Laughter from the past
“And now children – off to bed!“
The bright friendly voice flying through the curtains fluttering in the gentle evening wind brought a smile to the man’s face as he leaned against the balcony railing. The high airless Southern sky arching above, rocks on steep cliffs glowing in the sun, yellowed magnolias, and palms on their refuges of soil. A low baritone answered like an echo from the other wing of the house:
“Björn, Anna – tell your cousins good night and – get off to sleep!”
Flower petals, withered dry grass turned brown. A bug buzzing drowns in the pool.
The rest fades into the sounds of protest crashing like waves against the unbreakable rocks of parental care. The water works wane in shame, somehow turning into a resentful whimper, finally ceasing entirely.
His eyes wandered over the ocean at the pink glistening of the sinking sun, which like a sleeping monster reached the horizon turning aquamarine in the distance and showing every shade of green and grey, slid down the low white buildings with their dark shutters closed, and climbed up the gingery slopes. He took a sip from his glass. Dark whiskey on the rocks. Bagpipes, kilts and fog. The children will be sleeping soon and his wife will crawl into the bathtub. Good. There’s no need for her now. His brother-in-law was already sleeping, so he knew his sister would come up soon. They needed to talk.
A gentle friendly breeze in the cypresses, a dog barking in the distance, local pop music streaming from a shabby radio. Sooner than expected he heard silent steps. She came up the stairs and looked for him, she let her blonde hair blow in the wind and stepped closer. He observed his sister, as she was coming towards him with graceful strides. Admiration, man’s evaluating look, free from desire, as they were the same blood. She was beautiful the way Nordic people in their thirties are beautiful, both of them being in their early thirties. Life just beginning, old age and death out of reach, hidden in the shadows decades away. Children and career not yet destroying the long blooming of youth. Fit body, healthy light skin, typical of Nordic people, glowing under the Southern sun.
“Have the children been sedated already?” a friendly gibe tossed at her with a recklessness only lifelong friends have the right to. Ice cubes clinking in a glass, expensive liquid glugging as it’s poured. Lemon, Ginger Ale, he handed her a drink.
“You wish,” the same reckless smirk. “What the hell, Tom, which century are you living in? They are growing up, haven’t you heard? They’re not that little anymore. I tucked them in and told them to shut up. I’m sure they’re on auto sleep. Yours are exactly the same – how many times have you put your children to sleep this year?”
His eyes went to the floor for a moment. “Honestly, I have never really done it that often. Lisa deals with it.”
“So you don’t take any part in raising your children? Chauvinist pig! The children need their father as much as...”
“Fuck off, Ann, please, if you don’t mind. Don’t you start with this feminist bullshit being thrown around from all sides. Lisa and I have fought because of it in the past, you know that. We even separated for a while, before she realized she either takes me for who I am or gets nothing. She’s a spoilt modern woman, exactly like most of the women in our country. Justice! Equality! Democracy! Dildoism...”
She gave him a weary look, then gently asked:
“Are you in a bad mood? I can see you’re tense. This idea of a vacation together was actually great. The children will otherwise become estranged and that would be a pity. It’s only three hours by train from Stockholm to Gothenburg, but still I only see them twice a year... at best.”
“Did you have any difficulties with Michi?” He had already moved on from the previous topic.
“Did you with Lisa? No. Michi never bothers himself with such things. Never. Sometimes it’s depressing. The only good thing was he never objected to anything, only nodded and smiled like a horse on guard when I told him you would be organizing the place and buying the tickets.”
Her tone was light, slightly ironic. She had poured two cocktails down her throat, which weren’t strong and it was hot, but still she could feel the drinks taking effect immediately. She threw herself onto the chaise, used her hands as a fan, lifted her legs onto another chair and folded her thin white linen dress on top of her stomach. Her brother watched her smilingly. “Since when are you wearing pants?”
“If I don’t, Michi gets this dark suspicious look in his eyes, which he then uses to communicate with the rest of the male species. Despite everything he says. And a lot of beer goes with it as well. It’s better I don’t tease him. At the end of the day, he is not too bad.”
Someone started an engine. A few colorful people, like absurd butterflies chained to the ground, walking along the roads of reddish sand. Rainbows playing in the cascades from the sprinklers, daylight fading away. A few tufts of grass on the volcanic cliff shining in the twilight of the setting sun as if they’d been dipped in blood.
Tom, whose eyes had gone wandering, focused them on her again.
“So you two are getting on better again? Is it a new beginning or a reconciliation?”
