The Wicked Samaritan
“You’ll have to close your eyes,” he said.
Here was an old couple in young love. They walked close, her fingers smiling on the crook of his arm.
“What do you have in that box?” she asked. “Is it a paintbrush?”
It was a paintbrush box. And so ‘paintbrush’ was a good guess. But instead it held something quite preposterous. There’s really no sense in guessing yet.
“I’ll tell you soon, I’ll show you,” he said. And a sweet smile formed between them like the sticky wisps of spun sugar.
They strolled, a measured pace. And Florence faded behind them as they entered an old grove, thick with cypress and opalus and sickly, thin olive trees with bare branches and withered fruit. Inside, light slowed and dripped sideways through the leaves. They came upon two fig trees growing in proximity. Their roots and limbs commingled, a twist of rubber in the earth, and knots forming in wrinkles above.
“We’re going to walk through, between these two,” he said, gesturing to the gap. “And Vittoria, please. Keep your eyes closed.”
She took his hand. She trusted him. Such was their love.
Between the trees a distance formed. A silence. The grove seemed to stretch and yawn. Branches crept out in all directions, a sea of crooked arms. Behind one was another, and another, up and out forever. And the daylight yielded, not to darkness but to a green on green on green. And the leaves whispered, something quiet. A rumor to an old friend. Vittoria’s eyes turned on, came to life like the pinprick whites of some creature from the deep.
She saw the vastness. The teeming void. An infinite intersection of space and life. Did the patterns of branches repeat? Did they make shapes? An eye, a hand pointing the way?
Vittoria was a poet. And so in that euphoria, she saw verse. Words written in the veins of leaves. Simple things, a rhyme split into meters, and hung up to dry by the feet. These were the tangled thoughts of some old machine, not yet coded. Not yet written into history.
And then something new. Sunlight through thinning leaves. The air changed. The grove gave way to a foreign land, rocks and rolling wind. And the sun was so high and bright it cast no shadows and left no shade.
“I’ve been here often,” the old man said, waving a hand at the horizon, “but I never tire of the feeling. A slowing of sand through the glass, you might say.”
The two walked out onto low hills pocked with brush. And they covered ground faster now, but with an easy pace. “Feel better?” he said.
Vittoria, bewildered by the grove and the leaves and the lightness of this new air, could only smile. They had left the woods and surfaced in some timeless place.
Two great armies gathered in the valley below, shifting, shouting. But Vittoria and the old man stayed in the hilltops, prowling toward a large tree, impossibly big as they approached. Its branches lifted the sky. Its roots so crowded the ground that the remainders stacked up on the surface, a floor of gentle fingers.
Vittoria stooped over to grab a broken branch, fallen off from some height. She moved her hands over its shapes. She flexed its thickness, she prodded its jagged ends. Mesmerized.
Below, the armies took up strategic positions and began to polish their shields and sharpen their swords. Vittoria watched them swarm, a grip on that branch. “What are they doing, these serious men? Where are the women to dilute this madness?”
The old man shook his head. “I’ll tell you what happens,” he said. “Two men will decide this battle. A single fight. And one man dies. His army flees. Whoever wins, wins. They’re a superstitious lot. Here the rules are in control.”
A great warrior had come forward on one side. He towered over the other men. A ringing of metal in his armor. A glinting of light from his spear.
“Who would fight that monster?” said Vittoria.
“It’s this little one who volunteers.” The old man pointed down.
Vittoria squinted to see, a boy. At best a young man. “Why him?” she was vexed, watching the giant pace and point his spear and curse in some lost tongue.
“Courage? Faith? God only knows,” the old man said.
“Does he win?” she was hopeful.
“No. They kill him. His name is David. A would-be king if he could survive this. He never does.”
“Michelangelo,” she said, “how have you seen this event more than once?”
Yes, this is Michelangelo. An artist in the truest sense. The light of a millennium.
And he gave her a gentle bow of his head. “A splendid question,” he said.
Vittoria had a keen mind in that way.
“You don’t recognize that boy?” Michelangelo said.
Vittoria shook her head.
“You remember that statue of mine? The big one, the sling and stones. This is that boy.”
