Book Excerpt: 'The Historian'

At a table near the window we drank tea with lemon, scalding through the thick cups, and ate our way through sardines on buttered white bread and even a few slices of torta. "We'd better stop there," my father said. I had lately come to dislike the way he blew on his tea over and over to cool it, and to dread the inevitable moment when he said we should stop eating, stop doing whatever was enjoyable, save room for dinner. Looking at him in his neat tweed jacket and turtleneck, I felt he had denied himself every adventure in life except diplomacy, which consumed him. He would have been happier living a little, I thought; with him, everything was so serious.

But I was silent, because I knew he hated my criticism, and I had something to ask. I had to let him finish his tea first, so I leaned back in my chair, just far enough so that my father couldn't tell me to please not slump. Through the silver-mottled window I could see a wet city, gloomy in the deepening afternoon, and people passing in a rush through horizontal rain. The teahouse, which should have been filled with ladies in long straight gowns of ivory gauze, or gentlemen in pointed beards and velvet coat collars, was empty.

"I hadn't realized how much the driving had worn me out." My father set his cup down and pointed to the castle, just visible through the rain. "That's the direction we came from, the other side of that hill. We'll be able to see the Alps from the top."

I remembered the white-shouldered mountains and felt they breathed over this town. We were alone together on their far side, now. I hesitated, took a breath. "Would you tell me a story?" Stories were one of the comforts my father had always offered his motherless child; some of them he drew from his own pleasant childhood in Boston, and some from his more exotic travels. Some he invented for me on the spot, but I'd recently grown tired of those, finding them less astonishing than I'd once thought.

"A story about the Alps?"

"No." I felt an inexplicable surge of fear. "I found something I wanted to ask you about."

He turned and looked mildly at me, graying eyebrows raised above his gray eyes.

"It was in your library," I said. "I'm sorry -- I was poking around and I found some papers and a book. I didn't look -- much -- at the papers. I thought --"

"A book?" Still he was mild, checking his cup for a last drop of tea, only half listening.

"They looked -- the book was very old, with a dragon printed in the middle."

He sat forward, sat very still, then shivered visibly. This strange gesture alerted me at once. If a story came, it wouldn't be like any story he'd ever told me. He glanced at me, under his eyebrows, and I was surprised to see how drawn and sad he looked.

"Are you angry?" I was looking into my cup now, too.

"No, darling." He sighed deeply, a sound almost grief stricken. The small blond waitress refilled our cups and left us alone again, and still he had a hard time getting started.

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