Authors: Nancy Barone Wythe
At the end of their meal Rea laid the chocolate bar on the table for them.
“It’s for you, Rea,” Alex said, directing it toward her.
She shot him an insecure glance and unwrapped the bar gingerly. She stared at it, then at him. Alex broke off a small chunk and she took it from his palm, then to her mouth. Oh, for his camera to catch the look on her face as she put the morsel on her tongue! She ran her dark tongue over her lips and he swallowed hard, looking away.
“It’s good, isn’t it?” he said, trying to break the spell, and she smiled back and nodded. Perhaps she did need someone after all. Perhaps she wasn’t the only one, he thought, opening his heart to a possibility.
That night Alex lay in his bed with his hands tucked under his head and listened to the sea crashing against the rocks below. Was Rea asleep, or furiously pacing her floor, licking her wounds? Or was there a man with her? Did she have a different man every night? Or maybe she had visitors even during the day? Alex remembered the fisherman pausing before her door. Was he also a customer? And was she passionate, or did she just lie there and let them get on with it? Were they old men or young? Was she in love with one of them?
The memories of her mouth full of chocolate were driving him crazy. The way those white teeth bit into the bar, the way her lips moved and her throat shifted as she swallowed and smiled, taking another bite.
At three a.m. he gave up sleep as a bad idea and went outside. He sat on the veranda, looking out into the empty night, but his mind was in turmoil, his heart beating wildly. Her hut was only a few minutes away. Before he knew what he was doing, he crept down the path to the clearing, careful not to make any noise, and reached her door. In the faint glow of a sliver of a moon he stepped back, into the juniper bush, and waited, his hands in his pockets.
He was still for so long that a hedge hog came out from under a nearby bush without noticing him. Alex watched as it nibbled at something on the ground, possibly the juniper berries. He wondered what they tasted like, and if the hedgehog was happy with them, or if it simply made do with what it had. Did it have any thoughts? Any feelings? Or was it pure instinct, just made for copulation and reproduction?
It had been months since Alex had had a woman. Beverly. He had been married to her for three years until he came back from the war and found she was in sweet company. In their own bed. He divorced her immediately. But had he really suffered? Bev had always been a bit flaky, although he had never actually expected her to go that far. Why had she done it? She wasn’t with the guy anymore, so Alex figured it certainly hadn’t been love. He wondered how many men had known Rea, and thought what a shame it was. So young. What kind of a future did she have?
Before he knew what was happening he heard the lock in her door grind open and the sound of the old blinds, the
, being pushed out. Although he was standing perfectly still his body froze. What if she saw him? She would think he was a customer; how was he going to get himself out of that one?
But if Rea had seen him she paid no attention to him. She stretched her body up to the skies and began pacing back and forth between the cluster of bushes where he stood and her front door. As he wondered what to do, she began to sob quietly.
All he had to do was reach out his hand and he would be touching her. All he had to do was curl his fingers around her wrist and pull her to him to console her. She suddenly stopped and stiffened, and Alex held his breath. She turned in his direction and jumped. He wanted to go, but stood stock still, unable to retreat, unable to advance. She stared at him, and in the feeble light he studied the contour of her jaw-line and throat that plunged down into her neckline. She was indeed a beauty, like none he had ever set eyes on before. He turned to go, but she grabbed his hand, indicating he should sit down on the stoop.
Alex looked at her, unsure whether he had misunderstood, and in the end sat down. She disappeared into the hut and returned with a small bottle and two tiny glasses. As he watched in stunned silence, she poured a dark liquid and handed it to him. He watched her at length, her own eyes studying him. He took a tentative sip and made a face. She giggled, and Alex watched her in wonder as she threw back her head and took a long sip. Alex imitated her and smacked his lips. Strong, but not bad. It tasted earthy, but also very sweet. They sat in companionable silence as Alex asked himself the million questions he couldn’t bring himself to voice.
