We were good at translations, but better at pretending.
We could have been up all night, between glasses of gin and panic attacks, and yet when we attended our greek lessons in the morning it was as if nothing had happened. No murder, no secrets, no FBI investigation. I do not know how we could do that. I think that the idea that Julian - who knew us so well and was so fond of us – could find out what we had done was so terrifying that we never lowered our guard with him.
So every morning we wore our masks, we shook off the last nightmares of the night and we went knocking on the Professor Morrow’s door.
Julian used to open it with a proud smile on his lips.
«... and this is why we call it echo. And that’s all for today’s lesson, we'll see each other again tomorrow morning, "concluded Julian, saying us goodbye with the same kind condescension of a preacher at the end of the mass. "Remember to translate that passage of Sappho, forty verses each, with comment."
We were all starting to collect our books when Julian said: "Oh, I almost forgot ... tomorrow's lesson will have to be postponed. Last night I was asked to attend a conference in Baltimore about the relationship between father and son in the Telemachia. I would be very pleased if you would join me. "
Francis looked puzzled: "In Maryland, Professor?"
Julian blushed, and gestured with his hand as if to ward off the futility of the question. "By train it would just take one night ... And I would finally have the opportunity to introduce you to my dear friend, Professor Lecter, a man of rare elegance and culture. If I recall well, his dinners are very refined »
I think I can speak for everyone saying that none of us really wanted to go to Baltimore to get to know that Professor Lecter. Not because we were bothered by the idea of travelling for so long, but because spending a whole weekend in Julian’s company meant that we had to carry on our performance well past its normal lenght, and we didn’t know if the makeup on our faces would hold up, or melt like the wax on Icarus’s wings.
We were good at pretending, but on our terms and our times. I thought of the dried flowers in the twins' house, the aged gin on Charles's lips, and the dead languages we used to talk to each other: there was nothing alive in us, nothing spontaneous. We were not born to improvise, just to keep repeating the script of a show - whether it had a happy ending or not, we still had to figure it out.
Anyway, the last thing we needed was to take a useless risk taking that road-trip.
We just had to come up with an excuse, like that we had a French exam, since French was the only subject Julian didn’t teach us. So I cleared my throat, ready to explain to the professor that we were sorry, but we wouldn’t have been able to go with him, but that we wished him the best for his speech, but Henry was quicker than me.
Without even looking at us - because his eyes were only for Julian, and they always were - he nodded reverently and replied: "It would be a pleasure, Professor. We will be there."
We took the train that same day, late in the afternoon, thinking that the journey would have seemed less long if we had spent most of the hours sleeping on the train, but I think that in our compartment the only one to really rest that night was Professor Morrow . The rest of us wandered in a sort of restless half-sleep, rippled with doubts and nightmares.
The bunks were six, exactly for us. It was a relief to know that we didn’t have to divide the compartment with a stranger. I settled in the middle bunk, in the opposite direction to that of the train, because I was sure I wouldn’t be able to sleep anyway. Francis had fallen asleep in the bunk under mine, while Camilla was in the one in front of mine, her hair spread out on the pillow like one of those pre-Raphaelite models, her face even paler in the faint glow of the security lights.
She was close, but not enough for me to touch her hand to give her a little courage, even though I had no courage to give.
Close, but not enough to whisper to her that it would be alright and that none of us would have be sent in jail, because they did not have enough evidence against us.
Close, but never enough to be really mine.
I felt like I was in a dream - and maybe I was really dreaming, I was so exhausted - but for a moment I had the certainty that if I had reached out and touched her, Camilla would have turned into a plant of laurel under my fingers.
So I stayed still.
Professor Morrow's speech was scheduled for the late morning, but the conference lasted throughout the day and we ended up seeing only the Sagamor Pendry Hotel and its conference room. We didn’t mind, because the theme of the conference was really interesting. There had been many speakers, yet no one had lived up to Professor Morrow.
I do not think I'm biased in saying that Julian was an excellent speaker, mindful of the rhetorical rules of Cicero and skilled at putting them into practice. We had had a taste of it during our lessons, but seeing him before a larger audience strengthened our impression: in front of that crowd, Julian's voice became more stentorean, and his gestures more defined and expressive. I glanced at Henry, that was sitting next to me, but he did not return my gaze, because he was eating out of our professor’s hand, as if it was a magic show and Julian had just promised him to guess which card he had hidden in his pocket while he was not looking.