Ann turned grim suddenly and hid her nose in her glass for several moments.
“We do, we don’t. We do, we don’t... What’s the difference? Okay, I guess it’s a reconciliation. You’re looking for a fucking man... whatever he promises, in ten years time the only thing he’ll be hugging is the couch, watching TV like a simpleton and gulping down beer. But by that time you’re ten fucking years older, you have a couple of fucking kids, a fucking house and a damn pile of fucking debts. You pay taxes that are so high, you know at least three more fucking assholes live from that kind of money as well as you do, you count down the sixty sick days this stupid country grants you and spend them at home whether you’re sick or not, as long as none of them go to waste, you nod to your neighbors and you nod to the immigrants and you nod to the next moron who cries for justice in the office, coffee dripping from his mouth, and you are so un-fucking-believably tired of it all!”
Salt cedars lowering their heads, roots in the barren land. Ripening citrus fruits, still dark green, swaying among the closing flowers. Shadows descending, light, yellow as baby chicks, seeping through the windows and shutters.
“Yes, it’s not the same as we’d dreamt as kids,” Tom agreed sadly. Then he asked unexpectedly:
“Hey, you know I was always somehow convinced you’d marry a huge hairy guy… …because of the captain?”
“Mmm, maybe,” Ann agreed reluctantly.
Tom let out a short laugh; his eyes were wandering in the vast field of water, which had changed to azure. “If I’ve ever seen an eleven-year-old in love... Pippi always bantered with you because of that, but I’m not sure whether the captain even realized that when you crawled into his lap, it wasn’t just a childlike gesture.”
“Stop,” she muttered, hiding her face in her glass again. “I was eleven.”
“That’s why you got away with it – nobody would have believed.”
“How many times did you promise to marry Pippi? So she could beat up boys for you...”
“You old witch!” he barked angrily, she only grinned visibly. The momentary half pretended anger did not hold any ground and evaporated shyly into nothingness.
The eyes were on darkening infinity again. Pitch black below and smoldering grey-pink above.
“Don’t forget, tomorrow we’re going to the mountains.”
A clanging door, footsteps on the stairs. Dripping water and a large towel wrapped around a hot body. Steam rising from the dark wet hair spread like seaweed. The other woman messed up the fragile connection, one of the world’s visions, which as an elusive chimera had hovered like a distant echo of time and place, that could only be shared by children brought up together. But it wasn’t her fault. Memories crumbled obediently into dust, locked themselves into the wan garrets of their memory, and as sly poison, sank between an ancient book on a forgotten dried petal. They did not mention it again that evening.
The little rental car twirled higher and higher up the volcanic cliff, each turn bringing new spectacular views.
“Stop speeding.” Ann wasn’t feeling too good and tried not to look out the window, where, from time to time, a drop of several hundred meters opened up.
“I’m not speeding,” Tom snarled, driving and grinding his teeth. “The speedo hasn’t even reached thirty. This damn road, how do the locals drive here?”
“Deaths do occur from time to time,” she retorted. She brushed her hair off her forehead and then asked:
“You still haven’t told me yet, where we are going exactly?”
Tom drove in silence for a while. He sighed.
“It’s difficult to explain. I told you, I might come off as stupid...”
“You said it, and you also said that you arranged this whole trip just because of today’s drive. But maybe... you said it yourself, that you’ve done a lot of thinking and that you’re almost at a dead end, and that I really should be prepared, in case you happen to be right.”
He sighed again, cutting sharp corners on the narrow road climbing up the mountain.
“Have you ever thought who our neighbors really were at that time?”
She gave him a quick look, then looked at the floor under her feet.
“Of course I have. But... I can’t come up with anything. They weren’t Swedish, that’s for sure. Both of them had strong accents. And they had more money than was appropriate – if you catch my drift. You even tried to run a background check on the company who arranged the sale of their house, right?”
“Yes, as you know, I’ve tried to track them. They bought their house through one company and sold it through another. The company received orders from another company in England, who received them from someone else. Supposedly. I gave up my search a decade ago, until fate brought me this –“ he took a file from the backseat and grabbed a folder, flicked through it, glancing at the road from time to time, and handed it to his passenger “– this. As you can see, it’s a copy of a newspaper. A local one – “Teneriferior”. The text written in Spanish talks about some competitions between “a father and a child”. Look at the photo.”
She took a deep breath through her nose.
“Go on,” she now insisted with growing interest.
