The city has turned its back on the garden and its walls. She’s only just risen and turned to face the window. The night seeps out of the back alleys and black storefronts, enveloping the solid walls around the garden in the square. The early morning mist obscures the lights from the bridge visible over the rooftops. The sun is hidden down below the city’s belted waist, leaving the streets barren and alone. Lit only by the orange glow of the leaning lampposts, the damp June night sits heavily on Florence. She is crying.
The woman watches kneeling from her kitchen window, the shutters barely cracked. Her blond hair is drawn back in a braid tussled by a restless sleep and troubled dreams. Her face is young and quiet. Defined cheekbones and sunken eyes give the impression that she’s always sad. A cat is perched on the counter beside her, and beside him is a vase of sweet pea flowers the woman had collected for herself that evening from her garden outside. The thick garden walls are to keep the dogs out, but the cats are welcomed. They line the mossy stones and roam the paths with delicate paws, slipping between legs and quickly disappearing behind the patches of straight-stalked sunflowers.
But the cats are resting now and the garden is empty except for a man and woman sitting on a wooden bench off to one corner. The bench is painted green like the vines that snake their way up its legs and drape over its arms. The overhanging branches of a tree fracture the rolling flood of moonlight bathing over the couples’ back. From the woman in the windows’ forward angle, the glow behind the couple silhouettes the two figures and every crevice and space between them is illuminated by the moon. There’s nothing in the garden that can compare to the splendor of the woman and the man. And from the window the crying stops. Shadows of shivering leaves freckle the garden’s damp ground and occasionally when the wind picks up it looks like the entire garden is shifting. The man is holding her tightly to him and her penny hair flecked with amber falls around her shoulders and over his arms. From the window, the young woman watches intently, while the cat on the counter watches her.
A disrupting wind sweeps through the garden and tickles the leaves so that they writhe and squirm. It rattles the windowpane and rustles the blinds. The woman’s hair is swept from in front of her face and the man holds her tighter. The woman reaches up and picks a heavy fig hanging precariously at the end of a bough lower than the rest. It’s not fully ripe but the bough will break if it hangs there for much longer. When the weight is lifted the branch springs back up to its normal height, liberated. She turns her back to the window and the woman watching can only see her back. His whisper comes tumbling on the breeze to the woman’s open window and spills into her apartment, “Orabella.” he says, and she sits again.
And they sit on the ground and eat from a picnic basket and they laugh at the moon and the city. When they’re done Orabella puts everything back in the basket and gets to her feet. The man follows and they stand at the garden gate, hesitating before they close it behind them. The woman in the window sees them step out and move down along the side street. She follows. Wearing only her chalk white nightgown and sandals, she skips down the back steps and onto the street. The couple outside fills a part of her with longing. There’s a part of her now that wants to explore with them the world outside the garden. The cat slips unnoticed out the door at her heels and disappears.
It takes her a minute to find them but she follows the muffled echoes dancing off the alley walls. She catches up as they round a corner in the direction of the river. They take the long way there, winding past public squares and down side streets with no names. She follows along behind them, staying in the shadows, carefully picking her way around broken glass bottles and the skeletons of bicycles chained to posts. She keeps a full street between them stepping out from her shadow only as they turn onto the following street. She doesn’t want to be seen, but is anxious she’ll lose sight of them and all she can do is keep herself a safe distance behind them.
The woman in pursuit has skin that is soft and pale. She stops for a moment to rest her wrinkleless, unscarred hand on her chest and breathe deeply. She understands these streets, with out having ever learned them, but at this hour, when no one is out and the arrows and signs pointing down the city streets all look like they’re pointing to identical alleyways. By the time the woman emerges into the open Lungarno Degli Acciaiuoli, Orabella is sitting on the river wall. All along the Arno, sound is muffled by the darkness and the river’s rippling tongue. The woman backs away, and peaks out from behind a building. Above her, riverside buildings tower with rope slung out the windows to hang the drying laundry. The wind off the water sweeps them up and beats them against the brick walls. She doesn’t like it here at all, and she misses her cat and the straight-stemmed sunflowers. It’s cramped in the alley and she wants nothing but something to hold.
The bottom of the river wall is stone and blanketed in a jungle of graffiti. From where she stands she sees only an intricate mural of the disassembled parts. In the window of the closed ice-cream parlor a neon sign flashes blue and pink. Orabella, sitting atop the wall closes her eyes; the city sinks deeper into slumber. The man is standing beside her with his hand on her back as she sits atop the wall and dangles her feet. She snakes her hand into the basket, and slides out a bottle of wine. And while the man stops her from tumbling over backwards, she takes a lengthy drink. Then he drinks, and the laundry in the window billows and smacks.
