It is April, and Maria, a beautiful Sicilian with a kind heart and a strong mind, wakes, rubs her eye, and remembers she burned her hand three days before on a stove. She relives making the mistake, feels regret and discomfort, but remembers she is in Rome and forgets about the burn. Lifting her head slightly, Maria peers at the two tall windows on the opposite side of her sixth floor apartment. Her luggage and art supplies sit on the floor beside them. She is a painter and arrived in Rome late the night before. The drapes covering the two windows are glowing. They hold the sun against their back.
Maria slides her legs through the sheets and across the bed. She reaches one arm back and stretches. The strain helps her wake and her fingers graze along the carvings in the headboard. Seeing the designs with her fingers reveals them and Maria doesn’t want to look with her eyes. The carvings settle Maria because she knows and has a real sense that the frame took quite some time to build and finish, and was done by an artist with a strong soul and an even stronger way of seeing things.
The sixth floor apartment has a view of Piazza di Spagna. Maria was in Rome once before and saw many things that made her warm and happy and truly alive, but it was that Piazza that gave her the most powerful rush. Her father told her to go back. Even before arriving this second time she had an idea in her mind of a new image she wanted to paint. A sketch of it forms in her mind now while she’s on the bed touching the headboard. Piazza di Spagna is the focus, and it’s framed by the moulding of a window. A view from a window, Maria thinks. She wants and envisions that the piazza’s fountain will glow and shine bright in the painting in a way that has weight and power. The fountain will center the painting, she thinks.
Maria rolls to the edge of the bed, hops off and walks over to the two windows. The floor is cool on her naked feet. Staring at the drapes, Maria grasps the bandage on her hand and feels the burn beneath it, but knows what is outside waiting for her and focuses on that. The longing to see Piazza di Spagna in the daylight grabs her, but she doesn’t pull aside the drapes and keeps standing there, stretching the moment of anticipation as long as it will go. Sometimes the instant just before seeing and absorbing something truly great is just as good as the revealing moment and Maria knows it. Sometimes she can see where a certain painting is going before it is real and those moments bring Maria great joy.
Pulling the drapes to the side, feeling her own thin, white nightgown move and sway when she does, Maria lets all of the sun fall into the apartment. She gasps and clutches her hand. The piazza below her is beautiful; the steps, the flowers and the buildings, all of it just as Maria remembers, but in the middle is the fountain and it is on fire. How did this happen? Maria thinks. Hundreds of people stand around and look on. Some yell out. Maria opens the glass window and looks down. The piazza and the fire hold her eyes. Off in the distance a siren lets out, and its sound is the one Maria wants to let out of her lungs.
Her amazement and surprise forces Maria to grab a pad of paper and a pencil from her bag. She quickly sketches the piazza and outlines the fire. She tries to capture its form and movement in the drawing. This will be the painting, she thinks. The sirens get louder. Fire trucks arrive and men jump out. They spray water on the flames. Maria finishes her sketch. The flames are dying down. Maria looks down at her drawing. Then there is a knock at the door. It is next to the bed on the other side of the room. Maria turns around, away from the window.
“Miss, are you in?” a man outside the door asks in Italian.
“Yes,” Maria answers even though she is still wrapped up in the fountain and the fire and her sketch.
Marco, the owner and manager of the hotel, keys into the room. Maria adjusts her thin, white nightgown.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Are you decent?”
“Well, it’s a little late now,” Maria laughs.
Marco looks down at his hands.
“I apologize. I just wanted to make sure you’re well and fine, and let you know that everything is under control with the fire.”
“Yes, I’m fine.”
“Well, that’s good. I’m sorry. If you need anything at all let me know. Goodbye.”
“Wait,” Maria says.
Marco stays in the crack of the door.
“What’s your name?” Maria asks.
“Hi Marco. I’m Maria.”
Marco doesn’t move.
“What happened? With the fire?” Maria asks.
I don’t know,” Marco says.
Maria stands. Her thin, white nightgown covers her frame but reveals its shape.
“Have you heard anything?” Maria asks.
Marco glances at Maria’s body.
“Not really, no.”
“Yes you did. Everyone must be talking about it. Tell me.”
“Well, one carabinieri told me it was an accident.”
“He didn’t say. But others say different. Some down there are saying they saw the fire begin, and that it manifested from nothing. Came from nowhere. That it just became.”
“What do you think?” Maria asks.
Maria fiddles with the bandage on her hand.
“Is your hand alright?”
Maria gives Marco a stern look and a hand gesture that implies, answer my question you coward, and then says, “It’s fine, just a burn. Now, what do you think happened?”
Marco opens the door another crack.
“Well, I think it was done by someone very sneaky. And they are trying to say something,” Marco says.
“Thank you, Marco. I’ll let you know if I need anything.”
“Please do,” Marco says.
Marco shuts the door. Maria sits back down by the window. She looks at her sketch and wonders who started the fire in the fountain. Then she looks at her hand. Some blood has soaked through the bandage. She removes it and washes out the burn in the bathroom sink. There is some bleeding but Maria isn’t worried. It isn’t much blood.
