By R. Benedito Ferrão
“It is not true what they say…”
Neck taut, her gaze was locked onto the almost touching fingers, the billowing sail of scarlet. The stage whisper broke through her reverie. Jalira peeled her eyes away from the scene above, a view she would never tire of pondering. Turning her head in the direction of the hushed voice, she asked softly, “Sorry, were you speaking to me?” The first thing she noticed was the twinkle in his dark eyes, and then his neatly cropped hair with its flecks of silver. Later, when he admitted to preferring it closely trimmed to keep the gray from showing too much, she told him that she liked the way the salt and pepper contrasted with the youthfulness of his face.
“American, Signorina?” He smiled, making his eyes brighten some more. Jalira still hadn’t gotten used to being identified in such manner. A smile flickered on her lips, but before she could reply, he had turned to stop the couple next to her from taking a picture in the darkened space. “No photography allowed!” Like a refrain, other blue-blazered members of staff dotted amongst the throng of visitors in the chapel echoed the cautionary words.
Jalira moved along with the crowd, so that more people could come in and have their moment with the celestial ceiling. Her eyes adjusted to the light of the sun on the pleasant November day. She knew he was right behind her. “I was saying it is not true what people think about the painting of the ceiling.” Now outside, the depth of his natural voice was apparent. The possibility ran through her mind that she would not have indulged in this conversation with a random stranger had he not been a Vatican employee. Turning to face him, she responded, “Yes, I know. Michelangelo didn’t lie flat on his back when he painted the ceiling of the chapel. He was upright, leaning on a scaffold.”
“You know this story?” An eyebrow lifted in punctuation. She laughed. “Doesn’t everyone?”
“But it wasn’t what I was going to say.”
“What I mean to say is when people see this image of the fingers of Adam and God reaching for one another, they think it is the act of creation. God making man-”
He stopped to look over his shoulder, as if someone might be listening. Jalira’s curiosity got the better of her. “Go on…”
Leaning forward and letting his voice drop so only she could hear, he said, “But what if it is God reaching for a human experience?”
She felt a sharp prickle at the base of her throat. Realizing she’d moved in to hear him, Jalira straightened her spine. “That’s a rather intimate idea to be sharing with a stranger, don’t you think?”
“I am Cosimo.” She regarded his outstretched hand briefly before shaking it and offering her name in return. “And now we’ve met for a second time.” There was mischief in his smile.
“You came to the Musei maybe around this hour, four days ago? You asked my colleague for the lady’s bathrooms, but he is new and his English is not so good. He asked me to help.”
Jalira had in fact been to the Vatican three times already since arriving in Rome almost a week ago. “Yes, I remember now. You were attending to something else at the time, I think, but were kind enough to point out the direction.” Cosimo nodded.
“So, you see, we are not completely strangers. Have you been to Italia before?”
“No – first time. I am here for school, graduate school. I’m doing some research for my dissertation.”
“What kind of research?” Cosimo enquired, his chin tilted.
She took a deep breath. “Indian art history.”
Her revelation produced the usual effect. “Marone! How here?”
“Well, I’m interested in India and Christian art. But not just how what is thought of as a European religion is pictured in Catholic Churches in Goa, for example. It used to be a Portuguese colony. I’m trying another idea. I’m trying to see how the East – the Indies – shows up in Christian art in Europe.”
Every time Jalira explained her graduate school project, it was a reminder of how she’d had to defend her work to her dissertation chair on numerous occasions. They’d had many differences of opinion. Getting the highly competitive research grant that financed her trip to Italy had come as a vindication, especially because her supervisor had hinted rather unsubtly that she should prepare for disappointment. Cosimo had been listening intently.
“I think I understand.” Gesturing toward the Sistine, he continued, “Michelangelo, too, he began painting the ceiling soon after another man from Firenze was… how do you say… immortalato? – Remembered? – in maps of the time for telling people that Columbus had found not India but a new world–”
“Yes, yes,” Jalira cut in excitedly. “Vespucci… Amerigo!”
