Il Castello dei Mann

Didn’t he know that I was a servant, and how capable I was of managing humiliation and disgust? I felt he was even endearing, in his desire to escape his wife, his crowd of guests—and this smirk I felt now, and bubbling up laughter in the silence of my parked car, were the symptoms of power I’d never felt before.

I couldn’t tell how long we spent at the garden, gasping at the flowers

Jan van Huysum, Still Life with Roses, Tulips, Hyacinths and Other Flowers in a Classical Urn.

The castello dei Mann had been a medieval fortress, so it had many cool dark halls and a panoramic view of the small farms and villages on the way to Parma. Over eight hundred years, it had accumulated an olive orchard, swimming pool, tennis court, bocce court, reflecting pool and fountain, and colonnade walkway to residences including a hut where St Francis had once stayed. The walls of the castle’s dining room were painted with cream and gray wreaths, urns, pipers, peasants, dogs, pigs, and shepherds and shepherdesses, on a pink ground. The living room walls showed loosely clothed men and women running through forests, and the bedrooms had crests, sashes, baskets, and bows. I got to see all the frescoes in all the rooms because I was in charge of the flowers.

Every evening I removed all the wilting flowers and noted the vases that needed to be replaced. Then early each morning I drove my Panda thirty minutes from my parent’s farm to the castello dei Mann and clipped the flowers in the garden while the dew was still on them. One rose for each of the twelve bathrooms. Two bouquets for the dining room, two bouquets for the living room, a smaller bouquet for the front hall, and bud vases for the guests’ nightstands. When Genevieve, the housekeeper, taught me how to do the flowers, she explained it was a role of high trust and responsibility. No servants were allowed inside the castello’s main rooms unless on specific tasks, and the living quarters were completely restricted to most of us. But with my tray of flowers I was permitted anywhere.

Giuseppe from the ice cream store got me the job, but almost every young person in Borgo Val di Taro who seemed trustworthy had worked the job or one like it. Genevieve the housekeeper was British and lived in Milan when the family didn’t need her. In April she moved to one of the small houses on the castello grounds and started hiring. She hired people to work in the garden, serve the food, watch the children. She wore a black double-breasted shirt, black slacks, short pumps, and pearl earrings. A line of silver twinkled at the part of her wet-combed hair. She taught us how to be elegant, courteous servants. The main thing was that we were supposed to take every command as though it was a favor to us. We were supposed to react to “Can you throw out this lemonade and make me a new one?” with the same kind of reaction we would use for a friend who had just given us a small gift. We had to use the formal pronoun, lei, even with the kids.

“We used to pay the men more, but Mrs. Mann told us not to,” Genevieve said. “She is a true feminist!”

I didn’t mind Genevieve. She paid fifteen euros an hour.

In May the Manns arrived. Just the two at first, the matriarch and patriarch. I asked to help Mariarosa in the kitchen so that I would be damp with dishwater and not presentable when they arrived. Toni’s car crunched in the gravel in front of the castello. Carlo the butler and Bob the hallboy were already waiting outside in front of the giant studded door, the kind of door that medieval intruders would have had to knock down with a battering ram. I heard Genevieve running down the hall to greet them.

I watched them through the deep kitchen window. Mrs. Mann wore a few clinking silver bangles. She wore little loafers with a horse bit on each one. Her hair was sleek and blond, in lank waves; her perfectly round eyes were set deep in her head, edged in black. Mr. Mann had wide square hands; I saw one grasp Genevieve’s elbow as he kissed her cheek. He had a deep groove in his chin, a sportily crooked, wide nose, and a pale linen suit. “Oh, heaven on earth!” said Mrs. Mann, and kissed Genevieve on both cheeks.

They swept into the house, past the bouquet I had prepared for them on the foyer table. “Ciao a tutti!” Mrs. Mann said, appearing at the kitchen door. Mariarosa, kneading pasta dough, smiled at her.

I imagined myself, in my dirty black apron, as a crow, as I had been called at school. Ugly, harsh. I couldn’t look at Mrs. Mann in the face. Mr. Mann was behind her, and he waved at Mariarosa, a single lateral movement of his square hand. “Go on ahead,” he said to Mrs. Mann. He was irritated with his wife, I thought. She proceeded down the hall, but Mr. Mann came into the kitchen. He walked toward me. My heart pounded, and I pressed my back against the counter. “A snack?” he said to me, peering at my face, maybe assessing my competence.