Once dressed she walks down to the hotel lobby. The mouldings on the walls are intricate, and the paintings that hang are just as pleasing. Marco stands behind a desk beside the front door. It too is stunning, the door. It is as if the glass has been woven right into it.
“Hello again, Marco,” Maria says.
Maria walks over and puts her hands on Marco’s desk.
“Hello, Maria. Going out to search for the mysterious arsonist?”
“Not really. I’m hungry. Where should I go?”
“Well, I am just about to go to a great restaurant just around the corner. It’s really delicious. Care to join me?”
Maria stares at Marco blankly and stretches the moment of anticipation as far as it will go.
“Yes,” Maria says.
Marco and Maria walk out of the hotel and see Piazza di Spagna in front of them. The fountain is blocked off and hundreds of people surround it, all trying to get a glimpse. Maria walks towards it and Marco follows, but there are so many people they can’t get close enough.
“I’m too hungry for this. I’ll try to get close later,” Maria says.
The restaurant is tucked into a small, crooked building close to the hotel. It is low to the ground. The cobblestone street leads right into it. The front windows are open and there are tables outside under an awning. The walls inside are a deep red, and the warmth from the kitchen mixes with the breeze and makes the restaurant pleasant and good. Marco and Maria sit outside. It is just after noon.
“What brought you to Rome?” Marco asks once the two sit and have been served wine.
“I’m a painter. I have a small gallery in Sicily. I came here to paint,” Maria says.
Maria takes a sip of wine and so does Marco.
“What do you paint?”
An outline of the wine stays above Marco’s lip. Maria sees it and wipes her own lip with a napkin.
“I paint what I see. Landscapes. People. But more often than not I find my parents are really what I’m painting.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think about them while I paint. I see them in my mind while my eyes see an image.”
“Where are your parents?” Marco asks.
“My father is in Sicily. My mother is dead.”
“I’d love to see your work.”
“I’m going to paint today.”
“What will you paint?”
“Maybe you’ll find out,” Maria says.
Maria pushes aside her long, dark brown hair and runs her fingers through it with her right hand. It has no bandage on it.
“What’s your story?” Maria asks.
“Oh, I’m boring. I grew up here in Rome. When my father passed he left me the hotel. I live close to my mother. Sometimes I write, but not often.”
“Well, I do sometimes.”
“I’d like to read something of yours,” Maria says.
The waiter, a tall, dark man wearing a suit and glasses, walks up to Maria and Marco’s table.
“What would you like to start with?” he asks.
“Carbonara. That’s all I want,” Maria says.
“Yes. Good. And you, sir?” the waiter asks.
“The same, please,” Marco says.
“Two carbonara. Thank you,” the waiter says as he turns away.
“Excuse me, sir?” Maria says to the waiter.
The waiter stops.
“Did you see the fire? In the fountain?” Maria asks.
“How did you feel?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s an easy question. How did it make you feel?”
The waiter adjusts his glasses.
“Angry,” the waiter says. “A man who does this type of thing should be killed.”
The waiter smirks. Maria laughs and looks at Marco and Marco smiles because Maria is laughing.
“Maybe not killed, but something,” the waiter says as he turns and walks away.
Maria swirls her hair around her index finger. Her eyes widen. They are round and more striking than most.
“You are very beautiful,” Marco says.
Maria looks into Marco’s eyes and waits a few moments.
“How do you think he did it?” Maria asks.
“The man who set the fire.”
“There are many ways. So many ways to do things these days.”
“How could no one have seen? How could no one have noticed? And how, how do you light something up that’s flowing in water?”
“The fountain was dry,” Marco says.
“The fountain. They have been restoring it. Working on it. So they stopped the water flow a few days ago.”
Maria holds her face with her hands.
“But how did it light? He must have put something inside the fountain to make it go up like that. The flames were tremendous. It couldn’t have burned like that without something in that fountain. But how could he have put something in there without anyone noticing?”
“He did,” Marco says.
“How do you know?”
“Well, he must have. He must have.”
“It’s interesting. Many times people only notice things that they are looking for,” Marco says.
Marco sips his wine.
“You want to find this man, don’t you?”
“I want to hear him,” Maria says.
Maria takes a deep breath and says, “Hear his thoughts.”
“Well, I’m sure he would say something to assure you that what he did was true and good. And that he wants for people to see that sometimes you have to burn something to make it real again. So people won’t forget. There are things people dismiss. Push out. But sometimes people, they need to, they should ignite something, torch it so it can be real again.”
Maria sips her wine and studies Marco’s face. The waiter walks over holding two plates like an acrobat and puts the carbonara down in front of Marco and Maria.
“Two carbonara,” the waiter says and then turns.
“Excuse me,” Maria says.
The waiter rolls his head.
“Yes?” he asks.
“Where do you think he is?”
“The man who set the fire?”
“How should I know?”
“What do you think?”
The waiter looks off into the distance and holds his side.
“Well, to me, he’s right around here. He could be this man,” the waiter says as he points to Marco and laughs.
Marco laughs, too and sips his wine. Maria adjusts her bandage.
“What happened to your hand?” the waiter asks.
