So listen to the darkness, listen to the patterns,
Listen to the breathing sea.
Listen to the colors. Carry them inside you.
They will bring you back to me.
The white catamaran’s name is Aurora, for the dawn, and before today Bruno has only ever watched her from a distance.
On the morning of his tenth birthday, he and his father rise together ahead of the sun, and go out on the boat. They sail two hours into the open water, under a sky so dark Bruno wonders if they might vanish into it—so far out the lights of Naples recede into a mere scattering of bright pinpricks in the distance, and disappear. By the time they stop, there are only the stars.
“Watch the east,” his father says, before he sets to work dropping the nets. “You’ll know what for when the time comes.”
This journey is the first gift Bruno’s ever asked for, and he already knows it will be the last. Protected against the wind by an old coat his mother left behind, he stands at the prow, and watches.
In June, Bruno packs up his last box in the flat in Arenella. He had opened the windows that morning before starting, and tied back the curtains, and now from a room above he can hear the old canzone filtering down, somewhat prophetically, through the windless air: Venite all’agile barchetta mia, Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia…
The work is not particularly long, or complicated. Most of what he owns he’ll leave behind here, for the next tenant who will come to stay. He’ll leave the furniture, the books he had collected and hauled all the way from the house where he was born. The personal effects that go into the box are few: an umbrella, two faded CD’s, a small stack of cards and envelopes bound with twine, most of the edges already creased and yellowing.
The newest of these is from Trish, a postcard of the touristy sort that’s likely sold in roadside gift shops—the most tasteful of the lot, to be sure, knowing her. On the front side, a watercolor study of the Capo Vaticano, white cliffs and blue ocean running interminably into a washed-out sky. On the obverse side, black ink.
Hi. I’m writing, like I promised. Sorry it’s not much; I’ll be moving soon, so I’ve been packing up my mom’s house and her stuff’s just all over the place. We’ll sell it, I guess, or something. If you want the new address, it’s down below.
I heard from Giorno you’re moving too. Good luck, and take care. Trish
Someone else might be sentimental about it all, in a passing melancholy way, say that he had developed a habit of never fully settling in a place because he’d never know when the time would come to leave it, for one reason or another. Like the gulls over the ocean, taking wing from the cliffs, carrying nothing. The prosaic truth is that it’s merely habit, cultivated over years of having lived with nothing—take only what is necessary, and do without all the rest.
There’s not much room for sentimentality with Trish. There is even less with Abbacchio, so when Bruno hears his footsteps on the stairwell and the sharp rap of knuckles against his door, Abbacchio’s voice calling “You all set in there, Bucciarati?” through the cracks, he tapes up the box and calls back, “It won’t be long now.”
So the summer goes: they load all their boxes and six cans of paint into the back of a rental car, and take off down the hills of Naples toward the marina at Santa Lucia. They don’t speak much as they go, but the car rattles as Bruno drives, and Abbacchio commandeers the stereo to put on an old recording of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, the swell of the orchestra gone tinny and already beginning to skip with wear.
The old houseboat at the end of the pier is no great beauty, either. Bruno had said it wouldn’t be, because that was as much as Mr. Coppola from the shipyard had said, just before he sold it to him: It’s been in the yards two years now since my daughter and her family moved out of it, and it was old when they moved in. Let me at least clean it up for you, Bucciarati. Yet Bruno had refused everything but the most urgent of the repairs, and had gotten a befuddled look for his insistence, as if to say this was a bizarre thing to be investing in, even for him.
Who could argue, in the end? Mr. Coppola had held his peace, and Bruno had signed.
Thank you, that’s perfect.
The boat does float. The windows are still intact, albeit in need of a sound washing. Small mercies, by Bruno’s estimation, when the lights in the kitchen are out, the sink leaky, the carpets in the staterooms faded and old. The deck is wanting a new paint job, as he discovers when he leaves the darkened saloon and wanders out to stand at the prow.
There’s a flock of gulls calling as they glide in slow circles above the marina. Bruno can feel the current beneath his feet, gentle and slow. Before too long Abbacchio comes out to stand beside him—completes the picture, framed like this between the city and the sea.
“This boat looks a mess, Bucciarati,” he says, without preamble or pretense, the only way Bruno has ever known him to say anything.
“Of course it does,” Bruno tells him, like it is a matter of fact. “I bought it for a song.”
Abbacchio already knows this, of course. He considers it with care, regardless, arms folded across his chest in the way that most people assume signals a deep and immovable skepticism; only for Bruno has the gesture ever telegraphed a sign of unfailing faith, a pause that’s not a hesitation, a lull before a rising tide. “But you like it this way.”
Bruno is well aware that Abbacchio’s faith is neither free nor generous, and so has always opened his hand to claim it, gratefully.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say I like it. There’s a lot of work to do.”
“That’s what I mean. You like the work; you always have, even if the work is making miracles.”
Perhaps. He can’t speak for what comes after, miraculous or no, but the work at least is always something to be certain of. Bruno takes a deep breath, releases it slow, lets it take shape around a question. “And you? Do you believe in miracles, or are you humoring me again?”
Abbacchio’s eyebrows lift, barely perceptible. He looks back over his shoulder, at the harbor and the city that covers the hills beyond. Their city, still standing where they left it.
Then he leans down and reaches out for the steel barrier that runs the perimeter of the deck, the only thing between them and the water below, and gives it a hard shove. The railings shake, groaning in protest, but they don’t give way, and he shrugs, mouth tilted into something that could be a smile with a little imagination. Perfect, thinks Bruno again, unbidden.
“Long as it floats,” says Abbacchio, “it’s all the same to me.”
“That’s a miracle, too,” Bruno concurs, and heads back inside to unpack.
On their first night aboard, Bruno stays awake listening to the tide come in.
The noise isn’t unwelcome. He knows the waves’ murmuring like the thump of his own heart. He had not stopped looking for it even in Arenella, taking long walks into the hills until he reached a point high enough that he could gaze down into the harbor from where he stood, and imagine.
Abbacchio doesn’t sleep either. In the adjoining room, Bruno can hear him stepping around, pushing his boxes across the floor, every soft, faceless noise magnified in the quiet. The walls of the berth are thin, and sound travels faster out on the water.
Bruno does not know if he has always slept badly; all told Bruno still knows precious little about the sort of person Abbacchio had been before they met, in a prior life now lost to time. He only knows what Abbacchio became afterwards, having walked himself in the same places, having sat his own share of restless nights awake, watching.
It would be easy to call out tonight, to knock on the wall or the door and sit together like a pair of sentries on the night watch. They had done it enough times this past spring that the motions should still be familiar, the awareness immediate—but spring, too, is a prior life now. If he so wished Bruno might instead reach into one of the yet-unpacked boxes lined up on the floor of his tiny stateroom, and pull out a book, and forget.
If this room reminds him too much of another room where the air had smelled like nothing, that had felt like it existed outside of time, he might leave it for a while, if he wants. He might go out onto the deck and look at the stars, be out in the warm night and breathing living air, but part of him remains pulled tight, conditioned to search the darkness for some danger to guard against.
Even Sticky Fingers is awake tonight. Bruno can feel him at his shoulder, hovering silent and alert.
Nothing moves inside the hospital room, not even the air. Bruno forgets sometimes that he killed two men in here—how quickly that all happened, the leap and the twist of the knife, and then nothing.
The hospital is up in the hills, far from the water. The buildings hem them in so tight it’s hard to breathe. Suddenly breathing bears thinking about; suddenly it’s a labor he needs to watch his father do daily on the oxygen machine, a constant, dull hiss in the silence whose rhythm he has learned to match just so—rising and falling, rising and falling. One more, and one more.
Bruno is thirteen and practicing how to lose things. But maybe he’s been learning how to do this since always, like swimming, like reading the sky. Small things first—a fishhook, a broken watch, a pair of shoes long since outgrown. Then a mother, then a stolen boat. Then a house that looks out on the ocean, standing empty now, so abruptly abandoned.
He does not know that his father, having entered this place, will never truly leave it. He cannot know this, not yet, and so Bruno holds his father’s limp hand in both of his, and counts his breaths—one more, one more, one more.
“Your Mr. Coppola never told you what this boat was called, did he?” Abbacchio asks, late one afternoon, as he watches Bruno go over the outer walls of the cabin with a third and final coat of paint.
He has a mug of coffee in his left hand and another for Bruno in his right, because making it is as much of an indulgence to him as drinking it. Bruno has always let him have this, because his indulgences are so few.
Atop the painting ladder, Bruno shakes his head. He passes the roller in his hand over the wall once, and once again. “He never said. I imagine it might have had a name once, but it’s an old boat. I found it going to weed in the yards.”
“Of course you did,” mutters Abbacchio to his coffee before taking a long sip. “We could just call it Boat, then, and be done with it.”
“Just Boat? Would you call an osteria Osteria?”
“What’s wrong with calling a thing what it is? Bucciarati’s Boat. And I wouldn’t put it past some crazy fool to put up a Bucciarati’s Osteria, someday. God knows you’ve enough admirers in this city, and I’d bet you real money at least one of them has had the idea.”
