Mirella Then and Now
Polly was curious to find out what Mirella would recite this time, so she waited before ascending the San Michele in Borgo steps. But Polly didn’t have to wait long before Mirella rose, followed immediately by Byron, who stood proudly beside his human as she began to speak in her stage voice:
The Arno carries silence to its mouth
Just as summer carries gold;
Flocks of birds cross the river mouth
And bathe their wings in the sea.
Polly heard softly in her ear—proving again that Sofia could be discreet if she chose—“That’s from a poem by Gabriele d’Annunzio. It’s about Pisa, too, the Marina of Pisa, anyway.”
“Who’s Gabriele d’Annunzio?” Polly whispered back but received no answer. The air around her already lacked Sofia’s special energy.
Mirella finished her poem, and she and Byron sat back down. She looked much more cheerful today, in keeping with the more peaceful tone of the poem she had chosen.
It was nice, now that Polly thought about it more, to hear poetry recited in the open air.
Mirella rested in her spot on the church steps and watched the people pass. As Polly began climbing toward her, she avoided looking at Mirella but rather stared down at her own feet. She felt the way she would if she were walking into someone’s house uninvited. When she finally did look up and stop near the cat and woman, Byron said, “Meow,” in a surprised tone of voice—not menacing or showing fright, but simply sounding surprised. Apparently folks who passed them on the steps usually hurried on into the church, as Polly herself had seen people doing.
“Hello, professoressa; I’m Polly. I’m a friend of Sofia’s. She suggested I come visit. Am I interrupting you?”
“Not at all, and call me Mirella; even my students did,” Mirella answered in a friendly, lively manner. “Sofia told me about you. You’re in Pisa for the summer, studying Italian while your parents are in Naples.”
“Yes, they thought I might enjoy a summer on my own.”
“You speak Italian quite well already, young woman. That’s unusual for an American girl—Sofia’s told me you’re American, but I would have guessed that anyway by looking at you. Wouldn’t you like to sit down?”
Sitting down next to Byron, Polly asked, “Why would you have known I’m American? That happened yesterday, too, when I went into a store to buy mineral water. The man spoke to me in English before I even opened my mouth!”
“It’s the way you carry yourself—so confident yet shy at the same time. I can’t really explain it; the reason sounds contradictory, but it’s true, and I’m nearly always right. Italians are confident and not shy. English people are shy and not so confident. Sometimes I’m wrong. I’m not judging people, mind you, and each land has millions of variations—one for every person who lives there—but I get these little impressions. You were confident but shy just now in coming to sit next to me—a brave move because pretty much everyone thinks I’m crazy, but Sofia must have told you I’m not really crazy, just different.”
“You don’t sound at all crazy now.”
Polly tried to answer carefully but honestly: “I love poetry—I’ve heard a little about Dante and Shelley, and hearing poetry outdoors is nice, but when you recite in such a big voice as you were doing, that’s a little unusual.”
“Lots of things are unusual. Unusual can be interesting. How did you meet Sofia?” Mirella shifted on her step so that she was looking squarely at Polly.
“She spoke to me when I was visiting the Leaning Tower with my parents. Then I met her there again that evening.”
“What did you think when she first spoke to you?”
“I couldn’t believe what was happening! I always suspected there were people like Sofia around, but I didn’t expect to be holding a conversation with anyone like her.”
“And now what do you think?”
“She’s a little wild, and sometimes she’s so bossy, but I do like her. If I told my friends back in New York about her, they’d think I was crazy.”
“Yes, people judge other people as crazy for all sorts of incorrect reasons.”
Polly had not missed the irony in Mirella’s voice. “Oh. I’m sorry.”
“If you hadn’t met Sofia yourself but heard me talking to her or about her, you’d add that to your list of reasons why I must be crazy—right?”
“I’m sorry,” Polly repeated.
“No need to apologize, just a point worth grasping.” Polly, Mirella, and Byron all passed a quiet moment watching a young man on a motorbike swerve around a family of tourists. “More Americans,” said Mirella. “See how the man holds himself proudly, but they’re looking for the Leaning Tower and can’t get up the nerve to stop someone for directions. There, he’s pulled out his map.”
Mirella continued, “But I have the nerve to ask you, why did you agree to come see me?”
“I hope you don’t mind. As I said, Sofia suggested it, but I really did want to meet you. I do love poetry—and lots of other literature, too—and I knew you were a professor. As far as Sofia’s concerned, she has some sort of mission for me to help her with, even though she hasn’t really explained where I come in. She has three people she wanted me to get to know, and you’re one of them, along with a Roma girl, Flora, and a boy from Nigeria named Charles. I also thought meeting you might help me figure out what Sofia has in mind for me. I like her, but I’m a little confused by her, too.”
