.Four Days Ago
First published in Forging Freedom Anthology
Bianca had always loved autumn, the way it turned the air crisp, the way it painted their quiet Italian village gold. Now that September was here, summer was well and truly over, and the days were cold, but everywhere she looked, she saw beauty. As she ambled through the garden, she admired its magical transformation. How peaceful it was, how tranquil. That was what she enjoyed the most on her walks here – the solitude.
But this evening, like most evenings, the solitude didn’t last.
“Bianca, have you seen my wedding dress?” Her sister’s voice carried through the open window of the dining room all the way to the opposite side of the garden. There was no escaping it. “Quick, come here and help me, I need to attach some ribbon.” With a sigh, Bianca turned back. Everything was a drama with her sister Carla, and she always spoke a little louder than was necessary, her hands moving a little too dramatically. Two months short of twenty-four, Carla was six years older than Bianca and the closest thing she had to a best friend. As soon as she saw Bianca on the porch, she exclaimed, “Only a few days to go. Can you believe it?” She looked as if she was about to dance on the spot in excitement. “Are you ready for the big day?”
“Never mind me. The question is, are you ready?”
“I’m counting days. It still feels surreal. Imagine me, a married woman!”
“Why are you so excited?” asked Bianca, while her sister zoomed past her in a frenzy of last-minute wedding preparations. “You’ve never even met him.”
“Marcello is our second cousin on our father’s side. He has a good profession, and Aunt Heather tells me he is very handsome.”
“Well, if Aunt Heather tells you—.”
“Joke all you want. You’re just jealous. You wish it was you getting married.” Carla’s eyes sparkled mischievously.
“Oh yes, I can’t wait to get married, so I can cook and clean for a man I don’t even know.”
“Like I don’t cook and clean in this house. It can’t be any worse. Anyway, I do know him. We met when we were twelve.”
Bianca chuckled at the dreamy expression on her sister’s face. “And what was he like?”
“He pulled my hair and put a live frog under my pillow. That’s all I remember.”
“Sounds like a perfect gentleman.” Bianca tickled Carla, who was busy cutting the ribbon and waved her sister away.
“Could’ve been worse, I could be marrying Ernesto like Grandma wanted,” said Carla, crossing herself. Bianca nodded in agreement. Not only was Ernesto shorter than Carla, he spent his days drinking, and by sunset was frequently found slumped motionless in his parents’ garden.
Bianca had to admit Carla was fortunate to be getting married at all, with the lack of eligible young men following the Great War. “I’m so happy for you, truly,” she said, flinging her long-limbed body into her sister and almost knocking her off her feet. She meant it — she was happy for Carla. And even if she’d never admit it, she was a little jealous. She, too, longed for something new, a bit of excitement in her predictable life.
Carla giggled, trying to regain her balance. “Don’t do that. You’re too big,” she grumbled. “Have you eaten anything today? Look how skinny you’re getting.”
“But you just said I was too big!” Bianca hugged Carla, hiding her face in her sister’s hair. “I’m so glad you are not moving out after the wedding. What would I do without you?”
“You’d lounge around all day reading books with no one telling you to wash the dishes or mop the floor. The floor would be dirty but you’d be happy. Now go to the kitchen and have some soup! Your clothes are falling off you. Who would marry you, looking like this?” As if to prove her point, Carla pinched her sister’s tiny waist.
Obediently stepping towards the kitchen, Bianca asked, “When are you picking up Marcello from the station?”
“I’m not. You are,” said Carla. “I have so much to do, you have no idea! Besides, I don’t want him to see me all sweaty and dusty after a long ride,” she added, seemingly horrified. “I want to look my best when we meet for the first time.”
Bianca noticed him as soon as she turned into the road leading towards the station. She directed her horse down a steep hill and through the welcoming shade of pine trees, stopping a few paces away and surreptitiously studying the young man who was clearly waiting for someone. Having seen his photograph, she recognised him straightaway. And yet, the picture didn’t do him justice. Bianca didn’t expect their cousin Marcello to be quite so tall, or his hair to be quite so black, or his eyes so dark. Suddenly lost for words, she waved, and he waved back, collecting his possessions and walking towards her. “Hi, I’m Marcello,” he said, smiling. He had a nice smile, open and friendly, and instantly she felt less nervous.
