The Historian

Chapter 5


Because I felt such constraint with my father, I decided to do a little exploring by myself, and one day after school I went alone to the university library. My Dutch was reasonably good, I had studied French and German for years now, and the university had a vast collection in English. The librarians were courteous; it took me only a couple of shy conversations to find the material I was looking for: the text of the Nuremberg pamphlets about Dracula that my father had mentioned. The library did not own one of the original pamphlets -  they were very rare, the elderly librarian in their medieval collection explained to me, but he found the text in a compendium of medieval German documents, translated into English. "Will that be what you need, my dear?" he said, with a smile. He had one of those very fair, clear faces you see sometimes among the Dutch - a direct, blue gaze, hair that seemed to have grown paler instead of going gray. My father's parents, in Boston, had died when I was a little girl, and I thought that I would have liked a grandfather of this model. "I'm Johan Binnerts," he added. "You may call for me whenever you need more help."
I said it was exactly what I needed,dank u, and he patted my shoulder before going quietly away. I reread the first section from my notebook in the empty room:
In the Year of Our Lord 1456 Drakula did many terrible and curious things. When he was appointed Lord in Wallachia, he had all the young boys burned who came to his land to learn the language, four hundred of them. He had a large family impaled and many of his people buried naked up to the navel and shot at. Some he had roasted and then flayed. There was a footnote, too, at the bottom of the first page. The typeface of the note was so fine that I almost missed it. Looking more closely, I realized it was a commentary on the word impaled. Vlad Tepes, it claimed, had learned this form of torture from the Ottomans. Impalement of the sort he practiced involved the penetration of the body with a sharpened wooden stake, usually through the anus or genitals upward, so that the stake sometimes emerged through the mouth and sometimes through the head.
I tried for a minute not to see these words; then I tried for several minutes to forget them, with the book shut.
The thing that most haunted me that day, however, as I closed my notebook and put my coat on to go home, was not my ghostly image of Dracula, or the description of impalement, but the fact that these things had - apparently - actually occurred. If I listened too closely, I thought, I would hear the screams of the boys, of the "large family" dying together. For all his attention to my historical education, my father had neglected to tell me this: history's terrible moments were real. I understand now, decades later, that he could never have told me. Only history itself can convince you of such a truth. And once you've seen that truth - really seen it - you can't look away.
When I reached home that night, I felt a kind of devilish strength, and I confronted my father. He was reading in his library while Mrs. Clay rattled the dinner dishes in the kitchen. I went into the library, closed the door behind me, and stood in front of his chair. He was holding one of his beloved volumes of Henry James, a sure sign of stress. I stood without speaking until he looked up. "Hello, there," he said, finding his bookmark with a smile. "Algebra homework?" His eyes were anxious already.
"I want you to finish the story," I said.
He was silent, tapping his fingers on the arm of the chair.
"Why won't you tell me more?" It was the first time I had ever felt myself a menace to him. He looked at the book he had just closed. I knew that I was being cruel to him in a way I could not understand, but I had begun my bloody work, so I would have to finish. "You don't want me to know things."
He looked up at me, finally. His face was inscrutably sad, deeply furrowed in the light from his lamp. "No, I don't."
"I know more than you think," I said, although I felt that was a childish stab; I wouldn't have wanted to tell him what I knew, if he'd asked me.
He folded his hands under his chin. "I know you do," he said. "And because you know anything at all I will have to tell you everything."
I stared at him, surprised. "Then just tell me," I said fiercely.
He looked down again. "I will tell you, and I'll tell you as soon as I can. But not all at once." Suddenly he burst out, "I can't bear it all at once! Be patient with me."
But the look he gave me was pleading, not accusing. I went to him and put my arm around his bowed head.
March would be chill and blustery in Tuscany, but my father thought a short trip in the countryside there was in order after four days of talks - I always knew his occupation as "talks" - in Milan. This time, I didn't have to ask him to take me along. "Florence is wonderful, especially off-season," he said one morning as we drove south from Milan. "I'd like you to see it one of these days. You'll have to learn a little more about its history and paintings first, to really get a kick out of it. But the Tuscan countryside's the real thing. It rests your eyes and excites them at the same time - you'll see."
I nodded, settling into the passenger seat of the rented Fiat. My father's love of freedom was contagious, and I liked the way he loosened his shirt collar and tie when we headed off for a new place. He was setting the Fiat to a hum on the smooth northern highway. "Anyway, I've been promising Massimo and Giulia for years that we'd come. They'd never forgive my passing this close without a visit." He leaned back and stretched his legs. "They're a little strange  - eccentricis the way to put it, I guess, but very kind. Are you game?"
"I said I was," I pointed out. I preferred staying alone with my father to visiting strangers, whose presence always brought out my native shyness, but he seemed eager to see his old friends. In any case, the vibration of the Fiat was lulling me to sleep; I was tired from the train trip. A spell had come over me that morning, the alarmingly belated trickle of blood my doctor was always worrying about and for which Mrs. Clay had awkwardly supplied my suitcase with a mass of cotton pads. My first glimpse of this change had brought tears of surprise to my eyes in the train lavatory, as if someone had wounded me; the smudge on my sensible cotton underpants looked like the thumbprint of a murderer. I'd said nothing about it to my father. River valleys and village-piled distant hills became a hazy panorama past the car window, then blurred. I was still sleepy at lunch, which we ate in a town made up of caf¨¦s and dark bars, the street cats curling and uncurling around the doorways.