“I certainly hope not. There are better things to name a place.” A huff of air escapes Bruno then—some orphaned component of a laugh, pushing the mask over his mouth and nose askew as it dissipates. “And when you name a thing, you make it real.”
Abbacchio doesn’t answer. He leans against the doorframe and turns to gaze back the way he came, staring at the flowers on the kitchen counter, irises and white zinnias clustering together.
Mista had brought them two weeks ago, on behalf of Giorno. He had been thoughtful enough to bring a vase as well, and good thing, too, because what a waste it would have been to consign them to a pitcher, or even a bucket. Bruno studies them now, the bright heads unbowed, the petals still fresh after so many days out in the salt air, miraculously self-sustaining and alive. Perhaps alive because of the very thing that had given him life; he can only imagine.
Abbacchio had scoffed at the bouquet that day, even as he’d taken it from Mista’s hands—that Giorno Giovanna, sending flowers like a schoolboy, you’d think he’d have better things to do with that Stand of his—but Bruno has watched him recut the stems every second morning since, and change the water in the vase, and move it all, with a quiet care that’s plain to see, just a little closer to the sun. They’ll have to get a coffee table soon, to give such an arrangement the place of honor it deserves.
Overhead, the gulls are wheeling again, calling to one another on the wing. How devastating, Bruno thinks, all this life. All this life so close at hand.
“Well, this place looks plenty real, whatever it’s called,” says Abbacchio, at last.
Bruno’s leans back and stretches, allows his body to unwind itself before he descends the ladder. He leaves the roller on the carpet of newspaper below, sheds mask and gloves, and crosses to the door, one hand already open for the proffered coffee, risk of poisoning be damned.
The mugs they drink from are cracked and mismatched, old and faded and not worth serving guests with when the time comes, but that matters less than what they contain.
“I suppose you’re right,” he says, and drinks.
Between them, they come to an agreement; having assumed responsibility for the sanding and repainting topside, Bruno gives Abbacchio charge of the furniture and other interior decor. Or so Bruno tells Narancia when he comes to visit in August, just as summer begins tilting toward fall—their first houseguest, blowing in with a stack of mail from the marina office and leaves in his hair.
“Who knew Abbacchio was so good at decorating?” Narancia had marveled at all of it as he entered, the pale grey carpeting they’d only finished laying down yesterday, the embroidered couch cushions. He has one in his lap now, running a disbelieving finger over the spiraling threads as he watches Bruno flip through the envelopes. “Can’t believe he’s why everything looks so pretty.”
“Forget pretty,” scoffs Abbacchio from the armrest on Bruno’s right. “Try something that doesn’t fall apart the second you sit on it. Do you and Mista even have furniture, or are you still living off a pile of beanbags?”
“They’re comfy! And we’re better off now! Giorno helped us out!”
“So, a pile of gold beanbags, then.”
“And chairs and stuff!” Narancia looks as though he might chuck the cushion at Abbacchio’s head in protest, but he settles for sticking out his tongue before he’s distracted momentarily by the sight of one narrow envelope making its way to the top of the stack in Bruno’s hands. “Oh, Bucciarati! That one’s from Trish. The lady at the office said someone came and delivered it special—express post or something.”
Bruno separates it out, lays the rest of the mail on the coffee table for the meantime before peering at the address. “I can never quite believe it. So she did go, after all.”
“Milan’s so far,” Narancia complains, sinking back against the cushions with a huff. “It’s like, the other ass-end of the country.”
“And you’ll never catch up with her if all you do is moon around all day,” says Abbacchio. “Haven’t you got school?”
“Who’s mooning around! School starts in the fall, same as it did when you went last century!”
Bruno lets their voices fly over his head, unfolds the letter as he settles in. It’s two pages from off a hotel notepad this time, thick cream-colored paper with the name printed on in dark green, and a ring of laurels.
Hi, Bucciarati. I got your card, and the wine. I’m not surprised at all that you have a sommelier halfway across Italy under your thumb—stranger things have happened, for sure—but I swear, you didn’t have to. Thank you.
Giulia brought dinner over the day it arrived, and she called it “respectable.” Said “that friend of yours has taste,” which is probably the nicest thing I’ve heard her say about anyone so far. That was my wild housewarming party, pretty much. I hadn’t even unpacked all my boxes yet then.
Oh, but I didn’t tell you about Giulia, did I? Not officially. She’s my manager, and she’d be mad if she knew I was getting the story all mixed up like this. I still feel bad I didn’t say anything about it last time, but I didn’t want to jinx it while we were still closing the deal: I’m in Milan to make music. Writing it, mostly, right now, and then I’ll probably be recording all fall. I still don’t know if it’ll come to anything, but I didn’t have anything better to do, and the night I met Giulia in Catanzaro, at this tiny music festival maybe a week after my birthday—she said there was something there. Is there? Who knows.
It’s kind of hard to find time for stuff right now, with work and studying and moving in and everything, but I’ll write again when I can. Go ahead and tell me how things are going with you, too. Are you all settled into the boat now? Have you named it anything yet?
Hi to Abbacchio, and everyone else. I knew he’d make you choose a white. Tell him I like it better, too.
“Music, huh?” says Abbacchio, leaning down to peer at the letter over Bruno’s head. “She’s getting away from you, Narancia.”
“Ehhh! What’s that supposed to mean?” Narancia’s up again, quick as a cracked whip, but Abbacchio only rolls his eyes and pushes off the armrest to walk to the coffee machine.
“Figure it out. Ask your teachers in the fall.”
The scent of fresh coffee follows Bruno down the corridor, through the open doorway of his room as he puts the letter away. Even the sight of the water through the window can’t quite stop that scent from pulling him back to Libeccio—to a table set for seven on one golden afternoon in the fading spring, for the first and the last time.
Bruno had told them he would give it all away, that day, everything they fought for and then some. The days since then have felt like they ought to be simple. There is still Passione, and Giorno to guide it, and Mista at his side. There is Fugo, and Polnareff. There is Trish, flying far, and a house in Marechiaro he’ll continue to keep for her, anytime she wants to rest her wings. And there is Bruno, and Abbacchio, and Narancia with leaves in his hair, the three of them caught in their own uncertain tide, waiting for something to begin.
Bruno had been the last of the three of them to return to life. That was what Mista had said, at least, when Bruno had phoned him in the middle of the night after having woken up in his own bed with a dry throat and an implacable urge to do two things: to speak to Giorno Giovanna, and to see the sea. They had been waiting for him for a month.
There’s nothing left of what should have come before—no memory of dying, or whatever purgatory lay between that and the unexpected return. What he remembers about that first night is all noise: Mista’s voice splintering around the name of God, and then the word fuck, and then again, faster this time, a salvo of gunfire. Fuckfuckfuckfuck and a door banging open, and then what must have been a chair falling to the floor. And then nothing further for a while but the alien sound of his own name, through tears: Bucciarati, Bucciarati—
Bruno had interrupted a meeting that night, on the matter of Polpo’s fortune, but he would not know that until much later. It had seemed so immaterial, once Giorno had said that it could wait. Giorno had stayed on the line with him in the car, and the two of them had talked about nothing as Mista tore up the road to Arenella, as Bruno felt his way through the dark to the window to let the air in.
Will you give me a ride to the harbor, Giorno? Bruno had asked, elbows on the sill and face turned out into the wind, waiting to feel human again. Tonight?
Giorno had not hesitated. His voice had not wavered, even a fraction. We’ll take you anywhere you want to go. Anywhere, Bucciarati.
Each time he opens his eyes to the unbroken darkness Bruno can summon back the memory of that night with no effort at all. Each night since then has only echoed it—the water, the first questioning breath, the heart newly born and pulsing fit to burst as though it cannot believe itself.
A thunderstorm is gathering on the horizon the day Bruno’s father dies, one Sunday in October in a fifth-floor hospital room. Bruno can smell it on the breeze blowing in through the open window: rain, and lightning, and underneath it all the smoke of a city continuing on all around them, without them.
The nurses never fail to smile at him, when he comes. Always they have some small comfort to offer—food or coffee or company, or at least a better chair. Bruno thanks them with respect and refuses it all, every time, in favor of the one backless stool with the wobbly leg. There’s a poetry book open in his hands today, and by now he has read half of it aloud into the silence of the airless room.
“…and time and again the darkness would be broken / by the crash of a wave…”
His father’s eyes are closed in the bed beside—perhaps listening, perhaps not. This is the closest either of them have come to the sea since the dying began five years ago. They’ve lost all the time between in rooms like this one, in the tiny apartment in Polpo’s name two streets away, with just the one window. So many days shuttling back and forth, for your safety, back and forth.
“… and every day on the balcony of the sea, / wings open, fire is born, / and everything is blue again like morning.”
He is awake. Sticky Fingers is only sometimes in his head. Other times Bruno feels him at his back, or gathered between his ribs. He doesn’t speak much anymore, these days, but when he does it sounds like steel, the whisper of a drawn blade. He is looking for you.
Bruno shuts the book. He edges the stool closer to the bed, as close as it will go, so that he can take his father’s hand. It’s hollow as bird-bones, that hand, the skin now like worn canvas, bloodless and brittle from being so long out of the sun.
It had been the strongest hand in the world, once, somewhere in the ruins of a time Bruno can still remember if he tries.