It was funny to think that in reality we were the one playing tricks and keeping secrets, and that the classmate we had made disappear within a night wouldn’t have reappeared like a dove from the sleeves of our jackets.
Amateur magicians, we had started a number that we did not know how to conclude.
But Julian could not know that.
I have to admit that, during the Greek lessons, I used to observe the attentive expression on Henry’s face every time Julian opened his mouth, thinking that, in spite of all that affection, in spite his sincere admiration for our professor, Henry had not told his secret to Julian, he had told it to me.
His secret had been a gift I had never asked for, but that once was in my hands could’t be given back.
At the end of the conference, we made a brief stop at the hotel to take a shower and wear some other clothes, also because Professor Morrow had told us several times that it was a formal dinner, and that Professor Lecter cared a lot about looks and didn’t tolerate rudeness.
"Do not tackle the subject of politics, or the American prison system. Oh, and if any of you were vegetarian ... "He closed his eyes with gravity, as if he had just asked us if we had homosexual tendencies, or other customs silently condemned by society" There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but please do not mention it tonight, please. "
Francis and I exchanged an amused glance, but we nodded anyway.
I couldn’t wait to meet that susceptible gastronome with a bon ton obsession.
Perhaps that trip to Maryland hadn’t been such a terrible idea.
During the taxi ride, Julian and Henry, sitting in the backseat, continued to talk animatedly about the conference that morning, but I did not have the concentration to follow their speeches. The train journey had left me exhausted, and even during the stay at the hotel I hadn’t really rested, because being in the same room with Francis and Henry and having to share such a small space with them had made me feel uncomfortable.
It didn’t make any sense, of course, because I'd known them for months, and I'd even lived in Henry's house for a while - but I guess I was just disappointed not to be in Camilla's room. I could not stop thinking about the way he had looked at me on the train, wondering if there was anything more behind that look or whether he would look at Henry in the same way.
"Here we are, we’ve arrived, I recognize the boulevard ... you can leave us here, thank you," said Professor Morrow. He took a couple of bills from his wallet and handed them to the taxi driver, without even asking him how much it was the ride.
Professor Lecter’s house was huge mansion, with large windows and a neoclassical portico to decorate the facade. Professor Lecter was waiting for us there.
He was wearing an anthracite gray suit, a slightly lighter shirt and a blue brocade tie. I admit that I had imagined him to be older, the same age of Julian, but the man in front of us was fifty years old tops.
"Hannibal!" Julian exclaimed, visibly moved, a moment before hugging him thighly. At that moment, Francis and the twins’ taxi stopped on the driveway, and my three friends got out of the car.
"Let me introduce you to Professor Lecter!" Professor Morrow exclaimed.
The man smiled. "The Greek class ... what an honor to finally get to know you. Julian has told me so much about you! "
Had he been there, Bunny would have answered something like All good things, I hope because if there was one thing he was good at was breaking the ice with a joke, even one as old as time.
It was in moments like that that I realized how much I missed him, but it would be a lie to say that I felt guilty. None of us felt remorse for what we had done. Even if we could have gone back in time to the night of the murder, I'm sure that we would not have changed the course of events.
Tragic heroes do not oppose fate.
They fullfill it, and accept its consequences.
"... Mr. Richard Papen, Mr. Henry Winter," was saying Professor Morrow "Mr. Francis Abernathy, and the Macaulay Twins, Charles, and Camilla."
Professor Lecter handshake was vigorous but not painful, as if he had perfectly calibrated his physical strength. I could not help but notice his eyes, which were hazel so intense that they reminded me of the mahogany’s table at the twins' house. His eyes had a strange sparkle inside them, similar to the one reflected by a knife blade, but at the moment I couln’t understand what it was due to.
Hannibal went around and introduced himself, and when it was Camilla’s turn, he bowed his head respectfully and kissed her hand, whispering: "Enchanted to meet you... do you want to follow me inside? Dinner’s ready. "
There was something in the decadent taste in the house that reminded me of Charles and Camilla's apartment. Stuffed animal heads hung on the walls, thick curtains. However, if the house of the twins seemed filled with items bought by a second-hand dealer, Professor Lecter’s mansion was much more studied and organized. The books on the shelves, I noted, were arranged alphabetically, and the table had been laid out with such care that it looked straight out of a Martha Stewart’s book.
