A story by David Ely
Quaranta’s very appearance inspired trust. He was ponderous and slow, with heavy shoulders and an enormous nose that would have been ludicrous on a smaller man’s face but somehow seemed to enhance his dignity. There was something judicial about him. He was a man who not only thought before he spoke but actually deliberated; a man of vastness, depth, solidity—an honest man, a man who would never permit himself to lie, a man virtually incapable of lying.
And yet, he had lied. He had lied, moreover, the worst sort of lie. It hadn’t been a harmless social lie, nor had it been the kind of lie a man might tell to defend himself from the consequences of some discreditable act. Such lies at least were functional. But his had been a lie of self-glorification, invented solely to serve his vanity.
Vanity? He wasn’t vain. He was modest, even humble. He walked hunched, as if apologizing for his size. In class, his students often had to ask him to raise his voice. The fact that he had lied was so out of character as to be incredible. He wouldn’t have lied on his own account. Something must have worked into him, like sand into an oyster. Was it, he wondered, his coming to Italy? He’d been told that Italy was all theater and exaggeration. But he wasn’t Italian, even if he had an Italian name. He was American, American to the bone, a middle-aged American professor on sabbatical with an American book to write.
Still, there had been something Italian about that lie; the setting, if nothing else.
It had happened the day after he and his wife had gotten themselves established in Florence in a furnished apartment in a hillside villa south of the Arno. To celebrate, they had eaten at the best restaurant in town. He’d stupefied himself on food and wine, and then, like a fool, he had wandered out in the sun on that piazzale to have his tottering senses belabored by the panoramic view of the city, and so he must have gone a little berserk, in his lumbering way, and he’d let that lie slip out. He’d said it to a stranger. At the restaurant, he and his wife, Virginia, had been drawn into conversation with a man at the next table, an American named Lionel, who later accompanied them up to the piazzale. Virginia retreated from the sun, leaving the two men at the balustrade that rimmed the overlook, and it was there that they had gotten to talking about the war. Lionel had been a fighter pilot in the Pacific; he’d shot down Japanese planes. His words were modest enough; it was his hands, mimicking dogfights, that bragged. Quaranta had served as a humble anti-aircraft gunner, first in Africa, then in Italy, near Foggia. “Dull duty, I suppose,” Lionel remarked. It was then that Quaranta, perhaps goaded by the image of those swooping, heroic hands, had lied.
That sun must have sunk right through his wiry iron-gray hair, and into his brains. He’d been warned that Florence in summer was hotter than Naples, hotter than Palermo, that it was the hottest of all Italian cities, wedged on the narrow flats of the Arno by mountains on the north and hills on the south, and for days at a time without a breeze to relieve the sodden weight of heat—but he had gone out in it with his belly full of food and the wine fizzing in his skull, and the lie had boiled up out of him.
By the time he and Virginia got back to their apartment, he was repenting, and telling himself that he had done a foolish and uncharacteristic thing. He thought he ought to tell Virginia about it—if only he had!—but at the same time he was woozy and ashamed, and he hoped they wouldn’t see Lionel again—Florence was a city of nearly half a million souls, after all—so he said nothing. They did see Lionel now and then after that, and although he made no reference to the story, Quaranta was afraid he might have told it to others, who would repeat it in their turn. It could be spreading everywhere.
For Quaranta, the lie took on a personality, sly and malevolent. He felt himself being stalked by it. It hadn’t yet shown itself to him openly, but that was purely through cunning. It would wait until he thought he was safe, and then . . . ! But he didn’t feel safe. He kept expecting it—or at least a submerged and timorous part of him kept expecting it. Whenever he was introduced to a stranger, he’d have a momentary pang.
When the confrontation at last took place, however, the lie came toward him across a crowded cocktail party patio in the form of his wife, a plump little woman, quick-stepped, and with large, amazing, myopic eyes. Her excited and at the same time annoyed manner alerted him. “Well, if it isn’t just like you, John,” Virginia exclaimed as she neared him. Her voice, brightened by drink, cut through the party noise. “I had to hear it from somebody else.” Quaranta rose from his chair, a pillar of a man in a white suit marbled by creases, his great face glowing beneath the fading gold and crimson banners of an August sunset. “We’ve been married nine years,” she said, as though she were addressing the other guests, and in his alarm he had the impression that everyone else had turned with interest in their direction, although in fact only two or three were in a position to hear, “and in all that time not a word. And so maybe now you’ll be kind enough to tell me,” she went on, amused and even fond, but still irked that he hadn’t told her first, “what you really did here during the war, fighting with the partisans.”
