“La Signora,” by Bruce McAllister, is a dark fantasy about a teenage American living in an ancient Italian fishing village with his parents. He’s invited by his friends to go night-fishing on one special night, and although he knows his parents would disapprove, he goes anyway.
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by consulting editor Ellen Datlow.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think they will sing to me.
—T. S. Eliot
As a boy of thirteen, bookish but very American, I lived for two years in an ancient fishing village on the Ligurian Sea, a village of myths and superstitions that had no intention of dying. It was the Cold War. My father, a naval officer, had been assigned to a submarine-warfare research center twenty minutes north, in the big port there. My mother, a teacher and a lover of other cultures, was not going to have me attend school on the American navy base to the south. She wanted me to get to know the people of Lerici, and so (she announced one day) I would need to attend the village school. You don’t argue with a teacher. “Sure,” I said. Besides, I didn’t want to attend school with the crew-cut, tackle-football sons of navy enlisted men.
I studied Italian hard the summer we arrived, helped by a tutor the research center had recommended—a little man, Dottore Stoi, who held his cigarettes oddly and came down to the village on a bus from the port. With his oversight I learned enough to be admitted to the middle school that fall and to survive it. Studying in my room all day, I made no friends that first summer; but when school started, I found them quickly. I wanted to learn soccer, and they wanted to learn basketball, which I played well enough for a book lover. When you’re young, you make friends even if you have no more in common than a gray classroom with a single light bulb and an old iron heater that barely works in winter. But we had more than that: We had ball games, the olive groves’ bright green lizards that were fun to catch, and fishing.
They were the sons of fishermen, my friends. And I—navy kid that I was—arrived in the village already loving fish. In the ports we’d lived in, on the bases there, I’d caught black sea bass, yellowtail, and big halibut—huge fish by local standards; but the fish here, smaller, were brand-new and charming: the branzino, cernia, ricciola, and sometimes, yes, a huge tonno. You couldn’t catch these from the wharf or jetty; but the fishing boats, the old lamparas and a small paranza or two, would bring them in to the wharf, to the fish stands run by the wives of the fishermen. My friends wanted, of course, to be with their fathers on the brightly painted boats; but except for the weekends, they had to be in class, which got out just as the boats returned.
To catch our own fish after school—the big-eyed occhiata and the silver paraghino—we would sit, the four of us, on the rocks of the jetty that ran from the foot of the old fourteenth-century castle out into the Gulf of the Poets. We would fish there with our hunchback teacher, Professore Rigola, who loved the water and its creatures as much as my friends’ fathers did. He’d never be able to go out in their boats with those men, given his curved back and unsure legs, but he managed to take us all to sea when he taught us geography, Roman history, and literature . . . especially Homer. Both The Iliad and The Odyssey: Cantami o diva del pelide Achille! Sing to me, o goddess! and Pass these Sirens by, Odysseus—listen not to their songs!
You could tell by how he taught us Odysseus and that sailor’s fantastic adventures that he loved Homer’s wine-dark sea as much as any poet or seaman did. Sometimes, in his excitement, our teacher would shake, make funny sounds, and have to hold himself up at the edge of his desk. My friends—and not without affection (because our teacher did have a kind heart)—would titter, saying, “It’s the Signora. She makes him like that.”
I had no idea know what they meant. He was a hunchback and also had a lisp; and if he should shake and make funny sounds when he recited great stories that excited his nerves, why not?
I had no idea who the Signora was, or why, if I understood my friends’ tittering, she would make a man shake, get weak, or make funny sounds. No explanation would have made sense to me. My father was an officer, my mother a teacher—one with a master’s degree in psychology, in fact. Their world was one of civilization, science, and reason, not legend and myth. They would not have condemned the villagers for their beliefs—they would not have held them in contempt for such things—but they would not have entertained superstitions. And I was their son.
Fishing from the jetty wasn’t enough for my friends, and it wasn’t enough for me. But they were the sons of pescatori. They could go out on the boats on Saturdays. They needed to learn their fathers’ trade, and they needed to help with the fishing if their families were to make enough money. But what could I do? They had invited me more than once to go with them, leaving at first light. They wanted to share with me the waves and changing light and devious nets and glorious fish as they were pulled from the sea. I’d always said no. I knew my parents wouldn’t let me go.
