Luca returned to the villa on his brother’s birthday. His family were there, as they had always been, drinking wine and passing plates of antipasti between themselves, the four of them seated in a line along the balcony like a small, bored audience awaiting the late appearance of an actor. No one was speaking; they had reached the nadir of a day of idle, perfunctory conversation, when everything had finally been said, and all that was left to do was to watch the evening’s soft, blue blanket fold across the sleeping bosom of the campagnia. Twilight. That quiet, fateful hour. The family shivered, suddenly; a soft breeze had descended on them, or a shared, internal shuddering.
That was when they saw him: a tin-white twinkle cresting a distant hill, as though one of the stars had risen early to savour the forbidden earth. There was an aspect to it, furtive, and yet fiery, that reminded them all of Luca, even before they knew who or what it portended. Niccolò was the first to spot it.
Look, he said, pointing. The others squinted.
Oh yes – look at that! said Maria, eager to talk about something again. Then she said, Where is it?
To the left, said Niccolò. Left of the village.
Francesca had spotted it. What is it? she asked.
I think it’s a car, said Giuseppe, who had a very amateur interest in vehicles. Yes, I’m right – it’s a car!
The twinkling light was floating closer, shimmering and growing in size. It followed a road to the right, then vanished behind a hedgerow. They felt their hearts sink, each of them; they had invested their souls in this strange, cruelly extinguished twinkle. But then it emerged again, less brightly but more distinctly in the shape of a motor car, small and glossily black like a polished boot, with beigey-grey doors and white wheels. It came to the road that passed across the bog, and seemed to change its mind, taking another detour to the right. But then it looped back around again, meandering past the arid, empty farmland, and finally, with renewed determination, approaching the villa in a straight line.
Niccolò and Maria and Francesca glanced at Giuseppe, a glance of misplaced patriarchal deference. By now Giuseppe was old. His dark hair and pale skin were taking on the same ashy look and texture. He said things that made no sense. They each feared, privately, that he would be the next in the family to go. But until then there was the tacit expectation for him to come to their rescue, whatever the threat. They were an afflicted family; everything was a threat to them.
Giuseppe met their stares and nodded, the old knight accepting his natural duty. He stubbed out the cigarette he had been smoking on the blueing stucco wall beside him. Then he stood, slowly, somewhat warily, and squeezed between the chairs to make his way downstairs. Slowly, warily, the others followed.
When they reached the front door the car was just parking up, like a great black mechanical beast settling into its new territory. The scleral headlights blazed at them like bright, maniacal eyes. The engine growled hungrily. It no longer looked like a boot.
Suddenly the eyes blinked off, the growling ceased, and a tall man in a white shirt, yellow waistcoat and leaf-green bowler hat sprang out of the car, as though the great black beast were regurgitating a tasteless meal. The man, his face darkened by the distance, cantered spritely over, hardly stifling the urge to sprint, and crying Buona serata! as he approached.
The four of them stood and stared, and did not move. Francesca whispered to Niccolò, Who is this?
I don’t know, he replied.
The man approached them, moving under the amber glow of the overhead lanterns. His bright clothes gleamed, seeming greedily to absorb what little light patterned their own patchwork apparel. Some of the light illuminated a small leather bag at his side and a silver watch high up his wrist. But it was only when he removed his hat, delivering the fatuous bow of an aspiring thespian, that they recognised Luca’s curly, oily black hair.
Giuseppe and Maria rushed forward, enveloping their son in a double-barrelled embrace. Niccolò and Francesca moved tentatively, unsurely, towards them.
Is this him? she asked Niccolò, her hushed voice sinking to even lower depths as they approached.
Niccolò nodded grimly.
It has been so long, Luca was saying, since I’ve seen you all. He uncoiled himself gracefully from his parents and pounced on Niccolò, wrapping his arms around the smaller man, so tightly that Niccolò himself could not return the gesture even if he had wished to. Even in moments of ostensible tenderness, Luca liked to remind his brother of his size, which was his way of reminding him of his place in the world, in their world. Yes, thought Niccolò, struggling to free himself. This really is him – the same old Luca.
