All IS FAIR IN LOVE AND PARKING METERS

book one of THE HARLEQUIN MOON TRILOGY

By Kenneth James Wolverton © copyright, January 1, 2003

PROLOGUE -- THE HARLEQUIN MOON

New Mexico, 4th of July 1994­­

Santiago McBoil smoked an unfiltered camel as he circled the faded yellow 77 Dodge truck around the central plaza of Santa Fe. Affluent tourists crowded the expensive little square. As usual, Rastafarians, rainbow children and few genuine old hippies were passing hand carved stone pipes around at the sandstone phallic monument. He had to stop several times to let camera snapping vacationers pass. He could see the reflection of his beat old truck cast from the picture windows of the high priced tourist traps. It was poverty sliding over wealth and the contrast made him laugh. When he caught a glimpse of his face he suddenly felt betrayed knowing he wanted the beautiful life as much as anybody.

He looked down San Francisco Street to see the setting sun in the purple hazed mountains twenty miles to the west. The nuclear city, Los Alamos, sparkled with tiny points of light. Sky rockets were blossoming like magenta wounds in the dusk. Firecrackers poked sharp holes in the city noise. The wail of police sirens echoed from the barrios.

Santiago wanted to stop at Billy’s Bar near the plaza but a parking space was impossible to find. Just as he turned the corner on Water Street he saw an empty meter. A woman driving a new Lexus had turned into a driveway and then reversed to come back to the vacant space. Santiago saw her and cut a quick u-turn and whipped into the open parking meter. As he got out of his truck the Lexus pulled up next him and stopped. A woman powered down the passenger window and gave Santiago a scalding look.

            “Bastard,” she hissed.

            “Hey…all is fair in love and…parking meters.” He laughed at the sour look on the woman’s face but as she accelerated away the Lexus ran over his right boot. “Son-of-a-bitch,” he yelled and looked down at his flattened toe knowing he always paid for what he got.

            He left the Dodge and limped towards Billy’s Bar where he could think about what he was going to do with the rest the evening and ponder what was left of his numbered days. It had been months since he had the opportunity to bore Billy with his pissed off view of life. The bar was not what it had been when Santiago first arrived in Santa Fe nearly ten years before. The owner said the bar was missing valuable tourist trade. What had been a perfect beer swilling dive changed it into a yuppie palace. In the beginning it was bamboo tables, rattan chairs, phony palm trees, black velvet paintings of hula girls and as dark as doom. Now it was Santa Fe style hacienda furniture, Spanish tiles and big windows that let the whole world gawk in and out. Santiago was resigned that every thing changes, but still it had been the only bar downtown where old drunks and suicidal veterans could hangout unnoticed.

            Santiago pushed open the swinging doors and peered through the amber glow of evening light to see if his drinking buddies were sitting at the antiqued ironwood table by the rounded kiva fireplace. Three lesbian looking androids looked back at him then frowned into each other. He glanced to the right of the small stage with the hand painted screen where sometimes his pals would sit. A jet-set couple decked out in a turquoise and silver had that table. At the bar was a collection of yuppies but down at the far end sat an old tunnel rat, Junkie Bob, who had also been in the Mekong Delta in 68. He was the only one Santiago knew who liked to drink beer better than himself, but just now he didn’t feel like hearing Vietnam stories of subterranean murder. He didn’t want to remember. He was tired of assassins who died in sacrifice to bullshit.

            Santiago went to the other end of the bar and found an empty stool near the stuffed cowboy dummy that always stood at the bar. He sat there for the next two hours alternately spinning out his bitterness to Billy the bar tending owner and the dummy who was a better listener. Billy was bald headed and looked like Mr. McGoo of Looney Tune fame. He had been a draft dodger who stayed at the University of New Mexico long enough to get a doctorate in nuclear physics. The government hired him to be creative in the Atomic City until he got busted for smoking dope at one of the reactor test sites. Now he ran the bar and talked computer talk to anyone who could go into theoretical math. Billy only stopped at Santiago’s end of the bar to replenish his beer or smoke a cigarette.

Santiago said to Billy, “It’s better to live 20 beautiful days than 20 fucked-up years.”

“Yeah, sure, but remember reality is the best fantasy,” Billy said then served a customer demanding a Heineken.

Santiago was thinking of his shattered marriage and the other woman, Martina. He passed over the thought once again of how ironic it was, that he had lost a wife who still loved him while he still loved a female enigma  who could love nobody. He knew Martina was crazy the first time they met in a festival winter of 1982. Probably she was still crazy but he had to see her again. He wondered why in the hell she mailed the unaddressed letter, post marked from Paris, two years before – a letter with only four significant little words. Those four words had sent him on his futile search. He thought of the words again – The Mountain is High.  If he was going to find her, he had better do it soon. The circle of his life was closing.           

Santiago had stopped in for a quick beer but kept drinking for the next three hours. There was a sign hanging on the wall, “Billy’s Bar has no favorite drunk – We all take turns.” One beer led to eight beers, chased by seven shots of tequila accompanied with stupid laughter. He looked at his face in the beveled mirror behind the bar and saw only the graying beard and the deep creases around his blue eyes. Ugly bastard, he thought. He didn’t know which disgusted him more, his tortured face or the bullshit patriotism of the Fourth of July.

            Leila, his ex-wife was having a party at the house Santiago had built when they had arrived in New Mexico in 1986. Their daughter Tara had flown in from Glasgow with old Scottish friends and wanted to see him. Tara asked on the telephone if he would help with the barbeque. She told him to stop being a jerk and come back home. He said yes, and would arrive in the late afternoon. He meant to do that but his thirst for alcohol increased with every mile he came closer to the broken marriage. It was two years since Leila had kicked him out. If he had not stopped at the bar maybe he could have returned to his old family life while he was still sober.  He preferred the odor of booze, Mr. Clean and stale ashtrays. He was at home with drunks.

“I looked for truth Billy, but it doesn’t exist,” Santiago slurred.

            “Yadda, yadda.”  Boredom flattened Billy’s face.   

            Santiago was drunk. But even with a numb brain it was perfectly clear that running on alcohol did not cure the blues. His life had fallen apart.  Ten thousand miles of beer soaked bars trailed the two years behind him. He had rolled along their wooden surfaces like a bowling ball, bouncing into beer mugs and shot glasses until he was into the return gutter and spun back to the beginning of the game -- an alcoholic hole full of pretend cowboys who trailed contemporary pathways from cosmopolitan congestion out to open Indian Country. He was back in the same shit heap, with the same stoned faces, repeating the same beer-barrel-marijuana-mantra.      

“The beautiful dream is nothing but a nightmare,” Santiago said.

 “Yadda, yadda. “  Billy rolled his eyes to fly speck shapes on the stacked beer mugs lined up along the bottom of the bar mirror.

 Santiago’s fiftieth birthday was two months away. Being fifty had become an obsession. The diagnosis from the VA hospital changed everything. Everyday was precious yet wasted and being drunk only concentrated a growing paranoia to the memories of ghosts. Santiago felt he no longer existed. His mind floated up on the ceiling and looked at the body down below. It was someone else who had lived his life long before -- someone else who once had youth, romance and adventure -- someone else who had seen death -- now death was looking for him.

“Life is fucking irony,” Santiago mumbled.

“Yeah sure,” Billy whistled through his teeth while focusing on flies landing on beer mugs.

 Double-crossed life and death was the excuse for Santiago to drink, or at least that is the lie he told himself. He was still alive when he should be dead and those who disserved living were rotting secretly in rice paddies on the other side of the world. He settled for surviving and braining himself so he couldn’t remember. That was it, the sum total. In 1974 he ran away from Nixon’s America and the curse that was still going on in Vietnam.  He jumped a freight ship to Scotland and met Leila in Glasgow a few months later. The birth of their daughter a year later almost convinced him he could live again until they moved to the island.

 He flicked his memory back and thought of the second time he found Martina in 1986 and all of the catastrophes that followed. He could see Martina. He heard her voice – always that teasing voice, testing him. She was a bitch from Hell, yet damn, he would do anything to see her again. His thoughts settled onto her face but it was blurred. He pushed the thought of her image into darkness… maybe she was just a myth.  He thought of the island again

“There has to be more to life than this! I got to do something special... Why not? Hell man, half a century,” Santiago said.

            “Yadda, yadda.” The flies had become fascinating.

            Santiago slapped his beer bottle as though it had insulted him and as it smashed on the floor he screamed, “It’s not here!” The buzzy room went completely silent and all eyes turned to the bar.

“Goodnight Santiago. Go home and sleep it off!” Billy said.

             “Come on, jus’ one more.”

            Billy pointed at the swinging doors and said in a flat voice, “I’m not telling you again!”

            Santiago slid off the barstool and wavered on his feet. “Ah, I didn’t want to be here anyway.”  The customers began whistling and clapping as he stumbled out onto the street.

Two years before, he wanted to return to a dream world so he had gone on a long trip that took him around in a lost circle. The dream was not found and guilt was impossible to escape. It was a wild goose chase from America to Europe and back. He was trying to shake the burden he carried since the mud of the Mekong. All he found was the confusion of having separate lives that didn’t fit into one time or even begin to make sense -- the living past and the dead present. 

            “Fuck!” Santiago said as he got to his old Dodge saw the parking ticket and at the same time remembered the barbeque with Leila and Tara. It was nearly midnight and he had blown it again. There was no use stopping at the house. He managed to drive a drunken wobble all the way to Albuquerque without getting spotted by the cops. He checked into a sleazy motel and collapsed on red and white flowered nylon bedspread in a dingy smoke yellowed room scented with whorehouse deodorant. He lay there for a moment, the ceiling spinning and his head banging, while deep inside he felt completely crazy and alone. He turned his head into the smell of the room and groaned, “Damn, this place stinks…”

He looked at the telephone on the bedside stand, then pulled the bottle of malt whiskey out of his travel bag and took a large swig.  Seven hours away in Scotland the sun would be coming up on the only friends who had never denied him, Neil and George. George was dead but Neil was still very much alive – Neil who had saved his life, and had come to know him better than any other man. He was only a telephone call away.  Santiago picked up the bottle of whiskey and looked at it for a few seconds and then punched the phone card numbers. The phone rang seven times. Santiago was just about to hang up when a gruff sleepy voice answered.

“Aye…yes, yes.” When Santiago said nothing the voice barked, “For God sake…what?”

 Santiago laughed at Neil’s early morning irritation and said, “This is Acme Vacuum Cleaner Company offering the best suck of the century.”

“Ach, I should have known it was you, you bloody old loony,” Neil said.

 “Don’t call me an old loony. I’m more youthful by the day,”

“Where are you – are you back in Scotland?”

“Not yet, but I’m heading that way.” 

  “You’re daft, Santiago. It’s the wee early hours of the morning here.”

  “Of course it is but what’s important is that you get up immediately, go find a bottle of whiskey and then tell me about your miserable Scottish weather.”

   “Fuck off you American waster! It’s a mere mist and that is what makes it such a bonny land.”

   “Bonny my ass! Hey, listen. I’ve got a plan for a little holiday in a place where the sun always shines and the beaches are full of sexy women who roll down their swimming suits like a strip tease show -- slow and tantalizing.”

     “What mad idea have you cooked up now? Wait a minute, I’m not paying for it this time you wee chiseler!”

“Neil, I want to go back to Corsica. Meet me there. You had a good time when you met me there the last time didn’t you.”

“Aye, I did, at least what I can remember of it. When was that?”

It was in 85 Neil, when I was rich and famous.”

“Ach aye, you did have money once. Say what was the name of that girl I wandered off with? Was it Martha?”

“Martina... “

“Yes of course, Martina, what lovely lass she was…hold on, didn’t you have something to do with her later on?”

Santiago said nothing for a few seconds, being surprised the plan was so transparent. “Uh…yeah, just a little detour from marriage for a while…”

Santiago, you are not going back because of her?”

“No way, Neil -- it’s my Birthday.”

“What?”

“My Birthday. I’ll be fifty.”

“No, not already. Christ man, are we that old?”

“What do mean already? Neil, Vietnam was a thousand years ago. As they say, if we’d known we were going to live this long we should’a taken better care of ourselves…”

“Fifty? I must be due for a Pulitzer Prize by now…”

“Yeah, you should have got a one for all your bloody war photos…”

“Aye, bloody is right…”

 “Hey, let’s talk about something a little more fun. So, I want to do something special for my fiftieth birthday - that is, if I don’t die first.”

            “Don’t be daft, Santiago. If you were meant to be dead it would have been in 68. Anyway laddie, you’re younger than most men who are thirty.”

            “Hey, death’s always a possibility -- guy’s fifty are dropping like flies.” Santiago’s memory chip instantly flickered from the helicopter evacuation out of the Mekong Delta in 68 to the VA hospital report in 96. Fucking rectal cancer, the last gift from the Vietnam…one giant pain in the ass…

After an hour of boozy talk Neil agreed to rendezvous with Santiago on the island and they said a sloppy goodbye. Santiago laughed at the whole idea. It was crazy; he had just come back from Europe. He lay back on the pillow and passed out. Late in the afternoon he woke up feeling like his brain was leaking out his eyes. “Ah Jesus,” Santiago moaned as he crawled into the bathroom and spewed yellow vile into the bowl. He lay on the bathroom floor for an hour waiting for the retching to stop. The talk with Neil and the unaddressed letter from Martina kept coming back into his thoughts. What else was there to do but return to the island?

Later in the evening, his head and body calm, he went into the center of town and found a cyber café. Santiago E-mailed Neil. AUBERGE DE LA RESTONICA, SEPT. 20. DON’T FORGET MY BIRTHDAY GIFT -- IF YOU CAN’T FIND 20 YEAR LAGAUVULIN MALT, GLEN FIDDICH WILL DO. YOURS FOREVER, SANTIAGO.

Santiago booked tickets the following morning with the last of his plastic credit lifeline. As he was walking out of the travel agency he glanced up on the wall and saw two large tourist posters that were like tarot cards of his past and future. On one wall was an image of the Tattoo at Edinburgh Castle in Scotland. On the opposite wall was a palmed beach scene from the Bay of Ajaccio, viewing up the Gravone Valley into the snow-capped mountains of Corsica. By the time Santiago’s foot stepped on the outside pavement, his soul was in another world.

September 18, 1994

Whiskey fueled Santiago’s flight from Albuquerque to Houston. He retained the alcohol buzz to JFK and then stayed drunk at thirty thousand feet over the Atlantic until he landed at Charles De Gaulle. In Paris, he tried to find Martina through ancient telephone numbers during the three hour layover. He called Axle, an old friend who had been a rock star in Europe during the 70s – Axle who had been the link to Martina – Axle who had given the musician’s maxim   “Love the one you’re with,” and Santiago took his woman. He was amazed when Axle suddenly answered.

            “My God, I don’t believe I finally got you,” Santiago said. “I’ve called dozens of times in the last two years, and all I ever got was the answering machine…”

            “Santy Baby is that you?”

            “Hey Superstar, how come you never call me back?”

            “How can I call you when you never leave a number, Dude? Where are you man?”

            “Paris for the next few hours…”

            “Paris? Oh man, I don’t believe it. I just split Paris yesterday. What are you doing there? Hey you gotta come see me. No, wait Dude, I’m splitting for Hong Kong in the morning…”

            “Axle, do you ever stay home? No wonder you lose your girl friends…”

            “Oh right Dude…I remember -- Hey motherfucker you stole my old Lady – shit I knew I shudda tied her up and put her in a dungeon…”

            “Hey Axle, you’re the one who told me to…”

            “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know.  Dude, I lose more pussy than you’ll ever lick in a life time. So what the fuck? What you do’n in Frog Town, man. Those French women will suck you blind.”

            “Speaking of French women, do you have any idea where Martina is these days? I got a letter she sent from Paris, but there was no return address.”

            “Martina? Right, I was think’n it was that other chick you ran off with…what’s her name…Yeah, but is was Martina. First thing Dude is remember Martina’s Corsican. She would slice your throat if she heard you call her French. And second thing is Dude; I don’t give a fuck if I ever see her sweet little pussy again.”

            “Axle, are you still mad at me from all those years ago?”

            “Fuck no Dude. I could give a rat’s ass less about that old story. You ain’t the first motherfucker that poked one of my old ladies.”

            “Look, Axle that was a long time ago and…”

            “Santy Baby don’t sweat it. Shit man, you and me got history. Fuck Martina. No Dude, I’m just pissed with her cause she ripped off my Roy Orbison collection. Man, I had those records from when I was a kid. He’s the fucker that inspired me to get into music. Wait a minute, maybe it was Sally that American cunt who took my records…hey, wait, who’d you run off with, Martina, Sally or that Hungarian bitch, what’s her name…Ulna?”

            “I didn’t run off with anybody, but it was Martina...”

            “Right, Martina, right Dude, she was a wild fucking trip. Hey. You ever hear anything from her?”

            “Axle, that’s what I just asked you.”

            “Oh, right man, yeah right. Hey, who are we talking about? See all these fucking women are beginning to look the same. Dude, I don’t even know who I last slept with and I think she’s still in my bed.”

            Santiago held the phone in his hand for a moment, trying to figure which one of them was drunk. “Look, Axle, do you know where Martina is? I need to find her.”

            “Whoa Dude, she steal your collection too?”

            “Axle, I’m serious. Where’s Martina!” Anger and desperation was beginning to pile on Santiago’s voice.

            “Calm down Dude. Hey man I don’t know where she is. The last time I saw her was two or three years ago. She was in Paris with her weird half brother and he was talking about getting a sex change operation. Dude, her whole fucking family story is where the dis came from in function – you know what I mean?”

            “She’s got a half brother?”

            “Fuck, that’s what she said, but sex change or not I’ll tell you the kid was a flaming queen – but if Martina is related that’s not too surprising, considering she had more balls than most dicks I know.”

            “So you don’t know where she is?”

            “Fuck knows Dude. She said something about going back the old man and the mountain, wherever the fuck that is…”

            “The mountain?”

            “Yeah, the fucking mountain, Dude…she was probably talking about the mountain of cocaine she could stick up her nose again. Fuck that bitch could snort.”

            “Mountain…” Santiago could see the words in the letter.

            “Hey Dude, listen…call me back later…this bitch here is taking my donkey out for a walk… and hey, whoa babe, slow down, uh, yeah Dude, call back in an hour or so. Nice talk’n Dude.” The telephone line snapped like a dry twig and then it was dead.

            Santiago looked around the airport terminal only slightly aware of the hum of overhead lights and the steady thud and slide of moving feet. He saw her face, her brown eyes, the soft The Silences under the cheek bones and her dark auburn hair falling across her breasts. He could taste her lips. Her eyes looked back at him. He could hear her voice when she teased him as they lay in bed, “…you have an assassin’s face…” She had no idea of the irony of those words nor would she have even cared. She lived in her own world and Santiago knew he was chasing a phantom. The letter from her two years before had only succeeded in bringing the end of his marriage.  He should have stayed with her the first time they met during the winter festival…but the love for his daughter brought him back to temporary sanity.

De Gaulle International was full of jet-age travelers but Santiago’s eyes fell on a conspicuous group of American soldiers. Sucking-chest-wounds flashed in his mind and Neil dumping him on the floor of the chopper as it pulled up from the mud. He could see through blood smeared eyes the bodies scattered around the burning village below. The vision vanished and the Class “A” uniforms of the new soldiers solidified within the De Gaulle terminal. They were just kids born after the muddle of Vietnam. Ghost faces drifted silently amidst the army green. Santiago erased the flash vision by searching through the old telephone numbers again. He called another number in Corsica. No answer. The phone rang blue notes in empty space. He went to the bar feeling hollow. He gulped a double scotch then stumbled off looking for the duty free, the phone again, the bar again. It was a three hour parade of loneliness accompanied by the electric hum of an artificial world. Santiago called the number in Corsica once more. Eloise answered in French but her accent immediately betrayed her upper class English history. Eloise and Santiago talked long enough to convey her ignorance of Martina’s where about and for him to say he would be in Ajaccio by lunchtime. He went to the Air France counter and confirmed his flight to Corsica.

            

            September 19, 1994 

Santiago arrived on the late morning flight. A taxi took him to the center of Ajaccio and to a reunion with Eloise and other expatriate British friends he had known when he lived on the island. Eloise was an octogenarian and the matriarch of the expatriate clique eager to meet for a wine soaked lunch. They sat out on the patio of a high rise penthouse. It was here in the same apartment ten years before where Martina had appeared like a phantom. Santiago looked over the balcony down the six floors to the harbor and palm tree boulevards.  To the north Mount Rotondo floated in the fall haze.

            “Santiago, I don’t know how you come up with these incredible tales,” Eloise said. “You get yourself in so much trouble you simply frighten me. When are you going to grow up?”

            “At the last possible moment sweetheart.”

            “Honestly, you and Oscar are both just overgrown brats. But do remember if you ever need my help again, I shall save you despite my better judgment.” Eloise looked sternly at Santiago. She thought of him as her second son. She looked across the table and regarded her son Oscar who was smiling at Santiago. She knew he loved Santiago as a friend and the brother he never had. Eloise frowned. How could two men in their fifties still be so absolutely hopeless with life?

            “Well I think his adventures have been absolutely marvelous,” Vaughn said. “Santiago you really should write these stories down. If you don’t, I bloody will.”

             “Darling,” Ronda said. “I think Santiago has got the point.”  The wine put Vaughn into a repetitive phase.

             “But he has had such absolutely marvelous experiences since he left the island, and anyway I’m amazed he’s still alive after that Piccadilly with...oh my God, I’ve forgotten her name,” Vaughn said. “Tell me Santiago, do you really think she was worth the trouble?”

            Oscar laughed. “Santiago if intend to put your head in the lions mouth again, I shall not pull you out this time.”

            Eloise looked across at Santiago and saw the look in his eyes. “Have another glass of wine you two louts, but both of you will have to take your foot out of your mouth first.” She remembered sending Oscar to get Santiago out of a situation that was rather difficult.

            “Sorry…but what was her name? Was she worth the price old man?” Vaughn said oblivious to delicacy.

             “Martina?  No, I guess not,” Santiago said. He looked across the bay and tried to squeeze the feeling out that was suddenly rushing in.

             “Oh for God sakes Vaughn, you are like a bull in a china shop.” Ronda lit a cigarette and blew smoke out her nose. ”That business was so long ago, I’m sure Santiago would just as soon forget the whole bloody mess. Let’s talk about that marijuana in New Mexico. I can’t believe it looks like broccoli. How do they do that?”

            Eloise’s son Oscar, who was a farmer and the same age of Santiago interjected, “I bet that is why Santiago’s life is so extraordinary – he’s been smoking broccoli all this time instead of dreary old pot…”  Everyone laughed except Santiago.

            “It’s all in the cultivation I guess.” His words were vacant. He was ready for the Restonica Gorge where he had once been with Martina and in a few more hours he would rendezvous with Neil. 

            The layers of alcohol in the last twenty-four hours began to shape the day into a blurry soap opera. Santiago’s mind was floating. He should have been exhausted but memories sparked him with a curious energy. Too many bottles of Domain Peraldi later he shambled onto the afternoon train for Corte as the English colony waved an over-wined goodbye and begged him to stay in touch. Santiago fell in a seat and passed out.

            The conductor had to ask Santiago twice for the tickets. “Eh, oh sorry.” Santiago stammered.

            “Oo la la,” the conductor said.

            The agony of attempting to speak French came back. “Excusez moi... pardon,” Santiago said meekly.

            The conductor sniffed, looked at Santiago sourly then took the tickets and whispered in French, “Touriste, salaud de col.”

            Santiago stiffened with the slang obscenity. He felt anger rising as images from the past slipped by the window. He tried to forget.

            By rail it is 90 kilometers from Ajaccio to Corte.  The diesel powered couches of the Corsican Railway climb slowly over the mountains, through the tunnels and make the journey in two hours. Santiago finally began to relax into a doze when the train arrived seventeen minutes late at the Corte station. Jostled awake, he grabbed his backpack and stepped wearily off the train into the hot afternoon sun. A thread of mountain air wisped over his face as he moved across the platform. He flicked his eyes from side to side half expecting phantoms to be standing under the The Silences of the mottled stone depot. It all looked so familiar. People walked around him greeting friends and family. He searched for Neil but all he saw were Corsicans and other tourists.

            Santiago considered the long walk to the hotel, but the decision was made for him as passengers and taxis disappeared leaving dust and silence. Santiago rubbed his face and tried to push some feeling into his brain. His body felt its fifty years. He was aching from plane and train seats embossed into his spine. The prelude to a giant hangover was banging in his head. He reached into his pocket for his ever present aspirin and gulped four. There were still a few hours of light. The walk would do him good. He slung the backpack onto his shoulders, took a slow deep breath then pointed himself towards the Restonica Gorge.

            Santiago knew the road leading up the first three kilometers to the Restonica Gorge was  gentle and winding, but then changed abruptly at  Auberge de la Restonica. The next thirteen kilometers ascended to high alpine country, nearly four thousand meters above the Mediterranean.  He had been there with Martina when the top of the gorge lay in ragged white remnants of winter and the foot was baked in the summer sun. The Restonica River was fed by melting snow and glacier fields the year round. The clear water was so icy it felt like fire.

            He adapted to Corsican time and stretched the walk to nearly three hours. The sun set early as it always does in the gorge. Twilight held back the night. As he approached the auberge, Santiago laughed. Nothing had changed about the rustic granite stone hotel but the number of dogs. Beastly permutations of mutt-lust yapped and waggled their tails accompanying him to the glowing lights of the entrance lobby.

            He hesitated at the heavy wooden double doors and peeked through the engraved glass windows.  He thought again of Martina being there with him one late night ten years before, but now he hoped to find Neil, who he loved in another way. Two pink faced Germans stood at the lobby desk while to their left stood a finely dressed woman. She was talking to someone out of sight. Beyond the woman Santiago could see a broad arched doorway. It opened to a small den with a rock-faced fireplace and two reddish cracked leather armchairs.  In one he could see the back of a balding head and corduroy knees protruding. To the right of the lobby was another doorway opening to the dining room. It was impossible to see more than the corner of an empty table. Santiago pushed the doors open and bumped his way into the lobby.

            The finely dressed woman was rattling out a string of Italian giving swift instructions to a man who appeared to be either an obedient servant or a groveling husband. The woman stopped in mid-sentence as she bounced her eyes off Santiago and then raised one shoulder, as if to fend off a cold wind. Santiago was used to such a chilled reaction, the way a mongrel dog knows what it means when a man stoops for a rock. It must be her husband, he thought.

            The two Germans were asking a bent old man at the counter if a room was available. Santiago passed on through to the den to have a closer look at the knees. He saw a protruding belly in a sweater pushing the weave tight. A fleshy face beamed up and coughed, “Bonsoir Monsieur.” He returned the greeting, observing the other armchair contained a small poodle wedged into a cushion. He hunched his shoulder to the side and let the backpack slide off next to the armchair. The poodle gave it a sniff.

            “That’s it pal, guard the bag -- you’ll make a great watch-dog.”

            The poodle’s eyes fell sleepily. He walked back through the lobby door entering the dining room and saw two couples sitting at separate tables. Santiago looked beyond them, through two large glass doors opening onto a patio. He could see the dim figure of a man turned away looking in the direction of the river. The man stood straight with his arms crooked at the elbows, hands on the hips and Neil’s hallmark, the Scottish kilt. Santiago quickly stepped to the kitchen window that served as a bar. A gray haired lady was placing glasses on a shelf.

            “Excusez moi, c’est possible, duex verres de whiskey s’il vous plait, et merci beaucoup.”

            The woman smiled, answering in perfect English, “Oh, you must be thirsty. Do you want ice?”

             “No, just whiskey, merci. Is it okay to pay later with the meal?”

 “But of course, Monsieur.”

            Stars were beginning to fill the clear night sky and the mountains around the Auberge were like frozen black waves. He was within three steps of Neil when he said in a John Wayne imitation, “Pardoner, you give up drink’n red-eye?”

            Neil whirled, his kilt spinning around his legs. “You wee rascal, you caught me up!” Neil laughed and both men stepped together to embrace. One of the whiskeys tipped and went down his back. “Ah you wee bugger!”

            Santiago stood back and held the remaining whiskey between them, “Maybe you ought to try putting some of this in your mouth. I’m told the effects are wondrous.”

            Neil and Santiago had no family blood yet many times when they were seen together people would assume they were brothers because of their similar frenetic energy.

Neil was tall and refined and had the face of a blonde Greek God.  Like most Scots, Neil’s eyes were blue, but not the washed-out color of the northern skies. They were like the azure seas of the Aegean. His complexion was also a contradiction to his nationality.  In the long gray of Scottish winters, his skin would become sallow, looking drained of blood, but three days in the sun would change it to copper. It was the molecules of history moving when a dark wanderer arrived from solar south lands and left his seed in Scotland. Despite the possibility of transient blood being in his veins, Neil was bred a Gentlemen. He was born into money and was trained with all of the fine tunings it could bring in the British class system, yet he was a rebel. Instead of going into the mercantile business as his father and grandfather had done he chose his own destiny and had become photojournalist and then a combat photographer. It was because of that profession he had met Santiago in the killing fields of Vietnam and by fate been his savior.

            Santiago was not a Gentleman and no amount of privileged school would have ever made him one. His character was rough-hewn with none of the grace that Neil stepped into automatically. Santiago should have had a “BORN TO LOSE” tattoo on a bicep for if there was a hard road to travel he would find it. Santiago did not give his confidence easily but he trusted Neil who besides owing him his life had seen his ruffian nature too many times. Santiago was not a pretty man. His body seemed to be intended for several men. His head was stuck on without the conveyance of a neck and his face was thin lipped with a crooked nose and mousey colored hair. He had the brown eyes of his Mexican mother but his skin had inherited the pallid complexion of his Irish father that made him pinkly conspicuous on sun tan beaches. Age had solidified the lean wolf look that was like an aged Marine Corps poster face.

             Neil coughed, “My God I think that’s a wee bit stronger than it is in Scotland. You sure this is whiskey?  It might be petrol.  You know the bloody French!”

After several whiskeys, sitting at an outdoor table in the cool evening, they ordered a traditional Corsican meal -- ribs of young goat. Wine fell in cascades. They were like two boys in an amusement park with their pockets full of tickets. Ride after ride they journeyed together, howling when they felt the floors dropping from under them, laughing at mirrors bending images. They told stories like rabbit and duck shoots, chasing their histories from amusement to amusement, unraveling into a review of several journeys they had traveled together. They roared with laughter about the time in Yugoslavia they had been caught by a farmer, nude body surfing on his mountain of grain and later how it surprised the young country girls when they saw the seeds in their pubic hair.

            “It’s just as well they couldn’t understand English, because neither of them would have believed the story,” Santiago said.

            “Yes, I rather suspect they both thought we were a couple of bloody poofters.

             “Yeah, but the look on the ladies faces was priceless, even though I was embarrassed to death.”

            The journey of their mutual histories went on for hours but both stayed away from the story they wanted to forget. Finally there came sighs of exhaustion and lusty belches. Their bellies burned bright from flames of Eau de Vie. They were falling from the edge of their travels when dizzy nausea began to rise. The sound of gagging came from the sudden vacuum of the stomach as it wrenched out of the body. Their laughing stopped and at the cost of several hundred French Francs the earth around them looked like splattered minestrone.

            The rapids of the river a hundred yards away rolled into the night. Both men who were clearing their drunken heads became thoughtful. Santiago looked at Neil intensely.

“Do you ever think about what happened back there?”

“Everyday and never,” Neil said.

“It was fucked up, wasn’t it?”

Neil coughed, looked towards the river and said, “In a word, Aye. Fucked.”

“They fucked all of us didn’t they?”

“Aye, they fucked us and there is nothing we can do about it now. You saw what came out of My Lai. They burnt Lieutenant Calley and everyone was happy to point a finger at him. Poor Bastard. They were all guilty and we are all guilty.”

“Us grunts were all assassins,” Santiago said.

“No, you were the assassin’s angels. You soldiers did everything Nixon and Ho wanted you to do.”

 “Yeah, I guess so...why did you carry on doing war after that shit, Neil?”

“What else can I do? Maybe one day truth will be published on the front page and the whole miserable world will stop believing in lies...”

“Yeah, maybe, fuck knows…”

“What about you Santiago? Are you still doing art?”

Santiago looked at Neil for a long moment. “I did up to two years ago. It kept me busy and I still had the idea that art was worthwhile. Then finally it just seemed stupid painting pictures on walls. When my marriage fell apart, I realized I wanted to do something bigger.”

“Bigger?”

“Yeah, I want to paint the Golden Gate Bridge.”

“Piss off,” Neil laughed. “No, tell me you cunt.”

“I started writing Neil. I started writing the whole fucking story, but I don’t know where it’s going.”

“Writing?”

“Yeah, I’ve got 39 rejection slips so far. Every publisher says it’s not their kind of novel.”

“You are writing a novel? What?”

“I guess that’s the problem, I don’t know what it is and neither do the publishers. Maybe I’m only crying in my beer, but so far it has kept me from putting a bullet through my head.”

“Ach man, you’ve survived too much to even suggest such a fucking pathetic idea.” Neil stopped and put his hand on Santiago’s shoulder. “Are you writing about the village?”

“I started to. It seemed like that was the only reason I was still alive, so I could tell the story, but once I got started…I don’t know…my marriage fell apart, my life fell apart and the writing just became something else. I went off in a completely different direction. In the end it seemed that life was more important to write about than death.”

“Aye, I don’t know how many more destroyed worlds I want to photograph…Angola, Rwanda, the Gulf War, Serbia…aye it’s only death.”

  Santiago did not want to take that line of thought any further and said, “Do you think your ex still loves you?”

            Neil frowned. “I don’t know who she loves. She loves her job. She loves her cats. Last year she loved a professor of English. She loves herself.” Neil set silently for a moment, his eyes staring at his feet, and then he said quietly. “What about Leila?”

             There was a long pause. “Christ knows. I guess the same kind of stuff. She loves our house - at least what used to be our house. She’s got her studio. She loves the studio. She loves all those real artists she meets in Santa Fe.  Maybe she used to love me...maybe she loved something in me that wasn‘t there. Fucking shit knows...I don’t know.  I seem to have died years ago and they forgot to bury me…then of course I fucked up everything and went running after an illusion.”

            Santiago took a deep breath and pushed back from the table. He arched his neck and crossed his arms over his face as if to fend off an invisible whip. Neil stared at the empty bottle of l’eua d’vi. Together they groaned.  

             The starry night belled silently into the rushing song of the river. Insects throbbed in cadence. The little Mediterranean owl echoed in the black walls of the valley with its one note call meshed into the concert of darkness. The Restonica River grew loud. Its message laced over the emptiness of the table. Alpine air drifted past the two men. Bands of warm fragrance mixed with the cool invisible fingers that came down from the high mountain glaciers. The scent of pine began to overpower the smell of used alcohol. There was the sound of a small electrical buzz, then a click and suddenly the lights went out. Officially at one o’clock in the morning, the guests should be in bed. The timer was automatically doing its duty. Then slowly like images that gradually manifest on Polaroid photographs, their contoured shapes took form. Santiago could see a light reflection cast on Neil’s shirt and a very faint shine on his forehead.  He turned around and saw the light was from a new crescent moon hanging in the ceiling of the night.

Santiago began telling Neil an old folk story he had seen performed by clowns in a circus. “Once upon a time, a hideous frog had fallen hopelessly in love with a beautiful woman who had come to the pond to gaze upon her own perfect reflection. The frog spoke to the woman from under the water. She fell in love with his voice, but he was afraid to raise himself to the surface for fear he would lose the beautiful one because of his ugliness. It was a fucking frustrated love, viewed from above by a silver-sequined harlequin clown who sat in the crescent moon playing a bluesy clarinet.” Santiago stopped the story, was silent for a long moment then said drunkenly, “It’s the Harlequin, Neil. It’s the Harlequin Moon that makes us crazy.” Santiago wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. He took one of the paper serviettes from the table and blew his nose. “Ah fuck it. Fuck them all…”

            “You feel like a wee walk up the valley?” Neil said.

            “You know I was thinking the same thing. It‘s a good night to tell you what happened to my life and how I blew it -- nothing but irony Neil, just irony.”

            The two old friends walked off into the darkness. Santiago was on a pilgrimage to the past and as they walked between worlds, the Restonica Gorge seemed the perfect place for such a journey. They walked up and up and into the middle of the night. In late September it is still hot during the day but the nights begin to grow cool and that makes for good walking. The 13 kilometers from the Auberge to the end of the road above timberline can be done in a few hours, but as Santiago opened his heart to his friend it seemed a lifetime. In the middle of the night Santiago’s words were laced into the small sounds of creatures that celebrated the music of the river as it rolled in the rhythm of its endless cycle.
                                                        

            Scotland, 1975

Santiago was an American nearly 30, trying to be an artist that went to Scotland to look up his friend old friends George and Neil and forgot to go home. He had been there only three weeks when he met Leila who was 22 and who also was attempting to be an artist. Nine months into their romance Leila gave birth to a beautiful blue eyed girl. They named her Tara. At six months of age the baby girl was the center of their life. It was at this point Santiago and Leila decided to marry. They had gone through the worst of the parental nightmare and they were still together.

Santiago was cynical about marriage. He told Leila that it was only a marriage of convenience because the baby needed legal parents. He bought Leila a fifty pence brass ring for the civil ceremony. The ring turned her finger green by the next morning and found its way into the North Sea by the afternoon. Leila was hurt by Santiago's disregard for the ritual of marriage and retaliated by never publicly calling herself his wife. This suited Santiago fine. It gave him the pretence he was still a free man. He had the itch to move on and that would not change.

That itch was in his blood and Santiago was cursed by it. His Scots Irish Grandfather was a moon-shining Irish Ozark hillbilly. The grandfather had run away from his wife and five children after a drunken incident brought about by the sampling of his distilled white-lighting. The old man and his cronies decided to visit a prayer meeting at the local hall, held by a traveling evangelist, circa 1900. They rode horses to the hall and didn't bother stopping at the front door. Women began screaming, and children started crying. It was divine chaos. The preacher ran down the isle calling, “You blasphemous heathens will burn in hell!” That didn't stop the moon-shining grandpa. The preacher’s soft outstretched hands -- one holding the Bible as if to ward off vampires -- didn't stop the horses as they rode over the righteous man, kicking him senseless and breaking several bones. Fortunately one of the women pulled him out of the way before the return trip of the apocalyptic drunkards. The grandpa roped the preaching podium out of the hall and dragged it down the country road before being chased and caught by the Law. He spent five years in the Ozark Penal Colonies breaking rocks on the chain-gang paying for the preacher’s broken bones.

Santiago's father, Daniel McBoil, married Rosa, a Mexican immigrant and their children were considered half-breeds by the local population because of the mixed blood. The mother and father had eleven children and gave them all Spanish names to spite their neighbors. When times got hard they moved from the Ozarks to the west Texas where they nearly starved on a tenant farm during the Dust Bowl Depression. Daniel decided to find a better land. The fetus of Santiago traveled in the womb of his mother. His brothers and sisters plus piles of cherished junk were stacked on a knocking worn-out 1928 Model “T” Ford. The truck took them all towards the mountains of gold. They were thirty miles from those mountains when the truck died an overdue death in Pueblo, Colorado. It was the biggest steel-mill town west of the Mississippi River. It was 1945 and the War made this stinking steel pit an oasis of commerce and industry. The winter snow turned black within a few hours from the heavy coal smoke belched from the Bessemer furnaces burning at maximum production. These were the last good years for the steel town, and it was Santiago's fate to be born there.

            Leila was fine boned, with delicate hands and feet. She was pixie-faced and had strands of sandy hair that turned straw blond in the sun. Her softness was denied at times by the relentless determination that made her small chin stick out like a chisel.

She thought Santiago was a handsome man and sometimes he reminded her of an American Movie Star, the way she imagined them being so vain, so American, but that was not her attraction to him. She saw reflections of herself in Santiago. It was the curiosity that draws ones vanity to the mirror. They were of the same metal, but the only common denominator of their personal histories was ironic. She had been born in the ash-black iron furnace town of Motherwell, one of the corroded suburbs sitting like molting vultures on the hills circling Glasgow.  It may have been magnetic grime that pulled these steel town children together.

Santiago had found art as a child and he had used it all his life as a gimmick to open doors. After his hitch in Vietnam he began to take his talents more seriously. Art was no longer just a vehicle but a belief. Neil invited him to Scotland. He left the American catastrophe to discover art in Europe.

 At sixteen Leila was told that she had talent, and she found her real passion during years of art school. Like Santiago, she was driven by an obsessive self image. She was an artist and her existence was by proving herself through work.

Santiago and Leila both lived by their work – not the kind of work that raises a person up in the morning to the drum of the clock, marching one off to factory floors and the buzz of a neon cube. It was not the work that hesitates for ten minute coffee breaks, thirty for lunch -- not work that punches out time, then a journey to a bar, then home to watch television, check the clock knowing morning comes too early and know it’s just another day.

No. Their work was not that work. Their work was far worse, for at least one can justify slave-work which gives proportionate money for time. It is money that pays the rent, buys the food, covers entertainment -- money pays the price for servitude. It is another day, another dollar and it is justified. It supports the economy. It is the system.

One chooses money or one chooses freedom. It is only the blessed that have both. Leila and Santiago wanted that blessing and be original in a world of clichés. Santiago and Leila had chosen the hard way separately. They both wanted to be artists and to live life as a creative event. They both demanded freedom. When they met each other on the same path, with eyes of youth, they knew they could share the beautiful pain of the journey and it would be something only they would understand.

       A time came when the dynamics of their relationship changed. She became stronger. He became weaker. She had found her own work, separate from him. She was making her own money on her own terms. What held her to Santiago was their daughter Tara. He was held by a paralysis of nightmares that amplified the diminishing belief he was still a human worth being an artist. ``       

            Leila had strayed a time or two from Santiago, nothing serious, only slight diversions from the hard hammer of their life together. It was a kind of relief for just a few short days. When the initial lust passed she found the lovers no better than Santiago, and they were not the father of her beautiful daughter. She always returned to Santiago even though she no longer had passion for him. Leila was Scottish and the morality of Calvinism underlay her beliefs. She could not desert her man. He was once her hero.

Santiago felt the loss of Leila's passion long before it ever became obvious. He responded by becoming careless and unfaithful but these brief forays into infidelity served more to bang-up the vehicle of his ego than to give it a good lubrication. Street walking whores gave him anonymous satisfaction better than the skirmishes of screwing someone he knew, someone he would see again. It was a vicious downward spiral. Santiago slid from one form of creative frenzy to the next. The belief that he was an original artist simply evaporated. His attempts to create paintings and sculpture became self destructive. Halfway through each work, where it is grotesque and yet almost perfect -- at that point he became claustrophobic. He was a man tied in a sack caught by a raging river flowing to the flat edge of the world. The problem was the sack was tied from the inside.

Santiago had come to Europe to meet George and Neil, both he had known in Vietnam. George was a correspondent For the London Times and Neil was a freelance photojournalist. They had been reporting with an infantry company in the Mekong Delta in which Neil had saved Santiago’s life when he carried him to a Med-Evac chopper, but the real story was never printed. Santiago meeting them again was to find resolution but also an opportunity to have a three month painting holiday. Somehow three months had turned into ten years. Some holiday. He had found a wife, a child, a house with a mortgage and wrinkles on his face. He became middle-age but felt as though he had gone to bed one night in the bloom of his youth and woke up in the morning an old man.

A cold panic set in. At first he laughed at the feeling. Then his Scottish friend, George, talked to him about the horrors of becoming forty. George had to see a psychiatrist. He was on sedatives. He could not work. He had no concentration. He felt death was next to him. Santiago laughed with Neil about the condition of their friend, “Poor slob -- it won't happen to me.” But Santiago was lying. He new exactly what George was feeling. Santiago became forty and that thing of fear grew in him. It was cold and seeping like rising damp. Instead of going to a psychiatrist, he went into a bottle, a very deep bottle. He swam to the bottom but he could not drink his way up. Along with the booze came the purple haze of marijuana and psychedelics that let him live in fantasy like he did once he was released from the army in 68. He could forget the phantoms of Vietnam by being a freak in a foolish world. It was okay. Slowly his wife and child were obscured by the smoke of his burning world. He became reckless and destructive. Leila became distant and resigned. The baby girl was the only love between them.

                                                ***

When uncertain of where you are, move to a new space. That phrase should have been Santiago’s family motto.  Beginning with the truck ride in the womb of his mother, and throughout his early life, he was moved from house to house, state to state. By the time he was in his early twenties, the family pattern had been successfully transferred to Santiago.  He moved his own puzzle pieces from state to state, country to country. He was running but believed he was searching for something. When he met Leila nothing changed. In the seven years of their marriage they had moved eleven times.

            At first Leila liked the sense of freedom. But in the seventh year that freedom turned bitter.  That freedom meant not having a home to call her own; not having pieces of furniture and precious little things and not having a sense of belonging. Freedom became a jail of being nowhere and having nothing.

Leila wanted to keep things that were important to her -- a fragile teacup, an old battered chair or all her lovely plants. The only thing they had not lost in the transfer of those years was their daughter. Now Leila was beginning to worry about Tara. By the eleventh move she had had enough. Damn the man! Now he was talking about moving to another country where once again they would have nothing and be nobody. She had enough freedom. She wanted to find a place and stay.

            Santiago continued to project his vision of a paradise in a better world. “It will be fantastic. We will go where the winters are sunny and wine is cheaper by the gallon. We’ll save money and sell all our things that are too big to move.” He looked at Leila with a dream crossing his face. “We’ll split for a place better than Scotland.”

            “When?”  Leila gasped.

            “Uh, maybe in about a year we'll go,” he said.

            Leila laughed. Knowing Santiago, he might as well be talking about the next century. He would change his mind. Another brilliant idea would interrupt the one he was making a mess of now. He would decide to go to London or to America or to Africa. But what did it matter? She didn't know or even care if she would be with him in a year.                                             

                                                           ***

Santiago began to create three-dimensional objects that he called functional sculpture. He joked to his drinking friends and then laughed, “It's art you can sit on.” The truth was his acquaintances saw the work as odd furniture. Santiago didn’t care what they thought. It was art to him.  He worked in a ramshackle barn on a small farm that George owned but was rarely there. Most of the time he was in London. The barn was a dimly lit and had large open doors. The Scottish winter wind howled through the cavernous space most days, but he called it his studio. It was February and perpetual rain. It is Scotland when the sky is gray, cold and bitter. It is a hard time of the year to live and a miserable time to die. There are no flowers, no sun, but only the wind and the briefest of eulogies held in February, truly the dead of the winter.

Santiago was carving a piece of sculpture in the draughty barn. He held onto a high-powered electric disk grinder that was screeching, shrill and penetrating.  His ears would ring after he had turned off the machine. Wood dust swirled up from the cutting wheel covering his body and face in a layer of lung clogging cellulose. His eyes were shielded with goggles. His nose and mouth were covered with a rubber face mask. To moderate the noise, he stuffed soft pieces of rags into his ears. The cold air fogged his goggles.  After a few minutes of breathing the mask became a wet portable dungeon containing his head. He was defiant to his body twelve hours a day. The vibrating grinder choked him and brought arthritic stiffness to his hands and arms.

            He turned off the machine and stared at the wood dust that covered the floor. Santiago thought, this is miserable dying time without being dead, but felt nothing at all. He saw cold dead bodies in the heat of the tropics. He looked at the silent electric monster he held in his hands, and his eyes began to fill with tears. His head was drowning inside the goggles and mask. He began to gag and then he panicked. He pulled the rubber prison off his face. He tried to control the urge to scream. Dead faces came into his mind… the walking wounded…the sucking chest wounds…the women with faces burnt off...children with no legs, no arms... He thought he was going mad. He was slipping. He had to find something real. Leila would save him again.

He went home. He opened the door and stepped into their small apartment. His head was swirling with fear. Leila came out of the kitchen.  Concern in her eyes gave a brief flash of hope to his need. He was wrong. 

“Love, Neil called today? Do you know?” She said.

 “Know? Know what?”  Santiago said flat voiced.

 “Your friend George is dead.” She said. Her eyes touched his. “He died last night. A heart attack,” she said softly.

  Santiago could feel the ground around the cold February grave. He could not believe George who had been in the most dangerous point in his life was now dead. George who knew what he knew about what he had done in Vietnam – not the story that was printed – not the lies the commanding staff had produced. George was there and had seen it all. Now he was gone. Santiago looked at Leila and saw someone he didn’t know. He walked by her without saying a word and went to the closet room he used as a study. He sat down at the desk and looked at scattered sketches and photographs. Then it came.  He wept the tears of a small man in a big world, too cold, too dead.  Leila came into the room and held Santiago in her arms. Neither said anything.  She held him firmly.

   “I am sorry,” Leila said.

   “George was one of the good people in this world...he tried to do things...”  Santiago’s attempt to put words and meanings in some kind of order failed.

 Leila put her arms around him and said, “I know he was a special friend.” She rubbed his back.

