Winner, Slippery Elm Prize in Prose
The plane was late, so we had to drive to the rented villa in the dark. Mama said she knew how to drive a stick shift, but since we lived in New York City, it had been years since she drove anything. The Citroën bucked and shimmied its way up the Sicilian mountain like a recalcitrant mule. Below us the lights of Palermo twinkled; the dark mountains on the other side were backlit by a crescent moon and glittering stars. Sometimes we turned a corner and, from a dizzying height, I caught a glimpse of the Tyrrhenian Sea.
I was twelve years old, and it was my job to shout “Right!” or “Left!” when Mama came too near the edge of the cliff. It was the first but not the last time on that trip I wondered if we were going to die.
Mama, determined, hunched over the wheel, freckled hands white, face a pale cameo in the dashboard’s light, shouted “Damn!” every time the car bucked. Once it stalled, and Mama yelled, “Emergency brake, Marion!” I yanked on the brake as we started to roll backwards; Mama floored it while I released the brake, and the car sprang forward in a gust of greasy smoke.
In the back seat my brother Ludwig, who was ten, played with his Game Boy. He was using the headphones, and his triangular face glowed in the square green light from the screen. Ludie had perfect concentration, an ability to disappear into a console or book or piece of music, and now he was romping blithely in a world of action figures. I envied him.
Papa had no idea where we were. Mama had booked the tickets and spirited us away to the airport, to Italy, to a converted sixteenth century convent in a town called San Giuseppe Jato she had seen advertised in a tourist magazine. In the trunk were our instruments, Ludie’s half-size violin, my viola, and Mama’s Amati cello. Papa was our first violinist and we were the Karolyi String Quartet, a New York sensation. “All in the family!” the New York Times enthused, “The best string quartet in a decade!” We were supposed to play the Brahms C Minor at Carnegie Hall a month later, and had been rehearsing fiercely, when Mama found a pair of earrings in Papa’s shirt pocket. Every few years one of Papa’s affairs would rock our world like a seismic event. He would walk around with a hangdog expression and Mama would fling the plates on the table when she served our meals. Ludie and I would carry messages back and forth for weeks, until a detente was achieved somehow. But this time Mama seemed bent on revenge. Without warning she took away the two things that mattered the most to Papa: his chamber group and his children. She expressed the vague idea we would settle in Italy and become The Karolyi Trio. She had packed a pile of music for us to play, and had rented the house for a week, “until we found a suitable place to live.”
“She’ll cool down. She always does,” Ludie said as we boarded the plane.
At last we rounded a bend and saw a sign, SAN GIUSEPPE JATO. Using a map and a flashlight, I directed Mama down a dark road barely wide enough for our car. The road ended, and Mama drove through the tall iron gates of the convent. Ahead, shimmering in the moonlight, was an impressive stone complex with spires, gargoyles, and a bell tower.
A slim, long-legged figure was leaning against the wall. He wore dark trousers and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and the end of his cigarette glowed red in the darkness before he dropped it and crushed it under his heel.
He stepped forward as we got out of the car. “It’s Henri, Madame—the owner. It’s a bit awkward—my plans have fallen through. I don’t want to put you out, but I must ask—would you mind very much if I stayed here with you and your children?” He smiled, revealing a slight overlap in his front teeth. “The house is large and I will stay in my own wing on the third floor. You will hardly know I’m here, but I am a chef by profession. I will cook delicious meals for you, ripe vegetables picked straight from the earth.”
Mama looked him up and down, and I could see the wheels turning. Here we were on a mountainside thousands of miles from Papa, and our host was a continental stranger with a square jaw and a mop of black hair who specialized in the culinary arts. Mama hated to cook.
“Well, I suppose, as long as you don’t disturb us while we’re practicing.” She tossed back her long, auburn hair. “We’re performing at Carnegie Hall this fall.”
Ludie and I exchanged glances: Mama was planning to go back after all.
The man’s eyes sparkled. “I love music, Madame. I am an excellent audient.”
“Are you Italian?” Mama said.
“Mais non, Madame.” He smiled. “French.”
“Ah.” Mama smiled. “Even better.”
Henri helped us with our luggage, although Mama made us carry our own instruments.
We entered the kitchen. The table had been set with four plates, the candles lit. The room smelled of roasting chicken. The walls were light green wainscot halfway up, then a warm cream stucco that rounded its way across an arched ceiling. There were alcoves in the walls where oil paintings of saints hung. Over the sink was a Madonna and child with a gold leaf crown. An open stone hearth blazed with a roaring fire; although it was summer, the night air was cool. I had never seen such a pleasant, welcoming place in my life. Ludie nudged me and smiled.
