Gubbao's Lemonade Bottle
Mike swigged again from the bottle, sloshing the wine behind his
chipped teeth. What enamel he had left there felt sandpaper-rough.
He was clearly in need of dental work. But Mike's last visit to
a dentist, a few years ago, had epitomized the humiliating agony
of modern medicine as the teenaged dental hygenist, swathed in a
lime-green smock and peering into his open jaws with the casual
aplomb of a circus lion tamer, scraped and prodded with her ice-pick,
tut-tutting him in a heavy Muscovite accent for not taking the proper
steps to ensure his continued oral health.
It was the ultimate irony, Mike thought:
A Russian instructing him on proper oral hygeine!
Not even Mike's usual compulsive sexual
fantasizing could rescue him from a feeling of total depression
that spread through him, fixing him to the reclining chair.
Open more widely, she said.
At that instant, an air bubble trapped
in a chunk of driftwood snapped into blue flame. Mike was too drunk
to be startled, but he did manage to drift back from his dental
waking nightmare with an afterimage of the hygeinist's strong, agile
legs swishing under her smock as she strode from the room, leaving
him supine and oozing blood from multiple gum contusions.
Fernando Joao, wrapped bedoin-like
in a blanket, was quietly humming what sounded like a fado. George,
chin on one upraised knee in the casual attitude of the Byronic
hero, stared off at the dark, silken ocean restlessly beating itself
into foam on the hardpacked sand.
Mike finally asked, About that manuscript
Fernando snapped his fingers once,
laughed a clear bright laugh.
Gone, my friend. Destroyed.
Where did you find it? Originally,
Ah, Fernando said. It was an item
in the private library of my father, a nervous man, a quiet man,
a lawyer who collected rare volumes. He got it from his beloved
Uncle Gubbao, a famous psychoanalyst who studied in Vienna with
the great Freud. Uncle Gubbao's tastes were for the oneiric-erotic.
The manuscript had been written on vellum and bound in red Morocco
leather, with the seal of the Vatican stamped on the spine. After
my father died, unfortunately, I was forced to sell his prized library
volume by volume, so that I could spend my time writing. But before
selling off this particular book, I made a copy which I later used
as the basis for the novel. After it was published, a frou-frou
French journalist objected that it could not be based upon a true
story. So I returned to the bookstore in Lisbon to find the original
manuscript and, if possible, to buy it back. But the bookstore was
ashes -- it had burned to the ground a week before. The owner, an
old Jew, showed me a pile of smoking rubbish in the courtyard and
said (here Fernando mimicked a tired, wheezing old voice): You're
welcome to browse. If you find anything readable, I'll give you
You still have the copy?
Sure! Fernando said. I showed it to
the journalist, but he shouted that it proved nothing, nothing.
(Fernando shouted in the journalist's shrill French): Rien! Rien!
Mike swigged the last few drops of
red wine from the bottle and handed it to George, who stared at
it for a moment before throwing it overhand, whistling, through
the darkness into the waves, where it splashed.
You should have put a note in first,
Fernando said, sadly. This is something Uncle Gubbao taught me to
do. On hot summer days, he would escort me by trolley car to the
beach, where we would sit shaded from the intense sunlight under
an umbrella which he told me once belonged to the famous philosopher,
Excuse me, George burst out. Your
Uncle Gubbao was a friend of Nietzsche's? Friedrich Nietzsche?
Sure! Fernando replied, laughing.
Uncle Gubbao would visit him in the hospital and they would sit
together on the patio smoking their pipes. Herr Nietzsche rarely
spoke -- it is rumored he went for some years without even clearing
his throat -- but one day, seeing Uncle Gubbao arrive on his unicycle,
he became very excited, and demanded to be allowed to ride it. Uncle
Gubbao, sadly, had to refuse. It was contrary to hospital regulations
for patients to operate complicated equipment. Perhaps he worried
also that the philosopher would damage his sole mode of self-transportation.
Besides, it was a piece of machinery of which he was extremely proud.
Herr Nietzsche went into a rage. Later that evening, in the hospital
lounge, he gave a concert in which he destroyed a piano by playing
it with his elbows. That was the last time Uncle Gubbao saw him.