“That’s all there is. It was difficult, but still possible to determine who was in the photo. Señor Edmundo diGallieda. I don’t know the girl’s name. The señor lives here (pointing forward) in Santa Lucia. At least he did two months ago.”
She thought for a minute, a furrow between her eyes, then relaxed into her seat.
“This is silly,” she started laughing, but turned serious again. “But all the same, thanks for taking me along.”
“Yes, it is possibly silly,” he agreed reluctantly. “Like you – I just had to come here. I had the chance to take you along – not to look stupid by myself.” This was uttered with an apologetic smile, he then continued: “If we don’t find anybody, we’ll have lunch and return to the others. The house could be sold, they took long holidays before, they could be just out, or it could be the imagination of my schizo brain after all.”
They found themselves among green pistachios and cork oaks, which at five or six meters (and some a lucky ten) made a real forest. It was slightly foggy on the cliffs, it had rained in the night, and the clouds clung to the mountaintops still heavy with water. The road had led them to an old wall, he stopped the car and they got out.
She gave an evaluating glance at the sky and grabbed her denim jacket.
“Tropics” she commented irritatingly, putting on her jacket with only a sheer silk blouse underneath.
“Subtropics,” Tom corrected. “Besides, it’s the beginning of February and we’re high in the mountains. The season hasn’t begun yet.” He wondered himself, whether to put something over his T-shirt. A ray of sunlight broke through the clouds and laid a narrow strip of disempowering heat. He slammed the door shut and locked the car.
“Where to?” asked Ann.
Tom shrugged his shoulders. “Let’s ask.” He stopped a passing local.
“Excuse me, do you speak English?”
A smile, a headshake.
“¿Perdone, puede usted decirme dónde está la casa de Señor Edmundo diGallieda?”
He received a quick flow of Spanish words, which he could hardly stop, interrupting repeatedly:
„¡Más despacio, por favor!”
He slowed down and soon both of them were nodding to each other cheerfully for two minutes before the local carried on his journey.
“There,” pointed Tom and politely signaled his sister to start moving.
“I didn’t know you spoke Spanish,” she noted with respect.
“I don’t, really.”
They walked side by side along a road of white stones, surrounded by bay tree hedges and arching golden chain trees.
“I’ve been studying it this past year. After I bought the newspaper.”
The arch over an old forged iron gate was swamped in bindweed, including the gate itself, unyielding bent stalks broken and torn at the hinges, since people couldn’t just discontinue their journey because of the plants.
The garden that appeared behind it had been neglected, the building with dark stone roof peeping between myrtle bushes, geckoes running on the walls, the lazy hustle and bustle of birds in the branches of a carob tree twisted with age, bees buzzing.
“There’s no doorbell,” mumbled Tom. “Fortunately, no dogs either.”
He pushed the gate open. They looked at each other with doubt in their eyes, and then he entered, waited for her to follow and closed the gate. In the sleepy, pregnant silence of midday the gravel made a loud crunching sound beneath their feet. Both of them explored the doors and windows left ajar, both of them, almost at the same time, noticed there was a dining table covered with a white tablecloth under a garden canopy.
„¡Buenos días! ¿Puedo ayudar en algo?”
A teenage girl had come to the door and was looking at them curiously.
“Pippi,” they sighed simultaneously.
She looked at them as if she was recalling or doubting something, then a wide smile spread over her face growing wider and wider.
“Hello, Thomas, Anna. What wind carries you here?” She was speaking Swedish now. And then she shouted into the house.
“Father, come and see who’ve come to visit us!”
There was almost a draft at the door, and then a great lump of a man almost filling the entire doorway appeared behind the girl, peering at them and then turning to his daughter in confusion.
“Thomas and Anna from Sweden, remember, from the time we lived in Villekulla?”
He looked at them again and a smile spread over his face, too. “Yes, of course. But it’s been a quarter of a century since we last met. My, how you’ve changed. Come in, we’re just about to have lunch.”
They were steered away from the plants, under the canopy and in a blink of an eye there were two extra sets of plates, glasses, knives and forks on the table, the captain poured them some wine and Pippi arrived with the roast beef.
“Eat, eat quickly!” she cried. “Rabo de Toro and Ensalada de Pimientos. Since we’re short of oxtails, we’ve used other body parts, but everything is, as it should be, swimming in chocolate.”
They were quite shaken, unable to utter a word.
“How did you know to come here?” the captain asked frankly when Pippi had popped out to check the stove.
