Wolves in Winter Online - Lisa Hilton


Florence, January 1494

THE CITIZENS OF FLORENCE, FAMOUSLY, HAVE LITTLE USE for light. In this city of white and black, grey and dun and bronze, only the snowy mountain hump of the Duomo, Our Lady of the Flowers, surprises with the gaiety of a meadow, its pink and green façade startling as the sudden space which surrounds it, opening as it does from the twined, skinny streets surrounding the Mercato Vecchio, where the grim walled houses hunch towards one another as though to protect their inhabitants from glimpses of the sky, which might distract from the business of getting. Light is for painters, or wastrels; any tremulous sunbeam which steals a cautious finger between the stones is transmuted into gold, battened down and locked away in chests of iron from the Elba mines. Stingy, envious, proud Florence, its miserly flesh throbbing with the hidden gleam of money.

This night, the city is dark as the black ice which paralyses the river Arno from the Ponte Vecchio along the Bardi embankment. Many years since Florence knew such a winter, so vicious that even the ice-rimed statues seem pinched and emaciated, huddling into the wind that thrashes the snow of the Apennines through the streets, turning the patient saints of the churches to shivering goblins. With the winds come the wolves. Keen, running low, they slip like daggers through the white hills of Fiesole. When the farmers force open their doors to the meagre daylight, their lungs smarting after a night of woodsmoke, they find scarlet mosaics in the snow and cross themselves and close the shutters more tightly, for the wolves are moving. Florence may be a citadel of science, but it is also a city of prophets, where temples to near-forgotten gods lie beneath the busy feet of the merchants. On the night of Il Magnifico’s death, a she-wolf howled for hours beneath the city walls. The wolves are moving, and they will bring death with them, from beyond the Alps.

So this night, the streets are empty except for the tiny clatter of dewclaws on the stones of Piazza Santa Maria Novella. Even the beggars who bundle themselves in the wretched shelter of the portico are hidden. Tap, tap. The wolf pauses on the corner of the Via degli Strozzi, turns, a fluid shadow, and begins to trot northward, toward the Baptistery, where the great pool in which all the children of the city are given to God is still as lead. Her tail feathers the great carved doors. The gelid marble of the Duomo picks out amber eyes. Audacious, starving, the wolf crosses straight through the piazza, no shadow now, lengthening her stride until she bounds in black flashes of sinew and need, past the chapel of San Lorenzo and into the Via Larga, her skull aflame with the scents of boiled meat, of peppered lard and spiced pigeon, cured pork and creamed chicken, carried from the kitchens and larders of the Palazzo Medici. Saliva hisses on the snow as she noses frantically along the street doors, but this is Florence, and they are iron bolted.

The wolf feels the suck of her empty belly beneath her ribs, lets out a miserable whine, shoves and gnaws, but the doors hold fast. Her black pelt ripples with clutches of want. In the wall beside the doors is a small window, an ingress for messages or alms. The wolf rears her body upwards, stretching her length until her paws rest on the sill. The wooden shutters are loose, their hinges weakened with the contractions of the long winter. The wolf drops to the tamped snow, circles back, gathers the force of the wind in her shoulders, leaps. Her snout strikes the wood, the shutters make a flat thud on the soft drift inside, she scrabbles for purchase, hindlegs and tail beating the air, hauls her bruised weight through the aperture, lands noiselessly, buried. She is inside.

The cortile is full of eyes. In Florence, they say that spirits can be imprisoned in statues. In the centre of the courtyard, where the cleared snow shows prints already molten with the new fall, stands a boy; improbably naked save for gaiters, boots and a teasingly pointed cap, his left hand easy on the plump adolescent curve of his hip, his right resting on the hilt of his lowered sword. The wolf checks, he is no threat. A little aside is another figure, not a smooth bronze, but a towering, lumpen creature of snow, planed crystal wings soaring from