By Richie Hofmann
On our drive down from Toulouse,
I practice silence. I read about men who strove to lose
affections. I bring a secondhand Lives of the Saints,
two kinds of bread, a blanket, and some paints.
It is our fifth summer together. Ahead of us, red-roofed homes,
narrow streets and churches, the tombs
of the martyrs. Against the southern sky, the thick
octagonal dark of a tower. The roads paved in brick.
Near the center of town, in the Place de la République,
a pheasant shrieks, which is a kind of music.
The Rue St. Antonin. Nothing in the air
but leaves and heat, trembling above the square
like a broom pushing dust, then blown
back down the avenue, the color of bone.
They store the relics here. Here they minted money
in medieval times. This road leads to sea.
Here Fauré was born, the schoolmaster’s
fifth son; he learned on the harmonium. Pilasters
flank the doorway. Outside a restaurant,
we read a menu behind glass, a list of things to want.
The bits of hair and blackened bone traveled here
on a ship, though the exact year
is unknown. We go our separate ways.
You read a map. Downstairs, a shawled organist plays
one of Fauré’s songs. Music out of silence.
In a window, Christ rends
a piece of bread in two. A woman lights a candle, a shadow flutters
on the wall. Something echoes in the rafters—
a human voice, not yours. It isn’t mine.
I move along and see the altar and the dark sealed shrine.
I hold yellow ochre
to the canvas. We are sitting, both of us, en plein air.
You touch my arm. I want these leaves
to be the perfect shade. My sleeves
are rolled up. The palette knife is warm. When the sun
moves, the shadows change. The one
I hold is no longer right, so I look through the box of pigments
next to you and rinse
the brush in a jar. I want to remember.
I mix green and gold and umber.
I lift my glass to you. The wine’s from nearby Aude.
A handsome waiter showed
us how to swirl it in a glass. N’est-ce pas
que c’est bon, I say, trying. A vespa
is leaning on its kickstand. Windshields gleam
in the midday sun. Under the blue-striped awning, you seem
unchanged as any papal portrait. Sometimes,
on the signs and menus, they write the older names
for things. The patio, the wine, the conversation—
we’re older than we were in Boston.
Where we run for cover, an arc of water courses
from a gargoyle’s mouth. The rain forces
us under a sheltered passage. Following you, I run my hand along the grout
between the bricks. Water gurgles in the spout
then stops in the animal throats, where it spilled
a moment ago, waiting to be filled
again like the holes left where men quarried
blocks of limestone. With ropes and wooden pulleys, they carried
them here, knowing the wondrous call they answered
was the only thing that mattered.
I listen to Fauré. I read about the popes
before we fall asleep. I like to paint landscapes,
though I always see you looking. We’ve discussed
our differences. We both distrust
abstraction. Later, when we’re tired of walking, let’s stop in front
of some beautiful place and tell each other what we want.
There is so much to say. It may take until night.
We ask someone for directions. I write
them down, because I don’t listen. If we reach the tower,
the scrap of paper says, we’ve gone too far.