“I’m new,” I said.

“Sandwich, sir? Pasta?” asked Mariarosa, and he turned away from me.

“Maybe just a banana,” he said.

I silently continued with the dishes until he left, and after. Within a half hour they were lying by the pool in white suits. It was too cold to swim, but they swam anyway, which I found impressive.

When only the two Manns were there, and it was still May, there was not much for us to do. Flowers, wiping the moldings and chandeliers, scrubbing out the spouts of the fountain and the feet and flanks of its marble water nymph. Vadim, who worked outdoors, never created extra work. Carlo, who oversaw me within the castle’s rooms, told me that I had to make my hair bun neater. He had a patrician, elegant face, much more so than his guests.

I changed the flowers in the Manns’ bathroom and examined her pots of lotion and gold-bar lipsticks, her pearl earrings in a silver shell. The earrings were just like Genevieve’s. Mrs. Mann must have given them as a gift.

The guests began to arrive in late May. Six guests, four guests, eight guests; they’d stay a few days, or a week, sighing into my roses in the foyer, flinging open the curtains dramatically and looking out at the mists caught in the cypresses, banging into the kitchen to see Mariarosa, who would take out big trays of flower-shaped jam cookies covered in powdered sugar, or apricot crostata with lemon zest in its crust.

Sometimes the guests would leave clothes, shoes, and books in the trash when they left. That was another perk of the job. Huge objects stuffed in the little silver cans.

The Manns’ grown children arrived. Cleo, the daughter, and John, with a new baby. They were full adults but seemed so much younger, or really like a different kind of creature entirely.

When school ended we started working full time at the castello.

I tried to stay out of the guests’ way, but once Mr. Mann caught me in the living room with my tray of flowers, distributing the day’s bouquets. “Are you the one who arranges these?” he said. “You need to throw out the wilted ones.”

“I do that in the evening,” I said.

He asked to join me on my evening round, and all day I dreaded it. He seemed to love flowers. He asked why I spoke such good English. He seemed maybe lonely, carefully extracting the knobby stems, letting them drip back into the crystal. Some of those he removed were perfect but he discarded them anyway. Close up, his hands looked less beautifully square and firm. They were old man hands, spotted, with shining greenish veins. From the master bedroom, we walked down the servants’ curved stone stairwell, the perforated black sconces activated by our motion; he appeared unsteady and bumped into me, took my arm just as I withdrew. He coughed. “Well, I hope I won’t be seeing so many dead flowers from now on,” he said.

“You won’t,” I said. I was surprised by the way he left it. I’d hoped to seem like someone who paid attention.

Soon July arrived, and the castello was full, with thirty-eight guests. The women usually wore pearls at their ears, throats, and wrists. The men wore white polos.

We worked long, strenuous days, pretending that the Americans were doing us favors. There was a terrible profusion of places to eat outdoors around the castello: a large embellished iron table under a white sunshade; long wooden tables under the grape vines by the bocce court; mosaic tables by the pool, and by the fountain, and overlooking the garden. Mariarosa, her two assistants, Milena, and I spent a huge amount of time setting all these tables with the rustic lemon-wreath plates, setting out the wine and the eggshell-thin glasses, carrying the food, then gathering it all up again and cleaning it.

The Americans were all terrified of bees and tended to break things trying to get away from them. They ate huge quantities of pasta but never much fennel, even though it was like eating pure summer green. I ate it off their dirty plates.

After weeding the garden, or mowing the lawn, or skimming the pool, we showered before dinner; the men shaved. Then we put on white shirts. The men wore black pants and I a black skirt and short pumps. We all helped serve dinner. Carlo, the butler, spent the whole dinner standing up by the wall, just in case someone needed something.

At least in midmonth, the whole party would leave for two days and one night, to enjoy the congested sea at Cinque Terre. While we waited for everyone to leave for Cinque Terre, the only rest we got during the fifteen-hour days was the hour after lunch. We set up a lounge in a stone shed overlooking the olive grove. Giuseppe helped sweep it out, my classmate from the ice cream store, a thin boy with a long narrow neck. We had a cooler of soda, and nutella and grissini, and blankets bristling with hay.

After lunch, Giuseppe was usually covered in soil. The way he smelled reminded me of my father, who was a farmer. Vinegar and leaves. We’d have a soda, recline, look out at the olive trees. Sometimes we’d doze until Giuseppe’s watch started beeping.