“But your statue is a Florentine man. This boy is a shepherd. He plays a harp. Why have you immortalized him?” Vittoria said. “Is he martyred here? His must be a glorious death?”
“No. It’s gruesome,” he said. “Death always is. But I mean to make this boy a hero.”
“Isn’t being a hero the same as being a martyr?” she said.
“Not to him.”
“Vittoria, I’m 61 years old. And in my time, in our time, you’ve known me as an artist. You would call me an artist. But I’ve only just come to know what art is. This boy has taught me. Posthumously. He’s been killed here a thousand times.
“I’m a failed artist, Vittoria. My work is only beautiful. Only real. A simulation of life. All the sinews in the right place. The weight of flesh rendered in stone. But that's not art. Not yet. It may become art if we can save this young man. We must kill the Philistine giant. Goliath is his name. And if the world believes that David won by the cunning of his sling. Then the nature of art, the truth of art, will be clear. For the first time. Finally.”
There was not a sound from Vittoria. Not a shake of the head. Not a negative word. There was nothing to deny. But her eyes set in on that box again.
“I hope,” she said, “if we’re to kill that giant man, that you’ve brought along more than a paintbrush.”
Michelangelo held up the paintbrush box, weighing it with his fingers.
“It’s something white I think,” she said squinting. ”A boney thing.”
He shook his head and began to unravel the lengths of twine holding the box together. “I think someone was peeking in the woods,” he said.
What came out of the box was indeed white. Bright white. Healthy white. The color of clean. The color of something that could have been yellow or green, but wasn’t.
This was a human bone. A clavicle. Vittoria took it up, unafraid. She moved her hands over its shapes. She flexed its thickness, she prodded its rounded ends. Mesmerized again.
Below, they tried fitting David with armor. But each one was too big. Each time David was too small.
“They’re moving quickly today,” Michelangelo said, “we’re short on time.” He took back the clavicle, the white human bone, and bounced over crags toward the Terebinth tree.
Michelangelo was scavenging the ground, measuring lengths with his eye. And he was becoming exasperated in his search.
“Michelangelo, I—” she was interrupted.
“Vittoria, I need to find a branch to pair with the bone. Something of similar feel and form. If I don’t, we can’t do what we came here to do.” And with sweeping hand gestures, he explained how art dies, a withering light, the people becoming lovelorn and empty.
“—have the branch,” she finished. His speech came to a muddled end. “I recognized it when we arrived,” she said.
Michelangelo looked at her gravely, a question weighing on his brow.
“The leaves showed it to me,” she was answering him.
Wrinkles clambered up the great shield of his balding head.
“You should not have looked,” he said. “There are dark things in those trees.”
“Well, when someone says don’t look,” she shrugged, “I get the terrible urge to peek.”
Michelangelo was tying branch and bone together with twine from the box. Three lengths. One in the center and two on the ends. The shapes of wood and white were not matched, but complimentary. And they fit one another, joined together, yielding a single, solid form.
“Are we not a bit too far away to have some effect on this battle?”
There was rumbling from below. A shifting of weight on shuffling feet.
“Let me explain,” Michelangelo said. Vittoria listened but kept close watch.
“Everyone has a tree. This Terebinth here is his.” He pointed downward toward the Philistine giant.
“The man and the tree are different things, flesh and fiber, but they’re married in some way,” he smiled. “The cosmos plays strange music.”
Michelangelo paced between Goliath and the Terebinth, adjusting the bundle entwined.
“The bone and branch connect these different parts of the whole. The proximity of each to the other might,” he paused, “confuse the cosmic melody.”
“David’s at the water,” Vittoria was intent, “he’s kneeling.”
“He’s choosing stones. We’re close.”
Jeers rose from below. The armies chanted separately, different cadences, different tongues, but the sounds merged on their way up. They formed a low buzz, the harbinger of final things.
“I suppose,” Vittoria’s voice was raised, hoarse, “those trees from the grove, those are our trees,” she said.
Michelangelo nodded. He moved the bundle out in front as he walked, as if searching for a signal. And then, something haunting. A bifurcation of the air itself, and field lines formed from the tips of the dead bone and tree. Vittoria flinched at it, this apparition in empty space.