“I told you we shouldn’t have done it,” he grunted at the girl who had returned and was now carving the roast beef with a half-meter-long dagger. She shook her head in discontent and their guests saw how they looked at each other inquisitively and with amusement and sadness at the same time. Pippi then shook her red braids discarding the topic.
“But who are you really!” Tom couldn’t resist. “Twenty five years have passed since you left. Pippi has barely aged a few years, Efraim or Edmundo – which ever you prefer – looks exactly the same. How’s that possible?”
Yet again, the exchanging glances, a hint of sardonic sadness.
“They’re your friends,” he grunted while leaning back into the armchair. Pippi was fiddling with the wine glass in her hand, giving them askance looks, and then sighed, too.
“We have a bunch of stories for these occasions – the majority of them are about exotic diseases, all of which have forced us to look for tropical or frosty – well, special climates or obscure places. These stories turn scarier depending to the time that’s passed, until they turn friendly again – “I’m sorry, you must be confusing me with my mother, we look very alike, and this here is my uncle, he looks terribly similar to my grandfather”. You, unfortunately, looked like you knew where you’re coming, so we didn’t even bother. Why were you looking for us?”
Tom shrugged his shoulders. “Out of curiosity. You were the only interesting and mysterious creatures to have stumbled upon our sleepy town. And finally... How to put this...”
“There’s no need,” there was softness in Pippi’s voice. “We’re glad to see you, too, although we cannot allow ourselves these kinds of encounters.”
The silence grew into minutes, the captain opened the next bottle of wine, sniffed it and filled the glasses.
The wine was superb, the roast was delicious. Tom looked towards his sister, who was eating as if in dream, shook his head and began helplessly:
“Why? I don’t understand... It feels so unreal...”
Pippi sighed, looked at them and then down, pushing her plate aside with a clatter.
“Isn’t it enough for you that things are as they are? It’s not true that we don’t age. I’m currently about fifteen years old. Father is about thirty-five. In a quarter of a century, I’ll be twenty and father a bit older. It’s most difficult as a child. You can’t be settled down for more than a couple of years, it becomes too apparent.
Now, five is okay. And father can stay in one place for decades. We cannot be friends. Our lives are five times slower in our childhood, as grown-ups it slows down even more. My father is over four hundred years old and will stay like this for centuries to come. I can count on about a thousand years if I take care of myself and don’t get into too much trouble.”
“How old are you now?”
A dry admission, voice drifting un-tethered in the air, not of normal life.
The white tablecloth, beautiful silver, which must have cost a fortune. A rickety wine cabinet bored by insects was full of dusty bottles of expensive quality wine.
“You’re not in a hurry, are you? Come, I’ll show you the house.”
A pleasant coolness emitted from the massive stonewalls.
“This house is three hundred years old. Its foundations, the old wing, were built in approximately 1695 by slaves from West Africa. At that time, the island belonged to Portugal, but as in all these places in the middle of the millennium, it had to deal with piracy. For example, one wave of residents coincides with the expulsion of the Spanish from Tortuga in 1640. The weather was cooler here in the mountains and there was water, the forest – if you can call it that – in the surrounding areas is natural. Old Marquis de Comares – who had nothing in common with his namesake who defeated Barbarossa on the Salado River in 1516 – came here after the destruction of Port Royal, when the survivors escaped from the Caribbean. There had been a small colony and a monastery beforehand, where people, who’d had enough of pirate activity, found refuge, so as local “monks” they had reason to repent. There is no forest on the island, so these ceiling beams were brought from Andalusia by ship.”
Faded old wood with cracks you can stick your fingers in. Propped up directly on the stone without any construction tricks. Walls built of coarse stones. Dignified rooms with high ceilings, furniture made of dark wood.
“This casket was brought here by señor Longvilliers, probably in the middle of last century. But it was made fifty years prior to that – the locks and hinges refer to Germany, the use of materials to Toledo. Perhaps the iron parts are from Bavaria, the whole thing was assembled in a workshop in Spain and then perhaps sold somewhere here.”
The doors had been renovated recently, because unlike the doors in other houses like this, these worked fine. The hinges and locks have been sullied with silicone grease, which is only good for them. It was hard to find two rooms with the same headroom, and still worse, floors on the same level. The stone parquet has been laid directly on the ground. A stove hood, which grew into a chimney, leaned on beams as wide as a man.
