DISCLAIMER: All XWP characters are copyright so-and-so by what’s-his -face. No copyright infringement intended and no profit gained. The story is mine, so think twice about plagiarizing.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thanks to Lela and Anima for beta reading and cyber-handholding. (I know, it sounds so…naughty!)
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Coup de Grace
By Vivian Darkbloom
Conclusion: Orpheus Rising
Prelude: Tadzio's Return
I think it is all a matter of love: the more you love a memory, the stronger and stronger it is.
The sky, sickened with rain, became a glassy, violet-tinged green before the inevitable deluge. Raindrops glittered down, plainly visible in the autumnal rush of dusk, falling on cobblestones; in this manner the city could be viewed as a quaint timepiece, an hourglass through which time, unfairly immutable, poured into the shape of passing years.
The girl hissed breath into a cold fist and rounded a desolate corner into the crowded Campo San Salvador. It was the Janus nature of Venice: Bleakly desolate narrow streets leading into tourist carnivals. Her sense of direction was a second sight; she maneuvered the labyrinth of Venice on pure instinct, without thinking, without seeing, and knowing the drop and curve of every cul de sac, every campo, every calle, every fondamenta—the blind treading upon the blind serpents of ancient streets.
The smell of salt and sea was lost to her as well, as it was to any native Venetian—melting into the mundane, disappearing into the background. Instead, her senses hungrily seized upon the smell of caffé, of roasting meat, of a hearth's smoldering ash. A café catering to tourists played jazz; despite the tinny transistor radio, the sound of a slow alto sax thick in the air. In the translucent glint of a storefront her kamikaze reflection struck out at her—a waif in bell bottoms and a pea jacket, the blonde crown of her head a fiery fate.
It was the golden hair that first garnered Sofia's attention. In a sea of street urchins mugging and competing for attention, she and her brother were truly striking—cherubim out of a glamorized quattrocento past. And they were strangely obedient, quiet, subdued, almost aloof from the others, who by and large lived on the streets to escape the stranglehold of poverty and abuse. In the absence of a real family—a lost father, a dead mother—they held no recriminations, no ties, no memory. They were beautiful blank slates.
That terrible first meeting was not far from where she was at the moment—Rio Scoacamini. She and Ottavio were in front of the Bonvecchiati Hotel and waiting, with the absurd patience of children, for a foreigner's generosity to rain down upon them. It seemed a good day for it. The sky was immaculate blue, the gondolas glistened in the sunlight and bobbed cheerfully like drunken sentries; courtesy of the sun, the murk in the canal that passed as water possessed diamonds of light poised on the swooning high wire of each current. Even the old stone lion perched on a cracked pedestal beside the hotel's revolving door seemed to bless them.
But they knew the woman who ended up so interested in them—she, with her predatory head tilt—was no foreigner. Sofia, still darkly beautiful then, and still sustaining her firmly ridiculous belief in a kinship with the past, with the great historical tradition of the Venetian courtesan, had trailed perfumed fingers through their hair—Ottavio flinched at her touch—appraised them, and read a divination in their blondeness: How could such beauty bring anything but great fortune?
As Francesca walked by the Bonvecchiati, forcing herself to saunter and not dash, she pitched up the flaring collar of her coat even higher and whistled defiantly past the shining graveyard of her innocence. The yellow marble teeth of the Bonvecchiati's lion were now shot through with the brown fissures of time; there was a fine line between gorgeous ruins and lost causes, and Venice, with its lustrous history and shabby present, was visible in the crackling of the ancient lion's snarl.
She eyed the beast coolly. Lips curled, she flashed her teeth with mocking fierceness.
And so the blonde hair that had ensured her fate had ensnared the strange American who had returned Venice after so mysteriously disappearing two years ago. Francesca had never thought of this woman as a benefactor, a savior, a way out, until it was too late. After that night two years ago, the lire—twice what Sofia had originally negotiated—had already been pressed into her hand and Francesca's gaze had drifted from the woman's silvery blue eyes to the perfect drape of her linen blouse; the fine detail of the stitches, the shocking softness of the material—her hand drifted in a caress down Mel's arm—told her it was handmade. And she didn't even need to look further, to the old, expensive watch. In her haste to seduce the American that night before, she hadn't noticed how valuable the watch actually was. These were the details that Sofia was always after her to notice.
But she had been at the door, ready to return to her life: Her friends, her streets, ready to leave behind the stifling yet seductive intensity of this woman.
Will I see you again? She'd tried to sound casual.
No. I'm leaving today.
To where do you go?
In morning light, the latticework of age was more visible upon Mel's features. I have an obligation to fulfill.
Another strange thing to say. The woman was always muttering things that she never bothered to explain. It was, Francesca later admitted to herself, part of the appeal. Ah. Maybe—when you return? Francesca had thrown in another gratuitous touch: Hand slithering up Mel's torso until it came to rest lightly between her breasts.
I don't know if I will return.
And that had been that.
Time passed. She cut her hair. She argued about it with Sofia, who thought the short hair made her look too old and therefore not as lucrative on the street. She nursed Marcella through a bad abortion. Her brother fell in love with a horrible—but rich—man. She started smoking. She didn't really like it. She stopped. Her English became better. She took an acid trip and nearly ended up in a canal. And men. There were men, some briefly obsessed and infatuated, some not. None of them quite as tantalizingly mysterious as her American woman. In the midst of these tiny episodes that composed her life, just when she stopped seriously wondering if she would ever see Melinda Pappas again (having stumbled across the older woman's surname through a surreptitious peek at her passport), a message came—not on the winged feet of a god, but a scruffy boy who worked the streets near the Hotel Cavalletto.
Francesca would have been less surprised—and less pleased—at a summoning from the Pope.
Later, at the flat they reluctantly shared, Sofia acted as if she were a lamb to slaughter—an entirely different attitude from two years ago when, after quickly negotiating the deal, she had all but shoved Francesca into the American's arms. Now, they sat together at the breakfast table and Sofia scowled worriedly while pressing her thumb against her plate, blotting a spate of brioche crumbs to her skin. She's never forgotten you. It's not good.
Francesca nodded absently, finger-combed the bangs across her brow into gamine perfection. Within the arena of an old compact mirror, she stared down self-doubt and won.
Sofia nibbled at her thumb. Be careful.
She snorted derisively. Don't be silly, Sofi. She won't kill me. The compact snapped shut.
The old whore laid her hand across Francesca's wrist, lowered her dark eyes with the same caution with which a hunter aims a gun. I mean be careful with your heart.
Shockingly, there were moments when it seemed like the damned hag actually cared for her.
Another winding alley and the Hotel Cavalletto, a luminous mirage, buoyed in the distance. Francesca blew into her tight fist once again and smiled. She laughed at herself, for the ridiculous amount of hope she pinned on one woman, one ghost from her past, whose ravaged gaze puzzled her, whose consuming touch she could not quite forget. She turned that final corner, and decided she would at least be grateful for the one Sunday where she could go from guttersnipe to aristocrat.
In between the crevices of remembering and forgetting, there is living, and within that state, there are the comforts that make it bearable: A bath, perhaps. A song. A woman.
The thick steam of the bath gloated around the tub in a pearly fog; heavy, humid motes traversed the dim light of the bathroom. It reminded Mel of Lucretius. Absently she moved her damp hand, the movement cutting through air, disrupting all the tiny worlds within her grasp. Melinda Pappas, Destroyer of Molecules. That is all I am capable of destroying. On the fringe of history, I stood and watched. I followed. I was the disrupted one. Wasn't I, Janice?
After many years it became routine for her to speak to her dead lover in her mind.
How I tried to tame you, as I tried to tame language.
Because I loved wild things. Because I thought I could claim you with my own meaning.
How I failed.
She closed her eyes, slid down into the tub, and let the water press against her skull. After half a minute she emerged and, despite the water's whispered promises, none the wiser.
It never occurred to her to be truly bitter to the bone about everything, except in these chilling, silent afternoons, gilded by autumn and confronted by age and a truth that eluded them both—then it pulled at her, the undertow of a tight, poorly healed wound.
After a lifetime spent in the service of language and words, she spoke only once today, to the boy—is he really that young, or am I so old that everyone seems so young to me now?—who lingered outside the Cavalletto upon her arrival. Thin, wizened, yet with heavy features anchoring his sallow face, he could be anywhere between twelve and forty-five. Ever since she started staying there in the 1960s, he had been there, dealing, pimping, cajoling, all to the nefarious services of the hotel's guests. His five-fingered memory never willingly relinquished a fact or a detail. She admired that about him. Two years later, and he remembered her. With the girl.
She had been counting on that.
He offered to fetch the girl. He knew her, he claimed. He knew her friends and where to find her. All she had to do was press money in his hand. She felt liberated from this stale version of herself—here she was, in broad daylight, paying money for a prostitute. Somehow she convinced herself that Janice would be proud of her perversity. Or would she be unimpressed? Janice was also quite proud of boasting that she never had to pay for sex in her entire life.
A lecher's grin twisted the boy's face. Lire curled through his fingers. Now? he asked.
In typical Italian fashion, now meant at least four hours later. And would Francesca get past the concierge without incident this time? Another factor altogether.
Mel got out of the bath, drained it. Wrapped in a towel, she sat on the edge of the tub while a skein of anxiety unraveled within her. Maybe this wasn't a good idea. Maybe she'll get tossed out of the hotel. That would be good. Well, not for her. I'll have the boy pay her for her trouble. God, why did I do this again? I'm not twenty-five. I'm not even thirty-five or forty-five. I don't need to break any more headboards or scream myself hoarse or walk with a limp. I don't need to bring someone to climax four times in a night. I've done all that, and it was wonderful, thank you very much, but now I'm old and respectable and I went through menopause.
Mel closed her eyes.
And I'm a widow. Despite what the rest of the world may think.
The door rumbled with a faint knock.
And she reminds me so much of you that I can't stop.
She shed the towel, pulled on a bathrobe, and opened the door with nary a glance through the peephole.
Mel wasn't sure if the girl's short hair alone made her look older and more sophisticated, or if it was something else innate in Francesca's appearance: Nonetheless, she was still astonishingly young—nineteen, maybe twenty—and the shock of that sank into Mel's bones: Even younger that first time. Self-revulsion simmered in the back of her throat.
Francesca looked more a student than a prostitute—apparently this rage for naval coats, noticed during a brief trip to the United States recently, was rampant among Italian youth too. Underneath the coat she wore a blue sweater tucked tightly into corduroy jeans topped with a black belt, and a pair of black, thickly soled shoes that looked hideously uncomfortable to Mel, a woman who spent a lifetime in heels and now suffered continual painful spasms in her steely calves as a result of it.
Francesca blinked and waited for an invitation to enter. She may have been a whore, but she did possess some semblance of manners.
Remember or forget?
Stay or go?
"Hello."Mel repeated it, as if she were in the first day of a Berlitz English class.
Past or present?
Francesca grew exasperated with the waiting game. "The people in the region of your country—you have told me, they are not to be rude, no?"
Mel shook her head, stepped aside, and drank in the girl's scent as she walked by.
As she did two years ago, Francesca prowled the room with deliberate slowness, relishing the sense of power that unfurled within her. The girl had achieved a lean, wary look so painfully redolent of Janice's surly sensuality—that by-product of a defiant hedonism against a life that was far, far from kind—that Mel unknowingly held a breath until her chest ached for release.
Then Francesca's slow, gentle English, tangled with the curlicues of an Italian accent, broke the spell. "Are you ill?"
It was not Janice's hopelessly colloquial American English, peppered with obscenity yet steamrolled flat by the Midwestern accent she had inherited from her mother. In this moment Mel realized how much she missed hearing that voice. She closed her eyes for a few seconds in order to hear precisely, if only in her own mind, those delicious cadences, those lost phrases. "I'm fine."
A glint in the girl's eye indicated that she did not believe it for a second, but she said nothing and continued her stalking inventory of the room.
"Tadzio."Mel threw it out casually—trying to dispel the ghost with intellectual small talk.
Frowning, Francesca looked up from her reflection in a mahogany table. "Que?"
"You are my Tadzio. Do you know that?"
The girl shook her shaggy head. "I do not what you mean."
The literary allusion now lost, Mel found herself fumbling for some sort of common ground—a scripted scenario wherein she would know precisely how to act this part that she never expected to play. If ever she believed that the advantage lay squarely with her—if only because of money, if only because she believed she knew with cynical accuracy those cobwebbed corridors of her heart—she now doubted it entirely. "Would you like a drink?"
"Si. Something warm."
Mel nodded, but did not move.
The girl touched the book upon the table. Tacitus. Her fingers pressed into the soft old leather, lazily tracing the gilded lettering upon the cover. "I have wondered—in all this time—" Francesca halted. She spoke carefully, slowly, as if she had rehearsed the lines many times in the intervening two years, and her English shimmered on the point of precision. "— where you have been."
Francesca smiled. "You see, you haunt me as much as I haunt you."
"Somehow I doubt that."
The girl either didn't hear, or didn't want to hear it. "So?" The question was soft, almost nonchalant, all the more demanding because of it. A wary satellite, Francesca moved within Mel's orbit, within her aching grasp.
Mel ran her hand along the girl's thigh, thumb swishing over wales of corduroy. God forgive me. Somebody forgive me. She touched the brass belt buckle and her fingers threaded in between belt loops. "Everywhere. And nowhere."
Ever the consummate professional, Francesca was steering her to the bed. Not that she minded.
"I give you my Sunday, you give me—"
"What?"Her mouth skimmed the girl's cool cheek, reveling in the bounty of skin. The pea coat fell from slender shoulders.
"—words of nonsense. Babble."Francesca's accent struck the second syllable hard, a drumstick against ringing tympani, bringing the word back to its original meaning: Babel.
Robe undone, she fell back onto the bed and her breath rolled in the nape of the girl's neck while inhaling the bitterness of smoke and autumn, and the haze of memory confounded her senses even further—fall evenings, leaves burning, wood fires, these scents floating and mingled in Janice's battered canvas coat, the collar stiff and cold against her lips. That winter. That decision. You want to get away from this, baby? Then we'll go. Anywhere you want.
"Dicami dove siete stati,"the girl whispered. Tell me where you've been. She straddled Mel, peeled off the tight sweater—and did nothing. She knew, of course, the power of her body to seduce and enthrall, and yet on a level that she could not consciously articulate, she was aware of her own flesh as a mirror, glowing and gorgeously distorted, to this woman's past.
Mel's own body was reborn with serpentine grace, reinvigorated with fluid control.
And what if I tell her, just give her one piece of the puzzle? Just one word? It will be enough? The story will unravel eventually; it will be the beginning of the end.
Does it matter anymore? It will never be enough.
"Alexandria," she said. "I was in Alexandria." Mel traced the perfectly electric line that undulated from Francesca's shoulder, down her bicep to the dip of her elbow, her forearm, her wrist, and finally to her fingertips, stippled with the gilded dust of broken, dead words.
On the first humid morning of the hot spring her hair curls ever so slightly, seeking shelter within the nape of her neck. The season's change trickles into the air. She has been in this house, in this part of the world, long enough to know these changes, to anticipate them. Last night, on their customary after-dinner stroll, she caught Fayed smiling at her—smirking rather, head tilted in appreciation. You walk like a Greek now.
She did not know what he meant. Perhaps that now, she moves with the bruising weight of history on her shoulders?
She sits on the edge of the bed, holding the vial of sleeping pills prescribed for her after Janice died, given to her by the same old, eccentric English expatriate doctor who provided Jennifer Davies with the drugs that quelled her demons, and who himself reeked of opiates. He told her—last fall, while examining her—that her hairstyle reminded him of Louise Brooks. He also told her that she was going through "the change of life."It did provide a logical explanation for why she woke in the morning with sheets darkened in sweat—not the bilious anguish of loss as she thought, but a mere, common sign of aging.
She could only assume that menopause and a dead lover, both within the span of one year, was the price to pay for years of happiness.
She washes her face and pearls of water drops fall fat into the porcelain bowl. She looks at the pills again. Is the time of mourning—of this particular taint of grief, the kind that reduces one to the state of a newborn—finally over?
There is the distant din of activity as she walks through the house: Naima in the kitchen with the cook, the rise and fall of their conversation, Naima's normally low, calm voice losing some of its soothing properties as it ran through the obstacle course of the Greek language. Closer to the balcony the sturdy ham radio crackles through a Brahms concerto to the distinct yet irregular percussion of Fayed's teacup scraping against a saucer.
Despite Mel's sometimes violent exhortations, they both had stayed on at the house after Janice's death. It was what they called it taking care of you but Mel, in the private hell of her mind, instead termed a prolonged suicide watch. Naima calmly turned a deaf ear to her protests. Fayed, on the other hand, was more than willing to remind her, constantly, that she did not mourn alone. Did it ever occur to you that I might want to be close to you right now? That I'm doing this as much for myself as for you? he had shouted at Mel recently.
It had shut her up, if only for a day, and finally made her cognizant of how much he too suffered. He had been there. He blamed himself for what happened. He had allowed his oldest friend to go into the tunnel alone, indulging her stubborn, masculine pride.
Fayed's gaze travels from his newspaper to her eyes.
She finds herself unnerved by the hope she sees in him and seeks neutrality in the valley sprawled below them. He waits every day for her to be, once again, the woman that she was; that it is now an impossibility does not deter him. There are no answers in the sun, the sea, the sky, but rather, what lies beneath them. Her lips part, words fail. She hesitates before sitting down. Finally, she says it. "I must find them."
Fayed smiles. "Yes."His hand shakes as he pours her tea; Earl Gray slops over into the saucer.
"Yes?"Unsure, she reaches for his free hand. "I must know if I'm doing the right thing. I have only you to guide me now."
You don't really need a degree for archaeology, Janice Covington had once told a lecture hall filled with hapless, hopeful students, just luck and patience. And if a cursed, ill-tempered mug like me can make a go of it, then so can you guys.
"What do you think, really?"
Fayed clutches her hand tightly, waiting for the threat of tears to pass. There is life in her again. He knows there will be setbacks. He knows her yearning for vengeance will never abate—if only because he feels similarly—and that regardless of whether it remains dormant and festering or furls into full satiation, it will probably kill her.
But this was a start.
And so he assuages her fears by responding in the smart-ass spirit of the woman they had both loved beyond reason: "Joyous sobbing—and so early, over breakfast—would be too much, don't you think?"
1. Academia and Its Discontents
Time is the school in which we learn,
Time is the fire in which we burn.
After a youth steeped in exotica, Janice fell in love with the mundane.
It was not surprising. On excavation sites she had always clung fervently to routine, to the rituals that began, marked, and concluded every day. There was comfort in them, and she always took comfort wherever she found it, because winds howled at her back, tents collapsed, sands shifted, fortunes changed. The transitive quality that existed in everything stood out in shocking, naked relief, like an unearthed bone jutting from the ground. The world was a house of cards. Harry always said it, and even after so many years, she never stopped taking the old man's word for gospel. Harry Covington was the prophet for all cynics.
If her home in Cambridge was as flimsy, though, Janice was blissfully unaware. Practically every morning she woke at daybreak, just as she always had done on-site. Then she would lay a hand upon Mel's thigh, charting silky gradations with the compass of her palm: skin, a nightgown bunched up in waves during the tumult of sleep, the coarse borderline of pubic hair. On site, the first thing she had always done in the morning was to consult the maps—no matter her familiarity with the territory, no matter the task at hand. There was always a map, read and reread and caressed into smooth submission. And now this living map beneath her fingertips told her where she was, what she could expect of the day: She would get up, wash up, make the coffee, go to work, come home, eat dinner, and go to bed with a beautiful woman—although the literal sharing of a bed with a six-foot-tall woman who was all sprawling limbs and relentless snoring was not always sheer romantic bliss.
Could be worse, Janice thought.
Half-asleep, Mel sometimes misinterpreted this ritual casting of her body as a map as a sneaky seduction ploy designed to rob her of precious sleep and, with a husky groan—even her petulant, groggy protests were arousing—would roll over, resuming the bossa nova beat that her snoring seemed to take on these days. (Janice silently cursed those records that Mel's colleague, Dr. Floyd, brought back from Brazil.) She had never been much of an early morning lover.
Janice smiled, stretched, sat up. The blonde wood of the floor hinted at warmth, but instead served up a marble-like chill under her feet. She padded into the bathroom, washed up at the sink, and snuck a clandestine look at the mirror, as if bracing herself for some revelation that had eluded her for over thirty-five years now. As usual, nothing new struck her. She was finally more appreciative of the age-defying baby face that had so irritated her when she was twenty-one and playing woman of the world. Nonetheless, she didn't regret the decision to cut her hair—it made her look older, but in a good way, the way of someone not fruitlessly striving for youth. Mel had proclaimed the haircut a success: You look almost sophisticated.
