An Excerpt From The Cello Francesca or Balderdash

Our narrator has succeeded in getting a hiking date with the girl of his dreams:

  "What did you bring to read?" Anna asked.

  "I didn't bring anything," I lied. "And I expect you know all about this anyhow, but I thought I'd, uh..." (Lightning flashed behind a ridge far to the southwest, and in my scrambling brain) "...I'd tell you the true story of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta. You've read the Divine Comedy, I suppose."

  She smiled. "When I was taking Italian, in Lucerne. But it's been years, I've forgotten it all. Do go ahead."

  Well, that was clearly a polite lie, but I was more grateful than embarrassed. "OK, well, uh, you know how everybody always says that Francesca's trying to kid Dante about how she's this innocent helpless victim of a wave of passion and all, and how in fact, she ... she knew she was going to commit adultery when she went into it. Well, it's not that simple, not at all. She was set up and killed by her husband Gianciotto to get rid of her..."

  And off I went on the most unlikely tale I could invent, first trying to think ahead and plan sexy, exculpating circumstances that would make Francesca's treacherous lust seem OK, or at least understandable, and then getting caught up in a tale of intrigue, jealousy, aphrodisiacs and balderdash that seemed to just tell itself, gradually shifting from Francesca to the poor stumblebum Paolo, who seemed so inarticulate and clueless in Dante's rendition. In my version, he saw what had to happen, but thought he had no choice but to stand by Francesca, who had tried in vain to please her misshapen and homosexual husband.

  Gianciotto had married her only out of political necessity, had grudgingly consummated the marriage to bind Francesca's assets, but spent all his time with a certain Marco ("Sofia") Pederone, whose dress, manner, and willowy form had half of Rimini convinced that Francesca was a victim only of normal heterosexual infidelity, but the revelation of whose true colors one feverish winter night humiliated Francesca and drove her to the protective arms of her (in my version) childhood friend Paolo.

  The sunlight faded, the air around us grew still, greenish, and charged as I wove in such bits and snatches of Dante as skidded up in time to be included at the logical point. Laggard recollection about exactly what it was that Paolo was doing in Gianciotto's court missed the bus, but you can be sure that the fatal kiss of Launcelot and Guinevere, followed by the erotic truncation of their literary picnic, was primed and ready, though I didn't dwell on it or rub it in. I dropped it into the saturated ambience as a seed that might crystallize larger and more comprehensive developments later.

  Also in my telling there was a fair amount of space devoted to Paolo's pining honorably from afar over Francesca's tea-colored eyes, her wit and erudition, her love of nature and her husky dark voice. And - tricky narrative footing here - her firm little butt, which he had accidentally, innocently brushed against one day in the mercato, long before their friendship proved carnal. Much telling - and particularly this, which I looped back upon and revisited as one does in dreams, until I got it right - was given to Francesca's and Paolo's tragic foreknowledge of doom, to Francesca's embrace of this doom as preferable to the ignominy of life as her husband's second choice to a perfumed boy, and to Paolo's loyal acceptance of his share in her fate.

  And when at last Gianciotto burst into Francesca's bedchamber and spitted them coupled on a single sword, you can bet Francesca knew it would happen and why it had to, that she was as ready for Gianciotto's thrust as for Paolo's; and that Paolo joined her in death out of a sacrificial wisdom that gladly achieved revenge, consummation, and immortality to end his beloved's mortal humiliation.

  At that point I paused for breath. I had been facing out over the valley, following the trail of inspiration through the slow darkening and wind-tossing of trees a thousand feet below us. I was thinking of prolonging things with a sort of epilog or coda devoted to the lovers' infernal afterlife, but I risked a sidelong glance at Anna to see how she was taking it, and found her glancing sidelong at me.

  Our eyes met, she started to say, "What a perfectly lovely crock . . ." but either it trailed off or my hearing faded as I began to drown in the dark tea. I barely heard her whispered "Oh, my God", and her pulse jumped and flew in the shadows at the base of her throat, and then slowly we were leaning together and kissing, Jesus, just like Paolo and Francesca, and my heart was hammering like Gianciotto hobbling up the steps to kill them.

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