“These oil lamps are one of the first made in the New World. The east coast factories were on their feet before the colonies became independent. So the date down here – 1807 – could be correct. Nobody would have spent so much material on them later. Look how massive the font is; a crazy inquisitor could very well use this burner as a thumbscrew. You’d have to see and touch one of these, before you could believe those old stories in books about how somebody was murdered with a lamp.”
Pippi and Ann went into the garden. Tom grew tired of it after fifteen minutes, exchanging a knowing look with Edmundo, when the women stuck their noses in another blooming bush.
“Maybe we can leave the ladies to explore the greenery and I can introduce you to my gun collection... and my cognac collection?”
Ancient red wood cupboards with glass doors, a green frieze, on it weapons old and obsolete. Faded iron the color of dried blood, black greased wood.
“Naturally, I’m breaking the rules maintaining these collections... more or less all of them. I don’t keep them in a safe, I don’t have an alarm, but you understand, of course, that I don’t really need that. Besides, the firearms are in perfect working order. It’s silly – nobody can tell me to blunt the blade on a sword. It wouldn’t be a sword anymore. The firing pin should also be taken out of the pistol. But then it wouldn’t be a pistol.”
Silver carvings, unimaginable effort put into the details. Skilled hands opened the breeches and played with the mechanisms.
“This was called a King’s Assassin. An English work of art circa 1756 – a double-barreled pistol, made way before the first Colt (or Paterson to be exact) was released in 1836. But they were also produced later on, because those six guns, where you had to fill the cylinder by hand, were used more as close combat weapons – it’s only in the movies that they can hit a target twenty meters away, and those eighty poor Comanches, who were shot dead in 1844, died because they thought that after the first shot, they had to start close combat like in the old days... Unfortunately, this one is made for round bullets, thereby limiting its range. But only a hundred years ago, it was a very effective method of dispatching with the royalty.”
Dusty bottles in a dark cupboard from different eras and of different shapes – human fantasy had sculpted them. Large flat bottom glasses, a drop poured by an experienced hand, letting it warm up and come to life in his warm hand, nose pointing to the clouds and a tiny sip, which dissolved inside his mouth so there’s nothing to swallow.
“This should be one of the first versions of the “Napoleon”. But I doubt its authenticity. But it’s old and peculiar enough to belong among these divine liquids. This is the “Hine”, created for the Queen of England. Very dignified, well balanced, superb, but, as appropriate to the English royalty, depressingly boring.”
The flickering heat in the afternoon, the lazy chirp of birds and the buzzing of bugs. The smell of roses, Virginia creeper and coriander in the air, enervated by the heat. The fast flying swallows and budgies with their offended screeches.
“Let’s go swimming!”
The Grand Cherokee growled like angry thunder.
“Hold on! I hope you have travel insurance. Father is a good driver, but he still goes through a lot of cars. Fasten your seatbelts! A roller coaster is nothing compared to this.”
The powerful machine spun up the gravel and dust. The captain slowed down in the village areas, but on the steep descending slopes exhausted every last ounce of the machine’s power.
“It’s our own private swimming place. And do you know why it’s private? There’s no road to it.”
Ann, clutching the seat with both hands, managed to point.
“What was that sign next to the road?”
“Oh, so that tourists don’t get themselves killed. This road isn’t actually a road, these are just our tracks. The thing is, there’s a ten-meter gorge – it’s ten meters wide, a couple of hundred deep. Mostly, we can cross it nicely. Father! Please be careful when you jump! We can climb out, but our guests won’t like to arrive back in pieces.”
“Do you usually manage the jump?” Tom couldn’t help his voice not sounding as indifferent as he would’ve liked.
“No, not always. You see, the jump is successful often enough not to destroy our love of swimming. This means, when we go swimming, we can count on actually swimming and not just having to climb out of an almost impossible jam. But there are quite a few tin snowflakes lying at the bottom of the valley.” He patted the front seat of the car.
The engine picked up speed under protest, the sliding tires made it skid, another wild growl, and then they were airborne... and across. The gap was just three meters wide and ten meters deep. Of course it was enough to keep normal people in normal cars away, there appeared to be no wrecks at the bottom. The dark sand was untouched, no buildings in sight. The SUV descended carefully down the steep slope, the captain shut off the engine and then there was only the sound of the waves and seagulls.
“Oh, we didn’t bring our bathing suits.”
“Do they help you float on the water somehow? There’s no one here, besides us. By the way, I knew a man from Zanzibar once who always went swimming dressed in a sheepskin one-piece...”