“Oh, that,” he said in a choked voice. He meant the lie.
“You told me you were in an anti-aircraft battery.”
“Well, I was.”
“But then how did you get into the partisans? Were you assigned to do it?”
“No, no,” he said quickly. “Not assigned.”
“Then you volunteered?”
“No,” he said. The sky was dimming rapidly now. Only light-colored objects were clearly visible. Virginia, tanned, was disappearing in the gloom; her dress and shoes remained. “No,” he said again, stupidly. He realized, too late, that his denials were confirmations.
“Well, was it secret or something?”
“Of course not.” He felt himself slipping deeper into the lie. Bats sped through the dusky air; the trees that bordered the garden seemed to swell in size and edge closer. “It was just—” He broke off, helplessly. He’d said it, as though it existed.
He hesitated. In the gathering darkness, disembodied white frocks and shirts shifted about like ghosts. A pair of gleaming shoes strode surprisingly away. “Oh, there wasn’t much to it,” he said to Virginia’s shining dress, speaking softly, “and anyway it was a long time ago.”
Quaranta hadn’t fought with the partisans, except in his daydreams, and there he had fought a thousand battles, there he was the hero of a never-ending epic that spun out reel after reel, a fantasy film starring himself which never failed to enthrall its audience of one.
There was nothing extraordinary about this. The daydreams of boyhood are often carried intact into maturity. Many responsible and dignified gentlemen who appear to be pondering grave problems of business or public policy are in fact, in the privacy of their thoughts, frisking about with sword or pistol, astonishing the world with their daring.
Quaranta, therefore, was no special case, except that his impulse to daydream had received an unusually forceful push in his childhood. His Italian father, a socialist firebrand, had fought the Fascists in the streets of Milan, and was forced to flee after Mussolini came to power. In New York, the elder Quaranta worked in a shoe factory, and spent his Sundays in hot ideological disputes on street corners. He was a Garibaldi enthusiast, and was forever praising that great man (for a time, in his childhood, Quaranta thought his father was Garibaldi).
Garibaldi and his father—these were Quaranta’s heroes. If only he could have been among the Thousand! If only he could have fought the Blackshirts! He couldn’t—except in daydreams; and so as he grew up in New York, an amiable fat boy, too slow for sports, too shy for girls, he fed his romantic hungering with his father’s tales, and with books and movies, too, and he dreamed.
His dreams didn’t fade as he passed through adolescence into manhood. He merely became more expert, updating old plots, adding new realistic touches, tightening the pace. The Italian Resistance, which he first heard of during his routine service in wartime Italy, was a treasure trove of dramatic possibilities which with loving care he adapted to a new and dominant cycle of dreams.
He supposed his dreaming was compensation for a humdrum life. Nothing he did seemed to matter much. His scholarly career inched forward by predictable stages in a field—medieval history—that didn’t interest him greatly. He had married late, a comfortable, unexciting union, without children. His diminishing future held little appeal. Now he was writing what would no doubt be a dreary book. In short, a dull life, a dull fellow. Why shouldn’t he dream?
Still, he had always felt guilty about it. As a child, he’d started in alarm whenever his reveries were interrupted by the unexpected appearance of his father or mother. What are you doing, John? And he’d hastily answer: Nothing, nothing. It was his secret, his weakness. This sense of shame remained with him. He sometimes wondered if dreaming hadn’t warped him held him back. He had thought of quitting. When he continued dreaming all the same, he’d have a furtive twinge, as if he were doing something nasty, a sort of mental masturbation that would be humiliating if he were caught.
And so when at the party Virginia came through the dusk with his dream on her lips, he had quaked in the shock of recognition, the fateful ending of a lifelong suspense. The dream was a lie—but now the lie was real.
After the party, he had pleaded a headache, skipped supper, and gone to bed, but in the morning Virginia brought a breakfast tray, and served it with a question: “Why didn’t you ever tell me you’d been with the partisans?”
“Oh, you never did like war stories,” he replied. “Anyway, it didn’t seem important.”
“But you told Allen Morris.”