Luca finally let Niccolò go. Then his eyes, saccading crazily and blazing like the headlights of the car, alighted at last on Francesca. With her soft, impassive eyes, her lunar-yellow skin and blonde hair, she was something of an anomaly among the others, a fresh flower among the old weeds.
And who, might I ask, is this? said Luca. A forgotten sibling of ours? And he shone a sly smile at Niccolò. But no, he continued, I could never forget someone so beautiful. No, no, no – you must be Niccolò’s sweetheart.
Fiancée, corrected Niccolò. He laid a trembling arm along her shoulder. Francesca herself said nothing. She looked at the floor.
Oh, you poor girl, said Luca, grinning. He embraced her slowly, almost cautiously, both his hands meeting behind her back. Niccolò had done well to find a girl smaller than himself.
I’m Luca, he said, breaking apart. Your brother-in-law-to-be. And he grinned, baring the brown tips of his upper teeth.
Francesca, she said. Nice to meet you.
For a brief second his smile wavered. Niccolò sensed it in him, the same, fleeting tremor they had all felt on the balcony. Typical that this almost magical anxiety was the only thing they had in common.
Giuseppe was already examining the car. Maria headed inside to prepare the meal, and Francesca took that as her cue to join her, leaving Niccolò and Luca alone.
Well, brother, said Luca, facing Niccolò after watching Francesca slip inside. Happy birthday to us. How old are you now?
Twenty-three. The same age as you.
Of course, of course. But not quite. I’m a few minutes older than you, don’t forget.
Niccolò glowered. Luca smiled back – was the expression genuine, his brother wondered, or an affected defence against a petty threat? – and reached into his bag. He rummaged around for a moment, then brought out a small, bundled something. I got you a gift from England, he said, proffering it.
Niccolò opened it. It was a watch, though different from the one Luca was wearing. The face was white, the leather strap black. It made a little ticking sound, like an irritated insect. He held it as such, examining it at a distance, as though it might leap onto his head.
What have you got me? said Luca, appraising his brother’s speechless expression.
Niccolò looked up, and placed the watch in the pocket of his breeches. I didn’t know you were coming. None of us did.
Nothing then, said Luca, pretending to look pained. They stood there for a time, saying nothing. But the spell of conversation had trapped them in the same snare. Neither of them could think of an excuse, a way of escaping. Finally Niccolò asked the question.
Why did you come back?
For a moment Luca looked shocked. Then Giuseppe returned from the car, dispelling the tension, or at least delaying it.
Magnificent beast, that. A Ford?
No, no, said Luca. A Phantom III, Rolls Royce. He pronounced the Is alphabetically – ee ee ee.
Giuseppe nodded. Well, I was close, he said. Niccolò, have you ever seen a car?
They continued to chat, aimlessly. The exhausted small talk returned, half-heartedly. Giuseppe asked Luca everything he had asked Francesca a few hours before, reserving the larger questions for the dinner table, or simply forgetting to ask.
How have you been? I haven’t been so bad. How was the summer for you? Ours was dreadful – dreadful! The sunflowers are withering, the olives aren’t growing…Do you think there’ll be war? Myself, I don’t think so…
But it was Niccolò’s question that hung over Luca, like an angry, intractable fly. It continued to buzz in his ear, even as he answered Giuseppe’s interrogations, as if he did not yet know the answer. He had let his fraternal defences down.
Maria’s shout from the kitchen summoned the men inside at last. There was an unwittingly angry tone in her voice – she had the habit of raising her voice like an executioner’s axe whenever food was concerned – but, mingled with the shock of consternation, each of the three men enjoyed a gush of cool relief.
Giuseppe sprang inside first, leading the way as if neither of his sons had been in the house before. He pointed out the new addition to the hallway, an ancient painting of a pair of canaries, inherited from Maria’s recently deceased uncle (Luca had not known him). But it won’t be here long, adjoined Niccolò. Father plans on selling it.