It was not because either of them was afraid of the sea. In an irrational sense, I mean. My father had served on a famous battleship in Hawaii during World War II, during the bombing there, and my mother had grown up in Long Beach, California, and learned to swim at six. It was simply (they explained) that things could happen on small boats given the moodiness of the sea, rocks and reefs, unreliable motors, and sudden swells; and that though I was a decent swimmer, I was no Olympian. It was not (they said) that I would drown. It was that I might be injured, and the fathers would feel terrible. That, as my mother put it, would be “no gift” to them . . . or, she added, looking at my father, a good thing for “relations between the two countries” either. “Better safe than sorry,” my father said. “If you want to go out into the little bay, that’s one thing. We’ll get a ten-footer—put an engine on it—from the navy club in Spezia if you can find a mooring for it here; but out in the Ligurian Sea, where storms can come up with no warning, we just don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“You could take your friends out in the little boat,” my mother added brightly. “They’d enjoy it, wouldn’t they?”
I didn’t answer. I just nodded.
So I fished from the jetty. My father put in a requisition for a dinghy with a ten-horsepower motor; but it would take time, and I kept thinking how embarrassing it would be: inviting my friends to ride in such a tiny thing, in a tiny bay, when they’d grown up with vessels that could handle, if the men were skillful, the big swells and violent storms of the Ligurian Sea and travel so far—boats they would inherit themselves if they chose their fathers’ trade, which most would.
My father had once sailed on ships, but not since I was little. I remembered those ships, how huge they were—steel and rivets and thick paint, towering above the wharfs—and how the sea, which smelled like a wet animal, kept them floating somehow by magic.
I missed those ships and I knew my father did too. He dreamed of them—and the sea—almost every night, he’d told me once.
It was in the cove just south of the great castle, a minute or two from it, that the women dyed the fishing nets in big iron pots. They dyed them with the ink from three kinds of sea snails that crawled across the floor of the bay and that their husbands, fishing in deeper waters, brought up in their nets by the thousands. I’d watched the women coloring the nets more than once. I’d seen how dark the liquid was in the pots, and how they stirred the nets with great sticks, and how, after a day’s boil, they dragged the nets out onto sand to dry them in the sun for days before washing them in the sea. The water of the cove would turn red—a dark red that was almost purple—and I thought of Homer’s seas.
It was the ink from those snails that the Etruscans, Greeks, Romans, and Phoenicians had used for their “royal purple” dye—their royal robes, which had, like Homer’s seas, been red, not purple at all. Or so Rigola explained to us one day in our little classroom. Looking at me for some reason, he added that in Ligurian villages like this one, the dye was often used for the fishing nets because, people believed, the Woman of the Sea—frightening though she was—could bring a fisherman good luck if she liked your nets. And she did like that color, he insisted—the wine-dark red that made the cove look as if some beast had been butchered there long ago. And so in every fishing village in this province three women—the streghe—the witches—blessed the nets, hoping to receive La Signora’s blessings.
I had seen the three women. I’d stood in the cove with two of my friends, skinny Maurizio and wide-eyed Gianlucca, that first winter, watching the women in their black peasant dresses move from net to net, muttering and blessing each with a gesture that looked both Christian and not. The nets had been arranged on the sand for the three, under a dim sun, and looked like ropy hair, the dye bleeding into the sand. At one point the three women turned as one and stared at us, but then went back to their business. For a week I dreamed of blood-red seas that churned in the night with endless schools of fish, and of a presence—a presence in the darkness—that filled me with both a terrible love and a sweet terror.
The next time my friends—not just Maurizio and Gianlucca, but Perosso, whose father was considered the best fisherman in the village—invited me to go with them in the boats, it was not for a Saturday fishing adventure, back before dusk. It was for a nighttime trip—something I’d never heard of.
A few weeks earlier, my father, who was never moody—who was what a military officer should be like—strong and calm and even-tempered—had started crying (yes, crying) after he returned from work in the big port. He would come home, eat dinner, and then go to his bedroom, where we would hear him weeping. It made no sense. I didn’t even know that’s what the sound was at first. It wasn’t one I knew from our family life.
“Does he miss the sea?” I asked my mother. Twice the previous summer he and I had gone down to the wharf together and stared at the bay. I didn’t know why we were staring. “Do you ever wish you could live in the sea—just swim there, not caring whether you could breathe or not?” he finally asked me the second time.
