The Train to Orvieto

It is 1935. Willa Carver, 20, has left her home in Erhart, Ohio, and is traveling to Florence, Italy, with her chaperone and hostess, Signora Farnese. On the train, they meet an Italian soldier, Gabriele Marcheschi, who notices Willa is drawing his picture and has asked to buy it.

"A thousand lire. Very well, but half of the fee has to be paid in advance," Willa said to him.

"Is that how they do it in America?" the soldier replied.

"Yes." My first Italian commission! I must write to Maestro Ottaviani and tell him, she thought.

"In Italy, we pay only if we like the result." He stood up and worked his wallet out of his back pocket with his good hand. "Since you are an American, I will make an exception." He counted out a thousand lire.

Signora Farnese put her hand between them. "No. She does not accept money from...." Before she could say more, Willa took the note and put it in her purse.

"See how impractical you are?" the soldier said to Willa. "You didn't even look at it. How do you know it's the right amount?"

He seems pleased, as if he won a competition, Willa thought.

"I know it's double what we said. What else do I need to know?" In an effort to restore some formality between them she pointed to a place next to the window. "If you will sit over there, please." He didn't move.

"I would have paid you even more, but you didn't bargain with me. Very impractical!"

Despite Signora Farnese's disapproving look, Willa took the bait. "You're mistaken. I didn't need to bargain with you because you gave me twice what I asked. Besides, you don't know whether I can draw or not, so it's you who's impractical." Signora Farnese shook her head and took refuge in a book on Italian art. "Please, move where the light is better," Willa said again, but the soldier refused.

"Draw!" He waved his hand like a monarch. "I want to watch you work."

"You'll make me self-conscious."

"You say you're an artist. I paid for my portrait, so you must do this portrait the way I wish. Ask your...mother?"

"What do you think?" Willa asked Signora Farnese.

"I think you made a mistake to take the money in the first place, but now that you've accepted it, you'll have to draw whatever pose he requests or return the money." Signora Farnese resumed reading her book.

"Don't talk," Willa told him. She took out a hard pencil first and began to block the key points of his shape, aligning his proportions withe the length of her pencil as Maestro Ottaviani had taught her to do. She changed to a softer lead to note the curved lines of his body under the fabric of his uniform, the thrust of the jaw, the slight indentation where the mandible met the ear, then followed the line of the long, smooth nose, the outward bulge of his eyelids, the rounded darkness of the iris itself, erasing in the white highlight. Moving to the mouth, she traced the full upper lip, the slight smile, the thinner lower lip, and then the hair, which curled around his face like smoke. She followed the line of his sturdy torso to the left ankle resting on the right knee, ending in the left foot thrust toward her, his left hand on his knee, solid and firm. She traced the passage of each finger, erasing, changing, and correcting the angles of the knuckles. Does this drawing have life? she asked herself. What would Maestro Ottaviano say?

The soldier looked soft, yet fierce; kindly, but capable of slaying gorgons. She smudged the gentle edges of his mouth and dug her pencil into the paper in the places where she wanted to emphasize his strength.

"Do you always draw like you're trying to kill something?" he asked.


"I'm Gabriele Marcheschi and I live in Orvieto." He lifted his arm from the sling, leaned toward her. "I'm going home to get well."

She glanced at him. "What happened to your arm?"

"Un incidente." An accident. He made a rolling motion with his good hand. "In Ethiopia, the truck I was driving overturned near Addis Ababa. I went to join the Italian forces. My arm is broken in three places. He pointed to his upper arm, then to just below his elbow, and to his wrist, his eyes on her.

Willa looked down at her work. "Perhaps you're not such a good driver," she said as she erased an area that troubled her. "You should be more careful." She heard his quick intake of breath.

"But I was almost killed!" He sounded affronted. Have I said something wrong? she wondered. "I am not careless or weak," he continued. "I am ready to die for my country." He put his good hand on his chest. "I was never afraid." He reached into his pocket and took out a medallion attached to a crumpled purple ribbon. "Look." He put the medallion on her sketchbook and leaned closer, pointed to the inscription. "It says 'for bravery and courage in battle.'"

"I'm sorry about your arm. Does it still hurt?" Willa said. She handed the medal to Signora Farnese, who returned it to the soldier.

"I don't know if I'll ever be able to work again." His expression included sadness, remorse, and self-pity. Willa found the contradiction of his rough exterior and sentimentality appealing in a romantic way. He seems overly dramatic, she thought. After all, isn't he here and alive and evidently quite well?

"What does your doctor say?" Signora Farnese asked.

"Signora, in Orvieto we had three doctors. One was my brother who was killed in the same accident. Crushed under the truck. He died instantly. The other fellow, also a doctor...his foot was nearly cut off. They took him to the same hospital where they took me. Gangrene set in. He became a hung of rotten meat. He knew he was dying and he cried for his mother the whole time. Death is a terrible thing." He watched Willa, assessing the effect of his words. "Now there is only one doctor left for all of Orvieto: Dr. Lucarelli who knows only herbs."

Willa looked out the window at the parched hills thinking of boys back home, boys like Chip and Eddie. Just then, they—and Gabriele Marcheschi, too—seemed beautiful to her, and the idea of their being in a war seemed tragic.

"Mussolini restores our greatness like a Caesar," Gabriele continued, "but this is why there is no doctor for my arm in Orvieto." He shrugged. Did he regard this, too, as a matter of fate?

"If I were you, I'd go where they had doctors," Willa said, glad that she would be an artist in a city with real doctors.

"You mean you would go somewhere for just such a small thing as a doctor? Why would I leave my home, my family's podere?" Gabriele replied. "I'm the only son left and I must always care for the land of my family. Our vineyards. Our crops. Our tenants."

"I think a good arm is more important than a piece of land," Willa said. "How could I be an artist without my arm? How could you take care of your family's land without yours?"

Gabriele shook his head. "Without my land, how could I be a man? If you saw how beautiful my family's land in Orvieto is, you wouldn't say that."

"I would too say it. I'd say it no matter what," Willa said. 

"This is how you think?" he said. She nodded, erasing a line. "You must be an American to leave your home for such a foolish reason."

"That's not why I left," she said, carefully redrawing the line. "I left because I'm going to be a painter."

"They don't have painters in America?" 

"Not in Erhart, Ohio."

"So people in Ohio, Erhart, would leave the land of their fathers and grandfathers just to be painters, too?" 

"Erhart, Ohio. Yes," she said, "we would." He shook his head at the incomprehensibility of her decision.

The conductor entered their compartment. Signora Farnese gave him their tickets and excused herself. One of Willa's pencils rolled off the seat and onto the floor. Both she and Gabriele reached for it. He put his hand around hers and pressed his medal into her palm. Willa pulled away and tried to give the medal back. 

"A gift from your new friend, Gabriele Marcheschi." He took the medal and put it on her sketchbook.

"You can't give me this medal." She handed it back to him. "I don't know you."

"You know me well enough to take my money for a portrait." He fingered the medal. "So now you must tell me your name." It was true, she thought. She would have to tell him her name when she signed the drawing. She looked out through the window of the compartment door. Signora Farnese was nowhere in sight. 

"Willa." She pushed a long strand of hair away from her face. "Willa Carver."

Gabriele stood up, bowed slightly, and removed his cap with his left hand and put it on the seat. His dark curls tumbled over his forehead. He held out his hand, and she shook it. "So now we are friends, Willa Carver."