No, there was nothing new, and that was good. She had parsed a second life from her first one: quieter, less remarkable on the surface, but no less rich. In the past she'd thought such an existence beyond her reach. She was the Tantalus of happiness. She had always feigned indifference, but the golden apple was always at the edge of her sight, waiting for her to swipe a hungry paw at it.
And now she had it. She didn't know what else to do with it, except hold on. And, occasionally, look over her shoulder.
Over breakfast, the radio cheerfully exhorted them to buy Borax and Mel frowned over the newspaper, which always had some fresh atrocity or disturbance in the cultural fabric that greatly affronted her. This morning, it was Richard Nixon. Could a man with such a face be trusted? She posed the question to her breakfast companion, brandishing the paper like a sword.
Janice shrugged. She found Mel's expectations of sanity, common sense, and morality in the leaders of great nations to be quaint, even charming.
Mel remained scowling. The wire-rimmed glasses sliding down her nose and the irritated, thinning line of her lips did their best to mar her looks, but at forty, her beauty seemed as striking and dominating as ever, as if it had always been a skill waiting to be honed, a weapon to be employed with the wisdom of age and subtle confidence. It was a part of herself that she had finally made peace with (a relief, when there were other niggling, disparate parts in contention); when it came to men, she had moved beyond nervous giggling and outright bemusement to the haughty reserve of a bored queen. Worship me, and move on. Whether lasting love or the increasing recognition of her talents fed that confidence, Janice hesitated to say, and not out of simple modesty: Love's mismeasure was a byproduct of the Covington worldview.
While Janice thought it all suited Mel very well, at times she wondered how happy Mel really was. Her increased cachet at the university and prominence within the department proved to be an unforeseen stress upon a gentle, unassuming woman who wanted nothing more than to pierce the impregnable mysteries of languages in flux and not merely teach ancient Greek to the good, the bad, and the indifferent.
Mel's restless gaze settled upon her like an accusation. "What are you looking at?"
"The only beautiful thing I'm going to see all day."Janice sipped her coffee. "Good save, huh?"
"I'm sure Marlene Sawyer will accost you today."
Marlene Sawyer, another restless faculty wife not content to merely overindulge in martinis and her husband's students, had cultivated a mad infatuation with Janice that resulted in frequent visits to the garage with her pathetic Buick and many teeth-gnashingly bad puns about being serviced under the hood. Janice thought it best to omit any mention of the latest visit, where she had to peel off Marlene as if the woman were amorous flypaper. "Hmm. Something to look forward to."
Janice managed to intercept Mel's foot before it made contact with her shin. "Not as fast as you used to be, old girl."After the distinct sound of a shoe softly hitting the floor—bringing to mind that terrible trite expression that she believed defined her life—she rubbed the long, squirming foot that burrowed aggressively into her lap and provided some rather enjoyable, if distracting, sensations. In retaliation Janice sent her hand down the pike of that leg, worthy of Rockette status, in a luxurious road trip for skin.
But Mel appeared neither amused nor aroused. "If you ruin my stockings, I'll kill you. And Marlene Sawyer too."
Mel always referred to Marlene by full name, as if Marlene were a rare, infectious disease. Which was actually about the size of it. Fortunately, over the years Janice had built up an immunity to trashy broads. "Forget Marlene Sawyer. You know I don't go for blondes."
"Exception to the rule."
"That so-called 'countess,' Elsa. And Veronica Berzansky…"
It irritated Janice to no end that Mel could recall the minutiae of her romantic liaisons better than she could herself. She blamed the dentist; if it hadn't been for that lovely little serum he'd injected her with while extracting a bad crown all those years ago, Mel would have never received that golden opportunity to grill her about these things. Shit. Did she write them down somewhere? She barely remembered Elsa, a mere blip on the sexual radar that would have otherwise passed into oblivion in Janice's mind except for all that noisy climaxing in Swedish. And Veronica? "Actually, Ronnie wasn't a real blonde."
"I see."Mel's sarcasm evaporated as Janice's fingers made contact with the very edge of her stocking and the delicious bridge of the garter.
"Not even at work and you're already in a bad mood,"Janice mock chastised.
"J-just the anticipation of work alone—oh God, stop doing that."
"I'll stop if you promise I get to torture you some more tonight."
"Who can resist such an offer?"
"Good. Because you know something?"
"You desire me with such fierce abandon that you positively ache to make love to me?"
"That, and you're late for work."
Mel glanced at the kitchen clock, gasped, and took off for the door in a running leap that would've made Jesse Owen envious. The fact that she did so with only one foot shod in heels made it all the more impressive, although she did not notice the disparity until her stockinged foot hit the cold, bristling doormat. Humbled and momentarily graceless, she limped back to the kitchen to retrieve her shoe and claim a goodbye kiss.
"Sadist,"she muttered at Janice while sliding her foot into the shoe and frowning at her legs—crooked stockings be damned. She had no time.
"Ta ta!"Janice chirped.
When the door closed one last time, Janice settled into the worn grooves of the kitchen chair and finished her coffee. When the weather grew warmer, she would be able to sit outside again and enjoy the sun. Sometimes she thought that was the only real thing she missed about being out on a dig: The sun, the sky, the wind. But as with an old lover, selective memory was at work. She admitted to her mind only the harmless things—the things that did not induce yearning, like the thrilling heights of discovery. The deaths and the losses, however, were always with her. The boundary between the old life and the new life was as permeable as Swiss cheese. You can't leave it all behind.
She sat the empty coffee cup in the sink.
She had fully expected this, for the first life to haunt her. It did not help that the doting Matthew Spencer became a fixture at the garage. The portly youth had taken to having lunch with his former professor, despite Janice's reminders that he wasn't doing himself any favors either professionally or academically by becoming the acolyte of a grimy mechanic. In response he would only stare at her adoringly, his glassy blue eyes disturbingly magnified into marbles by his thick glasses.
Later that day at the garage, Matthew sat lumpishly upon a Buick—fortunately, not Marlene's—and unraveled a ham sandwich. "I see it this way."He offered the sandwich to Janice, who snatched it greedily. "You are the university's Lucifer, unceremoniously booted of out Harvard-heaven, and this is your underworld, where you rule. Apropos, no?"
"I wasn't actually booted,"Janice's protest, around a mouthful of ham, was lukewarm.
"Ah, but 'how wearisome Eternity so spent in worship paid to whom we hate!'"
"If you're gonna spend the whole afternoon quoting Milton…."Janice put the sandwich on a tool bench and impatiently gestured for Matthew to move his bulk. He did, and she popped the hood.
"You object to Milton?"
"Let's just say that at the end of my undergraduate days, I vowed never to hear Milton ever again."
"Of course. English is not your subject."
"No, but my English tutor was."
"Oh,"Matthew murmured. Somehow a blush colored his tone.
She grinned. Matthew was an odd mixture of the ribald and the demure, not unlike a precocious child pushing to see what he could get away with and discovering his own mortification as a result. She found him sweet, which was not a quality she had uncovered in many men of his tender age and privileged upbringing. He's like Dan. Jesus. Janice blinked, guiltily surprised at thinking of her ill-fated fiancé. Haven't thought of him in years. The fact that she had ever let any involvement with a man reach such ludicrously serious levels was now astonishing to her. She still remembered Fayed's giddy laughter when she had somberly revealed to him, months after the breakup, that she had been so entrenched in a relationship with a member of the opposite sex. Oh my dear, he had tittered, you did not know yourself very well, did you?
Matthew recovered his nerve and pressed on. "And so, Milton is the poignant reminder of a youthful affair?"
"No, Milton is the poignant reminder of the fact that she quoted him constantly and wouldn't shut the hell up."She sighed regretfully. "The things I've done for a good pair of legs."
"I apologize for bringing this up, Dr. Covington."
She leaned into the belly of the Buick. "Don't call me that."
"Please, forgive me. A force of habit."Matthew remained silent, in penance.
"Didn't say you had to stop talking."
"Oh."Matthew sighed, relieved. "Wonderful, because I wanted to ask you what you thought of Dr. Arborgast's report on the excavation near Mount Fuji—"
"Haven't read it."Suspicious of leakage, Janice prodded the battery. "Oriental stuff's not my thing, you know that."
"I know, but I thought you might be curious, because they found a scroll fragment written in Classical Greek—quite an amazing discovery. Mr. Hammett at the Peabody has it right now. There was some talk they'd be asking Dr. Pappas to translate it—I'm surprised she didn't mention it to you."
"Can't expect her to tell me everything."Despite the fact that she spent most of her days ensconced in a garage, Janice still maintained both a healthy interest in the field and a continued curiosity in Mel's career. She knew Mel was grateful for that; it meant that this aspect of their bond, while diminished, was still intact. Yet it never ceased to amaze Janice that after so much time Mel still sought her professional and academic advice at all. She snorted. "They're gonna bug her to translate some little fragment? Hammett should get one of his damn grad students to do it. She doesn't have time for that."
"Agreed, but Dr. Arborgast seems to think it will please his benefactor."
"Hmm. Private funding. I knew it."She tightened a plug. "So—who put up the big bucks?"
"A London antiquities dealer. Rather pompous sounding: Stella Matutina, Ltd."
It was rather pompous sounding. And it happened to be a modest setup run by none other than Mark Pendleton.
It was the last coherent thought she had before she straightened like a shot and struck her head upon the open hood.
As Janice lay blissfully unconscious, the Peabody Museum's latest acquisition—courtesy of Stella Matutina Ltd.—was currently being shown off by a humble curator, one Francis Hammett, to his colleague, Melinda Pappas.
Francis already had the scroll fragment trapped under a vitrine; the lamp on the table was turned discreetly away from the fragile, curling husk—a paper Medusa too hideous for full illumination.
History, they knew, could be an ugly thing.
Mel bent over the case, fully aware of Francis's anxious presence, if only because his thin, wringing hands, like those of a saint in an overwrought baroque painting, were still visible to her. "So this is what Arborgast was going on about?"
Francis nodded. "And in this rare instance, his boasting is entirely merited. It's not every day one finds Greek text of any era on Japanese papyrus! In ancient times, it was not unusual to find evidence of travelers from other lands, but now…."He bent beside Mel and pushed a floppy forelock away from his face. "The very nature of the period suggests to us that what written documents we find are fragmentary at best—written by outsiders to the culture."As Mel examined the fragment, Francis starting wringing his hands again. "I'm—glad you could help me with it,"he said softly. "I've attempted my own translation, but…Arborgast started lamenting the inadequacies of my skills, and…"A shrug concluded his apology. "They wanted you. I don't blame them one bit. When one has access to a National Book Award nominee, well—it's awfully tempting to take advantage of that."
Mel smiled at him. She had never expected that one slender book, a translation of a handful of Cavafy poems—something, she arrogantly thought at times, she could have done largely in her sleep—would garner so much attention. Nor did she expect she would enjoy that attention so much. She fervently hoped that if the book ever made it to a paperback stage, the publishers would be inclined to use a memorable comment from Janice as an endorsement: You've made this crap almost readable.
"I'm happy to help you, Francis."She laid a hand along his fragile, bony wrist. "In any way I can."
Acknowledgment of his recent troubles only embarrassed him. He looked away, and his hair tumbled across his brow again. "If only you could, really."
"My offer still stands,"she reminded gently.
"I can't take your money."
"You could consider it a loan."
Francis attempted a smile, which only succeeded in highlighting the tired lines of his face. "I'll—think about it."
She patted his arm. Despite the many years of their acquaintance, she did not know him well. In her younger, more idealistic days, she'd thought a life in the homosexual demimonde would foster only the closest of bonds; but for every close friendship there were shadowy figures passing through like passengers in a train station, with eyes trained hungrily into the distance, fixed upon unknowable destinations. Francis seemed to be one of these furtive figures, forever in flight even while bound to routine. Because of the scandal that resulted in his impending departure from the university—involving a raid on his apartment that yielded a stash of photos of muscular men and a very talkative kept boy—he walked the streets of the town and the halls of the university as a bona fide pariah. Simon Arborgast's rejection of his translation had more to do with that than with Francis's skill, she was certain, even though Simon remained a fond colleague of Janice and, like most everyone within her orbit, knew well the infamous Covington predilections and peccadilloes—that was obvious from the leering attentions Simon foisted upon Mel the few times they had met. She frowned. Francis been beaten up twice in one week; a faded crescent from a black eye lingered along one cheek bone.
It was a ridiculous double standard.
She thought uneasily of the bonfire she'd made of certain blackmail photos, how, for her, that fatal social bullet had been so very narrowly dodged. In better times, when they first arrived in Cambridge, Francis had functioned as her date on a few sporadic social occasions; in repayment of this, Janice taught him how to properly throw a baseball so that he would not humiliate himself during an obligatory staff baseball game. Naturally, based on this and a debt she felt she had accrued from the fates, she had worked up a wickedly niggling sense of obligation toward him. (You and your goddamn sense of honor. Southerners make for good queers, Janice had said.)
But now he flinched ever so slightly from her touch; she wasn't sure if it was lingering embarrassment or latent misogyny. "I'll leave you alone for a while, so you can go at it. And I'll make sure you're not disturbed."
She offered him a conspirator's smile, which, unsurprisingly, he took little comfort in. "Thank you."As the door closed, she braced herself over the parchment, one hand on either side of the glass case, and, translator that she was to the very bone, awaited language's embrace—or its Judas kiss.
A simple declarative.
It could all be deceptively simple, she thought. Much like Cavafy was.
Her brow furrowed.
and I am
Here she backtracked, quickly rescanning the lines that carelessly spilled meaning before her eyes.
condemned to this earth,
to this hell you have created for me.
In the serpentine grip of these words, she was a helpless Laocoon. She sleepwalked through a seminar following a meeting with the Dean and several trustees, knowing her distracted performance would only burnish her romantic "absentminded professor"image. But the hairs on the back of her neck bristled with new awareness, attenuated once more to the past—her past, their past.
Back at the office, Mildred—once Janice's secretary and now her own—handed her a phone message, but not before a dollop of cigarette ash fell upon it.
Mel scowled, holding the soiled note at arm's length.
Mildred's perpetual Chesterfield drooped—a form of apology—and she nodded at the paper. "It's that fat kid."
"His name is Matthew, Mildred, and please don't ever call him that to his face."
"Yeah, whatever. Anyway, he says Shorty had a little 'mishap' at the garage and you should come as soon as you can."
She imagined blood, severed limbs, the love-mad Marlene Sawyer going berserk. At last, I have a reason for slapping that hussy across the face! Her misplaced sense of righteousness was tempered by the realization that a common garage seemed no safer than an excavation in a barren, foreign land. "What? What happened?"
"Don't worry. Sounds like she just banged her head on something. But who knows? Maybe she lost her memory. Maybe she thinks she's the new Pope."
Mildred referred to John XXIII, who had ascended to the papacy only a month before. "If indeed that's the case, I will gladly arrange an audience for you, Mildred."
Alas, the injury's result was far less entertaining. At the garage Janice was awake and muttering obscenities about Buicks while Matthew loitered about guiltily, until Mel granted a pardon and sent him on his way. Janice was stubbornly coherent enough to win an argument about a potential visit to the hospital, but reluctantly agreed to call it a day and acquiesced to Mel driving her home. Slouched in the passenger seat of the car, she rubbed her head for what seemed like the hundredth time.
"If you keep doing that, I will take you to the hospital,"Mel threatened dourly.
"You remember Dr. Berger's deal—after the tenth emergency room visit, you become a patient in his psychiatric study."
"It's all a front. He'll ship me off to Kinsey."
"I hope not, because I'm sure I'll never see you again: They'll be interviewing you for years."
Janice grinned, her teeth bright against the gray gloom of a rainy Friday.
It was easier now more than ever to get her to laugh, to smile. Mel credited stability to this more than anything. If she's happiest working in an awful garage, fine. Let her stay there. Let the past remained buried.
But Janice, of course, sensed her mood, and rested a hand against her thigh. "Bad day again?"
"No. Not really."
Janice smiled again. "That's not very convincing."
But she has the right to know. "I saw something today—I'm—"She fumbled foolishly.
In these moments when words and emotions became so hopelessly ensnared within Mel, Janice usually hummed encouragingly, as she did now—a rough, questioning purr at the back of her throat, so instinctual and now so much a part of their interactions that they both took comfort in it.
"A scroll fragment. At the Peabody."Mel paused, wondering if she really needed to clarify whose scroll it, in all likelihood, was.
But Janice seemed nonplussed. "Is it that thing Arborgast found near Fuji?"
Mel turned to gape at her. "How did you know about it?"The car swerved.
The unhappy passenger gripped an armrest. "Jesus, you're determined to get us in the hospital, one way or another, aren't ya? It was the president of my fan club—Matthew."
"Of course."Mel sighed. "Sometimes I think you know more about what goes on in the department than I do."
"It's just Matthew—he's my mole. He tells me everything."
"No, it's not just him. It's all of them,"Mel retorted wearily. While Mel was quite aware of the admiration—and lust—that she stirred within students, Janice was the one who had bred mystery and obsession in them. During her office hours, half the students who sought her out came to gawk at her and whine about how hard ancient Greek was. The other half came to talk about Janice, and ask awestruck, whispered questions: Would she ever come back to teach? Would she look for the Xena Scrolls again, or was there a new quest that had claimed her attention? Was she in trouble? Would she be arrested at any minute? Matthew Spencer, of course, had provided the most impertinent questions: Was it true that a genuine Rockette was once smitten with the good Doctor? (It was, and Mel was firm in her irrational boycott of Radio City Music Hall.) At that point she had sent Matthew to the underworld of Jimmy's Garage to pester the source, and Matthew now spent as much time at the garage as he did at the university.
"You sound jealous. I can't help it if a bunch of spoiled, snot-nosed brats were taken in by a cheap cigar and a smelly fedora."
"Then I must be as silly as they are, since I was taken in by the same things."
"Really? You always said it was my eyes and my smile. You damned liar."Janice paused thoughtfully. "When was it, really? When did you know?"
"I thought we were talking about—"
Janice rubbed her head again. "I need either a drink or a non-sequitur here. And since you won't let me keep a flask in the car—'sides, I'm always telling you how bewitched I am by your incredible beauty, amazing intellect, subtle wit, and Southern-fried charm. I'd like to know the exact moment when all your common sense flew out the window and you started thinking I was the best thing since ice cream."Janice looked at her skeptically. "You did catch cold when we left Macedonia. You could've had a fever. It might've permanently damaged that beautiful brain of yours."
"Ah, a fever that's never gone away."
"You were trying to fix the oil leak from the truck…"
"Piece of shit truck. Go on."
"…and when you were done you crawled out from under there and you just…lay there, on the ground for a moment. Like you just wanted to rest for a moment and think. Your hair was loose, and there was something in the way your body was contorted. The pose was similar to Reni's Saint Sebastian. You looked…divine."
Janice looked shockingly contrite. "Mel."
"At that moment—"
Ah, it was the same for her too!
"—you do know that I was trying to look up your skirt, right?"
Mel thought about it. Jaunty and triumphant, she had been sitting on the hood of the truck while Janice was underneath it, basking in quiet exhilaration at the wonderful turn her life appeared to be taking: there was adventure, the beauty of a new country, and finally, the magnificent, foul-mouthed, ill-tempered diamond-in-the-rough who suddenly rolled out from under the vehicle and who gazed at her with what she took to be tender thoughtfulness, and surely that was a good thing, because she could not imagine anything making Janice Covington look so serene except perhaps a box of Cuban cigars or—better yet—Jack Kleinman's long and torturous death.
All this while the sun had shone brightly and the gentle wind had billowed up her skirt.
"I do now, you vile little beast."Even as she said it, Mel felt her mouth expand into a grin.
Janice squeezed her thigh. "I guess you like vile little beasts then, huh?"
"No, only the queen of the vile little beasts will do."
Rain rattled against the car and blurred in sheets over the windshield. The wiper blades vainly fought against the tide.
"So."Janice exhaled and stared straight ahead, inscrutable. "It's really—"
"Yes."Mel turned onto their street. "Of course, you'll see for yourself. You're the expert. You'll decide."
"I trust your instincts. But did you know who was backing it up? Who funded this little excavation?"
Mel shook her head.
Mel's grip tightened along the steering wheel.
"Yeah."Janice laughed mirthlessly.
In the driveway at last, the car rolled to a halt. There was something about a vehicle at rest that prompted all questions, great and large, to come bubbling forth. "What does it all mean?"
"It could mean everything and it could mean nothing."
"And what does that mean?"
"I dunno. It just sounds good."Janice sighed again and ran a hand over her face. "Fucking Japan, huh?"
"One fragment. Don't ask me about the dates. Francis said something about 'The Early Nara Period'—"
"Approximately 645 to 710 A.D.,"Janice supplied. "But if it's authentic, it's got to be earlier than that."She scowled at the strange smile on Mel's face. "What?"