It scared me a little. I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “I guess so.” The week before, I remembered, he’d eaten a fish from the market and gotten sick. Not my mother or me, just him. The way he talked on the wharf, I thought he was still sick. It didn’t sound like my dad.
“Does he miss the big ships?” I added.
“I think he does, Brad, but he’s missed them for a long time. You don’t say no to the navy when it asks you to work on land and help run research stations, but a man doesn’t cry over that. I don’t know why he’s crying, Brad.”
“Is he still sick from the fish?”
“Oh, no. You don’t stay sick for months from that . . .”
I would stand by the bedroom door listening to it. He was trying to be as quiet as possible, but it was a small house, so you could hear it.
I kept trying to understand. If he wasn’t missing something—and, by missing it, feeling sad—what would make a grown man cry?
Sometimes when I stood there I thought I could hear singing. There was no radio on in the house, and the Lido far below us in its own little cove wasn’t playing music.
There were no houses in the olive groves with loud radios.
Maybe I was imagining it. Maybe I was listening so hard to his crying that I was imagining singing.
One night I heard my parents, in their bedroom, talking.
“Can you ask Dr. Lupi for medication?”
“I’ll talk to him about it.”
“I thought you were going to two weeks ago.”
“I haven’t had a chance. I thought it would pass . . .”
My mother’s voice softened. “Of course. I’m just worried about you, Jimmy.”
I was worried, too, but what could I do? I couldn’t ask him about it. I’d be too embarrassed. All I could do was stand by the door listening, because that way at least I was near him and could try to feel what he was feeling.
Sometimes I thought, standing there, that something was calling to him. The sea, sure, but something else, too. And that because he couldn’t go to it— couldn’t leave the land and go at night to the bay to find it, which it wanted him to do—he was filled with terrible sadness.
I could almost hear its words as it called to him. You don’t love me, James. I thought you did.
That’s what I told myself anyway, and when I did, I felt it too: that something was calling to me as well. Not enough to make me cry, but enough to make me feel what my father was feeling, a sadness, a longing . . . and enough to make me want to answer it.
“We think you should come fishing Wednesday night with us, Brad. It is a special night.” It was Maurizio talking, and it was after school, the four of us together on the sidewalk that led to the passeggiata and the sea. “It happens rarely, Brad, at the proper phase of the moon and the planet-star Venus. Disegno sacro. The best fishing is that night, so you should come. Our fathers’ boats meet down the coast, only four coves away, where the water is deep and all of the boats can make a sacred circle with their nets. The light of the moon helps the fish come, but other things come too.”
I’m not sure I believed everything Maurizio was saying, but I so wanted to do it. I wanted it more than anything. I wanted to steal away on that special night with my friends, on their fathers’ boats. But I knew my parents would say no, and I felt I shouldn’t leave them, leave my father, with his crying. It was selfish of me to want to go, wasn’t it? It was selfish when my father was so sad. A son should stay, even if he didn’t know how to help, even if there wasn’t anything he could really do.
Then Perosso—who was tall and dark and had kinky hair because, he said, his mother’s people were from Sicily—spoke:
“If your father is crying, you should come. He ate a fish she touched, people say—that is why he got sick, why he hears her and still suffers—and he needs another fish, one prepared the right way, to set him free, my father says.”
I stared in astonishment.
Had I told him about my father? I’d told Gianlucca, but I hadn’t told anyone else. And yet everyone seemed to know. All three of my friends knew—it was clear from their faces—and they all wanted me to come with them Wednesday night because my father was crying.
“You can stay overnight with my family,” Perosso said. My other friends were looking at him, then me, then him again, and nodding. Perosso lived in Vecchia Lerici, the ancient part of the village, with its dark alleys and ghostly cats. “You can tell your parents that my family wants you to stay the night so that we can go night fishing from the jetty with lights. You can tell them that my parents will make sure we all go to school the next morning.”
“Will we?” I asked.
Perosso smiled “No. Professore Rigola—and the administrators—know what that night is, so they will not be expecting us to be at school.”
“Won’t my parents hear about it?”
“These are not things,” Gianlucca broke in, always serious, “that teachers and administrators talk about. There will be nothing for your parents to hear . . .”