One afternoon, one of the Americans found us there, just Giuseppe and me. I was irritated to see this American while we were trying to take a break. But Giuseppe greeted him and asked where he was from.

“California.” He was in his twenties or thirties. He wore a gray polo shirt with a teddy bear logo, and black Nike shorts. He had shoulder-length black curly hair, which he’d styled with a half-ponytail at the back, and a large, raw, appealing mouth with a flaring upper lip. His nostrils were firm and tensed. He introduced himself as Soren.

We offered our names. I was sullen, trying to get Giuseppe to eject him.

“What do you work on?”

“I’m a software engineer,” he said. There was a gap between his front teeth. “I work with John Mann. So you guys hang out here?”

“Do you work at Google or Facebook?” Giuseppe said. “Or Apple?”

“I’ve worked at two of the three,” Soren said.

I gathered some hay to make a hump under my blanket, and lay back, opening my phone, though I had no text messages. Only Giuseppe and Genevieve texted me, and my mother.

“Have you made anything with Arduino?” Giuseppe said. I didn’t know what he was talking about, but Soren brightened. Giuseppe said he’d made a wired glove that controlled a robotic car. His goal was to set up a lot of systems that could be controlled by wired glove, for his father to use, because he had trouble walking and gripping things. Giuseppe had found a tutorial for moving shelves. Soren said he’d never tried anything like that until college. They talked about technicalities. I was almost asleep.

Giuseppe opened the cooler to take out the packet of tobacco. This woke me up. “Make me one,” I said. Soren looked even happier when he heard that.

“In the US no one your age smokes,” Soren said. “Do you ever smoke weed?”

Canna,” I said to Giuseppe.

“Sure,” Giuseppe said. I myself had not smoked weed. Giuseppe extended his hand with a tight little cigarette on it for me. I rolled over on the blanket to reach for it.

“Have you tried other drugs?” Soren said.

“We’re 16,” I said.

“That’s not so young,” Soren said. “What about you, Giuseppe?” He mispronounced the name horribly. Gee-you-zeppy.

Giuseppe lit his own cigarette. He exhaled, and looked out at the olive trees. I was impressed that Soren seemed so interested in him, and it made me think that Giuseppe was interesting. He seemed less skinny when he smoked, or rather the skinniness mattered less, because a long thin skinny neck like his somehow implied that he was young and took no pleasure in the world, did not engage with it, and the smoking showed that he did.

“What about shrooms,” Soren said. “Magic mushrooms.”

“Funghi allucinogeni,” I said.

“Lo so,” said Giuseppe, which meant, “I know.” In English, he said to Soren, “I’d try them,” and shrugged. I was shocked.

“I’ve heard about people jumping out of windows,” I said.

“You’d never try them, Louisa?” Soren said.

Giuseppe wasn’t looking at me.

“Of course not.”

“A shame,” Soren said. “I brought some along.” He took the crumpled plastic bag out of his pocket. The mushrooms were in there, long, dry, gray stems.

Giuseppe smiled and tilted his head. He had a bright, silly look in his eye. “Why don’t you do them with the guests?” Giuseppe said, while handing Soren a cigarette that he hadn’t asked for. Soren sat down in the hay and stretched out his legs. Giuseppe lit the cigarette and they smiled at each other.

“Everyone sucks,” Soren said.

“Why are you here, then?” Giuseppe said.

The two of them were really enjoying each other. “John Mann invited me to his castle,” Soren said. “You should consider doing shrooms with me.”

“Well, we’re your servants,” I cut in. “We have to do whatever you ask of us.”

I thought that this might offend Giuseppe, and repulse Soren, but they both laughed.

“Your English is really good,” Soren said.

“I grew up in the States,” I said. I wondered if Giuseppe cared at all about this fact.

Soren opened the plastic bag of mushrooms. The Ziploc made a loud wicking sound as it peeled apart.

“Realistically we can’t today,” Giuseppe said. He was good at English too.

“Tomorrow then,” Soren said.

“Can we work while we’re on them?” I said.

“Ha,” Soren said. “Kind of.”

“How long does it last?” I said.

“Five hours,” Soren said.

“We’ll have to do them in the evening, then,” I said.

Giuseppe gave me a narrow look. I wondered if I was conceding too quickly, being overeager.

“Honestly, I prefer to do them in daylight,” Soren said, “because it’s so great to look around at stuff. Daylight in a small group that you like. That’s the right way.”

