Wiseblood Books

A Circle of Cypresses

John Farrell

An hour after the accident, Elise looked out from the terrace and regained the loose thread of thought she’d entertained before they killed the man on the motorcycle.

It was the duck. They were on their way back from Florence where they bought a ceramic duck for his mother, even though Herman couldn’t stand his mother and thought the whole idea of a gift was stupid.

Now there was a man lying dead in the ambulance below and their Volkswagen sprawled on its side in the vineyard beyond the curve. No one had yet come to tow it away. Instead, a journalist took his time, walking around and around it, talking into a micro-tape recorder and snapping pictures with a small digital camera. The motorcycle, or the severed front half of it, stood like a sign-post in the dust under the shade of the cypresses that surrounded the castello. One officer directed the occasional motorist around the scene of the accident while the coroner sat off the side of the road, his legs dangling from the back of the open ambulance as he smoked a cigarette.

The captain of the carabinieri had requested their passports and said it might be a couple of days before he could return them. A cloud arose in Elise’s mind, that perhaps they suspected she and her husband were fugitives for other crimes they’d committed back in America.

Fugitives.

They reached that last lovely bend in the road toward Montegufoni, sweeping around the column of tall cypresses that girded the castello on the left and skirting the ledge sliding away into vineyards on the right—a picture-perfect snapshot of the Tuscan countryside. But they were arguing about the duck, and had been since they left the little shop in Florence. It was Elise who first saw the motorcycle rip around the bend ahead, cutting into their lane.

Herman had quick reflexes. She marveled at his ability to dodge wavering bicyclists, head-phoned pedestrians, and faltering old ladies in their Chevrolets drifting out of side streets.

But not this time.

Herman took his eyes off the road for just an instant to snap a rebuke at her, and then froze when he saw her strangled expression and she cried out.

The cyclist didn’t even try to swerve; it was as if he felt he had the right of way and expected all along that they would yield, that they would swerve aside for him, even though he was invading their lane.

Even in that last instant, Herman’s hands didn’t jerk the wheel to the right to swerve the car out of the path of the motorcycle. Instead the front left fender of the Volkswagen caught the cycle’s stirrup and sent the man flying over the car, head first onto the road.

Herman skidded off the curve, caught the side of a boulder, and the car rolled onto its side. Elise was shaken and terrified. Herman had a bloody nose from his head snapping forward into the steering wheel. After he clambered out of his window and pulled Elise after him, he stumbled back to the road as if he expected the twisted heap of leather on the asphalt to spring to its feet and shout at him.

The man lay where he landed. Behind the trees, she heard voices. The German family, who did nothing but sit by the pool all day, picked their way down through the hedge to get a look.

“Mein Gott!” the skinny grandmother hissed, the cigarette still hanging from her lips, a few pellets of ash clinging to the baggy breasts of her blue one-piece bathing suit.

Even before the carabinieri arrived with an ambulance, even before they confirmed the motorcyclist was dead, Elise looked around, grasping at the passage of time from their old life, sliding off the hillside like the shadow of a huge cloud, fading away forever. Why hadn’t Herman been able to get out of the way?

* * *

It was hot. A pair of kittens appeared at the top of the stone steps of the castello, and Elise smiled in spite of her lingering shock. They emerged like clockwork every day at noon. When the sun beat most mercilessly on the countryside of Baccaiano and Mantagnana, they scampered up the worn, cracked steps to the terrace, secluding themselves in the shady corner of the stone flower bed or beneath one of the patio tables.

Herman dragged the chair closer to the table as he spoke to the captain of the carabinieri. The screech of its taloned feet startled the kittens, and they darted behind the stone balustrade.

Elise crouched and held a hand out as one of the kittens cautiously crept back toward the table. She looked up at the captain interviewing Herman. He had a round face for a man so lean and lanky.

He’d be all right, she thought, turning her gaze to her husband, with a glass of shimmering brandy in his hand and the owner of Montegufoni standing solicitously nearby as he punctuated Herman’s weak remarks with solemn nods.

