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It’s autumn -- hunting season in the Indian summer woods back home, a time of year that always fills me with what the Greeks call pothos. I’m walking through Florence, and as I wander the maze of streets between the cathedral and the old stone bridge over the Arno, I’m thinking about this pothos, this yearning for the unattainable, the ideal, the beyond. Always beyond -- Plato defines pothos by saying it’s the desire for what’s absent, what’s somewhere else.

From the hills above the city at late afternoon on cloudless days, the cathedral appears to be rising up from the floor of the valley carved by the river, ready to float with its glowing dome up through the fine light and melt into the far reaches of the sky. Here, down below, the light is a mist so thick you can run it through your fingers like silk, rub your cheek against it the way cats napping on windowsills do.

So, too, with pothos. From the heights of his dialogue with Cratylus and Hermogenes, Plato can speak of it quite breezily as a kind of nostalgia for the non-existent. But down here in this thick Tuscan light, the absent is very present. It makes us restless, and wanderers, for as soon as we reach the somewhere else, whatever it might be that we’re longing for has moved on to a new somewhere else. Casanova probably had a bad case of pothos. Alexander the Great certainly did.

The light slips down the sides of the old stone bridges where jewelers and goldsmiths hawk their wares. It moves with the fluid grace of a slender young woman slipping into a lake to refresh herself with a swim. On vases and in statuary, pothos is depicted as a youth radiant with the first flush of manhood. I’m not so sure an athletic young woman wouldn’t be closer to the truth.

Some years ago I had a roommate. She and her boyfriend shared a flat with me in San Francisco, and one afternoon when we locked ourselves out of the flat, she slipped down from the roof, three stories above the street, and glided through an open window to let us in. Easily, without hesitation, as though hanging by your fingernails from a rain gutter many feet above the traffic and swinging your body through the air were no more dangerous than stepping off a curb. I remember the fierce, proud look she tossed me and her boyfriend as she opened the front door for us.

And how I once stumbled upon her naked. It was after a shower, the large red towel she’d used to dry herself heaped at her feet. She was shaking the water out of her hair by tossing her head from side to side, her eyes closed, an expression of the deepest pleasure on her face. Her whole body, every muscle, every inch of smooth, flawless skin, glowed with the pleasure of being alive, a young and strong animal. Though I’ve heard from her old boyfriend that she’s had a child and grown chunkier, in my mind she’s still lithe, still moves with the quickness and sureness of a fox sprinting through the woods on a bright carpet of newly fallen leaves.

It was just a glimpse. I hurried on past her room and down the long hallway of the flat. Even though my vision of her nakedness was an accident, and I didn’t linger, I nevertheless felt as though I’d witnessed something forbidden, much like Actaeon that morning he chanced upon Artemis bathing in her forest pool. I was disturbed. Not so much by seeing her naked body -- neither of us were prudes, or bashful -- as by seeing her naked pleasure.

Later, after we’d moved to different corners of the globe, I mailed her a letter in which I confessed how uneasy I’d felt at my glimpse of her unabashed, untarnished -- unsullied, I believe is the word I chose -- pleasure in the curves and ripples of her naked body. Rarely, I wrote, have I seen a body more lovely, cast in a mold the old gods must’ve buried for safekeeping when Christian martyrs at war with the flesh sent them packing, a classic mold painters discovered among the ruins of the ancient world during the Renaissance right here in Italy.

Mmm, she wrote back, how sweet to be pelted with perfumed roses. My lips nibble their petals, the soft tickle of them sets my thighs purring.

The light slips down the bridge into the river. It shrinks at the first touch of cool water on its toes, then goes in deeper, up to its ankles and calves, above its knees. As it glides noiselessly into the current, the light dissolves, passing its glow on to the river. The jewelry shops along the bridge are closed because it’s siesta, the city quiet. It’s that time of day when the shy and subtle colors of twilight come out to play on the deserted streets, clutching each object, each window, door, balcony, railing, as though it were home base in a game of hide-and-seek.