“Please—sit,” Henri said. He pulled out Mama’s chair gallantly. “Madame,” he said. Mama spread her silk pantlegs and sat, curling her hand under her chin, regarding our host with interest.
Mama had met Papa at the conservatory when she was twenty and he was forty-five. She was taking a chamber music class, and he was her professor and coach. They’d had a passionate dalliance fueled by the Franck Cello Sonata. Papa had left his middle-aged wife and two teenage sons. Mama had imagined she was special and beautiful enough for him to stop there, like a train that had reached its final destination. But it hadn’t; he hadn’t. There had been others, always young, always exquisite and talented like Mama. She’d told me Papa was the only man she had ever been with.
It was hard for us to blame Papa. Mama could be mercurial and shrewish. He was warm and loving, a jolly man with a large personality, full of gifts and surprises and novelties. His family were Jews who had escaped from Hungary during the war, and the experience had left him with an appreciation for life and a large appetite. He dove into a lake with his whole body, played his violin with abandon, ate steak with gusto. He wasn’t handsome, exactly, but his face was animated by mirth and intelligence. He had a deep voice with a charming accent, and exuded a natural, unforced masculinity. Papa always knew what to do; he took command. Everywhere we went—restaurants, fairs, bookstores—people were drawn to him.
The candlelight softened Mama’s sharp features, and she radiated womanly beauty. Her hair curved over her white forehead, her green eyes were dreamy, her lips moist with the red lipstick she had applied before we got out of the car. She was wearing a black silk jumpsuit with pink roses, unbuttoned a little at the top to reveal her pale, freckled decolletage and a hint of her black lace brassiere.
Henri, in a muslin apron, paused with the steaming platter of chicken in his hands and stared at her.
“Do you need help?” she smiled.
“No, no, Madame,” he said, placing the bird, which was surrounded by potatoes, down on the table. After heaping food on our plates and pouring the wine, he reached for the salad in a large wooden bowl: lettuce, tomatoes, grilled eggplant and peppers as bright as jewels. “Nightshades, from the garden,” he said.
“What’s a nightshade?” Ludie piped up.
“All of them you see here, little man.” He splashed oil and vinegar on the salad, twisted the pepper shaker, sprinkled salt. “These are the edible ones…but you must watch out for the belladonna.”
“What’s belladonna?” Ludie said.
“It means beautiful lady, and so it is. I will show you the garden and the grounds tomorrow. The nuns never left the convent, even after they died. Their graves are outside.”
“They are?” Ludie’s gray eyes were as huge as platters. “Are there ghosts?”
Henri laughed. “Mais non, little man. Nuns live quiet, virtuous lives and rest in peace after they die.” He sat, looking around the table with pleasure. “Let’s eat.” Henri raised a crystal glass. “To friendship.”
“To friendship,” we said.
“And to belladonna.” Henri looked at Mama, and I caught his meaning.
Although we were tired, Mama insisted we practice, and Henri took us to the chapel. The only light was from the candelabras on the altar, but it didn’t matter because we had memorized our parts. The vaulted stone ceiling gave the Brahms added richness and sonority. The statues on the walls seemed to listen with solemn faces as the moon shone through the stained glass windows. I looked at Ludie, eyes closed, hair a sheet of gold over his forehead. We both had started studying at Juilliard Pre-College at age seven. I was gifted but Ludie was a true genius; my parents must have sensed this when they named him after Beethoven. My brother never stopped amazing me. How could such lightning precision and power come out of such a small boy? Melody poured from his half-size violin, wending its way up to the arches in sinewy ribbons, crossing the apse, crossing centuries, immortal, eternal. Tears rolled down my cheeks because I missed Papa so much. His absent first violin part left us with a gaping hole in the harmonies. We were like a table with three legs.
Mama pretended not to notice. Knees spread wide apart, ballet flats resting delicately on the stone floor, she caressed her cello like a lover, white neck bared, bow arm drawing out the rich, amber sounds she was known for. Henri watched, his dark eyes smoldering. He clapped and shouted “Brava! Brava! Bravo!”
Mama smiled. “Top of page six, children,” she said. “Ludie, watch your pitch on that A-sharp. Marion, don’t forget the subito piano in the middle of page seven.”
“I wish Papa was here,” Ludie said.
“Were here,” Mama snapped.
That night Henri showed us to our rooms by candlelight. Ludie and I were on the first floor. Mama was on the next floor in a double bed, and Henri was on the top floor. Through the window I saw the wavering shadows of trees, and heard an owl hoot. I thought of the dead nuns outside. In the room next to mine Ludie slept soundly. Upstairs I heard footsteps followed by creaks, muffled bumps, a woman’s sigh, a man’s groan. After a few minutes there were more footsteps and a door closed softly. Exhaustion overcame me, and I slept.