“Should we do it at my place, or Giuseppe’s?” I said. I immediately felt sorry for mentioning Giuseppe’s. I hadn’t known that his father was having trouble walking. “My parents have a bed and breakfast. Maybe . . .”

“I want to trip in the castle. I want to look at the paintings while I’m tripping.”

“Well then,” I said. “The only option is for you to skip Cinque Terre.”

“I want to see Cinque Terre,” Soren said, his pronunciation horrible.

I shrugged. After a long pause, alive with the sound of bees and flies, Giuseppe’s watch started beeping.

“Deal,” Soren said.

Giuseppe and I talked it over as we walked back to the garden. Giuseppe said that Soren wanted to get us in trouble. It seemed like taking a mushroom trip inside the castello was about pushing us and seeing how far we would go. “He clearly likes a risk,” Giuseppe said, “Or he wouldn’t be talking to us at all.”

But it didn’t matter. He wanted to escape from the atmosphere we were not allowed into, and, thrillingly, he saw us as real people.

The party would go to Cinque Terre in the morning for an overnight stay. Soren would invent a reason for sitting out. We would come in for a morning shift, then most of the servants would get the rest of the day off. By the afternoon, we could take the mushrooms. We might go into the castello, if no one was around, but would try to stay outside most of the time. We could go for a walk in the countryside. The following day we’d resume work, getting the house ready again for the party’s return from Cinque Terre.

We ate them, rubbery, vile, in the olive shed. “Now we wait,” Soren said.

Giuseppe and I had washed up, as if to serve dinner, in the servant’s bathrooms. Our other classmates were gone now. Dani, Carlo, and Genevieve had gone with the group in the glossy chartered bus. Mariarosa was probably at the farmer’s market. Vadim was buying hardware. Bob and Milena wouldn’t care at all if they saw us, but they were probably sitting by the fountain, where they liked to smoke in silence if they knew they weren’t being watched.

We sat in the olive shed looking out at the grove. For a half hour I wondered if they’d been the wrong kind of mushrooms. Then everything began to slither. I turned my head, and the world steadied again. Then very slowly the olive leaves and trees again began to slide. The leaves were unfurling, spreading outward and going star-shaped. “Are you starting to see something?” “I’m starting to see something!”

It suddenly seemed weird to me that Soren wanted to make himself helpless with us. Even though he was a patron for us to serve, it was evident that he wouldn’t really be guiding us into anything—we were all being tugged along on the same mysterious path, into the mouth of what I soon found was all the most green resplendent detail in the world.

“Come on! Let’s get up! Up, up!” Soren said. “Into the castle!”

Giuseppe tilted his head back and laughed. The flourishing ornament of his Adam’s apple. “What do you see, Giuseppe?” I said. He didn’t answer me. I felt my silver beam bounce off him and shatter at his feet, but it was OK.

“Let’s go to the garden,” I said.

We moved in mysterious, antique procession, like the parade before the Parma palio, for which schoolteachers, butchers, and secretaries brought out their banners, shields, bugles, and velvet robes. Bob and Milena were sitting by the fountain, which flung its challenging darts into the sky. They impassively watched us file by.

I couldn’t tell how long we spent at the garden, gasping at the flowers. I lavished my armies of attention on a single crimson rose, asking permission to enter its chamber, its bud, until I found its sudden reaching hand inside, made of powdery gold. Soren was whimpering. Giuseppe was slowly pressing the burgundy lilies into his face, withdrawing and pressing. “OK,” Soren said, “time for the castle.”

“Too much, too much,” we agreed in the pink-ground dining room, with its walls bedecked with gamboling pigs and peasants. We headed for the living room. The sofas were aware of what we were up to, and my own bouquet regarded us conspiratorially, but the main thing, Soren had been exactly right, were the frescoes. There was a throttling, squeezing feeling in my throat, which matched the wriggling field of vision. Daphne shivered her leafy shoulders, Jupiter as an eagle carried off the tender youth, Echo and Narcissus darted through the dappled shade. One had to assume that their faces were people from around here, farmers’ daughters like me. Atalanta in dishabille, holding her golden apple. She gave me a bracing look. The light of her sylvan world shimmered on her breast. I could see the painter’s hand, could feel his delight from the tomb.

