Hendel remembers the way his father used to take his hand, before the arrival of the other, fake, son and he tugs his older sister Grunie’s skirt.
‘I want to go inside,’ Hendel says. ‘I’m freezing.’
The Apuan Alps in Tuscany are cold at night, even in May, but Grunie ignores Hendel, who can be demanding, and can hog their father’s limited attention.
‘Stop it,’ she says, shaking off his hand. ‘I’m listening to Dad’s story.’
‘Settle down, Hendel,’ their father, Tzvika, says sharply, and then, smiling around at the Italian guests as if nothing has happened, he continues his tale. ‘So when the police pulled me over, I told them the kids had chickenpox.’
‘Varicella,’ translates the elderly owner of their villa, Rachel.
The Italians, charmed by this wealthy, charismatic man, laugh. Under cover of darkness, Tzvika elbows his son, Hendel.
‘I’m going to pee my pants,’ Hendel whispers to his sister. ‘I want my otter.’
But his sister Grunie is preoccupied with the way Perel, Tzvika’s newest wife, is massaging her father’s beard. She thought Jewish law strictly forbade such displays of eroticism. More than the chill Tuscan air, this gives her goose bumps.
Soon Tzvika and Perel will say they are tired and have to hit the hay, though her father never tires and the mattresses in the medieval villa they have rented aren’t made of hay but are the ordinary kind that squeak and tinkle and make all kinds of noises, all night long. Grunie knows the mattresses talk because Tzvika and Perel are making love. The first night they were in Italy, Hendel woke up from Perel’s screams and Grunie told him that Perel had a nightmare, the kind Perel sometimes has because of Afghanistan, because of what happened to her there, even though it wasn’t that kind of screaming. Hendel had wanted to go and offer his stepmother his stuffed otter but Grunie convinced him it was a terrible idea. She knows fucking is what married people do, and she knows the sounds that go along with it, but she’s not really sure of the details. She’s simultaneously curious and horrified by her curiosity. Her mother, back in the collapsing Victorian house in New Haven, does not make any noises at night, but then she’s lived alone since Tzvika left to marry wife number two. Perel is wife number three.
‘We didn’t really have chickenpox,’ Grunie says to the group around the table. ‘It was just the scars. Left over from a few weeks before.’
She wants the Italians to know her father is a liar. She wants them not to trust him so much, not to laugh at his jokes. She doesn’t know why she wants to hurt her father.
Tzvika, at forty-seven, has thin biker’s legs from riding his bike between New York and New Haven on weekends. His weedy beard is entirely grey, but he is still capable of enthralling women of any age, including his own daughter. He is far less successful with men, who suspect him, correctly, of having uncontrollable desires.
Tzvika ruffles Grunie’s hair. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ he says. ‘It worked. I didn’t get a speeding ticket. I still have a perfect driving record.’
Hendel huddles against Grunie. ‘Please,’ he begs. ‘I have to go in. Come with me.’ He doesn’t want to have to remind her; he’s scared of the dark, of the steep, narrow stone staircases between the houses, of the black spotted mastiff that lurks on the upper verandah of their villa, looking, in the dim light, as if it has three heads and six legs.
‘I’ll take you,’ says Perel, who is only too aware of the role expected of stepmothers, even young ones with freshly lacquered nails. She had thought that she would be rescuing these children from a state of divorce-induced quasi orphan-ness, but it turned out that they didn’t need her or even like her most of the time.
‘Please, Grunie?’ Hendel doesn’t even look at Perel’s hand with its terrifying purple nails.
‘Fine,’ Grunie says, wishing Hendel’s pyjamas didn’t smell of pee, wishing he wasn’t touching her at all and wanting to push him off. ‘In a minute.’
Across the chestnut farm table lit by flickering candles is an Italian, barely twenty, who is studying architecture in Rome. He’s dressed all in tight black, and his long black hair is pulled smoothly back into a ponytail. Grunie met him earlier, when Tzvika and Perel were having one of their lengthy ‘conversations’ behind the locked door of their bedroom. She and Hendel had picked their way down to the olive terraces to hunt for roman coins. That’s when she saw him, sitting propped up against one of those stone shrines to a dead saint, drawing in a little book. ‘What are you doing?’ she’d asked, coming up behind him quietly. He was startled. Grunie’s real mother pays for ballet lessons so she can move like this, silently, sensually, but her father disapproves of girls dancing in front of mixed-gender crowds, and each year he attempts, in court, to put a stop to her lessons. At night, however, each of the nights they’ve been in Italy, Tzvika and Perel go dancing, and this hypocrisy, more than any of the others, enrages Grunie.
She is a tall, skinny girl and is wearing a floor-length cotton dress left over from the 1960s that she found in her mother’s closet, and she bites her nails so badly that there’s only a wink of nail left on each finger. She already knows that if she bends, flat-backed, from the waist, to pluck the red poppy growing near the Italian’s foot, he will watch her. She has learned, in this week with her stepmother, how to swing her body from her hips in a way that, instead of avoiding the attention of men, invites it. Her stepmother Perel has three failed marriages, juicy hips and, no matter what, doesn’t want to lose this husband.
