Downhill, there’s a lullaby behind a low door. While rats make love in the garbage piles and a siren calls for an emergency or a miracle. In a room of erotic mosaics left from Pompeii’s shards there’s an erect sculpted phallus. Etched below it, the word felicitas. Old Latin for be happy. And Vesuvius blesses the bay below.
It’s your birthday. Would this be an all right place to die? You’ve heard there’s a cemetery of skulls. You’ll visit.
You sing in the dark. You take an afternoon train.
On a crowded train in a city where you were born, a man had pressed against your adolescent body and whispered beauty, I will have you tonight . . . You were very afraid while his body shuddered and you realized his sex was exposed and its seed had already spilled on your skirt.
On a train from Barcelona to Paris when you were a very little girl, your mother’s eyes turned yellow. Jaundice, the conductor said, and you didn’t know what it meant so you weren’t afraid until she stopped singing. Her hair had been red, you hated the smell of her makeup and her hairspray and all the beauty parlors that she visited on Fridays. But you loved how she sang a lullaby that haunts you, these mornings. It’s your birthday, so you thank her for giving birth to you. You whisper that, Thank you, staring through the train window. You’ve taken a train to Naples.
Outside, there are souls freed from hills, laundry freed from its dust.
You climb the hill to a cave where half hidden birds flit, thin rock fissures let in some sky. And skulls and skulls rest on one another’s long bones. Dead in plagues and poverties, a polished head, a child’s hand-sized one, a tilted, tinier one, all woven together by dust, they stare. Outside, a high tenor vegetable seller passes. Come out, come out and buy my garlic, my tomatoes ripened in our Napoli sun.
You’re in a cave at the retracted claws of a mountain. Twisting a question woven like a spider’s home. Why aren’t you in love? It’s your birthday. You don’t ask if love is possible, not anymore. Because there’s no peace in your time, not its erect phallus, not its thick head of hair, not its polished open eyes. Outside, dogs fight, outside, slopes of husbands and mothers who twisted their hips until they birthed infants who cry. Outside, laundry, freed from its dust. Inside, reminders of what’s under your dress, under your hands, under your hunger. A boy in a café with a different Jesus tattooed on each arm said, Have you ever seen the cemetery of skulls? And you must see the veiled Christ, signora. You thanked him and memorized the directions.
On a train from Sorrento to Naples a man carries a box, in it is a polished and yellowed object stained by old soil, he found it while planting a new garden. He’s tried to clean and shine it. He hasn’t told his mother. He hasn’t told his daughter. Not knowing what to do with it he’s cleaned and cleaned and put it in a shoe box. He wants it to be far from his house now, and very quickly; and then he has a plan.
He brings it to the stacks and stacks of hollow craniums. Most, he knows, belonged to bodies that died in the plagues, the one in 1665, others from bombings in the war to end all wars. Does he need permission to leave his box? There’s no guard, no gate. Does he need permission to stare? Altars to wives and husbands and infants and saints, all silent. Their only work is remembering. Before the sun sets that day he has very quietly entered the cemetery of skulls in the city of Naples, and added the one he unearthed to the others there.
He’s the only other person in the cave when you enter. Late light and shadow pour through its fissures. One dust-smeared glass box, child size, for her polished bones. Cimetero delle fontanelle, cemetery of skulls. A very modern Barbie doll someone has placed more recently, lies on top of the box. A red hair tie, a moist saint’s face clouding into dank paper, a very long ago left grimed and plastic blue rose.
A single skull is perched near, polished and adopted. Adopted—a dirty memory card and a melted taper say so. A skeleton of a small animal lies beside it. Did the child adopt the cat or the other way around, both following into the cool shade of other skulls in the deeper caverns where the plague of their city had come to rest? You tell yourself the story. This is how it must have happened. You don’t touch anything. But you stare and stare. You listen to what’s not said.
. . . A girl-child who had always wanted a cat, begged for one, dreamt of one, its silk under her tiny fingertips, begged every morning only to hear the single word, No. Whose dictatorial father always said No. Whom she disobeyed. Was she that one . . .
You tell yourself more.
Did both follow a one winged bird or butterfly or bat, the single wing stopped last on a rusted grill? Something pretty on a hot day, its color of burned leaves, a child entering? How old was she then, did she follow a silked black cat into the mouth of the cave?
She wanted it more than anything in her life. Saw the shining black fur and followed it, a timid body and a scurrying one. A sun smeared day in a city dying of a sickness no one understood. A thunder falling of rocks inside a day with no rain, their sound heard downhill by those still alive, and uphill by those without eyes.