The atmosphere in this city of painters is a painter’s dream at this moment. It’s so solid, it seems your fingers could snatch ribbons of color out of the air to tie in your hair. It catches me by surprise. And then I pass a woman standing in a doorway, an olive light the tint of a gathering storm in her eyes. We exchange glances. Hers undresses me and invites me inside.

Women -- especially blondes -- visiting Italy often complain about how Italian men pester them. I’m sure they do, but if the women weren’t so busy primping their hair or walking briskly away, annoyed or flattered by the attention lavished upon them, they might be able to learn something from studying Italian women. In the country of Dante and Verdi, a woman can make a mockery of a man’s unwanted advances with a mere curl of the lips. By the same token, a flick of the eyebrows is enough to let him know what worlds of delight and wonder lie waiting to be explored beneath the weave of a cotton shift. Pelt me with roses, they can say, just by cocking their hips a certain way, come sing under my moonlit window with your guitar.

Somewhere I read that when the Mongols invaded Japan, they figured the little guys who came down to the beach to do battle with them were going to be pushovers. But when the Japanese attacked without hesitation, flung themselves into the swordplay without the usual defensive maneuvers designed to preserve life and limb, the Mongols were freaked out. They’d never encountered adversaries so fearless, who fought with such recklessness, without shield, without bothering to parry thrusts. The Mongols, confused and terrified by the samurai tactics, scurried back to their ships and never returned.

Italian women understand the art of samurai warfare instinctively. It may seem strange to talk about love and war in the same breath, but all’s fair in both, and there’s a reason why Aphrodite is paired with Ares. The women understand samurai tactics and are not afraid to use them in campaigns of the heart. If the Mongols had met Italian women on the beach, they would’ve gone home broke, naked, and bone-weary, but no doubt much happier.

In any event, one glance and my clothes vaporize. My legs forget how it is you put one foot in front of the other to move forward. But I do, dizzy as I am, manage to stagger down the street, my skin tingling as though brushed by feathers, as though the eyebrows of the unknown woman in the doorway were bows that launched arrows laced together from those downy feathers that fill the softest pillows.

Unknown, and yet somehow familiar, I’d felt those olive eyes caress me and ask me in before. But where and when, and who, and how? I’m like a cub reporter on his first assignment, reciting the litany of routine questions learned in journalism school.

By the time I reach the corner of the street, I’ve stopped moving forward. I’m having trouble simply standing up.

I saw a man get shot once downtown at noon. Even before his body hit the sidewalk, I knew he was dead, his soul gone somewhere else. His face was white as shaving cream. Blown away -- the aptness of the expression struck me, so quickly did his soul squirt out of his body, without a sound, invisible.

Perhaps the reverse is also true, and a homeless, wandering soul can enter a body just as quickly and stealthily. It sneaks in and shares your body with you, the way a parasite does. It brings along a million memories of some other life in some other place. They curl up in your cells, each one like a caterpillar curled up in a chrysalis. And those memories are what creates pothos, the ache to unite the wandering soul with the time and place in the cosmos when the memories were made. Some event in the here and now triggers their release, and all at once some deep, unseen part of you remembers that other life some other soul lived -- automatically, like music from a harp left in a courtyard, its strings stroked by a sudden breeze. Though you don’t actually see them, you can nevertheless sense them, feel them aflutter inside you.

Or it could be the unknown woman and I were great lovers in a past life. Our souls might’ve been linked together by a long romance. They would recognize each other instantly, and cry out for each other. This may be how love at first sight happens. Could be I was a fisherman back then, and she a gypsy trapeze artist who ran away from the circus to help me mend nets and bring my boat good luck with her charms and spells. And at night, as I was sailing back towards the land across the dark sea, she would sing to me from the shore, guiding me with a song through the rolling swells home to her arms.