“And what are the paintings in the Sistine if not a map? Maybe of heaven. Or of heaven on Earth?”
Cosimo’s words, so guilelessly uttered, resonated deeply with Jalira, her head bobbing vigorously in agreement. She heard the words before she realized she was saying them. “Reaching for a human experience…”
“Cosimo! Cosimo!” They both turned to see a man in a blue coat waving.
“I must go now. It was a pleasure.”
“Likewise.” Jalira smiled despite the pang she felt creep through her. As Cosimo returned to work, she mentally noted the time of day, and then headed to leave the tiny city-state of the Vatican for the Roman streets outside.
She sipped her cappuccino standing at the counter where a couple of other patrons also partook of the morning ritual that had become part of her daily routine. Before leaving the pensione, she had made a round of calls to the States: her parents, Samuel, and Nora, whose birthday it was. Taking another sip of her coffee, she recalled her conversation with Nora, who was the only person she considered a friend in her graduate program. They’d both commiserated about the slow progress they were making on their research and writing. But when Nora enquired about that other matter, whether Jalira had decided, she abruptly said she had to go.
“Signorina!” The deep voice snapped her into the present as she felt a touch on her elbow through her overcoat. She didn’t know what surprised her more – seeing Cosimo, or the way she felt about seeing him again.
“Cosimo!” She hoped she was the only one who heard the ebullience in her voice. “What are you doing here?” There was that twinkle in his eyes. “I live here, no? The question is what are you doing here?” They both laughed. “I always stop here for a coffee before I start my day,” she explained. “The place where I live is close by.” She pointed in the direction of her rented room. “And how is your research coming?” he enquired as he gestured to the man behind the counter. “Slow,” Jalira answered. “But good.” Sipping from the little cup he’d been handed by the proprietor, Cosimo took in Jalira’s response. “Is it slow because you haven’t yet found what you are looking for, or because you don’t know what comes after you find it?” Jalira’s eyes widened. She felt the heat of anger rise in her face, but she also wondered if there was some truth in Cosimo’s words. “You think you know me, Cosimo?” Jalira pressed her cup down onto the counter and looked into her purse. “Allow me,” Cosimo said, flashing a note at one of the waiters. She began to protest, but he stopped her. “To make up for offending you. If I have…” Jalira sighed with resignation, but she couldn’t suppress a smile.
Once outside, Cosimo asked if she was returning to the Vatican. “Yes, I have a meeting at the library there, but it seems such a shame to be inside on such a beautiful day,” Jalira mused as she looked at the children playing in the square outside the restaurant. It was certainly not this nice in late November where she was from, she thought to herself. Cosimo interrupted her thoughts as they walked on the cobblestone street. “In that case, you must allow me to get you into the Vatican quickly so you waste no time. And then you can still enjoy the day.” The short walk had brought them to the archway of the main entrance. “How? Look at this!” Jalira pointed at the long queue outside the gates. “With this,” Cosimo said confidently, holding up his official badge. “I couldn’t!” Jalira protested. “I insist. But on one condition.” She asked him what it was, but he would only say that he would tell her once they were inside.
True to his word, Cosimo navigated the entry point smoothly, flashing his badge at the guard and explaining that Jalira was with him. “Show him your library pass, please.” She did, and they were through. A few paces into the entrance, Cosimo turned on his heel to face Jalira. “Have dinner with me.” Jalira was caught by surprise. “But Cosimo, I can’t.” Already walking away, Cosimo said, “Tell me why at 7. I’ll meet you outside the gates. Ciao!”
“I always wondered what it looked like to him on that day when he stood up to deliver the sermon at the Sistine. How did he feel, their eyes on him? There couldn’t have been many others present who looked like him in the eighteenth century. It was the day of the Pentecost. The Pope was there… And although my father told me that the transformation occurred after Rome, when he went to Portugal and had to speak publicly at the request of the Queen, I couldn’t help but think that those fateful words were spoken somewhere else.