Santiago wiped the back of his hand under his nose. “Most people are only acquaintances. Few are friends…but yeah, some friends are special…” He remembered George and Neil who had been there on an insane day of death. Neil had photographs of that event until they opened the back of his camera and    George tried to write about it but the Brass canned the story and sent them both back to London. Santiago was unconscious until he woke up at the Evacuation hospital  in Frankfurt, Germany. It was George who told Santiago a year later how Neil had saved his life. Now George was dead and only Neil and Santiago knew the truth of that terrible day. Neil was alive and photo documenting the Cubans in Angola.  Santiago was alive, crying. Crying for George or for himself he just didn't know. George had become a syndicate journalist and traveled most of the time after Vietnam. They had rarely met socially since he had been with Leila. Their only contacts came when George had written a few articles on Santiago’s eccentric career in Scotland.  Neither of them wanted to talk about the war and what couldn’t be made right after so many years. George drank as much as Santiago. One time Neil joined them when he was back from a war. The three of them chased women, got saturated with whiskey and did not say Vietnam or dead villagers once.

“I took him for granted, like nothing could ever kill him -- he was a man that had survived -- the fucking fight to stay alive...” Santiago said more to himself than Leila.

 There was something more difficult to admit. George was only a couple years older than Santiago. His death hung like a The Silence. Santiago whispered, “A man is standing next to you then he is dead. A bullet explodes in his brain or a sickness pulls him down.” Truth in life had not been real to him for years and now middle-age had Santiago in its grasps. He had to prove he was still alive by the simple act of moving his body.  He had to run. He could forget the dead. He pushed Leila away and walked to their bedroom and closed the door.

  The next morning Santiago told Leila he needed to be on his own for a while. It was a normal habit of his. Every year they had been together there would come a point when he had to go off for a few days, get drunk, look for his youth and act as if he was free again. After the blowout, with a fine-tuned hangover and dirty laundry, he would return to the safe haven of his loving woman and beautiful child. Leila would be angry but Tara always hugged him and was happy he came home. This time it was different.

                                            ***

Santiago bought a discount ticket on a holiday tour bus to Germany. In February 1982, in the dead of winter, it is festival time in Germany. Leila arranged for a baby-sitter and then she took Santiago to the tour office one late evening. It was an over-night bus to Dover. He would be in Bonn by 11 a.m. the next morning.

“When are you coming back Santiago?”  Leila asked.

“Don't ask me. I'll come back!” How could there be questions when he had no answers?  

Santiago...”

 “God damn it! Stop taking my space from me!”

  Leila did not understand. She could see the desperation in his face but she did not know how to make it disappear. She knew not to plead. A cold dry kiss, and then she walked away.

 Santiago looked for somewhere to buy a bottle. It was a long journey from Edinburgh to Dover made even longer by being miserable with lies and confusion. He sat in the back seat of a bus with his coat up around his mouth where no one saw him pulling at a fifth of whiskey through the black night. Just before Dover, Santiago went to sleep. The bus bumped him awake as it crawled onto the ship’s ramp. The interior of the ocean ferry was stinking from diesel truck fumes and bright with lights. People were slamming car doors and scraping their feet and baggage on the metal decks as they bustled to the upper deck lounge bars. There was already the sound of drunken laughing on a beer drinking holiday. The winter festival had begun; the German version of the Marde Gras.

Santiago found a seat in the bar. His eyes were red. The electric light blurred edges around passing strangers. He went to the toilet to hide his self-pity in a closed metallic stall. He returned to the bar when he heard the anchor chains being raised and knew the bar would now be open. The ferry started to move away from the dock. He topped up his alcohol content with two double shots of straight whiskey. One space faded into the other. He was semi-conscious of the ships bar and then he was in the back seat of the bus as it lurched onto land. His self-pity followed him in the bus on the three hour journey to Bonn.

Santiago went off into the frenzy of the winter festival. He obliterated his mind with schnapps and made a fool of himself trying to persuade a young beautiful lesbian to leave the company of several gay men. He had no success with the girl but one of the effeminate followers thought he was sweet and offered to go in her place.

Santiago laughed. “You're not cute enough yet pal, but who knows after a couple more rounds.”

At four o'clock in the morning he collapsed in the corner of a beer house. Santiago was ignored along with the other crashing drunks.  A musician wearing a derby hat and a white striped shirt with red arm bands was playing bawdy German polka tunes on a piano while thumping a base drum with his foot. People kept tripping over Santiago's feet and slopping beer on his clothes.

                                               ***

The next day Santiago was cried-out and drunk-out. He smelled like a bucket of sour cabbage and milk. He began to rise out the heaviness. He had no feelings of being up or down. It was that numbness that came in battle when he no longer cared whether he was alive or dead. A strange liberation came over him. He was a spectator of life that had nothing to do with him. He decided to leave Bonn on the afternoon train and go to Frankfurt where years before he spent his last months of the American Army in a division hospital. He had made friends with a few German hippies during the pot smoking anti-war summer of 1968. Germany was where his life as a killer was buried.

  At seven o'clock darkness made the gothic train station look as gloomy as it was. It was the place he had gone through dozens of times while he had been recuperating in the Army hospital. He stood in front of the carved stone building feeling loneliness and desperation. Little had changed. The pavement under his feet was cold as it had felt all those years before. He shivered and went back into the warmer air of the station vestibule to telephone an old number in a little black address book. He wondered if his German friend, Axle, would remember him.

“Oh God, fucking German,” Santiago murmured under his breath as he dialed. The phone rang three times then a woman's voice answered.

 “Ja, hello, eh…wer ghet es inen?” Santiago stumbled into words.

 “Hello, you speak English?” a female voice said, accented but not German, more French or Italian.

 Santiago was relieved from his terror of foreign words and her voice was nice. “Yeah, I'm an old army buddy... uh, is... does Axle still live there?”

  “Who are you?” she asked, slightly wary.

  “Oh, I'm sorry, this is Santiago... I'm an American, an old army friend, from a long time ago... uh, back in the sixties...“

  “Are you Santy, the one in the hospital?” Suddenly the voice was curious, colored with warmth.

   “You know me?” Santiago said.

 “Where are you?”

 “I'm at the train station, in Frankfurt. I'm here for a few days, and I thought it would be good to see Axle...” his voice trailed off not knowing what to say next.

 “Have you a place to stay?”  

 “Oh, uh, no, I hadn't planned anything yet.” Santiago said.

“You must stay here. Axle will be very hurt if you stay anywhere else.”

“Well, okay, I guess that problem is solved,” he laughed.

 She laughed too. “No problem at all. You are at the central train station?”

 “Yeah, that's right, the big one downtown... I just came in from...”

 “Okay, stand in front of the station and I will be there in ten minutes.” Her voice was excited.

“Right, uh right,” Santiago said slightly puzzled.

“Okay, bye.” The click of the closed line followed.

 “What the fuck…” Santiago muttered to himself. He picked up his small bag and went back out into the cold night.

                                                    ***

Santiago’s friend Axle was on tour. He was a musician and his band had found a gig in Amsterdam. He wouldn't be back for a few days he told Santiago on the telephone.

“Martina will take care of you!”  Axle said. “Don't go away, just relax, and let her do what she wants to you.”

“She doesn’t sound German. Is she French?”

 Nah, she's a crazy Corsican I met when we were on tour there and followed me home.  But hey man, she’s a fantastic cook, among other things...and remember man, love the one you’re with…”

 It was like the old saying, while the mice are away…but there was something more. Martina and Axle seemed to have a free-love relationship. Martina shared the philosophy more than Axle knew and played the part well. She was an actress by profession.

Axle’s few days turned into two weeks. Two weeks that would convince Santiago he had met the woman of his life.

Martina was not a classic beauty, but she had a face that Santiago could not stop looking at and her cat shaped eyes, the finely arched dark eyebrows and her full crescent shaped lips began to hypnotize him with their sensuous shape. She was tall, lean as a gazelle, with long beautiful legs and arms and a body perfectly proportioned female carnality. Her skin was smooth and still tanned even in the midst of winter. Her hair was appeared black but when light went through it became dark auburn with shades of old brass. It was her eyes that seemed every color of brown and green and long dark lashes that mesmerized Santiago.

She would not tell Santiago how old she was but she was keenly intelligent and he thought she was 25 at the oldest, even though at moments she seemed much younger. She spoke three languages and had read classical philosophy and most American contemporary literature. She loved Kerouac, Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti, but was equally enthralled with Blake, Gibran and Kazantzakis.

In her own way she was beautiful. She was from an island in the Mediterranean, someone worldly, exotic and experienced, and a woman that would become Santiago’s obsession. They slept in the same bed the first night, but did not kiss or make love.

They talked in the chrome yellow bedroom until the dawn sun came through lacy violet curtains of the apartment windows. It was a game they were playing. They held each other close, naked and toyed with the idea of something to arrive, tantalizing and teasing yet not giving access.

The game had high stakes. The first moment he saw her he knew it would be easy to fall in love with her. Santiago was fascinated by Martina's beauty and intelligence, but falling in love was one thing he did not want.

Leila and Tara were only minimally tugging at his guilt. He was not so afraid of the loss of his wife and daughter, as he was terrified of giving something that would not be returned. She would rip his heart to pieces and he knew it then. He continued to hold Martina, naked and warm against his body the next night, but it was more difficult for him. He wanted to stop the stupid game of titillation and make love to her. She turned softly into him as they drifted towards sleep in another long day and night of talking. He listened to her breath.

“Are you awake?” he said.

“Oui…yes, a little bit.”

“I want to listen to some music. Do you mind if I put a cassette on so I can go to sleep?”

“No, that would be nice. Put Keith Jarrett on, the Coln Concert, okay?”

“Sure, anything, just so I can stop thinking.”

But before Santiago moved, Martina sprang up from the bed and almost danced on her tip toes as she went the stereo under the large windows with the lace curtains.  Santiago watched in utter amazement, for even though it was the second night they had slept together, it was the first time he had seen the full beauty of Martina’s body. She was only wearing thong panties.

Holy fucking Bejesus  flipped across his thoughts and lust tightened his throat. It was easy enough to see Martina had a delightful form even with clothes on, but somehow she had managed to slip in bed both nights without him seeing her take clothes off. He could feel the satin richness of her body in the dark, but this was the first visual display that snapped on him like a better built mouse trap. His mouth went dry. She put the cassette in then tossed her black hair like a wild horse then turned and smiled.

“You’re looking at me. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s property,” She laughed raising  her hands to dark nipples as she walked slowly back to the bed, not once taking her eyes off Santiago’s stare.

The room was darkened from the night and the lamps were turned off, yet light came in from the winter overcast sky that glowed orange with the city through the violet lace. The light reflected off the yellow walls and Martina’s body glowed like a golden statue. Her legs were elegant, long and could have made money for any hosiery company. But it had been the view of her sculpted back and perfect pear shaped ass that inflamed Santiago’s desire. Now as she approached he saw that little concave dish of flesh that fell just below beautifully beveled hips and muscle that pulled her stomach taught. She dropped her hands and stood still, letting him soak up every inch of her image. Her breasts were not large, but shined on the top curve with the gold of the light and dropped to a burnt umber soft The Silence cup.

“Have you had enough or do you want more,” She said as her legs slowly slid wide apart and she let her right hand drift down, making a quick little gasp of breath as she touched herself.

“Stop it you wicked little devil and come here,” He said, knowing he had given himself away by the raspy break of his voice.

If Santiago had been a younger man, he would have simply plunged into her – a man so hungry he  have would not bothered to chew before gulping – but he had learned to pace himself in the course of a hundred different fast fucks and of this one, Santiago desired neither speed or instant gratification. For once he wanted to arrive in paradise as slow as the second coming of Christ.

Martina lay next to him on raised elbows. The soft first notes of Keith Jarrett’s concert piano rang celestial chimes into the smoky amber room and they both stopped what was almost begun and listened. It was as though that composition had been designed for this moment. The singular strings of each note echoed not only in the concert hall of Cologne, but reverberated in the hot sexual neutrons that were bouncing around Santiago and Martina.

As the Jarrett’s musical theme began to build, their faces came together, not kissing, but just breathing in the scent of each other. Santiago let his lips drift slowly up the soft velvet of Martina’s graceful neck and then hovered around the corner of her mouth, then sifted like smoke to the long lashes of her closed eyes.  He raised his mouth and let his lips slide across to her brow then they fell ever so slowly down the bridge of her nose. Martina moved into him and slowly danced her hips in time with the deep notes of the piano as it dropped into a bass chord. She let her lips speak the same silent language Santiago had been telling and breezed them like a new testament of religion around the ridge of his lips. Each time the music shifted in tempo or phrasing they both invented another delicacy of touch and explored a field of dreams that blossomed on the small world of two faces.

The music was organic and began to grow out of its quiet spring beginning to throb in pace and beat of summer sun. But still, Santiago danced with his lips like a gypsy in that proud moment of pain and defiance. Martina responded in style and both of them whirled their tongues along the opening folds and then they entered each others mouth, yawning, hungry and sucking as though only the last mortal drop of wet was left. Martina’s hands went around Santiago’s butt and pulled him into her as his cock flew like a guided missile finding the secret door to eternity.

They both shuddered and moaned in perfect pitch to the dense toll of Jarrett’s middle C chord, he had left hanging like the tintinnabulation of heaven. They fucked like this with the pianist, on and off until the second dawn flooded the morning with light. It was then Santiago told Martina he had been waiting for her his whole life, and then they slept.

                                         ***

He told Martina about his wife and his daughter, but avoided any talk of Vietnam. She told him her stories, about work in the theater and her father who was a mysterious Corsican aristocrat who had worked with the Vichy Government during the war. She talked about her arrangement with Axle, and one of his musician friends who she met occasionally for sexual experimentation.

Santiago and Martina held each other close. The smell of her perfume covered him in a shroud of lust. He would feel his cock begin to rise again and again. He was reborn into her youth. They began to build a rhythm of words and intimate looks, their eyes locked without embarrassment. It was a kind of tide that pulled them together, a therapy they both needed.

They drank bottles of white wine and smoked long joints of hashish. She was crazy and beautiful. He was just crazy. He played a close hand with his secrets and only let them drop one by one. They made trades. He told her about his one and only homosexual night when fucking and death shared the same foxhole in the back country of Vietnam.

She told him about her erotic fantasies. She revealed how a lover she betrayed committed suicide.

He told her about his fear of death, of becoming old.

She would laugh and say, “Don’t get so close to me old man – you have an assassin’s face.”

They went for long walks. Santiago would breathe in her scent. She would become the actress she was in Germany and play out improvised pieces in the middle of a street. She loved to act, to create theater. She laughed and showed her beautiful teeth and sang out, “I'm alone with a mad-man, locked in a yellow room in a blue city!”

Santiago began to want her, really want her.  Little by little she was taking him. She wanted him to make the first move. He was only a step away from lust to love. He forgot about the return ticket by bus to Scotland.

One week became two.  At the end of the second week, Axle’s musician friend arrived. His name was Wolfgang. He was a fleshy German, but sexy. As the evening slid along on glasses of wine and hashish, Santiago realized there was a new game being played and jealousy began to raise its ugly head. Martina wanted them both. Wolfgang took off his clothes and jumped into her bed, ready for the fun. Santiago was outraged and a wave of sexual confusion swept over him. He moved quickly to the bed room door and snarled, “Two is company, and three is fuck you!”

He went out slamming the door. He walked into the kitchen and heard their hysterical giggles through the walls. Within minutes, sexual moaning sifted out of the yellow bedroom.

He sat down at the kitchen table and scribbled an angry letter, trying to say what he felt. He wrote three pages then stopped knowing he was a fool. Martina was beautiful, but she was driving him crazy.

 He did not want to play the game any longer. He glared at the pathetic words then crumpled the pages and threw them into the waste basket. The sounds continued in the bedroom growing into a groaning rhythm. He found his small bag and stuffed his few belongings into it. On another small piece of paper he wrote GOOD LUCK YOU WHORE and laid it on the kitchen table. He opened the front door and went out into the cold winter night air. In thirty minutes he was at the airport booking a flight to Scotland.

                                            ***

The Restonica,   September 19, 1994

The water of the Restonica River slid from the top of the mountain down towards the sea. The sound of heavy regular breathing was like a soft drum in the night as they trudged up the Gorge, while Santiago told a story, juggled like balls in the air, sequences out of order, out of place.

            “I went back to Leila and she allowed the charade of our marriage to continue. A kind of fucked up confidence came back to me but my heart had turned to stone. I scared Leila, but she wanted my attention despite knowing she should get me out of her life. She swallowed her pride and decided to follow me one more time,” Santiago let the words fall bitterly.

            “What a slut Martina was,” Neil said.

            “No, Neil. She wasn’t any more of a slut than me. She just didn’t care.” 

            “Why did you come to Corsica the first time – because of Martina?”

             “I'll tell you the truth Neil. Because the women are sweet and the air smells sweeter and the mountains are always high!” He laughed and said in his meager French, “Corse, c’est trés speciale!”

                                                                  ***

CORSICA 1983

Martina was only vaguely in his thoughts but she had started his curiosity of the island. The holiday in Corsica was an attempt by Santiago to rediscover how to be Leila’s lover again, or find a simple happiness, a magical cure, to pull them back together. If nothing else, it would be a small gap in time and space to relax, lie in the sun, eat good food and act like life was not an eternal struggle. Santiago had felt a familiar tingling before their departure to Corsica. It was the right choice to vacation on this island and of course there was the The Silence of Martina.

            He had gone through the usual British travel brochures, instantly rejecting Blackpool, Benidorm and Bermuda. He hated being around the tourist masses and their obscene manner of invading other cultures, but there was something very special about the picture he saw of a small mountain village as he was thumbing through a booklet of France and its Provinces. He looked for other brochures about Corsica, but found nothing. He looked at the photo again, and the tingling was there. It was the same feeling he had on leaving America in the prime of his youth. Now there were two more people, life was getting scary and he was approaching forty. He saw Martina’s face and heard her voice, you have an assassin’s face

                                                            ***

It was a warm June in France after a depressing Scottish spring. Santiago, Leila and Tara were sitting in their overloaded Morris Traveler feeling the sun through the open windows, waiting for the row of automobiles in front of them to board the ferry to Corsica. The aroma of the Mediterranean and the palm lined shores of the Riviera at Nice filled the air. They were smiling. Leila was reading a novel and Tara was asking Santiago what kind of food people ate in Corsica.  Suddenly a tall balding man veered to their open window. He seemed almost to fall, bending to his knees and bounced on his feet as he launched his smiling lips into their space.

“You are English, aren't you?” he asked.

“Scottish!” Leila spit.

The man ignored Leila's rebuttal. He told them he had seen the lady reading an English book and that he was starved for good novels. Friendly small talk followed. He wondered if they might have any other books they would be willing to sell. He carried on, not waiting for a response, launching into the story of his life. He was Australian, his wife was French, and they were divorced. He was taking his two young daughters to a friend's summer house to the north end of the island, the long peninsula called Cap Corse. There was a tiny fishing village called Centuri. They were going to stay there a week. There was plenty of room. At that point it seemed as if they had known each other for years. He invited them to come and stay with him.

“The girls will have a fantastic time,” he said.

Santiago and Leila didn't know what to say. They had met overly friendly people before, and it was always a loaded trap.

At that moment the cars began to roll onto the ferry.  The dockworkers abused the foreigners with obscenities as they waved their arms in frantic cowboy car-herding style.

The Australian jumped up and as he ran for his car he screamed over his shoulder, “See you on the boat!”

Santiago laughed, and said, “He was certainly nice.”

“A bit of a nutter if you ask me,” Leila said, “aye, away with the fairies!”

On the ferry to Corsica, they met again. The man's name was Burt. Fifteen years of marriage to a French woman and living in the South of France had rubbed all the hard edges off his Australian accent.  He still had the attitude of people who live in vast open spaces, loud and wary but positive and giving without condition. Santiago and Leila warmed to him on the short crossing to Bastia. Tara fell in love with Burt's daughters. They were slightly older than her and already polishing their French chic. Altogether they made agreeable company and by the end of the five hour voyage Santiago and Leila couldn't resist the repeated invitation to come to Centuri.

                                                            ***

Centuri is a picturesque Mediterranean fishing village. Brightly painted fishing boats rock in the clear waters of the small port. Only yards from the pier are an erratic line of stone cottages with peeling plaster in the colored layers of calico cats. The village crosses cultures between France and Italy. Perhaps the name Centuri, together with the blue sky, the yellow heat, the khaki ground testified to a warm world where there was time for lazy living. This was an old village, comfortable in its aged decay. The tourists had come. The fishermen and the shop keepers could relax now.

The friend of Burt, who owned the house, lived in Paris. The ensemble had free run. It was an eccentric house. A stone building converted from a 17th century warehouse into something only a Parisian architect could imagine tasteful.  The exterior had its original stone face while the inside was partitioned into computer-drawn ramps and boxes. The small rooms were stacked cubicles for crazed monks on holiday. The style eventually became unnoticeable, like an ugly thing the mind chooses not to see. For the small group, it was wonderful; a free holiday camp only thirty feet from the beach and the sun was hot.

They stayed for a week with Burt and   his daughters.  It was an easy time at first. Burt was charmingly roguish.  He acted   the part of being a bachelor using his time and energy trying to impress the random pairs of exposed German nipples on the beach.

Tara played endlessly with the two girls. They had games on the beach and high fashion parties in their little box rooms, playing with make-up, ear-rings, and exchanging garments.

Leila was acting like an Olympic Sun-Tan-Champion lying in the phosphorous heat for hours trying to capture Gold-for-Scotland. Fortunately there was enough Viking pigment in her skin to win her a medal of tint. She would be able to prove to her pale friends in Scotland she had been on a wonderful sun drenched holiday -- Scottish status points.

Santiago would occasionally dip in the sun warmed water but his normal routine was to hide in the shade, drink red wine and sketch mural and sculpture ideas.

The week passed peacefully, blissfully, then Santiago made a telephone call that changed everything. Another war began. He had been waiting for the acceptance of a proposed public art project in Germany. He had been told the committee would make their decision by mid-June. He could have waited until they returned to Scotland, where he was sure of a confirming letter, but it was an important commission. It was the artist's dream.  Gaining the award meant money and prestige. It would be the magic click that opens the lock of fame and fortune. He decided to telephone Munich.

  Leila went with him to a nearby cafe where there was a pay phone. He was nervous. It was a big moment for him. She was indifferent. He closed the door of the glass telephone box. He was an astronaut preparing for blast-off. A few moments later he stepped out of the booth, jubilant. The committee had accepted the whole proposal. It was fantastic! The commission that could finally put him in Glossy Art Magazines had come. At last he was about to make it as an artist.  

Leila hunched her shoulders and said, “Oh it will probably be just another waste of time. I hate Germany!” She remembered his earlier escape.

  Santiago was crestfallen. Without a word he went into the cafe and asked for two bottles of red wine and a packet of Gauloise. He pronounced the word Gall-loo-sus. Two Corsican men in the bar burst into laughter and shouted at the ignorant foreigner “Ah oui, Gall-loo-sus!” Santiago felt destroyed. He would get drunk again.

                                                             ***

Leila had not meant to hurt Santiago. Her negativity came from frustration and to a degree, jealousy. It was a man's world. She was tired of Santiago's constant pursuit of his own success, his own power. She felt it was her contributions that made things happen for him, but the limelight always fell on him, flooding away the foundations of her art. Yes, she was jealous. Bastard luck! No. Not just luck. It was society that couldn't see her as the artist she was. She was the assistant to a MAN. It was society that relegated her to a backseat position! Damn it all! It was too much. It was years of the same movie, over and over.

The telephone incident was not the first time the pot had boiled over. There had been many occasions. Santiago tried to understand the humiliating position she was locked in, but he was a man.  He was an artist too. It was a struggle. More than that, it was a battle to be an artist no matter whom or what you were. It always had been and it looked like it always would be. He couldn't understand her jealousy. They should celebrate the victories together. Leila's flash of bitterness made him feel betrayed. She was acting like an enemy.  Fear of Eve's ancient role consumed him.

 They went back to the beach house, leaving the cafe as though it had never happened. Santiago was silent, morose. Leila was hostile. Burt immediately recognized the dark cloud over them. He once had a wife and knew what they were. He tried to clear the air with light hearted joking but Santiago was trying to disappear into a bottle of red wine. Leila refused to compromise for another man. She would fight the war by herself.

                                                ***

The day simmered while everyone removed themselves to their own private world. Only the children played on in their uncomplicated way in the shade of the tiny box rooms. Burt was wind-surfing in choppy seas. Leila was baking in the sun reading EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES. Santiago was slowly losing all hope of rational thought with the help of red wine. At five o'clock the party grudgingly came together for their evening meal. The previous evenings had been joyful affairs but now the table was sodden and heavy

  Burt sensed the need to pull the safety valve. Being married once was more than he could bear and he didn't have to put up with the theatrics of other people's marriages. He had the heart of a bachelor. Santiago needed help. Leila was a bitch! Burt suggested that Santiago join him for a ride to a nearby village. He had some tools he had borrowed and they had to be returned, he and Santiago could stop and have a Pastis.

 “The Lady, can stay and watch the children,” Burt said casually.

“Just brilliant!” hissed Leila.

“What a good idea.” said Santiago.

  Burt felt relieved.

  Suddenly Leila said, “I'm coming too! I want to see the village! Why should I be stuck with the children?” Her chin was pointed like an icebreaker.

  Burt swallowed hard and decided to keep his head down. “Marriage,” he muttered to himself.  

Santiago was fuming with anger and the red wine. “Look, I just want to be by myself ... just for awhile...we'll be right back…”

  “I'm not going to be dumped with children while you two go off and get drunk. God damn you men!” Leila screamed. She was determined to have her way for a change. Men Indeed! She would show the bastards.

  Santiago's drunkenness growled like a mad dog, “All right, if you want to be so fucking pushy, but I'm telling you, stay out of my fucking way...you just, never understand...a man’s got to have time to himself...” He reached for his glass of red wine and guzzled it down. He quickly refilled the glass and drained it again.

  Soon they were all stacked in Burt's Renault like coals in the furnace. The burn was audible. As they were leaving Centuri, Burt decided to stop for cigarettes. Santiago was sitting in the front seat and he turned to face Leila who was crammed in the back with the children.

  The mad dog was still in him as he barked, “All right, God damn it! You so intent going on this trip, I tell you what! You go with Burt and the kids, an' I'll stay at the house!”

 Leila snapped back, “Oh Santiago stop acting like such pig!”

 Before she could say anything more Santiago jumped out of the tiny car. He was a broken Jack-In-The-Box banging a metal door behind him. He walked off into the dark surrounding the village. The night had come, the sky blue-black, but enough light from the crystal display of stars for Santiago to stumble his way back to their beach house. He retrieved the half bottle of wine still on the table and continued his meandering wobble to the beach where he sat on a large rock.

 A few minutes passed and Santiago cursed himself feeling incapable of resolving a conclusion to anything except his manic desire for alcoholic numbness. The gentle splashing of the night tide had lost its natural Mediterranean melody and had been replaced with the slushy friction of one sad world dissolving another. To Santiago, the world was on fire. Then from behind, he heard the small thud of Leila's footsteps.

“Son-of-a- bitch! I knew you'd come! Why can't you leave me fucking alone? Just go back. You wanted to go so fucking bad -- well go!” Flames circled Santiago.

“Stop being this way. Let me talk to you…” Leila pleaded.

“Go fucking away. I wanna be on my own!” he screeched. He started to stand up and run away with his madness.

Leila grabbed him by the arms, her face pointing into his. She began to shake him. “Stop acting like a fool!”

 Santiago pushed Leila away. She grabbed at him again. He pushed harder. She pushed back. He responded as he would to another man, hard.

Leila screamed, “You bastard!” and began to attack him with little flying fists with their untrained knuckles and thin fingers.

Santiago was not a large man but he was strong, much stronger than Leila and with one open palm-slap and a hook with his foot, he crashed the petite woman to the stony beach. She fell hard, bumping her head on a rounded stone, stunning her momentarily. Her anger dissolved in tears and pain. She began to sob hysterically.

“You rotten bastard! You've really hurt me this time! You rotten male chauvinist bastard! You hit me! You hit me!”

  Santiago furious, reached down and pulled her brutally from the fetus position she had curled into. “Shut up! Shut your God damn mouth! You bitch! Do you think you would still be talking if I had hit you?  You wanted a fight and you got one. You're God damn lucky I didn't hit you! Do you think I'd take this kind of shit from another man?  So shut your God damn mouth and leave me alone!”

   Leila, her emotions out of control, her pride and flesh hurt, turned from his cold hate. With tears in her eyes she blindly ran towards the beach house.

Santiago sat for awhile on the rock, feeling the anger burn red. After a few minutes he could hear the mournful wail of sorrow pulsing from the dark shape of the beach house. Leila's misery was unrestrained. He felt ashamed. He went back to the house and found her in their bed, rolled into a ball of sobbing hurt. He reached to her shoulder and softly touched her. She turned looking up at him with one well developed shiny black eye.

   “Ah Leila... I'm sorry sweetheart... I'm a monster... I didn't mean to do this to you.  Darling I'm sorry, I'm sorry, please forgive me.”

   Love is so close to hate when one is blinded by emotion. The boundaries shift easily as patterns in the sand. Hate and love swirl together and definitions are blown away. Hot sirocco winds tear at man and woman.

  Leila took Santiago into her arms and made love to him violently, abandoned and with more passion than she understood. A wild consuming lust roared through her body. She clawed her fingernails into Santiago's back and they both screamed. Ecstasy took them into the night.

                                              ***

They left the company of Burt and his children the next day. Leila held him responsible for Santiago's lapse into bachelor chauvinism and afterwards would spit out, YOUR FRIEND BURT. It was a quiver of neat little arrows aimed at Santiago. She was puzzled by the sado-masochist sexual enjoyment after the incident. The delicious but terrifying feeling echoed in her memory. Santiago had awakened a part of her she did not want to explore. Pain mixed into sex, yes, erotic. But still, it did not stop her from taking the opportunity to make Santiago feel like a women beater, aiming her blackened eye at him long after it had gone away.

Santiago kept up his defenses   “You're lucky that's all you got,” he would say. But   inside, the violence horrified him. He had seen enough brutality for ten life times. The war was over.   He cut down his drinking and tried to be good to Leila.  But damn it all, he didn't like anyone pushing him.

The remaining days of their holiday went without any further anguish, other than Santiago's sunburned buttocks acquired while lying on a nudist beach spellbound for several hours watching German breasts. Leila did not mind, she was getting a tan.

                                                                        ***

They returned to Scotland. The next year blurred into the mad rushing tides of a marriage between two artists, each trying to be an original. Germany was all that Leila feared it would be. It was a waste of time. No one could see her as an artist.  She was a woman. Santiago's little helper; the Germans would wink knowingly.

`    Being Rich and Famous as Santiago had prophesied was another joke.  There was just enough money to pay off their bank loan and fame was one tiny photograph buried in the middle pages of the Munich morning papers. In mid-project, Santiago in manic depression ran off to spend what little extra money they had on a train station whore in a flop house hotel. Leila had given up caring and asked no questions when he returned in the morning smelling of vomit and cheap perfume.  

Another dismal winter followed. Leila grew numb to Santiago and his drunken binges but occasionally she would find a moment of tenderness when she would remember how they once loved and respected each other. She tried to understand his emotional thrashings and almost forgave him for his flight to other women. He was weak after all. At the same time she was determined more than ever to make a success of her own life.

          ***

As the spring came around Santiago had convinced himself that Corsica was calling for their return. He began to plan a new project -- a dream that would come true where they would all be happy at last. The revolution of independence was now undeniable to Leila. She was young and had everything in front of her. She would start Taking and stop Giving for a change. She loved Santiago but she could no longer worry about his neurotic fear of being forty. She would no longer be in his The Silence. A spiritual separation had begun. An opportunity soon presented itself for Leila.

There was a position for an Artist-in-Residence in one of Scotland's small mining communities. The job was an off-shoot of the Community Arts movement that had grown in respectability and finance since the days of Flower Power in the late sixties. The idea was to work with people focusing on an alternative education through art.  It was played out in the cold streets and dark hearts deep inside Scottish ghettos.  But for Leila this job was LIBERATION. At last she had a position which demanded her intellect, her creativity.

Santiago seemed to be pleased for her. He could feel her need for freedom. Also it took some of the pressure off him to make money and gave time to prepare for the journey to Corsica. When her contract expired in six months she would be ready to go. It would be wonderful. Santiago continued his story of the beautiful magical island in the Mediterranean. Leila went deaf.

          ***

The months passed. Both were preoccupied with their projects. Leila was directing murals and community festivals. Santiago was making sculptures no one bought. He didn't care because his other work was more exciting. He was converting an old three-ton truck into a moving home that would take them all to Corsica. After five months Leila realized Santiago was serious about moving to Corsica. She began to drag her feet. Why should she move just when she was beginning to succeed in her own life? Scotland was small and out of the mainstream of the Art World, but Corsica was nowhere! They argued. Santiago tried to convince her Scotland was the last place in the world to live.

  “You know one of these days they are going to drop the big one on this country! This place is the fucking atomic trigger for the next war,” he preached.  As though it made perfect sense he would add, “It’s a great chance for us to speak French, maybe even Corsican! You know if we don't like it we can always move back to America.”

  “You drive me crazy!” Leila screamed! “Why don't we move to America if we must leave Scotland? At least there is Los Angeles and New York. Corsica is just a bloody tourist island and we will rot there!” Leila was resisting what she saw as her own burial. She had just begun to live.

  Santiago played her resistance saying, “Look, just three months, and if it doesn't work out, we'll go to America.”

  She refused to talk about Corsica until the wheel of fate brought new people into their life. Through a mutual friend at a party one evening, they were introduced to a Corsican writer, who had lived in Edinburgh for several years. Leila was charmed by a man who was gentle and sensitive to her femininity. He handled her in a way that Latin men know. She was lured by something wild, mischievous. Maybe it was the Corsican side of his nature. It was a flirting game, but there was a genuine quality about this man. Santiago found him curious, enigmatic, but he liked his eyes.

  Jean Simon the Corsican, had come to Scotland about the same time as Santiago, ten years before. Both were part of the great social revolution that shifted young people all over the world to countries that seemed foreign and exotic.

 “Ten years is enough,” Jean Simon said.  I am tired of the cold, tired of the gray! It is time for me to go home.

  Jean Simon was returning to his island and he was happy to hear Santiago's plan of taking the family to Corsica. He offered to help them get established. He knew all the important artists on the island and he would be delighted in making the connections

 Jean Simon smiled directly at Leila and said, “This is fantastic! It means a little piece of Scotland will be in Corsica for me.”

  Leila smiled too. The island suddenly was much better than she remembered it and the thought of basking in the warm sun didn't strike her as a bad idea. Her attitude began to shift. Santiago looked at them both, noticing their lingering eyes.                                                       

***

Leila found independence from Santiago. Her art in the ghettos had brought professional recognition and at last she was out from under the The Silence of Santiago's artistic umbrella - but the idea was there. The move to Corsica was tempting. Jean Simon reminded her of the how lovely Corsica was despite what a toad Santiago had been on the holiday. In the end it had been wonderful. The island was special.

 Jean Simon agreed with her observation but not her fear,   “Yes it is small, but there is a lot of potential.”  He looked her with his gentle smile. “Who knows, maybe we can do a co-production.”

  Crumbs of curiosity were being scattered in front of her. But Corsica, really? What chance for art? It was a long way from Paris. Corsica was a long way from anywhere. Fear would overtake her. Fear that once again she would be subjugated to Santiago's bewildering intensities and to be known only as his wife -- his little helper. The thought infuriated her. Damn it all! She was free. She was her own kind of artist and she would not disappear into his mad charisma again. And that thing -- that bloody gold painted lorry he had been working on! She began to think of it not as a lorry at all but a huge golden monster

  Santiago said, “Don't call it a lorry. It's a truck, but it is going to become something special. It is more like a ship than a truck, in fact I think I'll call it, a Land Ship”

 Bloody Hell! After eleven houses, now Santiago wanted to move into a truck -- his bloody idea of a portable shack. All of her beautiful objects, all of her precious little finds, all of her lovely plants! What would come of them all? And they had a beautiful cottage now in the country, at the edge of the city.

 Tara was happy and doing very well in school. Everything for the first time in years was in order. And her work, she loved her work. She was somebody. No!  She would not give up her hard won freedom to chase off with this man, chasing a dream about Corsica. A man she no longer desired as a lover, no longer believed his fantasies, and no longer understood as a friend. He was mad! The show-down had to come.

Maybe he would go but she didn't care. He could take his truck and sleep with it. After all he had shown more interest for it than he ever did for her or for Tara. It was simple. Their little girl would stay with her and she would figure a way out. She had managed fine when he had run off to Germany to visit whores and she would manage fine again.

She would certainly not miss making love to him. He was about as romantic as a great white whale. She laughed to think about it. That was exactly what it was like these days, a bloody white whale squirming and spurting on her. Not like it had been with... oh well, best not to think about that now.

 Enough problems. What had happened to Santiago? He had not always been that way, or had he? She could not remember. It seemed they had always been together and to remember back to the beginning was almost another life. Had there ever been passion or even romance?

Oh God! She laughed as a picture rolled into consciousness. Every time Santiago tried to be romantic it was a Laurel and Hardy production! The time in the wheat field in front of the cottage. The wheat only high enough to hide our bare bodies and the car and the knocking on the front door. My God, Tara asleep in her room and there at the front door, two police peering about. Santiago and his stupid marijuana plants in the window! Him in a panic trying to put on his trousers and the wheat all cracking and rustling. Santiago red in the face going up to the officers all casual-like, as if it was just a normal day, him swimming about in the wheat fields. Oh what a joke, and those police looking at him all peculiar like, and then handing him a summons for parking tickets I had not paid. God Santiago was so mad. She giggled with the memory of it all then sighed. At least there were funny times together.

Now it was another time. Corsica lay in front. Jean Simon made his island sound full of intriguing possibilities. He was nothing like the Corsican men she had seen on the island. There were no rough edges on him. Certainly not the bristle-chinned macho fishermen she couldn't help but notice. They were dark versions of Santiago. No, Jean Simon was refined. Gentle. Nice. Yes, charming. Corsica lingered in her thoughts.

On a late cold October day she was startled into reality, when she saw Santiago moving some of her small precious objects from the cottage into the three ton lorry he was now calling The Land Ship. She felt as though she was attending her own funeral.

  “No Santiago. I am not going to do it. I am not going with you,” she shouted.

  “Fine,” bellowed Santiago, “just fucking fine. You better make up your mind whether or not you want Tara to stay here with you. She might get in the way of your God damn career.”

  He was no longer making any attempt to try to persuade her to come with him. He could care less. He wasn't sure if he felt any emotion other than anger towards the woman that shared his bed. All she did was complain and resist any idea he had.

Their love-making had become a miserable passionless obligation. Once a month, usually when she was on her period, when she was absolutely certain not to get pregnant. She didn't love him, she tolerated him. He didn't know why she stayed with him. He could be miserable by himself. He didn't need her help to feel that way. Screw her. She is nothing but a pain in the ass.

There are other women in the world. In fact too many women -- fuck women. Santiago was floundering in his fear, drifting towards a conviction that life was fucked and love was a cruel companion. Perhaps an alliance with any women was impossible for him. What hurt him most was not that Leila was trying to find her own life, but that she was rejecting his.  He wouldn't let it happen again. It all felt so old, so very familiar. He would not let his heart die one more time. Another women leaving him, he could almost hear the footsteps walk away. He was playing the tough man. Shit! Fucking shit! It was all so insane, so fucking crazy! So fucking hard!

There was the little girl, his little girl!   It would rip his guts out to lose his little girl. The pain was coming too close. Santiago denied it by thinking about the eminent journey. There was the work preparing the truck for the fifteen hundred mile voyage to Corsica. Then the day of confrontation came.

  “To hell with it,” Santiago said. “Come if you are coming, stay if you are staying. I'm leaving in fifteen minutes, so make up your mind.”

He slammed the door of the cottage. He went to the Land Ship. He walked around it kicking tires, something he had seen truckers do in America but not knowing why. He did it because he was angry. China the Cocker Spaniel puppy he had given Tara the year before, had now grown, set in the truck, grateful he was out of the way.

  In those few minutes love and hate boiled together into the strangest of all human emotions. Hope. What a featureless and irrational plane of existence hope is. It allows human beings to continue in impossible conditions, believing something good will arrive in the force of change. Who knows? Maybe true love is the eternal struggle with hate  and maybe it was Leila's love, damaged, bumped and bruised as it was which held them together.  She hoped Santiago's hideous lorry would sink into a bog of hell, but in the confusion of her own emotion she ceased to struggle and gave into Santiago's will.

  On a windy October evening, three people and a dog sailed away from the shores of familiarity into uncharted waters. The ropes were not cast off, they were cut. Two miles down the road Santiago went into a sharp curve and the top heavy galleon began to lean terribly. Just at that moment a blast of wind walloped them from the inside. The Land Ship rocked onto the outside wheels. Santiago sucked breath through white lips as the over-loaded three ton truck bicycled through space for an eternal moment. Then finally in slow motion it heaved back onto its four cornered base rocking and twisting like a big vessel in heavy seas.

Santiago was silent, clutching the steering wheel with wet hands.  Leila held Tara on her lap and smiled into the dark of the approaching night.

***

Santiago believed they were on a voyage. The rolling sway of the heavy truck seemed natural. He was the captain of the Land Ship. It squeaked, growled and wallowed down through Scotland and England. The weather was atrocious. The rain covered the windows of the truck as if it were a submarine rather than any kind of ship. Much to Santiago's annoyance the truck leaked in several places and was taking on the added weight of rainwater increasing the burden already stacked on the trucks back. Another gallon of water could scuttle his craft.

  Leila resigned herself bitterly to the unknown. The weather complimented her mood perfectly – just another note to her concert of misery.

  Santiago was functioning at this point through the adrenalin that pumped steadily into his blood which boosted the nervous anxiety in his already abused body. For the last few weeks he had lived on a steady diet of strong black coffee accompanied with the summer crop of two marijuana plants. He would work on the truck late into the night and then sleep would only come after he had obliterated himself with alcohol. Physically, he had never been so close to being a complete wreck. Mentally he was dancing on a tight rope. Something had to give, sometime, somewhere.

  Tara only six years old didn't understand what was happening.  Time and space were an uncalculated proportion of something going on, where a minute is a life-time and a mile is an endless passage. She was unhappy leaving her school friends but excited about going somewhere.

Every hour she asked, “When are we going to be in Corsica?”

 “It will be a long time sweetheart,” her father said.

She would crawl through to the back of the truck, play with China the dog and forget the question for another hour.

  The Land Ship pushed on through cascading skies. The three people and a dog were more like shipwreck survivors on a raft than a family on a golden galleon sailing into the sunset. It was all Santiago could do to keep the meandering machine on the dim gray lines of the motorways as they drifted down to the bottom of England. They stayed the first night parked in one of the rest stops along the route. By the end of the second day they came to Birmingham, only three hundred miles from where they had started. That night they stayed at the house of Vicki Manstalk. She was an Australian expatriate who Santiago had known since his early days in Britain. Vicki was on friendly terms with Leila and at times a sisterly intimacy existed, yet there was a barrier between them. Santiago never worried about it. To him, Vicki was someone constant, who he occasionally slipped outrageous flirtation and she responded in kind. She had already done that to extraordinary proportions. Santiago would occasionally detect a tiny wave of feminine propriety transmitted from Leila towards Vicki and interpreted it as basic jealousy.

Vicki was a mature woman, blonde,  elegant, but though small like Leila, was muscled toned from visiting the gym three times a week. She was not particularly pretty, but she had that arresting sexual magnetism that made men stop and follow her movements. She was well adjusted to being over forty and blessed in several ways. She not only had abundant intelligence and sexy proportions but an endless supply of money.  Finance had never been a problem unless one understands having money is just another  kind of problem. Vicki was born rich but she was no fool, except a fool for men -- especially men who equaled her sexual talents.

It was this weakness that put her through mad circles with men and usually resentment from other women. Vicki loved men and was proud of her felatio reputation. She understood herself well and recognized along with her good fortune she could afford to play Pan’s pipe. She worshipped men and the twisted game it all could be -- a game having no particular rules or time. Men came in, men went out. She was a romantic for the moment it was.  Her mantra: Nothing breeds contempt more than too much of the same.

Leila didn't share this point of view but found a comfortable plateau with Vicki through their mutual interest in art, music and most of all, jewelry and clothes. Vicki gave these to Leila. In her generous abundance she was forever discarding objects or clothing. She would say to Leila, I don't wear these anymore. The colors suit you perfectly! Sweetie, you will be so cute in them! Tones of soft cooing would seduce Leila. Being perpetually bankrupt with Santiago made it easy to accept.

                                                                       ***

It continued to rain through the night and Leila was glad to be out of the leaking vessel. Vicki talked with them over cups of tea and sandwiches and then they made sleepy goodnights. Vicki was off to an encounter session with one of her latest friends early in the morning. She promised a meeting again soon as they got settled in Corsica,.

  When Santiago and Leila went into the large breakfast room in the morning Vicki had already gone. There was a note attached to a bundle of clothes on the kitchen table. It read: These will look lovely on you - just your colors. Leila touched the cashmere softness of the garments, but this time she did not pick them up.

   They passed through the pelting hazard of falling rain and Birmingham traffic and slid along on into the day. The evening brought the port town of Plymouth. The lights of the docks were murky in the drizzle. They slept in the Land Ship listening to the beating of the hard rain on the metal roof. Leila moved away from the puddles pooling in their bed. Santiago groaned.

Ten hours later the Channel ferry was carrying them to France.  They were sitting in the smoked stained empty lounge bar looking out foggy smeared windows. The sea was dirty gray except for the yellowed frothy caps of wind torn waves. Santiago wondered why anyone in their right mind would want to swim across such a filthy stretch of water. It didn't occur to him, they were practically doing the same thing.

Two hours and eight minutes later there were looks of disbelief as Santiago's golden Land Ship squeaked off the ferry and onto the docks of La Havre. Santiago looked fearfully at the customs officers standing at the gates.  He was worried they would be stopped because of China the dog and they would all be turned back.

The officers watched the truck sleepy-eyed and said, “Passé.” To stop this camion meant a lot of work. It was too early in the morning.

  The family gravitated south, falling like the last broken gold leaf of autumn -- down through the back roads of France complete with breakdowns,  electrical short-outs, hissing hoses and banging wheels. Little moments of glory began to grow with the length of the suns rays. Road signs read, DEGUSTATION VIN ICI. The bouquet of orange orchards drifted into the truck. The days of rain were behind them.  Their faces looked to the Mediterranean as they came to the south coast of France.

  Leila began to rise out of her defeat. Santiago had been right, this was wonderful.  She and Tara soaked in the warm air and sunshine through the windows of their portable refuge. The Land Ship was at last co-operating, the broken parts repaired, the great rains of Britain evaporated, the engine ticked like a precision clock -- but not Santiago. Now that he was so close to his Corsican dream he felt physically destroyed. His accumulated poisons were beginning to pop out.  “Life is a pain in the ass,” he grumbled.  When the mind is sick, the body follows.

***

The sun filled the morning as they rolled off the Corsican ferry for the second time in their life. The passage from Marseilles to Ajaccio had been calm.  The night before had sparkled with a crescent moon and stars. Santiago knew it was a significant omen for their arrival. The Land Ship seemed to roll proudly as the terrain of Corsica slipped under its wheels. The burden of the rainwater had been left far behind. The luxurious October air of Corsica was lifting the damp in more ways than one, at least for Leila.

She was blooming into a cheerful mood in the idyllic caress of the Mediterranean. The weather left behind in Britain had been a miserable christening of departure. Further south the climate shifted gradually to an enclosing soft warmth. Such days in Scotland were a rare experience. Leila soaked in the heat like a cat. The idea was appealing now to live in this warm land but little did she know of winter in Corsica. Later she would swear she had never been so cold but on this day and weeks to follow she held onto the illusion of an eternal summer.

Her belief in the sun's warmth made it easier to be in Corsica, knowing what she had given up in Scotland. Perhaps it would not be so bad after all. There was another possibility. She was looking forward to meeting Jean Simon again. The last few weeks he was in Scotland they had became friends. Jean Simon offered many times to help in any way he could, once they arrived on the island. Leila was beginning to accept the situation. She was in Corsica, with Tara in Santiago’s lunatic mobile crazy-house with a dog called China. Oh God! How much longer with Santiago? Maybe it would work out. Maybe... She did not want think about it and pushed the thoughts out of her mind. Let the sun come in.

  Jean Simon had given them directions on how to find his village which lay in the mountains thirty kilometers from Ajaccio. Santiago was anxious to pass through the Corsican version of Customs. He was still worried that China would be caught in the web of bureaucratic officialdom but once again they were waved through.

The officer in charge let his eyes fall lazily to the ground, but Santiago was still worried -- they would be stopped for dogs or dope -- he was worried simply of stopping when something else was pushing him. Pain.