It tickles Grunie to think of her father’s discomfort when she and Hendel returned from their walk and Hendel blurted, ‘Grunie met a boy-oy.’ Here, this high in the mountains, the air itself invites her to be someone different to the girl who plays dress-ups with Hendel at home. She is not averse, either, to the attention this elicits from her father, who does not know what to make of this older person who hangs her training bras on the washing lines at the edge of the village and steals her stepmother’s lipstick to paint both her and Hendel’s faces. Grunie no longer cares if he disapproves of her, because she has discovered that this, too, grants her a dribble of fatherly attention. She has no idea why her mother’s steady beam of love is far less fascinating to her than her father’s erratic and flickering flame, but she feels for moths, for their craziness, for their obsession with something that could hurt them.
Now she glances across the table and catches the Italian, Massimiliano, looking at her again, and she arches her back in a yawn designed to show off her budding breasts.
Tzvika wants to slap her, or at the very least send her to her room. What he loves in every other woman, he hates in his daughter. He doesn’t, of course, slap her, because he is afraid the Italians will think less of him. He wants Grunie to know she has displeased him with this display, and he waits for her apology. As usual, he is disappointed when she says nothing.
The Italian smiles frankly at Grunie, though he knows she’s only a child. He is a citizen of Vatican City, which has the youngest age of consent—twelve—of any province anywhere in the world. Grunie, he knows, is thirteen. He will dream about Grunie for a week, maybe two, until he returns to Vatican City and his protector, where he will, once again, become immersed in a life among men. He, however, is no fag. For money, for schooling, he will do anything, but after he graduates he will leave his padrone and marry a young woman, a virgin from Stazzema, who will bear him three children before being hit by a Vespa as she tries to cross a street in the Oltrarno, where he will have his architecture firm. He will hear the ambulance but not know it is his wife who has died, ten metres from his office. One of his sons will convert to Judaism and, forty years from now, will counsel Grunie’s only son, a patient struggling with being both gay and Orthodox. ‘My father’, the therapist will say, ‘slept with men, but he was straight. Maybe you are too.’ This will be of small comfort when Grunie’s son loses his position as the rabbi of a small congregation in Chicago, his house, his wife and his six children as a result of sleeping with this therapist.
‘Come on,’ Grunie says, taking Hendel’s hand. ‘I’ll go with you now.’
She looks over her shoulder at the Italian man. ‘It’s so dark,’ she says, but Massimiliano does not get the chance to offer to escort them. Tzvika rises first and says to Hendel, ‘I’ll take you.’
‘Excellent,’ Grunie says. ‘I’ll stay here then.’
‘With your mother,’ says Tzvika, staring straight at Massimiliano.
‘Stepmother,’ replies Grunie. ‘My real mother is home in New Haven.’
‘I want my otter,’ says Hendel as Tzvika’s hand tightens around his wrist.
They walk along a path made from broken clay roofing tiles and climb up a narrow staircase between the houses. None of the houses have windows that overlook this pathway. A statue of a woman holding a dead infant, her free hand over her face, looms from the shadows and Hendel leans his body against his father’s. Tzvika experiences the child’s shivers as a weakness. He pushes Hendel’s shoulder away from him and feels fatherly doing so. Above them there is a crack and a hiss and the last light bulb in the lane blows out and they are left in darkness. Bats, just barely visible in the purple night, whistle by their heads. Hendel is aware that he is waiting for something to happen. Nearby, a donkey brays and sets off a volley of dog barks.
‘She’s turning into a shiksa,’ says Tzvika, hurriedly hauling Hendel up the last stone stairs where anything could be hiding. Tzvika is also afraid of the dark.
‘Who?’ Hendel asks. He suspects his father means Perel, who harbours not-so-secret yearnings for the fast-food cheeseburgers and shellfish of her youth, but Tzvika surprises him by saying, ‘Grunie.’
Hendel is oblivious to everyone’s levels of religiosity. The thing he truly cares about is the Latin name for every living thing within a two-kilometre radius. Judaism is, for him, a given, the blackboard on which his life is drawn. He passes, without a pang, the most exquisite Italian restaurants, and runs to devour a vegetable soup prepared by Perel from stock cubes and frozen spinach.
‘Grunie’s good, Dad,’ he says, even though he spends hours every day undermining his sister. He understands, just for a moment, that his father will eventually lose connection with all of his children because he refuses to see them as individuals, and Hendel wants, with his whole heart, to delay this rejection for Grunie.
‘Yes,’ Tzvika says thoughtfully. ‘But she has your mother’s stubborn streak.’
They can no longer hear the laughter or the crackling of the fire at the party, and now, between the stone walls, the air feels dense and full of the strong, sharp scent of lemons.