In the morning Mama was in the kitchen in a yellow silk shirt and black culottes. Her auburn hair was freshly brushed and shone in the sunlight. Mama and Henri were leaning in together conspiratorially while Mama lowered small, speckled quail eggs into a pot with a spoon.
“Gently, Marie, gently—they are delicate.” Her name, uttered as if there were an ‘h’ in front of the ‘r,’ had a tenderness. Mama lowered the eggs carefully. “Très bien!” Henri enthused. I looked at Ludie, but he was busy with his Game Boy.
After a minute Henri removed the eggs and cracked them into the frying pan, where they looked like a large, white jellyfish with many orange eyes. He arranged the tiny eggs on squares of toast and brought them to the table. Mama poured the coffee and orange juice. “Bon appétit,” Henri said. He looked happy. Mama looked happy. Ludie was happily playing with his game. Only I was miserable.
“Mama,” I said after we finished eating, “Don’t you think we should call Papa and at least tell him where we are?”
A look passed between her and Henri. She patted my hand. “Not yet, Marion. We need to decide what we’re going to do.”
“I miss Papa,” Ludie said. “I want to call him.”
“Didn’t you hear me, Ludwig?” Mama said sternly. “We’re going to wait.”
Henri rose. “Would you like to see the garden now, little man?”
We followed him outside. The yard was enclosed by high stone walls covered with lichen. Next to the convent was a portico made of columns decorated with hand-painted tiles, covered by a roof of thick, leafy vines. I smelled the sweet scent of jasmine laced with the deep aroma of earth. Songbirds flitted in and out, and squirrels chittered about. There had been a patio of terra cotta tiles, but they were broken and overgrown with flowering weeds. Now and then a salamander would slither out of one crack and disappear into another, smooth as water.
“Here is the garden,” Henri said. We looked over the neat rows of peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants.
“Where are the belladonnas?” Ludie said.
“Voilà.” Henri pointed to some purple trumpet-shaped flowers with long yellow stigmas. Ludie reached for one of the black berries, but Henri stayed his hand.
“Do not touch those, little man. The leaves and berries are deadly poisonous. I mean it.”
“Where are the dead nuns?” Ludie said.
Henri took us to a corner of the yard where there were stone caskets with names and crosses carved on them. Patches of belladonna grew between the graves.
That afternoon we practiced in the cathedral while sunlight streamed through the stained glass windows. But the Brahms lost some of its mystery in the light of day, and the gaps from Papa’s missing violin part were obvious to everyone but Henri, who stared at Mama with adoration or something even stronger: possessiveness. That night I heard more footsteps, moans and groans.
In the morning Mama helped Henri with breakfast again. When we practiced the Brahms, Ludie broke a string. Normally Papa would pull one out of his violin case, but of course that wasn’t going to happen. Henri offered to take Ludie to a music shop in Palermo while Mama and I cooked spaghetti sauce. At first Mama was reluctant to let Henri take Ludie—she could be quite overprotective—but I overheard Henri say, “He should get used to me, eh, Marie?”
As soon as the Citroën pulled away from the gates I turned to Mama, who was slicing garlic while I chopped an onion. “Mama, are you planning to leave Papa for good?”
“Of course not.” She tossed the garlic and onion into a pot, where they landed with a sizzle, and added a bowl of chopped tomatoes.
“Well, Henri seems to think you are,” I said. I expected her to get angry, but she lowered the flame and sat down at the table. I sat next to her. She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand.
“I didn’t think he would take it so seriously, Marion. He’s European, and he’s a man…but his wife died a few years ago, and he always wanted children. He thinks God answered his prayers.” She took my hands and looked into my eyes beseechingly. “What should I do, Marion?”
I was a skinny twelve-year-old with short, dark hair and glasses, trying to be my mother’s oracle.
“Tell him the truth, Mama. You need more time. You’ve been married to Papa for fifteen years. Tell him we’ll go home for the concert and you’ll think about it.”
“All right.” She looked relieved. “I’ll tell him tonight.” She kissed my forehead, then pulled me to her and held me so tightly it hurt.
In a few hours Henri and Ludie returned with violin strings and also a game called Tetris Papa had promised to buy Ludie for Christmas.
“Did you say thank you?” Mama said.
Ludie didn’t look up from his game. “Thank you,” he said flatly.
