Co-award winner of Editor’s Choice Award for Fiction
By: Jessica Barksdale
“This is why we call it a curse, no?” the tour guide says, a beautiful woman with soft golden skin and eyes so black her pupils are absorbed into her shining gaze. Everyone on the tour listens. Samantha—tall and thin—stands stacked at the back of the group, behind her mother-in-law Louise. “But I think the ghost is only a superstition. A scary story. So you see? The riser is uneven.”
The guide walks in front of the staircase, relating the details. According to legend, the ghost stands behind a marble column at the bottom of the staircase that leads to the second floor of the opera house. A revengeful, angry nun spirit, she hates the patrons of the opera house, jealous of their long, live bones, beating hearts, and coursing blood. The initial construction of the enormous edifice (the third largest in Europe) uprooted her nunnery, her home since she was a child, and still she lurks these almost two hundred years, ready to smack unwitting patrons off their feet, felling them on the first stair—or the last—depending on which way they are walking. How dare they be alive, these visitors, tramping up and down, wanting music, champagne, the throngs and company the nun can no longer keep.
Push, they fall down.
The story over, the tour pulses behind the guide, ready to spring forward to experience a ghostly attack. What a thing to bring home, a shin lumpy from a nun’s vengeance. “Watch your steps. Prego. Come with me.”
Samantha holds Louise’s elbow tightly, worried that the ghost will reach out and smack her down before she herself can. No lie, Samantha thought about Louise falling down the stairs the moment they walked into the opera lobby. As another wave of the evil thought rushes through her, she holds Louise’s elbow, pressing her fingers into thin bone, feeling guilty about wanting to beat a ghost to abusive behavior.
“Ow,” Louise says, pulling away from Samantha’s death grip. “I’m not one of the children.”
“Oh, yes you are,” Samantha wants to say, even though the children Louise refers to are all grown up and on their own. But before she can retort, they are in the river of the tour line, clacking behind the tour guide, bunched into the rest of the group. No one has been pushed, the ghost back in her shadows, waiting.
They head up to the royal box, the one that Al Pacino sat in during The Godfather III. There he was, playing Michael Corleone, watching the fat people sing in the moments before his daughter would be murdered on the outside steps that she and Louise and the rest of the group had tromped up on their way into the opera house.
All these steps, Samantha thinks. All these angry people. Even the dead ones.
Samantha stops, holds the wrought-iron and incredibly smooth banister. Maybe it’s not iron but steel, smooth and sleek. She wants to ask the tour guide a question no one can answer, one about how to make something strong and smooth. How does that happen? How can you even make that?
But the tour guide has led them into the enormous box, all twenty of them sitting in the rickety, velvet-covered, uncomfortable chairs that have held the asses of princes and presidents, queens and diplomats.
Louise sits, her eyes on the guide, her body subtly pulled away from Samantha’s. Compact and tense, all Louise’s sharp points are folded into clinical angles, a mantis, a spindly moth, pressing in against itself. Not one part of their bodies touch. Makes sense, as Samantha isn’t someone Louise is particularly fond of. Samantha is the pinch-hitter companion, the back-up to Louise’s plan to travel Sicily for ten tour days. The trip planned, booked, and prepared before Louise’s best college friend Joan had a stroke, hovered between life and death, and then died. Samantha’s husband and Louise’s son Scott convinced both Samantha and the tour company that this substitution was necessary.
“Don’t you see,” he said to her over pasta and a bottle of wine. “Mom’s upset.”
“Why don’t you go then? She’s your mother.”
Scott rolled his eyes, and Samantha wished she hadn’t said that mother part. Again. It never worked.
“I can’t just take off. We’ve already planned that London thing. And I want to have time at Christmas when the kids come home. We haven’t seen Bean in a year.”
“You’ve got as much time saved up as God!” Samantha arranged her fork and knife at the side of her dinner plate. “What’s seven working days?”