“Here I am,” he says, when no response comes, when the silence that waits for it stretches on too long. He watches his father’s chest, rather than his face—tracks the shallow rise and fall, the shadows of the scars underneath his hospital gown. So many old, persistent wounds.
His father’s eyes drift open slowly, aimlessly, not quite seeing. Then they settle on Bruno’s face, and sharpen, and if only for a moment their gaze is bright with such a deep sorrow Bruno finds he needs to fight the urge to bow his head. This is the only way those eyes ever look, these days, the grief in them laid bare down to its last pointed edge.
“Bruno,” he murmurs, again, as though the repetition will anchor him to something. “What does the sky look like today?”
Bruno hesitates, turns his head toward the window. The wind lifts again, worrying at the curtains, and he feels the lie unwind itself inside him without resistance. As though it is a kindness.
“A blue sky, Papà. Not a cloud from here to Santa Lucia.”
“A blue sky. Perfect for sailing.”
“Perfect for sailing.”
Perfect for sailing. Everything blue again, like morning. If he could, Bruno would carry his father on his back down all the hills of Naples, all the way home to Marechiaro, down to the beach where the waves break. Maybe that would restore him. If nothing else, he’d have the chance to die where he belonged; of all the things Bruno has failed to give him, perhaps this missed chance is what cuts the deepest.
What kind of power might a person have to earn, to will something into being, and have that be enough?
A blue sky, murmurs Sticky Fingers. Is that what you want, Bruno?
It is the only thing I want, Bruno tells him. He does not release his father’s hand until his shadow grows long across the room, and the breaths from the bed peter out, and go completely still.
The storm, as if out of politeness, stays away until the following day. And yet it seems to Bruno that it rains all that autumn, from that final, fragile morning to the night he finds Leone Abbacchio in an alley in the hills, empty-eyed and hollowed out by the guttering glow of a streetlamp, and thinks I know you.
The weeds around Paolo Bucciarati’s grave have grown wild without Bruno to tend it, but Bruno does not pull them out as he might once have, when he comes with a box of cleaning tools for a long-overdue visit at the end of September. Instead he borrows a bucket of water from the groundskeeper’s house and sets it down among the dandelions, which he figures have as much of a right to be living there as anything.
The grave is small and largely undecorated, and that makes the cleaning easy. The overgrowth of moss that’s collected across it over the past year comes away with only some gentle scraping, the stains it leaves behind taken care of by the scrubbing brush; spray cleaning solution, go across the surface of the stone in circular motions, and then again. It had been all he could afford, years ago—this rectangle of land, this simple stone. Once or twice since he’s thought briefly of moving it, or perhaps of raising a grander monument above it, but it’s always seemed to him that his father would want to rest where Bruno had laid him to rest.
He’s drying his hands on a towel when he hears a shuffling in the grass behind him, up the path from where he came. The noise tells him that Abbacchio wishes to be heard, for he can move as silently as he wishes, and just now it feels as if the two of them are the only things alive for miles around.
“Not much of a gardener, are you?”
“I’m not the one with the green thumb,” says Bruno, and turns partway over his shoulder to look up. Abbacchio stands two steps behind, hands in his pockets, a paper bag tucked under one arm. “You didn’t have to come.”
“It’s always a party where you are,” he says, edging the bucket aside to sit down in the grass next to Bruno, cross-legged. From the bag he produces a bottle of wine, and a pack of paper cups. “I figured you and the old man wouldn’t mind the company.”
“And this is the perfect place for a party, is it?”
“It’s as good a place as any on a day like this. And we’re such great fun at parties, you and I.”
The cup of wine is its own argument, pushed into Bruno’s hand before he can properly protest, and compelling enough that it closes the case all on its own. “I’ll follow your lead this time, then.”
They drink deep, and do not toast each other, and although no one else moves among the stones it hardly feels now like they’re alone. Here, too, there is so much life all over the place. Bruno can hear it murmuring all around them if he listens, when the wind stirs the leaves on the trees across the way, sends the sparrows from the branches—and now the grass seems greener, the sky bluer, in this place where rest is the only activity left.
The cups are empty by the time Abbacchio reaches back into the bag and drops a small, flat box in Bruno’s lap, almost like an afterthought. It’s wrapped in brown paper, somewhat clumsily, the corners of the cardboard pushed in from where the wrapper had likely pressed down too hard. “That’s for you, by the way.”
“Oh, you shouldn’t have,” says Bruno, smiling, and Abbacchio snorts, already turning away to pour another round.
“It’s not from me, so don’t get ideas. Narancia was peeved he missed you this morning. I told him to come before school, but you get up too fast for either of us.”
“Old habits.” The paper comes away easily. Inside the box is an old iron horseshoe, clean but unpolished—too worn to glint in the light when Bruno lifts it up. There is something he likes, instantly, about the solid weight of it in his hand. “Hm. Do you think we could nail this above the door?”
“And here I thought we finished all the hammering last month.” Abbacchio passes back Bruno’s cup with a gesture at the bottom of the box, where a slim envelope in by-now familiar spindly handwriting lies unopened. “Don’t forget.”
The letter is on notebook pages this time, torn carefully in a straight line down one side. There’s a faint fragrance that follows it out of the envelope that might well be Acqua di Giò.
Happy birthday, Bucciarati. I hope this gets to you on the day it’s supposed to. I’m trusting Narancia with the delivery—he helped me figure a lot of things out about this, really—so it should be all right.
“I had wondered if he might have,” Bruno murmurs, a chuckle half-hidden behind his hand.
“Don’t give him too much credit,” says Abbacchio as he drinks. “As far as the actual figuring out goes I’m sure she still did most of it.”
Don’t judge. It took me forever to figure out what to get you. I owe Narancia so much pizza for putting up with me on top of school starting, but I just wanted to get you something nice. Isn’t that what birthdays are for? But what do you get someone who never seems to want anything? And you already seem to have everything you need on your boat—nothing extra, just all the essential stuff right there with you, because that’s how you are. I know that’s how you are.
It was maybe two weeks ago. We were on the phone, and he was supposed to be doing history homework (I still feel bad, but don’t tell him), and I was just going on and on about how it’s so hard to figure out what you like. Besides jazz, and scallops. And that one movie about the postman. And he just laughed at me like I was being so silly, and he said—do you know what he said?
He said, “Bucciarati doesn’t need any fancy stuff. He’ll be happy just because it’s from you.”
I know. God. I don’t know if it’s true—don’t tell me if it is or isn’t, I don’t think I can handle that kind of information—but literally right after that he turned a page on his textbook and wanted to tell me about the Age of Exploration, so it must not have been a big deal to him, but it was a big deal to me because I had never thought about giving gifts that way before. You know? I just always feel like it has to be something special, but I wonder if maybe he and I just have different ideas about what “special” is.
Talking to Narancia about ships that day got me thinking, you know how sailors have all these superstitions, right? All these things they do for smooth sailing and for good wind and whatever. And I just figured that because you’re a sailor now, sort of, you should have a charm for those things too. Something to protect you, and to bring you good luck. Maybe you already do, but you can’t ever have too many. So that’s why.
Narancia said he’d take care of getting the horseshoe for me. He still hasn’t told me how. I don’t know if I want to ask him again, but if he tells you when you see him next—I’m sorry in advance.
On my end, there’s not too much to report. We’re deep in recording hell, so it’s all studio time these days. You don’t have to worry that I’m overworking; Giulia yells at me if I don’t eat and if I’m not sleeping in increments of ninety minutes. And I have been gigging at night too, here and there, to get my name out. It feels weird to write that down, like I’m talking about someone else, like all of this is happening to someone else.
We’re dropping the first single this month assuming we don’t run into any disasters. I’m hoping you won’t hear it on the radio because I’m embarrassed, but it’s about the ocean. It couldn’t not be.
I know you don’t have any big plans, but do something nice for yourself today if you can, please. Anything you want, whatever your idea of “nice” is. There’s a blue sky over Milan while I write this. I hope there’s a blue sky where you are as you read it, for your dad—and for you, too.
The nightmares come when sleep does, every night that he doesn’t manage to tire his body out to the point that it simply surrenders. The hospital corridor. The sandy, blood-stained shore. The iron bars at the Colosseum in Rome, glowing dully in the dusk. Sometimes nothing more than a sick and formless darkness, a dread Bruno can feel pressing down heavy-handed over his face. They have been coming to Bruno so long they’re not so much things to be feared as to be dealt with, and most nights he can half-convince himself to wake from them even as they’re happening, wrenching himself away, even if he comes back splintered.
For all his practice, even he cannot tell—at least not immediately—what makes tonight different. Tonight’s nightmare is all loud noises; a scream, and a body falling into water, and they are so close at hand he knows that something about them is real. Something about them jerks his body upright, stretches every muscle tight from his shoulders to the soles of his feet—pulls him back into wakefulness open-eyed and hot-blooded and immediately vigilant in a way he thought he’d already forgotten.