Trapped in there. Too many fallen rocks, none to hear her, none to find her after too many others to cry for, too many to bury, new caves opened behind the old. A loss of sunlight.
She’d followed the tiny shining black furred animal into the cave where so many were already quiet. And then there were years of quiet.
Inside, trills and singing of many wings, now. Bats and sparrows in a competition of sounds in the cave’s recesses, now. Single drops of moisture failing to wake anyone. Candles lit once, layers of spilled wax now, and webbing between particles of very old prayers.
A single winged orange butterfly grasps at a fence along the uphill slope. A boy pushes his cart, top heavy with mounds of garlic, their roots trailing. White dogs are barking at flies.
The man with the box has placed it beside the child-sized one.
He’s staring at you. He runs one finger across his lips. Bellissima, he whispers. You turn to bone.
Downhill, song and polyester wash, and panties and bras and men’s skinny trousers and wrinkled men swaggering no matter what time of day, light and the late wind watching. Nightgowns, loved or raped in the dark before they were hung in the southern sun and shade.
Downhill, a lullaby. And that room of erotic mosaics from Pompeii’s shards. An erect sculpted phallus, its clay inscribed felicitas. Downhill, a church room holds a man who is prayed to. What is the sound of the swollen and static vein in the marble he’s carved from? A marble veiled Christ’s forehead, pulsing even though he’s dead, a pulse like a dun sparrow’s heartbeat before dawn light. The veil of the sculpted man is not inert. His death is in it.
Uphill, that sound of the cimitero delle fontanelle skulls and their webs and dust.
The living had cried and then prayed and then carried their dead uphill to get them away. Left them inside the open caverns high above the town. When flesh had dried, what was left were mounds of what didn’t breathe. In later years other dead were carried from a war-bombed port, up that same hill, left in the same open jawed caves and the flesh left only its skeletons in larger mounds. While newborn birds trilled just outside, and bats fanned their silences with black lace wing beats between rosaries and crosses of believers.
The man with the box comes nearer to you, then very near. I would like to kiss you here, he says. A voice no louder than the birds. I would like to love you here. Please, please, don’t say no. You would be so sorry, if you do not take one chance. And your body is so cold. Your heartbeat is trapped like a wasp, between your ribs and webbed dust. An is and an isn’t hover like the birds you can’t see. It’s your birthday. You don’t run. You don’t move. You allow a kiss. You have allowed a kiss. Against a damp earth wall. I know you want to be loved.
Your dress is stained. This has happened before. You make no movement at all. Satisfied, he touches his lip with one finger, then yours. And he leaves you there, motionless in the dim cave. Leaves you standing in the sound of birdsong and skulls.
Outside, a skittering cat. Inside, reminders of what is under your dress, under your palms, under your hunger. Lights stain the windows, one by one, when you finally emerge to the early evening. A dull colored wing leads you away.
The is and the isn’t hover. You came for a middle aged birthday. Was seduced. Frightened. Yes, you said. Didn’t tell him that it was your birthday. Didn’t die. He didn’t kill you. He left you.
The air is soft as a cat’s fur. And you are so much more frightened of being alive.
MARGO BERDESHEVSKY was born in New York City, and often writes in Paris. Her poetry collections are Between Soul & Stone and But a Passage in Wilderness (Sheep Meadow Press). Her book of stories, Beautiful Soon Enough, (University of Alabama Press), illustrated with her own photographs, received FC2’s Innovative Fiction Award; other honors include the Robert H. Winner Award from the Poetry Society of America, the & Now Anthology of the Best of Innovative Writing, Pushcart Prize nominations and a Pushcart “special mention” citation for works in Kenyon Review, Agni, Pleiades, Poetry International, Tupelo Quarterly, Cutthroat, Prairie Schooner, Gulf Coast, New Letters and the Academy of American Poet’s Poem-for-a-day. In Europe, works appear in Poetry Review (UK), The Wolf, Europe, Siècle 21, Confluences Poétiques. Her Tsunami Notebook followed a journey to Sumatra to work in a survivors’ clinic. A multi-genre novel, Vagrant, is at the gate, as well as a new poetry collection, Blason Pour Le Corps. Please do see her Letters from Paris (https://pionline.wordpress.com/2015/02/05/letter-from-paris-in-february-2015/). And for more information, please see http://margoberdeshevsky.blogspot.com