Luca nodded, paying only the barest attention. He was overwhelmed with memory. Here was the very corridor where he and Nico and Francesco – poor, old Francesco – had played their games, thrashing into walls and side drawers and one another, jumping, running, laughing. To him the painting was an affront to his mythical, precious sense of the place. His revulsion was stoked by the fact – not opinion – that the picture really was very bad; those poor birds, against their boldly blank background, may just as easily have been ducklings, or toads, or speckled lemons. He threw it a dour glance as he passed.
And now the kitchen. What memories lingered in here, ghosts of the ancient past tumbling about like clumsy children, threatening to knock everything off its shelf, upset the chairs and the table and the adults balancing on their long, precarious legs, threatening to bring the whole place to the ground. It all felt unreal to Luca, like a place from an old dream suddenly given substance. And it seemed smaller than it should have been, less colourful – perhaps time had left its grey film on everything, or had simply made his memories more vivid, less reliable. But it was not the size or the colour of things but the meagreness of it all that shocked him the most, the bland unframed cupboards, the crooked ceiling which sagged, hammock-like, at the centre, the shabby square table overlaid with bowls of monochromatic salad, dusty bottles of oil and a long, outlandishly patterned platter of livid sardines, likely discovered at the back of an abandoned cupboard. It was all very – he could only think of the English word – desperate.
As they entered the room, Francesca entered from the door opposite, lugging a chair in tow. That’s the last one, she said, positioning it and pulling the table away from the wall; Niccolò went to help her. Then she went back and brought the chair over: one for each side of the small table.
There are only four chairs, remarked Giuseppe, who remained standing with Luca in the doorway.
Maria looked up from the onion she was chopping at the sink – preparation for another bowl of salad – and said, after a long hesitation, No, there’s one more. She continued chopping, more quickly, more noisily.
Oh, said Giuseppe. But that’s a tiny chair.
I might fit in it, offered Francesca. I’m only small, after all. Where is it?
Maria told her where it was, before rushing back to slice the onions, as if they might run away. And close that door, she said to Giuseppe. Before something gets in.
It was too late: a little fly drifted through the open space, and began buzzing and circling about. Giuseppe cursed, closed the door and sat down next to Luca. Francesca came down a moment later with the small chair, designed for a small child, and Luca felt the same sensation he had experienced upon entering the house. That little chair, with its triple-spindled back and short, stubby armrests. They had had three of these, long ago, when the three of them – he, Nico, Francesco – had sat at the table between their parents. Francesca placed it at the corner between Niccolò and Giuseppe and, with some effort, managed to fit herself between the constrictive armrests. It was an obscene sight, though only Luca was watching. Suddenly the woman looked preposterously little, like an outsized infant, a large and tiny Francesco. No. Francesca. She noticed Luca looking again. What was that expression, rippling behind the flesh of her placid face?
I take it you still have five beds then, said Luca, looking away; looking, by chance, at the fly. He thought he felt it looking back at him.
We do, said Giuseppe. Though, again, one is smaller than the other.
No worries, said Luca, expanding his broad smile. Surely Niccolò and Francesca can share?
Giuseppe looked uncomfortable at this. Niccolò shot Luca a dark look. Even Francesca’s face seemed about to curl at any moment into a snarl.
My bed is not so big, said Niccolò.
And I imagine Francesco’s isn’t either, said Luca. He had said it, he had pulled Francesco’s name forth from its hiding place and thrown it onto the dinner table. It was as though he had uttered an incantation. The air stilled. Even the fly stopped droning, listening intently for the next word.
Finally an emotion showed through Francesca’s face, contorting her pursed lips ,and subduing the fierce glint in her eyes: confusion. So Niccolò hadn’t told her, thought Luca. Of course he hadn’t. Even their parents, showing the symptoms of innocent senility even back then, had only known in the vaguest sense the fate of their favourite son; they did not know who had executed that fate, however accidentally. That was the secret they shared, him and Niccolò. And, judging by Francesca’s confusion, it always would be. But her confusion melted quickly into a downcast simper of obeisance.