He drove straight out of the city while Leila and protested and wanted to see at least the center of Ajaccio. He told Leila there would be a time to stop but not yet. Santiago wanted to get his Land Ship and family to Jean Simon's village. He wanted to take his vessel into a safe harbor, out of the tempest storms, out of the squall of pain blowing over him.

  The pain had been coming and going. 

Now it was screwing a steady torment into him with fluctuating intensities from bad to worse. In the last days it had taken all his will-power to concentrate on driving the truck. He constantly shifted his weight in the driver’s seat from one buttock to the other, twisting and turning trying to escape from the burning pressure in his posterior. Santiago grumbled a repeated curse, “God damn hemorrhoids.”

  Hemorrhoids.

They had been a recurrent problem since he was twenty-three.

They had come about after he was given a very thorough anal examination while nearly unconscious in the army hospital in the Germany. Later on it dawned on him; he had been raped by a pervert medic.

The anal sex had left its mark.

Over the years the little ruptures had come and gone like obnoxious relatives. Usually they occurred when he was under stress or pushing life too fast. The dream of being in Corsica was rapidly fading. The test of fire had come and Santiago damned the ironic situation of his arrival. In between the drift of pain and movement Santiago guided the Land Ship as it crawled up the incredibly steep narrow mountain roads, its over-loaded motor pushing through the low gears. 

Bending into curves slow as smoke, they ascended the thirty kilometers to Jean Simon's village. 

                                                                 ***

Jean Simon lived near the small mountain village of Alata. In front of his house was the panorama overlooking Golfe d’Ajaccio to Capa di Muru in the southwest.

The house was old family property built in traditional Corsican fashion, stone solid and practical. Built with the imagination of poverty, it had remained the same for two centuries and then the sophisticated taste of a cultured traveler settled onto the inherited stones.

The house was different from other buildings in the village -- not expensive or bourgeois but closer to what one would conclude to be the balanced creation of a playboy gardener.

The trucking family arrived at the first oasis of their pilgrimage.

Leila's eyes drank in the sight. The hand hewn rocks of the house were wedged into the mountain side. Large windows with small panes faced the south sun and the broad bowl valley dropped gently into biblical pastures and rolled down to the opalescent plate of the Mediterranean.

It was midmorning. The sun was transparent gold filtering through the arbors and mimosa trees surrounding the house. An ancient olive tree thrust twisted limbs around the dark wooden banister of an extended sun-deck. The grounds were manicured. There were flowers, fruit orchards, grape vines and moss covered rocks around a wishing well. The site was beauty created by hands that felt the Earth speak.

Leila knew it was Jean Simon's house as easily as one recognizes the dark silhouette of a friend.

 The shape had his refined charming character. Santiago parked the truck on the bank of the road that passed above the house on the slope of the mountain. He was getting out from under the steering wheel when Jean Simon appeared on the patio.

   He waved and happily shouted, “Welcome to Corsica! Come on down. I have breakfast of fresh grape juice and croissant.”

  It was a warm welcome but there was fire at the edge.

Santiago's burning anal condition was pulling him steadily into a black funnel of gloom. He wondered why his asshole had waited until he was fifteen hundred miles away from the British Welfare State to perform its nasty trick. It would cost a fortune to have a new sphincter sewn on. He was sure that was the only solution.

  Leila was happy and relaxed the first few days at Jean Simon's home. She was talkative, keen to go on walking jaunts, swimming at the beach, looking around the small village and filling herself with the radiance of good weather. She ignored Santiago and his regressive attitude by concentrating on the charms of the moment which was Jean Simon's flattering attention to her.

She felt his warmth with gratitude.

He was not presumptuous or smarmy, one of her favorite terms for jerks and geeks who put on slimy smiles and talked slick  trying to get her to bed, telling her about the talented lines in the palm of her hands and the exotic shape of her lips.

No, Jean Simon was authentic.

He was genuinely concerned with her.

He made her feel she was a beautiful and intelligent woman.

What more could a feminine personality demand from a dark handsome stranger?

There were times when she wondered if Jean Simon was homosexual.

He had sort of an effeminate manner, really too gentle to be a man's man.

It was more the movement of his hands, the cultivated accent, the understanding and sympathy of a women's predicament. God, for a man, that in itself was unbelievable. He even understood how a women's mind worked. No, not homosexual, not him, he was definitely a man. He had that carnivorous look about the eyes, and of course he did have rather a lot of attractive female friends who were obviously more than just platonic.

Whatever he was, she liked him as a friend.

Santiago liked him.

The thought of romance was a very distant path.

Leila’s thoughts began to spin.

Jean Simon was a friend, something difficult for a woman to find in a man. Anyway, he had good habits and lovely manners. Maybe they would rub off onto Santiago. Hah! That would be the day! Santiago could not see past the end of his ass -- always moaning about his hemorrhoids. His little world, his anus and his truck. Hypocrite!  Him always going on about the depth and sensitivity of the artistic soul. God, he is such a bloody American. Life outside his spectrum is just some kind of television spectacle. God, he even left me to celebrate my thirtieth birthday with Jean Simon. I could have been in bed all evening for all he knew. He is so arrogant! Oh well, as long as we are in Corsica, damn Corsica, we might as well make the best of it. I had better start organizing our life. Santiago would certainly foul that up. Things have to be done, we have to find a house! We are not going to live in that truck no matter how nice Santiago said it is. Tara has to go to school. The poor little thing, it was going to be hard for her, five years old and not speaking a word of French. And work! We must find work. Oh Christ. Corsica. What chance for artists like us on this tiny island? Oh sure, Santiago said he had big ideas, there would be work everywhere. It will be easy he says. But what does he do when he gets here? He goes into one of his silent depressions and lies in that hole of a bed in his truck hiding from the world! Just typical. Just bloody typical!

***

The fourth day on the island Jean Simon in his Peugeot took the family to Ajaccio. He arranged meetings with local artists and some of his city acquaintances. Leila and Tara were excited. It would be their first chance to tour Corsica's big city. The morning they arrived on the island, Santiago was in such a hurry they had seen only the port. Now they were going into the center. There would be the chance to sit in outdoor cafes, look in shops and act like tourists. Leila smiled thinking about this little holiday in the Mediterranean.

 Their rendezvous was at the Cafe Ajaccio. The cafe was typically French having tables inside and out near large plate glass windows to accommodate people watching on the busiest corner of Ajaccio. The wayward contingent chose to set around one of the small Formica tables outside, under one of the large palm trees. The air was warm and smelled of the sea. A gray-haired waiter dressed in the traditional short white jacket with white shirt, black bow tie and tight black trousers took their order.

   Jean Simon suggested Pastis 51. Santiago said no thanks and asked for tea. Leila looked at him curiously thinking it was odd for him not to jump at chance for a drink. It was a balmy day and a soft breeze sifted across them, but Santiago was unable to relax. He could sit still for only a few seconds before twisting to another position. He constantly excused himself to the toilet feeling just slight relief for a few minutes.  

The waiters looked at him suspiciously as he stumbled through the cafe with madness across his face. They assumed he was another one of those bazaar Englishmen, in search of prey in the urinals. They curled their lips and hissed, Pede... what kind of man makes love in the toilets? They shouted loudly to each other and for the benefit of the other customers. More eyes in the cafe looked towards Santiago in disgust.

He could hear nothing but the blood in his ass.

Santiago returned to the exterior table each time feeling more distressed, more embarrassed.

 Jean Simon and his entourage flowed on in their interminable talk, sometimes in English for his benefit, but mostly in French, a language he could not understand.

Twice, Santiago had begun French lessons, but only to abandon the idea after a few enigmatic hours. Language had never been a strong point for him. In one ear out the other, he let the blur of sound slip around him.

There was enough cacophony already in his body. He only could hear hooligan's in the basement of his temple, tearing it down brick by brick. Monsters were in his foundations and the tower of his being was beginning to tilt. All he was aware of was the gnawing pain that caused each moment quadruple in time. Would the ritual-mannered hello's and good bye's of French cheek-kissing never come to an end. No sympathy for the Devil or assholes...

  Fuck Jean Simon and his friends! Talk, talk, talk.

 From one cafe to another, the day plowed on.

The pressure inside Santiago was spiked with bamboo shafts. His dark tunnel of ass-consciousness went from table to toilet seeing vague The Silences and mannequin faces. Santiago had stopped drinking alcohol or coffee since they had arrived in Corsica, thinking Perrier or weak tea would resolve his problem.

But there was no refuge. 

Everything touched his bubbled rectum -- even sound.

The picture of people in front of him went into a haze and Santiago fell into a scatological daydream. He imagined a vision of Mormons walking into a dry land -- a journey into the great hard pan of the Salt Lake. He saw the harvest of their first year and the sky turning black with the descent of a billion snapping jawed locusts. The wheat fields looked like a colossal ass-hole. He saw small man with a long white beard charge at the swarming insects, shaking his fist screaming, “Where are the God damn Sea Gulls? Come on you Motherfuckers!  Save my wheat fields!”

   Leila touched Santiago's arm and asked, “What sea gulls?”

  Santiago looked at her blankly then crossed his arms and said, “Nothing. Just fucking nothing.”

  Santiago fell deeper into his sour mood and he began to think, Oh yeah, I've had them before, but never like this. This is fucking insane. I have to put on a face for these people and act like nothing is going on inside of me -- just act interested in their artistic jabber, act curious even, anything. Ah fuck it. Why don't I just come out with it and say to these people, Excuse me, but I simply can’t hear a word you are saying! You see, there is a whole herd of hyena's holding a festival in my fart-trap!

Santiago shifted his weight on the hard plastic chair.

The hours of the day are infinite when one is in a torture chamber. Santiago was the prisoner of his condition for several weeks and towards the late afternoon of this day the pain peeked.

For a moment Santiago felt he was going to pass out, then suddenly the pain stopped.

Without reason it slipped away. Santiago was reprieved. Perhaps the agony had come to its end.

  He was released -- a free citizen of the free world. He could walk, he could talk. How lovely and how easy it is to be in the sun, to rest at a table of a Mediterranean cafe when you are liberated. After a day of seeing plastic masks of pretend people buzzing noise at him, Santiago bubbled back into life.  For the first time in days he talked while Leila thought, it is so unbearable, him being like this. He's so selfish. The attention of the group began to pivot around him in English. The silent stranger did have something to say after all. The change of language was the cue for a new player to step into the scene.

 Charlotte was introduced.

Leila raised her eyebrows quickly recognizing an obvious rival while Santiago eyes fell to the sensuous curves of Charlotte.

***

She was an artist, more so in temperament than of actual production.

One painting needed much thought.

She was small, naturally blonde, with the help of modern science. Charlotte was an experienced woman of thirty-five, yet she retained something teenage, fresh and dangerous. Her looks were a crisscross of genetic lines from Italy to the top of Africa, but she was French, very French. She spoke bumpy English edged with a soft French accent. She had the presence as if she was always starring in her own movie.

When she talked she would continually throw her head back tossing the hair out of her eyes.

She had a stance, a certain eager feminism, standing on the balls of her feet, balancing her allure, creating a small ceremonial dance to draw the male bird near.

There was openness, being at once deeply metaphysical and profoundly humble, yet a talent to embrace the absurd. She felt herself to be a contradiction in life's on-going comedy. She was the bitter joke of being someone and no one at the same time.

Charlotte played another theme over this; the game of obvious sexuality.

This flowed over everything and everyone. She ate her food lustfully, she drove her car passionately and she always talked in shades of anger. Her eyes loved beauty, as much in the appreciation of the fine lines of an exquisite women as classic  proportions of male muscled bodies. She was French, a gourmet in creative existence. Santiago saw this portrait within the first minutes of their meeting.

Something was born at the cafe table that pulled him and Leila into an unknown circle.

The conversation with Jean Simon's friends went from art to food, politics to death. It was flowing naturally. There was a sense of union that gradually developed between the inner group of Charlotte, Leila and Santiago.

Jean Simon and the others set back and listened and watched in the fashion the French have when they know a soap opera is being written.

Leila slowly abandoned her protective attitude. It was not a jealousy towards Charlotte, but just good female sense that other females are dangerous and in a moment like this even Santiago became valuable. But as she relaxed her defense a confidence came and she allowed Charlotte to approach her heart and sensitivities. Leila liked this kind of woman -- a woman of force.

The talk rambled on across places, things and ideas they had all known before.

And so they traveled on together leaving their audience behind. Santiago with Tara on his back, the two women linked their arms into his leaving the café. They went down the street a short way and up a dark flight of stairs to Charlotte's atelier. They entered the colored world of her imagination.         

 

***

Art is a peculiar idea, especially in the last quarter of the twentieth century. A time caught in the repetition of the past -- Music, fashion, war, politics, and painting all fall back into another age, kaleidoscopic and happening at once. Twenties fashion haircuts walk side by side on this late avenue with space-age plastic zipped boots. A reservoir of time where one dips in the bucket and pulls up all ages. If you are a painter and you paint pictures that look like brown mud, a critic proclaims them as influenced by pre-historic cavemen. If you paint disciplined reclining nudes, the critic says it is somewhere between Michelangelo and Modigliani. It has already been done. Painting has become only a common cliché. The only thing that makes it unique is how the artist repeats the quirks and mistakes of their own hand, thus an individual work of art is created.

In Charlotte's atelier, this analysis of art history passed through Santiago's thoughts.

An artist is seldom charitable to another artist unless one is willing to worship the other as an apprentice to the Master.

Santiago was not willing to take a subservient position.

Neither was Charlotte nor Leila.

Yet at once, all three recognized they were in the same elite club. All three were masters, or they believed to themselves. A mutual respect if not admiration moved over them. Santiago and Leila were recent and temporary arrivals to Corsica, therefore no threat of local competition to Charlotte. Indeed, if anything they had a tinge of glamour, the exotic and the mysterious, making them much more desirable. Charlotte thought they would be an ideal couple to toy with and she drew them into her web of patterns.

 She knew everybody who was somebody worth knowing and if by some strange chance she didn't know them she would never tell you. Information or withholding it was her power. Youthful arrogance radiated the message. She knew something about something. She could explain the unexplainable. Feeble insecurity was not part of her style. She had her act together. It was a charade.

 Like so many strong-minded people, she had developed her performance. It was a blanket to cover the confused child that cried in the night. Like Santiago, she had built a fortress around her heart with thick walls of pride. Never again would she let someone come inside to destroy her soul. Santiago would come to understand this of Charlotte, but for now he was amused and curious about her paintings, her intelligence, and the other thing -- her sexual magnetism.

  Santiago felt it from the beginning of their encounter.  At 18, he would have confused the sensation, thinking perhaps he was hungry or restless.  He was forty now and he knew the familiar low wave in his gut.  It moved in and around him like puffs of smoky air and tingled his eyes and nose. It came on like the rush of adrenaline.  It was there.  There, but hazed out in the background of talking about art. 

She told them where she had lived in America.  Places in the North and in the South, but now she was happy to be back in Corsica.  Her nomadic father had given her this special paradise as a child.  That had been twenty years before.  Now she had chosen the island for herself.

  The three of them talked, about their plans, what kind of work was possible in Corsica and all of the ordinary boring questions of life.  But when you're in a new place even those questions seem exotic.  Charlotte was generous with her time.  She had nothing else to do.  Her work had come to a standstill.  She was ready for something to move her.  The three of them unconsciously began to move together.

  They talked for several hours.  Conversation developed between the two women while Santiago silently dropped into the realm of his earlier world of pain.  The burning ring had returned.  Beating pulses of blood dominated his thoughts and twisted his face into tortured waiting. Leila realized Santiago was suffering.  She made polite excuses to Charlotte, saying that they had to return to the mountains with the Jean Simon.

  “Okay,” Charlotte said, “there will always be other times.  I will see if I can find a house for you... but you can even stay with me if you want...”

  Santiago heard the faint hint of innuendo, but his body was not up to responding.

  The family returned to the mountain with Jean Simon an hour later.  Santiago immediately went to the Land Ship and fell into bed. Leila stayed up talking with Jean Simon in his house.  She was excited with the turn of events. The charming Corsican made her feel glamorous.  It was very late when she finally came to bed.  Santiago groaned and rolled away from her. 

***

The next day, Santiago felt slightly better and with the suggestion of Jean Simon he decided to take the truck to a nearby farm where he could store his assemblage of nuts, bolts and precious junk.  The farmer had several acres Santiago could use and said he was happy to have company.

   The farm was a few kilometers up the mountain, further away from civilization.  When they arrived at the entrance to the farm, Leila gasped.  There below them was a bumpy rutted path, no more than a tilted goat track sliding down into wooded dark gully. Supposedly out of sight at the bottom lay the farm.  Santiago could not decide whether or not to go down the choppy chute. Leila became impatient.

  “Are we just going to sit here on the side of the hill all day,” she said.  She couldn't take much more. 

Santiago had gone into a daydream of dropping anchor of the Land Ship in the country and living organically.

  “Santiago, for once in your life would you try to think of someone else other than yourself. You know you have a child to consider.”  Leila wanted no part of his fantasy.

  “Ah  shit!” Santiago snapped and he slammed the truck in gear and began the plunge downhill.  The transmission whined, the brakes squeaked, glass crashed somewhere in the back of their living quarters.  The truck leaped down the mountain.  The angle of dissent was as close to falling as one can experience when encased in the shroud of tin and steel. Santiago felt insane trying to negotiate the calamity of a screaming wife, a crying child, a barking dog and a red hot poker up that had suddenly returned to his ass. 

  Leila screamed, “Let me out!”  But the rattling home was already falling into oblivion.

Santiago screamed too, “I got us this far!  We'll get to the end of it God damn it!”

 Bashing into path embracing trees and knocking boulders off the steep edges, the truck trashed its way to the bottom. They all sat for a silent moment looking at where they had landed.

“Some of farm,” said Leila. 

In the tattered grounds around them lay one long dilapidated stone building, a few sagging wire fences and several howling dogs. Skinny chickens appeared to exhibit an advance case of molt.

  Santiago looked at the vision of his dreams and moaned a long low note.  He didn't know if the truck would ever be able to climb out of the hole.  The way his body was feeling at this moment he hardly cared.  They arrived at the space -- a piece of open ground in the depths of Corsica. Santiago felt like death.  Leila felt like killing him.

  There was no shelter.  There was no place where his treasures could be stored.  Santiago looked around until he found a small area, the only level piece of ground in view.  Santiago began unloading his treasures, a man possessed.  His precious load, beams of wood, tool boxes, extra tires, tin containers full of nuts and bolts, cans of paint, 200 meters of nylon rope and a hundred other assorted objects. His possessions were a junkman's paradise that no one in their right mind would have taken around the corner far less 1500 miles on a worn out wagon.

  The truck made small creaking noises rising from its sagging springs as Santiago unloaded his assemblage.  It wasn't just getting the load off the truck. To him it was a sacred and symbolic act almost religious. It was demonstrating to divine existence he had completed the dream.  He had arrived on Corsica and he was staking his claim in the New World.

From his point of view it was like the American flag on the Moon.  

From an angle of less grandeur it was more like a male dog pissing on the boundary of his turf. 

It was an act of exhilaration that pulled him out of the experience of his own body. He was a moving spirit climbing to the pinnacle of godhood.  He was also a little bit crazy.

  When he finished he sat down and looked at his work and he was well pleased, at least for the moment before he realized not only his ass was on the fire, but his whole body was aching.  Somewhere in Ajaccio, someone had passed him what the French call, Les Gripe -- the Mediterranean flu.

  Santiago had fallen from the lofts of heavenly truck unloading into the depths of satanic physical illness. He sat on a rock staring at the vehicle, the Land Ship that had brought them to Corsica, to this hole in the Mediterranean.

  Leila was slamming pots and pans down onto their little gas stove. Her eyes threw scolding thoughts towards Santiago's misery. Him and his bloody truck and his bloody dream!  Why did she have to leave Scotland?  White anger came over her and without a thought her mind was made up.

 “I have had enough.  I'm taking Tara and we're going home!”  She mumbled the statement several more times as she laced her shoes tightly and buckled her shoulder back.  The little girl's favorite toys were stuffed into a woven sack.  She took Tara by the hand and walked quickly back up to goat trail they had fallen down.

  Santiago looked after them bleakly and whispered, “I thought this was the place,” as his family disappeared into the maquis and scrub oak. He could see dark clouds on the eastern horizon.

  An hour later Santiago lay in the upper bed of the truck groaning. 

He felt like hell.  His mind was spinning.  What a wonderful moment for Leila to leave. What a fantastic sense of timing.  Why in the fuck didn't she leave when they were still in Scotland?  It can't get any worse.

  Sweat was breaking over Santiago's face. Waves of fever washed his throat and chest.  “Fucking coffin,” Santiago screamed incoherently as a tremendous role of thunder hit the truck and lighting flashed with the passing rumble. The hard drill of a cloud burst drummed on the metal box home.  Within 30 seconds rainwater began to drip onto the pillow next to Santiago's head. “Fuck you too God,” Santiago moaned.

***

Leila had spent the earlier part of the day lying in the sun letting Santiago get on with unloading the vehicle.  It had nothing to do with her.  She saw no reason why he had brought so much junk.  Just because she had decided to stay with him did not mean she had to share his neurotic obsession with bailing wire, bolts, and cans full of unbelievable nonsense.  The questioning thought came back to her again. Why didn't she marry someone normal?

  The late morning had been pleasant enough, the sun touching her with golden fingers.  The chill was being chased away.  She lay on the roof of the truck basking in the warmth.  Around her was rolling a meadow dotted with olive trees.  In the distance a metal clunking came from neck-bells of a goat herd.  Occasionally a loud call of Hoo-Roo came from a Corsican shepherd as he moved his animals across the open pastures.

  Leila looked at her little girl.  How she envied her sometimes.  Tara had her dolls and toys scattered about truck and was unconcerned with adult problems.  As much as Leila was trying to relax she couldn't stop from fretting. Aside from the fact of the Santiago had brought them to the bottom of a hole, there was the feeling she had misplaced something precious.  But at least there was good weather and that had its benefits.  She daydreamed about a winter tan -- the best of Scottish fantasy.  She had two hours of luxury before the spell was broken.  A brisk cold wind came out of the mountains and ominous dark clouds began to shred the blue sky.  Leila threw the book aside she had been holding but not reading and said, “Damn.  I knew this wouldn't last.”

  If one has been raised in Scotland it is easy to have a basic disbelief in fine sunny weather.  Scottish skies are perpetually usurped by monotonous tones of long gray days that parade dully into months.  It is the common paranoia of Scots to believe that endless sunny days are a myth, no less than a child's fantasy of Rock Candy Mountain.  Leila's dream of a winter tan instantly went to peel. She thought of her lost opportunities.  The sun would not be seen until spring and that was too far away. If anything could have filled her with a deeper darker gloom it was when the Santiago went into the truck groaning.

“Ah shit, I'm going to bed,” Santiago said. 

Suddenly the vision came to her of living in a submerged truck embedded at the bottom of hole churning with cold gray mud and her being a chained servant to a neurotic invalid who constantly demanded more service.  The image filled her with horror.  She had no choice but to take her little girl and run.

**8

Santiago was vaguely aware of the truck door banging open and the creaking of springs as Leila and Tara climbed back into the The Silenceed interior.  He could hear Leila make shivering sounds as she pulled off their soaking clothes.  Tara was whimpering.

Santiago thought to himself, so the runaways have returned home -- just like little kids only to escape so far before their hungry bellies bring them back home. He began to shake.  He was lying in saturated blankets from a combination of fevered sweating and the leaking roof.  The bed had the slimy embrace of old oatmeal.  He listened to the hushed noises of Leila putting a kettle on the stove, changing clothes, telling the little girl, shush, do what I say and get to these and dry clothes on. She closed the small slide windows and turned on the gas oven to warm their metal refuge.

The worst of the heat flashes had passed Santiago but remnant pulses of ice still shook him.  It was the kind of influenza that comes when the body's resources are weakest.  The virus, like black shirt fascists, sprayed graffiti on the red walls of blood cells leaving obscene rushes of scald and ache.  Only pocket spaces of emptiness were left where one spins in the sensation of float. Santiago was hearing rustling sounds filtering through the Land Ship. He groaned as he felt himself slipping into another frigid abyss. 

  Leila in the tone of voice as though nothing had happened asked, “Are you all right to love?”

  Santiago whispered sarcastically, “Yeah just great -- never felt better.”

  The air went to icy. Leila retreated to silence.

  “Mommy why is Daddy in bed?”  When Tara was told he did not feel well, the little girl climbed onto his bed and said, “I love you Daddy.”

  Santiago opened his eyes and weekly smiled at his beautiful little girl.  “I love you too sweetheart.”  Without warning, a spasm of cold knifed up his spine and he began to shake violently.

  Leila heard the chill strike Santiago. Concern for him came over her.  Oh dear, he really was sick.  She changed the damp blankets and for the next few hours nursed and coupled her man back to the shores of the living.  Sometime in the middle of the night it was over.  She was exhausted. Her hero slipped wearily into luxury of sleep. Tara purred a small child's snore in her bed as Leila lay awake staring at the ugly brown plywood walls of the truck's interior.

  In the morning Santiago was calm. The sickness had left him with the grace of acceptance.  He was glad it was over and he was glad he was alive.  The world existed the way it was.

“How far did you get?”  He asked. 

Leila laughed. “About a half a mile before that awful rain came and lucky for us the farmer just happened along in his lorry.  He took us to his cottage.”

“Why did you comeback?”  Santiago quietly asked.  He was glad she was there.

Leila frowned a little wrinkle between her eyes and said with resignation, “Where else was I to go?”

Santiago laughed sadly.  “Yeah, I guess we're along ways from nowhere.”

***

A person appreciates having a mirror not only to see how one looks but sometimes just to have physical proof of one's own existence. Friends and lovers give to each other a reflection of their own being.

They see through the layers of pretension and recognize the soul behind the glass. 

They trust, despite the eccentricities, and a love, because of them.

Trust equals love. In the beginning years, this idea had been the pact of truth between Leila and Santiago.  They were friends and lovers because they saw the potential of themselves in each other.  The lived their fantasies together and they walked in weedy crowds as hybrids. Separately they knew they were unique and together they knew they were special.  They gave their beautiful reflections willingly, their recognition enthusiastically and their trust courageously. Such was their treaty as spiritual allies. But they were young.

  How could they know that trust and love in such a contract of honor implied suspicion and hate? 

Their trust meant that they could give and take all measures

 and they did just that. 

Yet who can be more savage to pride than one's dearest friend? 

If friendship is a fragile bridge that can be swept away in the flood of human pathos,

then marriage,

 must surely be

a crystal tight rope,

as dangerous to walk on as it is to fall off.

  Santiago and Leila had started a pattern in their mutual course, taking each other for granted.  It was the classic problem. 

By the very nature of such confident conspiracy they lost the gentle sensitivity of lovers and the eyes of dreamers.

They no longer saw the potential that in being together they were a complete circle, a whole against the fractions of mediocrity. 

On their path together, small careless words had grown into cruel tangles of mockery. 

Their spirits silently separated. 

For long months, then years, they did not recognize each other because they had not bothered to look.

They lost the trust of their oneness, accepting the condition of their division as prisoners know the bars of the cell block.

They contained each other with toleration.

How difficult it is to laugh at one's own predicament, but some would say, marriage is about having an agreeable tormentor.

***

Santiago agreed with Leila.  “Yeah, I guess it's kind of crazy to come all the way to Corsica and find this fucking hole in the mountain.  Here we are in the beautiful Mediterranean living in an old truck surrounded by stinking goats.  Ah, but on the good side of things there doesn't seem to be any overcrowding - lots of privacy unless you don't like goats.”  He no longer felt like arguing.  Maybe Leila was right, but his failure silently steamed.

  The decision was made to leave Santiago's accumulation of junk and return to Ajaccio.  Leila said they could take Charlotte's offer and stay with her until they found a house.  Perhaps Tara could start school.  It would help to have a base and then they could begin to look for work. 

  Leila repeated, “You have to think of someone other than yourself Santiago.  You have to think of your daughter for once.”

  The easiest thing to do at this point was to agree. Santiago wanted peace.  He was giving up the idea of living in the Land Ship but felt it was also his last chance of living a Gypsy dream and leaving all of his nightmares behind.  He thought to himself, God damn it -- always the fucking crossroads. He clamped his hands on the steering wheel and pointed the truck back up to goat track.  As the Land Ship climbed out of the hole
the sound of crashing glass was an accompanying miserable melody. 

“Jesus Christ. My dishes!” screamed Leila. 

Something else would replace the pain she suffered this moment.  She didn't have to wait long.  Within 4 hours Leila fell to Les Gripe.

  In Ajaccio they went directly to Charlotte's where Leila came down with the bug.  Santiago was the donor.  She was bound to bed with fever as desperately ill as Santiago had been.  For three days she drifted in and out of cold sweats in a darkened room on the second floor at the corner of Ajaccio's busiest intersection.  The noise of the traffic vibrated through the closed shutters and banged mercilessly at her mind. 

  Occasionally Santiago would look in and ask, “Have you died yet Sweetheart?”

  While Leila was in bed, Santiago and Charlotte were drawn together with only the space of circumstance between them. Lust was pulsing. Tara being there made it too awkward to take the sensations any further than conscious recognition.  They used the time to penetrate each other intellectually in the best manner of Freudian sublimation. They talked about art and what an artist has to be; the struggle to make a living selling something that has no practical use except for the imagination.

 Charlotte said, “There is money to make in Ajaccio doing large murals!”

 Santiago raised his eyebrows.  He had been looking at a wall across the street from where they were sitting in the Cafe Ajaccio. 

The waiters looked at SantiagoWasn't he the Queer they had seen stalking the men’s toilets? And what now?  Here he was talking to the woman, who of course everybody knew was a notorious man eater.  Very interesting...

 Santiago looked at their wayward glances but his thoughts were filled with the wall he could see across the street.

It was a long wooden wall, a construction barrier made of eight foot upright planks running the full length of the town plaza.  It surrounded an excavation site which in the future would be in underground parking lot.

Santiago pointed towards the plaza and said, “There is a wall.”

“C'est bon,” Charlotte said smiling.  “I think we can do it. C'est magnific, but of course we need a plan.”

The idea was a good device to keep them together until the early hours of the next morning, long after the rest of the small Corsican world had gone to sleep.  Two People's words could be passed quietly through curious lips.

The bed Leila was in squeaked with the noise of her restlessly tossing in her solitary suffering.  Fevered thoughts kept asking, Where was that man?  The bed was wet from sweat.  There was nothing to do but wait and groan. Minutes were hours.

Santiago came in just before dawn light.  He tried to make her comfortable but there was little he could do. He had lived through it and so would she but telling her that brought no comfort.  She groaned and put her head under the pillow to block out further medical analysis.

During the daytime, Santiago would take Tara on walks through the town. 

 Santiago told Tara they could play being tourists by looking in shop windows. 

They stared at incredibly expensive trinkets and rags displayed like eye hooks for gulping consumption. Santiago refused to think about the purchase of any of these objects, but the little girl couldn't understand.  She wanted them. Her little life had been deprived of any such gaudy luxuries.  

“Daddy look at the coat, it's so beautiful.”

Santiago could see the desire in her eyes.

It hurt him to know there was no way possible to have any of the things she was looking at even if he did consider it all as capitalist consumer junk plot.

He deterred his own thoughts and her demands by inventing games of make believe, tricking her from window to window until in the process they came across a toy store. Tara begged to go inside just to look at them. Santiago gave in to her pleading. Once inside Tara instantly fell in love with a horrible plastic doll and insisted on having it. 

Santiago grabbed the toy from her hands.  “I said no and no means no.”

With tears in her eyes, he took her by the hand and pulled her down the street to a sweet shop.  He put two francs in her hand and told her she could buy something special.  Tara's eyes opened wide and her beautiful child smile swept away the sadness.  The doll was forgotten.

***

Charlotte was sitting at the Cafe Ajaccio when Santiago and Tara returned.  Sitting next or her was a mustachioed man with a pipe hanging from his face.

Charlotte introduced him.  “Santiago this is Felix Rodin, the Arts Officer for Corsica. He is part of the Ministry of Culture of France.”

Santiago saw a sly wink from Charlotte.  The man gave Santiago a broad strong hand and with a pipe still clinched in his yellowed teeth, smiled.

Charlotte began telling Felix the story of the two talented artists she had recently met. “You can help them get something together.  Your department has money.  Corsica needs this kind of stimulus.  There is no one here that does their kind of work.  There are places all over the city that need art.”

Felix rocked back in the metal chair and locked his fingers together around a raised knee as he launched his defense. “Bon alors,” he said beginning a bureaucratic monologue in French.  “It is difficult to put ideas forward. Problems, problems… the nationalists… the socialist… of course the communists. The city government is worse... naturally there are always the fanatics of the F.L.N.C. and they are trouble you can believe me.  Let me tell you, they can be dangerous too.  I do not think it is a safe notion to put foreign artists under such risk.  Yes always problems…  Charlotte you know Corsica is a very special place...”

Santiago did not have the slightest idea of what they were talking about other than to assume it was to do with him and art. The sound of the man even in a language he did not understand had the droning a tone of electrical tubing in the house of babble.

Charlotte pleaded, “But Felix you know very well that the F. L. N. C. only direct activities towards the French or capitalist pigs who want to drain the island of its blood. Certainly, sometimes they execute drug dealers or child molesters, but they have no interest in artists --especially artists like these people who want to give something to Corsica.”

Felix slapped his flat hand on the table making the coffee cups dance on their saucers. “Yes, yes, but there is very little I can personally do!  You must realize it is my duty to support Corsican artists first.  It would be a tremendous scandal and there is even more to it than that of course. Yes, let me tell you!  Just last week I had a bomb go off in my stairwell and where do you think but in front of my own door!  Naturally they are trying to scare me. It even happens at work.  Two of my own co-workers are nationalists and for sure you know they are F. L. N. C., and I tell you, they block everything I try to do.  Seventeen years I have been on this island and I am still French to them. I cannot move with any certainty in my job…c’est tous merde!”

Santiago understood the last exclamation and began to get interested in an argument which promised soon to be a fight.

Charlotte tapped both of her hands on to the table drumming in unison with bullet words. Her voice became agitated.  “But Felix you had 300,000 Francs last year, and you did nothing with it.  “Yes it is all shit for certain!”

“Whoa,” said Santiago.

“My hands were tied,” pleaded Felix. 

“Stick them up your ass,” shouted Charlotte grabbing the edge of the table.  “you did nothing with the money.  You gave it back to the government! ”

Santiago looked at Charlotte thinking any moment the table would be thrown over like a cowboy bar fight.  He began to smile thinking; this is the way to deal with bureaucrats. 

Felix suddenly leaned over the table, his forehead tipped aggressively. “There you are!  You think I did nothing.  I tell you I couldn't move.  The Corsicans are the ones to be blamed.  I was waiting for a favorable proposal and what do I get?  Nothing!  I get nothing.  No one presented me any idea that was worth presenting to the Ministry.  Not one!  Not one Corsican artist came up with one idea...”

“Absolute shit!”  Charlotte's knuckles were turning white beating her hands on the table and Santiago grabbed the cups as they bounced towards the edge.  She continued, “But there were several proposals that we sent you from the Association.  And you big fat arts officer didn't even look at them!  We had many ideas!” 

 Charlotte's voice was drowned by the heavier base tone of Felix as he protested, “No, no, no!  I could not put forth any of those.  None were from a Corsican artists...everyone in your Association is from the mainland. You know very well the situation and I am in.  My hands are tied. I am blocked left and right.”

Santiago had never been in the middle of a Mediterranean confrontation. The hair on the back of his neck tingled.  He continued smiling even though it was becoming slightly embarrassing.  He looked around the cafe and saw that no one was paying the slightest attention to the spectacle.

Felix wrinkled his face, “Maybe the Communists mayor of Sartene can help.  They like to support, yes, what you call public art...”

“What!”  Charlotte screamed and then banged the coffee cups into the air again.  “You mean if very talented artists arrive in Ajaccio by the hand of fate we should send them to another town? That is incredible.”

Felix began to smile, “Okay, really what can I do?  You tell me just what.  Believe me; I know they are worth having, and I personally support the idea of having, what do you call it… these kinds of catalysts from the professional fields. Yes, for example just last year I brought the Italian sculptor Giovanni.”

“Ah yes, to the top of the mountain so he could crack one big rock that no one will ever see and no one has even heard about. You make art experiments so completely public and so completely safe!”

Felix arched his back while taking the pipe out of his mouth, “But you know he is a very important minimal sculptor and he is internationally known.  He has sculptures in New York City.”

“Yes and the pigeons shit on it. Fantastic Felix, you have such extraordinary vision and courage.”

  Felix looked foolishly towards Santiago. “Really, I am blocked. What can I do?  I would like to help some way if only you could tell me...”

Charlotte grabbed the sleeve of Felix's Chinese worker’s jacket and said smiling, “We can help them in another way you know. “

Felix tilted his head.  “How is that?”  He put his pipe back in its orifice and walked his fingers around his crossed right knee again. 

Santiago noticed he was going into a fetal position. Charlotte flashed the slightest smile to Santiago but he still did not have a clue what was happening. 

She continued, “Santiago and his wife need a place to work and a place to live -- probably only for a couple of months.  They can work in my studio -- as for a house, you have a house you don't use.”

Felix let his hands fall to his side like heavy plucked chickens. “But naturally, it is no problem.  They can have my house, it is theirs today.”

Charlotte smiled the sweetest of smiles. “Fantastic.”

***

The next day Santiago was in a mood.  He didn't like the idea of the free house.  Leila pulled herself out of the sick bed. He told her of the episode in the cafe.

Santiago said, “I don't know. I don't want to get into that kind of compromise.”

Leila was in a bad mood.  Santiago's words irritated her more.  She countered, “At least it would be worth time to look at.  It sounds nice in the country.  Ajaccio is so noisy.”  She actually didn't care where the house was or what it was like.  She did not want to live in a rolling tin can.  The Land Ship could sink to hell.

Santiago protested, “It would be different if we could pay rent.  Then we could at least imagine it was ours from month-to-month.”

“Oh do what you want,” said Leila. She went back to bed more depressed than sick with the flu.

In the process of several house changes, Santiago and Leila had made arrangements with people sharing expenses or working for rent such as care taking or other progressions of communal living.  The deals had never worked out.  The last house they shared with a friend had concluded in a fistfight. Leila said it was Santiago's fault because of his bullheaded attitude and noisy machinery.  In another large mansion they rented a room from an eccentric English scientist. After only a week, a note was pushed under their door. It read: Vacate immediately. You are not compatible. Leila was very angry because it was a lovely house.  She held a grudge towards Santiago, not the scientist.

The grudge was carried from one eviction to another. Santiago had no need to go through the process again.  Their life was too crazy and something was bound to happen.  It always did.  This kind of free house was a premeditated disaster.  On the other hand Leila was hell to live with and especially in the eight by sixteen foot box on the back of the truck.  Santiago didn't know what to do.

                                            *** 

 “Santiago,” Leila yelled from Charlotte’s temporary bedroom.  “Come here I want to talk.” 

Santiago came in immediately, guilty, feeling caught by the tone of her voice.  Had she heard the whispering of the night before?

“I'm not going to live in the truck!  You can if you want, but I want a house.  I want a normal house with a kitchen and bedrooms. I do not want to live in the shoe box. Do you understand?”

Santiago almost felt relieved.  He sat for a moment saying nothing wondering if the house was all there was to it.

 “Well?”  Demanded Leila.

She was impossible, he thought. “Okay, we might as well look at it...I guess it won't hurt.”

“Fine,” Leila said sinking back into the sweaty pillow.

***

Charlotte made arrangements to visit the house a few days later.  They piled into the Land Ship and drove over the foothills of Ajaccio and into the next valley.  Charlotte directed the way to The Gulf of Lava.  They soon had to leave the main road, going down a trenched rut, nearly as bad as the goat trail they had found earlier in the mountains.  Santiago was morose. The view he saw was a deserted and burned land from fires that had raged the year before.  Leila was rapidly losing confidence.

“I think it's up this road,” Charlotte said pointing at the two tire tracks wandering off into the maquis.

Santiago aimed the Land Ship up the hill, following the vague impressions in the earth.  “Oh Shit,” he cursed as they went over crest and down a deep embankment surrounded by blackened chestnut trees.  As they bumped over a ridge he uttered the hippie ultimate, “Wow!  Far out.”

There under the shade of an ancient chestnut tree was a beautiful stone house with large glass windows.  It was a dream house.

“Far fucking out,” Santiago said.  He was impressed.

“Lovely,” Leila said smiling. 

“It is more fantastic inside,” purred Charlotte. “We have had some incredible celebrations here.”

“Fucking great!  Let's party!"  Santiago yelled.

 “Oh no!  What next?” said Leila.

 In an instant both Santiago and Leila accepted the idea of the house, ingested it and saw the ultimate fate.

***

Santiago couldn't believe it was possible.  There had to be a catch.  That evening he went with Charlotte to have supper at Felix's town apartment.  Leila was feeling rough again and she preferred to stay in bed.  She would keep Tara with her.  Santiago was happy to be out for the night, a chance to be alone for awhile with Charlotte.  There was only the meeting to get through.

 Charlotte was hyper as she drove her beat-up Renault on a crash course through Ajaccio, zipping up into the hills overlooking the city.  “Don't worry about the house,” she said to Santiago.  “Felix is really a nice guy, and you know there is no problem anyway, because he never uses his country house -- you'll probably never see him.”

“How come he doesn't use the house?”  Santiago asked.

“I think it is some...what you call some kind of psychological thing.  He worked on the house for 15 years, for him and his family to move into and what you think happened?”  Charlotte laughed.

“What?”  Santiago asked as paranoia surfaced

 “So completely mad. The day he put the last work on the house his wife ran off with a Corsican fishermen. Complete French madness.”  Charlotte laughed again as she gunned the car up and through the tree-lined curves. “Don't worry! I think you'll never see Felix there because he hates the place.”

 “I bet,” said Santiago looking at Charlotte's face and wishing they could go somewhere else.  He kept looking at lonely side roads as Charlotte laughed and teased him with a smile. The fifteen minute journey was side-tracked for an hour.

***

Felix welcomed them at the door of his apartment and in a half an hour and Santiago was already on his fourth glass of hard Corsican peasant wine.

  Charlotte and Felix did all the talking while Santiago set like a dried insect caught in the hot tubes of an ancient radio.  Felix had a teenage son and daughter and occasionally one of them would try out their school English on Santiago, then blush with the attempt. Santiago smiled and chatted back to them feeling slightly more comfortable.

Felix's voice was in a bureaucratic tone while Charlotte flicked glances at Santiago, her eyes telling him, don't worry.  After several hours of talk, plates of pasta and chicken and several bottles of wine, Santiago wasn't worried. He was feeling like a laughing Buddha.

Suddenly the sound of Felix came to stop.  Santiago thought he could hear buzzing in the room.  Felix put his hands on his knees and with his after dinner pipe clinched in his teeth, he jutted his chin towards Santiago and said, “Quesque tu ponce?”

“Huh? Ah, what did you say?”  Santiago looked helplessly towards Charlotte.

“He said he wants you to take the house and what do you think?”  Charlotte translated shaking her head positively.

“Oh,” Santiago said, drunk enough to have forgotten why they were there. “Oh yeah, but as well, tell him that me and Leila need some time to think it over... we always like to have lots of our friends come and stay with us... and what's more... that big old truck of mine will tear the hell out of his little road... and anyway I got all this noisy machinery and stuff which usually drives people fucking crazy.”  Santiago smiled.

Charlotte spoke rapidly for a moment. She then smiled at Santiago and fired her 20th cigarette.

 Felix made expansive gestures with his fat hands and kept repeating the first French phrase Santiago came to understand in its full irony, “Pas de probleme.” Finally he stopped, stood up and held out of his hand smiling.

“Superb,” said Charlotte as she went and got their jackets.

In a minute they were hugging on their way back to the Renault. Charlotte was laughing while Santiago was kissing her fondly on the neck and face.  They stumbled across the street to the car where Santiago's suddenly spun Charlotte around into his arms and kissed her wetly on the mouth.

Charlotte pushed Santiago away, but smiled coquettishly. “Santiago you are going to be in big trouble.” 

They got into the car and started back to Charlotte's apartment.

Santiago's head was fuzzy from all of the wine.  The kiss to Charlotte made him want to continue in another direction, but soberness began to come over him.  He wondered what the evening had been about other than the small detour.

“What was it,” he said, “I mean what's going on... does he really want us to move into the house?”  Santiago wondered if the idea of Corsica made any sense.  Now that they had a house, he wasn't really sure he wanted it.

“It is your house to do what you want to do until March,” said Charlotte

“Really?”  Santiago distrusted charity more than ever. 

“Pas de probleme!”  Charlotte said as the car shot into space.

The problem for Santiago was how they could spend the rest of the evening together.

 

***

In a week the family was set up in the country home and Leila was actually smiling.  Day by day their life was taking focus, due to the manipulations of Charlotte.  She had been busy. 

On an arranged day they were altogether sitting in the office of Madame Franccioni, the Chairwoman of the City Council and the Ajaccio's cultural coordinator.  She was a charming Corsican version of Zza Zza Gabor, complete with clinking jewelry and the waft of expensive perfume. Hidden lines of distinguished wrinkles were under layers of pink powder.  Her cheeks only hinted old-age-droop. Madame Franccioni in her youth had been a natural beauty but now she was fortified in cosmetic maintenance. The rumor was she was at least seventy years old.  She was famous for her affairs with distinguished men.  Santiago noticed her bedroom eyes above hands dotted with liver spots.  For an old broad she wasn't bad, he thought.

Tara set on her father's knee being innocent beauty. Santiago disappeared inside his own head thinking how sex would be with an older woman.  He remembered Charlotte had told him to smile as often as possible for Madame Franccioni.  Male adulation was part of her bribery.  He flashed a smile.

Madame Franccioni although appearing to be listening to Charlotte gently turned and batted her long attached eyelashes for Santiago.  He grinned Cheshire cats and fumbled with the photo journal of their art work which was lying on her desk.  An embarrassment rapidly covered his face half due to his ignorance of French -- not knowing what to say while the other half was the awkward revelation of the ridiculous comedy in front of him. Santiago was not accustomed to a glamorous elderly official and the subtlety of French public sexuality.

Within 30 minutes the quartet of beggars had found the bone at the great ladies door. As they walked to the Cafe Ajaccio to celebrate Charlotte said, “I think it is for certain you have work now! The Madame was very charmed with your smile.”

“At least he kept his tongue quiet for a while,” Leila said.

“Mais oui, the strong silent stranger,” laughed Charlotte.  “But you know all the good luck comes from Tara's lovely red hair and freckles. C'est vrai, the Madame was very charmed.”

***

Madame Franccioni had political punch in her diamond-ringed fingers. The next afternoon permission was obtained from the mayor's office to paint the boards and surrounding the Central Square, Place de Gaulle.  That was the good news.  The bad news was the city would give only enough money to buy the paint.  No wages and no fee.

  "Merde! Maybe something else will come."  Charlotte equivocated.

"Yeah, like they'll let us paint all the lines on the highways for free too, but they will supply the paint."  Santiago said.

"Oo la la. You are so... how do you say...skeptical?"

"Yeah, it means a sucker is born everyday." 

Santiago and Leila looked at each other and both of them thinking, what else was there to do?

The next day the three artists began planning the mural. The work came together in the oddest three-way balance -- two up-tight liberated feminists  and one old-fashioned macho chauvinist  trying to hang on to his balls.  It was an artistic combination one could not ignore.  The women were attractive and intelligent and the man was a crazy dreamer.  All three had the magic ingredient - a mysterious thing some people call talent.

Talent.  The word talent means nothing at all.  Having talent does not create or define an artist. It is the same to say if one has a sword; one must be a warrior -- to imply there is no importance of the razor edge of decision, the balance of a thrust, or the movement in dance that guides the sword to its mark.  But the talent that held the strange trio together was there.  Perhaps it was coincidence that had brought them together, and only by accident they collaborated.  One thing is certain -- not one of them could accept a dull reality.  They would rather leap off a precipice and die than to stand at its edge and worry if they might fall. Talent is the magic thing that is the difference between genius and mediocrity.

Over the next six weeks the three of them organized designed and began the actual work on to the wall.  It was an uncomplicated plan, one that Santiago and Leila had done in variations many times before.  To Charlotte it was an adventure, but it would turn into hard work.  Words had to be backed up with physical labor and that was excruciating for her.

The wall was a wooden partition made of Corsican pine.  It surrounded a pit that had been excavated in the heart of the Ajaccio. Originally the city square was called the Place Diamond, but with the victory in the political career of the famous general it had been renamed Place de Gaulle.  In true Corsican obstinacy most Ajaccions continued to call it by the former name.  Now the square was sunk 20 meters into the ground and filled with the activities of ant-like men and concrete mixing machines.  The authorities said it was to be an underground parking space. It was the French thing to do -- retaining the beauty of an open town square.  Santiago believed it was paranoia in the nuclear age and the city masters were constructing themselves a convenient bomb shelter.

