By Maura Stanton
The older man watched the stranger pace along the edge of the water where some gondolas were moored, covered with tarpaulins.
“Don’t fall in,” he said. “Or can you walk on water?”
The stranger flashed him a grin. “I saw a man walk on water once. They were chasing him with rifles. He walked across a deep river without getting his feet wet.”
“Your people are storytellers, aren’t they?”
The stranger nodded. He was as tall and handsome as a prince, but he wore a bandana over his head to hide the ear that had been mangled. The older man had met him only today, in the ground floor room behind the church where a priest let the homeless take showers. He had seen the scars on the younger man’s armpits, pink like the glistening insides of a fish.
“How do you tell a story?” The older man asked.
The stranger walked away from the three men who were watching him, and then back again. His hands twitched. “Don’t you know how to tell a story?”
“Not like your people.”
The stranger nodded. “All right, then. Who’s listening?—that’s the first ques- tion.”
“I’m listening,” the older man said. “They’re listening.” He pointed to the other two men who seemed to be in their twenties. One man was wearing blue jeans and worn Nikes, the other a long dashiki with woven sandals. They were passing a cigarette back and forth. The police had chased them away from the piazza where they had been selling fake designer handbags.
The stranger looked them over. He was wearing a shiny pink polyester shirt that he’d taken from the bin of old clothes at the church.
He stuck his twitching hands in his pockets. “Right, right, always think about your listeners. What do your listeners dream about at night?” He pointed at the man in the dashiki. “What do you want, brother?”
“A full belly,” the man mumbled.
“Sex,” grinned the other, handing back the cigarette.
“And you?” The stranger looked at the older man. “What do you want?”
“That’s difficult for me to say.” The older man frowned. “Yes, that’s a difficult
“Well, then the story has to tell you what you want. You understand?”
Some tourists with cameras were approaching. They might have been German or French or Swedish but they were speaking English, though one in the group was translating what others said into French.
“The Fondamenta ends here,” one of the men said, unfolding a map. “This boat basin must be the Sacca della Misericordia and that’s the Canale della Misericodia.”
“I’m hungry,” one of the women said. “Do you suppose we can get a good risotto at that place Jean-Pierre recommended?”
“Of course, of course.”
The tourists looked at the African men crouched by the edge of the water. They seemed uncomfortable, glanced at each other, and without saying another word turned as a group and walked back the way they came.
“What else do you need for the story?” the older man asked when they could no longer hear the footfalls and light laughter of the tourists.
“A beautiful woman, brother,” said the man who dreamed of sex, shaping a woman out of the air with his hands. “Even I know that.”
“Fried bananas,” said the other man. “Some fish stew with chilies.”
“Yes, yes,” said the stranger. “You need all that. But first you need to under- stand the other side of your story.”
“What do you mean by the other side?” the older man asked.
The stranger grasped the tail of his shirt, and turned it over. The material wasn’t shiny underneath, and the pink color looked bruised. The hem was coming unstitched.
“The side against your skin.”
The older man frowned. “OK, you like riddles. Well, tell us how you got here.” The stranger was pacing about, looking out at the clouds on the horizon or over at the island of dark trees where the older man sometimes watched the corpses being floated out in black boats decked with flowers.
“I don’t know what’s under the story of how I got here. But I’ll tell you the story anyway and you tell me what it means.”
“All right,” the older man said. “We’re listening.”
The stranger clapped his hands. The three men sitting in a row sat up straighter.
“You see, I was too young to keep track of my life back then,” he said, “but I know I was born in some part of a country that didn’t belong to any other count￼ry. My mother had to carry me about looking for something to eat. After a while I was too heavy, and my mother had to pull me by the hand. She pulled and pulled because some soldiers were coming and she was afraid. We hid in a ditch in the mud and my mother said hush now, don’t move.
What are those screams? I whispered
My mother put her hand over my mouth.