Everyone seemed to know everything about her, yet she was such a mystery. Where had she really come from? Why had her parents left her there? He was more than aware of her sexual pull on men, particularly on himself. Tonight she smelled like lemon blossoms, the
that flowered outside his quarters and even in the dark he remembered the smooth texture of her skin.
If he was hoping for her to start talking to him he would have as long wait. Some communicative skills! He drained the glass and she didn’t offer him any more, so he stood up and whispered, “Buono. Grazie.”
She watched him without answering as the night grew darker and darker, it seemed to him, because if first he could make out her face, now he could barely distinguish her figure. He dipped his head and when she didn’t answer, he headed for the path. What a strange woman. She had the manners of a nanny-goat. Well, so much for getting to know the anti-Christ.
As he began his descent down the path, he heard her murmur something.
He stopped and turned. “
Bacche di ginepro
,” she whispered.
Bacche di ginepro.
Juniper hooch. Inebriating.
On the way back to his own house, Alex thought about her and the strange encounter.
* * * *
The next day Alex rose early to finish his cleaning. Later he would go down to the town square to see if he could book a fishing trip with the men. He was going to dedicate an entire chapter to Panarea’s fisherman and needed to do the research.
As Alex wiped the sand that the breeze had brought in from the beach, he heard the front door open and close. Throwing the cloth over his shoulder, he went into the front room and started. Standing by the window was Rea in person.
“Buongiorno, Rea,” he breathed with a smile, but she didn’t answer. Her black, shiny eyes nailed him to the spot as she studied him leisurely but guardedly, her eyes roaming over his body as if weighing him.
They stood opposite each other, watching the other warily, watching the other watch, and suddenly Alex felt his pulse racing like the night before, and his face grow hot.
She stepped forward with purpose, as if to hit him, and before he knew what she was doing, she slipped out of her dress. She only wore a pair of shabby but brilliantly white panties of thick cotton. The sight of her bare breasts made him gasp. Never had he seen such beauty. She knelt before him and started unbuttoning his trousers, and his body immediately reacted to her fingers near him.
God, how he wanted to draw Rea to him and kiss those rosy tips! Just this once! How he wanted to push her back against the cot and take her! With one touch he could guide her there. He knew she would tilt her head back and let him, and he would bury himself deep inside her, over and over until this hungered frenzy died down. Overnight, she had become an obsession.
Before he could stop himself, he shook his head. “No, Rea,” he whispered, breathless.
His fingers held her wrists, pulling her up to him, as his eyes burned into hers. Rea looked up at him innocently, as if she had no idea how wrong this was. Of course, to her it was survival. How many times had she done this in exchange for food ? The anger came unexpected, flashing through him like a tidal wave, and he wanted to kill all the men that had taken advantage of her innocence. She was so young. Too young. And too dangerous for him. But he would not be like all the other men.
Alex removed her hands gently, clasping them in his, feeling his stomach jittery. Her mouth was open and moist, beckoning to him. His eyes never left her face as he did his trousers up again and moved away.
“The food is free, Rea. You don’t have to do this. Not anymore.”
With a swift movement, she yanked him to her by his shirt front, her eyes searching his. Alex held his breath, beads of sweat popping onto his head. He was doing his best to behave. If she didn’t stop now he would throw her over his shoulder and God help them both.
He straightened, putting distance between their bodies. When he returned her stare with no more than a curious look, she stepped back, pulled the cloth down from his shoulder, and began to wipe the table under the window as Alex watched in surprise. She was determined to pay him back for some reason.
“No, Rea, that’s okay.” He put his hand on hers to stop her and she whirled around, her chin tilted upwards in defiance, that fierce light back in them again.
He sighed and lifted his hands in resignation. Rea stared him down and finally turned her back on him to polish the table behind her. Alex watched for a moment, then returned to the living room.
They worked all afternoon in silence in separate rooms. When he paused he could hear her breath coming in quick short gasps as she toiled. It excited him beyond belief.