‘What about you? Don’t you have a stubborn streak?’ Hendel remembers his father telling him that in order to sell insurance successfully you have to knock on a hundred doors to get a single yes. Tzvika has, for the past fourteen years, won the national competition for life insurance salesmen and this trip to Italy is part of a salary package.
‘Mine is the good kind of stubborn,’ says Tzvika. ‘Your mother’s is just the irritating kind.’
‘What about Perel?’ asks Hendel. ‘What kind is hers?’
Tzvika stops walking to think. ‘I don’t know,’ he says. ‘What do you think?
‘Hers is the pan-throwing kind,’ says Hendel.
‘Yes,’ says Tzvika.
‘She can’t help herself,’ Hendel says. ‘She’s had a bad life. Afghanistan messed with her. She has pressures.’
Tzvika leans against the cold wall and sighs. After he divorced his first wife, his eldest son, who no longer talks to Tzvika, said, ‘The Talmud says the first time you get married, you get what you pray for. The second time, you get what you deserve.’ After a pause, this son added. ‘I hope you get what you deserve.’
At the time, Tzvika had smiled and accepted it as a blessing, but lately he’d been thinking about those words. He’d bailed up one of his older daughters and asked her if she thought he’d been abusive when they all lived together, and when she’d said yes, he’d begun to cry. His latest conquest, Perel, has him afraid to flush the toilet without rolling over each poop and spraying it with Febreze. He is afraid of her PTSD-induced temper, and—for the first time—he understands what it is like to live with someone whose moods can swing so radically.
His son, Hendel, has more compassion for Perel than he does, understands that war changes people, and he finds this endearing. For once, he looks at his child and likes what he sees; the seriousness, the quirky sense of humour, the generosity.
‘She’s a piece of work,’ says Tzvika. ‘That’s for sure.’ It’s the most he’s ever admitted. ‘Yes,’ says Hendel eagerly, and this time when he leans against his father, Tzvika allows the closeness. Hendel is nine and he already knows all kinds of things about his father that he shouldn’t. Among them this: a well-crafted lie can please his father. And though it’s not his custom, his father sometimes tells the truth to please Hendel.
It rains almost every day they are in Italy and their house is so high in the Alps that when Perel looks outside in the morning, it’s as if she has gone blind. Clouds surround the villa, pressing damply on the windows, the same grey as the stuccoed stone walls within. Swallows sing invisibly through the rain. Bees emerge from underneath the terracotta roof tiles during a brief lull and one falls when it is struck by a late droplet. It seems right to Perel that it should rain during a free trip.
To keep warm she lies in bed with the electric blanket turned on high, reading a book of poems Tzvika bought for her in Florence, in the Libreria delle Donne, on Via Fiesolana, also on a rainy day.
‘What are those stories about?’ Hendel asks and Perel hands the book to him.
He reads haltingly out loud: ‘Let the world’s sharpness, like a clasping knife, shut in upon itself and do no harm.’
He asks, ‘Why does morbida mean soft, and not death?’ but since Afghanistan, since the shouts and the cries of the men who arrived at the hospital in many pieces, Perel is not curious about language and is also in a bad mood because she is unable to update her social networking sites and today, the first of May, is a national holiday in Italy, despite being a Wednesday, and nothing is open. ‘I could sleep at home for the same price,’ she says. ‘And be warm.’
‘I’ll make you warm, my princess,’ says Tzvika, leaning over the bed to kiss her. Hendel backs away and puts a finger down his throat and makes a gagging noise. The wind rises and comes fluttering from the tiny bathroom, as if a bird is trapped and beating itself against the stones. The bath is festooned with damp bras and stockings and jocks, stirred by the wind, almost alive. Perel generally manages to avoid interacting with Hendel, whom she thinks of as anal and a space cadet. She warns her own child, who is four years old and still malleable, not to go near Hendel. She tells him that Hendel is a weirdo. He appears to be the kind of boy who can look at her and see everything she doesn’t want him to know.
Perel conceived her only child while she was in Afghanistan, three years before she met Tzvika, when she directed a medical clinic in an FOB near Kandahar, through an excess of sympathy for a young guy from Indiana. The soldier wasn’t even eighteen. He’d been blown into several large pieces before he could get married, before he could even walk into a bar and get a beer. He’d cried and cried in the emergency tent when he thought he was bleeding to death, saying that his death would kill his mother too, that there was no-one to carry on the family name. He hadn’t died just then. It had been later, after Perel got pregnant, that a box containing five hundred Ken dolls wearing fatigues had fallen out of a military helicopter and hit him on the head as he lay outside the hospital, getting some fresh air. Perel’s little boy is all that’s left of the Indiana man-child-soldier now and she wants the world to be whole for him, beautiful and shiny and fresh in a way that it isn’t really but that she wishes it were.
Hendel, who doesn’t know all of this, who just knows that Perel throws frying pans when she smells burning meat and that she is ultra-protective of the spoiled stepbrother. He thinks of Perel as the Evil Stepmother, and spends many evenings telling his mother exaggerated horror stories about Perel’s bingeing on macarons from Paris, her obsession with bikini waxings, the irritating side hugs she gives him as he passes.
