They stop for lunch in Randazzo and lava-thick coffee burns their lips. She watches the sweaty boys on graceful Vespas. He smears his sweaty fingers over the screen of his smartphone to catch the score of the Yankees game back home. In truth, he cares little for the game, but the routine soothes him, keeps him lashed to the old life.
The waiter brings a basket of bread, a bowl of greasy olives. The bread is hot from the oven, hot from the dead heat of the afternoon in this town forged by lava, a town carved out of black volcanic stone. He swipes the screen of the smartphone again. The vast Greenland ice sheet is melting. Another school massacre, children gunned down under their desks. His wife sucks on an olive pit and yawns. He longs to kiss her, taste the olive on her lips, the folds of her tongue. He touches her hand instead. He touches her with his smartphone-swiping hand. She feigns a smile, stifles a yawn, and puts her hand over his. He says something about the massacre — what the fuck is wrong with America? — puts the phone on the table. Of course it has a red-chequerboard tablecloth. The phone sits there like a dead beetle, black and desiccated in the sun. He knocks back the coffee, aches for something stronger. Is it too early in the day? He asks his wife that very question but she is lost in another yawn. Cobwebs of sleep descend over her eyes. He waves discreetly to the waiter, a slight twitch of the finger, and smiles. Very Old World, respectful. He orders a bottle of red.
He wants food too. Something dead on a plate, something charred and unctuous. Wrapped in gently-fried onions and garlic soaked in olive oil. A little sea salt, a bed of pasta. Damn the doctor and his cholesterol pills. He wants something that once was alive, something plucked from the sea. Something bled dry on a butcher’s hook. Something that once was alive — and he would eat it. Such is the power of man. The man raises his finger again. The waiter appears, all smile and charm. He leers at the woman. The man wipes his hand on the cloth napkin on his lap, fiddles with the silverware on the table. A fork would fit perfectly in the waiter’s eye socket, but he asks about the day’s special. Sicilian black swine. Roasted and reared on mushrooms from the dark forests of the Nebrodi. How perfect. How utterly medieval. His wife orders a sliced orange and fennel salad with black olives and shavings of provolone.
She needs the bathroom and excuses herself. He is alone. No one else sits at the kerbside tables. Only outsiders sit in the crushing heat. He does not see the waiter. He’s probably screwing my wife in the bathroom, the man says aloud, hoping to be heard. He thinks about the woman last night. He can’t remember her name, but he sees her face, tastes her smeared lipstick, smells her hair.
He stood in her apartment, half a glass of wine in his trembling hand. The woman revealed herself to him, shadows taking the place of her vanishing clothes. He thought of his wife back in the hotel room, half naked under sweat-dried sheets, her brain fermenting in Prozac. He cowered in the corner, in the dark. A little boy again, frozen by night terrors, hiding from the monster in the closet. It was no place for a little boy and he left.
He met the woman earlier that day when a sacrifice to the gods was in order. They stood at the edge of Etna’s southern slope. She spoke in flawless English to the tourists bleached by the sun. He was determined to break away from the group and jump into the volcano’s slumbering crater. A sacrifice to the gods. He teetered at the crater’s edge, the hot breath of the volcano on his face. Steam escaped from fissures in the lunar landscape. This surely was the forge of Vulcan as the ancients believed, but he shivered in the shroud and swirl of cloud. Snow dusted the lunar landscape and he was woefully underdressed in his black t-shirt and cargo shorts. He felt so foolishly American. So cold. He took the smartphone from a bulging pocket, snapped a selfie and quickly looked around. Luckily, no one saw him. He tapped the screen and sent the photo to his wife, lounging poolside in the hotel. She would not scale Etna with him. She feared the volcano. He was a few steps from the end. A running jump into the abyss with only his footsteps in the snow left behind. His plan was to throw the phone in first — good riddance to it — but the woman’s hand brushes his shoulder, cold sunlight breaks through the low-lying clouds and caresses his cheeks. “Pronto? Ready signore? It is time to go.”
His wife returns from the bathroom. She kisses the top of his head like she’s sticking to some well-worn script. Her salad is waiting. He reaches across the table past the half-empty bottle of wine, and steals a shaving of cheese. She winces at the intrusion but says nothing. A black olive rolls onto the table and sits there like an unexploded grenade. She grabs the neck of the bottle and splashes wine into her empty coffee cup and promptly knocks it back. He watches in wonder; some things still surprise him.
