Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2012 v11n1
print version

Irene Virga Salafia
     Alfredo Salafia (1869–1933) was a famous Sicilian embalmer, most well known for the modern
     “mummy” Rosalia Lombardo (1918–1920), one of the eight thousand mummies kept in the
     Catacombe dei Cappuccini in Palermo, Sicily.

I was his second wife; I understood this,
too, as passion, his days spent with the dead,
months in the making of whatever it was
and would be called, the smell on him at night
not death, the alchemy of God. When he
touched me, I knew I was the stranger flesh—
here-alive, yes, and half his age, young as
his own daughters, younger. And I understood,
too, what preoccupied him so—the unseen
he saw in all things, proofs, solutions, the whys
of guttering candles, of wax, of prayer, of the blood
orange he would peel while reading the paper,
the segment he would offer to me, mindless,
juice on his fingers, while, below us, people
coursed the narrow streets to pool in the piazzas,
stones ice-slick beneath them. He understood those
who would not be satisfied with such stone,
a name carved, a face set in bronze, marble—
or with an image, a lock of hair.
                                                   He thought it
art—far beyond balm—levitation, almost,
that immaculate a suspense, exact
and abstract, the thing itself made other,
italicized. And why not in this city
of sculptures common as the shutters and balconies—
faces on every building, horses on the rooftop
of the theatre, angels in every garden,
in every fountain the water carved by stone.
His studio—a laboratory, and in it,
glass vials, needles, chemicals, the marble
slab where they lay.
                                 In notebooks he recorded
early attempts, the animals—some birds,
mostly dogs—a mosaic of failed equations,
then the bodies unclaimed from the morgue,
then his own brother, father, until
he proved he could do more than preserve,
transforming those weeks gone, like bringing up
the drowned, not to life, but to the surface
from which they had sunk.
                                           His last was a child,
two years old, lost to pneumonia, named
along with countless other little girls
for Rosalia, a hermit who died alone
in a weeping cave the saint we all prayed to,
who had once banished a plague, her bones kept
unseen in a silver urn in the cathedral.
                                                              The child’s
cheeks and lips he made plump with injections
of wax—but the unseen-all of her he worked
hardest to preserve—her heart and lungs,
her brain, a darkened closet of zinc salts,
glycerin, acid, formalin where once
there had been the sea, absorbed, and the mountains
enclosing it. Incorruptible, he declared her—
perfect votive, her ribboned hair a spun-gold
cold flame—and tucked her in, her cradle, lead-
lined, its lid wax-sealed glass, its clawed feet
those of an animal, as though she would be
forever borne on the back of a tamed beast.
Was this not love?
                              Three months after we married,
I would bury him with his first wife and stand
outside the tomb as though orphaned along
with his daughters. Winter, still, the hour was mild;
the almond trees would flush pink in a week
with blossoms.   
                         His cursive perfect, the formula
and instructions for it he would leave behind him,
on the frontispiece below his name, an etching
of Charon ferrying a sleeping woman across
the Styx to the underworld.
                                             But the child’s place is
the forever of an alcove at the end
of the long crypt, its ceilings vaulted like a capuchin’s
deep hood, its passageways lined with weary
corpses stacked in caskets or hung from bolts
sunk in the walls, arranged as though the old
order of sex and class still matters. Their bodies
were drained, emptied, the cavities refilled
with straw, then dressed for another Monday,
all their heads bowed as though peering over
balconies, those deep sills, at the street below me,
where shopkeepers sweep in the morning, the sound
of broomstraw on stone a kind of breathing,
where a blind dog crosses, eyes the colorlessness
of quartz, and the old pick through the day before
heaped reeking on the corner.
                                                 She will remain
like the odd-alone, small yellow sorrel—most
common of wildflowers—I pressed in the back
of this book, not the stuff of memory unless
I write the hour we sat on a bench of stone,
parrots making green screaming ribbons of the air
above us; I wanted something to remember it by,
some small memento I recall hesitating
to take from its one afternoon of pollen
and bees—color its one remaining trueness,
shape collapsed, thinned as paper—this preserve
a worse kind of withering, perhaps, and yet
you see how I again have turned to it
for its very failure to compare.  

return to top