Sticky Fingers is just as fast. Sticky Fingers is perhaps as fast as he’s ever been, for a Stand that now spends most of its days asleep, and before Bruno’s eyes have even had the chance to focus the wall unzips in front of him from floor to ceiling, and Moody Blues’ featureless face looks back through the gap. Abbacchio is on his feet two steps behind, still fully clothed, shoulders squared high, he and Bruno mirrors to each other in anticipation of an attack that may or may not come.
Bruno speaks first. “Did you hear the—”
“Yeah.” The racket outside the door continues, raised voices and running feet thudding on the pier, muffled but not muffled enough. Abbacchio’s eyes track a slow path to the door, and back again to Bruno’s face, indexing distances. “I was awake.”
I should have been awake, thinks Bruno, through the clamor of a heart hammering so incessantly that he wants to reach between his ribs and slice it in half all over again. He is certain Abbacchio can hear it. He is certain it’s adding to the noise. “What do you think it could be?”
“Probably nothing,” Abbacchio says, but he’s staring at the door again. Moody Blues follows the movement of his head, equally tense, equally watchful. “Kids being stupid on one of the yachts. I’m going to take a look.”
“Is that necessary? As you say, it’s probably nothing.”
“Can’t be too sure. If I don’t know what exactly it is, I won’t be able to relax.” When his gaze returns to Bruno, Moody Blues follows that, too. “You can stay here. I won’t be long.”
I won’t be able to relax—I have to confirm who’s up on that cliff, or I won’t be able to relax—
There is a world in which that is the last thing Bruno ever hears him say. That is one nightmare that follows Bruno out of sleep, into a world where none of that is real anymore, or should not be—one hand at his throat, ready to snap bone.
“Let me go with you,” he says.
“There’s no need,” Abbacchio tells him, shaking his head. “Just stay.”
“Stay, I said.”
It’s only ever in nightmares that they speak to each other like this, these days, in hushed voices with an urgency keen enough to cut. They stare each other down ten seconds, twenty. Through the walls of the berth Bruno can hear another splash, which means another body falling. He does not realize until the thirtieth second that he’s been holding his breath.
“Half an hour. No longer, or I’m coming out after you.”
“Fine.” Abbacchio inhales, rolls one shoulder, then the other. Bruno watches his chest rise with the motions, like he’s witnessing something he will need proof of later. “Fine. Half an hour.”
After he closes up the wall, Bruno follows him out as far as the hallway. After the door closes, he sits on the couch to wait, blood up and back straight, and counts the minutes one by one.
It’s the pain that wakes him—a cramp in the back of his neck, so banal as to be baffling, the first strange sign that he’d fallen asleep at all. It flares as Bruno lifts his head from where it’s slumped against the armrest; moments later he uncovers another ache in one crooked arm, another in the small of his back. He presses his fingers into the muscle, working at the knots little by little, and the pain eases out of them, slowly. He doesn’t remember dreaming. He doesn’t remember anything else.
The room is warm, half-lit by the early morning sun, and through the glass doors that lead out onto the deck Bruno can see the light spilling across the floor, faintly golden. The radio’s going loudly on one of the other boats further down the pier, the sound breaking against the walls until all he hears is an echo, the strains of some English pop song from the 90’s he can half-remember as he listens: Every time you leave the room, I feel I’m fading like a flower—
Closer than that song, there is Abbacchio, dozing on the other end of the couch. Bruno doesn’t see him until his gaze has made the full circuit around the room, or perhaps it’s just that the image of him fails to register because it looks so alien—Abbacchio slumped against the cushions with his head bowed, arms crossed over his chest. They rise with every slow inhale, dip steadily and rise again, noiseless and sure.
Still breathing. There’s the proof he wanted so badly only hours ago, even if by all rights he shouldn’t need it. He knows this image, knows the sight of Abbacchio sleeping on the end of a different couch and the tension that had seemed embedded in the angles of his body, even then, as if rest was a word in a foreign language.
Bruno shifts, stands, grits his teeth at the rustle of his shirttails across the upholstery. There’s no reason to believe such a small noise would so much as dent this morning, this quiet that’s not quiet that has settled over their boat, but it is so loud in his ears this close to Abbacchio, and it has never taken much to wake him.
The movement does wake him, as Bruno anticipates, or maybe it’s the awareness of being watched. But it’s nothing like the way Bruno had woken up last night, this slow stirring. Abbacchio lifts his head, rubs at his eyes with the heel of one palm. When he opens them they go almost by instinct to Bruno’s face—a steady gaze focusing, holding, coming to an awareness and not looking away.
“Kids,” he says, after a long moment—and his voice is hoarse with more than just sleep, as if he had been shouting, and Bruno knows the sound of this too, so well the heart in his chest stutters to hear it, uselessly, “being stupid on one of the yachts. One of them nearly drowned in the bay and took his friend with him.”
Bruno does not quite laugh to hear this. Maybe there’s no name for the sound that escapes him before he can smother it—some wild, shattering thing, equal parts terror and relief.
It’s a poor job, the first time Bruno tries to stitch Abbacchio’s severed hand back onto his wrist. Perhaps it’s because of the blood, perhaps it’s because there’s no time. They shouldn’t still be in this house, but Bruno’s own traitorous hands have not stopped trembling, and the zippers he tries to make run crooked round Abbacchio’s arm, or simply cut off midway and disappear.
“Bucciarati,” mutters Abbacchio, half-conscious. The sweat is beading on his forehead again, and his skin is much too warm.
“Don’t,” Bruno says.
Don’t what? He can hear Narancia moving in the next room, opening drawers, closing them again with a slam. They should have been on the road at least half an hour ago, should have been well on their way back to Naples by now, but there are wounded to tend, and Bruno is not the only one who needs to focus. Don’t what?
“I need to focus,” he says, aloud, like a fool.
This is not the first time one of Bruno’s men has broken himself on his order, and it will not be the last by any means—not on this mission, or any other. He knows that. But knowing had not armored him completely against the sight of the blood still leaking darkly from Abbacchio’s wrist when Fugo brought him into the house. Or against the tension that seemed to have caught and held him even in sleep, his entire body rigid on the unmade bed. Bruno had sent Fugo away directly, and not allowed any of the others into the room. For all he knows it had been to keep them from seeing him undone by something.
Bruno can feel Sticky Fingers at his shoulder, restless and electric, and tries again—cups his palms around the wound where hand and arm meet, and draws in a breath. The zipper forms on the exhale, a ring of white light solidifying tooth by tooth to make the chain. All the way around, this time. The ring closes and holds.
“Giorno!” Narancia again, through the wall. “He’s awake! Mista, he’s awake!”
Bruno releases another breath, the quietest one that will come out of him, and rolls his shoulders. Try as he might there’s no shaking away the ache that seems to have settled into his bones; it makes no sense at all, seeing as he’s not been sitting long, and yet it refuses to ease.
When Bruno lifts his head, Abbacchio’s eyes are open. Still half-fogged-over with pain, but trained on his face and unmoving.
“Perhaps I am.” It’s not quite a lie, but neither is it the whole truth. He does not release Abbacchio’s wrist, hands chasing the erratic pulse he can feel still racing beneath the skin—refusing to relinquish it until it slows down, steadies.
“Why? We got your key like you told us to, didn’t we?”
“I didn’t tell you to tear off your hand getting it.” The fact that he’s just succeeded in putting that hand back where it belongs doesn’t help his voice. Abbacchio might not hear it crack, but on the word hand it’s loud in Bruno’s ear, so much glass splintering. “You’ve a duty to stay alive, Abbacchio, mission or no mission.”
“I have a duty to you,” says Abbacchio. “Isn’t that what matters? If it was my life or the mission, what would you have chosen?”
That’s not what matters, Bruno nearly tells him. That’s not all that matters. He nearly lifts one hand to push Abbacchio’s sweaty hair back from his face, the better to see if his eyes are clear. He does neither of those things, in the end.
“Both. Always both. No matter the difficulty.”
A soft scoff greets this. “And if that isn’t possible?”
“Then I’ll make it so it is.”
Abbacchio watches Bruno’s face awhile, then puts his head back again and closes his eyes. Bruno watches him regain his breath and waits, counting every heartbeat he can feel. This room they should be leaving appears, all at once, entirely too small.
“Unbelievable,” he mutters at last to the ceiling. “I’m not like you, Bucciarati.”
“I would never tell you to be, either. You simply have to be here. Every part of you, if possible.” Bruno shifts his grip, moves his fingers up until they’re curled around Abbacchio’s. “Squeeze if you can.”
He’s quiet for a spell, brow furrowed as he gazes down at their linked hands. Bruno can almost see the thought as it forms—the order from the brain, moving down the shoulder, along the arm. Stalling around the half-healed wound. Then his grip tightens.
“Goddamn.” He drops Bruno’s hand almost immediately, hissing sharply through his teeth. “Shit. Christ alive. That hurts.”
“That means it will heal, and so will you.” Bruno pulls back, curls his fingers partway into a fist to prevent himself from reaching out a second time.
He does not say take better care of those hands. It’s not his place to tell Abbacchio what those hands are meant for—and, anyway, they are still running out of time.
