Dec 112016

Dawn Promislow


Do it. Walk down this gilded laneway—black-cobbled, shiny-cobbled—on a bright autumn day, and you will see that it curves narrowly along the quiet, south bank of the Arno River in Florence, in district Oltrarno.

There are high stone walls—gold-coloured—that curve and contain the lane, and greenery that falls from the walls, like water. And in the still midday (at a moment when you hear nearby brass bells bantering–deeply–the hour), you can walk along this curving lane, going nowhere especially, and you might come across a cat.

She’s an iron-grey cat, you’ve never seen such a colour, deep dense-grey. You can follow her as she sidles, uninterested, into a doorway. Like a woman. The doorway is black and dark, a black square in stone. You must stoop to enter, and the heavy wooden door open to the inside is hinged with thick metal, tinged, and ancient.

It’s a low-ceilinged room, stone, clad in black-grey, with dark metal shapes and implements everywhere: blunt tools of every kind and shape, anvils, and hammers, dark metal-racked. And on a large black table is a welding machine, and a man, not a young man, is bent over a hulking black form, yellow sparks flying, and there’s a din of blasting, metallic noise.

And everywhere you look there are black and grey metal forms that are sculptures, on old wooden tables and on worn wooden shelves, at every height and covering every piece of wall and space. Some are just shapes: spirals and curves, or angular and sharp. But some are animals, or people, metalled. They’ve been melted and smelted and reworked, forged and reforged, into these metalled, living creatures.

A sculpture of a boar, up on its hindlegs, startles. The boar looks startled, but you’re startled too. You think wild boars are native here, but you are not sure. All this iron, all this metal, must be native to the hills around here, extracted, a-flash in the sun, from the flint-hard earth. And if you go home you might read about how iron ore has been mined here and nearby for a long, long time.

You’re watching the grey gatto again, she’s sitting at the door now, looking out, out through the square door of light, onto the black-cobbled street. The word ghetto, which was invented not far away in the year fifteen hundred and sixteen, sounds much like gatto. Ghettos had cats, indolent, everywhere, you are sure of that.

And another man will come towards you from deep inside the stone room, he’s old but very strong, hardened like metal, and his name is Giancarlo, and his glasses flash in the dimness. Giancarlo and you do not share, between you, a language, but Giancarlo will tell you things all the same. He will tell you, in words black and barbed and unrecognizable (and musical), that he has been welding and sculpting with his blackened hands, hard hands, these many-blacked and blackened shapes and forms. He will tell you that he has been doing this since 1955, which is a very long time since it is now the year 2014. He will tell you, although you’ve guessed already, that this black-ironed, blackguard of a stone blacksmith’s room with its black stone floor has been here with all its metal work for five hundred years at least. Five hundred years, and you are certain that this gatto, this iron cat, has been here all that time too. Because she is nine-lived, or more. It’s for this reason that she is so deep grey, imprinted with soot and the black of many days and works. Gatto, come here gatto.

And you won’t want to leave this grey-black room with its iron-barred square window which lets in light, light, and a blue square of bright sky. You will want to stay here and watch how the metalled creatures are made. And meanwhile the gatto will jump up onto the deep-wooded and -blacked table in front of you, and she will roll over to be stroked by the iron-hard hands of Giancarlo, who owns and loves her. How old is she, you will ask. And Giancarlo will tell you in the language you don’t share that she’s three, but you’re not sure about that.

You think you could stay, there might be a room at the back, a black room, metalled, with a stone, cool floor. Do it.

You could be that cat. Gatto. Gatto. Old, wise (and beautiful), sidling and stand-offish.

Such a cool laneway in the golden midday sun. Green spills from the walls like water.

—Dawn Promislow


Dawn Promislow is the author of the short story collection Jewels and Other Stories (TSAR Publications, 2010), which was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award 2011, and named one of the 8 best fiction debuts of 2011 by The Globe and Mail (Canada). Her poem “lemon” was short-listed for the 2015 Berfrois Poetry Prize. She lives in Toronto.


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