There are rats in the alley scuttling around the concealed woman’s feet. She doesn’t know what she’s waiting there to see but she knows she’s waiting for something. She hopes she can stand the sight of them, that as she stands in the dark with the rats scurrying over her toes she won’t burst into tears again. She considers the garden, and the fig, and the gate, and knows she belongs hidden for right now, watching. She considers the garden, and the fig, and the gate, and knows she has to stay. The bottle’s nearly empty. Orabella takes the final sip and blushes again. The bottle in her hand is light and she waves it. She tries to tuck it back in the basket but she keeps missing so instead she throws it over her shoulder into the river. The sudden motion sends her backwards, knocking her off the edge. The woman’s laugh turns into a cry and the bottle hits the water. She grabs out for the man and he stares at her panicked. He fumbles and splutters and the woman in the alley digs her fingernails into her fists. She clings to the edge as she heaves and sobs and the woman in the alley wants to cry too. Now she wants to be seen and she can’t stand the idea of staying tucked away behind a screen of shadow. She rushes out and grabs the woman’s arm hoisting her back onto the stone shelf, as the man still stands there helpless. Orabella spills over into the man’s arms and they stand together holding each other. “Orabella I love you.” He whispers. And the woman stands there next to them, staring at the man with his eyes clenched shut. The woman wants not to have saved her. She wants the man to have caught her. She belongs in her garden, he belongs here with Orabella, protecting her from harm. She sinks away out of view.
They stumble off towards the bright lights and sounds of the Ponte Vecchio where men in long coats stand out all night and sell leather pocket books. She wonders where they’ll go now, and if they’ll find their way back to their homes. She wonders whether they’ll stop on the bridge to look out at the misty city, and if Orabella will try to make out her building tucked in beside all the others. The man, she imagines, will not say much, as he looks down at the river and thinks about Orabella almost falling in. The woman, still in the shadows, imagines the two will look at the tattoo that the bridge’s arches cast on the river’s surface. Standing now in the avenue she follows them with her eyes for a minute and then turns back to the river wall. She steps out into the light and notices the laundry has stopped flapping. The wind has settled down and the river is quieter. Now it’s the lack of breeze that seems disrupting. She doesn’t like the calm, and everything is too hushed. It reminds the woman of her silent apartment and the window overlooking her deserted garden. She’s tasted only the morsels of companionship but now she has the full flavor of figs in her mouth, her back craves the gentle touch of moonlight and the garden bench seems too big for just her alone. She rushes to the wall and stares down at the river. The bottle’s impossible to distinguish floating downstream in the dark, but she knows it’s there because she heard it land. The bottle’s gone, Orabella and the man are gone—the woman is alone with only the city to protect her.
Clambering up on the wall she stands looking down. She closes her eyes and projects a reflection of the buildings behind her, into the blackness of her eyelids. Everything is falling into fragmented pieces, and she watches herself shatter and the sky come crumbling down. And she’s Orabella, and she’s the man, and she’s just herself. The city is just a city, but one she notices now with no way out or in because the side streets are barred with locks fastened tight by loneliness. And she’s fallen now too, and she’s fallen back onto her knees. She comes down from the wall but misses her feet, landing rigid on her knees, crawling for the alley and the noise of the rats. There’s something inside her that needs to hear them.
She pulls herself up and pushes her way back through the winding streets, dashing around corners and bends in her sandals, her hair flying loose. As she pounds through puddles and dodges overturned trashcans, she leaves a wake of splashing water and rattling lids. Reaching the garden she collapses at the gate, her white sleeping gown stained with dirt and mud and the city’s filth. Now the walls are not just to keep the dogs out, but to keep her out as well. She can’t hoist herself to reach the latch and she smashes her fists against the cold, hard metal until she loses all feeling in her fingers. She’s trapped alone outside in the street and injustice wracks through her body with a shiver. The cats sit unforgiving, high along the walls, and stare down at her in judgment. They hiss and claw at the stone, arching their bodies and snapping their tails. Among them is her own cat, his eyes as uninviting as the others. They don’t stop until she’s been driven away, until she’s dragged herself as far from the gate as she can manage. She blushes and the cats go back to sleep.
The cats turn their backs on the woman, the woman turns her back on the cats, and the garden shrivels until only broken stalks and weeds remain. The vines swallow the bench and the figs rot uneaten on the untrimmed grass. The peas die, then the sunflowers, and eventually the cats leave too. The woman tiptoes out every night when her neighbors are asleep and there is no one around and sits in the center of it all. She buries herself under the thorns and dried leaves so that the moon can’t stain her back with its silvery fingers. Couples come to the gate, glimpse the wreckage and turn away. The woman washes the taste of love out with wine. She lines the garden walls with the empty bottles. Every so often she goes to the river and throws a few in. One day she falls in with them.
Age 15, Grade 10