Alack, alack, what blood is this which stains
The stony entrance of this sepulchre?
It has taken me a while to figure out where to start. You could argue that my story began more than six hundred years ago, with a highway robbery in medieval Tuscany. Or, more recently, with a dance and a kiss at Castello Salimbeni, when my parents met for the first time. But I would never have come to know any of this without the event that changed my life overnight and forced me to travel to Italy in search of the past. That event was the death of my great-aunt Rose.
It took Umberto three days to find me and tell me the sad news. Considering my virtuosity in the art of disappearing, I am amazed he succeeded at all. But then, Umberto always had an uncanny ability to read my mind and predict my movements, and besides, there were only so many Shakespeare summer camps in Virginia.
How long he stood there, watching the theater performance from the back of the room, I do not know. I was backstage as always, too absorbed in the kids, their lines and props to notice anything else around me until the curtain fell. After the dress rehearsal that afternoon, someone had misplaced the vial of poison, and for lack of better, Romeo would have to commit suicide by eating Tic Tacs.
“But they give me heartburn!” the boy had complained, with all the accusatory anxiety of a fourteen-year-old.
“Excellent!” I had said, resisting a motherly urge to adjust the velvet hat on his head. “That’ll help you stay in character.”
Only when the lights came on afterwards, and the kids dragged me onstage to bombard me with gratitude, did I notice the familiar figure looming near the exit, contemplating me through the applause. Stern and statuesque in his dark suit and tie, Umberto stood out like a lone reed of civilization in a primordial swamp. He always had. For as long as I could remember, he had never worn a single piece of clothing that could be considered casual. Khaki shorts and golf shirts, to Umberto, were the garments of men who have no virtues left, not even shame.
Later, when the onslaught of grateful parents subsided and I could finally walk off the stage, I was stopped briefly by the program director, who took me by the shoulders and shook me heartily—he knew me too well to attempt a hug. “Good job with the youngsters, Julie!” he gushed. “I can count on you again next summer, can’t I?”
“Absolutely,” I lied, walking on. “I’ll be around.”
Approaching Umberto at last, I looked in vain for that little happiness at the corner of his eyes that was usually there when he saw me again after some time away. But there was no smile, not even a trace, and I now understood why he had come. Stepping silently into his embrace, I wished I had the power to flip reality upside down like an hourglass, and that life was not a finite affair, but rather a perpetually recurring passage through a little hole in time.
“Don’t cry, principessa,” he said into my hair, “she wouldn’t have liked it. We can’t all live forever. She was eighty-two.”
“I know. But—” I stood back and wiped my eyes. “Was Janice there?”
Umberto’s eyes narrowed as they always did when my twin sister was mentioned. “What do you think?” Only then, up close, did I see that he looked bruised and bitter, as if he had spent the last few nights drinking himself to sleep. But perhaps it had been a natural thing to do. Without Aunt Rose what would become of Umberto? For as long as I could remember, the two of them had been yoked together in a necessary partnership of money and muscle—she had played the withering belle, he the patient butler—and despite their differences, clearly neither of them had ever been willing to attempt life without the other.
The Lincoln was parked discreetly over by the fire pit, and no one saw Umberto placing my old pack in the trunk before opening the back door for me with measured ceremony.
“I want to sit in front. Please?”
He shook his head in disapproval and opened the passenger door instead. “I knew it would all come apart.”
But it had never been Aunt Rose who insisted on the formality. Although Umberto was her employee, she had always treated him like family. The gesture, however, was never returned. Whenever Aunt Rose would invite Umberto to join us at the dinner table, he would merely look at her with bemused forbearance, as if it was an ongoing wonder to him why she kept asking and just somehow didn’t get it. He ate all his meals in the kitchen, always had, always would, and not even the name of sweet Jesus—spoken in rising exasperation—could persuade him to come and sit down with us, even at Thanksgiving.
Aunt Rose used to dismiss Umberto’s peculiarity as a European thing and smoothly segue into a lecture about tyranny, liberty, and independence that would inevitably culminate in her pointing a fork at us and snorting, “and that is why we are not going to Europe on vacation. Especially Italy. End of story.” Personally, I was fairly certain that Umberto preferred to eat alone simply because he considered his own company vastly superior to what we had to offer. There he was, serene in the kitchen, with his opera, his wine, and his perfectly ripened block of Parmesan cheese, while we—Aunt Rose, me, and Janice—bickered and shivered in the drafty dining room. Given the option, I would have lived every minute of every day in the kitchen, too.
As we drove through the dark Shenandoah Valley that night, Umberto told me about Aunt Rose’s last hours. She had died peacefully, in her sleep, after an evening of listening to all her favorite Fred Astaire songs, one crackling record after another. Once the last chord of the last piece had died out, she had stood up and opened the French doors to the garden outside, perhaps wanting to breathe in the honeysuckle one more time. As she stood there, eyes closed, Umberto told me, the long lace curtains had fluttered round her spindly body without a sound, as if she was already a ghost.
“Did I do the right thing?” she had asked, quietly.
“Of course you did,” had been his diplomatic answer.
it was midnight by the time we rolled into Aunt Rose’s driveway. Umberto had already warned me that Janice had arrived from Florida that afternoon with a calculator and a bottle of champagne. That did not, however, explain the second jock-mobile parked right in front of the entrance.
“I sincerely hope,” I said, taking my pack out of the trunk before Umberto could get to it, “that is not the undertaker.” No sooner had I said the words than I winced at my own flippancy. It was completely unlike me to talk like that, and it only ever happened when I came within earshot of my sister.
Casting but a glance at the mystery car, Umberto adjusted his jacket the way one does a bulletproof vest before combat. “I fear there are many kinds of undertaking.”
