They were Americans, and upset about Sicily. They’d just come from Sicily, and were upset about the lake in Sicily that was going be to be drained to build a racetrack. The camorra was involved, of course, in the construction, in the whole affair, they would make a lot of money from the race track. The lake, said the girl, whose bra straps were visible beneath the thinner straps of her camisole, was an ancient site. Along its shore were caves where Demeter and Persephone had been worshipped in an ancient shamanistic initiation rite. There were statues of the goddesses found at this lake, this lake whose water was as red as menstrual blood. Also along its shores grew hallucinogens, flowers whose hidden bitter medicine produced shamanic trances. There, the worship of Persephone had begun, and then migrated to the mainland to become the fame cult at Eleusis, which had endured for 2,000 years. And Eleusis, for that matter, was terribly polluted now, too.
Mafalda’s stern expression grew darker by the minute. Sicily wasn’t Italy, as far as she was concerned, and what did Greece have to do with anything? Like most domestic workers, she was pretty stroppy about who she served, and this American woman had no manners, no class, she would talk as long as anyone listened, and Annella was making a show of listening. She was an educated woman, she spoke three languages, and the American woman sensed a kindred spirit.
“Deplorable,” Annella said, and then turned to the American woman’s boyfriend, fiancé, husband, whatever.
“How did you find Sicily?” she asked.
“On a map,” he said. “but, it looks even better in person.”
Annella smiled. His girlfriend grimaced. Elio, whom no one could see because he was paused by the kitchen door, laughed. So, she was the difficult one, he was the easy one. Elio lost interest in them. He couldn’t enter the kitchen because of them, and he was hungry. He was often hungry. The guests’ meals were large and showy with regional pastas and cheeses and wines and desserts, the family’s meals were small. Their villa was able to be designated agroturismo because of the orchards-peaches, apricots, cherries, pomegranates.
What did it feel like to be hungry? Like someone you don’t like very much is talking and talking and won’t stop talking, and you can’t even think of how you will reply to them, and anyway they won’t let you reply. Still there is that double dutch tension, that at some point the cataract of words will abate and you will be able to jump in. That is the hope that someone will cry out sharply, irritably, “Elio!” as if he had been evading him and they had been looking for a long time, telling him it is time for a light lunch. Always a light lunch. Some bread, goat cheese, risotto, juice or water, because Mafalda was kept so busy by the guests his mother had to make lunch and she hated cooking.
“What do you want?” And if he didn’t like what was being served a haughty, “Well, that’s what I being served, nothing else”, with an air of one up-manship, as if this was a battle of wits, a game. But this was no game to him. He was hungry, after a breakfast of maybe toast and sausage and coffee, but never the plethora of choices and lusciously unfolding pace of the guests’ breakfast. Every single day they trekked out to the village to buy food for the guests’ meals. Every day. So much food to be put away in all the little nooks of the kitchen, so much to lift while waiting for lunch, and it was expensive, too.
The squeezing tension at his temples, the pain in his eyes, the sleepiness in midday, and the saliva in his mouth, his dumb animal body wanting food that wasn’t being served. Still, he was scolded for eating too much. They had three meals a day, little breakfast, little lunch, no snacks, and a big dinner that was usually satisfying. And that was life. He didn’t hate the guests, but he wasn’t eager to know them, either.
Elio drifted to the orchard. Maybe hunger was the wrong word for it? True hunger was to have no food, no certain food, who knew where your next meal was coming from, wasn’t it? What was this? What was this sleepy hunger, this urgent but futile hunger, this wish for more, for better, for something he had chosen? Running the house as an inn kept them fed at all. These old houses were built in another world, when people inherited their place in the world. The wars had wiped all that out, and by the 50s his family was broke and scattered. Some of them were still in this condition, and had joined the anonymous masses with names that may raise an eyebrow in someone who knew their history, but most of the time, no, nothing. They were lucky to have this house, something to ‘market’ as his mother put it. His thoughts were racing. His stomach screamed. He picked a peach, knew there was a chance there were insects living in its pulpy sweet interior but just didn’t care, it was that or sneak some cheese from the pantry and chance being glared at by his mother or Mafalda, told off, hissed at, called selfish and greedy, told he was always eating when he never really felt like he was eating, even when they finally ate.
He bit into the peach, and felt the squirming suspense that there would be bugs. No bugs! Ahh, he could really enjoy it, then. He gave in to tasting it. Fresh, warm, pulpy, sweet, so sweet, too sweet almost, made phlegm rise in the back of his throat, he was literally gagging at this sweetness. The taste turned to smell and he could smell peach up his nose. His stomach, which had been wound up as tight as if his firstborn child was being delivered in the next room, was no longer tense but had opened, to receive what he was eating. He wanted to eat it slowly so he could keep tasting it, but God how his stomach wanted it and seemed to be expanding, as if it was expecting a feast of peaches.
And, whyever not? There were alleys of trees, no one could ever pick all the fruit. But he didn’t trust the gardener, Anchise. He would surely report him to Mafalda, who in turn would tell his mother. He was a kind man, but old school. Elio was just too young, in the eyes of that generation, to do anything but obey his mother. So, the risk wasn’t worth it.
His open stomach was now worse than his tense, hungry stomach, and his mouth was in on the act, wet with saliva, sweet with the residue of the fruit, and his tongue stimulated and ready for more. But there would be no more.
“Hey, buddy! Need help?”
Elio was startled. He lived in a world of women, with one old man, Anchise, and himself, child no longer since his eighteenth birthday the week before (the cake, of course, had made him very happy). There were no deep voiced men in their prime like this in his world, the guests being the older, Peter Mayles novel reading set from the U.K. and U.S., mostly. These Americans were more like backpackers-khaki shorts and pants with many pockets like archaeologists in the field, or aid workers digging wells, tshirts emblazoned with the name of their colleges, in his case, Columbia. He was tall and blonde, ruddy skinned but not quite tanned, and wore a Star of David necklace. This intrigued Elio. His father was Jewish, and lived in France. His mother had converted to Judaism from Catholicism upon their marriage, nominally, but was a pretty agnostic person.
“You tell me,” Elio said.
“Huh? You don’t know if you need help?” said the tall American, but he was teasing, the kind of friendly sarcasm they went in for because they wanted to be as funny as their films and sitcoms, that was the height of social accomplishment over there, he supposed.
“What do you see me doing, that I could possibly need help with?” Elio said. As Jane Eyre had said, he was going to all lengths now he had begun rebelling. What if this burly college boy wrote on Yelp that he had wanted a ‘genuine article’ agroturismo experience in Italy but the owner’s bratty little son had been rude to him in the orchard? What would become of them? Suddenly, he wanted to test it.
“I thought you were picking some peaches. Your mom tells me you guys make your own jam, and juice, and everything,” he said. “I’m Oliver, by the way. Oliver Spangler.”
‘And everything…… You eat everything,’ Elio thought.
Oliver extended his hand, and of course Elio had to shake it. But, he didn’t smile. He knew that he hadn’t smiled. Still, Oliver must have seen something else besides the lack of a smile. He looked sick or haunted, and awkward, and quickly withdrew his hand.
He recovered quickly. “Nice to meet’cha,” Oliver said, but of course, he couldn’t mean it.
Being chilly with the guest hadn’t accomplished anything. Elio was still hungry.