“Sofia’s headstrong. She’s always been headstrong, and we go way back, believe me. But she’s a good girl. She means well. To tell you the truth, we’re both after the same thing. We both want to protect our Pisa. Sofia tells me you’re staying with Mme Meringue. She, too, is someone with the same goal—protecting Pisa—but she thinks the way to do it is to get rid of the likes of Flora and me, and Charles if he’s not working for her.”
“You sound so nice and interesting. Why don’t you live a more ordinary life so that people wouldn’t say things about you?”
“They don’t really talk about me as much as you might think. Mostly I’m invisible, or people pretend I am. And I have a pretty good life. Sofia may have told you, I live in an old tower just a few blocks from here. Pisa has lots of old square towers, not just the famous round one. Wealthy people incorporated most of them into their palazzi—their homes—during the Renaissance, so you have to be observant to notice them. They usually made the roof lines of the houses level with the tops of the square towers, but mine is still a tower. It’s attached to a lower building on one side, but it’s independent and strong.”
“Like you,” Polly said impulsively.
“Yes, I suppose,” Mirella said without conceit in her voice. “My tower is very pretty. It’s not fancy and frilly like Sofia’s, but it’s very suitable for me. It was built even before the Leaning Tower, and my tower also has lovely bells. I remember they were rung every single day when I was a girl. I have pretty curtains at the windows and a nice, comfortable chair in my little living room where I can look out on the street below and watch the university students coming and going and see the people eating at the trattoria on the corner. They have very good food there.
“One day I got all dressed up and pulled my hair back into a bun. I wore a skirt and sweater I hadn’t worn since I taught literature at the university. There’s no point in wearing something as good as that outfit every single day, when I’m not going anywhere special, just to the church steps to recite for people, but at the university they kind of expected you to look nice, especially if you’re a woman. Anyway, I ate at the restaurant—just a simple pasta and marinated eggplant—but no one recognized me. They thought I was a dignified woman from somewhere else, a professor in Pisa for a program at the university. Well, I am a professor and I am dignified, even if people occasionally talk about me as if I had two heads.”
“Do you miss teaching?”
“Not teaching my classes anymore makes me very sad. I don’t understand why they asked me to leave. I didn’t cause any problems, and I know a lot about all sorts of great writers; everyone agrees that I do, even the rettore—president—who fired me.
“The only thing he objected to—the only thing anyone objected to—was such a little thing, almost like firing me for not liking my name. After all, I really was Beatrice. There’s no question. Why should I doubt what I know? Why should others doubt me?”
Polly felt as if she were running trying to keep up with Mirella’s train of thought. Who—and when—was Mirella talking about?
“My full name was Beatrice Portinari, and I lived in Florence. By then, Pisa wasn’t doing too well, and even though Sofia and I had been neighbors back in Pisa’s heyday, I was willing to put up with Florence during my short life as Beatrice for the sake of inspiring my talented Dante Alighieri. I call him “my Dante” even though I never really did get to know him and was as surprised as anything to come upon his Divine Comedy in this life. Imagine my shock at discovering what an influence I’d had on him! It had been my desire, but who would have thought I’d succeeded so well?”
“You knew Sofia back in the 12th century? And what’s this about Dante? I’ve never actually read him. I just know he wrote a really long poem about hell. Who’s Beatrice?”
“Beatrice was—or rather, I was—Dante’s beloved from afar, his muse, and his guide in heaven in The Divine Comedy. The poem’s about purgatory and heaven, too, not just hell.”
“I see,” said Polly, who didn’t. “You were Beatrice, and now you’re Mirella.”
“Oh I didn’t come here directly. I wouldn’t know as much as I do if that had happened. Most of it’s a blur—just a few memories of this life or that—but I’m also pretty clear on the time right before now because I was so happy then.”
“Who were you?”
“I was myself, of course, but with different details. I lived in Pisa’s rural countryside in a farmhouse with a big oak door that had red bougainvillea growing all around it and drooping over the top so that sometimes the vine got caught in the door.” Polly gave up hope of getting clearer explanations for now, so she tried to tune up her concentration to picture the details as Mirella described them.
Mirella’s expression turned dreamy. “Sometimes in the early morning, I’d sit on a stone bench near the house and hope that my Lorenzo—he had such beautiful blue eyes—and his dog, Giallo, would walk up the long dirt drive. Of all the friends I’ve ever known, I loved Lorenzo most. I still look for him. He must be here again, too, somewhere. On the mornings when our chores allowed, Lorenzo and I sat together on the bench until time for school. The coolness of the stone felt soothing; it was so familiar. We gazed over the fields and olive trees and talked about the day ahead, our families, and the neighbors on the surrounding farms.”
“When was this?” Polly asked before she caught herself.