"You never cease to amaze me. Anything having to do with archaeology, you know it like the back of your hand."
Janice hummed thoughtfully. "Yeah. But I can't stop the rain."
Once inside, Mel left her alone in the study with a photographed copy of the scroll and the hastily scribbled translation. In the kitchen she tossed ice cubes in a tumbler and poured two fingers of Bushmill's over it, doing it with such unconscious ease that she wondered, after the fact, if she could ever become a bartender. I could buy a bar. Why, Janice could buy Jimmy's Garage, and we could open a combination bar-garage, where patrons could get drunk while their cars are being repaired…of course, driving home then becomes the issue….She pinched the bridge of her nose. Why am I so nervous?
In the study Janice lounged, the heels of her dirty boots locked against the edge of the mahogany desk. Her bad leg twitched, her green eyes remained locked on the photo even as she reached out blindly for whiskey.
Mel pressed the glass into her hand and waited.
"Well, shit. Hello, Gabrielle."Janice downed it in one gulp. "You're right."
"I didn't want to be right."
Janice looked at her. "Why not?"
Mel shrugged helplessly. Because I can live with you being restless and yearning, but I can't live with the obsessive hell you plunge into every time, with every new lead, with every blind hope.
She didn't need to say it; she could see the telepathic recognition of the truth in Janice's rueful expression and simple confirmation: "Yeah."Janice rattled the ices cubes, but otherwise quietly absorbed the scrawl of Mel's translation. "Alexandria again?"
"Apparently."She knew Janice was reading these lines: I will bury you in Amphipolis. And I will bury my scrolls in Alexandria.
"So."Mel looked at her hands. "Is this a good thing or a bad thing?"
"I don't know. What do you think?"
Despite her own reservations, and her own fear of how it would put them at risk, Mel surrendered her version of the truth, hating it and hating herself at the same time, for her hopeless inability to offer the questionable comfort of a lie. "I think—you've become so afraid of what you wanted for so long that you don't want it anymore."
Janice contemplated the now-empty glass on the desk as if it were a crystal ball. "I knew there was a reason I kept you around."Who am I? What do I want? This life that she had thought of as a second act, defying Scott Fitzgerald's epigrammatic pronouncement, carried so many elements of the first life that either Fitzgerald must have been right on some level—or perhaps he missed the point entirely. It always came back somehow, this past, like the boats beating against the tide at the end of Gatsby. "Life is just too sloppy,"she muttered.
Mel frowned. "What?"
"Nothing."Janice shook her head. "I just—I don't know—" She scowled at her own inarticulateness. "I wanted them."Her voice shook.
"I know,"Mel replied gently. "But the important thing is—what you want now."
Janice said nothing. She touched the photo.
In the dusty study—long ignored in illness, and not a room Francesca ever dared penetrate, despite her curiosity—there is a mosaic composed of papers, books, journals, maps, photos, all on a broad mahogany table warped by time and the inevitable, irresistible sweet rot of Venice.
There were people coming for things. A cousin, for anything that he could sell. A scholar, once a student of both Drs. Covington and Pappas, for the papers. An old friend, for whatever was left behind. The photos? The ashes, in a simple urn? The Cartier watch, lying on the dressing room table? Mel had told Francesca she could have the watch, since she had been good enough not to steal it the first time they met. She still remembers after the first time, how the glow of her sexual triumph had been eclipsed by Sofia cuffing her on the side of the head: Why didn't you get the watch, you imbecile?
But it is to the photos that Francesca gravitates. There is one of a handsome, bearded man, tall and proud, with a slouching, skinny girl who, amazingly, becomes the stunning beauty caught unaware in another photo, brooding at a desk and staring off into space, glasses dangling from her hand, displaying a profile worthy of an ancient coin. And this magnificent creature would fall in love with—
In this plunder of idle curiosity, she is face-to-face with the ghost—a substantiation, however two-dimensional and somewhat predictable—of the woman who, even after seventeen years, Melinda Pappas could barely mention, her brilliant articulation wilting in the heat of memory: I cannot put it into words. Living and loving someone every day like that. I knew her body better than I've ever known my own.
It is a black-and-white mirror image, except in the photo the young woman is in a U.S. Army uniform, leaning against a truck and pouting defiantly like James Dean; the sinewy strength of her well-defined forearms, visible in rolled-up shirt sleeves, were at odds with that sulking baby face. On the back of the photo, Paris 1944 rolls in aged, murky-green type across the dingy gray background.
And there are others. A teenaged girl with wild golden hair sitting in the back of a truck, who is the woman again in uniform and sitting in London hospital room, too scarred by death and war to really appreciate the fact that it was all over, who is the bachelor happily snared and standing outside a large, Gothic-looking house, who is the 43-year-old woman in an excavation pit, on the quest that would end her life.
She'll read the obituary. She'll read the dead woman's journal. She'll allow herself to be benignly plagued by the ghost. Her quiet, observant life will fall into a gentle collusion with the dead until she is no longer sure who the phantom really is—Janice Covington, or herself.
Haunt me. Francesca Orvieti touches the photo and lets it begin.
Was there a will? There were too many papers to look through, too great a risk of stumbling upon a photo or some sentimental trinket—a soft patch of paper, like a clot of dried, flattened earth, that had once been a movie stub from a showing of Mrs. Miniver had sent her reeling the day before, the heel of her hand digging desperately against her temple in a frantic attempt to excavate memory.
Today's bit of torture was Jenny's journal—the diary she kept in the last months she lived, during the Addict Days, as Janice had called them. Was it a living death to lose time as Jenny had in those final months? Mel couldn't believe it to be true. There had to be some moments of joy. The sun on her face. The presence of the one person she had loved more than anyone else. Sex? Mel had spent years believing it had happened between them, one last time, but Janice denied it eventually, even though she admitted she'd offered up her body as a mercy, a fleshly salve against dying misery. Mel thought of it this way, for the coarse alternative description—a pity fuck—was more than she could stomach at the moment.
Do you want to be canonized for that? Mel had snapped after the confession, her hand had twitched with the urge to slap.
It didn't matter anymore. The dead were writing about the dead.
my angel-brute withholds love in the form of a needle in the form of her heart. Meting out meager doses. Only one shot today, old girl, she says.
Look me in the eye, I say.
She does. She is never afraid. She will look me in the eyes even while taking off her clothes—don't be stingy baby! But alas no touching no further. I cannot manage it. It's pity with her & a piteous form of pity at that.
Hands shake along the needle. She is damn awkward with that sometimes but pain is part & parcel of it all. The needle so thin like the straightest bit of gossamer spun by a spider that you've ever seen.
You'll never find them, I tell her. You know that. They won't let you. He couldn't take you away from her, he wouldn't dare, but he can take this away from you—and in that moment I knew I said too muchbut surely she knows now my fool husband never asked too many questions and I never thought.
I never thought the spite of my desire, my thirst for your punishment would keep me so silent so blind.
But you know now, I say.
I know, but I can't stop she says.
The needle bites into me, a pinprick wriggling around, insect now, trapped in the dead amber of my skin.
It's what I do she says.
As Janice walked beside Simon Arborgast, she thought, inappropriately, of the joke Mel usually made about this man, who, on the scale of ego, heftily weighed in at "pompous."Who put the gas into Arborgast? Sometimes Mel could add a bossa nova-like texture to the phrase by teasing it into a lyric. Janice sometimes wondered if all translators shared Mel's unadulterated joy in playing with language.
Maybe only the good ones, she thought as Arborgast parked them into an Automat and bought thin, bitter coffee.
"Like diarrhea,"he growled.
"It's an Automat, Simon. Not a Parisian bistro."
"Christ, why do I stay here?"He glared at her accusingly, as if it were somehow all her fault. "Why do you stay here?"
"Yeah, I know why you stay here. That broad. You did pretty good on that score."
"The wife sends her regards, by the way. She still speaks fondly of you."Simon glared at her over his crooked nose.
"How long ago was that? Fifteen years. Long before you two got married."
"You made an impression."
"She was lonely in Sebastopol."
"That could be the title of her autobiography, you know?"He tried sipping the coffee again, winced, and pushed it aside. "Look, I dunno what else I can tell you about that fragment that wasn't in my report."
Janice leaned forward. "I'm more interested in your little benefactor."
"But you know him. Right? Or he knows you—your work at any rate."
"He mentioned me?"Janice played nervously with a spoon.
"Well, yeah. He said he knew you'd be interested in it. That's why he gave it to the university. He said something clever, like he hoped you enjoyed this calling card better than his last one. You know I hate clever people, Janice."
"So that was a little in-joke, huh?"
"Yeah. So little it's not funny and it's not worth explaining."She tried putting the coffee out of its misery by adding a generous river of creamer. "Did you find anything else?"
Simon smiled grimly. "The usual. Shards up the ass. Couple of nice tea bowls. He seemed happy enough with those—they're pretty enough that they'll look good in his shop."When she said nothing in response to this, he stretched with feigned casualness.
"You getting back into the game, maybe? Pendleton is generous with the funds."
"Maybe."Janice played it cagey, which was easy to do because she really had no idea what she was going to do about anything, let alone Pendleton.
"Good news. I dunno what the hell you think you've been doing, being a grease monkey all this time…I mean, I get that you're playing house with what's-her-face, and I bet she's a damn good lay—"
"—but you must be getting pretty sick of it."
Janice smirked. "Actually, I think she's getting sick of it."
"Huh. Well if she's gonna cut you loose, Jan, is it okay if I—?"
"She's not cutting me loose."Sipping coffee, Janice made a face. It was worse than anything Mel—who always made coffee flavored with an automatic apology—had ever brewed. "And in case you forgot, you're married."
"You have to fucking remind me."
"Like you got it so bad. Nadine is swell and you know it."
"I dunno. I keep thinkin' one day her, uh, predilections might get the better of her."
"Just keep her away from Marlene Sawyer."
"Never mind. So look—how did this all happen? Pendleton's not interested in Far Eastern artifacts. At all."
"He contacted me. Said he was expanding into Orientalia for his antiques shop."He dipped a spoon into the coffee. "It was all him. He made the pitch, gave me a map. Next thing I know I'm on a slow boat to Japan."
"So he had a location in mind."
"Yeah. Had a hunch, he said, based on a Latin codex written by a librarian at Alexandria…"
"Latin, not Greek?"
"This librarian was a Roman. One of those Romans completely enamored with Hellenistic culture. Interesting figure, too. Seems that out of nowhere, and for no reason whatsoever that is mentioned in this text, he gives up his plum job and starts traveling the known world."
Janice rubbed her lip with a thumb. I thought I knew everything there was to know about those scrolls. Every lead, every fragment…I thought I knew those scrolls better than anyone alive.
Maybe I don't.
Jim Snyder was not a bad person, Mel thought. He was polite, courteous, modest; he had a nice family—a good wife and happy, playful children who liked nothing more than a good game of GIs vs. Nazis (usually when Janice visited the Snyder household she, by dint of blondeness and acting skill, was the children's favorite Nazi). He had never shown the least bit of disrespect to her or anyone else. Thus she was taken aback—if not completely surprised—when her colleague displayed an attitude of casual cruelty typical of individuals she thought far beneath him.
After the rush of afternoon classes, they commiserated outside her office on the sad fate that now awaited them. "The department meeting is going to take forever,"Snyder lamented.
Mel shot a look at Mildred, stationed at her desk and poking the typewriter keys in a sadistic manner than reminded Mel of her distant cousin Beauchamp, who loved nothing more than torturing his mother's pet Siamese, Ashley Wilkes, by poking it with a stick. Contrary to the cat's milquetoast name, Ashley Wilkes gave Beauchamp a distinguishingly jagged scar worthy of a Southern gentleman who never fought in a war.
Behind Snyder's back, the old secretary rolled her eyes. Mel smiled. "That's hardly atypical,"she drawled sarcastically.
"It's going to be worse than usual this time."
"You always say that, Jim."
"No, this time it's true. There's going to be all sorts of dancing around the subject of Hammett."Snyder sighed. "At least it's the end of the story now."
With her hand at rest upon the doorknob to her office, Mel glanced at him curiously yet stiffened, suspecting the blow to follow.
"You know, don't you? They found him this morning. Hung from a rafter in that shabby attic room he had moved to."Snyder shook his head. "Nasty stuff. But I reckon it's no surprise, that it ended the way it did. He's better off. Say, Melinda, are you okay?"
Dizzy, angry, and feeling the eclipse of sorrow overtake her, Mel slipped into her office and closed the door—not before the puzzled Snyder called her name once more. Slumped in her chair, she pulled the glasses from her face and cried. The pummeling rhythm of her heart seemed a mocking reminder of arbitrary fate. She knew she cried not solely for him, but for also for herself, for her nervous preoccupation with a path avoided: If I had stayed at home, in Charleston—if some thread in the fabric of my life had been different somehow—would I have ended up the same way? She felt the societal noose tightening again, as she did when her blackmail occurred, but this time it seemed highly unlikely that Janice could remedy the matter by beating up two men and handily retrieving the incriminating photos. She could not bring back the dead. She could not right this. No one could.
Why didn't you let me help you?
She tried to convince herself she was being silly. It seemed the very pinnacle of Southern belleness to cry over someone she really did not know well. And yet the more Mel attempted to convince herself of the futility and incomprehension of her grief, the faster the tears fell. She wondered why he didn't leave, why he stayed, why he chose this way to end his pain and humiliation. Was he convinced it would be no different anywhere else in the world, that his life was now too tainted for it to be in any way redeemable or even happy?
She wiped her face with a handkerchief and stood up. The meeting was a mere fifteen minutes away and if she was lucky, she would have just enough time to pull together both herself and her face in the bathroom before sailing into the conference room pretending—like all of them—that nothing had really happened.
The only problem was that the doorway of her office was now blocked by Mildred's stocky, stubborn frame. "I told him you went home."
Mel still tasted tears on her lips. "What?"
"The Dean. I told him you were sick and you went home. So go home."
The determined scowl on Mildred's face brooked no argument, but Mel tried regardless. "I can't do that."Her nose was running. Damn it. Like a child, she pressed the back of her hand against it, sniffling helplessly, the sodden handkerchief balled in her fist. "I can't."
Mel blinked. In the twelve-odd years she had known Mildred Feeney, she'd never heard the woman call her by her Christian name, let alone a genuine endearment. She did not have the comfortable, teasing relationship with Mildred that Janice had, and still did. The steady progression of proper titles over the years—Miss Pappas, Professor Pappas, Doctor Pappas—always suited them just fine.
"Don't make me call Shorty."
The thought of Janice storming the college under present circumstances was alarming at best.
"Go on,"Mildred said gently.
Mel had always wondered if Mildred was as bluntly ferocious and sarcastically tactless—qualities that Janice adored about the chain-smoking secretary—with her children and grandchildren as she was with pampered academics. She was now grateful for knowing otherwise.
At home, the active fireplace was a welcome sight, one at which she almost wept. No more warmth for Francis anymore. No such small pleasures. Ever. The back door hung open, indicating that Janice was pillaging the shed for more wood. Mel sat on the couch without removing her coat and stared blankly at the burgeoning fire, as if challenging it to touch her in some way. Love was as strange and instable as the properties of fire. A heart of ashes, smoke, and heat, sometimes burning, sometimes dormant—a ridiculous standard by which to judge a man or a woman.
She heard Janice in the hall—her loping gait, her tuneless whistle—before she was in the room and standing by the fire, a corded bundle of logs cosseted against her side and knowing immediately that something was wrong. "You're early. What's going on?"
Janice sat the logs down.
"He hung himself."
"Christ."Janice stared long and hard into the fire before stalking out of the room. She returned with a box of tissues and a brandy snifter, amber bliss swooning in its crystalline belly.
Mel glanced skeptically at the glass.
"Trust me,"Janice assured her. "You need it."
Janice was right. The brandy's fire was such a distraction that Mel could think of nothing else except its burning agony. She wheezed as tears welled up in her eyes again; this time, she knew, it was the booze. She thrust the empty snifter at Janice, who placed it on the coffee table before sitting down beside her.
"They're all—bastards,"she decreed hoarsely.
Janice raised an eyebrow, but nodded. "I know."
"Everyone acted as if nothing had happened. A man is dead and all they care about are his secrets. All they do is whisper about it all."Mel removed her glasses, a smudged casualty of her mood. It made dainty daubing at her eyes a difficulty—or so she had been informed at charm school all those years ago. Eyeglasses are a complicating factor in the feminine arts, Miss Devereaux had testily informed her; apparently wandering about blind as a bat was an infinitely preferable condition for the modern woman. "I think,"she said, wiping her glasses, "that if they thought they could march out on the street and shoot us all, they would."
"I think,"Janice countered, "they'd too goddamn surprised at who they marched out, and how many, to actually do anything."
"I guess you're right."
"I sure as hell hope so. I've been shot enough times in my life now, thank you very much."
If nothing else, Mel could always count upon a wisecrack. But predictably, at the very sight of that beautiful face easing into a tender, comforting grin—emphasized in the lines around her eyes, the sensuous curve of her lips—Mel could not help but return the look, however briefly, and despite the tears she cried. "He wouldn't let us help him,"she whispered.
"I know. We tried. You tried."Janice's gruff bluntness—you gotta get the hell out of Dodge, buddy—had proved ineffective with Francis. Mel always had a better chance of reaching him, because they were of a type: Abundantly talented yet too sensitive, with an eggshell-thin veneer that provided little resistance against the outer world. With age and experience, Mel seemed stronger in a variety of ways, but Janice sensed, rightly, that a certain fragility remained a core element within her. It was why she had been so strangely insistent that Mel retain the Irish bulldog Mildred Feeney as a secretary, why she made Fayed swear on Harry's old pocket watch that he would always take care of Mel if something happened to her—and why you've stayed here so long. Because it's been as good for her as it has been for you.
But now Janice was thinking they'd had too much of a good thing.
"It's not an easy life,"Mel said.
"Do you? It always seemed that you took to it like a duck to water."It was an envious accusation.
"I grew up in a pond of perversity. What can I say?"Janice leaned back, stretched her legs, and became thoughtful—if only because Mel did not appear amused. "I know it's been hard on you at times. If you had left because of it—well, I guess I would've understood."After drinking myself to death, of course. "You had your chances."
Ah, shit, opened the can of worms there. "You know. Paul."Janice paused. "And just about every guy who lays eyes on you, it seems."She gazed longingly at the empty snifter. If the conversation were indeed taking a turn toward boys, she would need some fortification herself.
"You knew about that? How he felt about me?"
Janice squirmed. "I—well, it was pretty obvious."
"Not to me."Mel frowned, and Janice could see the wheels angrily spinning in that busy brain. "So if he had made some sort of serious overture toward me, you would have allowed it to happen? Wouldn't have stood in his way?"
"Well, not exactly, but—I just thought, if that was the kind of life you really wanted, I didn't want to get in the way of it—" Janice's blundering logic came to a merciful end when Mel smacked her, hard, upon the shoulder.
Melodramatic, Janice rubbed her shoulder. "Shee-it. That really hurt."
"We're not living out The Well of Loneliness here!"
"I never finished that book, so I dunno what you're getting at. See, I started it, then one day Harry found it on my bunk, saw what it was about and got rid of it. Then he stuck a copy of Lady Chatterly's Lover in my rucksack."
"Obviously it did not have the intended effect."
"No, but I did want to become a gamekeeper after that."
A laugh escaped Mel before she could tamp it down. "You shouldn't be making me laugh now, of all times."
"I think Francis would want you to have a laugh. You deserve it."Janice leaned forward, elbows on knees. "You're not entirely happy,"she added quietly. It was easier to look into the fire while speaking the truth. "I know you. That place is driving you nuts."
Mel couldn't deny it and couldn't think of anything to add to it. Janice always had a way of getting to the heart of the matter with such pithy precision that further elaboration was completely unnecessary. "I still don't understand it all. What happened to him."
Janice offered a barely perceptible yet no less helpless shrug. "I don't know. Sometimes people are too quick to embrace what they think is fate."
Not surprisingly, Mel seized upon this nugget. "Have you felt that way yourself?"
"I suppose,"Janice replied softly. "I thought I knew what I wanted. What I wanted to be. I thought I knew those scrolls—like I could feel them in my bones—'cause I heard the stories so often when I was young. But now—I'm thinking the story is different. Maybe because I'm different now."Quickly she grew quickly self-conscious at this quasi-philosophical outburst and rubbed her neck. It was strange—and irritating—how crises could bring out such meandering speculation. Damned inconvenient, she thought, when there were more urgent matters at hand. Just hug her, you idiot. No sooner had she thought it than Mel pressed into her with feral directness, an unspoken wish to be claimed.