“I’m Bianca,” she said and, still on horseback, shook his hand. “Carla sent me to get you. You’ll have to ride behind me. Don’t worry, Napoleon might look old, but he’s tough.”
“Napoleon?” he asked, looking amused.
“My horse. Dad named him.” She shrugged, trying to suppress a giggle at the sight of a slightly bewildered expression on his face. She didn’t know if it was the size of the horse or the fact they had to ride it together that made him look somewhat intimidated. “After France’s greatest leader,” she added, doing her best to imitate her father’s deep smoke-filled voice. Marcello laughed, and his laughter was so infectious that she laughed too.
Looking the brown horse up and down, he said, “I better hold on tight.”
She nodded. “It’s not far. Only two hours away.”
“Great,” he muttered.
Struggling with the weight of two riders, Napoleon made his slow but steady way through the meadows and past the lake where as a child she had learnt to swim faster and stay underwater longer than any other girl — or boy — in the village.
She could feel his arms around her, gripping her tightly, and if she listened carefully, she could hear his breathing. As they left the lake behind, for what seemed like the first time in her life she couldn’t think of anything to say to break the awkward silence. Finally, pointing at the ominous clouds overhead, she said, “I don’t like the look of those. Napoleon doesn’t handle rain very well. He doesn’t have the courage of his famous namesake. Once he ran off with me on his back and almost threw me.” Her words were drowned by a roar of thunder, and she felt the first drops of rain on the bare skin of her shoulders.
“You’re right, looks like a storm is coming. Let’s hope Napoleon behaves this time. I don’t want to be thrown on my first ever horse ride.”
“It’s your first time on a horse? Really?” So surprised was she to hear that, she pulled hard on the reigns, and the horse stopped. “I could ride before I could walk.” Suddenly, the rain came down hard, battering the unpaved road. “With Napoleon, it’s best not to take any chances. Let’s find shelter. There’s a farm nearby. We could hide in the barn.” Wiping the rain off her face, she steered the horse towards a tall wooden structure partly concealed by trees.
Approaching the rickety building, they dismounted and ran inside, laughing. “You look like you drowned in the lake,” she teased. “I wish my sister could see you now.” She shivered, feeling cold in her wet clothes. Thankfully, the barn was warm and dry.
“If she did, she’d change her mind about marrying me.” Marcello peered out the window at the bushes thrashing in the rain. “Will your family worry if we’re delayed?”
“They’ll expect us to wait out the storm somewhere. My sister might worry, though. She might think we ran off together,” she said mischievously.
He laughed and his eyes twinkled. Flustered, she blinked and looked away.
“Are you hungry?” He opened his knapsack, taking out a couple of boiled eggs, a chunk of rye bread, a tin of tomatoes and some smoked ham. “It’s not much of a dinner, but we might as well eat. Who knows how long we’ll be stuck here?” He sat next to her. Making a conscious effort not to stare at his face as he tucked into his bread, she took a piece of ham. Although she wasn’t hungry, she was grateful for an excuse not to talk.
After they finished eating, she said, “How come we’ve never met before?”
“We have. We met twelve years ago. It was summer, and I took you and your sister rowing on the lake. It was the first time you’d seen a frog.”
“Was it the same frog you hid under Carla’s pillow?”
“Possibly. Like all little boys, I had a collection of frogs at my disposal at any time. Don’t you remember that day?”
“I don’t think so. Twelve years ago I was six.” So much was on her mind, she could barely remember last summer, let alone a summer such a long time ago.
“You were so sweet when you were six. Your parents spoilt you rotten, and so did your sister.”
It surprised her how much she didn’t want to talk about Carla. Changing the subject, she told him about her parents and asked about his family. Soon it got completely dark. Lighting a candle she had found in the barn, Bianca watched the shadows play on the wooden walls. Even without looking at Marcello she could sense his gaze on her.