I can probably fit in it, she said again.
She had revoked his spell. She had diffused the explosion. Niccolò laid a hand on her wrist, as though she were condemning herself.
That’s very kind of you, Francesca, said Luca. Well then. I shall have my old bed.
There was another silence. The fly, rapt, had stopped moving entirely, had become only a black dot upon the white ceiling. Fortunately, Maria had finished with the onions. She scooped them into another little bowl. Then, bowl in one hand, she moved over to the wine rack above the sink and, carefully, like a doctor removing a foreign object from a wound, pulled with the other hand a solitary bottle from its socket. The others watched her all the while, unspeaking, all but Francesca, who looked at Luca. Maria came over, and laid the bowl down.
Well, she said, eventually. We’re here to celebrate, aren’t we? To Niccolò’s birthday. She put her fingers around the cork, then paused, paralysed by an afterthought. Then after a long moment, in which she seemed to have forgotten or remembered something, she added, And we must drink to Luca’s birthday too!
She began to twist the cork. Then she stopped again. And thirdly, she said, – and I nearly forgot – let’s drink to Luca’s return!
The bottle exploded. The white froth of champagne peered leerily over the rim of the bottle, then clambered out all at once, eager to escape, dripping in large, sloppy globules onto Maria’s hand, the table, the floor. Niccolò glowered as she poured them each a glass, Luca first. He’s stolen my birthday, he thought, bitterly. And he’s stolen Francesco’s too. There had been a time when the three of them had shared this day, when the celebrations were fair, equal. And now his brother had appeared out of the blue, and two thirds of the torta were going to him. He would be surprised if they didn’t make Niccolò share the presents he had received earlier that day, his clothes, his soaps, his sweets. They toasted and said grace, and he sank into his food, as an excuse not to speak.
Luca, looking for an excuse not to eat, began to speak about his time in England. No one had yet asked him. But the alternative to speech was eating. He tried a leaf of lettuce, a piece of dry sardine flesh, but could barely swallow. The food crawled sluggishly and disgustingly like bile along his tongue and into his gullet. At one time he had enjoyed these fetid peasant meals. But his tastes had changed. He launched into a description of the banquets and buffets he had experienced – enjoyed was too mild a word – in his travelling, and the variety of the food, the blunt abundance of it all. A while passed like this, then eventually he paused; they did not look as delighted as he had hoped. They had had a bad harvest, he realised. How obsolete that word sounded to his mind. He did not even know its English equivalent.
Niccolò finished his plate first, and was left feeling hungry by all this talk. He tried to change the subject, feigning unconvincing enthusiasm. What is the country like? he said. Not just the food – the country?
Luca placed down his unused fork – no greater prop than the one whose proper purpose is to be discarded – and wiped his untarnished lips with his napkin. Magnificent, he said, and for a moment they wondered whether he was describing the dinner or the nation. It is a country of incalculable possibilities. Anything can happen there – and to me, many things did.
He spoke of all the people he had met, among them dukes, duchesses, earls, celebrities, holders of world records both obscure and obscene. Francesca seemed enraptured by these tales. Niccolò could tell from the look in her eyes if not her face: that sharp, crystalline gleam of curiosity. And in Niccolò’s own eyes, surmised Luca, settling his own upon them as he came to the end of a long and comical anecdote about an eccentric professor – was that the look he had given Francesco and himself, as children, when they had shared a stolen cake without him; the look of jealousy?
He left a dramatic pause, gauging their faces, as he did at the end of each little vignette. He had, after all, undertaken acting classes during his studies. He was working himself up to that tale.
