Somewhere in Northern Italy
Mark has arrived in Italy, in a tiny, idyllic town.
Where the streets are cobblestoned and red clematis blooms climb the house facades in serpentine coils. There is something so unearthly intimate with a setting like this, like an apparition from an earlier life — and if not for how he'd been communicating over letters with an eccentric professor during the span of months, he might've imagined that it had been produced in the sweetest nooks of his daydreams.
Mark is dedicated to his studies in classics, and is visiting Italy to stay with the Lee family as an academic guest for the duration of 6 weeks, where he will be aided with revising his academic paperwork. He is given virtually all day of free time, only provided that he gives one hour a day to help the professor with his international correspondence and academic paperwork. Mark thinks it really couldn't get any greater.
He rolls his window down in a tender effort to soothe his nerves as the black, vintage cab turns away from the bumpy town roads and onto rural ways. He had never stayed with another family in this fashion before, so although the Professor had succeeded to calm Mark in their conversations over letters, he couldn't help the bouncing of his leg as they draw closer to their destination. He is far, far away from New York. Ever so aware of how foreign everything is.
The sun is streaming in at a slant through lacunas of the tree crowns and produces a still, tranquil glow. They gather in patches of golden light against the forest floor, the tiny pebbles on the ground glittering prettily. Flickering with the speed of a bullet as the car speeds up, the wheels of the cab kicking up dirt, and only slowing to halt once they roll up to an imposingly large villa.
The house is larger than Mark had imagined, raising prickles at his neck. The exterior is of the palest gray stoning, as fair as moonlight and almost to be perceived as silver, and the windows are decorated with scarred Alice blue shutters.
Mark takes a deep breath before stepping out of the cab, immediately granted with the sound of birdsong. A lukewarm breeze blows through the fabric of his billowy shirt, the collar unfastened enough to show a sliver of chest in the warmth and the color baby blue.
He lifts his suitcase out of the trunk, then takes the hand of Professor Lee — who had emerged from the doorway of a large set of french double doors, the wood dark and the glass panels ornately decorated with wrought iron, as the car had rolled up to the house.
His handshake is firm, having the telltale assertiveness that Mark has come to associate with experienced academics. His hands are gnarled with veins and small, benign scars, the pads of his fingers calloused against Mark's wrist.
"Professor Lee." Mark greets, smiling politely. "Thank you so much for having me."
"Pleasure to have you here, Minhyung." The man replies, smiling until his eyes crinkle with laughter lines.
"Call me Mark." says Mark.
A woman, too, emerges from the house. She's angular and thin, and Mark feels like he might have been intimidated by the elegance in her step, if not for the kind smile on her face.
"Good day, Mrs. Lee." He greets.
Her hair is black and shines healthily in the sunlight. In her hand she holds a cigarette, carefully clasped between two fingers in an utmost classic way. Mark can't help but find this place to be timeless, somewhere where things doesn't seem to age but lives in a theatrical, immortal milieu.
"Mi-sun" She introduces and shakes his hand.
"Very nice to meet you." Says Mark.
"You must be exhausted."
"Ah, what made you aware." Mark says bashfully.
"Welcome, welcome." Professor Lee says. "We'll show you around."
"This house is beautiful." Mark says, his tone genuine. "I couldn't imagine having a place like this to come back to every summer."
"This run down thing." Says the professor, he then feigns a scoff. "This house has years to rival my own."
"You're not that old." Mi-sun smiles, and Mark feels his shoulders unfurl slightly at their lightheartedness. Daring himself to laugh lightly. "The house is an old family heirloom." She continues.
The couple leads him through the house. The rooms are all lit by large french windows and the scarred floors creak beneath his feet. They lead him to which wing of the house he will stay, and in the haste of everything new he only manages to catch something following how their son stays in the room at Mark's opposite end, before he is whisked away. The Professors study is littered with coffee-stained academic drafts and leather-bound books, and he urges Mark to read an array of his dearest transcripts. Mark's favorite piece of the villa, however, is the grande piano they cross in the lounging room. Mark can't help but run his fingers across the wood, his touch feather light and rippling through the aqueous, trembling circles of light that a crystal vase cast over its top.
The kitchen is quite large, with a high ceiling, bare white walls and scarred dark floors. Dried herbs hang from dark wooden rods in the ceiling and on the counter stands a woven basket filled with ripe grapefruits.
"We'll show you the orchard." Says Professor Lee. Then, through grande arched double doors made of glass panels, Mark gets lead down three steps and into the backyard. Where, along the facade of the house, a large fence rises, supporting a climbing blackberry plant. A soft breeze blows past him, its fragrance is redolent and it gently ruffles his hair. The air feels warm and more rarefied than what Mark's ever known from growing up in New York.
The orchard is luscious and vivid, and Mark cannot help but gape at the throngs of trees and flowers that all seemed to drip with the illusion crystal beading and sway into an untold, bottomless dreamscape.
