On the day Contessa Carolina Fantoni was married, only one other living person knew that she was going blind, and he was not her groom.
This was not because she had failed to warn them.
"I am going blind," she had blurted to her mother, in the welcome dimness of the family coach, her eyes still bright with tears from the searing winter sun. By this time, her peripheral vision was already gone. Carolina could feel her mother take her hand, but she had to turn to see her face. When she did, her mother kissed her, her own eyes full of pity.
"I have been in love, too," she said, and looked away.
"Papa," Carolina had said.
Her father had laid his magnifying glass down on the map unrolled before him. Amournful sea monster loomed below the lens. Although it was the middle of the day, the blindness shrouded the bookshelves that rose behind him in false dusk. Only the large window over his head and the desk itself were still bright and clear.
"Nonna was blind when she died," Carolina said.
Her father nodded. "And for years before that," he said. "But I only half believed it. It was like she had another pair of eyes hidden in a box. She knew everything."
"Did she ever tell you how it happened?" Carolina asked.
Her father shook his head. "I was very young then."
"I think maybe I am going blind," Carolina told him.
Her father frowned. After considering this for a moment, he waved his hand before his face. When her eyes followed it, he broke into a wide grin.
"Ah, but you haven't yet!" he said.
She had told Pietro in the garden, when her mother had left them alone for a few moments under a sky full of stars that Carolina could snuff out or call back into existence simply by turning her head.
Pietro had laughed and laughed.
"What are you going to tell me next?" he had asked her, between kisses. "I suppose you can fly as well? And turn into a cat?"
"Already I can't see things," she insisted. "Around the edges."
"Next you will tell me you have forgotten how to kiss," Pietro said, and kissed her again.
In those first days, Carolina measured her losses by the size of her lake. Her father had dammed a length of the small river that wandered their property as a present to her mother on their fifth anniversary. But as an amateur in these things, he had only clumsily dredged the surrounding marsh. The resulting body of water, thirty paces long and half again as wide, was in no place deep enough for a man to stand fully submerged. His young wife, still homesick for the sea, had tramped loyally across the soggy ground with him on the day of her anniversary but never returned voluntarily, so when Carolina turned seven, her father had scattered stone benches on the grassy shore, filled the lake's surface with lantern-lit boats, and made a new present of it to his daughter.
This time it was received gratefully, with an appreciation that manifested, in its early days, as tyranny: already Carolina had developed a passion for solitude, and from the date of her seventh birthday demanded that she be allowed to visit the lake, which sat half a mile from the house through vine-choked pines, entirely unaccompanied. After all, she argued, what else could it mean to own something?
Completely overthrown by this reasoning, her father agreed, despite her mother's misgivings, which, from long years of disregard, had finally gone to ground and begun to emerge again as sleeplessness, forgetfulness, and truly unspeakable fears.
From this point, it became Carolina's daily habit to walk to the lake, now silver with rain, now black, now gray, now solid ice, clear or milky depending on how quickly a freeze had taken it. In her tenth year, winter's arrival had been both swift and brutal, so that the frozen lake retained an eerie clarity that allowed Carolina to see all the way to the bottom in most places, laying bare her watery property's mysteries: the sunken branches, the green weeds, the fishes' bare, bowl-shaped nests, and the deeper channel of the dammed river's original path. With a broom borrowed from the kitchen maid to sweep the snow away, Carolina spent hours in her surveying, her face red and lips blue when she arrived at that winter's dinners.
That spring, her mother had insisted her father build Carolina some kind of shelter on the banks, and he had erected a one-room cottage of unpainted wood, stained red, a few strides from the water. Light poured into it through glass windows set in all four walls. A collection of worn rugs covered the floor. The furniture was sparse: an old couch weighed down with patched velvet quilts, a desk, and a chair. The room was small. Standing in the middle of it, his arms outstretched, Carolina's father could almost touch both walls. A fireplace opened at the foot of a slim chimney behind a screen worked with brass mermaids, another of her father's well-intentioned but unsuccessful presents to her mother, who found all reminders of the sea not a comfort but a grief.
Once the cottage was built, the great house lost its grip on Carolina completely. She passed more of the nights of her remaining childhood on the couch at her cottage than in her own bed, buried like a black-eyed field mouse in piles of thick velvet, or naked in the warmth the summer sun left as a remembrance after it set. On warm nights, she threw the windows open and tacked fine scarves over them to foil the insects. Outside, the frogs and birds sang their boasts, hopes, and threats.
Because she had first learned the lake with a child's eyes, Carolina was able to believe for a while that the fact that she could no longer take it in with a single glance was just another of the many tricks her body had played on her in the mysterious operation of turning her into a young woman. The church, and the distance to the city, and the grand ballroom's once-endless expanse had all shrunk as she grew up. Why should the lake be any different?
But just after her eighteenth birthday, around the time she and Pietro were engaged, the trouble with focus at the borders of her vision advanced. She could no longer recognize figures at a dance until she turned to face them directly. At the same time, her sight contracted, as if some unseen spirit had cupped his hands on either side of her head, blotting out her sight to the right and left. The rest was lost in darkness.
Turri, of course, had understood immediately. He had raised his own hands to either side of his face. "Like this?" he asked.
For an instant, his blue eyes widened with worry. Then they changed. He still looked directly into her face, but his focus was on something far beyond her, his mind casting through the books of an invisible library. Carolina hated this expression: sometimes it passed in an instant, but often it meant she had lost him to his thoughts for the afternoon.
For the moment, however, he was still gathering evidence. "For how long?" he asked.
"Half a year," she said. "Since before Christmas."
Beyond the silk pinned in the lake house windows, a summer loon sang a few notes, then lapsed back into thought.
"I've read about it," Turri said. "Blindness can come from the sides, or from the center."
"The center?" Carolina repeated.
"Like an eclipse, in the center of your vision. But it's permanent. And the darkness grows from there."
"But in my case, it is collapsing from the outside," she said.
"That is the other kind."
Tears sprang to Carolina's eyes. She allowed them to cloud her vision, grateful for a blindness she could wipe away with a flick of her wrist. When the tears passed, Turri sat gazing at her as if she were a new problem in math.
"How long?" she asked.
"I'm sure it is different in every case."
When she didn't look away, he dropped his gaze. "I can find out," he said.
"Have you told Pietro?" he asked.
Turri studied her for a moment longer, then gave a short laugh. "But he doesn't know."
She shook her head.
Turri took her hand.
For once, she let him.