by Diane Root
It took a while before the villa was sold. It was slowly disintegrating, abandoned for years after her death. Her father had fled from the fierce eyes of the villagers in a vain attempt to escape. He was haunted by his daughter’s image. He would have preferred to be slaughtered than live that way, but he lacked the courage to commit suicide. He was, in his own estimation, without a doubt, a spineless man caught within the spider’s web of his own illicit, incestuous passion. His despair drowned him, like the tidal waves curling upon the sands. Their ripples glinted, fracturing in tiny sunlit triangles, both beautiful and near lethal, encircling his heart and throat. He contemplated the sea’s rolling depths, the crashing foam detonated close to his perch on the rocky beach that curved around a place he could no longer name. Nor did he want to remember.
But the rest he could not forget.
The once-lush garden had long dried and died beneath a relentless, murderous Mediterranean sun. The patio’s flagstones, too, all but crumbled beneath even the gentlest touch.
The new owners, however, knew nothing about its history, and the “realtors,” such as they were—a caretaker neighbor and his wife—were careful not to tell them. So it was that they suspected nothing.
Not until they dug up the courtyard did they see first the skull, then the rest of the skeleton.
In the village, no one knew when she had been condemned to death or what crime she had committed. But rumors flew on the sidewalks and in the cafes, sotto voce.
She was young. Many said she was barely 20, if that. Lissome and slender-boned, an oval face as though painted by Modigliani. Her greatest pride resided in her hair, patent leather shining blue-black, which fell straight to her hips, swinging as she walked the streets of the tiny town, which she did endlessly, slowly pacing their cobblestones, rounding beneath her feet, as though counting the beads of a rosary.
As she passed, the old women leaned toward each other, hunched in shapeless layers of black widowhood. They squatted in front of their fruits and vegetables, their lace and their filigree, their pots and pottery, wizened faces so dark as to be almost featureless, framed in the folds of their shawls. Nothing showed but the glinting coal of wicked eyes. They whispered among themselves in the narrow, bleached-white streets about the vile acts she must have committed. Others observed that she looked exactly like her mother—the mother who had died young in childbirth. A sin, they said, was waiting to happen, if it hadn’t already. Their trapezoid, ebony shapes sat on stoops and stairs, squatting on diminutive chairs, facing the street where she passed.
The backdrop of all these dark voices echoed, embedded in the bleached-as-bone walls, bleak with memories, softened only by the pale pinks, lavenders, deepening blues and purples of the evening, shadows of the graceful archways, cushioning the nameless streets with pastels.
The day of her execution was unknown to all but her father, who had brought her here from another, similarly sun-scorched place, without warning. Since he had never hidden from her what her fate would be, he told her where it would take place; in the courtyard of the thickly walled house, paved with flagstones and bordered with bright flowers; the house with the foot-long key. By tradition in those parts, couples would marry and live out long lives till death did them part. Not a bad place to die, she thought. But she would die without having been married.
She had not been imprisoned by her father, although he could have easily done so; she was allowed to roam the few streets of this village. There were those who were curious to hear her voice, wishing her a good morning or good evening to see if she would respond. She never did.
Her voice, like her life, was her secret, or so she thought.
The villagers had never seen the Executioner either, but they knew of him. They imagined him masked, perhaps, or with a grim, grey-featured and fractured countenance. Thin-lipped, he would have a cruel bend at its corners. (The edges of the mouth were dead giveaways, her father used to say—they portrayed the real person hidden behind the face.)
When at last he appeared, there was no mistaking him. In a town populated only by a couple of hundred people, he was the sole stranger. And this was not a place where people would come of their own volition. To come here from elsewhere–the “outside”– was to have a specific purpose. In this case, a deadly one.
He was startlingly handsome-looking, square of face, powerful of body, strong long smooth hands that were deceptively soft. The back and shoulders were strong, the neck massive and muscular. The eyes, unexpected in that chiseled face, were gray-blue, almost transparent. “He’s French,” said her father, as though this made everything all right—some sort of cultural event.
The two men stood in the courtyard, taking stock of each other, talking quietly at first. They were apparently pleased with each other, and soon began walking together, to and fro, speaking of death and its throes. Hers, of course. What to expect, how to prepare, what to do “afterwards.”
At first hushed, their voices slowly rose with excitement at the prospect. Death, it seemed, was akin to yeast slowly swelling a dough for bread—the so-called staff of life. The tone acquired an unaccustomed near-shrill quality that pierced the quiet of the golden late afternoon, loud enough for her to hear from the aerie of her bedroom overlooking the courtyard, where she stood, stark still in the shadows.
It was then that he opened the case, which he had set on the stone bench. Lined with velvet; its contents glinted and sparkled like so many jewels. There were dirks and daggers, swords and sabers, cutlasses and curved blades carried by the men in Yemen—knives of every description, sharp as the shining sea below.
The Executioner patiently explained that, in deference to her youth, beauty and obedience, he would see to it that the sword would be as sharp as the slivers of light that darted off the waves. She would suffer little, if at all.
But she remembered what the surgeon had said. “Death takes time,” he declared, “and the brain is the last to die.”
It was at last agreed that she would be allowed to live through the next sun-splashed day, and that the sword would catch the last gilded rays of the sun on its lethal downswing. Her deliverance would come just before the lavender shades of dusk.