Their villa is the second last in a line of five, perched on the edge of Monte Spranga, at about five hundred metres above the Mediterranean, which they can see on a clear day.
Most of the village is empty—it’s too early for tourists—except for an elderly Englishman, Basil, who makes marble sculptures in the old Etruscan tower, and a young Scotsman, Rupert, who has been planting the huge terracotta pots with flowers for the season.
Perel hasn’t looked twice at Rupert. Once was enough to know that he was exactly the kind of man she finds attractive, the kind of man the Indiana soldier had been before his arms and leg came off, and since she is now travelling with Tzvika and Tzvika’s two youngest children, since she is a married woman, she avoids Rupert’s stares and silently grits her teeth when he whistles underneath her window as he beds geraniums.
When it stops raining, about an hour before nightfall, Perel ventures outside wearing her oldest yoga pants and a thin wife-beater, not wanting to provoke anything, but, sensing Rupert’s eyes brushing her bra-less chest, she stiffens. Every time she gets a half glimpse of him, he seems to be smirking and this fills her with shame and frustration. She is sure he sees her as a gold digger, a woman who wants trips to Italy and pedicures and new cars instead of a satisfying job and a real relationship and children who love her. She wants him to know that she sacrificed her medical career to give someone the last wish of his life. She wants him to know that she is still sending charity to the people of Afghanistan, to their women’s clinics. When she sees Rupert looking weedy Tzvika up and down, she imagines that the gardener somehow knows she is thinking about the Indiana soldier when she comes.
She wants, desperately, to give Rupert the finger, but since she is supposed to be taking Hendel and Grunie to see the pool now that it’s stopped raining, she takes their hands instead. Her middle fingers, the ones she wanted to flash at Rupert, feel smothered in the palms of the children.
In the tower, Basil is throwing clay out of the window and yelling. He’s tried for years to live up to the reputation of the sculptor who restored the village but has, so far, only made a series of marble cubes that now dot the long grass, looking like dice that have been run over with tanks. Each night, he and Rupert repair to the village of Agliano to eat pizza and drink beer and whine about the bad manners of the Americans. Occasionally they are joined by Lara, the cook for the villa, who has been ousted from her job temporarily since the Americans are Jews who keep kosher; who prepare their own food even when they are on holiday, even though their meals smell, to Lara, like cat food. Lara is desired neither by Basil, who has not had the urge in over a decade, nor by Rupert, who desires Perel and has told them so, repeatedly. ‘Have you seen her legs?’ he asks them, whistling. ‘I’d take them fried, on a pizza.’
‘Can I go and talk to Rachel and Julia?’ Hendel asks Perel as he dodges a piece of flying clay on the way to the pool. He only wants to search the owners’ home for his stuffed otter, which has been misplaced since the first day of the trip, but Perel is afraid he will ask the eighty-year-old women, again, if they are married and if they have children and would they adopt a little American boy if only for a week and how would pregnancy work for them since they are two women and they don’t produce seed. When the two elderly Italians heard the serious little boy say ‘seed’ they both blushed. Perel cannot understand why they don’t ban Hendel from their villa. Under the circumstances, she would.
When Perel and the children return, after frowning at the mould-clogged pool, an hour before sunset, Hendel asks again if he can go for a real walk. All day he has been mapping the villa. The place is filled with hard edges. Thirteen stone steps down from his father’s bedroom to the living room, three more steps down from there to the bathroom with its low ceiling, adequate for Hendel but causing Tzvika to stoop. A step up to the bath and two steps up to the toilet where even he, nine years old, can hit his head on the heavy chestnut beams if he forgets and stands up quickly.
Beyond the bathroom, another two stone steps down to Hendel and Grunie’s room. A leather pillow has been nailed to the lintel, presumably because taller people smack their heads on the stone when they go down into the room. Seventeen stone steps down from the living room to the dining room and another four tiny steps down to the kitchen, which must, in former times, have been the cow byre. Forty-seven steep and uneven stone steps down to the main road, a road that is barely wide enough for human beings. Their car is parked two kilometres down the track, near the entrance to La Via Francigena, the Pilgrim’s Way.
Before leaving the United States, Hendel stepped on a nail. He didn’t tell anyone until they were on the plane and then only because he couldn’t get his shoe back on. His stepmother, Perel, had been a nurse in Afghanistan and Rwanda, places where people did horrifying things to each other, and she told Tzvika they didn’t need to waste a day of their trip stuck in an emergency room, getting billed through the nose for a tetanus shot. She could handle it. So each night she reopened Hendel’s wound by poking it with a just-extinguished match. It’s the one fortunate thing about all this rain, Perel thinks, because otherwise Tzvika might have to carry the little hypochondriac all over Florence. I can’t believe she is really a nurse, Hendel thinks. She would have been perfect in Auschwitz. Hendel has affected a limp and a series of grimaces so they can’t forget his injury. The people Perel worked with in Afghanistan never complained when she performed this procedure with the match on them, in the absence of vaccinations. They brought her presents and kissed her like they meant it.