A yellow starfish, brighter than the surrounding volcanic sand, twirling lazily in the waves. Shoals of blue, red, yellow and silver fish; an egret swooped down and floated away with a wriggling fish in its beak. The first waves on a rapidly descending sea floor made them wet and they had to start swimming, the salty waves crashing above their heads.
“We have to climb these rocks from the sea side. Keep your hands and legs in front and let yourself be thrown onto the plateau. If you make a mistake, the sharp rocks will rip your stomach open and the fish will eat half of your intestines before you make it to the shore. Anna, are you still as careful as you were when you were a child? Father, you’d better pull her up yourself.”
The big man swooped out of the waves, stood sturdily on the rocks, one hand dug into a crevice to hold him firm, the other hand reaching out as far as possible, Ann then clung to it and he pulled her up like a baby onto the ledge above the waterline. Tom bumped hard against the cliff and felt the current carrying him back out to sea. Pippi had landed nicely and was now holding herself on with her hands and legs. She glanced back and instead of floating herself above the waves, she stayed put.
“Grab on to me.”
Tom reached out and felt her waist, for a moment it seemed silly to him, the water was about to rip them apart and carry them away, but then he remembered who Pippi was. He felt her skin, cold from the ocean water, under his arm, with little softness in it, only rock hard abs, and then there was something softer under his fingers. Tom realized and tried to move his hand to another position, but he was busy holding himself on. For a brief moment, the next wave pushed him against the girl, but they were both safely on the ledge in a second. Tom was afraid to look at her, but when he finally had the guts, he saw she was smiling.
“Now there’s nothing else to do but admire the sea. The waves crash right up here when there’s a storm and we don’t even come here then because you can’t enjoy it when you’re busy holding on. I don’t think anybody else has ever been here. It’s safe to jump from the shore, so let’s go!”
Their skin was salty and tingling from the sun.
The jeep climbed up the slope, made the jump and as the sun was setting rolled on back to the grounds of the old bungalow.
“Go wash the salt off. Dinner will be ready in a minute.”
The sun warm water gushed down from the barrel and disappeared somewhere beneath the stone grid. Towels and bathrobes, flickering flames in the candelabra. Crimson sunset and darkening sky, fresh oysters and old wine. Dried leaves playing in the winter wind, soft warmth and a breathtaking aroma of orchids carried between the bushes with gusts of refreshing coolness and moisture along with flying napkins. Children’s laughter and the sound of banjos from the neighboring houses, the friendly Spanish chatter of the departing housekeeper.
“We had a housekeeper in Brunei once who bought twice the food we needed and then ate half of it. We wouldn’t have said anything if she’d been feeding her family,” explained Pippi, spreading caviar on toast. “Even if that was the case it would have been fair enough. But she really ate it all herself. She wasn’t skinny to begin with, but she gained a couple of kilos a day at our place. We decided when she no longer fitted through the door, we would fire her – considering her health we were doing her a favor. About half a year later we had to stay true to our threat. After two months, she was back to her old shape, only her skin hung loose. Since she was a good cook and kept the house tidy – as long as she could bend down – we took her back. So as not to lose her, I made her run up and down the hill. When she left us two years later, it wasn’t because she’d found a better place, but because she’d won some local running competitions and had been selected for the Brunei Olympic team.”
The captain, who had been talking on the phone, groaned contentedly and relaxed back into a chair that squeaked in protest.
Six smiling and joking men and women dressed in traditional clothing pushed through the gate, formed an orchestra and started playing and dancing.
“Oh, we should have warned our families we’re staying late.”
“Don’t worry, it’s all taken care of. I’ve already informed them you’re coming late. Tomorrow, actually. It’s at nighttime that people fall into the pit. The locals drink wine by the keg and then see how many of them can make it down. There was an insurance agent here once who, at first, thought he’d struck gold because nobody had life insurance. The next day, the locals took him down there with them to have fun, the next morning he disappeared quietly, without signing any contracts. But really, don’t worry, your families know you’re safe.”
Rapid rhythms, then slow, happy faces, music from the past, touching souls. Lit torches on the garden paths.
“Are there many of your kind?”
“A couple of thousand. There’s fewer and fewer of us. We don’t know why, but our time is over. We are disappearing. One day we’ll cease to exist. Each generation is smaller than the previous.”
“So you won’t just blend in with ordinary people in the end?”
Another long thoughtful glance between father and daughter. A shoulder shrug.