With a clack of loafers we didn’t understand until it was too late, Mr. Mann came down the stairs. “Pardon me,” he said, shockingly large, square, and stern. Soren, Giuseppe, and I leapt away from the walls. Soren had the presence of mind to say, “I’m sorry, art history minor you know, just pointing out some of these details—”

“I’m going to read in here now,” Mr. Mann said pointedly. Black ribbons rippled out from him, twisted themselves up and broke into shapes like little bats. I did half think this might be the end of my career as a servant.

Out we went, through the kitchen, which had become an oozing cave. “Why is Mr. Mann here?” Giuseppe said to me in Italian.

“I guess he didn’t want to go to the beach,” I said.

The sun was setting. “Wow, wow, wow,” we said to each other, sweeping our eyes back and forth along the fading maroon bridges of sunlight that lay crackling in the fields. We walked toward our shed. I turned back to look at the castello, which glowed like a phenomenal ruby. I squinted, trying to discern the figure that had just glided out the door. When I turned back, Soren and Giuseppe had vanished. I called their names.

I continued down the hill, where the evening had settled among the olive trees in swishing blue breeze. Within the grove were the neighbor’s escaped cows. They looked a bit like deer, a bit like horses; they reclaimed the elegance of their bulk.

“What are you doing all the way over here?” came a voice behind me. It was Mr. Mann. I couldn’t tell whether his tone was curious, assessing, or concerned; his face revealed even less; I couldn’t look at it for long.

“Uh,” I said. My voice buzzed and rang through my head. I stepped further into the olive grove, and was among the knotty trees now.

He came over to me and stroked my arm a few times. I watched the hand move down my forearm, seeming to furrow it. “Are you OK? It’s Louisa, right?” But he already knew. I felt like the various cows were smiling at us, waiting to see what we would do.

“I’m feeling a bit strange today,” I said, effortfully.

He turned me towards him and reached for my chest. “Is that . . .” he said awkwardly, before cutting himself off. An unquantifiable amount of time lurched by.

And then Giuseppe had reappeared. And Mr Mann jumped back. “Ciao!” Giuseppe said loudly. The sun had set.

Giuseppe and I struggled up the hill. I thought it was Vadim or Bob now on the gravel path before us but it was Carlo, the butler. “Where are you going?” said Carlo grimly.

“For a walk,” Giuseppe said. “We’re on a break, you see.”

“Of course,” Carlo said, and let us pass, though I felt his body elongate to follow us, an eel with his patrician face at the front.

I knew what his presence meant and so did Giuseppe. Mr. Mann must have called him back from Cinque Terre to keep order, or perhaps he had never gone at all; in any case, he knew that we had been getting in Mr. Mann’s way when we were supposed to be, had said we would be, at home, taking the afternoon off.

The sun had set, but Giuseppe and I were not done yet, so we walked further up the straw-colored gravel road, the dust hiding our feet, to the hayfields. Soren texted Giuseppe, and after some time he appeared. We let all the lisps and cries of the night wash over us, but the reverberations were stilling, the kinetic field settling, everything returning to its outline.

Around midnight I made it home, feeling nauseated by the shabby normality of the world. I wondered why Mr. Mann had stopped when he had; I felt that he had stopped just short of harassment. A minor and clumsy incident.

It didn’t feel exactly bad. I wasn’t sure how to frame it, and was interested in how he would explain it.  I thought of Mrs. Mann but I knew he wouldn’t be so fumbling with her—after the touch, he had given me a kiss on the cheek, his lips on my cheek, hot and soft, with the breath coming arrhythmic and condensed.

I’d eaten his half-finished vegetables, I’d wiped the sink of his whiskers. But he was nervous with me. Didn’t he know that I was a servant, and how capable I was of managing humiliation and disgust? I felt he was even endearing, in his desire to escape his wife, his crowd of guests—and this smirk I felt now, and bubbling up laughter in the silence of my parked car, were the symptoms of power I’d never felt before.

I came into work early the next day, preparing for the family’s return. In the garden, I gathered flowers, but not the rose that I had communed with, nor Giuseppe’s dark lilies. I would let them live out their full life cycles. I carried the flowers to the house. I didn’t want to see Soren or Mr. Mann. I wouldn’t go to the room where Mr. Mann liked to read, the bedrooms or bathrooms. So I set up all the vases then left the flowers in the foyer. Carlo didn’t say a word about my out-of-place flowers. He told me to go work in the garden.