 The wooden fence kept innocent onlookers from tumbling into the pit although its presence was served best in the early hours of the morning.  Midnight literary artists found this large wall the most ideal space to spray their poetry and party aspirations.  LIBERTY -- F.L.N.C. -- EQUALITY -- SHIT TO FRANCE.  The slogans were usually painted on top of posters advertising rock concerts or washing machine sales.  The City cleansing department facilitated this exercise in generous corporation by continually pulling off shreds of paper and repainting the surface a natural wood tone and thereby providing a new blank surface. This allowed the next onslaught of words and symbols to be radiantly obvious until a few days later when once again the blank surface would be buried by an avalanche of new posters and obscenities.

The carpenters who had made this civil defense unconsciously benefited public curiosity by their economy of wood.  Large gaps big enough to allow huge rats and small cats to pass through also gave a fair space for the questioning eye.  The wall was a monster picket fence -- not a wall any artist would consider a perfect paint surface.

Santiago looked at the 100 meters of splintered wood and wondered what in the hell he had got himself into.  He hardly felt like Rembrandt with this ragged canvas that was mutilated by public vulgarity and sliced by fingers of space.  But it was a wall and that meant to there was work to do, and he had no better answer than the cliché of the mountain climber -- because it is there.

   "Stop being so pompous," Leila said.

   The three artists talked at length about how the project should be handled.  Charlotte had ideas of getting other artists involved, each having an individual space and painting in their own fashion.  There was no argument against it from Santiago even though the suggestion revolted him. California-hippie-buses came to Santiago’s mind.  But why worry?  What other artists would be crazy enough to volunteer over the split planks?

  "Look all I want to do is transform the whole thing -- that ugly hag of a wall will become a beautiful lady," he said.

***

Santiago buried himself in the sunny days of November and December in the dusty coffin shaped kitchen of Charlotte’s studio.  He was grinding wood with his screaming-devil-machine again. The two women visited schools and organized parties of little children to help paint the mural.

   The design on the long thin wall would stretch across the entire Plaza.  It would portray Corsican people from the past to the future.  Background landscapes would be painted directly onto the wooden planks while the images of people were painted on separate shaped panels and superimposed across the scenery. The ragged canvass would be sewed together.

 There was one large problem to the solution.  It meant finding huge amount of milled lumber, cutting and painting all of the separate shapes on the budget of nothing.

   "Everything is possible," Charlotte said.  She had the conviction of a child dreaming.  "We have six weeks.  It will be finished by the 20th December. Pas de problem."

***

The days were like torture for all three -- awful days of machine dust filling the studio -- Santiago cursing what he put himself into -- Leila cursing having to work with another woman -- Charlotte cursing having to work at all.

   Santiago felt like he was back in combat -- the electric monster held in his hand was a machine gun, and his trigger-finger chewed away the wood. Dust seeped everywhere, under doors, down halls, any into the adjacent apartments of people who could care less about art -- pieces of wood were piled in every corner of the studio – painted sections were scattered over work tables -- stacks of completed boards would soon be attached to the fence. 

The final days came and they overshot the December deadline they had imposed on themselves -- just a few days until Christmas and the release of schoolchildren – children that had to be organized at the fence – the fence that would become a mural – a masterpiece that Santiago knew was his calling card.

Suddenly one-hundred children were at the site -- all of them wanted to paint at the same time.  In front of the children’s eyes, Santiago ran  with a can of black spray paint hurriedly adding outlines to a larger-than-life coloring book. 

Leila rolled up her sleeves and pulled the small hands out of the paint pots.  Charlotte abandoned the chaos, crossed the street to Café Ajaccio, smoked cigarettes and talked about the meaning of art. 

The creative holocaust continued for several hours until finally the school teachers marched the children away like army-ants.  The wall was now a mural.

***

The three artists came together on the last day, Christmas Eve. They were silent, intent, brooding and ignoring each other while smashing paintbrushes and hammers against a wooden wall as if to inflict pain on images overlapped in naiveté and sophistication. 

There were moments in these last few hours when it would seem that each found in the work something unique and beautiful, but suddenly it would turn and became monstrous -- grotesque images created by nasty little children.  The mural became a Frankenstein.  The three each separately wished to runaway and forget it had ever happened.  Then out of the streets of Ajaccio strangers and friends arrived and told them it was a magnificent work of art. They said it was a wonderful mural and in the spirit of Christmas.  The three artists had mutual skepticism of such praise. It was the twilight of  Christmas Eve when the three put their final touches to the wall.  It was finished. 

Santiago, Leila and Charlotte stood in front of the colorful mural and laughed at a Polaroid photo an admirer had given them.  It showed them in the midst of one of their worst arguments.  Problems, blood and angry words spilled across their mixed up lives and more than once the making of the mural was the creation of fury.  It was all too evident in the photograph, but now they could laugh.  It was done and better, it was adopted in the last days of its birth by the people of Ajaccio.  The people's identity was fixed to it.  250 children had splattered paint on this public work of art.  The newspapers, the television, even the radio had proclaimed positive sentiments.  Who would dare say their children's art was ugly?  The three artists had a very different thoughts about what they had just created, but Santiago’s calling card was presented to Corsica.

***

Christmas is the time of year when life bubbles over the plot of one's own particular circumstances but it is more subtle on a Catholic island in the Mediterranean.  The small towns of the island are far away from the crushed velvet darkness of British snob stores like Harrods, or the glass and plastic Mall-America of manic consumerism. 20th century shopping speedways had not yet arrived in Corsica

In Corsica the merchants of mass-materialism are as ubiquitous as the flowers in the maquis. Yet in some way the birth of Jesus and the joy of giving are still a human story in Corsica.  On this island people walk around and smile at Christmas time.  They are sharing an ancient ritual. The Catholic Church has something to do with this fact but not in a religious sense.  Simply, people gather as though it is a party for friends.  The church is a family salon. 

Christmas is gentle in Corsica. Maybe it is because the food is good, the wine is drinkable and a warm sun allows people to walk slowly in the street.  There is no reason to hurry from the cold winds that pull people's faces tight in the far northern lands. On a December day one may linger at sidewalk cafes and sip bitter black coffee while feeling that the eye of God beam on their cheek.  It is comfortable.  In the daylight hours the people find many friends on the street.  They talk of pleasant diversions.  It is too difficult to think of the great purchase marathon.  No, it is better to spend your time to talk, to be alive.

***

Santiago and Leila gathered in the scattered paintbrushes, the half-empty paint tins and took a long last look at the mural stretching 300 hundred feet into the darkness of the evening.  Charlotte had gone off to take a shower and they were to meet her again in a few minutes at Cafe Ajaccio. 

It was Christmas Eve, four days past the schedule Charlotte said they would make.  But now the mural was completed and before them stood long painted picture with dozens of sculpted figures dancing in the light of the street lamps.

"It doesn't look so bad," Santiago said.  He knew he was not entirely responsible for the mural, yet inwardly he knew it was his doing and he was proud of it.  There were a few loose ends and some parts unbalanced.  "But Charlotte and her fucking blue sky in the middle of the orange landscape."  He knew it was the best they could do in six weeks with no money.  His eyes swept down the band of color looking for rough or lost rhythms, ticks of broken brushstrokes or other amateurish mistakes.  When he saw them he would wince.  The work was not perfect but they were at the end of time -- they all had agreed to stop on Christmas Eve no matter how it looked.

"I don't know why Charlotte put that blue there," Leila said.

"Yeah, very French -- kind of Van Gogh in cornfields."  Once again he found himself switching positions and defending Charlotte even though he agreed with Leila.  Several times over the last six weeks he had been caught between the little wars of Charlotte and Leila.  Unconsciously he would slip to the side of Charlotte usually feeling what she said made sense.  Leila greeted such wavering allegiance as treason. By consequence Santiago would be given cold Scottish shoulders at bed time and silence in the morning.  Then a day later the balance would swing in their three-way confederacy.  Leila would discover Charlotte backing her up in an argument with Santiago about some detail of color or composition.  Santiago didn't stand a chance under their combined assaults. He had no choice but to raise a flag of truce and agree to their demand of tribute.  He would become sullen which would make the two women tug at his ears and remark how handsome he was while dragging him across the street for a drink at the cafe Ajaccio.

They were like children full of bravado and excited hearts that bled too easily.  They wounded each other by the small darts they shot.  It was a love-hate game and tolerated each other with alternate spasms of jealousy and liberty.  The little girl was at the center of their rolling lives. Tara was the innocent observer who kept the trio in their respectful roles. Santiago and Leila, stayed the parents while Charlotte was like an angelic Auntie.  But if Tara had not been there, the intrigue of coupling and lust would have been predictable. The only question was who would couple with whom. Leila was warmed by Charlotte's heat as much as Santiago.

***

The clock did its work. It took them through a French Christmas Eve dinner party.  They slurped down delicious slippery oysters while breathing in the succulent aroma of Corsican wild boar.  Empty bottles of hearty Corsican red wine and delicate French champagne stood on the table.  They had young hearts and laughed at the stories of Corsican bandit tales.  Charlotte came in and out of the room directing her current lover how to coordinate the meal while improvising seduction on a man standing in line, waiting to be chosen.  A new game plan was being designed in front of everybody's eyes.  Charlotte had no embarrassment in switching lovers.

"It is better to end a love-affair while it is alive than breathing the foul air of decay," Charlotte said.  She looked across the table at her next conquest standing in the doorway. In front of one lover she was running to the arms of his replacement.  It was very French.  But like all simple stories there are always the underlying complications. 

Nothing is free, especially freedom.  Charlotte was on the downhill slope to forty and the lover she was ditching was nearly twenty years her junior.  She understood his fickle youth and knew it was better to end the romance than suffering his ultimate boredom.  Besides, it was far more dramatic to make the first move, to not lose dignity.  She knew that an older woman holds a young man's roving eye best in the dim candlelight and satin sheets of midnight.  The light of dawn was coming and the spell would soon be over.  Charlotte would not be caught in that moment.  The act of the beheading her lover was as quick as the guillotine. 

By New Year’s Eve, Charlotte had made the transition and her love bed was being made for the stand-in.  He was a quiet man – his friends called him the Silence.  He did nothing to bend the patterns of the trio.  Charlotte was unaware of his presence unless she needed a light for her cigarette.

The trio accompanied with the Silence were invited to a New Year party in the villa of a wealthy art patron. It was on the Bay of Ajaccio, an Italian style mansion on a rich hump of land half circled with palm lined shore shores.  Below the south veranda was the large walled estate of an American rock star that died at the height of his career.  Jim Morrison was dead but they were all alive, drunk, and dancing.  Charlotte was dangerous and distracted.  The young lover she had rejected was sitting in the library having a very cozy chat with a very young and very beautiful creature.  Her young erect nipples were pointed up on her fine silk blouse.  Charlotte fired missile-eyed hostility into the corner where they sat.

Santiago found the whiskey and was losing himself in its warm wash.  The host of the party was content to pour the burning liquid and joined Santiago on the journey down stream. 

Leila had found Jean Simon and they were doing dance acrobatics to a bumping disco beats while other French couples around the room danced stiff slow motion to avoid sweating in their expensive clothes. 

Tara and other small children had been sent off with a professional nanny to the games-room and they were happily watching the antiques of a heavy metal band making obscene movements on a television special.  The children laughed. The painted black and white masks of KISS looked like clowns to them.

The night swirled and suddenly it was New Year.  Everybody kissed.  Leila went to the children's room and found Tara wrapped in the power of sleep.  She bent over her little angel and kissed her gently on the forehead. 

Santiago was in the kitchen holding Charlotte drunkenly in his arms. "What you need is a crazy man -- give me a little chaos with your lips."

Charlotte poured liquid laugh over Santiago but her eye's caught the last glimpse of her rejected love slipping out the back door with the young erect nipples. The Silence looked on with total devotion to the woman who hardly knew he was there. Across the bay fireworks exploded reflections on to black Mediterranean waters.

***

Charlotte continued visiting Santiago and Leila at their new home, the House of Felix. She brought small presents for the little girl.  She had at last conquered the spirit of her former boyfriend and found a superior position, cold and aloof.  She could gaze into the blue skies where he did not exist.  The Silence hung at her side with puppy love eyes, speaking soft words that she chose not to hear.

The House of Felix became a familiar and personal, but after two months the pleasure was compromised by encroaching force; Felix.  He usually appeared on weekends smiling and talking pleasantries, then puttered off about the house filling cracks with plaster, inserting electric lines and letting a nervous eye follow the actions of the family.  But now he was coming every two or three days, acting gruff yet smiling with the pipe clinched in his teeth. He repeated the phrase, “Pas de probleme,” when Santiago or Leila would ask with a sense of puzzlement if everything was all right.

The House of Felix was slowly becoming the headquarters for bohemian festivals.  Charlotte made sure of that.  The house was the perfect setting for her accumulated intellectual cadre.  Santiago and Leila were introduced as celebrities from Scotland. People rolled in from all points of Corsica carrying bottles of wine, songs and laughter but leaving hangover-heads for the morning.  Like a curse, Felix would arrive with the early sun to discover the bottle strewn aftermath, cigarette burns on ancient furniture, tire ruts through tender grass and crushed flower beds.  He would put on the face of a child who had discovered someone who had broken his toy, but then patronize, holding tight lips and squint hidden eyes.

Felix was barely out of sight one evening when Charlotte arrived with the caravan of party makers.  Seven cars carried a complete brass band from Marseille.  There were trombones, saxophones, tubas and snare drums. This was her way of announcing to the assembled friends her switch of lovers.  She was saddled up with The Silence who waited at Charlotte's feet for months.  He was hoping the great hope that one day she would notice him.  It was a melancholy trance for The Silence.  All he desired was her to want him.  He was faithful like a dog.  He would lie in her lap and lick her slightest offerings.  Charlotte knew what he was.  The Silence was a man she could embezzle with indifference, yet feel the wonderful glow of knowing she was loved, even worshiped.  After all, she was a Goddess.  Devotion no matter where were it came from sustained the illusion of youth.  She could feel the old magic. The irony was the dog was giving the bone to the mistress.

***

The month of January passed and blew down the doors of February.  The winds howled up the Golfe d’Ajaccio.  The bay was a funnel that narrowed the force of the gale. Merciless hammers of wind smashed against stone walls of the House of Felix.  The doors were not finished and they would bang open letting the storm tear through the rooms, ripping plastic sheeting away from glassless window frames.  The wind whirled through the house blowing the little pockets of warmth up the chimney.

Leila began to understand why Felix's wife had left.  After 15 years the house still had no proper windows and doors.  Leila cursed Felix and shivered with the cold. She swore at the stupidity of living in a house that held no heat.

  Santiago would become sodden on harsh peasant wine every night.  He dammed the evils of the Mediterranean winter and the deceiving warm weather friendship of Corsica that had turned to a cold companion.

The days and nights were not ice covered but when one is cold and when there is no refuge from the cold, one stays cold.  The house became a place of punishment -- a station of mixed blessings. Leila more than ever wondered why she had followed Santiago into a new misery.  She worried about Tara who was shy and now was encapsulated in the antiquated system of a Corsican elementary school. She was tossed into a ring of outcast foreign children.  There were Africans, Arabs, Algerians, Moroccans, Portuguese and Spanish. They were all outcasts together. Tara began to learn French through the children’s songs and games.  But Leila worried. Tara was the only small girl with red hair, white skin, freckles and blue eyes.  She was a freak among the outcasts.  Leila could feel the loneliness of her little girl. Leila began to tutor her in French. She remembered her own school French. Every day she and Tara would add words to their vocabulary.

Santiago sulked.  He had no ability with language or at least that's what he told himself and he refused to learn. He could not distinguish one sound from another and so he continued speaking English as if he was a one-man institute for the Anglo-Saxon tongue.

Despite the language barrier both Santiago and Leila found a circle of Corsican friends -- friends that multiplied friends and every day a new face would come to the door of their cold house.  It was always the same.  They explained they were friends of Charlotte.  The conversation went on about whom they were and the slow questions and answers of small talk. The family would see these people for the next three years. 

As always Charlotte always kept tabs on the coming and going off her entourage. She would let Santiago and Leila know who was true and who was to be not trusted.  She told them of the individuals who were in the social world of Corsica, the ones that they should treat nicely -- it was a matter of butter on the bread -- she told them how to go around the corners of a small island bureaucracy.  Charlotte told them not to worry about Felix, because after all he was just another bureaucrat and he was jealous of anyone who did anything with a sense of freedom.

 Felix was becoming an everyday nuisance.  He was like any other nervous landlord in the process of evictions.  Felix was hinting at each visit he would like the house empty and very soon.

“You must understand there are so many repairs to keep up with, and to be sure there is no problem, but of course my 81-year-old mother is coming, and you see of course, I must have a place for her, but naturally there is no problem and you can stay  a little longer -- two or three more weeks, perhaps the longest, one month -- but you must understand my mother is a very old and I need time to make the house comfortable for her...” Felix driveled.

“What, like putting the doors and windows in for the good weather?” Leila said while her eyes burned sarcasm into the air.

“C’est quo?”  Felix would look at her innocently.

“Nothing, just nothing. But of course there is no problem,” she said.

***

March was only a few days away.  Santiago was beginning to think Corsica was a foolish choice.  It was time to leave the beautiful island where the winters were freezing and they hadn't made a dime.  The work had not come after their little moment in the limelight.  Their 15 minutes of fame evaporated leaving only wine saturated episodes and expensive hangovers. Santiago found only one small commission, painting a mural for boutique owned by Corsican gangster.  Leila realized if they were to keep food in the house she had better look for work or sell some of her sketches of bright colored mountains and blowing skies. She did not want to return to a gray world. These were days of unflattering and impoverished mediocrity. 

One afternoon Charlotte arrived.  She was breathless and excited. “I just found something for you.  Your future is all in front of you.  But of course you remember Madame Franccioni -- she is best friends with the Duchess De Pascal -- it is rumored she is better friends with the Duke.  Don't worry it is all arranged.  You have a rendezvous with the Duke and Duchess tomorrow.  Everything will happen for you now.”

“Who are they?” Santiago asked.

“I showed you their summer mansion on the Boulevard Bonaparte. Remember, you called it something -- oh yes, the Pink Palace.”

The Pink Palace was only a grand house, four floors high with a rooftop penthouse.  On the ground floor was an enclosed garden and a swimming pool.  It was not pink but the color of a bleached rose, perfectly matching the pastel blue summer skies of Corsica.  The Pink Palace was tasteful and classic.  It was money solidified, but more truthfully, Old Money.  It represented the ancient bank accounts of the aristocracy. The Duke and Duchess De Pascal were born with blood entwined with vintage wealth; land in Corsica, France and Argentina. There were partnerships in South African diamonds, Caribbean banana plantations; and astute decisions on the New York stock exchange.  The Duke had been told in the 50's, a little company was going to do well -- McDonald's -- he bought several thousand shares.  Ajaccion rumors were endless of the original money - who had married whom for their glittering financial history. Everyone knew for one certain fact, money marries money.

***

Madame Franccioni blinked her mascara laden eyelashes as she traced one of her fingers over the liver spots on the back of her left hand.  She looked up and winked at Santiago as she said, “You have to be very precise with Duke De Pascal. If he questions for example, how much time will it take or, how much money -- you must tell him directly and quickly.  He does not like to waste time.  But do not worry.  I am absolutely sure you have the commission. The Duchess loves the mural you did for our city.” Madame Franccioni smiled benevolently.  “Oh yes, I have recommended you highly.”

Leila had improved in understanding French and could follow the talk with little trouble. Charlotte translated for Santiago

Madame Franccioni rattled her sentences together like so many belts of ammunition. “The Duke and Duchess have wanted the entrance hallway of Palais De Pascal filled with murals, but there has not been the type of artists for their requirements.”  Madame Franccioni batted her extended eyelashes.  “Perhaps they have been waiting for Michelangelo, ha, ha, but he is very old now.”  She smiled sweetly and settled into her stuffed leather chair.

Charlotte laughed politely and then repeated it in English for Santiago.  He pushed out a flat laugh and gave the old beauty an idiot smile. 

Madame Franccioni continued, “It is a very big job.  If the Duke likes your propositions more than money will come your way.  I understand you need to find a house. The Duke would give you an apartment in the Palais De Pascal - I know there is one available -- but remember you must be very precise.  Of course I will try to help in any way I can.”  She gave Santiago a flash of her famous bedroom eyes.

“What do we call them?  I mean do we have to address them as royalty or what?”  He was surprised in feeling a throb between his legs. His eyes worked the centimeters of her wrinkled cosmetic skin. He could see the secret of beauty buried in years. 

Madam Franccioni understood English more than Santiago knew.  She flapped her long lashed eyes at him again as she said, “Ha ha, you know there was the revolution so long ago in France, so you may say Monsieur and Madam, but still in Corsica we prefer to think of them as our own Royalty.  In this case naturally he is still the Duke to us.” Madame Franccioni hesitated for a second and then continued after clearing her throat,  “The Duke is, eh, trés, trés, trés gentile.”

Santiago smiled spontaneously. It was the funny sound of the throat clearing and the syrupy clacking of three Latin r's in a row. He turned obliquely to Leila and whispered from the corner of his mouth, “So what do we call them?”

Within an hour they were standing in front of the big black double doors of Palais De Pascal. They were taken up the spiral staircase by a grumpy red faced old man who showed them into a large reception room. The floors were finely inlaid parquet with the worn antique smoothness of decades of hands and knees waxing. On all four walls were cracked varnished ancestral portraits of eight centuries.  The original Duke stared at them in a defiant cross-eyed glare, while a tiny Chinese dog nuzzled against his gleaming armor. A dead boar lay at his feet.

“Fucking aristocracy,” Santiago whispered to Leila. 

The door opened and a distinguished looking man entered. He was white-haired with a high forehand, straight nose, small chin and a clipped military mustache.  He was a clone of Charles De Gaulle, but dressed as an English country squire.  Santiago had a flash go across his mind when he looked at the Duke’s eyes, they looked so familiar. His wife came behind him.  The Duchess had her hair sprayed into the starched gray sculpture of Margaret Thatcher.  She wore the country tweeds of Princess Anne, accompanied by expensive sensible brown leather shoes.  The Duke and the Duchess both spoke English with an Oxford color but affected by a French accent. The Duke took Madame Franccioni warmly into his arms giving the accustomed two-sided French kiss, a decimal longer than required.

The Duchess asked most of the questions while the Duke was charming to the women and especially to the little girl.  Tara's smile made roads where Santiago's words couldn't even create paths.  The sales pitch was going their way.

 After a few minutes of talking, they descended to the grand entrance hall where Santiago inspected walls and made measurements while Leila continued discussing details - what style to be used, what was appropriate, constantly referring to the noble heritage of the De Pascal family.  She suggested perhaps there could be several views of their land holdings -- it would be a great idea to use the technique of trompe l'oeull -- no problem at all.  Santiago listened to Leila as she switched to French, not understanding anything but the tone.  He gave a very confident nod to the Duke - absolutely, no problem at all –but in reality he had not the slightest idea of how to paint false marbling, fake wood paneling, imitation rococo plaster borders, the School of Italian Renaissance, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel -  but he threw in for free the one French phrase he knew, “Pas de probleme,” he said again and again.

“Very well,” the Duke said in English.  His body language spoke plainly that the interview had come to a conclusion. “How much time do you think this project will take?”

Santiago’s mind crystallized as he remembered to be precise. “Three months, at the most four if we consider the possible problem of discovering wall areas that need to be plastered and drying times...”

The Duke immediately bored with details interrupted, “And the costs? What is the money you anticipate - the complete package?”

Santiago was surprised the Duke came so quickly to the point. He was disarmed. He hummed a few numbers to himself and went through the physical gestures of mental calculations as though he actually had a system. Continuing the pantomime he scribbled into his sketch book. He could feel sweat beading on his forehead as he gulped and leapt into the unknown. “Uh, it comes to an even twenty-five thousand dollars, which is, uh let’s see...” He jotted arithmetic as the sound of a ticking clock filled the room. “Yes, about one hundred and seventy-five thousand Francs...”

Madam Franccioni eyes bulged as she gasped, “Oo la la.”

Embarrassment exaggerated a long moment of silence. “C'est cher - it's expensive, very expensive,” The Duke put his hands into his trouser pockets and jiggled coins nervously. “Oui, that is very expensive. But of course one must pay for things of quality. Naturally, we must be shown a design before we can come to  a decision. How soon can you have that work prepared?”

Santiago coughed and threw a look of panic to Leila. He had come up with the money figure and his mind had frozen in the geometry of numbers.

“Two weeks should be enough time don't you think Santiago?”  Leila said confidently.

“Oh yeah, sure, yeah plenty of time,” Santiago said continuing the role but not really knowing what they were talking about.  The only thing that was going on in his head was the vision of very large numbers, Twenty-five thousand dollars.  He was already spending the money.  He smiled at Madame Franccioni.

***

Over coffee at the Café Ajaccio Santiago said, “Jesus Christ, it doesn't sound like so much money after all.  The total comes to 360 square meters -- that's over thousand square feet.  It's not a hallway, it's a train station.”

“Yes it is big,” agreed Leila.

“What a financial wizard I am.”  Santiago folded his arms and frowned at the paper with the calculations in front of him.  “That works out to about ten bucks a square foot.  No wonder he is interested.  He couldn't even buy wallpaper that cheap.”

Santiago we are not making money anywhere else.  It is a reasonable amount.” Leila was beginning to worry Santiago would throw their opportunity away.

“I know sweetheart, it's just that I didn't start being an artist yesterday.  Shit, I might as well become a sign-painter; at least I would make more money.”

Leila looked at him as he leaned over the drawing table and continued layout designs for the portal hall.

***

They had several consultations with the Duke and Duchess. Research sketches of the family's history were laid out across the tables.  Graphite pencils and watercolor brushstrokes suggested views of three-dimensional worlds. It was the alchemy of their imagination exploding with flash ideas.  Their scattered thoughts were laced with raw edges, rough and ready on sheets of white paper projections.  They were magicians pulling creation out of blank spaces like rabbits from hats. Images manifested where there was only the intimidation of blank space. 

Santiago cursed the illusion of a picture convincing the eye to fall into the arena of infinite depth.  He had lost his innocent passion for this magic and now like a jaded sorcerer he knew he was not performing magic, but was only playing tricks.  The rabbit had been under the table the whole time. It was a matter of the slight hand producing the animal.  Santiago was bored.  He wanted the mythical rabbit to change into something dangerous. He wanted something colossal.  Fuck the rabbit.  He wanted Godzilla. This was a problem. He had lost the expanse of his own imagination and so he reached into the stage hat and pulled out what the audience wanted to see, the cliché, the safe bet, the fuzzy white rabbit.

Leila was young.  She still believed in the old stories, in old magic.  She didn't see or feel the lines that were drawn before, but if she did sense a repetition of theme she regarded it has being classic and worthy of rebirth.  She accepted their assignment with enthusiasm, without the crippling shackles of self-consciousness.  She responded to the work.  It was a natural event in the organic progression of her desire to become an artist.  She had not yet arrived at this hallowed destination.  She was still trying to be one and not yet disappointed in the mythic title.  Her imagination was free from the injustice, the rewards that seldom come, free of being a failure, being a has-been, of having glory lasting only the length of a cocktail party.  She still believed.

Some artists can create without recognition and burn with a fanatical spirit that consumes the flesh of their temple instead of the fruit of the worshipers.  This was the difference between Santiago and Leila. She was pursuing the legend, still trying to be an artist while Santiago was waiting for recognition of what he was. 

Two weeks passed.  Six designs came out of their work but one final drawing had to be presented in a meeting with the Duke and Duchess.  The sheets of designs were shuffled like cards until a synthesis of one picture emerged – a piece of this, a portion of that. 

Santiago laughed at the collage of ideas and said, “It has the definite style of Neoclassical-Baroque-Naive.” 

Then it was the final meeting and yes or no.  Santiago was nervous.  The Duke and Duchess knew what they liked.  After five minutes of details there was only one problem.

“Forgive me,” Count De Pascal said, “but I don't understand. Why is the design of the mural broken up into so many framed pictures?  You know of course I would prefer for the mural to be only one large picture.”

Santiago responded, “That is a good question…uh, but what we are trying to do is utilize the geometric proportions of the hallway and well and there are some pipes that kind of stick out of the wall and...”

The Duke bored with Santiago’s explanation interrupted. “But can't you make it into one picture just here?”  The Duke poked a manicured finger on a section of the drawing.

Santiago began to chew his bottom lip and crossed his arms.  Non-visual people always pissed him off. “Well, shit,” he mumbled and was just about to erupt.

Leila saw the prize slipping away. She jumped into the ring.  “Yes it would be lovely if such a thing could work -- but if you will try to imagine what DiVinci’s Last Supper would look like if a large sewer pipe went through the middle of it.

The Duke laughed.  “Good, good.  You are exactly right.” 

The Duke and Duchess bought the idea and one minute later a bottle of champagne was opened. Santiago and Leila were about to move into their 13th house.  The next day they met at the Pink Palace.


                                                                                           ***

The Duchess began hesitantly. “I am sure you will love it here and there will be no difficulty, except perhaps for one small thing. It is our crazy old man, Monsieur Christopher.  You see, he has been with us for nearly 30 years. He seems to believe the house is more his than ours.  You would not believe it but I have to ask him if I can change anything.  If I do move something without his blessing, he is impossible for weeks afterwards.”

Santiago knew it was too good to believe.  There had to be a catch somewhere.  It did not take long for a conflict to come about. If it had not been for the little girl’s red hair and freckles the family would have never put a foot in the door.

What a sweet old monster Monsieur Christopher was. His yellow saliva stained Gitanes perpetually hung on his drooping lower lip.  His scowling flushed face revealed the hour and character of alcoholic content. When it was bright pink it was early morning, when burning red, it was early afternoon. Monsieur Christopher was sweet when sober and evil when filled with Pastis.  He was a sentimental old curmudgeon nearly 80 with the soul of a tyrant two-year-old. His only buffer to reality was Madame Grace, the women who had lived with him for 40 years. She apologized behind him saying, “He will be all right in the morning -- don’t worry about a thing.”

The first week brought the baptismal confrontation and Madam Grace had slipped back upstairs to her Jekle and Hyde husband.

“I'm not taking more shit from that old son-of-a-bitch,” Santiago yelled as he slammed the door.  “You know what he did now?” His face was nearly as red as Monsieur Christopher’s as he would begin to recount the latest outrage.

“Calm down Santiago. I will talk with Madame Grace and we'll straighten everything out,” Leila said.  “You know he doesn't really mean anything.”

 She and Tara would take a basket of pastry up the stairs to the layer of the old dragon.  He would greet them with a swollen red face and glinted evil-eyes while bellowing, “What do you want!” He would then notice the little girl and her tribute. He would immediately melt to a human being and gently whisper to her, “Bon soi mon petit chou.”  The war would be over.  The next morning the little girl would find a sack of candy by their apartment door.  Life went on and not a word would be said about the previous indiscretions.

 Their apartment had originally been built as stables for the carriage horses in 1831. The Italian builders used traditional skills and made symmetrical vaulted ceilings.  Their main concern however was to keep Corsican thieves on the street.  Windows facing the narrow Rue Bonaparte were barred with wrought iron.  To the back of the former stables where once had been large arched wooden doors, now was a small inset window looking out into the palm-treed garden surrounding a large oval turquoise pool.

When the Duchess had married her family's fortune into the Duke's impoverished fiefdom, Monsieur Christopher was imported from Paris.  In the course of the next 30 years, he restored the decaying remnants of the once polished Palace.  He converted the stables into the present condition of rooms following each other like train compartments.  He and Madam Grace had lived there for the first 20 years.  He assumed the position of the Concierge of the Aristocrats summer residence. It did not make him happy to think of his rooms being filled with a cluttered noise of American holiday makers.  Paris was a long way behind him but not the attitude.  Monsieur Christopher was relieved when he discovered Leila was Scottish. They drink whiskey.  Perhaps it would not be so bad to have strangers in his house.  At least they were not Corsican or worse Germans. 

The Corsican’s used the term Palace liberally.  It was pretensions of Paris but Palais De Pascal could sit quite respectfully among the estates of Beverly Hills or the columned architecture of London.  At one time the mansion was the center for the island’s upper crust. No other house in Corsica could compete in prestige, history or setting.  It was now the August retreat of the De Pascal’s.  The mansion represented the status of the old rich and it had the sovereignty of a foreign country.

The front of Palais De Pascal faced straight onto the Bay of Ajaccio.  The mansion had the symmetrical construction of Italian manners, imitating a Medici dream.  In the center of the garden rose six tall palm trees, three to each side of pool. The turquoise pool reflection held the picture of the arched vestibule and overhanging curled iron balconies.

The vestibule of the Pink Place originally had been the corridor where horse-drawn carriages dislodged mobile aristocrats into the cross of hallways.  Grand staircases arose to the parquet floors of upper chambers.  The interior architecture was divided into four separate sections of four floors with 16 main rooms and a roof top penthouse. One lost count of the closets, bathrooms and cubby-holes.

In the glorious days of Palais De Pascal, maids, man-servants and all the dog-body staff required a large portion of Ajaccio's population.  Now there was Monsieur Christopher, his companion Grace and once a week, a Corsican char-lady who rattled her buckets and whistled as she polished brass door-knobs. This was the normal year-round maintenance crew except for when the Duke and Duchess came from Paris on their annual August vacation with their entourage of family and friends,   three cleaning women and two cooks. Then the house echoed with the rumblings of a train station.  There was the perpetual call of “Merde” from the octogenarian Monsieur Christopher. The old man spent most of his time scowling and grumbling at all the inconvenience while he moved sun chairs around the pool with his soggy Gitanes hanging off his face. 

During these Parisian Augusts, in the early morning Santiago and Leila would hear the singing voice of the visiting Duchess cooing out into the garden from her upper floor balcony,

 “Monsieur Christopher. Yoo-hoo Monsieur Christopher!” She would bleat in the direction of the old tyrants window, “If you please, I would like you to remove the chairs in the garden.”

 “Yes Madame, after I have my breakfast,” Monsieur Christopher would wheeze. 

Santiago smiled knowing the old goat had his fist behind the shutters raised in obscene French salute.

***

All of this human commotion came long after Santiago and Leila had moved into the household of their Corsican patron.  They had one clear objective and that was to have a place to live while they decorated a few ceilings and walls.  The job should have been uncomplicated in the grand house.  At least, that is what they were naive enough to think.  They were given an opportunity to demonstrate their talent as artists and a chance to stay in Corsican. 

The Duke intrigued this challenge with a direct request. “I want you to make the Palace better than it actually is.”

Santiago and Leila took in these words and realized if they were to survive in this new world, their life and reputation would have to be saved by their work.

***

Santiago did his best to insert Charlotte into the project from the beginning. They were less than a week into the job when Leila began to question why Charlotte was there.

One artist is a complication.  Two artists seeing the same picture is a contradiction. Three artists trying to agree is impossible.  Santiago and Leila felt obliged to Charlotte because she was responsible for their small success in Corsica, negotiating the mural for the City Plaza and now the prestige of the Palais De Pascal.  But they wanted no repetition of the arguments over design and application.  They decided to be quite clear this time and tell Charlotte they would be the directors and in the next commission, she would direct the work. 

Charlotte agreed. There was no problem. Then she immediately commenced outrageous insubordination. She was not born to obey but to command.  Furthermore her concept of being an artist did not necessarily involve the straightforward application of physical labor.  She had the well developed French technique of talking about action.

Santiago said deadpan to himself one day, “I am beginning to understand how France lost the last two wars.”  Charlotte had gone off on another elongated coffee break. “God damn it!  That woman is driving me mad,” he said to Leila. He once again recited his favorite speech. “Work is work.  You start at the beginning, wade through the middle and struggle to the end.  Being a painter isn’t any different than being a bricklayer.  It's one God damn brick at a the time and that's the way you get a wall built.  The only difference is we are using brushes and invent walls that don't even exist.  It's just fucking hard work that's all.”

***

Aside from Santiago's frustration with Charlotte, there was another problem tearing at his soul.  The passion of being an artist was gone.  He had been making pictures since he was a small child and always brought praise and prophesy from his mother, “You are fine artist, and when you grow up, you are going to be famous.”  His head was filled with the idea. It would happen.  He would be rich and famous.  His name would be known by the art museums of the world. 

 But then he grew up and the child's dream faded. He became interested in motorcycles, then cars, then girls.  Art was like a small jewel in his pocket that he could pull out when he wanted.  He preferred the females who seduced him with their ring of fire.  He was becoming a man. 

 Reality plunged him into the whirlpool of war and the insanity of Vietnam. Santiago grew old in ten months -- saturated in the blood of murder and marijuana madness.  It was in Vietnam, in the battlefield of the blind where the vision of Santiago's childhood was reborn -- his destiny to be a great artist.  The insanity of mindless massacre and the terror of guilt made his dream of being an artist an actual destination, like a sacred refuge where he could be human again.  To be an artist was to create -- not to destroy -- to live, not to die.  He had to return to the world as an artist. 

Santiago quit playing army games after a disastrous search and destroy mission where something beyond his imagination took place. Two war correspondents, George and Neil saw it all happen and it was Neil that had saved Santiago’s life by carrying him to a chopper, covered in the blood and brains of six villagers of the 500 slaughtered mercilessly on that day in My Lai.  

 He was evacuated to a field hospital, then within days to a psychiatric ward in Germany where he was kept away from the press.

He spent three months acting the role of a mad artist, trying not to remember who he had killed. He learned quickly that army mentality regarded creative people as insane and that creative individuals are too unpredictable to the rule of command even in prison. He might talk, whereas if he was crazy he could say what ever he wanted and it would only be considered psychosis.  His freedom in that “normal world” of prison could have been dangerous but that same freedom in a nuthouse would be just delusion.

 The army knew the limited dimension of its controlled existence.  Santiago walked through the door of the nuthouse theater willingly. He wanted to play the part and get lost.  His mind cleaved through the illusion of that temporary confinement and walked towards the illumination of his childhood dreams. He was not prepared for the journey.

***

When Santiago finally was returned to America as a certified madman, he turned on, tuned in, and dropped out of everything.  He dropped out of the army via  the psychiatric ward full of dead soul Vietnam vengeance and walked straight into the next armies of long-haired hippies, Jesus-freaks, and alienated political radicals. He hid in the mountains of New Mexico where his mentality confronted the Nixon mind in the powder snow conditions of cocaine escape. 

Santiago dropped out one more time.  He quit America and searched for his dream in another land -- Scotland, which was cold, wet and gray. For awhile he was saved from the heat of his fevered ambition.  In Scotland he discovered a comradeship of men and women who believed they could change the condition of the world through socialism. Santiago joined another army. He became a socialist artist. He worked hard. He bled with his art and he gave to the movement.  He discovered there are those who worked and those who talked. He lost faith in altruism.

 He dropped out again. He ran to an island in the sun -- running from fear, middle-age and the conviction that the human heart was less than noble.  At the bottom of his disillusionment he could still hear his mother say he was going to be a famous artist.  Corsica was the last chance to find his destiny.

In the first months of Corsica nothing was revealed but the banal complications of staying alive.  How drab destiny is when it begins to unfold. Then small tokens of recognition and pieces of work began to arrive.  Santiago wasn't surprised. These little rewards were long overdue.

  Four months after arriving in Corsica, he was living in a mansion, employed by an aristocrat, being paid a generous fee to paint a prestigious mural. He was doing the work that was his destiny. Should he be surprised?  The universe owed him this.  It was his karma.  He knew it had been waiting for him since he was a child.  But one should be careful what is prayed for because it may come. Santiago did not like the answer.  He was beginning to believe God was a trickster.

The work went on.  Santiago felt no different than his metaphorical bricklayer. Just put another brick in the wall -- he was a craftsman. It was true that on some days the act of creating a three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional surface gave him power in making magic.  These were rare days.  Most of the time he simply counted cadence, one brick, two bricks, three bricks, four… but the work went on and Santiago began to feel that it was only something to do while he was waiting to forget or die.

The images multiplied and the flat walls became windows into other worlds. Leila felt the magic. She was consciously aware of the integrity of the architecture in relationship to the mural.  She was a worker.  She was Scottish to the bone with her work ethic and economic use of time.  Success was measured by how much work was done each day and how each small section she worked on matched her incredibly hard standards.  Teachers had trained her well in the discipline of the classics.  She and Santiago worked together automatically -- she with her sensibility of old world values and he, lawless, spontaneous, searching for the unfound.  They complimented each other.  It was a Yin-Yang twist of opposites. The pace was maddening, especially to Charlotte.

***

Charlotte was a competent and technically skilled artist.  She could paint an egg like an egg and she had enough imagination to put teeth and wings on it for spite.  The problem was her mental imagery was stronger than the reality in front of her.  She said many times, I can always imagine making love better than it is -- it is always such a disappointment.  Painting carried the same difficulty.  She would conceive a picture, all proportions, colors and tiny details completely within her mind.  When she began painting, boredom would come. It had already existed and it was much better in her head.  So why paint it? 

Charlotte was surrounded by men who were second-best lovers and canvases that were half completed -- paintings that were halted by the comparison of her own mind-movie.  Charlotte liked the idea being an artist more than the hard sacrifices the profession demanded.  The notion of being an imposter did not occur to Charlotte.  She liked talking about art -- who was doing what, when and where they had done it.  Her head was filled with famous past and the chic present. Being seen in a café with the aura of self-importance was her style. It was only necessary that people knew she was separate, that she was an artist.  It was a glowing uniform she could wear and at times hide behind. She was a member of an immortal club but hated the dues. She preferred to work at a leisurely pace and only do what was absolutely necessary to keep the image. Time was better spent in a café talking about conceptual possibilities. 

Charlotte fit very well into the pretensions of Corsican high society. She was a big fish in a small pond. She liked being the Prima Donna who always arrived late.  In the slow tide of the Mediterranean, such tactical style was appreciated as the normal pattern.  Tomorrow could mean in three days or two weeks or whenever it suited to arrive on the scene with no explanation. Corsica and Charlotte were always temperamental and unpredictable. Both had the characteristic of all or nothing.

When Corsicans decide to hesitate, great plans can gather dust on forgotten shelves for years.  Entire villages are allowed to rot and fall to the ground.  Auto traffic can be blocked from four directions because an elongated discussion over a lost pig.  This is the heartbeat of the MediterraneanCharlotte loved it.  All things come in good time.  When it comes time to move, one must move immediately.  It is no matter that no one has done anything for years. The building that has been left derelict and is a community eye-sore for ten years is knocked down, scooped up and hauled to the end of the jetty in 48 hours. The café that became a bakery yesterday is a boutique tomorrow. Charlotte like Corsica did nothing or did everything in passionate measures. Both were cursed by indifference or compulsion.

Santiago and Leila were infuriated by her perpetual late arrivals, self-obsession and refusal to be directed.  Charlotte did things her way or not all. They worked together over the next four months, but the reality was each did their own thing at the same place.  The mural grew like vines over the cool vaulted walls.

***

The mural’s theme was time, land and people.  Santiago and Leila had conceived a mural that moved through the Duke's illustrious ancestors. Santiago with proletariat relish slipped in a few token peasants, but they only made the chosen ones shine more brightly. The mural represented the actions of the Nobility and their course through Corsican wars and politics.  It was an unspoken agreement with the Duke that the aristocrats in the mural were to be portrayed handsome and saintly. No schmucks, no bums, no card-dealers, that is, unless they were portrayed as the opposition in the battle scenes.  The Duke's entire family tree was illustrated, going back 800 years.  Everyone was there, standing heroic, looking out into the 20th century.  They were the past, but they were the cream and hierarchy of Corsican politics. Now they were making a legendary passage into the contemporary world. 

Everybody who was somebody was there.  General Sampiero with his arms spread wide; King Theodore Von Neuhofff running for his life; James Boswell writing notes; The Liberator of Corsica, Pascal Pauli bestowing medals; Napoleon Bonaparte likened to an arch-angel; and General De Gaulle likened to God. Nearly one-hundred lesser names of world history beamed immortally from the wall.  All these people were positioned in palaces, mansions and feudal lands, spread across the vestibule.

The Duke was very proud of the mural. He joked half seriously, “I think we can compete with the Vatican.” 

It was a meager attempt of the Sistine Chapel but Santiago accepted such words as a professional complement.  Leila felt proud to be compared to Michelangelo.  Charlotte viewed any positive acknowledgment of the mural with contempt.  It would never be as good as it had been done by the old masters. But if she had been in charge, it would have been perfect. 

Monsieur Christopher was in a constant rage. He cursed the paint buckets and fumes that disrupted his world.  “Up all their asses!”  He spat.

Santiago and Leila researched old paintings for faces, period clothing and architecture.  They looked through historical books and albums of the 19th century.  They went to the actual location of historical events and made sketches. All three talked over compositional ideas, but it was Santiago who made the final drawings and decided how to divide the work.

Santiago said, “Three artists working on the same painting have all the possibilities Dr. Frankenstein -- each one of us has our own style. Our painting is like our signature.  If we don't divide the work, it will be a monster.”

Initially this was his plan.  Divide and conquer.  Each artist was assigned to parts and to do what each was good at.  Santiago directed the general layout, worked out the relative scale and drew in the human figures and landscapes.  Leila was given all the fussy details, painting all the borders, the marbling, the still-life flower arrangements.  Charlotte was the surface and texture specialist. She was given skies and the clothing of the multitudes.  Santiago’s artistic direction held together for one week.

“Nobody ever fucking pays attention to me around here,” Santiago cursed as he witnessed Leila and Charlotte slipping over the boundaries into his flowing pastures.

***

Two months slipped by and after they used all of the faces they could from the Duke's family library, friends were asked to pose.  Jean Simon became an obscure Corsican poet.  Felix became a bandit.  A stranger from the street stood in for King Theodore.  One by one, friends and acquaintances were transformed onto the panels of the Duke's history.  A full portrait of the present aristocracy along with their cats, dogs and a parrot were positioned in the central panel.  Looming in the background was the scowling face of Monsieur Christopher.  Santiago secretly painted the old man's hand in an obscene gesture just behind the Duchess back.

“This whole painting is a fucking parade of pompous aristocrats,” Santiago mumbled to himself. But it was work.  They were getting paid and the Duchess and Duke were happy. 

Their prestige grew in Ajaccio. Leila cringed when passing sidewalk cafes and heard the usual comment, “Look, it is the American's.”

"Bloody hell!  I'm Scottish,” she screamed into a crowd of faces.

The painting went on.  Santiago was getting used to daily visitations by the grumbling Monsieur Christopher. He thought a truce had come, when he painted the old man as master of the garden.  The old renegade was overjoyed with the acknowledgment of his rightful status.  To sanctify their comradeship, Santiago was invited for the first time into Monsieur Christopher's quarters to drain several double whiskeys. Monsieur Christopher was almost pleasant.

***

Three months of painting rolled onto four.  They could see the end in sight.  Only small details were needed to tie up loose ends and crystallize the whole mural.  The parts which had been fun or interesting had been completed and they were into the final details which separates the amateur from the professional.  It is the finishing, the clean whistling end -- full of exact definitions and sublime transitions that allows the eye to flow from one point to the next, to slide across the surface evenly and smoothly.  There could be no awkward moment in the flow. 

Santiago and Leila were the survivors of the painting campaign.  Charlotte abandoned the project weeks before the end.  The crunch came when Santiago painted out one of the figures she had worked on.  It was too clumsy and stiff for him.  Adding injury to insult, he painted clouds onto one of her skies.  He claimed the sky was hopelessly off balance.  Neither Santiago nor Charlotte said anything directly to each other.  She simply stopped being there and transmitted brain waves that he was bastard.  He received the message, but he had had enough of Charlotte.

“She's an art-talking-bitch,” Santiago said when he realized Charlotte wasn't coming back.  Leila and he were now at the end and the conclusion of the mural was theirs to celebrate.

The Duke and Duchess decided to hold a vernisage, the traditional Opening of the mural.  It was to be the official unveiling.  Invitations were sent to the high society of Corsica.  They were the dignitaries of Ajaccio, the mayor, Madame Franccioni, the priests, the politicians, the rich and the intelligencia. It was the cultural crowd. Among this contingent were several prominent gangsters and a few honest human beings.

Two days before the occasion Santiago went to Charlotte.  He wanted to apologize diagonally.  Santiago had the money for Charlotte's final payment. 

Leila was outraged. “But Santiago, our agreement was for the whole project! Charlotte was only there half of the time. You are crazy to give for the full payment.”

“We owe her,” Santiago said.  He was adamant.  “It's the way we can repay the favors she has done for us.”  He was playing games.  His real attention to Charlotte was the musk of her sexuality. It was wrapped around him.

He went to Charlotte’s studio and opened the door quietly.  She was standing in front of a painting, smoking a cigarette. He went over to the window that overlooked the plaza and the mural they had done at Christmas.

