Mediterranean Gothic


On an island in the middle of the sea, in a city with a sleepy old port cut with the vertical lines of masts, and the mountains jutting up behind it, green with feather white clouds drifting across the tops, and closed in by two lighthouses, a green and an orange, protecting the tiny opening, or just pointing out its edges, we know we have left the continent.

The city pressing against the port is run-down and crumbling, the paint peeling off in sheaths. The shops smell of almond cookies — a thing you can get anywhere in the Mediterranean; they go by 101 names — and pungent ham and hand-wrapped soaps. Glistening bottles of liquor stand on shelves, a thin layer of dust crowning each one.

And we walk in the heat.

The hotel is horrendous, windowless, with two hard, narrow beds wedged into a corner and an enormous, tiled bathroom that does little to compensate. I feel as though I’ve been shoved underground, stuffed into darkness. I am too ashamed to take a picture. At night, I cry myself to sleep, hoping J____ doesn’t hear but I know she does.

Me and my bad French screwed up the reservation. All my fault. I could understand so well most of the time, though. Most of the time is not all the time. It is best never to make assumptions in a language that is not yours.

I still cannot eat. My stomach turns over at the sight of food, and the waiters feel terrible. Bring us free shots of limoncello and pastis. Because they think we haven’t enjoyed our dinner. But we did! We tell them. We’re just… not well. Not totally well yet.

We find the chapel, the enormous sun pattern created in tiny little stones on the ground outside. There is a painting inside, I read, that depicts the circumcision of Jesus — a rare and strange subject for a painter, and I want to see.

The chapel glitters. The walls are hung in red velvet. Crystal chandeliers gleam in the low light. I am agape, admiring the art, the carved ceiling, a gilt tabernacle, the things that make it seem more like a ballroom in a French chateau than a tiny chapel on a hidden street.

“Laura…” says J_____ from behind me. “There’s a coffin.”

“Oh… God.”

It is utterly plain, a wooden box like in a Vampire movie, little handles on the sides. It sits on a bier in the main aisle.

“There can’t be anyone in it, right? They wouldn’t just leave someone here, would they?”

She ignores the mounting hysteria in my voice and goes to look closer. To learn whether this is some tradition or preparation, a leftover sliver of some ancient ritual, or whether we are simply alone in a church with a dead body.

“It’s a woman,” she says, peering at a little gilt plaque on the top of the coffin. “June 8, 2008.”

“Please, let’s go.”

“It’s OK,” says J____. “She had a long life.”

“Good. I’m going outside.”

Under the flood of daylight, standing on the sun mosaic, I am still shaken. I am not a particularly phobic person, but coffins. Funeral parlors. The smell of gardenias, sticky sweet and cool. These things double me over, turn me to jell-o. Even as a joke. Even at Halloween.

“At least I get to be cremated ,” says J____. We walk up a ragged little back street full of shuttered shops and flaking plaster. “I can’t imagine being put in a little box like that.”

“Well, you don’t know you’re in the box. Well. I hope you don’t know you’re in the box…”

We tread back to the square, past an obscenely muscled statue of Napoleon, laurel-crowned, done up like Caesar in a toga. Local boy made good. A pack of kids plays at his feet, squealing at the tops of their lungs, tossing fistfuls of dirt in each other’s faces, or just sitting, sifting it through their little fingers in clouds, watching it slide to the ground.

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