“Morris? I didn’t tell Morris. The only one I said anything to was that fellow Lionel. I just happened to mention it. I don’t know why. He got to talking about the war, so naturally I—well, it came into my mind somehow, that’s all.” He eased out of bed. “God, it’s hot already,” he muttered. His chest and back were filmed with perspiration. “There isn’t a breath of air.” With his emperor’s tread, he crossed to the doors that led out to a balcony. “Maybe there’s a breeze,” he said. But the air outside was hotter. He stood in the doorway, staring mindlessly out at the city. Why hadn’t he simply told her: Look, it was a sort of joke. I never was in the partisans . . . But it was too late. How many people by now had heard the story—a dozen? More than that? He imagined himself hurrying from one to the next, apologizing and explaining as he pursued the lie . . . but it would always puckishly leap ahead, out of reach.
“Well, what happened?” she asked. She’d put a robe on, and had followed him.
“Nothing much,” he said. “It was just—well, it was a sort of accident.” There was thunder in the distance. The rust-red tiles of the roofs vibrated in the heat, and the church domes seemed to swell. He felt off-balance, as though he were about to slide through that furnace of air into a mirage of heat phantoms, a city of lies.
“What do you mean, accident?”
“Oh . . He was sweating, and depressed. Thank God he hadn’t let the full partisan fantasy escape him up there on the piazzale. He hadn’t told Lionel much, really. He was free to invent—to lie about the lie. “I was captured,” he said. What seemed to be the easiest explanation had mounted in his thoughts, surprisingly matured. “You see, at that time they were pulling units out of Italy for the attack on southern France, and the ones left in the line were understrength, so they were sending up rear-echelon people like me as replacements.”
“Where? Oh, north of here.” He frowned, trying to remember the course of the war. “One day the Germans counterattacked in our sector, and some of us were cut off. They were sending us north as prisoners when there was a partisan attack, and I got away. The partisans took care of me, and then after the Germans pulled back again, I was able to get back to my outfit. All it amounted to was my spending a few days with a peasant family in the mountains.”
Her interest sharpened. “A family? Really? You ought to go and look them up again. After all, if they saved you—”
“It wasn’t exactly a family,” he said quickly. “There was an old man and his wife, but they’d have died years ago.”
“What about the others?”
“Well, people came and went, but mostly at night, so I didn’t see them. There were some refugees—”
The telephone rang. She had to go back in to answer it. It was some woman she’d met at the language school where she was studying Italian.
He remained on the balcony, his hands gripping the iron railing. The worst was over, he told himself. He’d gotten the story out. He just needed to stick to that, and it would gradually lose its interest and sink into obscurity, forgotten.
The air was freshening now, running before the storm. He couldn’t see the mountains anymore, only the masses of clouds, and the clouds were like mountains, a wild range of rearing, crumbling peaks, the thunder banging like mock artillery, an imitation war.
Behind him, he heard Virginia speaking on the phone.
“. . . he was captured by the Germans, and then he escaped and joined the partisans . . .”
He swung about in anguish, ready to protest. My God, did she have to spread that around? But he couldn’t say anything. Besides, it was her property, too, in a way. Married, they shared pasts, so she was lying his lie for him—their lie now—and others would do it, too, and there’d be no end to it, he thought, no end, and he turned back again, disheartened, to face the oncoming storm.
Of course, no one suspected. People assumed that it was, if anything, a self-deprecating version of what had actually happened, and that the full story would show Quaranta in a most flattering light indeed. At parties he was occasionally introduced as “the man who fought with the partisans.” This confounded him. He felt, beneath his shame, a treacherous glow of pride. People looked at him with admiration, and he, in his hypocrisy, responded to it. No matter how loudly he roared liar, liar in his thoughts, his silence was villainous. His uneasy efforts to minimize matters made things worse. “No, no,” he’d say, “there wasn’t anything to it. It was just something that could happen to anybody.” This made him appear positively noble. Yes, everyone thought, a modest man who’d done what he’d done would be embarrassed at the mention of it, just as John Quaranta was.
Several times he was on the verge of confessing to Virginia, but he always drew back. He was afraid she might think him a fool, or worse. It would be better to say nothing, he thought. Hang on. Wait it out.
There was another reason he didn’t tell her—why in fact he hadn’t told her immediately, the very day he’d let the lie slip out. He was ashamed in one way, but in another way he wasn’t. His daydreams meant more to him than escapist entertainment. He had the feeling that there dwelt in him, submerged, certain qualities which the circumstances of his life hadn’t drawn to the surface. Not heroism, and perhaps not bravery, but at least a doggedness, a capacity for idealism, the willingness to risk for a cause—ah, he didn’t know exactly what, but he saw in his dreaming a reminder that there was within him a region untested and unexplored. In any event, he believed that no man could cling so long to a vision of himself without there being some truth in it—and the existence of that vision, in turn, preserved that truth in him. For this reason, then, he had hesitated, unwilling to deny the lie, despite the price this exacted. No, he hadn’t fought with the partisans—but if chance had thrown him into such a situation, he wouldn’t have disgraced himself, would he? He didn’t think so. He was sure he wouldn’t have. And so it was to the hoped-for truth within the lie that he kept a kind of stubborn, suffering faith.