On the winding road below, another squad car pulled onto the embankment in the shade of the cypresses, and two carabinieri got out, carrying on a laconic conversation, leaning against the open doors of the car to enjoy a few minutes out of the sun. They cradled their hats inside their left arms, and Elise admired the red stripe on the sides of their navy blue pants; anything not to look at the little place in the middle of the road where the ambulance had come to remove the body of the man. For a fleeting moment Elise wished somehow they’d at least had a chance to meet him before the accident, although it seemed childish.

 

Maybe it was all a mistake, she thought, looking over the hedge and the scene of the accident. Not just the crash, she chided herself. Everything before that.

They met during their internships at Massachusetts General. They started living together almost immediately. Herman moved into her apartment. He became a psychiatrist, working at the Veterans Hospital in Jamaica Plain. They lived together for three years before she brought up marriage.

When she floated the subject, he was always curt and dismissive. His job was not secure (what job at a VA hospital ever was?), and she could tell he was resentful of the success she had publishing papers with her colleagues at the lab—even though he made twice her salary. Another year of arguments followed, and finally she started packing up to go home before he gave in and agreed to a wedding date

The coercion wasn’t a sign that she should get out of it. How could it be? That was just the way Herman had to be handled, she realized, about anything: what to eat for dinner, where to go shopping—and where to vacation. Wasn’t all his fault, his stubbornness. He didn’t come from a supportive family background like she did. His parents had been divorced since he was seven. His father never had anything to do with him and Herman hated his mother and sister. So, it wasn’t fair for her to expect him to behave in some traditional fashion, was it? Naturally she had to deliver an ultimatum to get him to agree. To anything. Stubborn, that’s all.

 

They returned to their room in the evening.

La Fatoressa. Herman opened all the beautiful shutters so that he could hear the other guests in the courtyard below.

“How are you feeling?”

“Why do you keep asking me that?” He seemed calmer at last.

She didn’t answer what was in her mind—because every day of their honeymoon until this day he had complained of some ailment. His asthma. Acid reflux. The food not agreeing with him. The lack of ice for his drinks.

“I just thought, given some of your days over the past week, it might have had something to do with it.”

“To do with what? My driving? How could it have anything to do with it?”

“It’s just that . . . it seems when I think about it again, I don’t know, you had time to get out of his way?”

He turned. “What are you talking about? Don’t you remember, we were arguing. I wasn’t even looking at the road when he appeared.”

“I don’t mean that. I mean, after I shouted. After you turned your head back.”

“Elise, when I turned my head back, he was practically up on my hood.”

“I don’t know.” But she was nodding.

“You weren’t driving, goddamnit.” He turned away and threw his wine glass at the wall. Elise jumped at the shattering sound, and felt a tiny shard of the glass stick to her thigh.

“You weren’t driving.”

 

The next day the captain returned their passports. A terrible accident he said, shaking his head.

“Perhaps you may want to return home?”

“No,” said Herman. “It’s our honeymoon.”

“Yes. That would be to admit defeat.” His smile faded. “Of course, I had to release your identities to the family of the man killed. They may contact you. Or perhaps, you would wish to call them?” He handed Elise a slip of paper.

Forse vorreste chiamarli?

She stared at the address. “In America?”

Si.”

We killed an American, she thought, and she was ashamed to feel a small sigh of release in the back of her mind, a knot of tension giving way.

* * *

Herman ventured down to the pool in the morning. The German family was watching him. Elise could see them from the little bedroom in La Fatoressa. He picked a chair in the northeast corner, right under her nose, and pulled out one of his legal thrillers.

Elise got up the courage to join him when one of the German women, a doctor, came over to talk to him first.

“What did she say?” she asked her husband when the woman had left.

“Nothing of note.”

“You were talking for a good ten minutes, seemed like.”

“Yeah? Time flies when you’re having fun.” He went back to his book.