“It’s nice. Cosy,” he said, rummaging in his pocket and producing an old deck of cards. “Have you ever played poker?”
“Poker? What’s that?”
“It’s an American card game.”
“Of course I haven’t. Do I look American?”
“In that case I’m going to teach you.”
He was lightning-fast as he shuffled the cards and when he dealt, their hands touched. His fingers lingered on hers briefly, and she felt her face flush. Suddenly shy, she took the cards and moved her hand away as fast as she could. But next time he dealt, she stretched her hand out eagerly, hoping to feel the sensation of his skin on hers.
He explained the rules and they began. One game after another they played, and he won every time.
“I have a, what do you call it? A straight! I win,” she exclaimed finally. She jumped up and down on the spot and then sat down again, afraid he’d think she was being childish. “I think I’m getting the hang of this game.”
“Not so fast.” He showed her his cards with a triumphant smile.
“What’s that?” she asked, staring at the cards with incomprehension. “What? You have nothing! Like I said, I win.”
“I have a flush, and a flush beats a straight,” he explained patiently, watching her crestfallen face with glee.
“You’re cheating,” she protested, mockingly throwing her cards at him. “I think you’re making up the rules as you go along.” Feeling at ease with him now, she reached across the table and pinched him. Putting his cards down, he grabbed her hands gently and pulled her to him. Raising her eyes, she found herself so close to his face, for a moment she forgot how to breathe. She looked away almost immediately. And then suddenly, out of nowhere, his lips were on hers, and his hands were everywhere, touching, stroking, removing her damp clothes and discarding them on the floor.
Afterwards, she lay in his arms, her body still trembling, her voice still trembling, from fear, from excitement. He held her as tight as he could, as if afraid to let go. His body enveloped hers, and his hands were on her hips.
“It was your first time,” he said quietly.
It wasn’t a question, and she didn’t reply.
“You’re crying. Did I hurt you?”
“No. Just happy,” she whispered, clinging to him.
“So am I,” he said and kissed her again, while outside the rain and the wind and the thunder resounded all through their sleepless, senseless night.
“I can’t marry your sister.”
Hearing his voice, Bianca opened her eyes. They felt heavy as if filled with sand and gravel, and some broken glass too. Hazy light flickered outside, barely reaching her bedroom, and all she could make out was his dim silhouette in the doorway. But even in the dark, she could tell his shoulders were slumped and his hat was crumbled in his hands. Sitting up in bed, she wondered what time it was. It couldn’t be morning yet. She had hardly slept.
“You have to. You gave your word.” She tried to sound casual, but her voice broke and she coughed in a vain attempt to hide her emotion. Sensing the reproach in his eyes, she realised she wasn’t doing a good job concealing what was in her heart. She wore her heart on her sleeve, and it was beating just for him.
Closing the door behind him, he perched on the edge of her bed. Taking her hand, he said, “I did give my word. But that was before I met you. Falling for you was the last thing I expected. But now, after what happened, I can’t go through with it. I can’t marry her.”
She could feel her resolve melting away. She watched him for a brief moment, a breathless moment, and closed her eyes again. She wished she could see clearly through the fog in her head.
Finally, she couldn’t help it. She moved closer to him and touched his face. “I can’t let you do that. I can’t turn my back on my family.”
“They’ll understand. We didn’t mean for this to happen. But it did happen, and now all I want is to be with you.”
“I could never betray my sister. I would never do anything to hurt her feelings,” she whispered. Turning away from him, hiding from the intensity of his eyes, she thought of Carla’s excited face as she chatted about her upcoming wedding. She thought of her big sister teaching her how to ride, and the time she convinced her father to let Bianca keep a stray dog she had found. She thought of her sister always being there for her. She had to be strong. Even if she felt weak and confused. Even if her heart was breaking. “I will never hurt her,” she repeated.
“Your sister doesn’t have feelings for me. She doesn’t even know me. She met me once when we were twelve.”
“You only met me once, too. You didn’t even know me until four days ago.”
“Yes, the happiest four days of my life.” He stood and paced. There wasn’t much space in her tiny room to fit his broad shoulders and his extraordinary height, and so he paced on the spot. “I don’t have feelings for her. I have feelings for you.”