Once someone asked him what he had thought of President Kennedy. “Kennedy?” he casually replied. “Oh, I never was a partisan of his.”
I never was a partisan.
This shocked him. What the devil had possessed him to blurt out a thing like that? And what else might he not say, if he didn’t watch his tongue?
His work went badly. He couldn’t write more than a few sentences without breaking off to rise and pace the room, or go into the bathroom to wash his hands, and stare at the mirror. He thought his face was changing. The lie was working through the skin. His eyes looked sly to him, his mouth suspicious.
He often walked in the city after supper. The November nights were foggy, the outlines of the buildings indistinct in the watery light of the lamps, the figures of other strollers spectral. Sometimes the sound of footsteps came and went, but he would see no one—a trick of the fog. He found himself slipping into old habits as he trudged through the damp nights. He was a partisan fleeing Nazi patrols. That car was packed with SS men. Could he reach the alley in time?
He’d arrive home flushed with guilt, like a drunk who had violated a private pledge to swear off. But it was Florence itself that had seduced him with its theatrical settings and melodramatic fogs. In New York he would be safe from temptation. One couldn’t prowl about there after dark. If only he could last out the year!
What did one lie matter—particularly in Italy? Italians took a more realistic attitude. Everybody had to lie now and then. Why, a man who believed everything he heard was only slightly less a fool than the man who always told the truth—and they both would come to grief. Society wasn’t built on honesty, after all.
But Quaranta wasn’t Italian, despite his ancestry. He had been imprisoned in the Anglo-Saxon ethic since childhood. Teachers had praised his honesty. His schoolmates had called him “Honest John”—in derision, usually, but anyway it had been a mark of distinction, and he clung to it. Honesty had become more than a principle with him; it was almost a fetish.
It seemed doubly unjust, therefore, that after a lifetime of honesty, he was being tormented by the only lie he’d ever told.
Tormented—but secretly, within himself. No one knew. And yet he couldn’t help wondering. Suppose he had been found out somehow? Suppose the word had gotten around? This gnawed at him. He would wake at night in guilty alarm. Good God, could it be? His anxiety became at those times a certainty. Everyone knew. They’d known formonths. It was all they could do to keep from exploding in laughter every time they saw him. The only reason they didn’t was Virginia.
But suppose Virginia knew, too?
Thus the lie possessed him. He felt it swelling in his guts, and drumming in his skull. It was too late for confession. To rip the lie out now, he might tear himself apart. Besides, he’d come to believe in it; that is, he believed in its existence as a separate thing, as a presence, a force. It hung in his dreams at night, and by day it darted through his imagination like a demonic child for whom he was responsible but whom he couldn’t control.
Exactly how it happened that night in March, he couldn’t remember later, when he could bear to think about it at all.
They had been invited to a party in Fiesole, the ancient Etruscan town overlooking Florence from the north. Evening Mass had just ended as they drove through the piazza. Elderly men and women were leaving the church at a funereal pace, heads bowed into a wintry wind. Among them glided a hooded friar, a fateful, medieval figure. Far below, in the valley, the fog-smeared lights of Florence glowed like phosphorescence in the sea.
The party was held in a large villa planted on the edge of the hill, its gardens tumbling down in darkness, its lighted rooms floating above. The host, a wealthy American, had met Quaranta once, gotten the idea that he was a novelist, and had invited him for that reason. “Mr. John Quaranta, the writer,” was how he presented Quaranta to other guests. Quaranta tried to correct this error. “Well, it’s true that I’m writing a book here, but not . . .” He had trouble making himself understood. It was noisy in the foyer. The voices of new arrivals clashed, echoing, in the high, hollow arch of stone.
Quaranta trudged glumly into the great salone. Virginia had moved ahead, chatting with friends. He wandered among potted plants, stone pillars, and statuary. His dark suit bulged and sagged, defeated by his outsized proportions. People who hadn’t met him before wondered who he was. A king in exile? The gardener? The Italian guests, judging him by his face, addressed him in what they assumed was his mother tongue. His replies, also in Italian, were baffling to them. In his childhood, he had absorbed the rhythms of his father’s speech; his accent wasn’t American. This made his crude and ungrammatical Italian sound authentic, but primitive—a twisted, misshapen language sprung from some lost, barbaric century. His listeners were fascinated. Which forgotten pocket of the peninsula did this fellow come from? What unknown peasant dialect had given birth to his ghastly speech? When it finally became clear to them that he was American, they seemed reproachful, as though he’d deliberately tricked them.