Giorno’s invitation to lunch at the villa in Chiaia comes one November Tuesday. It’s Fugo who delivers it, at midmorning over the phone, in the most diffident voice Bruno’s ever heard—and impossible to say no to, perhaps for just that reason. The truth is it feels as if Bruno has scarcely put the phone down and excavated his good suit from the closet before another call comes, from the front office, telling him there’s a car for him at the entrance to the marina. The truth is it’s easier than he ever would have expected to leave a note on Abbacchio’s still-closed door, and go.
Fugo is out with Polnareff when the car arrives, gone to Vomero to negotiate an investment deal. So is Mista, gone to cover their backs should that same deal go south. But Giorno is waiting for him in the high-ceilinged dining room that opens out onto the rear garden, with the champagne-colored walls and the crystal chandelier, and a place is set for Bruno at his right hand.
The meal is simple for all the grandeur of the room, a spread of bread and stewed baccalà, and scallops, and white wine. As they eat, they discuss business, as Bruno imagined they might—about the caporegimes of Passione, and what it is that makes them happy. Bruno finds he remembers more of them than he knows, old familiar names raised high. Pizzele the gunrunner, second only to Mista on the quick-draw. Crescenza the opera patron. Braciolone the gambler. Stigghiola the loan-collector, who finds joy in inglorious work. Who has been easy to win, and who has been jerking at their chain, and who refuses to deal with whom.
They’re talking instead about plants when the maids come in with tea and begin clearing the table. One of Giorno’s associates had gifted him recently with a sapling, a young olive tree, and it’s been a challenge to find a place for it in an already overgrown garden—but the welcome sort of challenge, his eyes say, the sort that makes you hope for something.
Bruno can see the olive tree from where he sits, in a pot by the French windows, guarding them like a sentry. Dignified for all its smallness, the spindly branches unbowed. He takes a long sip of tea and waits for the last of the footsteps to fade away behind the kitchen door.
“I wonder if I might make an observation.”
“You can observe whatever you like, Bucciarati,” Giorno murmurs to the rim of his teacup, and Bruno sees fit to take him at his word.
“Internal strife or no, you look well. Calm. You know the answers to four out of five of the questions you ask me. You don’t say so, but it’s in your eyes.” Bruno keeps his gaze leveled on Giorno’s face. He does not look at the windows behind him, or at the garden beyond, the bougainvillea overrunning the trellis in defiance of the season. “You do not need me to tell you how to treat your own men, Giorno.”
“No,” Giorno agrees, after a pause. “Perhaps I don’t.”
“None of this to say, of course, that I’m ungrateful for your hospitality. Certainly not for your company. I’m just curious about why you thought it necessary to summon me.”
It’s Giorno who looks away now, following the outline of one of the roses on the lace tablecloth with a fingertip. How soft that small motion is, to Bruno’s eye, how tentative. How terribly young Giorno is, still, for all his work to hide that fact from everyone who meets him, for all his upright posture and his carefully folded hands. Still only a boy walking against the wind. And yet neither has Bruno forgotten the dream of a pair of uncanny eyes, watching him from the abyss between life and death, commanding him to return.
“Mostly I just wanted to see you. I felt like it had been too long.” Tracing first the trailing stem, and after that the unfurling petals, caught by the white threads in mid-bloom. Bruno wonders if Giorno might make that one rose burst living from the fabric, figures Giorno has raised stranger things to life in his time. “Call it silly, if you like. Fugo and Mista were cross with me when they heard I’d be meeting you without them today. We… talk about you, often.” He lifts his gaze, steady again. “I think we miss having you close by.”
“I’m still close by,” Bruno points out, rather more gently than intended.
“I know,” says Giorno. “That’s what makes it silly.”
Bruno does not tell Giorno that he has had ample time, himself, to think about what he does and does not miss, what he does and does not want. He does not say that he isn’t sure he would wear all that power half so well, given who he is now. Even back in the spring, in the naked beginning, relinquishing it must have been the easiest thing he’d ever done.
“I have yet to see your boat, Bucciarati. It must be wonderful, after all the work you’ve done on it.”
“You can see it anytime you like.” Bruno can feel the warmth bloom in the hollow of his chest as he says it, bittersweet. “Come for the new year if you want to, and I’ll gladly host you. The others as well.”
The tilt of Giorno’s mouth as he pours more tea is wry—a full cup first for Bruno, and after for himself. “You’ll gladly host us, but will Abbacchio?”
“I can’t speak for Abbacchio,” Bruno says, equally wry, “but he can make of it what he will when the time comes.”
“I probably shouldn’t be worried. He never could say no to you.” A breath of laughter comes out of him then, in this room that for all its gilded grace looks like no one laughs in it. When it passes Giorno’s face has softened, almost so far as to permit a smile, as he speaks the truth Bruno has found he can’t bring himself to say: “It will be good to have the team all together again.”
Neither of them say it will be just like it used to be. Maybe it will. Maybe they will fall together as easily as they always did, and maybe not—and maybe in the end none of them even want that, to return to before. The one true thing at the center of all these questions is simply this: there is no team anymore to be spoken of, and yet Bruno feels them all part of him all the same. Each day they’re breathing beside him as he walks, and opens his letters, and watches the changing of the sky. All of them, not a single one exempt.
“That bastard Crescenza,” Abbacchio grumbles, turning his fork around a spool of linguine. “He doesn’t know a thing about the opera.”
“Maybe not,” says Bruno, “but he knows a fair amount about people who frequent the opera, and that should be enough for Giorno, surely.”
Nine PM sees them sitting across each other at a significantly more modest table for a significantly more modest meal, at an old, nameless osteria two blocks down from the marina. It’s a place they’ve both been frequenting for years, sometimes together and sometimes apart, the canvas tablecloths and the oil lamps unchanged in all that time. The proprietress had still smiled at Bruno when they came in, and ushered them over to a spot in the corner, removed somewhat from the after-work crowds.
“He likes Stravinsky.” Abbacchio spits the word like an invective before fixing Bruno with an exacting glare. “Would you have done it, if you were don?”
“Done what?” Bruno asks, already chuckling a little at the notion despite the look. “Promoted ‘that bastard Crescenza?’ That would be a conflict of interest, wouldn’t it?”
Abbacchio shrugs, even if his scowl doesn’t settle, and lifts his fork to his mouth again. “My interests, maybe, but not yours. You could have done whatever the hell you wanted in that place.”
Your interests are mine, these days, or they could be.
Thunder rumbles out the window by Bruno’s shoulder, just close enough to steal whatever answer he might have given, and maybe that’s a mercy in its way. It’s been raining all evening, in the way of the mercurial autumn, even if the sky had been clear when he left Giorno’s that afternoon to board the funicular for Arenella, to see about the lights going out in the kitchen at the flat. The new tenant’s a medical student completing his clerkship at the hospital nearby, too busy delivering babies and whatever else to be tinkering with an old and flagging circuit breaker, and Bruno finds he can’t help feeling warm toward him for that fact alone.
Now he is here, the fork in his hand meandering around a plate of spaghetti aglio e olio, watching Abbacchio’s inscrutable eyes catch the lamplight and thinking about where they both belong. He is thinking about the lights on the boat, the one bulb on the foredeck that’s been flickering oddly since Sunday. He is still thinking about Giorno, cradling a teacup in one hand and murmuring, We miss having you close by.
Tell me about real opera, then, he almost says. Tell me about anything other than this.
“What is it?”
“Talk about what’s troubling you or don’t, but don’t let your food get cold.” Abbacchio’s voice is level now, all the sandpaper-roughness gone out of it. His own plate is half-finished already, while Bruno’s is all but untouched. “You’ve been pushing good pasta around for the last ten minutes.”
The impulse to reply that he’s not troubled by anything is there, close at hand before Bruno can even think to scour his thoughts for it. It’s a lie he’s used to telling, and not only to Abbacchio, feigned pride and studied calm running like a threaded needle through all the things he is so careful not to say. On the one hand, he shouldn’t have to tell it anymore. On the other, he cannot help wondering if he’s forgotten how to be honest, in this particular instance.
“I saw it,” he says, finally, after a long silence and a slow swallow of wine. “When I met with Giorno today. What we fought for becoming real little by little, I saw it. But only from the outside, like looking through a lit window.”
Abbacchio inclines his head, considering the answer—weighing up the truth in it, perhaps. “It’s not like you to have regrets.”
“But that’s precisely it; I don’t have any regrets. I realized that today. I thought that world of ours would never let me go, and yet when the chance came, I walked away from it so easily.” He sighs. There’s something stinging at the back of his throat, suddenly, as real as anything he’s tasted today, and all the wine in the decanter between them won’t wash it away. “Does that sound foolish to you?”
“You’re always foolish,” says Abbacchio. “I’ve thought that since I met you, and all you do is prove me right.”
“And yet here you are,” Bruno points out, “listening to more foolishness. Why?”
The wind rattling the shutters is why. The relentless drumbeat of the rain on the roof is why. Bruno can already imagine the look of the street when they step out, later, to return home—the pavement slick and gleaming in the pale light from the lamps.
Abbacchio lifts his own glass to his lips and drains it slowly, listening.
“I walked away too,” he says at last, “the same as you.”
He doesn’t offer an explanation, as if the truth of this is self-evident—and simple. As if it doesn’t even bear interrogating. Something in Bruno stalls around another why, and in that moment he acquiesces to watching the half-formed questions unravel. Most of them are too abstract to hold on to, anyway, stray nebulous thoughts about power, about freedom. Possibly not even worth the asking, except one.