“Look Charlotte, I know it was a pain in the ass working with us, but we just had to get on with it -- you know that's what we said in the beginning -- and well… ah fuck it!  I think your work is great and a hope you don't think...”

Charlotte interrupted, “I’m not really a painter,” she said.

“That business about the clouds -- it wasn't the sky that was a problem --   it was that bunch of flowers down at the bottom. There had to be a counter movement at the top,” Santiago said.

He transferred the wrongdoing onto Leila's shoulders. She had painted the flowers after the sky was done. There was the clear implication Charlotte was the innocent victim. 

 Charlotte went into the small kitchen and brought back a cup of coffee for him.  He looked directly into her eyes. There was an electric click in his mind. He impulsively reached out and gently pulled her to him.  She did not resist.  The movement was a small dance, affectionate, uncomplicated.  She let her arm go around Santiago’s neck.

  Santiago said softly, “I think you are wonderful… I don't want to lose a friend.  We are going to work this out, okay?”

Charlotte laughed and threw her head back.  She smiled at Santiago's obvious embarrassment.  Frenchmen would never be so shy.  She looked at him thoughtfully and was about to respond when the door bell rang.  Who else could it be, but Leila?  Duplicity was in the air.  Santiago and Charlotte separated like a sad train station goodbye.

***

The heat of June came after a rainy spring. All through April and May, cloudbursts soaked the earth wet as Scotland, but a good deal warmer. Monsieur Christopher said it had been the most rain he had seen in thirty years. He grumbled about the grass in the garden being too wet. It was going to drown. He raised his red face to the sky and sputtered the French equivalent of My God it’s a fucking whore. He had been trying to find places on the grass where the pool chairs would not sink into the ooze. The Duchess had to beg the services of Monsieur Christopher several days in advance for two hundred and fifty people who were invited to the unveiling of the mural.

 Santiago and Leila had taken longer to finish the mural than expected. The departure of Charlotte was part of the reason, but not a significant because  if she did come to work she usually arrived late and left early.  Leila thought Charlotte wasted time the way she fussed over small sections. But if Charlotte painted only one square foot a day, it was that much less to do.

 The reason for the extended time was another thing altogether. The mural had pulled Santiago into the illusion of his own making. He was an artist again, attempting the creation of a masterpiece. Santiago's lethargy faded under the spell of fame -- the mural was the hope -- commissioned by the aristocracy, in a palace, on a fashionable boulevard in the Mediterranean. There was money and the rain was gone, but being famous was an illusion. The little town of Ajaccio in Corsica was not Michelangelo’s Rome.

The magic of vision through the mural allowed Santiago and Leila began to see Corsica. The beauty of the island was the only thing that wasn't an illusion. For the first time in years they were both happy together. In the pastel colors of spring, Santiago would gaze up towards the mountains and let his eyes rest in the white glaciers held in the folds of earth. Purple, violet and mauve ridges were layered in haze like Japanese prints. Leila pointed out the flowers on their sketching adventures. She had never seen a land in so many colors. First it was the brilliant yellow puffs that hung from the mimosa trees, then the aspedelia, later scores of hibiscus and a hundred varieties she could not name. Every time they returned from these journeys, her arms were full of bouquets.  The land was in full bloom with orchards of nut and fruit trees, white, cream and pink. It was a celebration of perfumed color in the final decades in the Twentieth Century. The violence and noise of big cities belonged to another planet. Corsica was a creation of heaven.

Santiago and Leila’s creation was the mural. Their work trained them to look at a world under a microscopic eye. They made hundreds of detailed sketches, drawing thumb-nail notes across pages of vast panoramas. They made color charts, trying to simplify their palate from the infinite spectrum surrounding them. The task was to try to remember the real world as they transposed their research onto the hard plaster walls. At best, it was a poem they were creating. A poem of a world too immense, too perfect, too beautiful, and far too complicated to ever hope they could imitate. In comparison to reality, their painted world was crude with line and color, hanging in a cold dead space. Yet, it had a magic beyond reality.  The Duke's ancestors were lost cousins of Adam still strolling in the Holy Garden.

Santiago stopped being a technical brick-layer. He became a visionary, having moments of grace, traveling into the world his mind projected, his hand holding the brush and signing his only love with iridescent strokes.

Leila was having her own journey, leaving behind the half-world she lived in since the birth of their daughter. Tara was beginning to find her feet in the Corsican school. Language was hard for her, but the older children took her by the hand and without complication taught her French by singing songs and playing games. It was a relief to Leila. It hurt her to see her child suffer the loneliness of being a stranger. Now her daughter was happy and she could relax and loosen her mother-strings. It was hard to concentrate being an artist, being first a mother with a child in pain. She never thought her love of art would be secondary, but since she had become a mother, the thought of being an artist had not occurred at all. The child became her most important creation.

Since Tara was born Leila felt she had misplaced her life and worried it would be lost forever. The worry became fear, like a cold sword in her womb. She would turn on Santiago and accuse him of destroying her life. She was carrying all the responsibility. She hated Santiago for his arrogance and his stupid male inability to know what it was to be a mother. She blamed him for everything, especially when it occurred to her she was no longer an artist. All she had time to do was care for her child.

 One morning it was too much. Santiago wanted to make love, she screamed into his uncomprehending face, “You Bastard!” 

Santiago sat upright in bed, turning his back to her said, “Don't ever call me that again.”

She stifled her emotions but the resentment grew into something bitter, something unbearable. She was being buried alive by her husband and her child and there was nothing she could do to stop it.

The mural for the palace was her rebirth. Slowly she arose from the grave and found time for her own life, her own thoughts. She saw the mystery of the two worlds around them; the real one and the one of illusion. She fell inside the whispering brush mantra patterns of invented images. This is what it is being an artist, she thought. This was the experience to be an artist with Santiago. They were making visual love creating life in another world. She resurrected dead people back into time and space. It was like being God, to give life and take it.  The ancestors they resurrected were gently placed back in their eternal resting place. The last scene they painted was the De Pascal family mausoleum nestled in the green hills overlooking the bay of Ajaccio.

***

Monsieur Christopher had all the lawn chairs placed in strategic positions where the shadows of the tall palm trees would fall later in the afternoon. Leila got out of her paint splattered clothes and after a luxurious bath and pampering session put on a bright red silk dress. She was honey colored from the sun.

“Hey very sexy,” said Santiago as he took her in his arms. “I can hardly believe it's you. Has there been a glamorous woman under that goopy paint all this time?”

 Leila beamed. “Of course you fool. I've always been this way.”

“What a lucky man I am.” Santiago seemed to believe it.

 They stayed in the apartment until enough people arrived for the occasion so not to be conspicuous and trapped by un-ending small talk. Santiago had several whiskies to bolster his confidence. Leila and Santiago were looking and feeling beautiful. They were stars.

The Duchess immediately took Santiago and Leila in tow going from group to group, allowing just enough time for social grazing and photographs by the local paparazzi. She was dazzling her high society rivals with her latest acquisition. These are our famous and talented artists who painted our beautiful mural, she bubbled. The talk drifted into mundane questions about their work. They toured around the garden party, introduced to the people who were important. The Duchess collected trophies of one-upmanship.

The day tumbled on into a warmer afternoon and the crowd turned a little more oblique in social register. The Poets were a group of bearded young angry men led by a tall auburn haired beauty who wore black Sunglasses. They wrote about bombs, liberty and the destiny of Corsica. Santiago saw the young woman and something in the way she almost danced instead of walking clicked a deja vous. He was drunkenly fuzzy minded, but she looked too familiar. Before he could look closer she disappeared into a crowd of long hair hippies who had just arrived. They looked like they had smoked one bowl too many and attacked the tables of food. Snob eyebrows were raised in French disdain. Leila sensed doom approaching.

The glamorous little fishpond of Ajaccio overflowed around the turquoise pool. Two-hundred sleek perfumed creatures adjusted their poised positions for the benefit of maximum social sighting. To view or to be viewed was the question. The evening held the warm air of mid-June. Endless bottles of champagne gave light to cheeks and chatter. All the cast was assembled. It was the significant moment, the fashionably late moment for Charlotte to arrive.

She was greeted by the Duke who instantly swept her to center stage. Charlotte was in a black art gallery costume like a polished beatnik but the tan of her skin, gold hair and bright smile played havoc on the Duke’s desire.  Santiago smoothed by the whiskey and spirited by the champagne broke away from the Duchess, leaving Leila to cope with the society sycophants.

 He walked behind Charlotte and whispered over her shoulder, “So you decided it was your kind of party.”

Charlotte laughed at the sight of Santiago with not a spot of paint on him for the first time in months. “C’est tres bien! C’est parfait! It is beautiful, Santiago.” They kissed cheeks and Santiago breathed the Channel 5 around Charlotte’s face.

 “Hey you like the new-improved-good-looking me,” he said stroking her hair playfully.

Charlotte laughed, “Mais oui, that too, but I mean the mural. C’est magnifique.” It was the first time she had seen the mural since her departure. “You have done it exactly right - and in fact you were right about the clouds.” She hesitated looking past Santiago and said, “Oo la la! Leila, you are one beautiful woman.”

 Leila was surprised to see Charlotte but happy the dispute was over. Even so, intuition told her to stand between Santiago and this woman.

Before anything else could be said, there came a squealing and belching noise. Santiago recognized the sound. His eyes fell on a kilt-clad Scotsman as he came into the garden center playing the bagpipes.

The Duke had agreed to a secret request from Leila to fly in Neil from Scotland to formally open the mural. Neil slow marched into the garden party, began to honk ungraciously into the first notes of Scotland the Brave. By the second bar he settled into the hypnotizing sound of the instrument. All of the guests stopped talking and watched the Scotsman as he came from the doorway of the vestibule. The tune came to an end and Neil, red-faced burst into laughter. The crowd applauded spontaneously.

The Duke launched into a formal speech, thanking the artists for their creative contribution to Corsica. “Our artists will not be forgotten,” he finally said, as he hugged Charlotte.

Leila had an intense flash of jealousy. “Bitch,” she whispered.

“Nice touch,” said Santiago. He was in a bright happy world. There was still booze and an old drinking buddy had arrived.

The party went on. Santiago and Neil opened a new bottle of malt whiskey while Leila and Charlotte made the rounds of champagne talk. They agreed to paint several more proposed murals and were taking for granted their new status in Corsica. The tempo was rolling and easy. Waiters brought in more trays of clinking glasses. The perfume of the culture crowd overpowered the garden fragrance. Monsieur Christopher slouched in a far corner was being told by the Duchess that it was past his bedtime and not to worry about the chairs. The old man grunted a smoky curse as his face slowly changed from red to alcohol purple. Santiago and Neil eventually were separated when Santiago was introduced to a Monsieur Pimento who talked of a church mural. The auburn haired woman who had been at the center of the poets caught Neil’s attention and after a few minutes he walked her to the far end of the garden, obscured from Santiago’s view.

 Santiago drank into the evening, feeling like a long train changing speed, the carriages of his thoughts bumping together and apart -- little spaces where he found himself alone, inside his own view, looking at his hands covered in colored cracks of old paint. One hand held a glass full of whiskey, while his eye caught small clusters of people discussing their growing desires. Then he felt eyes on him and looking up he saw  Jean Simon smiling with some secret amusement.

“Ca va,” Santiago said, drunk enough to be confident in little French words, but happy to see the man who had introduced him into the circles of Corsica.

“Ca va, ca va!” Jean Simon tilted his head towards the garden of glossy people, “This is success. You have made your place in Corsica.”

“Yeah,” said Santiago, “It's kind of funny.”

“You should be proud Santiago. You have arrived,” Jean Simon said with a wink.

Santiago's eyes fell back to his paint covered hands as Jean Simon went off in search of Leila. The clustered groups were beginning to thin. The mayor was talking to the Duke, putting in political overtime; the Duchess chatted with a priest, making sure God saw her diligence; the architects and bankers were gone, leaving the Poets and the hairy hippies. The end was near. Champagne fog was heavy on the garden. The sun's last register of light silhouetted the palms against the soft evening sky. 

The Duke and Duchess left the aftermath to their servants. The Opening of the mural was boiling down to the thick mixture of those in it for the last champagne flight, and those hanging onto the remnants of glory. Leila was feeling the vacuum of hollow victory.  Santiago watched in fascination as his old friend Neil and the auburn haired Poet who still wore the black sunglasses went out the garden gate. She looked way too familiar, but he was drunk. The drunken hippies broke into applause while the other Poets scowled.

Neil, like a little boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar, turned with an instant alibi, “Och, we're off on a wee walk on the beach for shite's sake!

Charlotte laughed at the familiar comedy as she departed with The Silence. The only guests left were Corsica's contingent of global hippies and bohemian relics from the sixties. They were birds of the feather to Santiago. In his drunken mind he classified the new friends into three categories; The Hairy Freaks, the Boozer Freaks and the Bomb Freaks.

 The Hairy Freaks were Pedro and Sophie: Amsterdam in the country and Hans and Rebecca: Post-War Germany trying to find Jerusalem.

 The Boozer Freaks were Vaughn and Ronda, and their entourage of English expatriates whose consumption of wine and vodka made Santiago feel he was a teetotaler.

The Bomb Freaks, consisted of the band of Corsican Poets who denied they were members of the guerilla organization, F.N.L.C. They only wrote poetry and sang Corsican ballads. Santiago could smell gun powder on them.

Santiago knew all of these new friends were crazy but authentic; their main fault being only too naive and altruistic for such a merciless world. It was this circle that concluded the Opening. Santiago looked at them smiling and feeling peaceful. He lay down in the damp grass by the pool and closed his eyes. The air was filled with the tinkle of long stemmed glasses, the cry of night swallows and the wash of waves. Some where down on the beach, Santiago could hear the laughter of the woman with Neil and thought, No, it is too ridiculous to be true.

***

The summer filled the apartment with friends and passing friends and friends of friends. Duke De Pascal told Santiago a year later, “Because you are so generous, you have too many friends…we can not have the whole world walking through our home…it is far too dangerous to have such a situation here in Corsica…you know the F.N.L.C.” That was his explanation of why they had to vacate the Palace.

Leila was outraged again and cried at Santiago, “It's your fault! You and all your freak friends is why we have to move.” Tears were streaming down her face.

 Santiago was not about to let her get away with such nonsense. ”Ah come on. You've had as many people here as me. What about your cousin and her crowd? Anyway it was probably your pal Moira and her black boyfriend that blew all the gaskets. You should have seen the Duchess’s jaw drop to her knees when she discovered them making-out in the hallway. My God, a white woman with a black man! With these fucking racist frogs, we might as well ask an Arab family to live in the hallway -- Christ, the gossip would be wild in Ajaccio...”

“Shut up! Shut up,” Leila cried as she curled into a ball of pain. Their beautiful house was no more.

 The deluge of friends had begun shortly after Santiago and Leila had moved in. In the beginning the flood of people was tolerated by the Duchess, and everyone knew that Artists were Bohemians.

The Duchess laughed and said, “You are such crazy and free personalities. It is so fantastic to have such life in our home.”

 Her attitude was to change. The week following the Opening, they were Famous Artists indeed -- at least by Ajaccian standards. They were invited to several champagne receptions and being at the elbow of the Duke and Duchess made them instant celebrities. They had drinks on an early afternoon with the Baroness. Plans were discussed for a garden wall mural, perhaps a sculpture. Cocktails at five -- there were talks with the City Architect -- plans for the underground parking development -- lots of walls, lots of murals. Champagne on the terrace at eight – Monsieur Pimento,  a wealthy land developer with a curious background -- his idea was to restore a 16th Century Church -- murals wall to wall, the ceilings like a little Sistine Chapel, yes, maybe some sculptures on the golf course developments.

“This must be it,” Santiago said. “I knew it was right for us to come to Corsica. I knew there was something special going to happen.”

He was right about something special, but it was not the rosy picture his imagination was painting of the future, yet for the first months the party went on. Santiago and Leila were confident in their Corsican future. Life was full of good wine, days at the beach and star filled evenings.

There came a moment in events when everyone was slowed in the heat of the Mediterranean. It was better to go to the rivers up in the mountains than to stay in town. In between, more friends arrived. They came at different moments of the party -- friends from Scotland -- friends from America -- Friends – Hello -- Goodbye.

The Duchess was still amused by the comings and goings. The Duke was so pleased with the mural and the response by his social circle, that he gave a ten-thousand-Franc bonus in the final payment. A great heated argument began when Santiago suggested extending the tip to Charlotte.

”She didn't earn it Santiago. Don't be an idiot! She's already been given more than she deserves,” Leila hissed. She was protecting her nest and its little clutch of golden eggs. Also, she wanted to go back to Scotland for a holiday. “It's not fair to keep Tara away from her Grandparents,” she pleaded. “Tara needs to be there and so do I. We can afford it now.”

 All Santiago could see was the bonus disappearing into the clouds of airfare. “Easy come, easy go,” he sighed.

***

There was the strange mixture of loss and relief at the airport -- that peculiar anxiety one experiences in saying goodbye to the people who fill your life. Santiago tried not to think about the hollowness of seeing his little girl going away. He would see her again soon. But the last few days with Leila had been a series of running battles -- everything between the conflicts of Monsieur Christopher upstairs to the colors Santiago wanted in the church proposal. Leila was also nagging him about his favorite pastime -- wine consumption. They were locked in disconnected lives and could not find the connetion to speak of love.

“Please look through the stuff we left in Scotland and see if you can find…” Santiago said.

“I have so many things to do! I can not be chasing around sorting out all of your old junk.”

“God damn it -- that stuff is important to me, and to you too if you think about it and…”

“Oh, you think I am going back just to have fun?”

“It is not that much trouble, and…”  

And on and on it would go until both of them would stop talking. Leila would put on her bikini and take the little girl by the hand to the beach. Santiago would grab paper and pencils and go to the nearest cafe where the attempt of work was splashed with red wine. Later at home, both would still be angry.

So it was. Santiago said goodbye to Leila at the airport. It was like pulling a thorn from his flesh. To her it was feeling chains drop from her soul. Still, they had an obligation – the mundane pact that married people come to when the honeymoon is not only over, but forgotten. It is the pact that drones a dull incantation, YOU WILL GO ON AND ON, while the ego echoes, NO MATTER HOW MUCH YOU SUFFER

***

Tara hugged bye-bye to China the dog. Santiago and Leila looked at each other with a message in their eyes of unsaid words: maybe there are no more tomorrows... They hugged as two soldiers of war rather than a man and a woman who had once been lovers.

Santiago stood at the door as they passed through customs. “So long pals. See you in a few weeks.” He waved a final time. A hard breath came. Something had slipped from his life. He walked from lobby trying to convince himself it was the moment he had been waiting for – it was Party Time and he was chomping at the bit and prancing like a stud on the loose. Fantasies galloped through his thoughts ... Look out women, here comes Santiago! Great Balls of Fire! Look at them lined up from the kitchen to the swimming pool -- all of them just waiting for a third time with the Stallion. Will I never tire? Who will I pick next? That blonde then the almond-eyed gypsy? Why not three at once? Two is kids stuff!

***

Day One: He set in cafes, drank red wine and dreamed of wild sex. Where was Charlotte? Ah, she has gone off to the mountains with The Silence. Why The Silence? Why not him?

“Encore de vin rouge, s’il vous plait,” Santiago said to the waiter, one of the few phrases he mastered.

Day Two: Santiago discovered Leila was gone and he was without an interpreter. Her words no longer covered his ignorance of French,

Santiago said to China the dog, “I don't know what the fuck it is - the easiest answer is I'm just plain stupid! Je suis STEW-PEED! Every time I pick up a few words, I remember them for five minutes then I forget.”

The truth was less simple but not so complex. Santiago never lost the flat tones of his American accent. Even when he spoke a word or a sentence he knew, no one understood. Santiago began to withdraw into himself. The first hours of his bachelor freedom became a jail of inability to communicate. His tongue was behind bars of insecurity.

Yes, women were waiting and they did drop by, but they did not have Charlotte’s passport. They did not speak English. Santiago in his embarrassment portrayed an arrogant and odd character. The women would look nervously to the side quickly excusing themselves to other adventures. There was something else. Santiago was equating middle-age with impotence and death.

Day Three: Santiago confined himself to the apartment and threw his frustrated sexual energies into work -- the drawings for the Church -- Christ, Bloody Christ on the Cross; Christ the Righteous One; Christ Resisting Temptation.

“What bloody fucking irony it all is,” Santiago ranted. China the dog got out of the way and lay under the table. He looked up at Santiago with his big droopy cocker eyes. “I'm sorry you poor little guy,” Santiago said feeling guilty. He bent down and scratched China's ears.

***

Santiago and his family had been in the Palais De Pascal for over a year. The house had lost its charm for Santiago. Their moment of fame had long before evaporated. After the mural was completed, the first weeks of the wonderful Pink Palace were full of lucrative promise. Many important people passed through their doors -- important people in an important house. The important people asked for designs -- ready to agree to pay any price -- accept any picture. Santiago reached into his magic hat -- voila, art appeared in front of their eyes -- but Santiago did not fully appreciate the Corsican’s extravagant use of language.

The Corsicans love to talk and they love to hear themselves talk. They love to have great dreams and open fantasies played without the slightest worry that anyone should take them seriously. That is anyone but Santiago. He so wanted to believe he had arrived at the Dream.

The Dream: Hello, I'm a Famous Artist, making Famous Art on Famous Walls, of the Famous, the Rich. We are All Together on Our Road of Destiny. We are People of Fortune, People of Fame, All in the Circle, All in the Game. We are Flowing like a River to Immortality. We are on the Way.  We have our Price and Will be Paid. We can Afford another Bottle of Champagne. Why Not? It is a Nice Dream. It is Not Going to Kill Anybody. We Do Our Work, Paint Pictures and Act as Life is an Art Form.

It was a nice dream, until Monsieur Christopher brought Santiago abruptly awake.

“If that old son-of-a-bitch insults me one more time, I swear I'm going to knock his teeth out,” Santiago spewed towards China the dog.

Monsieur Christopher had come to the apartment door, his face puffed tight and red. A stream of obscenities shot from his mouth and he waved his fists at Santiago's nose. It had been the day of his 80th birthday celebration. The Pastis had its usual affect. He became an ogre.

This time it was China the dog who had gone too far. The creature had transgressed all boundaries and had shit in the garden. Monsieur Christopher naturally stepped in it.

“Now you are out!” Monsieur Christopher screamed shaking his thick workers knuckles at Santiago. “You…you…you American!” His yellow spittle soaked Gitane flew out of his lips as he delivered his final curse. “Putain de con!”

Santiago slammed the door and the old man kicked it before he returned upstairs rumbling like Vesuvius. Two minutes later the old man’s wife, Grace was at the door apologizing again. The frail women held jar of her home-made preserves.

“Beaucoups de Pastis,” She said as she hunched her shoulders in the generic French explanation of complexity.

Santiago kissed her affectionately on the cheek. “Pas de probleme,” he said. What else could he say?  The old women returned upstairs.

 Santiago said to China the dog, “The old bastard, the fucking old bastard.”

***

The famous summer had gone along smoothly between skirmishes in the hallway. They were still in the benevolent shadow of the Duke and Duchess.

Leila and the little girl had been in Scotland for three weeks. It was wonderful to go back, shopping with friends and telling them the gossip, playing the role of the jet-set

“Yes, it is true, we are still doing our art and living on a beautiful island in the sun - oh yes, there is sun everyday - of course the beaches are wonderful - you must come for a holiday - yes the wine is good and  inexpensive.”

She was the object of envy if not outright jealousy to all of her old friends in cold gray Edinburgh. Her friends were pale skinned and Leila was golden colored. Her thoughts were rainbow hued and she felt beautiful. It was a successful reunion in the Scottish summertime drizzle. Tara stayed for a week  with her Grandparents and Leila had a little freedom. It felt wonderful to be appreciated -- to be desirable.

Santiago hid in the apartment for two weeks. He would not answer the telephone or go to the door. An anxiety attack had completely taken over. He was only days away from his fortieth birthday. He felt insane and out of control. The wine bottles piled up on the kitchen floor. Then two post-cards arrived. The first was from his wealthy friend, Vicki Manstalk. She was coming as she had promised. There was a direct flight from Birmingham to Ajaccio. The second card was from Eleanor, an old art school friend of Leila. She was coming the day after Vicki Manstalk returned to England. Santiago had met Eleanor once in Scotland. She had been working as an assistant to a famous artist. She had a thing about famous artists. Eleanor was a sexy woman and very proud of her breasts. Santiago was captivated by her cleavage and her sulky lips. 

Santiago wondered about the possibilities of these two post-cards. His last week of self imposed exile was broken by Vicki Manstalk. Things went their natural wayward course with a supply of whiskey. They got up to more than talking about the meaning of God and Politics.

They talked about old times and the old times became a lusty maneuver to the bedroom. How about a back massage? Santiago kissed Vicki and her tongue flicked fire into his groin. There it was. The lust was out and the prick was in.

“Is this a comedy or a dream?” Santiago said as Vicki left on one plane and Eleanor arrived on the next charter.

 Eleanor groaned “Oh, oh, Santiago.”

 Santiago groaned, “Oh Eleanor, as he licked the sweat off her upper lip.

There was no love involved in either hedonistic humping game. At best it could only be described as an extended hand-shake, and for a few moments Santiago was ecstatically aroused inside a horny bachelor’s paradise. The sweet wine would turn bitter. There was an embarrassing overlap. Leila returned from Scotland while Eleanor was still there. Leila could see Brutus Eyes. She stayed close to Santiago and Eleanor, and never allowed them more than a few minutes alone. Her suspicions were wild. She could not believe her friend could do such a thing, yet she knew the justice of Karma. Her friend had reason for deceit.

At one drunken art school party, Eleanor swore, “I will pay you back for this one day, you first class bitch!”

 The occasion had been years before and Leila thought the wound had healed. But how could she come out with accusations of infidelity – her vacation away from Santiago had been good in Edinburgh.

***

Their second winter in Corsica brought the end of their money and good luck. Thanksgiving day in November, Santiago insisted on having the traditional American dinner. He had become sentimental and patriotic in eleven years of absence from his country.

“Ah for fuck's sake,” Santiago said at the end of an argument with Leila.

 Leila broke into tears, “Santiago, we have only fifty francs,” she sobbed.

“Jesus Christ!” he swore, “It's not the first time we've been broke. You ought to be used to it by now. Anyway, that's what Thanksgiving is -- it's giving…”

“What do you know about giving?” Leila put on her coat and went out the door into a howling mistral.

Santiago had grown accustomed to finishing speeches to China the dog. “It's about believing what you give will return ... it's...ah, fuck it.” The dog looked at Santiago with his brown cocker eyes.

Thanksgiving. The festival roared on to four in the morning. The complaint came from the old spinster who lived across the street. The demented howling of stoned hippies and heavy thumping of jungle drums was too much. It was a slow ride downhill after that -- a bumpy journey of crossed paths.

 Their apartment was free. It was warm inside. No freezing mistral winds seeped through cracks. Monsieur Christopher kept the central heating turned to full. For the first winter Santiago could remember with Leila didn't complain about the cold. No bills. The Duke and Duchess paid the electric, the telephone, and all that heat. A few blessings Santiago rationalized, but other than that, the Thanksgiving sacrifice didn't seem to work.

The money came in dribbles, then drips, then it stopped. No money. No food. No food except Free Bone Soup. That is what Santiago called the fat flecked boiled bone concoction they were reduced to eating. The local butcher smiled every time Santiago asked for a large box of bones for China the dog. The butcher always slipped in a couple of small lean pieces of meat. Free Bone Soup.

Leila would look at the horrific goulash and say, “I think I am going to give up eating.”

 “It's fucking great, I’m forty years old and this is where I am. -- living in nowhere, doing fucking nothing and being a God damn nobody.”

They hung on through a minimal Christmas and another drunken howling New Year. More complaints came from the neighbors. Santiago became more reclusive, hiding from the world and the humility of being anonymous. No commissions, no money.

  Santiago seemed to have forgotten that it was his doing that brought them to Corsica. Now it was God's plan of punishment. Weeks would go by with few words between him and Leila. Their friends occasionally propped up their spirits and provided food or a little money. Pedro and Sophie brought boxes of vegetables. Hans and Rebecca continued the hippy-orgies. Santiago would get stoned and drunk. Leila would leave him lying wherever he collapsed and come back the next day to collect him.

The only luck that kept them in food was Vaughn and Ronda who owned a tiny bistro. They were the constant connecting point to a shared misery. Vaughn and Ronda were in their fifties. Vaughn was married several times before and had children scattered around the world. He had been a successful movie-script writer. Now it was Ronda who made the money and kept them alive with her cooking skills and sheer determination. She and Leila had a lot in common. Vaughn, like Santiago was submerged in an alcohol river of cheap red wine.

There were other diversions. The young literary bomb-mob called the Poets would appear mysteriously at late hours. The auburn haired beauty who had been with them at the Opening was never with them. Santiago was never quite sure what their names were or where they had poetry meetings. Somehow they always had the smell of explosives on them. But after they left there would always be a five liter jug of peasant wine, hard goat cheese and wild boar meat on the table.

There had been the initial hope after the palace mural that commissions would come their way. Indeed, Santiago and Leila spent weeks drawing plans and designs for interested clients. The Ajaccian bourgeoisie liked the idea of art. They liked the idea of something custom made by prestigious artists, which kept them in league with the Duke and Duchess. But when it came to the point of money, they would say, “We will talk about this more later -- maybe after next month it will be better for us -- the money -- it is hard to touch right now.” Touch money. It was their term meaning, when it left their hands. Always it meant next month or next year. There were more important things for them to touch their money, like their chic clothing or the payment on the BMW. But Art? It was not so necessary. It was better to go to a restaurant.

***

Santiago and Leila were learning slowly. After the sixth time Santiago was hustled he began to understand that Corsicans had a different lifestyle.

“God damn it,” he shouted slamming the telephone down so hard that China the dog yelped and went under the kitchen table. “The next fucker that asks us to do something, it will be a thousand Francs before I put a pencil on the paper. The fucking cheapskate bastards…”

The hardest months came in the second Corsican spring. Santiago was hostile to people who asked about Art possibilities. Leila kept them alive by washing dishes several nights a week in Ronda's bistro, which was conveniently just across the street. Santiago would visit for a few minutes sometimes after Tara was asleep. He and Vaughn would talk about the bitterness of being unrecognized and the difficult life of being an artist. They talked over and around the customer’s meals. Vaughn was theoretically responsible as the waiter, but he was more occupied in talking and drinking wine than seeing to the plates. Ronda would scream from the tiny smoking kitchen, “There are people waiting, Darling.” Santiago would sit in the corner, gladly accepting Vaughn's wisdom and red wine. After a glass of wine and a bottle to take out, Santiago would go back to the apartment and fall asleep on the couch. Leila would come home around midnight, bang a pot onto the stove, make a cup of hot milk and go to bed angry.

Santiago usually woke up on the couch at three in the morning feeling terrified and abandoned. He would stumble into the bedroom and lay down next to Leila hugging her until the terrible feeling disappeared.

Among some of the things in his frenzied mind was his moving home – The Land Ship. It had been stored at the Duke's country estate because it had become too dangerous to drive around Ajaccio. The police had stopped Santiago several times and warned him that foreign vehicles were legal for only six months and then they must be Normalized, meaning a very stiff tax. At first, this seemed only inconvenient. They were too busy to get it done and it was too expensive. Put it aside and think about it another time was Santiago's solution.

Leila had convinced Santiago when they were in the middle of their fame and fortune period to buy an old Volkswagen. They could get around and see some of the island.  But in accordance with Santiago's attitude towards the Law he neglected to make the mandatory tax payment as well as change the ownership papers and buy auto insurance.

“Bunch of bullshit,” he said a few months later when the cars engine blew because it had ran out of oil. “Just as well we didn't waste all that money legalizing the God damn thing.”

“Oh shut up,” screeched Leila. She was outraged when the Volkswagen died. It was bad enough she was washing dishes to make money and Santiago was becoming a pathetic wino. Now they were trapped in the dead winter streets of Ajaccio. There was no possibility to visit the countryside or a favorite beach. A cold hatred of Santiago came over her. She detested his moral breakdown. A weak man was the image she saw and that weakness was contagious to everything in their life. It had even destroyed her beautiful Beetle.

Leila and Santiago were falling apart. To make love was only a submission to monthly hormones. Santiago had no tenderness left except for his lips to a wine glass. Leila despised the creature he was revealing. Why had she not seen the disease before? She didn't know. Maybe she was wrong. The little girl loved her father. Maybe it was only the moment…

Santiago had been talking again about leaving. They would wait until June, when school had finished. “I think Italy would be great, somewhere in Tuscany would be a wonderful place to live,” said Santiago enthusiastically.

“Oh Christ Santiago, if I go anywhere, it will be back to Scotland with Tara,” Leila said. Her eyes looked flat and hard.

“Ah fuck. I'll never live there again,” said Santiago. “Ten years of rainy miserable weather was enough.

***

If Corsica was not the most wonderful point in their life, it had hardly been boring. There were many diversions in new friendships. The island experience had grown through encounters with friends of friends. Santiago and Leila discovered there was a community of artists and world vagabonds. They had been invited to celebrations all over the island and always the same faces would appear.

At one party Santiago said, “It's like a God damn antique hippy convention – it’s still 1967 with long hair and beads, guitars and joints. The only difference is we are all getting lines in our faces, missing teeth and losing hair.”

 Though he was sarcastic, it gave him a good feeling to be with this portable band of cosmic travelers. Usually there were few Corsicans at these parties. Normally most were northern Europeans with a spattering of Russians, Brazilians, and Americans. They had all come to Corsica by chance and stayed.

It was while they had been painting the palace murals they had been invited to a fete. It was there that Santiago and Leila first met this growing circle of bohemians. All of them were children of wanderlust -- the last remnants of the Woodstock Brigade. They were all bumping forty and had eyes still filled with the dream of a renaissance – a dream that had faded with the age of Flower-Power. This collection of outcasts refused to believe the hallucination of Aquarius was over. They continued to soak up wine, puff on ganja and keep the festival alive. Turn-on, tune-in, drop-out was their unforgettable motto. They were an ancient order that would fade with the smoke as they passed the pipe. No natural death for them. They were trouble-babies. Their philosophy was: When you go out of this place man, go out in flame and smoke and howling. Hey man, believe in love…be here now!

It was May, when the sun grows warm and all of the island hippies began their annual festivals. Santiago had used Pedro and Sophie as models for the mural and they in turn had invited him and Leila to a fete celebrating their birthdays. It became a forty-eight hour bash.

Santiago and Pedro had got stoned-drunk and beat congas while shouting moronic tones. They were a couple of old acid-heads who never gave up trying to locate the lost paradise. While they carried on their pagan chant, the two men grunted enough monosyllabic phrases of Wow and Yeah, to convince each other they were Cosmic-Blood-Brothers. The home-grown grass and peasant wine shot everyone into the same orbit. If at one point in the celebrations the staff from a psychiatric-ward witnessed this human spectacle, they would have insisted the entire group of over fifty people should be harnessed in straight-jackets and placed in padded-rooms. This was a band of demented gypsies who were trying to have their hallucination together. As usual Leila became bored with the baboon-like drone and left Santiago to collapse in the corner of his choice

A few days after the fete, Pedro telephoned Santiago. “Hey man, how you doing?”

“Uh, okay I guess,” Santiago said wondering who he was talking to.

“Hey man, Helmut the Bread Maker is doing his May gig this Weekend.” Pedro smacked his lips in anticipation of the excitement this news was supposed to arouse.

“Yeah ... uh huh,” Santiago said bored.

“You and your old lady should come. Man, like it will be a far out happening man. Hey I'm bringing my conga,” Pedro said.

Santiago recognized the voice and a blurred image came back of him and Pedro howling wolf songs into the night. “Far out. Sure, where is it?” Santiago said.

Pedro went on to tell him the party was on the other side of the island at Helmut the Breadmaker’s home. They could all rendezvous with another friend who knew exactly where the party was, but first, he and Sophie had to do some vegetable deliveries. He would give the telephone number of the friend just in case there was a change of plans.

“Great,” Santiago said.

“Hey man, like we will meet at my friends house. His name is Jean-Claude. He is married to a broad named Karen. She’s an American beauty Queen, from California, man. Yeah, like we go together, but hey, like you got to be there before six man, like because Jean-Claude has to split to do the goat…” 

“Do a goat? What’s that?”

“Oh, like wow, they are doing a whole goat in a pit roast. Hey, so you got to be there before six, okay?”

“Sounds cool. Far out.”

“Hey, call them at about five O’clock because that’s when they will be home. Maybe we might get hung up with our deliveries, but like remember to telephone. Catch you later man.”

The week-end came. Leila was not excited about another stoned-out hippie orgy and the spectacle of Santiago being a drunken fool.

“Come on,” Santiago insisted, “we're going to be late.”

“For heaven sake, it's only four o’clock. There's plenty of time,” countered Leila.

“Come on, we have to telephone on the way so we know where to meet Pedro and Sophie.”

“You don't know where the party is?” Leila questioned irritably.

“We have to call some people -- Karen and Jean-Claude,” said Santiago fidgeting at the door.

***

In the 80s the Corsican Public Telephone System was a cross experience between going fishing in a dead river and wrestling a giant Venus fly-trap.

When one stepped into a telephone booth there were several possibilities but having a distant conversation with anybody was the least likely scenario. Usually one or all of the following conditions: The telephone may not be in the booth, having been captured by some kind of mechanical collection specialist. If the telephone was there, the receiver smelled suspiciously of urine and garlic; the coin slot, if one was able to push money into it, there would be kind of an electrical binging, then a burp, and nothing happened. If really persistent and blessed with a variety of coin denominations, one of those coins made the receiver buzz as though as it is satisfied with the over-payment and ready to co-operate; then if the dial or the buttoned numbers had not been glued together with melted chewing gum, you could go ahead with the idea of actually telephoning someone. By this time several minutes had elapsed and patience was thin. Next, the blipping throb of electrical musicality sung either in a silent whisper or so loud the glass rattled in the booth. This would be accompanied by a complexity of hissings and fuzz. Usually when the dialer had got that far into the tortuous journey the number would either be busy or ring into a vacuous valley of echoes.

Santiago was at the telephone booth in Veneco, halfway to their destination of Helmut the Bread Maker. It was the second booth he had gone to in the village. Someone had taken what looked like a huge human turd and crammed it into the numbered buttons of the first one. The next was not violated but smelled of a men's urinal.

“I won’t get upset,” Santiago said to himself at the end of five Francs -- the normal charge being only 20 centimes. “I will defeat the Corsican Telephone System. I will conquer this son- of-a-bitch.”

When through the electrical haze there suddenly came a gruff hello, Santiago screamed into the mouth piece who he was and that he was the friend of Pedro and Sophie.

The second time he was understood. The voice rumbled back, “Ah oui. I am Jean-Claude, but it is easier if you come to our house, oui? It is not so far from Helmut’s house.”

“Okay,” said Santiago, “how do I get there?”

Jean-Claude answered, “You must get to the village of Santa Maria, oui?”

“Yes,” said Santiago barely making out the words.

“Then you must go to your right at a hotel called San Luzano, oui?”

“Uh, oui. yes, oui, oui,” said Santiago.

“Then after San Luzano you are…” began Jean-Claude when the phone pinged out  PERFRA-PERTUNK-PEPLUNK and then went dead in Santiago’s hand.

“God damn it you Motherfucker!” screamed Santiago.

He went through another five Francs. Another voice came onto the line. It was feminine and sounded very American.

“Hello, this is Karen. Is that you Santiago?” she asked.

“Yeah, it's me, Santiago... uh, hi -- I guess Pedro told you ...” he began.

Karen interrupted. “Wow! Aren't these telephones the shits?”

“Yeah, no kidding,” Santiago said, actually amazed he could hear her clearly.

“Listen,” the voice continued, “before we get cut off again, okay, right now you have to come to our house before six of o’clock, because we have to take the goat to Helmets, okay?”

”Right,” said Santiago.

“Okay,” she began as a terrible hiss grew in volume on the line, “first you have to get to Santa Maria, right?”

“Right,” Santiago repeated.

“Then you come to a hotel, and its name is San Luzano, okay?”

“Right, yeah, okay,” stammered Santiago.

“And then you have to take a left turn, right?” Karen said.

“What, uh, left ... right?”

“Right. Okay, take a left at San Luzano,” she said.

“Right,” Santiago began.

“No! Take a left at the hotel then…” she continued, when a horrible crunching sound washed her voice away, silence then a high hum and an electrical click.

“God damn it. Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” rasped Santiago through clenched teeth. When the telephone refused to eat another coin he went completely mad. “You son-of-a-bitch!” he screamed.

He kicked the sides of the booth, and ripped out the receiver line using the phone as a club, beating the age of instant communication into caveman oblivion. He was lucky. It took only a kick to get the door open in the booth. One night Leila was trapped in a telephone booth for over an hour before a passing stranger helped her pry open the door.

“Fuck it!” growled Santiago as he got back in the car, receiving paranoiac looks from Leila and Tara.  “We'll try the next telephone we find.”

 The next telephone all in one piece was in the village, Santa Maria, one hour away. Without hesitation the telephone operated just like the original concept had intended, 20 centimes readily swallowed, a clear bell tone, and then that little burr-sound that says the phone is ringing at the other end of the line. Then it went on and on. No one was home. Santiago considered the possibility of killing the telephone just for spite, but decided to save his energy. He went back to the car.

“Well, it's a small village. There can't be that many Germans named Helmut who make bread. We'll just ask around for directions,” he said.

No one in the village had ever heard of Helmut the Bread Maker. They took a small road that led them up into one of the mountain villages.

An old man said, “I think it is that way,” as he waved his hand back down off the mountain in the direction of the beach five kilometers away.

Santiago wondering if this was a Corsican joke responded, “Which direction, left or right?”

The old man held his grizzled chin with warped fingers and hugged himself with his other arm, pondered for a long silent moment. “Perhaps it is that way,” he said shaking his head as he waved his hand in the direction of Bastia, 30 kilometers away.

By eight o’clock they found the Luzano Hotel and rode around with their heads out the window listening for hippy howling and drum beats. They heard only crickets and night owls. Santiago was ready to give up and return to Ajaccio

 As they wove their way back to the main highway Leila said, "Wait a minute, there is a name on that mail box.”

Santiago backed up the Volkswagen and put the headlights onto the large wooden box. Painted in very precise German gothic script was the name, BLUMENHAUS.

“Blumenhaus, that is a German name,” said Leila. “Shall we give it a try?”

“Might as well,” moaned Santiago.

They drove up a bumpy dirt road that led back into the mountains going nowhere while steadily becoming more and more difficult to negotiate holes and huge rocks.

“Jesus H fucking Christ,” Santiago groaned as the car drug bottom again. “As soon as I find a place to turn around, let's get out of this wilderness.”

They went another thirty yards around a bend when the throb of a primitive drum beat sifted over them. They looked in the direction of the sound and there nestled among the trees on a distant hillside glowed three colored spotlights illuminating the smoke of a bonfire. The scene looked like a science fiction rocket launch pad. It was here they found Helmut the Bread Maker in the middle of his cherry orchard. It was here Santiago and Leila would meet for the first time the full circle of world vagabonds who would be in there life for the next two years.

CHAPTER 72 HELMUT THE BREADMAKER

Helmut the Breadmaker’s fete was a normal nature loving, wine drinking, dope smoking, guitar-banging affair. There was a gas engine generator in the background making a steady popping sound that denied the tranquility of the cherry-orchard. Helmut was into loud electric guitars, synthesizers and spot lights. A lot of the older wrinkled-face hippies groaned at this technological update.

“It takes the natural out of nature,” Rebecca the Naturalist said.

“Yeah, man, like it's so far out, just with the stars and the bon-fire and the cherry trees, man. I don't see why we need electricity.” Pedro joined in.

There was a large grumble of agreement around the fire while Helmut played his music in the center of the orchard. The sound was like two loud radio stations drowning each other out. Helmut had been playing an African jazz riff while another musician injected a weird electrified Bavarian Polka bass-line. The spot lights suddenly dimmed and the pop-pop sound of the motor coughed, spit PHUT and stopped dead

There was an instant hush. Silence filled the drooping cherry-loaded limbs of the orchard. The smell of the ripe fruit drifted through the orange glow of the fire and a laughing approval came from the assembled nature-lovers. The gentle dark warmth of the evening set the scene for the primitive hum of Ohm. The organic crowd was taking over.

Helmut the Bread Maker was upset. His eyes twitched nervously behind thick framed glasses. “Vee can't have music now. Zis party is going to be a real drag.” He wandered off into the night to see if he could fix the electrical situation.

The acoustic guitars and conga drums moved in around the fire. The natives became primal. Santiago and Pedro howled. Leila found the American Beauty Queen, Karen, and they formed a community of women, alternately dancing like wood-nymphs around the bonfire or sitting talking about jewelry, natural birth and how they had arrived in Corsica. Jean-Claude worked with several other men preparing a pit for the goat roast.

CHAPTER 73 THE BANQUET OF WINE SMOKE AND MUSIC

The banquet of wine, smoke and music filled the night until the coming of morning light. A flat opalescent blue arrived in the white gold of the east Corsican coast. The festival land lay in the cradled arms of mountain slopes that fell to the sea. The burnt red of the maraschino cherries caught small sun points as the white ball rose above the Mediterranean.

Santiago opened up one cracked eye and said, “Ohhh, ouch, eeyuh

Leila had curled up in the front seat of the Volkswagen. Tara was asleep peacefully stretched out on the back seat. Everywhere else in the cherry orchard lay the bodies of sleeping freaks, fallen to the natural peace of total exhaustion and toxic overflow. All was natural and tranquil.

Then Dwayne the Mad One, began chanting, HODJA, HODJA, HODJA Someone else began thumping a conga, and one by one the aging Flower-Power Children pulled themselves out of their grave sleep and jumped back into the second day of pagan rites. The rain came in the afternoon.

 Pedro said, “Yeah man, it happened at Woodstock too.”

 They were past the age of playing in mud. They preferred to sit under the protecting roof of Helmut the Bread Maker's front porch and drink what they called High-Chi. It was a combination tea of natural herbs and opium.

Helmut said, “Vee can't have music vhen it rains like zis! Oh man, zis is zee vorst fete I have.”

The acoustic union ignored Helmet’s lament and moaned the Trans-Atlantic blues, while they banged their guitars through the long wet day. The party began to sag with the rain, and by evening, a somber anxiety was beginning to penetrate the barriers of foggy pipe dreaming. The elevator of joy making was coming down. Only Dwayne the Mad One was still singing, HODJA, HODJA, HODJA, HODJA.

CHAPTER 74  THE DYING BEETLE.

Over next few months, the celebrators of Helmut the Bread Makers fete came to Ajaccio seeking Santiago and Leila. She would put up with most of them for one night and then find an excuse of why they had to go. Usually it was because someone else was coming and the flat was too small. She would pile up their backpacks, guitars and dirty laundry near the door so they got the point. Leila had a terrible feeling these weird people would make life difficult. A did not take too long for the feeling to become a realty.

Nearly a year to the day after the famous garden party and the celebration of the finished mural, the Duke met with Santiago about some minor changes to the mural -- a red was too red -- another face of a favorite uncle he would like added. The Duke talked in the manner of someone who knows they call the shots.

 “And by the way -- one last thing. The Duchess and I would like you and your family to move from the Palace in one month.”

“But what have we done?” Santiago said in a stunned voice.

“You have too many friends,” the Duke answered smiling.

Santiago could see in the Dukes eyes the real message --You have too many strange friends. But was that it? Maybe the other things were too much. In that year there had been several other things. The Duke and Duchess had begun to realize the Artist's life style was more trouble than they wanted. Perhaps it was best to get rid of them before anything else happened. The hippies were one thing, and they could deal with the little police problem Santiago had. After all, this was Corsica and a word in the Chef Inspector’s ear – but the other problems - to insult the Corsican Nationalist, the F.LN.C. -- and now, the Mafia…

Santiago had turned the melodrama of their life into the old cliché; You think it can't get any worse, then it does.

It was the dead Beetle that had introduced a new chapter. Actually, the Volkswagen wasn't quite dead enough, and after a bit of work, Santiago managed to bring it back to a belching blue smoke life. When he took it out for a test drive, a heavy bank of blue oiled sky trailed behind. The engine made a clattering beat trying to burst through the seared cylinder walls.  

“Shit,” said Santiago, feeling utterly discouraged. “I guess it's buggered.”

The Volkswagen had a very large problem and Santiago was paranoid. Driving a car around Corsica with no headlights, no taillights, and no brakes is not such an uncommon event. One sees cars that look like they have just escaped from a demolition derby. On the Continent, the police would love such fun to play. It would give them an excuse to be really nasty. In Britain such a car would not even be accepted at an inspection station. But Corsica the police have better things to do than stop a car with its eyeballs hanging out.  But a huge balloon of boiling blue smoke following the car is indeed pushing your luck. Santiago had plenty reason not to be noticed by the police. He had no car insurance.  He had no driving license, except for a forged American license on which a photograph showed him at the age of twenty-one. The registration documents of the car had never been changed. His French visa expired the year before and he was hiding an illegal three-ton truck in the maquis.  But Santiago didn't know well enough when to lay low.