“So you weren’t born in Italy, then?”
“Oh, no.” He was slow to understand the source of their confusion. When he did, he felt guilty—another imposture. “I was born in New York, you see, but my father . . .”
His conversations weren’t successful. His anxiety to explain what he wasn’t—not a novelist, not an Italian—had set up in him a mistrustful tension which others sensed.
Disconsolately, he took a glass of champagne from a waiter’s tray, drank it down, and plucked up another. The smoke of a hundred cigarettes sent ectoplasmic veils drifting languidly past the chandeliers to vanish in the gloom above. Quaranta, too, felt insubstantial, except for his feet, which ached. He shifted his weight from one to the other, looked about pessimistically for an unoccupied chair, found none, and so stood mountainously alone, waiting for enough time to pass so that he could find Virginia and take her home.
It was then that he’d gotten himself trapped, just how, he couldn’t be sure. Had he bumbled forward into that little circle of men, or had they drifted slowly his way in the tides of talk until they had gradually encompassed him? He perceived, too late, that they were talking about the Resistance. He was wedged in now, and couldn’t easily slip away. He took one stealthy backward step, treading on someone’s toes. “Sorry,” he mumbled—and then, to his dread, he heard himself introduced. His name, his shame: “. . . Quaranta, the man who fought . . .” Again, he thought in despair. He smiled bleakly and shook the hand of a man he didn’t know, an elderly Italian as hard and dark as if he’d been carved from cypress. Quaranta issued his customary disclaimer: “I was a prisoner of the Germans, you see, and . . .” Practice had made his recitation brief. Most of the men had heard it before. They were no longer interested.
The elderly Italian listened impassively. “That must have been in October of 1944,” he remarked.
“Well, yes, more or less.”
“And you were north of Lucca?”
“Not exactly, no. It was east of there. I think.”
“West, I mean. North and west, let’s say. I don’t know the locality. It was open country. Hills and— well, mountains and forests,” Quaranta said uneasily. He wasn’t used to being questioned.
“And you do not know which group it was? What they called themselves?”
“No, I’m afraid not.”
“Or who their leader was?”
“No, I don’t recall ever hearing that.”
The other man shrugged. “That is a pity. Just for my own information I was trying to place you.” He gave Quaranta a measuring glance, and then shook his head. “Of course, you were there very briefly, and then by that time, we had a good three thousand men operating from Lucca to the sea, split up into small groups for the most part . . .”
Quaranta’s thoughts mobbed together in confusion, panicked, and fled. What he had feared from the beginning had now happened. He had repeated the lie in the presence of an ex-partisan, a man who had actually fought in those Tuscan mountains, who had risked death, who had seen his comrades die.
“. . . there were many foreigners among the partisans,” the man was saying to the others. “Escaped Allied prisoners, like Mr. Quaranta, and also deserters from German units. We had some Russians and Turks, as well as French and Yugoslavs. The commander of the partisan division, the Lunense, was an Englishman, as it happened.”He turned back to Quaranta. “Did you ever hear of this man, this Maggiore Tony?”
“Um.” Quaranta’s hands were trembling. He clasped them together. “Well . . .” He pretended to search his memory. “I don’t seem to remember that name.”
“Or a man named Renzo? Renzo Barocci?”
Quaranta dumbly shook his head.
“Barocci was the one who organized the isolated groups into a unified command,” the man explained. He was frowning speculatively at Quaranta. “I hope you will forgive me for asking you these things, but meeting you brings back memories. Perhaps you recall some of the people you were with?”
“Well, there were the old peasant and his wife. I mentioned them. And sometimes two or three men would come after dark and spend the night.” Quaranta licked his lips. The chandeliers seemed to beat down with fiercer light. “They didn’t talk much, and my Italian was—well, I knew just a few words then, you see, so I . . .” He swallowed with difficulty, as if struggling to keep down his self-disgust. How many graves was he insulting? How many brave and honest men? “There were different accents and dialects. I couldn’t make much sense of what they said.” He felt a burdensome depression, a need for space, for air. “The details are sort of hazy in my mind, you see. It’s been a long time, and—well, I just don’t remember that episode too clearly now.'’ That old mountain fighter had ambushed him—and was taking aim. The worst was about to happen, the nightmare worst. The man knew he was lying . . . and would expose him right there before everyone.
