Read the first chapter.
I. 1929, Aeolian Islands, Sicily
High over the divide between land and water, Arguto the crow, glided on a current of warm air. He turned his eyes, beads of black tar, to the tiny figures far below, to the one he followed.
Braedon Knowles had found the men he was looking for, abstract figures wavering through the heat rising from the stone beach. They sat in the shade of a fishing boat propped upright on wood beams for repair. The rugged fishermen faced each other, winding wooden shuttles through the loops of their nets, patching holes and tears, a knitting circle for Neptune’s sons. Braedon intruded on their conversation, and there was a considerable pause while they considered his request for directions. One laughed, the others crossed themselves.
Following their directions, Braedon found himself on an earthen foot path within a winding, gorge of black volcanic rock. Needle-sharp spines of the prickly pear cactus were everywhere, often obstructing the way and forcing him to slow his pace so as not to impale himself. The cacti were heavy with fruit, barrel-shaped knobs of different colors crowning many of the dull green paddles. I’d like a piece of watery fruit right about now, he thought. Except without thick gloves or a pair of knives, hardly a good idea.
The path narrowed. Braedon stumbled and nearly pitched himself over the edge. It never failed: the narrower the path, the deeper the gorge. The bottom was choked with scrub brush, sharp-edged boulders and cacti. Sweat rolled down his chest and he pulled at the collar of his khaki shirt. The path ran along the sunny side of the gorge, and he wished its builders would have had the foresight to carve it on the shaded side. Braedon considered himself a modern man, not the sort to wear a hat, a decision he was beginning to regret. He didn’t have the head for a bowler, and he thought a fedora was too common.
Braedon rounded a sharp corner of jutting rock, and there, lining the cliff wall were the abandoned dwellings he was searching for. Relieved, he paused and wiped sweat from his brow. Walls of crumbling mortar abutted the side of the gorge completing the old homes that burrowed into the soft volcanic stone. Their faces baked in the sunlight. Narrow quarter-roofs of broken terracotta tile covered the protruding part of the structures; doors were missing, and all the windows had been broken out. Glass littered the ground and scattered shards of sunlight in every direction. The color wash of the walls had long lost the battle to mold and lichens. Plaster sloughed off in large patches, exposing field stone and mortar.
The local hotelier had explained to Braedon how the population of the island dwindled as its young folk fled to the distant shores of America and Australia. They left in search of an easier life, one richer with culture, opportunities and money. Many of the homes in the gorge and on the steep mountain had been abandoned in favor of more accessible and airy locations along the shore.
A large crow came flying up the gorge, cawing the whole time. Braedon feared it was announcing his arrival, which only increased his nervousness. Though the villagers were quick to deny it, they were just as quick to lean close and whisper that yes, there was a witch living on the island. She was wicked and dangerous and had done this bad thing to their family, or that bad thing to the neighbor’s dog. The fishermen were his sole reliable source; they had told him where to find her.
The last dwelling in the row stood out from the rest: its windows were intact, and a pot of red poppies sat beside the door. The door was open, the doorway blocked by a thin, colorful portière hanging limp in the listless air. Beyond this house, the gorge narrowed and took a sharp turn, and nothing more could be seen of it. Braedon slowed his pace as he went by the empty places, peering in each open doorway and shattered window. The interiors were in shambles, filled with piles of debris, broken chairs and, in one house, a faded image of Christ hanging crooked on a water-stained wall. He paused before reaching the farthest dwelling and wondered, Why would anyone, even a witch, choose to live in a place like this? He didn’t even want to imagine what it was like after dark.
“Buongiorno, qualcuno è a casa?” he called out, asking if someone were home, his voice weakened with fear. His Italian was excellent and getting better day by day. He looked the part too, black hair, tall, strong, and tanned. At a glance he could be mistaken for Sicilian, although his American mannerisms betrayed him. Braedon could hear rustling from within and half expected a hideous crone to emerge, and curse him for intruding. Instead, the most beautiful woman he had seen since coming to Italy swept aside the portière, and stepped into the light.
“Buongiorno,” she said in the sing-song accent of the island.
Much relieved, Braedon walked forward and thrust out his hand. The woman accepted it, and he was acutely aware of how delicate her hand was. Her skin was tanned to dark olive by the strong sun. Her hair was so black and shiny, it reflected glints of blue, and fell in thick waves to her waist. He noted a scent of rosemary. Most stunning of all were her green eyes, brilliant in the light. He was transfixed, rooted to the ground and unable to look away even though he knew he was being impolite. My parents raised me better than this, he told himself.
She laughed and pulled her hand from his. “Entra,” she said, moving back to make room for him. I know those eyes, he thought.