When she laid her head upon Janice's shoulder, she inhaled the primal scents of autumn—earth and smoke—that, ironically, comforted her more than words ever could. "Take me away from this,"she whispered. She felt foolish and weak saying it, as if she were reverting to the worst of womanhood; to all the ridiculous things she had been taught.
While she had fully expected Janice to placate her, there was something about the tone of the reply that indicated more than mere mollification. She sat up, staring. "All right?"she echoed.
Janice held her startled gaze. "Yeah."
"Are you serious?"
"We'll go wherever you want."Janice said it with a convincing evenness. "You want to get away from this, baby? Then we'll go. Anywhere you want."
She was flabbergasted at this gift. Here was Janice Covington, whose sense of direction always followed the strict dictates of her irrefutable instincts and the irresistible lure of the past, giving her leave to determine their next move. "You will?"
"You shouldn't be that surprised,"Janice mock-chastised her with a grin.
No, Mel thought, she should not be surprised. At all. A quality of Janice's love was quiet stealth. She was frequently undemonstrative, always understated, and content to let the simplest actions speak of her constancy. Declarations of love were sporadic but heartfelt, and as such always memorable—despite the fact that, predictably, they usually occurred in bed, and as recently as a week ago: Blonde hair tumbled over her brow, the fullness of her body—storied scars, knotted muscles, the tight curves that betrayed her femininity—atop Mel, her grip tight across Mel's wrists. You know I love you. You know how much.
"I can't help it. You always surprise me."
"Good. Keeps it interesting, doesn't it?"
All the same, thought Mel, there had to be more to it than that. Her blue eyes narrowed in with the gentlest of suspicions. "Is it—do you want to start working again?"
Naturally, Janice went on the defensive. "In case you haven't noticed, I have held down a steady job now for almost four years. For the first time in my goddamn life: Constant employment. A paycheck every week."
"I know—I'm sorry. But do you—"
Janice cut her off, but not unkindly. "I don't know what I want to do yet."
"But you think—?"
"Mel. Can we shitcan the interrogation for now?"
"Sorry,"Mel apologized again. She submerged a hand into the thick soft mess of Janice's hair, immediately encountering stubborn tangles.
"It's okay."Janice closed her eyes, enjoyed the sensation of her scalp gently rubbed. After long minutes of sensually soaking in this attention, she came up with a battle plan. "I think we should have a wake for Francis. Right now. We'll finish off that brandy. Then we'll toilet paper the Dean's house. We'll make out in front of Memorial Church. We'll start a bonfire in Harvard Square until the whole town is on fire and purged of every goddamn Puritan for miles around. The witches will finally take over."
"How about you just drink all the brandy yourself and give me a foot massage?"
"Hmm, A less ambitious plan, but nonetheless…much, much more appealing."
Too bad that, cut out as you are
for grand and noble acts,
this unfair fate of yours…
always denies you success…
—"The Satrapy,"Constantine Cavafy
Alcmaeon had bought the girl in Parnassus.
It wasn't, he insisted to Gabrielle, that he really thought she needed a concubine—here he smiled gently, revealing teeth as gray and briny as flawed pearls. Alcmaeon was always beautiful until he smiled. No, he continued, he bought the girl because he believed his commander needed someone to clean her tent, wash her clothes, fetch her meals.
Gabrielle hadn't protested. Arguing with her stubborn lieutenant was futile at best.
Now the girl lay sleeping on the bed. Normally she slept curled on a pallet on the floor, at the foot of Gabrielle's cot. But last night was cold; the tent stiffened in the brutal winds. In the low shimmer of the candlelight, while pretending to review battle strategies she cared nothing about, Gabrielle noticed how the girl, at her usual subservient position on the ground, shivered. Sighing, she had put aside the scroll and reached down to rest a hand upon the girl's bony shoulder.
Gray eyes huge with fear, the girl jumped.
Gabrielle was accustomed to this; people feared her now. She was a woman who had survived death, who had seen the other side and came back. Death clung to her as an unbearable perfume. In taking Xena's mantle, she had also, somehow, acquired Xena's reputation. Xena of Amphipolis had been a walking weapon, a warrior par excellence, and if the student had now surpassed the master, didn't this mean, at least in the minds of so many, that Gabrielle was now a consummate killer? Was this what it meant to be "a girl with a chakram"? The label had seemed so innocuous. It was hers now. She could not remember a time when she ever wanted it.
These were the black moments when she hoped the gods had damned Xena as much as she herself had been damned.
"Come here,"she had murmured to the girl, and pulled her to the bed. Gabrielle snuffed out the candle and wrapped them in furs. As night elided light and time, the girl gradually relaxed against her and fell asleep; together they shared warmth, and nothing more. It wasn't as pleasant as she'd hoped; no longer accustomed to the literal sharing of her bed, Gabrielle slept badly. It was a relief to get up.
Now, from the vantage point of the tent's opening, she watched the girl sleep through the early morning. The sun had barely crested the hills, but Alcmaeon had everyone up and about. The machinations of an army's endless preparation held a certain fascination for her.
She closed her eyes and felt that sensation in the back of her throat, that metallic tinge of blood that vibrated deeply within her like a chord. It was how he announced himself, Xena had told her so many years ago: Like in music…a note so amazing but terrible you hope you never hear it again.
Who else would have known the ruinous music of the God of War so well?
Ares stood beside her, almost out of sight; a flickering glance confirmed his dark presence, the perfectly elegant military bearing of his stance. "She would have loved this."His voice held its usual low, raspy seductiveness.
She said nothing.
"But you,"Ares continued, taking a step closer, "you don't."
She stared at the ground. "Why are you here?"
"Just wanted a good look at your army. Pretty impressive. That guy of yours, Alcmaeon—I like him. Very well organized."
"It's all for show,"she murmured.
"Your do-gooding across the land speaks otherwise."He paused to admire the army once again. "Is this what you dreamed of, all those years ago in dreary little Poteidaia? People in thrall to your fanaticism—you're like Eli with a bloody sword."He leaned down, lips almost touching her ear. "A very bloody sword, Gabrielle."He pulled back abruptly. "You know, of course, you're now the same age she was when she died. You know what I was thinking? If you keep up with all your little crusades, you'll catch up with her body count in no time at all."
They were all blatant untruths, all part of the game. He knew that every life she had ever taken pulled at her to such an extent that she barely kept her head above the tidal wave of the insanity he perpetuated upon her: The Furies.
You let her die.
He tucked his hands behind his back. "When I told you to get together a retinue and show up in Amphipolis to surrender your scrolls, I never thought you'd acquire a frigging army."
"It wasn't my intention."But she'd saved Alcmaeon from slavers, and earned his unwavering devotion. Others followed; Alcmaeon was a relentless recruiter. It almost felt as if she woke up one morning and discovered she had an army—and not just any army, but a group of men and women who believed in her as if she were divine incarnate. She was not a woman anymore. She possessed terrible benevolence, like Shiva.
India. It happened to someone else. Didn't it?
"I'm sure it wasn't,"Ares retorted softly. "But here you are. And here they are."His muscular arm swept out over the panorama of horses, tents, and soldiers, whose swords gathered glints of sunrise. "That being said, I have to wonder what you're up to, other than saving the world."
"What makes you think I'm 'up to' anything?"
His voice dropped. "Because you're a conniving little bitch, that's why. Not that I don't admire the trait, but—you know how it's supposed to go down: You arrive in Amphipolis, you pay homage to me, you give me your scrolls, and you're free to go."He cocked his head. "I might even let you keep this little army you've thrown together. You should have an army. You seem to breed that kind of loyalty."
"You can have the army."
"You're very generous."He laid two thick fingers on her jaw, roughly guiding her gaze to his own. "But you know what I want."
She'd given up being afraid of him a long time ago. "Why are they so important to you?"
"Because they're important to you."Ares' fingers strayed to her neck, digging into her carotid artery. "You thought you'd be remembered forever—as a bard. But who knows—instead you may be remembered forever as the fool who let the Warrior Princess die. Which is it? Fate is a luxury you can't afford."
Gabrielle fought the dizziness. "You think you can rewrite history as you see fit."She seized his wrist, twisting it in such a way that, had he been a mortal still, would have broken several bones and driven him to his knees. Instead it merely irritated him and he backhanded her across the face with a lazy grace, as a bear swats at flies. It was still enough of a blow to send her staggering. Her mouth filled with blood.
"You have no understanding of presentation, you know that?"Ares rubbed his hands together, relishing the day's first taste of violence. "I thought, being a bard, you would. You tell a good tale, I've always thought that, Gabrielle, but what else do you got? Nothin.' You're a broken-down heroine who can't write anymore. You're an emotional cripple hung up on the past. All your friends are dead. And your family—what's left of it—think you're a freak of nature."He shook his head with mock-disapproval, his voice softening. "Y'see, I'm doing you a favor. I'm taking the best part of you and preserving it in Amphipolis. I'm going to make that town famous. Because it all started there for her—she set out to protect that place. Her love of that town made her the warrior she became. So I'm going to make it mine. It'll be a thriving metropolis by the time I'm through with it; it will easily replace Athens as the most glorious city-state in our land. Maybe even the world."
"Your ongoing rivalry with Athena seems ridiculous, considering she's—"
Ares raised a menacing finger. "Don't make me hit you again."
"Why not? You're going to try to kill me anyhow."
"I will kill you if you get in my way. I'm going to build a temple, a monument that will make the Parthenon look like a child's toy. Don't you think the greatest warrior that ever lived—your Xena—deserves that much honor?"
Gabrielle swallowed blood. "What you celebrate is not Xena, but you. Your cult of death and war."
He rubbed his chin. "It was part of her."
"Not the part she'd want remembered,"she countered angrily.
His eyes glinted. "Then I guess—we'll settle this the old-fashioned way."
"You mean your way."
"Precisely."He regarded her calmly—and respectfully. "I have no reason to keep you alive anymore."
"You'll be bored without me,"she reminded him.
Contemplating this strange future, the God of War tilted his head thoughtfully. A formidable adversary always made things interesting, and he had to admit that for a mortal, she was quite extraordinary. But in his eyes she remained a painful reduction of a past that he could not change; in her, he saw only the regretful reminder of Xena's choices. No matter that Gabrielle probably resented and suffered some of those choices as much as he did.
In a flash of light, he was gone.
And the girl remained asleep.
2. Absence of Grace
like one who won't stray far
from your own front door.
You watch like one who waits
and doesn't see. You are earth
that aches and keeps silent.
You have bursts and lapses,
you have words—you walk
and wait. Your blood
is love—that's all.
It is not one of your better ideas, Fayed had written her in a letter.
That said, Janice could not remember a time when Fayed ever condoned any of her "ideas,"except perhaps a tryst with a banker's wife and secretary at the same time. You don't want me to visit you and Naima? I'm hurt. Janice had written back.
He responded: My dear, can you possibly be under the considerable delusion that your charming companion would want to set foot into the House of Davies? Let us all meet on the mainland. Or another island? Mykonos, perhaps? I would scour the entire island for randy photographers first—I am always at your service!
Leave it to him to joke about blackmailers, she thought.
The idea of bringing Mel to the house possessed compelling force for her. More than anything, she thought, it appealed to her practical side: She owned a house. On a beautiful island in the Mediterranean. No matter that a former lover died an ugly death within those bright, sunny walls; there had to be something good, something redeemable about the place that, thanks to Jenny's sense of love or duty—reparation for a destructive affair—was now her own.
Predictably, Mel was not keen on it, even though Janice had employed the softest of sells. Just for a short visit. A little while. Till we get our bearings, figure out a new home base.
I know where I want to be—not in that house, Mel shot back.
Then one day, miraculously, Mel capitulated. Janice thought it had little to do with the inherently sneaky quality of patience that she had brought to the matter at hand—I will wear her down with my seemingly cheerful acceptance of her irrational stubbornness!— and more to do with pity, more specifically, a certain incident at a swank Paris hotel where Janice's normal grace embarrassingly abandoned her: Decked out in girly attire that included a pair of painfully unmanageable high-heeled shoes, she had tripped over a suitcase, knocking herself unconscious. Later, she had awakened in the hotel room to Mel stroking her hair, promising sorbet, and reluctantly agreeing to stay in Cyprus for a while, "because I'm hoping you won't trip over anything there and scare me half to death again."
The path to the house was less tortuous than remembered. Perhaps because it was not as hot this time or no one was shooting at her, or merely that circumstances were considerably less dire. Obliging locals had sent their luggage on ahead and even driven them as far as the main road; Cyprian hospitality, as Janice had previously experienced it, typically resulted in getting shot, but a beautiful woman who spoke Greek with a particularly charming American accent was a passport to unexpected generosity.
From the main road, however, there was no avoiding the hill that led to the villa. As they made their way through, Janice found herself frequently staring at Mel's tense, sweaty back. Not that Mel would complain about anything—at least in these circumstances. She was an unusually patient traveler; delays, adverse weather, and other minor catastrophes rarely irritated her. Janice always carried a mental snapshot, an imaginary photograph that marked the beginning of that rapid, inevitable descent into love—that first return trip from Macedonia, Mel sitting with casual, aristocratic grace on the deck of the steamer bound for America, her glasses foggy and stippled with rain, the sleeves of her shrunken, ruined sweater crawling up her arms like ivy, humming Cole Porter: There's no cure like travel / To help you unravel / The problems of living today….
When they arrived at the house, they were greeted by the caretaker, Manolaki, and his wife—in honor of their guests, decked out in Sunday best. Before the wife could be included in introductions, she scurried away to prepare food. Then Manolaki told them: Fayed and Naima were gone.
"Gone?"Janice echoed it incredulously, into thin, hot air. Mel's harrumph was a wordless commentary on their hosts' lack of manners.
Their trip to Knossos at Crete, the old man reminded them. Fayed had an opportunity to be a foreman there at the great archaeological site discovered by Sir Arthur Evans.
Janice tilted back her hat and scratched her forehead. "But they weren't supposed to leave until Thursday."
Mel issued a sigh of royal disdain. "It is Thursday."
Janice pursed her lips and silently swerved past a dozen snide remarks. She was certain that Fayed had been relying on her usual mismanagement of the calendar to avoid any kerfuffle that their visit might bring. She shot a glare at She Who Would Start a Kerfuffle. "Yeah, well…"
"Another day, another island,"Mel remarked with sarcastic good cheer. "Perhaps we should go to Crete."
Janice glowered at her. "One night in the damn house won't kill you."
"No, darling,"Mel continued in the same happily homicidal tone, "but it might kill you."
Unable to follow rapid, muttered English, Manolaki could only blink helplessly and beckon them inside. Once there, he left the women to their own devices—there was a prepared lunch awaiting them—and, collecting his wife, wisely retreated to his own humble cottage at enough of a remove down the winding dirt road.
Janice thought the house even nicer than she remembered; Naima's touch—her ability to create calm warmth wherever she dwelled—was clearly at work. The villa's overwhelmingly white starkness was transformed with delicate color—ochre and red in one room, pale celadon in another—all perfectly, sparsely employed, gathering the brilliance of natural light to the walls and deepening the amber sheen of the pine floors and roof beams.
Walking through the main room she noticed that the floorboards no longer creaked under her heavy tread; Fayed must've fixed them. Could you have fixed Jenny too, Fayed? Maybe you should have been the one to stay with her. Maybe your kind of discipline was what she needed. Throwing the needles away. Locking her in a room. Instead of trying to make sense of the senseless. She looked into the valley below, felt the pain again, the sense of helplessness, but realized, finally, why she wanted Mel in this house. She wanted it cured of memory, of her own mind's loss. It was folly to think such a state could be attained. But just as Mel's presence on an excavation site pulled her out of obsessing over Harry—his death, and his failures, as well as her own—the house felt different now. Seeing Mel at window alleviated the absence of grace that dwelled both in the house and in her heart. It all became a burden worth carrying. "I knew it."She did not realize she said it aloud.
"You knew what?"Mel was leaning into the sill, also gazing across the land—the ragged peaks, the juniper trees, every crag and crescent waving ecstatic to the blues of sea and sky.
"I knew you'd like this window."
"It is beautiful,"Mel admitted flatly, in the same tone of resigned envy with which she once noted Marlene Sawyer's attractiveness, and with the accompaniment of a similar defensive stance—arms folded, shoulders locked into attentive resistance.
Janice laughed. "It's a bitch, huh?"
"No,"Janice corrected gently. "It's mine. And since it's mine, it's yours too."She sidled closer to Mel, bumping her companion's hip with her own—an affectionate, physical code that roughly translated as stop taking everything so seriously. Mel's lack of a bump-retort, however, signaled you don't get off that lightly.
"So."It was the tone that Mel used when brutally dismantling the translating attempts of her more asinine, arrogant students, accompanied by the Clark Kent-becomes-Superman removal of her glasses and a weary, blue-eyed glare. "You want us to live here."
"Maybe. For a while. If Fayed gets that job, it would be easy for us to stay as long as we like. Even if he doesn't, he loves the whole communal living thing."
"No matter that the last time you were here you were shot."
"They know me now, they won't take another shot at me. And nobody ever shoots at you."Janice thought she detected a softening slouch to those rigid shoulders. "Tell me,"she implored hopefully, "what you're thinking."
"At this very minute? I doubt you want to know,"Mel replied.
"Try me, big girl."
"All right then."She nodded at the window. "These curtains do not work with this wall color at all."
Janice pinched the bridge of her nose.
"I'm taking a nap."Mel declared it as a general does marching orders, executed an elegant spin, and sauntered away to the guest room. And Janice's ears caught the most powerful siren call known to a Covington: The rustling of a skirt over those mesmerizing hips. Cotton, wool, silk, linen—the material mattered little (although Janice's favorite combination was rough wool overlaying the soft narcotic of a silk half-slip) because the orchestration originated with the pulchritude it protected. It was the skin's cry for liberation: Release me from this bondage, and I'll show you what I can do. The sound was all the more keenly provocative when one had done without certain activities for over a week—Janice blamed her accursed tendency to seasickness for this. Every other day, it seemed, they were either on a boat or too close to the sea. Stupid country of islands! Water water everywhere, and all of it makes me sick.
The guest room was small, as was the bed; it had suited Janice just fine when she stayed here alone, but now Mel lay possessively sprawled upon it like a shipwreck survivor on the very last piece of debris. A breeze bullied its way past the curtained windows, carrying the sharp intoxicants of basil, thyme, lemon, sun-saturated sea—the garden, predictably neglected during Jenny's tenure in the house, obviously flourished now; in fact, a bit of jasmine lay captive and sweetly blossoming in a Mason jar on the nightstand.
After managing to claim a small portion of the bed, Janice thoughtfully regarded her quarry—who was feigning sleep, face pressed into a pillow, and issuing muffled, vague threats: "Your shoes better not be on the bed."
Repressing a sigh, Janice hastily unlaced and kicked off her boots.
"That smell better not be your feet."
Janice bit the inside of her cheek. Things were not going the way she planned. Her hand curled around Mel's shoulder. "Say that to my face, smart ass."
"All right."Mel rolled over. A wave of hair covered one blue eye in Veronica Lake fashion, but the other eye glinted defiance. "Your feet smell."
Janice kissed her.
Mel took a long moment to gather her breath. "Is this a new thing? I insult you, you kiss me?"
The first response was another kiss. "Yeah,"Janice said gruffly. "You seem to like it so far."Her fingers laid nimble siege to the row of buttons on Mel's blouse.
"Had a perfectly nice hotel room in Piraeus and you hardly seemed interested."
"Unlike you, I don't need a nice hotel room, just a nice, sturdy bed. Besides, we were too close to the port. I could smell rotten fish all the time."Defeated, the blouse floated to the floor.
"Are you sure it wasn't your feet?"
This ongoing argument distracted from the joy she derived in running a tongue along the beautifully electric line of Mel's collarbone. "Will you shut up about my feet already?"
"We're not that far from the sea now."
"Can't smell it. Here, I can smell the earth. Dirt."She traced Mel's cheekbone with the blunt tip of a curled knuckle, fully anticipating the animal-acquiescent lowering of her eyelids, seen perhaps a thousand times by now, but no less a treasured triumph of desire.
"Ah. Your first love."Mel tugged on her belt, pulling her closer. And when Mel tilted her head back in a wanton offering, the rush of heat from the nape of her neck exuded the same fantastic pull as it did from any other juncture of her body. Her skin exhaled desire.
But not the best love. The words remained caught in the conspiratorial trap of Janice's throat. She gave in to fears long battled: To give voice to these feelings would somehow tempt the fates to take it all away. She only hoped it could be heard somehow, if only in her wildest imagination: on a frequency that traversed a current coursing in Mel's blood. She covered Mel's body with her own, their limbs fitting together with ecstatic imperfection, sweat mingling as they lay together mouth to mouth, breast to breast, hip to hip, separated stingily by clothes wilted in the heat of travel.