“We don’t know the reasons, much has been lost from the past. We only know we don’t mix with regular people. We have our own legends, but lately we’ve studied our genetics and... there are different theories. Before, we thought we were an independent branch of humankind, developed separately from Homo sapiens. Now, some say we’re not even from Earth. But sometimes this is thought to apply to the entire human race.”
“What do your legends tell you? Atlantis?”
“Atlantis was born from Plato’s fuzzy knowledge of Madeira, probably nothing more to it. But there was a time when our tribe ruled the world. The kings of the Bible came from our bloodline and our ancestors were so sure that in the future their years would be counted as months, and so they didn’t make any attempt to change the chronicles of the time. Later, we stayed more in the background because the saddest conclusion from our experience was that people are better at ruling themselves. Yes, we managed to prevent wars and cruelties, but only for a while. After this, the slaughtering that broke out was even bloodier. Humankind has its own path. We have no place in it.”
“How far back does your knowledge of history go?”
“Why do you think they are any different from the legends? In the beginning of your history, when we were still living together as large tribes, the Incas thought of us as gods, then the Greeks saw us as people from the Bronze Age... and so on and so on. We were defeated. Every time. We had better weapons and we were stronger, but there were a lot of people and they procreated much faster. If we wanted to survive, we had to stay away from organized mass slaughter.”
Pippi put her hand to Tom’s lips and pulled him up.
“Ask fewer questions. Come, let’s go for a walk. You?” the question was directed to Ann and Edmundo.
“After this day...” Ann luxuriating in her chair and sipping her wine, blushed feeling rather relaxed.
“We’ll keep each other company,“ grunted the captain obviously content not to move.
The moonlit path climbing up the cliffs, tufts of moss and grass in the crevices still warm from the day. There were no more houses by the time they reached the first cliffs, or any of the walls that the people laid to surround their gardens. A pebble underfoot flipped over the edge announces its arrival a second or two later with a faint sound below.
“I can’t believe this, I can’t believe I’m here, I can’t believe this is happening to me.”
Pippi had let her red hair down. A child by looks and nature, the look in her eyes a deep contradiction. There was sadness and wisdom in her facial features because she had lived longer than many people ever will.
“Can you imagine what would happen if we wanted to live separately somewhere? Like humans, yet a different race entirely. There’s no doubt that we would be killed instantly. So many sacrifices made already during my lifetime. You two are a perfect example. Encounters with our kind to scare away the loneliness. And always in secret.”
The dim light of the stars shone over the dark valleys, the ocean’s heavy breathe barely felt.
Back at the house, Ann pushed her wine glass towards the captain. “This day has been too much for me.” Her voice had an apologetic tone. Like a purring cat she stretched her lean body on a chair covered with fur. He smiled, filled her glass and exchanged a few words with the musicians, then lay down himself. The musician bowed and disappeared from view, a silent guitar could be heard behind the gate.
“What did you tell them?”
“I asked them to play for another fifteen minutes, but so they wouldn’t wake up the entire street. And that I’d seen enough of them and sent them out of my sight.”
She was staring at him with joyous interest; he was lying next to her sipping wine and staring at the sky. The captain’s body resembled an antique sculpture, proportionate and muscular, lying silently. A sleeping titan, a dormant volcano, a massive force boxed in.
“Sorry for asking...” she cooed, a little tipsy. Ann was in that heavenly place where you’re not too drunk, but your life feels golden and the brakes don’t work.
“Ask.” Kindly indifferent, also in a mellow and friendly tone.
“Is it true that Pippi’s mother...”
The captain exhaled and closed his eyes for a moment.
“Pippi’s mother died over sixty years ago. An accident. A plane crash. We’re not immortal. We are about ten times stronger than regular people. That’s all. With such a long life, accidents are the most common causes of death. Yes, I loved her very much, if you’re asking. No, I don’t have a lover, in case you want to know.”
“That’s okay. It was a long time ago.”
“Have you had many women in your life? Such a long time...”
A grunt, a smile. “Love has a slightly different meaning for us. It’s difficult to explain. But many women have been in love with me, if you want to torment yourself.”
“You know, when I was still young and rebellious, I convinced myself I was in love with a German noblewoman, who obviously had strong feelings for me. Unfortunately, she was a real pearl of her era, which sadly meant, that every time she became intimate with me, my only urge was to put her in a bath...”
Moonlight outshone the faintest stars, and the few clouds that were drifting further above the sea, unable to decide which way to go, were decorated with a silver lining. Streetlamps were unknown here; most of the lights from the houses went off one by one.
“Captain, come help me to bed.”
Two swaying statues looking for a way in the dark house.
