An excerpt from the novel "Cartagena"
by Lena Eltang
Translated from the Russian by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler
When I was a little girl, I thought time was like a ball; what we call the past is still happening, concurrently with our present lives. It’s just on the other side of the ball, and if you find the right tunnel, you can descend into times past and take a look at the people who lived them. For me, olive trees were tunnels like that—after all, they live for about two thousand years. It’s nice to think you’re touching the same trunk as one of the Argonauts who landed at Salerno. It’s a real shame my teachers disabused me of that notion; if they hadn’t, I’d be free to think that little Brie was still out there somewhere, walking down his own path. His head looks like a bellis, and he’s not planning on shaving it yet.
Brie was killed on Sunday, March 1st, in the wee hours of the morning. The police closed his case three weeks later, just chalked it up to a drunken fight. He supposedly got into an altercation over a girl with some guys from Vietri, then they followed him through the eucalyptus grove, strangled him and chucked him in a bin filled with salt. Yeah, right! Come on, Mr. Commissioner. Brie was the most handsome guy in town. He’d picked up so many girls he had to be sick of them; why would he fight over one? He had a blackboard on his bedroom wall—the kind restaurants use to advertise their lunch menus—with telephone numbers, photographs, and even postcards from faraway places all over it. His triumphal board, he called it.
There was a piece of green olive net next to my brother when they found him. The mark of a delitto d’onore, an honor killing.
“A jealous husband strangled him, simple as that,” the commissioner had said. “A year ago, the stablemaster at the estate got the same punishment. An olive net turned up in the evidence locker—that was over some chick, too.” When they called me in to the morgue to identify the body, the net was still there, in a plastic evidence bag along with a rumpled ball of salty clothes.
“The stablemaster might have gotten killed over some hanky-panky, but not my brother. Brie wouldn’t have given up so easily. He fought to the end. Look for someone that’s wounded—thrashed. Look for a victor who’s sitting at home licking his wounds. This has nothing to do with some chick. If he'd had a serious dispute with someone I would’ve been the first to know. It had to be over money or an old family feud. But who were we feuding with? Nobody. This isn’t Palermo. So it must have been over money.”
“Since when did your brother have money? In his twenty-five years on this earth he never held more than a hundred euros in his hands. Never had a decent job! He’d tag along with the deep-sea fishermen, haul boxes or gather oranges. He wasn’t good for much—he was just all over the place. E’come una mozzarella!”
If he weren’t the head of the police force, I’d have knocked his teeth out. How dare he? Judging a person whose dead body is on a slab in the next room! Laughing at his nickname! A long body covered in a pink, rubber, government-issue sheet. If I punch him, they’ll twist my arms, take me back to the station, and keep me there until the end of the week, at least...and I have business to take care of.
“You mentioned a police report. Is there anything in it besides rumors?”
“In our business, rumors are called witness statements. These statements indicate the jealous husband followed the two lovers, saw them on a date, then tracked down the transgressor, and took the necessary action. He most likely wasn’t alone.”
The orderly, who was sitting with us for some reason, nodded at this.
“Yeah, right, he caught them together, so he called up his friends and they zipped on over.” I gave the orderly a condescending look. “Where do you think the crime took place—the fish market or the grove? If one’s to believe your version of events, he was killed in the grove, then dragged to the market and tossed into the salt bin. So you’re saying they dragged him all the way from the grove, then all the way through the market?”
“They didn’t have to,” the commissioner said gloomily. “They just carried him by the arms and legs. He was executed, not murdered. Remember Pezzi, the lover caught red-handed? The girl’s family cut the tendons in his legs, castrated him, and tossed him in the woods. He died, but none of them are doing time, because there were at least a dozen of them in those woods, and they all had each other’s backs.”
I opened my mouth to say we were no longer living under Barbarossa, but then shut it again. I knew that he was basically right—if you were to go back eight hundred years, our village would appear nearly the same, except for a few rusty yellow earthmovers at the port. Then I wanted to ask him why he’d adopted such a familiar tone with me, but I held my tongue. Arguing with the commissioner is pointless; he views me as a nuisance. He’ll just slam the door in my face if I give him lip.
“Lemme go sign these papers.” I headed towards the doors leading to the hallway.
I wanted to go to the other doors, the metal ones separating us from the cold room, but I knew my brother wasn’t there anymore. They covered his face with the rubber sheet and stuck him in a narrow, frosty chamber. The orderly rose to his feet eagerly and followed me. He wore white gloves, like a butler.
