Projects in Development
Dalmatia, 15th century
Picture the historic twilight of a shadowy settlement among cabbage and potato fields where a scarecrow—one that pointed alarmingly this way and that all afternoon—stays itself in the evening when the wind dies down, its gaze a drowned man’s. Across the road in the canteen, the last of a dead almond tree dies down in the stove just as the sacristan, one of the last hold-outs, shuffles in for a drink. A late one-for-the-road. He carries, balanced on one hip like a toddler, a carved and painted wood figure of Santa Lucia. The saint of sight is depicted holding out a plate of eyeballs that peer into the webbed dark of the future. The eyeballs are mother-of-pearl and watery.
The invaders approached from the east in numbers so great they pushed the hills apart. Or so reported the ragman in a greasy coat, repacking his handcart in front of the church. The sacristan stood listening as the man rabbited on about the ferocity of the soldiers—including one that had stuffed feathers into a widow as if she were a bed—and felt his asking prices soften for the last of the altar vessels, a missal stand, and a small round box for carrying the Blessed Sacrament to the sick.
The ragman told him the first sign attack was imminent would be the susurrous sound a hot wind makes over the top of summer grass. As it builds, as they near, the sound can be discerned to be children’s voices singing. Those are the captured children who parade in advance of the elite horsemen; they sing the love songs of Baq’I, The Lawgiver’s favorite poet, and wear rubicund robes. Pack animals follow a day behind—some with heads on both ends—and a day behind them, women of great beauty with unearthly names like The Berry of Youth, Twice-Blooming Tulip, Whirling Storm; they lounge in ornate, covered litters carried by bearers and drink ichor from solid gold goblets. With his cart piled so high, the ragman wonders whether he’ll need an ox to lift him to the next town.
By the time he gets there, the sacristan will already be on the river and rowing frantically just ahead of the invaders who drink up the river behind him. He has to pull hard against the rip sucking him back. The wood saint stands propped in the bow with a scarf tied over her eyes like a fire-spooked horse. The plated eyeballs, however, miss nothing—not the last spring rain, not the gulls fishing the dun seashore, not the unseaworthy boat crossing the unsafe sea.
Eventually the sacristan, with a stone in his shoe, carries the blindfolded saint under his arm up the grim mountainside, vamping on the lines of the Te Deum:
The glorious company of stones: praise thee.
The goodly fellowship of more stones: praise thee.
The noble army of still more stones: praise thee.
Coming around a balk, he suddenly sees it, and whips off the saint’s blindfold to show her too: the ragged crest of a mountain the morning sun lights up like a rooster’s comb.
Hours after, the joke a man didn’t get at first slaps him in the face. He doubles over in the middle of the empty street, choking on the ludicrous words from the punch line, which splutter out a couple at a time. Tears course down his face and he sucks air between convulsive belly laughs.
Little fazes the centuries-old sobriety of stone doorways. They remain stolid like ancient veterans stood at attention in a military parade. But wood doors show the battles. Over time, rails and stiles bow; joints loosen; wrought iron nails, some old enough to have ornamental heads, shear off. People try to keep them up; they make small improvements from time to time, epoxying some rot or oiling a squeak.
Sometimes, they’re taken off the hinges, scraped down and freshly painted with colors that hide the scars. Others are dressed up with new bronze knockers, as are the two blue doors standing opposite on the street where the man finds himself seized with fits of hysterics.
One of the knockers is a ball-in-hand—the ball the size of a lemon that the petrified fingers show no signs of trying to grip. The knocker opposite is the smooth face of a young man, his expression one of classical equanimity and middle-distance stare. The lost unseen body would be nude and stand twisting away. He gazes across at the severed hand he would like to regain the use of long enough to pitch a fireball high into the air above the street where, at long last, the laughing man gets ahold of himself, wipes his eyes until his breath returns and he can light a cigarette for the walk to his mother’s where he will borrow more money.
An abandoned wife keeps the brass hardware on shutters polished to a shine. All afternoon when the louvers are closed against the heat and light, the hooks dangle inside the room like inverted question marks at the top of Spanish questions left hanging—questions about limits reached. The hooks become as much a part of the décor as the crucifix over the bed, which shows the same fine graze lines from years of buffing. The shutters open only to the fresh morning air. Then, it’s all she can do in a cotton nightdress to lean half way out and grope blindly for the corroded eyes, which are outside her realm.
On the street below, a young mother, expecting again, parades her baby who is learning to walk. They poke along, the manipulator dandling her marionette by his arms. He stumbles forward, head tilted back, unable to take his eyes off her face, while she coos to watch where he’s going and calls him her star boy. Each fleshy leg seems so heavy, almost too much to lift. Some steps make no forward progress at all; his tiny white shoe comes down on the same cobble from which he lifted it with so much effort. Each step ends firmly planted, as if he were stomping on a rolling coin.
The woman latching open the shutter doesn’t notice them below at this moment when her curtains fill with air like sails, her nightgown gleams, and her silver hair—not yet tied up for the day—blows like a model’s. Neither does the young mother, sweeping her child up into her arms, notice the woman leaning out her window who looks like a waste-up figurehead on the prow of a ship.