To Be A Songbird
To Be a Song Bird
“In clocks that are wise, they make
no sense until they have questioned their senses.”
Amalfi lay on the western cliffs of Italy, a several hour train ride south of Rome. At the center of the town is a looming, old, but dignified cathedral in front a large plaza strewn with little cafes and wagons full of merchandise. And there the citizens bustle with buretta, bright clothing, and dark and handsome young men on the prowl for naïve and wealthy tourists.
A young American lady and gentleman enter the square with a flight of sensations that move with each stride. Italy was so fantastic in the white heat of summer. One could taste the sea salt on one’s lips; an old bell still kept Mediterranean time; and the water was blue, blue, blue as far as the eye could see; there, where the buildings had gaps in their rough terra cotta.
The two sat and had gelatos and soaked up the scene liquid and dense with the scent of fresh fruit coming from a street vendor beside them. The afternoon felt perfect, and the evening would bring strange, new trade.
The woman lazily shopped for exotic sarongs and antique jewelry while the man took pictures of the landscape, old tea-sets on chalk tables, attempting over-exposed photos, moving almost like a child leaning over a railing.
“Do you like this?” asked the woman to the man when had returned from exploring. She held up a strangely knit shawl.
“It’s very nice,” said the man.
“I think it might be good for a cool Boston evening.”
“It looks good for something.”
“What do you mean?’ she smiled coyly. The man just smiled back only to continue his browsing.
The bargainers were good, from what they could understand. Lire held little value at the time so they were desperate but poker-faced. Even the elderly made their share, especially the crones. The two would have bought anything anyways. After all, who knew when they would be in Europe again?
The town was quaint which meant it would be a little dirty, slightly small, and full of dust. Kathy sneezed.
“Thank you,” she said as she wiped her nose on her shirt. Her eyes were getting a little watery so they decided to head back to the hotel and have a glass of wine. It was only a few blocks away and up a hill.
The sweat stunk their cottons as they climbed. Some cypress wove up their right. The sea wind soon hit their limbs when they reached the top. They were high above the rooftops and could see nothing but their stark hotel, the sky, and the sea. Even in their tire they could appreciate something so sacred and beautiful. The vista was incomparable.
But soon they felt the air conditioning and soothing kiss of shade.
“Oh my God, Jim. The humidity!”
“I know,” Jim replied, “I’m almost soaked to the bone.” He had gotten a good workout himself. He felt so alive there. There was no better. He smiled and reminded himself to keep his memory sharp and his senses clean. It was much better that way. Strange things were afoot with every twist of their vacation. And they had all captured him. Excitement wasordinary. And his job at home never once entered his mind. It slept by a different world.
Something kick-started his thought and Jim spoke on a whim. “Hey, let’s have a glass of wine later. We should get a swim in before dinner.”
They nodded to each other and scurried down the hallway. After they had entered the room they put their suits on and sized themselves up in the mirror. They were tan for being a week overseas. Jim stood behind Kathy and kissed her shoulder blades. She demurred and slid his wrists into her hands and kissed him on the mouth.
“Okay, honey,” whispering into his ear. “We’ll be late.”
Some decaying limestone steps zigzagged down the cliff of the hotel. The couple walked carefully down them led by an old guide with feline agility. The wind raised to a strong breeze on their limbs, but they pressed on, the water becoming more aqua with each glance.
“Be careful, honey, and try not to look down so much,” Jim said in earnest.
He thought perhaps Kathy was too young to stare it right in the face, her love and her enemy, with its aura blinking in all its enigmatic qualities. It can be so mean and deceiving, even if taught right. He wondered what it would be like being a young lady of twenty-four for a moment.
She had straight blonde hair that she had tied in a bun for the swim. It had highlights of afternoon sun flickering off it as if he were looking through an eyeglass. Her body was young and firm to the point of being athletic, all strung into a hot peach bikini. She was intelligent to the point of almost being no good and had bright copper eyes. She walked a fine line with poise, elegance, and spirit. She had something different on him though. She drunk his well, and the sky filled it again.
Jim loved because he dared to live. He believed death came anew, no part of him would go, just to other shapes and sizes. But Kathy seemed to drink whenever there was a sign of magic or metaphysics in the air. He didn’t understand this, and he loved her for it.Some menwait for lives to find it and let it grow.
