The Historian

Chapter 3


At home in Amsterdam, my father was unusually silent and busy, and I waited uneasily for opportunities to ask him about Professor Rossi. Mrs. Clay ate dinner with us every night in the dark-paneled dining room, serving us from the sideboard but otherwise joining in as a member of the family, and I felt instinctively that my father would not want to tell more of his story in her presence. If I sought him in his library, he asked me quickly about my day or wanted to see my homework. I checked his library shelves in secret soon after our return from Emona, but the book and papers had already vanished from their high place; I had no idea where he'd put them. If it was Mrs. Clay's night out, he suggested that we go to a movie ourselves, or he took me for coffee and pastries at the noisy shop across the canal. I might have said he was avoiding me, except that sometimes when I sat near him, reading, watching for an opening to ask questions, he would reach out and stroke my hair with an abstracted sadness in his face. At those moments, I was the one who could not bring up the story.
When my father went south again, he took me with him. He would have only one meeting, and an informal one at that, almost not worth the long trip, but he wanted me to see the scenery, he said. This time we rode the train far beyond Emona and then settled for taking a bus to our destination. My father preferred local transportation whenever he could use it. Now, when I travel, I often think of him and bypass the rental car for the metro. "You'll see - Ragusa is no place for cars," he said as we clung to the metal bar behind the bus driver's seat. "Always sit up front and you're less likely to be sick." I squeezed the bar until my knuckles were white; we seemed to be airborne among the towering piles of pale-gray rock that served as mountains in this new region. "Good God," my father said after one horrible leap across a hairpin turn. The other passengers looked completely at ease. Across the aisle an old woman in black sat crocheting, her face framed by the fringe of her shawl, which danced as the bus jolted. "Watch carefully," my father said. "You're going to see one of the greatest sights of this coast."
I gazed diligently out the window, wishing he didn't find it necessary to give me so many instructions, but taking in everything I could of the rock-piled mountains and the stone villages that crowned them. Just before sunset I was rewarded by the sight of a woman standing at the edge of the road, perhaps waiting for a bus going in the opposite direction. She was tall, dressed in long, heavy skirts and a tight vest, her head crowned by a fabulous headdress like an organdy butterfly. She stood alone among the rocks, touched by late sun, a basket on the ground beside her. I would have thought she was a statue, except that she turned her magnificent head as we passed. Her face was a pale oval, too far away for me to see any expression. When I described her to my father, he said she must have been wearing the native dress of this part of Dalmatia. "A big bonnet, with wings on each side? I've seen pictures of that. You could say she's a sort of ghost - she probably lives in a very small village. I suppose most of the young people here wear blue jeans now."
I kept my face glued to the window. No more ghosts appeared, but I didn't miss a single view of the miracle that did: Ragusa, far below us, an ivory city with a molten, sunlit sea breaking around its walls, roofs redder than the evening sky inside their tremendous medieval enclosure. The city sat on a large round peninsula, and its walls looked impenetrable to sea storm and invasion, a giant wading off the Adriatic coast. At the same time, seen from the great height of the road, it had a miniature appearance, like something carved by hand and set down out of scale at the base of the mountains.Ragusa's main street, when we reached it a couple of hours later, was marble underfoot, highly polished by centuries of shoe soles and reflecting splashes of light from the surrounding shops and palaces so that it gleamed like the surface of a great canal. At the harbor end of the street, safe in the city's old heart, we collapsed on caf¨¦ chairs, and I turned my face straight into the wind, which smelled of crashing surf and - strange to me in that late season - of ripe oranges. The sea and sky were almost dark. Fishing boats danced on a sheet of wilder water at the far reaches of the harbor; the wind brought me sea sounds, sea scents, and a new mildness. "Yes, the South," my father said with satisfaction, pulling up a glass of whiskey and a plate of sardines on toast.
"Say you put your boat in right here and had a clear night to travel. You could steer by the stars from here directly to Venice, or to the Albanian coast, or into the Aegean."
"How long would it take to sail to Venice?" I stirred my tea, and the breeze pulled the steam out to sea."Oh, a week or more, I suppose, in a medieval ship." He smiled at me, relaxed for the moment. "Marco Polo was born on this coast, and the Venetians invaded frequently. We're actually sitting in a kind of gateway to the world, you could say."
"When did you come here before?" I was only beginning to believe in my father's previous life, his existence before me.
"I've been here several times. Maybe four or five. The first was years ago, when I was still a student. My adviser recommended I visit Ragusa from Italy, just to see this wonder, while I was studying - I told you I studied Italian in Florence one summer."
"You mean Professor Rossi."
"Yes." My father looked sharply at me, then into his whiskey.
There was a little silence, filled by the caf¨¦ awning, which flapped above us on that unseasonably warm breeze. From inside the bar and restaurant came a blur of tourists' voices, clinking china, saxophone and piano. From beyond came the slop of boats in the dark harbor. At last my father spoke. "I should tell you a little more about him." He didn't look at me, still, but I thought his voice had a fine crack in it.
"I'd like that," I said cautiously.
He sipped his whiskey. "You're stubborn about stories, aren't you?"
You are the stubborn one, I longed to say, but I held my tongue; I wanted the story more than I did the quarrel.My father sighed. "All right. I'll tell you more about him tomorrow, in the daylight, when I'm not so tired and we have a little time to walk the walls." He pointed with his glass to those gray-white, luminous battlements above the hotel. "That'll be a better time for stories. Especially that story."By midmorning we were seated a hundred feet above the surf, which crashed and foamed white around the city's giant roots. The November sky was brilliant as a summer day. My father put on his sunglasses, checked his watch, folded away the brochure about the rusty-roofed architecture below, let a group of German tourists drift past us out of earshot. I looked out to sea, beyond a forested island, to the fading blue horizon. From that direction the Venetian ships had come, bringing war or trade, their red and gold banners restless under the same glittering arc of sky. Waiting for my father to speak, I felt a stirring of apprehension far from scholarly. Perhaps those ships I imagined on the horizon were not simply part of a colorful pageant. Why was it so difficult for my father to begin?