Bearing dust from distant lands, the petitioners sit on Calvino’s cool slate floor or stroll about his bare prison yard. They tell him stories in many languages, languages mostly incomprehensible to them – languages known only to Calvino.
The faintest hint of temple incense from the gust of an envoy’s cape describes, to the great seer, the piety of some distant city where unclothed skin is frowned upon and the church bells ring in exacting unison on every turn of the hour. The sunburned eyelids of a new guard illustrate an island village where drunks sleep on the beach wrapped around their brown guitars, where wild boars are cooked over fires built from dried banana leaves. The guarded silences of a dark pilgrim recount, to the great artist, the oft-remembered blows of leather and metal endured in a bonded childhood and the sound of waves slapping against the side of an airless hull.
From this opaque, dense dialogue, Calvino feeds his gift – his vision – and does not go mad amongst the flat grey walls of his prison. But while he is grateful to his patrons for the emissaries they send, grateful for the pilgrims who simply want to meet him, it is not enough.
In sentencing Calvino to a lifetime of remote isolation, the Emperor’s instructions were simple and explicit: no female visitors.
Accordingly, it has been many years since the visionary has known company of the fairer sex. While his extraordinary imagination helped him stave off loneliness for many years, the memory of sweetness eventually turned stale. Now the great lover has almost forgotten the embrace of a woman. It sickens him to think that he might go to his unmarked grave without any memory of that sweetness.
His sentence was one of life. His sentence is almost spent. He turns his great vision to the afterlife – and finds himself alone. It is too much to bear. His throat raw, Calvino considers the insignificant noise of his spirit amongst the echoes of time – a minor note, an anguished quaver.
It is during such a moment that the Marquis first lays eyes on the venerated artist.
The ingenious foreigner spent many months searching for the desert routes that would lead him to the prison. A gypsy charmed with luck and wit, the Marquis has travelled hard to come and bid for the great artist’s lucrative affection. Now that he stands in this legendary cell, a situation that so many throughout the world might dream themselves in, he would have Calvino’s attention.
The Marquis perceives, at a glance, the cause of the great artist’s pain. For the singular purpose of distracting of the revered seer from his brooding, the Marquis begins to describe women encountered on his most recent journey.
In a universal language of sighs and winks, yawns and ovation, the emissary summons the women one by one to Calvino’s hankering imagination.
The effervescent change that overtakes the Marquis’s manner as he describes each woman, the degree of lust in his eye and vigor in his hands, tells the great artist more than his lilting tongue alone ever could. Through gestures both subtle and ostensive, through the dancing motion of his shoulders and the delicate rolls of his tongue, the Marquis conjures spirits for Calvino to apprehend.
Sophronia uses skin as a costume and joins the parade. With all eyes on her, she twists unselfconsciously and gasps for air, her costume livid. Blood barrels through languid veins, sweat beads down the arc of her spine and she pulls the hair out of her face, eyes flashing, gasping the sulfuric fire of a she-devil.
Penthesilia watches the traffic from between iron bars. White-knuckled fists grip the wooden arms of her chair while she counts the pieces of dust on her tongue.
There is water in this old woman’s dreams. She can swim further than a scream can carry, swim until the coldness is above her head, filling her lungs, filling her eyes. She is overjoyed at the dark water drifting past her ankles. Her frozen knuckles are whiter than the belly-up fish that slowly float by.
Despira displays one face to the newcomer and a different one to he that is leaving.
The newcomer sees stability, a smile that welcomes his fingers, warmth that smells of fire-baked custards and cooing infants, sturdy shoulders and hips ready to care for boy and man alike.
He that is leaving sees in her entropy, knuckles splayed over red knees, burnt iron brandished in cotton gloves, a gentle storm in an iron cup.
Despira straddles borders and is made of glass.