Everyone was held spellbound as she walked down the steps to the dock where a skiff waited for her to push out to sea. Or when upon her return, at no later than one o’clock, Nicola—the son of Lucibello, called the Monkey, the oldest and most audacious ex-fisherman in Positano, who like the rest of them had switched to renting beach umbrellas and loungers—helped her down from the boat, and with admiring eyes followed her steps on the carpet of wooden planks which made a snug living room of the ancient, rocky bay.
Every time, Nicola was left breathless by that “thank you,” barely whispered from two harmoniously shaped lips, perhaps too full to be perfect. The teenage boy couldn’t help but stare until she went out of view, slightly hurrying up the large steps through the feverish and bustling crowd, the men all in trunks, the women in their beach outfits, too colorful to bear the contrast with her sober sarong or her trouser pants.
He had never seen her go swimming, even though he had attended to her since he was a child, the boy ruminated as he jumped onto the princess’s boat to tie it up. To go swimming with her, what he would give for that. He threw one last jealous glance at the friends, who always surrounded her like a faithful band, protecting her, or cutting her off from the rest of the world. If only he could be one of them, he thought as he tidied up the boat, collecting with care the precious objects that those lucky people always forgot: sun cream, a watch, a bracelet.
The princess sent him daydreaming. He couldn’t even say how many countesses, duchesses, and princesses he’d seen. But that one! Lying in the tidied boat, Nicola dreams of her, his brown body curled up in the sun, his lionlike head on a muscular arm with skin, in the hollow of the armpit, that’s still as soft as a baby’s.
Lightly and confidently walking around the veranda of the Buca di Bacco, crowded at that hour with people having a drink, Erica absentmindedly ignores all of those faces that inevitably turn to watch her. And if at a certain point her gaze stops for a minute, it is to greet with a nod Antonio and Michele, two old waiters at the café who have known her since she was a little girl.
“So you lied to me, Antonio. You do know her. She waved to you. A bit thin for my tastes. Who is she?” asks a very tan young man with a dazzling smile.
“She’s not for you, boss. But if I may, take a look around . . . Don’t you see how many blossoming girls there are? Now that they’re in season, of course . . .”
“In season?” the young man presses him, intrigued, partly because he has heard about the head waiter at the Buca di Bacco and his zesty jokes, as they say in Naples, and he’s anxious to hear at least one of them to tell his friends during the long Milanese winter.
“Oh, you know, they only last a summer. They come here in June, they bloom by mid-August, and then, withered, they disappear with the first rains. A magnificent crop this year. Take advantage of it. The grapes don’t always grow the same way twice.”
“Fine, but what about her?”
“She’s something special. That kind of woman is born only once every hundred years, and maybe there won’t be any more of them. Nature has lost the mold. But like I said, she’s not for you.”
“I might be a little bit offended.”
“What do you mean? I don’t say it to offend you, but it’s something else you want! Just last year Signorina Erica rejected an English duke.”
“Ah, she’s not married? She didn’t seem all that young to me.”
“She’s been a widow for three years, and she has no interest in remarrying.”
“How old is she? Does she have any kids?”
“No kids. And as far as her age goes—who knows?” “Sure you know. I saw how sweetly she acknowledged you!”
“Listen, I’m not for the death penalty, but I’d accept it just for one crime.”
“Saying a beautiful woman’s age.” “Now that’s a good one!”
The young man laughs, now turning to the friends who have been following the conversation. I’m also listening, amused, and knowing Prandino’s typically Lombard stubbornness, I wait to hear what his waiter friend’s reply will be. But for once I see his eyes give in, surrendering to Antonio, and his blue-green irises grow melancholy. Following his gaze, I notice that his melancholy is due to the curvy figure that has walked with a dancelike pace up the wide steps guarded on both sides by two haughty marble lions keeping watch over the town (perhaps put there to terrify the Saracen raiders of the past?) and who now stands nearly bent over to speak to a short and stocky local girl—a waitress or a salesgirl from one of the many pants stores that recently sprouted up in the town. The girl doesn’t seem at all intimidated by her, and after a few moments the woman even plants two kisses on her face before running off. Now, even lighter than before, she flies across the narrow opening which unfolds like a Renaissance theater with its small surrounding shops, and she disappears, to the right, into a forever shadowy alley.