A little hard to believe, George grunted.
How old did you say your Uncle was?
Fernando struck a match. It lit his
face briefly as he ignited a slender cigarette. He flicked the match
off into the darkness and took a long, rasping gulp of smoke.
At the beach, Uncle Gubbao always
asked me to write a verse on some slip of paper which he then folded
tight and stuck inside one of our empty lemonade bottles. Then we
would wade out into the sea and throw the bottle. One day, he said,
I might be an old man walking along a beach, maybe in Indochina,
and I would see a lemonade bottle lying on the sand --
But this fond memory has become a
curse. Whenever I am now at the beach, in whatever country I find
myself, I see nothing, and I cannot properly relax for a single
moment, because I am so expectant that I will find one of Uncle
Gubbao's lemonade bottles, with a lost poem from my infancy stuck
Mike slouched back onto his elbows
in the sand. He was starting to shiver in the night coolness.
Did you ever write anything after
the one about the convent? he asked Fernando.
Sure! Fernando cried.
Yes! It's still in manuscript. It's
-- what do you say? -- scandalous.
Mike sat up.
Again, I write a novel based on truths.
And again, no one believes me. But this one, it is not likely to
Well, I'd publish it, George began
Fernando patted his shoulder.
I know, my old friend, I know you
Describe it, Mike prompted.
Certainly! It concerns a secret society
made up of anthropologists and philosophers, called Acephale 2,
or deux, which sacrifices young virgins by throwing them into volcanoes.
Mike blinked several times. He opened
his mouth, then shut it.
Fernando stroked his goatee as he
went on in the relaxed, rich-timbred, stentorian voice of a scholar
commanding a lecture hall: Acephale 2 was begun in Paris during
the late sixties by a small group of disgruntled anthropologists
from the Sorbonne inspired by the writings of Georges Bataille and
Antonin Artaud and also by the films of Jean-Luc Godard, especially
"Pierrot la Fou" and "Weekend." Unlike the original Acephale, which
was begun during the Second World War by Georges Bataille and the
artist Andre Masson, but quickly disbanded before putting into practice
any of rather excessive philosophies, Acephale 2 actually does conduct
human sacrifices! They started by drawing lots and impaling the
loser in the Bois de Bologne by moonlight, then cutting out his
heart and dousing themselves with the blood. But it was soon decided
that, in order to be truly authentic, they must sacrifice beautiful
virgins. As Acephale 2 grew from about a dozen members to over fifty,
it attracted intellectuals from all over the world, especially from
Japan. Sometime during the late seventies, after several members
complained about the Grand-Guignol aspect of the rites -- perhaps
the Japanese were more squeamish than their French colleagues, eh?
-- Acephale 2 began to conduct a different type of sacrifice: namely,
of a young woman, who is either paid or forced by blackmail or by
some form of brainwashing, whether hypnosis or drugs (alas, this
aspect I have not yet determined) to leap into the crater of an
active volcano. The molten lava consumes the evidence -- poof, as
if the victim never existed. No body, no crime!
Shit. Wow, Mike expostulated.
Ah, Fernando cried, his voice cracking
with mock-chagrin. My clever, artistic old friend feels that I am
a gullible victim of horror stories and fairy-tales. Just remember:
We are all lying flat on our backs in the gutter, but some of us
are looking up at the stars!
Turning to Mike: It was your great
poet Mr. Wilde who said so!
I believe your polymathic Uncle Gubbao
buggered him in Paris during the twenties, George remarked. Right?
A unicycle built for two? Picnics in the Tulleries?
Fernando did not reply, but gave a
disgusted grimace as he hurled the still burning cigarette over
George stood, slapping sand from the
seat of his trousers.
I'm off to piss on the stars, he said,
staggering a little as he strode off. They watched him, a dim, lanky
shape with a sweater tied around its neck, striding to the sea's
After a moment of quiet, Mike asked
Fernando, How did you find out about these, um, Acephalists?
Fernando lit another Gitane.
As with everything else in this world,
such as the improbable event of my -- or, for that matter, your!