What are you doing here with me?
“Tell me why you hate Stravinsky,” he says instead, and Abbacchio does, until the rain stops.
“Bucciarati,” Trish asks, in the ruins of an abandoned church two days out from Cala di Volpe, on the edge of a wild oak grove, “did Sticky Fingers ever talk to you?”
They’re sitting side by side, on the crumbling stone steps leading up to where the altar used to be, resting. They’ve been training together all afternoon, and have made short work of what little was still whole in this place when they arrived—the rotting pews smashed, a whole section of wall distorted where Spice Girl had turned it soft as new rubber. Sticky Fingers had bounced off it and hit the opposite wall so soundly, and Bruno can feel the bruises that ought to be blooming on his own back, gathering between the shoulderblades.
Trish has grown so strong, even if she can’t see it herself yet. She’s rubbing at her wrists, the right one red and angry from a blocked punch that had nearly bent the hand back, the scar on the left one close to invisible now to any eye that doesn’t know what it’s looking for. Just a narrow circle of white, barely a bracelet, barely anything.
“In the beginning. When I first…” He pauses there, thinking of Spice Girl, of the way she and Trish speak to and about each other—as though they exist separately and yet together, bookends of the same soul. “Met him, and a bit after. Never that much, though. He was always the cryptic sort.”
“Just like you, then.” She doesn’t smile, but there is so much there, in that single statement—impatience and wryness and fondness and wonder, all at once. Bruno holds all the sounds close; he already knows he’ll want to think about them later, and to hear them again.
“You might be giving me too much credit.” There’s grass growing on the steps, having pushed its way up through the cracks in the stone. The blades are cool to the touch when Bruno weaves his fingers through them, idly, no reason behind the motion but the feeling itself. This, too, will be something to remember later, when everything else begins to slip away. “He stopped soon after my father died.”
Trish does not say I’m sorry, and Bruno thanks the stars for that. “Do you ever miss it?”
“The talking?” She nods, and he thinks on it a moment before answering. “Yes and no. I remembered it being quite comforting in the beginning, to feel his consciousness there. Distinct from me, but also not—like I could never be quite alone, even in my own head. But then I taught myself not to need that as much, to close the gap between his mind and mine. Many Stand users do.”
“You taught yourself,” Trish repeats, eyes down. Perhaps it’s the low light throwing shadows on her face that turns it sad, just for a second—the expression is gone before Bruno can fix it in his mind’s eye. “The fighting, too?”
“The fighting is part of it. When you fight for a long time, your body learns what to do, how it needs to respond, without waiting for your mind to tell it. Much the same thing happens with our Stands, until using them is second nature to us. Then they simply know what we intend.” To illustrate, he lays one hand on the floor between them, unzips a section of it to reveal the void within. After a few seconds, he closes it, and the fissure disappears. “It doesn’t happen all at once. After a while, you just become.”
Trish considers this, head tilted to one side, looking away. Together they watch the sun cross the sky through the holes in the caved-in ceiling, coming down warm on the rubble and on their upturned faces. It has not begun setting, yet. There will be plenty of daylight left for them to walk in, later, back through the trees to where the others are waiting.
It’s easy enough, still, for Bruno to remember the beginning, the test. He had been younger than Trish at the time, and he had believed that the arrow he took to the heart would kill him, but he had not died. How painful it had been back then, to feel himself torn apart and remade. How little he had known about pain, and about dying.
“Do you think I could do that too?” Trish has not stopped moving her hands—opening and closing her fingers, rotating the wrists slowly around and around again, like it surprises her to find them still part of her. Bruno wonders if it’s truly so surprising, to see all the parts of her that have not broken, and the parts that have been broken and mended and continue to hold together, despite everything. “Become?”
You should not have to, thinks Bruno. It comes so quickly, quick as muscle memory and so small, so fragile in comparison to all the prayers this place must have heard in its lifetime, and he cannot stop it. You should not have to become anything, for any reason, unless you want to.
“It would surprise you, the things I know you can do,” he says instead, and rises, one hand held out for her to take again. “Come now. You’re wanting dinner, I imagine.”
Bucciarati, I saw Il Postino.
Will you laugh at me if I tell you you’re getting a letter just about that? Just about how I caught your favorite movie on RaiSat Cinema tonight, and now I can’t sleep, so I’m writing to you to tell you about it? I should be calling you, honestly. Disturbing the peace at 1 AM. I mean, for all I know you’re awake right now; I hear you still don’t sleep much, so maybe I wouldn’t even be disturbing anything. But anyway, if you laugh, you’re welcome—though somehow I know you won’t. I know you’ll get it. It’s your story, after all.
Anyway, here’s what happened. I got home from the studio at around 9 PM. I ordered a pizza, like I do sometimes on late nights, and sat around on the couch channel-surfing, and I caught the opening scene. Mario looking out his window, and then the title card, and then the boats on the water, like magic. I’m not saying it felt like you—or something else, the universe, if you believe that—trying to tell me something, but I did remember you said in your last letter that I should see it if I ever had the chance, because you thought it would speak to the poet in me. And so I left it on.
I haven’t told you much about what songwriting is like for me, because it’s embarrassing, and also because I don’t need you to laugh again and tell me I embarrass surprisingly easily for someone trying to make a career in the performing arts. I don’t know if I’m any kind of poet, really, because even now it still mostly feels like I don’t know what I’m doing; so much of it feels less like deliberately making anything and more like fumbling around in a dark room, grabbing onto things. Or like chasing beams of light across the sea floor, just looking for the next bright spot, and the next one. How’s that for metaphors, huh?
But the part where Neruda tells Mario you become a poet by walking along the seashore and looking around, and then the words will come to you. I think I get it. It sounds a little like it’s about paying attention. I haven’t told you this either, but ever since I moved here in the summer, I’ve been walking a lot, maybe more than any other place I’ve ever lived in. Mostly just around my neighborhood, near the city center, but if I’m feeling really stuck sometimes I take the tram to Navigli and follow the canals. That was a bad idea in the beginning, seeing water that looked like that and remembering Venice, remembering the Tiber. The very first time I almost turned around and ran all the way home. But being here isn’t like being there, and it’s been good for me to keep walking around because it helps me remember that. Just to be outside with my eyes open, so I can see how different the world looks now. Living in it feels different, too.
The words do come then, they always do. I don’t know if they’re especially good words or anything, but they’re always there for me, even when I think they won’t be, and maybe that’s something.
There’s that other bit, too, at the end. The one where Mario makes his recording of all the sounds of the island, the one that you say always makes you cry. I can’t imagine you crying ever, and believe me it’s not because I haven’t tried, but I understood why you might, seeing it. It’s not as if those are sounds he’s never heard before; the small waves at Cala di Soto, the wind in the cliffs. The sad nets, and the church bells, and the stars. But they’re not beautiful to him until they are, or maybe until he becomes the sort of person who can hear them as beautiful for the first time, and that’s when he realizes he’s not who he used to be anymore.
I won’t say I didn’t cry myself. Mostly it all made me miss the sea. I like Milan so much—another thing I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone—but that’s the one thing you can’t get here. And it’s the one thing I think of when I think of home, and of everyone back in Naples. How close the sea is, how you probably feel it all around you every day. I really hope I find my way back to it soon.
What’s it like to live on a boat, Bucciarati? Like, really? Are you hearing all the sounds of your city, too, like it’s the first time? I was thinking maybe the other day about how funny it is that the place where you’ve finally settled down is a place that was never meant for staying, where everyone’s coming and going all the time. And who knows, maybe you and Abbacchio will let the moorings loose eventually and sail off somewhere and have more adventures, even if you say you’re tired of that life, but at least for now I like to imagine that a harbor is the perfect place, in a funny way, for someone like you. Or for the someone you are now, whoever that is.
You’re not who you used to be anymore, and neither am I—and maybe that’s something. Maybe we’re still figuring out what any of that means, but I get a feeling sometimes that it’s enough just to be alive. I feel like that whenever I get to that point in writing or recording a song that’s also a bit like magic, the point where it’s like a curtain opens and I know the song will fly. I felt like that tonight, too. You know what I mean.
I hope you start sleeping well soon. I hope for other things for you, too, but those are a secret, at least for now. Good night.
Bruno keeps Trish’s letter on his desk, where he can see it, for days afterward. He rereads it so many times the pages flatten out from being unfolded so frequently. When he sleeps, now and again there will be a dream of walking, slipped sideways between the fragments of each old nightmare—the canals and the sidestreets of a city he’s never seen, and a path that meanders on the way to its heart.
Finally, one night, somewhere in the unnamed hours between midnight and morning, he knocks at Abbacchio’s door, to begin a conversation he does not know how to have for the first time in his life. If Abbacchio is startled by this breach of what has all this time been an unspoken agreement between them, a promise not to cross each other’s thresholds, he does not show it. He answers quickly, almost like he’s been waiting, and as Bruno’s shadow falls across the open doorway Abbacchio’s gaze comes to rest without hesitation on his face. The same eyes as always, the same measured gaze—and it’s to those eyes Bruno speaks, in the end.
