Caravaggio, from The English Patient

Posted in Original, Poetry, Writing by netscheri on October 6, 2008

David Caravaggio does not remember Italy. Or if he does, it is no more than an ancestral memory of the warmth of the sun, of small houses in great swathes and wide strokes, Caravagesque, like the painter he shares a name with. What he is familiar with is the landscape of North America. He is familiar with the wind, with the water, with the sharp feel of the rocks near the construction site pressing into his back. He shifts position so that he is no longer lying on some of the sharpest rocks. In the background, he hears the sounds of steel meeting iron as the workers build and his mind translates this into the sound of cowboys and pioneers, their spurs ringing metallic as they urge their horses forward (the dull hammering of iron into wood). Building a new city. David stretches a hand out towards the sun, an eye half-closed like One Eyed Bill The Most Dangerous Outlaw in the West. Behind him, the workers, English, Polish, Russian, Italian, continue to build Canada. There is displacement and expanse.

By the time he is twenty-two, Caravaggio has displaced his first name. It happened like a shedding of skin, or rather, like the shedding of childhood places as the construction workers and One Eyed Bill both left. Yet at twenty-two, there is that same feeling of awkwardness and confusion that he had felt as a restless ten year old trying to grasp an untouchable sun. The city has been built and Caravaggio now sits in one of its bars. He is dressed idly in trousers and shirt with the remnants of black oil and dirt on his fingertips. A thief sits on a stool across from him. Caravaggio is still trying to grapple with the word ‘thief’. To him, it seems to belong in the company of One Eyed Bill The Most Dangerous Outlaw In the West; yet, here is Jonathan ‘Slip’ Meeker, Profession: Thief who is only separated from Caravaggio by the new wood of the table. The smallness of this distance.
“I’ve been watching you, Caravaggio.” Caravaggio thinks that Slip’s opening words also sound like One Eyed Bill’s. But where One Eyed Bill would have said ‘kid’ in a show of brash, easy condescension, Slip instead addresses him by name. It would have been a simple task to discover Caravaggio’s name – an ear while the boss addresses the workmen – but to Caravaggio it is another proffered proof of nocturnal entries and exits.
“Do they call you Slip because you can slip into places easily?” He asks with a mixture of disbelief, challenge and curiosity. In return, Slip smiles. Slip has an earnest face in wide ears and eyes and nose that this is belied by a habit of concentrating at a space on the diagonal between Caravaggio’s face and shoulders and blinking too quickly.
“No, they don’t. Drink?” Caravaggio also wants to ask if the notes and coins that Slip lays on the table are from stolen spoils but he stops himself. The light is orange from the yellow dusklight and the already brown windows. This question that he would readily ask another worker seems crass here. “I said, I’ve been watching you.” There is deliberation in Slip’s words and when his beer arrives he places it in front of himself with a firmness contrary to his name. “But, I wouldn’t have met you unless you contacted me first. Look, I still have what you wrote, Caravaggio. ‘I want to ask you something Slip…’ and et cetera. We wondered what we would do about you, Caravaggio.”

‘Yes’. It is an acknowledgment rather than a realisation. Two nights ago, with the same oil and grime ingrained into his skin, Caravaggio had heard something raw and panicked and fearful, had recognised Jonathan Meeker as he leapt from the wall of a garden and learnt that Ralph was not the only other name that Meeker could claim, that carpentry was not the only skill that Meeker knew. There was the physical. He had heard Meeker’s shoes ground into the gravel, smelt crushed flowers in the garden over the wall. The bundle of stolen objects had been too tightly encircled by Meeker’s arms to create sound. There had also been in that figure of changing Meeker the intangible – a memory of a prestigiatore that his mother had once seen on an Italian street. He had spun blue porcelain plates on thin metal rods and created roses from tomato peels, apple cores, the tassel of a woman’s scarf. Watching him, he had been made aware of movement and texture in Slip’s leap and fall towards gravity, the rise of volume in the warning, the shift in the layers of roof shale and leaves as Slip passes through them. What Caravaggio experienced was not displacement but replacement. His banality was replaced by an incantesimo. If there was an expanse from childhood or wilderness or elsewhere, he would replace it by the sense of acquiring. Thievery. An art.
“I want to learn.”

Caravaggio practises at home in the dark. Chiascuro.

It is somewhere near three in the morning. Caravaggio is now able to sleep and wake with the lightness of thieves. The house that he had chosen had not been the kind of mansion that he admired in the generosity of envy, but an almost plain house. He walks through it, and he pauses to run his hands over the preserved new chintz of the settee. The second time he stops walking is to transfer necklaces and pearls and gold into the small bag at this side. The third time is when he hears his dog’s one warning back, clear like a diamond engagement ring. Caravaggio immediately stills and then responds. He braces his arms against his head as he crashes through the window, trying to reach the ground. His dog doesn’t bark again but is ready to run. It is not enough. Perhaps it was a watchful neighbour who alerted the police of the city that is still new, but they are at the end of the street. Caravaggio struggles violently, knowing, believing that if he escapes he can – he doesn’t finish the thought and instead brings his elbow into the bridge of a policeman’s nose. When his fists fail as his arms are bound behind his back he strikes with his feet. They clasp the handcuffs to his wrists. There is something leaking into his eyes, he thinks it’s blood, he can’t see.

When he is twenty-three, Caravaggio again experiences replacement. This time, he is the one who is falling. It is not like Slip’s escaping fall, nor is it like his fall onto the Whitevale lawn, a frame in his arms and a crack in his ankle in his first attempt. It is a fall back into expanse and emptiness. Or perhaps it is displacement again, as there is unease instead of solidity. As he sits in a prison for Theft Breaking and Entering, he interrogates himself. He examines each part of his body in turn. One day: his ears; another: his feet, his chest, his mouth, his fingers as he flexes them one by one. Which of the senses was accomplice? Was it the part or the whole that was at fault? Was it internal or external? His body is an uncooperative hostage to his mind’s ceaseless questioning. When another prisoner asks, Battery and Assault, as to what he planned to do once he got out of this hole, Caravaggio replies “I don’t know. I think I’ve lost my nerve.” His hands remain on his knees.


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  1. Loretta Young said, on December 4, 2011 at 5:40 am

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