-- birth, my possession of these facts was the outcome of a long
chain of dizzying coincidences. Brevity may be the soul of wit,
my boy, but remember: God is under no obligation to amuse us!
* * *
holding his thick penis steady as he let go a powerful, arcing stream
of urine, tilted his head back to look for constellations he'd learned
as a boy. There they were, scintillating quietly in the void. Waves
hissed around his ankles, splattering him. Finally, his stream dwindled
to a trickle and stopped. He replaced himself in his duck trousers;
zipped up. Then he recoiled -- he had felt something solid bump
his bare ankles. A crab?
When he glanced down, he saw something,
a dull flash in the rushing foam. He bent to pick it up; it was
slippery, glass. George squinted, holding it close to his nose:
an old fashioned lemonade bottle, tightly stopped with a blackened
cork. When he shook the bottle, the slip of folded paper inside
He glanced over his shoulder. Sparks
were rising from the fire -- Fernando had just thrown another piece
of driftwood in. Mike was lying flat on the sand.
He held the slimy bottle for a moment,
his skin prickling with curious sensations, before drawing his arm
back and hurling it, with all his strength left in his sore, badly
aged pitching shoulder, far back out to sea.
Meanwhile, Back in the Eighteenth Century
Sister Elizabeta was born to a barrelmaker's family in the wild
province of Oporto. Her remarkable display of fervor, purity and
pious behavior marked her from girlhood to be a nun. So at the age
of fourteen she entered the renowned Convent of the Sacred Wounds
of the Excruciating Passion. There, she lived the strictly regimented
life of a bride of Christ, rising at 3:00 AM to pray, working all
day in the convent's gardens or kitchens or in the orphanage attached
to it, and going to sleep on a board, with a block of stone for
a pillow. Through the damp, cold winters the nuns wore only a rough
muslin shift with an undergarment of coarse linen; during the blazing
hot summers, they went without the undergarment. The convent had
been organized in such a way that none of the sisters had any congress
with the male sex, apart from the orphans and a doddering old confessor,
Father Pietro, who could sometimes be heard snoring through the
wooden partition of the confessional.
Elizabeta knew nothing of sin. Yet
she was made of flesh, wasn't she? And isn't flesh the very substance
Although uneducated, Elizabeta knew
that God had sacrificed Himself on the Cross so that His children
might rise, on clouds of glory, to rejoice with Him in his Heaven
forever -- while those who refused the Divine Word would rot in
the blackest infernal pit of Hell. She imagined Hell as something
like the workshop in which her father fashioned his wine barrels,
except smellier and darker -- always hot, redly lit by smoking fires.
Through the smoking, sulfurous darkness would reverberate the shrieks
of the damned as they were tormented by little devils weilding scythes
and pitchforks. The devils, Lucifer's spawn and servants, were slimy
and scuttled about on lizard feet. The damned shook their chains
(If you were one of them, and a devil
pulled out your tongue with red hot pincers, you would writhe for
hours in unspeakable agony, choking on gouts of your own blood --
but by the end of the day your tongue would grow back. And the next
morning, the same devil would return with glowing pincers to pull
it out again. And so on and so forth, unto all eternity.)
Whenever this picture came to the
child Elizabeta, she broke out into a sweat. But what if her father,
who often came home drunk on Saturday nights and roared at his wife,
was destined to end up in the Underworld? Or her mother, who sometimes
clung to her husband and giggled loudly when he clutched at her
thighs? Why should she rejoice in a rose-blossom strewn paradise
with the King of Heaven while her mother and father were repeatedly
torn to bits by demons?
Elizabeta sometimes felt lances of
light pierce her body when she knelt before the writhing, crucified
Jesus fixed above the altar in the chapel. The small wounds left
by the lights turned very hot, and the heat spread through her body.