We all took our seats, leaving the heads of the table to Professor Morrow and Professor Lecter. I noticed that the table was set for one more person and almost unconsciously I looked up at the others to see if they too had noticed it.
Camilla was completely pale, and was staring in horror at the empty seat in front of her. Henry was trying not to show his discomfort, but the hands on his knees were closed in fists.
We were all thinking the same thing.
Professor Lecter had set the table also for Bunny.
Julian probably had always told him about his six promising students, and obviously he had not called to tell him that one of them was dead. A long time I had wondered which would have been our punishment, but we would have been forced to dine with the ghost of our personal Banquo.
Professor Lecter noticed our gaze, because he immediately added: "Oh, Will will join us in minutes. He had an emergency with one of his dogs, he told me we can start eating without him. "
Then it was this Will, and not Bunny, the guest we were waiting for.
I breathed a sigh of relief, even though inside of me I knew it was only a matter of time: we had got away with it this time, but we would’t have been so lucky the next.
The thing, with tragedies, is that they always end with the culprit’s punishment.
Being tied to a rock while an eagle tears off your liver, becoming blind after witnessing your mother's suicide, being killed by your wife on your first day home or being stabbed twenty-three times by those you believed your friends.
I smiled bitterly, thinking that this last way of dying was definetely the worst of all - and yet the more likely to happen, in my case.
We were halfway through the first course - Soupe à l'oignons with a side dish of ratatouille and croutons of black bread - when we saw him coming in. Not that I paid attention to it, but the guy was really good looking. His features weren’t exactly symmetric, and his smile was a crooked one, but it only contributed to his charm. He had a fit body, and broad shoulders-. His dark hair were quite long and unkempt, and he was wearing a plain flannel shirt and old jeans. I wondered why the formal dress rule did not apply to him, but judging by the way Professor Lecter's eyes had lit up seeing Will, I realized that the bond between them was much stronger than Hannibal’s obsession with social etiquette.
"Sorry I am late," he apologized in a tone that seemed sincere, "I had an unexpected with a new stray I found the other day."
"Will has a genuine affection for animals, especially dogs," explained Professor Lecter. "This must be the fifteenth stray he adopts"
"Seventeenth," Will corrected him with a smile, "Anyway, sorry again for my delay. I am pleased to finally meet you, Professor Morrow. You, and your students, of course. "
He sat down at the place we had believed to be for Bunny, next to Hannibal.
"My friend and colleague Will Graham." Professor Lecter announced "Mr. Graham collaborates with the FBI, and his responsible for catching numerous criminals”
My heart lost a beat.
We had left New England hoping not to see any policemen for at least a couple of days, but here we were, sharing a vegetable stew with him.
Francis, on the other side of the table, loosened his tie knot with flamboyant nonchalance.
"Hannibal exaggerates," Will added with modesty looking down. "I only do my job."
I hoped that at that point we had stopped talking about FBI, but Professor Morrow was utterly intrigued.
" It must be a fascinating profession. Tell us more, please"
"Well, usually I visit the crime scene, read the suspect's psychological profile and I study the killer’s modus operandi... and then I try to reconstruct how the crime happened" he concluded, shrugging his shoulders.
"Will has extraordinary cognitive empathy” explained Hannibal “He is able to understand and experiment on himself the thoughts and the motivations of others. It is only by taking a broader view that we can experience three-dimensionality, just as one eye is not able to grasp the depth of objects. "
" Cognitive empathy," Julian repeated slowly "Aristotle would have been very impressed, since this could lead to a totally new notion of catharsis... You see, his theory was that, by witnessing acts of violence, any person with empathy could feel somehow purified by feelings like pity, and fear, since such violence was only fictitious, or committed on others, anyway»
I already knew the theory of catharsis from my previous studies, yet only at that moment that I fully grasped it. Maybe Aristotle had found an explanation for my complete lack of guilt: we had planned Bunny’s murder with the same meticoluos care of actors putting on a show. His death was just nothing more than a dreary staging. Maybe that was why I wasn’t feeling anything.
In the meanwhile, Professor Morrow was still talking about Aristotle and the positivity of the tragedy on the human psyche. I was starting to think that the whole purpose of that dinner, for him and Professor Lecter, was hosting a competion to see who was more well-read.