“Is that true?” I asked the others.
“Yes,” Maurizio said.
“Va bene,” I said at last with a sigh, and headed home to lie to my parents.
When Wednesday came, I packed some clothes, my toothbrush, toothpaste, and comb, and took them in a bag to school with me. My father hadn’t cried the night before, which made me feel better about going. My mother, still worried about him, said, “Yes, you may spend the night with Perosso’s family, but be sure to thank them for their hospitality and to help with any fish cleaning. Be a good guest and a good friend.” She said all of this looking distracted, her eyes on my father at dinner. My father, distracted too, was staring out the dining room window at the night. I looked for tears, found none, but could tell from his eyes that he was hearing something.
When night fell, we went to the wharf, where the boats were tied to the old iron cleats.
“What will happen?” I asked Perosso. We were wearing windbreakers. My friends weren’t going to wear life jackets, I knew—the fishermen never wore them—but my friends were better swimmers than I and knew these waters, so shouldn’t I? I wasn’t planning on drowning, but if I did, my parents would feel it was their fault even if it wasn’t. Parents were like that. And I didn’t want to drown.
“It will be very good fishing,” Perosso explained. “We will use the newly dyed nets, the ones blessed by the three. We will meet in a cove not far from where the great English poet drowned, and the fish will come because it is the night of La Signora.”
Did he mean Mary, mother of Jesus? Who else would La Signora be? La Signora dei Pescatori? Our Lady of the Fishermen? You heard countless names for Mary in this country, especially in the villages, where each village loved her in a different way.
“You mean the mother of Jesus, right? Her night?”
I thought Maurizio and Gianlucca were going to smile, maybe even laugh, but a look from Perosso—who was older and wiser than the rest—stopped them.
“No, another signora,” he said.
“It will be good fishing in any case,” I said quickly—simply to say something, afraid that my friends were going to fall silent, that the only sound I would hear was the lapping of the water against the pilings and the hulls of the boats. “I was thinking . . . .maybe I should wear a life jacket.” An English poet had drowned . . .
“You won’t need one,” Perosso answered quickly. “We’ll watch over you, as will our fathers.”
We were looking out at the little bay, its inkiness, the light like silver coins on its surface. The fathers were doing what they needed to do. First Maurizio, then Gianlucca left to help them. The nets needed to be coiled the right way, the weights and floats attached in the right places, the net booms wired correctly, the engines checked and rechecked.
Perosso waited with me. I knew he needed to help, too, but he would want to take me with him. It would be on his father’s boat that I would watch the night’s events. The night of La Signora. The most successful fishing night of all fishing nights, everyone agreed. “There will be, in fact,” Perosso explained as we stood there, “too many pesci for one village, and our village will share the catch with San Terenzo and Palormino to the north and Germana and Todesti to the south.” “Why don’t boats from those villages join us?” I asked. “Because,” he answered slowly, “La Signora chooses the village. One of the streghe dreams it. It fills her dreams for many nights. Other villages must wait. Their turn will come, though it may be ten years or a hundred before it does, my father says. Patience is important with the sea, he says—with its fish, its woman . . .”
I knew he wanted to say something else, but what?
“If you wear a life jacket,” he added at last, “she will think you are afraid of her and will not bless a fish—to set him free. You must not love her too much—for if you do you may want to touch her, and that is a mistake. But you must also not be afraid, for it is love, not fear, that she demands of us tonight.” He paused. “That is what they say . . .”
Though it made no sense, this terrified me. How could it not be at least a little frightening? La Signora was not only real, Perosso was insisting—and if he believed it, how could I not?—but there were also rules; and if you didn’t follow them, if you felt the wrong feeling at the wrong time, horrible things might happen out there in the night . . .
“I know you cannot believe me,” Perosso was saying, “but I hope that you will—for your father’s sake, gentiluomo that he is. My father hopes it too.”
He touched my shoulder with his hand, and in a moment we were scrambling aboard his father’s boat.
I was so happy I could have cried. I’d wanted to be sailing on one of the fishing boats for two whole years, and here I was at last, in the darkness, on a calm sea, the engines moving us through the night. Our trip was uneventful, as if nothing was supposed to get in our way, as if what waited for us in the cove wanted us very much to be there this night.
