'

'

Chapter 15

[Home] [Previous] [Next]
-

They had reached the High Sila, the primitive heights of the toe of Italy. The landscape seemed like a world of fantasy: startling cliffs, wastes of rock sprinkled with broom, forest where the wind hissed irritably in tree-tops too high to be seen clearly. Far down to the west, the brown ribbon of the Via Popilia appeared once through a sudden gap in the mountains and then vanished for good.

Adriana felt weightless, a little giddy, walking a mule-track through the cool green wasteland. She turned often to look at Wolf, the one warm certainty in her life.

"I think we’re safe," she said, "though it can’t be for long. God and the devil come to closer quarters in the South than elsewhere. I have to admit I miss Lucius."

"I do not miss him," Wolf said with settled conviction.

Passing through an alpine valley that looked almost untouched, Adriana imagined that she had entered an unfamiliar room in the house of her life, ushered through the open door by a fragrant breeze. She was eager to go in, to see the world fresh and clean again, like a tablet of wax from which the troubled messages of the past days and months had been smoothed away. She breathed gratefully the cool air of the mountains, content to be safe from Faustinus and the world at large, if only for the time being.

From Stephanus’s gift-sack she prepared a midday meal in the shade of a chestnut, with a frigid brook flowing by. Raising her hands, she said a brief benediction. She sniffed the brigands’ cooked mutton, conscious of the need to eat it before it began to turn, and tasted the chief’s wine critically.

"To the South," she said, raising the skin and winking at Wolf, "whose wines steal every head, whose women steal every heart, and whose men steal everything."

The beverage was black and resinous, tasting of the leather. At the bottom of the sack, wrapped in leaves, were onions boiled in goat’s milk. She passed one to Wolf and ate one herself, and parceled out a slab of dark bread with wheat gleaming in it like gold.

She leaned over and touched the gash in Wolf’s left leg; his other wounds were healing as quickly as if he had passed through the shadow of a saint.

"Do your injuries bother you?"

"Ach," he said ruefully, examining his big hands as if they had personalities of their own, "the cuts are nothing, they are already better. But I hurt here." He struck his chest. "I am no better than an evil dog who bites for pleasure. Yesterday I killed because it is in my nature to kill. I am a true son of my father."

"Ach," Adriana said, gently mimicking him. "Does the hunter weep over the fox? Does the fox weep over the chickens?"

"The hunter kills so he may eat. So does the fox. Even the Vicar’s men fought innocently, because they did not know their cause was corrupt. But I struck them down because the love of striking is in my blood, and I am ashamed."

"But if a man joins himself to an evil cause, whose fault is it that the cause drags him down?" Adriana said, struggling with her own misgivings.

Fragments of the battle came to her, like hallucinations: the cries of dismembered men against the crackling of the inn in flames; a bright pass of the axe Scatter-brain, sending a corner of a German mercenary’s head into flight with the blond hair attached; Wolf singing a battle song at the top of his clear baritone, a strange and terrible sound, like the hum of a monstrous bee. But the sounds and sights belonged to another world.

"When we burned the inn," she said, "I threw myself into the fight because I expected to die, and a part of me was ready to do that, because I was tired of running from Faustinus and losing my life gradually. I thought you’d be killed too, and that made me ready to die all the more."

She drained the wineskin.

"But now I’m glad to live," she said.

She looked around, marveling at the clarity of the mountain air and the greenness of the rocky landscape, high enough to attract rain even under the Dog Star. The spring-fed runlet at her feet glistened like antique glass in its frame of scrub-willow. The meal had scarcely filled her.

"Sleep," she said, stroking Wolf’s forehead. "All men must take a nap after lunch."

She watched him doze. When he slept, she kissed him on the lips and stroked his hair. Then she herself dozed, with her head on his bare chest, lulled by the rhythm of his breathing. Frogs croaked in a downstream marsh; crickets sang contentedly in the weeds. Rolling over, she lay with her back against Wolf, her head on the broad tableland of his shoulder. She listened to the mountain wind complaining in tall grass, and traced with her eye the black mountain-crests to the south, quivering in the sun as if they were beginning to grow.