"I suppose this is your way of convincing me…that we should stay."
"I'm good at convincing."Janice dipped her head teasingly, stopping short of a kiss, prompting Mel to roughly clap the back of her neck and pull her in. While there was always dominance implied in Mel's kiss—a demand for response—a hint of surrender lingered as well. It was a carnal combat of glorious unknowns.
"Hmm."Janice thrust her hips, earning a startled, pleased gasp from her partner. "That's one thing I forgot to pack."
It amused her to see comprehension travel slowly across Mel's features, leaving a blush in its wake. "Oh."
"It's funny that someone of your, ah, mature age would blush over such a thing. Considering how many times I've used it on you."She touched her lips to Mel's neck, worked upward to an ear partially obscured by black hair. "And how many times you've used it on me."
Mel smiled—a wide flashing of teeth, sensual yet embarrassed. Her voice slowed to a low drawl, the aural equivalent of a sexy swagger. "I like to think of myself as a very fair and equitable person…"
Janice imagined this as some spiel learned at Southern finishing school—practiced thoughtfulness. I may be wealthy and spoiled and beautiful with dozens of servants at my beck and call, but really, I'm just like you! (Although Mel had frequently made a point of reminding her that at most her father kept merely two servants, three during Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.)
"…in all respects."Mel shivered as a sensitive spot behind her ear was hit. Instinctively, albeit prematurely, she reached for a bedpost. To Janice's mind she was, in fact, better than fair and equitable when it came to this: She was versatile. Gentle, rough, fast, slow, dominant, submissive: she encompassed all these moods and tempos, and her manner from one time to the next could never be predicated on anything.
"Don't worry about it."Janice's left hand maneuvered with confidence: the outer calf, the ticklish inside of the back of the knee, and finally the vast, pleasing terrain of the thigh, the garter belt like a boardwalk leading to the wild, perfect sea. "Way I see it, I owe you."Her intrepid hand slipped between Mel's legs, burrowed stubbornly, forced a parting of the thighs. Eager intensity knotted within her chest and quickened her breath as she found the first spot—here—and rode out a sudden arching of Mel's body. "You just have to do one thing."
"Anything,"came the breathless agreement.
"Take off those panties."
"That's the only thing holding you back, hmm?"Effortlessly Mel shoved her off—a skill acquired in fending off the overzealous suitors of her youth and, once Janice thought of it, a wonderful bit of slap-and-tickle foreplay too—and then, with equal ease, shed the silky underwear. Cavalier, she tossed it across the room.
"You almost threw 'em out the window,"Janice observed.
"Oh! That would be one way of endearing myself to the local population, I reckon."
"Certainly works for me."
"Show me, then."Mel pulled her closer, the hint of roughness she employed setting the tone. Fast. Dirty. Eager. Gotcha. The fingertips that swayed along Janice's spine, as if she were a sax in the confident grip of Coltrane, were a prelude to nails raking her back and fingers engaging—successfully—the medieval hooks of her bra. "How it works for you. Show me."
These words, breathed against Janice's bare, glowing skin, caught in the cradle of tendons and bone between neck and shoulder, were a beautiful invitation. And so, bodies locked together once again, Janice entered her. It could have been the first time or the millionth, for it followed its regular satisfying course: The enveloping warmth, the push, the tension, the slamming mantra of the carotid artery underneath Janice's mouth, the hands that inscribed a bloody Braille on her back or curled into bedsheets or shook a bedpost as if it were a cage, all of it wildly petitioning for release.
The moment she came, Mel's face was a masterpiece. If Janice could not get away with caressing the torso of the Venus Genitrix, tracing the plum lines of Ingres' Valpincon bather, or embracing Bernini's St. Teresa—how wrongly Harry had interpreted her interest in fine, figurative art as a refining characteristic and not the humble beginnings of a madness for the feminine form!—she could at least mold her free hand against the flawless lines of that face, hook a thumb around a plump lower lip, and feel the delightful dampness of Mel's tongue stroking the tip of her flesh.
When it was over, Mel's blue eyes, heavy-lidded with satiation, flickered and focused as the aperture of awareness once more narrowed her pupils. Janice brushed damp, dark hair off her lover's sweaty brow as Mel retained an iron grip around her wrist, keeping her hand firmly in place, and milking every last sensation and tremor for maximum satisfaction.
Slowly, they parted easily, if reluctantly. But Janice kept an arm draped over Mel's chest as she sank sleepily into sweaty sheets; she liked feeling the heart that was exclusively her own, beating frantically in desire, then gradually slowing into regulated bliss.
"You've missed it, haven't you?"
Damn you. Mel possessed a sense of unerring timing, cultivated through many years of dealing with a woman who was a walking definition of obstreperous; and so would recognize the impossibility of lying at this moment, cocooned in the vulnerability of afterglow. "Yes,"she admitted, and paused, accusing gently: "You know I do."
"I do."Mel smiled. "Why else do you think I agreed to come here?"
Janice's moment of outrage passed like a summer storm. "You sneaky bitch."Unsurprisingly, Mel already knew what Fayed had taunted Janice with in a letter: If you come back here, you'll be tempted again. You cannot be this close to history without doing something about it. There is no cure for the disease of archaeology. It runs rife in our family. It's our royal inheritance, our hemophilia. Our blood runs wild.
Mel laughed. "You wonderful sweet talker!"She pushed the ever pliable Covington onto her back. "You do what you have to do. And I'll come with you, if you like. Or I won't. I don't have to, because—"She took a moment to search for the faith to believe what she was about to say. "—you'll come back to me."
Janice Covington did not believe in a lot of things, but when she did, her convictions were unassailable, her replies firm. "I will."
Janice woke hours later, naked, alone, and splayed over the lumpy terrain of tangled sheets. It was not a happy awakening, for someone was banging on the door with such intrusive, insensitive force that she feared Fuller Brush Men were as an unfortunate reality in this part of the world as they were in the States. The setting sun sliced low over the horizon, cutting into her sight as she sat up, popping joints and rubbing muscles. The bad thing about screwing in the afternoon was that those postcoital naps usually got a little out of hand—particularly now that she was older; she felt as if the entire day had escaped her greedy grasp.
The banging stopped. She dug through the open suitcase, unmindful of the mess she created, until a robe was found. She was knotting the robe's belt and stumbling out of bedroom when she saw Mel standing in the foyer, staring at what appeared to be a telegram. To her annoyance Mel was freshly bathed and wearing clean clothes, looking as if she had only traveled languorously to the bedroom and back during the course of the day. Perhaps there was something to this mad idea of neatly folding one's clothes before putting them in a suitcase?
"Why'd you let me sleep so long?"Complaint briefly won out over curiosity, which soon caught up: "What's that?"She nodded at the telegram.
She received no response, as Mel continued to stare at the slip of paper with an expression that normally never crossed her beautifully controlled, intelligent features—a dopey grin. In a strange way, it rather suited her.
Finally, Mel spoke—rather, whispered, as if fearful the fates would cause the telegram to spontaneously combust. "It's—that award. For the Cavafy translation. The National Book Award."
Amused, Janice speculated confidently: "You won it!"
"I—won it."Mel squinted in fierce concentration, lips moving as she reread the missive one more time, as if she did not trust herself to translate the laconic language of Western Union.
"I'll be damned. I knew I should have started a pool at the college—and Jesus, they managed to find you here!"
"Maybe it's a mistake. It'll go down in the annals like Dewey defeats Truman."Mel reread the telegram again.
"Stop it. You'll go blind."Janice kissed the victor. "And then where will your brilliant career be?"
The truth finally settled and Mel issued an expression she had not employed since she was well under the age of thirty: "Gosh. You know—"
Another dopey grin. "I think I might like this house after all."
It seemed a good omen. Janice returned that brilliant, dopey smile. "Have I mentioned how well-stocked the wine cellar is?"
From the window Janice was visible in the garden, on her knees in front of wilting basil. What she was doing there was anyone's guess, for the plants in the garden were mostly a lost cause. Not enough rain for some, not enough light for others.
And not even officially out of the house yet and she's already getting dirty. Chastising was futile. Arms folded, Mel smiled and walked away from the window.
Five years passed with astonishing alacrity, and the house that she never thought she would be comfortable in she now called, in the silence of her mind, mine. My home. She pretended otherwise with Janice; it was a game they indulged in, even though she knew—or, at least, hoped—that Janice knew she was happy. But there was nothing more insufferable than a Covington proven right, and so the mock battle continued over the years—over Fayed's excited departure for Crete, over the excavations that were no longer far away nor as arduous, over the occasional separations that lessened in recrimination, over the laurels lauded upon Mel for an award she still believed she did not quite deserve. Even though the award's receipt was now years old, the clunky descriptor "National Book Award Winner for Translation"was now permanently affixed before her name. She never abused its fading luster, although Janice was not above doing so, particularly if it meant a better hotel room or a fancier meal.
Janice stomped inside, clumps of dirt in her wake, whistling the same annoying song that everybody in the village seemed to hum, sing, or whistle these days. It was something by an irritatingly popular English band. The lyrics—something about hard days and nights—made absolutely no sense to Mel, and she was almost glad she was not young anymore and in thrall to such apparent nonsense.
Janice's gear sat neatly in a pile near the door, a sign of impending departure; somehow the chaos that she bred in living situations never followed her to her tidy, orderly excavation sites. Today she returned to Alexandria for the first time in nearly ten years—and, as she did the last time, alone. The decision had not been easily tenable. Desire was at cross-purposes with the reality of Mel's work—why she had agreed to edit a volume on "current trends and practices in the field of translation"was beyond her—but it made more sense for her to stay behind. Nonetheless, she had been slightly put out by Janice's serene, cheerful acceptance of working solo, until she sensed the palpable excitement underneath it all, the challenge of returning to Alexandria, to find the scrolls that may have been more fragmented than ever imagined. The slimmer the chances, the more thrilling the chase.
"While I'm gone, remember one thing."Kneeling, Janice tightened the straps and buckles of the rucksack before shouldering it with the precise, unfussy grace of a career soldier. She stood solemnly, beautifully attentive before Mel, who wondered if she should salute.
"I'm not watering your plants. Manolaki will do that."
"Not that."Then Janice burst her jocular little bubble in the most unexpected of ways. "I love you."
Mel had expected banter, lightness, a poke in the ribs, a fedora gently smashed against her head; these were their usual goodbyes. Not this. Not the words representing something so tangible that the very reminder of its absence, however temporary, felt as if every breath were forcibly removed from her body. She stared at the floor, and gravity proved a disadvantage in keeping her tears under control; she blotted them with thumb and forefinger. Get a hold of yourself, you silly fool.
"Damn it, y'see, this is why I never say it to you unless you're in some sort of sexual haze."Janice laughed, but not unkindly. With her free hand she cupped Mel's neck, reeling her in for a kiss, and breathing a mantra they had repeated for days now, in anticipation of separation: "Six weeks."
Mel repeated it. "Six weeks."Not as if you've never been separated for that long before.
"You'll get a lot of work done. I won't be under your feet, blaring the radio, making noise in the garden, getting you drunk in the afternoon…"
"We can blame that on Mrs. Davies' never-ending wine cellar."
"I always knew you'd find something about this house to love."Janice grinned. She pushed aside the soft collar of Mel's blouse and ran a rough thumb along the smooth, pronounced ridge of the collarbone, thinly protected by skin. "Did I ever tell you that this is my favorite part of your body?"
"Last week you said it was my earlobes."Out of sheer nervousness, Mel swayed before anchoring herself to Janice by latching onto firm, khaki-covered hips.
"Jesus, what was I thinking? Not that they aren't fine earlobes, but….I hereby restore your collarbone to its rightful glory."
"Thank you."She brushed her face over thick golden hair, resisting the temptation to nuzzle; if she did, she would become so immersed in sensation that the necessity of pulling away would be far too painful. "Don't get into trouble."She half-whispered, half-kissed this into the whorls of Janice's left ear.
Janice smiled again. "It's no fun getting into trouble without you, Stretch."
Mel watched her walk down the path away from the house, knowing that the angling bent of Janice's left arm meant that she caressed a pair of pearl earrings, a loitering talisman from long ago, in her trouser pocket.
The heavy metal flashlight rhythmically tapped her thigh as she descended. She could feel its wary, pugilistic swing, like the tired hostility of a losing boxer. Once her feet were firmly planted in the underground, she unhooked the torch from her belt.
A stealthy crouch was second nature and so she moved with cautious abandon, confident in her abilities to navigate a tunnel. Some people could tame horses, lions, tigers. She believed she could tame earth. Like a swimmer who becomes part of the water, she became part of the stagnant air, cautious and invisible. But even the most profound respect for what one tries to conquer is no guarantor of success. Even through the thick sole of her boot she felt the slender wire, the delicate reverberations of the trigger.
It did not even register in her mind as a trap but as a kind of unavoidable mistake, as discovering that a stranger with the same name has received either the lottery prize or the bullet in the skull meant for you. The muffled explosion sounded as if it were occurring at a great distance and caused her to think of Paris after its liberation, of bombs deliberately detonated, their ominous roars had always pulled her from sleep or vivid waking dreams more compellingly beautiful than reality. The collapsing tunnel buried the torch quickly. In darkness, she recognized the music of broken bones, played out in stone notes: A large boulder pinning her leg, a succession of smaller rocks striking her torso, something sharp cutting into skin, something hard breaking her wrist.
He was bad at goodbyes. They never kissed, they rarely hugged. This time he thought he could sneak out and be gone, be in the truck and down the dirt path before anyone would notice. He was walking toward the truck with his usual bow-legged swagger, head down, when she came out of the tent and caught him. He scowled comically, drawing forth the laugh from his daughter that he had so desired.
"I could drive you,"she offered.
Harry half-turned, half-smiled. "It's just a supply run. Besides, I want you here."
"Fayed's here. He can take care of everything."
"Yeah, but—I feel better knowing you're here."He stopped, and looked at her. "You're a natural leader. You know that? Must've done something right with you."
"You don't have to flatter me, old man."You did everything right, she wanted to say. But that was not their way.
"It's not flattery. Just truth."He leaned into the footbed of the truck, but stopped. "Shit—almost forgot. Here."He pulled the excavation map from a pocket. It was curled, frayed, and warm, its curve fitting into the palm of her hand. Then his shaking fingers rested against the top of her hand, running gently over veins and knuckles.
He had been drinking more than usual these days. His days were spent looking at faded maps for clues—at the archaic flowing hand, the lines that traced dried-up rivers, disintegrated forts, barren forests, tick-tacked bridges delineating vanished or vanquished lands and countries. Like a spurned lover he would rage at the ridiculous notions that men had, thinking that they could create an accurate reflection of a world constantly in flux. And there were even times when he declared that if civilization had come into being here, then perhaps it would end here too, and maybe archaeologists were merely harbingers of it all.
Usually she just nodded at these tirades, occasionally pointing out the futility of anger over the muddied course of overlapping histories, and how a place was always the same even if it carried many names. Istanbul was still Constantinople and Byzantium. The past will always be in the present and in the future, regardless of civilization's whims.
Janice's throat tightened again, and she frowned, wanting to say something, but what, she did not know.
Harry only smiled. "See ya later, kid."
The stones stopped falling and as they settled into silence she reached out to map the lines of the night; a broken hand searched for a clue to escape the inevitable.
Say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that you are losing.
3. The Beautiful Secret
The character of a woman does not show itself where
love starts but where it ends.
When women grieve, they cut their hair.
She hacked it off carelessly with a knife; the blade had nicked her in several places along the back of her neck, and on her fingers. Her hands shook the entire time. Temptation sat astride her, its invisible hand urging her to stop it all, to stop everything, to glide the knife across her own throat. In the bright bedroom she sat and pressed the knife's edge into her neck, yet hesitated—perhaps hoping the light would claim her instead, that she would be subsumed by gold and not the knife's edge.
Instead she sliced open her palm with the blade, marveled at how effortlessly it sank into her skin and how she felt no pain. The line of blood stained her hand—ink across a page of her life. Earlier that afternoon she had dreamed. But was it of Janice, or Gabrielle? Their hands were clasped together, blood mingling.
Don't let go of the knife.
How strong and real that hand felt.
Don't let go of me.
What was there between remembrance and forgetting, but living? She tucked the edge into her palm once again.
Then Naima's dark hands, hot and dry, covered her own. She allowed Naima to gently remove the knife from her grasp. She watched, fascinated, as red drops stippled the pale floor. She could even hear a soft plok as one fell.
Naima bandaged the hand, carefully watching Mel for a reaction as she did so. She dabbed the cut with peroxide, the froth of the clear liquid bubbling and burning its trail over the red line of the wound, almost—but not quite—obscuring it.
Mel's expression had not altered; she had watched, detached, as Naima dressed the wound.
"You have beautiful hands." Naima said it regardless of knowing that the compliment would remain essentially unheard. For the moment, the words that Mel had always valued were a slag heap, devoid of meaning and beauty. Generations ago, similar hands belonged to a murderer seeking redemption. Yet these hands, the cabbalist thought, winding another layer of gauze along the palm, were of a woman who resurrected a dead world through language, like a conjurer, out of thin air.
Words were all that Mel had now. They may have been as jumbled and incoherent as pot shards at an excavation, but even in their broken state they were everything: they were memory, they were blood, they were history, they were love. Most importantly to Naima, they were truth, they were divinity; because of this she always spoke plainly, and did so now. "She would not want you to do this to yourself."
Meaningless as rain, the words fell.
Fayed was fond of saying that his wife was nothing if not practical. She gathered the coils of black hair from the bedroom floor, weeded out the scant silver, and sent it to an acquaintance in Alexandria, for sale at the soukh. She received a decent price for it, and had wanted to give the money to Mel. Her husband had told her not to bother—that Mel would not accept it, and, quite frankly, did not need it.
Nonetheless, Naima put the money aside for her, while wistfully thinking of Janice's hair—the rare and rich color of fire, which would have fetched a much higher price in a country of dark beauty.
In its austerity, the Alexandrian winter revealed those who loved the city most. The summer travelers, dazzled by the beaches, the sea, the bustle of the Corniche, left at the first hint of coolness, the first few drops of rain. Fayed missed the winter here—the gray, stately serenity of the streets, usually cloaked in rain.
But he never wished to return under these circumstances.
He met Cordahi in a café, all dark wood and old mirrors flecked with grim lead and trimmed in peeling gilt, not far from where the Davies once lived. In this part of the world, Fayed had always believed, the important business of life always transpired in cafés.
With a pang he remembered spouting this little theory to Janice: The time they were meeting Dansey, to be hired for the dig that would lead them to the vases. It was winter then too. Janice had an old scarf bundled around her neck—the burgundy and gold stripes suited her—and her eyes had that odd, seemingly contradictory look, both faraway and focused. He knew she was already plotting what to do with the vases that might not even exist.
And now he wished to God that they never had.
"I take a great risk in meeting you here."It was the first thing Cordahi said. He settled his bulk in the chair opposite Fayed.
Fayed's gaze did not waver. "If you are so concerned…."He flicked his fingertips in an angry, dismissive gesture. "Go."
The narrow shoulders topping Cordahi's pear-shaped frame did a little dance of insouciance. "I am an old man."
How old men always delight in reminding one of their age, Fayed thought tiredly. He knew because he did this himself. He found it hard to believe at times he was becoming an old man. When Janice was alive, he could somehow maintain an illusion of youth; even as she crept up on her mid-forties, she retained a level of energy and a sense of purpose similar to what she possessed nearly twenty years ago. That, combined with her increasing maturity and knowledge, had convinced him that finally she was coming into her own—and living up to the promise that Harry and so many others had always gleaned in her.
The more he thought of it, her loss was brutally multifaceted.
"I have nothing left to lose,"Cordahi continued. "I retire in a few months, my friend. I will follow your example and leave here, if only for my own safety."
Fayed frowned, opened his mouth, but Cordahi cut him off.
"And so, since there is nothing left here for me—well, in this state, is that not when truth and justice are best served?"
Fayed's mouth tightened as he spoke. "Since you are so much an expert in justice, Artaud, what shall you tell me? That God will avenge my friend's death? That the wheels of Alexandrian justice are as slow as everything else in this cursed city? I know all this. It's just another bloody murder to them. Another dead foreigner."
The investigation into Janice Covington's death seemed thorough enough. The American Embassy kept steady pressure and a wary presence throughout the proceedings. But despite evidence of an incendiary device in the tunnel, nothing could be proven. The labyrinthine underground of the Western Harbor frequently drew the attention of thieves and looters—treasure hunters not unlike the deceased's father, one Egyptian official derisively noted—who would go to any lengths to protect their plunder.
Cordahi sipped his café au lait. "Have you noticed a certain, eh, flourishing of relations between the English here and the Egyptians? Not on an official or diplomatic level, of course. They are still mourning the Suez Canal."
