I Fantasmi (The Ghosts)
An excerpt from Tourmaline, the latest novel by Joanna Scott, the Roswell S. Burrows Professor of English.
ACCORDING TO HIS REPUTATION—somewhat embellished by himself, I came to realize later—our father was a genius at persuasion. He could persuade men to hire him against their better judgment. He could per-suade his mother and uncles to lend him money for a vacation they didn’t think he deserved. He could persuade his wife to forget the family’s debts for awhile and enjoy life. And he could persuade his children to spend their time searching an island for treasures left behind by pirates and emperors when we already knew that such treasures didn’t exist.
Our father’s art of persuasion played upon the contrary temptations of risk and safety. Even as he’d emphasize the thrilling possibilities of an idea, he’d offer assurances and somehow make the paradox seem natural. Trust me, his smile would imply. Go ahead, give it a try, and trust Murray Murdoch to manage the dangers.
While my brothers and I only pretended to believe our father when he told us that the island’s treasure would be found by those who knew how to look, we sensed that the proposition would make a diverting game. During our first days on Elba we each looked for treasure in different ways, following our different inclinations, escaping from the watch of our new cook and nanny whenever possible.
Patrick looked for treasure by drawing detailed maps of the land around our villa. From an early age he’d understood that learning came more easily to him than to others—an ability that was as much of a handicap as an advantage since it threatened to set him apart from the rest of us. But he couldn’t help it—he was our expert. He almost always knew more than we did, and when he didn’t, he’d know how to find out.
Harry looked for treasure as if he were hunting for small animals. He’d move stealthily through the vineyards, sift through broken pottery, pick quartz from the gravel drive. He knew how to find whatever had been lost. He was our detective.
Nat, the bravest among us, looked for treasure by roaming. Treasure can’t be easy to find, he’d insist. It wasn’t enough to draw maps or collect broken rocks. We’d have to go far from home, up into the island’s highest mountains. Every day Nat convinced us to go a little farther. Sometimes we went so far—across roads and meadows, through vines and abandoned olive groves—and got so engrossed in the search that we’d lose our direction. But then Patrick would climb up into a pine or to the top of a boulder and orient himself with landmarks—there was the port in one direction, the peak of Volterraio to the west, and there below him, right down there, the villa we already called home.
And since I was the most helpless and least visionary, I looked for treasure by doing whatever my brothers told me to do. Ollie, get me a shovel! Ollie, go find Harry and bring him here! Ollie, hold this, watch that, do it for me now!
We were eager, inexaustable, confident that even if we didn’t find treasure we’d manage to prove the worthiness of our efforts. We were sure that there was no place more promising than the island of Elba, no time more appealing than the moment at hand, no adventure more exciting. Not once did we ask to go back to America.
IT'S AS THOUGH WE'VE STEPPED OUT OF TIME, our mother would say in a dreamy soft-pitched voice. How easily the modern world disappears. She’d close her eyes and listen to the sounds carried like bits of debris by the wind—a ship’s horn, the crowing of roosters and chittering of hens, the gabble of servants, the dry rustle of palm fronds, the humming of bees in the oleander. She’d open her eyes and see the scarlet bougainvillea spilling over the terrace wall, the roses filling each frame of the trellis. Inside the villa the marble floors were deliciously cold beneath bare toes. Claire would sink into a chair and stretch her feet out over the floor and ask in a voice rich with irony and pleasure: "What are we doing here? Who gave us the right?"
Murray would say we’d earned the right. Claire would shrug. They’d sip their wine, and when their eyes met they’d laugh a little as though they were sharing a joke.
After the first quiet week, Claire was ready to spend the second week in the same fashion. She didn’t need other company; though, predictably, Murray did. He needed the few hours of distraction that visitors provided, along with an excuse to mix up a pitcher of martinis, so on Saturday afternoon he rode his Lambretta into Portoferraio, where he found Francis Cape watering the geraniums on the stoop of his building, and he invited him to come out to Le Foci for supper.
Of course Francis Cape would come for supper. He would always come to supper, when asked, and he would arrive a respectable ten minutes early.
"Who’s here?" Claire had heard the car coming up the gravel drive but had assumed it was someone coming to visit Lidia or Francesca.
"Francis Cape, the Englishman!"
"Francis Cape. He’s the one I told you about. Francis Cape. He’s here."
"You didn’t tell me you invited him over."