‘Please may I go?’ Hendel asks again, and Perel, annoyed at the wasted day, snaps ‘Yes. If you go with your sister.’ Perhaps now, with the children out from under her feet and Tzvika asleep, she can get some colour on the upstairs porch. Before the children are even out the door, she has forgotten about them. Below her, just visible, is Rupert, pulling up wild garlic.
Down at the car park, Hendel steps between two houses and beckons to Grunie. ‘It’s this way,’ he says, though how he knows, she’s not sure. The path is very narrow, and at this hour, seven, it’s abandoned except for an old man admiring his peonies.
‘Sera,’ he says, straightening.
‘È sera,’ says Hendel, serious as always.
‘Sì.’ The man smiles, though whether at the boy’s Italian, or at the child’s observation that it is, indeed, evening, it is hard to say.
‘Come si dice?’ asks Hendel, pointing to a purple flower growing out of the stone wall. The old man shrugs. ‘Margherita,’ he says.
Hendel repeats the word after him, takes a few more steps and then asks again, ‘Come si dice?’ This time it’s a tall hedge of rosemary.
‘Rosmarino,’ says the man. He smiles, wishing his own grandsons showed some interest in plant life. Instead, they are off chasing tail in Camaiore. He continues walking with the boy and Grunie trails behind, resentful that she can’t understand what they are talking about and angry that no-one forced her to learn a few words in Italian before she came here.
‘Recinto,’ says the man. ‘Felci … olivi … clematis … violetta … castagne … papavero … lauro.’ In his twenties Hendel will leave Judaism and study marine biology in San Luis Obispo and Woods Hole. He’ll never forget the stuffed otter he lost in Italy or the old man who named the plants for him. He’ll call chestnuts castagne his whole life.
When the old man pulls down a branch so that Hendel can pick some kind of citrus that looks vaguely like an orange, Hendel won’t mention the sharp thorn that drives down under his nail, all the way to the cuticle. It won’t feel right to him, to ruin the nameless feeling that has sprung up between him and the Italian. The old man will think, from the boy’s tears, that Hendel is strangely moved by his gesture with the fruit, and he’ll say words excusing himself that Hendel won’t understand and then the Italian will walk back the way they came.
The track, though, is clearly marked with small lime arrows that have been painted on the stone walls, so Hendel and Grunie continue their walk. ‘Look,’ says Grunie, who is in front. ‘The clouds are falling down the mountain.’ The path has begun to rise steeply between two high earthen walls, covered in ferns and wild flowers and grass. It is no longer stone underfoot, but a slippery wet clay, ridged with pebbles and branches, and now, instead of being wide enough for a person, the path is only just wide enough for Hendel’s sneaker. A large woodpecker flies overhead. It’s a bird Hendel knows, but he doesn’t call out its Latin name as he usually does, because the hole in his foot is hurting again.
When Hendel had opened the shutters that morning and stood there on one foot, taking in, between the falling clouds, slivers of the spectacular view down to the valley and across to Pedona and the Mediterranean Sea, he’d heard a chit chit chit. It was a swallow building a nest in the gutter just above the window. Hirundo rustica. Seeing him, the bird hovered at the open window, less than twenty centimetres away from Hendel’s face, in a way that he had previously associated with hummingbirds. It cocked its head to look at him with each eye. Opening its beak, it said again, chit chit. Then it flew away. In all that time, Hendel had been drinking in the details of the swallow’s chest feathers, the delicately spread tail, the talons clenched into its belly, its glossy blue-black head and gleaming white-rimmed eyes. What the bird had decided about him, Hendel didn’t know. He couldn’t decide anything about himself either. In its strangeness, the bird, la rondine, had seemed like a sign, something talking to him from his grown-up life, but Hendel hadn’t yet learned the language. The bird remained a bird.
Now Grunie and Hendel come over a rise and the path widens out a little before entering a wood. Hendel is limping, and because of the faint sounds Hendel makes with each step, Grunie begins to think it may be a real limp. Between the trees it is very dark, and both children think of their mother, at home in New Haven, writing in the bathtub at night, and they wish she were with them. Hendel, because he is fair-minded, tries also to wish that Perel were with them. To the right there is a ravine, perhaps a hundred metres deep, and to the left, a series of crumbling caves cut back into the mountain, each of which exhales dank unhappiness.
‘I’m going back,’ says Grunie suddenly. She doesn’t say, ‘This is creepy,’ because Hendel is younger than she is and might be scared, but she wants to. When she said goodbye, back in New Haven, her mother whispered in her ear, ‘Please watch out for Hendel,’ and Grunie takes this responsibility seriously. Her father sometimes dislikes Hendel, and Perel is afraid of him. It’s up to Grunie to do all the loving while they are in Italy.
‘Okay,’ says Hendel, and he turns back, just as it begins to rain again. The visibility drops. Grunie, leading, is no longer sure they are on the path, but she is unwilling to admit to this. She is watching out for Hendel.
