Maria had more beard than her husband, and over she went. She wasn't so old, the old lady said, who stood close to the boy at the parapet, looking across at what was probably the border of Switzerland.
They both avoided looking over the edge.
Maria was smart, the old lady went on. Even three hundred years ago women were smart. But smart won't save you where love is involved.
The boy caught the old woman's smile. He hadn't been saved or lost thus far, being still untried at nineteen. Does her ghost rise up in the fog? he teased. Or after the lightning?
If I have to put in new plumbing again, she said, pointing at a rivulet staining the stone of the castle, there will be another ghost.
Should he nod in sympathy? Or would she take that as pandering? This old woman was not all like his mother, at least not yet. He shook his head because his feet hurt.
The door behind them refused to open, then did, with a kick. Her grandson announced lunch, something half in German, then he blocked the door and stroked his goatee. You not at work?
The boy looked down at his wrong-sized boots. The old woman admitted to her grandson she had stolen him away from thinning the vegetables. You think the carrots grow too much and then what? I have nothing for soup.
The grandson, not three years older than the boy, gave her a growl but let them pass.
The boy filled his plate with pasta, what he had hoped for despite the half-German announcement, while the grandson railed against his grandmother to his father. Their glance at his plate meant the talk was about him. Earlier he had released the geese in the wrong place and the gander had bit him and the grandson had come running, hands waving No, no, no. But the grandson's wife was smiling at him, the bearded Maria's descendent, according to the old woman. The town slut, she said sotto voce, what did she need a love affair for—but not quite that way, her grandson probably overhearing. That Maria, she said, making sure that the grandson knew exactly who she was talking about, figured out where the Saracens left the treasure and wouldn't tell. This Maria rolled her eyes and slipped him a bar of chocolate when he returned for seconds.
All the saplings outside the window had to be planted that afternoon, the grandson told the boy. Outside the window, these saplings lay in intervals up the side of the mountain, their roots bundled.The boy only half-watched the grandson's goatee bob as he went on with instructions. He decided not to shave that spot on himself, and carried his empty plate to the sink teetering with plates, the only sign of the summer school seven he wondered if he would ever speak to, rich kids whose parents – unlike his own – thought they would learn more at the castle by studying than by working. The students' photos were stapled to a cardboard placard wedged against the rock wall beside the door. Although he seldom had the opportunity to match them up—they slept late and memorized poetry after finishing lunch, served long before the boy was called—he was supposed to keep anyone out of the castle whom he didn't recognize. A Maria had eaten lunch for a week before they determined she was just someone's friend.
A portrait of the Maria who went over the parapet hung in the portico. No beard, however, the artist was kind or the portrait was early. Did they use it for identification purposes at the bottom of the precipice?
He found the tools where the grandson's wife had pointed. Although never having planted a tree before, he dug into the tape-marked soil at intervals, dug all afternoon into dirt surprisingly soft for a mountain, digging deep since a tree, according to the grandson, had roots as tall as its branches. He was lucky they were dwarf. The grandson couldn't put the orchard in himself because he was writing an article about how noble farming was, especially the ecological rightness of the local tools which fit perfectly to the tasks of this region, those being the tools the boy used when the electronically-powered would have saved time and muscles, his sore muscles.
The boy dug into the crumbly earth for the bones of Maria, the woman who so cunningly—he liked the possible dirty root of the word—kept secret the location of the Saracen treasure to herself. Of course getting oneself tossed over the parapet really wasn't so cunning. The old lady said she didn't have a lot of choice. If they were going to dig up the foundation of the castle to look for the treasure, then its walls would fall, and she'd be out of an ancestral home.
The castle on the other side of the ravine showed what could happen when you dug too deep or the foundation went bad. Sixteen of its bedrooms had fallen off in a great storm a hundred years earlier, according to the old woman. They hung the mason, she said. It cost a fortune to fix.
The boy dug holes for the trees and wished he were home, at a barbecue on the beach, illegally burning driftwood and drinking lousy American beer. Another month to go.
