The hotel where she had hoped to spend a very happy week was in a small village in Tuscany at the end of two trains and a bus, facing a wheat field. “Santa Tecla is where celebrities go to relax,” her friend Alice had said. She had showed her a picture of Madonna by a pool, #vacation #bliss, drinking an Aperol Spritz. But the Hotel Santa Tecla looked nothing like what had been on Instagram, and as she waited for her key at the check-in desk, she realized that Madonna or Madonna’s assistant had put in the wrong geotag. The other Santa Tecla was in Sicily. This is the kind of thing she would have joked about with her boyfriend, Mark, if he hadn’t dumped her two hours before he was meant to arrive.
She resisted the urge to look at the text. What cowardly ellipses! Three facile “sorries” when one real one would have been enough. On the first train from Florence she had been so angry that when the conductor asked her for her passport she almost stepped on his foot and scratched him across the cheek. Instead she whispered into her phone, creating little memos. “Fuckfuckfuckfuck!” “The bastard the bastard the bastard.” Then she looked out the window at fields and cows and cried until the woman behind her coughed and switched cars. She realized she probably seemed a little unhinged.
She wondered whether to call Mark in his new home in Paris, but chasing after someone was a sign of weakness, and pride was all she had at the moment. Plus, why would she want to work it out with a man who had stuck her with an $800 hotel bill and a plane ticket that cost as much as rent simply because he felt that “life is not meant to be lived on Skype”? They had planned to talk about this, his move, the distance. That was the whole reason for meeting in Italy, which was more appealing than most points between Washington, DC, and France. She had imagined long discussions under laurel trees punctuated by sticky sex. Mark had obviously decided their future on his own, and although the United Airlines representative said, “I’m sorry, babe,” there was no way she could change the ticket back to Washington on such short notice for less than $650.
She checked into the hotel.
Room 11 was very big and bright. Under the hoped-for circumstances, the light would have come in nicely from the windows, soft and warm on bare skin. Instead, she would sleep in her exercise clothes. She unpacked and put her outfits, six for daytime, three nighttime, in the closet by the safe, which didn’t close. She took out two sets of lingerie, tags intact. As she tore the price off the pink bra, she ripped a bow on the left strap too. Of all the recent tragedies, this, at least, was manageable. Little pink bows were useless to her now. She moved her backpack onto the bed and took out the novel she had read on the train along with a copy of The Ambassadors, which she brought on every vacation but never got past sentence three. She wished she had brought something she would actually like to read, since she’d have to do a lot of that now.
The town was smaller than she had imagined, probably because the town she had imagined was on the other side of the country. There was a little square with a church and, across from it, a column with a precariously affixed panel about the Santa Teclans, if that’s what they were called, who had died during World War II. A rubbed-off skull warned that they should not be forgotten! A little grocery store labeled alimentari doubled as a café and served as a restaurant, if you wanted lasagna or pasta Bolognese. A small sign to the left said museo.
She looked up. An old man in a blue newsboy cap was rolling a bocce ball along a dry pit. A few tables down, a couple of women with hair dyed lavender (purposeful? she couldn’t tell) were staring at her and whispering. Her arrival was probably the most exciting thing to happen to Santa Tecla since the end of the plague. She paid 80 cents for the water, then went for a walk around the museum, a collection of crucifixions and tapestries that smelled like mold. There was no one to talk to, and if there had been, she wasn’t sure what she would say. “What’s fun around here?” “Is there anything to do at night?” “Am I a fundamentally unlovable person and will I die alone after failing to achieve any of the dreams I had for my own life?” At 9:30 she went to bed. It had been 330 minutes since Mark was meant to show up.
Time bloated and filled with new routines. In the mornings she poured her coffee drip by drip. She took all the lotions out of her toiletry case and arranged them from creamiest to least. She read the first five pages of The Ambassadors ten times. She bit her nails down to her cuticles and painted them blue, then white. At the alimentari, she bought every Italian tabloid available and tried to learn about the trials of a celebrity who had either gotten divorced or gotten fat or both. She flipped through the channels and tried to understand the talk shows on Italian politics. The parties could agree only on yelling. She took a few notes on the back of the TV program. If she could think of some new project for her bosses at the think tank, they might actually promote her from assistant, three years in. The other aspects of her trip were not worth recounting: gelato, prosecco, counting the paint chips on the wall. Sometimes she cried or yelled into a pillow.
