An excerpt from the novel The Transaction.
De Angelis, an inscrutable northerner, comes to a rural village in Sicily to negotiate a real estate transaction, only to find himself embroiled in a criminal conspiracy. What follows is a web of unsettling events, involving child prostitution and brazen killings. The chance encounter with an alluring, eleven-year-old, blue-eyed girl traps him in a psychological and moral cul-de-sac.
Clad from head to toe in a swath of black chiffon and mazes of passementerie, Teresa is standing by the door, itching to get out of the house. “Oh, there you are!” she says, craning her head a bit. “Are you ready?” I nod. “Well, come down … Let’s have a look … Very nice!”
“Thank you. I wasn’t sure this tie went with the suit.”
“Oh no, it’s perfect!”
“You look very nice too,” I tell her, not wanting to hurt her feelings.
Blushing, she rushes to the bevelled oval mirror in the hall tree stand, and with swift, albeit gracious, movements, as though she’s been doing this since birth, she pulls a mantilla out of a tiny drawer and puts it on.
We step outside.
Unobstructed, and with no wind to speak of whatsoever, the sun is still beating down with such savagery my clothes are already glued to me by the time we arrive at the main square. Teresa suggests we go to a bar and get a couple of granite to freshen up a bit. I don’t object. She takes me to a stand-only Lilliputian bar, which is also a tobacconist, lottery dealer, and gift shop. The walls are jammed with stuff crammed on a series of never-ending shelves, erected so high they give the illusion of a remote vanishing point. The vertiginous display coupled with an oversized coffee machine placed on the counter, as opposed to the back wall behind the counter, makes it hard to discern if there’s someone tending the bar.
“Ciuzza!” Teresa yells.
Not exactly startled, but somewhat caught off guard, I shoot a glance at her. Her brassy voice doesn’t get any gentler when she screams.
“Ciuzza has the best granita in town,” she says.
“Oh yes. The best. No doubt.” Her pupils dilate with excitement.
“Is there someone there?” calls out a distant and echo-y voice coming from somewhere well beyond the counter.
As I lean to look over the coffee machine, I notice — on the back wall, all the way to the right corner — a little brown accordion door, half open. From the opening a mosquito net breathes in and out.
“Ciuzza!” Teresa shouts again.
A hand pulls the net aside. The accordion door slides wide open. Out of it comes a Junoesque lady with piercing dark eyes and woolly black hair neatly pinned up in a low bun, wrapped in what looks like fishnet stockings with a red flower attached to it.
“Teresa, what are you doing here? Is there something wrong?” Ciuzza asks, as she slides out from behind the counter and stoops to kiss Teresa on both cheeks.
“No, no. Nothing’s wrong. Knock on wood, eh!”
For a moment, Ciuzza stares at Teresa through dark slits.
“We’re going to Tommasini’s wake, and I thought we’d grab a couple of granite first.”
“I see,” Ciuzza says. Nodding, she turns toward me. “And who’s this?”
“I’m sorry. This is Mr. De Angelis, my lodger.”
“Oh, he’s the guy!” Ciuzza and Teresa look at each other.
“Pleasure,” I say, proffering my hand.
“The pleasure is all mine,” Ciuzza says, as she grabs my hand, which she shakes vigorously. An ear-to-ear grin brings a sparkle to her eyes.
“Teresa, can I show you something in the back? It’ll just take a minute. You don’t mind, Mr. De Angelis, do you?”
“Not at all.”
“Be right back,” Teresa says and quickly disappears with Ciuzza through the little door.
They don’t go too far in though, for I hear them susurrate. I can’t quite make out what they are saying, but, judging by their titters, I’m quite sure I’m the subject of whatever it is they are confabulating about. Before long, they come back out, and, between giggles and conspiratorial glances, Ciuzza prepares a couple of granite to go for which she won’t take any money no matter how much I insist, and, after another round of kisses, Teresa and I are off to the vigil.
* * *
A throng, mostly men, is already gathered in front of Tommasini’s house. Detached from the flock, but not too far up the street, a woman runs after a couple of scampering kids, warning them that if they don’t stop, their father will show them the whip. Once we get closer, the chatting and screaming give way to a leaden silence followed by a soft murmur, which grows louder as we work our way through the crowd. On the other side of the threshold, we find ourselves in a gloomy hallway fully covered on either side with people bobbing their heads as we parade through it. The entrance to the room where Tommasini is being laid out is also congested with people waiting to get in. It’s only after the longest ten-minute wait amid whispers, shifty glances, and chronic throat-clearings that we’re finally able to enter.
