Illustration by Sara Franklin
If you could see me. If you were near.
This, I would say.
This is the apartment that does not belong to me. This is where I’ve come to. Florence, Italy. Santa Croce. The second floor off Verrazzano. These are the windows in the front and the windows in the back and the long grainy planks in between. This is what the owners, the Vitales, left behind: Their smell (mothballs, glue, tomato paste). Their winter coats and boots (bear backs and houndstooth). Their razors, creams, and gallon bleaches, their yellow butter tubs and Kool-Aid-colored flasks and wide-bottomed drinking glasses from which the ivy grows. Up the walls, across the picture frames, over a bridge of thumbtacks, that ivy grows.
See? I would say.
It is night. A piano moans. In the apartment above, someone lights a sweet cigarette. Puff clouds. Down in the alley behind the restaurant, the waiters smoke, and the cooks share a jug, and one of the restaurant girls is dancing in tall silver shoes. The moon is a lantern; I reach. Over the sill. Into the ashy air. Into the sound of that girl dancing.
Shhhhh. Be very still.
It is early September. Across the ocean, in West Philadelphia, it is not morning yet. In her round room, in the Victorian twin, my best friend, Maggie, is sleeping. The cats and dogs and the kids are sleeping, and the birds are sleeping, their heads on the pillows of their backs, their beaks tucked into their feather warmth, their ears alert, their wings ready. Danger. Thoughts in a circle.
The moon out of reach.
There is a ship of stolen things. See? There. On the top bunk of the borrowed bed. Up the squat ladder and among the Barbie-pink sheets that no one sleeps in for now. An olive felt hat. A broken kaleidoscope. Those scarves they sell for three euros each in the stalls of San Lorenzo. Nuts and bolts and rope and thread and the larger half of a cracked doorknob. A sheaf of bark and a skirt of lichen and the jewels and sometimes (I can’t help it) their satin pillows. Glass beads. Paper stamps. The garlic chains that hang from the hooks at the Sant’Ambrogio Market. The rosaries at tourist shops. The braided cords of leather. The hard things and the soft things.
I took them.
I had to.
Don’t judge me.
I lean into the night and the moon. I lean out and away from the borrowed room—the little-girl drawers, the little-girl chairs, the bottom bunk where sometimes I lie, curled on my side, trying to think my way out of this fix, out of me. Once I dropped a pencil. It rolled across the floor and disappeared beneath the heating grille. I needed the pencil. Got down on my knees. Found a tiny locked diary, no key.
Someone has left her life behind.
I wish that you could hear me.
Night is gone. Dad is near, calling me from the other side of the door, where he cannot see the splinters in my hands, the threads on this bed, the spill of glitter, the artifacts of thievery, the one fine thing I’ve made out of the muck I am. Dad doesn’t know the secrets I keep, and besides, how can I tell him?
Nadia, Dad says. Honey. Please.
There’s hardly any light out there, in Santa Croce. Only the thinnest streak of pink breaking the purple black of sky. It’s too early for anything and too late to have never gone to sleep, and I am Dad’s firstborn, his primo student, the one who always listened best to the stories that he tells: Nadia Cara, the professor’s daughter. But now when Dad calls to me my thoughts break into a thousand scattering pieces, and I can’t be who he thinks I am, and that doesn’t mean that I’m not sorry. I’m very, very sorry.
I climb out of the bunk, change, hide what I can. I stand near the open window and breathe—remembering a long time ago, in Philadelphia, when I was maybe nine or ten and Jack was seven or eight and Mom and Dad were saying, Wake up. It was the middle of the night. My eyes were full of sleep. Dad had my hand and Mom had Jack’s hand and they were saying, You’ll see. It’s worth it. They led us down the stairs, out onto the porch, into the street. They wrapped us in blankets. They said, Open your eyes, and we opened our eyes, and we saw them. Missiles of white. Missiles of pink. Meteorite sky. We blinked. They vanished.
I open the door, lock it behind me. I see Dad down the hall, pacing like a big bear un-hibernating. He walks as if one leg is shorter than the other, as if there’s more weight on his heart side, as if he can get the sleep out of his head by combing his hand through his hair. He stops when he sees me. He smiles.
