Read an Excerpt
I came to Bosco for the quiet.
That’s what it’s famous for.
The silence reigns each day between the hours of nine and five by order of a hundred-year-old decree made by a woman who lies dead beneath the rosebushes—a silence guarded by four hundred acres of wind sifting through white pines with a sound like a mother saying hush. The silence stretches into the still, warm afternoon until it melts into the darkest part of the garden where spiders spin their tunnel-shaped webs in the box-hedge maze. Just before dusk the wind, released from the pines, blows into the dry pipes of the marble fountain, swirls into the grotto, and creeps up the hill, into the gap- ing mouths of the satyrs, caressing the breasts of the sphinxes, snaking up the central fountain allée, and onto the terrace, where it exhales its resin- and copper-tinged breath onto the glasses and crystal decanters laid out on the balustrade.
Even when we come down to drinks on the terrace there’s always a moment, while the ice settles in the silver bowls and we brush the yellow pine needles off the rattan chairs, when it seems the silence will never be broken. When it seems that the silence might continue to accumulate—like the golden pine needles that pad the paths through the box-hedge maze and the crumbling marble steps and choke the mouths of the satyrs and fill the pipes of the fountain— and finally be too deep to disturb.
Then someone laughs and clinks his glass against another’s, and says . . .
“Cheers. Here’s to Aurora Latham and Bosco.”
“Here, here,” we all chime into the evening, sending the echoes of our voices rolling down the terraced lawn like brightly colored croquet balls from some long-ago lawn party.
“God, I’ve never gotten so much work done,” Bethesda Graham says, as if testing the air’s capacity to hold a longer sentence or two.
We all look at her with envy. Or maybe it’s only me, not only because I didn’t get any work done today, but because everything about Bethesda bespeaks confidence, from her slim elegant biographies and barbed critical reviews to her sleek cap of shiny black hair with bangs that just graze her perfectly arched eyebrows—which are arched now at Nat Loomis, as if the two of them were sharing some secret, unspoken joke—and set off her milk-white skin and delicate bone structure. Even Bethesda’s size—she can’t be more than four nine—is intimidating, as if everything superfluous had been refined down to its essential core. Or maybe it’s just that at five nine I loom over her and my hair, unmanageable at the best of times, has been steadily swelling in the moist Bosco air and acquired red highlights from the copper pipes. I feel like an angry Valkyrie next to her.
“Magic,” says Zalman Bronsky, the poet, sipping his Campari and soda. “A dream. Perfection.” He releases his words as if they were birds he’s been cupping in his hands throughout the day.
“I got shit-all done,” complains Nat Loomis, the novelist. The famous novelist. I’d had to stop myself from gasping aloud when I recognized him on my first day at Bosco—and who wouldn’t recognize that profile, the jawline only slightly weaker than his jacket photos suggest, the trademark square glasses, the hazel eyes that morph from blue to green depending (he once said in an interview) on his mood, the tousled hair and sardonic grin. Along with the rest of the world (or at least the world of MFA writing programs and bookish Manhattan), I had read his first novel ten years ago and fallen in love—with it, with its young, tough, but vulnerable protagonist, and with the author himself. And along with the rest of that little world I’d been immersed in these last ten years, I couldn’t help wondering where his second novel was. Surely, though, the fact that he’s here is a favorable sign that it’s only a matter of time before the long-awaited second novel is born out of the incubator of silence that is Bosco.
“It’s too quiet,” Nat says, now taking a sip of the single-malt scotch that the director, Diana Tate, sets out each night in a cut-glass decanter.
David Fox, a landscape architect who I’ve heard is writing a report on the gardens for the Garden Conservancy, holds up a Waterford tumbler of the stuff, the gold liquor catching a last ray of light as the sun impales itself on the tips of the pines at the western edge of the estate, and proposes a toast, “To Aurora Latham’s Sacro Bosco—a sacred wood indeed.”
“Is that what the name means?” asks one of the painters who’ve just joined us on the terrace. “I thought it was a funny name for an artists’ colony—isn’t it some kind of chocolate milk housewives made in the fifties?”
The other artists, who are just now straggling in from their out- lying studios and cabins like laborers returning from the fields, laugh at their cohort’s joke and grouse that the writers, as usual, have taken all the good chairs, leaving them the cold stone balustrade. One can’t help but notice that there’s a class system here at Bosco. The writers, who stay in the mansion, play the role of landed gentry. Nat Loomis and Bethesda Graham somehow manage to make their identical outfits of black jeans and white T-shirts look like some kind of arcane English hunting wardrobe. Even unassuming Zalman Bronsky, in his rumpled linen trousers and yellowed, uncuffed, and untucked dress shirt, looks like the eccentric uncle in a Chekhov play.