The droning of the fly reappeared, piercing the silence. They had each forgotten it, inconsequential as it was. But now it held the room, as Luca had. He himself was almost feeling envy now at the insect. How low he had fallen in coming here. He had to command the room in some way, to flavour the kitchen air with his words. Giuseppe had finished his meal; he turned to him, and said, Father, would you like my plate?
Giuseppe nodded like a famished infant. He reached over and dragged the plate over to himself, knocking his own out of the way.
Are you not hungry, Luca? said Maria. You used to love sardines. Unceremoniously, she bit the head of the fish impaled on her fork.
Luca nearly said, That was a lifetime ago, Mother – a different Luca. But he simply shook his head, remaining silent. The air he had wanted to claim for his own was now too fraught, too dangerous; he must leave it.
The fly took its cue, buzzing in and around the plates and the people watching one another with oblique suspicion. They did not all believe Luca’s apocryphal tales of bravado, of grand excursions and frequent meetings with the English aristocracy. It was not the Luca they knew. His parents were in awe of this new Luca. His brother was silently disgusted. With his plate empty, and the faces of his family trained on Luca, Niccolò busied himself inspecting his new watch. It was growing darker in the kitchen. The blue beyond the single window was fading. Now he could give a number to the colour of the evening: eight o’clock. It was a useful gift, this peculiar contraption. But he was sure it disguised a less benign motivation.
While they listened to the crescendos and diminuendos of the buzzing fly, Maria refilled everyone’s champagne. Her escape from inertia prompted her husband into action. Giuseppe sprang up, suddenly, nearly knocking his freshly filled glass across the table; it trembled, like a crapulent glass creature, before regaining its posture, while Giuseppe continued to totter.
I nearly forgot the cake, he said.
The celebration cake, Maria corrected.
Niccolò glowered at his brother as she went to take it out of its place in the cupboard. Luca was given the first and largest slice. He gleamed back at Niccolò. Now here was a meal worthy of him – complete with icing and sugar and candite. He finished it within a minute. The fly descended for the leftovers, a flotsam of fly-sized crumbs.
Luca must regain the air somehow. He was all that was keeping this family from its final silence, a nothingness that would stretch until their deaths. And there was, he knew, a topic with so much left unsaid, with more to talk about than any other, and yet which no one had ever broached.
Francesco would have loved this cake, Mother, he said at last. Lemon was his favourite.
Everyone was suddenly full, and put their forks down. Luca glanced at Niccolò and his fiancée. The same look of disgust on him, the same look of pure mystery on her. But no shock. He suspected that she knew. Some of it, at least.
In the silence – barring the buzzing of the fly, quite high now – Luca decided to test the waters.
Do you know about Francesco? he said to Francesca. Such an unfortunate namesake, he thought. The champagne was getting to him. Did you know that Niccolò and I aren’t twins? he continued. Even though I was born only a few minutes before him?
You’re triplets, she replied, after a pause, her voice as impassive as her face.
We were. I don’t know what that makes us now. Do you, Mother, Father? He tried to include them in the conversation, but they were busying themselves in the crumbs of their cakes. Niccolò?
Brothers, he replied. He had not touched his own cake.
Is that all we are now? said Luca. Brothers? It sounds so…distant. Surely the events of the past have made us closer than that. For example – again he turned to Francesca – do you know how Francesco – he searched for the word again – how Francesco passed?
A pause. It happened in the bog, she said.
The fly, buzzing.
Yes, precisely. It did. We used to play down there, the three of us, didn’t we, Niccolò? We used to play there when we wanted to escape. It must be the only bog in all of Tuscany, watery and deep all year round, even in the heat of summer. Perhaps God put it there for a reason. He smiled darkly. But do you know how it happened?
It was getting late, she said, gingerly, I mean it was getting dark, and Francesco fell, and when you finally caught sight of him you tried to pull him back up, but you couldn’t. She herself seemed flustered now. At least, she said, that’s what Niccolò told me. She glanced at him, apprehensive. Yes, finally he had reeled an expression out of her. The rest of the family looked just as worried, Niccolò in particular, his glowering having metamorphosed into dread, then back again, and now hovering blankly between the two.
