All around us, Naples was crumbling. Nightly air raids and the endless stomping drove us all into our cellars. We slept and ate in the dark. Once word of Cologne reached us, we fled for the churches. According to the stories, God wrapped his hands around the great Dom and kept the cathedral standing while everything else in the city fell. In the torchlit catacombs, we waited with terrible anticipation for those same hands. Each time we emerged, the city was more and more dust. I prayed often and, like everyone else, with my eyes pinched shut. That way, there were only two places to go: from darkness to darkness or darkness to light.
Simone was fifteen, and I was thirteen. Back then, we clung to simple facts. Brother, scar, boy: we needed that protection. Our parents used our ages like charms. Too young, they’d say—and skinny. (Nevermind the babies we’d shelved in the walls, or the graves of our nieces and nephews.) Death prefers a fatter bird.
Simone didn’t tell me no or to go back when I followed him deep into the catacombs to meet the older boys. I held his hand, and he told me to listen to the sounds above. I listened and prayed and when I opened my eyes, we were surrounded. One boy had a razor. He carved ledger lines across Simone’s calf, and when it was over, Simone stood with the group in a row. Their naked calves made a road into the darkness, and I asked if I could join them.
Simone told me no, but after the boys shamed him, he was the first to hold me down. I didn’t want them to cut me. Two more leaned their weight into my sides and rolled up my pant leg. They wouldn’t let me see. All I could make out was eyes and in them the dark smoke of something that would burn forever. When the skin split, I kicked. The razor zagged, and I could feel the contour of a mountain peak rise and fall under the boy’s unsteady hand.
They never finished, and I’ll never forget the way Simone looked at me. They would all be soldiers. They would all kill. But not me. I was small, unfinished, and certainly not entitled to be afraid. I walked back alone, and the earth above me tremored as if laughing.
After that, I spent more time outside the catacombs. Once, we returned home to find all our silverware had been stolen, our instruments smashed. Dad picked through the rubble for pieces of his accordion. We had already stitched the things that mattered most into our clothes. We’d grown lumpier this way and found a kind of half-joy in the new shapes we took on. Mom and Dad resembled Christmas stockings, and to hug them was to risk the hard edges of a recipe book or ivory key. We made a game of guessing how many treasures could be hidden in a single garment.
Imagine our surprise, then, when the dream merchant came to town, round as marble archways and bursting at the seams with talismans of bones, beaks, feathers, and fur. Soldiers offered to shoehorn him through the catacombs’ doorway, but he refused politely and joined the homeless guitar and mandolin players in the echo of our marketplace.
When I found him, the merchant was arranging a fleet of tiny cakes in boats of crimped paper. He lit several incense sticks, then fanned the curls of smoke with the bright ends of peacock feathers. He smelled like sandalwood and licorice. Also, duck fat.
I liked that he sat down against the broken fountain to talk to me. Two cats leapt up into his lap. They were barely more than tent poles and canvas. He stroked them while they batted at his talismans.
“No school today?” he said.
“No more schools.”
“Ah,” he said and emptied a canister of dead butterflies into his hand. “A tea of these’ll keep you sharp.”
“No thank you.”
“Then how about some licorice chips for courage? We could all use a little more of that.”
I shook my head.
Then what was it I needed? Aroma salts to put a growling stomach to sleep? No. A cuckoo clock that ate nightmares? No. A lead bracelet to stop the body from wandering at night? No. No. No.
“I want to kill someone.”
When you practice a thing for so long, you risk its meaninglessness. It becomes a reflex, then nothing. The trick is to forget and remember again, to renew the danger. There wasn’t a mirror or still pool I couldn’t tell my secret to, but what use were words that could so easily be shattered or rippled away? Someone else needed to hear them.
The merchant reached into the pocket across his heart and pulled out a flask. He waited silently until a thick blanket of clouds covered the sun. Then he unscrewed the lid, filled half an eggshell with the creamy potion, and set it all at his feet. Both cats leapt down and smashed their faces into the fragile cup. They lapped at the potion, and when it spilled over onto the ground, they lapped at that too. Their mouths were dirty, teeth stained dark from the desperation of licking.
And then they died.
It only took a moment. The breath left their bodies in three quick pants, and their eyes—four empty coin slots—went still.
“There’s danger in everything we do,” the merchant said and placed the flask on the table.
It was cold and had hammered scales like a snake. Turning it, I imagined what it would take to empty that potion into a cup and watch a person drink it. A brother, a soldier, a whore on the street. We had all, by then, been discarded. And I had already made the hard choice.