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  • In the late autumn when Rome's plane trees still cling to their leaves but the light is well on its way to winter hibernation, the setting sun blasts its way through the alabaster windowpanes on the west end of the Basilica of Saint Peter in Chains. The church is thus injected with a golden light, and people turn into shadows like insects in amber.

    In the New World there are people who drive to work through redwood forests without looking up, or to whom a great canyon is just another dry arroyo; in Rome you have an elderly concierge who, ignoring the fierce glare of Michelangelo's immense marble Moses, sweeps away the dust of ages without ever looking up. He scoots his quarry across the tomb of a long-dead cardinal—a pile of soil, grime and skin flakes of travelers from six continents having come to admire the putative shackles that once chained Saint Peter. His task is just as appointed and ritualized as a mass or a procession: once a month he chases an incandescent saffron cloud over pavements of porphyry, serpentine, giallo d'antico, and "eye of peacock", and keeps visitors from scattering his collected debris by setting out a cordon around his targeted allotment. What a fertile little pile it must be.

    I've wondered what the life span is of a mote of dust rising on the vents in these churches older than all of the nation states of Europe. It's as the micro-thin chips of gold in all of a given nation's cell phones that are still part of the same hoard won by the Scythians, found later by Napoleon's armies, and melted into ingots to be left in a Swiss bank for two hundred years before undergoing its current transmutation. A speck of organic material in Rome has had a hundred shapes and a hundred abodes. It was once part of an unknown, ancient bale of commodities or maybe it came from the chaffing arm of one of Italy's many princesses. There's a dust-bunny settled in an eye socket of a Grim Reaper sculpted into an Aldobrandini tomb. It began its journey as a decomposing thread from the garments of a prince-cardinal. It had it's origins in a silk-worm's bowels, was chased through a loom in Damascus, was rudely abraded during the Sack of Rome, and was brushed aloft at the point of entombment before wafting five centuries long through the marble naves and molding carriages of the Cittá Eterna. Now, along with it's companions, a blonde hair, a bit of Sahara dust blown in on a scirocco, a dried cell of rose, and a weightless grain of Egyptian porphyry, it finally succumbs to the badger brush of our hero, the concierge. Into a bin. Into a hopper. Into a furnace.

    HIC
    JACET
    PULVIS
    CINIS
    ET
    NIHIL

    (here lies dust ashes and nothing)
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