Will, Henry, Francis, the twins and I had been invited only as an audience.
“Witnessing an act of violence not directly threatening to us can be helpful to rationalize our fears" Julian explained, sipping from his glass of Italian white wine "You must be a very balanced man, Mr. Graham. "
At those words, I clearly noticed Will's mouth curl up in a smile, but he quickly disguised it, bringing the napkin to his lips.
(He hadn’t eaten anything yet)
"One could say that, yes." Will said. "But what is balance, if not a silk thightrope over the chasm?"
I recalled the trip to the lake, and the way Camilla jumped laughing from one stone to the other. Her arms were wide open, her white sleeves wing-like. She had held her breath the whole time. At that time, she had seemed to me like a biblical or mythological figure miraculously able to walk on water, but now I realized that opening her arms, Camilla had just tried to keep her balance.
(She had failed. Ten minutes later that damned shard of glass had cut her foot, and Camilla had limped for weeks)
The conversation continued, among cultural displays, harpsichord performances and Latin quotes. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find out that Julian and Professor Lecter had met at some conference or art show, because they both seemed to share the same morbid obsession with beauty that a few months earlier I would have found in myself too.
I was starting to feel sick, not because of the menu, but because I found difficult to enjoy it when I was sitting at the same table as an FBI consultant and a distinguished psychologist. It made me uncomfortable to be so close to them. I felt vulnerable, as if they they were in possession of the cipher needed to decrypt our secret. I felt exposed.
I asked permission to get up from the table to go get some fresh air, blaming the wine, even though Charles had, as always, drank more than all of us put together.
I spent a few minutes on the porch, watching the crimson sunset above me. Henry would have certainly interpreted it as a sign, but I was so tired of seeing blood everywhere. A sky could be red without beeing bloody.
At least, that’s what I kept telling myself.
I was heading back to the dining room when I heard some strange voices coming from the kitchen. Professor Lecter and his FBI colleague. I do not know why I stopped to eavesdrop on their conversation… maybe I wanted to understand why they were whispering, instead of keeping a normal tone of voice. Maybe I was simply curious.
"Interesting choice of guests, tonight."
«All my guests are interesting, Will»
"You know what I mean."
Professor Lecter didn’t answer right away, but when he did, I heard the shadow of a smile in his voice.
"I was sure you would’ve noticed, it takes one to find one."
I had probably mishearded.
What could we have in common with him? Alright, Professor Morrow was really similar to him, and they shared a passion for history and art, but me and the others… we were nothing like him.
A moment later Hannibal spoke again, the sound of his words spaced by the sound of the knife, He was probably cutting some fruit for dessert.
"Killers have always a special sparkle in their eyes, similar to the one that distinguishes who is a virgin and who is not. People change after a particularly violent physical act, whether committed or suffered. In this, sex and murder are not that different."
My throat was dry.
How had they discovered our secret, and above all, what were they going to do now that they knew?
Would they tell Julian? Would they report us to the police?
I tried to think straight and remember if Maryland had the death penalty, and if we would have been convicted by a jury there or in New England, but I did not know much about law.
Suddenly I realized that neither Will nor Hannibal would have lift a finger.
Watching them, slicing strawberries and discussing sex and murder, they seemed perfectly at ease with the idea of having half a dozen assassins sitting at their table. For a moment I thought it was some kind of occupational hazard - after all, they both worked with the FBI, they must have known a lot of criminals - but then I remembered something that Hannibal had said.
It takes one to find one.
Greeks had several ways to indicate that simple concept, but my favorite had always been ὁμοβώμιος, which is literally he who prays at the same altar.
He who prays the same God.
It was the same god of illusions that we prayed - me, Henry, Hannibal, all of us.
A god who required blood sacrifices, dyed the sky a crimson red and in return gave us the privilege of not feeling the slightest guilt.
I understood the gleam I had glimpsed in Hannibal's eyes on the porch. The same gleam that, I'm sure, he must have seen in mine.
"What are we going to do?" I heard Will ask, a hint of boredom in his voice.
"What we always do, William." Hannibal replied "Enjoy our dinner, and entertain our guests with good conversation."
They returned to the dining room holding a rather old-looking bottle and a crystal bowl filled with strawberries, and I pretended to have just come back from the porch.
