Authors: Valerio Massimo Manfredi
Translated from the Italian by Christine Feddersen-Manfredi
In Memory of My Father
ORINTH, 342 BC
The man arrived a little after dusk when the shadows were beginning to lengthen over the city and over the harbour. He walked at a quick pace with a satchel over his shoulder, glancing around him with a certain apprehension. He stopped near a shrine and the lamp burning before the image of the goddess Persephone lit up his face: the greying hair of a man past middle age, his straight nose and thin lips, high cheekbones and hollow cheeks bristly with a dark beard. His nervous, troubled gaze still held a trace of dignity and reserve that contrasted with his worn clothing and shabby appearance and hinted at a high-born provenance.
He turned down the road that led to the western port and walked towards the docks, crowded with taverns and inns frequented by sailors, merchants, longshoremen and soldiers from the fleet. Times were prosperous in Corinth and both of her ports were thronging with vessels carrying wares to and from all the countries on the internal sea and on the Pontus Eusinus. Here in the southern district where the wheat storehouses were located, every variety of Sicilian rang out around him: the colourful accents of Acragas, Catane, Gela, Syracuse . . .
Syracuse. Sometimes he thought he’d forgotten, but then a little nothing would send him back to the days of his childhood and his youth, swamping him in the lights and colours of a world long transfigured by nostalgia, but above all by the bitterness of a life inexorably marked by defeat.
He’d reached his tavern and went in, after taking a last look around.
The place was beginning to fill up with regulars who had come for a bowl of hot soup and a glass of strong wine, swilled straight as only barbarians and poor wretches were wont to do.
When the weather was fine, people would sit outside under the trellis to take in the two seas, one dark already, prey to the night, the other red with the last gleam of dusk, and the ships hurrying to harbour before the night set in. But when the winter wind of Boreas descended from the mountains to chill men’s limbs, they crammed inside in an atmosphere dense with smoke and stifling odours.
The tavern keeper poked at the fire in the hearth, then took a bowl of soup and set it down in front of him on the table. ‘Dinner, maestro.’
‘Maestro . . .’ he mumbled back, with a faint grimace.
The spoon was on the table, tied with a string so it wouldn’t be carried off. He picked it up and began to eat, slowly, savouring the simple, tasty broth that warmed his aching bones.
The girls were arriving as the customers, dinner over, continued to drink or were already drunk, with the excuse that it was cold and that wine was what they needed to keep them warm.
Chloe was not especially beautiful, but her eyes were deep black and her proud expression was so absurd for a young prostitute that she reminded him of the women in Sicily. Perhaps she was Sicilian after all.
Yes, perhaps she reminded him of someone, a woman he had loved in his youth in his native land. That was why he glanced at her now and then, and smiled at her; she smiled back without knowing why. Her eyes were wide and a bit mocking.
He suddenly found her at his side; he was surprised at first, but then gestured at the keeper to bring over another bowl of soup. He pushed it over to her, putting a few coins on the table as well.
‘Not enough to fuck with, maestro,’ she said, with a glance at the money.
‘No, I know that,’ he said calmly. ‘I only wanted to offer you something to eat. You’re thin, and if you get any thinner they won’t be keeping you around for the customers any more; they’ll send you to the millstone. But . . . why did you call me that?’
The man nodded and continued to eat his soup.
The girl shrugged. ‘That’s what everyone calls you. They say that people pay you to teach them to read and write. I don’t think anyone knows your real name. You have a name, surely?’
‘Just like everyone else.’
‘And you won’t tell me what it is?’
The man shook his head, dipping his spoon back into the soup. ‘Eat while it’s hot,’ he said.
Chloe brought the bowl to her lips and noisily gulped down the broth. She wiped her mouth with the sleeve of her tunic. ‘Why won’t you tell me?’
‘Because I can’t,’ said the man.
The girl looked across at the satchel slung over the back of his chair. ‘What’s in there?’
‘Nothing that concerns you. Eat, your customers are here.’
The keeper approached. ‘Get over to the room,’ he said, pointing at a door at one end of the tavern. ‘Those two bold men of the sea are looking for a good time. They’ve already paid me. Make sure they leave happy.’
The girl took another swallow of soup, and whispered into his ear as she was getting up: ‘Careful, that bag is bound to attract attention. People want to know what’s in it. You didn’t hear that from me.’ Loudly, she added, ‘Thank you for the soup, maestro. It warmed my heart.’
Chloe had been turned over to a couple of foreigners already reeling from their drink. Big, strapping, filthy. The kind who had to hurt a girl to get their thrills. The man heard her scream. He got up and moved towards the door at the end of the tavern; the keeper spotted him and shouted: ‘Where do you think you’re going? Stop, blast you, stop!’
But he’d already thrown open the door and was lunging into the small dark room, yelling: ‘Leave her alone! Let go of her, you bastards!’
Pandemonium ensued. The two of them grabbed him and shoved him back out into the tavern, but he managed to seize a chair and waved it around wildly as the tavern-goers crowded around the brawlers, goading them on in loud voices. A third man crept up from behind and tried to slip off with his satchel, but he knocked him over the head with the chair and then backed up, panting, shoulders to the wall.
He was surrounded. Distressed at his own daring, he was dripping sweat and trembling as his adversaries closed in threateningly.
One of them lurched at him and punched him in the stomach, hard, and then in the face. As the other was about to jump in, three brutes that no one had ever seen before burst into the room and knocked the two men senseless, laying them out on the ground with blood spouting from their noses and mouths. Their aggressors vanished just as suddenly as they had appeared.
The maestro made sure that he still had his satchel and wove his way then through the awestruck crowd and out the door.
A gust of cold wind blasted him and sent shivers down his spine. He felt the effects of the blows he’d taken all at once as the tension that had propelled him began to wash away. He staggered, put his hands to his temples as if to ward off the dizziness that was pulling the ground from under his feet, groped around for a support that wasn’t there, and tumbled into the middle of the road.