening. Fortunately there was nothing on the nights security tapes except the usual static at that recurring hour, so no complications to deal with for the record. They parted on collegiate terms after a few days of fabricating reports with Pollinni remaining incredulous.
Maxine sent an email to Estafan, "My darling Estafan, yesterday we solved our situation and I am concluding reports on our work here. I will be leaving in a few days, can we meet at the old Ponto Villa in Tuscany, you know the one. I'm exhausted and need a respite. I have missed, do miss, you so much. Can you meet me?"
The Long Table
The late afternoon sun was creeping around its orbit splattering leaf shaped shadows all over the courtyard floor and walls, over Chef's delight herbs, full blooms, talevera planter pots.
Mixed with the summer air was a warble of conversation, ethereal shapes cast by sunlight through the greenhouse roof, people at the long table with sunglasses on, hanging baskets with ferns, perennials on sale. Eighteen seats nine on each side.
Greenhouse doors open to the sidewalk populated with tiled iron garden table and chair sets. An explosion of orchids laid out on the tops of old chests of drawers of various sizes. Herbs in multi level wire racks on coasters. Inventory clearance shed open with people ambulating through it looking for impulse bargains. Gigantic hanging baskets gracing the sidewalk wall.
Baby's cry echoes through the space and mingles with the droplets from the fountain splashing down onto the tumbled roman pavers covered with moss. The baby's mother walks around the solarium leaning the baby at her shoulders into the herbs for a soothing whiff.
The table in the center a continuous slab of ash coloured fir with matching wood chairs looks like the last supper. Two woman talking at one end, one a monologuing stream of words the other agreeing with occasional caw, 'hmm hmm'ing' in affirmation like a brooding pigeon. An attractive middle aged woman sitting on her own at mid-table having time away from something veiled by a thin expression of loneliness. Or was it grief. A man reading a book over an espresso and cookie, his eyes occasionally rolling around the tops of the pages to see who else has sat down at the long table. How is it filling up. Is it time to move, am I still comfortable enough.
North, as he stepped into the courtyard noted that everyone so far had been careful about their choice of spacing as they selected a seat, not too close, not too far, just enough. He always preferred the long table to the duces scattered about the courtyard or on the sidewalk. When he came to it he was the tie breaker, the wild card, the person that might sit beside a lone individual in a movie theatre, the roulette ball. Everyone watched his choice carefully through strained peripheral vision while pretending to stay in their conversation, thought, moment. A challenging double distraction for if you are with a companion you don't want to seem rude in breaking your attention.
He sat one over but opposite the lonely looking woman. She fixed her eyes on him, her body posture not adjusting a muscle, a genuinely soft and pleasant smile unfolding like a white chiffon curtain in a Lindos morning breeze. Sun escaped her face. North softly said 'hi', put down his cappuccino, carrot cake, and satchel. She watched intrigued perhaps wondering what would come out of his bag.
North dug for his sun glasses, then from a zippered pocket came a notebook, a fountain pen......ah the lady across from him considered, a flaneur, artiste? He smiled at her again and as he settled into his chair sitting back from the table and casually crossing his legs, sipped his coffee with one hand and began to disappear into his notebook with the other.
This was one of North's weekly rituals. This place, every week, time out of time hiding away from whomever he knew, the city, politicians and business people, the press....oh my god the press, responsibility, relationship and relating, purpose, parking tickets, doing taxes, bills and to-do lists. Much better than a book store cafe because it required no presupposed activity. It was a mix, multi coloured and multi specied like the flowers inside the shop, a riot of possibility like the jungle of plants. You could pretend, be a hunter, prey, or be high in the canopy watching.
He closed his eyes behind his sunglasses and his ears began to take in all the theatre of the space, the tone of those rollicking in conversation, cascade of sounds, city bus passing, car horn, people out on the sidewalk ambulating and their fleeting chatter as they passed, a mother yelling at her two young kids to stay on the sidewalk, a bird of some kind that had flown in and was up in the roof chirping, water cascading in different displays, lone people silent in squeaky chairs occasionally clanking down their China cup, others talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, actors playing parts unknowingly or knowingly, who's eyes of interest caught who's intriguing glance, peacocking. A cacophony only noticed when suspended in a transcendental moment of separateness while with others or alone.
This ritual moment of the week had become the nourishment, no, ravenous staple appetite of North's spirit, a quest of divination, and since discovering this place had been exulted to the stature of orthodox moment, monastic retreat of sorts.
A bearded young man, late thirties maybe, black hair and tallish, faded blue jeans, Vans sneakers, rose T-shirt under a mustard coloured 10 Tree sweat shirt casually strode into the courtyard. Flecks and spills of paint were peppered here and there on his jeans. A green tea in one hand and panini sandwich in the other with a bunch of letters, personal mail and bills probably, rolled in a weekend paper under one arm. He sat at the same side of the table but two chairs down from North.
He appeared to be detached or distracted from awareness of his surroundings, flopped his mail and paper on the table and organized his tea, sandwich and cutlery in a casual manner. From the spill of mail on top of his newspaper he opened three non personal letters, two were bills, one an announcement for a charity event. These he perused informally almost with a hint of disdain. The fourth item was a personal letter, the envelope's cream coloured face covered in beautiful sepia hand writing, unmistakably a female hand, scrolls and arabesques in order and proportionate font between address and sender, mottled with travel stains, broken and faded ink stamps from many postal offices through which it had travelled across the envelope and the faces of the intricate postage stamps. The postage stamps had they been wallet sized could be exotic money.
North noticed the envelope as the man tore it open taking out a letter of three thin airmail pages and setting the envelope aside slightly between them. At that moment there was a lull, the atmosphere stilled bereft of sound or movement of any kind, the man read maybe just the opening lines and set the pages down, picking up his tea. A gusting breeze blew in from the street rattling the plants, one or two paper napkins from guest tables blew around the courtyard. The man's mail blew off the newspaper. It skittishly slid along the table, the bills onto the courtyard floor, the first page of the letter slid into the saucer of North's cappuccino, pages of the newspaper flapped open scattering the other envelopes across the table.
While the young man was busy picking up the mail fallen to the floor, North put his fingers on the one loose page to stop it blowing further down the table and slowly slid it across the top back towards the young man. He got the edge of the page saying 'thank you' and put it back with the others.
The opening paragraph stuck in North's brain. He could feel it's conte expanding into life, a rapidly widening canyon of curiosity cleaving open in his head.
The letter started with "My love Estafan, how I miss you, miss your opal eyes, your heart, and your daily love. These past many days of my assignment here have been so difficult,intense and so difficult without you and your body."