After the soldiers left, my mother and I crossed a field where many people were sleeping. Hush, we don’t want to wake them up, my mother said. But some of the people didn’t have heads or arms.
We ran and ran.
Then my mother and I lived in a camp. One day I was playing with other boys in the camp when some soldiers kidnapped us. They said they were going to turn us into soldiers, too, but first they beat us. Then they tried to feed us some magic rice, but the beating made me so sick I couldn’t eat the magic rice. When they gave us rifles, I didn’t run to shoot like the other boys who had eaten the magic rice, and escaped into the bush. After fifty days I found the camp again and my mother. Then I went to the school in the camp but everyone spoke a different tongue so they taught me French. Then I met a girl at the school called Lovely.
Lovely’s mother had swallowed a pearl, everyone said, for how else could a woman like that have such a beautiful daughter. Lovely had long arms and swift feet and knew how to find sweet nuts and other delicacies in the bush. She understood the language of the birds and the frogs and once, during a long drought when every one was hungry, we went out into the bush and Lovely found a colony of termites. But just as I was going to rake some up for my mother, so she could fry them with peppers, Lovely put her ear down to the nest and listened. The termites are talking about rain, she said, and they say there’s a snake, just there, ready to bite us.
And she pulled me away just as a thin black whip hissed up from the red dirt at my toes.
And that night it rained and rained. Lovely and I ran around with our arms above our heads, singing. And I told her she would be my wife some day.
But Lovely grew up too fast. One day she wasn’t on the bench in the school, and the other boys told me that she’d gone off with some other girls to make money far away.
I leapt up and ran through the camp until I found the tent where Lovely’s mother lived with her other children.
Yes, Lovely’s mother said, as she nursed a baby. Lovely’s gone off to a place called Italy. She’ll send us money. Why should she stay here? Stay and make babies, more mouths to feed? Hooey! In Italy they’ll fix her so she won’t make babies.
I felt as if someone had gouged out my heart with a knife. I ran back to school and asked the teacher about Italy. The teacher showed me where it was on a map and showed me the deserts and the seas I’d have to cross to get there. And where in Italy was Lovely? It was full of cities—cities by the sea and cities in the hills.
Then a man came looking for good boys with strong legs who wanted to make some money in another country. In Italy? I asked. Yes, how did you guess? said the man.
My mother tried to stop me, but I shook her off. I’ll never see you again, she wailed.
I’ll send you money from Italy.
No, she said. I’ll never see you again.
But I insisted. I’ve got to find Lovely, I told my mother.
So I let the man put me into a bag with lots of other boys. He tied it with a rope and carried the bag over his shoulder, and all the boys were sweating and shrieking in there and kicking each other and crying for help. So the man threw in a handful of magic rice. All the other boys ate the rice, except for me, and they fell into a deep sleep. But I kept my hands over my mouth, and ate nothing, and stayed awake because I had to find Lovely. I could tell by the sound of the wind and the birds that we were crossing deserts and seas. Then the man opened the bag and instead of fields of mud and sun and bugs and snakes, we were inside a city made out of stones and the streets were water.
And the man had enchanted the boys who ate the magic rice. They followed him over the bridges and along the dark canals and they belonged to him. But I was looking for Lovely, and had not eaten the magic rice, and I was not enchant- ed. But I pretended I was enchanted and followed the man. Every night, when we boys came back with the money we’d made from selling things to tourists or picking pockets or exchanging small bundles with skeletons in back alleys, the man fed us more magic rice with our dinner and locked us into a storeroom with sleeping bags on the floor. But I never ate the magic rice and bided my time. I listened to the boys sleeping and somewhere in the distance I heard the voices of women gasping and crying out.
One night, I climbed up the brick wall and shimmed out a high window that overlooked a courtyard. Upstairs were many little rooms where women were sitting around waiting for men to come to them. One of the women spotted me and invited me into her room.
I’m looking for a girl named Lovely, I said.