Vast, nested curves, an endless mirrored surface, stretched out through sky and earth. And there was a twisting, a pulsing as Michelangelo maneuvered those shapes.
David had returned to a thunder, a pounding of human hearts, angry and afraid. The two men squared off, a Hebrew and a Philistine. Each one spoke, but neither one could understand what the other said.
“And I suppose,” Vittoria was shouting now, “that the leaves showed me the truth.”
But at that moment, Michelangelo seemed to lose focus. The twine in the center of the bundle unraveled. It wriggled free and slithered out and down. He plucked it up quickly and began rewrapping it around. But simply, just loop over loop, a long spiral.
“You saw your reflection,” he said. “It was real in that sense.” Michelangelo wrestled to keep the bundle steady, balancing the broad mirrored shell of some other dimension.
Goliath gave a final insult. But it was mechanical. This was ritual spite.
And Michelangelo turned the branch and bone, wrist over wrist. Wild reflections rolled on that axis. The sky came up through rocks and dirt. And pock marked hills appeared at impossible heights and dissolved again.
Vittoria watched the world churn, devouring itself and spitting up. “The leaves,” she said, “I don’t have long.”
The sling flew in the air, but not uncontrolled. Rhythmic. Like a bat or bird. Poised to prey. David turned his wrist. And the stone was free.
Too fast to see.
Goliath stumbled. Stunned. He was hit! And the giant went down on one knee.
Michelangelo worked furiously. A grunt. A curse. Nothing was happening.
And Goliath raised his monstrous form. He roared, wounded and angry.
Desperation struck. Michelangelo put the bundle beneath his feet and took hold of that middle tie. And then he released. He fell back and away, pulling hard on the center twine. The bundle spun wildly as it unwound. A blur of branch and bone. And the world went black and white. Gray. Time and space exchanged. The cosmos tumbled end over end. And then the mirrored face of God blinked, winked, and came around again.
Goliath’s roar was cut short, not stopped but stifled. Replaced by the sound a tree makes when it sees itself in a mirror. And the giant fell forward, immobile and mute. Almost as if he had forgotten, at once, how to use his legs and feet.
So David finished the fight. He took up Goliath’s own sword and used it as it was intended. And that old spirit, long captive in seed and sprout and splinter, was free again at last. Released into a new day.
And high above in the hills, the Terebinth tree seemed out of sorts. Its leaves looked around on the wind. And it began to drop its fruit. Almost as if it had forgotten, at once, how to hold those brown and red seeds.
Vittoria was looking up at the leaves of her tree. Unashamed. Trying to decipher the images in those veins.
Seeing this, Michelangelo said, “When I think about who I was ten years ago, I can’t really account for that man. I don’t know what he needed, or what he knew. In a way he’s dead. And I’ve replaced him. In that sense we’re always dying. Being tilled under and harvested again.”
He looked up into the great, weighty branches of his own tree. “And that process must continue,” he said, “beyond even what the leaves can see.”
“I didn’t want you to learn these things Vittoria, but I wanted you to know. That art is a message. Something sent and received. A communion across ages, alive in every sense. Moving through rock or ink or paint. My statue was perfect and bold and utterly artless until today. But by making David of Judah a Florentine man, he becomes the hero of Florence. A place he never knew. He transcends language and country and even time. It’s not just the necessity of courage but the nobility of ideas. The inevitability of impossible things in the right hands.
“And now, Vittoria, the world is going to change. How can men fight or steal or lie when there is so much art left to create? No more vain portraits or meandering yarns. No more shiny, glassy, pretty ornaments. No more still life Vittoria!” Michelangelo sang out in his excitement. “We shall finally be free of the silliness of artless things.”
The grove lightened, softened, opening a green tendril into Tuscany. And they emerged from the canopy of the trees.
But Vittoria was lost and dreaming. She squinted and said, “Tomorrow, let’s go again. Let’s visit that man who was robbed and beaten on his way to Jericho. He died there on the road. Let us find his killer. And let us change his mind. So that he may himself return to his victim and do something right.”
Michelangelo cradled this thought. He took his time.
At last he turned to Vittoria, his love, and said, “First, I suppose, we shall have to learn where this wicked man lives.”