Wolf woke and stretched like a lion.

"Do you think we should spend our lives here?" she drowsed. "Maybe the shepherds will bring us our meals."

"No, we must keep moving," he said, getting up and hauling her to her feet. The authority of his manner pleased her.

They knelt at the spring, washed each other with handfuls of cold water, and struck out half-clothed on the mule-track again without waiting for the sun to dry them. They were entirely at peace, body and mind. Adriana gloried in the details of the immaculate day. Nothing in her lowland life had prepared her for the perfection of the air and the clarity of the sunlight. Enchanted, she was indifferent to where she would spend the coming night, what she would eat, how she would make a fire.

In a high valley in the late afternoon, she was surprised to find people, and a delicious and familiar aroma. A troop of singing peasants near the road were making mountain hay, full of clover, cistus, and thyme. From a distant mountain came the plaintive notes of a shepherd’s pipe, a haunting melody, older than Theocritus.

A village lay at the center of the small green valley-world, a cluster of red roofs circled by an ancient wall that had crumbled with the passing of the Greeks. Adriana stopped a boy leading an ox down the road.

"What’s the shortest way to the church?" she asked, scratching the ox around the horns.

The boy pointed back toward the end of the village's main street, a little rustic sanctuary that Adriana had overlooked, sleeping in a circle of chestnut trees.

"Straight ahead, right behind those trees, Your Piety." 

The boy bowed; Adriana bowed back.

"I like this place," she said to Wolf as they walked toward the village. "When was the last time you witnessed courtesy for its own sake?"

On the main street, women wove straw baskets as they went about their business, and little nude children played in the thoroughfare, where the only wheeled traffic was an occasional creaking oxcart. Dark-eyed children shouted Ave! at the strangers from the dirt in front of their doorways. An old man, drinking black wine on his doorstep, nodded graciously to Adriana as she passed. There was no pervasive smell of despair, no rumble of gathering storms. The people seemed made of muscle and virtue.

"What country is this?" Adriana asked, shaking her head. "I have the feeling that something good will happen to us here. Is that a sign of approaching disaster?"

The church sat on a knoll at the southmost curve of the village wall. It had a brownstone façade and a red-tile roof crusted with lichens. Bees hummed among the roses framing the entrance. A little girl sat on the church steps, stringing berries and singing softly to herself.

Adriana took Wolf’s hand, crossed the quadrangle, and stepped into the sanctuary, lifting the door-curtain that shifted in the breeze. She knelt on the dusty church-floor in the cool silence; Wolf knelt beside her. A little round priest in a white tunic was on his knees at the altar. A huge dog sat at his elbow, gazing on his master’s face with an attitude of perfect reverence. The altar lamp seemed to beckon to Adriana, swinging slowly to and fro. She advanced toward it, went to her knees again, and bowed her head down to the stones. Covering her face with her hands, she prayed with all the force of her spirit, giving thanks for her safe arrival in the high forest.

Crossing himself energetically, the holy man got up from his knees and approached his visitors with crisp little steps. He beamed at them, a little near-sighted, and spoke graciously. The voice had a slight rasp; in a less holy man it might have suggested devotion to the wineskin.

"What do you wish, children? Do you need to make confession?"

"Doubtless we do, Father," Adriana answered, rising to kiss the little man’s ring, "but my reason for interrupting Your Piety’s devotions is to ask whether my husband and I may impose on your hospitality for a night. This signet of Bishop Leo’s is my authorization to ask. I have a letter of introduction as well."

She produced the jasper ring.

"Of course," the priest nodded, raising his white eyebrows at the massive stone.

"This man is my husband in the eyes of God," Adriana said, gesturing at Wolf, anticipating the question.

"I’m Father Oppius. I have two rooms for guests," the priest said. "They’re yours to use as you please. Are you hungry?"

"Always, it seems," Adriana said ruefully, and Wolf nodded.

"Yes, your faces are pinched, my dears," Father Oppius said, squinting at them with sympathy. The dog sniffed at each of them in turn, wagged his huge tail, and gave a booming bark of satisfaction.