A few steps, and I already have the sensation of donning the burial chamber like a straitjacket. Shrouds of incense streaking out of two large thuribles placed at the foot of the velvet-draped catafalque make it difficult to keep my eyes fully open. I scan the space for a place to stand when Teresa, with a rapid tap on my shoulder and a jerk of her head, draws my attention to a specific corner. By the time I’m able to put things into focus, she’s already off to that spot. I follow her. In spite of the dim lighting, she’s able to find a nice little niche with a clear view of the entire room, not exactly spacious, and so snug we’re actually forced to stand one in front of the other. On the plus side, I have a wall behind me I can lean against.
As my eyes adjust to the dingy setting, I’m able to discern all the faces in the chamber, save for the shadowy figures standing by the wall all the way across. The wavering light of the numerous candles girding the catafalque is too feeble to reach them. Teresa and I are the new fulcrum in the room, given the peculiar mixture of dark slits and gaping eyes aimed our way. Even Tommasini’s widow, who’s sitting directly opposite us, is unable to disguise, despite a veil of tulle mantling her face, a probing glance.
Soon though, the stares fall away, giving rise to a crescendo of whispers, interrupted solely by the widow’s oddly cyclical drawn out sighs, accentuated now and again by truncated bursts of sobbing. Occasionally, I can also hear the slapping of hands on cheeks, necks, and exposed limbs, prompted by the cluster of flies headquartered on Tommasini’s face.
The veins of burning myrrh, which rows of women, doggedly fanning themselves, turn into fine mist, and the palpable humidity, not to mention the questionable personal hygiene of some of the mourners, are to blame for the lack of breathable air. To make things worse, the room temperature has now reached a febrile state. The feeling is like being inside some sort of living organism: the heat radiates with ever-rising pressure from body to body as it does through connecting tissues.
A door across the room, until now hidden because of all the people standing in front of it, whines open enough to let in a wedge of pale-yellow light. A concerto of creaky chairs, accompanied by an almost choreographed turning of necks, follows. The door opens wider, revealing two silhouettes: a woman holding hands with a little girl. As they step inside and walk through a human corridor, the child breaks free and makes a run for the catafalque, stopping quite suddenly by the censer on the left side of it. She’s sombrely dressed far beyond her age, yet seemly. Her chestnut hip-long hair, held back with a black velvet band, softly cascades along her slender contours. She stands in absolute stillness, looking down at Tommasini. The woman who ushered her in catches up with her and tries unsuccessfully to whisk her away.
“Marinella,” the widow says in a broken, anemic tone, extending her arm.
The child untangles herself from the woman, rushes to her mother and climbs onto her lap, gently letting her head find comfort on her mother’s bosom. The woman, after a brief exchange of glances with the widow, reluctantly moves away from the catafalque and disappears behind the shadowy figures.
At that moment, the little girl gets off her mother’s lap just as quickly as she got on and moves close to Tommasini’s body. The widow leans forward to stop the child but gives up in mid-motion. The girl is standing by her father’s face, waving her hand over it to disperse the cluster of flies feasting on it. Then, all of a sudden, the child aims her large almond-shaped eyes — of a striking aquamarine colour — in my direction. And even though I’m well aware it’s impossible for her to see my face where I’m standing, at least not fully, she seems to be staring right at me. Feeling faint, I lean against the wall. I close my eyes to stop the room and the distorted faces of the mourners from swirling. Droplets of cold sweat stream down my temples. I reach for the handkerchief in my right pocket and zigzag it across my face.
“You all right?” Teresa whispers.
“It’s a little hot in here, that’s all.”
“Don’t worry. We’re leaving soon.”
Guglielmo D’Izzia is an actor and writer who hails from Sicily. His artistic pursuits have led him to some of the greatest cities in the world: Rome, New York City, and eventually Toronto, where he now resides. He’s a graduate of the creative writing program at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. His debut novel, The Transaction (Guernica 2020), won the 2016 Marina Nemat Award, was an award-winning finalist of 2020 International Book Awards (Literary Fiction category), and was officially selected for the 2020 Cannes Film Festival | Shoot the Book! program. He was also one of the winners of The Miramichi Reader’s “The Very Best!” Book Awards “Most Promising Author” 2020. He’s currently working on his second novel and a spec script for a TV mini-series.