They arrived on the lowest slab of rock after what seemed like an hour. It really only took ten minutes. It was once used as a measuring platform. The drop was a sheer vertical and well over a hundred feet high.
They had learned from the guide that it was almost high tide and that they should stay close. The current was very strong.
As they began their dip in the water it felt warm and consuming. It was almost as if they were swimming in a cool sauna. The salt was fresh with a touch of bitter foam stroking the very bottom of the cliff and some rocks were scattered about after centuries of erosion. The lovers splashed in the atmosphere for a while, childlike and refusing to define themselves, but asking questions. It’s so easy to float when you’re two.
Kathy and Jim noticed a group of young men swimming by the bottom aligned in a perfect circle that seethed in radius like a Man of War.
“What are those boys doing?” Kathy asked the older, but young-moving guide. He was hidden behind a tan mustache. Then with a hint of Italian he said,
“Those young men are a prayer circle.”
“A prayer circle?”
“”Yes. They are a door and hope for, how would you say in your tongue? ‘The Leap’.”
Jim felt something oddly familiar. Then the guide continued.
“Even in Amalfi we have our traditions. We are full of lore, and we respect it. They say when a boy is ready to become a man, he must prove to others that he has made his journey by taking a ‘leap of faith’ from the ‘Terreto’. It is a special title meaning a kind of throne.”
That sounds terrifying,” said Kathy.
“Amazing.” Jim reacted intensely.
“Someone could be killed by dropping from such a distance. The water would be rock-hard,” said Kathy.
“It’s alright, Seniora. Most fall safely through the water, and deep too.”
“Doesn’t sound quite sane, does it, honey?” She looked at Jim.
“Oh, stop it. You know that sounds like a silly story.”
“It is truth, Seniora, “ said the old guide through honest, azure eyes.
“And who or how can one know if one will pass the test?” Jim asked.
“One knows or one doesn’t.” Then the guide looked down as if he were in prayer. “”If not, one comes back to try another day.”
Kathy was visibly confused.
Again there was an awkward silence.
“Pardon me, Senior, but did you try the ‘Terreto’?” asked Jim with smoothness and caution.
“A long time ago.”
“You can’t be serious,” said Kathy.
“Shh. Honey, we’re guests.”
“I understand you. It is safe at high tide on the full moon. The boy does not jump from the top, but from that stone over there.” The guide pointed at a large rock that rested about eighty feet near the bottom. It had a purple color and projected slightly from the drop. The guide continued.
“I didn’t see many places when I was a boy. But I was a fisherman. And I knew it well.” He scratched his forehead. “Many are scared of what a soul does to be, and it can hurt to make a change. But eggs are to be songbirds. And air runs free.”
Kathy didn’t want any more of his nonsense and motioned for Jim to quit their swim with a jerk of her head.
Jim was fascinated with the ritual and didn’t respond at first. Instead he felt inside how deep he plunged after hitting the water’s edge. Jim was alive in an answerless mystery. What a pity not to think you have to swim hard to keep the circle going. We’re so well equipped for happiness we share the world we live in.
And reality fluttered in like a leafbecause before he knew it, he was halfway up the cliff’s staircase, Kathy climbing steadily. They were thinking about how much natives walk every day. They were fit and they were lean.
Their room was well equipped. It was an expensive hotel, but they were told by many of their friends that this part of Italy was worth seeing. Tides of air rushed through their windows which faced to the West. A small patio jut towards the ocean guarded by an iron railing. Inside there were several pictures of still-life’s and landscapes hanging on the walls, rough and white as limestone. Bureaus, seats, desks, and tables had been situated around a queen-size bed, also hard as rock. Rarely did their bedrooms have such indigenous class and accommodation. They were near to the chime of the bell-tower, swinging on dependable hours. And the room had a very potent and positive vibration, an entity put to the test every day.
“There now, honey,” Kathy winded as usual. “It’s nice to be indoors again.”
“I do admit it feels good. I need to dry myself off and relax a little. It’s really been a taxing day.”
“But Amalfi’s beautiful though, isn’t it? I’m so glad we came. It sure beats San Remo.”