"You see," the priest said, "Spino has both a mind and a nose, by which he can tell the children of God from the children of the devil. He’s eloquent also; he can deliver whole sermons with his tail. Come to my house."

With brisk steps Father Oppius led his visitors to a stone house tucked up against the church. The entrance was off the garden, past a fountain, some broken sculpture, and a sundial. Chickens scratched in the company of a stately, gruff-voiced, very respectable pig, rooting under a walnut tree.

"Here in Curia, as you see," the priest said, with a full sweep of his right arm, "we’re at peace with God and the earth." His gesture took in a rustic version of a heaven where manure and flies might not be out of place.

"Do you know why we’re happy and safe here? It’s because we have nothing worth stealing. In the old days, when our great-grandfathers were rich, the brigands and the emperor took gold by force, and the bishop took gold with the Book. But now we don’t even have gold plates in our church, so the world has lost interest in us. If you’re going to end with nothing, it’s best to live with nothing, eh? Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and the daily grace of God in between."

As if to give point to his words, Father Oppius slapped a puff of rural dust out of the front of his tunic, and sneezed. It was a mellow sneeze from a nose at peace with itself, contented as the coo of a pigeon.

In a corner of the garden stood a long marble bench under a trellis. At Father Oppius’s invitation Adriana and Wolf sat on either side of him. The priest closed his eyes and smiled peacefully into the declining sun.

"So. It’s very hot today. You’ve come to our valley to learn how to simmer?"

"We have lowland blood, Father," Adriana said. "The day has seemed cool to us." She gave as detailed an account of her circumstances as she thought the priest’s patience would allow.

"We’re grateful to have come to a Christian place," she concluded.

"Oh, Curia’s a bad village," Father Oppius said affectionately. "I preach and preach, and the rascals don’t care a rotten fig for what I say. I paint them a candid picture of Hades, with all its comforts. I encourage them to think beyond the Black Doors that open only one way. Pfff! They’re incorrigible. A whip of scorpions wouldn’t drive them to repentance."

He smiled affectionately, thinking of his flock. His face was as wrinkled as a roasted apple, but his eyes were happy as a child’s, and he had the quality of eternal youth that attached itself to the best saints.

The enormous dog had been watching with his bloodshot eyes. His upper lip was hitched on one of his lower fangs, giving the effect of a crocodilian smile.

"Ugly animal, do you wish these people well?" the priest asked, rubbing the monster’s head. "If you’re good, you may go hunting with me on the day of Januarius."

The dog’s tail thumped the floor like a padded log.

"Spino’s truly a Christian," Father Oppius mused. "He has a soul of honey. Woe, however, to the man who trifles with him. He killed a grown wolf when he was hardly more than a boy. Do you think a wise man would put his sweet nature to the test, my dears?"

"If I were the wise man, I’d make confession first," Adriana said.

Father Oppius raised his white eyebrows, made a droll expression, and chuckled with explosive little rushes of air between clenched teeth. His florid face, unusual in the South, bobbed up and down, side to side, as his conversation galloped forward at the speed of thought. In time his housekeeper, a pleasant lump of a woman, appeared with an honest smile on her flat face, and bowed.

"We’re invited to supper," the priest said, rising and motioning to his guests to follow him.

His kitchen had stone walls and pine ceilings blackened by smoke. Roasting-spits leaned against the hearth; rows of wine-jars stood on a ledge near the low door. Cheeses were arrayed on a wooden shelf by the table. Father Oppius apparently owned no slaves; he himself conducted his guests to their simple couches. The smiling housekeeper produced bread, figs, and cheese. They disappeared at once. Like starved children, Adriana and Wolf devoured a plate of steaming pork and string-beans, and washed everything down with red wine. For a while there was no conversation, only the sound of jaws at work.

"You must drink, too, my dears," the priest said, filling their goblets often. "Wine’s good for you. I don’t mix much water with it. It’s already Christian. Why should it be baptized?"

He poured it out carefully, a deep red drink with a spicy bouquet. Adriana lifted her goblet and examined the liquid appreciatively in the lamplight, and sniffed it to show what a treat it was.