The moon rose as we traveled. The boat smelled of fish, and I could see fish scales glistening on the deck. Even the wind was mild, offering nothing for the men to complain about. It smelled of salt and seaweed and something sweeter, something that made my mouth water, but when I asked Perosso what it was, he just looked at the darkness ahead.
When we reached the cove, the moon was above us, and you could see, really see now. The seven boats from the village bobbed in quiet swells, in a circle, just as Perosso had promised, their bows facing the circle’s center. The waves lapped at the hulls. Now there was no wind at all. Two men standing near me were silent, heads down, as if praying. We were waiting, but for what?
The swells calmed. Perosso, I saw when I turned, had finished helping his father unfurl the great purse-seine nets so that they could be dropped into the sea when the signal came. Figures on the other boats had done the same. They would drop the nets soon, wouldn’t they?
I heard Perosso’s father say something to another man, and the man answered, “It is this cove, yes. La Bianca is sure. It was a dream like the others.”
“It is late,” Perosso’s father answered. “I simply want to make sure. She drinks more these days.”
“Si, beve molto,” the other man answered, “but she was not drinking that week.”
Perosso’s father nodded and in a moment was waving a lantern. Boat by boat, the nets were released, soon becoming a great hand cupped and waiting under the center of the circle the bobbing vessels made.
When the cove’s water began to move, it was indeed at the center of the circle. The sea bulged, as if a head were appearing, and the light caught its shape. It was not a head. It was a body, and what sounded like a song that could not have been a song began to fill the night air, making me dizzy. Was I hearing it with my ears or just my mind? I didn’t know, and it didn’t matter. Like everyone else, I was hearing it.
It was the same song I’d heard that night I’d stood listening to my father’s crying. I was sure of it.
The sea rose again, the shape revealing itself once more. It was a body, one the size of small whale—twenty feet perhaps—dark as the sea, but with its own color. Even under the moon you could tell. The color of wine and old blood and nets blessed by three women—those nets that now floated below it, waiting for the fish to come. Its thick body—which bore a tail, or more than one, and a bulky head with no neck, and a face as round as a plate—was covered with what looked like seaweed, the kind they called hag’s hair.
When the body surfaced again in the moonlight, the face—the features not quite clear—opened its mouth and sang, this time with sounds, real sounds.
The sounds hurt my head, and I put my hands on the gunnels to steady myself. To my left and right men and boys were doing the same. They had heard the voice before, but they were feeling it, too. They knew they needed to steady themselves.
I thought suddenly of the story we’d studied all year—because our teacher wanted us to—because he knew it as well as if he’d written it himself: of men—Odysseus and his crew—warned to tie themselves to masts and put wax in their ears . . . to be safe from what sang to them.
No one was tying himself to a mast or boom on our boat, but the men were cautious.
To love her—which she requires—but not too much.
And then the fish came.
The sea boiled behind us and then in front of us, as impossible schools of big-jawed cernia, pesce serra the size of dogs, and other fish larger than anything my friends and I would ever catch on the jetty appeared. They made endless, slick, bright ribbons in the water around us, heading, because of the song or something else entirely, toward the body that continued to rise and fall with the swells at circle’s center.
The creature was nearer now, the moon a little brighter, and I could see its mouth: round as the face, and bigger than it should be, like a hole in the night. The mouth had jaws, and the bright, sharp teeth in them had no trouble taking—without the help of arms or hands, which might or might not have been there in the water—a fish that surely weighed forty pounds.
The jaws tore at the fish, eating half of it, then moving on to take another as the poor cernia jumped in panic and landed too close.
You could hear the men doing now what needed to be done—winding the pulleys to bring the nets up, to pull them tighter, to catch what could be caught.
Then something hit our boat. It was a shock that made me fall to one knee and did the same to others on the deck—those who didn’t have more than gunnels to hold them up.
The boat shook again. I looked down at the water. A great fin moved by, upset, hungry, heading toward the creature. It too had come because of the song, and yet it was not an animal the fishermen wanted. It was too big, too violent. Yet it had been invited—by the creature feasting on a fish that had also heard its song.
One of the men near me grabbed a spear gun, another a harpoon, but Perosso’s father shouted, “No!” The men stopped.
