This is an excerpt of a novel in progress.
She stepped on soft grass.
A verdant hillside presented itself, a pool of water at its base. A cool, light fog permeated the air. She turned back to find her entry door was wood and part of a small cottage. She had left the Livas behind for a very different realm of moors, heaths, and ponds.
Caravaggia slipped off her heels, left them by the door, and descended the hillside, careful of slippage as her bare feet squished upon damp grass. She had dressed the part for the Livas, with a slim skirt, crop top, and sweater buttoned up just past her belly button, and her annoyance was leavened by the laughter that spilt from her lips at how out of place her fashion was. Another test, she figured.
At the foot of the hill, a wooden jetty extended over the water. A man sat at the far edge, facing away, a fishing pole in hand, reel cast out into the lake.
Caravaggia took a seat beside the Stranger, hanging her bare feet over the dock’s edge.
They sat in silence, watching the water.
They stayed that way for a long time.
Overhead, two large, white gulls with black mantles crossed the sky. A third swooped down near the lake but continued onward.
“Have you ever gone fishing?” the Stranger said quietly.
In her mind, Caravaggia saw the old boat with its little white frame and rickety engine, docked in a muddy inlet off the Lungomare with a dozen other boats. Her father would borrow it from a friend and take her and her brother out onto the Bay of Napoli. After her brother began begging off, it was just her and her father. They would leave in the early morning and stay out for hours, fishing off the islands of Procida and Ischia for spigola and orata, which her mother would later bake, often top with sautéed fennel, salt capers, and scallions, and serve with pasta.
During the summers, Caravaggia and her father would circle around to Ischia’s south side, where the sea had carved a chamber in the mountainside, and anchor the boat near an outcrop that rose a good ten meters above the sea and was so wide that twenty people could comfortably sunbathe upon it. They would swim through water of such high salinity that their bodies were nearly perfectly buoyant. They would climb the outcrop, careful not to cut themselves on the rock’s alternately slippery or sharp texture at the water’s edge, and then leap from the peak, screaming with glee until they hit the water. When she tired of that, they would swim to the marine cave, and she would climb the stone ledge inside and leap back into the water. Her mother had joined them once when Carravaggia was still young and was horrified to find the small child diving into the sea with no lifejacket or accompanying hand of her father. She’s too young! her mother cried, but her father only laughed and shrugged.
“Yes,” Caravaggia said. “I have gone fishing before.”
The Stranger laid his pole on the dock, reached for a second rod, and extended it toward her. It was an old model, though the wire was almost transparent, like the Livas.
She stood, didn’t bother to smooth her skirt, and cast the lure. It hit the water in the distance with a faint plunk. A few moments later, she sat.
They remained that way, in silence, for what seemed like a good hour. Each fishing line remained still. Her mind drifted, the slate going clear until it became a passive state of restful clarity. The dock gently rocked beneath her. It felt like the tide off Ischia.
Only when the Stranger recast his line to a different point in the water did she remember his presence.
Eventually, Caravaggia felt a tug on her line. Her hands instinctively tightened around the rod.
A raise. A pull. A reel.
Then she was standing on the dock, rod extended, with a thick, silvery orata, or gilt-headed bream, wriggling at the end of her rod. Water dripped off the fish, onto her pants. Her skirt was gone, replaced by the old, sturdy fishing pants she used to wear in those last preteen years fishing with her father, a black long-sleeved t-shirt in place of her crop top.
She gutted the fish with a knife of the Stranger’s provision, dumped the entrails in the water, and retreated inside the cottage, where she found fennel, scallions, capers in salt, small cherry tomatoes, and a green-tinted bottle of olive oil set out on the counter of a small, rustic kitchen. The Stranger lit the stove’s two burners with a match and placed upon them a lidded pot of water and a wide pan. Caravaggia sliced the fennel bulb into thin strips, tossed them into the pan with olive oil, and then diced the scallions. After mixing the heat-softened fennel in the pan, she tossed in the scallions, salt capers and finally the fish itself, drizzling it with olive oil before covering the pan. She then halved the tomatoes and tossed them in the pan to soften and release their juice as the Stranger dropped the paccheri, a large, broad, tubelike pasta, into the boiling water. A few minutes later, Caravaggia removed the fish, deboned it, and served the pan’s full contents atop the paccheri in shallow, wide bowls at the small, square, wooden table.
They ate in silence.
The meal tasted like home.
Even the wine was familiar: Falanghina, the young white wine ubiquitous in Pozzuoli and Napoli, difficult to find anywhere else.
She waved off dessert. He had dreamed up sfoliatelli.
“Some things are beyond even your imagination,” she said. “Sfoliatelli are among them.”
The Stranger smiled. “I tried.”
She put her hand upon his, resting on the table. “Thank you.”
Caravaggia gazed out the window. The sun had drifted behind the clouds over the moor outside, but the view was still uncommonly winsome.
“I’m sorry,” the Stranger said.
She turned to him and studied his eyes. His expression was unvarnished. She saw no repentance. She pulled her hand off his. “You would do it again.”
“I have no regrets. It was necessary.”
“It was a test.”
“For me?” Her words felt curt, lacking the theatrical exuberance of her preferred persona, but she could not allay the tension within her.
He held her gaze. “For us.”
“I hope we passed.”
“He did not deserve to die.”
“We all deserve to die. The only question is when.”