"No."Fayed was curt. To his bitter disappointment, he no longer had a finger on the pulse of the city. He shuttled from Alexandria to Crete to Cyprus and back again, helplessly haunting the Mediterranean. "What does this have to do—"
"When an Englishman engineers the murder of an American, everything,"Cordahi retorted.
When Fayed touched the bowl full of latte in front of him, the cheap porcelain seemed to radiate such heat as if it had just been pulled from a kiln. Knowledge is fire. Suspicion burned into fact, memories charred, and he recoiled. "So."His voice, unfortunately, was no steadier than his hand. "You believe it is true?"
"The materials in question, that made the explosive—all British."
"All easily obtainable in the city, I am certain."
Cordahi shook his head. "There is a particular kind of copper wire that is exclusive to the military, easily identifiable by its unusual thickness. There is a—what would you call it?"He searched for the word while rubbing his fingers together. "A—texture to the wire. It is almost beaded. During the war, I became acquainted with it, more than I care to admit. And I know a civilian cannot purchase it."
"Yes."Cordahi finished his coffee. "So it could be…an individual with that background, those connections."
Fayed remained silent.
The old man leaned back, hands resting atop his cane. The paunch of his worn face puckered with a genuine concern. "What of her woman? Will you tell her this? You should not. It will do no good."
"It's too late."Fayed rested his hands on the table once again, palms down. The action signaled an end to the conversation. "She has suspected Mark Pendleton from the start."
"Then I feel almost sorry for him."Artaud Cordahi smiled grimly.
Fayed's nostrils flared at this mere suggestion of pity for the Englishman.
"All our nattering about justice means nothing. The Furies have been unleashed."
Bloomsbury bustled. Perhaps it was less sedate now than when it was dominated by artists and writers many years ago—Mel could not say for certain—but lorries roared by on a lively intersection. The wonderful thing about London, though, was that even in its busiest streets those thirsting for quiet could always find oases.
In Russell Square, for instance, she rediscovered a familiar garden long forgotten—the name lost to her—that kept the silences of the dead in the graveyard and where the mystery of a terra cotta muse loomed with spectral intent, rising from a bed of lilacs shut in deference to the spring chill. During her first trip to London when she was a teenager, she walked down these charmingly desolate paths, past the elevated muse, and felt the statue's hard fingers brush her shoulder—a confirmation, her father said with a proud grin, that she really had grown four inches in the span of a summer. Typically, he failed to see how it could be a disadvantage for a girl to approach six feet. Anyone intimidated by your height is not worth knowing, he had scoffed gently. Let it weed out the fools for you, honey. Besides, Melvin Pappas concluded, this was good fortune, to be touched by a muse.
Now, acutely aware of its presence, she found that its outstretched hand failed to bless.
It was here, under the shadow of compulsion, that Pendleton appeared. He would not meet on her terms, but apparently he would not release her from confrontation either. She thought of him these days as a terrible angel and found it strange that she bestowed a celestial status upon him. Perhaps because he existed in a realm she could neither touch nor believe in; he was elusive, and there was a malevolence in his righteousness that struck her as a quality that belonged, with perfect exclusivity, to those fallen from grace.
His posing, however, lacked its usual confidence. He seemed older, common, bloated—hardly the stuff of a great villain, yet he loomed over her as she remained sitting stiffly on the cold bench, and he spoke with his usual menacing gentility. "Surely you never thought I would agree to see you alone."
At Pendleton's home earlier that week she had been denied entrance, kindly rebuked at the door by Gordon, the manservant. Oh miss, were I as brave as ye, I would gladly blindfold him and lead him to the wall for ye. But Gordon's fear of the noose and love of his employer's unexpected bonuses (50 quid alone for keeping Melinda Pappas out of his house this one time) prompted him to kindly remind Mr. Pendleton's murderous lady caller that if necessary, the police would be summoned. All this recited while the gentle, dissipated Scotsman kept a cautious yet drooping eye on the hand that never left the right pocket of Mel's coat.
The .38 pistol, which she discovered fit so snugly in her hand, was now equally at home in her purse or her coat. Within the past six months her intimacy with it rivaled that of a lover. She slept with the gun. She imagined performing the fantastic and the profane with it. It seemed another lifetime ago that she and Janice frequently argued about the gun and its inclusion in their lives. To Mel's consummate fury, Janice would sometimes hide the unloaded pistol in an inappropriate place: in Mel's desk, in an empty cookie jar, and one time it even turned up in a lingerie drawer, wrapped seductively in a black peignoir.
All these years, since the failed blackmail attempt, he was a ghost, appearing in places both expected—an archaeology conference in West Berlin, an auction in New York—and unexpectedly, a reception in Paris. Mel no longer remembered what it was for, but that it was the first time she had ever seen Janice in formal evening wear. It had been an astonishing transformation, and not for Mel alone. The party had been abuzz with speculation on the remote, beautiful blonde who stood with erect hauteur while quietly taking in everything and everyone from the sidelines, not touching a drop of alcohol and barely consuming a canapé, none of them knowing that the real reason Janice Covington stood immobile as furniture that evening stemmed from her fear of spilling food or drink on the ridiculously expensive satin dress ("I could fund an entire fucking excavation on what you paid for this"—directed accusingly at Mel) or, like Carole Lombard in a screwball comedy, tripping extravagantly in heels and ending up in a punch bowl. The physical grace that Janice had always prided herself on was something that largely existed in the natural world, particularly in the beloved milieu of an excavation.
Throughout that wonderful evening Pendleton quietly circled them, keeping careful distance from the woman who brought him to his knees. But once, catching Mel's eye, he had toasted her from afar, with the gimlet twinkle of a tumbler.
Afterwards in the hotel, Janice had kicked the blasted pumps across the room with high, athletic leg arches, like a punter, and laughed about it all. Sonofabitch kept his distance from us, didn't he? Good.
And all Janice's caution regarding the dress was for naught. Like a sugar-fueled toddler with the first gift on Christmas morning, Mel had ripped the dress with delirious abandon while removing it.
"Your cowardice comes as no great surprise,"she now whispered to Pendleton.
"Is it so cowardly to avoid a madwoman who wants you dead, who won't—and who never has—listened to reason?"He threw open his arms. "But I'm here now, aren't I?"
A family, apparently led by a covered pram like some sort of mini-caravan, moved slowly down the path toward them. A young boy darted out from behind his parents and charged ahead.
The gun lay cold in her overcoat, its muzzle tangled within the satin folds of her pocket. Her hands shook as the boy blurred by. She watched the rest of family pass, the mother glancing curiously at them, as if trying to piece together their particular narrative: Lovers? A married couple? Surely not a woman in love seeking vengeance?
Eye level with Fayed's flickering hand, his ragged breath floats above her. He says the impossible. The amputation of the leg had not helped. There was an infection. Blood poisoning.
All she can do is deny it.
"But you would never be so foolish as to shoot someone in public, would you?"He paused. The shape of his skull haunted his receding hairline. She decided that if she were indeed to shoot him, it would be there—a bullet crushing the fragile globe of aging bone. "Even Covington, the woman who nearly beat a man to death in public, would be more discerning here, in this moment."
She stands and his fingers graze her blouse, her shoulder—a gesture of pity, futility, love—as he seeks to comfort and be comforted. And as she rejects the idea of death she rejects the idea of tender pity, tapping into the rage that has always been with her, that years of happiness had anesthetized. She slams him against the wall and they grapple strangely, almost like lovers, driven not by desire but grief. Her face fits against his neck, in the frenzy of an embrace his hands dig in her back; he is alive, he is vital, his pulse sweet against her mouth and she wants to hurt him because there is life in him and she swears to God that if she could give that life to Janice she would kill him without hesitation. She would kill anyone.
When she stood, she felt a rush of pleasure at the flare of fear in his eyes. She stepped forward, he stepped back. "You have no idea what I am capable of."
His hands tear, his fingers claw, bruising sense into her. She waits for him to slap her but he doesn't. Her tears run down his throat and into his shirt and he says words she refuses to string together into coherency, words like morphine and overdose and no pain.
The gun was in her pocket, in her hand.
His flat eyes flickered with something—a remorse forced, perhaps feigned. "It was not my intention…for her to die."
One last chance, she decided. Did he deserve that? She was not sure. "I'm giving you a choice. I may not have much of a life anymore but what's left of it…I want to live in peace,"she rasped. "Walk away from me. I'll do the same. Don't contact me. And I won't contact you. Ever."She began down a winding path away from the muse and toward the graveyard, pockmarked with old stones and mausoleums bleeding green decay. Despite what rang true in her blood, she did not want to be a murderer.
Propped up on an elbow, she lay on the bed amid the poisonous sea of photos. From across the room Mel could hear her softly puffing upon a cigarette, followed by a brief thrum of pleasure harbored in the back of her throat, the guttural ebb and flow of memory that found no adequate representation in words.
Except these, deliciously murmured: "I always liked that dress on you."
Given the context, Mel found no comfort in the compliment. She sat at the hotel room's elegant mahogany desk, helplessly flexing her hands—the groundwork, normally, for anger never given full reign.
Janice smiled wryly, easily diffusing the situation; Mel had always assumed she did it unknowingly, but the consistency of Janice's impeccable timing told otherwise. She rolled off the bed, scooped up the photos and negatives, and deposited them on the desk in front of Mel, along with her silver cigarette lighter. "You can do the honors,"she said, gently magnanimous.
It always came down to this: sex versus propriety, rage versus decorum, every dark element that, she believed, demanded suppression or that she needlessly worried called for balance or disguise, all of it, as far as she was concerned, too dangerously close to the surface.
He fell into step beside her. "It was merely a message. Merely so. Protection of the site. My investment."
Without awareness, her hand tightened around the gun again. "It was not your site."
"Was it hers? Was it yours? You forget—you owe me."
She stopped walking. "For Stoller?"
He followed suit. "What better payment than this tantalizing piece of history you laid claim to…the world forgot it, it is the true, but the cabals did not. It's why the Covingtons were wooed by various factions. Why your father's friend protected her. Why her friends in the East protected her. It was why she was being watched. We were all waiting. Do you think these scrolls—this history—do you think it all belongs to you now? That only one person, or one family, is allowed to tell them, to discover them? Why should the world wait?"
They were fair questions, used unfairly. "They spent their lives looking for them,"she whispered. And dying for what they wanted.
"But then she left it all behind—for you."
"I have blamed myself at every turn, no matter what."Mel closed her eyes briefly. For her staying behind, and then for encouraging her to go back. "It's no surprise you blame me as well."
The pathway dipped into a secluded spot down an embankment—a small mausoleum under the auspices of a sprawling oak tree. Of course, she thought derisively, he would know the walkways around here like the back of his hand. Before she could chastise herself further for falling into what appeared to be a trap, he seized her wrist.
"You say you want peace?"he pleaded, and he was convincing—yes, she did want peace, to the point that every night before she slept she thought of using the gun on herself. "Tell me what I need to know. Tell me where those lekythoi are—tell me what happened to them. You must know. She must have told you. So tell me."He pushed his face closer to hers, and almost crooned in her ear: "Tell me."
"You didn't believe it when she told you."
"Because it was a lie."His grip tightened, his eyes brightened. "She had them. She knew—she knew what was inside—"
"No. She didn't."With one strong pull, she wrested herself from his grasp, and could not contain the black compulsion to strike out at him. The heel of her hand thumped hard against his sternum, and before her wrist was taken hostage again, his coat lapel was crushed in her grasp. "She never knew."
Still, he did not believe. "No."
She waited for some long dormant combat skill to leap up within her, something that would bring an end to the pain skittering along her arm. Perhaps she was too old now, and those instincts too long repressed for quickening and emergence at full strength. "What do you really think you will find there?"she hissed. "Not the stories of a long-dead woman—why would you care about that? No, you think you'll find the origins of the Book of Zohar. The Tree of Life. The Source. The Negative Veils of Existence."She let her voice drop lower, dancing dangerously closer to mockery. "She may have known these things—there are indications she was in Babylon before her death, and wasn't that a possible point of origin for the Cabala? The Jews were exiled from Babylon in the sixth century BC—and largely because of that, the mysticism spread. Isn't that one of the theories? Surely you know that, don't you?"
No air circulated in the ostentatiously gilded yet stifling reading room at the Biblioteca Marciana, and no librarian watched guard while she nervously handled the large, brittle old codex—just docile cherubim lolling on the painted walls. The codex had left black smears of age and neglect across the front of her sweaty blouse; rueful, Mel thought that library excavations were as messy as "real"ones were.
Janice slouched in a chair beside her, eating a nectarine and making eyes at a pretty, dark-haired library assistant whose work consisted primarily of shuffling around books with a self-important air.
Finally, Mel found the pertinent passage and backhanded Janice in the gut—perhaps a tad too hard, as Janice nearly coughed up a well-masticated bit of fruit and grunted in protest.
Her companion silenced her with both a triumphant glare and a long finger, clad in a white glove, that pointed without touching at faded lines of Greek. "Here. Antimenidas... the mercenary brother of Alcaeus…travels east with the 'golden bard of legend…'"
She knew Janice would get the gist of it; at the very least, she was good at decoding place names in all forms of Greek.
"Babylon,"Janice said aloud. Then she shot an outraged look at Mel, perhaps indignant that her lover, and not she, had discovered some new fact about the ancient bard. "Are you telling me that little bitch was in Babylon?"
This was what he wanted. The veils fell away; she could see it now. She had never imagined that knowledge could be imparted as a coup de grace, but she felt as if his hold upon her, upon her life, was severed—even if she failed to kill him. "Gabrielle of Potedaia probably wrote down what she learned while there; it was in keeping with her desire to learn about new forms of mysticism. In fact, she may have learned every precious damned secret of the Cabala. Unlike you, who know nothing. So let me tell you something: Even if you had those scrolls in your hands and devoted the remainder of your miserable life to reading and rereading and studying every single aspect of them, you wouldstill know nothing."
The scuffle began half-heartedly, which made her realize that he was just as incompetent a fighter as she; in fact, she had witnessed more fierce battles between debutantes at cotillions. He shoved her. As she fell she brought him down with her and together they rolled, following the short downgrade of the earth past the gray mausoleum, which secluded them from the path. The edge of his hand caught against her throat. As she coughed, he pinned her down and she realized—with both fascination and disgust—that he was hard against her thigh.
While assault and murder had been somewhat expected of the day's activities, rape was not on her criminal agenda. She pushed, gaining enough leverage to wriggle out from under him. The brief moment she took while on her knees, to regroup after that narrow escape, gave him the opportunity to send a boot slamming into her ribs not once, not twice, but three times.
The physical pain easily topped any that she had experienced in her life. Even Janice, who had been shot, stabbed, beaten, punched, slapped, kicked, and thrown from a Vespa after crashing into a pomegranate cart, had said that broken ribs ranked in "pain's top five."
You and your lists.
She coughed again. Her fingers clawed at dirt.
Oh God, I miss you.
Her face touched the cold ground.
Janice's hand, tightly grasped in her own, moved; those strong fingers, rough with years of work, pressed into her palm. Her lips moved, and Mel begged her not to say anything, to save her strength, but nothing would deter her from it, not even death: "You were the best thing in my life."
A deep breath forced back vomit at the edge of her throat. She rose to her knees again.
In return she whispered words that she had never said to anyone else and never would say again, until the end of the day scattered broken along the walls. The body grew cold. During this first empty night—seemingly eternal, limitless—a hand, dry and parchment-like, touched her face and she knew instantly it was not Janice but Fayed and she knew that he would be crying, weeping for the woman he called a sister, and she knew that she would be awake in a new world. It was cold and sharp and terrifying and empty. It was a knife's edge, this precipice into the new world.
The gun. Where was the gun?
It was pressed in her neck.
She thought the muzzle wobbled against her skin because her pulse was pounding, but no, his shaking hand produced the effect. Both feral and fearful he crouched over her, as if expecting this advantage to be stolen from him as easily as the prize of Catherine Stoller had.
She laughed weakly, harshly, and knew what she sounded like—the madwoman at his door, this time courting not his death but her own. Her eyes calmly met his. "You'd be doing me a favor."
If this was indeed the endgame, it seemed destined for stalemate.
She thought of telling him that even if he found the lekythoi they might not hold the treasures he imagined. The scrolls were a mosaic with so many missing pieces that one wondered if anything would be known beyond myth and legend, except the stories bred and dormant in their bones. What exists is the compulsion to find them.
Pendleton threw the gun to the ground. Surprisingly, it did not go off.
Ensnared by contradictory urges, he made a start to go, stopped, and spun around helplessly, like an animal corralled in a pen. Because he could not say anything—his breaths came heavily, like the panting of a bull—he waited for her to say something.
Mel wiped her mouth, not surprised to find blood on her lips; she thought she had bitten them at some point during the altercation. She realized that Fayed was right in warning her: Her desire for vengeance might wane, but it would never die. "God help me. I will kill you. I will find a way."
Pendleton looked at her. Something about him now made her pity him; perhaps, she thought, this confrontation had broken something in him. Perhaps he realized that in killing Janice—however unintentional it may have been—he had gained nothing. "I hope you do."His voice trembled.
Before she could even think to ask why, he began the upward trudge back the way they came.
And just before passing out, she wondered what became of her glasses. When she woke later that evening in a nearby hospital—her rescue courtesy of horny teenagers looking for a convenient makeout locale—they were sitting on a nightstand beside the bed and the broken lenses reflected nothing but lines of light caught in jagged fissures.
It took nearly two months before the package arrived: a flat parcel, dull brown, the return address—the University of Michigan—a stamped smear in the right-hand corner. Despite her youthful recklessness and general irresponsibility at the time, Janice had wasted no time in having her father's papers archived at his alma mater after his death; how she had done so from the middle of war zone was typical—just another outrageous yet underplayed Covington accomplishment.
However, Janice's own papers—both personal and professional—remained in sturdy storage boxes. She could not bear to part with them.
In the package, swaddled reverently as if it were an original, was a copy of a sketch made by Harry Covington, in 1939, of two Greek funeral vases. The attention to detail was revealing; Janice had never mentioned her father's considerable draughtsman skills.
But then Janice had never mentioned this either: This amazing find. Perhaps the key to everything.
She dove into a headache again—its dull, inchoate roar as consummate as an ocean, every wave of pain propelled by the blood pounding in her skull—and almost threw her glasses across the room.
Even after all these years, Fayed never succumbed to using the shortened form of her name. Cautiously, he entered the study, the lone room of the house in which he treaded lightly—granting proper reverence to the space that had always remained her sanctuary. Except now she no longer had Janice guarding the door, warning away intruders with a booming growl that no doubt was heard in the next village: For Christ's sake, she's trying to work in there!
He leaned against the desk, arms folded. "Will you eat something?"
No one else could beg her in such a beguiling fashion. At least no one alive.
She ignored his request and pushed the drawing across the desk. "Do you recognize these?"
Fayed fumbled for the reading glasses in his shirt pocket. Glasses on, he peered at the sketch. "I have seen so many lekythoi in my life,"he sighed. Then his brow furrowed. "My God. This is unusual."
Mel traced her lower lip with the edge of her tongue. "Are you telling me you've never seen these before?"
He shook his head.
"Look at the date, Fayed."
She pressed again. "You're certain you've never seen these? Do you even recognize who drew them?"
It was a while before he could speak. "Harry."He sat down. Safely ensconced under the penumbra of light from the desk lamp, she could see the weariness lining his face threatened to break into sorrow. "You are saying these are the vases we took from El-Alamein, yes? And you wonder why I do not recognize them?"He did not wait for the anticipated response. "We took them at night—even now I hesitate to use the word steal, even though that is precisely what we did. It was dark. They were covered in soil—still. There was no time."He shook his head vehemently. "No time. Under the glow of gaslight, we packed them away in a crate. Without looking. Without knowing. The next day we were in Alexandria. And they were gone before we knew it."
Mel realized that Harry Covington was not included in this we.
Fayed continued dispassionately. "He sold them to the Nazis, Melinda. I never knew until Janice told me later—much, much later. I thought he had merely hid them away, until the furor died down."He smiled ruefully. "I was the one always trying to protect her, and here in this horrible instance, she protected me from the truth. At the time, I did not understand why she was so angry about it—I had never seen her so angry with him about anything before."
Janice stared at the back of his thick, immobile neck—sunburnt and lined, a map as unreadable and useless to her as any she had ever encountered. "What do you mean, gone?"
Harry didn't turn around. "I mean they're gone. Just what I said."He reached with slow, mechanical numbness for items scattered across the table: the Vernier scale, the site drawings, the plans—anything to keep his hands moving—and rearranged them on the table as if playing chess with himself. "We got a good price for them,"he said softly.