“Wait, Petra,” the commissioner said quietly. “Only a premeditated execution could be that sophisticated. You haven’t spoken to the doctor yet, have you? The doctor claims he was alive when they put him in the bin. The salt killed him.”
“The salt?” I stopped by the doors.
“Come on, think about it! Salt is denser than gravel. It’s as good as sticking someone under a rock. First comes suffocation, then dehydration. Very slow dehydration. Just shoot the guy and get it over with, I say.”
Landing a job at the Briatico seemed like a way out and a way in at the same time.
It was precisely there, in that meadow, overgrown with oleanders, that my brother witnessed a murder. He’d told me about it. Then his own death found him, in the grove behind the fish market, at the edge of the hotel grounds.
At the end of February, my brother sent me a letter, even though we’d usually text every week and sometimes use the chat box on our email. This didn’t really surprise me. He sent me a beer coaster once, with an address on one side and a porter ad on the other. This time, he sent me a homemade postcard—i.e. an old photograph with a square hole in the top left corner for the stamp.
It showed a few people barely squeezing into a tiny chapel—priest leaning over a baptismal font, baby in hand, two girls, and one older lady in a lacy wrap. She sat on a stone bench, legs outstretched and crossed at the ankles; some curly inked text I couldn’t decipher uncoiled just below her feet. The other side was brimming with my brother’s tiny writing, which I called orme di uccelli, bird tracks.
I have amazing news, sis. We’re gonna be much richer, much richer. Beyond your wildest dreams. I’ll hire a caregiver for mother and take you out to a fancy restaurant in Cassino. Let’s just say I found a treasure, a real treasure, completely by chance—that’s how everything real is found. All I can tell you is a woman (and her mistake) are involved. I think I’ll sort everything out by early April. In the meantime, get ready for a new life. I’ll ride into town in an Alfa Romeo (8C Competizione!).
I got down to business right after the funeral. I started by searching his room, telling Mom I’d lost my favorite ring and planned to overturn the whole house. She was having one of her good days, so she nodded sympathetically, pulled on her elbow-length gardening gloves, and went to tie down her rose bushes.
I rummaged through Brie’s room and leafed through all his books, to no avail, then moved on to his computer. His password was still the same as mine—I’d given him my old black VAIO when I bought a new one sophomore year. Our Internet had been disconnected and I had to use my phone as a hotspot, so the whole process dragged on. I logged onto his email and then checked his history. A few pages were quite surprising; I have to admit there were many things Brie didn’t tell me. I didn’t know he had a thing for chubby women and peroxide-bleached hair. That’s coming from a guy who liked quoting Billy Bones. “I’m a simple man—rum and bacon and eggs is all I want. This is the ship for me!”
I got started on his social media, didn’t find anything, then scrolled back through his chat boxes. I read messages my brother had written in February, his questions, strangers’ replies, and it was all so close, so alive, like I was peeking over his shoulder. His buddy offered to buy an air filter for a scooter and something called an “air box cover.” A former classmate had invited Brie to a party. He’d gotten rejected for a job. I didn’t want to cry, but my throat was scratchy, as though I’d just choked down a bunch of tiny fish bones.
I must say my relationship to death—more like my relationship with death—has changed dramatically since Brie passed. He didn’t slam the door on his way out. I see death differently now, the way you see dark spots on the moon or a solar eclipse through smoked glass. No, more precisely, I see life differently, like I’m on the ocean floor but can still breathe. Every morning when I wake up, I feel a dismal stratum of frigid water overhead, emptiness so thick even flat-bodied sea monsters with eyes on their foreheads can’t live in it.
I need to get on the property and see everything with my own eyes: the gazebo built where the burnt chapel once stood and the path running from Vietri through the well-lit grounds—the locals call it “The Lord’s Road.” Brie stumbled upon the deceased lying in the gazebo on a cold night, because he’d decided to cut two miles off his walk back from the dance hall by scaling the fence in this one secret place. I could do the same, then walk around the grounds as much as I wanted, but I needed more—people, voices, and, yes, lies, too—anything I could use. I needed the Briatico.
I’d been thinking about that for a while but couldn’t muster the nerve. First off, I’m not wild about getting my hands dirty. Secondly, investigating a bee sting from inside a wasp nest is rather dangerous. Thirdly, I had no idea how to go about it.