She swam and then returned to La Fatoressa. When she got out of the shower, she reached for a towel and realized the rack on the marble wall had been snapped in half. As she started to prepare herself some lunch, she noticed the wide frying pan they used for sautéing tomatoes had been dented on one side. None of this damage had been evident when they arrived.

She stood in the middle of the room, clutching the warped frying pan to her chest. He’d smashed the mirror in their bedroom after an argument once back home. He’d turned over the deck chairs outside. And she remembered seeing him scratch his key over the side of a colleague’s car door once outside the VA hospital. He always took it out on someone else. Wasn’t that something? It would always be taken out on someone else.

 

One of the women from the main office came to her in the middle of the day.

Telefono, signora. Elise followed the woman through the great hall and into the office, wondering whether one of her parents had taken ill or worse.

“Mrs. Gordon, my name is Tim Peebles.” For a moment it almost sounded like a telemarketer. Elise glanced at the two women behind the counter.

“Yes.”

“It was my brother crashed into you. I just wanted to call to see how you were getting along.” A rich deep voice, like someone she’d heard in an old western, Richard Boone, but with a kindly lilt.

“Oh.” The women were back at their terminals, but Elise could tell from their studied look of concentration they were listening. She turned away from them and leaned as much as she could against the wall.

“I am so sorry,” she said. She couldn’t think of anything else to say.

But Mr. Peebles didn’t need any prompting. “I’m glad you’re all right. The sergeant there, or captain, at the police station said neither of you was hurt, and that’s a good thing.”

She nodded without remembering to say yes.

“Are you there, Mrs. Gordon?”

“I just feel . . . I suppose it’s us–I mean we should’ve been the ones calling you.” Mrs. Gordon. It was the first time since their wedding celebration anyone had referred to her as Mrs. Gordon.

“Well, I don’t see how you could’ve done that. You wouldn’t have known how to reach me. I’m on the road a lot. Salesman.”

“I see.”

“It was just me and my brother anyway. Our parents are both dead. And Bob and I weren’t as close as we should’ve been. He was the younger of us boys. I’m almost fifty.”

Elise stared out the crack of the office door, through the shadow of the hall and into the courtyard of Montegufoni.

“Anyway, Italy it was. The sergeant told me this was your honeymoon.”

“Yes.” She tried to snap herself out of it and listen.

“Bob always talked about wanting to bring his girl there when his tour was over. I told him to go to Greece–for the food, of course. He didn’t pay any attention. Had to be Tuscany. Ironic thing is, it might as well have been in the middle of Gaza.”

“His tour.”

“Yes. He was due back in Baghdad at the end of next week.”

He was a soldier. Herman had killed one of their soldiers.

“How long was your brother in the service?”

“Making a career of it. Bob was twenty-two when he went out in Desert Storm.”

“He was going to be coming home soon, wasn’t he?”

“It wasn’t your fault. Lady, that’s all I want you to hear right now. You’re a young kid with your whole life in front of you. Don’t let this turn your life upside down.”

“No.”

“You want to hear something strange? I’m glad it was other Americans who ran into him. The way things have been going in this world right now, I have a feeling anyone else would’ve been trading high-fives over his body. You know what I’m saying?”

Elise was silent. She could hear the women pausing at their computers. One was on the phone now, engaging in a hushed discussion.

“You there, ma’am?”

“Yes. I’m sorry.”

“Listen, I should’ve asked first, I suppose. You sound like you’re from the Northeast. Hey, for all I know, you opposed the war–”

“Well, no, not really–”

“–and that’s okay. We’re a free country, and everyone’s entitled to their opinion. But you see what it means to stick together, don’t you? And I hope you’re not shocked when I said I’m glad it was another American.”

“Of course . . . ”

The man had been drinking, she realized, and Elise imagined another phone call, much less pleasant, coming from him on the morning after his hangover.