It was painful, but it was also so pleasurable that she had to press
rosary beads against her mouth to keep from letting out a moan of
As she lay on her board at night,
small breasts rising and falling beneath her crossed arms, and listened
to the sea smashing the rocks just a few yards from her head and
the wind trying to shake the stars out of the sky, the radiantly
devout Lizabeta often felt herself drift back to her childhood in
Oporto: the penetrating, acid smell of the black grapes at harvest;
the peasants, barefoot or in straw sandals, hauling baskets to the
winery. She remembered the sullen warmth of the sun, the thick sweet
humidity. She saw images of her father lifting a basket to his shoulders,
her mother laughing as she smoothed her apron in the doorway. She
remembered her father's hard-heavy hand on her head. She remembered
her mother's thick, sensual bosom, and how she'd loved to press
her face there. The piercing desire to go home seized on her mind
and tore it to pieces.
Yet, when she'd sacrificed her life
to Jesus, Elizabeta told herself, she had forever renounced all
such evanescent human joys. And indeed, during the long days of
tiring work and the evenings spent at prayer, she did not feel any
regrets for having come to the convent. It was only at night, when
the images of the past came to her, that she suffered intensely
from a longing to go home.
Perhaps, following the Day of Judgment,
when she and her family had all risen on beaming cloud-carriages
to Heaven, and Gabriel blew his trumpet of shining gold -- but here
the adolescent girl's mind stopped short.
* * *
Convent of the Sacred Wounds of the Excruciating Passion had been
founded three centuries before Lizabeta's arrival on the bleak,
rock-strewn plateau, and might long ago have been abandoned -- except
that the altar-sanctuary contained a thorn from that very Crown
which Pontius Pilate had caused to be placed on the head of the
Messiah after He was scourged.
The relic lay on a linen-covered pillow.
It was as black as iron and as long as a man's thumb.
One night, Lizabeta dreamt that she
was opening the sanctuary. She reached in and took out the holy
relic and held it in her palm. This thorn had pierced God's brow,
had drawn His blood, had absorbed the sweat of His pain. She lifted
her shift and pressed the point of the thorn to her belly. She felt
a surge between her legs, a kind of bucking, and looked down to
see spots of blood appear on the stone floor.
She woke covered with sweat. Feeling
a draught of cold air on her skin, and realized that she was naked.
The shift lay crumpled at the foot of her bed. Recalling the impious
dream, she shuddered with amazement and rank shame.
A Few More Facts About the Amazing
Uncle Gubbao studied with Freud in
Vienna before coming to Paris, where he rode his unicycle about
the streets and boulevards of Montparnasse.
Freud had a short white beard he stroked
as he talked; his teeth were bad, and his clothes stank of cigars.
Uncle Gubbao lay supine on the leather
couch among the Egyptian antiques, his eyes closed, fingers fluttering
on his soccer-ball stomach, muttering fragments of dreams and delusions
as Freud took quick, scratching notes on sheets of foolscap.
A Moveable Unicycle: Or, Uncle Gubbao,
Uncle Gubbao rode his unicycle serenely
up the Boulevard des Invalides on a cool, dry spring morning, when
the leaves of the chesnut trees seemed to sparkle with life.
The gears were oiled to perfection.
Uncle Gub wore a jaunty cap.
He had just come from sharing a plate
of oysters with Joyce at the Dome. Sam Beckett was there, too, but
did not eat anything or say much -- the mad, sad hungrily beautiful
Lucia Joyce clung stiffly to his arm. It looked like his tweed suit
A Tour of Sicily
Iris sits on a beach in Sicily, her spine slightly curved, sand
adhering to her ankles, in brilliant sunlight. The sky is brilliant,
the air torrid. She is staring out to sea, to a mist of clouds and
light that clings to the far horizon. She hugs her knees. Nearby
her two teenaged boys, their sand-dark bodies glistening with sweat,
are kicking a soccer ball, clowning transparently for her benefit.
Henry pads back down the beach to
where she sits, holding a gelato cone in each hand. He squats next
to Iris and she takes the gelato from him.
Chesnut, he says.
Oh? she remarks.
He notices that the sun is bleaching
her hair blonde. She brushes sand from her knee and curls her tongue
around the top of the cone. Henry shifts to hide the erection bulging
Henry's cock has become insistent
on this vacation in Sicily, ever since boarding the blue tour bus
in Palermo. He hides it with garment bags, cameras, brochures --
whatever happens to be closest at hand. But once, as they climbed
aboard the blue tour bus in Palermo, he inadvertently poked the
ribs of a Japanese girl with it. She looked up at him and blushed.