Mirella merely glanced at her before continuing, “My uncle Giuseppe sang at family dinners on summer evenings after the sun set beyond the olive grove. This zio of mine loved opera and introduced Lorenzo and me to tenor arias sung by Tito Schipa and recorded on old 78s—they were just normal then. A few years later, zio Giuseppe brought us with him to the Teatro Verdi; he had a small role in La Bohème. Together, Lorenzo and I climbed the Leaning Tower.”
“That life sounds lovely.”
“It was. It was.”
Mirella looked a little bit as if she might start crying over her lost past, so Polly asked, “What’s it like living in a tower?”
Mirella snapped back into the present. “I’ve decorated it just the way I like. I love frilly things—lots of lace, silk, and fringe. You’d think someone with my tastes would wear flouncy skirts and ruffled blouses, but I have a practical streak, too. And anyway, I bought all my nicest things when I was teaching classes, not just teaching as I am now, and needed to look professional.
“My bedroom is pink, with purple accents. My dear mother loved purple the way I do, and the bedspread was hers. She did all the embroidery on it—scenes of Pisa when it was a great port, during Sofia’s time, you know. I remember those days, too, though not nearly so well as Sofia does. Coming back tends to obscure the times that came before—even for someone with an excellent memory like mine.”
Mirella talked as if she hadn’t had a chance to share what was on her mind for months. She was like a tipped bucket that had been filled to the brim with words. “I love Pisa so much. Why would I live here if I didn’t, especially after all the trouble I’ve had here over my past—I ask you, why should I be punished for having a good memory? Everyone else has the same sort of past. People just don’t remember, that’s all. I’ve been asked why it is I only remember being someone famous, but that’s not true; I remember being some quite ordinary folks, too, although they weren’t ordinary to me, of course. My life with Lorenzo was ordinary, but it was beautiful. It was so short,” she added, “a blink in time.”
Mirella rallied again from her reflective mood. “I forgot to tell you about my kitchen. That’s the first of the three rooms in my tower—one on each floor: the kitchen, then the living room, and finally the bedroom. There’s also a little bathroom on that floor, of course. My kitchen is white—yes, white. I want lots of color elsewhere but only white in my kitchen, except for plenty of flowers—red geraniums are my favorite—plus Tuscan ceramics with blue backgrounds and yellow sunflowers. Sunflowers are the symbol of faithfulness; I am faithful to my Pisa. I have white cabinets, only white cabinets.”
“It sounds very pretty. I’d like to see it.”
“You will,” Mirella said with assurance.
“I’d like to know more about why you and Sofia love Pisa so much. It’s great here, but why is it so much better than other cities?”
“I will tell you, but not now. Won’t your afternoon class be starting?”
Polly had lost track of the time.
“Can you come see me again this evening before your cena with Minou? I’ll be here. I might even be at the Bar Allegro when you meet the others this afternoon right after your class, but we have more to talk about, just you and me, here on the church steps.”
Hurrying, Polly had reached the river when a big voice said in her ear, “See, she’s not really crazy at all, is she!” This time Polly didn’t even jump.
“I like her,” she said. “She’d be a big improvement over some of the teachers I’ve had. I was hoping you’d turn up. Will you please, please, please tell me what you have in mind for me? I’ve met everyone now. How long do I have to wait to learn what I’m supposed to be doing?”
“You’re doing everything you need to do. Just try to relax. You Americans are so impatient! Did Mirella tell you her landlord is evicting her? See, I was good; I wasn’t eavesdropping.”
“No, she didn’t tell me. How terrible! How is that possible? She loves her tower so much; it would be a sin to make her leave. Is she behind on her rent?” Polly forgot about the need to get to class.
“Not at all. When she was a professor, she saved enough to manage her simple life now. Mirella’s a perfect tenant—quiet, keeps everything nice. Her landlord just doesn’t want a woman with the reputation for being strange living in his property. He said that to her face. Talk about mean! He said he doesn’t want people gossiping that he’s running some sort of asylum. He’s given her until the end of July to move out.”
“Did someone complain or something?”
“No! Everyone likes Mirella—except for the uptight people who think everybody else has to be just as boring and ignorant as they are.”
“We have to do something!” said Polly.
“Exactly,” said Sofia as if Polly had been unusually thick. “This is one place where you come in. As I said, I’ll explain all about it, when the time is right. Don’t forget to meet me at the bar later, after your class. The others will be there, too.”
Mirella also had mentioned “the others.” Polly didn’t bother to ask who “the others” were, figuring as she had before that they’d be Flora and Charles. And she didn’t want to give Sofia another chance not to answer one of her questions. “See you then,” she said.
“If not before.”
After Sofia’s giggle, Polly realized she was once again alone. Only then did she remember she was supposed to be hurrying.