But when we pulled upward with the twilight toward one of twenty towering hill towns, stacking themselves around us like the subjects of a fresco, I found myself wide awake. The windy, cloud-swept evening showed cracks of sunset on the horizon - toward the Mediterranean, my father said, toward Gibraltar and other places we might go someday. Above us was a town built on stilts of stone, its streets nearly vertical and its alleys terraced with narrow stone steps. My father guided the little car here and there, once past a trattoria doorway that streamed light onto the damp cobbles. Then he steered cautiously down the other side of the hill. "It's in here, if I'm remembering correctly." He turned between dark guardian cypresses into a rutted lane. "Villa Montefollinoco, at Monteperduto. Monteperduto's the town. Remember?"
I remembered. We'd looked at the map over breakfast, my father tracing with one finger past his coffee cup: "Siena, here. That's your focal point. That's in Tuscany. Then we cross just into Umbria. Here's Montepulciano, a famous old place, and on this next hill is our town, Monteperduto." The names ran together in my head, but monte meant mountain and we were among mountains for a large dollhouse, small painted mountains like children of the Alps, which I'd traveled through twice now.
In the impending darkness, the villa looked small, a low-slung farmhouse made of fieldstone, with cypress and olive trees clustered around its reddish roofs and a couple of leaning stone posts to mark a front walk. Light glowed in the windows on the first floor, and I found myself suddenly hungry, tired, filled with a young crankiness I would have to hide in front of our hosts. My father took our bags from the trunk of the car and I followed him up the walk. "Even the bell's still here," he said, satisfied, pulling on a short rope by the entryway and smoothing his hair back in the gloom.
The man who answered came out like a tornado, hugging my father, slapping him hard on the back, kissing him soundly on both cheeks, bending over a little too far to shake my hand. His own hand was enormous and warm and he put it on my shoulder to lead me in with him. In the front hall, which was low beamed and full of ancient furniture, he bellowed like a farm animal. "Giulia! Giulia! Quickly! The big arrival! Come here!" His English was ferocious and sure, strong, loud.
The smiling tall woman who came in pleased me at once. Her hair was gray but it gleamed silver, pinned back from a long face. She smiled at me first and didn't bend over to meet me. Her hand was warm, like her husband's, and she kissed my father on each cheek, shaking her head through a gentle stream of Italian. "And you," she said to me in English, "must have your own room, a good one, okay?"
"Okay," I agreed, liking the sound of that and hoping it would be safely near my father's and would have a view of the surrounding valley from which we'd climbed so precipitously.
After dinner in the flagstoned dining room, all the grown-ups leaned back and sighed. "Giulia," my father said, "you become a greater cook every year. One of the great cooks of Italy."
"Nonsense, Paolo." Her English breathed Oxford and Cambridge. "You always talk nonsense."
"Maybe it's the Chianti. Let me look at that bottle."
"Let me fill your glass again," Massimo interjected. "And what are you studying, lovely daughter?"
"We study all subjects at my school," I said primly.
"She likes history, I think," my father told them. "She's a good sightseer, too."
"History?" Massimo filled Giulia's glass again, and then his own, with wine the color of garnets, or dark blood. "Like you and me, Paolo. We gave your father this name," he explained to me, aside, "because I can't stand those boring Anglo names you all have. Sorry, I just can't. Paolo, my friend, you know I could have dropped dead when they told me you gave up your life in the academy to parley-vous all over the world. So he likes to talk more than he likes to read, I said to myself. A great scholar lost to the world, that's your father." He gave me half a glass of wine without asking my father and poured some water into it from the jug on the table. I felt fond of him now.
"Now you're talking nonsense," my father said contentedly. "I like to travel, that's what I like."
"Ah." Massimo shook his head. "And you, Signor Professor, once said you'd be the greatest of them all. Not that your foundation isn't a wonderful success, I know."
"We need peace and diplomatic enlightenment, not more research on tiny questions no one else cares about," my father countered, smiling. Giulia lit a lantern on the sideboard, turning off the electric light. She brought the lantern to the table and began to cut up atorta I'd been trying not to stare at earlier. Its surface gleamed like obsidian under the knife.
"In history, there are no tiny questions." Massimo winked at me. "Besides, even the great Rossi said you were his best student. And the rest of us could hardly please the fellow."
It was out of my mouth before I could stop myself. My father glanced uneasily at me over his cake.
"So you know the legends of your father's academic successes, young lady?"
Massimo filled his mouth hugely with chocolate.
My father gave me another glance. "I've told her a few stories about those days," he said. I didn't miss the undercurrent of warning in his voice. A moment later, however, I thought it might have been directed at Massimo, not me, since Massimo's next comment shot a chill through me before my father quashed it with a quick shift to politics.
"Poor Rossi," Massimo said. "Tragic, wonderful man. Strange to think anyone one has known personally can just - poof - disappear."
The next morning we sat on the sun-washed piazza at the town's summit, jackets firmly buttoned and brochures in hand, watching two boys who should, like me, have been at school. They shrieked and punted their soccer ball back and forth in front of the church, and I waited patiently. I had been waiting all morning, through the tour of dark little chapels "with elements of Brunelleschi," according to the vague and bored guide, and the Palazzo Pubblico, with its reception chamber that had served for centuries as a town granary. My father sighed and gave me one of two Oranginas in dainty bottles. "You're going to ask me something," he said a little glumly.
"No, I just want to know about Professor Rossi." I put my straw into the neck of the bottle.
"I thought so. Massimo was tactless to bring that up."
I dreaded the answer, but I had to ask. "Did Professor Rossi die? Is that what Massimo meant when he said disappear? "My father looked across the sun-filled square to the caf¨¦s and butcher shops
on the other side. "Yes. No. Well, it was a very sad thing. Do you really want to hear about that?"
I nodded. My father glanced around, quickly. We were sitting on a stone bench that projected from one of the fine old palazzi, alone except for the fleet-footed boys on the square. "All right," he said at last.