Time is a river that passes through you, crossing and recrossing, rippling score of silence under the bridges of your life, and you wonder if it can be the same river or the same person twice, the amber glide of the Arno, the spring light polished in memory, a long scroll of plainsong flowing out of some deep medieval past, and I am back here in middle age, mid-river, the Ponte Vecchio downstream a golden span, a bridge crossed a lifetime ago, sniffing out echoes of that early spring morning when our steps rang out softly on the stone streets on the other side of the river, our first morning in this city that seems to go in search of itself, piazza by piazza, church by church. In the hostel kitchen Ansgar had said, “That is why I come back every year, the beautiful stone alleys and hidden gardens.” Each spring he made his way here from Skagen, after his wife’s death. His words came slow, the Nordic accent laden, as though they were slow steps in heavy snow. After breakfast he led us, shuffling in leather loafers worn as his face, through quiet streets of shuttered windows and arched doors, the stone alleys that gave nothing away, the April light shifting with each turn, brightening the top of the buildings, parleying with the counterpointing shade, foreshortening and then lengthening perspective. Ansgar moved so slow it was as if he wanted us to read the unwritten history of the city, the journal our steps traced on the rivers of worn stone. The old man’s drooping mouth curled in a child’s smile as he ushered us through a gate. To a pause in time. And we sat at the fountain in the cloistered garden, ringed by arched galleries of a convent. Ansgar held out a brown paper bag, the tremor in his hands at breakfast gone, his fingers gnarled, skin thickened from a life trade in carpentry. The cherries sparkled in the chant of light and water, and we ate without a word, on our foreign tongue the dark crimson flesh turning into sweet wine. And the pale blue light in Ansgar’s eyes answered the chords of the Florentine sun, the peace settling on his face like Victor Sjöström’s in Wild Strawberries, the peace that had travelled a long way from home, from the pine forests in the deep north, the hidden fjords of Ansgar’s life, from the past, from its glide into the future, travelling through the seasons to hold this gate in time open.
Time is a bridge you cross and recross, the river’s song unchanged in memory’s burnish and in your mind’s reliquary this frayed image of the naked Christ, the pale sheen of its slender carved body suspended in space, calling from the sacristy of lost time, that spring morning when Ansgar led us to the plain Romanesque façade of the Santo Spirito. In the nave we stood, still in the hull of a submarine ark, and felt the press of silence, emptiness contained, and then the distant hum, long deep waves of soundings, till like struck bells, we heard it ring on and on within us, calling us to step across the threshold, through the door in the aisle to the sacristy, the life-size crucifix bathed in the floating panes of light from the apse windows, hung by a thick wire rope. Naked Christ, not even a crown of thorns or a modest loincloth, his long slender arms held up as if in flight, the right foot nailed on top of the other foot, so the knee and hip are canted to the left, in counterpoint to the right tilt of the downcast head, its finely chiselled hippie face and eyes closed in the perfection of death. No hint of resurrection, this quiet death coming to life under the sculpting knife, unpeeled to the mortal light. Such perfection learned from anatomising corpses from the basilica hospital when Michelangelo found refuge here at seventeen. You wonder about the young man he picked to be this serene Christ, the body still garbed in its mortal dress of joy or pain, coiled in pain or taut in lust, not this loose-limbed pinioned repose. We bowed before its beauty, then bought postcards from the basilica shop. For years the dead face was taped to the wall above my study desk, till it vanished in the move to another country, another life from yours. And each Florentine spring Ansgar sent a postcard to you, then silence. Time is a river you recross, ford to the place you have been before, the past coming alive on the other shore. Memory’s guesswork, crossing another bridge, from the Duomo side, my feet feeling these streets without a map, as Ansgar’s did, trusting memory’s route, drifting past the open market, the morning light now warming the tree-lined piazza and the face of the Santo Spirito, streaming through the high windows to find us standing in the sacristy, dipped in the font of silence, as if in the vault of held prayer, before the hanging, waiting body.