She whirled around on her toes, her bright red dress swirling around her. Her bare feet were black with volcanic dust, as though she were wearing dark socks.
He followed her inside. “Mi chiamo Braedon,” he said, and paused while his eyes adjusted to the dim light within.
“Ciao Braedon; sono Velia.”
“Velia, bellisima.” He found her name beautiful.
“Aspettavo te,” she said.
She’d been waiting for him? It had to be her sister, Nera, who’d told her he was coming. “Tua sorella, Nera?”
But Braedon couldn’t imagine how Nera had sent word ahead.
“Lei ti ha baciato, anche io lo farò fra poco.” She knew about the kiss, his payment to her sister, and promised she would kiss him, too. Maybe for witches, this is a way to seal the payment, or bind the payee?
Light streamed through dirty windows and turned the far corner of the room gold. Dust floated through rays of light like microscopic fireflies, and eddied as Velia led him to a clump of large pillows piled in the corner. The rough hewn walls of bare rock elicited something primeval in Braedon, a feeling of safety? She pushed him into the pillows in a billowing puff of dust. The room was stifling; sweat rolled into his eye. Braedon wiped it away and dried his hands on his pant leg. She handed him a glass, “Acqua?”
Velia poured water from a pitcher. There was no natural fresh water on the island, and he wondered if she carried water all the way home. If so, it was a long way from the tap at the public cistern, and had to be an arduous chore. Every home on the island had a flat roof, which was swept clean on a regular basis. Rain water collected on the roof and was funneled into a large cistern beneath the home where it stayed cool and clean. Velia’s cavernous home lacked both a roof and cistern. Braedon drained the glass and set it down on the floor. She returned the pitcher to the table and stretched out on the pillows beside him, uncomfortably close. “Fa caldo,” it’s hot, she said as she pinched the top of her blouse and fanned herself, revealing a little cleavage. Then she did the same with the hem of her dress, and exposed her legs. Braedon swallowed and forced himself to look away.
“Io sono --” he started.
“Shhhhhh,” she raised a finger to her lips and shushed him. “Voglio guardare.”
She wants to look at me? She looked him up and down, then stared into his eyes. Braedon stared back; it was only fair. The light fell on her green eyes, and he knew she was somehow probing him. Emerald sparkles moved of their own volition around black pupils, pits of dark energy. Her gaze defeated his and warm green fingers touched his mind.
She knelt and lifted his hand in hers, and turned it palm up. Real fingers, soft fingers, stroked his palm. Ha, a parlor trick. She undid the button of his cuff, and pushed the sleeve up, then ran her fingernails down his arm. Chills raced along his nerves and the hair on his head stood on end. She stroked him with her fingernails from the pit of his elbow to his wrist, to his fingertips. While she did this, her other hand pressed a nail into the center of his palm. A little pressure, a bit more, and she cut him with her sharp nail. Before Braedon could do anything, she pulled his hand to her mouth and sucked. Just as he was about to protest, she kissed him. Her tongue found no resistance, and Braedon could do nothing more than close his eyes. He tasted the iron of his own blood along with Velia’s sweetness, and rosemary.
She placed her hands on his chest and pushed herself away. Greedily; he wanted more, and his hand hung motionless between them. He sank into the pillows, and looked at blood smeared across his palm. Velia stood up and walked to the other end of the room. She left a trail of glittering dust in her wake. She returned with a damp rag stained by beets or fig juice, took his hand, and wiped away the blood. “Scusa,” she apologized.
He was no longer bleeding. She was sorry for what? A little blood was a small price to pay for... that.
“Perché?” he asked. Why?
“Siamo uniti per sempre,” she said.
With trepidation, Braedon looked into her eyes. We are united forever? Forever? She and I? Why? “E perché?” he asked again.
As if in answer she held up a ripe fig. Where had that come from? Velia ripped the fig in two and offered him half. He accepted it and watched her. She put the whole piece in her mouth and scooped out its soft interior with her teeth. “Hmm buono.” She chewed and licked her lips. “Dolce,” sweet, she added, and tossed the skin over her shoulder onto the table. Braedon did the same, taking the whole piece in his mouth. Ripe figs were all over the island; he’d already consumed plenty at the albergo, the village hotel. The fig was delicious. Honey filled his mouth, again. He chewed, crushing tiny seeds with his teeth, and something wriggled past his tongue and down his throat. He swallowed, hoping it was nothing more than a common bug. A mote of dust sparkled, stopped dead in its flight, hung motionless, then spiraled up from an unseen disturbance in the air.
The sun moved away from the window and the room darkened considerably. How long has it been? How much time has passed? Alarmed, Braedon pushed himself upright. Velia was standing by the window, watching him. Not a second before she had been kneeling beside him.
