The Wager

Donna Jo Napoli

Henry Holt and Co.


Messina, 1169
DON GIOVANNI LOOKED OUT THE CASTLE WINDOW OVER THE strait that separated the island of Sicily from the mainland. He fingered the fine silk of his shirtsleeves and smiled. “The sea is bluer because it’s mine.”
“Don’t be absurd.”
He turned. A maidservant carried a tray into the room. The scent of honey and sheep’s milk ricotta promised such sweet satisfaction that his smile lingered, despite her words. He tilted his head. “What did you say?”
“You heard me.” Her attention was on the heavy tray.
Reckless woman. Girl, actually, judging by the skin on the back of her olive hands. Her arms were long under those thin brown sleeves. Shapely, in fact. A fine girl. He spoke coolly: “I’m giving you a chance to retract.”
She set the tray on the table. “No one owns the sea.”
Heat rose up Don Giovanni’s neck. He looked out the window again. If he stood just so, with his body slightly turned, the window well was thick enough that it blocked his view of the city of Messina; all he saw was his own property. “I own everything in sight. The sea is mine.”
“You really are ridiculous.”
He walked over with large steps and snapped his fingers in her face. “How dare you speak to me like that!”
“If you talk like a fool, you deserve it.” She arranged bowls on the table, never raising her eyes.
Don Giovanni blinked in disbelief. He wished the maid would lift her face so he could get a better view. She was familiar in a vague sort of way. Angela or Angiola or Annetta or Andriana or something like that. Some openmouthed name that resounded in the head. Bah, there were too many servants to keep track. He put his hand out to stay hers. “You’re finished,” he said. “Leave.”
“Are you firing me?”
“If you talk like a fool, you deserve it,” he said.
“A gran signore—a big don—more like a big clown.” The maid wiped her hands brusquely on her apron and left.
It was astonishing enough that she’d spoken so rudely, but for her simply to leave after being fired was beyond understanding. She should have fallen to her knees, professed regret, cried on his shoes. Even kissed them.
He would have forgiven her magnanimously. Despite her sarcasm, he was, indeed, a gran signore. Don Giovanni’s parents had died when he was thirteen. All their earthly possessions had gone to him, as their only heir. Don Alfinu, a neighbor and family friend, guided and counseled Giovanni. He made sure the boy continued his studies of Greek and Arabic, and he added French. Greek, because it gave access to cultured literature and, to be practical, because so many in northeastern Sicily spoke it. Arabic, because it gave access to scientific literature and, of course, because merchants spoke it. And French, because it was essential for a role in public life. Don Alfinu was grooming Giovanni to be the most important political figure of Messina. And since Messina was the second-largest city in Sicily, the king, in Palermo, would naturally consult Don Giovanni on matters affecting the whole island.
But Don Alfinu was mean-spirited; his actions were measured, nothing like the exuberant exaggerations of Giovanni’s parents. Why, the boy’s father used to burst into song at the sight of a split ripe watermelon. His mother pinned yellow orchids in her hair and danced in the courtyard bare-breasted in summer rain.
The orphaned boy nearly lost his mind listening to Don Alfinu drone on about loyalty to the pope and proper sexual behavior. All so restrictive and boring. So on his eighteenth birthday he’d taken control of his own property, his own destiny. He’d assumed the title of don and become a baron overnight. He gave lavish parties that everyone wanted to be invited to—and everyone was. He lent money freely. Don Alfinu ranted, calling him a wastrel, so Don Giovanni stopped visiting the old nag.
Everyone had heard of Don Giovanni’s generosity of spirit and purse. They admired him.
Or should. That maidservant was intolerable.
Now the mistress of the servants came in. He knew her name at least: Betta. She held her head high, and the ropes of her neck stood out. She was trailed by more maidservants carrying trays. She lit the many candles.
Don Giovanni backed to the wall and watched the table fill with dried white figs from the Lipari Islands—the very best kind—and cheeses, toasted pine nuts, bowls of coconut shreds. The profusion of colors and scents made the air above the table shimmer in the candle glow. His eyes glazed over. He felt tipsy. Maybe he was ill?
He rubbed his cheeks. Had anyone heard the girl abuse him? If so, he’d demand a public apology. Don Giovanni had to protect an impeccable reputation. He had plans. Don Alfinu’s complaints about his spending had gotten so strident lately, they worried him. So he’d invited everyone tonight for an extravagant gala to squelch any nascent rumor that his wealth might be dwindling. That way, when he went to borrow money to buy the land he wanted along the north coast, everyone would open their coffers without hesitation. Don Giovanni would increase his holdings and become the undisputed master of northeastern Sicily. He’d surpass Don Alfinu’s expectations, but—more important—he’d do it his own way, by being the richest, not the strictest.
This mistress was the most likely one to have overheard that distasteful exchange with the maidservant.
“Where are the Arab dishes?” he asked her abruptly.
“Eggplants preserved under vinegar with capers, excellent sire.” Betta opened her heavily lined palm toward a silver platter. “A superb Arab dish. And over here . . .” She opened the other palm. “. . . fried mullets with onions in cane sugar. A North African dish of Saracen origin.”
The words were delivered cleanly. Nothing mocked.
She walked to the end of the table, her long skirts swaying with the extreme motion of her hips. An unexpected seduction? “Roasted rabbit with raisins and almonds, a dish those Viking-hearted Normans took credit for.” Betta gave him a closed-lip smile, discreet. “But we know our people have made that since the start of time. As common as fried squid.” Her hand swept the area. “Over here, tiny lamb meatballs. A recipe from Palermo Jews.” With a sigh, she locked her hands, the fingers of one slipping under the fingers of the other, in front of her chest. Elbows pointed down, like broken wings. She was a waiting bird. “A proper table for our grand Sicilian don.”