"Yes, we’re an evangelized valley," the priest said, smacking his lips and patting his fringe of white hair, "but in truth much of what we enjoy here is what our sinful ancestors enjoyed, right down to the boar in front of you. These hills are full of wild pigs, even in a bad season like the present one. In two days, if you’re willing, you can test the truth of that for yourselves. It’s the feast day of Blessed Januarius. We celebrate it in our own way, with a hunt and a feast, rather than by putting on long faces and pounding our chests and going to bed hungry like foolish monks."

Spino had been making huge wolfish leaps in the air to catch pieces of bread that Father Oppius threw. When he was full, he began snuffling under the furniture.

"Poor child," the priest murmured, "he’s looking for my housekeeper’s yellow cat. The cat has been dead for months."

"This place brings back the past," Adriana mused. "I had a dog like yours once. We used to chase quail through the grass together at our farm, and we made friends with all the wine-carters on the road. Once we rode a cart right up to the gates of Rome, Maccus and I, sitting side by side on the seat while the driver slept. My mother was frantic."

"Ah, mothers, it’s their calling to be frantic," the priest beamed. "Are you full? Perhaps you’d care to walk in the garden?"

The three wandered outdoors. The sun had dipped behind the pines on the hillcrests. Warm orange light poured through the foliage of Father Oppius’s walnut tree.

"There’s always a sweet scent in this place," the priest said, inhaling it. "Clematis, dog-roses, new-mown hay, crushed grapes, according to the season. And dear Basilia keeps everything clean and treats me as if I were a child or a fool, which pleases me."

A ribbon of bird-song went up somewhere in the dog-rose hedge.

"Yes, still the nightingale," the priest said. "But not the same song as in the spring. He’s teaching his youngsters how to sing next year. God grant that we’ll be alive next year to hear the song. Your eyes are tired, my dears. I think I’ve kept you up. But first, a bedtime treat."

In the kitchen again, Adriana and Wolf heard a clicking of amphorae and a rustling of straw in the priest’s winecellar. Soon the holy man reappeared, red-faced, carrying a dusty jar with great care.

"Praise God, I’ve fallen heir to a magnificent cellar," he beamed, pouring out a mellow old wine in fresh goblets. "Now you’ll sleep soundly, children, and have only good dreams."

He made the sign of the cross on their foreheads after they had drunk the bedtime potion. "Basilia will show you to your rooms."

At Wolf’s door, Adriana kissed him good-night and followed Basilia a few doors further. Her own guest-room was immaculate, the bedding pleasantly touched with lavender. The housekeeper had put a fragrant pot of balsam in the window and kindled a pine-knot fire in the brazier. Basilia brought a battered mirror, a pitcher of water, toilet implements, and a dish.

Adriana examined her reflection with a deploring eye. Her hair fell in dark chaos over her neck and shoulders. She raked it with her fingers, then with a comb, and coiled it into a loose knot at the back of her head. Her tunic was frayed at the seams, spattered with green mud. She threw it off and washed herself thoroughly, and lay down naked in the clean bed. Sweet mountain air drifted through the open window, caressing her skin. She put out her lamp and lay awake for a moment, questioning whether she should go to Wolf on tiptoe, but she slept before the answer came.

*

According to Father Oppius, the hills southeast of the village of Curia contained the perfect retreat, a deserted hunting-villa where two young fugitives might hide indefinitely from all manner of injustice. The house had been inhabited only once during the last fifty years, by the oddest man the people of Curia had ever seen.

Over a breakfast of boiled eggs, Father Oppius chatted happily about the history of the place: how the owners, weary of the mountains and in reduced circumstances, had gathered up their belongings and lumbered down to Vibo in seven wagons; how an emaciated Egyptian monk had taken up residence in the deserted villa many years later, and had performed healings among the peasants, preached deep sermons to the squirrels and jays, and exorcised a demon-possessed swine in the ruined banquet-hall.

"It would take Lucifer himself to trace you there," Father Oppius said, with a conspiratorial twinkle.

