The Italians filed in through the kitchen door, wool pants pulled over their swimming gear. Their arrival drew the subtle dismay of the cooks, who wordlessly moved their meat and produce to far counters as the men lined up for glasses of water, depositing their canteens in a sweating pile by the sink. Romano was among them, looking cool and dry. Elizabeth supposed that while the others swam, he had remained onshore, giving an intensive lecture on Garibaldi to a seabird.

The kitchen supervisor had already begun to clear his throat and advance, bowing slightly, gesturing at the food and at his watch, indicating everything still left to be done and the fleeting time they had in which to do it. The Italians accepted apples and decamped to the dining room. Elizabeth followed them out and sat with Romano as he opened his sketchbook.

It was impossible to talk to Romano without two thousand years of sculptural art history serving as a tedious chaperone. Every topic was ushered into his mind past brooding men and Madonnas cast in the certain bronze of the era, under fleurs of classical frieze, horses and cherubs and birds in flight, until at last it reached the head office, at which point he would roll his eyes, deliver some pronouncement, and send it back down. His father’s sculptures – for his father was also a sculptor and apparently very well known in Italy – held court in his son’s mind and made for a talkative gallery. As a result, Romano always seemed distracted, burdened as he was with thoughts of men greater than himself. And women, she supposed, as well.

‘The light was fine today,’ he said. ‘It seemed to melt a little around the point where the water met with the sand. Not at all like yesterday.’

‘It was too bright yesterday?’

He grimaced. ‘Too flat.’

‘You sound like a painter.’

His friends had set up a game of bridge in the dining room, relocating the silver and plates to another table. The thin man headed for the pantry, strangling a dish towel as he went.

‘How is the patient?’ Romano asked.

‘Stronger every day.’

‘It’s funny,’ he said. ‘I find myself afraid to bring her up, as if she’s a ghost I might invoke by speaking her name.’

‘How Shakespearean of you.’ She thought of Hamlet moping around the castle for months before his father arrived. Perhaps the guards had set the whole thing up to bring a little excitement to Denmark.

‘She seemed strong a week ago,’ he added.

‘When she’s well, you can feel her in every room. The chandeliers shiver.’

He seemed impressed, so she continued. ‘Why, Isadora once held an audience in such a trance, they woke to find they had moved en masse from their seats and killed a cat in the alley behind the theater.’

‘How thrilling,’ he said. ‘It would be an honor to speak with her.’

‘I prefer her bedridden, honestly.’

She was embarrassed to realize she had said this aloud, but Romano was distracted, watching his friends. One had gotten up to ask the kitchen for caffè coretto, and the woman set to arranging a tray with short cups and sherry glasses, unwrapping a bottle of grappa. They had brought a stovetop Napoletana to the island and spent a good amount of time instructing the women on the proper method. The women listened patiently as the device their grandmothers owned and used daily was explained to them, and they pretended to take notes on the precise amounts of coffee and water and the character of the grind.

Romano liked to feign embarrassment on behalf of every man in his party, but when they stood to leave, he would follow them out like an obedient dog. Elizabeth appreciated Romano as a kind and thoughtful man but saw his false fraternity as cowardice and hated him for it in the way one hates a pretty mirror in which they only see themselves. She touched his arm, and he stopped sketching the office dogs until she moved her hand away.

‘It was a good season,’ he said.

‘Where will you go next?’

‘The others will return to Milan and I’ll spend some time on the coast, at the home my family keeps during the summer.’

‘That’s a true shame,’ she said.

‘Every season comes to an end.’

‘Your departure, I mean. We were becoming such good friends.’

He frowned at one of the dogs. ‘And I haven’t figured out the light,’ he said. ‘If I can’t understand simple light, forget about stone.’

‘It’s the same light wherever you are, my dear. Only your angle changes.’ She shifted her chair closer, almost touching him again. ‘You see, it’s different from where you sit. The beam enters the window more fully.’