One afternoon, she took the bus to the neighboring town, where she found a square with a church, a column to the victims of the war, an alimentari with a café/restaurant, and old people playing bocce. Unlike Santa Tecla, the alimentari/café/restaurant served carbonara. She thought of taking a picture for Alice (“Definitely not a place for Madonna”) but she didn’t want to invite questions. She ignored a text from her mom, just checking in.
It started delicately at first: a few flakes here and there, then a consistency that looked like snow in early spring, white pellicles like torn-off bits of a cotton ball, coming from nowhere, settling everywhere. By the third day it was streaming down, covering the seats in the café, and when the old ladies got up from their coffee the white flecks stuck to their dresses. The old men playing bocce complained that the fluff was pushing the ball in new directions. By the evening of the fourth day, the man with the hat nearly started a fight with his friend, accusing him of using the fluff to guide the balls. “Stronzo!” he yelled over and over, shaking the pallino. The owner of the alimentari/café/restaurant calmed them down by waving a bottle of grappa. They drank quickly, picking the fluff from their teeth.
Now when she went to pick up the papers in the morning she saw the photos. Pictures of children playing in the sun soon supplanted by reports of dried-out crops and chickens heaped up dead in cages. The calves were sick and one had been born with two heads, though that might have been due to antibiotics. She retyped the articles into Google Translate on her phone. Some blamed Monsanto. Some said it was because of an unusually warm winter. The man with the blue hat seemed to think it was the Americans who had caused it, and he pointed to a plane flying overhead and to her. His bocce partner rushed to her defense and though all she could hear was “Putin” she no longer felt threatened. Salvini was to blame, they concluded, but maybe Salvini was the solution, she wasn’t sure. She looked up “Italy fluff” and also “white stuff, sky Italy?” “white stuff sky Tuscany 2018.” All she found were pictures of happy families on ski vacations, standing in snow.
She liked the fluff. It was something to look at. She no longer needed to wonder how much time had passed while she sat at the café with a glass of San Pellegrino because she could see the flakes pile up on the table. At night while she brushed her hair, she watched it gleaming off her clothes like light. In the dusty little museum there had been a picture of a saint emitting golden rays, and sometimes when she saw herself in the mirror it seemed to her that her skin glowed almost like a halo. Five days with break-up stomach had made her thinner, and she was pleased that her face looked bony and bright. She avoided her phone, which had twenty-three missed calls and four new messages from Alice: “Dan heard from Mark who said you’re broken up? Are you ok?” “Hello?” “Where are you??” “Talked to Sarah and also Juliet from work. We are WORRIED!”
On the sixth day, the day before she was meant to leave, the fluff seemed even stronger, but instead of falling down randomly it seemed to be coming from a particular part of town, the woody region just north of the last house. She walked along the empty buildings to see if she could find the source. The road curved into the forest, and the path was littered with white flecks. It looked like the fluff was coming from the top of a mountain, Santa Tecla’s peak. The next day, she stole a bottle of water from the breakfast buffet, checked out, and left her luggage with the man at the desk. The church bells rang as she walked into the woods.
Saint Thecla, the patron saint and namesake of the town, was born in the year 30 ce in what is now Turkey. Thecla’s parents were wealthy. They had wanted their daughter to marry a man of her class. But Thecla had greater ambitions; she knew she would become a saint. She refused marriage, then avoided all human contact. God rewarded her. He showed her that the best way to have it all was to give up all that one could. When a nobleman named Alexander tried to rape her, she fought him off; when pagans tried to kill her by surrounding her with beasts, a female among the creatures stood by her side to protect her. She lived in solitude then, just her and God, until he showed once more his power—and hers. When young men of the village descended upon her cave, intending to violate her, carrying stakes and slingshots, God sent stones tumbling down as they approached and shut Thecla inside, untouched. She lived in peace after that, in Heaven, free from want.
She is not a frequently depicted saint, but notable representations of her were executed in Byzantine icons, and a fabulous alabaster altarpiece now at the Cloisters in New York shows her leaning out her window to listen to the words of Saint Paul, her closest companion. Sometime in the sixteenth century, she came to Italy to save Christians from the plague. That’s why the Italians worshipped her. The plague column in the town was erected in her honor. And yet, even though Santa Tecla bore her name, it had only one image of her: a tapestry said to have been designed by Tiepolo, but more likely conceived of by his workshop.
