The Whirling Girl (Preview)
With Second-Best Regrets
CLARE LIVINGSTON HAD KNOWN nothing about her uncle’s obituary: not that it had been published internationally (even in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Corriere della Sera) nor that — most hurtfully to her aunt — it had also appeared in the local weeklies. Only when a lawyer tracked Clare down in Vancouver and summoned her to the family farm in western Washington did she learn the scandal-making nature of her uncle’s bequest. Later, when she read the obituary, Clare realized her uncle had written it himself.
Noted Etruscan scholar Geoffrey Kane dies at sixty, in Seattle, ran the header in the Skagit Valley Herald.
Born in Oxford, England, Geoffrey Kane (a.k.a. “Fufluns”) travelled to Anacortes, Washington as a graduate student to assist the retired historian Perseus Livingston in compiling his research papers. Kane stayed on for fifteen years after marrying Livingston’s only daughter, before an abrupt departure for Italy where he found employment with the Rome bureau of The New York Times.
Etruscan archaeology was Kane’s passion. During his twenty years in Rome, he spent his leisure time travelling around Etruria, exploring the remains of Etruscan cities and cemeteries, and publishing a series of articles under the pen name “Fufluns.” On returning to the States to undergo treatment for what turned out to be his final illness, Kane let it be known that a forthcoming book would release spectacular information about a hitherto unknown Etruscan site.
Unlikely to be missed, Geoffrey Kane is survived by his niece Chiara Livingston to whom, with forgiveness, he leaves his Tuscan property, and by his wife Marion Livingston Kane, to whom he leaves his second-best regrets.
Clare’s aunt met her at the farm gate holding the shotgun she’d been using to keep back the local press. Clare had not seen her aunt in twenty years. Now the long braid was grey. Clare remembered it as yellow like her own. She remembered how it twitched back and forth like a lion’s tail; the feline beauty was still there, as was the ice-blue glare that could maul her from yards away.
The old farmhouse had gone grey as well, the paint finally giving a cracked and stony look to the fake Italian tower.
In a show of family backbone, Clare’s aunt had turned this occasion into an ironic wake. She invited selected relatives to drink sherry in the cavernous salotto (as generations had insisted the room be called), where the air was thick with dust motes and speculation. For surely (the murmuring suggested as they waited for the lawyer) the obituary had got it wrong. Surely the will itself would make clear that if Geoffrey Kane had managed to acquire substantial property — if he’d managed to make a prosperous life for himself after decamping all those years ago — he would not have left everything to Clare.
In the wind-rush of dropped jaws as the bequest was confirmed, Clare took the sealed envelope the lawyer handed her and fled up the spiral stairs to the tower.
She stood for a long time looking out across the acres that had been tulip fields when her great-grandfather built the folly of an Italianate villa for his bride; the fields were horse pasture now, sodden in the rain. This tower room had been the retreat of her grandfather Perseus, later her uncle’s study. Now there was some old lumber, the smell of mice. She slit the envelope with a rusty knife from the sill.
There was nothing personal inside. Just the command — typewritten by a lawyer in Cortona — for Clare to carry with her, to Italy, “the bodily remains of the most lamented Signor Geoffrey Kane, to be disposed of as you will see fit, once you have arrived.”
Two weeks later, she was driving north from the airport at Rome with the disturbing cargo concealed in a plastic makeup case. Who knew what the strictures might be about bringing someone’s ashes across international borders?
Clare. Or as the obituary might have put it, a.k.a. Chiara. (In Italian: clear, bright, light-filled, fair.)
GEOFFREY HAD HELD HER on his knee when she was little and told her tales of distant lands; she’d known she was the light of her uncle’s life.
Such imaginary travels they’d escaped on — to the great lost cities of the Amazon, now overgrown with trees so tall that if you were a jaguar, stalking, you would move through constant deep and leafy gloom. He’d promised he would take her there. He would take her to far-off Italy too, to the lands of the powerful Etruscans who had left behind incomparable treasure in their lavish tombs. Safe on his knee, safe and loved, the lost civilizations rose again and beckoned, conjured by his words.