After ten minutes of walking in silence though, they find themselves on the steeply descending narrow path they remember. They drop between the high green walls, only this time, instead of walking on slippery clay, there is a cascade of muddy water flooding down the bottom of the gully. Hendel and Grunie stop. There does not appear to be any other way off the mountain, the water in the gully is already knee deep and the rain is heavier. The last rays of the sun illuminate the blades of grass at the tops of the walls and, despite the noise of the water, Grunie can hear Hendel’s quick breaths, full of pain from his foot.
‘Damn,’ she says, before remembering that she is responsible for Hendel’s moral education too. ‘Darn it.’
Hendel pushes past her, oblivious to her concerns and puts his sore foot into the stream. ‘The water’s cold,’ he sighs. ‘But not too strong.’ ‘Come back,’ Grunie says. Hendel’s feet fall into the stream, plop plop. Grunie is now alone at the top of the path. She looks up to check whether she can see their villa, or the tower where the madman is throwing clay, or even their mountain but the clouds have closed in again. Looking down, she realises she can no longer see her brother either.
‘Hendel?’ she calls into the swirling greyness.
‘I’m fine,’ he calls back. Despite the rushing water and the fog and his pain, he speaks with the same calm, slightly distant voice he always uses. He might as well be saying that they have chicken for dinner. ‘Come down. The water is safe.’
She expects Hendel to return for her, but when he doesn’t, she puts one foot into the water. Her flimsy sandals are useless now. Inwardly she curses Perel, who would not let her buy Doc Martins. Let Perel, who wanted men like Rupert to look at her, wear strappy sandals. She, Grunie, was a practical sort who needed shit-kicking boots.
She no longer notices the flowers sprouting from the walls of the track. In silence, she picks her way down, one hand on the muddy bank to support herself. The water is thigh high now, pushing hard against the backs of her legs. Small twigs are tangling in a dam behind her when she hears a splash above the din and then a yelp.
‘Hendel,’ she says softly. She has always imagined that he will die by drowning. As a newborn he could float on his back without any support, and their mother would sometimes leave him for a few seconds, to grab the soap. Now Grunie is frozen, the way she was frozen the first time Perel threw a frying pan at their father. She feels drugged, although she will have no idea what that really means until she travels to Israel in her late teens and smokes pot with some friends. Her reactions are slow and her limbs are numb, whether from the cold water and the rain or from fear, she isn’t sure.
‘Stand up!’ she calls. She tries to run but slips onto one knee, the water curling up over her back and drenching her head. ‘Hendel?’
A clap of thunder, almost directly overhead, drowns out any answer he might have given. ‘Hendel!’ she calls again, running now, slipping and sliding, once completely under the water. The sandals are gone. Her feet are cut. Hendel is a good swimmer, better than her, but he’s smaller too. More likely to be clobbered by a branch. She rounds a bend and trips over something, a root or a stone, and sprawls forward, hitting her head against what can only be Hendel’s own head, and then she pushes upwards into the air, dragging, with all her puny strength, her brother. Her arm, now, is around his waist. He is retching. She is crying. Her legs have disappeared in all this water and Hendel’s whole body shakes once before his eyes roll back in his head and he slumps in a wave against the wall.
Grunie knows she has to stay calm. She’s been to Girl Scout camp and can tie fourteen knots. She believes this might be her chance to save a life, but she also believes she might die trying. She thinks she is too young to die; she’s never been kissed, not even by Massimiliano, who would, if he got the chance. She’s never had a child, written a book, been to Timbuktu. Death seems like something much too small, too simple, on the Pilgrim’s Way in the Apuan Alps. She thinks if they die it will be her fault, but if they live she will still be blamed. Grunie clutches Hendel to her and Hendel’s pointed little chin digs into her shoulder. His hair smells of wet feathers. Grunie’s stomach fills with tears as cold as the rain that is still falling. ‘It’s okay,’ she says, patting him awkwardly, not sure if he is breathing. ‘I’ve got you now.’
When their family is reunited and eating macaroni and cheese by the tiny wood-burning stove, everyone seems to have forgotten Perel’s role in the accident. Hendel has had a near-death experience and is going on about cosmic whales, winged otters radiating light and the harmony of all living things. This is all he can talk about now that he has stopped coughing up muddy water. It’s all he’ll talk about for years to come. People will get sick of hearing about it before he turns thirty.
Everyone has a chance to pat the old Italian man on the back. He, not Grunie, is the hero. Just as she suspected, all the blame has been laid on her, despite the fact that she hauled her brother out of the water. Just because the Italian was the one who reached down from the top of the wall and lifted first Hendel and then Grunie to safety, and then carried Hendel in his arms the three kilometres to their villa, he gets all the recognition. And Grunie gets the complaints. How could you let him walk in the forest alone? Why did you leave when it was getting dark? Why didn’t you ask permission? Grunie knows she could point the finger at Perel but decides to shoulder the blame and keep Perel’s secret. The water has changed her, too.