The conversation continued, even though I wasn’t in the mood.
"... if I'm not mistaken in college you study religion history, don’t you?" Hannibal was saying "The other day I was having dinner with a friend of mine, a theologian, and we were stumbled on a matter that doesn’t find enough space in college programs, in my opinion »
Julian raised an eyebrow, interested.
"Which is the cruelest God?"
The question fell on deaf ears because none of us thought Hannibal was asking our opinion, since he and Julian had spent all dinner talking to each other over our heads, as if they were always passing to each other the metaphorical scepter used in the Athenian βουλή to give somebody the right to speak.
Julian scolded us: "Come on, we're not in class ... You won’t get any bad grade! Actually, whoever gives the best answer can skip the translation of Sappho I assigned last week."
I didn’t even need to look at Henry to know that his eyes were lit with adrenaline. He had waited all night for a chance to impress Julian, and finally he was provided one on a silver plate.
"Ares." Francis answered without enthusiasm.
"The gods of the Mayan tradition”. I tried to say, remembering a history lesson in which Professor Morrow had told us about their human sacrifice, just before lunchtime.
Henry cleared his throat, and said, "It seems obvious to me which is the most cruel God... It’s the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Just think of the Plagues of Egypt, the Great Flood, or even the torture imposed to his own son ... the pages of the Old Testament are dripping with blood. »
Julian seemed impressed, but it wasn’t a secret that he was especially fond of Henry. It was a fact so obvious that none of us had ever tried to point it out.
Then suddently Charles, who hadn’t said anything for the whole evening, murmured: "Mnemosyne"
«Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory...» translated Julian for the benefit of not classicists «Interesting answer»
Potentially incriminating answer, I thought.
Henry agreed with me, because he reached out and kicked Charles under the table.
Camilla turned to look at her brother, suddenly pale.
"Memory is a curse," Charles explained slowly, "whether it's the memory of something beautiful, or the memory of something ... less beautiful. In the first case, it reminds us of what we have lost, because a memory always belongs to the past, while in the second case we are forced to relive indefinitely the unpleasantries we have experienced. "
I couldn’t help thinking about the night in the woods, and how Camilla was relieved to tell me that she and the others didn’t remember much, as if their shared amnesia was their gift from Dionysus. At that time, I had thought she was crazy, and that in her place I would have wanted to know all the truth about the bacchanal, but I wasn’t so sure about it anymore.
"Looks we have our winner," said Julian, but Charles's didn’t smile, or showed any emotion whatsoever "Don't you agree, Hannibal?"
"Brilliant reasoning, no doubt about it. But in general I find that all your students have hit the point. Gods are not better than human beings. Think of classical mythology and Aphrodite’s adultery, Zeus’s lust, Hephaestus’s hard feelings... Gods have passions, and faults, and obsessions, just like us. And if the gods are like us... »
"... we can be gods," Henry concluded, just before adding "At least in theory, obviously."
"Well this calls for a toast," Hannibal announced.
He uncorked the bottle he had brought back from the kitchen and with the help of Francis he poured drinks to everyone.
We lifted our glasses.
For a moment I thought we were about to toast saying “Live forever” as we always did dining with Professor Morrow, but Hannibal had a different idea.
"To the young gods I’ve had the pleasure of having guests." He announced "Dans la vie on ne fait pas ce que on the veut, corn on est responsable de ce que on the east"
The French quote sounded meaningless to Julian - who was linguistically only interested in dead languages, with the notable exception of English, that he spoke during his lessons to us - but we students understood it clearly.
In life you don’t do what you want, but you are responsible for what you are.
Henry almost choked on his wine.
Hannibal, trying not to seemed to pleased to have pushed his buttons, casually asked, "Did you enjoy the dinner, Mr. Winter?"
"Yes," Henry lied "Quite peculiar, the choice of this wine."
"I’m not sure I recognize the vintage," added Julian "1962?"
"Oh, it's not pure wine, actually. It's a personal mix that I save for my most distinguished guests. "
Julian nodded, smiling.
"Of course, according to the Greek tradition which considered a sign of ὕβρις drinking pure wine ... Nice touch, Dr. Lecter."
Hannibal raised the glass as a sign of respect.
The wine inside it was thick and dark as blood.
"Only the best for the Greek class."