A friend of Master Cano’s, a bishop, had died and left the old man a trunk full of manuscripts, although it would seem the manner of the good bishop’s death left his servants confused and some of the manuscripts lay prone by an open window in the worst of the January blizzards. All in all, though, the damage was slight, for it was good vellum, well cured.
For a man who never seems to leave his chair Master Cano has a good many friends. Rosa curled her lip at me and bore those perfect teeth when I happened to pass the hour with this. I am used to the road, whistling what I like. It’s only goats like you who chase the world sinking your teeth into everything! And she spoke with such authority on the matter I let it rest. The world has so many corners, I doubt I will ever quite get the shape of it.
With her proceeds from the Carnival, Rosa paid for the old man’s gift to be bound in leather, with the added innovation of cloth sleeves to limit any more damage from the elements. This final gesture softened her in the eyes of many as they licked their greedy fingers and opened the volumes as heavy as a child.
They have become Master Cano’s pride and joy, those seventeen books of velum and cloth, and when he thumbs through them of a night, the fire dances in those eyes at once radiant and forbidding as old wells with love of his old friend and his new, this strange girl who happened one morning like a kitten on the stairs.
Of all these books it is the fables of Phaedrus to which he turns when we are all gathered round. And of all the fables it is “The Eagle and the Crow” that he turns to with the same wry grin whenever Rosa staggers home flushed with wine and hungry for the smoke from the fire, barking curses at us bent over her bowl of straw and smouldering dung.
Opimam sane praedam rapuisti unguibus;
Sed nisi monstraro quid sit faciendum tibi,
Gravi nequiquam te lassabit pondere.
The fate of that hapless tortoise always seems to bring a tear to her dark, lustrous eyes, dropped from the stars, from the eagle’s talons, at the behest of a crow, so that he who had been protected by nature would offer up a feast to the lion of the skies and that shiver of death in the world.
“Nature is a cold, dark place,” she would hark at us as though her heart were already flapping in the crow’s beak. “Nature is a bully. Look where I am! Your crows are monsters and your children never cry!”
And so she would go until the smoking dung had put her to sleep or made her purge herself all over Maser Cano’s Flemish rug and she would berate us with lolling eyes and a tongue heavy as vellum for making her smell like this. She is a strange creature indeed, but she loves Master Cano like I have never been fortunate to witness love in my short sorry life, and for that I am glad.
Come May and the first crow clouds of summer, a fresh garrison brings news of the mysterious hill in Hungary and of the river vanishing as their horses drank, taking their reflections with them. Pistoa has gone to investigate, or so they say, but I suspect he has been locked up again. On the first day of Lent I saw him in a new coat and shoes, but where would a journeyman find money for such things in winter?
I only say out loud what the fire is asking, but Rosa scalds me until old Cano shoos her out of the house with his largest plate of silver. He wants her to see if this story of the horses is true or just another wide-eyed tale carried like a cough with these farm boys from the east.
“Your friend is a magician,” he snarls at me when she is gone. “To make a girl like that love anyone. One day here, one day gone. Psssst! That is love!”
But the old man is wrong about at least one thing. I have no friend Pistoa. He is a man I pass on the road sometimes. Mostly south of the old watchtower, and with the sun still low in the east as though the world were just being born. That is the only place I know him, despite his breath on my neck as we grind and saw in a dozen different towns, his wall-eyed stare through the drunken Chinese sentries, and all those twisted chisels.
“So?” asks Master Cano when Rosa finally returns.
“Nothing,” she says looking like one of those puppets at the Carnival, the strange flush of a peach picked a little too early. “I stood as close as I am to you. Closer. Look, that’s where I wrote my name in the fog from their breath. I could see their flanks, every hair every bristle, but not their faces. They’re so tiny and frightened. Father, how could anyone whip them all that way?”
And so her voice will rise that pitch now Pistoa has gone east the way of winter, the way those tiny horses have come.
It was about this time that the gargoyles began to disappear from the cathedral in Perugia. The previous summer we had worked to shore up the southern wall of the nave which had subsided so suddenly and so dramatically that a man could pass a pig’s bladder through the cracks. It was an arduous couple of weeks in the Umbrian sun under the remorseless gaze of the Bishop who had us marked down as vagrants and thieves the moment we arrived with Pistoa’s drunken body lolling about in a cart.
When the first gargoyle disappeared, the good Bishop naturally assumed one of our party had pilfered it, although we had been clear of his parish for weeks by then as a simple check of the Chinese records would have told him. The Bishop, though a man not so much more gone in years than myself, has assumed the air of a much older man. And although such assumptions have profited many a man before the good Bishop, and will no doubt do much the same for young ambitious men a thousand years from now, it does not serve a man well in such changed times. All the same, the Chinese posted a guard on our camp at La Spezia while we mended the sea wall, and that seemed to be an end to the matter.
The gargoyles sit, as gargoyles will, atop the tallest spire in Perugia leering down over the square hundreds of feet below. To reach these ugly, slimy creatures a man would need to grapple himself in an elaborate arrangement of ropes and pulleys, all of which would have to be acquired through the guild, requiring the signature of the Captain of the Watch and the obliging citizens to avert their collective gaze while the man made his ascent and collected his prize of a ton or more of ugly, slimy stone. And yet the gargoyles are gone and we have been summoned back by the Prefect on the Bishop’s behest, for the one is convinced there are dragons where the other only sees thieves.
Good to his word, the Prefect has delivered four large slabs of stone to the southern corner of Piazza Piccinino. They have been lying in wait for us for quite some time, because the local women have taken to beating out their washing on them long enough for those great bleached slabs to have the faint tang of a cistern.