“The story goes that he froze in front of his audience. ‘Kator re bhaji,’ his father whispered. Which in Konkani means cut the vegetables. ‘These are just vegetables…’ It was what made the Abbé come to his senses and speak, imagining his audience as something not to be feared. Many believe that it was this moment that inspired him to come up with his theories of hypnotism – his realization of the power of suggestion. Lucid sleep he called it…”
“But it is Mesmer the world remembers instead, eh?” Jalira smiled wryly at Cosimo’s observation. She turned to lie on her back, staring at the ceiling in her tiny room. Cosimo moved closer under the sheets. “And so this is what made you first interested in the Sistine. Allora… Why do you think those words weren’t said to the Abbé when your father said they were – in the presence of the Queen? Where do you think it happened instead? In the Sistine?”
“What do men know about cutting vegetables? And especially the Farias who were high caste men? He probably heard it in the kitchen from one of the maids in his household in Goa.”
Cosimo chuckled. She turned to face him, unsnagging the sheet from around her body. Their fingertips reached for one another’s.
She could smell the faint fragrance of his aftershave, mingled with his sweat. Jalira drew closer, burying her face in the crook of his neck, feeling the scratch of his stubble, the protrusion of his Adam’s apple.
“Tell me about Addis. Do you miss it?”
She felt him swallow before he spoke. “I don’t remember much. But I recall seeing the big stone tombs of the Emperor and Empress inside Holy Trinity, feeling so small beside them. I have this memory of my father pointing out a painting inside the dome of the cathedral. I looked for it online many years later. It’s a picture of Haile Selassie giving a speech at the League of Nations. He was pleading with them to do something about Mussolini’s occupation of Ethiopia. But they were powerless against the Italians. And so Europe took one of the last free countries in Africa.”
Jalira could feel his pulse against her cheek. She wanted to ask if he ever thought he’d visit again, but that would take lifting her face away from his body. Cosimo, however, slowly began disentangling himself.
“I must go now.” He traced a finger across her chin and then stood up and retrieved his trousers from the floor. “Perhaps next time I can show you what men know about cutting vegetables?”
They fell into a routine, the two of them. Morning coffees at the neighbourhood café, expedited entry into the Vatican, and evenings at her pensione. There were the days when her research would take her to other locations, the nights he never spent at her place. Jalira’s parents called on Christmas to say how much they missed her. She promised them she was doing fine, and told them about the beautiful singing at the Basilica during the morning service. “You’re alone today.” Her mother’s declaration wasn’t a question. Jalira quelled the sense of uncertainty she felt. She saw that Samuel had called while she had been on the phone with her mum and dad. Perhaps it wasn’t too early to call Nora.
In her usual breathless way, Nora cut Jalira’s holiday greeting short. “Girl! I was about to call you! Did you see it?” Jalira pleaded ignorance. “I’m so sorry, Jalira. I’m so sorry that that good for nothing jerk is… Better you see it for yourself. I’m sending it now. Check your email.”
“He can’t get away with this” was the subject of the message Jalira received from Nora. The attachment was a journal article from the most recent issue of Artus. She began reading through the piece titled “Globe as Canvas: The Indies in the Imagination of the Italian Renaissance.” There was a familiarity to the words, especially the section that read:
While Catholicism was a source of moral strength for the early modern explorer from Europe, it was also how he came to understand his purpose en route to and in the strange foreign lands he encountered. Yet, in time, this certainty would be challenged. As the aforementioned scholars elucidate, Christianity in Ethiopia and South Asia’s Malabar coast predated the spread of the religion in its European form. Even during this colonial phase, forced conversions were not the only mode of transmission. Where indigenous peoples began to adopt Christianity, melding it into local belief systems, the distinctions between Self and Other blurred. If Creazione di Adamo, placed at the centre of the Sistine Chapel, is Michelangelo’s exemplification of a world order in which Man knows himself as the potential recipient of God’s “touch,” then the unknown world is that yet to receive the knowledge of the Father. In the Age of Exploration, “Adam” – first European man in the unknown world – reached for God by spreading the Christian faith. When that faith changed through processes of localization, the heretofore “heathen” races’ path to God was made their own; it was severed from the European messengers who bore the word to those lands. The Other had reached back for God in their own way.
