In the morning, Franco set the coffee pot a-gurgling. As the smell of coffee hit his nose, he noticed a particular chemical taste in his mouth, somewhere between mineral and vegetal, maybe fungal, mushroomy. Not plant, not rock and not flesh, but something like dirty white wine with rose petals and algae. Intuitively, he turned off the coffee pot and went outside. The boards in the hole filled with dirt were still in place, protecting the root. It was quiet and already sunny although it was still early in the morning. On impulse, he jumped into the hole, without using the ladder or boards to steady himself. Pushing the boards apart and lifting them up and away from the root, the vertical column of earth fell, cascading upon itself and against the wall of the hole, spilling onto the bottom. Without touching the root, or cleaning it of the dirt and other organic matter that clung to it, he carefully put his mouth around it and waited, only lightly touching his tongue to the root’s apex.
Good morning. Catia.
Franco looked up without moving his mouth or head, motioning with one hand that he was in the middle of something and that he wanted Catia to wait patiently for a minute or two. How he communicated this with just a slight rocking motion of his right hand, fingers gently splayed, was a mystery, but Catia understood immediately and stood quietly at the edge of the hole, her black waitress shoes gently compressing the soil that lined its perimeter.
This arrangement continued for at least a full minute: Franco crouched down, root in mouth, and Catia motionless on the edge of the hole, looking down. After a moment or two, Franco released his mouth and stood upright, swallowing slightly and pressing his tongue to his palate.
I felt something. Franco.
A tingle. Franco.
From the root? Catia.
Yes, but also from the dirt and whatever else was in the dirt. Franco.
Dirt beautiful, isn’t it? Catia.
Yes. Soil. Franco.
Where is that root coming from? Catia
It’s from that larch. It is looking for water. Franco.
I would think so, after you took away its dirt. I mean, soil. Catia.
Maybe. So maybe when it detected my saliva, it sensed a change and expressed it somehow, physically or chemically. Something. Franco.
Coffee’s ready. Want some? Franco.
Sure. I brought some bread. Catia.
Franco climbed out of the hole, with Catia pulling on the shirt on his shoulder to help him out. Franco took the bag of bread and felt the two round rings of rye still warm from the oven, broad and flat, crackling on the outside and moist and tender on the inside, fragrant but lean on sugar, brown and proteiny, like wheat but harder with a clean mineral taste and not as sweet.
Thanks. Let’s save it for lunch. Cookies for breakfast, that’s the rule. Franco.
They both entered the hothouse, first Catia and then Franco, who stood aside as he pushed open the door.
Entre vous s’il vous plait. Franco.
Mercì monsieur. Catia.
Nice place. I love all of your plants. Catia.
Not for the first time, but close to it, Franco noticed Catia’s femininity, her womanhood, apparent in the lack of irony in her voice. A man would have made a joke about Franco’s plant-filled house, affectionate but ironic, which would have been fine, but this was not the way with Catia.
Have a seat. Franco, motioning to the kitchen table.
Catia sat down, again like a woman, placing her bag on her lap, still bundled in her coat, her combination of shoe and leg and bottom, sitting on the chair, that could only belong to a woman, that rounded and contained energy they exuded but did not exude, but just seemed to circulate below the surface, below their surface.
I’ll heat some milk. Franco.
He placed two bowls on the table in front of Catia, one stacked inside the other. Taking a fresh carton of milk from the refrigerator, he poured some into a pan and set it on the stove, clicking to life a low flame.
You don’t have to go far for vegetables. Catia.
So they like it in here. They seem happy. Catia.
So far so good. They don’t talk much. Never tell me anything. Franco.
Well, they look good. Catia.
The milk simmered and then suddenly crested up the side of the pan, almost to over flowing. Franco lifted it off the stove, unnested the two bowls, filled each one, and then turned back to the stove to turn off the flame. He picked up the coffee pot and handed it to Catia.
Add as much as you like. Franco.
Thanks. Catia, still round, still contained, still sweet.
Biscotti? Franco, setting down the tin that Giovanna had given him many Christmases ago.
Light filtered in through the hothouse windows, through the diaphanous bean leaves, and warmed the kitchen table. Franco poured the rest of the coffee into his bowl of milk.
I have some bread from a day or two ago if you want that instead.
No, cookies are fine. You remind me of my grandmother. Catia.
I do? Franco.
She used to have a hot bowl of milk poured over broken up pieces of pane di segale every morning for breakfast. She said biscotti were too sweet. She laughed at the packets of pane di segale that were for sale, already dried out. She couldn’t understand why anyone would buy stale bread. Catia.
She sounds like my neighbor, Giovanna. She wouldn’t buy anything if she didn’t have to. Franco.
Sounds nice. Catia.
She is. And, I mean, yes, that is, not buying things, I mean. Franco.
Catia sipped her bowl of hot milk and coffee and looked Franco in the eyes for the first time, tipping them up from the bowl.
Did you know that male fennel bulbs are rounded while female bulbs are elongated? Franco.
I do know that, yes. Catia.
And that the male bulbs are sweeter and less fibrous? Franco.
Yes, but that is a myth, or at least it’s not always the case. Catia.