“Will you take a walk with me?”
Abbacchio watches him a little longer, still holding the doorknob. For a time it seems to Bruno that there is nothing to listen to all of a sudden; the sounds that have punctuated their long nights, birds and water and wind sighing between the masts, all go silent as they face each other.
“Yeah,” Abbacchio says at last. “Yeah, sure.”
So they go. They shut up the boat behind them, Abbacchio’s keys in the lock and Bruno’s hand on the horseshoe nailed high on the front door, for luck. The boats that line the pier are soundless and sleeping deep, but the lights of the city glimmer tirelessly beyond—all the way up to the top of the highest hill, where they seem almost to run into the stars. They can walk a straight line toward those lights, even out here with the dark all around them.
“Are we going anywhere?”
“Not particularly,” murmurs Bruno, more to the night than to the presence at his shoulder. “Do you ever just do this? Take walks for the sake of walking?”
“All the time,” Abbacchio answers, and Bruno finds he can believe it. “I used to live in the hills, remember? So I never got sea legs, like you. Part of me’s just always wanting solid ground.”
The pier seems to sway slightly under their feet, the water beneath it awake and moving at all hours. Bruno permits himself, then, to wonder about Abbacchio—to imagine him young and unscarred and growing up closer to the sky. He imagines him walking as far as Pompeii, along the roads, among the ruins. Discovering things.
“You could live inland again if you wanted. Walk as much as you like, do whatever you like. No need to answer to anyone or owe anyone anything.”
Abbacchio does not flinch beside him. Still, something in the air tightens—something Bruno feels rather than sees. “You know that’s not what I meant.”
“And you know you can be free of me,” Bruno says. They do not break stride, not once, not even for this. “It’s what I would wish for you. I am not the person you have duties to anymore.”
They make it to the end of the pier, and don’t stop—don’t so much as pause, turning parallel to the seawall, the marina on their right and the street on their left. Bruno counts the shuttered-up shops and restaurants by name, envisions the colors of this place alive in the daytime. The desire to protect it all opens up fiercely inside him again, almost a living thing in itself, and Bruno does not know whom to give it away to.
“What do you remember about burying your father, Bucciarati?”
It’s a question that might wound, easily, a keen knife in a careless hand, but Abbacchio does not speak it carelessly. However he might appear, Abbacchio never speaks carelessly, not to Bruno—and Bruno, who hears so much, who is always listening, can hear this too. This is how he knows that neither will it hurt him to reply with the truth.
“Almost nothing. One meeting with the undertaker. Paying the bills at the kitchen table in our flat. How much it rained. Everything else is a blur. I had to—to teach myself so many things, all over again, about how to be alive.”
Even now, Bruno does not tell him, it is harder to breathe when the sky is too grey. This is not something that has become easier with time, not particularly, not a muscle that builds strength with practice. It simply is what it is, no more or less, just another component of a life without someone. Waking up and repeating the same motions, the same words: This is how I learned to mourn. This is what it’s like to be alive without you here. Continuing.
On Bruno’s landward side, Abbacchio continues to walk.
“I was free of you,” he says. His voice is even. It does not once break, even a little. “For three weeks I was free of you, and I barely remember any of it. I slept, I stood up in the morning. I got dinner with Narancia in the Quartieri Spagnoli a few nights, and we didn’t talk about waiting for you. Or about what we’d do if it turned out you never made it.”
“You’d have figured out how to live, regardless.” The words leave Bruno so gently it surprises him. He has never thought himself born to gentleness, nor has anyone he’s ever known asked it of him, Abbacchio least of all. And yet it is there. “All of you, each in your own way.”
“I know we would have, if we had to—if you didn’t come back and none of us ever saw you again. But it’s different to have a choice.”
You have so many choices. You might make any choice in the world. The words are gathered at the back of Bruno’s throat, waiting for him to command them into some shape, a weapon or an olive branch, a fine and gleaming thing all composed of edges. But he does not command them, because this is a question of choice. Instead he goes back through his memory, through his own acts of choosing—sees himself at seven years old again, sitting on the floor of what had once been his parents’ room, helping his mother fold her clothes. He remembers how she had put down the yellow dress she was holding to look at him and lay her fingertips against his cheek and murmur, with a note of strange, sad affection, You and your father, neither of you know how to be free.
You’re not who you used to be anymore, Trish had said, and yet he remembers it all so sharply it might have been only yesterday that he was still preparing to die for something. He has not known what to make of it, all this time, living in a world that no longer asks such things of him. A world that no longer needs him to protect it. Now all that faces him is what remains of his own small and stubborn life, and Abbacchio’s too.
On Bruno’s seaward side, another wave breaks like a sigh against the seawall. After that another, and another. He stops walking.
“I was yours, then,” he says, quietly. At first it seems the night or the city or the ocean that surrounds them might swallow it all, but here is Abbacchio, still listening. “Your choice in this life.”
He tilts his chin up, that they might see each other eye to eye. It’s not a question. Possibly it is something they’ve both always known, all this time they’ve been living alongside each other, waiting to speak it aloud.
“You were,” Abbacchio tells him. “You are. What about it?”
There’s a little light, now, in the Eastern sky. Bruno reaches for his wrist, fingers closing loose around the familiar curve of bone, and holds.
Bruno keeps in his long memory a catalogue of wounds—so many spaces left empty, so many souvenirs of a body breaking itself.
He sees himself sliced open from the shoulder, hears the breath rattling through a ribcage stripped bare, and thinks, Perhaps this one will kill me.
He sees the open hole in Abbacchio’s gut, the wash of his blood over a slab of white rock by a beach in Sardinia, and thinks, This one will kill me.
It isn’t much, Bruno had warned Abbacchio the evening he’d asked him along.
They’d been getting coffee in the tiny café below Abbacchio’s apartment, the one that Bruno had never seen because its tenant had always said it didn’t look like much more than a jail cell, and therefore was not worth visiting. For the past ten days Bruno had been turning over the question of what to do with the rest of his life, and with the remains of the fortune Giorno had insisted on returning to him besides, and in the face of such confounding questions it only made sense to return to this thing they used to do in the face of simpler ones: meet for coffee, and sit together without speaking, until whatever knotted-up, tangled thing that lay between them unsnarled itself and settled.
Except that day Bruno had felt the need to say something, for the first time, so he had set his cup down and looked at Abbacchio, a question gathering on his lips that had taken so many days to come together.
It isn’t much, he’d said, but…
He had not known what lay at the end of that but. Abbacchio had looked out into the empty street, down the slope of the hill, where the road turned and disappeared into shadow. Not too long ago the two of them had walked shoulder to shoulder through shadows like this, the path twisted and narrow, leading away from the water. They had met on a road like this.
Maybe it isn’t, but you’ve made more of less, Abbacchio had said to the road. Then, turning back to Bruno, when are we going?
It had sounded like a similar declaration made once before, on the back of another, narrower boat, another life and another death ago: The only time I feel at ease is when…
They had not talked about that life, then, not yet—not about how it had ended, or what it was that seemed about to begin.
Sitting in the middle of the saloon they had refurbished so painstakingly in the warmth of the waning summer, Bruno holds on to those remembered conversations like a length of rope in the middle of a squall. There is much he can remember, if he tries, and much that’s slipped away from him, seized by a current he can’t see. He doesn’t remember dying the first time, whatever came after the pool of blood on the floor of San Giorgio Maggiore, what it had felt like to find himself suddenly in his body again, but he remembers Leone Abbacchio, and the way that little boat had dipped beneath his weight as he stepped aboard. He remembers the sky, sees the image of it mirrored here when the setting sun reaches in through the windows.
Bruno can’t yet say what there will be to remember about the coming winter, when the days will all fade into the same color and disappear into each other, just like that. But he already knows that he’ll remember the way they wait for it—the way Abbacchio navigates through the darkness back to their bed, and settles his head above Bruno’s heart, and breathes.
Trish calls after dinner on the first day of December. Bruno is occupied with the dishes in the kitchen, so it’s Abbacchio who receives her first, picking up on the second ring.
“Hello? Hey, stranger.” The way his voice softens is so unlike him as to be alarming. Bruno glances over his shoulder, and already Abbacchio’s motioning to him to dry his hands. “Bucciarati? One second.” He leans across the counter, handset already held out for Bruno to take. “Let me finish that. You want to take this one.”
There’s nothing for it, really, but to take the phone and walk—out of the kitchen and through the cabin doors onto the deck, ignoring the chill. He pulls a chair out at the round table before speaking.
“Bucciarati?” says the voice on the other end of the line. Nothing follows for what feels like a long while, the sound of the waves lapping at the hull drifting in to fill the gap, until an audible swallow. “It’s Trish.”
“Ah,” says Bruno, almost like an echo. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
He is not certain that there is, and she confirms this immediately. The trouble is she also retracts it seconds later.
“No. I mean, not that there’s nothing, but… I mean, I just wanted to say hi—and I’d been trying to find time to call for a while, but things just kept piling up and piling up, you know, and…” She pulls herself up short here, regroups. “Anyway, no big reasons. If it’s a bad time, I can—"
Bruno finds himself holding up a hand, although he well knows she can’t see it. “No big reasons necessary. I’m happy you called, Trish.”
