"An emperor does not have lice?" I asked, which made you frown like a German banker, so I said, "I think the word you are reaching for is license."
"Si, Mama, license. Even an emperor does not have license to be so evil." Your sweet cricket voice was so grave. "Therefore, we shall punish Signor Nero. No dessert! His sugared almond will be given to Ermes."
Do you remember Ermes, my eternal love? He was our darling Tenerife, who adored you as much as you adored him. When you said his name he wiggled his wooly rump and lapped at your precious hand with his little pink tongue.
Camilla sat on the bed with us, sewing patches on her skirt. She was my dearest friend and most devoted servant, who took you on a journey to the piazza in front of Santa Maria every day, when I could not go out, and slept next to you every night, when darkness freed me to do my business. Yourzia Camilla was not your real auntie, but she was my sister in everything but blood, and if one day I did not come home, I trusted her to keep you safe and see that you became a man. Thin as a birch and taller than I am, our sweet Camilla had a pale, grave face, her eyes and mouth dark smudges, which made her seem like a lovely ghost, though she was as strong as a Turk wrestler. She was born in Naples, and nature made her hair as raven-hued as I dye mine now.
I could describe every detail of that tiny room in the Trastevere, my most adored and most precious son, yet I could never describe the love that surrounded you there. And now I have no greater fear, than that we will become separated by an ocean of time, which no words can cross.
Perhaps all you will remember of me is that I did not come back for you.
* * *
An old Jew named Obadiah lived next door to us, above a noisy wineshop. He was a divine man, scarcely tall enough to look through a keyhole, who loved to discuss the works of Flavius Josephus and often arranged for me to purchase antiquities from dealers and cavatori--diggers--of his acquaintance. So when I heard the pounding on our ancient oak door, it was not at all remarkable to find Obadiah there, although I was surprised at his urgency. His face was always like a marvelous drawing on old parchment, all the lines carefully marked in sepia ink. Yet as I looked down at him peering around the side of our door, that yellowed parchment seemed to bleach out in an instant.
The three men were in our house even before poor Obadiah could sag and fall to the ground; they made certain we saw their saber and stilettos. But you weren't frightened, nor was Ermes, who rushed at them even before you did, barking like a woman screaming until the man with the saber swatted him with his blade and our precious dog flew against the wall like a bundle of wool. A heartbeat later you collided with this man's legs and at once he clapped his hand to your mouth and directed the tip of his blade at your little belly. The invaders had entered without a word, but now this man, who had only one seeing eye--the other was like a poached egg--said with a coarse Neapolitan accent, "We'll slit the boy like a November hog."
I wanted to say, "I don't believe the man who sent you will permit you to kill his grandson." But if your grandfather had sent these men, he was very shrewd, because they sufficiently resembled common thieves that I could not be certain they weren't. So I had to say, "I'll show you where my things are."
The second man came around behind me and shoved the wooden gag in my mouth; it is a miracle he did not knock out my teeth. He tied the leather cord behind my head so tight that the knot felt like the butt of a knife jammed into my skull. The wood sucked all the moisture from my tongue and I could only watch as the third man gagged Camilla. I will never forget the look in her eyes just before he pushed her down on the mattress.
Excerpted from The Malice of Fortune by Michael Ennis. Copyright © 2012 by Michael Ennis. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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