He was in high spirits, ready to lead his guests into the hills. Draping a napkin over his bald head as a sunshield, he whistled up Spino, who knocked over a stool in his eagerness to go. The day was brilliantly clear, with endless blue-and-gold distances. The air had almost a cutting freshness, as if it had blown over lingering patches of snow on the mountains rising to the east. For the first time since leaving Nomentum, Adriana heard a peasant boy singing in the fields as he took his cattle to pasture, a simple melody that she remembered from her days on the farm. Spontaneously she joined in the boy’s song as she toiled uphill. Soon Wolf was singing too, in his honest baritone, as much of the tune as he could gather.

Above the village and the hillside fields, the path wound through chestnut thickets and dissolved into an evergreen upland.

"Too rocky to be farmed, my dears," the priest said, whacking a boulder with his staff. "These mountains are left to the bears and the strawberries, and all the little rivers boil with trout. Up here it’s so quiet at night you can hear the cattle lowing in the valley, and the snow touching the ground in winter."

He led his guests up a shallow ridge of granite with a superb view of the valley. An enchanted corner of the world presented itself. Tumbling down the mountain, a south-flowing creek widened into a pond, dammed by an earthquake that had dropped fragments of an overhanging cliff into the creek-bed. The deserted villa stood next to the pond in undisturbed long grass, shadowed by old pines. It was ruined, like a bird’s nest shaken down in a storm, and Adriana loved it immediately.

Half the shutters were off their hinges. A pointless balcony overhanging the entrance suggested a woman whose headdress had come down over her nose. The front door lay flat in the vestibule.

Father Oppius made an inclusive gesture with his arm. "As you see, it’s long deserted—a blessing, because the flea has gone elsewhere for his daily bread."

The interior was littered with dead leaves and plaster. There were eroded frescoes on the walls, and gleams of marble from corners where the weather had not penetrated. The invaders went from room to room in polite silence, inspecting water-streaked frescoes, shattered window-casings, cobwebbed ceilings with sparrows’ nests tucked into the corners. A rusty brazier stood in the dining room, next to a marble table-top broken neatly in half. In the kitchen, strings of mummified onions hung from the rafters.

The last tenant had left a message in charcoal on a wall next to the hearth, in a precise monkish hand:

Probus, servant of God, to persons in and out of the Faith: Treat this place tenderly. Do not profane it with chicken bones and other trash. Do not dig up the floor or abuse the walls in search of the devil’s gold. Farewell.

"I’ll lend you a pot and a pair of spoons," the priest said consolingly, "and Basilia will let you borrow a broom. Oh, it’s sad now—no fire in the braziers, no wine in the cellar, birds spotting the mosaics, rabbits breeding in the hearth. It’s sad, isn’t it, Spino?"

He turned to the dog, who yawned cavernously and pounded the floor with his tail.

"Nevertheless, it’s a fortress," Adriana said, tapping the kitchen door, solid oak.

She led the party into the garden. It was a wilderness of weeds. A pretentious two-story portico surrounded and rather overwhelmed the open space. Poppies waved above the uncut grass, where marble Cupids and Fauns lay without their arrows and pipes. Water-weeds had taken over the reflective pool.

The priest rested on a marble bench, by a fountain that spouted spring water from a Triton’s horn.

"Cold as midwinter," he beamed, "and excellent as to taste. Of course, there are those of us who prefer a little mouthful of the grape."

Appropriately he drew a wineskin out of the folds of his tunic. The three sat side by side on the bench and sipped black wine, and scattered their conversation on the cool breeze that drifted down from the mountaintops.

The heights were haunted, Father Oppius explained; no sober citizen could doubt it. Moans could be heard nightly, with curses in the old Bruttian tongue. Still, if not entirely free of supernatural pests, the place was remarkably free of natural ones. Rodents were few. Mosquitoes thought more highly of the valley. Bats favored the caves downriver.

"It’s considered, by the way, an ill-tempered stream," Father Oppius cautioned. "Our local people won’t go near it at night for fear of water-sprites."

Nevertheless it had the advantage of leading up to the rich hunting grounds of the remote Sila, where huge platters of game could be shot in any season of the year. Even in winter, when the primitive roads were buried and the barren cliffs white-faced, there was worthwhile game on the heights.