If souls travel not only from human body to human body, but also come to reside in animals and things, the connection between us could go back much farther, into the earth itself, to that spring when we were poppies, blood-red poppies that crack a path through stone. Perhaps our roots touched in a fissure of the stone in the long ago. And the sun in the long ago tickled our closed petals open into little chalices to hold the sighs of Artemis and Actaeon in another tale -- rarely told -- of what really happened the morning the huntsman chanced upon the goddess bathing in the pool, her clothes and bow and quiver lying on the grassy bank.

At the corner, I gather myself together, turn around and retrace my steps. I can’t let this moment pass. Every moment in my life has added up to this moment, to a glance from a woman in a doorway in Florence.

The woman is gone, the door closed. Locked. I tap on it lightly, so the neighbors won’t hear. Italian women may be bold, but only within the rules of an elaborate game of chastity and fidelity. The game itself adds to the savor -- stolen kisses can be so sweet, sin such a heady spice to spread on the sheets.

Nothing happens, so I knock louder. I’m nervous, expecting windows to fly open any minute now, and gossips with wagging tongues to stick their heads out to see what’s happening out there in the shadows, disturbing their siesta.

Am I out of my mind, banging on the door of an unknown woman because of a passing glance? Because of these swarms of newly-hatched butterflies beating their wings against the inside of my chest? And what if she’s married, and her husband answers the door?

So sorry, signor, mi dispiace to disturb your peace. But your wife and I, we were great lovers in another life, you see, or maybe just a couple flowers -- che bellisima, non e vero? -- and I’m kind of nel mezzo del cammin and I got this pothos -- you know? -- and I thought, long as I’m in the neighborhood, why not stop by and say a buon giorno or a ciao for old time’s sake?

No husband comes to the door. Nobody comes. My nerve is failing me. I’m tempted to leave well enough alone and quietly deposit my dreams of a tumble with the unknown woman on her doorstep and walk away. But three, as everyone knows from fairy tales, is a magic number -- three witches, three fates, three graces, three knocks.

The third time I pound on the door. My hammering must be waking sleepy birds in alpine forests, camels snoozing by a well in a far-off oasis. It’s curious how utterly still a large, bustling city can be in the light that falls during the last hour of the day. It’s as if the city were pausing to take the breath that’ll carry it through the night. The quiet is almost spooky, so complete just the beating of my heart seems loud enough to bring the neighbors to their windows.

The door opens a smidgeon. From the slice of face and fine olive eye visible through the narrow aperture, I know it’s she. I step forward, ready to slip into the hallway soon as she’s had an opportunity to see it’s me and takes the chain off the latch to swing the door open.

You, she hisses at me as I move closer, you had your chance. Now beat it!!

And the door slams in my face.

The spots in front of my eyes must be all those butterflies fluttering out of me into the air and dying in mid-flight, their bright corpses dropping to the pavement in the falling dusk.

Beat it. She’s right. Artemis was right. Actaeon hesitated -- that was his mistake. I don’t know why he hesitated. Maybe he was stunned by her beauty. Maybe he, like me, was thinking about some other woman when he happened across the goddess in her pool -- a shepherdess with the tender leaves of spring in her voice, a lithe village lass shaking water out of her hair. But the moment is only a moment, which is what gives it such incredible beauty and ferocity. Actaeon missed it and Artemis changed him into a stag. For all of time the hunter is condemned to repeat that moment when his skin begins to thicken and sprout the coarse hairs of a deer, and his hunting dogs, sinking their fangs into his toughening hide, begin to draw blood.

Of course, there’s another, happier version of the tale. But that one’s in another place, out of reach, lit by the rays of a long-ago sun. And we, we go on wandering a greeny ball of whirlydust with our hunting dogs -- the hounds of desire -- baying beside us, with this pothos locked away inside us, wandering, forever looking for that other place where a kiss on the eyelids changes the color of the eyes, looking for that dent in the grass, the bruised poppies on the bank beside the pool the hunter and the mistress of wild things crushed in their sighing embrace in the version of the tale which so rarely gets told.