After a long depressing week eating Free Bone Soup and worrying how he was going get another liter of wine Santiago said, “I'm going to see if I can get the beetle running again. I’ll take it out to the junkyard. I can probably sell it for two or three hundred Francs.”

 Leila felt another stab of persecution. “Is there no way we can fix the motor?” she pleaded.

Santiago bounced back with layered sarcasm, “Oh sure there's nothing wrong with that car that money won't fix. You got a spare five thousand on you?”

Leila looked at him with the eyes of a dead fish and said in exasperation, “Do what you want.”

Santiago pointed the dying beetle towards the junkyard and had gone only a few hundred yards when he saw the paramilitary C.R.S. inspecting cars at a road block. “Why today?” Santiago moaned to himself. “Really funny you royal son-of-a-bitch,” he cursed looking up into the sky.

CHAPTER 75  PUG NOSE AND PAPERS

Fifteen minutes later he sat in the police station, with the French equivalent of the Gestapo. A pug-nosed cop typed an affidavit, occasionally snorting, “Heh heh, only right – for certain it is deportation!”

 Oh Jesus what a time to get I deported, thought Santiago. He set for a half hour while the sergeant pecked out the letters on the typewriter, asking Santiago why his American drivers license looked so funny; which state was he from; why didn't he have auto insurance and  making a grave face while regarding the expired visa.

“Oo la la, la la, la laaaa ... “said the sergeant.

Santiago could see the slow journey of expulsion had begun. He called up Leila and told her he was in the police station.

“Are you going to jail?” she asked.

“Eh ... no, it looks like they are going to deport me,” Santiago said.

“What, Back to Britain?”

“Nope. Looks like they are going by passports -- they are going to send me back to the states,” he said weakly.

“Damn you Santiago. I knew this was going to happen! I told you a hundred times to get: your driver’s license. Now look what you have done. What is to going to happen to Tara and me?” she sobbed

“I'm at the God damn police station. Not a lot I can do. I'm sorry I have to go.”  He slammed the receiver down.   

Santiago sat down on a plastic couch and pulled a sketch book out of the rucksack he had brought from the car. He began to rough out a drawing of a sculpture idea. He drew clumsy little gargoyle figures of the Seven Deadly Sins. Uniformed gendarmes and plain clothe-detectives casually passed by looked down at the pad. One nodded his head in approval and extended his lower lip as he said, you are a good artist. Several other police congregated at the sergeant’s desk interrupting his typing by asking what the artist had done. The  sergeant exhibiting superior qualities took great pleasure in describing how he had landed such a large fish.

“No license! No insurance No vehicle papers. Oo la la, the most incredible thing…” the pug-nosed sergeant hung onto the moment  teasing the ears of the surrounding officers, “heh heh, heh, you can not believe there are such idiots. No visa. For sure he will be deported.”

The circle of police grew in numbers and they discussed aspects of the crime and the criminal.

“Where will he be deported?”

“It must be America - he is an American.”

“Yes, that is where it will be.”

“Oo la la, that will be very expensive.”

“Yes, but it will be very complicated.”

“It is too bad he is not a Moroccan.”

“Yes, that would be much easier -- we just put him on a boat.”

“For sure that is very simple.”

“Certainly  it is not so expensive.”

“Ah, but he is an American ...”

“Oo la la, that is very expensive, and very complicated.”

Suddenly one of the men stood aside from the group. He was a plain-clothes detective. He read the finished affidavit of Santiago's predicament while the pug-nose smiled like a shark in bloody water.

“You live at Palais De Pascal? Eh, excuse me, but you are related to Duke De Pascal?” The plain-clothes detective spoke English to Santiago.

“No,” said Santiago, “my wife and I painted the murals for the palace. Duke De Pascal has been our patron. We have an apartment there ...”

“Oo la la! Why are we bothering this man? He is an artist.” exclaimed the detective, turning angry eyes towards the pug-nose. He shook his flat hand like a broken wing - the French expression of major confusion.

Pug-nose was caught off guard. This was the last thing he expected for capturing such a trophy. “But, but, but…son of a whore. He has no papers, no visa. He must be deported!” he said. The shark grin disappeared and beady eyes tightened as he began to realize his fish was slipping away. He slammed a fat hairy fist on his desk,

At this precise moment, Charlotte and Leila flew through the door like avenging golden haired angels. The gendarmes and plain-clothes detective were blown aside as the two women brought their righteous anger to the desk of pug-nose. Oo la la, moaned several cops in unison.

Charlotte began a tirade in French. She was furious. “How can you be so blind and cruel? You are nothing but villains who capture innocent people? You are nothing but cocky little blue roosters! Don't you know this man is an artist!”

“Yes Miss, that is it exactly,” said the plain-clothes detective. He smiled suavely at the two attractive blonds.

“Shit.” said pug-nose.

Charlotte knew she had them by the nuts. “What has come of the great French Society? We can take innocent men who have imagination and lock them in cold prisons?”

“Absolutely,” agreed the plain-clothes detective. 

“Shit,” pug-nose said.

Leila took one of the gendarmes aside and asked, “What is going to happen to my husband?”

“I think your husband will be deported.”

“When?” croaked Leila.

“Not so soon,” went on the gendarme, looking out the window and up into the soft clouds. “It is complicated…”

“Complicated!” shrieked Leila

The gendarme raised his shoulders and dropped his lower lip.

Leila went to Santiago and with tears in her eyes said, “See now what you have done? You are going to be deported.”

“Great,” said Santiago. “At last I can go home.”

 Charlottes harangue went on for another ten minutes. She pounded her fist on pug-noses desk and stamped her feet. The sympathetic plain-clothes detective watched her, smiling and agreeing.

“Is there not one man here who will stand and defend this artist? An artist should have freedom. How can he create in jail?” she said.

The detective saw his moment. “I will Mademoiselle! I will take this case directly to the Chief. Sergeant, give me this mans file.” The plain-clothes detective snapped the paper out of pug-noses hand and walked to the Chief Inspectors door.

“Bravo!” sang out Charlotte.

“The shit of a whore,” bellowed pug-nose.

The door opened after fifteen minutes and the plain-clothes detective stepped out with the Chief Inspector.

The Chief Inspector looked very severely at Santiago and said, “It is very, very complicated.”

A half hour later Charlotte and Leila walked down the street with Santiago between them. They kissed and hugged him, laughing as they looked at the official approved visa he held in his hand.

“You know, I think that detective guy actually believes artists are special-people ...” Santiago began.

“But why not? Don't you know we are special?” Charlotte laughed, playfully tugging Santiago's hair.

Santiago smiled and let his eye flow down the beautiful sweep of Charlotte’s cheek bone to her full lips.

“You are damn lucky, Santiago!” Leila said as she dropped her arm from him and walked on separately.

76.

Corsica is a very special island. Big men are bigger and small details are smaller. Duke De Pascal's family had maintained prestige and control for eight hundred years. The Chief Inspector had not forgotten where he lived. The recent development of unregistered cars, expired visas and minor illegalities could all be negotiated with one telephone call. The Chief Inspector knew this and like all bureaucrats he knew his career hung on the pleasure of a very small circle of power. This American with the broken car and expired papers was not a criminal. Such petty offenses if regarded too closely could put many dark clouds into what otherwise had been a very lovely day. Duke De Pascal assured the Chief Inspector he would make sure his American would stay more legal in the future. Duke De Pascal had the power. A problem can be very small in Corsica if handled delicately. A word to The Chief Inspector, The Mayor, or if needed, a word in Paris to the Ministers Cabinet, and the waves of troubled water would flatten into glassed serenity. That was bureaucracy Corsican style.

Corsica is like a little cake with several layers. The police and politics are one level of duplicity. The nationalist F.L.N.C. radicals are another layer which is unpredictable and one never knows which bank or tourist house they will blow up next. But the Corsican Mafia, that is a layer one must regard with a different eye. One must be careful of such brotherhoods. Their bombs and bullets were not for the French alone and now the American had knocked down a hornets nest. Duke De Pascal could see trouble ahead.

77.

Two months later, the smoking Volkswagen was hauled off by Rebecca the Naturalist and magically turned into a new machine, complete with illegal license plates and papers. Santiago and Leila stayed on in the Duke's summer palace without wheels. Then one day they were given another sagging vehicle. It was a twenty-five year old Renault, whose former owners, Vaughn and Ronda had affectionately named Road Runner. It was a old piece of junk that was loose at all its joints, with a transmission like a barrel of jam, tires like baby bottoms and brakes that stopped, eventually. Only one door opened.

“Well,” said Santiago, “with a little bit of work it will be fine...eh, we might even be able to drive up to the village this afternoon. Christ, we better not park anywhere near the Church. Monsieur Pimento will think we're fucking hippies.”

Santiago, he was at the Opening and he knows we are artists. We better get going or we are going to be late,” Leila worried. She brushed Tara’s hair and made sure the little girl looked her best. She was their good luck charm.

Santiago looked at his wife and little girl with exasperation and said, “Fantastic! Who knows? Maybe we will have a string of commissions from the Mafia. Fuck, every gangster on the island is rebuilding a church. I guess that pays for their sins in New York City.”

The day before Santiago and Leila had met with a Corsican architect.

“Monsieur Pimento is actually a great guy.  I am sure you saw that when you met him at your mural party. Sure it is true he had a little trouble with the prison break scandal ... but he won his case and he is free,” said the architect. “It was a little thing and he wants to continue with the Church. Naturally, he thinks highly of your great work for Duke De Pascal. Monsieur Pimento would like very much to have murals painted for the church,” the architect said smiling. It was all arranged. They would meet Monsieur Pimento in his mountain village of Vero. The architect explained some of Monsieur Pimento’s history to them.

“How can I say, he is the most important man in the little village. He is the mayor naturally. Of course he was born in Vero. All of his family live there and when he returned from his business in Paris…”

“What business was that?” Santiago asked smiling, knowing some of the story.

The architect looked at Santiago and smiled too, “Sure there are the rumors… the Mafia and the nonsense about the French Connection…”

“What was that?” Santiago asked wanting to hear another version of what he had already heard from Charlotte.

“The movie...The French Connection...the one about New York...the Italian Mafia,” said the architect dropping the words like fish bait.

“The movie?” Santiago said in feigned ignorance.

“The movie, it was just a movie, eh, about the drug business. There is a man that is supposed to be French who makes a big drug trade with the Mafia ...” continued the architect.

“Yes?”

“There is the story here in Corsica, the man was not French - he was Corsican - and in the end of the movie the guy escapes...”The architect paused waiting for Santiago to fill the gaps. When Santiago gave him only a blank stare he went on. “What is said here in Corsica, but naturally it is only rumor, it was Monsieur Pimento.”

“Oh, I see,” said Santiago.

“Why is he the mayor of the village?” Leila asked.

The architect smiled a little more, “It is our way. Partly because it is his village, partly because the family has a very big house there and naturally Monsieur Pimento is paying for the reconstruction of the church and naturally he will pay for your services to create a mural...”

“I see,” said Leila.

“I guess this way he pays for his sins too,” snorted Santiago.

Santiago! Leila gave him a dirty look.

“Yes,” it is a kind of redemption, but he is an honorable man in his village. It is the Corsican tradition.” said the architect.

Why is that? Leila.

“You know, it is a very special place, Corsica...there is a kind of an honor of bandits...you know like uh...what is the English bandit called?”

“Robin Hood?” Santiago offered.

“Exactly, he steals from the rich and gives to the poor.  But naturally, not the rich people in Corsica. Oh yes, maybe the French, but they are not Corsican,” said the architect laughing at his little joke.

78.

The day of the meeting, Monsieur Pimento arrived late in a forest green Range Rover. He had affected the accoutrements of the aristocracy; the tweed jacket and Jopher boots of the gentleman farmer. Monsieur Pimento showed them the bare walls of the ancient church and assured them they had Carte Blanche to do the mural exactly as they pleased. Santiago brought up the money question.

“Money?  Pas de probleme,” laughed Monsieur Pimento.

Out of pride, Santiago insisted that when the preliminary sketches were complete, a small design fee should be paid.

“How much money?” asked Monsieur Pimento.

Santiago suddenly stuck for an amount, said the first words that came to mind, “One thousand Francs.” It was a pathetically small fee but it was symbolic.

“Pas de probleme,” said Monsieur Pimento smiling and shook hands with Santiago and Leila.

79.

Over the next few weeks Santiago and Leila designed several colored variations of the interior of the church. They met with the architect several times and on two occasions with Monsieur Pimento in Ajaccio. He was always surrounded by hard looking men and soft expensive women. Each time Monsieur Pimento deflected any talk about money by telling Santiago and Leila that it was no problem what so ever. This was of little comfort to them as they were broke as usual. Monsieur Pimento assured them the cost of the project was no consequence. Santiago's fantasy rolled in money. He dreamed of vacations and buying a new car.

The day of the final meeting was arranged. Their plans were complete. Leila helped Santiago calculate the budget which had grown to almost a quarter million new French Francs. The thousand Franc design fee was ridicules. Leila asked the Jean Simon who had introduced them to Corsican society, to come along to the meeting so that he might help translate the intricacies of the design layout and the details of the budget. Santiago was hoping that Jean Simon could help him raise the design fee to ten thousand francs.

Jean Simon was nervous about meeting Monsieur Pimento. He knew of his reputation about being prosecuted for murder, jail break, extortion and other Corsican folk tales of this contemporary bandit. It was said of Monsieur Pimento that he was tough but a gentleman. Still, murder is murder. Jean Simon had no intention of stepping on Monsieur Pimento’s toes.

The architect organized the meeting. After cheek kissing and adjusting their chair positions, they sat around a large table in a conference room saying pleasantries. Two men with Monsieur Pimento had very cold faces.

Santiago went through several detailed mural layouts for the entire ceiling of the vaulted church. He spoke slowly in English as Jean Simon translated. Monsieur Pimento was cordial and smiled approvingly. He gravitated towards the classical over the Matisse variation. He said that all of the designs were so wonderful; it was hard to make a choice. Finally he chose the design -- Classical Roman.

“Combien l’argent?” asked Monsieur Pimento.

Santiago understood. Money. He pulled the cost sheet out, indicating the bracket that read NUMBER 6, COST BREAKDOWN.

“Two hundred and fifty thousand Francs,” read Jean Simon, “twenty-five percent down and the remainder broken in three equal segments, paid upon completion of each work phase.

 Monsieur Pimento and his entourage of tough faces turned to each other and agreed that it was a reasonable price. The government would be sure to pay half the cost. After several minutes of further discussion they arranged themselves back around the table in their original positions

“C’est bon. Ca c”est acceptable,” Monsieur Pimento began as Jean Simon translated, “we begin the project when the Government has its next meeting.”

“What government meeting?” said Santiago. This was new to him.

Jean Simon continued to be the envoy, “There is special legislation in Corsica… the Government will pay up to half on all village reconstruction. They will apply for this money at the next financial meeting...which is only two months away...”

“What!” Santiago said incredulous.

Suddenly all of the men stood and started shaking hands -- all that is except for Santiago who sat stunned at the table wondering what they were going to live on for the next two months. There was the design fee. A thousand Francs is better than nothing. He stood up. “But what about the thousand Francs? We are to be paid the thousand Francs now...mil Franc!” Santiago said looking at Monsieur Pimento.

Jean Simon coughed nervously, glancing at the ceiling as he put the question to Monsieur Pimento.

“The government must pay for this – yes?” said Monsieur Pimento looking at the architect.

The architect shrugged his shoulders and laughed with embarrassment, “Naturally, we must wait for the next meeting…”

“God damn it!” Santiago yelled. “Monsieur Pimento agreed to pay us a design fee when these drawings were presented. We're owed a thousand fucking Francs!”

The sound level in the room had risen. The ugly faces chattered among themselves bouncing their eyes between their Patron and the noisy American.

“What does he say?” asked the Monsieur Pimento to Jean Simon.

Jean Simon visibly shrank as he said, “Uhhh, ehhh…he is saying that he believes he is to be paid a thousand Francs…eh…he says you are to pay him, uhh...uh, now.” Jean Simon looked for help from Leila who looked out the window at a brick wall.

“Ca c’est impossible,” said the Corsican Robin Hood.

“Fucking son-of-bitch!” screamed Santiago as he slammed papers together on the desk and crushed the drawings into his old leather port-folio.

“What does he say?” asked Monsieur Pimento, with a sinister look freezing his face.

“Uh, eh, uh, he...that is, uh, eh, he uh,” stuttered Jean Simon, “uh, he says he is unhappy,” his voice broke into a squeak as he drifted toward the door.

Leila’s eyes were beginning to glisten with tears

“Bastards! You're a bunch of motherfucking cheap embezzling bastards!” Santiago yelled, looking directly into the eyes of Monsieur Pimento and then the eyes of the architect. The two ugly faces were squinting back nasty little looks.

The architect broke into a torrent of French, wringing his hands. He seemed to be talking to no one in particular and his eyes began to glaze into space.

Monsieur Pimento turned his face to avoid the heat of Santiago's blue hot stare and whispered in the architect's ear who nervously twitched. When the gangster finished talking he threw a glance at his two men who followed him as he walked out of the room

“I'll be a son-of-bitch,” said Santiago. He watched Jean Simon slip out of the room and listened to the foot steps as they quickly faded down the hallway

The architect’s face had gone pale. “Pas de probleme...pas de...it is not a problem we have here...Monsieur Pimento guarantees the money will be touched. Naturally we only have to wait two months until…”

“Fuck you!” screamed Santiago.

The architect shrugged his shoulders Mediterranean style, quietly closed his brief case and joined the exodus.

“Now you have really done it,” sobbed Leila as she put on her coat and left Santiago standing at the table.

“Fuck them,” cursed Santiago. He had just been kicked in the balls.

80.

The Corsican diplomatic technique fell into place. Everyone connected with the church mural fiasco, except for Jean Simon, avoided the eyes of Santiago and Leila when they crossed each others paths in Ajaccio’s little world.

Then the expulsion came. Santiago shambled into the apartment, his shoulders stooped and red wine crusted on his lips. He fell onto the couch and threw an arm across his face. He groaned.

“What has happened now?” asked Leila with the old look of fear in her eyes. 

“Duke De Pascal told me today we have to be out of the apartment in a month,” Santiago said in a toneless sigh.

Leila’s dreams had died long before but now her hope was being strangled as if a noose was around her neck. “Santiago, I can't stand it any more. Tara and I are going back to Scotland.”

“Come on Pal...it's not that bad. Something else will come up. You'll see. We've made it this far haven't we?" Santiago went to Leila and hugged her as she wept.

Santiago you are completely hopeless,” Leila cried as she buried her face in his neck.

Their time in Corsica was not over yet. Santiago came to a sober calm that only disaster seemed to bring him. He persuaded Leila to stay with him for the sake of the girl -- the family should stay together -- if they should leave Corsica, they should all leave together. Santiago saw that the eviction from Duke de Pascal's benevolent arms was reason to finally return to America. Twelve years away from his land was long enough. He was tired of always being a foreigner. Yet, in his heart he wanted to stay. Something had changed him in Corsica and when he thought of leaving the island a great sadness came over him. It would be like loosing magic.

Reality is stronger than magic. There was no way they could stay. They made very little money as artists and now they would not even have a home. There was no option but to leave. Their only hope for the expense was to sell Santiago's beautiful golden gypsy wagon.  They would pile their precious belongings into the Land Ship and sell the whole kit and caboodle. Hopefully they would scrape together enough money to buy their tickets to America. Like a refugee, Santiago would return to his own land as a foreigner with his foreign family.

Leila grudgingly agreed to it all, believing their time in Corsica was a futile sacrifice -- just when her little girl was beginning to speak fluent French and get settled in school. It all was in vain. What else could she do? After all, America was an old dream of hers and perhaps, just perhaps it would be the land of opportunity. Her thoughts turned, Oh horrible, horrible, so much confusion, contradiction, and the insanity of Santiago! It would all fall apart there too. Who am I kidding? Leila told her friend Ronda about the division of her soul -- half of her was divided. Maybe she should stay in Corsica and let Santiago go. Maybe she should go back to Scotland. But at the end of her thinking, there was no decision. She could not face it, and indecision made her stay with Santiago. She would follow the bastard again

 


 

81.

There were only ten days remaining before they were to move from palace. Santiago and Leila were busy packing what they wanted to keep in five old trunks and putting the items they were going to sell in cardboard boxes. Leila’s tears had finally stopped. The well was dry. She now had the blank stare of a war ravaged victim. She carried through the mechanical process of dismantling her beautiful home.

The last box had been placed into the Land Ship which Santiago had now brought into town. It was still illegal, but what could they do to him now? Deport him? He closed the gate of the truck and was looking dejectedly at Leila when Ronda suddenly appeared. She was very agitated.

“Stop everything! You don't have to go. We have found you a house,” Ronda said.

“What house?” Leila asked with hope rising in her voice.

“A house of a friend – he is an old artist who lives in New York City most of the year,” Ronda said excitedly.

“Yes?” said Leila.

“You want believe this Darlings. He has just returned for a few days. He's been painting in Sardinia this year. Darlings, he wants someone to house-sit for a year and I just had to tell him about you.  He wants to meet you,” Ronda said.

“No way,” said Santiago, “we’re going to America and that's it!’

Santiago, it is worth a look. It is a beautiful place on the river. You just stop right now what you are doing and come along with me.” Ronda looked at Leila.

“You think he would let us have it?” Leila asked.

“Absolutely Darlings. It is breath-taking. You will love it. There are loads of swimming spots. It is simply lovely.”

Santiago...” Leila pleaded.

“Ah, it will be another booby trap,” Santiago moaned.

Tara, who had been listening, said, “Daddy, we should move there. It's on the river.” She hugged her father and said, “Please.”

Santiago looked into the eyes of the three females surrounding him. “Ah, okay. Here we go again,” he said..

“Darlings, you will love it,” said Ronda then added, “the only thing I don't like about it is the name our friend has given.”

“What is it?” asked Santiago.

Ronda laughed.  “Darlings, you must humor our friend.  He thinks he is a cowboy.  He has called it Les Ponderosa -- you know, after some terrible American cowboy-soap-opera -- I can't remember the name, but the Ponderosa was the ranch...”

“Bonanza,” said Santiago reflecting old memories.

“Oh yes, how gauche,” said Ronda.

 

 

 

 

82.

.

It was their third Christmas in Corsica. Santiago and Leila had escaped from their cold dark studio to catch warmth from the Corsican December sun.

 “You can say we didn't have a lot of luck,” argued Santiago.

“I am sick of luck,” countered Leila. “I want money!  I want to be able to buy things. I want to do things like everybody else. I am sick to death of this damned poverty.”

They walked down the palm-lined Boulevard Lantivi. The Boulevard was captured in tourist post cards from every possible angle. It was the classic Mediterranean beautiful image. They had walked to the far end of the sea front crescent and stood facing back across the bay, looking at the rippled reflections of the city. The dome and two bell towers of the cathedral were positioned like God's gun-sights that pointed up the Gravone Valley. The church was amid falling plaster tenements of Genoese architecture. To the left of the cathedral and up the side of the maquis covered hills, were modern ugly apartments. To the right lay the rock wall fortress of the French Army. Beyond and to the north in the hazy distance set rows of snow covered mountains.

Santiago and Leila stopped for a moment and sat on the low sea wall. Santiago dropped his eyes from the high mountains and adjusted his vision back along the sea-front buildings. His eyes came to rest on a large pink mansion embraced by high bougainvillea covered walls

“I don't know how it happened,” Santiago said softly, “I think it's amazing we lived in that fucking pink palace over there.” He shook his head and laughed, “Hah, and now look -- just up the valley we have a beautiful house by the river.”

Leila, never one to give up her inherent Scottish negativity said, “Yes, and knowing our luck we will probably be kicked out of that one too.”

“Yeah, maybe.  We never should have moved out of the Land Ship.”

Leila did not say anything but her lips went thin as she hunched up her shoulders. She looked across the water. Her eyes fell automatically on the soft pink color of Duke De Pascal's summer residence. Her eyes lifted and she gazed up the Gravone Valley where they lived now. “Oh dear God, I can not bear it. This is the fourteenth bloody houses in seven bloody years.”

83.

Christmas was just a day away. Santiago and Leila were putting branches of pine up and along the overhanging beams in the big room. They were the Christmas decorations for their third and last Corsican home. They had come to an agreement. This would be their last year in Corsica. No matter what, they would stay through another winter and leave in the summer. After thirteen years of exile, Santiago would return to his homeland with his European family.

“We better hurry and get these things up,” said Leila. “It's nearly noon. Vicki’s flight is arriving at one.”

Santiago looked over his shoulder towards the little gold clock sitting on the mantle of the giant fireplace, “Yeah, we should make a move. I'll just put on the last spool of red ribbon and then we can go.” He was at the top of a ten foot ladder and as he looked down at Leila, he thought, Does she know?

Leila was sweeping up pine needles and throwing them onto the burning logs. The flame roared and made a crackling noise that echoed in the large room. Leila looked at Santiago and her grew eyes cold.

Santiago frowned as he threaded the last ribbon. “What's the name of the guy that's with her?” he asked.

Leila had taken the telephone message while Santiago had been dangling in the rafters.

“What?” she yelled over the top of the crackling noise of the fire.

“His name? What’s his name?” Santiago yelled.

“Who?” Leila said, irritated.

“The guy who is coming with Vicki for fuck sake! You're the one who talked to her!” he shouted. She does know, he thought.

Leila threw the words at him, “Zack. Zack Cameron.”

“Is he Scottish? Zack, that's a funny Scottish name.”

“How would I know? You know more about Vicki’s affairs than I do!”

“She does, she does,” he murmured to himself.

84.

It was their third house in Corsica that didn't cost them a cent -- free electricity, free heat and free telephone. This house was even better than the other two. It had French doors and large windows that looked onto a beautiful river on one side and maquis covered mountains on the other. What luck Les Ponderosa.

The family had been at Les Ponderosa for seven months. Their Mediterranean friends were all coming together for a Christmas dinner. Old friends were coming too -- Vicki from England with her new boyfriend Zack, if one can call a man over forty a boy.

Santiago and Leila finished the Yuletide decorations and hurriedly rushed off to the Ajaccio airport where they would collect Vicki and Zack. Leila was apprehensive. Vicki being near Santiago unsettled her. Jealousy. Leila reprimanded her thoughts, dismissing them as juvenile. At this point she didn't care if Santiago ran off with Vicki. Santiago had been insufferable n the last few weeks.

Santiago and Leila had been working together on a new art project. This time it was their first Corsican exhibition. Leila produced paintings and Santiago created life-size gargoyle sculptures from his drawings of the Seven Deadly Sins. It was Santiago's plan of how they could make enough money to put them through their last Corsican Christmas. To some degree it had been a success. Leila sold several of her paintings and Santiago sold the sculpture called Lust. Because of the exhibition there came a request from the manager of the Hotel Napoleon.

The hotel manager liked the grotesque humor of Santiago’s work. He asked Santiago if it was possible to do a satirical piece of Napoleon. The manager was tired of all the serious business about the little Emperor and he said, “It will give the English tourists in his hotel something to laugh at.” It was a heretical idea for a Corsican and deadly if the manager were French. Santiago accepted the commission and received a deposit.

Leila was thankful. For the first time in many months they had money. It was Christmas, life was good, and all of their friends were coming to dinner. Corsica had finally become special to her. It was the first time in over two years of being on the island all of the puzzle-pieces assembled without gaps. They had found friends who helped and comforted them. There was one little commission leading to another that supplied enough money to have good food and wine, new clothes for Tara and fuel for their faithful old clunker, Road-Runner. Best of all was the big house by the river. It was free and wonderful and they had seen the landlord only once before he departed to New York City. Leila smiled. She could relax and feel the world belonged to her. Santiago could stuff it

85.

 

At the Ajaccio airport Vicki and Zack came down the staircase of the plane smiling and waving. Vicki was showing her usual rich casualness. She looked like one of the professional travelers in the hay-day of the Orient Express, draped in a long buff camel hair coat, a black cashmere sweater and neck scarf with expensive fine wool rust slacks tucked into black Russian boots. She was tall blonde and glamorous and she knew it.  Leila looked at her female opposition and thought, Oh what the hell -- if she wants Santiago she can have him. She looked at the man at Vicki’s side. He had a cultivated look of funky high fashion dressed in blue jeans, a dark blue shirt and a tan sports jacket. He had a wiry body and the beady eyes of a worried intellectual. The other passengers walked around them as they came together with hugs and kisses.

They gathered in a circle of worn greetings which gravitated to the relief of laughter. They became child-like. It was Christmas. They were all foreigners on a beautiful island in the Mediterranean. The anticipation of romance and adventure was palpable

Vicki took Santiago into her full breast and held him unembarrassed, kissing him openly on the mouth. Leila disregarded the provocation, knowing Vicki’s technique from too many times before. She directed her attention to Zack, kissing him in the French manner on both cheeks. Tara stood at the side of this adult commotion, scolding China to be quiet and to sit still. The dog yipped at the human frenzy of ritual greetings. The whole party slowly drifted to the parking lot, where the dented body of Road-Runner set with the emotional content of cold metal. Vicki distributed a few small packages before the bags were loaded into the rear of the car. Road-runner coughed a blue ball of smoke and they rolled off together into the next ten days.

86.

The Christmas party had been planned several weeks in advance. Vaughn and Ronda were bringing a large turkey, assorted plates of delicacies, two cases of decent Corsican wine and a formidable entourage of British exiles including Eloise and her son Oscar. Pedro and Sophie were to bring the vegetable dishes. They were always late, so Leila prepared potatoes and green beans. Karen, the American beauty Queen and Jean-Claude volunteered goat meat and ganja. Rebecca and Hans the Naturalists would bring their tribe of children, musical instruments and a noise level no one would believe possible without electricity. Charlotte had been invited but a new lover had taken her to Paris for the holidays. The Silence had politely refused and said he could not face Charlotte’s past. Jean Simon he was to bring fruit, nuts and wine. He had become acquainted with the auburn haired woman among the Poets and was bringing her and the radical literary entourage as well.

Very apropos,” said Santiago, “the F.L.N.C. will be all the nuts we can handle…” But he was more than curious to have a glimpse of the young woman he had only seen for a split second at the celebration party for Duke De Pascal’s mural.

The guests began to arrive. Santiago had completely forgotten how many people he had invited. The house was made for parties and it held the eclectic collection gracefully.

 Les Ponderosa was built with money and fantasy. The owner of the house had found success as a young Corsican artist in New York shortly after WWII. He was compared to Utrillo and Modigliani at the beginning of his career and then painted the same pictures for the next thirty years. Original talent didn't matter to him. Money did, and money created Les Ponderosa.

Les Ponderosa was a large house. It was a long rectangle with windowed doors on each side and surrounded by pine, mimosa and eucalyptus trees. The owner had planted the trees at the inauguration of his dream home twenty-five years before. The house sat on the banks of the river, La Gravone. Less than a kilometer away to the east and west, were chestnut forested mountains. The house had an elegant post card setting but inside was Spartan simplicity.

The owner had divided the house in half. The north half was made into individual compartments, three to each side. French doors were on the outside while interior doors opened into a corridor that led down to the south half, where the big room was. It was a big room, open to the rafters with three large windows on each side, red tiled floors and a rustic stone fireplace at the south end big enough for a cow to stand in. There was a mixed collection of antique Italian tables, chairs and wardrobes. The house was simple and tasteful. Money had made this possible for the owner and he intended its design for summer seasons of jet-setting.

The owner was gone. Now the house was occupied by a Bohemian Army which basked in the warmth of the roaring fireplace. The party would become a three stage spaceship Santiago and Leila never planned on, but had seen glimpses in other wild Corsican gatherings.

87.

“Oh dear, I am absolutely certain the turkey is only half done. Darlings, do you think your cooker will hold it? We need to give it another hour,” Ronda said. She and Vaughn led a delegation of friends and family in through the French doors and placed the assortment of plates and pots on the kitchen table. It was mid-afternoon and the assorted friends and acquaintances were beginning to arrive.

“Thish ish a grand hoosel” slurred Big Donald, as he focused on a whiskey bottle sitting among the alcohol collection near the fireplace.

“Oh do be quite, Donald, you are positively such a bore at times,” the elderly Eloise scolded as she walked in behind him.

Vaughn encountered Vicki under the large beams of the big room. “Hello. I take it you must be the Aussie friend of Santiago’s. What part of Australia do you come from?”

 Across the room was another encounter. “My husband is really a silly little twit,” the English expatriate women called Emily said to Zack. “You know, he actually sent me here as punishment. He thought I would have a dreadful time, but as you can see I am perfectly all right and having a marvelous bloody good time just to spite him. Actually my father said the whole problem is because I am far too intelligent and just too educated for the poor foolish man…actually, it is true. I have scored over one-hundred-and-ninety on my I.Q. test...” she rattled on as Zack pleaded with his eyes towards Leila for help.

Oscar went down to the river and helped Santiago collect more firewood. They stayed at the river gathering wood until they had a large pile then filled a wheel barrow and pushed it up the hill.

Jean Simon and the auburn haired woman arrived with the Poets while Santiago was at the river. When they came through the open door Jean Simon introduced the young woman to everyone in the big room. “This lady is the love of my life,” he said. Her entrance was theatrical, but she had a glint of disappointment in her eyes as she looked around the room. She commanded the Poets to bring in the peasant wine, fruit and nuts. After a few minutes Jean Simon declared they were going for a walk and holding hands with her they went out the front door just a minute before Santiago came in the rear door.

“Where are Pedro and Sophie?” Santiago said.

“You can't trust that man to anything! It is just as well I made the extra vegetable dishes,” Leila said.

“It is all right Darling -- I have several Plats des legumes and also genuine cranberry sauce!” Ronda unveiled the reddish jelly.

The baked turkey aroma was filling the house. The long table had become full with more plates added with each arrival of another group.

Santiago was helped by Oscar to push the wheel barrow full of firewood to the outside corner of the house and was busy stacking it. Oscar carried an armload into the house and he went back into the wheel barrow to retrieve a hidden bottle of malt whiskey. He did not see Jean Simon and the auburn haired woman as they walked away from the house and up towards the river banks. He took a big swig and then walked back into the kitchen.

“How many people did you invite?” asked Leila as he entered.

“Fuck if I know. How many people did you invite?” said Santiago, already on the plateau of drunkenness.

He was not the only one. Big Donald was babbling a monologue to anyone who came in front of his red blurred eyes. Ronda and Vaughn were well into vodka. Vicki was giggling, saying it was the first alcohol she had in months. Jean-Claude was arguing with his wife Karen, the American Beauty Queen. She was nagging about his wine consumption while she held one screaming baby in her arm and the other one by the shirt collar. Eloise was discussing with Oscar the condition of the participants.

Santiago went outside and poured himself a tall glass of whiskey form the bottle in the wheel barrow and downed half of it. He looked through the kitchen door into the big room. The buzz of people was punctuated with crackling of the fireplace.  They were all getting smashed. He stood under the eucalyptus trees and thought about a Christmas he did not want to remember. Dead bodies. Sucking chest wounds. Ringing ears. The smell of napalmed flesh. He lit a cigarette and drank the remainder of the glass. Vietnam had been another life ago. He pulled his mind away from that place. He thought of a time he wanted to remember.  Martina…

Santiago went back into the house and for the first time saw the auburn haired woman and Jean Simon as they came through the door of the big room. He dropped the empty whiskey glass on the red tile floor and it shattered. Santiago’s face turned pale. He walked to the drinks table and poured himself another large whiskey and left the house again, ignoring the broken glass on the floor. The young woman fastened eyes with Santiago as he went out of the house.

“Bastard,” Leila said. She saw the strange interchange between Santiago and the woman and wondered what it was. She did not want to think about it and went over to clear up the glass. “My God, Santiago is such a pig – the children could cut themselves to pieces and he would not care…”

An hour passed and Santiago had not returned to the house. There had been a constant arrival of new guests and everyone was looking hungry. Ronda and Leila organized the prepared food at the long table and put the children around several smaller tables. Twenty-seven people were scattered around the big room. It was like a medieval banquet, with dogs under the table and guiltless hedonism. Ronda ordered the delivery of dishes while the guests sat tucked in whatever chair or pillow they could find. Vaughn was delegated to carving the turkey. As the last plate was filled, Santiago came back into the house looking morose and drunk. He poured a large glass of wine and sat by the fireplace while the party settled into the feast.

Big Donald was shoveling food into his mouth as one feeds a cement mixer. Emily the English woman had lost her appetite and was worrying openly about her anorexia problem. It was obviously because of her intelligence. Ronda was beginning to make vodka complaints – the food was overcooked - it was undercooked. Vaughn was telling the same story for the fourth time while the words of the other guests were mixed into the cassette playing Purcell's Fantasias. Occasionally the music would be drowned out when the Corsican Poets burst into a loud traditional ballad.

Jean Simon and the auburn haired woman were talking intimately. Santiago still had a pallid face and kept darting glances at the young woman. No, it was not her…it could not be. He felt completely crazy. Who else could she be? Not here, not now…but she had not given that look again. He found a place next to Vicki where his hand could drop to her lap confirming their old alliance.

Leila set at the other end of the big room looking approvingly into Zack's eyes as he told her of the healing affects of massage. Emily insisted there should be a moment of silence to consider injustice and starvation in the world. She would not eat the Christmas dinner to demonstrate her solidarity with suffering. She was alone.  Santiago listened to Emily and for a brief moment witnessed a surreal vision of The Seven Deadly Sins. The dinner party was a reflection of his carved wooden sculptures that stood out in the yard peering into the festive windows. The crowd rode their chairs like horses on a merry-go-round.

“What the hell! It's Christmas. It's not like we do this every day. Want some more wine?” asked Santiago as he leaned over Vicki’s shoulder, his nose in her neck breathing in her expensive perfume.

 The afternoon light began to tinge into the evening hours. Santiago had to break away from wine and Vicki to bring more firewood up from the riverbank. The collection of driftwood was disappearing rapidly. The women in the house began to clear the tables and fill the sink with dishwater. Big Donald was talking to China the dog. The children’s noise echoed off the walls. Young people gathered into small groups. Lovers drifted to empty rooms. The older crowd was getting serious with more alcohol. Outside the southern sky became black as Mistral winds pulled heavy clouds across Christmas day. The big room was a shelter for innocent fools unaware of the rising storm.

88.

Santiago looked at the dwindling pile of firewood. It had taken him the best part of a month to haul it basket by basket up from the river. He thought it would last until the New Year. He was sadly mistaken. By the time they finished the Christmas dinner, half of the supply was gone. The giant fire place devoured the driftwood in ravenous gulps.

“Crap! This won't even last us until tomorrow at the rate we are going,” Santiago said. For a brief moment he had a sober flash of clarity. The alcohol fuzz lifted from his mind at the sight of the dwindling stack of wood. The vision of reality lasted only for a moment. The returning rush of wine and whiskey consumed in the last few hours roared over his thoughts as an avalanche would sweep snow flowers from its path.

 Alcohol was the fuel that carried the entire party of twenty-seven Christmas voyagers towards oblivion. It was as though they had not been drinking for a few hours, but for days. The festival was reaching its burn-out point, and the guests were picking up hats and coats. Car engines started and lights swept into the darkness of the growing night.

Big Donald pointed his red beak nose towards his wife's lap and passed out. His Scottish wife was used to the exercise and developed a technique to bring him from his stupor. She grabbed one of his ears and twisted hard.

 “Come on you big lug – its time to go home!”

“Ugh ... Aye, thish ish a bonny hoose ... whishkey ... gees us a wee dram,” sputtered Big Donald, as his wife pulled him out of the house

Ronda and Vaughn assembled their entourage and went out the door leading to the river. “Darlings, where is our car?” Ronda shouted.

Santiago went out and showed the bumbling party to their vehicle. Before he came back in he decided to stand in the dark and have a pee. As he was standing with his member in his hand, he saw Jean Simon and the young woman go towards their car. He peed all over his leg trying to halt the process. Before he could gracefully re-zip and brush the urine off his leg, Jean Simon and the woman were driving away. He yelled for them to stop but it was no use. The car rolled into the darkness. Santiago stood there not knowing if he was drunk or crazy. 

89.

The big room was rapidly clearing.  The last of the dinner guests had gone to their cars and departed. After closing all the double wooden doors of the house Santiago went into the bathroom to wash and change his pants, Santiago came back into the large room to see Zack massaging Leila in front of the fireplace.

“Christ, she’s gone…” Santiago said vacantly and looked at the dwindling wood pile. “

“What?” Leila asked.

“I mean… all the people…they finally left. I guess we can slow down the forest fire now.”

 “But  it is lovely and warm. It is Christmas,” Leila said.

“Yeah, warm today and fucking freezing tomorrow. Ah Christ, my head hurts…” muttered Santiago.

“Let me do head massage. Zack taught me,” Vicki said looking coyly at Santiago. “It will relieve your tension.”

Santiago smiled. “Sure, in a little bit. Oh man, I'm glad this day has come to an end.” His eyes drifted across the remnants of empty bottles and full ash trays scattered around the room. It was good to see the face of his little daughter who lay peacefully asleep on a couch.

“Your friends are fantastic. They are so much fun,” Vicki said.

“Yes, especially Big Donald said Leila. “Did he drink that full bottle of whiskey?”

“Yeah, I think so. He must have already had a bottle of whiskey under his belt by the time he got here. He was really shit-faced,” said Santiago.

“He wasn't the only one. It's a toss up between Vaughn and you. All three of you were away with the fairies.” Leila snapped.

“Who was that women who kept going on about being sent away by her husband?” Zack asked.

“That's Emily, one of the English colony.  I guess she is going through some kind of change of life thing,” laughed Santiago. “But Vaughn says she has been going through menopause of the mind ever since she was a child.

“Men,” Leila began to burn.

“Vaughn is a very charming man isn't he?” Vicki said trying to break the beginning of tension.

“Yeah, if you don’t mind hearing the same story a dozen times -- cheap wine is washing his brain cells away,” mocked Santiago.

“You are the one to talk about brain cells. You did a good job today obliterating the few you have left,” cracked Leila

“Yadda, yadda, yadda!” retorted Santiago.

“Personally, I have had a superb day,” Zack clicked eyes with Leila.

Leila suddenly changed her mood. “Yes, it really has been a lovely day, and for once the house has been warm.” The last embers of several logs pulsed heat from the fireplace.

“Absolutely, and hooray for Santiago. You have taken to the spirit of this country life,” said Vicki, moving close to Santiago and placing a hand on his neck.

“I can't believe the amount of wood we went through today. That fireplace swallows it whole,” said Santiago. He thought of the river bank emptied of driftwood. “Looks like I'll have to go into the mountains for our next supply.”

 “We can give you a hand to bring in the wood -- right Zack?” volunteered Vicki.

“Why yes, sure,” said Zack.

90.

Leila began to clear away the dead bottles. “I knew that worthless Pedro would never show up -- him and his bloody promises. The man is completely unreliable,” said Leila finding reason to fume again.

“I wonder what his excuse will be this time?” laughed Santiago. “Something like, oh wow man! We were on our way out the door when we got this wild telephone call, and like man - we had to make a delivery to Timbuktu.”

“Not to matter. There still are plenty of vegetables to eat thanks to dear  Ronda,” said Leila.

“Who is the notorious Pedro?” asked Vicki.

“He's a doped-out vegetable dealing friend of ours who can never get it together to arrive on…” started Santiago when he was interrupted by a knocking on the shuttered doors. In the French fashion, the house was barricaded against the cold night and strangers. “Oh shit! I don't believe it. Guess who it is?”

“Pedro,” said Leila exhaling in exasperation. “Tell him the party is over. We are all tired and we want to go to bed.”

“Can't that dip-shit ever arrive on time? It's nearly eleven o’clock,” said Santiago. He went to the double doors in the kitchen. He could hear laughter and music coming through the shutters as he pushed them open. “Pedro, what a surprise to see you -- we were just about to go to…”

“Far out man - hey everybody, this is my good friend Santiago,” Pedro said as twelve young people with the look of militant warriors poured into the house like a smoke bomb.

“Uh, come on in,” said Santiago. “Make yourselves at home. Have a glass of wine. Some food is left over -- lots of vegetable anyway.”

“Wow man, I'm really sorry we didn't get here for the dinner - like we were just on our way out the door when our best customer called and like we had to make a delivery to Bonifaccio,” said Pedro. He fired up a long joint and handed it to Santiago. “Have a hit on that shit. Man - it's like mega-dope!”

Santiago laughed. “You're fucking impossible you madman!”

No Man. Really! Bonifaccio is like hours away -- then we had to be polite and drink a little wine with our customers,” Pedro said.  “Man, we couldn't split so easy - and wow, like we just got back now. Hey man, we brought some vegetables. I'm sorry we didn't have time to cook them.”

Santiago! Mon amour,” said the voluptuous Sophie as she came in through the door carrying a large box of wilted lettuce and bruised bleeding tomatoes.

‘Hi sweetheart,” Santiago responded. He was always delighted to flirt with Pedro's beautiful wife. She was one of the liberated women of Corsica, and with her sultry lips she had the very un-French habit of kissing Santiago directly on the mouth. Big soft pillows, he thought as she smothered his lips.

“Mon Dieu, it is Pedro. He is crazy – forgive us Santiago.”

“Sophie, if it weren't for you, Pedro would never get anywhere,” Santiago said as he ushered in the herd of people.

“Wow man, like I'm really sorry,” Pedro mumbled as he grabbed the joint from Santiago's hand.

“Oh shut the fuck up Pedro and get your self a glass. I think there's only a few gallons of wine left,” Santiago said.

 The crowd sauntered into the large room. The Mediterranean faces were young, beautiful and full of idealism, but everyone was polite, shaking hands and kissing cheeks. Santiago appreciated the manners that are the normal pattern on the island, even with the nationalists - except Pedro who immediately went to the tape deck and replaced the soft classical music with something more to his taste - The Rolling Stone’s Sympathy for the Devil.

91.

The second stage of the festival blasted into life and began its penetration into the orb of sex, drugs and Rock’n Roll. Within ten minutes of Pedro's arrival meticulously rolled combinations of tobacco and hashish were being passed around in hippy ritual. There was sucking lips and lungs puffed full of smoke. There were hacking coughs accompanied with the exclamation of Wow. The music got louder and the conversations became cosmic. Santiago with a go-to-hell attitude was feeding large logs to the fireplace while flames licked high into the chimney. The temperature of the room was getting hot. Sweat soaked winter clothing was being thrown to the corners. The swirling sex of the room spun out of any association with Christmas and sped into the hallucinations of Hieronymus Bosch.

92.

A dark spirit was liberated. The shackle of conventional morality was dropped. The containment of old morals was left behind and the big room was filled with primal howling of a barbarian fertility dance. Nude bodies were sweating and reflected the red-orange glory of the roaring fire. Throbbing hours bumped into the deep night.

The spin of hashish and alcohol spiraled into the darkness of Christ's first day. There was a knocking on the closed shutters of the closed kitchen doors at the zenith of tripping madness. Santiago, paranoid, approached the door thinking it must be the cops or enraged neighbors.

“Who is it?” said Santiago timidly.

“Jean Simon…” whispered a voice mixed with the growing cold wind and pelting drops of beginning rain.

Santiago jerked the door open. “Jean Simon, you are on your own? Where is…”

“She is completely crazy. She said she always spends Christmas with her grandfather up in the mountains. I think she is lying. She has another man, for sure…”

Santiago frowned then laughed. “Hey what bullshit, but it is funny – very funny indeed. Come on in and join the party – there are plenty of young women here.”

Jean Simon smiled and immediately found a new love candidate. Rain covered the night and the party grew until there was hardly space for people to stand in the room. Each time Santiago opened the doors, people were wetter and colder than the ones before. The sky was cracking. The hard rain fell. The new people soaked and shivering jockeyed for position at the fireplace were amazed to discover other people had no clothes on whatsoever.

Suddenly the night sky turned to black liquid and fell like a sledge hammer onto the ceramic tiles of the roof. The clacking sound beat through the thin planks of the high ceiling. It was inundation. The flood had come. The new babies of old Sodom could be swept away. Everyone spoke at once but nothing could be heard but the roar above.

“Holy shit,” said Santiago.

“Wow,” said Pedro

“My heavens!” said Leila.

“That is what I call a cloudburst,” said Vicki.

The children tucked away in Tara’s room and had gone to sleep in the middle of the wild tumult of grown people were awakened by the new noise. They looked with wide frightened eyes up to the ceiling. The rain was transmuted into horned-monsters pounding their hooves.

Dancing and movement in the big room was frozen in place. A few of the orgy members started laughing or chattering in nervous French while others simply stood with their mouths open, silent, looking to the roof as though at any second they expected to see claws of unknown horror peel it open.

