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A quarterly international literary journal


/ Second Place, 2023 Plentitudes Prize in Fiction /

This is the moment I recall, a memory blurred by nostalgia and the steep ascent of time.

I was tired and happy. It took three days of travel to be there. The caress of sun on my face was blossoming into a smolder. I accepted this pain as the price of my pleasure.

I sat cupped into a hammock made from fishing seine, more of a chair than a bed. The knotted fibers dug into my back, pressed the underside of my thighs and other more intimate parts. I didn’t complain. I kept one foot planted on the terrace beneath me, straining to avoid an awkwardly-placed pot of bougainvillea. It was also an attempt at stability. I have a touch of vertigo and was trying to avoid the unrestrained rocking.

The sun set in San Domino like an overripe peach splattered against a turquoise plate, a cobalt slice of Adriatic glinting in the distance. The scent of pine and oranges flooded the air. I thought of where I was and how far I’d come, from a teenaged thug doing petty crime on the streets of Watts—this very woman an intended victim—to being with her in a place that medieval monks called “the Island of Earthly Paradise.”

Was it just the setting sun, or did an almost unbearable pleasure flush across my skin? Like lime squeezed onto a wedge of papaya, the sting of it enhanced this moment’s sweetness. Yet somewhere at the back of my mind a nagging thought inserted itself. I had come to a place that I didn’t belong to be with a woman I didn’t deserve.

I had a sudden impulse to leap up shouting random curses, to fling myself over the terrace wall and splatter the hillside below with a violent splash of red. Instead I snatched the glasses from my sweaty face. The scenery retreated into a blur of muted colors.

I heard movement behind me and turned toward it. Grace was opening French doors that led from the kitchen onto the piazza. She brought out a cocktail glass and placed it in my hand.

I studied the ruby-colored liquid swirling with chips of ice. “You’re not a vampire, are you, babe?”

“What do you mean, vampire? You crazy or what, Kwesi?”

With Grace’s head flung back, her lips curled into sidelong sneer that still managed to be alluring. One hand fell to one slim hip. The worldly opera singer vanished before my eyes, a Mississippi sister-girl taking her place. Grace Anita Witherspoon could shift like a chameleon --refined to crude, captivating to callous. It was a trait I found both disarming and disconcerting.

I swirled the ice chips counterclockwise. “Sure looks like blood to me.”

“If you aren’t the most nearsighted Negro this side of the Adriatic!” She plucked the glasses from my hand and fitted them back onto my face. “Why would I be serving you blood? And for your information, an aperitif is meant to drink, not study like a specimen.”

I tentatively tasted, expecting sweetness. A medicinal bitterness bit my tongue. This too seemed an appropriate penance.

“Campari can be an acquired taste.” Grace admitted. “What do you think?”

“It’s great,” I lied, tilting back the glass and draining it. I leaned from the hammock,

dumping pink-tinged ice chips into the bougainvillea. “This is for the homeys that ain’t here no more.”

“You are so ghetto.” Grace punched my shoulder, light enough to pass as playful, hard enough to sting. “That was a liqueur, you fool. It’s meant to be sipped, not guzzled. And your dead homeys don’t want Campari, anyway. Gin and juice, more likely.”

“’With my mind on my money and my money on my mind,’” I quoted.

“Which you have none of,” she reminded me. “The money or the mind.”

“No,” I admitted. “But I got you.”

To reassure myself that this was true, I pulled her down upon me.

“Quit it, you caveman,” Grace protested. “Stop manhandling me.”

Yet soon she ceased to struggle and relaxed against me, her body draping mine. I lifted my foot from the floor and let the hammock swing. Maybe it was the vertigo, but I had an odd sensation that I wasn’t quite there, like something left behind was trying to catch up with the rest of me. The moment with Grace in the hammock seemed capricious, entirely happenstance. Had not a call been made and certain words spoken, I wouldn’t even be there.

I had just buried my mother in California and didn’t know what to do with myself. Grace commiserated over the telephone. “I guess I’m your mama now.”

“Madam, are you suggesting incest?” I joked. We’d been together off and on, but it had been awhile. I didn’t know if she still wanted me.

“Incest, huh? That sounds kind of kinky.” She laughed that throaty laugh of hers that made everything suggestive. “Bring your black ass over here and we’ll see if it’s true.”

I had read three guidebooks on the grueling triple connection from Los Angeles to Pescara, then the bus and ferry ride to San Domino. I found out that the volcanic Isole Tremiti, the “tremulous isles” of Foggia that Grace now called home hadn’t always been idyllic.

San Domino meant banishment for Roman Emperor Augustus’ wayward granddaughter, a detention camp for North Africans resisting Italian colonial rule. It was where Mussolini ordered homosexuals into exile. I’d taken my “black ass” to an historic place of punishment.

The sun went down and the voices began, a shrill and plaintive bleating. I wondered if all that suffering had leached into the landscape, only to shriek its way out through volcano vents. As if in accord with my thoughts, the wailing gathered strength. Grace didn’t seem to notice.

“Girl, don’t you hear all that caterwauling?”

“Cater-whatting?” she snorted against my chest. “You and your two dollar words.”

“It sounds like a thousand cats in heat.”

Grace looked rather like a cat herself, yawning and unkinking her back. “They’re birds, Kwesi. The locals call them diomedéa. You’ll get used to it. They serenade us every night.”

“Yeah, I read about it. But that’s not birdsong, babe. It’s torture.”

Grace assumed her diva posture, chin lifted and neck regal. She tossed in a non sequitur, as was her predilection. “You do know my rendition of Bist du bei mir, geh ich mit Freuden.”

It was a statement, not a question. Grace expected fans and friends alike to have memorized her repertoire. Irritation flashed across her face when I shrugged my lack of recollection. “’If you’re not with me, you’re against me?’ My college German is so rusty it’s practically nonexistent.”

“For God’s sake, Kwesi,” she snapped. “If you are with me, I go with joy. It’s an aria for Diomedes, hero of Troy. Venus changed his soldiers into birds to watch over this island for all eternity.”

“Poor dudes,” I commented. “How’d they catch a case like that?”

Face lifted to the scented breeze, Grace gazed down her private hillside at the shivering palms, the pines and blooming flowers as though seeing them for the first time. “I can think of worse places to be banished to.”

She shifted in my arms, brown ears flaring from her head like rounded antennae. The waning sun turned them translucent. I leaned forward to nuzzle one of them.

“Woman,” I murmured into it, “I wouldn’t be anywhere else in the world.”

Grace flashed her familiar smile. Teasing and crafty with just a glint of craftiness. “So you like my little place in the hills. Can a sister get a show of gratitude?”

By now dusk was descending. Anyone glancing toward our hump of hillside would only see house lights glowing yellow in the distance. Even with binoculars trained on the Villa Figaro, a voyeur wouldn’t make out more than two shadows writhing in a dondolo hammock.

What was that African proverb? A person who has not known pain will hear the sound of weeping and think it is song. I’d known my share of weeping. My life seemed a litany of wounds, the getting of them and the passing them on. But that night a rare bliss swelled inside, bursting from me like the blues. Was this how happiness tasted, a bittersweet liquid the color of blood?

Tangled in the skein of memory and desire, a man holds onto what he wants to believe.


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