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As Rupert Geier fought valiantly for his life, seeking to stave off his death at the hands of a malign, jealous and brutal creature from legend, who sought to throttle and drown Rupert in the warm seas of the Mesozoic, some two hundred million years before Rupert’s birth, he wondered blindly, not for the first time, if falling in love with Daeira Bruno, the Queen of Sassi, had not been a most dangerous and wayward venture of his heart, however ineluctable and fated their time-tossed romance still appeared, even in the throes of his personal extinction.
* * *
Jessica had always been the sensible one. An engineer with a fine-honed sense of order and practicality that extended into her domestic routines, she worked for Observa-DOME, a Mississippi-based firm that specialized in constructing and installing the cunningly automated observatory domes with their clever mechanisms that allowed telescopes to peer slitwise through their sturdy turning roofs. Between Rupert and Jessica, she had earned the lion’s share of their income, allowing the maintenance of a modest yet spacious and gracious home in Jackson, Mississippi, with a large attached studio for Rupert’s work.
After fifteen years of marriage, Rupert and his wife loved each other as only high-school sweethearts could, with a kind of easy and established intimacy which, while it seldom these days approached fever, always simmered at a comfortable heat.
Life had seemed unchangeably solid and fine, rich and rewarding and inviolable, a banquet of small yet treasured pleasures, extending infinitely to some dim horizon—until just two years ago.
Jessica had undertaken an assignment to one of Observa-DOME’s customers, the La Silla Observatory in Chile, to effect repairs in the dome’s inexplicably balky motors. Rupert had almost accompanied her. Given the nature of his work, he could pretty much drop his tools and go with her any time he wished, and had in fact been to many places around the globe with her. But this time he had had a commission, a rare honor for him, a piece for the Jackson–Evers International Airport. There was a deadline for the unveiling, his sculpture would be seen daily by thousands, and he wanted to do his best work. So he had stayed behind.
The story of Jessica’s death had reached him in almost fairy-tale form. A dedicated and experienced hiker, she had set out after quitting work early one day to explore the adjacent Atacama Desert, and simply never returned. The deadly terrain, analogous to Mars in its parched and treacherous inhospitability, had simply swallowed her up. Search parties failed to find even her body for burial back home. Instead, an empty casket had held center place at a broadly attended, truly mournful wake, and been interred with what Rupert regarded as foolish ceremony in her family’s plot several states distant from the South.
In the following days, Rupert had been contacted by an insurance company, with a very tangible reminder of Jessica’s practical nature. The insurance man bore a check for half a million dollars. Cudgeling his brain, a disbelieving Rupert summoned up vague memories of signing a joint policy a decade or more ago, but realized he had never thought once about it since. Jessica handled all the bills and payments in their domestic economy, and had faithfully kept the premiums current on this final legacy.
Bereft of Jessica, their lovely home now seemed haunted and alien, and Rupert couldn’t stand to live there anymore. He resigned the airport commission, gave away or sold all his extant sculptures, including the unfinished one, to have been called “Homewending,” whose yet-untraced lineaments with their mortal associations he could not bear to contemplate, and then put the house on the market. Within a few weeks, his bank account had been increased by another two hundred thousand dollars. (Jessica had insisted on paying off their mortgage as fast as possible, and the title to the house was clear.)
Rupert bid farewell to the house and all its contents with a welter of warring emotions. His material possessions now fit into a couple of suitcases. But of course, there was one token he would never surrender. Jessica had crafted it for him herself, using tools at her workplace. A small circular medallion, the piece was inscribed with a triangle whose vertices touched the circumference of the outer circle. Within the triangle was a square, and within that another circle. Rupert’s and Jessica’s names were engraved, along with their wedding date.
“It’s made out of a titanium alloy, and should last forever. Those are the symbols of the four elements—all of ancient creation. That’s what we have together.”
Rupert wore the coin on a leather thong around his neck, generally under his shirt. He touched it through the fabric now, and shed a few tardy tears.
Healthy, only thirty-six years old, his talent, whatever its objective magnitude, in sad abeyance but theoretically intact, with three-quarters of a million dollars to his name, Rupert felt only like dying. But enervated and listless and vacant-souled as he now felt, some small portion of his heart still told him that some day he would recover his joie de vivre, and that to throw in the towel on life now would be to dishonor Jessica’s love and memory.
He resolved to travel. Travel was commonly regarded as a sovereign, perspective-restoring balm, wasn’t it? Although Rupert found the notion of any amelioration of his despair hard to credit. Still, there were places he had always wanted to see. And a few to revisit, where he and Jessica had once been happy.
One of the latter venues was Matera, Italy.
Jessica had helped with the installation of a dome not far from the city, at the facility of the Agenzia Spaziale Italiana. While Jessica worked, Rupert had been chaperoned around the Basilicata region not by a professional guide but by the unemployed nephew of one of the scientists, a young guy whose idea of the kind of things an American would like to see aligned more with Jersey Shore than Masterpiece Theater. Unprotesting but against his will, Rupert had seen a couple of the region’s larger cities, with an emphasis on bars, cafes, department stores and the rare disco, but nothing of the smaller towns. “Too boring!” said the kid. Nights had been taken up with socializing at the homes of the friendly staff of the ASI.
And so Rupert had gotten only tantalizing glimpses of a strange, unique city plastered across a hill, looming mirage-like across the broad plateau known as the Murgia, eighty thousand hectares of rich yet stark parkland. (The ASI was situated just on the border of the reserve). Matera loomed alluringly, an apparition resembling some warm-colored sandy ziggurat, an ancient, almost organic, eccentric confection seemingly assembled by the individual hand of some Cyclopean sculptor, Rupert’s tutelary deity. Rupert flashed on the Tibetan Potala Palace as its nearest counterpart. But the conurbation was not merely plunked down, however esthetically, atop its eminence like so many beautiful Italian hill towns, but emergent from the earth at many levels, integrated into the hillside, extruded apparently by sheer desire for existence from the stony bosom of the fecund land, like a myriad-knuckled fist punched upward out of the soil.
And when he arrived at Matera, some six months after Jessica’s death, he found himself miraculously ready to be amazed, and, even more consequentially, to call the place his new home.
* * *
After living in Matera for some eighteen months, Rupert had accumulated a list of favorite places to visit and revisit, along with an even longer list of sights still unseen. From the latter set of destinations, the Neolithic remains in the Parco della Murgia Materana beckoned. So one hot July day, when even the relatively cool windowless space of his custom-designed laboratorio seemed stifling, he laid down his chisel and hammer, walked across town to where his toylike Fiat 500 was parked, and motored out to the park.