The grandson's wife volunteered him to sell beer at a festival at the castle across the ravine. She herself was selling a kind of shepherd's bread, so dry you could nail it to the wall. It just needed soaking in beer, she told him, hefting her hammer to crush the bread into saleable pieces in a booth lined with it. All the students were going to the festival later. They had to write responses to the poetry the grandmother's father had written, who, in his many portraits around the castle, sported the same goatee as the grandson, and now himself, moved so intriguingly while speaking, like a twitching small animal. That morning the boy, thinning more of the carrots, heard the poems recited by the students imitating the grandmother who, after her daily recitation, lectured them with a voice full of scorn. Scorn was apparently important in poetry.
On the ride to the beer festival the grandson said she should stop lecturing like that or students wouldn't return and then how would they keep the place going? The grandmother spat back that his orchard would if he hadn't planted hazelnuts that took so long to fruit.
The German-Italian-English they spoke was the same mix the boy had to contend with at the festival. Most requests, however, came as the international grunt of want, and he quickly filled steins, and filled them again. A beerfest for him, he decided, was just another location for loneliness. The students avoided his spigot, practicing their German-Italian on each other and approaching the locals who manned their own obviously more authentic spigots, although the beer was the same. Tomorrow the students would travel to the Iceman exhibit two valleys over where some paleo-dude hadn't spoiled for centuries, or so the boy had heard him described by the students while he loaded the car with the empty kegs.
He had hoped a Maria would attend the festival. Lots of girls stood around speaking whatever and all of them were beer-drinkers. He wasn't drunk enough to speak anything foreign, and was too shy to fake it. That night on his balcony, the one facing the back of the town, he thought about how clean the air was, although everyone smoked while they drank. And of Maria, beard or no beard.
It became his job to look after the animals. Eight pages of closely typed instructions—in English at least—set out how, and after two more days of fighting the gander and keeping the tiny piglets from throwing themselves under his feet, the family left him in charge. All but the grandmother went to the beach a continent over to quarrel, where baby orphaned elephants splashed. The students took their photos and selfies and left as well. The grandmother took the train south to Venice.
He spoke to the animals about Maria and asked the goats about their beards and his, for he now had several inches going, and how much chocolate could he steal from the kitchen that the grandson's wife wouldn't notice? The piglets were unresponsive and he didn't ask them again but instead pulled out his plane ticket which he'd been carrying with him for the last week imagining what? Some Maria would take it away in a tease and he'd have to stay?
The white peacock he fed but seldom saw—but often heard screaming—spread itself at the bottom of the grove he'd planted three weeks ago, or was it already a month? Or a year? The students seemed friendly so long ago when they arrived, one even asked about his own college, one not nearly as illustrious as theirs of course. Instead of telling him which one, he lied and told them he was skipping college, it wasn't for him and he was traveling around the world working, one organic field at a time.
He found what the peacock ate on page seven.
Next, the exotic rabbits. They kept to their hutches and ate until they were eaten. The students didn't know about European “chicken.” Opening the last hutch, he saw one of the rabbits on its back, dead and chewed up. A fox must've gotten in sometime in the night. He would be blamed – as if he should be standing guard with a pistol.
Maria had a hormone imbalance he wrote the night before in a journal some girl had left behind. The grandmother had her own beard, little wisps he'd seen her cut when she thought he was planting trees under her parapet. Or maybe she found him invisible, or maybe like Maria, he was a ghost with a little goatee, someone who spoke the wrong language, who dug into the side of the mountain in search of—
New boots? His no longer hurt him but the sole was beginning to peel free.
The next day he found a cave opening on one side of the ravine, behind some grown trees. Surely the family knew about it, it was opposite their hillside and they had maps down to the square inch. He sat inside it, away from the gander and the heat and the peacock whose screams hurt his ears. He played with the piglets that had followed him in. No jewels inside it that he could see, but he had the map of romance in his head. He could dig. He could certainly dig.
For more information about this piece, see this issue's legend.
Terese Svoboda will have published 18 books when Great American Desert (stories) comes out in 2018.
56 Ludlow Street
The tenement building where Lou Reed composed "Walk on the Wild Side," and he and John Cale formed the Velvet Underground.