Don Giovanni flinched at her last words. He narrowed his eyes. But Betta fussed with the decorative pine needles and holly boughs full of dried red berries. She stepped back for an admiring assessment, then hurried off.
There was nothing suspect in what she’d said. It was truth: Don Giovanni was a man of great spirit, who welcomed people of every faith into his home. In Sicily’s past, nasty things had happened: Muslim shops were pillaged, Jews driven from their homes. But nothing like that would happen these days, not anywhere near Don Giovanni’s castle.
So Betta’s words were sincere—and no one had witnessed the earlier maidservant’s insolence.
He glanced out the window over the strait. The sea lay flat. Dead. Well, what a strange way to think of it. It was calm, peaceful. A good sea. His sea, by God.
He blinked. A lone figure walked the beach. A woman. She looked back, upward toward Don Giovanni’s castle.
A woman alone in the evening? Maybe he knew her. Don Giovanni had already enjoyed the company of many women, the kind who might walk alone at night, but not for long. They flocked to him because he was the most handsome youth of Messina, everyone agreed. Don Giovanni’s prowess as a lover was growing legendary. He might even adopt Muslim ways and take a harem, like in the royal palace in Palermo.
Hmmm. Forget that beach walker. She could be a mirage, after all. The Strait of Messina was famous for the Fata Morgana, a mirage of men, horses, ships, all kinds of things. This could easily be a new trick of the waters.
Don Giovanni reached out to close the shutters.
But, wait, what was the woman doing now? Shedding an outer garment. Now her dress. Her undershift. The woman stood naked in this February chill. Exposed and vulnerable, like an opened oyster. Don Giovanni swallowed the saliva that gathered under his tongue. Her abundance impressed him. She waded into the water.
His heart went quiet. His arms fell to his sides. His breath came sour. Night swimming was dangerous, especially in the cold. He should stop her.
But the sea was calm. And he was host; already the clomp of hooves came, the clack of wooden wheels on stone.
How strangely this evening was beginning: three women, each capturing his attentions in her own way, each unreachable in her own way. Like a curse.
Nonsense. He was irresistible to women.
With the tip of a knife he popped a slice of orange into his mouth—refreshingly sour winter fruit—and went to the entrance hall to greet his guests.
His parties were known for elaborate banquets and dramatic spectacles. They rivaled the king’s in Palermo. Don Giovanni knew this, for he had been a guest at the palace twice in the past year. King William II was himself just a boy, two and a half years younger than Don Giovanni. But the king gave sumptuous parties. Yet still Don Giovanni outdid him.
Tonight would be magnificent. Festivities until dawn. Don Giovanni heard his heels click on the stone floors. Clomp and clack outside; click inside. All was fine.
But a gray form seemed to accompany him, at the very periphery of his vision. When he turned quickly to catch a full view, it disappeared. Nevertheless, he knew: it was the outline of the woman entering the water. A suicide?
But surely she wasn’t dead yet. He could run down to the beach and call out. He could send a servant in a boat. Or do it himself. A Catholic soul that died by her own hand would be condemned forever. He owed it to her.
These things clattered through his head, like birds caught in a closed room, all the while his guests arriving. Their cheeks brushed both of his as they kissed the air beside him. Ladies in brightly colored satins, damasks, brocades, silks, all with many buttons; gentlemen in breeches and tight linen hose, with jewels embellishing their shirts—they filed in noisily. Gaily colored birds.
The mistress of the servants was a bird. Don Giovanni’s thoughts were birds. The nobles of Messina were birds. What was happening that he kept seeing the same images? Common people said birds in a house were bad luck—and though Don Giovanni was far from common, the images still annoyed him. And three again.
Woozy once more, he leaned against the wall.
Throughout the evening Don Giovanni raised his hands to clap when others did. During the comedians’ acts he laughed when others did. But he didn’t hear a single thing. The clomps, clacks, clicks of earlier were gone. It was as though his ears had filled with oil, as though the oil overflowed down chest and back, as though he swam in oil.
Was the naked woman swimming?
Several times he passed the open window. The wooly bodies of sheep formed slate-gray ground clouds on the hillside. Beyond them the woman’s clothes remained in a charcoal-gray heap on the beach. And there were so many stars. Billions of stars. Over a dead sea.
Until one time, close to morning, the sea wasn’t dead. It trembled. Rain fell in sudden, heavy slaps. Lightning cut the clouds. Thunder drummed, waking Don Giovanni’s sense of hearing. And then the earth itself trembled. Faintly, but he felt it for sure. He cried out.
Gentlemen and ladies rushed to the seaside windows and threw open the shutters, jabbering. Roofs shook, walls fell, stones on the pathways bounced. The sea pulled away from the shore, as though sucked into a monstrous mouth.
In an instant the sea bottom lay exposed as far as Don Giovanni could see. The rain ceased; the new sun’s fingers grasped at the world. Marine creatures glistened in the slime that moved with their struggles. Fish flopped in the open air. Skeletons of wrecked boats stuck up obscenely.
Cries of pain, wails of grief threaded the air. City people picked their way through rubble, calling out to loved ones. Don Giovanni’s guests rushed to their homes. He watched the shore from his window as people pointed to the fish gasping. Groups hurried to gather them, reap the easy harvest. Children and fishermen and old people and women in rags. They cluttered the seabed.
Excerpted from The Wager by .
Copyright © 2010 by Donna Jo Napoli.
Published in 2010 by Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.