Suddenly his face turned sour and he reached a hand up, and for a second Luca feared he was about to strike him – what fancy thoughts flow through one’s mind in such tiny moments, that one’s brother may somehow kill one across the dinner table, with a simple slap – but he merely pinched the air above his head, eyes still fixed on Luca. The droning of the fly stopped. He had killed it.
And there was silence, true silence, as they were each in awe of him, of the killing hand. This gawping was what he could not bear, could bear it even less than Luca’s teasing.
Excuse me, he said, pushing his chair back and clumsily smacking the wall with it. The fly lay sombrely alongside the uneaten cake. When Niccolò had left the room, Giuseppe reached over and tipped the cake onto his own plate. Francesca gazed after her fiancé, then threw the napkin down on her plate in mock-dramatic fashion and went upstairs too. The girl really was unreadable, thought Luca.
Maria sighed. Giuseppe ate his cake with the oblivious rapture of a child. Luca realised he had spent nearly the whole meal with his eyes fixed on Francesca. It was not attraction, not in any simple sense. Luca prided his eyes as sharp instruments, rather than things of affection, and he had hoped to pierce her enigmatic membrane. What did she think of Niccolò? And where had Niccolò found her? For she was, certainly, attractive.
He sipped the last of his champagne and watched his parents sighing and eating. They seemed to have aged a dozen years while he had been gone, and a few more throughout the meal. But Luca knew that his mind liked to play tricks as much as he himself did. He wondered if he had kept only the earliest memories of his parents when he had left for England, as his friends there were wont to keep photographs of themselves as children, or of dead relatives when they had been living.
The thought of death does not pass through the mind like so much dust but gets caught, stuck, turned about in its clumsy attempt to pass through. They seemed so frail, now, his parents, Giuseppe in particular. They had adopted Luca and Niccolò and Francesco late in life, when the impossibility of having children had become finally undeniable. Luca would be going away soon, sailing the Danube with his friends from Oxford. It might be a long while before he ever came back. Watching his parents, already unreal in their deathly stillness, the kind that denotes emptiness rather than contemplation, he was not so sure he ever wanted to.
He needed solitude. Even in the car, with its breathing and growling, he had not felt alone. Sometimes, he fancied, he would like to join Francesco in being sucked down into the peaceful nothingness of the mud. A vulgar thought. He smiled.
Do you mind if I take a look around the house? he said, already getting up. For old time’s sake?
Maria smiled at him and nodded. Giuseppe seemed not to notice, absorbed in the last stump of the cake.
The villa had seemed minute as he had approached it in his car. He recalled spotting it from a distance, at the same moment that Niccolò had spotted him, hoping it would swell to the size of a dignified estate by the time he arrived at the door. But it did not, and he had had to face for the first time the realisation that he lived only in a cottage, assuaged by the reassurance he did not live there anymore, that he was only visiting, as a priest visits the impoverished of his flock. But the rest of the house seemed even smaller on the inside. He had to walk slantwise up the narrow staircase – had he gained weight in England? – and the landing, where all those old games of guardie e ladri and strega ghiaccio had occurred, in another life, it seemed, took on the surreal dimensions of a doll’s house. The door on the right led to a room above the kitchen. His old room. His and Niccolò’s. And, before that, Francesco’s, too.
That was a memory that required some effort. He found himself closing his eyes, both preparing himself to enter and straining to picture the scene, vague and obscure with age, as if viewed through gauze. He and Francesco had shared a bunk bed in the far left corner, and Niccolò had had his own in the corner opposite. It was like a board game, and they were on opposite teams – it had always been so. The few toys they had were strewn across the ground. Niccolò had had his own. He wondered if they would still be there. But no, of course they would not. They had not been there when he had left, three years ago.
He knocked on the door. A voice beyond said, Come in. It was distant, stiff, toadishly croaky. At first he thought it was the door creaking against his knuckles, before deciphering its message. He came in.
