His name was Antonio. I got to know him well in the last two or three years of his life. He was around 60, thin and wiry, a photographer by profession and an avid marathon runner. He photographed weddings a lot and when time allowed, occasional art projects, one being an interest in photographing hands.
He had invested in some commercial property, which gave him the means to travel to Italy most years. I don’t remember how it arose but one day he said he wanted to tell me a story, something very strange that happened to his niece and him when visiting Florence recently. They had spent the day exploring backstreets and piazzas, and failed to notice evening’s darkening distances, gradually drawing in space. The shops at that hour would be covered by wooden doors by their owners, each storefront tending to look like the other. Antonio and his niece needed to get to the train station and return to their hotel. Though the square was deserted someone appeared to be approaching them and in a few moments it became apparent that the person was a woman of indeterminate age, intensely focused on Antonio. She asked if they were lost and they told her their predicament.
As the story was told me maybe 8 years ago, I don’t remember the segue, but she proceeded to tell my friend things she could not have known about him by normal means. He had not been asked leading questions extracting what is called a “cold reading”. He was going to go through a great crisis she said and needed to be strong, she told him details about his brother and their relationship – had no way of knowing he even had a brother. Finally she told Antonio and his niece they needed to visit a church in a nearby alley and look at an old painting hung there. Eventually they caught their train after following the stranger’s directions.
Next day they returned to look for the church going to the alley she indicated but found nothing. Then after walking up and down Antonio saw a small nondescript door, the back entrance to a church. Inside a priest approached them and they asked about any old paintings in the church. They were shown a wall on which hung a large painting in darkness, apparently churches would make a little money through a coin-operated light. Antonio dropped the necessary coin into the slot and the picture was illuminated.
As he told me, he was startled to see a painting of the passion of St Anthony pierced all over with arrows but also a woman rendered in the corner of the picture was an exact likeness of the woman who spoke to them in the piazza the day before. The painting appeared to be several hundred years old. There was a double shock for my friend, seeing the likeness of the woman who seemed to know his life so intimately and seeing his namesake suffering. All the more poignant when Antonio was diagnosed with terminal cancer soon after.
While going through chemotherapy Antonio would frequently get acupuncture treatments to help mitigate side-effects and promote a sense of wellbeing. During these sessions, in a state of relaxation, he would often see the mysterious stranger again.
When the final days closed in Antonio never really accepted he was dying. After the last bout of emergency hospitalization he was moved, asleep, to a hospice. When he awoke to find himself there and was told it would be a few weeks stay he said, “we’ll see about that!” His last few hours there were spent talking with his daughter and two grandchildren alternating, almost equally, between alertness and falling quietly unconscious.
.Some weeks later I dreamed of him, one of those brief dreams where you meet someone, without the usual story sequence of events, in a dream space, the room without walls. Antonio was seated at a table about 10 feet way, simply looking at me, a sense of his eyes saying something the lips couldn’t. On the table was a plate of some kind of green vegetable and I took this to be a symbol of life.