She broke the long, straining silence between them with the two words he fully expected to hear, and said as low and as anguished as anything she had ever uttered: "You sonofabitch."
"We needed the money,"he croaked.
She was silent for a long time, until anger finally replaced shock and her voice escalated. "There are other ways of getting money."
Not surprisingly, her temper piqued his. Harry turned his head to sneer at her. "You mean like sleeping with wealthy, married women?"
He could not have regretted saying or doing anything more. Even years ago, when he first discovered her leanings—Gus informing him, with awkward reluctance, that the tutor involved in the affair was a woman and not a man—and had slapped her across the face.
She moved so quickly across the room he did not even know she was there, beside him, until he felt her breath against his cheek. "I risked my life to get those vases for you. I risked everything. And I did it because I thought you wanted them for the same reasons I did."A vibrato of rage emanated from every nerve and tendon in her body. He could feel it. "If you're really so ashamed of me—as you've said so many times recently—I'll tell you right now: The feeling is more than mutual."
"At first, she thought she could never forgive him. But she loved him, you see. And later, they returned to Amphipolis, to search anew. He felt he owed her as much. But as you know now, what they found there…were ingenious copies. And something kept bringing her back to Alexandria—I don't know what."The very moment a wistful smile touched his lips Mel knew precisely what he would say: "Her instincts."
"Why are you so certain you'll find something there?"
It was the last morning. The sun had not crested the hills and, unknowing of the future, her fingers were recording for aching posterity the particulars of Janice's body: the innumerable scars, the dip of her belly, the swell of her breasts that fit so perfectly in Mel's hands, the solid muscles of her arms and legs reigning clandestine under the velvety camouflage of skin, even the painful-looking knobbiness of her wrist bones.
Janice sighed in contentment. Mel thought the question would remain unanswered, but eventually she spoke. "I just know something's there. I don't know what it'll be, but I know that even if it's not the real thing, it'll lead me to what I want."Mel kissed her neck. She sighed again and then laughed, low and soft. "Just what do you think you're up to?"
"I think you deserve a going-away gift."
"Because you weren't up to it last night? It's okay—you don't have to."Her body belied her words: Her hands filled the swooning dip in the small of Mel's back before sliding, sensually slow, up her spine. "Not sure we have time, anyway."
"I'll be quick."
"Your idea of a quickie is longer than Gone With the Wind."
"If you want to do anything right, you need to take time."
Janice hummed in such an uncharacteristically thoughtful way—with an almost feminine lilt to her tone— that Mel stopped for a moment and looked at her. "True of a lot of things, isn't it?"Then Janice offered her typically dirty, devilishly confident grin. "Maybe you should be the digger and not me."
She was tired of crying. She was tired of every torturous path her conscious mind took during every waking moment of every day. She was tired of sleep's oblivion, of the emptiness of her sweat-soaked bed, of the sluggishness implanted in her limbs by the sleeping pills. She was tired of the ceaseless pain in her head. She was tired of not knowing the truth. "She never told me."
Fayed heard the unspoken why in her voice. "The seeking of forgiveness is a selfish thing. She knew you would forgive her anything."He paused. "I believe she wanted to live with it in her heart, so that she would never forget what she had done."
What she had done. What had she done? Mel stared at the drawing, at the careful marriage of lines and space, shadows and white, at a two-dimensional world yearning for substantiation and freedom from half-hinted secrets, and she wished more than anything that she could believe Janice died for something.
The drawing blurred into meaninglessness.
And not for what she never knew.
Two months after her confrontation with Pendleton, and despite her normal rapid healing rate, the phantom of pain—an agonizing tenderness—pulled at her ribcage every time she moved. The doctors, of course, had been surprised by the quick recovery. They made predictable noises about "tests"but she eluded them, leaving England via passage on a ship bound to Cyprus. There she wandered the house and waited for news—something, anything about Janice, about the excavation she left unfinished—until she finally took matters into her own hands and left for Alexandria, alone.
What she hoped to find, what she thought she would accomplish, she did not know.
The city will always pursue you,
and no ship will ever take you away from yourself.
She nursed the lines of Cavafy as much as she did the latte, warm and sweet in an old, chipped bowl, that the elderly café owner—shuffling in soft slippers across a parquet floor—had brought to her. She sat at a table outside, craving anonymity but knowing that she did not blend into the crowd of Turks. Egyptians, Greeks. There were no tourist hordes in which she could disappear; those days were long past. Still, no one bothered her—not even the plainclothes policeman, sitting across the street on a park bench near an open bazaar, who had been following her for days.
A darkly handsome young man, dressed in Western clothes, stopped near her table and knelt to tie his shoe—but not before absently depositing his newspaper on her table. He gazed up at her apologetically while handling the waxy black laces, his luminous bangs scattered across his brow. "Pardonez-moi, Madame."
She nodded, looked at the paper, and smiled, as if pleasantly waylaid by an old friend: Lines of French scrolled smoothly around the folded bend of the paper. It had been years since she read French just for pleasure. The paper could not be Le Phare d'Alexandre—Fayed's favorite daily—could it? It was hardly representative of the nationalistic regime and naturally she had assumed its demise.
When she raised her head to ask the man if the paper was indeed Le Phare d'Alexandre, he was gone, jauntily rounding the corner—and here she felt that elusive pain in her chest again, an ache that roamed her body as freely as she seemed to wander the world these days—for something in his confident stride was painfully familiar. The paper lay unclaimed upon the table. Idly she opened it, scanning over headlines she already knew—and truth to tell, cared little about anymore—turned the page, and saw it: Anglais assassinéá Kafr ad Dawwar.
The photo accompanying the article was blurry, but it was of Mark Pendleton.
Mindful of the present's beautiful shiny paper, the boy tried to open it slowly, without tearing it too much, but once the familiar shape of Snowy, Tintin's dog, peeked through a slit in the wrapping, he could restrain himself no further and the shredded wrapping corkscrewed at his feet.
He would have to get through the elegant little French primer first, though, before understanding the comics; reverentially he ran a hand over the book's soft cloth cover.
Mel graced him with a smile and sat down next to him on the couch. He had never sat so close to her before—normally his English lessons occurred from across the safe distance of a patio table—and momentarily he found himself overwhelmed by her presence: The intoxication of her perfume, the piercing blue eyes, the classically sculpted features, the proud, Cleopatra-like arch of her long neck. "The next time I am here,"she spoke slowly, softly, in the English that she had taught him, "you and I will speak in French. Just as I do with Fayed. Okay?"
Nessim loved that beautiful American word, used so often by Janice, and since he copied Covington in all things—her quick swagger, her glower, and her unstinting adoration of the marvelous, mesmerizing woman before him—he now parroted one of her favorite affirmations: "Gotcha, buddy boy."
Mel kept the paper buried in her valise like a shameful oracle until her return to Cyprus—once her home, now her jail. Fortunately, Naima and Fayed were benevolent keepers, and one them was always present when she was around; this time, it was Naima—Fayed remained working at Knossos, and would be there until the winter set in. Now that the threat of suicide appeared to have eclipsed, they suspected that murder was more on her mind than anything. And so when she had left for London, she had told them she was going to Venice. Cheerfully they had accepted her lie, and did not even suggest that one or both of them accompany her, for which she was silently grateful.
The morning after her return, however, Mel decided that breakfast would include rolls, fruit, yogurt, tea, perhaps some marmalade if any was left, and discussion of arranged murders.
Naima gave the paper announcing Pendleton's death a cursory glance. "Melinda, you know I do not read French, let alone speak it."
Most of the time it was difficult, at best, for Mel to discern whether Naima was a remarkable deadpan wit or brutally honest well beyond all points of etiquette or self-awareness. "He is dead. And I suspect you knew that even before I did."
"Yes. I did."Naima cautiously sipped hot tea, looked critically upon the paper once more. "A photo never really does justice to a human being, do you not think so? Janice was a good example of this. She was a very handsome, very attractive woman, and while that came across in photographs, they never truly captured the element of her spirit that made her beautiful, that made her what she was."
"It was movement,"Mel said quietly.
Naima looked at her curiously.
"Her beauty originated in movement. She was never still. Even in sleep."Except in death.
Naima's smiled at this epiphany. "Yes. You are right."
They remained silent for a while. "You must think I'm very naïve."As Mel said it, she certainly felt very naïve.
"Not at all,"Naima countered. "You merely live in a different reality—a different world, shall we say."
"A more banal world, perhaps."
"No. Do you think that what you do is so meaningless? Your work? The written word—"
"Don't."Mel interrupted angrily. "Don't condescend to me."She swallowed. "I wanted to kill him."It was the first time she had spoken it aloud to anyone, and confessing it removed the horrible wish from the hidden depths of her heart, perhaps more so than the plain, satisfying fact of his death. Face it—his death grants you freedom from your guilt.
Naima met her eyes. "You are not a killer."
Her hand curled around the edge of the table and she wanted to do something, anything, to relieve the pressure building in her chest and her head, but it was true: She failed, she thought. If she really were inclined to murder, Pendleton would have been dead long before now. She would have found a way.
"I will tell you something that, perhaps, you suspect, but you probably do not know. When first we met you, Janice extracted a promise from my husband: That if anything happened to her, he—and of course, by extension, she meant me as well—would always take care of you."Naima touched her lips to the teacup again. "It sounds a pretty promise, yes? Nothing more than melodramatics to demonstrate the depths of her love to an old friend. Any lover would say such things, you would imagine."Her dark eyes fixed on Mel. "But you, more than anyone, knew her caution with language. She never said anything she did not mean."
It was one of the coldest winters on record in England, but the blazing fire and the eiderdown beneath them convinced otherwise—not to mention the heat of the perpetual arguments, usually over what kind of future they could have together. Mel found it perversely refreshing that, for once, she was the one expressing doubts. And while she was no expert in romantic relationships, she was relatively certain that making love was more avoidance than reconciliation of those differences.
"This isn't exactly having a conversation,"Mel panted, barely unable to withstand the merciless, two-pronged erotic attack: Janice had an uncanny way of kissing her neck and caressing her breast—the former clockwise, the latter counterclockwise—that seemed sheer genius and drove her absolutely mad.
"Actually, in certain whorehouses in Bangkok, it is. We're discussing Descartes, in case you haven't been paying attention."
"This isn't funny. We have nothing in common,"she moaned, desperate to avoid the inevitable: Janice was moving lower, kissing the valley between her breasts, then her stomach, and then launching a sneaky reconnaissance mission back toward the breasts, which seemed to be the two things on Mel's body that she could not leave alone for any extended period of time.
"We have our work,"Janice muttered into a mammary.
"I can't cook—not really. I can't even make coffee."
"I'm good enough at both."The kisses progressed downward again.
"I don't—" and here Mel confessed the most terrible thing that a well-bred Southern woman could, something so horribly reprehensible that it would surely frighten away even a self-confessed degenerate like Janice Covington. "I don't want children. I don't even like them."
Janice stopped and shot her a puzzled look. "You think I do?"Realizing the situation could not be amended completely by sex, she snaked her way back up Mel's body until they were face to face. As if prepared to do fifty pushups, she braced herself over Mel, her magnificent shoulders and arms beautifully taut and singing with effort, her eyes coolly challenging. "Maybe I'm wrong—you don't have the guts to even try. Maybe you just can't handle me."
Mel could feel her own jaw set in stubborn determination; she hated being so predictable—or at least so easily deconstructed and manipulated by this confounding woman—that, in order to be perfectly understood, she resorted to the native tongue of the Covington, which was obscenity. "Like hell I can't,"she growled between clenched teeth.
"Then it's settled."Janice continued her kissing inventory of Mel's body, gently settling in between those long legs, and pausing only to give Mel a look of determination that brooked no further argument. "You're perfect for me."
Another long silence spun out between them. The tea grew tepid, the marmalade congealed into a shiny mass. "And so this was your way of taking care of me?"
"As long as he remained alive, there was always the risk…that he would come after you."Naima frowned, distressed. "And perhaps even Fayed? No. We could not allow it. In the end, we do not believe in vengeance, but in balance. Life demands a life."
And life demands justifications. Always. A terrible thought occurred to Mel, but she pursued it regardless. "Fayed. Did he—?"
Naima smiled. "No. He is not a killer either."
"And so we all keep our hands clean, if not our consciences."Mel could not help saying it. She had been raised to believe in moral absolutes; perhaps it was a Western way of seeing things, or something peculiarly American. She had never imagined she would reach a state in her life where she came within a hair's breadth of murder, or felt little to no compunction over anyone's carefully plotted death. If it were a real loss of innocence, she only regretted that it came so late in her life.
"Everything has a price,"Naima finally said. "Everything can be arranged."
4. Coup de Foudre
"…we follow in the bondage of Necessity.
This is the bitterest pain to human beings:
to know much and control nothing."—from Herodotus, The Histories
The elderly man with the white hair like cumulus clouds, who had said on the telephone that he had been a great friend of Melinda Pappas, sits at Francesca's kitchen table with a bowl of milk-thickened coffee in front of him that mimes the curling intricacies of his hair with its whorls of steam.
Francesca is relieved he is not crying anymore. She felt helpless and shameful as he did, as if it were her fault that she resembled his long-departed friend. But she had expected it. Her own presence, her status to Mel had been as incorporeal, elusive, and nebulous as the ghost of Janice Covington—why would it not be similar for the man who had been Covington's closest friend?
Their apologies cross each other in the air, like mixed, desultory signals: "I am sorry,"she murmurs, just as Fayed pats her knee like a grandfather and says, in his own accented English, "You will forgive me, please."
Francesca shrugs. "There is nothing to forgive, Signor."
"You look so much like her."The tears gather in his eyes again.
She nods, helpless again.
Then he smiles, and in that expression she sees how dashingly handsome he must have been when young. "If I had not known her so well, I would swear you are her child. But Janice, she would have told me something like that. She was very proud, you see, very proud of all her accomplishments, and bringing such a lovely girl into the world would have been no exception. She would have been like the cock crowing at dawn."
In these few sentences Fayed has already told her more about Janice Covington than Mel ever did.
He nods at her left hand. "And you write as well."
Francesca's fingers are baptized with ink, the result of filling up a notebook with her life. The notebook, a black, serious-looking Moleskine journal, had been a gift from Mel, who had long noticed Francesca's habit of writing—random thoughts, things she saw, English words that she wanted to look up—on napkins or sales slips or whatever stray bit of paper she managed to scrounge. "She wrote?"Francesca asks shyly.
"Oh, yes. Well, when she was young."Fayed rubs his chin thoughtfully and laughs. "Eventually it turned into nothing more than a record of women she had been intimate with…Good God, nearly thirty by the time she was…eh, well, you know that all stopped with Melinda."
"I hope, yes."Francesca frowns. Just as she was beginning to warm up to the ghost, she worries that Covington was a complete dog unworthy of her noble lover. But then, you were a whore, and would have hardly been an improvement.
"Listen to me, telling you these things! Old men spill secrets as easily as they spill soup."Fayed reaches for Francesca's hand. "Melinda did not tell me very much about you. Her letters only said she had a friend who was taking care of her while she was ill."He squeezes her hand then releases it. "I did not know—she never told me more than that. We are of a different generation, you know, and Melinda was very…discreet."
Of course, she thinks. Of course he assumes that. Apparently he was unaware that his civilized, refined friend, who drank tea and listened to Handel, Beethoven, Brahms, had picked her up on the street not long after her seventeenth birthday. "I was not her lover."Of all the things she had been to Mel, it was never this. A whore, a specter, a caretaker, and perhaps, in the end, a friend. All these permutations occurred in their relationship. But a lover?
Gently Fayed blows upon the frothy latte—creating an impressive cowlick—and smiles with childlike glee at his accomplishment. The last niggling bit of Francesca's reserve melts at the revelation, from under the mask of aging, of a playful, gentle man. But his worldly demeanor quickly falls back into place. "Ah, I see. Well, she was much older than you, my dear."
Francesca pauses uneasily, balling up the napkin in her lap. "It was not that."
The old man gives her a curious glance.
"I wanted it."
"Then…?"he prompts kindly.
"She did not."Since then, she has had other lovers; mostly women, occasionally men. Thus far none of them has provided the antidote to the delicious poison of first love.
In a landslide of change—the café that she always dreamed of opening with her brother now close to reality, the disintegration of her so-called destiny, as Sofia had ordained it—falling in love seemed almost an afterthought, a hasty coda to this movement of her life.
And though she no longer slept with men for money, every few months Melinda Pappas was in Venice, and every few months a generous wad of lira lined her pocket. And the elapsing of time only appeared to ratchet up the intensity of each encounter. It was through sex that Francesca had always sustained herself, and it seemed only logical that through sex the incomprehensible rush of fierce emotion and desire finally dispersed and scattered—not unlike the city's networks of canals that led to the sea—into the clarity of love.
Alone in the shower after this epiphany, she cried.
And then while she dressed, Mel, as usual, discreetly deposited the money in her coat pocket. When she put on her coat, she was distracted from checking for the cash by Mel smoothing the lapels of the worn pea jacket, by her long hands slipping under the coat and spreading her languid, searing touch across Francesca's chest.
"You need a new coat."Said in that husky tone, the tone she had after fucking, and with that marvelous slow accent that made listening to English a joy. Her lips rested on Francesca's neck, just below the ear, her tongue pressed against a cresting tendon.
Francesca shivered. No other kiss, no other touch, ever had such an effect on her, and it did not go unnoticed. Concerned, Mel pulled back. "Is something wrong?"
"Then tell me. What's the problem?"
"You look at me as if you love me, but I know you do not."She removed the money from her pocket and tossed it on the table. "That is the problem."
Mel stared at the money on the table as if seeing it for the first time, as she finally realized this, the ultimate cost of her obsession. She closed her eyes. "I can't."Mel cupped her face with unprecedented tenderness. "I can't give you what you deserve."
"Because of what I am."Francesca said it flatly, devoid of self-pity or sadness. She could not change her past, and thus saw no reason to apologize for it.
"No. Because of what I am."She smoothed Francesca's coat again, but this time with nervous affection. "Lightning never strikes twice. But when it does—" Mel tried to smile, but failed. "—it kills you. It destroys you."
After telling Fayed this, she realizes that he has been holding her hand in his own—his skin dry, smooth, and warm—the entire time. He chuckles. "That was a very Janice thing for her to say—about the lightning."
"I see,"Francesca observes archly. "I must say at the time, I did not care for it."While what existed between them was not the fatalistic jolt of a coup de foudre, it possessed a similar elemental property—that of inevitability; breaking it off proved more difficult than either imagined.
"One more night."
In the face of Francesca's sudden integrity, she had nothing left to bargain with.
Francesca could tell how this bothered the older woman. How she hated to be a slave to her own desires. How she did not want to beg. But she waited all evening long until the café closed, until they were alone outside in a street so eerily dark—the only light visible from the lanterns in the gondolas gliding by with their funereal elegance—that it was easy to believe they lived in medieval times again.
But the scrape of Mel's expensive shoes upon the pangolin-like cobblestones and the sleeve of her cashmere coat rolling with sensual pliancy in Francesca's hand brought them back to the present, or at least as much of the present as Melinda Pappas ever inhabited now. She kissed Francesca deeply, stealing the girl's breath and sanity with one recklessly salacious yet inexplicably gracious plunge of her tongue, and said it again: One more night.
They danced an awkward, groping pavane across the calle that terminated in a gentle collision in a nearby alley. She felt as if she was drowning and the only thing that buoyed her was this irrational love for a woman more than twice her age, a woman she barely understood—except for the current of loneliness that connected them both—and whose past was in fact a sinking stone strapped across her chest. Mel slipped a thigh between her legs, tightly gripped her ass, and pulled her close. Her hands braced against the wall, her fingers hooked into moss and grime.
Francesca fought against the rushing onset of orgasm with the bluntest weapon in her arsenal: cruelty. "Your lover is dead."
She was glad of the darkness that hid Mel's reaction from these words, but nothing could mask the raw pain of that voice, isolated in the night: "I know."
Even as shame overtook her, Francesca could not stop herself: "Shall I pay you this time?"
Instead of wounding words volleyed back at her, she received an apology that felt, oddly, like a benediction, and fingertips that caressed her face. "I'm sorry."
When they kissed again, Francesca finally noticed the rich aftertaste of whiskey in Mel's mouth, and it reminded her of that very first time they were together, of the bourbon they drank. She knew it was done.
Because of that she consented to one more night—on her terms, in her bed—even though she woke the next morning alone, knowing it would never happen again.
"If I had been you, I would have felt similarly,"Fayed replies. "And yet—"Like a skilled lepidopterist, he pins her with a glance both sharp and tender, his recognition consigning her love and compassion to the specimen box of memory. "—you took care of her."