“I have feelings for you, too. But I can’t do this. You think I can stay here, in this house, after you refuse to marry her because of me? That you and I will be able to see each other after you break it off with her a week before your wedding?”
“We don’t have to stay here. Let’s go away! I can get us on one of the steamships. We could sail to New York.”
“New York?” She blinked. “You mean, New York, America?”
“It’s the twenties.” He smiled. “Everyone is going. Just imagine the adventures we could have.”
Since she was a child, she read obsessively, and the old New York of Henry James and Edith Wharton she knew well. To see it with her own eyes, to experience a different world, a life so unlike her own sheltered existence, would be like a dream come true. But to never see her family again? “I will not hurt my sister’s feelings,” she repeated almost inaudibly.
Bianca looked stunning in her sleeveless bridesmaid’s dress, but no matter how much makeup she applied, she couldn’t hide the unshed tears in her eyes. Sitting next to Carla, she took her sister’s hand. “You’re so quiet today,” she said. “Are you happy?”
Looking at her reflection in the mirror, Carla said, “It’s so strange to see myself in a wedding dress. I’ve dreamt of this day since I was a little girl and… It just seems like I should be feeling more.”
“You’re just nervous. It’s normal.” Bianca kissed her sister on the cheek. “You look so beautiful.”
“I just feel…”
Bianca waited for Carla to continue. “What?” she prompted. It was unusual for her energetic and excitable sister to be so preoccupied. In an affectionate gesture, Bianca adjusted a strand of Carla’s hair.
“Doubt,” said Carla after a long silence. “Maybe you’re right and it is normal. Maybe everyone feels this way before such an important step. It’s for life, Bianca. It’s a big responsibility.”
“That’s what a marriage is.” Bianca wanted to tell Carla how lucky she was. She wanted to tell her sister she would give anything to take her place. Instead, she lowered her gaze. She didn’t want Carla to see the shadows of that night in her eyes. “It’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”
“It is. But we don’t even know each other. What if it doesn’t work out? What if one of us meets the love of our life? Someone we truly connect with, a soulmate. What will we do then?” Bianca’s face must have fallen because Carla stopped talking and stared at her sister with alarm. “Are you okay? Why are you looking at me like you’ve seen a ghost?”
“I love you, Carla,” whispered Bianca, getting up and straightening her dress. Her hands shook, and she felt her cheeks burn with sudden guilt and excitement. “I love you so much. And I’m sorry! But there’s something I need to do.”
Ellis Island buzzed with a multitude of languages, none of which Bianca could understand. Men, women, and children pushed and shoved, boisterous in their impatience and fear. Fear of the unknown and, at the same time, of being forced to return to their old lives and face once again everything they had said goodbye to. And across the silver sea, the outwardly serene New York Harbour lay encircled by buildings that were taller than any she had ever seen.
She felt his arms around her and slowly turned her back to the unfamiliar world outside that was both frightening and inviting.
“Our new life, right there in front of us,” said Marcello, pointing at the Statue of Liberty raising its arm skywards in a pensive and welcoming gesture. Bianca nodded, blinking her memories away, her lake, her meadows, her sister’s beaming face. He held her, touching the ink stains on the tips of her fingers. “Have you been writing?”
“Writing to my sister,” she said, nodding. “I hope one day she can forgive me.” She smiled sadly. “It took me six days to write this letter. I just don’t seem to find the right words.”
“She loves you. She’ll understand. And one day she can visit us here. Just imagine the life we could build.” He was silent for a while, as if lost in thought. “We can go anywhere, do anything. Where would you like to live? I heard that sunsets over Nevada desert are quite something. We could go to California or Texas. Anywhere you want.”
As she looked into his face, her sadness melted a little. “California sounds nice,” she whispered. “Carla always wanted to see the ocean. And so do I.”
“California it is, then.” And in the midst of mayhem that was Ellis Island in the twenties, he kissed her as if there was no one else around, as if they were alone and lost in the storm somewhere deep in the Italian countryside.