“No,” the Italian said finally, his stern face drawn with thought. “I did not meet you, Mr. Quaranta. I do not think I would forget a man of your size . . .”
Quaranta waited mutely for the blow. The circle around them was thickening; people were drawn as if by the scent of disaster. Hysteria swelled in his chest. Already he imagined the whispers, the murmur of scornful amusement—and Virginia’s shocked, incredulous face. “But there was a story about an American soldier,” the ex-partisan was saying. “A big man with an Italian name. I do not recall what they said it was. Unfortunately, of that group, none is alive now . . .”
The blood came singing up in Quaranta’s ears. He blinked, bewildered. What was the fellow saying? He caught only phrases. Something about the Germans, a surprise attack, betrayal. Someone had given away the position. Betrayal? His guilt leaped, seized words, pieced out connections. Betrayal. Good God, what was this? His mouth went dry. “It wasn’t me,” he gasped, his voice split by fear. “Must have been another man.” The dark-faced Italian was speaking with a rising intensity, his hands cutting menacing gestures. He was mixing his languages. “. . . cinque tedeschi uccisi . . . ” Quaranta felt a surging terror, a desire to break loose, run. “No, not me,” he croaked. “I wasn’t there.” His heart was thundering, his lungs bursting. He could barely see, barely hear. “I never fought. Never. It didn’t happen.” His words rattled like pebbles in the wash of the other man’s harsh, staccato speech. “. . . un uomo molto modesto, quest’ americano ...” People were pressing close. What was the story? Who did what? The old partisan kept jabbing Quaranta in the chest with one hard finger. Quaranta stammered, at bay. “I diddidn’t d-do it. Someone e-else.” He felt faint. His mind fumbled hopelessly with the shreds of speech he managed to gather in. Liar, yes; traitor, no. But who would believe him now?
The partisan seized his arm in a grip that hurt. Under arrest. Everyone was talking at once. Hands struck Quaranta’s back, his shoulder. He was being shoved left, right. “I knew you’d pulled off something like that, John,” he heard someone say. “Why didn’t you tell us?” He blinked stupidly about. He’d jumped to conclusions—jumped and missed. The partisan was wringing his hand. “Compagno. ” Comrade! Quaranta tottered. “No, not me.” No one heard him. “I lied, understand.” But he was whispering, if he spoke at all. He stood paralyzed. No question of betrayal, then. The big American had fought —fought bravely —but wouldn’t accept thanks. A modest fellow! “No,” he said, and louder; “No.” But he sensed, to his dread, that a smile was creeping across his face, a base and shameless smile, the embarrassed smile of the reluctant hero– yes, he was a hero now, and all the witnesses were dead. In shocked suspension he saw himself smirking there amid handshakes and backslaps. He wagged his head, miserably. “No, someone else. Wrong man.” They grinned at him. They knew better. Same old bashful John, still trying to duck out of it!
It seemed an eternity before he could pull away. “Got to get some air,” he mumbled, mopping his vast brow. He went off dazed, still clutching his empty glass. Oh, what had he done? What had he failed to do? Garibaldi’s trumpet had sounded at last—and he had fled the field. All his dreams were lies. There was nothing in him, nothing. And that nothing would haunt him forever.
He came to a door, ajar, that led to a terrace. He squeezed his way out into the chill darkness. There were no stars, no moon. He heard trees swaying in the wind, but didn’t know where they were. Somewhere a shutter creaked and banged, creaked and banged. It occurred to him that if he tried to cross that invisible terrace, he’d go thumping into tables and chairs, or might fetch up against a railing, and topple over, to tumble through the hillside garden beneath, grabbing vainly at the vines and plants as he rolled down the slope, descending in the darkness like a drowned man spiraling into the sea.
Party noises issued, muted, from the villa. But it was the wind he found himself listening to—a wind of gusty gasps, a sighing and angry wind, beating down from the mountains like the wordless cries of dishonored men.
He stood staring into the wind. It blew his thoughts away, it emptied him. He was a sack of a man, wind-filled; a puffed skin. And into his emptiness came the devil tempting. Yes, he was alone in the dark, no one to see, no one to know. He was a partisan commander, his men hidden with rifles ready. When he gave the signal, the attack would begin . . .
He shuddered. Time to go back inside. On impulse he flung his empty champagne glass high and away, far out above the garden. He waited, his attention straining, but he couldn’t hear it fall. □