There you are, he says.
Morning, he says.
After you, he says.
I say nothing.
The door to the apartment clicks shut behind us. The stairwell lamp blinks on. We round the thick stairs down, past the smell of cigarettes, toward the Vespas and bikes that sit beneath the mailboxes on the building’s first floor. Dad opens the door and the air of early-morning Florence hits us. The sounds of the microscopic trash trucks and the laundromat suds down the way and the breakfast prep cooks at the restaurant, drinking their coffee on the street.
Toward the piazza we go. Past the white cutout face of Santa Croce. Toward the river and over the bridge—Dad wearing his professor trench and me in my sweater, my fingertip pulsing like a heartbeat. In the low river, near the dam, the egrets gather, white strikes against blue. On the bridge a pigeon flutters. The pinked sky is fatter now, and the birds are awake, and I remember something Dad read to me once about the flooded River Arno. How when it filled with broken things—trees, bridges, mirrors, paintings, wagons, houses—it looked like it had been nested over by a giant flock of herons.
My mind is a nest built by herons.
My thoughts are broken things.
We walk the low streets of the Oltarno—pass the street sweepers, the window dressers, the bakers. We walk until the mountain is on us—the long slant up. Dad is talking about the Arno now, talking about his project, his big book, the reason we’ve come to Florence. My professor dad. His sabbatical year. His words go in and out and the mountain tilts up and now something pink vrooms by—speed the color of raw sky.
Here and disappearing.
Sonic and gone.
Something in my heart clicks on.
Go on, Dad says. Catch us some dawn.
He waves his hand at me, urging me forward. He insists. Like I’m still the 4-year-old in ponytails who went everywhere her father went, across an Ivy League campus. Like I’m the six-year-old who stayed up late to listen to the stories he would tell. Like I’m the girl who sat in the front row of his famous lectures, We have a special guest with us. My daughter. Like I’m the girl in the street with a blanket for a cape, watching the streaking stars vanish.
I am not her, not hardly.
I am seventeen and trouble.
Go on. Catch us some dawn.
I take the steps two at a time, brushing the birds out of their trees. I hurry along the curve of Viale Galileo Gallilei and over to the other side and up more stairs until the San Miniato cathedral is right in front of me—crooked and painted and perched. A bronzed eagle lifts its wings. Cemetery roses bloom. A faraway steeple bell rings. A Vespa huffs by the cathedral door, a duffel bag hanging from one handle. Sonic pink.
The sun cracks the horizon.
The morning holds its breath like a miracle.
My heart does that strange little thing.
Did you see it? Dad asks.
He rests his hand on the stone banister, breathes hard. Two of the cats from the green alley have made it into the thin altitude and are scratching their beards against the church.
There’ll be another—dawn, I say.
Dad raises his hand. Measures the distance between the horizon and the belly of the sun. Decides that he’s two fingers late for the new day. Turns to look out upon his Florence. I wait for him to mention the Vespa, the pink, the boom, the click inside my heart, but this is not what he sees or says.
Lucky people, he murmurs instead.
The words he uses when he’s looking at Mom or sitting beside her. When he’s thumb-wrestling Jack and Jack’s winning. When he’s pouring himself a glass of wine at night and leaning back into the couch pillows, some dusty old book on his lap. When he’s watching the dawn crack over Florence with his once and never primo daughter.
His eyebrows are completely wild.
His eyes are green.
They do not see what I see.
I leave him thinking. I walk toward the dark shadows that fall through the open door of the church, pass the thrill of pink, the smell of smoke, that Vespa—and leave it standing there, unstolen. Behind me, I hear Dad open his book and turn to a blank page, which is every page, because in all the time we’ve been in Florence, he hasn’t written a word of his story, doesn’t have a single sentence about the broken pipes, the gush, the busted dams, the mold that he says grew like a skin over the city’s past. Two months into his sabbatical, Dad’s book is empty.
Worse: His daughter is me.
I’m trusting you with the truth.
Long. High. Cool. White. Green. The nave of this church is a huge stone cage of doves and pelicans, angels and eagles. Everything carved. Everything still. The air is cool and unsunned. The wicks in the candles are burning. The pew is hard. The stone birds stretch their wings. I breathe.