“But you’re off already,” his voice calm and low, almost as soft as a whisper in the quiet dining room. He put down his glass and watched her. His blue eyes weren’t the beautiful blue that held air or water, the bearer’s face alight with purity and hope. Scott’s eyes were gray pennies, cold and dark. When they were younger, she thought they gave him an inscrutable sexiness, an East-Coasty distance, an English upper-crusty façade. But now, all she could see was his lack of response. The no reaction to her body. Or face. Or thoughts, for that matter. But his harsh gaze is effective at work. Scott scary as he gives harsh accounting news. People minded his advice.
It was also effective during a fight, which this was going to turn into any minute.
Scott sat back against his chair, picked up his glimmering glass, took a sip, his eyes on her as he swallowed. “What else are you going to do? You’re off for the whole summer. No teaching. No students. The garden will live without you.”
“What else do you have going?” the question immediately behind such a litany. Always.
Samantha filled with heat and air, a steam of anger that built up in her throat. That’s what everyone said about teachers. You’re home all Christmas, spring break, summer. You can take care of the garden, house chores, family members. You get off early from work. You go on the field trips. You stay home to watch the painters, the contractors, the tree guys.
Don’t look at him, she thought, but then she did. His eyes flattened everything.
He reached out and grabbed a spoon, the metal flickering in the dimmed yellow lighting. Scott liked to eat in a restaurant quality room, as he called it. Wainscoting. China. Crystal. White table cloths. Sharp cutlery.
His hands were strong, the nails trimmed, palms smooth from working with all that paper. He never left a mark.
So here she is in Palermo, Louise a shivering bag of old bones at her side, Scott at home with his work and wine and whatever.
“Now I will show you another room,” the guide says. The tour group files out of the royal box, down another hall, rounding toward a large wooden door held open by young people wearing black. For such a warm country, so many wear black.
“All the damn churches,” Louise said the first time Samantha made a comment.
More youngish people in dark clothing—dressier, materials shining and some with beads and sparkles—stand on a stage, one at a piano, one woman tall and rounded about the middle, three men from short to tall, all lean. One of the men walks from the middle of the room to sit behind a piano or a kind of piano, skinnier, the practice notes a bit reedier. It takes Samantha two beats to realize they are at a small recital, the tour group motioned to sit down in the chairs that face the small stage.
The room is lit to bedazzling, the wood and floor shining as if candlelit. Louise turns to Samantha, and for a second, they are in a happy collusion. Something special is happening to both of them.
“This is your special treat,” the tour guide says. “We have for you today small concerti. We start with a duet from Don Giovanni.”
“Mozart,” Louise whispers.
The tall woman and the darker man walk to the stage, already acting, in character, though Samantha doesn’t know what characters they might be. Opera is not her thing. Is Don Giovanni the title, a character, or both? But after a few moments of their lovely voices, the Italian a high and low, a call and response of octaves she has never reached, Samantha doesn’t care who they are. She just wants to listen.
Louise reaches out a claw, gripping Samantha’s forearm so tightly she can feel the bruise that will form overnight, a staccato of purple fingertips. But Samantha doesn’t care about that, either. After Don Giovanni, they listen to a song from La traviata and Il barbiere di Siviglia, a tune she remembers from a Bugs Bunny episode. Her thoughts flow, the music in and around her, Louise’s hand now in hers, her mother-in-law crying as she listens, face lifted up, wet, ecstatic.
On the way down the stairs after the recital, Pam—a former nurse from Perth, Australia—falls after the final step. There’s a hush, then a collective Oh!, and then a rushing to Pam, who is not dead. Or even hurt. They all laugh.
“Some ghost!” Pam says. “Can’t get it right even in death.”
From the corner of her eye, Samantha swears she sees a flicker of movement, the flash of white habit, a clucking of tongue.
But it’s just Louise showing her disapproval, back on track, her eyes dry. “Those shoes Pam wears. Beads and turquoise stones. At the opera! Stupid.”