There’s a sharp note of bewilderment in her voice that pulls him back, back to the two of them crouched on the floor of a church in Venice, her gaping at his outstretched hand. One thing he has never told Trish is that it’s never been hard to reach out, where she is concerned. No matter the danger caging them in on every side, few things have been easier than that—are easier, still.
“I truly am,” says Bruno. And then, remembering a voice on the radio a fistful of mornings ago, and how quickly his head had turned when he put a name to that voice again for the first time, “We did hear your song, do you know? The one about the ocean.”
“Oh god.” It’s too easy just now to imagine her burying her face in her hands, and he smiles.
“‘Oh god,’ nothing. It’s an excellent song.” He leans back in the chair, settles his weight into it more comfortably before proceeding. “For a time I was worried I’d begin to forget what you sounded like, but there’s probably nothing to fear. Anytime I need to hear you, you’ll be on the airwaves.”
“Bucciarati, that’s not funny—”
“Nor did I mean it to be. You know I don’t joke.”
“No, yeah. I know.” Trish sighs, deeply, full from the chest—loud and exasperated and so familiar Bruno nearly does her the disservice of laughing, then and there. “You and Giulia both. She’s always getting on my case for selling myself short. Well, mannaggia, if you want to chuck it all in the garbage, we’ll chuck it all in the garbage… And she’d really do it, too, I bet. All my music, in the actual garbage.”
“She knows you well after so short a time. I’d like to meet your Giulia someday.”
“Please no, I would die,” she tells him, with feeling. Bruno highly doubts this, but he does not tell her so.
He waits for her to say more, but the other end of the line goes quiet, a silence so completely empty of sound it nearly doesn’t seem real. Out here it seems there is always something to listen to—the echo of voices or music from the next boats down, the gulls overhead. If nothing else, the ubiquitous whisper of the water, all around. He thinks of Trish, in her distant, glittering city, and wonders what she can hear of his, through this tenuous wire that connects them.
“Speaking of Giulia, I…” Trish starts, and stops again, and in the space opened up by that pause Bruno can hear something unspooling, revealing itself in small pieces. “We’re about to wrap up recording, and I was thinking about what you said in your last letter, about coming down there for the holidays. I think I can get some time off late this month ‘til early January, jump on the bus, be there in, like… like a day. If you guys think that’s a good idea.”
The last time Trish came to Naples had been at the end of May, at his invitation, if only to decline his offer of a house by the sea. It’s too easy to summon up the image of her from that day, Mista on her right and Narancia on her left at the big table in Libeccio, looking down at the napkin on her lap with a face wrenched with an unhappiness none of them could undo, however much they wanted it.
“Will that be safe for you?”
“I’m still a nobody, Bucciarati, there’s no need for…” A ripple of tension, another watery memory that feels more distant than it ought to be—a van, and the open road. “An escort, or anything. It’s not like that anymore.”
“I suppose not,” he agrees, quietly. “But would you really want to come back?”
There are many ways he means this question. There is no speaking them all; Bruno is certain of this even as the words leave his mouth. Likewise, there are many ways she might answer, but he decides not to shortchange her with whatever he might imagine, and waits.
He hopes, not for the first time, that she’s gotten herself a beautiful apartment. A safe place she might be quiet in, for however long she desires. She deserves that much, at the very least.
“I have songs for all of you, you know.”
Bruno blinks, sits up straight. “Pardon?”
“On the CD. I had to think a lot about it. There’s one about butterflies, and one about driving—and one with a line about clouds that I’m still…” Something in her throat seems to tighten then, and she clears it gently to steady her voice. “I guess this is kind of like spoiling the surprise, since the others aren’t out yet. And maybe it’ll be obvious, or maybe it won’t be, but. The one about the ocean, that one’s for you.”
“Trish,” he says, half in warning, even if there is nothing to warn her against, and there has not been for months now. He doesn’t know what comes after, but perhaps that doesn’t matter.
“I was so scared, the first time I ever played it live,” she goes on, as if she hasn’t heard him. He can almost see her shake her head, on the other side of the table he sits at. “I almost dropped my guitar. Twice. But I lived through it. It was four minutes and I lived through it. And what we lived through was.” Here she stops. Breathes. “It was.”
“You know what it was,” she says, and he does. “I cried when you died, Bucciarati. I lived through that, too—and now we’re all still here, aren’t we? We all. Came back, in the end.”
I cried when you died, Bucciarati. It sounds so simple to hear her say it, the grief in it so plain, like something she could easily compel him to answer for if she wished it. They’re both well aware that what they lived through is so much more than that, so many pieces of them haphazardly mending still. And yet, at the same time, that’s what it was. In some ways that’s all it was—something to cry for, at the end of a long, vicious day.
“I realized I just want to see everyone,” says Trish, “so I remember. And you said you’d keep the house for me, if I ever came that way again.”
“Oh, certainly. The house is yours to use, Trish, whenever you want it.” Bruno rises from his chair, walks to the railing to gaze out into the shapeless night. In this dark he cannot look across the bay to Marechiaro, where he was born, but he knows where it is; he has always known where it is. “I had not wanted to tie you to us here, when I offered it to you. Someone like you ought to have room to fly. But in the event that you ever need another place to rest your wings, well—you should have that also. Both, always both.”
“I do want to see it,” she says, and he wonders if she can hear herself these days. How sure she sounds, how quick to own even her fear. “And your boat. You rebuilt that one, didn’t you, pretty much from nothing?”
“I wouldn’t have managed without help.” He leans his elbows against the railing, one hand tight around the phone. It takes his weight readily, without a single noise. “Before you see it, you can hear it. Listen.”
The wind is rising when Bruno holds the phone over the edge, as far over the water as his arm will stretch, and it may be that the tide is washing in—and it may be that Trish can hear all of these things close beside her in her quiet place, the distance bridged.
“That, Trish,” he tells her, after, “is the Bay of Naples, saying good evening.”
The smile in her voice sounds like the beginning of a song.
“Good evening, Naples, this is Trish Una.”
Bruno talks with Trish until the lights along the pier go out and only the stars remain, and after they hang up he sits on the deck for what feels like a long time. It’s only now, listening to the night, that he feels the cold settling into his bones, blowing in from the ocean.
As he rises and makes to head back inside, exhaling into his hands until his breath is fogging in the air, the light in the cabin flickers on, and the door opens a crack. Abbacchio peers out, squinting into the half-dark.
“Thought I heard you laughing,” he says.
Bruno neither confirms nor denies this, one hand coming to rest idly on the doorframe. “What time is it?”
Abbacchio blinks at him, then back at the clock radio on the kitchen counter, flashing 2:24 in the darkness.
“Too late, and too cold,” he says, looking back up. “Come in already before you catch your death. What were the two of you talking so long about, anyway?”
He’d been telling Trish about the boat, Bruno does not say. And about the city, and about the flowers on their coffee table that refuse to fade. He had told her about writing to his mother, about Giorno’s villa with its young olive tree, about fishing, about gulls. About getting to watch the sky change color every day. About what his life is now, such as it is.
I have a sky for each of you, he had said, shortly before they’d said goodbye. And it’s true. He had counted them all out for her: Fugo is twilight. Mista is the overcast autumn sky on the windiest days, when the clouds race each other across it. Narancia is the sunset that sets the entire line of the horizon aflame. Giorno is the golden hour before the fire starts. And Trish is the dawn.
Sooner than he thinks he will have all of them here, watching all those skies turn, and maybe that is the only thing he has ever wanted, all along. One selfish desire—to be together a little longer, to be alive together a little longer.
Well, what about Abbacchio? Trish had asked, laughing. Is he a thunderstorm?
I’m sure he thinks so, Bruno had said. And he’d laughed, then, because he knew it wasn’t true. He knows it now as sure as he had known it an hour ago, as sure as he has always known it: Leone Abbacchio is a night full of stars.
And Bruno laughs again, the laughter of all of those fixed stars, the same ones sailors steer their way home by, and he reaches out to take Abbacchio’s face between both his palms and kiss him.
“Everything,” he says at last, reaching as he walks through the door for a hand—a human hand to hold, and that too is everything.
The sunrise comes quietly, without spectacle, at least at first. Just a gradual lightening of the sky, a dimming and receding of the stars overhead. And then the first beam breaks along the line of the horizon, a vein of gold above the distant water’s surface, steady and beautiful.
Soon it will be time to haul the nets and inspect the day’s catch, and Bruno’s palms will grow raw from the work, but not yet. Not yet. This is what comes before the work. Bruno’s father’s shadow is long, his face gentle, his body leaning toward a sun that looks like it might take forever to arrive. It is not so impossible to imagine the two of them might be here forever, caught fast in the hold of the breathing sea, waiting for it.
“Do you see it?” he asks, aboard the boat he had named for the dawn.
“I see it,” says Bruno, hands closed around the steel railing, watching a hundred days begin.
Listen to the sirens, listen to the heartbeat,
Listen to the turning tide.
Listen to the murmurs. Carry them inside you
‘Til we’re on the other side
In the breaking light.
— Vienna Teng, “The Breaking Light”