'It is a muraena helena,' she told us, 'so called because it was a sacred animal to the ancient Greeks.'
Oreste, the local boy who was teaching us how to swim in deep water, suddenly appeared from behind the agave plants. He was wearing his diving mask on his forehead, a minuscule bathing suit, and a leather belt that held six knives of different shapes and sizes, for he couldn't imagine a way to hunt underwater other than by engaging in hand-to-hand combat with his prey. He was about twenty years old and spent more time at the bottom of the sea than on dry land, and he even looked like a sea animal because of the motor oil that was always smeared over his body. When she saw him for the first time, Miss Forbes told my parents that it was impossible to imagine a more beautiful human being. But his beauty could not save him from her wrath; he too had to endure a telling-off, in Italian, because he had hung the moray eel on the door, and for no other possible reason than to frighten the children. Then Miss Forbes ordered him to take it down, with the respect due a mythical creature, and told us to dress for supper.
We did so immediately, trying not to put a foot wrong, because after two weeks of Miss Forbes's regime we had learned that life was hard. As we showered in the dim light of the bathroom, I knew my brother was still thinking about the moray. 'It had human eyes,' he said. I agreed with him, but I pretended I didn't and managed to change the subject until I finished washing. But when I stepped out of the shower he asked me to stay and keep him company.
'It's still light,' I said.
I opened the curtains. It was the middle of August, and through the window you could see the burning lunar plain all the way to the other side of the island, and the sun that had stopped in the sky.
'That's not why,' my brother said. 'I'm just scared of being scared.'
But when we came down to table he seemed calm, and he had done everything so carefully that he earned special praise from Miss Forbes and two more points in the week's good-conduct report. I, on the other hand, lost two of the five points I had already earned, because I hurried at the last minute and came into the dining room out of breath. Every fifty points entitled us to a double portion of dessert, but neither of us had earned more than fifteen. It was a shame, really, because we never again tasted desserts as delicious as those Miss Forbes made.
Before supper began we would stand and pray behind our empty plates. Miss Forbes was not Catholic, but her contract specified that she would make us pray six times a day, and she had learned our prayers in order to fulfil those terms. Then the three of us would sit down, and we two held our breath while she scrutinised our deportment down to the slightest detail, and only when everything seemed perfect would she ring the bell. Then the cook, Fulvia Flaminea, came in, carrying the inevitable vermicelli soup of that dreadful summer.
At the beginning, when we were alone with our parents, meals had been a fiesta. Fulvia Flaminea used to giggle as she went round the table serving us, with a talent for creating chaos that brought joy to our lives, and then sit down with us and end up eating a bit from everyone's plate. But since Miss Forbes had taken charge of our destiny, Fulvia Flaminea served in such dark silence that we could hear the soup bubbling in the tureen. We ate with our spines against the back of our chairs, chewing ten times on one side and ten times on the other, never taking our eyes off the steely but listless middle-aged woman who recited an etiquette lesson from memory. It was just like Sunday mass, but without the consolation of people singing.
On the day we found the moray eel hanging from the door, Miss Forbes was speaking to us about patriotic duty. After the soup, Fulvia Flaminea, almost floating on the air rarefied by our tutor's voice, served a broiled fillet of snowy flesh with an exquisite aroma. I have always preferred fish to any food on land or in the sky, and that memory of our house in Guacamayal lightened my heart. But my brother refused the dish without tasting it.
'I don't like it,' he said.
Miss Forbes interrupted her lesson.
'You cannot know that,' she told him. 'You have not even tasted it.'
She shot a warning glance at the cook, but it was too late.
'Moray is the finest fish in the world, figlio mio,' Fulvia Flaminea said. 'Try it and see.'
Miss Forbes remained calm. Relentlessly methodical as ever, she told us how moray had been a delicacy of kings in antiquity, and that warriors had fought for its bile because it gave them supernatural courage. Then she repeated, as she had so often in so short a time, that good taste was not an innate faculty, nor could it be taught at any age: it must be imposed from infancy. Therefore we had no valid reason not to eat. I had tasted the moray before I knew what it was, and remembered the contradiction for ever afterwards: it had a smooth, rather melancholy taste, but the image of the serpent nailed to the door frame was more vivid than my appetite. My brother made a supreme effort with his first mouthful, but he could not bear it: he vomited.
'You will go to the bathroom,' Miss Forbes told him without losing her calm. 'You will wash yourself with care, and you will come back to eat.'
I felt very sorry for him, because I knew how difficult he found it to cross the whole house in the early darkness and to be alone in the bathroom for the time he needed to wash. But he returned very soon in a clean shirt, pale and only slightly shaken by a repressed quiver, and he bore up very well under the rigorous inspection of his cleanliness. Then Miss Forbes sliced a piece of moray and ordered us to continue. I just managed a second bite. But my brother did not even pick up his knife and fork.