As if in agreement, three older Sicilian women in sturdy black shoes, black skirts, and dark jackets nod. Chandelier light from above glows in their thick glasses.
But Louise isn’t looking at the locals waiting for the tourists to leave and the large theatre doors to open so they can get to their regular seats. Louise’s gaze is ahead, past the bad sandals and dour female trifecta. She lets go of Samantha’s forearm, stands straight, and watches her careful steps in her attractive but sensible shoes. They walk past the ghost, out through the lobby, and down the stairs where fake godfathers and their children have been hurt.
The next day on their way to Sciacca—a name that looks like wind on paper but sounds like pain in the mouth, Shocka—the great tour bus lurches to a stop at the tiny town of Corleone, a place where the director Francis Ford Coppola shot not one scene of any Godfather movie. But a real godfather, they learn during their tour through the anti-Mafia house, was captured in a local goat herd shack. He’d been in hiding for forty years, traveling to Corleone only to see his son get married. The day before the nuptials, the Carabinieri broke open the shack and dragged him away. Forty years on the run, hiding one night, two, in various safe houses, only to end up in a shack, missing his first-born son’s wedding.
As Louise waits in line for the toilet, Samantha calls Scott’s cell phone. It’s early in California, 7 am, and he’s not returned any of her calls. Not since she called him from the airport to let him know they made it to SFO all right. He’d not been able to drive them, an Uber driver picking up her and Louise and their four suitcases, three of them Louise’s.
“It’s me,” she says. “Maybe you remember your wife? What about Louise? Don’t you care about your own mother?”
She clicks the red phone icon hard, her face flushing. From six-thousand miles away, it’s easy to be a smart ass.
Point is, Samantha thinks, Scott doesn’t care about Louise. Not in a real way. Sure, he’s there for holidays and birthdays. Mother’s Day at a nice restaurant. A box of her favorite perfume, Chanel Number 5.
When they were first dating, Samantha should have paid attention. She’d read all the dating books, this in the last days before online everything. She knew that a man’s relationship with his mother was a metaphor, a true sign, a marker. But did she pay attention? No, she ignored all the facts. Scott was there for Louise but detached. Friendly but distant. Nice but scornful on car rides home from his mother’s house.
“She’s such a hypocrite!”
“Did you see that couch?”
“She looks like a withered string bean.”
“If she would only move to a retirement community. In Arizona. All I’d have to do is visit twice a year.”
But she paid no mind. Scott was slim and sleek and dashing, newly hired by a big accounting firm, strong and safe and sure about everything—where and how to live, how to save for the future, where to travel to, what to eat at restaurants—she pretended all his nastiness was only for Louise and Louise alone.
“There you are,” Louise says, smoothing her travel pants, not a wrinkle anywhere, but clearly, there weren’t paper towels in the toilette, streaks of water at Louise’s mid-thigh.
Samantha stares at the water handprints, a crack in Louise’s perfection. But it isn’t just the water. All that is wrong shows now, despite her long life of hiding things. It’s in Louise’s face, lined and sallow and full of grief: the husband that left, the single daughter living in New York, the son who doesn’t care, the daughter-in-law that barely abides her.
“Let’s go get a gelato,” Samantha says, taking Louise’s elbow, but more gently than usual, even though under her fingertips, Samantha can still find the place to wrench and pull.
“Oh, yes!” Louise says. “Yes.”
In Siracusa, at a hotel that looks out to the bay where Ulysses withstood the Sirens’ calls on his long journey back to his wife Penelope, the tour group waits out front for their guide and then the walk to a baron’s palazzo. Samantha hasn’t been paying attention, and she doesn’t know who this baron is or of what. She’s surprised to know that barons still exist anywhere, this country and others full of prime ministers and elected officials. And yet, Europe is Europe. Princes and duchesses and viscounts, kings and queens and lords, titles that mean something only in terms of fairytales.