She knows that Perel did not get any colour from her hour of sunshine, but is still smiling. Perel’s face, Grunie notices, is glowing, and despite the near-tragedy, her stepmother hums ‘La vie en rose’ to herself. None of today’s drama has touched the place where Perel has gone to in her mind and, for the first time in her adult life, Grunie feels a mature suspicion forming.
The two elderly owners have appeared, bearing elderberry wine and a small panna cotta, ‘for the martyr’, they say. And other neighbours have arrived too, including a girl from the village below theirs, and twins from the village below that one. None of them speak English and they are unwanted, so they lay their gifts silently on the table and go outside, to the covered porch, to mutter among themselves. Hendel, shrouded in a down quilt, leaves Grunie and floats outside, into the dark.
‘Mi chiamo Harold,’ he lies. ‘Michela.’ ‘Donatella,’ say the twins. ‘Jack,’ says the other boy, and the twins frown at him. Grunie comes outside to protect Hendel. She’s hoping the other children have heard her part in the rescue and think well of her, but instead they move away from her and make a gesture with their hands that looks like it might be sign language for I love you except their faces do not say I love you. She guesses, correctly, it really means they are afraid of her, of her bad luck. Hendel is still trying out his basic Italian vocabulary, trying earnestly to connect, and she is beginning to hate him for it.
‘Come inside,’ she says. ‘You’ll get sick.’
‘You’re not my mother,’ he says, turning his back on her. He doesn’t remember that she pulled him from the water. He only remembers the way she was screaming when the Italian was carrying him, how annoyingly shrill her voice was, how it distracted him from the glowing otters and cosmic whales.
‘I’m Mum’s representative,’ Grunie says. ‘Here.’
‘No,’ Hendel says. ‘You’re not. Perel is.’
The other children sit still. They don’t know what the conversation is about, but they follow the gestures. Grunie has her hand on Hendel’s shoulder. He shakes her off. She pushes him. He pulls her hair and screams something in her face.
‘Dad!’ Grunie yells, because, despite the two new wives, despite Tzvika’s preference for the child that isn’t even his, despite his frequent absences and distorted stories and see-through lies, he is still her father, and right now she needs her own rescue.
‘It must have been hard, lifting your brother from the water,’ a shaky voice comes from the darkest corner of the porch. Julia and her companion, Rachel, lean into the faint light. ‘You were very brave, my dear,’ Julia says, placing her frail hand on Grunie’s. ‘We heard all about it.’
‘People can lift Volkswagons off their loved ones when they need to,’ says Rachel. ‘But it’s still wonderful. A miracle.’
‘Your mother should have been watching you,’ says Julia.
‘Stepmother,’ says Grunie. ‘She was resting. On the porch.’
‘No,’ says Rachel. ‘She wasn’t. I came up here looking for Rupert. I couldn’t find him. I rested for a minute on your porch before going back down the hill and your mother wasn’t there.’
‘Oh,’ says Grunie, and again, inside her, the new Grunie shakes, and droplets of her innocence spray out from her body. ‘Where could she have been?’
Hendel is still muttering about the things he saw floating under the water. ‘They had cream-coloured wings,’ he says. ‘In tatters.’
The rain, still falling, trickles into a rain barrel at the edge of the porch. There are goldfish in the barrel and a flowering iris and a fat yellow snail. Grunie thinks that in New Haven small children would drown in these barrels, trying to catch the goldfish, so it wouldn’t be allowed. Here, everything is allowed. Even giving her and Hendel small glasses of wine to put them to sleep, which is what their father does now, coming out onto the porch with two jam jars full of ruby liquid.
‘Drink,’ Tzvika says. ‘It’ll put hair on your chest.’ He didn’t hear Grunie call for him when Hendel pulled her hair, but even if he did, he wouldn’t have come out to help her. He believes in the survival of the fittest.
‘I don’t want hair on my chest,’ says Grunie. She saw him through the window, canoodling with Perel. She saw her father ignore her call. She believes that divorce shouldn’t exist.
‘Your mother has hair on her chest,’ Tzvika says, but even he knows it’s because his ex-wife has gone through an early menopause and besides having hair on her chest, has a small reddish moustache too.
‘Dad,’ says Hendel. ‘Will you put me to bed tonight? Not Perel?’
For once, Tzvika is pleased to be asked. Pleased for the chance to be the most desired parent, even if it’s only a choice between him and the lacklustre Perel. Hendel waves a shy goodbye to the other children who think his name is Harold. Tzvika says goodnight to Julia and Rachel. The old women haven’t said a word since he came out onto the porch. Julia’s hand still covers Grunie’s. Grunie is glad for the warmth, for the notice. But she is worried about her brother, about his fixation on wings. She doesn’t know how long he was underwater, or even if he had decided it was easier to swim downstream and she, by falling over him, was the one to nearly drown him. ‘Shut up,’ Hendel said, when she tried to talk to him about it. ‘That’s not the important part.’ But it was. It was important to her.