Shhhh, I tell my heart. Let this world be.
I close my eyes and my mind is a flock of herons. I breathe again and my thoughts are the nests I’ve built out of stolen things—the fabric nests, chain nests, and loomed nests that hide in the dark beneath the bunk bed at the Vitales’. Nests the size of my palm and the size of a bucket. Nests the size of a bowl, the size of a drum, the size of the tubs where the ivy grows. They are one by one, wide and narrow. They are sticks and jewels. They are loose and tight. They are unbearable, beautiful, mine alone, my secret, my confession in the long, high, cool, white, green.
I hope you can forgive me.
A monk is singing, fitting his words into a single note. It is the sound someone makes when he thinks he is alone, and now I remember a day, two summers ago, when Maggie and I were out walking. We’d gone to the Woodlands, the old cemetery on the city’s edge. It’s hilly and it loops. Its graves are built into the earth or they are little granite houses or they are stone tablets, planted. The Woodlands was somebody’s garden once, but now it’s where the dead live and the roots of the old trees grab at the dirt, and where sometimes Maggie and I go when we want no one to know where we are. Two summers ago, Maggie and I were walking the Woodlands. We were coming up with our big life plans—who we’d be and how we’d get there because we were fifteen years old and professors’ daughters and we’d been planned for and planning for our whole lives long, and we each would be famous; that was sure. Maggie, the archaeologist—off on a dig somewhere with a toothbrush and a shovel. Me, the historian daughter of the famous historian—like father, like daughter, like me.
Everything for the two of us was preordained. We were smart kids, on the way toward where we were going.
Shhhh, I told Maggie. Listen.
Because somebody was high up, above our heads, singing this sad gospel song. Somebody was there in the garden of the dead besides the two of us. We saw the laces first, dangling through the leaves. We saw a long silver ponytail dangling, too, and the bill of a blue cap, and then, stretched out the long way across a limb, we saw the man himself—dressed in a navy-blue jumpsuit like he had escaped from some labor camp, maybe a prison. He’d pulled his cap down, bill to his nose. He sang like a bird sings, and Maggie and I stood in the shadows of one of those little granite houses and listened.
Leave it to you, Maggie said, after he’d finished his song and gone silent. After we’d slipped out of the shadows and started walking home.
Leave it to me, what? I said.
You always find the pretty things, she said. Pretty is your future.
This is what I’m trying to say, what I want you to know, what I want you to tell them when I am gone, because this bad thing is happening to me: Once I had a future.
I open my eyes, lean forward in the pew. I see the steps coming down from the balcony and the steps coming up from the crypt and all of a sudden the monk’s song stops. Snaps. There are boots slapping the marble floor. There is a tattooed jacket whisking. There is hair like a lamp and a fistful of roses, and I look. Look: Someone is running. Rising like a ghost from the crypt. He flies up the steps and down the aisle, beneath the green arches, through the cage of birds, toward the patch of sun near the open door. Someone is running, red roses banging around in his fist. He’s agile; he’s brilliant, he’s fluorescent, he’s a boy—eyes straight ahead, until—just now—he sees me.
Raises his fistful of roses toward me.
Waits for me to smile back, and I do. Waits a second beat, and now again he’s running—taking part of me with him already. I turn and his head is the color of light. I turn, and he is gone.
It’s the monk who threatens after him, bald and thin. The monk who rushes an old-man rush—his song gone and his anger rising up the stairs. His robes flutter over the marble floor. His rope belt swings. His sandals creak. He’s ancient slow; his hurrying is creeping. The boy has flown through the cathedral door into the sun and the monk is barely breathing. The monk pulls up short at the door. Lifts the hand in the tunnel of his sleeve.
Ladro, he calls. Thief.
But the boy is gone. I hurry down the aisle, through the door, to the piazza. I search for a sign of the disturbance. It’s only Dad out here by the wide rail with his empty book, a startled look on his face.
Nadia? he says.
I answer with nothing.
Devon’s Beth Kephart is the author of 20 books. Her Love: A Philadelphia Affair is out in September. She teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Pennsylvania. Visit www.beth-kephart.blogspot.com.