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Ghosts In the Chapel
The last of the swifts and swallows rose and fell through frescoed air, tracing the wavelengths of dusk. Soon the bats would come, twisting soundlessly overhead.

At our wooden table on the hilltop was a bottle of dark red wine—we were in Tuscany, very near the center of Chianti, an hour on the treno locale south of Florence—and with the wine a bowl of olive oil flavored with garlic and pepper. The wine and oil came from huge jugs in a tiny store on the way to the nearest village, Barbarino val d’Elsa. Before that they came from the fields below our rented farmhouse.

Each evening Jenny and I took the wine and oil and a loaf of crusty bread the color of the farmhouse stones and climbed to the crown of the hill. Circled by the old, braided trunks of olive trees, we sat in incongruous white plastic lawn chairs and watched the sun roll away down deep valleys. We watched the last of the light go slowly orange and drain through small holes in the sky that became the early stars. Watched the distant towers of San Gimignano flood with electric light as the day’s siege of tour buses drove off beneath the ancient walls. And mostly we watched for the ghosts in the round chapel.

Across the lane and just down the hillside from the farmhouse was a long-abandoned outpost of Vatican City: a late-15th century chapel, perfectly round, empty, perhaps 30 feet across and backed by a crumbling bell tower. The top of the tower was home to grass, weeds and exuberant birds. At dusk, the darkness inside the tower broke into pieces and swirled out, animating itself as dozens of small, silent bats. Stone by stone, the chapel and the tower were slowly being taken apart by the patience of gravity and the moodiness of weather.

Inside the round chapel is where the ghosts lived. They only appeared late in the day, when the low sun filtered in through the west-facing door, bending like an old soul in search of redemption. During the rest of the daylight hours the ghosts vanished, as shafts of light entered the chapel through holes in the ceiling and high, narrow windows in the circular wall, slicing and stirring the dusty air into a luminous haze.

But in the evening, in the soft sundown, we could just see them through the glassless windows and the openings in the roof: saints, sinners, seraphim, angeli, all the creatures of Eden—faint spirits on the cracked walls and punctured ceiling, spinning in infinity. Sometimes as we watched a car or truck would pass the chapel on the narrow lane, horn beeping at every blind corner, and we would follow the sound over the undulating hills until it vanished behind the curtain of insect noise and evening breeze. By then the ghosts would be gone and the growing lights of Barbarino would pull our eyes away to the southeast, to the last year of the 20th century.

Five hundred years ago, the ghosts in the round chapel were full of life and color, primaries and pastels painted on new smooth plaster by a wandering artist. He may have been from Umbria; no one is sure—or exactly certain when he came. Nor does anyone know who first led this congregation of farmers, the subjects of many Medicis, magnificent and otherwise. Perhaps Rome assigned someone young and untested to the chapel; perhaps it was the last pulpit for a long-time servant of the Church from Florence or Sienna. At some point, having survived the reign of several Popes and the many wars between the hill towns that punctuate this textured quilt of farms, the frescoes in the chapel were painted over and replaced with new visions of things holy.

In time, those were also covered. Eventually, the chapel fell out of use. One by one, the layers faded and chipped away. The earliest paintings began to emerge, hinting at what was, then they too faded. Over the years, very few vandals left their mark—perhaps the ghosts were already at work, protecting this place.

One day, early in our stay, we had gone inside the chapel, walking slowly down the lane from the farmhouse. It was the beginning of autumn, still warm in the sun, and the breeze choreographed a tumble of green-gold grape leaves. Above our heads, the phone wires that traveled the lane farmhouse to farmhouse were as frayed as old clothesline—the wind hung a leaf on the wire, pinned there like Bacchus’ underwear. Inside the chapel it was cool, almost cold. We stood in shafts of sunlight to stay warm. Our voices echoed, even though I'm certain we were whispering. We touched the pale, fissured walls. Later that evening we saw the ghosts for the first time. We hurried down to get a closer view; the barely visible faces looked back at us through the autumns of five centuries. Then the light was gone.

On our last evening at the farmhouse, we sat on the hilltop with its owners, art teachers in Florence. We tried to explain about the ghosts in the chapel, but our Italian was really only good for food and train schedules, and their English was limited to giving directions and renting farmhouses. We shared the Chianti, a hawk wheeled over the valley on its last hunt of the day, the light changed. When they appeared, we pointed out the ghosts. “Spettri?,” we said hopefully, gesturing to the chapel, making circles in the air with our hands, “interno?” The owners did not see them. Perhaps they simply lived too close. At last, after the bats came out, we drove off to a nearby village for dinner, honking on every blind corner. Lost in the whine left behind by the tiny Fiat was the sound of a stone falling to the dark Tuscan soil, and, inside the chapel, the echoes of ghosts remembering heaven and earth.