– Sign in stone

Do you know how an image, from a book or movie or even your own dreams, can enter and then stick in your mind? For days, since reading this passage in If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino, I’ve been seeing this hand in stone — my version of it — everywhere:

Monday. Today I saw a hand thrust out of a window of the prison, toward the sea. I was walking on the seawall of the port, as is my habit, until I was just below the old fortress. The fortress is entirely enclosed by its oblique walls; the windows, protected by double or triple grilles, seem blind. Even knowing that prisoners are confined in there, I have always looked on the fortress as an element of inert nature, of the mineral kingdom. Therefore the appearance of the hand amazed me, as if it had emerged from the cliff. The hand was in an unnatural position; I suppose the windows are set high in the cells and cut out of the wall; the prisoner must have performed an acrobat’s feat – or, rather, a contortionist’s – to get his arm through grille after grille, to wave his hand in the free air. It was not a prisoner’s signal to me, or to anyone else; at any rate I did not take it as such; indeed, then and there I did not think of the prisoners at all; I must say that the hand seemed white and slender to me, a hand not unlike my own, in which nothing suggested the roughness one would expect in a convict. For me it was like a sign coming from the stone: the stone wanted to inform me that our substance was common, and therefore something of what constitutes my person would remain, would not be lost with the end of the world; a communication will still be possible in the desert bereft of life, bereft of my life and all memory of me. I am telling the first impressions I noted, which are the ones that count.

It’s not just the image. I love the simple surprises in “mineral kingdom,” “free air,” and “white and slender,” the slant repetition of “desert bereft of life, bereft of my life,” and the narrator’s measured acceptance of the remarkable “thrust out” hand he has seen and what it means to him.

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