Three Other Places
Three Other Places
He entered through the Porta del Popolo, and the city leaped on him the way his dog leaped on him when he came home, plowing into him full force, confident, certain that the master would withstand the blow, his tongue searching out his cheeks and forehead, pushing him, rubbing against him, dragging him into his play. That was how Rome welcomed him. He went up the slope and turned left. Even though he had never been there, he knew the way: at home they had drawn a map for him and explained in detail how to reach the Villa. Between the Porta del Popolo and the Villa the road ran straight; it was not far. But for someone like him, tired out after three days of traveling, it seemed a long journey. He shifted his bag from the left shoulder to the right. The one following him came running up and tried to relieve him of his burden.
“Let me, you’re tired.”
“And you, my friend! Look at what you’re carrying!”
The would-be helper was in fact loaded down like a mule. He looked sturdier, more broad-chested, of a more markedly tanned complexion, and with prominent, energetic features. As for the one walking ahead, he seemed more frail, lighter of skin and hair, his eyes maybe not bigger but more lively: that was what one noticed at once, the ardor of his gaze. They were dressed the same, covered with long coats.
It was the end of October, warm in the sun and cool in the shade. They walked quickly, the one with lively eyes first, the other behind. They threaded their way through the dense crowd that filled the street without sidewalks, between people strolling, others rushing, some loaded down like them, thinking only of getting home, and some displaying themselves, in no hurry. Vehicles passed by, their springs squealed. Women talked loudly. A yellow dog started barking. It smelled bad—dirty clothes, wine, piss, disease, soup.
The Villa suddenly appeared in perspective, at an angle. The white wall, almost unpierced, resembling a fortress, rose up like a wave, higher than the red walls that encircled the city, higher than the houses. The abandoned city below was overhung by the Villa; it ruled alone. Two towers crowned its elevation. The heads of lions sprang from them, their brows creased by a U-shaped wrinkle. The wall grimaced, ready to defend itself. “Do lions have wrinkles?” he thought, resting his hand on one of the muzzles.
The high front door intended for horsemen, adorned with a lintel in the form of a python, concealed another. Then a third, quite small, to the left, seemed reserved for pedestrians. He rang, and it opened. A man dressed in black appeared, bowed, and asked his name.
“Ah, the Master has been informed. Come this way.”
The entrance hall, vast as a public square, the floor paved with marble, ended at a stairway that rose up snail-like from the landing. One turn, two turns, three . . .
“A few more steps,” said the servant. “The Master is waiting for you in the garden.”
“In the garden?” Sigismondo was surprised.
“You’ll see,” smiled the other.
They kept going up, endlessly as it seemed, like climbing a mountain, but from the inside. You could choose to walk close to the core or to the extremities. He tried both. Strangely, it was easier far from the axle. “No doubt some law of nature,” he said to himself. On the sides there were benches: you could sit down, rest. A whole expedition. Finally the man in black stopped, opened a door, and they stepped out under a loggia. Two massive lions, in full possession of their muscles, were playing casually with a stone ball, looking each other in the face. In a basin of the fountain a bronze boy with winged feet threw himself into the air, like a prolongation of the turning of the stairway. Straight ahead stretched the garden. In it grew pines, orange trees, and hedges in squares and diamonds. The servant, with a proud look, caught his eye. “Yes, so it is. What’s down there for the others is up here for us alone,” said that glance.
“Rome is quite a hilly town, young man,” his mouth articulated.
“Wait for me here, Alberto,” Sigismondo tossed out to his companion, pointing to the steps of the terrace.
He saw at the end of the path the massive figure of the master of the house and hurried to meet him. The air smelled of freshly cut grass. On the branches, oranges from last year gleamed like paper lanterns. Roses still bloomed along the walls. He approached, bowed, and was invited to sit down. From here, the Villa was so different from the one that offered itself to the street: no longer severe, but sumptuous, it shone with marbles, with beautiful red and green columns. Sigismondo had never seen the like. If he could stay there, even for a short time, before finding . . .
“A very old story,” his host interrupted him. “Here we are in the gardens of Master Sallust. Have you heard of Sallust? Oh, don’t be upset!”
In his sixties, the man was thickset, but his delicately sculpted face kept a fine, capricious expression, as if wishing to say: “Let’s see how we’ll like this.”
“How old are you?”
“A fine age. Already struck but not yet used. Not tarnished. Like a gold piece. You want to shine, don’t you? You want to conquer this town?”
“I don’t need to. What I need is to earn my living,” said Sigismondo.
“My cousins . . .”
“Yes, I’ve heard about them. Are you at least allowed to bear the name of your late father?”
“Yes, I bear his name.”
“Did your father have other children?”
“No, I’m my father’s only child.”
The other was silent, so he insisted:
“I’m his one and only child. At his death, he left me his fortune. I am his heir, but the cousins . . .”
“Yes, I know.”
“What does he know?” thought Sigismondo. “What has he been told about my family, about me? What am I to tell him?”
There was a silence.
“You see, Sigismondo, I’m only a cardinal . . .”
Motionless, his back straight as a statue’s, one of those that populated this garden, the cardinal plunged into his thoughts. His face looked empty. Night began to fall. The parasols of the pines blackened the sky. The town below lit its torches. Seen from here, Rome was only a poorly tilled field, a poorly drawn sketch, a doormat thrown at the feet of the Villa. The immense dome loomed up to the right.