The author was her Ph.D. advisor.
For two days, Jalira was unable to leave her room. She hadn’t responded to Nora’s follow up email, which asked how Jalira was feeling and whether she was going to report the theft of her research idea by her Chair to the department. Jalira didn’t want to tell her friend that she felt this a lost cause. She was relieved, too, that Cosimo had said he would be busy for a few days. At noon, Jalira’s elderly landlady called on her. The two got along well, and Jalira momentarily cheered up at the sight of the diminutive woman. Mrs. Vincenzo asked if Jalira wouldn’t mind picking up some bread for her as her son would be unable to stop by until the following day. Jalira couldn’t beg off running the errand even though she didn’t feel ready to face the world.
The sound of children’s laughter drew her attention away from the tin of coffee she was in the process of selecting from the shelf. A boy and a girl, closely aged, the older of the two being no more than six, were whizzing down the grocery store aisle towards her. As they ran past, the younger child, the boy, looked at Jalira and grinned conspiratorially. There was something familiar about his dark eyes and closely cropped curly hair. “Bambini!” Jalira was startled by the shout, causing her to drop her basket and its contents – cans, fruit, and spices. The breathless and pale woman who had called out for her children stopped to help Jalira who was now bent over. “Madonna!” the other woman exclaimed, apologizing for her children profusely even though they weren’t the ones who had caused the spill. Jalira attempted to explain in Italian that it was all right, to which the woman responded in equally halting English, “Sorry! It’s ok, please I help.”
As she handed Jalira the last apple, their fingers almost touching, a man’s voice could be heard from the adjoining aisle. “Donata! Donata… I bambini sono con me!” The woman rose. “I go. You all right?” Jalira thanked her. Remembering Mrs. Vincenzo’s bread, Jalira made her way to the next aisle to pick up a loaf. The woman and her children were exiting the opposite end. A man was with them, but even from the back of his head, she knew who it was. The children were holding Cosimo’s hands. Jalira realized that it was the first time she’d seen him wearing anything other than his work uniform. She stood stock still amongst the loaves of bread for a whole minute. Leaving her full basket on the floor, Jalira quickly departed the store. Mrs. Vincenzo’s bread would have to be bought elsewhere.
“I have something to tell you.” Cosimo was nervous. She’d even heard it in his voice when he called to ask if he could come see her. It had been a whole week since they had last met. “When I came to this country to study, I knew no one,” he began. He was seated across from her, the coffee she’d poured him cooling, untouched. “I wanted to stay. To make a living and help my family.” Jalira got out of her seat and walked the few steps to Cosimo. “I didn’t know things would get so complicated, so difficult. I tried many ways to stay, and then when she–” Jalira cut him short by placing a finger on his lips. “There’ll be plenty of time for you to tell me, Cosimo. Today, I just need you to be with me.”
When he left, Jalira looked out her window to see him walk towards the Metropolitana. He glanced back knowing she’d be there. Cosimo waved and kept walking. The evening bells rang as the cool air swirled leaves in the courtyard below.
Jalira shut the window and walked to the single closet in her room. From its depths she retrieved the box she’d placed there the day she arrived in Rome. “Will you?” the inscription on the tag inside it queried. “Your Samuel,” his handwriting proclaimed below. She looked at the ring, its blue-hewed captive jewel glinting in the low light. “Reaching for…,” she began to murmur before shutting the box and returning it to its seclusion.
About the Author
R. Benedito Ferrão is a writer and academic who has lived and worked in Kuwait, India, the United States, England, and Australia. He currently teaches English and Asian & Pacific Islander American Studies at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, USA. An internationally published writer of fiction, non-fiction, op-eds, and academic essays, his work appears in Outlook India, Media Diversified, India Currents, Mizna, AwaaZ, and The Goan, among other publications. He is also a member of Goa’s Al-Zulaij Collective. To read more, visit thenightchild.blogspot.com, or @nightchildnexus on Facebook.