'I'm not going to eat it,' he said. His determination was so obvious that Miss Forbes backed down.
'All right,' she said, 'but you will have no dessert.'
My brother's relief gave me the same courage. I crossed my knife and fork on my plate, just as Miss Forbes had taught us to do when we were finished, and said:
'I won't have dessert either.'
'And you will not watch television,' she replied.
'And we will not watch television,' I said.
Miss Forbes placed her napkin on the table, and the three of us stood to pray. Then she sent us to our bedroom, with the warning that we had to be asleep by the time she finished eating. All our good-conduct points were cancelled, and only after we had earned another twenty would we be allowed any more of her cream cakes, her vanilla tarts or her exquisite plum pastries, the likes of which we would not taste again in our lives.
Sooner or later the break was bound to come. For a whole year we had looked forward to a summer of freedom on the island of Pantelleria, at the far southern end of Sicily, and that is what it really had been for the first month, when our parents were with us. I still remember as if it were a dream the solar plain of volcanic rock, the timeless sea, the lime-washed house from whose windows, on windless nights, you could see the luminous beams of lighthouses in Africa. Exploring the sleeping ocean floor around the island with our father, we had discovered a row of yellow torpedoes, half buried since the last war; we had brought up a Greek amphora almost a metre high, with petrified garlands and the dregs of an immemorial and poisonous wine in its depths; we had bathed in a steaming pool with water so thick you could almost walk on it. But the most dazzling revelation for us had been Fulvia Flaminea. She looked like a cheerful bishop and was always accompanied by a troop of sleepy cats who got in her way when she walked. She said she put up with them not out of love but to keep from being devoured by rats. At night, while our parents watched television, Fulvia Flaminea took us to her house, less than a hundred metres from ours, and taught us to distinguish the remote babbling, the songs, the outbursts of weeping on the winds from Tunis. Her husband was a man too young for her, who worked in the summer in the tourist hotels at the other end of the island and came home only to sleep. Oreste lived a little further away with his parents, and always appeared at night with strings of fish and baskets of freshly caught lobster, which he hung in the kitchen so that Fulvia Flaminea's husband could sell them the next day at the hotels. Then he would put his diving lamp back on his forehead and take us to catch the field rats as big as rabbits that lay in wait for kitchen scraps. Sometimes we came home after our parents had gone to bed, and it was hard for us to get to sleep because of the racket the rats made as they fought over the garbage in the courtyards. But even that annoyance was a magical ingredient in our happy summer.
The decision to hire a German governess could have occurred only to my father, a writer from the Caribbean with more pretension than talent. Dazzled by the ashes of European glories, he was always too eager to excuse his origins, in his books as well as in his life, and he had succumbed to the fantasy that no vestige of his own past would remain in his children. My mother was still as humble as when she was an itinerant teacher in Alta Guajira, and she never imagined her husband could have an idea that was less than providential. So neither could honestly have asked themselves what our lives would be like with a sergeant from Dortmund intent on inculcating in us by force the stalest old habits of European society, while they and forty other fashionable writers took part in a five-week cultural cruise around the islands of the Aegean Sea.
Miss Forbes arrived on the last Saturday in July on the boat from Palermo, and from the moment we saw her we knew the party was over. She arrived in that southern heat wearing combat boots, a dress with overlapping lapels, and hair cut like a man's under her felt hat. She smelled of monkey's urine. 'That's how every European smells, especially in summer,' our father told us. 'It's the smell of civilisation.' But despite her military appearance, Miss Forbes was a poor creature who might have awakened a certain compassion in us if we had been older or if she had possessed any trace of tenderness. The world changed. Our six hours in the sea, which from the beginning of the summer had been a continual exercise of our imagination, became a single hour, always the same, repeated over and over again. When we were with our parents we had all the time we wanted to swim with Oreste, astonished by the art and daring with which he confronted octopuses in their habitat, murky with ink and blood, using nothing but his combat knives as weapons. He still arrived as always at eleven o'clock in his little boat with the outboard motor, but Miss Forbes did not allow him to stay with us a minute longer than required for our lesson in deep-sea diving. She forbade us to go to Fulvia Flaminea's house at night because she considered it excessive familiarity with servants, and we had to devote the hours we had once spent in the pleasurable hunting of rats to analytical readings of Shakespeare. We were accustomed to stealing mangoes from courtyards and stoning dogs to death on the burning streets of Guacamayal, but we could not imagine a crueller torture than that princely life.
However, we soon realised that Miss Forbes was not as strict with herself as she was with us, and this was the first chink in her authority. At first she sat on the beach under a multicoloured umbrella, dressed for war and reading ballads by Schiller, while Oreste taught us to dive, and then, for hours and hours, she gave us theoretical lectures on proper behaviour in society, until it was time for lunch.