“I saw him,” she says, dabbing the corner of her mouth with a napkin while deftly spearing a slice of fennel with a fork despite her trembling hand. His eyes fall to the smoldering slab of dead swine under his nose. “In the mirror. In the restroom,” she says, the clean crunch of the fennel echoing in his ears like thunder. “Just for a second or two. I knew if I turned around he would be gone so I held his gaze in the mirror. He was so beautiful.”
The man, who has long stopped looking in mirrors, stabs his lunch. The charred flesh cracks like dried paper. He buries the knife until it scrapes the porcelain plate. He will not eat today. His wife turns her attention to a piece of blood orange shaped like a crescent moon but the salad is wet with her tears. Still, they drain the bottle of wine, dutifully pay the bill and walk back to the hotel. They pack their bags. He covers the bathroom mirror with a white towel. They will leave at first light. He wants to press deeper into the high country of the Nebrodi. He wants to keep close to Etna. She wants to go south, to the sea. They dream of the boy and stir in the pre-dawn murk. The air conditioning has spluttered to an inexplicable halt an hour ago and the room is a sealed-up crypt. He shuffles out of bed and opens the French doors to the balcony. The first veins of sunlight appear in sky. The piazza stirs as the market day sellers emerge from the shadows. His gaze lingers on a man and a woman, stretching out their lycra-covered legs for their morning run. The boy sits under a chestnut tree in the middle of the piazza. This is not unexpected. They saw him in London — in a bookshop in Piccadilly, a coffee-house in Vienna, an ancient farmhouse in Calabria where his face appeared as moldy stains on the white walls. He shuts his eyes. Shut them long enough and the boy will disappear — maybe for a few minutes, perhaps a few hours. If he’s lucky, for a few days, a week. Eyes shut, he stumbles backwards, until he sits on the edge of the bed. Grey light seeps through the balcony windows. His wife squirms under the sheets like a trapped kitten. He strains to hear her. “We could always try again,” she says.
He rides the brake of the rented Fiat Punto. The road opens before them like the crooked spine of a dead snake. Death lurks behind every twist in the road, every bump. The dark Nebrodi woods give way to rolling vineyards, thickset olive trees, clumps of prickly pears, tree spurge. The sky is clean, the sun unforgiving. She shivers in the passenger seat and longs for the sea. He strains to see Etna in the rearview mirror. “We could always try again.” Her words gnaw his brain, a never-ending ear worm burrowing deeper into his grey matter. Perhaps, she was right. Try again. Live again. Be baptised in the sea and life begins anew. Or they could hop on a ferry to Greece, to Tunisia. Keep moving to the ends of the earth. Keep moving until the end. Memory cannot last forever.
The serpentine road dips and straightens. Their ears clear with a sickening pop. Sweat binds his hands to the wheel but he eases off the brake. She moves uneasily in the seat. She is about to say something. He knows her words will soon hang in the air like concrete blocks. He turns to her, forces a smile. He does not hear her scream. The boy appears in the road like a frightened mountain hare. Her hands are upon the sweaty wheel. The car swerves to avoid the boy. He pounds his foot on the brake but the car keeps moving, burning rubber across the blacktop. There is no stopping it now — the car breaks free of the road and meets a metal guardrail. Metal twists into metal like melting wax. She hears the screech of a thousand dying birds. He is slumped over the wheel. “We saved him,” she whispers. “We saved him this time.” She presses her hand against his chest. He is breathing. She wipes his brow and wipes the blood from her palm across her knees…
Six months ago, they didn’t save the boy. Her baby had died inside her and still they didn’t save the boy. They drove back from the hospital. The city was a winter graveyard, nothing moved in the blizzard. The car skidded and spluttered through the snow-dead streets. Sweat bound his hands to the steering wheel. The wipers were frozen, the windscreen a sheet of ice. She moved uneasily in the passenger seat. She was about to say something through her tears. He knew her words would soon hang in the air like blocks of ice. He feared her words. He turned to her, forced a smile and leaned over to kiss her wintry cheek. He did not hear her scream. She grabbed the wheel but they could not avoid the boy. He appeared out of the whiteout like a frightened Arctic hare. The snow covered the tyre tracks. The snow cleaned the blood from the tyres, from the sickly yellow headlights of the car. The snow covered the boy. He was not found until the next day.
… there is still blood on her palm and she licks it clean like an animal would a wound. He is still unconscious but his breathing is steady like he is snoring. How annoying. His snoring drives her demented. As soon as his head hits the pillow, he is asleep, unleashing a riot of snoring that keeps her awake until he rolls onto his side. She opens the passenger side window and rips hair from her stinging eyes. She has a clear view of the sea now. An endless vista of beautiful blue. The sea is so close, she can taste the salt on her lips. The sea is so close, she can almost touch it.