She spoke softly, “Che posso fare per te?”
Right! Why was he here, what could she do for him? “La mappa,” he said. “Io voglio la mappa di navi perdute.” The map of lost ships. Velia tilted her head to one side, and studied him as a cat would. She took a wooden box from a rickety shelf and laid it on the floor between them. With the flick of a finger the latch snapped open. She lifted the lid and extracted a folded piece of paper stained brown with age. The paper was so old, it was a wonder it held together when she unfolded it. Braedon crossed his legs and sat forward, and turned the map of the world around so it faced him. There were no marks on it beyond the outline of continents and a few major countries; nothing in particular stood out.
“Il nome della nave?” The name of the ship?
“The Red Palm.”
From within the box Velia took a small jar, unscrewed the lid and poured out a mound of seeds—small, round, and black, like poppy seeds. She stirred the seeds with her fingertip, whispering, and let them roll around the map. Errant seeds wandered off the paper and were forever trapped in the cracks of the old floorboards. Velia carefully lifted the map and poured the seeds back into the jar, all except for one, which remained stuck on the southern coast of French Guiana. Settling the map on the floor, she placed her fingertip on their current location. Braedon noticed dried blood under her thumbnail. Her finger slid away from Sicily, across the Mediterranean, through the Strait of Gibraltar, down the west coast of Africa where she hesitated. “Fai attenzione,” she said. Be careful. Her finger continued across the Atlantic to Latin America, to the seed. Plucking it from the map, she returned it to the jar and screwed down the lid.
“Grazie,” he said.
Folding the map, Velia returned all the contents to the box and placed it on the shelf. Braedon rose. Facing each other in the dim light she seemed smaller and less imposing. “Quanto?” he asked, dipping his hand into his pocket to retrieve his billfold.
Velia laughed. “Niente, non voglio soldi.” Nothing. If she didn’t want money, what did she want? Surely, information comes with a price? He thought it prudent that perhaps one shouldn’t be indebted to a witch.
Concerned, he asked her what it was she wanted. “Che cosa vuoi?”
“Un giorno ritorna da me,” she said.
Would I return here, to her? On the table lay a folded cloth. She unfolded it and picked up a necklace. It had a delicate, silver chain. Velia unlocked the clasp and placed it around his neck. Braedon lifted the pendant, a figurine of a crow, sculpted in black stone and superbly detailed. The crow was encircled with fine silver and gold wire, so its wings were bound.
“Per te e qualcun altro.” For you and someone else. This makes no sense, he thought, but the necklace was strange and exotic. He liked it and tucked it inside his shirt.
“Indossa questa collana sempre... se no la morte.” She warned him in the strongest possible terms to wear the necklace at all times, on his life. What she meant by this he wasn’t sure, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to know. A talisman, then. This was the second talisman he had been told to keep with him.
Velia led him outside where a large crow was sitting on the dead limb of a dead tree. “E fatto.” It’s done, she said. The crow looked at Braedon, clacked its beak, “Toc.”
Is this her familiar? Are such things real? he wondered. “Ciao Velia,” he said. “Grazie mille.” Braedon thanked her, took her hand in his, and in a chivalrous manner, kissed it.
Velia stepped forward and kissed his cheek. She extended her arm, and pointed down the path. “Vai.” Go. All of a sudden he was in a hurry to be away.
Without a look over his shoulder he raced down the trail, anxious to be back in the village before night. The sun was long behind the mountain, and the black gorge made his surroundings even darker. Cactus needles tore at his shirt and mosquitoes buzzed about his face, and bit the back of his damp neck.
After what seemed like an eternity, Braedon burst free from the gorge. The coast road wound its way to the village, and wild vegetation gave way to beautifully tended rows of caper plants, and groves of fig, and olive trees. He passed low stone walls covered in grape vines and plots of tomatoes, pungent basil, sage and many other herbs. Lights were on in the homes. Street lights were few, and he welcomed them when they lit one after another. He stumbled across the tiled terrace of the albergo, desperate for a bath and clean clothes.
“Signore, vuole mangiare?” Gaetano asked.
“Sì, grazie Gaetano, fra mezz’ora.” He would eat in half an hour. First, a bath. Braedon wondered for the briefest moment how large the hotel cistern was.
The albergo and its tiled terrace overlooked the sea. It resisted the fierce sunlight, and sea air as best it could. Year after year, layer after layer of whitewash flaked off in small patches here and there, revealing gray cement underneath. Its proprietor, Gaetano, was short and rotund, and balding, and endlessly cheerful. Braedon liked him.