“Yes, I understand.” She was trying to figure out how to sound more supportive while trying to bring the conversation to a close, when Peebles’ voice suddenly went flat, as though he were preoccupied with something he might have spotted on the television while they were talking. She imagined now an overweight fiftyish man, balding perhaps, still in his shirt and tie, sprawled on the bed of his hotel room as he leafed through the room service menu.

“Bottom line is I want you to put this behind you.”

“I will.”

 

When it came time for dinner, Herman again refused to leave the castello; he refused to go some place where no one would know them, no one would look at them. Instead, they had dinner served on the veranda, even sitting at the same table where the captain had questioned Herman two days before.

“What else did he say?” Herman poured himself another glass of chianti. “I’m getting used to this wine. Once you accept the fact that Italians can’t make cocktails to save their lives . . . ” Herman grunted. “Anyway, he sounds okay.”

“He didn’t say he was okay. He seemed more concerned with how we were handling it, whether we were okay. I don’t know if he was okay.”

She watched him swallow half of his glass in one gulp. “We are okay, aren’t we, Herman?”

He put his glass down briefly and sucked his lips. “That’s good. Although . . . people can change their minds. Once it begins to sink in. He could change his mind and sue us.”

“I just think it’s a little strange, what he said.”

“What’s that?”

“That he was glad that . . . we’re American. I see the point, that if it had been another Italian, or some French or German tourist we’d hit, for example, instead of an American . . . it would’ve been worse for us.”

Herman nodded and looked toward some of the other visitors seating themselves on the veranda. “They’d all be staring at us like zombies.”

She was surprised when he said it. It seemed to reclaim some common ground for both of them, and she nodded.

 

He wasn’t interested that night, although she thought he might be. She thought, because he had seemed to lighten up a bit more at the meal, that Herman would not leave her in the apartment again and sit by the dark pool as he had the night before. That he would want to make love, or at least fool around.

But he left again. And once again, she let him go. Elise didn’t like sitting in the darkness of the pool at night; it made her uneasy. Close as it was to the castello, it seemed too cut off from everyone, too far from help.

As she stared at his little shadow sitting by the pool, she heard a car approaching, and the headlights illuminating the trees as someone slowed to turn in the castello’s long gravel driveway. Some one of the visitors returning from Florence for the day, perhaps, after wandering the old city streets, peering in shops.

She thought no more of it until she heard heavy steps in the common room outside. Then a knock. She thought immediately of the captain again, wondering if he’d changed his mind about the accident, and he was coming to rescue her. It was only a fleeting thought, but for a shivering instant it almost overwhelmed her, and she ran to the door.

But it was the owner of the castello who stood in the doorway when she drew the bolt back. Behind him stood a tall, barrel-chested man, just as she had imagined him to be on the phone. His hair was white and thin, pulled neatly back into a ponytail. He was mopping his brow with one hand, dropping a beat-up travel bag to the floor. From head to foot he was dressed in black—indeed expensive black from the look of his jacket and tie, and his Gucci loafers.

“Signor Peebles,” said the owner, a bewildered, hopeful, apprehensive smile frozen on his face.

“I took the red eye,” said the dead man’s older brother. “I hope you don’t mind.”

 

She came out and closed the door behind her. She nodded and took his hand. His grip was firm, but fleshy, and she guessed he did not get a lot of time to exercise. They moved to the benches at a long oak table in the common room where they sat for what seemed like an hour.

“I do apologize if I startled you. It wasn’t my intention to come at first. I did want to say hello, however, before plopping down in my room. It wasn’t easy being able to find a spot here, given the season, but the manager, or owner, there was very kind considering the circumstances and all.”

He took off his jacket. She noticed now the red blotches, indicative of psoriasis, at both his temples, and a stretch of it on one short-sleeved arm as he sat down again and took a swig from a bottle of Evian.

“You’ll want to meet my husband,” she said for what seemed like the fiftieth time. But still he made no move to pick up his bag and retreat for the night. He looked around.

“Built around the fourteenth century from what the guidebook says. I read about this place on the way.”

She nodded and looked out toward the veranda.