As befitting her station (she was, after all, a princess), she would, on that last day, sit before an offering table laden with rice, berries, fruit, curries and chutneys, pitchers of wine, because that’s what she most loved to eat and drink, which would later given to the guests at her funeral. There would be cool water for her lips and hands. Occasionally, the oldest woman servant, who had brought her into the world, would kneel and splash her feet with water, touch the nape of her neck with numbing herbs, and smooth her forehead with the refreshing pools in her weathered palms.
She dressed carefully that day. A long white dress foaming with Belgian lace that framed her face and frothed about her ankles, which could have been her wedding dress. She remembered that here, her gown might be considered inappropriate in this island of widows, maybe even blasphemous. In India, white was the color of mourning, and Death was simply a transition to another Life.
She, on the other hand, did not believe that death was anything other than final, but she floated on this foreign wave of hope, robed in an aureole of whiteness.
As was her custom, she wore no shoes, a symbol of humility, and because she wanted to feel the last warmth of stone beneath her feet. The servant bent toward her, shaped, polished and painted each nail until they shone, burnished and almost perfect ovals. So, too, were her hands, blanched and bright with a moon hue.
She fastened her mother’s heavy Arabian necklace about her slender neck, all the while thinking to herself that the Executioner would have to remove it, as he would a disgraced knight’s armor before he lifted the sword to release the crimson wash of blood—an offering to the setting sun,
As the table was being set for the last repast, two hours past the greatest heat and two hours before dusk—the servant in her great wisdom and mercy, insisted that food and drink would act as soporifics and contentment, thereby dulling the pain. The young woman, clad in her virginal dress, passed through the gates of her house to walk, very slowly, very straight, down the main cobblestoned main street, past the church, which she did not enter, into the marketplace, which she did enter, walking the circumference of the atrium, silencing the garrulous merchants, one by one, as she passed. Within minutes, the entire town was silenced, the movements hushed.
Later, there would be the swishing of long traditional skirts and petticoats, the shuffling of shoes against the stones as the shrouded townspeople gathered in front of the courtyard’s heavy doors, filtering the street with their darkness in broad daylight, waiting for a last cry of anguish.
Then, at last, they would know what her voice sounded like.
The last meal that she was allowed lasted until well into the afternoon. Lengthening shadows started to turn mauve, lavender and violet—dusk was minutes, maybe seconds away.
The two men, enlivened by the wine, chattered volubly to one another, even jested, as though this was a meal like any other, even a bit more festive.
Of the two, only the Executioner occasionally glanced at her, sometimes smiling, ever so slightly. She, now close to him, gazed and realized that she was in love with him. The only one in her young life. She reached out to touch his right hand—the strong, beautiful long-fingered hand that would kill her. Unmoved, he withdrew without even seeming to acknowledge her.
Her father, since the date of her condemnation, did not speak to her as though his voice might utter a forbidden endearment. He never turned to look at her with his crystal-blue glacial eyes. Ever.
Outside the hush thickened, smothering the sky and stones. An occasional pebble rolled, displaced by a careless foot.
The once-laden table stood bare, stripped of the lavish embroidered tablecloth first used at her mother’s wedding some 27 years earlier, cleared of wine and food and honey. Now, she thought, we get to the naked truth.
She stood next to her father, as though she were going down the aisle to bond with a beloved groom. She felt his warmth radiating from the softly-haired, tanned arms, glowing now in the setting sun. He, too, wore tropical white.
A basket, lined with grape leaves, stood in the place of the silver pitcher, was now moved to the center of the courtyard. Near it, a brilliant bouquet of favorite flowers—those whose aroma smelled of the earth in which they grew—zinnias, marigolds, and cockscombs. Cadmium yellows and reds, fiery pinks and oranges and gold.
My last rainbow, she thought.
Her father, who had abstained from even looking at her all this time, stared at the wooden block on the ground, the last pillow where his daughter would lay her head. Someone, most probably the servant who loved her, had placed real silken pillows in front of the chopping block for her knees.
For the first time, he looked at her, the stillness in his eyes warned her.
“Are you afraid?” he asked.
“Yes,” she whispered.
“Good,” he answered.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked.
“Because I love you. Too much.”
There were 13 steps between the space where they were standing at the front door of their house that gave onto the patio and the wood block. Slow- motion interminable steps that went somehow at lightning speed.
Before they started down this last aisle of her life, her father handed her a single rose. He explained that he wanted her to see the bloom with which she would be buried while she was still alive. That she was beloved and not left bereft in her grave. That he had done was expected of him.
She held it to her breast so closely, she felt the thorns puncturing her flesh. She was still holding it as she knelt before the beheading block, gradually elongating her proud, swan-like neck as though to ease the Executioner’s work.
Her long, heavy, ebony hair had been twisted up, held by her mother’s tortoise-shell comb, exposing her fragile nape.
In the quiet of the evening, the last sound was the swish and muffled whistle of the raised sword, and the lightning flash of the downward slash as it caught the last rays of the setting sun, slicing off her head as though it were made of soft butter.
Just before the last second, she craned her neck to take a last look at her father, whom, despite everything, she adored. It was then when she saw the sword.
In her father’s hand.
Ocho Rios, Jamaica, 1983; revised New York City, 2016
Diane Root, a dual-national, was born in Paris of an American father, the journalist and writer, Waverley Root, and a French mother. Primarily known as a painter, she is, as she describes herself, “an accidental writer.” She never sought to be published but that notwithstanding, she was nonetheless published in the New York Times Magazine (“The Artful Dodger” about lunch with Picasso) and various other venues. View her art: http://matakia.com.