“You didn’t take your cousins to court?”
“No. I’d rather earn my living than throw myself into endless litigations. To blame and be blamed . . .”
“Yes, you’re right, it’s useless to drink that cup of bile. Others have done it . . . are doing it. Are you a good Latinist?”
“People say so.”
“And you? What do you say?”
“I’ve published some writings in that language.”
“Of what sort?”
“Oh, that’s much appreciated. Farces are in fashion.”
“I like to make people laugh.”
“That’s good,” the other picked up. “And Greek? Do you understand that as well?”
“Less so than Latin, but all the same.”
“Never mind,” he thought. “A little deception. I’ll find some way to get out of it.”
“A job as secretary or private tutor of any sort would suit me,” he offered. “As long as I’m housed and fed, me and him.”
He gestured toward the loggia.
“You should have come alone. Here you can find servants at little cost.”
“I’m attached to him.”
The cardinal looked him up and down.
“A special bond? You must be careful. It’s sometimes tolerated and sometimes not.”
“Nothing of the sort,” Sigismondo hastened to reply. “We simply grew up together. Alberto has always lived in the house, he’s the son of my late father’s servant.”
“Yes, I understand very well, but tongues will wag. It’s worst of all in Rome: this gossipy city. However high you climb, the dirty talk will reach you. An old Roman habit. That’s all it has to do, this populace. Luckily I have a good library. No wall, no villa will better protect you from the mob than old paper covered with a few beautiful phrases.”
Sigismondo stood up.
“I just wanted . . .”
He obeyed. The cardinal observed him in profile, his high forehead, his straight nose. Sigismondo turned toward him, their glances crossed and caught on each other like two sinuous tree branches: the young man’s eyes were like two does, wild, skittish, and happy; the old man’s eyes were like two lizards at the edge of water, green with duckweed, mysterious, deceitful. The cardinal’s hand rested on Sigismondo’s shoulder.
“You could be my child.”
Sigismondo shook off that clinging hand.
“You don’t get much exercise,” said the cardinal.
“I get enough to jump with my feet together, there, right now, over this bench.”
“Enough, enough!” the cardinal burst out laughing. “A job as secretary, you say? Housed, fed? Well, well, that can be done. I knew your father . . . before you were born.”
“Maybe tonight . . . ?”
“Well, all right. My man will show you the way. There’s a cottage in the garden.”
“And the dream?” the cardinal called after him. “Do you have a great dream? One doesn’t come to Rome to be a secretary!”
Sigismondo did not turn around. He rejoined Alberto. The servant emerged from the darkness, a key in his hand.
“This way, young man, we’ll go through the Bosco.”
They turned right, followed the balustrade back up, still higher than the garden. The town below howled, stank; it was hungry and thirsty. Rome was letting off steam, taking its revenge, exhausted by a long day of labor, promiscuity, coming and going; but at the Villa everything was calm as in heaven among the angels.
“That mound over there conceals an ancient temple.”
The servant was playing the guide.
“Now you won’t see anything. But tomorrow morning climb up on it. The view that opens out is the most beautiful in Rome. The whole city fits into the palm of your hand. As if you’re holding it! They’ll tell you that other views match it, but, believe me, this one is the most astonishing of all.”
A ruined wall encircled the exit from the Bosco, of the same sort as the one that had welcomed the newcomer at the Porto del Popolo. A city protected by a wall, what could be more banal? But at the Villa it was astonishing. Besides, the garden continued behind this wall. “The city has its limits, but the Villa doesn’t obey them, it dictates them,” thought Sigismondo. “We mustn’t linger over it.”
“It’s this way.”
The servant stopped before the entrance to a separate house. Sigismondo pronounced a brief farewell and closed the door. Penniless, he behaved like a lord; no help for it, he was brought up that way.
The room, under a high ceiling, was barely furnished. But what did such trifles matter to them? Alone and arrived at last; if only for this night, they had a roof over their heads.
Sigismondo collapsed in the only chair standing in the middle of the room. His body was shaking. Alberto bent over him and saw that Sigismondo was laughing. His body was literally contorted with laughter, a violent and silent laughter.
“The dream,” he finally said, wiping the tears from his eyes. “The great dream!”
“Come on,” said Alberto. “Let’s see if we can wash. Or at least change clothes.”
“My dear friend!”
Sigismondo got up, let his coat fall. Alberto started unbuttoning his jacket.
He removed his hat and the short crop of brown hair disappeared. A cascade of long and fine blond locks spread over Sigismondo’s back. His features softened, and the flash of his big eyes was veiled.
“Yes, here she is.”
She laughed again.
“The dream! Imagine that! Of course I have one. I want to become Pope!”
[Translated from the French by Richard Pevear]
The stories published here under the title “Three Other Places” come from the collection Destinations, written in French and published in Paris by TriArtis in June 2017. The author, Olga Medvedkova, was born in Moscow but attended schools that specialized in French and grew up speaking the language fluently. After finishing her graduate studies in art history, she moved to Paris, where she has lived ever since. She has published a number of important works in art history, all of them written in French, but more recently she has begun to write fiction, which had always been her first ambition. She has published two novels so far, and most recently the collection from which these stories have been drawn. The other five stories from the collection were published in my translation under the title Going Where as number 33 of The Cahiers Series, edited by Dan Gunn, and published under the auspices of the American University of Paris by Sylph Editions (London, 2018). R.P.