His eyes followed hers. “How is your husband. Herman, you said his name was?”

She nodded again and began to move toward the open doors out to the veranda and the wide stone stairs down to the lawn. “He’s down at the pool. He likes to sit by the pool.”

“I guess you don’t, huh?”

She made a small laugh, to acknowledge this, although she didn’t want to agree. She could hear his heavy breathing behind her as they made their way down the stone steps. She wondered what kind of food he ate on the road, guessing his cholesterol was probably well north of 200 and had already started the process of arteriosclerosis. They were going downstairs, and he was already wheezing. She would let Herman deal with him for a while, that was the best course of action.

“You got here awful fast,” she said.

“Well. . . . ” She heard him thinking this through as he prepared to speak. “I wasn’t really at home when I spoke to you.”

She said nothing, nodding only, and not wanting to look back and meet his eyes.

“Truth is, I wasn’t even in the U.S. I was already in London for a sales trip when I got the news. I . . . I guess, I didn’t want to upset you when I called, maybe have you thinking I was going to accost you about the accident.”

“That’s okay,” she said, knowing that it wasn’t. “Watch your step up here, through the hedge. There’s a little stepping stone juts out of the grass.”

“I see. Pitch black down here. Don’t go in for night lights or torches like some of the other resorts I been to.” Peebles chuckled. “Of course, I know it–it isn’t really a resort.”

“There he is,” she said, relieved that Herman was in fact still sitting in his chair by the pool, looking at nothing and nowhere in particular.

He seemed to understand instantly, though, soon as he saw them come through the hedge, and he sprang to his feet.

 

In the morning they took their fresh bread, pickles, and cheese onto the veranda with their coffee.

The German woman, the dark-haired doctor Elise saw Herman speaking with the night before, was sitting on her own in the far corner of the veranda, her eyes hidden behind a huge pair of dark sunglasses. Elise couldn’t help it, but for an instant she had to cover her mouth so that Herman couldn’t see her suppress a chuckle, for she wondered whether her husband had met the woman for a midnight swim and Herman had somehow lost his temper and slugged her.

Then she noticed Peebles put down a newspaper across from them and her good humor evaporated. At first she was glad to see he was alone, that the captain of the carabinieri wasn’t sitting at his side taking notes.

But now he rose, grabbed his bottle of water and came to their table.

 

“Been following the war news?”

Herman shook his head. “Wanted to get away from it for a while.” Then he stopped. “Sorry. I mean, Elise told me your brother was in the service. He was over there.”

“He sure was. Always proud of it, too.” Peebles looked around. “Folks have been awful nice to me, I must admit.”

“Were you expecting them not to be?”

“Well, you read things all the time, hear things all the time.”

“Just because they’re upset with our government doesn’t mean they’re upset with us.”

“That’s a good point. What are you folks up to, today?”

Elise said, “We were thinking of a little driving trip. Maybe into Florence, or over to Sienna to see the vineyards, the duomo.”

“I need some exercise,” Herman said quickly. “I haven’t done any jogging yet.”

Elise nodded slowly. “I forgot about that.” She looked out to the hills, but could tell from the slight turn of his head that Peebles had caught her momentary exasperation and noted it.

“Hey, if you got any recommendations for walking trips, hikes, you know. I’d appreciate it. You can see I don’t get as much exercise as I should. But it’s so lovely around here. I’d be happy just to wander over to the houses on that next hill. Looks like a good mile at least.”

“That’s a good walk,” Herman agreed, and rose to clear the table. “How long are you staying?”

“Not sure. Of course, I came to fly my brother home. But, well, they take care of that for me, too. I mean, there’s no timetable not up to me. How about you folks?”

Elise could see Herman’s eyes harden. “Well, this is our honeymoon, you know.”

“That’s right, that’s right. Good for you.” Peebles pushed his chair back in. “Maybe I’ll see you all tonight then. We could have a drink of wine out here and watch the sun set. But I know you want your time, too.”