The shark moved toward the creature with seaweed hair. She can’t blame the squalo, can she? my mind babbled. It came at her calling, didn’t it? It came because it loved her, didn’t it? But this isn’t the love she wants.
The squalo—a big-bellied longimano from deeper waters—surfaced at last. It was no longer than the creature, but just as heavy. It was nearly to her when it rolled, and rolled again.
The song had grown even louder in our heads, and all of us were holding on for dear life to gunnels, masts, and booms.
The shark curled up like a child, and the creature did nothing but watch it, even as the huge animal drifted toward it.
The song was enough to still men and fish, but a shark is another kind of beast. This one rolled again suddenly, teeth flashing as its jaws opened only a few feet from the creature’s face.
Men around me were whimpering from the creature’s sound. I was, too, but it was the moonlit scene in the water that held me.
If love is not enough, then death. . .
The creature lunged.
The shark—breaking from the song—arched its back, flipped backward, and struck our boat again with its full, thrashing weight.
I was at the gunnels still, leaning over to see it all, and this time fell in—to the rolling, boiling mass of fish that was trying to reach the One Who Sang.
As I fell, I remember thinking: Is she the only one? Were there ever others, or was it always just her, living forever?
I could hear shouting, but it was far away. The song—like teeth on glass, like cicadas in a forest we’d once lived near in Washington, DC, like a machine that could make whatever music men desired—was so much closer now.
I smelled a terrible smell, and turned. Paddling as best I could to stay above the frantic fish around me, I saw the face three feet from me.
How ugly it was—the tremendous, slitted eyes, the open mouth and rows of teeth, the gashes that were nostrils. The ugliness of an old witch whose face had been twisted by time and pain and spells gone wrong.
As I looked—the song filling me like the sea—I saw the face change, becoming beautiful: the face of a pretty girl, a cameo the color of wine, smiling at me, wanting me, as I’d wanted her for eternity.
I am beautiful, am I not? a voice said. It was not mine.
My hands grasped and grabbed, sliding off fish bodies, unable to look away from the eyes and the mouth that opened and closed.
It was the smell of death—that breath—but it was wonderful, too, a perfume I remembered from long ago, rocked in a cradle as safe as the sea, feeling loved.
Do you love me, Bradley? the voice asked, as if it might be hurt—as if it might weep in sadness—if I did not.
Yes! I shouted, though it couldn’t have been with lips, which were spewing water.
Will you ever have another?
No . . .
No . . . never. You are my one and only . . . and always will be.
I meant every word of it. The song was everything, she was everything, and I loved her completely, as so many men had.
Then live, the voice said, and the body it belonged to slid a long arm that was not an arm under me, holding me up so that I could breathe, so that I could stop my flailing. I saw the shark, its belly torn, floating like an overturned boat not far away, and, in the lullaby she sang for me and me alone, I slept.
When I woke, it was on Perosso’s father’s boat, and human faces were looking down at me, backlit by lanterns.
“He is fine,” Perosso’s father was saying. “Bagnato, ma vivo.”
I spat a little more water. “Please—please don’t tell my parents.”
I thought they might laugh, but no one did. The men looked sad—that is how their shadowed faces looked to me—and I didn’t understand. Why sad? I was alive, wasn’t I? And they would not tell my parents. That was what really mattered. And who would believe it anyway? That a huge shark had struck the boat—the boat I wasn’t supposed to be in? That I had fallen in and been saved by something that could enchant anything with its song?
When I stood up, I was weak-kneed, but why wouldn’t I be? My knees gave out twice, and both times I dropped to all fours and heard myself make little sounds. Still no one laughed. Perosso’s father had put his hand on my back, with affection, and was looking at me as if he understood something and wished he didn’t. “Be careful with him,” he said to everyone.
“I still have water in my stomach,” I proclaimed, wanting this to explain the sounds.
The men looked at me. Some nodded, but were, I know now, only being kind.
When the boats were back at the wharf, the men unloaded the nets. There were fish everywhere, though fewer in Perosso’s father’s boat because of what had happened to me, the distraction of it, the shark, the net it had torn.
When I took my first step on land, my knees buckled again.
Standing in front of me was wide-eyed Livia, Maurizio’s sister, whose untamable hair curled in every direction and who had come with the women and other girls to the wharf to wait for us. I liked her. I wanted her to be my girlfriend, though I’d been too shy to ask before. Such a thing, I told myself—an American boy and a Ligurian girl—wasn’t possible in a village like this, was it? Would it be good or bad for “relationships between the two countries”?