There he was, inside. Francesco. He stood gazing out of the window into the abyssal blackness of the night. He turned from his reverie and faced – no, confronted Luca.
But it was not Francesco. It was her, the girl, the impostor. Luca looked away from her, barely concealing his disgust. His eyes glumly adjusted to the darkness of the room. Only a few candles burned on the floor, giving it the aspect of a séance. All the furnishings were gone but for Niccolò’s bed, and a few sacks of grain nestled discreetly in the corner. She watched him watching the room, amusedly. Eventually he allowed her to reclaim her place.
I used to sleep right there, he said, pointing to the empty corner. Now there was only a stain on the floor, clearly outlined in the dim light, a brown patch of spilt blood from when Niccolò had pushed Francesco in a game they were playing. How sinister it looked in the flickering amber candlelight. He wondered what game it had been, or if it even were one.
You shared a bed? she said, disinterestedly.
Yes. A bunk bed. He glanced at Niccolò’s bed, which was the same he had had since he had been nine or eight. Perhaps seven. He never did grow much. The watch lay on the pillow, its white face gazing at the ceiling, ticking a mechanical trance.
He moved into the room, then into the corner with the sacks, and dragged them over to make a makeshift bed in the corner where his bunk had once been. Then he leapt on top of it, as he had done as a child, resting his head on his elbows and gleaming up at the ceiling beams.
I almost feel five again, he said. This room felt smaller too, even though there were fewer beds now. How large he had become! And yet all he could feel for it was misery. It had been a mistake coming here. He should have kept the watch for himself; he had two wrists, after all. He rested his eyes, daydreaming, his body beating to the rhythm of the watch across the room.
Niccolò told me, you know.
He did? said Luca, opening his eyes and turning awkwardly over to face her.
She nodded. He tried to read those pursed lips, the cool, jewel-like eyes for a suggestion of emotion. All he could see in that face, passive like a bad painting, was the mystery of her, or perhaps a mere part of it, the part she wanted to show to those she deemed unworthy to see the rest. He wondered if Niccolò had ever seen the fullness of her mystery, her truly naked self.
And where is he now? asked Luca.
She shook her head, looking down at the ancient floorboards. She was looking at the stain.
I couldn’t tell you, she said.
He just left you?
We had a…talk. The empty face said nothing more.
Luca felt something like a string wrapped tightly about his heart. He leapt from the bed, the room and rushed downstairs. In the kitchen Giuseppe and Maria were drinking the last of the champagne. Giuseppe had moved on to eating grapes. They were still not talking, enveloped in a smothering silence, as though nothing was worth being said without Luca’s presence. As soon as they saw him, Maria beamed, the same expression she had beamed at him when we had returned from England earlier that day.
Luca! Finish the champagne with us, my darling.
I will shortly, he said. Have either of you seen Niccolò?
Giuseppe nodded. He’s gone on one of his night walks.
Luca raised an eyebrow.
Oh yes, said Maria. It’s something he took to doing not long after you left. Although it all feels very long ago now.
Giuseppe tipped his head back and shook the last drops of the champagne into his opened throat, then belched and wiped a palm across his glistening lips. God knows where he goes, he said.
He took one of the lighted candles – Giuseppe shrugged when he asked if he could borrow it – and went outside. The night was as black as it had seemed from the bedroom window. The lanterns were guttering pathetically. There were no stars. A sliver of moon shed its light reluctantly upon a few patches of the ground, like fluorescent liquid spilt from a damaged can. In his haste, Luca bumped into his car. There was the clunky noise of something almost breaking – metal or flesh, he wasn’t sure. He winced and cursed, holding the candle aloft, though it gave off little illumination, and headed down the lane he had driven up, walking swiftly but cautiously. Even in anxious haste he moved with that same spritely canter, only now the sprite was frightened, and had hurt its leg.
He reached the bottom and headed left. At least he thought this was the right direction. He could not be sure.