One of the women placed a coffee and a grappa between them, and he turned his attention to the cup, turning it so that the handle faced her, and then him, and her again. He was a careful man. She could imagine his mother cradling him as a child, pressing her lips to the fine hair of his eyebrows, moving breakable objects to higher shelves, her boy making his way through the world with a halo of fine things just out of reach.

‘We are good friends,’ Elizabeth said.

‘Indeed. You and your family, when your sister is well again, are welcome in my home. My parents keep the house on the coast. My father –’

‘That would be wonderful, but we would never impose.’ This wasn’t true at all; her family was happy to impose. She thought of the rowdy time they all had spent with a second cousin who put them up in Marseille for a month before saying kindly and then more pointedly that the South of France might need a season off. ‘Thank you for the invitation,

but I am needed in Darmstadt.’

‘Such an American sentiment,’ he said, and gave a short laugh that sounded precisely like the first abrupt sounds of a boiling kettle. ‘Nobody needs anybody in Frankfurt.’

‘You know, comparing Darmstadt to Frankfurt is like saying Yonkers when you mean New York City.’

‘Yonkers!’ Pushing too hard on the first syllable, he flattened the vowel as if the city were home to brick walk-ups stuffed with hay, chickens squawking from open windows.

‘I have no patience for Germany,’ he said. ‘All their great halls rising over empty streets. It’s a towering hymn to the dead. The stonework alone is enough to crush the spirit.’

‘Poor Romano, was your heart broken by a beautiful German girl?’

‘Even the ghosts are lonely there.’

‘Complexion like milk, smelling of soft winter wheat?’

He sketched an errant line on the dog’s tail and rubbed it with his thumb, cursing to himself. ‘I marveled at the facelessness of its people, and of its women, of course.’

‘Why, you’re blushing. It must be worse than I thought!’ She couldn’t stop herself from teasing him. ‘She ran away with your dearest friend, and the two of them went on a motor trip around the country. You could only imagine the depravity!’

‘Something’s off with the grappa, don’t you think?’

It was clear he wasn’t enjoying the joke, but Elizabeth didn’t care; his agitation thrilled her. ‘After they married, your friend and your lost love set up a farmhouse in Havelaue, and he paned the windows with a blue glass in the precise shade of her eyes so that when he looked to his garden, he could be reminded of her beauty as she slept.’

‘Yonkers,’ he muttered. ‘What a world.’

‘And see, you’ll talk and talk of a place you don’t know the first thing about and remain totally silent on items of your intimate acquaintance.’

‘I only have to wade into cold water before I’ve had enough.’

‘That’s exactly right. You’re not brave like Jules Verne, who went twenty thousand leagues in search of the vastness of the sea.’

He tossed his head back, as if the very idea of Jules Verne were so repellent that he needed to be physically distanced from it.

‘The vastness of the sea!’ he said, a little louder than he must have meant. ‘It’s impossible for you to know it.’

Elizabeth was ashamed, but his friends only looked over and laughed.

‘Why, I saw the vastness just this morning,’ she said a little louder, trying to save face with the others.

‘You go to the sea and watch the boats,’ he said. ‘The waves, the fins of little fish, the garbage washing against rock, sea foam, disturbances in the sand, tracks your feet have made. All those things, you know. You never know the vastness itself.’

‘I stood alone in the early morning hours, when there were no boats and no footprints besides my own behind me, and I felt a stark emptiness in my heart.’

‘It is not possible! You might have felt some condition of vastness, but if you had actually understood it, you would have lost your mind then and there. You would have walked until your feet left the earth, and there would be no more of you.’

‘The thought that I would end my life over your invented idea is as offensive as it is absurd.’ Feeling wild, she reached right over and took a sip of his coffee.

‘A fact,’ he said. He waited for her to replace the cup on its saucer before he spoke again. ‘I saw it happen once. A woman standing on the shore, just as you did this morning. She was wearing a long muslin dress and boots in the old style. This was some years ago, on the Italian coast. I was watching the woman, and the woman was watching the sea. She never once turned around, as I assumed she would. Later I realized that she never moved at all, not shielding her eyes against the sun, not shifting her weight from foot to foot. It seemed from the position of her head that she was gazing toward a particular point in the distance, though she was not observing the horizon line. I watched, foolish and helpless, from my balcony as this poor woman became acquainted with the vastness.’