That night there was a row upstairs. I heard slamming doors, shouting, then Henri’s plaintive voice. “Don’t leave me, Marie. I love you. You said—”
“I know, Henri. I’m sorry,” Mama said. “I just need more time.”
Now the guttural sound of a man weeping. “Come, let me hold you, ma chérie—” And Mama’s voice, “I can’t tonight, Henri. Maybe tomorrow.”
A door shut and latched firmly.
The next morning I woke at dawn when Mama sat down on my bed. Her eyes were enormous. “Marion, we must pack our bags and leave at once. Tell Ludie.”
We sneaked our bags into the hallway, and I went outside to open the gate. It was locked, bolted shut. I rattled it, but it was as secure as a prison. I made a circuit around the property. The walls were too high to climb, and there were no gaps. Desperate, I ran to the corner of the yard, to the nun cemetery, to see if there was a way out there.
Ripped up pieces of paper were scattered over the graves like confetti. I picked one up and read the words FLIGHT 351. I turned to see Henri. His hair was uncombed and he was wearing dark glasses, holding a cigarette. He looked at me murderously.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he said.
“Why did you rip up our plane tickets?” I said.
He flicked an ash. “Marion, I know what’s best for your family. You will live here with me. I have money, I will give you everything you need. It’s beautiful here, no? Your mother—the moment I saw her, I knew. I love her—I love all of you. We will be a family.”
I wanted to say you do not know what’s best. I wanted to say, I will never love you, you will never be my papa. But I saw in his eyes the brute animal, like a vicious dog I had encountered once outside my house, and I forced myself to be silent.
Henri made breakfast, and as usual we came to the table when called. Mama sat miserably with her napkin on her lap. Ludie was playing with his Game Boy, pressing the buttons with cold precision. Henri hummed as he placed our plates, heaped with eggs, potatoes, and vegetables, on the table. The only sounds were clinking cutlery, soft chewing, and the cheerful electronic tune of Ludie’s game.
Without warning Henri’s head dropped down heavily onto his plate. At first I thought he was weeping but then I noticed his nose was in the potatoes.
“Good God!” Mama said, scraping her chair back, peering at him.
Ludie raised his orange juice. “To belladonna,” he said. Only then did I notice the mashed berries tucked into Henri’s salad.
We didn’t waste any time. Ludie removed the keys from Henri’s pocket and ran outside to open the gate while Mama and I shunted the bags and instruments outside. As we closed the car door Henri stumbled out of the gate and rushed toward us, shaking his fist and shouting, “Putain! Putain!” Mama floored it.
At the airport, they wouldn’t give us a refund for the plane tickets so we had to buy new ones. While we waited for our flight, Mama called Papa. I watched her inside the phone booth. At first tears streamed down her face, but then she began to nod and smile, looping the cable around her hand. Ludie was too immersed in a book to notice.
“Where’s your Game Boy?” I said.
“I left it there. I don’t want it anymore,” he said.
Papa met us at Kennedy Airport. We rushed into his arms, and he covered us with kisses. We were together again.
Except we weren’t.
When we got home Mama told us to take out our instruments, but Ludie refused.
Papa said he was just tired, but the next day it was the same, and the day after. Mama shouted, screamed, and threatened; Papa cajoled. But Ludie stood firm. He never played again.
Ludie and I didn’t talk about San Giuseppe Jato until thirty years later, when we sat at a Starbucks on 57th Street after Mama’s funeral. Papa was, of course, long dead by then. I was a violist, freelancing in the city, and Ludie was a fisherman living in Portland, Maine, with his wife and two children. I was going to play a concert that afternoon, and Ludie was driving back to Maine.
His face was still triangular, but his skin was weathered, his chin covered with stubble, and his golden hair thinning.
“How did you manage it?” I whispered. “The belladonna.”
Ludie’s gray eyes regarded me steadily as he sipped his cappuccino. “I heard what he said in the garden, sneaked outside and got the berries. I hated that man.”
“You nearly killed him, Ludie.” I sipped my latte. “What did he ever do to you?”
“Nothing. But he made me do something to him in the car after he bought me the Tetris game.”
I was shocked. “But he was madly in love with Mama!”
“All in the family, Marion. What can I say? The man lived in a convent, and had catholic tastes.”
We raised our white ceramic cups and clinked them.
“To belladonna,” we said together.
Each of us had made a life decision when we’d returned from Sicily. Ludie had decided he would never play his violin again; I had decided I would never get married and have children. Mama had never forgiven either one of us, but especially Ludie.
My brother and I left Starbucks and went out into the sunshine together. I carried my viola as we walked down Seventh Avenue, and we kissed goodbye at Carnegie Hall.