The Italian hill town of Cortona was older than Troy. That was another of his stories. Long ago, the local ruler’s wife had borne the child of Zeus, and the scandal had driven the boy to seek his fortune in Asia Minor. When he lost his hat in battle, on that spot he founded Troy.
The autostrada rolled under the rented jeep’s wheels no matter how Clare sped or slowed. Somewhere to the north, behind that ancient city of Cortona, her uncle had bought a house and olive grove, where he made a life that she’d known nothing of.
Castled towns rose and fell in the near distance. Red ploughed fields glistened against other fields that were not parched and umber, as she had expected, but a wild lush green. The wind held a hothouse softness too, though mixed with freeway fumes. After the dreary week of her stopover for research in London, this late spring fullness was a hopeful sign. She sped past exit signs for Tarquinia, Tuscania, Orvieto, hilltop cities where once those great Etruscan strongholds loomed.
To my niece Chiara Livingston, with forgiveness, the will had read. Not just the immense and shaming gift — a gift clearly designed to shock — but the twisted offer of forgiveness.
She had been left a house, a Tuscan house, a piece of Tuscan property, the stuff that dreams are made on. She would not allow ancient grief to spoil this. She forced her concentration back to the work she planned, the research she’d already undertaken during her week in London; she had in mind a lavish book that would delve into folk witchcraft, the so-called “old religion,” rumoured to have survived from Etruscan times. It would be illustrated with her botanical paintings, giving it the same scientific imprimatur that had garnered praise for her Amazonia book — and this time it would be a piece of work that no one could possibly look askance at if they peered too closely. Perhaps this would be the one to make her moderately solvent. She would be able to hang on to the Tuscan property, hire wily Italian solicitors to outsmart her uncle’s widow’s lawyers.
She took her eyes from the perils of the autostrada long enough to steal a glimpse of her reflection in the rear-view mirror. A young woman in a serious hat, entering a new chapter of her life. She tugged the brim of the hat lower. An Italian tour bus swooshed past. Her rented jeep shuddered in the rush of wind. Clare Livingston, reputed Amazonian explorer, tried to pull a lightly spangled veil over the dark matter of the journey, the bequest, even the druggy sense, as the road pulled her closer to his house, that he would meet her there.
The exit sign for Chiusi flashed by. “Choosy,” she said aloud; big mistake. A shutter in her head flew open and there it was, his voice: No no, Chiara, it’s pronounced Keee-oo-see with a k-sound, as in your own name. We will go there. We will hunt for the lost tomb of Lars Porsenna! We will look for scarabs in the jeweller’s field.
She skidded onto the verge, blind with sudden tears, spraying gravel, choking back all she’d been holding off, an ache so deep that she was again tainted and helpless, exactly what she had been to make him flee.
Traffic buffeted the jeep. You were not supposed to stop here. Then the crunch of gravel as a car pulled in behind. She thought of the Carabinieri at the airport with their shining boots and tidy submachine guns. They would find the ashes. She would be lost in the great jungle of Italian rules and regulations, maybe carted off to prison, maybe never seen again.
She looked up to see a 1950s model cream-coloured Mercedes. A young man was getting out, his profile reflected in her side-view mirror like a face on a coin — grand high-bridged nose, determined chin. Now he was coming forward as if she knew him, as if she would be glad, his hair blowing and then falling straight in the wind of passing cars, his linen jacket hunching up around his shoulders with the urgency of what he had to say. She felt a rush of recognition, of idiotic joy, even of rescue, as her eyes locked with this unknown person in the mirror.
She rolled down the window.
She shoved the stick shift into gear, rammed her foot to the floor; and when she saw his startled look, she tore off her hat and hurled it up over the top of the car. In the mirror she saw it hovering for a moment, flapping, before a gust from another passing tour bus sent it soaring towards the roadside field. Her hair fizzed out around her, spun the mirror full of gold.