Elise didn’t have to see her husband’s expression to know what he was thinking: sun sets behind the castello, you moron. But already she wondered if Herman would even be with her in the evening. He’d be sitting at the side of the pool, brooding, like one of the statues of fish-headed men that stood out from the grotto under Montegufoni’s terrace, waiting for her, like some ancient supplicant, to drown herself as a sacrifice.

 

Later Herman went for his jog. He came back with the captain of the carabinieri, looking mussed and covered in dirt from a scuffle with someone outside the grocery shop in the village.

The captain didn’t look angry, but he directed his words almost entirely to Elise, as if knowing she was the more reasonable of the two.

“I understand what you’re going through. And if you like, we can suggest a specialist for your husband to talk to. But please, for the sake of the other guests, he should try to refrain from any more, what is the phrase, acting out.”

She nodded and watched him turn back down the stairs and walk to his patrol car. Herman went to their rooms without a word. You could slip into the idea that all men were like this, she thought, because he was all you knew. Elise’s father had died when she was ten, she’d grown up with her mother and two sisters. She had slept with two boys during her time in college, but those relationships had not been serious. She knew no one really, until Herman. She had no one to compare him to.

 

Peebles sat on the veranda that night, ubiquitous bottle of water at one side, half-empty high-ball glass on the table.

“I love the way they do cocktails here—no fooling around: about two-thirds straight gin, an ice-cube the size of your thumb and a dollop of tonic.” He laughed. “I’ve had three.”

He closed his cell phone when she sat down. He threw on his jacket, the same black suit jacket over a pink long-sleeve dress shirt.

“Would you like something? The girl’s just closing up the little bar downstairs, but I can ask for another, or whatever you’d like . . . ”

Elise shook her head. “I had a bottle of wine with dinner.”

“Go anywhere special?”

She shook her head, glancing down over the cypresses.

“Your husband’s not taking it too well, is he?”

“No. He’s been sitting by the pool every night since the accident. He loves that deep dark pool.”

Peebles leaned forward, and she could smell the Beefeater on his breath. It didn’t bother her; she realized she must have smelled of chianti classico. Peebles said in a low, almost inarticulate voice, “He won’t . . . he won’t do anything drastic, do you think? I mean, maybe, have too much to drink and go for a swim.”

She shook her head. “He’s not the one likely to end up in the pool,” she smiled. “And anyway, he’s not drunk. I am.”

Peebles grinned and his chest quaked with a silent laugh. His cell phone rang and he opened it gingerly.

Elise stood up and walked to the stone stairs. She could see him throw her a glance in the midst of his conversation. She went down to the lawn, but instead of turning left to the ring of cypresses around the pool, she walked further down the grassy slope to a couple of abandoned sun chairs and lay back to look up at the stars.

Herman would never understand. Leaving him because of an unspoken fear of what he might do to her someday. That would never work. He’d feel like he was being victimized. He’d claim to be the aggrieved party. There was an easier way out. She got up and found herself walking through the hedge of cypresses to the pool. But the pool was deserted. Herman’s empty chair was pulled to the corner where he liked to sit. She thought for a moment that he was with the German woman. The windows of the rooms the Germans occupied were all dark. Perhaps they lay within, groping each other in the dark.

She thought of walking to the castello’s parking lot to see whether he had taken their new Hertz rental car. But perhaps he had simply gone for a walk around the grounds and gone back to their room.

She hesitated when she came back to the steps to the castello, glancing back at the lawn chairs. Peebles was sitting in one of them now. He must have come down to find her.

When she stood beside him, she realized he had dozed off. She sat down next to him, and he stirred, mumbling. He was an old man, she realized, an old man still clinging to the shell of his younger, football player’s body.

He started talking about his brother, and in the gloom his muffled words began in sentiment, almost reverence, before she began to notice creeping into his voice some allusions to responsibilities not appreciated, opportunities missed, and later resentment. But his voice remained low, melodious.