‘What happened to her?’

‘What happened? She went face-first into the water and drowned before anyone had a chance to save her.’

Elizabeth gasped. ‘But why?’

He shrugged, stirring his coffee with a small smile.

‘You could have gone after her.’

‘I tried. I sprinted to cross the balcony and down the stairs to a switchback trail that went all the way down to the boardwalk. A thumb-tack on the road went right into my bare foot, and I didn’t notice it until much later, when I was changing into dry clothes before I visited the police station to give my account. The infection I suffered later was so aggressive, that thumbtack nearly put me into my grave. Let me see if I can –’ He turned slightly in his chair to lift his foot from his shoe and slipped off part of his sock to show her the mark. ‘Here it is.’

‘And the girl?’

‘I was too late. She was gone so quickly, it’s as if she were dying even as she fell.’

‘My God.’

‘Yes, she was already very dead.’ He seemed ready to say more but paused, gazing down at his pencil as if he were trying to estimate its weight. He looked up at her and then to the other men. She leaned toward him, and they were quiet for a moment, his lips nearly touching her cheek.

‘My friends over there say that violence is the only balm for suffering,’ he said. ‘They believe we must baptize this world with fire. What do you think about that, Miss Duncan?’

She looked over at his friends, who were flirting with the youngest kitchen girl, giving her sips of grappa. In Elizabeth’s experience, it was the men that blustered about who carried the least potential to harm.

‘Did you know her, the girl?’

He righted himself, disappointed. ‘I kept seeing her around my neighborhood after that. I thought for a while that her ghost had returned to haunt me, but it was another woman in a similar dress.’

‘How awful.’ Elizabeth didn’t at all believe in ghosts but knew how an idea could pursue the mind like a restless spirit.

‘For months I would see the neighbor woman at parties. She wore three iron peacock feathers clipped in her hair and so resembled a creature who had landed in the midst of a conversation, peering around the passing plates for scraps before she would fly again. At last I approached her and told her that she resembled a dead woman. She didn’t like that at all, as you might imagine.’

‘What was her name, the one who died? Who were her friends, her family? Had she come to the shore on holiday?’ Elizabeth noticed the thin man watching her from the kitchen. She lowered her voice. ‘You must have asked around, learned more about her tragic life.’

He shrugged, looking away.

Elizabeth had more questions, which she decided against asking. What in her life brought her to stand there that morning, facing down the infinite? Did her family turn from her in her final hours?

‘There was a Mass at some point in the little county cemetery,’ he said. ‘I decided to walk there but I accidentally set off in the wrong direction and didn’t realize until it was too late. I came upon a remarkably smooth stone on that walk, which I still have.’

‘You could have met her family.’

He shook his head, refusing to face her. ‘You’re asking me to carry this woman on my back. A burden like that gets heavier as you go, not lighter.’

Elizabeth looked at Romano, and in looking felt as if she’d seen him for the first time. He was a nervous man, fidgeting with his sketchbook like a boy in school. She wondered how long she would have to sit with him before she could reasonably escape and go back upstairs, where Gus was likely sleeping upright in his chair.

Her time on Corfu felt governed by a clock marking only the hour. She thought of all the people she had met: the women baking bread in the kitchen, Romano’s friends shouting over cards, Isadora’s old nurse upstairs, the European doctor lurking about, the thin man, who held his shirtfront back as he tasted the soup. She wouldn’t miss any of them when she went away, and none of them would spend even a moment wondering if they would miss her. Each of them would fade in the others’ minds like paper dolls in a sunny window. They would be relegated to the recesses of faulty memory along with an old recipe for crepes and Anna Pavlova dancing the dying swan, her flapping, desperate port de bras, faltering toward the crowd and away, panic in her darting eyes and none of them moving to save her.

 

The above is an excerpt from Amelia Gray’s novel Isadora.

The Hatchet Job | Discoveries
The Land In Winter