"Didn’t I? I thought I did. I meant to tell you. Well, he’s come for a visit. You don’t mind, do you? He can tell us everything we need to know about the island. He’s the one who put me in touch with Lorenzo. Francis lives in Portoferraio, you see. He’s lived there for nearly ten years."
It was that soft hour of Elban dusk when everything solid seemed to be on the edge of transparency. My brothers and I had already eaten our supper and were in a bedroom sorting through our collection of rocks. The cook was clattering dishes in the kitchen while she rebuked Francesca for some new fault. Murray’s voice trailed behind him as he stepped outside to greet Francis. Claire felt an odd, unsettling presentiment, probably because she’d been so content to have nothing to do and no one new to meet.
Francis Cape the Englishman was here for a visit. Claire heard his voice first out in the courtyard, a barking, confident voice, then Murray’s, and then a third voice—the subdued voice of a woman, audible just for a moment before disappearing beneath the clamor of Murray’s exuberance.
"Come in, please, come right in, let me introduce you to my wife, Claire. This is Miss Noddi, Adriana Noddi—"
"Nardi," she corrected. "Narrrdi. Ardriana Narrrdi." She was a young woman of about twenty, with milky skin and black hair clenched in wispy curls. There was something in her smile that struck Claire immediately as deceptive, tinged with private trouble, though when Claire extended her hand Adriana shook it with a confident, delicate firmness.
"Narrrrrrrdi," Murray echoed. "Adriana Narrrrrrrrrrdi, the family who owns the land adjacent to Lorenzo’s property, if I’m not mistaken. . . ."
"Signorina, it’s a pleasure to welcome you to our house, though you’ll have to forgive me for speaking in English. I’m an idiot when it comes to languages. . . . Not like Francis, eh Francis? Francis, I almost forgot! Let me introduce you to Claire, my wife. Claire, this is Francis. He’s the one I was telling you about, the historian. He knows more about this island than most people know about themselves, though you could say the comparison necessarily favors Francis, eh Francis? Please, let’s sit down, relax, make yourselves at home while I get the drinks."
Adriana Nardi sat gingerly on the edge of her chair, pressed her knees together beneath the cloth of her dress—a plain, V-necked solid navy cotton dress. She played with the braided fringe of her white shawl as she listened to Francis Cape, who launched into an account of the Nardi family—one of the oldest and most notable families on the island, with ancestors who had dined with Napoleon and at one point had owned all of Monte Calamita.
Murray brought out the pitcher, stirring it with a wooden spoon as he explained that he’d picked up the Bombay gin for a song in Genoa. Had Adriana ever been to Genoa? As she nodded Murray rattled, "Of course you’ve been to Genoa. Genova, rather. Narrrrdi. More proof that I’m inept with languages. There’s not a foreign name I don’t mangle."
Murray poured four cocktails, but Claire noticed that the girl didn’t drink hers after the first difficult sip. Nor did she speak much through the evening. Nor did anyone explain what she was doing there. Was she Francis’s mistress? Was Francis taking care of her for some reason? Francis Cape spoke more about the Nardis, moving into a general account of the island’s history. Murray joined in to talk about the Second World War and to explain how he’d come to Elba in the summer of 1944 and stayed for a month. "Do you remember the Americans, Miss Nardi? You would have been a child then. The Elban children used to watch us when we played football on the beach. A blissful month we spent in the middle of an ugly war, playing football on the beach at Le Ghiaie."
No, Adriana hadn’t watched the Americans playing football, but yes, she remembered the war. Her school had been destroyed when the Germans bombed Portoferraio—a fact she stated with a simplicity that evoked a long, awkward minute of silence.
Francis finally broke the silence with a comment about the island’s importance in history as a strategic location, "an island easily ignored until there’s a conflict, and then everyone wants to claim Elba as his own. This has been true since the Etruscans began mining Elban ore. Isn’t this true, Adriana?"
What is true, Adriana? Claire wondered to herself.
"It is true," she said demurely.
"You speak wonderful English," Murray said with an admiration Claire considered excessive, given how little the girl had spoken. "Your English is better than mine," he continued. "You could teach me some English. Maybe some Italian, too. That’s if it’s possible for an old dog to learn new tricks! I doubt it. What do you think, Claire? Is there any hope for me?"