Father Oppius had arrived at his favorite subject, hunting.

"In Curia," he said, "we often celebrate the Lord’s Day with a hunt. First we say Mass. Then we go to the chase, for love of God and the saints. My dears, it would be irreligious of you to forget that tomorrow is the feast day of Blessed Januarius, one of the Seven Holy Brothers, martyred sons of Felicitas. Our little church preserves a pellet from the leaded whip by which Januarius died. On his day, wild pigs never fail to wait for us in the hills east of here. Everyone who is anyone will be there, as they say at Rome, eh? The women often knit and gossip."

He nodded pleasingly at Adriana.

"Never in my life have I knitted at a hunt," Adriana said. "I’ll hunt with the rest of you, and you won’t be ashamed of me."

"Ah, ah," the priest said, and rose to go.

He turned with an afterthought. "One thing more. Don’t miss the sunsets from Old Baldy above the rapids, where Blessed Probus used to sit and await the Coming of the Lord. You’ll come down with the glow of Sinai on your faces, and you’ll say, ‘Christ be thanked for the residue of Eden’s glory that’s been left to us, a reminder of how far we’ve fallen, and how high we’ll rise again.’"

He bowed farewell and smiled approvingly at the couple. "You’re well suited to one another. The notary who recorded your union must’ve had a twinkle in his eye."

"Unhappily, Father," Adriana said, with an uneasy stirring next to her heart, "the union hasn’t been notarized. It’s a privately contracted marriage. Nor has it been formally blessed."

"Ah." The priest beamed roundly. "You’re One Flesh according to the will of God?"

"Yes, Father."

"The notarization is the State’s business," Father Oppius said. "The blessing is mine, I think. I favor brevity in these matters. May the Lord who unites you in one flesh keep you true to each other, make you fruitful in offspring, let your old age be the joy you hope for, and bring you at last into his heavenly kingdom."

He traced a large cross in the air, kissed the fingers of his right hand, and waved them at Adriana. Wolf said a fervent Amen. Spino wagged his tail.

"Mass is at two hours past sunrise. Bring such weapons as you have, and a clear head."

Reluctant to let the morning go, Adriana and Wolf followed Father Oppius to the edge of the forest, and watched the two old figures, priest and dog, disappear into the valley.

*

She inspected the house again. The kitchen was the obvious place to stay. It was dry and decently preserved, and its roof seemed tight.

"There must have been a Last Day," Adriana mused.

In her mind she reconstructed the death of the little hunting-villa fifty years earlier: the front door closing for the last time; the impoverished lord and lady, he with his chin set, she in tears, not looking back; the key delivered to the village priest; the long last journey back to the family palace in Vibo, down the mountainside in creaking oxcarts followed by a few old servants on foot.

"We could do worse," Adriana said. "We could be serfs at Cousin Gallia’s, living in a windowless hole coated with pig-dung, and never eating meat unless one of the pigs got sick and died. Let’s get this place in order."

"Madam, I would like to be domestic later. I feel the need to be in the sun," Wolf said, looking out over the kitchen garden to the pond, dark under a fringe of willows. The morning breeze had gone; the clear water mirrored perfectly the silver-feathery leaves, illuminated in flashes where the sun struck through high foliage.

They went to the water’s edge. Wolf skipped a flat stone across the surface, shattering the mirror. They knelt side by side and looked at themselves in the water. Next to Wolf’s blond good looks, Adriana saw nothing of beauty in herself, only sun-browned skin, dark hair roughened by the weather, and cheek-bones that seemed to have been sharpened by the elements.

"Am I hideous?" she asked, feeling like a piece of wood with human features.

He smoothed the hair at her temples with his fingers. "Yes, madam, you are very disgusting."

"I’m glad. You deserve a disgusting woman," she said, lightly slapping his cheek.

On the far side of the water, near the mouth of the creek, a tiny beach burned brightly in the late sun.

"Champion of the barbarous North, I’ll beat you to that spot," Adriana said, pointing to the beach and discarding her tunic.

"Gut, I feel the need to swim," Wolf said. Like a schoolboy he shucked off his boots and tunic, and threw them in a heap under a bush. His long body flashed like a sickle in the sun, and disappeared with a towering splash.