"She returned here to die."If not for Sofia's intricate network of connections, she might have never known. You remember Vittorio's cousin, the one who keeps buying all the property in the Dorsoduro? The one who liked it when you tied him up? Well, he sold a flat to your great American love. She's here again, Francesca. Shall you go running after her?
"I know that now,"Fayed whispers. "She did not tell me. My wife—I lost her only the year before—I suppose she thought it too much for me to take in."
"I am sorry."
"She did not tell me,"he repeats helplessly.
Francesca can only offer the barest of comfort: "She had me. Even if I were nothing but a shadow."
At the end, moments of lucidity were easily shuffled with the vivid deck of cards that constituted remembrances of things that may have occurred, or that may have existed solely in that mind, a mind that seemed all the more fantastic and inaccessible to Francesca because of the barriers of language—not just English and Italian, but ancient Greek, medieval Latin, French, German, and God knows what else. Yet sometimes she speaks of memories that seem real enough: Spring in Charleston, the smells of magnolias, freshly cut grass, peach cobblers. Her father singing softly. Her mother lying in a coffin. The Christmas after that—a rare snowfall, a sugar dusting over the entire town as in a fairytale. The heat of her hand meeting the frosted windowpane—as cold as her mother's hand when she touched it one last time—and the startling recognition that the clearest of boundaries are sometimes not what they appear, and may offer only scant separation from other states of being, other worlds.
On the day before it happens, Francesca sits on the bed, watching her sleep, unwilling to extricate a hand from Mel's fragile grasp. Their fingers are tangled together and in sleep Mel has pulled their hands closer to her chest.
Then Mel breathes deeply, stirs, and opens her eyes. Even when delusional those eyes deceive with their clarity and intent and possess a diamond-like precision that seeks out similar things of intelligence and beauty, and finding both in the face of the woman sitting beside her. She smiles with a sensual, confident ease that belies the ravages of illness. "I love you, darling."
It's not meant for her, of course. But Francesca puts aside every ache and regret and plays the role. She will be that gorgeous, reckless rogue, that daring explorer, that devoted lover. She leans forward for one last kiss, pouring forth skill, tenderness, desire, love, in the hopes of attaining perfection in this, the final tribute, the last delectation, for Orpheus descending.
The old man squeezes her hand tightly, to remind her that she is not a shadow but something far more substantive, and far more wonderful—she is flesh, blood, and bone. "I have always believed differently about lightning myself,"he begins after a long pause, no doubt hoping to finagle some positive meaning from it all.
She appreciates the effort. "It is kind of you to say so."
"No, hear me out. When it comes to love, I think it is great fortune for lightning to strike twice."He raises his cup in a toast to her. "And you, my dear, you shall be struck again."
Francesca rubs her brow. Reliving the past dozen years—including those mired in unrequited love—within the span of one Sunday morning is too exhausting, particularly when she remembers she has to work at the café later. These are the moments when the freedom of prostitution is sweetly recalled, and suddenly she is tired. "Signor, you will forgive me for speaking roughly, but that is bullshit."
"Oh good God!"Fayed exclaims with a hoot.
Which makes him laugh even more. "You said the magic word: Bullshit. I think you may be a Covington after all!"
Puzzled and yet strangely amused, Francesca leans back in her chair. Somehow, his triumphant laughter makes such a prospect all the more palatable.
With his chin propped in his hand, Fayed grants her a new regard. "Tell me, my dear, do you like bourbon?"
Myths are the things that never happened but always
With their leader gone, the mood in the camp changed dramatically; the men went from surly to uncontrollable. This time, Alcmaeon warned Marcellus to stay in his tent, and even placed a guard outside. "I don't need you getting killed on my watch,"he muttered tiredly.
"Where did she go?"Marcellus asked.
Alcmaeon paused, half-turned. "She's doing something…to take care of the men."
"Is she getting them women?"Marcellus blurted, his tactlessness betraying his excitement.
Gabrielle's devoted lieutenant laughed. "That's not her style, and you know that."
Alcmaeon cocked his head. "You a need a good screw, boy? I know quite a few of my men would be happy to oblige you. Linneas the Skull Crusher, for example—I might even be able to talk him into bathing for you…"
Marcellus squeaked a demur protest. "I'm fine—thanks."
"Good. Now shut up and stay put."
With the last of daylight leached from the sky, torches were lit. And not long after that, the cry came from the night watchmen along the eastern perimeter: She was coming. The camp thrummed with expectation.
Her arrival would forever remain an indelible image engraved upon his young, romantic imagination, a vision that provided strange comfort for the rest of his life—the best possible representation of his brush with greatness. The distant percussion of a galloping horse grew closer, deeper, and in its singularly sang a clear note of triumph. She appeared a ghost, suspended over the velvety darkness of a lean stallion. The soldiers roared and a river of gold—hundreds of coins, perhaps thousands—showered over them, a casual benediction flung from an open arm. The men fell upon the gold like lions upon a fresh kill.
Despite the chaos and joyous greed taking place, Marcellus decided it was finally safe to leave his quarters; he could have been Helen of Troy prancing about naked and no one would take heed. And so he made his way to her tent where, surprisingly, she was alone, except for the servant girl, who poured her wine from a jug. Marcellus lingered at the edge of the tent until she finally beckoned him in.
She drank deeply of the wine. "It's a bit of grandstanding, I know. But I learned it from the best."
"A good bard already has an inherent sense of the dramatic,"he countered.
She nodded grudgingly. Any reminders of being a bard, he had finally noticed, pained her.
The girl poured him wine as he sat. "I thought Alcmaeon would be here, fussing over you like a mother hen."Marcellus looked at the worn bandage across her arm, encrusted with dried blood and dirt, which had fallen to half-mast below the wound it had once covered—a deep gash from a broadsword, oozing dark red.
"He's getting me food."She raised the injured arm self-consciously. "And the healer."
"Ah."Marcellus swirled the wine. "So tell me—why?"
"You literally showered them with gold. Was it necessary?"
She smiled grimly. "They don't run on sheer devotion."
Marcellus looked at the thin, wide-eyed servant, whose gaze feasted upon Gabrielle with undisguised longing. "That's not what Alcmaeon says."
"They deserve it. They've left behind families—all because of me. I want to make certain…they're all provided for."
Marcellus squirmed at a too-long pause, and forced a laugh. "Oh come now, you don't think you'll really lose, do you? You're far too skilled and intelligent to be outwitted by the likes of Ares. You have history on your side."
"Do I?"Gabrielle could not disguise the bitterness in her voice.
"Yes! You and Xena, well, you've always beaten him in the past. You're going to triumph again. I know it. You've defeated death."
Gabrielle pitied him, because she knew that the scrolls—true or false, in whatever state he or anyone ever found them in—would never reveal the never-ending variations upon Xena, or herself in particular: From naïve hero-worshipping farm girl to an Amazon queen, from pursuer to beloved, from pacifist to warrior to a broken woman without a home, trapped in her own legend, her own lair of words.
"I have—perhaps too many times. Who am I to do this, when so many others…"
Marcellus nodded solemnly. "I know you've lost a lot. Aside from—her. So many friends. Your family. And—your husband."
"You shouldn't believe everything you read."
He smiled uncertainly. "Even from you?"
"Especially from me."Wincing, she pulled at the unraveling bandage around her arm. "I was young when I wrote those scrolls, all those stories you know—the stories everyone knows now."The wound lay bare, she rolled the dirty cloth idly in her hands. "If I were to do it all over again now, it would all be different."
"Maybe you should!"
She smiled quickly, and in this one fleeting expression he caught sight of the girl she once was, clever and mischievous yet open and yearning for experience. "Maybe I have."
Much later, in his old age, he realized that perhaps she had said it merely to stun him into a reverent silence. But there was no better person to entrust with this particular secret. He followed the arrow of her gaze to the funeral vases that but for their striking beauty sat inconspicuously among leather satchels, weaponry, and a worn saddle. The pair of lekythoi were unlike any he had ever seen before: They were tall, going up just past his knee, yet they retained all the slender elegance of smaller versions he had seen—the black mouth and thin neck led to a white body, its surface painted in tones of ochre, dark sienna, and varying shades of brown and black. One vase depicted a woman sitting on stone, folding a manuscript; the other featured an elaborately detailed tree etched in the background. "These are very unique."Marcellus traced the details—the woman's hair, the delicate tree branches. "I've never seen a tree like this before."
"The Tree of Life,"Gabrielle murmured.
He looked at her curiously. "Where on earth did you see such a thing?"
She smiled. "Not here."
He opened the vase with the tree on it as if expecting malevolent spirits to fly free. Then he removed the small inner chamber meant for oil, revealing what lay at rest in the body of the vase: scrolls, tightly, efficiently rolled and tied together with thin leather strips.
"You amazing woman,"he breathed. "You are worth every bit of devotion I give you!"
She ignored this and gazed into a cup of wine. "They aren't complete. They may never be."She sipped the wine. "And they may never be seen—"
"Don't say that,"Marcellus pleaded. Reverently, he replaced the container and cap of the vase; he knew better than to even request reading an unfinished work by a bard.
"It's—these are my truths, and I doubt anyone would be interested in having their collective sense of history rewritten."
"I would be interested!"Marcellus countered indignantly.
She offered him a gentle warning: "Not everything happened the way you think."There were even times when Gabrielle, duped by time and loss, was not certain what happened and what did not. The exaggerations had all started innocently enough, it seemed, and with the most unlikely of inspirational sources: Perdicus. A grand tragedy engineered by Sappho and her Gongyla years ago, even before Xena's death. It was not uncommon for the ambitious Gongyla to utilize Gabrielle's life as a writing exercise. They all borrowed from one another then. Gabrielle had always been ambivalent about it, even more so since undertaking the dangerous charade to dupe Ares.
It is all true in its way, Sappho had said. We're bards—storytellers. We treasure the story and its telling above all else.
Before she knew it, Gongyla's myth had eclipsed the reality of what happened to such a degree that even a play was performed, and Gabrielle had gone so far to amend her own scroll of the incident. It seemed like a good idea at the time—even Xena tacitly approved—for it appeared a more fitting end for her husband than the banal truth: She had been miserably married to Perdicus for nearly six months when he was killed—trying, in his usual stubborn, bumbling way, to prevent a tavern brawl. The aftermath blurred into grief and guilt over her release from a life she had never wanted to lead. All she remembered now was the frantic journey to Samothrace—to Xena, leading a revolt against a tyrannical king, Xena sitting—melancholy in victory, as she sometimes was—among the ruins of a rebels' feast, and her own confession hastened by a flask of potent, unmixed wine: I thought of you on my wedding night.
Some things, of course, needed no embellishment. Titans, centaurs, Valkyries on flying horses. And surviving a crucifixion? Even Gongyla couldn't top that.
In these, the years she has been alone, she has left these scrolls—enriched with the outlandish exaggerations encouraged by Sappho or even Virgil (who ultimately objected to the "dumbing down"of his beloved father)—scattered like seeds, tracing the wide path of her travels, given as gifts to kings and princes, exchanged as payment for room and board, absentmindedly abandoned in a stable where she slept off a fever for several days, and even bestowed as a belated wedding gift—a story of the Valkyries, given to Beowulf and his wife to mark the birth of their first child. Ultimately, the stories were of little use to her. Perhaps in rewriting things the way they actually were, it would help her reclaim the real story that paradoxically had proven the most important, and most forgettable, of truths.
I loved. I was loved.
In the end, it was all that mattered.
Conclusion: Morning, Clear and Fair
…we who are still alive are unreal in the eyes of the dead, that only occasionally, in certain lights and atmospheric conditions, do we appear in their field of vision.
—W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz
A Long Time Ago
For days, the incident at Corinth haunted her.
At the harbor they had toured an impressive warship, mostly as a courtesy and a farewell to an old acquaintance of Xena's, who was setting sail for Britannia; Gabrielle noted that Xena referred to the handsome captain as a comrade and not a friend, which meant that she had not slept with him—this, a refreshing change of pace. The tour was boring, with lots of nautical chatter, but it was over quickly enough. Yet no sooner had they disembarked and the ship unmoored from the dock than she realized that she left her scrolls there—on that vessel, bound for a faraway land, that was now gathering speed with frightening alacrity. She was ready to take a running leap into the gulf when Xena caught her by her cloak; the slingshot effect sent her sprawling into a pile of slimy fish guts. But when she looked up and saw Xena holding the precious leather case that held the words of her life, all was forgiven.
Now she sat at the campfire, unfurling parchment. The paper that always seemed rough to her before felt smooth against her callused palm; these days, a staff was in her hands more frequently than a quill. "I was thinking…"Gabrielle began.
From across the fire, Xena looked wary of this development, but her eyebrow seemed to twitch encouragement.
"…about that parable you told me once. After everything that happened with Morpheus. About throwing the stone in the lake. Remember?"
The warrior, who had been stretched out and ready for sleep, now propped herself on an elbow and made a go of looking interested.
Gabrielle appreciated the effort. "When I was looking at that ship sailing away, thinking of all the stories I thought I lost, that one suddenly came back to me. My scrolls were kind of like that stone you threw in the lake: even if they disappeared forever, they would still have an effect upon me. But I thought about why I write them down, and—" She stopped. Sometimes thoughts came too fast, and made her dizzy. The good thing about writing was that it made her neither anxious nor nauseous to express something; somehow she paced herself accordingly, and the discipline that accompanied the act was as satisfying as the result it brought forth. "I'm not just writing for me. But if I lost them, if they were accidentally destroyed…their effect would only be upon me."
"No,"Xena demurred. "You tell your stories to people. They remember. They tell them to others. When you're gone, they'll still be telling your stories."
"Who knows that for certain? Maybe after I'll die they'll be completely lost. Get stuck in someone's trunk somewhere until they're dust."Gabrielle tried to sound casual about it, but the thought terrified her. Dust in a box, a stone in a lake.
Xena, of course, was ever practical. "You can't worry about things like that. It's out of your control."
"Yeah."Gabrielle tiredly rubbed at her eyes. "I know."
They were quiet for a long time.
"You won't be forgotten."
"Well, if you say it, it must be true."Despite the sarcastic display, she found comfort in her friend's belief.
"Absolutely."Xena grinned. "But you know what else I think?"
"You need to get your nose out of those scrolls more often. Take a look at everything that's around you."Once again, the warrior settled down for sleep.
Gabrielle hummed skeptically, but risked a glance up at the night sky. The stars all seem motionless, embedded in their eternal vault. She smiled, pleased that she could still recall some Lucretius. Yet they must all be in constant motion—
She rolled up the scroll and tucked it away in the leather case. As she lay down the night unfurled itself before them, a story all its own, inscribed in the language of stars.
—since they rise and traverse the heavens with their luminous bodies till they return to the far-off scene of their setting.
I don't mind if I am getting nowhere
Circling the seed of truth
Telling everything but saying nothing
I went further than I knew
—"Five Colors,"Sam Phillips
Agios Ahillios, The Prespa Lakes
After the rainy night, the sky shone as pristine as Mikri Prespa. It was the time of morning when the sun delivers that decisive blow to the gray scattering of night, a coup de grace that takes infinite forms, among them a sharp scythe of sun across the horizon, or a saturating diffusion of gold and white among a skyline crowded with buildings and houses or trees and mountains. Here, the sunlight reflected off the snowy points of distant mountains and lay in blurred repose upon the surface of the lake.
Coming out of the tent, Janice turned up the collar of her coat; rough skin hissed as she rubbed her hands together. She hadn't counted on it being so cold this late in the season. Last night's punishing rain added to their sodden misery, as did the breaking of the second cot. They ended up together on one narrow camp bed; she slept with her nose jammed between Mel's shoulder blades. It reminded her of the heady intimacy of when they first became lovers—so thoroughly tangled in one another's skin that they were unwilling to part, even in sleep. While the snoring that she found so cute and charming nearly twenty years ago was now a stertorous torture, she always relished the amazing depth that encompassed what they once were and what they had become—even if Mel's first words this morning were not "Good morning"or "I love you"but "My back is killing me."
The icy canteen water stung as she drizzled it over her face; she used it to massage herself into wakefulness. A fringe of drops lined her lips and she tasted them with an absentminded swipe of the tongue. She wondered how long it would take Fayed and the workers to reach them. If the rain had caused problems on the road, they might not have reached the ferry this morning. It could be nightfall before they arrived. It could be another day.
In the old days, such a delay would have set her on edge; always, she was acutely aware of time's passing, and usually it manifested itself in desperate urgency. But not now. She wasn't sure what had changed—perhaps the collusion of aging, loving, living—but now she could no longer begrudge the past keeping its secrets. What remained unfounded, elusive, scattered, was still there; that much she believed. Archaeology was science built on the grandest of accidents, and typically possessed the careless grace of good art.
Mel emerged from the tent. A sudden wind snared the mane of her hair; she corralled it in a fist and glared suspiciously at the skyline.
"Looks clear today."Janice gave her typical useless weather forecast.
"Good."Mel managed this syllable around an arsenal of bobby pins clenched between her teeth, and within a minute had her hair under their totalitarian control. "When do you think they'll be here?"
"Not sure. Maybe this evening, if the roads aren't bad."
For several minutes they watched the sun edge over the valley, casting gold onto the mountainside.
"It's beautiful,"Mel commented. She settled behind Janice, resting her chin on Janice's canvas-covered shoulder, and hastily stuck her hands in Janice's coat pockets.
Janice wasn't sure if the action was perpetuated by genuine affection or a desire to leech her body heat. "We could kill time later by walking down to the lake and taking a dip. Try to reenact the beach scene in From Here to Eternity again, like we did at Mykonos. Except I think I'd like to be Burt Lancaster this time."
Mel smothered a laugh against the canvas coat. Shivering, she held Janice tighter. "You're insane. It's freezing. It's like Cambridge in January!"
Whenever the temperature dipped below 65 degrees Fahrenheit, it became, to Mel, the very worst of a Cambridge winter. Janice always tried, futilely, to temper these outlandish statements, as she did now. "Come on. It's not that bad."
"It's bad enough that I am seriously contemplating making coffee."
"One of these times I will get it right, I swear."
"I'm sure you will, baby, but not when using a tin pot over a campfire. Tell you what—get the pot, I'll make the coffee."
"All right."Mel sighed, but did not move.
And Janice did not mind at all.
"A bath. A long, hot bath."
Janice craned her neck just enough to give her companion a curious glance.
"That's the first thing I'm doing when we get home."
"That sounds pretty good. I wouldn't mind goin' home right about now."
Surprise colored Mel's tone. "The excavation hasn't even started, and you want to go home?"
"Maybe I'm getting too old for this shit."
Mel laughed sardonically. "They'll be wheeling you out into the desert when you're a hundred."
It was a joke, but they both knew the resignation behind it. Time passed. The chances of finding the scrolls diminished, while this yearning for truth, for revelation, remained as passionate within her as it did the first time her father handed her a spade and said, here, you do it. It's about time you learned.
It doesn't stop.
It doesn't matter.
Mel kissed her quickly on the cheek. "I'll get the coffee pot."She headed back to the tent.
Alone, Janice knelt down and scooped up moist earth, molding it into her hand. Its pleasing heft convinced her of infinite possibilities; like a sculptor with clay, a painter with a canvas, or a musician with an instrument, she could do anything with it. She pressed the clump within her hand again and it crumbled—the wide gathering of dirt rained through her fingers, lost, found, and lost again, and no different from the stone in the lake, the ashes and gold upon the wind, the currents of the sand, all of it, everything, rediscovered in the promise of every morning.
Throughout the tortuously long period of time in which I wrote this, many talented (and patient) souls generously agreed to read beta versions of various parts of this story: Anima, Lela Kaunitz, angharad governal, B.M. Morgan, xenalicious, McJohn, and K. Simpson. I am very grateful to all of them. I'm also indebted to Angelique Corthals for commenting on drafts and answering all sorts of silly questions about archaeology and Egypt, and to PCS and Isabella for playing Athenas to my Odysseus as I mentally wandered, lost, around the subject of the Greek Isles. Special thanks to my spouse for detailed and loving advice on Greek vases (you're the best). And my profound apologies to anyone I may have inadvertently omitted here.
My main reference sources on Alexandria were Andre Aciman's Out of Egypt, a memoir of the author's youth in Alexandria, and Aciman's collection of essays, False Papers. Also invaluable was Alexandria: Jewel of Egypt by Jean-Yves Empereur.
The Practical Archaeologist: How We Know What We Know About the Past by Jane McIntosh was a very useful reference tool as well.
The books I've read on Venice—both fact and fiction—are too numerous to list! But if you find yourself interested in knowing more about the city, you can start here: The World of Venice by Jan Morris is the definitive travelogue. Also check out A History of Venice and A Traveller's Companion to Venice, both by John Julius Norwich (although be warned, the former title is a bit heavy going).
And finally, I thank all of you for taking the journey with me.
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