Beatrice at Dante
As soon as he saw them, the barman called, “Ciao, professoressa! How’s the poetry these days? Ciao, Byron!” It seemed that inside the bar, at least, Mirella was both known and liked. Polly was especially surprised to have the cat so welcome at this establishment, whose walls were filled with posters of quotations from Dante’s Divine Comedy.
“And whom do we have here? A young niece of yours, professoressa?” Finally someone—besides Mirella’s mean landlord—who didn’t already know about Polly before she’d been introduced.
“Signor Dante, this is Polly. She’s from America. The poor girl is staying with Minou Meringue for the summer.”
“Oh she’ll be fine there; don’t worry. Mme Meringue is a nice enough lady—if you’re not a Roma, or a street merchant, or. . . .”
“Or a little defiant of expectations,” Mirella finished the sentence for him.
“That’s a good description. I like it—it’s classy, like you, Mirella. And now what can I get for you ladies? It’s on the house to welcome our American visitor. Will you each have a grilled-egg-and-cheese panino?” To a young barista he said, “Laura, get a saucer of cream for Byron, will you?” Knowing that in little more than an hour she’d be sitting down to cena with Mme Meringue, Polly reluctantly declined the panino.
When they had taken their tea and Mirella’s sandwich to a table and Byron had settled underneath with his special treat, Mirella said to Polly, “This is one of my almost-favorite places in Pisa.
“My favorite place is obviously the Leaning Tower, but I have several co-almost-favorites. First is the tiny balcony outside my kitchen—lots of red geraniums out there, too, and purple bougainvillea; I don’t hold with purple and red being clashing colors. I have only just enough room on the balcony for my flowers and a tiny glider. I sit there, gliding back and forth and watching the sky spread evening across the city. A man on my street plays the piano. He always plays behind closed shutters, but I know who it is because I overheard someone who pointed to him and said, ‘That’s the man who plays so beautifully.’ From my balcony, I can hear the arpeggios of ‘Musetta’s Waltz’ and pieces like that. He loves Puccini best; I can tell; I love Puccini best, too.” If she hadn’t been unwilling to interrupt, Polly would have said that Puccini was also her favorite. “When my pianist plays his opera arias, the vocal parts sing through the keys.”
With a distant look in her eyes, Mirella stood. Byron took his cue, as well, and walked out from beneath the table to stand beside her. The other patrons turned to listen and watch as Mirella began: “Walking in Pisa, I am the phantom girl in the Leaning Tower grown old, but not beyond redemption. I am a temporarily embodied spirit, still barely visible, visiting the places of the heart.
“From behind a shuttered window comes piano music. As I listen, I dream your music and I are within my home: in time I rise and, passing through the cool white kitchen, step onto the balcony, fragrant in the early evening with the bitter scent of geraniums, their colors sweetness to the eyes as your melodies are to my ears, my soul and mind.
“To my right is the graceful Arno; the hills toward Florence fade to silhouettes in the sunset sky. And your music holds me to the balcony when I would otherwise float among the scenes and vapors, the soft evening sighs of the city.”
The patrons applauded as Mirella and Byron sat down again. “Beautiful, just beautiful, Mirella,” called a grandfatherly man.
“Brava, brava!” agreed a young woman holding a toddler on her lap.
“Bis, professoressa!” a handsome man in a business suit cheered, calling for an encore.
Polly glanced at Mirella’s face and saw joy in her eyes. “These people love you. Why don’t you always perform here where people like hearing what you recite? That was so pretty just now. It was your composition, too, I think?”
Mirella nodded but didn’t answer Polly’s other question for several seconds. Finally she said, “I’d like to recite here all the time. It’s nice to be welcomed instead of scorned, but these patrons already love literature and the world of ideas. That’s why this is their regular bar. Signor Dante holds book discussions one night a week, and sometimes poets give readings here. It’s others I need to reach.”
“But surely new customers come in from time to time, and you’d become famous for your recitations, especially your own compositions. You’d be the star attraction. This could be your literary salon!”
“Signorina Polly, you paint a pretty picture, but I think I would feel limited here, just waiting for someone new to wander in and stay to listen. The regulars already hear me plenty. I’ll give it some more thought, though. The idea has certainly crossed my mind, but it sounds too easy. Let’s see if Sofia has any luck for me. Teaching eager young people would always make me feel my days matter.”
The trio sat silently, the two humans sipping their tea, Mirella finishing her sandwich, and Byron still making small lapping noises under the table. Outside the Borgo Stretto swirled with the early evening passeggiata—the nightly outing for pedestrians, bicyclists, and riders steering their motorini around the tourists. Well-dressed Pisans mingled, called to friends, cut their bella figura—wearing their style and good looks with pride—and streamed on to leave space for the next wave of revving motors, exuberant youth, and forceful age.
Eventually Mirella said quietly, “Shelley once lived upstairs in a palazzo at the end of the Borgo Stretto, and he looked down on a passeggiata like this one. It was the tradition then, too. Perhaps it brought to mind a skylark, the West Wind, and the consolation of solitude within the company of many. Beyond the Borgo Stretto, as for us, the tower held itself outside gravity’s grasp, leaning toward the soaring earth of marble mountains.”
“You are a great artist, too, Mirella.”
“Thank you, my dear.”
“I need to go now to get to cena on time. May I come visit with you again?”
“I will expect it. Perhaps you and Sofia and Flora will stop by to see me in my tower. Come, Byron; we also need to be getting home.”
Polly walked with Mirella and Byron as far as the Piazza Vettovaglie. The fruit and vegetable sellers in the piazza were chatting with their friends at the neighboring stands as they closed them for the evening. A teenaged boy with a guitar sat on a wall by the square, strumming and singing in a rough, earnest voice—obviously admired by the three girls sitting at his feet. “Silly girls,” Polly said to herself as she returned to the Borgo Stretto and turned toward the bridge and home. She contrasted the girls’ fawning look with the love in Mirella’s face when she’d spoken of her lost Lorenzo.