"Unfair advantage!" she shouted, diving after him. She saw a blond head and long arms moving on the far side of the pond. Then Wolf vanished beneath the black-crystal face of the water.

"Beast!" she yelled, laughing, and prepared for an attack from below. She swam eastward a dozen strokes and stood shivering on the rocky bottom, waiting for Wolf to surface.

Blowing spray and facing away from her, he came up where she had stood a moment before. She caught her breath, slipped back into the dark water, and swam below the surface as long as she could hold her wind. Quietly she emerged on the east end of the pond. Wolf was peering around for her on the west.

"You’re blind as a mole," she called.

Grinning fiercely, he turned and swam toward her with rapid strokes. She screamed like a child being chased and dived down again among the cold-mouthed monsters of the deep. A churning hubbub swept past her a few feet away. She came up and swam quietly after Wolf, in his noisy wake.

He stood up knee-deep in water near the beach, cocking his head, looking for her in the east. She slid up behind him like an eel, and grabbed him by both ankles. With a startled yell he snapped his muscular legs together.

He bent down and lifted her high off her feet, kissed her on the mouth, and wrapped his great arms around her shoulders. Warmth crowded her chest. She slid her hands down the long, smooth valley of his spine and kneaded the apple-curve of his wet buttocks with her fingers.

They lay close, under a rippling coverlet of water.

"Will it be good here?" she whispered, half-serious.

"You will give birth to a swimmer," he breathed, sliding into her.

She buried her fingers in his wet hair, threw her head back, showed white teeth to the sun, dug her heels into the sand. Little waves lapped at her head and shoulders. With a long shudder from his shoulders to his thighs he poured himself into her and lay still, cradling her head in his hands, caressing her forehead and temples with his mouth.

They dozed in the sun, and swam together again, in the shadow of a rock-face draped with creepers. Wolf dived like a porpoise and brought up beige sand from the bottom. Calm after love, Adriana imagined that she floated above an undiscovered world, a place of a thousand astonishments. She thought she could hear rocks rolling over in their sleep on the bottom. A sound of underwater cows cropping lily-pads came from the western margin of the pond, where the rapids were. She drew closer to Wolf until they floated shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand.

"There’s no one else here," she marveled, and the sound of her own words startled her. "Do you remember the last time you were away from all human voices but one?"

He smiled amiably and floated a little longer, but in a few minutes he was on shore, tossing pebbles into the water.

"Are you restless?" she said.

"The creek. I wish to explore it."

"Is it possible for a German to stay in one place for a finger’s width on the sundial?" she grumbled.

They climbed the creekbed. The little torrent rattled down from the highest heights, clean and fresh as a bowl of strawberries. Frogs went silent at the intruders’ approach. Families of sunning turtles flopped off their logs.

Upland, Adriana was seized with a spirit of exploration and took the lead; Wolf followed complacently. They traced forgotten roads that wound through the pine woods, and paths used only by charcoal-burners and goats. Ignoring their scratched legs, they pushed higher, where there were fields of strawberries and caches of fallen nuts. They sat in the shade of a great pine, and fed each other strawberries. Two squirrels came to scold. Wolf spotted pine-cones at them, grinning at the tiny beasts’ rage.

The creek guided them home again, an hour before sunset.

"Let us see the world from the monk’s pillar," Wolf said, eager as a little boy.

They crossed the creek below the pond, where the stream broke into rapids and tumbled westward into an unseen valley. Probus the monk had set flat stones at stepwise intervals across the ford, and had stretched a rope between stout pines on opposite sides of the creek, to steady himself.

She took off her sandals and walked Probus’s stones without the rope. The path up Old Baldy was tortuous. The prattle of the creek grew faint below her. Wolf reached the bald crest and pulled Adriana up after him. There was room for two people to move comfortably, and a little altar of rock, at which Probus had prayed from sunrise to sunset, mortifying the flesh, dreaming of the Millenium.