Claire didn’t bother answering because right then Lidia came to the doorway, her presence announcing that the supper was ready and the table set for four, though no one had warned her there would be visitors. Claire took Francis’s arm and led the way into the dining room. Murray escorted Adriana with his characteristic gentility, which only ever seemed comical, an effect increased when Murray stepped on one of Harry’s toy race cars and his leg swooped forward. He would have fallen if Adriana hadn’t caught him and held him upright.
Much later, Claire would mark this evening as the beginning of the end of her idyll, for it had unsettled her, though why and how she couldn’t explain, and could only blame herself for craving a tranquility that excluded others. She didn’t dislike the girl, but she found her enigmatic and couldn’t entirely believe what she was told by Murray, who repeated what Francis had told him after supper: that apparently Adriana was assisting Francis in his research on island history in exchange for instruction in English.
They were a strange pair indeed. Still, when the visitors were preparing to leave, Claire readily invited them to return—and not just for Murray’s sake. She had a sense that she had more to learn from the Englishman and his young friend. The more she knew, the more at home she’d feel. Not that Claire had any intention of settling on Elba.But over the course of the evening, listening to all the talk about the island, she’d become aware of what she’d started to desire in the week already past. She wanted to live on the island as though she belonged, to experience it as if she had no country of her own.
MY BROTHERS AND I DIDN'T WASTE OUR TIME getting used to our grand island empire because, from our point of view, we had earned the right to stay. After our long journey across the Atlantic, we believed that anything we found we could claim as ours and anyone we met was someone we might as well have already known.
After the first week we could gesture emphatically enough to promise Francesca that we wouldn’t leave the property, meaning we’d go no further than the dry streambed separating our land from the neighboring farm on one side and the driveway on the other. As soon as Francesca turned her back, we’d take off. We’d cross the sandy ditch and head up into the terraced vineyards and from there into the hills.
On the edge of one field we saw a farmer sleeping in the shade of a cork tree every afternoon. Through the loops in a fence of chicken wire we’d watch an old woman milking a goat in a dirt yard and an old man weaving a basket shaped like a top hat. Every day we waved a greeting to the milkman when he rattled past us in his truck, and he’d honk his horn four times—a honk for each of us. High up on a rocky trail above the villa we’d shout just to hear our echoes. Down at the marshy shore below San Giovanni, Patrick and Harry would jump off the iron skeleton of a dock that had been left unfinished, and Nat and I, who couldn’t swim, would throw sticks for dogs whose names we didn’t know. The sun turned our freckles black. Salt streaked our brown hair white. Whenever Elbans spoke to us we would nod. Whenever they laughed we would laugh.
About midway through the month the words we’d heard as nonsense began to take on meaning, thanks in large part to the two women who worked for our family. Francesca had a bedroom in the south wing of our villa. At the end of July, Lidia, who’d been living in a house she shared with relatives in Portoferraio, moved into one of the outbuildings—an old chapel that was equipped with a wood-burning stove. She made it clear to our parents that they must surrender all decision. And she made it clear to us that if we wanted to be understood, we had to use her language, not ours.
Lidia, fat Lidia in her voluminous pleated skirts, treated us with the same wariness she demonstrated at the market while she prodded squids in a bucket. She’d poke our bellies after every meal, or she’d make a bracelet of her thumb and forefinger around our arms to measure the size of our muscles. She cared only that we were getting bigger. Children must eat in order to grow, and they—we—never ate enough to please Lidia. She didn’t urge us with the typical mangia, ancora we’d heard at trattorias in Florence. Rather, she’d stand over us while we ate our meals at the kitchen table, her folded arms resting on the mound of her own belly, daring us to see what happened if we didn’t eat every last noodle.
Francesca, our nanny, was far more forgiving than Lidia, more easily delighted by our jokes, and less attentive. It was easy to escape her watch, especially on days when her fiance, Filibérto, rode over on his scooter from Capoliveri to help with chores.
We didn’t need Francesca to watch us, and we could have done without Lidia’s fish soup. We were hearty scavengers, as brave as the pirates whose trail we were following. We needed no more than a bit of stale bread and some water to shore up our strength, though a few pieces of milk chocolate didn’t hurt, along with a handful of the jelly beans our aunt had sent from America.
Day by day, we learned everything about the sunbaked land that we needed to know in order to find Elba’s secret treasure. None of us noticed that somehow, at some point, or gradually over the course of the month, we’d forgotten that the treasure didn’t exist.
Excerpted from Tourmaline by Joanna Scott. Copyright 2002 by Joanna Scott. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.
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