As soon as we stepped through the front door of the house, I saw what he meant. All the large portraits in the hallway had been taken down and were now standing with their backs to the wall like delinquents before a firing squad. And the Venetian vase that had always stood on the round table beneath the chandelier was already gone.
“Hello?” I yelled, feeling a surge of rage that I had not felt since my last visit. “Anyone still alive?”
My voice echoed through the quiet house, but as soon as the noise died down I heard running feet in the corridor upstairs. Yet despite her guilty rush, Janice had to make her usual slow-motion appearance on the broad staircase, her flimsy summer dress emphasizing her sumptuous curves far better than had she worn nothing at all. Pausing for the world press, she tossed back her long hair with languid self-satisfaction and sent me a supercilious smile before commencing her descent. “Lo and behold,” she observed, her voice sweetly chilled, “the virgitarian has landed.” Only then did I notice the male flavor-of-the-week trailing right behind her, looking as disheveled and bloodshot as one does after time alone with my sister.
“Sorry to disappoint,” I said, dropping my backpack on the floor with a thud. “Can I help you strip the house of valuables, or do you prefer to work alone?”
Janice’s laughter was like a little wind chime on your neighbor’s porch, put there exclusively to annoy you. “This is Archie,” she informed me, in her business-casual way, “he is going to give us twenty grand for all this junk.”
I looked at them both with disgust as they came towards me. “How generous of him. He obviously has a passion for trash.”
Janice shot me an icy glare, but quickly checked herself. She knew very well that I could not care less about her good opinion, and that her anger just amused me.
I was born four minutes before her. No matter what she did, or said, I would always be four minutes older. Even if—in Janice’s own mind—she was the hypersonic hare and I the plodding turtle, we both knew she could run cocky circles around me all she liked, but that she would never actually catch up and close that tiny gap between us.
“Well,” said Archie, eyeing the open door, “I’m gonna take off. Nice to meet you, Julie—it’s Julie, isn’t it? Janice told me all about you—” He laughed nervously. “Keep up the good work! Make peace not love, as they say.”
Janice waved sweetly as Archie walked out, letting the screen door slam behind him. But as soon as he was out of hearing range, her angelic face turned demonic, like a Halloween hologram. “Don’t you dare look at me like that!” she sneered. “I’m trying to make us some money. It’s not as if you’re making any, is it now?”
“But then I don’t have your kind of . . . expenses.” I nodded at her latest upgrades, eminently visible under the clingy dress. “Tell me, Janice, how do they get all that stuff in there? Through the navel?”
“Tell me, Julie,” mimicked Janice. “How does it feel to get nothing stuffed in there? Ever!”
“Excuse me, ladies,” said Umberto, stepping politely between us the way he had done so many times before, “but may I suggest we move this riveting exchange to the library?”
Once we caught up with Janice, she had already draped herself over Aunt Rose’s favorite armchair, a gin and tonic nestling on the foxhunt-motif cushion I had cross-stitched as a senior in high school while my sister had been out on the prowl for upright prey.
“What?” She looked at us with ill-concealed loathing. “You don’t think she left half the booze for me?”
It was vintage Janice to be angling for a fight over someone’s dead body, and I turned my back to her and walked over to the French doors. On the terrace outside, Aunt Rose’s beloved terra-cotta pots sat like a row of mourners, flower heads hanging beyond consolation. It was an unusual sight. Umberto always kept the garden in perfect order, but perhaps he found no pleasure in his work now that his employer and grateful audience was no more.
“I am surprised,” said Janice, swirling her drink, “that you are still here, Birdie. If I were you I would have been in Vegas by now. With the silver.”
Umberto did not reply. He had stopped talking directly to Janice years ago. Instead, he looked at me. “The funeral is tomorrow.”
“I can’t believe,” said Janice, one leg dangling from the armrest, “you planned all that without asking us.”
“It was what she wanted.”
“Anything else we should know?” Janice freed herself from the embrace of the chair and straightened out her dress. “I assume we’re all getting our share? She didn’t fall in love with some weird pet foundation or something, did she?”
“Do you mind?” I croaked, and for a second or two, Janice actually looked chastened. Then she shrugged it off as she always did, and reached once more for the gin bottle.
I did not even bother to look at her as she feigned clumsiness, raising her perfectly groomed eyebrows in astonishment to let us know that she certainly had not intended to pour quite so much. As the sun slowly melted into the horizon, so would Janice soon melt into a chaise longue, leaving the great questions of life for others to answer as long as they kept the liquor coming.
She had been like that for as long as I remembered: insatiable. When we were children, Aunt Rose used to laugh delightedly and exclaim, “That girl, she could eat her way out of a gingerbread prison,” as if Janice’s greediness was something to be proud of. But then, Aunt Rose was at the top of the food chain and had—unlike me—nothing to fear. For as long as I could remember, Janice had been able to sniff out my secret candy no matter where I hid it, and Easter mornings in our family were nasty, brutish, and short. They would inevitably climax with Umberto chastising her for stealing my share of the Easter eggs, and Janice—teeth dripping with chocolate—hissing from underneath her bed that he wasn’t her daddy and couldn’t tell her what to do.
The frustrating thing was that she didn’t look her part. Her skin stubbornly refused to give away its secrets; it was as smooth as the satin icing on a wedding cake, her features as delicately crafted as the little marzipan fruits and flowers in the hands of a master confectioner. Neither gin nor coffee nor shame nor remorse had been able to crack that glazed façade; it was as if she had a perennial spring of life inside her, as if she rose every morning rejuvenated from the well of eternity, not a day older, not an ounce heavier, and still ravenously hungry for the world.