Adriana felt that she had passed beyond time and space, that she watched the creation, like God, from the kindly perspective of Omnipotence. From her high corner of the cosmos she looked out over the small world of Curia, rolling up against violet hills in the distance, where rows of pine on lonely heights were fading into the dusk. Westward, other valleys appeared as lakes of sapphire below the crimson sunset. Away to the east, ridge after ridge of mountains receded into a smoky haze.

The enchantment of the mountains invaded her soul, undermining her purpose, inviting her to reduce her life to the essentials she had dreamed of at Rome. She would be like a hawk or a squirrel, living at a level of creation unknown to ordinary people. She would eat porridge, and wear nothing on her agile body but an unbleached tunic, and climb trees, and swim naked, and run wild over the rough pastures with the sheep and the goats, especially now that there were no servants watching.

She would have time to enjoy children again, to gossip with the market-women in the village, to play bladder-ball with Wolf in the ruined garden, to fish in the pond all day under a straw hat, to play dominoes in the shade, and dance to the music of a shepherd’s double-flute, and eat figs in the shade of a pine-grove. On ambitious days, she would work alongside the peasants in the valley, hoeing a little, mending hedges, staking young trees. . . .

She had lost track of time. Three stars twinkled above the scarlet veil of the western sky. She lay back on her elbows and watched Wolf against the glow: the whip-like body built for war, and the beautiful, paradoxical, unspoiled head.

"We should go down before it’s dark," she said reluctantly at last.

They climbed down the cliffside with care and strolled home, arm in arm, through pine groves that were still warm from the day-long sun. In the last light Adriana laid a bed for the two of them, of pine boughs and green fern, in the kitchen, where there would be reliable warmth. She stirred the hearth-fire and blew on it through a hollow reed to warm the supper Basilia had prepared for her earlier: steaming-hot chestnut cakes, delicately patterned by the fresh chestnut-leaves in which they had been baked, with light wine and honey.

On a flat boulder by the pond, Adriana and Wolf ate elbow-to-elbow, watching the summer night draw its shadows over the woods. In the last daylight they went up the shallow granite ridge that bordered the pond, and sat looking into the valley, down the long slope they had climbed in the morning. One by one the doors of little stone farmhouses were closing for the night. A reddish glow of lamps appeared at the windows.

All around the two silent watchers on the hill, an immense space spread itself between earth and sky, filled with dusky starlight and a fragrance of balsam and pine-smoke. Soon the world was silent, all but the forest, breathing peacefully like a giant asleep.

"Lord, I’d like to have my childhood to look forward to again," Adriana murmured, "instead of a life gliding through the court like a jewel-box on legs, smiling until the corners of my mouth are paralyzed. Sometimes I wish I’d never grown up. Do you ever feel that way? You’re an excellent adult, but so serious I sometimes wonder if you were ever a child."

She could feel Wolf’s smile rather than see it.

"There are nights," he said softly, "when I would give twelve months of the king’s wages to stand in my mother’s kitchen and hear her say ‘Darling beggar!’ again. She would always hand me something with honey on it, and shake her finger at me, and say, ‘A king’s son may ask, but he does not beg.’"

His voice caught, in sentiment or embarrassment.

"Let us be children again, Adriana," he said after a silence.

"Yes," she said.

A full moon rode over their heads, throwing soft shadows behind them on the forest floor. Across the valley, mist crept like smoke along the wooded slopes and gathered in the higher glens. Small noises asserted themselves: the snap of a twig, the hum of a beetle’s wings, the distant drumming of falling water. The night air was crisp on the heights.

She took Wolf’s hand and walked back to the house. He barred the kitchen doors to keep out large beasts, but left the shutters wide. The supper fire had died to a red glow. In the consoling warmth of the hearth, they crept between the cloaks they had used to make their fragrant bed. She pressed close to him, resting her head against the dry warmth of his chest.

Outside, in the villa garden, crickets chirped in the box-bushes and the deep grass. All else was still but the murmur of the creek. Wolf slept. Adriana lay watching the sky, where Scorpio confronted Libra, and Hercules prepared to play the Lyre. She went to sleep trying to name the white star that kept watch over her, winking at her through the calm radiance of the moon.

-
[Home] [Previous] [Next]

 

'

'