Instantly, Henry fell in love.
Her name is Aitoh Omei. She is a head
shorter than Henry, with jet black hair, smooth and fine as silk,
and snow white skin. Aitoh Omei is the star of Henry's lurid fantasy
life as the tour bus rolls around Sicily counterclockwise.
Some Facts about Henry
Henry grew up provincial and rich; cultured, athletic, destined
from birth for All the Best the World Has to Offer. His father,
a stern but not unkind man, offered his son firm, dry and fastidious
guidance, instilling in the blooming boy an appreciation of the
nuances of Ethical Conduct. Henry's mother kissed his face often,
fiddled with his clothing and hair. Drinks were at six, dinner at
seven-thirty; and a colored maid who had been with the family forever
brought in the steaming plates, then cleared the refuse away in
ghostly silence as Papa lit his evening pipe. Mornings: the rich-undertoned
laugh of "Aunt" Emmaline, as she stood talking to the chauffer;
rattle of the Morning Edition; spasmodic barking of Shep, the glossy
Golden Retriever, until silenced by a tossed Milk Bone. Henry excelled
in sports and debate; ran for class President, losing to a boy named
Goldstein (they shook hands after the election, Henry offering his
"sincerest congratulations" -- Goldstein later became a top Washington
lawyer); trekked enthusiastically off to Europe; came home with
long hair and a guitar slung over his shoulder to take up the Visual
Arts. He got some daubs displayed in a good gallery, made a few
sales, but he didn't have the stamina for ongoing production. He
became interested instead in the business end of Art, and, fueled
by a few family-friendly investors, opened his own space. Pulling
the strings of his father's many connections in publishing, Henry
was able to elicit rave raviews in the glossies. Night City
was soon drawing the most talented of the young conceptual minimalists,
and drawing top dollar from wealthy Midwesterners interested in
expanding the range of their home collections. Henry met Daphne
-- a wealthy heiress with money to burn and rubes to spurn -- at
a big opening. Through Daphne, he met George, Mike, Perdilla, and
Henry has thinning hair and a mania
for order on his desk, and can juggle oranges. He updates his address
book regularly in his miniscule, smart script. He writes with a
Waterman fountain pen, gold-nibbed; Papa gave it to him on the day
of his Princeton graduation, just before he set out for Europe.
It's odd, but he sometimes recalls
such vivid images from that final hitchiking trip to Spain, during
which he did nothing much but laze around in cafes. For instance:
A sudden wild rainshower, the sun
still aglare on the rapid downward jewel-strokes of water, and a
man riding a bicycle through it down the cobblestoned street, a
newspaper spread over his head.
The Smell of Clouds
In Erice, Henry climbs a narrow stone street a few yards behind
Aitoh Omei and her parents -- a stick thin Japanese old man holding
the elbow of a stick thin Japanese woman. He's gone out for an evening
walk while his wife sits in the room reading historical blurbs in
a tour guide. The stones of the street, he notices, have been worn
glass-smooth by centuries of shoes and cart wheels. Erice is on
a mountaintop, and the air smells of clouds.
He loses sight of the trio at one
point. He has cut through an alley to try to get ahead of them.
When he emerges onto a small square, he finds it empty, and realizes
that he has miscalculated. So he plunges back down the alley, but
he doesn't find them on the wider street, either.
The sun is setting. As he rounds a
corner, the glare blinds him for a moment. Then Aitoh Omei steps
out of the glare, bumping him. He catches her as she steps back.
They both laugh. He lets go of her bird-thin elbows. Aitoh murmurs
something and he turns with her and walks slowly, matching her precise
stride, down the street toward the hotel. She is shaking her head
and laughing at something -- but what? -- he has just said.
Then she shakes his hand, waves a
stiff-armed goodbye, ducks her head so the silky hair swings over
her pale, glowing face, and rushes into the hotel doorway. Henry
stands outside, watching Aitoh cross the lobby in quick steps. He
shuts his eyes and breathes in deep. He glances at the sky -- black
birds wheeling slowly. Henry feels fear seize him.