“Where are you going now?”
“You’re drunk and I’m drunk. Do you know what you’re doing?”
“I would never forgive myself if I let this opportunity slip. Come, Captain.”
Two shadows on a roof after a long walk. Red fiery moon hanging on the horizon like a dappled ghost creating a charming unearthly view of the glimmering cliffs and the ocean reflecting green metal lights like an iron plate, of trees and bushes arching like dark mounds of shadow.
Tom hesitated, then reached out his arm and pulled her against him. Curious green eyes. Doubt. She didn’t resist, only a smile flickering in the corner of her mouth. Touching lips, a long, long kiss.
“Pippi, my dear. I...” Tom was silent, lost for words, but he didn’t dare let her go.
“You don’t know what to make of it? Whether I’m a child or a woman? Plus, you’re afraid, because you know I’m much stronger than you? You silly thing. Since I let you kiss me already... But you’re not asking the right questions.”
“I guess not. I’d rather kiss you again.”
A long, long kiss.
“Let’s go downstairs. You will not be satisfied otherwise.”
Pippi pulled him by his hand, in the dark house, leading him swiftly past the furniture and other hazards.
“Shh, father and your sister are sleeping...”
“I doubt that.”
“Ah, you’re right, another bed will be left unused.”
“Hmm, you don’t say, my little sister...” Tom muttered thoughtfully. The door closed silently. He groped for the bed until he found it, looked for the hook on the dress, somehow managed to undo it and pressed his lips to her body, which had already been in his embrace once in the sea. This time it wasn’t cold nor salty, but warm and smelled of exotic flowers. She laughed.
“What’s so funny?” he couldn’t help but ask pushing her down and as if drinking champagne from her skinny body, not yet fully developed, and without any fear of hurting her. He didn’t get an answer, nor did he expect to.
The next morning he found himself alone with his sister in the house. They had slept long; Ann was the first one at the breakfast table and was fiddling with a paper slip, when her sleepy brother emerged.
Tom took the paper and read it out loud:
“We forgot to tell you that we needed to leave early this morning. We will probably never return to this house, because work will take us somewhere else and we had planned to sell the house a long time ago. Eat breakfast and – we mean it – please, please take something with you as a souvenir. Unfortunately, we couldn’t bring ourselves to say good-bye because you were sleeping so peacefully. If we’re never to meet again, which is more than likely, then all the best to you and your families. Live a happy life!”
Tom sat down and automatically poured himself some coffee.
“That was to be expected.”
They rolled down the mountain in their rental car, along the road they had come up the previous day. It felt like forever had passed. Ann had a huge towel and a heap of plug plants and seeds in her lap, plus Tom’s cognac bottles and an old book.
“I would’ve liked to have taken a pistol, but I can’t get past the airport security with it,” he sighed with regret.
“Did you and Pippi –“ Ann could no longer resist.
“Just like you and the captain,” Tom only smiled as he watched the road in a dreamy state.
Suddenly, they started to laugh and exchanged a sly look, and then Ann became serious again.
“Wasn’t... Wasn’t...” she started several times unable to formulate a question.
“Wasn’t it a bit unusual?” Tom asked for her.
Tom nodded, to himself mostly. “Perhaps the captain warned you, too. I think I understand why there are so few of them. They appreciate human intimacy, but sex the way we experience it... Maybe it doesn’t exist for them?”
“Then you had this feeling, too. The mortality of humankind is hidden behind pleasure. It felt to me that I amused him, he was nice, he treated me well, but there was no unworldly pleasure. There just wasn’t. A friendly compliance.”
Tom didn’t turn his head; a serious furrow appeared in the corner of his mouth. “I couldn’t have said it better.”
And then they were among their families, the children were explaining something, Lisa was sipping coffee and Michi beer.
“Well, a splitting headache,” he offered it to them, laughing.
“What happened then?” Lisa poured them some coffee.
“Oh, we met some old acquaintances and we were too heavy on the drink. These roads... I’m happy you weren’t worried.”
Lisa gave him a waspish look.
“It’s good you at least realized to send a telegram. Were there no phones?”
“No,” Ann answered quickly. “We asked our friends to notify you and counted on them, but we don’t even know how they took care of it.”
“So you didn’t send the telegram? At first, I thought I could have laid you out.” She handed him the sheet.
Tom read it and burst out laughing.
“It’s exactly like Pippi,” he said handing the sheet to his sister. The telegram was short and to the point.
“The party continues.
T & A.”