But at the piazza, the group steers right like running trout, files in through the creaking gate, and taps up the marble staircase, entering into a dark, vast, tall room filled with the skins and skulls of dead African animals.
Short, compact, and tan, the baron affably greets them, his blue eyes shimmering with fatigue, likely due to the relentless slog of keeping up the income stream so he can afford his palazzo. There must be streams of tourist groups, every day, a tour. A talk. A lunch. His costume. He wears what looks like a fishing or hunting vest, the kind with little pockets made for important and deadly objects. He wears his cell phone around his neck like a talisman. Without preamble or introduction, he begins to explain the photos on the grand piano, his family’s long time in Siracusa, name-dropping as he goes. King, queen, politician, movie star, all now long dead.
“He’s wond-er-ful,” Louise says. “So charming.”
Maybe, thinks Samantha. Charming in the way any man who needs something is. Charming until he gets what he wants.
They swirl through the room, heading into another, dimly lit as well. A small strange murderous lamp glows on a table.
“Is that really a zebra leg base?” Pam—the woman the nun ghost pushed—asks Samantha.
They both shudder. Samantha stares at the shiny hoof, the smooth black and white lined fur, cut and fixed with a pole and electricity and a charming lampshade. What is this stupid man thinking? All Hemingway-esque and Colonial. Ahead of her, Louise boldly strides, her head tilted to catch the baron’s words. In they go, deep into the palazzo, listening to stories about wars and dictators and land. Soon, they stand by the round carefully set tables, ready to eat up the pasta and antipasti, cheese and salad. The tour swarms the table, serving spoons clinking. Samantha follows behind Louise, watching her mother-in-law’s careful dollops. For dessert, dry desert-y cookies and thimblefuls of espresso, black and thick, the only true thing about this entire visit. That and the zebra.
Much later—after a tour of the local market and yet another three course meal—Samantha clutches her cell phone, wanting it to ring. She wants to scream at Scott. Or maybe she wants to hang up on him. It’s been seven days now, and not a beep. Maybe he will blame the shitty internet/cell/landline infrastructure of this barely first world country.
Or maybe he will tell the truth.
Most of the tour has already departed, but Samantha, Louise, and a couple of others have stayed behind in Taormina to enjoy the tour’s complimentary “Joy of Extra Time,” a free day at their final hotel, a former monastery, walls three feet thick, the rooms actual cells. Flat on her back on the surprisingly comfortable bed, she imagines the centuries of monks in this very room, solitary in prayer or self-flagellation. The hallways are wide and tall, dark and airy. She can almost hear the ancient incantations.
Save me! Save us all. Hear our prayers.
The next morning, they head off in a small rented van with Pam and her husband Gary to visit ancient Roman mosaics at the Villa Romana del Casale, just outside the town of Piazza Armerina. Unlike the cozy hugeness of the tour bus, this van is small, a bit rattle-y, and driven at high velocity by Pippo, a local driver the hotel recommended. Louise sits in the passenger’s seat, frozen stiff and silent. Likely scared to death. Perhaps it was meant to be: if the nun didn’t get them at the opera, the driving would, angry gods satisfied at last.
But Pippo knows the way and the traffic. The van hums. Samantha sits by Pam who wears her spangled sandals, and they chat a bit, as the landscape—now familiar—flashes by in greens, blues, and browns. After a sudden rain, the sky has cracked open blue, wide, and sunny. The day promising heat and thunderstorm.
Two hours later, Samantha helps a stunned Louise out of her seat, and they walk through the entrance, buy tickets, and head to the villa. Behind them, Pippo calls out directions in an Italian none of them understand. As they approach the villa, Samantha feels her site fatigue. When her children were little, she and Scott took them to England. After a week of museums and various archeological wonders, Bean suddenly turned to Samantha and wailed, “Not another castle!”
That day, they went to Lego Land.