This tapestry hung in the third of four galleries in the town museum, by the window, which now let in the fluff that was covering the art. It was an enormous tapestry of Thecla preaching along a forest road, with maidens gathered around her, one with her arms open wide as if to embrace a lost relative, another kneeling deeply, her purple dress piled on the ground, though it remained clean. In the left corner, Thecla appeared again, surrounded by lions; in the right corner, a small medallion showed her, older this time, exiting a cave tall with pride. A young man lay flat on the ground, either dead or in awe.
The guard of the museum, Paolo Antonini, spent hours with a cloth, wiping the saint’s face. Paolo had lived in Santa Tecla for fifty-five years, except for the four days his mother had spent giving birth at her sister’s in Assisi and six months in Florence, after which he knew this was the town in which he would die. He had worked at the museum from his twenty-fifth birthday, and since then every day had been the same—Monday to Friday, at least. He arrived at work at nine and unlocked three bolts on the door with keys that he kept on a ring on his pants. He took out the cash box and set up the register and when one person came it was a good day. If there were visitors, he made sure they didn’t touch the art. If visitors had questions, he answered them (when they spoke Italian). He polished the wood tables and looked at the Christs, wretched one day and sometimes close to comical the next. He watched the light fall over the tapestry of Saint Thecla and tried to understand the way the threads knotted together.
Now the downpour had attacked his peace. As the flecks came in from outside he marveled that they were attracted most of all to the tapestry and clung to it like leeches. The fluff bothered him; the tapestry looked like it had erupted with pimples. There was no way to avoid it. He had to open the window for an hour every day. Otherwise the rot from the floorboards would rise and turn off any of the remaining tourists. The logs showed only a few entries from the past month—Rome…Munich…Washington, DC. The town had no money to keep up the museum and complaining could bring trouble. Someone might realize it would be cheaper just to move the artwork to Florence or Siena.
He tried to brush the flecks off with his cloth but they wouldn’t budge. He picked them off then with his nails. Little threads of the tapestry came off too. Holding them in his hands he felt a sudden happiness. How soft and fragile they were! But as he continued to rub them between his fingers he could feel them coming apart. He put the threads in his pocket and locked up early. Behind the museum he dug a hole with his foot and scattered the threads on the ground. They splayed in the dirt like worms until he buried them with the sole of his shoe.
He did this every day, picking off the fluff, and maybe pieces of the tapestry with it, and burying the bits in the back of the museum. He hoped no one would notice. How could they? No one was there. But one day as he turned the corner he saw that his neighbor had taken out a lounge chair and was smoking in the shade by the building. He had to pretend he was looking for his hat—blown off by the wind, he said.
He walked farther out. He passed the little hotel that only had three guests at a time, two of them retirees who had come for vacation and never left. One sat out front, drinking an iced tea. He passed the building that had once held a school, before they closed the school and bussed the children to Lucca, and then stopped bussing because there were no children left to teach. He passed the house his neighbor’s brother had lived in before he moved to Milan. It was boarded up and the boards themselves were weak with termites. When he shook his hand in his pocket to take out the threads he had the feeling of being watched. He continued north. Before he knew it, he was out of town and in the woods.
The fluff seemed heavier here. It carpeted the earth and mixed with the dirt. Soon he couldn’t hear his footsteps. They sank into the ground and softness absorbed any noise. He couldn’t see the path anymore, either, but he kept going. He had walked this way a thousand times. There was a meadow near the top of the hill, and a tree that he had played under as a child. He had lost his tooth there once, during a picnic. He went straight and up.
The meadow, when he reached it, was bright and white. The fluff was everywhere in little dunes that ran across the field. It looked like a cloud, except that you can’t walk on clouds, that’s one of the first things you learn, and clouds don’t have smells, but the meadow reeked. He crossed the piles, feeling the fluff slosh against his feet and then against his ankles and wondered how deep he would get if he continued. Approaching the tree, which was shedding flakes aggressively, angrily, mechanically, he reached into his pocket to take out the threads. As he tossed the severed tapestry, he noticed a stray bit of red buried in the white ground, the backpack they would later link to the American girl who disappeared.