“Master Leonardo…” The young man tapped on the open door and stepped into the room.
“Eh, what? Hello, lad. What do you want? The great Leonardo cannot paint anymore, and his head is too fuddled to invent things.”
“I have a question, Master. Just one question.”
The old man grumbled and stirred from his chair by the fireplace. “Well, speak quickly now. The aged have little time for stammers and foolery.”
“Who is she?”
“Which she, lad? Good heavens save us, sit down so I needn’t crane my neck to look at you. Youth has no respect for age.” He grumbled, pointing to a low stool by the fire. The young man sat down, crossing his long legs.
“Madame Lisa. The Mona Lisa.”
The old man sighed and rubbed his temples. “Ah. Who wishes to know?”
“You painted her for my father.”
“And I suppose you think you deserve to hear her story? Bah. You are not your father and her story does not belong to you.”
“He promised me when I was a child that he would tell me her story, when I was old enough, but he died suddenly three months ago. I am the youngest son. Nothing was left to me save Madame Lisa’s portrait, and I do not know why she smiles so. My brothers say she resembles our mother. I remember nothing of her save her smile, and the smile that Madame Lisa wears is not hers. It haunts me that I cannot discover the reason for this strange smile.”
“Madame Lisa…” He spoke the name softly, reverently, and nothing more.
He was silent for such a long time that the young man began to fear he had fallen to sleep. “Master Leonardo?” He inquired in a soft whisper.
Leonardo spoke, his voice gaining some slight new strength. “Mona Lisa was not a noblewoman, as many have supposed. She was a sweet little girl in the countryside of Florence.”
“Leonardo! Leonardo, wait!” The little girl scrambled over the rock wall and dropped down into the road.
“Anna, what are you doing here? You are supposed to be home with your mother!”
“She’s our mother, Leonardo, and she gave me permission to say goodbye. But you will come back, won’t you? Please say yes!” She clung to his hand and looked up at him pleadingly.
He crouched to her level and took both hands in his own. “When I can, I will. Don’t worry, little sister. I’ll be safe.”
“I know you will. I just don’t want you to forget me.”
“I promise I won’t.” He kissed her forehead and stood up, slinging his bundle over his shoulder.
She stood in the narrow road and waved until he was out of sight.
“Caterina, where is Anna?”
The peasant woman sprang up from the low bench by the cottage door. “Leonardo, you’ve changed so much…”
“Yes. Where is my sister?”
“She’s gone. Married, with two children.”
Leonardo staggered back. “She’s a child herself!”
Caterina shook her head. “No. She was a child when you left. That was many years ago. She has been a woman for nearly four years, and wed for three.”
He shook his head. “Where can I find her?”
She pointed to the left. “The fifth cottage past the mill. Be warned, my son. She may not want to see you. She feels you forgot her.”
“I never did, Caterina. I never once forgot that little girl waiting for me.”
“But… Anna would not see me, no matter how I protested my innocence. That’s her story, lad. The face is that of another woman, a stranger to me that I was asked to paint by your father. But the smile… The secret smile, the mysterious smile. That smile is Anna’s. My sister, the girl who thought I’d forgotten her.” He sighed and settled back in his chair. “That is the story of Madame Lisa.”
The young man nodded and stood up. “Thank you, Master.”
He left, shutting the door carefully behind him. Leonardo shook his head and spoke to the flames dancing in the fireplace. “Or at any rate, the story he needed to hear. Sooner or later, everyone hears the story they need. What story shall I hear, Lord, at the end of my days when the veil between you and I grows thin?”