MIRACLE NUMBER 1
A Galilean Transformation
‘You see how he glances furtively over one shoulder, as if . . . as if he were escaping from the scene of a crime.’ It was Charlotte’s first rehearsal to camera, and the unforgiving television lights revealed her to be more nervous than the young man in the portrait she was describing. ‘But is he the perpetrator of the crime or just a witness?’ she went on. ‘I believe the artist wants us to ask such questions, feel ourselves part of the plot. The picture, you see, represents a window into another space and time–in this case the fifteenth century. Everything in the painting is designed to reinforce the fiction that this young man, with one hand apparently on the picture frame, is about to vault from his world into ours.’
‘To me he looks like Paolo,’ said Donna. ‘The same sexy mouth.’
Ignoring the girl, Charlotte continued, ‘Another example of this arresting device is Raphael’s portrait of La Muta, the “silent” or “mute” woman, a title acknowledging that she could, if she wished, speak to us of what she has seen, cross the boundary of the picture plane and–’
‘Give each of us fair warning when our time is up,’ finished one of the Italians on the film crew, tapping his watch. ‘Lunchtime, in this case!’
For Muta, the first warning came in the shape of a wolf. The mute woman was near the ruined bell tower picking dandelion leaves for her lunch when an old thin wolf loped into San Rocco, a wolf who must be desperate or sick to come so close in broad daylight. Years ago Muta had seen wolves dancing together like gawky young partners at their first country fair, but this wolf was long past dancing. The animal stopped in the shade of the tower only metres from her, its tongue lolling dry between black stretched lips. The weary eyes cleared and widened as they caught sight of Muta and she saw the tongue curl back like a chameleon’s and the jaws snap shut in a spray of bloody froth.
So they took each other in, the last survivors of what the world had been. Muta was close enough to see the clawmarks raked across the wolf’s hindquarters and the ragged furrow ploughed by a bullet down its flank. One ear was ripped almost in half and flapped like the sail of a broken windmill with every heave of the creature’s lungs. When some distant sound brought what was left of its torn ears to attention, Muta followed the old wolf’s gaze and saw a pack of dogs appear on the horizon from the direction of the Villa Rosa. Too worn out to run far, the wolf swung its wedge of grizzled head, scanning the ruined hamlet for shelter, and before she could do anything it had made a dash for the bell tower, passing not more than an arm’s length from where Muta stood.
She had to watch its fall. One of the weak places in her cellar’s roof gave way and she stood to watch the wolf falling, kicking, scratching, its black-rimmed yellow eyes fixed on her, neither asking for help nor expecting it. Muta knew how that was.
The pack was closer now. In the lead was a long-legged veteran who had lost an eye and half his jaw three winters back defending his master from a wounded boar. Muta had seen that same dog take on a viper as thick in the middle as the dog’s own head and grip that snake and shake it straight as a walking-stick. That dog would track the devil into Hades and back, Muta knew, and she knew too that the pack it led didn’t hunt alone; the men must be close.
She turned to run for her cellar, but the wolf was there, wounded or dead, and even a dead wolf could give away her secrets, and so as the pack of baying dogs streamed over the ruined vineyards towards San Rocco, she acted against her instinct to hide, and ran not away from the pack but towards it, back and forth across the wolf’s trail, her own rank underground smell disguising the wolf’s as she waved her arms in their flapping dead men’s clothes at the half-wild dogs, some of them even wilder from an earlier kill. When that failed to scatter them she threw stones, handfuls of turf, firewood. As the old one-eyed boarhound leapt up and caught a branch mid-air, snapping it in two with his misshapen jaws, Muta saw the hunters not far behind, approaching on foot. Her need to escape grew desperate. She kicked dirt in the dogs’ faces, raged silently at them, turning her own face into a snarl and her hands into claws. Offended by the strange half-human’s unwarranted attack, the dogs split from a pack into individuals and, wagging their tails in puzzlement, drew away from the mixed-up smell of woman and wolf to flow together on the far side of San Rocco.
Their masters were still some way off when Muta identified the man in front, a face she recognised, even now. She thought: Will he know me? Why has he come back after so long? Then she bolted, up towards the old road and all the other walking ghosts.