“Yeah, I did see a cockroach there, no doubt about it.” He paused, looking down at his bare feet. “You know, Europe has a wonderful history, but it keeps creeping up on me.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“This place is rich with spirits as much as culture.” Jim dried himself as he paced the room, eyeing and stuck in deep thought. “I know it seems odd at the moment, but I want to know what it was like being rallied by Churchill during the second War. The conditions must have been awful. Yet they were in the presence of a great man. I’ve never known a great man before, perhaps true ones, but not great. I suppose that’s good enough.”
“You’re a good one, honey.” She kissed him on the cheek. “ Now let’s relax and have some wine.”
Jim eased his brow and sighed. “Sounds good.”
The two sat down at a small, sparse, cloth table with a view of the Mediterranean and ordered a bottle of merlot from the sommelier. The sun had hit the horizon in a boisterous red.
“Oh honey, aren’t you excited to see Florence?” Kathy asked.
“I am. I’m especially curious to see all that the Piazza del Duomo has to offer: the bronze doors of The Baptistery; and across, the gigantic cathedral with its stained glass windows; and the Uffizi. I love Michelangelo.”
“That art history class you took in college really stirred you up, “ she chuckled.
“Well, I suppose we’re getting some of the best Italy has to offer by seeing the rural and urban areas, just like I planned.”
“Yes, you’re right, sweetie.” Jim smiled.
Their wine had arrived and they savored it with each sip. They had toasted to themselves and to the trip. They would only be in Europe another week or so. Jim had to return to his law practice while Kathy dithered at home concocting new ideas for free-lance writing. She was an enigma.
When Kathy was nine her mother had died of cancer and her father had used his money as a substitute for his presence. Kathy thought him a bastard. Yet she had turned into a lovely woman with a purpose that wavered. When she had her mind set on something she was good.
Jim however had been raised well in a wealthy family and nurturing background. He sent postcards to his mother almost twice a day on their trip. He was a pillar that Kathy leaned on, and they fit well, taught each other well, made love well.
They ate a fine dinner as night fixed its pall. It was a humid evening with a dead breeze and light conversation. Then…
“Kathy I’m in love with you.”
“Jim, please,” Kathy replied.
“When I first saw you crying from that fight you had with your father outside the Tremont Cafe I simply knew I needed to help you. Somehow I could empathize. I opened your car door and your ears were tucked like a Lab. The feeling inside me was innate. I wanted you to step out of your seat and hold you, remind you of the flower that you are. Somehow I knew you would be my wife someday.”
“Jim!” she said louder, half in terror, half in delight.
“Honey, I want to be there for you forever. And I want you to help steer my half. I need you because you’ve already been fixing me. And our souls… our souls…. Please be my wife. Kathy, will you marry me?”
Jim didn’t know it, but he was already on one knee brandishing a diamond ring. He felt like an ass, but it seemed to him the perfect time and spot to propose. He had planned for a long time to do it somewhere. A wave of panic swept over him. He had been terrified she would reject him, and ruin the entire trip as well.
“Jim,” she said.
Kathy thought about what a lovely man he was. He worked so hard at everything he did, and yet his actions seemed effortless. The way he conducted himself with others and the way he embraced life boggled her. She couldn’t imagine going through life without him. He was so wise for a man his age. He was perfect, she thought to herself.
And Kathy was all jarred at once. For a moment she forgot where and who she was. Inside, the ristorante whirred as she felt a hollowness in her stomach. She needed him as much as she needed to know herself, love it without condition, and feel the respite one may have to be the strength to climb blind heights, savor every drop above without dare.
“Yes? You said, yes! Come here, honey.”
She flopped into his grasp as he melted out of mold. The ring was a little tight on her finger, but so was his hold on her. The rest of the room was unheard.
They made love outside on the patio of their hotel room. The texture of the surface was hard but they didn’t feel a thing, just each other. Time had no meaning and the heat of their bodies were all they felt. In another dimension they had found something pure and irrefutably natural beating as the sun does days. Kathy so sound and lithe wrenched a thought for a moment, and then moved robotically. The morning brought their staid.
An aquatic warbler captured Kathy’s ear as she lay on the patio. Jim was asleep beside her thinking unknown things. A lovely man, she thought, such a lovely man.
The authorities searched over three weeks for Kathy and found nothing. Each night the sun went down and each night Jim died. One drop collected in his heart. The current gasped one last breath, and slung itself out to sea.
-Michael F. Head (5/7/12)