For the next hour, he walks around
and around the echoing streets -- Erice is deserted, the shops shuttered.
Everything is made of stone, dark with age. He stops in front of
a pastry shop to stare, through the glass, at a crystallized sugar-replica
of the Greek temple in Segesta. He imagines Aitoh Omei shaking out
her hair, wrapping it in a white towel. Then, delicately nude, slipping
under the stiff sheet into bed, turning out the lamp on the bedside
table, and staring into the sudden, wide darkness -- wide as a river,
You could lose yourself to the darkness,
and when you emerged from it you would not be you, Henry thinks.
You would be someone else.
Henry grips one fist in the other
powerfully and squeezes till it hurts. He strides up a street between
walls of thick stone, ducks under an archway, and emerges into a
vast, deserted square exposed to the sky. He imagines hurling Aitoh
Omei against a wall and pressing his large body to her small body,
and how she'd writhe, how she'd cry, No, no.
When he returns to the room, Iris
is marking the tour guide in red pencil. She gets up and goes into
the bathroom and sits on the toilet and lets out a sharp, ringing
stream. Henry stretches on the bed, pressing his face into the cold
pillow. He hears Iris gurgling water. He resolves he will not fantasize
about Aitoh Omei. But, his face jammed into the pillow, he suddenly
has a sensation of Aitoh Omei pressing her tongue lightly between
his teeth. She withdraws it, laughs, and strides off down the narrow
stone street, on the glassy stones, just as a cloud slides over
the sun, chilling him to the marrow. Iris slips into bed, touches
his hip with her scalding fingers.
The Rain in Spain
Circa 1975, Henry sat at a cafe table turning a glass of jerez in
his hand. Suddenly, he felt that he was not looking at his arm but
at someone else's, the arm of some one he did not know and would
probably never meet. As he focused on the arm, he felt his whole
body become the body of a person completely foreign to him.
He was filled with a sense of the
emptiness of a future that seemed to stretch out blankly ahead,
like the luminous, lonely street arcaded with shadows in De Chirico's
painting, "Mystery and Melancholy of a Street."
Nothing moved, except for the flies
crawling on his arm or along the sugary rim of his glass; the plaza
was dry and hot, the sunlight so intense that he saw spots whenever
he looked into it. His hair felt like a lead helmet.
Then some girls walked by in skirts
and platforms; one flashed a devious smile his way, and he bit the
rim of his sherry glass to keep himself from shouting out to her
to stop, to come back, to be his girlfriend. How could he say the
things in Spanish he needed to say to her? But the truth was he
couldn't say them in English, either. He wasn't good with words.
He carefully rolled up the sleeves
of his white shirt and slouched, extending his legs out before him
so that the sunlight sliced them in half at the knees.
More girls passed, always in twos
or threes, and the handsome young men sitting on parked motorbikes
under the shadow of the cafe arcade shouted after them as the girls,
leaning together, bumped heads, their faces alight with sly amusement.
Henry had already hitchiked all over
the country, even into the desert south, where his lips cracked
and his curly hair filled with dust. His jeans were stiff as cardboard
from the dirt in them. As the sun heated the fabric, it gradually
became too hot to touch.
He left after a little while, but
came back to the same cafe at twilight. He drank a few espressos
and then wandered off into a maze of identical streets, walking
slowly with his hands thrust deep in his pockets.
Poised on platform shoes outside a
movie theater stood a girl in a blue dress with long, chesnut-colored
hair, one hip jutting out provocatively as she spoke to a middle
aged man. Finally, she grabbed his elbow and strode off with him.
He slung the jacket he was carrying over his shoulder.
Henry walked in circles for another
two hours before finding himself again across from the movie theater,
now shuttered for the night. Again, the girl was standing outside
it. She was smoking a cigarette with rapid, feathery gestures.
With a feeling as of the heart falling
out of his body, Henry stepped off the curb and crossed the street
to her. He stopped and took his hands out of his pockets when she
looked into his eyes,as if calculating.
She blew out a pencil thin stream
Henry spoke a few stammering words
of Spanish. Did she want to accompany him for a walk? Or perhaps
to a bar for a coffee?
