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Grandine is the Italian Word for Hail

By Stephen Graf
Published in ART TIMES March 2014

The first thing I noticed about her wasn’t that she was beautiful, although she was—very. Seated in the final pew of Santa Croce Church alongside a row of flickering votive candles, she seemed somehow sacred, as though the church itself had given birth to her like Athena springing full-grown from Zeus’s head. Spiraling overhead hung a frescoed ceiling, where half a million heartfelt prayers had floated across the centuries.

It wasn’t her shimmering, black hair, cascading in ringlets around her tanned shoulders, nor was it the delicately sculpted lines of her face that caught my eye. No, it was her book, which initially captured my attention. Machiavelli’s stony visage stared disapprovingly at her from the icy depths of his sepulcher just a few steps away, but she was oblivious. Right there, in Santa Croce church, in the shadows of Dante’s vacant tomb, she sat reading a book. And it wasn’t the Good Book, either.

The scent of melted wax and incense burned in my nostrils as I stood frozen in the aisle, like Lot’s wife watching Sodom ignite. From the massive, stone pillars that lined the aisle, marble cherubs hid their faces in shame at being revealed for the impostors they were. I realized then that I knew her already, that I’d felt the warmth of her soft skin and had tasted her full, red lips countless times over a thousand solitary days and a thousand interminable nights.

Just then, the bells sang out five times from the steeple. Moments later, the caretaker began rolling down the center aisle, sweeping sightseers and worshippers alike into Florence’s teeming streets. A tour group made up of retirees from Wisconsin shoved their way toward the door, tossing us together on a wave of bodies. Our eyes met as she was stashing the book in her handbag. From somewhere miles away, I heard my voice ask: “What’re you reading?”

Her smile was sweet and just a little sad, like a portrait of the Madonna holding baby Jesus. She replied: “Non parlo l’inglese.”

Outside, pregnant, coal black clouds had turned the sweltering August afternoon somber. The vendors who lined the Piazza Santa Croce were scurrying to pack in their stands before the storm hit. An ominous wind tore down the near-deserted square, rattling a canvas banner that hung from the front of a nearby gallery. On the steps of the church, I glanced over my shoulder and caught sight of a stone gargoyle glowering down at me from the eaves. She grabbed my elbow and squeezed it, saying: “Andiamo!”

Arm-in-arm, we traversed the square. Gusts of wind ruffled her white, silk skirt, forcing her to use her free hand to hold it down. We turned onto the Lugarno Delle Grazie and headed toward the Ponte Vecchio. Her wooden heels clattered on the cobblestone as we wordlessly passed rows of solemn gift stores. From within their protective cocoons, merchants and customers alike peered out blankly at us.

Out of the west, a peel of thunder boomed across the seamless skyline. Two teen-aged, Italian boys roared past on motor scooters, forcing us to leap onto the sidewalk. To our left, the Arno River churned, choppy and brown.

When we reached the Ponte Vecchio, the first raindrops began to fall. The intoxicating aroma of pizza and roasted chicken still hung thick in the muggy air although the vendors had already shut their kiosks up tight. We picked up our pace as we started across the Ponte Vecchio. The tiny wooden shops hunched, side by side, atop the stone bridge, were filled to the bursting point with humanity. For centuries, these humble cottages had housed butchers and blacksmiths, but now dealt exclusively in jewelry and collectibles. Outside, mobs of tourists spun like tops, desperately searching for refuge from the coming storm.

Jagged bolts of lightning began to rip apart the western horizon. Still holding hands, we were practically running when we reached the opposite shore. The rain began to pour down in sheets, plastering our light, summer clothes to our bodies. We ducked under the awning of a men’s clothing store. “SALE” signs—in English for the tourists—filled the plate glass storefront.

As she wiped the water from her face, I gazed at her, trying desperately to preserve every feature in my memory. Her rain-soaked skirt and blouse clung to her, revealing every exquisite curve of her body. Michelangelo, reposing across the river in Santa Croce with Galileo and Machiavelli, never dreamed of so perfect a figure. I glanced away quickly, fearful of being caught staring.

Together, we sat on the stoop watching fat raindrops slap against the dirty sidewalk. It was then that I heard the first Pop! Another pop ! quickly followed, then another and another. We exchanged curious glances. I looked out at the street again and hail the size of Ping-Pong balls began bouncing off the road surface. She laughed and pointed, shouting over the din, “Grandine!”

Several strands of hair, banded together by the rain, had fallen across her cheek, which she hadn’t bothered to brush away. I could see the hailstones dancing like tiny white sparks across the deep, brown pools of her eyes. In that moment, I loved her and I knew I’d never see her again.

Grandine is the Italian word for hail.

(Stephen Graf lives in Pittsburgh, PA 15202)