Niccolò! he cried. Niccolò!
There was a wail in return, that of a small beast, perhaps – nothing else.
He moved forward but came up against something thickset and dense. A wall. He glanced back. The light from the kitchen glimmered distantly. No doubt his parents would retire to bed before long. How had Niccolò made this journey so often and so late? he thought, manoeuvring around the invisible barrier. He plodded on, unsure where he was going really, unsure if he was even moving at all. He lugged the dead weight of his damaged leg, bumping into something else, and dropped the candle. It hit the floor, briefly lighting up a small radius of brown grass, before vanishing into nothing. The darkness was complete, ready to consume him. Why had he come looking for Niccolò – why couldn’t he have waited? He turned in the direction of the house, weakly illuminated by the moon and the yellow glow of the candles within, and started limping back.
And then his foot was stuck.
At first he thought it was just a thicket, a snagging tendril of brushwood. But when he tried to lift it, it seemed only to sink. A furtive gurgling sounded underfoot. There was something dreadfully familiar in that sound; familiar, yet ancient, like a primal sensation. He lifted his other foot for purchase. It wouldn’t move. Both his feet were stuck.
There was the gurgling sound again, now confidently strident, closing its fleshy lips around the foot of its prey. Something was about to swallow him, fully, maliciously. He imagined the chthonic beast raising its monstrous body in the darkness before him, preparing for its feast.
He felt himself sinking. He struggled, wobbling hopelessly. It only seemed to make it worse. He could not see anything, only feel the mud clutching his pitiful legs, and hear the moistened mouth of the bog licking at them hungrily. His left foot sunk then onto something hard – he felt soft, brief relief – but then sunk past, and there came to him, amidst the horrible blackness of everything, and the imagination of that vague, enormous monster, the bright white image of Francesco’s tiny skull.
It was the gurgling noise again, but now softer, by his ear, the voice of the clement angel taking him to heaven. So he had died. He closed his eyes – that seemed the proper thing to do in the circumstance – and was no less blind. He let himself relax, falling into the arms of the angel. The angel was strong, and held him upright, heaved him up. He felt the tiny skull of his long-dead brother pass his foot again. He was going to meet him again. Idly he wondered if he had grown up. He wondered casually how Francesco’s grown-up face might look, without the skull supporting it.
He tumbled backwards then, onto the cushiony floor, heaven’s soft, celestial grass. It felt damp; it had rained in paradise. He opened his eyes, and he could see. The angel stood above him, glowering down. He was much shorter than he had hoped.
Yes, sir, he replied. How else does one address an angel?
Luca. There was irritation in the angel’s voice now. Get up. And he offered a pure, white hand.
Luca grasped the hand, which was slippery with sweat. In his other hand the figure held a candle, like the one he had lost only moments ago. As he heaved himself up with help of the angel’s hand, he finally recognised the light-illumined face.
Niccolò, said Luca. He paused. I knew I’d find you here!
Niccolò nodded. Well, he said. I didn’t expect to find you.
They looked at the ground again, as if casting a final glance at their brother’s body, exorcising the dreadful scene. He felt the old memories coming back. But they stopped short. In the darkness, in the circumstances, it was not like that moment all those years ago – how could it have been?
Luca glanced back towards the house. The lights in the kitchen had finally gone out. His parents had gone to bed. But the moonlight was stronger, almost mercurial, and he could see the house in its fullness. It looked dominant – again, only the English word would do – like a manor or a little castle, the only thing that could be seen in all that nothingness.
We should head back, said Niccolò.
Yes, said Luca.
They started walking, Luca holding onto Niccolò’s arm for support. He watched his brother’s face, olivaceous in the glow of the candle, and said, Thank you.
Niccolò looked back, and saw the same face, the same eyes, the same expression of affection. They really could have been twins.
Happy birthday, he said.
They returned to the house, somehow, without walking into anything.
Josh Allan is studying for an MSt in World Literature at the University of Oxford.