‘Did you see that?’ one of the hunters said.
The older man in the lead, closely watching the woman’s progress up the steep hill, replied, ‘You think she’s living at San Rocco, Lorenzi?’ The interrogator was a big, beefy animal in his early seventies, but fit, buffed up, expensively maintained, with a tone of voice that implied an infestation of vermin on his private property, vermin he had paid heavily to be rid of. He looked like someone who expected value for his money and had plenty of people willing to beat it out of you.
‘I doubt it,’ answered Lorenzi. ‘She’s more likely got a den up there where she joined the old German road. Those hills are riddled with caves, as you know.’
The older man leaned over to peer at something. ‘She’s lost a shoe.’
‘Looks like a museum piece, something left over from the War.’
‘Something left over from the War . . .’ He picked up the shoe by its laces and shifted his pouchy, well-fed eyes to the hill, where the running figure had disappeared. ‘What’s that scar-faced dog of Procopio’s called? Baldassare? You told me he’d track anything?’
‘Almost anything . . .’
But when they tried to catch Baldassare he refused to be caught. He stood back and looked at them and pulled the unscarred side of his face into a snarl to match the one given by the boar, then lit out on his own towards home.
‘There goes our best dog,’ said Lorenzi. ‘Now what?’
Charlotte Penton, walking alone on one of the unmade-up tracks that circled and criss-crossed this tightly folded part of Italy like interlaced cobwebs, was contemplating the view from the crest of the hill back towards the Villa Rosa, the idyllic hotel where two hours earlier she had treated herself to a solitary and very expensive lunch. It was her first proper day off in six weeks, and with her restoration of the Raphael portrait nearing completion, Charlotte had vowed to allow herself a few treats before returning to London. There, as the result of her recent divorce, the solitude would be of a different, less voluntary kind.
She took a deep breath, enjoying the warm, sweet, afternoon air. Off to her right was a scene possessing all the orderly grace of a Raphael. In the foreground a corridor of painterly trees, groomed and plumed as feather dusters, led in a direct line of perspective up the hard white drive to the hotel gates, and beyond that to the spires and pantiled roofs of Urbino, rose-pink against the mauve of even more distant hill-towns. The light–that splendid, golden Italian light which softened the edges of objects while at the same time mysteriously making them clearer and more resonant–filled Charlotte up like a rich, heavy wine. She thought: I will always know this place; I have already known it. For as a student in Florence she had admired these same hills and castles in a portrait of Urbino’s greatest ruler, Federigo da Montefeltro, so that even before coming here she had known this as a landscape she could love.
To her left was an equally familiar but altogether wilder view, of foothills rising steeply into the Apennines, only the odd ruined building holding back the encroaching woods and brush. It resembled the more grisly paintings she restored, early Flemish and German works of martyrs and crucifixions devoid of human optimism, their plunging chasms and savage torrents coded warnings for a violent or tragic life.
She thought of the hill she was traversing as the spine of a decision neatly splitting the country into before and after, either/or. As she mentally tossed a coin (ruins or civilisation: which should she choose?), her attention was drawn to the only movement in that divided landscape, a raggedy flapping figure running fast out of thick woods on the uncultivated side of the hill. About two kilometres away, perhaps less, the figure was barely identifiable as human, and what humanity it had was contradicted by the pack of dogs that appeared out of the same woods a few moments later. Straining against long leads, they dragged behind them five hunters with guns protruding stiffly from their silhouettes like the broomstick arms of scarecrows.
The baying of the dogs carried across the valley on an updraught of wind, so faintly that it seemed unconnected to the scene below. Charlotte at first imagined she was watching an Italian version of the mock hunts that took place near her parents’ home in England, where the trail for the pack was laid by a sprinting man rather than a fox. But as the gap between the hunters and their prey closed, she saw the runner’s movements become jerky, more inhuman; they conveyed a sense of urgency that negated any suggestion of play. The wedge of russet-coloured dogs and the hunters in loden green and brown were moving forward relentlessly, like part of the forest shifting itself, or a natural upheaval of the unforgiving earth.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Waking Raphael by Leslie Forbes. Copyright © 2004 by Leslie Forbes. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.