Steppenwolf was playing God damn The Pusherman, when the cloudburst commenced. The sound of the tape deck was completely drowned out from the drumming of the falling sky. It wasn't until nearly the end of the album that the music could compete with the storm outside. Everyone had stopped doing what they were doing and now all together, they became a devout congregation in the most holy of shrines. The world went silent when the rain stopped and the tape deck clicked off. The only sound was the sound of snapping red embers in the fireplace and whispered breathing. The storm had passed.

“Holy shit, I've never heard anything like that,” Santiago said.

He swung a door of the big room wide and pushed the wooden shutters open. He looked into the pitch darkness of the moonless night. There was only smell of wetness and the sound of rushing water coming from the river.

“Wow man, listen to that,” Pedro said leaning over Santiago's shoulder.

“Yeah, the river's going wild -- I'm going to get the flash-light and go down and have a look.”

“Close the door -- you are letting in the cold air.” complained Leila.

“I'll go with you Santiago. The river must be amazing from the cloudburst,” said Vicki.

93.

Santiago and Vicki, half drunk and half stoned put on heavy coats and rubber boots. They pushed open the kitchen doors and stepped into the misty night. The flash-light beam fingered across mimosa and eucalyptus trees. They were wet and glistening as though they had risen from the sea. The front yard was like a pond and the ground water was up to their ankles. Their boots splashed small notes against the symphonic roar of the hurling river. They walked towards the stone stairs that were a hundred feet from the river and twenty feet higher than its banks.

It was on the sandy river's edge that Santiago piled the driftwood for the fireplace. Earlier in the evening he had taken the last armload.

As they neared the top of the stairs, Vicki asked, “What is that strange thumping sound?” She had stopped and was looking toward the dark void where the river roared.

At first, all Santiago could hear was the racing flow of water. The river was louder than he had ever known it to be. Then behind that watery voice was the noise of a distinct thump, and then another and another. The sound was like colossal boots marching slowly down the river on their way to the sea.

“Ah, that must be what the old woman was talking about,” said Santiago in a tone of revelation. “One of our neighbors up the road -- I thought she was a bit crazy from living alone. She said, ‘When the river floods, the giant walks,’ I guess that's what she meant.”

“What?” Vicki said mystified.

“It's the big boulders. They are being rolled down the river. Fucking hell, the river is wild!”

Vicki stepped back from the stone staircase, suddenly afraid of what the river was doing. She had seen the large boulders, the size of American cars in the river earlier in the day. She had wondered why they were covered in white chip marks. Now she knew and could imagine them being tumbled down the river with each ground shaking thump.

“You know what,” Santiago said mischievously and pulled Vicki next to him.

“What?” Vicki said softly into his ear.

“The sound of rushing water makes me horny. I must be part duck!” Santiago said gently running kisses across Vicki’s cheek.

“We're going to get in trouble,” Vicki laughed and eagerly found Santiago's lips.

Santiago dropped his hands to Vicki’s full hips and pulled her body into his swelling crotch. Their tongues danced wetly as they staggered in their clothes doing the Lambada. The night was cold. They were hot.

“Ah, Vicki, uh, uh,” Santiago grunted as he pumped away pulling open her coat.

“Oh, oh, oh God,” Vicki moaned reaching down rubbing his thrusting penis.

“Christ Vicki, lets find a place,” Santiago said humping and pulling her body with him towards the steps. There was a nice little spot under a tree where he had put the wood.

Santiago, Santiago,” she said feverishly as the fly of his trousers came open in her hands and she caressed his moist phallus.

“God! Let's go lie down.”

“Yes, Yes, Yes,” Vicki said holding his hard prick in her hand.

As they stumbled down the steps clutching at their fleshy heat and sucking each other's tongues, the flash-light fell from under Santiago's arm and rolled away, its path of light swept up into the top of tree branches before the beam mysteriously disappeared.

“Damn, hold onto my hand,” Santiago said into the blackness. “Put your other hand on my shoulder.”

Vicki gasped but held firm to Santiago and moved with him as he began to descend the slippery stones that dropped towards the river.

Santiago, are you sure we can do this?” she said, not confident searching for the steps in the sightless night.

“I rebuilt these stairs. I know every stone here. I have gone up and down these stairs a thousand times in the last two weeks. Just stay close. Move very slowly and put your weight down gently,” ordered Santiago.

Vicki was filled with the adrenalin of a tight rope walker in the wind as she dropped step by step closer to the roaring sound.

They moved slowly down, their sexual needs electrified and aroused. Raving desire pulsed over them as they went into the darkness, deeper and deeper. Each penetrating step brought their breath to the edge of panting. Suddenly the earth moved under them.

“Fucking Christ!” screamed Santiago into the second Christian day as his booted weight broke loose a river freed stone and he tumbled sideways pulling Vicki with him into the cold water.

The river had risen over twenty feet and washed away the foundations of the stone staircase. They were swept along like little sticks in the rush of the mad river. What seemed to be endless minutes were only seconds. Vicki was still holding Santiago's hand with all her strength. The freezing cold water was amplified by the blackness and as they spiraled down the churning rapids both lost sense of gravity and felt as though they were being hurled to hells shore. The river could have taken them to the Mediterranean but instead threw Vicki into the bony arms of a willow. In desperation she grabbed at the branches with her free hand and caught hold of one firmly.

The luck was passed to Santiago and another branch hooked into his coat and held him like a snagged fish. Santiago clenched onto the slithering limbs of the savior willow and with the strength of panic pulled himself and Vicki from the swallowing current of the hungry river. The innate sense of survival directed him in the water and both of them shaking with cold crawled out of the river onto mucky Mother Earth. It was another Christmas Miracle.

94.

They stood shivering, bloody and muddy at the doors of the party house they had left a lifetime ago. Sophie let them in after hearing frantic kicking on the closed wooden shutters. Santiago and Vicki although nearly frozen were feeling incredibly embarrassed and had gone around the house to the kitchen entrance. Both were trembling as they pulled off their sodden clothes. Sophie brought towels and blankets and helped to dry them off as they entered the warmth of the big room. Pedro lay drugged and asleep on one of the pillowed couches. Several other bodies lay in comfortable positions on thick rugs. Leila lay on her belly with her face turned towards the fireplace. Zack straddled her resting on his knees while he applied massaging oil up her naked back. A Bach requiem was playing. The third stage of the Christmas festival had taken all of them into drifting orbit.

“What happened to you?” asked Sophie as she tried to stop laughing at the miserable looking condition of Santiago and Vicki. Their faces hands and knees were covered in mud and bloody scratches and their bodies were blue with cold.

Leila became aware of the commotion going on in the room sleepily turned her head to see the blanket covered pair as they came to the heat of the fireplace. Zack grudgingly raised himself from the manipulations of her bare flesh.

“What the bloody hell happened to you?” she said.

“Ah, uh...” Santiago coughed.

“We fell in the river,” Vicki said, throwing a bitch look at Leila.

Sophie burst into laughter

                                                                        95.

The rain had completely stopped and the clouds moved over the mountains edge to the east. The black sky was left with the myriad of star eyes looking down on the small Corsican world. The River Gravone continued to roar as a thousand new born streams joined together in the rush to the Mediterranean. The chaos of the cloudburst was now a downhill liquid mantra. The water dripped from the trees that surrounded the house. Moving water saturated the air.

The Rock’n Roll Christmas festival had carried the frenzied party lovers to the end of the night. One by one the voyagers were dropping away from the festival day and returned to their own worlds. The house on the river was now only a warm capsule containing four adults, a child and a dog. The dawn of Christ's second day began rising rose colored over the purple crest of the mountains as they all sat together in slow peaceful exhaustion.

Santiago opened the wooden shutters to watch the day come alive. He saw the crescent face of a waning moon on the edge of the ragged skyline hung. The old world became the new world and the fractal of chaos transformed to order. Santiago, Leila, Zack, Vicki, Tara and China the dog were now the participants of harmony while only moments before they were being pulled apart by the force of change. The calm came. The fireplace full of glowing embers pulsed heat. Only small bluish flames slipped up in final celebration. The last log was nearly finished. The ring of people sat around the remnant warmth too tired to sleep, too sleepy to talk. They sat together looking at the streaked colors of the new day. Only Tara was sleeping hard, stretched out like a fallen angel in the folds of warm blankets on the couch.

Zack occasionally would turn privately to Leila and continue to tell his secret story, just loud enough to be open, but soft enough that only she heard the words. It was a story of his boyhood, his domineering father, his struggle in Art College, his failure in marriage. It was a story one would tell to a new lover.

Santiago saw that Leila was finding someone who could share her Art College history. He had always snubbed those circles and felt her resentment. He knew she preferred men's company and especially those who could act and feel deeply.

“Deep, deep!” said Santiago.

 He didn't care. Leila could have him. Vicki was next to him and he could have her. He could act himself. He didn't have to be sensitive or deep with Vicki. He could be a bastard if he wanted and still be loved. No obligations. Vicki was a friend he sometimes put his cock in. That didn't change their relationship or even change their stories. It would take more than a good fuck to wrap them together in bondage. The sex was being horny, having too much booze and being alone together long enough to allow the lust of their spontaneous natures. Afterwards there never was any embarrassment or foolish love talk. There was only the natural course of their separate lives. Their only recognition of the previous intimacy was little laughs over incidental words and camera click eyes. They were rascal friends.

 

96.

The fireplace was cooling off. Zack and Leila were talking near the fire and Santiago and Vicki were sitting at the big table across the room. Vicki was whispering stories Santiago had not heard before. They were stories designed to shock -- sex and more sex. Vicki loved to tell the tale of lust that meandered through her life. Santiago was not surprised by the content but only the continuation.  This one had great legs and it was a dark midnight mad fuck -- that one moved beautifully but his mind was drab. There were boyfriends that interfered terribly with her brief marriages - marriage being a problem of having a live-in-lover that made it difficult for the occasional bang on the side. The second marriage was slightly better -- the husband experimented in bi-sexual events -- two men, one women; two women one man - it was interesting but complicated. In the end he preferred men -- none of that mattered. She was a free spirit. She could have any man she wanted, but this time she wanted Zack and he was taking no interest. They had not even screwed. Oh no, she wasn't hurt. She didn't really have a crush on him, but it bothered her to not get laid when that is what she expected. Men always did it for her - none had played this cool.

“Do you think he is gay?” Vicki asked Santiago quietly.

“Doesn't look like it to me. Good luck to the bastard.”

Santiago was smug. He knew Leila would never leave him. He wished she would. It would make it easier. No, she would always stay with him, and nag him into the ground. Suddenly a flicker of anger and fear raced through - maybe he was lying to himself - maybe Leila could...

“Ah fuck it,” Santiago said loudly.

Vicki looked oddly at Santiago, “What's the matter sweetheart? Don't you feel good?” she said brushing the back of her fingers against his cheek.

Leila looked at him from across the room and said, “It would not possibly be a hang-over dearest?”

He glared at her, “No. I feel fine. I always fall in the river and nearly drown.”

“You should not have been having so much fun out in the dark,” she said.

Santiago got up abruptly and walked out of the room. Several minutes later he came back dressed in work clothes with a heavy coat.

“I'm going down to the river. Anyone interested?” he said.

 Vicki laughed, “No way.”

Leila turned back to the gaze of Zack's eyes. Santiago was invisible.

97.

Santiago called China the dog and went out the kitchen door. He stepped into a crystal morning. The sky was clear and a cold wind was blowing down the valley. The mountains were periwinkle blue.  The sun glowed gold across the wet bark of the eucalyptus. He went to the top of the stone staircase where hours earlier Vicki and he had groped each other before being swept into the madness of the flooding river.

During the night the Gravone had come all the way up to the middle of the stairs leaving its mark along the gutted hillside. Now the river was restored to its normal channel a hundred feet away. Santiago could see the muddy water swirling through gaps in the river willows. He went down the steps carefully, testing each stone, feeling soggy movement. The old path to the river squished under his feet while long arms of thorny brambles hooked at his clothes.

He looked in amazement as he approached the woven barrier of willows on the river bank. The Gravone had risen over twenty feet above its natural flow and its current had woven among the willow trunks a vast wet tangle of driftwood. The Christmas flood had brought a Christmas gift -- a whole new winter supply of firewood.

“Fucking Christ! A God damn miracle. Thank you Lord,” said Santiago.

He stood looking at the patterns of murk and the shiny snake bodies of peeled branches. There was a sensation within Santiago and a strange epiphany came over him.  All the deceit of his life rushed through him like the current of the swift river and he was confronted with his own complexity. He cried. It was not a hard cry, only wet eyes. The recognition of a real memory welled in his soul and he saw the child that was once him, innocent and washed. A sound wavered through the vision; the rush of water and a whisper of wind high in the tree branches that laced into the morning sky. The wind was like the voice of a chorus joining the river becoming the song of a living valley. The river, the wind, the valley, was all that existed and all that ever was. On the fringe of this consciousness Santiago felt he was in a dream -- a dream rolling with the water. The river truly was the blood of life, and the wind was the breath. It was real, more real than his eyes could see -- the clarity of truth, beyond reason or understanding. The river was the reflection of God.  Water was the blood of existence -- the rain, the river, the sea. Santiago stood in reverence, admitting that he was a fool, a braggart, a fiend, but he was being anointed, forgiven and cleansed. His shame was being washed away. He stood quiet and humbled.

China the dog raced around in the wet foliage, joyful with excitement of the new scents the night had brought. China lifted his nose from the saturated earth, turned and leapt with muddy paws into Santiago's groin.

“Ow! Son-of-a-bitch, damn it China. You got me right in the balls,” Santiago wheezed

Santiago bent over in pain for a minute and then he began to smile. He shook his head. The magic spell disappeared as quickly as it had come. He looked at China and laughed. China yapped doggy enthusiasms and ran off following his nose again.

“You lovely simple creature -- oh well, here we go again.”

 He reached down into the driftwood and found a few pieces he could dry out for the fireplace and then stumbled back towards the revolving world he had jumped off, only for a moment.

98.

The adults in the big room decided not to go to bed. They would stay up and follow the beauty of this clean-washed day. They had found it together, so they would continue to celebrate it, to stay awake and keep the rhythm going. The party was on a soft easy beat now. They could relax. They could be tourists.

“Let's go to restaurants and café’s and walks on the beach! Let's have fun,” sang Vicki. She was an excited little girl, forty three years old.

“Yeah, there's great beaches on the island -- about a thousand miles of coast – there should be at least one,” Santiago said.

‘Oh yes”, said Leila, “Let's go out to Capo De Feno. It is beautiful there after a storm.”

“I fancy that,” said Zack. He had been pacing around the room with Leila’s long pink scarf around his neck.

“That suits you,” said Leila.

 Santiago went out to start Road-Runner. It coughed itself into life after Santiago had taken off the distributor cap and dried it in the oven. Zack, Leila, Tara and China the dog got into the back seat. Vicki took the front seat next to Santiago. Road-Runner squeaked and rattled going out the route to Isle de Sanguinaire, and on up and over the pot-holed road leading to the shelved beaches of Capo De Feno. The beaches were deserted except for a few Corsican boar hunters and their hounds running in the maquis. The wind came hard and cold off the tumbling breakers. They rolled into the funnel shape of the bay and grew into small dancing mountains. Green-gray maquis covered the gentle sand hills at the edge of high tide and its sweet bouquet was mixed with the salted air. The faces of the party glowed pink with the tingling slaps of gusting wind. Their collars were pulled high up as they walked along the shoreline. The affects of alcohol and hashish slowly seeped out of their bodies.

“It's cold! I want to go home,” complained Tara. “When are we going home?”

Tara, we just got here,” Santiago said irritably.

“Shush, we won't be long and then we will go have an ice cream,” Leila said. Ice cream on a freezing day defied reason, but for a hundred feet the little girl was quiet and then she stopped.

“I'm tired! I can't walk any more,” Tara pouted.

“Alright, come here sweetheart and I'll give you a piggy-back.”

 Tara eagerly jumped up on her fathers back, planted her thumb in her mouth and ignored the boring walk with big people. They followed the beach along for a mile until it came to a broken stone ridge polished by the sea. They traced a worn path leading to a sheltered nook where it veered off into thick maquis.

“Where did Zack Go?” Santiago asked, realizing he had disappeared.

 “I don't know, he was with us a minute ago,” Leila said.

 “I guess he wants to be on his own. He's kind of a loner,” Vicki said.  

“Do you think so?” Leila looked around to see him.

“Maybe it's just that he doesn't want to be with me. I think I make him uncomfortable,” Vicki said in a dejected voice.

“You mean like Santiago and me?” laughed Leila

“Yeah. You might he approaching true love,” cracked Santiago.

“Maybe we should trade partners?” suggested Vicki.

“Not a bad idea,” agreed Leila.

“Hmmm...” Santiago murmured.

The sun was bright but was beginning to fall to the afternoon. The three stopped and clicked quick looks at each other.

“Hi people,” called Zack from a path on the ridge above.

An hour later they set in Ajaccio’s only open-for-business ice cream parlor. December belongs to Corsicans. In August ice cream could be found on every corner for tourists, but now in the heart of winter they huddled together shedding only their hats and scarves. They laughed at the little girl’s joy in eating ice cream while they drank brandy.

“Cheers,” said Zack.

“You know what we should do after this?” said Vicki.  “We should go eat in a restaurant, a really fine restaurant -- my treat.”

“Oh no,” protested Santiago.

“Yes, please Daddy,” pleaded Tara.

99.

Corsican cuisine is not vegetarian. Vicki and Zack were not only vegetarians but fanatic about the vegetables being fresh. The old lady who kept the restaurant was amazed people would only want to eat vegetables. She looked at these foreigners with contempt, but money is money. She had her network. Her husband had cousin, who had a son who sold vegetables. The husband went out the side door of the restaurant down to the small shop where one could still find fresh farm produce -- green things crisp and natural. Vegetables! They wanted vegetables. Hah, she would give them vegetables!

Vicki and Zack were delighted with the plates of wonderful produce, accompanied with wooden boards covered with sheep and goat cheese. Leila and Santiago chose the house specialty, Coquilles Saint Jacque and Paella. Tara had a few bites and stretched out on the padded bench and fell to sleep. The adults carried on with the feast, drinking bottles of red wine and Perrier. They told gossip of old friends and old places from years before. The meal stretched into the dark of night.

Santiago took the long way home and followed a winding narrow road that threads its way through mountain villages that lay above their home on the Gravone. They could see the yard lights of Les Ponderosa far below.

“I sure as hell hope there isn't another flood tonight,” Santiago said.

 “I thought you and Vicki liked going on midnight swims,” Leila said.

“Ha, ha. Very funny,” Santiago said.

100.

The fireplace still had some glowing embers under the layers of ash. Santiago and Vicki brought baskets of driftwood up from the river and the fire was built again. The flames grew slowly from the damp wood.

Tara was exhausted with the long day and was taken to bed. The four adults were left to continue their childish games. They gathered close to the fireplace. Generic classical piano played on the tape machine. Zack continued the tale of his life and dreams in a droning monk’s voice to Leila. She was growing sympathetic ears. He talked, she listened.

Vicki continued the adventures of her sex life. Santiago chortled over her liberated indecencies and sucked in the details along with copious glasses of red wine.

“I brought some dope with me,” Vicki said casually.

“I didn’t know you were into that,” said Santiago.

 “It’s just grass. A sweet young lover deals a little. I smoke with him.”

“Wow Vicki -- are you finally becoming a hippie -- 20 years after Woodstock?”  Santiago laughed.

 “Yes, I guess so,” she giggled.  “But I don’t know how to roll joints.”

 “I'm out of practice too. I have no idea how they make those French bombs…” Santiago said.

“I learned that in Paris.  I will roll the number if you want,” Zack offered.

Santiago looked up in surprise thinking the Zack had not been listening and said sarcastically, “Oh yeah, naturally that's the place to learn joint rolling.”

“It makes me cough,” said Leila

Santiago put more wood on the fire. It crackled and popped with moisture. Outside, the river sound was in harmony with the wind moving through the branches of the tall eucalyptus trees.

The marijuana was passed around.  Leila coughed.

“Shit man this stuff is good, Santiago said.  His eyes were crazy.

“I feel like moving,” said Vicki.

“Fancy another massage?”  Zack asked Leila.

“Oh yes.  That would be very nice,” Leila said.

“I hope you get the bones back in place, especially the one in her head,” Santiago said amused with his stoned wit.

The night was black and between moons. Twice Santiago went outside into the cold to replenish the wood for the fireplace. There was no problem about wood now. The river’s flood had turned the banks along the willows into a warehouse of fuel. He laughed at the absurdity of such a miracle.

In the house Zack’s massage had its affect and Leila was falling into pleasure. Vicki was moving around the warmed room doing combinations of Tai Chi and jazz improvisations. She was playing in the air space to the sound of a new age composer. The tape clicked off as Santiago came into the room. He walked over to the machine and put in another cassette and twisted the volume knob a full turn. The speakers rattled the windows as the Rolling Stones and Jump'n Jack Flash thundered into the big room. Everyone laughed at being shaken from their calm meditation. They rocked. The flames of the fireplace licked devil tongues up the chimney.

Santiago went to the table and filled his mouth with wine. He returned to Vicki wagging his hips and rolled insane eyes. He placed his lips on her accepting mouth and spurt in the warmed liquid. Vicki dug her fingernails into his back and sucked.

 “I knew you were going to do that,” she laughed.

 Leila moved under Zack and let her gaze fall on the fire.

“Do you feel all right?” Zack asked.

“Yes. I suppose I am tired from not much sleep. I guess we have not gone to bed ...” Leila stopped hearing the context of words.

“”Not yet,” Zack said.  His eyes dropped for an instant and let the suggestion drift. “I can finish the sequence of the massage if you want.”

“Yes. That would be lovely.”

 She resumed her position on a soft rug in front of the flames. Zack straddled her provocatively as he pushed her blouse up and let his fingers trail down the curve of her spine.

Santiago and Vicki gyrated to the pulse beat of mindless funk, twisting their feet across the red tiles of the floor. The four adults were catapulted in this dope-smoked, electro-throb capsule, deeper into space, deeper into another night. Zack was tracing his fingers delicately, massaging the muscled bones of Leila.

 Santiago traded lurid tales with Vicki. He groped her with indelicate thick fingers. Leila could not ignore her husband's contempt and turned more willingly to Zack's hands.

“Let’s fuck,” whispered Santiago into Vicki’s ear as he reached into her loose slacks and traced a finger up the backside of her vagina.

Vicki watched Zack and Leila as she felt the strum on her lower lips. Watching sex was as good as sex itself and fantastic to have both together. She could come right there dancing in the fire light.

“Zack seems to be preoccupied with your wife,” Vicki said wanting to add to the thrill by talking about it.

“No shit.”

They are fucking aren't they?” Vicki said panting

“Yeah, like I'm going stick my cock in you.”

“Yes, yes,” said Vicki as she wilted into Santiago's arms and let the wetness flow out of her. They danced on for a few minutes and then Vicki grew heavy in Santiago's arms.  “I’m whacked.  Let's go in the kitchen for a minute.”

Santiago and Vicki bumped dancing steps around the corner from Zack and Leila into the kitchen. Once out of sight Vicki’s hand slipped down expertly to Santiago's zipper and flicked it down. She knelt down and sucked until his hot sperm squirted and she shuddered with rehearsed gratitude. Santiago crumpled.

“I’m going to bed,” Vicki said. Business was concluded

“Great idea,” Santiago whispered stupidly in her ear

Vicki veered off and walked down the corridor towards the guest bedroom. Santiago stood in the kitchen with his eyes on the floor. His brain was coasting, feeling the pleasure but within seconds the feeling was usurped by guilt. The sensation was grotesque and it brought self-consciousness of a naked imbecile in a porno magazine. He shook his head and zipped up.

“Guess I'll be going to bed,” Santiago said loudly, peeking around the kitchen door into the big room. “Tomorrow’s another day.”

“You know what we should do tomorrow?” Leila asked.

“No... What?” 

“Let's build a sweat lodge.”

“A what?”

“A sweat lodge - you know, like the American Indians do - like a sauna,” Leila said brightly.

“Yeah...good idea ... fine. See you in bed,”

Santiago lay in bed, his head drifting and waiting. There were sounds of quiet murmurs, the wind and the river. He couldn't sleep. In an hour or was it two, he didn't know, Leila came into the dark room. There was the brush of her clothes as they fell to the floor. She slipped into the bed, an unusual distance from Santiago. She coughed. Santiago turned away onto his side, his eyes open, staring through the windows of the French doors, letting his gaze trace the saw-tooth black ridge of the mountains against the purple night sky. The big dipper was hanging low on the horizon.

“Good night,” Santiago said gruffly.

“Night,” said Leila coldly. She turned to her back to him and like ice dividing rocks they lay together in a small bed, separate.

                                                101.

The next day and night were repeated for a week -- the party carried on. Through the insistence of Leila, Santiago began to build a sweat lodge. It was made of long broken willow limbs, plastic sheets, string and straw. Vicki brought wood, danced Tai Chi and carried on the intimacies of her fractured history. Zack and Leila found more and more time together, talking in dulcet phrases, taking long walks, and evenings of fireplace massage therapy. Tara played with China the dog, oblivious to the adult game.

The day before New Years Eve, the sweat lodge was nearly finished. Santiago and Vicki had returned from town where they bought more plastic to cover the bent wood frame. They were at its river location when Leila and Zack came down the path bundled up in heavy coats and hiking boots.

“Hey, you don't have to dress for winter. You'll warm up soon enough here,” Santiago said.

“Oh we are not going to work. We are going to try to make it to the falls this time,” Leila said, avoiding Santiago's eyes. She looked up into the western slope of the valley, where a thin white ribbon of a stream dropped through the maquis.

Santiago clicked suspicious glances with Vicki. “I thought you didn't like cold walks in the mud.”

“No, I never said that.” Leila’s eyes slid off the waterfall and drifted to Zack's face. “It is really lovely up there.”

“Absolutely,” Zack prompted. “We nearly made it the other day but for having the proper gear. “Shan't be any problem today.”

“Shan’t huh? Yeah. I can see what you say. I bet you make it yet,” Santiago said. “But you know if there was some help, we could get your sweat lodge together.”

“You know perfectly well, we would just get in the way. You and Vicki are doing fine without us. Anyway, we won't be gone long,” Leila said and turned to Zack. “Well, shall we?”

“Yes. Let's.” Zack said automatically. They smiled at each other and walked towards the river crossing.

“Hey, what about Tara? Why don't you take her with you?” Santiago yelled.

“Don't be silly. She is fine. I told her to play in her room and she knows where you are. We will be back soon. Leila shouted back.

“Yeah… Have a nice day,” Santiago said.

Vicki and Santiago continued to pull plastic sheeting over the humped shape tying it carefully and weighting the bottom with rocks. Santiago was silent and scowling.

“What do you think is going on?” Vicki had stopped and looked in the direction of the falls.

“Beats the shit out of me. All I know is my dear wife has become very enthusiastic about tromping around fucking muddy trails. We haven’t gone on a walk like that for years.” Jealousy boiled in Santiago.

“She is quite taken by Zack. Do you think they are actually...”

“What? Fucking?” Santiago steamed. “It wouldn't surprise me. That's the third hike she's gone on with old Zack baby. Three hikes in three days. Shit!”

Santiago looked angrily at the river. The patterns were swirling and the water was translucent after the red brown blur of the deluge. His whole world seemed to be pulled into the current.  His mind was flooding.

“It can't be anything much,” continued Vicki. You and Leila have too much to lose. She knows that.” Vicki looked intently into Santiago's eyes and saw fear.

Santiago turned away and rubbed his whiskered jaw.  “Come on, let's start the fire and get some real hot rocks going.”

Vicki laughed. That was more like her boy.

The fire burned for several hours. Vicki and Santiago covered the round rocks with a small mountain of driftwood. They set it ablaze.  The sweat lodge was completely built and all they had to do was wait for the stones to turn glowing red. The afternoon turned to early evening. The late December sky held the bright point of the first star and the new crescent moon, hanging like a gypsy flag above the purple ridge of the eastern mountains.

“I wonder what the hell has happened to them.” Santiago said, “It's getting dark. If they are still up there in the maquis, they could really get lost.” Despite himself Santiago was beginning to worry about his wife.

102.

Santiago carried on building the sweat lodge until it was almost dark. Vicki had gone back to the house earlier to be with Tara. Santiago picked another armload of wood and took it to the kitchen entrance. He looked through the windows and could see Vicki talking to Tara. Leila and Zack were nowhere to be seen. Santiago worried because now it was completely black and to find paths down the mountain was not only difficult, but dangerous.

“Damn, those two are totally lost,” he said as he stepped into the kitchen’s warmth.

“Where is Mummy? I don't want her to be lost,” Tara whimpered.

“Don't worry Tara -- she'll be home soon,” Vicki said.

“Yeah”, don't get bothered Tara. I was joking. They'll be home soon.”

Santiago picked up his little girl and held her on his lap. Santiago looked through the windows of the doors into the mountains that were melting into the indigo sky. The crescent moon shimmered thin light. He pulled the girl tighter to him.

“I love you Daddy,” Tara said.

“I love you too,” Santiago whispered and breathed in the little girl smell that lay in her hair.

“Maybe I should get something to eat. Are you hungry?” Vicki asked

“Yes. I want spaghetti,” Tara said.

“What again?” Santiago laughed, “I think we should have moved to Italy instead of Corsica.”

 “But I like spaghetti,” Tara protested

“I know, I know. You can have all the spaghetti you want.”

“How about you?” Vicki asked. She moved her warm hands and face between him and Tara.

The three of them were touching cheeks and giggling when Leila and Zack appeared in the windows of the French doors. Leila’s face went hard and Santiago burst out laughing.

“My God, look at the funny monsters,” Santiago cackled.

Zack and Leila pushed the doors open and came in dripping water on the floor. Both were soaking wet and mud smeared. Zack had scratches all over, his face.

Santiago laughed again taking pleasure in seeing the handy work of the thorn studded Corsican maquis. “Run into a mean pussycat?” 

 Zack flashed a guilty look towards Santiago. “Not exactly old man - afraid I had a bit of a bother with some nasty undergrowth.”

“You guys look like crap. What did you do -- fall in the river?

“Touché, Santiago,” Leila said. “Oh my god! I am freezing I thought we would never get home. I must take off these wet things and sit next to the fire.”

“How in hell did you get so wet?” It's not even raining today,”

“Oh shut up. It is not so funny. We just had a little accident.”

“Well?” Santiago’s eyes played up and down their wet clothes

“Poor things,” Vicki said, “You better get out of those clothes before you catch pneumonia.”

“I don't want Mommy to have...num...num-mum,” Tara said seriously.

The four adults broke into laughter and the bad mood was dispelled until the little girl feeling she was the butt of a joke began to cry.

Santiago still holding the little girl said softly, “Don't cry sweetheart. Mommy is going to be fine. We weren't making fun of you.”

I don't want mummy to get num-mum,” she whined.

“Oh shush Tara, I am not going to get pneumonia,” Leila snapped.

Tara burst into tears and Santiago patted her on the back holding her close.

“Good going fat head! Well, how did your little accident happen? Find a nice nook to wallow in?”

Zack's eyes crossed Leila’s face and then dropped towards the floor. His white face warmed to a flushed pink. “Um, no... I am afraid the track was rather muddy - and we, um, we had to cross a stream that was quite full,” his voice becoming more Oxford as the story developed, “Um, and it is rather embarrassing, but you see, um, well, I am afraid I slipped on quite a dodgy stone and fell full tilt backwards into the bloody water. Lucky thing that it was not any deeper than it was or it might have proven to be a very sticky wicket.” His eyes bounced off Leila to see if the story was verified.

“A sticky wicket, right. So, what about you?” Santiago shot at Leila, “I suppose you jumped in to save the great ball player?”

“Go to hell Santiago!” Leila shouted.

“Mommy,” shrieked Tara.

“Well?” Santiago stared at Leila

 “Actually,” Zack said, “I suppose the funny thing is, it is quite the truth. I was struggling to get up out of the water...and um, she was trying her best to help me, and well, it is stupid, but I am afraid I pulled her in.”

Santiago started laughing again at the ironic circle of events.

 The little girl took his face in her hands and looked intently into his eyes and said, “Daddy, don't laugh. It's not funny. Mummy could have drowned.”

“You poor soaked things,” Vicki cut in, “You better go stand by the fireplace.”

Leila threw her wet coat on the kitchen floor and walked out of the room.

“Rather a good idea I would say,” Zack said.

103.

The fire crackled in the big room. The awkward start of the evening was ignored. They sat in front of the fireplace and by the second bottle of red wine were warmed and glowing. Santiago and Leila avoided speaking directly to each other. Zack and Vicki played at being polite. The storm of emotions passed but there was still fragility in the air. They talked about the sweat-lodge that had been completed and decided to wait until Tara was asleep before they went down to the river. The bonfire was burnt down and all that was left to do was take the stones from the coals and place them in the shallow pit inside Santiago's plastic sweat-lodge.

In an hour Tara was curled asleep in her room. She had slipped into the dream world through one of Santiago's rambling bedtime stories. This time it was Frankenstein Meets the Boogie Monster. The little girl loved his monster stories. The Frankenstein Santiago made up was a nice guy with gruff manners and a strange hair style. Santiago wanted to keep the world innocent for her as long as he could.

Leila came in and kissed Tara on the forehead. “What a perfect little angel she is when she is sleeping.”

Santiago looked at Leila softly but the words came out hard, “I'm glad you still love someone around here.”

“Stop being such a pain for once,” Leila said and then went back into the big room.

The sober gathering by the fireplace seemed to tighten as Santiago came back into the room. The day before, Zack had been reading out loud to them a short story by Tennessee Williams. Santiago hated to admit it, but Zack could read very well and the sound of his English voice was resinous and soothing. Santiago enjoyed the story and thought about it now. He felt slightly guilty about his accusations towards Leila.

“Hey Zack. Why don't you continue that story,” Santiago said, but catching himself, decided not to give Zack credit. “Tennessee Williams is such a great writer.”

“Oh yes, please do,” joined in Leila.

“What a great idea. Maybe we could continue it down in the sweat-lodge,” added Vicki.

“Ah...  perhaps,” Zack said.

Leila begged, “Please do it, please.”

“Zack’s eyelids dropped and his lips curled into a smile. “Well...okay.”

Santiago instantly felt like the whole thing was a bad idea.  “Maybe it will be too hot to read. Maybe the book will catch on fire.”

Santiago don't be daft,” Leila threw dirty looks at him.

“Super,” cooed Vicki.              

The four adults dressed warmly for the hundred meter walk to the sweat-lodge. The structure was large enough to squeeze in forty Mazola-oiled-hippies. If that was the situation, perhaps the cleansing sweat would have arrived but as it was, the lodge was only a candle-lit warm blimp in the dark shroud of a crystal-cold night. The sweat-lodge was comfortable enough, but not hot enough to take off all of ones clothes. Vicki was disappointed.

Santiago saw the plastic shack's failure and went into a silent gloom. He felt defeated in more than one way. He had seen the improvised lodge as a wooden shrine for the river that had brought the gift of wood. The marijuana had heightened this delusion in the organic chain of oneness. It was his attempt to repay nature. He regretted using the plastic. It would have been better with buffalo skins. Santiago had an excuse. It was the plastic. The marijuana made it seem all right at the time, but it was a screw up he knew too well.

Santiago had brought straw cut the summer before and it was dry and yellow. Vicki bought enough burlap to hang from the inside of the structure so the plastic couldn't be seen. Under the dim light of candles the dome looked organic and natural. But there were too many design glitches. The wood they had piled on the rocks was completely saturated from lying in the river. It burned wet, producing more steam than heat. The rocks were supposed to glow red in the dark. They lay in the center invisible, providing only radiant heat that one felt at finger tip length. The structure was far too big, nearly ten feet high. The heat that was produced quickly billowed to the top and slipped through the holes Santiago had poked in the plastic to prevent them from suffocating. The rocks sent warm vapor messages to the stars in the cold night sky.

Leila shifted all her attention to Zack. Santiago felt like he was on the outside, even though they all set together on the inside of a moderately heated plastic bag. He was beginning to believe he had lost something precious.

Santiago sweetie, don't worry. It's great anyway,” Vicki urged. “Look we can snuggle in the corner with the candles and listen to the story and the river. It's really beautiful… it's kind of hot.”

“Yeah, sure”, Santiago said. “Just like camping out with the Boy Scouts.”

Earlier in the week, Santiago had fantasies about the sweat-lodge, and naked bodies rolling in a sweat slick orgy. Now the thought of Leila lying close to Zack with all of her clothes on was intolerable.

Leila lay in the straw next to Zack. Vicki slipped next to Santiago and pulled a blanket over them. Her hands free in the darkness, warm and searching found the soft skin of Santiago's belly and played downward. The lack of response stopped the suggestions her fingers were making. She looked teasingly into the candle gold color of his face but it was blank.

“Okay Zack, we want a story,” Vicki sang out. “We might as well make the best of the sweat-lodge.”

“Some sweat-lodge. I think if we began to sweat it would turn into ice,” Leila said. Santiago said nothing and Leila realized he had missed his cue. She didn't care.

Zack began reading Tennessee Williams again. “An elderly woman is charmed by a young man…” his voice droned  the weaving of the tale laced with the fabric of this strangely innocent, yet twisted grown-up moment in the last days of a Corsican December.

Santiago felt he was in Tennessee William's story. He was the trapped ridiculous old woman who threw her affection into the wind, and like her he was withering on the vine, growing old in front of his own eyes and desperately trying to cling to memories. What a surprise. Finally, he realized he was in love with a woman he had cast away.

 Vicki’s fingers touched the wetness on Santiago’s cheek and then stroked his temple gently. Leila moved closer to Zack.

In an hour the story was finished, the plastic hump was cold and Vicki made the decision to move. Half asleep and numb they walked back to the house. In bed, Santiago moved close to Leila, putting his arm around her. She turned her back to him and said sternly, Good night. He brought his arm back to his side and lay for a long time silent and lost. Through the window the new crescent moon kissed his eyes shut, and he thought, it’s the Harlequin Moon, as he drifted.

104.

The morning brought bright blue skies reminding them they were in the Mediterranean.

“God it's such a beautiful day. Oh Lord, please keep me away from Britain forever,” hummed Vicki.

“Yes, we should do something today. Let's go somewhere. I don't want to sit around here all day,” Leila said looking at Santiago and he said nothing. “Oh for heavens sake.”

“Yes…” Zack said.

“You know what?” Vicki said, her eyebrows raised. “It is New Years Eve.  We really should do something.”

“I know, let's go to Filatosa and have a picnic,” Leila said becoming cheery. Santiago shrugged his shoulders. “Right then, you can stay with your perfect sweat-tent.”

 Santiago said looking at her angrily. “Okay maybe it would be nice to go there. Filatosa is more interesting than you.”

“Is that the ancient site I read about?” Zack joined in.

Santiago became like a dog protecting his bone “Yeah, it's pretty nice down there. We've been there a couple of times before - always something new to see. They say the place predates the Greeks by thousands of years.”

 “What a great idea, but do you remember we were invited to your friends New Years party? Is it possible to do both?” Vicki was always practical in the logistics of enjoyment.

“My heavens, I completely forgot,” exclaimed Leila

“What?” asked Santiago.

Santiago your brain is addled. Don't you remember? Ronda and Vaughn's party - and I think you arranged to take the wine,” Leila said. “What do you think? It is not that far to drive to Filatosa and return for the evening. Well?”

Santiago's face tightened. “It's no problem. But we better get our things together and split if we are going do it.”

“Jolly good,” Zack said.

“Yes, jolly-fucking-good.” English prep-school bastard, thought Santiago.

“I'll help make the picnic with you Sweetie,” Vicki said to Leila.

“Thank you,” Leila said flatly.

Road-Runner sputtered into life -- a resurrection each time the rattling engine jumped from the morgue of its dying parts. It was a faithful mechanical slave. It sputtered its way down the long Gravone Valley, over the mountain roads of Col de Belleville and Col de Chenova into the Taravo Valley. Filatosa lay at the top of sloped grassy fields that rolled gently down to the Golfe d’ Valinco.

Santiago drove as usual. This time he was annoyed when Leila ignored his suggestion to sit in the front with him. She preferred to sit in the back with the little girl and Zack. Vicki set next to Santiago telling him a story he didn't hear. His ears were tuned into the low intimate tones being transmitted in the back seat.  Santiago was beginning to squirm in jealousy. He felt like taking Zack by his skinny English neck but thought it was no use...perhaps Zack didn't mean anything to Leila...he wasn't worth the effort...Christ, how could she fall for such a weedy guy…him and his fucking sensitivity. He was about as sensitive as a monkey with a hard-on. What a prick! How could she do this to him...oh sure, Fucking God...it's God fucking with me again. You son-of-a-bitch! Fucking jealousy. The Demon of Jealousy was trying to take possession of him. He thought of his youth when his heart was broken and he nearly killed a young Marine through rage and jealousy. He could still hear the tires squeal and see the car he was trying to force off the road.

105.

Jealousy. Santiago swore to himself he would never let his heart do that to him again. Fucking jealousy. Look now. Here it is again...and the pain...

The car shuddered into the parking place next to a high stone wall overgrown with bougainvillea. They clambered out of the car, little Tara begged Santiago for a piggyback.  Leila and Zack walked away down the long tree sheltered path leading to the ruins. Vicki helped Santiago place a coat around the little girl’s shoulders as she clung to her fathers back. Santiago was quiet. A sad calmness came over him, and for a moment he felt detached from the ironic drama being played. Zack and Leila.  Maybe they needed each other more than he knew. He felt Tara’s warmth against his back. His eyes wandered towards the white boulders that were near the shaded patterns of the olive grove. Filatosa gave the impression of traveling to a distant land, a place that had been detoured by the rubber healed feet of modern man. There was the atmosphere of ancient graveyards where names and dates were melted off granite tombstones, like ice on a hot day. An invisible presence touched everyone who walked into the primordial garden. Twisted groves of olive trees bore their fruit century after century. In the center of the forest, stood a primitive encampment of heaped rocks, piled together by the rolling skin of the Earth. Giant boulders lay bleached white by the sun from the beginning of time.

“Five thousand years,” Santiago mumbled.

“What's that?” Vicki said puzzled.

“Oh, that's the story about this place. It wasn't actually discovered until the early fifties, but the Corsicans had always known about it. They just figured the statues had grown from the ground. It was an English aristocrat, Lady Rose that got the ball rolling and finally got some archaeologist interested in the place.” Santiago paused and looked at the two small figures disappearing over the hill. “I wonder if Zack is going to give her an in-depth study of primitive rituals.”

Vicki laughed. “I don't think it will be fertility dancing. He doesn't have it in him.”

“What is ferty dancing Daddy?” the little girl asked.

“Oh, it's nothing pal - it's just where a man and a woman jump up and down and act like monkeys.”

“Why do they do that?” she asked.

Santiago sighed, “I guess it's because they don't have anything to talk about.”

“Oh,” Tara said and stuck her thumb in her mouth and put her head on Santiago's shoulder. In two minutes she was asleep.

106.

The three followed the path. They passed the small museum-that housed the artifacts and documentation of the early digs. In front of it, stood one of the eight foot tall phallus warriors. The sculptures were scattered across two hundred acres, standing amidst the white boulders, tall, hard and sheen.

“God. They're so strange,” Vicki said. “They kind of remind me of those huge heads from Easter Island - they're weird.” Her hand touched the smooth surface of one. ”What are they Santiago?”

“I don't know, maybe they represent Gods or great chiefs. Nobody really knows for sure. Carbon dating places these things about fifteen hundred years before a similar development with the Greeks. Wild, huh?” Santiago said.

“Who were they?”

Santiago had read Dorothy Carrington's classic book on Corsica and had been fascinated. “Apparently that's part of the mystery. This is the only place in the Mediterranean other than Greece where these dick-guys have appeared -- only in this little valley, not even anywhere else on the island. The people were here for a hundred years or so and then just disappeared.” Santiago laughed, “Like a lot of other things that are disappearing these days.” His voice dropped as he watched a hundred yards away, Zack gently touch the side of Leila’s cheek.

“Oh Santiago,” Vicki said softly as they walked on into the centre of the ruins.

The white boulders were a mixture of quartz, clear and crystalloid, tied together with tiny black and pink specks of sandstone. They were tumbled together like gigantic eggs, tilted inward and outward, raising over twenty feet in the air and sixty around. Between them were the well worn paths of feet before history, lacing through small holes into caverns with walls black from fire.

“Why do you love her Santiago?” Vicki said quietly.

Santiago's eyes were distant and cold. They sat on a large flat rock, in the court yard of pagan times. The stone was smooth as though it had been polished. Santiago’s thoughts played over the history of the rock – a theatre of the most dramatic life and death episodes. Grain and flax. Blood and bones.  A warrior phallus stood at the rock table holding a sword. Is the blade rising to the sky, or is it falling to sever life's little cord?

“I don't know,” he said. “I guess...ah shit. I don't know. I've given her every reason to leave me, and really, for a long time I didn't…I didn't love her. We hung out together. She felt right to me. I didn't think about it. The truth is, she didn't leave me -- all the other women did – Leila’s different.”

“What way different?” Vicki said, thoughtful.

Santiago paused. He looked down the slope of the hill, towards the chestnut trees on the perimeter of the pasture, where he had seen Leila responding to Zack's touch. “She's different from me - a different background, University intelligencia - she's from another country. She's got Europe in her - things of beauty I like.”

“You mean she's got class. She's a Lady.” Vicki injected

“Shit! Some Lady,” Santiago scorned.

“You know what I mean. She's someone you can be proud of -- she's young, she's beautiful. You can take her back to America and show off your classy woman.” Vicki’s voice penetrated Santiago.

“Yeah, guess that's part of it. She's always dressed up my picture. Someone I wanted like a new shiny car.” Santiago's eyes were caught by Vicki.

“You mean a trophy, don't you,” Vicki said.

He put his hand to his chin, and rubbed three days bristles, as though cleaning a mirror, “Yeah, she has been captured by the great trophy hunter. Hah, but the head is jumping off the wall.” 

Vicki looked concerned, as though a mother to a small boy. “Santiago you have never needed.” She stopped herself.

“You mean I'm good enough on my own?” Santiago looked away.

Vicki put her hand to his face, softly caressing, “Oh you know that is the truth.”

“Yeah, but now there is Tara.”  He looked over his shoulder at the little sleeping girl.  “I hate the thought of…the thing is…I love her. I almost hate it, but I do. I don't want to lose…”  His voice quavered and he stood up and walked back towards the car.

107.

They arrived back in Ajaccio after dark. Santiago bought several liters of Porto Pollo 1981. No one spoke since the initial burbling of wonderment at the ancient grounds of Filatosa. They rode in the car as before, Leila, Tara, Zack and China the dog in the rear seat, Vicki and Santiago in the front. There was an atmosphere of exhaustion and the flat depression of knowing one had come to the end of an exciting carnival. Santiago flicked his eyes in the mirror to see into the silence behind him. Leila and the little girl had fallen asleep on Zack's shoulder. Santiago looked at the cold winter lights of Ajaccio. Napoleon's electrified hat was swaying with the gusts of wind that threaded down Cour Napoleon into the Grand Val. Reflections of color played across the car's windshield, refracting rainbow darts across their faces. The streets were deserted. The cafe's chairs were pushed close to the tables. Tired waiters stood with folded arms and heavy bored expressions that emphasized the empty interiors. On New Years Eve, Corsicans preferred to be with their family and friends.

Vaughn and Ronda had an apartment in the same building as the elderly Eloise lived. It was a collapsing tenement facing the harbor. They lived five flights up. Their decrepit staircase should have been displayed in a museum of modern art. The rickety wooden construction looked like a junk sculpture by Picasso with accommodating squeaky noise by Yoko Ono. Tara and China the dog were first at the apartment door. Tara was excited that she was going to be allowed to stay up for her first New Year's celebration and China was jumping and yipping feeling Tara’s energy.

The door swung open, groaning an avant-garde musical to harmonize with the staircase. Vaughn stood in the opening with his arms full of drained wine bottles.

“How marvelous. Just in the nick of time. I was afraid we would have to resort to the real plunk. Welcome, welcome, do come in,” Vaughn said in his ever cheerful voice. “And how is my wee Scottish lassie with her little friend?” Vaughn bent down and hugged Tara and patted China on the head, while he regarded with approval the case of wine Santiago was carrying.

“Hey Vaughn, how's it going? Hope we are not too late,” Santiago said.

“No, no, not at all,” Jean Simon and his dramatic girlfriend, what's her-name, just arrived as well. And of course who knows where Pedro and Sophie are,” Vaughn said as he put the empty bottles in a corner.

“Martina? Is that her name, the woman with Jean Simon?” Santiago said as eyes searched the room.

“Yes, yes. Very appropriate. Quite the melodramatic type – but a delightful young lady. Yes, I believe related to the De Pascal throne. I do imagine you should have something to chat about. Quite exotic really. And of course the demented Emily is here - just ignore her if she goes on about suicide tonight - it's traditional.  She does every New Year – yes, a tradition really - I rather imagine she shall still be here when we are all long gone,” Vaughn laughed while continuing, “I believe, Martina and Jean Simon are on the roof.”