Tzvika doesn’t know what to say to Hendel. He doesn’t feel guilty, exactly, since he is never the one who is in charge of his children, but he feels something, and he is having a hard time finding a name for it. ‘Want me to hold your hand?’ he asks, hoping to fill the silence between them. Inside, the house smells faintly of salt, as if the stones are sweating even though they are icy cold. Tzvika waits for Hendel to take his hand and then, when his son doesn’t touch him, he tells himself that Hendel is too old for hand-holding. The strange feeling in him, however, swells. He can taste it, just at the back of his throat, and he tries, again and again, to swallow it down.
‘It’s lucky that old man was out there,’ Tzvika says, swallowing.
‘Yes,’ says Hendel, sensing that his father wants something from him. He is curious about the skittering sounds coming from above them, on the roof, but far more concerned with pleasing his father. It’s not often he has Tzvika to himself and today it’s happened twice.
‘The word for chestnut in Italian is castagna,’ Hendel says.
‘Is it?’ says Tzvika. He is opening cupboards, looking for an extra blanket.
‘Thank you for bringing us to Italy,’ says Hendel, trying to re-engage his father.
Tzvika is angry at his son. All along, during the walk up the stairs from the kitchen, he has been angry, he decides. The strange slippery emotion at the back of his throat must be anger.
‘What the hell possessed you to go on that walk?’ he asks. ‘Don’t you have a sore foot? Or is that pretend?’
In answer, Hendel sits on the topmost step and peels off his sock. He lifts his foot up for his father to see the hole, now the size of a dime and as deep as the head of a match. It is filled with pus and crusted blood.
‘Beautiful,’ says Tzvika, but he sits down next to Hendel and pulls the little boy into his lap. There is a feeling then, which neither has experienced in a long time and barely recognise. They both want the feeling, whatever it is, to last.
Hendel, leaning against his father’s hard chest, thinks that it is Perel who drains this feeling from between Tzvika and him, and so he says, ‘Perel told me I could go.’ He still hopes his father will divorce the Evil Stepmother and get back together with his quiet, moustachioed mother.
‘You could have died,’ says Tzvika. ‘Perel would never have let you go. Don’t make excuses for your own bad behaviour!’ Tzvika’s breath is fast and high. Hendel recognises the signs of his father’s impending temper, the tight white lips, the stare jumping out at him like heated razors, and he slips from Tzvika’s lap.
‘You don’t have to say Shema with me,’ he says. ‘I can put myself to bed.’ He had hoped his father would sing the prayer with him and turn on the electric blanket and draw the sheets up to his chin and rub his back until he fell asleep but he knows it all went down the tube the moment he mentioned Perel. Hendel doesn’t understand, quite, that in the competition between Perel and him for Tzvika’s love and attention, he is losing. He doesn’t yet know that Perel, beautiful, sexy, damaged Perel, is a trophy his father feels he has won, just like this trip to Italy.
Hendel happened as a result of sex, not even particularly satisfying sex, with Tzvika’s first wife (it was an arranged marriage), who is fat now, and manly. Perel was won away from a dozen other suitors because he, Tzvika, with all his money and his muscles, was a catch. To keep Perel from the kind of men who find her so desirable that they beg her to have their babies, or haul her down among the flower pots, Tzvika always has to put her first, before his children, before even himself. Hendel won’t know this for another six painful years.
Tzvika feels both rage at Hendel’s attempt to blame Perel and some other sensation, more nebulous. He wonders, briefly, why Perel didn’t go with the children, and then rejects the thought as being unfaithful. He wants, more than anything, to return to the moment on the stairs when he felt the way he thinks real fathers feel, with their cheeks in their children’s hair at bedtime, but he too knows the moment is lost
The morning after the accident, Grunie opens the shutters before Hendel wakes up from his dreams of spangled humpback whales sliding through the night sky. Grunie puts her hand on his forehead and discovers he has a slight fever. The swallow returns, but only when Grunie leaves the room to tell Tzvika that Hendel is sick. The swallow looks in at the boy several times as Hendel lies resting after his ordeal. His foot is propped up on the Italian dictionary he’d begged his mother to buy. Hendel doesn’t wonder about the bird any more, about its potential for symbolism. He knows there is something wrong with a bird that keeps flying into human space.
In the afternoon he wakes to a sense that someone is in the room with him and he hopes it is his father. He hopes that Tzvika will try to connect with him again, but when Hendel opens his eyes, he sees the swallow, perched on the open windowsill, tilting its head this way and that. It leaps into the air, makes several tours of the room, and then swoops out of the window. Wow, thinks Hendel. Wow. It likes me. He reaches down to pick at the scab that is forming over the hole in his foot. It stings, but it’s a good kind of sting.
When he rolls over to turn on the electric blanket, the swallow returns, and this time it lands on his headboard, right above Hendel’s face. As it turns, he gets an elegant view of the bird’s anus. One well-aimed squirt would hit him in the eye. But this is a well-behaved swallow. No-one is crapping on Hendel today.
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