Pistoa is in one of his more conciliatory moods as I and Guido the One-Eyed and the young boy Francesco hammer out a price with the pie-faced Bishop and his tremulous flock of clerics with their fat ledgers and hooded arms bloodless and shiny as a licked plate. Since his last trip to the Magyar plains to see for himself this miraculous hill, Pistoa is a little more forgiving of the world, as he often is after one of these “pilgrimages” of his. He even offered to step in when I began to lag at the saw, at which young Francesco, covered head to toe in fine white powder, laughed all stiff-necked like one of those ghosts the Chinese chase with their paper dragons.
It was decided as the clouds came over that we would drag the sawn stone to the cathedral steps, where Pistoa and Guido the One-Eyed could begin carving those horrid things townsmen deem necessary to safeguard their souls. There the washerwomen would not trouble them, for the church stands on the far edge of the square where the stones stop and the dust starts. We were given ten burly sentries to help us, silent red-skinned men with eyes like donkey’s arses who showed us an ingenious way of rigging two poles so that we could carry the stone in a kind of cradle between four of us, even showing us how to march in step so that the huge stone wouldn’t swing and throw us off our feet.
There are tiny, feathery cracks in the stones of Perugia. I have noticed them before, but never in such numbers. Last November I was passing through this square with the watchman’s bell and a blizzard on my heels, for Perugia is very much the Bishop’s town and even the Chinese are billeted at his leisure.You couldn’t help but notice them; as though the town were built on a slowly thawing river.
Today, at the foot of the church, one of their gigantic beet-faced sentries got down on his knees and began running his thumb over those cracks like a tiny child. The Chinese shrugged their shoulders at the spectacle, for he was Armenian and not strictly speaking one of theirs, and so we all laughed until Pistoa spat for want of anything better to do. Because kindness exhausts him like a pretty girl will an old man, and because we were working to the Chinese watches, as is their custom in Perugia. And because their captain refused to take off his shirt.
There was a time Pistoa commanded a bevy of men to cut and grind on his orders, but that was all a long time ago before the world got picked up and put down. I often try to imagine him carrying the rod and gloves barking orders in the square at Orvieto, all puffed up like a peacock, but I can never quite put his face to the gestures. Pistoa had a wife, they say, but we have all lost something.
The moment we arrived in Perugia, people have been asking us whether we have seen the dogs. Since the Chinese came dogs are not left to free roam as they used to, which I deem another strange blessing of these times. To be set upon by dogs on a lonely road was once the abiding fear of journeymen, but for a long time now even the wolves have kept to the far side of “Jade Terrace”. However, it seems a pack of dogs has found its way under the walls of Perugia and has taken to roaming the streets at night. Why they would choose to do so when the surrounding hills are brimming with sheep, no-one seems to know. Needless to say, the usually festive streets of Perugia in Spring are deserted and at night our sleep is broken only by the incessant howling and neighing of every four-legged creature in the town.
As we work the clouds begin to build until the world is weighed with a steely light that seems to make each hammer blow a little crisper. Those of us who lack the delicate hands of Pistoa or Guido slowly make our way into the vestry where the Chinese have taken to piling their helmets and boots. Such things are tolerated in Perugia and Orvieto because the Chinese pledge a coin for each boot they do not lose. The Umbrian watches are old men for the most part, and have little else to spend their money on.
Pistoa has told me of stones so old and cured of their cutting that they smell like the forest floor. Perugia smells a little like that before it rains, like the rose water old whores throw on themselves. Pistoa often begs me for a word, only to throw it away in the gutter like that. But when he does so he stoops low over his work like one of those clowns at the Carnival the children throw fruit at because there is too much wind for the paper dragons and the wooden birds.
In the vestry stands a mound of helmets as high as a man and stacked so neatly they look as though they could stand there as long as a blind man’s stare. They have the black and the sheen of a wolf’s eyes, of all those empty miles with which Pistoa goads me when I know our night has ended and our long grey morning has begun.
A milk-faced novice titters at us trying to catch the sand leaking from the vaulting. What I assumed was the whisper of an old soldier’s stocking rubbing the stones to keep warm is in fact beyond even God to put right. The Chinese slumped like mules after their twelve hours on the walls hiss at him to be quiet. The choir is tucked away in a corner practicing for the Prefect’s visit in two weeks’ time. He will probably cancel, as he usually does. He should never have left home, Pistoa says. But then he says the same of me, and I no longer have a home to speak of. The Chinese in Umbria are all old. Master Cano begs me to be kind, and I believe I am, but his eyes tell me otherwise. They are asleep in our country, these old men weeping while our children’s voices rise to a crumbling heaven and the sand rains down on their stockinged feet.
Outside the animals have begun to cluck and howl under the weight of the gathering storm. The air in the cathedral is heavy with it, and the choir break off their singing, their crisp voices darting like sparrows into the farthest crumbling reaches of the vestry. What I thought were the peals of Pistoa’s expensive new chisel on the stones outside is in fact the bells of Perugia sounding danger.
We seven are elbowed out of the nave by a company of tired sentries bustling to find their boots and helmets in the eerie twilight. They seem strangely accustomed to the summons. Outside I find Pistoa hurling fragments of stone across the square as Guido scrambles around to scoop them up into his pouch while a large pack of dogs sidle toward them, bigger than a King’s hunting pack, some baring their teeth, but most simply licking their balls or scratching at doors or fighting amongst themselves. As Pistoa strikes one and then another with a glancing blow, the dying sun breaks through the cloud for a moment and lights on their ribs almost showing through their mangy piebald hides. Master Cano would probably feel one of his flatulent, beet-faced pities for them, but then he is not here, a fact he will no doubt find great comfort in when I tell him the story of my last visit to Perugia, and how the ghost of his dead friend flew away with the gargoyles.