“Roof?” Santiago said surprised.

“Oh, but of course, you don't know, do you?  Well, it is absolutely marvelous, but Eloise has given access to her flat above. Her and Oscar have buggered off to London to greet the New Year with wealthy cousins.  Eloise, bless her heart gave us full run of the domain - which is just ever so fortunate timing for a New Year’s party – also an exterior patio – just perfectly posh.” Vaughn said.

“Absolutment  extraordinaire,” Santiago said in affected English-French.

“Exactly,” Vaughn grinned. “Hi-ho people, come in. Let’s not waste time in this shabby dungeon. On up to the castle we go.” Vaughn showed the party where to leave their coats and then led them up the stairs, making sure the case of wine was brought along

108.

New Years Eve 1985-1986. The late evening gathered upon itself. Ones and twos arrived and began to fill the large room that opened to an outdoor balconied patio. The tenement was built in a long V shape, and the patio was at the point, up six floors. Colored light flashed through the windows, dancing crookedly around the walls of the apartment. Out the windows were fractured views of the city. The apartment continued to absorb cultural refugees who had found Corsica by accident but stayed by calculated effort. Wide stairs led up to the roof patio looking over the top of Ajaccio and the sparkling lights of the harbor.

Leila stayed close to Zack and Tara and together they helped Ronda set out the plates for the New Years feast. Within minutes Santiago became moody and left Vicki to her own devices. Santiago thoughts were focused on the woman who once again had jumped back into his life. Martina. He still could not believe it was her. It tantalized and terrified him that she was up the staircase, on the roof only seconds away. For a half hour he wandered around the room being rude to whoever he came across, until finally  with the help of wine he found the courage to confront a ghost. Could it be that the woman who once had him under her spell was in orbit around his mind again? Santiago remembered her lips. He remembered their old game of playing cat and mouse in the yellow bedroom. He remembered the coldness of that German winter. He wondered how life could be so funny, that he had found her again and but now she was playing a new game in the world that was hers. He was the alien again. He was still wondering if he should go to the roof to find her when she came down the steps with Jean Simon. They joined a group of people and after a minute she turned from Jean Simon and crossed the room to the drinks table. She was only an arms distance away when she saw him.

“I’m told you are related to the De Pascal family,” Santiago said as though they were just picking up a conversation they had dropped off a moment before. He looked at her wondering if he was hallucinating.

She looked at him as though he was a complete stranger and said only one word, “Merde,” then made the Corsican gesture of spitting as she turned and walked away.

“What the hell…” Santiago said, not knowing what step to make next. He watched Martina walk to the far side of the room where Jean Simon stood with a crowd. Santiago went to the drinks table.

109.

Vicki was involved immediately by Emily the English woman. They set on the couch holding hands being deep and serious. Vicki gave the woman hugs and sympathy trying to ease the torment of a paranoid hypochondriac.

Karen, the American Beauty Queen arrived from the opposite side of the island, dressed in classic hippy attire. Her husband, Jean-Claude, preferred to stay at the farm with the children. A fox had eaten a baby goat and Jean-Claude was determined to catch him. Karen informed the male audience she was free for the night.

The evening blurred on. Santiago sat in a large armchair next to a window where he could look out over the fishing boats in the harbor. He felt insane after trying to speak to Martina. He had lost the connection with words and what they meant, but he knew one thing. It is her, he thought.

Near the midnight hour Santiago tried to speak to Martina again and she stopped and looked at him for what seemed a moment that stretched minutes. Then she just turned abruptly and said something quietly in Jean Simon’s ear.

Jean Simon’s eyes conveyed disapproval as he made a candid remark, “Wine has been plentiful.” Santiago could do nothing but watch as Jean Simon took Martina by the arm and they left the party.

 Whirls of noisy groups hovered from space to space, caught in the device of drink and gossip with their arms and legs moving like clouds. Glasses and bottles tinkled small chimes between the patter of words falling wet and alcoholic. There was the steady rhythm of steps up and down the staircase to the roof patio. Wind whipped in and out the swinging door. Faces were ruddy in color when they returned to the warmth of the apartment. Laughter and volume increased as the clock marched toward the twelfth hour. Vaughn repeated the same story for the ninth time.

 Ronda sang out, “Take-nine, Darling!”

 It was a world whirlwind. Like a million other parties in a million other spaces, everybody toasted the evaporation of the old year and felt the new one race down their throats. Santiago growled something inaudible to himself at the drinks table downstairs.

Santiago, are you being a bastard again?” Karen the California Beauty Queen said drifting her Rubens form over him, letting her long hippy hair touch his face.

“I feel like I just got ran over by reality and need to get away from the scene of the accident. Let's go up on the roof. You got any toot?” Santiago said.

“Yeah, some real honest to goodness snow,” Karen said.

Santiago led the way up the stairs and out onto the patio, where they immediately tried unsuccessfully to get wired. “Wicked, but it might even be better if the wind didn’t blow half of it away – oh well, seemed like a good idea. Where do you get this stuff?”

“I have my ways honey,” Karen said. “Wow, it's incredible up here. It's so far out! I want to get rich and buy a place like this.”

“Yeah, it's great huh. This city is beautiful from up here. You can see it all,” Santiago said that knowing he couldn’t see anything clearly.

They leaned over the balcony wall facing the harbor. Below were the fishing boats creaking groans, painted with bands of primary colors, rocking slowly in the black water of the docks. Wind strummed cord and chains, ringing the hollow metal sound against the tall masts of expensive yachts further out on the docks.

“How come Jean-Claude stayed home? Santiago asked.

“Him and his damn goats. I'm sick of being a Corsican goat-woman. I want Rock'n Roll,” Karen said turning to Santiago. Her long hair blew over him like a blanket of sex. He looked at her in the harbor light glow and then their lips crashed together, dry and tight, hesitating for the truth of lust to speak. Nothing came. Their mouths pulled away like wallpaper from old walls.

“Christ, it's fucking cold up here,” Santiago said.

“Yeah it is,” Karen said. Her hands smoothed her hair. Her eyes looked inside herself seeing that it wasn't the back seat of a Chevy anymore. “Let's go back down where it's warm.”

Below in the apartment, sound meshed with fuzzy spirits, people numbed by drink and talk. Somewhere in the city sky rockets were exploding. The entrance door to the apartment opened and Charlotte entered looking like a Tarot Card Queen in regal procession. She was followed by the Poets, a young mobster looking thug wearing a sharkskin suit and The Silence the ignored lover who was in favor once again.

Leila became engrossed in the attention one of the Poets who still smelled like bombs. He could have passed for a Greek statue as long as he kept his mouth shut. He had blackened crooked teeth but beautiful eyes. Leila liked his simple approach.

“We  make great fuck, oui?”

Charlotte took the arm of a young mobster in the sharkskin suit and pointed at Santiago, while speaking into his ear.

He walked up to Santiago and said, “Happy New Year, my name is Lucian Pimento. I believe you know my father…the church mural.”

 “Oh yeah, I vaguely remember -- so busy you know,” Santiago said but he was thinking, Oh shit, what is going to happen now.

“My Father, Monsieur Pimento, feels he owes you an apology and would like to make up for the, eh, the misunderstanding, by having you help us with a Rock Festival this spring.”

“What?” Santiago said thinking he was more stoned than he realized. He still was angry over church mural incident with the Corsican mobster.

“Yes, you see I am in charge. The famous soul man from America, James Brown is coming, and we want giant murals everywhere.” The young mobster jumped around as he spoke. His pupils were pin-prick small.

“The joke isn't funny,” Santiago said. “Go back to whoever sent you and tell them to fuck themselves.”

Lucian Pimento looked at him blankly and said, “Oo la la.”

The door of the apartment swung open suddenly and loud whistles, drums and noise makers rolled in with Pedro, Sophie and a band of maniacs. It was midnight and the kissing began. Pedro caught Santiago and gave him cheek kisses and a hug. “Wow Man, we would have been here earlier but this place is really hard to find, and Wow Man, like we had to stop by and see some friends.”

 Pedro's words sifted into the clamor of bells and shouts of Happy New Year. Bodies crisscrossed the room and the bird movements of heads bobbed side to side pecking at each others cheeks.

Santiago laughed as Pedro stumbled towards the drinks table, “Fucking Pedro.” He looked directly at Charlotte and she smiled. He was drunk and angry.

They came together slowly. “Happy New Year Santiago,” Charlotte smiled.

“Happy New Year,” he said flatly.

Charlotte looked at him confused. “What?” 

“That was a shitty joke,” he said.

“What do you mean?” She wrinkled her eyes.

“Your friend acting like Pimento’s son and the James Brown gig...very funny Charlotte,” Santiago said.

“No, it is true. He really is Monsieur Pimento’s son and he's coming, you know, the Sex Machine guy...Lucian can touch the money. They are doing it.” She looked into Santiago's eyes. 

Santiago's mouth fell open. “Oh no,” he signed.

Charlotte laughed. “Happy New Year, Santiago.”

“Happy New Year, Sweetheart.”

Santiago smiled stupidly at her and then they embraced. He could feel the muscles in her belly move. They kissed, but his thoughts were with another woman.  He opened his eyes saw Leila staring at him, cold and hating. He released Charlotte and laughed.

 “God damn, this sure is my night for fucking up. What's this new year going to bring?” Santiago looked at Charlotte then Leila, but he was thinking only of Martina who had acted as though they had never met. She was gone.

“Pas de Probleme,” Charlotte laughed.

110.

Vicki and Zack left Corsica to return to the cold rain of Britain. Santiago and Leila didn’t see each other for a week after the New Year Party. He received a mysterious telephone call from Jean Simon the next day. After a few minutes Santiago’s face was white and he told Leila that he needed time to think things over. He was going to go on a road trip.

“Where are you going?  Leila asked, annoyed that Santiago was being secretive again.

“I’m going up to the Restonica Gorge and walk in the mountains for a couple of days. I need time to clear my head.”

“When are you…?” Leila didn’t even bother to finish the question. It was pointless.

“Don’t worry,” Santiago growled, “I’ll be back.”

“Don’t bother,” Leila said.

He came back after a week. Santiago and Leila stayed on in the cold of their hearts in the clear warm air of the Mediterranean. Artwork kept food on the table and gas in Road-Runner's tank, but nothing more for months. Then the woman who introduced them to their destiny in Corsica had another gift. Charlotte had done it again. She managed to smooth the feathers of Monsieur Pimento's son, Lucian. The gig was on.

 Mr. James Brown, LIVE'N AMERICA -- SEX MACHINE, was due to arrive in the afternoon. Santiago and Leila were putting on the finishing touches to a mural that completely surrounded the festival compound. The day was beautiful.

 Duke De Pascal had generously offered seed money for a Cultural Festival of the Arts, at suggestion of Monsieur Pimento and his ugly-faced associates. His son Lucian was the director. In reality, the event was a Wannabe Woodstock Rock Festival. Every freak Santiago and Leila had met since their arrival in Corsica was participating in the production.

Vaughn and Ronda were doing the catering; Pedro and Sophie supplied the vegetables; Helmut The Bread Maker brought the bread; Han's and Rebecca controlled the children's crèche; Karen and Jean-Claude were the purveyors of Goat meat and ganja; The Poets built the stage and the giant wooden wall around the site, while making sure the outside was covered in Corsican liberation slogans and F.LN.C. propaganda; Jean Simon was in charge of audience entertainment activities that involved directing a Corsican Nationalist theater group in which the lead performer was played by his dramatic girlfriend, Martina. Santiago stayed as far away from her as he could. She never looked at him.

Lucian Pimento was out of his sharkskin suit and had switched to wearing a paisley head-band, bell-bottom jeans and a tie-died Grateful Dead T-shirts. He ordered the two older Mafia thugs who had been his father’s men into security positions and money collection booths; Pug nose, the Sergeant was in charge of the paramilitary C.R.S. police, and he had his eye on everyone, but with particular attention paid to vehicle license plates and current registration.

 Charlotte decided that this time she would not be involved in madness of Santiago and the ferocity of Leila and refused their suggestion of directing the mural project. A thousand foot long painting was not her idea of art.

Santiago, that is very kind of you to offer, but I am completely heavy with work...my head is, how do you say, plein…” Charlotte said, but thinking, she would rather work with a barrel of snakes.

“Full,” Santiago said, looking at Charlotte, “plein means full.” His French after three years was still bad. He was relieved that she was refusing.

“Bon. Ca va, it is better you and Leila do it the way you want, but you know I will be there anyway. The Poets want me to assist them with certain things and I will be there if you really need me.”

“Okay babe, if that's the way you want it, Santiago said smiling. He took her into his arms and brushed her neck with his lips.

111.

Santiago and Leila worked along with the whole group for two weeks to prepare the Festival site. Lucian convinced all of the workers that the money would be touched.

“Maybe twenty, thirty thousand people are going to come - no problem about money - enough for the enormous fee Mr. James Brown demands for one hour of performance,” Lucian Pimento said.

 Yes, they were told there would be money enough for the supporting bands - enough ticket sales to pay everyone who was involved - plenty of money. Lucian assured Santiago and Leila there would be no problem in paying them the thirty thousand francs they had asked for - peanuts once again - pas de problems - after all, the Festival would receive three, maybe four million francs from ticket sales. Leila was suspicious, but Santiago and the rest of the workers were happy. Lucian helped their enthusiasm by supplying endless liters of peasant wine, bales of home-grown ganja, and for the select few, white lines of powder up their noses -- his own personal remedy to reality. His father, Monsieur Pimento told two of his hard men to be sure his son did not get too troublesome and to be sure that he got his own investment back. Lucian feared his father’s thugs, and called them the Ugly Face One and Two.

Lucian had already spent two million Francs and no one had received a cent, including Mr. Sex Machine. So far, only air fares, hotel accommodation, and Corsica’s one and only limousine, a stretch Mercedes, were provided. James Brown's career was at the bottom, nearly as low as Santiago and Leila.

“I thought we were not going to work again with out being paid?” Leila complained.

“It's different this time,” Santiago said, “Lucian's all right. He's not like his old man. He'll give us the dough.” The wine and weed helped Santiago’s view.

“Well, I think he is a creep, and he's taking advantage of everybody. He's a slime bag, I know.” She had not told Santiago that Lucian had groped her several times. She looked into the eastern sky and saw large cumulous clouds growing. She had that horrible feeling again. It was that horrible feeling that seemed to be welded to her soul since they were ejected from their last Corsican house, Les Ponderosa. It was typical.

They had been living a bare existence for months since the New Year bash. Then Pedro and Sophie arrived with a whole group of Poets and crates of wine, cheese and charcuterie. The party was on. The tall Corsican Poet with the beautiful eyes and bad teeth was with the group. Leila found her diversion. The party went on to the middle of the next day, when unexpectedly the owner of Les Ponderosa arrived. What he saw horrified him. Santiago for once was innocent. He was passed out in the daylight - curled into a hammock stretched between two eucalyptus trees. Leila had excused herself at midnight and went to her bed with Tara. She couldn't believe what she woke up to in the day light and decided to walk off into the mountains with Tara.

Pedro and Sophie had left at the height of the party saying they needed to deliver vegetables at the opposite end of the island, leaving all of the friends they had brought. It was at that point, one of the Poets found the room full of very expensive oil paint tubes, the owner of the house kept by the case. Out of curiosity he opened one and it squirted Vermillion onto his hand. He stood gazing at the color, being completely bombed out of his head. The paint tube seemed to say to him USE ME, USE ME. At first, he began a tentative line onto the white wall and the color was even more fantastic. He took a slightly larger sweep that gave him pure pleasure. GO ON WITH ME, the paint tube whispered. More strokes of color, more pleasure. Then he could hear the other paint tubes on the shelves chant a chorus, USE US, USE US, USE US, DONI'T WORRY, BE HAPPY.  He saw his destiny, to be Corsica's greatest living painter and poet. He burst out of the French doors and started around the back wall writing slogans, smearing the colors together with his hands and brushes he found in the room. That was the beginning of the end their residence in the house.

The owner of  Les Ponderosa stared in disbelief on every wall that  had been  white and pure when he left  and now there were some of the most grotesque paintings he had ever seen - even worse was the sickening combination of colors – wait a minute -- what colors? There on the ground completely surrounding the house lay hundreds squeezed out paint tubes -- a fortune in paint.

The owner of Les Ponderosa walked into the house only to discover he was just at the beginning of a nightmare. The Poet had not only carried on painting his madness on the exterior walls but started to experiment on the willing nude bodies of party participants, who in turn decided to make prints of themselves on all the floors and furniture.

They now lay asleep in one great psychedelic heap on the mattresses dragged out from all of the bedrooms.

He exploded. “OUT! OUT! OUT,” he screamed. He picked up a leg from a broken chair and began to beat whoever was not quick enough grab to their clothes and run.

Santiago woke up when the bucket of water hit him in the face. He could hear the voice screaming and he didn't want to open up his eyes. Oh shit, he thought. Not again.

Charlotte found Santiago and Leila a few days later at Pedro and Sophie’s house and told them Lucian Pimento still wanted them to paint murals.

“Look,” she said, “it is not so bad. You can earn enough money to rent another place to stay.” 

“I do not want to stay,” shouted Leila. I want to go home. I want to go back to Scotland.

Santiago was quiet. He didn't know what to do. What could they do? They were broke. They couldn't swim off the island. “Something is better than nothing,” he finally said.

Leila looked at him with crazy eyes. “I give up,” she said.

112.

The clouds had been growing at an ominous rate in the last couple hours. In fact the sky was black. Lucian Pimento was pacing around in back of the stage screaming at Ugly Face One.

“But I don't understand. Did you not distribute all of the posters?” Lucian’s face was white, his eyes were red, and his pupils were invisible.

“Oui, Monsieur Pimento,” Ugly Face One said meekly.

“Stop calling me Monsieur Pimento!” Lucian spit.

“Oui, eh, Lucian,”  Ugly Face One said.

“What about .the Newspapers, the Magazines, the Television, the Fucking radio for shit sakes,” he stammered.

“Oui Monsieur... Oui Lucian, we did everything... I think maybe they will come at the last minute...” Ugly Face Two chimed in.

“Maybe the ticket price...eh, it's expensive...some people might think it will rain...some people say to me, who is James Brown?”  Ugly Face One said

“What the fuck are you talking about?” said Lucian hysterically. “You ignorant slob, He's Mr. Sex Machine! You know, GET UPAH! He's Mr. Fucking LIVE’N IN AMERICA James Brown! Don't you listen to music?”

“Sure Lucian, but I like Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra,” Ugly Face One shrugged.

“Don't give me Frank Fucking Sinatra,” Lucian screamed. “Where's the fucking people?”

113.

The crowds did not come as expected. Two hundred and fifty Francs in Corsica is a lot of money, to sit on the grass when it looked like it was going to rain. The clouds were slamming against the mountains and the air felt thick. By three O’clock, when the opening band, Toura Kunde came on, there was only five hundred people and they kept looking anxiously up into the sky.

Jean Simon and his theatre troupe were running around in the audience re-enacting the defeat of the French army by the Liberator of Corsica, General Pauli. He was played by a woman wearing a long black beard, a modern army cap, and chewing a fat cigar.

Santiago and Leila were looking at the painting and putting final touches on a rough spot near the stage. They finished, and were carrying the paint trays around the backstage, when the Mercedes Stretch Limo pulled up. All of the stage hands stopped what they were doing and turned their eyes in the direction of the back seat. The driver jumped out. It was the Poet, the Painter of Ponderosa. He ran around to the back door and swung it open.

A Voice shot out, “Man, what’a mo’fo dump. Man we played some dog places but dis is dog-dog.” A huge black leg with high heels and sheer stockings pointed out the door. A large blonde hairdo followed it and after giving up trying to pry herself from the back seat, She turned her black face up to the driver and said,  “Don’t jus’ stan’ there fool, gi’me a han!”

The driver grabbed the plump fingers and pulled her from the car. Then another large black woman, and then another. All three had blonde wigs and red dresses. Then one of them bent down, looking into the back seat and said to somebody, “is we go’n or is we ain't?”

A husky voice bellowed, “Get’yo face out’a mine!” The women turned and walked away as a small black man, dressed in black, wearing the blackest of sunglasses, slowly got out of the car. He stood up straight slowly, stiffening his back and turning his head like a praying mantis. He appeared to be looking at everyone looking at him. Who could tell with those glasses? He then reached into a pocket in his black vest in slow-motion. He pulled out a pair of very black racing gloves and proceeded to put on first the left, then the right. He then let his hands drift slowly back down to his side, as he once again did the Praying Mantis look. He coughed a deep throaty cough and then walked casually towards the Star’s Quarters, as though only he existed.

“Whoa, some performance,” said Santiago. “And I thought I was an asshole.”

The stage crew of Poets went back to what they had been doing and Santiago and Leila walked back to the battered and now splattered old car, Road-Runner. They used the car as a large portable paint palate during the murals painting and color had been slopped from the hood to the trunk. The roof was sagging low from them standing on it to reach high parts of the wall. The car looked like the chariot that carried Jackson Pollack to Hell. Their clothes and a few precious things were stuffed in the trunk. It was time to get out of their paint garb and go enjoy the concert. Tara was with twenty other children and fifteen dogs. Hans and Rebecca the Naturalists were in charge of the crèche but had lost count of how many children they were in charge of days before. They had no idea which children belonged to whom and hardly recognized their own.

 The warm-up band Toura Kunde was playing their final number. The audience had grown to nearly one thousand people but still well short of the thirty thousand the young hustler Lucian envisioned. He was in trouble and James Brown was mad.

“What kind’a mo’fo gig is this? Ah played to mo people in south Chicago clubs. I played the Checkerboard Lounge an there were mo people than dis.” James Brown wore the black sunglasses even though the sun had gone down and indigo clouds were inking over the twilight.

“You out’a yo head man! You wan' me go  an bleed fo half the bread I’m supposed to get! How am I supposed to feed my family? Man, you one crazy mo’fo, you think I’m go’na wiggle my ass out there for dis bread!” He was looking at the twenty-five thousand American dollars stacked rows inside a black brief case.

The Ugly Faces had questioning looks on their faces, and their hands slipped into their suit jackets as they nodded at Lucian.

Lucian looked back and shook his head imperceptibly as he continued pleading with James Brown and his Manager, “But Look, I can't help it! You see what the weather has done! The people have not come!”

 “Man, weather is yo problem, not ours,” butted in the Manager. James Brown's sunglasses glared black insect eyes at Lucian.

“But I have to pay every body else I'm not making one Franc for me. I owe over two million francs and...”

 Lucian went on as James Brown took off his sunglasses and slammed his glove covered hand on the table. His eyes were even more evil than the black glasses.  He looked into Lucian's eyes and said in an almost inaudible voice,

“Shut it mo’fo. I want my other twenty-five G's now, or we go’na walk, you hear me?

Lucian's white face turned gray as he put his hands on his head and groaned, “Oh man, this is real shit.”   

James Brown flicked his eyes up to the Manager and jerked his head back over his shoulder. “We walk'n,” he said quietly, and reached down, closed the lid of the black brief case and picked it up

The Ugly Faces grabbed at their armpits looking with pit bull eyes at Lucian. Lucian threw his hands up in the air and said, “Okay, okay, wait a minute. Let me make a telephone call, okay? Five Minutes?” he I begged.

“I don't have five minutes mo’fo. Make it one,” James Brown said.

In three minutes, Lucian was at the door of the Mercedes Stretch Limo, having pushed The Painter of Ponder6sa, now the Chauffeur of The SEX MACHINE aside. He blocked James Brown and his entourage from departing.

“Okay, okay, I got the money. My Old Man is going to touch the money, but for now I have this.” Lucian whimpered as he held out two large burlap bags.

 James Brown reached up and took off his black sunglasses, and peered down into the bags. ”What da fuck is zat!” he shouted.

“It's the Gate!” Lucian screeched “It's over two hundred thousand Francs - it's all I got!” The two Ugly Faces were standing on each side of looking at each other.

James turned to his Manager and asked, “How much is zat?”

 The Manager fumbled with a little pocket calculator for a few seconds, then turning his lips down, said, “We miss'n a thousand.”

James Brown pulled his black sunglasses down on his nose and looking over the top he came up very close to Lucian's eyes and said softly, “Look mo’fo, I’m go’na do it fo yo dis time, but it go’na cost yo. I’m gon’a cut out ma numb’a one song, SEX MACHINE. Yo fuck wid me again, I have people.” He put two fingers to his temple, then brought them down to his lips and blew, “yo understan’?”

“Oui! Je compris. I understand,” Lucian carried on talking as he walked back to the rear of the stage with James Brown.

The Manager ordered the Painter of Ponderosa to stand guard, while he counted the contents of the black brief case and the burlap bags in back of the Mercedes Stretch Limo. Several Poets gathered around smoking cigarettes, talking in their native tongue.

114.

Santiago and Leila were given carte blanche by Lucian Pimento. They could paint whatever they wanted -- he could hardly demand a specific mural when no money had been touched. His promise that thirty thousand Francs would come, spurred them on and in the mean time there was food, wine and something to do while they tried to figure out where life would take them next. Beside that, it was beautiful summer weather and volunteers helped them paint everyday. One person helped the most. The Painter of the Ponderosa. He was with there constantly until Lucian transferred him to the post of Chauffeur for James Brown.

“I thought that guy was a lunatic,” Santiago said, but you know I think he's got potential.”

Leila had been impressed as well by the Painter of Ponderosa, not only in how rapidly he learned technique from them, but the beautiful primitive images that flowed out of him.  He painted golden pastures, goat herds, bandits, fishermen, hunters, musicians, singers, women, mountains, rivers and the sea; the very heart of Corsica flew from his soul onto the wall.

“Yes, he is really very good,” she said, “I'm just worried about him being so fanatic F.N.L.C.”

Santiago laughed. “Oh they're harmless enough. All they do is blow up French trophy homes and pig banks most of the time. Anyway, we would have starved to death without their food baskets.”

“Yes, I guess so,” said Leila.

115.

The clouds obscured the stars in the night sky and heavy rolling thunder punctuated the rhythm and blues warm-up of The James Brown Band. The audience had not grown any larger. Many people had already left their places on the grass and could be seen arguing with the Ugly Faces at the gates, trying to get money back. The remaining crowd kept looking nervously into the sky each time a flash of lightening and thunder rolled over them. The wind was beginning to pick up.

The James Brown Band were in their second warm up tune when The Painter of Ponderosa came up and kneeled down next to Santiago and whispered what little English he knew into his ear.

Santiago turned and looked directly into The Painter of Ponderosa’s face. “You're joking,” he said angry.

“No!” was the simple answer from the Painter of Ponderosa.

Santiago turned to Leila and said, “I don't believe it, but the Pimentos think they're going screw us again.” He stood up and walked away with the Painter of Ponderosa.

“What?” Leila shouted in a very worried voice as they threaded off through the audience.

The James Brown Band were in their third warm-up piece and were either looking over their shoulders for the famous Soul Man or up into the sky at the bolts of lightening. The three Soul Sisters sang bluesy syncopation with the sax, bass, drums and guitar. They kept returning to their familiar refrain: GET UPAH! They were professional and the crowd was forgetting the rumbling sky.

Two groups were standing at the front of the stage as Santiago and The Painter of Ponderosa approached. On the right were the Ugly Faces and five other thick looking thugs. Santiago recognized them as-the money collectors at the gates. On the left were eight Poets, with Sophie, Vaughn, Ronda and Charlotte.

In the center, Lucian Pimento and a slender bearded man argued. Santiago was a few feet away when he realized it wasn't a man shouting into Lucian's face, but the same woman who was a phantom, the same woman who was the lead actress for Jean Simon, playing the role of General Pauli, Liberator of Corsica. It was Martina.

“You are a pig Lucian!” she shouted at him.  “You and your stinking friends are all pigs, liars and cheats!”

“At least I am not the child of a whore who was born from goats in the mountains!” He spit back at her.

“My mother may have been a prostitute, but it was your bastard Mafia Father who made her sick with his filthy heroin,” she screamed.

Above their heads on the stage, The James Brown Band were getting louder and one the Soul Sisters had come to the front of the stage and was beginning to make an introduction, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Brothers and Sisters…”

Below her feet on the ground, Lucian yelled even louder. “You think you are so special because your father is aristocracy. You and him are shit. Duke De Pascal stole everything he has, and he won't even speak to you! Hah, you are nobody! The daughter of a thief and whore.”

Above; The Soul Sister was trying her best to ignore the noise below the stage and carried on, “There is only ONE MAN in this WORLD that is the KING of SOUL, Ladies and Gentlemen, Brothers an Sisters,  I want you to put yo han's togedda...”

Below; the fire continued, “You are sick Lucian! You give drugs to children, you steal from your friends...” went on Martina.

Above; on the stage, “Yes, that’s right Brothers and Sisters, all the way from his latest sold out Concert Tour across America...” the Soul Sisters sang sultry and sexy, “We want you to GET UP OFFA THAT THING... put your han's togedda, an get Some BODY HEAT....”

Below; “You will be a whore just like your mother who died in the gutter,” Lucian screamed.

“And you are a junkie, a dope pushers son, and will die of the shit in your veins,” Martina screamed back.

Above; “An’ now, Ladies and Gentlemen, Brothers and Sisters, put yo han's togedda for the MAN who puts the MAN in a MAN'S WORLD, The ONE, The ONLY, MR. JAMES-SEX-MACHINE-BROWN!”

 The audience began to applaud wildly as the figure of James Brown jived out on the stage and came to the center microphone. The Band slowed its beat.

Below; “You Bastard you owe us all money!” Martina screamed. “Money that you have sucked up your nose!”

“Fuck you! You can all eat shit,” Lucian screamed, “you and your stupid ideas about Free Corsica!”

Above; the music beat slowing, “Ladies And Gentlemen, Brothers and Sisters, I want you to GET ON THE GOOD FOOT TONIGHT,” sang James Brown, “I want yo to stop worry'n about all this thund’a and lightening going down...Cause IT'S TOO FUNKY HERE for it to rain...” He went to the edge of stage to see what the noise was under his feet.

Below; “Fuck me? Fuck you!” The Liberator of Corsica screamed, as she swung her fist right into Lucian's nose.

Above; “Brothers and Sisters, this is no time to WORRY about the WORLD,” James Brown talked out to the audience, ignoring the commotion below, “Yes Sir, this is no time to fuss and fret, no children, cause you got THE SOUL MAN TONIGHT. No, children, don't you worry cause you see, I have a CONTRACT with the LORD.” James Brown went down onto his knees and thrust his right hand to the sky.

Below; Lucian grabbed at his broken nose as blood spurted over his fingers. “You fucking whore,” he sputtered as he flicked a knife open and slashed across the girl's throat. She toppled into the arms of the Poets

Above, “Yes, a CONTRACT wid da LORD, and I have NEVER,  I SAID NEVER…”

Below; “You rotten piece of crap,” yelled Santiago as he flew through the air and grabbed Lucian by the neck and smashed his head against the stage. The Ugly Faces reached for the artillery in their armpits as the Poets grabbed at the long snap stilettos in their back pockets.

Above; “NO! I HAVE NEVER EVER BEEN RAINED OUT OF A CONCERT IN MY LIFE...” James Brown turned to the Band, snapping out numbers with his thumbs, “ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR...”

James Brown should have known better than tempt God or the Gods, for his own weary fate was about to begin. At the count of four, the crack of  lightening roared in the sky and a white wall of water crashed down to earth like Niagara Falls. For the second time in his life, Santiago was spared from utter stupidity by water. The automatic cut-off switch kicked the electric power off. The world that was brilliantly illuminated for one moment of celebration, turned blind black accompanied by the cacophony of chaos

EPILOGUE – THE HARLEQUIN MOON

 

September 20, 1996

 

In the dawn hour when the darkness fell away and the sky lightened, the new day was shivering cold.  Horses were grazing in the high meadows and they snorted and ran trying to warm themselves. Steamed breath blew from their nostrils. They ran until the sun broke and the rays melted the icy dew across the white grass. Then the horses stopped and stamped their hoofs and rattled their nostrils. They raised their heads and their eyes were brilliant and focused looking at the two men as they walked up the valley.

   Santiago and Neil had been walking for hours and like the horses at dawn, their pace had quickened.  Time had come and gone without measurement. There was no calendar and no clock. Years of stories had passed in a few hours and they were caught up to the present, all but for the end of the riddle.

   The sky transfused into pastel blue.  The eastern Horizon was dominated by Mount Rotondo with colors that slowly changed from deep purple to mauve until it glowed with a golden haze and the sharp points preceding the sun burst into white flame. 

  They followed the road up the Gorge de la Restonica all through the night.  The hotel they departed from in the first hour of the morning seemed a world away, almost a fantasy.  Guided by a crescent moon, they walked through the history of Santiago’s confused life. It was a spiral journey of tales that had almost concluded when they came to the end of a long thin road at the top of the mountain.  They walked out of the night forests into the landscape of a barren planet.  It was timberline, almost 9000 feet, where previous winter snow packs still left grayed fingers in the craggy rocks.  As the crow flies, it was only 30 kilometers to olive groves and the palm trees shores of the Mediterranean.

   Black and white goats filled the pens near the rock built shelter at the end of the road. During the summer months an old shepherd had a small cafe where he sold beer and coffee to the tourists.  He occasionally had to rescue hikers from the rocky cliffs another thousand feet up the ragged path that lead to the crest and Lac de Melo. Now the goats were bleating and their iron bells clunked as the old man made his early morning count and milking. The goats seemed to anticipate the descent to autumn pastures.

   The old man looked up, surprised to see two obvious tourists but without Japanese cameras, German beards or American backpacks.  He looked again and saw Neil's kilt.  He blew out a long wolf whistle through his smiling crooked teeth and then began to laugh.  It was very funny to see a man in a skirt first thing in the morning.

  “Bono journo,” the old man called out in Corsican as Santiago and Neil walked into the goat pens.

  Santiago tried in basic French to tell him how they had walked up from the bottom of the gorge. The old man said that as soon as he finished his work he would give them coffee, good coffee with goats milk.

  "Merci," said Santiago

  "Pas de probleme," snorted the old man shaking his head smiling. A man in a skirt, very funny.  He turned back to his goats but stopped and looked up the rock strewn slopes towards the crest. His eyes searched the mountainside until he found what he was looking for.  He brought his gnarled hands to his mouth and raised his head. “Hoo Roo, Hoo Roo,” he called into the mountains.  There came a shrill response, a different voice, lonely and thin. “Hoo Roo, Hoo Roo.” It came from higher up the slope of the mountains.

   Santiago shivered. The sound caused tingling to go down his spine. He looked at Neil and their eyes caught for a moment.  They both knew the timeless spell of the night had been broken.

  “It’s beautiful up here,” Santiago said.

   “Aye, and it was a bonny night too.”

  “Yeah,” Santiago said.  He went to a large pile of rocks that were catching the first rays of the morning sun.

   Neil remained at the pens with the shepherd who spoke broken English and explained it was his granddaughter bringing the goats down from the lake high in the mountains. Neil was surprised it was a girl doing a boy's job.

    “She different. She no like girls in Corsica ruined by the French.  No, she different. She help with goats...is only vacation....she return to Paris.  Her world there,” the old man said.

   “That is unfortunate for you.”

   “Aeyoh,” the old man said.  It was the Corsican phrase that can mean almost anything. He then reverted to French. “Je suis vieux, mai elle est juene, c'est tous - she young, me old.”

  In a half-hour Neil could see the dark shape of a person following the black and white goats down the mountainside.  He could hear the guttural goat calls and the metal clapping of their bells.  The old man made coffee and gave him two mugs of clouded mud.  The strong smell of goat milk wafted up.

  Neil walked to the rock pile where Santiago was stretched out on his back warming himself in the heat of the sun.  The air was calm. He handed a mug to Santiago who smiled as the musky odor came off the coffee.

  “Corsica is a very special place,” Neil said.

   They were quiet for while together drinking the strong coffee, watching the valley become light and hazy.  The distant sound of the goat herd grew louder.

“It reminds me of the Songs of Solomon,” Santiago said.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean biblical. There is a passage in the Old Testament where King Solomon is writing love songs trying to get into the pants of some lovely princess.  He compares her beautiful raven hair to goat herds running down a mountain.”

“Sounds like he was part Highlander,” Neil winked mischievously.

 “Yeah, a real feel for animal poetry.  I should try it myself sometime -- Hello Darling, your skin is like a thousand pigs loose in the desert.”  They laughed together but without humor. Then Santiago looked a Neil for a long moment, put his hand on his chest where an old wound suddenly began to throb.

“Neil, you know we have never talked about hill 284. I want to talk about it now. I’ve been living with fucking guilt ever since 68…I want to get rid of it…maybe it’s time I turned myself in…”  Santiago began.

“Turn yourself in. What are you talking about?”

“I can’t stand it anymore Neil. Almost twenty years and I can’t get over the guilt of it all…I saw it all happen and I did nothing…nothing but blow the brains out of the captain.”

“What? What are you talking about? The captain? You didn’t…”

“I killed him Neil. He was a piece of shit, but I killed him and I can’t get it out of my mind.” Santiago puts his hands up on his face and rubbed his eyes.

“No, Santiago, you didn’t kill him. You were down and bleeding to death when the sniper hit the captain.”

Santiago dropped his hands and looked at Neil. “What? What the hell did you say? Neil I killed him!”

“I’m telling you, I saw what happened and so did George. If he was alive he would tell you the same thing. The captain got blown away by the sniper that hit you. Santiago you were unconscious when the captain got hit.”

“No. That’s bullshit. You’re saying I didn’t…”

“Yes. It wasn’t you Santiago.”

“But I remember raising the M16 and squeezing off a full clip at the cocksucker…I remember.”

“That might be Santiago, but you missed.” I saw you get hit -- you went down just as the Evac choppers came in. I was the closest one to you and that’s why I carried you. George helped me lift you to the medics on the chopper…and that is when I turned and saw the captain’s helmet fly off with half of his brains…You never killed anyone Santiago. The captain got what was coming to him but you weren’t the fortunate chap to have the honor. What the captain ordered to be done in the village was inhuman. So was My Lai, and so was a hundred other villages. War Santiago -- its organized insanity. But you never killed the captain. It was a little old grandfather in black pajamas…they shot him out of a tree after you were flown away. He did it. Not you -- you were not the executioner. You missed. Oh for God’s sake Santiago. I thought you knew.”

“You mean all these years I have believed I was an assassin…”

“You believed wrong Santiago. Forget that, and forget Vietnam. Nothing will bring anybody back. Live now Santiago.”

“Neil, I…I…Christ…what happened to me?”

Santiago looked up at Neil and what passed in their eyes, was the unsaid message that truth is never found, but someday they would come to the memory of ghosts and look again. Vietnam was a lifetime ago. Neil had never lied to him. There was no reason to believe he had lied now. Santiago drank his coffee and thought about it all again.

Neil's voice became soft and serious.  “I still don’t want to talk about Vietnam or any other war. Twenty years of photographing murder and I have had enough. Tell me about a world away from war. Tell me about a life that can be changed….tell me about this island…tell me what happened.”

Santiago hesitated, feeling the ironic complexity of losing a burden that had not existed, a burden that had made him crazy and not care about a life through years of desperation and madness.  It was a bad joke. The consequence of 20 years of guilt had come in only a split second, but maybe it was lost in a millisecond as well. What the hell, it didn’t matter now; there was so little time left. He looked at Neil and didn’t know what to say.

“You stayed on in Corsica for a wee while longer, did you not?”

 “No, it all ended at the rock concert. I was off the island and on my way to America in the next 24 hours. Leila and Tara stayed on for a few weeks, but at the end everything…it was all so confusing…the love of my life was an illusion and the woman who was my wife for ten years stuck by me for another ten years,” Santiago said vacantly, still reeling from what he had been told.

 “What happened?”  Neil was curious, even though he thought he knew the answer already -- curious the way it is when you're in the sun and you wonder if your The Silence is there and you know it will be but you look, just to be sure.

The old man brought two more cups of goat-smelly coffee and a little tray filled with hard goat cheese and a slab of greenish salami. “Manger, manger - eat, eat - c'est trés bon.” He smiled again at Neil's kilt and then walked back to his rock shelter.

“Phew! The perfume of Corsica,” Santiago said. He sniffed at the meat.

 Neil looked at him waiting for the answer to his question.

Santiago took the knife on the tray and sliced a  thin piece of salami passing it to Neil, then sliced another and put it in his mouth grimacing as he chewed.  “This is hard to chew, but on the other hand, it tastes like shit.”

Neil smiled then said, “Come on you wee bugger!”

“What?” Santiago said, and then smiled as though he let it all go.

Neil threw his piece of meat at him. “Och! So what happened? Did Leila find out about Martina?”

“No, I hadn’t told her about Martina yet. Ah Christ, it's hard to remember now. I should keep my pecker in my pants, but I guess I'll never learn.  It was a complete mess.  Everybody got in a big fight at the concert.  I had no idea that Martina had a financial arrangemnt with Lucian and his old-man, Monsieur Pimento. Martina…what a woman…”

            “But she was the daughter of the Duke?”

            “Who knows? That’s what her whore mother always told her, but of course the good Duke never acknowledged her existence. I don’t know. Corsica is full of stories like that -- but you know, it’s funny -- the first time I met the Duke, his eyes reminded me of Martina.”

            “The money then, it was supposed to come from Lucian?”

 “It seems her and the Poets were nationalists --idealists who were screwed out of fifty thousand Francs by that weasel Lucian. They had built all of the stages and buildings for the James Brown concert. I guess they were planning on using the money to buy bombs.  Anyway they were yelling and screaming at each other when Lucian takes out a knife and slashes Martina’s throat. Shit! I went berserk and grabbed the son-of-bitch and was smashing his head into a metal post when I got thumped on the head by one of the Mafia thugs. Everything went black...I guess I was lucky.  I could have got killed – then you’d be visiting me at a grave instead of having this wonderful stinking breakfast on a mountaintop.”

“And then?”

“I'm not joking.  The lights went out just like in the movies. The next thing I remember, I was sitting in a car with my friend Oscar. He had been at the concert and Leila sent him after me when I got involved in the fight. He hauled me to the airport and bought a ticket to L.A. Oscar assured me that him and his mother Eloise would take care of Leila and Tara but that I had to get out of Corsica. Charlotte had told him the Mafia was going to kill me. It’s sounds nuts, but it happens all the time in Corsica. I took them serious, but really I just wanted to run and forget everything. I was a bastard Neil.”

“So, it was Lucien that got the Mafia after you?”

“No, Lucien’s father, Monsieur Pimento. He somehow found out that Martina had run off with me for a week. I had shit a giant turd into the big boss's love nest. Apparently she was fucking him too. But mainly he was pissed off because his son went to the hospital in a coma. Anyway, 24 hours later I was in L.A. wondering what the fuck I had done to my life. Eventually I got some money together and brought Leila and Tara to the states. It was then I told Leila about  Martina in Germany, and then us meeting here in the mountains after the New Year party… shit  man, I never had to lie so much after I had told the truth…but Leila just never trusted  me again.  Ah shit! You know the rest. Simple and plain, I fucked up.”

“Yes, maybe you did.” Neil shook his head and they were both quiet for moment. “What about Martina? Did she die?”

 “Martina... no man, she didn't die. I guess that's the crazy part.  I didn't find out until a week later in Los Angeles. Good old Vaughn and Ronda had managed to find out Martina had been flown to Paris. Yeah, she lived.  It's crazy Neil. She is why my marriage fell apart.  I never really got over her. I was totally nuts for a woman who was fucking half the men on the island.  I found out later that she was only 18 when I first met her in Germany. She was 20 when I saw her on the island. I thought she was 24 or 25, not that that makes a big difference.  I was still an old dude as far as she was concerned. Like they say, no fool like an old fool.  God though, she was so amazing. I couldn't get her out of my mind for years...I thought she was the woman I had wanted my whole life… I almost wished she had died.”

“What about the Mafia boss? Aren't you afraid he might get you yet?” Neil sounded a little worried.

“No… he got gunned down by one of the rival warlords a few years back, and his little weasel son, Lucian,  got what he deserved too -- ran over by cement truck when he went around a blind curve on his Kawasaki. Smeared you might say.”

“What became of Martina? Did you ever hear from her again?”

Santiago looked at Neil for long moment. “Yeah, quite a few years after it all happened -- actually only a couple years ago…I thought I was over her…for the first time I was being a decent man to my family…Leila and I were just on the verge getting our marriage back together…then a letter came…Martina wrote to me.  She was in Paris...at least that is where the letter was sent from. I went nuts…I was in Paris in less than forty-eight hours. I couldn’t find her. She just disappeared on me. I looked for her everywhere, but no luck. Finally I went home, but everything was too late. Life is irony, Neil, nothing more…”

 Neil coughed and looked away nervously. He watched the goats thread down the mountain followed by a person moving gracefully among the rocks. “Irony? Is that the story you have been writing?”

Santiago went on.  “I started to write it all out, but I lost track of what was the beginning, middle and end…everything is so fucked up Neil. Me, thinking about being an assassin…Vietnam, marriage, Martina…shit…the only thing maybe I have killed has been love.  After all that, it seems I haven't learned a thing…there’s nothing left in my life but ghosts and death…even this valley seems haunted. If there is a story about this life, I don’t know where it’s going.”

“Oh come on Laddie. It is not so bad. You have years in front of you…”

“No Neil, you’re wrong. Just when you begin to learn how to be a human, is when you find out you have only a short time left…”

Neil looked at Santiago. “What do you mean?”

“I haven’t told you the biggest irony yet Neil. About a week before I got Martina’s letter, I received the annual medical check-up from the VA hospital…and the report sucked. It was cancer. The doc’s at the VA gave me at the most two years…and that was two years ago.”

“You what? But, but …are you sure? Have you had second diagnosis?

“Second, third, and even fourth opinions…”

“But what about chemo or radiation? Christ man, you can do something.”

“I let it go too long Neil. It got into my lymph nodes. It’s everywhere. That’s all she wrote, as they say, or better, all that I wrote…” Santiago looked blankly at the ground. “Ironic, yes? You say I’m not guilty, but I got convicted anyway. Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor?”

Neil didn’t know what to say. He put his hand on Santiago’s shoulder. They both watched the descending goat herd for several minutes without saying a word. The wind came down from the mountain on its way to the sea, cooling the warm rays off the autumn sun. Santiago felt old, much older than his 50 years, older than the ancient shepherd with his gnarled brown hands, old as the wind that wore down the rocks.

Neil suddenly jumped up onto his feet and said, “Guess what wee thing I have under my kilt?”

“Your cock,” Santiago answered.

 “Och no -- much better than that wee thing and it ought to make things a good deal brighter.”

“Oh not again! My head Neil,” Santiago laughed, knowing nothing mattered now. “Well, I hope it's the finest single malt in all of Scotland.”

“Laddie, this must be your day, for 'tis nothing less than the finest malt of 20 year old Lagavulin.” Neil handed him a silver flask.

Santiago gently unscrewed the heavy cap and leaning back on the rocks said, “To irony,” and let the liquid pour into this mouth then gave the flask back to Neil.

 Neil looked at him fighting the wetness that was coming to his azure blue eyes and gave the classic Scottish toast, “Here‘s to you, and there‘s damn few like you, and them that are, are all dead,”

 By the bottom of the flask, the goat herd had come down from the mountain and the old shepherd and his granddaughter were putting the animals into the large pen. Neil and Santiago were crying and laughing.  Neil put his arm around Santiago and kissed him warmly on the cheek.  They were hugging like two little boys when the granddaughter came up behind them with fresh mugs of coffee. Her face was hidden by a large black hat and a red scarf.

“Qu'est ce que c'est? Pedés donne les montagne?” Her voice was mature and clear.

Neil and Santiago drunkenly turned as the young woman handed them the coffee.  Neil hurriedly stood up and slapped his kilt down straight as Santiago leaned against the rocks and observed her.

“Good morning,” she said looking at them for an appraising moment.  “So, you are English queers, I see.” A strange gleam came into her eyes.

 “Certainly not! I am Scottish and most definitely not a queer and my friend here is a Soldier of Fortune from America,” Neil said whiskey tuned.

“Maybe so, but this one has an assassin’s face.” The woman looked at Santiago and smiled. She reached up and pulled the hat from her head and the scarf from around her face. Dark auburn hair fell down her shoulders.

Santiago was burning holes in her with his eyes.

Her smile widened to almost a laugh as she said, “My name is Martina De Pascal.  I am 30 years old.  I live in Paris where I work for the Liberation of Corsica.” She held her hand out to Santiago, completely ignoring Neil.

Santiago stood up and took her hand. His eyes fell onto her neck. A delicate scar reflected light in the morning sun. He began to smile and brought his eyes slowly into hers. “How amazing,” he said.

 Neil looked at them and then raised his eyes and began to laugh a wonderful laugh. In the blue morning sky floated the Harlequin Moon.