Mother was at the window. Below her the children's tennis game waned. The day was reaching that point when exertion outside became unbearable, when the shadows were so in opposition to the sunlight that they almost belonged to a different day. Even the dust seemed to stop moving for those hours after lunch when heat rose up out of stone.
The dust! How it had taken her by surprise. They each commented on it at least once a day, the twins flicking it out of their hair when they came back from a bicycle ride, Charles banging it out of his loafers on the door step not noticing, because he was a boy, how the particles puffed over the threshold and settled slowly but determinately on every surface. The umbrellas in the rack, the coat hooks draped in tennis whites, sun hats, bathing suits.
The Italian vacation had been a long time in the planning. Yet now she was here she felt too far from home. It was not exactly Harry’s fault that they had strayed this far, even if it was by his orchestration that they had received the invitation to Villa Nova. The talk at parties on the Upper East Side last winter, aside from the usual Reagan and stock share chat, had been of Southern Europe and it had lit her curiosity. But the journey had been arduous with her children back from boarding school, hanging about her, reminding her of her age. In the first week she had had no occasion to wear even one of the seven dresses she had packed and now that she was finally putting one on it felt ill-fitting in the heat.
From her lofty position above the gardens and the tennis court she could see where the trees grew more densely, marking where the river ran and beyond that the olive grove on the far undulating hill. Some animals moved in the semi-darkness under the leaves. They reminded her of the goats they had come across while taking a tour around the market. And then she thought of their guide: a young man in an out-dated pin-stripe suit who spoke immaculate English. He had cleaned her slacks after the wine spillage. She had seen his chest beneath his shirt as he bent down with a cloth. She was surprised to see that it was dry. She had wanted to lay her hand there to see if it was cool, too.
The children had now stopped playing and had gathered by the high fence at one end of the court. They were watching something in the long grass and the shadow. Only Charles bounced a ball by himself on the other side of the net. He was small for his age, her eldest, and not sporty to his father's grave disappointment. But here he had hardly left the racket alone. Perhaps he felt he could more easily beat his younger siblings. Perhaps winning mattered to him after all. He seemed irritated that they had stopped playing. She could see now that there was a figure on the other side of the fence. A local boy she supposed, shirtless, with that unmistakable way of moving that she had noticed in the market and amongst the men that came to look after the garden, the women that cleaned and cooked for them. The movements were precise but small, rodent like, she considered, as if there was not quite enough time in one's life to get everything done. Had she seen this boy before? Maybe in a heat haze by the pool, or trimming the juniper trees at the driveway. Then something was handed through the wire fence.
Behind her there was a motion in the open doorway. "Madam Judith- Oh! Mi scusi!"
"One moment, Rosa, I'll dress and be with you.”
Elizabeth thought that the boys must be farm-labourers. Their hands wrapped around their snacks were rough and wide, their dark eyes set in skin that had seen the sun often. They wore torn trousers, their shirtless, dark torsos curved in towards bent knees. The juice from whatever they were eating ran in small rivulets down their forearms and disappeared at their elbows.
It had felt awkward with them just sitting there throughout the game. She could not tell what they were watching or indeed whether they were indifferent to the tennis and her and her brother and twin sister. Finally, in a sweet voice she called out, “Have you been picking olives?”
“It's not olive picking season, idiot,” Charles flattened her enthusiasm. "Why don't you speak Italian to them?" But she only knew the kind that one might use at the point of polite introduction at a cocktail party.
"Come stai?” followed by a cracking laugh from Hannah. The boys continued eating. Elizabeth approached the fence, her fingers hung through it. Hannah came to her side. Charles was left alone on the court, now wiping the sweat from his brow with the front of his shirt. "It was my serve. It's typical, Liz-Bet! It constitutes cheating."
"Perhaps they're gypsies," Elizabeth whispered to her twin. Hannah, coarser than her sister, called, "Gypsies!" towards the shadows and laughed again, a heavy laugh that she often used to disguise her own uncertainty. "They steal stuff," called Charles. "People, too. They'll sell you if they get hold of ya!"
The boys had watched wordlessly, then one of them stood up and moved through the grass at his waist and to the fence. Elizabeth was still as if watching animals in the wild, half afraid, half worried about frightening them away. Hannah shrieked and dramatically ran towards Charles on the other side of the court, "Save us, Charles! Save us!"
The boy pulled apart the fruit and handed some through the fence. Elizabeth took it and inspected it.
"Apple." said the boy.
Elizabeth frowned. "Plum." she said. Charles snatched it away and whispered through gritted teeth, "Poisoned!"
When Mother turned back to the window the children were gone. They must have decided it was too hot already. It was unlike them to move so quickly. She strained to see into the shadows under the trees along the side of the court. She could no longer see the local boy either. She felt an ache behind her eyes and turned away. Something occurred to her and she went to the open door, calling down the stairs after the maid. "Rosa! And milk for Hannah's cocoa! Milk should be COLD! And call the kids!"