Light headed, Elise realized she had been holding his hand while he spoke. Her back was aching and she longed to fall asleep with the wine in her head.

Elise drew his hand down with her as she lay back on the grass. She was still wearing her bathing suit under her halter, and that seemed natural, too. He buried his face in her lap, and with some effort she shrugged out of the halter and pulled the straps of her suit down over her hips.

He pulled them the rest of the way and Elise just closed her eyes and waited for him. But the heat of his hands drew away from her abdomen and she was cold again.

“I can’t.”

“Huh?” She must have sounded angry because he apologized right away. “I mean, I’m not prepared,” he said.

“Pill,” she managed to say without opening her eyes. “I’m on the pill.”

But now his voice was raised, in apology, apparently, for he was tucking his shirt back in and stumbling to grab his cell phone off the table.

“A terrible thing to presume. I’m sorry. Don’t . . . don’t hold it against . . . ” and he staggered up toward the stairs.

Elise lay in the grass. She stared up at the stars. Eventually, feeling the chill, she pulled her bathing suit and sun dress up from her ankles. She climbed back into the chair, but it was too cold now to stay without a blanket. She was relieved when she got back to La Fatoressa and found it empty.

When she woke, she realized Herman must have come back during the night, because his clothes from the day before were flung over the chair in the corner and he had brought the day’s bread in and put it on the table.

Elise threw on some shorts and a shirt quickly, but he was not out on the veranda. The pool was noisy with new guests. When she went back to the common room, the owner appeared and smiled.

“Everything is okay?”

“Yes, thank you.” Her head was throbbing and she needed some Advil.

“Signor Peebles left very early. It was good, yes, that you talk to him? That he talk with you? Everything is okay?”

Elise nodded.

 

She found him in his chair by the pool with a glass of Orangina. He had his eyes closed and his legal thriller spread open on his lap.

He said nothing for a while, but held her hand.

“We may need to see someone, Elise.”

She wanted to hear him say the rest of it. To accuse, to denounce her betrayal. She had a vision of him hiding in the cypresses last night, peering through the leaves as she lay back and offered herself to the dead man’s brother.

“I mean to say, I may have to see someone. About my anger. I know that. I don’t want to lose you.”

She nodded, folding his hand in both of hers, because it was easier than saying anything. Later on, she knew, she would be expected to say something. But not now. She was too startled by his meekness.

“Thing is, I know I take it out in the wrong way, and seeing what happened made me realize . . . ” His voice dropped and he glanced at some of the people in the pool. “Even if I’d had the time to get out of the way, I did realize, that I didn’t want to. I might not have. Even if I’d had the time.”

 

Again, Elise said nothing, but she let him hold her. Later that day, she walked out to the road. Elise passed through the courtyard, through the main gate of Castello Montegufoni and past their new rental Honda to the spot where Peebles was killed. The hot sun felt good on her shoulders, and the dry ground was purifying. Below she could see the reeds from the field next to the vineyard where their car had overturned to its rest.

At the edge of the road where Peebles had fallen, someone had placed a simple, empty urn. She wondered if Herman had done it during the night. Or Peebles’ brother during his hasty departure. Or perhaps one of the other guests in the castello? It was here, after all, out of this luscious countryside that the ancient Romans arose and established their pagan sacrifices as the backbone of their empire. She crouched at the edge of the road, clutching a handful of earth to put in the urn, to make a silent offering for her sin.

An image of the dead man’s brother floated before her eyes again, a tired overweight man sitting in a hotel room somewhere on his way back to Milan, flipping TV channels with the remote in one thick fist and emptying a small Beefeater from the mini-bar into the glass held between his legs with the other.

She turned her face back to the burning sun and closed her eyes over the image. She would put it out of her mind with the help of this sun. She would go back to her husband now, for the landscape had changed him as well. And she would never tell him. She knew they would never hear from the dead man’s brother again. And anyway, in this place it seemed only fitting, she supposed, only fitting one person should be sacrificed to keep another one sane.

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