“I burned it on a stove by accident.”
Before turning and leaving the waiter says, “The carbonara will help that.”
Maria finds the carbonara to be delicious. After finishing, Marco and Maria thank the waiter, walk out onto the street and head back towards the hotel. It is a beautiful day. There are still a great number of people surrounding the fountain. Maria walks towards it and Marco follows. She walks at a brisk pace but Marco strolls. A tarp has been put over the fountain.
“Now no one can see it,” Maria says to Marco.
The two walk back to the hotel and into the lobby.
“Thank you for the carbonara and the wine. Everything was very good,” Maria says.
Marco reaches for Maria’s hand and she lets him take it. He kisses the top of her bandage.
“You’re very welcome. Now go paint,” he says.
Marco walks back behind the desk beside the front door and Maria walks up to her room. Taking out her art supplies, Maria prepares for the painting of the piazza to fall out of her. She sets up her small easel next to the window, pulls over a chair from the corner, positions herself so she can see out onto the piazza nicely, and begins squirting and mixing paint onto her wooden palette. The canvas sits and waits on the easel.
Maria lets the brush decide how to start. Her eyes see the piazza but she thinks about her father. She sees an image of him and how small he is now because of how harsh the world is. He is smiling at her. She hopes he is smiling in Sicily. He still lives in the same house Maria grew up in and she sees him there now while she paints.
The sun shines down onto the flowers in the Piazza. Their colors are brilliant; pinks, blues, reds and many others, and Maria does her best to capture them, pushing away the reality that such a task is impossible. Maria remembers her mother, too, and the way she had looked. The blue Maria tries to mix on her palette is done with the color of her mother’s eyes as a model and guide. The sun shines bright onto one of the brown buildings in the piazza, and Maria knows that the Roman sun is like her mother had been; always breathing energy and life into things, allowing them to reach their full essence.
The painting begins to take shape and the thoughts of her parents guide Maria and let her know that the world is good and fine in the way that all things are if they are looked at under the right light. Maria hears her father telling her to go back to Rome, and to follow the voice in her head about the painting. The colors blend and swell and so do Maria’s thoughts, and the swirls and lines and mixtures push her into the future at a rate that is unaffected by time the way a burning monk is unaffected by pain.
The painting builds and swirls and is reaching out to a point that Maria knows is close but she isn’t sure how near. She paints the fire and the fountain and needs a red that is real and true and clear and has weight. The images and thoughts of her parents escape her. She looks to her palette but sees no red that is right for the fire. Her parents are no longer with her. All she can think about is the fire and the way that it captured the fountain. She gets lost in the flames. She tries to find her parents in her mind but can’t. All she sees is fire.
Maria looks at her hand. There is a spot of blood on the bandage. She drops her brush. Maria takes the canvas off the easel and places it on the floor in front of her. Then she unwraps the bandage and takes it off. She holds her hand above the canvas. The blood from the burn drips out of her and onto the painting. The blood’s color is rich and strong. It holds the painting together in a way that Maria knew the right shade of red would. An image of her parents returns to her and then another one does.
Maria reaches for a clean bandage and puts it around her burn. Then she picks up the canvas, places it on the easel, takes her brush and moves the blood in a way that it needs to be. It mixes in and becomes the essence of the flame. A great weight lifts off Maria and she knows the painting is finished. It sits on the easel.
It is late afternoon. Maria sits next to the painting by the window and looks down at the piazza. The sky begins to get dark, but Maria has no desire to do anything but watch the piazza. She remains there until night and then goes to sleep.
The next morning Maria packs her things and gets ready to go back to Sicily. She wraps the painting up carefully. Once everything is accounted for she walks down into the lobby. Marco is standing behind the desk beside the door.
“Leaving, I see,” Marco says.
Maria puts the key to her room down on the desk.
“How do your paintings look?”
“I only did one, but I am happy with it.”
“Let me guess what you painted. Fire?”
“You are very wise, Marco. I want you to see it, but I already wrapped it up. You’ll have to come to Sicily.”
“Maybe I will.”
“And I want to read something of yours. I haven’t forgotten you are a writer.”
“I wouldn’t call myself a writer.”
“Well, I’ll write to you, how about that? I’ll let you know when this painting is on display,” Maria says.
“I look forward to it.”
Marco walks around the desk and hugs Maria.
“Have a safe trip.”
Maria walks towards the door.
“Did you think of your parents?” Marco asks.
“When you were painting. You told me you think of your parents when you paint. Did you think of them for this painting.”
“Well, yes. For some of the time.”
“Not all the time?” Marco asks.
“No. When I did the flame I didn’t.”
“And why is that?”
“Because. Well. I don’t know.”
Marco walks out from behind the desk.
“I suppose it might be that for you to truly see the fire and harness it, you had to forget about love. Forget about your parents in a way, no?”
Maria grabs the door.
“I don’t know. Maybe. Take care, Marco.”
The door opens and Maria walks out of the hotel. After a moment, Marco walks back behind his desk and sits down.
Jacob Shore received his MFA at Goddard College, where he studied with Ryan Boudinot.
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