My name is Pretty, won’t I do for you? The woman pulled up her skirts.
I looked away. I must find Lovely, I told her.
The woman shook her head. Here you’ll find Princess and Rosewater and Elegance and Sweetmeat and Jasmine and Tree of Pearl. But you won’t find Lovely.
￼I must find Lovely, I told the woman.
The woman reached under her bed and pulled out a skillet. Here’s something for you, she said. I’ve just cooked these red lentils with four famous spices.
I shook my head.
The woman reached under her bed again and pulled out a fish that shim- mered like silver on the platter.
Here’s something for you, she said. I’ve just cooked this pilot fish with four famous herbs.
I shook my head harder.
The woman rolled her eyes. She reached under her bed again and pulled out a dish of magic rice.
Here’s something for you. I’ve just cooked this rice with four famous love potions.
I shook my head even harder. I ran back down and climbed up the wall and through the high window and got into my sleeping bag. I vowed never to forget about Lovely.
Every day, while I was out with the man, doing his jobs, I kept an eye out for the places where women who ate magic rice slept during the day and woke up at night to wait for customers. And at night I’d slip back there and ask about Lovely. But the women who spoke to me had never heard of Lovely.
Then one day, as I was crossing the piazza, the sun came out and I saw a shadow on the wall that looked familiar. The shadow was just there on the wall but nobody was casting the shadow.
Are you Lovely’s shadow? I asked.
Yes, I’m Lovely’s shadow said the shadow in a sad voice. Lovely left me here last year and she said she’d come back for me but she never did. Do you need a shadow, kind sir?
I looked behind me but I already had a strong shadow waiting at my feet.
Do you know where Lovely went? I asked Lovely’s shadow, which was growing fainter and fainter on the wall. But the shadow did not reply.
The next day when I was crossing the piazza a wind blew and some snow- flakes fell from the sky. I had never seen snow before. I tilted up my head and felt the cold bits on my hot face. Then I saw a breath hanging in the air.
Are you Lovely’s breath? I asked.
Yes, I’m Lovely’s breath said the breath in a low voice. Lovely breathed me out last year and she said she’d come back and breathe me in but she never did. Do you need a breath, kind sir?
But I saw my own breath like a heavy cloud in front of my face. I shook my head.
Do you know where Lovely went? I asked Lovely’s breath, which was growing fainter and fainter in the air. But there was no reply.
And the next day, as I was crossing the piazza, I looked down and saw Lovely’s reflection in a pool of water that had seeped up through the cobblestones. Lovely was smiling and looking directly into my eyes.
Are you Lovely’s reflection? I asked.
Yes, I’m Lovely’s reflection said the reflection in a thoughtful voice. Lovely left me here last year and she said she’d come back and look at me but she never did. Do you need a reflection, kind sir?
But when I leaned further over the puddle, my own reflection obscured the reflection of Lovely’s face, and when I moved back her reflection was gone.
The stranger paused. The three listeners were all looking at their hands.
“Well,” he said. “Tell me. What does my story mean?”
“You’ll never see that damn woman again, that’s for sure,” said the man in blue jeans. He pulled out another cigarette. “They got her down in Rome or Naples. You’d never recognize her. You wouldn’t want to see her now.”
“Sometimes they kill themselves,” the man in the dashiki said. He rubbed his forehead. “I saw a woman fished out of the canal one day.”
The older man knew what he wanted now. The young man could have been his son, he was so sure of what he wanted. “Go back and talk to that priest. He can help you. He’s helped others.”
The stranger shuddered all over and jumped out on one of the tarpaulin-covered gondolas. He wobbled for a moment, and then leapt to the next gondola, and then the one after that. The three men watched him leap over the space between the gondolas, marveling at his grace as the pink shirt flashed and the silver prows bobbed up and down. He would either have to turn back when he reached the end of the row, or leap into the dirty cold lagoon.