"It's my little haven" Mi-sun says, her left arm lays folded across her torso and her right arm is bent to hover her cigarette near her face. The end haloed in red lipstick. "We grow Grapefruits, Oranges, Pomegranates, Cherries, Currants. It's season now and we have plenty so you can always help yourself."
"Thank you." Mark says a bit bashfully, then raises a hand to rub at his neck.
Mi-sun gently strokes her husbands arm. "I'm afraid i have to tend to dinner preparations."
Professor Lee kisses her cheek. "Amore mio." He says sweetly, before she retreats into the house, only leaving behind a spiraling laugh as she in all probability encountered one of the helping workers.
It's sincerely beguiling and Mark, quick to conjecture, already finds himself at peace with living there for the succeeding 6 weeks. He stops at an orange tree to smell the blossoms, then almost in a daze, ducks beneath its branches, where him and the professor emerge into a clearing.
A boy is stagnantly laying in the bowers of the orchard, basking in the tranquility of the sprinklers. He's laying on his front, braced on his elbows and reading a book laid in front of him — hardback, the pages puckering from the spray of water — his right leg swinging in the air, feet bare and his toes curling and uncurling. Strands of grass stick to the soft, pale soles of his feet.
His hair is a light honey blonde, damp and wildly tousled. Clothes wet and clinging to his skin, his beautiful billowy pearl white shirt is translucent and gathers beneath his ribs, revealing the small of his back that Mark follows with his eyes until it disappears beneath the hem of his washed out dad jeans. His waist is slender, and his shoulder blades protrude elegantly.
Around him the grass is bestrew with a disarrange of dainty, rich blue spring gentians.
"That is my son, Donghyuck" Professor Lee says. "He's a year your junior."
The sprinklers cast a cloud of fine mist, glittering in the sunshine and giving the scene an pearly, deific shimmer.
What an angel, Mark thinks. The gentle outline of cheekbones, limbs slender and tanned golden. On his cheeks sit a gentle blush and Mark can distinguish the appearance of freckles over the bridge of his nose and across his cheeks. His bare skin littered with small, opalescent water droplets.
Donghyuck must have sensed their presence, or perhaps, the awe in Mark's gaze, for he turns his head and looks at him.
The boy bats his lashes, sooty black and matted, eyes wide and dusky. They're the color of earth, so alive and mischievous it puts his surroundings to shame. It might be because of the scenery, or the intoxication of being in Italy, that makes the boy appear so fey. For his gaze makes Mark's hands tremble.
"L'usurpateur." Donghyuck snides. His voice light and pretty, gently and pleasant as if not to bruise, probing against Mark's chest like the fluttering wings of butterflies.
Imposter, is what he had called Mark.
"Donghyuck." Professor Lee scolds.
"I'm kidding." Donghyuck grins teasingly, revealing both rows of teeth. "I won't be too mean." He pauses and looks down to his book again, gently thumbing at the beige corner of the page. "Yet."
Mark finds that he is a terrible beauty, as if he is daring you to desire him. The sin of a soul, and the beauty of it, too.
In the Ancient mind, all had an intrinsic significance. Beauty, as all, had a motive. It wasn't simply an object, nebulous quality, but alive, and by noveau suggestion, an emotion provoked by the beholder.
In the ancient world, Mark imagines Donghyuck to be the kind of beauty to draw both men and women to his bed, and undoubtedly, to their deaths.
As with Helen of Troy, with beauty so divine she was perceived as a goddess amongst women, the ancients have proven many times that beauty is a weapon of mass destruction, for how we as human seeks the pleasure in beauty, worship it. Not just from how she looked, but how she made men feel, what she made them do.
Donghyuck a whisper of the beauty, the eroticism and glory, of an ancient world. Not entirely foreign but still, out of reach.
Erratic, exciting, angelic. Absolutely divine.
For a moment, Mark almost feels disarmed. His body thrumming and drunk with beauty.
"Come along, you'll love the greenhouse." Professor Lee says to Mark. "Behave." He tells Donghyuck, the remark perfunctory.
It stirs sweet laughter from Donghyuck, unafraid and wild. Mark finds it to be something so rich and frightening in how the sun glints in his eyes.
The professor places a warm hand on Mark's shoulder. It works as a persuading weight on his back.
"Come on." Professor Lee says and Mark tears his eyes away from Donghyuck.
"I'm afraid my son gets terribly bored during the summers. He appears to have taken it upon himself to see if he can scare the summer guest away as a form of amusement." Professor Lee says as they trudge towards the glass building.
Later that night Mark sits in his room, the walls bare and white, with his window open to invite the songbirds and gentle breezes. Twilight falls and the walls slowly fades to gray to gold and black, his veins humming erratically with ancient tragedies of terror and ruins.