Prandino sits in silence near me. Maybe he too is following with his imagination the route that apparition is tracing. She might have stopped to look in a shop window, and since Antonio says she’s a habitué of Positano, she is probably still chatting with that woman Kabalevska, the Russian fabric designer who arrived here twenty years ago for a three-day vacation and never left the town since.
Precisely because of the fame of Positano, we had come along with our director Maselli and his screenwriter, Prandino Visconti, to see if it could work as the setting for the film we were writing, Abandoned. But only a few hours in the town had convinced us that it was too beautiful and enchanted for a story like ours. We were just talking about this, having a drink at the Buca di Bacco, when we were momentarily distracted by the woman’s appearance. I remember what Maselli said, so wry and witty back then.
“You can never be off your guard these days . . . As soon as you’re sure that modern mass society has leveled everything, there before you appears a vision of the past. I mean, who is she? Anna Karenina? Like something from another world. You like her, huh, Prando? I prefer these modern girls in blue jeans. Fewer problems—or maybe not, but at least they’re new problems.”
His director’s eye was not wrong about Princess Erica, because I was also struck by her aura as she strode through the blue and gold of that slice of sea, vast like an ocean yet calm and silent like a lake. That night, my bags already packed to go back to Rome, I took advantage of the time the director gave us for dinner and asked for some information from Giacomino, the owner of the oldest restaurant in Positano, who for no apparent reason had taken to me, and whom, as sometimes happens, I felt like I had known forever.
“Oh, the young princess! It’s no great mystery. You women today take work too seriously, reducing yourselves to tomboys. No offense, but what do you get out of those tense faces and trouser pants? Not that it’s any of my business if the world is turning upside down . . . She could be more or less your age, thirty, thirty-two years old. I saw her grow up, summer after summer. When she was just a little thing she’d come with her family in a carriage. That’s right, back then the road leading down to the town was a kind of dirt trail, and the prince preferred to leave the car up at Santa Maria and rent a carriage. He was an educated man of great tradition.”
As the woman moved out of view, calm was restored in our group. Maybe she doesn’t exist, she’s a ghost, I told myself while I listened to Maselli: “This town is too picturesque, coming here was useless. We have to go straight back to Rome and start looking again for the right place for us and for our protagonists in Abandoned. I’d thought that the story could take place in the south, but you’re right, Prando, it’s in the north and only in the north, even if the characters’ isolation from the historical context of ’44 would be more warranted in the south. Now let’s go pack and get out of here.”
I forgot the charm of Positano and of all of its inhabitants from that time, and maybe I never would have remembered any of it if, a few years later, we hadn’t gone back down to shoot a documentary on the Landing of the Saracens, the great celebration that every year on the fifteenth of August consumes all of the residents of the Amalfi Coast.
I was running through narrow streets looking for extras, up and down steep steps that jostle your laziness and your imagination into a single, dreamlike dizziness. That’s when, turning at one of the countless corners glaring with sunlight, I almost run right into her. Startled, I stop myself just in time from striking her like a fury—the fury of a movie big shot. (I’m lower than her, and I need to look up in order to check that she hasn’t actually been hurt by my head.) Her broad face is illuminated by two eyes that are so big and elongated, as if stretched toward her temples, that I go quiet, even if I know I should be apologizing. Sure enough, she is waiting, staring at me attentively. In her honey-colored gaze shine golden flakes of mirth, while her full head of ash-blond curls whipping lightly against her cheeks and neck seems moved to reproach, albeit tenderly. It’s almost as though she now finds herself having to scold a naughty kid rather than an adult. That fluttering, which says, Careful, child, makes me feel like what I probably am: a clumsy little girl, and maybe a dirty one, too. Meanwhile she smells of jasmine or some similar perfume.
I overcome the embarrassment that has constricted my body and my voice, and manage to say, “Pardon me.” She replies with a voice that echoes as clear as crystal: “That’s all right, it happens when you’re new to Positano. You can’t run in this town.” A strange feeling of peace, as when as a child you’re forgiven by your mother, floods through my limbs. I’m about to say something back just to hear that voice again, when I realize that her face is already outside my line of vision. She has turned her back to me. I see her in her long white skirt glide down the stairs, ethereal and seemingly lit by her own inner light. I have just enough time to glimpse her bare feet, elongated but strong, arched like a dancer’s, when in a flash I recognize the woman I had seen cross the beach years before, hypnotizing everyone with her stride.