There is no Lego Land in Sicily, but there are ruins, and she follows behind Louise, Pam, and Gary. Up some stairs, along a scaffolding, peering down on mosaics so pristine, they could have been created last year, the colors crisp, the mosaic stones un-cracked and perfectly whole.
“Those girls are wearing bikinis!” Louise points down to four women, all wearing modern looking bikinis on their odd bodies. All of them are bell-shaped, heavy stomached, thin armed and long-legged. They lift weights, throw discusses, run. A female Olympics, long before such was allowed, right here on this floor.
How did this happen? Was the villa a secret hotbed of feminist rebellion? Samantha looks around the remains of former splendor, desperate to find a guide speaking in English so she can steal snatches of a tour, but she only picks up Italian and German. As they’d bombed down from Taormina, no one in the van thought to hire a guide, relying on the pamphlets Samantha now sees are in Italian.
“How odd,” says Pam.
“Right?” Samantha says. “This was 300 AD or something.”
“Poor things,” Louise says, striding on over the scaffolding. Samantha knows her mother-in-law isn’t referring to the girls’ position in the society at large but their stomachs and strange postures.
They move on, following the scaffolding as it traces the shape of the ancient villa. The floor underneath them is resplendent with attacking African animals, regal, imperious men in flowing robes, big boats on wave-violent voyages, warriors with shields. In one private back bedroom, a seduction scene. There, the heart-shaped ass of a mostly naked woman, a man holding her, his hands pressed against her sides, his legs straddling her, holding her forever immobile. She turns to gaze away from him. And the viewer.
At this mosaic, Louise stops, pauses, stills. What does she see? A scene from her past? Her own ass, still plump and sexy, long before Scott and his sister Linda were born? Long before her husband died? Or maybe, in her past, recent or otherwise, Louise has a story like this. Illicit and wonderful, ripe and ready, a sex scene hidden in the back bedroom of her memory.
Something catches Samantha’s eye, and she looks up, seeing a man waving his arms, visible through the exit door. For a second, she doesn’t know who he is or what he wants. He’s only a thin muscular man with short salt and pepper hair and big blue eyes calling to her. Wanting something. A part inside her she forgot could click and churn does both those things. Her mouth fills with air she slowly pulls into her body.
But then the scene makes sense. Pippo, their driver. The parking. The ride home. Dinner reservations. She understands now as he mouths, “Go home.”
She waves back at Pippo and then glances at Louise, her face crumpled in enjoyment, her eyes watery. A wisp of gray hair swoops forward in front of her face. Relaxed into her gaze, her stomach slopes away from her waist, hanging like a loose bowl of fruit, pressed against the railing. For that moment, she’s not the imperious woman who has judged Samantha for twenty years, but an older woman missing something important, wanting, without knowing it, the life of the tiled woman ten feet below her on the floor.
Instead of touching Louise’s shoulder—catching her red-handed in her reverie—Samantha moves forward, says, “Pippo is calling us,” and heads toward the exit.
Later in her cell, suitcases packed, Samantha sits on the bed, her feet on the tile floor. Outside the window, the sea, the blare of a cruise liner, the peep of a singular night bird. She thinks of Pippo, his eyes, his “Go home.” Of course, he meant the hotel, but Samantha knows that tomorrow, after 12 hours in an airplane, she will be literally home, back with Scott, a man—her husband—she hasn’t spoken to in almost 12 days. Tonight, she hasn’t dialed even once.
But is there a home to go back to? Should she drop off Louise and check into another hotel, this one in California? She has all she needs to survive in her suitcase, though most of it needs to be washed. She could settle into yet another room, send out her laundry, call her children and then a lawyer. Later, Scott might or might not call, but it would be too late. She’d have changed her phone number, withdrawn enough money to live on, and opened her own bank account. In a week, she could have her own apartment, living in her own world only miles away from her former life. When she went back to teaching in the fall, she’d have her last name back. No wedding ring. No pretense of happiness.