When I thought of her this way—a girlfriend, one I very much wanted to kiss—my knees collapsed, and I dropped to my hands and knees.
I made the little sounds again, too, and this time they sounded like an animal’s.
No one seemed to notice. A few of the grown-ups wouldn’t look at me. Others exchanged glances. Two men helped me up. Livia was smiling at me—but when I looked at her I couldn’t see her.
I wasn’t supposed to.
In school the next week, I saw another girl—one with green eyes, blond hair, and a braid. Her mother was German, I’d heard. I stared at her because she was pretty, and my knees went weak. This time I fell down on the hallway floor.
Professore Rigola asked me if I was okay, and I lied. “Yes.”
He helped me up. His misshapen back made him unsteady, so we had to help each other to stay upright.
“Thank you, Professore.”
“Of course, ragazzo.”
I looked for sadness in his watery eyes—what I’d seen in other faces—but found something else: He understood.
I remembered then that he was not married, how people said something had happened to him when he was young and he would never marry.
The night after the events of the cove my father stopped crying.
“How is he?” Perosso asked.
Perosso nodded. “That is how it goes, my father says. One man for another. Your father is free . . .”
He should have sounded happy for me, but did not. He wanted, I know now, to tell me he was sorry—about what had happened in the cove, which no one had wanted—but he was just a boy, like me, and did not know how.
Even in high school, when we returned to the States, I sensed what path my life would take—what it would have to take. Though I learned to hide it, to claim with a smile “a mild epilepsy,” my knees did weaken and strange sounds did come from me when I met—or even thought of—a girl or woman I might want in my life, or, in lust, just for a night. No one knew what the sounds were, though I did: They were the sounds men had always made when they’d come under her spell. They were the sounds men made when they broke their vows to her . . .
In college I read it again, understanding it better—that book Professore Rigola knew so well, the one he was thinking about as he looked down at me that day when I lay on the hallway floor. The one he thought about every day of his life.
And I, Odysseus, answered her: How, Circe, or should I address you as Scylla?—whatever name and form you bear—can you ask me to be gentle to you when you have turned my comrades into swine, and you keep me here, and with terrible guile you invite me to your chamber, to your bed, that when you have me naked you might render me an animal as well, weakling, no man at all?
None of this mattered really. How other men had once acted and what people had thought of it, what stories they’d told to make sense of it, legend and myth and epic poems. What mattered was simple: The closer I, Brad Lattimer, got in body or heart to any woman, the weaker I became, because, when you belong to her, she knows.
Perhaps he had been swimming as a child, at night, in a cove, before his curvature appeared, heard her song, and touched her by accident. Or, when he was a young man, he heard her singing at night in his room and, lonely as he was—misshapen and despairing of ever having a woman to love him—he promised himself to her. Perhaps she had even done this to him when he touched her—given him his physical malady—that he might be unfit for a woman’s bed. I would never know what our teacher’s story was, but I knew he understood. He had learned to hide it well in his kyphosis, his unsteadiness, his lisp, and the terrible moments when, in his longing for love and a woman’s touch, human speech failed him.
My parents found out, but weren’t angry with me. They were just glad I was okay, though my father would look at me after that night as if he, too, understood something, but something he could not quite put his finger on. An understanding that knew no words. When I didn’t date girls in high school or even in college, they explained this to each other, I’m sure, as a shyness and bookishness—a boy lost in his mind, too distracted for the opposite sex. And when, a few years later, I joined the clergy, it all must have made sense to them.
It was difficult—because even the celibate may know lust in their hearts—but I never lost my resolve. I started attending the church I hadn’t been to since I was little, finished college and then seminary, and have been a priest (a Benedictine so that I might be devoted to the Blessed Mother in my contemplative life) for thirty years. I still hear the song, and it is beautiful. Like the word of God—or the song His Son might have sung had he been a singer—it is enough for a man’s life if he wishes it to be. I have not dropped to my hands and knees other than in supplication for more than a decade now, and I am happy—happy as any man promised to something beyond this world can be.
“La Signora” copyright © 2014 by Bruce McAllister
Art copyright © 2014 by Tran Nguyen