One day she asked Oreste to take her in his boat to the hotel tourist shops, and she came back with a one-piece bathing suit as black and iridescent as a sealskin, yet she never went into the water. She sunbathed on the beach while we swam, and wiped away the perspiration with a towel. But she never took a shower, so that after three days she looked like a boiled lobster and the smell of her civilisation had become unbreathable.
At night she gave vent to her emotions. From the very start of her reign we used to hear someone walking through the house, groping in the darkness, and my brother was tormented by the idea that the wanderer was one of the drowned men Fulvia Flaminea had told us so much about. We soon discovered, however, that it was Miss Forbes, who spent the night living the splendid life of a woman alone which she herself would have censured during the day. One morning at dawn we surprised her in the kitchen in her schoolgirl's nightdress, preparing her magnificent desserts. Her entire body, including her face, was covered with flour, and she was drinking a glass of port with an air of abandon that would have scandalised the other Miss Forbes. By then we knew that after we were in bed she went down to swim in secret, or sat in the living room until very late, watching adult movies on television with the sound turned off, eating whole cakes and even drinking from a bottle of special wine that my father jealously guarded for special occasions. In defiance of her own sermons on austerity and composure, she would wolf everything down, choking on it with a kind of uncontrolled passion. Later we would hear her talking to herself in her room: we heard her reciting complete excerpts from Die Jungfrau von Orleans in melodious German, we heard her singing, we heard her sobbing in her bed until dawn, and then she would appear at breakfast, her eyes swollen with tears, more gloomy and authoritarian than ever. My brother and I were never again as unhappy as we were then, but I was prepared to endure her to the end, for I knew that in any case her word would prevail over ours. My brother, however, defied her with all the force of his character, and the summer of happiness became hellish for us. The episode of the moray eel was the final straw. That same night, as we lay in our beds listening to Miss Forbes's incessant comings and goings in the sleeping house, my brother suddenly released, in one burst, the whole cargo of hatred rotting in his soul.
'I'm going to kill her,' he said.
I was surprised, not so much by his decision as by the fact that I had been thinking the same thing since supper. I tried, however, to dissuade him.
'They'll cut off your head,' I told him.
'They don't have guillotines in Sicily,' he said. 'Besides, nobody will know who did it.'
I thought about the amphora we had salvaged from the water, with its dregs of lethal wine. My father had kept it because he wanted a more thorough analysis of the nature of the poison, which could not simply be the result of the passage of time. Using the wine on Miss Forbes would be so easy that nobody would ever think it was not an accident or suicide. And so at dawn, when we heard her collapse, exhausted by her vigil, we poured some wine from the amphora into my father's special bottle. From what we had heard, the dose was enough to kill a horse.
We ate breakfast in the kitchen at nine o'clock sharp, Miss Forbes herself serving us the sweet rolls that Fulvia Flaminea left on the top of the stove very early in the morning. Two days after we had substituted the wine, while we were having breakfast, my brother let me know with a disappointed glance that the poisoned bottle was still untouched on the sideboard. That was a Friday, and the bottle remained intact over the weekend. Then, on Tuesday night, Miss Forbes drank half the wine while she watched blue movies on television.
Yet on Wednesday she was as punctual as always at breakfast. As usual, her face looked as if she had spent a bad night, her eyes anxious behind the heavy glasses, and they became even more anxious when she found a letter with German stamps in the basket of rolls. She read it while she drank her coffee, which she had told us so many times not to do, and while she read, flashes of light radiating from the written words passed over her face. Then she removed the stamps from the envelope and put them in the basket with the remaining rolls so that Fulvia Flaminea's husband could have them for his collection. Despite this bad start, she came with us that day as we explored the sea-bed. We meandered through a sea of delicate water until the air in our tanks began to run out, and went home without our lesson in good manners. Not only was Miss Forbes in a blooming mood all day, but at supper she seemed more animated than ever before. My brother, however, could not bear the disappointment. As soon as we received the order to begin, he pushed away the plate of vermicelli soup with a defiant gesture.
'This worm water gives me a pain in the ass,' he said.
It was as if he had tossed a grenade on the table. Miss Forbes turned pale, her lips hardened until the smoke of the explosion began to clear away, and the lenses of her glasses blurred with tears. Then she took them off, dried them with her napkin, placed the napkin on the table with the bitterness of an inglorious defeat, and stood up.
'Do whatever you wish,' she said. 'I do not exist.'
She had locked herself in her room by seven o'clock. But before midnight, when she supposed we were asleep, we saw her go by, wearing her schoolgirl's nightdress, and carrying back to her bedroom half a chocolate cake and the bottle with more than four fingers of poisoned wine in it. I felt a tremor of pity.