Dinner began with a bowl of spaghetti in spicy, biting marinara sauce, followed by fillet of fish in a tomato and caper sauce, accompanied by a tomato and onion salad. Small decanters of olive oil and vinegar were set before him. The bottle of chilled white wine was especially welcome. Braedon poured himself another glass, and watched sweat roll down the side of the bottle, and puddle on the table. Dinner was wonderful, and he cleaned his plate with the last piece of bread. All that remained on his plate was a small pile of delicate, needle-sharp bones.
Gaetano cleared away the dishes, placed a bowl of ripe figs on the table, and left Braedon alone while he closed up. Braedon eyed the figs with some apprehension, idly fingering the stone crow beneath his shirt. How did she do it? he wondered. That thing with the seeds was a pretty good trick. Yes, I was beguiled by her beauty, and frightened needlessly by the oddity of the location. She may have even slipped me a mickey in the water. How did she move unseen from beside me to the window? He recalled that she hadn’t drunk any herself. I’ll have to act on the information she gave me. There’s no other recourse.
The little fishing village was fast asleep, populated with people who toiled in time with the rising and setting of the sun.
Twelve years ago, he had been, like many young men, eager to test himself. The ultimate test. The war stories from Europe were horrific, but he overcame his fears, signed up, and went off to fight in France. The war—the things he’d seen and done—had left its mark on him. He was far too young to have killed so many men, but he kept a tight lid on the horror. The important thing was that he had survived, and survivors see the world in a different light. For Braedon, the world was brighter, with a keener edge on it. With each new dawn, life became more precious.
The moon rose over the tranquil Mediterranean, a small fish shot out of the water, and reentered with a splash. Braedon watched the ripples expand outwards and realized he was exhausted. He took his glass and bottle of wine with him to his room to finish while he read a book.
On the second floor of the albergo, with the ocean breeze to keep mosquitoes inland, he opened his window and pushed the louvered shutters wide. They were closed during the day to keep the hot sun from his room. He inhaled the clean sea air, and stood a moment enjoying the peace and the tranquil sound of the waves lapping the stone beach.
Movement caught his eye. Braedon reached for the lamp beside the window, and turned out the light. Across the roof tops, far down the road was the silhouette of a person standing in the yellow cone of a solitary street light. Long hair, and a knee length dress. He didn’t need any more detail to know it was Velia. She was facing him, watching him. What is she doing out there in the night alone? Her tricks were perfectly fantastic. Did she need to make herself so evident? Creepy.
He watched her for some time. She showed no sign of leaving. Finally, leaving the window open for fresh air, he closed and latched the shutters. Braedon read for a short while, until he realized he’d read the last paragraph twice without remembering a word of it. He left his book and wine bottle on the dresser, and prepared for bed. After brushing his teeth, Braedon climbed into bed naked as he’d taken to sleeping without pajamas in subtropical climates.
Nightmares assailed Braedon, one after another, and all of them more terrifying than any in his life. The last one woke him. Drenched in sweat, and paralyzed with fear he tried to cry out, and had no voice. It was some time before he could will his body to move. In his dream he saw himself awakened by a stabbing pain in his stomach. Something was crawling inside, coming up his throat, and there was nothing he could do to save himself. An enormous weight held him down; he couldn’t move his arms or legs. His mouth was forced open so wide, his jaw cracked, and so painfully, tears wet his face. Despite the darkness, Braedon could see Velia standing over him. She extended a hand. The creature crawled from Braedon’s throat, trailing a thread of blood and saliva, out his mouth and into her palm. It was a salamander of sorts, or rather, half a salamander, truncated in some peculiar way and pulling itself forward on two legs. With horror, Braedon realized that the other half was in his stomach growing whole again. The creature’s mouth held something dripping hot blood. Velia lifted it away for a better look. Braedon knew in that moment it was a piece of his heart; the salamander had torn at his heart, and was presenting a piece of it to Velia.
Braedon woke early. He bathed to wash away his fears, and clear his mind, and put the dreadful night behind him. The tile floor felt cold on his bare feet. When he was partially dressed he opened the shutters to let in the morning light, which struck him as glorious. A fishing boat chugged toward the village trailing a large following of seagulls. Braedon found their calls beautiful, and uplifting.
Far down the road near the street light was a mule pulling a cart heaped with fishing nets, followed by a dog. Sitting on the edge of the bed, Braedon pulled on clean socks and was reaching for his expedition boots when he noticed smudges on the floor. He dropped to his hands and knees for a closer look. When he had the light just right, there it was, a clear footprint on smooth ceramic tile, the mark of a naked foot, a feminine foot. Icy cold fingers ran across his shoulders and doubt niggled his mind. It couldn’t be. He rose, and looked at the bed. Nothing was amiss, rumpled sheets. Still, he lifted the sheets to examine them, and one tiny mark sullied their whiteness, one small drop of dried blood.