“She named it after the Sacro Bosco garden in Bomarzo—near Rome,” I say, my first spoken words of the day. I’m surprised my vocal cords still work, but, after all, my book—my first novel—is set here at Bosco, which is why I know that the estate isn’t named for a bed- time beverage. I address my remarks to David Fox, though, because the other writers, especially Bethesda Graham and Nat Loomis, still scare me.
Just remember, the director told me on the first day, never call Nat Nathaniel, or Bethesda Beth. I smiled at that evidence of vanity on their parts, but then I remembered that I’d been quick enough to modify my own name to Ellis when I published my first story. After all, who would take seriously a writer called Ellie?
“She saw it on one of the trips she and Milo Latham took to Italy,” I add, “and was inspired to create her own version of an Italian Renaissance garden here on the banks of the Hudson.”
We all look south toward where the Hudson should be, but the towering pines obscure the view. Instead we are looking down on crumbling marble terraces and broken statuary—statues of the Muses, whose shoulders are mantled with the gold dust of decaying pine needles and whose faces (at least on the statues who still have their heads) are cloaked in shadow and green moss. The hedges and shrubbery—once clipped and ordered—have overgrown their neat geometry and now sprawl in an untidy thicket across the hill. The fountain allée, with its satyrs and sphinxes who once spouted water from their mouths and breasts, leads to a statue of a horse poised on the edge of the hill as if it were about to leap into the dark, overgrown boxwood maze—Aurora Latham’s giardino segreto—at the bottom of the hill. Somewhere at the center of the maze is a fountain, but the hedges have grown too high to see it now.
“Actually, the garden’s closer in design to the Villa d’Este at Tivoli,” Bethesda Graham murmurs, sipping her mineral water. “The idea of all these fountains and the springs running down the hill into a grotto and then out to the main fountain and from there to the river and finally to the sea . . . Aurora wrote in her Italian journal that she wanted to create a garden that was the wellspring of a fountain like the sacred spring on Mount Parnassus.” Bethesda pronounces Aurora’s name as if she were a contemporary who’d only moments ago quit the terrace. Of course, I remember, she’s writing a biography of Aurora Latham. Bethesda’s the expert here.
“The whole hill is a fountain,” David Fox says. “One might even say the entire estate. Pumps draw the water up from the spring at the bottom of the hill and then pipes funnel the water down the hill though a hundred channels. On a night like this we would have heard the water cascading down the terraces like a thousand voices.”
Zalman Bronsky murmurs something. I lean forward to ask him to repeat himself, but then the words, half heard and still lingering in Bosco’s perfect silence, sound clearly in my head.
“ ‘The eloquence of water fills this hill,’ ” I repeat. “How lovely. It’s iambic pentameter, isn’t it?”
The poet looks startled, but then he smiles and takes out of his jacket a piece of paper that has been folded in quarters and begins to write down the line. When he sees it’s too dark to, he gets up to go inside. The artists have already gone inside for dinner, their manual labors having given them keener appetites.
“What happened to the fountains?” I ask David Fox, but it’s Bethesda who answers.
“The spring dried up,” she says, taking another careful sip from her glass.
“Not a particularly good omen for those who’ve come to drink at the wellspring of the Muses,” Nat says, downing the last of his scotch. “We might as well go inside for dinner.” He looks into his empty glass as if its dryness stood for the dried-up pipes of the fountain. Bethesda takes the glass from him as he gets up and follows him through the French doors into the dining room.
David Fox and I are left alone on the terrace looking down on the overgrown garden.
“So when you finish researching the garden, will it be restored?” I ask.
“If we get funding from the Garden Conservancy,” he says, draining the last drop of scotch from his glass. I get up and he reaches a hand out to take my wineglass. As his hand brushes mine, I feel a tremor—as if the pipes of the old fountain below us had come to life and were about to send forth jets of water, into the last lingering glow of the sunset. The garden wavers and quakes like a reflection in a pool of water, and I see a slim white figure swimming at its center. I force my eyes shut and, ignoring the sweet, spicy smell that has swept over the terrace, count to ten. When I open them, the garden has gone still and I can see that the slim white figure is only a statue standing below the western edge of the terrace and the scent of vanilla has faded from the air.
“You’re right,” I say, “it is prettier as a ruin.”
He laughs. “I agree, but I never said anything of the kind. The Garden Conservancy would have me fired if I did.”
At dinner I sit between Zalman Bronsky and Diana Tate. I’m glad I’m not next to David Fox, because I’m still embarrassed at what happened on the terrace. Of course he hadn’t said that the garden was prettier in ruins. It was only my imagination. Sometimes after a day of writing, after listening to the voices of my characters in my head, I begin to imagine that I can actually hear their voices.