'Poor Miss Forbes,' I said.
'Poor us if she doesn't die tonight,' my brother said.
Again that night she talked to herself for a long time, declaiming Schiller at the top of her voice, as if inspired by a frenetic madness, ending with a final shout that filled the house. Then she sighed from the depths of her soul, over and over again, and succumbed to sleep with a sad, continuous whistle like a boat adrift. When we woke up, still exhausted by the tension of the night, the sun was cutting through the blinds but the house seemed submerged in a pond. Then we realised it was almost ten, and we had not been woken by Miss Forbes's morning routine. We had not heard the toilet flush at eight, or the tap turn in the sink, or the noise of the blinds, or the metallic sound of her boots, or the three mortal blows on the door with the flat of her slave- driver's hand. My brother put his ear to the wall, held his breath in order to detect the slightest sign of life from the next room, and at last breathed a sigh of liberation.
'That's it]' he said. 'All you can hear is the sea.'
We made ourselves breakfast a little before eleven, and then, before Fulvia Flaminea arrived with her troop of cats to clean the house, we went down to the beach with two air tanks each and another two as spares. Oreste was already on the dock, gutting a six-pound gilthead he had just caught. We told him we had waited for Miss Forbes until eleven, and since she was still asleep we decided to come down to the water by ourselves. We also told him she had burst into tears at the table the night before, so perhaps she had not slept well and wanted to stay in bed. Just as we expected, Oreste was not very interested in our explanation, and he spent little more than an hour with us as we prowled around the sea-bed. Then he told us we should go up for lunch, and left in his boat to sell the gilthead at the tourist hotels. We waved goodbye from the steps, to make him think we were about to climb up to the house, until he disappeared around the cliff. Then we put on our air tanks and went on swimming without anyone's permission.
The day was cloudy and there was a rumble of dark thunder on the horizon, but the sea was smooth and clear and its own light was enough. We swam on the surface to the line of the Pantelleria lighthouse, then turned to the right and dived at the spot where we reckoned we had seen the torpedoes at the beginning of the summer. There they were: six of them, painted sun-yellow, their serial numbers intact, lying on the volcanic bottom in an order too perfect to be accidental. We kept circling the lighthouse, looking for the submerged city that Fulvia Flaminea had told us about so often, and with so much awe, but we could not find it. After two hours, convinced there were no new mysteries to discover, we surfaced with our last gulp of oxygen.
A summer storm had broken while we were swimming, the sea was rough, and a flock of bloodthirsty birds was flying over a trail of dying fish on the beach with fierce screams. Yet without Miss Forbes the afternoon light seemed brand-new and life was good. However, when we had struggled up the steps cut into the cliff, we saw a crowd of people at the house and two police cars by the door, and we realised for the first time what we had done. My brother started to tremble and tried to turn back.
'I'm not going in,' he said.
I, on the other hand, had the confused notion that if we just looked at the body we would be clear of all suspicion.
'Take it easy,' I told him. 'Take a deep breath, and just think about one thing: we don't know anything.'
No one paid any attention to us. We left our tanks, masks and flippers at the gate and went to the verandah at the side, where two men were sitting on the floor next to a stretcher and smoking. Then we realised there was an ambulance at the back door, and several soldiers armed with rifles. In the living room women from the area were sitting on chairs that had been pushed against the wall and praying in dialect, while their men crowded into the courtyard talking about anything that did not have to do with death. I squeezed my brother's hard, icy hand even tighter, and we walked into the house through the back door. Our bedroom door was open, and the room was just as we had left it that morning. Miss Forbes's room, which was next to ours, had an armed policeman standing guard at the entrance, but the door was open. We walked towards it with heavy hearts, but before we had a chance to look in Fulvia Flaminea came out of the kitchen like a bolt of lightning and shut the door with a scream of horror:
'For God's sake, figlioli, don't look at her]'
It was too late. Never, for the rest of our lives, would we forget what we saw in that fleeting instant. Two plainclothes policemen were measuring the distance from the bed to the wall, while another was taking pictures with a black-sleeve camera like the ones park photographers used. Miss Forbes was not on the unmade bed. She was stretched on the ground, naked in a pool of dried blood that had stained the entire floor, and her body was riddled by stab wounds. There were twenty-seven fatal cuts, and by their number and brutality one could see that the attack had been made with the fury of a love that found no peace, and that Miss Forbes had received it with the same passion, without screaming or crying, reciting Schiller in her beautiful soldier's voice, conscious of the fact that this was the inexorable price of her summer of happiness.
From 'Strange Pilgrims', published by Cape at pounds 14.99 on 16 Sept. Next week: 'Light Is Like Water'Reuse content