I knew that taking up residence a stone’s throw from where Brie had died would plant my festering fury right alongside my heart, and it would become even more relentless. That’s just how I’m wired, though; I get more anxious if I don’t feel my pain, always expecting it to gather its strength and crash down on me, like a bat slipping off an eave. Better to have my pain close by so I can keep an eye on it. My mom and I are similar in that way. She still keeps the plate she used to bring ham slices, red onion, and wild fennel to church. She came back one day only to find that my father had packed his bags and left. Ever since, that glazed earthenware plate has been nailed to the wall opposite her bed, where she can always see it.
My father left in September, on a Saturday morning, when Mom and the neighbor lady went to the stone oven in the communal meadow. It would be lit at daybreak, so the villagers could bake their bread, then their herbed meat, while it was still hot. They used enormous logs and dry vines as fuel. Each family had its own assigned time and they would make their own imprint on their bread—a letter, crooked bird, or cross—so nobody would take it. In the morning, women and children would wrap their cast-iron pots in clean rags and bring them to the church.
In the late eighties, people still clung to those customs. The communal oven’s gone now; it crumbled before I left for Cassino. The smaller stores—still on nearly every street—are occupied by squirrels or pigeons. Or trash. The practice of showing up uninvited at your neighbors’ house with a block of cheese hasn’t gone anywhere. I’ve always found that exhausting; my brother liked it, though. My head started spinning when our neighbor Jiri paid us a visit, bearing fresh pecorino on a platter, and said the hotel was short on nursing staff for the summer. Somebody had to recommend you, though, they wouldn’t just hire anyone in the village.
“Your second cousin twice removed is a linen keeper at the hotel,” my mom said, seeing the fury rising in me. “She’ll vouch for you. Can’t see you picking up after people, though. You have to focus on your studies.” Mom started to feel better in mid-March; we even had people over. She did load after load of laundry, like in the old days. I didn’t trust this new sprightly attitude and kept waiting for a relapse. I’d probe her face—are her eyelids going heavy, are her eyes bloodshot? That lethargic look presages a storm, like birds swiftly returning to the shore.
“I can study at night.” I said confidently. “There’s a nice library there, and they’ll probably give me a place to stay. We’ll replace that crummy furniture in Brie’s bedroom and get him a bed with a real mattress for when he gets home.”
Mom shrugged and headed down Via Piccioni to the linen keeper’s house.
The Briatico wasn’t new to me. My brother and I would slip into the gardens back in the nineties, when the hotel was being renovated and breaches materialized in its indomitable walls. We never ventured beyond the edge of the grounds, though—we were scared of the security guard. After the old lady’s death, a construction crew arrived at the hotel, and within a few years they’d demolished the place. Only the grounds and the main building with the columns remained untouched. The area that became the tennis court was full of wide, yellow pipes, big enough to crawl into. We once found one of the workers’ wallets over there and bought ice cream for all the neighborhood kids. In the winter, one of my brother’s pals blew his thumb off with a bomb made out of saltpeter and part of a bike frame. The boys didn’t dare approach the building; it was so tranquil in its desolation that smashing a window or blackening its façade with homemade fireworks seemed shameful and impossible. The meadow where Saint Andrew’s Chapel had burned down was our domain, though. An oval of bare earth marked the site of the fire; reddish weeds had inundated everything else.
On Saturday morning, I stood by the front doors of the Briatico—or by the main gate, actually—and explained to the security guard that the manager was expecting me. I had perfume, a night shirt, and a toothbrush in my bag; it looked like I had a date at the hotel and planned to spend the night. I didn’t bring my computer, since it could be used to ascertain who I really was. The linen keeper—I later found out everybody called her Ferrovecchia—informed me I’d have a roommate, so there wouldn’t be any space for my wardrobe, plus the hotel had a uniform: short blue dress, white stockings, and blue heels. It sounded disgusting, but I didn’t care. I stood at the cast-iron gate waiting for the guard to reach someone at the hotel and then open the automatic lock. This was a different Briatico, bleached and ruddy. Packed with rich old-timers sent packing by their own children. This was the Briatico where the owner had been shot in February. A year before that, Lidio—a resilient man who could have kept on grooming the horses he bred himself for another twenty years—was strangled.
In February, Brie told me he was meeting with someone from the hotel, and that was the last time we spoke. The person I have to find is somewhere around here, strolling the grounds, munching on mulberries or soaking in medicinal mud. I’ll stick around here—inconspicuous, elusive, stuffed with wind like a fleecy cloud—as long as it takes. I’ll become one of them; I’ll listen and watch, and someday I’ll realize who did it and I’ll point at him. “Look, it’s him, it’s him—his hands are covered in blood!”
Photo cover by Michaela Kostková