By six in the evening, the charter bus was exhaling in front of the castle. I was helping with carrots in the kitchen. The guests began to enter. “Look at those flowers!” they exclaimed, passing the vases I’d left in the foyer.

Genevieve came in. “Louisa?” she said.

I followed her to her study. I hadn’t been here since my interview. It wasn’t one of the places that merited flowers. She gestured to the chair, then looked at me in silence, remaining on her feet.

She laid her fountain pen on the desk, then pressed her hand against it. I watched her soft thumb flesh mound over the pen. There was a piece of leather hammered with bronze nails to the top of her desk. Next to her laptop was a paperweight filled with imprecise glass flowers. She sighed. “You need to tell me, what happened with Mr. Mann?”

“Nothing,” I said.

Her lipless mouth moved deeper into her face. I looked away from her. A printer blinked from her deep windowsill. Next to it was a little framed photograph of Mr. and Mrs. Mann, much younger, and Cleo and John as teens. It was the only photo in her study.

She made what I thought was a sigh of fury but then her voice came soft, gentle, and confiding: “He’s been known to do this kind of thing before. A few times.”

I received this with an unwelcome pang of hurt. It wasn’t just me, then, whom he’d liked. “What kind of thing?” I said.

She turned her face to the side but kept her eyes on me, narrowed. She inhaled, then reconsidered. “Carlo saw it, Louisa,” she said.

“Saw what?” I said automatically.

“We know it’s not your fault, dear. Mr. Mann can be—handsy,” she said. She used the English word. “Though it seems not to have troubled you?”

I didn’t like this last line. “Why doesn’t someone tell him not to?” I said.

Her voice was grave. “Men know they shouldn’t,” she said.

“You should find him a girlfriend,” I said.

Genevieve seemed staggered by this, but I thought the idea would have occurred to her too. She always thought of everything for the Manns; she was clever when it came to them. “And what do you have to say about socializing with guests? John Mann’s friend?”

“He wanted to show us the paintings,” I said. “Is it against the rules if a guest invites you in?”

“They’re frescoes,” she said. There was a long pause. She turned her pen over in her hands. “I have to dismiss you.”

“Oh,” I said, and began immediately to cry. She let me sniffle for a while, and pushed a tissue box forward. While I cried, I was wondering why she really had to fire me. Maybe she thought some word of it would get back to Mrs. Mann, who was supposed to be in her proprietary heaven on earth.

“Look,” I said, “I’ll be very discreet about it.”

“I knew you were a very good one,” Genevieve said. “I felt I could count on you from the start.” She didn’t have any note of relief in her voice; this came out as sternly as any commandment. But I sensed that I still had some latitude. Maybe a child would loyally keep a secret for Genevieve just on principle, but I was a little older than that.

“Please reconsider,” I said.

“I can’t,” she said.

“Maybe you can make me a gift, just as a kind of thank you for discretion,” I said. “Like five hundred euros or something.” I sounded unbelievable to myself, but she stood up, went around her desk, took out an envelope, unlocked a drawer, and counted out five of those large green shiny bills.

“Women stick together,” she said, as she handed it to me.

“Thank you very much,” I said. “Should I serve dinner?”

“No,” she said.

“I think you should talk to Giuseppe, too,” I said. “He actually was the one who stopped Mr. Mann.”

“Thank you, Louisa,” she said. She opened the door for me.

I rushed out and through the kitchen. I didn’t speak to anyone, willing myself invisible. I ran down the steps into the cellar where we kept wine, cheese, and potatoes, and I removed my apron. I pulled the pins out of my hair. For a few minutes I inhaled the rich beautiful smell of the cellar and cried. And then I exited out the back, and ran past the lit teal pool, and past the fountain and the garden and to my car. I texted Giuseppe and advised him to ask Genevieve for more cash too. He wrote that he was too embarrassed.

I didn’t tell my parents that night. The following morning, I drove to Parma and used half the cash on a pair of pearl earrings. Large and warm and softly greasy to the touch, set in gold, packaged in a gray velveteen box that snapped open and shut.

I didn’t wear the earrings in front of my parents. I put them on when I went walking up in the fields behind our farm, where, if I went high enough, I might see a flock of white goats and one of the very old goatherd men, the last of their kind. Wearing something so rare, which any moment I could lose in the grass, I felt much less like myself, and much more like the girls from the myths in the living room paintings—girls that even the guests in the castello studied and envied.

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