At five he was exhausted and poured two glasses of lemonade. He found her washing the windows.
She whirled around, startled, her eyes huge. He held out a glass for her and she stared at him at length before accepting it without a word. He tipped the glass against hers and downed the drink in a single gulp. She watched him, then took a long sip.
He couldn’t help but notice her smooth creamy throat as she drank. He willed his eyes away from her neckline which was low and generous, tapering down between her breasts. Flushed, he looked away again. He had never used a prostitute before, and the thought filled him with sadness. She took his glass from him and he jolted at the touch of her fingers against his skin again. This time it was innocent, and for that it seemed all the more erotic to him. Then she moved onto the next room, and he willed himself to stay away from her as long as possible.
At the end of the day, when the house was spotless, he took out a handful of lire and put it into her hand. She pushed it back as she set out for her hut, and he walked after her, as if following her, rather than walking her home.
The night was silent but for the hissing of the sea clashing against the rocks down below, and picking their way through juniper, lemon blossoms and jasmine bushes, Alex breathed in deeply, drinking in the scents. He looked at Rea in the silvery moonlight and wanted to sweep her up into his arms.
“Rea, please, you earned it.” In an honest way, he wanted to add, but stopped himself.
“Money is of no use to me,” she said with a shrug, and when he considered it, he understood she was right. Don Antonio was the only vendor on the island, and his position was clear. But Alex knew he had to help her. She deserved the chance to be respected. He would do it little by little. In Sicily a person’s greatest wealth was his honest reputation, the ‘unmarked face’ he proudly held up to the world, if nothing else.
“I’d like you to come work for me,” he said. “You can come in the morning and keep my house. I’ll give you fifty lire a week, plus food, how does that sound?”
He could see her weighing his proposal.
“What have I got to lose?” she whispered.
“You don’t have to walk me home, I’m in no danger. Not even the dogs will have me,” she broke off bitterly, and he paused on the path. This was the first time he had heard anything personal come from her lips.
“People can be very cruel to others. It’s just a way of covering up their own insecurities, Rea.”
She stopped, too, and looked up at him defiantly. “Why are you so nice to me? You don’t even like women.”
Alex’s eyes widened in disbelief. “What? Who said that?”
She eyed him squarely. “You don’t want me to touch you.”
Alex exhaled in relief, and his hand sought hers instinctively, but she pulled back. “Oh, Rea, it’s not that I don’t find you beautiful and desirable.”
“All the men here want me to do all sorts of things with me.”
Alex caught his breath. “Do you? Do you let them?”
She shrugged. “Only when I have to. They want to give me dresses and perfumes, but I don’t want anything else. I do what I can to survive. All the women here depend on their men to take care of them. I don’t have a father or a husband or any family.”
His heart plummeted. “But if you had money, would you stop?”
“I would have never started. No one wanted to give me a cleaning job after Paolo asked me to marry him. They’re afraid I’ll take their husbands or sons away from them.”
“Well, you’re officially hired. Congratulations.”
This time when he offered his hand, she took it, and Alex felt the same electric shock flowing from her fingers into his. It was official; he was hooked.
see you tomorrow morning
she said as she opened her door.
See you tomorrow morning
Could he wait that long?
, Rea, and have faith that you have a friend in me.”
Rea looked up at him, and the evident skepticism in her eyes hurt him.
On the way back the scent of juniper accompanied him up the dirt path that her feet had cleared, and that his frequent visits had deepened even further. He strolled under the enormous full moon, and sighed deeply, thinking how nice it would have been to walk some more under this moon with Rea.
* * * *
Rea woke up with a scream. She tried to warn him, but the truck was already in his path. He turned and was immediately struck down. She sobbed, her body bathed in perspiration, her shoulders shaking. No, please don’t let that happen. He is a good man! But Rea knew that her pleas were useless. Within the week he would be dead.