In the woods by the river, the dry heat was suppressed, funneled through pale green light, made smooth and moist. The boys were able-footed, their bodies knew the path. Their followers were slower, their movements immature, baffled, excitable.
Elizabeth touched a stone covered in the winter's growth of moss, now like brittle hair. Hannah pulled her along. Charles trotted behind one of the Gypsies, leaping from one rock to another, showing off, holding the second half of the plum, its pink flesh warming in his sweaty palm.
Now they moved quickly and deeply into the green. "We're following the water!" Charles shouted back towards his younger sisters. "You can hear it!” Elizabeth noticed how different the three boys looked, her brother in a stained shirt, the brown of his skin a dirty veil, disguising a paler truth, the Gypsies like moving trees, the colour of shadow and earth. She imagined the cool of the water, the green eddies around her moving limbs, and theirs. Secret swimming!
Her mind away from the path, she fell, landing on her knee. She cried out, gripping it, rocking back on to her bottom, lifting her face up to the sky through the trees and swearing. Hannah crouched down, waiting for her sister’s rocking and crying to stop so she could inspect it. "You’ll need a band-aid, Liz-Bet."
"I know that -"
She wanted to be alone and in the dark. She lifted her cupped hand and looked at the broken skin, the scarlet breaking free, finding a path around the little coarse hairs. Her inside running out.
When she looked up she noticed that the boys had sat down on the path. Charles stood above them, snapping the new leaves from a twig. He fashioned it into a bow and twisted it towards them, laughing. Then he shouted and gestured madly, his face bent down towards the deep thicket at his knees. The three boys began to move agitatedly around something buried in the undergrowth, which she could not see. It was as if they were standing on hot embers keeping them up and down, in and out, like puppets on strings.
Hannah helped Elizabeth off the ground and they ran, hand in hand towards the boys. At Charles’ feet was a wire box and inside it, thrashing, was a cat-like animal, its fur matted around a back leg, making it look thin, as if it belonged to a different animal, Elizabeth thought. Charles threw a stick at the mesh, the animal cowered for an instant and then, futilely lashed back, exposing teeth and claws against the metal.
Hannah screamed. Elizabeth reached out towards Charles’ hand. “Leave it alone, will you!” But he pushed her back and she ran, Hannah just ahead of her, struggling with the path, falling, reaching out, then stopping to watch the boys from a distance. Needing to see. Hannah stopped, too.
One of the boys picked up a stone. They said a few words to each other and then with one swift, exact move of an arm, opened the cage door. There was a grey dash through the thicket and a bitter cry, turning into a repeated squawk, reverberating through the roots, the ground. Stillness. Then the greyness flashed again, the tortured cry. Charles dashed towards the movement with a stick but one of the boys turned on him, flinging him on to the ground. The animal twisted and fell and twisted and leapt up again and ran full-tilt towards the twins.
Harry came to the hairpin bend in the road and changed gear up, then down, then up again, his ringed fingers clutching the shift, his shoulders tight. He was thinking about business and the wines he had sampled earlier in the day. He had not tasted anything for the American palate. Except the women. If he could import true Italian waitresses business would boom. There was nothing hard about an Italian woman. Although they would be sure to harden in New York.
On the approach to the house he glanced through the break in the row of poplars that marked the boundary of the villa. He thought he saw Judith in a dressing gown by the pool. He had asked her to be ready on his return, goddammit. And then, above the noise of the gravel under the slowing wheels, he heard a woman scream. He knew at once that it was not Judith. He leapt from the car and up the side steps that lead directly into the gardens. Judith stood statuesque as if rising from the water, the many pleats of the robe breaking on her toes, eyelash curlers in one hand lowered by her side. Her face was odd, contorted.
As he drew close he saw that it was the maid who was screaming. Her body was bent away from him. And there in the pool was a head of what appeared to be an animal the size of a cat’s, the water crimson around it.
"For God's sake - Call the boys, get this cleaned up! Pull yourself together now." He reached out towards Rosa but she ran into the house, her bare feet across the stones. "Surely...one of the dogs dragged it here... Where are the children? Where is Charles?" His eyes looked up and met the windows of the giant house.
The boys had gone, tearing past, sleek, soundless but for their breath. Hannah was bent over, retching. Charles was nowhere to be seen. Elizabeth waited for him, calling his name through the trees. She saw how the place in the undergrowth where it happened was trampled into a circular pattern. She wondered how long it would be before the curling green took over once again.
Alone the twins climbed up out of the valley. Elizabeth could feel the blood on her knee and shin drying now, preventing the stretch of skin. The smell of sweat and throw-up heavy on her as they hurriedly crested the small hill and could see once more the house and the gardens. How large and grandiose the house looked from here! It seemed absurd to her suddenly, the pool’s aquamarine tint, like a disembodied eye in the burnt and bleached hills. There, by the pool was a figure, the shadow etched across the stone patio.
“Who is that woman by the pool?” asked Elizabeth, gasping now for every breath.
“Mother, of course.”
“Mother? Are you sure, Han?”