She turned away; Henry, following
her gaze, saw an old man sitting on a lawn chair outside a small
tobacco and magazine shop. The old man had a bullet-shaped head
and a Michelin map of scars on his face. Henry felt that he shouldn't
Then the girl seized his arm and,
pushing her body close to his, led him quickly around the corner.
It was like being carried along on
a rush of wind. He walked with no perception of the cobblestones
and, except for one brief flash of terror, no feelings.
In the hotel room, he folded his stiff
blue jeans over a chair as the girl divested herself in exactly
three motions of her dress, bra and filmy cotton underpants.
They lay together on the bed. Henry
started at her ankles and crawled slowly up her body, kissing the
cold knees and the crinkled hairs at her crotch. At one point he
glanced up sharply, imagining that she was laughing at him, but
she was only writhing a little, biting her forearm as if with pleasure.
She didn't shut her eyes as he slipped
into her. He was so excited by this that he lost his control and
rushed over the edge too soon. She laughed and hit him on the shoulder.
Afterward, he stroked and kissed her
bare arm, the marble-smooth curve of a hip -- the same hip he'd
seen her jut out so provocatively earlier that evening. Rain, heralded
by a smack of thunder, crackled on the windowpanes. Henry fell into
a snoring sleep. While he was dead to everything, the girl slipped
on her clothes, deftly emptied his wallet of folded banknotes, and
He saw her a few days later in sunlight
outside the cafe, sitting sidesaddle on a parked motorbike, delicately
licking around the rim of a cone heaped with ice cream.
"Tragedy Today on Mount Etna"
As the blue tour bus climbs Mount
Etna through layers of bleak gray cloud, sunlight piercing the windows
suddenly only to blink out a second later, Henry lets his head rest
on the plexiglass window. He shuts his eyes and sees -- nothing.
He opens them, frightened. Iris is flipping the pages of a novel:
Drunk, by Mike Desmond.
Is it good? he asks.
Eh, Iris says.
* * *
afternoon, while Henry and Iris, wrapped tightly in sweaters, are
drinking cocktails on the stone hotel terrace, Sicily trembles around
them. They grab each other and hold on tight. The tremor subsides
in a flash. But for hours after, everything they look at seems oddly
light, almost insubstantial.
Later that day comes the news that
Aitoh Omei has disappeared. And still later, the police will say
that Aitoh Omei, hiking ahead of her parents, ventured too close
to the lip of one of the wide, black craters of Mount Etna and fell
inside -- a freak accident -- when the ground shook. Mount Etna
is Aitoh Omei's crematory.
Henry is deeply moved by the girl's
death; he spends the next morning listening to the radio for updates
in rapid fire Italian. He learns from a newspaper report in the
International Herald Tribune that Aitoh Omei was descended from
a family of samurai which included the legendary swordsman, Miyamoto
The Sacred Grove
In Segesta, a few days before, Henry left Iris walking from column
to column inside the broken roofless temple to stride up a narrow
path into a pine grove that seemed to him to exude melancholy. And
there he beheld Aitoh Omei seated cross legged under a bare pine
trunk, a school notebook open on her knobby knees, sketching or
writing -- he couldn't tell which. As wind roared and surged through
the top branches of the swaying pine trees, and the tight brown
cones dropped almost silently onto the thick carpet of dead pine
needles underneath, Henry padded foward soundlessly until Aitoh
Omei glanced up, startled. She clutched the spiral schoolgirl notebook
between her fragile, polished-looking knees as Henry came closer,
smiling, one arm raised. Then she leapt up like a rabbit. Henry's
cramped vocal chords allowed him to squeak out only a strangled
Hello before the girl, as if slung from a slingshot, sprinted out
of the grove. Aitoh Omei's skirt swirled and her bare thighs flashed
white as she leapt through the knee-high wild grass overgrown with
fennel and blazing red poppies down the hill to the eroded pink
temple squatting in the debilitating heat of the Sicilian noon.
A folded sheet of heavy paper had
fallen from Aitoh Omei's notebook, and lay like a shattered bird
on the pine needles, its wings folded in; Henry picked it up delicately
between two fingers, carefully unfolded it, and read the words: