"SILVER" Signs of Life, 2016
The little girl climbed on the bench in front of her grandmother’s dressing table. She loved the old mahogany table with its hinged side mirrors that she could move back and forth. And she loved the old silver dresser set lying on the table. She swung her legs as she fiddled with the silver-backed hairbrush and peeked inside a cut-glass jar with a silver lid. It held the powder her grandmother patted on her face when she dressed up for church. Like the rest of the set, the jar’s lid was engraved with a flower design that circled around the initial “G.” The child was sure the letter meant “Grandmother.”
She adjusted the side mirrors so she could see both sides of her head and pulled out the Minnie Mouse barrettes her mother had clipped in earlier in the morning. She picked up the brush and drew the bristles gently downward, holding her head first this way then that, imitating her grandmother. Her reflection repeated itself endlessly. Or, could there be other people who looked exactly the same? She put the brush down, frightened at the thought that she might not be unique after all.
The child dipped her finger in the face powder and dabbed her nose. Spots of powder scattered over the dresser top. The silver-handled nail scissors gleamed in the light. She used them to trim her bangs, the snips of fine blonde hair falling on the hand mirror. The mirror was so heavy it wobbled in her hand as she lifted it to check her appearance. The curved edge was beveled, reflecting slices of her face. So many images. Would any of them tell her she was fairest of them all?
She hopped down from the bench when she heard her grandmother say, “Here you are my little princess!” Grandmother pretended she didn’t notice her missing bangs or the mess.
The teenager yawned as she watched her mother sort through the remnants of a life two weeks after the funeral. Boxes were ready for donation; other boxes brimmed with items no one knew yet whether to give away or save. Heirlooms, her mother called them. “Do you want anything?” her mother asked. “I remember you used to play with the silver dresser set.”
“Who wants that old stuff? It’s all tarnished anyway.” It reminded her of her grandmother’s death, or “passing,” as her mother said. The dresser, with its three mirrors, and the upholstered bench, were already gone to charity, and she didn’t want to think about the day she saw the endless repetitions of herself, a vision of faces, never changing, never growing up. She knew the mirror hadn’t lied that day. She would never be the fairest and didn’t want to look at her face with blemishes, or her hair, now a lank mess. It was just too depressing.
Her mother shrugged. “Well, I don’t know what to do with them. I’ll think about it for a while. It’s such a shame to get rid of everything but…” Her indecision dangled in the air.
The woman finished brushing her hair and looked at herself in the polished silver hand mirror. Her blonde hair was shoulder length, straight and parted on the left. The earrings her husband gave her when she told him about the pregnancy sparkled. When she tilted her head from side to side, they played peek-a-boo with each other as they caught the light streaming from the lamp on her dresser. She laughed at the silly word. There wasn’t any outward sign of a baby yet, but she could feel the changes in her body and her mind blossomed with satisfaction. It would still be seven months before she herself could play peek-a-boo.
The mirror reflected her happiness. She hoped someone would remark on how well she looked.
Long and smooth strokes – that was the way she liked to brush her gray hair until it gained a silvery shine. The repetition soothed her soul and reminded her of the long-ago day her grandmother told her she was a princess. The thought made her laugh aloud. Princesses lived charmed lives, but hers had been filled with the same mix of pain and pleasure as those who survive without magic charms and potions. She paused to look at the brush. Some of the bristles had fallen out but enough remained. She found a long blond hair entwined among them and her memory moved to the time when she learned she was pregnant and her husband gave her the earrings. And she remembered her granddaughter begging her to let her wear them to the prom. “If mother says ‘no’ then ask grandmother.”
The old woman picked up the oval hand mirror. The engraved silver back had several dents but the design was still visible. Who was “G”? She’d never known, but she’d named her daughter Gemma. The glass reflected her worry lines and those of tension too. But the lines of life she treasured, those smile lines around her eyes, were deeper than ever.
She began to brush her hair again.
MORE THAN FIRE
For your reading pleasure: A short story about Rome by my Italian friend Flavia Brunetti. It is filled with her wonderful magic realism.
The Title is More Than Fire and can also be found at https://opendoorreview.com
When Eva appeared at the water’s edge in Brindisi, the god Tevere was already there, a figure wrapped in oilskin, looking into the sea. He turned as she approached.
“Goddess of fire,” he greeted her, “I am glad you came.” The smile he offered didn’t quite reach his eyes, which searched her.
“God of the river, how could I refuse such a kind invitation when extended by you? I have not seen Rome in at least a thousand years.”
Tevere turned his back to the sea, gesturing to the steps behind them, a tall marble column standing guard near the top.
“This is why I wanted to meet you here. This is where the Ancient Appian Way ended. I remember when everything connected to the rest of the world from right here.” Tevere looked around, sighed. “We can cut across the country, take the old way back to my city. What do you say?” he asked, extending an arm out toward Eva. She accepted and stepped onto the road, and Tevere walked with her, easily, matching her step.
“I am happy to be able to repay the kindness you showed me when I visited your country. I have thought of little but Kenya since I left,” Tevere said as they began their journey. Though they walked at a conversational pace, the land slid under them obediently – sometimes a normal step, miles in the next – crossing the country on a path carved by the mightiest of roads, centuries past.
“You are always welcome,” Eva replied, looking at the tall, dark-haired god as he walked comfortably in his home. Everything seemed to curve ever-so-slightly toward him – the light dancing on the planes of his face, a breeze fluttering his hair. It was clear that Italy loved her Tevere.
Tevere was a handsome god, and he grew more powerful as he neared the city that had always been the river’s favorite. By the time they stepped into Rome, every puddle of water, every fountain, every working aqueduct vibrated in his presence, and Eva remembered how water is everywhere in Rome. Behind her back, she summoned a tiny flame in her hand, only for a moment, to remind herself of who she was, so she would not be swept away by the force that was the sinuous Tevere, whose source wound its way through the city itself.
“And now, Eva,” when he said her name it felt like a new jewel, “I show you my Roma.” For days, he did, peppering the city with his stories, showing her how it held within its confines the ancient and the modern, pointing out the traffic flowing beneath the ancient Arch of Drusus, a solitary monolith that tolerated zipping cars and motorini. When they came across marbled ruins, Tevere would draw with his hands in front of them what it had looked like when Rome was at the peak of her glory. Eva had never noticed before how exquisite his hands were.
It was not until the end of a long day – the day Eva had begun to miss her home in earnest after Tevere had admired the way she could make rivulets of fire wind through the stone of the
fountains in Piazza Navona in the dark, the same day when she thought it might be time to start her return journey – that he asked for the favor.
“It won’t be for too long,” Tevere said, his dark eyes catching hers temptingly. “I have to go. I’m looking for something lost. The Meta Romuli pyramid.”
“Oh?” Eva was surprised. They were standing in the middle of the empty piazza, lit only by a few distant streetlights. In the darkness, the fountains glowed. “I remember it from the last time I was here,” she continued, remembering the pyramid that had stood not far from Tevere’s own bank. “Wasn’t it destroyed hundreds of years ago?”
“Yes,” he replied, pink growing in his cheeks, “but I think I’ve found a way to bring it back.”
Eva took a step back, frowning up at the taller god. “I don’t think you should,” she said, reflecting now on what the other deities said about Tevere – his obsession to restore Rome’s former glory. She had never tolerated idle gossip, but the man standing in front of her now, eyes ablaze, unsettled her deeply.
“There are myths, Eva,” Tevere said, reaching his hand out to touch her arm. A small veil of fire appeared and hovered over Eva’s skin. Tevere quickly pulled back. “The Romans spoke for centuries of it being the burial place of one of the founders of the city—”
“You’re a god of this city, Tevere. You were there. Certainly you don’t need to rely on gossip—”
“It holds a place in their history, their legends, their most beloved art. If I could find some of the artifacts that remind the people of times past. Of what they were. Of the magnificence that once was Rome! I have seen history disappearing. I could—” Tevere faltered then, seeing the worry in Eva’s eyes, the disdain creeping in. He was familiar, especially with the latter, when he spoke to his peers. He tried to smile reassuringly, and his eyes lost the manic sheen that had crept in. “Anyway, I am going to see if I can locate it, but even if I do, I will not do anything. I just… need to see. That’s all. If I find anything, I will come and seek your counsel.”
Eva knew this was not true. Tevere sought no one’s counsel, not ever. And yet he looked so broken, so meek, and though she knew it was probably calculated, she did not like to see him sad.
“What do you need me for?” she asked, and Tevere knew he had won.
“I cannot leave my city unguarded,” he said, sweeping his hand around to the majesty of the piazza. “I have seen in these days that you love Rome, too. I trust you with her.” Tevere dared to take a step closer to Eva. She gazed at him. She did not love Rome, but Tevere did not care to see that. His hands made a supplicating gesture, and Eva, who had not felt anything for a god in hundreds of years, could think of nothing but Tevere’s beautiful hands, as perfect as the statues on his beloved fountains.
“Alright, Tevere,” she said, placing one hand in his, igniting a shock of electricity, because any promise one god makes to another is binding. Tevere’s face lit into a beautiful smile. He dropped her hand.
“There is one small thing,” he said. “A small ceremony has to be performed each day so that the city remains in balance with its elements.” Tevere turned toward Bernini’s achingly beautiful Fountain of the Four Rivers, the depiction of four river gods, each representing a continent, speared by the obelisk reaching for the sky. Eva realized now they were not there by chance.
“For the elements of water and earth, take a thimbleful of water from this fountain and feed it to the ground in the Parco degli Aquedotti,” Tevere made a soft ladling motion with one hand and a scoop of water floated from the fountain toward them. With the other, he took Eva’s hand again. A moment later, they stood in what looked like a field, the small orb of water shining between them. With a gentle and reverent motion, Tevere lowered the orb into the ground, where it was immediately absorbed.
“The park of the aqueducts,” he repeated, gesturing to the looming shapes in the distance, “named after the ancient aqueducts that still run through it.” He was watching Eva closely, still holding her hand. “Are you alright?”
“Next time, you will tell me where we are going. You will not take me without permission,” she said, drawing herself up. The park, which previously uttered the soft night sounds of birds settling in and small animals scurrying over grass and dirt, went silent. Eva stood tall, her dark red robe flapping in the wind. Her eyes glowed a dangerous orange. Tevere frowned.
“I do apologize, goddess. I am getting ahead of myself with excitement. You are, of course, correct,” Tevere bowed.
“May I?” he said, reaching again for her hand. After a moment’s pause, Eva took it lightly, and once again, they were somewhere new. Every god knows the inside of the mighty Pantheon, even if they are not of the city. They were standing just beneath the oculus, looking up at the night sky.
“Here,” he whispered, “you release the wind.”
Tevere grinned at her and pulled a small flask out of his pocket. “A minor wind. The Venti gods give me a good supply.” He opened the flask and held it out, and a bright, cold wind flew up, blew around the grand space for a moment, and then whirled out into the night sky. Tevere sniffed. “Glacial. From the North.”
In an instant, they were standing in Circus Maximus. “And now for the most powerful of the elements,” he said, and for the first time, Eva noticed Tevere’s smile was like a shark’s – predatory and full of teeth. He struck a match and it flared into the sky, feeding off Eva’s presence. It burned down quickly. In the sphere of light, Tevere looked at Eva, the light leaving shadows in the hollows of his cheeks, along his temples. Eva darkened. The fire went out.
“The Great Fire of Rome started here in the first century,” he whispered, and she refused to shiver, staring straight into his eyes, even in the darkness. “Burned most of the city right down to the ground. This is where we feed this element.”
“I know what it did.” Eva could feel the fire here, still tugging at her. She pushed it away, forced it to cower, though it lingered, just out of her reach, and she knew if she did not keep careful
watch, it would feed off her, consume itself. “I don’t want to be involved with this,” she said to him, forcing herself to whisper. Some places, some moments were delicate. A balance had to be carefully cultivated. Her hand stung. He shrugged.
“If it’s too powerful for you, I do understand. We can break your promise. I would not fault you.”
Eva, who was known for her regal composure and patience, felt the urge to slap him.
“You knew what you were doing when you invited me here, river. I made a promise and I will keep it. I will remember that you manipulated me. It does not bode well for you.” For a moment, Tevere’s shadow loomed huge in the remains of the ancient chariot stadium, and though Eva knew it was not wise to test another god on his own grounds, just at this moment, she did not care. “Go on your fool’s errand, enough of you. You will return as soon as you can. Do not leave me with your city for too long,” she added as a warning, and then, because she was feeling herself a fool, she shooed him with her hand and turned away. There was a sound like rushing water, like a threat, and when she looked back, he was gone.
The goddess Eva, if she knew anything, knew how to be brave, and not just outside, where everybody could see, but deep inside, in a way that reflected outward and helped others. Here in Rome, she did not feel brave or resourceful, and she was desperately, heart-clawingly homesick. She missed the heat of her homeland, the sun that seemed to burn a thousand times closer than here – sometimes setting so close the entire sky turned molten. This city felt cold to her, pale in comparison. Worst of all, she felt stuck here, furious at Tevere’s trickery. It played in loops in her mind, the fire inside her boiling, so that she sometimes woke up to find she had burned her blankets off in an angry sleep, leaving her cold in the watery dawn light.
When Eva woke up like this, when the fire had nowhere to go, she walked. She paced the roads that circled the Colosseum, the tiny hectic jewel that was Trastevere, the Campo Marzio that held the Pantheon, her favorite monument in all of the city (and sometimes, she thought, all of the world). She wandered over to Largo di Torre Argentina, the large piazza that sheltered ruins in its middle, known as the area sacra, and all around it the chaos of modern-day bus stops. Sometimes her feet would lead her to Castel Sant’Angelo, though she never went inside after the first time. She had known both Hadrian and his lover, Antinous, and walking through the halls that still rang of the emperor only made her sad for the boy.
When Eva found herself in the Pantheon, she carried out the air rite, using the store of venti that Tevere had in his home. When she had gone back, the night Tevere left her, she found he had the gall to leave her a note on the table with instructions. She burned right through it, the paper turning to flame in her hand. But when she carried out the air rite, she forgot all this, and felt only relief at the wind swirling through the round opening that looked out onto the world. Eva went back to Piazza Navona regularly, bringing water to the beautiful aqueduct park. But she did not go back to Circus Maximus. When she felt guilty about endangering the city, she told herself she was, after all, a goddess of fire. It was unlikely that her own element would turn against her.
Eva only doubted herself in the very quietest of hours, when she remembered how the fire had pushed on her will, reaching out for her. Those were the nights she woke up with curls of smoke rising from her skin. The nights she needed to wander.
When Eva finally appeared in the deserted Circo Massimo, an eagerness pressed into her from all sides. Burn, burn, burn, burn, the invisible fire whispered to her, let me come to life, and for a moment, the goddess of fire feared her own element. But fear would never do. She was in control here. Eva opened her hand slowly, fighting down the howling in her head. I am Eva. I am the goddess of fire. I rule this element. She wished it, and a small, tremulous blue flame appeared in her hand. She would feed it slowly, let the energy seep out.
Just before it happened, she saw it – phantom flames licking at this cold city, this place of ruin and marble, and in that second, her control slipped. Everything exploded.
All of Circus Maximus burst into flames, living fire, chewing everything in its path. It twisted and twirled into the air in exultation, and one moment Eva cowered, and the next she was raging with it, opening her arms wide, throwing her head back, her eyes filled with all the colors – orange and yellow and purple and black at the center of a flame that’s been gazed at for too long.
If you don’t stop, Rome will burn, said a voice inside her. Flames flickered softly in Eva’s eyes. Let it burn. She had started this, and she could end it, but let the god who had tricked her come back to a city of ash.
And then Eva felt the fire expand outward, licking out into the surrounding streets, and she realized people would die. She began to run.
“No, no, no, no,” Eva yelled at the flames that enveloped her, that gave her life. “Stop it,” and if Eva had tears, she would have cried them, but demons of fire have no water inside. She stopped running. “I am not a demon,” she said out loud. The only sound was every sound – the howl of fire devouring, roaring. She closed her eyes. This was her fire. She let the guilt go. You feel you are a fool. You are angry with yourself. Do not let him be the reason you no longer know yourself or what you are made up of. She put a hand to her heart. I know you.
When she opened her eyes, the fire had gone. Circo Massimo was desolate, burned black. The buildings around the park had been singed but were still standing. She felt a hole in the city. She had hurt it. For the first time in her life, Eva dropped to her knees, cradled the wounded earth.
“I am sorry,” she whispered, and curled up on the ground in the middle of what had been a mighty empire, and she fell asleep, an invisible wisp where she had once been a true flame.
Eva didn’t know how to fix it. If it had been her city, she told herself, she would have known. If it had been your city, you never would have done this, herself whispered back, and her fingers curled around the dry dirt. Sorry, sorry, sorry. She got up to leave the city she had defiled, and then, finally, Eva remembered that she was brave – not like a god, who fears nothing, but like
some humans, who move forward despite what they most fear. She would walk the city to find its wounds. She never once thought of Tevere.
Eva didn’t find anything until she got to Largo di Torre Argentina. The ruins within were gone now. The piazza dipped down into bare concrete. Eva’s stomach churned. Pieces of the Theatre of Pompey should be here.
There was a boy sitting on one of the stone parapets bordering where the ruins should start, resting cross-legged on the wide stone structure, looking down at a notebook in his lap and sketching intensely. Once in a while, he looked up at the empty middle of the piazza, and his pencil quickened. Eva draped her hands over the railing and tried to look discreetly over at his notebook. What was he drawing, if there was nothing left to draw? He noticed her when he looked up and tilted the page toward her. She bit back a gasp. He had drawn out about half of the archeological site as it should have been. The depictions were exquisite, delicately but decisively drawn in black pencil. He was working on the shading. She looked again at the concrete slabs lining the empty space.
“How are you drawing that?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” the boy shrugged. “I just came to sit here, and I got this picture in my mind,” he said, squinting down at the empty part of the page.
“I am Eva,” she said, holding out her hand, watching the boy closely.
“Jack,” he said and shook Eva’s hand. A pinprick of electricity singed her palm.
Eva stepped back, and Jack, poised over the paper, went back to work. She looked out at the center of the piazza, listening to the light scratching of his pencil. As she gazed, it seemed as though the blank concrete slowly seeped into the ground. Eva leaned over the railing to get a better look. Stone and columns grew from the ground, carefully rearranging themselves.
Piece by wandering piece, the four temples grew, joined shortly by all that was left of the space where Julius Caesar was killed. For a shimmering moment, they were no longer ruins but grand structures, filled with busy people, and Eva’s head tilted back to take it all in. She blinked, and before her stood the ruins. She walked over to Jack, whose drawing perfectly mimicked the excavations before him. He appeared entirely nonplussed. She had an idea.
“Would you draw where I’m from?” she asked him.
Jack gladly unzipped his backpack, showing Eva the array of colored pencils inside.
“Pick the ones that remind you of home,” he said, and she chose. He worked quietly, and as he did, it all appeared in front of her: the reds and oranges and yellows, like her fire, the sun and the birds she was used to seeing in her country’s sky, the ever-present green and burnt clay, the deep blues at night, a million stars. As his fingers drew her home, the colors above him flared and faded, remaining in her mind’s eye.
“You are very talented to draw a place you have never seen like this,” she said, accepting the picture gratefully after he carefully tore it from his notebook.
The smell of burning that had followed her all the way there was gone from the air. In Circo Massimo, the grass was already growing back green.
He smiled at her, and hopped off the parapet, zipping up his backpack as he went.
“Ms. Eva,” he said shyly, and she noticed how young he looked. “Thanks. For saying that I’m good. Sometimes I don’t feel like I am.”
Don’t feel like you are? She wanted to tell him. You just rebuilt your own city. I don’t know how, but you did.
Instead, she smiled a real smile at him. Not calculating or manipulative. Just grateful. And happy. And relieved. “Jack, I hope you remember when I tell you. You are a world-builder. I hope you understand, somehow, one day, how important your work is.” Really. “I will keep this,” she said, holding up his drawing of her beloved Nairobi. “And show it to you again when you are very famous.”
He laughed brightly. “You showed it to me. By the way, those are my favorite colors, too. I use the same ones when I draw Rome at sunset.” He waved to Eva, and she waved back, watching to make sure he was safely on the tram, because she could tell he was paying more attention to the way the light hit the building across from him than to where he was going. And she thought about what he said.
After that, something changed inside Eva. She noticed how the ochre light of the sunset burst out of the city’s seams, and how the pale blue light of a morning changed the scene and set a whole new stage, and if she sat still enough, like a goddess could, she felt as though she was underwater. This is how she learned that Rome was a different place at all times of day—that at night, depending on the season, she was soft and warm and enticing, a velvet maze, or she was sharp and cold and clear, fierce and magical to behold and walk through. Eva grew fond of the city’s gargantuan parks, though the park traversed by the aqueducts remained her favorite, and she sat for hours after bringing the water. She learned to look for the little green and rose parakeets that chirruped all over the city, swooping in small flocks from tree to tree, a few of the more brazen ones dropping onto her shoulder to tell her their secrets. She always listened. She learned that there was joy in all the balancing celebrations of Rome, of all the elements, including her own. For the first time in several thousands of years of existence, Eva learned to find spaces that were safe, where she could let the fire inside her run wild – the fire that did not always destroy but could also clean and make way for rebirth. She gave it, and herself, room to breathe, and when she was in Circus Maximus, the fire no longer beat at her. She saw colors inside that she had never seen before. She slept deeply, and quietly, and dreamed often.
Before long, Tevere returned. Eva found him in his living room when she came for the wind. He was sitting on his couch, his mouth twisted in defeat. He did not look as mighty as she remembered him.
“Rome agrees with you, goddess of fire,” he said appreciatively when he saw her. You were so busy chasing down her past that you didn’t notice when I almost burned her down, Eva did not say out loud. I’m not so sure she would agree with you.
“Aren’t you interested in knowing what I found?” he asked her sullenly.
“I am guessing you found nothing, Tevere.”
“But there are so many things I could find. You could stay here.”
“I return your city to you,” she said to him, sealing their agreement.
“Looks like you found something,” he said, noticing Jack’s drawing in her hand.
Eva smiled at it. “Yes. A gift. Perhaps from your city. Do take care of her. She is truly one of a kind.”
And with that, Eva disappeared, though not before stopping in each of the places in Rome that had opened themselves to her, even after she had made a mistake. Last of all was Circus Maximus, and if you were there on that drizzly afternoon, just in the center, for a moment, you might have seen a tiny, flashing flame – a goddess’s gratitude.
Author Bio: Flavia grew up bouncing between Rome, Italy, and a little town outside of San Francisco, California. When she moved to Tunis, Tunisia a few years ago, she began wondering what the gods might make of modern life in their ancient civilizations: “More Than Fire” is the first short story from a collection of thoughts that began on many flights between Tunis and Rome, where she lives today while she works on her second novel. Her debut novel, All the Way to Italy, was published in 2018 by Ali Ribelli Edizioni. You can find Flavia on Instagram @whichwaytorome and her writing portfolio at www.flaviinrome.com.