In other news, she might be able to avoid seeing Louise much, ducking in and out of celebrations and events. Scott, she’d have to endure because of the children. Graduations. Weddings. Christenings. Discussions of same. But this Sicilian air silence heralds something Samantha has known for years.
The ruins aren’t the villa or the mosaics; not the temples, the churches, and the remains of World War Two. But her life.
At the Catania airport, the departure list flashes like a hyper Christmas tree. Every flight. Delayed. Or worse. Cancelled.
“What does this mean?” Louise asks. “How can every single flight be changed?”
“I’ll find out.” Samantha arranges Louise on a bench with their luggage and then walks toward what looks like an information desk. And to her relief, she sees Pippo, one elbow on the desk, listening as a woman talks to a small group.
Samantha sidles up to him. “Hello, Pippo.”
He turns, gives her a frozen, Who the Hell Are You face, and then relaxes, smiles, warms, moving closer.
“Do you know what’s going on?” she asks.
He holds up one hand, bends close to her neck. “A bomb in the field. How you say? The runway. No planes go up. Not till one in the afternoon.”
“Old. From the war.” He nods gravely, knowing she will understand which war in the series of wars. World War Two is still truly in this soil, a memory Sicilians have not forgotten, part of the ongoing colonization/invasion quilt of their history, a litany Samantha can now recite: Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Vandal, Byzantine, Islamic, Norman, Spanish, Italian, German, Allied, Italian. “They must explode today.”
For a few more moments, Pippo listens, a firm hand on Samantha’s arm as the woman behind the desk lectures to the dense half-moon group surrounding her. She seems to be yelling, angry even, but it is only the Sicilian way of talking in general. Arms, voices, intense eyes.
“Okay,” Pippo says, leading Samantha away from the crowd. “To go to the desk. Your airline desk. They make the connection for you. Talk to them, yes?”
At the same time, they both look at Louise who sits quietly on the bench, staring out at the perfectly still tarmac. No planes. No cars. No workers wearing reflective gear and carrying long orange sticks. Only wind and distant hills.
“I give you my card. Plane not come, airport close, you call. I take you back to the hotel, Si?”
Samantha takes the card, nods, looks over the empty bays of airline desks, all the workers in break rooms or smoking out on the sidewalk. Nothing to do just yet.
“Thank you,” she says.
“Prego.” Pippo squeezes her arm, nods, and then turns to the front entrance and the parking lot beyond. In another story, she might have run after him, said in all the Italian she could muster, “Take me with you. Take me home.”
But behind her is Louise. To the West, what is left of her marriage.
Tucking Pippo’s card in her jacket pocket, she walks back to Louise and sits down on the bench. Stiff and terrified, Louise weeps as she stares outside, her arthritic hands worrying her purse strap.
“We’ll never get back,” she moans.
Samantha scoots closer, wrapping her arms around her mother-in-law, feeling her trembles and inhales of sorrow.
For a second, Samantha imagines the bomb on the runway, pictures the cartoon variety, round with knobby spikes, the kind in the old shows she watched in reruns when she was a child, the deadly orbs floating in the water until they were pushed onto shore by heavy storms.
As she hugs Louise, Samantha pretends she’s hugging the bomb, the spikes jabbing into her ribs and stomach and throat. Maybe after the explosion, nothing will be left but pieces and parts. Not all their bits will make it home to California. But she holds tight to Louise, tight to the cold metal bomb she can almost feel, presses hard.
Jessica Barksdale’s fourteenth novel, The Burning Hour, is forthcoming from Urban Farmhouse Press in March 2016. A Pushcart Prize and Best-of-the-Net nominee, her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in Compose, Salt Hill Journal, The Coachella Review, Carve Magazine, Mason’s Road, and So to Speak. She is a Professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California and teaches online novel writing for UCLA Extension. She holds an MA in English Literature from San Francisco State University and an MFA from the Rainier Writers Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.